The ProsenPeople

How the Rabbi Hooked Me

Monday, March 24, 2014 | Permalink

In 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi asked N.Y. Times best-selling author Sara Davidson to talk with him about "The December Project."  He wanted to help people not freak out about dying, and show how getting “up close with mortality” quickens our ability to relish every day. Davidson’s memoir of the two years they spent meeting every week, The December Project, will be published March 25 by HarperOne. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In the spring of 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi spoke at the Boulder Book Store to a jammed and eager audience. I was sitting on the floor, so charmed by his singing and story telling that when I greeted him afterward, I impulsively said, “I’m between writing projects, so if there’s anything I could do to support your work, let me know.”

I did not expect to hear from him. We’d met in the 1970s, when I was revisiting the Jewish tradition I’d walked away from at seventeen. Reb Zalman, who turns 90 this year, had escaped the Nazis as a child, been ordained a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, then began looking for wisdom outside his community. Breaking with the orthodox, he founded the Jewish Renewal Movement to infuse Judaism with spirit and relevance, and encourage people to have a direct experience of God. 

As a reporter, I’d often called him for a quote over the years—I could count on him to say something colorful or outrageous—but we’d never really come to know each other. So I was startled, after our meeting at the bookstore, when he called at eight the next morning. He said he wanted to have a series of talks with me about “what it feels like when you’re in the December of your years. What is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery? It could lead to an article or a book, I don’t know.”

I jumped at the chance to spend time with him. I’d long feared that death would be a complete annihilation while Reb Zalman felt certain that “something continues.” He said he didn’t want to convince me of anything. “What I want is to loosen your mind.”

For two years, we met every Friday morning, recording our sessions. From the beginning, he wandered so far from the stated topic that I began to lose hope that I’d ever find a way to shape and tame our interactions into a narrative. But we both looked forward to our talks, and despite his constant straying from the subject, there would always come an unexpected zing—a discovery, an insight, or a new thought that shone like a jewel.

In March of 2011, I rented a studio on the ocean in Hawaii for a month to determine: could I find a way to construct a book out of what seemed a sprawling mass? If not, it was time to move on. I went into total immersion, shutting off the phone, listening to the recordings and going over all my notes. By the third week, I realized I had a lion by the tail. A rare capture of Reb Zalman’s stories and memories, his earthy knowledge and dazzling flights.

An outline quickly emerged, and I wrote the first chapters in a few hours. The book moves forward on three tracks: our conversations, his life story, and my story during the years I spent with him. During that time I was nearly killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul, and Reb Zalman suffered a steep decline in health. We created strategies to deal with pain and memory loss and to cultivate fearlessness and joy—at any age.

Most important for me was the bond that grew between us. Every Friday, no matter how troubled or distracted we were when we sat down to talk, at some point a current of warmth and appreciation would move between us. We sang and laughed. We expressed our most vulnerable feelings and received from the other unconditional acceptance. At one such moment, Reb Zalman looked at me and smiled. “Who said that people only make love with their bodies?”

To read more about the December Project, click here.

Related Content: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Reading List

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 21, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Is History a Prison or a Home?

Friday, March 21, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Fattal wrote about remembering Hebrew School while a prisoner in Iran and being a Jew celebrating Christmas in Iranian prison. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about his experiences as a Jew held in captivity in Iran.

In 1951 my family left the region in which they had lived since Nebuchadnezzar II took a bunch of Jews captive and brought them to Babylon in 587 BCE. My father was a toddler but my grandfather took part in the underground Zionist organization in Basra, Iraq that tried to convince people to leave their ancient homeland for another ancient homeland. It must have been difficult to convince a strong-rooted community to relocate to Israel/Palestine where Ashkenazim didn’t speak their language nor share their culture. The disturbances in 1941 scared many Jews into relocating. But two hundred deaths are not enough to account for a mass exodus of 125,000 people ten years after the incident.

Now, when I visit my Iraqi-Israeli family in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the memories of Mesopotamia are thin. Only aunt Frida’s pickled mangos, classical Arabic music, and foggy stories of a dead generation survived the twenty-three centuries between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

When I crossed the Tigris in 2009, I expected to cross back over in a few days. I posted on Facebook that “I was exploring my roots.” I felt jitters at the idea of being in Iraq: the place of my father’s birth; the cradle of civilization; the site of the war that I protested against in America. But my Facebook post was more metaphorical than real. I traveled to Kurdistan – a region untouched by the war – and my father was born in the opposite part of the country. Many Kurds don’t even speak my father’s native Arabic.

My first steps onto Iraqi soil were at night. I exited the taxi that took me over the border from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan into a hotel. The stairwell reeked of pickled mangos like aunt Frida’s dinner table.

A jovial hotel owner about my father’s age greeted my friends and I from the couch in the lobby. We sat down and chatted in English. Soon enough, he slapped my inner thigh – like only my father does – and told me his political opinions: George Bush was his hero for killing Saddam Hussein, and he admired the military might of Israel. What would have happened if Jews continued in Iraq for the last sixty years? We’ll never know.

Since Jews emigrated from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Morocco en masse, the only country in the Middle East with a sizeable Jews community (besides Israel) is Iran. That’s where I ended up because I took a hike beyond a waterfall located too near the Iranian border and ended up in Iranian prison under suspicion of espionage.

In Psalms the captives lament the detention of Nebuchadnezzar II and yearn for home. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Fifty years later the Persians conquered Babylonia and the Persians freed some Jews to return to their homeland.

It took me twenty-six months to make it out of Persian prison, but my family doesn’t have a homeland. My family has lived in Iraq, Israel, and in various corners of America. Yet, I recently received a little clue, which I cling to as if it were my destiny. When I recently moved to Brooklyn, the apartment I moved into – I learned after renting it – had belonged to my great grandmother for several decades. I’ll take any clue I can get.

Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Shourd was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal’s return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers. Their memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, was published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Read more about Joshua Fattal here.

Related Content:

Quotas: On Being Jewish in Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Soviet Russia

Thursday, March 20, 2014 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Ellen Litman wrote about Jewish holidays, her identity, and a search for feelings of belonging. Her new book, Mannequin Girl: A Novel, is now available. She has been blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I keep thinking about a scene from one of my favorite childhood novels, The Road Disappears Into the Distance by Alexandra Brushtein. The novel, set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, is about a young Jewish girl, Sashenka Yanovskaya. In the scene in question, nine-year-old Sashenka is sitting the entrance exams at the Institute for Young Ladies. Each girl is asked to read a short passage from a textbook and to diagram a simple sentence. Sashenka, who is waiting her turn, is relieved to find the questions so easy. One by one the girls are called to the front of the class, but not Sashenka. A recess is announced, at which point only seven girls remain. Each one is a Jew.

After the break, these girls – Sashenka included – are subjected to a rather different exam: complex passages from the classical works of literature, follow-up questions that test their knowledge of geography and history. The girls perform admirably; they’ve been prepared well. But Sashenka doesn’t understand why they are being singled out. Later, as she is leaving the Institute lobby, she is accosted by an acquaintance, a daughter of non-Jewish family friends. “None of you Yids will be admitted,” the girl says to her.

In this dramatic manner, the heroine of Alexandra Brushtein’s novel learns what it means to be a Jew in the Russia of 1894. I read Brushtein’s book, in 1986, almost a hundred years later. Growing up in the Soviet Russia, I had done my own share of learning, though it had been more gradual. Some name-calling out in the streets or in the classroom. Some hints of the troubles during the Stalin’s times. Most of all, though, it was my parents’ insistence that I had to study twice as hard as my peers, because I would be judged twice as strictly.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, quotas for Jews were a law. But in the Soviet Russia they were more insidious. We were all supposed to be equal, weren’t we? All those nationalities. All those republics. Our songs celebrated the friendship of the people, and there was always some regional folk dancing on TV.

My parents knew better, of course. And so did my teachers. My sixth-grade literature teacher read to us The Road Disappears Into the Distance in short installments, whenever we had a bit of time left at the end of the class. She was a great teacher; she could make you fall in love with a book. But when I told her I wanted to be a writer – a journalist maybe? – she said no, it couldn’t be done. She was Jewish, like me and my parents, and she knew what she was talking about.

Colleges had quotas – that’s what it all came down to. Good colleges and mediocre colleges alike. A few were safe bets, like the Institute of Auto Industry or the Institute of Petrochemical Engineering. Some never accepted Jews at all. There was nothing official, no laws you could point toward. You had to rely on hearsay and common knowledge. A neighbor my father met while walking our dog said they never accepted Jews at the well-known institute where he worked. “They all have poor vision,” he said, by way of explanation.

In the summer of 1990, I was sitting the entrance exams at the Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics. I’d studied hard. I’d had tutors. My lovely physics tutor used to point out all the Jewish physicists in my textbook. He was convinced I would succeed. But my math tutor, who actually taught at the Institute, said the outcome would depend on the Party directives they were about to receive. On the day of my physics exam, I sat in a large classroom and waited for my name to be called. More than a hundred years had passed since the events of The Road Disappears Into the Distance, and I wasn’t sure whether anything has changed at all.

Ellen Litman is the author of Mannequin Girl: A Novel and the story collection The Last Chicken in America, a finalist for the Los Angeles TimesFirst Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. She has been the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and her work has appeared in Best New American Voices, Best of Tin HouseAmerican Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, TriquarterlyPloughshares, and other publications. Born in Moscow, she teaches writing at the University of Connecticut and lives in Mansfield.

Related Reading

New Jewish Children's Book Reviews

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 | Permalink

Find the full list of the latest children's book reviews here.

Remembering Hebrew School in Iranian Prison

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Fattal wrote about being a Jew celebrating Christmas in Iranian prison. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about his experiences as a Jew held in captivity in Iran.

I struggled to remember ever scrap of Judaism that I could. My family is secular. My mother feels uncomfortable in yoga class because “namaste” is too spiritual for her. My mother’s father, my grandfather, was an atheist psychoanalyst who trusted Freud’s Moses and Monotheism more than the bible. My Iraqi-Israeli-American father disdains American synagogues with their unemotional comportment, their transliterations, and their Ashkenazi accents. My mother raised me as a Reform Jew, and all I remembered from Rodeph Shalom’s Sunday school was that my teacher bribed me with cookies to behave.

In cell fifty-four in Evin Prison, Tehran, I saw a sliver of the sky through the glass window and the two sets of metal bars. From its position and size, I deduced that it was waning and that it’d be a new moon in a few days. It was September and I believed that the coming new moon signified Rosh Hashanah.

The green walls of my cell, the menacing footsteps down the hallway, and the stale air made minutes feel like months. I had no communication with my family, with a lawyer, or with my two friends that were just down the hall from me. I had to wear a blindfold whenever I left my cell. My interrogators wouldn’t even tell me the name of the prison – let alone their names. I didn’t have enough to read to fill my endless, blank, undifferentiated hours. Though the idea of apples and honey felt ironic, I was glad to have a holiday to look forward to.

Three days later, breakfast consisted of flat bread, a diner-sized packet of honey and butter. Lunch included an apple for dessert. I saved the necessary ingredients and waited until sundown to mutter my prayer, “Baruch atah adonai…. shal Rosh Hashanah.” The sky out my window was pitch black presumably studded with a silent new moon.

Ten days later, I fasted for Yom Kippur. Five days after that, I slept without my scratchy wool blanket to simulate being in a sukkah. I realized that somewhere in my rapidly rusting mind, I remembered tidbits of my heritage, which helped me survive.

Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Shourd was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal’s return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers. Their memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, was published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Read more about Joshua Fattal here.

Related Content:

Searching for My People

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | Permalink

Ellen Litman is the author of Mannequin Girl: A Novel and the story collection The Last Chicken in America, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. She will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My first job out of college was at a large insurance company in Baltimore. I was a computer programmer there, and in addition to my entry-level salary, I was entitled for five days of vacation, ten sick days, a handful of standard federal holidays and on top of that, two floating ones. Those floating holidays – they were just freebies, really. They could be picked at random, used for anything. At least that’s what I thought.

I started the job in July and now it was autumn. Rosh Hashana was approaching, to be followed closely by Yom Kippur.

“You’re taking the floating holidays?” asked my co-worker Ami. It was more of a statement than a question. Maybe even an order. Ami grew up in Israel, married an American, and now, in her fifties, had three daughters close to my age. At the office she was famous for speaking her mind. Even the upper management feared her sharp tongue.

But she was kind to me. I was a fellow Jew, a fellow immigrant. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in me. Maybe she saw one of her daughters. My family and I came from Russia three years before. They were in Pittsburgh now, while I was here in Baltimore, living on my own for the first time in my life. Ami must have felt sorry for me, a young girl, all alone. We were supposed to have things in common, she and I. A worldview, a set of values, a sense of shared history. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to disappoint her in a dozen different ways.

I shook my head and told her no. I wouldn’t be using my floating holidays. Why should I? I thought. What would I do with myself – all alone in my small apartment? I’d never observed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before, and I wasn’t planning to start now.

Ami stared at me for a moment. “You poor girl,” she said. “You don’t even know who you are.”

I should have felt chastened, I guess; but instead I was furious. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I had no religion and didn’t feel a need for one. But that didn’t make me any less of a Jew. Back in Russia, it was my ethnicity, my nationality, a line in my Soviet passport, a way of life. It was in my last name (decidedly un-Russian) and in my facial features. “Just so you know,” a college classmate once told me, unprompted, “I have no problem with Jewish people.” This was a variation on the “some of my best friends are Jews” line and a dead giveaway that something was afoot. “He’s such a Jew,” another college classmate said in passing, referring to a particularly unappealing professor.

So yes, I knew exactly who I was and where I stood, even if the only time I stepped into a synagogue in Russia was to purchase a year’s supply of matzha. (You couldn’t get it anywhere else.) I had good friends, also Jewish, and we’d long ago learned what to expect: colleges we couldn’t apply to, professions we couldn’t pursue. We shared a certain sense of humor, a certain kind of sadness. We’d learned to recognize others like ourselves. “Our people,” we called them.

Here in America being Jewish meant something else entirely. I didn’t quite know what it meant. Bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs? Hebrew schools? High holidays? Days after arriving in Pittsburgh my family and I were taken to a synagogue for Yom Kippur. I remember feeling jet-lagged, disoriented, bereft of my old life, and desperate for something to believe in, somewhere to belong. But the synagogue was huge, and inside there were rows upon rows of well-dressed people, who all seemed to know one another and who had no time for us. I sat up on the balcony listening to the Hebrew words I didn’t understand and I wanted the whole thing to be meaningful. But nothing felt familiar. There were no miracles that day, no sudden sense of coming home.

In the years to come, I would keep searching. Not for a new identity, but for that elusive feeling of belonging. Who were “my people” now? I’d find them in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. At software companies where I worked. In writing classes I took at night and later in grad school. Some of these people would be Jewish, but not all.

I still don’t attend a synagogue or observe holidays, though. Does it make me a bad Jew? Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean I don’t know who I am.

Ellen Litman has been the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and her work has appeared in Best New American Voices, Best of Tin HouseAmerican Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, TriquarterlyPloughshares, and other publications. Born in Moscow, she teaches writing at the University of Connecticut and lives in Mansfield.

Related Content: Essays: Holidays, Customs, and Observances

Ask Big Questions: How Do You Recharge?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel The World Without You, which was named an Editors' Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and was the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. You can read more of his blogging for the Jewish Book Council here.

The story goes that in 1923, when my father, a shy five-year-old, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to talk to immigration officials, and they suspected he was a deaf mute. My grandfather couldn’t get my father to talk, and the family was threatened with deportation. But my father loved math, so my grandfather asked him some math questions. My father answered the questions, and the family was let in.

My grandfather was a well-known Orthodox rabbi and, as such, a teacher of Jewish law, and though he would have liked my father to follow in his footsteps, my father was hoping to teach math. Eventually, he went to law school, and after some years at the State Department and the U.N., he settled into life at Columbia Law School, where he was a professor for fifty years.

So the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And the apple spawned more apples: one of my brothers is a professor of history, the other a teacher of music. Did I have a choice but to become a teacher myself?

Yet I am, first and foremost, a novelist. Every morning, once my daughters are off to school, I walk the fifteen blocks to the Brooklyn Writers Space, where I find an empty cubicle, and where, keeping a promise to myself, I haven’t learned the Internet password. No food, no drink, no cell phones: although I’m surrounded by other writers, there might as well be no one else in the world besides the people I’ve invented who light up my screen.

But then afternoon comes and my stamina slackens and other obligations call. How does a novelist retool? The way anyone else does, I suppose. We watch movies and read books and eat out in restaurants. We spend time with our family, and with our friends. Two years ago, I started to take piano lessons. I’ve even begun to work out with a personal trainer: no surer sign of encroaching middle age.

But the real way I retool is by teaching. It’s strange, I know, to look at my day job in this way, but I do. I direct the fiction MFA Program at Brooklyn College, which means that I get to teach some of the finest young writers in the country. In a typical year, we get close to 500 applicants for fifteen spots.

Teaching fiction writing brings me back to my own roots as a writer. I’m often asked whether I always wanted to be a writer, and the answer is, Yes, I always wanted to be a writer, but then I also always wanted to be a basketball player, and at some point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough.

I was, in fact, a decent basketball player; I was the captain of my high school varsity basketball team. But I went to a small Jewish high school in New York City, where being captain put me in mind of that line from Ethics of the Fathers: He’vay zanav la’arayot, v’al t’hee rosh la’shooalim. Be the tail of the lions and don’t be the head of the foxes. Well, being the captain of my high school basketball team wasn’t like being the head of the foxes; it was like being the head of the mice.

And, so, I went off to college understanding that basketball wasn’t in my future. I felt the same way about writing: it was a dream. But then I graduated and got a job at a magazine where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction submissions. I saw how many terrible ones there were, and I felt oddly inspired. I thought if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure, too.

I tell this story, in part, because a fiction writer risks failure every day. But I tell it, also, because I was intuitively good at figuring out what wasn’t working in other people’s stories long before I was good at writing fiction myself. I had to teach myself to become a more intuitive writer.

It’s what I continue to do when I teach my graduate students. I’m teaching them, but I’m also teaching myself. I may be more experienced than they are, but we’re all struggling with the same things: how to tell a story, how to make our characters jump off the page, how to use language that sings. Writing workshop meets in the evening, and the next morning I’m ready to take my own advice to heart, ready to log in the hours.

The other thing about teaching is you’re engaged with actual human beings. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy for fiction writers to forget this. We spend so much time with imaginary human beings, it’s a relief to be in the company of real ones. Teaching enlivens me. Or, in the words of my late father, whose mother tongue was Yiddish, it’s a mechaye.

This Blog Post Has No Title. Here's Why.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Jean Hanff Korelitz, the author of You Should Have Known (available today from Grand Central Publishing) as well as four previous novels, a poetry collection, a novel for children, and numerous essays blogs for The Postscript on coming up with a title for her new book.  

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

Want to "talk" with Jean about her new book? Join the JBC/Jewcy Twitter Book Club on Tuesday, April 2 at 1:30 pm ET! #JLit

I’m not great with titles. My first novel, A Jury of Her Peers, was originally called A Jury of His Peers until a savvy editor informed me that she had changed the pronoun. (She was right to do so.) I wanted to call my second novel "The Same River Twice", but Alice Walker grabbed the title first; it ended up as The Sabbathday River. My next two novels were fairly straightforward, title-wise; they could only have been called, respectively, The White Rose, and Admission. But my brand new novel was, until recently, just a poor, forlorn 400 page manuscript without a name to go by. I just couldn’t figure out what it was called.

The difficulty was that the novel’s title had to serve two functions; it had to do the normal job of representing my book’s ideas and themes, but it also had to serve as the title of a book within the book: my protagonist Grace’s non-fiction book about relationships. Grace, a therapist, has grown weary of hearing women in her practice reveal that their earliest impressions of their spouses were accurate predictors of marital discord ahead. How can we see something clearly when we’ve just met someone, and then gradually see it less and less clearly as time passes and we get to know the person “better”? "You Already Know" was the title I came up with. It was perfect for the book-within-a-book. It had an “in your face” quality that I could picture on a cover in the Self Help aisle. But when I told people my novel in progress was called "You Already Know", they said, “No, I don’t know. That’s why I asked you.”

So maybe "You Already Know" wasn’t going to work.

I started to think about that question that always popped into my head when some politician was caught in an extramarital affair, or a financier was revealed to be running a vast scam. Sure, the guy was obviously guilty, but what about his lovely, intelligent wife who stood beside him at the press conference or in the courtroom—Did she know? How could she not have known?

How could she not have known?

That became my novel’s title, and it stayed that way for the longest time. Then I decided to tinker with the pronoun (pronoun problems–again!) and it became: "How Could You Not Have Known?" I liked that question mark — it reminded me of a title by Trollope, like “Can You Forgive Her?” or “He Knew He Was Right”. I was really tired of thinking about titles, and my best friend, who loves Trollope, really liked  "How Could You Not Have Known?"

But my editor, alas, did not. And the sales force at my publisher, alas, also did not. No one but my best friend, it turned out, liked  "How Could You Not Have Known?" It was time to throw it out, along with all of the other past titles, and find something we could all get behind. The problem was that I was officially out of ideas at that point, and a few days of concentration on the title problem did nothing but get me tied up in knots rehashing the titles I’d already considered and thrown away. Finally I took the coward’s way out. I asked my friends. I sent out an email to about twenty people, most of them writers, all of them readers. I told them what the book was about (a couples therapist, about to publish a book about marriage, who has ignored her own advice, with disastrous results). Then I wrote: 

Time runneth out to find a title for my new novel that everyone can love—and that "everyone" includes me. How many have we run through? YOU ALWAYS KNOW, YOU ALREADY KNOW, HOW COULD YOU NOT HAVE KNOWN? and finally the current title: HOW COULD SHE NOT HAVE KNOWN?

In a last ditch attempt to get fresh eyes on this, and in case there really is a brilliant, genius title I just can't see, I appeal to you: super smart people I know who are really good at stuff like this.


About half of them sent back the same suggestion: YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN

It was so simple. I can’t say that it had been staring me in the face the whole time, because it hadn’t been. But now it was. It was the right title. It was the only title. You Should Have Known. And now I knew. 

Related Content: Read more on choosing names in Wayne Hoffman's post "What's in a Name?" and Anne Cherian's post "The Difficulty of Naming Cats...and Characters"

Jews Don’t Celebrate Christmas (Except in Prison in the Islam Republic of Iran)

Monday, March 17, 2014 | Permalink

Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Shourd was released one year later and worked to secure Bauer and Fattal’s return in 2011. Since then, the three have pursued careers as writers. Their memoir, A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran, will be published on March 18th by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This week, Joshua will be writing for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about his experiences as a Jew held in captivity in Iran.

In Iranian prison I didn’t hear the anti-Semitism that I anticipated. For months, I feared revealing my religion to guards. When I finally let on, I found that some guards were ignorant about Judaism: “Oh, Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.” Others were excited to connect our common monotheism. A guard would point to me approvingly and said, “Moses” and point to my gentile friends and said, “Jesus.” Then they’d point to themselves smilingly, “Muhammad.” I’d nod awkwardly at the attempt to find common ground.

That’s not to say there was nothing to be offended by – especially on Iranian government-run television. However, the most pernicious stereotype occurred at my hearing when the judge sentenced me to eight years. He equated Jewishness with Israelis, and Israelis with mortal enemies. Hence, by association, I was guilty of espionage. The prosecutor and the judge contradicted the consensus among the guards: “Jew – no problem. Israel – problem.”

One day, when I was eleven years old, I was playing roller hockey in the parking lot of St. James Church with a bunch of Jewish friends. When a group of peers left the school building attached to the church we interrupted our own game and skated circles around them. I never met those kids before, we usually played at Kenneth Israel down the road. We started spontaneously asking the Catholic school boys questions: what did you learn in school today? Do you think the Jews killed Jesus? Jews are stingy – don’t you think? The Catholic boys looked confused, but eventually one made the anti-Semitic comments we were looking for.

Unaware of this pre-pubescent incident, St. James Church put me on their prayer roll and held events and vigils for my freedom. In solitary confinement, I lambasted my childish behavior, adding fuel to my ongoing battle against a rapacious self-hatred. When my friend was allowed to move into my cell, we shared everything, and when Christmas came I celebrated for my first time in my life.

A graduate of Berkeley's program in environmental economics and policy, Joshua Fattal is an activist and organizer focused on sustainable development. Along with co-authors Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer, he has spoken at universities, human rights conferences, and private events to describe the experience of imprisonment in Iran. Read more about Joshua here.

Related Content: Happy Merry Christmas, Ma’am! On Being Jewish in a Strange Land by Jenny Feldon