The ProsenPeople

Interview: Liad Shoham

Tuesday, January 20, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Jewish Book Council recently spoke with Liad Shoham about his new book, Asylum City.

Elise Cooper: I didn’t know Israel has an illegal immigration problem. Did you write the book to inform readers?

Liad Shoham: I described something happening in Israel, but illegal immigration is a global problem. These people are needed by the economy but many times are unwelcome. They also can pose a threat to the identity of the nation they enter. I wrote specifically about what was happening in Israel, but it has international implications.

EC: Can you explain why Ethiopians are allowed to stay but not Eritreans?

LS: The basic law of Israel states that every Jew in the world who comes here is entitled to automatic citizenship. Ethiopian Jews were granted citizenship after coming here simply because they were Jewish. Eritreans are not Jews, but Christians, so when they come here they are considered illegal immigrants.

EC: Please explain why Israel does not just deport the Eritreans.

LS: I write about it in the book. Eritrea has a very harsh regime. Anyone persecuted in their country, as in this case, will not be deported. It goes back to why Israel was established in the first place, that not many countries would protect the Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Because the Eritrean regime is totalitarian, Israel’s policy is that they will never be deported.

EC: Were they granted visas?

LS: No. Most non-Jews who want to come to Israel are granted visas and allowed to stay a few months. However, the Eritreans have come to Israel illegally by crossing our border from the Sinai Peninsula. It is a very complicated situation.

EC: It was interesting how you explore all the different sides of this problem through the murder mystery. Please explain.

LS: I had Gabriel, one of the asylum seekers, confess to a murder to rescue his sister. I wanted to explore all the different angles and give it a panoramic view. Many Israelis are sympathetic to them but realistically understand that Israel is not able to support them financially. A few think they should be given full rights and citizenship. Another viewpoint is to deport them back immediately. But the overwhelming majority feels they should not be deported and they should be given minimum basic rights while at the same time making sure the border is secure with the building of a wall. I included these opinions while presenting the ‘people of interest’ in the murder mystery.

EC: You show us through a character’s eyes how the asylum seekers are treated. Please explain.

LS: First, let me state that the color of their skin is irrelevant. Israel has accepted Jews from all over the world: Ethiopian, Chinese, Hispanic, Eastern European, and Western European, but the underlying thread is that they are all Jews. The government does not exploit [the asylum seekers], but also does not grant them any opportunities. The problem is those who try to exploit them, exemplified by the quote in my book, “I’ll never get how people who grew up in this country can exploit other refugees.” Because of this and to prevent an increase in crime, the police told the government that asylum seekers should be allowed to work. Currently our government is turning a blind eye, realizing the jobs they are taking are ones Israelis don’t want—the menial jobs of washing dishes, cleaning streets, and picking fruits.

EC: How are they exploited?

LS: The Bedouins who are hired to move them across the desert have kidnapped them for sex trafficking, held them hostage for ransoms, tortured the men, and raped many of the women. Israel is unable to control the crimes, because they take place outside our border. Within Israel there are those who have set up businesses surrounding the asylum seekers’ needs. For example, just as in the book, since they are not allowed to open bank accounts, Mafia bosses have become their bankers, transferring money to the asylum seekers’ families.

EC: Why do you call them “asylum seekers”?

LS: That is the legal term. They are not refugees because they will not be granted the rights of citizenship, with free education and health services. Nor are they illegal immigrants because we cannot deport them as we could if someone crossed the border illegally who was from France, for example. Israel never deports any group that is persecuted. I believe Menachem Begin best summarized the intention, paraphrasing: ‘Israel cannot stand by when people are being persecuted and are not accepted by any other country.’

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

LS: A good entertaining crime novel. Beyond that, understanding that Israel is unable to open its arms financially to all immigrants. We cannot grant citizenship because we need to preserve the Jewish identity of Israel. After all, Israel is a Jewish state. 99% of Israelis agree and feel Israel has the right to keep its borders and prevent permanent status to people who want to stay here. The question arises, what will happen to those already here, approximately 70,000 out of a total Israeli population of 8 million? When I started researching the book I thought a lot of Israelis would tell me "securing our Sinai border, and preventing people from coming here is unacceptable." One of my surprises is that nobody claimed it. Everyone believes Israel is not the solution for Africa and since they came here illegally they should not be made citizens.

EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?

LS: It will be called Blood Oranges and deals with corruption in municipalities. Anat will be a character in the book. She moves to a small city about twenty miles outside Tel Aviv where she finds herself investigating the death of a journalist.

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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The Knish as an Instrument of Social Justice

Monday, January 19, 2015 | Permalink

Laura Silver is the author of the book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food and an award-winning journalist whose writing on food and culture has appeared in The New York Times and the Forward and on NPR. She is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Je suis Charlie.
Je suis juive.
And yes, je suis knish.

The world is still reeling from brutal attacks in Paris. The events of Ferguson and the Eric Garner trial resonate. Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s time to consider the knish as an instrument of social justice.

1. Accessible Edible

The carbohydrate-rich knish stuffs the stomach and provides caloric intake for a low price point. The pillow of dough — round or square, sweet or savory — could feed an army, a small family or serve a single person for two meals. There’s a low barrier to entry for this simple food that is easy to produce in vegan and gluten-free varieties.

2. Instrument of Peace

Knish maker Gussie Schwebel offered to share “the humble knish” with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt – and asked if she could be of service to her adopted country “by way of introducing the knish, which is very wholesome and not costly to produce, into the diet of our armed forces.” And, years later proclaimed her potato pies as a catalyst for rapprochement on domestic and international fronts. She set out manufacture “Republican and Democratic knishes — the delicious dishes” and believed that knishes, when served with vodka, could help bring an end to the Cold War and usher in an era of world peace.

3. Catalyst for Caring

The 1970 novel Teitelbaum’s Window by Wallace Markfield introduces the Knishe Queen, who reigns over the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, with tenacity and a taste for the political, as evidenced by her letter to Mahatma Gandhi:

We want to once again wish you good luck in your freeing of India.
Our biggest hope of the Brighton Beach Jewish community is that
you don’t overdo it with your fasting because your country is not
going to appreciate if you come out of prison a nervous wreck.
May we therefore suggest that you think of yourself and do what
is good for you by breaking your fast on one of our blackberry or
gooseberry currant knishes which are so lightly fried in the finest
quality peanut oil that the word fried doesn’t even apply. As made
in our modern kitchens, these knishes are strictly parveh, meat
doesn’t go anywhere near them.

4. Capsule of Culture

The knish has been immortalized by Issac Baschevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem and Barbra Streisand, who, in her welcome back to Brooklyn concert in 2012, adapted the lyrics of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from the musical Sunset Boulevard to pay homage to the street food of her youth.

Yes, a world with hot knishes
Is incredibly delicious

Hip hop artist SD3 (an abbreviation of Sammy Davis III) has used the knish to bridge cultural and culinary divides – and to spur conversations, using — nu? — the knish. Case in point, the lyrics of ditty he belts out in a music video set at – where else? – a bar mitzvah.

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Knish
A table full of Bubbe’s goodies is what I wish.

The potato pie also works as an ambassador. Wrapped pastries like Jamaican patties, aloo pies, samosas and empanadas that occur in culinary traditions of all ethnicities and flavors count as knishing cousins.

5. Champion of Underdogs and Unmentionables

The knish doesn’t shy away from tender topics. Nightclub crooner Pearl Williams harnessed its Yiddish slang meaning to project female power. Her 1961 record album (yes, vinyl), A Trip around the World Is Not a Cruise, oozed innuendos, loud, proud and unapologetic.

I found a new way to do it. For money.
Don’t laugh. For years . . . I was doing it for love. Then one day I
took a ride through the Holland Tunnel and I saw a big sign: “Pay as
you enter.” What an idea hit my brain. Now I have a tattoo above the
knish: “Pay as you enter.” Underneath, I have a tattoo: “Thank you,
call again. Member of the Diners Club.”

So, if you’re feeling distraught about the state of the world, or need to summon strength for a Day of Service, reach for a knish. It contains multitudes and will help you steel yourself for the challenges to come. Remember, it’s not our job to finish it, but we must begin.

Laura Silver has been a writer in residence at the Millay Colony, the Banff Centre, and the New York Public Library. She is considered the world’s leading expert on the knish.

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World Zionism and Paris's Personal and Political Patterns

Monday, January 19, 2015 | Permalink

Roger Cohen is a columnist for The New York Times, where he has worked since 1990: as a correspondent in Paris and Berlin, and as bureau chief in the Balkans covering the Bosnian war (for which he received an Overseas Press Club prize). He was named a columnist in 2009. He became foreign editor on 9/11, overseeing Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage in the aftermath of the attack. His columns appear twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. His previous books include Soldiers and Slaves and Hearts Grown Brutal. He lives in London, and will move back to New York in June. His newest book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, is now available. He will be blogging here this week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

As a New York Times columnist, I move regularly back and forth across the Atlantic. I carry my Jewish identity with me, of course, but Jewishness is lived differently in Europe and the United States. Expression of strong support for Israel raises eyebrows among Europeans inclined to view the Jewish state as bellicose or colonialist. Palestinian victimhood plays well on a continent of strong pacifist tendencies. By contrast, in the United States it is criticism of Israel that tends to cause a frisson of disapproval. The Israeli saga – of courage and will in the face of implacable foes – resonates in American mythology, far beyond the Jewish community. Perhaps no other foreign state prompts such intense feelings of identification and sympathy.

Since the heinous Paris attacks on freedom of expression in general, and on Jews in particular, I have been pondering these differences anew. It is 120 years since the Dreyfus Affair involving a French Jewish officer wrongly accused of treason. The case divided French society into Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, who were also anti-Semites. Among those who covered the case as a foreign correspondent in Paris was Theodor Herzl. The founder of modern Zionism’s conviction that Jews would only escape anti-Semitism through the creation of a state of their own was reinforced by this experience; his seminal “The Jewish State” was published in 1896, in the midst of Capt. Dreyfus’ legal tribulations.

Today, Zionism is a dirty word in Europe. Say you are a Zionist, as I sometimes do, and you may encounter a scarcely suppressed gasp of incredulity. Yet, four French Jews have just been killed in a kosher supermarket by an Islamist fanatic. Their bodies will be taken to Israel for burial. The necessity of a Jewish homeland has been illustrated yet again.

It is a necessity born of a simple fact: millennia of diaspora wandering that culminated in the Holocaust (which even Herzl could not have imagined) demonstrated that Jews could always be turned upon when a scapegoat was needed, that they would never belong entirely, and that in the end only self-reliance would save them. Looking into the wanderings of my family over four generations – from Lithuania to South Africa and on to Israel, Britain and the United States – I was left with no doubt that Jews needed a safe harbor, a place where scrawny scholars would become vigorous tillers of the soil, and no Jew would ever again go meekly to her fate. If Jews reached this conclusion, it was with reluctance. Having reached it and forged their state, they will never renounce it.

I would like to see a discussion of Zionism in Europe on the basis of last week’s events. I would have liked to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in Paris and commit themselves to the two-state peace that remains the only viable outcome in the Holy Land. Israeli-Palestinian peace would not eliminate jihadism but over time it could help stanch it. I am convinced that Muslim leaders must do far more to denounce the murderous ideology that finds its inspiration in a Wahhabi reading of Islam and turned Paris last week into a city of fear.

Last time I was in Israel I saw an old friend, Micha Shagrir, a movie producer who is dying of cancer in a Jerusalem hospice. We talked about old times. It was a tender moment. Micha mused on projects he still dreamed of completing. His body had become the frail vessel of an unbowed spirit. A year ago, in Paris, he was found wandering around, lost, the first sign of the tumor in his brain. Thirty-five years ago, in 1980, his wife Aliza was killed in the bombing of the synagogue on Rue Copernic in Paris.

Life’s patterns, the personal and the political, how one contains the other, how time is not linear but may eddy in circles: these have been and remain the themes that interest me most.

Check back on Thursday for more from Roger Cohen.

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The ProsenPshat: Week of January 12th

Friday, January 16, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The ProsenPshat is a weekly recap of highlights from each week’s online content on www.jewishbookcouncil.org. Worried you might have missed something this week? Be sure to check our featured reviews page and scroll through The ProsenPeople blog!

Big week here at the Jewish Book Council. We got an earlier start than usual with a Sunday-morning planning meeting with one of the JBC Network member sites and their community partners—a smart event that lead to a wider discussion on the role of book programs in the Jewish community:

It's important to remember—and to remind everyone you work with, across departments—that authors know so much more than the art of writing. They take subject matter and craft it into a story we can't put down, we can't ignore—precisely because those stories are at their core about us, because they hum along to our lives in a voice so distant yet so familiar that we can't help but stop to listen and, consequently, learn about ourselves and the people around us.

That's what a community is, too: the recognition of a common shared experience, with enough differences to effect and encourage learning and growth. Encountering others' family histories and relationships, the universal yet unique tragedies and triumphs that befall or bolster us all in such distinct, such similar ways, and our individual and collective tastes and values shape us personally and as a whole as we connect, disagree, and collaborate with one another. And what better to facilitate that interaction than a really good book?

And, of course, on Wednesday we announced the 2014 National Jewish Book Awards Winners and Finalists—congratulations to all the honorees! A number of them have written for the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople, or interviewed about their NJBA-recognized title in Jewish Book World, the Jewish Book Council’s quarterly magazine. Among them:

Adam D. Mendelsohn (Celebrate 350 Award for American Jewish Studies, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire) recently blogged about the process of “stumbling” upon interesting leads in research and what accounts for Jewish success in America.

Stuart Rojstaczer (Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction, The Mathematician's Shiva) wrote about speaking to his cat in Yiddish and penned a short play about his mother’s reaction to his (now award-winning) first novel.

Sara Davidson expounded on her conversations and relationship with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the subject of The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery.

Eve Harris offered a glimpse into the London Haredi school that provided much of the material for The Marrying of Chani Kaufman.

Boris Fishman ruminated on the importance of documenting family history and the space between suffering, victimhood, and evil, and offered a pop-quiz contest about A Replacement Life.

Molly Antopol shared how The Chosen by Chaim Potok influenced her writing and helped her craft The UnAmericans.

Interviews:
David Bezmozgis (J.J. Greenberg Memorial Award for Fiction, The Betrayers)
Rabbi David Wolpe (David: The Divided Heart)
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History)
Stuart Rojstaczer (Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction, The Mathematician's Shiva)
Susan Jane Gilman (The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street)


This week the Jewish Book Council also interviewed last year’s Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award winner, Yossi Klein Halevi. Discussing Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, Halevi discussed more broadly the history, current politics, and future of Israel, whither he moved in 1982 at the start of the first Lebanon War:

We’ve paid a price for the utopian delusions of the Jews. But we’ve also been tremendously energized by these utopian movements. This is the first time in the history of the state—the history of Zionism—when there is no utopian avant-garde trying to lead the nation. The result is a growing sense of drift among Israelis.

My sense— maybe it’s only a hope— is that the next great outbreak of utopian energy in Israeli society will be spiritual, not political, and will focus on creating the next phase of Judaism. What kind of Judaism will we live as a sovereign people in its land? So far, we’ve mostly imported forms of Judaism that emerged under conditions of a persecuted, ghettoized minority. We need forms of Judaism that are worthy of the profound transformation in Jewish life we’ve experienced over the last two centuries, and especially since the creation of Israel.

Sarah Wildman also sat down to discuss the research and writing behind Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind with the Jewish Book Council—an excellent follow-up to her “Paperless Love” excerpt series on The ProsenPeople over the fall:

I have often thought that it is a shame that my children will not know the simple joy of, first, receiving a letter in the mail, and then, years later coming across that letter, and remembering who you were then, and who the letter writer was. I am of the generation that had a brief dalliance with paper and pen— when I lived in Jerusalem in college, I regularly exchanged letters with friends, all of which are still in a box in my parents’ home. I have the letters from high school, telling of loves and hates and stories all in a way a bit more conscious than we are now, in a our often disposable email world. So yes, I think we are strangely almost erasing ourselves, even in our crazy over-documented lives.


Lesléa Newman wrote about her own, much more substantial, relationship with the handwritten word—specifically, with her pencil—on The Visiting Scribe series. She was joined by Menachem Rosensaft, editor of God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, who wrote about the unified optimism of the second and third generation after the Shoah, preserving the mystery in Holocaust remembrance, and the harsh realities of life after liberation for survivors of catastrophe:

“For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen,” my mother recalled many years later, “there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”

New York Times Vows columnist Devan Sipher also considered death, love, and the fear of loss as a guest contributor to the ProsenPeople partnership series with Ask Big Questions:

As Jews, we don’t believe in a hereafter where we have the opportunity to be reunited with loved ones. It would be easier if we did, but “dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” is not a philosophy that lends itself to romantic notions of an afterlife.

So love, like religion itself, becomes an act of faith.

In book reviews, this week we looked at some of Maira Kalman’s Favorite Things, snuck behind the scenes over Thirteen Days in September at Camp David, and traveled 1940s America with two tenacious, intrepid half-sisters in Amy Bloom’s latest novel, Lucky Us.

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Dawn Follows Even the Darkest of Nights: A Legacy of Remembrance

Friday, January 16, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Menachem Z. Rosensaft wrote about Holocaust remembrance and life after catastrophe. He is the editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing) and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, as we are approaching the 70th anniversaries of the liberation of the other Nazi death and concentration camps and the end of World War II, we are at a transitional moment. For the past seventy years, the survivors of the Shoah kept the memory of what had been done to them, to their families, and to European Jewry at the forefront of their society’s consciousness. Sadly but inevitably, they are now fading from the scene. The critical question, therefore, is how their absence will change the nature of Holocaust remembrance.

Historian Lucy Dawidowicz once described my father, who had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, months of torture in the notorious Block 11 at Auschwitz, the cavernous underground tunnels of Dora-Mittelbau where Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rockets were manufactured, and Bergen-Belsen as “our Ancient Mariner, who passes, ‘like night, from land to land,’ with ‘strange power of speech’ to tell his tale to whomsoever will listen.”

And so it was for many of the survivors, each haunted by, at times obsessed with, his or her own memories. Some were able to impart them to others. Many were unable to translate them into words. And when they did speak, they lit a fire within us who were privileged to listen to and learn from them.

But now, they have entrusted the principal responsibility for preserving and perpetuating their memories to their children and grandchildren as a hallowed inheritance that we in turn must transmit to our and future generations, Jews and non-Jews alike, not with their fervor and intensity but with our own.

My mother died hours after the end of Rosh Hashanah in 1997. In my introduction to God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, the newly published book I had the privilege of compiling and editing for Jewish Lights Publishing, I describe how six months later, I took our daughter, Jodi, then a college sophomore, to Poland for the first time. She and my mother had been very close and had spent a great deal of time together as Jodi was growing up. We went to Warsaw and Krakow, and then to Auschwitz. It was a grey day, with a constant drizzle. I showed Jodi Block 11 at Auschwitz, the death block where my father was tortured for months, and then we went to Birkenau. We walked in silence past the decaying wooden barracks. After 15 or 20 minutes, Jodi turned to me and said, “You know, it looks exactly the way Dassah [which is what she called my mother, Hadassah] described it.” In that moment, I realized that a transfer of memory had taken place. My daughter, born 33 years after the Holocaust, had recognized Birkenau through my mother’s eyes, through my mother’s memories which Jodi had absorbed into her consciousness.

Many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have experienced this type of epiphany. For Stephanie Butnick, it came on a visit to what had been the concentration and Displaced Persons camps of Bergen-Belsen where “I learned about my grandparents from the friends they had made at the DP camp, who would become lifelong friends after they all immigrated to the United States. I heard stories—and saw archival photographs—of a theater troupe my grandparents were a part of, and I ate meals in the same dining hall they would have eaten in after liberation. Here, in this strange, unsettling place, I felt closer to them than I ever had.”

Dr. Eva Fogelman remembers sitting with her father on Cape Cod when he told her that the rose hip bushes beside them reminded him of the berries he had eaten as a partisan in the forests of Belarus. Aviva Tal recounts a story her mother once told her of how she and a group of other women inmates at the Ravensbrück concentration camp laughed while being forced to carry heavy loads of coal when one of them began to sing, in Yiddish, “I thank you Gottenyu, dear God, that I am a Jew.”

When Dr. David Senesh was a prisoner of war during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he thought of his aunt, the legendary poet Hannah Szenes, who had been captured, tortured and executed in wartime Budapest. “In October of 1973,” he recalls, “I felt myself, like Hannah, to be in the midst of a deadly vortex. There was no way of knowing who would survive that dreadful Yom Kippur and who would perish, who would die by water and who by fire, who by bullet and who by a shrapnel, who by a wound and who by imprisonment.”

Former New York Times reporter Joseph Berger remembers his father telling him at the Western Wall in Jerusalem that he was angry at God for taking away his sisters. And yet, Berger writes, “when I think about that conversation now, what stands out is not his anger but that he still maintained his relationship with God, like a child fleetingly furious at a parent but knowing the bond will never be broken.” In contrast, Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer recalls that his grandmother told her family in Melbourne, Australia, that, “If God takes such a good man as my husband, I’m not going to follow his laws.”

These and other defining memories and narratives are the sparks behind the essays in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes. Each of the contributors to this book received a unique legacy, and each put into words how this legacy has shaped his or her life, thoughts, mindset and career.

In the course of editing the book, I realized that despite their authors’ starkly different perspectives, they had one wholly unexpected common characteristic: an almost unfailing optimism. What seems to me to unite the diverse contributors - regardless of religious or political orientation - is a conviction that the legacy of memory we have received from our parents or grandparents is a source of strength rather than despondency, and a determination to apply that legacy in constructive, forward-looking ways that might inspire not just Jews but all human beings, especially those whose families have been the victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, or other dire catastrophes. The resilience of the survivors upon emerging from the Nazi death camps and other sites of persecution and oppression and their ability to not just rebuild their lives but teach their children and grandchildren by example to continue to have faith in humankind is evidence, to me at least, that a dawn follows even the darkest of nights.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, January 16, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Ask Big Questions: How Do We Love?

Friday, January 16, 2015 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Devan Sipher is a writer for The New York Times and is currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with his second novel, The Scenic Route.

How do we love, when we know that the person we love will eventually leave us, voluntarily or involuntarily?

For the last ten years, I have written about weddings for The New York Times. (In the movie 27 Dresses, the actor James Marsden was said to be portraying me, but with better hair.) So I have heard more than my fair share of couples vowing unmitigated passion and devotion. (Bridal couples aren’t known for understatement.) But every promise made on a wedding day has an explicit expiration date, i.e., “as long as we both shall live.”

Even at the moment when we are most focused on uniting with another person, we are also focused on the finite nature of that union. Without even addressing the many ways a relationship can deteriorate over time, the best case scenario for love is mourning the loss of the person we hold most dear (or being the one to leave that person bereft).

We hope that moment is many decades away, but it could just as easily be much less. Planes drop out of cerulean skies. Cancer cells invade supple tissue.

As Jews, we don’t believe in a hereafter where we have the opportunity to be reunited with loved ones. It would be easier if we did, but “dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” is not a philosophy that lends itself to romantic notions of an afterlife.

So love, like religion itself, becomes an act of faith.

We leap into love hoping that the joy we will gain offsets the pain we are likely to eventually endure. We gamble our youth and our vital energy on something that is invisible and inscrutable, all the while knowing that the more we cherish someone’s companionship, the more profound will be our loneliness in its absence.

So it’s no surprise that many hesitate at the altar of commitment. Books and blogs and women’s magazines overflow with tales of those unable to trust completely and love wholeheartedly. For many people, there is a fear of giving oneself completely and being depleted in the process. And to what end?

I have written about people who have lost spouses prematurely to horrible diseases. I have written about people who have watched loved ones wither physically and mentally over grueling months and years. It’s exhausting to merely contemplate the strength and stamina required.

But perhaps, like the physical body, the spirit only grows when it encounters resistance.

If we don’t run or swim or lift weights or spin, our bodies have a tendency to get lumpy and misshapen. And it is very possible the same is true for our souls. It is possible that the moaning and the crying, the hoping and the praying, and even the late-night binges on pints of ice cream all play a part in strengthening our souls. Of course, there’s no guarantee that we have souls. There’s no guarantee of anything about life, except for death.

And there’s the rub. Love potentially magnifies the existential pain of our mortality. Yet love is a force strong enough to allow us to believe we are more than just dust. When we love do we transcend the physical limitations of our muscles and molecules? Or do we fall victim to a cosmic Ponzi scheme? Is love a sign of a divine spark within us? Or is even asking that question presupposing things we can’t possibly know?

In the end, we don’t know. We hope. We fear. But we don’t know. Or at least, not until it’s too late. It would be the ultimate irony to be provided with the answers to life's questions on the threshold of death. And it would potentially be the ultimate loss. So maybe the question isn’t “How do we love?” but “How do we not?”

Devan Sipher is a writer of the Vows wedding column in The New York Times and the author of two novels. He has also written for other publications, including The Forward and The Huffington Post. He 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. For more, please visit www.devansipher.com.

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Interview: Sarah Wildman

Thursday, January 15, 2015 | Permalink

by Annette Gendler

Sarah Wildman’s Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, her story of looking for the woman her grandfather left behind, is a page turner. This is particularly commendable as readers will generally know the history of the Holocaust. The book, with its recounting of sometimes frustrating, exhausting, and contentious research efforts, ultimately is a memorial to one Holocaust victim’s fate.

Wildman’s doctor grandfather fled Austria in 1938, right after the Anschluss, along with his immediate family, while Valy, “the true love of his life,” as Wildman’s grandmother later called her, hurried back home to Czechoslovakia. Years after her grandfather’s death, American-born Wildman discovers a cache of documents labeled “Patients A-G.” It harbors Valy’s letters, full of love and, as time goes on, full of desperation. The letters end in 1941. Wildman sets out to find what happened.

Annette Gendler: What sent you on this quest to find out what happened to Valy?

Sarah Wildman: The discovery of the letters was, for me, immediately an opportunity to allow one person to narrate her story, as it was happening to her. Letters give readers a sense of what life was really like during this dark time—as it was being experienced. I wanted to use that immediacy and layer her words against my research on the restrictions that stripped her of her right to live a normal life.

AG: Why do you think it is important to some of us of the second or third Holocaust generation to piece together these stories of the past? Why this obsession to dig through archives to figure out the story of someone who’s not even a family member?

SW: This is the crux of the quest – how does the past inform our present? And our future? What do we need to know about the past to understand our identities today? For me allowing Valy to speak was incredibly important on two levels: First, the Nazi effort was to erase these voices, as well as these people, and here was this chance to upend that erasure, in some small, intimate way. Second, I knew Valy’s words were censored, but I set out to place them as much as possible in context – the restrictions, the day-to-day humiliations, the total terror of the time – so that, by immersing myself both in her world of words and her world of deprivation, I might start to understand what this period really was like, and then try to understand what it means for me. I have so often wondered who I would have been and what would have happened.

These were the words of a woman who felt so modern, so relatable, I wondered if telling her story would rescue a voice that might be a bridge to that period. You are correct – she is not a family member. The book is often called a family memoir – but in reality it is the un-family memoir. It is the family that wasn’t. The life my grandfather didn’t live, the woman he didn’t marry, so it’s not so strange to wonder who she was. Had he taken that path, I wouldn’t be here. Her very existence speaks to the tenuousness of all our lives, with or without war, and how we are here based on the choices of those who came before us, as well as geopolitical forces beyond their and our control.

AG:Your book speaks to the power of place. You went to some pains to visit places like Troppau, where Valy was from, even though you knew it would be greatly altered. Why was it so important for you to “be, simply, in Troppau, wander there, maybe run into elderly people, maybe catch some glimpse of the life of the late 1930s, navigate the city?” Why did you need to know exactly where her mother’s shoe store had been? Can’t a house be just a house?

SW: I love this question. For me this became a journey about what the French call – lieux de memoire – places of memory. I wanted to see how cities had gone on being cities, how they had swallowed up what had come before. It was like a walking archeological dig: there are layers of history in each place, and most often people have no idea at all what came before. But I wanted to see – as much as possible – what Valy and my grandfather saw as they walked out the door. If I could stand on the Ringstrasse and hear what they said to each other as the tram passed them by, on that early spring night just before the Anschluss, if I could walk into the courtyard of the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, if I could stand where she had once lived, I could feel that much more their presence. Also I wanted to see places where great trauma had taken place that were not concentration camps. There’s a moment when I realized that the last building where Valy’s mother worked in Berlin was a day care center and the children were deported while their mothers were at their factories. The image of this destroyed child-care center, on a street that is now filled with cool shops and art galleries, was unbelievably devastating for me.

AG: Paper Love also strikes me as a search for a lost culture, your grandfather’s Vienna. Do you feel, after spending so much time in the Vienna of today, that you have a better understanding of your grandfather’s world of the 1930s? Have you been able to reconcile, for yourself, your affinity for this city even though it is fraught with uncomfortable encounters, such as the still vandalized Jewish cemetery?

SW: I have often thought that what must have been most discomforting to my grandmother was not necessarily just the idea of Valy, though of course there was that, but that she could never exactly know the world from which my grandfather had come – not only because she wasn’t born there, but because so much that made vibrant Jewish Vienna so vibrant had ceased to exist after the war. Sure, there were Jews who returned, and yes, there were some Jews who remained. But the city of my grandfather’s youth had been leached of that breath and vitality that he had so thrived upon.

When I first visited Vienna, it felt so museum like, I couldn’t quite see how I would ever survive there. And then it began to open up for me; I began to love the streets, the streetcars, the difficulty. Surely, in part, the reason that I fell in love with Vienna was as much the obvious bits – the art, the Naschmarkt, the architecture, the opera – as that I had the marvelous opportunity to make friends there. With them I was able to navigate the city, and discuss its problems, in an honest way, with those who are of the third generation of Austria and Germany as well as Jews. Indeed, the night after I went to that cemetery, I went out with two close friends, and we talked well into the night. Without them the experience would have been far lonelier, and more terrifying. Strangely enough, later I realized the bar we ended up at that night was across the street from the grocery store my grandfather’s half-brother had once owned. Places of memory, everywhere.

AG: Your title, Paper Love, captures not only the trove of love letters that form the heart of the book, but also the fact that often a “small mention in [a] file […] might simply be the only evidence that a person lived at all.” Do you find it troublesome that our paperless generation won’t leave a paper trail? Nothing tangible?

SW: I have often thought that it is a shame that my children will not know the simple joy of, first, receiving a letter in the mail, and then, years later coming across that letter, and remembering who you were then, and who the letter writer was. I am of the generation that had a brief dalliance with paper and pen – when I lived in Jerusalem in college, I regularly exchanged letters with friends, all of which are still in a box in my parents’ home. I have the letters from high school, telling of loves and hates and stories all in a way a bit more conscious than we are now, in a our often disposable email world. So yes, I think we are strangely almost erasing ourselves, even in our crazy over-documented lives.

AG: Why did you choose to wrap up the book with the postwar years of your wider family, the stories of “unhappy survival,” rather than ending it with Valy?

SW: I wanted to come back, in some way, to the other people of the box, and also to the legacy of my grandfather’s previous life, and the choices they made after the war to suppress so many of their stories. I felt that to better understand their silence, you needed to see that there was a brief moment that they spoke of their pain in 1945, 1946 and then it was as if a collective decision was made to end that conversation, forever. But I wanted to know how those relationships had reconnected after an eight year silence, after the European apocalypse had taken place. For so many of them, they never had what Americans like to call “closure” – they never knew exactly what their loved ones had gone through. And that must have haunted them.

AG: After all this work, do you feel you understand your grandfather better? Or did your work, in the end, leave you with more questions that you wish you could have asked him?

SW: Honestly, both. I believe I now know far better the real man, versus the two-dimensional picture I had as his granddaughter. But I also want to know a great deal more, particularly how was he able to know what he knew, to have experienced what he had experienced, and still forever look forward, forever live with such optimism, with such joy? There is a letter towards the end of the book, written to his childhood best friend Bruno in 1986, in which he implores Bruno to live with “Entzuecken,” with delight. I love that letter. To live in the moment! How did he do that?

Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer. She has completed a memoir about the impossible love between a German and a Jew that happened twice in her family, once to fail during WWII, and once to succeed in her own life. An excerpt, “Giving Up Christmas,” was published in Tablet Magazine in December 2012. Visit her atwww.annettegendler.com.

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Preserving the Mystery

Wednesday, January 14, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Menachem Z. Rosensaft wrote about life after catastrophe. He is the editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing) and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote an article about Holocaust remembrance entitled “Preserving the Mystery” for the Forward. It was published there on April 28, 1995. I had all but forgotten it, but happened to reread it recently and was struck by its – to me at least – continued relevance and validity. My concerns 70 years after the Holocaust remain much the same as they were on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. And since I am quite certain that no one else will recall it, I decided to republish it here.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, our perspective on the past is undergoing a subtle yet perceptible transformation. Time has not diminished our grief. Our questions, whether addressed to God or to humankind, remain unanswered. But somehow, our horror and outrage seem to have eased, if not lessened. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, Babi Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto. Gas chambers, selections, partisans, yellow stars of David, crematoria, mass-graves. Names, terms and concepts that entered our vocabulary in a dramatic explosion of emotion have become almost too familiar. The sense of awe that once characterized even the most oblique reference to the annihilation of European Jewry has evolved into standardized, often impersonal reactions.

Not too long ago, the study of the Holocaust was the domain of an isolated few, most of whom saw their task as a solemn obligation to the dead. Now, historical accounts and memoirs devoted to this cataclysm, better ones, worse ones, are published regularly. Steven Spielberg's monumental motion picture, "Schindler's List," has made the subject truly fashionable, even trendy. Then there are the countless lectures, courses, sermons, articles. Life in the ghettos, faith in the camps, hidden children, love in the shadow of death, accusations of collaboration with the enemy, death marches, watching loved ones disappear forever, emotional reunions in displaced persons camps, survivors coming to terms with their loss, post-Holocaust trauma. No aspect of the Holocaust is left untouched, undissected.

While many of these works are important and factually accurate contributions to the historical record, others are flawed in a variety of ways. In a desire for drama, an author will occasionally expand on the truth. A minor participant in an uprising may be tempted, in writing his memoirs, to embellish his own role. A publisher, seeking to enhance a forthcoming book's appeal, may urge the writer to add some romance to an otherwise colorless episode. A less than meticulous historian may transpose a given occurrence from Auschwitz to Treblinka in order to streamline a particular argument.

As much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate. The historian who misrepresents it commits a greater transgression than one who shuns the topic altogether. The witness who testifies falsely, who distorts his or her experiences in any manner for even the most benign reason, effectively becomes the accomplice of those who try to deny that the Holocaust ever took place.

This is not to suggest that the current widespread interest in the Shoah is not welcome. But the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.

In Washington, D.C., the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum brings the full magnitude and complexity of the Holocaust into the consciousness of thousands upon thousands of Americans every single week. More than 4 million visitors have been to the museum since its opening two years ago. Most of them are non-Jews. Who among us could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago that American public schools and church groups would make reservations months in advance to visit a Holocaust museum? Who among us could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago that serious scholars would make Holocaust studies a respected academic discipline?

Why, then, is there also a sense of unease? Why am I, for one, not altogether comfortable with the popular appeal that the Holocaust has acquired? Perhaps because the experience must not be allowed to lose its aura of mystery. Objective, cognitive analysis alone is insufficient. As my friend and mentor Elie Wiesel has written, “Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history. What Auschwitz embodied had none.”

The Holocaust transcends ordinary human experience. It is the unprecedented, the unfathomable, and, above all, the inexplicable. Sober chronologies of dates, events and statistics are critical to our understanding but provide only one dimension. Histories of the Holocaust based exclusively or even primarily on German documents convey the intent and actions of the perpetrators but do not adequately reflect the experiences of the victims. Thus, ghetto diaries, underground newspapers and survivors' recollections are essential to any comprehensive narrative. And no one can penetrate the nocturnal universe of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen without absorbing songs, poems, nightmares and prayers that defy all standard historiographic methodology.

A barrack wall at Auschwitz contains the following inscription: “Andreas Rapaport—lived sixteen years.” Try to imagine this boy, realizing that he was about to die, as he tried to leave a sign, a memory of his existence on earth. In truth, Andreas Rapaport was the author of his own eulogy: Andreas Rapaport—lived sixteen years. Andreas Rapaport—abandoned, alone, afraid. Andreas Rapaport—hungry, in pain. Andreas Rapaport—with gas-filled lungs. Andreas Rapaport—burning flesh in the crematorium, black smoke, ashes.

With the passing of time, our mental pictures go out of focus, our collective memories become blurred. We all have memories, even we who were born afterwards. And they were once fresh. When my father told me how he was shot by the Germans while escaping from a moving train bound for Auschwitz, when he told me how his 80-year-old father died in his arms, when he told me how he was tortured in Auschwitz, every one of his experiences was sharply recorded in my mind. He died almost 20 years ago. And I no longer remember his words as clearly as I once did.

We all have memories of when we first realized the enormity of Hitler's Final Solution of the Jewish question, of the first time we tried to imagine members of our own families gasping for air in a gas chamber. But the years have mellowed our reactions. It used to be that we could not sleep for days after seeing a film about the Holocaust. Now, such films are shown on television late at night and no longer have the same impact.

As our knowledge of the Holocaust steadily increases, we must be careful not to become desensitized. As we perpetuate memory, we must also prevent it from becoming commonplace. There are times when even scholars must abandon their dispassion. Remembrance without emotion is hollow, and the dead deserve our anguish.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.

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Internal Dialogue: Book Programs and Community Partnerships

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Sunday morning I had the pleasure of participating in one of the smartest planning events I've seen since coming onto the JBC Network staff. (Book program coordinators, take note: each and every one of our member sites should hold similar sessions—on a regular basis—for your organization's entire staff and lay leadership across all auxiliaries.) Organized and facilitated by Rabbis Joshua Stanton and Karen Perolman of Temple B'nai Jeshurun of Short Hills, NJ, the Temple's first Community Partnerships Meeting brought a roomful of congregation leaders and members face-to-face with representatives from the organizations, agencies, and local businesses that TBJ works with in creating ongoing and innovating programming for Jews of all ages in the area.

Participating TBJ members joined for their active involvement (or interest) in the Temple's groups and auxiliaries, including:
Adult Education
Brotherhood
Early Childhood Center
Prime Time—"If you've got the time, we've got the program"
Religious School
Tikkun Middot—monthly learning around Jewish ethics
Tikkun Olam—community service and social justice programs
Women's Association

Following a round of introductions to familiarize auxiliary leaders with the community partners and the resources they offer—and to help the community partner representatives understand the missions and needs of each TBJ program—a round of planning "speed-dating" ensued: informal private consultations to discuss the opportunities for partnership between TBJ and outside initiatives. Jonah Zimles of Words Bookstore discussed upcoming events with local authors and the bookstore's unique programming for patrons and employees with special needs; Doris Cheng of Writers Studio brainstormed with Prime Time planners on how to increase enrollment in TBJ's writing courses; Beth Sandweiss of the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey emphasized the benefits of mindfulness, musar, and stress relief practices across all ages. The American Jewish Committee addressed the recent events in Europe and, of course, the Jewish Book Council presented anyone interested with our full trove of resources for book programs, from author tours to book clubs to reviews and web media.

The brilliance of this event lay in its tacit recognition of the diverse and often untapped array of opportunities for partnership between a Jewish community, religious, or education center and the organizations it works with. Calling in community partners ordinarily utilized for one specific group to meet with representatives from all of TBJ's programs brought fresh perspectives and sparked new ideas for engaging Temple members: mindful parenting workshops for young parents; a men's book club to revitalize discussion within the Brotherhood auxiliary; intergenerational, interfaith play readings in a local book shop.

It's important to remember—and to remind everyone you work with, across departments—that authors know so much more than the art of writing. They take subject matter and craft it into a story we can't put down, we can't ignore—precisely because those stories are at their core about us, because they hum along to our lives in a voice so distant yet so familiar that we can't help but stop to listen and, consequently, learn about ourselves and the people around us.

That's what a community is, too: the recognition of a common shared experience, with enough differences to effect and encourage learning and growth. Encountering others' family histories and relationships, the universal yet unique tragedies and triumphs that befall or bolster us all in such distinct, such similar ways, and our individual and collective tastes and values shape us personally and as a whole as we connect, disagree, and collaborate with one another. And what better to facilitate that interaction than a really good book?

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