The ProsenPeople

Rambam and Medicine

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 | Permalink

David Zulberg is the author of best-selling health and behavior modification diet called The Life-Transforming Diet (Feldheim Publishers). His latest book called 5 Skinny Habits, will be published this fall by Rodale Publishers. He is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Maimonides, popularly known as Rambam, was born on March 30, 1135. Maimonides is best known as a philosopher, prolific author and jurist: the foremost intellect of Medieval Judaism. Although his chapter on health in his ‘Mishneh Torah’ is still popular and studied today, most people are unaware that Maimonides actually wrote 10 medical works.

His fame as a physician spread rapidly in his later years. He became the court physician to the famous Sultan Saladin, and later to his son Al-Afḍal. In 1477, only a few years after the invention of printing, a Latin edition of his “Regimen of Health” was published in Florence. It was the first medical book to appear in print there. Prof. Waldmer Schweiseheimer, a mid-twentieth century historian, said of Maimonides’ medical writings: “Maimonides' medical teachings are not antiquated at all. His writings are astonishingly modern in tone and content.” Mr. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, and after him Prof. Albert Einstein, requested that Maimonides’ medical writings be published. As Sir William Osler so aptly put it, ‘Maimonides was Prince of Physicians.’

My journey began when I researched and wrote a book called The Life-Transforming Diet, published by Feldheim. This book is based on Maimonides’ nutritional and psychological advice found in his philosophical and legal works, especially his medical writings. The book was well received and is currently in its seventh printing. It has been translated into Hebrew. The Life-Transforming Diet has already produced dramatic life-changing results for thousands of people worldwide.

After the book was published, I pursued my interest in the herbal aspect of Rambam’s writings. Besides writing about nutritional and lifestyle habits, Rambam details herbal remedies extensively in his medical works. In fact, he has one dedicated thick volume about drug names and descriptions. I was especially fascinated by Maimonides' favorite stress relief formula, which he describes: "This should be taken regularly, at all times. Its effects are that sadness and anxieties disappear. This is a remedy of which no equal can be found in gladdening, strengthening and invigorating the psyche. It should always be found in your possession." (Maimonides Medical Writings)

At the same time, I researched the best herbal ingredients for an appetite suppressant based on Maimonides' nutritional suggestions and the most current herbal scientific research.

My first concern was to ensure that the herbal ingredients and formulations found in Maimonides’ works were being translated accurately. In general, many translations of ancient texts are not accurate. In fact, some of the better-known translations of Maimonides’ medical works, which were originally written in Arabic, are not precise and this becomes an important issue especially regarding locating and defining the exact herbal ingredients. The first step was to find the most exact translation. I utilized all three main translations of his medical works and after months of searching, I succeeded in communicating with the most renowned expert in the translation of Maimonides' works from the original Arabic and other manuscripts of that era. He is affiliated with Brigham Young University in the USA and proficient in classical and Semitic languages.

My next step was to actually travel to India, which I did twice. I went to New Delhi and Mumbai in order to meet current day experts in Unani Medicine. I provided them with the original Arabic manuscripts and they confirmed the exact translation of the various herbal ingredients.

I wanted to further confirm my findings in India and so I got research scientists and current day herbalists to test and confirm the ingredients and formulations.

The next step was to ensure that the formulations could be made kosher. This was actually a much bigger challenge then it seems. It took two years to make this a possibility. To make the formulations kosher one needs the actual ingredients to be sourced kosher and the actual encapsulation needs to be supervised.

I traveled to China to the CPHI conference, which hosts 2,200 exhibitors and 29,000 attendees from over 133 countries. It is the market leader for the global pharmaceutical ingredients industry. I also visited various facilities in Shanghai and India—New Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

After much research, I concluded that the best location for ensuring quality and strict kosher supervision of the production line was to have the products made in the USA. Since all products are also Kosher Star K certified, there is additional assurance of quality and third party substantiation of included ingredients and encapsulation.

David Zulberg is an ACE-certified fitness specialist and health coach, and M.S. graduate of Columbia University in NYC. Author of best-selling health and behavior modification diet called The Life Transforming Diet (Feldheim Publishers). His latest book called 5 Skinny Habits, will be published this fall by Rodale Publishers. Zulberg is also founder and president of Bio Herbal Tech, a dynamic organization providing propriety herbal scientific formulations. David has appeared on PIX11, CBS and ABC. Read more about him here.

February 2014 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 | Permalink

What we're reading this month:

Suzanne: My Promised Land (Ari Shavit) | Naomi: All Russians Love Birch Trees (Olga Grjasnowa)
Mimi: An American Bride in Kabul (Phyllis Chesler) | Joyce: The Mothers (Jennifer Gilmore)
Carol: Little Failure (Gary Shteyngart) | Carolyn: Outwitting History (Aaron Lansky)
Nat: One More Thing (B.J. Novak) | Miri: Cut Me Loose (Leah Vincent)

Pointing Fingers: Anti-Judaism in Western Civilization

Monday, February 17, 2014 | Permalink

Today, Brian Zimmerman of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership reflects on a recent event with David Nirenberg, author of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.

In her book about World War I, The Origins of Totalitarianism, German philosopher Hannah Arendt begins not with an introduction but with a joke. It goes like this:

An anti-Semite and a Jew are having a conversation. “You know,” says the anti-Semite, “it was the Jews who started this war.”

“You’re right,” says the Jew. “It was us and the bicyclists.”

Puzzled, the anti-Semite asks, “Why the bicyclists?”

To which the Jew replies, “Why the Jews?”

Sure, the joke isn’t a knee-slapper, but it does emphasize an attitude toward Jews and Judaism that has persisted throughout history. For centuries Jews have faced near constant discrimination for the things they believed and the traditions they held. A lot of this discrimination has taken the form of anti-Semitism, which is the racial stereotyping of Jews and Jewish culture. But the kind of discrimination illustrated through the joke is different. It doesn’t stem from any actual racial stereotype, but merely from the idea that something needed to be blamed on someone. Understood this way, the joke’s punch line becomes a more serious question. When conflict arises, why do Jews get the blame?

It’s a question Dr. David Nirenberg, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, tries to answer in his new book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. Speaking at Spertus Insititute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in January, he made it clear that anti-Judaism, which he defines as the tendency to equate Judaism with devious ideas, is an age-old problem.

To get to the root of it, he set out to map anti-Judaism from the very beginning. One of the earliest examples he could find was from the 1st century, when early Christians were beginning to compile a system of beliefs distinct from their Jewish neighbors. As is noted in Galatians, St. Paul once argued with St. Peter about how new Christians should think about the Bible. Paul, intent on creating his own church, wanted to make sure his new converts wouldn’t “Judaise” their Christian beliefs. He explains that by “Judaising,” he means giving priority to the letter of scripture over its allegorical meaning, as well as priority to the flesh over the spirit.

For St. Paul, Judaism became a symbol for the opposite of what the early Christians wanted to believe. Whereas Jews believed in continual self-improvement, early Christians believed in the singular acceptance of a savior. Whereas Jews believed in dietary rules and Sabbath prohibitions, early Christians believed in moral teachings and temperate living. It wasn’t that Judaism posed an ideological threat to Christianity – it was simply positioned as an opposite. But as Dr. Nirenberg makes clear, that mode of thinking carried dangerous implications.

Consider the French Revolution. This was crucial moment in France’s history, with warring factions fighting for control of the French government. It was a battle not of religion but of political and philosophical opposites. So where does anti-Judaism fit in? Everywhere.

During the revolution, anti-revolutionary English philosopher Edmund Bruke decried the proletariat uprising as a victory for the Jewish bankers, which he thought were secretly benefiting from the toppling of the French aristocracy. Meanwhile, across the revolutionary aisle, the pro-revolutionists were forming their own battle cry, only they, too, heralded their cause as a victory of Europeans over Judaism.

How could one side supporting order and aristocracy and another side supporting democracy and freedom both wind up hating the Jews? It was easy. They were both using Judaism as a stand in for the enemy, or the opposite of what each one believed. The irony of the situation is that Jews made up only 0.14% of France’s population at the time. Clearly, the gripe with Judaism’s role in the French Revolution wasn’t really about Jews.

It hardly ever is. In fact, Dr. Nirenberg believes that anti-Judaism is much more deployed against non-Jews than it is against actual Jews. Throughout history, Christian reformers, Muslim revolutionaries, and public intellectuals of no religion at all have been attached or criticized for promoting Judaism. This fact was made obvious by what are perhaps the world’s most notorious practitioners of anti-Judaism: the Nazis.

Early into the war, the Nazis, led by German artist Alfred Zigler, put together a Degenerate Art Exhibit, which was designed to showcase art that “revealed Jewish racial soul.” The whole point was for the Nazis to demonstrate how “Jewish ideas” like impressionism and abstractionism were poisoning Germany’s art tradition. One problem? Of the 112 artists exhibited, only six of them were Jewish.

The Nazis didn’t stop with just art. For them, even academic disciplines like math and physics were labeled as Jewish, simply because these disciplines challenged the status quo of the natural world. It was for this reason that German physicist and Nobel Prize recipient Philipp Lenard once warned physics students not to take too much mathematics, since the field carried with it “Jewish influences that killed feelings for natural scientific research.”

This pattern of anti-Judaism has repeated itself even into our modern age. In 2009, for example, when protesters took control of Tehran and demanded a recall of disputed president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fundamentalist clerics from nearby countries derided the protestors for acting “Jewishly.” This is a bold claim, especially since these protestors never aligned with Judaism or the Jewish people. But the accusation makes sense through the lens of anti-Judaism. Seen this way, we have one group of people – the protestors – trying to impose a new value system on another group of people – the fundamentalists – who are desperately clinging to an old one. In scenarios like these, someone is always going to be looking for a scapegoat. Dr. Nirenberg’s point is that more often than not the scapegoat will be Judaism.

And this is precisely the danger Dr. Nirenberg sees in anti-Judaism. As long as there are warring factions, disagreeing governments, or national conflicts, the potential for anti-Judaism will always arise. That’s because anti-Judaism isn’t about hating actual Jews; it’s about using Judaism as a channel for hate. But an even greater danger is when no one steps up to intervene.

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition can be purchased at the Spertus Shop by visiting Starting March 15, Dr. Nirenberg’s lecture at Spertus Institute will be available on the Spertus website as an online resource.

Read Jewish Book Council's review of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition here.

Brian Zimmerman is the Marketing & Communications Associate at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. His blog, People of the Books, appears on JUF News.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 14, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Publishing the Unpublishable

Friday, February 14, 2014 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Michael Wex wrote about creating the sound of Yiddish in his novel and the beginning of his literary career. His newest novel, Shlepping the Exile, will be published by St. Martin's Press next week. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It took me more than three years to finish Shlepping the Exile. I had a job as a researcher in pediatric neurosurgery to go to and a dissertation on the Middle English Pearl to try to avoid, and more than disappointed, I was positively crestfallen to discover that nobody in the exciting, high stakes worlds of commercial and small press publishing really cared. I sent queries, unagented and unsolicited, to various publishers, submitted selections to every literary magazine whose address I could find. The encouraging rejections usually included a Yiddish word or two—le-chaim at the end instead of yours truly, or "Mazl tov on a stunning achievement, but it's not for us at this time." The less friendly ones tended to come from editors who'd received my manuscript from one of their writers. To many of them, I was an anti-Semite; to a few others, a disgrace to my people—"Would you let your parents read this?" Virtually all of them saw the use of Yiddish as an anachronistic drawback. The only thing that might have interested them about my adult characters was their experiences during World War II: "You can clearly write," one of them told me, "give us more Holocaust." After letters like that, I was almost happy to have the manuscript called "pornography in dialect," a put-down that didn't really sting, though I'd have been even happier if the woman who'd handwritten it on the title page put "pornography mit a heksent" instead.

After two or three years of this, I was starting to get desperate. I forgot about publishing and took the book back to its origins, presenting self-contained excerpts in comedy clubs, storytelling venues, theatres, anywhere where I could get onto a stage. I'd done enough storytelling and stand-up that finding places to appear wasn't much of a problem, especially because I only held a piece of paper in my hand if the event was called a reading. Otherwise, I gave performances of material from the book, selling photocopied, perfect-bound copies of the texts wherever sales were allowed.

They moved surprisingly briskly, even though they didn't look like much, and proved beyond any doubt that the suspicions I'd been nursing for so long were true. Jews liked the stuff, gentiles liked the stuff; English-speaking Francophones really liked the stuff. Young people, old people, women and men. Everybody liked it except people who worked in publishing. I like to think of it as the dawn of a tradition.

Five years after I finished the book, I performed part of it at a party in honor of the great Chilean poet and artist, Ludwig Zeller, who was living in Toronto at the time. After I'd finished, his Canadian publisher came up to me and asked if I had any of it written down. "All of it," I told him, and explained what I was up to. He told me to send him a copy; I did. Two years later, it came out. There was no line-editing, no copy-editing; aside from typos, it was the text as submitted, but it took two years to come out.

If he'd ever sent me any money, it might not be coming out again, corrected and plumped up, a good forty pages longer than it used to be. People ask me how you fit new stuff into the midst of material up to thirty years old. The answer deserves a book of its own.

Read more about Michael Wex here.

Is Plot vs. Character Really Male vs. Female?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

A few months ago, The New York Times’ Book Review section ran a “Bookends” item that asked, “Are we too concerned that characters be ‘likable’?”. It’s an interesting question, and the answers that Mohsin Hamid and Zoe Heller wrote raise all sorts of questions that a book person like me has fun thinking about (you should definitely take a minute to read it), but it also reignited an ongoing conversation in my house about books that are driven by character or by plot.

I, like many readers I know and in the vein of Zoe Heller’s response, feel that I need to connect to the main character in some way in order to enjoy a book. I don’t have to love the character or feel that they are entirely likable, but if I spend the whole of my reading annoyed, disgusted or disinterested in the majority of the primary characters, I’m just not compelled to keep reading (that said, I tend to slog through even if I don’t particularly like the book). No one wants to spend an evening with someone they just don’t like, so why would I want to spend an evening reading about that person? For my overall experience of reading a book to be positive and for me to care about the outcome of the book—and therefore be invested and interested in moving forward with my reading—I have to find something redeeming in the people that I’m reading about.

My husband, a voracious reader of all genres, reads to find out what happens. He is interested in the plot, with the characters featuring more as players in the game rather than people to spend an evening with or to feel invested in. As a literature professor, he’s obviously very aware of character development and motivation, but whether or not he likes the characters—or connects with them in any way—has no bearing on his interest in or enjoyment of a book.

And so we've gone back and forth discussing this issue. He can’t see why not liking characters changes my enjoyment of the story, and I can’t fathom how it wouldn’t. What we’ve found is that this argument seems to, at least anecdotally, divide down gender lines. As my husband has said, he almost never hears a man say that he didn’t like a book because he couldn’t connect with the characters, a claim that he and I have both heard frequently from female readers.

So what do you think? Is this another way in which reading—in many respects an egalitarian activity—is actually gendered?  

Join the conversation. #YouTheReader

Beyond the Book: Vanessa Davis Responds to Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 | Permalink

by Tahneer Oksman

It can be disorienting to imagine your favorite cartoonist's works hanging in a museum. How do you preserve the intensely private and intimate experience of reading a graphic novel, for instance, when its individual pages have been posted on bright white museum walls?

But as Vanessa Davis recently noted of the sprawling exhibition currently on display at The Jewish Museum, titled Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix: A Retrospective, in this case the grouping, and in particular the section of the exhibition dedicated to Maus, "adds something that the book couldn't do." As she explained, the carefully mapped out pages of Spiegelman's graphic memoir, now installed in perfect rows—sometimes alongside sketches, thumbnails, or other related media—visually evoke the timeline that the cartoonist worked so carefully to piece together in his memoir.

Davis's observation opened a one-hour gallery talk that she gave to an audience of about thirty people last Thursday evening, which was part of an event series called "Writers and Artists Respond." She recalled first reading Maus at twelve or thirteen years old, a time when, she said, "I saw my Jewish self and my artistic self as something different." It took a while for her to recognize that you could be an artist who writes about your Jewish self without necessarily being relegated to the margins. "When you access your past, it's bigger than you," Davis later added, noting the tremendous influence that Spiegelman's work—including but certainly not limited to Maus—has had on cartoonists and artists from all walks of life. She described Spiegelman's work as "unsentimental, elegant, and serious" not despite but because he uses comics to tell stories.

Throughout the evening, Davis walked the group through the various parts of the exhibition, which includes works from Spiegelman's early "underground" days to his New Yorker covers and books written for kids. She lingered over the famous and controversial New Yorker cover from 1992, of a Hasidic man kissing a black woman. When you're creating a cartoon, she explained, unlike, for example, a photo-journalist, "you don't have to be realistic." Spiegelman's work successfully captures small moments even as he touches on big events, allowing his readers to vicariously experience a "personal and immediate proximity" to whatever he's addressing.

Davis's own comics, which have been collected in Spaniel Rage (Buenaventura Press, 2005) and, more recently, the gorgeous, oversized hardcover titled Make Me a Woman (Drawn and Quarterly, 2010), tackle what she calls "my small life"—but her work, like Spiegelman's, resonates beyond the particular moments and personalities that she portrays on the page. "That's what comics is about—compartmentalizing," she explained, describing the ways that Spiegelman manages to pack information into every inch of the page much like his father insisted on packing every article of clothing into an already overflowing suitcase. Davis too seems to have been influenced by this sentiment, though in a different way. "I like writing autobiographically and in small snippets," she said at one point, referring in part to her diary comics.

Viewing the exhibition with Davis as a thoughtful and inspiring guide reinforced the sense that seeing particular pieces of art on display can add depth to our understanding of them. There is a different kind of intimacy involved in weaving in and out of a crowd gathered to celebrate an artist and his works. It reminds you that your individual experience with a piece of art— of reading, or looking, or listening— is always, in fact, "bigger than you."

Tahneer Oksman recently received her PhD in English Literature at the Graduate Center at CUNY. She is currently at work on a manuscript on Jewish women’s identity in contemporary graphic memoirs.

February Jewish Book Carnival

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It's been almost a year since Jewish Book Council has hosted a Jewish Book Carnival, and we're happy to take the reins this month! We're huge fans of this series, which has been produced by various Jewish literary blogs across the web since 2010. In case you're new here, each month a different host offers a round-up of some of the #JLit offerings happening online, including reviews, interviews, essays, and podcasts. Check out past posts and participants over at Jewish Book Carnival HQ.


Before we share some of our wonderful colleagues' posts, we'd like to share some updates from JBCland. If you're an author, please note that registration for our JBC Network author tours is now open. Further, if you missed the announcement about the 2013 National Jewish Book Award winners (who will be feted in NYC next month), you can find the complete list of winners and finalists here.

The Plot

Last month, we were thrilled to present two emerging writers on the Visiting Scribe series. Joshua Max Feldman, whose debut novel The Book of Jonah was published by Henry Holt and Co., and Molly Antopol, whose debut collection of stories The UnAmericans was published by W. W. Norton & Company, both offered insight into their work and that which inspires them to write (both their debut books and beyond).

Leora Wenger introduces us to the story of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who survived the Holocaust as a child and grew up to become Chief Rabbi of Israel. Learn more in Book Review: Out of the Depths (story of Rabbi Lau).

This month, My Machberet's Erika Dreifus sends a link to her review of Elisabeth de Waal's The Exiles Return for The Washington Post.

Barbara Krasner at The Whole Megillah | The Writer's Resource for Jewish Story announced the 2014 The Whole Megillah Picture Book Manuscript Contest. Kar-Ben publisher, Joni Sussman, is judging. Read more here.

Kathy Bloomfield continues exploring the Nissim B’Chol Yom/Blessings for Daily Miracles at her website. This month she looks at Halbashat Arumim/Clothing the Naked. While at she writes about the value of Lo Ta’Amod Al Dam Re’echa/Not Standing by While Others are Threatened.

Two Jewish-Canadian children's book writers you need to get to know over at Write Kids' Books!: Cary Fagan and Sarah Mlynowski.

Over at Life Is Like a Library, a double treat:

  • Read about National Jewish Book Award Winner Like Dreamers and seeing the author in person here.
  • A survey of recent reading that follows the dictates of the Ethics of the Fathers and includes a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, Letters to President Clinton; a book about finding friends, and a new book from Koren Publishers.

The newest episode of The Book of Life podcast, hosted by librarian Heidi Estrin, features an interview with the 2013 Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers Category, Louise Borden, about her stunning biography for children, His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg.

From, a few reviews:

  • Read reviews of The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom and Undiluted Hocus-Pocus by Martin Gardner here.
  • Read a review of Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman here.
  • Read a review of Vatican Waltz by Roland Merullo here.

At the 2013 Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Houston, Texas, sessions were recorded for podcasting. Over twenty recordings can now be heard on the AJL website, sessions on everything from Jewish history to Texas Jewish culture to technology to award acceptance speeches.

Diana Bletter interviews writer Dora Levy Mossanen on her latest novel, The Scent Of Butterflies, her life in Iran, Israel and the United States, and tapping into our emotional reservoir. Also, Diana writes about the new-old anti-Semitism in France at The Huffington Post.


Find links to JBC's reviews of titles mentioned in this month's Jewish Book Carnival posts below:


Normal English and the Novel

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael Wex wrote about the beginning of his literary career. His newest novel, Shlepping the Exile, will be published by St. Martin's Press next week. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Plot was the last thing on my mind when I sat down to make a novel out of the stories about Jews in Alberta that I'd written for A Night in Odessa. I didn't want to capture a landscape or a moment; I was after a sound, the breathless, slightly strangulated blast of dissatisfaction and unsublimated pain that was the aural blanket in which I'd been swaddled. A jumble of demotic English and storm-tossed Yiddish that flowed in and out of each other with utter indifference, it was a world away from the quaint and cutesy Yinglish of satire and dialect jokes. This was the argot of thoroughly bilingual people who knew that they were never at home.

I was damned if I was going to let it disappear, so I made it the book's setting, its subject and leading character. The people in the book might live in Alberta, but the space inside the walls of this non-Phil Spector sound is its real locus. I wasn't terribly interested in foreign accents or mangled syntax; I wanted to portray a way of thinking that didn't want to squeeze into the patterns of proper English any more than it had wanted to fit those of the German from which Yiddish arose in the first place. I was a huge fan of Ishmael Reed's early novels, especially The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, both of them tours-de-force of African-American English, and I wanted to do something similar with the non-standard English that I was supposed to have been educated out of. It was the next best thing to writing Yiddish.

I wanted to talk about people who were using Yiddish in places where they weren't supposed to be, post-War lower middle- and working-class people living thousands of miles from anything that could called a major Jewish community, and—in the case of the protagonist and his family—retaining their commitment to Orthodoxy. Anyone who has spent ten minutes as an Orthodox Jew knows that it's a twenty-four hour a day job, and I wanted to show people of unshakable Orthodoxy trying to make their way in a world in which Jewish law is a joke to everyone else—and doing almost nothing about it. I was aiming for an anti—bildungsroman. If people change, it's because they've aged, but no one learns a thing.

I should have learned something from the storyteller who disapproved so strongly of the original sketch. While non-Jews seemed to like the stuff no less than the Orthodox Jews who got all the jokes, a surprising number of people who don't keep shabbes or worry about kashrus found it offensive: "Religious people don't behave that way." Thirty years of klezmer bands and increasing interest in all aspects of Yiddish culture (not to mention recent scandals in the Orthodox community and the popularity of off-the-derekh memoirs) have gone a fair way to familiarize the general reader, Jewish and non-, with ritual behavior so deeply ingrained that it can be practiced in circumstances that would seem to make it absurd. When a teenaged boy sends his Jewish girlfriend to the mikve, it isn't offensive, it's merely consistent.

Read more about Michael Wex here.

Beginning a Literary Career

Monday, February 10, 2014 | Permalink

Michael Wex is the author of Born to Kvetch. His newest novel, Shlepping the Exile, will be published by St. Martin's Press next week. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Although St. Martin's Press would probably prefer me not to mention it, Shlepping the Exile, which comes out next week and would seem to be my newest book, is really my oldest; the first version was published in Canada–with fewer pages and many more typos–in 1993. I can understand why a publisher might not want to call attention to a new book's having been available as an import for twenty years; what scares me is having a book begun before the writer was thirty judged as the work of a man about to turn sixty. People might read a young man's book as an old man's–and in this kind of novel, it makes a difference. If I were starting it today, I'd write from the narrator's parents' point of view.

But I started it in 1983, after being invited to take part in a storytelling show called A Night in Odessa. Ninety percent of what I knew about Odessa, I knew from Isaac Babel, and Babel, I was told, was already covered; the other storyteller on the show had called dibs. What they wanted from me was forty-five minutes of material "in Babel's spirit," but not necessarily his neighborhood. They were more interested in psychic than physical ambience–and in something new, if at all possible.

"So you want, like, original material?" Forty-five minutes of it, breezy and slightly transgressive.

Had my parents' English been better, Breezy-and-Slightly-Transgressive might well have replaced Yisruel as my middle name, but even for the breeziest, forty-five minutes of new material isn't something you leave to chance, especially when there's nowhere to run it in front of an audience before the show goes up. I decided to write the whole thing down, contrary to my usual practice, if only to have a map of where I was going and how to get there.

I came up with an early version of what eventually became the first forty pages of Shlepping, a faux-autobiographical piece about a teenage boy ten years my senior living in circumstances similar to my own, but in the mid-50s, when I was a toddler, not a teen. I gave the other storyteller a copy–a carbon fresh from my typewriter–and he called me that night to tell me that he wouldn't cross the threshold of any building where such filth was being presented, let alone allow it on the same stage with him. "I threw it in the garbage and took the bag outside. It offends me as a man, as a Jew, and as a human being."

"And how do you tell the difference?"

The other storyteller hung up.

Much to my chagrin, management took his side. "It's a bit strong, Michael." 

"Jewish gangsters killing people are less offensive than frustrated teens and lusty old men?"

"Can't you just give us a folktale or something? Something a little more heartwarming ?"

I guess they'd forgotten about breezy and transgressive. I sat down and wrote the silliest fake folktale I could come up with–"They want folktales, I'll give them flanken folktales"–about a potato kugel that talks. It, too, became part of Shlepping the Exile and has been anthologized a number of times.

I guess that's what they mean by "having to eat humble pie."

Read more about Michael Wex here.