The ProsenPeople

Book Cover of the Week: Breaking the Chains of Gravity

Thursday, January 05, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I’m not sure I can express how much I am looking forward to seeing Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures this weekend: the incredible true story of three black female mathematicians who helped NASA launch John Glenn into orbit in 1962 hits theaters tomorrow! While the film is based on a Margot Lee Shetterly book of the same title, I have my nose buried in a different relevant read:

Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA begins in the spring of 1930, following the German rocket program from the Wehrmacht through World War II and its postwar integration into the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the United States federal agency founded in 1915 and absorbed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 under President Eisenhower—in response to the October 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. This fascinating historical account is a an excellent companion to Michael Chabon’s recent novel Moonglow, which depicts many of the same events, programs, and engineers introduced here in Amy Shira Teitel’s nonfiction debut.

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Brushes You Exchanged for Words

Wednesday, January 04, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, poet Molly Peacock reflected on her upbringing in a Jewish neighborhood as an Irish Protestant. With the release of her collection The Analyst this week, Molly is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

By New Year’s week of 1982 I have become an independent, divorced, goyishe young woman of 31. I am about to tell my analyst Joan Stein the story of the boy who picked up the mop. I live in a tiny studio apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; her office is in her home, a one-bedroom apartment in a comfortable building on the Upper West Side, near Zabar’s. Waking up from dreams where my father has vaporized into toxic smoke that seeps beneath my apartment door, I schlep through the city slush and at last show up in her office. We begin each session sitting across from one another: I tell her about the poems I’ve gotten published and wait for her to beam her famous smile of approval. Dark-haired, high-cheekboned, she outlines that smile in clear, direct red lipstick.

Then, as I swing my feet onto the couch and lie down, she switches to the chair at the far end just behind my head. Now the analysis begins. Reliving the half-dream of the seeping toxic smoke of my father, I realize I hope always to keep my wits about me, always to be ready to scramble across a room and pick up a mop and fake my way to safety. That’s when I tell about the boy. A talisman I’ve latched onto. She doesn’t discuss whether I’ve appropriated a tragic story for my less-than-tragic life. She doesn’t tell me to embrace an Irish myth because I have no right to internalize a story from the Holocaust. Joan doesn’t remind me that my father didn’t kill me. (I always put those knives away.) Or that I escaped from my family. She doesn’t remind me that I overcame the fear of claiming myself as a poet (with her help). Instead, she waits. And waits.

When I finally burst into the tears I always seem to save for the end of a session, just when I have to leave in a disheveled mess, she speaks. Just a little bit. Reminding me of my habit of hyper-vigilance, something I shared with some of my elementary school classmates who were children of survivors.

Years later, after her stroke, and after she is forced to close her practice, I learn about Joan’s own father, an attorney, who died when she was seventeen. He had encouraged her to take independent painting lessons. He and her mother sent her to a special art summer school. She was determined to become a painter. A neighbor helped her to apply to Radcliffe, and the bright, electric Joanie Workman, as she was called then, was accepted. She entered Radcliffe in 1953, and the Dean sent her to study with T. Lux Feininger, the son of the modernist painter Lyonel Feininger. Raised in the tradition of Bauhaus painting, T. Lux Feininger embraced abstraction. Although he and his family fled the Nazis to settle in New York, he enlisted in the United States Army and fought in Europe. Traumatized, he returned to New York, and after seeing a therapist himself, moved to Boston and his job at Harvard. When bright, 17-year-old Joanie Workman appeared in class, he was not interested in her mournful paintings of the father she had just lost. T. Lux was determined that the T-square, and not the organic, messy shapes of life, the ones he had suffered, should rule post-war art. Joan Stein recalls his critique of her portraits of her father as “excoriating.” That’s how it felt to the girl whose father had left a great hole in her life even as bombs had burst holes in her professor’s life.

“…your Radcliffe professor taught:/ all drawing is thought,” I write in the second poem in The Analyst, “To you, abstraction was lying./ All you did was draw your father failing,/then dying…”

What did she do after the “excoriating” critique? She turned on her heel and left the class. Never went back. Declared a Psychology major. Graduated early to marry. Moved to Seattle. Had two sons. Did graduate work at the University of Washington. Divorced. Moved to New York City. Never picked up a brush for twenty-five years.

…brushes you exchanged for words
drawing from what you heard,
the lines of your patients’ inner lives…

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

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“I'm an Irish Molly”

Tuesday, January 03, 2017 | Permalink

Molly Peacock is the author of The Analyst, a collection of poetry exploring her evolving relationship with Jewish psychoanalyst Joan Stein, With the release of the book today from W. W. Norton & Company, Molly will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I am a goyishe girl, age 9, returning to PS 88 in Buffalo, New York, just after New Year’s Day, 1956, hanging my snow-caked leggings up on a coatroom hook with all the other girls. My fourth grade class is almost exclusively Jewish—except for me, a Protestant, and two Catholics. In Show-and-Tell my girlfriends will show off the poodle skirts they got for Hanukkah, and I will show off the poodle skirt I got for Christmas.

1956 is the same year that my future psychotherapist, Joan Stein, one of the few Jewish women in her class, graduates from Radcliffe. When I meet her in 1974, I am about to be divorced and in despair. So will begin our 38-year psychoanalytic relationship. It will last until 2012, when a devastating stroke will force her to close her practice. Astonishingly, a new relationship will begin, one in which I get to watch the woman who helped me with every major decision of my life make the choices that will infuse her end game with the power and light of painting. All this is part of the backstory of The Analyst, a book of poems about this remarkable woman, about the power of art, and about how, post-analysis, an unlikely friendship began.

In my writing this week, I’m tracking Joan’s and my story, starting with my childhood, of course. My mother, a raven-haired Irish farm girl who married a Navy man with PTSD (though no one called those violent, alcoholic vets victims of war trauma then), determined that her daughter must have the best chance in life. She convinced my father and grandparents to buy a duplex in the north of Buffalo, where the public library is a wonderland, where kids catapult through elementary school, and where almost everyone is Jewish. I am the only goy in my Brownie troupe. After school I visit my friends’ houses where their bubbies dole out almond cookies, their sleeves slipping upwards to reveal the numbers on their arms. And in these houses, larger than mine, darker inside than mine, the light seeming not to come from lamps but from the polish on the massive mahogany furniture, I hear the stories about children who used their wits to survive.

Wits! I need my wits not to perish in a household where my mother instructs me always to put the knives away immediately after they are washed. You never know what my father, the man who tried to push her down the cellar stairs, who hurls plates, glasses, and beer bottles, shards flying, will do when drunk and out of control. Inside my house, I fear for my life. (Not that I mentioned this to anyone until I met my analyst.)

Meanwhile, mild-mannered fathers read the newspapers in my friends’ houses. Mothers take the time to lie down on the couch with a headache. Arguments ensue about the Rosenbergs. Bubbies plunk babkas on those mahogany tables. My friends are grilled about what they learned in school, and I am grilled, too, a little girl with a Jewish name, Molly. “I’m an Irish Molly,” I patiently explain. Stories of the camps unfold, including the story of a boy standing in line for the lethal showers who suddenly drops to the floor, using his wits to save his life:

As the line shuffled toward the gas chamber and the soap was doled out, the boy spied an abandoned mop and pail when commanded by an officer to deliver a message. The boy scrambled to the pail, picked up the mop and started swabbing. The line moved on, and the boy who seized his chance survived.

If only I could be like that boy, I thought. He became my example of kid resourcefulness. If only I could summon up his vigilance to protect myself. The difference between my friends and me is not only whether you get one bonanza of presents under tree or you stretch it out for eight nights. The difference is blue-collar violence.

In Boston, my future psychotherapist is also protecting herself, in quite a different way: by stalking out of an art class.

Eighteen years later I will tell her the story of the vigilant boy in the camps.

Molly Peacock is the President Emerita of the Poetry Society of America, the author of seven poetry collections, and the co-creator of Poetry in Motion. Her newest book, The Analyst: Poems, comes out January 3, 2017 from W. W. Norton & Company.

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The Cut

Friday, December 30, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Eytan Bayme wrote about tasting Kornbluh’s tracklements for the first time and celebrating his third Christmas in Europe as an American Jew. Eytan is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


I said it so many times that first trimester, it almost became a mantra: “If anyone’s gonna do it, it should be us.” We learned that some parents, with a little practice and a guiding hand, performed the ritual themselves. If we were going to circumcise at all, we should be the ones making the cut.

It’s easy to feel bad for an eight-day-old baby undergoing an invasive cosmetic procedure with no apparent medical benefits, but circumcision is like a dream: they cry for the few minutes then taste their first drop of wine before falling asleep and forgetting the whole thing took place. Some claim circumcised men suffer PTSD and intimacy issues later in life, but no one I knew—myself included—seemed to be dealing with stuff like that. My son, if he was anything like me, wouldn’t miss his foreskin; he'd take for granted that it was never there in the first place.

But I would remember.

I would remember the nine months my wife carried him, six of which she couldn’t walk without pelvic pain. I would remember the safety measures we took to keep him out of danger—the healthy food we ate, the insurance we purchased, the vaccinations we researched, the fireproofing of the house, the organic cotton pajamas we bought. We were so concerned with our unborn son’s health and safety that the impending circumcision felt like sadistic torture. For us.

Circumcision is a test, just like God tested Abraham with Isaac, and circumcising my son was a test to see how committed I was to Judaic tradition. If I was as honest as I strived to be, the people making the commitment should be the ones holding the knife. The test was for us, not the mohel who circumcises three kids a week.

“Make sure you don’t mess him up for life,” my wife told me. She preferred not to do it at all. She found the whole thing anti-feminist. Here we were making a big fuss over a boy, talking about caterers and flying relatives in from overseas, yet none of it would be relevant if we had a girl.

“I wish we were having a girl,” I told her. We never asked the ultrasound technician the sex, but she kept referring to it as he, and asked us if we could see the sex. “I wish none of this was relevant.”

As the due date got closer, I lost my nerve. I was too worried about the birth. I needed to make sure we had everything in place for our planned home birth. I needed to inflate and fill a birthing pool without flooding the flat. When was I supposed to learn how to perform a circumcision? Who was supposed to teach me? Also, the more I thought about it, I didn’t like that my son’s faith would be measured by the way his penis looked. It was no one’s business. I spoke with our Rabbi. I wanted some air-tight argument for it, something along the lines of “There is no stronger connection to Jewish Peoplehood than bris millah,” but I knew there was no such argument that would speak to us. “It’s a personal decision,” our Rabbi said.

“Maybe we’ll just get a doctor to do it,” I told my wife. “We’ll wait till he’s nice and strong, forget the eight-day thing, and then take him to a clinic. No relatives, no bagels.”

“You need to make this decision."

Two weeks late, we went into labor. My mother-in-law and I took turns pushing a two-foot-by-four-inch piece of lumber into my wife’s back to release the pressure off her pelvis. Eight hours in, the midwives showed up; ten hours in, my wife told me to take the clock off the wall; at eighteen hours we called the paramedics to wait outside; and after twenty hours she delivered a healthy and bold, eight-and-a-half-pound baby girl, on the left side of the couch.

It took us six weeks to agree on her full name, which we announced at a small synagogue near our house. We’ll probably let her share our bed one or two nights a week up to her first birthday. Most days of her life, we try making as big a fuss over her as we can, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved.

Eytan Bayme is a graduate of McGill University and a former stage actor. Originally from New York City, he lives with his wife in London. High Holiday Porn is his first book.

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Kornbluh's Kosher Fish

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Eytan Bayme wrote about celebrating his third Christmas in Europe as an American Jew. Eytan is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


A colleague of my wife’s, a man of Caribbean descent, drives from the Northern suburbs of London to the East End each Sunday. He isn't Jewish, yet he sits through forty-five minutes of zebra crossings, multi-lane roundabouts, road diversions and narrow two ways before arriving at Kornbluh’s, a Hasidic fish monger at a busy intersection in Stamford Hill, about a fifteen minute walk from where we live. My wife and I found this strange and so we asked him, why travel so far for fish that, surely, must be sold closer to your home. The man laughed, “I’m on a kosher thing right now,” he said, as though it was the latest fad diet. “It’s a no-brainer."

As a formerly Orthodox Jew, I’ve struggled with kosher for years. The first time I ate traif (non-kosher) meat was on a casino boat off the coast of Eilat; it took six years to do it again. When I got married, there was no room in our kitchen for two sets of dishes, nor did we really agree with the idea of kashrut as a means of keeping Jews and non-Jews from fraternizing at the same dining table—which is how it was explained to us. We compromised and decided to keep a vegetarian kitchen, with one set of dishes that our family is comfortable eating upon. Even now, seventeen years out of yeshiva day school, I still feel sneaky ordering roast lamb at the pub on Sunday. A no-brainer was volunteering to get bumped off a flight in exchange for an upgrade and a voucher; eating kosher was certainly not.

A few weeks ago, I walked up to Stamford Hill to find out what made Kornbluh’s so special. Along the High Street, I passed Hasidic children racing home on scooters to light the fourth night of Chanukah candles. Black-hatted men streamed out of the London Lubavitch HQ, post afternoon prayers. At a Bells’ shtiebel, across the street, prayers were starting late. The nondescript house where the Bet Din met stood a little ominously next door. Kornbluh’s was a bright, glass fronted shop where men in white coats and cockney accents cut and weighed fish, and a Chasid behind a glass window took payment. They sold herring in oil, hot smoked salmon fillets, matjes herring and, my favorite, lox tidbits. I bought a small section of sushi-grade salmon and a filleted sea bass. The staff was pleasant enough.

When I got home, I used the knife my wife bought me for Chanukah and sliced us some sashimi. It was fresh and fatty and great with soy sauce and chillies. We made ceviche with what we couldn’t finish.

“This is really good,” said my wife.

“A no-brainer," I told her.

Eytan Bayme is a graduate of McGill University and a former stage actor. Originally from New York City, he lives with his wife in London. High Holiday Porn is his first book.

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Jews for Christmas

Monday, December 26, 2016 | Permalink

Eytan Bayme is the author of High Holiday Porn: A Memoir. With some Jewish reflections on the Christmas season to share, Eytan will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.


As an American Jew in England, the holiday season is like a tension in my neck that’s finally released. No Chinese restaurants or movie theaters are open on Christmas Day, no one thinks to wish you anything besides Merry Christmas, and even mentioning Happy Holidays can garner looks of confusion and suspicion. There’s nothing to do but embrace the holiday spirit, as advertisers back in the States have been trying to convince me for years.

A friend at synagogue explained to me that on Christmas, British Jews can be lumped into one of three categories: those who do nothing, those who put up a Christmas tree (though perhaps not in their front window), and those who spend the day with their families because the office is closed and there’s nothing else to do and, hell, why not roast up a goose or two since we’re all under the same roof.

This year marked my third Christmas in Europe, spent with my wife’s family at their vacation home in Langeudoc, France. That first year, like an Orthodox teen nibbling on the edge of a Big Mac just to see what the fuss was about, I played Charlie Brown’s Christmas album over and over again, getting bolder with the volume nob each time. I learned the lyrics to Dr. Suess’s “You’re a Mean One,” (composed by a Jew, by the way). And by the end, I tried leading my in laws in a rendition of The First Noel, which they found a bit too religious for their taste.

Last year, we went to a holiday party at a friend’s house in Sussex. We were greeted at the door by a life size Santa (Father Christmas, as he’s called here) who sang and danced in place when you got too close to him. There were three of these robot Santas throughout the house. In an upstairs bedroom our host was preparing for his granddaughters’ arrival in a few days; four single beds were made up with furry white and red sheets. The floor was covered, ankle deep, in synthetic snow. I wished I could stick around for the magic.

As I write this on December 23rd, looking out on the Pyrenees Mountains, awaiting the rest of my wife’s family, I’m looking forward to cooking them the six-pound chicken I bought at the charcuterie. It wasn’t shechted according to tradition, but the butcher ritualized it in his own way by defeathering and lopping its head off as I watched. I'll massage garlic and then lemon into its meat and surround it with potatoes rubbed with goose fat (“roasties”), carrots and more garlic. The Queen will speak on Christmas day, but we won’t watch. It’s like Thanksgiving in American without the football. Last year we had a tree. It was closer to a bush that my father-in-law hacked down in the woods beside the creek in back of the house. We propped it up in a bucket filled with stones and covered it in tinsel and family pictures and whatever else we could find around the house. Who knows if we’ll have one this year, but if we do, I’ve cleared an area beneath the stairs for it.

Eytan Bayme is a graduate of McGill University and a former stage actor. Originally from New York City, he lives with his wife in London. High Holiday Porn is his first book.

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My Sioux-kot, Part III

Thursday, December 22, 2016 | Permalink

Emily Bowen Cohen's mini-comic An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement recounts her reunion with her long-lost Native American family and her reflection on the trip over the following Yom Kippur. This week Emily illustrated a three-part comic on her reactions to the #NoDAPL protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

« Start from the Beginning

« Back to the Previous Page

As I was finishing up this comic, the news arrived that the Army Corps of Engineers would explore alternate routes for the pipeline. I did not celebrate the news. At best, this would be just a pause in the pipeline’s construction. However, I did celebrate seeing so many people—Native and non-Native—rallying behind the Sioux. Going forward, it will be so important to continue to see this passion. I would be so grateful if I heard my Native American family’s concerns reflected in the conversations of my Jewish family.

Emily Bowen Cohen writes memoir-style comics about being Native American and Jewish. She grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma. Emily received a 2016 Word Artist Grant, a project of American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity, to create An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement.

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My Sioux-kot, Part II

Wednesday, December 21, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Emily Bowen Cohen introduced the conflict she felt between her American Indian and Jewish identities during the protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Emily's mini-comic An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement recounts her reunion with her long-lost Native American family and her reflection on the trip over the following Yom Kippur; she is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

« Read My Sioux-kot, Part I

Read the next page of My Sioux-kot, a three-part comic by Emily Bowen Cohen »

Emily Bowen Cohen writes memoir-style comics about being Native American and Jewish. She grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma. Emily received a 2016 Word Artist Grant, a project of American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity, to create An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement.

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Book Cover of the Week: E. L. Doctorow's Collected Stories

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

A year and a half after the passing of “the reigning godfather of historical fiction,” a new collection of fifteen stories written, selected, revised, and ordered by E. L. Doctorow himself comes out January 2017:

You have to admire the understated design of the book cover. The off-center positioning of the stylized initial heightens the impact of the graphic and lures the reader to follow the subtle arrow of the arc aligned with the volume’s edge and open the book. It captures a feeling of forward motion, throwing into relief Doctorow’s capacity to tell stories of the future by setting them in the past. Pick up a copy of Doctorow: Collected Stories and you'll see what I mean.

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My Sioux-kot, Part I

Monday, December 19, 2016 | Permalink

Emily Bowen Cohen's recent mini-comic An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement recounts her reunion with her long-lost Native American family and her reflection on the trip over the following Yom Kippur. Emily will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Throughout the fall, I closely followed the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I followed the protests in the media, as well as in my personal life. As a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I have family and friends who were water protectors. Their stories dominated my social media feed.

The frenzy ceased, however, when I put on my “Jewish” hat. When I was immersed in Jewish life, the protest at Standing Rock, North Dakota was not a trending topic. I don’t stop being Native American when I walk into synagogue. The hashtag #NoDAPL flashed before my eyes as I prayed in shul, or set my Shabbat table, or ate in a sukkah. I was surprised by how many times I encountered something in my Jewish life that reminded me of the Sioux fighting for their rights at Standing Rock.

In that spirit, I do what I do: I drew a comic about the weird and wonderful experience of being a Native American Jew.

Read the next page of My Sioux-kot, a three-part comic by Emily Bowen Cohen »

Emily Bowen Cohen writes memoir-style comics about being Native American and Jewish. She grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma. Emily received a 2016 Word Artist Grant, a project of American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity, to create An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement.

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