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6 Things I Learned Writing About Weddings For The New York Times

Monday, June 16, 2014 | Permalink

Devan Sipher is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times and the author of the novels The Scenic Route and The Wedding Beat. He has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My first novel, The Wedding Beat, was loosely based on my experience as a single Jewish guy writing the Vows wedding column at The New York Times. (“Always the wedding columnist and never the groom,” is how the New York Observer described me.) There are a lot of things I learned that didn’t make it into the book, and here are a few of them:

1. MEN ARE ALSO FROM VENUS

Beneath the stubble and the SportsCenter addiction, most men are as confused, vulnerable, and romantic as women when it comes to falling in love.

I’m not sure where people got the idea that romance is primarily a female thing. When it comes to grand romantic gestures, from sweeping someone away for a weekend in Paris to getting down on one knee on a white sand beach, there’s usually a guy involved.

2. A RECEPTION IS A RECEPTION IS A RECEPTION

If you’re in the midst of planning a wedding party, trust me when I say no one will remember the color of the napkins.

Every wedding ceremony has a personal element unique to the bond of the two people getting married, but receptions tend to blend together. Some are fancier. Some are quirkier. But once the jackets are off and the guests are boogying down on the dance floor, the Rockefellers don’t look much different from the Rubinsteins. And I can say that with assurance because I covered two Rockefeller weddings – and one of them married a Rubinstein.

3. THERE’S A BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ATTENDING A WEDDING AND WORKING AT ONE

The New York Times has a strict policy about accepting anything that could be construed as a gift. So when I go to a wedding I don’t eat. I don’t drink. Bill Cunningham, the iconic Times photographer (and the subject of the documentary film “Bill Cunningham New York”) has said he doesn’t even accept water.

Working at a party is precisely that. Working. Watching other people enjoy a gourmet meal is a fat-free and frisson-free experience. As an added bonus, when guests see me with a pen and pad in my hand, they often mistake me for a waiter and give me their drink orders.

4. SAYING “I DO” ISN’T WRITTEN IN STONE – OR NECESSARILY EVEN IN INK

Oddly, a lot of people who make submissions to The New York Times wedding section aren't planning a legal wedding. And I’m not talking about gay weddings. There are couples who have previously eloped and never told anyone. And there are couples who want a wedding party, but haven’t yet decided if they want to make a legal commitment to each other. But the most popular reason for making non-binding vows is that many couples want their ceremony performed by someone who isn’t legally sanctioned to officiate, and they don’t want the hassle of a separate civil ceremony at City Hall to make the marriage legal. This is what divorce lawyers’ dreams are made of.

Before writing an article, I always have to verify if a legal marriage is taking place. And it can often take a great deal of detective work. A colleague has joked that the name of our department should be “wedding investigations.”

5. GREAT LOVE IS NOT PERFECT LOVE

I find the healthiest relationships are the ones based on mutual respect – not just for each other’s virtues but also for each other’s flaws. Couples that can acknowledge (and laugh) about their partner’s imperfections (and their own) seem to have the strongest foundation.

Love stories that are too good to be true usually are, and when I hear someone describe their mate as "perfect," it's a red flag. "Perfect" is not an option in politics or marriage. A truly happy bride isn’t someone in a state of bliss but rather someone looking forward to what’s coming next.

6. HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE

I think people like reading Vows columns for the same reason I like writing them. They affirm life by showing that love can happen at any time, at any place and at any age.

So many things belong to youth: such as time, health, and Justin Bieber hair. But it turns out that love isn’t one of them. Happiness is always possible. As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope that something new and exciting is around the corner.

Falling in love is a little like writing a book. You can feel a spark about a person or an idea. The trick is paying attention to that spark and choosing to pursue it.

Devan Sipher graduated from the University of Michigan, received an M.F.A. from New York University, and he is a former junior cantor of Temple Israel. Read more about him and his work here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 13, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:


Find more of the latest reviews here.

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A Jew in a Plexiglas Box

Friday, June 13, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nicholas Kulish wrote about being asked the question, "What's a Nazi?", in South Sudan and the Rosencrantzs and Guildensterns of history. His most recent book,The Eternal Nazi, co-authored with Souad Mekhennet, is the story of Nazi physician Dr. Aribert Heim, who fled postwar justice and hid in Egypt from Nazi hunters. He is also the author of a novel, Last One In. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A Jew on display in a Plexiglas box, in Germany of all places, stands as a flagrant provocation. But there he was, surrounded by curious onlookers and a considerable contingent of reporters, photographers and camera crews. Bill Glucroft sat on the white bench with the hot pink cushion in a clear enclosure fielding questions, a living exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

It was one of many controversies that I covered in my six years as Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times. There was the effort to ban circumcision, beaten back by the German Parliament after a similar uproar. Günter Grass wrote his controversial poem attacking Israel and then there was the Jew in a Box.

The display was always meant to be provocative, as were advertisements for the show that played off of anti-Semitic rants, one with a picture of a pothole and the words, “The Jews are to blame for everything.” The motivation by the Jewish curators was obvious: Their exhibition about the everyday lives of Jews, about kosher food and skullcaps, was not the kind of Holocaust-related exhibitions that packed museums.

But it was of the moment and significant in its own way. During my time in Berlin the vibrancy of new Jewish life in Central Europe was surprising and encouraging. When I was researching my book on the concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim at Simon Wiesenthal’s old office in Vienna I stayed in the old Second District, which was filled with Orthodox Jewish families, kosher stores and restaurants. Berlin’s tech scene and electronic dance music clubs lured young American Jews and Israelis to the city. In Poland university students were rediscovering Jewish roots buried during the decades of Communist rule.

I had the chance to cover the opening of a new Jewish museum in Warsaw, part of a broader-based movement there to restore the important role that Jews had played in Polish history and the large role that Poland’s enormous population played in Jewish culture writ large. Museums are moving further from static commemoration toward promoting active dialogue and understanding. Such a move is not without risks in a world still filled with hate.

That’s what makes the fatal shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last month so chilling. Police have arrested a man who they believe fought with radical Islamists in Syria. The shooter killed an Israeli couple, a Frenchwoman who worked at the museum, and a 24-year-old who was a receptionist at the museum. But he was also aiming at something larger: The notion that Jews can live openly and without fear as part of the larger community in Europe.

In Hungary I watched the rapid rise of the extreme right party known as Jobbik up close. The recent European Parliament election only added to the sense of anxiety, to the fear that we could be sliding back toward an uglier, more dangerous period. It was encouraging, at least, to see that Germany, where the most effort has been made at education and reconciliation, the voices of extremism were barely heeded.

Writers like Yascha Mounk have spoken eloquently about growing up “German, Jewish and Neither,” experiencing a strange blend of anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism and plain old ignorance. Leeor Engländer, a journalist who spent an afternoon in the Berlin Jewish Museum’s Plexiglas box said that the exhibit turned the figurative into the literal. “As a Jew in Germany you live like an animal at the zoo,” he wrote in his article about the experience.

Mr. Glucroft chose to handle the issue with humor and cheer. Encouraged, the museumgoers began asking more and more questions. The foreignness seemed to dissipate, and with it some of the otherness. Provocative, maybe even inappropriate, but the longer I stood in that museum, the more I realized that it was effective. I hope that the next generation of young Jews born in Europe will find no contradiction between their religion and their nationality.

Nicholas Kulish is an author and correspondent for The New York Times. Read more about him and his work here.

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A Self-Published David Faces His Goliath at the JBC Network Conference

Friday, June 13, 2014 | Permalink

Each year, authors participating in the JBC Network program gather at the annual conference to pitch their book to the representatives of over a hundred Jewish institutions, in hopes of being invited to speak at book fairs and community programs throughout North America over the following months. It is an event that delights our member sites and terrifies our authors. Delia Ephron dubbed it "the Jewish Hunger Games"; others have likened their experience to competing on American Idol. A couple weeks ago, 2014-2015 JBC Network author David A. Kalis saw it as his personal Goliath. He shares his experience with Jewish Book Council's online readership here:

Jews have a special place in their hearts for the underdog. The story of David and Goliath immediately comes to mind. Who would ever root for Goliath?

Last week, I had my own David and Goliath experience. I was at the 2014 Jewish Book Council Network Conference, promoting my new memoir on Jewish identity and heritage, Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser. If you don’t know the details of the JBC Network Meet the Authors event, let me explain. Over 250 authors submit their  work and attend the conference in New York. Each is given a 2-minute opportunity to present their book and themselves to Jewish organizations from around the country, hoping to be invited for a speaking engagement at some point in the upcoming year. It’s stressful, and to top it off, the two minutes are just that: no more, no less. Well, less is acceptable, but more is not.

So, there I was with my heart racing, palms sweating, and thoughts swirling. About an hour into the program, the JBC coordinator called my name. I was on deck. I got up from my chair located in the corner of the synagogue and walked toward the 300 pairs of eyes feasting on the upcoming speaker, knowing I was to follow. Sitting in the on deck chair, I sat motionless, trying to run through my comments one last time. I had spent endless hours preparing my speech and then memorizing it, only to find out an hour prior that using notes was actually acceptable. Holding my marked-up rough draft as my security blanket, I glanced at it knowing there was nothing more I could do.

I tried to review my speech, but instead, I thought about how I got here and questioned whether I belonged. Yes, I wrote a book and it had strong Jewish content, it received a strong review from Kirkus Reviews, and thus far, people who read it, loved it. But, the quality of the writers and their experience here at the JBC Network was unmatched. The evening started with a university president, who was followed by a writer from a nationally renowned magazine, and then progressed with bestselling authors, professors, and acclaimed activists. Their presentations were polished, their stories were compelling, and their qualifications were impeccable. To top it off, most were published by large publishing houses.

Thirty more seconds and it was my turn. I kept thinking: David vs. Goliath. This was my first book, I was self-published, and I had never even been a contributing writer to my local newspaper. But here I was, which meant I had a chance.

When my two minutes arrived, I took a deep breath, gazed out at the audience, and spoke from the heart. My notes lay still, unused, allowing the passion for my creation to come through.

Following the speaking portion of the event, I attended a wine reception where a middle-aged man representing a JCC from Pennsylvania approached me. “I liked your message, well done. Tell me more about your story and if you’ve already been in front of audiences…”

A new underdog was on his way.


David A. Kalis is the author of Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser: A True Story of Risk, Corruption, and Self-Discovery Amid the Collapse of the Soviet Union. He will be touring his book through the JBC Network program for the 2014-2015 year.


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What's a Nazi?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nicholas Kulish wrote about the Rosencrantzs and Guildensterns of history. His most recent book, The Eternal Nazi, co-authored with Souad Mekhennet, is the story of Nazi physician Dr. Aribert Heim, who fled postwar justice and hid in Egypt from Nazi hunters. He is also the author of a novel, Last One In. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“What’s a Nazi?” It was a question I had never heard before or even considered possible but there the man stood, asking me in total seriousness what Nazis were.

In retrospect it made perfect sense. I was in one of the most isolated places on earth, deep in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. There was no electricity and no running water. In the rainy season, which was just beginning, the roads were flooded and the dirt landing strips often too muddy for even small airplanes to land. Other than the occasional United Nations helicopter the people here were completely cut off.

I was six years old when Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its Nazi villains, made everyone I knew want to be an archaeologist with a bullwhip. We read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in junior high. Schindler’s List came out my freshman year of college and I went to see it with my parents when I was home on winter break, while Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were prominently featured on the syllabus.

Studying German, the Holocaust was ever present. One of the first lines of poetry you learn is Paul Celan’s “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland,” death is a master from Germany. Unfortunately for the people of South Sudan or the Central African Republic, the master’s disciples still roam the earth.

I arrived in Nairobi a year ago to work as the East Africa correspondent for The New York Times but I hadn’t quite finished working on The Eternal Nazi, a book that grew out of my work as the newspaper’s Berlin bureau chief. That was how I found myself sitting in a plastic chair, under a tree trying to rewrite the epilogue. The young South Sudanese man approached, wanting to know what I was doing on my MacBook.

“I’m working on a book,” I said.

“What’s it about?” he asked. His English was quite good because, as a refugee, he had gone to school in Kenya.

“Nazis,” I said, prompting the question that so disarmed me. “They were really bad and they killed lots of people.”

For the people of South Sudan, after decades of war with terrible atrocities against civilians committed by all sides, that described a lot of people.

“Like how many?” he asked skeptically. I thought about the six million killed in the Holocaust, the Soviet soldiers and civilians, the people buried in the London blitz or drowned in ships sunk by U-boats.

“Millions,” I said. “Tens of millions.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding, finding the number sufficient. “That really is a lot.” He paused then asked me, “What were they called again?”

“Nazis,” I said.

“I’ll remember that,” he said, then left me alone to write for as long as my battery lasted or until I could find a generator.

Nicholas Kulish is an author and correspondent for The New York Times. Read more about him and his work here.

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Interview: Eve Harris

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 | Permalink

by Shira Schindel

Eve Harris's debut novel, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, was published in April by Grove Press/Black Cat.

Shira Schindel: You’ve talked about your personal connection to Judaism and in particular your spirituality. Was some of the religious frustration you explored in the book also personal to you?

Eve Harris: Well, I am spiritual but I’m not religious, because it was not my upbringing. My father came to England when he was ten years old as a Holocaust refugee. My mom was born right after the war in Poland, and on both sides my grandparents were survivors. My father wasn’t in the camps, but he was in hiding. In the past I believe my family was religious, but we’re no longer a religious family because of these experi­ences, because of the Holocaust. My brother and I were brought up with Shabbos dinners and we kept major holidays, like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, but we were a very secular household. I was also brought up in West London, where there are very few Jewish people. I think that had an effect on me. I had to work hard to find Jewish friends, and to make sure to meet a Jewish partner. In some ways I think I missed out on a lot.

SS: Was it a culture shock for you to then enter the private Haredi girls’ school where you once taught English and Drama?

EH: Yes. When I got the job at this really religious school—which became part of the inspiration for the book—it gave me a fly on the wall view of a world that I would never have glimpsed if I hadn’t been teaching there. That year was truly transitional for me. I’m not saying I became more religious in the sense of keeping more observances; I didn’t, but it was fascinating.

As a teacher I was expected to dress according to Haredi Jewish custom while on school property. I got married that year as well, and once I was married I was expected to cover my hair on school grounds, which I did. It always felt a bit like playing Wonder Woman, because after school I would take off my hat, whip off my headscarf, and look like my normal self again. As I was going on the train toward my stop, away from the school, I would feel more and more relieved. I often felt like I was playing a part.

SS: In what way did that year inspire you to write this book?

EH: While I was teaching at the school I’d often walk with teachers into Golders Green, and people would tell me things. I soaked it up like a sponge. I had no intention of writing a book at that point, but I found it interesting and I just listened. Maybe it was easy for them to talk to me because I was an outsider. But there are no secrets in the book.

One thing I learned is it can seem very calm and perfect in this com­munity, like everyone has their roles to play and behaves in a certain way. But there’s also a lot of frustration, and I wanted to write the book to reflect how human it was. Even underneath the veneer of perfection, even with the framework these individuals can fall back on when times are bad, it’s not easy there either, and these are just human beings struggling. I think it can be hard to see ultra-Orthodox Jews as people with the same types of human frustrations you experience. I’ve tried hard to give my characters depth, and to have compassion for them, so that they will seem real.

SS: Now that the book has been published, have frum (religious) readers reached out to you?

EH: When the book first came out there were some invitations to Shabbos dinners! One girl had gone to the school where I taught, and wrote to say that I had it spot on. We met for coffee. She’s not frum anymore. She said to me that while reading it she did a two-day cringe-binge. I had a few emails like that. Nobody likes a mirror being held up to him or herself. But it’s not a documentary. It’s a book. A piece of fiction, and it’s supposed to be entertaining. So, make of it what you will.

SS: What do you think Rivka would be doing now, a couple of years later?

EH: I think Rivka’s probably at home. It’s evening now in London. I reckon she’s got a really nice flat just a few miles down the road from her kids in Golders Green. And I think she’s making her eve­ning meal. She still can’t bring herself to eat treif. She’s probably got the radio on, or her computer on. She might be working on something. I don’t think she’s back in the community, but I think she’s always got that pull-push with the community. I think she’s definitely got her hair down and she’s wearing some jeans! I don’t see her going back. She’ll never be the same person she was before she entered that world.

Shira Schindel is the head of Content and Acquisitions at Qlovi, an education technology startup accelerating literacy in K-12 classrooms. She formerly worked in the literary department at ICM Partners, and studied creative writing at Columbia University.

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The Champagne Spy

Monday, June 09, 2014 | Permalink

Nicholas Kulish is an author and correspondent for The New York Times. His most recent book, The Eternal Nazi, co-authored with Souad Mekhennet, is the story of Nazi physician Dr. Aribert Heim, who fled postwar justice and hid in Egypt from Nazi hunters. He is also the author of a novel, Last One In. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For five long years Wolfgang Lotz, a horse breeder and bon vivant, lived the high life of an affluent former Nazi in Egypt. It was the 1960s and Hitler’s scientists were hard at work building rockets for the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, while veterans of the Wehrmacht trained his soldiers. Joseph Goebbels’ former propagandist Johann von Leers had changed his name to Omar Amin and was now one of several colleagues spreading anti-Semitic vitriol for the Egyptians.

At soirees at von Leers’ home it was possible to see Hans Eisele, who had been sentenced to death for experiments on concentration-camp inmates, singing the Nazi anthem known as “The Horst Wessel Song” with old Kameraden. Lotz, a regular at the country clubs as well as the stables, threw the biggest, most lavish and booze-soaked parties of them all, attended by powerful Egyptian generals as well as his fellow Germans. It was widely believed that the horse breeder had been a member of the SS but he never confirmed nor denied it, letting the rumor linger.

Lotz was indeed a veteran of World War II, but fighting for the Allies. He was German by birth but his mother was Jewish. When the Nazis came to power she fled with her son to what was then the British Mandate for Palestine. Lotz had joined the Haganah before he was 15, patrolling on horseback. He fought for the British in North Africa, smuggled arms for the Haganah and served in the I.D.F. before eventually joining the Mossad.

It was for the Mossad that Lotz had traveled to Egypt. He called espionage “the greatest game in the world,” but it was also a dangerous one. He got to know Egyptian generals and shared whatever secrets he could glean from them about the missile program but his luck ran out and he was arrested in 1965 and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

I stumbled across Lotz’s story because I was writing a book about a Nazi war criminal, Dr. Aribert Heim, who fled to Egypt one step ahead of justice. This towering blond war criminal lived out his days as a convert to Islam in a working-class district of Cairo. His story opened an entire world to me that, frankly, I could not have imagined.

When writing a book you have to prepare yourself for those stranger-than-fiction moments. I could hardly believe it when I learned, in Austrian municipal records, that the elusive Heim had a twin brother who died at birth. It all started to feel like an improbable, pulpy paperback thriller I had found at a yard sale.

But you also have to be prepared for the amazing supporting characters that pass by the edges of your story, the Rosencrantzs and Guildensterns of history. Arthur A. Becker was an inmate at Mauthausen turned war crimes investigator for the Americans after the war. He was responsible for the first known record of Heim’s atrocities in an interview with a witness. What I did not know was that he was also a playwright.

Becker wrote a play called “The Road Into Life” about his experiences at Mauthausen, which was staged in Salzburg shortly after the war. I discovered a copy on a back shelf at the Mauthausen Archive in Vienna. The archivists had no idea it was there. As I began reading it I came across a menacing reference to a Nazi doctor named Heim. The strands of fiction and history had crossed before my eyes.

Wolfgang Lotz remained a source of endless fascination. I bought his book, The Champagne Spy, and probably wasted a few more precious research days than I should have on this heroic but at times louche character.

His story had a happy ending. After the 1967 war the Champagne Spy was released in a prisoner exchange. I never could find out if he met Dr. Aribert Heim while he was there, one missing thread in the larger tapestry of my book.

Read more about Nicholas Kulish and his work here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 06, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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Non-Standardized Testing

Friday, June 06, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Boris Fishman wrote about suffering, victimhood, evil, and the space in between as well as the importance of documenting your family history. His debut novel A Replacement Life was published this week by HarperCollins. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I subjected you to quite a bit of fire and brimstone on Wednesday, so let’s end the week on a lighter note. That’s right, a pop quiz. Don’t worry, it’s only five questions and they’re all True or False. And there’s a carrot: The first reader to answer all five accurately in an e-mail to contact@borisfishman.com will receive a free autographed copy of my novel A Replacement Life, out this week.

The subject of the quiz: Grandfather’s Shenanigans. A Replacement Life tells the story of a young man who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn on the instigation of his grandfather. My real-life grandfather didn’t ask me to do that, but he shares quite a bit temperamentally with his avatar in the novel. What kind of men are they? Men who get things done, in the old-fashioned sense: Resourceful, swashbuckling, unbothered by niceties. But I am no schlub – I know how to lie, too; I am my grandfather’s grandson, after all. So: Below find five stories about things that supposedly happened to my real-life grandfather. Did they happen? Or did I make them up? You be the judge.

1. State-sponsored anti-Semitism decreased during World War II; all Soviets had a common enemy in the Germans. But it was revived after the war; in the 1960s, all Minsk Jews with Russified names – say, Mikhail in place of Mordukh – were ordered to appear at police precincts to have their passports “restored” for easier “identification.” Grandfather went around the homes of family and close friends, collecting passports in a sack. Then he went to the police precinct. There he found a Captain Grishelev. “I brought you a sack of passports, Captain Grishelev,” Grandfather said. Only that on the way, Grandfather had added to the sack three bottles of vodka. Captain Grishelev decided to leave the passport-altering until the vodka was done. He and Grandfather went through the first bottle, the second, the third. By then, Captain Grishelev would have kissed my grandfather sooner than touch one of those passports. He sent Grandfather home and all the Mikhails stayed Mikhails.

2. While we’re on the subject of drinking: Grandmother needed her gallbladder removed. Grandfather didn’t like leaving things to chance. He found the best surgeon in Minsk and showed up on his doorstep the night before the operation with three bottles of Armenian cognac. There was no way the surgeon would work cavalierly on someone whose husband had made him such a gift. They drank and drank, into the wee hours, becoming friends and easing Grandfather’s heart. The next morning, however, Grandfather saw what all this new camaraderie cost: The surgeon was still drunk. In which condition he operated on my grandmother. And they doubt the miracles of Soviet medicine.

3. Grandfather was part of a gold-smuggling ring. (Possession of gold, as a foreign currency, was illegal in the USSR.) There were five members; the four others were caught. They were not especially close with Grandfather; the five were associates of convenience. When the four were asked who else was part of the ring, they said: No one. If they didn’t pony up their confederates, they were told, they would be executed. No one, they repeated. They were executed. Grandfather lived.

4. Grandfather was on a business trip to Moscow when he heard they were offering bras at the department store. You might find nothing odd in this, American reader – that is, after all, what department stores are supposed to do. Not Soviet department stores, which offered great variety in Shortages and Empty Shelves, but not as much in actual products. By the time Grandfather got to the department store, the line was out the door and down the block. He didn’t have that kind of time. With a friend, he climbed to the second-floor gallery, right above the spot on the ground floor where the bras were being dispensed. “Now you take me by the ankles and hang me over the banister,” he instructed his friend. His friend complied. This put Grandfather, upside down, at eye level with the bra saleswoman. “A bra for my wife, quick!” he yelled. “But what size?!” the poor saleswoman demanded. What size! A man is hanging off the second-floor landing by his ankles and still it isn’t enough! “I don’t know what size!” he yelled. “Like this!” He fit his hand around an imaginary grapefruit. That told the saleswoman what she needed to know. She gave him two bras and a compliment for being a devoted husband.

5. Grandfather was on his way home from the market with a fresh chicken. On the way home, he saw an old friend of the family standing in her doorway. “Avremele!” she called out to him. “How much did you get that chicken for?” Avremele liked to brag once in a while so he said half of what he had actually paid. “Avremele…” the old lady drawled. “I’m an old lady, weak… Sell it to me. And then run on back to the market with your young legs and get yourself another.” How can an upstanding boy say no to a plea of that kind? Only that on that day, Avremele paid price and a half for his chicken.

A winner was selected on Monday, June 9th. The winning answer is that all five stories are true!

Boris Fishman immigrated from the USSR at nine. He studied Russian literature at Princeton, was on staff at The New Yorker, co-wrote the US Senate’s Hurricane Katrina report, and has received a Fulbright to Turkey. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, The Forward, The Jerusalem Report, and many others. He lives in New York. Read more about him here.

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Feeding Other Writers, and Myself

Tuesday, June 03, 2014 | Permalink

Yesterday, Nora Gold wrote about Leah Goldberg, poetry, and the title for her newest book, Fields of Exile. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A few days ago my novel, Fields of Exile, was published in the USA, and this month marks exactly four years since I started the free online literary journal that I created and edit, JewishFiction.net. The convergence of these two events has got me thinking about solitariness and community in the lives of writers.

I feel very fortunate to be both a writer and the editor of JewishFiction.net. Writing is a solitary activity, and this journal provides me with a kind of community since producing it occurs in communal, social space. In our first four years, JewishFiction.net has published 186 first-rate works of fiction (stories or novel excerpts) that had never previously been published in English, and that were originally written in eleven languages and on five continents. We’re honoured to have published some of the most well-known Jewish writers living today, as well as many fine writers who are not yet well-known.

I’m often asked why I started JewishFiction.net, and the answer is that — in light of the crisis in the publishing industry — I was concerned that a lot of the great Jewish fiction being written now around the world would get lost. Recently, though, reflecting on the upcoming fourth birthday of Jewish Fiction.net, I recognized another, subtler antecedent to the birth of this journal.

My paternal grandmother, Leah Shteinman Gold, strongly believed that she (and everyone else) had an obligation to support Jewish writers and artists. I heard her say more than once, “We have to feed our poets.” She meant this not only figuratively — she was generous in her encouragement and appreciation for their work — but also literally. In the world she lived in, Yiddish-speaking Montreal, her home was a haven for struggling poets, writers, and intellectuals, and she often fed them actual meals. Some of my less charitable relatives referred to these people as “shnorrers,” but my grandmother stoutly rejected this characterization. “They are our writers,” she’d say. “We have to support them. They’re the future of our culture.”

She also helped these writers by always trying to find work for them. One result of this was that my father learned his bar mitzvah portion from the great poet Yud Yud Segal, and one of my brothers and I got weekly lessons in Yiddish language and literature from Sholem Shtern, another fine poet. I remember how, whenever Lerer (Teacher) Shtern came to our home for a lesson, first of all he’d receive a cup of coffee coffee and a bagel. For me, therefore, food and literature became intimately intertwined. One fed a Yiddish poet and he fed you Yiddish poetry.

As I reminisce about this now, perhaps it’s not surprising that I started a journal to help Jewish writers. Maybe this impulse runs in my blood. But here’s what’s surprising about it. In giving JewishFiction.net to the international Jewish literary community, I got something back. In feeding other writers, I’ve been fed, too. Through bringing together writers from around the world and introducing them to each other, and introducing all these writers to our journal’s large readership, I’ve met many interesting, delightful writers from Australia, Serbia, Argentina, Israel, Russia, Romania, Spain, Poland, France, Croatia, Iraq, the UK, and of course North America.

What I have been given — what I have received — from JewishFiction.net is something incomparably precious: a literary community, maybe even a literary home. And what greater gift could there be to any writer, struggling alone in solitariness, than to know that one’s work is being — even if invisibly — supported, cherished, and appreciated, and that in our solitary writing lives, we are not alone?

Nora Gold’s book, Fields of Exile, is the first novel about anti-Israelism on campus. Gold is also the author of the acclaimed Marrow and Other Stories, the creator and editor of the prestigious online literary journal JewishFiction.net, a blogger for “The Jewish Thinker” at Haaretz, the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at CSWE/OISE/University of Toronto, the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and a community activist. Gold can be contacted through her website here.

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