The ProsenPeople

Book Cover of the Week: Jacob's Folly

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Last week, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Rebecca Miller's new novel Jacob's Folly, "a rollicking, ingenious, saucy book, brimful of sparkling, unexpected characters, that takes on desire, faith, love, [and] acting." Oh, and the main character, Jacob Cerf, an eighteenth-century Parisian Jew, has been reincarnated as a fly in the Long Island suburbs of twenty-first-century America. Read more about Jacob's Folly, and the influence of Kafka, over at NPR here, and check out Rebecca Miller's official website here.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

Follow the Talmud or a Jewish Sharia?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Yuval Elizur examined religious political power in Israel and January's elections. Today, Lawrence Malkin discusses the tension between tradition and modernity in contemporary Judaism and its consequences. Yuval and Lawrence are the co-authors of the recently published The War Within: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation. They will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

No American Jew could have experienced a more inspiring introduction to Israel that I did upon arriving in darkness aboard the first plane from London after the start of the Six-Day War. Within hours I was in Jerusalem watching the Battle for the Old City from the terrace of the King David Hotel. In the morning we drove a rented Volkswagen along the tank tracks to avoid mines and soon came upon soldiers celebrating their historic conquest by praying at the Western Wall. Never observant, I joined in prayers with this elite brigade of Jewish paratroopers, recruited mainly from secular kibbutzim. Their tribune was no less than Israel's chief rabbi blowing the shofar—a ram's horn blast that stirred Jewish souls around the world.

I remained for several weeks to report on the problems facing the victorious nation, most notably the unforeseen conquest of the West Bank from Jordan. It was during that assignment that I first met and befriended Yuval Elizur, then the Jerusalem correspondent of The Washington Post and now the co-author of our book, The War Within. I endured the baleful stares in the Mea Shearim, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Orthodox, then a tourist curiosity because it was widely believed that this anachronistic sect would wither away in modern Israel. How wrong we were. Years later, they have become a powerful minority determined to set the tone for society in the Holy City, and the leaders of American Jewry have tread carefully to avoid antagonizing them.

Although the majority of American Jews belong to Reform and Conservative congregations, the American Jewish establishment has maintained connections with the Israeli parties representing the Orthodox, which until now were an essential part of the nation's coalition governments. For example, within days of the military conquest of the holiest place of worship for all Jews, the Orthodox rabbinate took control of the Western Wall, banned Reformist devotions, and literally walled off women who came to pray. Even when the women were given access to a small sector, there was no serious criticism by major American Jewish organizations lest it be seen as an attack on the government that would give comfort to Israel's enemies.

American defenders of the Orthodox argue that there are "many shades of black." But the deepest shade have long had the most political influence and in consequence enjoy the most egregious privileges, the largest subsidies, and the greatest isolation from Israeli society. No American Jew outside the Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn and around New York City—sects with respected elders recently convicted of fraud and sexual abuses—would agree to a public subsidy of sixty per cent of ultra-Orthodox males who are unemployed, or almost one hundred thousand able-bodied and subsidized yeshiva students who escape military service while they study nothing but sacred texts and learned commentary.

Jews have thrived and won acceptance as both Jews and Americans by adapting our religious observance and culture to the customs of the country. Whenever permitted by local rulers, Jews have always done so. That is a fundamental theme of the Talmud: how does a Jew in a strange land live as a Jew? Of course it is easier in a country of religious tolerance like ours, but surely Jewish survival does not depend on literal adherence to 613 biblical commandments dating back several thousand years: it depends on adapting those rules to modern life—and certainly not on re-creating the Jewish ghettoes that we have spent centuries trying to escape. That is a formula for alienation, irrelevance, rejection, and eventually the disappearance of all Jews, and it applies with equal force to the embattled nation of Israel, which has succeeded against all odds by adopting modernity as its culture

It is an axiom of warfare that the longer one faces an enemy, the more each side has to adopt the other's tactics to survive and thus willy-nilly start to resemble the other. Israel will not be strengthened by falling into the same fundamentalist trap as proponents of Muslim sharia in their own countries; on the contrary, both sides risk falling back into the past by refusing to embrace the present.

Lawrence Malkin is an award-winning journalist and writer. Assigned to Jerusalem and the West Bank during the Six-Day War, his foreign reporting has appeared in Time magazine, The International Herald Tribune, and The Associated Press. He is the author of several books, including Kreuger’s Men, which inspired the Oscar-winning film “The Counterfeiters.” Visit him online at

My Name Is Inigo Montoya

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Austin Ratner won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for his first novel, The Jump Artist. His new novel, In the Land of the Living, is now available. He will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Remember Mandy Patinkin’s character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride? When Montoya was a child, the story goes, the six-fingered man killed his father. He also slashed Montoya’s face, leaving him with scars on both cheeks. Montoya spends the rest of his life training to exact vengeance on his father’s killer. He practices not only his swordsmanship but just what he’ll say when he finally finds and confronts the six-fingered man: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

The main character in my second novel In the Land of the Living is a boy like that, a boy with a dead father, a boy bent on recompense and committed to its pursuit for as long as it takes. His problem is that there is no six-fingered man to kill.

Instead, he attempts to resurrect his father in a manner of speaking—by hewing to certain superhuman ideals in order to safeguard his father’s legacy from the oblivion of the grave. He will brook no failure in his career or his personal life and strives to excel everybody at everything (with the exception of phys ed). Anyone and everyone who gets in his way is the six-fingered man.

William Goldman, the screenwriter of The Princess Bride, has a cynical streak. It’s evident in his first novel Temple of Gold and it’s evident in the way he wreathes so many ironies into the sentimentality of The Princess Bride. A little of that cynicism comes out when Inigo Montoya actually does confront the six-fingered man. His lifelong search has come to an end at last, and Montoya delivers his practiced line, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” He battles his enemy by sword as planned, but the six-fingered man appears to defeat him. Montoya slumps backward, mortally wounded, and gives up with a line that still sucks the air from my lungs: “Sorry, Father. I tried.” It doesn’t seem to be Inigo Montoya the man that’s defeated then; it’s the boy who took on a task that was much too big for him out of love for the father that should have been there to help him.

Being a feel-good Hollywood movie, Montoya of course fights back from the edge of defeat. But in a way, what follows is even more cynical. The six-fingered man begs for his life. He promises Montoya anything he wants in exchange for mercy and Montoya answers, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch,” and he kills the six-fingered man.

He doesn’t fail his father after all, but because he can’t have the one thing he wants—for his father to be alive—he does in a sense fail himself. He asks his friend what he ought to do with his life now that his quest is over, and when his friend suggests he become a pirate, it seems ridiculous even according to the unreal, comedic laws of Hollywood fantasy. With his face alone, Mandy Patinkin smuggles into the scene a look of haunting ennui before the comedy-romance carries on with its merry business.

My book, In the Land of the Living, is a pretty funny book—it needs to be, to balance out the tragedy at the core of it—but it’s no Hollywood comedy. It’s a realist novel, and its protagonist doesn’t have the option of sailing away as the Dread Pirate Roberts, much as he’d like to. The land of the living is a less forgiving place than the land of The Princess Bride. Neither the death of the six-fingered man nor suicide solve the problem of grief. The only way forward is to figure out how to live a good life. And that is where my main character’s odyssey begins. Off he goes through graveyards and hospitals, loving and losing, traveling with his brother from L.A. to Cleveland in search of an answer to the question of how to live.

I think of it as a modern-day Don Quixote. In Part I, I used chapter titles that satirize medieval romance just as Cervantes did. It’s a novel that purposely dwells in an unstable region between comedy and tragedy, dream and reality, which is to say that it dwells in the real world, where the laws of nature are unyielding, and the human heart unflagging.

Check back on Thursday for more from Austin Ratner.

Passover Roundup

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Jackie Anzaroot

Passover is only two weeks away! For Passover book recommendations, check out our list of our Passover favorites as well as our list of children's Passover books. Our longer Passover reading list can be found here.

For some more ideas on Haggadot to use, here are some that we've featured on our ProsenPeople blog over the years: the artistic Passover Haggadah by Dov Bleichfeld; In Every Generation, the JDC Haggadah; Alef Betty's Urban Family Haggadah; and Slate's highly condensed version of the Haggadah, "A Passover Service for the Impatient." Also check out last week's Visiting Scribe posts by Jan Aronson, where she discusses illustrating the new Bronfmann Haggadah.

If you're still unsure about your choice of Haggadah or are looking to try something new, we've asked some of our readers about their choices for this year and the most popular Haggadah seems to be Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander's The New American HaggadahOther popular choices include the classic Maxwell House Haggadah, A Passover Haggadah: As Commented Upon by Elie Wiesel and Illustrated by Mark Podwal and A Night to Remember by Mishael and Noam Zion.

You can also take advantage of the offer at the top (and left) of this page for a 20% discount off of Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family.

New Kids' Cookbook Has a Story to Tell

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz-Dauber

"A fun book for family sharing" is the description on the back cover of Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts (Crocodile Books USA, 2013), and, looking through the book, it really is! The book, which features Jewish folktales paired with a corresponding recipe and beautiful illustrations, is intended for children ages 5-11, but it crosses generations in a way that is unusual—both the stories and the recipes will appeal to adults and kids equally. The project is a collaboration between the mother-daughter team of master storyteller Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple, the cook behind the book's recipes, with illustrations by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin. 

Here's a little taste from the Main Course section of the book, reprinted with permission: 


The Pomegranate Seed

“May it be Your will, O Lord our God, that our good deeds will increase like the seeds of the pomegranate.”


A hungry Jew, whose family was starving, stole a loaf of bread from the market. But as soon as he slipped the loaf into the waistband of his trousers, the stall owner began to shriek, “Thief! Thief!”

The man began to run, but he was no better at running than he was at stealing. Within three or four steps he felt the heavy hands of the sultan’s guards on his shoulder.

They marched him off to prison, where in the near dark of his cell he found a single pomegranate seed on the dirt floor.

“Why is the Lord plaguing me?” he thought. “Here I am about to be executed for stealing a loaf of bread so that my children would not starve, and He sends me a pomegranate seed.”

But, since the rabbis always said, “The Lord does not toy with us,” he gave that seed much thought.

When the guards brought him out to the open courtyard for his execution, the Jew was ready. He turned his face up to the executioner and spoke so loudly, everyone—including the sultan, himself—could hear, “Kill me as you must, but do not throw away my magic pomegranate seed.”

“What nonsense is this?” growled the executioner.

“Not nonsense at all. If you plant it, it will grow instantly into a great pomegranate tree, laden with ripe fruit. But …” the Jew shrugged.

“But what?” The executioner lowered his axe and leaned forward.

“The seed will only grow if you have never stolen anything. So you see, it is useless to me now.”

The executioner trembled. “I have taken things from the pockets of those I have executed, instead of giving it to their heirs. I cannot plant the seed.”

The Jew held up the seed to the guards. “Is there one among you who can plant the seed?”

The guards conferred amongst themselves. Finally, one came forward. “We have each taken golden spoons from the sultan’s table. We cannot plant the seed.”

The thief turned to the sultan’s vizier. “And you, mighty sir?”

The vizier trembled. “I have … um … occasionally pocketed coins from the sultan’s treasury. Ummmm … coins owed to me.” He looked quickly down at the ground.

“Then, magnificent sultan, it is up to you to plant the seed,” the Jew said.

The sultan smiled. “And haven’t I taken entire countries from other sultans? I doubt I could plant that seed.”

“Oh mighty and powerful people, you have taken trinkets, coins, golden spoons, entire countries, and still retain your high status and wealth. And here am I, a poor Jew, who only wanted to feed his starving children. Yet you will live and I will die.”

The sultan laughed. “What a clever man you are. I need someone like you around to remind me how a life can be saved by a simple pomegranate seed.” He made the Jew a royal gardener and moved his family into the palace, where they never went hungry again.

We found four versions of this story: in Peninnah Schram’s The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, as “The Pomegranate Seed”; in Sheldon Oberman’s Solomon and the Ant and Other Jewish Stories, as “The Magic Seed”; in Nathan Ausubel’s A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, as “The Wise Rogue”; and in Barbara Diamond Goldin’s A Child’s Book of Midrash, as “The Clever Thief.”

This story is originally from Morocco, but stories about Jews (and Arabs) who manage by cleverness to get themselves out of impossible situations are quite popular throughout the Middle East.

In some tellings, the thief is Jewish, in others he is not. But the story is a popular one amongst Middle Eastern Jews.

This is Tale Type 929—“Clever Defenses” and K 500—“Escape from Arrest by Trickery.”


Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Stuart Nadler

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Earlier this month, JBC announced the five fiction finalists for this year's $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The authors are as diverse as the books themselves, so, here at the ProsenPeople, we thought we'd give you the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the 2013 Rohr contenders. We asked each author a few questions about writing, their Rohr finalist book, favorite books, and, of course, what's up next for them. Today we hear from Stuart Nadler, author of the short story collection The Book of Life. Stuart actually just published his debut novel, Wise Men, so if you haven't had time to read it, go on out and grab yourself a copy. 

No stranger to the Jewish Book Council, in 2011, Stuart blogged for our Visiting Scribe series, was interviewed for our Emerging Voices column, and participated in a #JLit Twitter Book Club.  If that wasn't enough, JBC reviewer Phil Sandick stated that:

With [The Book of Life], Nadler firmly establishes himself within the tradition of short story writers such as John Cheever and Richard Ford, and announces himself as a promising voice in contemporary fiction.

Below, Stuart discusses the books of his youth, writing without internet, and his love for the short story:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Everything about writing is a challenge. Writing fiction is that rare task in which practice and repetition and some perceived confidence only seem to make it harder to do well.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I’ve always wanted to write. When I was young––maybe seven or eight––I got as a gift a set of classic novels simplified for children. These were the first books I ever really loved. Most of them were adventure stories: Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine. Ever since then I’ve wanted to write.

Who is your intended audience?

I’m not sure if I have an intended audience in mind when I work. The best and most surprising thing about writing a book is that it goes out into the world, and you never know who might pick it up and read it and find a connection in the work.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’ve just published a new novel called Wise Men. Apart from that, I’m in the middle of two projects. Both of them are novels––or at least, right now they are.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just started Richard Ford’s Canada, and so far it’s terrific.

Top 5 Favorite Books

This is impossible to do, but here are five books I love:

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve always wanted to write, as long as I can remember.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

If there is a mountaintop, I would hope, simply, that it means that I’ve had the opportunity to keep working and writing.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I’ve shed just about all the superstitions and limits and quotas and page-limits that I used to toy with and try. I prefer to write early, and often. I write on a computer without any internet access, and although it never used to be this way, increasingly I write in silence, without music on in the background. And I always leave myself a hint for the next day’s work.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

Although I’m writing another novel now, I’d love it if people read The Book of Life and sought out more short fiction because of it. I love the short story. It’s a beautiful art form and one that I think is under appreciated. That’s what I would love.

Stuart Nadler is a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, he was also the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Wise Men, and the story collection The Book of Life

Religious Political Power in Israel Comes to a Halt

Monday, March 11, 2013 | Permalink
Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin are the co-authors of the new book The War Within: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation. They will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Today, Yuval Elizur takes a look at religious political power in Israel and January's elections.

For many years the political power of Israel's Orthodox minority spread as if it would never reach a limit. While their number of seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, remained small in relation to their power and also remarkably stable, the Orthodox rabbis and their political representatives influenced government policy by offering to vote as a bloc to sustain any ruling coalition. There was a price, of course: exemption from military service and subsidies for strict religious education and the welfare of the yeshiva students. These and their other favorite projects expanded after each election campaign. No wonder that an increasing number of Israeli intellectuals, including a noted sociology professor at Hebrew University, warned that Israel might soon become a theocratic state not unlike Iran.

But finally came a pushback in the decades-long battle between State and Synagogue. The results of this January’s elections proved that a good part of the political strength of the Orthodox may have been a myth. It finally may be receding toward a reality more representative of Israeli society, which is predominantly secular in practice although committed to Judaism as a religion.

It all began in 1948 during the first Israeli government when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion excused a mere 400 Orthodox yeshiva students from serving in the army and ceded to the rabbinical courts total jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jewish women in the new state. This set the pattern for the small religious parties’ clever manipulation of the ruling parties, which needed their parliamentary votes to hold power –whether the leftist Labor governments of the early days of the state or the rightist governments of recent years.

To the surprise of many Israelis, the elections demonstrated that religious parties can be a serious political liability and no longer an asset purchased by budgets and political concessions. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they have become a menacing factor that are literally stuck in his throat as he struggles to form a new coalition. For more than a month since the January 22nd elections, the leader of Israel's largest political party, Halikud Beitenu, has been unable to form a government without antagonizing the religious parties. According to Israeli law, Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government. If he can’t, President Shimon Peres must declare new elections.

Trying to work out deals under this sword of Damocles, it seems likely that Netanyahu will somehow succeed in forming a government with or without the votes of the religious parties. Yet there is a lesson to be learned from the present debacle: The political leverage of the religious parties has been dramatically reduced. From now on, both right- and left-wing leaders will try to form governments on their own from the nation’s handful of parties and perhaps even reform Israel's political system without the need to depend on the support of the religious parties by kowtowing to them.

Let one thing be clear: all this political maneuvering has very little to do with the influence of religion on life in Israel. That will continue to be substantial. Even with the religious parties in the opposition, Israel will be still a country where most yeshiva students will not serve in the army, the Sabbath will be an officially enforced day of rest, and only kosher food will still be served in the army. There will still be rabbinical marriages although civil marriages may finally be possible through a series of interim arrangements.

But whatever the shape – and stability – of the ruling coalition that finally emerges, the veto power of the rabbis has been blunted and may finally be broken.

Yuval Elizur is a sixth generation Israeli, living in Jerusalem. The author of several books, he is a former deputy editor and economics reporter for Israel’s largest daily newspaper Ma’ariv, and has served as a Jerusalem correspondent for The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. A veteran of two wars, he was the Columbia School of Journalism’s first Israeli graduate.

2013 Children's Passover Favorites: New and Old

Monday, March 11, 2013 | Permalink

JBC children's editor Michal Malen compiled a list of children's Passover books below, including new and recent titles, as well as older favorites. Feel free to comment and let us know your own favorite Passover books for children!

Recently Published

Older Favorites


Book Cover of the Week: The Slippage

Friday, March 08, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Not only does Ben Greenman have a great cover for his newest book, The Slippage: A Novel (pubbing from Harper Perennial on April 23rd), but an awesome website to boot. Spend some time catching up on all things Ben Greenman over there until you can get your hands on this beauty (and, just a guess, but I imagine the contents will give the cover a run for its money):

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.


Why I Put a Map in The Bronfman Haggadah

Friday, March 08, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, artist Jan Aronson wrote about how she became an illustrator and her illustrations for The Bronfman Haggadah. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Many people have asked why I included a biblical map in The Bronfman Haggadah. Well, for starters, I love maps and I guess I assume that other people love them as well.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time poring over maps. Growing up in New Orleans, maps helped me figure out where I was in relation to the world. I wanted to know, for instance, where I was in relation to Europe. Where was Paris?

I also loved the colors of maps, as maps are very beautiful. Indeed, I think they are beautiful for a reason: so that we may enjoy and admire them as we investigate the world and place ourselves within a certain universe.

For that reason, I thought it would be useful and important to be able to turn to a page in the Haggadah and see the part of the world that we're talking about. I also realized that I’d never seen a map in a Haggadah—and I have looked at countless illustrated Haggadot. And so, I decided that a map would indeed be a very interesting, unique, and informative detail.

This led to many days of research about biblical geography, and that’s when things got complicated. There’s an open-endedness about our story and it is nearly impossible to pinpoint specifics. It turns out that there are five possible sites for Mount Sinai, and there are at least three possible routes taken by the Jews—there were established trade routes, important cities flourishing, and various tribes settled among the land.

I know that I am not alone in loving maps, so I hope that including one in The Bronfman Haggadah will not only entertain and inform readers, but also open their eyes to a new aspect of the Passover story.

Visit Jan Aronson's official website here.