The ProsenPeople

30 Days, 30 Authors: Alice Hoffman

Saturday, December 05, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.




Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The Marriage of Opposites, Practical Magic, The Red Garden, the Oprah’s Book Club selection Here on Earth, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and The Dovekeepers. She lives near Boston.

     

New Reviews December 4, 2015

Friday, December 04, 2015 | Permalink

Catching up from the holiday weekend, this week and last week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Interview: Ron Wolfson

Friday, December 04, 2015 | Permalink

with Cathy Sussman

Jewish Book Council sat down with Jewish community leader, educator, and author Ron Wolfson to discuss The Best Boy in the United States of America, his new book of personal stories of growing up Jewish in Omaha, Nebraska

Cathy Sussman: How did you come to write Best Boy?

Ron Wolfson: I have always told funny and heartfelt stories in my teaching as a speaker and scholar-in-residence. I find people resonate with them. For example, I tell a story about my Old Country Hebrew school teacher who called me vildeh chayeh—“wild animal”—I was such a class clown at four o’clock on Monday afternoon. Many people have had similar experiences. Since that time, I’ve visited hundreds of synagogues and Jewish institutions during my career and seen some very funny things happen that illustrate the challenges of engaging Jews with Judaism. I thought it would be a good idea to finally write down these stories, not simply to entertain, but to educate and inspire. For me, a book is an extension of my “classroom.” I reach thousands of people I will never meet in person, but I can in the pages of the book and then engage with them on social media platforms.

I really want readers to think about what they can do to shape their family’s ethical Jewish legacy. This book is about generational continuity and what we can do to ensure the Jewish future for our children and grandchildren. And the response to Best Boy has been extraordinary: people of all ages—particularly Jewish Baby Boomers—are reporting that they are deeply moved by the book. What’s interesting to me is which stories are reader favorites; so many are cited. And they “get” my purpose in writing the book: Zaydie Louie didn’t simply call me “the best boy in the United States of America;” he called upon me—and all nine of his grandchildren—to be the best human beings we could be. Isn’t that the goal of a life well lived?

CS: How did you decide which stories to include? Were there stories that you considered including but ultimately decided not to?

RW: There are so many stories to tell, but I believe “less is more.” I wanted the book to be an easy read, something that anyone, not just deeply involved Jews, could enjoy and come away with an understanding of just how powerful family and community is in shaping Jewish identity. So, yes, there are stories about our daughter Havi winning a contest when she was just six years old by naming a koala at the LA Zoo that took us to Sydney, Australia, where we met long lost relatives; stories about my grandmother Celia from Brooklyn who crocheted a baby blanket I ate; and more stories about Warren Buffett, like the time he bought Omaha’s chametz: “Buy low and sell high, I wish I had known about this investment earlier in my career!” Maybe I’ll write Volume II of Best Boy some day.

CS: Best Boy champions the value of creating a Jewish identity within the home. But what about the children who grew up in Number 5’s home? What can theydo to reintroduce a Jewish identity into their family? What is the role of the rabbis and Jewish educators?

RW: One of the funniest stories in the book describes the intimidation some people feel when asked to engage in a Jewish ritual, like reciting the blessings for a Torah reading. There are so many Jews who feel uncomfortable with Jewish practice. There is so much to know and so many rules. My friend and colleague Harlene Appelman, executive director of The Covenant Foundation, often says: “People would rather say ‘I don’t care’ than ‘I don’t know.’” My whole career has been focused on inviting those Jews into a relationship with a joyous Judaism that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. My first four books are guides to Jewish practice in the home. They feature the stories of real Jews representing all kinds of family structures and denominations, talking about how they have made Jewish rituals come alive. Our work in Jewish family education has the same goal: encouraging Jews to embrace Jewish experiences that can strengthen personal identity and family cohesion.

CS: You reached a certain generation of youth. What do you think we need to do to reach the next generation? Are there two songs you would use today?

RW: When I first began teaching teenagers, I used songs like the Beatles “Revolution” and “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof as texts. Today, I might use “Happy” by Pharell Williams and “Rumor” by Adele.

CS: What would Zayde Louis tell to Ellie and Gabe’s generation?

RW: Zaydie Louie embraced new technologies. He and his sons-in-law built the first modern supermarket in Nebraska with self-serve aisles, checkstands, and that amazing conveyor belt system that I write about in the book—it was like our own personal roller coaster in the basement! I think he would tell my grandchildren to use the incredible technologies of communication and social media, but to never forget that nothing replaces in person, face-to-face relationships.

CS: Tell me about your Facebook contest: "How did a grandparent influence you"?

RW: Many people wrote lovingly of grandparents who taught them about the power of telling stories, the importance of making friends with everyone, the mitzvah of visiting the elderly and the homebound, helping others quietly, and the joys of being generous. Grandparents have enormous influence. Best Boy is a reminder of that important role as many of the 1.3 million Jewish Baby Boomers are blessed to become grandparents themselves.

CS: What is your next project?

RW: I hope to write a follow-up to Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. It will have reports from the field of Jewish institutions doing a great job in shifting the paradigm of engagement from transactional to relational. I am very grateful that so many Jewish professionals and lay leaders have heard this call and are increasingly focused on putting people first. As I’ve learned in writing Best Boy, it’s all about relationships— in our families, in our communities, and with Judaism itself.

CS: You have led joint educational efforts with the Conservative and Reform movements. What advice do you have for their leadership?

RW: We are getting better at the first step in building a relationship: a warm welcome. But there’s still a lot to be done, even in the smallest ways: when I am invited to a synagogue, for example, the first place I visit is the coatroom; many synagogues dump junk there, but it is often the first stop for your guests!

Reform and Conservative synagogues should not assume anything. Certainly don’t assume people know what to do. There are several very funny stories in Best Boy about what happens when congregations do not understand this. The synagogue should be welcoming, not intimidating.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to build relationships between the clergy/staff and the members and guests, between the members and other members in small groups so they have friends in the community who will be there for them in good times and bad, and between everyone and the Jewish experience itself. Judaism can be a path to meaning, purpose, belonging and blessing, a way to be the “best” you one can be.

Cathy Sussman graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in English from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, children, dog and cat. For her day job, she specializes in reinsurance and is a principal at Dubraski & Associates.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Aviya Kushner

Friday, December 04, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.



Aviya Kushner's first book, The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau/Random House 2015), is about the intense experience of reading the Bible in English after an entire life of reading it in Hebrew. 

Once an International Jerusalem Post columnist, her writing has also appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Partisan Review, Poets & Writers, A Public Space, The Wilson Quarterly, and Zoetrope: All-Story

She is currently an associate professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago, and a contributing editor at A Public Space as well as a mentor for the National Yiddish Book Center.


30 Days, 30 Authors: Seth M. Siegel

Thursday, December 03, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.


Seth M. Siegel is a writer, activist, and successful serial entrepreneur. Siegel is the author of the book Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution For A Water-Starved World, released by St. Martin’s Press in September, 2015. His essays on water and other policy issues have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, among other leading publications. Siegel is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.



30 Days, 30 Authors: Matti Friedman

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.



Matti Friedman’s work as a reporter has taken him from Lebanon to Morocco, Cairo, Moscow and Washington, D.C., and to conflicts in Israel and the Caucasus. He grew up in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem. The Aleppo Codex, his first book, was published in May 2012 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature, was selected as one of Booklist’s top ten religion books of the year, was awarded the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal and the Canadian Jewish Book Award for history, and was a finalist in the Religion Newswriters Association’s award for best book of the year. Editions have been published or are pending in Israel, Australia, Holland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia and South Korea. 

 His second book, Pumpkinflowers: A War Story, will be published by Algonquin Books in April, 2016.


Woody Allen: The Artist Who Got It All

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, David Evanier shared what he learned about Woody Allen while writing an unofficial biography of the comedian and director. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Here's the kind of discovery that biographers love: Woody Allen's boyhood pal Jerry Epstein, now a psychiatrist and author, told me that Woody's birthday is not really December 1; it is November 30. “But Woody wanted to be Number One,” Epstein said.

Allen was never tempted to sell out or to try to outdo himself, and he didn't care to ingratiate himself with the mainstream. Right from the beginning he had total artistic control of his work. And he has always walked away from what became stale for him. He walked away from standup comedy, from TV writing, from talk show, game shows, nightclubs, concert halls, variety shows and mainstream success.

So we are talking about enormous inner strength and self-belief. He was uncertain in his personal life, but he was not shy or uncertain about his art. He is the most identifiable, brazen, and forthright Jewish artist in the world, insistently reminding his viewers about the Holocaust in many of his films. Jewish Hollywood, with many of its moguls refugees from Hitler, had been reluctant to place Jewish actors in leading roles. Maurice Schwartz of the Yiddish Art Theater was cast as the Native American Geronimo; John Garfield and Paul Muni played Italians. But times were changing, with the ascendency of comics Mort Sahl, Lennie Bruce, Shelley Bergman, and Nichols and May. By 1967 films with Jewish content and Jewish stars had emerged in The Graduate (Dustin Hoffman); Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, Lumet's comedy, Bye Bye Braverman, starring a new Jewish leading man, George Segal; Mel Brooks's The Producers, and many more, culminating with Barbra Streisand in 1973 in The Way We Were. Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow, heads of United Artists, gave Allen a blank check and he returned the favor by giving the company enormous prestige and highly successful films.

But the Holocaust was never far from Allen's mind. “Since the Holocaust was such an immense event in my life,” he wrote me, “it couldn't help but wind up as a sporadic or even frequent issue in my work. There are certain crimes that are simply unforgivable.”

I finally visited Allen at his cozy, very lived-in, dark-hued office with its rust and brown couches. He greeted me warmly. I found innocence, curiosity, intensity, total responsiveness, and deep emotion in him. He was nearly eighty, yet he had the youthfulness of the committed artist who cannot wait to get back to his work.

We talked about Israel, about antisemitism (including its masked permutation, anti-Zionism) and about the Holocaust. “It can happen in a minute,” he said. He talked of Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews, of Victor Klemperer's diaries of life in Nazi Germany, of Michael Thomas, a resister to Nazism he'd known, of Rossellini's Il Generale Della Rovere. We talked about our parallel histories: the thrilling double bills of classics at the original Thalia Theater, of Brooklyn, typewriters and the internet—”How can kids watch Citizen Kane on that tiny screen?”—and about the Laff Movie on 42nd Street that played Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton 24 hours a day, and, next door to it, the Horn and Hardart Automat. (I mentioned the mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. “What about the baked macaroni?” he asked. My father had taken me to both places, as Woody's father had taken him.) We talked about the decline of nightclubs, how they had their curious moments—such as John Carradine reading Shakespeare at the Blue Angel nightclub—and he spoke with admiration of Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, and nightclub impresario Max Gordon, who gave him an early break at the Blue Angel.

I asked him what was his greatest joy in life. His face became radiant. “My marriage to Soon-Yi. And my children.” I gave him a copy of my novel, The Great Kisser, and he said he would take it with him to read on the plane to Cannes. He did, and wrote me about it within a week.

All the time we thought he was a neurotic mess, Woody Allen was playing the ultimate magic trick on us. Broken, needy, an impractical dreamer, a schlemiel on-screen, in life he was the artist who kept going, was never destroyed, who got it all.

David Evanier was the founding editor of the literary magazine Event and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. Now publishing his eighth book, he has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Molly Antopol

Tuesday, December 01, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.


Molly Antopol’s debut story collection, The UnAmericans, won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation, the California Book Award Silver Medal and the Ribalow Prize. The book was longlisted for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Sami Rohr Prize and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. It appeared on over a dozen year-end lists and will be published in seven countries. Her writing has appeared in many journals and magazines and won a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s the recipient of a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where she currently teaches.

 

What I Learned About Woody

Monday, November 30, 2015 | Permalink

David Evanier recently authored an unofficial biography of Woody Allen, and will be sharing what he learned about the famed comedian and director all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I started writing my biography of Woody Allen in 2012, a writer I hadn't heard from in years wrote me excitedly, “Tell! Tell!” I wasn't sure I got her drift, so I wrote back asking her what was it exactly she wanted me to tell. She wrote back, “I was shocked! Shocked!”

Many years before she had sat at a table next to Woody's at Elaine's. She told me that he was seated with two other male friends and they were talking about sex and women. (Not that she was eavesdropping, of course.) Well, I wrote back gently that my life experience has been that when guys get together, this is a pretty normal topic of conversation for us. That was the end of our correspondence.

When I began Allen’s biography I decided that I would drop in on Woody and tell him about my book and also make it clear that I wasn't writing the sort of thing that my shocked correspondent hoped for. So I rang his doorbell. I held a letter in my hand for him. A staff member looked down at me from the upper balcony and told me he'd be right down. He took my letter, smiled and said “Perfect.”

Well, that was nice, I was in. Not quite.

Allen answered me the next day. And many times more, while stating again and again that this was not an authorized bio. And it isn't. That was even better from my point of view, since I did not want anyone peering over my shoulder checking what I was writing. This turned out well, especially since he really was a mensch, answering my emails (pleading with me not to leave more letters at his house) and finally meeting with me at the end.

At the start I was only a prying stranger to him and he responded warily, especially since he was committed to another biographer—I would come to learn that he is deeply loyal. And how many requests of this kind had he received over the years?

He bristled at my praise of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Zelig in that first letter. He was concerned that I would praise him for all the wrong reasons. He is extremely self-critical and certain he has never written a masterpiece on the level of a Rosselini, Fellini, or De Sica. As a true artist, he doesn't care about his past work or about how his work is reviewed. He cares only about what he is doing now and what he will do next. Yet he answered me, again and again, and cared about my struggles as a writer.

His achievements—46 films in 46 years, with a wide range of subject matter, from laugh-out-loud funny to poignantly, startlingly moving—are almost Shakespearean. Allen is a classic storyteller, not abstract or cerebral. He gives everything to his films, even the lousy ones. His continuity and high rate of productivity are unprecedented. He may be the most amazing phenomenon in the history of American show business. He has created indelible films that will stay with us the rest of our lives. And in all of these films Allen has been the writer, director and actor.

What did I discover about Woody in writing my biography? His boyhood pals from Brooklyn told me what a trickster and prankster he was, and that he was even funnier in person than he was on screen. His mother was hyper-emotional and orthodox; his father was a happy-go-lucky, good-time Charlie who played the numbers, was a gofer for Albert Anastasia, and carried a gun.

Allen is not a shlepper at all; he is a totally concentrated, focused writer with an indefatigable work ethic. He lives for his writing. He has said that “Writing is culmination, it is being wholly alive.” He is not doing it for the money: “Money in any way has never been an issue with me,” he wrote me. He has never taken the big, controlling money that would kill him as an artist. He never stopped paying his former manager, Jack Rollins, or crediting Rollins in his films, although Rollins had retired many years ago. Rollins had been Woody's mentor in the beginning, urging him to do standup comedy. Allen was terrified of performing, and Rollins was always by his side, not even taking a commission from him. That was the sort of thing Woody never forgot.

David Evanier was the founding editor of the literary magazine Event and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. Now publishing his eighth book, he has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Thane Rosenbaum

Monday, November 30, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, How Sweet It Is!, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. He is also the author of three books of nonfiction, including The Myth of Moral Justice. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast, among other national publications. He is a Distinguished Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit http://www.thanerosenbaum.com/.