The ProsenPeople

New Reviews June 16, 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017 | Permalink

But Wait, There’s More! (Part 2)

Thursday, June 15, 2017 | Permalink

Annabelle Gurwitch been guest blogging for the Visiting Scribe this week about her latest collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are. Her second post elaborates on the story about her mother's philanthropic side which she did not get to include in her collection.

As much as I was moved by mother’s recounting of her mission to aid the Refuseniks in Russia, I wasn’t able to fit that story into either my book or my assignment for Oprah’s website. This is an example of how even if you have a story that holds great meaning for you and it has intrinsic value on it’s own, it just might not find a home in what you are publishing.

Then, in December, a friend invited me to a ritual in celebration of the winter solstice. I typically roll my eyes at such things, but it had been a month since my mother’s death and the idea of communing with friends seemed comforting and I heard there would be wine.

At the ritual, our circle of friends was invited to share on the subject of when we felt the happiest and without thinking I blurted out, “When I am being useful to others.”

Without thinking I’d uttered the same phrase, with the exact same inflection as my mother and although I’ve never smuggled medical supplies into another country, I mentor high school seniors, an activity that I find deeply rewarding. At the same time, I could have easily answered, “When receiving a deep tissue massage.” Ok, in truth, being useful ranks a bit below the massage, especially if hot stones are included. I moved this section up closer to the mother’s statement so it would be connected. You can decide where this next section belongs.

Evolutionary biologists have shown that as a species we adapted in a way that makes us predisposed to want to help our communities, this is part of how Homo Sapiens managed to survive, thrive and to dominate the Neanderthals who never quite managed that level of cooperation with each other. So, this idea isn’t limited to Jews, to be fair, still Kelly, who was leading the ritual, then invited us to close our eyes and think of one word that could encapsulate a spiritual wish for our new year. I closed my eyes and quieted my mind. The only word I could think of was word.

That’s right, a certain kind of what I call, “obtusitude,” a prideful streak of obtuseness, runs in our family as well. Near the end of her life, my mother started calling the hospice rabbi, “Aquaduct,” which makes sense in a certain way so it was hard to tell if she was deliberately referring to the rabbi as a conduit to the source of all life or if her brain function was deteriorating. I noticed I’d passed this trait on to my offspring when my four year old was asked to draw something at a kindergarten evaluation and all the other children in the session drew colorful depictions of rainbows and families holding hands, while my kid refused to use crayons, instead, producing a pencil rendering of “a foot inside a foot.” That drawing hangs in a place of honor on a wall of my home. So, I planned to say, “Word,” on my turn.

One by one, people offered a variety of aspirational type wishes on the order of: ease, mindfulness, and centering. Just once, I’d love for someone to say: “self-deprecating sense of humor”at one of these types of things, alas no one did. Surprising myself, “Elegance” is what popped out of mouth when it was my turn. Elegance? I’ve never considered that a spiritual aspiration but it does connote a sense of ease, mindfulness, centering and another thing I place a high value on: quality footwear. What happened to “word”? Did it strike you that you had changed your mind?

Several days later the furniture I’d shipped from my mother’s apartment arrived at my house. As I gave my neighbor Barbara a tour of she stopped in her tracks in front of a pair of art deco lamps and said, “Elegant.”

For the record, I do not truck in any sort of mystical or “mean to be” type of thinking. After years of losing lucky necklaces, hoarding crystals and visualizing my great jobs and even better parking spots, I kicked that kind of thinking to the curb.

Still, sometimes the random universe gifts us with a reminder of a connection that even if it exists only in our minds, delights us with the promise of stylish shoes that are comfortable enough to run in and that keeps our bond to our ancestors alive.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up with Jeff Kahn, and Fired!—the book and documentary. Annabelle co-hosted Dinner & a Movie on TBS, and appeared in Dexter, Seinfeld, Oprah, Bill Maher's Real Time, The Today Show, New York Comedy Festival and The Moth Mainstage. She was a regular commentator on NPR and humorist for The Nation.

The First Political Body for Jews

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series.

In order to place the different essays that make up The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 in their historical context, it is important to understand the origins of the organization.

While the WJC formally came into being at its first plenary assembly in Geneva in August 1936, its roots actually lie in an ad hoc body called the Comité des Délégations Juives Auprès de la Conférence de la Paix – the Committee of Jewish Delegations at the Peace Conference – that was formed in 1919 to advocate at the Versailles Peace Conference for minority rights – that is, primarily, Jewish rights – in eastern and central European countries in the aftermath of World War I.

The Comité des Délégations Juives was an anomaly at the time in that it included representatives from Jewish groups in Canada, Eastern Galicia, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, in addition to B’nai Brith and American Jewish organizations such as the newly founded American Jewish Congress and the 13-year old American Jewish Committee.

This was literally the first time that such an umbrella body representing at least a meaningful segment of world Jewry had come into existence.

The participation of the American Jewish Committee in the Comité des Délégations Juives was particularly noteworthy since it was otherwise categorically against any association with other Jewish groups in any endeavor that could be interpreted as an international Jewish politically oriented initiative, as opposed to one that was strictly American and philanthropic in nature.

Following the end of the Peace Conference, the Comité des Délégations Juives remained in existence under the leadership of a prominent Paris-based Russian Zionist named Leo Motzkin, and continued to make representations on behalf of Eastern European Jews before the League of Nations and other international bodies.

At the same time, throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of the founders of the American Jewish Congress, called for the establishment of a world Jewish Congress – over the fierce objections of the American Jewish establishment, in particular the American Jewish Committee.

In August of 1927, 60 delegates from the US, 12 other countries, and Mandatory Palestine gathered in Zurich for what was billed as the World’s Conference on Jewish Rights. Again, the purpose of this conference was to find some means of coordinating efforts to help Jewish minorities in central and eastern European countries where they were being discriminated against if not actively persecuted.

Wise continued his quest for a world Jewish congress over the next several years, as Hitler’s Nazi Party was becoming increasingly powerful in Germany.

In August of 1932, the first of three World Jewish Conferences took place in Geneva, this time with 94 delegates from 17 countries, but without the participation of the American Jewish Committee, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, or the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden, the umbrella body of Germany’s Jewish community. By then, Wise had enlisted a young Russian-born German Zionist leader, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, to organize the event. It was the beginning of a friendship and political association between the two that would last until Wise’s death in 1949.

Two more such world conferences followed, both taking place in Geneva after Hitler’s rise to power.

By the third World Conference in 1934, Wise and Goldmann were planning the formation of a World Jewish Congress, modeled on the American Jewish Congress, as a mechanism to counter Nazi anti-Semitism, and in August of 1936, the WJC formally came into being as an organization.

This was the first time that Jewish leaders from different countries joined together as a decidedly political, rather than philanthropic, body, for the express purpose of representing Jews around the world. And over the following several years, the fledgling organization rapidly became the most outspoken defender of Jewish rights, both publicly and in behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017). Check back on Friday to see more from Menachem Z. Rosensaft.

Header photo credited to the World Jewish Congress.

Taking Jews to the Beach

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 | Permalink

Jamie Brenner, author of  The Forever Summer, is a guest blogger for The Jewish Book Council as a part of the Visiting Scribes series.

A reader recently asked why my latest novels are set in coastal towns and I said, “I guess I wanted to take the Jews to the beach.” I was half joking, but there is some truth to the sentiment. I love beach books—stories about family and love set in beautiful little towns by the ocean. And while I read them voraciously, the truth is, there is very little in the beach town experience depicted in these books that I recognize. It’s not just that there are few, if any, Jews in the stories. It’s more that the novels often center around a charming Cape Cod or Outer Banks cottage that has been in the family for generations, and that’s alien to me.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I spent my summers at the Jersey Shore. My grandparents did not have a beach cottage, they had a condo on the boardwalk. It was the same for my friends and their grandparents. From the terraces, we had views of the beach and of the new casinos sprouting up in Atlantic City. As teenagers, we would meet in the mornings at the beach, then have lunch at one of the cheesesteak and “hoagie” places a few blocks from the water. At night, while our parents hit the casinos, we congregated in the lobby of one of the buildings until a manager shooed us upstairs to our own apartments. It was idyllic to us, but far from the classic backdrop of the books I grew to love.

In my new novel, The Forever Summer, I chose Provincetown, Massachusetts as the setting because it’s beautiful, remote, and unconventional in every way. I realize now I wasn’t ready to write about the Jersey Shore, but I did feel compelled to write about a place that veered at least slightly from the more typical settings in beach novels. The Forever Summer is the story of two young women—one Jewish, one not—who discover they are half sisters and travel to Provincetown to meet the grandmother they never knew they shared. The characters in this story not only find new family, they inherit a true sense of belonging in their grandmother’s quirky beach town.

For my next book, The Husband Hour (coming spring 2018), I returned to Longport, New Jersey. While the stretch of towns from Ventnor to Longport have gone through changes since my summers in the 1980s, I found the character of the shore very much intact. The boardwalk, the cheesesteaks places, the ice cream parlors, the eclectic landmarks like Lucy the Elephant, are still there exactly as I remembered them though my grandparents and their condo are long gone. In The Husband Hour, the Jersey Shore is both the family retreat and the heroine’s escape from the problems of her adult life. For her, as for me, the beach does not represent a generations-old family legacy. Instead, it offers the memory of a simpler moment in time.

Some readers have asked me if I will set future books in the same town, the way some authors return to places like Nantucket or Hilton Head. My answer is no. While I don’t write “Jewish” books, I can’t help but tell stories through a Jewish lens. Maybe it’s because I come from a wandering people, but I prefer to explore a different town in each of my novels. Maybe, some day, one of them will feel like home. But for now, I’m just happy for a view of the ocean.

Jamie Brenner is the author of The Forever Summer, a novel People magazine calls, “A captivating tale of family secrets and strong women.” Jamie’s previous novel, The Wedding Sisters, is in development as a feature film. She lives in New York City with her husband and two teenage daughters. Twitter: @JamieLBrenner; Instagram: @jamiebrennerauthor;

Header image credited to Argos'Dad.

But Wait, There’s More!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 | Permalink

Annabelle Gurwitch, author of  Wherever You Go, There They Are, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series. 

Many years ago, during my career as an actress, while reading for one of Martin Scorceses’ films, he mentioned to me that he’d never been happy with his film The King of Comedy. He just hadn’t gotten it right. If he could do it again, he’d make changes, he said in so many words. “What? I love that film, it’s perfect,” I replied. In my corner of the creative universe, I can relate to that sentiment. It’s not unlike those old Ginzo knife infomercials that always included the phrase, “But wait, there’s more!” and here’s one story about my mother that I wish I’d found a way to include in my latest collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are.

A year before her death, when we knew that her time was limited, I asked her a series of questions for an article I was writing for Oprah’s website about end of life conversations to be sure to have with your loved ones. My mother told me that she was the happiest, “When I am being useful to others.” I have to confess, this took me by surprise because all of our conversations of late had centered on my parents’ health and financial woes.

During the mid-nineteen seventies, my mother and her friend Deanna signed on to a tour of major cities of Russia and smaller towns further east. Both Deanna and my mother loved to travel, but they had another agenda.

Through contacts assembled by Hadassah, Deanna and my mother obtained a list of medications that were badly needed by Jews in Russia known at the time as Refusniks. These were both secular and religious folks who were seeking to emigrate from Russia who’d been denied or refused visas. Many had been arrested, were unable to find work and were suffering an impoverished existence.

Shirley and Deanna made appointments with their doctors in Miami Beach and asked for prescriptions. Not a single one of the doctors they approached said no. In addition to the medications, they packed suitcases full of clothing, like blue jeans, that the Refusniks could wear or sell on the black market.

When they arrived in Moscow, they had to sneak out of the hotel past the “key ladies,” the tour guides who sat watch in the hallways to make certain that tourists didn’t wander off. Once on the street, they located pay phones and dialed the phone numbers they’d been given. Because she was fluent in Russian, Deanna was able to converse with the contacts in Yiddish and they got directions and took subways to the apartments of the various people to deliver the medications and clothing.

They returned to the states with empty suitcases but with rich memories of their encounters with these marginalized Jews. This trip remained one of the highlights of her life.

Because my mother passed before this book, which is about family legacies, was published, this story’s absence seems particularly bittersweet to me. As aware as I was that I’d inherited numerous of her attributes: her long limbs and her wry sense of humor, I didn’t connect my own do-gooder streak to an inheritance from her while I was writing the book. That only came more recently.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up with Jeff Kahn, and Fired!—the book and documentary. Annabelle co-hosted Dinner & a Movie on TBS, and appeared in

Dexter, Seinfeld, Oprah, Bill Maher's Real Time, The Today Show, New York Comedy Festival, and The Moth Mainstage. She was a regular commentator on NPR and humorist for The Nation. Check back on Thursday to read more from Annabelle Gurwitch.

WJC: An Organization with a Personality

Monday, June 12, 2017 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series.

The World Jewish Congress has published a comprehensive history of our organization’s activities and achievements from its founding in Geneva in August 1936 to the present. Fittingly, we timed the release of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 to take place during the WJC’s 15th Plenary Assembly, April 23-25, held in New York for the first time in the organization’s eighty-year history.

Organizations, very much like individuals, have distinct personalities which are, for the most part, a direct function of the men and women who lead these groups. The World Jewish Congress is no exception.

About two years ago, when World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder and CEO Robert Singer first told me that they wanted to publish a history of the first eighty years of the World Jewish Congress, we rapidly came to the conclusion that such a book had to reflect the diversity of voices that has always characterized the organization and, indeed, the Jewish people. Instead of asking a historian to write an academic, chronological study based primarily on archival research, we opted instead for a mosaic, with chapters about specific episodes or themes written either by individuals who had personally played a role in the WJC’s activities and accomplishments in question, or by scholars with a particular interest in and knowledge of the subject matter.

For the past ten years, the WJC’s persona has been shaped primarily by Ambassador Lauder who has imbued the organization with his vision and with a distinct sense of purpose focusing on the challenges confronting the Jewish people and Jewish communities across the globe in the 21st century. Prior to assuming the presidency of the WJC in 2007, Ambassador Lauder had a distinguished career first as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Affairs and US Ambassador to Austria under President Reagan, and then as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and president of the Jewish National Fund. In 1987, he established the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation which revitalized Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe through a network of Jewish schools, kindergartens, camps and community centers.

“There is an old Hasidic tradition,” Ambassador Lauder writes in the concluding chapter of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, “that inside every Jew there burns a flame. Sometimes that flame is obscured, and the person can’t see it. But it is always there, it is always burning. All you have to do is dust it off your heart and you will find it. . . . And this is the job before us now. We have to help our children and our grandchildren dust off their hearts. We have to help them rediscover that Jewish flame inside them.”

The WJC today also reflects the personality and priorities of Robert Singer, the organization’s CEO since May 2013, who had previously served as senior educational officer of the Israel Defense Forces, followed by twelve years with the Office of the Prime Minister in Israel in a number of senior posts, mostly dealing with the Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, and fourteen years as the CEO of World ORT, one of the world’s largest non-governmental education and training network. Under Robert Singer’s professional leadership, the WJC has undertaken numerous major initiatives in fighting both anti-Semitism around the world and the ever-increasing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017). Check back on Wednesday to see more from Menachem Z. Rosensaft.

Header image credited to the World Jewish Congress.

Interview: Sana Krasikov

Monday, June 12, 2017 | Permalink

with Dalia Wolfson

Sana Krasikov, winner of the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, published her first novel in January. The Patriots  explores the conflicting loyalties of a Jewish family as they navigate their lives between Russia and the United States. Read an excerpt from the novel in the 2017 issue of Jewish Book Council literary journal, Paper Brigade.

Dalia Wolfson: The book grew from a story you heard from a friend about his mother, Pauline Friedman. How much “raw material” on her story did you start with, and why did this story appeal to you?

Sana Krasikov: I knew about Pauline’s story for a couple of years before I sat down and interviewed Timothy. I think his mother’s reverse immigration spoke to me on such a deep level because it suggested a life’s journey totally different from my own. My family had arrived embracing the American dream; Pauline had turned her back on it.

I knew Pauline had worked for Amtorg—the American Trade Mission—in New York. Amtorg midwifed all the big business deals between Soviet factories and American industry. Since the U.S. didn’t officially recognize the Bolsheviks, Amtorg served as a de facto embassy, but also the nerve center for all the spying that happened on American soil. The fact that business, politics, and espionage were all mixed up in its carpeted halls made Amtorg endlessly fascinating to me. Under the cover of all this official opprobrium, our countries were forming these intricate alliances. Talk about history catching up to the present!

Later Timothy sent me his mother’s interrogation files from the Lubyanka, Moscow’s political prison. The way her whole life was put on trial in those documents was both engrossing and heartbreaking. I used the documents as a kind of roadmap, but I also diverged from them because Pauline’s life was more unbelievable and dramatic than anything I could put into a book. Were I to include it all, the novel would have been twice as long.

DW: The Patriots provides a rich context—both historical and contemporary—for its interweaving plots, referencing items as diverse as the Davies incident, Dovid Bergelson and the interior of the restaurant at the Metropol Hotel. Can you tell me a bit about your research process for the novel?

SK: I always look for the detail that doesn’t fit, because that’s usually the one that’s true. Then I flesh out the picture like a Sudoku puzzle. There’s definitely a lot of history in the book, but I tried to integrate it in a kaleidoscopic way so the reader could truly inhabit it. By the end it was hard for me to tease apart the story of Russian Jews from the story of American Jews in the twentieth century because they were so intertwined.

The most surprising chapter for me had to do with learning about the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which played a huge role in raising funds during World War II. On Stalin’s orders, the greatest lights of Yiddish literature and the Jewish stage—people like Solomon Mikhoels (the original Tevye) and David Bergelson, who was second only to Isaac Babel—were put to work winning the hearts and minds of American Jews. They wrote articles and essay published in the States, and then were brought over and taken around to JCCs and Hadassah chapters, where Jews listened to them talk about Jewish unity, and opened up their purses. These men figured out how to tap into the miracle of Jewish giving and came back to Russia with something like $90 million for the Red Army. But it wasn’t a cynical undertaking—the Soviet Jews who’d been listening to these Yiddish poets on their radios were also moved. For the first time in decades, they permitted themselves to embrace a national identity that had been quietly suppressed since the revolution. So much so that by the time Golda Meir made her first visit to Moscow in 1948, thousands of Jews went out into the streets to cheer her and shout “next year in Jerusalem!”

The JAFC became a kind of heart of Soviet Jewry, an advocacy group for those whose homes had been illegally appropriated by their own countrymen during the war. But of course once the JAFC became an actual grassroots phenomenon, it could no longer be tolerated. The crackdown was swift and brutal, and these writers were rounded up and murdered for essentially doing their service to the state. The purge became a dress rehearsal for the better-known “Doctor’s Plot” to follow, and touched the lives of many Americans in Russia, like Pauline and Sam, who were working as translators. But even the murder of these “poets” couldn’t entirely suppress the Jewish awakening that had started blossoming on the power of these poets’ words. They became almost like secret martyrs for Russian Jews.

DW: Your book is such a complex operation of stories happening in parallel. Can you tell me more about the structure of interlocking narratives in three separate “books”?

SK: In some ways the story is your classic hero’s journey—a departure and a return. But I also thought of the three acts of Florence’s life as coinciding with her relationship to each of the three men in the book: Sergey, Leon, and Henry. Sergey and Henry are almost mirror images; Sergey is her Russian in America, and Henry, the Korea pilot she meets in the labor camps, is her American in Russia. In his own way, each one leads her through to the other side of the looking glass.

But as I began to write, the image of the dialectic also became an operating metaphor for the novel’s chapters, threading through the relationships between the generations as well as between the nations. I’m not just talking about Marxist theory here, but also the idea of the dialectic that stretches back to Hegel and the Greeks: the very notion that binaries are not permanently stable, but rather are always interpenetrating one another, struggling, resolving, turning into something new. Each break from the past is a dialectic negation that creates the possibility for a second, opposite, movement. History is like a helix coming back around, each time at a new level. I wanted the novel itself to walk that narrow spiral between the public and the private, to examine the deepest emotions between a family torn apart by a century of cold war, but also to interrogate the ideas and philosophical arguments supporting that war.

DW: Florence remains quite opaque, in some ways, although her story is told by an omniscient narrator who is prone to break into imaginative, over-the-top scenes (as with the Roosevelt-Morgenthau encounter) or launches into meditations (as with the history of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee). How did you settle on this voice for the Florence chapters?

SK: Originally I wrote the whole book in Julian’s voice, because I was processing the story of his mother through his eyes, and also because Timothy’s voice—and the voices of so many immigrant men I know—played strongly in my head. As I wrote, that voice began to take on the characteristics of omniscience, in much the same way that books like The Great Gatsby, or Philip Roth’s oeuvre, or even classic novels like Wuthering Heights, take on an element of omniscience whenever a human-sized character is narrating the story of a somewhat opaque, bigger-than-life character. I began to think about omniscience as a loop in which the first-person voice and the all-knowing “God” voice came around to touch. But at some point I also realized that for Julian to be on his own journey—to get to a place where he truly understood his mother—he couldn’t also be the person telling her story. So I divorced the two voices and gave each narrative its own corporeality, its own coordinates.

This process helped me embrace omniscience as a mode of storytelling. I think it’s a mode that’s been abandoned by many twentieth century modernists, but is being taken up again by some excellent contemporary writers. It’s possible we’re seeing a return to omniscience in the post-internet age because the collective intelligence suddenly feels like so much part of the everyday.

DW: Your previous publication, One More Day, was a collection of short stories. What were the challenges of writing a novel?

SK: Letting myself veer away from that narrow modernist voice was a big part of it. I felt like I had to unlearn everything I’d learned about writing.

DW: Throughout the book, we see a variety of survival strategies in the Logic-Free zone—believing in a “becoming” utopia, self-centered negotiating, deep-seated cynicism, self-censorship etc. Are these mentalities that you recognize from your own upbringing, and what would you like readers to learn from them?

SK: Oh yeah, those are frames you carry around in yourself as a product of people who are products of the Soviet Union. Ways of thinking that seem wildly inconsistent to my American peers feel perfectly natural to me, and vice versa. You know, I hear the word “resistance” being thrown around a lot these days. And the American image of resistance always makes me think of Martin Luther nailing that list of grievances to the church door. That image of jump-starting a reformation, of standing up and being counted—that’s the subconscious image of heroism here. But what if you live under a system where that’s not an option? It won’t lead to any reform, and you’ll only bring punishment on yourself. Well, then, getting by often involves adopting the mechanisms of the same system that’s oppressing you and manipulating it to make life more livable. But also attempting to do it in a way that won’t deform you morally and psychologically.

I’m not interested in writing “about Russia,” I’m interesting in writing about people. What does “courage” or “dignity” even mean under circumstances so different from our own? Those are some questions I hope a reader might be asking.

San Krasikov won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her collection One More Year, also named a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and awarded the National Book Foundation's ‘5 under 35’ prize. To research The Patriots, she traveled to oil fields in Texas and KGB warehouses in Moscow. She lives with her husband and children in Hastings, New York.

The Failed Drafts Behind the Novel

Friday, June 09, 2017 | Permalink

Margot Singer has been blogging for the Visiting Scribe series this week about her debut novel, Underground Fugue. In her final post, she gives us a look into the process of novel-writing, explaining what happens when first (and second) drafts go south--and how she got out of her writing rut. 

In the fall of 2006, I won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and traded the money for the following semester’s leave from teaching. I’d just completed a collection of linked short stories (The Pale of Settlement) and was excited about the prospect of tackling a novel. I had a gift of fifteen weeks. If I wrote roughly three to five pages a day, I figured, I should easily be able write a couple hundred pages—a first draft. People were cranking out entire novels in the month of November during NaNoWriMo. Hell, high schoolers were doing it! I was sure that I could too.

On January 3, 2007, I took my laptop to the faculty common room at the college where I work—a pretty, quiet space equipped with a coffee machine and lots of natural light. From then on, I went there every day. Before long, I’d accumulated a folder on my desktop filled with dozens of Word documents, each file named by different date. I had 45 files in the folder and a 50-page draft completed by the middle of March. But something—I wasn’t sure exactly what—didn’t feel right. So after spring break, I started over. At the end of May, I’d produced a second, different, 50-page draft. I shared it with a writer friend. Her smart and generous feedback confirmed what I already knew: I was stuck.


“Everybody writes shitty first drafts,” I routinely assure my students. But I hadn’t written a shitty first draft at the level of technique. There was nothing much wrong with my sentences or scenes. It was the story that I couldn’t figure out. What was I supposed to do about that? “Take all the furniture out of the room and put it back in again one piece at a time,” a friend recommended. I made lists of questions. Start earlier? Switch point of view? Where do they live? What do they do? I spent weeks reading for inspiration, doing research. I cut out clippings of articles on neuroscience and urban exploration and the Holocaust. I free wrote. I drew diagrams. I sketched out scenes.

One thing I kept coming back to was a story I’d heard on the radio about a man who’d turned up on a beach on the southern coast of England late one night in April 2005, soaking wet, dressed in a formal suit. He carried no identifying marks or papers; even the labels had been cut out of all is clothes. The man couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak, but played the piano like a pro. A bulletin was put out on the Missing Persons Helpline and thousands of people from around the world had called in, thinking they recognized him, but to no avail.

The image of the lost man fascinated me, but it wasn’t even really a story. Where the story should have been, there was nothing but an empty space.

I took few more desultory runs at my draft that summer and following year and then gave up. I felt awful. I’d spent my NEA grant money and an entire semester’s worth of time off from teaching and accumulated well over a hundred pages—but I had nothing to send out, nothing to show for all my work.


In October 2011, on sabbatical, I spent two weeks at a writer’s residency in Wyoming and gave myself permission to start again. The new draft opened with the image of that unidentified stranger wandering along the beach. It still felt like the same project—but virtually everything had changed: the characters, the events, the point of view. Most importantly, I’d found a structure in sections narrated from four alternating third person perspectives. Slowly, the pieces of a new draft started to fall into place. Slowly, images coalesced into patterns. Slowly, the characters began to come to life.

Now, looking back, the idea of a man without an identity—without a story—feels like a metaphor for my own struggle to find the novel’s plot.

My novel, Underground Fugue, asks what happens when you leave a life behind. Who do you become when you flee across a border? How does the memory of what’s been lost shape the experience of the present time? How do you forge human connections in a new language, culture, place?

On the first page of my oldest notebook, dated August 2006, I find a simple scribbled list of words: borders, history, memory, journey – return. Connections—how we yearn for human connection, how we fail. Almost none of the material I wrote in those early years made it into the final draft. But the themes were all there, as it turns out, right from the start.

Margot Singer won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, and an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award for her story collection, The Pale of Settlement. Her work has been featured on NPR and in the Kenyon Review, the Gettysburg Review, Agni, and Conjunctions, among other publications. She is a professor of English at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Her debut novel Underground Fugue is now available from Melville House. She will be guest blogging for us this week as part of our Visiting Scribe series.

Header photo credited to Drew Coffman.

New Reviews June 9, 2017

Friday, June 09, 2017 | Permalink

Overcoming Jewish Stereotypes—One Image At a Time

Thursday, June 08, 2017 | Permalink

Matthew Baigell has been blogging for us all week about his newest book, The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, as part of our Visiting Scribes series. His final post compares The Implacable Urge with his previous book, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940, in a discussion on how one can overcome Jewish stereotypes not only through the written word, but also by analyzing Jewish images from the past.

My last two books, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880-1940 (2015) and The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, just published (both by Syracuse University Press) include cartoon images of Jews during the same period. But the similarity stops right there. Social Concern is about left wing Jewish artists who were often tagged as trouble-makers, socialists, and communists. My idea was to show that the artists were Jews first. Most were born in eastern Europe and lived on the Lower East Side in New York. They absorbed through their Jewish heritage the desire to help other people. Left wing politics gave them a secular way to do so. For them, socialism was a secular form of Judaism. The book presents them in a favorable light. The cartoons were taken from Yiddish and English-language Jewish magazines.

For The Implacable Urge, I looked at cartoons in the mainstream press. These were uniformly anti-Semitic and presented Jews stereotypically as big nosed, fat slobs wanting to game the system, cheat people, and steal whenever possible. Two totally different interpretations of the same people. Social Concern was reassuring. Jews gave to charity, a people concerned with healthy working and living conditions. The Implacable Urge made me aware, as Saul Bellow said in his novel, Ravelstein, “As a Jew you are also an American, but you are also not.”

You see the “not” part in the mainstream magazines and you become aware that you are identified as a Jew regardless of how you conduct yourself on a daily basis—whether you pay your taxes on time, serve in the military, vote in every election. Ivanka, for example, is always the Jewish daughter and her husband is the Jewish son-in-law. They are not fully American, perhaps not even hyphenated Americans, but Jews who are also Americans.

I married into a family of Holocaust survivors. So I know stories. Most of us, I am sure, can tell stories but nothing like those I have heard, stories of dangerous and scary situations. Nevertheless many of us have experienced situations in which we were reminded that we were Jewish, or an incident that might include the words, “You Jews,” as if each of us represented and stood for the entire community rather than being considered as an individual. One way to deal with those moments is to make certain that you are known as a Jew, a ploy adopted by several comedians (and others) as a way to diffuse potentially hostile remarks. I once knew a lady from India who taught for forty years in a university in Texas and still wore a sari each day so that she would not be confused with anybody else of her skin color. Today, of course, being Indian, she might be victimized for not being a white American. Another way is to confront the person or issue directly, but that could be dangerous.

My way, since I am in my eighties, is not to look for trouble. Many people know Jews primarily through Jewish jokes or what they hear or read, rather than from direct experiences with Jews. They think in stereotypes. What I do is to write about achievements of Jewish artists and the ways Jews are depicted in art works in order to counter such political, social, and cultural stereotypes. Granted, the art world is quite small, but I have been told several times by people that they might have been influenced by inflammatory cartoons without realizing it, and that they had no idea that left wing Jews were so concerned with social issues rather than just being political lefties.

Here is an observation that will indicate how far reaching and destructive stereotypical thinking can be. (It is not related to the discussion above, but I hope its point is understood.) All of us have heard jokes about Jewish mothers and mothers-in-law. In the past, these tended to be about women of the immigrant generations, but we are still close enough to those times so that the jokes still have resonance today. I think each joke describes a tragedy. Each is a tragedy because it obscures the important family and financial roles assumed by Jewish mothers in the small towns and cities of eastern Europe. After immigration, many suffered from dislocation from friends, from family members, and from their spoken languages as well as from the desires of their children to Americanize themselves and thus ignore family traditions. In such situations, mothers would of course cling to their children. What else did they have? They had lost their place in their society, their familiar surroundings that were left behind as well as their way of life and in exchange they were confronted with the strangeness of their new country. And then we make fun of them in jokes. That is what happens with stereotypical thinking and that is what, in my own sphere, I try to counter by writing about Jewish artists and about Jews as the subjects of artists. If you want to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture should be a positive one.

Matthew Baigell is the author of numerous books including The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877-1935, American Artists, Jewish Images, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction, and Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880–1940. He is professor emeritus in the Department of Art History at Rutgers University.

Header image credited to Alfred Rosenberg.