The ProsenPeople

Why Be Jewish? | Judy Batalion

Wednesday, October 05, 2016 | Permalink

For the first week of the year 5777, Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series features writers who were touched by Edgar M. Bronfman, z”l, and his dedication to Jewish life the world over. Read more about Edgar M. Bronfman’s vision and legacy in his final book, Why Be Jewish?: A Testament.

My earliest memory of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships is from the first night, when a bunch of us adolescents draped on cots in the 92nd Street Y, awkwardly getting to know each other. “What’s your denomination?” someone posed to the group.

“A crisp 100,” I wanted to joke.

But before I could, people went around the room and answered. “Orthodox, Reform, Uptown Conservative.”

Huh? I sunk back into a pillow hoping no one would turn my way. I had never even heard the word used to describe a type of Judaism—or was it synagogue? My denomination, I gathered, was “traditional Holocaust”. I came from a close-knit Polish shtetl transplant set in Catholic French Quebec, where almost all the synagogues were Orthodox even though none of the people were remotely observant. Most of us had survivor grandparents. We learned Yiddish grammar and Israeli poetry about army medics at our non-religious day school.

“I’m a Shoah-based lobster Jew,” I muttered, but no one heard as conversation had already turned to a radical deconstruction of Democratic housing policies according to Talmudic code.

And here was my first brush with American Jewry.

My Montreal Jewish community was small and self-enclosed. I had heard about the Bronfman program from an older alumna who’d attended my high school, one of the few who went to the United States for college. She dazzled me. Feeling suffocated, suburban and inconsequential, I craved a life that was bigger, worldly. I dreamed of sophistication. My parents did not want me to go to Israel (until the last minute they had refused to drive me to the interview in Boston), but I fought for this release. At 17, their unwillingness only fueled my fleeing fire. This was my first time doing something truly on my own, knowing no one, outside my country and my comfort zone. I had just graduated from high school, and here was the beginning of the rest of my life.

It wasn’t an easy beginning. I was like the other fellows, but also unlike them. I was raised with an immigrant, working-class, conservative values, self-deprecating background, perhaps a generation behind my peers, who seemed so comfortable in their Hebraic skins, earnest and centered with strong opinions on legislative issues I only overheard on Vermont public television. I had not gone to a progressive prep school, or taken standardized tests. I could not recite even one prayer, the American National Anthem, or Walt Whitman. I didn’t know the lingo de rigueur, and was intimidated by everyone’s vast knowledge and skill for presentation and debate. With time, though, I picked up on terms and ideas, and made lifelong friends.

I want to say that I spent six weeks in Israel deeply moved by the trip’s programming, that the impassioned lectures and poetic exchanges altered my self-concept and my understanding of Jewish history, that the tiuls (hikes, excursions) shaped me, inspired me, led me to become a writer. I want to claim that the proffered buffet of Jewish positions renewed my appreciation of culture and faith, taught me a love of the written word, endowed me with an awe for storytelling and the power of narrative.

But the truth is, at 17, I wasn’t there yet. I was busy rebelling and running away, newly embarking on a decades-long path of self-discovery. For me, this fellowship confirmed my agency. It showed me that if I wanted something, I could go after it and get it, and could find my way (albeit shamefully fumblingly) through the challenging patches. It initiated an understanding of my difference, an ability to own it, see it, run from it or be it, and empathically accept it in others. It was the beginning of a journey to responsibility and confidence, as well as the start of a self-consciousness about who I was and where I came from, as a person, as a Jew, as a Canadian. Edgar M. Bronfman’s program ignited in me the confidence to take risks, to chase dreams, to trot into the unknown, to select the communities and worlds I wanted to be part of—the traits and experiences I drew on many years later, when I began to write.

22 years post-Bronfman (GASP), with two children of my own, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I still spend too much time running away instead of running toward, I still cannot envision my next steps. But I do have a clearer sense of what’s meaningful. At my very first book launch I looked out to see four alums (five, including my brother); a few weeks later, four others showed up at an event on a cold night in Boston; another in Toronto; three wrote reviews; many more inspired and encouraged me, passing on practical career advice. Bronfman helped me become a writer by, decades later, offering me peers and mentors, supporters and readers, a community of people who’ve known me over time, who accept me even though they witnessed me through some wildly embarrassing adolescent moments, who endow me with a sense of belonging even if I sometimes don’t feel it. Why Be Jewish? Bronfman asks in his last book. I suppose that’s why.

Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between. She is currently touring through Jewish Book Council as a 2016 – 2017 JBC Network author.

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Why Be Jewish? | Matti Friedman

Wednesday, October 05, 2016 | Permalink

For the first week of the year 5777, Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series features writers who were touched by Edgar M. Bronfman, z”l, and his dedication to Jewish life the world over. Read more about Edgar M. Bronfman’s vision and legacy in his final book, Why Be Jewish?: A Testament.

When I was 16, along with two dozen other kids who had just finished 11th grade, I went to Israel on the Bronfman Youth Fellowship. I spent that summer of 1994 laughing, arguing, and talking, talking, talking with the others, including some who are still my dearest friends today. We shut up only to sleep for a few hours every night, and to sit still as a small cadre of sensitive teachers, people gifted with patience for the tiring and tiresome 16-year-olds we were, carefully inserted some very good ideas into our unformed brains, showed us some valuable texts and places, and generally treated us with more respect than we deserved.

This was one of the crucial occurrences in my life, but that wasn’t clear to my 16-year-old self. For all I knew, maybe when you grew up every summer was like this. Of course there hasn’t been anything like it since.

The thinking that brought me to Israel as a teenager originated in, of all places, the mind of a tough Canadian-born baron of commerce, Edgar Bronfman, who died in 2013. It was the result of a long and strange journey for Edgar, the conclusions of which are laid out in his last book, Why Be Jewish? Reading the book as an adult, I appreciated anew that the ideas I now take for granted actually came from the program he created and the teachers he chose—the idea that that “tough questioning, skepticism, and outright rebellion are at the very heart of Judaism,” that Jewish life is a tapestry with many threads, and that faith isn’t the only one or even the most important one, and that ignoring this tapestry would be a grievous loss not for Judaism, whatever that is, but for me.

When I was 16, or even 26, I didn’t devote much thought to the fact that someone like Edgar would think that teenagers he’d didn’t know were worth his time and money. Now that strikes me as incredible, and as one possible response to the challenge in this book’s title. Why be Jewish? I’m not someone who has a good answer to that question. But one might be found in my discovery at 16 that Jewish life was a kind of life where some distant person who had never met me—someone like Edgar Bronfman, or a rabbi who lived in Egypt or Germany 1,000 years ago—cared for some reason about what I thought, and who I’d grow up to be.

The full name of Edgar’s program was the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. Edgar was a New Yorker and wasn’t interested in Zionist indoctrination or aliyah; his program could have been in the Catskills. But it wasn’t, and for me the last word ended up being the most important, my escape hatch from the question of Edgar’s title and its existential anxiety. That summer I found a living, shouting, cursing society where Judaism—or some hybrid version livelier than any I knew—had somehow become a mainstream culture, where Jewish life had been disconnected from money and class and intellect, where that tiresome hyphen (American-Jewish, Jewish-American) had been annihilated. It was a place where “Why be Jewish?” was a question that made no sense, or as much sense as “Why be Chinese?” would make in China. Why would people in China not be Chinese? After that summer I made a brief visit home to finish high school, came back to Israel when I was 17, and stayed.

Why Be Jewish? displays Edgar’s restless mind and his concern for young people who are grappling with angry questions, as he did in his unhappy synagogue in Montreal as a child, and reaching the wrong conclusions as he did. The book makes clear his determination to make a difference in the world, and reflects his fear that without good answers to the question of the title, the days of non-Orthodox Judaism in the Diaspora are numbered. At the book’s close, the author, aware that the end is near, offers thanks for a life lived in conversation and argument with Jewish ideas. But he doesn’t leave it there, because the book isn’t about him or for him. He would be even more thankful, he writes, if the reader finds a way into a shared tradition that “champions the questioner and doesn’t scorn the doubter,” and picks up where he left off.

Matti Friedman is a Jerusalem-based journalist and the author of Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story and The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of the Ancient Bible, which won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

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You Have to Have Been a Refugee Yourself

Thursday, September 29, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Asylum: A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France by Moriz Scheyer

I know that I will provoke the criticism in some quarters that I talk too much about Jewish refugees—as though nobody else existed, as though others had not suffered too.

It is absolutely true that others—innumerable others—were made to suffer, no less than we. And I have not failed to make mention of that. I myself happen to be both a refugee and a Jew; and one who bears witness must bear witness to his own personal experiences. But there is another point, too; and that is that whatever those others were made to suffer at least had some connection—direct or indirect—with the War. Their treatment at the hands of Germany was unprecedented and absolutely without justification. But, for all that they suffered, at least it was not the case that their freedom, their existence, their lives, were forfeit—forfeit from the very outset—simply by virtue of their birth. Even Hitler did not have the audacity to question whether they were actually human beings.

Whereas Goebbels, Hitler’s official cultural spokesman, stated quite baldly in a speech immediately after the ‘Advent’ of the Third Reich: ‘If I am asked whether the Jews are not also human beings, I can only reply: are not bugs also animals?’

What was perpetrated against the Jews, moreover, had nothing to do with the War. The project was undertaken long before the War, and would have been carried out systematically—in accordance with a clearly laid-out programme of extermination—even if there had been no War. And it was perpetrated against unarmed, defenceless people, who were unable to mobilise themselves, unable to resist. Perpetrated against powerless victims, who had already been deprived of their rights, despised, insulted, and humiliated in both body and soul. Perpetrated as a result of the impetuosity—as cowardly as it was crazy—of a madman, with the willing, happy participation of his ‘Comrades of the People’.

It was perpetrated, too, without the civilised world daring to demand that it be stopped, or at least daring to make clear its abhorrence. Only later, much later—only when it was already far too late—did we begin to get all those fi ne expressions of solidarity, which came in the context of general war propaganda. And, while it was being perpetrated, states which had every opportunity to do so, and could have done so without cost, failed in their duty to open their gates to the persecuted. The granting of a visa was a process invariably attended with all manner of obstacles, restrictions, provisos and caveats, before—through a grate in the wall, reluctantly, like alms to a troublesome beggar—the document was finally dispensed. Or not dispensed, as the case might be. The lowliest consular official was suddenly a god.

No: others had to undergo all kinds of trials, certainly. But our journey of spiritual misery—to speak of nothing else—was without parallel. You have to have been a refugee yourself, to have lived as a Jew under the sign of the Swastika, to know what that really meant. And whatever anyone might say with regard to that... it would still be too little.

How could it all have happened? We survivors—we who went through it—we, surely, have the right to keep asking that question. While at the same time bearing witness—in our name, and in that of the silenced six million. The martyrs: men, women and children, whom the ‘Führer’—the Leader of his murderous Germany—hounded to their deaths.

From the book Asylum: A Survivor's Flight from Nazi-Occupied Vienna Through Wartime France by Moriz Scheyer. Copyright © 2016 by Moriz Scheyer, translated and with an epilogue by P.N. Singer. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

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Book Cover of the Week: All Grown Up

Thursday, September 29, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

First you hear that Jami Attenberg, the author of The Middlesteins and Saint Maizie, has a new novel in the works, and you think: yes. Then you see the book cover, and you think: YES.

All Grown Up is a novel told in a series of vignettes from the perspective of Andrea Bern, a single woman in her late thirties whose notion of adulthood differs drastically from the choices of her closest friends—and those of her brother and expectant sister-and-law. But the arrival of Andrea’s niece brings about an upheaval no one in her family could ever have imagined, and Andrea’s untethered self-identity is thrown into utter chaos.

The artwork for the book cover is sure to catch browsers’ eyes when All Grown Up hits the shelves March 2017. Great color blocking and clean lines, contrasted with the squirrelly text across our hero’s bangs and forehead above an outline of the New York City skyline in a solidly two-dimensional image. Looking forward to reading this one come spring!

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Abraham Goldstein: The Invisible Chemist

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roger Horowitz shared memories of his grandmother Bertie Schwartz, the first woman president of the Jewish Book Council. The author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, Roger is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Abraham Goldstein and his daughters Clare, Sarah, and Rebecca. Image provided courtesy of Roger Horowitz

One of my favorite discoveries while writing Kosher USA was pulling away the shroud of silence about Abraham Goldstein, without doubt the founder of modern kosher certification in America. He started the kosher certification programs of both the Orthodox Union and OK Kosher Certification, the two largest agencies today; his legacy can be found in the kosher symbols that adorn approximately 40% of the item in a typical supermarket. But little is known about the historical role played by this lay Jew who laid such key foundations for kosher law.

A devout Orthodox Jew and a chemist by trade, Goldstein appreciated the complex challenges of certifying modern kosher food long before many rabbis whose knowledge of kosher law was rooted in non-industrial settings. Born in East Prussia, Goldstein received training as a chemist before moving to America in 1891 and settling in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. In the 1920s he led the nascent certification program of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregation’s subsidiary, the Orthodox Union, and was certainly at the table when the OU created its distinctive symbol to place on Heinz’s vegetarian baked beans in 1923. Billed as the OU’s “chemical expert,” Goldstein wrote a monthly “Kashruth Column” in the small Orthodox Union magazine, where he answered queries from observant food shoppers.

His insistence on the relevance of science, however, increasingly placed Goldstein at odds with central leaders of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, the Agudath Harabonim, who felt reliance on secular knowledge undermined rabbinic authority. Seeking his own platform, in 1935 Goldstein created the Organized Kashrus (OK) Laboratory to serve as a scientific research lab for rabbis seeking to better understand the chemical composition of food they had been asked to certify. Its quarterly journal, Kosher Food Guide, grew rapidly in circulation to well over 100,000 and became a magnet for observant shoppers, who sent letters to Goldstein asking his advice on foods commonly found on the shelves of new national food chains such as A&P. Answering dozens of queries in each issue, the dialogue between Goldstein and worried Jewish consumers opens a window on the challenges to kosher traditions posed by modern processed foods.

In his responses, and sharply worded articles, Goldstein presented views at odds with prominent Agudath Harabonim leaders. Relying on his authority as a scientist, he ridiculed their opinions, deeply offending the European-trained rabbis accustomed to deference from laymen. When the OU insisted that he submit issues of Kosher Food Guide for advance rabbinic approval, Goldstein refused. He ended all association with the OU and constituted OK Laboratory as its own certification agency. Just before World War II a rabbinic court sought to end Goldstein’s influence by directing Jews and businesses to ignore the Kosher Food Guide; while effectively banning him from official Orthodox circles, the edict had little discernable effect on the journal’s circulation and the placement of advertisements by food companies.

When Abraham Goldstein died late in 1944, his son George took over OK Laboratory; until the mid-1950s it certified more kosher products than the OU, which took decades to recover from Goldstein’s departure. By then his views were no longer considered controversial and both his positions on particular products and his insistence on the use of science in kosher certification were accepted. Yet, even as Orthodox Judaism moved to embrace Goldstein’s views, the silences surrounding his historical role remained. Even today, Abraham Goldstein remains “the invisible chemist.”

Roger Horowitz is a food historian and director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. He is the author of Negro and White, Unite and Fight, Putting Meat on the American Table, and Kosher USA.

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My Grandmother, Bertie Grad Schwartz

Monday, September 26, 2016 | Permalink

Roger Horowitz is the author of Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. Following up Elissa Altman’s writing about Treyf last week, Roger is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Bertie and Charles Schwartz, Lake Placid, New York. Image provided courtesy of Roger Horowitz

When I spoke to the Jewish Book Council in May to promote Kosher USA, I had to preface my pitch by explaining my family connection to the organization. My grandmother Bertie Schwartz was Jewish Book Council’s first women president. She comes into my book mostly through my mother’s stories, told to me over visits to her Upper West Side apartment after spending time in New York City archives, usually while we were eating sandwiches sent in from Fine & Schapiro Deli on 72nd street.

I relate one of those stories in detail in my book: how Bertie obtained kosher meat for the family’s summer residence in Lake Placid, New York in the 1950s. This entailed ordering a kosher beef forequarters (weighing perhaps 200 pounds) from an Albany slaughterhouse, cutting them into pieces small enough to prepare for a dinner, kashering them with salt as required under kosher law, and then freezing the cuts for use during the summer.

Elsewhere, though, Bertie enters in to my book as co-author (with her husband Charles) of Faith Through Reason, a widely distributed primer on Judaism and Jewish law, first published in 1946 and reprinted several times. I return several times to this text to help explain the nature of Judaism to readers, and also to the particular way in which I learned about my religion. What I didn’t go into further is what writing the book reflected, more deeply, about Bertie’s remarkable intellectual and personal commitment to Jewish literacy.

College-educated and with a law degree from New York University, Bertie believed deeply that education and lifelong learning was the key to Jewish advancement in America. During World War II she travelled frequently to a reading center for Jews in the Bronx, an exhausting journey she eventually had to give up—she used that time instead instead to write Faith Through Reason with Charles. Following the war she became involved in many Jewish organizations, most with an emphasis on books and education. She lead courses for synagogue librarians and even created a basic Jewish home library distributed through Jewish organizations. She was a member of the Task Force on Art and Literature in Jewish Life of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and an editorial consultant to Judaica Book News. She created the Charles and Bertie G. Schwartz Reading Room and Library at the Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress, once located just off 5th Avenue on 85th street. All this while also working as one of the only Jews in the American Mother’s Committee, where she met, among other luminaries, Eleanor Roosevelt. And, of course, she became deeply involved in the Jewish Book Council in the 1960s and 1970s.

I remember her as a veritable force of nature, always with books piled on every surface in her home, and asking her teenage grandson (me) to help with new devices that she hoped would make her more efficient, such as an early home copy machine that we could never get to work properly. She died suddenly, a young 75, of a heart attack, while running to catch a taxi as she was late for a meeting. While saddened, my mother always reflected how the way Bertie died said so much about her determination and energy. My grandmother would be so proud of the Jewish Book Council, not only for what her old organization now does, but for the continuing commitment of it and its many members to books and Jewish education. It was one of my greatest pleasures writing my book that I was able to share with others some of what she sought to give to Judaism.

Roger Horowitz is a food historian and director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. He is the author of Negro and White, Unite and Fight, Putting Meat on the American Table, and Kosher USA.

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10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5777

Monday, September 26, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Image: Edel Rodriguez, from Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Each year produces a fresh crop of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual cleanse and personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Building on our recommendations from previous years, here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5777.

Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Even diehard Trekkies might not know the full extent of the Vulcan Salute’s Jewish origins, but Richard Michelson’s new children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy takes young readers straight to the source. Edel Rodriguez’s glowing illustrations of Cohanim with their hands raised during Rosh Hashanah services at the Boston shul eight-year-old “Lenny” attended with his father depict the images Nimoy would conjure from his childhood memories when he came up with Mr. Spock’s iconic gesture and greeting, “Live long and prosper.”

Among the Living: A Novel

The protagonist of Jonathan Rabb’s novel, a young man named Yitzhak Goldah, survives the Holocaust and lands in Savannah, Georgia, where cousins and their Conservative Jewish community welcome him with open arms. But Yitzhak’s discomfort among them becomes mutual when he courts a widow belonging to the neighboring Reform temple, and tensions between the two fractious congregations come to a head over tashlich services held on the same beach. Things get even more complicated for Yitzhak from there, but that’s all I’ll give away here!

White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between

Some of the most pivotal moments of Judy Batalion’s memoir occur on the Jewish High Holidays: she invites the man who would become her husband to her apartment for the first time for a Rosh Hashanah dinner with friends; she meets his parents ten days later, ending Yom Kippur in their Hampstead home, where Judy discovers that her bashert’s mother, too, is a hoarder much like her own—a moment she recalls years later to the day, returning home from services with her husband and daughter as a family.

Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious Rituals

Why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah? Why does it fall at such an awkward time on the calendar, and how do we interpret its definition in Leviticus as a remembrance of of the shofar blowing, zikhron truah, as the Jewish New Year? Why are we meant to observe Creation’s anniversary in a mood of “fear and trembling,” and could it be that Yom Kippur was intended as a joyous celebration? Where did the Kol Nidre and Ne’ila services come from, with no parallel customs for any other holiday? Rabbi Nathan Laufer addresses these and other questions in clear, text-based explanations for readers of all backgrounds.

Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York

Reading Robert Weldon Whalen’s study of “real gangsters and reel gangsters” exposes how American popular culture has been—and continues to be—influenced by the 1940 and 1940 series of trials prosecuting members of Abe Reles’s Brownsville gang for murder, torture, and essentially any “illegal activity from which a revenue could be derived:” car theft, burglary, assault, robbery, fencing stolen goods, drug trade… The hearings and their outcome sparked a fascination with organized crime and its arbiters as a gritty but glorified symbol of moral evil, the ethical consequences and imprint of which Whalen explores chapter by chapter in this academic by thoroughly engaging read.

Good on Paper: A Novel

Rachel Cantor’s second book is the first novel she ever wrote, and a little less zany than the first one published—but every bit as steeped in Jewish history and ideas: our hero Shira Greene’s love interest is an ordained rabbi who runs the local independent bookstore and a failing literary magazine called Gilgul, named after the Kabbalistic concept of a person’s soul reborn in another body. But the strongest Jewish quality of the story, as Cantor highlighted in an interview about the novel, is the centrality of forgiveness in Shira’s development: “My understanding of the Jewish concept of teshuvah is about returning to one’s innocent self, although some call it repentance. Shira is going through such a journey. She must be courageous and allow people to be a part of her life again.”

One of These Things First: A Memoir

“Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there.” Steven Gaines’s memoir begins on a purposeful route through his grandparents’ lingerie shop, escaping the supervision of the sales ladies in his charge to slip out the back door and attempt to kill himself at fifteen years old. Admitted to the famed Payne Whitney clinic, Steven delivers a note confessing “I THINK I AM A HOMOSEXUAL” to a young resident and begins treatment to “cure” himself of his sexual orientation. The story ends with a difficult apology delivered fifty years later, which Steven struggles to accept, knowing that even his forgiveness will not be enough to enable the person seeking it to forgive himself.

Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s succinct reflections on over half a century of Jewish faith, practice, and leadership is indeed an “essential” read for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with lessons including “Leave Room for Doubt and Anger in Your Religious Outlook” and “Religion Is What You Do, Not What You Believe,” concluding with “A Love Letter to a World That May or May Not Deserve It.” Kushner’s chapter on forgiveness—as “a Favor You Do Yourself”—draws upon The Merchant of Venice, The Count of Monte Cristo, Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in Egypt, King David’s relationship with his wife Michal, the movements led by Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, and personal anecdotes from Kushner’s life and pastoral career around the High Holidays.

Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World

“Throughout my life and then eventually through my Jewish education that, frankly, only started in rabbinical school, I had alternately rebuked and implored God, despaired of and celebrated tradition, lorded my own righteousness over some teachings and stood in humility and even shame before the vastness and depth of the tradition. But now, my sister, my new son, the caregivers, and the children in this orphanage with me comprised a microcosm of love, tragedy, hope, apathy, brokenness, and healing—the shattered and the whole—the promise of Mount Sinai,” Susan Silverman shares at the moment she first meets her son Adar. “And in it I wasn’t God’s judge or God’s bitch. I was God’s partner.” Underlying Susan Silverman’s story of raising a family of biological and adopted children is a continuous theme of renewal and fulfillment, rooted in reflections on Jewish values, rituals, and proverbs. This memoir is a great selection for readers looking for an accessible, feel-good meditation on Jewish faith and spirituality for the High Holidays—just make sure to keep a pack of tissues handy.

Good People: A Novel

Israeli novelist Nir Baram’s Good People follows two characters at the time of World War II, a German in Poland and the daughter half-Jewish daughter of intellectuals in Russia, each working for their country’s government and intent on survival and success at any cost—even betraying those who saved them. Only in encountering each other, recognizing a similar genius between them, will they repent, but what does redemption look like in a time when nations and individuals alike seek only power and the destruction of their enemies?

Jewish Book Council wishes all our readers a Shana Tovah! Read a JBC Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter's Rosh Hashanah letter from the JBC!

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Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for September 2016

Friday, September 23, 2016 | Permalink


Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan is about a family of Irish Jews over three generations, written by a young writer who became fascinated with the Jewish experience in Ireland when she was in school at Cambridge and became close friends with Jewish students. Before coming across the Irish Sea, she had no idea there even were Irish Jews!


Two She-Bears, Meir Shalev’s newest novel, is a complex and raw book that continues to get better and better the further you read.


Karolina’s Twins was a book that I could not put down. It is a story of life, survival and love. It is also a story of a promise that must be kept, no matter the cost and the dark horrible memories that it may bring. Lena Woodward, a survivor of the Holocaust, has lived with an awful memory of what happened to twin girls that were born during the worst of times and what it took to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust. Lena hires an investigator and lawyer to help her find the twins from her past at the same moment her son presents her with a lawsuit to take over her estate and her independence in the present. This story takes us through bond of friendship of the past, the secret that has been lived with and how they come to terms with it all.


The Golden Age by Joan London is told from the perspective of Frank, a Jewish teenager who escaped World War II with his family and was hospitalized for polio soon after they settled in Australia. This very personal and diverse fictional narrative is very well written: I’m enjoying the novel because it incorporates a family immigrant story with the experience of a lovelorn, disabled teen—and his letters and poetry.


I just started reading Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York by Robert Weldon Whalen.
The book has been very eye-opening for me in terms of how a series of trials in 1940 and 1941 continues to influence American cinema, television, literature, and popular culture today—and the ethical imprints and implications of that fascination. It’s a solid piece of scholarship, but the writing flows very well, and I’m finding this work of nonfiction a thoroughly engaging and accessible read. I also have my nose in Against Everything, a collection of essays by Mark Greif. It opens with the claim that if Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” were written today, it would be about an exercise machine—a notion that resonates with me on many different levels.




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New Reviews September 23, 2016

Friday, September 23, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Interview: Anna Solomon

Thursday, September 22, 2016 | Permalink

with Sophie Siegel

Image: Beowulf Sheehan

Anna Solomon’s latest novel, Leaving Lucy Pear, delves into relations between rich and poor, Jewish and Irish in Prohibition-era New England, around the story of a baby abandoned in a pear orchard. Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to discuss her current and previous books this summer.

Sophie Siegal: Your first novel The Little Bride was very successful, however, its content is very different from that of Leaving Lucy Pear. How did you come to think of the idea behind each novel, and how did your writing process differ between the two books?

Anna Solomon: I generally write pretty linearly and work my way to the end. The biggest difference between these two books is that the point of view for The Little Bride is a very close third-person, somewhat claustrophobic, which fits the subject matter of the book. In Leaving Lucy Pear I jumped to an omniscient narrator who can really go anywhere she wants, and kind of plays God. That was a great joy and also a challenge and probably the big leap that I made in the book, which required a lot of revision and also a lot of studying of other texts.

Each novel started in somewhat different ways. For The Little Bride, my ideas started to form when I was on this website on Jewish woman pioneers, which that set me off on this path. For Leaving Lucy Pear, it was also a little piece of history, which I came across in a book called The Saga of Cape Ann. Cape Ann is the place where I grew up, north of Boston, and the book is about a wealthy Bostonian summering on Kaden and suffering from a nervous disorder. The protagonist is aggravated by a screeching whistle buoy that had been put in to keep fisherman and sailors from crashing into shore, and she does what I guess any well-connected person would do: she called the Navy and demanded they take out the whistle buoy, which they did, and by the next summer when she was feeling much better. But I was left with a question of what happens when the whistle buoy is out there, and what are the consequences for which this woman is responsible?

SS: The cover of the novel is beautiful; I hear there is a great story behind it…

AS: I feel so lucky for the cover. It is taken from a painting by a British artist named Laura Knight, who was quite controversial in her time. She was one of the first, if not the first, female painter to make a painting of herself that shows herself painting a nude model. This was a real challenge to restrictions on women painters at the time—they were supposed to work from casts, not nudes—and while it brought Knight a lot of flak it also made her a pioneer in the broader movement for women's rights. I was really excited that the artist who had made the painting ended up on the cover because her story felt really in-tune with the women in my book—and myself, as well: Knight was pushing the boundaries of what a woman painter could do in her time.

Initially I saw only the front cover for the book, and it took me a while to notice that there were these boots lying on the rocks. I became fascinated with whose boots they were; there was this mystery to the image that made me even more in love with it. When they finally sent me the whole jacket and it wraps around to the book, you can actually see the woman who belongs to those boots on the back cover, looking out at the viewer. The image just grew and grew for me in terms of its meanings and the layers. I feel like the women in the painting are ultimately the same as the main characters of my novel, Bea—and at other times Emma—and Lucy Pear.

SS: The descriptions of the time period are so vivid. What kinds of historical research did you do to begin your writing?

AS: I started in the way that I think a lot of people do, which is a lot of history books and newspapers. I spent a lot of time on the microfilm in my hometown public library, looking back at old issues of the Boston Daily Times, looking at advertising, photographs, and still film, but I always find that talking with people is the most pleasurable way to get information. I spoke with one woman who had been alive during that time—she has since passed away—who talked about things like how the granite dust felt on her bare feet as she walked through the woods. I talked to someone else who was a grandson of a bootlegger and he remembered his grandfather talking about how they would blast out the walls of the courts to make these panes where they would hide all the booze.

SS: Each character in the novel faces distinct forms of gender oppression and societal expectations that affect their lives. As a Jewish woman, mother, and daughter, how do you deal with society’s expectations of you? Do you see parts of yourself in each character, and which character do you identify with most?

AS: I do see parts of myself in each character—the Jewish ones and the non-Jewish ones: Bea grew up in this fiercely assimilationist family, as my own mother did; Emma, who has more children than she probably wants; and even Susannah Stanton, who is unable to have children. What drives each of these women is an exaggeration of feelings that I have had myself, feelings I have had at times of being overwhelmed in the transition to motherhood and my selfhood being threatened, and feelings of fear that I wasn’t going to be able to have children.

One of the biggest challenges of becoming a mother, and a Jewish mother now, is that in some ways we have more choices than we have ever had. I could go and do anything, which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be hard, but the options are there for me and yet… I grew up in this very feminist family; I went to a very feminist camp; I am teaching my children, both my boy and my girl, to be feminists, while at the same time I have made a marriage in which I am the one who does all of the menu-making and the cooking. What I observe in the world around me is that women constantly feel judged by somebody for the way they are balancing their work, parenting, and partnerships, and often that person is themselves. In my fiction, I seek to observe and to empathize in a way that allows my readers to not only understand the choices my characters make but respect them for those choices.

SS: Each of the characters faces life-altering decisions—most significantly abandoning one’s child, and deciding to raise an orphan as one’s own. Can you tell me any difficult decisions that you had to make as a writer while writing Leaving Lucy Pear? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

AS: In earlier versions of the novel, I had even points of view I really wanted to dive into, including those of the crazy woman who lives up the hill from the Murphy family, and Caleb Stanton. I had so many pages of scenes that I loved and my readers also said they loved, but did not belong there. I agree with them, but those moments are hard and making that final decision and saying goodbye are hard, even when it is the right one.

My advice is that you have to keep reading and reading and reading, even as you start to write. It’s important to really see yourself as a student of the books that you read, without being afraid to stray in terms of form with those books; I wrote a lot of poetry before I ever turned to fiction and it definitely informed the way I hear language and the way I write. The biggest thing is really to work to surround yourself with a community of writers and to do that by forming a writing group where you live or finding writer workshops. The relationships that you make in those places are critical to keeping going and continuing to write through rejection and through drafts that don’t work. Having people cheering you on and people that will read for you is so important.

SS: What can we look forward to next?

AS: I am working on a new book, which I am not really able to talk about yet. It involves the Book of Esther and 1970s feminism and Brooklyn life.

Sophie Siegel is a student at Emory University interested in Holocaust Studies and Film. She worked with the Jewish Book Council as a 2016 summer intern.

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