The ProsenPeople

New Reviews June 9, 2017

Friday, June 09, 2017 | Permalink

Overcoming Jewish Stereotypes—One Image At a Time

Thursday, June 08, 2017 | Permalink

Matthew Baigell has been blogging for us all week about his newest book, The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, as part of our Visiting Scribes series. His final post compares The Implacable Urge with his previous book, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940, in a discussion on how one can overcome Jewish stereotypes not only through the written word, but also by analyzing Jewish images from the past.

My last two books, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940 (2015) and The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, just published (both by Syracuse University Press) include cartoon images of Jews during the same period. But the similarity stops right there. Social Concern is about left wing Jewish artists who were often tagged as trouble-makers, socialists, and communists. My idea was to show that the artists were Jews first. Most were born in eastern Europe and lived on the Lower East Side in New York. They absorbed through their Jewish heritage the desire to help other people. Left wing politics gave them a secular way to do so. For them, socialism was a secular form of Judaism. The book presents them in a favorable light. The cartoons were taken from Yiddish and English-language Jewish magazines.

For The Implacable Urge, I looked at cartoons in the mainstream press. These were uniformly anti-Semitic and presented Jews stereotypically as big nosed, fat slobs wanting to game the system, cheat people, and steal whenever possible. Two totally different interpretations of the same people. Social Concern was reassuring. Jews gave to charity, a people concerned with healthy working and living conditions. The Implacable Urge made me aware, as Saul Bellow said in his novel, Ravelstein, “As a Jew you are also an American, but you are also not.”

You see the “not” part in the mainstream magazines and you become aware that you are identified as a Jew regardless of how you conduct yourself on a daily basis—whether you pay your taxes on time, serve in the military, vote in every election. Ivanka, for example, is always the Jewish daughter and her husband is the Jewish son-in-law. They are not fully American, perhaps not even hyphenated Americans, but Jews who are also Americans.

I married into a family of Holocaust survivors. So I know stories. Most of us, I am sure, can tell stories but nothing like those I have heard, stories of dangerous and scary situations. Nevertheless many of us have experienced situations in which we were reminded that we were Jewish, or an incident that might include the words, “You Jews,” as if each of us represented and stood for the entire community rather than being considered as an individual. One way to deal with those moments is to make certain that you are known as a Jew, a ploy adopted by several comedians (and others) as a way to diffuse potentially hostile remarks. I once knew a lady from India who taught for forty years in a university in Texas and still wore a sari each day so that she would not be confused with anybody else of her skin color. Today, of course, being Indian, she might be victimized for not being a white American. Another way is to confront the person or issue directly, but that could be dangerous.

My way, since I am in my eighties, is not to look for trouble. Many people know Jews primarily through Jewish jokes or what they hear or read, rather than from direct experiences with Jews. They think in stereotypes. What I do is to write about achievements of Jewish artists and the ways Jews are depicted in art works in order to counter such political, social, and cultural stereotypes. Granted, the art world is quite small, but I have been told several times by people that they might have been influenced by inflammatory cartoons without realizing it, and that they had no idea that left wing Jews were so concerned with social issues rather than just being political lefties.

Here is an observation that will indicate how far reaching and destructive stereotypical thinking can be. (It is not related to the discussion above, but I hope its point is understood.) All of us have heard jokes about Jewish mothers and mothers-in-law. In the past, these tended to be about women of the immigrant generations, but we are still close enough to those times so that the jokes still have resonance today. I think each joke describes a tragedy. Each is a tragedy because it obscures the important family and financial roles assumed by Jewish mothers in the small towns and cities of eastern Europe. After immigration, many suffered from dislocation from friends, from family members, and from their spoken languages as well as from the desires of their children to Americanize themselves and thus ignore family traditions. In such situations, mothers would of course cling to their children. What else did they have? They had lost their place in their society, their familiar surroundings that were left behind as well as their way of life and in exchange they were confronted with the strangeness of their new country. And then we make fun of them in jokes. That is what happens with stereotypical thinking and that is what, in my own sphere, I try to counter by writing about Jewish artists and about Jews as the subjects of artists. If you want to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture should be a positive one.

Matthew Baigell is the author of numerous books including The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, American Artists, Jewish Images, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction, and Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880–1940. He is professor emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University.

Header image credited to Alfred Rosenberg.

The Art of Hate

Wednesday, June 07, 2017 | Permalink

Margot Singer, author of  Underground Fugue, will be guest blogging for us this week as part of our Visiting Scribe series.

My grandparents on both sides of my family escaped from Nazi Europe in 1939, almost too late. My father and his parents left Czechoslovakia for Palestine thanks to exit permits and entry visas obtained from one of my grandfather’s cousins, a doctor whom the authorities had barred from emigrating. My mother’s father, also a doctor who had arrived in the United States in the mid-1930s, brought his parents and siblings over from Lithuania thanks to a grateful patient who signed fourteen immigration affidavits.

I come from a family of refugees, but I never thought of it that way when I was growing up. “Refugee” wasn’t a word we used. My relatives seemed like ordinary immigrants to me. My father’s parents, whom we often visited in Israel in the summers, spoke German with my uncle, Hebrew with my cousins, English with my brother and me. My grandmother cooked wurst and wiener schnitzel and baked fabulous Viennese cakes. She told happy stories of skiing in the High Tatras and picking mushrooms in the forests near Brno. The places she talked about seemed as distant, and as benign, as the images in the few faded pre-war family photographs we possessed. By then, Czechoslovakia was sequestered behind the Iron Curtain and Lithuania impossible to find on any map. The world they’d left behind had disappeared.

For a long time, I assumed the anti-Semitism that had driven my family out of Europe had been left behind as well. But by the early 2000s, reading about the threatening anti-Semitic rhetoric of Iran’s Ahmadinejad, the virulent anti-Zionism of the European left, and the far-right conspiracy theories claiming that the 9/11 attacks had been carried out by Israelis and Jews, I felt unmoored.

In 2005, I came across a New York Times Magazine piece about an exhibition of anti-Semitic cartoons to be displayed in a London museum. The show juxtaposed medieval drawings of Jews as child-eating spiders, Nazi caricatures of the monstrous, hook-nosed “Eternal Jew,” and modern anti-Israeli images based on the same anti-Semitic tropes. A 2003 cartoon from the British newspaper, The Independent, for example, depicted Ariel Sharon with a bloody Palestinian child dangling from his jaws. (The caption read, “What’s wrong…you never seen a politician kissing babies before?”) The collection was controversial. Did exhibiting anti-Semitic images neutralize them—or give them renewed strength? Was it better to remember or forget?

I started working on a novel whose main character was a Jewish collector of anti-Semitic cartoons, modeled after the owner of the collection displayed in the London show, a British physician and Orthodox Jew. I imagined my character as a man obsessed with figuring out what could motivate and sustain that kind of hate. In 2004, the U.K. had experienced a record 532 anti-Semitic incidents, including damage and desecration, abusive behavior, and violent attacks. The phrase Jews are evil had been painted in large letters on the walls of a London Underground station. A London man’s car had been daubed with a swastika and the words Kill all Jews.

My working title was The Hate Artist. The first, horribly over-written sentence read: “I am not an angry man, not any more, at least. But the world is a hate-filled place, now more than ever, red and seething, alive with hidden fangs and horns, scaly surfaces and molten depths, charred carapaces, the malevolent glint of gold.”

Over the next few years, however, nearly everything I thought I knew about the novel changed. I made the main character an American Jewish woman, Esther, not a British man. I scrapped the first person narration and replaced it with a third person narrative from multiple points of view. I cut the references to the art of hate.

In my novel, Underground Fugue, anti-Semitism stands in counterpoint to the anti-Islamic sentiment that has arisen in the wake of multiple terrorist attacks, the War on Terror, waves of migration, and the European refugee crisis. On her deathbed, Esther’s mother, Lonia, remembers her escape from Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939, while her elderly British friends fret over the anti-Semitic climate of London in 2005. Meanwhile, as the 7/7 terrorist bombings on the London Tube draw near, Esther begins to suspect that the boy next door may be involved in radical Islam. The novel asks, How does fear drive us to betray the ones we love? The question of what it means to be hated is less important than the question of what it means to hate.

As always, writing is an act of discovery. Writing this novel made me reconsider how my sense of self has been shaped. The old story of Jewish persecution has been replaced by the more complicated question of how we act on the legacy of that history we carry with us to challenges of the present day.

Margot Singer won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award for her story collection, The Pale of Settlement. Her work has been featured on NPR and in the Kenyon Review, the Gettysburg Review, Agni, and Conjunctions, among other publications. She is a professor of English at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Her debut novel Underground Fugue is now available from Melville House. Check back on Thursday to read more from Margot Singer.

Header photo credited to Paul Gustave Doré.


The Mainstream Press and Contemporary Jewish Art

Tuesday, June 06, 2017 | Permalink

Matthew Baigell is professor emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University. His newest book, The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, was published by Syracuse University Press in April. He will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As an art historian specializing in American art, I had wondered why contemporary Jewish art had been neglected in the mainstream press. True, there are famous artists who are Jewish but they do not explore Jewish subject matter. True, one can find demeaning, cheap-shot humor directed at Jewish subjects. But by Jewish art, I mean subject matter based on religious, historical, and positive cultural sources. By comparison, several Latino/a and African American artists, among other minorities, have, over the last few decades, explored their heritages and have exhibited their works.

What is one to say? An excuse I have heard many times is that too few people are interested in such works. But this is Catch-22 logic. People are not interested because such art is not shown and such art is not shown because people are not interested. I wonder, then, if Jewish art historians, critics, and gallerists must still be embarrassed by their religion, shy away from it, do not want to be identified with it, and want to be identified as mainstream in their tastes. What ever the reasons, artists who explore Jewish subject matter exhibit less and are not as well known as artists belonging to other minority groups. This is not just a question of talent. In my own experience, although the situation is improving, I have been directed to Jewish and Jewish-friendly rather than mainstream publications when submitting or suggesting articles or books on contemporary Jewish subjects or artists. We are still in a ghetto.

I decided at some point in my career (I am now a professor emeritus, having retired about fifteen years ago) to help bring Jewish content to public attention and to make a contribution, however small, to the history of Jewish art in America. My moment came when Norman Kleeblatt, the recently retired curator at the Jewish Museum, asked me to contribute an essay on artists who studied at the Educational Alliance in New York’s Lower East Side for the catalogue of his exhibition in 1991, Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York 1900-1945. Several artists were well known—Max Weber, Ben Shahn, Marlk Rothko, Louise Nevelson—but I soon realized that very little had been written about the artists from a Jewish, rather than mainstream American point of view. I turned in a sixty-page essay that I had to cut in half. But I found my subject, and not just because it is always a great pleasure for a person engaged in research to come on material where there are very few thumb prints of other scholars. . The artists had a Jewish life and several of their works could be more fully understood only in a religious, historical, or culturally Jewish context. To be sure, I had a lot to learn about life in eastern Europe and in the Lower East Side around the turn of the twentieth century as well as about traditional Orthodox practices, but gaining such knowledge became a way to learn more about who my forebears were and something of their world view as well as my own connections to Judaism which over the years have grown increasingly deeper and profoundly satisfying.

After submitting my article for the exhibition, my future scholarly course was set. I began to teach a course in Jewish art and began to write articles and books mostly about religious content in Jewish American art. (I was not am still not interested in artists who are Jewish and paint, say, only landscapes or geranium plants.) So far, that includes six books, two co-edited anthologies and many articles. One is on Holocaust subject matter by Jewish American artists who were quite shy of confronting the material until the 1960s. Another is about Holocaust imagery by European Jewish artists who passed the war years in this country.

When researching material for a survey of Jewish art in America (Jewish Art in America: An Introduction, 2007), another one of those ‘a-ha’ moments occurred. I realized that toward the end of the 1970s and ever since, we have been living in a golden age of Jewish American art. Artists all over the country had begun to turn to biblical themes, especially Jewish feminist artists, who challenged traditional interpretations through their art. Perhaps more artists than in any previous American generation were creating Jewish-themed works and therefore adding lively and important chapters to the history of Jewish art in this country. Interviewing dozens and befriending several of these artists has been one of the great joys in my professional and personal life, and bringing their work to public attention remains an abiding concern. I don’t want to say an abiding mission because that sounds too inflated, but I feel that it gives my work some purpose.

Check back on Thursday to read more from Matthew Baigell. 

Cover image for Jewish Art in America designed by Archie Rand

Going Tribal

Tuesday, June 06, 2017 | Permalink

Excerpted from Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To (Blue Rider Press, April, 2017) the latest collection of essays by New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch that Oprah's Magazine calls a "vivacious, hilarious, madcap memoir."

When it was time to find “the next place” for my parents, my mother decided she wanted to go tribal.

My mother wants to return to “her people,” only she doesn’t mean our family. Between cherished long-​standing grudges and more recent perceived slights, she is on speaking terms with only a handful of family members. No, she’s making the great leap backward, aligning herself with our ancestors.

My grandfather’s family, the Maisels, were teachers and rabbis. We would like to believe that the namesake of the Maisel Synagogue in Prague, a mayor who held office during the sixteenth century in the Jewish ghetto, was a relative. That’s about as much as we know about them, but we do know a lot about my grandmother Frances’s lineage.

Menasha Lidinsky, later Anglicized to Moshe, and then Morris Laden, my grandmother’s father, fled the Ukraine with his wife, Sarah, when my grandmother Frances was five years old. Fleeing the pogroms, they came over on the Prinz Oscar, having made their way to Germany from Russia in 1913. Moshe’s profession was listed as dry goods salesman. My great-​grandfather was what villagers referred to as a “swaybacked-​mule junk dealer,” or peddler, trudging from town to town earning a meager living selling goods off of an ancient animal’s back. If we had a family crest it would feature a donkey, a potato, the one pot we had to piss in, and the family motto: “My feet are killing me!” (Moshe and I actually have a lot in common, as the day‑to‑day life of a swaybacked-​mule junk dealer is much like being an author on a book tour. I’ve sold books from the trunk of my car.)

Bubbie Sarah and Zayda Moshe opened a dry goods store across the street from the famous Jewish Exponent newspaper on Pine Street in downtown Philadelphia. They had an apartment above their store, like many shopkeepers at the time. They never ventured far from their community, spoke mostly Yiddish, and lived in fear of that multitasking God who had enough time to concern himself with not only the workings of the entire universe but with whether a tiny subset of a single species on a spinning blue ball in the outer suburbs of the Milky Way dared to defy his grand plans by mixing dairy and meat.

This is why the Tel Aviv Gardens is on our list of senior living facilities to visit this weekend. It’s on a twenty-​five-​acre campus with housing options that range from independent-​living apartments to hospice care. My mother imagines that her mother, Frances, our nanny, would have felt at home there.

Nanny never spoke of spirituality, but she did believe that Jews were a kind of chosen people— the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the planet spic-​and-​span. Cleanliness was not just next to godliness for her, it was a devout calling. In the same way that nuns see themselves as brides of Christ, Nanny pledged herself to Ajax, lord of germs, whose dominion covered the expanse of surfaces in her home and the domiciles of her offspring. Her idea of keeping a kosher kitchen entailed producing flavor-​free food; at least that’s how it seemed to us grandchildren.

A typical meal at Nanny’s might include iceberg lettuce, meat, and a starchy vegetable. Lettuce was scoured and scrubbed with so much vigor that each lifeless leaf emerged from these interrogation sessions virtually translucent. These were the years when lima beans were the most exotic item offered on dinner tables in suburban America. Not only was it a punishment to eat them, Frances seemed to want the beans to suffer for their own failure to be more appetizing. The legumes would be liberated from a can, only to be subjected to a pressurized moisture-​extraction process that included several rounds of squeeze-​drying in layers of paper towels. Chalky and granular; eating them sucked the moisture from your mouth.

Beef was purchased only from a kosher butcher, but you could never trust people entirely, so it was subjected to repeated rinsing and salting and then would be secreted into paper towels for additional dehydration. Biting into it was like gnawing on particleboard. The number of trees sacrificed for meals prepared in Nanny’s kitchen is unfathomable. I hope those quarters we collected in the ubiquitous tree-​planting campaigns for Israel in the 1970s added to the aggregate number of trees in the world enough to balance it out.

My mother never showed any interest in keeping kosher, but she’s pining for Nanny, whose personality she experienced as exacting. Death has conferred an almost saintly quality on her memory. My mother has adopted Nanny’s mercurial housekeeping habits and is reaching further back to Bubbie’s dutiful observation of holidays. My mother wants to attend the weekly religious services at the Gardens. She has started lighting Sabbath candles. She pictures her grandmother’s hands gently resting over her own as she mouths the words to the prayers recited in a language that she herself never bothered to learn.

She’s also taken to needlepointing mezuzah covers and prayer shawl holders, which in my secular household become makeup bags. I have so many of these that my makeup bags have their own makeup bags. During my childhood, she crafted intricate Japanese designs, but her lotus flowers and white cranes have given way to mournful scenes of Eastern European village life. It’s all Chagall, all the time. The way she churns these things out, you’d think she was commissioned by an army of nomadic zealots who need carrying cases for their talismans. I tried to convince my son to take his lunch to school in a sack decorated with a forlorn goat wrapped in a prayer shawl playing the violin. For the record, why wouldn’t that goat look pained? Inner monologue of Chagall goat: Why do I have to play the violin and wear this schmata? The Bible is like a goat genocide, can’t I catch a break? It’s really hard for a goat to keep a scarf on. My son looked at me like I’d suggested he pack his sandwich in a moldy sneaker.

Mom rarely attended services during her childhood, and although my parents insisted on a Jewish education for us, after my sister and I left home, neither she nor my dad went back to temple. Not even once. Suddenly, forty years of secular life are immaterial to her newfound identification.

Actress and New York Times Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch's new collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories about My Family You Might Relate To, is one of Oprah's May book picks. You can read about it in, "Shalom Y'all, bittersweet family tales from the Deep South" in the J Weekly of Northern California.

A Brief History of the Original Paper Brigade

Monday, June 05, 2017 | Permalink
by Lenore J. Weitzman

As our editors work on the second issue of Jewish Book Council's literary journal, Paper Brigade, we present a tribute to the group of resistance fighters who provided the inspiration for our publication's name.



“The paper brigade was our resistance—our way of defying the Nazis,” explained Dina Abramowicz, a member of a small group of Jews in the Vilna Ghetto who risked their lives, while working under Nazi surveillance, to secretly rescue and hide thousands of Jewish books and documents the Nazis were planning to ship to Germany.

Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania was a treasure-trove for the Nazis. Once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” it was a vibrant Jewish cultural and religious center with 105 synagogues, thriving educational institutions, enormous libraries, and prominent intelligentsia.

In 1942 the Nazis ordered Herman Kruk, head of the Vilna Ghetto library, and Zelig Kalmanovich, a director of prewar YIVO, to collect the very best “Jewish books, artwork, and museum valuables” for shipment to Germany, where they were to be displayed—after the Jews of Europe were murdered.

About a third of the books were to be preserved for the Germans; the rest were to be destroyed. When the Nazis carried out “a selection” of the books they wanted, they threw “70% of the books from the YIVO treasures into the trash as scrap paper.” Kruk wrote that “the Jewish workers employed on the project are literally weeping. . . . Your heart can break as you watch.”

Kruk recruited members of the Jewish intelligentsia to join his staff of forty men and women, including the Yiddish poets Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, who became the leaders of the smuggling operations. Between March 1942 and September 1943, their “paper brigade” rescued thousands of books and tens of thousands of documents from Nazi hands.

The workers would typically hide the cherished books and papers and artifacts in their clothing and shoes—first to smuggle them out of the sorting building, and then to get past the police at the ghetto gates. If the Germans were on guard, they would confiscate everything and beat or shoot the offending Jews. But if Jewish policemen were on guard, they might allow the workers to pass because they were “only carrying papers.” (Thus the police dubbed them the “paper brigade.”)

Abraham Sutzkever (Photo: Fritz Cohen)

Abraham Sutzkever was the most ingenious rescuer of materials in the paper brigade, at one point obtaining a written permit to take wastepaper into the ghetto for use in his household oven. He then used the permit to bring in letters and manuscripts by Maxim Gorky, Sholem Aleichem, and Hayim Nachman Bialik; one of Theodore Herzl’s diaries; drawings by Marc Chagall; and a rare manuscript by the Vilna Gaon.

While some books and valuables were given to Polish or Lithuanian friends for safekeeping outside the ghetto, most were brought back to be hidden in the ghetto itself—in a concealed basement in the library and in underground bunkers spread throughout the ghetto. (For example, in October 1942 Kruk recorded 200 Torah scrolls in bunker #3.)

Although Kruk and Kalmanovich were not aware of it, about ten of the forty workers, including Sutzkever and Kaczerginski, were also members of the FPO, the ghetto’s underground Jewish fighting organization led by Abba Kovner. Along with the papers, they were also smuggling guns and ammunition into the ghetto for a planned revolt.

Sadly, in the end, most of the forty members of the paper brigade were murdered by the Germans, including Kruk and Kalmanovich. The only survivors were the paper brigade workers in the Jewish resistance—including Sutzkever, Kaczerginski, the fighter Rushka Korjak, and the librarian Dina Abramowicz (quoted earlier), all of whom escaped from the ghetto to join the Partisans.

In July 1944, they returned to Vilna with the Soviet Army and the Jewish partisan brigade and searched for the books they had hidden with a plan to use them as the foundation for a new Vilna Museum of the Jewish People. That story, and the story of how the documents were eventually reclaimed by YIVO—fifty years later—in New York, will be told in a forthcoming book by Professor David Fishman.

Lenore J. Weitzman is writing a book on the kashariyot, the young women who were secret couriers for the Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. She coedited Women in the Holocaust (Yale, 1999), a finalist for two National Jewish Book Awards, with Dalia Ofer.

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Interview: The Worlds of Dalia Rosenfeld

Sunday, June 04, 2017 | Permalink

with Adam Rovner

Dalia Rosenfeld, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, moved to Israel two years ago to reinvent her life. And though she has been publishing sharply observed literary fiction in American journals and magazines for two decades, The Worlds We Think We Know (Milkweed Editions) is her first collection. The wait for these twenty new stories has been worth it.

Adam Rovner: The Worlds We Think We Know has already garnered praise from major American writers, including Adam Johnson, Cynthia Ozick, and Gary Shteyngart. Shteyngart has called your work “very funny, Jewish and wise.” Are you conscious of being a “Jewish writer?” What does that mean to you?

Dalia Rosenfeld: I wish I knew! I was hoping I was far enough removed from the immigrant experience to be unqualified to answer that question, but here I am, suddenly the holder of a second passport, a new immigrant to Israel. But that doesn’t help much either, because the days of linking “Jewish writer” to immigrant status are pretty much over now. If the question implies loyalty to a people, I feel that strongly outside the context of writing, but on the page my loyalty is to language. Jews owe their survival to the power of the written word—you can’t take your land with you into exile, but you can take your stories—which is not to suggest that focusing on language alone makes one a Jewish writer, but feeling at home in language constitutes a major part of the Jewish experience.

AR: Your prose certainly demonstrates that you feel at home in English, but can you really use a non-Jewish language to convey Jewish sensibility?

DR: I don’t know if such a thing as a “Jewish sensibility” exists. What I do know is that there are certain states of mind or being that I associate with Jews, and that my Jewish characters often possess. For one thing, they are conscious of a collective past, but rather than this past functioning as a unifying force, my characters find it hard to feel rooted in the present. It gives me great pleasure to reference the Jewish past because doing so connects me with what is familiar and offers a sense of comfort and continuity: a poppy seed cake burning in the oven, a Yiddish phrase, a story from the Torah that a bar mitzvah student couldn’t care less about. Maybe it’s this seeking a conversation with the past that makes one a Jewish writer?

AR: The collective past in the guise of the Holocaust appears in your title story and several other standouts. Can you speak about why the Holocaust’s long shadow enters your work?

DR: Until recently, the Holocaust shaped my identity more than any other chapter in Jewish history. My father is a Holocaust scholar, and I grew up in a house in which the entire living room was given over to books on this subject. While my friends were reading Jane Eyre, I was reading about the Jews of Vienna being forced to clean the sidewalks with toothbrushes. What’s interesting is that I never felt burdened by this history; haunted, yes. Absolutely. Because it wasn’t just the books: it was also listening to the stories of survivors who came to see my father. When you relive your own memories, it’s traumatic, but when you experience another person’s, it’s something abnormal, unsettling. And it’s those haunted echoes that appear in my stories, sometimes just with a single image, such as a survivor reusing a tea bag until it resembles a shriveled walnut. Since moving to Israel, my preoccupation with how Jews died has shifted somewhat to how they live.

AR: Who are some of the writers who help you understand how Jews lived yesterday and how they live today?

DR: A partial list in no particular order would include Israeli authors Yaakov Shabtai, Yoel Hoffman, A. B. Yehoshua; American writers Rivka Galchen, Cynthia Ozick, Bellow, Malamud, Nicole Krauss, Jamaica Kincaid; Europeans such as Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Leo Perutz—a now obscure Austrian novelist (not to be confused with Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz)—and both I. B. and I. J. Singer.

AR: I can see the affinity your collection has with many of these writers. What I mean is that your stories often depict a sense of displacement. Sometimes it’s geographic—Americans in Israel, Russians in America, cosmopolitans in small towns. Why are uprooted characters so common in your stories?

DR: I’m drawn to characters whose actions are informed by an inner logic they themselves are not aware of, and that is guided—as you put it—by a state of displacement, sometimes forced, sometimes self-imposed, in which fixed boundaries fall away to give the characters a chance to redefine themselves. But they often squander the opportunity by engaging in a series of missteps, or self-sabotage, such as in my story “Swan Street,” where Misha, the protagonist, moves to America only to end up in a kind of voluntary exile, avoiding situations that would allow him to settle into his adoptive homeland. At the end of a story, I always discover the same thing: that human behavior is inscrutable—but still fun to write about.

AR: That comedy of human inscrutability comes across in your stories, many of which possess a wry sense of humor. Is humor difficult for you to write?

DR: I honestly wasn’t aware of this wry humor people keep pointing out until they started pointing it out. There’s no doubt that it’s healthier to find the humor in horrible situations than to stew in your own juice—something that I tend to do in real life. One of the purposes humor serves is to highlight our vulnerabilities without being held hostage by them.

AR: Many of your characters are women who reveal their vulnerabilities while at the same time demonstrating resiliency. Are you conscious of writing resilient female characters?

DR: I think a lot of writing happens on an unconscious level. The craft part is a conscious thing, but what motivates the characters to do what they do—they’re just like us, acting on impulses, intuition, instinct, feelings, all those things that can’t be explained rationally but that ultimately make us human. While I don’t divide the world into male/female, I find it hard to argue with a phrase I recently came across describing men as “expressively economical” with their emotions. This implies that women are not—that women are something else. And it is this “something else” that makes it hard to speak the same language, to enter into a realm of closeness that both sides desire, but in different ways. The resilience of a character comes when the love she seeks isn’t within her grasp, but still she can find beauty in the world.

AR: Your characters often seem lonely to me. Is writing a lonely activity for you?

DR: No! Writing is an antidote to loneliness. It’s what connects me with the world and helps me understand it better. Especially since I write in cafes, and in Israel people never leave you alone. For the last week, the same man has come up to me every morning and said, “Did you change that part of your story I told you to change?” He had shared some Persian proverb with me months ago, which I liked but altered a bit, and he was of the conviction that I should leave it the way it has been for the last five hundred years. I probably shouldn’t have showed him what I did with the proverb, but at the time I wanted to thank him. This morning he abbreviated his question to a single word: “Nu?”

AR: Nu? So what are you working on now?

DR: I thought I was working on a novel called The Physics of Time Travel in which an American woman moves to Israel and imagines parallels between her personal life and the trajectory of her adopted country. When I read the first chapter, I realized it was a stand-alone story and my interest in the theme had been exhausted, but in a good way. In a way that allowed me to write a second story about something totally different, and without feeling guilty about it. I’m now fifty pages into a second collection called The Physics of Time Travel.

Dalia Rosenfeld is the author of The Worlds We Think We Know a collection of short stories called “A profound debut from a writer of great talent” by Adam Johnson. She teaches writing at Bar Ilan University and lives with her three children in Tel Aviv.

Adam Rovner is Associate Professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. He is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press), a narrative history of efforts to establish Jewish homelands across the globe.

New Reviews May 26, 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017 | Permalink

Featured Content


What Would a Jewish Narnia Look Like?
If Judaism holds that God alone can save the world, is it even possible to write a truly Jewish fantasy quest?

Book Cover of the Week
New York Times bestselling author and poet Jill Bialosky claims that Poetry Can Save Your Life. We kinda have to agree.

Interview with Barbara Beitz
"I have read and researched a lot about the brave families who settled in the Southwest,” the author of The Sundown Kid shares. “What deeply touched me was the way different groups came together in support of one another, and I wanted to capture that sense of cooperation in a meaningful way."

The Biblical Inspirations Behind My Fantasy Fiction Series
Known to his readers by his pen name N. S. Dolkart, the Jewish author behind the Godserfs epic fantasy series points out that the Bible is a scary place to live.

New Books for Young Readers


What Would a Jewish Narnia Look Like?

Friday, May 26, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Noah Beit-Aharon exposed the Biblical inspirations behind his epic fantasy series, Godserfs. With the release of Among the Fallen, the second volume in the series, Noah is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


There have been many intelligent responses to Michael Weingrad’s 2010 essay, “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” This should come as no surprise— it’s a provocative piece, at once insightful and maddening, falsifiable in its particulars and yet, on a basic level, essentially true. As many have pointed out, Weingrad’s essay fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of what kind of book would count as, in his words, “profoundly Jewish in the way that…The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian.” Wouldn’t the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer count? Weingrad’s very narrow definition of fantasy seems to exclude magical realism and other popular fantasy subgenres, while classifying only high fantasy and epic fantasy—those two subgenres most dominated by the influence of Lewis and Tolkien—as valid.

But even with the deck thus stacked in Christianity’s favor, Weingrad’s main question remains worthwhile: is the backward-looking sword-and-sorcery stuff that so many of us grew up with so inherently Christian that it’s impossible to produce great “profoundly Jewish” works within that context? In short, is a Jewish Narnia impossible?

In order to answer that question, I think we must first ask ourselves what makes the original Narnia so Christian. That may seem silly, but in this case I think stating the obvious is worthwhile: The Chronicles of Narnia are Christian allegory. Neither Jesus nor Satan nor any ministering angels appear in the novels, except as symbolized by Aslan and the like. I bring this up because Weingrad is very clearly not demanding more Jewish characters in fantasy—he wants a story that feels Jewish in the same way that Lewis’ work feels Christian. As such, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis’ books are not about the trappings of Christian mythology. They’re about its essence.

But if the essence of Christianity can be seen in themes like divine self-sacrifice, original sin, and Satan’s continued rebellion after the fall, what is the essence of Judaism?

I recently picked up Matthew Kressel’s King of Shards, a fun portal fantasy set in a multiverse that drips with Kabalistic theories and other Jewish symbols and trappings. Yet my mind still went back to Mr. Weingrad’s essay while reading, because although the setting and premise of King of Shards are indeed profoundly Jewish, the guts of the story are still those of a classic epic fantasy story: a Quest to Save the World. It was hard not to see there the powerful influence of Tolkien, and of Lewis, on the fantasy genre: even an undeniably Jewish fantasy novel is propelled by a plot that borrows more from the Christian ethos than a Jewish one.

Our founding documents do not deal with the power of humans to redeem the world: only God can redeem the world, and on that front God seems content to wait until the end times. Nor do humans (or demons, for that matter) threaten God’s creation in any serious way—God is the sole Granter of life and death, the Creator of both darkness and light, Master of good and evil.

The Jewish spirit does not worship God and fear the devil. It worships God, and fears God too.

It is notable that in the Torah, God is distinctly not engaged in a struggle for supremacy. It’s not that other gods don’t exist—Tanakh accepts the existence of gods other than our own, but insists that our own God is dominant over them. Even in Exodus, where one might expect some real conflict between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel, the latter seems to run roughshod over the opposition without any semblance of resistance. But if that sounds undramatic, if you’re wondering how such a dynamic could possibly lend itself to a good fantasy story, then perhaps you should read the Book of Exodus again. There’s plenty of drama! It’s just that the drama of the Torah resides not in the opposition of other divine beings to God, but in the constant struggle between God and the people of Israel.

When I began the Godserfs series with my first book, Silent Hall, my plan was to set the story in a world reminiscent of the Biblical one. I’d always been fascinated by the strange and horrifying world of Tanakh, where tricking one’s brother out of his birthright is okay but accidentally touching the Ark of the Covenant is a death sentence, and I wanted other readers to share my experience of the text in all its disturbing glory. I know that at least with some, I’ve succeeded. I have a friend who receives drashot from her favorite rabbis via email, and she keeps forwarding them to me every time some concept reminds her of my writing.

If one were to go searching for Biblical parallels in my series, one would find them by the ark-full: a Sinai generation made up of dragons, a Leviathan-like primordial plant monster, a godly pursuit as troubling and mysterious as the Bridegroom of Blood story, plus more midrashic references than you could shake a lulav at. The gods in Godserfs are mysterious and frightening, willing to wipe out a population or smite an individual over the pettiest of slights. There are also a whole lot of them, and they are frequently in conflict with each other. I chose to start the story in that polytheistic mindset because Judaism didn’t arise in a vacuum: it developed in reaction to the popular local religions of its day. The characters only start moving toward a monotheistic viewpoint over the course of the first book, when they discover the existence of a God Most High, and look to that god to save them from their divine enemies.

Importantly, the character of God Most High is no Enlightenment deity, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. That god may seem familiar to us, but is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible. In case we need a reminder, the God in Tanakh kills one of Judah’s sons for masturbating (or perhaps for using the pull-out method), smites Uzzah for having disastrously quick reflexes, tortures Job just to prove a point, punishes Moses for hitting a rock in frustration (and Miriam for criticizing her brother), and sends numerous plagues down upon the people of Israel. He also intentionally allows His people to be enslaved, just so He can show off later by freeing them. The point of Israelite monotheism is not that our God is kinder than Baal, it’s that He’s more powerful, and He’s the one we made a deal with.

The struggle in the Godserf series, as in the Jewish liturgy, is not to resist temptation or overcome the devil. The struggle is for the characters to convince God Most High to take their side and rise to their aid.

I make no claim to have a “Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds of the Oxford and Cambridge dons Tolkien and Lewis.” I am neither a Jewish Studies professor nor a yeshiva student. But for those who are interested in my vision of fantasy with a Jewish core, Silent Hall and its sequels will not disappoint. The Jewish Narnia awaits.

Noah Beit-Aharon lives in Waltham, MA, and is a member of Temple Beth Israel in Waltham. The first two installments of his Jewish-inspired epic fantasy series Godserfs, published under the pen name N. S. Dolkart, are available in paperback from Angry Robot Books.


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Book Cover of the Week: Poetry Will Save Your Life

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Yes it will.

Poetry Will Save Your Life is New York Times bestselling author and poet Jill Bialosky's memoir of her upbringing and career, organizing her experiences around 43 life-changing poems from Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and others. Really looking forward to hearing Jill talk about her book live today at the 2017 JBC Network Conference!


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