The ProsenPeople

The Poet of Thompson Street

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joseph Helmreich wrote about writing what you know—and what you don’t. With the release of his debut novel, The Return, Joseph is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Photo: Martin Duffy

In the summer of 2006, fresh from a brief stint at Hebrew University, I took an internship as a script-reader for a New York film studio, hoping to jumpstart a career in the “pictures.”

To my surprise, life at the studio turned out to be fairly mellow. Sure, at any moment you could be asked to read a novel, screen the upcoming film based on that novel, and turn in “coverage” of both by morning. But by and large, it was a far cry from the hustle and bustle glamorized in shows like Entourage. Mostly, interns read scripts and books at our leisure, dreamily escaping into other writers’ fantasies while marveling at how their hotshot agents had let the material loose with multiple typos and incorrect formatting.

When it came time for lunch, though, I’d indulge in a different sort of escapism. Since kosher food in the neighborhood was scarce, I would make my way to NYU’s Weinstein cafeteria where, dining amongst students and professors alike, I would live out the cosmopolitan NYU experience I never had. On the walk there and back, I would soak up the bars and cafes of MacDougal Street, the crowds and buskers of Washington Square Park, the famed, past-their-prime rock clubs of Bleecker Street.

I always paid particular attention to coffee shops, eager to spot any of the distinguished philosophers I’d studied in college (NYU has the highest-ranked philosophy program in the world). Once, glancing into a café window on University Place, I thought I’d finally found one. When I took a second look, I realized it was actually the poet, Samuel Menashe.

Menashe, who lived much of his life in a small railroad flat on Thompson Street, was a paradoxical figure, famously obscure. Although revered by a select group of critics and peers, he somehow never achieved the wider audience he deserved and in 2003, at the age of 79, he became the first-ever recipient of the Poetry Foundation's "Neglected Masters Award."

I had seen him recite at the Bowery Poetry Club once. His poems were powerful, concise works with spiritual themes and evocative titles like “All My Friends are Homeless” and “No Jerusalem But This.” When another poet later remarked from the stage that she didn't memorize her poetry like Menashe did, he’d called out from the crowd, in a genteel voice that reminded me of Jimmy Stewart and Pete Seeger, "I don't memorize my poems—I know them because I wrote them!"

Menashe had just finished lunch at the cafe and as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, I approached and expressed my admiration for his work. He was friendly and gracious. But when he asked about my vocation and I explained that I evaluated screenplays for a movie studio, he suddenly looked aghast.

"You mean you decide whose work will be considered and whose won’t? My God, what an awful responsibility!"

Well, I explained, trying not to stammer, I did my best not to discard anything of quality,

"But how can you know?"

In his 2011 New York Times obituary of Menashe, William Grimes would quote Stephen Spender’s assessment that Menashe’s poetry “compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds” and would remark that though his work often appeared in important journals, “he wrote and lived as a bohemian, and throughout his career encountered difficulties in finding a book publisher.”

He had of course been right that day in Greenwich Village. I couldn’t truly know that I wasn’t passing over richly deserving work. Surely, there was no one who better understood why that mattered than Samuel Menashe, the poet of Thompson Street, the great Neglected Master.

Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return and co-author of Warring Parents, Wounded Children and the Wretched World of Child Custody. In addition to his writing, he is a member of the alternative folk duo Honeybrick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.

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How to Tell Good Christian Ladies the Bible Is Weird

Monday, March 13, 2017 | Permalink

Jacob Bacharach’s second novel sets the story of the biblical Patriarchs and their families in the rust-belt river valleys of western Pennsylvania. With the release of The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates this Tuesday, Jacob is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Several months after my first novel came out, I made one of the braver decisions of my life and went with my mother to talk about it at her book club. That novel, The Bend of the World, was about aliens, conspiracies, drugs, corporations, and the persistent inability of young men, even as they neared and entered their thirties, to grow up. It was—as its author remains—pretty deeply skeptical that there was even such a thing as growing up. It was full of gay people calling each other “fag,” drunken benders, and a really silly, irresponsible amount of profanity. It was, in other words, an awfully weird book for your mother’s book club.

I’d know many of the women in the group since I was a boy. We’d moved to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a small town a little more than an hour’s drive southeast of Pittsburgh, when I was in sixth grade, and my parents still lived there at the time. To be back as an adult trying to promote a novel in which flying saucers may be real, fat drug dealers cavort in weird woodland orgies, the best advice comes from a sasquatch, and at least one person commits, or appears to commit suicide, was easily as surreal as the actual contents of the story. Nevertheless, most debut novelist—most novelists, period—are never reviewed in the Sunday New York Times or interviewed on Fresh Air or sent on book tours or lauded with award season praise. You desperately hope to move a few copies of the hardcover, and if your mom’s friends mean ten or twelve sales, then you’d better show up at meeting and sing for your supper.

I don’t suspect that most of them made it all the way through, but it was more fun and less painful than I imagined. There is a certain attitude shared by both the cool literati and the Very Serious Writers gang that ladies’ book clubs are a middlebrow anachronism that only ever want to read historical drams, fizzy divorce stories, and biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, but it seems to me very close to miraculous that, regardless of tastes, in a society in which even refrigerators have screens and the last hotel I stayed in had a ghostly television hidden away behind the bathroom mirror, ready to bombard you with HBO while you shaved, there remain popular groups of people who not only buy books and read books but gather every few weeks to talk seriously about books. The women, even the ones who gave up on my book after the hundredth “fuck,” were interested, inquisitive, and generous in their questions. They were a hundred times more engaged than any audience of English majors at any college reading I ever gave.

The conversation drifted around to the question of what, if anything, I was working on next. I had just begun to sketch out a new project, what would eventually become my next and forthcoming novel, The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates. It didn’t yet have a title, but I knew vaguely that it, like my first novel, would be set in Western Pennsylvania, and I knew that it would somehow parallel or reference the Abraham narratives in Genesis.

Among the women in the book club were a couple of very devout Catholics and at least one devoted Evangelical. I, of course, am Jewish, though far, far away from anything anyone might call believing. I suspect the subject took them a little bit aback, and someone asked me why this, in particular, was of any interest to me. I thought about it, and then I said that I’d been rereading stories from Tanakh—I was fascinated by the very ancient origins of the stories in Genesis and Job—and that what struck me, what interested me, was how thoroughly we misremembered them, how the popular recounting of the stories of Creation and the antediluvian world and the stories of the Patriarchs had flattened them into coherent tales that satisfied quite modern ideas about the shape, texture, and structure of narratives, but that how, when you returned to the original texts (well, the original texts in translation; my Hebrew is, shall we say, less than spotty), what you found was an extraordinary strangeness. The stories are odd, discursive, sometimes highly poetic, often repetitive, sometimes rather shambolic. They self-contradict. There is no psychology. You feel lost in their depths; contradictorily, you feel unable to break the surface. They are, in a word, fascinatingly alien.

Maybe I shouldn’t have used that particular word, given the literal topic of the book that I’d just written and they’d just read; I could see how it sounded, to a certain ear, a little bit like an insult. But it struck me then, as it strikes me now, the closest word to expressing the distance between ourselves and some of our oldest stories, and it seems important to be able to describe why their alienness is so addictive to me.

Jacob Bacharach is the author of The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates and The Bend of the World. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Ha'aretz, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and many others.

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Writing What You Know—Or What You Don't

Monday, March 13, 2017 | Permalink

Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return, a science fiction novel about a vanished astrophysicist who reappears six years later and inspires a cult following—despite denying he was abducted or ever even missing. With the release of the book this Tuesday, Joseph is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

“Write what you know.” At some point, every beginning writer hears this controversial piece of advice. While there’s been considerable debate over its exact meaning, there’s no denying that its simplest interpretation has allure. Does anyone think John Updike could have written about Newark Jews with the same insight and realism as Philip Roth? Or that Roth, working out of his clapboard house in Connecticut, could have composed a story collection about Indian Americans to rival Interpreter of Maladies? Knowledge and experience breed authenticity and authenticity matters; this is especially true in today’s cultural landscape, where the trait is no longer seen as merely an artistic virtue but—as the recent controversy surrounding Lionel Shriver’s comments at the Brisbane Writers Festival demonstrates—often a moral one, as well. The writer who relies too heavily on imagination over life experience can invite charges of cultural insensitivity or, worse, appropriation.

But “write what you know” is more than just pragmatic or even ethical advice. The maxim reflects the genuine artistic impulse to share. Writers have deep, personal connections to what they know, and writing about these subjects—their hometowns, families, communities, personal struggles, etc.—often transcends the simple transfer of knowledge. The writer bares their soul, exorcises their psychological demons, bring us into their world, and in doing so, bonds with the reader as the personal gradually transfigures into the universal.

And yet, there are other kinds of writers and other reasons to write. In fact, we sometimes learn the most from the writers who started out knowing the least. When Tom Wolfe delved into the variously alien worlds of psychedelic hippiedom, fighter jocks and astronauts, and Wall Street “Masters of the Universe”, he emerged with works of prose that are not only realistic and engaging, but are widely regarded as definitive. As opposed to being limited by his ignorance, Wolf used his outsider status to his advantage, dressing deliberately out of place in flashy white suits so as to provoke people into explaining things to him. Like the great journalist he is, writing for Wolfe has always been a process of learning as much as teaching and, in both his fiction and non-fiction, he takes his readers along for the ride. If Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion or Margaret Atwood or even Philip Roth had embarked on all their books by considering only what they already knew, their oeuvres would undoubtedly be thin and far less interesting.

When I began writing my science fiction novel, The Return, I didn’t consciously set out to explore topics with which I was unfamiliar. But when the story demanded it, I didn’t fight it either, and so I soon found myself researching quantum mechanics (I was a C+ physics student), Catholicism (I’m an observant Jew), and coastal Spain (my European excursions are largely limited to the concentration camps in Poland). I can’t say that my treatment of these subjects will necessarily read as accurate to those more familiar with them.

I also readily admit that in my book’s genre, that might not matter much. Authenticity is inevitably less scrutinized in a sci fi thriller than it is in literary fiction. In a book like mine, the plotting much more than the setting, prose, or dialogue, is the lifeblood of the story.

Still, I’m sure there are many who would have encouraged me to stick to what I “knew” and in some sense, they’d be right. My descriptions of Spain will never match Cervantes or Javier Marías’s. I can’t expound on theoretical physics like Neil deGrasse Tyson and my writings on Christian theology probably fall short of Dan Brown’s, to say nothing of Milton’s. I hope I got more right than wrong, but either way, for me, the challenge of tackling these less familiar subjects made for a richer and more exciting writing experience. I’d like to think that the sense of adventure and curiosity it brought out in me will also be contagious to the reader.

“Write what you know” is useful advice, but, like all artistic advice, it needs to be taken with a good dose of skepticism and applied carefully. In the end, a spirit of openness, possibility and risk-taking may be more valuable than a timeworn adage that, sensible as it may be, ultimately encourages us to play it safe.

Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return and co-author of Warring Parents, Wounded Children and the Wretched World of Child Custody. In addition to his writing, he is a member of the alternative folk duo Honeybrick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.

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Reading Anne Frank's Diary as a Writer

Thursday, March 09, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ursula Werner wrote about how her family’s Nazi heritage taught her the importance of taking action in the face of oppression and inspired her novel, The Good at Heart. Ursula is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Anne Frank’s parents could not have known, when they bought the small, square notebook with its red-and-white checked cover, that this little book would be a present not just for their daughter but for the entire world.

Like many thirteen-year-old girls, Anne eagerly embraced the project of keeping a diary. But unlike so many of them, who abandon the enterprise after a few weeks, she faithfully maintained hers, year after year. Why? Because Anne was a writer:

There is a saying that ‘paper is more patient than man’; it came back to me on one of my slightly melancholy days, while I sat chin in hand, feeling too bored and limp even to make up my mind whether to go out or stay at home. Yes, there is no doubt that paper is patient and as I don’t intend to show this cardboard-covered notebook, bearing the proud name of ‘diary,’ to anyone, unless I find a real friend, boy or girl, probably nobody cares. And now I come to the root of the matter, the reason for my starting a diary: it is that I have no such real friend. (June 20, 1942)

On one hand, Anne’s hope for a “real” friend can be read as a sensitive adolescent’s desire to be seen and heard. Reading this entry with the knowledge of what ultimately happened to Anne and her family imbues it with a great sadness and heartbreaking irony: Anne’s wish to share her innermost thoughts was granted beyond her wildest dreams, as her words have been read by millions of people, over several generations—at the tragic cost of her own premature death.

But there is more to this entry than a teenager’s yearning to be understood. These words also offer us one young girl’s explanation for why she chose to write. They show us a nascent artist’s yearning “to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart,” and they reveal a writer’s faith in pen and paper as the surest medium for expressing the thoughts and feelings of the secret self that she most valued.

Reading Anne Frank’s diary as a kind of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman” is a poignant enterprise. She proves herself to be a great storyteller, as she recounts life in the Annex, using singular descriptions (“[Father] puts on his potato-peeling face”), wry dialogue (“[Mr. Van Daan announces, ‘When this is all over, I’m going to have myself baptized’”), and amusing metaphors (“An elephant’s tread is heard on the stairway. It’s Dussel”). Time and again, I catch glimpses of her sensitivity—her desperation to lift the curtains and look at the moon, the fact that a dark, rainy evening, a gale, “scudding clouds” can hold her “entirely in their power.”

Anne’s artistic temperament also reveals itself when she feels depressed. Her mother admonishes her and advises, “Think of all the misery in the world and be thankful that you are not sharing in it!’” (March 7, 1944). But Anne rejects that cure for melancholy. She finds that, for herself, the key to joy is to dwell in beauty, not sorrow:

I don’t think then of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains. . . . I don’t see how Mummy’s idea can be right. . . . On the contrary, I’ve found that there is always some beauty left—in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.

Anne’s faith in the redeeming power of beauty, even or perhaps especially in the midst of sadness and defeat, oppression, and tragedy, is, to my mind, quintessentially artistic. While the world around her appears to be going mad, Anne clings to beauty as a pillar. She cannot count on anything else; she has lost her home, bombs are being dropped on her head daily, she is grateful to be able to eat even rotten kale, yet beauty remains. When overwhelming darkness and injustice descend upon the world, creating something beautiful may seem insignificant and pointless—but Anne Frank reminds us that that effort may in fact be the most important one of all.

A lamentable and shameful truth about Anne Frank’s story is that the United States had the opportunity to shelter her: in 1938 and again in 1941, the entire Frank family sought to enter this country as refugees. Ultimately, their efforts were futile, because widespread antisemitism and xenophobia led to drastic restrictions on immigration from war-torn Europe. Had the United States not allowed itself to be ruled by fear and distrust, had it welcomed Anne Frank into its borders, she would surely have continued writing, increasing the measure of beauty in the world with every word.

Ursula Werner is a writer and attorney currently living in Washington, DC, with her family. Born in Germany and raised in South Florida, she is the author of two books of poetry and the novel The Good at Heart.

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The Holocaust Book Award in Memory of Ernest W. Michel Named for 2017

Tuesday, March 07, 2017 | Permalink

For Immediate Release

New York, March 7, 2017 - Beginning in 2017, the National Jewish Book Award for Holocaust studies and narratives will be named to honor the memory and legacy of the late Ernest W. Michel.

Deported from his hometown of Manheim, Germany by the Gestapo at 16 years old, “Ernie” Michel escaped seven years later after the death from march Auschwitz to Buchenwald and dedicated the rest of his life to Jewish life and Holocaust remembrance. A founding trustee of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Michel served as executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal from 1970 to 1989, in which capacity he raised billions of dollars for Jewish causes, oversaw the UJA-Federation of New York merger, and organized the 1981 World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem.

The Holocaust Book Award in Memory of Ernest W. Michel fulfills a particular legacy of the National Jewish Book Awards, a program founded by the Jewish Book Council in the late 1940s in response to the events in Europe as a means of preserving the Jewish narrative. Now approaching the program’s 67th year, the National Jewish Book Awards celebrate Jewish literary achievement in a wide range of genres and form, honoring writers in 20 different categories each year.

The Holocaust Book Award in Memory of Ernest W. Michel will be administered by the Jewish Book Council, a not-for-profit dedicated to the enrichment of Jewish life and education through literature. Promoting the reading, writing, and publication of books of Jewish interest, Jewish Book Council is the flagship of Jewish Book Month, the National Jewish Book Club, and the JBC Network of JCCs, Federations, synagogues, and other institutions.

Submissions for the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards will be accepted beginning in June 2017. For more information, please visit or contact the Jewish Book Council at or (212) 201-2920.

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What My Nazi Great-Grandfather Taught Me About the Obligation to Act

Monday, March 06, 2017 | Permalink

Ursula Werner is the author of novel The Good at Heart, recently released from Touchstone Books. Ursula will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When my sister and I were very young, we loved playing with Linda Leibowitz, the little girl who lived across the street from our house in South Florida. We loved Linda’s tininess, her pale skin and straight, jet-black hair, so different from our own heftier Germanic bodies and wavy manes. Most summers, the three of us swam happily for hours in our pool, but every once in awhile, we fought as only girls can. Inevitably during those times, my sister and I ganged up on poor Linda, until she ran back across the street to her mother, crying and yelling, “I hate you, you dirty Nazis!”

At the time, I honestly did not know what a Nazi was, though I did understand that it had something to do with the fact that we were German and that, whatever it was, it wasn’t good. By the time I learned about the Holocaust at school a few years later, I had learned another, far more painful fact about my heritage: my great-grandfather was a Nazi, and he had worked directly for Hitler.

When I shouldered the burden of cultural guilt that, to some extent, every German feels when he or she learns about the Holocaust, I did so believing that it was an appropriate penance, given the lingering pain suffered by the family members and descendants of those millions who had been incinerated by my national forebears. But that burden was nowhere near as heavy as the millstone of my great-grandfather’s participation in the upper echelons of the Third Reich. I felt compelled to know more about what my great-grandfather knew or didn’t know, what he did or didn’t do. On one hand, I felt it was my duty to confront the reality of my personal history; on the other, I hoped for some kind of personal exoneration. But my parents and grandparents, like so many other survivors of the war, did not want to talk about it.

My novel, The Good at Heart, was to some degree a response to this wall of familial silence. It was my fictional recreation of the world in which my great-grandparents lived, my attempt as a writer to explore the choices they confronted and the dangers they faced. Halfway through writing the novel, on a visit to my aunt’s house in Hamburg I found a pile of letters written on behalf of my great-grandfather when he was jailed in Hamburg in 1946, awaiting “de-Nazification.” These letters told me that he stayed in the Economics Ministry of the Hitler administration consciously and deliberately, so that, as he told one Jewish businessmen in 1935, he might ensure that “the regulations against Jews [were] applied in a very lenient way.” I learned that he used his position to help Jewish individuals whenever possible, that he did not approve of the Nazi program, and that the file the SS kept on him was thicker than an unabridged dictionary.

When I first read these letters four years ago, I felt a kind of relief that I finally had some answers. Over time, that feeling of relief has evolved—first, into profound sense of sadness that someone who was apparently so well-meaning could have been so naïve about the intentions of the government he served. Was it fear or wishful thinking that made him believe that antisemitic regulations were the worst the Third Reich could dish out? I imagine my great-grandfather sitting in his prison in Hamburg, a former concentration camp converted by the Allies into a holding depot for possible war criminals. I imagine he understood the irony of where he was incarcerated, and I wonder how blindsided he felt and to what degree he castigated himself for not seeing the truth of Hitler’s ambitions earlier.

I like to think that, if I were in my great-grandfather’s shoes, I would have done the same things he did. I like to think that I might even have tried to do what my character Marina does in The Good at Heart and sheltered those fleeing the Nazi machine because they were Jews or Poles or members of other “unwanted” groups.

But then I remember that both my great-grandfather and Marina were acting in a police state, where the punishment for opposing the regime meant incarceration or death. And not just for themselves, but for members of their family. I might convince myself that I would have the courage to face my own imprisonment or execution in order to do the right thing, but would I knowingly put my family in danger? My young children? These are questions that make me pause.

Fortunately, however, I do not live in a police state. Fortunately, I live in a country with firmly entrenched democratic values and a Constitutional commitment to the freedom and equality of all people. But I am only recently understanding that the privilege of living in this democracy—more particularly, of enjoying the fruits of its ideals—imposes an affirmative obligation on me, an obligation to act. If my great-grandfather’s experience has anything to teach me, it is that whenever my government engages in morally indefensible actions, I have a responsibility to speak up in opposition. Even if those actions do not directly affect me, even if I have other, seemingly more pressing, matters in my personal life, there is no excuse for silence. My apathy and passivity permit the fire of calculated hatred and systematized prejudice to burn unchecked; I have to act because otherwise, as in my great-grandfather’s time, the fire might rise to a conflagration. I have to act because otherwise, as his example teaches me, there might be far worse to come.

Ursula Werner is a writer and attorney currently living in Washington, DC, with her family. Born in Germany and raised in South Florida, she is the author of two books of poetry and the novel The Good at Heart.

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It's Always the Writer Who Commits the Crime

Thursday, March 02, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen confessed to the first story she ever stole. With this week’s release of her second novel, Waking Lions, Ayelet is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

People usually imagine authors writing in silence and solitude, but the truth is that there’s nothing more crowded than the room of a writer.

When I write a sexual scene I have my dead grandmother in front of my desk, telling me not to forget my manners. Sometimes it’s my parents, telling me to stop writing about family problems, or it’s the critics, the audience, the woman from the bookstore, my ex, my partner, my baby daughter. All of them stand behind me when I write and demand, “Why did you write this?

After my first novel was published, the choir inside my head became louder than ever. People kept asking about the next novel. My grandmother called on a daily basis to warn me: “Don’t name any character in your next novel after my friends—not even a cat!” For a while, I was completely silenced, paralyzed by all those critical voices. And then I remembered a sentence I had once heard, and have often recalled since: “Telling a secret to a writer is like giving a hug to a pickpocket.” Of all the pockets I’ve put my hand in, the most terrible secret was the one I learned in India.

It was ten years ago, in the Himalayas. He was a blue-eyed Israeli backpacker who just sat in the guesthouse and stared into space, night after night. He didn’t speak with any of the other backpackers, didn’t drink or eat. It took me two days to realize that he didn’t sleep either. That’s when I went to him and asked whether he was all right.

He told me that several days ago he had hit a homeless Indian man with his motorcycle, and fled.

He didn’t look like a bad man. More like a kid. He had a guitar on his back, an unassuming face. In just a few months he would start university. And though I wanted to be 100% sure that I could never do a thing like that, I wasn’t sure anymore. Prison in India can be an unpleasant place. A man can end his life in prison. Would I have stayed at the scene of crime, or is there a place within me that would also panic, think only of the consequences, and escape?

I decided to transpose the highly charged experience I had had in India to the story of refugees escaping Africa into Israel.The protagonist of the novel, Dr. Eitan Green, returns from a night shift at a Beersheba hospital when he accidentally hits an Eritrean refugee. He’s afraid for his family, for his career as a surgeon, and when he sees that the man is beyond help, he leaves him there. The next day, the refugee’s wife knocks at the door, and starts blackmailing him.

When Waking Lions was published I thought about that guy I met in the Himalayas. Israel is a small country—is he here, in Tel Aviv? Does he recognize his own story in the novel?

During the course of writing, a strange thing happened: as I changed the location from India to Israel, the story became closer to the world I knew. And the closer the story got the more personal it became. Instead of looking at that guy from the Himalayas, I started looking at myself—would I be able to do what he did, or what Eitan did? If I hit someone while driving back home to my family late at night, and thought I could never be caught, am I absolutely sure I wouldn’t flee the scene?

A writer is like a pickpocket: they what belongs to others and make it their own. But by doing that they are inevitably caught, not by the police, but by their own story. You think you write about other people, cheating or deceiving or committing a crime, but it’s always you who’s committing the crime, as you merge with your protagonist. And the reader, sitting on his couch, identifying with the characters, is committing the same crime with you, in his own living room.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen holds an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. A recipient of Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize, she has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement and written award-winning fiction and screenplays.

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Want to Understand Israel? Start Reading...

Wednesday, March 01, 2017 | Permalink

Internal Dialogue is a Jewish Book Council blog series on literary trends, ideas, and discussions of interest to Jewish readers and community organizers, curated by the Jewish Book Council editors and staff. Posted by Nat Bernstein.

Jewish Book Council kicked off its third season of Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation this week with a discussion between Daniel Gordis and Nir Baram, two of Israel’s most celebrated contemporary writers.

Presented in partnership with The Paul E. Singer Foundation and moderated by Bari Weiss of The Wall Street Journal, Israel: A Tale of Love & Darkness? opened an engaging and provocative discussion of the current political and social realities of the Middle East today, prompted by Daniel Gordis’s recent publication Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, recipient of the 2016 Everett Family Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year, and Nir Baram’s forthcoming report A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Following the audience Q&A at the end of the live discussion, series moderator Bari Weiss asked both authors to name three books they would each recommend to American readers looking to gain a nuanced, deeper understanding of the region’s history, future, and contending narratives.

Nir Baram immediately named the short stories of A. B. Yehoshua, specifically the works collected in The Continuing Silence of a Poet. Though Yehoshua’s novels are better known among international audiences, Baram insists the Israeli Faulkner’s short fiction is unquestionably some of the best writing to ever come out of Israel—indeed, he claims, it is probably some of the best writing from anywhere, ever.

Baram also recommended Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949as a crucial primer on the history of the region. While world leaders and the older generations of activists discuss and negotiate resolutions based on the 1967 borders, Baram points to their Palestinian counterparts and the emerging grassroots-initiated movement of younger Israeli Jews shifting the focus to back to 1948.

Daniel Gordis asserted that the Amos Oz autobiography that inspired the title of Tuesday evening’s event perhaps best represents the Israeli narrative, both in terms of form—Oz’s writing remains unsurpassedly beautiful across genres—and its encapsulation of the Zionist historical experience of the twentieth century. A Tale of Love and Darkness presents “a loving look at the country without failing to point out the problematic.”

Gordis also recommended Eshkol Nevo’s Neuland, a fictional response to Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland imagining a movement to create an entirely new Jewish state among young, post-army Israelis traveling abroad. The story raises searing questions about the Zionist ideal and its evolving identity in the modern world.

Both authors agreed that David Grossman’s work is seminal to the literary expression of Israel—Gordis highlighted To the End of the Land, a novel in which a woman runs away from home to prevent the possibility of the Israel Defense Forces finding her to report the death of her son (thereby ensuring that he “can’t” ever die): “a beautiful look into the struggles and scars of the country.” He also mentioned S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh—a novella critiquing Israel’s capture of an Arab village in 1948, examined in A Land Without Borders—and the author’s curious rise to prominence at the time of the book’s publication in 1949: the book became an immediate bestseller in Israel, and Yizhar was swiftly elected to the Knesset and appointed Minister of Education, indicating that “Israel does not run away from self-critique—or at least didn’t use to.”

Of course, books don’t have to be about a place, moment, or conflict to convey the experience and tensions of the people living in them. Baram encouraged the audience to delve into contemporary Israeli writers across genres and explore works that purportedly concern the universality of the human condition. Young writers like D. A. Mishani, Asaff Gavron, Lea Aini, Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua, are deftly expressing the Israeli narrative in the subtext of their prose, which reaches outward but never fully departs from the socio-political environment that bore them. And if you’re looking to follow his advice, Jewish Book Council’s editorial team assembled a reading list to start you off…

A video recording of the full program will be posted online next week for readers who were unable to attend the live program, and discussion questions for the featured titles are available for free download here if your book club is interested in reading these or other books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation continues next month with Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History on March 28, 2017 at The Jewish Museum. Sign up for free admission »

Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 | The Jewish Museum, New York City

Disappointed Amazon's Good Girls Revolt was cancelled after the first season? Hear from award-winning journalist Lynn Povich, the author of the memoir upon which the show was based, in conversation with Ernestine Rose biographer and women's historian Bonnie S. Anderson and Rebecca Traister, journalist and author of All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Discover the Jewish women behind history's great revolutions and contemporary movements, from the activists of America's Antebellum to the women's liberation stirrings of the midcentury—to today's "nasty" women—at Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation Tuesday, March 28, 2017 in New York City!

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5 Books That Informed 'The Fortunate Ones'

Monday, February 27, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ellen Umansky recalled the complicated kashrut of her childhood home. With the recent release of her novel The Fortunate Ones, Ellen is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I loved doing research for The Fortunate Onesperhapstoo much at times. I spent countless hours searching for the right book or anecdote, sometimes delaying the actual writing that needed to get done, convinced that once I found the elusive detail, the secret of the novel that I was trying to construct would magically unlock and all would be solved.

Not exactly. And yet, doing research on worlds that I had never visited and never could, such as Vienna on the eve of World War II, was deeply compelling to me. When I read about the scarcity of pantyhose in postwar London and how women would draw lines in pencil on their bare legs to imitate the look of seamed stockings, the tactile specificity of this fact gave me a rush. Everything is research, or could be, I told myself. The following is a list of just a few of the sources I consulted while working on The Fortunate Ones.

Other People’s Houses by Lore Segal

When I was a graduate student in writing at Columbia University, I studied briefly with Lore Segal, who taught a seminar in Jane Austen. We MFA students weren’t disciplined lot, and I remember being shocked when I walked into class one morning and Lore handed us a pop quiz. “You must take the work seriously,” she declared in a crisp accent that I couldn’t quite place. I later learned that Lore had been a child refugee, sent on a train by herself at the age of 10 from Vienna to live in England, where she became a great fan of English writers—Jane Austen chief among them.

I thought of Lore and her work often when I was writing my character Rose, not only her life experience, but also her sharp wit and intelligence. Her first novel, Other People’s Houses, charts its protagonist’s flight from Vienna to England on a Kindertransport, the same journey that Lore herself undertook, and doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of living among strangers. “On the twelfth [of March], Hitler took Austria and my mother called Tante Trude a cow,” Segal writes in one of the book’s opening lines. The novel is as clear-eyed and unsentimental and insightful as Segal herself.

Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger

Like Lore Segal, Ruth Kluger was born in Vienna. When she was 11 years old, she was ordered to Theresienstadt, and later to Auschwitz. She survived the war, becoming a professor of German language in the United States, and wrote this memoir in her later years. It is a short, vital book that pulsates with intelligence and fury—at her parents, the act of writing about the Holocaust, the conventional wisdom of the survivor as hero. I recalled her arguments when I was conjuring up Rose and her objections to the way the Holocaust gets talked about, memorialized, and even, as Kluger says, prettified. “These stories have no end,” she writes. This memoir is barbed and hard and brilliant.

Into the Arms of Strangers
edited by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer

I turned to this film and its accompanying volume to glean more about the emotional stories behind the Kindertransport. The footage is simple: interviews with about a dozen men and women in their late 70s and 80s, who as children in the late 1930s were ferried out of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia to live in England. Their interviews are interspersed with still photographs from their childhoods, people and places long erased by much more than time. The subjects speak with frankness, humor, and sometimes bewilderment about the sea of change that overtook their childhoods. Some stories are small in their devastations—one woman describes how she realized she was Jewish when the village children refused to attend her eighth birthday party—other anecdotes are unspeakable, harrowing: Lory Cahn was seated on the Kindertransport when her father, watching her leave from the platform, urged her to open the window. They were holding hands when the train began to pull out, and he wouldn’t let go, tugging her through the window and onto the platform. Several years later, she and her parents were on another train, to Auschwitz.

The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas

This magnificent, surprisingly suspenseful book examines the destruction that Hitler wrought on Europe through the particular lens of art. Lynn Nicholas follows Germans selling art in Switzerland in the late 1930s to purportedly rid the country of such “degenerate” work, but with the added benefit of raising badly needed foreign currency for the Third Reich; she tracks the herculean effort to safeguard treasures during wartime (the Mona Lisa was spirited out of the Louvre via ambulance, and taken to an undisclosed location in the south of France). The book is meticulous in covering the infuriating, heartbreaking complexities of the artwork’s fate post war, when refugees who had lost far more than possessions tried to track down the objects that were meaningful to them and rightly theirs.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

A brilliant novel about an Englishwoman named Ursula who keeps dying throughout the book—on the night she is born, as a child who falls off the roof of her house, as a woman who gets caught in a bombing raid during the Blitz—only to be resurrected by the author and begin anew. The construction might sound forced or complicated, but it’s a thrilling, compulsive read, and its genius lies in the strength of each narrative: in nearly every scenario, it feels as if Ursula is living the life she was intended to live. Much of the action of the novel takes place in the 1930s and ’40s in London, during the Blitz and in the years just afterward. I read it not only to soak up the details of that time period, which she builds without laying them on too thick, but also to learn at the feet of Atkinson and her prodigious gifts. Each time Ursula dies, her life story is altered. I found this constant revision comforting as I grappled with the writing of my own novel; the possibilities of art remain open and can be ever changing.

Ellen Umansky has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including The New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short-story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp. She has worked in the editorial departments of The Forward, Tablet, and The New Yorker.

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The First Story I Ever Stole

Monday, February 27, 2017 | Permalink

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel One Night, Markovitch won the 2013 Sapir Prize for debut fiction; this week she releases Waking Lions, which recently received the 2017 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Ayelet will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Telling a secret to a writer is like giving a hug to a pickpocket. I stole this sentence from Amos Oz or A. B. Yehoshua, I can’t remember which one. But I do remember, very clearly, the first time I became a pickpocket—the first story I stole.

I was visiting my boyfriend’s family in a village in the north of Israel, when I noticed a strange house behind their fence. The house wasn’t especially dark or remarkably mysterious. There was no ivy on the walls, no bats hanging from the roof, yet there was some kind of sadness coming out of that yard, the way other yards had the voices of children coming out of them, or the smell of barbecue.

“Who lives this this house?” I asked.

“Beautiful Bella lives there,” my boyfriend replied. I gave him the look a girl gives to her boyfriend when he calls another girl beautiful, and he immediately added that Beautiful Bella was eighty years old, and the most miserable woman in the village.

“Why miserable?”

Apparently Bella was not just beautiful. She was really beautiful. The kind of woman who makes robins fly backward, turtles run forward, and men freeze in place. But from among all the men who froze in place—and there were many who still did so—she was destined to marry the most worthless man in the village.


That was the first time I heard about the heroic mission that had gone terribly wrong. It happened more than sixty years ago, but everyone in the village had been talking about it ever since. They held on to their story like other villagers hold on to an area’s famous recipes or secret wines. I discovered that during the Second World War a group of Jewish farmers left Mandatory Palestine in order to get into Europe. Their plan was to fictively marry Jewish girls who weren’t allowed into Israel because of the British law of the time. These marriages of convenience were to save the girls from Nazi Europe and smuggle them in under the noses of the British. Once in Israel, the couples would all get divorces and continue with their lives. But that was not the case for beautiful Bella, who had been married by a farmer who was so stunned by her that he refused to let her go even after they reached the Promised Land. He held her against her will, under the power of religious law.

This story became the core of my first novel, One Night, Markovitch. Markovitch was the name of my protagonist, a name I chose to disguise the real man from the village. While I knew nothing of the real farmer, in the novel he’s depicted as the ultimate outsider, the kind nobody ever notices. I decided he must have been the type of person that the eye just cannot remember, that your gaze glides over, like the kids whose names no one knows at school. It’s this kind of man, I figured, who wouldn’t be able to let go of a lovely woman like Bella. He knew he’d never have such a chance again.

I changed the names of people and places, but as the book became successful, I started to fear—what if someone recognized himself in the lines of my novel? While I was waiting for the people from the village to knock at my door, the phone call from my grandmother came completely unexpectedly: “How could you do that to poor Markovitch?!”

While I was busy hiding the identity of the man from the village, I had given no thought to the name “Markovitch.” It had just popped out, and it seemed right. I completely forgot that my grandmother had a friend called Markovitch. From all her friends, he was the most unmemorable; you forgot him a moment after you met him. And so had I.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen holds an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. A recipient of Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize, she has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement and written award-winning fiction and screenplays.

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