The ProsenPeople

Interview: Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly

Wednesday, February 08, 2017 | Permalink

with Teri Markson

Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly’s new book The Inquisitor’s Tale recently won The Sydney Taylor Award in the Older Readers Category and was named a National Jewish Book Award Finalist for Children’s Literature and a Newbery Honor Book. Jewish Book Council talked to the writer-illustrator team to discuss the book and their approaches to creating compelling literature for young Jewish readers.

Teri Markson: In addition to receiving many starred reviews and accolades, The Inquisitor’s Tale has won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers category and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Yet the book isn’t singularly focused on the Jewish character or Judaism itself. How do you account for the reaction from the Jewish community?

Adam Gidwitz: This has been one of the most satisfying elements of the recognition The Inquisitor's Tale has received. It's always a dangerous proposition to try to explain why someone likes your work, but I think the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the Jewish community derives from at least two sources:

So much of the children's literature featuring Jewish characters that receives national attention concerns the Holocaust. But Jewish history is so much richer than that! Jews have been writing and learning and praying and inventing for, by our count, over five millennia. I think people are appreciating a rich and detailed account of a period other than the Holocaust—an account that describes a very different kind of persecution of Jews; and also features and celebrates one of the great accomplishments of Jewish culture: the Talmud.

Secondly, in all literature—and especially literature for children—bad guys are usually stereotypically bad, and good guys are perfectly good. This is exaggerated in cases of persecution, such as the persecution of Jews. In The Inquisitor's Tale, I tried to depict the Jewish community with some complexity—we're definitely not all sages and saints—and, more crucially, I tried to portray the persecutor, King Louis IX, with realistic complexity. Louis was so beloved that he was sainted, and has a major American city named after him. Having read a number of sources on him, including critical sources, I understand why: he was in many ways a wonderful king and a wonderful man. But he was also viciously anti-Jewish. How could he be both? He said he hated the Jews, and supposedly claimed he would happily see a Jew stabbed in the stomach, yet he largely prohibited violence against them in his kingdom, unlike other monarchs of his time. Humans are complex, and my goal was to depict them in all their complex glory. Why would this appeal to Jewish community? You know what they say: two Jews, three opinions? We revel in complexity.

TM: One of the protagonists in the book, William, is biracial, of both African and European descent. How likely would it have been for that to have happened in the Middle Ages?

AG: It was certainly rare to see someone with brown skin in Northern France in the thirteenth century, mixed race or not. But there was a great deal of cultural interaction, in all senses, along the cultural borders of Europe: in the Middle East, along the edges of the Byzantine Empire, and in Spain. My character William is based in part on Guilhem d'Orange, a ninth-century Paul Bunyan-type figure who fought to take Spain from its Muslim rulers. I certainly didn't like the idea of a religious warrior as the star of my book—it would defeat the whole intent of the story—so I thought that it would be interesting to focus on one of the little-talked-about (and, frankly, ironic) products of this religious war: a child of both sides.

TM: Many of the details in your book are based on your extensive research into the history and lore of the Middle Ages. What do you find most compelling about this era?

AG: The Middle Ages is a remarkably surprising period. I think most of us think of that time as boring and homogenous, constricted and made ignorant by faith. But in reality this couldn't be farther from the truth! It was an age of invention, of great philosophy and architecture, a time of cultural collision and collaboration. Also, they told amazing stories, like ones about holy dogs, and dragons with deadly flatulence. How can you not find that compelling?

TM: What kind of response have you received from children and teens who have read the book? Do you think they’re more focused on the history or the humor?

AG: Mostly, young people are focused on the adventure. The most compelling aspect of any novel is suspense—be it a romance, a comedy, a horror, what have you. Suspense is the engine that drives a novel. There are certain adult novels that eschew suspense, but those seem to lack an engine altogether, and mostly ramble randomly down the side of a steep hill. The suspense of The Inquisitor's Tale comes in the form of adventure. But humor is important, too, and the big questions that I pose, about history, philosophy, and cultural difference, make the novel something that, I hope, young people will return to.

TM: One of my favorite moments in the book is when Marmeluc questions Jacob about what makes him a Jew. There are many instances where you have the children grapple with some complex religious ideas, including the death of Jacob’s parents in light of God’s plan. How did you decide what was appropriate for kids?

AG: I didn't. I have a rule for my books: they have to have happy endings, and nothing sexual. Other than that, I think kids can handle most anything. (Okay, I exclude gratuitous torture, too. Mostly.) I taught elementary and high school for a combined eight years, and one thing I learned is that kids love hard questions. Hard questions motivate them and inspire them—not hard like tedious; hard as in challenging the way they've always seen the world. Each and every kid’s job is to grow, and nothing helps a kid grow like questions that make them reconsider what they always believed. Also farting dragons. That helps a kid grow, too.

TM: Whose decision was it to present the illustrations in the style of an illustrated manuscript? Did you consider starting the chapters with large ornate letters like in some old manuscripts? What other decisions did you make concerning the style?

Hatem Aly: The style or form of the book was decided early on. The idea was inspired by illuminated manuscripts, with marginalia specifically in mind. I had thought of starting each chapter’s first letter with a small illuminated character; then it was suggested to work on the “C’s in each “Chapter,” which was the best (and most sensible) way to use this technique for the book! The one decision that I obliged myself to do was inking the illustrations traditionally, using a metal nib or a “plume” like in the medieval times, to keep the artwork authentic to the time period—and have fun with the rest.

TM: Was the use of color considered at any point?

HA: For the interiors there was no intention to use color. However, now that I see it, I think the current form works best with the nature of the book and leaves space for imagination.

TM: Can you tell us something about the processes you used in illustrating the book?

HA:
As I read the book the first time, I started sketching characters while doing some research on the time period in which the story takes place, paying closer attention to the visual aspects of people, places, and books. I made batches of sketches and discussed it with the editorial team, then I revised the sketches with their feedback and new research and started inking and finalizing. I must thank Adam Gidwitz for his expertise on many things I would not have known—like what some current locations or buildings looked like several centuries ago or how monks, peasants, or regular merchants dressed in medieval times.

TM: Most illustrated manuscripts are quite formal, but your style is very fluid—which works wonderfully with the humor in the book. What were you trying to achieve with your illustrations?

HA: Sometimes limitations are a great door to creativity. I used the formal tradition of illuminated manuscripts and the restrictive area of illustrative marginalia as an anchor that kept me in the right direction; within those strictures I allowed any ideas to flow freely, knowing that at the end it would be contained in the proper form. You could say it’s like singing a folklore poem in your own melody but staying truthful to the lyrics. And that works beautifully if you think the text is fantastic. In brief, I wanted the artwork to be both fun and passionate, like the story and characters of The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Teri Markson has been a children’s librarian for over 18 years. She is currently the acting senior librarian at the Valley Plaza Branch Library in North Hollywood, CA.

View Hatem Aly's early sketches for The Inquisitor's Tale:

(Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge images and enter the slideshow.)

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The Paper Brigade of Vilnius

Tuesday, February 07, 2017 | Permalink

Anders Rydell is the author of The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance. We couldn’t resist drawing readers’ attention to the Paper Brigade of the Vilna Ghetto, for which Jewish Book Council’s annual print journal is named! Anders will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I arrived in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, for the first time on a burning hot day in August 2015. I had expected, perhaps prejudicially, something gray and gloomy—how we in the West typically picture Eastern Europe. Instead I met a city buzzing with life, with coffee shops full of hipsters, vegetarian restaurants, and young people. The city was beautiful, almost picturesque, with old stone houses from the nineteenth century. Much of the older parts of Vilnius had been saved during the War and the city was therefore spared the concrete architecture of the Soviet era. I walked around in the crooked medieval streets of the old Jewish neighborhood, where Yiddish words on the walls and above the entrances can still be seen from the street.

It was beautiful, to be sure, but there was something very sad about this part of the town. The houses had been saved, but not the soul of Vilnius. It was the same feeling of walking in the ruins of Pompeii.

It was no coincidence that the YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) headquarters were established here before the Second World War. The institute was founded around a mission to both save and develop the Yiddish culture and language. Hundreds of researchers collected manuscripts and books and documented songs and folk tales. They soon built one of the most important collections of Yiddish culture in the world, boasting highly influential board members like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.

Vilnius was the true heart of the European Yiddish culture in its time. This was a city known the world over for its libraries, intellectuals, poets and rabbis like Elijah ben Solomon Zalman. When this city and its large Jewish community were swept away by the cataclysmic event we call the Holocaust, or the Shoah, Yiddish culture never really recovered.

When the Nazis conquered Vilnius, in the early days of the Barbarossa invasion, they found an immense amount of intellectual treasure—libraries, archives, and other collections amassed by generations of Jews and ethnic Lithuanians. In the history of the Second World War, we rarely talk about the importance of Vilnius compared to cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad. But for Nazi intellectuals like Heinrich Himmler, Alfred Rosenberg, and Joseph Goebbels, Vilnius was extremely important. The city was not a military center, it had no important fortifications, but here the walls and resistance were built on ideas and culture. Vilnius was perceived as a center for Jewish intellectualism: in the Nazi war of ideas and ideology, this city was one of the most dangerous in the world.

The Nazi’s immediate steps to break the spirit of Vilnius were to target the city’s books and scholars. The looting of books and archives had two main purposes: to take away the weapons—that is, books—of the intellectuals, and to build a foundation of Nazi research on the plundered collections. Only by also conquering the words of their enemies could the Nazis ensure that they would also control history. When you “own” the libraries and archives, the written memory of your enemies, you have the power to control their history.

But the Nazi looters had a problem: they stole more than they could handle. The Nazis did not have enough “Jewish experts” that could read Yiddish and Hebrew, therefore they could not identify or sift out the most important or precious works.

The solution to this problem was typical for the Nazi regime: they let their victims do the job. The Nazis formed slave labor groups of academics, writers, poets and librarians; the very same people who had recently built, studied, and protected these collections were now assigned the horrific task of sorting and packing them for the Germans. For members of this group, like the poet Andrew K and Herman Kruk, it was a quintessential Catch-22: if they did not carry out this work it could cost them their lives, and important collections could be lost forever, owing to the Nazi researchers’ incompetence; if the Jewish prisoners did the work, there was at least a chance that both they and the collections could survive—if the Nazis lost the war. But the horrific truth was that the purpose of this work was to destroy the Jewish people and their culture.

The members of the sorting team did their best to slow down their work, to win time, without making the Germans suspicious. But for some members, like the poet Andrew Sutzkever, there was only one moral solution to their dilemma: resistance. The resistance of librarians and collectors.

Sutzkever and his comrades started hide and smuggle out important manuscripts and books. The group soon became known in the ghetto as the Paper Brigade. As other Jews in the ghetto tried to hide potatoes or loaves of bread for their survival, the members of the sorting party risked their lives to smuggle letters and diaries. Even if they only succeeded in saving a very small portion of the archives, their resistance was the work of true heroes.

Only a handful of the members in the Paper Brigade survived World War II, but among those who escaped was Suztkever, who joined the Jewish armed resistance to assist in the liberation of Vilnius in 1944. Returning to the remains of the Vilna Ghetto, Suztkever succeeded in retrieving some of the hidden books and manuscripts. Suztkever continued in his efforts to preserve Yiddish culture even after the war, writing and circulating contemporary poetry that embodied Judaism’s rich literary heritage.

Anders Rydell is a journalist, editor, and author of two nonfiction books on the Nazis, which have been translated into 16 languages. The Book of Thievesis his first work published in English.

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The Jews of the Blacklist

Monday, February 06, 2017 | Permalink

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel’s new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic hits the shelves this week. Finding the subject more relevant now than he could have expected, Glenn will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


I knew I would be running into more than a few Jews three years ago when I started researching a book about the Hollywood blacklist and the making of the classic Western film High Noon. As Neal Gabler chronicles in his landmark book, An Empire of Their Own (1988), most of the moguls who invented Hollywood were Jewish immigrants or the sons of. So were the three filmmakers most responsible for creating High Noon. And at least half the people accused of Communist Party membership or leftist sympathies by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) during its probe of alleged Communist infiltration of the film industry from 1947 to the mid-1950s were of Jewish origin. As I quickly discovered, Jews weren’t just a sub-theme: they were at the heart of my story.

We are 70 years away from when that story began, but the parallels with our own turbulent political times are impossible to ignore. After laying low during much of the New Deal and the struggle against fascism in World War II, the American Right rose up with a vengeance in 1946, sweeping Republicans into power in both houses of Congress and pledging to claw back our country from the traitors and outsiders who had supposedly usurped our government and our culture. The main targets were Communists, liberals, and Jews. With their roots in social democratic movements in Russia, Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe, many Jews fit snugly into the various segments of the American Left and were easy scapegoats for the new Red Scare.

Jews reacted in all kinds of ways to the HUAC inquisition. Faced with the loss of their careers and incomes and alienated from their former comrades in the American Communist Party, large numbers signed loyalty oaths and denounced the party, praising the Committee for its investigative work and naming names of purported Communists past and present. The studio moguls, fearful of being accused of Communist sympathies, aided and abetted those who cooperated and set up the blacklist process to punish those who refused.

But the majority of those called to testify refused to cooperate, and many of them spent a decade or more without meaningful work in Hollywood. Six of the original Hollywood Ten who were imprisoned for defying the Committee during the 1947 hearings were of Jewish origin—yet so were 10 of the 15 movie producers who signed a public statement condemning the Ten and establishing the blacklist; indeed, the chairman of the Committee that drafted the statement was Mendel Silverberg, an entertainment lawyer and the unofficial leader of Hollywood’s Jewish community.

Screenwriter Carl Foreman, the Chicago-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was called to testify about his ties to the Communist Party during HUAC’s second round of public hearings in 1951. A gifted writer who had recently been nominated for two Oscars for his screenplays, Foreman was in the middle of finishing the final draft of High Noon. He turned his script into an allegory about the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist, seeing himself as the lone marshal and the HUAC inquisitors as the gang coming to town to kill him while cowardly community leaders abandon him to meet his fate alone. In the end, Foreman refused to name names, was blacklisted and forced to seek work in England, where he lived for 25 years in a form of political exile.

The blacklist did huge damage to families, friendships and careers, and left wounds that remain unhealed three generations later. It is hard to make moral judgments about the men and women who faced the inquisition, but there is no question that the blacklist was in many ways a Jewish affair and a challenge to Jewish community’s conscience, which may soon be called upon again.

Glenn Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, university professor, and author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic and The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.

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New Reviews February 3, 2017

Friday, February 03, 2017 | Permalink

Featured Content:

A Traveler Without a Ticket
Growing up in a village outside London in the years following World War II, Alan Judd was largely unaware of Jewish history or the Holocaust. Much has changed since then.

Book Cover of the Week: The Story of Hebrew
Lewis Glinert’s linguistic history boasts one of the loveliest covers of 2017 yet, beckoning with blue watercolor calligraphy scrawled across a blank canvas of textured white.

Lion Feuchtwanger: An Author Never Out of Print But No Longer Known
Alan Judd picked up a signed first edition of Jew Süss, rough-cut, number 26 of 275 numbered copies, for all of £2.00. You can still do that with Lion Feuchtwanger because, despite the fact that he has rarely if ever been completely out of print, he is no longer widely known.

Kicking Off a New Year of Reading
Did you catch Jewish Book Council's staff picks for January 2017? Check out our first monthly list of staff selections of 2017!

Reading List: Emma Lazarus
Did you know the inscription on the Statue of Liberty was written by a Jewish American poet and immigrant rights activist? Learn more about Emma Lazarus in books for readers of all ages.

Book Cover of the Week: The Story of Hebrew

Thursday, February 02, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

If I had to sum up this book cover in one word, it would be “AMEN”:

Lewis Glinert’s linguistic history The Story of Hebrew boasts one of the loveliest covers of 2017 yet, with the word Hebrew spelled out in its own language and stretched across the full length of the book jacket in luscious watercolor calligraphy. For those beckoned by the deepening shades and delicate wisps of blue scrawled against the volume’s blank canvas of textured white, dive into the speech, preservation, and literature of Hebrew from the opening verse of Genesis through ancient Israel, the two-century Diaspora, and the modern period of post-Holocaust Judaism.

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Lion Feuchtwanger: An Author Never Out of Print But No Longer Known

Wednesday, February 01, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alan Judd about the personal encounters with British Jewry that led to his latest novel, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss. Alan is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger (1884 – 1958) was brought to my attention by a friend and colleague in the Foreign Office, himself of Jewish extraction. He gave me a copy of Feuchtwanger’s best known novel, Jew Süss, telling me it was about power and Jewishness and that it could prove a manual for anyone with ambitions to rise in any bureaucracy. I think he was right, although in my own career I tended to float up with the tide rather than achieve distinction through ability and manipulation.

It is a great novel, exotic, sensual and vivid, set in an eighteenth-century German statelet and inspired by the history of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. It begins:

A network of roads, like veins, was strung over the land, interlacing, branching, dwindling to nothing.

Not a sensational first line, but one that tells you you’re embarking on a story told in a leisurely manner, detailed and visual, leading somewhere. You know you’re in good hands. First published in Germany in 1925, Jew Süss was translated by Willa and Edwin Muir for publication in English in 1926. Helped by an enthusiastic review from Arnold Bennett (“It entertains, it enthrals, and simultaneously it teaches; it enlarges the field of knowledge,”)the book rapidly went through five printings and, by 1931, translation into 17 different languages.

I possess a signed first edition, rough-cut, number 26 of 275 numbered copies, which I picked up for £2. You can still do that with Feuchtwanger because, despite the fact that he has rarely if ever been completely out of print, he is no longer widely known.

I then began collecting and reading others of his works, usually for next-to-nothing in second-hand shops. My favourite after Jew Süss is his Josephus trilogy, a convincing evocation of that equivocal Jewish-Roman historian and general. Again, Feuchtwanger demonstrates his profound insight into the mechanisms and costs of the quest for power. I found an early 1950s book on contemporary German authors in which he was given almost as much space as Thomas Mann.

Next I found a printed script of the 19,34 film of Jew Süss, made in Britain by Lothar Mendes and starring Conrad Veidt. I learned that the Nazis also filmed the book in 1940, predictably as antisemitic propaganda. I’ve never seen either, but it is surely a tribute to the artistry of the book and its author that, with some distortions, it permits of two conflicting interpretations. So why isn’t Feuchtwanger better known?

Feuchtwanger left Germany for a tour of the United States in 1933, already an early and influential opponent of the Nazis and, possibly as a result of his First World War military experience, a proponent of the Left. While he was abroad his citizenship was revoked and he was designated ‘Enemy of the State Number One’. He never returned to Germany, living in the south of France until imprisoned early in the Second World War. He escaped—just—and was given asylum in the United States, settling with other escaping writers in California.

Feuchtwanger fell under suspicion in the McCarthy era, unsurprisingly given the communist sympathies evident in his book, Moscow 1937, an account of his state-sponsored travels in Russia, in which he praises Stalin and defends the show-trials. Although in the foreword he appears uneasily defensive, his text unhappily demonstrates that there are none so blind as those who will not see. He even excused Soviet antisemitism by proclaiming that in Jewish villages “the surprising absence of people between the ages of fifteen and thirty—of young women as well as men—lies in the fact that the whole of Jewish youth goes to the towns to study.”

Could this have tarnished his reputation and played a part in its posthumous disappearance? Maybe. It would be interesting to know whether Feuchtwanger reacted publicly to Kruschev’s 1950s revelations of Stalinist atrocities. Whatever accounts for it, over half a century later Feuchtwanger remains an unjustly neglected writer whose insights into the nature of Jewishness and anti-Jewishness, formed in the crucible of the twentieth century, are still unhappily relevant.

Alan Judd is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, his eleventh novel, and two biographies. He currently writes for The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph.

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A Traveler Without a Ticket

Monday, January 30, 2017 | Permalink

Alan Judd is the author of The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, a novel exploring the intricate relationships within the exiled home of Kaiser Wilhelm during World War II. Alan is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Photo: Colin Bell

I grew up in a village outside London during the years following World War II. What we now call the Holocaust was less widely known then, and I was largely unaware of Jews or Jewishness. The only incident I recall from childhood is a conversation over tea at my grandparents’ house. It must have been a Saturday, because we always had tea with them on Saturdays, and there must have been remarks about Jews which I’ve forgotten. What I do recall is my grandfather’s response, suggesting that the conversation might have been casually antisemitic in the Jews-are-mean-with-money vein that was unremarkable in those days. My grandfather’s job involved walking the streets of East London, checking people’s electricity meters and collecting payments. I remember him intervening with, “No, but I’ll tell you one thing about the Jews: you can trust them. If I call and they haven’t got the money and they promise to pay if I call back later, they always keep their word.”

My school was a state secondary. I remember nothing about Jewishness there except for one boy in our class who was often bullied, mocked, and picked on. His name was Joel; it was only years later that I realized the name had Jewish connotations (unlikely as it seems now, I was so unaware that it never even occurred to me at the time that such names as Abrahams, Moses, Cohen, etc. were Jewish). But I don’t think poor Joel’s presumed Jewish origins were the reason he was picked on, unless we assume some unconscious group impulse. He was small, weak and passive and my classmates were unfortunately like the bantams my grandparents kept at the bottom of their garden: they pecked the weaker ones to death.

The next stage in my unconscionably slow awakening occurred in the army, when a friend rehearsed the (to me, novel) thesis that the creation of a Jewish homeland might paradoxically have weakened the achievements and contributions to human progress of the word-wide Jewish Diaspora by focussing identity on territory rather than on matters of the mind and spirit. This made me more aware of Jewish contributions to learning and the arts, though I remained lamentably uninformed.

Then, when I was at Oxford, I shared a house with a friend of Eastern European Jewish origins. His consciousness of his roots and our late-night discussions awakened me. It helped that I was reading philosophy and theology and was thus aware of the formative influence of Judaism on Christianity and our contemporary secular morality. My friend had a volume of George Steiner’s essays, including one on Kafka which he annotated so aggressively that it got me reading Kafka myself. (My friend later confessed he hadn’t read him at all, but he didn’t see that as a bar to strong opinions).

Gradually, I became aware that a significant number of my friends were of Jewish extraction, a process that accelerated when I joined the Foreign Office. Despite its perceived pro-Arab bias, an internal historian there used to say that the Office was sustained throughout the twentieth century by Jews and Catholics. One colleague, a friend and mentor whose trading ancestors had over centuries been driven westwards from southern Russia by successive pogroms, introduced me more widely to the writings of Jewish authors, beginning with Leon Feuchtwanger.

This process continued after I left the Foreign Office, perhaps unsurprisingly given that I mixed partly in journalistic and literary circles. It has never been a deliberate quest on my part; I have never sought out people because they were Jewish but increasingly I found that many of those I was drawn to, whose humor I shared, whose abilities I respected and whose friendship I valued were wholly or partly Jewish. I have always found it easy to identify with them, especially with those prepared to articulate their Jewishness.

I’ve asked myself why this should be, without any clear conclusion. To ascribe it to an unconscious inclination or yearning merely begs the question. So far as I know, there is no Jewish blood in my ancestry, though for a while I rather hoped there was on the assumption that Judd—my mother’s maiden name—derives from the German Jude. (It’s most likely Scottish.)

So there you have it: a free rider so far as Jewishness is concerned, a traveler without a ticket. But I’m enjoying the journey.

Alan Judd is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, his eleventh novel, and two biographies. He currently writes for The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph.

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Ernestine Rose, Judenschmerz, and Me

Friday, January 27, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Bonnie S. Anderson explored the Jewish identity of subject of her book The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer and why she would have been at the front of the Women’s March on Washington this past weekend. Bonnie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


The word Judenschmerz, which literally means “Jewish pain,” was coined in the first quarter of the nineteenth century to denote the difficulties of still being identified as Jewish when one has converted from Judaism to Christianity. Often used about the German poet Heinrich Heine, it came to mean suffering from antisemitism when a Jew no longer believes in religion.

Growing up in a nominally Jewish family in New York City of the 1950s, I experienced this pain. My mother had been raised in Ethical Culture, a self-defined “religion centered on ethics rather than theology” with a progressive, largely Jewish membership. My father was an atheist who believed that all religions were a force for evil and all believers stupid. We children were taught nothing about Judaism, never went to temple, and celebrated Christmas and Easter, which my father considered to be “American.” But the greatest family sin was to deny you were Jewish.

In those years, life in New York was segregated along religious lines: there were Jewish buildings, Jewish law firms, Jewish dancing schools. My first experiences of antisemitism occurred at Brearley, an elite private girls’ schools unique for having 25% Jewish students—the others in its cohort were almost exclusively Christian. When I told our headmistress that I wanted to apply to the women’s college at Harvard, she said I wouldn’t get in because “they have a Jewish quota.” I wondered why the head of this prestigious school supported such discrimination. When I interviewed at the women’s college at Brown, I was told that “girls like me” were not very happy there. “What do you mean, ‘girls like me’?” I asked. “Dark girls from New York City,” she replied. Since I was only accepted there, I was nervous about going.

I actually had a fine time. I encountered more antisemitism when I married and changed my maiden name, Sour, to Anderson. Assuming I was not Jewish, a number of my husband’s associates freely voiced antisemitic views, calling my city “Jew York,” saying someone had “jewed them down,” remarking that “all Jews are stingy.” When I wrote my first book with my best friend, Judith Zinsser, who is not Jewish, we used to trick people by asking, “Who’s the Jew?” and then telling them they were wrong.

All this was far milder than the antisemitism Ernestine Rose (1810 – 1892) encountered in the United States. She lost her faith in Judaism at seventeen, became an atheist, and frequently lectured for freethought as well as feminism and anti-slavery. Although she experienced far more prejudice against atheists than Jews, documents reveal at least two instances of antisemitism in her life.

In 1854, Lucy Stone, a co-worker in the women’s rights movement, wrote Rose’s closest female friend, Susan B. Anthony, that since Rose’s “facewas “so essentially Jewish,” and she was “avaricious,” she should not be allowed to represent women’s rights. Although Stone continued this criticism, Anthony paid no attention and continued to place Rose in important roles within the movement.

A more serious instance occurred ten years later, when Horace Seaver, editor of the freethought Boston Investigator newspaper, published a series of antisemitic editorials. Antisemitism directed at the ancient Hebrews had a lengthy tradition within freethought, but Seaver, previously Rose’s friend and champion, now attacked modern Jews, writing that Judaism is “bigoted, narrow, exclusive, and totally unfit for a progressive people like the Americans, among whom we hope it may not spread.”

Ernestine Rose initially answered her friend with humor: “I almost smelt brimstone, genuine Christian brimstone” when I read your piece, “Would you drive them out of Boston… as they were driven out of Spain?” She cited the widely accepted stereotype of “the renowned ‘Yankee,’ who, it is admitted by all, excels the Jew” as a “cunning, sharp trader” and concluded by writing “I know there are honest, honorable Yankees as well as Jews;” you “are one of the very best.”

Seaver responded viciously. “If the Yankees, as a class, like money as well as the Jews,” he replied, “we question whether so many of the former would be found in the ranks of the Union Army. They would be more likely to stay at home to deal in ‘old clothes,’ at a profit of ‘fifteen per shent.’”

This angry correspondence continued for eight weeks. Neither convinced the other. Ernestine Rose stopped writing to the Investigator for almost five years. But she did later resume her friendship with Seaver and expressed great sorrow when he died.

I felt a deep connection with Rose over our similar experiences with Judenschmerz, one of the critical reasons I decided to write her biography. I decided, however, not to put myself in the book, and have never written about this subject before. I hope Rose’s story—and my own—reaches and resonates with readers today, who have encountered religious, racial, or social prejudice in their own lives.

Bonnie S. Anderson taught history and women's studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for over thirty years. A pioneer in the field of women's history, Anderson lectures throughout Europe and the United States on women’s movements, international feminism, the history of sexuality, and women’s issues today.

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Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for January 2017

Thursday, January 26, 2017 | Permalink

Did you set new reading goals for 2017? So did we! Check out how the Jewish Book Council staff is kicking of a new year of reading!

Evie

Carolyn

Mimi

Suzanne

Families! From dysfunction to love! Judy Batalion’s memoir White Walls is about living with mother who exists in piles of junk and stuff, grandparents that are Holocaust survivors, and a life of total dysfunction. Through reading this story we can all see something to relate to in one's own mother-daughter relationship.

Naomi

Just started reading David Grossman’s latest, A Horse Walks into a Bar!

Carol

Moonglow is Michael Chabon at his creative and joyful best: playful and serious, musical and surprising, with tremendous imaginative reach. For me, one of his best!

Becca

Conceived of long before the last election, Tell Me How This Ends Well is set in a dystopian United States in which casual anti-Semitism is the norm. It's been fascinating—and chilling—to read about this society that eerily reflects the political trends of today.

Joyce

Mary Glickman had me hooked from the beginning with the richly drawn characters and settings of An Undisturbed Peace.

Miri

Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife is a WWII book unlike most others—not only does it feature detailed zoological descriptions, it exists in a world where almost everyone is part of the underground resistance against the Nazis.

Nat

I constantly advocate for reading literature that challenges your personal perception of the world, so to start off the new year I decided to follow my own advice with Salt Houses by Hala Alyan, a novel about a Palestinian family forced from their home in Nablus during the ’67 War, following four generations from Kuwait to Lebanon to Boston and back. I also read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions, a similarly challenging novel about love, corruption, and racial tensions in Israel’s Negev Desert.

                        

This week I’m picking up Vulture in a Cage, a new translated collection of the poetry of Solomon ibn Gabirol, and following up last week’s reread of Lynn Povich’s memoir The Good Girls Revolt with Bonnie S. Anderson’s biography of Ernestine Rose, The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter. Bonnie, Lynn, and All the Single Ladies author Rebecca Traister will be speaking about Jewish women’s movements throughout American history as part of Jewish Book Council’s third season of Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation—if you’ll be in New York this spring, see below for more details!

Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 | The Jewish Museum, New York City

Disappointed Amazon's Good Girls Revolt was cancelled after the first season? Hear from award-winning journalist Lynn Povich, the author of the memoir upon which the show was based, in conversation with Ernestine Rose biographer and women's historian Bonnie S. Anderson and Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Discover the Jewish women behind history's great revolutions and contemporary movements, from the activists of America's Antebellum to the women's liberation stirrings of the midcentury—to today's "nasty" women—at Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation Tuesday, March 28, 2017 in New York City!

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How Jewish Was Ernestine Rose?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Bonnie S. Anderson explained why the subject of her book The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer would have been at the front of the Women’s March on Washington this past weekend. Bonnie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Born in 1810 to a Polish rabbi and his wife, Ernestyna Potowska, as she may have been called then—her Hebrew names have been lost to history—was raised as an Orthodox Jew. (Virtually all Jewish families were Orthodox then—the nascent Reform movement was just starting in Berlin.)

Educated by her father, Ernestine was taught skills usually reserved to boys: learning Hebrew and reading Torah. Early on, she began to ask questions, as Jewish boys were supposed to do. “Little girls must not ask questions,” her father declared, a pronouncement that she later said made her “an advocate of religious freedom and women’s rights.” At 12 years old, she tested God’s approval of her community’s stricture that “You must keep the Sabbath unto the breaking of a piece of straw.” When the deity sent no sign to stop her doing this, she “broke with the God of Moses and began her break with any personal God.”

She went through the motions of practicing her religion for a few more years, unwilling to finalize the breach with her father, whom she adored. But in her mid-teens she completely renounced Judaism—and with it, all religious belief. She later argued that to Jews, it was all or nothing; Christians could rotate among various denominations, but for the Jew “there is but one step between his religion and Atheism.” If one “takes one step in advance, he is out of darkness, into the broad light of day.” For the rest of her long life, Ernestine Rose, as she became when she married in 1836, identified as an atheist, lectured ardently for free thought, and repudiated all religions as “superstition.”

But can you ever leave the Tribe? I have written elsewhere in these columns about Rose’s experiences of antisemitism, but here I am interested in how much her Jewish upbringing shaped her adult values. After settling in England in 1831, she found a “new father,” the eminent industrialist-turned-radical Robert Owen. Rose became Own’s “disciple” and embraced his philosophy for the rest of her life. Owen believed that the religion of the “New Moral World” he hoped to create consisted in “promoting the happiness of every man, woman, and child[…] without regard to their class, sect, party, or color.” Rose consistently praised Owen’s patience, benevolence, charity, and kindness and made his ideals her own. The egalitarianism of this philosophy demanded human rights for everyone: “white and black, man and woman,” Rose declared, “humanity’s children are all one and the same family, therefore there should be no slaves among them.” In the United States, she consistently linked women and slaves. “Like or unlike, he [the black man] is a human being, and I will use the same argument with regard to him that I use when pleading—no, not when pleading—when claiming the rights of woman,” she declared in 1855.

Owenite philosophy did away with the Christian concept of Original Sin and refused to blame anyone—not the misogynist nor the slave-owner—since people’s characters and values were formed by the society in which they lived. “An entire change in the character and condition of mankind” can be brought about by “philosophical inquiries into the nature of the causes that produce depravity, vice, and misery,” Rose maintained. Restoring the rights of women and slaves would benefit men and whites as well. It would be “in the interest of all….all are one in the race.” Social and political reform can heal the world.

This ideal consitutes the Jewish ethic of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. Found in classical rabbinic literature, this concept may have been conveyed to the young Jewish girl during her studies with her father in Poland. Whether in England or America, this ideal motivated Ernestine Rose’s amazing activism, leading her to tour and lecture, to join conventions and sponsor meetings, to write and petition. Throughout her career, she attempted to make the world a better place for women, for slaves, and paradoxically, for non-believers. I believe that even as an outspoken atheist, she remained committed to this basic Jewish precept.

Bonnie S. Anderson taught history and women's studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for over thirty years. A pioneer in the field of women's history, Anderson lectures throughout Europe and the United States on women’s movements, international feminism, the history of sexuality, and women’s issues today.

Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 | The Jewish Museum, New York City

Disappointed Amazon's Good Girls Revolt was cancelled after the first season? Hear from award-winning journalist Lynn Povich, the author of the memoir upon which the show was based, in conversation with Ernestine Rose biographer and women's historian Bonnie S. Anderson and Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Discover the Jewish women behind history's great revolutions and contemporary movements, from the activists of America's Antebellum to the women's liberation stirrings of the midcentury—to today's "nasty" women—at Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation Tuesday, March 28, 2017 in New York City!

Related Content: