The ProsenPeople

A Gene Mutation, a Motherly Connection, and the Power of String

Monday, November 03, 2014 | Permalink

Jennifer Rosner is author of the picture book, The Mitten String (Random House, 2014) and the memoir, If A Tree Falls: A Family's Quest to Hear and Be Heard (Feminist Press, 2010). She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In my memoir, If A Tree Falls, and more recently in my picture book, The Mitten String, there is a character modeled after my great-great aunt, Bayla, who lived in an Austrian shtetl in the 1800s. Bayla was deaf and when she had a baby – whom she could neither see nor hear in the dark of night – she tied a string between them. When her baby cried, she felt the tug on her end of the string and woke to care for her child.

Since first hearing of Bayla’s story, string imagery has wended its way into my writing: braided strands of hair, violin strings, umbilical cords, the cilia that are meant to send auditory signals to the brain. Some of the imagery I’ve been drawn to is distinctively Jewish: the midwife’s string from a laboring mother’s bed to the synagogue’s ark door; the strings of the tzitzit, the straps of the tefillin wrapped around a wrist and the accompanying verse from Hosea 2:20: "You are betrothed to me in love and righteousness."

Perhaps my interest in Bayla’s string and others comes from my deep desire for motherly connection. My own daughters were born deaf as a result of Connexin 26, a gene mutation prevalent among Askenazi Jews. As a new mother, I feared a chasm between me and my girls because of the experiences we would never share. I was in search of ways to connect to them through the difference of my hearing and their deafness.

Searching for pathways of connection with my daughters – outside and inside my writing life – has led me to a deeper understanding of myself and my history, the ways I’ve experienced hearing and being heard. As our family begins this new year together, the closeness I have been able to forge with my daughters feels like a gift passed down through the generations, like a tug on the wrist that keeps us connected, even in the dark of night.

Jennifer Rosner's writings have appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. Jennifer holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford University, and is editor of the anthology, The Messy Self (Paradigm Publishers, 2007). She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, October 31, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Paperless Love: A Letter from Valy

Friday, October 31, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman wrote about translating letters written in Yiddish by her family and shared a short reading list and an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book,Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

It was hard for me to leave out any of the words written by Valerie Scheftel – Valy – the woman my grandfather left behind. But there were a few that didn’t fit. And Valy’s letters – as devastating as they are – sometimes, too, ranged to the mundane, just like all the letter writers of her day included the tiny things that now make up our email feeds. Life, even in deprivation, was not always worth filling up a page about.

And yet, even Valy’s shortest notes can wallop me with sadness. The following is a postcard that didn’t make it into the book in the end, even though it too carries so much. (Translation was by Ulli Wiesner.)

Postcard from Valy, Berlin, Rombergstraße 2
to KW at St. Luke's Hospital


Dearest Karl,

Today a card arrived from Uncle Isiue in which he writes that you had received a letter from me on 01-17. But you did not write to me?!?! Why not, my boy? I simply can't believe that you do not want to write. You probably already have received my letter of the 18th of this month. Nothing much has changed here for the time being. Since I have a little more free time now I work in Pathology, which I like a lot. I work with the microscope, just as you taught me, and am making good progress. Here, spring has sprung suddenly, and everything is unbelievably beautiful. One could almost be tempted to be happy and joyful. Do you remember, Karl, - the young birch trees in the Vienna Woods? Time and time again, I think of them!

What are you doing, darling in your nunnery? Do you think, you'll ever let me know anything about it? Paula's sister will hopefully leave for the USA in 14 days. Maybe you'll see her so she can give you a full report. I am afraid that I will not be able to come for a long, long time due to the quota.

All the very best to you, Karl, and many kisses from your Valy

Greetings to your mama, Zilli . My mother sends her regards as well

So short – and yet so much. Others are getting out of Berlin, even as she is stuck under the quota system that denied thousands of others a chance to cross the Atlantic.

Valy and my grandfather used to walk the Vienna Woods, the Rax Mountains, the gardens of Vienna’s Augarten. She muses on that time again and again her letters.

But I am struck by more here: Just like her memories of her time in Vienna, Valy carried that microscope wherever she went, even the Gestapo mention it in their files of her.

Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C.

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The Reason Jews Shouldn’t Celebrate Halloween Is Exactly Why We Should

Friday, October 31, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It’s a question every Jewish American parent faces at the waning of October: Will you allow your children to trick-or-treat?

The deliberation generally comes down to whether one considers Halloween a secular holiday or acknowledges its pagan-Christian origins. The former interpretation is held as the justification for Jewish participation in All Hallow’s Eve festivities and customs; the latter dredges up some discomfort for those committed to traditional Jewish values, observances, and/or identity.

But maybe—just maybe—we have that backwards.

The increasingly profane treatment of this old, old holiday in the United States in many ways brings out the worst of American culture. Why should Jews feel more comfortable aligning with that than with a foreign but spiritually significant observance?

In the Christian tradition, Halloween kicks off Allhollowtide, a three-day remembrance of the dead. It precedes the ensuing solemnity of All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day with a sort of vigil for the departed. Costumes were incorporated to confuse wakeful imps and wandering souls, lest a loitering spirit attempt to exact vengeance on its last night of purgatory before passing on to the next world. Tricks and pranks developed in mimicry of such menacing forces, and the somber rituals were often followed by merry community and family gatherings. Halloween was a time to celebrate what scares us, to employ “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.”

Yes, the premise for this holiday and its triduum is very not-Jewish, but there are certain parallels. While ghouls and goblins and pixies and saints reside in a realm completely distinct from Jewish lore, our history includes an appreciation for spirits of the dead, dybbuks, witches, and mischievous demons. Jews, too, symbolically welcome visits from our ancestors—ushpizin—and play all sorts of tricks to ward off evil forces of superstition and the supernatural.

And when it comes to laughing at death, no one—no one—does gallows humor like the Jews.

Jews sit with death—literally: our communities hold an obligation to sit night and day with the bodies awaiting burial; Jewish families gather on the floor to contend with the loss of a loved one for a solid week—or perhaps it’s death that sits with Jews. Our literature, especially in the current generation of Jewish writers, orbits around the specters of the departed and the grief of those who survive them. A foundational component of “Cultural Judaism” in the present age is how its adherents cleave to and from the traditional death rites: the subject of the millennium’s most popular novels, adaptations, and short films.

Death is a constant and continuous discussion in every aspect of Jewish life, from parenting to friendship to religious practice to humor. Why should we deliberately ignore the intentionality of a day designed to confront it?

Hence, in lieu of spooky stories or tales of horror, tonight's Jewish Book Council reading compilation is a short selection of books that engage with loss, that explore how Jews of varying backgrounds and identities cope and contend with death:



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Interview: Yaffa Ganz

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | Permalink

by Michal Hoschander Malen

Jewish Book Council's Michal Hoschander Malen speaks with children’s author Yaffa Ganz from her home in Israel.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Yaffa, you have educated and entertained generations of Jewish children. In my own family, for example, my daughter adored the Savta Simcha books and now my seven-year-old granddaughter is loving them, as well. What do you think accounts for the longevity of the appeal of your characters?

Yaffa Ganz: What accounts for the appeal of any happy, helpful, friendly person? Maybe that’s the answer! Savta Simcha and Uncle Nechemya are happy, warm, friendly, good people who want everyone else to be happy as well. These are the kind of people who make the world go round; the kind of people we all love, whether they lived a hundred years ago or yesterday. They don’t go out of style.

MHM: In addition to such memorable characters, two themes stand out in your children’s stories: joy in the celebration of Shabbat and holidays and a passionate love of the land of Israel. How do you trans­mit these concepts, which are clearly so precious to you, so vibrantly through the pages of your books?

YG: Judaism and Torah are all about love and simcha. Love for G-d and His Torah, His People and His Land. And simcha, which is not synony­mous with “happiness.” Simcha is the joy of living in what we might call a “G-dly dimension.” It’s the joy of striving for Truth and eternal values, doing G-d’s Will and being a mensch. So if you’re really into being Jew­ish, simcha comes with the territory!

MHM: I think there’s a third theme that I should have included above because it permeates all of your stories—kindness and thoughtfulness between people. Please tell us a bit about how and why that concept remains a constant throughout, no matter the plot, no matter the setting.

YG: There are two very basic concepts which guide the life of a Jew— recognizing that all people were created in the image of G-d and to show our gratitude for all the good we receive. A Jew is commanded to treat all human beings with courtesy, generosity and respect and to have a special, loving relationship with his fellow Jews. And he must show gratitude to G-d and to everyone else who helps supply his needs. Without our fellow human beings, we couldn’t possibly survive. And if we do not bother to acknowledge our debts to people, we won’t acknowledge our debts to G-d either. So kindness and thoughtfulness and sensitivity are very deeply embedded Jewish concepts. Besides, who wants to live in a world where people are nasty and selfish and mean?

MHM: Your Jewish history book Sand and Stars is fascinating and com­prehensive. What kind of research did that entail?

YG: Jewish kids, even those who go to day schools, have very poor historical cognition. For all they know, the Maccabim and George Wash­ington lived in the same year! I wanted to write a Jewish history which would be easy, interesting reading; something which would portray not only the unspeakable suffering we have endured, but the grandeur, the faithfulness, the exceptional message and contribution of the Jewish people to the world. Writing the Jewish history was the easy part; con­necting it to the general history of the world without getting lost in the details was the hard part. The Jews interacted with and influenced the world. And the world most definitely left its mark on us.

Rabbi Berel Wein’s history books served as an outline, supplemented by a large selection of other history books—both Jewish and general. I tried to make this a personal story of our people, and I included mate­rial younger readers would find interesting. I also used Jewish sources wherever possible—the Talmud, the midrashim, the commentaries. We added maps and time-lines for visual clarity so it would be easy to follow. Mostly, I wanted it to read like a good story. It took a year of intensive work and although it’s not a detailed, comprehensive history, it does takes the reader on a fascinating, two thousand year journey through the mainstream of Jewish history.

MHM: In addition to children’s books, you’ve written books of essays for adults. Have you ever considered writing a fiction book for adults, as well?

YG: Considered it? Yes. Done it? No. At least not yet! However, you can find a good dose of fiction in my books of essays. Cinnamon and Myrrh was recently reprinted by Feldheim. It takes a look at our contemporary Jewish lifestyle, pokes fun at many of our quirks and foibles, and offers a few wise gems to ponder as we plod along the path of life.

MHM: You moved from the United States to Israel in the 1960s. Can you give our read­ers a small taste of your daily life there?

YG: The “taste” of life in Israel is delicious, aggravating, trying, exhilarating, exciting, wor­rying, fulfilling and wonderful! There is nothing like it anywhere else on the globe. Now that I am finally a Liberated Lady (any female can be a liberated Woman. Being a Lady is an additional badge of honor!) I have more time to do what women and ladies dream about doing—study, read, play the flute, and write whatever I am working on at the mo­ment, enjoy my friends and family and especially my delicious grandchildren and great grandchildren. Each one is a blessing. And since each new family addition necessitates a dedication in a new book, I have to keep writing. My grandchildren are very insistent that each one is mentioned in a book of his or her own.

MHM: It’s wonderful news that some of your classics are being reissued now. Is there any chance that we can also look forward to anything new in the near future?

YG: One new book—All Kinds of Kids—was published around six months ago. And two favorite oldies—The Adventures of Jeremy Levi and Hello Heddy Levi just came out this week after a long interval. Feldheim has recently reprinted all four Mimmy Simmy books and the five Savta Simchas are back on the shelves with new covers. All of these books were out of print for several years. Dr. Mitzva is planned to reappear again along with a second, new Dr. Mitzva book before the summer (he’s the great Doctor of Mostly Everything!).

As far as new ideas, I have a large collection of poetry I’d love to put out. Unfortu­nately, most publishers are not interested in poetry. Can it be that only the poets read poetry?

Aside from that, I would like to see the rest of the Savta Simcha series translated into Hebrew. Believe it or not, not a single one of my many grandchildren has read any of my books in English unless it was a school assignment (which takes all the joy out of the reading). Savta Simcha exists in French and German and one volume is in Spanish, but only three of the five books have appeared in Hebrew. I’m working on it now. Wish me luck.

MHM: Thank you for so much storytelling pleasure over so many years and for sharing part of your own story with us.

YG: And thank you for asking! Giving pleasure to so many readers is a source of great pleasure for me. And knowing that a third generation is reading the books is absolutely lovely!

Michal Hoschander Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the chil­dren’s and young adult section editor of Jewish Book World.

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Paperless Love: Translating Yiddish Letters

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman shared a short reading list and an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council'sVisiting Scribe series.

I’m a little bit obsessed with letters and the way we all once lived – pen or typewriter to paper, considered missives that were sent off to our loved ones, without hope of a reply in seconds or minutes, but with a wait that spanned a day or days or weeks or months. In shoeboxes at my parents’ house I have my own collections of love stories, friendships, conversations that didn’t take place electronically. But of course, as a teen, we had the phone, which we would hold on to, for hours on end, even “long distance,” which reduced the number of letters sent, if one wasn’t ‘away,’ say, or specifically feeling romantic, nostalgic, or hard to reach.

In my grandparents’ era, with mail that arrived twice daily, the news was nearly always sent by post – be it urgent or mundane – as the phone, or telegrams, were luxuries reserved for only the most severe cases. In my collection of letters, there are hundreds of postcards that were just as likely to mention the train times, health status, or casual updates as they were to discuss the major problems of the day. Take this one – from a recently arrived cousin, dated late December 1939. “Dear Karl, Welcome! For the time being, only in writing. We should be happy to see you soon in person. Please let us know when you are coming, and when we should go to Brooklyn.”

There were dozens upon dozens of postcards in my collection written in scrawled Yiddish between my grandfather’s brother-in-law and himself. These were often almost impossible to decipher. Late in my writing of the book, I was sitting on a flight returning from Tel Aviv, surrounded by a large group of friends from Borough Park, Brooklyn. To my left was an impossibly thin woman, and to her left was her husband who spent most of the flight immersed in Pirkei Avot, the lessons of the fathers, on the other side of the aisle from me was a friend of his. Occasionally they leaned across to talk to each other, purposefully avoiding eye contact with the women.

In fact, the men ignored me entirely, until I opened my computer. Then the friend across the way peered at my screen. “You speak Yiddish?” he said, incredulously. No, I admitted. In fact I’ve been hoping to get these translated.

And suddenly a group of men became animated, discussing the translation of my letters as fervently as a tractate of Talmud. The letters, they said, were nearly a transliteration of German written into Yiddish (I suspected this). Mostly they said very little, they hoped for health, and they hoped something terrible would happen to Hitler.

Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. 

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Interview: Ruchama King Feuerman

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 | Permalink

by Miriam Bradman Abrahams

Ruchama King Feuerman’s latest novel, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, has been praised by the Wall Street Journal among many other publications, and was a finalist in National Jewish Book Award’s fiction category. Ruchama spoke to me as sincerely and passionately as to a friend. Her passion for Israel, for writing and research, and for her work helping to develop other writers shone throughout our phone conversation.

Miriam Bradman Abrahams: To which characters do you relate in your stories?

Ruchama King Feuerman: There are pieces of me in all the characters. Isaac reminds me of my father, while Mustafa also reminds me of him, since they each had a deformity. [Feuerman’s father lost an ear in a childhood accident.] I share ideological frustrations with my character Beth from Seven Blessings, though there are many differences between us.

MBA: Where does your obsession with kabbalists come from?

RKF: I lived in Jerusalem for ten years and befriended “wise women” who all sought out kabbalists. I was obsessed with anyone who is wise and holy, including assistants to kabbalists.

It was recommended that I meet the Rav Usher Freund and while waiting many hours for my chance to speak with him, I felt joy at seeing all different types of people waiting in his courtyard; it was a humbling experience. The kabbalist’s assistant blew me away with his insight and intensity and eventually, after many hours waiting and now running out of time, I had just one minute face to face with the kabbalist whose granddaughter was beside him. I told Rav Usher Freund my name, and he told me his. There erupted between us a magical laughter which has stayed with me to this day.

MBA: It’s easy to see your love for Jerusalem in your writing. Why did you make aliyah and why did you leave?

RKF: Moving there was a natural extension of my background. My father shared stories about his spiritual journey. I took my father’s dream of going to Israel and ran with it. I arrived at age seventeen, and was open to many types of communities, but felt not completely part of one. I thought I couldn’t fall in love and make a life for myself in Israel. I left at twenty-seven to pursue an MFA in fiction writing at Brooklyn Col­lege. As the daughter of a Southern “born-again Jew” and a Moroccan mother from Casablanca, I grew up with a Jewish education and prac­tice. With my unique identity, to my “FFB” (frum-from-birth [born into a religiously observant background]) friends I’m a “BT” (baal teshuva [newly religiously observant]), and to my “BT” friends I’m an “FFB.”

MBA: How was your trip back to Israel this summer?

RKF: I hadn’t been to Israel since a short visit in 2002 and wanted to return there with my husband and children. I felt the sweetness of life and the sense of humor with which people live there, especially during wartime. Upon returning to the U.S. I felt a sense of flatness, a “vanilla existence” here. Going back to visit Israel was like waking up from a coma. I spent some time in Tzfat, which I love, and in Raanana, where my mom lives.

MBA: How do you write descriptions of Jerusalem that read like a photograph?

RKF: I’ve been writing since fifth grade, and published a few articles in my twenties. I kept a journal during my decade in Israel which refreshes my memory with details. Things make a visceral impression on me and I try to capture them. After years away from Israel I was afraid my im­pressions may have been diluted, so I use the power of invention.

MBA: Do you consider this book a political novel since you’re dealing with the question of ownership of antiquities found on the Temple Mount?

RKF: A political novel is polarizing. I want to bring people in to experience true-life 3D characters, not politics with a capital “P.” I’m not shutting people out. I want the reader to experience a

“Black Hat” religious Jew, to have immersion, to care for different types of people, to experience things you haven’t before, using imagination to experience what’s out of your realm. If there are political echoes then let them be.

MBA: Are you making a feminist point with all your strong independent women? Tamar, Rebbetzin Shaindel Bracha, and, in Seven Bless­ings, the young Orthodox women taking upon themselves the study of holy texts (traditionally reserved for men), questioning, probing and developing themselves in the process?

RKF: I don’t think I was making a feminist pitch. I simply recalled a lot of the powerful, wise women with tons of Torah knowledge I met when I lived in Jerusalem. Not only famous teachers and rebbetzins but regular women, next-door-neighbors whom you’d randomly meet while taking out the garbage or people you’d go to for Shabbos. But I must say, the idea of a female kabbalist excites me. It feels like a way of claiming our Biblical past, which was replete with female prophets.

MBA: Who are your influences?

RKF: Bernard Malamud, Rohinton Mistry, Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane, Graham Greene, Chaim Grade.

MBA: What are you working on next?

RKF: I’m working on making a living as a col­umnist and my one-on-one work with clients is growing. I love writing short stories and want to get beyond Israel. I have an idea for two differ­ent novels, but it’s a commitment. A novel is like a marriage, a real commitment for many years, not an easy thing. I have no discipline while in the midst of writing; everything else falls to the wayside. Getting out the first draft is like having an itch on the brain.

MBA: What does your book tour look like?

RKF: I’m making 10-15 stops in the next five months!

Miriam Bradman Abrahams is Cuban born, Brooklyn bred, lives in Woodmere, NY, Hadassah Nassau Region's One Book chairlady and liaison to the Jewish Book Network, Hewlett Hadassah Herald editor, retired book fair chairlady, certified yoga instructor.

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Paperless Love: A Short Reading List from Sarah Wildman

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sarah Wildman shared an interesting letter that didn't make it into her book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I set out to research the life of the woman, Valy, who wrote to my grandfather for years after he fled Vienna in the fall of 1938, I began one leg of my search by looking for other Jewish letter writers trapped in the Reich during the same time period. Two such writers – both with a tremendous body of work, mostly letters written to children – have had books published of their letters and these lingered with me long after I put them down. Both were women, and both were married to, and then divorced from, Aryan men – this meant their children had a privileged status, and also stayed in touch with them far longer than Valy was able to stay in touch with my grandfather. Their words give depth and texture to the incremental horror, a day-by-day account of what Jews were experiencing as the Nazi vise closed tighter and tighter around the community. And their voices give a crucial, and clear, eye-witness account of life in Germany during the heart of terror. At first I thought I would write more on these letters in my book; in the end, Valy’s words were so prolific, and so powerful, these books became contextual for me, rather than central.

The first is called Before Deportation: Letters from a Mother to her Daughters January 1939-December 1942. These are the collected letters of Hertha Feiner, a Berlin based schoolteacher whose two girls were spirited out of Germany to Switzerland by their non-Jewish father. Feiner’s ex-husband marries a Nazi, and though their divorce had been amicable (and not due, for example, to the pressure many mixed marriages faced to dissolve in the face of racial laws) eventually that relationship sours. Feiner’s letters to her daughters, like those of Valy, are increasingly desperate until she grasps at the one thing she believes will save her: the presence of her Aryan children. She wants them to come back to Berlin for her. It sounds insane, doesn’t it? But for a time their very existence had helped her – it gave her, as she writes them, a “special status.” They don’t return to their mother – in part because their father forbids it; in part because their school does; in part because it is unclear it would have helped. But their mother’s last letter just destroys me every time I read it. It was penned in December of 1942. “Christmas is coming, the celebration of love. Let’s hope that peace will come and all people who love one another will be reunited. ... Please be very kind to each other, and think now and then of me.”

Feiner was – like Valy and her mother – employed by the Jewish community. She was tasked with the terrible task of preparing deportation lists. She writes to her girls of the fate facing those in the Jewish community that they know, and what they are going through, their factory work, their impoverishment. Feiner was deported on March 12, 1943 to Auschwitz, but as she had been made privy to the deprivations, or worse, awaiting her, she committed suicide en route.

The second book is the one I recommend most often - My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900-1944. This book, fuller than the first, and the story is all the more devastating as Lilli’s husband divorced her during the teeth of the Nazi era, at a time when he surely knew that so-doing would be a potential death sentence for his wife. Like Valy, Lilli Jahn was a physician – as was her husband. He has an affair with another doctor, a Nazi, who convinces him to leave his wife, though Lilli and her husband had five children together.

My Wounded Heart is built around both the story of Lilli’s life and the letters she writes to her children when she is eventually incarcerated in the Bretenau labor camp at the outskirts of Kassel. (Her “crime” – beyond her Jewishness – was that she had failed to post the name “Sarah” after her own, on a shingle she hung outside her office door, advertising her medical services.) What is remarkable here is that the children’s letters themselves have also – almost in their entirety – been preserved as well, as their mother smuggled them out of the camp in 1944, before she herself was sent to Auschwitz. Before that terrible day, Lilli begs her children to implore their father to intercede on her behalf. His silence, his inaction, his cowardice is as brutal as Lilli’s fate.

This book is more than a collection of letters, it is a story of entire family, a micro story within the macro, with commentary and material built in around each letter, a means of winnowing into the tragedy of a single family.

Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. 

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Digging Deeper Into the New Anthology Tel Aviv Noir

Monday, October 27, 2014 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

The anthology Tel Aviv Noir is the newest in a series of noir crime books pub­lished by Akashic set in cities all over the world: Delhi, Venice, Mexico City, Helsinki and Wall Street are among the destinations writers explore through stories of the illicit. Tel Aviv Noir is the first Israeli volume; a Jerusalem Noir is in the works too. If you are interested in great writing by the younger genera­tion of Israeli writers (Gadi Taub, 49, and Shimon Adaf, 42, are among the old­est writers in the book, down to Gon Ben Ari, who is not yet 30), this volume will reward you. Jewish Book World had the chance to catch up with co-editors Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron by phone recently. Here are pieces of our con­versation with each of them about the volume and Tel Aviv.

Beth Kissileff: How did you decide which writers to include in the an­thology? What were your criteria? 

Assaf Gavron: We wanted to give Israeli writers who are not yet trans­lated into English an opportunity to publish in the U.S., people like Gadi Taub, Matan Hermoni, Shimon Adaf, whose work has appeared in the UK but not in the U.S.

The main theme is noir, and we expanded on that theme. The stories are not all classic noir. Akashic—the publisher—said that most collec­tions in the series are a handful of classic detective stories, and a dark element of the city. That was the direction.

We worked out within each section a nice balance, a progress, from first to last. We started with lighter stuff and put the bodies at the end.

BK: What does it mean to be grouped with Teheran Noir and other cities?

AG: It is nice. I think Tel Aviv deserves its status as an interesting city, with culture and literature and with noir as well as everywhere in the world. I like to be grouped with other cities in the world, and not in the usual context that Israel is given.

BK: A question about your story, “Center.” If the people in the company need proof that the guy is dead, why do they hide the body?

AG: They are not professional detectives or murderers. By the time they figure out what to do, they get caught.

I like the location of Dizengoff Center, since it is full of different parts that are distinct. There is a commercial part with an office building, there are shops, a car park, and bath and water and clubs, a whole world in one or two buildings. I like the idea of an amateur detective, who does things out of his own curiosity.

BK: Etgar, how did you get involved in doing Tel Aviv Noir?

Etgar Keret: I met Johnny Temple from Akashic, and he suggested to me that I edit Jerusalem Noir. I said, ‘I don’t live in Jerusalem, I don’t know it, call me if you do Tel Aviv Noir.‘

From the beginning, this was not a genre book. It is meant to reach writers who were not translated into English. It was very rewarding for us as editors.

BK: What has the reaction been?

EK: The anthology just came out in Israel, and what I liked about it is that everyone has different favorites; as somebody who had published short story collections that is a good thing. There is something about an anthology when it works. There is an amazing synergy, creating a greater whole.

To be honest, when we worked on this, we looked at it as a collection of stories by young Israeli writers to be published in the States, and we thought about the American reader. That was the prime goal and as a bonus it was published in Israel. The best case is if people reading it will catapult these writers and get them published in the States.

BK: How can we get more Israeli writers, and a variety of them, to be known better in English?

EK: Well, what I think is that it is not a uniquely Israeli problem. There are many great writers, and getting translated is difficult. I can talk to foreign publishers, and see how they just met five other writers from five other countries who recommend other writers.

Literary fiction is not extremely commercial anywhere.

BK: Tell me about your sense of Tel Aviv?

EK: I’ve traveled and seen other cities, and Tel Aviv contains all the qualities and advantages of a big city with those of a small town.

In Tel Aviv, if you go to the old bus center station early on Sunday morn­ing, you see many well-dressed African families going to church. You feel like you are in a different place, people speak a different language, and there’s a different social structure, like in Deakla Kaydar’s story.

If you don’t look for this, or find yourself in one of these places by accident, this life exists in this place you feel you know like the back of your hand. For instance, Allenby Street; my son and I know it well, and go there tons of times. I know stores and shop owners, but after 11 PM, it is a totally different city, different drives, different motivations, almost like a parallel place that exists under your nose.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Question­ing Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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Paperless Love: An Unsettling Departure

Monday, October 27, 2014 | Permalink

Sarah Wildman has reported across Europe and the Middle East for The New York Times, Slate, and The New Yorker, among other publications, and is a former New Republic staffer. She is the recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Prize from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the transatlantic relationship,” for the series in Slate where here book Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind originated. Wildman lives in Washington, D.C. She will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I am obsessed with letters. The only means of communication for so many in my grandfather’s world, his preserved letters from friends and family enabled me to tap into his experience, and that of those he left behind, when he fled Europe in the fall of 1938. But of course I couldn’t publish every letter I found – I couldn’t even begin to untangle the stories each one opened up. Yet – here in these blogging spaces – I want to go into both letters I didn’t use – the collection of my grandfather’s was so vast, and encompassed so many people it was impossible to publish them all – and those of others who allowed me to give context and color to the stories my grandfather and his friends told from 1938 through the early 1950s.

One thing that stood out early, as I read through the letters sent from 1938 through 1941 when America entered the war, was that, immediately, the idea of escape from Europe was not necessarily immediately ‘happy’ let alone an ‘ending’ – lives were still very much in the balance, and especially for those who made it only as far as another European city – Bucharest or Budapest or even Paris. In fact, even news from those who made it to Palestine doesn’t seem all that much better than those who remained in Europe. This letter, written by one of my grandfather’s closest friends, was eventually cut from the book, but highlights the anxiety of life on the run – for Jews who made it as far as China, and for Jews who made it as far as Tel Aviv:

July 22, 1939

Dear Dr. Wildman

As you probably already know, my parents have arrived in Shanghai.

While I am happy that they flew "the nest", I do worry a lot about their future. According to newspaper reports, Shanghai is again a theater of war. Hopefully, I shall be able to bring them to Erez [Yisrael] very soon.

Now I have to share some very sad news with you. I feel terrible having to write about this, but I also think it is my duty to do so. Ovenstein and Rotfeld have shed their blood for our homeland. Both lived in one of the most dangerous settlements of the country, - one of the settlements that were used to their daily "evening concert" of shots.

Ovenstein got there with an enormous plan for a harbor. The plan, in and of itself, was excellent and, and he was asked to realize the project "A Jewish fishery Harbor on Lake Tiberias." Rotfeld worked as physician in the area, cut off from the world: Water in front, 2000 m high mountains in back, and located almost outside the rightful borders of Palestine.

One evening, an ferocious Arab attack happened that, however, as usual was pushed back. During the early hours of the following morning they went to work in the fields, as though nothing had happened. They went to work for Jewish land and Jewish life.

They were attacked from an ambush. Ovenstein died on the spot, Rotfeld survived for a short while.

The country was in shock - two such important people, in Erez only for a few months, and already joined the ranks of those who fought and lost their lives for the thousands of the Jewish people, without shelter and without solace.

Willy Ritter held a stirring speech on the day they were buried.

This is the bond of Jewish reconstruction, that arose from servitude, with the will to re-build. Two have fallen, the third stands by the grave. Maybe, he, too, will be felled - maybe me, too, and maybe thousands of others.

One man falls, and the next one takes his place. An eternal bond that never shall be broken because it was forged by our iron will.

Enough for today!

Kind regards from your grateful disciple


Read more about Sarah Wildman here.

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