The ProsenPeople

The So-Called Rules of Language, Literature, and Baseball

Monday, February 20, 2017 | Permalink

Following up on his children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy, Richard Michelson’s newest book for young readers The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew comes out tomorrow! Richard will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

A riddle: Which came first, the thought or the word? “In the Beginning was the Word,” but was that word thought into being? Or did the word create the thought?

My job title is writer, and words are my tools, my stock in trade. As a poet, I am often surprised when I finish a poem, as to the meaning I’ve communicated. I usually have no idea what I mean to say until I am done writing, and if the poem is successful I will be on the same journey as the reader: amazed by where my sentences have taken me. Right now, I still don’t know what this blog post will actually be about.

I write to discover what I am thinking. And yet the written word is what I use to capture my thoughts.

Most children think of language as “God-given,” or immutable, and why shouldn’t they? We teach them “the rules” in school, and grade them on their vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. But, of course, rules are the fictions we tell ourselves so that we can all think that we are playing the same game.

Baseball always had three strikes and 4 balls and three outs and nine players and nine innings, didn’t it? Even back in the days when it was “created” by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown? As I learned while writing my book Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, baseball wasn’t invented in Cooperstown, and likely Doubleday never even heard of the game, which evolved from Cricket—which evolved from Rounders, which evolved from God-knows-where, over time. In fact, in 1575 BCE (3500 years ago) there was a wall relief on the banks of the Nile in the shrine of Hathor in Hatshepsut’s Temple depicting the pharaoh Thothmes III holding an olivewood branch, ready to strike with his right hand. In his left hand, he holds a ball, which he appears ready to throw. The inscription reads: “Striking the ball for Hathor who is foremost in Thebes.”

Baseball wins could have just as easily gone to the first team to score 21 runs. There could have been no balls or strikes; there could have been one out per side or seven players per team. All were at one time in the rulebook. Language evolves in a similar fashion, by trial and error. Some words stick, and some never make it into popular usage.

So when artist/illustrator/educator/mensch Neil Waldman and I were having lunch fifteen years ago while collaborating on Too Young for Yiddish—through which I learned that the Yiddish language had evolved out of a mixture of Hebrew, Polish, and German, and that Isaac Bashevis Singer proudly claimed that Yiddish was the only language without a word for “armaments”—I asked Neil his thoughts about whether a language without specific words for weapons would inhibit thoughts of violence. I don’t recall his answer but I do remember him casually mentioning the life story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his quest to invent words and make Hebrew the daily language of the Jews. I was fascinated. Neil, who lived in Israel at one time, said: “I was going to write that story, but couldn’t find my way in. I now give you the idea as a gift.” It took me fifteen years to find my way in. (Thanks, Neil.)

Imagine trying to get Italians to all start speaking Latin again—and succeeding within your lifetime? Hebrew began to die out as a “living language” around the time of the Maccabees. Because it was used primarily for prayer, it hadn’t incorporated new words for anything invented since the language solidified 2000 years earlier. Ben Yehuda changed all that.

Of course, I didn’t think of the amount of work such labor entails. What fun, I thought instead, to be Adam naming the animals all over again! I wondered how Ben Yehuda made up a name for “ice cream” or “bicycle”—neither of which existed in biblical times. (You can find out if you read the book!)

The Language of Angels is a book about history, and it is a book about friendship and it is a book about family, and it is a book about the current political Mideast situation, and it is a book about the “reinvention” of Hebrew. And now I am at the end of this post and I’ve figured out what I wanted to say: my book is mostly about my love of words in and of themselves, and how much fun it is to play with language. That is something I hope to share with all children and those of you who once were children yourselves.

Richard Michelson is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has written many acclaimed books for adults and children, including Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoyand The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew.

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Three Sets of Dishes

Monday, February 20, 2017 | Permalink

Ellen Umansky is the author of The Fortunate Ones, a novel released last week about the fate of a Chaim Soutine painting left behind in Vienna. Ellen will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My mother purchased the dishes to use poolside. They were plastic and brightly colored, a rainbow of plates that nested into each other. I remember countless summers spent by our pool, polishing off little English muffin pizzas my mother made and served on those plates, as I read my Trixie Belden mysteries, and books like When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit and Summer of My German Soldier.

We moved from New York to Los Angeles when I was six years old, and lived two miles up a twisting road that snaked high in the hills. The pool was kidney-shaped (that was how my parents described it, and how I took to describing it with great confidence, though I had no idea what a kidney looked like) and jutted over a sun-bleached canyon. We heard the cries of coyotes at night. I can only imagine what that must have been like for my parents to have moved to this foreign landscape—for my mother especially, who grew up in a small town in Northern Westchester, where her father helped establish the local synagogue.

We were Conservative Jews, raised in a fairly traditional Jewish household. We kept kosher at home, with two sets of dishes for milk and meat. Every year my mother turned over the kitchen for Passover, clearing out the chametz and taping off cabinets that we couldn’t use for eight days, and pulling out another set of dishes. But our adherence to kashrut was by no means steadfast. The meat we ate outside the home didn’t have to be designated kosher. And while all swine and the mixing of milk and meat was verboten, seafood was somehow acceptable. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of going to a raucous seafood restaurant called Gus’s in New York with my grandparents where we all wore bibs as we cracked open lobster shells and sucked out the meat.

At some point, our odd keeping of kashrut was codified in the dishes we used. We no longer had two sets of daily dishes, but three: one for milk, one for meat, and those colored plastic plates for treif.

My mother would pull out the plastic dishes when we brought in Chinese food (what is that mysterious meat in hot and sour soup? Who really knows!). They graced our table the time my older brother requested lobster for his birthday dinner and my mother pulled out the stops, buying live lobsters and setting them in our bathtub for the afternoon before boiling them in a huge pot in the kitchen, Annie-Hall-style.

It made no sense. Why have a designated set of non-kosher dishes? If that’s the case, why even keep kosher? I was a sensitive child, attracted to rules. For a couple of years, I studied the ingredient lists on candy and gum wrappers, looking for the OU-P symbol, eliminating anything from my diet that contained corn syrup. (My decision, not my parents’.) Later, I argued with my mother about the hypocrisy of claiming that we kept kashrut at all; we have a set of dishes for food we’re not supposed to eat! Why do we do this? I remember saying, standing in the kitchen with her.

“It’s true,” she said, and she shrugged. She was not easily riled up or dissuaded. I’m sure she returned to whatever cooking task was at hand, making sweet apricot chicken for the dozen or so people who she’d regularly have over for Friday night dinner. “But that’s the way we do it.”

I’m married now, with two kids of my own. We don’t keep two sets of dishes (or three), but in the tradition of my family, I too follow certain dietary rules: no pork or mixing of milk and meat in the house, and, for me, not outside either. The thought of a cheeseburger still makes me twinge. As I get older, the logic of the way we kept kosher makes sense to me. We might not have adhered to all the rules, but we were conscious of them. Every time my mother reached for the non-kosher plates, she was making a decision, thinking about what we were eating, how we were nourishing ourselves. And that awareness might not be everything, but it matters.

Those plastic dishes are long gone, I think. My mother passed away last year, and my stepfather still lives in the house on the hill, filled with her things. My brothers and I haven’t had the heart to go through her belongings yet. But I am tempted to look for those dishes the next time I am in Los Angeles, just as I wanted to buy this familiar set I spotted on eBay. Here we are, colorful in all our contradictions, the dishes say to me. We are imperfect, but we try.

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

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Snag a Nice Jewish Boy by Passover in Four Steps

Thursday, February 16, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jen Glantz shared her top tips and secrets to online dating for Jewish women. With the release of her new book Always a Bridesmaid (for Hire), Jen is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

One of the main reasons I find myself with a ruthless case of Acid Reflux during holiday dinners back home in Boca Raton, Florida, isn’t because I ate too many bites of gefilta fish with horseradish, or because I drank my Manischewitz too quickly, but because I no longer can properly digest the question: “Why didn’t you bring home a mensch this year?”

There’s not a Yom Kippur break-fast or a Rosh Hashanah dinner that goes by where family members don’t smear my challah-bread stuffed self with questions about why I’m still single and, more importantly, why I haven’t found a match on, where in their mind there must be loads of wonderful Jewish guys all around the country waiting patiently for me behind computer screens.

While I’ve become a pro at tuning them out—breaking out in Hava Negila instead, shifting their attention from my MIA marital status on my underappreciated vocal talents instead—I have decided to kick off 2017 with the goal of surprising them by bringing home a Nice Jewish Boy by Passover, so they can pinch his cheeks, ask him about his family lineage, and stop pretending they are saving a seat at the table for someone named “Elijah” (I secretly think that’s the Haggadah’s way of saying we are saving this seat for Your Future Husband, Jen, and as soon as you bring him home, we’ll all stop pretending to have an imaginary friend).

So if you’re up to join me on this challenge, here are the four ways I plan to find a NJB before its time for all of us to ditch the carbs for a week and turn to matzah instead.

1. Get Rid of the Not-Nice Jewish Guy
Before we dive into this challenge, it is imperative that you say Shalom—and I mean the goodbye kind—to your ex-boyfriend. The one you still frequently look at on social media and hope to eyeball when you’re back home for Yom Kippur and sitting in shul for the entire day starving. In order to move forward, you have to move on. Change congregations, block them on social media, tell your mutual youth group friends that you are trying to move on and want them to stop giving you updates on his or her whereabouts.

Now that we’ve got the hardest step out of the way, let’s move forward.

2. Take Your Business Online
It may be one of your biggest hesitations, but downloading a dating app or paying for a membership to an online portal of eligible singles may be one of the fastest and most convenient ways to say hello to new potential suitors. The best part of this step is, you can browse for matches while sitting in your pajamas, on your couch, and eating defrosted kugel that you have stored in your freezer. The worst part about this step is that you’ll have to kiss many frogs before you find a prince, and by kiss, I mean you’ll have to go on way more coffee dates than you’d like with guys who look nothing like their profile picture and argue with you over Trump vs. Hilary.

Remember, there are five simple steps to hacking Jewish online dating. Make sure you read (and follow) these tips as you venture forth into the interwebs!

3. Go on as Many Dates as There Are Plagues
If you’re a one-date-a-year kind of person, it’s time to change your ways. Dating, nowadays, is a numbers game. If you want to meet the right person you may have to go on 7 dates a month or even—dare I say it—a week. The more people you meet in-person, the more you will think a) people are really strange and b) that you may just be one date away from kissing your beshert frog.

4. Say Yes to Your Local Matchmaker
I’m not saying you should shell out a couple of hundred dollars to meet with a professional dating coach or matchmaker. You don’t need that. Your family members are natural matchmakers themselves. It’s in their DNA. Just reach out to cousins your age or spread the word around your local relatives that you’re single and looking for a NJB. Before you know it, you’ll have phone numbers of every Schwartz, Bergstein, and Cohen who live on the east side of your town.

Follow these steps as closely as you (hopefully) did your Torah portion during your bar or bat mitzvah and you might find yourself smooching Mr. Right hello before asking the Four Questions at your next Passover seder.

Jen Glantz once wanted to become a rabbi but instead she became the world’s first professional bridesmaid and founder of Bridesmaid for Hire and the author of the new book, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire). She’s the heartbeat behind the website The Things I Learned From and the author of All My Friends are Engaged. She spends a good chunk of her free time searching for a mensch who will look at her with the same kind of googly eyes with which she looks at pizza.

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Chapter One, Revisited

Wednesday, February 15, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Georgia Hunter wrote about discovering her grandfather’s personality along with his story of surviving the Holocaust, the inspiration for her novel We Were the Lucky Ones. Georgia is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When I was fifteen years old, I discovered that I came from a family of Holocaust survivors. Nine years later, armed with a digital voice recorder and a moleskin notebook, I set off to unearth and record my family’s story. I spent nearly a decade traversing the globe, interviewing family and digging up records from every possible source I could think of, eventually piecing together the bones of what would become my novel, We Were the Lucky Ones. The research was challenging, but even more of a test was deciding how to put my family’s narrative to paper—and where exactly to begin.

As authors often do, I spent months laboring over the opening for my book. Since many of the Kurcs lost touch with one other during the war, I knew each chapter would need to be told from a different relative’s perspective. I also knew I wanted Chapter One to be told through my grandfather’s eyes, and that it would be set in a jazz club in pre-war Paris—my grandfather was my link to the family story, and one of his best-known lifelong attributes was his passion for music.

My grandfather, Addy in the book, was the only member of his family who wasn’t in Poland at the start of the war. He was living in Toulouse, composing music and working as an engineer; often his weekends were spent tucked away in the music halls of Paris. Story has it, he received a letter in the spring of 1939 from his mother in Poland, urging him not to come home for Passover, but to stay in France; traveling across German-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia, his mother worried, was too dangerous. For Addy, who hadn’t missed a family Seder in Radom in all of his 26 years, this letter was a turning point: it forced him to recognize the possibility of war, and to wonder whether he’d existed, until then, under a false sense of security. My idea for an opening chapter was to capture this turning point, while painting a picture of what life was like for Addy (as it was for many European Jews) before Poland fell to the Germans.

Researching Paris’s 1930s jazz scene, I stumbled upon the story of Josephine Baker, a young American entertainer legendary for her risqué attire and ostentatious dance routines. Baker performed often in Montmartre, a bohemian neighborhood in the city’s 18th arrondissement. When I read that she didn’t always perform alone—she was often accompanied by her diamond-collared pet cheetah, Chiquita—I was thrilled.

A cheetah! I remember thinking. What more dramatic opening could I ask for than a saber-toothed predator strolling onto the stage of a club in Montmartre, my grandfather looking on from a bar stool, an arm’s length away? The cat, I rationalized, could also be seen as a metaphor for the dangers to come. I wrote an opening paragraph I hoped would grab readers’ attention. Here’s how it read:

A cheetah saunters on stage and glares into the spotlight. The band stiffens. The music comes to an awkward halt and a hush comes over the crowd as the Grand Duc’s late-night patrons whisper and point, eyes trained on the large spotted animal. Addy sets his drink on the marble tabletop and stands, his gaze moving from the cat to the trumpet player squirming in his seat. Someone in the back of the smoke-filled room gives a whistle. The cheetah’s ears twitch. Finally, from behind the curtain a woman emerges, holding a leash in one hand and wearing nothing but a bejeweled bikini bottom and feathered headdress. The room erupts. The woman waves and shimmies toward center stage, beaming as the crowd cheers and the band, still trembling, gradually picks up where it left off.

As the chapter unfolds, I dive into my grandfather’s backstory, describing his mother’s letter, and what it meant to him. In my revisions, I agonized over the appropriate tone. Would he have felt angered by his mother’s request? Surprised? Guilty, for not seeing the signs earlier? After many (many) rounds of edits, I began to realize that, much as I loved the shock factor and tension the cheetah offered, it had begun to feel like a distraction. The real drama, I decided, wasn’t in Chiquita, but in the reality Addy would soon be forced to face.

I can see how it would have been easy for my grandfather to brush off the threats of war in the months leading up to it. He did not have the benefit of the perspective we have today. And he wasn’t alone in underestimating the potential for disaster. Some Parisians went so far as to call it the drôle de guerre, the Phony War. Now, of course, we know what was in store.

And so, I bid adieu to the cheetah in my opening, opting to give her just a brief mention later in the chapter. I focused instead on my grandfather, on the shadows of war that loomed overhead, on his unforeseeable future. This, I decided, was dramatic enough.

Georgia Hunter’s essays and photographs have been featured in The New York Times, travelgirl magazine, Austin Adventures, and The Explorers Passage. She keeps a blog about her book and continued research into her family history at

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A Girl's Guide to Hacking JDate

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 | Permalink

Jen Glantz is the author of All My Friends Are Engagedand Always a Bridesmaid (for Hire), out this week from Simon & Schuster. With the release of the new book, Jen is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Everything we do, we do online first.

We scan different websites to find the lowest prices on items before we snag them in-store, or just add them directly into our virtual shopping cart. We Google search somebody before we shake their hand in-person for a job interview, as if we’re amateur detectives cross-checking their life story via their MySpace, LinkedIn, and if we’re savvy enough, their LiveJournal page too.

So of course, for many of us, going online is where we bring our love lives when we are ready to find a good deal—or at least a better one than we may find late night at a bar or when we’re out with friends and a stranger approaches with a pick-up line that makes our eyes roll to the back of our heads.

For me, it was JDate. After watching the majority of my friends find their prince charmings on dating apps and websites (and having what felt like everyone from my mom to my childhood rabbi send me a promo email for the Jewish dating website), I gave in and joined five years ago. Since then, I went on more first dates than I did bar and bat mitzvahs in middle school—which is saying something: I went to a Jewish school and sometimes had to squeeze in two a weekend—and even surrendered my password to my mom, so she could take over my dating profile and match me with the mensch of her liking.

With all the experience I’ve had on that website, it’s my pleasure to hand over some of the top secrets I’ve learned that will help you spend less time browsing the website and more time meeting your potential future husband offline. Here are my top five tips to hacking JDate:

1. Tell the Truth
While we may not want to type out our entire life story on our profile, we do want to highlight four or five interesting facts about ourselves. These should be honest, fun tidbits of information that spark conversations and give the person messaging you an idea for an opening line or a first date. I took off the paragraphs of text from my profile and instead wrote about my love for live rock music, my habit for eating pizza more than five times a week, and my obsession with spending time at the local library.

2. Avoid Holidays and Late Nights
The worst times to search for love are on holidays and weekend nights. You’ll find that the website feels empty and the people crawling on it are usually looking for a quick hook up and not a relationship. The best time, and most popular time, to use the website is on Sunday or right after work on a weekday.

3. Make the First Move
We may be sitting back and waiting for our Mensch matches to message us, but if we want to be successful online, sometimes we are the ones who need to take the first step. If there’s a Nice Jewish Boy that catches your attention, reach out with a message and break the ice before your match (or their membership) expires.

4. Meet IRL ASAP
Avoid having the conversation linger online and instead make plans to meet in person as soon as you feel comfortable sitting across from the person in real life. If they seem to be dragging their feet on making a game plan, throw out an offer to meet for coffee on a weekend or a glass of wine on a weeknight.

5. Give People a Chance
After spending more time on JDate than I can count on my left hand, I have learned that often times the guys I like in person are the ones I’m not overly impressed with online. Most of the time, they didn’t do a great job putting up recent photos or describing their interests in detail online, but offline they are captivating and surprisingly the guys I look forward to seeing again. The guys who often woo me online are the ones, I find sometimes, are the most boring and unpolished offline.

Jen Glantz once wanted to become a rabbi but instead she became the world’s first professional bridesmaid and founder of Bridesmaid for Hire and the author of the new book, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire). She’s the heartbeat behind the website The Things I Learned From and the author of All My Friends are Engaged. She spends a good chunk of her free time searching for a mensch who will look at her with the same kind of googly eyes with which she looks at pizza.

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Hidden in a Stash of Old Letters, a Grandfather I Never Knew

Monday, February 13, 2017 | Permalink

Georgia Hunter is the author of We Were the Lucky Ones, a novel based on her extensive research into her Polish Jewish family’s miraculous survival of World War II. With the long-awaited release of her book, Georgia is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Nine years ago on a rainy day in January, I sat down with a binder full of condolence letters my mother had saved after my grandfather died. I remember the day well, as I had circled it on my calendar as the one on which I would officially commit to unearthing and recording my family history. I was fourteen when my grandfather passed away, fifteen when I discovered he wasn’t raised in the States, as I’d assumed, but in central Poland—and that he came from a family of Holocaust survivors. I had thought for years about researching his story.This was the day, I decided, I would begin.

Paging through the letters, I read each one slowly, setting aside those that needed translating. Some were from old business acquaintances in places like France and Switzerland, others from friends in the music industry—my grandfather was a composer. Some were from nieces and nephews in Paris and in São Paulo, and one was from an ex-fiancée, Eliska, who met my grandfather in 1941 when they were both fleeing Europe.

I read and read, my throat tightening as I realized what an impact my grandfather had had on the people around him. His warmth, sincerity, and hard work inspired everybody who came into contact with him, one letter effused. He gave me a powerful message to make the best of things right now, no matter what, another read. The wonder of knowing someone as flamboyant as Eddy is a reward in itself...

Of all adjectives, I remember thinking, flamboyant wasn’t one I would have chosen to describe my grandfather. Quirky, perhaps—he used to insist that we speak French at the dinner table, and his house was filled top-to-bottom with things he built by hand. My most vivid memories, however, were of him at the end of his life, confined to his wheelchair; by then, Parkinson’s had taken its toll.

He was a remarkable man... I read on, of passion, excellence, wit, and talent, and we will miss him. And in a letter to my grandmother from my mother: Father influenced the way I see the world without much fear. The more I know others, the more unusual I find this outlook to be, and I will be glad if I pass some of this outlook on to the next generations.

I closed my eyes, searching for common ground between the man I remembered and the one described in the letters resting on my lap. My research, I realized, would not only involve uncovering his Holocaust survival story, but also the side of him I never knew.

Over the next several years, in a series of interviews with his closest family and friends, including a visit with Eliska, his ex-fiancée, I would come to understand the exuberant, fearless, never-take-no-for-an-answer Eddy Courts—or Addy Kurc, as my grandfather was once called. I would begin to see him for who he once was, and for how present he was, and still is, in my life today. Nearly a decade would pass before my research would be complete, but I’ll never forget that rainy day in January when I knew, without a doubt, that my grandfather’s was a story I needed to preserve.

Georgia Hunter’s essays and photographs have been featured in The New York Times, travelgirl magazine, Austin Adventures, and The Explorers Passage. She keeps a blog about her book and continued research into her family history at

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Martin Gang

Friday, February 10, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Glenn Frankel introduced MGM producer Dore Schary among the overwhelmingly Jewish history of the Hollywood Blacklist, the subject of his new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Glenn is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As I discovered in researching my book on the Hollywood blacklist and the making of High Noon, the blacklist tore Hollywood apart: it ruined careers, destroyed trust, and set families and friends against each other. Those who were identified as Communists, fellow travelers, or even as liberal activists had few choices. If called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), they could either invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination—a strategy that ensured they would be blacklisted from further employment—or denounce their left-wing views and betray their fellow activists by naming names. Those willing to do so needed a lawyer to help them navigate the process. And none was better at it than Martin Gang.

A pillar of the Los Angeles Jewish community, Gang wound up representing more informers than any other Hollywood lawyer—by his own estimate, some twenty movie people and thirty more in other professions. His justification was simple: he was helping worthy but misguided people stay out of prison and keep their jobs. He claimed that his clients never initiated naming anyone, but simply confirmed names that the Committee already had obtained. His own duty, he solemnly declared, was to his clients.

Gang’s parents were Eastern European Jews who came to the United States in the 1890s, and he himself was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1901. After graduating from Harvard, he spent part of the 1920s studying economics in Weimar Germany. He watched the systematic destruction of the German middle class by inflation and open street warfare between Fascists and Communists. It made him suspicious of extremists of both political stripes and determined to appease the powers that be. When he returned to America, he earned a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and made his way to Hollywood, where he eventually launched his own entertainment law firm. His list of celebrity clients included Bob Hope, George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Burt Lancaster, Lucille Ball, and Myrna Loy. He put up with their tantrums and their quirks. “Movie people are like everybody else, only more so,” he liked to say.

His first big blacklist case involved Sterling Hayden, a rising young star who had joined the American Communist Party for a brief spell after serving in World War II. Hayden was called to testify before HUAC in April 1951. Under Gang’s careful guidance, Hayden gave a full-throated condemnation of the party, praised the committee for its courageous work and named as Communists five people, including his former mistress. Years later, he expressed deep regret for his testimony. “I (felt) like a bear led on a chain by the lawyer,” he wrote.

After his success with Hayden, Gang began to serve as a bridge between the gentiles of HUAC and the Jews of Hollywood. He didn’t believe the Committee members themselves were antisemitic, but he knew there were plenty of irresponsible people compiling lists and making allegations about Jews. “I didn’t like the committee but I worked with it, because I had a responsibility to my clients and their lives,” he recalled.

Members of the Communist Party and those who sympathized often expressed contempt for Martin Gang. Rumor had it that Gang and his law firm made large fees off their political clients. (In fact, Gang plausibly claimed that his partners were not happy with his taking on these controversial cases, saying they made more enemies than friends and cost the firm between $50,000 and $100,000 in lost legal fees).

Gang was a man of great charm and bluster, but he sometimes lost patience with clients who refused to see the light. When screenwriter Carl Foreman resisted naming names, Gang warned that the government was preparing to reopen the concentration camp at Tule Lake, California, that had been built to detain Japanese Americans during World War II. Only this time, Gang warned, the detainees would be Leftists like Foreman. “He had set out to frighten me, and he did,” Foreman recalled.

(Still, Foreman refused to cooperate and hired a different lawyer.)

As usual in Jewish history, individual Jews responded in various and conflicting ways to the repression they faced. One response was Martin Gang’s: give the despot what he demands. Another was Carl Foreman’s, resisting for the sake of principle even at the cost of one’s own livelihood. What I love about studying history is that it always poses the same uncomfortable question to all of us: If faced with a similar terrible dilemma, what would we have done?

Glenn Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, university professor, and author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic and The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.

The Return of Stolen Property

Thursday, February 09, 2017 | Permalink

Anders Rydell is the author of The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance. We couldn’t resist drawing readers’ attention to the Paper Brigade of the Vilna Ghetto, for which Jewish Book Council’s annual print journal is named! Anders will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My interest in looted cultural property during World War II started around 2009, with a masterwork hanging at the walls of Modern Museum in Stockholm. ”Blumengarten”, painted by the German expressionist Emil Nolde, had been bought by the Museum’s founder in the 1960s from an art dealer in Switzerland.

For forty years, no one bothered to dig into the history of this painting until the Museum received a letter in 2001, sent by an heir to the Jewish-German businessman Otto Nathan Deutch, who had been forced to flee Nazi Germany with his family in the 1930s, ending up in Amsterdam. But his large art collection, which was sent with a German transport firm, never arrived. After the war, some of the surviving family member tried to investigate the fate of the family collection but were informed by the transporter that the warehouse where their prized possessions had been held was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid. The family later received a small symbolic compensation from the German state.

Almost a half century later, it was revealed that the collection had in fact never been destroyed. The Emil Nolde painting that was hanging on the walls of Sweden’s most prestigious museum had been part of Otto Nathan Deutch’s collection.

The letter from the heir to Modern Museum was not the end of this tragic story, but the unfortunately the beginning of a new one. The Modern Museum refused to return the painting to its rightful owners until 2009. The reasoning behind the Museum’s claim to the painting changed over time. They argued that they had purchased the painting in “good faith” and that that there were no legal grounds to force a return of the painting, despite the fact that Sweden had signed the Washington principles. The Museum even proposed that, if the painting should be returned, the heir should compensate the Museum for having kept if safe.

These arguments where both groundless and absurd to anyone with any knowledge of the restitution issue. Finally, after additional pressure from the media and international organizations, the Museum was forced to return the painting.

The tactics of the Modern Museum in Stockholm were not uncommon. We have seen this play out again and again in civil cases between heirs and museums and sometimes even states. The most well-known case is probably The Republic of Austria v. Maria Altmann, adapted into several books and recent feature film starring Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren.

In my first book on this subject, I investigated restitution cases by focusing on museums and art. It wasn’t easy to get behind the thick walls of our museums. Few wanted to talk about the conflict and the response I got was often hostile and suspicious, whether I was in Budapest, Berlin, Paris, London or New York. I came to realize that these institutions, mostly founded during the nineteenth century, were ill-suited to handle the complicated issue of restitution. They were built on collecting—often in a time when this meant looting or even buying from black markets in the colonial world. It was in their DNA to take, not to give back. In fact, the reaction I often got was that restitution of a certain painting was just the first straw, and that the museum would soon cease to exist. This was of course ridiculous.

When I started working on my second book, The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, I expected the same response from libraries and archives. But as I traveled around Europe visiting libraries in Berlin, Weimar, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Thessaloniki, Prague, and Vilnius I was surprised by the response I received. I wasn't just invited, I was encouraged to help in the restitution process. And here I found something that I rarely came across in the world of museum—institutions that wanted to return part of their collections. In a library in Berlin, where there is thought to be 250,000 looted books, I found a small group of librarians that had taken on the task of returning as many of these books as they could. They had started the immense process of going through a collection of seven million books.

Why was the philosophy towards restitution so different in the library world? I think it has something to do with the libraries themselves. Libraries have always been more open institutions. While in museums the public has to stand behind a rope, in the library the public participate: they request and contribute books to be part of the collection.

But most importantly, a library is about sharing information. Openness is a hugely important part of this philosophy.

Another reason that should not be overlooked, is that books rarely have an economical value comparable to that of art. Money, as always, complicates things. But this doesn´t mean that returning these books is any less important. The restitution issue is not just about economical compensation; it’s about memory and history. To restore something, even a little piece, of lives lost, cultures destroyed and history forgotten.

I met a new generation of librarians that realized this. Their biggest concern wasn't that they would lose part of their collections; their greatest concern was how to find the original, and rightful owners of these books. As one of the librarians in Berlin told me, “These books are ghosts, if we don’t return them they will haunt us forever.”

Anders Rydell is a journalist, editor, and author of two nonfiction books on the Nazis, which have been translated into 16 languages. The Book of Thieves is his first work published in English.

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Dore Schary

Wednesday, February 08, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Glenn Frankel considered the overwhelmingly Jewish history of the Hollywood Blacklist, the subject of his new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Glenn is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

While most of Hollywood’s founding fathers were Jewish, they weren’t exactly the kind of proud, high-profile American Jews we know and celebrate today. Most were immigrants or first-generation Americans, and they generally tended to hide their Jewish identity (and their politics) out of personal embarrassment or fear.

One notable exception, as I found out while researching and writing my new book, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, was Dore Schary, an outspoken liberal Democrat and ardent Zionist. Schary interested me because he attempted to navigate a middle course in perilous times: although he was an anti-Communist himself, he he fought the Hollywood inquisition out of firm belief in civil liberties.

Born in Newark to Russian Jewish immigrants, Schary had risen from waiting tables at his family’s run-down resort hotel to writing and acting in floor shows in the Borscht Belt and later on Broadway. He arrived in Hollywood in 1932 at age 27 and was an immediate success at writing screenplays and producing films. In 1947 he became head of RKO, a small, feisty studio, promising to make socially meaningful pictures for modern post-war audiences. He quickly commissioned the noir-ish Crossfire (1947), one of the first mainstream films to focus on antisemitism, despite warnings from establishment groups like the American Jewish Committee that the film would only inflame religious hatred. (Instead, the film made a sizeable profit and garnered five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.) Later that year, when the House Un-American Activities Committee staged its first public hearings into alleged Communist infiltration of Hollywood, Schary was the only studio head to publicly defend employing leftist screenwriters, actors and directors. Unless they advocated the violent overthrow of the government, Schary testified, people should be hired and fired based on their qualifications and not their politics.

But politicians in both parties fanned public fears about waves of Soviet agents and secret subversives who were undermining America. After Congress issued contempt citations against ten witnesses who refused to cooperate in answering the Committee’s questions, Schary’s fellow studio heads and their lawyers met secretly and issued a statement pledging to fire anyone found to be a Communist. Schary opposed the idea but was outvoted and ultimately felt compelled to go along: he wound up firing the director and producer who had made Crossfire, despite his great admiration for them both. And when he moved to head of production at MGM the following year, Schary faithfully enforced the new rules to the letter, requiring employees to sign loyalty oaths or lose their jobs.

Still, Schary found himself branded as Commie sympathizer. In a 1947 FBI memo, a confidential informant reported that “Mr. Schary in all respects has been a follower of the Communist Party line for many years.” Three years later, in a meeting with the head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, Schary pledged to cooperate wholeheartedly with the bureau. He even made an anti-Communist propaganda film for the government.

After he was fired by MGM in 1956, Schary moved to New York, where he became National Chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and wrote the hit play Sunrise at Campobello, about Franklin Roosevelt’s triumph over polio. It was his ode to enlightened liberal leadership. But the Red Scare had defeated well-meaning liberals like Schary. His last word on the Hollywood blacklist in his memoirs was one of deep regret: “A heavy cost in courage was paid by the industry, and a dreadful price was paid by those we could not protect.”

Glenn Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, university professor, and author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic and The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.

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Interview: Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly

Wednesday, February 08, 2017 | Permalink

with Teri Markson

Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly’s new book The Inquisitor’s Tale recently won The Sydney Taylor Award in the Older Readers Category and was named a National Jewish Book Award Finalist for Children’s Literature and a Newbery Honor Book. Jewish Book Council talked to the writer-illustrator team to discuss the book and their approaches to creating compelling literature for young Jewish readers.

Teri Markson: In addition to receiving many starred reviews and accolades, The Inquisitor’s Tale has won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers category and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Yet the book isn’t singularly focused on the Jewish character or Judaism itself. How do you account for the reaction from the Jewish community?

Adam Gidwitz: This has been one of the most satisfying elements of the recognition The Inquisitor's Tale has received. It's always a dangerous proposition to try to explain why someone likes your work, but I think the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the Jewish community derives from at least two sources:

So much of the children's literature featuring Jewish characters that receives national attention concerns the Holocaust. But Jewish history is so much richer than that! Jews have been writing and learning and praying and inventing for, by our count, over five millennia. I think people are appreciating a rich and detailed account of a period other than the Holocaust—an account that describes a very different kind of persecution of Jews; and also features and celebrates one of the great accomplishments of Jewish culture: the Talmud.

Secondly, in all literature—and especially literature for children—bad guys are usually stereotypically bad, and good guys are perfectly good. This is exaggerated in cases of persecution, such as the persecution of Jews. In The Inquisitor's Tale, I tried to depict the Jewish community with some complexity—we're definitely not all sages and saints—and, more crucially, I tried to portray the persecutor, King Louis IX, with realistic complexity. Louis was so beloved that he was sainted, and has a major American city named after him. Having read a number of sources on him, including critical sources, I understand why: he was in many ways a wonderful king and a wonderful man. But he was also viciously anti-Jewish. How could he be both? He said he hated the Jews, and supposedly claimed he would happily see a Jew stabbed in the stomach, yet he largely prohibited violence against them in his kingdom, unlike other monarchs of his time. Humans are complex, and my goal was to depict them in all their complex glory. Why would this appeal to Jewish community? You know what they say: two Jews, three opinions? We revel in complexity.

TM: One of the protagonists in the book, William, is biracial, of both African and European descent. How likely would it have been for that to have happened in the Middle Ages?

AG: It was certainly rare to see someone with brown skin in Northern France in the thirteenth century, mixed race or not. But there was a great deal of cultural interaction, in all senses, along the cultural borders of Europe: in the Middle East, along the edges of the Byzantine Empire, and in Spain. My character William is based in part on Guilhem d'Orange, a ninth-century Paul Bunyan-type figure who fought to take Spain from its Muslim rulers. I certainly didn't like the idea of a religious warrior as the star of my book—it would defeat the whole intent of the story—so I thought that it would be interesting to focus on one of the little-talked-about (and, frankly, ironic) products of this religious war: a child of both sides.

TM: Many of the details in your book are based on your extensive research into the history and lore of the Middle Ages. What do you find most compelling about this era?

AG: The Middle Ages is a remarkably surprising period. I think most of us think of that time as boring and homogenous, constricted and made ignorant by faith. But in reality this couldn't be farther from the truth! It was an age of invention, of great philosophy and architecture, a time of cultural collision and collaboration. Also, they told amazing stories, like ones about holy dogs, and dragons with deadly flatulence. How can you not find that compelling?

TM: What kind of response have you received from children and teens who have read the book? Do you think they’re more focused on the history or the humor?

AG: Mostly, young people are focused on the adventure. The most compelling aspect of any novel is suspense—be it a romance, a comedy, a horror, what have you. Suspense is the engine that drives a novel. There are certain adult novels that eschew suspense, but those seem to lack an engine altogether, and mostly ramble randomly down the side of a steep hill. The suspense of The Inquisitor's Tale comes in the form of adventure. But humor is important, too, and the big questions that I pose, about history, philosophy, and cultural difference, make the novel something that, I hope, young people will return to.

TM: One of my favorite moments in the book is when Marmeluc questions Jacob about what makes him a Jew. There are many instances where you have the children grapple with some complex religious ideas, including the death of Jacob’s parents in light of God’s plan. How did you decide what was appropriate for kids?

AG: I didn't. I have a rule for my books: they have to have happy endings, and nothing sexual. Other than that, I think kids can handle most anything. (Okay, I exclude gratuitous torture, too. Mostly.) I taught elementary and high school for a combined eight years, and one thing I learned is that kids love hard questions. Hard questions motivate them and inspire them—not hard like tedious; hard as in challenging the way they've always seen the world. Each and every kid’s job is to grow, and nothing helps a kid grow like questions that make them reconsider what they always believed. Also farting dragons. That helps a kid grow, too.

TM: Whose decision was it to present the illustrations in the style of an illustrated manuscript? Did you consider starting the chapters with large ornate letters like in some old manuscripts? What other decisions did you make concerning the style?

Hatem Aly: The style or form of the book was decided early on. The idea was inspired by illuminated manuscripts, with marginalia specifically in mind. I had thought of starting each chapter’s first letter with a small illuminated character; then it was suggested to work on the “C’s in each “Chapter,” which was the best (and most sensible) way to use this technique for the book! The one decision that I obliged myself to do was inking the illustrations traditionally, using a metal nib or a “plume” like in the medieval times, to keep the artwork authentic to the time period—and have fun with the rest.

TM: Was the use of color considered at any point?

HA: For the interiors there was no intention to use color. However, now that I see it, I think the current form works best with the nature of the book and leaves space for imagination.

TM: Can you tell us something about the processes you used in illustrating the book?

As I read the book the first time, I started sketching characters while doing some research on the time period in which the story takes place, paying closer attention to the visual aspects of people, places, and books. I made batches of sketches and discussed it with the editorial team, then I revised the sketches with their feedback and new research and started inking and finalizing. I must thank Adam Gidwitz for his expertise on many things I would not have known—like what some current locations or buildings looked like several centuries ago or how monks, peasants, or regular merchants dressed in medieval times.

TM: Most illustrated manuscripts are quite formal, but your style is very fluid—which works wonderfully with the humor in the book. What were you trying to achieve with your illustrations?

HA: Sometimes limitations are a great door to creativity. I used the formal tradition of illuminated manuscripts and the restrictive area of illustrative marginalia as an anchor that kept me in the right direction; within those strictures I allowed any ideas to flow freely, knowing that at the end it would be contained in the proper form. You could say it’s like singing a folklore poem in your own melody but staying truthful to the lyrics. And that works beautifully if you think the text is fantastic. In brief, I wanted the artwork to be both fun and passionate, like the story and characters of The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Teri Markson has been a children’s librarian for over 18 years. She is currently the acting senior librarian at the Valley Plaza Branch Library in North Hollywood, CA.

View Hatem Aly's early sketches for The Inquisitor's Tale:

(Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge images and enter the slideshow.)


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