The ProsenPeople

The ProsenPshat: Week of December 8th

Friday, December 12, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The ProsenPshat is a weekly recap of highlights from each week’s online content on www.jewishbookcouncil.org. Worried you might have missed something this week? Be sure to check our featured reviews page and scroll through The ProsenPeople blog!

Can you believe it’s nearly Hanukkah already? We’re thrilled to feature the writers of Hevria next week for a guest-takeover of The ProsenPeople’s Eight Nights of Stories series—make sure to check our blog as we update with these new posts daily over the holiday!

In the meantime, we know you’re still short a few gifts. Instead of scrambling over the weekend, take our advice and present your loved ones with books. We have 2014 gift guides for adult readers, for children’s & YA books, and in a handy flowchart.

But enough looking ahead: there’s plenty to look back on this week!

In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel author Adam Rovner blogged as a Visiting Scribe this week on the numerous factual and fictional alternative plans for a Jewish state before the establishment of Israel.

I often describe my book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, as the biography of an idea: the modern idea that Jews needed a national home somewhere—anywhere—except the biblical land of Israel. This Jewish nationalist ideology was known as territorialism and is nearly forgotten today. But in some eras it was more popular than Zionism.

Deducing which of these proposals would in fact have been the best viable option, Adam shared the locations that did and did not make it into his book:

While conducting archival research, I visited each of the potential territories my work describes: Angola, Kenya, Madagascar, upstate New York, Suriname, and Tasmania. But there were several other plans for Jewish states I didn’t examine—either because they never advanced far enough to be considered serious proposals, or because I didn’t want get myself killed.

Fortunately for us, Adam listed the top five of these unexamined sites, “a list of alternate Zions for that sequel I’ll never write,” on The ProsenPeople.

Matthue Roth also blogged for the Jewish Book Council this week, explaining why authors torture the people they love most and a literary device he learned from stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov:

Writers are sadists. You throw your character—your new creation; the thing you love most in the world—in front of the bus.

When I want to show how much Herbie cares about his friends, I make him isolated and alone. To show his creative spirit and his ingenuity, I put him in a place where there's nothing to do and force him to build his own robots. When I want to show him at his best and most heroic, I try to break him.

Matthue also addressed finding the right balance of Jewishness in children’s story writing: how his rejected submissions to The PJ Library made him feel “like I was back on the Jewish dating scene” and how the best book he’s written yet was unabashedly plagiarized from his own kids.

One day, I'd love to write a story that helps my kids understand the idea of praying, and changing the world that way, and of the gates of heaven being forced open by one person's words. If there's one person (actually, three people) who I trust to get my prayers through the gates of heaven, it's them. They might not be very good at bedtime rituals, but when it comes to believing in things, they could move mountains.

Marking the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof’s Broadway debut, Eddie Shapiro wrote a feature essay for Jewish Book World on recently published books about the classic American stage and film musical, shared on The ProsenPeople this week.

No one associated with Fiddler anticipated that the show would be a smash, and they would have been happy had it lasted a year. One potential producer turned it down because he believed its appeal would be limited to Hadassah theater parties. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Fiddler was one of the great successes in Broadway history, and its original backers made a fortune. Its eight-year run of 3,242 performances surpassed that of My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and South Pacific, and until Grease came along in 1979 it held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical or non-musical show. There have been five Broadway revivals of the show, and every year at least five hundred productions of Fiddler are staged in the United States.

But did the play’s success come at the cost of its Jewish integrity? Eddie examines the critiques of Fiddler on the Roof alongside its achievements over the past five decades, and compares the script against its provenance: Sholem Aleichem’s eight short stories about Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, December 12, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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5 Alternate Histories of Zion

Friday, December 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam Rovner wrote about what he thinks would have been the most viable Zion outside of Israel and top five alternative Jewish homelands that he didn't explore in his new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, out this week from NYU Press. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel presents a narrative history of modern proposals to create autonomous Jewish territories beyond the borders of Israel. I’ve referred to my book as a “shadow history” of Zionism—an effort to bring to light the forgotten struggles of a failed branch of Jewish nationalism called territorialism. Territorialism’s adherents believed in the necessity of establishing a Jewish home somewhere in the world other than the land of Israel. While researching and writing my book, I came across a number of works of fiction that imaginatively engaged with territorialist what-if scenarios. Here’s a list of five alternate histories of Zion in English and Hebrew:

Number 5—Herzl Amar (2011)

Israeli author Yoav Avni’s novel considers what might have happened had a Jewish state been established in East Africa. The plot follows two friends who plan a trip to Palestine after their compulsory military service in a counterfactual African Israel. This clever and often satiric vision of contemporary Israel owes a debt to the historical proposal advanced by Theodor Herzl in 1903 to create a “New Judea” in what is today western Kenya. A chapter of my book is devoted to the so-called Uganda Plan and the crises it engendered, including a rupture at the heart of the Zionist Organization and an assassination attempt against Herzl’s lieutenant. An excerpt appeared in English last year in JewishFiction.net.

Number 4—IsraIsland (2005)

Nava Semel’s genre-bending Hebrew novel imagines in one of its three sections what might have happened had Mordecai Manuel Noah’s planned Jewish micronation of Ararat developed into a city-state in the Niagara River. Ararat, in Semel’s vision, becomes a force in American politics and succeeds so wildly that Jews can barely recall their biblical homeland. In my book, I describe Noah’s urgent call to European Jewry to resettle in America following the notorious Hep-Hep Riots of 1819. No one came, and Noah himself was ridiculed by religious leaders in France and England, and by the press in the United States.

Number 3—“Noah’s Ark” (1899)

British author and early Zionist leader Israel Zangwill published “Noah’s Ark” during a period of close collaboration with Herzl. The story imagines that Noah’s call for immigration is answered by a German Jew, Peloni, a name derived from the Hebrew word for an anonymous “someone.” Fired by inspiration, Peloni sails for the New World intending to make Noah’s Ararat his home. He soon settles upon the site of the planned Jewish sanctuary near Buffalo, New York, but he remains the sole occupant of Noah’s utopian project and is condemned to loneliness and despair.

Number 2—“The Last Jew” (1946)

This compelling and bizarre short story was penned by Jacob Weinshall, a doctor, author, and supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s right-wing Revisionist party. In the story, the Nazis have emerged victorious from World War II and exterminated every last Jew, except for a single survivor living in Madagascar. He is eventually discovered and condemned to death by a technocratic Nazi regime. Some Hebrew readers consider “The Last Jew” to be the first literary work to imagine a Nazi victory, now a staple plot in the alternate history genre. My book examines Jewish efforts to create a refugee colony in Madagascar, and how that plan was ultimately perverted by the Nazis. Though doubts remain, my research leads me to believe that Jabotinsky himself supported limited Jewish relocation to Madagascar, a fact which may help explain Weinshall’s hallucinatory tale.

Number 1—The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

Michael Chabon’s clever novel may be the most familiar example of a territorialist what-if. Chabon makes use of the detective genre to explore the fictional world of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish territory in Sitka, Alaska. The premise derives from a real proposal to channel Jewish immigrants to Alaska that was supported by Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, in 1938. Chabon, however, revealed to me that his fantasy also has its origins in his long-standing fascination with Mordecai Manuel Noah’s plan for Ararat.

To learn more visit www.adamrovner.com.

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How to Write about Moving a Mountain

Thursday, December 11, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthue Roth wrote about why authors like to torture people they love. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

It's really hard writing a book that doesn't fall anywhere into any mainstream categories. Take, for example, my emo science fiction picture book The Gobblings, which just came out. It does happen to be a retelling of a Baal Shem Tov story, but not in any recognizable form that you can be like, "Here's the Jewish content!"


This is the Baal Shem Tov. According to folklore, he performed holy somersaults as he prayed.

I once submitted a book to PJ Library, the amazing program that sends free picture books to tens of thousands of Jewish kids. It was rejected—the reason given was, the family in it went to synagouge; it was too Jewish. I submitted another book. It was called The Blackout and it was about a family who never spoke to each other; one night, the lights went out and they had to have dinner and tell each other stories and sing songs—essentially, they had to do Shabbat. Their reply? It wasn't Jewish enough. Man, I felt like I was back on the Jewish dating scene.


This is Herbie, hero of The Gobblings. He might be opening the gates of heaven, but you really can't tell he's Jewish.

Somebody said to me in an interview that they'd heard Gobblings was based on a Jewish story. But there was nothing in the art that said that; no moral; no one had Jewish names or were wearing yarmulkes. "Was that intentional?" they asked me. I didn't have a good answer; I didn't want to say that I didn't tell Rohan, the artist, that the book had anything to do with the Baal Shem Tov (I didn't) (and if he's reading this, he's probably just finding that out now) (hi, Rohan!). But the truth was, the story's roots as a "Jewish folktale" were never part of its Jewish identity to me. It was its spirit, the idea at its heart of doing something impossible and of a kid's simple belief changing the world and saving his family.

One day, I'd love to write a story that helps my kids understand the idea of praying, and changing the world that way, and of the gates of heaven being forced open by one person's words. One day I hope to understand that much. Honestly, the only thing I've ever written that might come close is another picture book, one called We Are in a Pot of Chicken Soup—it's about two kids cooking soup and adding all the ingredients out of their imagination.

That one, I completely plagiarized—I stole the story (and the title) from my kids. If there's one person (actually, three people) who I trust to get my prayers through the gates of heaven, it's them. They might not be very good at bedtime rituals, but when it comes to believing in things, they could move mountains.

Matthue Roth's first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was a NYPL Best Book for the Teen Age and an ALA Best Books nominee. His latest is The Gobblings, illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. By day, he's a video game designer. He lives in Brooklyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com

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Where Should We Have Gone?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam Rovner wrote about the top five alternative Jewish homelands that he didn't explore in his new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, out this week from NYU Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often describe my book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, as the biography of an idea: the modern idea that Jews needed a national home somewhere—anywhere—except the biblical land of Israel. This Jewish nationalist ideology was known as territorialism and is nearly forgotten today. But in some eras it was more popular than Zionism. My book explores six territorialist projects in a variety of far-flung locations: upstate New York, western Kenya (the “Uganda Plan”), Angola’s fertile plateaus, the central highlands of Madagascar, extreme southwestern Tasmania, and the lush tropics of Suriname. I traveled to each of these sites of territorialist aspiration, and whenever I speak about my research, audiences ask me which location would have been best for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish colony.

That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. It’s far easier to cross off places from the list. Certainly Angola, with its centuries of colonial exploitation at the hands of the Portuguese, doesn’t seem as if it would have been a promising promised land. Kenya, too, would have been a site fraught with ethnic, tribal, and decolonization struggles. Nonetheless, the regions under consideration in both Angola and Kenya are extraordinarily fertile and would have been agriculturally superior to much of the soil in Ottoman Palestine. The expense of settling remote areas lacking infrastructure, like Madagascar and Tasmania, would have been immense. In the case of Tasmania, the area proposed for settlement would have been nearly impossible to cultivate due to climate and environment.

That leaves upstate New York and Suriname as the two most reliable contenders. There’s little doubt that Grand Island in the Niagara River near Buffalo would have prospered. Located at the terminus of the Erie Canal, Grand Island might have become a commercial center in the 1820s as Mordecai Manuel Noah had prophesied. But the temporal distance of Noah’s plan renders it difficult to compare to the other proposals, all of which were put forward in the twentieth century. And so, I think Suriname, the smallest independent country in South America, would have been the most viable alternative Zion.

Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, possesses the oldest continual Jewish presence in the New World, which dates back to the first half of the seventeenth century. In the late-eighteenth century, residents of Jodensavanne, a Jewish community of sugar planters and mercantilists located along the Suriname River, boasted a level of autonomy unheard of at that time—and for long after. By the time the Dutch colony was considered as a potential sanctuary for Jewish refugees from Europe in the late 1930s, much of the population of Suriname claimed some Jewish heritage. I imagine that this rich history would have smoothed the path for Jewish immigrants.

Likewise, Suriname’s rich natural resources, generally healthy climate, fertile soil, sparse population, and proximity to the U.S. and major shipping routes might have sped the pace of agro-industrial development and economic growth. But that’s all just a boring rationale. Really, I like to imagine what a Yiddish-speaking community of pineapple farmers living at the edge of a rainforest would look like.

To learn more visit www.adamrovner.com.

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Fiddler at Fifty

Tuesday, December 09, 2014 | Permalink


by Edward Shapiro

It has been fifty years since Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway on Tuesday, September 22, 1964 at New York City’s Imperial Theater. To mark its golden anniversary, two histories of the musical have recently been published. One is Alisa Solomon’s incisive, comprehensive, and scholarly Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof” (2013); the other is Barbara Isenberg’s more popular and lightly researched Tradition! The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of “Fiddler on the Roof” (2014). Also valuable for students of the Fiddler phenomenon is Jeremy Dauber’s engrossing biography The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye (2013). During the past half century Fiddler has attained a mythic status among American Jews. There are few adult American Jews who are unfamiliar with stage or cinematic portrayal of the tribulations of Tevye, wife, Golda, and their daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava.

No one associated with Fiddler anticipated that the show would be a smash, and they would have been happy had it lasted a year. Previous (and later) Broadway shows with Jewish themes had been at best modestly successful, and few thought Fiddler would attract many gentile theater-goers. One potential producer turned it down because he believed its appeal would be limited to Hadassah theater parties. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Fiddler was one of the great successes in Broadway history, and its original backers made a fortune. Its eight-year run of 3,242 performances surpassed that of My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and South Pacific, and until Grease came along in 1979 it held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical or non-musical show. There have been five Broadway revivals of the show, and every year at least five hundred productions of Fiddler are staged in the United States. In the 1960s and 1970s the musical was performed in Spanish, German, Hungarian, Czech, Turkish, Greek Swedish, Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and other languages. The Japanese version became the longest running American musical in Japan, and the British version played in the West End for four and a half years. The New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes gushed in 1967 that Fiddler, after only three years, had become “a living, breathing classic. To criticize it would be like criticizing motherhood, and, like motherhood, it’s here to stay.” Pauline Kael, the notoriously critical movie-reviewer, said the 1971 film of Fiddler, that year’s most financially successful movie, was “the most powerful movie musical ever made.”

And yet there were many people who, despite Barnes and Kael, disparaged Fiddler. Part of this stemmed from an elitist disdain for Broadway’s appeal to middle-brow tastes, and it certainly is true that Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) were not in the league of Verdi or Puccini. But criticism of the show, particularly by Jews, was motivated by more than cultural snobbishness. First of all there was the matter of historical accuracy. Jerome Robbins, the director of Fiddler, took great pains to portray Jewish life in Russia as truthfully as possible, transporting the cast to Orthodox weddings in New York City and providing them books on the history and sociology of Eastern European Jews. In the competition between historical verisimilitude and the demands of theater, however, the latter emerged victorious. Thus the matchmaker in Fiddler was a woman, but matchmakers of Fiddler’s era were men. No tailor would come to a Friday night Sabbath meal with a tape measure around his neck, nor would any rabbi dance with a woman. Neither the sets nor the characters ring true.

In his 1964 Commentary essay “Tevye on Broadway,” the Yiddish literary scholar Irving Howe described Fiddler as “gross,” “disheartening,” “a tasteless jumble of styles,” and “the cutest shtetl we’ve never had.” For Yiddish purists, Fiddler was a sacrilege, a reflection, to quote Howe, of the ignorance of American Jews of east European Jewish life and of “the spiritual anemia of Broadway and of the middle-class Jewish world which by now seems firmly linked to Broadway.” Howe was not alone. The novelist Philip Roth called Fiddler “shtetl kitsch,” and the writer Cynthia Ozick said it was “shund” (romantic vulgarization). Ironically, YIVO in 2002 presented Bock and Harnick with its Special Cultural Arts Award.

Then there is Fiddler‘s distortion of the eight Sholem Aleichem short stories upon which the musical was supposedly based. An example is the contrast between how Sholem Aleichem and Fiddler handled Chava’s conversion to Russian Orthodoxy and her intermarriage. Sholem Aleichem made clear that transgressing these ultimate Jewish taboos was unacceptable to Tevye’s world and that he would never forgive Chava. She is dead to him, and he and Golda sit shiva for her. When Tzeitel begs Tevye to show some pity toward Chava, he replies, “Don’t speak to me of pity. . . Where is her pity for me? . . . She is not my daughter. My daughter died long ago.” Despite his love for Chava, traditionalism triumphs over universalism.

The message of the musical and movie, however, is different. Here Chava and her husband, Fyedka, come to see her family off after it has been expelled from the village. Tevye initially wants nothing to do with the couple, and Fyedka responds, “Some are driven away by edicts, and others by silence.” In other words, there is no fundamental difference between the anti-Semitism of the Czar and Tevye’s opposition to intermarriage. Tevye is moved by Fyedka’s words, and he acquiesces in the life the couple has chosen. “God be with you,” he says softly to them. Here Fiddler reflects the liberal sensibilities of Jerome Robbins and Joseph Stein, who wrote the musical’s book. Harry Stein, Joseph Stein’s son, said that his father did not object to his own marriage to a gentile, but he did regret that his son did not marry a black women since that would more clearly demonstrate the family’s liberal and integrationist bone fides.

Jewish survivalists strenuously objected to Fiddler’s take on the Chava story. Ruth Wisse, the Harvard Yiddish literary scholar, noted that “it must have felt perfectly innocent to change a Jewish classic into a liberal classic. . . . But if a Jewish work can only enter American culture by forfeiting its moral authority and its commitment to group survival, one has to wonder about the bargain that destroys the Jews with no applause.” Fiddler reflected the fundamental conflict within the liberalism of the 1960s between the celebration of ethnic and cultural pluralism on the one hand and the applauding of individual autonomy and the rejection of ethnic and religious divisions on the other. In esteeming Fiddler, American Jews were generally oblivious to the fact that they were being asked to simultaneously respect the values of Tevye while accepting the imperatives of the American melting pot. They have remained conflicted, and this tension has remained at the center of the debate over the nature American Jewish identity.

The Americanized version of Tevye and his daughters has a typically American happy ending. Tevye leaves his village for the golden land and beckons the fiddler to join him, while Chaya and Fyedka are off to Cracow where they supposedly will live happily after. Why a couple from the Ukraine would select a Polish city is left unstated. “What the show ultimately celebrates was this melting pot called America,” its producer, Hal Prince, recounted. “At the end of the show, that’s where they were going. . . . And that’s the strength of this country—its identification with so many cultures and religions. It’s an amazing experiment that worked.”

Sholem Aleichem, in contrast to the Americans responsible for Fiddler, was not enamored of America. In his story “Tevye Goes to Palestine,” his daughter Bielke marries Padhatzur, a wealthy man embarrassed by his lower-class father-in-law. Padhatzur wants to get Tevye out of the war and says he will pay if Tevye relocates to the United States. “The colossal nerve of this contractor,” Tevye says. “Telling me to give up an honest, respectable livelihood and go off to America.” Padhatzur then suggests Palestine as an alternative destination, and Tevye prefers immigrating to primitive Palestine is better than remaining in his village and being subjected to the insults of his son-in-law.“ But Padhatzur goes bankrupt, is unable to fund Tevye’s relocation, and flees along with Beilke to America one step ahead of his creditors. “America is “where all the unhappy souls go, and that’s where they went.” Padhatzur was not the only one of Sholem Aleichem’s characters forced to move to America. Another is the son-in-law of Ephraim the Matchmaker, a crook and wife-beater. It would appear that for Sholem Aleichem is a refuge of scoundrels, and this might reflect his own troubled life in the United States.

In “Get Thee Out,” the last of the Tevye stories, Tevye is left wondering where he will end up after being forced out of his village. He resembles a cork on an ocean wave, and the possibilities where he might land include Odessa, Warsaw, and even America. In any case, the choice is not his, and he is a passive onlooker. In Fiddler, however, Tevye in an act of affirmation sets off to America with Golde (in the short story “Get Thee Out” Golda is deceased) and three of his daughters.

But what about Palestine? Tevye had looked forward to settling in Palestine courtesy of Padhatzur’s money. “I’ve been drawn for a long time toward the Holy Land,” he says. “I would like to stand by the Wailing Wall, to see the tombs of the Patriarchs, Mother Rachel’s grave, and I would like to look with my own eyes at the river Jordan, at Mt. Sinai and the Red Sea, at the great cities Pithom and Raamses.” Palestine is not a possible destination for Tevye in Fiddler, for Tevye, but it is for Yente, the town’s busybody. She declares she is going to take her “old bones” to Palestine and continue her career in matchmaking. “Children come from marriages, no? So I’m going to the Holy Land to help our people increase and multiply. It’s my mission.”

In the 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler, Yente is no longer a soldier in the demographic war between Jews and Arabs but a feminist unconcerned with the future of the Jewish state. Joseph Stein, who also wrote the book for the revival, now has her proclaim, “I just want to go where our foremothers (sic!) lived and where they’re all buried. That’s where I want to be buried—if there’s room.” Israel is overcrowded, where old Jews come to be buried, and where the problems between Jews and Arabs have miraculously dissolved. If Palestine for Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye is the Promised Land, for Fiddler’s Tevye America is the land of promise. Here again Fiddler reflects the political sensibilities of its makers.

Edward Shapiro is professor of history emeritus at Seton Hall University and the author of A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflections on American Jewish History and Identity (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brooklyn Riot (2006).

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Why Authors Like to Torture People We Love

Tuesday, December 09, 2014 | Permalink

Matthue Roth's first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was a NYPL Best Book for the Teen Age and an ALA Best Books nominee. His latest is The Gobblings, illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. By day, he's a video game designer. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The first time I tried to explain where I found the idea for my new picture book The Gobblings, I had to start and restart a few times. I was wrestling with all these Big Ideas, ideas which included:

  • The nightly parade of fairy penguins from the Australian coastline
  • Being separated from your friends, and semi-stranded in a country where the only people you knew were your parents, who didn't understand you (actually, for me, my in-laws, who were really valiant and tried hard but still mostly didn't understand me)
  • Is it possible to be friends with robots?

And a bunch more things. I wrote a blog post about my motivations, called it "I Stole a Story from the Baal Shem Tov," and tied it up as narratively neatly as I could.

But the essence of The Gobblings was an early Hasidic folktale called "The Alef-Bet" (or "The Alef-Bais" for you old schoolers). It's a quick one, so let me tell it here:

The Alef-Bais

On Yom Kippur night, a boy wanders into a synagogue. He doesn't know how to pray, he doesn't know Hebrew; all he knows is the Hebrew alphabet. So he recites that and hopes the letters will rearrange into the right words. At the end of the story, they do, and his prayers not only give him a good year, but they also save everyone else in the whole synagogue.

Nice, right? I always loved the story, and it also freaked me out. Like, what was a boy doing wandering alone into synagogue? Why didn't he just pray in whatever words he understood? But I also really understood it, because it felt like everybody's experience praying. We're all alone. We're all shouting out to someone who might not be there. We don't really know what to ask for—I mean, a nice house and money and a suitcase full of Legos would be cool, but none of us knows what we truly need.

Writers are sadists. I first imagined Herbie, and everything came to me in a rush—his loneliness, his sense of exploration, the fact that, if he were on a space station, he'd instantly try to find all these secret rooms and make robot friends. And for every thought I had, there was an equal and opposite thought of: How do we show this in the clearest, best?

And the answer is always: You throw your character—your new creation; the thing you love most in the world—in front of the bus.

When I want to show how much Herbie cares about his friends, I make him isolated and alone. To show his creative spirit and his ingenuity, I put him in a place where there's nothing to do and force him to build his own robots. When I want to show him at his best and most heroic, I try to break him.

I'm pretty sure that literary theory is not the way that the Baal Shem Tov wrote "The Alef-Bais." But that's exactly what happens in it, right? The nameless child has no one, so he shows up to the synagogue. He isn't on the intellectual or cultural level of the congregation, so he isn't given a prayerbook or a kind word. He doesn't know how to pray, but it is the wanting to pray itself that registers as the deepest and most effective prayer.

Writers are sadists. And I occasionally do feel really guilty about this. (I also occasionally get some really wonderful and loving letters from readers who think I'm an absolute bastard for doing these things to my characters.) But if the Baal Shem Tov did it, then maybe it's not all bad? And maybe—maybe—I'm not all bad, either.

Matthue Roth lives in Brooklyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com

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A Guide To Selecting Your Perfect Chanukah Book

Monday, December 08, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

Here's your guide to selecting your perfect book for Chanukah this year! Want a larger version? Click the image! You can find links to all of these titles below the graphic.



Read More about These Books!

The Last Ember; Rabbi Rocketpower and the Mystery of the Missing Menorahs; Five Centuries of Hanukkah Lamps from the Jewish Museum; Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins; Jewish Holiday Origami; How to Spell Chanukah; Hanukkah in America; Honeyky Hanukah; The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming; Cooking Jewish.

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Top 5 Promised Lands I Didn’t Explore

Monday, December 08, 2014 | Permalink

Adam Rovner is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel out this week from NYU Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, details six modern efforts to create Jewish homelands beyond the borders of biblical Israel. Most of these plans were advanced by territorialists—Jewish nationalists who sought to settle a land other than Eretz Israel. While conducting archival research, I visited each of the potential territories my work describes: Angola, Kenya, Madagascar, upstate New York, Suriname, and Tasmania. But there were several other plans for Jewish states I didn’t examine, either because they never advanced far enough to be considered serious proposals, or because I didn’t want get myself killed. Here’s a list of alternate Zions for that sequel I’ll never write:

Number 5—Arctic Ocean Islands (1931)

The famed Graf Zeppelin, fresh from its historic flight over the Holy Land, departed on a mission to map the polar regions of northernmost Europe in 1931. On board was a young journalist, Arthur Koestler, who had lived in British Mandate Palestine and become an ardent Zionist frustrated with British policies. Koestler plotted to drop “blue-and-white [flags] with the shield of David in gold in the center” from the hatches of the Zeppelin over undiscovered Arctic islands. The hot-headed reporter believed that by doing so, he could claim land in the name of the Jewish people. The concept of ownerless land—terra nullis—was frequently invoked in the era of exploration, and so Koestler’s idea was not as harebrained as might be thought. The expedition did indeed discover uncharted islands, but Koestler never dropped any flags. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a grant generous enough to allow me to charter a dirigible to the Arctic. Does the MacArthur Foundation read this?

Number 4—New Caledonia (1936)

This French territory consists of several islands in the Coral Sea and lies about 800 miles from the eastern coast of Australia. Photographs show it to be a paradise of white sand beaches and palm trees reflected in clear blue water. In November 1936, the Paris branch of the Freeland League for Jewish Colonization—the major territorialist organization at the time—pushed for mass emigration from Europe to French possessions. Representatives met with the French Colonial Minister to disclose their plans for establishing a “new Jewish center” for refugees fleeing European anti-Semitism. The Minister was sympathetic to the cause and seriously considered the Freeland League’s call to investigate opportunities in New Caledonia, French Guiana, and Madagascar. After studying their proposals, the Minister announced that Madagascar presented the most favorable option for a Jewish colony. New Caledonia dropped from the territorialist agenda as the Freelanders turned their attention to Madagascar. I examine the Madagascar Plan in my book, and sometimes I still dream about a Jewish State with lemurs.

Number 3—Baja California (1933)

In the early 1930s, American rabbi and Zionist George Richter struck up a friendship with the powerful press magnate William Randolph Hearst. At the time, Hearst possessed large land holdings along the Baja Peninsula south of California. Richter, concerned about Hitler’s rise to power, worked to convince Hearst to create settlements for Jewish refugees on his lands. Richter raised funds and promoted the plan with the help of American Zionists and territorialists. But the Mexican government had no interest in ceding control over its territory to impoverished Jewish refugees, even if they had Hearst’s tacit support. Likewise, at least according to one historian, American powerbroker Rabbi Stephen Wise opposed the scheme in the mistaken belief that Hitler would soon fall from power. I ended up traveling to Baja while writing In the Shadow of Zion, but that was for the book photographer’s bachelor party in Los Cabos. No archival research ensued.

Number 2—Guyana (1938)

Just two days after Kristallnacht, America’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy—yes, that one—went to Downing Street to discuss the crisis with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The idea of settling Jewish refugees in British Guiana (now independent Guyana) originated with Kennedy. The Ambassador sought a way to help Chamberlain salvage “peace in our time” and also aid his patron, President Roosevelt, whose advisors had spent months debating what to do with the waves of emigrants fleeing the Reich. American, British, and Yiddish newspapers got wind of their efforts and reported on the Anglo-American proposal to settle 50,000 Jews in British Guiana. Chaim Weizmann opposed the plan, but momentum gathered and in January 1939 an expedition was dispatched to the South American colony. Their report was cautiously optimistic about settling Guyana’s teeming jungles, but there was little enthusiasm for the scheme and no funds were forthcoming. I did make it to Guyana for a few days of preliminary research and I’m happy to report that they have excellent, and potent, rum.

Number 1—Libya (1908)

In 1905, after the 7th Zionist Congress rejected the idea of an African Zion in “Uganda” (actually today’s Kenya), British author and prominent Zionist Israel Zangwill formed a rival movement, the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO). Zangwill’s ITO rejected the idea of creating a Jewish national home in Ottoman Palestine as impractical. ITO supporters examined a host of other territories, including Australia, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Libya, specifically the eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica. In 1908, the ITO sent a scientific commission to explore Cyrenaica and consult with local Ottoman authorities. They traveled by camel over the course of several weeks from the eastern city of Derna west to Benghazi. Their report was disappointing: the land was both less fertile and more populated than had been thought. And so, the plan was stillborn. I had originally hoped to trace the route of the 1908 expedition for my book despite having two strikes against me: I’m a dual American-Israeli citizen. What would have been unwise in 2010 became suicidal after Libya plunged into chaos in 2011. Perhaps one day I’ll get there. Maybe if the photographer for my next book throws a bachelor party in Benghazi.

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Book Cover of the Week: Ishmael's Oranges

Friday, December 05, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

Ishmael's Oranges by debut novelist Claire Hajaj tells the parallel stories of Salim and Jude. Salim is a young Palestinian boy living in Jaffa who's life is thrown upside-down in 1948. Jude is a Jewish girl living with her family, all of whom are Holocaust survivors, in the north of England. Their paths collide in 1960s London where they fall in love despite the many challenges their backgrounds provide. Hajaj follows the journey of those cast adrift by war and the individual and universal conflicts that ensue. The beautiful cover illustration depicts the detachment and anonymity of a life in exile.

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