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Downton Abbey Made Me Do It

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 | Permalink

This week, JBC Network author Wendy Wax, the author of While We Were Watching Downton Abbey, blogs for The Postscript on the inspiration for writing her newest book 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. 

If you're an Anglophile who loves Downton Abbey and wants to read more about the lives of British Jews, see our reading list on the British Jewish Experience.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of television programs in my day, but Downton Abbey is the first one that inspired me to write a novel.

I won’t say I was living in a cave at the time, but I did somehow miss season one and only tuned in after some prodding from a friend. I was hooked immediately and was in the middle of a weekend long Downton Abbey marathon, when I started imagining how cool it would be if I could find a way to use my new addiction to bring together my own cast of characters.

As I pondered the possibilities, I realized that while I wanted Downton Abbey to be at the heart of the story, I didn’t want the story to be about the program. I wanted it to be about my characters.

What evolved is While We Were Watching Downton Abbey, a story about three strangers and the British concierge of their Atlanta high-rise, who meet and bond through weekly Downton Abbey viewing parties. All are at crossroads in their lives and none anticipate the unexpected friendships that form between them. Serious fans of the show will notice that some of the characters are inspired by those living at Downton Abbey both upstairs and down; Samantha Davis, like Lady Mary is financially responsible for her younger siblings and marries Atlanta ‘Royalty’ (old money) to take care of them. Edward Parker, the building’s British concierge is a modern take on butler Carson except he has a degree from Cornell and George Clooney looks. (A writer has to have her fun!)

Together Samantha Davis, Claire Walker, Brooke Mackenzie and Edward Parker watch seasons one and two unfold. While we see bits and pieces of the episodes, the focus is on them, their growth, and their developing friendship. There are no spoilers for fellow latecomers and no need for anyone to feel left out if they haven’t watched Downton Abbey. In fact, some readers have told me the book spurred them to watch the show.

As I wrote what Newsday later dubbed ‘possibly the first novel written about fans of the show,’ my Downton Abbey addiction intensified. I don’t leave my house on Sunday nights when it airs and I can—and have—spent long hours happily discussing the lavish costumes and settings as well as the twists and turns of the series’ storylines. I blew my household Kleenex budget halfway through season three. And when my husband found me crying in a darkened room after one particular death bed departure, I had to reassure him that I didn’t want a divorce and I was fairly certain that I didn’t need antidepressants.

The truth is, I’m hanging on by a slim thread until season five airs in the states in January. Every day I have to fight the urge to read Downton gossip and I can only hope I’ll have the strength to duck spoilers when the new season airs in the U.K. months before we see it. I console myself with the thought that my novel can provide a temporary ‘fix’ for others experiencing this kind of withdrawal.

I’m always excited when a book club adopts While We Were Watching Downton Abbey and love hearing about groups that discuss my book and dish about my favourite series, sometimes while dressed in Downton-era clothing, sipping Downton style tea or cocktails, and snacking on British delicacies. I’m also thrilled that my publisher has selected While We Were Watching Downton Abbey for their Read Pink campaign this fall and that they’re offering a complimentary copy to JBC book clubs that would like to consider it*.

I’m happy to have had this chance to be in touch with you all. I hope you’ll stop by my site to read reviews and excerpts of my novels or, if you’d like me to join your discussion by phone or via Skype. You know, whatever I can do to help other Downton addicts hang on until the new season begins.

*Book giveaway closes on Friday, June 27 at noon ET.

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On Being Jewish in Amsterdam

Monday, June 23, 2014 | Permalink

Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she works as an author and a frequent contributor to the International New York Times. Her most recent novel, The Anatomy Lesson, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Recently, a journalist who was interviewing me asked me to describe what it felt like to be a Jewish New Yorker living in Amsterdam. She put it this way: “Is it okay for you there?” As it happens, the interviewer was a Dutch Jewish woman who had moved to New York, where, she confessed to me, she felt a lot more “at home.” “It’s hard to be Jewish in Amsterdam,” she said.

It was interesting to me that she put it that way. So many of the Dutch people I’ve met here are always saying what an open, tolerant, international city Amsterdam is, and how Jews have always been so welcome here. But the truth is, I’ve never been able to say that I’ve felt “at home” as a Jewish person in Amsterdam, though I have been living here for the last eight years and in many other ways I do feel at home.

I came here in 2006 to begin research for my second novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014), which takes place in this city on way day in 1632, and tells the imagined story behind Rembrandt’s first masterpiece. I rented my first apartment in the part of the city where Rembrandt used to live, which is known as the Jodenbuurt, or Jewish quarter. The Rembrandt House Museum, in Rembrandt’s former home, is on the Jodenbreestraat, or Jewish Broadway.

Ever since the sixteenth century this quarter of the city, outside of the Centrum, had been a sanctuary for Jews fleeing persecution first from Portugal and Spain, and later from Central and Eastern Europe. For a long time, scholars used to insist that Rembrandt was a friend to the Jews because he lived in this neighborhood and painted portraits of a famous Amsterdam rabbi and several Old Testament scenes here, but more recently that history has been called into question.

This is the neighborhood where Baruch Spinoza lived and worked. There are five synagogues in that neighborhood on a single block, including the awe-inspiring seventeenth-century Portuguese Synagogue, and four other synagogues that now comprise the Amsterdam Jewish Museum, a temple to a tragic history.

Amsterdam was indeed once known as city that was welcoming to Jews, who were granted citizenship as early as 1616; for years the city was known as “Mokum” the Hebrew word for “place.” And of course everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, Amsterdam’s most famous Jew, who was also a German Jew whose family moved here to get away from the Nazis – unsuccessfully, of course.

Some people still call it Mokum, and the Dutch national soccer team, Ajax, is still (in rather poor taste I think) still known as “the Jews.” But most of the Jews are gone now. About 90 percent of the Jewish population of the Netherlands perished in WWII, the highest percentage loss of a national population in all of Europe, according to the Columbia Guide to the Holocaust.

The Jewish community, such as it is, is now centered in the southern part of the city, and walking through Rembrandt’s old neighborhood feels like walking through a ghost town, with many of the Jewish buildings denuded of their former cultural purpose, or turned to memorials. Lots of the buildings in the district are new, too, and that’s because after the Jewish families were rounded up here, their homes were looted and ransacked to the extent that even the lumber was stripped from their walls and floors by desperate Amsterdammers during the Hunger Winter of 1944 and 45. They were in such a bad state that they had to be torn down.

Strangely, the experience of living and working in that neighborhood made me feel more Jewish than I had ever felt growing up in New York and Great Neck, in two very busy Jewish communities, surrounded by Jews. I have always called myself a “secular, cultural Jew,” who feels connected to Jewish life, but doesn’t practice any form of observance. I have no Dutch ancestry, as far as I know, but my mother’s side of the family was from Hungary and Ukraine. Most of my mother’s relatives in Hungary died in Auschwitz; my grandfather survived three concentration camps, and was liberated from Mauthausen. Those were the two camps where most of the Dutch Jews were killed as well.

Surrounded by a completely destroyed Jewish community, I started to feel the power and weight of an absence I had only ever imagined or read about in books. In place of a vibrant Jewish community holding services in the beautiful local temples, there were historical artifacts documenting those disappeared customs and people. Where there used to be a lively Jewish theater, filled with actors, musicians and laughter, there is now an empty shell of a building filled with a memorial wall and a single burning flame.

Over time, being in the Jodenbuurt engendered in me a deep sense of longing for a community I never knew. It made me long, too, for the community of easy Jewishness that I’d left behind in New York, where there were still people simply being alive, being Jews.

In answer to the interviewer’s question, I had to confess that somehow being here in Amsterdam helped me connect with some part of the reality of being a Jewish person. Not to connect to the culture that I had come to know as Jewish culture, but to come into contact with the element of our history that is absence, disappearance, and devastation. That is still very real here in Amsterdam, as it is in other parts of Europe, too, even if there are few people who want to talk about it anymore today.

None of that made it into the Rembrandt novel, but it will be part of my next book, a project I’m beginning to embark on now.

Nina Siegal got her B.A. at Cornell University and her M.F.A. in Fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Although she has written extensively about women in US prisons, housing and homelessness, and all sorts of urban cultural issues, Siegal lately focuses on the intersection of art and society, which is also the theme of both her novels. Read more about her here.

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A Legacy of Fear

Friday, June 20, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devan Sipher wrote about a travel story in the bible that goes terribly wrong and shared six things he learned writing about weddings for The New York Times. He is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times, the author of the novels The Scenic Route and The Wedding Beat, and has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was biking recently in the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains in southern California, and I found myself far more uncomfortable on the descent than I was on the way up. I realized that I’m used to making extra effort. It’s the easy things that scare me.

It’s no accident I’m a writer. Or Jewish.

My great-grandmother Sophie fled the Cossacks as a teenager, and that’s pretty much all I or anyone in my family knows about her. I remember asking where she came from, and the answer was uniformly, “She had a hard life.” I remember asking if she had brothers or sisters, and the answer was the same, “She had a hard life.”

I should note that it was said with pride. My great-grandmother struggled, and through her struggle she survived. Fleeing the Cossacks was both a cross to bear and a badge of honor.

Now I don’t want to generalize, but I think that Jews sometimes have a hard time getting over adverse events. I mean it’s been three thousand years and we’re still trying to get closure about being slaves in Egypt.

The thing about fleeing Cossacks or Nazis, or ancient Egyptians for that matter, is that you never entirely stop fleeing. I believe it can become part of your identity—and part of your legacy. And it can become what you pass down to your children, like candlesticks and kiddush cups.

I was raised to believe Cossacks could appear at any moment. But there aren’t a lot of Cossacks in suburban Michigan. So my family worried instead about things like salmonella, Radon gas, and poorly wrapped Halloween candy.

Fear was considered a virtue. Fear makes you careful. Fear keeps you safe. And safety was the number one concern. As it probably has been for millennia.

My book The Scenic Route is about someone who places safety above all other concerns. The protagonist is a Detroit doctor determined to make safe and prudent choices in life. But in a world where hospitals—and even cities—can go bankrupt, is there such a thing as a safe choice?

It seems doubtful. Hard work doesn’t guarantee health and happiness. Continuous vigilance can be exhausting. The moral of The Scenic Route is that life is what happens on the way to where you’re going, and I firmly believe that. Yet I continue to put in extra effort fighting uphill battles in everything from my writing to my exercise regimen. I guess I’m scared not to.

Devan Sipher graduated from the University of Michigan, received an M.F.A. from New York University, and he is a former junior cantor of Temple Israel. Read more about him and his work here.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 20, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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Writing About The Holocaust

Thursday, June 19, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Margareta Ackerman wrote about trying to reconcile her granfather's happy personality with the horrors he suffered during the Holocaust. Her recently published book, Running from Giants: The Holocaust Through The Eyes of a Child, is now available. She has been blogging here for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

It was a day like any other. I was absorbed in the details of my life, answering an overflowing stack of emails and worrying about trivial things, when the phone rang.

“We’re done translating Grandpa’s notes,” said my dad. “Would you, by some chance, be willing to go over them and turn them into a book?”

“Of course!” I replied right away. It sounded like no more than a thorough editing job. It struck me that my dad was surprised by my quick reply.

He sent the notes over. Grandpa Srulik spent a couple of months writing about his life. Then, my brother and father translated his notes from Russian to English.

I printed the translation and read over the notes in minutes; ten pages to summarize the life of a man who had had suffered enough heartache to fill a thousand lifetimes. As I read, I recalled him speaking about his life. I could see his muscles tense at some particularly difficult parts of his story. Reading other sections, I could hear him let out a hearty laugh as he tried to lighten the load on both the listener and himself by finding bits of humor in his infinitely painful life.

Yet, without knowing my grandpa, or at least having heard his story firsthand, these notes were not enough; without him to personally bring them to life, the words lay flat on the page. I couldn’t leave it at that. That’s when I understood what I had signed up for, and why my dad was so surprised by my quick reply. Yet, I was certainly not about to change my mind. This may take a while, maybe as long as three months, but I am going to do it, I thought.

I spent many hours talking with Grandpa, trying to get as much information as possible. This was no easy task. Grandpa didn’t like talking about his past. More often than not, he would simply reply, “I already wrote about that, go look at my notes.” I had to keep the conversations brief, and omit some questions altogether, so as not to upset him. Through these unofficial interviews, I learned much more about my grandpa’s life than I thought there was to know.

Grandpa’s original notes had only a few sentences devoted to his life before the war. I felt that this wasn’t enough. I spent many months working on the early part of his memoir, familiarizing the reader with his warm, loving family of origin, and showing what was normal for him before the Nazi occupation.

The following section, detailing Srulik’s initial escape from the Nazis, was more difficult to write. It was hard to identify with horrors of such proportion. But after many conversations with Grandpa, I was finally content with that part of the book.

Then, it was time to write about the worst of it: the Nazi ghetto. I spent hours staring at an empty screen, not able to type as much as a single word. After many failed attempts to continue writing, I was close to giving up altogether. Did I bite off more than I could chew? Who am I to write about a tragedy this large? I hadn’t wrote a word in three months.

Guilt kept eating away at me. Unsure how to proceed, I decided to turn to others’ memoirs. There I was, reading Maus, Art Spiegelman’s heartfelt comic about his dad’s experience in the Holocaust, and in its pages I saw the same fears that I was dealing with. “Some part of me doesn’t want to draw or think about Auschwitz,” writes Spiegelman, “I can’t visualize it clearly, and I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like.”

Realizing that I was not the only one struggling to relay to the reader such horrific events gave me strength to carry on. I buckled down and wrote a paragraph. By the time that paragraph was over, so was my ability to continue writing for the evening. I wrote the third part of the book literally one paragraph a day.

I then quickly put together the fourth, and final, part of the book, about Grandpa’s final escape and his two years hiding in the forests. The writing was done. I couldn’t believe it.

By the time the book was written, edited, illustrated, and published, three and half years had passed. This project called on all of my critical, creative, and emotional capacities, and became one of the most important and personally significant projects I’d ever done.

Writing about the Holocaust is hard. Forget writing - even reading about it is hard. Although I wrote my Grandpa’s memoir, and read every word in it countless times, some parts still bring me to tears. Even today, there are sections that I prefer to skip when I leaf through the book.

Yet, despite how difficult it is, it is crucial that we record this dark chapter in our history. We, the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, have a big responsibility before us. It is our duty to pass on the stories of our loves ones. It might be hard to appreciate the importance of our work today - but too soon, the written word will be the only thing left to transmit their memories, and protect the integrity of this dark part in our history.

Margareta Ackerman is a professor, researcher, author and granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman. She received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and has won numerous awards for her research. Dr. Ackerman is the author of over a dozen academic publications, including research on applications of traditional Jewish study methodology to the modern classroom. She is joining the faculty of Florida State University this year.

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Reading Freedom Summer

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 | Permalink

by Dina Weinstein

Books on the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer are classified under African American history and civil rights. But the project was rife with Jewish participation.

Organizations from the civil rights movement including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) led the voter registration and education campaign. We mark the 50th anniversary this summer. The actual event went well beyond the best-known names—New Yorkers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman with Mississippian James Chaney. They were the civil rights workers who went missing in the first days of the project and who later were found brutally murdered by local law enforcement connected to the local Klan.

A number of books recount the complex organization that went into the massive voter registration drives and educational efforts that set up Freedom Schools in the state with the reputation for being the most racist and brutal. There were an estimated 650 volunteers, mostly Northerners, mostly white, and mostly students.

Reading these stories links the Jewish American narrative to the African American efforts to stamp out discrimination. Many of these long unsung heroes for democracy and diversity were inspired by the injustice of the Holocaust. The civil rights workers and the summer volunteers challenged the roadblocks set up by the state of Mississippi to keep Blacks from voting, getting a decent education, and holding elected offices.

Freedom Summer by academic Doug McAdam (Oxford University Press, 1988) traces the chronology of events with voices from the Freedom Summer volunteers themselves. McAdam conducted numerous additional surveys and interviews with volunteers. He traced the origins of the project from the search for volunteers, the unique and jarring training, through the immediate impact of Freedom Summer. He delves into the lessons of Mississippi with the participants, finding out how the volunteers and society were impacted through the 1970s.

Back in 1964, organizers used a WATS line in the Magnolia State to document the violence and organize movements.

They logged:

4 project workers killed
4 persons critically wounded
80 workers beaten
1000 arrests
37 churches bombed or burned
30 black homes or businesses bombed or burned

An epic read, McAdam’s photographic inserts documenting the events include images of sweaty young women teaching Mississippians in rudimentary Freedom Schools and young male college students organizing voter registration drives. I was riveted by the photograph of the young, whippet-thin widow Rita Schwerner, who told the second group of Freedom Summer participants training in Ohio that her husband’s disappearance only made it more important that the project go forward.

Bruce Watson’s 2010 book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (Viking) is a powerful narrative. Watson links Freedom Summer’s impact to the twenty-first century and the election of the first black president. It is rooted in the African-American victims and heroes including Freedom Summer organizer Bob Moses.

Watson is direct about the controversial nature of Freedom Summer. He wrote that SNCC “had braved Mississippi when no one else would. They still bore the scars—bloody welts, broken bones, bullet wounds you could put your finger in. And now a bunch of white college kids with names like Pam and Geoff were being invited to Mississippi to gather headlines and plaudits for bravery.”

Their names also included: Jacob Blum, Paul Cowen, Bob Feinglass, Barney Frank, Adam Klein, Ruth Koenig, Rita Koplowitz, Robert Mandel, Sara Lieber, Betty Levy, Mark Levy, Michael Lipsky, Judy Michelowsky, Ira Landess, Mendy Samstein, Nancy Samstein, Peter Rabinowitz, Gretchen Schwartz, and Ellen Siegel.

Watson’s descriptive writing captures the often pampered participants’ youthful idealism, their elation connecting with black Mississippians, especially the intellectual hunger and the palpable fear. Watson’s research on the Schwerners and Andrew Goodman and his family paints a picture of their passion for civil rights.

In the center photo-spread of a volunteer bathing next to a hand pump, a student engaging in door-to-door voter registration, and an idealistic teacher with her students’ work is an image of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld beaten and bloody on a voter registration foray in Hattiesburg.

Letters from Mississippi by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, published by McGraw Hill in 1965, is full of the raw emotion and feelings the participants expressed to their parents and friends as the events were unfolding. You can feel the exhilaration, fear, heat, and mosquitos. The book has a quilt-like quality utilizing the actual words of the volunteers. “Batesville welcomed us trium­phantly—at least Black Batesville did….. Sometimes when we pass by, the children cheer.”

The book follows the characters fighting their battles with violent rednecks, the heat, and poverty. There are also victories. One Freedom School teacher wrote: “The atmosphere in class is unbelievable….They are excited about learning. They drain me of everything that I have to offer so that I go home at night completely exhausted and happy.”

Readers may come away deflated, like the participants themselves as they left the Magnolia State. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was not seated on the floor of the Democratic National Convention and racism did not disappear after 1964.

These books are a window into the strength of inter-racial coalitions of the early-1960s and the idealists who participated.

If you're interested in finding out more about the Freedom Summer, check out the events and locations for the traveling exhibit "A Freedom Summer Exhibit for Students from the Wisconsin Historical Society," here.

Dina Weinstein is a Miami, Florida-based journalist currently researching Jews in St. Augustine, Florida during the 1960s era civil rights struggle there with a grant from the Southern Jewish Historical Society. She mentors young journalists as an adviser at the Miami Dade College student newspaper The Reporter. Weinstein has taught journalism and mass communications at a number of colleges including Miami Dade College. She is a Boston native and a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Boston University School for the Arts.

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The Path of a Wandering Jew

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devan Sipher shared six things he learned writing about weddings for The New York Times. He is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times, the author of the novels The Scenic Route and The Wedding Beat, and has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I never intended to write novels.

I also never intended to write for The New York Times. When I was 17, I was accepted to medical school. And my parents are still trying to figure out what went wrong.

After being a medical student, I was briefly a rabbinical student. I have also been a presidential campaign coordinator, an entertainment news show producer, an information technology consultant, a computer graphics artist, a book editor, a bookkeeper, a playwright, and an advertising copywriter along the way. In short, my career trajectory resembles the path of a drunken sailor—or perhaps a wandering Jew.

So it’s appropriate that my second novel, The Scenic Route, is about people taking the long way around. And I would argue that taking the long way is a Jewish tradition. After all, we spent forty years in the desert.

Traveling is a key part of the biblical narrative, central to canonical stories from Noah to Jonah to Joseph. However, travel is also unpredictable, and the patriarchs (and matriarchs) often end up in destinations far from where they had intended to be. (Joseph never planned to go to Egypt, and Jonah was dragged to Nineveh kicking and screaming.)

In The Scenic Route, life is what happens on the way to where you’re going. And I believe one could argue that’s also a message of the bible, as story after story illustrates people tackling unexpected challenges and changing the course of human history in the process.

Nowhere is this more true than in the momentous but little known verses about “the woman of Gibeah,” who wasn’t even from Gibeah, a town in ancient Israel inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin. The woman is the wife or concubine (the bible is unclear) of a Levite priest who is traveling from Bethlehem to a northern city.

The Levite and the woman stop for the night in Gibeah and are offered food and shelter in the home of an elderly man. But the home is besieged by townsmen angered by the presence of the foreigner in their midst, and demand he be handed over to them. His host refuses, but instead offers the woman.

The next morning the Levite finds the ravaged woman on the doorstep and (for reasons that must have made more sense in biblical times), he carves her into 12 pieces, sending one piece to each tribe—as evidence of the wrong done to him.

The result is a war between the tribes, which ends with the near-decimation of the tribe of Benjamin. And it is largely because of that devastating civil war that the twelve tribes decide they need a king, which leads to the anointment of the first king of Israel, King Saul, who, for the sake of reconciliation, was chosen from the tribe of Benjamin.

Everything that follows: the kingdom of David and Solomon, the rise and fall of the two temples, and all of Judeo-Christian history. It is all the aftermath of a war, a rape, and a travel story that goes terribly wrong.

Devan Sipher graduated from the University of Michigan, received an M.F.A. from New York University, and he is a former junior cantor of Temple Israel. Read more about him and his work here.

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Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 | Permalink

Margareta Ackerman is a professor, researcher, author and granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Srulik Ackerman. She received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and has won numerous awards for her research. Her recently published book, Running from Giants: The Holocaust Through The Eyes of a Child, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my many years of schooling across three continents, I’ve attended many Holocaust classes. Yet, during each lesson and every lecture, I felt that something was missing.

In high-school, we read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a beautifully written firsthand account - rightfully a must-read if there ever was one. But, as most of us know, Anne’s diary ends before her story does, saving the reader the worst of the Nazi atrocities. To my surprise, my high-school class covered little about the Holocaust other than Anne’s diary. And while the university courses on the subject went much further, there was still something missing.

Although, thankfully, the Holocaust ended many years ago, it was still much more real to me than any other historical subject I studied. If one were to guess who among all my family members had survived the Holocaust, no one would have suspected my grandpa. Nothing about him brought to mind the horrors of the Holocaust. He had an unassuming, easy-going demeanor, combined with an exceptional sense of humor. Whenever I think of him, I always remember him with a smile on his face. Most incredible, however, is that he was, without a doubt, the happiest person that I’d ever met.

For many years, I couldn’t reconcile my grandfather’s personality with all of the horrors that he and others suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Hope came when, many years later, I was asked to help put together his memoir. Of course, I was honored and agreed right away. Among the many reasons that I wanted to help with this important project was my hope to finally discover how Grandpa managed to survive so wholly.

Don’t we break down from much smaller problems? Don’t people in times of peace and plenty disintegrate and lose the will to live from problems that cannot even be compared with the atrocities such as the Shoah? What made my own grandfather so much more resilient?

There are two ways to look at Grandpa’s reaction to all that he had endured. The first, is that he had managed to be happy despite all that happened to him. He would have been a happy person no matter what. Had he lived a simple life in the Polish village of Nowosiolki where he was born, he still would have been an exceptionally happy guy. Having survived the Holocaust, and still retaining such contagious joy for life, suggests that he would have been a happy person no matter what would have happened to him.

The other perspective, expressed by some of my readers, is that Grandpa was happy precisely because of what he had endured. Seeing into the depth of darkness enabled him to gain a profound appreciation for all that is good in life. Indeed, I was delighted to learn that there were other survivors who had the same response as my grandpa. In contrast to what they have already been through, the trials and tribulations of normal life seem trivial. Instead of focusing on the negative, they are eternally grateful for what is good, appreciate the small things, and are glad to be alive. This is why, a small number of survivors are exceptionally happy people.

Which of these theories is true? One of these, or some combination of both? That’s the classroom discussion that I could have used. A discussion, a lecture, or a class that would proclaim to the world that there were people who the Nazis could not break. There were those who, against all odds, managed to survive the Holocaust both physically and emotionally, and went on to live vibrant, joyful lives.

Perhaps it makes a difference to know that there was a ten-year-old boy named Srulik Ackerman, who went on to live a life full of happiness despite all the horrors that he endured at the hands of the Nazis. After everything that he has been through, he must have laughed and smiled more than a dozen men in a single lifetime.

I hope that learning about Srulik and others like him will make it easier for students to digest this difficult material. Maybe this lesson on the strength of the human spirit will encourage teachers to cover Holocaust history more completely, instead of omitting the truly difficult, but essential parts of this dark spot in our history. Maybe, realizing humanity’s potential for resilience, and our capacity for joy and happiness no matter what comes our way, will help students find strength in their own lives.

Dr. Ackerman is the author of over a dozen academic publications, including research on applications of traditional Jewish study methodology to the modern classroom. She is joining the faculty of Florida State University this year.

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Interview: Robert Harris

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Robert Harris’s latest book, An Officer and A Spy, is a fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair. This is a thrilling historical novel that delves into the world of espionage, conspiracy, and corruption surrounding the persecution of an army officer simply because he was Jewish. Although most people know of this historical tragic event, readers will be interestedto find out how Harris has the story unfold. The focus is not so much on Dreyfus as it is on Colonel Georges Picquart. After becoming the head of the counterespionage agency, Picquart stumbles upon information that leads him to change his mind from considering Dreyfus guilty to believing him innocent. He is compelled to question not only the case against Dreyfus but also his most deeply held beliefs about his country and himself.

Elise Cooper: Why did you decide to write about this subject?

Robert Harris: It grew out of a conversation with Roman Polanski when I made a film with him, The Ghost Writer, a couple of years ago. We talked about doing another project together. I thought about Dreyfus because he had a lot of books about this subject in his office. He told me he had always wanted to make a movie about this. After I wrote the novel we wrote the screenplay together, which we finished a few weeks ago.

EC: Why write it from Picquart’s point of view?

RH: The Dreyfus Affair is so complicated and huge, with so many people and events, that I needed to put a focus to the story. Since Dreyfus did not even know who the real spy was, there was no point in going at this from his point of view. This is the largest book I have ever written. The only way I could turn this into a story, a work of the imagination, was to pick one character. I told the story through his eyes. I told the story as if Picquart had written his secret memoir and had locked it away in a vault.

EC: It seems in the book that Dreyfus was a concept, not a person. Did you do that intentionally?

RH: Yes. Although Dreyfus was extremely heroic and was able to survive such an ordeal he was unable to do very much. I wrote it from Pic­quart’s reflection on and what he thought of Dreyfus. I used Dreyfus’ s letters, which Picquart saw, to try and affect the story. Since Dreyfus did not find out anything for himself, but depended on others, he had in the book a powerful ghostly and haunting presence. Remember Dreyfus was seized, locked up, and shipped to Devil’s Island.

EC: Can you talk a little about Picquart?

RH: There would not have been a Dreyfus Affair without Picquart. He was the one who did the detective work and had to face the moral di­lemma: Should he go along with his comrades for the sake of an institu­tion he loved—the army—or should he say to hell with that and tell the truth? The character who was very dynamic and changed everything was Picquart.

EC: You write in the book about many instances of French society screaming out “Jewish traitor.” Did you do it to show the anti-Semitism of the French?

RH: I think French society anti-Semitism started after the Germans beat them in 1870. This nationalistic soul-searching began when the Germans beat Napoleon. They started to look for scapegoats that cor­rupted French society. This led them to anti-Semitism, which became the focus of the Dreyfus Affair. People were killed, there were riots, and the nation became convulsed by it.

EC: Was Picquart guilty of anti-Semitism and participating in the conspiracy?

RH: He did not know Dreyfus very well, but from what he knew, he did not like him very much. He had attended the trial and approved of the idea of using secret intelligence against Dreyfus to convict him. Early on I think he was anti-Semitic. However, I want to qualify that by saying that it was socially accepted at that time, especially among the Catholics. I think that as Picquart found more and more evidence prov­ing Dreyfus innocent he became conscious of his own anti-Semitism and fought against it in his own head. I really believe that an anti-Semite would not have done what he did, including befriending Dreyfus’ brother Matthew.

EC: Were all the events realistic?

RH: The suicides, court-martials, trials, duels, assassination attempts, and public outcries are all true I really did not make up very much. I obviously had to get into Picquart’s head. Even the scene where the army tells Picquart’s mistress’s husband about the affair was true. Pauline and he continued the relationship all his life. Of course, I had to invent a lot of their relationship. None of the figures in the book are fictional. Even the doorkeepers and the concierge are all real.

EC: What type of research did you do?

RH: I did extensive research. I found only one letter between Pauline and Picquart, which I put in the book. I read documents, all the trial transcripts, newspaper accounts of the time, the secret dossier, and all the published books I could find on this issue.

EC: There is a powerful quote in the book, “So this is what the Army of France has sunk to. Either they are the greatest fools in Europe or the greatest villains: for the sake of my country I am not sure which is worse. But some instinct for self-preservation warns me not to fight them now.” Can you explain?

RH: Picquart did not want to destroy the army and smash up his career. He did not want to bring down the institution he worked for and loved, the army. This is why he decided not to go immediately to the politi­cians and newspapers. He accepted the discipline of being sent away to Africa. Only when he realized he was never going to be brought back to France and nothing would happen unless he spoke up, he decided to act. There was a period of six months where he just sweats it out, hoping that the Dreyfus family will get a breakthrough or his superiors will be convinced to do something. When he realized that would not happen, he acted. What is interesting to me is how people closed ranks and justified to themselves that lying was for the greater good. I think this is the biggest conspiracy cover-up ever.

EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book?

RH: This is a story of anti-Semitism and the cover-up that occurred because there was no desire to take the army apart piece by piece. It was seen as the only institution in France that really worked and the one thing that held the nation together. There was no desire to create a national nightmare. I hope that readers will see everything that trans­pired, from the corruption, the persecution of a minority, the use of na­tional security to stifle debate, and the use of intelligence, all of which speaks to our modern age. I also hope the readers will see Picquart as someone who believed in honor, truth, and a person who would be able to look himself in the mirror.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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June 2014 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Monday, June 16, 2014 | Permalink

What we're reading this month:

Nat: Night in Shanghai (Nicole Mones) | Naomi: J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist (Thomas Beller)
Carol: Becoming Frum (Sarah Bunin Benor) | Miri: How This Night is Different (Elisa Albert)
Chava: An American Bride in Kabul (Phyllis Chesler) | Joyce: The Lie (Hesh Kestin)