The ProsenPeople

Go by the Country

Wednesday, October 21, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rita Lakin shared what inspired her comedy mystery novels about 80-year-olds solving crime in Florida. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“Go by the Country” is the title of one of the songs written in a musical I created with my friend Doris Silverton: Saturday Night at Grossinger's.

Whatever possessed us to go down that road? Let me describe our lives at that time. It was the 1960s. I was writing scripts for television, for such shows as Dr. Kildare and Peyton Place. Doris was writing short stories for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. This was our career path and we were well on it.

Doris and I had many conversations about our childhood. Even though we now both lived in Los Angeles, I grew up in the Bronx, she in Yonkers. We had vivid memories, especially about our summers when our families made the usual exodus to the Catskill Mountains. In a world before air conditioning, summers in New York were sweltering. Our dads bravely stayed home in the heat. To keep us cool, our mothers schlepped us up to various cuch-a-lains in what was lovingly called the Borscht Belt, where we learned about communal Jewish living. While our mothers kvetched and fought the battles over who used up our sour cream in the ice box, we enjoyed our happy, outdoor country experiences, picking berries and swimming in the lake.

The cuch-a-lains were plain and simple low income bungalows; however there was an upper crust world nearby where people with money stayed. Like the fancy Flagler Hotel and the famous Grossinger’s, with its acres of attractions and ever-available food.

My friend and I would sneak into their Saturday night shows where comics both famous, and not-yet-famous tried out their comedy material and Spanish dance teams whirled about the stage. We were in awe.

Doris and I discussed writing a script about our vacation days for television. I dutifully made the rounds of producers I knew and suggested such a project. And although the producers I pitched to were Jewish, they told me in no uncertain terms that “Jewish” was not wanted on TV. I cited the famous Molly Berg show. They told me that was a “flash in the pan.”

When we did more research on the1920s and 1930s—the height of the Catskill hotels’ success—we learned, in shock, that gentile hotels in places like the Pocono’s, actually had signs up that read: “Restricted. NJA” (No Jews Allowed). And that’s why amazing women like Jennie Grossinger fought back by building hotels for her people. Doris and I finally understood why the Borscht Belt had to happen. We were determined, we had to write this story. We decided to write it as a musical.

We connected with talented people like composer Claibe Richardson, and lyricists Ronny Graham and Stephen Cole, and our musical became a reality.

But there’s an ironic postscript. In 1973, I finally convinced a television producer to let me write a Jewish script based on my experiences as a teenager in those earlier bungalows. The producer loved the script, and I saw it as a Jewish victory. A Summer Without Boys aired that year. But then, with millions of others, I watched my play the night it was on television and gasped. There was absolutely nothing about being Jewish in it. It could have been any hotel, anywhere with bland characters in white America. Was it hidden antisemitism, or just plain blindness? I’ll never know.

Rita Lakin is the author of The Only Woman in the Room: Episodes in My Life and Career as a Television Writer. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPoeple.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Hours Count

Tuesday, October 20, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Don't you kinda wish all books about the Rosenbergs looked like this?

I'll be honest, Historical Fiction does not always appeal to me—but now I'm thinking that might have something to do with the template book covers of that genre. The design for The Hours Count, however, is lovely: simultaneously stark and subdued, and utterly compelling. Jillian Cantor's latest novel is told from the fictionalized perspective of Julius and Ethel's neighbor—the young mother with whom Ethel left her two sons the day she was arrested on charges of treason in 1950. Reviewers are loving the book, which comes out today from Riverhead Books!

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Getting Old Can Kill You

Monday, October 19, 2015 | Permalink

Rita Lakin brings her 25 years of experience working in television—the subject of her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room: Episodes in My Life and Career as a Television Writer—to The ProsenPeople as this week’s Visiting Scribe.

At age fifty my parents made their exodus, leaving the Bronx for Florida, and my aunts and uncles followed. They all moved into the same huge, two-hundred unit condominium in Fort Lauderdale and discovered that 90% of the tenants were also Jewish. They felt as if their entire neighborhood had relocated with them. It was as if they’d never left home—only, the weather was better—and they took to Florida like flamingos to marshes.

I lived three thousand miles away in California, working as a script writer in Hollywood. I decided to take time off and write a novel. What I knew for sure was that I wanted it to be about my mother and Florida. I had visited my family every year throughout my twenty-five years in television, and my memories of their colorful life stayed fresh in my mind.

I went through the list we writers put ourselves through when we commit to perhaps a year or two of work, the process of selecting project that will keep us involved and stimulated.

So, what to write about my mother? She was now 75, and I knew I also wanted to write about the process of aging as a sub text. Decision made; check. What genre? Well, my career in film was writing drama. I wanted a change of pace. Comedy. It wasn’t too far a reach— my mom and my aunts were quite funny, not that they were aware of it. (Me: “Mom, you live five minutes from the beach. Why don’t you ever go there?” Mom: “Are you crazy? And schlepp home sand in my living room?”) Early-bird dinners at 4 PM? My Uncle Hy telling corny off-color jokes about old age? Taking Cane Fu lessons? Cane Fu—in wacky Florida, anything is believable. Plenty of material for funny. Check.

Now, I had to think. Would readers buy that novel? I worked in the very commercial world of television. Out of pride, I wanted the book to sell. Jewish old women? Funny? Funny old Jewish women aging? Not likely. I needed something marketable. I had it: a comedy and a mystery, a “Cozy” in the style of Agatha Christie. I would give my mother, aunts, and their friends a profession as private investigators—the oldest PI’s in the country.

And like that, Gladdy Gold and her girls were created. The novel is called Getting Old Is Murder. It even has a special opening page for translating the Yiddish words for non-Jewish readers.

The books sold like hotcakes. Six more followed: Getting Old Is the Best Revenge; Getting Old is Criminal; Getting Old is to Die For; Getting Old is Tres Dangereux; Getting Old is a Disaster; Getting Old Can Kill You.

If you are so inclined, read them. Their fans laugh and cry and call the girls hilarious. As Gladdy would say, enjoy.

Rita Lakin is the author of The Only Woman in the Room: Episodes in My Life and Career as a Television Writer. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPoeple.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews October 16, 2015

Friday, October 16, 2015 | Permalink

This week's reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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What's a Book?

Friday, October 16, 2015 | Permalink

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University. His new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses, is now available in print and audiobook from Jewish Lights Publishing .

No, this is not a question I expect from my preschool grandchildren Ellie Brooklyn and Gabriel Elijah, although they are most definitely digital natives. Their parents—and Bubbie and Zaydie— have made sure that they love to cuddle up with a printed book, eager to hear the words and look at the pictures of a great children's title.

I am not totally worried that ebooks will transplant print books as the way we read literature. A recent New York Times article reports that ebook sales are down 10% and bookstores are breathing a bit easier these days.

Instead, permit me to share two insights about the purpose of a book.

I once heard my friend Rabbi David Wolpe say the most remarkable thing about books. He was a fresh-out-of-seminary rabbi, recruited by Dr. David Lieber, to join the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). Rabbi Lieber of blessed memory, then President of the University, wanted this bright young rabbi and budding author on staff, but the only suitable job available was "Librarian." Did David Wolpe know anything about being a librarian? I once asked David this question in front of a group at his congregation, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. His answer: "I knew as much about being a librarian as I know about the flora and fauna of Papua, New Guinea." Nevertheless, Rabbi Wolpe was a great advocate for our library, the largest collection of Judaica in the western United States of America. It was at a fundraising event for the library when I heard David say this: "When I walk through the stacks in the library, I don't see books. I hear the voices of the authors saying: 'Come, now. Pick me up. Let me share with you what I have learned."

I thought about this as I set about writing my new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses. For years, I have wanted to write down the stories I tell—many of them very funny (and all true!)— tales I share to illustrate my educational points when I teach seminars at AJU and during my travels as a scholar in residence. I wondered if the oral words could become written words and retain their impact. Although the book has been out for only a few weeks, I'm thrilled that early readers have indeed reported that the stories are resonating deeply, eliciting many laughs, some tears, and warm feelings of memory and identity. And, with David's stirring words in my mind, I decided to narrate an unabridged audiobook of Best Boy so readers can literally hear my voice!

Here's the other amazing thing about a book. For someone like me who loves teaching, a book is an extension of my classroom. It enables me to share what I've learned with thousands of people I will most likely never encounter in person, but eagerly meet in the pages of the text. This is why I write the stories in easy prose, a narrative that goes down, I hope, like sweet honey in a glazele tay. It is why I am tickled when a reader reports "I laughed out loud on a plane," or "I had to stop to read a story to my spouse," or "your stories are my stories." It is why, when I meet someone with a copy of Relational Judaism with pages that are dogeared, underlined, and ridden with sticky notes, I am elated, for my "student" has indeed heard my words. It is why I included a Discussion Guide for book clubs in Best Boy,because sharing a good book with friends is like convening a class.

So, what is a book? It's a voice. It's a classroom. It's the sharing of life lessons that resonate. It's a vehicle for sharing relatable stories that reveal the author/teacher's experiences and unveil the soul.

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University. His new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses, is now available in print and audiobook from Jewish Lights Publishing .

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Interview: Naomi Ragen

Thursday, October 15, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Devil in Jerusalem is a terrifying thriller, but even more upsetting is that this story was based on a true event. It explores the horrific issues of abuse, both emotional and physical, inflicted onto cult followers. Based upon a true event from the documents of a well-known Israeli court case, the author fictionalizes it to add depth to the plot. This story centers around an ultra-Orthodox self-proclaimed religious leader and his acolytes who abuse young children physically and abuse their mothers emotionally.

Elise Cooper: Why did you decide to write such an intense storyline?

Naomi Ragen: I am trying to save people’s lives. These predators use people who are seeking holiness and make them victims. Here in Israel there are endless stories of people considered holy men who turned out to be sexually exploiting women.

EC: Do you see this as a condemnation of the ultra-Orthodox?

NR: Absolutely not. I am Orthodox. This is not about the ultra-Orthodox community; it is about psychopaths who happen to be a part of the Jewish world. They use religion to manipulate people’s vulnerability when seeking spirituality. It is more a book about cults in which the leader is looked up to and can do no wrong in the eyes of their followers. I hope I brought out in the book the difference between a cult and a true religious experience. The cult leaders twist and turn, using religion for their own personal benefit.

EC: What inspired this story?

NR: I read the documents of a true court case. This sadistic cult abused children, one with severe burns. This supposed mystical holy man preyed on an American family: the mother involved was a young, intelligent woman. I call this book a work of fiction inspired by true events. To get the full extent of the horror of what happened I needed to not whitewash the true details. In the acknowledgement section of the book I talk about how it was based on the court transcripts.

EC: Why do you write these types of books?

NR: Books I write brings up “truths.” We need to look at what is underneath the carpet in order to grow, become a better Jewish community; thus, a better religious society. When my first book came out two decades ago it was a call-out regarding domestic abuse within the Jewish community. At that time, I was told I was defaming them; now, twenty years later, there are shelters for Orthodox Jewish women, guidelines for rabbis on how to handle abuse, and women who no longer are trapped by a code of silence. I hope what all my books have done is bring people to discuss important topics they read and share their opinions.

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

NR: I want people to become aware of the dangers. Anyone can become a cult member, especially those who are highly intelligent, idealistic, and search for something. They are usually vulnerable at that time in their life.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q&As for many different outlets, including the Military Press.

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Passing the Buck, Berlin Style

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dina Gold chronicled a difficult encounter at her first author event for Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin, a personal account of her restitution claim on a building built and owned by her great grandfather. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Inertia is a wonderful thing if you are a bureaucrat—and perhaps especially so if you are a German one responsible for a building once expropriated by the Nazis from Jewish owners.

Two years ago, then German Minister of Transport, Dr. Peter Ramsauer, asked one of his civil servants to write to me promising that he would arrange for a plaque to be affixed to the wall of a building once owned by my family.

“(Minister Dr. Peter Ramsauer) asked me to respond to your question. We are awake to the history of our office building at Krausenstrasse 17 – 20,” he wrote. “The historic events connected with construction and utilization of the building have been imparted by us to all our visitors… I do support your concern, to document the historical background outside for all visitors and pedestrians by a plaque fixed on the building. Especially, the remembrance to the expropriation of the Jewish owner Victor Wolff should be brought attention for the general public. Therefore, I’ll arrange for the plaque to be produced and affixed to office building. I hope I could satisfy your reasonable demand.”[sic]

Victor Wolff was my great-grandfather. The magnificent building, which in 2013 was part of the Ministry of Transport, had been the Wolff family fur business headquarters. They had lost possession in 1937 when the mortgage was foreclosed upon and the property handed directly to the Reichsbahn. In 1996 the German government restituted the building to my mother and her siblings and promptly bought it back off them, this time at the fair market price. A plaque commemorating the building’s history seemed a small token of recognition for what the family had been through. And Dr. Ramsauer appeared to agree.

But, despite the promise, nothing happened.

In June 2014, after asking what progress had been made, I had another email, this time from a different civil servant, with the paltry excuse that the reason for the delay was that “responsibilities for the office building Krausenstrasse 17 – 18 changed. The new owner is the Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben (Federal Authority for Real Property Administration), Fasanenstrasse 87, 10623 Berlin. So the new owner has to decide the matter. Hopefully they support your reasonable demand so we did and the plaque will be placed on the building as soon as possible,” she cheerfully added.

Still no action followed. So I wrote again asking for an update. In August 2014 I received a response from a third civil servant, saying he was aware of my request, and that“the Institute for Federal Real Estate (Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben) - are responsible for the management of that building since July 2014. We will review your request and inform you as soon as we have new information available.”

In order for justice to be done, it must be seen done. So what is this endless prevarication? Why am I still waiting?

Dina Gold is a former BBC investigative journalist and television producer. She is on the board of the DC JCC and currently serves as co-chair of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. She is a senior editor at Moment magazine.

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A Purge to Preserve the Myth of Spotless Escape

Tuesday, October 13, 2015 | Permalink
Excerpted from Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman, now available in paperback from Riverhead Books.

It was some years after his death when my grandmother casually told me that she had destroyed my grandfather’s personal correspondence. We were setting the table for dinner. “They sat in a filing cabinet for sixty-something years,” she said. “I decided that was long enough.” We fought about it. “They are all in German,” she said quietly, derisively. But though I hissed petulantly, “It’s not a dead language,” really, what was the point? There was no undoing.

“I saved the important things,” she said, slyly. “Like our love letters.” Emphasis on our. What was destroyed? I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Letters from Shanghai. People you’ve never met. People who are gone.”

Shanghai? People who are gone? It was tantalizing, infuriating. And over time it became clear that the point of her purge was, consciously or not, to preserve the myth of the spotless escape; and, in part, a carefully curated history.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

A few years after our argument, my grandmother was not well. She sat in my grandfather’s old home office, her movements manipulated by some terrible sort of Parkinson’s-like disease, as I rooted around in cabinets asking questions about random artifacts. She had always been so meticulous, in her appearance, in her demeanor; the last few years of her life were a blow to that—though there were some constants. She still perfumed herself with Emeraude, a scent that had remained unchanged—like her—since the 1920s; still wore her deep pink and coral lipsticks, still pushed herself into punishing girdles and stockings and heels, her Achilles tendons shortened by decades of propping on wedges. And she hadn’t changed the office, or the house, at all since his death, as though she—as though we—believed my grandfather would walk back in at any moment, sit down at his enormous walnut desk, and slice through the mail of the day with the long, sharp letter opener he kept for just that purpose. His marble busts, of Schiller and Goethe, of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, and Theodor Herzl still sat in one windowsill; on the other side of the room, a black marble Apollo flexed his muscles into eternity. Volumes of literature in German lined the shelves. The deep teal blue and green armchair where he pierced my ears with a needle—at the age of five—was still placed exactly where it always sat, beneath a copper flying-saucer-like pendant light. A midcentury Danish daybed, dressed in green and blue wool, hugged the wall; I occasionally slept on it when I would come to visit.

That afternoon, in the cabinets beneath the bay windows where Goethe sat, staring, I came across an old album, the kind with black pages and photo corners cradling black-and-white snapshots with scalloped edges. The photographs ranged from formal—stiff family portraits from the 1910s to the 1930s—to informal—crowds of laughing European teens and twentysomethings in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

There was countryside and friends, attractive girls in old- fashioned swimming costumes, and a cheerful, muscular, incomprehensibly young version of the man I’d known as my grandfather, surrounded in one photo by a dozen girls, the literal focal point, the center of attention.

Among these images were dozens of tiny photos of a young woman. “Your Valy” was written on the back of each one, in a feminine hand I didn’t recognize. Here she was, laughing, rolling in the grass in Vienna’s Augarten—next to my grandfather. Here she was mugging, posed, hands on hips. Another showed the two of them lying on a bed, smiling coyly; it was shot into a mirror. There were photos of him and her in bathing suits, the two of them snuggled up close, laughing. They appeared, in the parlance of teenagers, to be more than friends.

How had I never seen this album before, I wondered, turning the pages, trying not to let the paper crumble. This was his life, I realized, before any of us, before, even, my grandmother. And it was a life so—was there any other word for it?—carefree. They look so happy, so young, so fresh in the images dated 1932, 1934, 1935. This was his European life, the life—the people, the experiences—he had left behind.

Continue Reading »

Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©2015 by Sarah Wildman.

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Don't Rain on My Parade

Monday, October 12, 2015 | Permalink

Dina Gold is the author of Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18, Berlin, a personal account of her restitution claim on a building built and owned by her great grandfather. She will be blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe for The ProsenPeople.

“Will the law that applied in your family’s case for restitution in former East Berlin equally apply to the Palestinians, whose homes have been stolen by Israel?”

The opening question at my very first book presentation to a packed out, standing room only, event hosted by Washington DC’s premier bookstore was so brazen, so angry, so out of place. I was at an author event talking about my new book, in which I describe tracking down a building stolen by the Nazis from my family in 1937 Berlin and how I launched a bid to reclaim it after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. And now I was in an ambush.

I paused. How to assuage the searing fury? I am not a legal expert. I am a journalist. I wrote about my experiences and my family history. I am in no position to make statements on international property law.

But the questioner was having none of it. As other members of the audience lined up behind her at the microphone, all wanting to ask me a question, she came back at me. Standing her ground, she launched into a veritable tirade of pronouncements, revealing more about herself than she realized. This was all about her. She was staking her claim as a seeker of justice and she wanted attention. She was a heroine in her own eyes, and she sought accolades for her bravery. And her whole demeanor suggested she saw me as her enemy.

At the time it was not an appropriate moment to engage in this discussion, but I have my own private thoughts about the issue this woman raised: What about exiled Cuban-Americans, and their descendants, whose properties were stolen by the Communists after Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959? These lost assets amount to a reported $100 billion at today’s values, none of which have been restituted. How about the more than 800,000 Jews from Arab countries who hail from all over the Middle East and North Africa—including Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco—who had lived in these lands for over 2,500 years and yet left in fear of their lives or were kicked out? No compensation or restitution for them, either. And while we are at it, what about the failure to sort out property claims of those refugees who lost everything from places as far afield as Cyprus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq and South Africa? Or the Uighers who have had their properties confiscated by the Chinese? And the refugees fleeing Syria today who are leaving everything behind? I could go on and on. So many people, so much property, such injustice around the globe—what will happen to all these people’s assets?

But there are plenty outstanding legal minds more qualified than I to discuss restitution claims and cases. If someone is genuinely concerned about the property rights of Palestinians, rather than grandstanding at a book event, why not address their questions to an appropriately qualified person? I can guarantee that someone trained in international law will be far more erudite on the subject than an author targeted on the subject simply because they are Jewish.

Dina Gold is a former BBC investigative journalist and television producer. She is on the board of the DC JCC and currently serves as co-chair of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. She is a senior editor at Moment magazine.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews October 8, 2015

Friday, October 09, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at the Jewish Book Council:

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