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Israel Then and Now: 6 Big Changes Since 1994 (Part I)

Monday, August 03, 2015 | Permalink

Jessamyn Hope is the author of Safekeeping, which has received critical acclaim from The Boston Globe, The Globe and Mail, and Tablet Magazine. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

My debut novel Safekeeping takes place on a kibbutz in northern Israel over the summer of 1994. The world has changed a lot since then, and Israel, being such a young country with unique socio-political challenges, transforms at a particularly quick rate. Some of the changes that have come to Israel over the last two decades mirror those found in other countries: the sea change that came with the Internet; cellphones stowed in pockets instead of asimonim (phone tokens) or telecards; and no more smoking while browsing clothes in the Dizengoff Center. Many changes, though, have been distinct to Israel. Over the coming week, this blog will explore six of them. Here are the first three:

1. Television

When I was a volunteer in 1994 on my great-uncle’s kibbutz, I watched television only rarely on his fuzzy tube TV. The viewing options were slim. All the antenna caught were three choices: a staticky Arab soap opera coming from nearby Lebanon, and the only two Israeli stations at the time, both government owned—the Israeli Broadcasting Authority and the aptly named Channel Two. Television came late to Israel, in 1966, and only then as an educational tool for schools; and although cable came to the country in 1990, the vast majority of homes still did not have it in 1994. Now Israel digitally broadcasts over ninety national channels, and Israeli television is in midst of a golden era, with shows like Hatufim and BeTipul being adapted in the United States as Homeland and In Treatment.

2. Cars

While an ulpanist on another relative’s kibbutz near Haifa, I had a crush on a young kibbutznik who would take me on day trips by signing out one of the kibbutz’s white Subarus. Nearly every car in the kibbutz lot, and seemingly every car speeding down the roads of Israel, was either a white Subaru hatchback or a white Subaru mini-truck. Why all the white Subarus? For many decades, the League of Arab States boycotted any company that did business with Israel. Since the Arab market was much larger than the Israeli one—today it’s 450 million people versus 8 million—many companies, such as Pepsi and McDonald’s, agreed not to sell their products in Israel. And this was the case for all Japanese cars except the Subaru. Since the mid-nineties, a majority of Arab countries have abandoned the boycott, and today Israelis drive cars of various brands, and only a quarter of them are white.

3. Road Signs

In 1994, road signs and other government notices in Israel were written in Hebrew and Arabic (the two official languages) and English. Today, they often include a fourth language: Russian. In 1989, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Jews to leave the USSR, and soon afterward the United States ceased accepting them as refugees. Over the next decade, 1.1 million people flooded from the Soviet Union into Israel, a country with a population under five million. At the time, people compared it to the United States absorbing the entire population of France. Temporary caravans to house the immigrants popped up all over. Now 15% of Israelis claim Russian as their mother tongue, and their influence is marked not only on road signs, but in Israeli politics, literature, music, theater, science, and technology. By 1998, the number of professional orchestras in Israel quadrupled; by 2004, half of Israel’s Olympic athletes were immigrants from the former Soviet Union; and by 2009, one in four staff members at Israeli universities was a native Russian-speaker.

Want more time travel? Tune in to the next post. Or if you can’t wait, travel to 1994 Israel with my novel Safekeeping.

Jessamyn Hope's short fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, and other literary magazines. Born and raised in Montreal, she lived in Israel before moving to New York City. Read more about her here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, July 31, 2015 | Permalink

Happy Tu B'Av, 5775! This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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“I’ve heard of Jews with horns, but wings? An innovation!”

Friday, July 31, 2015 | Permalink

by Barbara Klein Moss

Earlier this week, Jewish Book Council interviewed Barbara Klein Moss, the author of The Language of Paradise: A Novel about the complexities of casting a Jewish villain. The conversation provoked the author to reexamine her portrayal of the Jewish experience of nineteenth-century New England and provide the following rumination.
Read the original interview here.

It was an interesting experience for me, as a writer who is Jewish, to write from the point of view of Calvinist New Englanders for whom fixed attitudes about Jews were an accepted part of the culture. The character of the Reverend Hedge was inspired by an eccentric polymath parson named Jonathan Fisher, who lived and preached in Blue Hill, Maine in the early part of the 19th century. He knew many languages but had a special reverence for Hebrew as the language of Holy Scripture, even enshrining the Hebrew letters in an Alphabetical Bestiary of the Bible, similar to the one I gave to Hedge. Yet, one of his few surviving sermons rails against the Jews. This paradox was very common at the time. Hedge can effuse to Gideon about the sensuality of the Hebrew letters, their “heft,” their “shapeliness,” while still piously opining about the burden he bears for the Jews, how he prays for them, “but without much hope.”

Gideon, as a member of this society though not truly of it, still has to confront the caricatures he grew up with: the “two tribes who lived side by side in him,” the Hebrews in the stories and the Jews, who, in his mother’s words, “kept to themselves.” When he first learns that Leander is Jewish, he sees him through the scrim of all the clichés, comparing his friend, whom he has begun to love, to the common perceptions about Jews, and then “looked this leering caricature full in the face, and, with a single shaky breath, dismissed it.” As he goes through this process, he is aware that Leander is watching him, “registering each stage of his thought as it made its lurching pilgrimage from common wisdom to fable .” Leander has been through this before. If he has become a shape-shifter,” pitching his tent in other men’s minds,” it is to escape this relentless categorizing, and he is waiting to see whether Gideon will change toward him now that he knows the “one fact.” It’s not that Leander himself is a caricature, but that he has a long history of being seen as one.

Leander and Gideon are drawn to the experiment in the greenhouse for different reasons. Gideon believes he is fulfilling his vision. Leander is convinced he has found his tribe. Each, in his own way, believes he’s starting new, leaving a corrupt old world for a purer one. When Leander chooses to set up a household with Sophy and Gideon, he is taking the risk of staying put for the first time since leaving the German Jewish society that his father represented. Sophy perceives his interest in them as cold and calculating—and to some extent she’s right—but he’s also genuinely taken with them, and invested in Sophy’s pregnancy and the child to come, the “little man” who will perhaps replace the son he lost in his old life. “We are a small tribe,” he says to Gideon, “but we are increasing.”

Which brings us to The Shylock Moment. I was surprised asked why I hadn’t given Leander one because, for me, this happens very clearly when the parson warns them that vicious gossip has begun to circulate in the village—classic slanders such as using the baby’s blood “to season our soups. To add flavor to our bread.” Leander recognizes them as Gideon and Sophy do not, and begins to laugh hysterically. “One expects such barbarities in Europe, but that the tentacles reach to our artless little village . . .” He sees that there is no refuge from hatred in their isolated enclave. The prejudice he knew in Europe will follow him. However high he builds his wall, the stones will be used to shatter the glass walls of their fragile Eden.

There are a lot of undertones in the scene when Sophy catches Leander in the glasshouse looking at the secret sides of her paintings and confronts him. Leander’s self-mockery is evident: “I’ve heard of Jews with horns, but wings? An innovation!” He defends himself from her accusations, insisting he hasn’t destroyed their family, but preserved it by creating a new one, and talks objectively about Gideon’s obsession and how he is putting his friend’s gift “to practical use.” He’s particularly defensive about Aleph, whom he claims to love: “Do you think a man like me—a worldly man, as you quaintly put it—has no tender feelings?” He never discusses his Jewishness with Sophy, but in the emphasis he puts on “worldly,” implies that he interprets the word as a euphemism. Later, he betrays his need for her, making an overture and speaking of their like natures, and she is swayed for a moment before keeping him at bay by asking about his mother’s fortune and whether it has supported them all these months. It’s only then that he reverts to type, speculating that her paintings might be “worth something.”

Though Leander has the place of the serpent in the novel, he’s hardly an unalloyed villain. He’s a progressive man, ahead of his time in many ways, and, for all his wiles and manipulations, there is a lot of good in him. As a schoolmaster, he treats his pupils like human beings and disciplines them without the rod. He takes Sophy’s art seriously when no one else does—a fact that she acknowledges at the end. He disappears after the fire, but the implication is that he’s rescued Gideon and saved Sophy’s paintings. He haunts her long after he is gone. I intended him to be a complex character, one not easily categorized. As a writer, I have great fondness for him because he sparked the novel for me when I had reached a difficult point. I heard his voice distinctly and he was a pure pleasure to get on the page.

Finally, Jewish Book Council asked why I had chosen Kassel as Leander’s birthplace. Though the choice was arbitrary—long ago I’d taken care of an elderly Jewish woman who came from there and had fled to the states just before the war—I did do some research about the city. I don’t have time to corral my notes, but I’m pretty certain that I investigated Jewish life there and determined that there was an Orthodox synagogue in Kassel during that era. (I honestly didn’t know about the Brothers Grimm’s Jewish caricatures, though I’m not surprised they exist.)

Read the original interview with Barbara Klein Moss here.

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You Don't Know from Jewish Summer Camp If You Haven't Seen These Films

Friday, July 31, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

For many American Jews, summer camp was a crucial experience of childhood, coming of age, and early employment. Regardless of which particular camp you called home for those first weeks away from your parents, you'll laugh and relate to the characters and customs in the following flicks:

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Yes, obviously. The myriad oblique references to Camp Firewood’s religious affiliation are largely to credit for the movie’s cult appeal. (That and an all-star comedic cast including Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Bradley Cooper, Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Christopher Meloni, and David Hyde Pierce.) Set in 1981, Wet Hot American Summer follows the Firewood staff’s Hail Mary attempts to find love, carnal pleasures, or amusement on the last day of camp.

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about this movie this summer. There’s a reason for that. Bring on The First Day of Camp!

A Walk on the Moon (1999)

Another Jewish summer camp flick set before its time, A Walk on the Moon also features a stellar cast you would never know collaborated on a Jewish movie: Diane Lane, Liev Schreiber, Anna Paquin, Viggo Mortenseten. So basically you have Martha Kent (Superman), Sabretooth and Rogue (X-Men), and Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings) all running around a Jewish family retreat camp just outside of Woodstock in the summer of 1969.

What sets A Walk on the Moon apart—other than the absence of comedic hijinks or spectacular dance numbers—is the breadth it covers of both personal narrative—a young Jewish mother whose children have outgrown her life’s purpose; a father driving overnight each way for to spend his one day off of work for the week with his family; a girl with a lakeshore summer’s outlet for the rebellions and temptations of adolescence; a heretofore untethered drifter; a grandmother left with her daughter-in-law, watching her son’s family fall apart in his absence—and Jewish American history, culture, and experience: a euphoric mazel tov from a father to his daughter on the arrival of her first period, delivered over the camp P.A. system in the middle of morning announcements; encounters and even friendships with the Orthodox vacationers on the same beach; huddles of Jackie O bobs and cateye glasses cackling around picnic tables covered in mah jongg tiles.

Dirty Dancing (1987)

You can’t really bring up Jewish family vacation camps without at least mentioning Dirty Dancing. A Jewish American Princess falls for Kellerman’s Mountain House’s dance instructor and his limber community—both of which her father strictly disapproves.

I know a high school teacher who screens the movie in class every time she teaches a course on modern Jewish history. But that might just be her excuse to watch the film.

Gorp (1980)

Ah, what to say about Gorp. Dated, slapstick, and extremely problematic—half of our heroes’ antics are variations of sleep rape—but still essential to the canon. It’s basically Animal House set in an upstate Jewish summer camp, where two fast-talking mess hall waiters lead their shack of colleagues through a repeat summer of pranks, pursuit, and flouting the rules. Featuring an almost unrecognizably young Dennis Quaid as “Mad” Grossman and Fran Drescher at the start of her career, Gorp slips a few insider jokes in between the raunchy humor, largely at the expense of the camp rabbi’s poorly attended sermons.

The movie is unquestionably distasteful and offensive to modern sensibilities, but it is also perhaps the first—and possibly still the most blatant—to claim Jewish summer camp as its home.

Commie Camp (2013)

Commie Camp explores the establishment, legacy, and current culture of a Jewish socialist children’s summer camp in the Berkshires. Founded in 1923 by immigrant Jewish laborers as a means to get their offspring out New York City’s tenements for the season, Camp Kinderland continues to collect and inculcate an annual crop of creative and quirky kids each summer. You really can’t understand the world of Jewish summer camp in its entirety until you’ve at least glimpsed its socialist outposts.

Four Seasons Lodge (2006)

A New York Times series of articles on aging Holocaust survivors retreating to the Catskills inspired the reporter writing them to commission a filmed record of this dwindling summer community with the co-creator of Grey Gardens behind the camera. The documentary enters the Four Seasons Lodge as its octo- and nonagenarian summer denizens enjoy their 26th season at the colony, enjoying the entertainment, food, and opportunities to socialize and dance as they have together over the past quarter-century, without hint or mention of the dark past left in Nazi-occupied Poland—until the cameras start rolling.

A beautiful, unusually subtle piece of testimony, Four Seasons Lodge is a reminder of the restorative value of a summer retreat at any age, with any story.

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Discovering the Pinch: Part II; or, Animating a Literary Golem

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Steve Stern offered his recollections of the Memphis community in which he grew up and the Jewish mythical lore occupying it. His most recent novel, The Pinch, is now available. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Read Part I of "Discovering the Pinch" Here

Needless to say, this was all very exciting. I had rescued the irrational dimension of a largely sanitized tradition from obscurity and enabled the timeless realm to reenter history, restoring magic to the arid wasteland of contemporary experience. But there was a problem: because the Pinch itself had degenerated into gutted buildings and weed-choked lots, and the ghettos of Eastern Europe that had spawned the Pinch were now graveyards, their populations long since reduced to ashes. As a consequence, there was no longer a natural habitat wherein the resurrected dead belonged, to say nothing of the whole supernatural menagerie with whom they’d once lived cheek by jowl. The shoemakers, patch tailors, ritual slaughterers, and market wives found themselves without a culture in which to pursue their traditional livelihoods. By the same token, the creatures from sitra achra, the Other Side, had no communal order to invade and subvert with their time-honored mischief. Here is the place where I’m supposed to say that I reconstructed their world in my stories, replicating their vanished community, complete with poverty, disease, and the threat of pogrom to be sure, but also with mystery and romance. Isn’t that what art is? A container made in time to hold a timeless element? But my artificial containers, formed from recycled folk narratives, were never sturdy enough to confine authentic magic, which tended to crack the forms wide open. In the absence of their original milieu, the citizens of that timeless realm didn’t so much blend as collide with the contemporary world. The archetypes and modernity made strange bedfellows. The born-again mortals, feeling exposed and disoriented, scrambled to assimilate as fast as they could, pursuing get-rich-quick schemes to insulate themselves from an alien environment; while the supernaturals, feeling equally out of place in a world where they weren’t believed in, where the evil men outstripped their wildest machinations, succumbed to various petty corruptions: the wonder rebbes became spiritual hucksters, founding meditation centers that boasted celebrity followers; the golem used disproportionate force against the perceived enemies of Israel in barroom brawls. Lilith started an escort service; the dybbuks took possession of living souls with reckless abandon, and so forth. Think of a subterranean version of the anarchy unleashed on the world in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” Like an ineffectual parent trying to corral his delinquent children, I endeavored to shepherd the demons and born-agains back into yet another container, which they also smashed, forcing me to repeat the process all over again, ad absurdum. This was my method, which was arduous and frustrating and aged me prematurely. It was a doomed Sisyphean enterprise, and like Blake’s eternity yearning for the productions of time, I wished for a return of the old status quo. Then lo, my prayer was answered: the boring rabbi from my reform temple turned up in his seersucker suit and, with unsuspected strength, tilted the Tree back into the ground whence it had risen, while the remnant of that refugee heritage scurried back into the gaping hole as well. The poor sapling, bare of fruit, stood once more in place of the Tree, and I returned to the synagogue and sat peacefully among the congregation, amnesiac again and wondering, “Why do they look so smug, as if they’re keeping some big secret from me?” End of story.

There’s the familiar Chasidic parable about the forest, the fire, and the prayer that describes how the Baal Shem Tov, when he needed enlightenment, went to a place in the forest, lit a fire, said a prayer, and mirabile dictu, enlightenment was granted. His nephew would go to the same place in the forest and light the fire, only to find that he’d forgotten the prayer; but it was sufficient just to be by the fire in the forest. Then the nephew’s nephew would go to the forest, where he was unable to remember the prayer or light the fire; but he was still in the forest and that was sufficient. The nephew’s nephew’s nephew, however, couldn’t even find his way into the forest, never mind light the fire or say the prayer; but he remembered the story of the forest, the fire, and the prayer, and that sufficed. But my generation has only the story of having forgotten the story, and that frankly isn’t enough. Still, I sometimes encounter some joker at a party whose tasteless shtik recalls the routines of the old badkhonim, the jesters who entertained at Jewish weddings with their bawdy repertoires; or a drooling lunatic on a subway platform might spew a stream of vitriol that could have been formulated by a dybbuk; or a child of a friend utters some gnomic wisdom beyond his years, as if his soul had endured many gilgulim, or reincarnations. In this way chords are struck; a vestige of the knowledge erased by the Angel of Forgetfulness at our birth (by his famous fillip under our nose) obtains. “We cannot renew our former strength,” said the illustrious rabbinic storyteller Nachman of Bratslav, “but we do retain an imprint of those former times, and that in itself is very great.” In the Beginning, according to the sixteenth century kabbalist Isaac Luria, God had to withdraw Himself from the universe in order to make room for creation, but the vessels in which He deposited His Light could not contain their volatile contents and cracked open. For centuries it was the mission of the Jews to retrieve—through study, good works, and prayer—the sparks of holiness scattered from those broken vessels and return them to their source, thus repairing the rift between heaven and earth and making the universe whole again. This was the Jewish MO for several centuries, until along came the Holocaust, an implosion as seismic in its destructiveness as the explosion that allowed for our creation. Since then the sparks have not been so easy to recover. Before, they were hidden in plain sight, the way a father hides the afikomen for his children at Passover; now those sparks are buried so deep under the ruins of a lost culture that their recovery requires a major excavation. The whole tradition must be uprooted—branch, trunk, root, and seed—in order to yield the least gem-sized spark, which must in turn be fanned like crazy in the hope of starting a new conflagration. Then, if you’re lucky, a demon or angel might leap out of the flame.

Over the course of several diary entries Franz Kafka, the high priest of hopelessness, began a story about a slovenly rabbi living in the squalid Prague ghetto, who is attempting to create a man from a lump of clay. But after setting the stage for an eruption of magic in that dilapidated secular atmosphere, Kafka never completed the story. Meanwhile the old ghetto was razed to the ground in the name of progress, and later on all the displaced Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Which was maybe why the story, having no real world model to draw upon for its context, was doomed from the outset. Still, for those of us helplessly drawn to the archetypes of an outworn tradition, who believe they retain some transformative power, Kafka’s uncompleted story remains a challenge: You want to describe how the rabbi rolls up his sleeves like a washerwoman and plunges his hands into the wet clay, while the curious neighbors in his reeking courtyard look on. This is of course outrageous effrontery, the idea that you can trespass where Kafka himself feared to tread. The old mystics issued caveats against such presumption: the apprentice kabbalist should be at least 40, married, and with a respectable paunch as a ballast against pursuits that might carry him away. There are many fables about the consequences of being carried away. But say that you actually succeed through much rigor in animating your literary golem. Fueled by your faith in his power, he may still resist your control; he may lay waste to your best-laid plans, kick your narrative container to pieces, and escape into a modernity that absorbs him to the point of invisibility. What’s left to you is either to content yourself with chronicling your failure, with telling the story of forgetting—or to give chase, throwing nets over the monster to drag him back into your tale, which he will break out of again world without end.

Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of several previous novels and story collections, including The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.

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July 2015 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Arie Monas

Read what the staff of the Jewish Book Council has been reading for the month of July!


I'm reading two books this month. The first one is All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen. I picked this book because it is quite controversial. I absolutely loved it and I highly recommend it. It is truly enlightening because I am learning more about the Hasidic sects.

The second book I read this month is Jewish Ireland: A Social History by Ray Rivlin. I chose to read this book because I was in Ireland a few weeks ago and I went to the Jewish museum in Dublin and it got me thinking about the Jews in Ireland. I recommend this book to people who like history.


The book The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday an interesting novel that can start a conversation. It is an unusual take on the Holocaust story. I recommend the book to everyone.

Find Jewish Book Council's book club kit for The Last Flight of Poxl West here.


The final book in a three part series, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, allows teenagers to be more than one-dimensional characters – complicated, frustrating and loveable, Isla and the Happily Ever After shows teens as they really are.


The Innocents by Francesca Segal is a very intriguing look at the Jewish community in London. It also makes me want to read the original book that this is based off of, The Age of Innocence. I recommend it to anyone who read the Age of Innocence.


The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook by Fania Lewando and The 

Covenant Kitchen by Jeff and Jodie Morgan are very original cookbooks. The Vilna cookbook was originally published in Vilna in 1938. It was a very advanced for its time and it had color illustrations. It’s not a vegetarian cookbook but it emphasizes on fresh produce. It’s the ancestor of fresh produce cuisine. I recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary cooking.


Upon learning the sad news of E. L. Doctorow's death, this month I'm rereading E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Set in New York, Ragtime is peppered with historical figures, giving them new dimension and seamlessly connecting them with fictional components of Doctorow's plot. Particularly of note, for a Jewish audience, are the appearances of Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, and Emma Goldman (you can find reading lists for all three on Jewish Book Council's website) as well as the fictional story of Tateh, which pulls back the curtain on New York City tenements and specifically the life of a Jewish Eastern European immigrant trying to make ends meet and provide for his daughter. If you haven't already read this classic, it should definitely make its way to the top of your to-read list!


I never realized the danger involved in that profession. I recommend The War Reporter by Martin Fletcher to anyone.

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Interview: Barbara Klein Moss

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 | Permalink

by Nat Bernstein

Intrigued by a nefarious Jewish character in Barbara Klein Moss’s debut novel, Jewish Book Council sought to learn more about the sympathetic serpent in The Language of Paradise. Between comparing outrageous exegeses on the story of Eden and swapping slip-ups in transitioning between writing in arcane language and living in the modern world, the author offered insight into the Jewish experience of nineteenth-century New England and the complexities of casting a Jewish villain.

Nat Bernstein: I’m curious as to where this novel started. What came to you first: the concept, the characters, or the story—or an isolated scene?

Barbara Klein Moss: I had an idea in my mind for years to write about a character obsessed with finding the first language. I’ve been writing about Eden for a long time: my earlier publication was a collection of contemporary stories on the theme of Eden. The part of the Genesis story that fascinates me the most is Adam naming the animals—which is dispensed with in a line, this complex subject: God passed the animals before Adam and he gave them names, and then he named his wife—and I was always intrigued by that, and I thought there were fictional possibilities there. At some point the idea came to me that there would be a clergyman obsessed with finding the “golden tongue,” and his wife who was a visionary, a painter who tried to capture his vision in her painting.

NLB: We learn very little of Leander Solloway’s “true character” other than that he is a Jew, which is shared as a statement rather than an insightful soliloquy—in fact, the only reflections on his identity or religious heritage in the novel are supplanted by Gideon’s (and later Sophy’s) passing musings, observations, assumptions, and stereotypes. Why make this character Jewish? And, once that choice was made, why not delve into it further?

BKM: When I first created the character, when he came to me, I didn’t know he was Jewish; it was as I wrote him that I discovered it—it was as much of a surprise to me as to anyone. (My editor, who is also Jewish—as I am—was very alarmed by this, and she said, “But if he’s the Serpent, the bad guy in this story, it might not be a good idea to make him Jewish!”) Yet it seemed so clear to me, that this was why he was— first of all, I have never seen him as a Serpent, I should say that—the way he is. When Leander first tells Gideon that he’s a Jew, he says, “So now you will understand the nature of my so-called magic. If the world regards you always as a son of the circumcised you have a choice: you can live your life within the walls they have built around you, consorting only with your own kind, or you can can become a shape-shifter.” And he does become a shape-shifter. I think that Leander is the only modern man in the novel. He is in a sense a psychologist: he learns how to “pitch his tent in other men’s minds,” as he says, and to “make himself at home in their ghettos”—what he means by that is to get to know them in such a way that he becomes part of their lives for a while.

NLB: That’s interesting to think about: How different his role in the story would be if this was a story set two hundred years later.

BKM: You know, I think probably he would be considered a sage two hundred years later. I really do. He is advanced in many ways, even in his physicality: he is unashamed of who he is, he is a very sensual man, and revels in the sexual aspects of life. He is a manipulator, but you can’t always make people of your own belief system heroes—I think that’s as false as making him a villain. He has learned to manipulate to survive and he is also a sort of magician: he appears and disappears out of nowhere, in a sense, and he loses himself in other people’s lives. But I think the poignancy of Leander is that he really is looking for his own tribe. He has this deep longing to settle somewhere, to rest somewhere, and I think he’s chosen Gideon and Sophy for that reason.

NLB: I kept expecting some kind of “Hath a Jew not eyes?” outburst from Leander, and he really stayed so contained with it. He does reflect that “if you’re a Jew, you have two choices, and this is my story,” but maybe between the language and the way this character was poised, I was just waiting for a Shylock moment, you know? Because he is similarly complicated: your heart goes out to him, despite the havoc he’s wreaking on the environment he’s inserted himself into.

BKM: For me, the Shylock moment is when Parson Entwhistle comes to tell them about the rumors that have started in the town, and the rumors have a clear anti-Semitic tinge to them—to the point that they’re accusing him of using the baby’s blood. And the poignancy there is that he bursts out in this almost hysterical laughter—Sophy and Gideon are appalled, they can’t imagine why he would react that way—and it’s because he knows it’s found him again, this pernicious thing. He knows he can never really escape.

NLB: In reading the novel, I began to suspect Leander’s heritage long before it is ever confessed, largely because his character reminded me so much of Jewish villains in Grimms’ more obscure stories. So it interested me that you set his origin in Kassel, and even named it as the hometown of the Brothers Grimm. Was this a nod to their depiction of Jews, brought in again in The Language of Paradise—or was that sheer coincidence?

BKM: That honestly was sheer coincidence. I just happened to know someone who had come from Kassel, and when I discovered it was from the Brothers Grimm it appealed to me. Leander is a storyteller himself and a mythical figure to people of the town. He has a magical quality. I wasn’t relating it to his supposed villainy.

NLB: There are moments when both Gideon and Sophy see his actions or something he said as a confirmation of what they had known or had assumed about Jews. Did you have any hesitations about casting the Jews in the stereotypes of his time?

BKM: For Gideon, who’s never known any Jews, there is a foreignness to his friend, a kind of exoticism. And this fascinates him; he’s never met someone European before! He’s a boy from a rather obscure village, and so a lot of this is just pure exoticism and fascination. Sophy, in the end, sees Leander as something of a hero for her: he saw her, he saw her art, he was a worldly man—which for her is not a negative thing.

NLB: I’m intrigued by the correspondence between Parson Entwhistle and the German rabbi. Did you do much research into this? How likely would an exchange between New England Protestant and European Jewish clergymen have been? Would a rabbi in Kassel (was there one?) have had sufficient command of English to reply?

BKM: There is some invention in this, but I didn’t think it was totally improbable that they would communicate. There was a synagogue in Kassel at the time, and they’re both scholarly men—I thought it was a real possibility. Entwhistle, for his era, is extremely liberal. He doesn’t share the prejudices that many in the village do. This was a time when there was a certain enlightenment among clergyman: they weren’t all stern Calvinists like Hedge.

NLB: Personally, I really took to Entwhistle. I thought he was such a quiet hero in the story.

BKM: He really was! I almost wish he could have had a bigger role. He had a feeling for Sophy that was more than he could express; he saw who she was.

NLB: Did you enter into a writer’s equivalent of method acting? Once you sat down with the book, were you in the space of the nineteenth century, and was it hard to break out of that when you left your writing desk?

BKM: Yes, that is really what it was like. I submerged myself in that world so deeply that I could hear the characters’ voices in my head. It was actually hard for me not to use the nineteenth century grammar and usage afterwards! I found myself using “vexed” as an adjective in a modern story I was writing, and I realized that it was still strong in my head, this nineteenth century world.

Nat Bernstein is the JBC Network Coordinator at the Jewish Book Council and an F'07 graduate of Hampshire College.

Read the Barbara Klein Moss's follow-up to the conversation here!

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Of Autistic and Crazy

Monday, July 27, 2015 | Permalink

Judy Brown wrote the controversial novel Hush—a finalist for the 2011 Sydney Taylor Award for outstanding book on the Jewish experience—under a pseudonym because of feared backlash from the Chassidic world. Brown's identity has since been revealed and she has left Chassidism. Her new book, This is Not a Love Story, is now available. She is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

"You can’t call your crazy brother crazy."

My agent told this to me—the very first thing he said when reading my manuscript about my autistic brother. Alright, he said it somewhat more tactfully, something like—‘your ideal readers will have very strong feelings about these issues,’ droning on about ‘how and when to use the word 'crazy'" which sounded like gibberish to me because my brother was definitely crazy.

When I was eight years old my mother told me the same. "Stop calling your brother retarded," she said, after I’d asked her when my retarded brother would stop being retarded. She winced at my casual use. But for me it wasn’t an insult. It was simply a fact, a way to describe the strange and unsolvable mystery that was my younger sibling; a boy who could not speak, who flailed his arms like a frantic chicken if you got too close to his face.

And now they were at it again; editors and agent telling my eight-year-old narrative voice what I could and could not call my own brother.

So we compromised. I would call my brother crazy as often as I'd want, but cut down on the word retarded, replacing it, at least some of the time, with the more elegant (diplomatic?) ‘strange,’ or ‘odd,’ and other such adjectives to make people I didn't know or care for, feel better. Yeah whatever. My brother was nuts.

It’s funny. Because he and I laugh about it today, all those years and so many changes later.

“Nuu,’ he says chuckling, when insisting on a particular way of doing things,”—what is there to do? I am your crazy brother…”

So we agree. We are all a little crazy—the bus driver talking to himself when he thinks no one’s looking, the man dancing down the street like there’s no tomorrow, the people who spend fifteen million on a house. It’s a crazy, crazy world, and here we are scared to call it just that.

But you can’t tell an eight-year-old how to talk, how to put pretty little lies on everyone else’s thoughts as they move cautiously away on the bus or at the pizza shop, trying not to stare at that-retarded-boy.

It was hurtful as a child, listening to the counselors in summer day camp laugh at his strange behavior, watching a family friend shoo him away as if he were a cat, while I could never do the same. There was nowhere to hide, not when we were bound tight by the eternal and impossible cords of family. Because this was my own flesh-and-blood brother, so strange, so mad, so crazy, and nobody was gonna tell me how to call it, not then, not now.

I remember my daughter coming off the bus at age nine, and telling me about a new and separate class which just opened up in her school for different-kind-of girls. The teachers had each gathered their students around them, explaining that they must be extra nice to these other girls.

“What kind of different-kind-of-girls,” I asked.

"… retarded girls," she said, then quickly changed her mind. “I mean, I mean, not retarded—just diff—.” She stopped, trying to remember. Then remembered. “Different.”

“Different?” I asked, as if I couldn't understand. "What, like they have peach hair?"

“No, no,” she said. “Different like dumb. I mean, I mean, not dumb, just—slow.” Again, she stopped, thinking. “Slow-er…?”

She looked up at me, a big and worried question on her face. Or not?

I laughed watching her stumble over the instructions given by her teacher, labels laid out like delicate pieces of porcelain, slowly, cautiously on the table: this is how you say it. Careful, or it will shatter.

But not for me as that child. Porcelain words mean nothing when right behind them were the thoughts laid out across their eyes—pity, curiosity, unease, revulsion. We all know your brother is retarded.

So let the rest of the world dance and stumble over how and what to say of their own fears, as I tell the story of one crazy brother, just the way it happened.

Judy Brown has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine and has written for the Huffington Post and the Jewish Daily Forward. She holds a master's in creative writing and lives in New York City.

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Discovering the Pinch: Part I

Monday, July 27, 2015 | Permalink

Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of several previous novels and story collections, including The Book of Mischief and The Frozen Rabbi. His most recent novel, The Pinch, is now available. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I grew up in the South during a plague of amnesia, circa 1947. Due to a recent historical trauma of cosmic proportions, no one was able to look back, and various lingering planetary threats made looking forward a dicey proposition as well. Thus, the present was a barren and hopeless affair, and the places consecrated to giving it meaning no less desolate. The synagogue in the Southern city where I was reared was as antiseptic as a Methodist church, the rabbi droning conventional wisdom in ecclesiastical robes, the choir singing vapid hymns in their loft, the congregation more or less chloroformed. There was a stale mythology of tired household tales, stories of giants and floods worn threadbare by centuries of rote narrative that inoculated the listener against authentic magic. When I was old enough to leave, I set out in search of mystery and romance, but ended by living the life of my generation, medicating myself along with my brethren against the claustrophobia of our time. Eventually I returned home empty-handed, where, in the absence of what I’d been seeking, I began to write stories that invoked my own idea of mystery and romance. The problem was that, with an imagination confined (and defined) by the infertile present, my stories tended to revolve around characters searching for mystery and romance and finding none. Because the characters were in need of some nod toward identity, however superficial, I sometimes tagged them with Jewish names, and was surprised to find that the names more or less fit. One of my characters, Lazar Malkin by name, dissatisfied with his experience on earth, nevertheless perversely refused to die. Exasperated by his obstinacy, the Angel of Death (a stock persona from the tired tales I’d been weaned on) hauled him off to heaven alive. This seemed to me an original notion: a fresh idea had sprouted in my otherwise desert environment; my sapling of a narrative had born fruit. But when I tried to pluck the fruit, a funny thing happened. When I tugged, the sapling itself came out of the ground, dragging with it a root system larger than a giant sequoia’s. The eruption from underground seemed to displace everything else on earth, overwhelming the narrow isthmus of the present with a timeless dimension. And attached to those prodigious roots was another world shaken loose by the great deracination. The roots were in fact an inverted tree that my persistent tugging had pulled upright again, and from its branches hung many versions of the story I thought I’d invented: There was the Hasidic tale of Rabbi ben Levi, another stubborn old man, who deceives Malach Hamovess, the Angel of Death, into admitting him into paradise alive; and Elijah the Prophet who ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, only to return to earth in various disguises to meddle in the affairs of men; and Enoch, who “walked with God, and was not,” who was translated while yet alive into the archangel Metatron. Turns out I wasn’t so original after all. Accidentally I had tapped into a vast network of living myths that, once unearthed, began to dog me like creatures out of Pandora’s Box, or (to put it in a more Jewish context) from under the Foundation Stone of the Temple that King David lifted against God’s decree.

The Tree had its geographical locus on North Main Street, a blighted downtown district in my hometown of Memphis. And with the Tree’s resurrection—having as it did a genealogical as well as a mythical significance—the denizens of the once vital North Main Street ghetto community reappeared; the dead came back again. Mr. Sebranig the shoemaker came back, and Mr. Sacharin the fishmonger, Dubrovner the butcher in his bloody apron and the Widow Teitelbaum, who peddled bootleg whiskey from under the counter of her vest-pocket delicatessen. I saw my grandfather and grandmother, her puckered mouth ringed clownishly with borscht, whose wizened face I would recall as a hedge against premature ejaculation. Now her features echoed a whole culture with its traditions and superstitions, all the baggage she’d brought along with her from the Old Country, sometimes referred to as the Other Side. This included the demons and imps called sheydim and mazikim, wandering souls called dybbuks and hidden saints or lamed vov tzaddikim. There was the golem, the soulless monster the old sorcerer rabbis had fashioned out of clay, and Lilith, Adam’s first wife turned succubus, who stole babies from their cradles and visited sleeping men to embarrass them with nocturnal emissions. And there were summer nights in the Pinch, which was the name of that North Main Street ghetto, when the apartments above the shops were infernal and the whole neighborhood would sleep outside in the park under the Tree—from whose branches these mythical creatures would descend.

Check back on Wednesday for Part II of "Discovering the Pinch."

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Street-Corner Sociology in South Williamsburg

Friday, July 24, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, John Benditt pondered whether or not Proust was Jewish and wrote about identity and writing. The Boatmaker is his debut novel. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Some people have said that my novel, The Boatmaker, is a fable, that it has a fairy-tale quality, that it is a fantasy. I suppose that’s alright, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it can equally well be read as reportage, street-corner sociology, direct from my little corner of the world, which is called South Williamsburg. In my neighborhood there are three social groups, each on its own trajectory. One is growing. One is digging in. One is being displaced, slowly but surely. The high-end gentrifiers are growing in numbers. Their incursion was slowed by the financial collapse that began in 2007, but it’s resumed with renewed intensity as the economy has rebounded. The Hispanic community here is on the opposite trajectory: on their way to other neighborhoods, a little at a time. The ones who are digging in are the Chasidim. Property values on Kent Avenue along the river have gone up so much that it is difficult for them to buy up property and build more of the housing they prefer. But they aren’t going anywhere. Each of these groups speaks its own language. They can speak to each other if they want, but mostly they don’t. In fact, for the most part they don’t even see each other. Of course I don’t mean physically. They see each other’s corporeal existence well enough; they’re not blind. But socially, as human beings, they don’t exist for each other. The groups pass by and through each other without really touching. Usually. One Friday evening as I went out, a man approached me on the street near my building. He was one of my very Orthodox neighbors. “Could you come up to my apartment?” he said. “Why?” I said. I’ve lived in New York too long. I don’t do anything just because someone asks. “According to our laws,” he said, “I cannot operate any machines. Even the light, which is a machine. I need someone to turn off the lights inside.” “Alright,” I said. I went in. It was the first time I had ever been in one of the houses with the barred cages around the windows, where in the fall the little huts appear suddenly in the rain, like the last fruits of the season. On the way out, he thanked me. “So you needed me to be the Shabbos goy,” I said. He looked surprised. “You are Jewish?” “Yes.” “Your mother and your father both?” “Yes,” I said, “both of them. And also I had a bar mitzvah. I would be happy to tell you my Torah portion if you like.” Again, he seemed surprised. A little concerned. We looked at each other for a moment, each man in his own thoughts, one question hovering over both of us like a recording angel: “Who is Jewish?”

John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. Read more about him and his work here.

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