The ProsenPeople

Interview: Idra Novey

Friday, September 16, 2016 | Permalink

with Michelle Zaurov

Idra Novey is a poet, translator, and newly-minted fiction writer. Her first novel, Ways to Disappear, addresses the power and powerlessness of parents, children, writers, and their translators, brought to light when an internationally acclaimed Jewish Brazilian writer vanishes into the branches of an almond tree. Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to find out more.

Michelle Zaurov: I understand that Ways to Disappear is your first novel. Before writing fiction, you were primarily a poet?

Idra Novey: I’ve always written a mix of genres. I went to graduate school for poetry because it wasn’t possible to apply in more than one genre, or in both writing and translation. To be both a writer and a translator is more common in other countries than in the United States, but I encourage all my writing students to try translation. Working in multiple languages can push a writer in more surprising directions. That was certainly true for me writing in one language while translating from another.

MZ: And what language do you speak at home?

IM: Only Spanish. My husband grew up in a large Sephardic family in Chile and we lived in Valparaiso, Chile for several years together before moving to New York. We speak only Spanish with our children, so while I was translating for Clarice Lispector, I was working in Portuguese, living in Spanish, and writing a novel in English.

MZ: There was a part of the novel that really stuck out to me in the beginning where Raquel first expressed insecurity concerning the relationship with her mother, Beatriz: “She had no patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you knew her novels. What about knowing what a writer has never written down—wasn't that the real knowledge of who she was?” What are you trying to relay about the relationship between a person’s identity and their own written words?

IM: One of the things I most wanted to explore in the novel is what happens, over time, to the partial versions we know of each other. What any of us says on social media, or tells at family events, or at work, are never more than slivers. In the novel, I wanted to explore how a mother and her grown children come to see more than slivers of each other, and what sort of emergency would bring them to a fuller view of each other’s lives. The same happens in the novel with Emma, the translator, who confuses her knowledge of her author’s work with knowledge of her author’s life.

MZ: In the novel, Emma escapes from her dull life in Pittsburgh through her translations of Beatriz’s writing. Did you feel that way with authors you've translated?

IM: I have found translation to be an exhilarating escape and form of adventure, but I also have experienced the opposite, and found translating drew me deeper into where I was in my own life. That especially happened with Clarice Lispector, who died long before I translated her novel, so I only knew her through her work but I found a book of letters that she exchanged with another Brazilian writer, Fernando Sabino, while she was living in Washington, D.C. The letters are about raising her young sons and trying to write; I read them while I was raising my sons and trying to write. The parallels between her letters and my life led me both deeper into her work and into my own.

MZ: Identity seems to play a big role in the novel. I saw that coming up a lot with Miles telling Emma, “This isn’t who you are, this isn’t your life.” It seems that every character has an element of you.

IM: I think that is often the case with a writer and her characters. If you haven’t experienced the emotions you’re describing, you won’t be able to convey them with authority. You don't have to have experienced that emotion in the same situation as the character experiences it, but you do need to have a deep understanding of the feeling you’re describing. I identified with Beatriz’s younger son, Marcus, having grown up the younger sibling. As a younger sibling, you don’t take the lead and it shapes your personality, and if there’s an absent parent, it’s usually the older sibling who assumes more responsibility, as Raquel does in the novel. Marcus, as the younger sibling, is allowed to continue being a child. He continues to be the younger less responsible sibling into his thirties, when his mother disappears.

MZ: Why did you decide to make the Yagoda family Jewish?

IM: The writer who was the inspiration for the author in the novel was Clarice Lispector, who was Jewish. I’m Jewish as well and have come to know a number of really fascinating Brazilian and Chilean Jewish families, whose stories and personalities informed the book. Like Lispector, my invented author Beatriz Yagoda is an immigrant to Brazil who arrived as a child. Lispector came as a two-month-old baby. The Brazilian media always made a point of identifying her as from the Ukraine, but in many instances I think that was a euphemism for identifying her as Jewish, as “other”.

MZ: Speaking of cultural divides, I noticed that a part of Raquel’s hostility towards Emma was because she was American. When you lived in Chile and Brazil, did you witness that kind of treatment to foreigners?

IM: Oh, absolutely. Everywhere I’ve lived or traveled in Latin America, there’s been a palpable hostility from all the American military interventions and the devastation they have created, and also hostility resulting from the overwhelming presence of American companies and products.

That hostility was something I wanted to explore in the novel, too, even if it’s often presented in the book in a comical way.

MZ: Despite the gravity of the situation, you managed to deliver a lot of the story lightheartedly. Humor was really well woven into the violence and magnitude of certain conflicts.

IM: Thank you! I really enjoyed working on the humorous sections of the book, and humor is subversive. When you're open to humor, you can actually go to a darker place than you could if you didn't incorporate it, because you can get away with more when you use humor. You can throw out things you probably couldn't throw out if you didn't embed it in a joke.

Continue reading »

Michelle Zaurov is a student at Binghamton University in New York, where she studies English and literature. She has worked as a journalist writing for the Home Reporter, a local Brooklyn publication.

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Bringing a Taste of the Old World(s) to Sunny California

Thursday, September 15, 2016 | Permalink

Together with Liz Alpern, Jeffrey Yoskowitz is both co-founder of The Gefilteria and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods. With the cookbook’s long-awaited release this week, Jeffrey and Liz are guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Images by Stacy Keck, provided courtesy of Leichtag Commons

Writing an Ashkenazi cookbook while living in New York makes a lot of sense. New York City is the epicenter of Jewish deli culture and American Jewish life, after all. It’s the home of the largest smoked fish purveyor in the country, Knish Alley (an old moniker for Second Avenue), bagel and bialy bakeries, and a serious legacy of Jewish pickling.

And yet, as I dug deep into the history of Ashkenazi Jewish food from the old country, it became clear that the connection to the land, once such an important part of Jewish culinary life, had proven difficult to translate to the bustling urban world I live in today. My own grandmother, who grew up in the village of Szumsk in Poland (now Ukraine), used to pluck plums from the trees in her yard, milk the family cow daily, and turn local cabbage into sauerkraut every fall. When she came to the United States, she bought matzo meal instead of crushing her own from freshly baked matzos, used store-bought farmer cheese instead of curdling her own, and replaced homemade plum preserves with store-bought varieties. She always lamented the lack of good butter in the United States.

When I set out to write the narrative cookbook The Gefilte Manifesto with Liz Alpernmy business partner at The Gefilteria, our Brooklyn-based culinary venture that reimagines eastern European Jewish foods—I wanted to better understand a bit of what it meant to cook and eat foods from Poland and Russia and Lithuania before the dishes were adapted to North American tastes. Sure, I was also interested in more deeply exploring the Jewish-American traditions I’m so fond of, such as classic dishes from the delis and appetizing shops, but I felt from my grandmother’s stories and my own family experiences that there was a deeper wisdom behind the cuisine—as well as a lighter side—to the foods that defined my cultural identity. Part of what was missing in New York, I realized, was proximity to the land and to the rhythm of the seasons.

The urge to recreate the idyllic picture of shtetl cookery certainly inspired my three-week stay this summer at Leichtag Commons, just outside of San Diego, California. The property is home to a vibrant hub of Jewish communal organizations, as well as the incredible Coastal Roots Farm.

The Gefilteria was brought in for a three-week culinary residency—the first of its kind for the community (and for us!). The goal was to bring our philosophy and approach to Ashkenazi cuisine to as unlikely a place as Encinitas, California. It almost felt preposterous to be making eastern European foods like fresh “curd-to-crepe” blintzes and buckwheat breads while surrounded by citrus trees and cacti.

Yet it also kind of made sense. From the moment we arrived and set up shop in the kitchen, which overlooked the fields, farmers began arriving with crates of vegetables. “Anything you can do with these?” they asked, holding out a bushel of extraordinarily perfect pickling cucumbers. As a pickler who got started on a Jewish pickle farm, I hadn’t seen such great cukes in a long time. I was in heaven. We immediately threw down three or four batches of classic sour dills.

As the weeks wore on, we taught cooking classes and cooked and planned for huge meals, all the while turning freshly picked strawberries into syrups and jams, local raw cream and milk into farmer cheese, sour cream and butter. We harvested sorrel leaves to make schav, a sorrel soup also sometimes called green borscht. In other words, I would have made my grandmother proud.

The three weeks culminated in an ambitious Friday night dinner inside a beautiful tent: a 140-person feast inspired by the legacy of Ratner’s, one of the most famous Jewish dairy restaurants from the Lower East Side that has since shut down. It was one of many such restaurants that once dotted the neighborhood. Today, there are hardly any dairy restaurants left. I used to eat at Ratner’s as a child. While we couldn’t replicate every aspect of the restaurant for our dinner, like its notoriously surly waiters, we did our best to capture the feel for the culinary institution for our guests, many of whom were New York expatriates who had fled the gruff city years ago for the more peaceful southern Californian life.

We made gefilte fish and bialys and sweet dairy lokshen kugel for the occasion. We set up a DIY blintz bar where guests could fold their own blintzes. We mixed cocktails with fresh syrups we made from herbs we’d harvested. And we served pickles and borscht, of course. (Find our Summer Beet Borscht recipe here!) In essence, we took many of the recipes and concepts from our cookbook and applied them to this one epic meal. As we were cooking, harvesting and eventually eating these foods, we felt like we were making Jewish dishes as they were meant to be cooked: with traditional do-it-yourself techniques and local, seasonal ingredients that had once been de rigueur.

I found it curious that many of our Californian diners told us that the taste of the bialys brought them back to the “old country,” meaning New York City! A few guests even put some extra bialys in their handbags to take home, which was a true sign of success for me.

Jewish cuisine is ever-evolving. The classic taste of the New York deli and dairy restaurant is as quintessential and iconic a reference for nostalgic intracontinental expats as the homemade farmer cheese from my grandmother’s kitchen is for me. Working on this book in the heart of New York City, harkening back into the kitchen wisdom of the old world, and bringing both of these moments of Jewish culinary history to life on the coast of California reinforced for me that there’s room to celebrate all of these points on the timeline of folk food traditions. I returned to New York inspired by the farmers who made these meals possible, as well as the reactions of the community to the dishes we’d cooked from The Gefilte Manifesto. I could never have imagined how seamlessly they’d be integrated into the landscape and culture of San Diego.

Get the Recipe: Lilya's Summer Beet Borscht from The Gefilte Manifesto

Jeffrey Yoskowitz is the co-owner of The Gefilteria, a culinary venture that reimagines Ashkenazi cuisine, and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods. He fell in love with the art of lacto-fermentation while training as a pickler on an organic farm. He has since worked in the food world as an entrepreneur, consultant, cook, public speaker, and a writer for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and Gastronomica. He was also featured in Forbes 30 Under 30.

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Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: Rituals for People Healers

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Alexander Weinstein shared how the cosmic humor of his science fiction stories was discovered by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. With the release of his book Children of the New World, this week, Alexander has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I was in my mid-twenties when I met Rabbi Zalman again. It was a rough time for me as a writer and a young man. I had graduated with a BA in Creative Writing, a degree which I discovered was good for finding restaurant work. I was working over 60-hour workweeks as a chef, had recently become a father, was overworked, overtired, and worried I would never make it as an author. I was trying to keep my writing alive in the few spare hours I had. I saw that Rabbi Zalman was teaching a course called Rituals for People Healers. I missed the university life, and missed studying with Zalman, so I asked if I could sit in on his class. And in this way, Reb Zalman reentered my life at a time when I needed him the most.

The class centered around creating rituals for others during times of need. As Reb Zalman explained, there were major events in life, such as divorces, teenage years, deaths in the family, buying or selling one’s home, infidelities, promotions and lay-offs, which we didn’t have elaborate rituals for. Yet, these events were often highly significant rites of passage, and times when we most needed the love and support of our family, friends, and community. Because of a lack of ritual around these key moments, Zalman believed people were left with unresolved emotions and a feeling of disconnection from their community. So the class explored the occasions where we, as “people healers,” might be called to create rituals to help friends and family through difficult transitions. The class was a kind of training ground to equip us with the resources of ritual creation which we might use to help those we cared for. Zalman’s central philosophy was that, as humans, we had an obligation to help build a larger and more loving world.

The class was a powerful one, and it gave me a structure for community building—a teaching which led to my founding of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, the non-profit organization I founded seven years ago, whose focus is aiding writers within a summer arts community where they can work and be creatively inspired. I didn’t know it at the time, but Zalman’s teachings would shape my future. It also turned out to be the last time I would talk with my rabbi.

Soon after the semester ended, I moved to Indiana with my family, where I pursued my MFA in Fiction. In the years that passed, I often thought about Rabbi Zalman—promising myself to write him soon and thank him for all his wisdom, guidance, and generosity. Time passed, I worked on my stories, and found myself busy with fatherhood, publishing, editing, directing the Institute, and the daily demands of life.

Last year, on a spring day, I decided to finally search out Reb Zalman and write him a letter. As I searched for his email address, I discovered the news that he had died two years earlier, in 2014. There was no one to share my grief with, and so, in the ways Reb Zalman had taught me, I held a ritual to say goodbye to the man who’d so deeply influenced my life.

I’ve been listening to Reb Zalman’s teachings as I drive to work these days, watching his YouTube videos, and hearing his singing of Judaic chants. In one video, he stands in the Rocky Mountains, his voice beautiful as he brings all those around him into the presence of the sacred. As I listen to his teachings, I’ve come to understand how profoundly Reb Zalman has influenced my writing. Many of the stories in my collection, Children of the New World, are about people who are trying to live good lives within a world where technology has separated us from human interaction. The hope beneath the tales is that we might better practice what it means to reach out to our neighbors, friends, and family to create a more nurturing community—one which exists in our physical reality rather than within online worlds. The collection, like my work with the Martha’s Vineyard Institute, is another extension of Rabbi Zalman’s teachings: to remember what it means to be “people healers” and to do what we can to make this world a better and more loving place.

Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe.

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Blueberry Pierogi in Warsaw

Monday, September 12, 2016 | Permalink

Together with Jeffrey Yoskowitz, Liz Alpern is both co-founder of The Gefilteria and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods. With the cookbook’s long-awaited release this week, Jeffrey and Liz are guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I arrived in Warsaw this summer with a rough itinerary and a vague notion of smelling, touching and tasting my way through the land whose food traditions I had inherited. My desire for a trip to the Motherland grew even more urgent since spending the last several years researching and writing a cookbook about Ashkenazi cuisine. I hoped Poland would provide a rich and authentic experience of the tastes my ancestors had experienced.

The story of Ashkenazi cuisine did not begin or end in Poland, but its climate and seasons, as well as its terroir, are representative of the wider eastern European Jewish world. Yet there is something a bit awkward about going to Poland to experience Jewish foods, since the absence of a vibrant Jewish life is noticeable, outside of the renaissance happening in Krakow today. Whereas Jewish bakeries once dotted the landscape, churning out loaves of rye, challah, bialys and bagels, I didn’t quite know what to expect from twenty-first century Warsaw.

Immediately upon my arrival, I began to ask locals—friends and strangers alike—what foods I must experience. Almost everyone told me that I must try Poland’s famous wild blueberries. In late June, my visit dovetailed with the short window for their harvest. I had known about these blueberries from my co-author Jeffrey, who came back a few years ago from Poland waxing philosophical about these tiny wild fruits that flourished on the bushes in late June, bursting with a tart, intoxicating sweetness. His experiences were part of the inspiration for a recipe for blueberry soup that we developed for our cookbook. (Find the recipe here!)

Driving through the countryside, I saw for myself how blueberries were sold on the side of the road, usually alongside forest mushrooms. Travelers and locals all stopped to snatch them up, presumably to transform them into everyone’s favorite jam, as a means of extending the short harvest season.

Friends particularly suggested that I try blueberry pierogi, a seasonal specialty. Pierogi, the eastern European dough pockets that go by many names based on region of origin, stuffings, and shape, are ubiquitous all over Poland. The fillings vary from toasted kasha to farmers cheese to sauerkraut and mushroom to potato and fried onion. I, however, had my sights on the blueberry variety.

On my very first night in Warsaw, my friend and unofficial Polish tour guide, Malgo, made me promise that I would not eat blueberry pierogi at just any restaurant. They were too important, she felt, too vital to the legacy of Polish cuisine, that she insisted she would cook them for me instead. As an experienced pierogi maker myself, I insisted that I would help in the process. Our only available evening, it turned out, was my last night in Poland. With that, I agreed to wait a full week to indulge in this special treat.

While awaiting my blueberry pierogi destiny throughout the following days and nights I enjoyed pierogi of all varieties, from the high-end restaurant versions to the unobtrusive pan-fried versions at the local hole-in-the-wall spots. The dough was more often than not unwaveringly perfect: soft with a bit of bite, simple with a hint of salt. The fillings were comforting and familiar and almost always satisfying. The experience validated my own hard work on a pierogi recipe and increased my excitement about our unique lentil-chard filling.

On the last night of my trip, I ventured into Saska Kępa, a part of Warsaw I had not yet seen, and entered Malgo’s home—where she was arms-deep in an enormous bowl of tiny little berries, coating them gently in sugar to draw out the liquid and soften them. There was a giant mass of dough on the counter next to her. It was going to be a long night.

For hours we folded small spoonfuls of berries into tiny dough pockets. We drank wine and recounted my trip, and when we had made enough, we boiled them and set out a huge plate. Finally. When I bit into those blueberry pierogi I was amazed at how something so simple could possibly be so full of flavor. We ate them all, dolloped with sour cream, until our tongues turned blue. Then we went back to making more. Malgo packed several warm pierogi into a jar for me and slipped it into my bag. When I finally returned to my hotel at 3:00 AM that night, filled with dumplings and wine and freshly sweet memories, I had already forgotten about the pierogi in my bag. When I woke up three hours later and boarded my plane home, I noticed the jar rattling around in my luggage. I smiled to myself, knowing that these pierogi would be with me well beyond the plane ride.

Get the Recipe: Spiced Blueberry Soup from The Gefilte Manifesto

Liz Alpern got her start in the Jewish food world working with acclaimed cookbook author Joan Nathan. She curates and cooks for pop-up events and boutique shops and is currently working on an MBA at CUNY Baruch College.

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Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: The Humor of Enlightenment

Monday, September 12, 2016 | Permalink

Alexander Weinstein is the author of Children of the New World, a provocative collection of science fiction stories of the near-future. With the release of the book this Tuesday, Alexander is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I was twenty-two years old, and finishing my BA in creative writing at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, when I first met Reb Zalman.

The Kerouac School was a fantastic program, one which taught me to take risks in my writing and revealed the intersection between spirituality and literature. There was a free community class on The Search for Enlightenment, led by a man named Rabbi Zalman. The idea of learning from a rabbi was intimidating. For one—in spite of the fact that as a little boy I had accompanied my father to hear my grandfather sing as the cantor of his small synagogue—I was never a very religious person. And secondly, I worried that Reb Zalman would be judgmental, and sternly rabbinical. But, I was also young, searching for answers (in the best Talmudic tradition), and drawn to the topic. And so I went. Zalman was in his late seventies at the time, and surprisingly laid back in his black shirt and yarmulke, his face beaming with warmth. He welcomed us to the session, and then asked us to stand up and walk the space leisurely.

“As you walk, I want you to look for enlightenment,” he instructed. “Ask everyone you meet: ‘Are you Moksha?’” And so we walked around the room, and with every person we passed, we asked the same question: “Are you Moksha?”

“Moksha,” it turns out, was not a person, but rather a state of being. I experienced two specific emotions during this experience. The first was that I didn’t believe myself to be enlightened, nor to have the answer of enlightenment for those who came asking for moksha. More importantly, as I watched myself searching the faces, I realized I’d been searching for enlightenment since I was sixteen. I’d been fascinated by the idea of spiritual liberation and findingenlightenment. With every new person I asked about moksha, I understood that this was how I’d been living: I was looking everywhere for the secrets of spirituality, and constantly searching for the wise men and women who had a grasp on liberation. Little did I know, I was in a room with a man who was as close to enlightenment as I’d ever meet.

“So,” he asked us, putting his hands together and smiling, “Did you find it?”

After that first session, I enrolled in Rabbi Zalman’s Intro to Judaism class. It wasn’t my interest in the subject matter that compelled me—I simply wanted to be in the rabbi’s presence. He was a wisdom keeper in the truest sense of the word, and had prayed with all faiths. From Native American ceremonies to Hindu deities, from the great Buddhist masters to his encyclopedic knowledge of Judaism, he believed in a human spirituality. And it was through his belief in inter-spirituality that he opened the Jewish faith to me. He shared wisdom tales of the old rabbis, and was able to unpack the Old Testament, often agreeing with our critiques, knowing that it was through our questioning that we might better come to understand the sacred. Within his laughter, which rolled from him naturally, I began to understand what it meant to be holy, and in turn, I grew interested in the spiritual wealth of Judaism.

Reb Zalman wasn’t a creative writing teacher, but nearly two decades later, I recognize his humor within my writing. In my recent collection, Children of the New World, there’s a story entitled Moksha. The main character, Abe, is engaged in a spiritual search, and he travels to Nepal to find electronic enlightenment, which they have on the cheap in Kathmandu. He’s looking for an easy spiritual fix, and everywhere he goes, he’s hoping to find the secret. It was Zalman who first taught me the word moksha, and who helped me understand the humor in Abe’s (and my own) search. Like most humans, I still long for things, still wonder about enlightenment, and I work to cultivate peace, happiness, and love with those around me. In my stories, I attempt a similar feat: to write characters who have good hearts, who hurt in the ways we all do, who love as best they can, and who, in their struggles, are seeking to make things better. Whether it be enlightenment, happiness, or love, we are all searching for ways to improve our lives. And there’s a great cosmic humor in this search, one which Zalman understood as he watched us wandering that small room at Naropa so many years ago, fully enjoying the sacred dance we were reenacting.

Read Part II of Alexander Weinstein's Encounters with Rabbi Zalman: Rituals for People Healers

Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe.

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The Stories That Never Leave You

Friday, September 09, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Affinity Konar wrote about her first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the setting of Mischling, after she had already written the book. With the release of the novel this week, Affinity has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

There are stories that are unforgettable, and then there are stories that will never leave you. The best way to deal with such an obsession is to write about it. In my case though, I didn’t think myself fit for the telling: the story that wouldn’t leave me was the story of the twins of Auschwitz.

Like so many, I grew up reading Shoah narratives; I affixed myself to the fact that these atrocities had been detailed by some of the greatest minds the world will ever know. To attempt a fraction of their acts of remembrance would have been foolish, I told myself, and disrespectful. But after nearly a decade of self-negotiation, I focused on the thought that occurred when I had first read of the horrific experiments on twins during the Holocaust: my novel could be a conversation between two Jewish children who were not allowed to be children. It would not be an attempt to capture the vastness of the unspeakable, but a small stage for two Jewish girls, imperiled by the ultimate evil, to articulate an extreme love they have for each other, a love that blots out the name of Josef Mengele.

As the book has ventured out to into the world this week, I am finding that many people grew up with a startlingly youthful awareness of Mengele—a discovery often so overwhelming that such readers cannot pinpoint their introduction to the criminal. I am the same. But my introduction to the twins remains crystalline: when I was sixteen, I found the remarkable Children of the Flames by Lucette Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, which approaches not only the experience of the twins within Auschwitz-Birkenau, but their lives beyond it, and their struggle to acclimate to a broken world. Of course, there is also Mengele, comfortably evading prosecution and writing his memoirs in Brazil. It is maddening to read. And yet, you find some hope, too, in the testimonies of the survivors, and their commitment to telling a story that the world does not always want to hear.

People often seem ready to discuss Mengele. Since his all-too-peaceable flight and death, he has enjoyed an ability to transfix, to be treated—in all his reported contradictions—like a puzzle. But a puzzle is too charming a thing for a murderer, and in writing Mischling I decided not to take a route that explored how he was able to perpetuate his crimes. In times of doubt, I wondered if this choice was cowardly, but ultimately it felt sacred not peer into this unfathomable evil, to approach him as banal. I fastened myself to this story: he was a man who would give a boy a ride on his shoulders one day and deliver that same boy to the ovens with his own hands the next. Mengele tormented expectant mothers, Jewish women whose very beauty offended him, people who bore what he deemed to be genetic abnormalities, and many, many others. I wanted these crimes to speak for him, instead of an interest in trying to understand how he came by his malevolence.

But while Mengele could be put in the background, his works could not. Calibrating the degree of horror to portray was one of the most daunting tasks. The atrocities can never be brutal and dehumanizing enough on the page. You look at pictures of the people Mengele tortured and it breaks you. I always have to read Celan after seeing these images; only his suspension of pain within language would make it endurable. I did not want to torment the reader, nor did I want to dilute the trauma of the survivors. Some of the crimes perpetrated are unspeakable among those who experienced them and mentioning them would have felt like violation.

The most horrific experiment I chose to include is detailed not in scene, but through recollection, a little globe of memory. I found it important to highlight because it speaks to the absurdity of Mengele’s medical efforts—one can only imagine this act serving a sadistic impulse. I dearly hoped that poetic language might serve as a filter. I did not want to obscure torment; I wanted to show how someone might obscure torment in order to survive it.

That portrayal of survival was my utmost concern while writing. When I first began, I worried about how I might give power to characters who had been stripped of it. But remarkably, granting agency to the characters was one of the easier tasks, if only because you cannot read the accounts of survivors without being inspired by how they sustained themselves, whether it was through stealing potatoes or tricking nurses or sabotaging paperwork. The book owes its animation to so many, but I must always mention Eva Mozes Kor, Miriam Mozes Zeiger, Alex Dekel, Gisella Perl, and Zvi Spiegel. I was blessed to live in awe of them as I wrote.

Affinity Konar was raised in California and holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of the novel Mischling, out this week from Lee Boudreaux Books.

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New Reviews September 9, 2016

Friday, September 09, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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The Early Origins of "Live Long and Prosper"

Thursday, September 08, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Michelson wrote about following his own advice for aspiring authors and the encouragement he received in penning Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy—which comes out this week! Richard is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, became a cultural icon—as did Leonard Nimoy, himself—but even his most ardent fans do not fully understand the important role that Judaism played in both the Star Trek series and Leonard’s life. (William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, is also Jewish, though less directly connected to his faith.)

Leonard was born into a Yiddish-speaking, kosher—and I mean three-sets-of-dishes-kosher—Orthodox Jewish household on Chambers Street in Boston. He shared his small apartment with his older brother, his parents, and his Bubbe and Zayde. Three generations, four rooms.

When he brought his dad lunch and the Forverts at the family barbershop, he only had to walk three blocks. The shul was at the end of his street. Later the family attended a different synagogue, and although Leonard never discovered the dispute that led to the change, he loved to tell the joke about the Jew who was saved from a desert island, and proudly showed his rescuers the two shuls he’d built: one to attend and one he wouldn’t enter for a million bucks.

One Rosh Hashanah, when Leonard was eight years old, he accompanied his father to services. He was fascinated as a bunch of men went to the bima, orpulpit, and started chanting and swaying.

He was instructed, as tradition dictates, to cover his eyes during the Priestly Blessing.

But Leonard was an eight-year-old boy, and he couldn’t help peeking. He watched the men pull their prayer shawls over their heads, as their chants got louder. He watched them bless the congregation as they raised both arms in the air and held out their hands “as if they were shooting a two-handed jump shot. What were they doing with their fingers?”

At age seventeen, Leonard fell in love with theater when he was asked to be in a local production of Awake and Sing by the playwright Clifford Odets. It was about three generations of a poor Jewish family who lived together in one small apartment, and the director needed someone to play the part of the teenage son who yearned for a better life. “Lenny read the play,” I describe in my new children’s biography, Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy. “Could the author have known the Nimoys? How did Mr. Odets understand what Lenny was thinking—thoughts he hadn’t shared with anyone?”

When he started out as a professional actor, Leonard played in a production of Sholom Aleichem's It's Hard to Be a Jew at Hollywood's Civic Theatre, with the great Yiddish actor and director Maurice Schwartz. Leonard would later go on to tour the country as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, as well as playing Golda Meir’s husband in A Woman Name Golda and Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein in Never Forget.

As established a thespian as he already was at the time, it was in Star Trek’s second season, when the Enterprise visited the planet Vulcan for the first time, that Leonard’s most lasting contribution to American culture occurred. The script told Spock to shake hands with the Vulcan queen, but Leonard wanted to have a special greeting. “Asians bow when they meet,” he told the director, “and military men salute.”

“And how do Vulcans greet each other?” he was asked.

Leonard thought for a while, and then he remembered that awesome moment during High Holiday services when he was eight years old. He held up his hand in the ancient Hebraic gesture and blessed his fellow actors.

✷Live Long and Prosper.✷

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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Do What Scares You

Wednesday, September 07, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Michelson wrote about following his own advice for aspiring authors in penning Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy—which comes out this week! Richard is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When I was deciding whether to accept the “job offer” to write the children’s book A is for Abraham in a series of cultural and state alphabet books by Sleeping Bear Press, I ran through the pros and cons with my friend and mentor, Leonard Nimoy.

The cons seemed obvious. I had never attended a Jewish Day School, I knew no Hebrew, I knew no Yiddish, I never had a Bar Mitzvah, I couldn’t recite any prayers, I never followed the traditions, and I even “cheated” on Yom Kippur, noshing when I should be fasting.

The pros? I couldn’t think of any offhand. And it was a daunting task. Boil down all of Jewish knowledge and history into the most important 26 categories. Write two- or four-line poems for young children to read and a sidebar explaining the subject in depth for older children.

Leonard thought it over and decided I was the “logical” choice.

Because I didn’t know anything, every part of Judaism interested me. And I saw it from the outside, like a child might. I had so many questions! It is often difficult to learn from a person who is too much the expert, he counseled. The fish cannot explain water. You need to be standing on dry land.

And his most important artistic advice: Do what scares you!

Leonard had insatiable curiosity and he lived by the mantra: Go, Do, Explore. He was an actor, director, photographer, singer, poet, pilot, and playwright. When he was offered the part of Spock he hesitated. At that time, he already had a successful thirteen-year career, having starred in two movies and numerous television shows, including the highest rated series of the day. He’d started his own studio to help teach younger performers.

Now he was being asked to wear pointed ears and a silly haircut. He was afraid he would lose all credibility. But then he remembered how his Zayde, who had come to the United States with a sense of adventure to find a better life, had always encouraged him to take chances.

Leonard’s parents, on the other hand, arrived much later. They were fearful people, as befits immigrants from Zaslav, Ukraine who escaped Russian pogroms. His mother was smuggled out of the city in a hay wagon, and his father was sneaked across the border. Their papers, upon entering the United States, had been stamped “Alien.” They were always telling young Lenny to stay home, fit in, and play it safe.

If he was yelled at for staying out too late, Leonard’s Bubbe used to console him by singing her favorite Yiddish poem: Itzik Manger’s There Is a Tree That Stands, which is about a boy who wants to turn into a bird and fly away. In the song, it’s cold out and his mother makes him put on a coat, then galoshes, then a hat and gloves, until he is so encumbered that

I try to fly, but I can’t move…
Too many, many things
My mother’s piled on her weak bird
And loaded down my wings.

I look into my mother’s eyes
And, sadly, then I see
The love that won’t let me become
The bird I want to be.

So Leonard decided it was time for him to take a chance, close the circle and become an alien.
Go. Do. Explore.

In his honor I decided my “V” would stand for Vulcan, and my side bar would incorporate the long history of Jews in the arts. So I penned two lines:

V is for Vulcan. Star-Trekkers, I’m guessing,
know Spock’s greetings’ based on a Kohanim blessing.

They were, perhaps rightfully, rejected by my editor, and a different “V” verse was substituted in their place. But I am pleased for the opportunity to share the couplet for the first time with Jewish Book Council’s readers—and I’ll talk more about that blessing of theh Kohanim, which became the starting point of my book Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, in my next blog post!

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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Everyone Has a Story to Tell—Just Remember to Write It Down

Tuesday, September 06, 2016 | Permalink

With his new book Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy, coming out this week, author Richard Michelson is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As a college graduate, I was well versed in Russian literature and American history; and I could name the dynasties of French and English Kings. But I knew next to nothing about the life my grandfather had lived in his Eastern European shtetl, or how he came to settle in America. I never asked. I do not recall that we ever had a single conversation of substance while he was alive. When my children were studying for their bar and bat mitzvah, I decided I needed to do some research, so I could pass down family history. So I wrote a children’s book titled Too Young for Yiddish, where a boy who looks and sounds a bit like me gets a chance to hear his Zayde’s story firsthand. He learns that “history is what happens to real people,” and he forges a relationship with his grandfather through the miracle of fiction that I wish I had experienced in “real life.”

When I speak to children and they ask the dreaded prepared question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I invite them to go home that very day and ask their parents, grandparents, best friend’s parents, and their best friends about their lives. “Everyone has a story to tell,” I say. “Just remember to write it down.”

When I speak to aspiring authors at conferences, the advice is almost exactly the same. “Be curious about the lives that surround you, and listen carefully. Write down what you hear. Do it now. Don’t wait.”

So how did I forget my own advice in my long relationship with Leonard Nimoy?

When Leonard was asked to record Too Young for Yiddish for the National Yiddish Book Center, we started a relationship that lasted twelve years, until his death. We emailed daily, phoned regularly, and often traveled together. He was a serious photographer, having built his own darkroom as a 13 year old boy. When Star Trek was cancelled after three seasons, Leonard contemplated changing careers and he went back to UCLA and studied photography.

I am an art dealer and ended up handling his photographic career. As we traveled together to exhibitions—and, later, family events—we shared stories of our childhoods, our evolving relationships to Judaism, and our political beliefs. We bonded over a love of art and literature. Mostly we laughed together, often over the fact that we looked alike, and no one would believe that we were not father and son.

Leonard was a first reader as I wrote many other picture book biographies, profiling well known figures like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in As Good As Anybody and people who I thought had been unfairly left out of the historical canon, like Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, who was also the first “professional” baseball player, and the first Jewish manager (I have started a petition to get Pike in the Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Why did it never occur to me to put Leonard Nimoy’s story down on paper? Over the years I facilitated countless interviews—everyone was interested in his life—but it wasn’t until I’d watched a documentary, Leonard Nimoy’s Boston, that his son Adam had made (originally conceived as a family memoir for the Nimoy kids and grandkids)—that I realized Leonard’s life story would be perfect to inspire the “next generation.”

At the time, I had no idea that Leonard would pass away three months later from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD (his daughter Julie is working on a documentary to help raise money to fight the disease: COPD: Highly Illogical). In fact, my expectation was that we would go on a book tour together. I give thanks that Leonard was able to read the finished manuscript before he passed on:

It’s wonderful and I’m flattered… It is an amazing piece of work and I love that you decided to do it, he emailed me the same evening I sent him my manuscript.

I am glad I didn’t wait.

Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.

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