The ProsenPeople

Was Proust Jewish?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 | Permalink

Marcel Proust Jewish

Earlier this week, John Benditt wrote about identity and writing. The Boatmaker is his debut novel. He will blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Was Marcel Proust JewishMarcel Proust (photo by Otto Wegener)[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Was Paul Newman Jewish? It seemed hard to believe. That jawline! The infinitely blue eyes! But my mother said he was. And I believed everything my mother said. There was a kind of complicity between us—as long as I believed in her. She pointed them out. “He’s Jewish.” Arthur Miller. (But not Marilyn Monroe.) “She’s Jewish.” Lauren Bacall. (But not Humphrey Bogart.) There was a way of reading the world that made sense of what was hidden behind the great screen that separates us from the infinite. My mother taught me how to read. Then I took a step away from my family and from what might have been a safe distance I began to look at things a different way. Was Proust Jewish? The answer seemed to depend on who was giving it. There was no question about some of the facts. His mother was born a Jew, which makes him, by law and custom, a Jew. She married a Christian. Their son, Marcel, was drawn to boys rather than girls at a time when homosexuality was illegal in most European countries, punishable by long prison sentences. Yet in his great book of memory he seems more comfortable being what was then called an “invert” than being a Jew. Being an invert seems to confer a depth of feeling, membership in an aristocracy of the senses, an elite of feeling; being Jewish does not. It may even do the opposite. But the Dreyfus Affair hovers over everything. It forces people to take sides. It shows them in a new light. Some of the aristocrats Marcel loves so much now seem different. What he has loved is their tradition, the depth of it, how every gesture, no matter how small, is underlain by centuries of confidence in their taste, in their ownership of the right thing—the right house, the right painting, the right horse. He is a man in love with a tradition that is not entirely his own and will never be entirely his own. So as I left my home, the one where I had partially grown up, I carried with me the way of reading my mother had passed on to me in secret. Behind the movie-star punim, Paul Newman was a Jew. (Though Joanne Woodward was not.) But this way of reading had changed as I carried it with me in its invisible ark. Now I was interested in those I thought of as “Unlikely Jews,” the ones who couldn’t be categorized, who seemed to slip away like eels from any net that was put out for them. The ones for whom Jewishness was no longer something clear and simple, if hidden from the eyes of those who could not read, but had become ghostly, hanging over everything without being embodied, like one of Marcel’s memories: present only when evoked by some sudden movement of the senses.

John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. Read more about him and his work here.

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Interview: Hana Berger Moran and Wendy Holden

Tuesday, July 21, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope tells the account of Priska, Rachel, and Anka, three pregnant women who managed to survive Nazi concentration camp internment through the Holocaust and save their children. Jewish Book Council had the opportunity to discuss the book with the author and the daughter of one of its subjects.

Elise Cooper: You were born in a concentration camp. Do you think your mother’s personality helped you and her survive?

Hana Berger Moran: My mom had to survive slave labor, starvation, giving birth in a prisoner’s barracks, and the brutal death transfer. Yet, through it all, this twenty-nine year old Jewish woman not only survived these horrid times but also flourished. She taught me positivity, opti­mism, and determination with her favorite saying, “I will get it done.”

EC: I read a quote by a Dachau survivor, “If you think the Nazis were inhuman than you’re wrong. They were humans like you and me. And that is what is so terrible.” Do you agree with it?

HBM: My mother said of Josef Mengele that he was just a man, but what an evil man. I don’t think a four-legged animal would behave as cruelly as the Germans. What we went through is a war on the Jews. Even today, I can’t be on a train platform and view the cattle cars. I get hysterical. It must be a visceral vicarious response: my mom somehow transferred to me as a newborn or while in the womb what she was feeling. I spent the first seventeen days of my life in a concentration camp.

Wendy Holden: As I write in the book, Mengele examined the women’s teeth like they were cattle. He was unimaginably cruel. As far as we know these babies were the only ones that survived, because the other pregnant women were either directly killed or used for experiments. In one instance a woman had slipped between his fingers and when she was discovered pregnant she was sent back. He was so incensed that he waited for her baby to be born, and then had her tied to her bed, laying next to the baby so that she could watch it starve to death. Each person in the Holocaust had their lives and dreams stolen by the Nazis.

EC: Do you think luck played a major part of these women and their babies surviving?

WH: Yes, considering they were sent to a slave labor camp where they worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, using heavy riveting machines and did not miscarry. In addition, luck played a role in that the pregnan­cies were not detected; they survived chronic malnutrition, and one of the worst winters ever in flimsy clothing.

EC: Can you explain why the three surviving children still go to the an­niversary of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp?

WH: They do not look on it as a horrible place. They see it as a place where they were freed and liberated. They don’t see it as the gates of hell but a place where they began again. In fact, several of them cel­ebrate their real birthdays of April 12, 20, and 29 but they also consider the day of liberation, May 5th, as their re-birth. They see May 5th as the day they were born again.

EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

WH: I want them to look around their lives and feel blessed that they are not living in great fear. I want people to feel compassion for these women and for those who did not make it, and to remember the Holo­caust. Throughout the story there was cruelty but also hope provided by the small acts of kindness by strangers.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q&A’s for many different outlets, including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

Who Is Jewish?

Monday, July 20, 2015 | Permalink

John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. The Boatmaker is his debut novel. He will blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“Who is Jewish?” he would ask, hunching his shoulders, palms up. “Who is Jewish?” The way he said it, it sounded like: “Whooo is Joooooish?” The distance between what he was saying and the way he was saying it was enormous. Large enough to get lost in. And maybe never come back out. Especially for him. He was tiny. And ancient. Already when I first met him he was ancient. By that time he had already lived several lives. As a medical student in Vienna. A young psychoanalyst, trained by someone who had perhaps been trained by Freud himself. A refugee in Amsterdam. A psychiatrist at a hospital in New York. A therapist in Yorkville. Which he sometimes referred to semi-humorously as the “Fourth Reich.” Which is where I met him. As a patient: a man who could not make up his mind to marry the woman he was with. She was Jewish, definitely. I left her and moved on to a much younger woman, who was definitely not Jewish, but I stayed with the therapist. “They think I’m a goy,” he would say of the Orthodox. “Already for a long time they were thinking that.” It was because he didn’t believe in God. He believed in science. But apparently Hitler did think he was a Jew. While I took the crosstown bus to East End Avenue and 82nd Street on Tuesday after work and again on Thursday, the movie Shoah was playing in New York. I asked him if he was going to see it. “I can’t,” he said. “If I did, afterwards I would be running around in the street with a machine gun.” Who is Jewish? I thought I went to therapy to overcome my “commitment issues” in my relationships with women. But now, looking back, when Israel Kesselbrenner has long since closed up shop on East End Avenue and is seeing patients in a different dimension, I think maybe what I was really wrestling with in those sessions was that same question: Who is Jewish? And perhaps all these years later (since they say therapy never really ends), I am still wrestling with that question, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I don’t know. I really don’t. And since I don’t, I don’t feel comfortable giving myself the last word here. So instead, I’ll give the last word to a wonderful writer who has just left us, dematerializing in his unmatchable elegance, ascending into the summer light over the Hamptons: James Salter. Salter, author of Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime, was born James Horowitz in New Jersey, not so far from East Hampton in one sense, a long way in another. When he was asked by a reporter “Are you a Jewish writer?” Salter answered “I have been trying not to be.” And what could be more Jewish than that?

Read more about John Benditt and his work here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, July 17, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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My Top Five (Recent) Historical Novels

Friday, July 17, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Janis Cooke Newman wrote about using fiction to understand historical time periods and why she writes historical fiction. She is the author of the novel Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln and A Master Plan for Rescue as well as a memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Since I’ve been blogging all week about writing historical fiction, it seemed fitting to wrap up with a list of my five favorite historical novels—at least out of those that have been published recently.

I’m a big fan of The New York Times Book Review. Every week, I scour it to see what I should read next. One reason I do this, is because I run a writers conference in the Northern California wine country and I’m always on the lookout for authors to teach at it. But also, as a writer, I think it’s important to keep up with my colleagues—to see what new tricks they’re trying out on the page.

Looking over my list, I notice that three of my recommendations are set—or partially set—during World War II, the time period of my own novel. When I started A Master Plan for Rescue, I had trouble finding anything new that was set during World War II—and I do remember searching. But lately, there’s been a bumper crop of wonderful novels set in that era. Which kind of makes you wonder what was in the cultural ether seven or eight years ago that prompted so many of us to write about the time period.

Perhaps a subject for another blog post?

1) The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday. The last time I was this excited about a book, it was All the Light We Cannot See. Torday gives us a cleverly nested tale within a tale—a man tells the story of being a boy and reading the memoir of his dashing uncle’s exploits as a Jewish RAF pilot during World War II. But the novel is truly about stories—how we tell them, and who they belong to. And every storyline within the book is both wry and heartbreaking.

2) A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson covers some of the same wartime territory—the London Blitz—as Torday in her wonderful novel, but she also does remarkable things with time in this book. She foregoes a linear narrative line—and a singular point of view character—and takes us from the 1940s through the 1970s to the present, building a world and family the way you’d assemble a vivid jigsaw puzzle. In the end, she says some profound things about war and the losses it brings.

3) Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg. Mazie Phillips was a real person—a Bowery theater ticket seller who walked the streets at night handing out change to bums during the Great Depression. Attenberg had little factual information to go on to create her fictional Mazie—not much more than a Joseph Mitchell article—yet she fashions a flawed, big-hearted, dame of the streets in this funny and touching novel, using one of the most creative (and tricky) structures I’ve seen. And as if that weren’t enough, Attenberg also brings to life Mazie’s unseen biographer.

4) The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman. The time period is the late eighteenth century, and the place is Bristol, England. But what is so amazing about this novel—in addition to the female pugilists—is the prose. Freeman invents a vivid vocabulary for her characters—a whole new language for fighting—that propels the action forward with such incredible energy, it leave you breathless. This book also had two of the best female characters I have seen in a long while.

5) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. If you have not read this combination Bestseller/Pulitizer Prize winner yet, what in the world are you waiting for? Very rarely does a writer hit the sweet spot where luminous prose you read over to yourself just for the sound of it meets page-turning plot that keeps you up late at night. This is the book we all wish we’d written, the book we wish we’d forget so we could read it again for the first time. It has everything—World War II, a father trying to protect his daughter, an evil Nazi. What’s not to like?

Janis Cooke Newman is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, on the board of Litquake, and a founder and organizer of the Lit Camp writers conference. Read more about her and her work here.

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Jimmy Fallon Reads Man's Search for Meaning

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Arie Monas

A couple of weeks ago, Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, tripped on a rug in his kitchen and fell. Initially, he believed it was an ordinary fall but as he got himself up, he saw that his finger was sideways. He was rushed to the emergency room and was then transferred to Bellevue hospital to have surgery done on his finger after being told he had a ring avulsion. The doctor operated on Fallon for six hours, leaving him in the intensive care unit of the hospital for ten days. Fallon had to keep himself busy while in the hospital, so he started reading the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Written during World War II, Frankl describes his experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camp, Auschwitz, and how he came up with a purpose in life to feel positive about to keep him going. The question we all have is why Jimmy Fallon, whose job as a comedian is to make people laugh, was reading a very serious book. Frankl describes what it was like being a prisoner in Auschwitz, and Fallon was able to relate to his message given his state of being. He was lying in a hospital bed, away from what he likes doing most, and felt like a prisoner. He wanted to get out of the hospital; as he advised his viewers, “Get out of that hospital, get out,” urging them that they will be fine. While reading the book, Fallon found the true meaning of his life, which is to be on television and to talk to people who are at home or at a hospital and making them laugh. Upon finishing the book, Fallon said, “I absolutely loved it.”

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Fiction Not Facts

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Janis Cooke Newman wrote about why she writes historical fiction. She is the author of the novel Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln and A Master Plan for Rescue as well as a memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often think I’m the ideal writer for historical fiction, because I’m not a fan of doing research. Other writers tell me how they disappear down the rabbit hole, spending weeks in the library, or jumping from one obscure website to another. How months go by and they don’t get any writing done.

To me, the whole idea of settling in with a big stack of historical texts just makes me itchy. Mainly because it’s the fiction part of historical fiction I find so compelling—the story and the characters, not the facts.

Not that I’m willing to ignore them entirely. I’m one of those writers (and readers) of historical fiction who feels cheated if the narrative takes too many liberties. I don’t want the wrong side to win the war, or a real person to have three husbands she didn’t have. And frankly, I’d rather a fictional character not ride a subway line that didn’t exist, or eat a kind of hot dog that hadn’t been invented. But ultimately, I’m more interested in how it felt to live and love—and even hate—during a certain time period. And you don’t get that from facts.

When I’m writing, I try to be as imaginative with what I use for my research as I am creating my story. Because to really understand what it was like for my characters to live in their time—to really write their worlds—I have to go beyond history books. I sometimes even have to go beyond books.

For the boy, Jack, in A Master Plan for Rescue, I relied a lot on my own father’s stories about growing up on the northern tip of Manhattan during the early days of World War II. My father was the one who told me about the blue Son in Service stars people hung in their apartment windows whenever someone in the family went to war—and how those stars were replaced with gold ones if that son, or brother, or father was killed in action.

To write the chapter about Jakob—the young German Jew who falls in love with the ill-fated Rebecca as Hitler is coming to power—I read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. These stories, full of decadence and violence, gave me a sense of what that German city must have been like at that moment in time—and did it better than any nonfiction book could have.

When I wanted to write the character Rivka’s escape from German-occupied Paris, I re-read Irene Nemirovsky’s wonderful Suite Francaise. Again, better than any history text, this novel allowed me to imagine into what it would feel like to be a young, deaf girl fleeing the Nazis on foot across an entire country.

For fiction writers, everything becomes a kind of research. But for those of us who write historical fiction, we’re dependent on it. The trick is not depending on it too much, and not limiting ourselves to facts. Because stories—like lives—are made up of more than facts. And that is what fiction understands best.

Janis Cooke Newman is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, on the board of Litquake, and a founder and organizer of the Lit Camp writers conference. Read more about her and her work here.

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Book Cover of the Week: Good on Paper

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Mark your calendars for January 26, because Rachel Cantor's next book will be hitting the shelves!

Those who read Rachel's first novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World: A Novel will recognize Rachel's signature penchant for tales of love, unconventional families, search of self, and the mysteries of language in Good on Paper, a story about a lost writer inexplicably invited by a renowned, Nobel Prize-winning scholar to translate his new manuscript—which may not be all that it seems. We're thrilled to see Rachel collaborating with Melville House once again on what promises to be a fantastic second novel!

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Why I Write Historical Fiction

Monday, July 13, 2015 | Permalink

Janis Cooke Newman is the author of the novel Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln and A Master Plan for Rescue as well as a memoir The Russian Word for Snow. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, on the board of Litquake, and a founder and organizer of the Lit Camp writers conference. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

One of the inspirations for my novel, A Master Plan for Rescue, is the story of the refugee ship, the St. Louis.

The St. Louis was built as a pleasure boat, meant to take passengers on one and two week holidays. But the 900 Jews who boarded it in the spring of 1939 carried one-way tickets, and it must have seemed miraculous to them that they were being allowed to leave Hitler’s Germany for Cuba, a country with no Nazis.

And perhaps it was too miraculous, for when the St. Louis arrived outside Havana harbor, it was not allowed to dock. For nearly a week, the ship sat anchored in the hot sun with the city in view of those 900 Jews, until the Cuban government, and the ship’s owners, insisted they raise anchor.

With nowhere to go, the St. Louis sailed up and down the coast of Florida. Frantic cables went off to President Roosevelt on behalf of its passengers, cables that pleaded for 900 visas. But America, it seemed, had enough Jews, and eventually, the captain had no choice but to turn the ship around and sail back to Germany.

I came upon the story of the St. Louis during a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I had never heard it before, and once I did, I could not get it out of my head.

What could it have been like, I wondered, to have been one of those Jews? To leave Hitler’s Germany and step aboard a pleasure boat, and suddenly be brought fresh towels and cold drinks by a German waiter in a white jacket. To glide across the marble floors of the upper deck’s ballroom as the ship’s orchestra played a waltz. To spend all your shipboard money on the way to Cuba, because you were certain you would not need it anymore.

I wondered too, what it must have been like to wait in the heat outside Havana harbor with your bags packed, and see the city you had been promised. And to do it day after day. It is known that one of the 900—a man—slit his own wrists and jumped into the sea.

How did it feel, I wondered, to sail so close to the Florida coastline, you could make out the shape of the pastel-colored hotels? So close, that fishing boats filled with vacationers motored out and snapped photographs of you, because you had become another tourist attraction.

And what, I wondered, could it have been like to feel the ship beneath your feet turn back toward Germany—a country that was full of Nazis?

These questions haunted me as thoroughly as if those 900 Jews had taken to following me around. And so, eventually, I wrote a character onto that boat. I bought him a one-way ticket, and I gave him a broken heart—because broken hearts are always good for fiction—and through him, I imagined my way into the answers to those questions.

This is the great pleasure of writing—and reading—historical fiction. At its best, it becomes a delicious combination of time travel and reincarnation. Unlike historians, novelists are free to dream up entire lives that take place in other times. Writing historical fiction gives me the opportunity to experience life in another era, to know—or at least imagine—what it might have been like to step onto the deck of a pleasure boat on a late spring day in 1939, and believe I was heading toward freedom. It also gives me the license to create whatever destiny I like for the characters I buy my tickets for.

Read more about Janis Cooke Newman here.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Best Place on Earth

Friday, July 10, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Excellent news! Ayelet Tsabari's debut collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth—which won the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature—is coming to the United States! Originally published by HarperCollins Canada, the book will be available to American readers in March 2016. Random House released the book cover for the American edition this week:

A vast improvement on the original, don't you think? And yes, it is available for pre-order now!

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