The ProsenPeople

Beyond the Birches of Oswiecim

Tuesday, September 06, 2016 | Permalink

Affinity Konar is the author of the novel Mischling and is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

The Polish countryside flashed through the tour bus window: white chickens, nodding sunflowers, children on bikes. That such prosaic scenes could exist in such proximity to where the horrors had occurred was disorienting. I felt small, returned to a childish state.

Part of this reversion was due to the fact that I’d come to Poland as a grown woman accompanied by two overly-proud parents who boasted to any English-speaker about my novel, Mischling. I’d wanted to prove to myself that I could handle this trip alone, but when the birches of Oswiecim began to flash, signaling our proximity to Auschwitz, I was too grateful for the fact that they watched over me.

Because while I’d written a novel about the twin experiments at Auschwitz, I never imagined that I would see the camps myself. For over a decade, I’d studied narratives, photographs, personal histories. Long before the book’s genesis, as a teenager, I’d read every piece of Shoah literature I could find. So while no one can prepare for such depthless sorrow, I didn’t imagine I’d be broken by the mere sight of the woods that bordered Auschwitz. But too much history was suggested by these birches. They were woods that had been spied through the windows of cattle cars. The fact that they were beautiful, still, seemed an insult.

And once we arrived at Auschwitz I and stepped beneath the gate, with its message inscribed in the dust in shadow, it became clear that my emotions would bear more complexity than I could’ve anticipated. We walked through the place I’d long ago read described as a little city with window boxes and garden plots, from the building that housed the orchestra to sites of torture and death. To places I couldn’t bring myself to photograph, and places we were thankfully informed could not be photographed.

What couldn’t be photographed had been shorn and stolen and now sits under glass; it is mass dehumanization made visible. What couldn’t be photographed is what I will never forget the most. I know that the sight of it must reinvent grief and sorrow for many, that it must follow us as it should, but even now, at some distance I wonder, how we’re able to see such a sight and still speak. One would think that seeing such horror should make me unable to even write this, and yet, I was witnessing its effects at an extreme remove. The fact that poets and writers who survived found a way to articulate the unspeakable—I hadn’t thought my awe could ever increase, but there I was, trying to fathom, yet again, how they came by their bravery.

I tried to take a photograph of a child’s suitcase. His name was blurred by the shakiness of my hand. I erased the photograph. I didn’t take another. But the name remained: Pavel Kohn. Born 1935.

So much of Auschwitz blurred like that photograph, as if my mind wanted to keep a safe distance. Even the site of Rudolf Höss’ execution felt indistinct. I thought of my teenage self, obsessed with Nazi hunters and vengeance—back then, I would’ve thrilled to this sight. But to the right of those gallows, I saw the eaves of the Höss house, where his wife had boasted of a luxurious life, and this unseated the slightest glimmer of satisfaction.

To steady myself, I retraced my introduction to this place, Primo Levi’s Shema:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.

We boarded the bus and traveled to Auschwitz II. I saw the path the twins had walked, over and over, dressed in striped uniforms they’d never worn, for the Red Army’s footage of liberation. I saw that so much had been destroyed by Nazi hands in their eagerness to cover their crimes. Here, there were blank spaces to signify torment, all questioning the viewer. How was suffering endured? What did one held onto, or invent? How did saving someone save you? How many doomed themselves saving others?

Our guide, a resident of Oswiecim, whose ancestors were victims of the camps, offered story after story, all beautifully told. I’d hear one name and wonder how many other names have gone unrecognized. I’d hear an account of resistance, and wonder about others lost to us. I’d walk through the women’s barracks and wonder about the relationships between mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, strangers whose details will never be fully known. Some speak of a catharsis in visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t feel that—if I did, it took a mysterious form. Because what I truly felt was this: a belief that the wondering will be endless. And it should be.

Affinity Konar was raised in California and holds an MFA from Columbia University.

Related Content:

Parenting in the Age of Social Media

Friday, September 02, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Marjorie Ingall let us in on five reasons for the delayed publication of her book, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, and the glories of ghostwriting. Marjorie has been guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on the The ProsenPeople.

Are you familiar with STFU, Parents? It is a blog that mocks parental oversharing on social media. Do you post incessantly about eating your own placenta? Tweet about your infant’s Apgar scores? Respond to online grief about mass shootings with tone-deaf posts about how yay, your kid pooped in the potty? Mazel tov, you are a candidate for STFU, Parent-Shaming.

I know the risks. I’ve written parenting columns for two different publications, The Forward and Tablet. I have surely crossed the line and been annoying as heck. Writing about babies is really writing about yourself: you’re working out your fears, your own childhood mishegas, the beautiful and terrible transition from someone with bodily autonomy to someone whose body isn’t entirely your own anymore. It’s world-remaking, this business of being entirely responsible for another human life. But the longer I’ve been a parent, the more careful I’ve gotten. I don’t write about my own children anymore without their consent. They’re old enough to have some expectation of privacy. Once your child has been on this planet for a bit, I think they should have a say in how they’re depicted for public consumption.

All of us—writers and not—should be careful about what we say about our kids on social media. We want them to be safe. We want them to be not mortified. And we want, ourselves, to avoid seeming narcissistic, self-absorbed or deranged. Come on, does anyone want to see that Instagram depiction of a diaper filled with yellow poop? Sure, you’re proud of your child’s artwork/grades/acting/dancing/sportsing! But consider the sheer volume of what you share. Because honestly, the rest of us don’t care much. We enjoy cute pics of your spawn, as long as that’s not all you post, and as long as you also coo about other people’s spawn. Never be broadcast-only, online or in life. We love hearing about the funny things your kids say, as long as we don't wince reading them, knowing your kid would be humiliated if they knew what you were telling the anonymous Internet masses.

And think about your audience before you start declaiming. For instance, why respond to someone’s online grief over infertility with a mention—any mention—of your children? Your friend knows that many people struggle but eventually become parents. Pointing out your own privileged status, the fact that you are where she wants to be, is not helpful.

I’m not saying don’t share. Since long before I became a parent, I’ve been a member of The Well, an ancient online conversational space that predates the World Wide Web. In 1993, I bought a used 2400-baud modem from some random dude in the financial district. I logged onto an electronic bulletin board (BBS) to write a magazine story about whether “cyberspace” (wince) was safe for girls. When I dialed in and got that twangy-beepy noise, it meant I couldn’t be online and on a telephone at the same time. When I joined The Well, many of us were 20-somethings; we eventually became parents and began sharing tales of the joys and challenges of parenthood. Because it’s a small community that doesn’t allow anonymity—and that one must pay (or provide volunteer conference-hosting services) to belong to—there’s a higher bar to entry. The conversation is smart. There are small conferences where people have known you forever, where you can unburden yourself, or brag, without feeling as though you’re performing like a circus monkey or betraying your child. It feels more like real-life friendship than online performance. I talk to my friends and my mom about motherhood, but I also rely on online friendships in an increasingly wired world. There’s no shame in that.

And there’s a bonus! A lot of us say “The Well is my baby book.” Who has time to scrapbook? And who can preserve memories via Facebook or Twitter, when anything you post is lost in the data slipstream after a few evanescent moments? But on a BBS, with a few commands, you can generate a report on all your posts in a certain time period containing a certain word. I just searched for Maxine (my younger kid’s name), 2006 – 2007. She was two to three then, a good age for funny stories. I started cackling at what I found.

And yes, she gave me permission to share my posts from back then:

2006: maxine deliberately ripped a lift-the-flap book this morning and said with a gleam in her eye, now i need TAPE! (she loves tape.) i said, “we don't rip books. i’m going to tape it, not you.” begging and whining followed. i said, "i'm not going to REWARD you with tape for ripping a book!" and she gave me the big eyes and said, "i'm only a baby!"

2007: maxine: “there are five elements: earth, air, fire, water and cheese.”

2007: maxine and i were playing with dress-up dolls (you know, those melissa & doug wooden magnetized ones) and we put on our fancy outfits and she said, "DARLING! you look SMASHED!"

OK, so maybe Maxie (now 11) and I think these stories are funnier than you do. Which is understandable, what with you not being related to us. That’s why I tried to be very judicious about the number of kid stories I shared in my book Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. No one wants to be THAT GUY at the cocktail party, loudly bragging and proclaiming with a G&T in one sweaty hand. But it’s natural to want to share stories—it’s human, it’s profound, and it can be a source of connection if you do it right.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The Forward (where she was The East Village Mamele), Real Simple, Ms., Food & Wine, Glamour, Self, and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and books editor.

Related Content:

Uh, Five Reasons My Book Was a Year Late

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Marjorie Ingall wrote about stepping out of ghostwriting to write her first book since 1998. With the publication of that book, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, Marjorie is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on the The ProsenPeople.

1. I did a metric ton of research. When I was in college, I dealt with my fear of writing papers by exfoliating. Through an excellent and protracted skin-care regimen, followed by the ritual cleaning of the dorm room and doing laundry until 4:00 AM, I worked myself into enough of a last-minute panic that I could actually sit down to write. This is not a great strategy for a 47-year-old woman. So I dealt with my anxiety by doing more and more and more research. I was convinced that once I knew everything in the entire world about everything in the entire world, the book would flow out of me like sweetened condensed milk out of a dorm fridge after my roommate’s stash tipped over.

2. I was terrified of writing in my own voice. As a ghostwriter, I found the very notion confusing. How scholarly should I be? How much of my funny blogger ( voice should I use and how much of my journalism voice? Who the hell was I? Since I could not decide, my first draft was both late and terrible. My best friend, a novelist, told me I sounded unable to own my authority. She pointed out that I kept defaulting to other people’s words to drive my own points home. I quoted big wads of academic texts. I sourced everything multiple times. I sounded pretentious, uncomfortable and stilted. “You can be self-deprecating while still sounding confident and erudite,” she told me gently. It took a long time for me to relax into that advice. Perhaps paradoxically, I had to learn to sound like myself.

3. Deadlines! When you’re writing a book, deadlines are fake! Sure, you can put arbitrary due dates for each chapter in your calendar, but when you’re writing articles that have to be filed every week, or magazine stories that have to come in on time or no one will ever hire you again, you know that book deadlines are stretchy and fungible. Also, book payments come in very slowly. Payments for one’s regular gigs come in more quickly. One deludes oneself about what one should be doing at any given moment.

Also one needs to check Facebook and Twitter constantly.

4. The state of publishing. I went through three editors and two publicists (at last count) over the course of working on Mamaleh Knows Best. Chaotic times, changing industry. My first editor was a Member of the Tribe with a small child, and her editorial questions seemed targeted to readers like her. My second editor was the parent to much older children and was not herself Jewish; her primary interest seemed to me to be broadening the book’s readership. Finally, I was accustomed to writing celebrity books, which are not, shall we say, heavily edited. So I was surprised to get detailed, passionate editorial notes on each chapter. The part of me that came of age writing for women’s magazines was a people-pleaser and wanted to do everything the editors suggested; the part of me that had a specific vision for the book (a blend of social history, folklore and mythology, humor, theology and parenting, high culture and pop culture) wanted to push back. It was uncomfortable. My second editor was frustrated by my harping on Philip Roth; I knew I wasn’t doing a great job explaining why his work was essential to understanding the weight of the Jewish mother stereotype, but I couldn’t accomplish what I wanted to. (My editor was also horrified that I desperately wanted to keep a paragraph about Portnoy’s foodstuff-related masturbatory habits, comparing them to the pastry penetration in American Pie. “Why is this here?” she kept demanding. “This will turn off your reader completely!” Ultimately, I decided that a discussion of Jewish men ejaculating into comestibles was not the hill I wished to die on. In the end, there is perhaps less Philip Roth in my book than there should be, but fewer people will gag while reading it, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.) Ultimately, editing made this book much, much better. And shorter: I cut 20,000 words from the second draft. Everyone says “editors don’t edit anymore,” but this was not my experience, and no lie, I’m glad.

5. Who is this book for? How Jewish should it be? How much knowledge should I assume the reader has? Am I talking about Jewish parenting now, or Jewish parenting in different eras of history, and what the hell is the difference? As I wrote and revised, I felt I was tap-dancing like crazy to reach readers of many different backgrounds. (My favorite review so far is by a popular, very critical Goodreads reviewer who is not Jewish and has no children— the fact that she enjoyed it will make me feel good to my dying day, ptui ptui ptui.) The wrestling act made the writing act take much longer than I’d expected. And I’m sure the book will frustrate yeshiva-bred readers for whom not enough material is brand new, as well as goyish readers who feel it is too dang Jewish. Here, for example, is a story that was left on the cutting room floor because explaining Purim to the uninitiated made it take too long to get to the punchline:

Back when my daughter Josie was four, she was playing Queen Esther with my mom. Josie liked to dress in a tulle skirt, sunglasses, and multiple strands of Mardi Gras beads and plastic leis; then she’d line up her stuffed animals on the couch and sit primly at one end of the line with her hands folded. Whichever family member she’d force to play Ahasuerus had to go down the line and interview each stuffed animal about why it deserved to be his queen. My mom would always try to keep the process from focusing purely on looks—even though that’s what the actual text does—because she wanted Josie to think about qualities more important than physical appearance. Mom would play an Ahasuerus looking for qualities like kindness, generosity, patience. Anyway, once Mom asked Josie, “So, Esther, what qualifies you to be my queen?” Josie looked at her like she was a moron and said, “I have the skirt.”

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The Forward (where she was The East Village Mamele), Real Simple, Ms., Food & Wine, Glamour, Self, and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and books editor.

Related Content:

Book Cover of the Week: These Are the Names

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I've been haunted by Tommy Wieringa's These Are the Names since picking up an advance copy last month. The original edition of the Dutch novel deservedly won the 2013 Libris Prize, but before I knew that or anything else about the book the the cover alone instantly captured my attention:

Of course, once I opened its pages I was spellbound by Tommy Wieringa's masterful (and eerie) storytelling. These Are the Names balances the mundane and the mysterious between two seemingly inharmonious stories—the famine-swept journey of a pack of wanderers trekking thought the Eurasian wilderness and a solitary policeman's investigation into the death of a rabbi, leaving only one other Jew remaining in their reduced border town—without ever striking a discordant note.

Related Content:

A Ghostwriter, on Being Visible

Monday, August 29, 2016 | Permalink

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist, ghostwriter, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. In honor of the book’s release tomorrow, Marjorie is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on the The ProsenPeople.

I’m a ghostwriter. This week, a book comes out with my name on it—just mine. It’s the first book I have written as myself since 1998.

I feel naked.

To me, ghosting is infinitely more comfortable than writing a book as me. I love channelling someone else’s voice. It feels like a game. You talk to the person for as long as the person will let you (for some celebrities, that’s not long) and try to emulate their speech patterns and sense of humor. It’s wearing a Halloween costume, in book form! You treat the subject as a research project: find out as much as you can about their life so you can ask probing questions; try to make their story relevant to as many people as possible. Make them likeable, even if they’re not. (And let me head this off at the pass: No, I can’t tell you for whom I’ve written books, speeches, articles and blog posts, because then I’d have to kill you. That joke is never funny, but it’s really all one can say on the subject, non-disclosure agreements being what they are.)

Another reason I like ghosting so much is that I’ve spent so much of my career writing in the first person. I started in women’s magazines, which prize a confessional we’re-all-just-pals voice, perhaps as a way to seem unscary and sisterly. Even though I often wrote about health and science, I was still supposed to begin every story with a personal anecdote. It can feel both formulaic and invasive, putting yourself into a story where you really don’t belong. Getting to write a whole book and reveal nothing of myself was, in comparison, a huge relief.

Not everyone is so sanguine, though. When my older daughter was in first grade, I spoke to her class for Career Day. The teacher informed the class that Josie’s mom was a ghostwriter, and they got so excited they were almost vibrating. This was because they thought I wrote about translucent haunting spirits from beyond the grave. They were visibly disappointed to learn otherwise. One bright boy was more than disappointed – he was outraged. “So you wrote the book, but your name isn’t on the cover?” he sputtered. “That’s so unfair!” I explained that I got paid, and the arrangement was totally fine with me.

“But… it’s a lie!” he said. “People think someone else wrote the book, because it says someone else wrote the book, and you’re both lying!”

He wasn’t wrong. Most of us know that celebrities don’t write their own books, but we all participate in the fiction that they do. It’s a kind of collective self-hypnosis. Guess what: politicians don’t write their own op-eds or speeches, either. Though presumably after Melania Trump’s RNC debacle, more of us than a year ago know about the role of speechwriters in the performative, presentational game. (And presumably after Donald Trump’s original Art of the Deal ghostwriter publicly turned on him, more people understand how book ghosting works, too. For what it’s worth, I’m in a private support group for ghostwriters in which we talk about our projects and challenges, and most ghosts are utterly horrified by the notion of spilling the beans about clients. It’s akin to doctor-patient privilege. If you’re appalled by the client, don’t take the job.)

My new book, the one that I’ve written as me, is a book that combines social history, theology and parenting. It’s a look at the Jewish mother stereotype: a character that seems almost as malevolent to most of us as a ghostwriter does to a first grader.

But ghosting, I think, was oddly good practice for writing the book I did. An excellent ghostwriter encourages the best aspects of their client to shine through. The work of ghosting is self-effacing, but not self-negating; you need to be assertive to write the best book possible, and that means gently directing the client in the way they should go. The ghost also needs to be sure everyone—self, client, editor, and agent(s)—gets heard. If you’re going to be a good ghostwriter, you have to set up and manage expectations before you leap. You and the client both have to honor your commitments.

That’s what good parenting is, too. It’s not all about you; it’s about the next generation. (It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see, as Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote while pretending to be Alexander Hamilton.) It’s about being nurturing without being spineless. And despite the caricature of the Jewish mother as a neurotic, narcissistic, self-dramatizing human pressure cooker, the historical Jewish mother has done a tremendous job in raising kids who are both accomplished and kind.

Accomplished and kind is what we want to pretend our icons are, but it’s more important that we raise our real-life children that way in the real-life world.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The Forward (where she was The East Village Mamele), Real Simple, Ms., Food & Wine, Glamour, Self, and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and books editor.

Related Content:

New Reviews August 28, 2016

Sunday, August 28, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

In Whose Image? Maimonides Among the Portraits of Lawgivers

Friday, August 26, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Zev Eleff wrote about religious disputes in American advice columns and how social media is impacting Modern Orthodox Judaism. He has been guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In 1951, Congress moved back into the United States Capitol, displaced for more than a year to repair a poorly constructed iron ceiling. The renovations provided a chance to attend to a number of key updates: installation of better acoustics, improved lighting, and a state-of-the-art air conditioning system. Far less practical but considerably more symbolic was a set of 23 engraved plaques, the Portraits of Lawgivers, hanging on the walls above the doors of the House Chamber.

The Lawgivers required a studied opinion. The Architect of the Capitol and a Philadelphia-based firm assembled teams at the University of Pennsylvania, the Columbia Historical Society in Washington, D.C., and the Library of Congress to help select the subjects for sculpture portraits: “personages who were, relatively or marginally, prototypes during history of activities being conducted in said House Chamber.”

The outcome of this assignment tells a lot about how Americans viewed their intellectual underpinnings at the middle of the twentieth century—and the subtle politics of this important space offers much to consider for our own time.

The Capitol’s criterion eliminated founders of religion. “Perhaps Jesus Christ should be included in the list of an avowedly Christian Nation in a legislative hall in which each of its sessions opens with Christian declarations,” reasoned the Washington group, but there was “some feeling that Jesus Christ is too exalted a character to be included.” The same sort of logic nixed Buddha, Confucius, and Muhammad.

The final list of Lawgivers chosen to inspire the House was well-rounded but still well-ensconced in classical intellectual traditions. Thomas Jefferson and George Mason represented the Americans. The balance was composed of ancient Greeks and Romans, and the men (no women were picked) typically associated with the legal foundations of Christendom.

Still, the list also demonstrated an effort to include figures of other religions, very much in line with postwar Judeo-Christian sensibilities. Suleiman the Magnificent represented the Islamic world while Judaism received a pair of Moseses—the prophet Moses and Moses Maimonides, the Sephardic physician and legal codifier of the twelfth century. Of course, other religions claimed Moses of the Bible; Maimonides (or any other Jewish legalist), on the other hand, was something of a surprise. In preparing its list of lawgiving candidates, one of the appointed teams was underwhelmed with the Jewish choices, concluding that the “Hebrew system has been given undue credit—too much for too little.”

Most members of the House applauded the plaques and their religious inclusivity. Some, though, were nearly impossible to please. John Rankin, for example, “objected to all the foreign lawmakers except Moses.” Reportedly, the Southern Democrat from Mississippi would have replaced them with Confederate heroes like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Then again, this was typical of Rankin: years earlier, in response to Albert Einstein’s calls to cease all ties with Hitler’s allies, the Mississippian, an antisemite and all-around bigot, dismissed the Nobel Prize physicist as a mere “foreign-born agitator.”

Nativists like Rankin found it more challenging to get their way in the postwar period. Save for the anti-Communists, peoples of all types gained relatively stronger footholds in the United States. In the particular case of religion, popular writers like Will Herberg convinced millions of Americans that Catholics and Jews were equal shareholders with Protestants in the nation’s religious-cultural foundations. In this time, the number of Muslims in the United States was small, but gestures like the House Chamber’s Lawgivers indicated that this religious community was also on the minds of thoughtful Americans.

The Lawgivers sculptures also reveal another quality of postwar cultural openness. Amid pressure to shed distinctions in the American Melting Pot, religious and ethnic groups persevered and placed considerable value on retaining their own cultures and symbols.

Consider the Moses Maimonides plaque. Brenda Putnam sculpted the rabbi of Islamic Cairo. The noted sculpture artist and scion of an important American family, Putnam was eager to etch Maimonides in the image of the increasingly more recognizable American Jew. To do so, she wished to place a yarmulke atop Maimonides’s head rather than a turban or nothing at all—two more accurate possibilities for an Egyptian Jew in the High Middle Ages.

In the United States, few Jews adorned the religious skullcap outside the synagogue, but it was one of the best known attire-sensitive identifiers of this religious group. Putnam queried rabbinical scholars whether there was any chance that Maimonides might have worn a “small cap such as you and your colleagues wear.” To plead her case, the artist admitted that “I should like to add this small, recognizable insigne—not only because it adds distinction and a decorative line to the design, but because it would make him the more readily identifiable to the thousands of visitors in the galleries.”

But Maimonides did not resemble America’s Jews, nor other Americans. In the end, Putnam relented. She sculpted the rabbi with Arab headgear, a more approximate head covering than the yarmulke. Her decision—as well as the selection of a religiously diverse set of law codifiers—confirmed that national identities and legacies were complex concepts. What is more, the individuals chosen to hang above America’s top legislators did not need to appear all that similar to the women and men debating on the floor below.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Related Content:

Book Cover of the Week: Fascinating—The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Thursday, August 25, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I always have an eye out for good books for young Jewish readers—stories that break the mold of what we consider "Jewish children's literature" and introduce interesting ideas along with evocative imagery that appeals to the artistic sensibilities of kids and adults alike. Combine those qualities with my love for all things Leonard Nimoy, and you can see why I'm excited for Richard Michelson and Edel Rodriguez's new illustrated biography:

Accessible to readers of all religious or Trekkie affiliations, Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy delivers strong Jewish content without overpowering the universal story of first-generation achievement in the United States. Exploring Nimoy's childhood in Boston's West End, Fascinating depicts the assiduous actor's decision to take on his iconic half-Vulcan role in light of the alienation his parents experienced as American immigrants from Iziaslav—reflected in the cover illustration of Mr. Spock's profile superimposed with the face of young Leonard.

Intrigued? Richard Michelson will share more about the book as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople over the first week of Elul—the week after next!

Related Content:

The New Digital Discourse and Modern Orthodox Judaism

Wednesday, August 24, 2016 | Permalink

Zev Eleff is the author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In May 1969, Rabbi Norman Lamm published an essay on “Modern Orthodoxy’s Identity Crisis” in a magazine circulated by the Orthodox Union. His mission was ambitious: to identify and grapple with the struggle of modern Americans who were concomitantly committed to Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Lamm also offered some salience rather than musings. The essay transformed Rabbi Lamm and Modern Orthodox Judaism into a movement marked by stability and rooted identity.

Of course, Rabbi Lamm did not do this alone. Young women and men—many of them, first-generation day school graduates—joined in, and revitalized Orthodox Judaism in the United States. He also benefited from a respectful form of Orthodox discourse. Differing points of view were welcomed as essential elements of a more wholesome conversation. In 1965, the editors of the Rabbinical Council of America published an article authored by Dr. Eliezer Berkovits in the pages of its journal despite the the fact that “most of our Editorial Board disagree with the views expressed in this essay.” Rather than reject the paper, the Orthodox rabbinical organization included it as a marker of communal “revitalization.”

The maintenance of informed and diplomatic public conversation is essential, particularly in anxious moments of tumult. Lately, talk of an “identity crisis” within Modern Orthodox Judaism has resumed. By and large, the discourse takes place in the arena of social media. It is therefore an undaunted conversation. It lacks a moderator and moderation. The rightist wing refers to a “crisis” as it writes off an outmoded “ideology [that] is murky and vague.” The leftists allude to the same crisis, characterizing it as “trying times for Modern Orthodoxy.”

Both sides rehearse similar revisionist histories. Invariably, these sorts of writers and bloggers cite Dr. Bernard Revel, an early president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, considered Yeshiva University’s most important historical figure. Their conclusions typically call for change, a Modern Orthodoxy defined by “approaches that came straight from the greatest of European yeshivos” or a vision intended to be, frankly, “something new.” The middle-of-the-road outlook is not too often considered. Further, these kinds of expositions rarely engage the primary sources. They lack texture and nuance, draining the past of all its color and creativity. In the end, these writings are the stuff of polemic; not the language of constructive discourse.

Still, there is more to it. Increasingly, Orthodox Jews turn to social media to take part and read blogposts, articles, and comments on the gripping religious issues of the day. These are the forums in which many Orthodox Jews obtain religion, though an informal type. For many, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as sacred spaces to acquire Judaism and Jewish content. Of course, the synagogue and other important cultural centers still offer much, but these “traditional” institutions compete with digital venues that are always open and are constantly uploading new content. In most cases, it is hardly a contest—after all, the rabbi’s sermon is only a weekly occasion, and adult education classes simiarly must fit into some sort of restrictive schedule. By contrast, Facebook threads are timeless, untethered, and hyperlinked.

Relevance and promptness have assumed unprecedentedly precious qualities of religious commodities. Owing to this, rabbis and educators take to the Internet for this very sort of relevance. The savviest among them upload their sermons and author blogs. These women and men recognize that to be someone of consequence they must become a part of the online conversation.

There is an alluring and democratizing aspect of Facebook. The elites—the most educated, title-holding lot—no longer have so much control. Social media is a dialogue—not a monologue, after all. Consider Daniel Rosenthal’s recently polemical tract, Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox. In his tirade against the Orthodox Left, the author marshaled loads of extra-academic evidence that amounted to 487 footnotes: the lion’s share of these citations were drawn from Facebook and YouTube. In one exercise of social media arithmetic, Rosenthal actually counted the number of times a Facebook post was “liked” by members of a particular Orthodox group.

Of course, there are drawbacks to the new mode of discourse. Most notably, this sort of unhinged conversation tends to introduce historical errors and oversimplifications. The Modern Orthodox community is far from unique in its embrace of online media as a primary form of discourse. Similar trends are evident in other Jewish communities, and within other religious spheres. Modern Orthodoxy is also not the only one undergoing a so-called “identity crisis.” It is, however, the one that I can best help—that’s why I authored Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Featuring more than 180 texts and images, this documentary history seeks to equip the present digital dialogue with a sturdier foothold within the sources. The anthology aims to restore sophistication and nuance to the new discourse. Far from claiming to offer the final say on any matter, the user-friendly commentaries and annotations are meant to bolster a more informed conversation. For instance, the material on Orthodox Judaism’s parting of the ways with Conservative and Reform, the role of rabbinic authority and the place of women in stations of leadership are crucial. These subjects are pertinent to the classroom, the synagogue pulpit, Facebook and wherever else we may strike up an intriguing conversation on the past and future of Orthodox Judaism in the United States.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Related Content:

Orthodox Judaism and its Conversion to the Cult of Compartmentalization

Monday, August 22, 2016 | Permalink

Zev Eleff is the author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In July 1984, Ann Landers penned a response to a woman in Dallas who had had enough of her newly Orthodox children. The letter-writer, the irritated “Not Kosher Enough for Our Children in Texas,” complained that her son and daughter-in-law had recently “embraced the Orthodox Jewish religion,” a decision that had taken a step toward family divisiveness and generated “ill will.” The Dallas woman found it terribly offensive that her son refused to eat in his parents’ home, even though “I wouldn’t dream of serving shellfish, bacon or ham or pork”—iconic non-kosher items. Nor would he answer the telephone on the Sabbath, leaving the concerned mother to wonder whether a protocol was necessary if “God forbid, there were a tragedy in the family.”

In truth, the seventy-year-old Texan confessed that she could get past the dietary and Sabbath restrictions. More than anything else, she worried about the idiosyncratic behavior of her “born-again” Orthodox children and grandchildren. First, her daughter-in-law tended to serve gastronomically challenging foods. “When we eat at their house the food is so heavy it gives us heartburn and indigestion,” she told the renowned advice columnist. Second, the whole Sabbath leisure experience appeared to her somehow un-American: “They just sit [at] home and do nothing. No TV. No cards. Nothing.” Third, she feared for her grandchildren, who she imagined would “be considered peculiar by their friends” as they got older.

In response, Landers (née Eppie Lederer) empathized with “Not Kosher Enough.” By no means an observant Jew herself, Landers freely offered that while the dietary laws made sense “thousands of years ago before refrigeration,” they do not anymore “seem logical.” More to the point, Landers reported that she had consulted with a Conservative rabbi in Chicago, who recommended that in a conflict between two Biblical commandments, “Honor Thy Father and Mother” outranked the dietary laws. In other words, the Dallas matriarch had every reason to insist that her children follow the Americanized path of their parents and social milieu. The Sabbath, she reasoned, should still be treated as Saturday, like in all other American households.

Landers’s message was apparent: in Judeo-Christian America, religious communities were supposed to conform to those red-white-and-blue values. In 1955, Will Herberg’s best-selling Protestant-Catholic-Jew had convinced millions of Americans that all three of these religions served as steaming pots intended to boil out all of the hyphenated descriptors and extraneous culture that got in the way of becoming truly American, and Landers’s advice resoundingly echoed this sentiment.

Orthodox leaders would have objected to the columnist’s recommendation. The application was off, and furthermore encroached upon the rigid standards of Jewish law. Yet the idea probably resonated with many Orthodox Jews who sought to blend traditional Judaism with basic American values. Armed with a strong philosophical underpinning, these folks pushed for middleclass refinement, advanced education for young women and men and a healthy embrace of high- and middlebrow culture. Whenever and wherever possible, they would have it, Orthodox Jews should endeavor to synthesize the best of Judaism and America.

But not everyone agreed. Landers’s advice troubled Rabbi Pinchas Stolper of the Orthodox Union, pragmatically and philosophically. As the former director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Stolper had made a career out of convincing religiously uninitiated young people that Orthodox Judaism offered great substance to life. As one of the many pied pipers of the growing “Ba’al Teshuva Movement (literally, “Master of Repentance”),” Stolper could testify to the thousands of Jews who had “returned” to Orthodox Judaism. He therefore dashed off a private note to Ann Landers to dispel her notions of all-or-nothing Americanism. He told the popular columnist of the countless Jews who “observe the Sabbath” and the “tens of thousands more [who] have joined their ranks.” No doubt, Stolper’s numbers were exaggerated but this mattered little in his quiet polemic. “Not using the phone, the car or the television on the Sabbath is one of life’s greatest blessings,” he wrote. “What could be more rewarding and relaxing than one day off from the technological barrage, the slavery to gadgets, the noise and babble of the media?” Stolper also had had some choice words for Landers’ correspondent in Texas:

The lady says that “they sit at home and do nothing. No TV. No Cards. Nothing.” TV and cards are “nothing” even on a plain Tuesday—on the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews enjoy festive family meals, rest and relaxation, prayer, reading, good conversation, Torah study, visits to neighbors—it is a day of rest, joy and spiritual elevation. As for lights and air-conditioning, that’s all on automatic clocks like any good modern establishment. As to heartburn and indigestion—some Jews enjoy eating heavy foods—but this has nothing to do with the kosher laws. I know Orthodox Jews who are “veggies,” “health nuts,” and all the rest.

In a way, Rabbi Stolper had banded together with other smaller religious and racial groups in the United States who, in the 1980s, argued for a multicultural outlook. These advocates suggested that hyphenated identities like “Mexican-American” or “Jewish-American” were hardly inconsistent with the prevailing culture in the United States. This view rejected the postwar “melting pot” notions of the American personality, believing it too stifling of narrow. This argument was what sociologist Charles Liebman described around this time as “compartmentalization.” Orthodox Jews, observed the social scientist, tended to separate areas of their lives that could not, in their view, be synergized. To the contrary, men like Rabbi Stolper won over adherents on the supposition that it was perfectly feasible and acceptable to compartmentalize rather than synthesize.

In the final analysis, claimed Stolper, “where there is love, caring and good will there is no reason why the children and the parents cannot keep each other happy without breaking any of God’s laws.” No doubt, his recommendation came from a good place and was indicative of the success of the Ba’al Teshuva Movement. It also signaled, however subtly, a sea change in mainstream Orthodox Jewish philosophy—one with unsubtle implications.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Related Content: