The ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Adam D. Mendelsohn

Friday, April 08, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Adam D. Mendelsohn and his book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, a vivid picture of how “rag picking” in nineteenth-century England and the United States served as the springboard for Jews to enter the middle and upper classes.

A warm congratulations to Adam and the other four finalists: Yehudah Mirsky, Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, and Lisa Moses Leff. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

Two things. Firstly, deciding on the right moment to switch my energies from research to writing. The temptation is so strong to keep on digging, to follow one more lead, to ferret out additional detail (pick your preferred metaphor!). I find that much of the excitement of any research project comes from this initial exploratory phase: the thrill of the chase. But at some point the hunt has to take second place to the business of writing. And secondly, I am unsettled by an awareness that any historical project is so much the product of happenstance—the survival of particular archival collections; an accumulation of authorial decisions, some made knowingly, others unwitting; the necessity of selection; the whims and interests of the writer.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Many inspirations, but one is the sheer pleasure I get from reading books that teach me new things and force me to think in new ways. If I am able to produce work that gives similar pleasure to others, I’d be delighted. Mission accomplished.

Who is your intended audience?

This book was written with an academic audience in mind, but with the aim of making it accessible to as wide a readership as possible. I like to believe that the question I grapple with at the heart of my book—why have Jews prospered so dramatically in America— is one that Jews and others should be thinking about. If Jewish success is not solely the product of the particular cultural baggage carried by Jews to these shores, then the experience of Jews has enormous potential relevance to more recent immigrant groups.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Many projects large and small. I’m overseeing a study—the first of its kind—attempting to track the attitudes of black South Africans toward Jews. I’m annotating the candid travel diaries of a nineteenth-century Jamaican Jew. And I’m in the early stages of a project about a curious episode that took place in Ethiopia in 1868.

What are you reading now?

My reading is schizophrenic. If I’m lucky I get to read something more serious in-between recitations of Winnie the Witch and The Gruffalo to my kids. I have a guilt-inducing stack of New Yorkers sitting on my bedside table. I am a voracious reader of novels (most recently Julian Barne’s The Sense of an Ending and David Benioff’s City of Thieves). And I am busy with a brilliant new book about the concentration camp system called KL.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

Here are some that have influenced me:

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Replenishing the Earth by James Belich
Culture of the Jews by David Biale (and others)
The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve always enjoyed words—as a teenager I’d peruse the dictionary for pleasure. But I only truly discovered the thrill of writing nonfiction as a university student. For me the pleasure comes both from the research and the puzzle-game of getting a sentence right.

What is the mountaintop for you—how do you define success?

Finding a fresh idea or novel perspective, and presenting it clearly and persuasively. Occasionally I’ll chance across something that is startlingly original, but is so obvious (in a good way) once it has been fleshed out.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Pajamas help. But otherwise all I need is a problem to solve, typically a sentence that needs puzzling over. Once I get stuck in, the text takes over.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I do not for one moment imagine that I’ve written the definitive book about the economic success of Jews in America. Instead I hope to trouble the waters a little, persuading readers to think again about what role culture has played in this process, and perhaps to reassess the conventional wisdom.

Adam Mendelsohn is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, the only such center in Africa.

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"Where Should the Story Begin?" The Worlds of Holocaust Graphic Memoirs

Thursday, April 07, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tahneer Oksman traversed the depictions of space in women’s graphic memoirs included in her book "How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?": Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs. Tahneer is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

Image from We Are On Our Own by Miriam Katin (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006)

Most Holocaust educators are familiar with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winning Maus. In this two-part graphic memoir, the first volume collected and published in 1986 and the second in 1991, Spiegelman recounts his parents’ personal histories. Beginning in pre-war Poland, the storyline moves through their experiences in the death camps and their liberation. This account, told from his father’s perspective, is juxtaposed with narrative bits portraying Spiegelman’s contemporary (late twentieth-century) relationship with his father as he visits with him in Rego Park in order to hear the story firsthand.

More recently, the cartoonist Miriam Katin published two books related to her experiences as a child survivor. Unlike Spiegelman’s memoir, these books are not presented as two volumes of the same story: in fact, Katin’s works—the first published in 2006 and the second in 2013—are wildly different, one from the other. Katin’s first memoir, We Are On Our Own, tells the story of how Miriam and her mother escaped the Nazi invasion of Budapest of 19443 – 1945. The book is composed almost entirely of penciled black-and-white panels neatly recounting a chronological narrative, though there are occasional and unexpected bursts of color marking, for example, pages portraying Katin’s experiences as a young mother in suburban New York in 1972.

In many ways, as with Spiegelman’s work, Katin’s We Are On Our Own is as much an exploration of the relationship between parents and children as it is a story of survival and escape. The memoir is dedicated to Katin’s mother (“For my mother / who taught me / to laugh / and to forgive”) and many of its central images focus on the depiction of a little girl positioned close to that figure; her mother acts, at different times, as her protector, her teacher, and, eventually, the target of her overwhelming ambivalence about her Jewish identity. Miriam’s experience as a child survivor is cast as formative, an experience that forever ties into the loving but burdened relationship she has with her mother.

Katin’s second memoir, Letting It Go, is something of a sequel to her first successful book, but the connection between the two texts is complicated by the dramatic—even radical—shifts in form as well as perspective. The plot of Katin’s second memoir is difficult to summarize, but the book essentially recounts her difficulty in accepting her adult son’s decision to move to Berlin. It is the story of an aftermath, told in bursts of images and words instead of clear-cut sequences of panels. But if We Are On Our Own is a story that unites two people’s perspectives—mother and daughter—in order to share a traumatic past, Letting It Go is a book that shows how impossible the task. In other words, in Letting It Go, Katin explores how one can never fully bridge together the different perspectives of a parent and child, just as one can never fully bridge past and present perspectives. She makes this ambitious undertaking clear from early on. Almost twenty pages in, for example, the narrator asks the question that all memoirists grapple with at some point: “Where should the story begin?” Until that moment, the text unfolds without a clear central focus, a plot. The reader witnesses fragments from Miriam’s life. There are images of her, in no apparent order, as she goes about her day-to-day life: sitting at the sketching table, checking her email, dealing with an exterminator. These routine acts are finally interrupted by a page that opens with that central question, carefully captured near the margin at the top. Below, a series of images graphically details Miriam’s abdomen as a doctor cuts into it and pulls out a tiny head with a chord wrapped around its neck. “Or is this the middle of the story?” These drawings disorient the reader by showing an event from a different time: the birth scene that took place over thirty years before Miriam sat down to this, her second, memoir.

When the grown up Miriam of Letting It Go asks about the origins of her second story, she is emphasizing how her traumatic childhood affects every moment of her adult life, including her own experiences of motherhood. “My father bleeds history”—this is the title that Art Spiegelman gave to the first volume of Maus. Like Spiegelman, Katin reveals the ways that a distant past can dramatically shape and color the present. Taken as a whole, Katin’s two memoirs also intriguingly emphasize a stubborn resistance to such an integration of the past into the present. Even though her identity as a mother is influenced by the ways her own mother protected and shadowed her —the story she tells in We Are On Our Own—there is still a gap between that childhood self and the narrator composing this second memoir. The radically different aesthetics of Katin’s two memoirs reinforce this gap, the impossibility of spanning the distance between the perspective of the mother and that of the child, or between past and present.

Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College, and she recently published her first book, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs.

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Sephardim and Ashkenazim

Wednesday, April 06, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarit Yishai-Levi recalled her first visit to the Western Wall as an eighth-generation Jewish Israeli. Sarit is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I began writing my novel The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, it was also the beginning of an exciting journey back in time. For six and a half years, I visited the period of Ottoman Turkish rule over the Palestine, the period of the British Mandate and the struggle waged by the Jewish underground movements, the War of Independence, and the early years of the State of Israel. In my effort to weave this history into the lives of the novel’s characters, I came across historical phenomena and events that I had not been familiar with before.

In order to construct a world for my novel, I had to engage in some careful and protracted research. The Ermosa family, the main heroes of the book, belong to the Ladino-speaking Sephardic community of Jerusalem between the turn of the nineteenth century and the 1970s. I turned to my mother’s cousin, Ben Zion Nachmias, whose book Hamsa—in which one of the protagonists is my great-grandmother—provided all the information I needed about the community’s customs. My mother’s sister, Miriam, helped me with the Ladino words and phrases I put into the mouths of some of my characters. For my descriptions of the lives of Jerusalem’s young people during the Mandate years, my father took me back in time to his days as a boy and young man. And to fill in the gaps about life in the country before I was born, I spent hours in Beit Ariela, Tel Aviv’s main library. As a journalist, I did not go to the books but rather to the newspaper archives, where I knew I would find intriguing articles that would teach me more than any other source. One of my most fascinating discoveries came from the newspaper HaZvi, published by the reviver of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, in the years 1884 to 1915.

It was from the yellowing pages of HaZvi that I learned that the heads of the Ladino-speaking Sephardic community forbade its members to marry people from other communities, particularly Ashkenazim. When a Sephardic girl fell in love, perish the thought, with an Ashkenazi boy—which is what happened to Leah Abu Shadid and Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s son Itamar—a scandal ensued, bringing immense shame onto her family. From those crumbling pages of HaZvi, I learned that the Sephardim were so opposed to intermarriage with Ashkenazim that even though the great philanthropist Sir Moshe Montefiore offered a reward of one hundred golden napoleons to any couple that would intermarry, there were no takers.

I wrote this surprising discovery into my novel, as I created such an impossible romance between Gabriel, a member of the Sephardic Ermosa family, and Rochelle, an Ashkenazi woman. The story of their love and its tragic outcome drives the novel forward. When the book was published, I was asked about the strict ban on marriage between Sephardim and Ashkenazim more than anything else. Readers found it difficult to believe that society was really like that.

Sarit Yishai-Leviis an English-speaking journalist and author living in Israel. She has been a correspondent for Israeli newspapers and magazines and has hosted Hebrew TV and radio programs in Los Angeles, and authored four nonfiction books as well as The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, an international bestseller.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Yehudah Mirsky

Tuesday, April 05, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Yehudah Mirsky and his book Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, a biography of the first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine and founding theologian of religious Zionism that delves into the struggle of one of the most influential—and controversial—rabbis of the twentieth century to understand and shape his revolutionary times.

A warm congratulations to Yehudah and the other four finalists: Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, and Adam D. Mendelsohn. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

What are some of the most challenging things about writing nonfiction?

I think that form and genre are deeply related to the substance of what we have to say. Some things are best said in a book-length essay, like this book I’ve written. Others are best said in fiction, or plays, or poems, or avowedly devotional texts, or, what can you do, in academic monographs with platoons of footnotes.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Too many to name—but above all my father, Rabbi Professor David Mirsky, who passed away in 1982, when I was 21 years old, and still teaches me, every blessed day.

Who is your intended audience?

In this book I tried to cast a wide net, to write something of interest to interested readers—Jewish or not—and to committed Jews of all persuasions, to rabbis and educators, to scholars in fields ranging from history to theology to politics. That I could even think of trying that was because I was writing about an extraordinary figure who himself—in his life story and breadth and depth of his thought—speaks to that entire spectrum, and more.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, several things. I’m currently completing a scholarly volume (platoons of footnotes and all) on Rav Kook’s intellectual biography before his moving to the Land of Israel at age 38, in 1904. For all the vast scholarship on him (mainly in Hebrew), there’s still not much in the way of intellectual biography, especially not on this crucial, formative period of his life. I’m also translating volumes of Midrashim written and published in Hebrew by learned contemporary Israeli women, edited by my wife, Tamar Biala. These are very powerful texts that will be great to bring to English readers.

I’ve also begun some other projects. In recent years I’ve written a number of essays on the shape of modern Jewish history, in particular on the many answers given to what the great essayist Ahad Ha’Am characterized as “the problem of the Jews and the problem of Judaism,”—answers like ultra-Orthodoxy, Zionism, Jewish Socialism, Nationalism, Liberalism—and how those answers have regularly mixed, matched and pulled against each other. These stories both reflect and have played a role in larger dramas in world history, like the rise of the nation-state, and I’m hoping to pull those together. Another project I’m working on is rethinking the idea of human rights in order to save it. The colossal moral struggles of the twentieth century yielded, at least for a while, a unprecedented consensus among many—though of course not all—people that there are some things that states are simply not allowed to do to people. That is a precious commitment, won at terrible cost, and we need to find ways to reground it for the twenty-first century and beyond. I really want to write about that. And now and then I scratch at some more purely literary projects too.

What are you reading now?

Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz, Sefer Shnei Luchot Ha-Berit
Yehoshua Fischel Schneerson, Chaim Gravitzer: Sippuro shel Nofel
Robert D. Kaplan, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey through Romania and Beyond
Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Modern Age

If you had to list your five favorite books…

That’s impossible to answer, like asking who’s your favorite child? I can mention a few of the books that have moved me deeply and in some ways changed or saved my life, though there are many more.

Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva
Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine
Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man
Shakespeare, As You Like It
Zelda, Kol Ha-Shirim

When did you decide to become a writer? Where were you?

I’ve loved words and the magic they bring for as long as I can remember. My father, of blessed memory, was a professor of literature, and came from a family of gentle storytellers. There was no point of decision to become a writer—but many points of mustering the self-confidence that I had something worth saying and knew how to say it. That’s a decision I need to make—as honestly as I can—every time I sit down to try and write.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props, do you use to assist you?

I wish I knew, and I might be a bit more disciplined if I did. I read a lot, talk a lot, and I drink a lot of coffee. I try to write longhand when I can, for the sheer feel of moving pen along paper. I love working in cafés and libraries—though much of this book was written at our dining/living room table and in the basement clinic of an art therapist who let me use her workspace during off-hours. I almost always listen to music when I write. It’s like oxygen.

What do you want readers to get out of your writing?

I’d like them to come away with a little more historical knowledge about how and why our world today has taken shape, and with some hopefully helpful perspectives on how to look at things. It’s my hope that the fusion of words and ideas that I offer them will open spaces in their own minds for further thinking and exploration on their own terms. And didactic as it sounds, I do hope that the things we read and write will help make us want to be kinder to one another in our own lives.

Yehudah Mirsky is an American-Israeli Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. He graduated from Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the law review, and completed his Ph.D. in Religion at Harvard. Yehudah served in the United States State Department's human rights bureau in the Clinton Administration, and was a Red Cross chaplain following the events of 9/11. He tweets @YehudahMirsky

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Drawing a Room of Her Own

Monday, April 04, 2016 | Permalink

With the recent release of her book "How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?": Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, author (and frequent Jewish Book Council reviewer) Tahneer Oksman is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

Image from Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich

Sometimes I like to think of comics as a medium that provides women with rooms of their own.

What I mean by this is that in comics women have the opportunity to draw themselves, or others like them, and the surrounding world, in ways that reflect their own points of view. These drawn-and-written worlds provide alternatives to images and perspectives passed on by others, the points of view that shape us from childhood and continue to figure throughout our lifetimes. Individual comics have the capacity to act almost as wormholes: in graphic narratives, you can bridge various moments in time, pulling them side-by-side, or you can create an alternative universe that takes you far, far from the present. You can connect fantasy with reality, or internal and external spaces.

This might be one reason I’m often attracted to comics that zero in on interiors, and especially domestic spaces. Anya Ulinich’s fictional work, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, is one book that does this to great effect. In many ways, this graphic novel is all about space and place. Its central character is Lena Finkle, a 37-year-old Jewish immigrant who is twice divorced and living with her two teenage daughters in an apartment in Brooklyn when the story begins. Early on she explains how now, since her recent divorce, she has a room of her own for the first time in her life. The images of interiors peppered throughout the book yield just enough detail to suggest the confined, woozy comfort of a lived-in Brooklyn apartment. In one image we see her daughters perched on their bunk-beds, one with a book on her lap and the other with her legs in the air. Lena stands off to the side, hands in her pockets, calmly imploring, “Jack, feet off the ceiling please!” These are characters living in close quarters, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes jarringly. In another scene depicted on the next page, Lena lies in bed with a sleeping daughter by her side. Again, we don’t get a lot of detail—just the chalky outlines of pillows and a blanket, and a haze of bookshelves off to the side—but nevertheless we take in Lena’s conflicting sense of loneliness and comfort, her need for independence and adventure as it subsists alongside her role as an adored mother, so often in demand.

As a published novelist living in Brooklyn, Finkle is about to embark on a trip to Moscow for a book tour when the story opens. She marks her return to the city of her birth as the starting point of a much more encompassing journey to figure out why it is that she has never found love. The story of Finkle’s immigration and ultimate assimilation interweaves with her unsuccessful search for male companionship. Drawn unsteadily, in bursts of conversational, hand-drawn narrative prose as well as cartoonishly expressive depictions, Ulinich’s crowded page mirrors the claustrophobic proximity of Finkle’s immigrant past, always inching in on her assimilated present. Her mother might label her “an American novelist,” her kids might not speak Russian, and her first husband might have compared her to Anne Frank (after she distinguished herself as, not a Russian, but a Jew from Russia), but Finkle nevertheless experiences Moscow—the city and the related memories of her past life there—as continually “wedged… between me and my life.” Once she returns to Brooklyn and embarks on her twenty-first century quest for love utilizing, fittingly, the internet, we are introduced to the apartments of the various men she dates. These spaces frequently yield more information than the characters themselves, just as Lena’s apartment does. She returns to it after every disappointment, an image of a Christmas tree and a Menorah in the background of one scene, for example, revealing so much about this dynamic, complex, and often conflicted character.

The rooms, and spaces, pictured throughout Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel are integral to the story. Lena’s room both conveys and contains her story, helping readers glimpse her unique point of view.

Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College, and she recently published her first book, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs.

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It Isn't Often You Come Across an Eighth-Generation Israeli Jew

Monday, April 04, 2016 | Permalink

Sarit Yishai-Levi is the author of four non-fiction books and the bestselling novel The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. Sarit is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

My name is Sarit Yishai-Levi, and I am an eighth-generation Jerusalemite. It isn’t often that you come across an eighth-generation Israeli Jew. Most of today’s Israeli Jews either immigrated after 1948, when the state was established, or are the descendants of those immigrants. In 1950, when the Law of Return was enacted, making Israel the homeland for Jews everywhere, Israel’s Jewish population was only about 800,000 souls, and most of them too were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

My roots are planted in Jerusalem, where I was born, where my parents were born, and where my grandfather and grandmother were born. So, while many of my friends have to travel to foreign lands to trace their ancestry, all I have to do is get into my car and hit Route 1, which connects my home in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A short drive, about an hour, takes me to the place where the cradle of my family is and has been for generations. I am grateful for this privilege, as I know that not everyone enjoys it. The absolute certainty of knowing who you are, of having indubitable roots, culture, and values as an individual and as a nation, is a gift, one that I treasure with my heart.

I have never questioned my identity as an Israeli, and certainly not as a Jew. I came into this world an Israeli and a Jew. I grew up without doubts, and without confusion. But there was one particular time that I first felt Jewish with all of my body and soul.

As a young girl born with the state, in a divided Jerusalem, I had always lived with the knowledge that there, on the other side of the Old City walls, beyond the dangerous area that it was forbidden to approach, behind the security barrier and the Jordanian army’s posts, stood the mysterious Western Wall of the Temple Mount, the Kotel. There, my parents said, you could speak to God.

That there was a place where you could speak to God and write him letters flamed my imagination. In bed at night, I wrote God innumerable letters in my head, dreaming of the day I would stand before the Western Wall and deposit my wishes between its stones for God to receive and answer.

My parents told me that before their wedding, they visited the Kotel and asked God to give them a good life and healthy children. My grandmother told me she used to go to the Kotel and hide her tears between its stones, as well as her prayers for recovery from illness and for good matches for her daughters. My grandfather told me he would go to the Kotel almost every day, to pray to God and ask for a good livelihood and good health for his loved ones.

On Shabbat, our family would take walks near the border and try to see the Western Wall. The place where we could perhaps get the best glimpse was the Notre Dame monastery, on the border between our West Jerusalem and their East Jerusalem. We would climb up onto the roof, lean over the stone parapet, and strain our eyes, even use binoculars that father brought with him, hoping for a view of the Kotel. But we didn’t manage to see it. It was surrounded by the Old City of Jerusalem, with its own walls and its different quarters, and we couldn’t see it, and it remained an ideal and a dream.

Right after the end of the Six Day War, in 1967, when I was still a soldier, I received an evening off and hurried home to Jerusalem from my distant base with only one thought in my mind: to see the Kotel. I shall never forget that occasion, when the whole family set out, my father in his police officer’s uniform, my mother in her best dress, my little brothers dressed like bar-mitzvah boys, and me in my sergeant’s uniform—heart pounding and excited, about to lay eyes for the first time on the Western Wall.

We passed through a gap in the tall, concrete security barrier that had once separated us from the Old City and which we had been prohibited from approaching to avoid being shot at by the Jordanian soldiers. Now we could safely walk through it, and we entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate and headed for the Western Wall. Mother and Father knew the way by heart from the pre-1948 days, and they were as eager as little children. On the way, Mother showed us the English school she attended opposite David’s Tower, and Father pointed out the Misgav Ladach hospital where he was born. We walked through the narrow alleys and down a steep staircase and at last we arrived. Before us stood the Western Wall, in all its glory, massive and high, exactly as I’d imagined it'd be.

We stepped up our pace and were almost running by the time we touched it. Father and Mother kissed the stones tearfully, and we did the same. With a trembling hand I caressed the immense blocks of stone, and as I had dreamed since I could remember, I placed the note that I had prepared into a crack between the blocks. In it, I thanked God for returning the Kotel to us, and I asked Him for peace with our neighbors, after the bloody war. This wish has not yet come true, but I know that my note is lying on God’s desk and waiting its turn.

Sarit Yishai-Levi is an English-speaking journalist and author living in Israel. She has been a correspondent for Israeli newspapers and magazines and has hosted Hebrew TV and radio programs in Los Angeles, and authored four nonfiction books as well as The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, an international bestseller.

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New Reviews April 1, 2016

Friday, April 01, 2016 | Permalink

The week's new book reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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National Poetry Month 2016

Friday, April 01, 2016 | Permalink
In honor of National Poetry Month, the Jewish Book Council will be highlighting some of our favorite Jewish poems, both old and new, on our twitter account. Click below to see the books where these poems live.

Golem Stories, from Mysticism to Fiction to the Realm of Plausibility

Friday, April 01, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthew Kressel explored the Jewish sources underlying Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan salute and fantasy literature’s greatest time-traveling epics. He is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Image from Golemchik by Will Exley (Nobrow, 2015)

The Jews living in Prague in the sixteenth century suffered pogrom after violent pogrom, and so their leader, Rabbi Judah Loew prayed to God for a way to protect his people. In a dream, God showed the rabbi how to craft a golem from the clay of a riverbank, how to animate him by using one of the secret magical names of God inscribed on parchment and placed in the mouth of the form. There was one caveat, however: Rabbi Loew could not use his Golem on the Sabbath, when all work is forbidden.

One Sabbath, Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the parchment from the Golem's mouth, and because the Golem was a creature of magic, he became an abomination. Raging and out of control, the Golem killed many people, Jew and gentile, before Rabbi Loew was able to remove the scrap of parchment, disabling the man-made monster. Terrified of his creation, Rabbi Loew hid the creature away in the attic of the Old New Synagogue, where it remains, according to legend, to this day.

The Golem story is a cautionary tale. One should not attempt to play God, it says. This myth enters pop culture most notably in Mary Shelly's 1818 Frankenstein, which is considered one of the first modern works of science fiction. While the settings and characters are different, the story shares many similarities: Dr. Frankenstein, like Rabbi Loew, sets out to create life from non-life, only to lose control of his creation. Both stories end with the creature waging brutal violence on innocents. We see this plot again in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which Hal 9000, a sentient computer, is the ultimate golem: created by man, the computer gains independence from his creators and murders the crew of The Discovery. I'm not sure if Kubrick was familiar with the Golem of Prague story—I suspect he was—but if you re-watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and look carefully, you can spot the exact moment the scientists forget to pull the parchment from Hal's mouth, so to speak, and lose control of their creation.

In John Carpenter's Terminator, another computer called Skynet gains sentience and instantly decides humanity is a plague that needs to be wiped out. It initiates a nuclear war and sends very human-looking robots to destroy the survivors, golems if there ever were. The story repeats in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, where replicants are not only indistinguishable from humans but smarter and stronger too. When the replicants discover they are not real humans and will soon die, they react violently. In the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, the cylons, also indistinguishable from humans, initiate nuclear war a la Skynet in order to gain freedom from humanity's yoke. In last year's Ex Machina, a very humanlike robot uses human empathy to manipulate a stand-in for the viewer, to horrific ends. As these stories approach the present day, the golems appear more and more human, their rebellions ever more and more violent and absolute.

But the myth doesn't end with fiction. The golem has entered the realm of plausibility. Visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk warned of runaway artificial intelligence, "We have to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon." In other words, we have to be careful we don't into being a creature we cannot control, a creature who will wreak violence upon us. The name for that creature is Golem. It is Skynet and it is Hal 9000 and it is Frankenstein's monster, and it's Rabbi Loew's Golem all over again.

So if we are God's golems, as it were, created from clay and filled with the spirit of life, what does that say about our most popular golem stories, where the created one rebels against its creator, often obliterating him? These golem stories, taken in this context, can be viewed as powerful reflections of our shifting relationship with the Creator and how we are continuing to question and challenge the role of God in our lives, certainly a very Jewish thing to do.

Matthew Kressel is a short fiction writer and the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan with Ellen Datlow. His first novel, King of Shards, was released October 2015 from Arche Press.

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Max Baer, Real and Imagined

Thursday, March 31, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jay Neugeboren shared his personal list of the Jewish sports heroes that made him feel more American. Jay is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I grew up during the years of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the forties and fifties, and I rooted especially for the handful of their Jewish players: Cal Abrams, Al “Goodie” Rosen, Sandy Koufax, and third base coach, Jake Pitler. I also rooted for Jewish athletes who were prominent in other sports: football, basketball, wrestling, tennis, table tennis, and boxing.

In boxing, my great hero was Max Baer, who, though he wore a Star of David on his boxing trunks, was only one quarter Jewish. His grandfather, of French-Jewish ancestry, was a butcher, and named his sons for the tribes of Israel. Max’s father, Jacob, was a butcher too, and his early education took place in Jewish schools.

Baer became a professional boxer in 1929. One year later, in a bout that scarred his heart forever, he knocked out a fighter named Frankie Campbell. Campbell, whose brother, Dolph Camilli, later became a star first-baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, never woke up, and died that night. Max was severely distraught, and in later years quietly put three of Campbell’s children through college.

In 1933, Baer, a contender for the heavyweight championship, fought against “Hitler’s boxer,” Max Schmeling, before more than 60,000 people, and it was for this fight—because of his anger at the news coming out of the Third Reich, and his pride in being part-Jewish—that he first put a Star of David on his boxing trunks, an emblem he would wear in every fight after that.

Schmeling was heavily favored, but Baer defeated him easily, and the referee stopped the fight in the tenth round, and awarded Baer the victory by technical knockout. But Baer, ever a showman, had his great moment just before the fight’s end. When he had Schmeling on the ropes, he called out, for all the newspaper reporters to hear: “This one’s for Hitler!” Then, in the lingo of the ring, he rang Max Schmeling’s bell.

One year later, Baer defeated Primo Carnera for the heavyweight championship of the world. Again the showman, at the weighing-in ceremony, Baer began plucking hairs from Carnera’s chest. “He loves me . . . he loves me not,” Baer said. During the fight, when Carnera dragged Baer to the canvas with him, Baer called out, for all to hear: “Last one up’s a sissy.”

Baer lost the championship a year later to James Braddock, but continued to fight until 1941, when he enlisted in the Army. His lifetime record was 72 wins (more than 50 by knockout), and twelve defeats.

Baer was also a movie star, and appeared, opposite Myrna Loy, in his first movie, The Prizefighter and the Lady, in 1933, and in nearly two dozen movies after that, the last one, The Harder They Fall, with Humphrey Bogart, in 1956. He also played the vaudeville circuit, often with another Jewish fighter, one-time light heavyweight champion, “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom.

Max Baer had three children by his third wife (including Max Baer Jr., of Beverly Hillbillies fame), and affairs with many women, including Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Mae West. He died at the age of 50.

Small wonder I was enchanted by this man, and by his wild, wonderful, and improbable life. And so I invited him to be a character in my novel, Max Baer and the Star of David. Although in the novel, all the data is accurate, the character of Baer is invented. I have also given Max two close friends: Horace and Joleen Littlejohn, a black couple—Horace as Max’s Man Friday and sparring partner; Joleen as Max’s housekeeper and tutor to his children—as well as a son, Horace Littlejohn Jr.

While non-fiction generally deals with the world of the probable, fiction deals with the world of the possible. Thus, a biography of Max Baer might aim to show us what his life was probably like, whereas my novel shows us what it might possibly have been but never was. The latitude and longitude of my novel true, but the life I’ve given to him is invented.

My hope is that the invented Max Baer of my novel will, for readers, be at least as real as if the real Max Baer had never existed.

Jay Neugeboren is the author of nearly two dozen books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, four collections of award-winning stories, and his most recent novel, Max Baer and the Star of David.

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