The ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Ruth Franklin

Thursday, February 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

So far this week:

  • Abigail Green brought our attention to an early twentieth century history book for British children: Our Island Story
  • Jonathan B. Krasner revealed that one of his new projects focuses on the evolution of the term Tikkun Olam since World War II 
  • James Loeffler listens to pulsing electronic dance music while he writes

Today we hear from Ruth Franklin, a former Network author and Visiting Scribe blogger (read her posts here). Ruth Franklin's work, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, was deemed "an important, insightful, and perceptive book about Holocaust memoirs" by the Rohr Judges. 

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

I love to do research—I could bury myself in the library for weeks on end, following tangents and chasing down obscure footnotes. But all too often I wind up with gargantuan notes files that can make it hard to see the bigger picture. The greatest challenge for me is knowing when to stop researching and start writing.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

Many contemporary literary journalists and critics inspire me: my editor, Leon Wieseltier, as well as James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn, Janet Malcolm, Cynthia Ozick … the list is long. Looking back, Alfred Kazin is one of my models: he goes deeply into the books he writes about, but also draws out their connections to the real world we live in—and always with great clarity of style.

Who is your intended audience?

I hope my book reaches not only people who are interested in Holocaust literature, but anyone who is concerned about how catastrophe can be represented in art—and how faithful such representations must be to the facts of history. The false-memoir boom over the last decade, from Binjamin Wilkomirski to James Frey, brought this peculiar form of literary crime to the front pages. But the question of how to draw the contours of truth in fiction, from an artistic standpoint as well as an ethical one, has been around since the novel form was invented, and it is far from clear-cut. My book is addressed to anyone who has ever read a novel and wondered how much was based in reality—and whether it matters.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m writing a biography of Shirley Jackson, the author of the short story “The Lottery” and the novel The Haunting of Hill House, among many other works. Jackson, one of the defining writers of the midcentury, was also a housewife and mother, and much of her fiction explores the tensions of this dual role. My book is centered around Jackson’s marriage to the seminal Jewish literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman and the personal and social complexities of their union. Many scholars believe that “The Lottery” was inspired by the anti-Semitism that the couple experienced after moving to an insular New England town. Jackson devoted much of her work to the crueler aspects of human nature, particularly religious and racial prejudice.

What are you reading now?

I’ve been immersing myself in books about Gertrude Stein for an event I just did with the scholar Barbara Will at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Will’s new book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, tells the story of a little-known moment in Stein’s career when she actively promoted the Vichy regime and even translated some of Pétain’s speeches into English. It raises some very interesting questions about what exactly it means to be a collaborator and why some of the twentieth century’s greatest writers also happened to be fascists.

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

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, when I would bang out stories on my grandfather’s electric typewriter. But for a long time I thought I would be an editor instead. It wasn’t until I arrived at The New Republic and was first asked to write book reviews that it seriously occurred to me that I could do this for a living.

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

When I’ve written something that is personally meaningful and it inspires other people to think about the subject in a new way, I feel successful.

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

I feel superstitious about admitting this, but I have a lucky sweater that I wear on particularly challenging days. It’s a big, ratty, unraveling, supremely comfortable gray cardigan that I’ve owned for years. I never wear it out of the house.

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

I hope readers will come away from my book with a new appreciation for the value of fiction—all forms of art, really—as a way of representing catastrophe. As far back as humans can remember, we have always used art to make sense of the world around us. But when it comes to the Holocaust, art has been stigmatized as detrimental to collective memory. My book seeks to restore literature to its proper place, arguing that to get at the truth, sometimes you have to use your imagination.

Ruth Franklin, a literary critic and a senior editor at The New Republic, is nominated for her first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Her writing also appears in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.

Photo by Curtis Martin

JBC Bookshelf: Spring is Near

Thursday, February 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

I know it's still only February, but I can smell spring. Really! I can! Almost every title to recently cross my desk has a spring pub date, and that just makes me happy. The new titles come in all shapes and sizes (as you can see below) and bring the promise of warmer weather and outdoor book clubs (ok, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself...). Point is: loving the new crop of books. And, there's more where these came from. Our 2012-2012 Network authors are signing up now and will begin to appear on the ProsenPeople pages very soon. Until then...three from the shelf:

Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way, Mayim Bialik (March 2012, Touchstone) 
Did you know Mayim is blogging over at Kveller? If you read her blog, you get to find out about cool things like this.

Unterzakhn, Leela Corman (April 2012, Schocken Books)
I've been waiting for this one to come out since March 2008, so it's a complete pleasure to finally have it in my hands.

Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness, Bernard Avishai (April 2012, Yale University Press)
Attn Roth Fans: we compiled our Roth reviews for you here

Happy National Read in the Bathtub Day

Thursday, February 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of National Read in the Bathtub Day, we put together a few bathtub reads:

The Ministry of Special Cases: "...Kaddish fears his son will be arrested merely for having political books in his bedroom, so he burns them in the bathtub..."

Once: "...But after she is arrested for writing “words that sounded good...words that God would use” on a bathroom wall, he asks her..."

The Invisible Bridge: "Perhaps the grandest quality of Orringer’s writing is her ability not merely to describe and tell the reader but to place the reader within the locale of the story, which ranges from the seamy jazz clubs of Paris to a men’s bathroom awash with the blood of a beaten friend..."

The Lost Minyan: "The Conversos pass on their old ways to their children by teaching them the Jewish laws of circumcision, eating kosher, bathing, refraining from work on the Sabbath, and burial of their dead, while admonishing them never to speak of their secret beliefs."

Fault Lines: "'So how’s life in the bathroom, Sadie?'" 

Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths: "I’m jolted awake in thick dark en route to the bathroom, gripping soft walls that collapse in a clatter of hangers."

The Perils and Pleasures of Spiritual Travel

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Eric Weiner wrote about carrots, fish, and Jewish souls. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve written a book about my “spiritual journey,” fully aware what an oft abused, dangerously clichéd term it is. The problem with “spiritual journey” (one of many, actually) is that it is usually used aspirationally. We venture far from home, in search of something, and so we convince ourselves we found it.

Just because we label a journey spiritual, though, doesn’t make it so, and the fact is: sometimes we’re better off staying at home. “The farther you travel, the less you know,” warns Lao-Tzu, the Taoist sage.

Yet this was the same sage who gave us the wonderful aphorism: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Was Lao-Tzu conflicted? Was he deliberately trying to confuse us?

I don’t think so. He knew that it’s not whether we travel or not, but how that matters. Travel, done properly, disorients us, and it is through this disorientation that any spiritual journey actually lives up to its name. This is the sort of travel Henry Miller had in mind when he said that “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.”

If different places didn’t evoke different feelings, different ways of experiencing, we might as well stay at home, especially now, given the enhanced interrogation techniques that pass for air travel these days.

But we must choose our places carefully. Many supposedly sacred places disappoint. Freighted with history, and our outsized expectations, they collapse under the weight of their own sacredness.

Such a fate has befallen many a shrine or temple. Whatever spiritual essence once existed there has long evaporated, siphoned off by opportunists and posers. Today they possess all of the divinity of a Greyhound bus station. They are dead places.

Then there are places like Tzfat, in northern Israel. There, the air is soft and plush. It is no dead place. Ever since the 16th century, Tzfat has been a center of Kabbalah, the mystical arm of Judaism, and it still attracts those looking for taste of the ein sof, or infinite.

The denizens of Tzfat are spiritual free agents, cobbling together a bit of this, a bit of that, and somehow making it all work. It is one of those places that the early Celts called “thin places,” locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and, for perhaps the first time, we can taste the divine.

Eric Weiner iis a former foreign correspondent for NPR, a philosophical traveler—and recovering malcontent. His new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available.  

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...James Loeffler

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Earlier this week, we asked Sami Rohr Prize Finalists Abigail Green and Jonathan B. Krasner a few questions about their inspiration, audience, and process. Today, we hear from James Loeffler, whose first book The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire was published by Yale University Press. The Rohr Judges agreed that James's book contained "[a] treasure trove of music, music history and general cultural materials that will help us understand what would have otherwise been only more buried evidence of the rich Jewish past in the age of the killers and tyrants." Below, James discusses the international human rights movement, Miles Davis, and electronic dance with the ProsenPeople.

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

For every individual story that makes it into a book of history, there are a hundred other fascinating lives that don’t. That’s a hard choice to make. And it’s made even harder by the knowledge that each person’s life is unique. Leaving someone out of the narrative doesn’t just deprive them of a spot in history, it also potentially alters the storyline itself.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

This may sound cheeky, but I find the most inspiration for non-fiction in works of fiction. Of course it’s true that the rules of writing fiction are completely different. But fiction authors are, by definition, master storytellers. The purity of plot reminds me how a good narrative can truly take the reader inside a different world—like the distant past.

Who is your intended audience?

I wrote this book for anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a piece of classical music; anyone who’s ever suffered through a piano or violin lesson; and anyone who’s ever picked up a paper and found themselves counting the Jewish names involved in a story.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I am writing a book now about another arena in which Jews have played a disproportionately large role in modern times: the international human rights movement. From Amnesty International and Richard Goldstone to Natan Sharansky and UN Watch, Jews have become idealistic icons and passionate critics, tireless proponents and vocal skeptics about the international human rights community. My book seeks to go back to the early decades of the human rights movement after World War II, to retrace the forgotten story of Jewish participation in the birth of human rights at the United Nations. My aim is to shed new light on just where human rights come from in modern times and to puncture some pious, persistent myths of both the Left and the Right, about the relationship between Jews, Zionism, and human rights.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just been reading a collection of Chopin’s letters, where alongside a bunch of anti-Semitic rants I was amused to find his description of his adventures playing klezmer music with Jewish folk musicians in a Polish shtetl.

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

In high school I was a deep devotee of the music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. And I was a semi-professional jazz musician. Yet when he died early in my senior year, my first reaction wasn’t to put on one of his records. Instead I felt the urge to grab a pen and notebook. I began writing what would become my first published essay—a literary tribute to him. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a writer. As much as music stirred my soul, the way I sought to communicate my thoughts and passions in life was through words on the printed page.

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

Success is about the art of clarity. When the words on the page distill the essence of an idea or a question and I’ve captured reality, then I feel like I’ve reached a peak.

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

My deep, dark secret is that even though I often write about classical music, I prefer to have pulsing electronic dance music playing in the background. The louder and noisier, the better. Somehow the beat and sound screens out other distracting thoughts and frees up my mind to concentrate better on writing.

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

If they listen to one of the composers mentioned in the book, dayenu—that’s enough. But more broadly I want readers to consider delving more deeply into the remote corners of the Jewish cultural past. History is not just about reinforcing our sense of who we are today and how we got here. History is about recovering the roads not taken, and exploring where they might yet still lead us.

James Loeffler, an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, is nominated for his first book, The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. He works broadly on the intersection of Jewish culture, politics, and identity in modern Eastern Europe, Israel, and the United States. He has published extensively in the field of Jewish musical studies, with a specialization in the history of Jewish folk and classical music traditions in Eastern Europe. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Jonathan Krasner

Tuesday, February 07, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It's been a good year so far for Jonathan Krasner. First, he won the National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies, and then he was named a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.  His feted title, The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education, was hailed by the Rohr judges as "[t]he best book on the history of Jewish education in the United States to have appeared in several decades.” Clearly, this is one not to be missed. Like yesterday, we asked Jonathan a few questions about his process, his audience, and the current books on his nightstand. His answers follow below:

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

I'm constantly aiming to balance my desire to tell a compelling story with my commitment to scholarship. I reject the notion that serious history writing needs to be "dry as dust."

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

When I was editor of my high school and college newspapers, I had a bit of the muckraking spirit in me and felt it was important for the fourth estate to keep the "powers that be" honest. I drew early inspiration from long form essay writers in magazines like the New Yorker and the New Republic. In college, Professors Stephen Whitfield, Joyce Antler, and Jacob Cohen introduced me to great political essay writers like H. L. Mencken, Mary McCarthy, and E.B. White as well as practitioners of the "New Journalism," like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Although my interests eventually turned from journalism to history, it was the exposure to these journalists and essayists that most influenced my writing.

Who is your intended audience?

In The Benderly Boys my audience is anyone who has ever suffered through Hebrew school, fallen in love with Jewish summer camp, or wonders about the origins of the song I Had a Little Dreydl.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I am currently working on a few projects on topics ranging from black-Jewish relations at Brandeis University in the late-1960s; to the evolution of the term Tikkun Olam since World War II; and to the mainstreaming of gays and lesbians in the Jewish community.

What are you reading now?

Erik Larson's riveting and disturbing book In the Garden of Beasts.

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

I can't pinpoint an exact date or place, but whatever inclination I had was definitely reinforced when the high school faculty advisor to the student newspaper started referring to my collaborator friend Jeff and I as "Woodward and Bernstein."

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

How about being a Sami Rohr Prize finalist? .... Seriously, I am thrilled when I succeed at making history come alive while answering the question: "Why does this matter?"

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

Ideally, I like to lock myself in a room for a couple of weeks at a time, preferably with breaks for long walks around a lake or along a beach.

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

I hope they gain some appreciation for the almost fanatical dedication of the Jewish educators of the past. Today, the motif of Hebrew school as torture, recently parodied to great effect in the Coen brothers' film A Serious Man, is almost a cliche. But the pioneers of the modern Jewish supplementary school were actually steeped in progressive educational philosophy and dedicated to the revival of Hebrew and the creation of a vibrant American Jewish culture. Maybe the story just magnifies the dilemma of supplementary Jewish education in America. Or, rather, it underscores how Jewish educators today are struggling with many of the same issues that animated Samson Benderly and his disciples a century ago.

Jonathan B. Krasner is an Associate Professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He is nominated for his book The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education, which just won the 2011 National Jewish Book Award in the category of American Jewish Studies. His work has appeared in many academic journals and anthologies. He lives with his family in Andover, Massachusetts.

Book Cover of the Week: Second Person Singular

Tuesday, February 07, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Coming in April from Grove Press:

Acclaimed novelist Sayed Kashua, the creator of the groundbreaking Israeli sitcom, “Arab Labor,” has been widely praised for his literary eye and deadpan wit. His new novel is considered internationally to be his most accomplished and entertaining work yet.

Winner of the prestigious Bernstein Award, Second Person Singular centers on an ambitious lawyer who is considered one of the best Arab criminal attorneys in Jerusalem. He has a thriving practice in the Jewish part of town, a large house, speaks perfect Hebrew, and is in love with his wife and two young children. One day at a used bookstore, he picks up a copy of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, and inside finds a love letter, in Arabic, in his wife’s handwriting. Consumed with suspicion and jealousy, the lawyer hunts for the book’s previous owner—a man named Yonatan—pulling at the strings that hold all their lives together.

With enormous emotional power, and a keen sense of the absurd, Kashua spins a tale of love and betrayal, honesty and artifice, and questions whether it is possible to truly reinvent ourselves. Second Person Singular is a deliciously complex psychological mystery and a searing dissection of the individuals that comprise a divided society.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Abigail Green

Monday, February 06, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In January, we announced the five finalists for this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The winner of this prize receives $100,000 and the runner-up receives $25,000. Not too bad, eh?  We'll be announcing the winner later this month! In the meantime, we asked our finalists a few questions about their process, their audience, and the current books on their nightstand. First up is Abigail Green, author of Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero. The Rohr judges praised Moses Montefiore as "[a] monumental biography of Montefiore [that] provides a fascinating and comprehensive glimpse into the life and times of an amazing man.” Below, Abigail explains her personal connection to Montefiore and her role as a historian and a writer:

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

The things I find challenging are: re-reading my research notes before I get started because it’s important to do it properly but it can be really boring; wearing my learning lightly because I’m writing for different audiences at the same time; and cutting, cutting, cutting the text because anything shorter is almost by definition better.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

The past.

Who is your intended audience?

It depends on the book. Montefiore is quite an eclectic book so it was meant for all sorts: Jewish readers, general readers, biography readers, amateur and professional historians. My mother was born a Montefiore and my husband’s father grew up in Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem, when it was still a run-down neighbourhood. The original inhabitants were all evicted during the War of Independence to protect them from enemy gunfire. So this one’s for my family too.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Thinking, not writing as yet.

What are you reading now?

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse. It’s a Dutch historical novel set in fourteenth century France, written in the 1950s. And Liberalism, a Counter-History, by Domenico Losurdo.

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

All good historians should also think of themselves as writers. I’m British and my interest in history was sparked by Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. I read Our Island Story - an early twentieth century history book for British children that is so wildly outdated that it recently came back into fashion. And I spent hours in a second-hand bookshop selling dusty historical novels opposite a medieval castle near where my grandparents lived.

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

When a reviewer described my book as ‘one of the essential works on modern Jewish history.’ No historian could ask for more.

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

Once I’m underway with something, I can write pretty much anywhere. I gave birth to our first child when I was half way through writing Montefiore, so I wrote a lot of it at night.

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

I’d like them to think about the nineteenth century – and particularly the Jewish nineteenth century - in new ways.

Abigail Green is Tutor and Fellow in History at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. She is nominated for Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, which was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year 2010 and a New Republic Best Book of 2010. Her first book Fatherlands: State-Building and Nationhood in Nineteenth Century Germany, was shortlisted in Das Historisches Buch 2002. She lives in Oxford, England.

On Carrots and Fishes and Jewish Souls

Monday, February 06, 2012 | Permalink

Eric Weiner's new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I spent several years traveling the world, trying on different faiths, seeing which one fits. At the end of my journey, I found myself in Tzfat, in northern Israel, diving headfirst into my own faith. The ground I walked in Tzfat felt familiar and foreign at the same time.

One evening, I was invited by a family of Orthodox Jews for a Sabbath at their home. One of them, an impish young man named Asaf, listened intently to my tales of whirling with the dervishes, meditating with the Tibetans. Then he told me a story.

There was this Jew, Asaf said. We’ll call him Moshe. Moshe decided one day he wanted to become Catholic, so he walks to the local church and says, “Father, I’d like to be Catholic.”

“No problem,” says the priest. He sprinkles water over Moshe and says, three times, “You’re not Jewish, you’re Catholic.” He then sends Moshe on his way but with a warning. “We Catholics only eat fish on Fridays. Okay?”

Moshe assures him that is no problem. Except a few days later, on a Wednesday evening, Moshe develops a huge craving for fish. He can’t resist so he slips off to a local restaurant. There, the priest happens to see him tucking into a huge fillet of halibut.

“Moshe! What are you doing? I told you to only eat fish on Friday.”

Moshe, without missing a beat, says, “This isn’t a fish. It’s a carrot.”

“What are you talking about, Moshe? I can plainly see it’s a fish.”

“No, it isn’t. I sprinkled water on it and said, ‘You’re not a fish, you’re carrot, you’re not a fish you’re a carrot…’”

Everyone at the table smiles. Except me. What am I to make of the joke? Am I a fish and always will be? Or am I a carrot with fish tendencies? Or some sort of carrot-fish hybrid? The obvious moral of the story: Go forth and meditate with the Buddhists, do yoga with the Hindus, pray with the Muslims, but you’ll be back. You have a nefesh, a Jewish soul, and nothing you do will ever change that.

At first, I bristled at that notion. We are free—freer than ever before—to choose our own spiritual path, and many people (Jews and non-Jews alike) are doing just that. One out of three Americans will change their religious affiliation over the course of their lifetime. We are, increasingly, a nation of God hoppers.

Or are we? Do we ever fully change?

I don’t think so. We imbibe of the world’s wisdom traditions, from Buddhism to Shamanism, and benefit from them, but the “conversion” is never complete. We always retain, at the very least, our cultural identity—our fishiness—and that is okay. That is good. We need solid footing, or as Archimedes said many centuries ago: “Give me a place to stand and I shall move the world.”

Eric Weiner is a former foreign correspondent for NPR, a philosophical traveler—and recovering malcontent. His new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available.

The Red Devil

Friday, February 03, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Shaer wrote about the genesis of his book, Among Righteous Men, and divisions within the Crown Heights community. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In December, not long after Among Righteous Men was published, I returned to Crown Heights. The evening was unseasonably warm, and I walked east from my apartment, past the lip of Prospect Park, and down the undulating clamor of Eastern Parkway, my hands in my pockets. The neighborhood, where I had spent so many months reporting—some happy, some not  appeared largely unchanged.

There was the proud façade of the main shul at 770 Eastern Parkway, and there were the clusters of yeshiva students. There in the windows of one building hung the yellow flag of the messianists—believers in the divinity of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Rebbe of Lubavitch. In a balcony overlooking the sidewalk, two women were chattering happily in Yiddish. I remembered a snippet from Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, the best book about Brooklyn ever written: “Yet as I walk those familiarly choked streets at dusk and see the old women sitting in front of the tenements, past and present become each other’s face; I am back where I began.”

Kazin knew that an emotional connection to place can defeat mere geography. It is the not the physicality of a neighborhood that haunts us, after all. It is the connection between that physicality and our inner lives.

I strolled south down Kingston, towards Empire Boulevard. I had a single destination in mind: a tailoring shop owned by a man named Israel Shemtov. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, when crime rates in the neighborhood were skyrocketing, Shemtov had patrolled Crown Heights under the name the “Red Devil.” He was one of the first Jewish vigilantes––a predecessor to the Shomrim and Shmira patrols active in the neighborhood today.

Shemtov, who stands just about five feet tall, was also a master of image management. Where other Hasidim shirked press attention, he embraced it, regaling reporters from the Post and the Daily News with tales of bloody brawls and daring midnight takedowns. He compared himself frequently to Charles Bronson, circa Death Wish. “There will not be a crime in the neighborhood because they know they will be dead,” he said.

In 2010, I had visited Shemtov at his storefront on Empire. By then, he was two decades retired, pale and stooped. Jamming a soft pack of Kingstons into his front pocket, he showed me into his private office, and pulled the door shut behind him. The room was in appalling condition  water damage had browned half the ceiling, and near the only window, several panels hung loose, exposing a nest of wires and cotton-candy pink insulation. “Sit,” Shemtov said.

For the next two hours, he told me dozens of stories, and sometimes the same story twice: The time he saved the life of a shooting victim; the time he faced down a gang of local toughs; the time he yanked a suspected mugger off a bicycle and beat the kid into the ground with his fists.

“I’ll tell you, since I was a kid, I was a very tough — I was ten years old, and two kids on my bicycle knocked off my helmet,” he said. “I was a little shit. They said, come over here, I want to talk to you. And I came over and beat the hell out of them. I was strong. I still am, thank God.”

Toughness was necessary for a Jew, he explained—“We’ve been knocked around for too long.” During the 1920s, his father’s family had fled Eastern Europe for New York; behind them, there was only death and destruction. “Because of that,” Shemtov said, “I knew I always had to fight.”

Now, months after that 2010 interview, I found myself galloping faster down Kingston, hoping Shemtov had a few more stories left to tell. But when I arrived at the corner of Empire, I found the storefront dark, the door locked. I knocked several times; there was no answer.

That evening, I phoned my grandmother at her home in Boston. During the year I spent writing Among Righteous Men, I had often considered interviewing my grandmother about her mother, Edith, who, much like many of the older Hasidim in Crown Heights, had escaped Eastern Europe under terrible circumstances. For a variety of reasons, I had never gotten around to making the call, but now that the book was behind me, I decided that the timing was right.

My grandmother was good-natured about the inquiry. She told me her mother had long blocked out the worst memories of her girlhood in Eastern Europe; and yet, over time, some details had emerged. Edith Springer — later Edith Rosenthal — had grown up in an area called Gubernia, in modern-day Lithuania. She had several brothers, and no sister. One morning, her father heard a clatter in the streets outside, and peering out the front door, he was run down by a horde of Cossacks. He died instantly.

Later, my great-grandmother, her brother and their mother managed to secure a berth on a ship bound for Ellis Island. During a bad storm, my grandmother told me, my great-grandmother — then only five — was found on the deck of the boat, clutching one of her Mary Jane shoes. The other had washed overboard. My great-grandmother was soaked, shivering, distraught.

But what about Edith’s father, I pressed. What did my grandmother know about that man who had been murdered, in cold blood, in the streets of a small town in Lithuania? “Matthew,” my grandmother said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know. I don’t think I ever knew, and the person who could tell us is long gone.”

So there it was: There was more, but it would remain forever out of reach, enveloped in darkness.

Matthew Shaer is the author of Among Righteous Men. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, Foreign Policy, andThe Washington Post, among other publications. He is a regular contributor to New York magazine. He tweets at @MatthewShaer.