The ProsenPeople

How Can We Explain Jewish Success in America?

Thursday, December 18, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam D. Mendelsohn wrote about the thrill of finding an interesting lead while conducting research. His most recent book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, is now available. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I did not set out to write a book that seeks to explain the extraordinary economic success of Jews in America. Instead I sought to write a history of Jewish involvement in the shmatte business. So how did I land up writing a book about both?

One hundred years ago, the vast majority of Jews in America were recent immigrants, part of a tidal wave of 2.4 million Jews who made their way to these shores from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1924. Most were poor. They fled persecution, but also lives that promised only poverty. The majority of the newcomers initially found work in the garment industry, the shmatte business. They were the sewers of garments in a low-wage, high volume business that made the vast majority of clothing worn by Americans. Working conditions were unpleasant, with men and women crowded together in makeshift spaces heady with glue vapors, fabric particles, steam, and smoke, and overheated by the press of bodies and the hissing of irons. Together with the marginal wages paid to workers and the prevalence of strife between bosses and laborers, this was not an ideal introduction to America.

Jump one hundred years forward, and the picture could not be more different. The descendants of these same immigrants are among the edgiest entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, the foremost bankers on Wall Street, and the leading lights in Hollywood. But those who hog the headlines (and cluster on the lists compiled by Forbes) are only a small part of a broader phenomenon. Jews are exceptionally well represented in the professions, and firmly part of the middle class. Their average earnings set them apart from almost every other ethnic group in the United States. Several leading economists, sociologists, and historians regard Jews as the single most economically successful immigrant group in American history.

So even as I set out to study the garment industry, this broader mystery tugged at my thoughts.

How within a generation or two, did they move upward so quickly from stitching in sweatshops to a position of prominence and preeminence within the American economy, and within American society more broadly.

Was it because Jews possess an innate acumen for business? Did they carry a hard-won facility with commerce, borne of a history of surviving at the margins, to American shores? Did they share a flexibility and adaptability derived from a history of mobility, dispersion, and expulsion? Or a cultural affinity toward trade, risk-taking, and money-making? Had they acquired an ease with the market, money, and salesmanship that set them apart from other immigrant groups? Were they aided by a predisposition toward learning and literacy? Did they harbor the ambition, drive, and perspective of perpetual outsiders? Were they merely the beneficiaries of fortunate timing? Or was their success a product of clannishness and conspiracy, as some less favorably disposed to Jews have suggested?

Perhaps, I decided, this wondrous story had something to do with the garment industry itself. It is uncontroversial to suggest that Jews made the modern garment industry in America. But what if, I wondered, the garment industry made the Jews?

Adam D. Mendelsohn is Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

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Eight Nights with Hevria: The Little Prince and The Secret Life of God

Wednesday, December 17, 2014 | Permalink

One year ago, the Jewish Book Council launched the 8 Nights of Stories series on The ProsenPeople. For each of the eight nights of Chanukah, the Jewish Book Council set out to help our readers find more stories—to read to children, to share with young adults, and to read on your own after the kids are in bed. For Chanukah 5775, we’re delighted to partner with the writers of Hevria, a new collaborative of Jewish self-identified creators, as guest contributors over the next eight nights.

For the second installment, Hevria contrubitors Rochel Spangenthal and Salvador Litvak write about the stories they think most worth sharing:

Rochel Spangenthal

There is a part of me that grew up. There is a part of me that didn't. Both of those parts treasure The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry a book whose cover is worn from the excited grasps of young and old readers alike.

The story is simple. A young boy, who has never really found anyone who understands him, grows up and eventually becomes a pilot. When his plane crashes in a desert, he meets the Little Prince—a charming (but confusing) young explorer who is the prince of his own Astroid. In their brief encounter, the young prince reminds the pilot of how simple and beautiful life can be.

The book is no thicker than your iPhone. It can be read in an hour—maybe two, if you take time to truly appreciate the simple and fresh illustrations. But the truths and magical realities of childhood are hidden in this short fairy tale.

There is a reason that The Little Prince is one of the best-selling books ever published (140 million copies have been sold to date). Get the 140,000,001st copy and find out why.

Salvador Litvak

A book that changed my life was The Secret Life of G-d by David Aaron.

It was my door into Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah. It broke down my deep seated fallacy about G-d as an Infinite Other whom I struggle to petition, praise, or placate.

It laid out in clear terms that the perfection we ascribe to G-d is actually a limitation. G-d has to have the power to evolve and improve, or G-d would lack something.

How can a "perfect" Being evolve? Through us. We can evolve. We are partners in the Creation with a job to do.

And Rabbi Aaron has a good sense of humor.

View the full Eight Nights of Stories series, in partnership this year with Hevria!

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Spring 2015 Jewish Book Preview

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | Permalink
2015 Jewish Book Preview

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

We were overwhelmed with amazing Jewish books and authors in 2014, and, considering the pile of 2015 books already towering on our desks, it looks like 2015 will bring the same punch. With Saul Bellow's 100th birthday approaching in June, be on the lookout for three new Bellow-themed books coming out over the next few months, listed below. Additionally, two of our Unpacking the Book authors have debut novels coming out in March: Daniel Torday (The Last Flight of Poxl West) and Alexis Landau (The Empire of the Senses). 

Looking for some great new cookbooks? Well, we already have six mouth-watering options on the horizon. And if you're looking to hear from some crowd favorites we have new books by Jonathan D. Sarna, Steve Stern, and Elisa Albert coming your way as well. 

You'll also have the opportunity to hear from twelve of the below authors on our Visiting Scribe series—including Shulem Deen, author of the forthcoming memoir All Who Do Not Return—where they'll share more about their work, the backstory, reading lists, and more. Plus, there are some great book club reads that you'll be hearing more about over the coming months (The Nightingale and A Reunion of Ghosts, to name just two). 

We're really excited about the year ahead and hope that you'll continue to check back here to learn more about these titles and their creators—and perhaps even win a book or two!







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Eight Nights with Hevria: King Solomon and How to Write

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | Permalink

One year ago, the Jewish Book Council launched the 8 Nights of Stories series on The ProsenPeople. For each of the eight nights of Chanukah, the Jewish Book Council set out to help our readers find more stories—to read to children, to share with young adults, and to read on your own after the kids are in bed. For Chanukah 5775, we’re delighted to partner with the writers of Hevria, a new collaborative of Jewish self-identified creators, as guest contributors over the next eight nights.

To kick the series off this year, Hevria co-founders Matthue Roth and Elad Nehorai share the stories they think most worth sharing:

Matthue Roth

When I was a kid, I had an old, heavy hardcover edition of the book Stories of King Solomon by Lillian S. Freehof. The illustrations were vintage '70s papercuts in psychedelic colors. Each story wasn't more than 2 or 3 pages, and I hadn't yet learned to call them midrashim. But the stories it was filled with were magical and miraculous: his magic carpet, the quest for the worm that could cut through mountains, the demon Asmodeus who was as clever as Solomon, but was evil, and once altered his image and replaced him. Disney princesses serve their own purpose, but I want my kids to grow up to think that THIS is royalty.

Elad Nehorai

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland changed my life. I walked into Barnes and Noble, a young college kid who just realized he wanted to take up writing. Then I saw this book that seemed about right called, If You Want to Write. I wanted to write! So I picked it up, having no idea what was inside.

It turns out that it was written by a cool beatnik lady in 1938 named Brenda Ueland. Ueland opened my eyes for the first time into what writing, and all art, was at its core: an expression of our soul.

From the very beginning, she writes with enthusiasm and a clear love for her reader, showing that heart is so much more powerful than "mere memory" and that a writer must learn to rise over the traumatic rejection they've often had to face as sensitive people in a world that is often cynical and negative, crushing the potentially positive, alive people of the world.

Ueland guides her readers as only she can into an exploration of the artist's essence and potential, showing them what they really can become when they stop listening to the people stuck in their minds and start embracing the part of themselves that just wants to cry when it sees a sunset.

An absolute necessity for anyone who "wants to write".

Check back tomorrow for the next installment of Eight Nights of Stories, in partnership this year with Hevria!

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Stumbling on Jewish Suppliers to the Confederacy

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | Permalink

Adam D. Mendelsohn is Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. His most recent book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When historians describe their profession they often liken themselves to detectives. Although the comparison is flattering to historians – the mysteries we solve are rarely matters of life and death – our methods of evidence-gathering and deduction are closer to real life crime squads than the sleuthing done by most television gumshoes. We track down leads, corroborate and cross-reference, and sift endless quantities of evidence. We dream of the source that voluntarily confesses all of its secrets, but more often pry the truth loose by building a painstaking case.

And yet there are rare moments amidst the many, many hours spent in archives when we too experience the thrill of the chase, that exhilarating sense of excitement when the mysterious and unexpected is suddenly within reach.

For me, one such moment of serendipity came when investigating the roots of Jewish involvement in the modern garment industry. After months of focusing on the role of Jewish suppliers to the Union Army – many of the uniforms worn by soldiers in the first year of the Civil War were manufactured by Jewish firms – I switched my attention to the Confederacy. Some southern Jews featured among Confederate contractors, but these were mostly small bore. Since the Confederate States of America had little of the industrial capacity of the Union, it relied heavily on materiel imported from Europe. And cursory investigation revealed little evidence that any of the major European exporters had anything to do with Jews. I discounted one such firm, Isaac Campbell & Company, on the strength of its name. The firm, based in London, was one of the leading buyers of munitions for the Confederacy, and a major blockade runner to boot. It was much written-about by historians, in part because it almost certainly defrauded the CSA on a massive scale.

But for a serendipitous lead, I would have pursued my investigation into Isaac Campbell & Company no further. That is, until I discovered that the name atop the firm was perhaps intentionally chosen to mislead. One of the services supplied Dugald Forbes Campbell, a Scottish attorney who represented the firm, was to supply a name for the masthead that may have obscured the fact that Samuel and Saul Isaac, two Jewish brothers who had started in the boot-making business, were its owners and prime movers.

Suddenly the game was on! So many new leads to chase down. And a new quarry was in my sights. This is what historians live for.

Check back on Thursday to read more from Adam D. Mendelsohn.

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Woody Guthrie's Hanukkah Songs

Monday, December 15, 2014 | Permalink

Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD is the author of A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press). Visit his web site and seasonal blog at He welcomes your own unique stories of being Jewish at Christmas for a new book of personal stories about this subject. You can email him at: He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Here is a recent American tale of old wine in new vessels. Part of our national folklore reveals that Woody Guthrie, the iconic American folk troubadour and songwriter, composed Hanukkah songs. In a 2003 concert, the Klezmatics, a popular Grammy Award-winning Klezmer band, performed Hanukkah songs showcasing lyrics written from 1949 through the early 1950s by Woody Guthrie. The lyrics had laid fallow and long-forgotten in Guthrie’s archives until their discovery in 1998 by Woody’s daughter, Nora Guthrie. Nora asked the Klezmatics to write original music for the lyrics, which fuses strains of Klezmer music with American folk and bluegrass. The 2006 album, “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanuka,” comprises many different songs, including “Happy, Joyous Hanuka” and “Hanuka Tree.” Two of the eight songs, “The Many And The Few” and “Hanuka Dance,” had lyrics and melodies penned entirely by Guthrie. The songs were in part biographical. Woody was married to Marjorie Mazia, a Jewish dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company who was the daughter of Aliza Greenblatt, an activist and Yiddish poet. Nora remembers “For Hanukkah actually, we had a hat—we didn’t get presents—but we had a hat with different amounts of Hanukkah gelt, and every night we’d pick out five cents or twenty-five cents of gelt. My mother played piano, and we used to sing and dance every night.”*

At the 2003 debut concert with the Klezmatics at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, folk legend Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son and Nora’s brother, joked that as children they would dance “around the Hanukkah tree.” "Happy Joyous Hanuka" counts down each candle on the menorah (“Seven for the sons of Hannah that died/Six for kings and the tricks they tried/Five for the brothers Maccabee”), while “Hanuka Tree” has a lively simple melody (“Round and around my Hanukah tree/Round and around I go/Round and around my Hanukah tree/Because I love you so”). According to Nora, most of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs seem to have been written in November or December within five days of each other “because he had bookings in December for children’s Hanukkah parties in assorted Brooklyn community centers.” As was his wont, Woody would “write songs only for the gig a few days before and then go on to other songs for other gigs.” For the Guthrie family, a family of improvisers not of traditions and for whom the approach to religion was “all or none,” the tree was a “Christmas tree, a Hanukkah tree, and a holiday tree. It was a fluid thing!”

Indeed, the popularization of Woody Gutherie's Hanukkah songs by the Klezmatics demonstrates the vital role that music plays as an intrinsic cultural force contributing to the Americanization of this Jewish holiday, as it coexists with Christmas.

Joshua Eli Plaut is Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical and the Rabbi of Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. He is an historian, photo-ethnographer, and cultural anthropologist, and is also the author of Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1983: Patterns of Jewish Communal Survival in the Greek Provinces before and after the Holocaust (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press)

*Telephone interview with Nora Guthrie, August 17, 2011.

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The ProsenPshat: Week of December 8th

Friday, December 12, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The ProsenPshat is a weekly recap of highlights from each week’s online content on Worried you might have missed something this week? Be sure to check our featured reviews page and scroll through The ProsenPeople blog!

Can you believe it’s nearly Hanukkah already? We’re thrilled to feature the writers of Hevria next week for a guest-takeover of The ProsenPeople’s Eight Nights of Stories series—make sure to check our blog as we update with these new posts daily over the holiday!

In the meantime, we know you’re still short a few gifts. Instead of scrambling over the weekend, take our advice and present your loved ones with books. We have 2014 gift guides for adult readers, for children’s & YA books, and in a handy flowchart.

But enough looking ahead: there’s plenty to look back on this week!

In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel author Adam Rovner blogged as a Visiting Scribe this week on the numerous factual and fictional alternative plans for a Jewish state before the establishment of Israel.

I often describe my book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, as the biography of an idea: the modern idea that Jews needed a national home somewhere—anywhere—except the biblical land of Israel. This Jewish nationalist ideology was known as territorialism and is nearly forgotten today. But in some eras it was more popular than Zionism.

Deducing which of these proposals would in fact have been the best viable option, Adam shared the locations that did and did not make it into his book:

While conducting archival research, I visited each of the potential territories my work describes: Angola, Kenya, Madagascar, upstate New York, Suriname, and Tasmania. But there were several other plans for Jewish states I didn’t examine—either because they never advanced far enough to be considered serious proposals, or because I didn’t want get myself killed.

Fortunately for us, Adam listed the top five of these unexamined sites, “a list of alternate Zions for that sequel I’ll never write,” on The ProsenPeople.

Matthue Roth also blogged for the Jewish Book Council this week, explaining why authors torture the people they love most and a literary device he learned from stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov:

Writers are sadists. You throw your character—your new creation; the thing you love most in the world—in front of the bus.

When I want to show how much Herbie cares about his friends, I make him isolated and alone. To show his creative spirit and his ingenuity, I put him in a place where there's nothing to do and force him to build his own robots. When I want to show him at his best and most heroic, I try to break him.

Matthue also addressed finding the right balance of Jewishness in children’s story writing: how his rejected submissions to The PJ Library made him feel “like I was back on the Jewish dating scene” and how the best book he’s written yet was unabashedly plagiarized from his own kids.

One day, I'd love to write a story that helps my kids understand the idea of praying, and changing the world that way, and of the gates of heaven being forced open by one person's words. If there's one person (actually, three people) who I trust to get my prayers through the gates of heaven, it's them. They might not be very good at bedtime rituals, but when it comes to believing in things, they could move mountains.

Marking the 50th anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof’s Broadway debut, Eddie Shapiro wrote a feature essay for Jewish Book World on recently published books about the classic American stage and film musical, shared on The ProsenPeople this week.

No one associated with Fiddler anticipated that the show would be a smash, and they would have been happy had it lasted a year. One potential producer turned it down because he believed its appeal would be limited to Hadassah theater parties. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Fiddler was one of the great successes in Broadway history, and its original backers made a fortune. Its eight-year run of 3,242 performances surpassed that of My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and South Pacific, and until Grease came along in 1979 it held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical or non-musical show. There have been five Broadway revivals of the show, and every year at least five hundred productions of Fiddler are staged in the United States.

But did the play’s success come at the cost of its Jewish integrity? Eddie examines the critiques of Fiddler on the Roof alongside its achievements over the past five decades, and compares the script against its provenance: Sholem Aleichem’s eight short stories about Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, December 12, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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5 Alternate Histories of Zion

Friday, December 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam Rovner wrote about what he thinks would have been the most viable Zion outside of Israel and top five alternative Jewish homelands that he didn't explore in his new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, out this week from NYU Press. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel presents a narrative history of modern proposals to create autonomous Jewish territories beyond the borders of Israel. I’ve referred to my book as a “shadow history” of Zionism—an effort to bring to light the forgotten struggles of a failed branch of Jewish nationalism called territorialism. Territorialism’s adherents believed in the necessity of establishing a Jewish home somewhere in the world other than the land of Israel. While researching and writing my book, I came across a number of works of fiction that imaginatively engaged with territorialist what-if scenarios. Here’s a list of five alternate histories of Zion in English and Hebrew:

Number 5—Herzl Amar (2011)

Israeli author Yoav Avni’s novel considers what might have happened had a Jewish state been established in East Africa. The plot follows two friends who plan a trip to Palestine after their compulsory military service in a counterfactual African Israel. This clever and often satiric vision of contemporary Israel owes a debt to the historical proposal advanced by Theodor Herzl in 1903 to create a “New Judea” in what is today western Kenya. A chapter of my book is devoted to the so-called Uganda Plan and the crises it engendered, including a rupture at the heart of the Zionist Organization and an assassination attempt against Herzl’s lieutenant. An excerpt appeared in English last year in

Number 4—IsraIsland (2005)

Nava Semel’s genre-bending Hebrew novel imagines in one of its three sections what might have happened had Mordecai Manuel Noah’s planned Jewish micronation of Ararat developed into a city-state in the Niagara River. Ararat, in Semel’s vision, becomes a force in American politics and succeeds so wildly that Jews can barely recall their biblical homeland. In my book, I describe Noah’s urgent call to European Jewry to resettle in America following the notorious Hep-Hep Riots of 1819. No one came, and Noah himself was ridiculed by religious leaders in France and England, and by the press in the United States.

Number 3—“Noah’s Ark” (1899)

British author and early Zionist leader Israel Zangwill published “Noah’s Ark” during a period of close collaboration with Herzl. The story imagines that Noah’s call for immigration is answered by a German Jew, Peloni, a name derived from the Hebrew word for an anonymous “someone.” Fired by inspiration, Peloni sails for the New World intending to make Noah’s Ararat his home. He soon settles upon the site of the planned Jewish sanctuary near Buffalo, New York, but he remains the sole occupant of Noah’s utopian project and is condemned to loneliness and despair.

Number 2—“The Last Jew” (1946)

This compelling and bizarre short story was penned by Jacob Weinshall, a doctor, author, and supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s right-wing Revisionist party. In the story, the Nazis have emerged victorious from World War II and exterminated every last Jew, except for a single survivor living in Madagascar. He is eventually discovered and condemned to death by a technocratic Nazi regime. Some Hebrew readers consider “The Last Jew” to be the first literary work to imagine a Nazi victory, now a staple plot in the alternate history genre. My book examines Jewish efforts to create a refugee colony in Madagascar, and how that plan was ultimately perverted by the Nazis. Though doubts remain, my research leads me to believe that Jabotinsky himself supported limited Jewish relocation to Madagascar, a fact which may help explain Weinshall’s hallucinatory tale.

Number 1—The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

Michael Chabon’s clever novel may be the most familiar example of a territorialist what-if. Chabon makes use of the detective genre to explore the fictional world of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish territory in Sitka, Alaska. The premise derives from a real proposal to channel Jewish immigrants to Alaska that was supported by Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, in 1938. Chabon, however, revealed to me that his fantasy also has its origins in his long-standing fascination with Mordecai Manuel Noah’s plan for Ararat.

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How to Write about Moving a Mountain

Thursday, December 11, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthue Roth wrote about why authors like to torture people they love. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

It's really hard writing a book that doesn't fall anywhere into any mainstream categories. Take, for example, my emo science fiction picture book The Gobblings, which just came out. It does happen to be a retelling of a Baal Shem Tov story, but not in any recognizable form that you can be like, "Here's the Jewish content!"

This is the Baal Shem Tov. According to folklore, he performed holy somersaults as he prayed.

I once submitted a book to PJ Library, the amazing program that sends free picture books to tens of thousands of Jewish kids. It was rejected—the reason given was, the family in it went to synagouge; it was too Jewish. I submitted another book. It was called The Blackout and it was about a family who never spoke to each other; one night, the lights went out and they had to have dinner and tell each other stories and sing songs—essentially, they had to do Shabbat. Their reply? It wasn't Jewish enough. Man, I felt like I was back on the Jewish dating scene.

This is Herbie, hero of The Gobblings. He might be opening the gates of heaven, but you really can't tell he's Jewish.

Somebody said to me in an interview that they'd heard Gobblings was based on a Jewish story. But there was nothing in the art that said that; no moral; no one had Jewish names or were wearing yarmulkes. "Was that intentional?" they asked me. I didn't have a good answer; I didn't want to say that I didn't tell Rohan, the artist, that the book had anything to do with the Baal Shem Tov (I didn't) (and if he's reading this, he's probably just finding that out now) (hi, Rohan!). But the truth was, the story's roots as a "Jewish folktale" were never part of its Jewish identity to me. It was its spirit, the idea at its heart of doing something impossible and of a kid's simple belief changing the world and saving his family.

One day, I'd love to write a story that helps my kids understand the idea of praying, and changing the world that way, and of the gates of heaven being forced open by one person's words. One day I hope to understand that much. Honestly, the only thing I've ever written that might come close is another picture book, one called We Are in a Pot of Chicken Soup—it's about two kids cooking soup and adding all the ingredients out of their imagination.

That one, I completely plagiarized—I stole the story (and the title) from my kids. If there's one person (actually, three people) who I trust to get my prayers through the gates of heaven, it's them. They might not be very good at bedtime rituals, but when it comes to believing in things, they could move mountains.

Matthue Roth's first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was a NYPL Best Book for the Teen Age and an ALA Best Books nominee. His latest is The Gobblings, illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. By day, he's a video game designer. He lives in Brooklyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at

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