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New Reviews December 18, 2016

Sunday, December 18, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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"Her Green Days": Nature in the Yiddish Narrative

Friday, December 16, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub wrote about their discovery of the Elena Ferrante of Yiddish literature and her transgressive fiction stories, now translated into English as the collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Ellen and Yermiyahu will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all Week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Two men are strolling together in the Borsht Belt when they come upon a flower by the side of the road.

“What’s the name of that?” one asks, pointing.

“How should I know?” replies the other. “What do you take me for, a milliner?”

The notion that the Yiddish language, and Jews themselves, are far removed from the natural world is well entrenched in the popular imagination. For Jews, the joke says, the only thing a flower is good for is trimming for a lady’s hat.

Yet in the fiction of Blume Lempel we translated and collected in Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, nature plays a surprisingly significant role. Born in a small town in Eastern Europe in 1907, Lempel immigrated to Paris and then to New York, where she wrote in Yiddish into the 1990s. Her stories were acclaimed throughout the world of Yiddish letters.

In Lempel’s lyrical, jewel-like stories, the natural world operates as counterpoint, as driving force, as backdrop, and as protagonist. Sometimes the very hugeness of the natural world is invoked to put the life of the individual into perspective: one story opens with a vast world “encased in ice,” with “no marking of time,” where the “footsteps of eternity make no imprint in the void.” In another story, a woman flying to Reno for a divorce looks down into the “blue transparent void” that symbolizes her unknown future with its myriad choices; another woman lies under an apple tree on a hot day and travels in her mind far, far into the cosmos—all the way to the moon.

Many of Lempel's protagonists are seemingly happiest, or most deeply themselves, when working in nature. A Brooklyn woman named Pachysandra tends the small plot of earth next to her apartment building and feels herself transported back to her home in South Carolina—“The rise and fall of her green days pursued her in her dreams.” Mrs. Zagretti lovingly plants a delicate fig tree in her yard on Long Island and proudly presents its fruits to her Jewish neighbor as an antidote to American consumerism.

Connections between humans and animals—even insects—are particularly powerful. In the title story in our collection, the squirrels in the zoo come running at the approach of their blind friend Danny. Mrs. Zagretti finds a soulmate in a housefly, eliciting a devastating reaction from her Jewish neighbor. Mrs. Zagretti is not the only character to feel a powerful tie with a fly, either: the protagonist of a different story tries to keep a fly alive in her apartment by feeding and speaking to it—when it lands on a mirror, she takes note of how it communes with its reflection. In yet another story, a resident of an old age home releases a fly into the world in hopes that it will “live out its life in joy and satisfaction.”

Far from serving as a gentle pastoral backdrop, nature is often the site of grave danger, where beauty is intertwined with menace. A young woman hiding in the forest remembers that “the wind brought me the smell of berries, a dead bird, the rotten carcass of a half-devoured creature.” The half-mad narrator of another story calls the flowers in her garden by the names of people who perished in the Holocaust. Each burns as a memorial candle in its particular season. “Soaking up hot sunshine and plenteous rain, hail and hurricane, they know the art of adaptation and survival,” just like the survivor who watches over them.

For Lempel, the boundaries between dream and reality, civilization and nature, human and animal are permeable, shifting, difficult to trace. Her evocation of the natural world gives her stories a weight more powerful than the trajectory of her plots, and the precision and musicality of her prose offer exceptional pleasure to the reader.

So much for the “unbridgeable divide” between Yiddish and nature.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now available to English readers in their collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.

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Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for December 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016 | Permalink

Find out what the Jewish Book Council staff is reading this month!


Sababa by Yamin Levy is an interesting book of two stories, both taking place in Jerusalem, but centuries apart. One story focuses on the Second Temple era while the other story takes place in the 21st century.


Meir Shalev’s Two She-Bears is a beautiful story set on a moshav in pre-state Israel, written by one of that country's most eloquent writers.


Janis Cooke Newman’s A Master Plan for Rescue is a beautiful story about an American boy whose world is turned upside down by loss. The world is at war and Jack, a 12-year-old Irish American, comes face-to-face with the horrors of Nazi Germany in his Manhattan neighborhood. As Jack sets out to right the wrongs in his world, he learns that the stories we hear, the stories we tell, and the story we hope can come true can lead to true heroism.


I am finding Affinity Konar's second novel, Mischling, both hard to pick up because of its horrific subject matter—Josef Mengele's sadistic experiments on and torture of identical twins in Auschwitz—and impossible to put down: Konar's powerful, original prose pulls the reader irresistibly into this nightmarish world.


As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner delves into the complex relationship of a Jewish family in the late 1940s. Set in a Jewish beach community in Connecticut, the book shows daily life in the post-war time, and the societal changes that follow.


I've been reading Toward a Hot Jew, a collection of raw, incisive, and beautiful graphic essays by Miriam Libicki. I'm fascinated by the shifting relationship between Jews, visual arts, and body image throughout the centuries—and comics are the perfect medium for a contemporary take on the topic.


Jacob Bacharach’s The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates sucked me in from Page 1. The novel ponders the family tensions between the forefathers of Genesis and the women among them, retold as a modern-day story of a woman named Isabel following the collapse of an eight-year relationship and subsequent relocation from New York City to Pittsburgh, where she meets a young man named Isaac whose complicated relationship with his parents, Sarah and Abbie—an architect turned ignoble real estate developer—begins to leech into Isabel’s own life.

It’s been very interesting to read Bacharach’s novel alongside The House of the Mother: The Social Roles of Maternal King in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry by Cynthia R. Chapman, who challenges scholars to reconsider the traditional academic and rabbinical constructs of patrilineal social genealogy between and among the Biblical dynasties in favor of a greater appreciation for the maternal influences on house structure and political divisions in each generation.

And speaking of maternal influences, I also just finished a re-read of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children Marjorie Ingall, in anticipation of the talk she’s giving at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Conference next month. I hope to see plenty of Jewish Book Council’s readers there!


Armando Lucas Correa’s The German Girl is a great read! The story spans 70 years, beginning with the narrative of an eleven-year-old girl named Hannah in Nazi-occupied Berlin. The novel follows Hannah and her family on the S.S. St. Louis and into Cuba, together with the story of another girl her age in present-day New York, and sheds light on the life of the Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis. It is a very timely story, especially with the recent changes in our access to Cuba.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: A Private Yet Candid Yiddish Writer

Wednesday, December 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub wrote about their discovery of Blume Lempel’s transgressive Yiddish fiction, now translated into English as the collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Ellen and Yermiyahu are guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all Week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Elena Ferrante may or may not be a certain Rome-based editor and translator, as has recently been alleged. What is clear is that whoever this writer is, they prefer to remain anonymous, to let the writing speak for itself.

Though Ferrante insists on remaining private as a person, her work reveals startlingly intimate truths about women’s lives. In this, the Italian writer has much in common with Blume Lempel, the author of the remarkable work we translated for the new collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. While Lempel used her own name for most of her career she, too, opted for an unusual measure of personal privacy while reaching for an uncommon candor on the page.

Lempel was born in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century in “a white-washed room by the banks of a river that had no name.” She lived in Paris for ten years before fleeing to the United States with the rise of Hitler. She settled in New York, where she turned out a prodigious amount of wonderfully original fiction until her death in the 1990s.

Like Ferrante’s, Lempel’s work was surprisingly frank and often undaunted by taboo. But even as she broke new ground in what she shared in her writing, she fiercely guarded her personal privacy. “I hide my literary existence under my apron,” she told an interviewer at her home on Long Island. “If you asked my neighbors about my writing, they’d look at you and think you were crazy.”

Would Lempel have been able to exercise the same artistic freedom if her neighbors had known she was writing about rape, incest, abortion, and the erotic imaginings of a middle-aged women, nursing mothers, and elderly widows? Probably not. Perhaps the concealing “apron” helped liberate her to explore such taboo themes.

Lempel’s decision to continue writing in Yiddish into the 1990s, even as the number of Yiddish readers dwindled year by year, also helped her control over what was public and what was not. Lempel was published in Yiddish publications throughout the world. She received multiple prizes and was admired by Yiddish writers and readers alike. Indeed, she sought out that recognition; at the same time, however, in many ways she held herself apart, pursuing her singular literary vision on her own terms.

Hiding is a recurrent theme in Lempel’s work. In one story, she writes about a mother and son living among the animals in the forest during the Holocaust; the account is so vivid that critics assumed it was drawn from personal experience, though it was in fact entirely the product of her extraordinary imagination and rare powers of empathy. In another story, a woman who has been raped and impregnated by her peasant rescuer during the Holocaust peeks out of the barn through a crack in the attic wall. “I live on the sidelines,” a different narrator reflects, “like a stranger in my own world.” In yet another story, a Jewish woman in German-occupied Paris works for the Resistance behind a carefully applied mask of glamour.

In preparing Oedipus in Brooklyn for publication, we spent many hours interviewing family members and reading Lempel’s correspondence and personal papers. We were curious about her artistic process, the rhythm of her days, and her reasons for choosing her subjects. Still, as an individual she remained mysterious to us—just as, it seems, she wished.

The paradox of privacy coupled with outspoken literary expression is hardly unique to Blume Lempel or Elena Ferrante. In fact, it is at the heart of the literary enterprise for many writers. What is notable for these two writers, however, is the starkness of the divide. During her lifetime, Lempel’s dream of an English-language readership for the most part eluded her. It’s a joy for us now to help her unrealized dream come true.

As we peel back the “veil” of Yiddish, allowing English-language readers gain access to Lempel’s dazzling prose and her bold approach to storytelling, we hope we enable this extraordinary writer to be known in the way she wanted to be known.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now available to English readers in their collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Menorah

Tuesday, December 13, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Perhaps one of the best religious traditions I have adopted for myself as an adult is hearing the Book of Lamentations read at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side, on the Eve of Tisha B’Av each year. It is a beautiful, eerie service held in the dark, followed by a lecture relating to the Jewish observance of the saddest day in the Hebrew year.

In his lecture this past summer, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik brought up a custom of the Jews of Rome connecting Tisha B’Av to Hanukkah, which is nearly upon us now: members of this community read the Book of Lamentations by candlelight and preserve what remains of each taper, keeping the candle in their homes to use as the shamash on the first night of Hanukkah several months later. This practice is rife with symbolism, related to imagery and significance of the Arch of Titus—I wish I could go into more detail, but that would be plagiarism.

Instead, I am happy to direct readers to a short essay on the Yeshiva University blog, written by Dr. Steven Fine, the author of our Book Cover of the Week!

The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel focuses particularly on the Arch of Titus and Fine’s discovery of the original yellow ochre paint for the menorah in its relief, depicting Titus’s triumphal return from Jerusalem with the treasures of the Temple he destroyed at the end of a bicentennial of Jewish uprising against pagan enemies and oppressors that began with the Maccabees. So yes, I do understand the difference between a menorah and a chanukkiah, but this book still makes for a great Hanukkah read!

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Oedipus—in Brooklyn? And in Yiddish?

Monday, December 12, 2016 | Permalink

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now compiled into the book Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Ellen and Yermiyahu will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all Week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when a book with a plain gray cover came our way some years ago.

The volume was a gift from an elderly teacher of Yiddish literature. Signed by the author, it had been published in Yiddish in Tel Aviv in 1981. We did not know much about Blume Lempel, beyond the fact that she’d been born in 1907 in what is now Ukraine, had managed to flee to New York just before World War II, and had continued writing in Yiddish into the 1990s.

We learned that she had spent ten years in Paris before the war, participating in the flourishing Jewish cultural life there. She was later published throughout the world in the postwar Yiddish press and garnered numerous prizes, and admired by leading Yiddish writers, including Yonia Fain, Chaim Grade, Malka Heifetz-Tussman, Chava Rosenfarb, and Osher Jaime Schuchinski. She died in 1999.

Within the covers of this little grey book, we discovered big surprises, a wide range of subjects explored through an astonishing poetic style and unorthodox narrative techniques. Our amazement only grew when we came to the story called “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” which we selected as the title story for our collection.

Lempel’s longtime editor, Abraham Sutzkever, who published many of her stories in the prestigious Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt, refused to touch “Oedipus.” Too shocking, he said. Lempel had to wait several years before it appeared in print in her first collection, the book with the plain gray cover.

Shocking? Maybe. But in Lempel’s hands, the story is neither sensational, tawdry, nor played for laughs. Her account of a contemporary woman involved in a transgressive relationship with her son is masterfully compassionate and compelling. Step by step, Lempel fearlessly leads the reader into the heart of darkness. She tells of the car accident that kills the father and blinds the son, of the growing closeness between mother and son, of their increasing isolation. Finally, the two leave the familiar streets of Brooklyn and move to Florida, a perfect backdrop of horror for the advancing tragedy:

A blinding haze hung in the air like carbon fumes. The earth was scorched, the waterways dried up, the white egrets disappeared. The roots of the mangrove trees, naked and greedy, waited for a drop of water. Creeping insects of all kinds eked out their slithery existence, leaving behind silver threads of slime on the desiccated waterbed.

Only the sea in its stoic indifference did not cease its endless song.

By the story’s end, the reader has come to understand and perhaps even sympathize with the plight of mother and son alike.

If “Oedipus in Brooklyn” is unmatched in its boldness, other stories by Lempel also break new ground. Again and again, as she explores the lives of a broad range of mostly female characters, Lempel takes up subjects considered untouchable by other writers. We listen to the furious inner thoughts of a woman pushing a vacuum cleaner. We sense the melancholy of a woman knitting. We meet a glamorous woman working undercover as an anti-Nazi spy, a prostitute, a lonely little girl, a madwoman who dances in the marketplace, a mother hiding in the forest with her feral son. We accompany a tart-tongued woman on a trip to Florida with her taciturn husband and a woman flying to Reno for a divorce. We befriend a homeless woman in the ladies’ room at New York’s Penn Station, a woman practicing Zen meditation, a drug addict communing with the flowers in her garden.

Blume Lempel was unquestionably one-of-a-kind. Asked by an interviewer which writers had influenced her, she mentioned Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and the philosophers Spinoza and Bergson, but only in passing.

And all this in Yiddish. Cover to cover, Blume Lempel is never anything less than surprising. We have yet to encounter anyone like her, in any language.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now available to English readers in their collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.

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New Reviews December 9, 2016

Friday, December 09, 2016 | Permalink

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Interview: Chanan Tigay

Tuesday, December 06, 2016 | Permalink

with Daniel Estrin

For Jewish Book Month, Jewish Book Council spoke with Chanan Tigay about his debut book, The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World's Oldest Bible, about the author’s quest to find a lost biblical manuscript, and to solve the historical riddle of its alleged forger, nineteenth-century Jerusalem antiquities dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira.

Daniel Estrin: Your book seeks to solve a real-life mystery of a lost ancient manuscript. How did you come across this story?

Chanan Tigay: I first heard of Moses Wilhelm Shapira from my father, a Bible scholar and rabbi who spent 15 years writing a commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy for the Jewish Publication Society. We were sitting around the Shabbat table one Friday night. I’m a journalist, and I started talking about some articles I had recently written—they had discovered Noah’s Ark again, which seems to happen at least annually. It was a team of Chinese Evangelicals this time, and they had come out with the news that they discovered wooden beams that had been a portion of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. It became a big story in the news, as it tends to be, and then within days, of course, a guy who had been a part of the expedition came forward and admitted that it was all a hoax. I was telling my family about some articles I had written about all this, and the interviews I was doing. When I was finished, my dad said, “Hey, speaking of Biblical hoaxes, there was this guy named Shapira who in 1883 showed up at the doorstep of the British Museum claiming to have the oldest copy of a portion of the Bible in the world.” And then he went on to tell the story in fairly light detail, because he knew the general outlines but he was not an expert on the case. Like many bible scholars, he knew the contours of the story—which immediately attracted me.

DE: That led to a four-year quest to solve the case. At what point did you decide to write a book about it?

CT: Initially, I was just interested in it the way I might be interested in astronomy. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to write about it. But being a journalist and a writer, there’s always that spark when you hear something interesting that gets you thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a good story.” And the more I dug, the more I realized this story had endless, unexpected twists and turns. At that point, I realized I could write something about this, but the initial thought was that it would be an article about the case. Very gradually, I came to the idea that it might actually be a book. I think that happened when I came to the realization that I wanted to hunt down Shapira’s missing Deuteronomy manuscript. At that point, it sort of solidified itself as an idea for a book.

DE: What has been the prevailing wisdom about Shapira's scrolls and why did you doubt it?

The prevailing wisdom pretty much until today had been that Shapira himself had forged the manuscript of Deuteronomy—a very odd manuscript, I should add, with many, many variant readings from the traditional text of Deuteronomy, including a shuffling of the Ten Commandments, and the addition of a new commandment. The idea was that Shapira had forged this manuscript; that he tried to sell it to the British Museum; that he had been caught; that, humiliated over having been caught, he had killed himself; and then, once that happened, that the manuscript had made its way to Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s auctioned it off: it was purchased by a British book dealer named Bernard Quarich, and Quarich, it was believed, sold the manuscript to an English-Australian nobleman named Sir Charles Nicholson. Nicholson lived in Australia, but at the end of his life lived in the north of London. His large estate burned down in 1899, and, the thinking went, the great likelihood was that Shapira’s manuscripts went up in flames along with the rest of Nicholson’s home.

The more research I did, the more it seemed to me that this theory was, at best, unlikely—or that I could think of other possibilities of what had happened to Shapira’s scrolls that were at least as likely if not more so.

DE: There are other detectives out there who have been on this hunt, too. You mention a particularly dedicated one, an Israeli documentary filmmaker named Yoram Sabo. Why did you think you could find answers when others hadn't?

CT: Initially, I didn’t. When I first met Yoram Sabo and he put out the faint possibility that he and I might work together, my instinct was to go for it. Because I felt like he had a 30-year head start on me, and there was no way I was ever going to catch up to him, that’s just seemed impossible. This guy was the Shapiramaniac as far as I could tell. He’d been searching for three decades at that point and so I didn’t think I was likely to be the one to find it. So I wanted to work with him. And ultimately that didn’t work out, so I was left with two possibilities: one was to quit, and the other was to say, hey, if he hasn’t found it in 30 years, maybe he’s not going to find it, and maybe what I need to do is start looking for different approaches, different angles from which to search, angles no one else has tried before.

DE: You traveled to seven countries, across four continents over the course of four years. Sometimes you wondered whether a trip was a "colossal waste." You mention "grasping at straws," and a "series of extreme long shots." Trip after trip, and archive after archive, led to a lot of dead ends. I found myself wondering: did you ever lose faith that you would find anything?

CT: I did, for sure. Here’s the thing: you’re right in saying it was dead end after dead end. But the other side of that was, each one of those dead ends taught me something new. Even if it was a tiny little new fact, often times it gave me some new insight, some new avenue that I thought I could follow up, that maybe then would hold out the hope of making a great discovery in the end. And so, even though stop after stop I didn’t find what I was looking for—and yes, that was extremely frustrating, because I wanted to find it, because I was spending time and money trying to find it, and because I had a publishing house waiting for this book that wanted me to find it, so there was a lot of stress and a lot of weight on my shoulders—I was always learning something new and potentially important.

Continue Reading »

Daniel Estrin is an American journalist in Jerusalem. He has reported on archaeology for The Associated Press, NPR and The New Republic.

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12 Historic Forverts Front Pages

Monday, December 05, 2016 | Permalink

Ezra Glinter is the editor of the new story anthology Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from The Forward. With the official book launch event, Ezra is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Among the most interest parts of the Forverts that I came across while researching Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction from the Forward were the many front pages filled with headlines announcing the news of the day. Here are 12 that jumped out at me.

This headline brought Forverts readers news of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers. The subhead reads, “The Entire Jewish Quarter Is In Grief.”

The 10-story building at 175 East Broadway that eventually housed the Forverts was considered to be the first “skyscraper” of the Lower East Side:

Meyer London, a European-born Jewish politician, was one of only two socialists ever elected to the United States House of Representatives. For the Forverts, it was a major triumph:

Socialist politician Eugene V. Deb didn’t win the presidency, but the Forverts did name their radio station after him, calling it WEVD:

This front page announces, in 1929, the construction of the Second Avenue Subway—a project finally coming to completion now (allegedly):

The Forverts reported the news from Europe closely, and the formation of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was naturally of grave concern:

When Germany invaded Poland, causing the outbreak of the Second World War, the Forverts reported it with appropriate alarm. The main headline on the page reads, “Nazi Armies Deep in Poland / Vilna, Warsaw, Lodzh Bombarded.”

The Doolittle Raid was the first American bombing of the Japanese Home Islands during the war, and retaliation for the bombing of Pearl Harbor the previous December:

The founding of the State of Israel was naturally front-page news. The next day’s headline read, “America Recognizes the New Jewish State, Israel.”

News of the Six Day War naturally filled the Forverts’s pages, as it did that of newspapers around the world:

Although it was published in Yiddish, the Forverts covered much more than just “Jewish” news. Here it reports on Apollo 17, the last of NASA’s manned moon landings:

When its own writer won the world’s most prestigious literary prize, it’s no surprise that the Forverts put the news out front:

Ezra Glinter is The Forward’s deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, and The Walrus. His biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is forthcoming from Yale University Press.

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Writing About My Friends and Relatives

Monday, December 05, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Andrea Simon wrote about transforming her family memoir into a novel and the research she puts into fiction writing—particularly for her new book, Esfir Is Alive. Andrea is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

25 years ago, when I finished my first semiautobiographical novel, my mother, a highly critical woman, begged me to read it. I put her off, finding all kinds of excuses, thinking as only a naive first-book author would that my novel would be published soon and she could read it then. But I had not anticipated that my mother would be relentless in her quest, finally swearing that she wouldn’t utter a word of negativity. So one Friday evening, I left the manuscript on her kitchen table, with a note, “Please be kind.”

All that weekend, I sweated. My heart thumped every time the phone rang. I worried that my mother would recognize the nuclear family of the young protagonist summering in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Surely she would remember the startling familial events of my childhood, no matter how I embellished them; she would cringe at the character’s motives and descriptions, cutting through my disguises and convolutions.

After an agonizing few days, my mother called and said, “I have only one criticism.”

I knew I couldn’t trust her. “What is it?” I said, upset with myself for even asking.

“I don’t know why you named the mother Estelle,” she said. “My own name is so much better.”

This exchange exposed a few lessons to follow throughout my writing career: sometimes reality is preferable to fiction; sometimes the people you know are flattered to be made into a character; and sometimes those real-life counterparts are more emotionally evolved than anticipated.

As a person who freely gave people “a piece of her mind,” my mother was my best source of material. In numerous personal essays, I recorded her outlandish comments (“This book was so bad, I can’t understand why yours isn’t published”) and motherly advice (“Marriage is not to be happy”). My larger-than-life grandmother, married three times (to a rabbi, a millionaire, and an owner of a drag cabaret), has been the inspiration for several works.

But not all relatives are so forgiving. Often, when the inspiration is someone displaying unsavory characteristics, I am tortured by possible recriminations. In general, I am heartened by the advice of Anne Lamott, who wrote in her classic, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Friends don’t escape my pen, either. There is Penny from high school, who says “in other words” before she speaks and my childhood friend Joanie who provoked her eye doctor to say to her, “I hate you.” I could go on; there is certainly no shortage of material.

When I was interviewing my family for a memoir that interspersed personal stories with historical events from the twentieth century, I became fascinated by the voices of my mother and her siblings, nine in all. Born in Poland and escaping extreme poverty and discrimination, they came to America in time for the Depression and then World War II. Many were formed by economic need and antiquated roles. Two of the males died early, one in a wartime plane crash, the other from suicide.

I recorded family stories on my tape recorder and took voluminous notes. I respected confidences, especially from my great-aunt Sophie (real name disguised) who kept a secret for sixty years. She unburdened herself to me, knowing I was writing our family history. But I was careful not to include those aspects that gave her the most anguish. When the book was published, Sophie’s daughter said that her mother was extremely hurt about my revelations.

“But she gave me her permission,” I protested. “As a matter of fact, I left out any detail that involved her participation.”

“Still,” she said, “it was shocking for her to see it in print.”

Since the publication of my family memoir, I have written other fictional and autobiographical works featuring characters based on family members, as well as friends and acquaintances. Generally, unless the person is dead or being eulogized, I change the name and obvious physical characteristics. However, an amateur sleuth could guess the initial role model by recognizable anecdotes or behavior. The people in my life form the people in my writing, no matter how I disguise them. They are my prototypes; their experiences underpin the themes and motivations of my “oeuvre.”

Mostly, though, relatives and friends are good-natured about their presence in my work. They are flattered and come to my readings bragging about their likenesses. Though my sister often disputes my memories, she signs her e-mails, “Love, Brenda,” the name of her fictional counterpart. Of course, there are others who can’t wait to tell me that I got their professional title or birthplace wrong (even if it’s fiction).

My cousin Bernice once accused me of misrepresenting her. I resorted to a white lie and said, “Oh that wasn’t you. It was your sister, Diane.”

Surprisingly, Bernice, a longtime sufferer of sibling jealousy, said in a choked voice, “Really?”

I didn’t answer, but I’m thinking of writing about the time Bernice drove 500 miles to a bar mitzvah on the wrong weekend. I may even use her real name.

Andrea Simon is the author of the memoir Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, the new novel Esfir Is Alive, and several stories and essays. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and lives in New York City.

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