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The 7 Best Jewish Moments in American Sitcom History

Thursday, July 07, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong shared 6 things she learned about Jewish culture from watching Seinfeld. With the release of her book Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything earlier this week, Jennifer is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Jewish writers, producers, and actors have been among Hollywood’s most prominent since the television industry began in the 1940s. So it’s no surprise that they eventually began to tell their own stories: the struggle to bridge traditions in marriage to non-Jews, the feeling of being outsiders, the pride in their own unique culture—and, of course, the grand Jewish tradition of turning to witty humor in dealing with it all.

Here, some of the best shows in which Jewishness took center stage:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77)
From 1949 to 1956, in the early days of television, The Goldbergs had been a hit—one of many that crossed over from radio. But since then, Jewish leading characters had virtually disappeared from TV as the medium grew more powerful. That changed in 1970 with The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Rhoda—a sidekick to the main character, certainly, but a central and scene-stealing one. Played to perfection by (non-Jewish) Valerie Harper, Rhoda was a bold, funny New Yorker who’d moved to Minneapolis. She became so popular that she got her own spinoff in 1974. Only one episode during her time on Mary Tyler Moore blatantly dealt with antisemitism: In “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda,” Rhoda is excluded from a country club Mary’s new friend invites her to. Despite the excellent episode title, the effort comes across a little too preachy. Better are the subtle, everyday ways Rhoda’s differences come across, as when Rhoda’s parents renew their vows in front of a rabbi.

Rhoda (1974-78)
Harper’s Rhoda got her own sitcom in 1974—a big deal for single, funny, Jewish girls who’d figured the best they could do is be a sidekick. The series focused on Rhoda’s move back to her hometown of New York City, where she soon met a tall, handsome, not-at-all-Jewish divorcée named Joe. They’re soon engaged, and eight weeks into the series, they get married in an hour-long special that broke ratings records. More than 52 million people tuned in, making it the most-watched TV episode of the 1970s at the time, and the second-most-watched of all time behind I Love Lucy’s birth episode in 1953. Monday Night Football announcer Howard Cosell acknowledged the nationwide interest, welcoming viewers to the in-progress game when the episode ended on a different channel. Rhoda’s Jewishness seemed to be fading from view with her mainstream stardom—a judge, not a rabbi, presided over the small ceremony in her parents’ apartment. On the other hand, she’d achieved the heights of mainstream stardom.

Seinfeld (1989-98)
Network executives at NBC famously expressed their doubts about Seinfeld before putting it on the air: “Too New York, too Jewish.” A few years later, when the show was dominating TV ratings and watercooler conversations, many Jewish leaders debated whether it was Jewish enough. It was, for sure, far more about being a comedian in New York than about being religiously Jewish; but Jewish culture crept in at times, via foods like babka and marble rye. And once in a while, even religion came into play. Jerry and Elaine serve as godparents at a bris. A kid kisses Elaine at his bar mitzvah to celebrate “becoming a man,” prompting George to explain that she has “shiksappeal.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000- )
Seinfeld co-creator Larry David explored his Jewishness much more openly on his HBO show in which he plays a version of himself. In one episode, he acts Orthodox to kiss up to the head of the kidney consortium in hopes of getting his friend bumped up on the waiting list. The Israel-Palestine dispute plays out in a Palestinian restaurant where the chicken is so good it causes some serious soul-searching for Larry. (Fun fact: Alec Berg told me that this was a storyline he had left over from his days at Seinfeld.) Larry scalps tickets for High Holy Days, goes full goy when he (mistakenly) thinks he was adopted, and invites a sex offender to a Passover seder, testing the limits of “let all who are hungry come and eat.”

Sex and the City (1998-2004)
Charlotte York, the very definition of a WASP, falls in love with her Jewish divorce lawyer, Harry Goldenblatt. When he tells her he can’t marry a non-Jew, she is, at first, incensed. Never one to back down from a challenge—particularly a romantic one—she determines to convert. But she doesn’t take the decision lightly. Soon she’s much more serious about Judaism than her future husband. She works all day to prepare a Shabbat feast, only to catch him watching a game on a nearby TV on mute during the meal.

Transparent (2014- )
It’s easy to get distracted by the showy premise—a middle-aged father, Mort, comes out as a transgender woman renamed Maura to her adult children. It’s merely a sidenote that the family at the show’s center, the Pfeffermans, are undoubtedly Jewish. Perhaps that’s why they can show their Jewishness like no TV family before them: one of Maura’s children, Sarah, plans a Jewish wedding to her girlfriend, Tammy. Another of Maura’s children, Josh, dates a female rabbi. Key scenes take place in her synagogue, including an extraordinarily extensive depiction of tashlich. And throughout family flashbacks in the second season, a connection between transgenderism and Judaism emerges: A relative, a transgender woman, stayed behind during the Holocaust because she refused to travel under her given male name.

Orange Is the New Black (2013- )
Netflix’s hit about life in a women’s prison is at least as much comedy as drama, and that was apparent in the third season’s increasingly serious story arc about prisoners pretending to be Jewish to get the (slightly) better kosher meals. In the end, one dedicated prisoner, “Black Cindy,” sincerely pursues conversion, to touching effect. “As far as God is concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing,” she explains of her attraction to the faith. “It’s like a verb. It’s like, you do God.” Lucky for us, Jewish writers and producers also do comedy—and they’ve made some of the best TV of all time.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has written about pop culture for Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York, BBC Culture, and others. She is the author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and is currently touring through the JBC Network for the 2016 – 2017 season on her new book, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

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Book Cover of the Week: Karl Marx, Greatness and Illusion

Tuesday, July 05, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

While the contents of a philosophy-packed biography of Karl Marx is almost certain to send my head spinning, the clean lines of its book cover are enough to set it back on straight:

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion comes out this September from Belknap Press, condensing the life and oeuvre of one of the world's most influential intellectuals into 720 pages of history and thought. The simplicity of the book jacket's design is a great pairing for the whirlwind of information within, balanced and bold. Just don't stare at it too long—it'll make you dizzy.

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6 Things I Learned About Jewish Culture from Seinfeld

Monday, July 04, 2016 | Permalink

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, out this week from Simon & Schuster. Jennifer will be guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I’m a Midwestern shiksa who knew exactly one Jewish person in the first 18 years of my life. I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic area. Jessica Terman was a grade-school friend of mine who had to get up in front of the class every December to explain Hanukkah to the rest of us before we could get on with our Christmas-inspired projects and celebrations. Then she moved away, I think around fourth grade, so I was back to square one with my Jewish studies.

That is, until Seinfeld came along in 1989, when I was a freshman in high school. I was a huge TV geek, and within a few years, Seinfeld had grown into the kind of show so popular that essentially everyone watched—it was assumed in many circles that any person, regardless of age or religion or hometown, would get any Seinfeld reference. This was particularly funny given that NBC executives at first expressed their skepticism about Seinfeld’s potential by saying it was “too New York, too Jewish.”

Maybe it was, but I personally loved that about it. I related to the characters and thought they were funny even though they lived lives so different from my own. And throughout their nine seasons on the air, they slowly, hilariously expanded my tiny worldview to include signs of Jewish culture that went far beyond the dreidel:

1. I am a shiksa!
Yes, I know this isn’t exactly a compliment, but I so wanted to be one once I realized Elaine had shiksappeal—she spent an episode attracting Jewish men left and right, despite her non-Jewishness. Interestingly enough, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine to such shiksaperfection, has Jewish (Alsatian) ancestry, at least on her father’s side.

2. Only Jews get to make Jewish jokes—and it is not okay to convert just for the jokes.
Jerry was very clear about this when his dentist, Tim Whatley, started making jokes after his conversion. Then suddenly Jerry was counter-accused: of being an anti-dentite.

3. Babkas sounded delicious.
Wait, these come in chocolate and cinnamon?

4. And there is also something called a marble rye?
I might mug an old lady, too, if it came to that. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I ended up with a Jewish guy because of Seinfeld’s delicious-sounding Jewish food references. And holiday feasts have yet to let me down.

5. Ah, so that’s what a mohel is.

6. Being Jewish is no sin.
A priest told Jerry so when he went to confession to tell on Tim Whatley. So at least we can all agree on that.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has written about pop culture for Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York, BBC Culture, and others. She is the author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

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New Reviews July 1, 2016

Friday, July 01, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Summer 2016 Book Releases

Thursday, June 30, 2016 | Permalink

Summer is officially here, and it's time to plan your reading lists for the long daylight hours!

Still need to catch up on all those books you meant to read last season? Refresh your memory with our earlier preview of Spring 2016 Releases. Or scroll below to find new and upcoming titles!

June 2016

July 2016

August 2016

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In Defense of Kosher Food: A Recipe

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 | Permalink

Cindy Silvert is the author of The Hungry Love Cookbook: 30 Steamy Stories, 120 Mouthwatering Recipes. She is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I am of the opinion that kosher food gets a bum rap. I won’t deny that having a kosher kitchen can be a challenge, especially if you have a small kitchen or members of your household who think you’re a killjoy. Kosher food is hardly inexpensive, and unless you live in Israel or France (and care about these things) the modest variety of cheeses could make one weep—ditto for meat, if you’re a meat eater and don’t happen to live in Argentina. Traveling to places where bacon is a national treasure can limit one’s dining options and make the natives suspicious, and even at home there are way less restaurants, caterers, and foodie shows for the kosher palette.

The Good Book limits not just what one can and cannot eat, but also when, where and how one eats. But does limited necessarily mean bad? In parenting, we know kids need boundaries to become healthy, responsible citizens—so how about us? Might the limitations required by the laws of kashrut not be, in fact, our friends?

Consider kashrut as the prototype for super-trendy mindful eating. Stopping to say a few words of appreciation in reciting a blessing before you stuff another chocolate fudge brownie in your mouth can have a powerful effect on you. Kosher observance is a self-imposed, grown up version of “Hungry children elsewhere would give anything to eat that.” It makes you stop and ponder how this stuff got on your plate and just how lucky you are to be eating in the first place. Even I have come to the realization, on more than one occasion, that a piece of fruit is a better for me than a paw-full of Oreo cookies—yes, even the thin ones. It’s a reminder that the whole gastronomical world ain’t your, well, oyster.

Besides, by restricting you from eating anything, anytime, a kosher diet can have a slimming effect on one’s waistline—Jewish holidays aside. The self-discipline demanded by kashrut instills a sense of humility that predates veganism and every other popular diet by a couple millennia. (The Paleo diet, the one exception, is of a slightly different mindset: see food, pounce on it, rip it to shreds, gobble it up). Self-help gurus suggest that gratitude can cure just about anything, so why not start with dinner?

Below is a recipe for Shiitake Croquettes from the very first saga of love and eats from The Hungry Love Cookbook. This recipe is proof that kosher can be both trendy and delicious. Moreover, as a pareve dish containing neither meat nor dairy, it can be served with any meal. The only problem with these croquettes is that they’re extremely popular and addictive. People are going to pop them into their mouths like there’s no tomorrow, which means you will have to sautée four rainforests worth of mushrooms to satisfy your greedy guests.

Seriously, however many mushrooms you think you need, double or triple that amount. These are great by themselves or dipped in a sweet-and-spicy sauce.

Recipe: Shiitake Croquettes

1 medium onion
1 TBS vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
1 garlic clove
1 lb Shiitake mushrooms
¼ cup sherry
½ cup breadcrumbs or panko
½ tsp garlic powder
3 TBS chia seeds

1. Chop and sautée onions and S&P in oil on medium heat for 10 minutes.
2. Mince the garlic clove and add to the onion.
3. Sautée onion and garlic another 2 minutes and remove from heat.
4. Chop and sauté mushrooms and S&P in oil on medium heat for 10 minutes.
5. Add the sherry and simmer until the liquid is absorbed by the mushrooms.
6. Puree the onion, garlic, and mushrooms in a food processor until smooth.
7. Add half the breadcrumbs or panko and garlic powder to the mushroom mixture and form walnut-size balls.
8. Combine the remaining breadcrumbs, chia seeds. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
9. Roll the mushroom balls in the breadcrumb mixture.
10. Spray lightly with oil.
11. Bake at 350° for 20 min or until lightly brown and crispy on the outside

Hot & Sweet Dipping Sauce

Mix the following ingredients:

½ cup light mayonnaise
2 TBS BBQ sauce
1 lime juiced
1 dash Tabasco sauce
1 TBS honey
Salt and pepper

Cindy Silvert is a food columnist, humor writer, and self-taught cook. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her book The Hungry Love Cookbook through the JBC Network.

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Book Cover of the Week: They Were Like Family to Me

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

If you're surprised to discover that Helen Maryles Shankman already has another title due out this October, look closer:

For reasons the author attributes to "the mysteries of the book business," Scribner has decided to change not only the original artwork for In the Land of Armadillos but the very name of the book itself in a "reprint edition" of Shankman's debut collection of short stories, which came out in February. The announcement of these changes was met with a wide range of responses from readers, writers, and friends of the author last week—as well as here in the office! " I think it's a good sign that they're changing the title and cover," one fellow writer commented on Shankman's post. "It means they are still very invested in the book."

While it sounds like the cover you see above is still far from finalized, it's a great sneak peak. What are your thoughts on the new book cover and title? Weigh in in the comments section below!

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30 Steamy Stories and Corned Beef on Rye

Monday, June 27, 2016 | Permalink

Cindy Silvert is the author of The Hungry Love Cookbook: 30 Steamy Stories, 120 Mouthwatering Recipes. She is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I always knew that I would write short stories. I didn’t dream they’d be these stories, packaged so lovingly into this silly book, but I knew I’d write. With a taste for the tragic (Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews), the wacky (Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante's Handbook) and historical biographies (books about the guys who built this country, dreamed Israel into reality, Stacey Schiff’s page-turning Cleopatra, etc.), I was as surprised as anyone when The Hungry Love Cookbook spilled out of me. So how do I explain it?

Just as the body swells to create a natural cast, a cocoon of sorts, for an injured or delicate part, so too writing is my way of not having to think about ISIS, college funds, or retirement. I always thought that creative was my family’s code word for stupid: “Cindy is so… creative!” So after dabbling in theater and visual arts, I got myself an MBA to prove I wasn’t a complete dolt.

Still, how does a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs come up with 30 tawdry tales—and why pair them with a kosher cookbook? Isn’t kosher cooking difficult enough? If you’ve read even one of the stories in The Hungry Love Cookbook, you know that they’re a lot more innocent than they’re cracked up to be, and that I’m a bit of a weirdo. I’m that person who laughs at that part of the movie that no one else laughs at. I don’t usually get jokes printed on T-shirts and, at the risk of being labeled a freak, I’m not ticklish. Way back when, a friend (yes, a friend) nicknamed me Marshmallows and Daggers: I can be both uber-sensitive and less than kind. It’s all in a day’s work: I’m a writer.

The thing about being a writer is that, well, I’m just not that special anymore. Once upon a time being an author meant something: pouring your tortured soul and sullied past onto paper, thus making family relationships even worse while providing yet more fodder for your ever-obliging therapist. You had something to be proud of! Now everyone’s a blogger, a photographer, a social commentator. And a lot of these people are taking up excellent causes. Just about everyone on Facebook seems to have more of a social conscience than I do, and I thought I was one of the good guys. But I digress. How and why write in this deluge of thoughts and words? Well for one, at least I’m not confined to distilling my life’s work into no more than 140 characters. And frankly, I’m too old, prickly, and opinionated to get a real job.

The fact is, in every reincarnation of my career path, I was essentially making everything up. Whether I was Cindy the actor, the director, the teacher or the florist, I was inventing, creating, painting a picture or sorts. For The Hungry Love Cookbook, I’ve painted 30 over-the-top scenes that you can relish with or without food. True to my Marshmallow-Dagger nature, I’ve contrasted genres, time periods, and techniques in sharing some of my favorite dishes drizzled on top in the hopes of making you smile as you churn out meal after meal, be it for yourself or a whole clan of ingrates. If that’s you, you deserve a break. I would know.

Cindy Silvert is a food columnist, humor writer, and self-taught cook. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her book The Hungry Love Cookbook through the JBC Network.

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New Reviews June 24, 2016

Friday, June 24, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Dorit Sasson's Top 4 Memorable Memoirs

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dorit Sasson described the self-imposed silence she learned to break in writing her memoir Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Going through transformational, life-altering events certainly changes a person, but when it comes to writing these events in the form of a memoir, one has to know how to ground the reader in the story.

Transformation isn’t only for immigrants like myself who typically experience displacement, but for showing any kind of change or growth—cultural, psychological, or emotional. To read just immigrant memoirs would be to ignore the other voices of change. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” James Baldwin observed. “But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the young narrator travels back and forth in time from her current Pacific Crest Trail experience to memories of girlhood to find her soul. She struggles to understand her mother’s death at the onset of her journey, not fully understanding that those dramatic moments will give voice to her higher self. Each time I “traveled” with Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail, I started to think about ways to translate the cultural, emotional and social obstacles into story material. My character would need to undergo some kind of transformation. As an IDF female immigrant, how would that cultural transformation show up in my story? To show that transformation, I had to go back to the beginning, to where the story started—in New York City. I had to get in touch with that eighteen-year-old again.

Gabrielle Selz and I grew up in the same building known as Westbeth in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City so our parents already had many things in common. Her memoir Unstill Life tells the story of a daughter of a larger-than-life father known as Mr. Modern Art, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and her relationship to a world where the boundary between art and life is often blurred. For Selz’s parents, art always came first and children were regarded as “side dishes.” Selz understands that her relationship with parents, especially with her father, is anything but traditional; as she comes to terms with her father’s relationship, she struggles to figure out her purpose in life and whether following in her father’s footsteps in the art world is part of that journey.

Another memoir that particularly spoke to me is Karen Levy’s My Father’s Gardens tells the story of a native-born Israeli who tries to find a sense of home and connection while traveling for most of her childhood and young adult life between her native Israel and equally familiar United States. She feels uprooted most of the time. Karen is also a native-born Israeli woman who ends up serving in the Israel Defense Forces and soon after, travels back and forth between both countries. She, too, has a complicated relationship with her mother as she seeks to escape her for more positive experiences, and it was edifying to study how she handled the cultural-psychological journey of learning to become her own person in her writing as I began to chronicle a parallel path.

Lastly, I’d be remiss to neglect The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah, in which Joel Chasnoff describes his immigration to Israel from an Ivy League with the intention of serving in a high combat unit in the IDF. Chasnoff serves in a high combat unit in South Lebanon, and uses military slang and humor as his way of adjusting to this new militaristic mentality. Chasnoff’s memoir is largely an American-Jewish memoir.

For the past twenty-three years I had lived the events of my Israel Defense Forces service in my head, but I still needed to figure out the best way to tell the story. When I read the memoirs of others, I started imagining myself in their stories. These memoirs gave me “permission” to write about the challenges of my service as a female immigrant at a time when there were no programs for lone soldiers.

These memoirs would quickly become my good friends. These memoirs helped me find my way home.

Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.

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