The ProsenPeople

My Very Unorthodox Kabbalist

Monday, December 21, 2015 | Permalink

Recently named Opinion Editor at the Forward, Sigal Samuel is the author of The Mystics of Mile End, a novel bending standard concepts of community, gender, and Jewish mysticism. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Image from An Illumination of Blessings by Ilene Winn Lederer

To study Kabbalah, you’re supposed to be (a) forty years old, (b) married, and (c) a man. I am none of these things. Luckily, I grew up with a dad who was a professor of Jewish mysticism and was willing to share its secrets with me.

Raised in Montreal’s Orthodox community, I attended a school with strict gender norms. I was expected to obey all of Judaism’s 613 commandments. But, as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take an interest in the religion’s more esoteric branches.

That didn’t stop my dad from giving me lessons in mysticism. His after-school classes, which usually took place around our dining room table, began when I was about twelve and continued throughout my high school years.

I loved these Kabbalah lessons. What I didn’t love was the way Kabbalah seemed to replicate the gender norms I was trying to escape. It wasn’t just that women were not supposed to be studying the medieval mystical texts; the texts themselves included some pretty sexist ideas about women.

I remember the day my dad introduced me to the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life—the ten divine vessels that gave rise to the entire physical world. He explained that, according to the Kabbalists, some vessels are male and some are female. The male ones emit divine light, while the female ones only receive it. I protested, stamped my foot, felt insulted and cheated and angry.

That feeling was still with me when, years later, I sat down to write The Mystics of Mile End, my novel about a dysfunctional Jewish family obsessed with climbing the Tree of Life as a way to become one with God. Although I had a lot of love for the Kabbalistic texts, I knew that I wanted to question and subvert their gender norms. Plus, from a writer’s perspective, I almost had no choice but to do that: How could I show a hyper-educated, contemporary, urban Montreal family engaging with Kabbalah and not have at least one of them grapple with its sexism? In our postmodern world, that wouldn’t be believable.

All of this might go some way toward explaining why, in my novel, the most successful Kabbalist is not David, the family patriarch who also happens to be a professor of Jewish mysticism, but his daughter Samara. She doesn’t fit the profile of a Kabbalist at all, especially since (a) she’s a young college student, (b) she’s not married but in a relationship with another woman, and (c) she is, of course, female.

In addition to pushing back against the Kabbalists’ sexism (including the idea that men are active and women are passive), Samara develops some pretty… unorthodox methods of climbing the Tree of Life. Let’s just say it involves club-hopping, binge-drinking, and giving blowjobs in dark alleys.

At this point, a medieval mystic might object that those aren’t, ahem, bona fide ways of becoming one with God. But it’s the twenty-first century, and if we really want to imagine what a mystical attempt would look like nowadays, we’ve got to be willing to do some gender-bending and genre-bending—ideally both at once.

Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives and writes in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

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New Jewish Book Reviews December 18, 2015

Friday, December 18, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at the Jewish Book Council:

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Interview: Julian Voloj

Thursday, December 17, 2015 | Permalink

with Rachel Pinnelas

The graphic novel Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker was inspired by the real-life story of Benjy Melendez, former gang leader who initiated a gang truce, fostered the de­velopment of hip-hop, and simultaneously discovered his Jewish roots. Author Julian Voloj shares the details of his creative pro­cess and how his own background helped him to understand his protagonist. See re­view on page 40, and read the unabridged interview online.

Rachel Pinnelas: How did you come to meet Mr. Melendez? Did you seek him out? Was it by chance?

Julian Voloj: My background is in photography, and I have always loved graphic novels. I did a series on Jewish diversity, so every time I found an interesting personality in New York, I always try to photograph the person. I read a profile of Melendez in Tablet: he's a marrano Jew who was with a gang in New York. I was very interested in meeting him, so I asked the journalist to put me in touch.

I met with him in the South Bronx. I knew the area very well from my first solo exhibition, Forgotten Heritage, but I didn't know the gang history there. Melendez told me his story, which I wanted to encapsulate in a single photograph for my project. He's a character, as you can imagine from reading the book, and as we chatted I decided I really wanted to do more with this story. Initially I did a fumetti, which is like photo comics. But I thought there was so much more to this story and I saw a full movie, in a way. I connected at that point with an old friend of mine who did illustration for a book I did back in the nineties. She worked in television, but had never done a graphic novel. And so I put one and one together and said, "You know what? I have this idea. Would you be interested in doing a graphic novel?”

I really believed in the story so I said, “You know, worst case scenario, I do a Kickstarter. I will find a way to publish it.” I met Melendez back in 2010, and 2011 was the fortieth anniversary of the gang truce he had facilitated as a Ghetto Brother. So I said, "Listen Benji, you have all these contacts. Can you get to these people and maybe we can organize a reunion?" And so until the reunion, it wasn't really clear if we could get this done. We only had maybe eight pages illustrated, but it was a very exciting concept, and at the reunion all these people who had been involved in the Hoe Avenue peace meeting were so gratified that someone cared about it—even this white Jewish guy from Germany! They all followed up afterwards with their own photographs and to share their stories, and suddenly we had all these materials for the graphic novel. From that moment on, I knew it was going to happen.

RP: Is there anything about your own personal history that you related to in Mr. Melendez’s?

JV: So much of his life has been engaged in the struggle to find his own identity, and I grew up Jewish in Germany, which has its own complexities. There were certain aspects where I tried to find of my own identity so I can identify with this whole coming-of-age challenge. But also in the Latino aspect, and the Jewish aspect. He's also a people person; I consider myself a people person, but we're very different of course. So it's like, very different circumstances. But also, I feel like the sanitized New York we live in today has a lot to do with interest in this book. New York is now so clean and so corporate and so chain store-ish.

RP: What sparked your interest in the history?

JV: I have always been interested in the history of New York, and of the Bronx, especially. In 2006 I had my first solo exhibition, Forgotten Heritage, at the Bronfman Center in New York, showcasing photographs from a Jewish neighborhood if the Bronx. I explored and studied the history of the area for this project, so I very much consider myself a history buff. I also come from an educational background, so I wanted to educate but still make it entertaining. Visitors to the exhibition responded that they had learned a lot from it, which is exactly what I wanted to do: teach people on a historical subject without making it boring.

RP: As a photographer, what was it like working in another form of visual narrative?

JV: In a way, it was really like doing a movie—without having to deal with all the costs and such. We really recreated the Bronx. It was great that there were people like Joe Conzo—the first hip hop photographer, owing to the fact that he was the only one with a camera in his community at that time. Conzo gave us some of his photographs. So we took photographs, from which we created all of these whole landscapes for the book. It’s wonderful to see that: those years that you have been your head. Unfortunately, I’m not as talented as an illustrator, so I have to rely on other people, but I'm a storyteller, so it worked very nicely that we could get this together.

RP: A lot of people equate graphic novels with their colorful comic book counterparts, but Ghetto Brother is in black-and-white. Can you tell me about that choice?

JV: I envisioned it in that way to capture the retrospective quality of the story. When you have movies about World War II, they are often filmed in black-and-white. If you see a color image from the period it looks weird somehow, though of course in reality everything was in color. When I thought of this situation in the Bronx that was so, so dark, I felt like black-and-white would show a little bit of the desperation from this time. In a way it also symbolizes the way gangs saw each other in black-and-white terms: you're either with me or against me. Interestingly enough, when we were looking for a publisher, some people really said they didn't like the illustration because it's very non-American. It's very European in that sense. American publishers wanted it in color; they wanted it to more closely resemble The Warriors, because they thought it would be more marketable the more similar it was to a popular movie. But we were very happy with the images as they were.

RP: As an artist yourself, what was it like collaborating with another artist? And as a writer?

JV: It was a very interesting experience. It was also perfect timing, because I think the way we worked on this would have not worked ten years ago. I think I often drove the artist crazy because I continued to get input from Bronx locals who lived in this time and wanted to make sure the book was very authentic, very real. For me it was very important to have every detail right. So the illustrator and I were on Skype, phone calls, and email together constantly. The process took a lot of negotiation because I had certain things in my mind, and the illustrator had other things in her mind.

A great example is how we dealt with list of all the gangs who participated in this Hoe Avenue peace meeting. We were not sure if this list is complete or not, or how to best represent the list in a graphic novel. We came up with the idea to show the gang jackets, and ended up “listing” the participating gangs that way. It’s basically the first full page of the whole story. We did an event at the Bronx Museum, and several people in the audience were wearing their gang jackets. They came away really impressed at how accurately and realistically we had captured not just the story by the visuals with it, and that made all the difficulties and details of project worth it—even driving everybody involved crazy along the way.

Rachel Pinnelas is an Associate Editor at Dynamite Entertainment. A comic fan from a young age, she started her professional career in the industry as a Marvel intern, and has worked for both Marvel and DC Comics. She lives, reads, and writes in New York City.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Recap

Wednesday, December 16, 2015 | Permalink

Over the course of Jewish Book Month, 30 leading authors shared writing advice, book recommendations, and their ideal Jewish literary dinner companions (Missed a day? Catch all of the authors' videos here). So who did Alice Hoffman, Etgar Keret, Dara Horn, Bruce Feiler and more choose? And who were the most popular dinner guests? 

Complete list of #30days30authors literary dinner guests (that doubles as an amazing reading list!): 

Abraham Joshua Heschel Geraldine Brooks Lore Segal
Adam and Eve Gertrude Stein Maimonides
Adelle Waldman Gluckl of Hamlin Margot Frank
Amos Elon God Marilyn Hirsch
Amy Bloom Grace Paley Mel Brooks
Andrea Dworkin Groucho Marx Melanie Landau
Ari Shavit Hannah Senesh Milton Steinberg
Arnold Lobel Harold Brodky Moses
author of book of Jonah Haviva Ner David Natalya Ginzburg
Avraham ibn Ezra Heinrich Heine Nora Ephron
Bartholomew (Nathaniel) Herman Wouk Norman Mailer
Baruch Spinoza Isaac Babel Philip Roth
Bernard Malamud Isaac Bashevis Singer Philip Roth and Nathan Zuckerman
Bill Watterson Isaac Rosenberg Proust
Bruno Schulz JD Salinger Rachel Adler
Carl Reiner Jeremiah Rebecca Goldstein
Chaim Potok Jesus Shalom Auslander
Daniel Mendelsohn Joan Nathan Sholem Aleichem
Danya Ruttenberg John Simon (Peter)
Daphne Merkin Jon Stewart Susan Weidman Schneider
David Adler Joseph Heller Susan Weiss
David Duchovny Judith Hauptman Sydney Taylor
David Grossman Judith Plaskow Tamar Ross
Deborah Eisenberg Judith Shulevitz Thaddeus (Jude)
Deborah Orenstein Judith Viorst Tom Segev
DM Pinkwater Judy Blume Tova Hartman
E.L Konigsburg Judy Dick Trina Schart Hyman
Edith Perlman Julie Orringer Vassily Grossman
Eric Kimmel Karl Marx Victor Frankl
Esther Hautzig King David Woody Allen
Etgar Keret Larry Gelbart You, the Reader
Franz Kafka Leon Uris

Book Cover of the Week: The Question of the Animal and Religion

Tuesday, December 15, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Jewish Book Council is just beginning to pack up our table at the 47th Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in Boston, where we've spent the past three days showcasing nearly 150 titles by AJS members published in the past year alone, and discovered some interesting titles and book covers while we're here! One in particular caught my eye:

University of San Diego professor of theology and religious studies Aaron S. Gross investigates the large-scale scandals at Agriprocessors, one of the world's largest kosher slaughterhouses located in Postville, Iowa, in The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications. Kudos to Columbia University Press for enhancing a book of serious scholarship with such a creative design for the cover!

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New Book Reviews December 11, 2015

Friday, December 11, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at the Jewish Book Council:

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8 Books to Preorder Over the 8 Nights of Hanukkah

Thursday, December 10, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Back when we first started the Eight Nights of Stories series here on The ProsenPeople, I mentioned a childhood friend’s family tradition of gathering to hear stories read aloud by the light of the shamash after lighting the other candles each night of Chanukah. (You should read it, really, it is a lovely post. There’s a Harry Potter reference in there for the true fans and everything.)

That same childhood friend is about to be a published author. His debut novel, Anna and the Swallow Man, comes out January 2016 from A. A. Knopf, and friends, it is a very, very good book. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either: Jewish Book Council’s entire staff has been coveting our shared advance copies since they arrived from the editor, and laudatory reviews are beginning to roll in across the publishing playground.

What I have personally enjoyed most in reading Anna and the Swallow Man, from the first manuscript to the first edition, is how much of the author’s boyhood imagination is present in this story. Entering the novel’s “realthereal” universe , in each moment of scintillated magic I recognize the make-believe games the author conjured under the crabapple trees and twisted mulberry boughs of our youth, fantasies culled from the works of Tolkien, Lewis, Barrie, Gaiman, Jacques, Dahl, and Rowling—and plenty of non-fantasy writers besides.

Beyond my own nostalgia, what I love most about those moments of recognition is how they emblematize the influence of exposure to great literature from an early age, not only through reading but from hearing books read aloud. Michal Hoschander Malen, Jewish Book Council’s children’s editor and (newly retired) school librarian, has written editorial after editorial on the importance of reading to and with children even through adolescence: her proof is in the countless students transformed into readers from the moment she put her voice to Charlotte’s Web in a classroom visit; mine is in the emerging literary career of an old friend—and many more, I hope, like him to come.

Anna and the Swallow Man sadly does not come out until several weeks hence, but I would encourage you to entice readers 12 and up—adults very much included—with a preorder of this spellbinding novel as a Chanukah gift.

In fact, there’s a full season ahead of great titles to await, so here’s a quick list of books to look forward to reading over the Festival of Lights:


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30 Day, 30 Authors: The List

Tuesday, December 08, 2015 | Permalink

Over the course of Jewish Book Month, 30 amazing authors shared their ideal literary dinner guests, writing advice, book summary tweets and more for our 30 Days, 30 Authors celebration. Enjoy the full roster of author videos here (listed in alphabetical order):

Interview: Anne C. Heller

Sunday, December 06, 2015 | Permalink

with Philip K. Jason

Anne C. Heller's skillfully pithy biography of Hannah Arendt sparked new questions about one of the most famous and controversial philosophers of the twentieth century at the Jewish Book Council.

Philip K. Jason: How did you come to focus on Hannah Arendt?

Anne C. Heller: I’ve been fascinated by the work and character of Hannah Arendt since reading her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, in college. For those who haven’t read the book, it is a history of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and finally totalitarianism in post-Enlightenment Europe, with the aim of proposing a new understanding of German and Eastern European persecution of the Jews, the rise of Hitler (and also Stalin), and the creation of the Nazi death camps: specifically, Arendt believed that the expansion of a kind of tribal nationalism in Europe, which rejected those peoples who didn’t speak a native European language, and the ascent of a frightened and rootless mass man who was ripe for plucking by mass fascist movements were to blame. She herself grew up as an affluent, assimilated Jew in Germany, was educated by that nation's most distinguished thinkers in the 1920s, and fled Hitler and the Nazis in the summer of 1933. Her thinking has great relevance for our times, and she is also a complex and intriguing personality: beautiful and apolitical when young, brave beyond description, always willing to think against the grain and on her own two feet. When my editor, James Atlas, asked me to write a brief life of Hannah Arendt as part of a series of short biographies he was editing, called Icons—which also includes Julian Bell on Van Gogh, Karen Armstrong on St. Paul, and Paul Johnson on Stalin—I was thrilled and also daunted. It took me two years to read everything she had written, conduct research about her life, and write the book.

PKJ: What were the most surprising things you discovered about her?

ACH: I began the book in medias res, with Arendt's coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann for crimes against the Jewish people, which took place in Israel in 1961. She attended the trial on an assignment for The New Yorker. she told a friend that, because she had left Germany before the Nazi regime committed its most monstrous crimes, she would not be able to forgive herself if she didn’t go and “look at this walking disaster [Eichmann] face to face.” The result was Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In it, she portrayed Eichmann as something of a halfwit and a “clown,” a mass man driven by petty-bourgeois (“banal”) ambitions, rather than as a monster, and she also wrote bitterly of the central European Jewish councils that she claimed cooperated with Eichmann and his minions to send hundreds of thousands of unknowing Jews to their deaths. The reaction to the book by her former friends and colleagues was instantaneous and fiercely vitriolic; even today, her reputation has not entirely recovered from the wound the book inflicted. What surprised me first and most was how thoroughly shocked and profoundly shaken she was by the almost universal opprobrium, given what she had written. The campaign against her was so strong that, at times, she feared she might be deprived of her livelihood or even deported. Why had she had not seen it coming? I wanted to know. I was also surprised by how indifferent to politics and world affairs she was in her youth, when she studied Greek, Latin, German philosophy, and—like her mentor, Martin Heidegger—Christian theology. She wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on kinds of love in St. Augustine. I was continually surprised by the beauty of her much of her writing—which can also be dense—and by her courage.

PKJ: If she is, how is Arendt — though iconoclastic — representative of her Jewish European generation?

ACH: She and her generation of German Jews could, and often did, think of themselves as Europeans rather than as Jews. She was brought up in Königsberg, Prussia. Her parents were well-educated, an engineer and a Paris-trained musician. She was raised to be thoroughly assimilated into German culture—as was her friend Kurt Blumenfeld, the director of the Zionist Federation of Germany in the 1920s, her classmate and first husband Günther Stern, and many other members of her age group throughout Germany. “The word Jew never came up when I was a small child,” she told an interviewer in 1964, and even late in life she could say (somewhat disingenuously), “I have always regarded my Jewishness as [simply] one of the indisputable factual data of my life.” She and her peers—including Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Löwenthal—were among the most finely educated and most cultured people the Western world has yet known. Without an exception that I know of, they were stunned and bewildered when the Nazi Party took power and many Europeans, seemingly suddenly, turned against outsiders, particularly Jews. More than a few, including Hannah Arendt, devoted the rest of their lives trying to understand what had happened. As a result, thanks to Arendt and her generation, we have received some of the greatest political, sociological, literary, and historical work of the twentieth century.

PKJ: Can you pin down her distinction (or cultural contribution) in a sentence or two?

ACH: She looked for what was unprecedented in human history, and all her work is a search for the elusive turning points in particular historical moments that have given us the moral world we now inhabit. Her political and moral insights and the political optimism she expressed at the end of her life are iconic and stunning. I’ll simply quote her. About refugees: “Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings–the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.” About totalitarianism: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.” About the death camps: "Everything was possible and nothing was true.” About thinking, with an acknowledgment to Socrates: “Since I am one, it is better for me to disagree with the whole world than to be in disagreement with myself.” And about new beginnings: "The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality,” or the birth of new human beings whose actions are free, limitless, and unpredictable.

PKJ: What do you most admire about her?

ACH: Her capacity for forgiveness, the clarity of her thought, and the beauty of her writing.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Alice Hoffman

Saturday, December 05, 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.

Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The Marriage of Opposites, Practical Magic, The Red Garden, the Oprah’s Book Club selection Here on Earth, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and The Dovekeepers. She lives near Boston.