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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 19, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Back to the Bronx

Friday, June 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jerome Charyn wrote about New York as a crime novel and growing up Jewish in the Bronx. He is the author of the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Whenever I feel “a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” I don’t go out to sea, like Herman Melville. I go back to the Bronx. It wasn’t always that way. For a long time I avoided every trace of the Bronx, disturbed by its random chaos—drug lords shooting at one another from the roofs of the Grand Concourse while half the borough was on fire.

And then I did go back. The BBC was shooting a documentary on the Bronx. It must have seemed like an ideal movie set to the British, all that rubble reminding them of the London Blitz, and they wanted a novelist from the Bronx to accompany them. We roamed the badlands, and I felt a kind of delicious vertigo, as I realized that I had been shaped as a writer by that little paradise of ruin. I’d filled the void with my own imagination.

And now, when I stand on the corner of Sheridan Avenue and East 169th Street, a valley with hills on three sides, I feel like an explorer reinventing the sinews of his own past. I can still see the “crown” of the George Washington Bridge rising above the Grand Concourse like some magical moonscape. The apartment house where I had lived during World War II—a deluxe tenement one block east of the Concourse—is all gated up like a fortress, with a bold sign above the doorway: TRESPASSERS BEWARE!

Perhaps I am a trespasser now. I move on. I arrive at an abandoned lot on Marcy Place, where I encounter a wondrous form of cave art—a mural in brilliant color that covers the exposed side wall of another deluxe tenement, right near the lot. The mural depicts a Bronx garden with some tenement palaces in the distance. The garden is equipped with three multicolored cats, two musicians, a flowerpot, three birds and their birdbath, a kind of urban cactus tree that looks like a surreal ladder, several dogs, and a young girl in a yellow dress, sitting in the lower left corner of the mural, as a queen might sit, glancing at her own creation. The drizzly November in my soul has disappeared while I glance as the surety of that design on the wall. The muralist, Tova Snyder, who was raised in Israel and Provincetown, has imagined her very own Alhambra in the heartland of the Bronx.

I walk one block west to the Concourse, once a middleclass Jewish mecca, and now a maze of pawnshops, dental offices, and beauty salons, with the same Art Deco imprint of its apartment houses that had enthralled me as a little boy. I arrive at the Concourse Plaza. Sixty years ago it was the borough's classiest hotel, where a number of Bronx Bombers used to live during the baseball season. Now it’s a center for seniors, with a guard sitting in a cage inside the front door. He scowls at me, trying to establish his own sense of order. Smile, I want to say—laugh a little. Whatever music I have inside my skull has risen from the bedlam of the Bronx. I could be one of the creatures in that mural on Marcy Place. A musician perhaps, or a multicolored cat.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan. Read more about him here.

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New York as a Crime Novel

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jerome Charyn wrote about growing up Jewish in the Bronx. He is the author of the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Sometimes it felt like the end of the line. There was no place to go beyond the East Bronx; you couldn't even drown yourself in the shallow waters of the Bronx River; you had to learn to survive on your own prowess.

I sort of lived in a comic book universe, because I was surrounded by maniacs and misfits - egg candlers who had lost the art of candling and lived out their days mumbling to themselves; Jewish baseball prodigies who had spent a month or so in the minor leagues years and years ago and still walked around with a baseball glove; victims of polio -beautiful girls - who would do entrechats in the street and stumble all over themselves, dreaming of a lost career . . .

This was my Bronx. Violence was the key to everything. Violence could erupt at any second; I would have ten fights every morning on my way to school. I threw someone off the roof once to save my own skin; I watched him plunge from one clothesline to the next like a boy on a trampoline. I might have killed him, but he landed in a great knot of laundry. I didn't rejoice. That's how it was living around defeated people.


Bronx, New York. 1947. Photo via Andy Blair.

I was only able to survive because my older brother - Harvey Philip Charyn - was feared in the neighborhood. He would later become a homicide detective, an expert on the Mafia. A tough guy once put a gun to Harvey's head, and my brother didn't panic. He clutched the barrel in his hand, and whoever was trying to kill him couldn't pull the trigger. There was no point in fighting with Harvey, because in the end you were going to lose.

This kind of chaos was a tremendous advantage, because it allowed me to see things that other kids didn't see. I'm used to chaos. I know how to dance with it, how to make love to chaos.

The only way I could survive the barren landscape of the Bronx was with words, and I had to teach myself. Language has always been a kind of weapon - a sword - and you're constantly scratching at things. Those scratches provide the rhythm for a writer, a fundamental music. And once you find the music - pull it right out of the chaos - language comes alive. Something within your soul urges you on, and you bounce from here to there. Your life becomes a series of picaresque adventures as you move from catastrophe to catastrophe, hoping that you'll be able to climb out of it. That's the only way I know how to write. Otherwise I would have become a crazy egg candler, mumbling to myself until the day I died.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan. Read more about him here.

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Book Cover of the Week: 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die

Tuesday, June 16, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Becca Kantor

If your eye is caught by the host of colorful pen-and-ink caricatures on the cover of Ricardo Covolo’s 101 Artists to Listen to Before You Die … just wait until you look inside.

Written (by hand!) as a diary tracing the history of music Johann Sebastian Bach to Chief Keef, the book is chock-full of portraits in Covolo’s distinctive, evocative style. This one will be treasured by music aficionados, art-lovers, and general readers alike.

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The Land of Aardvark

Monday, June 15, 2015 | Permalink

Jerome Charyn is the author the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Has anyone ever really dealt with the Jewish underclass of the Bronx, where I grew up, next to the trolley tracks of Southern Boulevard and Boston Road? Some of us might look back with a kind of nostalgia, talk of a golden period, when families rambled around Indian Lake in Crotona Park, before Robert Moses ruined the borough with his super expressway. People ask me if the Bronx had ever been my playground. It was a little paradise of empty spaces, a garden where nothing would grow, except bitterness and regret. I had one book in the apartment where I lived with my parents and two brothers. It was the first volume of an encyclopedia that must have been sent to my parents as some sales gimmick—it was a treatise on the letter “A.” And so I memorized that book, starting with aardvark, and could sing out to you all the manifestations of “A.” Then my language stopped. And years later, when I read Walter Abish’s avant-garde novel, Alphabetical Africa, where every chapter begins with a different letter of the alphabet, I wondered if he too had started life with the same encyclopedia, but had been privileged enough to have more than one volume, since he could go all the way to “Z.” And here I am, like some wily pirate, trapped inside the letter “A.” Well, that’s the Bronx.

I began to wonder why the apartments I have in Paris and New York resemble barren, nondescript closets. Both apartments are in luxurious buildings in classic neighborhoods—Montparnasse and Greenwich Village—but they’re absolutely sparse, without much furniture at all. Does this void recall the void of growing up in the Bronx, where there was little “furniture” in the street—that is, nothing that could ever catch the eye? Is this “desert” more comfortable for me, and did it force me a long, long time ago to live inside my head? I must have been a novelist at five and six, or perhaps I was a walking, talking text, sucking in the movies I saw, the stories I heard, and the adventures of my older brother, Harvey, one of the boldest boys in the East Bronx, a Casanova at nine, prepared to take on any gang, a knight guarding his own turf, while I was frightened of anything beyond the reach of my nose, and lived only to imagine, to invent out of the nothingness I knew. Harvey would become a homicide detective, a catcher of cases, and I was the one who killed people off, the prince of an altogether different realm, a tumbler of words, who could only be adventurous on the page.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 12, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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My First Midrash

Friday, June 12, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julie Baretz wrote about leading Christian tours of Israel and why she decided to make aliyah. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The idea for my book, The Bible on Location, grew from a study project designed to enrich my professional capacity to guide biblical sites in Israel. I set out to delve more deeply into the post-Torah books of the Tanakh – the ones that chronicle the Israelites’ trials and tribulations after arriving in the Promised Land – so that in addition to reading the stories on site, I could also provide commentary and food for thought.

Just as my teacher and I opened the Book of Joshua to the story of Rahab and the Israelite spies, an article appeared in the weekend newspaper about a rehab program for prostitutes in Israel. This led to an intriguing discussion of Rahab’s possible motivations for assisting the spies and betraying her people. As we read on, many fascinating questions arose, often in response to current events but also in the wake of cryptic information provided by the biblical authors and editors. Why is it stated that Ehud Ben Gera was left-handed? Why did Samson reveal the secret of his strength to the obviously manipulative Delilah? Why didn’t David punish his son Amnon for raping his sister Tamar? Did Ahab and Jezebel have a good marriage despite the zero-tolerance campaign she waged against his prophets?

Early on in the study process I knew I wanted to share what I was learning by writing a book. I chose twelve stories with compelling questions and set off to the library in pursuit of the answers, wading through books and articles on history, archaeology, literary criticism and rabbinic thought. I gathered threads from myriad sources and then wove them into commentary that answered my questions.

The process of literary sleuthing was exhilarating, but I soon realized that twelve sites didn’t sufficiently cover the biblical narrative arc or the geographic diversity of Israel. I chose eight more stories to complete the picture, but ran into a wall with the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s successor. I wasn’t able to connect to him, but as the subject of fifteen biblical stories, I couldn’t ignore him. I eventually found two illuminating articles on the story of Elisha and the wealthy Shunemite woman (II Kings 4). One lucidly explained the prophet’s role in the birth, death and resuscitation of the woman’s child, and the second discussed a commentary by an Israeli politician who, in a modern interpretation infused with Israeli political reality, accused Elisha of adultery. Good stuff, but neither article answered a curious question: why did the Shunemite woman, who had no sons, rebuff the prophet’s attempt to reward her with the birth of a baby boy?

I sniffed around for hints in the text. Shunem is mentioned a few times in the Tanakh, most notably as the hometown of Abishag, a beautiful young woman who was selected to warm the elderly King David in bed (I Kings 1). Maybe Shunem was well-known for its fetching females? Perhaps a limited but protected gene pool was producing outstanding beauties with similar features? It may then follow that the same inbreeding resulted in a tragic genetic mutation which caused death in infant males, which might explain why the Shunemite woman didn’t jump for joy at the prospect of conceiving a boy (I know, it’s a stretch). Yet, if the biological father came from a different gene pool the results could be different. This theory wouldn’t hold water academically, but I could respectfully present it as a midrash – traditional Jewish creative interpretation of text.

In a significant departure from the other nineteen chapters of the book, I wrote the commentary on II Kings 4 in the voice of the Shunemite woman. In presenting her version of the story, the two biggest challenges were explaining the genetic reality without using the word ‘genetics’; and elucidating how she conceived without specifically naming the father or casting aspersions on her husband or the prophet.

Is this modern midrash convincing? Read chapter 17 and decide for yourself.

Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Read more about her and her work here.

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Reading Tanakh with Christians

Wednesday, June 10, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julie Baretz wrote about why she decided to make aliyah. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

A man once got on a bus I was riding in Israel. He greeted the driver and a conversation ensued. Rapidly, however, the tones escalated until the two gentlemen were bellowing at each other. I didn’t speak much Hebrew at the time, but it looked like the passenger was about to sock the driver in the teeth. Yet, when we reached the next stop the tension evaporated as quickly as it had materialized. The driver opened the door, the two men shook hands and the passenger alighted with an amicable wave. I then realized I had just witnessed a thrilling round of Israel’s favorite national sport – the friendly argument.

A major impetus for writing my book, The Bible on Location, has been my work guiding Christian pilgrims in Israel. Christians who come to experience the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus comprise about 70 percent of incoming tourism - bread and butter for Jewish tour guides. I work frequently with American evangelicals; they are fervently interested in the context of Christian scripture and anything that will shed light on the Israel and the Judaism that Jesus knew. But their interest is not limited to the Gospels; they are just as passionate about Hebrew scripture. Most of them know the Tanakh very, very well; way better, in fact, then most Jews. Many of them have read it numerous times from cover-to-cover and almost all of them attend Bible study groups at their churches.


Jordan River Baptismal Site

How embarrassing it was, then, for me to realize that my Jewish smarts didn’t count for bupkis if I was only superficially acquainted with my own family history, the same one which the gentiles had so warmly adopted as their own. Serious study was in order, so I found myself a rabbi and together we dove deeply into the biblical texts. I was so intrigued by the timelessness of the biblical characters and by the endless associative modern parallels, that early on in the study process I knew I wanted to share my discoveries by writing a book. Meanwhile, I honed my commentary on my Christian pilgrims.

It’s been said that for Christians the Bible is the last word, while for Jews it’s the first. Jews like to question, to deconstruct, to dissect the biblical personalities, to up-end assumptions. In the attempt to crack the true meaning of a text we relish a difference of opinion and delight in debate. The smart aleck is king and there’s nothing we love more than a good argument l’shem shamaim, for heaven’s sake. But before I can spin an irreverent riff on Elijah the over-zealous prophet or the conniving, skirt-chasing murderer King David, I must first expound on the roots of our tradition to my gentile audience. That’s when I call on the undefeated champion of challenge, the super-hero of squabble, the Hebrew hammer of haggling: Abraham.

Abraham was fearless. When God threatened to destroy the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18, Abraham called him on it. “What if there are fifty righteous people there – will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” God conceded and Abraham boldly bargained Him down to a far better deal, convincing Him to save the two corrupt cities for the sake of a mere ten righteous people. This well-known and beloved story helps to explain that when justice is at stake, not only are we permitted to argue with the Creator, but we are obligated to do so. Hence our Jewish penchant for noisy disagreement. It’s helpful to point out that Jesus was a man of this culture; living at a time when Jewish law had not yet been finalized, he took an active part in the national discussion on how to interpret and understand the Torah.

After giving this explanation about Jews and arguing recently, a young pastor approached me with a concerned look on his face. It seemed he had something important to say. He took me aside. “Julie,” he said. “I think my wife is Jewish.”

Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Read more about her and her work here.

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The Doomed Generation

Monday, June 08, 2015 | Permalink

Joshua Cohen's most recent novel, Book of Numbers, will be published this week by Random House. He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Torah is a stickler for chronology, and all its he-begot-she’s, and she-begot-he’s, are as much attempts at establishing a lineage as they are at establishing authority—documentation issuing from the Father of Fathers, God. There are ten generations between Adam, the first man, and Noah, the second first man, and then ten generations again between Noah and Abraham—whose son was Isaac, whose son was Jacob, whose sons went down to Egypt, where their descendants were enslaved.

To insist on this provenance is to insist that the people Moses led out of Pharaohnic bondage were a People—Israelites or, once they’ve received the Torah, Jews. In Hebrew, the fourth book of the Torah is called Ba-Midbar, literally “In the wilderness”—though in English the title is Numbers, after the census with which it begins. God orders Moses to poll the members of each tribe: Moses thinks he’s raising an army, God knows he’s counting the dead. None of the numbered will be allowed to cross the Jordan into Canaan—none will survive to fulfill the Promise of the Land. The Torah’s penultimate book is rife with the ultimate, as the newly liberated are condemned to drag through the desert for forty years—a generation’s span—until all who’d hesitated at the shore of the Red Sea, and revolted at Sinai and worshipped the calf, have expired. Slaves don’t get kingdoms, is the rabbinic interpretation—either be born into freedom, or die from its lack.

This, then, was my source: a story about how story breaks down—with the symbolism of Genesis and Exodus sacrificed to the literalist bureaucracy of Leviticus, which rendered it unto smoke, and accountancy. With the last of the great characters punished and perished (Moses’ sister, Miriam, followed by Moses’ brother, Aaron), the masses are left lugging the tabernacle around until they too have wasted away—into corpses computed like so many shekels, gerahs, ephahs, and cubits.

After Numbers, nothing’s left. Deuteronomy isn’t a book, but what happens after books: just recaps (in case you missed the action since Sinai), summaries (in case you missed the action at Sinai), instructions (What Thou Shalt Do, and What Thou Shalt Not Do, Beyond Moab), and lists (The Top Ten Commandments)…

To read about Numbers’ doomed generation was to read about my own—a generation born in the 1980s enslaved to the page, but by the millennium freed by the screens, to search—or, in alternate terms, to wander. The Cloud now guides us by day and guards us by night, securing while surveilling—our manna is data, information, the content that never quite contents us. Because for all the sites of our sojourning, we keep moving on: nothing can hold us, nothing sustains. It’s as if we’re always seeking a site just beyond—a text that stills us, but that can still be passed on.

Book of Numbers is my attempt at writing just that: a novel that encrypts my experience of this transition, from the culture of the book, which I continue to idolize, to an online Zion—a Zion 2.0—that will remain in Beta forever. The forty years of Numbers became 1971 (the microchips) through 2011 (the leaks). The sand of the desert became the Silicon of the Valley. My company in peripety is a search company—Tetration (the number four abounds). Moses—whom Freud regarded as a foreigner, an Egyptian prince—is Moe, an Indian engineer of genius. Korach, the rebel, is Kori, Tetration’s treacherous President. The CEO is named Joshua Cohen, who just happens to share that name with the failed novelist hired to ghostwrite his memoirs (the JCs also share an age: almost forty). May you find whatever correspondences you seek—but don’t forget Joshua the spy, who was sent out from the wilderness to the borders of Canaan, to determine whether or not it was conquerable.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Witz), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, London Review of Books, Bookforum, The Forward, and others. He is a critic for Harper’s Magazine and lives in New York City.

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Organic Zionism

Monday, June 08, 2015 | Permalink

Julie Baretz received her license from the Israel Government Tour Guides training program in 1987. Since then she has guided thousands of Jewish and Christian visitors to sites all around the country. Her book, The Bible on Location: Off the Beaten Path in Ancient and Modern Israel, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Israeli tour guides are legendary. With their encyclopedic knowledge, hyper-enthusiasm and salt-of-the-earth dedication to the Zionist enterprise they magically draw you into a parallel universe where everyone’s Jewish, accomplished, and proud of it. Watching them in action thirty years ago, I knew this job was a perfect fit for me.

In truth, I didn’t have too many options. I was on my way to Israel a year out of college, my English literature BA wound tightly under my arm. I had no professional experience and no practical skills. Just stars in my eyes – the kind with six points.

My poor parents never understood me. They raised a fine Jewish family but making aliyah was not part of their game plan for us. Until his dying day my father insisted I moved to Israel to run away from my problems. My mother still maintains I was brainwashed by Young Judaea, my "fanatical bund." How else to explain this peculiar child who abandoned her family, boarded an El Al plane, and never looked back?

It certainly wasn’t nurture; I was the first person in my family to visit Israel. It wasn’t a religious awakening; I was done with synagogue services the day after my bat mitzvah. It wasn’t for love, either; I found that later. Ultimately it was nature, pure genetics; a mutation of the Jewish double helix as it spiraled down through the Diaspora over the ages. My Zionism is organic, the manifestation of a gene whose volume is dialed up really, really loud. “Julie,” it booms, “you’re Jewish. Get your butt over to Israel where you belong!” Some folks have a driving need to save the environment, or the animals. I feel compelled to save the Jewish people.

I share this gene with such notables as Moses, Ezra the Scribe, Golda Meir and Shimon Peres, although we are a select bunch. Of the 1.5 million Jews who left Eastern Europe from the turn of the twentieth century to the First World War, only 33,000 of them turned eastward to dusty Palestine, a meager two percent. A member of my family who was destined to join them was somehow bamboozled, or drugged, or dragged by the hair and ended up on the shtetl wagon heading west. That’s how I mistakenly wound up in America.

Don’t get me wrong – America is a wonderful place. I feel privileged to have been born and bred there, and I will never be Israeli in the way that I am American. But the two parts of my identity struggled with one another for years, and ultimately the Jewish side overpowered the American one. By a knock-out.

It’s undeniable. My neshama longs to be in Israel, surrounded by other Jews and immersed in Hebrew culture. It revels in the reverberations of antiquity humming down the pavements of the streets, through the books in the libraries and the in pots simmering in the kitchens. It pulses with the imperative to mold the work-in-progress that is the Jewish state. It aches to know all there is to know about Israel.


Ein Gedi

So, tour guiding was a calling waiting for me to answer. What do you seek in Israel - a spiritual experience at the Western Wall, or a mystical revelation in the mountains of Tsfat? The discovery of a historical thread beneath the stones of an ancient mountain fortress, or maybe a desert link to an ancestor who stood at Sinai? Tales of heroism, moral dilemmas or the juxtaposition of the words ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’? Would you like to meet a ‘new Jew,’ or perhaps an old one? Come. Take my hand. I promise to tell you everything.

Read more about Julie Baretz and her work here.

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