The ProsenPeople

Doreen Rappaport Speaks on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Thursday, November 06, 2014 | Permalink

by Michal Hoschander Malen

Doreen Rappaport, author of numer­ous highly acclaimed books for children and young adults, spoke on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Great Neck Library, a public library in suburban New York. Her most recent book Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust is a comprehensively compiled and beautifully told recounting of numerous instances of Jewish resistance, of fighting back in ways large and small, of unbowing strength in the face of the Nazi onslaught, something so many are sadly unaware is also an important part of the Holocaust story. Of course, the huge, senseless, incalculable tragedy can never be denied and should never be forgotten. We have, fortunately, an ever-growing body of literature, reflected in the Jewish Book Council's reviews, testifying and bearing witness to cruelty and slaughter and the martyrdom which ensued. But Rappaport reminds adults, and more importantly their children, that there was another aspect to the Jewish experience of the time which we should remember with pride and glory and from which we can draw lessons important to our future survival and health as a people, that of showing resis­tance in any way possible and of showing, too, a kind of courage difficult to imagine in our day. She is convinced that today’s children need to hear the stories of pushing back and be inspired by them. Coupling survivor testimonies with stories of courage and resistance is an effective and telling way to teach young people about the way it was. She focuses on several types of resistance in her book and in her talk, some more dramatic than others, but all significant and vitally important including escapes, uprisings (in ad­dition to the well-known one in the Warsaw ghetto), sabotage, ges­tures within the camps such as the lighting of Chanukah candles, and the saving of children. This last, the saving of children, was vitally important to older Jews who knew that they would probably not survive. The push to smuggle, hide and otherwise save children seemed like the only hope for any possible future and was treated with the utmost seriousness. Rappaport spends much time writing and talking about this crucial and highly emotional topic.

Rappaport is not only a wonderful writer who knows how to bring history alive for a young reader through the written word, she is a lively and engaging speaker, as well, with a charming and welcoming style. Hearing her describe the process of birthing this book was positively fascinating. It began ten years ago, when she was in the process of writing a completely different book on Jewish-Americans. A librarian kept plying her, unasked, with materials about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Her mind was focused on the topic at hand but somehow, the unsolicited material caught her interest and the seed for Beyond Courage was planted.

Rappaport described the research for the project and cited help from librarians, experts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, two research trips to Israel, and the dedicated assistance of many survivors who were witnesses to the events described in the book. She noted the emotional connection she has made with some of these survivors and described what it was like to help them sort out some of their memories of that difficult time. Many are bril­liant and resourceful people and it is evident that they drew upon those traits in their resistance activities.

When the time came to write, there were many decisions to be made about what to put in and what to leave out. What actually constitutes resistance? It isn’t always an easy concept to define. Does it include self-help? Secret schools? Archives left for future generations? Diaries and records of daily life? Even just survival is resistance in its own way and luck plays a part in nearly every story. The definitions and decisions as to what to include were complex. Then came the fact-checking. Many of the events in this book are based on people’s recollec­tions and memories of a time already long ago and in a non-fiction book like this one, care must be taken to authenticate and verify every detail, not always an easy task.

As the book is geared to children and young adults, stories about children are featured. But framing these stories which can be harsh and uncomfortable to hear into a form that children can read and respond to in a positive way was a challenging task requiring a creative approach. At times, she noted, it helped to imagine scenes cinematically in her mind.

The gathering of the photographs, the culling of them and the placing of them within the text was also a challenging task. They help bring the book to life for the reader and are an important part of the learning experience but incorporating them into the whole for maximum effect was not a simple process.

The design of the book was also the subject of deep thought as the symbolism of the choices intertwined so thoroughly with the message being conveyed. As the Star of David is, in the minds of many, an important symbol, and as Rappaport felt it had been de­based and disrespected so often during the Holocaust years, it was important to her to redeem and “rescue” the Star in a symbolic manner within the pages of her book. She had many meetings with the book designer, who is a non-Jew, and was able to convey the importance of the concept. The Star is used creatively throughout the book from the cover onward as a graphic symbol representing hope and healing and the future of the Jewish people; when reading the book, it is worth noting the subtleties of this design feature and how it quietly enhances the overall message.

Audience response to Rappaport’s talk was warm and enthusiastic. Audience members asked questions and shared many of their own stories about World War II. Many were survivors themselves; one was an American soldier who was involved in liberating the camps. There were young people in the audience, as well, and this was noted appreciative­ly by Rappaport. She also drew atten­tion to all the material she was not able to include in this book and said she hopes to write more on the topic at a future date. She left the audience with one thought: all her books (there are about 48 of them so far, and the topics are wide-ranging) share a common theme, and this one is no exception: her theme is empowerment. Empowerment is vital; empowerment is all. Rappaport clearly left her audience feeling more empowered.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the children’s and young adult section editor of Jewish Book World.

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Book Cover of the Week: A Thousand Pieces of You

Wednesday, November 05, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Yesterday was not only the 2014 United States midterm elections; it was also the release date for the first installment in a new Young Adult Fiction series, Firebird:

A Thousand Pieces of You by New York Times bestselling author Claudia Gray has been long awaited in the literary blogosphere, which has taken a particular interest in the novel's book cover. It's not hard to see why.

Basking in comparisons to Cloud Atlas and Orphan Black, the novel's story sounds like The Amber Spyglass with cool new gadgets. Protagonist Marguerite Caine's parents are renowned physicists whose crowning achievement is the Firebird, a device that enables travel through alternate dimensions. When her father is killed, Marguerite pursues his murderer through worlds accessible only to those wielding her parent's invention. But with each new dimension she traverses, Marguerite's mission becomes less and less clear.

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String Imagery and Jennifer Rosner's Novel-In-Progress

Wednesday, November 05, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jennifer Rosner wrote about a gene mutation, a motherly connection, and the power of string. She is the author of the picture book, The Mitten String (Random House, 2014) and the memoir, If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard (Feminist Press, 2010). Jennifer will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

As I work on new writing projects, string imagery continues to have its hold. My novel-in-progress, Hidden, is about a mother and child, set during the Holocaust. The mother gets the opportunity to put her child in a convent for safety, but the act of giving her child away (even to save her) triggers debilitating emotions of all sorts. In my story, the mother struggles with connection for the rest of her life.

Strings figure into the story, but in nefarious ways. The mother stitches her child’s Jewish name into the seam of her security blanket – to let her know her given name and to hasten a reunion later – but this threading comes to haunt the mother in dreams in which her daughter is gagged, choked, and pierced as the stitches create additional risk that her child’s Jewishness will be discovered. In time, the child becomes a violinist (a player of strings), and music ultimately becomes an avenue for reconnection and healing, but along the way there is heightened risk of discordance, brokenness, and the giving-away of safe hiding places because of the sounds emanating from those strings.

Ties bind. In Hidden, I explore the complex need for human connections even as one’s survival may require their unraveling.

Jennifer Rosner's writings have appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford University, and is editor of the anthology, The Messy Self (Paradigm Publishers, 2007). She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

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Interview: Assaf Gavron

Tuesday, November 04, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Assaf Gavron is a writer and translator, and the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) Scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for 2014-2015. He is the author of seven books and numerous translations, including those from English to Hebrew of J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Audrey Niffeneger, Nathan Englander, and Jonathan Safran Foer. Multi-talented, he is the captain of the “Israeli national football team of writers and poets,” according to his website (, and a singer/songwriter with a band called “Mouth and Foot.” He has lived mostly in Israel, but has also spent time in England and Germany.

Jewish Book Council caught up with him by phone to discuss his most recent novel, The Hilltop, winner of Israel’s Bernstein Prize and the first work of fiction to grapple with the unauthorized hilltop West Bank settlements.

Beth Kissileff: You have a tremendous ability to por­tray different types of people in the book. The char­acters change throughout the book and the book chronicles their changes. There are two different baalei teshuvah, returnees to religious Judaism, Josh and Gabi. They are not stereotypes, but individuals. Even the Shin Bet informer is seen as sympathetic.

Assaf Gavron: Thank you, I’m happy you thought that way. Any novel, if it aims to be a good novel—regard­less of what the subject is—shows a variety of people in a place. There is a stereotype of a settler, but there is never one type. Also, a person is not one-sided or clear-cut. Not only do people change over the years, but at any given moment there are conflicts, and facets.

To write a novel, if you don’t display that variety you lose credibility.

With the settlers—with any group of people that others have clear opinions about—everyone thinks they know what the settlers think, but if you dig deeper, they are human beings with motives and histories and pressure and reasons, the different things that make up our lives. I like to do that with subjects that seem to be clear.

BK: This is one of my favorite passages. Can you comment on it? “Longing is the engine of the world. The beginning and the end. Longing comes with so much pain that can break you. Whatever we do, we’re broken vessels. Rabbi Nachman brought music out of longing. The heart beats and lets up. Longing—touches, and leaves.”

AG: This is one of the themes of the novel, in terms of this very basic connection settlers have to the land. Longing for physical land but also for a different time, a Biblical time when things were more clear, God would punish the enemy and so on.

BK: You are able to create sympathy even for people who do terrible things. One charac­ter, Nir, is a self-involved pothead who doesn’t help his wife at all; another, Gabi, beats his toddler. We learn from their emotions that they are not just stereotypes.

AG: I like to do that in a way, to confuse, to get away from simplicity with a character. We know we are supposed to hate Gabi, but we like him because Gabi is a likable character. A novel should do that; it should give a complex picture, not the easy one. Human beings are people, with a charming side and a horrible side. I never met anyone who is only a monster or an angel—it doesn’t exist. A realistic novel should show this complexity.

Some perceive the settlers as bad, violent, stopping the peace process, but you know, maybe there are some different people there. Maybe even if I don’t agree I can see where they are coming from.

Especially with the Middle East and conflict, people have opinions and don’t move. But some people change [and realize] it is a little more complex than what it seems.

BK: What motivated you to write?

AG: I wanted a more rounded view of Israel—those who are good, who inform, who fuck up, who lie and cheat, and who forgive.

I separate my political opinions from the book. I don’t think the book makes a political point or reaches a conclusion. Yes these settlements are against the law, but they’re still there forty years later.

I won’t spoil the end of book, but in the end the fight is still going on. Bottom line, the settlements are not something that I am supporting; I show the complexity.

BK: There is a scene when Gabi loses it with his son—a slow burning of anger, his whole life reacts with anger. And then there is a lovely reconciliation scene with someone he hurt badly in the army that could be read for the High Holidays as an example of repentance.

AG: If you are writing a novel about Israel, I think violence is part of our society, the way it affects people. Not everyone is violent, but I want this subject to be part of the personal life of the main characters. Gabi is not 100% violent, not a mean person, but it is part of him. There are gentle parts, loving parts, peaceful parts. That is Israel also, not only Gabi.

But Gabi has a burst of violence at the end: he takes part in the tag mehir [price tag at­tack]. I am hopeful that on the national level, we can show different sides, our gentle side our loving side, our reconciliation side.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of aca­demic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the Univer­sity of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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A Gene Mutation, a Motherly Connection, and the Power of String

Monday, November 03, 2014 | Permalink

Jennifer Rosner is author of the picture book, The Mitten String (Random House, 2014) and the memoir, If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard (Feminist Press, 2010). She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In my memoir, If A Tree Falls, and more recently in my picture book, The Mitten String, there is a character modeled after my great-great aunt, Bayla, who lived in an Austrian shtetl in the 1800s. Bayla was deaf and when she had a baby – whom she could neither see nor hear in the dark of night – she tied a string between them. When her baby cried, she felt the tug on her end of the string and woke to care for her child.

Since first hearing of Bayla’s story, string imagery has wended its way into my writing: braided strands of hair, violin strings, umbilical cords, the cilia that are meant to send auditory signals to the brain. Some of the imagery I’ve been drawn to is distinctively Jewish: the midwife’s string from a laboring mother’s bed to the synagogue’s ark door; the strings of the tzitzit, the straps of the tefillin wrapped around a wrist and the accompanying verse from Hosea 2:20: "You are betrothed to me in love and righteousness."

Perhaps my interest in Bayla’s string and others comes from my deep desire for motherly connection. My own daughters were born deaf as a result of Connexin 26, a gene mutation prevalent among Askenazi Jews. As a new mother, I feared a chasm between me and my girls because of the experiences we would never share. I was in search of ways to connect to them through the difference of my hearing and their deafness.

Searching for pathways of connection with my daughters – outside and inside my writing life – has led me to a deeper understanding of myself and my history, the ways I’ve experienced hearing and being heard. As our family begins this new year together, the closeness I have been able to forge with my daughters feels like a gift passed down through the generations, like a tug on the wrist that keeps us connected, even in the dark of night.

Jennifer Rosner's writings have appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford University, and is editor of the anthology, The Messy Self (Paradigm Publishers, 2007). She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, October 31, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Paperless Love: A Letter from Valy

Friday, October 31, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman wrote about translating letters written in Yiddish by her family and shared a short reading list and an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book,Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

It was hard for me to leave out any of the words written by Valerie Scheftel – Valy – the woman my grandfather left behind. But there were a few that didn’t fit. And Valy’s letters – as devastating as they are – sometimes, too, ranged to the mundane, just like all the letter writers of her day included the tiny things that now make up our email feeds. Life, even in deprivation, was not always worth filling up a page about.

And yet, even Valy’s shortest notes can wallop me with sadness. The following is a postcard that didn’t make it into the book in the end, even though it too carries so much. (Translation was by Ulli Wiesner.)

Postcard from Valy, Berlin, Rombergstraße 2
to KW at St. Luke's Hospital


Dearest Karl,

Today a card arrived from Uncle Isiue in which he writes that you had received a letter from me on 01-17. But you did not write to me?!?! Why not, my boy? I simply can't believe that you do not want to write. You probably already have received my letter of the 18th of this month. Nothing much has changed here for the time being. Since I have a little more free time now I work in Pathology, which I like a lot. I work with the microscope, just as you taught me, and am making good progress. Here, spring has sprung suddenly, and everything is unbelievably beautiful. One could almost be tempted to be happy and joyful. Do you remember, Karl, - the young birch trees in the Vienna Woods? Time and time again, I think of them!

What are you doing, darling in your nunnery? Do you think, you'll ever let me know anything about it? Paula's sister will hopefully leave for the USA in 14 days. Maybe you'll see her so she can give you a full report. I am afraid that I will not be able to come for a long, long time due to the quota.

All the very best to you, Karl, and many kisses from your Valy

Greetings to your mama, Zilli . My mother sends her regards as well

So short – and yet so much. Others are getting out of Berlin, even as she is stuck under the quota system that denied thousands of others a chance to cross the Atlantic.

Valy and my grandfather used to walk the Vienna Woods, the Rax Mountains, the gardens of Vienna’s Augarten. She muses on that time again and again her letters.

But I am struck by more here: Just like her memories of her time in Vienna, Valy carried that microscope wherever she went, even the Gestapo mention it in their files of her.

Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C.

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The Reason Jews Shouldn’t Celebrate Halloween Is Exactly Why We Should

Friday, October 31, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It’s a question every Jewish American parent faces at the waning of October: Will you allow your children to trick-or-treat?

The deliberation generally comes down to whether one considers Halloween a secular holiday or acknowledges its pagan-Christian origins. The former interpretation is held as the justification for Jewish participation in All Hallow’s Eve festivities and customs; the latter dredges up some discomfort for those committed to traditional Jewish values, observances, and/or identity.

But maybe—just maybe—we have that backwards.

The increasingly profane treatment of this old, old holiday in the United States in many ways brings out the worst of American culture. Why should Jews feel more comfortable aligning with that than with a foreign but spiritually significant observance?

In the Christian tradition, Halloween kicks off Allhollowtide, a three-day remembrance of the dead. It precedes the ensuing solemnity of All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day with a sort of vigil for the departed. Costumes were incorporated to confuse wakeful imps and wandering souls, lest a loitering spirit attempt to exact vengeance on its last night of purgatory before passing on to the next world. Tricks and pranks developed in mimicry of such menacing forces, and the somber rituals were often followed by merry community and family gatherings. Halloween was a time to celebrate what scares us, to employ “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.”

Yes, the premise for this holiday and its triduum is very not-Jewish, but there are certain parallels. While ghouls and goblins and pixies and saints reside in a realm completely distinct from Jewish lore, our history includes an appreciation for spirits of the dead, dybbuks, witches, and mischievous demons. Jews, too, symbolically welcome visits from our ancestors—ushpizin—and play all sorts of tricks to ward off evil forces of superstition and the supernatural.

And when it comes to laughing at death, no one—no one—does gallows humor like the Jews.

Jews sit with death—literally: our communities hold an obligation to sit night and day with the bodies awaiting burial; Jewish families gather on the floor to contend with the loss of a loved one for a solid week—or perhaps it’s death that sits with Jews. Our literature, especially in the current generation of Jewish writers, orbits around the specters of the departed and the grief of those who survive them. A foundational component of “Cultural Judaism” in the present age is how its adherents cleave to and from the traditional death rites: the subject of the millennium’s most popular novels, adaptations, and short films.

Death is a constant and continuous discussion in every aspect of Jewish life, from parenting to friendship to religious practice to humor. Why should we deliberately ignore the intentionality of a day designed to confront it?

Hence, in lieu of spooky stories or tales of horror, tonight's Jewish Book Council reading compilation is a short selection of books that engage with loss, that explore how Jews of varying backgrounds and identities cope and contend with death:



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Interview: Yaffa Ganz

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | Permalink

by Michal Hoschander Malen

Jewish Book Council's Michal Hoschander Malen speaks with children’s author Yaffa Ganz from her home in Israel.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Yaffa, you have educated and entertained generations of Jewish children. In my own family, for example, my daughter adored the Savta Simcha books and now my seven-year-old granddaughter is loving them, as well. What do you think accounts for the longevity of the appeal of your characters?

Yaffa Ganz: What accounts for the appeal of any happy, helpful, friendly person? Maybe that’s the answer! Savta Simcha and Uncle Nechemya are happy, warm, friendly, good people who want everyone else to be happy as well. These are the kind of people who make the world go round; the kind of people we all love, whether they lived a hundred years ago or yesterday. They don’t go out of style.

MHM: In addition to such memorable characters, two themes stand out in your children’s stories: joy in the celebration of Shabbat and holidays and a passionate love of the land of Israel. How do you trans­mit these concepts, which are clearly so precious to you, so vibrantly through the pages of your books?

YG: Judaism and Torah are all about love and simcha. Love for G-d and His Torah, His People and His Land. And simcha, which is not synony­mous with “happiness.” Simcha is the joy of living in what we might call a “G-dly dimension.” It’s the joy of striving for Truth and eternal values, doing G-d’s Will and being a mensch. So if you’re really into being Jew­ish, simcha comes with the territory!

MHM: I think there’s a third theme that I should have included above because it permeates all of your stories—kindness and thoughtfulness between people. Please tell us a bit about how and why that concept remains a constant throughout, no matter the plot, no matter the setting.

YG: There are two very basic concepts which guide the life of a Jew— recognizing that all people were created in the image of G-d and to show our gratitude for all the good we receive. A Jew is commanded to treat all human beings with courtesy, generosity and respect and to have a special, loving relationship with his fellow Jews. And he must show gratitude to G-d and to everyone else who helps supply his needs. Without our fellow human beings, we couldn’t possibly survive. And if we do not bother to acknowledge our debts to people, we won’t acknowledge our debts to G-d either. So kindness and thoughtfulness and sensitivity are very deeply embedded Jewish concepts. Besides, who wants to live in a world where people are nasty and selfish and mean?

MHM: Your Jewish history book Sand and Stars is fascinating and com­prehensive. What kind of research did that entail?

YG: Jewish kids, even those who go to day schools, have very poor historical cognition. For all they know, the Maccabim and George Wash­ington lived in the same year! I wanted to write a Jewish history which would be easy, interesting reading; something which would portray not only the unspeakable suffering we have endured, but the grandeur, the faithfulness, the exceptional message and contribution of the Jewish people to the world. Writing the Jewish history was the easy part; con­necting it to the general history of the world without getting lost in the details was the hard part. The Jews interacted with and influenced the world. And the world most definitely left its mark on us.

Rabbi Berel Wein’s history books served as an outline, supplemented by a large selection of other history books—both Jewish and general. I tried to make this a personal story of our people, and I included mate­rial younger readers would find interesting. I also used Jewish sources wherever possible—the Talmud, the midrashim, the commentaries. We added maps and time-lines for visual clarity so it would be easy to follow. Mostly, I wanted it to read like a good story. It took a year of intensive work and although it’s not a detailed, comprehensive history, it does takes the reader on a fascinating, two thousand year journey through the mainstream of Jewish history.

MHM: In addition to children’s books, you’ve written books of essays for adults. Have you ever considered writing a fiction book for adults, as well?

YG: Considered it? Yes. Done it? No. At least not yet! However, you can find a good dose of fiction in my books of essays. Cinnamon and Myrrh was recently reprinted by Feldheim. It takes a look at our contemporary Jewish lifestyle, pokes fun at many of our quirks and foibles, and offers a few wise gems to ponder as we plod along the path of life.

MHM: You moved from the United States to Israel in the 1960s. Can you give our read­ers a small taste of your daily life there?

YG: The “taste” of life in Israel is delicious, aggravating, trying, exhilarating, exciting, wor­rying, fulfilling and wonderful! There is nothing like it anywhere else on the globe. Now that I am finally a Liberated Lady (any female can be a liberated Woman. Being a Lady is an additional badge of honor!) I have more time to do what women and ladies dream about doing—study, read, play the flute, and write whatever I am working on at the mo­ment, enjoy my friends and family and especially my delicious grandchildren and great grandchildren. Each one is a blessing. And since each new family addition necessitates a dedication in a new book, I have to keep writing. My grandchildren are very insistent that each one is mentioned in a book of his or her own.

MHM: It’s wonderful news that some of your classics are being reissued now. Is there any chance that we can also look forward to anything new in the near future?

YG: One new book—All Kinds of Kids—was published around six months ago. And two favorite oldies—The Adventures of Jeremy Levi and Hello Heddy Levi just came out this week after a long interval. Feldheim has recently reprinted all four Mimmy Simmy books and the five Savta Simchas are back on the shelves with new covers. All of these books were out of print for several years. Dr. Mitzva is planned to reappear again along with a second, new Dr. Mitzva book before the summer (he’s the great Doctor of Mostly Everything!).

As far as new ideas, I have a large collection of poetry I’d love to put out. Unfortu­nately, most publishers are not interested in poetry. Can it be that only the poets read poetry?

Aside from that, I would like to see the rest of the Savta Simcha series translated into Hebrew. Believe it or not, not a single one of my many grandchildren has read any of my books in English unless it was a school assignment (which takes all the joy out of the reading). Savta Simcha exists in French and German and one volume is in Spanish, but only three of the five books have appeared in Hebrew. I’m working on it now. Wish me luck.

MHM: Thank you for so much storytelling pleasure over so many years and for sharing part of your own story with us.

YG: And thank you for asking! Giving pleasure to so many readers is a source of great pleasure for me. And knowing that a third generation is reading the books is absolutely lovely!

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the chil­dren’s and young adult section editor of Jewish Book World.

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Paperless Love: Translating Yiddish Letters

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman shared a short reading list and an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council'sVisiting Scribe series.

I’m a little bit obsessed with letters and the way we all once lived – pen or typewriter to paper, considered missives that were sent off to our loved ones, without hope of a reply in seconds or minutes, but with a wait that spanned a day or days or weeks or months. In shoeboxes at my parents’ house I have my own collections of love stories, friendships, conversations that didn’t take place electronically. But of course, as a teen, we had the phone, which we would hold on to, for hours on end, even “long distance,” which reduced the number of letters sent, if one wasn’t ‘away,’ say, or specifically feeling romantic, nostalgic, or hard to reach.

In my grandparents’ era, with mail that arrived twice daily, the news was nearly always sent by post – be it urgent or mundane – as the phone, or telegrams, were luxuries reserved for only the most severe cases. In my collection of letters, there are hundreds of postcards that were just as likely to mention the train times, health status, or casual updates as they were to discuss the major problems of the day. Take this one – from a recently arrived cousin, dated late December 1939. “Dear Karl, Welcome! For the time being, only in writing. We should be happy to see you soon in person. Please let us know when you are coming, and when we should go to Brooklyn.”

There were dozens upon dozens of postcards in my collection written in scrawled Yiddish between my grandfather’s brother-in-law and himself. These were often almost impossible to decipher. Late in my writing of the book, I was sitting on a flight returning from Tel Aviv, surrounded by a large group of friends from Borough Park, Brooklyn. To my left was an impossibly thin woman, and to her left was her husband who spent most of the flight immersed in Pirkei Avot, the lessons of the fathers, on the other side of the aisle from me was a friend of his. Occasionally they leaned across to talk to each other, purposefully avoiding eye contact with the women.

In fact, the men ignored me entirely, until I opened my computer. Then the friend across the way peered at my screen. “You speak Yiddish?” he said, incredulously. No, I admitted. In fact I’ve been hoping to get these translated.

And suddenly a group of men became animated, discussing the translation of my letters as fervently as a tractate of Talmud. The letters, they said, were nearly a transliteration of German written into Yiddish (I suspected this). Mostly they said very little, they hoped for health, and they hoped something terrible would happen to Hitler.

Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. 

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