The ProsenPeople

Fiction on a Deadline

Monday, April 10, 2017 | Permalink

Haim Watzman’s new book, Necessary Stories, is a selection of 24 stories from his monthly column in The Jerusalem Report from the past nine years. Haim is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


For the last nine years I’ve written a short story every four weeks. I haven’t yet missed a deadline yet.

Nine years ago, in 2008, I began writing a column for a biweekly news magazine, The Jerusalem Report. My column, “Necessary Stories,” has appeared in every other issue since then.

The editors invited me to write for the magazine in the wake of two non-fiction books I’d written, a memoir about my service as an IDF infantry reservist over nearly a decade and a half and a John McPhee-type travel narrative about a trip through the rift valley that runs up Israel’s eastern frontier. They thought they’d get personal essays, but after writing two first-person fact-based books, I wanted to let my imagination run free. It was more fun and required less research. I started sending in short stories.

Having to come up with a work of short fiction with convincing characters, a compelling storyline, and engaging prose once a month like clockwork might sound daunting. I have to produce a story whether inspired or not, whether in the mood or not, whether my day job as a translator leaves me time or not. Many is the time—it happened just a couple weeks ago—that I have sat myself down at my computer on the appointed day without a clue as to what my story will be about.

But the discipline is good for me. Perhaps because I worked for many years as a journalist, I seem to produce my best work when a deadline looms. I certainly would not have written upwards of 115 short stories in the last decade had I simply waited for ideas and inspiration to come (and, to be honest, without the incentive of the modest fee that the magazine pays me for each piece).

Is each one a great work of literature? No, of course not. Sometimes a story doesn’t click for me, or for readers. But I’m surprised at how seldom that happens. Last year, when I had to reread my output to choose which stories to include in the Necessary Stories book that I’ve just published, I was gratified to find that the choice was difficult. A large portion of the stories I reread had, at least for me, stood up to time and rereading. No less gratifying were the e-mails from the loyal readership I’ve built up over the years, readers who encounter the stories in the magazine or on my website, where they also appear. Readers remembered and urged me to include stories they had read years ago, and there were so many such requests I had no choice but to disappoint some of them.

Sometimes a story’s plot, characters, or situation are suggested by current events—the new collection includes, for example, “Sin Offering,” which addresses Israel’s treatment of African refugees. Or it might be a historical event: “The Devil and Theodor Herzl” imagines Herzl’s meeting with Vyacheslav von Plehve, Minister of the Interior for the Russian Czar and fomenter of the infamous Kishinev pogrom. Some, like “Bananas,” are based on family tales—in this case the experience of my wife’s family, immigrants from Baghdad who lived during Israel’s early years in an immigrant camp in Holon. Still others grow out of personal pain: “In Exile at Home,” “A Him to him” and “Fireflies” are stories of mourning for my younger son, a soldier in the Golani Brigade who died in a diving accident six years ago.

But sometimes really good stories come out of nowhere. When I sat down to write the story that became “The Dryad,” the illustration for which (by Avi Katz; our collaboration will be the subject of another post in this series) graces the cover of the new book and accompanies this post, I hadn’t a clue what I was going to write. When I’m stumped, I find that the best method is to take a few minutes to look deep into my soul to find out what is bothering it most. Often I find two or three disparate things that don’t, at first, seem to have anything to do with each other. In the case of “The Dryad,” it was the intense ankle pain I was suffering from after a long hike with friends a few days before, and the anguish I had heard in a story told to me by a schoolteacher friend. Neither my hike nor the friend’s specific story appears in “The Dryad.” Instead, they provide the scenery and the mood. Once I had that in mind, and sat down to write, the central character and narrative followed, and developed in ways I had not expected or planned.

That’s what makes meeting my deadline so much fun.

Haim Watzman is a writer and translator who has worked with many of Israel’s leading authors and scholars. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and Necessary Stories.

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New Reviews April 7, 2017

Friday, April 07, 2017 | Permalink

Featured Content:

JBC Bookshelf: 8 New Books for Passover 5777

Reading List: New Passover Books for Young Readers

How Joan Nathan Finds Jewish Recipes from Around the World
"In the world of the Internet," Joan Nathan supposes, "I could ask for likely stories from the Jewish group on Facebook that I started or send out a tweet searching for interesting recipes. But I do not."

What Is "Jewish Food"?
Joan Nathan shares three discoveries she made in compiling the recipes and stories of her new cookbook, King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking around the World.

You'll Want to See The Zookeeper's Wife Before Passover. Trust Us.
Niki Caro's adaption of Diane Ackerman's 2007 bestseller just in time for Passover—and the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

What Is" Jewish Food"?

Wednesday, April 05, 2017 | Permalink

Joan Nathan has a new cookbook out this week! With the release of King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking around the World, Joan is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


One of the ideas that I have wrestled with throughout my career is the question of what is “Jewish food”. Working on my latest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking around the World, has at last answered that question for me.

The special quality of Jewish food first came to me years ago through the cookbook author Lynn Rossetto Kasper, former host of the radio program The Splendid Table. Lynn, when talking about the food of Emilio Romagna, said that this Italian regional cuisine was rooted in the land. I immediately thought that the same could not be said for Jewish food: our cuisine may indeed be metaphorically rooted in the land of Israel but, in truth, being tied to the soil of just one land is not a component of Jewish cooking.

To my mind, Jewish food is tied more strongly to its dietary laws and many food-centered holidays. Even if Jews are not very observant, they know in the back of their minds that kosher laws exist, and that many of these rules go back Biblical times, influencing how we all eat. Indeed, these dietary laws have been a comfort to so many of us through our lives and are a very important component of what is called Jewish food.

The second component that defines Jewish cuisine is that since people first learned about seafaring vessels from the Phoenicians, as it says in the Bible, Jews have gone out in search of food, jewels, and precious stones for Solomon’s Table. Jews have always looked for new flavors and have eagerly incorporated these novel foods (provided they were kosher) into their diet.

The third component is the fact that, as a people, Jews have been displaced again and again throughout history. In moving to Spain, then being kicked out of Spain, and then moving from there throughout the Mediterranean and to the Americas, the Jewish people have had to adjust to new ingredients and new homes.

The haroset we place on our tables at Passover reflect this Diasporic legacy. In some areas we use romaine lettuce for our bitter herbs while in others we use horseradish, both red and white. In places like Maine we have haroset made out of blueberries; in Iran, this symbolic spread is infused with the flavors of almonds and cardamom. Jewish foods vary geographically with different customs, different vegetables, different main dishes, and different desserts, but always retain their connection with the symbolic and the sacred in Jewish traditions.

In a sense all three of these components are interrelated. I remember going to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. for dinner one night and there we feasted on a zakuska made of smoked salmon, blinis, chopped eggs, and scallions, a dish familiar to my husband with his Eastern European background. At this dinner, however, the Russian Ambassador served this recipe alongside beef stroganoff and other dishes that combined meat and dairy.

Treif considerations aside, my husband couldn’t help but remark on how very Jewish all the food was. He didn’t believe me when I told him that what he considered to be “Jewish food” was really just Russian food made with either dairy or meat (but not both). A wandering cuisine since it began in the Middle East, Jewish food was simply what Jews made their own in whatever part of the world in which they found themselves. The very Jewish-tasting Russian zakuska was no exception.

Joan Nathan is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and other publications. She is the author of eleven books, including Jewish Cooking in America and The New American Cooking, both of which won both James Beard Awards and IACP Awards.

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JBC Bookshelf: 8 New Books for Passover 5777

Tuesday, April 04, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

With Passover just around the corner, it’s time to start stocking your bookshelves for the holiday! Slip away from your seder and sink into poetry, memoirs, and new fiction about someone else’s dysfunctional Jewish family at Passover:

Tell Me How This Ends Well

by David Samuel Levinson

David Samuel Levinson imagines a near-future in which antisemitism runs rampant and Israeli refugees roam the Globe after the world stood by and watched the annihilation of the Jewish State at the hands of its neighbors.

Ten years into the future, three siblings reunite in Los Angeles to “celebrate” Passover as a family and carry out an ill-conceived plot to murder their dad. There’s Jacob, visiting from Berlin with his German boyfriend and a sinister spare suitcase he intends to keep hidden; Edith, divorced, unstable, and facing sexual misconduct charges from an undergraduate student dissatisfied with his grade from her Ethics course; and Mo, husband, father to a set of twins and triplets each, and failed-actor-turned-reality-star in his forties hosting Passover in a mansion maintained by the network company that will be returning to film an encore of his family’s Passover seder—unbeknownst to any of his guests.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

by Diane Ackerman

Niki Caro’s movie adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s 2007 bestseller hit theaters just in time for the holiday—and the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which broke out, significantly, on the first night of Passover, 1943. Inspired by the Passover seder held by the Jews hidden in the Warsaw zoo—and its coincidence with the start of the revolt—Jewish Book Council’s new custom book club kit for The Zookeeper’s Wife features a special Passover haggadah supplement compiled in collaboration with humanitarian relief agencies—the International Rescue Committee (IRC), HIAS, and CARE—and leading Jewish organizations around the country to commemorate the the struggle for freedom that the holiday represents. Click here to download the free reading guide!

Moses: A Human Life

by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg

What better time than Passover to read a biography of Moshe Rabbeinu—written by renowned scholar and lecturer Dr. Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, no less—than Passover? Accessible and illuminating, Zornberg’s recent contribution to the Yale Jewish Lives series brings her signature cross-application of Jewish texts, world literature, and psychoanalytic examination to one of Tanakh’s most complex characters.

We Were the Lucky Ones

by Georgia Hunter

Based on the true story of her family’s survival of World War II as Polish Jews, Georgia Hunter’s debut novel begins and ends with two Passover seders, eight years apart. In early March of 1939, Addy Kurc—Hunter’s maternal grandfather—meanders the streets of Paris in the wee hours of the morning, turning over a letter from his mother begging him to stay in France for the upcoming holiday rather than risk the closing borders of German-occupied Poland. He writes back to answer that he is resolved to return home to Radom, but even as his parents and siblings gather around the seder table no further word arrives—and neither does Addy.

The next eight years follow the separated factions of the Kurc family from German-occupied Radom and Toulouse to Soviet-occupied Lvov and Vichy France; across the Mediterranean to Dakar and Casablanca, across Siberia to Kazakhstan and Tehran, across the Austrian Alps to the Adriatic Coast (and Allied military camps) of Italy; on to Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz, Tel Aviv, Illinois, and Rio de Janeiro, where the whole family—all three generations miraculously intact—reunites for their first Passover seder together since Kristallnacht. Of the 30,000 Jews living in their hometown of Radom, Poland before the Holocaust, fewer than 300 survived—and “luckily,” every member of the Kurc family among them.

The Dinner Party

by Brenda Janowitz

Sylvia is planning the perfect Passover seder. Everything from the table settings to the menu to managing her helpless husband and hapless children—a son run off to Doctors Without Borders, a daughter who left medical school (and a Rothschild suitor) for the beach, a non-Jewish boyfriend dating the professionally successful one—has been accounted for. But guests comes with problems and intrigues of their own…

My Jewish Year

by Abigail Pogrebin

Abigail Pogrebin’s new personal exploration of the Jewish holidays is a wonderful companion year-round, but I was especially curious to read her reflections on Passover, given her family legacy around the holiday—her mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, convened the first feminist seder together with E. M. Broner, Phyllis Chesler, and Lilly Rivlin, and Abigail grew up attending this annual gathering as a “Seder daughter” over the subsequent years, seated among Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Bea Kreloff, Edith Isaac-Rose, and others.

Indeed, a full chapter of My Jewish Year is dedicated to "The Feminist Passover: A (Third) Seder of Her Own." In the chapter before, Pogrebin sticks to the traditional seder—and pre-holiday cleaning, gaining as much from the ritual of bedikat chametz and cooking with her children as the seder itself. She shares some favorite party tricks to spark meaningful discussions around the Passover story and how it translates to the present moment, including the homemade haggadah she has compiled over the last several years—”a collection of questions rather than readings[…] that meets all the seder requirements, while inviting constant participation.” Maybe that will be her next book…

The Book of Separation (Coming September 2017)

by Tova Mirvis

Bedikat Chametz emerges as a compass of unexpected resonance for Tova Mirvis in her forthcoming memoir, as well. Celebrating Halloween for the first time at age 40, the foreign experience of trick-or-treating with her children reminds her of searching for bread crumbs with a candle, a feather, and a wooden spoon with her father the night before Passover every year.

Mirvis’s story of leaving the Orthodox world of her upbringing and marriage cuts to the quick—with especially sharp poignancy as the Jewish holidays cycle through her life. Early in her married life, Passover stood as a symbol of the balance in her relationship, and her role within it: seders spent with her parents in Memphis, in exchange for the autumn holidays in Boston with his, “squelching” challenges to her faith with religious routines—vacuuming the the mini van for any traces of chametz before the Festival of Matzah. But it is toward the end of the book, in a chapter devoted to Passover, the holiday takes on its strongest significance: recounting the story of Exodus at a small seder with only her parents and children, Mirvis begins to think of her own liberation: her divorce. At the end of the official ceremony before a Jewish court of law, she remembers, the presiding rabbi encouraged her to embrace this new start to her life, to “become the person you need to be,” and wished her mazal tov.

Open My Lips

by Rachel Barenblat

This is a story about change.
Look: the seas are parting.
It’s happening now. Open your eyes.

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt
but God brought us out of there.
This is a story about change.

Rachel Barenblat’s poetry on “Pesach to Shavuot” continues the literary fixation on preparing for Passover from women writers.Listing everything to be done before the holiday begins—from buying canned macaroons to calling her mother “to ask again whether she cooks / matzah balls in salted water or broth, because you can”—Barenblat combines wry humor with heartbreaking memories, adding, “Realize that no matter how many you buy / there are never quite enough eggs at Pesach,” right after a memory of her grandfather confused over the loss of his wife only weeks before another Passover years ago. Another poem eulogizes the Arab Spring, and in the interim before Shavuot Barenblat meditates on counting the Omer: “Humility and splendor in a single day, / two opposites folded into one. / Roots strengthen us as we count.”

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How I Find Recipes from Around the World

Monday, April 03, 2017 | Permalink

Joan Nathan has a new cookbook coming out this week! With the release of King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking around the World, Joan is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


One of the questions I am frequently asked by friends is how I find the cooks and stories that accompany the recipes in my books. For me, it is always one of the greatest challenges and most enjoyable tasks of cookbook writing.

It used to be that when I started writing a cookbook, an undertaking I sometimes liken to writing a long term paper or a Masters or Doctoral dissertation, I would send out letters to the editors of the Jewish Press around the country and ask their readers for their thoughts, memories, and stories. Today you don’t have to do that: in the world of the Internet, I could ask for likely stories from the Jewish group on Facebook that I started or send out a tweet searching for interesting recipes.

But I do not.

Instead, I still do it the old-fashioned way and go person to person. This is how I wrote my latest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking around the World, due out April 4th from Alfred A. Knopf.

First of all, I live in Washington, D.C. a multicultural city filled with people who have come from all over the country and the world. When I meet someone and tell them what I do—great dinner party conversation—or what my latest project is, invariably, they come up with likely candidates.

I have been known to hail a cab only to ask the driver to find me a good Indian cook in Edison, New Jersey. (I hopped in the cab and had my friends follow me in my own car.) Another time two of us were in a taxi in Paris on our way to a kosher restaurant. When I discovered the cabby was a French Jew, I asked him if I could come to his home for Friday night dinner. He said yes but his wife, wondering who in the world I was, said no.

Sometimes I am just lucky. A few years ago when I was speaking for a Hadassah group in Newport, Rhode Island, a lady came up to me and asked if I would like some recipes from Jews who lived in Siberia. Would I ever! She then told me her family’s wandering story, which started with her great grandparents leaving Lithuania for Siberia and concluded with her life today in Providence, Rhode Island, with stops in Manchuria and Canada along the way. The only memories she carried with her were of her recipes including her family’s delicious Passover breakfast chrimsel, kind of a fried matzo latke covered with blueberry preserves and baked.

Another time, hearing about a chocolate dessert served by a few of the hundred or so Jews living in El Salvador from an acquaintance of my daughter, I jumped on a plane and got myself invited for Friday night dinner. As often happens in the Jewish world, I was friendly with the host’s cousins who were dear friends from my Jerusalem days. Not only did I get a delectable, no-bake Schokolade Gewurst out of the trip, a chocolate salami cookie similar to the knack knicks I used to eat when I lived in Israel, but I also got to sample local Jewish dishes brought by other guests, including a delicious yucca latke. (This recipe is also in the book!) Through these foods I was able to glimpse through the prism of history into the lives of Jews who immigrated from Germany and Alsace Lorraine to San Salvador in the nineteenth century but maintain close ties to the United States and Israel today.

One of my favorite stories in this new book is the backstory behind a recipe called a shritzlach, a pocket pastry filled with blueberries. A friend from Toronto told me that it was very popular in her hometown and that it appeared in the book 1000 Things to Eat Before You Die by the esteemed food writer Mimi Sheraton. By doing some research I found that the shritzlach was brought to Canada by an immigrant from Southwest Poland just before the end of the First World War. She eventually started a bakery and sold the sweet.

As I was trying to disentangle the true recipe from an adulterated 1950s version that substituted blueberry pie filling (a new product) for the fresh blueberries used in Poland and Canada, a young woman who often visits my family came into my kitchen. When she saw me trying to mold the oblong-shaped dough into a pocket for the blueberries, she explained excitedly that her grandmother made the same blueberry bun—but it was better. Is that bashert? I thought so. We then made them together with fresh blueberries in the spring from my favorite local farmer. The buns, as the Canadians like to call them, were delicious.

I eventually learned that the young woman’s grandmother and the baker from Toronto lived 30 miles apart in Southwest Poland. Each time that I bite into these buns now, I think that had these two cooks not left before the Holocaust, this recipe would have been lost in the Nazi decimation of the very religious Jews of the area.

Stories like this one are what makes me always interested in Jewish and makes me write my books. With all these people I get glimpses of their lives as Jews in so very different circumstances and, no matter where I am, I always get something delicious to eat.

Joan Nathan is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and other publications. She is the author of eleven books, including Jewish Cooking in America and The New American Cooking, both of which won both James Beard Awards and IACP Awards.

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New Reviews March 31, 2017

Friday, March 31, 2017 | Permalink

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Discovering the Power of Jewish Books in Ottumwa, Iowa
"I’d like to tell you that the woman I left behind at synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1996 was reading Midrash or Talmud,” Debbie Bronstein Holinstat recalls. “I think it might have been a Danielle Steele novel."

How Does the "Justice System" Work for You?
Julia Dahl built her career in writing about crime as a journalist and novelist—but it took her twenty years to meet anyone who had been arrested.

The Father I Always Knew, the Survivor I Finally Know Better
Is there a survivor in your family? "I don't want to talk about it" isn't always a final answer.

Time. Space. Create.
Mourning the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency, Julia Dahl bids farewell to Room 6 at the Point Way Inn.

The True Meaning of Nostalgia
Michael Chabon shares his Modern Jewish Literary Achievement remarks from the 2016 National Jewish Book Awards in The New Yorker.

Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for March 2017

Friday, March 31, 2017 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council staff shares what we've been reading over the last month:

Carolyn

How did the small country of Israel, with a population of only six million, become a leader in the development of new technology being deployed on the battlefield? The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Become a High-Tech Military Superpower by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot addresses this question and more about Israel's success.

Suzanne

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain traces the lives of two boys through their adulthood in Switzerland during WWII from very different lives. One is a boy who becomes a hotel owner and the other a hopeful Jewish concert pianist. Their story is about love, lost, anti-Semitism and lifetime of friendship. I found this a very moving story that I couldn't put down.

Mimi

Although Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man was originally touted as a YA book, it certainly appropriate for an adult. The writing is very sophisticated and the story captured my attention.


Joyce

Beautifully written by a gifted storyteller, Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb explores complex times and characters in post-Holocaust Georgia through characters you will come to love.


Miri

I really enjoyed reading Abigail Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year, as both a memoir and as an exploration of the Jewish year. Abigail has a great voice, and, even though I came in knowing a lot about the holidays, I learned new things and read some really interesting interpretations from the rabbis that she interviewed.

Carol

Daphne Merkin chronicles her lifelong battle with clinical depression in This Close to Happy, a moving, lucid, and ultimately hopeful memoir.


Evie

Reading Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is something of a rite of passage for the Jewish Book Council staff. I’m delighted to be initiated!


Becca

Schadenfreude, A Love Story is the hilarious and insightful memoir of an angsty, half-Jewish teenager who becomes obsessed with Kafka and all things German. As someone who has lived in Germany for a short time, I couldn't get enough of Schuman's loving, snarky, spot-on observations—and I think any reader would find her story just as enjoyable as I did.

Nat

Publishing George Prochnik’s Visiting Scribe essays on his new biography of Gershom Scholem, Stranger in a Strange Land, reminded me what a privilege it is to edit a series that invites authors to share deeply personal reflections on what it means to be a Jewish writer—and to be Jewish, period.

Naomi

I grabbed a copy of Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen to read over a recent trip—I couldn't put it down!


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The Father I Always Knew, the Survivor I Finally Know Better

Thursday, March 30, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Survivors Club coauthor Debbie Bornstein Holinstat wrote about discovering the power of Jewish books in Ottumwa, Iowa. Debbie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


If my father had his way, my last name would never have been Bornstein” It would have been Bourne or maybe Borns, he tells me, something far less obviously Jewish. Fortunately, like in all good Jewish marriages, my mom has final veto power. My surname didn’t change until the day I walked down the aisle and said, “I do.”

You might think it’s crazythat a man who survived the Auschwitz death camp as a four-year-old prisoner of war would decide as an adult in the safety of America, to hide his religion. Far from life in the Polish ghetto where he was born, my father insisted that my brother turn his soccer jersey inside-out for all “travel” games so that his telltale Jewish name did not draw attention. It was easy for my siblings and me to judge. “Dad! You’re absurd! No one cares if we’re Jewish! Be proud!”

I don’t want you to think my father isn’t proud of his religion. He values Judaism with his entire heart and finds immense comfort in lighting the Hanukkah candles or leading the Passover seder. But it has taken me 42 years and the process of writing a book alongside my father to really understand why he worried about the things he did and protected us with such ferocity.

To be honest, I’m embarrassed. I didn’t know half of what my father endured until we sat down to co-write Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz. Some of it, even he didn’t know. But it was all there to be found—in relatives’ audiotaped interviews, in exhumed museum documents, and in the questions the family never asked. I didn’t need to write a book to learn my father’s history and sometimes, I’m ashamed that that is what it took.

Had I known the ruthless bullying and unspeakable assault my father endured in Germany after the war, I wouldn’t have resented his helicopter parenting. If I knew he shared one helping of cold, smelly soup each day, among dozens of starving children who lapped from a bowl like kittens, I wouldn’t have laughed at his need to clear every last morsel off a restaurant plate. I know I would never have pointed an accusing finger when he stockpiled free hotel-size shampoo bottles in a cabinet, just in case supplies ran low.

Despite the five-character tattoo inked on his forearm, my dad was the stereotypical hardworking, homework-helping, soccer-coaching father to four happy kids in suburban Indianapolis. We never thought less of him for his Holocaust-inspired idiosyncrasies. But I’m sure we would have understood him more had we pushed to hear his story sooner rather than accepting “I really don’t like to talk about it” as an answer.

My siblings and I have learned a lot during the book writing process. We learned that our grandfather, my father’s father, bribed a Nazi guard (takes chutzpah, right?!) to make living conditions more bearable in the ghetto where he served as Judenrat president. We learned that a precisely-timed illness helped my father avoid the Death March at Auschwitz. We learned that of the 3,400 Jews who lived in my dad’s hometown of Zarki before the war, only about 27 returned home. Most of those survivors were my relatives.

Yet maybe the most important lesson we learned along the way is that “I don’t want to talk about it,” isn’t always a final answer. Sometimes, it’s worth asking again. I am hardly the only child of a survivor walking around today, and the Holocaust is just one of many history lessons that can’t be forgotten. If I could have a do-over, I would have dug for the true story of my father’s survival years ago. I didn’t need to write a book, and neither does anyone else. If you want your family’s history to be remembered, just ask. Ask again.

It turns out my father is glad we did. Encouraged by new findings at a museum and new fears about Holocaust deniers, at the age of 76 he is speaking openly at schools, synagogues, churches, and charity functions. He is touring the country, traveling to D.C., Illinois, Minnesota, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Indianapolis, and Iowa to speak about Survivors Club, and standing up at a time when antisemitism is on the rise and discrimination seems newly tolerated. With the name “Bornstein” printed across the spine of our book, he is adding his story to the record. And with a new understanding of where he’s been and how far he’s come, I stand with my siblings and my mother in saying, there is closure, relief, and pride in the journey.

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the third of Michael Holinstat’s four children. A producer for NBC and MSNBC News, she works with her father to arrange school visits and help research and write his memoir.

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Time. Space. Create.

Thursday, March 30, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julia Dahl wrote about her early exposure to the American justice system. With the release of her new crime novel, Conviction, Julia is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In early 2011, I applied for a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center, but didn’t get in.

I’d been working on a novel for more than three years, while I worked five days a week at the New York Post, then The Crime Report, cobbling together a living with occasional fellowships and a couple big magazine features I’m really proud of. I’d written and shopped another novel about seven years earlier and gotten lots of polite declines. One agent took the time to chat with me on the phone. She told me the writing was “very strong” but that she didn’t “know how to sell it.”

This new novel, though—I had a feeling I could sell it. But first I had to finish, and I simply wasn’t getting it done with a few hours here and there. I needed a chunk of time. I needed, I decided, a residency.

So, I wasn’t going to Vermont. Maybe I could go somewhere else. One night, sitting on my couch, probably watching Bravo, I Googled “writers residency east coast.” A few results down I saw a link to the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency. I filled out the application that night, cut and pasted 10 pages from my novel-in-progress, and paid the $10 fee.

A California native, I knew nothing about Martha’s Vineyard (did the Kennedy’s live there?) and I think I initially confused it with Cape Cod. But it didn’t matter. It was $200 a week (you bought your own food)—far less than what Vermont charged. I could afford it, I had a flexible job situation, and I was childfree.

A week or so later I got an email: I was in.

Getting there was a bit of a crucible. I boarded a bus in the bowels of Port Authority and four hours later transferred to another bus in Providence. An hour after that I transferred to another bus in a city called Byrne, Massachusetts, then finally pulled my rollerboard suitcase up the ramp of the ferry to the island, trading a cramped bus for the wild Atlantic salt wind whipping my hair into tangles I’d have to shower and condition out.

I showed up to the Point Way Inn late at night, so the other writers were already in bed. I crept up a staircase to Room 6, and turned on the light. Imagine the best B&B you’ve ever been to: cheery, spare, immaculate. I had a four-poster bed, a bathtub, and a little wicker desk that sat at a window overlooking the courtyard. For two weeks, this place was home.

I went with a clear goal: 60 pages. It was, at the time, ambitious—I’d worked almost three years to get 100 pages—but if all I had was time and I was losing money, essentially, by being there, I had to make it worthwhile. And guess what? I did it. Easily. I woke when I wanted (usually late). I ate when I wanted (usually alone, although sometimes with the other residents). I walked the streets and imagined the lives of the people who owned the stunning, but somehow not entirely ostentatious clapboard houses. I biked to the beach and sat with a notebook, scribbling dialogue and scene ideas and character notes, then sat at the bar by the Edgartown docks, slurping oysters from the same beach I’d just left.

I didn’t finish the book there, but I got close. That December, I bailed on Christmas with my in-laws and finished it alone over the New Year. I got an agent in July and sold it in a two-book deal the next February.

Over the next three years, I went back three more times. I started my second and third novels there. I encountered all kinds of people on the island: I humored a white-haired part-time resident who complained over martinis that “those people” at Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t be protesting the banks, they should be protesting Obama; I embarrassed a bartender by recognizing her from a painfully lowbrow reality show; I drank with Twyla Tharp’s sister, and I was constantly asked if I was related to Arlene Dahl, a beloved resident of the island. (I’m not.)

Over the years, the residency morphed into the Noepe Center for the Arts, and hosted artists of all kinds, including Junot Diaz, Charles Blow, and Billy Collins. It was a community center. A culinary center. An incubator and a sanctuary.

What was so wonderful about the Martha’s Vineyard residency was that it was utterly unscheduled. Justen Ahren, the local poet who created the program, held fast to the motto of the residency: Time. Space. Create. There were no command performances. He and his charming, generous wife and children came to the inn for occasional dinners and informal readings, but if you were on a roll in your room, no one felt slighted if you stayed holed up. A father and landscape architect, Justen knows intimately how precious writing time is. All he wanted was for you to be productive in whatever way you measured productivity.

For me, the goal was always pages, but some people explored the island, using the time to clear their heads. Some people got drunk every night. Some people dove into the community, creating connections that led to jobs and even permanent homes. One woman stayed in her room so entirely I didn’t even meet her until more than a week into my stay. (I imagined a whole narrative about her being murdered and no one knowing until she started to smell. What do you want from me, I’m a mystery novelist!)

I started my latest novel, Conviction, in Room 6 less than a month after finding out I was pregnant. It was a strange few weeks. I knew my life was going to change, but I didn’t know how. I also knew that it would likely be a very long time before I could come back to the Point Way Inn. Mothers of babies don’t just take two weeks off. I didn’t produce quite as many pages this time, and each walk I took, each time I sat on the dock and watched the little ferry scoot to Chappaqua, was tinged with sadness.

In November 2015, I gave birth to a beautiful, rambunctious little boy. Those first six months were so all-consuming I couldn’t imagine ever being able to extricate myself for another residency, but this February, when my boy turned 15 months, my husband and I decided we could each handle single parenthood for a week: I got a week on the Vineyard and he got a 7-day motorcycle trip.

I emailed Justen and set it up. It felt like a weight lifted. I’d written significant portions of all three of my books in Edgartown and I felt like I needed Room 6. Knowing that I’d have it, even six months away, steadied me.

And then, about two weeks later, I got an email from Justen telling me that the woman who owned the inn where the residency was housed had sold the property, and the whole decade-long experiment was over.

I’m not going to lie: I’m still in denial. I can’t imagine never biking to Katama again. I can’t imagine not sitting around the inn’s big dining table with my fellow authors (too many to name, and many you’ve heard of), drinking wine and eating local mussels and chatting about the writing life and its thrills and miseries.

But mostly, I can’t imagine never sitting at that wicker desk again, with a mug of coffee, a half-eaten plate of fruit and cheese, maybe a beer, my mind entirely on my work for as long as I want. Justen has said he will try to find another space for the residency, but for now, I’m grieving, and searching for another way to find that time and space to create.

Julia Dahl is the author of the Rebekah Roberts novels, the latest of which, Conviction, comes out this week. Julia writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com.

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Discovering the Power of Jewish Books in Ottumwa, Iowa

Monday, March 27, 2017 | Permalink

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the co-author of Survivors Club, an account of her father’s early childhood at Auschwitz. Debbie is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


You know you’ve moved to a town where you’re in the minority when even the handful of Jewish people you meet are surprised you’re Jewish—after you’ve introduced yourself with the last name Bornstein. In Ottumwa, Iowa, there aren’t even enough Jews for anyone to recognize patterns in last names. I lived in that small Iowa hamlet for one year of my life, reporting for the local ABC affiliate; my first job out of college. I was there to hone my journalism chops, but I ended up learning just as much about Judaism and the need for connection as I did about information gathering and linear edits.

The biggest lesson came on Yom Kippur, in a moment that left me horrified and saddened, but it also woke me up.

A soft-voiced, aged Rabbi welcomed about ten congregants and me. I had hoped to return home for the holiday but my work schedule didn’t jive with the flight schedule so here I was, entering Ottumwa’s modest synagogue for the first time. “We see you on TV every morning! You’re Jewish? Really?” I signed off every news report with my name, first and last. I was floored no one guessed that a “Debbie Bornstein” was Jewish. The group was mostly seniors, their children all grown, and I was touched that they invited me to a break-fast dinner at one congregant’s home later that evening.

The morning service was longer than I’m accustomed to, but lovely. When it ended everyone filed out to their cars in the desolate parking lot. I noticed that one woman stayed back. She was sitting alone in a bench and seemed to be settling in with a book. “Do you need a ride?” I asked. She told me she stayed until mincha, the afternoon service. “That’s silly!” I said. “I’ll bring you home and pick you back up for mincha. There’s no reason to sit here all day.”

The woman, whose name I can’t remember but whose story I’ll never forget, told me that every year, on the High Holidays, her husband drops her off at the synagogue very early. Then he picks her up after sundown. He didn’t want anyone to know that she was Jewish. It embarrassed him. Even this woman’s own children didn’t know she was Jewish—or that they are Jewish, too.

I thought about opening my mouth. I thought about telling her to march proudly out of the synagogue in broad daylight, to tell her husband she’s never going to hide her religion, to call her kids and tell them they are among God’s “Chosen People”. Oh, I had plenty of thoughts running through my meddlesome mind. But I didn’t say a word. My face might have spoken for me, but my lips were zipped. At the age of 22, I didn’t feel it was my place to interfere in a person’s private family dynamic. I just sat with her a while instead. After some time, it was clear she was enjoying her book and her silence so I shuffled home, stomach growling, mind swirling.

I’d like to tell you that the woman I left behind at synagogue that fall of 1996 was reading Midrash or Talmudic analysis or even Judaism for Dummies. I think it might have been a Danielle Steele novel. My takeaway remains the same though. There are people living right here in this diverse country who still have obstacles connecting to Jewish life. Few things can change that in a town where there are more eggs in a carton, than there are Jews at High Holiday services.

But Jewish books can fix that. If someone never has the opportunity to learn how to prepare a proper Passover Seder, she can learn about it in books. If an elderly man fears that no one in his community will know to arrange shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, when he passes, he can learn more about the significance of shiva and share it with friends—through books. Jewish philosophy on life and love, parenting and passing are all available these days with a swipe of a button on mobile phones or a quick stop at the bookstore, and if someone has never had the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of the Holocaust from a living survivor, they can still read their stories.

I am immensely proud to know that someone in Ottumwa, Iowa, or a town like it, may now be able to pick up Survivors Club andlearn about the atrocities of Auschwitz from my dad’s story, and about the faith that endured from Auschwitz to America. There is infinite value in Jewish connection, and if we have written a book that adds one more link, then I am a happy former Ottumwa resident.

Debbie Bornstein Holinstat is the third of Michael Holinstat’s four children. A producer for NBC and MSNBC News, she works with her father to arrange school visits and help research and write his memoir.

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