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On Writing a Cookbook for the JCC Manhattan [INCLUDES RECIPE]

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 | Permalink

Katja Goldman, Judy Bernstein Bunzl, and Lisa Rotmil are the authors of the new cookbook The Community Table: Recipes and Stories from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and Beyond. They are blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Really? Another cookbook? Another Jewish cookbook? Well, actually yes.

This one started a few years back when JCC Manhattan was approaching a major milestone (a 10 year anniversary). Judy Bernstein Bunzl was the one who first imagined doing a cookbook to celebrate the vision and mission of the JCC Manhattan on this occasion. We had no idea how many years it would take to actually complete the task!

Judy asked Katja Goldman to join her right away because she is Judy’s go-to food and gardening soulmate. Katja then insisted that we needed Lisa Rotmil to complete our team. Thus our book, The Community Table: Recipes and Stories from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and Beyond, was born.

Who knew that it would be three years of cooking, tasting, testing again, writing, and then styling every photo shoot? While some might worry that three chefs is too many in the kitchen, for us, it was the perfect number for creativity and culinary inspiration. Indeed, coming from different cooking styles, different kitchens, and different palates, our micro-community was a template for the larger community we were cooking for.

So what did we come up with? Well there is certainly a lot to be inspired by. Jews have been cooking for centuries in lands far and wide. Often what constitutes Jewish cooking is some amalgamation of the resident culture mixed up with Jewish tradition. Think carciofi al guidea, the Roman artichoke dish associated strongly with that Jewish community. Or chicken paprikash from Hungary, served without the sour cream. This book revels in that kind of adaptation. We’ve included recipes from Sri Lanka, an Indian masala, corn bread from Atlanta, and pot-au-feu from Alsace (one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe). We also wanted to reflect how we cook right now, with an emphasis on grains, vegetables, salads, roasted meats, and fish. Plus we couldn’t leave behind the traditional Jewish classics we grew up with and many that we’ve updated to turn them into something new—adaptations for the twenty-first century in New York City and beyond. There is a lot to sample!

We are asked repeatedly what inspired some of our favorite recipes. We have so many to choose from, but here is a great example of how our Iraqi Lamb Burger came into being:

On a rainy day in New York City, we all yearned for a burger. “Let’s not use beef,” was the starting point. With the three of us coming from Ashkenazi backgrounds, we decided to try something different and draw upon Middle Eastern influences. We also love lamb, so that became the springboard for our thinking. Throw in fresh mint, allspice, pine nuts, cinnamon, and of course Italian parsley, and the result was an unexpectedly delicious harmonious mouthful. And of course we didn’t stop there, because every great burger has its own special condiments. So in our book, we also give you recipes for Mint Pesto and Caramelized Saffron Onions.

As we were writing the book, we all realized how much we love it when recipes discuss variations of the base recipe. Don’t like lamb? Substitute beef. Craving a grandma’s stuffed cabbage? Use the meat mixture and just wrap it up in cabbage leaves. And we tried to do the same thing. Directions found in our book.

Some may ask: what do the main values of JCC Manhattan—diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, and a fresh new way of thinking of Jewish life—have to do with food? As it turns out, everything! The Community Table is filled with stories and recipes that connect our past with our future, encouraging us to explore tastes and fragrances from around the world because, after all, that is what Jews have always done.

The cookbook tells a story of JCCs throughout the country who welcome thousands into their doors each day, often using food as the vehicle by teaching how to grow it, prepare it, and learn about its role in Jewish life. Altogether The Community Table celebrates food as a tool to help build community, make new friends, learn a new skill, and find strength in being a part of something larger than oneself.

Recipe: Lamb Burgers

Serves 6

Mint Pesto

3 cups packed fresh mint leaves
1 1/4 cups olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons honey
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Burgers

6 tablespoons pine nuts
2 pounds ground lamb
½ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
2 to 3 teaspoons kosher salt
1½ teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup ice water
2 tablespoons bread crumbs or matzah meal
6 pita breads

To make the pesto, combine all the ingredients in a food processor and purée. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside. (The pesto lasts in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to two weeks).

In a small pan over medium-low heat, toast the pine nuts, watching carefully and stirring, until lightly colored, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

To make the burgers, preheat the broiler or lightly oil a grill pan. In a medium bowl, combine the pine nuts, lamb, parsley, mint, onion, salt, allspice, and cinnamon. Knead well by hand, squeezing the meat through your fingers. Add the ice water and continue mixing by hand. Add the bread crumbs and knead well again until the meat is very soft and all the ingredients are well blended, about 3 minutes. Shape the meat into six 2½-inch patties by first rolling it between your palms into 1-to-1½-inch-diameter balls and then flattening them.

Transfer the patties to a broiling pan and broil, turning once, until brown and cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Alternatively, grill over high heat for 2 to 4 minutes per side. Remove from the heat and set on a serving plate.

Before serving, warm the pitas in foil in a 300°F oven for a few minutes. Serve the burgers with the pita, mint pesto, and saffron caramelized onions.

Katja Goldman is known as the unofficial challah teacher of the upper west side, having taught literally hundreds of men and women to bake challah. She co-authored the Empire Kosher Chicken Cookbook: 225 Easy and Elegant Recipes for Poultry and Great Side Dishes.

Lisa Rotmil has a Ph.D in Art History from The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She is an avid cook and has an interest in design.

Having studied cooking in Milan, London, New York and anywhere she found herself, Judy Bernstein Bunzl's interests in all three vocations came together with the publication of this cookbook.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 20, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Communicating the Beauty

Friday, March 20, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall wrote about how on how pluralism strengthens Judaism and shared the backstory behind her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition. Roberta is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the United States, and even in Israel, Judaism cannot be a one-size-fits-all religion. The degree of variations that currently exist simply cannot be undone, nor should they be. But all variations need to be more attuned to their target audience and how they can best serve the needs of their constituents. This requires understanding the realities of the larger societal culture and tailoring Jewish experience to serve these realities. And it requires being open to trying new and different ways of reaching potential followers, including non-Jews who are involved with Jews or otherwise open to learning about the beauty of the tradition.

Although the Jewish tradition includes both Jewish religious law, known as halakhah, as well as cultural elements, many modern Jews very much enjoy the cultural components of Judaism but are not so keen on the law part. This is particularly true when the legal demands are seen as placing burdens on people that are perceived as irrelevant to our modern lifestyle. That said, when the legal ingredients are completely lost, it is impossible to capture, and to pass down, the flavor and uniqueness of the traditional recipe.

More effective educational strategies are needed in most Jewish communities, particularly those in which the observance of halakhah is not a governing focus. I offer here two possible suggestions for further contemplation. One suggestion is to emphasize more how the demands of traditional Jewish practice comport with modern values that many Jews today embrace. For example, the culture of the twenty-first century furnishes appealing reasons to observe cornerstone traditions such as the dietary laws and Shabbat. Today, more kosher food options exist than ever before and there is a popular perception that these options are healthier. It has even been reported that more Millennials are keeping kosher than their baby boomer parents given their concern with environment and sustainability. As for Shabbat, in this day and age of continuous electronic connection, a mandated disconnection of one day a week can be seen as a welcomed relief.

A second suggestion focuses on unbundling the concept of “Jewish pride.” It seems to me that there is significant potential to harness the concept of “Jewish pride” so that it can serve as a focal point for educating American Jews. According to the 2013 Pew Report, a comprehensive study of the American Jewish population, 94% of the American Jewish population claimed that they are proud to be Jewish. Jewish pride and Jewish survival go hand in hand because people want to insure continuity of what they take pride in.

It is imperative that Jewish clergy and professionals develop an innovative yet effective strategy for educating this group, particularly those individuals who claim pride in their heritage but who are not religiously observant. Initially, such a strategy must underscore why religious tradition is indeed a fundamental part of what they are claiming a sense of pride in. But this is not sufficient because the needed education must also instill a love of the tradition’s beauty—both the legal and the cultural. It must persuade people that the Jewish tradition still has relevance for their lives, even if they are not living lives that are governed by Jewish law. In short, identified Jews are educable Jews. We have the numbers but now we need to develop the blueprint.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies. For more reflections from Kwall, visit her Facebook page here.

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Bagels and Groucho

Friday, March 20, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her thoughts on autobiographical novels and her two decades living in the Midwest as a “passing” Jew. The author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, Judith is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Q: How can you tell if a man is Aryan?
A: He’s Aryan if he has the towering height of Goebbels, the slim physique of Goering, and the blond good looks of Hitler.

Okay, okay, it’s not the funniest joke you’ve ever heard. But it killed in 1944, and in more ways than one: If you lived in Nazi Germany, telling it could have cost you your life. Political jokes were essentially illegal in the Third Reich, and you could actually be hauled in to a so-called joke court for telling one. Punishment ranged from imprisonment to death.

Needless to say, this attitude toward jokes wasn’t unique to that rancid regime. Remember Seth Rogan and James Franco’s run-in with North Korea? Very few dictators, it turns out, are fans of skewering wit. That’s why Elie Wiesel says, “The best answer to fanaticism is a sense of humor.”

It’s true that humor is a formidable weapon. It’s also the only weapon I can think of that simultaneously flays the oppressor and provides sustenance to the oppressed. The persecuted, the denigrated, the outcast, those whose humanity is systemically dismissed, denied, or snuffed out, have always told these kinds of jokes even in the face of prison or worse, just as the starving have always stolen bread. The latter provides essential nourishment for the body; the former, it seems, provides essential nourishment for the spirit. Both food and humor turn out to be human necessities.

The food and the humor also happen to be two of my favorite things about being Jewish. We’re much more than those things, of course. But still...nova on bagels and Groucho Marx, Seinfeld and kasha knishes. What’s not to love?

When my agent was pitching A Reunion of Ghosts to editors, he described it as a funny book about suicide. Me, I’d have tweaked that description a little. I see Reunion as a very serious book about the twentieth century as embodied in the stories of four generations of a single family, some members based on historical persons and others of my own invention. The book is about suicide, yes, but it’s just as much about war and random gun violence and cancer and AIDS and genocide and diaspora and alcoholism and isolation and mental illness and sexism and assassination and bigotry and the human capacity for cruelty and pretty much everything else that can go wrong as we make our way through this Vale of Tears.

But I also knew that the narrators of this story would be sisters for whom humor was simultaneously weapon and comfort. They’d love puns and word play. They’d make jokes in the midst of grief and defeat. They’d invent riddles like this one:

Q: Where can you run into all the suffering souls of this sorrowful world?
A: At a Job's fair

We are all, even the most blessed of us, versions of Job. Even the luckiest of us suffer unfathomable loss. There’s not a one of us who doesn’t die in the end.

Yet despite everything, most of us find opportunities to laugh. Bad jokes. Puns. Cat videos.

A generous reviewer has said that A Reunion of Ghost “may sound unutterably bleak...but the novel is not, and it’s filled with...humor.” When I first read those words, I couldn’t help notice that they don’t only describe my novel. They also describe life.

“Praise to life,” writes the poet Adrienne Rich, “though its windows blew shut on the breathing-room of ones we knew and loved.” Sooner or later the windows will blow shut on our own breathing-rooms, too. We know this. And yet, despite that death sentence, we form friendships and fall in love and raise children and are drawn to art and movies and literature, and we tell jokes and we laugh. With full knowledge of how all this will end, we are silly and irreverent. In the face of annihilation we are comedians.

Praise to life! And pass the knishes.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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Some Thoughts About Autobiographical Novels

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her two decades living in the Midwest as a “passing” Jew. The author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, Judith is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I’m sometimes asked if my novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, is autobiographical. The first time I heard this question I was taken aback. A Reunion of Ghosts is essentially a long suicide note written by three unhappy sisters whose family legacy has left them with a shared burden of shame and guilt. Delph, the youngest sister, believes they are being visited by the sins of their great grandfather—a chemist who developed and personally deployed the first poison gases used in war. Lady and Vee, the two older sisters, don’t believe that they’re cursed, exactly, but they sure don’t think that they’re blessed. The sisters are often witty and droll—dark humor is their saving grace—but they have dreary jobs and drinking problems and no real friends and zero love lives and poor Vee has cancer and... well, things are just not going well.

So what, then, I wonder, are people asking when they want to know if this book is autobiographical? Are they inquiring as to whether I, too, am chronically miserable and alcoholic and suicidal? For the record, my answer is: Unless I am being forced to watch a sporting event on TV, no. None of the characters in A Reunion of Ghosts are inspired by my own life or even by people I know or have known.

And yet, I have to admit I’ve put parts of me into those sisters. The sisters and I are similar in age. They live in a part of New York City where I once lived. They go to the college I attended. Lady has the same wooden dishes that were my first set of dishes, both of us figuring we’d have them forever because they’d never break. Neither of us had considered the splinter problem.

In terms of personality and behavior, the sisters and I share other attributes. Like me, they crack jokes in the midst of dark times. Like me, they are introverted and once they’re home, they have a hard time going out again. Also we share an obsession with certain German-Jewish chemists circa World War I.

This is the way novels come to life. The novelist imbues her characters and their environs with all sorts of borrowed flotsam and jetsam from real life. Some of these details are small—a photograph of a dog attending a wedding that the author once saw—and some are large—the author is diagnosed with cancer (she is fine now) and decides to share the illness with a character. That doesn’t mean the character is the author in any truly meaningful way. For the author, her own cancer is a disturbing reality, but her character’s cancer is metaphor.

And yet, even while I demur at the suggestion that I’m writing some sort of thinly-disguised memoir, I do understand the impulse to ask if a work of fiction is autobiographical even when it seems abundantly clear that it isn’t. The author may not have experienced the specific events she writes about; she may not have had her heart broken in the same exact way as a character has; she may never have been abandoned by a parent; she may even be merrily writing about chemists without having taken a chemistry course in her life. But if she’s going to breathe life into her characters, she has to find a way slip into their skins and see the world through their eyes. That calls for an act of the imagination. Fiction, of course, is such an act. But so is empathy such an act. For me, writing fiction requires empathy for every single character in the book—including the villains. Especially the villains. In fact, if I’m truly writing empathetically, there are no villains.

I think, then, that when readers ask if a story is autobiographical, what they’re actually asking is, How did you manage to make these characters feel whole and complex and idiosyncratic and human? Did you borrow from your life? Or did you actually imagine and make a new life?

It’s a wonderful question when you think of it that way. It’s a reminder that novelists, in writing about people who are not like themselves, can persuade readers to care about people who are not like themselves. Our fictional characters exist not because they are us, but because they are born of our understanding of the human condition with all its sorrows and joys and irrationalities. In that way, then, these characters do come from a deeply personal part of the author. In that way, perhaps all novels are autobiographical.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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The Jewish People Are Like a Symphony!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall shared the backstory behind her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition. Roberta is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many years ago, one of my students—an Orthodox Jew—told me that his grandfather used to say that the Jewish people are like a symphony: all parts are needed for the whole to function well. I cherish that sentiment and strongly believe in its truth. A pluralistic approach to Judaism does not merely tolerate differences, but embraces them as vital to the continuity and health of the Jewish people—indeed, differences of opinion are the backbone of Talmudic discourse. Today, the left end of the spectrum attempts to push the boundaries by incorporating what it sees as needed change; the right end counters this tendency by pushing back against innovation to ensure continued authenticity; and the middle seeks to navigate between these approaches. When all sectors appreciate the good-faith function of the each position, the Jewish people are at their strongest and maintain a sense of unity without uniformity. In short, pluralism does not see Judaism in black-and white-terms; rather, it values different perspectives within the discourse and understands that a multiplicity of perspectives strengthens (and does not diminish) the whole.

Throughout the time I was working on The Myth of the Cultural Jew, I had the good fortune to be co-directing a center for Jewish law and Judaic Studies at DePaul. The aspect of my work with the center that I most enjoyed was planning the center’s annual interdenominational program. This program typically featured a panel of Jewish clergy or professional leaders representing a spectrum of thought, discussing issues of interest to a wide range of Jews. The first program, for example, focused on the seminal issue of “who is a Jew” and featured a Reform and Conservative rabbi discussing their movements’ respective positions concerning whether a child’s status as a Jew should be determined according to only the mother’s religion rather than that of either parent. Subsequent programs included panels of rabbis from all major Jewish movements, and one program even featured an all-female lineup of clergy and spiritual advisors. The Jewish professionals who participated in this unique initiative provided me with tremendous insight and inspiration throughout the course of my work.

I am also grateful for many friends and acquaintances spanning the spectrum of Jewish practice and thinking. Not only has my work benefitted from their diverse perspectives, but I have grown personally from my ability to engage with people representing a wide variety of Jewish viewpoints. It is unfortunate that all too often, Jews tend to associate on a social basis mostly with other Jews from their own section of the orchestra, even if they have contact with a wider range of players professionally. As an academic, I feel blessed to share my love of the Jewish tradition with a wide audience of people through my teaching and writing; I am also very grateful that in my personal life, I count as good friends members of all Jewish and unaffiliated identities.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies. Check back later this week for her suggestions on Jewish education that may facilitate the Jewish people continuing to make beautiful music together!

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Interview: Alexis Landau

Tuesday, March 17, 2015 | Permalink

by Becca Kantor

Jewish Book Council's inaugural Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation event featuring debut authors was an excellent opportunity to talk with Alexis Landau, author of The Empire of the Senses, about writing, researching, and possibly extending a fictional Holocaust novel.

Becca Kantor: You recently completed your Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California. Could you tell me more about your research, and how your critical examination of interwar literature influenced your novel?

Alexis Landau: There were two starting points for the research. In 2007 the Met had an exhibit called Glitter and Doom, which centered on the artists who were working in Berlin in the '20s and '30s, such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann. That was always my favorite period in art history. I just loved it. At this exhibit, they had all the paintings collected in one place, and information about the characters and the people who influ­enced the painters. I got so swept up in it and thought, “I have to write a novel about this time and some of these people and some of these artists.” That idea was always in my mind since then.

During my Ph.D., my professors kept pressing me: “What’s going to be your critical field of interest?” At that point I was writing short stories and working on a first novel that never got published. I became more and more interested in the idea of Jewish identity and assimilation before the Holocaust, in the interwar period. I remember very clearly meeting with my advisor. I didn’t even know if it would be allowed for me to focus on the interwar period, because it didn’t feel as though it were a real category or genre. He was really supportive and said: “Yes! You can do that. That sounds amazing.”

So I started delving into the work of writers of that time and I ended up focusing on Irène Némirovsky, the author of Suite Française. No one had heard of her, even in my department, which was another reason why I wanted to write about her. Her circumstances in terms of being Jewish and in terms of being highly assimilated and well off—a lot of the cultural trappings were similar to Lev’s. The way he would think about his Jewishness was also similar. So that was where a lot of the crossover came.

BK: So much has been written about the Holocaust. You made a more unusual—and very intriguing—choice by focusing on World War I and the political and social climate that led up to World War II. Was this only because of the interests you mentioned before, or were you consciously trying to do something new?

AL: I think it was a combination of both. I definitely started off being more interested in the time period of the '20s because of the art. That was when the artists were most productive, and by the time Hitler came to power a lot of the art was being banned. I also wanted to focus on World War I because to me that was the starting point for everything unraveling.

As I was writing, of course I could have chosen to fast-forward to the 1930s. But I didn’t want to because it’s such a vast and huge undertak­ing to write about the Nazi years. I didn’t feel like I wanted to try to do that. Frankly it’s pretty frightening to write about the Holocaust—the­matically, but also from a personal standpoint. Like, what can I bring that is new to the table, to what’s already been said?

BK: Each of your characters has a distinct perception of Jewish identity. What were your models for these different attitudes?

AL: Lev is kind of a composite of other writers who were Jewish and writing at that time, like Joseph Roth and Irène Némirovsky. They definitely identified as being Jewish but they weren’t religious, they were very secular. They wanted to be assimilated and were assimilated to a certain extent, but not completely, of course. There was always this sense of not belonging fully, which I think I also have experienced in different ways. And so maybe that is some reflection on my own upbringing.

In terms of how Josephine looks at Jewishness, not being Jewish herself, I read accounts of how the Christian majority would view Jews. Obviously she was more sympathetic than a lot of others because she married one. But in terms of the prejudice in her family—in some circles it was more spoken than in others, but it was always there. So I wanted to capture that with her family.

In some ways Franz’s inability to be fully himself in terms of his sexuality was also a metaphor for him not being able to be himself in terms of his Jewishness. There was a lot of writing at that time in which these racial theories were starting to develop. There was a theorist, Otto Weininger, who wrote a very popular book at the time called Sex and Character in 1903. It equated femininity with Jewishness and with weakness, and not with being strong and masculine. So those kinds of preconceptions were floating around. I wanted Franz to kind of grab on to them and feel ashamed of his Jewishness because he thought it was femi­nine, or because he thought it wasn’t the male, German way of being.

Vicki is kind of similar to Lev. She would have been more similar, but because of who she falls in love with, she becomes much more on the Zionist track in terms of her identity. Still, she’s pretty conflicted even up until the end in terms of how much she really believes in that project.

BK: Do any of the characters reflect your own relationship with Judaism?

AL: For the first seven years of my life, my parents raised me without a lot of awareness of being Jewish. I don’t really think I fully knew I was Jewish even though my mom is Jewish and my dad is half-Jewish. My mom didn’t identify herself as Jewish. We had a Christmas tree, we weren’t religious in any sense, and the idea of being Jewish was just not in my consciousness.

Then my parents got a divorce, and my dad started dating an Ortho­dox Jewish woman. She was like: “You’re Jewish, and your daughter is Jewish! She doesn’t know she’s Jewish, what’s going on here?” She started taking me to temple and we would walk there because of the Sabbath; we would have to turn the lights off before the Sabbath; we had kosher plates…All this stuff that I didn’t know about was suddenly in my life and suddenly part of my identity, or supposed to be. My mom still said: “Oh yeah, well, we’re Jewish, but it doesn’t really mean anything to me.” So I grew up with all these ideas floating around about what it means to be Jewish: why you wouldn’t want to be Jewish from my mom’s standpoint, and my dad embracing it much more than he had. I think that informed me to start thinking about Jewish identity— maybe more than other people who might have had a more straightfor­ward type of situation.

BK: What were the challenges in portraying characters with mindsets that are very much of their time while still conveying your contempo­rary insight into the period? Were some perspectives harder to evoke than others?

AL: One of my best friends, who is an editor, told me: “The most important thing is tone, and getting the tone right, and not having your contemporary voice barge in.” When I was writing, especially in the beginning, I was really conscious of that. I can’t write well unless I understand every aspect of a person. Not just what they’re experienc­ing psychologically, but also their body in time and space. Otherwise the writing becomes too disembodied, and not real. I would fall into the whirlpools of research where I might spend half a day looking at men’s fashion in the 1920s. But a certain amount of those details really fed my ability to keep going. Otherwise you’re writing in a vacuum, and then I don’t have the necessary confidence. I had to get certain things down to feel that I could move forward.

Making it feel real or feel relatable in terms of readers now, in terms of contemporary issues or even concerns, was one of my main con­cerns. I didn’t want to float into abstraction, such as Franz is representa­tive of the rising Fascist movement, or Josephine is representative of changing sexual mores at the time. That is just not interesting. What makes it interesting is the humanness of the story, the emotion. Love, death, having children, being married. And those things don’t change, really, over time.

BK: Do you have any ideas of themes you might want to explore in the future?

AL: Yes, I do! Of course, writers generally freak out whenever they have to talk about their next project, but…I have this sense that The Empire of the Senses might become a trilogy. That wasn’t what I set out to do at first. But then I finished it and some time passed, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t feel like I’m done with this story.” And so the next book is probably going to be from the point of view of the son that Lev had with Leah, whom we never met. He moved with Leah to New York when he was about seven. He actually ends up fighting in World War II, because he would have been about twenty, but the focus is going to start in 1946, after the war. The book is probably going to be set in the late '40s and early '50s Hollywood. A lot of German artists and exiles lived here in L.A. So I think I’m heading in that direction with my next book, but we’ll see!

Alexis Landau received her MFA from Emerson College and her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Southern California. She currently teaches writing at USC and lives in Los Angeles. The Empire of the Senses is her first novel.

Becca Kantor received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Estonia, England, and Germany. Currently she lives and writes in her native Philadelphia.

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I’m Telling Everyone

Monday, March 16, 2015 | Permalink

Judith Claire Mitchell, the author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In 1996, shortly before I left the East Coast for the Midwest, a transplanted Iowan told me how much I was going to love his home state. “The people there are so nice,” he said. “You’ll make new friends in no time. Just don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Well, they don’t like Jews,” he said. “But other than that, you’ll love it there.”

I did love Iowa. I also ignored his advice. I’m not sure who my acquaintance hung out with when he lived here, but I’ve now lived in the Midwest for about twenty years—after two years in Iowa, I moved to Wisconsin—and I haven’t found it all that different from anywhere else in terms of anti-Semitism. In fact, when I arrived in Iowa two decades ago, the first time I told a new acquaintance I was Jewish, I didn’t get the cold shoulder, I got invited to a Seder.

I suppose if it were a matter of life or death I’d lie about my background, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of who I am that sooner or later I always find myself waving my flag.

It’s sort of like the old joke about the elderly Jewish man who enters a confessional and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beautiful woman. “But you’re Jewish,” the priest says. “Why tell me?” “Are you kidding?” the old man exults. “I’m telling everyone.”

That’s my strong preference when it comes to being Jewish: to tell everyone.

But often, in my work, my characters are more reticent. Take, for example, eighteen-year-old Yael Weiss, one of the main characters in my first novel The Last Day of the War, which is set in the aftermath of World War I. Because the U.S. government has appointed the sectarian YMCA to run its military canteens in Europe, Yael changes her name to Yale White and claims she’s Methodist. She thinks she’s just being practical, doing what it takes to enroll in an organization restricted to Trinitarian Christians. If lying and passing and giving up a part of one’s self is what’s required, she’ll lie and pass and become who she’s implicitly urged to be. This being literature, repercussions ensue.

In my new novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, there’s another character who sloughs off his Jewishness, in his case by converting. This character, Lenz Alter, is based on the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, whose work in the early years of the twentieth century led to the development of both nitrogen fertilizer and the first poison gases of World War I. A Nobel Prize winner (for the fertilizer) and a feted German war hero (for the gas), Haber’s conversion was not atypical in an era when many non-practicing Jews identified more as German than Jew. Conversion, of course, was no protection a few decades later, and with the passage of 1933’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which essentially threw Jews out of their jobs, Haber left his beloved Germany, heartbroken and blindsided. He died a few months later in a Swiss hotel. Many believe he’d been on his way to Palestine.

I sometimes wonder whether my literary exploration of Jews who, for one reason or another, find their Jewishness an impediment to be brushed aside has to do with the fact that people don’t always realize I’m Jewish, which means, I suppose, that I might be able to pass if I wanted to. Once (and not in the Midwest, but in a big liberal city on the East Coast), I was buttonholed by a woman who was railing against Jewish lawyers. As she carried on, I was very aware that, in the event she should run out of breath and actually allow me to speak, I’d have a choice to make. I could simply change the subject. Lovely weather we’re having. How’s about those Mets?

Instead, when I was able to get a word in, I said, “Yes, I’ve had experience dealing with Jewish lawyers, too. My brother, for example.”

It took her a moment to do the math. Then she reddened, which I first took to be embarrassment, but, no, it turned out to be umbrage. “Well, how was I supposed to know,” she snapped as if I’d done something sneaky and, therefore, typical. “You don’t have a big nose.”

Whether or not I have a big nose may be up for debate. But what I definitely don’t have is a Jewish last name. That, rather than my features, is what I think throws people off—as, indeed, it was meant to. Long before I was born, my father and his brother, children of Orthodox Jews from the Ukraine, believed they weren’t finding work in their fields due to their surnames. They legally adopted the nondescript Mitchell, and—nu!—jobs for everyone!

I get why my father changed his name. His suspicions about his industry were hardly unfounded. And “Americanizing” one’s name (the word seems to mean the complete opposite of what it's supposed to) was done more frequently back in the 1950s. Tony Curtis. Burt Lancaster. Judith Mitchell.

Mitchell has been my last name since birth, and I’m not planning on changing it back to my paternal grandparents’ name at this point in my life. Still, for an “I’m telling everyone” Jew, going by Mitchell can make me feel a lot like a “don’t tell anyone” Jew.

Given all this, I guess it’s no surprise that when I was a kid, I was fond of a song by Jacques Brel that included this lyric:

If we only have love,
we can reach those in pain;
we can heal all our wounds;
we can use our own names.

Fiction has given me the opportunity to explore the outsider status that too many of us—Jews, yes, but hardly Jews alone—struggle with. After all, fiction is essentially a means of artful truth-telling, and there is no more important truth for each of us than “this is who I am—and I’m telling everyone.”

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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The Art of Religious Tradition: The Backstory to The Myth of the Cultural Jew

Monday, March 16, 2015 | Permalink

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. Her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition, is now available. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I have always viewed human artistic creativity as a spiritual type of enterprise, even before the time I began to write about this idea on a more formal basis. I believe that any creative artistic work, be it literature, music, or visual art, is the product of the author’s personal story as shaped by her own experience and her reaction to her surrounding environment. I became an advocate for author’s rights in my role as a legal academic, and much of my legal scholarship has focused on an author’s right to receive attribution and to safeguard her work from unauthorized changes that compromise its message and meaning.

My legal research led me to an important book written by historian Daniel Boorstin entitled The Creators, in which he observes that the Torah’s language that “God created man in His image…” furnishes a path leading man to regard himself as a potential creator. I confess that I had never thought about this insight before, despite having read the Biblical text many times. Around the time I encountered Boorstin’s book, I had begun to reconnect with Jewish learning, which had occupied a large part of my adolescent and college years. It suddenly occurred to me that the Jewish tradition is very much like a work of art that has been composed jointly by its many human authors, and based (at least in my view) on its Divine origin. As such, the tradition can be understood as reflecting the personal and environmental circumstances of many of its authors, both the rabbis and lay people. Therefore, both the laws promulgated by the rabbis and the practices of the people have a basis in the cultures that have surrounded the tradition’s authors.

After this realization, it was not a particularly difficult stretch for me to see that so many of the issues I had written about with respect artistic works could also be asked about the Jewish tradition. Specifically, how much can a work (or a tradition) undergo modification and still be considered representative of its original meaning and message? What does society lose when a given work (tradition) loses its essential character and becomes something completely different? Further, who gets to make these changes and pursuant to what type of authority? At base, these questions are all concerned with “authenticity.” In a post-modern age where it is expected that the audience will interpret texts and forge new meaning, these issues loom large in the world of art, especially in our digital era. With respect to the Jewish tradition specifically, many would also argue that it should be subject to new interpretations, especially given the challenges of modernity.

There is a value to changes in any cultural tradition, particularly in more liberal pockets of the community. Still, changes that are not grounded in the fabric of the cultural tradition can compromise important values unique to the tradition. This concern with loss of value and dilution of the tradition’s authenticity justifies a perspective that embraces a degree of selectivity with respect to implementing changes in the tradition. This concern is particularly relevant to the Jewish tradition, and the issue of how much change and evolution it can tolerate and yet retain its authenticity is one that has occupied much of the discourse in certain circles of Jewish thought since the inception of the Enlightenment.

Based on this perspective, I believe that Judaism is not a science but rather a form of art—a cultural product composed of law, wisdom, and narrative, all of which have been shaped by social forces over time and diverse geographic space. My passion for Judaism ignited my work on The Myth of the Cultural Jew. And my desire to transmit this passion to my children served as the impetus for its completion.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 13, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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