The ProsenPeople

Dispatch from South Africa's First Jewish Literary Festival, Part I

Monday, August 08, 2016 | Permalink

Recently invited to speak at South Africa’s first-ever festival of Jewish literature, Anne Landsman shares the story of her visit and the discoveries she made there as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The first-ever Jewish Literary Festival in South Africa took place in Cape Town on May 22, 2016 at the Community Center on Hatfield Street, not too far from the gardens that were planted by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s to feed their sailors fruits and vegetables en route to the East, thereby bringing European settlers to the tip of Africa for the first time.

This Jewish campus, which includes the Gardens Shul (celebrating its 175th anniversary this year), the Jacob Gitlin Library, the Holocaust Center, the Jewish Museum, and the Café Riteve, is in the very heart of the city, close to the Houses of Parliament, close to where my grandmother once lived, close to the student digs I shared when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town. It is also near Highlands House, Cape Town’s Jewish home for the aged, where my mother spent her last days. I had not been back to South Africa since she died in 2010 and was longing to return, so when I was invited to participate in the Jewish Literary Festival, I jumped at the opportunity.

I left South Africa in 1981 and moved to New York City, where I have lived ever since. The Jewish population of New York is 1.1 million, by recent counts, while the Jewish population of Cape Town is around 16,000 souls. Roughly 90 percent of the 80,000 Jews who live in South Africa are of Lithuanian descent, making the South African Jewish community the largest pocket of Litvaks in the world.

As a New Yorker and an Upper West Sider, I take the availability of Jewish life with its vast array of diverse religious and cultural offerings for granted. What would it be like to return to the small, tight-knit community I had known as a young person? And what would the community’s response be to this inaugural celebration of local Jewish culture?

When I asked Cindy Moritz, one of the festival’s founders along with Joanne Jowell and Viv Anstey, why it had come into being now, she explained that nothing like it had existed in the community before, and that, in partnership with the Gitlin Library, it was intended to elevate the profile of Jewish books and literature, emphasizing their role in Jewish culture as well as in the greater society.

“The other answer,” she continued, “is that the political climate has meant the Jewish community is often linked to dissent and negativity when it comes to Israel and reports on the Middle East. This is an opportunity to remind the wider populace of an aspect of cultural value that the Jewish people have contributed in the past, and do still add here and around the world. It seeks to be non-political and non-religious, to embrace all who want to participate.”

Read Part II of Anne Landsman’s dispatch here »

Anne Landsman is the author of The Rowing Lesson, a 2009 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

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New Reviews August 5, 2016

Friday, August 05, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council

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Back into the Beyond

Wednesday, August 03, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leigh Stein talked about domestic abuse in the Jewish community with Sarah Rothe, direct services coordinator at Shalom Bayit of the Bay Area. Leigh is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My memoir, Land of Enchantment, is about an abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, and the death of my ex-boyfriend Jason in a motorcycle accident, just a few weeks after I saw him for the last time and finally felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. From 2007 to 2008, we lived together in New Mexico, whose state nickname is the “Land of Enchantment.” This is a poem I wrote in 2009. I was on vacation in New Mexico, by myself, and Jason called out of the blue, as if he knew I was there, though there’s no way he could have known. Our lives always seemed destined to collide; I couldn’t see then how, and if, I would ever really be free of him.

My favorite thing to do in New Mexico is drive by
the places where we were once in love with each other.

Most animals would never do this. If you gave a chihuahua
the keys to your car and said, Go, it would not drive

along to its memory, that broken record, that cheap
date. Chihuahuas do not build shrines to mistakes.

They do not gauge their success based on what they said
they would be doing in five years five years ago. Last night

I read that three chihuahuas saved a three-year-old
girl from a mountain lion, and there's yet another

trait that differentiates me from said animal.
I read about the women buried in a mass grave

on the West Mesa, how a dog discovered the bones
of Michelle Valdez, and now the people who call

the police hotline can only offer premonitions.
Whenever I read anything, I'm sure it is about me.

I'm also sure the worst things to happen are those
we could never imagine, and so it is unlikely I will be

threatened by a mountain lion tonight, or thrown
in an unmarked grave by a man who has hired me for sex.

My favorite thing to do in New Mexico is drive
and try to describe the landscape in my mind,

so if some day I go blind, I'll still be able to visit
the terrain by chanting terra cotta yonder yonder

like a spell cast by a magic student who has no
idea what she's doing. Like a prayer to the party

responsible. The only thing we ever had in common
was making the choices that would net the best stories and

when you called, I was back where we started, watching
the sun crown the hills. I was going to ask if for the past

two years you've been living in your memory, too, but you
interrupted to say you'd enlisted, and here it was, the unimaginable

I'd never imagined, a premonition of violence, a reason
to drive until I was out of range, off the map.

Leigh Stein’s work has appeared in Allure, Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Hairpin, Poets & Writers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. Leigh is currently on tour with her new book, Land of Enchantment, for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network.

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Book Cover of the Week: Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Tuesday, August 02, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Yes, there's a new Michael Chabon novel coming out November 2016. And yes, it's good.

You'd better be prepared to pry this one out of your loved ones' grasp and gaze to get them to the table this Thanksgiving: Moonglow is an utterly absorbing "tale of madness and model rocketry, of war and adventure, of love and desire, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishments at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies." From the Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Floridian retirement communities to penal colonies at home and war camps abroad, Chabon's newest journey proves well worth the wait.

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Interview with Sarah Rothe, Direct Services Coordinator at Shalom Bayit

Monday, August 01, 2016 | Permalink

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, the poetry collection Dispatch from the Future, and a new memoir, Land of Enchantment, out this week from Plume. With the release of her book, Leigh is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My memoir Land of Enchantment is about an abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, and the death of my ex-boyfriend in a motorcycle accident just a few weeks after I saw him for the last time and finally felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. While it’s easy to think that intimate partner violence is something that happens to other people in other communities, the reality is that one in four Jewish women will experience physical, psychological, or sexual abuse in her lifetime. I recently spoke with Sarah Rothe at Shalom Bayit, an organization in California that is working to end domestic violence in Jewish homes.

Sarah is a licensed clinical social worker who works one-on-one and in groups with clients in the Bay Area Jewish community who have experienced relationship abuse.

Leigh Stein: Can you tell me a little bit about the background of Shalom Bayit's founding?

Sarah Rothe: Shalom Bayit was founded almost 25 years ago, as a women's collective. Naomi Tucker was one of the founding members. She had been working in the domestic violence field and really wanted to reach out to the Jewish community, especially to combat the myth that there isn't domestic violence in the Jewish community. The organization has evolved over the years: today we provide direct individual counseling, and we have a helpline that's free and confidential. We offer support groups throughout the Bay Area, serving nine counties, that incorporate Jewish spiritual healing, focusing on holidays and rituals from a lens of feminism or anti-violence.

LS: I think there’s this myth across all communities that domestic violence doesn’t happen to us, it happens to others. Why do you think that is?

SR: There are a variety of reasons for that myth. I think some of it is socioeconomic stereotypes: people tend to believe that this is a problem of a family that's very disadvantaged or may have issues with addiction. All of those things could be true in the Jewish community, but it’s not usually a stereotype of a Jewish family. There's also a stereotype of Jewish men as more learned, less macho. That tends to be a trope, right? Even in the media, the Jewish guys tend to be nerdier, skinnier, and women are domineering Jewish wives who boss people around. That's not necessarily true in real families, but it's perpetuated in the media.

I think also there's this idea that someone who is a stand-up community member can't be doing this at home, in private. Unfortunately, that's not true at all. It's hard to reconcile that idea of a respected member of a community exerting power and control and dominating at home, possibly committing physical violence toward their partner.

LS: What's the hardest part of your job?

SR: The hardest part is helping women feel that they're not alone, and also combatting the shame in one's experience. Because it's a small community and everyone knows each other, it can be hard for them to come for help.

The size of the community is blessing and a curse. We have a Rabbinic Advisory Council with 80 signed on, agreeing to collaborate actively with us, and we have a sermon campaign. There are some synagogues that don't participate—there is sometimes a lack of larger support in a synagogue, or even in the community's interpretation of the Talmud or Jewish texts, if its leaders or constituents are pushing the idea of maintaining a marriage no matter what—but others take it to heart and are very vocal about women's rights and non-violence.

LS: What's the most rewarding part of your job?

SR: Seeing people move towards healing and the relief that they get when they connect with us and feel held. Especially around the holidays. We do a Chanukah adopt-a-family program, which is anonymous on both sides: a family or a congregation or a temple school class takes on a family, or an individual leaving an abusive relationship. That's a really tangible way to feel the community cares for these families.

LS: And what was the evolution or impetus to create a program for young adults?

SR: Unfortunately, statistics show that young people are even more at risk for abusive relationships than adults. Our focus is not just responding after the crisis, but providing prevention; our mission is to foster the social change necessary to eradicate violence in the Jewish community. Treatment can help, but to work toward eradicating it, we need to educate the next generation before they get into these relationships.

LS: Although my memoir is about a heterosexual relationship, I don't want to reinforce the common misconception that domestic violence only affects women in heterosexual relationships. Is there anything you'd like to add from your extensive experience working with the LGBTQ community in particular?

SR: Domestic violence happens at the same rates in all communities, whether that's Jewish or Christian, heterosexual or LGBT. I think there are additional barriers to speaking up about abuse if you are not in a heterosexual relationship. So much research on domestic violence came out of the feminist movement in terms of battered women, and that can be alienating if that's not your experience. The whole movement is now trying to redirect and scale to support the LGBT community. Domestic violence can happen between two women and it can happen between two men. It can be harder to get into a shelter, as most support women with children—some don't take single women at all without children. There are very, very few shelters for gay male victims. And there are so many additional barriers to calling the police if you're a man who's been abused, because of stereotypes.

There are also additional layers of shame, if you have to come out about your sexuality, if you're not already out, at the same time as coming out about your abuse. One of my female clients was abused by a female partner (outside the Bay Area) and the police refused to document it as domestic violence. They named it as some kind of other assault or altercation, but didn't acknowledge that it was a relationship with her partner, which affected her ability to get services and recourse later.

LS: I think one of the hardest things to understand about this topic is that to an outsider it seems so clear. Why does she stay with that guy? Why doesn't she leave? But on the inside of a relationship, it's extremely complex and potentially dangerous. Do you have any advice for friends or family members who are concerned that someone they love might be in an abusive relationship?

SR: My advice is usually to support and listen to that friend, and validate their experience. Listen to what they're sharing and remind them that it's not their fault. A lot of times, abusive partners will tell the people they hurt, "I wouldn't have exploded, if you hadn't pushed me..." And those being abused often start to believe that is true.

Healing starts with hearing "You never deserve to be abused like this, no matter what you've done. There are resources out there to help you.” But don’t push. Your support should not be contingent upon their leaving the relationship. Leave it up to your friend, who has maybe not been able to make decisions because of the dynamic of control in their relationship. Let them decide for their own future.

Leigh Stein’s work has appeared in Allure, Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Hairpin, Poets & Writers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. Leigh is currently on tour with her new book, Land of Enchantment, for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network.

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Friday, July 29, 2016 | Permalink

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Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for July 2016

Thursday, July 28, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Salma Falah





 This month, I am reading Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown. This book is about a young Jewish woman in 1935 and her relationship with her mother. It highlights strong women during harsh times. This book is very well written and very interesting. Even though I am only halfway through, I enjoy her detailed writing style. I recommend it to people who enjoy strong female leads.

I am also reading Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon. This book portrays strong women in the early twentieth century. I am only in beginning, but so far it is extremely well written.


 This month, I am reading Imagine That by Mark Fins. This is a memoir that takes place in Bayside, Queens in 1957. Since I grew up in Bayside in that time period, this book especially resonated with me. I enjoyed the main characters fertile imagination. I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a light read.

I am also reading Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. This book follows the lives of three different women in 1939. The writing is clear and concise, and it is an interesting read. I recommend it to people who like the time period of WWII.


This July I fell in love with Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear, a sylphic novel on the power and powerlessness of parents, children, writers, and their translators, set in contemporary Brazil. I read it one summery gulp.


The Big Lie is a YA look at the world if the Nazi's had won World War II, the focus of the book is on Jessika, who is an exemplary daughter of a high Nazi official. But she struggles with her limited world view when her best friend forces her to confront the world and the lies she has been told, as well as her confusion over her sexuality. The book is fast-paced, compelling, and forces the reader to confront the idea that the world they have always been taken as a given a lie.

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Spies—in the Galapagos Islands?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Allison Amend shared the facts she had about the real Frances Conway and how she became the protagonist of Enchanted Islands. Allison is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

My latest novel, Enchanted Islands, is about the life story of an unlikely spy, a middle-aged Jewish woman who travels to the Galápagos Islands with her husband, Ainslie, a naval intelligence officer, to spy on the Germans living there.

My protagonist Frances Conway (based on a real-life resident of the Galápagos Islands, though perhaps not a spy, and perhaps not Jewish) may not be Mata Hari or a member of the Bletchley Circle, but she had her small but important role to play in the underreported South American theater: South America, and specifically the Galápagos Islands, was the site of myriad covert activities in during World War II.

The Galápagos Islands are of strategic naval importance. 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, they played a significant role in the United States’ victory in the War of 1812: Captain David Porter captured three armed British whaling vessels that had stopped at the Islands to gather fresh water and tortoises to put in the hold to feed its men. (There’s an apparently apocryphal story that sailors put mail in the Floreana Island post office barrel with their destination, which allowed the United States to find them).

Flash forward about 120 years or so and the Galápagos were again a strategic stronghold. The United States feared that the Japanese navy would muster in the Galápagos and from there attack the Panama Canal, which would have crippled American supply lines. In response, the United States Air Force built a base on the Island of Seymour North, or Baltra, familiarly known as The Rock.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, rumors were swirling that Hitler had included South America in his plans for world domination sooner rather than later. German spies had infiltrated Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and other countries, engaging in intelligence gathering and subterfuge. Additionally, Spain was transferring paper intelligence and equipment from South America to Berlin. Roosevelt possessed what was likely a British forgery of a map purporting to show Hilter’s plans to divvy up South America among the Axis powers and subsequently invade northward. Roosevelt used this map to help convince America to enter the war; it was essentially the Niger yellowcake document of the previous century.

When the real Frances and Ainslie Conway moved to the Galápagos Islands in 1937, they lived for six months on Santiago Island with an Ecuadorian family and a lone Norwegian for company. After six months, they were forcibly moved by the Ecuadorian government to Floreana, which had a history of housing Germans (though by the time Frances and her husband arrived, there was only one German family left). The speculation that Frances and Ainslie were government agents sent to spy is based in part on Ainslie’s military past and an anonymous feasibility study for an air base on Floreana Island, which he most likely authored.

In making my fictional Frances Conway a Jewish spy, I placed her in a situation where she must lie about her culture and religion. As the stakes get higher and higher (at one point, the United States’ security is at risk), the tension this subterfuge creates stresses her to near her breaking point, forcing her to draw on reserves she wasn’t aware she possessed to save the day.

A graduated of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Allison Amend is the author of Things That Pass for Love, Stations West, and A Nearly Perfect Copy. She is currently on tour with her new book, Enchanted Islands, for the 2016 – 2017 through the JBC Network.

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Book Cover of the Week: Leaving Lucy Pear

Tuesday, July 26, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Happy pub day to Anna Solomon on the release of Leaving Lucy Pear! I love the book cover (and the story behind it, which you will be able to read in Jewish Book Council's interview with the author later this summer) on the American edition, but the edition for English readers abroad is also worth a gander:

If either book cover isn't enough to whet your literary appetite, read the novel's opening scene!

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Here's What I Know About the Real Frances Conway

Monday, July 25, 2016 | Permalink

With the recent release of her new novel, Enchanted Islands, Allison Amend is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“Wait, so you just made her Jewish?”

When people hear that I based my most recent novel, Enchanted Islands, on a real person, they immediately want to know how much I made up and how much is true to life.

Here’s what I know about the real Frances Conway: she wrote and published two memoirs about her time in the Galapagos before and after the Second World War. She died in 1968 in Los Gatos, California.

I attempted to research her, but was unable to find out much about her other than where she was buried. (There’s a rumor that she and her husband were spying on the Germans who lived there, but it’s unsubstantiated). That’s it. Not a lot to go on.

Frances’s memoirs are interesting both because they are the story of living on a deserted island, but also for what they leave out: any personal information. Nowhere does she mention her motivation for moving to an island in the middle of the Pacific. Nowhere does she talk about how she and her husband—who was 11 years her junior—met or got together, and she gives only the vaguest sketch of their lives before the islands.

I have no evidence that she was Jewish, though her books are dedicated to “Rosaline and Clarence Fisher.” So why make her Jewish? I was interested in the rivalry between German and Eastern European Jews at the turn of the century in this country. What it would mean to this character to have to hide her religion for the sake of her job; what tensions would that create within her? I was also interested in exploring the two women’s changing attitudes toward Judaism— Rosalie, raised without much religion, becomes observant, while Frances, raised in a traditional household, abandons many of the traditions she grew up with.

At readings and online, people want to know why, if I knew so little about the real Frances Conway, did I not just change her name? I wanted to honor the spirit I discovered in her memoirs—an intrepid woman who lived during a tumultuous time in history and whose sense of adventure (and humor, and ability to laugh at herself) buoyed her through. I’m hoping that a renewed interest in her memoirs allows others to fall in love with her as I have.

A graduated of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Allison Amend is the author of Things That Pass for Love, Stations West, and A Nearly Perfect Copy. She is currently on tour with her new book, Enchanted Islands, for the 2016 – 2017 through the JBC Network.

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