The ProsenPeople

Abraham Goldstein: The Invisible Chemist

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roger Horowitz shared memories of his grandmother Bertie Schwartz, the first woman president of the Jewish Book Council. The author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, Roger is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Abraham Goldstein and his daughters Clare, Sarah, and Rebecca. Image provided courtesy of Roger Horowitz

One of my favorite discoveries while writing Kosher USA was pulling away the shroud of silence about Abraham Goldstein, without doubt the founder of modern kosher certification in America. He started the kosher certification programs of both the Orthodox Union and OK Kosher Certification, the two largest agencies today; his legacy can be found in the kosher symbols that adorn approximately 40% of the item in a typical supermarket. But little is known about the historical role played by this lay Jew who laid such key foundations for kosher law.

A devout Orthodox Jew and a chemist by trade, Goldstein appreciated the complex challenges of certifying modern kosher food long before many rabbis whose knowledge of kosher law was rooted in non-industrial settings. Born in East Prussia, Goldstein received training as a chemist before moving to America in 1891 and settling in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. In the 1920s he led the nascent certification program of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregation’s subsidiary, the Orthodox Union, and was certainly at the table when the OU created its distinctive symbol to place on Heinz’s vegetarian baked beans in 1923. Billed as the OU’s “chemical expert,” Goldstein wrote a monthly “Kashruth Column” in the small Orthodox Union magazine, where he answered queries from observant food shoppers.

His insistence on the relevance of science, however, increasingly placed Goldstein at odds with central leaders of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, the Agudath Harabonim, who felt reliance on secular knowledge undermined rabbinic authority. Seeking his own platform, in 1935 Goldstein created the Organized Kashrus (OK) Laboratory to serve as a scientific research lab for rabbis seeking to better understand the chemical composition of food they had been asked to certify. Its quarterly journal, Kosher Food Guide, grew rapidly in circulation to well over 100,000 and became a magnet for observant shoppers, who sent letters to Goldstein asking his advice on foods commonly found on the shelves of new national food chains such as A&P. Answering dozens of queries in each issue, the dialogue between Goldstein and worried Jewish consumers opens a window on the challenges to kosher traditions posed by modern processed foods.

In his responses, and sharply worded articles, Goldstein presented views at odds with prominent Agudath Harabonim leaders. Relying on his authority as a scientist, he ridiculed their opinions, deeply offending the European-trained rabbis accustomed to deference from laymen. When the OU insisted that he submit issues of Kosher Food Guide for advance rabbinic approval, Goldstein refused. He ended all association with the OU and constituted OK Laboratory as its own certification agency. Just before World War II a rabbinic court sought to end Goldstein’s influence by directing Jews and businesses to ignore the Kosher Food Guide; while effectively banning him from official Orthodox circles, the edict had little discernable effect on the journal’s circulation and the placement of advertisements by food companies.

When Abraham Goldstein died late in 1944, his son George took over OK Laboratory; until the mid-1950s it certified more kosher products than the OU, which took decades to recover from Goldstein’s departure. By then his views were no longer considered controversial and both his positions on particular products and his insistence on the use of science in kosher certification were accepted. Yet, even as Orthodox Judaism moved to embrace Goldstein’s views, the silences surrounding his historical role remained. Even today, Abraham Goldstein remains “the invisible chemist.”

Roger Horowitz is a food historian and director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. He is the author of Negro and White, Unite and Fight, Putting Meat on the American Table, and Kosher USA.

Related Content:

My Grandmother, Bertie Grad Schwartz

Monday, September 26, 2016 | Permalink

Roger Horowitz is the author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. Following up Elissa Altman’s writing about Treyf last week, Roger is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Bertie and Charles Schwartz, Lake Placid, New York. Image provided courtesy of Roger Horowitz

When I spoke to the Jewish Book Council in May to promote Kosher USA, I had to preface my pitch by explaining my family connection to the organization. My grandmother Bertie Schwartz was Jewish Book Council’s first women president. She comes into my book mostly through my mother’s stories, told to me over visits to her Upper West Side apartment after spending time in New York City archives, usually while we were eating sandwiches sent in from Fine & Schapiro Deli on 72nd street.

I relate one of those stories in detail in my book: how Bertie obtained kosher meat for the family’s summer residence in Lake Placid, New York in the 1950s. This entailed ordering a kosher beef forequarters (weighing perhaps 200 pounds) from an Albany slaughterhouse, cutting them into pieces small enough to prepare for a dinner, kashering them with salt as required under kosher law, and then freezing the cuts for use during the summer.

Elsewhere, though, Bertie enters in to my book as co-author (with her husband Charles) of Faith Through Reason, a widely distributed primer on Judaism and Jewish law, first published in 1946 and reprinted several times. I return several times to this text to help explain the nature of Judaism to readers, and also to the particular way in which I learned about my religion. What I didn’t go into further is what writing the book reflected, more deeply, about Bertie’s remarkable intellectual and personal commitment to Jewish literacy.

College-educated and with a law degree from New York University, Bertie believed deeply that education and lifelong learning was the key to Jewish advancement in America. During World War II she travelled frequently to a reading center for Jews in the Bronx, an exhausting journey she eventually had to give up—she used that time instead instead to write Faith Through Reason with Charles. Following the war she became involved in many Jewish organizations, most with an emphasis on books and education. She lead courses for synagogue librarians and even created a basic Jewish home library distributed through Jewish organizations. She was a member of the Task Force on Art and Literature in Jewish Life of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and an editorial consultant to Judaica Book News. She created the Charles and Bertie G. Schwartz Reading Room and Library at the Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress, once located just off 5th Avenue on 85th street. All this while also working as one of the only Jews in the American Mother’s Committee, where she met, among other luminaries, Eleanor Roosevelt. And, of course, she became deeply involved in the Jewish Book Council in the 1960s and 1970s.

I remember her as a veritable force of nature, always with books piled on every surface in her home, and asking her teenage grandson (me) to help with new devices that she hoped would make her more efficient, such as an early home copy machine that we could never get to work properly. She died suddenly, a young 75, of a heart attack, while running to catch a taxi as she was late for a meeting. While saddened, my mother always reflected how the way Bertie died said so much about her determination and energy. My grandmother would be so proud of the Jewish Book Council, not only for what her old organization now does, but for the continuing commitment of it and its many members to books and Jewish education. It was one of my greatest pleasures writing my book that I was able to share with others some of what she sought to give to Judaism.

Roger Horowitz is a food historian and director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. He is the author of Negro and White, Unite and Fight, Putting Meat on the American Table, and Kosher USA.

JBC relies upon the support of our readers to continue in our mission to promote the reading, writing, and publication of Jewish literature. Please consider making a donation!

Related Content:

10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5777

Monday, September 26, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Image: Edel Rodriguez, from Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Each year produces a fresh crop of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual cleanse and personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Building on our recommendations from previous years, here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5777.

Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Even diehard Trekkies might not know the full extent of the Vulcan Salute’s Jewish origins, but Richard Michelson’s new children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy takes young readers straight to the source. Edel Rodriguez’s glowing illustrations of Cohanim with their hands raised during Rosh Hashanah services at the Boston shul eight-year-old “Lenny” attended with his father depict the images Nimoy would conjure from his childhood memories when he came up with Mr. Spock’s iconic gesture and greeting, “Live long and prosper.”

Among the Living: A Novel

The protagonist of Jonathan Rabb’s novel, a young man named Yitzhak Goldah, survives the Holocaust and lands in Savannah, Georgia, where cousins and their Conservative Jewish community welcome him with open arms. But Yitzhak’s discomfort among them becomes mutual when he courts a widow belonging to the neighboring Reform temple, and tensions between the two fractious congregations come to a head over tashlich services held on the same beach. Things get even more complicated for Yitzhak from there, but that’s all I’ll give away here!

White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between

Some of the most pivotal moments of Judy Batalion’s memoir occur on the Jewish High Holidays: she invites the man who would become her husband to her apartment for the first time for a Rosh Hashanah dinner with friends; she meets his parents ten days later, ending Yom Kippur in their Hampstead home, where Judy discovers that her bashert’s mother, too, is a hoarder much like her own—a moment she recalls years later to the day, returning home from services with her husband and daughter as a family.

Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious Rituals

Why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah? Why does it fall at such an awkward time on the calendar, and how do we interpret its definition in Leviticus as a remembrance of of the shofar blowing, zikhron truah, as the Jewish New Year? Why are we meant to observe Creation’s anniversary in a mood of “fear and trembling,” and could it be that Yom Kippur was intended as a joyous celebration? Where did the Kol Nidre and Ne’ila services come from, with no parallel customs for any other holiday? Rabbi Nathan Laufer addresses these and other questions in clear, text-based explanations for readers of all backgrounds.

Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York

Reading Robert Weldon Whalen’s study of “real gangsters and reel gangsters” exposes how American popular culture has been—and continues to be—influenced by the 1940 and 1940 series of trials prosecuting members of Abe Reles’s Brownsville gang for murder, torture, and essentially any “illegal activity from which a revenue could be derived:” car theft, burglary, assault, robbery, fencing stolen goods, drug trade… The hearings and their outcome sparked a fascination with organized crime and its arbiters as a gritty but glorified symbol of moral evil, the ethical consequences and imprint of which Whalen explores chapter by chapter in this academic by thoroughly engaging read.

Good on Paper: A Novel

Rachel Cantor’s second book is the first novel she ever wrote, and a little less zany than the first one published—but every bit as steeped in Jewish history and ideas: our hero Shira Greene’s love interest is an ordained rabbi who runs the local independent bookstore and a failing literary magazine called Gilgul, named after the Kabbalistic concept of a person’s soul reborn in another body. But the strongest Jewish quality of the story, as Cantor highlighted in an interview about the novel, is the centrality of forgiveness in Shira’s development: “My understanding of the Jewish concept of teshuvah is about returning to one’s innocent self, although some call it repentance. Shira is going through such a journey. She must be courageous and allow people to be a part of her life again.”

One of These Things First: A Memoir

“Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there.” Steven Gaines’s memoir begins on a purposeful route through his grandparents’ lingerie shop, escaping the supervision of the sales ladies in his charge to slip out the back door and attempt to kill himself at fifteen years old. Admitted to the famed Payne Whitney clinic, Steven delivers a note confessing “I THINK I AM A HOMOSEXUAL” to a young resident and begins treatment to “cure” himself of his sexual orientation. The story ends with a difficult apology delivered fifty years later, which Steven struggles to accept, knowing that even his forgiveness will not be enough to enable the person seeking it to forgive himself.

Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s succinct reflections on over half a century of Jewish faith, practice, and leadership is indeed an “essential” read for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with lessons including “Leave Room for Doubt and Anger in Your Religious Outlook” and “Religion Is What You Do, Not What You Believe,” concluding with “A Love Letter to a World That May or May Not Deserve It.” Kushner’s chapter on forgiveness—as “a Favor You Do Yourself”—draws upon The Merchant of Venice, The Count of Monte Cristo, Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in Egypt, King David’s relationship with his wife Michal, the movements led by Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, and personal anecdotes from Kushner’s life and pastoral career around the High Holidays.

Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World

“Throughout my life and then eventually through my Jewish education that, frankly, only started in rabbinical school, I had alternately rebuked and implored God, despaired of and celebrated tradition, lorded my own righteousness over some teachings and stood in humility and even shame before the vastness and depth of the tradition. But now, my sister, my new son, the caregivers, and the children in this orphanage with me comprised a microcosm of love, tragedy, hope, apathy, brokenness, and healing—the shattered and the whole—the promise of Mount Sinai,” Susan Silverman shares at the moment she first meets her son Adar. “And in it I wasn’t God’s judge or God’s bitch. I was God’s partner.” Underlying Susan Silverman’s story of raising a family of biological and adopted children is a continuous theme of renewal and fulfillment, rooted in reflections on Jewish values, rituals, and proverbs. This memoir is a great selection for readers looking for an accessible, feel-good meditation on Jewish faith and spirituality for the High Holidays—just make sure to keep a pack of tissues handy.

Good People: A Novel

Israeli novelist Nir Baram’s Good People follows two characters at the time of World War II, a German in Poland and the daughter half-Jewish daughter of intellectuals in Russia, each working for their country’s government and intent on survival and success at any cost—even betraying those who saved them. Only in encountering each other, recognizing a similar genius between them, will they repent, but what does redemption look like in a time when nations and individuals alike seek only power and the destruction of their enemies?

Jewish Book Council wishes all our readers a Shana Tovah! Read a JBC Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter's Rosh Hashanah letter from the JBC!

Related Content:

Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for September 2016

Friday, September 23, 2016 | Permalink


Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan is about a family of Irish Jews over three generations, written by a young writer who became fascinated with the Jewish experience in Ireland when she was in school at Cambridge and became close friends with Jewish students. Before coming across the Irish Sea, she had no idea there even were Irish Jews!


Two She-Bears, Meir Shalev’s newest novel, is a complex and raw book that continues to get better and better the further you read.


Karolina’s Twins was a book that I could not put down. It is a story of life, survival and love. It is also a story of a promise that must be kept, no matter the cost and the dark horrible memories that it may bring. Lena Woodward, a survivor of the Holocaust, has lived with an awful memory of what happened to twin girls that were born during the worst of times and what it took to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust. Lena hires an investigator and lawyer to help her find the twins from her past at the same moment her son presents her with a lawsuit to take over her estate and her independence in the present. This story takes us through bond of friendship of the past, the secret that has been lived with and how they come to terms with it all.


The Golden Age by Joan London is told from the perspective of Frank, a Jewish teenager who escaped World War II with his family and was hospitalized for polio soon after they settled in Australia. This very personal and diverse fictional narrative is very well written: I’m enjoying the novel because it incorporates a family immigrant story with the experience of a lovelorn, disabled teen—and his letters and poetry.


I just started reading Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York by Robert Weldon Whalen.
The book has been very eye-opening for me in terms of how a series of trials in 1940 and 1941 continues to influence American cinema, television, literature, and popular culture today—and the ethical imprints and implications of that fascination. It’s a solid piece of scholarship, but the writing flows very well, and I’m finding this work of nonfiction a thoroughly engaging and accessible read. I also have my nose in Against Everything, a collection of essays by Mark Greif. It opens with the claim that if Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” were written today, it would be about an exercise machine—a notion that resonates with me on many different levels.




Related Content:

New Reviews September 23, 2016

Friday, September 23, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Related Content:

Interview: Anna Solomon

Thursday, September 22, 2016 | Permalink

with Sophie Siegel

Image: Beowulf Sheehan

Anna Solomon’s latest novel, Leaving Lucy Pear, delves into relations between rich and poor, Jewish and Irish in Prohibition-era New England, around the story of a baby abandoned in a pear orchard. Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to discuss her current and previous books this summer.

Sophie Siegal: Your first novel The Little Bride was very successful, however, its content is very different from that of Leaving Lucy Pear. How did you come to think of the idea behind each novel, and how did your writing process differ between the two books?

Anna Solomon: I generally write pretty linearly and work my way to the end. The biggest difference between these two books is that the point of view for The Little Bride is a very close third-person, somewhat claustrophobic, which fits the subject matter of the book. In Leaving Lucy Pear I jumped to an omniscient narrator who can really go anywhere she wants, and kind of plays God. That was a great joy and also a challenge and probably the big leap that I made in the book, which required a lot of revision and also a lot of studying of other texts.

Each novel started in somewhat different ways. For The Little Bride, my ideas started to form when I was on this website on Jewish woman pioneers, which that set me off on this path. For Leaving Lucy Pear, it was also a little piece of history, which I came across in a book called The Saga of Cape Ann. Cape Ann is the place where I grew up, north of Boston, and the book is about a wealthy Bostonian summering on Kaden and suffering from a nervous disorder. The protagonist is aggravated by a screeching whistle buoy that had been put in to keep fisherman and sailors from crashing into shore, and she does what I guess any well-connected person would do: she called the Navy and demanded they take out the whistle buoy, which they did, and by the next summer when she was feeling much better. But I was left with a question of what happens when the whistle buoy is out there, and what are the consequences for which this woman is responsible?

SS: The cover of the novel is beautiful; I hear there is a great story behind it…

AS: I feel so lucky for the cover. It is taken from a painting by a British artist named Laura Knight, who was quite controversial in her time. She was one of the first, if not the first, female painter to make a painting of herself that shows herself painting a nude model. This was a real challenge to restrictions on women painters at the time—they were supposed to work from casts, not nudes—and while it brought Knight a lot of flak it also made her a pioneer in the broader movement for women's rights. I was really excited that the artist who had made the painting ended up on the cover because her story felt really in-tune with the women in my book—and myself, as well: Knight was pushing the boundaries of what a woman painter could do in her time.

Initially I saw only the front cover for the book, and it took me a while to notice that there were these boots lying on the rocks. I became fascinated with whose boots they were; there was this mystery to the image that made me even more in love with it. When they finally sent me the whole jacket and it wraps around to the book, you can actually see the woman who belongs to those boots on the back cover, looking out at the viewer. The image just grew and grew for me in terms of its meanings and the layers. I feel like the women in the painting are ultimately the same as the main characters of my novel, Bea—and at other times Emma—and Lucy Pear.

SS: The descriptions of the time period are so vivid. What kinds of historical research did you do to begin your writing?

AS: I started in the way that I think a lot of people do, which is a lot of history books and newspapers. I spent a lot of time on the microfilm in my hometown public library, looking back at old issues of the Boston Daily Times, looking at advertising, photographs, and still film, but I always find that talking with people is the most pleasurable way to get information. I spoke with one woman who had been alive during that time—she has since passed away—who talked about things like how the granite dust felt on her bare feet as she walked through the woods. I talked to someone else who was a grandson of a bootlegger and he remembered his grandfather talking about how they would blast out the walls of the courts to make these panes where they would hide all the booze.

SS: Each character in the novel faces distinct forms of gender oppression and societal expectations that affect their lives. As a Jewish woman, mother, and daughter, how do you deal with society’s expectations of you? Do you see parts of yourself in each character, and which character do you identify with most?

AS: I do see parts of myself in each character—the Jewish ones and the non-Jewish ones: Bea grew up in this fiercely assimilationist family, as my own mother did; Emma, who has more children than she probably wants; and even Susannah Stanton, who is unable to have children. What drives each of these women is an exaggeration of feelings that I have had myself, feelings I have had at times of being overwhelmed in the transition to motherhood and my selfhood being threatened, and feelings of fear that I wasn’t going to be able to have children.

One of the biggest challenges of becoming a mother, and a Jewish mother now, is that in some ways we have more choices than we have ever had. I could go and do anything, which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be hard, but the options are there for me and yet… I grew up in this very feminist family; I went to a very feminist camp; I am teaching my children, both my boy and my girl, to be feminists, while at the same time I have made a marriage in which I am the one who does all of the menu-making and the cooking. What I observe in the world around me is that women constantly feel judged by somebody for the way they are balancing their work, parenting, and partnerships, and often that person is themselves. In my fiction, I seek to observe and to empathize in a way that allows my readers to not only understand the choices my characters make but respect them for those choices.

SS: Each of the characters faces life-altering decisions—most significantly abandoning one’s child, and deciding to raise an orphan as one’s own. Can you tell me any difficult decisions that you had to make as a writer while writing Leaving Lucy Pear? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

AS: In earlier versions of the novel, I had even points of view I really wanted to dive into, including those of the crazy woman who lives up the hill from the Murphy family, and Caleb Stanton. I had so many pages of scenes that I loved and my readers also said they loved, but did not belong there. I agree with them, but those moments are hard and making that final decision and saying goodbye are hard, even when it is the right one.

My advice is that you have to keep reading and reading and reading, even as you start to write. It’s important to really see yourself as a student of the books that you read, without being afraid to stray in terms of form with those books; I wrote a lot of poetry before I ever turned to fiction and it definitely informed the way I hear language and the way I write. The biggest thing is really to work to surround yourself with a community of writers and to do that by forming a writing group where you live or finding writer workshops. The relationships that you make in those places are critical to keeping going and continuing to write through rejection and through drafts that don’t work. Having people cheering you on and people that will read for you is so important.

SS: What can we look forward to next?

AS: I am working on a new book, which I am not really able to talk about yet. It involves the Book of Esther and 1970s feminism and Brooklyn life.

Sophie Siegel is a student at Emory University interested in Holocaust Studies and Film. She worked with the Jewish Book Council as a 2016 summer intern.

Related Content:

Memoir and Kindness

Wednesday, September 21, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Elissa Altman shared how her memoir Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw found a receptive audience in coastal Maine. Elissa is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

It is the end our end-of-summer vacation in Maine, an annual trip that started out as a vacation for our dogs. (This may sound excessive to some non-dog-lovers, but Petey and Addie are like our children, without bar mitzvahs or college tuition.) This year, though, we lost Addie in early July at almost fifteen years old, which was a long and good run for a one-hundred pound Labrador built more or less like Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure. She was a big girl whose most remarkable feature was not only her swimming ability, her bottomless appetite, or her love for a stuffed snake called Milton (all of which were considerable): the most astonishing thing about Addie was her ineffable kindness. When we lost her, we were left with her dog sibling, Petey, who is known for a lot of things, but natural, instinctive kindness would not be one of them.

So my wife and I are here in Maine, getting to know this small beast as a separate entity unto himself, while missing Addie. He’s so much younger than Addie and has a lot of crazy herding-dog energy, and every day we walk together for hours on the beach to let him release it. He has never liked water very much—he hates puddles and mud and anything that he has to clean off—but every day he goes in to the water a little bit further, and says hello to more people, like the man we met one morning who was out picking up the giant clams that get washed up when the tide goes out, before the crowds arrived. Petey ran up to him, poking at the pile of beached clams collecting at his feet.

The man stood at the edge of the water, ankle deep in the crashing waves opposite the Seguin Island lighthouse, his arms full of shells. He smiled at us, put them down behind him, and picked up as many of the enormous quahogs he could find. I wondered silently whether or not he was one of Maine’s many stellar chefs who have devoted themselves to the fruits of the state—the produce, the shellfish, the grains—collecting for his restaurant. And then, one by one, he began vigorously hurling the clams back out into the water as far as he could possibly throw them.

“They’re still alive,” he said to me, “and I just hate to see them suffer. It seems so unnecessary, so unkind.”

Petey and Susan and I stood in the surf, watching. We wished him a good day, and then kept going.

The issue of kindness—simple, pure kindness—is one that has been on my mind a lot recently. With the publication of my next memoir Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, I’ve been asked by many reporters and journalists about my religion, and how I justify it vis-à-vis the fact of my life as an assimilated Jew who does not now and never has had any formal practice. Over and over I have found myself answering that I find religion in the human kindnesses and compassions we show one another every day. In the current climate, that is not easy to find—it seems to be eluding us, whoever we are, whatever we look like, however we vote, and however we pray.

As a memoirist, I often have to write about difficult things that actively involve others, things that perhaps are painful for other people but also directly involve me or have shaped me and made me the person I am. Every time I sit down to write, I ask myself: is this kind? Is this compassionate? Is it fair, or will it hurt someone?

Sometimes I succeed at kindness; sometimes I fail. And when that happens, I have to ask myself about my motivation: what’s the purpose of writing something that is unkind? Is it necessary? Is there another way to tell my story that will not involve someone else’s heart? Often there is; often there isn’t. So what is my policy, my rule?

No matter what, don’t be cruel. No matter what, remember compassion and decency, and remember, as the writer Vivian Gornick said, that “the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” We are all of us human.

We have been walking on the beach with Petey every day we’ve been here: long, ambling strolls in the surf that exhaust him and leave our feet coated with a thick layer of brine. I haven’t seen the clam-rescuer since the first morning we spoke, but every day, I look for him and wonder whether his saving those giant bivalves was for naught—if they got caught in the hands of someone less thoughtful—or they lived another day, safe, surprised, at peace.

Elissa Altman is a food and cookbook editor and the writer behind, winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for an Individual Food Blog and the foundation for her previous book, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking.

Related Content:

Book Cover of the Week: A Hat for Mrs. Goldman

Tuesday, September 20, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It’s rare that a children’s book about doing a mitzvah tugs at adult readers’ heartstrings, but a new story by Michelle Edwards nearly reduced me to weeping at the office this morning:

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love is about a friendship between a young girl from a Mexican American family named Sophia and her neighbor, the eponymous older Jewish woman who knits hats for newborns, children, and adults in their community. “Keeping keppies warm is our mitzvah,” Mrs. Goldman tells Sophia, “and a mitzvah is a good deed.”

Sophia makes pom-poms for Mrs. Goldman’s hats and accompanies her on walks with Mrs. Goldman’s besweatered dog, Fifi. But as the weather turns cold, Sophie begins to worry: Mrs. Goldman doesn’t have a hat of her own! “Mrs. Goldman’s keppie must be very cold,” Sophia frets, and decides to knit her neighbor a hat herself—but when she finally casts off, her hat for Mrs. Goldman is full of lumps and bumps and holes!

You can guess how the story ends, but Edwards adds a couple unexpected, tender details to the story’s resolution that adults, too, will find touching—I actually sighed aloud reading it on my own! The book includes knitting instructions for making a hat and pom-poms just like Sophia’s, and lovely illustrations by G. Brian Karas.

Related Content:

Treyf Comes to Maine

Monday, September 19, 2016 | Permalink

Elissa Altman’s second memoir, Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, comes out this week. To celebrate her new book’s release, Elissa is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As I write this, I am sitting on a screened-in porch in a small cottage overlooking the Kennebec River in coastal, central Maine. My rakish terrier mutt, Petey, is asleep at my feet in a beige, ever-so-slightly worn Orvis bed that cost as much a pair of Gucci loafers; my partner, Susan, is in the kitchen, planning the third lobster dinner we’ve had since we’ve been here. The scene is something right out of the fall L.L. Bean catalog: there are small bottles of bug spray in every room; the cottage’s scuffed, utilitarian dinnerware is decorated with tiny blue lighthouses; there is a slight edge of chill to the air—it came on suddenly, with the changing of the calendar from August to September—and for the first time since we arrived, I have to wear a fleece vest with my shorts and flipflops. We love it here. We love the people, the land, the water, the food, the literature, the nature, the history. We’ve been coming to Maine for two weeks every September for a few years now. We have close friends and family who live here year-round and we will, most likely, eventually make the state our home.

So when I was asked to do a reading from my new book, Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, up in bucolic Rockport a few days ago, I was thrilled and delighted and completely honored. And then I realized that the odds of anyone knowing what the word treyf meant—literally and figuratively; halachically and metaphorically—were, to say the least, slim. Here, in the land of the lobster, the shrimp, the mussel, the wild oyster, the all-you-can-eat-fried-clam-supper, the bean-and-ham-community-church-buffet, I would be standing in front of a roomful of gorgeous Mainers tan from a summer spent on the water—the women wearing nary a drop of makeup beyond a slick of lipgloss, the men in ancient, salt-caked Docksiders and polo shirts with fraying collars—in the least religious state in America, talking about Shabbos, and the time my bubbe from the old country fed me boiled calves’ brains the day after I saw Young Frankenstein in 1974, the Coney Island parachute drop hovering in the distance less than a mile from the schmaltz-soaked low-rise Brooklyn apartment building where she lived for sixty years.

“What will you read?” Susan asked as she drove us north through Wiscasset, past Red’s famous lobster roll shack and over the Sheepscot River, past the peninsula turn-offs for Newcastle, Damariscotta, Waldoboro, Friendship.

“Probably the Lipshitz chapter,” I said, staring out the window. She looked over at me. “Because, you know, it ends with cooking Italian food. Everybody understands Italian food. Right?”

“Sure, Honey,” she said. “Whatever you think.”

During the last half-hour of our ride to Rockport, I began to worry: this was the very thing that my publisher had fretted over. No one would know what the word treyf meant outside of New York City. It hasn’t yet been dragged into the Yiddish-English lexicon, like schlep and schmuck and yutz and putz. No one at the reading would see the cover image of a three-year-old me sitting on the lap of the 1965 Macy’s Santa and get the joke. I would have to go into great and exhaustive detail about Halachic law, and mixing milk and meat, and cloven hooves, and fish without scales. I would complicate things even further by explaining that treyf can also mean unclean, unacceptable, forbidden. That it contains within it a tinge of exclusion, of being on the outside looking in, of assimilation.

And then, for good measure, I was going to read a chapter involving a Hasidic rabbi named Lipshitz who tried to get me evicted from my long-dead bubbe’s rent-controlled Brooklyn apartment building where he was the superintendent, and where I had moved in 1990 after a bad breakup.

With a woman.

And this, I realized, is the thing that no one ever much talks about while one is in the throes of writing a book that is hard-wired to a particular community and particular sensibility: Will it appeal beyond its obvious audience? Will it make sense? Will it require great and intensive explanation that will ultimately uncoil its narrative timing and humor and insight? Should writers, while we are working, allow ourselves to become distracted by the fear that no one beyond our immediate world will understand what we the hell we’re talking about?

On the face of it, the answer is no. Writers have, since the beginning of time, written what they know and what they live, in their own culture’s vernacular, without the hobbling concern that others simply won’t get it. They’ve had to: the Joe Kavaliers, Dilsey Gibsons, Rabbit Angstroms, Joe Many-Horses, and Codi Nolines of the world depended on their creators to write them unflinchingly, unapologetically, without cultural explanation. But put to the hard test—at events, readings, signings—where we come face-to-face with an audience of readers to whom we and our characters may be utterly alien, things become a little bit more complicated. In my experience, readerly kindness and compassion and an unflagging, almost dire interest in the human condition win out, every time.

My audience in pristine Rockport Maine didn’t flinch when I read about Lipshitz-the-Goniff, and how he and I were outsiders in the worlds in which we landed: both of us, treyf, both of us trying to find our way in a universe that isn’t always kind. When the reading was over, an older Mainer came over and silently touched my elbow—the Down East signal for I’d like to have a word with you.

We stepped away from the throng and she grabbed my hand.

“The thing about it is,” she said, “Treyf is about all of us. We are all on the outside, looking in. Every last one of us. Thank you so much.”

I thanked her, this beautiful older lady with the silver pageboy and the bright blue eyes who, with one line, confirmed my belief: we are far more alike than we are different.

Elissa Altman is a food and cookbook editor and the writer behind, winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for an Individual Food Blog and the foundation for her previous book, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking.

Related Content:

New Reviews September 18, 2016

Sunday, September 18, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content: