The ProsenPeople

Interview: Mary Morris

Thursday, November 12, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Jazz Palace brings the 1920s to life, entering Prohibition-era saloons with Al Capone, Louis Armstrong, and other the well-developed characters in a spellbinding story of poverty, race relations, romance, immigrants, migrants, and gangsters of Jazz Age Chicago.

Elise Cooper: What inspired the story behind The Jazz Palace?

Mary Morris: I spent twelve years writing this story, because it festered in me for a very long time. It grew out of an attempt to understand my dad, who was born in 1902 and lived through the subsequent 103 years. The Jazz Palace was by no means his story, but as an amateur musician who played piano, my father’s influence is in this novel. Since I left Chicago when I was eighteen and never came back, this is my way of heading back home.

EC: How and why did you bring Jewish cultural heritage into the novel?

MM: A lot of my personal journey is to regain my Jewish heritage. It was my way of understanding my past and history, since I am “100% Jewish.” My parents named me Mary because they did not want my name to be recognizable Jewish, and gave me a minimal Jewish upbringing.

EC: How did you relate this Jewish heritage to the black American experience of the 1920s?

MM: During that era in Chicago there was migration, immigration, antisemitism, and racism, and at the time Jewish and black Americans felt a certain connection. Louis Armstrong,for example, wore a Jewish star around his neck; he talked about a Jewish family giving him the money to buy his first instrument.

EC: What about the concurrence of the Jazz Age and Prohibition?

MM: Nothing was better for live music in Chicago than Prohibition. As Al Capone said, “People want booze and music, so that is what I am giving them.” Even though alcohol was illegal throughout the United States, in Chicago it was a thriving business. It was like a toxic soup that fed into the music. People would go from club to club to drink, dance, and hang out.

EC: Why does The Jazz Palace compare the experience of black musicians in the 1920s to living on a plantation?

MM: The gangsters owned the musicians. They were not free to go from place to place, and were at risk if they tried to play at a different club. Blacks were exploited, but in subtle ways—and if they tried to leave they faced horrific cruelty.

EC: How did you manage to describe the events of the story through music?

MM: When I described the boat accident, for example, words became the notes. It was like a song I was playing, since the sinking of the Eastland set all the other stories in motion: Benny meets Pearl, he is driven to go to the South Side of Chicago, and it historically happened just before the Jazz Age began.

EC: Since you mention Benny and Pearl, how do these characters find a release from the hardships they face?

MM: Remember both are deeply misunderstood by their parents, and feel like outsiders. They also both carry emotional wounds that need to be healed. Pearl finds her solace when she goes to the water, and Benny finds it with his music. They both lose themselves for a time and find peace.

EC: What do you hope readers will get out of the book?

MM: I want them to enjoy the story, the characters, and the music. People should learn that there were hundreds of clubs on the South Side of Chicago within one square mile. Chicago was the epicenter of live music until the recordings, the Depression, the repeal of Prohibition policies, and jukebox players helped to end the Jazz era. This book is an attempt to bring back that culture that has been lost.

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

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Allison Amend

Thursday, November 12, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Allison Amend, a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, is the author of the novels A Nearly Perfect Copy and Stations West, which was a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award. She is also the author of the Independent Publisher's Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love and the forthcoming novel, Enchanted Islands. She lives in New York City where she teaches creative writing.


Israel, A Story of Survival

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Eric Gartman posited how and why history can and should be both informational and interesting. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In the summer of 1997 I had the good fortune to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. One day several students rushed out between classes, spreading the news that a terror bombing had hit the city. Sixteen people were killed and a hundred wounded in two suicide bomb attacks at Mahane Yehuda, a popular fruit and vegetable market. I was horrified. But to my surprise, our teachers took the news in stride, saying in effect, Life must go on. We returned to our studies.

A couple days later I rode the bus past Mahane Yehuda. The market had been cleared of debris and was packed once again. I expressed my surprise to a young Israeli woman sitting next to me. “This is how it needs to be,” she told me. “Life needs to go on, we have to prove to the terrorists that they can’t beat us.” I was impressed by her fortitude. A few minutes later I got off at Jerusalem's central bus station. Another bus pulled up and its passengers disembarked. With the two busses emptied, the station platform was densely packed. I suddenly realized that it would be the perfect opportunity for a suicide bomber to attack. If there were two suicide attacks like those at the fruit market, the damage would be enormous. I panicked, realizing that my life might be in jeopardy. When I regained my composure, it occurred to me that this was the fear that Israelis lived with every day. It was a lesson I never forgot. I never experienced fear like that in America, even after the September 11th attacks.

Unfortunately, this is hardly an unusual story. It is a mere microcosm for what life is like for Israelis. They have to contend with fear and violence on a daily basis. Yet they survive. Indeed, at its heart, the story of Israel is a story of survival. Throughout its first decades of existence, the Jewish state faced numerous attempts at its destruction. The wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973 all brought Israel to the brink of annihilation. Surrounded by more numerous Arab states, Israel’s survival seemed very unlikely to contemporary observers during these decades. Yet the Jewish state survived and prospered.

How it survived in the face of steep odds is the topic of my new book, Return to Zion. It is a story that needs to be told, for the courage and perseverance of those pioneers is a tale for the ages. And while there is no lack of books on Israel’s history, most of those books do not give any idea of what it was like for the people who experienced these momentous events. Have you ever wondered how the first settlers from Europe coped with their strange new environment? Or how it felt to witness the liberation of Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall? What was it like to be involved in Israel’s numerous wars?

These were the questions I wanted to know about. And since I could find no books addressing these issues, I collected eyewitness accounts of all the major events in the history of modern Israel in order to give the reader a sense of what it was like to live through those momentous times. I also wanted to explain that history in easy non-academic language. It is my hope through my book young people and non-specialists will learn the history of Israel’s survival in an engaging and entertaining manner and gain a new appreciation for all that they endured, and continue to endure to this day.

Eric Gartman is an intelligence analyst for the United States Department of Defense who has lived and studied in Israel and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.

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30 days, 30 Authors: David A. Adler

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

David A. Adler is the author of 250 books for children including the Cam Jansen and Young Cam Jansen Mysteries and the Picture Book Biography series. Among his many Jewish books are the Danny's Doodles books, The Number on My Grandfather's Arm, One Yellow Daffodil, The House on the Roof, We Remember The Holocaust, Hanukkah Cookies With Sprinkles, and A Picture Book of Jewish Holidays. You can learn more about his books and how to connect with David at and


That Man Suffer!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Pawnbroker: A Novel by Edward Lewis Wallant.

His feet crunched on the hard-packed sand. On his left was the Harlem River, across the street to the right was the Community Center, and beyond was the vast, packed city. At seven thirty in the morning it was quiet for New York. In that relative silence, his footsteps made ponderous, dragging sounds that were louder and more immediate in his own ears than the chugging of the various river boats or the wakening noise of traffic a few blocks away on 125th Street.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

It could almost have been the pleasant sound of someone walking over clean white snow. But the sight of the great, bulky figure, with its puffy face, its heedless dark eyes distorted behind the thick lenses of strangely old-fashioned glasses, dispelled any thought of pleasure.

Cecil Mapp, a small, skinny Negro, sat nursing a monumental hangover on the wooden curbing that edged the river. He gazed blearily at Sol Nazerman the Pawnbroker and thought the heavy, trudging man resembled some kind of metal conveyance. Look like a tank or like that, he thought. The sight of the big white man lifted Cecil’s spirit perceptibly; the awkward caution of his walk indicated misery on a different scale from his own. For a few minutes he forgot about his furious wife, whom he would have to face that night, forgot even the anticipated misery of a whole day’s work plastering walls with shaky, unwilling hands. He was actually moved to smile as Sol Nazerman approached, and he thought gaily, That man suffer!

He waved his hand and raised his eyebrows like someone greeting a friend at a party.

“Hiya there, Mr. Nazerman. Look like it goin’ to be a real nice day, don’t it?”

“It is a day,” Sol allowed indifferently, with a slight, side-wise movement of his head.

As he plodded along, Sol watched the quiet flow of the water. Ironically, he noted the river’s deceptive beauty. Despite its oil-green opacity and the indecipherable things floating on its filthy surface, somehow its insistent direction made it impressive.

He narrowed his eyes at the August morning: the tarnished gold light on receding bridges, the multi-shaped industrial buildings, and all the random gleams that bordered the river and made the view somehow reminiscent of a great and ancient European city.

Oh yes, yes, a nice, peaceful summer day; quiet, safe, full of people going about their business in the rich, promising heat. A dozing morning in a gNo fear that he could be taken in by it; he had the battered memento of his body and his brain to protect him from illusion.

Suddenly he had the sensation of being clubbed. An image was stamped behind his eyes like a bolt of pain. For an instant he moved blindly in the rosy morning, seeing a floodlit night filled with screaming. A groan escaped him, and he stretched his eyes wide. There was only the massed detail of a thousand buildings in quiet sunlight. In a minute he hardly remembered the hellish vision and sighed at just the recollection of a brief ache, his glass-covered eyes as bland and aloof as before. Another minute and he was allowing himself the usual shallow speculation on his surroundings.

Continue Reading »

From The Pawnbroker: A Novel by Edward Lewis Wallant. Reprinted with permission from Fig Tree Books, LLC.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Joseph Telushkin

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Joseph Telushkin, named by Talk Magazine as one of the 50 best speakers in the United States, is the author of Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History -- the most widely selling book on Judaism of the past two decades.  He has also authored the two-volume A Code of Jewish Ethics, a comprehensive presentation of Jewish teachings on the vital topic of personal character and integrity. In 2007, A Code of Jewish Ethics won the National Jewish Book Award as the Jewish book of the year. 

Rabbi Telushkin's literary output also includes four novels, teleplays and a screenplay. His recent book, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, is a New York Times bestseller, and has been hailed by the Wall Street Journal as "mesmerizing," and by Ruth Messinger as "an astounding personal biography." 

He lectures throughout the United States and Canada, and lives with his wife Dvorah in New York City.


30 Days, 30 Authors: Anita Diamant

Monday, November 09, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Anita Diamant is the Boston-based author of 12 books, including The Boston Girl, a New York Times bestseller, and The Red Tent, which has been published in 25 countries. Her other novels include Good Harbor, The Last Days of Dogtown and Day After Night. She has written six guides to contemporary Jewish life including The New Jewish Wedding and Choosing a Jewish Life. Her feature stories and essays have appeared in such publications as The Boston Globe, and Real Simple. She is the founding president of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh andEducation Center in Newton, Massachusetts, an inclusive and expansive 21st century reinvention of the ancient Jewish ritual of immersion.


800 Labor Day Fatalities

Monday, November 09, 2015 | Permalink

Bruce Jay Friedman shares the inspiration behind his latest book, The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories as a Visiting Scribe this week on The ProsenPeople.

Where do stories come from? A whim, an impulse, an observation. Some stories simply “happen,” alight on the shoulder, like a butterfly. A man, on the night of his honeymoon, meets a woman and realizes that he’s taken the wrong bride. A freeway driver hears the radio announcer say that there have been 800 Labor Day fatalities, which is close to the record. He yearns for the record to be broken. Yet another man helps an elderly woman home in the rain, and feels an irresistible urge to snatch a diamond pendant from her neck.

Some stories arise from voluminous reading, others from simply waking up in the morning and going about one’s business. In the lives of each of us, there will always be something that is unusual, that isn’t quite right. Most shrug it off; the writer pounces.

Once, in Jerusalem, at the King David Hotel, I was approached by an Arab room service attendant who begged me to help him escape from Israel so he could attend his brother’s wedding in Kew Gardens, Queens. I couldn’t help him, but the brief encounter stayed with me, and became the seedbed of my new book, The Peace Process. William Kleiner suffers a near-death accident in Jerusalem. An Arab, Mahmoud, rescues him, obligating Kleiner to arrange for and to join him in his escape to Queens. Throughout their torturous journey, the two fight, embrace, infuriate one another, and struggle for some mutual understanding. In many ways, their dilemma exemplifies the actual diplomatic peace process, as it groans along in the Middle East. The book, if the author is permitted to say so, is maddeningly funny.

Bruce Jay Friedman is a novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and screenwriter, widely considered one of the finest black humorists of American literature.

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History and Historians

Monday, November 09, 2015 | Permalink

Eric Gartman is the author of Return from Zion: The History of Modern Israel. He will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

History is a source of continued fascination for all peoples. History tells us where we came from, who we are, and offers answers to how we should live and what may happen in the future. It is therefore no surprise that as “the People of the Book,” Jews are enamored by history at least as much as any other people, and probably more so. Despite this interest in our past, and the myriad of books that come out annually, too many histories are stolid and laborious, lacking the emotions and atmosphere that dominated the lives of those who came before us. Why is this so? The biggest single reason is that those who are professionally tasked with writing history are tied to a system that deliberately discourages making those books easy and interesting to read. Academia demands professors write heavily-footnoted, dispassionate analyses intended to move the field forward. These works are required for every historian who seeks tenure in an educational institution. While these are necessary and important, they are not intended for the general reader, nor are they suitable for the non-specialist seeking to learn more about a particular topic. To address this issue, academia issues textbooks. We are all familiar with these-large, hardcover bound tomes that cover large topics and come complete with maps, tables, charts, and photographs. While they are written in simple language for the general audience, they are never intended to be anything but informative. You will not learn what it was like to be a soldier in the trenches, a farmer in the fields, a witness to a riot. Textbooks will not explain the hopes and dreams of those who make history, who drive the process. While they are important, in my opinion, they are not enough.

Take a look at the best-sellers in history on any book list. You will not find academic treatises or textbooks. What you will find are well-written, stimulating tales that are both important and interesting. Authors like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, or Jay Winik, to name a few, manage to tell us the stories of the past that are so important to our understanding of our world, and in a lively manner. These authors prove that history books can (and should) be both informative and interesting.

That was the approach I took in writing my forthcoming history of Israel, Return to Zion. It’s written in easy language, like I’m talking to the reader in a casual conversation. I’ve included eye-witness accounts of key events to give the reader a visual and visceral picture of what happened. There is some analysis as well, but it is not heavy-handed or laden with jargon. I’ve also included some information from newly-declassified documents not published elsewhere. It’s my hope that readers will find this style of writing engaging. We are the People of the Book, and I hope to have written a history worthy of our name.

Eric Gartman is an intelligence analyst for the United States Department of Defense who has lived and studied in Israel and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East.

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

Monday, November 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein.

Fifteen years after Fanny Goldstein established the first Jewish Book Week at the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library in 1925, a national board for the annual event—held in Jewish communities throughout the country by its second year—was founded, with Goldstein as chairperson.

The National Committee for Jewish Book Week quickly observed the need for a wider conversation on Jewish literature than one week of book events a year provided. Within three years of the Committee’s establishment, Jewish Book Week was expanded into a month-long national festival, the National Committee for Jewish Book Week became the Jewish Book Council, and the Jewish Book Annual, a journal reflecting on the year’s events, figures, works, and community interests impacting Jewish literature and literacy, was founded in 1942. The journal ran for 56 years before transforming into Jewish Book World, Jewish Book Council’s quarterly magazine of book reviews, author interviews, and editorial perspectives on each concurrent publishing season.

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

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

“That Jewish spiritual productivity could have been maintained in the past year in the face of the tragic conditions confronting our brethren in the lands dominated by the Nazi barbarians, is a tribute to the creative genius of the Jewish people which knows of no cultural sterility,” Mordeccai Soltes, then chairman of the National Committee for Jewish Book Week, begins his introductory report on “A Year of Fruitful Activity” and achievement in regards to the reading, writing, and publication of works of Jewish interest:

“The fact that the pace of production has been considerably retarded in these countries of oppression where all claims of basic human rights are being flagrantly flouted by the forces of evil and lawlessness, imposes upon those segments of world Jewry that reside in lands of equality and freedom a much larger share of responsibility than they have borne in the past for the nurturing and strengthening of Jewish spiritual values. American Jewry in particular must become vigorously productive, to counterbalance in some measure the wanton destruction of European Jewish communities that have previously served as reservoirs of Jewish cultural influence from which we have drunk freely.

“To satisfy this compelling need in some degree the National Committee for Jewish Book Week was organized. It has aimed to revive among both young and old the traditional zeal for Jewish knowledge and custom of setting aside time periodically for the reading of the Jewish Classics as well as contemporary works; to inculcate in families an attitude of eagerness to spiritualize the atmosphere in the Jewish home by assigning a place of honor in it to a shelf or case of Jewish books, and discussing their contents informally around the family table; to further the judicious practice of augmenting constantly the collections in libraries of synagogues, schools, Centers and other Jewish institutions, and utilizing them to enrich the programs of clubs, study circles, formal classes, discussion groups, etc. Finally, it was felt that by extending the circle of readers more gifted authors would be stimulated to devote themselves assiduously to Jewish writing, thereby contributing ultimately towards the elevation of the standards of American Jewish literature.”

Others pointed to the significance of Jewish literature to the religious and spiritual experience of Judaism in the United States at the time—and since: “Jewish Book Week should serve to make us aware of our deficiency, to call our attention to worthwhile Jewish literature which is available, to foster within us a greater sense of responsibility as patrons of the Jewish book, and thus to help cure our pathological condition of spiritual illiteracy,” Israel Goldstein, then president of the Synagogue Council of America, chimes in.

“We generally speak of ‘creative writing.’ But there is also ‘creative reading,’” Louis Finkelstein adds:

“Creative reading is that type of reading which through the exercise of critical faculty and the demand for continually improved standards, stimulates writers to their best efforts. An age of creative readers makes for literature which is immortal. The periods of the great creative artists of the past may be said to have owed their distinction not merely to few particularly gifted men, but perhaps even more to the demands of a highly trained, intelligent, if limited public, able to influence the general taste.

“Our age cannot, generally speaking, be called one of creative reading, and today the most popular books are likely to be those of ephemeral value. The lack of interest in books on Judaism is a reflection of this general condition. Grave as the situation is for civilization generally, it presents a special danger to Judaism.I earnestly hope that Jewish Book Week will result in a larger public for literature on Judaism, including the real contributions that are now being made by writers in this country.”

Read the first volume of Jewish Book Annual below, or visit to browse the entire archive of Jewish Book Council’s earliest publications.

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