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Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: Rituals for People Healers

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alexander Weinstein shared how the cosmic humor of his science fiction stories was discovered by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. With the release of his book Children of the New World, this week, Alexander has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I was in my mid-twenties when I met Rabbi Zalman again. It was a rough time for me as a writer and a young man. I had graduated with a BA in Creative Writing, a degree which I discovered was good for finding restaurant work. I was working over 60-hour workweeks as a chef, had recently become a father, was overworked, overtired, and worried I would never make it as an author. I was trying to keep my writing alive in the few spare hours I had. I saw that Rabbi Zalman was teaching a course called Rituals for People Healers. I missed the university life, and missed studying with Zalman, so I asked if I could sit in on his class. And in this way, Reb Zalman reentered my life at a time when I needed him the most.

The class centered around creating rituals for others during times of need. As Reb Zalman explained, there were major events in life, such as divorces, teenage years, deaths in the family, buying or selling one’s home, infidelities, promotions and lay-offs, which we didn’t have elaborate rituals for. Yet, these events were often highly significant rites of passage, and times when we most needed the love and support of our family, friends, and community. Because of a lack of ritual around these key moments, Zalman believed people were left with unresolved emotions and a feeling of disconnection from their community. So the class explored the occasions where we, as “people healers,” might be called to create rituals to help friends and family through difficult transitions. The class was a kind of training ground to equip us with the resources of ritual creation which we might use to help those we cared for. Zalman’s central philosophy was that, as humans, we had an obligation to help build a larger and more loving world.

The class was a powerful one, and it gave me a structure for community building—a teaching which led to my founding of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, the non-profit organization I founded seven years ago, whose focus is aiding writers within a summer arts community where they can work and be creatively inspired. I didn’t know it at the time, but Zalman’s teachings would shape my future. It also turned out to be the last time I would talk with my rabbi.

Soon after the semester ended, I moved to Indiana with my family, where I pursued my MFA in Fiction. In the years that passed, I often thought about Rabbi Zalman—promising myself to write him soon and thank him for all his wisdom, guidance, and generosity. Time passed, I worked on my stories, and found myself busy with fatherhood, publishing, editing, directing the Institute, and the daily demands of life.

Last year, on a spring day, I decided to finally search out Reb Zalman and write him a letter. As I searched for his email address, I discovered the news that he had died two years earlier, in 2014. There was no one to share my grief with, and so, in the ways Reb Zalman had taught me, I held a ritual to say goodbye to the man who’d so deeply influenced my life.

I’ve been listening to Reb Zalman’s teachings as I drive to work these days, watching his YouTube videos, and hearing his singing of Judaic chants. In one video, he stands in the Rocky Mountains, his voice beautiful as he brings all those around him into the presence of the sacred. As I listen to his teachings, I’ve come to understand how profoundly Reb Zalman has influenced my writing. Many of the stories in my collection, Children of the New World, are about people who are trying to live good lives within a world where technology has separated us from human interaction. The hope beneath the tales is that we might better practice what it means to reach out to our neighbors, friends, and family to create a more nurturing community—one which exists in our physical reality rather than within online worlds. The collection, like my work with the Martha’s Vineyard Institute, is another extension of Rabbi Zalman’s teachings: to remember what it means to be “people healers” and to do what we can to make this world a better and more loving place.

Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe.

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Blueberry Pierogi in Warsaw

Monday, September 12, 2016 | Permalink

Together with Jeffrey Yoskowitz, Liz Alpern is both co-founder of The Gefilteria and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods. With the cookbook’s long-awaited release this week, Jeffrey and Liz are guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I arrived in Warsaw this summer with a rough itinerary and a vague notion of smelling, touching and tasting my way through the land whose food traditions I had inherited. My desire for a trip to the Motherland grew even more urgent since spending the last several years researching and writing a cookbook about Ashkenazi cuisine. I hoped Poland would provide a rich and authentic experience of the tastes my ancestors had experienced.

The story of Ashkenazi cuisine did not begin or end in Poland, but its climate and seasons, as well as its terroir, are representative of the wider eastern European Jewish world. Yet there is something a bit awkward about going to Poland to experience Jewish foods, since the absence of a vibrant Jewish life is noticeable, outside of the renaissance happening in Krakow today. Whereas Jewish bakeries once dotted the landscape, churning out loaves of rye, challah, bialys and bagels, I didn’t quite know what to expect from twenty-first century Warsaw.

Immediately upon my arrival, I began to ask locals—friends and strangers alike—what foods I must experience. Almost everyone told me that I must try Poland’s famous wild blueberries. In late June, my visit dovetailed with the short window for their harvest. I had known about these blueberries from my co-author Jeffrey, who came back a few years ago from Poland waxing philosophical about these tiny wild fruits that flourished on the bushes in late June, bursting with a tart, intoxicating sweetness. His experiences were part of the inspiration for a recipe for blueberry soup that we developed for our cookbook. (Find the recipe here!)

Driving through the countryside, I saw for myself how blueberries were sold on the side of the road, usually alongside forest mushrooms. Travelers and locals all stopped to snatch them up, presumably to transform them into everyone’s favorite jam, as a means of extending the short harvest season.

Friends particularly suggested that I try blueberry pierogi, a seasonal specialty. Pierogi, the eastern European dough pockets that go by many names based on region of origin, stuffings, and shape, are ubiquitous all over Poland. The fillings vary from toasted kasha to farmers cheese to sauerkraut and mushroom to potato and fried onion. I, however, had my sights on the blueberry variety.

On my very first night in Warsaw, my friend and unofficial Polish tour guide, Malgo, made me promise that I would not eat blueberry pierogi at just any restaurant. They were too important, she felt, too vital to the legacy of Polish cuisine, that she insisted she would cook them for me instead. As an experienced pierogi maker myself, I insisted that I would help in the process. Our only available evening, it turned out, was my last night in Poland. With that, I agreed to wait a full week to indulge in this special treat.

While awaiting my blueberry pierogi destiny throughout the following days and nights I enjoyed pierogi of all varieties, from the high-end restaurant versions to the unobtrusive pan-fried versions at the local hole-in-the-wall spots. The dough was more often than not unwaveringly perfect: soft with a bit of bite, simple with a hint of salt. The fillings were comforting and familiar and almost always satisfying. The experience validated my own hard work on a pierogi recipe and increased my excitement about our unique lentil-chard filling.

On the last night of my trip, I ventured into Saska Kępa, a part of Warsaw I had not yet seen, and entered Malgo’s home—where she was arms-deep in an enormous bowl of tiny little berries, coating them gently in sugar to draw out the liquid and soften them. There was a giant mass of dough on the counter next to her. It was going to be a long night.

For hours we folded small spoonfuls of berries into tiny dough pockets. We drank wine and recounted my trip, and when we had made enough, we boiled them and set out a huge plate. Finally. When I bit into those blueberry pierogi I was amazed at how something so simple could possibly be so full of flavor. We ate them all, dolloped with sour cream, until our tongues turned blue. Then we went back to making more. Malgo packed several warm pierogi into a jar for me and slipped it into my bag. When I finally returned to my hotel at 3:00 AM that night, filled with dumplings and wine and freshly sweet memories, I had already forgotten about the pierogi in my bag. When I woke up three hours later and boarded my plane home, I noticed the jar rattling around in my luggage. I smiled to myself, knowing that these pierogi would be with me well beyond the plane ride.

Get the Recipe: Spiced Blueberry Soup from The Gefilte Manifesto

Liz Alpern got her start in the Jewish food world working with acclaimed cookbook author Joan Nathan. She curates and cooks for pop-up events and boutique shops and is currently working on an MBA at CUNY Baruch College.

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Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: The Humor of Enlightenment

Monday, September 12, 2016 | Permalink

Alexander Weinstein is the author of Children of the New World, a provocative collection of science fiction stories of the near-future. With the release of the book this Tuesday, Alexander is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I was twenty-two years old, and finishing my BA in creative writing at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, when I first met Reb Zalman.

The Kerouac School was a fantastic program, one which taught me to take risks in my writing and revealed the intersection between spirituality and literature. There was a free community class on The Search for Enlightenment, led by a man named Rabbi Zalman. The idea of learning from a rabbi was intimidating. For one—in spite of the fact that as a little boy I had accompanied my father to hear my grandfather sing as the cantor of his small synagogue—I was never a very religious person. And secondly, I worried that Reb Zalman would be judgmental, and sternly rabbinical. But, I was also young, searching for answers (in the best Talmudic tradition), and drawn to the topic. And so I went. Zalman was in his late seventies at the time, and surprisingly laid back in his black shirt and yarmulke, his face beaming with warmth. He welcomed us to the session, and then asked us to stand up and walk the space leisurely.

“As you walk, I want you to look for enlightenment,” he instructed. “Ask everyone you meet: ‘Are you Moksha?’” And so we walked around the room, and with every person we passed, we asked the same question: “Are you Moksha?”

“Moksha,” it turns out, was not a person, but rather a state of being. I experienced two specific emotions during this experience. The first was that I didn’t believe myself to be enlightened, nor to have the answer of enlightenment for those who came asking for moksha. More importantly, as I watched myself searching the faces, I realized I’d been searching for enlightenment since I was sixteen. I’d been fascinated by the idea of spiritual liberation and findingenlightenment. With every new person I asked about moksha, I understood that this was how I’d been living: I was looking everywhere for the secrets of spirituality, and constantly searching for the wise men and women who had a grasp on liberation. Little did I know, I was in a room with a man who was as close to enlightenment as I’d ever meet.

“So,” he asked us, putting his hands together and smiling, “Did you find it?”

After that first session, I enrolled in Rabbi Zalman’s Intro to Judaism class. It wasn’t my interest in the subject matter that compelled me—I simply wanted to be in the rabbi’s presence. He was a wisdom keeper in the truest sense of the word, and had prayed with all faiths. From Native American ceremonies to Hindu deities, from the great Buddhist masters to his encyclopedic knowledge of Judaism, he believed in a human spirituality. And it was through his belief in inter-spirituality that he opened the Jewish faith to me. He shared wisdom tales of the old rabbis, and was able to unpack the Old Testament, often agreeing with our critiques, knowing that it was through our questioning that we might better come to understand the sacred. Within his laughter, which rolled from him naturally, I began to understand what it meant to be holy, and in turn, I grew interested in the spiritual wealth of Judaism.

Reb Zalman wasn’t a creative writing teacher, but nearly two decades later, I recognize his humor within my writing. In my recent collection, Children of the New World, there’s a story entitled Moksha. The main character, Abe, is engaged in a spiritual search, and he travels to Nepal to find electronic enlightenment, which they have on the cheap in Kathmandu. He’s looking for an easy spiritual fix, and everywhere he goes, he’s hoping to find the secret. It was Zalman who first taught me the word moksha, and who helped me understand the humor in Abe’s (and my own) search. Like most humans, I still long for things, still wonder about enlightenment, and I work to cultivate peace, happiness, and love with those around me. In my stories, I attempt a similar feat: to write characters who have good hearts, who hurt in the ways we all do, who love as best they can, and who, in their struggles, are seeking to make things better. Whether it be enlightenment, happiness, or love, we are all searching for ways to improve our lives. And there’s a great cosmic humor in this search, one which Zalman understood as he watched us wandering that small room at Naropa so many years ago, fully enjoying the sacred dance we were reenacting.

Read Part II of Alexander Weinstein's Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: Rituals for People Healers

Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe.

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The Stories That Never Leave You

Friday, September 09, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Affinity Konar wrote about her first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the setting of Mischling, after she had already written the book. With the release of the novel this week, Affinity has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

There are stories that are unforgettable, and then there are stories that will never leave you. The best way to deal with such an obsession is to write about it. In my case though, I didn’t think myself fit for the telling: the story that wouldn’t leave me was the story of the twins of Auschwitz.

Like so many, I grew up reading Shoah narratives; I affixed myself to the fact that these atrocities had been detailed by some of the greatest minds the world will ever know. To attempt a fraction of their acts of remembrance would have been foolish, I told myself, and disrespectful. But after nearly a decade of self-negotiation, I focused on the thought that occurred when I had first read of the horrific experiments on twins during the Holocaust: my novel could be a conversation between two Jewish children who were not allowed to be children. It would not be an attempt to capture the vastness of the unspeakable, but a small stage for two Jewish girls, imperiled by the ultimate evil, to articulate an extreme love they have for each other, a love that blots out the name of Josef Mengele.

As the book has ventured out to into the world this week, I am finding that many people grew up with a startlingly youthful awareness of Mengele—a discovery often so overwhelming that such readers cannot pinpoint their introduction to the criminal. I am the same. But my introduction to the twins remains crystalline: when I was sixteen, I found the remarkable Children of the Flames by Lucette Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, which approaches not only the experience of the twins within Auschwitz-Birkenau, but their lives beyond it, and their struggle to acclimate to a broken world. Of course, there is also Mengele, comfortably evading prosecution and writing his memoirs in Brazil. It is maddening to read. And yet, you find some hope, too, in the testimonies of the survivors, and their commitment to telling a story that the world does not always want to hear.

People often seem ready to discuss Mengele. Since his all-too-peaceable flight and death, he has enjoyed an ability to transfix, to be treated—in all his reported contradictions—like a puzzle. But a puzzle is too charming a thing for a murderer, and in writing Mischling I decided not to take a route that explored how he was able to perpetuate his crimes. In times of doubt, I wondered if this choice was cowardly, but ultimately it felt sacred not peer into this unfathomable evil, to approach him as banal. I fastened myself to this story: he was a man who would give a boy a ride on his shoulders one day and deliver that same boy to the ovens with his own hands the next. Mengele tormented expectant mothers, Jewish women whose very beauty offended him, people who bore what he deemed to be genetic abnormalities, and many, many others. I wanted these crimes to speak for him, instead of an interest in trying to understand how he came by his malevolence.

But while Mengele could be put in the background, his works could not. Calibrating the degree of horror to portray was one of the most daunting tasks. The atrocities can never be brutal and dehumanizing enough on the page. You look at pictures of the people Mengele tortured and it breaks you. I always have to read Celan after seeing these images; only his suspension of pain within language would make it endurable. I did not want to torment the reader, nor did I want to dilute the trauma of the survivors. Some of the crimes perpetrated are unspeakable among those who experienced them and mentioning them would have felt like violation.

The most horrific experiment I chose to include is detailed not in scene, but through recollection, a little globe of memory. I found it important to highlight because it speaks to the absurdity of Mengele’s medical efforts—one can only imagine this act serving a sadistic impulse. I dearly hoped that poetic language might serve as a filter. I did not want to obscure torment; I wanted to show how someone might obscure torment in order to survive it.

That portrayal of survival was my utmost concern while writing. When I first began, I worried about how I might give power to characters who had been stripped of it. But remarkably, granting agency to the characters was one of the easier tasks, if only because you cannot read the accounts of survivors without being inspired by how they sustained themselves, whether it was through stealing potatoes or tricking nurses or sabotaging paperwork. The book owes its animation to so many, but I must always mention Eva Mozes Kor, Miriam Mozes Zeiger, Alex Dekel, Gisella Perl, and Zvi Spiegel. I was blessed to live in awe of them as I wrote.

Affinity Konar was raised in California and holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of the novel Mischling, out this week from Lee Boudreaux Books.

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New Reviews September 9, 2016

Friday, September 09, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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The Early Origins of "Live Long and Prosper"

Thursday, September 08, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Michelson wrote about following his own advice for aspiring authors and the encouragement he received in penning Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy—which comes out this week! Richard is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, became a cultural icon—as did Leonard Nimoy, himself—but even his most ardent fans do not fully understand the important role that Judaism played in both the Star Trek series and Leonard’s life. (William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, is also Jewish, though less directly connected to his faith.)

Leonard was born into a Yiddish-speaking, kosher—and I mean three-sets-of-dishes-kosher—Orthodox Jewish household on Chambers Street in Boston. He shared his small apartment with his older brother, his parents, and his Bubbe and Zayde. Three generations, four rooms.

When he brought his dad lunch and the Forverts at the family barbershop, he only had to walk three blocks. The shul was at the end of his street. Later the family attended a different synagogue, and although Leonard never discovered the dispute that led to the change, he loved to tell the joke about the Jew who was saved from a desert island, and proudly showed his rescuers the two shuls he’d built: one to attend and one he wouldn’t enter for a million bucks.

One Rosh Hashanah, when Leonard was eight years old, he accompanied his father to services. He was fascinated as a bunch of men went to the bima, orpulpit, and started chanting and swaying.

He was instructed, as tradition dictates, to cover his eyes during the Priestly Blessing.

But Leonard was an eight-year-old boy, and he couldn’t help peeking. He watched the men pull their prayer shawls over their heads, as their chants got louder. He watched them bless the congregation as they raised both arms in the air and held out their hands “as if they were shooting a two-handed jump shot. What were they doing with their fingers?”

At age seventeen, Leonard fell in love with theater when he was asked to be in a local production of Awake and Sing by the playwright Clifford Odets. It was about three generations of a poor Jewish family who lived together in one small apartment, and the director needed someone to play the part of the teenage son who yearned for a better life. “Lenny read the play,” I describe in my new children’s biography, Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy. “Could the author have known the Nimoys? How did Mr. Odets understand what Lenny was thinking—thoughts he hadn’t shared with anyone?”

When he started out as a professional actor, Leonard played in a production of Sholom Aleichem's It's Hard to Be a Jew at Hollywood's Civic Theatre, with the great Yiddish actor and director Maurice Schwartz. Leonard would later go on to tour the country as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, as well as playing Golda Meir’s husband in A Woman Name Golda and Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein in Never Forget.

As established a thespian as he already was at the time, it was in Star Trek’s second season, when the Enterprise visited the planet Vulcan for the first time, that Leonard’s most lasting contribution to American culture occurred. The script told Spock to shake hands with the Vulcan queen, but Leonard wanted to have a special greeting. “Asians bow when they meet,” he told the director, “and military men salute.”

“And how do Vulcans greet each other?” he was asked.

Leonard thought for a while, and then he remembered that awesome moment during High Holiday services when he was eight years old. He held up his hand in the ancient Hebraic gesture and blessed his fellow actors.

✷Live Long and Prosper.✷

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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Do What Scares You

Wednesday, September 07, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Michelson wrote about following his own advice for aspiring authors in penning Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy—which comes out this week! Richard is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When I was deciding whether to accept the “job offer” to write the children’s book A is for Abraham in a series of cultural and state alphabet books by Sleeping Bear Press, I ran through the pros and cons with my friend and mentor, Leonard Nimoy.

The cons seemed obvious. I had never attended a Jewish Day School, I knew no Hebrew, I knew no Yiddish, I never had a Bar Mitzvah, I couldn’t recite any prayers, I never followed the traditions, and I even “cheated” on Yom Kippur, noshing when I should be fasting.

The pros? I couldn’t think of any offhand. And it was a daunting task. Boil down all of Jewish knowledge and history into the most important 26 categories. Write two- or four-line poems for young children to read and a sidebar explaining the subject in depth for older children.

Leonard thought it over and decided I was the “logical” choice.

Because I didn’t know anything, every part of Judaism interested me. And I saw it from the outside, like a child might. I had so many questions! It is often difficult to learn from a person who is too much the expert, he counseled. The fish cannot explain water. You need to be standing on dry land.

And his most important artistic advice: Do what scares you!

Leonard had insatiable curiosity and he lived by the mantra: Go, Do, Explore. He was an actor, director, photographer, singer, poet, pilot, and playwright. When he was offered the part of Spock he hesitated. At that time, he already had a successful thirteen-year career, having starred in two movies and numerous television shows, including the highest rated series of the day. He’d started his own studio to help teach younger performers.

Now he was being asked to wear pointed ears and a silly haircut. He was afraid he would lose all credibility. But then he remembered how his Zayde, who had come to the United States with a sense of adventure to find a better life, had always encouraged him to take chances.

Leonard’s parents, on the other hand, arrived much later. They were fearful people, as befits immigrants from Zaslav, Ukraine who escaped Russian pogroms. His mother was smuggled out of the city in a hay wagon, and his father was sneaked across the border. Their papers, upon entering the United States, had been stamped “Alien.” They were always telling young Lenny to stay home, fit in, and play it safe.

If he was yelled at for staying out too late, Leonard’s Bubbe used to console him by singing her favorite Yiddish poem: Itzik Manger’s There Is a Tree That Stands, which is about a boy who wants to turn into a bird and fly away. In the song, it’s cold out and his mother makes him put on a coat, then galoshes, then a hat and gloves, until he is so encumbered that

I try to fly, but I can’t move…
Too many, many things
My mother’s piled on her weak bird
And loaded down my wings.

I look into my mother’s eyes
And, sadly, then I see
The love that won’t let me become
The bird I want to be.

So Leonard decided it was time for him to take a chance, close the circle and become an alien.
Go. Do. Explore.

In his honor I decided my “V” would stand for Vulcan, and my side bar would incorporate the long history of Jews in the arts. So I penned two lines:

V is for Vulcan. Star-Trekkers, I’m guessing,
know Spock’s greetings’ based on a Kohanim blessing.

They were, perhaps rightfully, rejected by my editor, and a different “V” verse was substituted in their place. But I am pleased for the opportunity to share the couplet for the first time with Jewish Book Council’s readers—and I’ll talk more about that blessing of theh Kohanim, which became the starting point of my book Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, in my next blog post!

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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Everyone Has a Story to Tell—Just Remember to Write It Down

Tuesday, September 06, 2016 | Permalink

With his new book Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy, coming out this week, author Richard Michelson is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As a college graduate, I was well versed in Russian literature and American history; and I could name the dynasties of French and English Kings. But I knew next to nothing about the life my grandfather had lived in his Eastern European shtetl, or how he came to settle in America. I never asked. I do not recall that we ever had a single conversation of substance while he was alive. When my children were studying for their bar and bat mitzvah, I decided I needed to do some research, so I could pass down family history. So I wrote a children’s book titled Too Young for Yiddish, where a boy who looks and sounds a bit like me gets a chance to hear his Zayde’s story firsthand. He learns that “history is what happens to real people,” and he forges a relationship with his grandfather through the miracle of fiction that I wish I had experienced in “real life.”

When I speak to children and they ask the dreaded prepared question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I invite them to go home that very day and ask their parents, grandparents, best friend’s parents, and their best friends about their lives. “Everyone has a story to tell,” I say. “Just remember to write it down.”

When I speak to aspiring authors at conferences, the advice is almost exactly the same. “Be curious about the lives that surround you, and listen carefully. Write down what you hear. Do it now. Don’t wait.”

So how did I forget my own advice in my long relationship with Leonard Nimoy?

When Leonard was asked to record Too Young for Yiddish for the National Yiddish Book Center, we started a relationship that lasted twelve years, until his death. We emailed daily, phoned regularly, and often traveled together. He was a serious photographer, having built his own darkroom as a 13 year old boy. When Star Trek was cancelled after three seasons, Leonard contemplated changing careers and he went back to UCLA and studied photography.

I am an art dealer and ended up handling his photographic career. As we traveled together to exhibitions—and, later, family events—we shared stories of our childhoods, our evolving relationships to Judaism, and our political beliefs. We bonded over a love of art and literature. Mostly we laughed together, often over the fact that we looked alike, and no one would believe that we were not father and son.

Leonard was a first reader as I wrote many other picture book biographies, profiling well known figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in As Good As Anybody and people who I thought had been unfairly left out of the historical canon, like Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, who was also the first “professional” baseball player, and the first Jewish manager (I have started a petition to get Pike in the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Why did it never occur to me to put Leonard Nimoy’s story down on paper? Over the years I facilitated countless interviews—everyone was interested in his life—but it wasn’t until I’d watched a documentary, Leonard Nimoy’s Boston, that his son Adam had made (originally conceived as a family memoir for the Nimoy kids and grandkids)—that I realized Leonard’s life story would be perfect to inspire the “next generation.”

At the time, I had no idea that Leonard would pass away three months later from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD (his daughter Julie is working on a documentary to help raise money to fight the disease: COPD: Highly Illogical). In fact, my expectation was that we would go on a book tour together. I give thanks that Leonard was able to read the finished manuscript before he passed on:

It’s wonderful and I’m flattered… It is an amazing piece of work and I love that you decided to do it, he emailed me the same evening I sent him my manuscript.

I am glad I didn’t wait.

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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Beyond the Birches of Oswiecim

Tuesday, September 06, 2016 | Permalink

Affinity Konar is the author of the novel Mischling and is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The Polish countryside flashed through the tour bus window: white chickens, nodding sunflowers, children on bikes. That such prosaic scenes could exist in such proximity to where the horrors had occurred was disorienting. I felt small, returned to a childish state.

Part of this reversion was due to the fact that I’d come to Poland as a grown woman accompanied by two overly-proud parents who boasted to any English-speaker about my novel, Mischling. I’d wanted to prove to myself that I could handle this trip alone, but when the birches of Oswiecim began to flash, signaling our proximity to Auschwitz, I was too grateful for the fact that they watched over me.

Because while I’d written a novel about the twin experiments at Auschwitz, I never imagined that I would see the camps myself. For over a decade, I’d studied narratives, photographs, personal histories. Long before the book’s genesis, as a teenager, I’d read every piece of Shoah literature I could find. So while no one can prepare for such depthless sorrow, I didn’t imagine I’d be broken by the mere sight of the woods that bordered Auschwitz. But too much history was suggested by these birches. They were woods that had been spied through the windows of cattle cars. The fact that they were beautiful, still, seemed an insult.

And once we arrived at Auschwitz I and stepped beneath the gate, with its message inscribed in the dust in shadow, it became clear that my emotions would bear more complexity than I could’ve anticipated. We walked through the place I’d long ago read described as a little city with window boxes and garden plots, from the building that housed the orchestra to sites of torture and death. To places I couldn’t bring myself to photograph, and places we were thankfully informed could not be photographed.

What couldn’t be photographed had been shorn and stolen and now sits under glass; it is mass dehumanization made visible. What couldn’t be photographed is what I will never forget the most. I know that the sight of it must reinvent grief and sorrow for many, that it must follow us as it should, but even now, at some distance I wonder, how we’re able to see such a sight and still speak. One would think that seeing such horror should make me unable to even write this, and yet, I was witnessing its effects at an extreme remove. The fact that poets and writers who survived found a way to articulate the unspeakable—I hadn’t thought my awe could ever increase, but there I was, trying to fathom, yet again, how they came by their bravery.

I tried to take a photograph of a child’s suitcase. His name was blurred by the shakiness of my hand. I erased the photograph. I didn’t take another. But the name remained: Pavel Kohn. Born 1935.

So much of Auschwitz blurred like that photograph, as if my mind wanted to keep a safe distance. Even the site of Rudolf Höss’ execution felt indistinct. I thought of my teenage self, obsessed with Nazi hunters and vengeance—back then, I would’ve thrilled to this sight. But to the right of those gallows, I saw the eaves of the Höss house, where his wife had boasted of a luxurious life, and this unseated the slightest glimmer of satisfaction.

To steady myself, I retraced my introduction to this place, Primo Levi’s Shema:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.

We boarded the bus and traveled to Auschwitz II. I saw the path the twins had walked, over and over, dressed in striped uniforms they’d never worn, for the Red Army’s footage of liberation. I saw that so much had been destroyed by Nazi hands in their eagerness to cover their crimes. Here, there were blank spaces to signify torment, all questioning the viewer. How was suffering endured? What did one held onto, or invent? How did saving someone save you? How many doomed themselves saving others?

Our guide, a resident of Oswiecim, whose ancestors were victims of the camps, offered story after story, all beautifully told. I’d hear one name and wonder how many other names have gone unrecognized. I’d hear an account of resistance, and wonder about others lost to us. I’d walk through the women’s barracks and wonder about the relationships between mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, strangers whose details will never be fully known. Some speak of a catharsis in visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t feel that—if I did, it took a mysterious form. Because what I truly felt was this: a belief that the wondering will be endless. And it should be.

Affinity Konar was raised in California and holds an MFA from Columbia University.

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Parenting in the Age of Social Media

Friday, September 02, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Marjorie Ingall let us in on five reasons for the delayed publication of her book, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, and the glories of ghostwriting. Marjorie has been guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on the The ProsenPeople.

Are you familiar with STFU, Parents? It is a blog that mocks parental oversharing on social media. Do you post incessantly about eating your own placenta? Tweet about your infant’s Apgar scores? Respond to online grief about mass shootings with tone-deaf posts about how yay, your kid pooped in the potty? Mazel tov, you are a candidate for STFU, Parent-Shaming.

I know the risks. I’ve written parenting columns for two different publications, The Forward and Tablet. I have surely crossed the line and been annoying as heck. Writing about babies is really writing about yourself: you’re working out your fears, your own childhood mishegas, the beautiful and terrible transition from someone with bodily autonomy to someone whose body isn’t entirely your own anymore. It’s world-remaking, this business of being entirely responsible for another human life. But the longer I’ve been a parent, the more careful I’ve gotten. I don’t write about my own children anymore without their consent. They’re old enough to have some expectation of privacy. Once your child has been on this planet for a bit, I think they should have a say in how they’re depicted for public consumption.

All of us—writers and not—should be careful about what we say about our kids on social media. We want them to be safe. We want them to be not mortified. And we want, ourselves, to avoid seeming narcissistic, self-absorbed or deranged. Come on, does anyone want to see that Instagram depiction of a diaper filled with yellow poop? Sure, you’re proud of your child’s artwork/grades/acting/dancing/sportsing! But consider the sheer volume of what you share. Because honestly, the rest of us don’t care much. We enjoy cute pics of your spawn, as long as that’s not all you post, and as long as you also coo about other people’s spawn. Never be broadcast-only, online or in life. We love hearing about the funny things your kids say, as long as we don't wince reading them, knowing your kid would be humiliated if they knew what you were telling the anonymous Internet masses.

And think about your audience before you start declaiming. For instance, why respond to someone’s online grief over infertility with a mention—any mention—of your children? Your friend knows that many people struggle but eventually become parents. Pointing out your own privileged status, the fact that you are where she wants to be, is not helpful.

I’m not saying don’t share. Since long before I became a parent, I’ve been a member of The Well, an ancient online conversational space that predates the World Wide Web. In 1993, I bought a used 2400-baud modem from some random dude in the financial district. I logged onto an electronic bulletin board (BBS) to write a magazine story about whether “cyberspace” (wince) was safe for girls. When I dialed in and got that twangy-beepy noise, it meant I couldn’t be online and on a telephone at the same time. When I joined The Well, many of us were 20-somethings; we eventually became parents and began sharing tales of the joys and challenges of parenthood. Because it’s a small community that doesn’t allow anonymity—and that one must pay (or provide volunteer conference-hosting services) to belong to—there’s a higher bar to entry. The conversation is smart. There are small conferences where people have known you forever, where you can unburden yourself, or brag, without feeling as though you’re performing like a circus monkey or betraying your child. It feels more like real-life friendship than online performance. I talk to my friends and my mom about motherhood, but I also rely on online friendships in an increasingly wired world. There’s no shame in that.

And there’s a bonus! A lot of us say “The Well is my baby book.” Who has time to scrapbook? And who can preserve memories via Facebook or Twitter, when anything you post is lost in the data slipstream after a few evanescent moments? But on a BBS, with a few commands, you can generate a report on all your posts in a certain time period containing a certain word. I just searched for Maxine (my younger kid’s name), 2006 – 2007. She was two to three then, a good age for funny stories. I started cackling at what I found.

And yes, she gave me permission to share my posts from back then:

2006: maxine deliberately ripped a lift-the-flap book this morning and said with a gleam in her eye, now i need TAPE! (she loves tape.) i said, “we don't rip books. i’m going to tape it, not you.” begging and whining followed. i said, "i'm not going to REWARD you with tape for ripping a book!" and she gave me the big eyes and said, "i'm only a baby!"

2007: maxine: “there are five elements: earth, air, fire, water and cheese.”

2007: maxine and i were playing with dress-up dolls (you know, those melissa & doug wooden magnetized ones) and we put on our fancy outfits and she said, "DARLING! you look SMASHED!"

OK, so maybe Maxie (now 11) and I think these stories are funnier than you do. Which is understandable, what with you not being related to us. That’s why I tried to be very judicious about the number of kid stories I shared in my book Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. No one wants to be THAT GUY at the cocktail party, loudly bragging and proclaiming with a G&T in one sweaty hand. But it’s natural to want to share stories—it’s human, it’s profound, and it can be a source of connection if you do it right.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The Forward (where she was The East Village Mamele), Real Simple, Ms., Food & Wine, Glamour, Self, and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and books editor.

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