The ProsenPeople

Max Baer, Real and Imagined

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jay Neugeboren shared his personal list of the Jewish sports heroes that made him feel more American. Jay is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I grew up during the years of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the forties and fifties, and I rooted especially for the handful of their Jewish players: Cal Abrams, Al “Goodie” Rosen, Sandy Koufax, and third base coach, Jake Pitler. I also rooted for Jewish athletes who were prominent in other sports: football, basketball, wrestling, tennis, table tennis, and boxing.

In boxing, my great hero was Max Baer, who, though he wore a Star of David on his boxing trunks, was only one quarter Jewish. His grandfather, of French-Jewish ancestry, was a butcher, and named his sons for the tribes of Israel. Max’s father, Jacob, was a butcher too, and his early education took place in Jewish schools.

Baer became a professional boxer in 1929. One year later, in a bout that scarred his heart forever, he knocked out a fighter named Frankie Campbell. Campbell, whose brother, Dolph Camilli, later became a star first-baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, never woke up, and died that night. Max was severely distraught, and in later years quietly put three of Campbell’s children through college.

In 1933, Baer, a contender for the heavyweight championship, fought against “Hitler’s boxer,” Max Schmeling, before more than 60,000 people, and it was for this fight—because of his anger at the news coming out of the Third Reich, and his pride in being part-Jewish—that he first put a Star of David on his boxing trunks, an emblem he would wear in every fight after that.

Schmeling was heavily favored, but Baer defeated him easily, and the referee stopped the fight in the tenth round, and awarded Baer the victory by technical knockout. But Baer, ever a showman, had his great moment just before the fight’s end. When he had Schmeling on the ropes, he called out, for all the newspaper reporters to hear: “This one’s for Hitler!” Then, in the lingo of the ring, he rang Max Schmeling’s bell.

One year later, Baer defeated Primo Carnera for the heavyweight championship of the world. Again the showman, at the weighing-in ceremony, Baer began plucking hairs from Carnera’s chest. “He loves me . . . he loves me not,” Baer said. During the fight, when Carnera dragged Baer to the canvas with him, Baer called out, for all to hear: “Last one up’s a sissy.”

Baer lost the championship a year later to James Braddock, but continued to fight until 1941, when he enlisted in the Army. His lifetime record was 72 wins (more than 50 by knockout), and twelve defeats.

Baer was also a movie star, and appeared, opposite Myrna Loy, in his first movie, The Prizefighter and the Lady, in 1933, and in nearly two dozen movies after that, the last one, The Harder They Fall, with Humphrey Bogart, in 1956. He also played the vaudeville circuit, often with another Jewish fighter, one-time light heavyweight champion, “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom.

Max Baer had three children by his third wife (including Max Baer Jr., of Beverly Hillbillies fame), and affairs with many women, including Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Mae West. He died at the age of 50.

Small wonder I was enchanted by this man, and by his wild, wonderful, and improbable life. And so I invited him to be a character in my novel, Max Baer and the Star of David. Although in the novel, all the data is accurate, the character of Baer is invented. I have also given Max two close friends: Horace and Joleen Littlejohn, a black couple—Horace as Max’s Man Friday and sparring partner; Joleen as Max’s housekeeper and tutor to his children—as well as a son, Horace Littlejohn Jr.

While non-fiction generally deals with the world of the probable, fiction deals with the world of the possible. Thus, a biography of Max Baer might aim to show us what his life was probably like, whereas my novel shows us what it might possibly have been but never was. The latitude and longitude of my novel true, but the life I’ve given to him is invented.

My hope is that the invented Max Baer of my novel will, for readers, be at least as real as if the real Max Baer had never existed.

Jay Neugeboren is the author of nearly two dozen books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, four collections of award-winning stories, and his most recent novel, Max Baer and the Star of David.

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Seating Arrangements

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Dinner Party: A Novel by Brenda Janowitz


Sylvia left the most difficult thing until the end. She had a habit of doing that—leaving things she didn’t want to do until the end. She’d done it before her wedding, deciding minutes before she walked down the aisle who would give her away in her father’s absence. She’d done it before Gideon’s Bar Mitzvah, deciding the day before who would light each of the thirteen candles on his cake. And she’d done it the year Sarah and Becca went away to college on the same day, deciding only two days before which parent would drive which girl.

She was doing it again now. The night before her guests were to arrive, Sylvia was finally tackling the seating arrangements. She knew the key to any successful dinner party was the placement of the guests.

She put each of the names on tiny little cards. There was her family: she and Alan, her daughters Sarah and Becca. As she wrote their names in her fanciest script, she couldn’t help but feel a tug of emotion. Another year without Gideon. She knew that his work with Doctors Without Borders was important, but she hated the idea of him spending the holiday all alone, in a tent with no electricity.

Next she filled out the cards for Becca’s boyfriend’s family. There was the Boyfriend, Henry, and his parents, Ursella and Edmond. The Rothschilds. She wrote their names slowly, carefully, adding a flourish to her script on the U in Ursella’s name and the E in Edmond’s.

Finally, she brought herself to make out cards for Sarah’s boyfriend and his mother. She wished that Sarah would break up with Joe. And she wished she hadn’t been guilted into inviting his mother. (She’d only done so after the poor woman had a near-breakdown in the market on Front Street.) If anyone could ruin this dinner party, it was the Russos. Sylvia hastily wrote out cards for Joe and his mother. She wrote them so carelessly, in fact, that their names were barely legible. Valentina looked more like Ballerina, which she most certainly was not.

Next came the tiny sterling silver apples that would hold each place card. Sylvia started with the easiest ones. She and Alan would each occupy a seat at the head of the table, hers closer to the kitchen so she could check on the food as the meal progressed. Next, the Rothschilds. The Rothschilds should each have a seat of honor, so that was easy, too. Edmond would be seated to her right, Ursella to Alan’s right, and Henry to her left. Once the guests of honor were placed, she stood back from the table to admire her handiwork.

Now came the hard part. Where would she put Joe’s mother? Valentina had never been to their home before, but Sylvia knew that she’d be the most likely to cause a scene. She always spoke a decibel higher than most other people, like Stanley Kowalski yelling for Stella. And who knew what sorts of things she considered proper dinner conversation? She would put Valentina on Alan’s left. Surely he’d be able to manage her throughout the course of dinner. Alan had a way of speaking very softly. As a child, he was cautioned to be seen and not heard. And now, as the head of pediatric cardiology for Connecticut Children’s Hospital, he was accustomed to people listening carefully to him. There was never an occasion to raise his voice; he always had the floor.

That left the girls and Joe. She put Becca next to her beau, and Sarah next to her. The only spot left for Joe was across the table from the girls, next to his mother. Maybe they would just talk amongst themselves.

From The Dinner Party: A Novel by Brenda Janowitz, on sale April 12, 2016, from St. Martin’s Griffin, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

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Surviving Leonard Nimoy's Superhuman Salute

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Kressel explored the Jewish sources underlying fantasy literature’s greatest time-traveling epics. He is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Legend has it that actor Leonard Nimoy, z"l, was rehearsing a scene where his famous stoic character, Spock, meets a fellow Vulcan for the first time. Rather than have the aliens shake hands, a very human gesture, Nimoy felt the pair needed to do something different. His thoughts went back to a powerful moment he experienced with his father in shul.

The High Priests, the Cohanim, have a special duty during the prayer service to bless the congregants. According to tradition, those descended from the tribe of Levi wash the Cohen’s hands, then the Cohen removes his own shoes. He covers his head with his tallis, recites a blessing, then turns to the congregants and raises his hands so that his palms face downward and the thumbs of his outspread hands touch. The fingers on each hand are split into two sets of two fingers to represent the letter Shin, for Shaddai, Almighty God. With his prayer shawl covering his hands, the Cohen recites the priestly blessing, and while he utters his words, the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, shines through the Cohen’s hands to bless the congregation. (The Priestly Blessing is popular in Christian liturgy as well, and various forms are used in Christianity around the world, but without the hand signs and head covering.)

Jews believe one should never look at the Cohen’s hands when he recites the blessing, for harm might befall a person if he does. Instead, we should cover our eyes, or turn our backs to the Cohen during the prayer. If a man has a child, he should take him under his own tallis, to bless him and protect him, just as God blesses and protects the congregation.

And so when Leonard Nimoy was a boy, he was in shul, and his father draped his tallis over him and told him not to look as the Cohanim recited the prayer. Well, Nimoy looked. And lived, long and prosperously. Ever after that moment, he became fascinated with this terrifying power the priests had to heal with a gesture, and so decades later, when he needed an alternative greeting for his Vulcan character, he suggested what is now familiar to Jews and gentiles across the world. A hand raised, palm forward, thumb extended, fingers parted between the middle and ring finger while saying, "Live long and prosper." Not too different from the actual blessing, "May the Lord bless you and protect you…"

Now, decades after Spock's suggestion, science fiction fans all over the globe still walk around blessing each other with a (slightly altered) ancient Jewish ritual. Up until about a decade ago, before the Internet made all answers a search away, its origins were known only to a few, mainly Jewish, fans.

Matthew Kressel is a short fiction writer and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow. His first novel, King of Shards, was released October 2015 from Arche Press.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Aviya Kushner

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Aviya Kushner and her book The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, a memoir of rediscovering in translation the Bible she knew by heart in Hebrew.

A warm congratulations to Aviya and the other four finalists: Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

Nonfiction demands an engagement with facts, and the challenge is to make information interesting. Sometimes the writer has to make the case that the seemingly arcane and nitty-gritty matters help us understand our world. The best nonfiction writing reframes reality and by providing essential context, makes the reader see the world we live in anew.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I became interested in the possibilities of nonfiction while working as a journalist in Jerusalem. I interviewed the 14-year-old brother of two sisters who were killed in the Dolphinarium bombing, and I could not stop thinking about him—and how his life was forever changed. Most journalists quickly moved on to the next bombing, because the news cycle focuses on event, but I felt that what happened to the brother after this tragedy was an important subject, and that how people live after terror was something worth exploring too. I realized that the essay was a place to explore aftermath, to look at the deep roots of events and to consider their longstanding effects.

Who is your intended audience?

I think the Bible should interest everyone—religious and secular—because it has shaped Western culture and has had a major influence on law, literature, politics, and finance. The Bible matters whether you are Jewish or Christian or Muslim or neither, in part because it has meant something so different to each of these groups. So my intended audience is intelligent readers who want to understand how different readings of the Bible have made our world.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m deep in a new book that takes place in the twelfth century. It was also a time of religious violence, and I am interested in one particular thinker who crossed boundaries of faith and thought.

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading many books of contemporary global nonfiction, for a graduate course I am teaching. I recommend The Fault Line by Paolo Rumiz, which I recently taught for that class. I also loved a recent novel titled The Big Green Tent by Ludmilla Ulitskaya, as well as the masterful novel The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin.

Top five favorite books?

It’s hard to choose, but here are some books I love:

The Collected Poems by W. H. Auden
The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai
And of course, the Tanach, especially the Book of Isaiah.

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

We were reading a Faulkner story titled “Dry September”; I was eighteen and a college sophomore. I remember that every time I read that story I thought something else happened, and in class, there were several different readings presented. I remember thinking “I want to learn to do that” and “I will give it the best shot I have,” and I have never looked back. I loved the idea that a writer could make the reader question everything she believed, and that one story could be read in such wildly different ways. Faulkner made me see the power of rumor and accusation, and he made me ask myself what I really thought. I wanted to be able to do that.

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

All I ever wanted was to continue writing. Doing that is the only definition I have of success. Being able to write the books I want to write is the mountaintop; I want to work hard and to write something that will last. I love how James Baldwin phrased it: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s all there is, to tell the truth and write well.

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

I often write my first and second drafts, by hand, in coffee shops.

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

I want readers to think about the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, and to consider what happened as the Bible became both the best-selling and most translated book in human history. I hope readers will be inspired to read translations from different faiths and centuries, and to think about how language shapes how we read and what we believe.

Aviya Kushner teaches in the nonfiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. She is also a contributing editor at A Public Space and a mentor for the National Yiddish Book Center.

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My Jewish Heroes

Monday, March 28, 2016 | Permalink

With the recent release of his latest novel, Max Baer and the Star of David, Jay Neugeboren is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn in the years following World War II, the two great loves of my life were reading and play ball. I’d go to the library at least once a week, take out four books—the maximum number allowed—and read them, return them, and take out four new books. When I was eight years old, I wrote my first novel—a 70-page book about a family of pigs (decidedly un-kosher, my boyhood imagination, since we observed kashruth in my home) that my mother typed out for me, and from which I read a new chapter every Monday morning to my fourth grade class.

When not reading, I spent as much time as I could playing ball. I lived during the years of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams, and within walking distance of Ebbets Field, and so I got to see my heroes—Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella—play several times a year.

And at least equal to the Dodgers were great Jewish athletes, living and dead, I read about, and by reading about them could believe it possible for a Jewish boy not only to become a star athlete, but while doing honor to his heritage also become famous in a world where Jews could generally go as far as their talent and hard work could take them and, thus, become more truly American.

The list was long, and frequently had personal connections. In baseball: Hank Greenberg, who refused to play on Yom Kippur, and married the daughter of the family that owned the Gimbels department store; Andy Cohen, the first Jewish player on the New York Giants; Saul Rogovin; Al “Goodie” Rosen, who played for the Dodgers, but wasn’t as good as future Hall of Famer Al Rosen; Moe Berg, the first cousin of a friend who lived two houses away from me; Sid Gordon, who—what I could never understand—lived a few blocks away yet played for our National League enemy, the New York Giants.

In basketball: Dolph Schayes, Max Zaslofsky, Sid Tannenbaum—three All-Americans who played across the bridge at NYU—Nat Holman, and Lou Bender, who starred for the greatest team of its era, The Original Celtics.

In football: Sid Luckman, who went to Erasmus, went on to be All-American at Columbia, after which he starred for the Chicago Bears and is usually credited with “inventing” the forward pass; Benny Friedman; Sid Gillman; Marshall Goldberg; and Al Sherman, a left-handed quarterback who enrolled at Brooklyn College at 15, and though he was only five foot six and 145 pounds, went on to play in the NFL, and to coach the New York Giants.

In tennis: Herb Flam, Allen Fox, Grant Golden, Mike Franks, Sid Schwartz (an Erasmus grad who visited my gym class), and Dick Savitt, a National Indoor and Wimbledon champion who, at 89, still plays once or twice a week on the same New York City public courts I visit.

There were others: Sidney Franklin, in bullfighting, who went to Eastern District High School, in Brooklyn, with my father; Marty Glickman, who played professional football and basketball, and was removed at the last minute from the United States relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics because he was Jewish; Henry Wittenberg, winner of two Olympic medals in wrestling; Viktor Barna and Richard Miles, international and United States champions for many years in table tennis; Vic Hershkowitz, who won fiteen consecutive handball championships.

And then there were the Jewish boxers who dominated boxing in the first half of the twentieth century. The list included champions at virtually every weight level: Abe Attell, Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, “Kid” Kaplan, Al McCoy (real name: Al Rudolph), “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom, “Battling” Levinksky, Ted “Kid” Lewis, and of course, the man who loomed so large in my imagination as a boy that I wrote a novel about him: Max Baer.

Baer wore a Star of David on his boxing trunks, and the first time he did so was in 1933 when, at Yankee Stadium he defeated “Hitler’s boxer” Max Schmeling. Baer went on to become heavyweight champion of the world, and to an extraordinary life that exists within the fictional world I’ve created in Max Baer and the Star of David.

Jay Neugeboren is the author of nearly two dozen books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, and four collections of award-winning stories.

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Shortening the Way

Monday, March 28, 2016 | Permalink

Matthew Kressel is the author of the Jewish-themed fantasy epic King of Shards. He is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

A few years ago an article in the Jewish Review of Books by Michael Weingrad proclaimed that there is no Jewish Narnia, that Jews do not write fantasy literature, that the popular fantasy canon has a great big void in the shape of a Star of David.

The premise is absurd, of course. Never mind the fact that Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for writing what can only be described as fantasy, a simple Google search would have provided many such counter-examples to Weingrad's theory: Lisa Goldstein's The Red Magician, Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and pretty much the entire oeuvre of Neil Gaiman—not to mention the Wandering Stars anthologies edited by Jack Dann. I could go on, but my point is that Jews love writing fantasy (and science fiction) just as much as we love reading it.

This is because Judaism (like all religions) is full of awe and magic and terror and wonder, and those brought up in its traditions, who have been steeped in its rich folktales, cannot help but be influenced by its otherworldly themes. When observant Jews recite at the end of Sukkot, "May I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan," the fantasy writer among them thinks of ancient sea serpents and victories over unconquerable enemies. When Jews say kaynahoreh to ward off the Evil Eye, the fantasy writer thinks of magical talismans and charms to keep evil at bay. And one doesn't even need to be a Jewish writer to be influenced by Judaism's magical stories.

Consider the astounding tales of the Baalei Shem, the Masters of the Holy Name. According to folklore, these learned rabbis were able to jump across vast distances of space and time by uttering or writing various spellings of the Divine Name. One such master was the famous Baal Shem Tov, and one of his disciples is quoted as saying:

"Somehow the rebbe was able to travel great distances in impossibly short periods of time. I do not know how he did it. Dozens of times we traveled hundreds of miles in only a few hours. As the horses could normally cover only five to ten miles in an hour, we never understood how the master was able to accomplish such a feat. But he did it so many times, we stopped questioning."

The name for this magical power? Kefitzat ha-derekh, the "Shortening of the Way." Science fiction readers will immediately recognize the name. It isnearly identical to the moniker for the Messiah-like figure in Frank Herbert's Dune: Paul Atreides is the powerful Kwisatz Haderach, "the one who can be two places simultaneously" and "the one who can be many places at once”—and Herbert's definition for Kwisatz Haderach? "The Shortening of the Way." Herbert wasn't Jewish, but clearly influenced by a Jewish folktale, using it to construct one of the most popular science fiction (some call it fantasy) novels of all time.

I was at a science fiction and fantasy writing convention several years ago. I was still new to these things, and I didn't know a lot of folks. I was sitting in a circle with ten others, sitting on chairs and on the floor. We broke the ice by describing books, shows, and films we loved. Everyone warmed to one another. We were discussing the astounding ability of one particular editor to do so much with so little time, and I jokingly called him "The Kwisatz Haderach of publishing." Everyone laughed, and I remarked, "Wow, this is the first time in my life where I have been in a room and everyone knows who the Kwisatz Haderach is." I didn't ask, but I'm pretty sure most in the room weren't Jewish. And I'm pretty sure most had no idea (I didn't then, either) that the words I had used as a punchline to a joke came from a 400-year-old Jewish myth with origins in the Talmud.

The thing is, there are dozens of stories like these. Pop culture is rife with Jewish myths, it's just that their direct connection to Judaism has been forgotten or obfuscated, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The truth is, we are surrounded by Jewish Narnias. A large proportion of pop culture today owes its existence to myths and folktales elaborated by Jews in the last three millennia. Sometimes when a thing sits before your eyes for so long you fail to see it, but that doesn't mean it's not there.

Matthew Kressel is a short fiction writer and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow. His first novel, King of Shards, was released October 2015 from Arche Press.

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New Book Reviews March 25, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:


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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Dan Ephron

Thursday, March 24, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Dan Ephron and his book, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, an account tracing the parallel stories of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his assassin, Yigal Amir, for the two years leading up to the brutal murder in 1995.

A warm congratulations to Dan and the other four finalists: Lisa Moses Leff, Aviya Kushner, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

The “non” part of nonfiction, mainly: laying out the facts accurately and fairly without disrupting the narrative flow. It's tricky.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I was reading Erik Larson’s excellent In the Garden of Beasts while writing Killing a King. He’s great at not calling attention to his own writing. It allowed me to lose myself in the story.

Who is your intended audience?

My father-in-law was one of the readers I had mind. He reads a lot, mostly not about the Middle East. I wanted Killing a King to engage people who didn’t necessarily share my obsession with the region. But I also wanted readers familiar with the details of the Rabin assassination to be drawn in and understand something new.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m hunting for a new book idea. If you have one, please meet me at the bar in 10 minutes.

What are you reading now?

Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, about the Algerian battle for independence. The author toggles back and forth between narrative detail and historical sweep. It’s very effective.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

I wouldn’t swear they’re my all-time favorites. But here are five good books I’ve read lately:
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
Manson by Jeff Guinn

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

I decided in college to be a journalist. The writerly ambitions came later.

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

I think of success as the privilege to write about things that interest me while not having to resort to living in my parents’ basement.

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

I have no routines or rituals, though I did have a daily word count I kept to while writing the book. Deadlines motivate me. Also, fear of failure.

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

The feeling that it ended too quickly.

Dan Ephron has served as the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He now lives in New York City.

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Beyond Beauty: Esther’s Flirtation with Haman and Death

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 | Permalink

Rebecca Kanner’s second novel, Esther, is an adaptation of the story of the Megillah. With Purim on the horizon, Rebecca will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

As a young feminist, I was always interested in the story of Esther, the Jewish girl who rises to become queen of Persia and saves her people from genocide. But when I finally read it on my own, I was disappointed. What I found was a reluctant heroine whose success was attributed to her beauty and obedience.

I had a hunch that like many of our stories, the true meaning is hidden beneath a seemingly simple surface. I was further inspired to dig deeper into the character of Esther by looking at paintings of Anne Boleyn and reading descriptions of Cleopatra (as well as looking at pictures of the ancient coins that feature her). While Anne Boleyn and Cleopatra are widely believed to have been beautiful, they were not actually pictures of traditional physical perfection. Their personalities, including both wit and charm, are what I believe accounted for much of their attractiveness. Yet we have continued to mythologize their beauty as an explanation for their successes (however short-lived it was for Anne Boleyn), instead of focusing on their intellects.

This isn’t to say that Esther wasn’t beautiful. the Book of Esther makes it clear that she was. But so were many thousands of other girls the king would have had access to. I believe she had to have something else that accounted for her success. Yet initially I didn’t find a lot to admire. Esther does a number of things that don’t initially make sense.

When I dug deeper, however, I saw that what had seemed like weakness and indecision may in fact have been disguising the thoughtful strategizing going on behind the scenes.

When Mordechai finally convinces Esther to go to the king on behalf of her people, she sends word to Mordecai that all the Jews should fast for three days, and then she’ll go to the king. In a story in which G-d isn’t mentioned, it seems likely to me that rather than simply praying she is buying herself time to think about how she will convince the king to save her people. Why delay if she’s simply going to tell the king she’s Jewish and beg for her people’s lives?

I think she realized she was up against a formidable enemy, one who was better versed in oral argument and manipulating the king than she was. Another advantage Haman would have had is that as the king’s trusted advisor, he would have seen the king regularly enough to truly know him. What reason did Esther have to think the king would listen to her instead of his most trusted advisor? The king had already shown that an advisor held enough sway over him to convince him to banish his former queen, Vashti.

For Esther, it seemed to me there was only one battlefield on which she could be sure of besting Haman. If she had carried through with this initial plan, it would have led to their deaths. Her hope would have been that Haman’s plan to kill the Jews would die with him.

I explored this possibility in my novel, Esther.

It isn’t because she’s truly afraid the king will put her death for coming to him without being summoned that she says, “If I am to perish, I shall perish!” It’s because of what she plans to make the king think, that she knows she might be put to death.

The first step of her plan was inviting Haman to the feast at which she was supposedly going to ask the king for something. She was seeking to assess the king and arouse his suspicions about the nature of her relationship with Haman.

Later, the king is unable to sleep. Because no reason for his insomnia was given in the Book of Esther, I again explored the possibilities. Was this another time when Esther’s intelligence may have been hidden by the seemingly simple text? Was the king thinking of Esther and Haman? In my novel, Esther has arranged with a eunuch for a noise to disturb his slumber and the story of Mordechai saving his life to be brought to him, in the hopes that reminding the king of his debt to one Jew will lead him closer to a willingness to save all Jews. This was Esther’s last shot at a plan that would save her people without sacrificing her own life. She laid the groundwork for success by having a plan and a back-up plan.

Whatever one’s beliefs about the Book of Esther, one thing is clear: Judaism urges us to look beneath surfaces. I was grateful to find that there’s no shortage of commentary on Esther, and that women’s voices are well-represented in these commentaries. I’m also grateful for the tradition that led me to look with kinder and more careful eyes at a girl who I could have written off as merely attractive. In these times of social media sound bites and ratings-based rushes to judgment, I feel lucky that the Jewish tradition of discussion and exploration has given us the tools to look more deeply and compassionately at the people around us.

Rebecca Kanner is the author of  Esther: A Novel and Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife. You can learn more about her and find links to selected stories, essays, and videos at www.rebeccakanner.com.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Lisa Moses Leff

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Lisa Moses Leff and her book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, about a historian who wrote under the name of Zosa Szajkowski as the author of a prodigious number of articles and books on the history of French Jewry while systematically pillaging the very archives where he did his research and profiteering off his plunder.

A warm congratulations to Lisa and the other four finalists: Dan Ephron, Aviya Kushner, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

What you see on the page is such a small part of the work that’s behind it. I’ve had friends express total shock when they hear that it takes academic historians like me a decade to write a book. There’s so much research that goes into this that never sees the page, so much thinking that was necessary before you even put the story together, and then even after that there are false starts, discarded drafts, so much left out.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I love books that make you think and feel at the same time. I love books that are able to invoke big philosophical ideas and then make you really understand on a gut level what those ideas mean by connecting them to a story or an image. Some of my favorite history books do that—for example, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost. I recently reread Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which isn’t a history book at all, it’s a theory of photography, but it works in a similar way.

Who is your intended audience?

I write different things for different audiences, but with The Archive Thief, I’ve been so happy that the book is reaching people who knew nothing about the topic before, as well as academic experts. That’s what I was hoping for. When I’m writing, I always imagine my students, many of whom come to my classes knowing nothing at all about the topic or even the method of studying history. But I find that if I explain it right, they’ll see what’s interesting and be able to engage, often to the point that they’re able to offer useful criticism or take the ideas to a new level. This is how I imagine my readers, too.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I’m writing a history of the Panama Affair, which was a financial and political scandal involving corruption in the French company that started to build Panama Canal. The scandal broke in France in 1892 right before the Dreyfus Affair and really catalyzed the anti-Semitic movement we associate with that period. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, anti-Semites explained the Panama Canal Company’s corruption—which in reality grew out of the structural weaknesses of the banking system and the newly established democracy—as a Jewish conspiracy, claiming that Jews controlled the banks and had democratically elected politicians and the free press in their pocket.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading Tara Zahra’s new book, The Great Departure, a history of emigration from Eastern Europe. It’s beautifully written and puts Jews and non-Jews together in the same story, which is so rare and so enlightening.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln
A History of the Grandparents I Never Had by Ivan Jablonka
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

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

In third grade, I had a wonderful teacher who had us write stories in a notebook. I still have that notebook and love looking at it. I remember thinking that I had endless ideas for stories but always got frustrated with how they turned out. I felt like I could never get my stories to come alive. Writing nonfiction, especially in an academic setting, is a little different, but even there you want your prose to be clear enough so that people can understand things in a new way, so I often still grapple with that same frustration: how do you make your ideas really sing?

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

I think there’s a certain trap in measuring success by external markers, though of course it’s wonderful to get a prestigious job or win a fellowship or a prize. But aiming to get those things can sometimes distract you from what’s really worthwhile and what makes for a meaningful life. I think real success is in finding a way—materially, practically, intellectually, emotionally—to keep working over the very long haul, to try new things even when they involve risk, to hear people when they tell you something valuable. Putting it in terms of the question, I’d say that rather than looking to reach a “mountaintop,” I’m more focused on staying on the journey.

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

Writing can be slow so patience is really important! When I was writing my dissertation I said to myself that if I could write a page a day, I’d be done in a year. I know writing doesn’t ever really work like that: sometimes it takes a week to write a page, and some days I’m on a roll and can’t stop writing. But when I really can’t stand it, sometimes I still say to myself, “A page a day means I’m done in a year,” because even now it puts things in perspective and gives me the patience I need to just sit and try again.

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

A lot of things! But I’d really love it if readers were really able to understand the ambiguity at the heart of the story. This is a story of someone who did something that was deeply shameful and wrong, something criminal. At the same time, he was heroic and brave, and in the long run, what he did was as valuable as it was destructive. I think especially in Jewish nonfiction, we’ve got a lot of stories about heroes, maybe too many. I think we’re sometimes too afraid to tell stories that challenge Jewish respectability. But stories like Szajkowski’s are just as important to tell and to think about, because they’re in many cases closer to real life and very much part of Jewish history.


Lisa Leff is a historian of Europe since 1789, whose research focuses on Jews in France. She is an associate professor of History at American University in Washington, DC. She received her BA from Oberlin College and her PhD from the University of Chicago.

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