The ProsenPeople

It’s tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 | Permalink

A reminder to everyone looking forward to the JBC Twitter Book Club tomorrow–

Discussion of The Eichmann Trial with Deborah Lipstadt (@deborahlipstadt) will begin at 12:30pm Eastern.

Search for the hashtag #JBCBooks on Twitter to keep up with the conversation.

What Are the Three Weeks, Anyway?

Monday, July 18, 2011 | Permalink

Dr. Erica Brown is the author of In the Narrow Places, a daily meditation for each day of the Three Weeks. She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Visiting Scribe.

I recently spoke at a Melton graduation that marked a two year commitment of adults studying Judaism seriously through a global curriculum out of the Hebrew University. The rabbi who introduced me mentioned my current book In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks followed immediately by, ‘If you don’t know what the Three Weeks are, please sign up for Melton.” I was happy to be used as an advertisement for the course but less happy with the realization that this time period is virtually unknown outside of traditionally observant circles.

Let’s face it. It is odd to have any commemorative period referred to by the number of days it occupies, and the fact that it happens during the summer does nothing to help its popularity. The Three Weeks is officially called “bein ha-mitzarim” – between the straights or narrow places from the biblical book of Lamentations. This quiet quasi-month of mourning is marked by two fasts: the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av.

The three week period includes these fasts at both ends and a general mourning period in between which is solemnized by reducing our daily sense of joy. Traditional Jews do not go to public concerts or movies. Many men do not shave. We reduce our personal hygiene somewhat and minimize the role of music in our lives. But these small daily inconveniences have not necessarily added up to the period of introspection that should characterize this time on the Jewish calendar.

The 17th of Tammuz represents the beginning of the siege of ancient Jerusalem and the weeks that ensue take us sadly to the destruction of both the first and second Temples. The Ninth of Av is the strictest fast we observe after Yom Kippur. It is 24 hours in duration, and we are also forbidden from wearing leather shoes, washing or perfuming ourselves or engaging in sexual relations. Congregants sit on the floor in the evening, listening to the book of lamentations read in a haunting melody and then recite kinnot the next morning, a litany of complex, mostly medieval poems in acrostic fashion that take us from one calamity in Jewish history after another. It is an emotionally draining day. Adding to the hunger is the fatigue of loss that envelopes the mourners who reflect on how tragedy shapes us and our values.

Mourning does shape us. Recognizing what we have lost is an important way that we value what we have. And it is time that as community we stretch back farther than the Holocaust to realize just how persecution and loss has shaped our past and how survival and redemption constantly shape our present and future. The Three Weeks is a gift of collective introspection at a time when we need to enhance our sense of group values and our shared memories.

Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available. 

Behind Farm 54: The Making of the Story “Houses”

Friday, July 15, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Galit and Gilad Seliktar shared the making of the first story and the second story in Farm 54In their final post, they share the background behind “Houses,” the third story in their graphic novel. They have been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Galit: This story is the most autobiographical of all three texts, the most true-to-life. I was drafted to compulsory army service in 1989 during the first Intifadah and, after basic training as an educational non-commissioned officer, I was assigned to a base near Bethlehem. Already on the first night I asked for a transfer away from the occupied territories but, while my request was being processed, I had to remain there for about two weeks. As in the book, on the very first night I went on a nocturnal house demolition mission, replacing another female soldier who did not want to go. The night left its mark on me and for many years I repeatedly retold the events, until I decided to write them as a short story. With the hindsight of a writer I realized that, beyond the actual events, what was perhaps worse was revealed by the way I described the heroine – as a person completely insulated from the situation and from the suffering of the others. While this dovish character manages to refrain from directly and deliberately harming the Palestinian residents placed under her responsibility, I now think that her (that is, my) decision to obey such orders with little protest is almost as harmful as keen participation.


Galit Seliktar during her military service, 1989/1990

An egg-sorting warehouse used as reference for “Houses”:



Gilad: There were parts in this story that I found to be too direct or dramatic, too loud. As I approached it, I decided to lower the volume by giving several scenes an understated quality, which is more characteristic of my work, as opposed to some of Galit’s writing that often tends to be more explicit. One of these scenes was the part where the female officer takes the rabbit from the Palestinian boy. In the original text (and, according to Galit, also in reality during that night in 1989) the boy was crying, asking the officer to give the rabbit back to him. Instead of showing the boy crying I drew him sitting quietly on the stairs, staring at how the officer hugs the animal, holding it close to her chest and cheek. The picture of that lone rabbit took me the greatest number of drafts by far. It was meant to facilitate calming the scene while introducing a charged and frozen silence that captures the moment with all its fear, resentment, and banality.

Early sketches for the scene in which the Israeli female officer is taking the Palestinian boy’s rabbi:



Photographs from a Palestinian village used as reference for “Houses” (name withheld at residents’ request):




Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s graphic novel, Farm 54, is now available.

Behind Farm 54: The Making of the Story “Spanish Perfume”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Galit and Gilad Seliktar shared the making of the first story in Farm 54“The Substitute Lifeguard.” Today, they share the background behind “Spanish Perfume,” the second story in their graphic novel. They will be blogging all week of the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

Galit: In 1982 my father was enlisted to the First Lebanon War and my mother was left on the farm with four young children. Communication with the northern frontier was carried out through rare phone calls, messages from those who came home to the village for a short vacation and censor-approved green military postcards that my father would send each one of us. When I found some of those postcards several years ago – my mother’s, Gilad’s and mine – I recalled those chaotic days on the home front and this triggered the writing of “Spanish Perfume”. I was reminded that when my father was away in Lebanon, my mother hit our German shepherd with the car and then asked me and two of my siblings – Sharon & Oren – to take the dead dog out of the basement and bury it outside. Gilad, the youngest, was forbidden from going down to the basement. I also remember that my mother used to pass the stressful wartime evenings playing cards with “men that nobody wanted at war”.


"I am feeling quite well despite the fact that I’m abroad"– A postcard from the First Lebanon War, August 16th 1982


Early sketches of the dead German Shepherd

Gilad: If generally most of my work with Galit’s texts involved boiling down, and if the clichés about one image equaling a thousand words have much to sustain them, then there are also many instances where the opposite was the case. Galit’s prose version of “Spanish Perfume” began with two brisk lines:

“In the morning Mom ran over our German Shepherd.
In the evening we celebrated my birthday.”

This may work powerfully in a short story, but graphically such transitions, between day and night and between different settings, seem artificial. Eventually I devoted five pages to drawing only the first line, replacing the abruptness of the transition in the original with a gradual entry into the graphic narrative. When I first visited the basement for references after years of avoiding it, I was shocked to discover how neglected it was. Filled with piles of rusted tools and other forgotten items, including the wheelbarrow in which the dog was carried for its nocturnal burial. When I was very young my father used the basement as a firing range and I even had the chance to shoot a gun there, a nine millimeter pistol. I remember this basement as being very well organized and dry, as opposed to the neglect and water puddles characterizing it today. I chose to draw the basement as I saw it when working on the book, to capture the atmosphere I recognized in Galit’s texts.


"The forbidden basement"


The wheelbarrow used for the dog's burial

Check back on Friday for Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s final post for the JBC/MJL Author Blog. Their graphic novel, Farm 54is now available.

This Time Next Week: Twitter Book Club

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Our July Twitter Book Club is approaching fast!

Wednesday the 20th at 12:30 pm (Eastern) join us to discuss  The Eichmann Trial with Deborah Lipstadt.

Full details are available here.

Need something to hold you over till next week? Watch an interview with Deborah.

Jews! Photographs!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Just got wind of a gorgeous book published in the UK several years ago: A Book of Jews. A book of, well…Jews. Specifically, photographs of Jews. It’s filled with good Jews and bad Jews – popstars, politicians, serial killers, gangsters, movie stars, scientists…and so forth. Unfortunately, the book has yet to make its U.S. debut, but we can cross our fingers that something is in the works to bring these photographs across the pond. Meanwhile, you can visit the book’s website here, browse through some of the stunning photographs (and clean layout!) here, and if you have a few pounds to spare, you can even buy the book here*.

*Looks like the book is available in DOLLARS too… $495/copy, including courier delivery from the UK. This takes normally 5-7 days from receipt of order & payment. Email info@abookofjews.com for more information.



Behind Farm 54: The Making of the Graphic Novel

Monday, July 11, 2011 | Permalink

The graphic novel Farm 54 is based on three stories written by Galit Seliktar. The stories were first published in Israeli literary magazines and then adapted into a graphic novel by Galit’s brother, illustrator Gilad Seliktar. Farm 54 is a real place where both siblings were raised, an actual farm in Ganei-Yohanan – a small village located in Israel’s agricultural periphery, which was founded by Jewish immigrants from Russia, Yemen and Libya in the early 1950s. All the stories in Farm 54 are based on true events which took place between the mid-1970s and late 1980s. Farm 54 has been published so far in five languages, and was nominated for the 2009 Angoulême book award in France.


In the background: Farm 54, Winter 1982 (L to R: Gilad Seliktar, Moni Seliktar, Galit Seliktar)

THE SUBSTITUTE LIFEGUARD

Galit & Gilad: This story was the first collaboration between us and the cornerstone of Farm 54. It was first published in 2007 as a short graphic story in an Israeli literary magazine, Masmerim, and included a framed narrative which is omitted in the book. In that earlier version the story starts with the heroine visiting her brother’s grave where she relives his drowning in her mind.

Panels from the first version of “The Substitute Lifeguard” in which Noga visits her brother’s grave:



Galit: One afternoon, when Gilad was about two years old, our family was barbequing in the backyard. It was a hot day and my father went to look for one of our dogs he had seen disappear at the far end of the yard, a part covered with high grass and infested with snakes. On his way he passed by our blue fiberglass wading pool and heard heavy spattering. He thought he had found the dog, but it was Gilad, fighting for his life in the half-meter-high chlorinated water. I saw him in my father’s arms, fully dressed in his toddler clothes and wet to the bone. Both of them were quiet. The silence broke when my mother started screaming. Only then did we stop eating.

Gilad: “The Substitute Lifeguard” was the first time I had ever read any of Galit’s stories. I have only a vague recollection of the event itself, but her visual writing style took me back to the pool on some deep emotional level. I was aware of my sister’s many years of engagement with visual media such as photography and video, but only when reading about myself in that pool did I realize that her writing was also extremely visual and that the cinematic quality of her texts, along with the themes and settings that were also my own, could form the basis of a powerful collaboration. The first published version of “The Substitute Lifeguard” was very short. The compact format relied on the cemetery frame to create an immediate dramatic impact. In book form, the actual story could gradually unfold without this scaffolding, a device meant to generate sentiments that are yet to be sustained by the plot. As I was adapting and then re-adapting the text into graphic form, I found myself drawn to the cinematic format of a three-panel page that now shapes the entire book, perhaps owing to the way the prose was laid out on paper.

Galit: Of course I had to kill Gilad when I wrote this story. I also chose to transfer the drama from the actual wading pool to a manure pit that my father transformed into a swimming pool. It was part of a cowshed that my parents inherited from the former owner of the farm, together with a young calf. My father immigrated to Israel with his parents from Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1949, and grew up in Jaffa, where he met my mother. This urban boy knew nothing about farming and neither did she. On their first year as farmers my father had a severe allergic reaction to eggplant blossom which terminated his agricultural dreams. The calf froze to death in 1973; the same year my father was enlisted to take part in the war that broke out on Israel’s southern border. All the chicks that I used to play with (I was almost three years old at the time), perished from thirst after my mother had left the farm during the war to stay with her parents back in the city. Long after we stopped using the manure pit as a pool, our dogs used to sneak in through the ruined fence that surrounded it and, every so often, one of them would be found drowned in the rain water that half-filled the pool.


The manure pit which turned into a swimming pool and where the drama of "The Substitute Lifeguard" happens, and the old cowshed.

Gilad: Galit’s text of “The Substitute Lifeguard” was extremely poetic and saturated with elaborate descriptions. Finding my own voice in this dense story meant mostly condensing and editing out. While I did not change any of Galit’s words that made it into Farm 54, I did “translate” almost all of the narrative and descriptions into a graphical language, which obeys very different conventions, through my own visual perspective. Yet all my drawings follow closely the original text in terms of plot, description, atmosphere and dialogue. The fact that Galit is my sister was very liberating artistically as I wasn’t afraid to explore avenues that I might have hesitated to approach had I been working with someone whose text I’d have to adapt whilst “walking on eggs”.

Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s graphic novel, Farm 54is now available. They will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series.

Win a Pound of Coffee Roasted by Nathan Englander

Thursday, July 07, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Coffee lovers and Jewish literature lovers can come together over this sweet coupon contest from McSweeney’s:

If you open McSweeney’s 38, out later this month, to page 193, you’ll find something we haven’t tried before: our first-ever set of coupons, printed on the back of a small, sewn-in comic book. This is something we’ve wanted to do since Issue 33, at least, and now we are doing it—every copy of our thirty-eighth issue comes with three clip-and-mail rectangles that, if you send them to us, offer you a chance at having something sent back to you.

Coupons = Jewish. Even more Jewish…what you can get if you send them back:

… there are the ten pounds of coffee roasted by Mr. Nathan Englander, occasional McSweeney’s contributor and author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and The Ministry of Special Cases. He has been practicing, as the below video will attest, and by the time the winners are chosen (there will be ten bags, specially designed, of one pound each), we think his coffee will be very good indeed.


Thanks for the tip, Jason Diamond.

Making it “True”

Thursday, July 07, 2011 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Evan Fallenberg explored writing elaborate lies with convincing details. Today, he further explores how much of his fiction is “true”.

“How much of my book is true?” I could say ‘all of it,’ I could say ‘none of it,’ and both answers would be correct.

In order to create real characters that you, the reader, will believe, I must make them as true as possible. That does not mean basing them on anyone in particular, though I happily borrow snippets of stories and characteristics from friends, family and total strangers. But ultimately, the more I work with those characters, the more they evolve into themselves, which means they spin away from me, beyond what I knew or thought I knew about them to a place where it seems that they are in control of who they are and I am merely charged with capturing them on paper. If I seem mysterious about it, I don’t mean to be, but I myself cannot completely understand how it all works so I can’t expect anyone else to.

A case in point is Teo Levin, the eighty-five-year-old protagonist of my new novel, When We Danced on Water. He is a choreographer and former dancer, but even the company he directs – the Tel Aviv Ballet – is a product of my imagination. I provided him with a history, a career, lovers, a creative spark, a range of emotions and reactions, a face, a body, and in turn, he has kept me in line, checking some of my crazier or duller impulses. (He was originally far more cantankerous than his final, in-print version; but the grouchily perfectionist ballet master was too much of a cliché, and I am grateful to Teo for pointing that out to me.) To my delight and my frustration, however, people keep asking me to reveal on what real person he is modeled. That is delightful because it means I have made him real enough to believe, and frustrating because it should be of no consequence.

Similarly, I am flattered when people ask how long and where I danced. (I didn’t.) Dance, which is Teo’s medium and art form, takes a prominent place in the novel, and I had the task of describing it from without, as an observer, but also from within, from what Teo experiences when he moves his body to music. For the former I interviewed a marvelous dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, and for the latter I took dance lessons and learned the basics of ballet so that I could know what Teo was feeling when he stretched his toes into a sharp point or floated his arms above his head. I made the lie real for myself; only then could it be real for the reader.

Photo by Aliz Noy

It feels impossible to plot the course of my life, with all the reversals and vicissitudes and surprises and changes. But perhaps this one element – my joy of embellishing the truth – has its own continuum, from those detail-rich stories I made up for grammar-school classmates willing to listen, to the detail-rich novels I write for readers willing to read.

In my life as an adult I have tried to remain scrupulously truthful, largely, I suppose, as a reaction to all those childhood lies. And yet, when I tell stories that really happened, I cannot seem to control the impulse to elaborate, to add color and texture to the picture I’m drawing for my listener. It is an occupational hazard I can live with, and one that has served me well.

Evan Fallenberg’s most recent novel, When We Danced on Water, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Tonight’s the Night

Wednesday, July 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

…for the JBC, Jewcy, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn Sholem Aleichem party in honor of the new documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.

The event will be at (le) poisson rouge from 7:30PM-10:30PM and will feature readings from Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Matthue Roth, Rachel Shukert, Jeremy Dauber, Joanna Smith Rakoff, and Jonathan and Adam Wilson. Read more about the event here.

And, starting THIS FRIDAY you can catch the documentary over at Lincoln Plaza (NYC). More details below:

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
Directed by Joseph Dorman

Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on July 8th
With screenings daily through July 14th

Tickets & show times: www.lincolnplazacinema.com
More info: www.sholemaleichemthemovie.com

A riveting portrait of the great writer whose stories became the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the RoofSholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness tells the tale of the rebellious genius who created an entirely new literature. Plumbing the depths of a Jewish world locked in crisis and on the cusp of profound change, he captured that world with brilliant humor. Sholem Aleichem was not just a witness to the creation of a modern Jewish identity, but one of the very men who forged it.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that icons are people, too, especially when you first meet that icon in your childhood. As Joseph Dorman demonstrates in this brilliantly absorbing documentary, however, Sholem Aleichem was most definitely a person—a dandy and a stock market gambler who did not teach his own children to speak Yiddish, wildly popular with the Eastern Europeans whose lives he memorialized but utterly unable to capture the imagination of the American Jews he came to despise. Rounding out the portrait even more, Dorman does a magnificent job of explicating the historical context in which Sholem Aleichem worked. Plus the still photography is to die for.” - Judith Gelman Myers, Hadassah Magazine

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness had its premiere at the 2011 Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Jewish Film Festival, a presentation of The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.