The ProsenPeople

Trying Not to Drown in a Glass of Water On My Way to Cuba

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Ruth Behar, the author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba and Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys, blogs for The Postscript on her Jubana grandmother and traveling to Cuba.  

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Ruth at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

Throughout the 1990s, when my grandmother Esther, my Baba, was still alive, I’d stop in Miami Beach to visit her on my way to Cuba. I was lucky to know all four grandparents. But Baba, my mother’s mother, lived the longest, to the age of 92. In her, I saw my closest mirror, for she was a thinker and an independent woman.

If I flew in early in the day, I’d drop my things in the guest room, where Baba liked to watch “Divorce Court,” and go running to Publix to buy groceries for her. She always claimed she didn’t need anything, but the refrigerator was empty and she was out of toilet paper. When I returned carrying several bags, she complained, “Who is all this for? I don’t need anything.” Saying "thank you" didn’t come easily to Baba. She only had respect for women who weren’t needy. Nothing was more pathetic to her than a woman so weak she could “drown in a glass of water.” Baba tried hard to be tough. But I knew her secret: she suffered from terrible nightmares, chased into dark alleys from which there was no escape.

Baba was part of a generation of Jewish immigrants who settled in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s. Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Ashkenazi Jews from Poland came on the eve of the Holocaust and found Cuba to be a hospitable place. Within a few decades, they built a vibrant Jewish world and had no wish to go north to the United States. Their children and grandchildren were born happy and healthy in Cuba, and they expected to remain on the island for generations.

Then Fidel Castro came along in 1959. First he snatched up the businesses of the wealthiest people, mostly Americans and some Cubans, including a few Cuban Jews. Soon after, he took away little mom-and-pop shops. The majority of the Jews had poured their hopes into these shops, thinking they offered a secure livelihood. That was true for Baba and Zayde; they had a lace store in Havana, below their walk-up apartment, where they spent every waking moment, and losing it was devastating. Along with most of the Jews of Cuba, my family fled to the United States. But the memory of the island scratched at our hearts.

Baba was from Goworowo, a shtetl near Warsaw. She had the yizkor book from her hometown and periodically she’d bring it down from the shelf and reread the stories of those who’d perished in the Holocaust. She got together with Yiddish-speaking friends from Cuba every Saturday afternoon to play kalukah, after attending Shabbat services at the Cuban-Hebrew Congregation. American Jews had given Cuban Jews the cold shoulder when they arrived in Miami, so the “Jubans” had built their own synagogue a few blocks from Lincoln Road. On a wall inside the sanctuary hung a picture of their beloved synagogue in Havana, the Patronato.

I never learned Yiddish, but fortunately Baba loved speaking Spanish as much as I did, so that was the language we spoke to each other. We should have spoken of profound things—of life and death, of loss and grief, of laughter and longing—but I was in a rush. Miami was a stopover for me on my way to Cuba.

Baba didn’t like that I was going to Cuba so much. She could understand going to Cuba for one or two visits. More than that seemed unnecessary, even suspicious. But I was obsessed with the small Jewish community on the island. Where once there had been 15,000 Jews, a thousand were left, almost all of mixed heritage or married into the faith. I wanted to learn all I could about these Jews who lived under tropical communism. They were more intriguing than “Jubans” like Baba, who lived in Miami Beach weighed down by their memories of all the hopes and dreams they’d had to leave behind.

Now I think back to all those times I said goodbye to Baba at the door of her modest apartment, sixteen blocks from the seashore, and I realize I lost my chance to learn her story and the story of her generation. There were so many questions I never got to ask. What had it been like to arrive in Cuba in a woolen coat and feel the lush heat of a Caribbean island caress your skin? What tropical fruit had been most amazing to encounter—a mango, a guava, a papaya, a banana? How did it feel to bathe in the ocean for the first time? To hear the trance-inducing beat of the drums calling the African saints, which can be heard in every corner of Cuba?

I try not to have too many regrets. I know I absorbed a great deal from Baba through the years. She didn’t live long enough to see my book, An Island Called Home, but she would have read it with as much devotion as she read the novels of Danielle Steele. She adored books and passed that passion on to me.

Baba would shake her head watching me schlepping the huge suitcases I took to Cuba filled with gifts. As I went out the door, she warned, “You’re going to get a kileh!” That was Yiddish for hernia. Now I know we each carried a different sort of heaviness that made us vulnerable. She was weighed down by memories, and I was going to Cuba in search of memories.

So many years later, I still travel back and forth to Cuba. Wanting to be strong for Baba’s sake, I never did tell her how there’s a part of me that’s always a bit scared about going to Cuba. What if a catastrophe befalls me there, will I be able to flee, as we did when I was a child? But I kept silent. I didn’t want to seem like one of those women that can “drown in a glass of water.” Now I imagine Baba looks out for me. She’s my guardian angel, making sure I come back in one piece.

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Into The Stew

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink

Elisa Albert is the author of the novels After Birth and The Book of Dahlia, the short story collection How This Night is Different, and editor of the anthology Freud's Blind Spot. She is a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fellow and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

People frequently ask us where a given novel came from, as though novels have clear origin stories (well, the daddy novel and mommy novel love each other very much, and they do a very special hug…). There is, alas, no simple way to answer this kind of question. I’m not trying to be coy or evasive when I shrug and change the subject, I promise. It’s just, well, how much time do you have?

Novels are noble and doomed attempts to answer very long, impossibly broad, and childish-in-the-best-sense questions. Why do we have to die? What’s up with this man versus nature thing? Why don’t I feel what I’ve been instructed to feel? Why do I love someone who doesn’t love me back? Why do we lie? Why can’t I stop thinking about X, Y, Z? Novels hopefully beget new, unpredictable questions, which echo long after you’re done reading. Novels are smarter than their authors. Novels are woven from almost untraceable sources. Novels sometimes reveal more than we wish they would. I think novels are magic that way. Good novels, that is, but “good” is subjective, so feel free to get angry and wag your finger in my face at a reading! Happens all the time.

I’m a voracious consumer of culture, but only what I absolutely want to consume. I feel no compunction to keep up with what anyone else thinks is important unless it speaks– no, shouts—directly to me, wherever I happen to be. The alchemy of how we find our way to connection with particular works of art at different times in our lives is not subject to will, untold eyeballs on social media notwithstanding. Timing is everything.

I went to a party at a writer’s apartment once, and the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were filled with every pristine hardcover novel the New York Times had reviewed over the prior decade. Most of the spines hadn’t been cracked. Mere set dressing, alas. It made me sad.

In a perfect world, our bookshelves would be idiosyncratic, singular as fingerprints. Each inner life fed a steady diet best suited to its unique metabolism. That way, finding commonalities on a friend’s bookshelf would mean a lot, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, sometimes I like things I’m “supposed to” like, more often I don’t; I’m not averse to trash, and it’s been a very long time since I forced myself to finish a book that does nothing for me. As a novelist, every single thing I read, hear, and watch goes into the stew. I can’t trace or diagram precisely how, but trust me. So, while what went into After Birth is by now long gone, blessed and ephemeral as eye contact on the subway, there’s a new novel in the offing, and it demands to be fed.

Herewith, a brief and somewhat random consumption survey of late. The next novel should be ready in, oh, shall we say three years? (I’ll aim for that, unless fate intervenes. The uterus is a mysterious joker.) Regardless, it all goes into the pot, and hopefully the stew will be tasty.

  • Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please. Adorable, if a bit of a bummer in making light of interventionist birth trauma and fear. Mostly adorable. Of her many accomplishments, the Upright Citizens Brigade is especially admirable. I love how she describes being asked by chirpy pseudo-friends, as her career begins to take off, “Can you believe it?” Yes, she deadpans. I can believe it. I’ve been working my butt off for years.

  • HuffPo article about addiction and connection, specifically a fascinating new rat study that seems to trace the roots of addiction not to the chemical grip of substances themselves but to lack of connection and community, which makes so much sense. I like to refer to these kinds of revelatory studies, confirming our most primal instincts, as Bears Still Shitting In The Woods.

  • Ani DiFranco show at the Egg in Albany. I’ve been to maybe thirty Ani DiFranco shows since my fellow Rohr Prize nominee and former camp counselor Ari Y Kelman introduced me to her music at Camp Ramah circa 1992. (Thank you forever, Ari.) It’s been thrilling to witness her evolution over the years, and more than a little uncanny to be aware of my own in relation. I brought my husband along to this one. He was a great sport, especially given the, ahem, intensity of crowd, the sing-along aspect, and my tears of joy throughout.

  • "Broad City." Adore this show. Makes me nostalgic for being young and careless in NYC. (But not too nostalgic.) What insouciant hilarity. “There’s no need to stress,” in the wise words of Ilana Glazer.

  • "Wild," the movie. Woman versus nature: what an idea. Beautifully done. Great story.

  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! This was one of my brother David’s favorite books. It’s been more than sixteen years since he died, and when a friend happened to recommend it, I realized: hey, it’s about time I read that. Delightful. I can feel David absolutely all over it. Reading very slowly so it lasts as long as possible.

  • Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy. A collection of poetry from a scarily brilliant poet. This conversation about the book between poets Joy Katz and Erika Meitner is an excellent examination of what Shaughnessy is up to. Devastating and celebratory and a welcome reminder of what poetry can do.

  • Us Weekly magazine. Just read on the train because I’m tired and truth be told tabloids relax me like a hot fragrant bath. Should I buy The New York Times instead? A cursory glance at the front page reminds me that I will be crying and/or buzzing with rage/fear/hopelessness if I involve myself too deeply with its contents, so… Us Weekly it is. I no longer recognize half the celebrities featured therein, which weirdly does little to lessen my total enjoyment of this dumb rag.

  • Ruth Fowler’s piece on Al Jazeera America, which offers an important overview of exactly what’s going ever so wrong with our society’s treatment of childbearing women. I’m grateful for Fowler’s ongoing confrontation of misogynistic taboos regarding women’s bodies in birth.

  • Rebbe, by Joseph Telushkin. I grew up with Telushkin’s books, and was curious to know more about Schneerson. What a delight to find, in this engrossing portrait, a riveting human being whose insight, intellect, and infallible ability to connect changed the face of world Jewry forever, one yechidus at a time. I happened by the Chabad Sukkah in Washington Square last fall, and felt compelled to duck in and say the blessings. The three young orthodox men inside were friendly but slightly robotic until I asked them if they’d read Rebbe. Then they stopped what they were doing, looked at me with surprise, and agreed: what a phenomenal book, what a phenomenal biographer, what a phenomenal subject. We probably didn’t have much else in common, me and those boys in the sukkah, but we connected for a minute, and exchanged genuine good wishes, as I went on my way I felt uplifted by our shared appreciation of Telushkin’s achievement, and renewed in the certainty that art and literature have the potential to unite us all, sooner or later, one way or another, if only we let it.

Read more about Elisa Albert here.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Boris Fishman

Monday, February 16, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

If you're a loyal follower of the Jewish Book Council (and you obviously are), then you're definitely already aware of Boris Fishman, one of our 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalists. The author of the debut novel A Replacement Life, Boris wrote about family history and victimhood for JBC's Visiting Scribe series, and the paperback edition of his book was featured as a "Book Cover of the Week" in January. He also wrote an article for the JBC to commemorate what would have been Bernard Malamud's 100th birthday last year: Bernard Malamud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age. And to top it off, Boris was a finalist for a 2014 National Jewish Book Award in fiction and will also appear at the final program in JBC's literary series Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation. Suffice it to say, we're fans of both Boris and his work! But in case you're not familiar with him, we have a short Q&A below to help you get to know one of our five finalists a little better. 

If you're just tuning in, be sure to visit our profiles of Ayelet Tsabari, Kenneth Bonert, and Yelena Akhtiorskaya as well, and check back later in the week to learn more about our fifth, and final, 2015 SRP finalist, Molly Antopol.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

A paradox: To write a good, true story, you have to fall deeper and deeper into it, into the characters, the setting, the storyline. But to write a good, true story, you also have to remain outside of it, to see its dramatic requirements with clarity and detachment, even coldness and impersonality. You have to connect, but not enmesh. It’s like love.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Some people change spouses. I change literary idols. In my teens, it was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the patron saint of the lovelorn and literary. My debut novel A Replacement Life came into life under the spiritual mentorship of Bernard Malamud. I am on to Graham Greene now. This makes sense to me — much as every generation needs a new translation of foreign classics, different stations in a writing career would seem to call for different guides.

Who is your intended audience?

Everyone. Is there an author who would answer differently?

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’ve just finished revising my second novel Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, which HarperCollins will publish in early 2016. It’s about an immigrant couple in New Jersey that adopts a boy from Montana who turns out to be feral.

What are you reading now?

I had a lull between hardcover and paperback publicity in January, and finally made up for lost reading time. I tore through about six books by Graham Greene; are there finer novels than The Heart of the Matter and The Comedians? Now, I am reading Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the great William Styron, who was a lot less great as a father than he was as a writer; James Agee’s A Death in the Family; several books about the Tohono O’odham Indians (I am teaching a workshop at their tribal college outside of Tucson in April); and Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession.

Top 5 favorite books

  • The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
  • Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
  • The Heart of the Matter and The Comedians by Graham Greene
  • Patrimony by Philip Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was running to catch the crosstown one day… I’m kidding. It’s not very possible to answer this question concisely. It decided me. I had tried my best to avoid it.

What is the mountaintop for you? How do you define success?

To make a living from writing fiction and creative nonfiction, and related endeavors (teaching, speaking, etc.). To combine it robustly with family life. Most importantly, to encounter novelty, challenge, and surprise with regularity in my work and personal life. To always have things to learn — even as it’s often so painful to go through the learning.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

There should be more. Because you are doing a highly unsocialized and also highly unpredictable thing. While the rest of the world goes off to work, you sit down in a chair wearing God knows what and start trying to make it rain. This would seem to call for superstition as urgently as a living room full of Soviet Jews. But I don’t really have any. (Superstitions, that is. I got plenty of Soviet Jews.) I wake up, make coffee, and sit down to read for two hours — to get hopped up on what words can do via what someone else has done with them. Ideally, I’m throwing down the book before having reached my daily quota because I am too impatient to work my own hand at the same. I write for 3-4 hours, longer if I am revising. All this has to happen before anything else, with minimal interruption. Everything the day brings afterward is easy.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

That Russian Jews are much more than merely funny. That Jews aren’t saints, and this hardly makes them less admirable — only more human. That good, page-turning stories can (I hope) co-exist with big ideas and high artistry. That labored-over writing is better and more important than writing that isn’t. That books say something no other medium can.

Boris Fishman immigrated from the USSR at age nine. He studied Russian literature at Princeton, was on staff at The New Yorker, co-wrote the US Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report, and has received a Fulbright to Turkey. He’s written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and many others. A Replacement Life (Harper) is his debut novel. He lives in New York.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 13, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Ask Big Questions: How Do We Connect?

Friday, February 13, 2015 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing 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.

Ilana Garon works as an English teacher at a public high school in the Bronx. She is currently on tour through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her first book, "Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?": Teaching Lessons from the Bronx.

Once, in the midst of a particularly bad breakup, I was counseled by a good friend to expect more from people I was dating. “You deserve better,” she told me, earnestly. “And when you expect it, that’s when you’ll be treated that way.”

Her observation was well-intentioned (and likely correct), yet it made me bristle. The idea of “deserving” has always rung false with me; it seems somehow entitled to think that way, let alone to expect that what people get and what they deserve will ever have anything to do with each other.

We come into all relationships with expectations. In professional relationships, these are expectations are for the most part universal, and clear: We expect a doctor to diagnose and treat our illnesses, a bus driver to conduct the bus along the appointed route as safely and quickly as possible, a garbage collector to retrieve our bagged trash on the appointed days. These expectations circumscribed within these roles are mostly unambiguous, and the possibility for misunderstanding is limited.

In emotional relationships, the expectations are far murkier. The Greeks exemplified the diversity and nuance of emotional attachments with multiple words for “love”: Agape, godly love or benevolence; Eros, sexual passion; Philia, friendship or affection between equals; Storge, love between parents and children. Strains within relationships of all stripes are often the result of a mismatch of expectations, both about the intensity and the very nature of love itself. We expect, implicitly, that our feelings towards others will be mirrored back at us; discordance between that expectation and reality leave us feeling imbalanced, hurt, and even angry.

But perhaps the most vulnerable we feel is not in having the expectations, so much as in conveying them to others. At least, that’s been my experience. It can be hard and scary to tell someone, “I love you.” It is harder still to ask for love in return, however basic and universal a human need it may be. To explain how we need to be loved is the hardest yet—perhaps because it requires more self-knowledge than many of us possess. To have reasonable and viable expectations of others requires us to be fully cognizant of our own wants and needs, and aware of what role—if any—another person can play in helping us to create the lives we want.

In that respect, it can feel terribly exposing to have expectations of those closest to us, when the threat of misunderstanding or rejection is ever-present. Yet, it is also imperative that we do so: To be open to meaningful human connection, one must convey oneself fully and vulnerably to another person, making one’s own expectations known, as well as being ready to receive the expectations of another reciprocally and empathetically.

It’s scary to have expectations of others, to constantly subject oneself to the possibility of being hurt. “We all make mistakes,” I wrote in a (slightly overwrought) email to the ex who had spurned me, “but we have to tread carefully with those we brush closest to in life and love.” And in the end, it’s what we must do to make any meaningful connections in life—maintain our expectations that we’ll be treated with empathy and care, and meet each new encounter with all the optimism and hope that that entails.

Ilana Garon lives, writes, and teaches in New York City. She is the author of "Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?": Teaching Lessons from the Bronx.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Thursday, February 12, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yesterday we spent a little time getting to know Sami Rohr Prize finalist Kenneth Bonert, author of The Lion Seeker. Today we hear from Yelena Akhtiorskaya, whose debut novel Panic in a Suitcase was published this past summer by Penguin. Below, Yelena reveals her true feelings about books and numbers, the dark moment in her life when she decided to become a writer, and her penchant for great book covers and great book titles. If you're in the New York-area and would like to see Yelena live, check out JBC's May 19th Unpacking the Book event, "Soviet Roots, American Branches."

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Making it consequential. The job is to find the weight, make it true. Basically, the hardest part about fiction is making it not. Aside from that, grammar. It can be, tricky.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Inspiration is a very positive word, too positive for me. Certain things are inspiring, sure, like Amelia Earhart, but inspiration feels like a dead end street. I’m much more motivated by the horrors.

Who is your intended audience?

Every human being on planet earth, with the exception of my loved ones. Of course the reality is pretty much exactly the inverse.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m working on a novel, which, if I ever finish, I’m going to put out under a pseudonym.

What are you reading now?

Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things and Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. When I don’t choose a book based on its cover, it’s the title.

Top 5 favorite books

I have to gripe here. I’m sorry. It’s not just a problem with lists, but more general—any interaction between books and numbers upsets me.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was in drama class in junior high school, which I don’t think is a coincidence, since that was when life was the darkest and there wasn’t a glimmer of hope.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

The mountaintop is a mountaintop. Seriously. I’ve been at sea level too long. The most banal version of success I can muster is being in a position to quit my obligations and go live on a mountain, or, okay, in a hotel on a mountain in Switzerland à la Nabokov. I’d just write and take walks. There are people who think I’d tire of this pretty quickly but I would be very determined to prove them wrong. I guess this just reflects financial success, but I think the notion of success should stay in the financial realm.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

At first it’s pen and paper. Everything goes to shit when the computer gets involved. The computer is connected in a not very convenient way to my psyche. Everywhere outside of my open Word doc, the id runs amok. Inside my Word doc, the superego reigns supreme. If I wrote only on the computer, I’d go into word debt. I’d probably have to start deleting other people’s masterpieces.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

A new perspective on absolutely anything.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in Odessa in 1985 and raised in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Posen Fellowship in Fiction, and her writing has appeared in n+1, The New Republic, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.

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Unexpected Guests in Fiction

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Permalink

This week, Judith Felsenfeld, the author of  Blaustein's Kiss blogs for The Postscript on the reaction of some friends and family to her work of fiction. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

A couple of days after Blaustein’s Kiss, my collection of short fiction, is published, my cousin Roz phones to say how much she loves the book but — miniscule correction — the ‘shayna kupp’ issue came up around Thanksgiving, not a Seder. On Facebook, a former roommate posts that her memories of the years she and I hung out together differ substantially from mine. She unfriends me. In an e-mail, Aunt Flo, who moved to Oaxaca in 1985 and is not often in touch, calls the book a fabulous read and expresses her gratitude that finally someone understands where she’s coming from, family-wise. My niece shoots me an e-mail: Really enjoyed your stories. Quick fact check - Mom was no longer playing the cello when Dad passed away. She had given it up several years before, due to lower back issues.

Why is it, I wonder, that these friends and family members assumed I was writing about them? Why are people driven to insert themselves into works of fiction, particularly the fiction of someone close to them? Is it a kind of hubris, validation? There I am in black and white on the page, therefore I exist?

In the interest of clarification: I write fiction. However, as in the stories in Blaustein’s Kiss, there was a much beloved grandmother in my childhood; a boy in my son’s class contracted diphtheria; friends of mine set up a not-for-profit that provides sanctuary for abused women; I once sat next to a mouthy little girl on the Broadway #104 bus who entertained the entire back row with funny, inappropriate remarks; a neighbor’s kid took oboe lessons; the death of our family dog was a totally wrenching experience; we carry a quilt in the back seat of our car. It comes in handy.

Recipes for Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

With the publication of Kristin Hannah's new book, The Nightingale, earlier this month, JBC Book Clubs worked in cooperation with St.Martin's Press to create a book club kit with a Jewish twist. The kit includes historical information, discussion questions, recommended reads, and, of course, recipes! You can download the full kit here, but a few of the recipes are shared below. 


(adapted from Saveur
Baguettes play a role in the resistance as well, hiding Isabelle’s underground newsletters and delivering blank identity papers to Viann as an unusual filling, Henri’s maman’s special recipe. And, well, it’s France. 

1 ½ cups tap water, heated to 115° F
1 tsp. active dry yeast
3 ¼ cups all–purpose flour
2 tsp. kosher salt
Canola oil, for greasing bowl
½ cup ice cubes

Use a whisk to combine the yeast and water in a bowl, and let sit about 10 minutes, until the yeast is foamy. Add in flour and stir with a fork until a dough forms. Add salt and begin to knead on a lightly floured surface, until dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.

Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl and turn over once to make sure that all sides have a light coating of oil. Cover with with plastic wrap and allow to rise for an hour, until doubled in size.

Roll dough into a rectangle and fold all four sides in toward the middle (first with the long sides, then the short) to create a rounded packet. Seal the seam and return the dough, with the seam facing down, to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap again, and allow to rest until it doubles in size again, approximately one hour.

Place a cast iron skillet on the bottom shelf of the oven and preheat to 475 degrees.

Transfer dough to the floured work surface, and divide it into three equal pieces. Form 12-14 inch ropes out of each piece. Cover a cookie sheet (or any rimless baking pan) with parchment paper and dust it with flour.

Evenly space the ropes of dough across the sheet, and then create dividers between the dough by pulling up the paper in between each loafand use rolled kitchen towels under the paper pleats to help the loaves keep shape as they rise. Cover the pan loosely with plastic and allow the dough to rise again for about 45-60 minutes, until doubled in size.

Uncover loaves, remove the towel dividers, and straighten the paper to space the loaves out. Make four slashes (about ¼ in. deep and 4 in. long) on each loaf with a paring knife. If you are using a baking or pizza stone (recommended), slide parchment paper onto the stone and place in the oven. Add ½ c. of ice cubes to the skillet on the bottom shelf of the oven (to create steam which helps create the soft inside before the crusty outside bakes). Bake for about 30 minutes, until the bread is golden and crispy (it should sound hollow when tapped).

Naturally Fermented Sour Dill Pickles

Viann does a lot of pickling and canning to make her garden harvests last through the winter. One of Viann’s pickled vegetables is cucumbers, so why not serve pickles at your book club? 

For this recipe, we asked writer and pickler Jeffrey Yoskowitz for advice. Learn more about Jeffrey following the recipe. 

1 quart jar
1 lb of small, fresh pickling cucumbers (Kirby or Persian cu-cumbers)
1 T non-iodized kosher salt
1-2 Bay Leaves
3 peeled but whole cloves of garlic
2-3 sprigs of dill
1 dried chili pepper
¼ tsp coriander
¼ tsp mustard seed
¼ tsp black peppercorns
a few cloves
Any other spices and herbs you want to add (optional)

Fill the jar halfway from top with cold water. Add salt, tighten lid and shake to dissolve salt. Add garlic, dill and spices. Pack quart jar with cucumbers. Make sure vegetables are below water level—you can wedge them under the neck of the jar.

Leave the jar out on the counter at room temperature with the lid on, but not too tight. After the first two days, “burp” the jar (open lid to relieve pressure). After 3-4 days (for half-sour pickles), 5 to 7 days (for full-sours) or whenever you like the flavor, transfer the jar to the fridge. Enjoy!

Jeffrey Yoskowitz is a writer, pickler and entrepreneur. He was recently named to Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 list in Food and Wine and was a guest chef at the James Beard House kitchen in both 2013 and 2014.

In 2012, Yoskowitz co-founded The Gefilteria (, a venture re-imagining Old World Jewish Foods through unique dining experiences, talks and demos and production of an artisanal gefilte fish sold around the country. He got his start in the food world at Adamah Organic farm in Litchfield County, Connecticut, where he worked as a farm fellow and returned a year later as a pickle apprentice.

Yoskowitz has written about food and culture in publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Tablet, Gastronomica, Meatpaper, The Forward, among others. Through his writing and research he has become an authority on food and culture. In 2016, his forthcoming cookbook The Gefilte Manifesto will be published by Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Kenneth Bonert

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

With the recent announcement of the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalists, we thought you might want to learn a little more about the five outstanding writers who made the list. Last week we introduced you to Ayelet Tsabari, who wrote a collection of short stories called the The Best Place on Earth. Today we turn our attention to Kenneth Bonert, whose novel, The Lion Seeker, won a 2013 National Jewish Book Award. Set in South Africa, Bonert's novel stretches across the 1930s and 1940s, following a Jewish family as they seek to find their place in a new culture, having escaped their war-torn homeland. 

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I think writing well depends on being able to concentrate for long periods of time. You need to have patience, you need to make a sustained effort, to stick with it when it doesn't seem to be working. If your mind wanders, you need to train it to come back to the task at hand. I suppose it's like a kind of meditation. Eventually you come out the other side and find those moments of soaring excitement and clarity that carry you along. That rush of creative expression––it’s what I live for.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Life and books. I mean that the inspiration for me often comes from a combination of two things: having the spark of a good idea, and then finding the right language to transform it into a story. The ideas usually come from life, from situations. It could be something that disturbs me, like a reaction to an argument, or gnawing on a difficult problem, or else having an insight into how someone's personality works . . . or it could be a flash of memory, like the smell of rain in the woods, or a face passing on a city street . . . some flicker of feeling that I want to try to capture with words and make permanent, a moment that sets the machinery of the imagination humming into action.

But then the inspiration for the language and the structure of the story, I almost always find in books. By reading carefully, I see what other writers have done and the possibilities are opened up to me, different avenues I might try, experiments that will in turn generate their own inspirations until I've found what I'm looking for.

Who is your intended audience?

I don't have an audience in mind when I write, at least at the beginning stages. I believe that would be a mistake. You need to write for yourself and not try to please others. You need to write the kind of book that you would honestly love to read. Of course you hope that others will enjoy the book also, that it will find a large audience, but I think it is folly to chase after that. You would only be trying to guess the tastes of complete strangers, and that is surely a mug’s game.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I'm close to finishing a novel which is a kind of sequel to The Lion Seeker, although it’s a very different sort of novel, one that draws more on my own direct experiences of growing up in South Africa, which I left at the end of high school.

What are you reading now?

In fiction, it's a long novel called An Act of Terror, by Andre Brink, a South African writer of Afrikaner background. I'm finding this to be an absolutely brilliant novel. It’s the story of a bomb plot in apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s and it is both riveting and profound. Unfairly perhaps for the book, it was overtaken by history since just as it was published the apartheid state came crashing down, and the story was no longer as relevant to the reading public, which is a great shame because it really is masterful. I'm full of admiration for Mr. Brink at the moment.

In non-fiction, I'm reading The State vs. Nelson Mandela, by Joel Joffe. This is an interesting and well-written account of the famous 1963 treason trial, by the man who was one of the defence attorneys. I became especially interested in the trial when I learned just how many of the principals involved were Jewish. Not only among Mandela’s co-defendants but also, on the opposite side, the rather unsavoury prosecutor trying to convict him.

Top 5 favorite books

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Wall by John Hersey
  • Operation Shylock by Philip Roth

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I can't think of a specific moment. It's something I've always wanted to do.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Success for a novel is measured four ways, I think. Critical success, commercial success, longevity, and influence.

For me, the top of the mountain would be to write a novel that attains all four.

However, the “top of a mountain” also implies that there is some end point to a long journey. This is not the way I look at what writing is. Rather, it’s a joyful art that I would never want to stop practicing. I can’t imagine ever not writing novels. Writing is a way of life, and to live this way is success for me.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I write in a room with few distractions, just a desk and a computer that is not connected to the internet. Nothing on the walls. The desk is an old one, a gift from my father. I also like to wear the same set of clothes, my work clothes. When I put them on I feel myself getting into the right frame of mind for work.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I would hope that they would experience what I have experienced when I come across a book I really love: a story that sweeps you along, characters that come alive. A deep book that you can’t put down, and afterward you don’t look at the world quite the same way anymore. You want to re-read it again, in order to savour favourite parts.

Kenneth Bonert’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Grain, and The Fiddlehead, and his journalism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications. Born in South Africa, Bonert is the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants. He now lives in Toronto.

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Book Cover of the Week: Immigrants Against the State

Tuesday, February 10, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It's been a while since we featured a nonfiction title on The ProsenPeople's Book Cover of the Week series, so how's this for a break:

Kenyon Zimmer explores how the anarchist movement at the turn of the twentieth century enabled American immigrant communities—Italian and Jewish, in particular—to shed their nationalist loyalties without enforcing assimilation into "the Melting Pot"; instead embracing differences and diversity as they adapted to a new life in the United States.

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