The ProsenPeople

Interview: David Bezmozgis

Monday, September 29, 2014 | Permalink

by Donald Weber

Donald Weber recently spoke with David Bezmozgis about his new book, The Betrayers, which was published last week by Little, Brown and Company. Bezmozgis is also the author of the short story collection Natasha and the novel The Free World.

Donald Weber: I’m curious why you were drawn to the refusenik story based around Natan Sharansky: in light of your core themes of exile, displacement, and history (I'm thinking of the powerful vision of Jewish memory and history in a story like "Minyan"), how does The Betrayers continue or, perhaps, depart from what has engaged your work in the past?

David Bezmozgis: It's true that the original inspiration for the novel had to do with Natan Sharansky. In 2004, I'd been researching an obituary about Alexander Lerner, another prominent refusenik, when I came upon a curious and compelling detail: Lerner and Sharansky were both in the same circle of refuseniks in Moscow and they were both falsely accused of being CIA spies by another Jew, Sanya Lipavsky. As often happens, it is the curious exception that sparks the idea for a story. Put plainly, I was intrigued by the case of Lipavsky. I wondered what happened to him. I wondered what led him to commit this betrayal. I wondered too what might be the fate of a man who betrayed his own people for a country that subsequently ceased to exist. But deeper still—and this is where the idea accrued for me the necessary substance to sustain a novel—I wondered about the moral and constitutional difference between a man like Lipavsky and one like Sharansky. 

The question at the heart of the book is a moral one: Why is one person able to sacrifice everything for the sake of his or her principles while another is not? In other words, the central idea behind the book is one of virtue or goodness. The question is as old as philosophy. What does it mean to lead a virtuous life? I am conscious—I assume like most people—of my own moral behavior. And—perhaps again like many people—I wonder how I would fare if I was ever put to a truly difficult moral test. Would I be able to retain the clarity and the strength of my principles and convictions? Is there a principle for which I would be prepared to sacrifice my liberty and my life? As a writer approaching forty, and a father of children, I felt myself somehow, obliged to tackle this question. In the case of Kotler and Tankilevich, the main character of my novel, I found the framework in which to engage with it. And, in further answer to your question, in the case of these two men I also found the framework to continue the project I'd begun with the first two books: namely, telling the story of the Soviet Jews. 

Natasha and The Free World covered, in their own ways, the twentieth century; The Betrayers is deliberately as contemporary as I could make it. And whereas the first two books were concerned with the Soviet Jews' experiences in the lands of the Soviet Union, Europe, and North America, The Betrayers—though set largely in Crimea—concerns itself very much with Israel. Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jews of the Former Soviet Union have transformed Israel, and it is there that their greatest impact has been and continues to be felt. Since the question of Israel's future concerns me a great deal, I saw the opportunity to combine three of my main preoccupations: morality, Soviet Jews, and Zionism.

DW: About the figures of Boruch Kotler and Chaim Tankilevitch (modeled on Sharansky and Lipavsky), I wonder if you could comment on their respective “moral and constitutional difference[s]”? Each suffers the indignities of Jewish history; each betrays and is betrayed; and each is blackmailed—ironically—by fellow Jews. I wonder if Tankilevitch’s story is even more compelling than Kotler’s?

DB: The moral and constitutional differences between Kotler and Tankilevich have dictated the courses of their lives. Because Kotler did not compromise his principles, he suffered many years in the gulag and ultimately became a famous man and a Zionist hero. Because Tankilevich struck a bargain with the KGB and implicated his friend, he became a pariah. The novel asks—and posits an answer—as to why Kotler behaved one way and Tankilevich the other. That is what I mean by their moral and constitutional differences. Tankilevich defends his position. And perhaps many people would sympathize with him in the end. Kotler also defends his position, though, I suppose, one would hardly expect him to need to do so since he is precisely the sort of person society celebrates—someone like Gandhi or Mandela or Joan of Arc. But this is the crux of the novel: what explains a man like Kotler? And if we all are encouraged and aspire to be like him, are we actually capable of it — or are we, in fact, more like Tankilevich? I think this moral question is relevant to everyone but I think that Jews, particularly after the Holocaust, deliberate exceedingly upon it. Knowing what we know about those terrible years, we ask how we might have behaved in the most extreme circumstances. Would we have betrayed others to save our own lives? Or alternately, would we have had the courage and the strength of our convictions to risk our own and our family's safety to shelter another? I tried to answer this question as objectively and honestly as I could. And if the novel is provocative, it seems to me it is because of how it answers this question more than anything it says about Ukraine or Russia or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As for whether Tankilevich's story is more compelling than Kotler's, I couldn't say. However, I did want to create a situation in which both men find themselves in dire straits when fate or coincidence conspires to bring them together. In that sense, Kotler stumbles upon Tankilevich at a very decisive moment in his life. I don't know how compelling Tankilevich's story would be at most other times, but it's certainly compelling when Kotler meets him. And I suppose it's compelling because it distills the problems facing many Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union—where communities that have endured for centuries are in the final stages of withering away. This situation is made somehow more melancholy and ironic since Crimea had—in the 1930s and again after World War II—been proposed as a possible Jewish state, an alternative to Israel.

DW: For me, Tankilevitch emerges as a figure out of a Malamud story, or a Frédéric Brenner photograph—one of those aged Jews dangling on the edge, a survivor managing, somehow, to hang on. I wonder if you could say a few words about the array of fascinating women characters in The Betrayers. As you draw them, the women deepen, complicate, our understanding of Kotler and Tankilevitch.

DB: Though I understand what you mean about Tankilevich being reminiscent of a Malamud character—I think, for instance, of the importunate DP Shimon Susskind from "The Last Mohican"— the Malamud character who influenced the book most was actually Yakov Bok from The Fixer. To no small extent, the principled and unyielding Bok was in my head when I was writing Kotler.

As for the women, I suppose they must inflect and complicate our understanding of Kotler and Tankilevich, but to me they aren't there to serve that purpose. To me they are their equals—interesting in their own right. They are variations on a sort of tough-minded woman who is commonly found among Russians and Russian Jews—though I believe she exists in all nations where women are saddled with innumerable burdens. I admire these women and enjoy trying to see the world through their eyes. I am never as clear-headed and practical as when I am trying to channel their voices. Compared to them, I seem immature to myself.

DW: I wonder how you imagine, or would like to imagine, your attentive Jewish American and Canadian readers to respond to your new novel?

DB: I would like Jewish American and Canadian readers to read the novel the same as any readers anywhere—with an open heart and an open mind. It is how I wrote the book—constantly challenging my own beliefs and feelings in the hopes of arriving at the truth. I don't expect everyone to agree with all of the novel's formulations and conclusions. I wouldn't say I agree with all of them myself. There are ideas the book puts forward as seemingly irrefutable that I am still turning over in my head—ideas, for instance, about an identifiable national character. With respect to Israel, the Middle East, and Ukraine, I tried, to the best of my abilities, to describe the current moment. If I have done my job well, the novel should enable readers to have a conversation about those places—if only within themselves. As for Kotler's being suspended in time and space at the end of the book—that reflected, for me, a painful admission or realization. In life, we would all like to find some respite, some relief—even, in our weaker moments, to entertain the illusion that there is such a thing as arrival, that we can stay or indefinitely forestall the worst. After some 2,000 years, Israel was supposed to serve this function for the Jews, to be the place where they could settle and find safety and wellbeing. I suppose, by the end of the novel, Kotler, by no means a naive man, confronts the unpleasant idea that for him and for his people, the uncertain journey continues.

Donald Weber is a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, and the author of Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to The Goldbergs (Indiana University Press, 2005). Read his review of David Bezmozgis's Natasha here and read his review of The Free World here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, September 26, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Book Cover of the Week: When Books Went to War

Wednesday, September 24, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It's Banned Books Week, the literary world's defiant celebration of books that have lamentably been censored in schools, bookstores, and libraries. Censorship and the destruction of books both sacred and profane have made no small stain on Jewish history throughout the world, even today.

At the Jewish Book Council, we thought we'd focus this week on efforts to encourage reading and freedom of expression. Did you know that while Nazi Germany decimated over 100 million volumes during World War II, the United States Army and Navy distributed over 140 million books to its servicemen fighting abroad?

Almost every American publisher joined the Council on Books in Wartime, which printed and distributed 1,200 titles in travel-sized paperbacks designed to fit in the pockets of standard issue military uniforms. The Victory Book Campaign collected over 18 million donated books from American civilians. Novels considered classics today were propelled out of obscurity by their popularity among the soldiers who carried them through battles and marches.

Now get out and celebrate the First Amendment!

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10 Books for the 10 Days of Awe

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

1. Many Seconds Into the Future by John J. Clayton

Ten stories of ten men grappling with life, love, and loss from acclaimed short story author John J. Clayton contemplate Jewish identity, prayer, and mourning.

And then one day, on this very day of my first sentence, late fall, God comes to him, speaks in the form of a shiver that ripples through him and —he’s almost sure—means something. I could say he feels a surge of energy reaching from the box on his arm through the box above his forehead and down through him to his toes, but he himself can’t say exactly what happens in his body. He finds himself in tears.

This is probably a purely neurological event, even the start of a nervous breakdown, not an encounter with the holy. At least that’s what I’d think if it happened to me. No burning bush, no heavenly chariot. But for Harry it’s a nudge from God—the Shekinah, the Divine Presence, brushing her soft Self against his skin. Holy goose bumps. Does he hear himselfcalled—Harry, Harry…? He isn’t sure. He answers anyway, Hineni, Here I am.

2. But Where Is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac by James Goodman

On the second day of the Jewish new year, communities traditionally read the story of the Binding of Isaac—nineteen lines from Genesis, composing one of the most perplexing stories across the three monotheisms. James Goodman struggles with this passage through commentaries and exegeses of Second Temple sages, rabbis and priests of late antiquity, the Hadith, Syriac hymns, allegories from the First Crusade, medieval English mystery plays; through the art of Europe’s Golden Age, the great Western philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the works of Boby Dylan, Elie Wiesel, and A.B. Yehoshua.

I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would. I thought he’d say, whoa, hold on, wait a minute. We made a deal, remember, the land, the blessing, the nation, the descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore and the stars in the sky. You said: through Isaac you’d make my name great. I have kept my word. Don’t go back on yours.

Right up to the last moment, I thought, I hoped, I may have prayed, that Abraham would protest: I can’t do it, I can’t. I obey you as I obeyed my own father, Terah, but Isaac: he is my son.

But he didn’t.

3. The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman

The Liars’ Gospel is essentially a Jewish Master and Margarita, without the time warp. Rewriting Jesus’ rise to fame and fervor during his living days from the isolated perspectives of Miryam (Mary), Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot), Caiaphas, and Bar-Avo (Barabbas), Naomi Alderman’s intense third novel is grounded in sources from Josephus, the New Testament, and the Talmud. The festering political tensions mounting in Jerusalem are mirrored in the High Priests preparations for Yom Kippur, when he will enter the Holy of Holies to atone on behalf of the Jewish people alone—and he may not survive.

They tie a rope around his ankle so that, if he dies, they will be able to haul him out[...] Today is ordinary, and tomorrow will be ordinary and the next day in all likelihood. But once a year he will stand in the full presence of the Almighty and see if he is worthy to survive.

4. The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

Like The Liar’s Gospel, Nina Siegal’s stirring novel is voiced through multiple imagined perspectives of real and fictional characters. Inspired by Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, The Anatomy Lesson weaves the story of a criminal who remains unrepentant until glimpsing the face of the woman who loves him at the moment of his execution and the figures of Amsterdam who attempt, in their own ways, to redeem him.

I wish I could tell you that a kind of fire burned through my hand just then, feeling my mother’s benediction on my skin, but I can’t. All I can say is that I know it was the right thing. That, right there, would be the center of the painting. The artist’s invisible hand presents the surgeon’s living hand, to reanimate the hand of the dead convicted thief. And in that way, to resurrect all humanity.

I heard the singing grow louder outside my windows as the parade took shape along my street. I knew that I had finally found my way into this painting, and that it would be no mere portrait but one of my greatest works. I would illuminate Adriaen’s body. I would cast the damned man into the light.

5. Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent

The concept and practice of vidui, or confession, in Judaism, is extraordinarily complex. As part of the traditional Yom Kippur service, individuals ask forgiveness for the sins of the world—but both then and year-round, there is a personal component as well. Perhaps the rawest Jewish American confession penned for the current generation—and certainly this year—is Leah Vincent’s gut-wrenching memoir of survival after being abandoned and ostracized by her yeshivish family and community.

I slammed the phone down and struggled to take in a breath as frustration and despair and fury rose higher and higher in my body, like a typhoon in a glass bottle.

It was the tradition to ask for forgiveness in the High Holiday season, in hope that others relinquishing their grudges would swar a stern God to pardon our sins. Would there, I fumed, be such easy forgiveness for me? If I did anything that also hurt your feelings in some way? Is she fucking kidding or is she just completely oblivious? Exasperated, I shook my head.

6. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Though no intermediary between the penitent and God was originally prescribed, Hasidic masters encouraged their scholars to bring their vidui to a sage, a mentor. Up until his death four years ago, countless readers all over the world chose J.D. Salinger as their sage, though he had no wish to hear them. In My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff recounts her experience answering letters addressed to him while working for his agent as her first foray into the literary world:

It goes without saying, I suppose, that I now understood why the fans wrote to him, not just wrote to him but confided in him with such urgency, with such empathy and compassion, with such confession. Because the experience of reading a Salinger story is less like reading a short story and more like having Salinger himself whisper his accounts into your ear. The world he creates is at once palpably real and terrifically heightened, as if he walked the earth with his nerve endings exposed[…] And so, of course, his readers felt an urge to write back. To say this is where it hurts or here’s how you made it better.

7. A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York by Liana Finck

A generation earlier, Jewish immigrants to New York had Abraham Cahan.

When I get angry I go into a trance and attack the weakest parts of the people I love. I am eating out my husband’s poor heart. So far, I have only used words, but it is just a matter of time before I become physically violent.

When I wake up in the morning I am remorseful. I vow to be good to him. But some little thing always sets me off and I become my old self in a minute. What should I do? A known murderer is at least punished, but I am an unknown murderer.

8. The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish New Year by Marcia Falk

Modern liturgist Marcia Falk has composed an entire book of original prayers and blessings for the Ten Days between Erev Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, infusing traditional elements into contemporary values and sense of self. Her version of vidui replaces the “catalog” of sins throughout mankind with “a call to self accounting”:

In the mirror of our eyes, the other is reflected;
in the eyes of the other— ourselves.
We look outward, inward,
see how we have hurt and harmed,
how hurt embeds even in the smallest wounds.
We give ourselves over, begin to make amends,
Begin to make ourselves whole.

9. Pilgrim: Risking the Life I Have to Find the Faith I Seek by Lee Kravitz

Rather than test driving a few sports cars or researching hair regrowth gimmicks, when midlife crisis struck Lee Kravitz he began a “spiritual shopping expedition” through Buddhist meditation groups, Quaker meetings, Hindu chanting sessions, and Christmas mass. Eventually he returned to Judaism, finding a community that suits his specific religious needs. His memoir culminates at the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur:

Actually, I no longer think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as High Holidays or even as High Holy Days. I think of them as being part of the “Days of Awe” (Yamim Noraim” in Hebrew). That phrase reflects the high-stakes nature of the soul-searching Jews are supposed to do for ten days, starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. It also conveys the anxiety we’re supposed to feel in that time. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is when God determines “who shall live and who shall die” during the coming year. The righteous get inscribed in the Book of Life, the wicked in the Book of Death. But since most of us are neither fully righteous nor fully wicked, we have until Yom Kippur to repent. Then our fate is sealed.

The stakes can’t get much higher than that.

10. The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman

Joshua Max Feldman’s debut novel is by no means a retelling of the Biblical Book of Jonah; it is, rather, an impressive experimenta­tion with allegory and the antihero, leaning ever so lightly on the traditional Yom Kippur reading and exposing facets of the story heretofore unconsidered. Reimagining a modern-day Jonah as the Harry Potter of city street preachers—the unlikely savior of mixed parentage, straddled between the real world and suddenly-encoun­tered mysticism—in a society of devotees of the iPhone and capital assets, Feldman transforms the archaic dichotomy of good-versus-evil into a profoundly contemporary rumination on the binary of evil and truth.

For me, the image of the whale—or, you know, being swallowed by the giant fish—presents an image of being completely ensnared in circumstance, completely trapped in what’s happening around you, and for me that comes when Jonah’s in Amsterdam, toward the very end of that section. What is interesting to me about moments like that—and one of the reasons the image of being swallowed by the fish is so reso­nant with people—is that it’s something people can identify with: we’ve all had that moment of feeling completely overcome and completely overwhelmed by circumstance.Those are the moments when we’re really capable of changing our path, when we’re really capable of changing as people, and that’s what I tried to show happening with Jonah.

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Internal Dialogue: The Days of Awe 5775

Monday, September 22, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Prayer doesn’t come easily to everyone. Whether one considers oneself religious, spiritual, observant, or curious, finding that optimum of space, intention, liturgy, and nirvana is for many a constant challenge, heightened by the stretch of High Holidays on which we embark this week. Jews of all affiliations and identities often feel a sense of urgency around this time, searching for a service, practice, or community that will house their spiritual needs during this holy week and a half.

“The High Holiday liturgy, with its emphasis on sin and judgment, can strike a discordant note even for those who pray regularly during the year,” observes 2014-2015 JBC Network author Marcia Falk in her introduction to The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. A worthy companion to her previous book of original liturgy, The Book of Blessings, Marcia has composed “inclusive, nonhierarchical” prayer specific to the Ten Days of Awe “for all those seeking to participate in Jewish civilization and culture without compromising intellectual or spiritual integrity… to speak to the widest possible spectrum of Jews seeing a new experience of the High Holidays.”

Offering original benedictions in both Hebrew and English, Marcia Falk guides her reader from the Rosh Hashanah feast through the sanctification of the new year, the Tashlikh ritual, meditations for each of the Ten Days, the pre-fast meal before Yom Kippur, and Yizkor remembrance to N’ilah, the closing of the Heavenly gates. An accessible explanation of the rituals attending each custom introduce each section, and the verses themselves do indeed “bring fresh language and meaning to the seasonal liturgy.”

Marcia is joined in the 2014-2015 JBC Network by fellow blessing brewer Alden Solovy and his Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, a collection of selections from over 400 original prayers and meditations written since the sudden death of Alden’s wife, Ami. He offers sacred poetry for Hopes; Praises; Family; Love and Friendship; Meditations Near the End of Life; Yizkor and Memorial Prayers; 9/11 Remembrance; Facing the Holocaust and Antisemitism; Physical Healing; Surgery; Pregnancy and Fertility; Cancer; Critical Illness; Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Dementia; Addiction and Mental Illness; Hospice Care and Letting Go; Medical Science and Medical Professionals; Sorrows; Bereavements; and Surrender. Following his writing over the past several months—with all of the personal and global difficulties they contained—Alden’s gift for bringing comfort to others through words proved its mettle.

“A modern-day liturgist,” he writes,” is a witness to the essential longing that occurs in all of us during the most uplifting and the most devastating moments in our lives. A modern-day liturgist is a witness to the yearning to express our joys—and our fears—to a God, to a higher power, to the soul of the universe."

Modern-day liturgists are not limited to paper and pen, either: with the release of Popular Problems on his 80th birthday, Leonard Cohen reminded his faithful listeners and a whole new generation what a religious experience music can be. It seems no accident that this Cohen’s latest album came out this week, just in time to inspire reflection and spiritual serenity as we approach the Ten Days of Awe. In his posts on The ProsenPeople, 2014-2015 JBC Network author Liel Leibovitz wrote about accepting Leonard Cohen as his personal savior—in lieu, almost, of a bar mitzvah—and on the relative experiences of rock ‘n’ roll and religion. These essays expound on Liel’s current book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, an exquisite biography that elucidates the Jewish religious influences on Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre and articulates the redemptive, restorative quality of his poetry, lyrics, and music:

You feel the same hum at a Cohen convert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too, can somehow transcend[...] He is attuned to the divine, whatever the divine might be, not with the thinker’s complications or the zealot’s obstructions, but with the unburdened heart of a believer—it’s not for nothing that he referred to himself in song as “the little Jew who wrote the Bible.” Millennia ago, as we began asking ourselves the same fundamental questions we still ponder, we called men like him prophets, meaning not that they could foresee the future but that they could better understand the present by seeing one more layer of meaning to life. The title still applies.

If you’re struggling to find the spiritual serenity you seek as we approach and enter into the new year, throw on a Leonard Cohen record, read A Broken Hallelujah, and sift through The Days Between and Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing. You might just find something that works.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, September 19, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Book Cover of the Week: Jane Austen Cover to Cover

Friday, September 19, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

There’s nothing so thrilling as finding an intriguing edition of a book you love from who-knows-when to take home with you and place next to the other seven copies of The Master and Margarita (my personal bibliophilic collectible of choice) on the shelf.

(Moving past Russian literature of varying translation and censorship,) I don’t think I’ve ever entered a used book store without taking at least a glance at their Jane Austen stockpile. Just to see what’s there—it’s not like I don’t already possess multiple copies of each novel across bookshelves and storage boxes in four different states. So imagine my delight at discovering Quirk Books’ forthcoming visual book, Jane Austen from Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Covers!

“The covers gathered in this volume represent two hundred years of publication, interpretation, marketing, and misapprehensions of Jane Austen’s works, but underneath the variety of images one thing remains the same: the text that left the pen of a woman in Hampshire, England, two centuries ago,” author and Austenblog editrix Margaret C. Sullivan observes in her introduction to Cover to Cover. “No matter how beautiful, tacky, infuriating, beguiling, silly, or strange the packaging may be, the story inside never changes.”

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Interview: Yael Unterman

Thursday, September 18, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

One Friday afternoon, Yael Unterman donned her funkiest pair of stockings ("tights" to American English speakers) and began her walk to synagogue in her Katamon section of Jerusalem. She thought “what is the worst that could happen?” about being seen on the street in such garish legwear—but she did not reckon on the producers of the hit Israeli TV show Srugim deciding to film Jerusalemites on their Friday afternoon walk to shul that day. She can still be seen in the background.

Just as interesting and delightful things happen to this writer, so too with the characters in her new short story collection, The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing. These linked stories are about characters who are the "Anglo" (English-speaking) analogue of the Srugim, living in Katamon, davening at the socially popular synagogues Yakar and Ohel Nechama, and discovering the perils and pleasures of the single life in Jerusalem. What distinguishes Unterman's book from a Bridget Jones type of chick lit is the focus of her characters—like the characters in Srugim—on Jewish life and texts. Unterman is no stranger to the world of Torah study—her previous book was a biography of female Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz,, which was a Finalist for the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. In addition to her literary pursuits, Unterman teaches and lectures and leads Bibliodrama workshops for people of all backgrounds.

Beth Kissileff spoke to Yael Unterman by Skype.

Beth Kissileff: What is your background?

Yael Unterman: To some degree I grew up between at least two worlds. My dad is an open-minded Orthodox rabbi, and I was in Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth group. On the other hand, I attended a Litvish Haredi school with classmates hailing from families of seventeen children, most of whom went on to Gateshead, an ultra-Orthodox girls’ seminary in England, though I personally stayed on to take A levels and O levels, the university preparatory tests.

No one explained to me how to live with all these contradictions; it took many years of struggle to resolve them. One result, however, is that I can appreciate people coming from different worlds, and understand people ranging from secular to ultra-Orthodox, and I draw on that in my writing. It is helpful to have resources to draw on, to be more accurate—to know people, not just invent them.

BK: I am curious about the connection between fiction and non-fiction, since your first book was a biography and your second a short story collection.

YU: I am aware that they are extremely different genres. I’m moving from left brain to right brain territory. I wrote my first work of fiction when I was ten, and loved novels growing up. But then from 18-28, I was exclusively in the world of Torah learning, the world of ideas. Suddenly, around 28, a yearning to return to fiction hit me very strongly.

Today, fiction is my preferred reading material and writing it is a joy and a pleasure. Working on the Nechama Leibowitz biography was an incredible experience, and I learned much and was inspired, but there was a limit to how creative I could be.

It is fair to say I love fiction; reading a good book can truly brighten my week. Books make a tremendous difference.

BK: I’m interested in the fact that you are living in Israel and writing in English. Are there others doing this, a community of writers who write in English in Israel?

YU: Yes, there is a writing program at Bar Ilan University in English which I attended a decade ago and which has continued to develop ever since. All of this sprang up from the vision of Shaindy Rudoff, a strong and visionary woman, who sadly passed away in my second year in the program, in 2006. It is amazing what one person can do. My Nehama Leibowitz biography illustrates that—the powerful effect one determined individual can have.

BK: What was your vision for this book? What did you hope to accomplish for readers?

YU: My vision for my book is to open this world of ”singles not by choice” to a wider audience, to show them that this is what people are going through. I’m not setting myself up as an expert on singles, I have not written a doctorate on it. Rather, my purpose was to reflect the experience for people who aren't single, who may have thought they understood, so that they will close the book saying “oh right, oh I see now," and have gained a bit more empathy, more understanding of this painful phenomenon. I’m aiming toward empathy, not condescension or pity. It’s a nuanced message.

I’ll add that the book is not only about singles, but also about religious journeyers, with a former rock star who becomes super religious, and a young confused Hasid who drops religion in Manhattan. Bottom line, the book is about seekers—seekers of love, of God, of clarity. They are all very human.

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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Internal Dialogue: Fall 2014 Author Interviews

Thursday, September 18, 2014 | Permalink

Gearing up for the next issue of Jewish Book World, the Jewish Book Council has been churning out author interviews with increased voracity over the past few weeks—and we’re delighted to see we’re not the only ones!


This week NBC’s Peter Alexander interviewed his sister Rebecca, who is a 2014-2015 JBC Network author touring with her memoir, Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found. Diagnosed at age thirteen with Usher Syndrome type 3, a rare genetic disorder that deteriorates vision and hearing, Rebecca has remained upbeat and determined to live life the fullest over the past 15 years. In her book and in the interview she shares her belief that with the worsening of her senses her life has improved, that she is happier now than she was before her diagnosis. A practicing psychotherapist and an “extreme athlete” who did a full workout in her hospital gown in the minutes before undergoing surgery for cochlear implants, Rebecca’s story and outlook is tremendously inspiring, and her conversation with her brother is extraordinarily heartfelt.

More specific to the JBC Network program, JCC Greenwich has published an entire series of interviews with the authors it is bringing to its community over the coming months. The series is ingenious promotion for the organization’s book events; their program director, Laura Blum, gives a clear explanation of what the author’s live presentation will entail ahead of the transcribed discussion, in which she truly brings out the best of these authors:

Joshua Safran Discusses Chaotic Boyhood and Ongoing Advocacy for Domestic Violence Survivors

You say your mother was a free spirit, but she was also hostage to fantasy. Why wasn't she more concerned about the impact she was having on the two of you, and how did she reconcile her enslavement to Leopoldo?

To some degree my mother and I were both very encumbered spirits. On one hand my mother would dance around in the woods and celebrate the rising moon, but on the other hand she'd fret that her rising moon ceremony is exploitative of a Native American ritual that she doesn't have the privilege of using. She has this passionate striving, yet this very worldly concern about the impact she's having on real or theoretical people.

Part of the book is a cautionary tale in the unintended consequence of being a free spirit. When you have no rules, there's a great amount of freedom, but you also expose yourself to the Hobbsian state of nature in which those who are nasty and brutish can take advantage of you. That's exactly what happened with Leopoldo, who on the one hand was a shaman, a poet and a healer, and he appeared to fit in with my mother's free-spirited world view, but by right of being a free spirit, he was able to be a tyrant. One of the publishers described the book as "the dark side of the Age of Aquarius."

Knish: Laura Silver Goes In Search of the Jewish Soul Food

As your readers will learn, the K-N-S triradical rears up in Hebrew, meaning "to assemble," "to come in." They'll also come across Isaac Bashevis Singer's description of the knish as "the stuff of longing." In what way does the knish in-gather family and community around a common yearning for the past?

In those books by Jack Finney—Time and Again, From Time to Time— he talks about the Brooklyn Bridge and the Dakota as these architectural gateways to another time because they're the same now as they were then. Something about the knish is transportative too. It's not a uniquely Jewish tendency to cleave to the past, but it might be something we'd be advised to do a little differently. There's so much holding on; I wonder if there's a way to preserve some aspects but still move forward. I've heard so many say, "You can't get a good knish anymore!" And I started saying, "Well, what if you make your own?" They'd be like, "Oh, we don't want to do that." Well, how much do people want to contribute to the future of what Jewishness is?

The Bible's Cutting Room Floor: A Conversation with Dr. Joel Hoffman

How do inconsistencies in the unpublished scriptures strengthen or weaken the belief that the Bible is of divine origin?

There's a phenomenon of professional atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who point out how absurd the Bible is. Most of them haven't understood it. But if you don't think that the Bible is connected to God, then you have a real problem, because you have to explain why, of all the texts from antiquity, this one is not only still around but so widely read. The minute you say that theBible is no different from, say, Aesop's Fables, you have to explain why it is that the Bible has stretched to every corner of the Earth and Aesop's Fables hasn't. If you think it's about a connection to God, at least you're starting out with an answer. If you don't believe it has to do with God, you have to ask yourself: what is it about these texts that made them endure?

I don't think anyone has the right to say they're an expert in what God does or doesn't touch: that's hubris. But one of the reasons I like the texts from the cutting room floor as well as the Bible is that I think these show remarkable insight into the human condition. These texts -- more than Aristotle and more than Plato and more than Ovid -- explain what it's like to be alive.

Ayelet Waldman Unlocks the Secrets of Love & Treasure

An alternative title to Love & Treasure could be Indifference & Property. In a particularly pungent passage, you describe a client of Amitai's firm whose only connection to a diamond brooch that he "had never set eyes on" from a dead relative "he'd never even known existed" was the windfall check he received. What resonated for you about attachment to, or detachment from, stuff?

I have these silverplated candlesticks that I inherited from my great-grandmother. They're my most prized possession. They're objectively hideously ugly. They aren't worth very much because most of the silver plating has rubbed away, but they're valuable to me because of the connection. I saw an identical pair of candlesticks when I visited Yad Vashem this spring. They were in a pile of objects that belonged to a group of Polish Jews who had been murdered. They had value only as part of this exhibition, for the loss they evoked. My great-grandmother's candlesticks had value in the sense of family that they evoke. Absent that human element and connection, it's a trusim to say that property has no meaning. I was thinking of this notion of treasure and the valuelessness of property as opposed to the value of life.

Nomi Eve Paints a Picture of Yemenite Jewry in Henna House

How did you come to incorporate scenes of magical realism in which characters entertain contradictory visions?

As a writer, I grew up on the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American writers, and I have magical realism in my heart. What's real? What's folkloric? Magical realism allows you to explore this. In reading folktales of the Yemenite Jewish community from the North, I felt that those stories had a fairytale quality to them that seemed to naturally go with my impulse toward magical realism. Magical realism is the realm of metaphor: this pain is sweet; this love is taking flight. I see images in my head: "Maybe a bird pecked on her ear." But they're not embellishments; they're the heart of the matter.

Annabelle Gurwitch to Make an Effort in Greenwich

In this latest volume, you take us from crushing on an Apple Genius Bar techie to helping a friend die to "sandwiching" between your son and your parents. How do you balance comedy with solemnity?

The thing that attracts me to movies, to books, to any kind of art is the fine line between comedy and tragedy. I wasn't kidding when I wrote in the book that after my mom's mastectomy, I asked her doctor why they didn't make breast implants for people her age if they could make a Tempur-Pedic. Why does she have to have a breast implant that's going to make it look like she has a 20-year-old breast? Can't they figure that out? It's so dark. We needed that laughter.


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My Parents’ Legacy, My Library, and the Mel Rosen Biography

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Craig Darch wrote about how he became interested in writing the Mel Rosen biography. He is the author of From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen  and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I graduated from high school in 1967 and got a gift from my mother and father for the accomplishment. It was Zalman Shazar’s book, Morning Stars, published by the Jewish Publication Society. Shazer, born in the Belorussian town of Mir in 1889, was eventually elected Israel’s third President. I didn’t read Morning Stars, however. I just put it with my other books. I think back then my personal library had maybe twenty or thirty 30 books, mostly sports and Jewish books.

In 1982 I completed a doctorate in special education from the University of Oregon. My wife Gabi, our son Eric, and I drove across the country to my parents’ house in Wisconsin. Once there I picked up some of my belongings to bring to our rented house in Auburn, Alabama, including books that I stored in their basement. Among those books was the still unread Morning Stars. Once I got to Auburn for my first university teaching position, I put my books neatly on my bookshelf. And there they sat.

One night I happened to pick up Zalman’s book of reminiscences about his childhood in Steibtz and began reading them. It had been 15 years since my parents had given me the book as a high school graduation gift. All the stories were good, but one stood out: “Father’s Library.” In this story Shazar lovingly tells of his father’s books and how each spring he would help him take the books and put them in the yard for a dusting off and an airing. It is a wonderful story about how books played such an important role in his life.

When I was writing From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen I started my research by reading books from my personal library. I have a two thousand Jewish book collection. It is always a treat to use my library for research. I have often thought of Shazar’s story about his father’s library, and each time I use my library Shazar’s story comes to mind, and I think of how I developed a love for books and reading.

Like Shazar, my interest in books came from watching my father and mother reading Jewish books. I remember my father reading Harold Ribalow’s The Jew in American Sports. In fact, it is my father’s copy that sits on a shelf in my library. The famous Jewish boxer Barney Ross wrote the preface to the book. Another of my father’s books that can be found in my library is Robert Slater’s comprehensive volume, Great Jews in Sports. This book was a great help to me writing the Rosen biography as well and continues to sit on a shelf in my library. The forward to this volume was written by former Boston Celtics basketball coach Red Auerbach. Both of these classics are must-reading for anyone interested in Jews and sports.

I also remember seeing both my mother and father reading Irving Howe’s book, World of Our Fathers. They shared the volume. One night it would be my father with the volume, and the next night the book would be in the hands of my mother. The image of them sharing the book has never faded from my usually porous memory. Their book also sits on a shelf in my library. When I took it from its place to use as a resource for writing the Rosen biography, I opened the cover of the book and immediately noticed an inscription I had not seen before. In my mother’s beautiful handwriting the simple inscription read: “Dorothy and Will.” Yes that is how I always think of them, their love of books and the love they shared; Dorothy and Will.

Craig Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University.

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