The ProsenPeople

What Would Judah Do?

Friday, March 07, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Laurel Corona wrote about emotion and developing the plot of her novel and her depiction of the mikveh in her recently published novel The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks). She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council andMyJewishLearning.

The father of philosopher Isaac Abravanel and grandfather of Judah the Lion (arguably the most famous member of this illustrious family) was in his own time one of the great leaders of Jewish Iberia. A courtier to the Portuguese king, Judah Abravanel financed many of the early explorations of Prince Henry the Navigator and served as an advisor on diplomatic and other matters. Judah Abravanel is also an important character in my novel The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014).

The difficulty I had fleshing out the character of Judah is the same as with all real-life individuals in my historical fiction. With invented characters, if I want to have them travel somewhere, I research how long it would take, what route was most likely, what conveyance they would use, and what might happen along the way. This research takes a great deal of time and effort, but once it is done, I can proceed with confidence to invent a story consistent with known facts.

With real life people, though, the challenge is different. There is a truth to their lives that can never be known. When Judah traveled, he took a specific route, had a specific means of transportation, and had specific experiences along the way. I cannot hope to guess right about all that. The standard to which serious and reputable historical novelists hold themselves may vary in some particulars, but the bottom line is that as long as we don’t do anything to misrepresent the person or the story, a novelist is free to fill in the details.

What has to be filled in, however, is almost everything that makes a novel—dialogue, everyday details, emotional life. I may not know specifically what Judah Abravanel had for breakfast, but if I know what was typical for Jews of the time, it is reasonable to put a plate of that in front of him. Assuming some reactions and emotions are universal seems fair as well. It’s either that or not write at all, so I make my peace with the idea that I can get many particulars wrong without telling untruths in a larger, more important sense.

With Judah I faced another dilemma, one which I think may give some readers pause. I want to avoid spoilers, so I must keep this general, and you can read the book if your curiosity is aroused. At one point he advises a young, intelligent, and spirited Jewish widow that she might want to consider nurturing a relationship with an attractive, unmarried Muslim man visiting Lisbon. “Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Could that happen?”

The answer, I believe, is yes it could. Would it? I don’t know. Do you? Since she was a widow, there was no chastity to protect and little chance any Jewish man would propose marriage. In fact, the Talmud strongly warns against marrying a widow for fear her late husband’s spirit would cause trouble. Still, it would take a very special man to care about this woman’s happiness, and to venture into the territory of her personal relationships.

Was Judah this kind of man? Possibly not. Perhaps he would have sternly admonished her to keep to her widow’s weeds and not question God’s will. That fits the stereotype, but how accurate are those? Perhaps we don’t give people of that time enough credit for having their own minds.

At any rate, I chose to think of Judah as recognizing that what falls outside of observance of Jewish law is a matter of choice, someone able to recognize what is no one else’s business. Maybe I’m wrong, but I like this version of him. Besides, as a novelist, an opening for a very romantic and passionate relationship is an opportunity not to be missed. It is fiction, after all, and historical novelists count on readers to remember that.

Laurel Corona is a professor of Humanities and World Religions at San Diego City College. She received a Christopher Medal for her non-fiction book Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance (St. Martin's Press, 2008), and in addition to The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014) has written thee other novels focusing on real women overlooked or misrepresented in history. Visit her website here.

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Interview: Marcia Weiss Posner

Thursday, March 06, 2014 | Permalink

by Carol Kaufman

Recording her life journey sent Marcia Weiss Posner time traveling; one set of memories led to the next. Marcia is a founding librarian of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, a long-standing supporter of JBC, and frequent reviewer for Jewish Book World. Her autobiography, My Life in Post-Its; or How I Got From There to Here, is now available.

Carol Kaufman: What led you to write your autobiography?

Marcia Posner: An illness made it necessary for me to take an enforced vacation and I was able to get away from my harried routine and obliga­tions. My daughter, Amy, insisted that I take it easy and did everything for me. So I wrote. I wrote all day, every day for five weeks and by the time we went home I felt better and I was no longer living in the pres­ent time. I had gone time traveling and I did not return to the present until close to the end. Taking ill made me realize that my children and grandchildren knew only a portion of who I was, so I decided to leave them a record of where I came from and what I had experienced over my lifetime, before it was too late.

CK: How did you know where to begin?

MP: "Who knew?" as they say. I just started at the beginning of my beginning and as the memories swept over me in a torrent, I allowed myself to return to those times. I wrote about whatever I remembered. The memories wrote themselves—they formed their own episodes and I kept writing them down.

For the first chapter, I relied mainly on what my cousin, Ted Solotaroff (z"l), the distinguished author, editor, and critic, had gleaned from ques­tioning the one remaining member of my father’s family, Aunt Leah, currently 107 ½, when he was writing his autobiography, Truth Comes in Blows. By Chapter Two, I was four years old and had a keen sense of what was happening around me: trouble (the Depression). By age six, I was reading the newspapers and listening to the commentator Gabriel Heatter and the news on the radio. So what was happening to me was always set in a place and time frame.

CK: What was your writing schedule? Did you write every day?

MP: My granddaughter, Tamar Adler (who wrote An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace) expressed it best in her foreword to my book:

"Nanny’s pattern remained mostly unchanged. Each time a chapter had been painted and framed…another set of people, circumstances, years, houses, and cars would present itself. Opera and Broadway and ballet were wordlessly cast aside….Nanny just went on typing and typing."

CK: Why the title My Life in Post-Its?

MP: The title describes where I am now, much diminished but accepting, depending on scribbled notes to remind me of what or where I should be doing or going, and losing a lot of my former energy. But am I sad about it? Not at all. It gives me time to reflect and to write. I think that my book describes my sometimes accidental life journey and the excitement and pleasure I found in pursuing it, although I include the two tragedies of my life as well.

CK: How did the publishing expe­rience go?

MP: I self-published with Xlibris and found them very pleasant to deal with. They have a step-by-step system and want you to promote your book and be involved in the process. As part of the package I took, they will publish my second book at no extra charge.

CK: What would you like readers to take away from your book?

MP: If my book teaches anything it's to follow your whims; don’t worry about not being prepared, just go for each new experience, and write about your life while you still can.

Carol Kaufman is the editor of Jewish Book World.

Maybe That’s Why They Call It A Plot

Wednesday, March 05, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Laurel Corona wrote about her depiction of the mikveh in her recently published novel The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks). She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Renowned operatic baritone Thomas Hampson was once asked how he managed to keep from crying during a tragic aria. His reply? If the composer had wanted him to cry he would have written it into the score. The singer’s job was to make the audience cry.

I have cried from time to time writing my novels, but less than readers have, if their comments are to be believed. Like Hampson, when I am writing an emotional scene, I am immersed in conveying its intensity to the reader using the only tool I have—words.

It’s a form of parallel processing, feeling the story enough to write it richly, and remaining just enough outside it to find the words. A reader can say in a blubber of tears, “Oh that’s just so sad,” or scream “No!” when something terrible happens, but I can’t. Nor—and this is more difficult—can I tell you what to feel. I have to take you there.

Even my most romantic stories are the product of something not the usual stuff of love: practical decision making. I know what needs to happen for the overall story to progress. I introduce characters and plot elements to help me tell the tale. Somewhere along the line, the story takes off so dramatically I sometimes wonder if I am in charge at all, or just taking dictation.

In my novels, the protagonists are always my inventions, and thus much of my plot is driven by the need to have them be where the history and biographical figures are most interesting. In my latest novel, The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks 2014), this involved getting a young Jewish girl, Amalia, into the court of Henry the Navigator, but since I wanted her also to witness the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, she had to live long enough to become a great-grandmother. For the first time in my writing career, I had to figure out how to tell a multigenerational saga through the eyes of one woman. I knew I also wanted her story to include the rich world of Muslim Spain, so I had to figure out a way to get Amalia to the court of the Caliph of Granada and then find a reason and means for her to leave so all the rest could happen.

Because I love Amalia, I also wanted her to have a rich life, full of family and friends. A second level of decisions required finding characters, both historical and invented, who could populate her world in the way I desired. I want to avoid spoilers here, so I will say only that love—deep, passionate, fulfilling love—is a big part of her memories as she looks back on her life while waiting for the ship to take her into exile. So are her bonds with women, which are always at the core of my novels. So is her identity as a Jew, for which she has risked so much, gaining great depth and richness of spirit in return.

I gave her a good life, though rarely an easy one. She is waiting within the pages of The Mapmaker's Daughter to tell you about it.

Laurel Corona is a professor of Humanities and World Religions at San Diego City College. She received a Christopher Medal for her non-fiction book Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance (St. Martin's Press, 2008), and in addition to The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014) has written thee other novels focusing on real women overlooked or misrepresented in history. Visit her website here.

Jennifer Gilmore's Newest Voice

Tuesday, March 04, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Jennifer Gilmore, the author of The Mothers, Something Red, and Golden Country blogs for The Postscript on finding her newest voice and a new writing style The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

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

My book, The Mothers, tracks close to my own life. My protagonist is my age and lives where I live, and she is going through the same horrible adoption process I went through for several years. It was a difficult time, but the experience brought up so many issues—of race and class and motherhood and identity—that interested me as a novelist. I wanted to make this material interesting to myself and to a reader so that what I was going through could be put toward something positive, to my work.

I wanted to write this differently than I have written my other books. Those books—Golden Country and Something Red—were big novels about Jewish families. They took place in the past and so were heavily researched. They were written in third person and spanned decades and dealt largely with how we are all haunted and invigorated by the near and far past. They were about how we as individuals, as families, and indeed as Jews, have informed history and the way history has informed us. I considered using this technique—of a broad social sweep—to take on the topic of adoption. I thought deeply about writing it historically, taking on how adoption began in this country and the way it has been transformed and affected so prominently by the political history of our country. And yet for this particular book that felt very false and it felt as if I were avoiding something emotionally important. That emotional resonance was just as important to me in this book as the social history and the ramifications of the past.

What felt real and important was finding this particular voice – which, I would like to add, is not my voice. Jesse, my protagonist, is a pretty desperate woman. She’s utterly imperfect. Even though I arrived at her voice fairly easily, it took me a while to find her story and not merely her emotional state. In the end, what was most interesting to me in writing this book was the immediacy of wanting to have a child, not being able to get a child, and the inevitable consequences of that. This was lived experience instead of researched experience. It is a story about wanting. That is just as dangerous a topic to take on as any I know.

Interview: Howard Schwartz

Tuesday, March 04, 2014 | Permalink

by Grace Stansbery

Howard Schwartz, three time winner of a National Jewish Book Award, has recently published his fifth volume of poetry, The Library of Dreams.

"There is so much good work here. Howard Schwartz has done the work, and his poems rise out of Jewish learning and of course from his heart, a heart schooled and matured in all that amazing lore." –Philip Levine

Grace Stansbery: Throughout the book, you develop relationships with long dead authors, specifically Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. Ignoring the obvious ice-breaker question, "If you could have dinner with anyone from history…" I wonder which two authors you would set up to observe having dinner together.

Howard Schwartz: I’ve come to realize that I’m one of those people who has heroes. When I was a child, it was Alexander the Great. As an adolescent, I was obsessed with J. D. Salinger. Since my twenties, I’ve focused on Kafka and Borges. As I mention in the notes to The Library of Dreams, "Borges has become, like Franz Kafka, a mythic figure in our time, and a presence in my dreams." Borges has acknowledged his immense debt to Kafka, saying that if not for Kafka he couldn’t have written anything. One of the thrills of my life was spending time with Borges when he came through St. Louis, Missouri in 1967. I also have poet heroes, of course, especially Theodore Roethke and James Wright. When I was in New York in the late 70s I called up James Wright and he invited me to visit him. That was truly a wonderful, memorable visit.

GS: The poems in The Library of Dreams seem to be derived from very different places thematically and stylistically; For example, "Before You Were Born" comes from one of your children’s books. Do you find that your poetry lends itself better to one audience over another? Have you encountered unexpected success writing for certain groups or in certain genres?

HS: Keep in mind that The Library of Dreams covers 48 years—I changed, of course, and so did my style. My friend Michael Castro teased me by saying, "It took you forty years to figure out how to write a poem, but you finally did!" I started out convinced that images are the building blocks of poems. I still believe that, but now my language is closer to my voice and my poems don’t consist entirely of images, as they did in my first book, Vessels. Consider this poem, "Reckoning":

For every dark cloud, a red warning.
For every blade brighter than the sun,
an animal clawing
the darkness.
For every wounded tree,
a dark sun dropping out of the sky.

I wanted to write poems that appealed directly to the emotions, gut to gut. Later I came to appreciate retaining the human context out of which they emerged. Take, for example, "Weighing Gold":

Knowing my father
wouldn’t live long enough
to see my first book,
I showed him a book
of the same size,
and he closed his eyes,
weighing it in his hand,
the way he weighed gold.
I never felt closer to him.

You asked about audiences. In 1983 I published Elijah’s Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales. I had always loved fairy tales, and I felt strongly about my Jewish tradition. I loved working on that book. The response to it and I decided to write stories intended for children. I’ve now published a dozen children’s books, and many readers aren’t aware that I also write for adults! But the truth is that I didn’t have to make a lot of changes in my approach to write for children. I just tried to tell the stories as clearly and simply as I could, and that worked.

GS: I have always believed in the nobility of literary dedications, of which you have many. Can you talk a little bit about the decisions you make when dedicating a work of art to another person? Do you write with the individual in mind or dedicate once the poem is finished? How have the people in your life reacted to such dedications?

HS: Well, sometimes the poems started out to be elegies for close friends, such as Don Finkel, my teacher, (“The Last Reading”) or Yehuda Amichai, a friend for 25 years (“Yehudah Amichai in the Heavenly Jerusalem”). In other cases, the poem came first, and then I realized that it was really intended for one of my friends, such as “A Palace of Bird Beaks.” That’s dedicated to my good friend and fellow poet Dan Jaffe, who was one of the first to support my poetry. He was thrilled with the poem, and understood completely that it was not only an Ars Poetica, but also my gift of thanks to him.

GS: Your poem "People of the Stories" emphasizes the tradition of storytelling within the Jewish religion and culture—what is more is that many of the poems in The Library of Dreams depict stories from the Bible and the Talmud. What is the importance of storytelling in spiritual cultures? Does the same storytelling continue to fill a unique void in global culture today?

HS: It seems indisputable that the most memorable portions of the Bible are the stories—of the creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Able, Noah and the ark, Abraham and the binding of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, the whole incredible Exodus narrative, etc. Because it was believed that there were two Torahs, a written one God dictated to Moses during the day, and an oral one God gave him at night, explaining the written one, the floodgates of Jewish stories were opened. Thousands of stories emerged, claiming to be part of that oral tradition. I spent a year in Israel in 1977- 1978 studying these post-biblical texts—the Talmud, the midrashic collections, the kabbalistic and Hasidic texts, and I’ve been drawing on those wonderful resources ever since. They’re part of me. Later I came to focus on Jewish folklore, inspired by Professor Dov Noy of Hebrew university, the world’s foremost Jewish folklorist, and that turned out to be my destiny. I followed Elijah’s Violin with three other large collections of Jewish folktales, each focused on a separate genre—fairy tales, folktales, supernatural tales and mystical tales. Finally I felt I knew enough to take on my biggest challenge, proving that there is a Jewish mythology. Twelve years later I finished Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, almost certainly my most important book. It was after I finished this book that I turned back to writing poetry full time, and the past few years have been the most productive of my life.

GS: I have heard that the more often a person focuses on his or her dreams, the more vivid they become. How has your dream journal changed over time? Was it interrupted or strengthened by this particular book of poetry?

HS: I’ve kept a dream journal since 1967. New Letters published a chunk of it a few years back. Now it’s a file on my computer 200 pages long. I guess I’m fortunate that my muse likes to express herself in my dreams. It fits my view that we must be in touch with our unconscious, which is a source of great inspiration. I found confirmation of this view years ago, when I studied Jung, and I still consider myself a Jungian. The images and narratives I drew from my dreams resonated with me, even if I didn’t fully understand them. So it’s true that many of the poems in The Library of Dreams started out as dreams, or I drew on dream images in writing them. Take, for example, "Listening":

In the dream
I watched her
as she listened to Coltrane—
eyes closed,
lips parted, descending
into the music
and further,
into the one creating it.
There was a moment
when they took a breath
even though he was no longer

GS: One motif in particular caught my attention. Lilith floats in and out of your poetry in Library of Dreams—I find, though, that you don’t write about a Queen of Demons, rather something much less evil. Do you care to explain this decision?

HS: I sometimes think I owe my career to Lilith. Jewish feminists sought to make her a role model in the '60s, because of her independence and especially her sexual independence. But I knew from my studies that in Jewish folklore she was a dangerous demoness, the incarnation of lust and a child-strangling witch. I had several enjoyable debates with Jewish feminists about Lilith, and I’ve recounted her story about how she was Adam’s first wife, fought with him and escaped from the Garden of Eden and became the Queen of Demons dozens of times. I was astonished at what a powerful impact her story made, especially on women. When I was a student in the 60’s I met three young women who believed, for a few months, that they were Lilith. I saw how powerful a mythic figure could be, and later this convinced me that there was, indeed, a Jewish mythology. So I’m grateful to Lilith and it’s no surprise that she turns up in my poetry. She has been a vivid figure in my life.

GS: How often does your writing process rely on your responses to other types of art (whether it is a quote from a religious text or a solo violin sonata)? Does your writing attempt to capture the themes of these works or react to them?

HS: Well, I think that most everything I write is a response to something—a person, a tree, a dream, a book, a piece of music. Isn’t responding to the world what poets do?

Grace Stansbery is an English graduate from Truman State University and lives in St. Louis, MO.

Immerse Yourself

Monday, March 03, 2014 | Permalink

Laurel Corona is a professor of Humanities and World Religions at San Diego City College. Her newest book, The Mapmaker's Daughter, will be published tomorrow by Sourcebooks. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There’s nothing like old friends. They connect us with our past, remind us of the continuity of our life, embrace us in our totality, offer reassurance that what we have within us is enough to manage the future.

In my new novel The Mapmaker's Daughter, the mikveh is that kind of friend. The protagonist, Amalia, stands guard as a young girl while her mother immerses in a spring near their home in Sevilla. It’s a dangerous act of “Judaizing,” as the secret continuation of Jewish practices by forcibly converted Spanish Jews was known.

Later, when she is grown, Amalia’s friend leads her on a rainy evening to a courtyard fountain, where they immerse in broken moonlight to commemorate the beginning of a seismic shift in Amalia’s thinking about the role of Jewishness in her life.

Amalia eventually passes on to her daughter the use of the mikveh not just as a means of monthly ritual purification, but as the symbol of the ongoing potential for fresh starts. The book ends with yet another mikveh of another generation of her family’s women.

I suppose I have put a rosy glow on what for many women must have been yet another burden—finding the time to purify themselves ritually to resume sexual relations with their husbands. Still I hope that among the millions of women who have followed this tradition over the centuries, there are some who saw the mikveh as I have presented it.

Maybe I see the mikveh the way I do because I was never burdened with it as an obligation. As a Jew by choice, I spent decades of my life unaware it existed, and even if I had grown up Jewish it is unlikely my family would have been that traditional. Perhaps that is the appeal of the mikveh today: not as an obligation but as a means to link an ancient tradition to a modern culture, one which provides more opportunity, time, and encouragement to reflect on and personalize our experiences.

As part of my conversion, I drove to Los Angeles to what is now called the American Jewish University. The preparation area was the equal of the nicest spa I have been in, and the pool was beautiful. A cloth partition separated the male rabbis standing on the other side, so they could hear but not see. I must admit I found the experience disconcerting and alien, as I struggled to get my whole body to submerge at once. The female monitor chirped pleasantly, “It’s kosher” each time I succeeded—another distraction, since the first thing I think of when I hear that word is food. It seemed like something I could check off a “to do” list rather than a meaningful experience, but I saw the potential and stored that thought away.

My most memorable experience with a mikveh happened in 2012, a few months after my husband’s death from prostate cancer. We had been together for eight years, and got married only seven weeks before he died. I was still grieving, but understood somewhere deep inside myself that I needed to move on before I settled into anything less than the full life I wanted. I invited a group of women (including two rabbi friends) to join me at La Jolla Cove early one morning, where we all rededicated ourselves to the lives we want to keep appreciating and the futures we are building. That was the concept of the mikveh I wanted to convey in The Mapmaker's Daughter, although next time I will try not to include the incoming scuba diver who came up rather abruptly after catching sight of my back side without a bathing suit.

The Mapmaker's Daughter is dedicated “in honor of the mikveh and the countless Jewish women who have restored their strength and optimism in its waters.” May it always be so.

Laurel Corona received a Christopher Medal for her non-fiction book Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance (St. Martin's Press, 2008), and in addition to The Mapmaker's Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014) has written thee other novels focusing on real women overlooked or misrepresented in history. Visit her website here.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 28, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Yes, Virginia. There IS a Jewish President: Jews in Politics

Friday, February 28, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Emily Stone wrote about Jews and Hollywood (have you taken her quiz "It’s True-ish, They’re Jewish!"?) and Jews and sports (have you taken her quiz " Athlete or Mathlete?"). Her book, Did Jew Know: A Handy Primer on the Customs, Culture, and Practice of the Chosen People (Chronicle Books), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Jews and politics make familiar if shaky and rivalrous bedfellows. While it would seem that the leftward lean is the quintessentially Jewish way, the relationship between Jews and sovereign states is at once ancient, complex, and old as God. Or at least the Hebrew Bible. As soon as Abraham decided the time was nigh to be in a monogamous relationship with God and the Jews became the Jews, two political challenges arose: how to govern the people from within and how to handle hostile forces from without and do so without ending up with your noggin on a platter. While the former seemed easy enough, the latter was easier argued than done and various divisive factions began forming about which everybody and their uncle had something to say. Or, as my grandmother would say, “If you have two Jews, you have three opinions.”

Some biblical historians assert that Jewish internal party politics began as early as Jacob and Esau, twin brothers in-fighting since ye olde womb. As the story goes, through an act of cunning and utzed by his mother Rebecca, Jacob beats out his hairy older brother who sells him his birthright for a bowl of red stew and Isaac is none the wiser: “Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you.” (Genesis 27:29) Others scholars, such as Stuart Cohen, see three distinct biblical powers arise from this point forward: the priesthood, the throne, and the prophets. In other words, three Jews, three thousand opinions!

If Jew ask me, here’s the dilly: the phrase “Jewish political movement” basically means an organized effort to represent the best interest of the Jews outside the Jewish community. The only glitch of this movement was that from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews had community, but no territory. Add to this dilemma the cold, hard fact that Jews were either hounded or excluded from the wider political sphere from all the nations in which they dwelled until the Enlightenment and the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. And even then, it still wasn’t what anyone would call a bed of roses, even after a bottle of schnapps, let’s face it.

As long as Jews lived in segregated communities surrounded by hostile gentile forces that at best excluded them and at worst imprisoned and murdered them, the rabbi was their most important religious and civil leader. When the segregated communities moved toward integration or Haskalah, and Jews were no longer in isolation from other Jews, suddenly the problem arose as to which Jew with what opinion was right about what was best for the Jews.

Fast forward to the Revolutions of 1848, in which Jewish statesmen, like their non-Jewish revolutionary counterparts, were actively pursuing political freedom and equality in the secular sphere. Eventually, the gurgles and rumbles of proto-socialism and communism began to signify a deeper need than could be fulfilled by a simple bowl of ordinary Jew-stew. Moses Hess, a founder of Labor Zionism, introduced the Marx brother to Historical Materialism and it seemed the West, if not one, was won—that is, temporarily, until factions formed factions that formed factions and everyone and their brother took turns crying in the bathroom.

Meantime, over in Eastern Europe and Russia, the Bund—the Esau to Zionism’s Jacob—became an important force in uniting and organizing Jews. On the one hand, Hess set forth the notion that Jews needed both a secular and restored homeland in the Holy Land as a means of becoming a true nation rather than a bunch of schleppy tsotchke-peddling merchants. On the other hand, the Jewish merchant class thought they had a pretty decent thing going and were none too keen at the thought of trading in their buttons and bows for a pickaxe and a suntan—i.e., more divisive arguing.

Next thing you know, it’s the first wave of European migration to America (late-nineteenth century) and the same two factions find themselves floundering and forming on the shores of the New World. While the Jews of Germany tended toward the conservative, the Jews of Eastern Europe, who became the majority, were more liberal. Or rather, the Jacob/Esau rivalry evolved into that of Joseph and Moses. Joseph, an exile in a foreign land, becomes a court Jew who played down his Hebrew ancestry. Moses then arrives on the scene, a big, ripped Jew who didn’t care who the hell knew. Same old story, new singspiel. Only now, in America—the only land to grant full rights of citizenship to Jews—Jewish politicians with diverse goals (and a thousand opinions) began to appear in cities from sea to shining sea as early as Tammany Hall and well into and through the next century. Oy or yay: Jew decide! Gezai Gezunt!

Cut to the 1950s as the Soviet Union emerged as a repressive anti-Semitic regime rather than a cotton candy socialist utopia: More opinions. Then, in 1975, a UN resolution condemns Zionism as racism and out pops the neo-conservative movement—conservative Jews who knew from racism and saw the nation of Israel as essential, Arabs as terrorists and America as a new and improved Zion where a Jew could be a Jew. While earlier Jewish radicals like Abby Hoffman opposed the American mainstream, the neocons, led by the intrepid Norman Podhoretz, opposed the opposition and the Polis was further, well, polarized. Next thing you know, the middle caves in and it’s the fall of the Roman Empire only without Charlton Heston playing the lead.

On some level, this is what is both great and challenging about democracy: It’s all fun and games until everybody has a triple bi-pass trying to define exactly what’s good for it, especially, you guessed it, Jews. While the Chosen Tribe might be a helluva long way from a menorah in the window at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one thing’s for sure: they’ve made their mark on every political movement from soup to nuts.

Behold some key players who dwelleth outside the Land of Israel and who becameth and have becometh forces to be reckoned with in the secular political sphere:

The Jew-nited States

  • Henry Kissinger: German-born American politician, writer, and diplomat who served as Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He was also a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

  • Ed Koch: Three-term as Mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. Note: He originally beat out Abe Beame, the city’s first Jewish Mayor, who governed the Big Apple from 1974-1978. Koch’s epitaph reads, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,” the last words of Daniel Pearl just before Pakistani terrorists murdered him.

  • Dianne Feinstein, Democrat: Thirty-eighth Mayor of San Francisco from 1978-1988 and United States Senator since 1992.

  • Madeline Albright: the first woman to serve as United States Secretary of State. Raised Catholic, Albright allegedly did not learn until she was fifty-nine that her parents were, in fact, Jewish. In 1997, when Albright was being vetted to serve in the Clinton Administration, a Washington Post profile revealed that more than a dozen of her relatives were killed in the Holocaust, including three of Albright’s grandparents.

  • Joseph Lieberman: former United States Senator from Connecticut who was the Democratic Party’s nominee for Veep in 2000.

  • Michael Bloomberg: business and media magnate, philanthropist and Mayor of New York City from 2002-2013. If you’re looking to get hitched, he is also the tenth richest person in the United States.

  • Rahm Israel Emanuel, Democrat: Senior advisor to President Bill Clinton from 1993-1998, member of the US House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009, White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama, and fifty-fifth Mayor of Chicago.

  • Ari Fleischer: former White House Press Secretary under US President George W. Bush.

The Jew-nited Kingdom

  • Benjamin Disraeli: British Prime Minister for a spate in 1868 and then again from 1874-1892. Though Disraeli’s father had him baptized Anglican at age twelve, Disraeli is the only ethnically Jewish Prime Minister of Great Britain. He is also credited with inventing the political novel.

  • Oona King: British Labour Party Member from 1997-2005. In 2013, King appeared as a contestant on “Dancing on Ice.” She is also playwright Tom Stoppard’s niece.

  • David Miliband: British Labour Party Member since 2001 and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2007-2010. He and his brother Ed Miliband were the first siblings to sit simultaneously in the Cabinet since 1938.

Freedom Fries: Jews in France

  • André Léon Blum: Active in the Dreyfus Affair, Blum was the first and only Jewish socialist Prime Minister of France (1936 and 1937 and again in 1938). Arrested by the Vichy authorities, Blum survived both Buchenwald and Dachau and was liberated by the allies in 1945. His brother René, the founder of the Ballet de l'Opéra à Monte Carlo, perished in Auschwitz in 1943.

  • Nicolas Sarcozy: twenty-third president of France from May 2007 to May 2012. Sarkozy’s mother was a member of the Mallah family, one of the oldest Sephardic Jewish families of Salonika, Greece.

  • Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Economist, lawyer and Director of the International Monetary Fund until he resigned in 2011 after allegedly attempting to boink a hotel employee.

Born in New Orleans and raised in Brooklyn, Emily Stone is a writer and a yoga teacher living in New York City.

A Letter in a Drawer

Friday, February 28, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Charles S. Sherman wrote about a miraculous baseball team and a life-altering event and how he's handled the challenge. His book,The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak, will be published in March by Scribner. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is one of my favorite people. He is a "rabbi's rabbi." Our personal relationship is at best, casual. We are from different generations. But I enjoy his preaching style, his talent for being at the same time folksy and instructive. He has the ability to take the seemingly ordinary, the "Seinfeld moments" in our lives, and discover a profound Jewish and universal truth. His messages are frequently delivered with a twinkle in his eye and a great sense of humor.

I was flattered, some weeks ago, to receive, unsolicited, a lovely email from Rabbi Riemer. Somehow he had learned about my forthcoming book and requested a review copy. His reviews are well-respected and honest. His reviews are carried in many Jewish newspapers throughout North America. Thus I was excited to receive his email.

Almost 30 years ago, when my son Eyal suffered a brainstem stroke, leaving him quadriplegic and vent dependent, I received lots of lovely cards and generous letters offering prayers and support. Back then, I delivered a sermon, "There are No Atheists in Intensive Care," that was probably more for me than for other people. It was published in a small professional journal, The American Rabbi. Apparently Rabbi Riemer had read it and was kind enough to drop me a handwritten note, that to this day I have kept. It was one of encouragement and friendship, albeit very brief. "Just a note to say, how deeply moved I was by your sermon in The American Rabbi. I wish you and your family much strength—thank you for sharing your soul with us."

When I received Rabbi Riemer's request for a review copy, my mind went back to that letter that was still in my desk drawer. I wrote Rabbi Riemer and told him I still had the letter. I even quoted it. He in turn wrote back to me: "I was just writing a sermon when your email came in, about how you sometimes do what you think is a small deed, and how it ends up affecting the world more than you know. The example I was using was the stranger who met Joseph, and told him where his brothers were. If he had not been there, Joseph and later his people would not have gone down to Egypt and there would have been no Exodus. That stranger changed the course of human history and yet if you had asked him: Did he remember that one-minute conversation that he had had with the teenager Joseph, he would have probably said no. I feel that way about your letter and the fact that you saved my note for all of these years."

If all of us look back on our lives, we can remember our childhood when an adult—a teacher, a coach, a neighbor or an aunt or uncle perhaps—offered a kind word or some advice that helped us during a difficult time. They may not have understood the impact of their words and or actions. But I contend those are the things that we hold onto, that we remember always.

Charles S. Sherman is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun, the largest synagogue in Central New York. Active in numerous faith-based and secular organizations, he has received many awards for his service and has been a respected member of his community for over forty years. He and his wife, Leah, parents of five children, live with their son Eyal in Syracuse, New York.

Six Degrees of Kevin’s Bacon: Who’s Jewish in Hollywood?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Emily Stone wrote about Jews and sports (have you taken her quiz "Athlete or Mathlete?"). Her book, Did Jew Know: A Handy Primer on the Customs, Culture, and Practice of the Chosen People (Chronicle Books), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

While some stars look Jewish or publicly identify as Jewish, supporting Israel—you go, Scar Jo!— or record Chanukah songs that even gentiles love to love, others mask their heritage like a traveling salesman with a toupee; only, no matter how many times you comb it over, transplant it or blow it out, everyone knows it’s a rug, especially in high-def. Meantime, some stars kinda look ethnic (read Jewish) but aren’t. It’s a conundrum.

In my house growing up, a stronghold of secular but devoted cultural Judaism, as soon as anyone’s name was introduced, famous or otherwise, my mother would immediately and inevitably punctuate the mention with the modifier “JEWISH!” or “NOT JEWISH!” While this particular brand of Yiddishkeit echolalia may not have been unique to our household alone, it is unique to the Jews to think about who is and isn’t Jewish, more than, say, the goyim. Walker Laird Gaffney and Turfer Throop probably do not yell out the word "JEWISH!" mere seconds after you tell them you just had lunch with Manny Howard or Jessi Burger. Nor do they gleefully tell you that Kate Hudson is, in fact, a member of the Tribe and exactly how and why (maternal grandmother).

What’s interesting here, or perhaps troubling—more than the commonplace self-identification practices of the Tribe via name recognition—is who among those in Hollywood chooses to maintain a public Jewish identity and who decides to go lo pro, even though, let’s face it, we all know what’s up. And I’m not talking about who’s a Zionist—that’s a whole other blog—or about depictions of Jewish characters in movies or in TV—don’t get me started—but who is a big ol’ ethnic Jewy the Jew all the livelong day in looks and name and life besides Madonna and Britney Spears! O Red String and Yehuda Berg (JEWISH!), thank you for all you have done. Hot gentiles dressed like bunnies at Purim parties? It’s a world gone mad.

While there’s a certain pride in Jewish identity in the world of letters, Hollywood generally shies away from wholly embracing Jewish identity, with the exception of the yearly smattering of Holocaust films or the Goldbergs and Krusty the Clown. This is remarkable especially when you think about the fact that Tinsel Town continues to be presided over by its forefathers, almost all of whom still seem to prefer an anemic version of what I like to call “blow-out Judaism,” where everyone either looks like Courtney Cox at a slut cotillion or is a fax of a fax of a fax of pre-bad-for-the-Jews Woody Allen.

In other words, whether or not you believe in your heart of hearts that America is a Christian Nation, its goysiche look is defined and imposed by a bunch of schleppy desert nomads whose last names end in –stein, –berg, –sky and –witz. And these now wildly successful American nomads, no matter how Jewish they themselves may look, do not, I repeat do NOT want to look at frizzy hair, nor back TV series about life in Borough Park. It’s everything a Jewish boy from Brooklyn or the Bronx would live to avoid. Still and all, my mother and I are not fooled! And when big, dark curly hair comes back with a vengeance, which it will, believe Jew me, we are ready and have been since the 1980s. Come back to the Dry Bar, Harvey Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein.

So the next time you’re settling in for your next Netflix marathon, and the credits are rolling, or Kevin Bacon (NOT JEWISH!) enters the frame, play a rousing round or six of Jewish/Not Jewish and let your neighbors keep score. It’s not just a game; it’s a matter of national nachas.

It’s True-ish, They’re Jewish! A True/False Quiz

1. Jason Biggs

2. Lauren Bacall

3. Ben Affleck

4. Lisa Bonet

5. Julio Iglesias

6. Roseanna Barr

7. Orlando Bloom

8. David Arquette

9. Alicia Silverstone

10. Ally Sheedy

11. Sandra Bullock

12. Elizabeth Berkley

13. Amanda Peet

14. Ben Kingsley

15. Courtney Love

16. Daniel Day Lewis

17. Sharon Stone

18. Lea Michelle

19. Natalie Portman

20. Jake Gyllenhaal

21. Helen Hunt

22. Jennifer Connelly

23. Harrison Ford

24. Mimi Rogers

25. Selma Blair

26. Seth Rogen

27. Goldie Hawn

28. Andrew Dice Clay

29. Whoopi Goldberg

30. Lena Dunham

31. Henry Winkler

32. Judd Apatow

33. Tori Spelling

34. Madeline Kahn

35. Steve Carell

36. Paul Rudd

37. Jon Hamm

38. Mark Wahlberg

Answers can be found here.

Born in New Orleans and raised in Brooklyn, Emily Stone is a writer and a yoga teacher living in New York City.

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