The ProsenPeople

New Reviews August 12, 2016

Friday, August 12, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for August 2016

Thursday, August 11, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Salma Felah


This month, I am reading The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret. It is as funny, as odd, and as true as his unforgettable and entertaining short stories.


Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole is an interesting look into a world of Jewish scholarship I knew nothing about, and a good Jewish history.


The Life of Louis Kahn by Wendy Lesser is an extremely personal story because it is about my grandfather. It is very interesting to me to read a story I have heard about in pieces. It is extremely well written, and even though it has not come out I recommend it to all!


I haven't started yet, but I am very excited to read The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz this month!


Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer is an intergenerational look American Jewry, its relationship to Israel, the Holocaust, Jewish ritual, politics, technology, and media (among other things...) and how they each play out in a domestic space and the world more generally.


This month, I am reading I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Set in the English countryside during the 1930s, it is narrated by a young girl who lives with her family in a decrepit castle in England. So far it is a good read, but I have not finished it yet!


This month, I am reading The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky. Her writing is compelling and her characters are already living with me—and I just started!


At some point in everyone's life, you dream about "running away." Leave Me by Gayle Forman is that story. Overworked, very busy mother, wife and full-time editor, Maribeth Klein gets sick and can not recuperate. This novel is about what Maribeth does to face her real life again.


I'm riding the last month of summer for all it's worth with my August reads. Currently I have my nose burred in Moonglow: A Novel by Michael Chabon and an upcoming English translation of Tommy Wieringa's These Are the Names, which won the 2013 Libris Prize in its original Dutch. It doesn't take long to see why: I'm only a few chapters in and I'm already spellbound by the novel's balance of mundane and mysterious between two seemingly inharmonious stories without ever striking a discordant note.

And for those wondering how Moonglow compares to his previous novels: Chabon's back.

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Dispatch from South Africa's First Jewish Literary Festival, Part II

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 | Permalink

Recently invited to speak at South Africa’s first-ever festival of Jewish literature, The Rowing Lesson author Anne Landsman shares the story of her visit and the discoveries she made there as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

(Read Part I of the essay here.)

In Cape Town, one is never too far from the cawing of sea gulls and the bracing scent of sea spray, with Table Mountain and the peaks surrounding it presiding over the human activities in the city below. The splendor of the natural environment, so close to the buildings and highways, so interwoven in the fabric of everyday life, is ever-present, and I could not help bringing this awareness to the community center on the brilliantly sunny morning of the festival. People milled about a central courtyard waiting to enter the various venues. Days earlier, all 650 tickets to the festival had been sold out and there was a discernible hum of anticipation and excitement in the crowd.

There was something for everyone on the program: a range of offerings for adults as well as programming for young children and teens, which included childcare for the very youngest attendees.

Kevin Bloom spoke to John Matisson about the impact of South Africa’s Jewish journalists; Nechama Brodie gave a talk about slavery in the Cape; Dennis Davis, in conversation with Johnny Copelyn, dealt with the question of whether unions really influenced the character of South Africa’s democracy. The indomitable Albie Sachs, famous for his anti-apartheid activism which cost him an eye and an arm in a car bombing in Maputo in 1988, spoke to Ruth Carneson about surviving childhood trauma.

Jewish topics were discussed by academics including Steven Robbins, author of Letters of Stone, a heartbreaking Holocaust family memoir; Adam Mendelsohn, author of The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire; as well as a panel that dealt with the stories of Jewish country communities across Africa. Tony Leon, the politician who served as leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s opposition party, from 1999 to 2007, addressed Zionism head on, and how it is understood in the world right now.

On the literature end of things, Karina Szczurek, André Brink’s widow and a gifted writer in her own right, shared her passionate understanding of South Africa’s Jewish Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer. Aviva Laskov spoke to how writers from different language backgrounds added their voices to Israel’s literary tradition. Poetry and other forms of writing were covered together with Spanish dance, Yiddish theater, motherhood, food, cryptic crossword puzzles, and athletic sports. Theodore Yach, the marathon swimmer who recently completed his 100th ocean swim from Robben Island to Blouberg, Cape Town—a shark-infested, icy cold ordeal of almost 5 miles—explained how he prepares mentally and physically for the challenge.

I spoke too, describing what went into the writing of my novels, how each book grew out of a different phase in my life. For someone who has lived so far away for so long, it was a great thrill to identify deeply familiar faces in the crowd, and to be seen and heard by those who have known me since I was a child. In the Q&A session, I was moved by the thoughtful questions that were asked, as well as a humorous anecdote an audience member told about my late father, on whom my novel The Rowing Lesson is based.

Later in the day, I was on a panel discussing what makes a book Jewish with Rabbi Sam Thurgood, Dennis Davis, and Marcia Leveson. I was excited to be in the company of Dennis Davis, a brilliant and compelling law professor (and now a High Court judge) whom I had heard speak at anti-Apartheid gatherings when I was a student in the late ‘70s; Marcia Leveson, a former University of the Witwatersrand English professor who published People of the Book: Images of the Jew in South African Fiction, 1880-1992; and Rabbi Sam Thurgood, the Rabbi of Beit Midrash Morasha, who recently created a significant and inspiring library of Jewish books there. We had a spirited debate about how narrow or broad the definition should be, in which I found myself arguing for inclusivity, for the term to accommodate as wide a range of Jewish experience as possible.

I came away from Cape Town’s Jewish Literary Festival with a sense of pride at the vibrancy of this small community, and the high level of participation of its members in a completely new endeavor. There was clearly a thirst for intellectual engagement and a desire to hear a wide range of voices reflecting the full panoply of Jewish life. On a personal level, I was touched over and over again by the people I knew, both those who spoke as well as those who attended. After so many years away, I found myself completely at home.

Anne Landsman is the author of The Rowing Lesson, a 2009 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

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Book Cover of the Week: Where the Jews Aren't

Tuesday, August 09, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

One of my favorite nonfiction writers has a new book coming out at the end of the month that addresses the bizarre history of Birobidzhan, a Russian region granting autonomy to its Jewish settlers along the border with China:

Envisioned as a stronghold of Jewish culture, Birobidzhan became home to thousands of Jews within a couple years of its establishment in 1929 before it was plundered for intellectuals and elites in a wave of arrests in the late 1930s. Following World War II, refugees from the Jewish Pale of Settlement reinforced the remote region's population, only to succumb once more to the Soviet purges which effectively silenced Birobidzhan's inhabitants and their story—until now.

Those stories forming Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region could not be left to a more capable custodian than Masha Gessen, whose previous books on Russian history and current events range from biographies of mathematicians to the love stories of LGBT Russians to the fate of the Soviet intelligentsia under Communism to the Pussy Riot revolution.

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Dispatch from South Africa's First Jewish Literary Festival, Part I

Monday, August 08, 2016 | Permalink

Recently invited to speak at South Africa’s first-ever festival of Jewish literature, Anne Landsman shares the story of her visit and the discoveries she made there as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The first-ever Jewish Literary Festival in South Africa took place in Cape Town on May 22, 2016 at the Community Center on Hatfield Street, not too far from the gardens that were planted by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s to feed their sailors fruits and vegetables en route to the East, thereby bringing European settlers to the tip of Africa for the first time.

This Jewish campus, which includes the Gardens Shul (celebrating its 175th anniversary this year), the Jacob Gitlin Library, the Holocaust Center, the Jewish Museum, and the Café Riteve, is in the very heart of the city, close to the Houses of Parliament, close to where my grandmother once lived, close to the student digs I shared when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town. It is also near Highlands House, Cape Town’s Jewish home for the aged, where my mother spent her last days. I had not been back to South Africa since she died in 2010 and was longing to return, so when I was invited to participate in the Jewish Literary Festival, I jumped at the opportunity.

I left South Africa in 1981 and moved to New York City, where I have lived ever since. The Jewish population of New York is 1.1 million, by recent counts, while the Jewish population of Cape Town is around 16,000 souls. Roughly 90 percent of the 80,000 Jews who live in South Africa are of Lithuanian descent, making the South African Jewish community the largest pocket of Litvaks in the world.

As a New Yorker and an Upper West Sider, I take the availability of Jewish life with its vast array of diverse religious and cultural offerings for granted. What would it be like to return to the small, tight-knit community I had known as a young person? And what would the community’s response be to this inaugural celebration of local Jewish culture?

When I asked Cindy Moritz, one of the festival’s founders along with Joanne Jowell and Viv Anstey, why it had come into being now, she explained that nothing like it had existed in the community before, and that, in partnership with the Gitlin Library, it was intended to elevate the profile of Jewish books and literature, emphasizing their role in Jewish culture as well as in the greater society.

“The other answer,” she continued, “is that the political climate has meant the Jewish community is often linked to dissent and negativity when it comes to Israel and reports on the Middle East. This is an opportunity to remind the wider populace of an aspect of cultural value that the Jewish people have contributed in the past, and do still add here and around the world. It seeks to be non-political and non-religious, to embrace all who want to participate.”

Read Part II of Anne Landsman’s dispatch here »

Anne Landsman is the author of The Rowing Lesson, a 2009 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

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New Reviews August 5, 2016

Friday, August 05, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council

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Back into the Beyond

Wednesday, August 03, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leigh Stein talked about domestic abuse in the Jewish community with Sarah Rothe, direct services coordinator at Shalom Bayit of the Bay Area. Leigh is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My memoir, Land of Enchantment, is about an abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, and the death of my ex-boyfriend Jason in a motorcycle accident, just a few weeks after I saw him for the last time and finally felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. From 2007 to 2008, we lived together in New Mexico, whose state nickname is the “Land of Enchantment.” This is a poem I wrote in 2009. I was on vacation in New Mexico, by myself, and Jason called out of the blue, as if he knew I was there, though there’s no way he could have known. Our lives always seemed destined to collide; I couldn’t see then how, and if, I would ever really be free of him.

My favorite thing to do in New Mexico is drive by
the places where we were once in love with each other.

Most animals would never do this. If you gave a chihuahua
the keys to your car and said, Go, it would not drive

along to its memory, that broken record, that cheap
date. Chihuahuas do not build shrines to mistakes.

They do not gauge their success based on what they said
they would be doing in five years five years ago. Last night

I read that three chihuahuas saved a three-year-old
girl from a mountain lion, and there's yet another

trait that differentiates me from said animal.
I read about the women buried in a mass grave

on the West Mesa, how a dog discovered the bones
of Michelle Valdez, and now the people who call

the police hotline can only offer premonitions.
Whenever I read anything, I'm sure it is about me.

I'm also sure the worst things to happen are those
we could never imagine, and so it is unlikely I will be

threatened by a mountain lion tonight, or thrown
in an unmarked grave by a man who has hired me for sex.

My favorite thing to do in New Mexico is drive
and try to describe the landscape in my mind,

so if some day I go blind, I'll still be able to visit
the terrain by chanting terra cotta yonder yonder

like a spell cast by a magic student who has no
idea what she's doing. Like a prayer to the party

responsible. The only thing we ever had in common
was making the choices that would net the best stories and

when you called, I was back where we started, watching
the sun crown the hills. I was going to ask if for the past

two years you've been living in your memory, too, but you
interrupted to say you'd enlisted, and here it was, the unimaginable

I'd never imagined, a premonition of violence, a reason
to drive until I was out of range, off the map.

Leigh Stein’s work has appeared in Allure, Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Hairpin, Poets & Writers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. Leigh is currently on tour with her new book, Land of Enchantment, for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network.

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Book Cover of the Week: Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Tuesday, August 02, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Yes, there's a new Michael Chabon novel coming out November 2016. And yes, it's good.

You'd better be prepared to pry this one out of your loved ones' grasp and gaze to get them to the table this Thanksgiving: Moonglow is an utterly absorbing "tale of madness and model rocketry, of war and adventure, of love and desire, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishments at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies." From the Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Floridian retirement communities to penal colonies at home and war camps abroad, Chabon's newest journey proves well worth the wait.

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Interview with Sarah Rothe, Direct Services Coordinator at Shalom Bayit

Monday, August 01, 2016 | Permalink

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, the poetry collection Dispatch from the Future, and a new memoir, Land of Enchantment, out this week from Plume. With the release of her book, Leigh is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My memoir Land of Enchantment is about an abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, and the death of my ex-boyfriend in a motorcycle accident just a few weeks after I saw him for the last time and finally felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. While it’s easy to think that intimate partner violence is something that happens to other people in other communities, the reality is that one in four Jewish women will experience physical, psychological, or sexual abuse in her lifetime. I recently spoke with Sarah Rothe at Shalom Bayit, an organization in California that is working to end domestic violence in Jewish homes.

Sarah is a licensed clinical social worker who works one-on-one and in groups with clients in the Bay Area Jewish community who have experienced relationship abuse.

Leigh Stein: Can you tell me a little bit about the background of Shalom Bayit's founding?

Sarah Rothe: Shalom Bayit was founded almost 25 years ago, as a women's collective. Naomi Tucker was one of the founding members. She had been working in the domestic violence field and really wanted to reach out to the Jewish community, especially to combat the myth that there isn't domestic violence in the Jewish community. The organization has evolved over the years: today we provide direct individual counseling, and we have a helpline that's free and confidential. We offer support groups throughout the Bay Area, serving nine counties, that incorporate Jewish spiritual healing, focusing on holidays and rituals from a lens of feminism or anti-violence.

LS: I think there’s this myth across all communities that domestic violence doesn’t happen to us, it happens to others. Why do you think that is?

SR: There are a variety of reasons for that myth. I think some of it is socioeconomic stereotypes: people tend to believe that this is a problem of a family that's very disadvantaged or may have issues with addiction. All of those things could be true in the Jewish community, but it’s not usually a stereotype of a Jewish family. There's also a stereotype of Jewish men as more learned, less macho. That tends to be a trope, right? Even in the media, the Jewish guys tend to be nerdier, skinnier, and women are domineering Jewish wives who boss people around. That's not necessarily true in real families, but it's perpetuated in the media.

I think also there's this idea that someone who is a stand-up community member can't be doing this at home, in private. Unfortunately, that's not true at all. It's hard to reconcile that idea of a respected member of a community exerting power and control and dominating at home, possibly committing physical violence toward their partner.

LS: What's the hardest part of your job?

SR: The hardest part is helping women feel that they're not alone, and also combatting the shame in one's experience. Because it's a small community and everyone knows each other, it can be hard for them to come for help.

The size of the community is blessing and a curse. We have a Rabbinic Advisory Council with 80 signed on, agreeing to collaborate actively with us, and we have a sermon campaign. There are some synagogues that don't participate—there is sometimes a lack of larger support in a synagogue, or even in the community's interpretation of the Talmud or Jewish texts, if its leaders or constituents are pushing the idea of maintaining a marriage no matter what—but others take it to heart and are very vocal about women's rights and non-violence.

LS: What's the most rewarding part of your job?

SR: Seeing people move towards healing and the relief that they get when they connect with us and feel held. Especially around the holidays. We do a Chanukah adopt-a-family program, which is anonymous on both sides: a family or a congregation or a temple school class takes on a family, or an individual leaving an abusive relationship. That's a really tangible way to feel the community cares for these families.

LS: And what was the evolution or impetus to create a program for young adults?

SR: Unfortunately, statistics show that young people are even more at risk for abusive relationships than adults. Our focus is not just responding after the crisis, but providing prevention; our mission is to foster the social change necessary to eradicate violence in the Jewish community. Treatment can help, but to work toward eradicating it, we need to educate the next generation before they get into these relationships.

LS: Although my memoir is about a heterosexual relationship, I don't want to reinforce the common misconception that domestic violence only affects women in heterosexual relationships. Is there anything you'd like to add from your extensive experience working with the LGBTQ community in particular?

SR: Domestic violence happens at the same rates in all communities, whether that's Jewish or Christian, heterosexual or LGBT. I think there are additional barriers to speaking up about abuse if you are not in a heterosexual relationship. So much research on domestic violence came out of the feminist movement in terms of battered women, and that can be alienating if that's not your experience. The whole movement is now trying to redirect and scale to support the LGBT community. Domestic violence can happen between two women and it can happen between two men. It can be harder to get into a shelter, as most support women with children—some don't take single women at all without children. There are very, very few shelters for gay male victims. And there are so many additional barriers to calling the police if you're a man who's been abused, because of stereotypes.

There are also additional layers of shame, if you have to come out about your sexuality, if you're not already out, at the same time as coming out about your abuse. One of my female clients was abused by a female partner (outside the Bay Area) and the police refused to document it as domestic violence. They named it as some kind of other assault or altercation, but didn't acknowledge that it was a relationship with her partner, which affected her ability to get services and recourse later.

LS: I think one of the hardest things to understand about this topic is that to an outsider it seems so clear. Why does she stay with that guy? Why doesn't she leave? But on the inside of a relationship, it's extremely complex and potentially dangerous. Do you have any advice for friends or family members who are concerned that someone they love might be in an abusive relationship?

SR: My advice is usually to support and listen to that friend, and validate their experience. Listen to what they're sharing and remind them that it's not their fault. A lot of times, abusive partners will tell the people they hurt, "I wouldn't have exploded, if you hadn't pushed me..." And those being abused often start to believe that is true.

Healing starts with hearing "You never deserve to be abused like this, no matter what you've done. There are resources out there to help you.” But don’t push. Your support should not be contingent upon their leaving the relationship. Leave it up to your friend, who has maybe not been able to make decisions because of the dynamic of control in their relationship. Let them decide for their own future.

Leigh Stein’s work has appeared in Allure, Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Hairpin, Poets & Writers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. Leigh is currently on tour with her new book, Land of Enchantment, for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network.

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New Reviews July 29, 2016

Friday, July 29, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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