The ProsenPeople

Writing Across the Linguae Francae of Midcentury Jewish America

Monday, November 23, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Jewish Book Council is proud to announce the realization of its project to create a digitized archive of the Jewish Book Annual in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, presenting over half a century of national discourse on Jewish literature in an interactive, searchable format to honor the 90th anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week.

Last week, contributing editor Nat Bernstein introduced the archives with a reflection on the first volume of Jewish Book Annual and its contributors’ awareness of world events in the midst of World War II. Understanding the Nazi’s mass extermination of European Jewry and the writers, artists, and scholars among them as the murder not only of people but of expression and the written word, the Annual called upon American Jews to take on the mantle of Jewish literature theretofore helmed by the names listed in the journal’s annual, tragically lengthening roster of “The Academy on High”.

Emerging from the same period, one of the more academically compelling features of the earliest issues of the Jewish Book Annual was the linguistic conversation between English, Hebrew, and Yiddish—then the linguae francae of American Jewry. Although today Jewish Book Council primarily works only with books in English or English translation, its mission and readership held different aims, interests, and consciousness over the midcentury years between the Holocaust and Israel’s claim for independence.

Reflecting on the reception of the inaugural volume, the publication’s editor, Dr. Solomon Grayzel, noted the following year: “Our Annual of 1942 was hailed as proof of the inherent unity of Jewish culture in the United States, despite the trilingual form in which our efforts—literary and educational—manifest themselves. To prove the existence of and to enhance this unity are, indeed, the twin purposes of the Jewish Book Council. It was created in order to provide a Cultural Exchange for the three linguistic groups in American Israel, all of which are American, all of which are Jewish, and all of which strive to enrich their common cultural heritage.”

To that end, the Jewish Book Annual originally featured not only sections written in each language but an intricate and thoughtful web of discourse and reference between them. Readers of one language were kept informed of the works published in the others, as well as of any translations made available in their own, over the previous year. “Apart from serving as a guide and a source book,” Grayzel wrote in the 1948 – 1949 issue, “the Annual serves to acquaint the users of one language with the literary products of the other two.”

Beyond promoting and enhancing Jewish literature among the broadest possible audience of American Jewish readers, this trilingual effort was rooted in a national clamor for unity as the events of the Holocaust, its aftermath, and Israel’s political and military struggle for independence raged overseas. “This year we have attempted to bring to our readers information about the new post-war developments in Jewish literature in Europe,” editor Abraham G. Duker highlighted in his preface to the 1947 – 1948 issue. “We have also discussed [...] the wisdom of more intensive coverage of different fields of Hebrew literature in different years in view of most fortunate cultural developments in Eretz Israel and the consequent large output of books, trends which we hope will continue uninterruptedly.”

This was not to be the case, as the following volume of Jewish Book Annual went to print in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence. “It is a source of deep regret that three articles on the Hebrew literary creativity in the State of Israel, that had been assigned to and accepted by outstanding Israeli personalities, have not been received as this book goes to press, undoubtedly due to the unsettled conditions there,” Grayzel continued in his introduction to Volume VII. “When these articles are received,” he promised, “the Council will find appropriate channels for their proper dissemination so that we can join in paying tribute to our brethren in Israel.”

Happily, however, the Annual’s dedication to its trilingual dialogue on American Jewish literature transitioned from determination and survival to a celebration of culture, heritage, and the arts as the Jewish American community flourished in a more peaceful world the next decade. “Yiddish lives in our Annual. Hebrew lives in our Annual. Jewish Art lives in our Annual. Books, books, books live in our Annual,” Ely E. Pilchik introduced Volume XIII (1955 – 1956). “As the fourth century begins for American Jewry, and the fourth or fifth millennium for the descendants of Jacob, Jews are writing in at least three languages—Hebrew, Yiddish and English. If there is writing there must be reading. From earliest times we Jews have hallowed history with דאס ווארט—הדבר—the word—oral and written. As long as we so hallow will our history be glowingly alive.”

Little did he know that one day it would be so literally glowingly alive off computer screens and even handheld devices displaying his own words in digital archives freely available and accessible to all.

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June 19, 1953

Monday, November 23, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Hours Count: A Novel by Jillian Cantor.

On the night Ethel is supposed to die, the air is too heavy to breathe.The humidity clings to my skin, my face wet with sweat, or maybe tears. It is hard to tell the difference. To understand one thing from another anymore. It’s as if the world were ending the way I always imagined it would. And yet I’m still here. Still driving. Still breathing, somehow, despite the heavy air, despite what I have done. The sky is on the edge of dusk. No mushroom cloud. No bodies turned to dust.

I’m driving Ed’s Fleetmaster up Route 9, the road to Ossining, along the sweltering Hudson. There are a lot of cars, all headed the way I am, slowing me down. I push anxiously on the gas, wanting the miles to speed along, wanting to get there before it’s too late. I hope the car will make it, that I haven’t damaged anything that will cause it to stall now at the worst possible time.

I wish I could’ve left earlier, but I had to wait until I was able to take Ed’s car. I suppose you even might say I’ve stolen the car, but Ed and I are still married legally. And can a wife really steal a car from her own legal husband?

So much has already been stolen from me, from all of us. From

Ethel. And that’s why I’m driving now.

My stomach turns at the thought of what might happen to me when I tell the truth at last. And I glance in the rearview mirror at the backseat. For so long, I have taken David with me everywhere, and it takes me a moment to remember he’s not here. It’s just me in the car and David’s gone.

But Jake will be there, at Sing Sing, I remind myself. He has to be. And if I can just see him one last time, one more moment, then it will make everything else I am about to do, everything I have lost and am losing by doing this, all worth it.

I think now about the curve of Jake’s neck, the way it smelled of pipe smoke and pine trees, just the way the cabin on Esopus Creek smelled. I inhale, wanting him to be here, to be real and in front of me again. But instead my lungs fill with that thick air, the dank smell of the Hudson, a humid summer afternoon turned almost evening. A few fireflies begin to gather just outside my window, their bodies glowing, a little early. It’s not quite dark. Not yet the Sabbath. I’m almost there, so close, and I will the darkness to hold off. Just a little longer.

Up ahead, there are dozens of red taillights and I realize that traffic has come to a standstill. I stop and put my head out the window. Farther up the road, it looks like there are barricades set up. Police with flashlights, though I’m hoping FBI, too. I switch on the radio and listen anxiously, wanting so badly for there to be good news. A last-minute stay. A decision to halt things until after the

Sabbath has passed. More time.

I switch the stations, anxious for something. Anything. But all I get is music: Ella Fitzgerald singing “Guilty.” It feels like a cruel joke, and I switch again. At last I find news, but it’s not good. President Eisenhower has denied a stay of execution, saying Ethel and Julie have condemned tens of millions of people to death all around the world. No. Ethel and Julie are still set to die at eight p.m. An hour from now.

I switch the radio off, pull the car to the side of the road, and kill the engine. I take a cigarette from my purse and light it with shaking hands. I inhale the smoke and for a moment consider not getting out of the car but just waiting here in the line of traffic. But I know I can’t.

I push open my door and step out into the steamy air. I stomp out the cigarette with my worn heel. I stare at the back window and picture David there on the other side, staring back at me, his round brown eyes like the pennies he so loved to stack. “Come on now,” I would tell him if he were here. “We have to hurry if we’re going to find Dr. Jake.”

His mouth would twitch slightly at the mention of Jake’s name, and I’d wonder if maybe it might even be a little smile.

Jake’s here, I tell myself instead. All I have to do is find Jake.

And I shut the car door and begin running up the road.

Continue Reading »

Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 Jillian Cantor.

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May As Well Be Called Jesus

Monday, November 23, 2015 | Permalink

Christopher Noxon is the author of Plus One and a recent inductee into the Tribe, completing his conversion to Judaism this past August. He will be blogging about his experience all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

It’s right there in the first six letters of my name—the boy from Bethlehem, the Jewish carpenter, the King of Kings!

I may as well be called Jesus.

The truth is, religion was never much of anything in my family. My dad is descended from Canadian Quakers but never went to church in his life. He and my mom, a beatnik-feminist who later became Buddhist, named me not for the star of the New Testament but after Winnie the Pooh’s curly-haired plus one, Christopher Robin. (Fun fact: the real-life Christopher Robin wasn’t even Christian—he grew up to be, like my dad, an avowed atheist.)

My Jewish journey began twenty years ago when I met and fell in love with Jenji, a Beverly Hills comedy writer who proudly identified as Jewish—at least in the won’t-buy-a-German car-or-eat-ham-but-will-have-the-shrimp-if-it’s-fresh-and-chilled kind of way.

Early on in our marriage, I consented to her demand that we raise the children Jewish. Whatever doubts I had about the Almighty or gefilte fish, I figured our three kids would only benefit from a solid foundation in what I understood to be a foundational tradition of the Western civilized world. If all else failed, I figured it would give them something to rebel against besides their crazy goy dad.

And that was that; I was content to remain on the sidelines. At the synagogue day school where we sent the kids, when they talked about “interfaith families,” I proudly identified myself as the inter.

At various points, I considered converting. While we were dating, Jenji and I took an Intro to Judaism class at the University of Judaism—unfortunately, it had all the appeal and mystery of a court-mandated driver’s ed course. Also, every time I opened the Torah I’d land on a furious warning about God's wrath; or instructions on sacrificing animals or keeping slaves; or worst of all, a call to stone homosexuals or heretics or those who dare to work on the Sabbath.

I asked friends what they made of these passages and got more or less the same response: Relax! It's literature! Only really nutty Jews view the Torah as literal truth, and the story of Judaism is in large part the story of a never-ending argument over the texts.

Years went by, and I settled into what might be called Jewish adjacency. I was a flaming shaygetz in a world of Jews. A caretaking support goy.

As an unofficial, unaffiliated friend of the Tribe, I found a certain freedom. I couldn’t don the prayer shawl or offer an aliyah at my kids’ bar and bat mitzvah, but with a few exceptions I was welcomed to participate. It was kind of great, actually. Friends born into it dealt with complicated familial associations or pangs of guilt or embarrassment as they made peace with their Judaism. Every prayer offered or dreidel spun conjured complicated memories of overbearing mothers, horrible Hebrew schools, and anguish over Israel. Their practice of Judaism was wrapped up in thorny questions of identity and heritage.

I had none of that. I could approach Judaism unburdened by questions of whether doing this practice or not made me a “good” or “bad” Jew. I could “do” Judaism, enacting the spirit of the practice without worrying about the labels associated with it.

When people asked, I’d say I wasn’t Jewish but that I was “doing Jew.” In thinking about what that meant, I stumbled upon what felt like a core truth about myself, the faith and, ultimately, the God question I’d started with. At a study group one night I heard Rabbi Eddie Feinstein teach about the concept of God not as an omnipotent determinant force but as an ongoing action of creativity and caring. Like any great simple truth, this one—God as verb, not noun— got under my skin and seeped into my thinking.

The whole question of religious practice was reframed, thinking of God less as an almighty force but as a process undertaken by people acting out a spirit of kindness, creativity and love.

The Torah was still mostly offputting, but I came to love the act of bumping up against it, pulling out strands that made sense and railing against interpretations that didn’t. It was all about action—living not judging, channeling not obeying, connecting not corralling.

This, of course, is a central tenet of Judaism; it’s a faith of deeds, not creeds.

It all started to make a lot more sense. After years and years of “doing Jewish” I started thinking seriously about being Jewish. I felt like I’d been living in a foreign country for most of my adult life with a green card—I could work here, but I didn’t have the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship. I wanted in.

Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Details, and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Dara Horn

Monday, November 23, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Dara Horn is the author of four novels: In the Image (Norton 2002), The World to Come (Norton 2006), All Other Nights (Norton 2009) and A Guide for the Perplexed (Norton 2013), as well as the Kindle nonfiction bestseller The Rescuer (Tablet 2011). A Harvard PhD in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, she has taught these subjects as a visiting professor at Sarah Lawrence College, City University of New York and Harvard University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.


30 Days, 30 Authors: Ann Koffsky

Sunday, November 22, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Ann D. Koffsky is an editor at Behrman House Publishers. She is also an author and illustrator of more than 30 of her own books, including Kayla and Kugel, Kayla and Kugel’s Almost Perfect Passover, Frogs in the Bed, and Noah’s Swim-A-Thon. Ann also creates a monthly Jewish coloring page for kids, which is available for free on her blog. If you would like to see about of Ann’s artwork or books, or to sign up to receive coloring pages, you can visit her website at Ann lives in West Hempstead, NY with her husband and three children.



30 Days, 30 Authors: Joshua Cohen

Saturday, November 21, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers, Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for Harper's, The New York Times, London Review of Books, Bookforum, and others. He lives in New York City.


New Book Reviews November 20, 2015

Friday, November 20, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Tova Mirvis

Friday, November 20, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.


Plus, Tova shares the first novel that she fell in love with.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.


Interview: Rebecca Dinerstein

Friday, November 20, 2015 | Permalink

with Nat Bernstein

Captivated by Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel, Jewish Book Council sat down with the author one sweltering afternoon at the New York Public Library to discuss The Sunlit Night. Recently returned from her first international book tour, Dinerstein had been retweeted by Taylor Swift earlier that day, and her book newly acclaimed by Jenny Slate. The Sunlit Night will be available in paperback on May 3, 2016.

The following is a redacted version of JBC’s interview with Rebecca Dinerstein. Read the full interview here!

Nat Bernstein: I felt in reading The Sunlit Night that there’s this really refreshing absence of fear throughout the entire novel, for both protagonists, Frances and Yasha. It’s a very quiet bravery— there’s plenty of grief and loneliness, and there’s certainly suffering, but it’s as though it doesn’t occur to anyone to be afraid in the face of all of that. Do you borrow that strength from the characters you’ve created, or did they inherit their bravery from you?

RD: I think that both characters have such a clear destination in mind and also such clear motivations. In Yasha’s case it’s his father’s request and it’s the specificity of the geography of the request, and in Frances’s case it’s the specificity of the apprenticeship but also the force of Robert Ma­son’s judgment. I think having that clarity of goal and the force behind you to push you there releases the characters from having to feel the minute-to-minute decision-making of “Should I be doing this?” There is so much pushing them in their respective directions that they are free from responsibility—which I guess is different than my own experience so far as I chose Norway for more or less no reason: there was no Nils, and the fellowship I got did not tell me where to go. I could have stayed in New York, but I got it into my head that it would be really beautiful up there—and it was.

NLB: You’ve mentioned that your process while you were in Norway was to write poetry in the morning and fiction for the rest of the day. How did that kind of discipline affect each form? Did you see your prose melding into your poetry—or the other way around?

RD: The first draft was basically a 200-page free-verse prose poem, and that was really all I knew how to do! I had been training in poetry—I was a poetry student in undergrad—and I think poetry definitely in­formed this book and leaked into the prose.

NLB: How much of the book do you think comes from that period of isolation in Norway, and how much of it comes from being back in New York in a writing community?

RD: The book that I wrote in Norway, in that isolation, is all about Yasha and his father wanting to be Norse gods, and it made no sense! It was only when I came back from New York and gave it to readers and wrote in my apartment in a much more orderly and normal way that I was able to make the book sensical and structured. And that’s not to say that if I went back to Norway now I wouldn’t be able to write in an ordered way, but I needed some time where I could just generate imagery without worrying about the structure of it. And then it was good to come back to New York and actually make it a book. I needed Norway for the raw material and New York to refine it.

NLB: What was that editing process like?

RD: I brought that whole first draft into Jonathan Safran Foer’s workshop at NYU, and it was a funny day because Julia Pierpont brought in her first draft, too. Julia’s draft was already basically the book it is now and my book was a poem, and everybody in the whole class was like, “Julia’s book makes sense; Becky’s book does not.” I couldn’t bear the idea of being back in the beginning of it, so I just started working very, very fast. I worked at this beautiful rose garden and I rewrote some of the raw Norway stuff while I was there, and then as soon as I got back to school for that second year I was writing 1,200 words a day. I just did it every day. I woke up, had a cup of coffee, wrote the 1,200 words, then went to spinning or something. And that’s how I got it done, because then by the end of that year I had a full novel.

NLB: Jonathan Safran Foer has been a huge champion of this book.

RD: Jonathan has been an extraordinary mentor to me. He showed up in my senior English class in high school while we were reading Every­thing is Illuminated, and when he came to teach one semester at Yale I got to take his class, which was exhilarating: he is an incredible teacher because he has one of the craziest imaginations on the planet. He’s got an incredible brain and he really pushes his students to cre­ate and invent; there was an excitement towards invention in his class that I have really never seen anywhere else. When he moved to the NYU Cre­ative Writing program, I really couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with him again. He has been super generous with his attention and his encouragement, and I could not have written this book without his help.

NLB: I know it happens over halfway into the book, but for me the story of The Sunlit Night begins with the awkward recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish at the top of the world. What is the signifi­cance of that moment to the novel—and to you, personally?

Rebecca Dinerstein: That funeral scene was the only thing I ever knew was going to be in the book. I’m glad that it made sense within those characters to say Kaddish, because in my mind that is what happened— even though, as I think Frances says, you don’t say the Mourner’s Kaddish during the funeral. But it felt like the right mismatch of good intentions and misinformation and using whatever you have.

NLB: Do you think that The Sunlit Night is a work of Jewish literature, or is it a work of literature that happens to have Jewish characters in it?

RD: What is Jewish literature? I am Jewish. I identify as Jewish. (In Norway people knew I was Jewish and were very intrigued by it. I got at least one “But surely you believe in Jesus?” which was really hard. I sensed no ill will whatsoever but a lot of genuine curiosity—sometimes the curiosity can feel invasive, but it was okay.) The peacefulness that I most cherish in Judaism is in this book, and in that regard I would say it’s Jewish literature. I think it champions the peaceful essence of Judaism in its own serenity.

NLB: Do you have a sense of what you are going to be writing about next?

RD: It will be another novel. I’m thinking of mapping out a novel on the history of poison and of how human beings figured out which plants we can eat and which plants we can’t, but also extrapolating from that into the idea of the forbidden: what we’re attracted to, what we resist, and what courts temptation. The way I’m thinking about it is part flowers, part sex, but I haven’t yet figured out quite how I want to structure that.

Read the full interview here »

Nat Bernstein is Contributing Editor, Manager of Digital Content & Media, and JBC Network Coordinator for the Jewish Book Council.

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  • Two Great Writers of Central Europe

    Friday, November 20, 2015 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, György Spiró shared how the New York Postal Service and the mysterious identity of St. Thomas inspired his novel Captivity. György will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

    One learns something from every great work, and two writers in particular helped me the most in writing Captivity. They were personally familiar with the worlds that they evoked with exceptional sensitivity. I chose a story that took place two thousand years ago, so I really had to pull out all the stops.

    One of the authors is the Czech Ivan Olbracht, whose Golet in the Valley—an extraordinary novel—was published in English, too. He wrote it in the 1930s, when he spent his vacations in tiny villages in the eastern end of the former Czechoslovakia and marveled at the lives of Jews and Ruthenians. At first he found them peculiar, but after returning every summer, he came to understand them better. Later, together with another writer, Vladislav Vančura, he made a film based on the novel. Golet in the Valley consists of three stories, which—along with another book of Olbracht, Nikola Šuhay, Outlaw (which as far as I know has not appeared in English translation)—are miracles of insight into human character. There is humor, wisdom, irony, understanding, compassion, comedy, and tragedy all at once. They have everything that makes reading and writing worthwhile. Olbracht was able to capture the last moments of an archaic lifestyle, just before the Nazis exterminated the region’s Jewish inhabitants. These wretchedly poor people were nevertheless resourceful enough to make ends meet, and were busy day and night trying to outwit the law. For instance, a husband, with convoluted logic, questioned the cleanliness of the ritual bath, the mikvah, so that on the Sabbath he could avoid obligatory marital relations with his hated wife. Read these three phenomenal stories—make sure that the novel about the bandit gets translated: this work also takes place in a Ruthenian-Jewish environment and is also splendid.

    The other great writer is the Hungarian György G. Kardos, who was dragged off during the war to a Yugoslav work camp. Partisans freed him and he made it to Palestine via Istanbul. He participated in the war fought for the establishment of the Jewish state. After a year or two he spoke perfect Hebrew, and in 1951 he returned to Hungary. In 1968, his first unforgettable Palestine book, Avraham’s Good Week, came out, which was then followed by two more masterworks about Palestine. He accepted me as his friend. He died in 1997, and I have missed him ever since. I can still hear his voice: “What the hell did you scribble here?! ‘That heaving with laughter, he grabbed his belly’? Did you ever see anyone holding his stomach while laughing? A hack with no talent came up with the line, aping the French phrase: ‘rire à s’en donner mal au ventre,’ and ever since then other idiots keep repeating it.” In the following edition of that novel, I corrected the phrase. Since he cannot read my work anymore, I try to judge with his eyes. Some of them he would like; others he wouldn’t. To this day I correct my sentences with his standards in mind.

    Read his two other novels (Where Have All the Soldiers Gone, The End of the Story)—I can guarantee it will be a great experience.

    Translated from the Hungarian by Ivan Sanders.

    Born in 1946 in Budapest, award-winning dramatist, novelist, and translator György Spiró teaches at ELTE University of Budapest, where he specializes in Slavic literatures. His novel Captivity is newly available from Restless Books.

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