The ProsenPeople

The Importance of Intersectionality

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, has been guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Many years ago, when we still lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, my older daughters had the privilege of attending Jackson Magnet—at the time, a K-6 school with a large population of students from Southeast Asia. I never ceased to be awed by the cultural richness of Jackson Magnet, so unlike the homogeneity of School 18, the neighborhood grammar school I attended as a child growing up in Troy, New York. My daughters had several Hmong friends there. Like the great-grandparents they never knew, these friends were immigrants who fled their homelands. Through them, my daughters caught a feel of their own history.

What’s more, Jackson Magnet inspired me to write an early chapter book series called The Jackson Friends. It centered on the friendship of three girls: Pa Lia, Howie, and Calliope. Pa Lia, as you might guess, is Hmong. Howie is African American. Calliope James, with freckles and a gap between her two front teeth, is a Northern European mix. Pa Lia, Howie, and Calliope sprang forth as characters directly from the world I observed at Jackson Magnet.

Here’s an interesting anecdote, and the reason I bring The Jackson Friends into this post. One summer, while I was working on the series, my youngest daughter Leila, who did not go to Jackson Magnet, attended a day camp held at St. Thomas University near our home back then.

“Mom, there’s a girl in my group who looks just like Howie,” she kept telling me. “You have to meet her.” One day, I did. Howie’s twin was Caucasian. What Leila saw was a kid like Howie, kind with a warm smile. This surprised and delighted me on many levels. Lelia was already so well-versed in religious intermarriage that when she met a Jewish kid at camp, she always asked “half or whole?” [I promise you she did not learn that from her parents.] Still, when she thought of Howie, she did not think about the color of her skin—half, whole, or any other percentage.

When I wrote A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, I thought a lot about Mrs. Goldman and Sophia. I wanted to explore their relationship and the love they had for each other. The details of their backgrounds were, at first, incidental to the larger story of their friendship just the way they were to Pa Lia’s, Howie’s and Calliope’s friendship in The Jackson Friends.

There are obvious signs of ethnicity throughout The Jackson Friends. Mrs. Goldman’s wool is scented with the smell of her chicken soup. Her speech is peppered with mitzvahs and keppies. Then there’s the scratchy hat that Sophia finds when she looks through the hall closet. It’s one that her abuela wore in Mexico. Aside from those mentions, the reader can visualize other differences through the tender images offered by Brian Karas, the book’s illustrator.

What does intersectionality like this mean for the Jewish community?

Well, I am merely a mother, and a children’s book writer, not a sociologist, a historian, or even a political commentator. So what I can tell you from my dusty corner of the universe is that for me, intersectionality means hope. For all of us. That’s why I find myself revisiting it in my stories. There is great hope when we see beyond race, gender, and age. There is great hope when we open up to each other’s worries and march for our collective justice.

In my heart, and in my book, A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, another great hope comes from the kindness of wool and two sticks. Sophia Hernandez struggles through knitting a hat because someone has a very cold keppie. Someone she loves. She and Mrs. Goldman are more than neighbors, their lives are intersected. It is that intersection which makes their story about knitting and love.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.

Sophia and Mrs. Goldman

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

“Why did you make Sophia Latina?”

That’s a question I have been asked several times in interviews about Sophia Hernandez, the protagonist in my newest book, A Hat For Mrs. Goldman. At first, I was surprised by that question. I hadn’t thought about why I made Sophia Latina. I just thought of her that way. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t Sophia be Latina or Hmong or from the Congo like many of the students my husband now works with at our local high school? They are here. They live with us. Our lives intersect, and at that intersection is a story. Why wouldn’t Sophia be a character in my books?

Still, I know why I am asked that question. But equally important, I think, to having a diverse character, is the depiction. The roundness and believability of that character. If I had been asked about that, how I was able to make her universal in her needs and wants, I would have a very different answer. It turns out that although I have always been interested in creating books that show diversity, I didn’t always understand what that meant. Many years ago, when I was working on La Pa Lia’s First Day, the first book of my Jackson Friends series, I had a chance to read an early draft to a small group of St. Paul school kids. The kids were part of Meera’s class—my oldest daughter—and included her Hmong friend, Kabo. In the ways that we share our lives with our school buddies, Meera told Kabo that I was writing a book about a Hmong girl. At that time, there were no children’s books with Hmong characters. Before I met with the group, I knew Kabo was anxious for my story. I had not really understood until I saw her anticipation that I was about to disappoint her. As I read my draft, I realized I had created a flat, almost folktale character. How had I missed that? After, I would change Pa Lia, make her worthy like Kabo. When I wrote A Hat For Mrs. Goldman, I knew that Sophia was Latina. I didn’t worry about her worthiness because I had learned a great lesson from writing about Pa Lia. I knew I could get Sophia right if I listened to her story, and followed her emotionally.

Of course, Americans need diverse books. We need to read about Pa Lia’s first day of school worries and Sophia’s relationship with Mrs. Goldman. We need the everyday in our books to reflect our everyday world. That means we also need diverse books for our young Jewish readers. Our Jewish communities are diverse, and our world, our country, our towns, and the neighborhoods we live in are diverse. We need books that tell all our stories and show us how we all connect.

That’s why Sophia is Latina.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Check back tomorrow to read more from Michelle Edwards.

Knitting and Love

Monday, June 26, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

I have been knitting all my life, since the age of five or so. Much of what I have done, I have done with my needles at the ready. So, it makes sense that I would have some stories to tell about knitting and life. Still, it took me a long time to realize this, and to tap into the well, which now often feels bottomless.

It was 1997 and I was at a small exhibit with Serge Klarsfeld’s collection of photos of French children who perished in the Holocaust, when I discovered how much of life I had viewed as a knitter. The show was in St. Paul, Minnesota, where my family lived back then. My kids were young—too young, I thought, for the bigger questions and stories about the children. So they stayed home. Instead, I asked my husband to join me. We went out to lunch first, then we walked to the exhibit. There were many noisy school kids there. Looking back on it, I wonder how they felt when they saw the black and white photos from decades before, clearly not American kids like themselves. Well, that’s another topic. Let’s make this one about knitting.

What I am sure of now, though, is that we each saw something deeply personal. And, in my case, knitterly. Among the photos, there were snapshots of the Jewish French children, sometimes with their mothers, clearly wearing some hand-knit item, like a sweater. I knew what having something handmade just for you meant. In the long and cold Minnesota winters, I had knit plenty of warmth for my own children. They came with me to yarn stores and cuddled skeins to test for softness and spring. They helped me sometimes, winding the wool into balls, so that they were easier to knit from. They took off their socks and let me measure their feet for more socks that I was knitting them. They allowed me to mess up their hair, all for the sake of getting the hat to fit.

We had a unique relationship that was all about making for them, loving them in a wooly way. That is what I saw in those pictures. Clearly, the child in the beautiful sweater was loved the way I loved my daughters. Fiercely. This child had been to yarn stores the way mine had. Maybe, on a bitterly cold day she might have picked the softest, warmest wool in the store, an expensive alpaca indulgence reserved for our heart-songs. As it was being knit, she might have tried that sweater on endlessly, so the knitter, the mom, the grandmother, could get the fit just right.

I could see their lives through my knitter’s eye. I felt their untold stories in those pictures so deeply I could barely move. Eventually, I started to write about knitting, shyly, at first. Then came many, many stories. In fact, sometimes I need to button-up when I am in yarn stores, at fiber gatherings, or around other knitters. They mention a knitting problem or a wooly discovery, an entanglement with yards of finely spun whatever, and I smile instead of letting them know how I wrote about that once.

I had planned this post to be a knitting story somehow tied to my latest book, A Hat For Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting And Love. But here I am, nearly at the end of the story I had wanted to tell, and only now, through finally writing down about that day, do I realize how the two stories connect. Knitting and Love. That’s it.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Check back tomorrow to read more from Michelle Edwards.

My Father’s Letters

Friday, June 23, 2017 | Permalink

Ronna Wineberg, author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

After my mother died six and a half years ago, at 84, my father did not want to live in their house alone. They had lived in a small house near Chicago for fifty five years, and raised two daughters there. He came to live in New York with me for a few months, and my sister and I had to decide what to do about the house.

He wanted to move to a senior community in the same town where he’d lived. He didn’t want to spend time in the old house or sort through possessions. They reminded him too much of my mother. My father didn’t say this, but it was clear that the house, which had been a happy place, was full of sadness for him now. After she died, he wandered around the house in a way he never had when she was alive or he just sat in the kitchen. The house felt empty of her presence, yet somehow full of her presence.

My sister and I consulted with him, but she and I took over the task of selling the house. We had to find a realtor, set a price, and prepare the house for sale.

This was a difficult time. We were all grieving my mother. But the task of dismantling the house had to be completed and done quickly. My father moved to an apartment in the senior community, a trial, to see if he would like living there. In the meantime, my sister and I began to clean the house, go through closets, drawers, cabinets, shelves, our parents’ lives. There was so much emotion and discovery. Fifty-five years’ worth of possessions were crammed into the rooms.

As a writer, I find that my emotions sometimes make their way into fiction. This doesn’t always happen, and I often imagine emotions, but it happened with the house. In my new collection of short stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, there are two stories about a parent’s death and cleaning out a family home, “Relocation” and “Excavation.”

I was astounded by the things we found in my parents’ home: cards, letters, invitations from sixty years ago, war savings bonds, old photos, old clothing—even my mother’s home-made wedding dress. So much family history. I imagined other objects one might find and other scenarios; these made their way into the stories. The stories are fiction. What is true about them, though, is the emotion—the feelings of loss, letting go, the discovery of a parent’s past that a child may not have known about.

Over the course of months, my sister, some cousins, my children, and I cleaned the house. In a small room in the basement, my father’s office, we found a bulging manila envelope in a pile of papers. Inside the envelope were letters he’d written home from the army during World War II. Some were written on thin pieces of paper, airmail stationary, in his tiny scrawl. He wrote to his mother, sisters, and brother, sometimes just to a sister, about what it was like to be a soldier at that time in history and time in his life. I discovered he wrote beautifully.

My father was a quiet man and often listened when in a group of people. He had a great sense of humor and intelligence. He owned a wholesale store in Chicago where he sold men’s clothing and later was a manufacturer’s representative for a company that imported men’s clothing. The family story is he had wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but his father died when my dad was seventeen. My father helped support the family then and took over the small dry goods business.

He was responsible, smart, informed, practical, nurturing, and devoted to the family. We all understood that in the hierarchy of importance, he felt family came first. He knew about politics, facts, figures, history, and enjoyed music and theater, but he did not talk much about emotion. He did, however, in the letters.

The letters are sitting in the bulging envelope in a file cabinet in my apartment. I have read only a few of them. He died four and half years ago; the loss had felt too fresh. Those I’ve read offer a glimpse into a part of my father he did not talk about.

I didn’t, of course, know him when he was a young adult, but his voice, hopes, disappointments are there on the pages he wrote home. The war, history, and politics are on those pages, too.

“I read years ago that every letter has two lives,” a character in my story collection says, “One in the writer’s mind, and the other that the reader gives to it.”

I’m ready to read my father’s letters now, to give them their second or, perhaps, third life. Who knows what I will find or the emotions that will arise as I read them, the emotions I will discover. Perhaps in some form, some manner, they will make their way into fiction someday, too.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, her first novel, which was the winner of the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition, and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her newest book is Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.


Thursday, June 22, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi, the editor of "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union, has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Alexander Smukler presents a samizdat copy of Exodus in Russian to
author Leon Uris. Moscow, November 1989. Collection of Inna and Yuli Kosharovsky.

Jewish activism in the Soviet Union, supported by a movement to free Soviet Jewry abroad, resulted in a massive exodus. As Yuli Kosharovsky noted, concerning the late Soviet period and early 1990s, “In the years of mass emigration, the overwhelming majority of Jews—more than 1,500,000 people—left the borders of the former Soviet Union. The majority of those who left—around 900,000—settled in Israel.” The struggle and its outcome were of massive historical proportions, and it seemed natural to many observers and advocates to use Biblical language when they demanded that the Soviet leaders “Let My People Go!” and when they spoke about the liberation of Soviet Jews from the grip of the “Red Pharaoh.”

Certainly, there were important geo-political factors at work in the events that unfolded leading to this massive exodus, many of which are detailed in "We Are Jews Again". Against the backdrop of those forces and the high-level decisions and negotiations that took place, there was a core of more modest and incremental efforts that made the huge Aliya and revival of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union possible. Such grassroots initiatives included the work to make texts like Leon Uris’s 1958 novel Exodus available to Soviet readers in so-called “samizdat” (self-publishing). An early Zionist activist, David Drabkin, talked about translating Exodus with fellow activists Viktor Polsky and Vladimir Prestin for readers of Russian. At that time, in the late 1960s, Moscow was, as Kosharovsky wrote, a center for production and distribution of samizdat:

Moscow was a clearing house for samizdat distribution. Some books and printed material, including Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, were produced simultaneously in a few places. The quality of the translations and of the production work and the scope of samizdat distribution varied greatly. The movement was ripe for more effective coordination and division of labor.

The variety of translations of Uris’s novel – which appeared in samizdat editions as both Iskhod and Eksodus – may have been inevitable, given the powerful appeal it had for Soviet readers. Viktor Polsky recalled in his interview with Kosharovsky:

We received literature from the Baltics. Lea Slovin would come to us. David Drabkin had a channel. We … translated, copied, bound, and disseminated the novel Exodus. This book transformed my mother from a woman who had been intimidated by relentless persecution into a Zionist. For me, this was incontestable proof of the novel’s power to exert a strong emotional effect.

People recalled doing and reading 600+ page translations of Uris’s novel. The amount of labor that would have gone into producing that kind of samizdat text at home, with a typewriter and/or a photographic camera and prints developed in the bathroom, speaks to the feelings Uris’s novel inspired in Soviet readers. Others were moved to produce their own translations or slimmer adaptations. All accounts agree that Exodus was a central text of Jewish samizdat for activists and non-activists alike. Evidently, Uris’s tale about building and defending the state of Israel resonated profoundly with Soviet Jews who felt anxious for and then proud of Israel during the Six-Day War. That pride counterbalanced the often vicious anti-Israel propaganda from Soviet authorities. Moreover, Uris’s portrait of muscular, modern Jews resonated with qualities many Soviet Jews wanted to see in themselves, as it counteracted persistent negative stereotypes of cowardly Jews who shirked military service.

Alexander Smukler, pictured above with Uris, was one of those who helped expand the variety of material available to Soviet Jewish readers. Soviet Jewish samizdat included fictional works and poems from home and abroad, Hebrew language-learning materials, news bulletins and journals with articles and commentary on world events and administrative affairs. For example, the samizdat journal Jews in the USSR, initiated by Alexander Voronel and published from 1972-79, provided a crucial forum for Soviet Jews to reflect on their identity and concerns, in their own words and without the burden of official censorship. Smukler and a handful of others published the Information Bulletin on Issues of Repatriation and Jewish Culture, which appeared between 1987 and 1990, in Moscow. Foreign help – including the imaginative charge of Uris’s novel – mattered a lot for Soviet Jews. However, without the networks of readers and writers Soviet Jews created for themselves, working together to share stories, information, news and reflection, the revival of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union and the massive aliya would not have been possible.

Ann Komaromi is the editor of the recently published "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union.

Friends From Abroad

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi, the editor of "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union, has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

This 1975 photo, used on the cover of "We Are Jews Again", shows noted refusenik activists Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, Yuli Kosharovsky, Vladimir and Maria (Masha) Slepak and Vitaly Rubin along with a number of Israeli wrestlers and weightlifters who came to visit the Soviet Union and spent time with Soviet Jews. The photo acts as a window onto one of the brightest moments of Jewish life at that time. The smiles and relaxed poses of the people shown here – notice the way Masha Slepak leans her head familiarly onto Zeev Rom’s shoulder! – suggest that informal Jewish life in the Soviet Union was animated by happy social events and that it benefited from mutual support among members of the community and the friendship of allies from abroad. Unofficial Jewish life was warm and supportive in those ways, but such events took place under the malevolent gaze of KGB officers, who were certainly keeping an eye on this gathering. The possibility of persecution always haunted those involved in unofficial activities. Not too long after this celebration, in March, 1977, Sharansky, would be arrested on false charges of spying and imprisoned for nine years. The police would arrest the Slepaks in June, 1978, after they unfurled a banner from their apartment balcony with the demand for the right to leave and join their son in Israel. For that action the Slepaks were sent to Siberia. The Slepaks were able to leave the Soviet Union, like many of the activists, only after perestroika was well established, in 1987. Those were far from the first arrests for “Zionist” activity, and that hostile environment gives this seemingly ordinary moment the aura of the extraordinary.

People risked coming out with their families for unofficial Jewish celebrations, and foreign visitors made the long journey to see fellow Jews in the Soviet Union and bring them messages of encouragement and support. Such extraordinary efforts resulted in a profound feeling of solidarity and deep ties among people. Recently, work on identifying the people in the photo underscored the tenacity of connections created at that time. Enid Wurtman, a former American activist for Soviet Jewry and a research assistant working with Yuli Kosharovsky on "We Are Jews Again" since 2003, went to great lengths to identify and contact the people shown in this photograph. Enid located Solomon Stolyar, shown here in the back row, who is today head of the Israel Wrestling Federation. He helped put her in touch with the Israeli athletes who had been in Lunts Meadow on that fall day more than 30 years ago. Then-child Ephraim Rosenstein, seated at front with Yuli Kosharovsky, turned out to have been the bar-mitzvah “twin” for Enid’s son in Israel. Bar-mitzvah “twinning” was a common means for raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews who could not provide their children with that kind of celebration. In addition, Oksana Iablonsky (also spelled Oxana Yablonsky), standing on the right, was identified by Enid’s friend, Shoshana Fain, widow of the refusenik leader Benjamin Fain. Oksana, it turned out, is an acclaimed pianist who like Enid and like many other refuseniks made aliya to Israel. She played in a Chamber Music Festival in Eilat which Enid’s other son was involved organizing. There was something magical about the connections created and sustained for so many years over the course of this history of the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews.

The warm support and enthusiasm of all those contacted about the publication of Yuli Kosharovsky’s history of the movement testify to what that movement has meant to Jews both inside and outside the USSR.

Check back tomorrow for Ann Komaromi's final post for the Visiting Scribe series.

Photo Caption: Cover Photo. Refuseniks celebrate Succot with Israeli sportsmen in Lunts Meadow outside Moscow, 1975. First row, seated, from left: Anatoly Sharansky, Zeev Shakhnovsky, Ephraim Rosenstein (child), Yuli Kosharovsky. Second row: Isakhar Aharoni, Michael Bronstein, Menachem Berkowitz, Shlomo Fried. Back row, standing: Rami Miron, unidentified, Solomon Stolyar, Zeev Rom, Vladimir Slepak, Maria Slepak, Vitaly Rubin, Lev Gendin, Oksana Iablonsky.

It's Personal

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi is the editor of Yuli Kosharovsky's "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Inna and Yuli Kosharovsky with son Moty, Moscow, 1981. Collection of Bill Aron.

Yuli Kosharovsky (1941-2014) wrote a history of the Jewish movement that is intensely personal. The book We Are Jews Again is punctuated by Yuli’s conversations with fellow former activists as well as passages recounting his own experiences and reflections on them. In the first set of recollections, Yuli remembers the tensions he felt as a highly-trained and privileged Soviet specialist working in strategic weapons development living amidst anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda following the Six-Day War. He describes a moment of revelation:

…I was walking along a noisy street and my head was buzzing from lack of sleep. Suddenly everything around me vanished, it became quiet, and the passersby and cars disappeared. A bright light illuminated my consciousness and I saw with piercing clarity who I was, where I was going, and what I wanted. I knew that this was not a fantastic trick, that I was seeing my path. It was a divine beacon to my atheistically educated soul.

I don’t know how long this lasted, but then once again the street became noisy and the cars were moving.

That moment ended all doubts.

Until my departure, another long twenty-two years would pass. It would be difficult and hard to endure because of fear, pain, and exhaustion. There would be children who would grow up in the midst of all this.

At the most difficult moments, I would return in my mind to that spark of consciousness, to that clarity, and my strength would return.

It is stunning to realize that Yuli struggled after this insight for twenty-two years in the Soviet Union, sustained by the dream of leaving for Israel. For eighteen of these years, he was a “refusenik,” a status that came from applying for an exit visa and being refused and which meant no more privileged job in the weapons laboratory, ostracism from general Soviet society, and intermittent persecution by the authorities. Yuli was like many refuseniks, in that he took what jobs he could to survive and feed his family, turning to the Jewish community around him for social life and support. Unlike most other refuseniks, Yuli’s early moment of clarity and the force of his conviction propelled him to become a leader. He learned and taught Hebrew despite the de facto ban on the language, organized other Hebrew teachers in an underground network, and helped coordinate and support a host of unofficial activities designed to support Jewish education, identity and the movement for the right to emigrate and make aliya. Details about the extent of this organized activity in the Soviet Union help make this book a real contribution to the history of the movement.

This photo [see header] of Yuli, his wife Inna and their son Moty show the personal side of this activity – these were not activists working in isolation. The activists had family and friends who shared the risks they took because they all believed that to live as Jews with dignity and rights was a noble cause. They aimed to teach their children to live that way, despite the resistance of the society and State in which they found themselves.

Read more about "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union here and check back tomorrow to read more from Ann Komaromi.

Researching and Writing Short Stories

Monday, June 19, 2017 | Permalink

Ronna Wineberg, author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

One of the pleasures of writing is doing research about a subject that makes its way into fiction. My new collection of stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, is set in the contemporary world, but even so I had to do research for the book. I needed to learn about the characters’ professions and find facts about the locales where stories take place. Two stories refer to World War II and Holocaust survivors; I had to be sure the details were correct.

I wrote the stories over time. Compiling them into a book was a different process from writing a novel or individual pieces. The stories in the collection aren’t linked, and I needed to make sure each story, character, and profession was unique.

Much of what happens in fiction is serendipity, unanticipated, no matter how carefully a writer plans. A story idea changes as I write and is influenced by the characters, my imagination, what I see and hear in the world, and the research I’ve done.

And my research can become part of a story, often in unexpected ways.

“A Celebration of the Life of the Reverend Canon Edward Henry Jamison,” the last story in the new collection, is narrated by a Jewish woman. Her cousin marries an Episcopalian minister. The story is about intermarriage and how love changes over time. At the end, the narrator sits in an Episcopal church during a funeral service. I had once been in an Episcopal church during a service and was fascinated by the ritual. As a Jew, though, I’d felt like an outsider, especially when the congregation went to the front of the sanctuary for communion, and I stayed seated. I didn’t know enough about the service to describe the details accurately in the story—didn’t understand the order, what a priest might say, and when the congregation would rise and sing.

After I wrote the story, I called an Episcopal church in New York, explained my questions to the woman who answered, and she directed me to a sacristan. He told me what happens at an Episcopal funeral service, and also about the Liturgy of the Eucharist, theology, the prayer book, and what a sacristan does. He suggested resources on the Internet and the prayer book. We looked at some together on our computers. We talked for a long time about faith, G-d, life, death, the lack of control in the face of death, the service and its intent. I had assumed he would give me a dry account, but the conversation was full of substance, spirituality and hope; we compared the Episcopal and Jewish traditions.

His descriptions were poignant, lifted me up, and so in the story, the Episcopal service lifted up the narrator. That section of the story had ended on a negative note, but after I spoke to him, I rewrote it. I was able to include a correct chronology of the service and to end on a note of farewell and joy, just as I’d heard in the man’s voice.

“Bare Essentials,” another piece in the collection, is about love, divorce, and an affair. In the story, the narrator tries to understand what strengthens or weakens relationships. I decided she would edit medical research papers for a journal, studies about bacteria, Campylobacter or C. difficile. I did research before I wrote the story and learned about the ways bacteria behave and interact with a host. This became part of the narrative. Early in the story, the narrator says, “I know that a hundred trillion good bacteria call the body home. Even the mouth has several species of bacteria…The body is like space or the ocean, a vast unknown, like the mind. Like a relationship.” Later she tells the reader, “People are, in the microscopic regions of the heart, not so different from bacteria…Some are resilient. Others disappear in the struggle to survive.”

Bacteria became a central metaphor, woven throughout the piece. The story developed in a direction I didn’t anticipate because of what I’d learned.

The characters in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life have a variety of jobs and life experiences. There are lawyers, real estate agents, Holocaust survivors, doctors, businessmen, a relocation expert, teachers, an employee of the United Nations, a postal worker, rabbis, and others. Stories take place in Poland, New York, Nashville, Denver, Chicago, Vienna, and Michigan. In my research, I found details for the settings. I learned about the characters’ jobs and professions so I could add descriptions to give the characters authenticity.

This was both hard, exacting labor and joyous work. I felt as if I was an actor or as if I had experienced all these jobs and lived the different lives in all the various places.

As I researched and wrote the stories, I discovered that the act of writing can open up new worlds not just for the reader, but for the writer as well.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, her first novel, which was the winner of the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition, and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her newest book is Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

An Emphasis on Leaders

Friday, June 16, 2017 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series.

Our goal was for The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 to faithfully depict the contributions and achievements of the WJC’s leaders over the course of the past 80 years, including in addition to Ambassador Lauder the WJC’s founders Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Dr. Nahum Goldmann, its longtime secretary-general Gerhart M. Riegner, and its president from 1981 to 2007, Edgar M. Bronfman.

In the interest of full disclosure, a brief personal note seems appropriate. I am not a totally disinterested observer of many of the events and individuals described in the pages of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016. My father, Josef Rosensaft, worked closely with many of the leaders of the WJC between 1945 and 1950 in his double capacity as chairman of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany and the Jewish Committee that administered the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp. During those years he developed what proved to be life-long friendships with Goldmann, Riegner, and numerous other other WJC leaders. As a result, I grew up knowing many of these WJC personalities and became aware of the organization’s activities in the international Jewish arena almost by osmosis. Decades later, I ran an international foundation for Ambassador Lauder from 1995 to 2000, and since 2009, as the WJC’s general counsel, I have worked closely with Ambassador Lauder, CEO Robert Singer, Secretary-General Emeritus Michael Schneider, Chief Program Officer Sonia Gomes de Mesquita, and the entire senior lay and professional WJC leadership.

Among the contributors to The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 who share their personal experiences and perspectives are Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli, vice prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, who recalls the WJC’s pioneering role in crafting a new Catholic-Jewish relationship; Gregg J. Rickman, who led the US Senate Banking Committee’s examination of Swiss banks and their treatment of Holocaust-era assets during and after World War II and who depicts the WJC’s key role in forcing Swiss banks to disgorge more than one billion dollars they had wrongfully withheld from Jewish Holocaust victims and their heirs; Eli Rosenbaum, the longtime head of the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, who as my predecessor as the WJC’s general counsel oversaw the WJC’s exposure of Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past; Natan Lerner, professor of law emeritus at IDC Herzliya, the director of the WJC’s Israel Branch from 1966 until 1984, who writes about the WJC’s relationship and interactions with the State of Israel; Evelyn Sommer, chairperson of the WJC’s North American Section, who was instrumental in the campaign to rescind the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism; and Maram Stern, the WJC’s deputy CEO for diplomacy, who reminisces about the complexities of attempting to maintain relations with Jewish communities in Communist countries during the Cold War years.

Other chapters in The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 are devoted to, among other topics, the invaluable assistance the WJC provided to the prosecutors at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, and the organization’s successful diplomatic negotiations on behalf of Jews from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. In the book’s concluding chapters, Ambassador Lauder lays out his vision of the Jewish future, and Robert Singer describes the activities and accomplishments of the World Jewish Congress today.

I am deeply honored that Ambassador Lauder and Robert Singer entrusted me with the task of compiling and editing this book, and am grateful to them for their constant encouragement and support. It is our hope that The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 will become an essential resource not just for an understanding of the World Jewish Congress, but for anyone interested in Jewish political history of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017).

Header photo credited to The World Jewish Congress.

But Wait, There’s More! (Part 2)

Thursday, June 15, 2017 | Permalink

Annabelle Gurwitch been guest blogging for the Visiting Scribe this week about her latest collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are. Her second post elaborates on the story about her mother's philanthropic side which she did not get to include in her collection.

As much as I was moved by mother’s recounting of her mission to aid the Refuseniks in Russia, I wasn’t able to fit that story into either my book or my assignment for Oprah’s website. This is an example of how even if you have a story that holds great meaning for you and it has intrinsic value on it’s own, it just might not find a home in what you are publishing.

Then, in December, a friend invited me to a ritual in celebration of the winter solstice. I typically roll my eyes at such things, but it had been a month since my mother’s death and the idea of communing with friends seemed comforting and I heard there would be wine.

At the ritual, our circle of friends was invited to share on the subject of when we felt the happiest and without thinking I blurted out, “When I am being useful to others.”

Without thinking I’d uttered the same phrase, with the exact same inflection as my mother and although I’ve never smuggled medical supplies into another country, I mentor high school seniors, an activity that I find deeply rewarding. At the same time, I could have easily answered, “When receiving a deep tissue massage.” Ok, in truth, being useful ranks a bit below the massage, especially if hot stones are included. I moved this section up closer to the mother’s statement so it would be connected. You can decide where this next section belongs.

Evolutionary biologists have shown that as a species we adapted in a way that makes us predisposed to want to help our communities, this is part of how Homo Sapiens managed to survive, thrive and to dominate the Neanderthals who never quite managed that level of cooperation with each other. So, this idea isn’t limited to Jews, to be fair, still Kelly, who was leading the ritual, then invited us to close our eyes and think of one word that could encapsulate a spiritual wish for our new year. I closed my eyes and quieted my mind. The only word I could think of was word.

That’s right, a certain kind of what I call, “obtusitude,” a prideful streak of obtuseness, runs in our family as well. Near the end of her life, my mother started calling the hospice rabbi, “Aquaduct,” which makes sense in a certain way so it was hard to tell if she was deliberately referring to the rabbi as a conduit to the source of all life or if her brain function was deteriorating. I noticed I’d passed this trait on to my offspring when my four year old was asked to draw something at a kindergarten evaluation and all the other children in the session drew colorful depictions of rainbows and families holding hands, while my kid refused to use crayons, instead, producing a pencil rendering of “a foot inside a foot.” That drawing hangs in a place of honor on a wall of my home. So, I planned to say, “Word,” on my turn.

One by one, people offered a variety of aspirational type wishes on the order of: ease, mindfulness, and centering. Just once, I’d love for someone to say: “self-deprecating sense of humor”at one of these types of things, alas no one did. Surprising myself, “Elegance” is what popped out of mouth when it was my turn. Elegance? I’ve never considered that a spiritual aspiration but it does connote a sense of ease, mindfulness, centering and another thing I place a high value on: quality footwear. What happened to “word”? Did it strike you that you had changed your mind?

Several days later the furniture I’d shipped from my mother’s apartment arrived at my house. As I gave my neighbor Barbara a tour of she stopped in her tracks in front of a pair of art deco lamps and said, “Elegant.”

For the record, I do not truck in any sort of mystical or “mean to be” type of thinking. After years of losing lucky necklaces, hoarding crystals and visualizing my great jobs and even better parking spots, I kicked that kind of thinking to the curb.

Still, sometimes the random universe gifts us with a reminder of a connection that even if it exists only in our minds, delights us with the promise of stylish shoes that are comfortable enough to run in and that keeps our bond to our ancestors alive.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up with Jeff Kahn, and Fired!—the book and documentary. Annabelle co-hosted Dinner & a Movie on TBS, and appeared in Dexter, Seinfeld, Oprah, Bill Maher's Real Time, The Today Show, New York Comedy Festival and The Moth Mainstage. She was a regular commentator on NPR and humorist for The Nation.