The ProsenPeople

An Introduction to Jan Karski

Friday, April 17, 2015 | Permalink

by Joshua Muravchik

Few individuals risked more to try to save the Jews from the Holocaust than Jan Karski, and yet what makes his actions most amazing was that the cause of the Jews was secondary to his mission. That mission was to save Poland, and in itself it was a desperate, overwhelming, death-defying struggle that took every ounce of strength, courage, and wit that could be summoned by the Polish patriots who consecrated their lives to it.

A young officer at the time of the Nazi conquest, Jan Kozielewski quickly enrolled in the resistance that spring up almost at once among the occupied Poles, and he was given the first of a string of aliases of which the last, Jan Karski, remained with him the rest of his life. His photographic memory qualified him as a courier because he had a rare ability to recite verbatim long messages that he could convey among the Underground’s political and military leaders without carrying any incriminating document. His missions included travel across the length of the Third Reich to carry communications between the leaders inside Poland and the official Polish government in exile, based in London.

On one of these missions, he was captured and subjected to such tortures by the Gestapo that he chose to take his own life for fear he would succumb to the pain and betray his comrades. This choice reflected the character of a man who lived by the categorical imperative to do the right thing regardless of cost. He found a razor blade discarded by a guard and slit both wrists, but before the life had drained out of him he was discovered and his wounds bandaged. He was put under guard in a hospital to recover so that the Gestapo could resume his interrogation cum torture. But such was his importance to the Underground that a heroic operation was mounted to wrest him from his captors. In retaliation the Nazis executed some twenty to thirty-five (accounts vary) nurses, doctors, and priests associated with the hospital. That others died on his account tormented him to his last days, although the operation was not his choice: indeed his liberators had orders to kill him if they could not succeed in extracting him.

Once free, and given a little time to recuperate from is self-inflected injuries, Karski insisted on returning to his work in the Underground. The risk was now multiplied. The Gestapo knew of him, and the scars on his wrist were a sure mark of his identity. Nonetheless the Underground resumed giving him vital assignments because his gift was rare, and life was cheap.

As he prepared for another mission to London, in 1942, Karski was approached—with the approval of his superiors—by leaders of secret Jewish organizations and asked if he would be willing to shoulder the additional assignment of informing British and American officials, as well as Jewish leaders in the West, that the Jews of Poland were being not merely persecuted but systematically exterminated. Moreover, they said that his message would be all the more compelling if he could be an eye witness. Karski agreed, and he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto for several hours, a stroll through hell. A few days later he was taken a second time. Then, to top it off, he was insinuated, disguised as a Ukrainian guard who was bribed to lend his uniform, into a camp. Karski believed it was the death camp at Belzec, but later research suggested that it was a temporary facility where some Jews were murdered on the spot, others shipped to larger extermination camps.

Then Karski succeeded in his stealthy infiltration to London and where he recounted what he had seen to Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and to Jewish leaders. From there, he sailed for Washington where he repeated his stories to President Roosevelt and various prominent individuals. All, devastatingly, to no visible effect. FDR pressed him, as Karski later related on film with a bitter straight face, not about the Jews but about whether the Nazis had appropriated many Polish horses for their invasion of the USSR. And Justice Felix Frankfurter, arguably the highest ranking Jew in America, heard him out and then replied: “I cannot believe what you are telling me.”

His main mission, to liberate Poland, was lost as his homeland was freed from the Nazis only by a new conqueror. And his ancillary mission, to alert the world to the Holocaust, came to naught. To express his unbearable frustration at having been ignored, he took a vow not to speak of these events again, and made a new life as an exile in the United States. He broke the vow only after 30-odd years when he was discovered by Claude Lanzmann who was making his epic documentary, Shoah, and cajoled Karski into recounting his experience.

Karski can be seen on film, being interviewed in his Washington apartment. Punctiliously dressed, as was his habit, he begins: “Now I go back 35 years,” he says. Then he cannot go on: “No, I don’t go back.” Collapsing into sobs, he rises and walks off camera to collect himself before returning to continue.

After breaking his silence for Lanzmann, Karski spoke about these unspeakable happenings again often, and became a great tribune against anti-Semitism. Eventually he was given the rare recognition of honorary citizenship of Israel although he remained a devout Catholic all this life. The Jews were not his primary cause, but he was a man of such rare rectitude that when he saw what was being done to them, he gave everything he had to try to stop it. And yet, he once told a mostly-student audience at Georgetown University, where he taught, that he believed he would have to answer to God for not having done enough.

Read more about Jan Karski in the book Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World (Jan Karski).

Joshua Muravchik is the author of Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel.

Related Content: Read More about Jan Karski and Other Righteous Gentiles

Ask Big Questions: When Do You Say No?

Thursday, April 16, 2015 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He is also the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine,The Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For the past three weeks, ever since the release of my book, All Who Go Do Not Return, I have been getting this question at least once a day: “Where is your anger?”

My book is a memoir of growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic world. From my current vantage point, I and many others see the society and community I grew up in as deeply problematic. From its education system to its economic structures to its social dynamics, the Hasidic community restricts its members’ freedom even when those members desperately wish to live differently. At present, the practices are such that by the time Hasidic men and women are mature enough to know themselves and their own aspirations, they are married with children, and highly dependent on the community and their social and familial connections in order to survive.

When I left, seven years ago, I was 33, after having established a family and, along with my then-wife, was raising five children within the all-Hasidic village of New Square, New York. My book recounts the experience of first losing faith, then feeling trapped within a society whose beliefs I did not share and whose worldview I came to fundamentally reject. At first, I stayed, because I feared the consequences of leaving, until I realized that a fear-based life, lying and hiding every day—to my wife, to my children, to my friends and neighbors—was too psychically devastating, and too morally corrosive. And so I made the decision to leave. I suffered for it, and lost a great deal, but I made my way out and survived to tell of it.

Now, some of my friends who are still within, look to me and say, "Shulem, where's your outrage? Where's your condemnation of this society? Why aren't you working to change things for us?"

With this, I am being called on to tell more than just my story. I am being asked to take on the role of activist. Of the one who rails against the ills of a particular society, and seeks to change it. And such a role makes me deeply uncomfortable. And to that, I have had to say no.

To be sure, I have not rejected activism entirely. As a writer and author on the subject of leaving the Hasidic community, I have been deeply involved in efforts to build community among those who've left, to allow voices on the fringes of the Hasidic world to be heard; I also serve on the board of Footsteps, an organization that assists those who wish to leave the Hasidic world.

My activism, however, is limited to supporting those who wish to leave. I am here to help people transition, to offer them choices and enable a richly fulfilling life that is self-determined, not imposed, not lived by compulsion, out of fear, or due to social, familial, or economic pressures.

But I do not seek to fundamentally change the society and community I come from. To that, when called upon, I say no.

I would like to say yes. There are indeed systemic problems with the Hasidic world. They stem not from faith. Or from tradition. Or from false beliefs. But from the complexities of ordinary humanness. Good people doing bad things, because their societies haven't developed the frameworks to protect against them.

Children ripped from parents, when those parents leave the fold; men and women with unorthodox beliefs ostracized; violence committed against individuals who refuse to conform. These occurrences point to systemic problems in how Hasidic society is formed, and how its members trained and conditioned. And these things are worth fighting against.

But I have to say no. Someone else can take it up, but not I.

An activist spirit requires a degree of moral certitude that I do not have. To be an activist, to offer full-throated condemnations of systems and practices that others believe to be correct, requires not only the knowledge that one is right, but also passion and conviction—the kind of passion and conviction that often blinds one to the complexities of lived experiences. The activist cannot afford ambivalence. The activist, in order to remain tireless, to remain active despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes from working against powerful forces, must be clear in what he or she is fighting for. And to maintain such clarity requires giving up on seeing nuance and shades of complexity.

I would have liked to say yes. I have family and friends within the Hasidic world, and I want them to have better lives, greater opportunities, more fulfilling and enriched futures. I have children and siblings and many nieces and nephews within the Hasidic world, and I want a better world for them.

But I do not have that activist temperament, and this question—"Why are you not angry?"—gets to the heart of it. I am not angry because I know the Hasidic world too well; I know that most Hasidic parents want the best for their children. Most Hasidic teachers want the best for their students. I know this, because for a good part of my life I was a deeply devout Hasid like any other, and I wanted then the same things they want. It was not anger that led me away, but an accident of fate, encounters with certain books, and certain individuals, and certain ideas. I had no deep and true grievances against Hasidic society when I lost my faith, and so I lack the passion, the furious energy that would drive me to change a world I have deliberately chosen to dissociate from.

I am not an activist, because I am not angry enough.

However, I am troubled, and so I look to others who are angry, and hope that it will spur them to action.

“Why are you all so angry?” many in the Hasidic world often ask of those who leave. We hear this as a condemnation, as if our anger points to some character flaw, some failure on our part to retain our collective composure. And it's true, many of my friends who have left are indeed angry, traumatized by past abuses, enraged over the injustices that have led many of them away. It does not please me that they are angry, because anger is a difficult emotion to have. But it does give me hope. Because I do not see it as a character flaw. I see it as the essential motivating trait that will drive one or many to bring about change in a society that desperately needs it.

I am not angry enough, furious enough, and so when asked to step up as an activist for change, I say no.

But I look to those who do have that rage, that fury, that truly righteous and holy indignation, and I am grateful, because it is they who will one day say yes.

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and leaving the Hasidic Jewish world, out last month from Graywolf Press. Follow him on Twitter at @shdeen

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Interview: Matthue Roth

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 | Permalink

by Elie Lichtschein

Elie Lichtenstein recently spoke with Matthue Roth about his newest book, The Gobblings.

Elie Lichtschein: You've written both novels and picture books. Does the process of writing a picture book differ much from writing a novel? How so?

Matthue Roth:The process of writing any story is different than any other one, of course—just by virtue of the character and the plot and the lives you're telling. But yes. When you're writing a picture book, you're making a blueprint. Every line you write is going to linger in the artist's mind and is going to be magnified a thousand times—you only get, what? Five or ten lines to a page? And partly because the artist will transform those five or ten lines into a whole tableau. Multiply that by sixteen double-page spreads, and that's the space you get to tell an entire story.

EL: What did the collaboration process between you and Rohan look like?

MR: There's a period of time where the manuscript is fully mine, and then a period where it's fully his. Our editor, Robert, is sort of the in-betweener—he's the conductor. There was some back-and-forthing, which was annoying for Rohan, I'm sure, because he was already work­ing on layouts when I was still planning what would happen in the big chase scene. But it also made everything a lot more integrated; it made the whole book more of a collaborative effort.

EL: What was the impetus behind The Gobblings? What inspired and pushed you to write it?

MR: Mostly this intense feeling of loneliness I had while spending time in Australia, and a Baal Shem Tov story of a boy on his own in a synagogue in a strange town on Yom Kippur [see the review here for a summary of the story]. I want to say that my kids pushed me, too—and they do; they're always asking for stories, and my head is rarely together enough to be able to launch a story at them fully-formed—but I think at heart, every story I tell is for myself. If it doesn't hold my attention, picture book or novel or film or something else, then it's probably not good enough for anyone else to read.

EL: What other works inform your writing? Which authors—classic or contemporary—were most influential while you worked on The Gob­blings?

MR: I think there's a lot of Kafka in there. And some of Maurice Sendak, who's basically in my DNA, and Kelly Link, who tells these very natural and organic science fiction stories that are both comforting and scary.

EL: You've written a picture book retelling classic Kafka stories. And the gobblings—long-snouted, reptilian, alien monsters who feed on metals and machines—are wonderfully Kafkaesque in their mundane absur­dity; they are, essentially, huge mosquito-like pests in outer space. Was this a conscious choice to channel Kafka in their creation?

MR: It really wasn't a conscious choice to evoke Kafka, although he's al­ways hunting around my brain. One reviewer pointed out that nobody's really evil in The Gobblings; even the gobblings only do what they need to to survive. It's really like a fairy tale—well, with space ships and ro­bots and stuff. Nobody's wicked; they just have different priorities.

EL: I understand you recently received an MFA in creative writing. Did The Gobblings, in an earlier draft, make an appearance in your program?

MR: Not directly! But I think telling stories is one of those things that, the more you do, the better you get. It ramped up my skills, not just how to tell "Adult Literary Fiction Short Stories," but how to tell stories.

EL: To write a picture book, do you need to be transported back into your childhood? Or else into a wide-eyed, all-is-possible, child-like mindset? If so, how do you achieve this?

MR: I think that telling any story is like creating a world. Sometimes it's even literal. I think I definitely get transported into a different mindset, but it's less "a kid mindset" than it is the mindset of my character. I think it's really just, like, whose story am I telling, and what words and form tell it best? And for Herbie, I was like, this is a picture book.

EL: What can readers expect from you next?

MR: I have two picture books in the works! One is called No Dogs Al­lowed, and it's about a dog that gets kicked out of a corner store and goes on a sort of fantastic undersea journey. The other is We Are in a Pot of Chicken Soup, and it also has a sort of fantastic journey. Under, um, schmaltz.

EL: What are you reading right now?

MR: A short novel by Steve Stern, The North of God, part of Melville House's wonderful novella series. And I just got my press copy of this crazy anthology called Jews Vs. Aliens, which I'm in, but now is the first time I get to read the other people's stories, which are uniformly bizarre and awesome. And with my kids, we just watched the film Labyrinth for the first time, and we're rereading Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There, which it's based on.

Elie Lichtschein is a writer and musician based in New York. He is currently pursuing an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the New School, where he is completing a mysti-fantasy Middle Grade adventure novel.

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The Art in the Book

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Barbara Stark-Nemon wrote about how her family chose to remember Germany after World War II. She is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

There's a special meadow in the forest of novelists who integrate the visual arts into their work. In Even in Darkness, there are four distinct scenes involving paintings or sculptures that produce transformational moments for the main characters. As a photographer, sketch and fiber artist, and art history student, I've long been attracted to the visual arts. Over time, I've come to realize how much that interest informs my writing.

When I first began work on the manuscript that became Even in Darkness, I had the good fortune to attend a weeklong writer's workshop with Elizabeth Kostova, whose novel Swan Thieves has artists as main characters. All week, the workshop experimented with various approaches to including visual arts in our work, and I came away with two of the scenes that remain in Even in Darkness today.

Since this novel is primarily based on the life of my great aunt, some of the works of art that appear in it are ones she owned, or saw and spoke about, and I admired them or learned about them when I visited her in Germany. Lithographs by Marc Chagall lined the marble-floored entry hall of the rectory where she lived, and the priest she lived with wrote a book about kings and prophets in Chagall’s art. A watercolor, by a little-known German Expressionist artist, hung on their dining room wall, and my aunt told me the story of how it represented her need to restore her capacity to see beauty after all she’d suffered during the war. An oil portrait of my great aunt graced a wall in the priest’s study. It made its way into Even in Darkness. When I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, as my aunt and the priest once did, I imagined how her seeing a sculptural relief of St. Mary might have made her feel, as a grieving mother. I incorporated this scene into a chapter that catalyzed spiritual and emotional insights of Klare’s character for the reader.

Other art connections showed up in the book. On a research trip to an exhibit of German art rejected by the Nazis in the 1930s, I saw several portraits of the art dealer Johanna Ey, and I learned about the artists she aided. She became the basis of a character.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Museo de Picasso in Malaga, Spain, which houses an interesting collection of Picasso’s works spanning his whole career. A description of one of his mid-career portraits included a quotation by the photographer Roberto Otero that struck me as fundamentally true not only about drawing, but about writing.

"Of course, one never knows what's going to come out, but as soon as the drawing gets underway, a story or idea is born. And that's it. Then the story grows...and the drawing is turned into other drawings - a real novel."

When I write, I feel like I draw a character's portrait in words and then the picture is begun. It grows, and other pictures emerge and the images join into a whole. Otero's observation reminds me how closely the creative process is mirrored in visual and written forms and how I delight in that. As Alyson Richman says in an interview on the wonderful website by Stephanie Renee dos Santos about art in historical novels, “I feel as though I’ve been able to incorporate my love of art with my love of writing.”

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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Interview: Brian Morton

Monday, April 13, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

Florence Gordon, Brian Morton’s fifth novel, engages with the terrain of the other—New York Jewish intellectuals. The heroine is a professor who is embarking on writing her memoirs, after writing a number of seminal books of essays. Her time is limited and she does not suffer fools gladly—whether blood relatives or not—and lets them know her opinions.

Beth Kissileff: You write of a person as the “center of a world” in this novel. Is that why you wrote a novel about an eponymous character?

Brian Morton: I'd say it's why most of my novels try to explore different characters' points of view. The idea that each person is the center of his or her own world is always on my mind when I'm working on a novel. Emily [Florence’s granddaughter] is really the secret heroine of the book, and the moral center of the book, because she's living that idea, by trying to understand other people on their own terms. There's a moment late in the book where Florence greets Emily with even more coldness than usual, and at first Emily thinks Florence is mad at her, but then intuits that what Florence is going through has nothing to do with her at all. That moment, when Emily transcends her­self by entering into Florence's point of view, is meant to be a sort of quiet moment of climax in the novel.

Iris Murdoch, in an essay called “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” said that we judge novelists “by the quality of their awareness of others.” I think this could be a motto for fiction writers to put next to the keyboard.

BK: One of the many things you do well as a writer are the titles of your characters’ books and essays, both Florence’s and those of Leonard Schiller, the main character in Starting out in the Evening. Can you say something about that and whether she is a female version of Schiller?

BM: Thank you. I like to give the reader just a hint of what the characters have written, and I try to do that partly by mention­ing the titles of their work. Often there's no context at all—so that when someone in the book thinks of an old essay that Florence wrote called "Notes on What Just Happened," we don't know if the essay referred to the election of Ronald Reagan or to 9/11 or to the Rodney King video or to none of the above. We have no idea what it referred to. I want the reader to do some of the work of imagining her career through scattered bits of evidence, including the titles of her work. (The title of one of her essays, “Opportunities for Heroism in Everyday Life,” was the working title of the novel for a while, until I settled on Florence Gordon.)

I don’t think of Florence as a female counterpart of Schiller. They're both writers of a certain age, but she's much more energetic and more engaged with the life around her. His novels were a sort of monument to private life; she wants her books to change the world.

BK: There have been recent studies about reading fiction increasing empathy. What’s your take?

BM: I hope it does, but I'm skeptical. Don't we all know people who are both very well read and awful? I feel like it's not uncommon to meet people who've read a ton but who are as vain about it as other people are about their possessions.

BK: In all of your other books, you have a character from a previous book reappear. Why didn’t you do that this time?

BM: I thought about doing it. Florence's son and his family are subletting an apartment in the book, and for a while I thought of saying it was Leonard Schil­ler's old apartment—the writer from Starting Out in the Evening—which his daughter had held onto after his death. But finally I thought it would be better to have one book that doesn't explicitly refer to any of the others. I guess I just decided to give it a rest.

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

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At the Heart of It

Monday, April 13, 2015 | Permalink

Barbara Stark-Nemon is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Writing Even in Darkness fulfilled three important aspirations in my author life. It’s a love letter to a woman who influenced me more than she ever knew. It’s the fulfillment of the top item on my bucket list, which was to write a novel. And perhaps most interestingly, it represented the opportunity to write my way into an understanding of the impact my family’s Holocaust experiences had on me as a second-generation survivor.

The character Kläre Kohler in Even in Darkness is based on my great aunt, who was born in 1895, and lived her 100 years in Germany through two world wars and the Holocaust. I first met her when I was six years old during her first visit to America, an event which I dimly remember in the haze of rapid-fire German conversation, long meals, bottles of wine, and fragrant cigar smoke that characterized a lot of the time I spent at my grandparents’ home. I loved Kläre from the moment I met her, and her life in Germany seemed like a mystery. Why did she stay there after surviving the war and the concentration camp, when the rest of her family was in the U.S., Belgium and England? Why was she living with a Catholic priest?

In later years Kläre visited several more times for significant family events and I met and became devoted to the priest who is the basis for the character Ansel in Even in Darkness. I began to travel to Europe, often with my grandparents, and rarely did so without stopping to visit Kläre and Ansel in Germany or arrange for them to join us. Over those many visits I learned both Kläre’s and Ansel’s stories of childhood, war, loss and survival. They listened to my stories as well, and I found that across years, cultures, and language, each of them offered wise and astute counsel.

Only in the writing this novel about Kläre, however, did it become clear that in telling her story, I would reach an understanding of my own relationship to my family’s history in Germany and to the Holocaust. My parents had left privileged lives in Germany to escape the Nazis, coming to this country as teenagers. They had met at a German refugee group’s dance, and along with all four of my grandparents, returned to Germany shortly after the war to visit, take care of business matters and even vacation. My grandfather was an attorney who did restitution work, securing pensions and payments for Jews who had lost property, education, health and businesses.

My parents and grandparents were all practicing Jews dedicated to their temples and synagogues here, and were ever grateful to have become American citizens. However, there was no hatred of Germany or German people in our households. The adults around me frequently spoke German to each other and had many German friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. My grandfather was always proud of his service in the German army in World War I and the Iron Cross First Class that was bestowed upon him. Different members of my family couldn’t agree whether we were escapees or survivors of the Holocaust. None of this went down well with some of my friends’ families, who rejected anything and anyone having to do with Germany. Navigating these different responses within and outside my family became a subtle skillset I had to learn.

Kläre helped me. All my life, I’d heard my grandparents describe her as “lucky,” even though her life in Germany was circumscribed by two world wars, time in a concentration camp, and enormous loss. Until I had to write her through all that, and reveal how she emerged as a vibrant, loving person, I didn’t understand that her “luck” was her remarkable capacity to reinvent herself in a way that honored the past, forgot nothing, but forgave much for the sake of creating meaning out of horror. I learned to embrace her example and acceptance of those whose experiences led them to very different places and perspectives as survivors. I treasure those lessons.

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Thursday, April 09, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Internal Dialogue: What's With All the Social Justice Seders?

Thursday, April 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I’m afraid to admit it, but I have little patience for Passover. Almost none. And the seder least of all.

Don’t get me wrong: I observe the holiday to the letter. I clean out the house, sell my chametz, and subsist on a standard diet of matzah, cream cheese, and eggs with the variable vegetable and odd protein for the entire week, and I not only endure but participate in both seders with my family as I have done since the good ol’ Ma Nishtana days. And I hate every minute of it.

Partly, I just don’t do well with structure. As both a product and proponent of alternative education, I struggle with the hours of prescribed “order” that we’re all forced to adhere to on this so different a night: stand up, sit down, lean to the left, say this, drink that, eat this, eat that, now sing… It feels more like a rigid second grade day school classroom than a meal, let alone a celebratory feast. And, much like that same second grade classroom, the strictly regimented agenda doesn’t yield proportionate efficiency—in fact, it feels, just the opposite.

Mainly, though, it’s the repetition that gets to me: the required regurgitation of the same story year after year. It’s gone from boring to insufferable and at some moments even oppressive—and that’s just the impatience, before the late hour or physical hunger sets in—but I bear through the retelling two nights in a row every year because that part is unquestionably essential to Judaism and Jewish identity—for, as we know all too well, in every generation one must see oneself as though they, too, left Egypt.

There are many in the Jewish community who have chosen to interpret that imperative as a summons to reflect on the events and ills of our lifetime and more recent history: college chaplains organize “freedom seders” joining Jewish and black students on campus; women convene on feminist seders and family members clash over current Israeli policies; rabbis at the pulpit bring up the uncomfortable realities of slavery in our time—on that note, if you read one other essay today, make it this one (although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t written by a rabbi).

The seder also becomes a fertile millennial arena for the social justice bender Jews in their twenties and thirties are on with renewed fervency at the approach of every holiday. This year more than any other (yet), social media housed countless queries and responses for social justice haggadot and supplements—, for example, assembles their top ten picks of new social justice-themed Passover resources each year—and that’s a wonderful thing. But even with the obvious parallelable narratives of freedom and oppression, there’s something curious about an entire generation insisting on telling a multitude of other peoples’ stories on a night we’re supposed to focus entirely on our own one. Is the Exodus somehow less meaningful, less critical to Jewish history or the modern experience, if it isn’t directly relatable to the world around us and its victims? Why on this night do we continue to layer stories on top of the one we’re required to tell?

Reading The Lost Book of Mormon (it’s a Jewish book—very Jewish, I promise, bear with me here) I was inspired to think of the social justice seder phenomenon in terms of a book—more accurately, in terms of a book series, or any narrative-driven franchise. In relating new stories and new struggles to the Passover narrative, these supplements create a sequel to the Exodus. Seder participants take one of our most glorious tales and stretch it across centuries so as to continue to enjoy the original by connecting with not only to the story but the storytelling itself. As Avi Steinberg observes in in his new memoir:

Maybe our tendency to make sequels is somehow embedded in how we think. Just as we want and need a story to end, we also want and need a story to never end. We make sequels as a way of bringing our stories closer to life. As a matter of convention and convenience, stories have endings, but if we were to tell them honestly, stories would never end, just like life, whose dramas dip in and out of time and memory, are recalled, shared, stolen, reprised, recovered, revised—anything but neatly concluded. A sequel may well be a deformed kind of story, a pale likeness—as its critics have long charged—but even if it’s silly or tragic or nobly deluded or tainted by a shameless profit motive, or, more likely, all of these at one, then all the more is it like life.

Steinberg’s rumination on the sequel began with watching new episodes of The Simpsons at his laundromat and realizing that in two decades since the show premiered, nothing in the animated world of Springfield had ever changed, its denizens stuck in a bright, eternal Groundhog Day:

Sequels don’t necessarily believe in progress, but they do insist on the passing of time, or at the very least a change of place. By contrast, a serial like The Simpsons can remain in a state of animated paralysis for eternity.

Critic Terry Castle has described sequels as tragic because they are motivated by a desperate human need to reproduce the original sensation of some pleasurable experience, an impulse, a “mad hope,” she says, that is fated to miserable disappointment. But when I saw Bart still throwing spitballs at Springfield Elementary over twenty years later, that to me seemed like the tragedy of repetition: Sisyphus on a skateboard.

At the Passover seder each year, Judaism makes that same attempt to reproduce the original sensation of one of the greatest miracles ever witnessed by our ancestors: the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, by the hand of God. But the haggadic retelling isn’t a sequel; it’s a loop; it’s Bart Simpson’s same old antics week after week; it’s forty years circling the same patch of desert. We know that experience all too well—and how it can lead to communal loss of faith, rebellion, kvetching, and even idol worship [see: Golden Calf].

In finding a sequel to the Passover story—in the histories and current issues of Civil Rights, feminism, and modern social justice movements—perhaps we restore our faith by breaking out of that cycle, just enough to bring it closer to life. It reifies that the story didn’t end—that the story of the Jewish people didn’t end—with Exodus, that it is an evolving legacy rather than an outgrown or outgrowable childhood tale. We want to relive the experience of leaving Egypt without despairing of it, without growing bored, without losing appreciation for this among the narrative pillars of Jewish history.

The power of the sequel, Avi Steinberg discovered, “meant that the old biblical saga wouldn’t simply replay forever but somehow, some way, find a way out, maybe even a way forward. It boldly reentered the original and steered it in a different direction. Maybe the sequel isn’t the tragedy of repetition: it’s a solution to it.”

So maybe I just need to find my Passover sequel. Maybe one day I’ll write my own.

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Returning to Where It All Began

Friday, April 03, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Thane Rosenbaum gave us a little flashback to Miami Beach, 1972 and how E. L. Doctorow inspired his new novel How Sweet It Is! He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Nearly twenty years ago I published my first book, a novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible. It followed, in postmodern fashion, Adam Posner, a child of Holocaust survivors, who appeared throughout the book in different guises and geographic locations; even his age and occupations varied with each chapter. The story was not told in chronological order; the inversion of time and space, the fracturing of reality and imagination, were among the many contradictions that appeared with nearly every turn of page. The names of his parents were different with each story, too. The only constant was that, in each tale, they were soon to die, or were already dead.

The book received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Best Book of Jewish Fiction. Three other novels would follow. But I never got Adam Posner out of my head. For one thing, his story felt incomplete. There were other Adam Posner tales I wanted to tell; the nine chapters of Elijah Visible, a deliberate half of chai, was not enough. And since the chapters rolled out without logical coherence, the novel ended when Adam Posner was in kindergarten in Washington Heights, during a blizzard. The earlier chapters that depicted his manhood didn’t set up the story for such a stormy conclusion.

Two of the chapters stood out from the rest, however. In one, Adam Posner is a boy growing up in Miami Beach; in the other he is looking back on his childhood in Miami Beach. In both chapters the story was less about him than the more colorful and charismatic figures to whom he was exposed, and who cause him to rethink some of the assumptions he has made about his parents, their past, and the future that lay in store for the entire Posner family—provided they have the audacity to imagine a future at all.

Some of the reviews that the book received singled out these two Miami Beach tales—not just because of their scenic locale, but because the island city had a magical hold upon the Posner family. Miami Beach presented itself like a picture postcard, but behind the sunshine lurked cloud cover that revealed truths about the Posners that they were only haltingly willing to receive.

It was where the young Adam, the first man, observed the world in which he was born, and determined that despite all that had been lost, Miami Beach was a place where Jackie Gleason was right to proclaim, How Sweet It Is!

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, April 03, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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