The ProsenPeople

Interview: Stephanie Feldman

Wednesday, September 03, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman’s debut novel, weaves together history and Jewish folklore into a multi-generational family saga. At the heart of the story is the relationship between two sisters, Marjorie and Holly. Marjorie, who is on a quest to find the meaning behind her grandfather’s fairy tales, must also come to grips with her own resentment toward her married sister and her newfound family. The novel’s universal themes are family and loss, exile and redemption. Elise Cooper interviewed Stephanie Feldman for the Jewish Book Council.

Elise Cooper: Where did you get the idea for the story?

Stephanie Feldman: I first got the idea in college while studying eighteenth-century Gothic novels. I wanted to write something similar: a tale with mysterious figures, ghosts, and family secrets that also tackles the issues of identity and social obligation. I made it my own by setting it in the contemporary U.S., and rewriting the Wandering Jew, a common Gothic character, using Jewish tradition. Through my research I learned that the Wandering Jew was based on a Christian legend: a Roman who taunted Jesus as he carried the cross and is condemned to immortality, forced to wander the earth until Jesus returns. This legend definitely had anti-Semitic incarnations. Because I wanted to take that figure back I incorporated the story with Jewish tradition.

EC: Were you exposed to Jewish mysticism and religion as a child?

SF: No. I grew up as a Reform Jew. We celebrated the holidays but were not particularly observant. I went to Philadelphia public schools where I was one of the only Jewish children in my class. I felt my duty was to be the representative of those who are Jewish. Then I went to Barnard College, which has a very large Orthodox Jewish population. I made friends who were very religious and realized I did not know some of the words spoken or the customs practiced. Suddenly I thought "maybe I am not as Jewish as I thought I was."This was about the time I started thinking about writing this book. I realized I wanted to explore Jewish identity, including my own.

EC: Is that why you compare and contrast secular and religious Jews in the book?

SF: I wanted to explore with the characters what they thought of each other’s Jewishness. There is this gulf between the characters and how they see the world. They are not willing to see where each other comes from. The story has them exploring the need to be more open-minded and accepting of each other’s beliefs; although the book never comes to a resolution on what makes somebody Jewish.

EC: Why did you write the Holocaust scenes?

SF: In my family the Holocaust was always part of our Jewish identity. What I think all Jews have in common is that shared history, which I incorporated into the story. For Grandpa Eli, fairy tales are a way of telling a history that he is unable to communicate, or confront head-on.

EC: Did you do a lot of research for the book?

SF: I didn't have any favorite folktales coming in, but the ones that struck me the most, and which you'll see in the book, describe holy men who attempted to force the coming of the Messiah and Paradise. These men love G-d so much they're willing to destroy His laws for the chance to be closer to Him. I am very interested in learning about group loyalty and its relationship to social construction. Jewish identity is particularly thorny because it is a religion, tradition, and there is the Jewish nation of Israel.

EC: Since the sisters’ relationship is so important throughout the book, please describe the interaction between Holly and Marjorie, and between Chava, Holly’s religious identity, and Marjorie.

SF: Marjorie loves Holly fiercely but is also furious with her, although most of her anger is a mask for her own hurt and sadness. She feels abandoned by Holly, who made the choice to leave her sister behind. Marjorie resents Nathan, Holly’s husband, because she blames him for taking Holly away, and every interaction between them becomes a battle. Marjorie has a forceful personality. She is self-righteous, driven, not very forgiving, and single-minded. Holly is the nice sister, the forgiving one who is easiest to get along with. It took time for me to put Marjorie's feelings and judgments aside and see Holly as she sees herself. After Holly becomes Chava she is more like Marjorie; both are very stubborn.

EC: Is this a book about exile?

SF: The Angel of Losses has a yearning for what exists and cannot be left behind. There is the feeling of exile, and the desire to have a reunion with G-d. This book’s theme is about exile: Holly exiled Marjorie, and Marjorie exiled herself as she left her home and family where she grew up. The exile theme also comes into play within the mysticism portions of the book. Exile is a key Jewish concept: the Exile from the Garden of Eden, exile from G-d, and from a physical homeland. To be exiled is to have a sense of loss, which Marjorie, Holly, Nathan, and Eli all experience and must come to grips within their own way.

EC: What does the White Rebbe represent?

SF: He is not based on any particular rabbi. He is a fairly modern person who is struggling with what it means to be his father’s son and a member of the Tribe, and with what he owes his loved ones and what he owes himself. As Marjorie learns more about the White Rebbe and her grandfather she comes to see her own life as another version of their stories.

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

SF: I hope they enjoy the story. I want them to think about their own identity. A family’s history should be passed down to each generation. This family is like many other families whose members love each other but make a lot of mistakes interacting and understanding each other. They are struggling as a unit with loyalty, duty, when to sacrifice for one another, and when to speak up. Untying those knotty relationships was intense, and I was grateful to escape into fairy tales sometimes, into the legends I created.

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

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Interview: Tova Mirvis

Tuesday, September 02, 2014 | Permalink

by Adam Rovner

Best-selling author Tova Mirvis achieved mainstream success with her novels about women in insular Orthodox communities. After a ten year hiatus, Mirvis is back with her third novel, Visible City (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an intensely personal tale of love, loss, and transformation.

Adam Rovner: Some reviewers of Visible City found the novel to be pessimistic because it depicts failed relationships. Can you discuss your own sense of whether Visible City was optimistic or pessimistic?

Tova Mirvis: I wanted to write about real life and I don’t think we divide real life into optimistic and pessimistic. Life has its ups and downs. The hard parts and good parts are all intertwined. I felt that the book was about the possibility of change. At the beginning of the book, a lot of the characters are in a state of paralysis, but what I think is amazing about life are those openings—those windows—where we can and do make a change.

AR: Speaking of windows, a central plotline in Visible City concerns the search for a lost masterpiece of stained glass by American artist John LaFarge (1835-1910). Stained glass seems to me to be an especially Christian art form. I always associate stained glass windows with churches, even though synagogues have them as well. For a writer who is so steeped in Jewish tradition, why did the motif of stained glass attract you?

TM: I have those same associations! Stained glass was probably one of my least favorite areas of art, ironically. I got interested in stained glass because of my ex-husband. That was how I learned about John LaFarge. There are stained glass windows that LaFarge made near Boston that I went to see. They are huge and stunning. You can look at those win­dows as a whole, but you can also look at each individual piece of glass and get a sense of how they were constructed to be a part of this mas­sive work. It made me think about novel writing and I said: “That’s what I’m trying to do, to put all my little pieces together.” And so I developed this love for stained glass.

AR: Jeremy is one of two characters in Visible City who searches for the lost LaFarge window. He’s intriguing because he has left the Or­thodox Jewish world. At one point in the novel there’s a lament from Jeremy’s perspective about the loss of Shabbat observance. Why was Jeremy’s abandonment of tradition so crucial to the novel?

TM: His story felt important to me because I was interested in what happens when we make change. I felt like the idea that we can change our lives doesn’t tell the whole story, because of course we bring the past with us. I was writing a book about physical objects that were left behind in the city—stained glass windows that are walled up, or [aban­doned] subway stations—and then I thought about the parts of our own past that are sort of emotional ghost stations. Even when you make a change, even when you want that change, there is still regret and loss. I felt like Shabbat was an example where you view time differently, and having some experience with lawyers myself, every second can be taken up by work. But Shabbat is kept separate. By leaving that behind, Jer­emy no longer had the feeling that at least for those twenty-five hours, his time was his own.

AR: Would it be fair to say that Visible City may be even more personal a novel than either of your previous books?

TM: Visible City was hewn out of my own need for change, my own emotional trajectory. It took ten years [to write], which I can’t really believe. […] It took a lot of time and a lot of soul-searching to figure out how to finish this book. Ultimately, I feel like I had to be willing to unleash the characters and write a book where people make changes. I think I had to come to learn that people do make changes, do take action. I had to be willing to let that happen, both in my own life and for the characters.

AR: Can you let us in on what you’re working on next?

TM: I’m working on a memoir, which is new for me. I wrote an essay that was in The New York Times about my divorce that will be the first chapter. Writing [that essay] was not the emotional part—putting it out there was. But I ended up getting a few hundred emails from strangers and it was so nice to have people share their own stories of change, of divorce, and of religion. There was this feeling that I’m telling a story that other people experience also. So now I’m writing a book—the tentative title is The Book of Separation, which is a translation from the [biblical] Hebrew term for a divorce document: sefer kritut. I’m writing about how you make changes after having lived in a certain world, what you leave behind, and what it means to recreate you own sense of com­munity or belonging that’s different from what you’re accustomed to. I have to turn it in December of 2015. That scares me because I’m used to the ten-year plan, so I’m hard at work.

Adam Rovner is an associate professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. He is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press), a narrative history of efforts to establish Jewish homelands across the globe.

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Reminiscing with Bel Kaufman about Sholem Aleichem

Tuesday, September 02, 2014 | Permalink

Barbara Isenberg, author of Tradition!, is an award winning journalist who has been writing and lecturing about theater for over three decades. She is blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

One of the saddest parts of writing a book is having to set aside material you cherish but which simply doesn’t fit in the book that emerges. This happened to me too many times on my current book, Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, The World’s Most Beloved Musical, and among the treasures still in my files are outtakes from my interview with the writer Bel Kaufman.

Bel Kaufman is best-known to the general public as the author of the best-selling 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase, based on her own experiences as a New York City schoolteacher. But she is perhaps equally well-known to Jewish readers as the granddaughter of the great Yiddish humorist Sholem Aleichem. Since Aleichem’s wondrous short stories about Tevye the Dairyman inspired Fiddler on the Roof, I was particularly eager to meet her.

Until her death this July at age 103, Bel Kaufman was the last remaining family member who actually knew Aleichem before his own death in 1916. So it was that one summer day, not long after her 100th birthday, I went to visit her to talk about her famous grandfather. As you might imagine, she immediately warmed to the subject.

“He was the most wonderful grandfather any child could have,” she told me that day. “We never called him 'grandfather.' For us, he was 'Poppa Sholem Aleichem.' He was much too youthful to be a grandfather. He was slight and elegant, and he loved fancy clothes. Velvet jackets. Beautiful ties. He was more like a European man of letters. He corresponded in Russian with Tolstoy and Chekhov. Of course, I didn’t know all that at the time. To me, he was Poppa Sholem Aleichem, who was great fun.

“I remember the sound of his laughter, and I have two or three visceral memories. I remember the feeling of his hand. He used to tell me that the harder I held his hand, the better he wrote. So I take all credit, for I held on very tight.”

Kaufman also spoke of her adult role as Aleichem’s granddaughter. “When I came to this country, at 12, I was introduced as ‘Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter,’” she said. “It embarrassed me. I used to say it was my easiest accomplishment. All I had to do was to get born to his daughter. Then Up the Down Staircase was published to rave reviews, which I never expected. When the critics were kind enough to say I wore the mantle well, and had the same humor and compassion as my grandfather, it was as if I had been given permission to be a writer. It was as if I heard him say, alright, so be a writer.”

Barbara Isenberg is the author of Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical, State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work and Conversations with Frank Gehry. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Esquire, The Huffington Post, and London’s Sunday Times. She lives in Los Angeles. Read more about her and her work here.

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The ProsenPshat: Week of August 25

Saturday, August 30, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The Jewish Book Council webteam is launching a weekly recap of highlights from each week’s online content on www.jewishbookcouncil.org. Worried you might have missed something this week? Be sure to check our featured reviews page and scroll through The ProsenPeople blog!

Following up last week’s review of Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, this week we published the Jewish Book Council’s interview with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s newest biographer:

The Rebbe might well be the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides. I can think of no other rabbi who is as familiar to Jews in Israel, the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and France, the four most populous Jewish communities in the world today. So it certainly seemed that that this was a man whose life deserved to be studied in depth.

If you’d like to read about more seminal Jewish leaders, check out The Founding Fathers of Zionism, five essays by historian Benzion Netanyahu on Pinsker, Herzl, Nordau, Zangwill, and Jabotinsky—the great modern Jewish thinkers of their time.

Benzion Netanyahu’s historical examination of the original Zionists is replete with stories that detail the proverbial forks in the road when his subjects were faced with decisions that not only shaped their lives but dictated the future of the Jewish state and influences our future as Jews.

Netanyahu is a historian and his writing takes an academic approach, but what about when history and fiction meet? Pam Jenoff guest blogged as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople about how her career as a novelist began out of her experience working as a Foreign Service Officer at the United States Consulate in Krakow Poland—just after the Iron Curtain fell. She addresses the larger issues facing Holocaust fiction writers, questioning whether we should be writing stories set during the Holocaust at all.

I’ve written several novels set during the war now and it doesn’t get any easier. But I try to approach all of it with respect and dignity and I think readers respond to that. To me, each book is a love song to Jewish Poland, and the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.

Writing about a particular moment in history is never easy. In the past week, we’ve been through our own moment of inexpressible horror and tragedy, for which we continue to struggle to find words. Joshua Fattal’s essay on Remembering Hebrew School in Iranian Prison out of The ProsenPeople archives was an uplifting read in the midst of the anxiety and anguish for the safety of American and international journalists, volunteers, and peacekeepers in the Middle East over the past handful of days alone.

In cell fifty-four in Evin Prison, Tehran, I saw a sliver of the sky through the glass window and the two sets of metal bars. From its position and size, I deduced that it was waning and that it’d be a new moon in a few days. It was September and I believed that the coming new moon signified Rosh Hashanah.

Our hearts weigh heavy from events at home this week, as well. As Thursday marked the anniversary of both the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the heinous torture and murder of Emmett Till, the Jewish Book Council reissued its reading list on Justice, Civil Rights, and Race Relations as tensions and violence continue in Ferguson, MO and throughout the country.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, August 29, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Pam Jenoff on the Jews of Poland Today

Friday, August 29, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Read Part I: Living the War here and Part II: Writing the War here.

I speak to Jewish audiences across North America about by experiences and books. One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is: What about the Jewish community in Poland today? Some people are surprised that there is a community, while others want to know about what their lives are like and whether there is anti-Semitism.

Candidly, I don’t know about the current situation from a first-hand perspective. When I left Poland in 1998 there were a few thousand Jews. The first rabbi had just been brought back to Krakow. Every milestone was big – the return of a Torah, a single Jewish baby being born. Every death was a major tear in what was left of the community. (I only saw my father cry twice in his life, and once was outside the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow when they pulled him in to complete the minyan.)

It has been 16 years since I left and I know from friends and from reading that the Jewish community in Poland is stronger than at any point since the Second World War. There are multiple rabbis and a new Jewish Community Center funded in part by Prince Charles. The sense of “last Jew out of Poland switch off the lights” is largely gone. I don’t believe that Krakow will ever be Brooklyn or Cherry Hill again, but it is like a Jewish community in the Midwest or Deep South, small but enduring.

There are reasons for the Jewish community being stronger now: I credit the Jews who stayed through the dark years of communism (many of whom had the chance to leave) and organizations like the Lauder Foundation that have invested in revitalizing Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe. Important, too, was the property restitution law passed in 1997, giving the communities back their synagogues, cemeteries, and buildings (which they can use or else rent or sell and use the proceeds to help their people). I also think anecdotally that there has been an influx of Jews from points farther east where no viable Jewish community remains.

Of course, there are challenges. I believe that progress on Jewish issues stalled after Poland entered NATO and that was no longer available as a carrot. After 9/11 the world’s focus shifted away from Eastern Europe and many issues remain unresolved. And ironically the greatest struggle for the Jews of Poland today may be themselves: different groups in Poland’s Jewish community are fighting with one another over property and control of assets. (It is painful to watch these struggles among a people whom I love and adore, that should be standing strong together; it's like seeing relatives fight.)

Anti-Semitism in Poland is a harder question. I lived there openly as a Jew for 2 ½ years without incident. The Jews I knew in Poland live their lives in relative peace, without the threat of terrorism Jews face in Western Europe. As Rabbi Jonah Ornstein, Executive Director of the JCC in Krakow wrote in a recent article, “It is easier, safer, and better to be Jewish every day in Krakow. I do not know of any other community leader in Europe who can say the same about his or her community.”

I came out of my years living in Krakow with a reasonably pro-Polish view for the people and what they suffered, an occupied country that lost so many of its own of people during the war. (Not always the most popular view: an observer at one event commented that when I spoke positively of my time in Poland, the Hadassah ladies with their questions seemed intent on making me cry.) But I recognize the complicit role of Poles in the centuries of anti-Semitism that preceded the war, in atrocities like Jedwabne and in acts after like the Kielce pogrom. I also recognize that there are more Poles listed as Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem for helping Jews than any other nationality. I wonder what I might have done as an ordinary Pole: would I have been strong enough to help?

At this point in my talk, someone always raises his or her hand and tells a story of some young person on the March of the Living who encountered graffiti or a slur from a local near Auschwitz. I bite my tongue not to point out that if I saw hundreds of teenagers in blue jackets marching down the street of my small town and singing, I’d be nervous too. But in all seriousness, part of the issue is that these groups too often just visit the camps and leave. I urge people who go to meet locals and build bridges. Because we may never agree about what happened in the past, but I think that the key is to engage the younger generation.

Many Jews will never be able to make peace with Poland. But I’m brought back to an answer I once heard an Orthodox rabbi from Britain give when asked why he kept going back: “Because our people were in Poland there for 800 years and because it is our patrimony.”

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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Pam Jenoff on Writing the War

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Earlier this week we featured Part I: Living the War, which you can read here.

I came back from my years in Poland profoundly changed by what I had experienced. I knew I wanted to write a book about my time in Poland. And not just any book; I knew it would be a novel. How did I know? Because I was one of those little kids who always wanted to be a writer, scribbling down stories and showing them to anyone who would listen. And it was never short stories or poetry, always novels.

I took a course at Temple night school called “Write Your Novel This Year” (seriously) and began to write. I began with a scene of a young woman crossing Krakow’s main market square with a small child during the war. As I wrote, I discovered that she was a Jew in hiding and she was protecting this child of great rabbinic lineage.

Then the most serendipitous thing happened: I was on a train from Washington to Philadelphia when I met two very well-known Holocaust survivors, man and wife. (I’ve never publicly named them because the man has since passed on and I never got to ask if he minded.) I was telling them about this novel I was writing set during the war, and the woman said, “Surely you know the story of the Krakow resistance.” I stopped, dumbfounded. We all know the story of the Warsaw uprising. But I had just come back from two and a half years of living in Krakow, working on Holocaust issues, and I had never heard of the Krakow Jewish resistance. I went back to Poland for more research and I was amazed to discover a rich history of Jewish uprising on the very streets where I had lived and worked (a history which is largely unknown, since virtually everyone who was a party of the resistance in Krakow perished during the war.) This true story of the Krakow resistance became the inspiration for my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl.

Even after honing my topic, the actual decision to persist in writing a novel set during the war so did not come easily. I wrestled with a huge sense of inadequacy for the subject I was addressing. I remember watching Band of Brothers (which I consider the finest thing ever put on film) and there was a scene where they were liberating the camps, and I thought, “Who am I to be writing dinner parties and scenes at the symphony, when such atrocities were taking place 60 kilometers away?” Because, I concluded, such merriment really did persist during the war, and showing that is part of painting the bigger picture.

There is, of course, the larger issue of whether we should be writing stories set during the Holocaust at all. I’m often asked at talks whether by fictionalizing the Holocaust, we are feeding into the Holocaust deniers. I think just the opposite: that by not telling the stories we would be stifling the dialogue, which is exactly what the Nazis would have wanted.

Once one decides to write a book set during the Holocaust, there is the huge question of “getting it right.” This means both the details of historical accuracy (readers armed with Wikipedia will surely let you know if you haven’t) and also bigger questions of portraying different peoples and their roles.

For this latter question, there is no right answer. Take, for example, the question of the Poles during the Holocaust. In my work, I try to show the gray areas in people: the Jews in my book are flawed, the Germans are real people and the Poles are good and bad and between. As a result, I get e-mails saying I’m too hard on the Poles and e-mails saying I’m too easy on them. You get the idea.

I’ve written several novels set during the war now and it doesn’t get any easier. But I try to approach all of it with respect and dignity and I think readers respond to that. To me, each book is a love song to Jewish Poland, and the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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Book Cover of the Week: Bespotted

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We loved seeing everyone's pictures of and with their canine friends for National Dog Day this week! Dog lovers and Disney fans alike will adore this new book from Counterpoint Press, out next week:

Bespotted: My Family's Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmatians by memoirist Linda Grey Sexton is a beloved children's film come to life, the story of how a new litter of puppies impacted a New England family and inspired the Pulitzer-winning poetry collection by Anne Sexton (the author's mother), Live or Die.

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Faith and Fiction: This Jewish Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Novelist

Monday, August 25, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Her most recent book, The Winter Guest, is now available.

Part I: Living the War

I did not go to Poland to work on the Holocaust. A first tour Foreign Service Officer, I was sent to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland in the mid-1990s to stamp visas and passports, and help U.S. citizens who were arrested or hospitalized or otherwise in trouble. But I found myself in a unique moment in history: Poland had just come out of decades of Communism, where issues remaining from the Holocaust—important questions of anti-Semitism, property restitution, and preservation of the concentration camps—had been unresolved because open dialogue was suppressed and exchange between east and west was cut off during the decades following the war. These issues needed to be resolved for political reasons in order for Poland to join NATO and the European Union.

I’d arrived in Poland, a young woman alone in my early twenties, half way around the world and truly isolated in a pre-cell phone, pre-internet universe. So I did what any nice Jewish girl would do: I gravitated toward the surviving Jewish community; I went to shul on Friday night (and it was Orthodox, a huge education for this girl raised in a suburban Reform community) and to the rabbi’s house for cholent on Saturdays. The elderly Holocaust survivors became like grandparents to me. And the U.S. Consulate, seeing my natural affinity for the people and issues, said “You handle Polish-Jewish issues.” (We were only eight Americans; it wasn’t terribly formal.)

So for the next two-and-a-half years, that became my job. When Elie Wiesel was upset about well-intentioned Polish boy scouts putting up stars and crosses on a field at Birkenau, I went there to try and resolve the issue. When then-First Lady Hillary Clinton wanted to tour Auschwitz, I spent a week there with the Secret Service. There were many difficult conversations about who had done what during the war. But there were rewarding moments too, like seeing the first property restitution law passed and bringing together Polish and American school teachers to talk about how to teach the Holocaust to their students.

My own life in Poland was similarly conflicted: on one hand, practicing as a Jew in Poland was rewarding, defiant in the face of what Hitler had tried to do. Despite the vast shadows, I could feel the Yiddishkeit on every street. But the war was so proximate, that in order to take my car to the mechanic, I had to drive past the camp in Schindler’s List. And you may be prepared to tour the gas chamber once, but what toll does it take on your psyche when you walk in for the 50th time? For me, the constant challenge was how to live life with the appropriate solemnity for what had happened there, but not see everyday as a graveyard.

I came back from my years in Poland profoundly changed by what I had experienced and I knew I wanted to write a book about it. Not just any book – I knew it would be a novel.

In my next post, I will talk about how my years in Poland led me to becoming a novelist.

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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The ProsenPshat: Week of August 18th

Saturday, August 23, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The Jewish Book Council webteam is launching a weekly recap of highlights from each week’s online content on www.jewishbookcouncil.org. Worried you might have missed something this week? Be sure to check our featured reviews page and scroll through The ProsenPeople blog!

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is Susan Jane Gilman’s new work of fiction about an injured Jewish-Russian immigrant who transforms herself into a tasty treat tycoon. Set in the early-through-late twentieth century, the novel incorporates events and issues of the time: immigration, Jewish assimilation, women’s rights, poverty, the World Wars, McCarthyism, youth movements, the Reagan administration…


Want more insight on the book? Read the Jewish Book Council’s interview with Susan Jane Gilman (ahead of its printed publication in Jewish Book World!) on The ProsenPeople. The author shares her inspiration for the novel, how and why she built its heroine, and her delicious research into the history and production of ice cream in the United States!


Another fascinating insight into an author’s research comes from Jessica Lamb-Shapiro on the Visiting Scribe series this week. In her posts detailing the creation of Promise Land, her study of America’s self-help culture and industry, Jessica recounts her revelatory experience regressively confronting her mother’s untimely death as she muddled through the initially impersonal research. Be sure to check out her book: it’s remarkably witty, informative, and deeply touching. And how can you resist that kitten hanging on the front cover?


Another book not to be missed: Ayelet Waldman’s newest historical fiction, Love & Treasure. The mystery and love story surrounding a peculiar locket transcends time, hurtling across moments in history.


This week’s nonfiction highlight? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s new biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History. Drawn from the Rebbe’s private correspondence, Telushkin’s newest work is a rich and illuminating portrait of this remarkable man who was a devoted spiritual leader and tireless counselor, controversial advocate for women’s rights and community openness, and an accomplished scholar.


If Rebbe has whetted your biography appetite, read up on theater and film legend Stella Adler in Stella! The Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa, with a forward by Mark Ruffalo. This incredible woman not only mentored and coached the likes of Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro, Shelley Winters, and Peter Bogdanovitch, she served as a gunrunner for the Irgun!


The past couple weeks in the United States have spurred discussion about American Jews' role and responsibility in justice and civil rights causes. Watching events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, we have updated our reading list of adult and children's books on Justice, Civil Rights, and Race Relations.