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A Week of Jewish Literary Honors

Thursday, January 12, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It’s been quite a week in the world of Jewish literature: Jewish Book Council and the Association of Jewish Libraries both released major announcements on the same day, naming the books and authors to receive this year’s National Jewish Book Awards and Sydney Taylor Book Award medals!

Awarded in roughly twenty different categories each year, the National Jewish Book Awards honor authors of outstanding Jewish literature across a wide range of genre and subjects. Academic press winners for the 2016 National Jewish Book Awards include Michael Bazyler's Holocaust, Genocide, and the Law: A Quest for Justice in a Post-Holocaust World (Oxford University Press), Never Better!: The Modern Jewish Picaresque by Miriam Udel (University of Michigan Press), Anti-Jewish Riots in the Crown of Aragon and the Royal Response, 1391 – 1392 by Benjamin R. Gampel (Cambridge University Press), Extraterritorial Dreams: European Citizenship, Sephardi Jews, and the Ottoman Twentieth Century by Sarah Abrevaya Stein (University of Chicago Press), Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece by Devin E. Naar (Stanford University Press), Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food by Roger Horowitz (Columbia University Press), and Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders, and the World They Made (Princeton University Press).

Daniel Gordis’s Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn received the Everett Family Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year, and Michael Chabon was awarded Jewish Book Council’s Modern Literary Achievement Award for his lifetime contribution to Jewish Literature.

In fiction, winners included Rose Tremain for The Gustav Sonata (W. W. Norton & Company), Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Knopf Books for Young Readers) for Debut Fiction, and Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire (Harper) won the inaugural Debby and Ken Miller Award for Book Club titles. Stanly Moss’s Almost Complete Poems (Seven Stories Press) received newly dedicated Berru Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash for Poetry, and awards for Young Adult and Children’s Literature went to On Blackberry Hill, a self-published novel by Rachel Mann, and I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster).

CLICK HERE for the full list of 2016 National Jewish Book Award Winners and Finalists

Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley also received the Syndey Taylor Award Gold Medal for their children’s illustrated biography of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as did Gavriel Savit for his YA crossover debut. The Gold Medal was also awarded to Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly for The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog (Dutton Children’s Books). Silver Medalists included Richard Michelson’s Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy (Knopf Books for Young Readers), illustrated by Edel Rodriguez; A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards and illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Schwartz & Wade); A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Viking Books for Young Readers); and 2016 – 2017 JBC Network author Joel Ben Izzy’s novel Dreidels on the Brain. For the full list of 2017 Sydney Taylor Award winners, honorees, and finalists, read the official press release here.

Last week, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize 2017 Shortlist was announced, naming 2015 National Jewish Book Award-winner The Crime and the Silence by Anna Bikont (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Little, Brown & Company), Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933 – 1949 by David Cesarani (St. Martin’s Press), All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, and Philippe Sands’s East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, a 2016 – 2017 JBC Network book.

Jewish Book Council also recently launched the Natan Book Award, a two-stage prize to encourage writers in writing and promoting their work before it has been published. Do you have a forthcoming book of interest to Jewish audiences? Find out more about Jewish Book Council’s programs, resources, and awards for 2017!

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Brontë, Beyoncé, and the Case for Mediocre Adaptations of Great Literature

Friday, December 02, 2016 | Permalink

Internal Dialogue is a Jewish Book Council blog series on literary trends, ideas, and discussions of interest to Jewish readers and community organizers, curated by the Jewish Book Council editors and staff. Posted by Nat Bernstein.

The new issue of The New Yorker arrived earlier this week, but I’m still holding onto the last one; I loved reading Amanda Petrusich’s retrospective on the “resurgent appeal of Stevie Nicks” in The New Yorker’s November 28, 2016 over Thanksgiving. Writing about the ex-lover muses that inspired Nicks’ second solo record, The Wild Heart, Petrusich mentions that “Nicks frequently cites as a guiding influence for the recording sessions the 1939 film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which depicts an undying, almost fiendish love. Mostly,” Petrusich connects, “the songs are about bucking against the circumstances that separate us from the people we need.”

A songwriter inspired by a film adaptation of Wuthering Heights—I’ve heard this before.

In January 1978—half a decade before Stevie Nicks reunited with her ex-lover and Bella Donna producer Jimmy Iovine to put The Wild Heart together—a doe-eyed adolescent crooned her eerie debut through a thick brunette mop of bangs, instantly taking the British music scene by storm. No one knew what to make of Kate Bush, a soft-spoken young woman who blushed shyly through interviews and then walloped the airwaves with her hyper-stylized siren’s call, wailing to Heathcliff at the window in her first released single.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the difficult story of Wuthering Heights speaks so directly to songwriters: the saga of Cathy and Heathcliff is, of course, about the the potency of love and its potential to simultaneously drive and incapacitate those who plunge headlong into its deepest, darkest depths. It’s a story of self-destruction and despair—is there any romance that hasn’t been to some degree beleaguered by both? If music is supposed to express the core experiences and emotions of the human condition, “shouting ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree,” as Helen Fielding would put it, is probably a good starting point for translating the inner turmoil of thwarted or unrequited devotion.

“It was perfect material for a song,” Bush shared in one of her earliest interviews. “It was so passionate and full of impact. And I read the book,” she is quick to add. “Yeah, I read the book before I wrote the song, because I needed to get the mood properly.”

The original inspiration for the song had come many years earlier, when Bush caught the last couple minutes of television miniseries adaptation of Brontë’s masterpiece. She couldn’t have been older than ten years old at the time, but the image of Cathy haunting the windows of Thrushcross Grange captivated Bush, swirling around her imagination for the next decade of her life until she released “Wuthering Heights” in that uncanny voice over the keys of a Grand piano.

What is significant about Kate Bush’s artistic license—and likely Stevie Nicks’s, and many others, for that matter—is not that she was inspired by a work of classic literature: it’s that she was inspired by an adaptation of classic literature, and that it led her to the original source. Like how Beyoncé discovered the work of Bob Fosse from a video mashup of Gwen Verdon and two backup dancers syncopating across ‘60s television set with a DJ Unk rap song replacing the “Mexican Breakfast” jazz, which led her down a choreography rabbit hole and now we have the iconic cultural gem that is “All the Single Ladies”—one of the best videos of all time, according to Kanye West (and pretty much everyone).

Film and tv series adaptations get a bad rap. They are almost never as good as the book, and often fall far short of readers’ expectations. Listen, the “Mexican Breakfast” dance interlude wasn’t exactly Cabaret, either. But even if the copy isn’t accurate or fully representative of the original work, it provides a crucial access point. A young girl read Wuthering Heights after glimpsing a single scene from the book, reimagined on television late one night, and ended up amplifying the story ten years later with the first self-written song by a female artist to hit number one on the British charts—at the same time as one of the biggest names in American music was watching an early film adaptation of the same book on repeat, coaxing out the beginnings of her second solo project. Who knows how many readers first picked up the book after hearing Kate Bush’s song or learning how the story had inspired Stevie Nicks, but the perpetuating exposure isn’t really the point: the point is that in finding literature adapted to a different form, one person traced it back to its source and then produced her own creative expression of that work. However they find the books that take root, we want young readers to engage with literature beyond the act of reading: books are meant to shape how we perceive and inhabit the world around us, and encountering interpretations of great works—even the ones that disappoint—exposes the endless possibilities for making a beloved or newly claimed book truly one’s own and opens up new modes, voices, and media for self-expression and discovery.

When teachers show the movie adaptation of a book in their classrooms, it’s an intentional component of their curriculum: beyond providing a clear image of scenes, concepts, and characters for students who might struggle to piece together such elements in their own imaginations, guided screenings train young viewers to not only analyze the interpretation and creative choices of the filmmaker but furthermore consider how they themselves can re-relate the story and language of the book before them to their own lives, tastes, and artistic outlets. And for those who encounter these adaptations on their own—so much the better! In that spirit, here’s a list of classic and contemporary works of Jewish literature that made it onto the silver screen, the small screen, and now even the screens of the home computer, laptop, tablet, or handheld device—and some to look forward too:

Now Playing

Coming Soon

Critically Acclaimed Classics

Find an extended reading list of books that inspired films here!

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10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5777

Monday, September 26, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Image: Edel Rodriguez, from Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Each year produces a fresh crop of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual cleanse and personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Building on our recommendations from previous years, here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5777.

Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Even diehard Trekkies might not know the full extent of the Vulcan Salute’s Jewish origins, but Richard Michelson’s new children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy takes young readers straight to the source. Edel Rodriguez’s glowing illustrations of Cohanim with their hands raised during Rosh Hashanah services at the Boston shul eight-year-old “Lenny” attended with his father depict the images Nimoy would conjure from his childhood memories when he came up with Mr. Spock’s iconic gesture and greeting, “Live long and prosper.”


Among the Living: A Novel

The protagonist of Jonathan Rabb’s novel, a young man named Yitzhak Goldah, survives the Holocaust and lands in Savannah, Georgia, where cousins and their Conservative Jewish community welcome him with open arms. But Yitzhak’s discomfort among them becomes mutual when he courts a widow belonging to the neighboring Reform temple, and tensions between the two fractious congregations come to a head over tashlich services held on the same beach. Things get even more complicated for Yitzhak from there, but that’s all I’ll give away here!

White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between



Some of the most pivotal moments of Judy Batalion’s memoir occur on the Jewish High Holidays: she invites the man who would become her husband to her apartment for the first time for a Rosh Hashanah dinner with friends; she meets his parents ten days later, ending Yom Kippur in their Hampstead home, where Judy discovers that her bashert’s mother, too, is a hoarder much like her own—a moment she recalls years later to the day, returning home from services with her husband and daughter as a family.


Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious Rituals



Why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah? Why does it fall at such an awkward time on the calendar, and how do we interpret its definition in Leviticus as a remembrance of of the shofar blowing, zikhron truah, as the Jewish New Year? Why are we meant to observe Creation’s anniversary in a mood of “fear and trembling,” and could it be that Yom Kippur was intended as a joyous celebration? Where did the Kol Nidre and Ne’ila services come from, with no parallel customs for any other holiday? Rabbi Nathan Laufer addresses these and other questions in clear, text-based explanations for readers of all backgrounds.

Murder, Inc. and the Moral Life: Gangsters and Gangbusters in La Guardia’s New York



Reading Robert Weldon Whalen’s study of “real gangsters and reel gangsters” exposes how American popular culture has been—and continues to be—influenced by the 1940 and 1940 series of trials prosecuting members of Abe Reles’s Brownsville gang for murder, torture, and essentially any “illegal activity from which a revenue could be derived:” car theft, burglary, assault, robbery, fencing stolen goods, drug trade… The hearings and their outcome sparked a fascination with organized crime and its arbiters as a gritty but glorified symbol of moral evil, the ethical consequences and imprint of which Whalen explores chapter by chapter in this academic by thoroughly engaging read.

Good on Paper: A Novel

Rachel Cantor’s second book is the first novel she ever wrote, and a little less zany than the first one published—but every bit as steeped in Jewish history and ideas: our hero Shira Greene’s love interest is an ordained rabbi who runs the local independent bookstore and a failing literary magazine called Gilgul, named after the Kabbalistic concept of a person’s soul reborn in another body. But the strongest Jewish quality of the story, as Cantor highlighted in an interview about the novel, is the centrality of forgiveness in Shira’s development: “My understanding of the Jewish concept of teshuvah is about returning to one’s innocent self, although some call it repentance. Shira is going through such a journey. She must be courageous and allow people to be a part of her life again.”

One of These Things First: A Memoir

“Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there.” Steven Gaines’s memoir begins on a purposeful route through his grandparents’ lingerie shop, escaping the supervision of the sales ladies in his charge to slip out the back door and attempt to kill himself at fifteen years old. Admitted to the famed Payne Whitney clinic, Steven delivers a note confessing “I THINK I AM A HOMOSEXUAL” to a young resident and begins treatment to “cure” himself of his sexual orientation. The story ends with a difficult apology delivered fifty years later, which Steven struggles to accept, knowing that even his forgiveness will not be enough to enable the person seeking it to forgive himself.


Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s succinct reflections on over half a century of Jewish faith, practice, and leadership is indeed an “essential” read for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with lessons including “Leave Room for Doubt and Anger in Your Religious Outlook” and “Religion Is What You Do, Not What You Believe,” concluding with “A Love Letter to a World That May or May Not Deserve It.” Kushner’s chapter on forgiveness—as “a Favor You Do Yourself”—draws upon The Merchant of Venice, The Count of Monte Cristo, Joseph’s reunion with his brothers in Egypt, King David’s relationship with his wife Michal, the movements led by Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, and personal anecdotes from Kushner’s life and pastoral career around the High Holidays.

Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World



“Throughout my life and then eventually through my Jewish education that, frankly, only started in rabbinical school, I had alternately rebuked and implored God, despaired of and celebrated tradition, lorded my own righteousness over some teachings and stood in humility and even shame before the vastness and depth of the tradition. But now, my sister, my new son, the caregivers, and the children in this orphanage with me comprised a microcosm of love, tragedy, hope, apathy, brokenness, and healing—the shattered and the whole—the promise of Mount Sinai,” Susan Silverman shares at the moment she first meets her son Adar. “And in it I wasn’t God’s judge or God’s bitch. I was God’s partner.” Underlying Susan Silverman’s story of raising a family of biological and adopted children is a continuous theme of renewal and fulfillment, rooted in reflections on Jewish values, rituals, and proverbs. This memoir is a great selection for readers looking for an accessible, feel-good meditation on Jewish faith and spirituality for the High Holidays—just make sure to keep a pack of tissues handy.

Good People: A Novel

Israeli novelist Nir Baram’s Good People follows two characters at the time of World War II, a German in Poland and the daughter half-Jewish daughter of intellectuals in Russia, each working for their country’s government and intent on survival and success at any cost—even betraying those who saved them. Only in encountering each other, recognizing a similar genius between them, will they repent, but what does redemption look like in a time when nations and individuals alike seek only power and the destruction of their enemies?

Jewish Book Council wishes all our readers a Shana Tovah! Read a JBC Executive Director Naomi Firestone-Teeter's Rosh Hashanah letter from the JBC!

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15 Essential Essays and Interviews from 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

2015 was a rich year for Jewish literature of all genres, and its contemporary authors had plenty to share with readers beyond their books through Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe and interview series. With so much incredible content to explore in review of the past year, we'll start you off with fifteen highlight interviews, reading recommendations, and literary and personal essays on reading, writing, and Jewish identity from some of the leading writers of 2015!

1. Soon, I'll Know All the Words They Know

          by Parnaz Foroutan

It was uncanny, her portrait in black and white on the cover of the book and my own school picture. The same smile, the same cheekbones, the same nose. The same black, thick hair, cut just above the shoulders and held back by a barrette. And dark eyes, like mine. The book had small black words crowded together, page after page, bleeding through the pages, endless. I whispered the words of the title, tested their weight in my mouth, “Anne… Frank… Diary…” Continue reading »

2. The Doomed Generation

          by Joshua Cohen

After Numbers, nothing’s left. Deuteronomy isn’t a book, but what happens after books: just recaps (in case you missed the action since Sinai), summaries (in case you missed the action at Sinai), instructions (What Thou Shalt Do, and What Thou Shalt Not Do, Beyond Moab), and lists (The Top Ten Commandments)…

To read about Numbers’ doomed generation was to read about my own—a generation born in the 1980s enslaved to the page, but by the millennium freed by the screens, to search—or, in alternate terms, to wander. The Cloud now guides us by day and guards us by night, securing while surveilling—our manna is data, information, the content that never quite contents us. Because for all the sites of our sojourning, we keep moving on: nothing can hold us, nothing sustains. It’s as if we’re always seeking a site just beyond—a text that stills us, but that can still be passed on. Continue reading »

3. May As Well Be Called Jesus

          by Christopher Noxon

As an unofficial, unaffiliated friend of the Tribe, I found a certain freedom. I couldn’t don the prayer shawl or offer an aliyah at my kids’ bar and bat mitzvah, but with a few exceptions I was welcomed to participate. It was kind of great, actually. Friends born into it dealt with complicated familial associations or pangs of guilt or embarrassment as they made peace with their Judaism. Every prayer offered or dreidel spun conjured complicated memories of overbearing mothers, horrible Hebrew schools, and anguish over Israel. Their practice of Judaism was wrapped up in thorny questions of identity and heritage.

I had none of that. I could approach Judaism unburdened by questions of whether doing this practice or not made me a “good” or “bad” Jew. I could “do” Judaism, enacting the spirit of the practice without worrying about the labels associated with it. Continue reading »

4. Interview: Barbara Klein Moss

          with Nat Bernstein

Intrigued by a nefarious Jewish character in Barbara Klein Moss’s debut novel, Jewish Book Council sought to learn more about the sympathetic serpent in The Language of Paradise. Between comparing outrageous exegeses on the story of Eden and swapping slip-ups in transitioning between writing in arcane language and living in the modern world, the author offered insight into the Jewish experience of nineteenth-century New England and the complexities of casting a Jewish villain. Contine reading »

5. My Top 5 (Recent) Historical Novels

          by Janis Cooke Newman

Looking over my list, I notice that three of my recommendations are set—or partially set—during World War II, the time period of my own novel. When I started A Master Plan for Rescue, I had trouble finding anything new that was set during World War II—and I do remember searching. But lately, there’s been a bumper crop of wonderful novels set in that era. Which kind of makes you wonder what was in the cultural ether seven or eight years ago that prompted so many of us to write about the time period. Continue reading »

6. We're Living in a Golden Age of Jewish American Art and We Don’t Really Know It



          by Matthew Baigell

These are great times for those of us who support, encourage, and enjoy looking at art with Jewish themes. Perhaps never before are so many artists all over America finding inspiration in the basic texts of the religion—the Torah, the Talmud, kabbalah, and the daily and high holiday prayer books. The artists do not just illustrate these texts in traditional ways but challenge them, especially feminist artists opposed to male patriarchy, and find personal themes and subject matter that allow for personal flights of fancy.
Continue reading »

7. "An Age of Creative Readers Makes for Literature Which Is Immortal"

          by Nat Bernstein

Jewish Book Council is proud to announce the realization of its project to create a digitized archive of Jewish Book Annual in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, presenting over half a century of national discourse on Jewish literature in an interactive, searchable format to honor the 90th anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week.

Jewish Book Annual came into being in the midst of World War II, and the world’s events were very much present in the minds of the journal’s first contributors. From the perspective of the twenty-first-century reader, Volume I’s critiques and essays are almost overshadowed by the introductory notes from members of the National Committee for Jewish Book Week, stating the importance of ongoing Jewish literature and community engagement in the face of the Nazi eugenic terrorization of Europe. Continue reading »

8. Alluding to the Torah

          by Daniel Torday

My years as an undergraduate were neatly bookended by reading the two most highly allusive books of modernism. When the time came to write my own first two books, though, I found my system of allusion was nowhere near so broad. I have not tried my hand at getting down just a bit of Sanskrit, as Joyce did in Finnegan’s Wake (I’ve heard that there are as many as 60 languages used to some degree of competence in that novel, though I’ll never try to find out myself—not smart enough). I don’t have a strong sense of the Greeks, as Eliot did. What I had was the Torah. Continue reading »

9. Five Simple Ways to Be Good to a New Mom

          by Elisa Albert

Judaism has very clear, widely practiced proscriptions for how to support the bereaved, but strangely we don’t talk much about how we support women who are about to or have recently given birth. Which seems remiss, given that birth and death are so clearly on the same continuum, sacred portals at opposite ends of life. If how we process and honor death matters, then how we deal with birth must matter in direct proportion. Probably the Rabbis weren’t so concerned with how women get through the childbearing year because hey, the women had it under control. But given the dire state of childbirth and early motherhood in the here and now, perhaps it’s time we brought these issues into the light, so as to better address them. Here are a few simple ways to be decent to people who are working very hard to bring forth and nurture new life.
Continue reading »

10. Interview: Etgar Keret

          with Becca Kantor

“I don’t experience my fiction and nonfiction as short, but as concise. There is something very intensive and full of energy in my writing experience. I once said that, for me, writing feels very much like an explosion—and I haven't yet learned how to explode slowly.” Continue reading »

11. A Sacred Space

          by Michael Golding

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, from the age of eight until the age of thirteen, I was fetched after school and driven to “KI”—Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Northeast Philadelphia—to attend Hebrew school. Despite my efforts, the language never took. The primer was dull, and the strange hieroglyphics on the page failed to resolve themselves into meaning. When class let out early, however, I would slip into the dark, empty sanctuary and wait there until my mother arrived to take me home. I liked KI. The Bible stories we were told on Sunday mornings were stirring. The sermons of Rabbi Korn had the power to inspire. But the moments I liked best were the ones I spent alone—in the shadows—in silence—with God.
Continue reading »

12. I'm Telling Everyone

          by Judith Claire Mitchell

I suppose if it were a matter of life or death I’d lie about my background, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of who I am that sooner or later I always find myself waving my flag. It’s sort of like the old joke about the elderly Jewish man who enters a confessional and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beautiful woman. “But you’re Jewish,” the priest says. “Why tell me?” “Are you kidding?” the old man exults. “I’m telling everyone.” Continue reading »

13. The Land of Aardvark

          by Jerome Charyn

Has anyone ever really dealt with the Jewish underclass of the Bronx, where I grew up, next to the trolley tracks of Southern Boulevard and Boston Road? Some of us might look back with a kind of nostalgia, talk of a golden period, when families rambled around Indian Lake in Crotona Park, before Robert Moses ruined the borough with his super expressway. People ask me if the Bronx had ever been my playground. It was a little paradise of empty spaces, a garden where nothing would grow, except bitterness and regret.
Continue reading »

14. Memory Games

          by Sasha Abramsky

I have been a journalist for nearly a quarter of a century, and have, over the years, interviewed thousands of people. Yet my most recent book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books—a book that is, on one level, simply about the lives lived by my father’s parents; on another level a journey through the modern Jewish experience; and, on yet another level again, a portrait of obsessions—took me on an intellectual odyssey the likes of which I doubt I’ll ever again experience.

Writing The House of Twenty Thousand Books, for several years I immersed myself in the worlds, the dreams, the hopes and the fears lived by others. It’s a strange sensation. In some ways, the realities of those others became more real than were my own. The political passions, the bibliographic obsessions, the conversations of my grandparents and their friends and comrades, became the fabric of my daily life. I trained my mind to effortlessly wander bookshelves, containing thousands of books on both socialist history and on Jewish history, that had been emptied several years earlier, following my grandfather’s death; and I asked my palette to virtually re-taste culinary marvels conjured up by my grandmother Mimi in her kitchen a generation ago, to feed the many, many people who would descend on the House at 5 Hillway in north London for meals and conversation each and every evening for roughly half a century. Continue reading »

15. My Very Unorthodox Kabbalist

          by Sigal Samuel

Image from An Illumination of Blessings by Ilene Winn Lederer

To study Kabbalah, you’re supposed to be (a) forty years old, (b) married, and (c) a man. I am none of these things. Luckily, I grew up with a dad who was a professor of Jewish mysticism and was willing to share its secrets with me.

Raised in Montreal’s Orthodox community, I attended a school with strict gender norms. I was expected to obey all of Judaism’s 613 commandments. But, as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take an interest in the religion’s more esoteric branches. That didn’t stop my dad from giving me lessons in mysticism. Continue reading »

Think another post should have made it onto this list? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Writing Across the Linguae Francae of Midcentury Jewish America

Monday, November 23, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein


Jewish Book Council is proud to announce the realization of its project to create a digitized archive of the Jewish Book Annual in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, presenting over half a century of national discourse on Jewish literature in an interactive, searchable format to honor the 90th anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week.

Last week, contributing editor Nat Bernstein introduced the archives with a reflection on the first volume of Jewish Book Annual and its contributors’ awareness of world events in the midst of World War II. Understanding the Nazi’s mass extermination of European Jewry and the writers, artists, and scholars among them as the murder not only of people but of expression and the written word, the Annual called upon American Jews to take on the mantle of Jewish literature theretofore helmed by the names listed in the journal’s annual, tragically lengthening roster of “The Academy on High”.

Emerging from the same period, one of the more academically compelling features of the earliest issues of the Jewish Book Annual was the linguistic conversation between English, Hebrew, and Yiddish—then the linguae francae of American Jewry. Although today Jewish Book Council primarily works only with books in English or English translation, its mission and readership held different aims, interests, and consciousness over the midcentury years between the Holocaust and Israel’s claim for independence.

Reflecting on the reception of the inaugural volume, the publication’s editor, Dr. Solomon Grayzel, noted the following year: “Our Annual of 1942 was hailed as proof of the inherent unity of Jewish culture in the United States, despite the trilingual form in which our efforts—literary and educational—manifest themselves. To prove the existence of and to enhance this unity are, indeed, the twin purposes of the Jewish Book Council. It was created in order to provide a Cultural Exchange for the three linguistic groups in American Israel, all of which are American, all of which are Jewish, and all of which strive to enrich their common cultural heritage.”

To that end, the Jewish Book Annual originally featured not only sections written in each language but an intricate and thoughtful web of discourse and reference between them. Readers of one language were kept informed of the works published in the others, as well as of any translations made available in their own, over the previous year. “Apart from serving as a guide and a source book,” Grayzel wrote in the 1948 – 1949 issue, “the Annual serves to acquaint the users of one language with the literary products of the other two.”

Beyond promoting and enhancing Jewish literature among the broadest possible audience of American Jewish readers, this trilingual effort was rooted in a national clamor for unity as the events of the Holocaust, its aftermath, and Israel’s political and military struggle for independence raged overseas. “This year we have attempted to bring to our readers information about the new post-war developments in Jewish literature in Europe,” editor Abraham G. Duker highlighted in his preface to the 1947 – 1948 issue. “We have also discussed [...] the wisdom of more intensive coverage of different fields of Hebrew literature in different years in view of most fortunate cultural developments in Eretz Israel and the consequent large output of books, trends which we hope will continue uninterruptedly.”

This was not to be the case, as the following volume of Jewish Book Annual went to print in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence. “It is a source of deep regret that three articles on the Hebrew literary creativity in the State of Israel, that had been assigned to and accepted by outstanding Israeli personalities, have not been received as this book goes to press, undoubtedly due to the unsettled conditions there,” Grayzel continued in his introduction to Volume VII. “When these articles are received,” he promised, “the Council will find appropriate channels for their proper dissemination so that we can join in paying tribute to our brethren in Israel.”

Happily, however, the Annual’s dedication to its trilingual dialogue on American Jewish literature transitioned from determination and survival to a celebration of culture, heritage, and the arts as the Jewish American community flourished in a more peaceful world the next decade. “Yiddish lives in our Annual. Hebrew lives in our Annual. Jewish Art lives in our Annual. Books, books, books live in our Annual,” Ely E. Pilchik introduced Volume XIII (1955 – 1956). “As the fourth century begins for American Jewry, and the fourth or fifth millennium for the descendants of Jacob, Jews are writing in at least three languages—Hebrew, Yiddish and English. If there is writing there must be reading. From earliest times we Jews have hallowed history with דאס ווארט—הדבר—the word—oral and written. As long as we so hallow will our history be glowingly alive.”

Little did he know that one day it would be so literally glowingly alive off computer screens and even handheld devices displaying his own words in digital archives freely available and accessible to all.

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"An Age of Creative Readers Makes for Literature Which Is Immortal"

Monday, November 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein.

Fifteen years after Fanny Goldstein established the first Jewish Book Week at the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library in 1925, a national board for the annual event—held in Jewish communities throughout the country by its second year—was founded, with Goldstein as chairperson.

The National Committee for Jewish Book Week quickly observed the need for a wider conversation on Jewish literature than one week of book events a year provided. Within three years of the Committee’s establishment, Jewish Book Week was expanded into a month-long national festival, the National Committee for Jewish Book Week became the Jewish Book Council, and the Jewish Book Annual, a journal reflecting on the year’s events, figures, works, and community interests impacting Jewish literature and literacy, was founded in 1942. The journal ran for 56 years before transforming into Jewish Book World, Jewish Book Council’s quarterly magazine of book reviews, author interviews, and editorial perspectives on each concurrent publishing season.

Jewish Book Council is proud to announce the realization of its project to create a digitized archive of Jewish Book Annual in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, presenting over half a century of national discourse on Jewish literature in an interactive, searchable format to honor the 90th anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week.

Jewish Book Annual came into being in the midst of World War II, and the world’s events were very much present in the minds of the journal’s first contributors. From the perspective of the twenty-first-century reader, Volume I’s critiques and essays are almost overshadowed by the introductory notes from members of the National Committee for Jewish Book Week, stating the importance of ongoing Jewish literature and community engagement in the face of the Nazi eugenic terrorization of Europe.

“That Jewish spiritual productivity could have been maintained in the past year in the face of the tragic conditions confronting our brethren in the lands dominated by the Nazi barbarians, is a tribute to the creative genius of the Jewish people which knows of no cultural sterility,” Mordeccai Soltes, then chairman of the National Committee for Jewish Book Week, begins his introductory report on “A Year of Fruitful Activity” and achievement in regards to the reading, writing, and publication of works of Jewish interest:

“The fact that the pace of production has been considerably retarded in these countries of oppression where all claims of basic human rights are being flagrantly flouted by the forces of evil and lawlessness, imposes upon those segments of world Jewry that reside in lands of equality and freedom a much larger share of responsibility than they have borne in the past for the nurturing and strengthening of Jewish spiritual values. American Jewry in particular must become vigorously productive, to counterbalance in some measure the wanton destruction of European Jewish communities that have previously served as reservoirs of Jewish cultural influence from which we have drunk freely.

“To satisfy this compelling need in some degree the National Committee for Jewish Book Week was organized. It has aimed to revive among both young and old the traditional zeal for Jewish knowledge and custom of setting aside time periodically for the reading of the Jewish Classics as well as contemporary works; to inculcate in families an attitude of eagerness to spiritualize the atmosphere in the Jewish home by assigning a place of honor in it to a shelf or case of Jewish books, and discussing their contents informally around the family table; to further the judicious practice of augmenting constantly the collections in libraries of synagogues, schools, Centers and other Jewish institutions, and utilizing them to enrich the programs of clubs, study circles, formal classes, discussion groups, etc. Finally, it was felt that by extending the circle of readers more gifted authors would be stimulated to devote themselves assiduously to Jewish writing, thereby contributing ultimately towards the elevation of the standards of American Jewish literature.”

Others pointed to the significance of Jewish literature to the religious and spiritual experience of Judaism in the United States at the time—and since: “Jewish Book Week should serve to make us aware of our deficiency, to call our attention to worthwhile Jewish literature which is available, to foster within us a greater sense of responsibility as patrons of the Jewish book, and thus to help cure our pathological condition of spiritual illiteracy,” Israel Goldstein, then president of the Synagogue Council of America, chimes in.

“We generally speak of ‘creative writing.’ But there is also ‘creative reading,’” Louis Finkelstein adds:

“Creative reading is that type of reading which through the exercise of critical faculty and the demand for continually improved standards, stimulates writers to their best efforts. An age of creative readers makes for literature which is immortal. The periods of the great creative artists of the past may be said to have owed their distinction not merely to few particularly gifted men, but perhaps even more to the demands of a highly trained, intelligent, if limited public, able to influence the general taste.

“Our age cannot, generally speaking, be called one of creative reading, and today the most popular books are likely to be those of ephemeral value. The lack of interest in books on Judaism is a reflection of this general condition. Grave as the situation is for civilization generally, it presents a special danger to Judaism.I earnestly hope that Jewish Book Week will result in a larger public for literature on Judaism, including the real contributions that are now being made by writers in this country.”

Read the first volume of Jewish Book Annual below, or visit jba.cjh.org to browse the entire archive of Jewish Book Council’s earliest publications.

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No, I Have Not Read 'The Jew in the Lotus'

Thursday, July 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We all have one: that book recommended to us over and over again that we never read. Perhaps it becomes something of a personal badge past a certain number of echoed suggestions, or an internal protest against being repeatedly pigeonholed. I have little better reason than that, but it’s been nearly ten years since I was first asked if I’ve read The Jew in the Lotus—a question posed so consistently since then I can sense it forming before it’s uttered—and no, I still have not.

The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India is the 1994 bestselling chronicle of the 1990 dialogue at Dharamsala between Tibetan rinpoches and a delegation of Jewish Buddhists, scholars, rabbis, and mystics: thirty years into its people’s exile following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Central Tibetan Administration sought counsel from a council of Jews on organizing and mobilizing a diasporic ethnic and religious community into a nation that could thrive in the modern world. In an inspired and inspiring moment of interfaith collaboration, the Dalai Lama held a forum on how these two of the world’s oldest religions had managed to withstand both time and persecution up to the present day, and what they could learn from each other’s histories and models for the future. Kamenetz’s account of the encounter found a wide, passionate audience among Jews, Buddhists, clergy and adherents of all faiths, and anyone interested in the unlikely survival of a small, esoteric religion and what wisdom it could impart on another of its kind, facing the same challenges two centuries apart.

Monday was the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, an occasion commemorated through the week across the globe and with special fervor in New York City, where he is celebrating his reincarnativity among the Tibetan denizens of the City and pilgrims from afar—among them my best friend from high school.

Tenzin had been forcibly enrolled in an ESL course at the start of our Freshman year, at the same large district school where I took an accelerated language program that our home school did not offer. We would wait for the bus shuttling us back to our small, alternative high school with our winter coats on backwards, a lazy accommodation for the backpacks we couldn’t be bothered to take off or adjust from the moment we left our classrooms on one campus until we took our seats in opposite corners of the Science lab we shared at the second. We built a cursory friendship on complaining to each other about our respective morning waste-of-time enrollments—until Tenzin successfully tested out of the unnecessary ESL class and I switched to an independent study, continuing my studies through classes at the local university instead. By the spring semester of our Sophomore year we were coordinating our schedules to take all of our electives together, claiming the far corners of classrooms, sitting in the windowsills and snapping our gum against our teeth. Anything that could not be graded we shared only with each other: our (blessedly angst-free) forays into creative writing, our most embarrassing, unconquerable crushes, stories from retreats and shabbatonim and their most tantalizing unchaperoned moments, questions of identity and the values with which we’d each been raised.

The first place I drove as a licensed motorist was to Tenzin’s house, the same afternoon I passed my driver’s test. We celebrated over a classic Bollywood movie and Frooti frozen into mango popsicles we scooped out of their severed juiceboxes with the straws. We spent our Senior year sitting comfortably at separate tables in the classes we shared, operating from opposite ends of the room in our benevolent unified reign over the school. Tenzin held court among the athletes, the jocks, Model UN, Black Student Union (there wasn’t much other support for students of color), the funky girls, the girls who had tried out cheerleading for a neighboring school Freshman year, the guys whose parents were frequently out of town and purportedly oblivious to the SOLO cupped parties reliably thrown in their absence; I kept company with the musicians, dancers, artists, and stoners in and about the studios on the first floor, the Science Olympiad and Mock Trial competitors, the editors of the satirical school newspaper, and the uninhibitedly brilliant clowns cramming in the same credits I was catching up on over our final semester of high school. (We left the theater kids to themselves.) We would converge on the back lot where only seniors were granted parking spots around the large grass square that was the hub of social activity (for as long as it was cleared of snow); we sat on the hood of Tenzin’s car and caught each other up on the affairs of our peers, favorite teachers, families, and selves each day before heading home.

These are the examples I gave when a more newly acquired friend asked what my relationship with my high school best friend “does for me.” It was an awkward question to consider—What does any friendship “do” for a person?—and it became frustrating evident that these memories were not answering what was meant by it. “I mean, what do you two find in common?” It took me a while to connect that this unsatisfied curiosity about an observant Jew’s friendship with a Tibetan Buddhist was at its core just a variation on the old classic: “Have you read The Jew in the Lotus?”

Throughout high school and since, every time someone from my nuclear and extended Jewish community met or heard about Tenzin, invariably I would see the inquiry scrawled their intake before the blurt as soon as the word “Tibetan” dropped. The Jew in the Lotus (and, indeed, the dialogue it chronicles) is by most accounts an excellent work, and an interesting, provoking piece of modern interfaith history involving some of the most revered Jewish leaders and thinkers of our time—a concentration of my personal heros among them—yet I still cringe every time someone insists I must read it. It’s a recommendation that reduces a significant relationship in my life to a perceived experiment, as though it developed out of a philosophical fascination with another culture instead of an innate and deep affinity between two people—who just happen to each come from rich and somewhat unusual heritages. Our friendship is not a project; it is not founded on some mission of mutual understanding or a quest to solve or contemplate the future of the nations we belong to. One assumes I’ll appreciate The Jew in the Lotus because it addresses so many of my “interests”—but my best friend isn’t an interest, and to suggest so is a subtle yet troubling exotification—on the shallow yet slippery end of the spectrum of dehumanization—of a person very dear to me.

But the cultural exchange is indeed part of our relationship. We connected as teenagers over being raised in traditional households and belonging to small and stretched communities steeped in custom and faith. We spend holidays together with each other’s families as often as we can: Losar, Sukkot, Shabbat, rinpoches’ teachings. We learn more about our respective cultures’ death and wedding rites as those events become increasingly relevant to our lives. We continue to discuss our personal musings on identity, of diaspora, of peoplehood together; we slip into the languages and names we use only at home and pick up each other’s foreign phrases and scattered words; we fill each other in on the political or violent moments facing our communities and the histories and complexities behind them.

Today the Dalai Lama begins a series of teachings for the people honoring him on his accession to octogenarnia. If I can make it out of the office in time, I will be joining his audience—not to carry out some interfaith agenda, not to observe a foreign sacred space, but to sit with my friend’s family at an occasion important to them, without any thought beyond that as to what it means to be a Jew in the lotus.

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Internal Dialogue: What's With All the Social Justice Seders?

Thursday, April 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I’m afraid to admit it, but I have little patience for Passover. Almost none. And the seder least of all.

Don’t get me wrong: I observe the holiday to the letter. I clean out the house, sell my chametz, and subsist on a standard diet of matzah, cream cheese, and eggs with the variable vegetable and odd protein for the entire week, and I not only endure but participate in both seders with my family as I have done since the good ol’ Ma Nishtana days. And I hate every minute of it.

Partly, I just don’t do well with structure. As both a product and proponent of alternative education, I struggle with the hours of prescribed “order” that we’re all forced to adhere to on this so different a night: stand up, sit down, lean to the left, say this, drink that, eat this, eat that, now sing… It feels more like a rigid second grade day school classroom than a meal, let alone a celebratory feast. And, much like that same second grade classroom, the strictly regimented agenda doesn’t yield proportionate efficiency—in fact, it feels, just the opposite.

Mainly, though, it’s the repetition that gets to me: the required regurgitation of the same story year after year. It’s gone from boring to insufferable and at some moments even oppressive—and that’s just the impatience, before the late hour or physical hunger sets in—but I bear through the retelling two nights in a row every year because that part is unquestionably essential to Judaism and Jewish identity—for, as we know all too well, in every generation one must see oneself as though they, too, left Egypt.

There are many in the Jewish community who have chosen to interpret that imperative as a summons to reflect on the events and ills of our lifetime and more recent history: college chaplains organize “freedom seders” joining Jewish and black students on campus; women convene on feminist seders and family members clash over current Israeli policies; rabbis at the pulpit bring up the uncomfortable realities of slavery in our time—on that note, if you read one other essay today, make it this one (although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t written by a rabbi).

The seder also becomes a fertile millennial arena for the social justice bender Jews in their twenties and thirties are on with renewed fervency at the approach of every holiday. This year more than any other (yet), social media housed countless queries and responses for social justice haggadot and supplements—Jewschool.com, for example, assembles their top ten picks of new social justice-themed Passover resources each year—and that’s a wonderful thing. But even with the obvious parallelable narratives of freedom and oppression, there’s something curious about an entire generation insisting on telling a multitude of other peoples’ stories on a night we’re supposed to focus entirely on our own one. Is the Exodus somehow less meaningful, less critical to Jewish history or the modern experience, if it isn’t directly relatable to the world around us and its victims? Why on this night do we continue to layer stories on top of the one we’re required to tell?

Reading The Lost Book of Mormon (it’s a Jewish book—very Jewish, I promise, bear with me here) I was inspired to think of the social justice seder phenomenon in terms of a book—more accurately, in terms of a book series, or any narrative-driven franchise. In relating new stories and new struggles to the Passover narrative, these supplements create a sequel to the Exodus. Seder participants take one of our most glorious tales and stretch it across centuries so as to continue to enjoy the original by connecting with not only to the story but the storytelling itself. As Avi Steinberg observes in in his new memoir:

Maybe our tendency to make sequels is somehow embedded in how we think. Just as we want and need a story to end, we also want and need a story to never end. We make sequels as a way of bringing our stories closer to life. As a matter of convention and convenience, stories have endings, but if we were to tell them honestly, stories would never end, just like life, whose dramas dip in and out of time and memory, are recalled, shared, stolen, reprised, recovered, revised—anything but neatly concluded. A sequel may well be a deformed kind of story, a pale likeness—as its critics have long charged—but even if it’s silly or tragic or nobly deluded or tainted by a shameless profit motive, or, more likely, all of these at one, then all the more is it like life.

Steinberg’s rumination on the sequel began with watching new episodes of The Simpsons at his laundromat and realizing that in two decades since the show premiered, nothing in the animated world of Springfield had ever changed, its denizens stuck in a bright, eternal Groundhog Day:

Sequels don’t necessarily believe in progress, but they do insist on the passing of time, or at the very least a change of place. By contrast, a serial like The Simpsons can remain in a state of animated paralysis for eternity.

Critic Terry Castle has described sequels as tragic because they are motivated by a desperate human need to reproduce the original sensation of some pleasurable experience, an impulse, a “mad hope,” she says, that is fated to miserable disappointment. But when I saw Bart still throwing spitballs at Springfield Elementary over twenty years later, that to me seemed like the tragedy of repetition: Sisyphus on a skateboard.

At the Passover seder each year, Judaism makes that same attempt to reproduce the original sensation of one of the greatest miracles ever witnessed by our ancestors: the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, by the hand of God. But the haggadic retelling isn’t a sequel; it’s a loop; it’s Bart Simpson’s same old antics week after week; it’s forty years circling the same patch of desert. We know that experience all too well—and how it can lead to communal loss of faith, rebellion, kvetching, and even idol worship [see: Golden Calf].

In finding a sequel to the Passover story—in the histories and current issues of Civil Rights, feminism, and modern social justice movements—perhaps we restore our faith by breaking out of that cycle, just enough to bring it closer to life. It reifies that the story didn’t end—that the story of the Jewish people didn’t end—with Exodus, that it is an evolving legacy rather than an outgrown or outgrowable childhood tale. We want to relive the experience of leaving Egypt without despairing of it, without growing bored, without losing appreciation for this among the narrative pillars of Jewish history.

The power of the sequel, Avi Steinberg discovered, “meant that the old biblical saga wouldn’t simply replay forever but somehow, some way, find a way out, maybe even a way forward. It boldly reentered the original and steered it in a different direction. Maybe the sequel isn’t the tragedy of repetition: it’s a solution to it.”

So maybe I just need to find my Passover sequel. Maybe one day I’ll write my own.


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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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Spicing Children's Literature with Jewish Humor and Jewish Life

Friday, November 14, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The 16th Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Seminar was held on Sunday, November 2nd at the Jewish Book Council offices in New York City. An intimate gathering of 30 or so authors and artists spent a full day workshopping and learning about different facets of children’s book publishing.

Book designer, artistic director, and children’s author Claudia Carlson kicked off the seminar with a keynote speech about her personal trajectory climbing the ropes in a very difficult industry. Claudia’s tenacity—necessary for any aspiring illustrator, designer or writer—immediately struck and resonated with her audience: unable to find the kind of work she desired upon entering the publishing world, Claudia enrolled in as many workshops and courses as her schedule allowed, took jobs in departments she had never considered before, and spent her lunches browsing bookstores to “research” how other designers approach books. “A good book cover will make someone pick up a book already asking a question—but none of it can make up for bad writing,” she observed.

Claudia named Uri Shulevitz’s Writing with Pictures as the ultimate resource for illustration and book design, and recommended taking calligraphy courses to sharpen one’s eye across the page. Book covers are more about typography and design than art—Claudia recalls a former mentor repeating, “Stop illustrating the cover!” over her drafts—and the interiors have to be set to match the stories they contain. “Good book design is like a table setting,” Claudia quipped, “people should remember the food and conversation, not the plates. A good designer illuminates the words and pictures, never overpowers them.”

Seth Fishman and Shira Schindel followed with a split presentation on researching and querying literary agencies and exploring e-publishing options. Seth, a literary agent and current JBC Network author, offered earnest advice on finding the right agent—“An agent works for you: if you’re with the wrong agent it can really burn your career. You want to find a partner in your agent; editors, publishers come and go, but agents take their clients with them wherever they end up.”—and outlined the optimal query letter. Seth has noticed a “direct correlation between research and quality of writing,” observing that authors who have clearly put in the time to learn about the agencies their querying and the industry in general ten to prove the better writers in the “slush pile.” Shira, who heads acquisitions for Qlovi, heartily agreed with Seth on the importance of making a strong impression from the slush pile, mentioning that most firms assign interns to sort through all query letters for standouts. She discussed the advantages and drawbacks of e-publishing and digitally-enhanced books, comparing different sites and sources—and their terms.

Freelance journalist and children’s book review Penny Schwartz facilitated an author panel featuring Leslie A. Kimmelman, Linda Marshall, and Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum. Leslie’s career in Jewish children’s book writing grew out of a personal need for a vibrant library for her own children. “At the time, there was only Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, All-of-a-Kind Family, and Zlateh the Goat. The only Jewish children’s books when my kids were growing up were pedantic, dated, and small-press.” She recalled her children asking her why Charlie Brown celebrates Christmas as an example of how few literary characters existed to whom they could relate during the holidays. “I think it’s really important for kids to read Jewish books that aren’t about the shtetl or the Holocaust—non-Jewish kids, too—in order to teach children about Judaism, and to teach non-Jews about Judaism.”

Linda agreed, adding that she frequently hands her book to non-Jewish parents—even ones specific to Jewish holidays or history. “The Jewish values and Jewish stories I write about are applicable everywhere, to everyone; I’ll hand The Passover Lamb to the man who runs the newsstand on my way to work—and he’s definitely not Jewish—and ask him for feedback, what his kids think of the book.”

“I really want to develop a library of books that speak to Jewish children,” Leslie followed up. “Books that are universal but just happen to be Jewish; characters are doing Jewish things, but that’s not the focus.”

“It’s like a spice when you’re cooking something,” illustrated Andria, whose own desire to be a writer arose out of a love for the sound of literature from listening to her father read science fiction and Robert Louis Stevenson novels aloud. “You have this delicious spice that will enhance the book, the story, but you add too much and it tastes terrible.”

“I happen to think it tastes great,” Leslie chuckled, “but maybe other people just don’t like the spice! The characters that always stuck out to me—even now—are the villagers of Chelm: every time I read a Chelm story I think it’s hysterical. Jewish humor is so distinctive, and such a wonderful device for children’s literature, especially. I could it eat it by the bowlful.”

After bowlfuls of actual food, following the lunch break Vivian Newman from the PJ Library presented on how children’s books teach and transmit social and moral lessons. Children acquire values through discussion, role models, and experimentation with different behaviors—and books serve as a vehicle for all three. “Reading with children presents an opportunity to bring up issues or ideas that might not arise in daily life; characters serve as role models and anti-role models; and parents can use books to show a child what interests them and other adults in the child’s life, on top of presenting new perspectives that the child might not encounter elsewhere.”

Claudia Carlson returned for a Q&A session together with Penguin Random House editor Avery Briggs to answer questions about what they each look for in a manuscript and the shift in children’s book publishing to accommodate the Common Core.

The presence of several Jewish Book Council Board and staff members—including Jewish Book World’s Children’s & YA section editor Michal Malen—exhibits the Jewish Book Council’s dedication to the reading, writing, publishing, and distribution of Jewish children’s literature. See what children’s and YA titles been reviewed in the most recent issue of Jewish Book World and the full index of starred children’s reviews online, and contact the Jewish Book Council through the form below for more information about next year’s seminar!

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