The ProsenPeople

Jews for Christmas

Monday, December 26, 2016 | Permalink

Eytan Bayme is the author of High Holiday Porn: A Memoir. With some Jewish reflections on the Christmas season to share, Eytan will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.


As an American Jew in England, the holiday season is like a tension in my neck that’s finally released. No Chinese restaurants or movie theaters are open on Christmas Day, no one thinks to wish you anything besides Merry Christmas, and even mentioning Happy Holidays can garner looks of confusion and suspicion. There’s nothing to do but embrace the holiday spirit, as advertisers back in the States have been trying to convince me for years.

A friend at synagogue explained to me that on Christmas, British Jews can be lumped into one of three categories: those who do nothing, those who put up a Christmas tree (though perhaps not in their front window), and those who spend the day with their families because the office is closed and there’s nothing else to do and, hell, why not roast up a goose or two since we’re all under the same roof.

This year marked my third Christmas in Europe, spent with my wife’s family at their vacation home in Langeudoc, France. That first year, like an Orthodox teen nibbling on the edge of a Big Mac just to see what the fuss was about, I played Charlie Brown’s Christmas album over and over again, getting bolder with the volume nob each time. I learned the lyrics to Dr. Suess’s “You’re a Mean One,” (composed by a Jew, by the way). And by the end, I tried leading my in laws in a rendition of The First Noel, which they found a bit too religious for their taste.

Last year, we went to a holiday party at a friend’s house in Sussex. We were greeted at the door by a life size Santa (Father Christmas, as he’s called here) who sang and danced in place when you got too close to him. There were three of these robot Santas throughout the house. In an upstairs bedroom our host was preparing for his granddaughters’ arrival in a few days; four single beds were made up with furry white and red sheets. The floor was covered, ankle deep, in synthetic snow. I wished I could stick around for the magic.

As I write this on December 23rd, looking out on the Pyrenees Mountains, awaiting the rest of my wife’s family, I’m looking forward to cooking them the six-pound chicken I bought at the charcuterie. It wasn’t shechted according to tradition, but the butcher ritualized it in his own way by defeathering and lopping its head off as I watched. I'll massage garlic and then lemon into its meat and surround it with potatoes rubbed with goose fat (“roasties”), carrots and more garlic. The Queen will speak on Christmas day, but we won’t watch. It’s like Thanksgiving in American without the football. Last year we had a tree. It was closer to a bush that my father-in-law hacked down in the woods beside the creek in back of the house. We propped it up in a bucket filled with stones and covered it in tinsel and family pictures and whatever else we could find around the house. Who knows if we’ll have one this year, but if we do, I’ve cleared an area beneath the stairs for it.

Eytan Bayme is a graduate of McGill University and a former stage actor. Originally from New York City, he lives with his wife in London. High Holiday Porn is his first book.

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My Sioux-kot, Part III

Thursday, December 22, 2016 | Permalink

Emily Bowen Cohen's mini-comic An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement recounts her reunion with her long-lost Native American family and her reflection on the trip over the following Yom Kippur. This week Emily illustrated a three-part comic on her reactions to the #NoDAPL protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

« Start from the Beginning

« Back to the Previous Page

As I was finishing up this comic, the news arrived that the Army Corps of Engineers would explore alternate routes for the pipeline. I did not celebrate the news. At best, this would be just a pause in the pipeline’s construction. However, I did celebrate seeing so many people—Native and non-Native—rallying behind the Sioux. Going forward, it will be so important to continue to see this passion. I would be so grateful if I heard my Native American family’s concerns reflected in the conversations of my Jewish family.

Emily Bowen Cohen writes memoir-style comics about being Native American and Jewish. She grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma. Emily received a 2016 Word Artist Grant, a project of American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity, to create An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement.

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My Sioux-kot, Part II

Wednesday, December 21, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Emily Bowen Cohen introduced the conflict she felt between her American Indian and Jewish identities during the protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Emily's mini-comic An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement recounts her reunion with her long-lost Native American family and her reflection on the trip over the following Yom Kippur; she is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

« Read My Sioux-kot, Part I

Read the next page of My Sioux-kot, a three-part comic by Emily Bowen Cohen »

Emily Bowen Cohen writes memoir-style comics about being Native American and Jewish. She grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma. Emily received a 2016 Word Artist Grant, a project of American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity, to create An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement.

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Book Cover of the Week: E. L. Doctorow's Collected Stories

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

A year and a half after the passing of “the reigning godfather of historical fiction,” a new collection of fifteen stories written, selected, revised, and ordered by E. L. Doctorow himself comes out January 2017:

You have to admire the understated design of the book cover. The off-center positioning of the stylized initial heightens the impact of the graphic and lures the reader to follow the subtle arrow of the arc aligned with the volume’s edge and open the book. It captures a feeling of forward motion, throwing into relief Doctorow’s capacity to tell stories of the future by setting them in the past. Pick up a copy of Doctorow: Collected Stories and you'll see what I mean.

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My Sioux-kot, Part I

Monday, December 19, 2016 | Permalink

Emily Bowen Cohen's recent mini-comic An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement recounts her reunion with her long-lost Native American family and her reflection on the trip over the following Yom Kippur. Emily will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Throughout the fall, I closely followed the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I followed the protests in the media, as well as in my personal life. As a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I have family and friends who were water protectors. Their stories dominated my social media feed.

The frenzy ceased, however, when I put on my “Jewish” hat. When I was immersed in Jewish life, the protest at Standing Rock, North Dakota was not a trending topic. I don’t stop being Native American when I walk into synagogue. The hashtag #NoDAPL flashed before my eyes as I prayed in shul, or set my Shabbat table, or ate in a sukkah. I was surprised by how many times I encountered something in my Jewish life that reminded me of the Sioux fighting for their rights at Standing Rock.

In that spirit, I do what I do: I drew a comic about the weird and wonderful experience of being a Native American Jew.

Read the next page of My Sioux-kot, a three-part comic by Emily Bowen Cohen »

Emily Bowen Cohen writes memoir-style comics about being Native American and Jewish. She grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma. Emily received a 2016 Word Artist Grant, a project of American Jewish University’s Institute for Jewish Creativity, to create An American Indian Guide to the Day of Atonement.

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New Reviews December 18, 2016

Sunday, December 18, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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"Her Green Days": Nature in the Yiddish Narrative

Friday, December 16, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub wrote about their discovery of the Elena Ferrante of Yiddish literature and her transgressive fiction stories, now translated into English as the collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Ellen and Yermiyahu will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all Week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Two men are strolling together in the Borsht Belt when they come upon a flower by the side of the road.

“What’s the name of that?” one asks, pointing.

“How should I know?” replies the other. “What do you take me for, a milliner?”

The notion that the Yiddish language, and Jews themselves, are far removed from the natural world is well entrenched in the popular imagination. For Jews, the joke says, the only thing a flower is good for is trimming for a lady’s hat.

Yet in the fiction of Blume Lempel we translated and collected in Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, nature plays a surprisingly significant role. Born in a small town in Eastern Europe in 1907, Lempel immigrated to Paris and then to New York, where she wrote in Yiddish into the 1990s. Her stories were acclaimed throughout the world of Yiddish letters.

In Lempel’s lyrical, jewel-like stories, the natural world operates as counterpoint, as driving force, as backdrop, and as protagonist. Sometimes the very hugeness of the natural world is invoked to put the life of the individual into perspective: one story opens with a vast world “encased in ice,” with “no marking of time,” where the “footsteps of eternity make no imprint in the void.” In another story, a woman flying to Reno for a divorce looks down into the “blue transparent void” that symbolizes her unknown future with its myriad choices; another woman lies under an apple tree on a hot day and travels in her mind far, far into the cosmos—all the way to the moon.

Many of Lempel's protagonists are seemingly happiest, or most deeply themselves, when working in nature. A Brooklyn woman named Pachysandra tends the small plot of earth next to her apartment building and feels herself transported back to her home in South Carolina—“The rise and fall of her green days pursued her in her dreams.” Mrs. Zagretti lovingly plants a delicate fig tree in her yard on Long Island and proudly presents its fruits to her Jewish neighbor as an antidote to American consumerism.

Connections between humans and animals—even insects—are particularly powerful. In the title story in our collection, the squirrels in the zoo come running at the approach of their blind friend Danny. Mrs. Zagretti finds a soulmate in a housefly, eliciting a devastating reaction from her Jewish neighbor. Mrs. Zagretti is not the only character to feel a powerful tie with a fly, either: the protagonist of a different story tries to keep a fly alive in her apartment by feeding and speaking to it—when it lands on a mirror, she takes note of how it communes with its reflection. In yet another story, a resident of an old age home releases a fly into the world in hopes that it will “live out its life in joy and satisfaction.”

Far from serving as a gentle pastoral backdrop, nature is often the site of grave danger, where beauty is intertwined with menace. A young woman hiding in the forest remembers that “the wind brought me the smell of berries, a dead bird, the rotten carcass of a half-devoured creature.” The half-mad narrator of another story calls the flowers in her garden by the names of people who perished in the Holocaust. Each burns as a memorial candle in its particular season. “Soaking up hot sunshine and plenteous rain, hail and hurricane, they know the art of adaptation and survival,” just like the survivor who watches over them.

For Lempel, the boundaries between dream and reality, civilization and nature, human and animal are permeable, shifting, difficult to trace. Her evocation of the natural world gives her stories a weight more powerful than the trajectory of her plots, and the precision and musicality of her prose offer exceptional pleasure to the reader.

So much for the “unbridgeable divide” between Yiddish and nature.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now available to English readers in their collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.

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Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for December 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016 | Permalink

Find out what the Jewish Book Council staff is reading this month!

Mimi

Sababa by Yamin Levy is an interesting book of two stories, both taking place in Jerusalem, but centuries apart. One story focuses on the Second Temple era while the other story takes place in the 21st century.

Carolyn

Meir Shalev’s Two She-Bears is a beautiful story set on a moshav in pre-state Israel, written by one of that country's most eloquent writers.

Joyce

Janis Cooke Newman’s A Master Plan for Rescue is a beautiful story about an American boy whose world is turned upside down by loss. The world is at war and Jack, a 12-year-old Irish American, comes face-to-face with the horrors of Nazi Germany in his Manhattan neighborhood. As Jack sets out to right the wrongs in his world, he learns that the stories we hear, the stories we tell, and the story we hope can come true can lead to true heroism.

Carol

I am finding Affinity Konar's second novel, Mischling, both hard to pick up because of its horrific subject matter—Josef Mengele's sadistic experiments on and torture of identical twins in Auschwitz—and impossible to put down: Konar's powerful, original prose pulls the reader irresistibly into this nightmarish world.

Miri

As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner delves into the complex relationship of a Jewish family in the late 1940s. Set in a Jewish beach community in Connecticut, the book shows daily life in the post-war time, and the societal changes that follow.

Becca

I've been reading Toward a Hot Jew, a collection of raw, incisive, and beautiful graphic essays by Miriam Libicki. I'm fascinated by the shifting relationship between Jews, visual arts, and body image throughout the centuries—and comics are the perfect medium for a contemporary take on the topic.

Nat

Jacob Bacharach’s The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates sucked me in from Page 1. The novel ponders the family tensions between the forefathers of Genesis and the women among them, retold as a modern-day story of a woman named Isabel following the collapse of an eight-year relationship and subsequent relocation from New York City to Pittsburgh, where she meets a young man named Isaac whose complicated relationship with his parents, Sarah and Abbie—an architect turned ignoble real estate developer—begins to leech into Isabel’s own life.

It’s been very interesting to read Bacharach’s novel alongside The House of the Mother: The Social Roles of Maternal King in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry by Cynthia R. Chapman, who challenges scholars to reconsider the traditional academic and rabbinical constructs of patrilineal social genealogy between and among the Biblical dynasties in favor of a greater appreciation for the maternal influences on house structure and political divisions in each generation.

And speaking of maternal influences, I also just finished a re-read of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children Marjorie Ingall, in anticipation of the talk she’s giving at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Conference next month. I hope to see plenty of Jewish Book Council’s readers there!

Suzanne

Armando Lucas Correa’s The German Girl is a great read! The story spans 70 years, beginning with the narrative of an eleven-year-old girl named Hannah in Nazi-occupied Berlin. The novel follows Hannah and her family on the S.S. St. Louis and into Cuba, together with the story of another girl her age in present-day New York, and sheds light on the life of the Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis. It is a very timely story, especially with the recent changes in our access to Cuba.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: A Private Yet Candid Yiddish Writer

Wednesday, December 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub wrote about their discovery of Blume Lempel’s transgressive Yiddish fiction, now translated into English as the collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Ellen and Yermiyahu are guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all Week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.


Elena Ferrante may or may not be a certain Rome-based editor and translator, as has recently been alleged. What is clear is that whoever this writer is, they prefer to remain anonymous, to let the writing speak for itself.

Though Ferrante insists on remaining private as a person, her work reveals startlingly intimate truths about women’s lives. In this, the Italian writer has much in common with Blume Lempel, the author of the remarkable work we translated for the new collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. While Lempel used her own name for most of her career she, too, opted for an unusual measure of personal privacy while reaching for an uncommon candor on the page.

Lempel was born in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century in “a white-washed room by the banks of a river that had no name.” She lived in Paris for ten years before fleeing to the United States with the rise of Hitler. She settled in New York, where she turned out a prodigious amount of wonderfully original fiction until her death in the 1990s.

Like Ferrante’s, Lempel’s work was surprisingly frank and often undaunted by taboo. But even as she broke new ground in what she shared in her writing, she fiercely guarded her personal privacy. “I hide my literary existence under my apron,” she told an interviewer at her home on Long Island. “If you asked my neighbors about my writing, they’d look at you and think you were crazy.”

Would Lempel have been able to exercise the same artistic freedom if her neighbors had known she was writing about rape, incest, abortion, and the erotic imaginings of a middle-aged women, nursing mothers, and elderly widows? Probably not. Perhaps the concealing “apron” helped liberate her to explore such taboo themes.

Lempel’s decision to continue writing in Yiddish into the 1990s, even as the number of Yiddish readers dwindled year by year, also helped her control over what was public and what was not. Lempel was published in Yiddish publications throughout the world. She received multiple prizes and was admired by Yiddish writers and readers alike. Indeed, she sought out that recognition; at the same time, however, in many ways she held herself apart, pursuing her singular literary vision on her own terms.

Hiding is a recurrent theme in Lempel’s work. In one story, she writes about a mother and son living among the animals in the forest during the Holocaust; the account is so vivid that critics assumed it was drawn from personal experience, though it was in fact entirely the product of her extraordinary imagination and rare powers of empathy. In another story, a woman who has been raped and impregnated by her peasant rescuer during the Holocaust peeks out of the barn through a crack in the attic wall. “I live on the sidelines,” a different narrator reflects, “like a stranger in my own world.” In yet another story, a Jewish woman in German-occupied Paris works for the Resistance behind a carefully applied mask of glamour.

In preparing Oedipus in Brooklyn for publication, we spent many hours interviewing family members and reading Lempel’s correspondence and personal papers. We were curious about her artistic process, the rhythm of her days, and her reasons for choosing her subjects. Still, as an individual she remained mysterious to us—just as, it seems, she wished.

The paradox of privacy coupled with outspoken literary expression is hardly unique to Blume Lempel or Elena Ferrante. In fact, it is at the heart of the literary enterprise for many writers. What is notable for these two writers, however, is the starkness of the divide. During her lifetime, Lempel’s dream of an English-language readership for the most part eluded her. It’s a joy for us now to help her unrealized dream come true.

As we peel back the “veil” of Yiddish, allowing English-language readers gain access to Lempel’s dazzling prose and her bold approach to storytelling, we hope we enable this extraordinary writer to be known in the way she wanted to be known.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now available to English readers in their collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Menorah

Tuesday, December 13, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Perhaps one of the best religious traditions I have adopted for myself as an adult is hearing the Book of Lamentations read at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on New York’s Upper West Side, on the Eve of Tisha B’Av each year. It is a beautiful, eerie service held in the dark, followed by a lecture relating to the Jewish observance of the saddest day in the Hebrew year.

In his lecture this past summer, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik brought up a custom of the Jews of Rome connecting Tisha B’Av to Hanukkah, which is nearly upon us now: members of this community read the Book of Lamentations by candlelight and preserve what remains of each taper, keeping the candle in their homes to use as the shamash on the first night of Hanukkah several months later. This practice is rife with symbolism, related to imagery and significance of the Arch of Titus—I wish I could go into more detail, but that would be plagiarism.

Instead, I am happy to direct readers to a short essay on the Yeshiva University blog, written by Dr. Steven Fine, the author of our Book Cover of the Week!

The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel focuses particularly on the Arch of Titus and Fine’s discovery of the original yellow ochre paint for the menorah in its relief, depicting Titus’s triumphal return from Jerusalem with the treasures of the Temple he destroyed at the end of a bicentennial of Jewish uprising against pagan enemies and oppressors that began with the Maccabees. So yes, I do understand the difference between a menorah and a chanukkiah, but this book still makes for a great Hanukkah read!

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