The ProsenPeople

6 Things I Learned About Jewish Culture from Seinfeld

Monday, July 04, 2016 | Permalink

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the author of Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, out this week from Simon & Schuster. Jennifer will be guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I’m a Midwestern shiksa who knew exactly one Jewish person in the first 18 years of my life. I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic area. Jessica Terman was a grade-school friend of mine who had to get up in front of the class every December to explain Hanukkah to the rest of us before we could get on with our Christmas-inspired projects and celebrations. Then she moved away, I think around fourth grade, so I was back to square one with my Jewish studies.

That is, until Seinfeld came along in 1989, when I was a freshman in high school. I was a huge TV geek, and within a few years, Seinfeld had grown into the kind of show so popular that essentially everyone watched—it was assumed in many circles that any person, regardless of age or religion or hometown, would get any Seinfeld reference. This was particularly funny given that NBC executives at first expressed their skepticism about Seinfeld’s potential by saying it was “too New York, too Jewish.”

Maybe it was, but I personally loved that about it. I related to the characters and thought they were funny even though they lived lives so different from my own. And throughout their nine seasons on the air, they slowly, hilariously expanded my tiny worldview to include signs of Jewish culture that went far beyond the dreidel:

1. I am a shiksa!
Yes, I know this isn’t exactly a compliment, but I so wanted to be one once I realized Elaine had shiksappeal—she spent an episode attracting Jewish men left and right, despite her non-Jewishness. Interestingly enough, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine to such shiksaperfection, has Jewish (Alsatian) ancestry, at least on her father’s side.

2. Only Jews get to make Jewish jokes—and it is not okay to convert just for the jokes.
Jerry was very clear about this when his dentist, Tim Whatley, started making jokes after his conversion. Then suddenly Jerry was counter-accused: of being an anti-dentite.

3. Babkas sounded delicious.
Wait, these come in chocolate and cinnamon?

4. And there is also something called a marble rye?
I might mug an old lady, too, if it came to that. Seriously, I’m pretty sure I ended up with a Jewish guy because of Seinfeld’s delicious-sounding Jewish food references. And holiday feasts have yet to let me down.

5. Ah, so that’s what a mohel is.

6. Being Jewish is no sin.
A priest told Jerry so when he went to confession to tell on Tim Whatley. So at least we can all agree on that.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong has written about pop culture for Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, Fast Company, New York, BBC Culture, and others. She is the author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything.

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New Reviews July 1, 2016

Friday, July 01, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Summer 2016 Book Releases

Thursday, June 30, 2016 | Permalink

Summer is officially here, and it's time to plan your reading lists for the long daylight hours!

Still need to catch up on all those books you meant to read last season? Refresh your memory with our earlier preview of Spring 2016 Releases. Or scroll below to find new and upcoming titles!

June 2016

July 2016

August 2016

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In Defense of Kosher Food: A Recipe

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 | Permalink

Cindy Silvert is the author of The Hungry Love Cookbook: 30 Steamy Stories, 120 Mouthwatering Recipes. She is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I am of the opinion that kosher food gets a bum rap. I won’t deny that having a kosher kitchen can be a challenge, especially if you have a small kitchen or members of your household who think you’re a killjoy. Kosher food is hardly inexpensive, and unless you live in Israel or France (and care about these things) the modest variety of cheeses could make one weep—ditto for meat, if you’re a meat eater and don’t happen to live in Argentina. Traveling to places where bacon is a national treasure can limit one’s dining options and make the natives suspicious, and even at home there are way less restaurants, caterers, and foodie shows for the kosher palette.

The Good Book limits not just what one can and cannot eat, but also when, where and how one eats. But does limited necessarily mean bad? In parenting, we know kids need boundaries to become healthy, responsible citizens—so how about us? Might the limitations required by the laws of kashrut not be, in fact, our friends?

Consider kashrut as the prototype for super-trendy mindful eating. Stopping to say a few words of appreciation in reciting a blessing before you stuff another chocolate fudge brownie in your mouth can have a powerful effect on you. Kosher observance is a self-imposed, grown up version of “Hungry children elsewhere would give anything to eat that.” It makes you stop and ponder how this stuff got on your plate and just how lucky you are to be eating in the first place. Even I have come to the realization, on more than one occasion, that a piece of fruit is a better for me than a paw-full of Oreo cookies—yes, even the thin ones. It’s a reminder that the whole gastronomical world ain’t your, well, oyster.

Besides, by restricting you from eating anything, anytime, a kosher diet can have a slimming effect on one’s waistline—Jewish holidays aside. The self-discipline demanded by kashrut instills a sense of humility that predates veganism and every other popular diet by a couple millennia. (The Paleo diet, the one exception, is of a slightly different mindset: see food, pounce on it, rip it to shreds, gobble it up). Self-help gurus suggest that gratitude can cure just about anything, so why not start with dinner?

Below is a recipe for Shiitake Croquettes from the very first saga of love and eats from The Hungry Love Cookbook. This recipe is proof that kosher can be both trendy and delicious. Moreover, as a pareve dish containing neither meat nor dairy, it can be served with any meal. The only problem with these croquettes is that they’re extremely popular and addictive. People are going to pop them into their mouths like there’s no tomorrow, which means you will have to sautée four rainforests worth of mushrooms to satisfy your greedy guests.

Seriously, however many mushrooms you think you need, double or triple that amount. These are great by themselves or dipped in a sweet-and-spicy sauce.

Recipe: Shiitake Croquettes

1 medium onion
1 TBS vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
1 garlic clove
1 lb Shiitake mushrooms
¼ cup sherry
½ cup breadcrumbs or panko
½ tsp garlic powder
3 TBS chia seeds

1. Chop and sautée onions and S&P in oil on medium heat for 10 minutes.
2. Mince the garlic clove and add to the onion.
3. Sautée onion and garlic another 2 minutes and remove from heat.
4. Chop and sauté mushrooms and S&P in oil on medium heat for 10 minutes.
5. Add the sherry and simmer until the liquid is absorbed by the mushrooms.
6. Puree the onion, garlic, and mushrooms in a food processor until smooth.
7. Add half the breadcrumbs or panko and garlic powder to the mushroom mixture and form walnut-size balls.
8. Combine the remaining breadcrumbs, chia seeds. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
9. Roll the mushroom balls in the breadcrumb mixture.
10. Spray lightly with oil.
11. Bake at 350° for 20 min or until lightly brown and crispy on the outside

Hot & Sweet Dipping Sauce

Mix the following ingredients:

½ cup light mayonnaise
2 TBS BBQ sauce
1 lime juiced
1 dash Tabasco sauce
1 TBS honey
Salt and pepper

Cindy Silvert is a food columnist, humor writer, and self-taught cook. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her book The Hungry Love Cookbook through the JBC Network.

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Book Cover of the Week: They Were Like Family to Me

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

If you're surprised to discover that Helen Maryles Shankman already has another title due out this October, look closer:

For reasons the author attributes to "the mysteries of the book business," Scribner has decided to change not only the original artwork for In the Land of Armadillos but the very name of the book itself in a "reprint edition" of Shankman's debut collection of short stories, which came out in February. The announcement of these changes was met with a wide range of responses from readers, writers, and friends of the author last week—as well as here in the office! " I think it's a good sign that they're changing the title and cover," one fellow writer commented on Shankman's post. "It means they are still very invested in the book."

While it sounds like the cover you see above is still far from finalized, it's a great sneak peak. What are your thoughts on the new book cover and title? Weigh in in the comments section below!

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30 Steamy Stories and Corned Beef on Rye

Monday, June 27, 2016 | Permalink

Cindy Silvert is the author of The Hungry Love Cookbook: 30 Steamy Stories, 120 Mouthwatering Recipes. She is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I always knew that I would write short stories. I didn’t dream they’d be these stories, packaged so lovingly into this silly book, but I knew I’d write. With a taste for the tragic (Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews), the wacky (Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante's Handbook) and historical biographies (books about the guys who built this country, dreamed Israel into reality, Stacey Schiff’s page-turning Cleopatra, etc.), I was as surprised as anyone when The Hungry Love Cookbook spilled out of me. So how do I explain it?

Just as the body swells to create a natural cast, a cocoon of sorts, for an injured or delicate part, so too writing is my way of not having to think about ISIS, college funds, or retirement. I always thought that creative was my family’s code word for stupid: “Cindy is so… creative!” So after dabbling in theater and visual arts, I got myself an MBA to prove I wasn’t a complete dolt.

Still, how does a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs come up with 30 tawdry tales—and why pair them with a kosher cookbook? Isn’t kosher cooking difficult enough? If you’ve read even one of the stories in The Hungry Love Cookbook, you know that they’re a lot more innocent than they’re cracked up to be, and that I’m a bit of a weirdo. I’m that person who laughs at that part of the movie that no one else laughs at. I don’t usually get jokes printed on T-shirts and, at the risk of being labeled a freak, I’m not ticklish. Way back when, a friend (yes, a friend) nicknamed me Marshmallows and Daggers: I can be both uber-sensitive and less than kind. It’s all in a day’s work: I’m a writer.

The thing about being a writer is that, well, I’m just not that special anymore. Once upon a time being an author meant something: pouring your tortured soul and sullied past onto paper, thus making family relationships even worse while providing yet more fodder for your ever-obliging therapist. You had something to be proud of! Now everyone’s a blogger, a photographer, a social commentator. And a lot of these people are taking up excellent causes. Just about everyone on Facebook seems to have more of a social conscience than I do, and I thought I was one of the good guys. But I digress. How and why write in this deluge of thoughts and words? Well for one, at least I’m not confined to distilling my life’s work into no more than 140 characters. And frankly, I’m too old, prickly, and opinionated to get a real job.

The fact is, in every reincarnation of my career path, I was essentially making everything up. Whether I was Cindy the actor, the director, the teacher or the florist, I was inventing, creating, painting a picture or sorts. For The Hungry Love Cookbook, I’ve painted 30 over-the-top scenes that you can relish with or without food. True to my Marshmallow-Dagger nature, I’ve contrasted genres, time periods, and techniques in sharing some of my favorite dishes drizzled on top in the hopes of making you smile as you churn out meal after meal, be it for yourself or a whole clan of ingrates. If that’s you, you deserve a break. I would know.

Cindy Silvert is a food columnist, humor writer, and self-taught cook. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her book The Hungry Love Cookbook through the JBC Network.

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New Reviews June 24, 2016

Friday, June 24, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Dorit Sasson's Top 4 Memorable Memoirs

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dorit Sasson described the self-imposed silence she learned to break in writing her memoir Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Going through transformational, life-altering events certainly changes a person, but when it comes to writing these events in the form of a memoir, one has to know how to ground the reader in the story.

Transformation isn’t only for immigrants like myself who typically experience displacement, but for showing any kind of change or growth—cultural, psychological, or emotional. To read just immigrant memoirs would be to ignore the other voices of change. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” James Baldwin observed. “But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the young narrator travels back and forth in time from her current Pacific Crest Trail experience to memories of girlhood to find her soul. She struggles to understand her mother’s death at the onset of her journey, not fully understanding that those dramatic moments will give voice to her higher self. Each time I “traveled” with Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail, I started to think about ways to translate the cultural, emotional and social obstacles into story material. My character would need to undergo some kind of transformation. As an IDF female immigrant, how would that cultural transformation show up in my story? To show that transformation, I had to go back to the beginning, to where the story started—in New York City. I had to get in touch with that eighteen-year-old again.

Gabrielle Selz and I grew up in the same building known as Westbeth in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City so our parents already had many things in common. Her memoir Unstill Life tells the story of a daughter of a larger-than-life father known as Mr. Modern Art, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and her relationship to a world where the boundary between art and life is often blurred. For Selz’s parents, art always came first and children were regarded as “side dishes.” Selz understands that her relationship with parents, especially with her father, is anything but traditional; as she comes to terms with her father’s relationship, she struggles to figure out her purpose in life and whether following in her father’s footsteps in the art world is part of that journey.

Another memoir that particularly spoke to me is Karen Levy’s My Father’s Gardens tells the story of a native-born Israeli who tries to find a sense of home and connection while traveling for most of her childhood and young adult life between her native Israel and equally familiar United States. She feels uprooted most of the time. Karen is also a native-born Israeli woman who ends up serving in the Israel Defense Forces and soon after, travels back and forth between both countries. She, too, has a complicated relationship with her mother as she seeks to escape her for more positive experiences, and it was edifying to study how she handled the cultural-psychological journey of learning to become her own person in her writing as I began to chronicle a parallel path.

Lastly, I’d be remiss to neglect The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah, in which Joel Chasnoff describes his immigration to Israel from an Ivy League with the intention of serving in a high combat unit in the IDF. Chasnoff serves in a high combat unit in South Lebanon, and uses military slang and humor as his way of adjusting to this new militaristic mentality. Chasnoff’s memoir is largely an American-Jewish memoir.

For the past twenty-three years I had lived the events of my Israel Defense Forces service in my head, but I still needed to figure out the best way to tell the story. When I read the memoirs of others, I started imagining myself in their stories. These memoirs gave me “permission” to write about the challenges of my service as a female immigrant at a time when there were no programs for lone soldiers.

These memoirs would quickly become my good friends. These memoirs helped me find my way home.

Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.

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Book Cover of the Week: I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This

Tuesday, June 21, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It took opposite journeys for a mother and daughter to each find themselves at the start of their adult lives: one needed to leave France to discover herself; the other needed to return to Paris to discover her family—the side that “didn’t have dealings with the Nazis. They occasionally traded goods with the Nazis,” as her grandmother insists.

The other side, as you may have guessed, is immortalized in the three-volume graphic memoir Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Lest you think I’m going on a cartoonist craze after last week’s feature, Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir has little to say about her father or his work. Instead, I’m Supposed to Protect from All This is about the relationship between Nadja and her mother, New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly, strained by the echoes of Mouly’s own upbringing between two eccentric parents and the families that raised them, in turn.

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Breaking the Self-Imposed Silence

Monday, June 20, 2016 | Permalink

Dorit Sasson is the author of Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

A few months ago, I emailed an old friend hoping she’d host me for the book tour for my book Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces while I visit Israel with my family for the first time in five years. Two emails later, she mentioned that no one from the English teachers at the school where I once worked would really care about my story.

Once the sting had dissolved, I realized that my friend had just illuminated why I couldn’t have written my IDF memoir during the eighteen years I lived in Israel: I never felt I had a voice.

Each time I tried downloading a scene from my IDF service in Israel, a voice would try and stop me. You’re no longer a nineteen-year-old trying to prove to your Israeli father that you can become your own person. But the issues would go much deeper than that. I didn’t feel that what I did by leaving my mother and New York City was important. On one base in 1991, I’d written, “I know from all these experiences that I’ve got a story inside me I need to write one day.” But that “one day” would be almost twenty-five years later.

During all that time, I played it safe by hiding behind my American identity. From the moment I got inducted in the IDF, I was preoccupied with trying to be an Israeli. I would rarely use English, choosing to speak in Hebrew when managing a classroom and teaching English as a foreign language to Israeli schoolchildren. I was afraid to be rejected by my Israeli peers if I tried to be an individual, but deep inside I was yearning to express myself beyond the “survive and thrive” mode.

The closest I ever got to revealing a vulnerable side happened at a teacher’s meeting many years after the army. I had showcased how many of my students had come full-circle by learning to analyze American literature. I cross-paralleled their growth with my own personal breakthroughs, only to encounter dead silence by the other teachers. No one responded or asked questions. I even got a few quizzical looks and glares. It felt lonely.

That experience reminded me that no matter how hard I tried to be accepted, my individual story didn’t carry much weight. I’d have to stick with the wolf pack mentality if I wanted to make it in Israel. “I now understand that living in Israel requires a group mentality,” I include in my memoir. “Israelis thrive in groups in a way that Americans do not. Where Americans take pride in their individuality, Israelis don’t strive to be singled out – they prefer the cohesion of the whole, whether in military, religious, or secular life. They’ve earned their reputation for traveling in “wolf packs” because they tend to hang out in largish groups.”

The day finally came when I finally decided to time-travel to that period in 1990, when I decided to leave New York City forever. It was 2012, and I was five years back in the United Sates, finally mustered the courage to write about a difficult time in which I sought to prove to my Israeli father I could be my own person, away from Mom’s fears and paranoia about the Middle East.

I thought I had conquered my former anxieties once and for all when I moved back to the States, but in fact each time I wrote I felt vulnerable, scared and naked. I connected with writing groups online and in-person in my hometown to validate that part of my identity which ushered in that individuality. I could still survive and thrive in my new American home; I’d just have to switch mental and emotional gears. I didn’t have to try so hard to win over a bunch of Israelis anymore.

Over the two-and-a-half years it took to write the memoir from start to finish, I learned one important thing: the fear of writing my memoir would never go away. I would have to drum up enough will power if I wanted to take ownership. To give voice to my memoir, I needed to feel safe and emotionally supported.

Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.

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