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Interview: Rabbi Sandy Sasso

Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Permalink

by Michal Hoschander Malen

JBW’s Michal Hoschander Malen interviewed Rabbi Sandy Sasso about the many children’s books she has authored and about where she finds the in­spirations for her stories.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Rabbi Sasso, your lovely books, although geared to young children, are filled with spiritual connections and a sense of reaching beyond our daily lives. Can you tell us a bit about your overall philosophies and how you are able to transmit some of that feel­ing to a new generation?

Rabbi Sandy Sasso: I began writing for children in the late 1980s. I want­ed books about God, spirituality, and the Bible that I could read to my own children and the children I taught. Most of the children’s literature in these areas was either too preachy or contained ideas that children would be prone to reject when they grew older. Children have an innate spirituality and they are capable of talking about life’s big questions. Often adults are afraid of the conversation. Writing about the sacred, the divine, doesn’t mean simplifying the concept, just the language. When I write, I address a number of questions: How might children experience the sacred in their daily experiences? How might they come to under­stand Bible tales as more than ancient texts, as living stories of which they are a part? How can story be a way honoring the spiritual lives of children and encourage a continuing conversation?

MHM: The new Noah movie has reawakened interest in the old Bible tale and one is reminded that you wrote a book only a few short years ago featuring Noah’s wife, Naamah. Please tell us about your vision of Naamah and why you think she is an important figure for the youth of today. How much, if any, of the Naamah character is based on anything hinted at in the Biblical text? What can we learn from the Noah story about the world we live in now? Are there any lessons we can carry away with us?

RSS: Often when I read Biblical narratives what fascinates me the most is the voice that is missing. When a student once asked me who Noah’s wife was, I had nothing to say. I decided to look at rabbinic sources to see if they might tell me something. I found two names, Naamah and Emzerah. Naamah means “pleasing” and Emzerah, “Mother of Seed.” That wasn’t much to go on, but it was enough for a story. Noah saved the animal life. I imagined that Naamah collected two of every seed, planted a garden on the ark and replanted the earth’s garden after the Flood.

I write that as Naamah was collecting all the plants to bring on the ark, she passed by the dandelions. God tells her again to gather seeds of every plant. Naamah knows that means the dandelions too. Because she had ignored them God made certain that dandelions would cover the earth.

Soon after the book came out I received a call from the assistant to the Secretary of the Interior of the United States! He told me that he had read my book and wanted to know where I had found the part about the dandelions. The need for environmental preservation was essential and he wanted to know the sacred source. I told him that I found it in my imagination. He was disappointed. He needed something a bit more ancient!

Toward the end of the book, I suggest that it is Naamah who puts an olive seed in the mouth of the raven and encourages him to drop it to the earth. When the dove returns with the olive branch, Noah says it is a miracle; Naamah just smiles!

It is important for young people to know that nothing and no one is unimportant; that even when they feel ignored, they are loved. They have a responsibility to care for the earth, to continue to plant the trees and the garden, to care for our environment. It is more important now than ever. I also want our young people to come to realize that they shouldn’t wait for miracles; they can make them happen.

MHM: We more recently reviewed two of your other books, The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other and Creation’s First Light. The Shema in the Mezuzah was a wonderful story about compromise. What is the source for this story?

RSS: The story is based on a twelfth-century argument between two great scholars, Rashi and his grandson, Rabbenu Tam. They disagreed about how the mezuzah should be placed on the door posts of the house. Rashi thought that we should put the mezuzah vertically. Rabbenu Tam believed it should be in a horizontal position. In the end, they compro­mised and decided to slant the mezuzah. I had known about this debate for a long time and told it as part of a sermon. Then one day when I was thinking about what story to tell at a family service, my husband Dennis asked, “Why don’t you tell the story of the mezuzah?” I took his advice and the kids loved it! It was the beginning of The Shema in the Mezuzah. Because it deals with the importance of listening and compromise, it isn’t just a story for children. Many people who read the book suggest that I send it to Congress!

MHM: Creation’s First Light is suffused with a sense of spirituality and joy. Where do you get the ideas for your books and what motivates you to write for children?

RSS: Often the ideas come from questions—my own or others. I recall telling the creation story from Genesis. I asked if there was any part of the story we could do without and still have all the story we needed. One person suggested that we did not need the light of the first day, because we had the light of the sun and the moon.

What was the light of the first day? I knew the midrash about the primordial light that was greater than the sun and the moon and that it had been lost after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Despite many suggestions in rabbinic text, I still was not sure where the primordial light was hidden. When my first grandson was born, I looked into his eyes and I saw that light. It was then that I knew its name—the soul.

When I talk to children about this story, they understand that spiri­tual light in ways I never thought possible. They can tell the difference between the light of the sun, the moon and the stars, the artificial lights of lamps and flashlights and the deeper light of the soul. Our children have that special light and they want to tell us about it. It is up to us to insure that they have the language, so that it can continue to burn more brightly.

MHM: Can you share with our readers a few details about your writing process?

RSS: I read; I observe. Something strikes me—a midrash, a question. Then a thought grabs hold of me and won’t let go. It is a bit like the ac­count of Jacob struggling with the angel. Only in writing, I am wrestling with ideas and words, and I won’t let go until they bless me. I wrote many of my books while I was serving as a rabbi of a large congregation. People would often ask me, “Where do you find the time?” When a story is in­side you, you can’t sleep if you don’t write it down. Time finds you—even in the middle of the night. It is exhilarating and hard—lots of editing and discarding, playfulness and patience.

If I am working with a Bible tale or a midrash, I weave traditional texts with imagination and listen for the silences. Sometimes the characters have a mind of their own. When you live with them long enough, they take you places you didn’t at first think you would go. You carry the story with you and in you. And when it is finished, you give birth. And just like a child, the story takes on a life of its own.

MHM: Are there any new books or subjects we can look forward to in the foreseeable future? Do you have any hints or teasers for us to whet our appetites?

RSS: There is a book that will be published in the fall that tells of the chestnut tree behind Anne Frank’s Secret Annex. Saplings from that tree are being planted in eleven places in the U.S. Anne Frank and the Remembering Tree is the story of Anne Frank from the point of view of the tree.

I am also working on an adult anthology with Peninnah Schram on Jewish Love and Marriage: Stories from the Bible to Contemporary Time (working title).

I thought you might be interested in the following explanation of one of my books because of the recent release of the movie. The Noah movie reminded me of my story of Naamah and the recent book and movie, Heaven is For Real, make me think back to the book I wrote in 1999, For Heaven’s Sake. The story tells of a little boy named Isaiah whose grandfather has died. People tell him that his grandfather went to Heaven and Isaiah wants to know what heaven is. He receives many answers, none of which satisfy him. Finally his grandmother takes Isaiah to all the places his grandfather loved to visit and volunteer. Then she says, “I think, Isaiah, we can get close to Heaven and to God in a place in our hearts. I feel there is a part of Grandpa in all the places and people we visited today, and little bit of Heaven, too.” I wrote this story in part because as a rabbi I was often asked this question and most of the books I read were not satisfying. I felt a need for a narrative that did not depict this world simply as a waiting room for the world to come, but a real place where we can make life hell or heavenly.

MHM: Thank you so much, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. We look for­ward to many more creative and beautiful books from your flowing pen.

JBC thanks Jewish Lights Publishing for help in facilitating this interview.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the children’s and young adult section editor of Jewish Book World.

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Book Cover of the Week: After Birth by Elisa Albert

Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

As we await the release of Sami Rohr Prize finalist Elisa Albert's forthcoming novel, the newly unveiled book cover for the British edition of After Birth was sent to the Jewish Book Council in the last week, and it's a winner:

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia: A Novel and How Is This Night Different?, a collection of short stories circling around Jewish holidays and rites of passage. Through the narrative of a new mother striving to befriend and aid a transient, trendy neighbor in her sleepy college town, After Birth, due out in February from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, explores the challenges of first-time parenting and postpartum depression, interfaith marriage, and the second-hand trauma of the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. And yes, breastfeeding features heavily.

If you're in the New York area, come out to hear Elisa Albert speak about After Birth at our new literary series Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation.

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The Eyes of the Bombmaker

Wednesday, November 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Mike Kelly wrote about his journey from 9/11 to Jerusalem's Jaffa Road. His newest book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, chronicles the aftermath of the Hamas suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Jerusalem on Feb. 25, 1996. The book traces the capture of the key bomb-maker and the efforts by the families of two Americans to hold Iran accountable for financing the bombing and training the bomb-maker – only to discover that the American government was trying to block them. He will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I needed to meet the man who built the bomb that blew up the bus on Jaffa Road – the bomb that killed Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker in 1996.

On a Sunday morning, a decade after that devastating explosion, I walked through the gates of an Israeli prison in the Negev Desert. A prison official shook my hand, then led me to a room. Minutes later, amid the shuffle of feet and the chunky clank of leg irons, a door opened and I looked into the eyes of Hassan Salameh.

He is serving 46 consecutive life terms for the murders of 46 unarmed and innocent people aboard three commuter buses that were attacked by suicide bombers who carried explosive-filled satchels that he had designed. Salameh looked at me and smiled faintly.

A prison official motioned to me that I could begin.

Salameh had no idea who I was. Israeli prison officials do not tell an inmate anything about a visitor. They merely tell an inmate that a visitor has arrived and would like to talk. After meeting the visitor, the inmate can then choose to talk or return to his cell.

I figured I could ask at least one question before Salameh decided whether to speak to me.

I decided to try for two.

“Do you know the name of Sara Duker,” I asked.

Salameh nodded.

“Yes,” he said in English.

He did not get up to leave. Nor did he seem to object to my presence or my question.

So I asked my second question:

"Why did you kill her?"

So began what I can only describe as a transformative experience – not transformative in a positive sense, though. It was really the beginning of a journey into the heart of darkness, an experience that led me to write my book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice.

On that day at the prison, Salameh was unrepentant, not showing even a trace of regret. I was not surprised and had been warned that he might exhibit no remorse. But being warned is one thing; the actual experience of seeing Salameh’s behavior first-hand was something else entirely.

He stared at me with blank, cold eyes. But what stunned me the most, I think, was his sense of joy in what he had done. Yes, he acknowledged that he had killed unarmed people. But he insisted that his murders were “God’s will.” And from that, he not only seemed satisfied but happy.

I wrote a newspaper column about my confrontation with Salameh and moved on to other assignments. But the experience haunted me. Salameh’s words echoed those of the al-Qaeda killers of 9/11 and far too many Islamic jihadists who were trying to justify their murders of innocent people by claiming it was God’s will.

Several years later, over lunch with a trusted book editor, I mentioned my desire to write about terrorism. Then I described my interview with Salameh and his twisted theology. My lunch companion paused, then looked at me. “You have to write about this more,” he said. “This is where you can start to really probe the horrors of terrorism.”

It was then that my book was born.

For more information about The Bus on Jaffa Road as well as a video and an excerpt, please check out www.mikekellywriter.com.

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The Fight for Jewish Feminism in Israel

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Monday night, a group of Jewish students and professionals in their 20s gathered in the common room of the newly opened Moishe House of the Upper West Side over plates of kosher Chinese food for a discussion with JBC Network author Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman about her new book out from Sourcebooks, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom.

Elana opened her talk with a brief description of a recent El Al flight in which the plane’s departure was delayed half an hour while passengers scrambled to accommodate a religious man assigned to the seat next to hers and insisting on another arrangement. The experience inspired an impassioned post on her blog, JewFem.com, that was quickly picked up and circulated by numerous news and media outlets including Tablet, The Telegraph, and Haaretz and launched a petition to El Al demanding an end to complacency in the harassment of female passengers by Ultra-Orthodox fliers. “If I had known that piece, out of all my writing and blogging, would be so widely forwarded, I would have never admitted that I cried,” Elana chuckled.

“All over the world, whenever religious extremism comes to power, women are always the first victims,” Elana pointed out, citing Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, “and Judaism is no exception.” The most visible outcome is the high premium placed on women’s modesty—“I hate to use that word, because modesty in Judaism was originally a beautiful idea, going back to Moses: true Jewish modesty is about putting the other person first, about putting others before yourself.” What it’s evolved into, she observes, is a way of controlling and hiding women’s bodies. “In the Orthodox world today, modesty is used as a measurement. We literally measure, inch by inch, religious observance against women’s bodies.”

Elana gave examples of how women are silenced, separated, removed, and prohibited from public spaces across Israel, from radio stations to cemeteries to sidewalks. Until recently, images of women were not allowed on billboards or other public advertising in Jerusalem; female scientists, educators, and medical professionals were barred from presenting at conferences in their fields or receiving awards at official ceremonies. “The levels of patriarchy are astounding: we go from modesty, covering women up, to removing women entirely, to the removal of images of women, to removing women’s voices. This is what’s going on in Israel, and it’s becoming violent.”

Questions for Elana ranged from pragmatic (“How can men and other outside groups be better allies to the religious feminist movements?”) to rhetorical, often raising personal experiences and responses. Members of the audience were appalled at the incidents of violence against Israeli women mentioned in Elana’s talk—stories of vandalism, of rocks thrown at women and their children for their attire or for turning down a segregated street, of women physically assaulted for sitting at the front of a public bus. “So a Haredi man can touch a woman to drag her off a bus and beat her, but he can’t sit next to her?” one participant blurted out, furious with indignation.

There, Israel has seen some progress: segregated buses are down to a third of where they were three years ago, and after a driver was heavily fined by the government for the assault of a female passenger on his bus Eged employees have made a better habit of intervening when a passenger is harassed or threatened. There have been other victories for women’s civil rights in Israel over the past couple years: grassroots campaigns and initiatives have gained firm footing in Israeli society, enabling partnerships across denominational lines and placing much-needed accountability on the government and political leaders—not just the religious ones. “The story here is about the secular government, the state apparatus, supporting religious extremism. The story is not about religious extremists, but how the secular world enables them.”

Globally, Elana holds, there needs to be less tolerance—even on the lay level—for religious fanaticism. This applies to the Jewish world, both in the Diaspora and in Israel: “There is a limit to pluralism; there’s a limit to how much we can accept as ‘multiculturalism’. This is not a legitimate culture, these are not legitimate demands. It is never acceptable for there to be a space in Israel in which women are not allowed.” She shared several examples from her own upbringing, career, and family to illustrate the challenges of upholding feminist values in the Orthodox world, even in her own life. When Elana apologized for adding such personal anecdotes to the discussion, the room erupted in protest: “No, these stories are amazing,” someone called out. “This is exactly what we came to hear.”

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Monday, Nov. 10: Elana Maryles Sztokman at Moishe Ho(UWS)

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

TONIGHT at 7:30pm Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman will be joining the newly opened Moishe Ho(UWS) to talk about her new book, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom. Learn, debate, and discuss about the role that women play within Judaism, in Israel and the Diaspora.

The event will be at Moishe House of the Upper West Side. Dinner from Gan Asia will be served. Please email Orly Michaeli for details!

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From 9/11 to Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Permalink

Journalist Mike Kelly’s newest book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, chronicles the aftermath of the Hamas suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Jerusalem on Feb. 25, 1996. The book traces the capture of the key bomb-maker and the efforts by the families of two Americans to hold Iran accountable for financing the bombing and training the bomb-maker – only to discover that the American government was trying to block them. He will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, not long after the twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed in a pile of twisted rubble that was seven stories high, I leaped from a Hudson River pier in Jersey City, New Jersey, to the deck of a tug boat. An hour later, after crossing the choppy Hudson on the tug, I walked into the smoky landscape that came to be known as “Ground Zero.” Little did I know that my Hudson River trek would eventually lead me to a street in Jerusalem and more rubble.

Terrorism is personal. Yes, we speak of terrorism in sweeping, impersonal terms – of body counts of the dead and wounded, of the names of groups that claim responsibility for an attack somewhere, of the geo-political issues that may change in the aftermath. But ultimately, terrorism is about losing someone – of a sudden, murderous death taking someone’s life and leaving a family with an eternal hole in its collective soul.

I knew this, of course. Certainly, I instinctively sensed it. (We all do, don’t we?) But it took time for me to embrace the full dimension of how personal terrorism could be.

As a journalist, I have covered my share of terrorist incidents. But in the years after the 9/11 attacks, and as I traced the story of terrorism from Ground Zero, to Southeast Asia, to the West Bank and Gaza and Israel, to Iraq and to Washington, D.C., I felt I was missing something. Yes, I had written about the larger issues of terrorism – of the numbers of dead and injured, of the rising number of terrorist groups, of the difficulties facing political leaders in America and elsewhere in dealing with this phenomenon. But I felt I needed to go deeper.

And so, I went back to a corner on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, where a suicide bomber from the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, detonated a bomb aboard a commuter bus on the morning of Feb. 25, 1996, killing 26 people and wounding more than 40.

Two young Americans died in that bombing, Matthew Eisenfeld of West Hartford, C.T., and Sara Duker, of Teaneck, N.J. They were in love and talking of getting married. They are together now, eternally buried, side-by-side, in a Connecticut cemetery. Years later, I decided to return to their story. In the unfinished lives of Matt and Sara, I found a deeper story of unremitting pain and the still unfinished search for justice by their families.

It was a story that took me to the streets of Jerusalem, to the Gaza Strip and to a dusty West Bank refugee camp where a 19-year-old Palestinian man (a boy actually) was recruited as a suicide bomber. From there, I followed the story to the White House, to the U.S. Department of Justice, to Congress, to the FBI, to the State Department and to a federal courthouse. But ultimately, it was in the living rooms and kitchens of the families where I found the heart of this story – and the fact that each life taken by terrorism becomes a deep wound in the life of a family.

This is the real story of terrorism – a story all too often overlooked.

For more information about The Bus on Jaffa Road as well as a video and an excerpt, please check out www.mikekellywriter.com.

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Read an Excerpt from Lore Segal's Half the Kingdom

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Permalink

Last year, we were excited to feature Lore Segal—of whom we're adoring fans here at Jewish Book Council—and her newest novel Half the Kingdom, which was published in hardcover by Melville House in October 2013. We were even lucky enough to interview her! Now we come with more good news from the Lore Segal front: in honor of last week's paperback release of Half the Kingdom (get excited book clubs...), we not only have an excerpt from the book to share with you, but we're also giving away FIVE copies of the book. If you want to get your hands on one, it's quite easy, just enter here. The winners will be selected at random on November 18th. [Note: This contest has now ended.]

The below excerpt (pages 116-120 of Half the Kingdom) has been reprinted with the permission of Melville House.

Ilka Weiss lay on the sofa with her legs up. She asked for a blanket. Little David helped, impatiently, to tuck it around his grandmother’s legs. He said, “So, go on.”

Maggie said, “Let Grandmother rest,” but Ilka said, “So the next time King David went down to fight those Philistines ...” and Maggie said, “Mom, Jeff and I stay away from the fighting.”

“Mommy,” said little David, “you can go. And take Stevie. Stevie, stop it.” Baby Steven’s newest skill was turning pages and he was practicing on the King James Bible on Grandmother’s lap.

“Not to worry. I know the story in my head. But let’s let Mommy and Stevie stay, because we’re coming to the baaaad stuff.”

“Go on,” the little boy said.

“King David,” went on Ilka, “was a great soldier, the soldier of soldiers, only he was growing old. King David was tired. His spear was an encumbrance.” Grandmother Ilka demonstrated the difficulty with which the aging king raised his weapon. “His armor was too heavy for him. Climbing the hill, he had to reach for one little low bush after another because his balance wasn’t what it used to be. He watched with a thrill of envy—with a thrill and with envy—how his young soldiers ran ahead while he stood and just breathed. Couldn’t tell if it was his hiatus hernia, his heart, or an attack of anxiety be- cause they all three felt the same.”

“And,” little David prompted.

“And Ishbi-benob, a Philistine of the race of giants, was wearing his new armor. His spear weighed three hundred shekels.” Grandmother lightly swung the idea of its superhuman weight above her head, “and he was going to strike King David down when—Stevie if you don’t leave King James alone, Grandmother can’t check the name of the fellow—here he is in verse 17: Abishai. He came and struck Ishbi-benob to death.”

“Mom!”

“Sorry,” Ilka said. “And King David’s men said to King David, ‘You’re becoming a liability. Next war, you’re staying home.’ And there was another war . . .” Ilka looked apologetically at her daughter, “and there was another giant. He had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot—which is how many digits, quick!”

“Twenty-four.”

“Very good. And this giant with his twenty-four digits just laughed at King David, and mocked him.”

“Why?” asked little David in a tone of strong disapproval.

“Why? Why indeed!” said his grandmother. “Because King David was old? Because he was a Hebrew? Just because he was on the other team? But King David’s nephew—his name was Jonathan—came running, and Jonathan knocked that mocking, laughing giant down just a little bit. Knocked the wind out of him.”

Little David suggested, “They should have tried talking it out,” in which he was going to remember being reinforced by a hug from his mother, and his grandmother’s kiss on the top of his head, for both women were against striking people dead, and the younger believed there was something one could be doing about it.

“They should have talked,” Grandmother Ilka agreed, “without precondition. And now,” she went on, “King David got really, really old and stricken in years and they brought him a blanket and another and more blankets but he could not and could not get warm.”

“How come?” asked little David.

“Because he was old,” Grandmother Ilka said. “And King David’s men said to him, “Let us go out and find you a beautiful young girl to lie with you.”

“What for?” asked little David.

“To make him warm. The blankets hadn’t done any good. So they sent out throughout all the land and found a beautiful young girl. Her name was Abishag the Shunammite and they brought her to the king.”

“Did she want to come?” asked David.

“A very troubling question,” said his grandmother.

“I always thought it was horrible,” said his mother.

“Yes, it was! Well, hold on, now. You know,” she said to David, “how your mommy had to rush me to Emergency, and then I was in the hospital, and had to go for rehab, and your mommy brought me back, and last night I had to go to Emergency again, and your daddy is coming in half an hour to take you and Stevie home, and Mommy is going to stay and take care of me? Maybe Abishag was one of those people who stay and take care of people, like your mommy, because she is good, which is a great mystery to the rest of us.”

“Mom, don’t,” said Maggie irritably. “I do it because I want to.”

“Which,” said Ilka, continuing to address the child, “is another mystery: Good people don’t think they are being good when they like doing a good thing. If they did it with gritted teeth, then they would think that it was good! Isn’t that funny of them?”

The little boy was listening to the old woman with an alert, bemused look.

“And Abishag,” continued his grandmother, “was young and beautiful and she cared for King David.”

“And made him warm.”

“No.”

Intrigued? Want to continue reading? Buy a copy of Half the Kingdom here.

Braided Stories

Friday, November 07, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jennifer Rosner wrote about her novel-in-progress and also a gene mutation, a motherly connection, and the power of string. She is the author of the picture book, The Mitten String (Random House, 2014) and the memoir, If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard (Feminist Press, 2010). Jennifer has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council'sVisiting Scribe series.

Strings figure not only in the imagery but also in the overall structure of my writing. Both my memoir, If A Tree Falls, and my novel-in-progress, Hidden, have “braided” structures: the weaving of multiple perspectives (and in the case of my memoir, multiple time periods).

A braided form - though admittedly unwieldy when compared to a narrative with a singular point of view – enables the reader unmediated access to the experiential life of multiple characters in a story. This is important when the story cannot be known in its entirety by any single character, or when the writer needs to limit the complexity of a character’s thought (as when the character is a very young child). In Hidden, both of these factors are at play.

A woven structure can reflect and support a characters’ fragmented mentation. Texture can be infused through form as well as through content. Brenda Miller’s thoughts on challah, set in juxtaposition to her thoughts on the braided essay, seem apt here: “As a child, I knew only that the braided bread simply tasted better than ordinary bread, the way texture will often affect flavor, and the way presentation and form can sometimes offer sustenance in itself.” (Brenda Miller, The Braided Heart)

The braided form can have its pitfalls – switching perspectives can feel disruptive to the reading experience, and there is the risk that a reader will become more attached to one voice over another and want to skip around. (Confession: this happens to me, as a reader and as a writer of braided stories, more often than I care to admit!)

But just as I attempt to braid challah for my children on Fridays (gluten free, in our household – no easy task!), I attempt to weave the stories of my characters together, tying the strings – some intact, some frayed and broken – that symbolize the connections and disconnections marking our shared human experience.

Jennifer Rosner's writings have appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford University, and is editor of the anthology, The Messy Self (Paradigm Publishers, 2007). She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, November 07, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Judging a Book by the Discussion

Thursday, November 06, 2014 | Permalink
Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

What separates a good book discussion from a blah one? When you've left your book club feeling like you had a really good conversation, what is it that set it apart from previous conversations? Was it the depth or thoughtfulness of the comments? The sharing of ideas and personal reflections? Something you learned or that you thought about in a new way? 

Book groups, actually, are one of the few places, outside of a classroom, where these kinds of conversations occur. They are, by nature, often a comfortable setting in which people are inspired to read and think, share ideas, respond to the ideas of others, and start new conversations – and they can be on any topic. So while book groups are fun and social, an informal place to sit back, take off your shoes, and pore over the contents of the book in your lap, they are also place of education and study. 

 So many books can inspire a great conversation, and sometimes completely unexpectedly. When many readers look for a book to read with their book clubs, it's often a work of fiction or possibly narrative non-fiction in the form of a memoir, biography, or history. A good book from one of these genres is a wonderful catalyst to a lively, passionate, thoughtful conversation. However, books from other genres, many of which are not considered to be good "book club books", can also provide an interesting reading experience and an engaging discussion. 

Take a book like Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book. This is a book of scholarship and Jewish thought that explores and elaborates on characters in the Bible. Not a book that most book clubs choose on a regular week. But when you view it as a character study of figures with whom many people already have some familiarity, it can become the centerpiece of one of those thoughtful and interesting book group talks. If this kind of conversation sparks your interest, JBC Book Clubs developed a reader's guide for Biblical Images for The Global Day of Jewish Learning (next Sunday, Nov. 16), both for a single chapter and for the entire book, which can be downloaded as part of the toolbox at www.theglobalday.org

Another book that might get overlooked as "not a book club book" is Ruth Calderon's A Bride for One  Night: Talmud Tales. This book, a collection of stories from the Talmud accompanied by MK Calderon's own expansion of the narratives, reads like a short story collection that will raise questions and examination at every turn. For a book group looking for fascinating, thought-provoking stories (that also happen to have a basis in Jewish texts) to discuss, it's a book to consider (and MK Calderon will be speaking as part of The Global Day's 24x24 series, so you can watch her live!). 

 Of course, finding the right book for you or for your book group isn't simple. And finding a book that will touch off a spirited conversation is never a given, no matter how interesting, thoughtful, or popular a book is. But when you find one that works, it can be an invigorating and enlightening hour or two.