The ProsenPeople

A Brief History of the Original Paper Brigade

Monday, June 05, 2017 | Permalink
by Lenore J. Weitzman

As our editors work on the second issue of Jewish Book Council's literary journal, Paper Brigade, we present a tribute to the group of resistance fighters who provided the inspiration for our publication's name.



“The paper brigade was our resistance—our way of defying the Nazis,” explained Dina Abramowicz, a member of a small group of Jews in the Vilna Ghetto who risked their lives, while working under Nazi surveillance, to secretly rescue and hide thousands of Jewish books and documents the Nazis were planning to ship to Germany.

Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania was a treasure-trove for the Nazis. Once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” it was a vibrant Jewish cultural and religious center with 105 synagogues, thriving educational institutions, enormous libraries, and prominent intelligentsia.

In 1942 the Nazis ordered Herman Kruk, head of the Vilna Ghetto library, and Zelig Kalmanovich, a director of prewar YIVO, to collect the very best “Jewish books, artwork, and museum valuables” for shipment to Germany, where they were to be displayed—after the Jews of Europe were murdered.

About a third of the books were to be preserved for the Germans; the rest were to be destroyed. When the Nazis carried out “a selection” of the books they wanted, they threw “70% of the books from the YIVO treasures into the trash as scrap paper.” Kruk wrote that “the Jewish workers employed on the project are literally weeping. . . . Your heart can break as you watch.”

Kruk recruited members of the Jewish intelligentsia to join his staff of forty men and women, including the Yiddish poets Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, who became the leaders of the smuggling operations. Between March 1942 and September 1943, their “paper brigade” rescued thousands of books and tens of thousands of documents from Nazi hands.

The workers would typically hide the cherished books and papers and artifacts in their clothing and shoes—first to smuggle them out of the sorting building, and then to get past the police at the ghetto gates. If the Germans were on guard, they would confiscate everything and beat or shoot the offending Jews. But if Jewish policemen were on guard, they might allow the workers to pass because they were “only carrying papers.” (Thus the police dubbed them the “paper brigade.”)

Abraham Sutzkever (Photo: Fritz Cohen)

Abraham Sutzkever was the most ingenious rescuer of materials in the paper brigade, at one point obtaining a written permit to take wastepaper into the ghetto for use in his household oven. He then used the permit to bring in letters and manuscripts by Maxim Gorky, Sholem Aleichem, and Hayim Nachman Bialik; one of Theodore Herzl’s diaries; drawings by Marc Chagall; and a rare manuscript by the Vilna Gaon.

While some books and valuables were given to Polish or Lithuanian friends for safekeeping outside the ghetto, most were brought back to be hidden in the ghetto itself—in a concealed basement in the library and in underground bunkers spread throughout the ghetto. (For example, in October 1942 Kruk recorded 200 Torah scrolls in bunker #3.)

Although Kruk and Kalmanovich were not aware of it, about ten of the forty workers, including Sutzkever and Kaczerginski, were also members of the FPO, the ghetto’s underground Jewish fighting organization led by Abba Kovner. Along with the papers, they were also smuggling guns and ammunition into the ghetto for a planned revolt.

Sadly, in the end, most of the forty members of the paper brigade were murdered by the Germans, including Kruk and Kalmanovich. The only survivors were the paper brigade workers in the Jewish resistance—including Sutzkever, Kaczerginski, the fighter Rushka Korjak, and the librarian Dina Abramowicz (quoted earlier), all of whom escaped from the ghetto to join the Partisans.

In July 1944, they returned to Vilna with the Soviet Army and the Jewish partisan brigade and searched for the books they had hidden with a plan to use them as the foundation for a new Vilna Museum of the Jewish People. That story, and the story of how the documents were eventually reclaimed by YIVO—fifty years later—in New York, will be told in a forthcoming book by Professor David Fishman.

Lenore J. Weitzman is writing a book on the kashariyot, the young women who were secret couriers for the Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. She coedited Women in the Holocaust (Yale, 1999), a finalist for two National Jewish Book Awards, with Dalia Ofer.

Related Content

Interview: The Worlds of Dalia Rosenfeld

Sunday, June 04, 2017 | Permalink

with Adam Rovner

Dalia Rosenfeld, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, moved to Israel two years ago to reinvent her life. And though she has been publishing sharply observed literary fiction in American journals and magazines for two decades, The Worlds We Think We Know (Milkweed Editions) is her first collection. The wait for these twenty new stories has been worth it.

Adam Rovner: The Worlds We Think We Know has already garnered praise from major American writers, including Adam Johnson, Cynthia Ozick, and Gary Shteyngart. Shteyngart has called your work “very funny, Jewish and wise.” Are you conscious of being a “Jewish writer?” What does that mean to you?

Dalia Rosenfeld: I wish I knew! I was hoping I was far enough removed from the immigrant experience to be unqualified to answer that question, but here I am, suddenly the holder of a second passport, a new immigrant to Israel. But that doesn’t help much either, because the days of linking “Jewish writer” to immigrant status are pretty much over now. If the question implies loyalty to a people, I feel that strongly outside the context of writing, but on the page my loyalty is to language. Jews owe their survival to the power of the written word—you can’t take your land with you into exile, but you can take your stories—which is not to suggest that focusing on language alone makes one a Jewish writer, but feeling at home in language constitutes a major part of the Jewish experience.

AR: Your prose certainly demonstrates that you feel at home in English, but can you really use a non-Jewish language to convey Jewish sensibility?

DR: I don’t know if such a thing as a “Jewish sensibility” exists. What I do know is that there are certain states of mind or being that I associate with Jews, and that my Jewish characters often possess. For one thing, they are conscious of a collective past, but rather than this past functioning as a unifying force, my characters find it hard to feel rooted in the present. It gives me great pleasure to reference the Jewish past because doing so connects me with what is familiar and offers a sense of comfort and continuity: a poppy seed cake burning in the oven, a Yiddish phrase, a story from the Torah that a bar mitzvah student couldn’t care less about. Maybe it’s this seeking a conversation with the past that makes one a Jewish writer?

AR: The collective past in the guise of the Holocaust appears in your title story and several other standouts. Can you speak about why the Holocaust’s long shadow enters your work?

DR: Until recently, the Holocaust shaped my identity more than any other chapter in Jewish history. My father is a Holocaust scholar, and I grew up in a house in which the entire living room was given over to books on this subject. While my friends were reading Jane Eyre, I was reading about the Jews of Vienna being forced to clean the sidewalks with toothbrushes. What’s interesting is that I never felt burdened by this history; haunted, yes. Absolutely. Because it wasn’t just the books: it was also listening to the stories of survivors who came to see my father. When you relive your own memories, it’s traumatic, but when you experience another person’s, it’s something abnormal, unsettling. And it’s those haunted echoes that appear in my stories, sometimes just with a single image, such as a survivor reusing a tea bag until it resembles a shriveled walnut. Since moving to Israel, my preoccupation with how Jews died has shifted somewhat to how they live.

AR: Who are some of the writers who help you understand how Jews lived yesterday and how they live today?

DR: A partial list in no particular order would include Israeli authors Yaakov Shabtai, Yoel Hoffman, A. B. Yehoshua; American writers Rivka Galchen, Cynthia Ozick, Bellow, Malamud, Nicole Krauss, Jamaica Kincaid; Europeans such as Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Leo Perutz—a now obscure Austrian novelist (not to be confused with Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz)—and both I. B. and I. J. Singer.

AR: I can see the affinity your collection has with many of these writers. What I mean is that your stories often depict a sense of displacement. Sometimes it’s geographic—Americans in Israel, Russians in America, cosmopolitans in small towns. Why are uprooted characters so common in your stories?

DR: I’m drawn to characters whose actions are informed by an inner logic they themselves are not aware of, and that is guided—as you put it—by a state of displacement, sometimes forced, sometimes self-imposed, in which fixed boundaries fall away to give the characters a chance to redefine themselves. But they often squander the opportunity by engaging in a series of missteps, or self-sabotage, such as in my story “Swan Street,” where Misha, the protagonist, moves to America only to end up in a kind of voluntary exile, avoiding situations that would allow him to settle into his adoptive homeland. At the end of a story, I always discover the same thing: that human behavior is inscrutable—but still fun to write about.

AR: That comedy of human inscrutability comes across in your stories, many of which possess a wry sense of humor. Is humor difficult for you to write?

DR: I honestly wasn’t aware of this wry humor people keep pointing out until they started pointing it out. There’s no doubt that it’s healthier to find the humor in horrible situations than to stew in your own juice—something that I tend to do in real life. One of the purposes humor serves is to highlight our vulnerabilities without being held hostage by them.

AR: Many of your characters are women who reveal their vulnerabilities while at the same time demonstrating resiliency. Are you conscious of writing resilient female characters?

DR: I think a lot of writing happens on an unconscious level. The craft part is a conscious thing, but what motivates the characters to do what they do—they’re just like us, acting on impulses, intuition, instinct, feelings, all those things that can’t be explained rationally but that ultimately make us human. While I don’t divide the world into male/female, I find it hard to argue with a phrase I recently came across describing men as “expressively economical” with their emotions. This implies that women are not—that women are something else. And it is this “something else” that makes it hard to speak the same language, to enter into a realm of closeness that both sides desire, but in different ways. The resilience of a character comes when the love she seeks isn’t within her grasp, but still she can find beauty in the world.

AR: Your characters often seem lonely to me. Is writing a lonely activity for you?

DR: No! Writing is an antidote to loneliness. It’s what connects me with the world and helps me understand it better. Especially since I write in cafes, and in Israel people never leave you alone. For the last week, the same man has come up to me every morning and said, “Did you change that part of your story I told you to change?” He had shared some Persian proverb with me months ago, which I liked but altered a bit, and he was of the conviction that I should leave it the way it has been for the last five hundred years. I probably shouldn’t have showed him what I did with the proverb, but at the time I wanted to thank him. This morning he abbreviated his question to a single word: “Nu?”

AR: Nu? So what are you working on now?

DR: I thought I was working on a novel called The Physics of Time Travel in which an American woman moves to Israel and imagines parallels between her personal life and the trajectory of her adopted country. When I read the first chapter, I realized it was a stand-alone story and my interest in the theme had been exhausted, but in a good way. In a way that allowed me to write a second story about something totally different, and without feeling guilty about it. I’m now fifty pages into a second collection called The Physics of Time Travel.

Dalia Rosenfeld is the author of The Worlds We Think We Know a collection of short stories called “A profound debut from a writer of great talent” by Adam Johnson. She teaches writing at Bar Ilan University and lives with her three children in Tel Aviv.

Adam Rovner is Associate Professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. He is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press), a narrative history of efforts to establish Jewish homelands across the globe.

New Reviews May 26, 2017

Friday, May 26, 2017 | Permalink

Featured Content


What Would a Jewish Narnia Look Like?
If Judaism holds that God alone can save the world, is it even possible to write a truly Jewish fantasy quest?

Book Cover of the Week
New York Times bestselling author and poet Jill Bialosky claims that Poetry Can Save Your Life. We kinda have to agree.

Interview with Barbara Beitz
"I have read and researched a lot about the brave families who settled in the Southwest,” the author of The Sundown Kid shares. “What deeply touched me was the way different groups came together in support of one another, and I wanted to capture that sense of cooperation in a meaningful way."

The Biblical Inspirations Behind My Fantasy Fiction Series
Known to his readers by his pen name N. S. Dolkart, the Jewish author behind the Godserfs epic fantasy series points out that the Bible is a scary place to live.

New Books for Young Readers


What Would a Jewish Narnia Look Like?

Friday, May 26, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Noah Beit-Aharon exposed the Biblical inspirations behind his epic fantasy series, Godserfs. With the release of Among the Fallen, the second volume in the series, Noah is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


There have been many intelligent responses to Michael Weingrad’s 2010 essay, “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.” This should come as no surprise— it’s a provocative piece, at once insightful and maddening, falsifiable in its particulars and yet, on a basic level, essentially true. As many have pointed out, Weingrad’s essay fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of what kind of book would count as, in his words, “profoundly Jewish in the way that…The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian.” Wouldn’t the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer count? Weingrad’s very narrow definition of fantasy seems to exclude magical realism and other popular fantasy subgenres, while classifying only high fantasy and epic fantasy—those two subgenres most dominated by the influence of Lewis and Tolkien—as valid.

But even with the deck thus stacked in Christianity’s favor, Weingrad’s main question remains worthwhile: is the backward-looking sword-and-sorcery stuff that so many of us grew up with so inherently Christian that it’s impossible to produce great “profoundly Jewish” works within that context? In short, is a Jewish Narnia impossible?

In order to answer that question, I think we must first ask ourselves what makes the original Narnia so Christian. That may seem silly, but in this case I think stating the obvious is worthwhile: The Chronicles of Narnia are Christian allegory. Neither Jesus nor Satan nor any ministering angels appear in the novels, except as symbolized by Aslan and the like. I bring this up because Weingrad is very clearly not demanding more Jewish characters in fantasy—he wants a story that feels Jewish in the same way that Lewis’ work feels Christian. As such, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis’ books are not about the trappings of Christian mythology. They’re about its essence.

But if the essence of Christianity can be seen in themes like divine self-sacrifice, original sin, and Satan’s continued rebellion after the fall, what is the essence of Judaism?

I recently picked up Matthew Kressel’s King of Shards, a fun portal fantasy set in a multiverse that drips with Kabalistic theories and other Jewish symbols and trappings. Yet my mind still went back to Mr. Weingrad’s essay while reading, because although the setting and premise of King of Shards are indeed profoundly Jewish, the guts of the story are still those of a classic epic fantasy story: a Quest to Save the World. It was hard not to see there the powerful influence of Tolkien, and of Lewis, on the fantasy genre: even an undeniably Jewish fantasy novel is propelled by a plot that borrows more from the Christian ethos than a Jewish one.

Our founding documents do not deal with the power of humans to redeem the world: only God can redeem the world, and on that front God seems content to wait until the end times. Nor do humans (or demons, for that matter) threaten God’s creation in any serious way—God is the sole Granter of life and death, the Creator of both darkness and light, Master of good and evil.

The Jewish spirit does not worship God and fear the devil. It worships God, and fears God too.

It is notable that in the Torah, God is distinctly not engaged in a struggle for supremacy. It’s not that other gods don’t exist—Tanakh accepts the existence of gods other than our own, but insists that our own God is dominant over them. Even in Exodus, where one might expect some real conflict between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel, the latter seems to run roughshod over the opposition without any semblance of resistance. But if that sounds undramatic, if you’re wondering how such a dynamic could possibly lend itself to a good fantasy story, then perhaps you should read the Book of Exodus again. There’s plenty of drama! It’s just that the drama of the Torah resides not in the opposition of other divine beings to God, but in the constant struggle between God and the people of Israel.

When I began the Godserfs series with my first book, Silent Hall, my plan was to set the story in a world reminiscent of the Biblical one. I’d always been fascinated by the strange and horrifying world of Tanakh, where tricking one’s brother out of his birthright is okay but accidentally touching the Ark of the Covenant is a death sentence, and I wanted other readers to share my experience of the text in all its disturbing glory. I know that at least with some, I’ve succeeded. I have a friend who receives drashot from her favorite rabbis via email, and she keeps forwarding them to me every time some concept reminds her of my writing.

If one were to go searching for Biblical parallels in my series, one would find them by the ark-full: a Sinai generation made up of dragons, a Leviathan-like primordial plant monster, a godly pursuit as troubling and mysterious as the Bridegroom of Blood story, plus more midrashic references than you could shake a lulav at. The gods in Godserfs are mysterious and frightening, willing to wipe out a population or smite an individual over the pettiest of slights. There are also a whole lot of them, and they are frequently in conflict with each other. I chose to start the story in that polytheistic mindset because Judaism didn’t arise in a vacuum: it developed in reaction to the popular local religions of its day. The characters only start moving toward a monotheistic viewpoint over the course of the first book, when they discover the existence of a God Most High, and look to that god to save them from their divine enemies.

Importantly, the character of God Most High is no Enlightenment deity, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. That god may seem familiar to us, but is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible. In case we need a reminder, the God in Tanakh kills one of Judah’s sons for masturbating (or perhaps for using the pull-out method), smites Uzzah for having disastrously quick reflexes, tortures Job just to prove a point, punishes Moses for hitting a rock in frustration (and Miriam for criticizing her brother), and sends numerous plagues down upon the people of Israel. He also intentionally allows His people to be enslaved, just so He can show off later by freeing them. The point of Israelite monotheism is not that our God is kinder than Baal, it’s that He’s more powerful, and He’s the one we made a deal with.

The struggle in the Godserf series, as in the Jewish liturgy, is not to resist temptation or overcome the devil. The struggle is for the characters to convince God Most High to take their side and rise to their aid.

I make no claim to have a “Jewish education equivalent to the philological and medievalist backgrounds of the Oxford and Cambridge dons Tolkien and Lewis.” I am neither a Jewish Studies professor nor a yeshiva student. But for those who are interested in my vision of fantasy with a Jewish core, Silent Hall and its sequels will not disappoint. The Jewish Narnia awaits.

Noah Beit-Aharon lives in Waltham, MA, and is a member of Temple Beth Israel in Waltham. The first two installments of his Jewish-inspired epic fantasy series Godserfs, published under the pen name N. S. Dolkart, are available in paperback from Angry Robot Books.


Related Content:


Book Cover of the Week: Poetry Will Save Your Life

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Yes it will.

Poetry Will Save Your Life is New York Times bestselling author and poet Jill Bialosky's memoir of her upbringing and career, organizing her experiences around 43 life-changing poems from Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and others. Really looking forward to hearing Jill talk about her book live today at the 2017 JBC Network Conference!


Related Content:


The Biblical Inspirations for My Fantasy Series

Monday, May 22, 2017 | Permalink

Noah Beit-Aharon is the nice Jewish boy behind the Godserfs epic fantasy series, published under the penname N. S. Dolkert. With the release of Among the Fallen, the second volume in the series, Noah is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


(Author’s note: in this essay, I use male pronouns while discussing the God of the Tanakh. I do this not because I believe that God is male, but because I am talking specifically about the Tanakhic God, and the Tanakh uses male pronouns.)

The setting of my fantasy series Godserfs is heavily influenced by my reading of the Tanakh, and the world evoked by the many conflicting stories and traditions within that text. While the first two books, Silent Hall and Among the Fallen, are rife with allusions and reimaginings, I want to take the opportunity to discuss three passages in the Hebrew Bible that directly influenced my writing.

Before we even begin, it is important to note that the Tanakh accepts and assumes the existence of multiple gods, besides the one “true” God. In Exodus 12:12, God says to Moses: “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” Numbers 33:4 confirms that God “executed judgments against their gods.” These other unnamed gods are less awesome (e.g. Psalms 86:8, “Among the gods there is none like you, Lord”), but they’re around, opposing our God and each other, and generally doing no good in the world.

This is also the case in my series, where the characters begin their journeys as polytheists completely unaware of God Most High, in this case the ancient god of the dragons. That god may turn out to be more powerful than all the other ones, as the name would imply, but the others are the ones that my main characters have to worry about. It’s unclear whether God Most High will protect them, or is even watching them at all. The Cartesian ideal of God as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent does not apply to the world of Silent Hall and Among the Fallen, any more than it applies to the world depicted in Exodus or Kings. At any time, God Most High might not be watching, might not be able to do anything about the characters’ problems, or might not care to.

⚔⚔⚔

A biblical passage that particularly stands out as inspiration for the setting of the Godserfs series is this one from Exodus 32, where God sees the golden calf that the Israelites have made and decides He’s done with them:

Now leave me alone, (He says to Moses in verse 10,) so that my anger can blaze against them, and I can put an end to them! I will make a great nation out of you instead.

This passage echoes the Abrahamic covenant, but with a very dark message: if made sufficiently angry, God is willing to discard His own people. For all the promises to the avot (our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) that He would make them a great nation, the fact is that the Israelites are just a means to an end, and God is willing to start over with one or two of them as many times as He has to.

The gods of my novel are equally willing to discard their own peoples, and there is not always a Moses figure handy to talk them down. The action in the first book, Silent Hall, begins hundreds of years after a Moses-like character is betrayed and imprisoned by his own people (the dragons), causing their god to abandon them for good. By the time the main characters are born, dragons have been extinct for generations: their god decided to start over again with the draconic human hybrids that are the prophet’s descendants.

⚔⚔⚔

Hopping backwards a bit, let’s look at one of the strangest and most confusing scenes in the entire Bible, Exodus 4:24-26: And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that the Lord met [Moses] and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and she said: “Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.” So He let him alone. Then she said: “A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.”

This bizarre passage, known as the Bridegroom of Blood episode, has befuddled commentators for centuries. These verses come immediately after God finishes giving Moses instructions on how to speak to Pharaoh—so why, after spending all this time grooming Moses to be His servant and messenger, would God suddenly seek to kill him? How does Moses’ wife Zipporah know that circumcising their son is the appropriate response, and just as importantly, why is it the appropriate response? Does God seriously mean to kill Moses for neglecting to circumcise his son?

The God in this passage is more than just mysterious, He’s terrifyingly fickle. He may talk to you one moment and smite you the next over something as small as a foreskin. I imagine the panic that Moses must have felt, not knowing what he’d done wrong or how to atone for it until his wife took over and saved the day.

I brought this mental image to my first novel, where a character who has inadvertently slighted a god is pursued through the woods and begins desperately trying to atone for whatever it is he’s done. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but here, too, the insult turns out to be small and strange. It takes some time to discover what my character has done to insult this god, especially since, like Moses, he’s already committed a murder.

(People forget that about Moses, but I think you can see why it’s Zipporah and not him who figures out the circumcision thing. When you’ve left your homeland because you killed a man, it’s kind of hard to go, “Oh, God must be mad because I neglected to circumcise my son.”)

If there is any lesson to be drawn from these first two passages, it is that divine jealousy plus inscrutability equals a very frightening world for its inhabitants. Such is the world my characters inhabit.

⚔⚔⚔

There is one last biblical passage that bears mentioning. From Numbers 10:35:

Whenever the ark set out, Moses said: Rise up, Lord, and your enemies shall scatter, your foes shall flee before you.

This exhortation is crucial in the Jewish liturgy: we hear this passage whenever the Torah scroll comes out of the ark on the Sabbath, holy days, and before weekday readings. As Jon D. Levenson points out in his excellent scholarly work, Creation and the Persistence of Evil, the use of the imperative is crucial in our understanding of ancient Israelite religion. The continued existence of Israel’s enemies—and, by extension, God’s enemies—is seen as evidence of God’s delinquency, not His weakness or lack of existence or “working in mysterious ways.” The purpose of prayer is to shake God from His divine complacency and convince Him to help out.

This is also the quest undertaken by the characters of Silent Hall: to “awaken” the only god that can save them from their enemies. That god isn’t really asleep, of course, but that doesn’t make their quest any easier. They still have to get God Most High off the couch, as it were.

For those who love Bible-reference treasure hunts almost as much as they like fantasy novels, take heart: other parallels and allusions to midrash, the Talmud, and Jewish history are sprinkled throughout. But if I had to choose just one lesson readers should take away from my writing, it’s this: the Bible is a scary place to live.

Noah Beit-Aharon lives in Waltham, MA, and is a member of Temple Beth Israel in Waltham. The first two installments of his Jewish-inspired epic fantasy series Godserfs are available in paperback from Angry Robot Books.


Related Content:


Interview: Barbara Bietz

Monday, May 22, 2017 | Permalink

with Michal Hoschander Malen

Barbara Bietz, author of The Sundown Kid, talks to Michal Hoschander Malen about the pioneer Jews of the American West, their reception in the wide open spaces of their new homes and the building of new communities.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Among the other fine values peeking out from within the text, the story personifies the Jewish concept of Hachnasat Orchim, or welcoming outsiders, and also highlights the importance of family. What gave you the idea for this particular story?

Barbara Bietz: I have read and researched a lot about the brave families who settled the Southwest. While I am particularly drawn to the stories of Jewish families, what deeply touched me was the way different groups came together in support of one another. I wanted to capture that sense of cooperation in a meaningful way. I have said before that The Sundown Kid is my love letter to all those families that came before me, who created communities that are still thriving today.

When I set out to write The Sundown Kid, my heart was really with Mama, who promises some things will never change, even in a new home far away. How hard it must have been to leave a whole life behind! I flipped the perspective to the boy who wants to help his Mama feel at home in “the wide open spaces,” so he invites their new neighbors for Shabbat dinner. The Jewish value of welcoming strangers is as important today as it was in biblical times. Our differences disappear over a shared meal.

MHM: Have you spent time in that part of the United States, yourself? Did you have a particular town in mind for the setting as you haven't specified one? Did you do any research on the time period?

BB: I was born and raised in California and went to college and grad school in Tucson, Arizona. My identity is deeply rooted in the Southwest. Many Jewish immigrant stories began at Ellis Island, but not all families stayed in New York. I did extensive research over a long period of time before I wrote The Sundown Kid. I was inspired by Pioneer Jews by Harriet and Fred Rochlin. I had the opportunity to hear Harriet speak about the lives of Jewish pioneers. When she said, “We were there, too,” my heart skipped a beat. Moving forward, I was especially interested in the strong women who maintained Jewish rituals in spite of great challenges.

I discovered an anonymous family in Tucson had commissioned a series of dolls to honor Jewish pioneer women. I wrote an article about the dolls for Doll World magazine. A wonderful artist named Andrea Kalinowski did a series of mixed media paintings of quilts to honor Jewish pioneer women, and I was deeply touched by her work, too. I love the notion of using traditionally feminine art forms to share stories of women.

MHM: Do you have a backstory for the family who made the long trek from East to West? What did they hope to find? How did they think life would unfold for themselves so far away from an established Jewish community?

BB: My backstory for the family is about hope—the universal hope that families have shared historically. The hope of being able to support their families, practice their faith in peace, and create a meaningful future for their children.

MHM: You focused on the role of Shabbat and on the role of food as two of the components in the "glue" that binds Jewish communities and here is used to create bonds with others, as well. Why do you think these and other touchstones are so important from generation to generation?

BB: Rituals connect us to one another. The smell and taste of something familiar will always evoke an emotion. Sharing food we love, or food that has a traditional significance elevates the eating experience from biological to spiritual. Shabbat gives us pause to honor a day, and each other, in a meaningful way. The greatest gift we can give our children is the tradition of rituals.

MHM: How do you think teachers, librarians, youth leaders, etc., can use this story to help children develop a sense of community and to help them further understand its value?

BB: My goal as a writer is to share a story that resonates with readers. I am also passionate about educational opportunities for children. I was very lucky to find an educational specialist who created a beautiful educational guide for The Sundown Kid, which is available on my website for any interested parents or teachers.

MHM: A good picture book is a perfect blend between the text and the art. How do you feel about the illustrator's vision of your idea?

BB: John Kanzler brought this story to life so beautifully. He created subtext that added depth and meaning in such a thoughtful way. I am in awe of his work.

MHM: What can we expect next from the pen of Barbara Bietz? Is there anything coming up in the near future for us to look forward to?

BB: I am working very hard on a few projects, including a picture book biography and a middle-grade historical novel.

Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council's young adult and children's book reviews. She has lectured on a variety of topics relating to children and books and her greatest joy is reading to her grandchildren on both sides of the ocean.


Related Content:

New Reviews May 19, 2017

Friday, May 19, 2017 | Permalink

Featured Content


Jewish Day School: Yes Or No?
While April Peveteaux is happy with her decision to send her children to a Jewish day school, she has concerns about depriving her kids of a more diverse experience.

Interview with Marjorie Ingall
"We are starting to see American Jewish women as executive producers of comedy shows once again. As more and more Jewish women are in charge of their own storytelling, the Jewish Mother figure will become more nuanced." Marjorie Ingall chats with the Jewish Book Council about Jewish parenting in the modern age and her new book, Mamaleh Knows Best.

Breaking Kosher: When Your Kids Make the Rules
How gluten-free cookbook author April Peveteaux adapted to her kids' kosher demands—without compromising her own dietary needs.

New Books for Young Readers


Jewish Day School: Yes Or No?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, April Peveteaux shared how she balances her kids’ kosher demands with her own diet. With the publication of her new cookbook, Bake Sales Are My B*tch: Win the Food Allergy Wars with 60+ Recipes to Keep Kids Safe and Parents Sane, April is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Some people think parenting gets real when you bring that baby home from the hospital and realize it’s now totally on you to keep it alive. As a more seasoned parent, I know that parenting gets real once you have to enroll your baby into big, bad Kindergarten. Yes, I’m being serious. No, I’m not belittling the fact that keeping your baby alive is a big freaking deal.

Like most parents living in Los Angeles of a certain creative/business/lawyering class, we are simultaneously lucky and cursed to have so many options for educating our children: lucky because the fact that I’m even able to write this piece about the pros and cons of Jewish Day School means that my husband and I CAN AFFORD JEWISH DAY SCHOOL; cursed because those who are given too many choices can often make bad ones. Or expensive ones. Or ones that give you indigestion.

Our choice of sending our children to a progressive, Reform Jewish day school was not the obvious one. But at the time, and even now with the benefit of hindsight I would maintain, it certainly seemed like the best. Still, we’re a mixed religious family and not particularly observant, so spending every day learning Hebrew from ages 5 to 11 seemed excessive.

Surprisingly, our ambivalence became the strongest reason to choose the path of Moses. Since my husband is Jewish, but very hazy on his Hebrew school knowledge, this felt to me like the best possible way to introduce our children to half of their heritage. As a Protestant from the Great Plains, I was not going to be able to help them with their Torah portion if they decided to be a bar and bat mitzvah. I’d always been interested in learning more about Judaism myself, so we decided this was a fantastic opportunity to give our children an excellent education while allowing them to discover Judaism and what it meant for them.

We have been incredibly happy with our children’s school. The focus on tikkun olam in our community has been the most impactful part of their early education. Living in a huge city like Los Angeles this school affords them the opportunity to exist and learn in a small, loving, like-minded community. This has also been a blessing. Yet, we have had our doubts about wrapping up our little citizens of the world in a tiny bubble.

Teaching our Jewish kids how to heal the world through service is an amazing start that I wish for every child. I will never undervalue the impact these years have had on my children and their ability to empathize and act when they see injustice in the world. Yet, I can’t help but feel that allowing our children to experience diversity of all kinds on a daily basis will enhance empathy in a real world way.

Eventually, our children need to live in the world outside of their bubble. To study alongside children who are not exactly like them. To understand that some classmates may be hungry, that some face racial, religious, gender, or class discrimination. They will see these children, because they’re sitting next to these kids in class, asking what they got for #9, and where everyone’s going after the after-after party.

Living in a city with such diversity but keeping our children away from the majority of its citizens started to feel like a disservice to our children. As parents of young ones, we do want to keep them surrounded by love and comfort at all times. But as parents of future adults, we have a responsibility to teach our children that they do not, in fact, exist in their own universe. Other people occupy the world who have different needs, different beliefs, and won’t agree with them at every turn.

While some people may think throwing children into the wilds of public school in Los Angeles is cruel and unusual—I mean the lunch options alone—we are not those people. Or maybe, we are no longer those people. Perhaps it took us too long to come to the realization that our job as parents is to not only protect and nurture our children, but to create good people who truly get what other people have to endure simply to get an education, and to prepare them for adulthood. At some point our kids have to learn that their worldview is not shared by all of their peers. And their fresh, organic, kosher lunch is a privilege, not the norm for children who eat one or more meals at school every weekday.

We are so grateful for the time our children spent surrounded by love, and the supportive families who will always be part of their journey. We are especially thankful for the lessons in Judaism they learned every day. We know they are able to look outward and question what they think they know, and that is because of the years spent at the Jewish day school. That is not nothing. That is not to be taken for granted, and forgotten. It’s simply that now, for many reasons, some altruistic, some convenient, it’s time to leave the nest and live in the real world. All four of us.

April Peveteaux is the author of Gluten Is My Bitch. Her new cookbook, Bake Sales Are My B*tch: Win the Food Allergy Wars with 60+ Recipes to Keep Kids Safe and Parents Sane is now available!


Related Content:


Breaking Kosher: When Your Kids Make the Rules

Monday, May 15, 2017 | Permalink

April Peveteaux is the author of Gluten Is My Bitch. With the publication of her new cookbook, Bake Sales Are My B*tch: Win the Food Allergy Wars with 60+ Recipes to Keep Kids Safe and Parents Sane, April is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


I am a woman who loves to eat. I consider feasting upon great foods one of my greatest passions and an intimate, yet universal, way to connect with other like-minded people who enjoy stimulating all of their senses. In other words: If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my blended spinach and ricotta dip.

It was no accident that my husband and I fell in love over every ethnic meal we could indulge in while dating in New York City, and some that we were not sure qualified as any ethnicity. Where do those sugar-roasted nuts come from, anyway? His appreciation for my Southern and Cajun cooking and our many arguments over what makes a taco, based on his California experience and my Oklahoma and Texas knowledge, meant we were able to fulfill each other while remaining hungry.

After we brought our two beautiful, and voracious, children into the world it probably won’t surprise you to know that one of my most satisfying responsibilities as a mother and wife became the preparation of special birthday cakes for each member of my household. Pursuant to their personality and their preference, I make a unique birthday dessert for everyone, and insist they indulge in a piece for breakfast on the day they were brought into this earthly existence. Is there a better way to celebrate the day you were born than by smothering your gob with sugar? My husband goes for a honeybun cake made to resemble, well, a honeybun, covered in cinnamon, toasted pecans and a still-warm glaze. My son loves a rainbow cake with thick white buttercream frosting between each layer to accentuate the bright colors of the confection. And my daughter enjoys a cookie-crusted ice cream cake covered in fudge and whipped cream—the same ice cream cake my own mother made for me every year on my birthday.

Feeding my people is serious business, and I am filled with pleasure as they enjoy the culinary delights I share with them on special, and everyday occasions. Which is why raising kids as they attend a Jewish day school and start to get serious about Judaism has become a challenge to me—in the dietary sense.

As a cook who likes to expand her repertoire and broaden her children’s palates, preparing kosher meals on demand was not my (strawberry preferred) jam. I’m an add-on kind of gal who just walked into a restricted space and was not happy about having to ditch my bacon. I also like to make sure no one begins a meal hungry, so appetizers are a big part of my meal planning. When working under a traditional six-hour separation of the meat and dairy, there was no way I was bringing out my favorite roast chicken if I’d presented the epic cheese platter less than two hours prior. Something had to give. And it wasn’t going to be the cheese platter.

While doing some reconnaissance with other kosher parents, I realized that many chose the path of least resistance: going vegetarian or vegan. I am not that mom. I have celiac disease and can’t have gluten, and quite frankly I think that’s enough deprivation for one household. Also, being gluten-free means that bagels for every meal are also not an option. This is in fact, the worst.

Rather than risk offending everyone at my kid’s lunch tables, and also risk being a big old jerk, I decided my family would have to compromise. After all, if my kids were going to be raised Jewish, they were all ready to question everything. Why not lunch?

When packing a lunch I did decide that going vegetarian was the best way to respect the school guidelines and their observant classmates. Removing meat from their midday meal was going to be much easier on all of us. Especially me, since I don’t eat lunch at school and can shove all the leftover brisket into my mouth only minutes after indulging in nachos. But for my children’s sake, we pack a vegetarian lunch 99% of the time, and they can totally work with the lack of meat protein through the magic of bean and cheese burritos.

Dinnertime and the weekends are much more challenging, especially since the adults in the family do not keep kosher. Still, in support of our children’s commitment we make it work. Our daughter (the most stringent observer) has agreed to be “Dutch kosher” when at home or on vacation, meaning she can enjoy some dairy and only wait one hour to dig into the fried chicken. I compromise by experimenting with vegan and vegetarian meals that keep us kosher-style. Luckily the popularity of Paleo-style eating goes well with both kosher style (no dairy to mix with meat, just skip the pork and the shellfish recipes) and my own celiac disease, since the Paleo diet eschews all grains.

We are probably one of the few families who dine either Paleo or vegan depending on the evening, but mixing religions and food requires creativity and dedication to eating really well. I’m certainly willing to try new, delicious options—see recipe for Rice Chex chicken fingers below—to keep everyone in our house well fed and responsible to their beliefs. As long as I can keep deep-frying anything that falls in line with these dietary restrictions, it’s kosher.

Rice Chex Chicken Fingers

Kids love chicken fingers, but finding breadcrumbs that are both gluten-, egg-, and dairy-free is a huge challenge. Rice Chex (and other Chex products) are seven main allergen-free (no gluten, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish or shellfish), so you can use them to crunch up your salads, or coat your fried chicken. Keep it dairy- and nut-free by using rice milk in this recipe.

Prep time: 20 minutes Cook time: 15 minutes
Makes: 12 servings

Ingredients:
2 lbs. chicken tenders
4 cups Rice Chex
1 cup rice milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
3 cups vegetable oil
Sauces for dipping (check allergen info on label)

1. If not already cut into fingers; slice your chicken into 6” strips, approximately 2” wide. Set aside.

2. In a food processor or blender, combine Rice Chex, salt, pepper and paprika. Pulse until texture resembles breadcrumbs. Transfer to a large plate.

3. Pour rice milk into a medium bowl and set up assembly line with chicken tenders, milk and Rice Chex mixture. Place chicken tenders in bowl with rice milk as you heat your oil.

4. Heat vegetable oil on medium-high in large skillet or use a deep fat fryer and heat on medium-high. Once water sprinkles “dance” on the surface the oil is ready. Turn heat down to medium.

5. Dredge (rice) milk soaked chicken tenders in Rice Chex crumbs, coating completely.

6. Transfer to hot oil and cook until browned, 5-7 minutes per side. Allow chicken tenders to drain on paper towel-covered plate.

7. Serve chicken tenders alone, or with desired sauces.

Recipe excerpt used by permission from Bake Sales Are My B*tch: Win the Food Allergy Wars with 60+ Recipes to Keep Kids Safe and Parents Sane.