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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, April 04, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:



Find more of the latest reviews here.

The Journey Back

Wednesday, April 02, 2014 | Permalink

Juliana Maio was born in Egypt, but expelled from the country with her family during the Suez Crisis. She was raised in France, completed her higher education in the United States, and today, Juliana practices entertainment law in Los Angeles. She has spoken both domestically and abroad about the Arab Spring. Her novel, City of the Sun (Greenleaf Book Group Press), is now available. She is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into when one day I decided to delve back into my Jewish Egyptian roots. I was born in Egypt but expelled with my family during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis when I was 3 years old. We moved to France but ended up immigrating to the United States when I was 17. My life had been too busy and chaotic to journey back into the past until one day I was struck by a sort of midlife crisis. It was not the passage of time nor the meaning of life that kept me awake at night, but rather the nagging need to discover the truth about my people's roots. Who were those Jews living in Egypt? What were they doing there? And what went wrong? I did not want anecdotes. I wanted hard facts.

Soon I started hitting the history books, and while I knew that Jews had been living in Egypt since biblical times, I learned that the largest wave of immigration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when the country underwent a massive modernization and the Suez Canal was built. Jews came from all over the Mediterranean basin, and that's when my family came. I was so proud to discover the integral part Jews played in the building of the country. They were doctors, lawyers, bankers, legislators, athletes, and movie stars. They built the greatest department stores and hospitals. They helped draft the Egyptian Constitution and were advisors to the king. By the advent of World War II Egyptian Jews were on top of their game. They were thriving.

But the Jews were not thriving in a vacuum, they co-existed famously with the many other foreign minorities that had also come to settle in Egypt—Italians, French, Belgians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Turks, and of course the English, who had colonized the country. My research grew exponentially as I became fascinated by this unique, cosmopolitan Levantine society, who built a city that mirrored Paris in the heart of Cairo with grand boulevards and exquisite gardens.

My research grew wider when the next natural step was to understand how the Egyptian people reacted to that onslaught of foreigners. I was delighted to learn how tolerant and accepting they had been—that is until World War II, when the English held the country with a tight grip for fear of losing the vitally strategic Suez Canal. Factions of all kinds began to seriously challenge the Brits, and it was with extraordinary interest that I learned about young, rebellious army officers like Sadat and Nasser, the emerging Muslim Brotherhood (which also started attacking Jews and spreading anti-Semitism), the young dashing King of Egypt, and all the various political groups of the day.

Factions are usually based on ideologies and soon I found myself immersed in researching huge, topics that are as relevant today as they were then: colonialism, Arab nationalism, fundamentalism, and Zionism. It was all new and fascinating to me, and I remember when I first read about Theodor Herzl and the birth of Zionism, jumping out of my desk chair and proclaiming, "I'm a Zionist!" And then the next day, taking it back, "Maybe not." But the following day, I wavered again.

Learning about Egypt during the war led me to investigating what was happening in Palestine, in Iraq, in Syria. It was all connected, and it was all so profoundly interesting. I had discovered a secret treasure that had been buried for decades, and it's no wonder I decided to write about it.

After 10 years of researching and writing, my midlife crisis is over. My hunger for the truth has been satiated—at least for now. I know there is so much more to learn. Stay tuned!

Read more about Julia Maio and City of the Sun here.

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You Probably Wouldn't Think To Read This For Book Club, But...

Tuesday, April 01, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Barbara Askenas and Michal Smart, co-editors of the National Jewish Book Award-winning book Kaddish: Women's Voices blogs for The Postscript on why their book, not an obvious selection for a book club, could actually be an excellent choice. 

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. 

Since the publication of our book, Kaddish: Women's Voices, in Nov 2013, the response from our readers has been remarkable!

Our book Kaddish: Women's Voices explores what the recitation of Kaddish meant to different women from across the globe. Did they find the community and the consolation they were seeking? How did saying Kaddish affect their relationships with God, with prayer, with the deceased, and with the living? With courage and generosity, authors of diverse backgrounds and ages reflect upon their mourning experience

Our talented group of contributors share their relationships about the family members they lost and what it meant to move on, how they struggled to balance the competing demands of child-rearing, work, and grief, what they learned about tradition and themselves, and the disappointments and particular challenges they confronted as women.

Through fifty-two honest and personal essays, the book invites the reader into the intimate experience of a woman in mourning, and reveals the multiplicity of  a women’s experiences, seen through the prism of Kaddish. The collection shares viewpoints from diverse denominations and perspectives, and explores what it means to heal from loss and to honor memory in family relationships both loving and fraught with pain.

Kaddish: Women’s Voices is a book whose 52 essays create a conversation where loss is the currency of intimacy. It creates a community where women’s voices can be heard through the heartstrings of Kaddish.

Whether you are a daughter, sister, wife, mother or Bubbe, this collection offers solace, love, tenderness and nourishment for the soul when it is needed most. It is a companion that can be both supportive and healing.

While the essays in our book contain real moments of acute grief there is warmth humor and hope running through its pages. Any book club can embrace the opportunity to use our book as a vehicle to discuss their own journeys and create real conversations about personal loss and grief and how it transformed their lives for growth and renewal.

Questions for a Book Club to ponder:

  • Have you ever said Kaddish?
  • If so for whom? Parent, child, sibling , friend , spouse ?
  • Why did you accept the responsibility to say it?
  • How did it transform you?
  • How did you feel when it was time for the last Kaddish?
  • Which essay(s) resonated with you?
  • Did the essays by the Rabbis inform your understanding of the development of Kaddish through the ages
  • Did they inform you about Jewish Law? If so how?

Related Content: The Illuminated Kaddish: The Interpretations of the Mourner's Prayer by Hyla Shifra Bolsta, Joanna Hershon and the Memorial and other posts on death, mourning, and loss.

 

An Interview with Author and Illustrator Ann Koffsky

Tuesday, April 01, 2014 | Permalink

by Michal Hoschander Malen

An interview with author and illustrator Ann Koffksy, whose most recent book, Frogs in the Bed: My Passover Seder Activity Book (Behrman House), is now available.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Ann, you are an illustrator, author, designer of fabulous Judaic art, editor…an all around creative dynamo! Where do you find the inspiration for your many projects and how do you decide what comes next?

Ann Kofsky: Oooo. A dynamo. Never been called that before, thank you!

It’s trite but true: I get inspired by what’s going on in my life. When I was a lifeguard, I wrote and illustrated a book about a kid who learns to swim (Noah’s Swim-A-Thon, URJ Press). Being at the seder and hearing my kids sing the “Frog Song” lead to my new book Frogs in the Bed with Shirley Cohen-Steinberg. And so on…

MHM: You have authored and illustrated your own books and also illustrated books by other authors. What’s the difference in your approach to illustration when the writing is not your own?

AK: POWER and CONTROL!! Bet you didn’t know I was meglomaniac did you?

No seriously, though—if you are in charge of both, it means you are not locked in. So when I see that the pacing of my pictures calls for there to be more or less text, I can add or delete words. But when I am just the illustrator, the text is set in place, and I must make the pictures work around it—no adjustments allowed.

MHM: Tell us a bit about your illustration techniques. What kinds of media do you use? Do you have one or two that you gravitate toward most often?

AK: I have a painted style, which I create with acrylics and colored pencil. I like that style because it’s got a lot of vivid color, texture and brush stroke to it. When I want to be tighter and cleaner, I use a pen and ink style, and then add color digitally.

MHM: I know many authors and illustrators think of their books in some ways as their children so I hesitate to ask if you have any "favorites" but does anything stand out in your mind, any special experience or feeling regarding one of your books that you continue to carry with you?

AK: When I was working with Rick Recht on our book, “Thank You for Me” I got to meet him—I got to meet a real rock star! And I also had the opportunity to bring my daughter to one of his concerts. That was a really special experience.

MHM: Frogs in the Bed has a fascinating backstory about finding the author of the original song in order to properly credit her for her work. Would it be possible for you to briefly summarize at least a bit of this tale. It’s an interesting story that exemplifies integrity and attention to historical accuracy.

AK: Well, I knew I wanted to illustrate the “Frog Song”—it’s got so much fun in it and I knew it would make for some great images. But of course, I needed to find out who owns the rights to that song, so that I could get permission to move forward. This proved somewhat challenging, because I knew the name of the author—Shirley Cohen—but not much else. And when you google “Shirley Cohen” you get about a zillion hits…

I called all sorts of music experts, universities…To make a long story short, Ina Cohen, a librarian at the JTS library, saved the day, and she found Shirly for me.

Shirley Cohen Steinberg (the ‘Steinberg’ part helped make things complicated) originally wrote the song back in the 1950s to use in her Hebrew School classroom. She is now 87 years young, and is still writing great stories and songs.

MHM: Please tell us about your new exciting publishing venture.

AK: I have just joined Behrman House publishers as their newest editor. Behrman House has such a legacy, so I am really thrilled. Now I get to be a part of book making in a whole new way.

MHM: Are there any new Ann Koffsky books we can look forward to seeing in the near future? Any hints or teasers about what is to come?

AK: Right now I am working on a board book for Behrman House called Kayla & Kugel. It’s about a girl and her sometimes uncooperative, but always adorable, dog.

MHM: Thank you so much, Ann, for sharing your creativity with all of us.

Ann creates a monthly coloring page for kids and wants everyone to know that it can be gotten through email by signing up at her website www.annkoffsky.com. She also edits Tech Tuedays for Behrman House, which is a weekly newsletter of technology hints for the classroom. Folks can sign up for that at www.behrmanhouse.com. And she especially wants everyone to know that her new book, Frogs in the Bed, is available through the Behrman House website, Amazon, and BarnesandNobles.com.

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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International Transgender Day of Visibility: A Jewish Perspective

Monday, March 31, 2014 | Permalink

Today, in honor of International Transgender Day of Visibility, we hear from S. Bear Bergman. Bergman is an author, storyteller, and educator working to create positive, celebratory representations of trans lives. Recent or current projects include two fabulous children’s storybooks featuring trans-identified kid characters, a performance about loving and living in a queer/ed Jewish family titled Gathering Light, teaching pleasure-positive trans/genderqueer sex ed, and his sixth book Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter (Arsenal Pulp, 2013). He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For a while, just as Transgender Day of Remembrance was getting established as an observance, a competing movement emerged. That competing movement, well-intentioned but wrong-headed, had the following idea:

“Trans Day of Remembrance is a sad and depressing situation. We mope around mourning our murdered community members, and if that’s our only public observance it makes non-trans people think that transgender lives are only and ever nasty, brutish, and short. Instead, let’s take the day and make it celebratory! We’ll have a dance and a film screening and maybe a sexy party!”

Communities battled over this, and the source of the battle was people’s feeling that mourning and celebration were opposite to one another. With some time to reflect, I have been able to understand that this is a way that my Jewish values inform and infuse my understanding of the world so completely that sometimes it takes a while for me to notice why I don’t quite grasp some piece of mainstream, Christian-inflected, thinking.

Coming from a tradition in which the prayer we say for dead people mentions exactly nothing about death but has to be said every day for a year, and whose mourning rituals involve both profound self-abnegation and constant food and family, it’s no wonder I might be slow to understand. Jewish mourning is complex and communal; it invites us into a long contemplation of the dead person and their place in the world, now emptied.

For the record, I stand philosophically with those who wanted Trans Day of Remembrance to remain a separate observance, in November. I supported the creation of a separate day to celebrate the lives and achievements of transgender and transsexual people: International Transgender Day of Visibility, in March. I don’t think TDOR is a good day for a drag ball or a cross-campus kickline. It’s a day to remember who we’ve lost: mostly trans women, and of those mostly trans women of colour, who have been brutally murdered because someone heard something or saw something that outed her as trans. But since we don’t usually know the people we’re mourning – never all of them and usually not more than one of them – it becomes difficult to celebrate. We don’t have a sense of what space they’ve left behind; we can’t celebrate the dead. All we can do is add glitter and attempt to look cheerful.

When my Grandpa died, we sat shiva for him. I was grieving and behaved like grieving people tend to: mercurial and slightly irrational. I wasn’t hungry at all until I was ravenous, I was crying except when I was feeling so grateful to be with my family and friends. I heard new stories about him and told stories that were new to other people; I gorged myself on bagels and lox on the back deck with my brother well past dark after not having eaten all day. I accepted and wore the cufflinks of his that grandmother gave me, and wore them with satisfaction, and rubbed my thumb over them repeatedly as I tried not to cry. I held hands with my grandmother a lot, and tried to cheer her up enough to get her to eat a little. We talked about the recently-dead, and how he would have felt about each food or person or circumstance, practicing our past tenses and taking a lot of deep breaths.

By the end of the week, we were all doing a little better. I had told all my favorite stories about him (should we meet in person, ask me about my Grandpa and the kippers a week before D-Day) and missed him both less and more. I had mourned and celebrated, both.

In my most recent book, Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter, there’s a chapter about Chanukah and Transgender Day of Remembrance, about resistance and sadness and joy. Since writing the book, I have started to understand both why and how both observances are more complicated than a dichotomy of “this is the happy trans observance” and “this is the sad trans observance,” even though that’s how they’re sold to the public. In fact, Remembrance must include not just the fact that our sisters and brothers are dead but who they were, what they wished and loved and made, what they left behind and how we are enriched by it. And Visibility must include who is dead and why, and who will miss them and how we are responsible to those people they’ve left behind.

All of these stories are complicated; our observances must be complicated to be appropriate and relevant to our work. Otherwise, we’re stuck in a happy/sad dichotomy that serves nothing. This year, on International Transgender Day of Visibility we have much to celebrate: the emergence of Janet Mock and Laverne Cox as role models in the national scene, successful court cases in several US states and Canadian provinces that give young people the right to participate in activities in their identified gender, new artistic work by writers and artists from across the gender spectrum and beyond its reach, and much more. And we also have things to mourn, ranging from legislative defeats to community suicides. There has to be room for all of them.

Today, for International Transgender Day of Visibility, I am happy to be out as a queer, transsexual Jew, as a husband and father and daughter, as a person who is working professionally to increase understanding and awareness about transgender issues and hopes someday to do himself right out of a job. If you’re able, join me in observing ITDV by seeking out the cultural or artistic work of trans-identified people where you live - and making a note, in November, to say the names of our transgender dead aloud in shul during the week of Transgender Day or Remembrance. It may be that we can separate our celebration from our mourning, but I don’t believe we should.

Read more about S. Bear Bergman here.

Related Content: Jewish GLBT Reading List

The One Thing You Should Do the Day Before You Die

Friday, March 28, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, NY Times best-selling author Sara Davidson wrote about talking to your parents about death and about she came to write her memoir The December Project (HarperOne), which is based on her conversations with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi about how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every day. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The Talmud says that on the day before we die, we should be sure to do "teshuva"—turning your awareness to God.

“How is that possible, since we don’t know what day we’ll die?” I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.

He laughed. “That’s why we need to do teshuva every day.” He said this can be as simple as, while talking to a friend, watching T.V. or cooking dinner, turning your thoughts to God. “If I’m talking to my friend, there’s the divine in her, and if I remember that, I’m also paying attention to God.”

When you eat dinner, he said, think about how the food and drink come from God.

If you need a reminder, he suggested hanging a bell in your car, so when you hit a bump and it rings, you can say, “I’m aware of you, God,” or “Thank you, God, for a car that carries me where I need to go.” He’s had a bell in his own car for years. “If, God forbid, I should die in a car crash, my last thought would not be, Oh shit, but a prayer to God.”

You could also hang the bell in a doorway in your home, low enough so it rings when you pass. Or you can try other cues: each time you stop for a red light, let it remind you that God created light.

If you make this a habit, Reb Zalman told me, you’ll be sure to fulfill the commandment to do teshuva the day before you die.

As I stood up to leave, he reached in a box and gave me a small brass bell to hang on the rear view mirror of my car. Then, as was his habit, he broke into song: “The bell is ringing, for me and my God.”

All riiiiight.

To read more about Sara Davidson's "Fridays with Reb Zalman," click here.

In addition to The December Project, Sara Davidson is the author of Leap!: What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives?, Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties, Cowboy: A Novel, Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 28, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

How Far Would You Go For Your Passion?

Thursday, March 27, 2014 | Permalink

Lisa Barr is the author of the award-winning debut novel, Fugitive Colors (Arcade), a suspenseful tale of an artist’s revenge on the “eve” of WWII. Today, she chimes in on the on-going conversation about Hitler, the Holocaust, and art for Jewish Book Council.

In 1991, I was serving as the managing editor of a women’s magazine based in Chicago. I was sent on an assignment to cover the "Degenerate Art" Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Entering the museum, I literally stopped in my tracks – I had found my story. Even as a daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I never knew about the Nazis relentless mission to destroy the avant-garde – particularly painters. Hitler and his henchmen went after the German Expressionists with a vengeance never seen before, and I was blown away by what I discovered.

At the time, I was already 150 pages into writing my first manuscript about young terrorists, but after that exhibit, I simply stopped writing that novel. I couldn’t sleep. I remember staying up all night, staring out the window – thinking who were those artists whose works were stolen, whose hands were tied, and whose canvases were destroyed and confiscated?

What if someone had stolen my computer, smashed my printer, took all my research, forbade me from entering bookstores, and destroyed all my past work, as though I never existed?

What if someone decided that my passion had to be quashed, or else?

No sleep morphed into even less sleep, as I began to outline a story. I wanted to take this unknown part of Holocaust history and somehow bring it alive through fiction; to usher in the hard history through the back door. As a writer, I love to teach, but first I knew I had to learn.

I needed to go back and really get a feel for what it was like to be a young artist in the early ‘30s, living in the whirlwind of German Expressionism.

Expressionism is not about painting the subject, rather it’s about painting how the subject makes you feel. It was a touchy-feely movement of art – chaotic, wild, colorful, fantasy-like – a movement that went against the Aryan grain of organization and control, but one that was taking the world by storm.

I delved into past interviews, historical accounts, books, personal histories, documents, paintings – I am a writer, not a painter but in order for my work to be real I needed to actually feel, smell, touch a canvas, as though I, too, were there. I needed to write this through the eyes of a young artist whose paintings were being stolen out from under him, and experience what that was really like.

The hardest part of being a writer or an artist is having the inclination but not the talent. Rejection, as we writers know all too well, is the deepest of all artistic pain, and this is where Hitler came in.

For Hitler, his mission to destroy the avant-garde was not political – it was personal.  Yes, Hitler before he became "Hitler" was a painter. He had been rejected twice from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He resorted to selling painted postcards on the street and later house painting – his dream of living as a celebrated painter never being realized. He had been told repeatedly that he was not good enough, and to go find another trade to survive.

One wonders how things might have been, had he been “accepted.”

I truly believe that these early rejections set the stage for what would come later...the rape of Europe’s masterpieces, and the destruction of artists who didn’t play by Hitler’s rules. Once real power was in Hitler’s hands, he decided what was good enough, what was considered art.

It was no secret in Germany that Hitler despised the avant-garde – particularly Cubists, Dadaists, and Surrealists, and especially his homegrown German Expressionists, who fell into two groups of artists – Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) – originating from Berlin, Dresden and Munich – and labeled them “Degenerate artists.” Among the name “Degenerates” were Beckmann, Kirchner, Marc, Dix, Nolde, and Heckel. Supplies stores were shut down, galleries were boarded up, museums were closed down, artists who did not comply with the Aryan rule book were forbidden to exhibit and sell their art. Artists were forced to hide; others fled, many committed suicide, and many others were imprisoned and murdered.

Hitler’s war began with the destruction of the avant-garde, and now ironically, 70 years later, this is the piece of Holocaust history still making front-page news.

This past November, Germany dropped its looted art bombshell: a cache of 1,500 masterpieces (Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, among them) worth more than $1 billion was discovered in a German apartment. Prior to that, in October, it was announced that Dutch museums had uncovered 139 artworks “likely” looted by the Nazis. Last month, Canada announced the “hunt” was on for looted art hiding in its museums and private collections. And just a few days later, Austria announced that a house in Salzburg is being “probed” for stolen art (coincidentally owned by the Gurlitt family, the very same owners of the art-looted apartment in Germany). A week ago, France returned over 100 stolen paintings.

One wonders if the critically-panned Clooney-led production of The Monuments Men had anything to do with the recent “outings.” Despite its Hogan’s Heroes-ish treasure hunt theme, the film did succeed in bringing this part of Holocaust history to the masses and further expose the world’s dirty little secret: The Nazis were not the only bad guys in town.

One thing is clear: This country-by-country exposure will soon travel from Europe to our own doorstep – where similar murky “unknown” histories of beloved artworks hanging in major museum and private collections will surely be unveiled.

Like everything else, it’s all just a matter of time.

While we are busy uncovering the lost histories of paintings worth millions still residing in the slippery hands of “The Alleged and The Guilty” – let us not forget the plight of the artists themselves. Paintings have a canvas, but passion has a face. Behind every “surviving” Picasso, were also scores of young, aspiring artists whose potential brilliance – whose expression – will never see the light of a canvas.

Read more about Fugitive Colors here.

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How to Have “The Talk”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, NY Times best-selling author Sara Davidson wrote about she came to write her memoir The December Project (HarperOne), which is based on her conversations with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi about how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every dayShe will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“What should you do if your parent is close to dying but doesn’t want to talk about it?” I asked Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.

I’d recently moved my 94-year-old mother to a care home for people with Alzheimer’s. She’d made funeral arrangements years before, but she never spoke about the elephant in the room—her approaching death. I wanted to know what she was experiencing. Was she in denial or at peace? What could I do to help her meet the inevitable with grace and love? I couldn’t just blurt, “Mom, you’re dying. How does it feel?”

Reb Zalman raised his hands as if to say, stop. “You don’t have to tell her she’s dying. Just sit with her quietly and think about it. She’ll be going to a different place and you’ll be missing her. You want to make the parting good for her and good for you. The message will seep in. Not everything has to be verbal.”

We had this talk during one of what I called my “Fridays with Reb Zalman,” when we met every week to discuss "The December Project." Reb Zalman had written the book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, in his sixties—the September of his years. Now, he said, it’s December, and one of his priorities is to help people caring for elders understand what they’re going through and what they need.

“The most important thing to realize is: this is not about you. It’s their life, their passing, and you need to find out how they want to do it, not how you think would be best,” he said.

It’s also time to let them fulfill their wishes. “If people want to eat a frankfurter and it has nitrates, so? It’s gonna kill them? If they want to cuddle or have sex with someone in the old age home, what’s the worry? They’re going to get pregnant?”

If people aren’t able to express what they want, he suggested giving them some choices and following their cues.

His own father, he said, wouldn’t tell him what he wanted done with his remains. Whenever Zalman broached the subject, his father would say, “Nu, you can’t wait for me to die already?!”

So Zalman told him what he wanted for himself. At the time, he was considering being cremated and having his ashes scattered at Auschwitz, to join the ashes of his uncle and cousins who’d been burned at the camp, as an act of solidarity. His father reacted instantly. “That’s not good. You should do something else.”

“What have you got in mind?” Zalman said.

His father told him he’d bought a plot in Israel and wants his remains buried there and maybe Zalman should do the same. “I had to flip him into telling me, by speaking first about my own wishes and thoughts,” Zalman said.

He took a different tack when a friend was dying of cancer. “She was able to talk openly, and said she wanted to go to Hawaii because she knew the cancer was incurable,” Zalman said. “Her children wouldn’t let her go because her doctor insisted that she do more chemotherapy to prolong her time.” That had made Reb Zalman sad. He wished her children had considered, “How would I feel if I were in my mother’s place and I wanted to go to a sunny island while I still could?”

The woman was in great pain during the final days and told Reb Zalman she was afraid it would never end. He said she would not feel pain after her transition. “You will not always be in that physical body. You will slough it off and be free. Everything will be calm.” He said that people who’ve had near-death experiences report that they felt “enfolded in unconditional love—love that was stronger than anything they’d known, so strong that they didn’t want to come back to the living world.” For this woman, Reb Zalman said, “hearing that brought her comfort.”

I asked Reb Zalman what he would want in his own final days. “Ha! Remember what Woody Allen said, ‘I don’t mind dying as long as I don’t have to be there?’ I’m the opposite. I want to be awake and present. I want to watch the last breath going out and whisper the Shema.”

He’s asked his wife, Eve, who’s 24 years younger, to be with him because “I’d like to feel a loving touch,” but he told her, “When it’s my time, I’d like you to please let me go.”

She agreed, on one condition: “that you take me with you as far as you can.”

They have a deal.

To read more about The December Project, click here

In addition to The December Project, Sara Davidson is the author of Leap!: What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives?, Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties, Cowboy: A Novel, Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion.

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Writing Through the Artist’s Perspective

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Alyson Richman, the author of The Lost Wife and  the forthcoming The Garden of Letters (coming in September from Berkley) blogs for The Postscript on writing like an artist and the importance of shifting perspective.  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. 

To "host" Alyson at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

As the daughter of an artist, I learned at an early age not only how to mix colors on a palette board, but also how important it was to shift one’s perspective.  My mother believed you couldn’t fully appreciate a piece of sculpture unless you actually walked around it. She was known to take my childhood drawings and turn them upside down, encouraging me to see how everything changed when you simply altered the view.

I have often returned to these lessons when crafting one of my novels. When I’m in the midst of researching a book, I try to explore the subject matter from different angles. I find it fascinating to write from alternating characters’ perspectives, so I can explore how two different people might experience the same moment in different ways.  I also try to examine how a character changes when placed in the various differing roles and responsibilities they have in a lifetime.  For example, the heroine, Lenka, in The Lost Wife is not just an artist.  She’s also a daughter, a sister, a young bride, and a friend.  In all of those roles, she reveals another part of herself.  In my new novel, The Garden of Letters, Elodie is a cellist, a daughter, then a secret messenger for the Italian resistance during WWII, and ultimately a fugitive seeking shelter.  As an author, I try to turn each character around — to encourage my readers to see them from all sides — so they are not one dimensional, but rather spherical, continually revealing another aspect of themselves as the novel unfolds.

By writing through the lens of an artist, light and shadow also have a tremendous interplay in my work.  I constantly challenge myself to pierce eras of great historical darkness with personal episodes of beauty and light.   In The Garden of Letters, I explore not only the turmoil the Italian nation experienced during times of great political and social upheaval, but also how my characters use their art to communicate with each other, both to transmit codes for the Resistance as well as to channel their emotions.

At the end of the day, the process of writing is similar to the way an artist creates a painting or a composer invents a score.  I search to understand the world around me, to carve something beautiful out of the darkness. And many of the tools I use are ones I learned when I was in the company of my mother, clutching a tiny paintbrush in my young hand.  In the end, it was she who told me to open my eyes and take in the entire world around me — to never see it only from one direction, but always from several shifting points of view.


Related Content: Allegra Goodman's post on artists and writers