The ProsenPeople

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, September 12, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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The Author Talks To His Mom About The Mathematician’s Shiva

Thursday, September 11, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week Stuart Rojstaczer wrote about why he considers himself a Jewish writer. Today he talks with his mother about his recently published debut novel, The Mathematician's Shiva. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series

Scene: The kitchen of Mrs. Rachel Rojstaczer. She has a thick manuscript in a three-ring binder open on the kitchen table. She’s drinking tea out of a glass and reading when her son, Stuart, walks in with a toolbox.

Stuart: Hi Mom. I just came by to fix the kitchen sink. It won’t take much time.

You reading my novel?

Rachel: Reading it? I finished it. Now I’m thinking about it (fingering through the pages a bit).

Stuart: And?

Rachel: Sit down.

(Stuart sits down at the kitchen table across from his mother waiting to hear the news. He’s given his mother the manuscript so that she can kvell, not so that he can hear criticism; but he knows that criticism comes with the territory.)

Rachel: This novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva. I have a problem with this book. With the main character in fact. A big problem.

Stuart: And what is it?

Rachel: The character, Rachela Karnokovitch. It’s me. It’s a copy of me. A carbon copy. And you’ve killed her off. Dead from cancer. Do I look dead to you?

Stuart: It’s not you, Mom. The character is 100 percent made up. Honest.

Rachel: Oh really. It isn’t me. Tun nicht zan a ligner, Shtulelah. Ich bin don mameh, nicht a lalka un a kop. (Don’t think you can lie to me, Stuart. I’m your mother, not a bimbo.)

Stuart: Red English mameh. (Speak English, mother.)

Rachel: Red English? The cameraman can put in subtitles after, davkah. Mr. Cameraman, you know how to do subtitles?

Cameraman (not visible): Of course, Mrs. Rojstaczer. We can do whatever you want.

Rachel (to Stuart): See. I knew it. Now, vie ben ich giveyn. Oh yeah, the character is not me? What’s her name?

Stuart: Roochela.

Rachela. Right. Same as me. Where she was born?

Stuart: Vladimir Volynsk, Poland.

Rachel. Right. Sixty kilometers from where I was born. Your father’s town. And where was this Roochela during the war?

Stuart: In Vorkuta, near the Barents Sea.

Rachel: Right. In a Russian work camp, like me. Not in Kolyma, like me, but further north. Why did you put me there anyway?

Stuart: I needed it to be near the ocean.

Rachel: OK, so you make me born in your father’s hometown. You tell everyone my exact age. You put me in Vorkuta during the war. You make me into a genius mathematician who studies in Moscow, defects, teaches in the United States, solves Dilbert’s Problems…

Stuart: It’s Hilbert’s Sixth Problem Mom, not Dilbert’s Problems.

Rachel: Like anyone will know the difference and don’t interrupt me. I solve this hundred-year-old problem, Dilbert, Hilbert…

Stuart: That’s the rumor, mameh, that you solved it. Hold on, I didn’t mean to say you. It’s not you. She’s made up. The character is made up.

Rachel: I said don’t interrupt me. Not your mother. It’s rude. I am rumored to have solved a hundred-year-old problem, but I won’t reveal it to anyone. And then you kill me off? Your own mother, you give cancer and you kill off in a novel? It’s a mishagos what you’ve done! Who is going to buy such a book? Who is going to publish it?

Stuart: It’s already been sold, mameh. I was going to tell you today. Surprise you after I was done with the kitchen sink. Penguin Books bought it.

Rachel: Penguin Books bought it? When was this?

Stuart: Last week. I was waiting to get the letter to show it to you. I got it yesterday.

Rachel: Interesting. What’s this about the money in the letter?

Stuart: They pay you an advance before they publish the book.

Rachel: You don’t have to give it back no matter what?

Stuart: No, I don’t have to give it back. I’m going to use it to remodel the bathroom.

Rachel: That’s a good idea. You should have done it years ago. The pipes rattle. Is there going to be a movie?

Stuart: A movie of the book?

Rachel: Yeah, I’m thinking about it. You write a novel. A good novel. I’m proud of you even if you did kill me off. They need to make a movie version. War And Peace. Gone With the Wind. There’s always a movie.

Stuart: Maybe. I don’t know.

Rachel: Not maybe. Definitely. There’s going to be a movie version. You sign the contract yet?

Stuart: Not yet. You know how lawyers are. It takes weeks.

Rachel: Good, because I’m thinking. Who’s going to play me in the movie version? I want a say. Who could play me? Hmm. I know just the actress. Meryl Streep. You put it in the contract. If they make a movie, Rachela must be played by Meryl Streep. The lady can act. And classy, too. Now she could do me justice.

Stuart Rojstaczer was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was educated in public and Orthodox Jewish schools. For many years, he was a professor of geophysics at Duke University. He has been a Karma Foundation Annual Short Story Finalist and a National Science Foundation Young Investigator. He has written for The New York Times and Washington Post, and his scientific research has appeared in both Science and Nature. He lives with his wife in northern California.

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Book Cover of the Week: From Bombolini to Bagel

Wednesday, September 10, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Having worked with Jacqueline Gmach in her role coordinating the San Diego Jewish Book Fair for many years, the Jewish Book Council was thrilled when she announced the publication of a book of her own—a memoir of her life journey from Tunisia to France, Israel, Canada, and eventually the United States:

So now I know what bombolini are, and my mouth is watering!

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Why I’m a Jewish Writer

Tuesday, September 09, 2014 | Permalink

Stuart Rojstaczer was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was educated in public and Orthodox Jewish schools. For many years, he was a professor of geophysics at Duke University. He has been a Karma Foundation Annual Short Story Finalist and a National Science Foundation Young Investigator. His debut novel, The Mathematician's Shiva, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for the Visiting Scribe series.

One day last year I was speaking to my cat in the front yard. A neighbor walking by stopped because he was surprised I wasn’t speaking English. “What language are you speaking to your cat?” he asked.

“Yiddish,” I said.

“Your cat knows Yiddish?”

“About as well as she knows any other language.”

My neighbor had set me up unwittingly. He isn’t Jewish. He didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish. How was he supposed to know I was going to turn his innocent question into a joke? But my father, if he were still around and had been on my porch at the time, would have seen what was coming a mile away. My wife, who grew up around Yiddish speakers, would have seen it too had she been there.

When I was a kid, there was something that Jewish men of my dad’s age who had been born in America would sometimes say, “Dress British. Think Yiddish.” Neither my father nor I dressed British when I was growing up. But being born in Poland, my father definitely thought Yiddish. So did my mother, who was also born in Poland. Being around those two, how could I not think Yiddish as well?

We spoke Yiddish in our Milwaukee home. I learned English when I was little by watching shows like Leave It To Beaver. I think Yiddish to this day. My Yiddish is, because I haven’t used it regularly in decades, rusty. And to keep it from disappearing, I speak it to my cat. Don’t think I’m not waiting for the next unsuspecting neighbor to innocently ask what language I’m speaking to her. Jokes, bad and good, are an intrinsic part of Yiddish culture. So is repetition of jokes, both bad and good.

In America, Yiddish has been distorted into some cutesy thing that’s all about jokes, colorful curses, and sentiment. But in my childhood home, it wasn’t a cute language. It was the language of commerce, heated arguments, and sophisticated thought. It was also a language for discussing religion and although I never thought of my family as particularly religious, we kept a kosher home and had a Sabbath meal every week. I’d also be ushered off to read the Old Testament and Rashi with black hats, and attend evening prayers with those black hats, bobbing my head as I prayed, three or four days a week.

Write about what you know, they say. Nowadays, I don’t go to synagogue more than about ten times a year, but given my background, what are the odds that I’m going to write about Anglicans? Or Catholics? Or atheists? Or secular humanists? About the same odds as my cat actually understanding Yiddish.

Write about what’s in your heart, they say, too. My heart, mein hartz, is Jewish. My first language was Yiddish. I look at my face in the mirror in the morning and I know that I don’t look anything like Sylvester Stallone or Alec Baldwin. Who have people confused me with on the street more times that I can remember? Albert Brooks, whose real name is Albert Einstein. (Yes, Mr. Brooks’ father was a Jewish comedian.). I know who I am, I’m happy to be who I am, and I know what I am: a Jewish writer.

Stuart Rojstaczer has written for The New York Times and Washington Post, and his scientific research has appeared in both Science and Nature. He lives with his wife in northern California. Read more about him here.

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Interview: Joel M. Hoffman

Tuesday, September 09, 2014 | Permalink

by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

A frequent speaker at synagogues and JCCs, Joel M. Hoffman, Ph.D., authored two books before writing his most recent book, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor (Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press), and has collaborated with his father, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, on over a dozen other works, including the National Jewish Book Award winner My People’s Prayer Book (ten volumes, Jewish Lights Publishing).

Lawrence A. Hoffman: Why did you write a book about what didn’t make it into the Bible?

Joel M. Hoffman: The more I read these ancient texts, the more I fall in love with them. They enlighten our reading of the Bible and offer compelling accounts that speak to the human condition with surprising insight.

LAH: For example?

JMH: I especially like the Life of Adam and Eve, a vivid description of what happens to the first man and woman after they’re expelled from the Garden of Eden. The narrative also explores the kind of unexpected sorrow that everyone faces eventually. I have a whole chapter on that.

LAH: What else jumps out at you?

JMH: The sources clarify so many details about the Bible. The Tower of Babel was deliberately waterproofed to withstand another flood, for example, but without these texts, the only way you’d know it is if you happen to be an expert in ancient materials science.

LAH: If these passages from the cutting room floor had become the canon instead of what we have, would western civilization be differ­ent?

JMH: What a fascinating question! For one thing, people would have a different view of misfortune, which most people today intuitively see as a punishment. “Why me,” they ask when something goes wrong. Or, “what did I do to deserve this?” They get that from Deuteronomy. But this classical notion of reward and punishment was only one under­standing of misfortune back then. The texts on the Bible’s cutting room floor highlight others: Suffering is simply part of human life, neither deserved nor undeserved. Or people were not supposed to suffer at all, but God’s world is slightly out of control. If alternative approaches like these hadn’t been whitewashed from mainstream Judaism and Christi­anity, people today might have better tools to understand life and cope with its traumas.

LAH: How does this book relate to your translation work?

JMH: As I was growing up, you taught me by personal example to appre­ciate my heritage and to pursue learning. My translation work is driven by a desire to use that learning to show people the original beauty of the Bible.This is too.

LAH: You have no idea how proud I am of you as your father. I re­member how you used to help me copy-edit my books when you were young. Now you’re writing your own. It’s a joy to see.

JMH: That’s not a question.

LAH: No, it’s not. I get to do that. I’m your father.

JMH: I love you, Dad.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., is a two-time recipient of the National Jewish Book Award, and has written or edited more than 40 books, including over a dozen that include his son. His latest such work, All the World (Jewish Lights Publishing), focuses on the High Holiday themes of particularism and universalism.

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Interview: Joseph Berger

Monday, September 08, 2014 | Permalink

by Carol Kaufman

Jewish Book Council's Carol Kaufman recently spoke with Joseph Berger about his new book, The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America, which was published in September, 2014 by Harper Perennial.

Carol Kaufman: Why did you decide to write a book about the Hasidim, and why now?

Joseph Berger: I had been writing many articles about Hasidim and thought I had learned enough to write a book explaining what many outsiders consider a curious, esoteric group. The fact that my mother grew up in a Hasidic summer resort outside Warsaw and filled me with Hasidic tales may have been a subconscious motivation.

CK: In the book you write about a sleep-away summer camp in the Catskills for Satmar boys ages 9-13, where the boys get up each morning at 6:45 and eagerly study Torah and Talmud for six hours a day. Your book is filled with examples of what some might call extreme behavior. Why do you think some Hasidic sects have become more austere, punctilious, and zealous than their Eastern European forebears ever were?

JB: The Baal Shem Tov and other founders of Hasidism emphasized fervor in prayer and fulfillment of the mitzvot, and that zeal practically defines Hasidim. How else would you have frail Hasidim hooking themselves up to IV’s in synagogue basements on Yom Kippur so they can gain nourishment without actually eating?

CK: You've reported on New York, including its Hasidim, for about 30 years. What else did you learn about them that surprised you?

JB: The ways in which Hasidic zeal is expressed astonished me. Take shopping for Passover. A Hasidic market will have two rows of root vegetables—washed and unwashed. Wholehearted Hasidim prefer to see granules of earth on their vegetables and clean them off themselves so they can be sure no hametz contaminated the washing. I was also surprised by how often the Hasidic approach conflicted with the democratic American approach, like the Monsey Hasidim who string a curtain down the aisle of a publicly-financed bus so they can have separate seating for prayer.

CK: Crystal ball-gazing, where do you see the Hasidim ten years on? Do you think they will be thriving? What do you think about the defects&mdash ex-Hasidim, mostly young women? Will their ranks continue to grow?

JB: With their large families, Hasidim are growing at a breathtaking rate and as a result Orthodox Jews could become a majority of Jews in New York in twenty years, changing the community’s liberal, cosmopolitan profile. Despite the attention they get, defectors are still a tiny slice of the Hasidic population. The way of life is so all-encompassing that it is difficult for skeptics to leave. The Internet’s subversive impact, however, may upset such calculations. Politicians have long woken up to muscular Hasidic growth and are eager to gain their bloc votes, so controversies like the one over circumcision practices often end in the Hasidic favor.

CK: Are you thinking about the next book you might like to write?

JB: I’m taking a breather and enjoying some of the responses I’ve received to The Pious Ones. Then perhaps I’ll think about my next project.

Carol Kaufman is the editor of Jewish Book World.

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The ProsenPshat: Week of September 1st

Saturday, September 06, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It may have been a short work week, but there was plenty to read on the Jewish Book Council website!

Over the holiday weekend half the Jewish Book Council staff reread The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. after pressing it into the hands of a lovelorn friend—and discovered the book cover for the UK edition!

It was a great excuse to revisit the longest interview ever: a conversation with Adelle Waldman that was too good to cut down, so we published the whole thing in three installments.

Interviews with novelists are endlessly fascinating, and this week the Jewish Book Council featured several interviews with some major writers! Tova Mirvis filled our readers in on her ten-year hiatus between The Ladies Auxilary and her current novel, Visible City, in conversation with fellow JBC Network author Adam Rovner. Together they discussed discovering the human capacity for change how stained glass windows reflect the writer’s task in authoring a novel:


You can look at those win­dows as a whole, but you can also look at each individual piece of glass and get a sense of how they were constructed to be a part of this mas­sive work. It made me think about novel writing and I said: “That’s what I’m trying to do, to put all my little pieces together.” And so I developed this love for stained glass.

Wondering what’s next for Tova? Read the interview.


You might notice a fair amount of focus on JBC Network authors this week. This is because the roster of 2014-2015 JBC Network authors and their titles went public September 1st! Browse the online lists to see who is touring North America through the Jewish Book Council this year; if you’re inspired to learn more about the program, please visit our resource pages for publicists and authors or book program coordinators.

In addition to the interviews, this week we published reviews of several JBC Network books: How Could This Happen? Explaining the Holocaust by Dan McMillan; I Pity the Poor Immigrant, a novel by Zachary Lazar; and Pepper, Silk & Ivory: Amazing Stories About Jews and the Far East by Marvin Tokayer and Ellen Rodman. We also salivated over that icon of Jewish cuisine, the knish, in Laura Silver’s journey In Search of the Jewish Soul Food through Brooklyn, New Jersey, and across the world.

Another feast for the eyes: the paintings of Theresa Bernstein, brought to light in a new biography of the twentieth century American artist and her work, A Century in Art. We further indulged in the Arts this week with Eruv, Eryn Green’s prize for winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and a gift to the rest of us. And you can’t review a new David Grossman novel and not mention it:

A rumination on the porosity of the barrier between life and death, and above all an elegy to his son Uri, killed in Lebanon in 2006, distinguished Israeli author David Grossman has poured into this book all the literary forms this brilliantly imaginative writer has at hand—prose, poetry, allusion, fable, theater, narration.

It was certainly a busy week of Jewish Book Council online content, but be sure not to miss Bel Kaufman’s reminiscences about her grandfather, Sholem Aleichem, recorded by Tradition! author Barbara Isenberg shortly after Kaufman’s 100th birthday. Kaufman became a distinguished author herself as an adult, but her memories of her grandfather are quite simply darling:

I remember the sound of his laughter, and I have two or three visceral memories. I remember the feeling of his hand. He used to tell me that the harder I held his hand, the better he wrote. So I take all credit, for I held on very tight.

Book Cover of the Week: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Friday, September 05, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I revisited Adelle Waldman's debut novel over Labor Day, recommending The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. to a friend who sadly experienced some major heartache this summer. And this novel is so. Good.

My forlorn friend's immediate response to the book? "Great cover art!"

This is not the book cover he saw. Apparently, this is what The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. looks like in Australia? But the original is pretty great, too.

Update: Henry Holt & Co. verified that the image pictured is the UK edition!

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, September 05, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Interview: Daniel Silva

Friday, September 05, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Elise Cooper recently spoke with Daniel Silva about the newest book in his Gabriel Allon series, The Heist, which was published in July 2014 by Harper.

Elise Cooper: Why do you think Gabriel Allon is so popular?

Daniel Silva: He is a character with two distinct sides, as an art restorer and an Israeli intelligence agent. He resonates with people because he is a decent human being who is asked to do some dirty jobs over the years. That combination of attributes allows me to craft my stories in a way that makes them very different from most spy novels. Actually, I had to be talked into writing him as a series character; I was hesitant because I was deeply concerned about the anti-Israeli sentiment and anti-Semitism in the world. Thankfully I was proven wrong, and I think we all are glad he is out there.

EC: You have a very powerful quote by Leah, Gabriel’s first wife: “The snow absolves Vienna of its sins. The snow falls on Vienna while the missiles rain down on Tel Aviv.” Can you explain this observation?

DS: That is something Leah said in the very first novel, before she was severely wounded in a bombing. Here she was in Vienna, the country that produced Hitler, the Nazi leadership, and the Nazi machinery. She looked out and saw a beautiful snowy night in Vienna while on the TV she saw missiles raining down on Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War.

EC: Does Leah symbolize the horrors of terrorism?

DS: We must remember that for every one of the attacks during the Intifada there were survivors who lost limbs, eyes, and/or had been badly burned. Leah represents something very important: Gabriel is an art restorer and can fix just about anything except her. It is very painful for him that he can never make her "right."

EC: Gabriel also seems to want to redeem Christopher Keller, a former British commando turned professional assassin.

DS: They are a classic pairing: two tough, funny guys who are always trying to one-up each other. Gabriel tries to restore more than paintings — as I commented about Leah, he wants to restore people. He does not believe it morally right or appropriate for Keller to kill people for money, even if most of the time those people deserve to die.

EC: Your last few books have plots that go beyond the terrorist angle. Why?

DS: Last year in The English Girl Gabriel undertook a search for a kidnapped British woman. In the previous book to that he was investigating an apparent death by suicide at the Vatican. This is the beauty of the Gabriel character: I can write him doing all sorts of things.

EC: In The Heist you have a lot about art history. Why?

DS: The first half of the story is very much an art book and deals with the famous missing painting by Caravaggio. I thought it would be interesting to discuss who he is, why he painted the way he did, and what his life was like. I hope readers found him to be a compelling, fascinating, and amazing character. I’ve wanted to write about the missing Caravaggio for many years. The loss of the painting leaves a hole that can never be filled.

EC: You refer to a Middle Eastern despot indirectly stealing a lot of art. Why did you decide to write about this topic?

DS: The Arab Awakening showed the greed of the Arab dictators. Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Kaddafi, and now the Syrian government have accumulated a huge amount of assets. I learned that finding these assets isn’t really difficult, but tying them to a ruler is very tricky. I have also been intrigued and angered that thieves have made off with masterpieces. I think there has been a tendency over the years to dismiss art crime as something romantic or a sort of a gentlemen’s game; the truth is, art crime is a big business. These stolen paintings can be used as a form of underworld cash.

EC: If I were to interview Gabriel, what would he say is the greatest danger to Israel today?

DS: In its early days Israel had to face hostile Arab nation states. What we have now is what he would call AlQaedastan, a non-state actor and a belt of Sunni extremism. If they get Weapons of Mass Destruction they could inflict devastating blows to Israel. Gabriel is really worried about it because he feels these groups will eventually turn their attention to Israel, and is very pessimistic about ever having peace.

EC: What would Ari Shamron, the legendary former chief of Israeli intelligence, say is the gravest danger to Israel?

DS: He is very worried about Iran. Privately he thought Israel could cripple Iran with a nuclear strike. He probably would have recommended it to the Prime Minister. He lost his family and lived through one Holocaust and is not anxious to see another. He fears his life’s work of protecting the State of Israel is in grave danger.

EC: What would you like the reader to get out of The Heist?

DS: I’d like readers to be entertained and learn a little something along the way. I have always been loathe to say what the reader should take away from my work; what is unique about reading is that we see every character and every scene through the prism of our own little theatre in our head. It is private. Books touch each of us in a unique way. I don’t want to intrude on that.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q & A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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