The ProsenPeople

30 Days, 30 Authors: Matti Friedman

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Matti Friedman’s work as a reporter has taken him from Lebanon to Morocco, Cairo, Moscow and Washington, D.C., and to conflicts in Israel and the Caucasus. He grew up in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem. The Aleppo Codex, his first book, was published in May 2012 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature, was selected as one of Booklist’s top ten religion books of the year, was awarded the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal and the Canadian Jewish Book Award for history, and was a finalist in the Religion Newswriters Association’s award for best book of the year. Editions have been published or are pending in Israel, Australia, Holland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia and South Korea. 

 His second book, Pumpkinflowers: A War Story, will be published by Algonquin Books in April, 2016.

Woody Allen: The Artist Who Got It All

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, David Evanier shared what he learned about Woody Allen while writing an unofficial biography of the comedian and director. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Here's the kind of discovery that biographers love: Woody Allen's boyhood pal Jerry Epstein, now a psychiatrist and author, told me that Woody's birthday is not really December 1; it is November 30. “But Woody wanted to be Number One,” Epstein said.

Allen was never tempted to sell out or to try to outdo himself, and he didn't care to ingratiate himself with the mainstream. Right from the beginning he had total artistic control of his work. And he has always walked away from what became stale for him. He walked away from standup comedy, from TV writing, from talk show, game shows, nightclubs, concert halls, variety shows and mainstream success.

So we are talking about enormous inner strength and self-belief. He was uncertain in his personal life, but he was not shy or uncertain about his art. He is the most identifiable, brazen, and forthright Jewish artist in the world, insistently reminding his viewers about the Holocaust in many of his films. Jewish Hollywood, with many of its moguls refugees from Hitler, had been reluctant to place Jewish actors in leading roles. Maurice Schwartz of the Yiddish Art Theater was cast as the Native American Geronimo; John Garfield and Paul Muni played Italians. But times were changing, with the ascendency of comics Mort Sahl, Lennie Bruce, Shelley Bergman, and Nichols and May. By 1967 films with Jewish content and Jewish stars had emerged in The Graduate (Dustin Hoffman); Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, Lumet's comedy, Bye Bye Braverman, starring a new Jewish leading man, George Segal; Mel Brooks's The Producers, and many more, culminating with Barbra Streisand in 1973 in The Way We Were. Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow, heads of United Artists, gave Allen a blank check and he returned the favor by giving the company enormous prestige and highly successful films.

But the Holocaust was never far from Allen's mind. “Since the Holocaust was such an immense event in my life,” he wrote me, “it couldn't help but wind up as a sporadic or even frequent issue in my work. There are certain crimes that are simply unforgivable.”

I finally visited Allen at his cozy, very lived-in, dark-hued office with its rust and brown couches. He greeted me warmly. I found innocence, curiosity, intensity, total responsiveness, and deep emotion in him. He was nearly eighty, yet he had the youthfulness of the committed artist who cannot wait to get back to his work.

We talked about Israel, about antisemitism (including its masked permutation, anti-Zionism) and about the Holocaust. “It can happen in a minute,” he said. He talked of Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews, of Victor Klemperer's diaries of life in Nazi Germany, of Michael Thomas, a resister to Nazism he'd known, of Rossellini's Il Generale Della Rovere. We talked about our parallel histories: the thrilling double bills of classics at the original Thalia Theater, of Brooklyn, typewriters and the internet—”How can kids watch Citizen Kane on that tiny screen?”—and about the Laff Movie on 42nd Street that played Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton 24 hours a day, and, next door to it, the Horn and Hardart Automat. (I mentioned the mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. “What about the baked macaroni?” he asked. My father had taken me to both places, as Woody's father had taken him.) We talked about the decline of nightclubs, how they had their curious moments—such as John Carradine reading Shakespeare at the Blue Angel nightclub—and he spoke with admiration of Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, and nightclub impresario Max Gordon, who gave him an early break at the Blue Angel.

I asked him what was his greatest joy in life. His face became radiant. “My marriage to Soon-Yi. And my children.” I gave him a copy of my novel, The Great Kisser, and he said he would take it with him to read on the plane to Cannes. He did, and wrote me about it within a week.

All the time we thought he was a neurotic mess, Woody Allen was playing the ultimate magic trick on us. Broken, needy, an impractical dreamer, a schlemiel on-screen, in life he was the artist who kept going, was never destroyed, who got it all.

David Evanier was the founding editor of the literary magazine Event and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. Now publishing his eighth book, he has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Molly Antopol

Tuesday, December 01, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Molly Antopol’s debut story collection, The UnAmericans, won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation, the California Book Award Silver Medal and the Ribalow Prize. The book was longlisted for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Sami Rohr Prize and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. It appeared on over a dozen year-end lists and will be published in seven countries. Her writing has appeared in many journals and magazines and won a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s the recipient of a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where she currently teaches.


What I Learned About Woody

Monday, November 30, 2015 | Permalink

David Evanier recently authored an unofficial biography of Woody Allen, and will be sharing what he learned about the famed comedian and director all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I started writing my biography of Woody Allen in 2012, a writer I hadn't heard from in years wrote me excitedly, “Tell! Tell!” I wasn't sure I got her drift, so I wrote back asking her what was it exactly she wanted me to tell. She wrote back, “I was shocked! Shocked!”

Many years before she had sat at a table next to Woody's at Elaine's. She told me that he was seated with two other male friends and they were talking about sex and women. (Not that she was eavesdropping, of course.) Well, I wrote back gently that my life experience has been that when guys get together, this is a pretty normal topic of conversation for us. That was the end of our correspondence.

When I began Allen’s biography I decided that I would drop in on Woody and tell him about my book and also make it clear that I wasn't writing the sort of thing that my shocked correspondent hoped for. So I rang his doorbell. I held a letter in my hand for him. A staff member looked down at me from the upper balcony and told me he'd be right down. He took my letter, smiled and said “Perfect.”

Well, that was nice, I was in. Not quite.

Allen answered me the next day. And many times more, while stating again and again that this was not an authorized bio. And it isn't. That was even better from my point of view, since I did not want anyone peering over my shoulder checking what I was writing. This turned out well, especially since he really was a mensch, answering my emails (pleading with me not to leave more letters at his house) and finally meeting with me at the end.

At the start I was only a prying stranger to him and he responded warily, especially since he was committed to another biographer—I would come to learn that he is deeply loyal. And how many requests of this kind had he received over the years?

He bristled at my praise of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Zelig in that first letter. He was concerned that I would praise him for all the wrong reasons. He is extremely self-critical and certain he has never written a masterpiece on the level of a Rosselini, Fellini, or De Sica. As a true artist, he doesn't care about his past work or about how his work is reviewed. He cares only about what he is doing now and what he will do next. Yet he answered me, again and again, and cared about my struggles as a writer.

His achievements—46 films in 46 years, with a wide range of subject matter, from laugh-out-loud funny to poignantly, startlingly moving—are almost Shakespearean. Allen is a classic storyteller, not abstract or cerebral. He gives everything to his films, even the lousy ones. His continuity and high rate of productivity are unprecedented. He may be the most amazing phenomenon in the history of American show business. He has created indelible films that will stay with us the rest of our lives. And in all of these films Allen has been the writer, director and actor.

What did I discover about Woody in writing my biography? His boyhood pals from Brooklyn told me what a trickster and prankster he was, and that he was even funnier in person than he was on screen. His mother was hyper-emotional and orthodox; his father was a happy-go-lucky, good-time Charlie who played the numbers, was a gofer for Albert Anastasia, and carried a gun.

Allen is not a shlepper at all; he is a totally concentrated, focused writer with an indefatigable work ethic. He lives for his writing. He has said that “Writing is culmination, it is being wholly alive.” He is not doing it for the money: “Money in any way has never been an issue with me,” he wrote me. He has never taken the big, controlling money that would kill him as an artist. He never stopped paying his former manager, Jack Rollins, or crediting Rollins in his films, although Rollins had retired many years ago. Rollins had been Woody's mentor in the beginning, urging him to do standup comedy. Allen was terrified of performing, and Rollins was always by his side, not even taking a commission from him. That was the sort of thing Woody never forgot.

David Evanier was the founding editor of the literary magazine Event and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. Now publishing his eighth book, he has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Thane Rosenbaum

Monday, November 30, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, How Sweet It Is!, 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. He is also the author of three books of nonfiction, including The Myth of Moral Justice. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast, among other national publications. He is a Distinguished Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit


30 Days, 30 Authors: Elana Maryles Sztokman

Sunday, November 29, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author, and leading Jewish feminist thinker, educator and activist. She specializes in gender inclusion in the Jewish world, and has worked with communities, organizations and individuals around the world on advancing gender inclusion and gender equity In August 2015, she founded The Center for Jewish Feminism to provide resources and connections among Jewish feminists around the world. Elana is also a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council award, and the former Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She writes and speaks all around the world about gender issues in Jewish life, in education and in Israel, and blogs at


30 Day, 30 Authors: Liel Leibovitz

Saturday, November 28, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a contributor to several publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and others. He is the author or co-author of six books, and holds a PhD in communications from Columbia University. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the author Lisa Ann Sandell, and their children.



The Origins of the Undo List

Friday, November 27, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Christopher Noxon shared the beginnings of his journey from “doing Jew” to being Jewish and the profound importance he found in ritualized rites of passage for young adults. He has been blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I started observing Shabbat fifteen years before I formally converted to Judaism. It began, as these things so often do, with bossy grandparents: my wife’s parents hosted dinner Friday nights and would start bugging us on Tuesday to bring the kids over. Jenji’s mom cooked like a school lunch lady and the rush-hour drive across LA wasn’t exactly nourishing to the soul, but I began feeling a real loss when we didn’t make it. Shabbat was a marker, a reset button.

Even though I wasn’t Jewish and had no plans at the time to convert, I liked the “island in time” that Shabbat represented and was curious about creating boundaries that would allow for rest and recharge. I read Abraham Joshua Heschel and began to appreciate the value in dedicating one day a week to slowing down, connecting and checking in with oneself and loved ones. No way was I ready for traditional prohibitions on driving, spending money, or using the phone—but I loved the spirit behind being shomer Shabbat and wanted to create some version for my family and self.

If the idea behind Shabbat was to wake us up, to remove whatever interferes with our appreciation of what’s truly important, I didn’t have to look far to identify the biggest source of distraction.

Our family spends an inordinate—but hardly unusual—amount of time looking at screens. Smartphones, laptops, desktops, TVs, video games—our lives are largely lived in digital space. We work, shop, socialize, study, relax, play—all connected to some sort of device. Our kids have grown up like this—but Jenji and I remember when life was lived offline in three dimensions, or as the kids say, IRL (“in real life”).

This would be our family’s version of Shabbat: one full day IRL.

For us that meant no TV, no email, no social media from sunset Friday to sundown Saturday. Using the phone is okay, we decided, as are movies in a movie theater—but for us, the goal was to stay away from any screens that isolate us from one other and the world around us.

The kids weren’t thrilled about it, and both Jenji and I would sometimes cheat (no one can see you on your iPad when you’re on the toilet!), but I think we all came to appreciate screen-free Saturdays. We had a few amazing “reading parties” splayed out on blankets on the front lawn with dogs, games, and bowls of grapes. We planned outings with friends to places in the city we wouldn’t have visited otherwise—Watts Towers, the Self-Realization Fellowship gardens, waterfalls in the San Gabriel Mountains…

Next we started marking Saturday sundown havdalah around our backyard firepit with a song, a big cup of wine, and a satchel of scented cloves. The traditional elements were nice, but havdalah only came alive after we took a suggestion from my friend Rachel to start a family practice called “take forward, leave behind.” Each member of the family names things from the past week we want to continue (laying off carbs, say, or getting to bed before midnight) and discontinue (texting in the car, fighting with siblings).

Excited by our progress, I joined up with some friends and started an online newsletter called The Undo List, offering tips and inspiration for others observing a weekly “Tech-Free Sabbath.”

Here, with some reinterpretation and experimentation, was something truly useful, an ancient practice given a modern spin that made our lives better.

Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Details and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.

30 Days, 30 Authors: Leslie Kimmelman

Friday, November 27, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Leslie Kimmelman is the author of more than two dozen popular and award-winning picture books for children, many with Jewish themes, including Everybody Says Shalom, The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah, and the Sam and Charlie series. She works part-time as a children's book editor at Sesame Workshop and lives with her family near New York City.


Interview: Geraldine Brooks

Friday, November 27, 2015 | Permalink

with Ranen Omer-Sherman

In her latest book, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks sets herself the daunting challenge of portraying one of the most heroic yet morally troubling figures in the entire corpus of Jewish literature. She shared her experience researching, concocting, and writing The Secret Chord: A Novel with Jewish Book Council.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: What struck me most in reading The Secret Chord was the ambitious work that you do with women’s voices and interiority. They are all such distinctive and engaging characters, each with disparate emotional and intellectual responses to their circumstances. How challenging was that aspect of writing the novel?

Geraldine Brooks: For many years before I became a novelist, I covered the Middle East as correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and I found myself returning to those experiences—not just to the locations—as I thought about this novel. Especially, I drew on those memories as I considered the vivid stories of David’s wives. Women in the Old Testament don’t tend to get much ink. Many of them barely get a name. Lot’s wife… Gladys? Noah’s wife… Maude? We don’t know. And that’s both remarkable and dispiriting. Yet David’s wives do have names, and they have distinct personalities and backstories. But they are sketches, merely, told in a few lines, and always from the male point of view—from the perspective of their impact on David; of what it was like to be them, nothing much is said. So I wanted to flip the point of view, and look at events through their eyes. These women lead precarious lives in a society that gives them no evident power and few rights. David’s wives have to duck and weave and improvise to stay alive, to have say in their marriages, to stop their husbands from making mistakes likely to get them killed, to secure a future for their children. So many of the works of scholarship on David take the Bible at face value when it comes to the women’s stories: Mikhal is unfailingly portrayed as spoiled shrew, Bathsheva as a scheming temptress.

If you apply a woman’s point of view, neither interpretation is plausible. So I thought about women I had reported on, women like Queen Noor in Jordan and Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife in Iran. As I thought about Bathsheva at David’s deathbed, maneuvering to get her young son Solomon on the throne, I thought of Queen Noor at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, as King Hussein lay ill with cancer. Somehow, it was Noor’s young son who was named crown prince, second in line to King Abdullah, ahead of many older brothers by Hussein’s former wives.

And then there was Mikhal, who became David’s first wife. Her father, King Shaul, was ambivalent about the marriage. That reminded me of a strange afternoon when I was invited to tea by Ayatollah Khomenini’s widow. She told me that day how she had managed to marry a guy who was then an impoverished religious scholar with no prospects. Khadijeh was just a girl, fully veiled in her chador, when she took in the tea tray and managed to catch a glimpse of her would be suitor, the young Ruhollah Kohmenini. She liked that glimpse, but her father said no, he wasn’t good enough. So, that night, she had a dream. In the morning, she told her father that she had seen Ruhollah meeting with all the great prophets of Islam. It’s probable that 99.9% of Iranians don’t know Khomenini’s wife’s first name. And yet she was immensely powerful in shaping the Iranian revolution. So, there were plenty of lessons about how you wield private power in a society that publicly barely acknowledges you.

ROS: Your portrayal of the prophet Natan is extraordinarily compelling, delving into the strange psychology and interior landscape of the Biblical prophet as a figure of moral conscience, his perpetual loneliness and sense of apartness in spite of being in the very midst of things. Did you find that particularly difficult to achieve?

GB: I relied heavily on the wonderful exegesis by Abraham Heschel in The Prophets. His characterization of them (“some of the most disturbing men who ever lived[…] facing man, faced by God”) really shaped my thinking as I tried to create a character and a backstory for Natan. There are givens: the ferocious bravery of such a person, the willingness to speak truth to power, the unsettling nature of the one who stands outside, but sees inside. I also wanted to leave the door open a crack for the reader: since Natan is the narrator, and he clearly believes his own role as the “hollow reed”, is he a reliable witness to his own gifts and powers? Is he a reliable narrator? That’s why, at points, I have other characters in the novel express skepticism about his visions and their purpose.

ROS: I found your depiction of the ancient landscape wholly convincing, a truly immersive environment. You have mentioned spending some time hiking with your son (and herding sheep) in the Judean desert and so on, but was there more research involved?

GB: For the sheep herding, we were at a Biblical reserve in the Shefala, founded by Ben Gurion, where the flora and fauna have, as far as possible, been returned to the species that prevailed as described in Biblical times. We spent a long afternoon there. We also went to a Bedouin settlement where you can experience a tent encampment not so very different from the living conditions of David’s outlaw years. We visited archeological digs to get a more accurate sense of the material culture of the Second Iron Age—what was a palace in those days? What was a house like? What did they eat and drink? My IDF contact got very enthused about the project and actually conducted some of his own site visits, for which I am exceptionally grateful.

The imaginative challenge in my writing was de-populating the landscape, since only 45,000 people are thought to have lived in the area conjecturally associated with David’s kingdom, opposed to some four million or more in that same area today. I also had to mentally re-vegetate it: the Ottomans had a tree tax, so massive land clearing happened under their occupation in that era. In David’s time there were expansive forests and lots of fauna, including lions!

Continue Reading »

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