The ProsenPeople

New Reviews April 15, 2016

Friday, April 15, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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The Best Books about Jerusalem from Memoir, Fiction, and the Bible

Thursday, April 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Chanan Tigay shared his 5 favorite books to re-read. With the release of The Lost Book of Moses: The Search for the World’s Oldest Bible, Chanan is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.


I am an American, Jerusalem-born.

Which is to say that, while my parents—born in Buffalo and Detroit, respectively—spent a Sabbatical in the Holy City a few decades back, I happened. Ever since, Jerusalem has maintained a powerful grip on my imagination. I love the mix of old and new, east and west, Arab and Jew. I love the hidden alleyways. I love the hidden history. And I’m fascinated by the history that’s not so hidden—the ancient walls, the bullet-scarred buildings. And the hummus—I’d move to Jerusalem just to eat lunch each Friday at Pinati.

I can get around Jerusalem without a GPS, know where to have copies of my keys made, and still refer to the Inbal Hotel as it was previously called: the Laromme.

I thought I knew a lot about the city. But in writing my new book, which is set in part in Jerusalem of the nineteenth century, I realized there was much I did not know. According to the archaeologist Eric H. Cline, the much-contested City of Peace has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. Squeezing onto the Number 4 bus at 9:00 on a Sunday morning, it can sometimes feel like every day in Jerusalem is a microcosm of the city’s tumultuous history—a series of small battles to be faced down and overcome. But strolling the street s of Rehavia on Shabbat, it’s hard to imagine a more peaceful spot on earth.

Jerusalem has always been, and remains, dynamic—it is a symbol, yes, but also a strategic asset. A beacon on the hill, and also a bunker. And no matter how much I think I know about the city of my birth, there is always more to learn.

In that vein, here are three of my favorite books about Jerusalem:

A Tale of Love and Darkness: Although Amos Oz’s classic memoir is not strictly about Jerusalem (as a young man, Oz leaves Jerusalem for a kibbutz), the City of Peace is the stage upon which the unforgettable drama of the author’s difficult childhood plays out, complete with cameos by literary luminaries like S. Y. Agnon and Shaul Tchernichovsky. This isn’t an easy book, but it’s a beautiful one—training its unparalleled lens on Jerusalem as the British Mandate came to its end and the State of Israel emerged in its place.

The Book of Kings: Although archaeological remains of Jerusalem’s past are a constant feature of its present—walk through Jerusalem for an hour and try not to stumble over some relic or site of historical value—there’s one important spot where that’s not the case: Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. We’ve got its western retaining wall, of course, but that’s about it. If you’re interested in conjuring a vision of what the Temple looked like way back when, though, the best place to start is the Bible’s Book of Kings. The writing’s not quite Amos Oz (The porch in front of the nave of the house was twenty cubits in length, corresponding to the width of the house, and its depth along the front of the house was ten cubits…) but it’s full of specifics.

KeCheres HaNishbar: Shulamit Lapid’s wonderful fictional treatment of Moses Wilhelm Shapira, the Jerusalem antiquities dealer at the heart of my own nonfiction book. Shapira was a highly complex man—at once obsequious and pompous, honest and deceitful, loving and self-centered, brilliant and naïve, Jewish and Christian, European and Middle Eastern—and Lapid captures him with style and sophistication.

Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, 9/11, and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers, and wires. He is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.

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Setting a Story in the Shell of a Rust Belt Boomtown

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kim Brooks divulged the little-known American history of World War II before Pearl Harbor, which inspired her novel The Houseguest. Kim is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a man who had seen my novel advertised in a bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky.

“Dear Kim,” he wrote. “I have not read The Houseguest yet. But I was wondering—how did Utica get selected as a location in the book? My first wife’s grandfather, Barney Levitt, who came from the Ukraine around 1918, ran a scrap yard and hardware store called Barney Levitt & Sons in nearby Rome with his sons Sonny, Billy, and Joe Levitt. Sonny and Billy lived in Utica, and Joe, my late father-in-law lived in Clinton. The big scrap yard in Utica was Kowalsky’s, which was founded in 1916. Empire Scrap is now Empire Recycling and run by my friend Steven Kowalsky.”

This message delighted me, though I knew nothing of Barney Levitt & Sons or Kowalski’s scrap yard, enterprises on which the junk yard of my protagonist, Abe Auer, might have easily been based. It delighted me because it suggested that the strange intuition I’d followed in setting parts of my novel in Utica, New York, was based on something, if not factually, then emotionally true.

The emotion or impulse that led me to this unlikely setting arose, like so much of my fiction, from barely-remembered childhood memories. My father and both his parents were born and raised in Utica, a town that could not be more different from the one where I grew up—a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, the heart of the Sun Belt, the sort of city that sucked the economic life from places like Utica. Once or twice each year, I’d visit my grandmother there. We’d visit the zoo, take a tour of the old brewery where kids could get root beer floats, visit the various parks. Sometimes we’d visit the downtown, a stretch on Lafayette Street where daily trains had once arrived at the main rail station, where people had once eaten and shopped at Woolworth’s and The Boston Store, where visitors had lodged in the shabbily elegant Hotel Utica. Now, the old buildings were mostly closed, the sidewalks empty. And yet still it seemed a beautiful, small, quintessentially American place.

The summers I spent visiting my grandmother there remain among my fondest childhood memories, despite—or maybe because of—the fact that I was so struck, even as a child, by the haunted, abandoned aura that hung over the town. The rural suburb of my Virginia home had been literally built on a swamp. It sprung from the inspiration of a seventies developer: woodland-cleared, reservoir-filled, a few thousand single-family homes plopped down as quickly and as economically as possible in a location where there was nowhere to go and nothing to see and nothing to do without a car. It was a place without history, or rather, a place that existed completely outside of the history of the land on which it sat. Utica, by contrast, seemed to exist almost entirely in the past. Like so many Rust Belt cities, it felt not so much like a living, breathing place as a remnant of the community it had once been, a shell of a turn-of-the-century textile boomtown. I suppose this ghostly quality penetrated my subconscious. It lurked and shifted and re-emerged, eventually making Utica seem like the correct setting to begin a novel that is largely about what it means to hold onto or let go of the past, how it feels to abandon and to be abandoned.

Kim Brooks is the personal essays editor at Salon and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The Houseguest is her first novel.

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Chanan Tigay's Top 5 Books to Re-Read

Monday, April 11, 2016 | Permalink

With the release of The Lost Book of Moses: The Search for the World’s Oldest Bible from HarperCollins tomorrow, author Chanan Tigay is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.


There’s an old joke that goes something like this: Gentiles leave, but never say goodbye; Jews say goodbye, but never leave. When it comes to Jews and their books, at least, I think there’s some truth here.

Indeed, among the aspects of Jewish tradition that most appeal to me is our tendency to read the same books over and over—and over. We read the entire Torah through once each year. And when we finish, we don’t waste a single moment—as soon as Deuteronomy’s done, we roll immediately back to “In the beginning.” Tradition wants us always to be in the middle of a good book. Last month we read Esther twice. This month we’ll do the same with the Haggadah. Eicha, or Lamentations: once a year. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes: once a year. Song of Songs: once a year (unless you go to one of those shuls that reads it once a week).

We may leave our books for a while, but we never say goodbye.

As a writer, this repetitive reading appeals to me. Indeed, there are a number of books I return to year-in, year-out for inspiration, instruction, or pure enjoyment. My familiarity with them offers a great sense of well-being as I read and re-read. Opening their pages for the umpteenth time, these books make me feel like I’ve come home. “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it,” Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) tells us of the Torah. “Everything” is not to be found in the books that I turn over and over. Still, with each turn, I feel that I gain some new insight. If I’m stuck in my own writing, they may offer a path forward. If I’m spent, they may inspire. If I’ve already seen that day’s Sports Center twice, they offer entertainment.

They’re not all Jewish books per se. But the act of reading and re-reading them feels to me profoundly Jewish. And so: my Top 5 Books for Re-Reading here, in no particular order:

Barney’s Version: This is Mordecai Richler’s last, and (to my mind) best novel. Cranky, funny, inventive, touching, hockey-obsessed (of course), and did I say funny? Richler seems always to be left out when critics invoke the pantheon of great twentieth-century North American Jewish writers. I can’t understand it. To my mind he’s at, or near, the very top. It’s arguable, of course. But for me, that list should include Richler, along with Roth, Ozick, Malamud, Bellow, and Paley.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Katherine Boo’s real-life portrait of life in a Mumbai slum is so psychologically astute that, to use a backhanded compliment I hate, it reads just like a novel. And it’s not just beautiful and perceptive: it changed the way I think about poverty.

Among the Thugs: Bill Buford’s harrowing and hilarious account of his years infiltrating England’s soccer hooligans. There is no more perceptive writer on matters of mob violence and lager, athletic spectacle and gastric heroism—and none funnier. And his sentences: no one else writes sentences like these, so alive the pages crackle. Buford is sui generis, a term most of the characters in this book would not know.

Holy Days: In this powerful nonfiction tale about life inside the ultra-Orthodox community, Lis Harris writes with deep insight, keen observation, and sly humor about what was, when the project began, a world with which she was deeply unfamiliar. Harris serves as the reader’s proxy, alternately receptive and skeptical—and riding shotgun on her journey is as enlightening as it is entertaining.

The Lost City of Z: David Grann is a top-notch reporter and a dynamic writer, but above all, he’s a storyteller of the first order. Whether he’s writing about a man (wrongly?) convicted of arson, an art sleuth, or, as in this book, the search for a mythical Amazonian city, you simply can’t not be interested. Like the fearsome animals that lurk in rivers forged by the book’s explorers, Grann yanks you in and never lets go.

Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, 9/11, and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers, and wires. He is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.

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Before Pearl Harbor

Monday, April 11, 2016 | Permalink

Kim Brooks is the author of The Houseguest: A Novel, out tomorrow from Counterpoint Press. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Most modern conceptions of history America’s involvement in World War II begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and, certainly from a military perspective, that is where the story—our part of the story—opens. Anything that came before that seems consigned to trivia or AP History-level miscellany: the Lend-Lease Act; Americans who fled to Canada in order to fight with the British in 1939 and 1940.

From a social standpoint, though, the war—and with it Germany’s actions against Jews—has a much more complicated prehistory, as far as America is concerned. That there was a substantial part of the population that was resistant to America having anything to do with the war (and the not-so-subtle anti-Semitic undertones to that resistance) is hardly a secret. (Philip Roth’s nightmare fantasia The Plot Against Americadepicts this sentiment in extremis.) We know about the America First movement, the isolationist popularity of Charles Lindbergh, the hateful radio sermons of the Detroit priest Father Coughlin.

Less known, however, is that in February of 1939, twenty thousand members of an organization called the German American Bund—many wearing brown shirts—marched to a rally at Madison Square Garden. Or that Congress and even President Roosevelt flatly refused to make any efforts to allow European refugees to resettle in the United States. Or that The New York Times would not refer to victims of Hitler’s persecution as Jews but as “displaced persons.” Or, as I found most striking while doing research for my novel The Houseguest, a series of full-page advertisements supporting a campaign for a Jewish army to assist in the war effort, appeared in the Times with banner headlines reading “Action, Not Pity—Can Save Millions Now” or “This Is Strictly A Race Against Death.”

The Houseguest takes place shortly before America was violently pulled into World War II. Two of its central characters, an activist named Shmuel Spiro and a young rabbi called Max Hoffman, are to varying degrees involved with the group who was responsible for those ads, the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews. The Committee really did exist: they were Revisionist Zionists, who were inspired by the early Ukrainian Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky. (Their story is told in some detail by the historian David Wyman in The Abandonment of the Jews.)

Certainly other groups and individuals agitated for any sort of American support for European Jews. Yet there was something about the Committee that I found compelling to a point where they forced their way into my novel’s plot. They weren’t unambiguously heroic: their ranks were filled with members of the Irgun, the militant group that terrorized Palestinians and tried to bomb the British out of Palestine. In a way that only heightened their allure for me, though: not so I could craft an homage to the bombers of the King David Hotel but so that I could capture the chaotic moral landscape of this particular moment in history.

To me, this forgotten group with questionable motives almost perfectly symbolizes the matter of America and its relationship to Hitler’s Jewish victims before Pearl Harbor.

Kim Brooks is the personal essays editor at Salon and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The Houseguest is her first novel.

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New Reviews April 9, 2016

Friday, April 08, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new book reviews at Jewish Book Council:


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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Adam D. Mendelsohn

Friday, April 08, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Adam D. Mendelsohn and his book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, a vivid picture of how “rag picking” in nineteenth-century England and the United States served as the springboard for Jews to enter the middle and upper classes.

A warm congratulations to Adam and the other four finalists: Yehudah Mirsky, Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, and Lisa Moses Leff. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

Two things. Firstly, deciding on the right moment to switch my energies from research to writing. The temptation is so strong to keep on digging, to follow one more lead, to ferret out additional detail (pick your preferred metaphor!). I find that much of the excitement of any research project comes from this initial exploratory phase: the thrill of the chase. But at some point the hunt has to take second place to the business of writing. And secondly, I am unsettled by an awareness that any historical project is so much the product of happenstance—the survival of particular archival collections; an accumulation of authorial decisions, some made knowingly, others unwitting; the necessity of selection; the whims and interests of the writer.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Many inspirations, but one is the sheer pleasure I get from reading books that teach me new things and force me to think in new ways. If I am able to produce work that gives similar pleasure to others, I’d be delighted. Mission accomplished.

Who is your intended audience?

This book was written with an academic audience in mind, but with the aim of making it accessible to as wide a readership as possible. I like to believe that the question I grapple with at the heart of my book—why have Jews prospered so dramatically in America— is one that Jews and others should be thinking about. If Jewish success is not solely the product of the particular cultural baggage carried by Jews to these shores, then the experience of Jews has enormous potential relevance to more recent immigrant groups.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Many projects large and small. I’m overseeing a study—the first of its kind—attempting to track the attitudes of black South Africans toward Jews. I’m annotating the candid travel diaries of a nineteenth-century Jamaican Jew. And I’m in the early stages of a project about a curious episode that took place in Ethiopia in 1868.

What are you reading now?

My reading is schizophrenic. If I’m lucky I get to read something more serious in-between recitations of Winnie the Witch and The Gruffalo to my kids. I have a guilt-inducing stack of New Yorkers sitting on my bedside table. I am a voracious reader of novels (most recently Julian Barne’s The Sense of an Ending and David Benioff’s City of Thieves). And I am busy with a brilliant new book about the concentration camp system called KL.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

Here are some that have influenced me:

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Replenishing the Earth by James Belich
Culture of the Jews by David Biale (and others)
The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

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

I’ve always enjoyed words—as a teenager I’d peruse the dictionary for pleasure. But I only truly discovered the thrill of writing nonfiction as a university student. For me the pleasure comes both from the research and the puzzle-game of getting a sentence right.

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

Finding a fresh idea or novel perspective, and presenting it clearly and persuasively. Occasionally I’ll chance across something that is startlingly original, but is so obvious (in a good way) once it has been fleshed out.

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

Pajamas help. But otherwise all I need is a problem to solve, typically a sentence that needs puzzling over. Once I get stuck in, the text takes over.

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

I do not for one moment imagine that I’ve written the definitive book about the economic success of Jews in America. Instead I hope to trouble the waters a little, persuading readers to think again about what role culture has played in this process, and perhaps to reassess the conventional wisdom.

Adam Mendelsohn is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, the only such center in Africa.

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"Where Should the Story Begin?" The Worlds of Holocaust Graphic Memoirs

Thursday, April 07, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tahneer Oksman traversed the depictions of space in women’s graphic memoirs included in her book "How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?": Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs. Tahneer is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

Image from We Are On Our Own by Miriam Katin (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006)

Most Holocaust educators are familiar with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winning Maus. In this two-part graphic memoir, the first volume collected and published in 1986 and the second in 1991, Spiegelman recounts his parents’ personal histories. Beginning in pre-war Poland, the storyline moves through their experiences in the death camps and their liberation. This account, told from his father’s perspective, is juxtaposed with narrative bits portraying Spiegelman’s contemporary (late twentieth-century) relationship with his father as he visits with him in Rego Park in order to hear the story firsthand.

More recently, the cartoonist Miriam Katin published two books related to her experiences as a child survivor. Unlike Spiegelman’s memoir, these books are not presented as two volumes of the same story: in fact, Katin’s works—the first published in 2006 and the second in 2013—are wildly different, one from the other. Katin’s first memoir, We Are On Our Own, tells the story of how Miriam and her mother escaped the Nazi invasion of Budapest of 19443 – 1945. The book is composed almost entirely of penciled black-and-white panels neatly recounting a chronological narrative, though there are occasional and unexpected bursts of color marking, for example, pages portraying Katin’s experiences as a young mother in suburban New York in 1972.

In many ways, as with Spiegelman’s work, Katin’s We Are On Our Own is as much an exploration of the relationship between parents and children as it is a story of survival and escape. The memoir is dedicated to Katin’s mother (“For my mother / who taught me / to laugh / and to forgive”) and many of its central images focus on the depiction of a little girl positioned close to that figure; her mother acts, at different times, as her protector, her teacher, and, eventually, the target of her overwhelming ambivalence about her Jewish identity. Miriam’s experience as a child survivor is cast as formative, an experience that forever ties into the loving but burdened relationship she has with her mother.

Katin’s second memoir, Letting It Go, is something of a sequel to her first successful book, but the connection between the two texts is complicated by the dramatic—even radical—shifts in form as well as perspective. The plot of Katin’s second memoir is difficult to summarize, but the book essentially recounts her difficulty in accepting her adult son’s decision to move to Berlin. It is the story of an aftermath, told in bursts of images and words instead of clear-cut sequences of panels. But if We Are On Our Own is a story that unites two people’s perspectives—mother and daughter—in order to share a traumatic past, Letting It Go is a book that shows how impossible the task. In other words, in Letting It Go, Katin explores how one can never fully bridge together the different perspectives of a parent and child, just as one can never fully bridge past and present perspectives. She makes this ambitious undertaking clear from early on. Almost twenty pages in, for example, the narrator asks the question that all memoirists grapple with at some point: “Where should the story begin?” Until that moment, the text unfolds without a clear central focus, a plot. The reader witnesses fragments from Miriam’s life. There are images of her, in no apparent order, as she goes about her day-to-day life: sitting at the sketching table, checking her email, dealing with an exterminator. These routine acts are finally interrupted by a page that opens with that central question, carefully captured near the margin at the top. Below, a series of images graphically details Miriam’s abdomen as a doctor cuts into it and pulls out a tiny head with a chord wrapped around its neck. “Or is this the middle of the story?” These drawings disorient the reader by showing an event from a different time: the birth scene that took place over thirty years before Miriam sat down to this, her second, memoir.

When the grown up Miriam of Letting It Go asks about the origins of her second story, she is emphasizing how her traumatic childhood affects every moment of her adult life, including her own experiences of motherhood. “My father bleeds history”—this is the title that Art Spiegelman gave to the first volume of Maus. Like Spiegelman, Katin reveals the ways that a distant past can dramatically shape and color the present. Taken as a whole, Katin’s two memoirs also intriguingly emphasize a stubborn resistance to such an integration of the past into the present. Even though her identity as a mother is influenced by the ways her own mother protected and shadowed her —the story she tells in We Are On Our Own—there is still a gap between that childhood self and the narrator composing this second memoir. The radically different aesthetics of Katin’s two memoirs reinforce this gap, the impossibility of spanning the distance between the perspective of the mother and that of the child, or between past and present.

Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College, and she recently published her first book, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs.

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Sephardim and Ashkenazim

Wednesday, April 06, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarit Yishai-Levi recalled her first visit to the Western Wall as an eighth-generation Jewish Israeli. Sarit is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I began writing my novel The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, it was also the beginning of an exciting journey back in time. For six and a half years, I visited the period of Ottoman Turkish rule over the Palestine, the period of the British Mandate and the struggle waged by the Jewish underground movements, the War of Independence, and the early years of the State of Israel. In my effort to weave this history into the lives of the novel’s characters, I came across historical phenomena and events that I had not been familiar with before.

In order to construct a world for my novel, I had to engage in some careful and protracted research. The Ermosa family, the main heroes of the book, belong to the Ladino-speaking Sephardic community of Jerusalem between the turn of the nineteenth century and the 1970s. I turned to my mother’s cousin, Ben Zion Nachmias, whose book Hamsa—in which one of the protagonists is my great-grandmother—provided all the information I needed about the community’s customs. My mother’s sister, Miriam, helped me with the Ladino words and phrases I put into the mouths of some of my characters. For my descriptions of the lives of Jerusalem’s young people during the Mandate years, my father took me back in time to his days as a boy and young man. And to fill in the gaps about life in the country before I was born, I spent hours in Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv’s main library. As a journalist, I did not go to the books but rather to the newspaper archives, where I knew I would find intriguing articles that would teach me more than any other source. One of my most fascinating discoveries came from the newspaper HaZvi, published by the reviver of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, in the years 1884 to 1915.

It was from the yellowing pages of HaZvi that I learned that the heads of the Ladino-speaking Sephardic community forbade its members to marry people from other communities, particularly Ashkenazim. When a Sephardic girl fell in love, perish the thought, with an Ashkenazi boy—which is what happened to Leah Abu Shadid and Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s son Itamar—a scandal ensued, bringing immense shame onto her family. From those crumbling pages of HaZvi, I learned that the Sephardim were so opposed to intermarriage with Ashkenazim that even though the great philanthropist Sir Moshe Montefiore offered a reward of one hundred golden napoleons to any couple that would intermarry, there were no takers.

I wrote this surprising discovery into my novel, as I created such an impossible romance between Gabriel, a member of the Sephardic Ermosa family, and Rochelle, an Ashkenazi woman. The story of their love and its tragic outcome drives the novel forward. When the book was published, I was asked about the strict ban on marriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim more than anything else. Readers found it difficult to believe that society was really like that.

Sarit Yishai-Leviis an English-speaking journalist and author living in Israel. She has been a correspondent for Israeli newspapers and magazines and has hosted Hebrew TV and radio programs in Los Angeles, and authored four nonfiction books as well as The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, an international bestseller.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Yehudah Mirsky

Tuesday, April 05, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Yehudah Mirsky and his book Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, a biography of the first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine and founding theologian of religious Zionism that delves into the struggle of one of the most influential—and controversial—rabbis of the twentieth century to understand and shape his revolutionary times.

A warm congratulations to Yehudah and the other four finalists: Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, and Adam D. Mendelsohn. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

I think that form and genre are deeply related to the substance of what we have to say. Some things are best said in a book-length essay, like this book I’ve written. Others are best said in fiction, or plays, or poems, or avowedly devotional texts, or, what can you do, in academic monographs with platoons of footnotes.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Too many to name—but above all my father, Rabbi Professor David Mirsky, who passed away in 1982, when I was 21 years old, and still teaches me, every blessed day.

Who is your intended audience?

In this book I tried to cast a wide net, to write something of interest to interested readers—Jewish or not—and to committed Jews of all persuasions, to rabbis and educators, to scholars in fields ranging from history to theology to politics. That I could even think of trying that was because I was writing about an extraordinary figure who himself—in his life story and breadth and depth of his thought—speaks to that entire spectrum, and more.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, several things. I’m currently completing a scholarly volume (platoons of footnotes and all) on Rav Kook’s intellectual biography before his moving to the Land of Israel at age 38, in 1904. For all the vast scholarship on him (mainly in Hebrew), there’s still not much in the way of intellectual biography, especially not on this crucial, formative period of his life. I’m also translating volumes of Midrashim written and published in Hebrew by learned contemporary Israeli women, edited by my wife, Tamar Biala. These are very powerful texts that will be great to bring to English readers.

I’ve also begun some other projects. In recent years I’ve written a number of essays on the shape of modern Jewish history, in particular on the many answers given to what the great essayist Ahad Ha’Am characterized as “the problem of the Jews and the problem of Judaism,”—answers like ultra-Orthodoxy, Zionism, Jewish Socialism, Nationalism, Liberalism—and how those answers have regularly mixed, matched and pulled against each other. These stories both reflect and have played a role in larger dramas in world history, like the rise of the nation-state, and I’m hoping to pull those together. Another project I’m working on is rethinking the idea of human rights in order to save it. The colossal moral struggles of the twentieth century yielded, at least for a while, a unprecedented consensus among many—though of course not all—people that there are some things that states are simply not allowed to do to people. That is a precious commitment, won at terrible cost, and we need to find ways to reground it for the twenty-first century and beyond. I really want to write about that. And now and then I scratch at some more purely literary projects too.

What are you reading now?

Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz, Sefer Shnei Luchot Ha-Berit
Yehoshua Fischel Schneerson, Chaim Gravitzer: Sippuro shel Nofel
Robert D. Kaplan, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey through Romania and Beyond
Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Modern Age

If you had to list your five favorite books…

That’s impossible to answer, like asking who’s your favorite child? I can mention a few of the books that have moved me deeply and in some ways changed or saved my life, though there are many more.

Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva
Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine
Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man
Shakespeare, As You Like It
Zelda, Kol Ha-Shirim

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

I’ve loved words and the magic they bring for as long as I can remember. My father, of blessed memory, was a professor of literature, and came from a family of gentle storytellers. There was no point of decision to become a writer—but many points of mustering the self-confidence that I had something worth saying and knew how to say it. That’s a decision I need to make—as honestly as I can—every time I sit down to try and write.

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

I wish I knew, and I might be a bit more disciplined if I did. I read a lot, talk a lot, and I drink a lot of coffee. I try to write longhand when I can, for the sheer feel of moving pen along paper. I love working in cafés and libraries—though much of this book was written at our dining/living room table and in the basement clinic of an art therapist who let me use her workspace during off-hours. I almost always listen to music when I write. It’s like oxygen.

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

I’d like them to come away with a little more historical knowledge about how and why our world today has taken shape, and with some hopefully helpful perspectives on how to look at things. It’s my hope that the fusion of words and ideas that I offer them will open spaces in their own minds for further thinking and exploration on their own terms. And didactic as it sounds, I do hope that the things we read and write will help make us want to be kinder to one another in our own lives.

Yehudah Mirsky is an American-Israeli Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. He graduated from Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the law review, and completed his Ph.D. in Religion at Harvard. Yehudah served in the United States State Department's human rights bureau in the Clinton Administration, and was a Red Cross chaplain following the events of 9/11. He tweets @YehudahMirsky

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