The ProsenPeople

A Miraculous Baseball Team

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Charles S. Sherman wrote about a life-altering event and how he's handled the challenge. His book, The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak, will be published in March by Scribner. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

"Spring training" has just opened up. America's favorite past-time signals warm weather, longer days, family outings, the good times. T-ball, little league, sandlot, at one time we all have engaged the crack of the bat, the excitement of rounding the bases.

When my son, Eyal, who is quadriplegic and vent dependent, was growing up, he played on a baseball team, called The Challengers. Summer evenings, a couple of times a week, our family would pile into our specially-equipped van and drive a half hour or so to a baseball field in North Syracuse. It’s clear the name of the team was coined because each player faces serious challenges. My son, "Big Al," (does not every serious ball player have a nickname?) played third base.

When you watch these kids play baseball, at first there is a sense of disbelief and even restlessness. When the ball is hit, children are lifted and hoisted from wheelchairs and shuttled around the bases as family members and friends clap and cheer. In this league, ingenuity and imagination are the name of the game. For a girl who is blind, there is a special baseball that produces a beeping sound. A young boy smacks the ball using his crutch as a baseball bat. And all the time, parents and siblings are facilitating, enabling and empowering. You don’t have to watch for long to realize something very special is taking place on this baseball diamond, and it has very little to do with the game of baseball itself. It has to do with relationships, cooperation, perseverance and possibility. Whenever these kids play, I am witness to miracles as awe-inspiring as the splitting of the Red Sea. Previously, my understanding of a miracle was more "Bible stuff." The expected lightning and thunder, mountains that shudder, now we're talking miracles. But a miracle is nine kids on a baseball team, some of them cannot see, others cannot talk, and still others cannot even move. And they play baseball three nights a week in North Syracuse. Now that's a miracle to write home about.

I’m reminded of this special baseball team whenever I visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, not far from my home. On the second floor, there is a theater that has been constructed to simulate an old-time major league baseball park. It allows you to sit in bleacher chairs, right up close to the action, you can even hear the voices of the ball players and those of the concessionaires, hawking programs, peanuts and cracker jacks. In this nostalgic environment, there is a seven-minute film clip, a young major leaguer walloping a baseball, a winning runner crossing home plate, hands held high. Candid shots, of modern major leaguers to little leaguers. And it all ends with the voices of children playing baseball in some cow pasture. And this voiceover:

"Baseball is a part of the very fabric of America. And at whatever level we experience it... whether we play it... or watch it ... from backyard to major league stadium... it is a game that speaks to us of more than box scores and starting line-ups. It is a game that reflects:

Triumph...and defeat,

the strength at the beginning...the wisdom near the end,

the bad days...and the good"

Baseball approaches myth because it is a celebration of life. As author Roger Angell wrote, “Since baseball is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly, keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”

Okay, "Big Al," Eyal, get ready champ. You're on deck. Batter Up!

Charles S. Sherman is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun, the largest synagogue in Central New York. Active in numerous faith-based and secular organizations, he has received many awards for his service and has been a respected member of his community for over forty years. He and his wife, Leah, parents of five children, live with their son Eyal in Syracuse, New York.

The Lost Shtetl

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Anne-Marie O'Connor, the author of The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer blogs for The Postscript on editing her book and the descriptions of shtetl life that had to be cut The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Anne-Marie at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

The chapter I most regret cutting from my book was the story of a girl named Rose Lessure, who grew up in one of the shtetls fictionalized by Sholom Aleichem that were popularized in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the musical on the precarious joys of life in the shtetls outside Kiev. 

Rose grew up in the shtetl of Stavisht, which was cupped like a bowl in a ring of forested mountains; a place where yellow sunflowers stretched to the horizen in the summer like an endless sea of gold.
Here, klezmer musicians made people dance with joy at weddings, and when the daughter of one of the most prosperous men in the shtetl eloped with a klezmer player to America, they became a town legend.
“Itsikl the Meshugener,” the “crazy guy” of Stavisht, led the shtetl’s wedding toasts, and made everyone laugh by saying things everyone was thinking but never dared to speak.
In the prayer houses, intellectuals argued about world affairs, drank tea, talked of liberation in the land of Zion—anything but pray--while the pious Orthodox frowned on the Zionists.
The shtetls outside Kiev were a cradle of mysticism, where Hasidic scholars believed in the transforming power of words to enlighten and heal, and the divine mysteries of the Kabbala. These were the blessed magic realist shtetls of Chagall.
But life was precarious indeed. As Jewish families attained success, they drew the envy of pogromchiks, who sacked the undefended shtetls. The fear of pogrom violence was always in the backdrop of the collective psyche.
Rose, a grain merchant’s daughter with masses of wavy red hair, grew up wandering behind her adored big brother Herschel, 11 years older; a boy with a broad, kind smile, who looked up from his studies and lifted Rose to his knee, or picked her up and spun her like a bird.
Rose loved to lie in the straw and hug her pet calf, or curl up on the earthenware stove with the cats, drowsily listening to her mother and Herschel talk.
A scholar rented a room adjoining their house, and Rose watched the stream of people come to his door, asking him to write letters, or read letters from a son of Stavisht who was a professor at the Marie Curie Institute in Paris; or from family in America.
Rose’s father couldn’t persuade her mother to go to America. She couldn’t imagine leaving a place where one person’s trouble was everyone’s problem, and a widow could expect friendship societies to help her and her children. 
Then came World War I.
One day the Germans marched through Stavisht. Itsikl the crazy guy made a satire of the soldiers, and they shot him. When the Russian Revolution broke out, horsemen rode through the town, demanding money to spare their lives, and killing townsmen to show they were serious.
During one pogrom, Rose’s family fled to a nearby town that was filled with crowds of frightened people from the shtetls. The crowd pressed around, Rose, 10, and she lost her family.
As dusk fell, someone called her name: Herschel, who had been looking for her all day, spotted Rose’s red hair. Herschel went back Stavisht to help their father salvage anything of value. On the way, he saw pogromchiks had seized a teenage girl from the shtetl. Herschl tried to rescue her, but the pogromchiks beat him to death.
Rose’s family pinned up her heavy red-gold hair, hiding money and jewelry in her fiery locks, for the long journey through Eastern Europe. The family was finally going to America.

I was very reluctant to cut this chapter because it detailed the rich history of small-town Jewish life in Eastern Europe, as well as the cycles of anti-Semitic violence that would culminate in the Holocaust. Rose Lessure was the grandmother of Pam Schoenberg, the wife of the attorney, Randol Schoenberg, who won the Klimt collection back from Austria. I discovered Rose Lessure’s Ellis Island interview on an oral history database, and Pam gave me a memoir that had been published by Rose’s neighbors in Stavisht, who had managed to flee to Israel before the shtetl was wiped out. One question that remained for me: was life in Stavisht really as idyllic as their accounts? Some people suggested these memories were softened by nostalgia. Perhaps. Yet the paintings of Chagall, and the stories of Sholom Aleichem, suggest that the collective lives shared in these lost shtetls had a truly lustrous, wonderful quality.

Interview: Leah Vincent

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 | Permalink

In partnership with JewSchool, Sam Shuman sat down with Leah Vincent to discuss her recently published memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin & Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood (Nan A. Talese). Below, Sam and Leah discuss writing, the Haredi world, and her relationship with her parents.

Sam Shuman: I’m curious about your habits of writing. Where do you write? When do you write? Do you have specific habits around the craft?

Leah Vincent: No. And I feel very guilty about this. I feel like I need to be more disciplined. That’s my constant resolution—to get more disciplined about it. I have a toddler, so my writing revolves around whatever time the babysitter is there and [whether] I don’t have other pressing things. I write on the couch, or chair, on my bed with my laptop and just type frantically. I’m a really big believer in the shitty first drafts. So I’m just always trying to just push myself to write whenever it comes and not judge it. And come back to it. And rework it and rework it and rework it.

I would love to be able to say, “I sit down in my office from 9 AM to 5 PM.” That does not happen at all: of course, every time I come to a difficult scene, I’m checking on Facebook every ten seconds. Something on Twitter has become very, very important instantly. I know that I should shut off the internet, but I don’t. It’s a very organic, meandering engagement. If I could go to an office everyday, doing something like being a pediatrician, I’d have the time for my work. But because I’m a writer, somehow I have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously—by myself maybe more than anybody else. I’m allowed to say, “I’m not taking everything else. I’m just writing for two hours.” There’s this constant pushing of the space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.

SS: Do you see your work as a break or a continuation of an older genre of literature—something like the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon or the treatises of that other rabble rouser, Baruch Spinoza?

LV: I definitely think we have a claim to the Haskalah (Enlightenment). Before OTD [“Off the Derech”—leaving Orthodoxy] became as popular as it was two, three years ago, I was saying we have to call ourselves Maskilim (“enlightened”), not because we’re identical to the original Maskilim, but because we carry some of their spirit forward and it’s important for us to realize that we have a lineage; that we’re not coming out of nowhere. It’s not, obviously, an unbroken chain: the themes are very different—the Maskilim are, for the most part, much more intellectual than my book is. But I’m proud to claim them. I don’t know how they would feel about being claimed, but I’m proud to claim them—and I think we should. I do think that, especially when you’ve been rejected—as some of us have, by everyone we knew and cared about—to claim kinship with people who are dead, to be able to look out onto a much wider world, and say, “Listen, the immediate world has rejected me, but I’m going to find family or intellectual counterparts or people I can to connect to,” is hugely powerful. I wouldn’t want to deny myself or other people who find comfort and confidence and ideas and inspiration from that.

SS: People have been presumably going "off the derech" since the legal bricklayers paved the path. But leaving the Haredi world is no longer enough—there’s a drive now to change it, whether it be through writing, protests, billboards, or non-profits. Having spoken to people who went off the derech over twenty to twenty-five years ago, they’ve noticed that change, too. How do you account for this change? Why do you think that there’s been a cultural shift now?

LV: I think that context is important. I really firmly believe the Ultra-Orthodox community did not exist in its current incarnation a hundred years ago and even fifty years ago. And even in my lifetime (I’m thirty-two) I’ve seen a dramatic change in the Ultra-Orthodox community. I can’t speak as authoritatively to the Hasidic world, which I know is different, but the Yeshivish world, twenty years ago, was a lot more was open to influences and realities of the outside world than it is today—so you could exist in it without feeling like you were existing in something that was caged or enclosed in the way it is now. The more the Haredi community tightens its grip, the more you’re going to have a backlash because the more you need to have a backlash.

The OTD community really only formed in the way it has in the past three years, really—five years, maybe. Part of that is about the internet. A huge part of that is about the internet. But part of that is that there’s something to really talk about. I respect the right of people to live in many different ways. I don’t have a fundamental problem, a foundational problem, with Yeshivish life; I have a problem with certain parts of it that have become worse and worse and worse now. So now there’s something to talk about. We’re becoming activists because of what we see and what we feel we have an obligation to change. I don’t think that it existed in the same extreme way now as it existed thirty years ago.

SS: Your book is so much about the body and the bodily—contamination, purity, modesty, just to name a few. When your mother prohibited you from eating on the plates when you returned home, didn’t it function as a metaphor, too? Or do you think the OTD body, in your case, was understood in strictly literal terms—as a "real" site of contamination?

LV: I think what you’re asking is: was my mother literally thinking I’m going to spread disease? So I don’t know. There’s no way of knowing; only my mother knows. I thought, at the time, that she did not understand how sexually transmitted diseases could work—or whatever she thought I had—and that she thought I could literally somehow pass this thing on. When I look back that seems kind of ridiculous. It seems that she’s more likely sending me a message and a message to the other children that I am the Other. But I do remember at the time being confused myself. I was struggling to put together pieces and knowledge about the world.

I don’t underline enough it in the book, but I think a lot of my parents’ actions, the message I always got was: they’re protecting their other children. There definitely is this contamination anxiety. People say, “How could your parents do this to you?” I don’t think that my parents were doing this to me: I think they were being good parents to all the other kids they had in the family.

SS: The language of saving is curious when talking about Haredim. Most state powers don’t have vested interests in "liberating" Haredi women by starting wars, but even so, how do you strike that balance—the fine line between refusing apologetics for the ways that Haredi women’s bodies are disciplined, their choices are made, and their education administered, while at the same time resisting that secular urge to "liberate" them, to paint them as people robbed of agency and choice?

LV: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately—and trying to figure out how to express it. I wish I had more sophisticated academic training to be able to express it better than I will.

Progressives are too nice. I resent this idea of progressives’ respect for extremism—to the detriment of some people. There is a hierarchy of moral or ethical rights, and a community does not get the right to self-autonomy until it has fulfilled the right of allowing people to leave. Until the Haredi world lets people leave, I’m going to criticize the fact that they don’t let people leave and I’m going to criticize them on the two other major issues which I care most about: the role and rights of women and the safety of children. If people can leave easily, then people could say that I should lower the temperature on some of my other issues.

SS: You mention in the book that your grandfather marched with black preachers in the 1960s and that "your father had called his own father 'Dad.'" How does this collective forgetting occur?

LV: I don’t know if it’s a collective forgetting as much as a collective wishful thinking. I think that after a trauma like the Holocaust, whatever grows in that ground is going to be warped. I think it’s inevitable. 

After the Holocaust, we saw this springing up of the Yeshivish community, which, fueled by that great intensity and trauma, was able to create this myth that they had existed forever. And forget that this is not the case. And forget that many members, like my father, came from much more progressive backgrounds—and Orthodox Judaism in the 1960s looked like nothing like Orthodox Judaism in the 1990s. And nobody was willing to admit that. And I think that this terrible trauma is really responsible for so much of this—and I think it’s played out in different Jewish communities in different ways. And this is the way that it played out in the Yeshivish community.

SS: You begin the memoir by inscribing your father into the past, despite the fact that he’s still alive: "my father, Rabbi Shaul Kaplan, was a short, stiff-shouldered man”—not is. Is he dead to you?"

LV: He’s not dead to me as a person; he’s still not dead to me as a father. It would be hard to talk about him in the present tense, although I do sometimes. It’s not just a story about the past: he is a person who is alive today, and I engage with him today. But I don’t have a relationship with him anymore, so in a way the relationship is dead and the person I have to relate is not the person walking on the earth today, but the person who existed in the past.

I often call myself a “zombie orphan.” It’s a special kind of orphanhood where your parents are alive, but they treat you like you’re dead. And it comes with its own rules. Like zombies, they pop up into life and you think they’re going to be there for you and then they disappoint you by going for your guts. It’s a very strange state to be in—where you never get to visit somebody’s grave and cry for them. Instead, you have cold distance, and then sometimes you get engaged again, which is terrifying. To have my father issue a statement that he still loves me, while calling me a liar or whatever else he said to Katie Couric and to Tablet, when he didn’t call me after my baby was born...

It’s a zombie orphanhood, where you kind of have this very weird and painful and strange relationship. I’ve never been able to give up hope that we can reconcile because I know he’s still alive and because we have had this weird, strange contact. I can’t give up. And that hope has been incredibly damaging to me. But I hold on to it, that one day, somehow, this will all be cleaned up, and he’ll find a way that I can have a father again.

It’s unlikely.

Read more from Leah Vincent here.

Sam Shuman is an ethnographer and cultural theorist with ties to queer, activist, and ex-Hasidic cultures in New York City. A graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Sam was the recipient of the Columbia Dean's Prize in Anthropology for his fieldwork around the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman in Uman, Ukraine. His doctoral work centers around precarity, labor, and the collapse of the Hasidic diamond industry in Antwerp.

Interview: David Laskin

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

David Laskin’s book, The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century, is a gripping tale that traces the roots of the author’s Jewish ancestors. Although it is non-fiction, it reads more like a novel, with interesting, well developed characters. American history buffs will enjoy this story, as it captures the time period from the late 1830s to the late 1940s and the historical significance of the era.

The story begins with the birth of Laskin’s great-great-grandfather in Russia. It traces how the family separated into three branches. One branch immigrated to America, including a former Russian revolu­tionary who ended up founding the Maidenform Bra Company. Another branch went to what was then Palestine and participated as pioneers in the birth of Israel. The third branch, seventeen members, unfor­tunately remained in Europe and was killed during the Holocaust.

Elise Cooper: Why did you decide to write about the "roots" of your family?

David Laskin: I realized, after getting in touch with my Israeli relatives, that my family’s history was a history of the twentieth century. They had immigrated to the US and Israel as well as being a part of the Holo­caust. My family reflected these movements. It is a book of how history swept up my family and changed us.

EC: Since it is a non-fiction book how did you make sure the informa­tion and the recollections were accurate?

DL: Since this book is partially based on my family’s memories, I cor­roborated it with research. I used accounts given to me and compared them with people who wrote books and had similar experiences. I integrated and synthesized various sources.

EC: In the Jewish religion, women are in charge of the household, so does this quote from the book contradict that: "In the Russian annals of the family, the wives were all but silent. They worked, they sacri­ficed, they looked after their families, they faded into their husbands’ shadows."

DL: What I meant is that in the annals that is what has been recorded. The Russian annals of society had the women all but silent. I think this shows how there is a certain amount of sexism in the way history was told. It’s that their role was unheralded and underap­preciated. But I also point out ‘Jewish mothers in the Pale were efficient managers, brilliant improvisers, shrewd negotiators, practiced schmoozers, nimble stretchers of every kopek. They juggled multiple tasks.’ In other words, while the men were doing G-d's work, women were running the household economically and socially.

EC: You point out the different experiences your family went through during the World War I era depending on where they lived. Can you explain?

DL: Just look at how they were treated within the army of each country. In America and Germany, Jews were allowed to climb up in rank and become officers, which was not permitted in the Russian army. Many Jews were taken and marched off to die as they fought for Russia, the land of the pogrom. When Germany controlled the lands of Rakov and Volozhin there was little rape, plunder, or desecration of synagogues, and more tolerance for Jewish customs. The Germans were more hu­mane and more accepting of Jewish rights at that time.

EC: Yet many of these same families ended up dying in the Holocaust. Is it because the wealthy American contingent did nothing?

DL: It was a combination of things.The US State Department and the British placed restrictions on Jews immigrating to the US and Palestine. Once the war started, international travel became difficult to arrange. I state in the book that American relatives were blamed by their Eastern European relatives for ‘refusing to invite them and there is no evi­dence that the relatives tried. But even had they done so, it’s unlikely they would have succeeded.’ I felt conflicted. There was a piece of me that thought my rich family should have done more, but I don’t think they turned their heads away completely. The question that comes to mind is ‘Did anyone really understand what was coming and know the real threat?’

EC: For your family that did immigrate earlier, were there two forks in the road, going to the US or Israel?

DL: My family perfectly embodies the divide. Those com­pelled by opportunity, comfort, and material success went to America. Those who were compelled by the ideology of wanting a Jewish homeland and that commitment went to Israel. Although my family in New York had a better standard of living, Sonia, a relative who did make aliyah to Israel, said how rich she became by living her dream and experiencing the re-birth of Israel. In writing this book, I became deeply moved by what the Jews had done in Israel.

EC: What do you want the readers to get out of The Family?

DL: For my American Jewish readers I wish they would get an under­standing of what our ancestors had to go through, especially the pio­neers in Israel, their huge and inspiring idealism that spurred them to make sacrifices. The book Exodus by Leon Uris comes to mind. My hope is to inspire readers to research their own families’ roots.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national se­curity articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

Recalling Professor Dov Noy: World's Foremost Jewish Folklorist

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 | Permalink

by Howard Schwartz

No one would deny that Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem are colossal figures in the fields of Hasidism and Kabbalah. But not everyone realizes that there was another colossus who also taught at Hebrew University. That was Professor Dov Noy (1920-2013), who single-handedly established the study of Jewish Folklore in Israel, and established the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) in Haifa, which today has collected more than 25,000 stories orally from every ethnic community in Israel, representing every Jewish community in the world. (Dov's brother, Meir Noy, established a Jewish music archives in Tel Aviv).

When still a young man, Dov Noy, himself an immigrant from Kolo­miya in Poland, realized that the immigrants who came to Israel from Eastern Europe and the Middle East brought their stories with them. But they knew these stories in their native languages, primarily Yiddish and Arabic. Their children spoke Hebrew, making it much more difficult to transmit their rich folktale tradition to them. Dov Noy understood that somehow the stories must be saved before those who knew them all died out.

Noy prepared himself for this epic undertaking by studying Folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington. He was fortunate to have Stith Thompson, the founder of the modern study of folklore, as his teacher. Thompson later commented that Noy was his finest pupil. Along with the Finnish scholar Antti Aarne, Thompson published Types of the Folktale, identifying hundreds of plots that appeared in traditional folklore. Dov Noy and his students, especially Heda Jason, expanded these categories by inserting specific Jewish tale types. This made it possible to classify and analyze the various types of Jewish folktales, discerning their uniquely Jewish aspects as well as universal tale types. Today Dov Noy's students, such as Dan Ben-Amos, Aliza Shenhar, Eli Yassif, Tamar Alexander, Haya Bar-Itzhak and Galit Hasan-Rokem, teach Jewish Folklore at major universities in Israel, the United States, and other countries. Dan Ben-Amos has dedicated himself for the past decade to editing a multi-volume collection of folktales collected by the IFA, Folktales of the Jews.

Dov Noy had an astounding memory. Wherever he went, he remem­bered the names of his hosts and their family, remembered whatever they had discussed, and somehow managed to stay in touch with everyone. Whenever anyone needed to know something that no one else knew, they were always sent to Dov Noy, who inevitably knew the answer. In 1977 I was on sabbatical in Israel editing an anthology of modern Jewish poets. I wanted to include an Ethiopian poet, but when­ever I asked if anyone knew of one, they always replied, "Ask Dov Noy." So I called up Professor Noy and asked to meet with him. He told me to come to his home at 9 PM on Monday night. When I arrived, his small apartment was completely full, with at least fifty people. It turned out he had told everyone to meet him at the same time. He had us squeeze into his living room and introduce ourselves. I met artists, musicians, folklorists, scholars and very interesting visitors from many lands. When I was able to speak to Noy for a moment, I told him about my quest for an Ethiopian poet, and he promised me that such a poet would be there next week. And he was. By then I was hooked on these unpredictable Monday night gatherings, and for the rest of my year in Israel I came as often as I could.

Dov Noy also had a wonderful sense of humor. Among the types of stories he collected were jokes, and he often told them. Once, when I was driving with him, I asked, "Dov, what makes a Jewish story Jewish?" His reply: "If a Jew tells it, it's a Jewish story!" But he was actually more discerning. In one important essay, he explained that there are four characteristics of a Jewish folktale and as long as it had one of these characteristics, it could be considered a Jewish story: 1) Is it set at a Jewish time, such as Shabbat or one of the holidays? 2) Is it set in a Jewish place, such as a synagogue, or sukkah or in the Land of Israel? 3) Does it have Jewish characters, such as Elijah, or King Solomon or the demoness Lilith? 4) Or does it have a Jewish meaning? As long as it had a Jewish message, it didn't matter if there were explicit references to Jewish time, place, or character.

Dov often told me stories about his adventures and those of his students in collecting Jewish folktales. Once he told me that he received a letter from one of his students, who was collecting tales in a nursing home from an old man who knew a great many tales. She wrote that he was an exceptional storyteller, but whenever he would tell a fairy tale, he would skip the wedding—normally the highlight of the story. Noy wrote back that the old man must be getting tired, and to let him rest up after telling a tale. The student then wrote that she was certain that wasn't the problem, and he needed to come there and see for himself. So Dov took the bus to that town and met with the old man and asked him to tell a fairytale. And he did, in great detail, but when it was time for the wedding, he skipped it. Dov said to him, "You're a wonderful storyteller. I know that story. In fact, we have collected a hundred variants of it. But why didn't you include the wedding at the end of the story?" The old man said, "My mother gave birth to me when she was 16, and she never married. I never married. I only tell stories about things I know. Since I never had a wedding, I can't speak about it." In this anecdote Dov taught me that every storyteller adds a bit of himself to the tale, which is why the tale is never told the same way twice. I think that anyone who has told a tale recognizes this. And for Dov Noy, it wasn't a flaw, it was a sign of the teller's humanity and of the folk process, which he held in awe.

There is no doubt that the vast archives of the IFA are Dov Noy's greatest accomplishment. Israel recognized this when he received the Bialik Prize in 2002 and the Israel Prize in 2004. I feel certain that in time the IFA will come to be seen as important as the YIVO archives collected in Eastern Europe during the expeditions of S. Ansky, the first modern Jewish folklorist. Together YIVO and the IFA form a kind of Oral Torah, saving precious folk traditions, especially folktales, just as the rabbis preserved the Oral Torah in the Gemara of both Talmuds. You see, Dov Noy was a short, modest man, generous with everyone, a Polish gentle­man, but he was also a colossus, who created an army of folklorists who sought out storytellers among the many ethnic communities in Israel, and gathered their tales, saving them.


In Memory of Dov Noy

you brought back the merchants trading tales,
the grandmothers whispering buba mayses,
brought back so many fairy tales
told by the stove,
warming so many generations.
If all the storytellers are silent,
who can blame them?

Even now,
the wonder child sheds tears in her sleep—
how will the prince vault over the silence
and recover the shining jewel
that could save her?
And the boy awaiting the bird of happiness
is still stranded in the desert,
with no hint of how to find his way
to Jerusalem.

the princess trapped in the golden mountain
needs the spell
you learned from a magic oud,
the winds need someone who knows their language,
the storytellers are parched for the waters
of eternal life.
It was you who recovered the golden dove
we lost in the desert,
and now we have lost you.

Howard Schwartz's most recent collection of Jewish folktales is Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales. His book, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, won The National Jewish Book Award in 2005.

Related Content: Jewish Folktales Reading List

The Ellipsis

Monday, February 24, 2014 | Permalink

Charles S. Sherman is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun, the largest synagogue in Central New York. His book, The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak, will be published in March by Scribner. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

No thunder, bolts of lightning, heavenly voices, not even a friendly angel. Nonetheless, a transforming life experience, frozen in time and space.

In 1986, I was 41 years old, and life was pretty good. I had it all: professionally satisfied, rabbi of a very large congregation, a terrific wife, four young children, two girls, two boys, expecting our fifth in three months. In my business, "the rabbi business" some 13 years post-ordination, I was convinced I had seen it all: the continuum, life, death and everything in between. And as a “Good Rabbi” I was instructed in what to say and even how to say it, dispensing traditional wisdom, comfort, and perspective. For whatever reason, I was insulated and protected from life's bad stuff, again life was better than good.

But then – and I guess in the story of life there is always a “but then.” Our older son, four-year-old Eyal, is in serious respiratory distress. The medical opinion is a deep-seated lesion on his brainstem, a death sentence, at most several weeks. The specifics of the narrative are not necessary, suffice to say, after surgery Eyal suffers an incapacitating brain stem stroke leaving him a total quadriplegic. All his necessary human functions are artificially maintained. But Eyal persists and perseveres, defying his doctors and their harsh prognosis and everyone else who has reminded him of what he cannot do. Now 32, Eyal lives with my wife and me. He had a Bar Mitzvah, he graduated high school and college.

Being a parent of a child so physically broken, so dependent on others, changed me. It was as if a new life started for me the day of Eyal’s stroke. I wish I could have learned these important life lessons taking a class, studying a book, hearing others’ stories. But I learned the painful and at times inspiring lessons firsthand.

It has taken me years to get it right. To distinguish between the essential and the irrelevant. I may not always act on my belief system. Like a lot of folks, there remains a divide between creed and deed. But I find myself much more accepting, tolerant, and inclusive, preferring to err on the side of forgiveness than righteous indignation. I've learned about context and perspective. I've learned a new definition of community. There are certain things like poverty, illness, and vulnerability that do not distinguish between class, gender, race, national origin, or faith. And I've learned about random acts of generosity and kindness in the most unexpected places from the most unexpected people.

Looking at Eyal, so physically broken, I sometimes wonder if I knew then, March 1986, what I know now, that I would have to redefine my goals and ambitions, both personal and professional, the quality of my relationships, the definition of friendship and authenticity. I am not so sure I would have had the wisdom, faith, confidence, temperament, and persistence to handle what some suggest as impossible challenges. But I did do it, discovering strength and even a faith reaffirmed that I never thought possible. I used to think the punctuation of life begins and ends with an exclamation point. But what I've learned is that the punctuation of life is more like the ellipsis ... you see the story never ends.

Active in numerous faith-based and secular organizations, Charles S. Sherman has received many awards for his service and has been a respected member of his community for over forty years. He and his wife, Leah, parents of five children, live with their son Eyal in Syracuse, New York.

Jew Need to Know: Phys Ed

Monday, February 24, 2014 | Permalink

Born in New Orleans and raised in Brooklyn, Emily Stone is a writer and a yoga teacher living in New York City. Her book, Did Jew Know: A Handy Primer on the Customs, Culture, and Practice of the Chosen People (Chronicle Books), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It’s no small secret that the Chosen tribe has had an enormous impact on the intellectual arena. Not to mention there is a disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel Laureates and scientists who have changed (and continue to change) the face of medical history and made the world a safer, calmer, less painful place to be. Not to mention giving it better skin, hair, and nails. As my brother Daniel would say, "Known fact." But the sports arena . . . maybe not so much.

While the field of nuclear physics became known as the Jewish science, Jewish team sports are pretty much relegated to the math, debate, and chess teams. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, such as boxing and college and professional basketball in the United States— both sports that started out as unregulated practices (such as usury) that were open to Jews. What’s more, both sports rose to prominence during the first half of the twentieth century because of—you guessed it—the Jews.

Since basketball evolved from urban areas often populated by Jewish immigrants, it became yet another ad hoc niche market (unlike college football) where a cerebral but scrappy Jew might thrive. According to basketball historian Ari Sclar, Jewish players such as Barney Sedran, Ira Streusand, and Harry Brill honed their skills at City College and then went on to play in the various professional leagues available to them in eastern cities. Meantime, Yale University got wicked vocal about ending discriminatory practices against Jewish basketball players so that the Bulldogs could win win win. Jew better believe that there was a point in time when sports (and not math) helped Jews find acceptance at schools where ye olde campus quotas kept many Jews out.

Point shaving scandals aside, the burbs were basically the downfall of Jews in semi-professional and professional basketball. As more and more jobs were opened to Jews, playing sports became less important and the point spread became the Sunday spread became the tuchus spread and the science club was won.

Athlete or Mathlete?

A game that tests your knowledge of serious Jewish competitors from the locker room to the classroom!

1. J. Robert Oppenheimer

2. Red Holtzman

3. Judith Deutsch-Haspel

4. Edward Teller

5. Hank Greenberg

6. Ágnes Keleti

7. Leo Szilard

8. Niels Bohr

9. Aly Raisman

10. Bobby Fischer

11. Daniel Shechtman

12. Max Baer

13. David Ricardo

14. Kerri Strug

15. John George Kemeny

16. Dolph Schayes

17. Red Auerbach

18. Lise Meitner

19. Larry Siegfried

20. Emmy Noether

21. Roman Greenberg

22. Abe Attell

23. Mark Spitz

24. Imi Lichtenfeld

Bonus point: David Joel Stern

Answers can be found here.

Check back all week to read more from Emily Stone.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 21, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

10 Ways to Win Big Like a Bohemian at Sports, Love, & Life

Thursday, February 20, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Slash Coleman is a 2013-2014 JBC Network participant and author of The Bohemian Love Diaries. Read more of his writing for the Jewish Book Council here.

Hanging on my father’s studio wall is a newspaper clipping, ripped from the 1973 Richmond News Leader. The headline reads: “Freaks vs. Pigs.” In one of my earliest sports memories, the sculpture department where my father attended college—a.k.a. The Freaks—beat the City of Richmond Police Department— a.k.a. the Pigs—in a fundraising softball game.

My father scored the winning run, his plumber’s butt became famous, and a celebration ensued that lasted months.

Underneath the article a photo shows my shirtless father and I standing beside his freaky, shirtless artist friends on the softball field. To his right is Frank “Half Man” Creasy, a painter who shaved the hair off the entire right side of his body. This included the hair on his head, face, eyebrows, eyelids, armpits, chest, arms, legs, and big toes. To my father’s left is Britta Garrison, a tiny printmaker who rode a pink miniature horse to class. I’m nuzzled into her elaborate softball uniform (an ornate gold and silver Elizabethan gown) basking proudly, romantically (and shirtlessly), feeling like I’ve just won big at Bingo. A moment after the picture was taken she kissed me on the lips. I was instantly in love with winning.

Unfortunately, this would be the closest I’d ever come to winning at sports again. Yet, the hook sank deep. Girls liked winners and as a five-year-old batboy Casanova who liked being kissed by girls (especially ones in Elizabethan gowns), the syllogism seemed logical. Play sports. Win. Win the girl.

Finding (and winning) the girl of my dreams set my subsequent quest for happiness on a hapless course that included a long and risky sports career, scores of painful trips to the emergency room, and plenty of broken hearts. Along the way, I learned a thing or two about winning. Mainly, that I was an artist trapped in a jock’s body who probably wouldn’t live his life as a professional athlete.

Whether your intentions are to win a heart like Don Juan, win a game like Peyton Manning, or win big with personal success, my list below is sure to help you feel like a winner:

1. Win the “Emulate Your Hero” Award

My grandest romantic obsession involved winning the affections of my beautiful and single third grade teacher, Ms. Ottenbrite. For an entire year, I dressed in a white denim pantsuit with a red pillowcase tied around my neck and imagined myself as the infamous daredevil Evel Knievel. I’d see myself flying through the sky in slow motion and into her arms as John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” played in the background. Win this award with your best iTunes playlist.

2. Win the “I Won by Losing” Award

I joined the varsity wrestling team to win the heart of our homecoming queen Savannah van Houten. As a result, I became the only wrestler in the history of my high school for two years straight to lose every match within the first five seconds. Yet, Savannah never knew I existed. This was the ultimate personal homage to the wrestling uniform—an outfit tailored to resemble a girl’s one-piece bathing suit with strange ear protectors that remind me of a yarmulke thong. Win this award with a big slice of humble pie.

3. Win the “Fashion Forward Podiatry” Award

Jewish mom’s are famous for their guilt, especially when it comes to leaving the house wearing clean underwear. “Just in case you’re in an accident,” they always say. Take it from a guy who’s accident prone, undergarments are way overrated. Let’s be honest. The first accessory anyone notices about a man is his shoes. My dad won that softball game in a pair of Chopines, a lace-up boot made of wood and covered in deer skin. Win this award by downgrading from boxers to briefs.

4. Win the “Wet Straw and Stale Horse Smell” Award

I started wearing Brut by Fabergé at the age of ten. This is the cheap cologne that comes in a plastic green bottle made famous by Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, and James Bond. This is the smell that screams, “Go where no man has gone before!” Follow your heart to the men’s personal grooming products isle at Walgreens and then follow your nose. Win this award exclusively at Walgreens.

5. Win the “Big is Small” Award

I once bought a one way ticket to Alaska (with my remaining bar mitzvah money) and lived like a caterpillar in a tent without poles (I’d forgotten them) for nearly a year in an attempt to woo my very first girlfriend. I thought my larger-than-life gesture would win her heart. Instead, she left me for the curmudgeonly, wrinkled manager at the fish cannery in Nikiski. Win this award by crying on your best friend’s shoulder.

6. Win the “Small is Big” Award

As a southerner, I was raised with a certain flavor of manners that has always translated into small gestures of kindness towards others. These days kindness has become some sort of radical mitzvah that needs to be added to a to-do list. Be nice, period. Win this award with small, kind gestures.

7. Win the “I Really Feel it” Award

Coach Monday called what happened during the competition an “anatomical enigma.” I would be the only gymnast in competitive history to be knocked out of my tights during a Big Ten Conference competition after slinging myself off the high bar and knocking myself out on one of those halogen lights on the gymnasium ceiling. I woke up in the arms of the lone female judge and then threw up on her blazer. Win this award with your sensitive side.

8. Win the “Power Through Patience” Award

On my honeymoon, my wife and I shaved our heads to prove that love was based on more than just physical appearances. I’m ashamed to say I realized the very next day the depths of my shallowness. I felt like I’d married a big bald man! It took Raleigh's hair nearly two years to grow back. By then, I’d won my superficial freedom back and lost my wife. Win this award with patience.

9. Win the “Boring Excitement” Award

Every day after school and on weekends until dark, I’d lay in the garden behind my parent’s house under a huge stack of old car tires. I thought if I distributed the weight of the steel-belted radials in just the right way I could get my leg to break. You see, I craved wining the kind of personal attention that might only come with a leg cast and a set of crutches. Grappling with my personal issues like a modern day Don Quixote became a metaphor for grappling with life. Ultimately, many more obstacles will stand before me and my dreams, but only I can ever prevent myself from achieving those dreams. Win this award with your next dream.

10. Win the “Change Your Story” Award

Ultimately, our words create our beliefs, our beliefs create our actions and our actions create our reality. What do you want your story about winning to be? You’re the writer. Change the words and you’ll change your reality. Win this award by writing inspiring words on the back of your hand.

Slash Coleman is the author of The Bohemian Love Diaries, the personal perspectives blogger for Psychology Today, and an advice columnist at (Ask Uncle Slash). He wrote, produced, and starred in the PBS Special The Neon Man and Me which also won the United Solo Award for best drama and is creatingThe New American Storyteller for PBS. He is the February 2014 featured author for Ask Big Questions as part of a new partnership with the JBC,

Kosher Style

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 | Permalink

Beth Warren is a registered dietitian, a certified dietitian-nutritionist with a private practice in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of the recently published book Living a Real Life with Real Food: How to Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Stay Energized—The Kosher Way (Skyhorse Publishing).

Taking a walk through midtown Manhattan is all it takes to be hit with restaurant signs advertising terms such as, “kosher,” “kosher-style,” “kosher-vegetarian,” or “glatt kosher.” Although it seems to be the current fad with these fancy terms, the principles of the kosher diet have been around long before the food production of our time.

Despite the different ways the world has come to describe kosher styles of cooking, the term “kosher” literally means “fit or proper” and when it relates to diet, means that the foods are made in conjunction with the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut. Certain principles of a kosher diet were seen with our forefathers before they became actual Torah laws brought down at Mt. Sinai. Today, the Jewish people are still following the laws of kashrut for the same reason why the Israelites followed back then: because G-d said so. The basic commandment to eat kosher food is the main reason why the kosher eating principles are still applicable today.

Of course, we all want to believe the rumor of the mill and the reason why other health conscious consumers purchase kosher products, which is because they feel those foods are better for our bodies. Although the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon otherwise known as Maimonides, ventures to say in his book Hilchot Deot that all kosher food is inherently healthier, the modern day evolution of ingredients transformed many kosher ingredients into heavily processed foods. The kosher consumer needs to be vigilant, if not more so than other restrictive diets, since the ingredients being used to meet the laws of kashrut, such as “pareve” (meaning non-dairy nor meat ingredients), manifest themselves in unhealthy man-made ingredients such as trans fat.

Through my book, I invite you to take the principles of keeping a kosher diet and use them to lead a healthier lifestyle. The following are a few key ways on how to use the kosher principles to help you live a real life with real food:

1. Following a kosher diet eliminates about 30 percent of food products from the market and allows you to focus on fewer items to make a more healthful choice. These days, we are faced with an overwhelming amount of products on the market shadowing healthier choices, only making a smart choice more difficult.

2. Since you are inspecting a food package for kosher ingredients and a hechsher (kosher symbol), it encourages you to read food labels.

3. Because of all the laws of kashrut, keeping kosher also teaches you a sense of discipline when it comes to how to eat, when to eat and acclimatizing you to say, “No,” to some food choices both inside and outside the home, a practice essential to living a real food way of real life.

It is vital to understand that foods with a kosher symbol do not make them automatically more healthful. Throughout my book, Living Real Life with Real Food: How to Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Stay Energized—The Kosher Way, I guide you how to sift through various foods to find the healthy choices amongst kosher real food.

Read more about Beth Warren and her new book here.