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From 9/11 to Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Permalink

Journalist Mike Kelly’s newest book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, chronicles the aftermath of the Hamas suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Jerusalem on Feb. 25, 1996. The book traces the capture of the key bomb-maker and the efforts by the families of two Americans to hold Iran accountable for financing the bombing and training the bomb-maker – only to discover that the American government was trying to block them. He will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, not long after the twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed in a pile of twisted rubble that was seven stories high, I leaped from a Hudson River pier in Jersey City, New Jersey, to the deck of a tug boat. An hour later, after crossing the choppy Hudson on the tug, I walked into the smoky landscape that came to be known as “Ground Zero.” Little did I know that my Hudson River trek would eventually lead me to a street in Jerusalem and more rubble.

Terrorism is personal. Yes, we speak of terrorism in sweeping, impersonal terms – of body counts of the dead and wounded, of the names of groups that claim responsibility for an attack somewhere, of the geo-political issues that may change in the aftermath. But ultimately, terrorism is about losing someone – of a sudden, murderous death taking someone’s life and leaving a family with an eternal hole in its collective soul.

I knew this, of course. Certainly, I instinctively sensed it. (We all do, don’t we?) But it took time for me to embrace the full dimension of how personal terrorism could be.

As a journalist, I have covered my share of terrorist incidents. But in the years after the 9/11 attacks, and as I traced the story of terrorism from Ground Zero, to Southeast Asia, to the West Bank and Gaza and Israel, to Iraq and to Washington, D.C., I felt I was missing something. Yes, I had written about the larger issues of terrorism – of the numbers of dead and injured, of the rising number of terrorist groups, of the difficulties facing political leaders in America and elsewhere in dealing with this phenomenon. But I felt I needed to go deeper.

And so, I went back to a corner on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, where a suicide bomber from the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, detonated a bomb aboard a commuter bus on the morning of Feb. 25, 1996, killing 26 people and wounding more than 40.

Two young Americans died in that bombing, Matthew Eisenfeld of West Hartford, C.T., and Sara Duker, of Teaneck, N.J. They were in love and talking of getting married. They are together now, eternally buried, side-by-side, in a Connecticut cemetery. Years later, I decided to return to their story. In the unfinished lives of Matt and Sara, I found a deeper story of unremitting pain and the still unfinished search for justice by their families.

It was a story that took me to the streets of Jerusalem, to the Gaza Strip and to a dusty West Bank refugee camp where a 19-year-old Palestinian man (a boy actually) was recruited as a suicide bomber. From there, I followed the story to the White House, to the U.S. Department of Justice, to Congress, to the FBI, to the State Department and to a federal courthouse. But ultimately, it was in the living rooms and kitchens of the families where I found the heart of this story – and the fact that each life taken by terrorism becomes a deep wound in the life of a family.

This is the real story of terrorism – a story all too often overlooked.

For more information about The Bus on Jaffa Road as well as a video and an excerpt, please check out www.mikekellywriter.com.

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Read an Excerpt from Lore Segal's Half the Kingdom

Monday, November 10, 2014 | Permalink

Last year, we were excited to feature Lore Segal—of whom we're adoring fans here at Jewish Book Council—and her newest novel Half the Kingdom, which was published in hardcover by Melville House in October 2013. We were even lucky enough to interview her! Now we come with more good news from the Lore Segal front: in honor of last week's paperback release of Half the Kingdom (get excited book clubs...), we not only have an excerpt from the book to share with you, but we're also giving away FIVE copies of the book. If you want to get your hands on one, it's quite easy, just enter here. The winners will be selected at random on November 18th. [Note: This contest has now ended.]

The below excerpt (pages 116-120 of Half the Kingdom) has been reprinted with the permission of Melville House.

Ilka Weiss lay on the sofa with her legs up. She asked for a blanket. Little David helped, impatiently, to tuck it around his grandmother’s legs. He said, “So, go on.”

Maggie said, “Let Grandmother rest,” but Ilka said, “So the next time King David went down to fight those Philistines ...” and Maggie said, “Mom, Jeff and I stay away from the fighting.”

“Mommy,” said little David, “you can go. And take Stevie. Stevie, stop it.” Baby Steven’s newest skill was turning pages and he was practicing on the King James Bible on Grandmother’s lap.

“Not to worry. I know the story in my head. But let’s let Mommy and Stevie stay, because we’re coming to the baaaad stuff.”

“Go on,” the little boy said.

“King David,” went on Ilka, “was a great soldier, the soldier of soldiers, only he was growing old. King David was tired. His spear was an encumbrance.” Grandmother Ilka demonstrated the difficulty with which the aging king raised his weapon. “His armor was too heavy for him. Climbing the hill, he had to reach for one little low bush after another because his balance wasn’t what it used to be. He watched with a thrill of envy—with a thrill and with envy—how his young soldiers ran ahead while he stood and just breathed. Couldn’t tell if it was his hiatus hernia, his heart, or an attack of anxiety be- cause they all three felt the same.”

“And,” little David prompted.

“And Ishbi-benob, a Philistine of the race of giants, was wearing his new armor. His spear weighed three hundred shekels.” Grandmother lightly swung the idea of its superhuman weight above her head, “and he was going to strike King David down when—Stevie if you don’t leave King James alone, Grandmother can’t check the name of the fellow—here he is in verse 17: Abishai. He came and struck Ishbi-benob to death.”

“Mom!”

“Sorry,” Ilka said. “And King David’s men said to King David, ‘You’re becoming a liability. Next war, you’re staying home.’ And there was another war . . .” Ilka looked apologetically at her daughter, “and there was another giant. He had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot—which is how many digits, quick!”

“Twenty-four.”

“Very good. And this giant with his twenty-four digits just laughed at King David, and mocked him.”

“Why?” asked little David in a tone of strong disapproval.

“Why? Why indeed!” said his grandmother. “Because King David was old? Because he was a Hebrew? Just because he was on the other team? But King David’s nephew—his name was Jonathan—came running, and Jonathan knocked that mocking, laughing giant down just a little bit. Knocked the wind out of him.”

Little David suggested, “They should have tried talking it out,” in which he was going to remember being reinforced by a hug from his mother, and his grandmother’s kiss on the top of his head, for both women were against striking people dead, and the younger believed there was something one could be doing about it.

“They should have talked,” Grandmother Ilka agreed, “without precondition. And now,” she went on, “King David got really, really old and stricken in years and they brought him a blanket and another and more blankets but he could not and could not get warm.”

“How come?” asked little David.

“Because he was old,” Grandmother Ilka said. “And King David’s men said to him, “Let us go out and find you a beautiful young girl to lie with you.”

“What for?” asked little David.

“To make him warm. The blankets hadn’t done any good. So they sent out throughout all the land and found a beautiful young girl. Her name was Abishag the Shunammite and they brought her to the king.”

“Did she want to come?” asked David.

“A very troubling question,” said his grandmother.

“I always thought it was horrible,” said his mother.

“Yes, it was! Well, hold on, now. You know,” she said to David, “how your mommy had to rush me to Emergency, and then I was in the hospital, and had to go for rehab, and your mommy brought me back, and last night I had to go to Emergency again, and your daddy is coming in half an hour to take you and Stevie home, and Mommy is going to stay and take care of me? Maybe Abishag was one of those people who stay and take care of people, like your mommy, because she is good, which is a great mystery to the rest of us.”

“Mom, don’t,” said Maggie irritably. “I do it because I want to.”

“Which,” said Ilka, continuing to address the child, “is another mystery: Good people don’t think they are being good when they like doing a good thing. If they did it with gritted teeth, then they would think that it was good! Isn’t that funny of them?”

The little boy was listening to the old woman with an alert, bemused look.

“And Abishag,” continued his grandmother, “was young and beautiful and she cared for King David.”

“And made him warm.”

“No.”

Intrigued? Want to continue reading? Buy a copy of Half the Kingdom here.

Braided Stories

Friday, November 07, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jennifer Rosner wrote about her novel-in-progress and also a gene mutation, a motherly connection, and the power of string. She is the author of the picture book, The Mitten String (Random House, 2014) and the memoir, If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard (Feminist Press, 2010). Jennifer has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council'sVisiting Scribe series.

Strings figure not only in the imagery but also in the overall structure of my writing. Both my memoir, If A Tree Falls, and my novel-in-progress, Hidden, have “braided” structures: the weaving of multiple perspectives (and in the case of my memoir, multiple time periods).

A braided form - though admittedly unwieldy when compared to a narrative with a singular point of view – enables the reader unmediated access to the experiential life of multiple characters in a story. This is important when the story cannot be known in its entirety by any single character, or when the writer needs to limit the complexity of a character’s thought (as when the character is a very young child). In Hidden, both of these factors are at play.

A woven structure can reflect and support a characters’ fragmented mentation. Texture can be infused through form as well as through content. Brenda Miller’s thoughts on challah, set in juxtaposition to her thoughts on the braided essay, seem apt here: “As a child, I knew only that the braided bread simply tasted better than ordinary bread, the way texture will often affect flavor, and the way presentation and form can sometimes offer sustenance in itself.” (Brenda Miller, The Braided Heart)

The braided form can have its pitfalls – switching perspectives can feel disruptive to the reading experience, and there is the risk that a reader will become more attached to one voice over another and want to skip around. (Confession: this happens to me, as a reader and as a writer of braided stories, more often than I care to admit!)

But just as I attempt to braid challah for my children on Fridays (gluten free, in our household – no easy task!), I attempt to weave the stories of my characters together, tying the strings – some intact, some frayed and broken – that symbolize the connections and disconnections marking our shared human experience.

Jennifer Rosner's writings have appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford University, and is editor of the anthology, The Messy Self (Paradigm Publishers, 2007). She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, November 07, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Judging a Book by the Discussion

Thursday, November 06, 2014 | Permalink
Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

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. 

What separates a good book discussion from a blah one? When you've left your book club feeling like you had a really good conversation, what is it that set it apart from previous conversations? Was it the depth or thoughtfulness of the comments? The sharing of ideas and personal reflections? Something you learned or that you thought about in a new way? 

Book groups, actually, are one of the few places, outside of a classroom, where these kinds of conversations occur. They are, by nature, often a comfortable setting in which people are inspired to read and think, share ideas, respond to the ideas of others, and start new conversations – and they can be on any topic. So while book groups are fun and social, an informal place to sit back, take off your shoes, and pore over the contents of the book in your lap, they are also place of education and study. 

 So many books can inspire a great conversation, and sometimes completely unexpectedly. When many readers look for a book to read with their book clubs, it's often a work of fiction or possibly narrative non-fiction in the form of a memoir, biography, or history. A good book from one of these genres is a wonderful catalyst to a lively, passionate, thoughtful conversation. However, books from other genres, many of which are not considered to be good "book club books", can also provide an interesting reading experience and an engaging discussion. 

Take a book like Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book. This is a book of scholarship and Jewish thought that explores and elaborates on characters in the Bible. Not a book that most book clubs choose on a regular week. But when you view it as a character study of figures with whom many people already have some familiarity, it can become the centerpiece of one of those thoughtful and interesting book group talks. If this kind of conversation sparks your interest, JBC Book Clubs developed a reader's guide for Biblical Images for The Global Day of Jewish Learning (next Sunday, Nov. 16), both for a single chapter and for the entire book, which can be downloaded as part of the toolbox at www.theglobalday.org

Another book that might get overlooked as "not a book club book" is Ruth Calderon's A Bride for One  Night: Talmud Tales. This book, a collection of stories from the Talmud accompanied by MK Calderon's own expansion of the narratives, reads like a short story collection that will raise questions and examination at every turn. For a book group looking for fascinating, thought-provoking stories (that also happen to have a basis in Jewish texts) to discuss, it's a book to consider (and MK Calderon will be speaking as part of The Global Day's 24x24 series, so you can watch her live!). 

 Of course, finding the right book for you or for your book group isn't simple. And finding a book that will touch off a spirited conversation is never a given, no matter how interesting, thoughtful, or popular a book is. But when you find one that works, it can be an invigorating and enlightening hour or two.

Doreen Rappaport Speaks on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Thursday, November 06, 2014 | Permalink

by Michal Hoschander Malen

Doreen Rappaport, author of numer­ous highly acclaimed books for children and young adults, spoke on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Great Neck Library, a public library in suburban New York. Her most recent book Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust is a comprehensively compiled and beautifully told recounting of numerous instances of Jewish resistance, of fighting back in ways large and small, of unbowing strength in the face of the Nazi onslaught, something so many are sadly unaware is also an important part of the Holocaust story. Of course, the huge, senseless, incalculable tragedy can never be denied and should never be forgotten. We have, fortunately, an ever-growing body of literature, reflected in the Jewish Book Council's reviews, testifying and bearing witness to cruelty and slaughter and the martyrdom which ensued. But Rappaport reminds adults, and more importantly their children, that there was another aspect to the Jewish experience of the time which we should remember with pride and glory and from which we can draw lessons important to our future survival and health as a people, that of showing resis­tance in any way possible and of showing, too, a kind of courage difficult to imagine in our day. She is convinced that today’s children need to hear the stories of pushing back and be inspired by them. Coupling survivor testimonies with stories of courage and resistance is an effective and telling way to teach young people about the way it was. She focuses on several types of resistance in her book and in her talk, some more dramatic than others, but all significant and vitally important including escapes, uprisings (in ad­dition to the well-known one in the Warsaw ghetto), sabotage, ges­tures within the camps such as the lighting of Chanukah candles, and the saving of children. This last, the saving of children, was vitally important to older Jews who knew that they would probably not survive. The push to smuggle, hide and otherwise save children seemed like the only hope for any possible future and was treated with the utmost seriousness. Rappaport spends much time writing and talking about this crucial and highly emotional topic.

Rappaport is not only a wonderful writer who knows how to bring history alive for a young reader through the written word, she is a lively and engaging speaker, as well, with a charming and welcoming style. Hearing her describe the process of birthing this book was positively fascinating. It began ten years ago, when she was in the process of writing a completely different book on Jewish-Americans. A librarian kept plying her, unasked, with materials about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Her mind was focused on the topic at hand but somehow, the unsolicited material caught her interest and the seed for Beyond Courage was planted.

Rappaport described the research for the project and cited help from librarians, experts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, two research trips to Israel, and the dedicated assistance of many survivors who were witnesses to the events described in the book. She noted the emotional connection she has made with some of these survivors and described what it was like to help them sort out some of their memories of that difficult time. Many are bril­liant and resourceful people and it is evident that they drew upon those traits in their resistance activities.

When the time came to write, there were many decisions to be made about what to put in and what to leave out. What actually constitutes resistance? It isn’t always an easy concept to define. Does it include self-help? Secret schools? Archives left for future generations? Diaries and records of daily life? Even just survival is resistance in its own way and luck plays a part in nearly every story. The definitions and decisions as to what to include were complex. Then came the fact-checking. Many of the events in this book are based on people’s recollec­tions and memories of a time already long ago and in a non-fiction book like this one, care must be taken to authenticate and verify every detail, not always an easy task.

As the book is geared to children and young adults, stories about children are featured. But framing these stories which can be harsh and uncomfortable to hear into a form that children can read and respond to in a positive way was a challenging task requiring a creative approach. At times, she noted, it helped to imagine scenes cinematically in her mind.

The gathering of the photographs, the culling of them and the placing of them within the text was also a challenging task. They help bring the book to life for the reader and are an important part of the learning experience but incorporating them into the whole for maximum effect was not a simple process.

The design of the book was also the subject of deep thought as the symbolism of the choices intertwined so thoroughly with the message being conveyed. As the Star of David is, in the minds of many, an important symbol, and as Rappaport felt it had been de­based and disrespected so often during the Holocaust years, it was important to her to redeem and “rescue” the Star in a symbolic manner within the pages of her book. She had many meetings with the book designer, who is a non-Jew, and was able to convey the importance of the concept. The Star is used creatively throughout the book from the cover onward as a graphic symbol representing hope and healing and the future of the Jewish people; when reading the book, it is worth noting the subtleties of this design feature and how it quietly enhances the overall message.

Audience response to Rappaport’s talk was warm and enthusiastic. Audience members asked questions and shared many of their own stories about World War II. Many were survivors themselves; one was an American soldier who was involved in liberating the camps. There were young people in the audience, as well, and this was noted appreciative­ly by Rappaport. She also drew atten­tion to all the material she was not able to include in this book and said she hopes to write more on the topic at a future date. She left the audience with one thought: all her books (there are about 48 of them so far, and the topics are wide-ranging) share a common theme, and this one is no exception: her theme is empowerment. Empowerment is vital; empowerment is all. Rappaport clearly left her audience feeling more empowered.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the children’s and young adult section editor of Jewish Book World.

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Book Cover of the Week: A Thousand Pieces of You

Wednesday, November 05, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Yesterday was not only the 2014 United States midterm elections; it was also the release date for the first installment in a new Young Adult Fiction series, Firebird:

A Thousand Pieces of You by New York Times bestselling author Claudia Gray has been long awaited in the literary blogosphere, which has taken a particular interest in the novel's book cover. It's not hard to see why.

Basking in comparisons to Cloud Atlas and Orphan Black, the novel's story sounds like The Amber Spyglass with cool new gadgets. Protagonist Marguerite Caine's parents are renowned physicists whose crowning achievement is the Firebird, a device that enables travel through alternate dimensions. When her father is killed, Marguerite pursues his murderer through worlds accessible only to those wielding her parent's invention. But with each new dimension she traverses, Marguerite's mission becomes less and less clear.

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String Imagery and Jennifer Rosner's Novel-In-Progress

Wednesday, November 05, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jennifer Rosner wrote about a gene mutation, a motherly connection, and the power of string. She is the author of the picture book, The Mitten String (Random House, 2014) and the memoir, If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard (Feminist Press, 2010). Jennifer will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

As I work on new writing projects, string imagery continues to have its hold. My novel-in-progress, Hidden, is about a mother and child, set during the Holocaust. The mother gets the opportunity to put her child in a convent for safety, but the act of giving her child away (even to save her) triggers debilitating emotions of all sorts. In my story, the mother struggles with connection for the rest of her life.

Strings figure into the story, but in nefarious ways. The mother stitches her child’s Jewish name into the seam of her security blanket – to let her know her given name and to hasten a reunion later – but this threading comes to haunt the mother in dreams in which her daughter is gagged, choked, and pierced as the stitches create additional risk that her child’s Jewishness will be discovered. In time, the child becomes a violinist (a player of strings), and music ultimately becomes an avenue for reconnection and healing, but along the way there is heightened risk of discordance, brokenness, and the giving-away of safe hiding places because of the sounds emanating from those strings.

Ties bind. In Hidden, I explore the complex need for human connections even as one’s survival may require their unraveling.

Jennifer Rosner's writings have appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford University, and is editor of the anthology, The Messy Self (Paradigm Publishers, 2007). She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

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Interview: Assaf Gavron

Tuesday, November 04, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Assaf Gavron is a writer and translator, and the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) Scholar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for 2014-2015. He is the author of seven books and numerous translations, including those from English to Hebrew of J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, Audrey Niffeneger, Nathan Englander, and Jonathan Safran Foer. Multi-talented, he is the captain of the “Israeli national football team of writers and poets,” according to his website (www.assafgavron.com), and a singer/songwriter with a band called “Mouth and Foot.” He has lived mostly in Israel, but has also spent time in England and Germany.

Jewish Book Council caught up with him by phone to discuss his most recent novel, The Hilltop, winner of Israel’s Bernstein Prize and the first work of fiction to grapple with the unauthorized hilltop West Bank settlements.

Beth Kissileff: You have a tremendous ability to por­tray different types of people in the book. The char­acters change throughout the book and the book chronicles their changes. There are two different baalei teshuvah, returnees to religious Judaism, Josh and Gabi. They are not stereotypes, but individuals. Even the Shin Bet informer is seen as sympathetic.

Assaf Gavron: Thank you, I’m happy you thought that way. Any novel, if it aims to be a good novel—regard­less of what the subject is—shows a variety of people in a place. There is a stereotype of a settler, but there is never one type. Also, a person is not one-sided or clear-cut. Not only do people change over the years, but at any given moment there are conflicts, and facets.

To write a novel, if you don’t display that variety you lose credibility.

With the settlers—with any group of people that others have clear opinions about—everyone thinks they know what the settlers think, but if you dig deeper, they are human beings with motives and histories and pressure and reasons, the different things that make up our lives. I like to do that with subjects that seem to be clear.

BK: This is one of my favorite passages. Can you comment on it? “Longing is the engine of the world. The beginning and the end. Longing comes with so much pain that can break you. Whatever we do, we’re broken vessels. Rabbi Nachman brought music out of longing. The heart beats and lets up. Longing—touches, and leaves.”

AG: This is one of the themes of the novel, in terms of this very basic connection settlers have to the land. Longing for physical land but also for a different time, a Biblical time when things were more clear, God would punish the enemy and so on.

BK: You are able to create sympathy even for people who do terrible things. One charac­ter, Nir, is a self-involved pothead who doesn’t help his wife at all; another, Gabi, beats his toddler. We learn from their emotions that they are not just stereotypes.

AG: I like to do that in a way, to confuse, to get away from simplicity with a character. We know we are supposed to hate Gabi, but we like him because Gabi is a likable character. A novel should do that; it should give a complex picture, not the easy one. Human beings are people, with a charming side and a horrible side. I never met anyone who is only a monster or an angel—it doesn’t exist. A realistic novel should show this complexity.

Some perceive the settlers as bad, violent, stopping the peace process, but you know, maybe there are some different people there. Maybe even if I don’t agree I can see where they are coming from.

Especially with the Middle East and conflict, people have opinions and don’t move. But some people change [and realize] it is a little more complex than what it seems.

BK: What motivated you to write?

AG: I wanted a more rounded view of Israel—those who are good, who inform, who fuck up, who lie and cheat, and who forgive.

I separate my political opinions from the book. I don’t think the book makes a political point or reaches a conclusion. Yes these settlements are against the law, but they’re still there forty years later.

I won’t spoil the end of book, but in the end the fight is still going on. Bottom line, the settlements are not something that I am supporting; I show the complexity.

BK: There is a scene when Gabi loses it with his son—a slow burning of anger, his whole life reacts with anger. And then there is a lovely reconciliation scene with someone he hurt badly in the army that could be read for the High Holidays as an example of repentance.

AG: If you are writing a novel about Israel, I think violence is part of our society, the way it affects people. Not everyone is violent, but I want this subject to be part of the personal life of the main characters. Gabi is not 100% violent, not a mean person, but it is part of him. There are gentle parts, loving parts, peaceful parts. That is Israel also, not only Gabi.

But Gabi has a burst of violence at the end: he takes part in the tag mehir [price tag at­tack]. I am hopeful that on the national level, we can show different sides, our gentle side our loving side, our reconciliation side.

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

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A Gene Mutation, a Motherly Connection, and the Power of String

Monday, November 03, 2014 | Permalink

Jennifer Rosner is author of the picture book, The Mitten String (Random House, 2014) and the memoir, If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard (Feminist Press, 2010). She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In my memoir, If A Tree Falls, and more recently in my picture book, The Mitten String, there is a character modeled after my great-great aunt, Bayla, who lived in an Austrian shtetl in the 1800s. Bayla was deaf and when she had a baby – whom she could neither see nor hear in the dark of night – she tied a string between them. When her baby cried, she felt the tug on her end of the string and woke to care for her child.

Since first hearing of Bayla’s story, string imagery has wended its way into my writing: braided strands of hair, violin strings, umbilical cords, the cilia that are meant to send auditory signals to the brain. Some of the imagery I’ve been drawn to is distinctively Jewish: the midwife’s string from a laboring mother’s bed to the synagogue’s ark door; the strings of the tzitzit, the straps of the tefillin wrapped around a wrist and the accompanying verse from Hosea 2:20: "You are betrothed to me in love and righteousness."

Perhaps my interest in Bayla’s string and others comes from my deep desire for motherly connection. My own daughters were born deaf as a result of Connexin 26, a gene mutation prevalent among Askenazi Jews. As a new mother, I feared a chasm between me and my girls because of the experiences we would never share. I was in search of ways to connect to them through the difference of my hearing and their deafness.

Searching for pathways of connection with my daughters – outside and inside my writing life – has led me to a deeper understanding of myself and my history, the ways I’ve experienced hearing and being heard. As our family begins this new year together, the closeness I have been able to forge with my daughters feels like a gift passed down through the generations, like a tug on the wrist that keeps us connected, even in the dark of night.

Jennifer Rosner's writings have appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford University, and is editor of the anthology, The Messy Self (Paradigm Publishers, 2007). She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

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