The ProsenPeople

Book Cover of the Week: Immigrants Against the State

Tuesday, February 10, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It's been a while since we featured a nonfiction title on The ProsenPeople's Book Cover of the Week series, so how's this for a break:

Kenyon Zimmer explores how the anarchist movement at the turn of the twentieth century enabled American immigrant communities—Italian and Jewish, in particular—to shed their nationalist loyalties without enforcing assimilation into "the Melting Pot"; instead embracing differences and diversity as they adapted to a new life in the United States.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, February 06, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Occupational Hazards and Emotional Realities in Writing about the Holocaust

Friday, February 06, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Dean Rosen wrote about Sophie Turner-Zaretsky, one of the subjects of his new book, as well well as how he came to write his recently published book, Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I began researching and writing Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors, I thought it would be great to cross the Holocaust off that list of subjects that I hadn’t studied, and didn’t understand. What I didn’t anticipate was that the more you read about the Holocaust, the more you talk to Holocaust survivors, the more you seem to know about it, the less you can comprehend it.

I was surprised by the tenacity of the depressed feelings that studying the Holocaust left me with. When I shared my distress with friends, it turned out that this was a common occupational hazard for people who tackled the subject with any seriousness. I felt I had unwittingly joined a club whose members had struggled, and failed, to understand the most concentrated, organized, industrialized, large-scale, and international act of inhumanity in history.

When a close friend of mine, Paul—a brilliantly well-informed, ravenously curious, and very competitive man—read the galleys of my book, he set out to see for himself about the Holocaust. He’s a man accustomed to mastering new subject matter with ease. After a week of reading, he called me in frustration, already defeated by the enormity of it, the scale of the inhumanity. That the Final Solution mocks one’s efforts to understand it became, for me, no longer just a clever intellectual remark made at dinner parties, but a deeply felt emotional reality.

An emotional reality that, once I started working on the book, began to manifest itself all around me. After attending a conference of hidden child survivors and their descendants in Cleveland, I jumped on an Amtrak train back to New York (Hurricane Katrina was closing in), and was seated in the dining car next to a non-Jewish woman who told me that, when she was a child in Florida, her parents had adopted a Jewish refugee who had been one of Mengele’s experimental subjects. Then I discovered that the husband of one of the women in my book had hid in the Dutch Resistance during the war, and he has a brother who lives a few blocks from where I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. How strange to go home, where I had grown up in a state of such obliviousness to the Holocaust, to interview him. Then I heard from a high school classmate of mine, whose parents had been child survivors, and she told me about another classmate of mine, whose parents were survivors, and no one had ever said anything about it! And then, just a month ago, I was visiting my sister, walking the dog with her, and she introduced me to a man my age whose parents were on Schindler’s list. And he told me that his family was one of the rare ones where the Holocaust and the camps were talked about openly. So openly that when his parents told this man at the age of seven that they were sending him to summer camp, he assumed it was a concentration camp, that this was just something of a family tradition!

I can’t even count the number of people I’ve run into recently who turn out to be the children of survivors. There will soon come a time, however, when the Holocaust will take its silent place in the history of inhumanity, when even the children of the children will be gone, and the stories will all begin, “A long time ago, when my grandmother was a little girl” in Poland or France or Holland or Hungary….

Richard Dean Rosen has written many books, but none presented more challenges than Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. It’s a book that neither he initially wanted to write nor his subjects wanted written, but fate and the author’s own hidden agenda intervened.

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Finding a Place for Contemporary Jewish Literature in Jewish Day Schools

Thursday, February 05, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Josh Lambert wrote about the importance of exposing teenagers to great Jewish books. His most recent book is Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In my last post, I mentioned that Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus changed my life when I picked it up off a dusty shelf in the basement of my parents’ house when I was about 17. If not for that book, I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about modern Jewish literature since then.

Roth’s first book resonated with me because it’s funny and acidly observant of a Jewish community that wasn’t too different from the one I grew up in, in Toronto, and because its title novella is powerfully evocative of a young man’s growth into maturity. But what was most stunning to me was that I had found the book on my own, rather than being handed it by my parents or teachers.

At the time, I was a student at a Jewish day school, from which I would go on to graduate after twelfth grade. Throughout high school, I spent hours each day in classes on Tanakh, Talmud, and Jewish ethics. In English class, though, we read exactly what would be read in any public school: Shakespeare, George Orwell, and, when it came to more contemporary fiction, popular non-Jewish writers like Barbara Kingsolver. It wasn’t until I arrived at college—a centuries-old, nonsectarian institution named for a Puritan minister—that I learned the names Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, and Cynthia Ozick.

What’s strange about this is that these authors’ works have such deep textual relationships to the classical Jewish texts I was studying in high school. And, even more important, they directly address the central question that my community Jewish day school seemed to want me and my classmates to be thinking about: what does it mean to be a Jew today, in a cosmopolitan culture?

I realize, of course, why in earlier generations a book like Roth’s might not have been thought appropriate for a Jewish day school. Even in the 1990s, there might have been teachers and administrators at my school who would have worried that Roth’s story “The Conversion of the Jews,” about a kid in a Jewish supplementary school class who asks the most loaded theological question and then threatens to jump off the roof, might have given us some bad ideas. Literature is subversive; S. Y. Abramovitch, who became known as Mendele Mocher Sforim and as the grandfather of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, was once literally run out of town because his satires were so biting.

But does that mean these texts have no place in Jewish education? I hope not.

I hope, on the contrary, that Jewish day school teachers and administrators realize that literature that asks difficult questions about Jewishness and forces us to confront the conflicts and tensions within Jewish life can be one of the best ways to reach teenagers, and that it can help them to think about who they are, where they come from, and what choices they want to make.

That’s why I’m delighted to have the opportunity to lead the first Great Jewish Books Teacher Workshop, this summer at the Yiddish Book Center. Educators from across North America will come together to read and discuss some of the most fascinating modern Jewish texts and to develop new ways of introducing that literature into the curriculum, in English and language arts, Jewish history, social studies. Then we’ll work collaboratively all year to integrate these ideas into classrooms.

Will exposing more teenagers to modern Jewish literature solve all the problems facing the American Jewish population? Of course not. But will it help to create a generation that is more thoughtful, more committed, and more willing to face the challenges head-on? I think it will.

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Read more about the Great Jewish Books program at the Yiddish Book Center here.

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Book Cover of the Week: A literary birch tree forest

Wednesday, February 04, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Given that I hail from a city named for trees, it's no surprise that Tu B'shvat is one of my favorite holidays—and it's today!


I've noticed a particularly lovely trend of birch trees on book covers, and the Jewish New Year for the Trees seems like a good time to point it out—especially since it seems to be a reliable indicator of an excellent read: Olga Grjasnowa's debut was perhaps my favorite novel of 2014, and Ramona Ausubel's eerie Holocaust allegory struck me to the core when I first came to the Jewish Book Council in 2012—the same year Reagan Arthur Books released the bebirched paperback edition of Eowyn Ivey's desolately whimsical adaptation of a magical Russian fable, set in 1920s Alaska:

A birch tree on a book cover is always a good sign.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Winner Ayelet Tsabari

Wednesday, February 04, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The announcement of the year's Sami Rohr Prize finalists is always one of the absolute highlights of my year. Each year, the books reflect a wide-range of voices exploring themes of significance to Jewish life—past and present. The prize highlights some of the key authors to keep an eye on and offers a platform for them to further contribute to both the literary community, generally, and the Jewish community, specifically. 

The importance of naming five finalists, rather than just one winner, each year is in its ability to reflect a spectrum of ideas: each voice is important on its own, but taken as a whole, it's the range of voices that provoke some of the most enriching conversations: conversations that are both thoughtful and nuanced and take into consideration Jewish perspectives that stretch across time, place, and circumstance. 

And, as we've done in years past, in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winning author, we highlight here on the JBC blog each of the five finalists. Today we hear from Ayelet Tsabari, whose collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, made this year's list.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I find all writing challenging. Being a new(ish) mom, my biggest challenge is finding the time to do it.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Reading, traveling, and my father, a closet poet who inspired my love of books and motivated me to write as a child.

Who is your intended audience?

I try not to think about audience when I write. I worry it will ruin the magic. But if I had to choose, I’d say people who love books as much as I do.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m finishing up a memoir in essays about growing up Mizrahi in Israel, and about leaving, traveling, and returning. I’m also starting a novel about the Yemeni Jewish community set during Israel’s early days.

What are you reading now?

Like most writers I know, I’m reading several books at once. I’m finishing up Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, and starting All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Towes, Between by Angie Abdou, and The Best American Short Stories 2014. I’ve also been reading a lot of Dr. Seuss for my daughter, which I wasn’t familiar with from my own childhood. It’s pretty great.

Top 5 favorite books

I’m going to answer quickly so I don’t have a chance to rethink it. You would likely get an entirely different answer tomorrow.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • The Kites, Romain Gary
  • La Storia, Elsa Morante
  • The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I didn’t. I like to say that it came built in. I started telling stories to neighbors and cousins as early as four, moved on to comic strips at five, and once I learned the alphabet I started writing poems and stories and sent them out to Israeli children’s magazines, like Haaretz Shelanu. I published my first poem at nine.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Having readers emotionally connect, engage and respond to my work. When I was growing up and dreamt of becoming an author, that’s what I wished for: I wanted to move and touch people, to give readers that magical feeling books instilled in me. On a practical note, being able to afford writing full time, and finding a way to balance it with the demands of motherhood would be a triumph. Oh, and I’d love to have a beautiful writing shed in my backyard I will call Tel Aviv (after George Bernard Shaw’s London).

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I can write anywhere. I’ve written on my phone while pushing a stroller, scribbled scenes on coffee shop napkins, and I once wrote an entire story in the bath on a tiny notepad. But I write best at home, in my office, and I love having my stuff around. A good chair and an alternative standing option. A cork board with hippie inspirational quotes and pictures of loved ones. Comfortable writing pants (which some foolish people may refer to as yoga pants.) A large wall mirror I can use to play out my characters’ physical gestures to ensure they’re realistic. And a window. I know writers who prefer to stare a blank wall to minimize distractions. That’s not me. I love catching glimpses of life outside my little room. It inspires me.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

To be moved. To feel deeply. To get to know a side of Israel they don’t see in the news, and a facet of Jewish experience they may not have read much about.

Ayelet Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent; she grew up in Israel, served in the army and moved to Canada in 1998. She is a two-time winner of the EVENT Creative Non-Fiction Contest and has been published in literary magazines such as PRISM, Grain and Room. Her unpublished non-fiction manuscript was shortlisted for the First Book Competition sponsored by Anvil Press and SFU’s Writer’s Studio. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Guelph and lives in Toronto, where she is at work on a novel. Learn more at or follow her on Twitter @AyeletTsabari.

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Out of Hiding

Wednesday, February 04, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Richard Dean Rosen wrote about how he came to write his recently published book, Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The main subject of my book Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors had come very close to bowing out during the difficult process of submitting to my interviews about her largely suppressed experiences hiding in plain sight with her Jewish mother during World War II. All Sophie Turner-Zaretsky had to do was tell me “I can’t do this anymore,” and I would have had to “write off” a year or two of work. Fortunately, Sophie and the other subjects of my book gradually reconciled themselves to sharing their stories, and we all survived the book’s publication. Moreover, and happily, we survived as friends.

Sophie even agreed to appear with me at a talk and reading I gave at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. I don’t know how often it’s happened that the subject—and impetus—of a nonfiction book has joined its author at a public event, but her appearance added a very moving dimension to the typical author reading.

“It’s not easy getting up in front of an audience to talk about a book about something as unspeakable as the Holocaust,” I told the audience. “It’s even less easy when the main character in your nonfiction book is sitting in the front row, looking at you as if to say, ‘And how the hell did I end up as the main character in your book?’” Later, I invited Sophie to the stage, where she gave flesh and blood to passages I’d just read about how she had not only passed as a Catholic between the ages of 5 and 11, but actually believed she was an anti-Semitic Polish schoolgirl while her mother, also passing as a Catholic and working for a Nazi functionary, feared daily for both of their lives.

The most emotional moment came when Sophie told the audience of a hundred people how upsetting it had always been to her when others bemoaned the passivity of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, given the incredible courage and resourcefulness of people like her mother, who had singlehandedly saved their lives against all the odds.

The most surprising moment for me came when Sophie confessed to the audience something she had never confided in me: that the stress of cooperating with me on the book had prompted her to take an antidepressant for the first time in her life. She had come to understand that the value of recording the experience of hidden survivors as children, and later as adults, was worth the personal misery stirred up by the book. I will always be indebted to “good girls” Sophie, Flora Hogman, and Carla Lessing for bearing with me as I committed their sagas to posterity.

As Sophie said when I once asked her if it was okay for The New York Post to publish an excerpt from the book, “Well, I guess it’s too late to go back into hiding.”

Richard Dean Rosen has written many books, but none presented more challenges than Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors. It’s a book that neither he initially wanted to write nor his subjects wanted written, but fate and the author’s own hidden agenda intervened.

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Cain and Maples: The Villain’s Villanelle

Wednesday, February 04, 2015 | Permalink

by Dan Ornstein

Launching on Tu B'shvat of 5775, the Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish original works of poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction in partnership with the Jewish Literary Journal.

Then God said, “What have you done? Hark! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)
Abel’s blood was dashed all over the trees and stones. (Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a)

The horror: brother’s blood on stones and trees,
Though Cain’s one thought is clearing evidence.
He turns away with timeless cruelty.

Their God laments that He has made him free
To cry, “I’m not his keeper”, his defense.
The horror: brother’s blood on stones and trees.

Our God, appalled, for He can plainly see
Cain doesn’t hear the plaint at his offense
And turns away with timeless cruelty.

“From earth your brother’s blood cries out to Me.
From this first murder will you learn to sense
The horror: brother’s blood on stones and trees?”

Now, in the Fall, the ruddy maple trees
Recall Cain’s mark and our inheritance:
We turn away with timeless cruelty.

The crimson leaves, they wave Cain’s tale at me.
First crime and all its brutal consequence.
The horror: brother’s blood on stones and trees.
We turn away with timeless cruelty.

Originally published by the Jewish Literary Journal, December 2014.

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The Path From Inspiration to Art

Tuesday, February 03, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Joshua Max Feldman—the author of The Book of Jonah, just released in paperback from Picador
blogs for The Postscript on the mystery of inspiration, its sources, and the path from inspiration to art. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Joshua at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

Writers get asked a lot of questions about inspiration. Where do the ideas come from? How are characters created? Are plot twists or dramatic reversals invented or drawn from real life?

If you ask a writer such questions, though, you'll likely get some mealy-mouthed response about process and imagination versus articulation or something like that.

As a writer, I want to state that we aren't trying to be evasive. There isn't some secret website filled with great stories and crackling dialogue and compelling characters that you can pull from as soon as you get the URL and pay the membership fee. The truth is that inspiration is a mystery—and I think to some extent, the more time you spend writing, the more profound the mystery reveals itself to be. I can't explain why when I go to sleep wrestling with some structural problem in a story, I'll sometimes wake up in the morning with an elegant solution. I wasn't consciously thinking about it; I wasn't conscious at all.

Some part of our minds that sits outside of our awareness is at work on nights like that. And it's this part of our minds that generally offers up the best ideas. But how to feed this shadowy part of ourselves? That, as they say, is the question.

I think the best approach is to trust your instincts: surround yourself with art—books, movies, music, anything—that you like. And if you can't say why you like it, all the better. Liking something without knowing why means that the invisible corners of our minds are singing its praises. When the time is right, they'll send a message regarding why you like it, or at least what you ought to do about it.

The origin of my novel, The Book of Jonah, was very much this sort of experience. The novel is a modern retelling of the biblical Book of Jonah, a text I liked a lot without being able to understand fully why. I'm interested in spiritual matters, but I'm not especially observant; there are other books in the Bible that provide more obvious material for a contemporary recreation. But there was something about the story of a man getting a message from God, ignoring that message, in the course of trying to escape it getting swallowed up and spat out by a giant fish, finally fulfilling his duties to great success, but ending up pretty grumpy about the whole experience nonetheless—something in that story inspired me. In many ways, writing of my novel was a way for me to answer the question of why I liked the Book of Jonah so much. What I discovered is that it speaks to the contradictions and quandaries of faith in the modern world with unusual clarity.

Typically, though, the path from inspiration to art is more circuitous. An image grows into a novel; a lyric in a song becomes a movie. Inspiration does not have to come exclusively from art, of course, either: a look, a texture, a certain slant of light—it's all the stuff of words yet to be written.

One of the wonderful things about making art of any kind is that you appreciate how many sources of inspiration there are out there. You can find a hundred novels walking out your front door.

The Importance of Exposing Teenagers to Great Jewish Books

Tuesday, February 03, 2015 | Permalink

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His most recent book is Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

2009 Sami Rohr Prize Winner Sana Krasikov at the Great Jewish Books Program

A little less than a century ago, a New York State Supreme Court justice named John Ford came home to find his 16-year-old daughter reading a D. H. Lawrence novel and flipped out. He tried—and almost succeeded—to pass a “Clean Books” bill that would have crippled New York publishers in the interests of keeping such literature far away from teenagers like his daughter.

Is literature still dangerous to teenagers in 2015? Books still do get yanked out of school libraries now and again, although these days, it seems that most parents’ anxieties focus more on video games and social media. But I’d like to believe that literature can still exert a profound influence on our kids, even an unsettling one. In fact, I’ve seen evidence of it.

For the last three summers, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing some of my favorite literary texts with groups of hardcore teenaged readers at the Yiddish Book Center’s Great Jewish Books Summer Program. Together, these teenagers read stories like Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” about a couple of soldiers on a U.S. Army base at the end of World War 2; Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” about a town dupe whose wife repeatedly cheats on and humiliates him; and Grace Paley’s “The Loudest Voice,” about a Jewish girl who wins the starring role in her school’s Christmas pageant.

Over the years, these works, like Lawrence’s, have been seen as threatening. Before winning the Nobel Prize, Singer was criticized by some as a pornographer. One 1950s reader wrote that Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” did “as much harm as all the anti-Semitic organizations.”

In 2015, it’s the Internet, rather than short stories or poems, that’s more likely to be seen as posing a threat to impressionable young minds. But literature can still cause students to do things that may surprise their friends or parents. I see it happening with the students who come through the Great Jewish Books Summer Program. Some decide to learn Yiddish or Hebrew or Farsi. Some become fascinated by Jewish ritual. Some find themselves asking new and difficult questions about gender, the law, or the role of violence in our society. Some make friends with people unlike any they’ve ever met before—small-towner with cosmopolitan, Orthodox with atheist. Discovering a new language or a new perspective on religion and tradition can cause major upheaval in a teenager’s life and can lead him or her down an unexpected and untrodden path. That’s not always easy for them, or for their families and communities.

But it’s what I always hope will happen, because it will mean that modern Jewish literature has helped a group of teenagers consider real and difficult questions about what being Jewish means to them. That’s certainly what happened to those of us who teach in the program. If I hadn’t stumbled across a copy of Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus when I was 17, I don’t think I’d be a literary scholar and critic today.

So maybe we should be a little less dismissive of the scolds and prudes who, over the centuries, have wanted to keep literature out of teenagers’ hands. Maybe they’re right: stories are powerful.

Read more about the Yiddish Book Center's Great Jewish Books Summer 2015 Program and find an application here. Registration for 2015 is due April 1st.

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