The ProsenPeople

Interview: David Wolpe

Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Beth Kissileff recently spoke with David Wolpe about his newest book, David: The Divided Heart, published by Yale University Press

At one point during our phone interview, I asked Rabbi David Wolpe, author of a new book on King David, about why he wrote on the famously lustful Israelite king. He replied that he told his editor not to worry about the timeliness of the book: there would be a political scandal along the lines of the David and Bathsheba story at some point when his book was coming out. In fact, he was so confident of it, he would write the editorial now! The timelessness of human foibles when power is gained,  coupled with the extraordinary human ability to grow and change and write about it as King David did in the Psalms, personal poetry and prayer traditionally attributed to him, is the subject of Wolpe’s latest book, David: The Divided Heart, the newest volume in the Jewish Lives series by Yale University Press.

Wolpe is the author of seven previous books, all like this one, in which he attempts to engage with serious Jewish ideas for a general audience. He is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and known by many for his huge Facebook and Twitter followings, as well as holding the accolade of being many years on the influential rabbi list that had been compiled by Newsweek, hitting the top slot in 2012. In our interview, he spoke of how he brought his work as a rabbi to his telling of David’s story, relating his ability to understand people’s lives at different ages and see not only the effect of parents on children, but as they age, children on their parents. The book comes from a deeply personal place too, dedicated to his uncle David, after whom he is named, the man who raised his father (also a rabbi, Gerald Wolpe z”l) after his father’s own father passed away at a young age. When David Wolpe graduated high school, he writes in the book’s introduction, his father inscribed his yearbook with a pastiche of ideas about his Biblical namesake. He writes that although his father did not quote any particular verse he conveyed an “essential message” about the David who “sang many songs.”

It is fitting that the character of David, who encompasses both the national aspirations of the Jewish people as well as his own personal family struggles, has these different aspects, both public and private, for the writer as well. Here are some highlights of Jewish Book Council's phone conversation with this most articulate rabbi.

Beth Kissileff: You say in the book that in the rabbinic text Pesikta DeRav Kahana, the rabbis confessed, “We are unable to make sense of David’s character”. If even they are unable to, what got you to write this book?

David Wolpe: Because he was so intriguing. I was also trying to unravel the central mystery: Why does David get to be the most important character, the ancestor of the Messiah?

In one sense, the tradition is split between David and Moses. We have a good idea of the legacy of Moses, but know less about David, even though the Bible tells us more about the character. The David stories feel historical, they don’t feel like myth. So much apologizing for David only makes sense if there are people around attacking him.

For me at least, David is the most intriguing character.

BK: How did you decide to divide up the chapters and create the themes for each of them? Each chapter is a role: Fugitive, King, Sinner, Father, Caretaker, and The Once and Future King.

DW: Because as I read through it, I thought it is such a big, messy,F wonderful story that it will help the reader to have some thematic breakdown, as opposed to running through the narrative.

I thought of David the way I think of someone when I conduct a funeral. This is the same person, but with lots of different roles. You hear from the spouse, the kids, they can be a lot of different things to different people in their lives. That’s what David was.

BK: Why does David speak to modern Jews?

DW: He speaks to modern Jews about the state and all the contradictions of the state. War and savagery and plotting and manipulation and all of that. But at same time, he is a central religious figure. He is credited with writing the only personal prayers in the Bible, the Psalms. If you are looking for a book to express the individual human soul, you have only the Psalms in the Bible.

His legacy endures – Jerusalem is celebrating the 3000th year as the City of David.

And finally and most powerfully, David is a deeply flawed figure who is still a hero. That idea, that we don’t think a person can be great and flawless, is something we struggle with every single day. There will soon be a David and Bathsheba scandal – I should write the editorial now! He is an exquisitely relevant as well as fascinating character.

BK: What are the top three books to read to learn more about the David story?

DW: If they want a fuller account, read Samuel I and II. I think Jonathan Kirsch’s book King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel is fuller and easily read. Then, it depends how serious you want to be. The most comprehensive and learned book is Bible scholar Baruch Halpern’s David’s Secret Demons. He deals with the archaeology, but tells you where to skip if you don’t want all the detail. An effective case against David is Stephen Mazckenzie, King David: A Biography.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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How I Got Interested in Writing the Mel Rosen Biography

Monday, September 15, 2014 | Permalink

Craig Darch is author of From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My interest in writing the Mel Rosen story has its roots in South Bend Indiana, where I grew up. My father and mother (actually my entire family) were avid sports fans and always talked about Jewish athletes. In their minds, if an athlete was Jewish, then his or her achievement was even more noteworthy, something to talk about and, as Jews, something to be proud of, because American Jews are always looking for Jewish sports heroes.

I vividly remember family dinners where we discussed (or argued about) the merits of a Jewish athlete. I remember my dad and his cousin Gene wistfully describing the pugilistic exploits of Benny Leonard, in their opinion the greatest of all the great Jewish fighters during the 1920s and 1930s. I can remember sitting around the television when I was about 12 years old with my brothers Mike and Lance and my dad watching basketball player Dolph Schayes, one of the few Jewish players in the National Basketball Association, playing for the Syracuse Nationals. Watching him play made the game exciting. Schayes was a warrior and fierce competitor: from February 1952 to December 1961 he played in 764 straight games. Our thinking at that time was, if Dolph Schayes could be a basketball star, then why couldn’t we? I also remember when Sandy Koufax, Los Angeles Dodger’s pitcher and Hall of Famer, and one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball history, elected not to pitch the opening game of the Dodger and Minnesota Twins world series in 1965 because it fell on Yom Kippur. And I remember my family’s pride surrounding his decision not to pitch. It was listening to the stories of Jewish athletes when I was a kid that boosted my life-long interest in Jewish sports stories.

I also remember the morning when I decided to write about Mel Rosen. Here’s the story. I am an avid jogger, and four years ago I was running my typical route on Auburn University’s campus. It was early, about 4 o’clock in the morning, and I was running near Memorial Coliseum. From a distance I saw a Greyhound bus parked next to the coliseum. The inside of the bus was lit up. The bus seemed to glow in the darkness. Curious I ran towards it. As I got closer I noticed a lone figure sitting in the front seat. It was Mel Rosen, then the retired head coach of Auburn’s track and field team, who was serving as an unpaid assistant coach. There was no one else in the bus, just Rosen, waiting to leave for a track meet. I thought to myself, how is it that an 82-year-old unpaid assistant coach can be so enthusiastic about his sport that he beats everyone to the bus at four in the morning. The look on his face seemed to say, I have traveled a long way from Brooklyn and do I have stories to tell! It was then, at that instant, I knew I had to write, From Brooklyn to the Olympics: The Hall of Fame Career of Auburn University Track Coach Mel Rosen. I’m grateful I took that jog.

Craig Darch is the Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University.

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Jewish Book Carnival: September 2014

Monday, September 15, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Hosting an early fall Jewish Book Carnival is particularly exciting, as we get to provide you with lots of interesting reads to munch on right before the holidays! In case you're new here, the Jewish Book Carnival is a monthly roundup of some of the great reviews, interviews, and articles about Jewish books and authors from around the web. Find out more information about the series here.

Before we share our colleagues' links, JBC has a few of its own offerings for this month's Carnival:

And now we release you into the hands of our fellow Jewish literary bloggers:

Barbara Krasner at The Whole Megillah focused recently on the Holocaust. She interviewed children's book writer Kathy Kacer, author of Shanghai Escape and the Magician of Auschwitz. She also interviewed The Whispering Town's author Jennifer Elvgren and illustrator Fabio Santomauro.

In September, Jill at Rhapsody in Books reviewed The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman. This is ultimately a love story that takes place in Italy during World War II, providing a poignant glimpse of what life was like for both Jews and non-Jews in Fascist Italy.

Three delightful links from Behrman House: Robyn Fantich’s Jewish Values Challenge card set review was featured in The Bookjed Digest from The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. Their favorite videos: Make Prayers by making music can be found here. And from the Behrman House Blog: 8 Icebreakers for the New School Year.

Among the recent treats on Erika Dreifus's My Machberet: a high-schooler's dispatch from the Great Jewish Books Summer Program, Mark Shechner's review of David Shrayer-Petrov's Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories, and a spotlight on Barbara Krasner's new picture book about Golda Meir.

Heidi Estrin at The Book of Life podcast interviews author Jacqueline Jules and illustrator Durga Yael Bernhard creators of the picture book Never Say a Mean Word Again. The story takes place in medieval Spain in the Muslim city of Granada and was inspired by a legend about how the Jewish royal advisor Samuel Ha-Nagid "tore out" a man's angry tongue and gave him a kind one instead. It is a powerful story of conflict resolution, as relevant today as it was centuries ago, and very timely for the High Holidays.

Chaya Rosen, of Art and Writings of Destruction and Repair, discusses writing as a tool of self-transformation with Yael Shahar, the author of A Damaged Mirror. When is story-telling redemptive? What do names have to do with teshuvah—with returning to our better selves? And how does writing bring out the deeper answers to the questions we can't consciously ask?

Michael Felsen shares his article, "A Philosopher’s Take on Jewish History — For Teenagers," published over at The Times of Israel.

Kathe Pinchuck shares two links with us this month:

Find links to the JBC's reviews of titles mentioned in this month's Jewish Book Carnival posts below:


What’s Your Intention?

Sunday, September 14, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Lodro Rinzler is a 2013-2014 JBC Network author and a contributing columnist for such publications as The Huffington Post and Marie Claire. The former director of the Boston Shambhala Center, Rinzler teaches and lectures throughout North America.

Technology is a tool, like a hammer. You can use a hammer in a positive way, placing a nail in a wall and hanging beautiful art, or in a negative way, bashing someone’s head in. The hammer itself is not good or bad, it is our intention in using it that makes it so. The same can be said for technology.

Connecting to others through technology can be an overwhelmingly positive thing. Take, for example, protestors tweeting injustices half a world away, such that news channels can follow up in order to receive on-the-ground updates. I teach meditation classes, and thanks to video sharing technology, I can offer that tool for peace and presence to thousands of people I would not have access to if I was limited to meeting with everyone in-person. Perhaps more poignantly, I recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post detailing my experience with depression and suicide that went viral, leading to many many people sharing their own stories and finding support in appropriate channels.

On the flip side, technology can be used in a hurtful manner. Take the new ways of cyber-bullying that we did not have to deal with a generation ago. Rumors have always been around but now we can propagate them anonymously and in ways that millions can read. Plus, the Internet never sleeps so we can procrastinate nonstop. Whether it’s Wikipedia, Facebook, or online shopping, we all have some way that we prefer to avoid our work or our present reality.

In my work as a meditation teacher I always begin by asking people what their intention is for meditating. Meditation is hard and people tend to get disheartened unless they are very clear about why they want to do it. And I’m a firm believer that in all of our activity we always have either a conscious or unconscious intention. One leads us to a joyful existence, the other leads to trouble.

I’ll give you an example. You might want to go out with friends on a Saturday night. Also, you might drink, and likely dance and/or talk to members of the sex you’re attracted to and maybe even make out or something. That’s cool. Really. I’m all for it, if you consciously intend to do those things, after actual reflection.

More often than not we go out with friends, launch into a new relationship, or jump ship from one job to another without a clear understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing. We never pause and develop a conscious intention and, as a result, things tend to get messy down the road.

To return to our example you could have had a rough week and you go out straight from work. No time to pause and reflect, and try to live with a conscious intention. So you drink too much to forget the jerks you work with, then because you drink too much you end up tripping over yourself while dancing, making a fool of yourself around people you want to make out with, and continue to drink to avoid dealing with any of these rough emotions. You end up sick and regretting the whole experience.

Let’s step back and do the same scenario but with a conscious intention. You leave work but you decide to take a respite first. You go for a walk or sit in a park. You take some time and reflect on your job, allow for the transition from work to fun happen, and then contemplate, “What is my intention for tonight?” After a few minutes of returning to that question you realize that you just want to connect with the friends you’re going to see because you don’t get to see them enough. You head out and instead of getting wasted you enjoy a few drinks with them, relax together, and reconnect. Whether you dance or meet other people or not it’s all okay because you’re living in line with your conscious intention.

When you live your life in line with conscious intentions, as opposed to unconscious ones, you live a happier, more connected life overall. To return to our discussion about technology, you can catch yourself when you’re about to click tabs over to spend some time on Facebook and ask yourself, “What’s my intention here?” Have you been meaning to check out photos of your friend’s wedding? Or are you just looking to mindlessly distract yourself? The more we ask ourselves why we do what we do, the more we can put technology to use in ways that help us make a positive difference in the world.

If we can learn to be very conscious with our intention about why and how we engage our technology, as well as the rest of our life, the ramifications are infinite.

Lodro Rinzler is the author of the bestselling The Buddha Walks into a Bar . . ., the award-winning Walk Like a Buddha, and the new books The Buddha Walks into the Office: A Guide to Livelihood for a New Generation and Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation. His columns appear regularly in The Huffington Post and Marie Claire, and he has been featured in numerous publications, including Bloomberg Businessweek, Real Simple, Tricycle and the Shambhala Sun. He is the founder of the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, a leadership training and job placement organization.

The ProsenPshat: Week of September 8th

Saturday, September 13, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Between National Suicide Prevention Week and the thirteenth anniversary of September 11th, it was a somber week, but a reflective one. The Jewish Book Council examined how suicide affects Jewish families, communities, and the writers who depict them, and how 9/11 has become rooted in our memory—and our literature. We also commemorated the promulgation of the Statute of Kalisz, which granted Jews safety and autonomy in medieval Poland, with a Poland & Polish Jewry reading list—a predictably mixed collection of uplifting tales and tragic stories, memoirs, and history.

      

To lighten things up, 2014-2015 JBC Network author and Visiting Scribe Stuart Rojstaczer, author of The Mathematician’s Shiva, offered two humorous and introspective compositions, musing over what makes him a Jewish writer—a ponderance prompted by a joke about his cat—and chuckling over an “imagined” one-act play featuring his mother and his manuscript.

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

Stuart: And what is it?

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

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

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


Our hearts were also warmed by another conversation between parent and child in the conclusion to Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman’s interview of Joel M. Hoffman, author of The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor. Following up a sophisticated and accessible discussion of the Biblical canon and the implications of the texts that missed the cut, father and son shared a sweet moment of mutual pride and admiration—broadcast to all our readers!

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

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

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

JMH: That’s not a question.

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

JMH: I love you, Dad.


Our own Carol Kaufman, editor of Jewish Book World magazine, interviewed New York Times journalist Joseph Berger about his new book, The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America. Joe shared his perspective on the American Hasidism after thirty years of reporting from their communities, and where he thinks it may be heading.

With their large families, Hasidim are growing at a breathtaking rate and as a result Orthodox Jews could become a majority of Jews in New York in 20 years, changing the community’s liberal, cosmopolitan profile. Despite the attention they get, defectors are still a tiny slice of the Hasidic population. The way of life is so all-encompassing that it is difficult for skeptics to leave. The Internet’s subversive impact, however, may upset such calculations.


Fictional journalist Rebekah Roberts also reports form the Hasidic world in Julia Dahl’s crime novel Invisible City, discovering what might be her own mother’s past as she follows the clues surrounding the gruesome murder of an anonymous victim in a Brooklyn scrap yard.

It was about shared experience, but also about shared mythology… The fear of being a Jew. The cultural baggage, the long legacy of hate and murder and discrimination. The rootlessness, the desperate need for self-preservation, and of course, I don’t really know. I only know the baggage of being me. But part of it, I think now, is being a Jew.


The book not to miss from this week: Oscar Mandel’s Otherwise Fables dazzled its reviewer—and her kids! Mandel’s timeless, original tales delight without dumbing down, delving into the world of fantasy without losing the reader along the way.

Unlike any other book that I have reviewed for Jewish Book World, when I received Oscar Mandel’s Otherwise Fables, my young kids peered over my shoulder and asked what I was reading. We then took turns reading aloud some of the forty-six bite-sized stories that start off this collection, a moment as magical as the tales themselves. These “Gobble-Up Stories” hearken back to Aesop, not only in brevity and abundant use of talking animals, but also in their ability to make you look at the world around you just a little differently.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, September 12, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014 | Permalink

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

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

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

You reading my novel?

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

Stuart: And?

Rachel: Sit down.

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

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

Stuart: And what is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart: Roochela.

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

Stuart: Vladimir Volynsk, Poland.

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

Stuart: In Vorkuta, near the Barents Sea.

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

Stuart: I needed it to be near the ocean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel: Penguin Books bought it? When was this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart: A movie of the book?

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

Stuart: Maybe. I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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Book Cover of the Week: From Bombolini to Bagel

Wednesday, September 10, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

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

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

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Why I’m a Jewish Writer

Tuesday, September 09, 2014 | Permalink

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

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

“Yiddish,” I said.

“Your cat knows Yiddish?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Joel M. Hoffman

Tuesday, September 09, 2014 | Permalink

by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

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

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

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

LAH: For example?

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

LAH: What else jumps out at you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

JMH: That’s not a question.

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

JMH: I love you, Dad.

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

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