The ProsenPeople

Interview: Sarah Wildman

Thursday, January 15, 2015 | Permalink

by Annette Gendler

Sarah Wildman’s Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, her story of looking for the woman her grandfather left behind, is a page turner. This is particularly commendable as readers will generally know the history of the Holocaust. The book, with its recounting of sometimes frustrating, exhausting, and contentious research efforts, ultimately is a memorial to one Holocaust victim’s fate.

Wildman’s doctor grandfather fled Austria in 1938, right after the Anschluss, along with his immediate family, while Valy, “the true love of his life,” as Wildman’s grandmother later called her, hurried back home to Czechoslovakia. Years after her grandfather’s death, American-born Wildman discovers a cache of documents labeled “Patients A-G.” It harbors Valy’s letters, full of love and, as time goes on, full of desperation. The letters end in 1941. Wildman sets out to find what happened.

Annette Gendler: What sent you on this quest to find out what happened to Valy?

Sarah Wildman: The discovery of the letters was, for me, immediately an opportunity to allow one person to narrate her story, as it was happening to her. Letters give readers a sense of what life was really like during this dark time—as it was being experienced. I wanted to use that immediacy and layer her words against my research on the restrictions that stripped her of her right to live a normal life.

AG: Why do you think it is important to some of us of the second or third Holocaust generation to piece together these stories of the past? Why this obsession to dig through archives to figure out the story of someone who’s not even a family member?

SW: This is the crux of the quest – how does the past inform our present? And our future? What do we need to know about the past to understand our identities today? For me allowing Valy to speak was incredibly important on two levels: First, the Nazi effort was to erase these voices, as well as these people, and here was this chance to upend that erasure, in some small, intimate way. Second, I knew Valy’s words were censored, but I set out to place them as much as possible in context – the restrictions, the day-to-day humiliations, the total terror of the time – so that, by immersing myself both in her world of words and her world of deprivation, I might start to understand what this period really was like, and then try to understand what it means for me. I have so often wondered who I would have been and what would have happened.

These were the words of a woman who felt so modern, so relatable, I wondered if telling her story would rescue a voice that might be a bridge to that period. You are correct – she is not a family member. The book is often called a family memoir – but in reality it is the un-family memoir. It is the family that wasn’t. The life my grandfather didn’t live, the woman he didn’t marry, so it’s not so strange to wonder who she was. Had he taken that path, I wouldn’t be here. Her very existence speaks to the tenuousness of all our lives, with or without war, and how we are here based on the choices of those who came before us, as well as geopolitical forces beyond their and our control.

AG:Your book speaks to the power of place. You went to some pains to visit places like Troppau, where Valy was from, even though you knew it would be greatly altered. Why was it so important for you to “be, simply, in Troppau, wander there, maybe run into elderly people, maybe catch some glimpse of the life of the late 1930s, navigate the city?” Why did you need to know exactly where her mother’s shoe store had been? Can’t a house be just a house?

SW: I love this question. For me this became a journey about what the French call – lieux de memoire – places of memory. I wanted to see how cities had gone on being cities, how they had swallowed up what had come before. It was like a walking archeological dig: there are layers of history in each place, and most often people have no idea at all what came before. But I wanted to see – as much as possible – what Valy and my grandfather saw as they walked out the door. If I could stand on the Ringstrasse and hear what they said to each other as the tram passed them by, on that early spring night just before the Anschluss, if I could walk into the courtyard of the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, if I could stand where she had once lived, I could feel that much more their presence. Also I wanted to see places where great trauma had taken place that were not concentration camps. There’s a moment when I realized that the last building where Valy’s mother worked in Berlin was a day care center and the children were deported while their mothers were at their factories. The image of this destroyed child-care center, on a street that is now filled with cool shops and art galleries, was unbelievably devastating for me.

AG: Paper Love also strikes me as a search for a lost culture, your grandfather’s Vienna. Do you feel, after spending so much time in the Vienna of today, that you have a better understanding of your grandfather’s world of the 1930s? Have you been able to reconcile, for yourself, your affinity for this city even though it is fraught with uncomfortable encounters, such as the still vandalized Jewish cemetery?

SW: I have often thought that what must have been most discomforting to my grandmother was not necessarily just the idea of Valy, though of course there was that, but that she could never exactly know the world from which my grandfather had come – not only because she wasn’t born there, but because so much that made vibrant Jewish Vienna so vibrant had ceased to exist after the war. Sure, there were Jews who returned, and yes, there were some Jews who remained. But the city of my grandfather’s youth had been leached of that breath and vitality that he had so thrived upon.

When I first visited Vienna, it felt so museum like, I couldn’t quite see how I would ever survive there. And then it began to open up for me; I began to love the streets, the streetcars, the difficulty. Surely, in part, the reason that I fell in love with Vienna was as much the obvious bits – the art, the Naschmarkt, the architecture, the opera – as that I had the marvelous opportunity to make friends there. With them I was able to navigate the city, and discuss its problems, in an honest way, with those who are of the third generation of Austria and Germany as well as Jews. Indeed, the night after I went to that cemetery, I went out with two close friends, and we talked well into the night. Without them the experience would have been far lonelier, and more terrifying. Strangely enough, later I realized the bar we ended up at that night was across the street from the grocery store my grandfather’s half-brother had once owned. Places of memory, everywhere.

AG: Your title, Paper Love, captures not only the trove of love letters that form the heart of the book, but also the fact that often a “small mention in [a] file […] might simply be the only evidence that a person lived at all.” Do you find it troublesome that our paperless generation won’t leave a paper trail? Nothing tangible?

SW: I have often thought that it is a shame that my children will not know the simple joy of, first, receiving a letter in the mail, and then, years later coming across that letter, and remembering who you were then, and who the letter writer was. I am of the generation that had a brief dalliance with paper and pen – when I lived in Jerusalem in college, I regularly exchanged letters with friends, all of which are still in a box in my parents’ home. I have the letters from high school, telling of loves and hates and stories all in a way a bit more conscious than we are now, in a our often disposable email world. So yes, I think we are strangely almost erasing ourselves, even in our crazy over-documented lives.

AG: Why did you choose to wrap up the book with the postwar years of your wider family, the stories of “unhappy survival,” rather than ending it with Valy?

SW: I wanted to come back, in some way, to the other people of the box, and also to the legacy of my grandfather’s previous life, and the choices they made after the war to suppress so many of their stories. I felt that to better understand their silence, you needed to see that there was a brief moment that they spoke of their pain in 1945, 1946 and then it was as if a collective decision was made to end that conversation, forever. But I wanted to know how those relationships had reconnected after an eight year silence, after the European apocalypse had taken place. For so many of them, they never had what Americans like to call “closure” – they never knew exactly what their loved ones had gone through. And that must have haunted them.

AG: After all this work, do you feel you understand your grandfather better? Or did your work, in the end, leave you with more questions that you wish you could have asked him?

SW: Honestly, both. I believe I now know far better the real man, versus the two-dimensional picture I had as his granddaughter. But I also want to know a great deal more, particularly how was he able to know what he knew, to have experienced what he had experienced, and still forever look forward, forever live with such optimism, with such joy? There is a letter towards the end of the book, written to his childhood best friend Bruno in 1986, in which he implores Bruno to live with “Entzuecken,” with delight. I love that letter. To live in the moment! How did he do that?

Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer. She has completed a memoir about the impossible love between a German and a Jew that happened twice in her family, once to fail during WWII, and once to succeed in her own life. An excerpt, “Giving Up Christmas,” was published in Tablet Magazine in December 2012. Visit her atwww.annettegendler.com.

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Preserving the Mystery

Wednesday, January 14, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Menachem Z. Rosensaft wrote about life after catastrophe. He is the editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing) and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote an article about Holocaust remembrance entitled “Preserving the Mystery” for the Forward. It was published there on April 28, 1995. I had all but forgotten it, but happened to reread it recently and was struck by its – to me at least – continued relevance and validity. My concerns 70 years after the Holocaust remain much the same as they were on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. And since I am quite certain that no one else will recall it, I decided to republish it here.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, our perspective on the past is undergoing a subtle yet perceptible transformation. Time has not diminished our grief. Our questions, whether addressed to God or to humankind, remain unanswered. But somehow, our horror and outrage seem to have eased, if not lessened. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, Babi Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto. Gas chambers, selections, partisans, yellow stars of David, crematoria, mass-graves. Names, terms and concepts that entered our vocabulary in a dramatic explosion of emotion have become almost too familiar. The sense of awe that once characterized even the most oblique reference to the annihilation of European Jewry has evolved into standardized, often impersonal reactions.

Not too long ago, the study of the Holocaust was the domain of an isolated few, most of whom saw their task as a solemn obligation to the dead. Now, historical accounts and memoirs devoted to this cataclysm, better ones, worse ones, are published regularly. Steven Spielberg's monumental motion picture, "Schindler's List," has made the subject truly fashionable, even trendy. Then there are the countless lectures, courses, sermons, articles. Life in the ghettos, faith in the camps, hidden children, love in the shadow of death, accusations of collaboration with the enemy, death marches, watching loved ones disappear forever, emotional reunions in displaced persons camps, survivors coming to terms with their loss, post-Holocaust trauma. No aspect of the Holocaust is left untouched, undissected.

While many of these works are important and factually accurate contributions to the historical record, others are flawed in a variety of ways. In a desire for drama, an author will occasionally expand on the truth. A minor participant in an uprising may be tempted, in writing his memoirs, to embellish his own role. A publisher, seeking to enhance a forthcoming book's appeal, may urge the writer to add some romance to an otherwise colorless episode. A less than meticulous historian may transpose a given occurrence from Auschwitz to Treblinka in order to streamline a particular argument.

As much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate. The historian who misrepresents it commits a greater transgression than one who shuns the topic altogether. The witness who testifies falsely, who distorts his or her experiences in any manner for even the most benign reason, effectively becomes the accomplice of those who try to deny that the Holocaust ever took place.

This is not to suggest that the current widespread interest in the Shoah is not welcome. But the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.

In Washington, D.C., the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum brings the full magnitude and complexity of the Holocaust into the consciousness of thousands upon thousands of Americans every single week. More than 4 million visitors have been to the museum since its opening two years ago. Most of them are non-Jews. Who among us could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago that American public schools and church groups would make reservations months in advance to visit a Holocaust museum? Who among us could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago that serious scholars would make Holocaust studies a respected academic discipline?

Why, then, is there also a sense of unease? Why am I, for one, not altogether comfortable with the popular appeal that the Holocaust has acquired? Perhaps because the experience must not be allowed to lose its aura of mystery. Objective, cognitive analysis alone is insufficient. As my friend and mentor Elie Wiesel has written, “Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history. What Auschwitz embodied had none.”

The Holocaust transcends ordinary human experience. It is the unprecedented, the unfathomable, and, above all, the inexplicable. Sober chronologies of dates, events and statistics are critical to our understanding but provide only one dimension. Histories of the Holocaust based exclusively or even primarily on German documents convey the intent and actions of the perpetrators but do not adequately reflect the experiences of the victims. Thus, ghetto diaries, underground newspapers and survivors' recollections are essential to any comprehensive narrative. And no one can penetrate the nocturnal universe of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen without absorbing songs, poems, nightmares and prayers that defy all standard historiographic methodology.

A barrack wall at Auschwitz contains the following inscription: “Andreas Rapaport—lived sixteen years.” Try to imagine this boy, realizing that he was about to die, as he tried to leave a sign, a memory of his existence on earth. In truth, Andreas Rapaport was the author of his own eulogy: Andreas Rapaport—lived sixteen years. Andreas Rapaport—abandoned, alone, afraid. Andreas Rapaport—hungry, in pain. Andreas Rapaport—with gas-filled lungs. Andreas Rapaport—burning flesh in the crematorium, black smoke, ashes.

With the passing of time, our mental pictures go out of focus, our collective memories become blurred. We all have memories, even we who were born afterwards. And they were once fresh. When my father told me how he was shot by the Germans while escaping from a moving train bound for Auschwitz, when he told me how his 80-year-old father died in his arms, when he told me how he was tortured in Auschwitz, every one of his experiences was sharply recorded in my mind. He died almost 20 years ago. And I no longer remember his words as clearly as I once did.

We all have memories of when we first realized the enormity of Hitler's Final Solution of the Jewish question, of the first time we tried to imagine members of our own families gasping for air in a gas chamber. But the years have mellowed our reactions. It used to be that we could not sleep for days after seeing a film about the Holocaust. Now, such films are shown on television late at night and no longer have the same impact.

As our knowledge of the Holocaust steadily increases, we must be careful not to become desensitized. As we perpetuate memory, we must also prevent it from becoming commonplace. There are times when even scholars must abandon their dispassion. Remembrance without emotion is hollow, and the dead deserve our anguish.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.

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Internal Dialogue: Book Programs and Community Partnerships

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Sunday morning I had the pleasure of participating in one of the smartest planning events I've seen since coming onto the JBC Network staff. (Book program coordinators, take note: each and every one of our member sites should hold similar sessions—on a regular basis—for your organization's entire staff and lay leadership across all auxiliaries.) Organized and facilitated by Rabbis Joshua Stanton and Karen Perolman of Temple B'nai Jeshurun of Short Hills, NJ, the Temple's first Community Partnerships Meeting brought a roomful of congregation leaders and members face-to-face with representatives from the organizations, agencies, and local businesses that TBJ works with in creating ongoing and innovating programming for Jews of all ages in the area.

Participating TBJ members joined for their active involvement (or interest) in the Temple's groups and auxiliaries, including:
Adult Education
Brotherhood
Early Childhood Center
Prime Time—"If you've got the time, we've got the program"
Religious School
Tikkun Middot—monthly learning around Jewish ethics
Tikkun Olam—community service and social justice programs
Women's Association

Following a round of introductions to familiarize auxiliary leaders with the community partners and the resources they offer—and to help the community partner representatives understand the missions and needs of each TBJ program—a round of planning "speed-dating" ensued: informal private consultations to discuss the opportunities for partnership between TBJ and outside initiatives. Jonah Zimles of Words Bookstore discussed upcoming events with local authors and the bookstore's unique programming for patrons and employees with special needs; Doris Cheng of Writers Studio brainstormed with Prime Time planners on how to increase enrollment in TBJ's writing courses; Beth Sandweiss of the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey emphasized the benefits of mindfulness, musar, and stress relief practices across all ages. The American Jewish Committee addressed the recent events in Europe and, of course, the Jewish Book Council presented anyone interested with our full trove of resources for book programs, from author tours to book clubs to reviews and web media.

The brilliance of this event lay in its tacit recognition of the diverse and often untapped array of opportunities for partnership between a Jewish community, religious, or education center and the organizations it works with. Calling in community partners ordinarily utilized for one specific group to meet with representatives from all of TBJ's programs brought fresh perspectives and sparked new ideas for engaging Temple members: mindful parenting workshops for young parents; a men's book club to revitalize discussion within the Brotherhood auxiliary; intergenerational, interfaith play readings in a local book shop.

It's important to remember—and to remind everyone you work with, across departments—that authors know so much more than the art of writing. They take subject matter and craft it into a story we can't put down, we can't ignore—precisely because those stories are at their core about us, because they hum along to our lives in a voice so distant yet so familiar that we can't help but stop to listen and, consequently, learn about ourselves and the people around us.

That's what a community is, too: the recognition of a common shared experience, with enough differences to effect and encourage learning and growth. Encountering others' family histories and relationships, the universal yet unique tragedies and triumphs that befall or bolster us all in such distinct, such similar ways, and our individual and collective tastes and values shape us personally and as a whole as we connect, disagree, and collaborate with one another. And what better to facilitate that interaction than a really good book?

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Interview: Yossi Klein Halevi

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 | Permalink

by Philip K. Jason

Yossi Klein Halevi's first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, was first published in 1995 and was reprinted in fall 2014. At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land appeared in 2001. His latest book, Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the Jewish Book Council’s 2013 Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award and was released in paperback in fall 2014. Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Philip K. Jason recently spoke with Yossi about his writing and his current project.

Philip K. Jason: In the course of your research and interviews for Like Dreamers, what were your most surprising discoveries?

Yossi Klein Halevi: I was constantly amazed at the intensity of life in Israel, from the very founding of the state. I kept wondering how one small country could contain so much history. One of the characters in the book, Arik Achmon, participated in every one of Israel’s wars, beginning in 1948. Where else does life make such demands on the citizens of a nation? Sometimes it seemed to me as if we were trying to compensate for centuries of Jewish life without sovereignty by cramming as much experience into our national life as possible.

I was struck too by the manic depressive nature of the Israeli experience. In 1967 we were euphoric with victory; in 1973, only six years later, we were in despair. And yet, militarily at least, the Yom Kippur War was in some senses more impressive than the Six Day War.

One pattern emerged in the post-67 story of Israel that has particular relevance today, and that is this: When Israelis feel that the international community is against them, they retreat into hardline positions. When they feel more accepted, they are ready to take risks for peace. The Oslo process was launched in an atmosphere of growing acceptance of Israel, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. By contrast, the settlement movement became mainstream in the weeks following the 1975 UN Zionism-Racism resolution. Israelis pushed back by embracing the settlers.

PKJ: In Like Dreamers, you position yourself as a centrist, someone who is obligated to listen to both (or all) sides – perhaps more than listen. Has this stance helped you gain you access as a journalist?

YKH: Being open to hearing opposing voices gave me emotional access – allowed me to empathize with opposing camps. I moved to Israel at the beginning of the first Lebanon War in 1982, when Israelis were literally shouting at each other on the streets. That was the first time that war had failed to unite the country – worse, the war itself was dividing us. As a new immigrant I had two choices. I could either choose a camp, or learn to listen. I chose the second option and forced myself to listen deeply to what all of Israel’s political and cultural and ethnic groups were really saying. What were the fears of left and right? The visions of Israel being expressed by secularists and religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis? I not only tried to become absorbed into Israeli society, but to absorb Israel, in all its complexity, into my being. That’s how I became an Israeli.

PKJ: I believe it was Jabotinsky who most vigorously argued that social democracy was not and would not be a blessing for Jewish survival. Anti-Semitism would always trump ideological purity. Has that writer-thinker-politician been an influence on your thinking?

YKH: I grew up in the Betar youth movement founded by Jabotinsky: In Betar we called him “Rosh Betar,” head of Betar, a title reserved only for him. So yes, love for Jabotinsky goes deep in me. As for the ideological influence: I support territorial compromise, and Jabotinsky of course was a territorial maximalist. Though I’m not sure that Jabotinsky himself would be a maximalist today. He envisioned solutions for a different time. He was trying to save Europe’s Jews, and Israel was not yet a sovereign state. Today we face threats that Jabotinsky couldn’t imagine.

It’s interesting to go back to the great Jabotinsky-Ben-Gurion debates of the 1930s. Each of them won a different argument. Ben-Gurion won the argument over partition. But Jabotinsky won the argument over what he called the “iron wall” -- the need for a powerful military presence against those who would destroy us. Today we have a literal wall – I see it from my porch on the edge of Jerusalem, bordering the West Bank.

For me, what endures as an example is Jabotinsky’s courage, his willingness to go against the conventional wisdom and try to save Europe’s Jews. He was the only Jewish leader, the only Zionist leader in the 30s, to foresee a coming catastrophe and try to mobilize the Jewish world. He failed of course, and died of a heart attack in 1940.

PKJ: You have taken a close look at Israel’s wars, especially the Six-Day (1967) War, and explored how the conduct and resolution of those wars affected the course of Israel’s identity, political and otherwise. In one way or another, this perennially stressed nation finds ways of reinventing and reimagining itself – sometimes losing its memory in the process. From your own experiences, and from those paratroopers and others whose lives you have researched, what do you see is the most likely direction for the future?

YKH: The question that became increasingly urgent for me as I was writing Like Dreamers is: Where will the next great messianic Jewish dream come from? The story that the book tells is not only about the divide between left and right but about the fate of Israel’s great dreams. Two utopian dreams successively defined Israel. The first was the kibbutz movement, the dream of an egalitarian Israel that would be a laboratory for creating the world’s purest democratic communism. Then came the settlement movement, which believed that the messianic era was upon us. Each of those movements helped shape Israel as we know it – from the country’s borders to the quality of its army. In the end though, both failed to win the trust of mainstream Israel.

We’ve paid a price for the utopian delusions of the Jews. But we’ve also been tremendously energized by these two utopian movements. This is the first time in the history of the state – the history of Zionism – when there is no utopian avant-garde trying to lead the nation. The result is a growing sense of drift among Israelis.

My sense – maybe it’s only a hope – is that the next great outbreak of utopian energy in Israeli society will be spiritual, not political, and will focus on creating the next phase of Judaism. What kind of Judaism will we live as a sovereign people in its land? So far, we’ve mostly imported forms of Judaism that emerged under conditions of a persecuted, ghettoized minority. We need forms of Judaism that are worthy of the profound transformation in Jewish life we’ve experienced over the last two centuries, and especially since the creation of Israel.

PKJ: In Memoirs, you write: “To be an American Jew meant being inherently inauthentic, a spectator to Jewish history.” This outlook grows, in part, out of you experience while in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Do you mean to root this viewpoint in that time, or do you feel that it is a general truth? Is there no Jewish history unfolding in the diaspora?

YKH: That was definitely a reflection of my thinking as a young American Jew. It is certainly not my thinking today. Ironically, I feel more connected to American Jews since becoming an Israeli than I did growing up in America. My American Jewish experience was highly peculiar. I grew up in Borough Park, in a survivor community, on the edges of American Jewish life. I had a great deal of anger against American Jewry. My father, a survivor from Hungary, blamed American Jews for not trying to rescue European Jewry, and I turned his anger into political alienation. That’s why I joined Betar, and then the Jewish Defense League – I deliberately positioned myself on the fringes of American Jewry.

Since moving to Israel, I’ve gotten to know American Jewry far better than I knew it when I was actually living in America. I spend a good deal of time lecturing about Israel in Jewish communities and I’ve come to love and respect American Jewry. Our generation is blessed with two unimaginable Jewish options. The first is to live in a sovereign Jewish state, where we can determine the nature of our public space. The second is to live in the most free and accepted Diaspora in history, where Jews are invited to help shape the public space of the most powerful country in the world. Our great-grandparents would have been amazed if only one of those options had emerged. We are overwhelmed with riches.

PKJ: What are your responsibilities to / benefits from your position as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute?

YKH: I’m a member of the Institute’s iEngage seminar, which creates a curriculum on Israel for Diaspora Jews. iEngage is an attempt to give Diaspora Jews a richer language in speaking about Israel – less political and more conceptual, an attempt to create a shared values conversation.

Also, I co-direct the institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, or MLI, together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University. MLI aims at educating young emerging Muslim American leaders about the meaning of Israel in Judaism and for Jews today. We’ve graduated our first cohort of 15 participants – a remarkable group of people – and we have two new groups.

Along with those responsibilities, I spend my mornings at the institute writing. It’s a wonderful arrangement for a writer.

PKJ: When/why did you add Halevi to your name? [I realize that it could have always been part of your “ritual” name.]

YKH: When my wife, Sarah, and I moved to Israel, we decided to Hebraize our name. We chose Halevi because, well, I’m a Levi, and the Levites were a caste of service in the Temple, playing music, and Sarah and I were drawn to the idea of serving God through creativity. Sarah and I met in a writing program – at City College.

PKJ: Any new book projects on your to do list?

YKH: I’ve just begun a new book project, which is about the Palestinians. I’ll say only that I intend this to be much shorter than Like Dreamers – both in terms of book length and the amount of time I’ll invest in it. Like Dreamers took eleven years to research and write. As we used to say in JDL – never again.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don't Wave Goodbye: The Children's Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.

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Best Friends

Monday, January 12, 2015 | Permalink

Lesléa Newman is the author of 60 books including A Letter to Harvey Milk, Nobody's Mother, Hachiko Waits, Write from the Heart, The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, The Best Cat in the World, and Heather Has Two Mommies. Her most recent book, I Carry My Mother, is now available. She is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“My cello is my oldest friend, my dearest friend.” – Pablo Casals

My pencil is my oldest friend, my dearest friend. We met when my family moved from a 60-unit apartment house in Brooklyn to a four-bedroom house on Long Island. I was eight years old and my world was shattered. In Brooklyn, I could walk to school, Aunt Gussie’s Candy Shop, Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes, and most importantly, to my grandmother’s apartment across the street for a kiss on the keppie and a nosh (her homemade blintzes were to die for). In my Long Island suburban neighborhood, there was nowhere to go. Nothing was in walking distance, and my mother, born and bred in Brighton Beach, had not yet learned to drive. After the bus dropped me off at the end of the school day, I was stuck in the house. The hours between then and the time my father came home from his office in the city and supper was served were endless. My mother watched what she called her stories—“As The World Turns” and “All My Children”—in the living room. My brothers played stickball in the street. And I retreated to my bedroom with a stack of books.

One day, having read everything I had carted home from the school library, I picked up a pencil and began to write. What emerged onto the pages of my black-and-white composition notebook was a long, sad story about a dog being hit by a car. Somehow I knew I needed to make myself cry over all I had lost: my friends, my neighborhood, my independence, a teacher I had especially loved, proximity to my adored and adoring grandmother. The little fluffy dog I killed off in my story was my ticket to my own grief. Alone in my room, I could cry over him, which I did both as I wrote the story and as I read it afterwards. And then strangely, I felt much better. And thus a writer was born.

My pencil kept me company through a lonely childhood, a difficult adolescence, and my tumultuous twenties when I struggled with an eating disorder. I never wrote because I had something to say. I always wrote to see what I had to say. And to this day, I do not write to be understood. I write to understand. Writing is how I make sense of the world: the world inside me, the world outside me, and the relationship between the two.

Though half a century has passed since I wrote the story of the little dog, in many ways I am still that sad little girl who uses her writing to make herself cry. This was especially evident two years ago when I found myself back in my childhood bedroom, having returned to take care of my mother who was suffering from two deadly diseases brought on by her lifelong love affair with nonfiltered Chesterfield Kings: bladder cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). My mother was one tough rugeleh and she expected everyone around her to be tough as well. She insisted that she was fine and didn’t need help, even when her face clenched tight as a fist and she moaned in pain. (“I’m not moaning, I’m kvetching.”) One day, we struck a deal: she promised to tell me the truth about her illness—clearly she was not “fine”—if I promised not to cry. And once again I kept my feelings bottled up until I could creep upstairs to my bedroom where my pencil—my oldest friend, my dearest friend—awaited me. Every night for four weeks, I tucked my mother into the hospital bed we had set up in the living room, cleared away dishes of food she had no appetite for, shut the light, and tiptoed up the stairs. And there in my room, after I sobbed into my pillow so she wouldn’t hear me, I picked up my pencil and wrote a triolet, which is a French poetic form that contains a specific rhyme scheme and repetition pattern.

Why did I choose such a rigid form to write about my mom’s impending death? I didn’t pick the form; the form picked me. Like an old, dear friend, my pencil instinctively knew what I needed to get me through a time that was simply unbearable. The unyielding structure of the triolet not only held my poems together, it held me together. Focusing on rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and line breaks brought me closer to my own grief and distanced me from it at the same time. As I wrote—and rewrote and rewrote—the same words and phrases became a bell of sorrow resounding deep inside me, forcing me to confront what I so desperately wanted to deny. At the same time, focusing on form and struggling with the challenge of fitting all I was feeling into 8-line stanzas with a prescribed pattern, gave me some distance from my emotions which offered a temporary respite from the deepest sadness I have ever known. Writing in this way took a lot of concentration. My pencil knew I had to use my head to pour out my heart. Like a true friend, my pencil saw what I needed and found a way to give it to me.

She was just here and now she’s just gone
In a New York minute I lost my mother
How can the rest of the world carry on?
She was just here and now she’s just gone
On whose loving breast will my head rest upon?
I’ll search all of my life but I won’t find another
She was just here and now she’s just gone
In a New York minute I lost my mother

Excerpted from “The Deal” © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother, Headmistress Press, Sequim, Washington, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Liberation

Monday, January 12, 2015 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“The Messiah,” wrote Franz Kafka in one of his parables, “will only come when he will no longer be needed; he will only come on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.”

On January 27, 1945, when the soldiers of the Red Army entered the three-camp complex of Auschwitz, Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II), and Buna-Monowitz near the southern Polish town of Oświęcim - collectively often referred to simply as Auschwitz - only around 7,000 inmates, many of whom were dying, remained in what had been the largest, most efficient, most diabolical killing site in history. An estimated 1.1 million men, women and children, the overwhelming majority of them Jews but also Poles, Roma and Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war and others, had been systematically murdered there. Among them were my grandparents, my five-and-a-half-year-old brother, and most of the members of my parents’ families. My mother spent over fifteen months at Birkenau. My father, who was first deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in late August of 1943 and then, after escaping and being recaptured, was tortured for months in the notorious Block 11, also known as the Death Block, at Auschwitz.

The liberators had come too late for the dead. And even the living who had passed through Auschwitz-Birkenau were left with unspeakable memories. Upon arrival at Birkenau, Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier testified before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, “We were led to a large shed, then to the disinfecting station. There our heads were shaved and our registration numbers were tattooed on the left forearm. Then we were taken into a large room for a steam bath and a cold shower. In spite of the fact that we were naked, all this took place in the presence of SS men and women. We were then given clothing which was soiled and torn, a cotton dress and jacket of the same material.”

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, men, women and children were herded into gas chambers to suffer an agonizing collective death. Here, the corpses were incinerated in huge crematoria. Sometimes not only the corpses. “One night,” Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier recalled at Nuremberg, “we were awakened by terrifying cries. And we discovered, on the following day … that on the preceding day, the gas supply having run out, they had thrown the children into the furnaces alive." 

To be sure, Auschwitz was not the only Nazi death camp where Jews had been gassed as part of what German government officials euphemistically termed the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec and Sobibor were the other principal annihilation centers the Germans had set up in Poland. But it is Auschwitz-Birkenau that has come to be symbolic of absolute evil: it epitomizes the horrors of both the Holocaust specifically and the broader monstrosities that have become categorized as genocide.

As World War II came to an end, Allied troops liberated other Nazi camps, mostly in April and May of 1945, among them Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau on April 11, Bergen-Belsen on April 15, Sachsenhausen on April 22, Dachau and Ravensbrück on April 29, Mauthausen on May 6, and Terezin on May 8. And in each of these camps, the newly freed prisoners were confronted with a grim and frightening new reality.

“The hand of Adonai came upon me,” declared the prophet Ezekiel. “He took me out by the spirit of Adonai and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live again?’ And I replied, ‘O Lord Adonai, only You know.’ And he said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the words of Adonai.’ Thus said the Lord Adonai Elohim to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.”

In a lecture describing conditions at Bergen-Belsen when that camp was liberated, Lieutenant Colonel M.W. Gonin, the British officer who commanded the 11th Light Field Ambulance during the camp’s liberation, said that there were “at least 20,000 sick suffering from the most virulent diseases known to man, all of whom required urgent hospital treatment and 30,000 men and women who might die if they were not treated, but who certainly would die if they were not fed and removed from the horror camp. What we had not got was nurses, doctors, beds, bedding, clothes, drugs, dressings, thermometers, bedpans or any of the essentials of medical treatment, and worst of all, no common language.”

Within a few days following the liberation, Brigadier H. L. Glyn-Hughes, the Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Army of the Rhine, appointed my mother, a not yet 33-year-old Jewish dentist from Sosnowiec, Poland, who had studied medicine in France, to organize and head a group of doctors and nurses among the survivors to help care for the camp’s thousands of critically ill inmates. She had been sent to Bergen-Belsen from Auschwitz in November 1944 and, together with a group of other Jewish women inmates, had kept 149 Jewish children alive despite the lack of food and a raging typhus epidemic. For weeks on end, my mother and her team of 28 doctors and 620 other female and male volunteers, only a few of whom were trained nurses, worked round the clock with the British military medical personnel to try to save as many of the survivors as possible. Despite their desperate efforts — it was not until May 11, 1945, that the daily death rate fell below 100 — the Holocaust claimed 13,944 additional victims at Bergen-Belsen during the two months after the liberation.

Ezekiel continued, “And He said to me, ‘O son of man, these bones are the whole House of Israel.’ They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, we are doomed.’ Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: ‘Thus said the Lord Adonai: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the Land of Israel . . . . I will put My breath into you and you shall live again ….’”

In due course, Ezekiel’s prophecy would come to pass, but it would take time, considerable time. The end of the war found the survivors alone, mostly abandoned. “For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen,” my mother recalled many years later, “there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”

Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, January 09, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Jews and Their Many Questions

Friday, January 09, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff wrote about how he approaches challenging queries and the benefits of crowdfunding one's book. His book, Jew Got Questions?, is now available. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

One of the first Jewish books I remember reading as a child belonged to my sister; it was the Jewish Book of Why by Alfred Kolatch. Its easy-to-read Q&A style kept me interested enough till the next question. When I began to formulate the idea for my book, I felt the short answer formula was the way to go. I reasoned if people didn't have patience to read a long answer thirty years ago, how much more so today!

As I mentioned in my previous post, writing 'short' answers to 'big' questions carried with it the danger of trivializing questions that need a longer more nuanced response. But the 'Kolatch way' was well received, so why wouldn't mine be?

The more I thought about, the more I realized how much of an important role questions play in Jewish life.

Many of us fondly remember standing as a young child by the Pesach seder asking the four questions. With our parents and grandparents watching us with tremendous pride, our entire introduction to familial Jewish life was through those four questions. Even though we were reading from a script laid out in front of us, we understood that questions were good. We loved them and we sang them.

The ‘four sons’ of the haggadah are also part of the world of questions. We have the ‘wise son,’ the ‘wicked son,’ the ‘simple son,’ and the one who ‘doesn’t know how to ask questions.’ Traditionally we look at the ‘wicked son’ as the worst of the bunch, with his question that is both cynical and disrespectful. Does he really want to learn or is he just asking in order to mock? Either way we give him a response to keep him engaged in the conversation. The best of the bunch, one would expect the ‘wise son’ to be beyond questions and be answering questions the other three sons are posing him, but he too is asking a question, albeit in more respectful and interested manner.

The worst of the four I have come to believe is the last in the list. He sits alone, outside of the conversation, not knowing what is going on and is barely present except for his blank stare at the excited goings-on at the Pesach seder, the son who has no questions. He is a tragic and mute character who is not part of our people as he isn't even inquisitive enough to ask about the strange and foreign rituals he is watching.

Over the years I had heard countless stories of people describing their frustration at not being able to ask questions during their time at Hebrew or Jewish day school. They felt judged or were humiliated by teachers who may have felt threatened by being asked philosophical questions about G-d, Judaism, heaven, hell, or anything else. The fear of asking questions is antithetical to being Jewish. To be part of the people of the book is to take pride in learning and questioning until the truth is revealed.

Why are questions so important? The Maharal of Prague explains that people feel satisfied with their view of life. Thus they are complacent when it comes to assimilating new ideas. But when a person has a question, it is an admission of some lack. This creates an "empty space" to be filled.

Ultimately I wanted to allow the reader to finish reading my few hundred questions and feel confident enough to ask some of their own.

Originally from London, England, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff graduated with honors in political science from Manchester University. After working for MTV in news production, and winning the national competition 'Jewish Stand-Up Comedian' of the Year, Rabbi Hajioff traveled to study in Israel and then Monsey to receive his rabbinical ordination. Rabbi Hajioff is the educational director of Birthright Israel Alumni in Manhattan, New York.

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A New Take on Old Classics: How a Rabbi Approaches Challenging Questions

Wednesday, January 07, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff wrote about the benefits of crowdfunding one's book. His book, Jew Got Questions?, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Rabbis get asked lots of questions. In many cases the answers we provide are not as good as the questions we are asked. I have a saying, "There's no such thing as a stupid question," but believe me there are some pretty stupid answers. Hence my concern with answering three pretty big questions that have either been troubling theologians for thousands of years or have become a concern only over the past few generations.

In no specific order, here are some challenges I faced when tackling these questions.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is the question that, in its many forms, I have been asked the most. It's also the question I least look forward to answering. The best answer to this question that I could give in the book was "I don't know." To even attempt at answering this question is the height of arrogance; however, my publisher was insistent that I pose and tackle this question to the best of my ability. As my publisher put it: "How can you leave out such a question?" How indeed.

Compounding the problem was the style of my book, which is composed of short answers to questions. Can this dilemma be dealt with in a few paragraphs? Ultimately, I added a long preface disclaimer and then gave a number of possible solutions to the answer. Regardless, though, of  whatever answer I attempted to give, the answer was not as good as the question.

According to Judaism, what is the age of the universe?

This question, although only taking up a couple of pages, set the deadline on my book back around three months. This is a topic that is constantly changing with new theories being proposed and new books being written from either a scientific or theological perspective or both! While attempting to answer this question a new book was published by a rabbi in Israel which, despite being rather disappointing, still had to be read and somehow incorporated.

After reading a number of Jewish books on the topic, I felt I needed to read an updated book or two from the scientific world. Luckily my chavruta (learning partner) is a doctor with a keen interest in this field. He selected books for me to read and ended up helping me write most of the answer, although I still had to deal with the publisher who had their own editor they had chosen to review all of my answers.

After much back and forth with the publisher we found a common ground. I ended up taking an approach which I felt would be best appreciated and, quite frankly, understood by any reader from my target audience.

Why can't I marry my non-Jewish partner?

The challenge here was that I know many of my readers are in fact intermarried or children of intermarried parents. The last thing I wanted to do was offend them, or make them feel any less Jewish. Like the first question, answering this question in a 'rational' manner is a challenge because the question is invariably 'emotional.' In other words, the questioner is really saying "I'm in love, why are you rabbis against me marrying the person I'm in love with?" No real answer was going to suffice on an emotional level.

However, with intermarriage rates at 53% and with so many young Jewish men and women dating someone not Jewish, I felt I had to tackle this question head on. Ultimately, it was my work with many people who are dating a non-Jew or who are married to one that led me to write an answer that I believe delicately but unapologetically gave some perspectives on this question.

Originally from London, England, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff graduated with honors in political science from Manchester University. After working for MTV in news production, and winning the national competition 'Jewish Stand-Up Comedian' of the Year, Rabbi Hajioff traveled to study in Israel and then Monsey to receive his rabbinical ordination. Rabbi Hajioff is the educational director of Birthright Israel Alumni in Manhattan, New York.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Book of Jonah

Wednesday, January 07, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

JBC Network author Joshua Max Feldman recently announced the release of a paperback edition of his debut novel, The Book of Jonah, later this month. The new cover echoes the eye-catching yet simple spine of the original hardcopy—an excellent example of how book covers are created out of design rather than illustration:

The novel follows an ambitious corporate lawyer as he becomes more and more disoriented by curious and terrifying visions he is unable to interpret, finding a brief moment of clarity only in a chance encounter with a tragedy-worn woman he will never find again.

Don't miss the Jewish Book Council's review of this "profoundly contemporary rumination on the binary of evil and truth," and grab the paperback as soon as it's out!

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