The ProsenPeople

New Book Reviews January 1, 2016

Friday, January 01, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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A Bite of the Apple

Friday, January 01, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Bruce J. Hillman shared the story behind writing The Man Who Stalked Einstein and why Jewish doctors make great writers. He has been blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I know it’s unwholesome, but I am obsessed with the idea of an afterlife. It’s not something I think about every day or even once a week, but it is always is out there, residing on the edge of consciousness— “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” as Winston Churchhill said. Unknowable. Untestable. Alien to my life as a scientist.

About ten years ago, I wrote a short story titled, “What Comes Next?” about a man who awakens in total darkness. He neither sees nor senses touch but intuits that he is confined in a very narrow space. Dimly at first, but with increasing clarity, he hears a mélange of recognizable voices—his rabbi, his wife, business partners, an illicit lover—relating perspectives that reflect the successes and failings of his life. Realizing that he is listening in on his own memorial service, he comes to believe that he lies at the doorstep of the afterlife. Per the title, he wonders what comes next? His mind runs wild with possibilities. In the end, however, the brief episode of postmortem consciousness turns out to be nothing more than a final pulse of neurotransmitters that, once exhausted, leaves nothing but darkness.

The doyens of my writing critique group uniformly panned “What Comes Next?” as unnecessarily morbid and pessimistic. No one, they predicted, would publish such a story. Their prophesies proved accurate. After having the story rejected by several obscure literary journals, I interred it in my electronic files, never, until now, to be dragged out and reconsidered.

So why did I dig this hoary chestnut from its cyber-resting place now? Recently, I sat with my wife Pam, her children and grandchildren, in a steeply canted university auditorium and listened to a performance of Messiah. Handel tends to get all the credit for this remarkable creation. However, the power of Handel’s music is abetted by the prophetic Old Testament passages chosen by Handel’s collaborator, Charles Jennens. Jennens’ selections complement handles soaring music to accentuate the central theme of Messiah—the coming of the Messiah, rebirth, and eternal life.

Like many Jews, I have had little instruction in these matters. Raised in a Conservative Jewish family, the conversations I heard at home and in synagogue were about this life. The emphasis was on living a good and righteous existence for its own sake with neither the promise of heavenly reward nor the threat of eternal punishment.

Absorbed in the music and following Jennens’ libretto along with the choir, sufficiently absorbed by consciousness that I could suspend my usual disbelief. I asked myself: Why not an afterlife? If, in fact, there is a God, and He is active in the world, and He is truly omnipotent, as believers say, was there any reason to doubt that He could orchestrate even the most fantastical events: arranging for a leap to heaven for an overnight stay, dispatching an angel with new dictates inscribed on golden tablets, directing history towards a colossal end of times battle between good and evil…why not any of these? For that matter, why not all? Who can know the mind of God? Who can imagine the enormity of his plan?

The leap to faith in an activist God is the big bite of the apple. Once that chasm is crossed, fathoming an existence beyond our world of the senses is nothing more than a nibble.

Bruce Hillman is Professor of Radiology at the University of Virginia and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. He has published eight short stories and the 2010 book for lay readers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: How Medical Imaging is Changing Health Care.

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15 Fiction, Nonfiction, and Memoir Titles from 2015

Thursday, December 31, 2015 | Permalink

With an entire year's worth of 2015 titles of Jewish interest featured on Jewish Book Council's daily new book reviews, we thought we'd sum up the year with the fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs that shaped Jewish literature in 2015.

Fiction

Nonfiction

Memoir

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The Jewish Physician as Author

Wednesday, December 30, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Bruce J. Hillman shared the story behind writing The Man Who Stalked Einstein. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In his autobiography, William Carlos Williams, the partly Jewish American physician and poet largely responsible for rethinking how we define poetry, asked himself rhetorically: “How do you do it? How can you carry on an active business… and at the same time find time to write?”

“One occupation, complements the other,” he explained. “They are two parts of a whole… that it is not two jobs at all, that one rests the man when the other fatigues him.”

Williams was verbalizing what many Jewish physicians have experienced over the centuries. From the Hellenic Jewish physician, Luke—whom some credit with writing the eponymous New Testament Gospel— to the many contemporary Jewish physicians who write because some inner voice tells them they must, medical doctors have found the energy to both pursue busy practices and write and publish literary works.

I count myself among them. As a Jew, a university physician, and a commercially published author, I benefit not only from the respite writing provides but from how my two interests proceed in parallel, each informing the other. A thoughtful physician is not simply a student of health and disease. His experiences practicing medicine teach him to think beyond his five senses to arrive at new insights that can inform the thoughts and actions of his literary characters. In turn, putting words to a page clarifies his thinking and enhances his empathy for the human condition, benefitting both himself and his patients.

My Jewish upbringing and my training as a physician powerfully influence what I choose to write about and how I execute my thoughts. My first effort at creative nonfiction, The Man Who Stalked Einsteintells the true story of Philipp Lenard, a Nobel Prize winning physicist whose jealousy of Albert Einstein’s popularity, fear of being rendered inconsequential by Einstein’s new physics, and rabid anti-Semitism led to his hounding Einstein out of Germany and spearheading the dismissal of Jewish professors from German universities.

My second book, tentatively titled A Plague on All Our Houses, is to be released by ForeEdge Press in the fall of 2016. Plague follows the medical career of Dr. Michael Gottlieb from 1981—when he discovered the deadly new disease, AIDS—through 1987, when a Job-like confluence of adversities forced him from academic practice. Gottlieb’s early medical celebrity, caring for the AIDS-afflicted Rock Hudson, and co-founding amfAR with Elizabeth Taylor brought him into conflict with his immediate superiors and put him at odds with the ruling conservatism of that era. As such, the book is an instructive tale of envy, ambition, and the perils of fighting a powerful system.

Writing and medical practice. It is not a question of choosing between one or the other. Those who hear the call, must choose to pursue both.

Bruce Hillman is Professor of Radiology at the University of Virginia and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. He has published eight short stories and the 2010 book for lay readers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: How Medical Imaging is Changing Health Care.

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Interview: Rachel Cantor

Tuesday, December 29, 2015 | Permalink

with Elise Cooper

Fans of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World: A Novel will recognize Rachel Cantor's signature penchant for tales of love, unconventional families, search of self, and the mysteries of language in Good on Paper, a story about a lost writer inexplicably invited by a renowned, Nobel Prize-winning scholar to translate his new manuscript—which may not be all that it seems.

Elise Cooper: You have written short stories in the past, why write Good on Paper as a novel?

Rachel Cantor: I enjoy writing short stories. In this case, I thought about a plot involving a group of expatriate friends who grew up in Rome together, and I was writing their story it just got bigger and bigger. It became so large it turned into a novel. At first I felt I was not up to writing a novel and saw myself solely as a short story author: I kept referring to the book as an “N.”!

EC: This is the first novel you wrote, but not the first one you published. Correct?

RC: When I sold my two books to the publisher, they chose to publish the more recent manuscript ahead of Good on Paper which I had written earlier. A Highly Unlikely Scenario does not have much in common with Good on Paper. It is a lighthearted fantasy about Jewish mystics and takes place in current times.

EC: What would you say are the key themes to Good on Paper?

RC: It touches a lot of different questions: mother-daughter ties, friendships, forgiveness, how to love, and can someone reinvent themselves? I guess if I had to boil it down to one issue I would choose relationships.

EC: You write about three locations, New York, Rome, and India. Why?

RC: Mainly because I was very impressionable when I was young! I lived in Rome between the ages of ten and fifteen, in New York when I was around the age of twenty-two, and in India in my twenties. Likewise, I have Good on Paper’s main character, Shira, living in Rome as an expatriate, traveling to India, and residing in New York. These three settings always reappear in my fiction, because they are an essential part of my imagination.

EC: What did you mean by the following powerful quote from the novel: “Yes, I’m sad, but I’m going to give that person I love another chance, a chance to explain themselves, to do better.”

RC: Forgiveness is central to my book. There is a part of the book about the idea that innocence can be damaged but also recovered. My understanding of the Jewish concept of teshuvah is about returning to one’s innocent self, although some call it repentance. Shira is going through such a journey. She must be courageous and allow people to be a part of her life again. Can she love again without shutting people out? Now, in her mid-forties, can she allow herself to forgive those who have hurt her even if it means being sad while doing so?

EC: What would you like readers to get out of this book?

RC: I hope they get caught up in the mystery of why she was chosen to be the translator for this Nobel Prize winning author, Romei. He ends up spurring Shira’s journey, contributing to changing her life. I hope they go on this journey with Shira and cheer her on as she decides to give the people she loves another chance, as she struggles to overcome the will to shut down and shut out those who have done her wrong.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and interviews for many different outlets including the Military Press.

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Writing 'The Man Who Stalked Einstein'

Monday, December 28, 2015 | Permalink

This week, Bruce J. Hillman shares the story behind his first non-medical book, The Man Who Stalked Einstein: How Nazi Scientist Philipp Lenard Changed the Course of History as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

 

A glance at my photograph is enough to tell you that I am not your typical first-time author. I have enjoyed a 40-year career as an academic physician. Much of that career was devoted to writing and editing scientific and medical manuscripts. Nonetheless, I wished for an opportunity to express myself more creatively than the strictures of scientific writing and publication allow. About 10 years ago, a small group of university women invited me into their monthly writing critique group. Kindly but firmly, they set me on the path to writing The Man Who Stalked Einstein.

I came upon the history that underpins The Man Who Stalked Einstein serendipitously. While sifting through a list of references on an unrelated topic, my attention was drawn to the citation for a 1946 medical journal article about an American military doctor’s interviews of a Nazi war criminal named Philipp Lenard. Researching online, I found that Lenard and Einstein had, for many years, engaged in a dangerously antagonistic relationship that had been referenced in other works but never examined in detail.

A chance phone call to a prospective agent (one of eighty or so inquiries I made seeking representation for a novel I had written; the still unpublished manuscript resides on the hard disk of my computer) led to my reorienting my writing priorities. I would become a writer of creative non-fiction. My new agent, Claire Gerus, instructed me in writing a proposal, sounded out the interest of a number of publishers, and ultimately secured an agreement and an advance for Einstein with Lyons Press.

I began to conduct research on the book in earnest. As it turned out, Lenard initially had been gratified by Einstein’s crediting him as an important influence on his early work. Over time, however, Einstein’s theoretical approach to physics came into conflict with Lenard’s traditional experimentalism. In the fall of 1920, at the first meeting of German scientists following the Great War, the scientific dispute between the Nobel Prize-winning Lenard and the seventeen years younger Einstein turned ugly. Envious of Einstein’s popularity and angry over the desertion of German physicists to Einstein’s camp, Lenard sought to debunk the theory of relativity and defame Einstein as a charlatan. He turned what was supposed to be an open debate on the theory of relativity into a mano a mano showdown gauged to depict Einstein as a cynically calculated fraud. High noon on a cosmic scale.

To this point in time, Lenard had scantily clad his repugnance for Einstein in the trappings of scientific rigor. Following ‘die Einsteindebatte,’ Lenard dropped all pretenses. His vitriolic anti-Semitic rants personified Einstein as “the Jew” and did more than their fair share to alter the once very positive popular view of Einstein. In 1933, en route back to Germany from a sabbatical at Cal Tech, Einstein got wind of invasions of his homes in Berlin and Caputh. Learning that a price had been put on his head, he resigned his German citizenship and returned to the US. Upon Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, Lenard and his younger acolyte Johannes Stark spearheaded the dismissal of Jewish scientists from German universities, prompting the scientific diaspora to Germany’s future enemies that continues to influence international scientific leadership to the present day.

How Lenard became radicalized in his anti-Semitic beliefs, hounded Einstein in his writings and speeches, and became the touchstone for what was acceptable science during the early years of the Third Reich is a cautionary tale about the spoiled fruits of envy and prejudice with a satisfying and moral ending: Albert Einstein was Time’s “Man of the 20th Century,” while Lenard has been consigned to the historical dustbin.

Bruce Hillman is Professor of Radiology at the University of Virginia and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. He has published eight short stories and the 2010 book for lay readers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: How Medical Imaging is Changing Health Care. The Man Who Stalked Einstein is his first non-medical book.

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New Reviews December 26, 2015

Saturday, December 26, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:


This week's featured content:

How My Montreal Novel Led Me To Mumbai

Friday, December 25, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sigal Samuel wrote about a key deleted scene to The Mystics of Mile End and envisioning a mystical experience for the twenty-first century against the traditions of Kabbalah. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“Is your novel autobiographical?” That’s the question I (and probably all novelists) get asked most often. While I was in the process of writing The Mystics of Mile End, I would always answer “No.” Little did I know I was lying to people.

I thought I was writing a novel about a Kabbalah-obsessed family because my father was a professor of Kabbalah, which meant I’d grown up with easy access to Jewish mystical texts—simple as that. Only after I finished writing the book did I find out that my family’s Kabbalistic connection actually went much deeper—and much farther back.

The realization came on Passover, when I went home to Montreal for a seder with my dad and my grandmother. She’s an Indian Jew, born and raised in Mumbai. I watched her take the seder plate’s egg and peel it with neurotic carefulness, making sure to capture every tiny bit of eggshell in a napkin. When I asked why she was being so insanely precise about it, she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, “it’s just something my mother and grandmother did, and I learned to handle food from them, so I do it, too.”

Meanwhile, my dad started smiling across the table. “I know why she does it,” he said. “It’s a Kabbalistic ritual.” He explained that her way of handling an egg was rooted in the mystical idea of the Shattering of the Vessels. According to the Kabbalists, when the light of the divine poured down into the ten vessels that gave rise to all of creation, the force of its holiness shattered them. Bit of the broken vessels went tumbling down into darkness, and that was the beginning of evil. My grandmother is careful not to let a single shard of shell escape because of a fear of letting evil into the world.

For a moment, I was dumbstruck. Then I said: “But, wait. Her mother and grandmother were not educated women, so how could they have known about this Kabbalistic idea?”

My dad looked surprised. “What do you mean? Don’t you know that your great-great-grandfather was a famous Kabbalist in Mumbai? That the Jews of the city would come to study mysticism with him? That his home was known as Beit Kabbalah, the House of Kabbalah? That legend has it he died when someone interrupted him in the middle of a dangerous Kabbalistic meditation practice?”

Well, no, I didn’t know—because nobody told me!

I spent a while feeling shocked (and, let’s face it, a bit ticked off) that they’d never bothered to tell me this cool bit of family lore. Then I realized that maybe it was my fault. After all, I’d never asked.

Now, I started asking, with a vengeance. I gathered up all my grandmother’s memories of life in India, got on a plane and flew to Mumbai.

On this trip, which I ended up chronicling for the Forward, I didn’t manage to find any tangible traces of my great-great-grandfather and his Beit Kabbalah. But I did find out that my great-grandfather had been a Freemason—and possibly also a Theosophist.

The Theosophists were a secret society that blended the mystical traditions of many religions, putting a heavy emphasis on Kabbalah. There were plenty of Jewish Theosophists in Mumbai in the early 1900s. In 1925, they formed their own subgroup called the Association of Hebrew Theosophists, and their leader was Reuben Ani, a Jew related to me by marriage.

I started to become obsessed with the idea that my great-grandfather might have been a Theosophist. And so, eventually, I tracked down Mumbai’s contemporary Theosophical Society and crashed one of their meetings. Though they initially tried to shoo me away, they were impressed when they heard about my ancestry. They ended up initiating me into their secret society, calling me “Sister Sigal” and asking me to recite blessings in Hebrew.

In this way, writing my novel not only led me to discover my own family’s roots—it also led me on an obsessive Kabbalistic search that eerily resembles the search of my characters, collapsing the gap between them and me, between fiction and autobiography.

Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives and writes in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

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  • 15 Essential Essays and Interviews from 2015

    Thursday, December 24, 2015 | Permalink

    Posted by Nat Bernstein

    2015 was a rich year for Jewish literature of all genres, and its contemporary authors had plenty to share with readers beyond their books through Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe and interview series. With so much incredible content to explore in review of the past year, we'll start you off with fifteen highlight interviews, reading recommendations, and literary and personal essays on reading, writing, and Jewish identity from some of the leading writers of 2015!

    1. Soon, I'll Know All the Words They Know

              by Parnaz Foroutan

    It was uncanny, her portrait in black and white on the cover of the book and my own school picture. The same smile, the same cheekbones, the same nose. The same black, thick hair, cut just above the shoulders and held back by a barrette. And dark eyes, like mine. The book had small black words crowded together, page after page, bleeding through the pages, endless. I whispered the words of the title, tested their weight in my mouth, “Anne… Frank… Diary…” Continue reading »

    2. The Doomed Generation

              by Joshua Cohen

    After Numbers, nothing’s left. Deuteronomy isn’t a book, but what happens after books: just recaps (in case you missed the action since Sinai), summaries (in case you missed the action at Sinai), instructions (What Thou Shalt Do, and What Thou Shalt Not Do, Beyond Moab), and lists (The Top Ten Commandments)…

    To read about Numbers’ doomed generation was to read about my own—a generation born in the 1980s enslaved to the page, but by the millennium freed by the screens, to search—or, in alternate terms, to wander. The Cloud now guides us by day and guards us by night, securing while surveilling—our manna is data, information, the content that never quite contents us. Because for all the sites of our sojourning, we keep moving on: nothing can hold us, nothing sustains. It’s as if we’re always seeking a site just beyond—a text that stills us, but that can still be passed on. Continue reading »

    3. May As Well Be Called Jesus

              by Christopher Noxon

    As an unofficial, unaffiliated friend of the Tribe, I found a certain freedom. I couldn’t don the prayer shawl or offer an aliyah at my kids’ bar and bat mitzvah, but with a few exceptions I was welcomed to participate. It was kind of great, actually. Friends born into it dealt with complicated familial associations or pangs of guilt or embarrassment as they made peace with their Judaism. Every prayer offered or dreidel spun conjured complicated memories of overbearing mothers, horrible Hebrew schools, and anguish over Israel. Their practice of Judaism was wrapped up in thorny questions of identity and heritage.

    I had none of that. I could approach Judaism unburdened by questions of whether doing this practice or not made me a “good” or “bad” Jew. I could “do” Judaism, enacting the spirit of the practice without worrying about the labels associated with it. Continue reading »

    4. Interview: Barbara Klein Moss

              with 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. Contine reading »

    5. My Top 5 (Recent) Historical Novels

              by Janis Cooke Newman

    Looking over my list, I notice that three of my recommendations are set—or partially set—during World War II, the time period of my own novel. When I started A Master Plan for Rescue, I had trouble finding anything new that was set during World War II—and I do remember searching. But lately, there’s been a bumper crop of wonderful novels set in that era. Which kind of makes you wonder what was in the cultural ether seven or eight years ago that prompted so many of us to write about the time period. Continue reading »

    6. We're Living in a Golden Age of Jewish American Art and We Don’t Really Know It



              by Matthew Baigell

    These are great times for those of us who support, encourage, and enjoy looking at art with Jewish themes. Perhaps never before are so many artists all over America finding inspiration in the basic texts of the religion—the Torah, the Talmud, kabbalah, and the daily and high holiday prayer books. The artists do not just illustrate these texts in traditional ways but challenge them, especially feminist artists opposed to male patriarchy, and find personal themes and subject matter that allow for personal flights of fancy.
    Continue reading »

    7. "An Age of Creative Readers Makes for Literature Which Is Immortal"

              by Nat Bernstein

    Jewish Book Council is proud to announce the realization of its project to create a digitized archive of Jewish Book Annual in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, presenting over half a century of national discourse on Jewish literature in an interactive, searchable format to honor the 90th anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week.

    Jewish Book Annual came into being in the midst of World War II, and the world’s events were very much present in the minds of the journal’s first contributors. From the perspective of the twenty-first-century reader, Volume I’s critiques and essays are almost overshadowed by the introductory notes from members of the National Committee for Jewish Book Week, stating the importance of ongoing Jewish literature and community engagement in the face of the Nazi eugenic terrorization of Europe. Continue reading »

    8. Alluding to the Torah

              by Daniel Torday

    My years as an undergraduate were neatly bookended by reading the two most highly allusive books of modernism. When the time came to write my own first two books, though, I found my system of allusion was nowhere near so broad. I have not tried my hand at getting down just a bit of Sanskrit, as Joyce did in Finnegan’s Wake (I’ve heard that there are as many as 60 languages used to some degree of competence in that novel, though I’ll never try to find out myself—not smart enough). I don’t have a strong sense of the Greeks, as Eliot did. What I had was the Torah. Continue reading »

    9. Five Simple Ways to Be Good to a New Mom

              by Elisa Albert

    Judaism has very clear, widely practiced proscriptions for how to support the bereaved, but strangely we don’t talk much about how we support women who are about to or have recently given birth. Which seems remiss, given that birth and death are so clearly on the same continuum, sacred portals at opposite ends of life. If how we process and honor death matters, then how we deal with birth must matter in direct proportion. Probably the Rabbis weren’t so concerned with how women get through the childbearing year because hey, the women had it under control. But given the dire state of childbirth and early motherhood in the here and now, perhaps it’s time we brought these issues into the light, so as to better address them. Here are a few simple ways to be decent to people who are working very hard to bring forth and nurture new life.
    Continue reading »

    10. Interview: Etgar Keret

              with Becca Kantor

    “I don’t experience my fiction and nonfiction as short, but as concise. There is something very intensive and full of energy in my writing experience. I once said that, for me, writing feels very much like an explosion—and I haven't yet learned how to explode slowly.” Continue reading »

    11. A Sacred Space

              by Michael Golding

    On Tuesdays and Thursdays, from the age of eight until the age of thirteen, I was fetched after school and driven to “KI”—Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Northeast Philadelphia—to attend Hebrew school. Despite my efforts, the language never took. The primer was dull, and the strange hieroglyphics on the page failed to resolve themselves into meaning. When class let out early, however, I would slip into the dark, empty sanctuary and wait there until my mother arrived to take me home. I liked KI. The Bible stories we were told on Sunday mornings were stirring. The sermons of Rabbi Korn had the power to inspire. But the moments I liked best were the ones I spent alone—in the shadows—in silence—with God.
    Continue reading »

    12. I'm Telling Everyone

              by Judith Claire Mitchell

    I suppose if it were a matter of life or death I’d lie about my background, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of who I am that sooner or later I always find myself waving my flag. It’s sort of like the old joke about the elderly Jewish man who enters a confessional and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beautiful woman. “But you’re Jewish,” the priest says. “Why tell me?” “Are you kidding?” the old man exults. “I’m telling everyone.” Continue reading »

    13. The Land of Aardvark

              by Jerome Charyn

    Has anyone ever really dealt with the Jewish underclass of the Bronx, where I grew up, next to the trolley tracks of Southern Boulevard and Boston Road? Some of us might look back with a kind of nostalgia, talk of a golden period, when families rambled around Indian Lake in Crotona Park, before Robert Moses ruined the borough with his super expressway. People ask me if the Bronx had ever been my playground. It was a little paradise of empty spaces, a garden where nothing would grow, except bitterness and regret.
    Continue reading »

    14. Memory Games

              by Sasha Abramsky

    I have been a journalist for nearly a quarter of a century, and have, over the years, interviewed thousands of people. Yet my most recent book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books—a book that is, on one level, simply about the lives lived by my father’s parents; on another level a journey through the modern Jewish experience; and, on yet another level again, a portrait of obsessions—took me on an intellectual odyssey the likes of which I doubt I’ll ever again experience.

    Writing The House of Twenty Thousand Books, for several years I immersed myself in the worlds, the dreams, the hopes and the fears lived by others. It’s a strange sensation. In some ways, the realities of those others became more real than were my own. The political passions, the bibliographic obsessions, the conversations of my grandparents and their friends and comrades, became the fabric of my daily life. I trained my mind to effortlessly wander bookshelves, containing thousands of books on both socialist history and on Jewish history, that had been emptied several years earlier, following my grandfather’s death; and I asked my palette to virtually re-taste culinary marvels conjured up by my grandmother Mimi in her kitchen a generation ago, to feed the many, many people who would descend on the House at 5 Hillway in north London for meals and conversation each and every evening for roughly half a century. Continue reading »

    15. My Very Unorthodox Kabbalist

              by Sigal Samuel

    Image from An Illumination of Blessings by Ilene Winn Lederer

    To study Kabbalah, you’re supposed to be (a) forty years old, (b) married, and (c) a man. I am none of these things. Luckily, I grew up with a dad who was a professor of Jewish mysticism and was willing to share its secrets with me.

    Raised in Montreal’s Orthodox community, I attended a school with strict gender norms. I was expected to obey all of Judaism’s 613 commandments. But, as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take an interest in the religion’s more esoteric branches. That didn’t stop my dad from giving me lessons in mysticism. Continue reading »

    Think another post should have made it onto this list? Let us know in the comments section below!

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    The Scene I Cut From My Novel Is Actually the Key To It

    Wednesday, December 23, 2015 | Permalink

    Earlier this week, Sigal Samuel wrote about envisioning a mystical experience for the twenty-first century against the traditions of Kabbalah. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

    It’s a strange irony that a scene I love but ultimately had to cut from my novel best explains why I wrote the novel in the first place.

    I’ll share part of it with you here. In this deleted passage from The Mystics of Mile End, an elderly and very isolated European Jew is trying, and failing, to read Shakespeare:

    More and more often, Glassman found himself appealing to the pleasure of carefully measured, beautifully proportioned words to stave off the specter of the old mistake that encroached on his mind when everyone else in the world was asleep. If only, if only he could understand! Because the words, beautiful as they were, were horribly confusing. Their meaning was gray and dim, like a dream that slipped away at the first signs of daylight. Glassman hated that night after night he kept brushing up against the limits of his own abilities. He wanted to understand. But he had no method, no system, and no teacher or friend who could help him push those limits further out.

    After the war he’d simply read whatever chanced to come his way. As a result, the holes in his knowledge of history and philosophy and science, like the holes in his vocabulary, were fathomless and impossible to number. Making his way through a poem or a passage of prose was like hopping from slippery stone to slippery stone in order to cross a river: he sensed, could actually physically feel, that there were huge gaping swaths of meaning in between his solid points of reference, large marshy areas that he dare not step foot in, because who knew where they would lead, what they were made of, and whether he would ever find his way out again?

    With a cautious toe, he felt around and sought out the words he knew. Sometimes these familiar words would come in clumps of eight or nine or ten, and when he reached one of these islands he would stand on it for a minute or more, frozen and grateful and breathless, before moving on. It was tempting to stay on these little islands forever, but he knew it was important to keep moving; if he stood in the midst of the same sentence for too long, it began to lose its shape, crumbling first into individual words and then into individual letters that broke apart beneath his feet and dissolved in the water around him. And this was a fearful thing, to be stranded inside a word, letters falling off on all sides, leaving the reader in empty space with nothing solid to cling to, sometimes, but a single vowel. And if this single vowel should then succeed in slipping from his grasp — then, then he was in trouble! Then there was nothing to anchor him in the blessed world of sound and, spinning off into silence, his body could easily come unstuck and fly apart from the thing that gave it life: the soul. To ensure safe passage through a stretch of language the reader had to race, and yet racing for pages and pages at a time, across increasingly sparse and slippery stones, was in itself exhausting and soul-crushing work.

    You can probably see why this passage got cut, right? It doesn’t push the plot forward; the action is all internal. But I admit that it has a special place in my heart. It features a character who counts on language to keep him sane, who uses words’ concrete sounds to moor him when he’s adrift in silence—only to find that words themselves are not stable berths or quays or jetties; they’re constantly threatening to come apart. And if they come apart, you come apart, too.

    I both relate and don’t relate to Glassman’s experience. Like my character, I read to keep body and soul together. But I write to make them fly apart.

    And that flying-apart, when it’s intentionally provoked, is the best feeling I know. It’s what made me write this book in the first place.

    I remember how and where I did it: night after night after night in a bleak university library. I was surrounded by unglamorous fluorescent lighting and student meal smells, an endless ramen haze. I always chose the same seat, facing a blank white wall. Every night I’d sit there for four hours, from 8:00, when I finished dinner, until midnight, when the janitor would shoo me out and lock up the building.

    My goal in those hours was to put down 1000 words; good or bad, it didn’t matter. At first it was hard—painful—to make myself face the blank white of my computer screen. But after about twenty minutes of typing, something happened. It wasn’t just that I’d suddenly remember forgotten moments from childhood, or find myself hearing a character’s voice that others had warned me I wouldn’t be able to access; ideas would come flying out of my fingertips that I never knew I had in me.

    At the risk of sounding like one of my crazy, mysticism-obsessed characters, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: In those moments, the act of writing itself felt like a Kabbalistic practice.

    The medieval mystics’ meditations were nothing if not techniques for achieving altered states of consciousness. That’s exactly what writing fiction does for me. It alters my consciousness in a way that opens me up to something beyond myself. It allows some Other—call it a dybbuk, call it my subconscious—to temporarily inhabit my conscious mind and take over, producing things that are much better than anything I’d be able to produce if it were “just me” sitting there.

    For this reason, writing fiction always feels to me like cheating. My dirty secret is that I feel I’m not a creator but a stenographer, a transcriptionist. But what can I do? It’s still the best feeling I know.

    Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives and writes in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

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