The ProsenPeople

How Memory Changes Our View of History

Monday, August 14, 2017 | Permalink

Neville Frankel is an Emmy winner and author of the recently published novel On the Sickle's Edge. A native of South Africa, he immigrated to the US when he was 14. He is blogging here today as a part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


Memory is changed by the passage of time.

Childhood beach vacations with siblings and cousins might have been difficult and fraught with rivalry. But fast forward fifteen years, and a young person struggling to make ends meet and involved in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship may remember those vacations as idyllic periods of joy and harmony.

In the same way, the passage of time also changes our perceptions of political and economic history—but with more far-reaching consequences.

It has been said that history is written by the victors. But time can change that, too, as succeeding generations bring their perspectives to bear.

It can be instructive to think about a few examples and see what—if anything—they have in common.

Beginning in 1915, the Ottoman government killed about 1.5 million Armenians. For decades there was little discussion of this atrocity as a systematic attempt to destroy an entire people. Then, in 1944, the term genocide was coined, and the Armenian Genocide was given its name. The present day Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, denies that there was ever a systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people, but Armenian communities, scattered across the globe, have increasingly made an accepted case that what occurred was indeed genocide.

Following World War II, prominent members of the political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who planned, carried out or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes were tried and prosecuted at the Nuremberg Trials. There was no doubt in the minds of the Allies who liberated the concentration camps, and the historians who ploughed through Nazi records, that the Nazis planned—and almost succeeded in—achieving a Jewish Genocide. Yet today, fringe groups of Holocaust deniers cling to the belief that the Holocaust never happened.

In writing my novel On The Sickle’s Edge, most of which takes place in Moscow over much of the twentieth century, I’ve become more familiar than I ever wanted to be with other demagogic leaders. They range from Stalin, a deranged monster in human guise if ever there was one, to Putin, who brings with him an autocratic legacy of his service in the KGB, and who has encouraged and profited from a level of corruption that far surpasses the inefficiency and bureaucratic corruption that brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, there seemed to be the promise of a more transparent, more democratic and open Russia. Information about Stalin and the systematic murder of millions of his own people—information that had been long refuted, denied and hidden—was suddenly accessible. But under Putin, massive corruption, economic hard times, a crackdown on opposition and an almost total government takeover of the news media have made the promise of openness and democracy a joke. The Russian people increasingly hold Stalin up as the ultimate leader, forgetting what it was like to live in fear under Stalinist rule. Historians studying the Stalinist period report that they have trouble getting access to the archives they need. If an authoritarian leader wants his people to accept a particular version of history, all he has to do is make other versions of history unavailable.

In all these examples of cultural memory and forgetting, there are some common themes. Those who want to change our view of history always have a self-serving agenda—financial, political or cultural. Discredit a group’s historical claim to land. Gain possession of assets. Assert cultural identity. Initiate the payment of reparations. Repress a view of the past that gives ammunition to a political rival.

I’m not making a value judgment on any of these groups’ assertive desire to rewrite history. But I am struck by the human capacity to forget the past; to change the perception of the past in order to shape the future. Because we have difficulty seeing beyond the curvature of our own lifetime horizon, the perspectives of those who came before us are easily obscured—leaving history precariously balanced in the hands of those who tell the story today.

This is far more than a simple but interesting observation. It has far-reaching implications for how we behave in the real world, and in determining the actions we take today that will most definitely have consequences for all of us, our children, and grandchildren.

Find out more about Neville Frankel here.

The Female Heroes of David and the Philistine Woman

Thursday, August 10, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Paul Boorstin wrote about why he decided to tell David's story in his novel David and the Philistine Woman and how his background as a documentary film-maker impacted upon his writing. In his final post, Boorstin explores the women who stood behind David. He has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.


I believe that the role of women as a moral anchor in the Hebrew Bible cannot be overstated. Of course, that role was not as openly discussed in ancient times as it is today. When I set out to reimagine the story of David and Goliath in David and the Philistine Woman, I saw the part played by women as crucial.

On the surface, the epic clash of the Israelites and the Philistines does not involve women. And yet, my book is as much about extraordinary women as it is about David’s own remarkable journey. As I envision his story, young David would never have been able to survive his rite of passage from shepherd to king, if it wasn’t for the strong women who offered their support and risked their lives for him.

First, I decided to include David’s mother. I was surprised to learn that her name is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, though it is given as “Nitzevet” in the Talmud. Knowing from the biblical text how David’s father, Jesse, favored his older brothers over him, it was easy to imagine that David’s firm moral grounding came from Nitzevet, a strong and loving mother. Despite her omission from the biblical account, I wanted to show how I believe that her influence on David would have been significant.

I was also fascinated by Saul’s youngest daughter, Michal. She later becomes David’s first wife, and is the only woman in the Hebrew Bible of whom it is explicitly said that she loves a man. (I Samuel, 18:20): “Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David.” Though Michal never bears David a child, the Bible recounts how she saves his life, helping him to escape Saul’s assassins (I Samuel, 19:11). Michal’s actions in my novel illustrate her heartfelt devotion to him despite mortal danger.

And then, there is perhaps the book’s biggest surprise: Nara—the “Philistine woman” of the title. I was so intrigued by the notion of a female Philistine protagonist, that Nara was the first character I conceived. While Goliath the Philistine is one of history’s most despised villains, I wanted to show that this much-maligned people also could have fostered heroes. And why not a woman?

As depicted in the novel, Nara is the tallest, strongest young Philistine woman. She is forced to marry Goliath to bear him warrior sons. But Goliath abuses her. Meanwhile, young David is destined to face Goliath in combat. Though they are from different worlds, David and Nara help each other to survive against impossible odds. It is a message of hope for our own divisive times. Together, David and Nara share a bond that is more profound than physical love—their mission to help their warring peoples survive to live in peace.

In David and the Philistine Woman, the women of David’s time, like women today, risk their lives for what they believe is right, whether or not they get the credit they deserve.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.

A Documentary Film-maker takes on David and Goliath

Wednesday, August 09, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week,  Paul Boorstin wrote about why he decided to tell David's story in his novel David and the Philistine Woman. Today, he explores how his background as a documentary film-maker impacted upon his writing. Boorstin has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

As a writer, producer and director of television documentaries, I’ve made National Geographic TV specials about big cats in India and baboons in Africa. I’ve traveled up the Amazon and yes, to Timbuktu in the Sub-Sahara. I’ve made MSNBC documentaries about convicted murderers in supermax prisons, and a History Channel documentary about the Kennedys in the White House.

Working with camera crews around the world under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, I learned that what is happening outside the narrow perspective of the camera lens—both behind the scenes, and in the human heart—can be more revealing than what finally appears on film or video. In the same way, when I wrote David and the Philistine Woman, I felt I had to reach beyond the few paragraphs of the narrative in the Hebrew Bible to fully understand its meaning. I was convinced that there was more to the story of how David the boy becomes David the leader of his people.

I drew on lessons I had learned while making documentaries about the history of our own time—in particular, researching and writing The Lost Kennedy Home Movies. This two hour History Channel documentary, shown annually on the anniversary of the JFK assassination, explored the private lives of the Kennedy family. I learned that there were many intimate events that happened just “off camera”—secret loves and power struggles, triumphs and defeats. I realized how much of what takes place is hidden, lost forever to history.

Guided by that experience, while writing David and the Philistine Woman, I set out to reimagine the journey of young David with both a scope and an intimacy that it had not been told before. Over the years, I’ve learned that for a documentary to deliver in depth, it must use both a wide-angle and a close-up lens. That was my mission with this novel: to capture the broad panorama of the epic struggle between the Israelites and the Philistines, while zooming in on the turbulent relationships of David, Jonathan and Saul, and the murderous psyche of Goliath.

Like a powerful documentary, a historical novel can plunge us into a decisive moment in history, make us feel that we are there. It is that intensity, that total immersion in a distant time and place, which I was determined to bring to David and the Philistine Woman.

I have devoted much of my life to the demanding craft of documentary film-making. I respect the power of that unforgiving medium. But a novel can do things that a documentary cannot: evoke the softness of a lamb’s fleece, the delicate aromas of spices in a Jerusalem market, or the stench of rotting corpses on a battlefield. Even more important, a novel can reveal a character’s most private thoughts and feelings too intimate to ever confess on-camera.

I believe that those inner conflicts, the demons that we human beings all wrestle with, have not changed in the thousands of years since that fateful moment when David picked up his stone from the dust of the Valley of Elah. Evil exists now, as it did back then, and that cold fact places a burden on all of us. Because whether or not we look to God for miracles, it is for us to do all that is in our power to fight the good fight in our own time, as young David did in his.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.

Why I Told David’s Story—and Why David Matters Now

Tuesday, August 08, 2017 | Permalink

Paul Boorstin is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and author of the novel David and the Philistine Woman. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

The duel of David and Goliath, the ultimate clash of good against evil, is barely a page long in the Hebrew Bible (I Samuel, Chapter 17). The story is so familiar, each of us feels as if we own it. Why was I driven to take my version, the one that I have “owned” since I was a child, and bring it to life?

Growing up in Chicago as a Jewish kid with thick glasses and zero athletic ability, I was always the last to be picked for baseball, football, soccer, you name it. So when I learned at our synagogue about the unimposing David triumphing over the giant Goliath, I instantly chose the little guy as my role model. I was soon inspired by other “Davids” in history—from Joan of Arc to Nelson Mandela—underdogs triumphing over impossible odds. At the top of my list, of course, were the Jewish people, who for centuries were persecuted exiles, yet who overcame fearsome obstacles through spiritual strength.

Half a century after I first discovered him, young David is still my favorite “super-hero.” I find in his life the true meaning of heroism: as much a matter of moral character as physical courage. Beginning with the biblical text, I reimagined David’s story based on the narrative I envisioned between the lines, to discover what mysteries and surprises might be hiding there. My purpose in writing David and the Philistine Woman was to broaden the scope of the narrative to encompass the conflict of the Israelite and Philistine peoples. I also wanted to focus on the minds, motives and hearts of some of the Bible’s most fascinating figures, along with original characters—male and female—that I created.

While writing David and the Philistine Woman, I was determined to remain faithful to the spirit of the Biblical original. Beyond that, I wanted my novel to show that what links people of goodwill is not so much the god they worship as it is their bond of common humanity and shared compassion.

Researching the early years of the Hebrew Bible’s most beloved figure, I was surprised to discover a young man who is still a hero for us in the twenty-first century: For unlike Moses or Abraham, young David, as depicted in my novel and in the Bible, does not hear the voice of God. He must seek out that voice in the stirrings of his own heart. That is the spark that kindled my passion to tell this story. For like David, in our troubled world we must do the right thing without God whispering a command in our ear to direct our actions.

By the end of David and the Philistine Woman, David learns that whether or not it is ordained in heaven, nothing of value is achieved here on earth unless it is done by human hands. The task has never been more urgent for us than it is today.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.

The Importance of Coming-of-Age Novels

Friday, August 04, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder, author of The Fix: A Father's Secrets, A Daughter's Search, has been guest blogging throughout the week as part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In this final segment of my Prosen People series, I will discuss how reading coming-of-age novels encouraged me to change the structure of my novel, The Fix, entirely, and to drop the character of adult Sara in favor of the young protagonist who witnesses first-hand her father Josef’s affliction of heroin addiction.

Anzia Yezierska, Johanna Kaplan, and Myla Goldberg: Daughters in The Authors’ Coming-of-Age Novels:

I learned from the Jewish women authors in the “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World” seminar series how to bring scenes of the child Sara and her father to greater prominence in the novel. It was an obvious solution, but like Poe’s purloined letter, it was not on my radar screen! The novels by Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg were all coming-of-age stories, narrated mostly by the young protagonists themselves. I needed to change The Fix’s point of view! The young Sara—not the adult Sara—needed to tell the tale. Was I bold enough to perform the “surgery” and leave the adult Sara on the operating table because she was no longer alive? Could I revive the character of Sara as a child, starting from the moment she learns of her father’s addiction and then trace her unfolding understanding of him and of the meaning of his illness?

Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg had their female protagonists—Sara Smolinksy, Merry Slavin, and Eliza Naumann—all follow a similar narrative arc: Each develops autonomy in rebellion against her father and follows a life path guided by her own will but ultimately comes to see her father in new ways, more maturely. This is what I wanted to show in the arc of Sara Katz’s life: rebellion against her absent father for whom she harbors unresolved anger and rage, and ultimately reconciliation with that same father once she gains greater distance and understanding.

Bread Givers

Sara Smolinsky in Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) is the youngest but most outspoken of Reb Smolinsky’s four daughters, the one he calls Blut-und-Eisen, blood and iron, because of her strong will. I followed the pattern Yezierska set when she began her story with an eight-year-old narrator who finally explodes against the tyrannizing of her Orthodox father when she is seventeen. In this scene, Sara is speaking up for herself and her three intimidated sisters:


“For seventeen years, I had stood his preaching and his bullying. But now all the hammering hell that I had to listen to since I was born cracked my brain ... Should I let him crush me as he crushed them? No. This is America, where children are people.”

Those ages, eight and seventeen, became markers in my character’s life as well. My Sara first learns at age eight of her father’s heroin addiction, a condition she doesn’t understand at all. By seventeen, she’s attending the funeral of her father, a victim of heroin overdose. By this time, her needy mother and grandmother have turned her into a “parentified” child who has learned more about the family wreckage her father’s condition causes than any youngster should know. At the funeral, she says to her younger brother:

“I can’t believe it. Daddy was just with us at your bar mitzvah. And now he’s gone ... "

"How do you think Daddy died? … Did Daddy ... do it ... to himself?”

“You know about things like that?” Sara asks in surprise.

He nodded.

“We just don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know ... Ma and Grandma didn’t want an autopsy ...”

Never in the past could she speak to her father about what she knew—his shameful life. Never could she find the right words, the right time. She had imagined approaching him that very week. And now it was too late. … Anger welled up in her—anger at her father for leaving them. And later, when Sara’s guidance counselor at school suggests she write to her deceased father to process her lingering anger, Sara says in her letter:

“I blamed you. ... Mom was willing to endure the rough periods, even your hurting her at times, when you were desperate for money. I can’t believe I watched you hit her! ... How could you? Oh, Dad, when will I stop blaming you for not giving up heroin totally?”

O My America!

In Jewish Book Award winner Johanna Kaplan’s novel O My America! (1980), the tables between father and daughter have turned. Merry Slavin’s father, Ez Slavin, is the flamboyant radical this time, an anarchist/pacifist whose Old Left politics in the 1930s morph into New Left politics in the ’60s. He’s an inveterate individualist constantly fighting off media attention that he claims will threaten his ability to think. After Merry’s mother dies after giving birth to her, Merry seeks greater intimacy with her absent father, a public political personality who soon partners with other women and has other children with them. Ez, who believes the nuclear family is a bourgeois construct, refuses to play traditional father with Merry.

I adopted two of Kaplan’s structural devices. The first is having the father die at the beginning of the narrative. Kaplan opens her novel with Merry waiting in her New York apartment for her father’s phone call to arrange a place for them to meet. Instead, the call comes in from the police, who have brought her father to a hospital where he dies of a massive heart attack. I open The Fix with Sara and her family waiting for Josef’s Sunday morning visit, now that he’s living with Sara’s grandparents. Instead, Sara’s mother, Helen, gets the call from her brother-in-law, who has found Josef dead from a heroin overdose in his father’s butcher shop. The deaths coming at the outset set up the question of what these men’s lives were really like. Both protagonists, Merry and Sara, have devoted much of their young lives to uncovering the mysteries surrounding their fathers’ identities.

The second is the failure of the funeral scenes in both novels to yield the true picture of the deceased, and what the impact of lack of full disclosure is on loved ones. The honorific eulogies by those who knew Ez Slavin professionally present a stark contrast to the flawed man we have met through Merry’s eyes. Likewise, Josef’s funeral scene in The Fix highlights the discrepancy between the ill man who has terrified Sara’s childhood and the good husband and father praised by Rabbi Korn’s falsehoods of omission.

Bee Season

Finally, Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season (2000), a New York Times Notable Book, features protagonist Eliza Neumann, a grade-school student at McKinley Elementary who is second fiddle in her father, Saul’s, eyes to her older brother, Aaron, until her remarkable and uncanny ability to spell difficult words becomes an “item” of note to her teachers. Eliza has always desired more of her father’s attention, but once she has it, the attention turns sour because Saul’s doting becomes a helicopter dad’s means of control. We learn that Eliza’s mother, Miriam, also has needed to “free” herself from Saul, turning to solitary activities like letter writing, shopping, and housework at odd hours. Bee Season taught me to balance my attention in The Fix on the parenting Sara receives from both parents, Helen and Josef. Bringing in the seemingly less dominant character, the mother, at the end of the novel can make use of the strategy of surprise if the mother is exposed in some unexpected and ironic way. Toward the close of Bee Season, the reader learns how psychologically ill Miriam has become “from years of being alone” avoiding the family dynamic in an unusual way. In The Fix, Helen’s insistence on keeping Josef’s addiction a secret, even after his death, turns out to be her own way of veiling her complicity in the addiction pattern, her years of enabling.

The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search

I am left with gratitude for having had the occasion to read with care these novels by great Jewish writers and to discuss them with thoughtful audiences. As I reflect on my writing process, I see how the magical osmosis of influence has enabled my work to become invested with elements I found both consciously and unconsciously in these stimulating works of fiction. My revision of The Fix as Sara’s coming-of-age story enabled me to find the right point of view for getting in touch with my character’s childhood trauma and for communicating it convincingly. By reading fiction, I was able to reach more of the essential truth of my own story. The Fix is based on my life.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at SharonLeder.com.

Taking Inspiration from Tevye's Daughters

Wednesday, August 02, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder, author of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search, will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series. Check back here throughout the week to read more from her.

In my previous post, I wrote about the deep profiling of character that Philip Roth achieves in American Pastoral, enabling the reader to understand how a privileged youngster of the 1960s becomes a terrorist. Merry Levov’s evolution convinced me I could find a way to make my character, Sara Katz, more sympathetic than the radical feminist in the original version of my manuscript of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search. Today, I’ll discuss Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s skill at using dialogue to develop the characters of Tevye’s daughters in Tevye the Dairyman (1894-1914), and how I then amplified dialogue between my young Sara and her father, Josef, a heroin addict, in flashbacks in my novel to illustrate my characters’ complexities.





Sholem Aleichem: Tevye the Dairyman’s Daughters

Aleichem, storyteller par excellence on whose Tevye the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" is based, taught me I needed more dramatic dialogue between Sara and her father to make their characters more convincing, more alive. Tevye’s dialogues with his daughters brilliantly illustrate the way parental influence really works. Each time a defiant daughter of Tevye marries, his great conscious obsession to have his daughter marry rich is undermined. The father-daughter dialogues reveal that the daughters are much more like Tevye than he is willing to admit. In choosing husbands, the daughters express Tevye’s own fantasies and values, even his unconscious ones. For example, Chava, the daughter Tevye loves the most, is ironically the most transgressive because she marries Chvedka out of her religion, a goy! Aleichem’s sparkling, humorous dialogue shows Chava taking to heart—more than Tevye ever imagined—her father’s yearnings for a more equal and democratic Russia free of unfair class structure, especially when Chava says to Tevye in defense of Chvedka, “God … created us all equal.” Tevye’s response shows his witty manipulation of language, “‘So He did,’ I say. ‘He created man in His likeness. But you had better remember that not every likeness is alike.’”

How could I use dialogue to show that in spite of Sara’s father’s addiction, Josef also could be a positive influence on Sara’s activism? The Tevye his daughters defy is a complex, many-layered character whose bottom line is his love for his family. Could I follow Aleichem’s model and create a more complex Josef? I did not want to present my protagonist’s father as a villain. Could dialogue show the necessary nuances?

The published novel, The Fix, includes many more scenes filled with dialogue between the child Sara and her father than did the original manuscript of 2006. One such scene occurs on a Saturday, a Shabbos afternoon. Josef takes Sara to Manhattan with him to get Johnny Mathis’s signature at a Sam Goody’s record store and to meet customers on the Upper West Side to whom Josef, a butcher, delivers kosher meats and poultry. But on the drive home, he makes a stop in Greenwich Village, where Sara sees a black man quickly pass something to Josef-something he places in his pocket.

“These people seem different,” Sara says out loud. “Do they all get along together?”

“Down here,” Josef says ... “lots of different people mix with one another.”

“This is the first time I've seen a Negro man with a white woman,” Sara says. ... Wouldn't it be nice, she thought, to have a Negro friend? ... “What about those other people on the street?” Sara asks. “Like those two men holding hands. Do you know them?”

“They’re homosexuals, Sara,” Josef says. “They like to be with people of the same sex. Good people come in all colors and sexes. The important thing is not to judge someone because of what you see on the outside.”

When Josef and Sara arrive home, and Sara’s mother, Helen, asks if all is okay, Sara excitedly shouts, “We went to Greenwich Village and saw homosexuals and lots of Negroes with white people.” Helen’s smile turns to a frown, and she asks suspiciously why Josef has taken Sara to the Village. He replies that Helen can’t keep Sara in a shell forever. Sara is ten, and though she knows her father has sneaked something wrong into his pocket, the positive lessons she learns about integration and tolerance stay with her for her entire life. In the process of making his connection, the drug-addict dad has taught his daughter how to be a human being.

Because I saw how the use of dialogue could enable me to humanize Josef, I created more and more scenes between the young Sara and her father. I was then left with many other new flashbacks and dream scenes of the young Sara’s life in school, of her relationships with friends, and of her relationship with her mother, who relied on Sara as a confidante. I wondered how I could integrate this new material with the struggling adult, Sara, who found it difficult holding onto jobs in the field of women’s studies when the conflicts she had with male administrators threatened her career. I found my answer after studying the “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World” seminar’s coming-of-age novels by Anzia Yezierska, Johanna Kaplan, and Myla Goldberg that I will discuss in my final Prosen People segment.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at SharonLeder.com.

Five Jewish Authors Who Influenced The Fix

Monday, July 31, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder is the author of the recently published novel The Fix: A Father's Secrets, A Daughter's Search. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


I had the privilege in 2008 of teaching a seminar at the Wellfleet Library on Cape Cod on the father-daughter relationship in Jewish literature. The American Library Association sponsored the program, “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World.” My teaching American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem, Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, O My America! by Johanna Kaplan, and Bee Season by Myla Goldberg helped me find my own character, Sara Katz, eight years later. And in May 2017, my revised novel, The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search was published by KiCam Projects.

The original Sara Katz first appeared publicly in 2006 when I began circulating my manuscript. That Sara, who was a radical teacher of Women’s Studies, hadn’t resolved childhood traumas over her deceased father’s heroin addiction. As Sara attempted to mainstream the new interdisciplinary field, she entered into constant conflict with male administrators who, in her dreams, resembled her father, her memories of him laced with residual anger and resentment. The manuscript was rejected by agents and publishers who had problems with the character of Sara. Feminists weren’t especially popular heroines then, they told me, and they themselves didn’t find Sara particularly sympathetic. Change your main character was the advice.

How should I change Sara? Should I develop her character with a conscious eye toward dispelling any possible negative stereotypes of feminists as man-haters? Teaching fathers and daughters in Jewish literature was my opportunity to learn from the masters how to develop my characters! I learned different lessons from Roth, Aleichem, and the three women novelists who wrote coming-of-age narratives—Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg—and the influence of each of these authors was indispensible to my completed novel.

As part of the Visiting Scribes program this week, I’ll share how each of these impactful writers empowered and educated me, beginning today with Roth.

Philip Roth's American Pastoral: Merry Levov, Terrorist

From Roth I learned that the reader can identify with a character, even one who takes radical stands, if the reader watches the character grow over time and feels connected to the character’s evolution. My Sara Katz did not by any means go to the same extremes as Roth’s Merry Levov, but both young women came of age during the turmoil of the 1960s, and both turned against the mainstream. The transformation of Sara that I began under the influence of Merry was extended and elaborated upon because I studied elements of fiction skillfully employed by the four other seminar authors. But my first mission was to create a sympathetic feminist with whom the reader could identify. Roth’s Merry, a terrorist, an inadvertent murderer, was a striking example of a character we could abhor but whose roots we understood.

Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral (1997) is the tragic account of what happens to a Jewish high school football hero after he marries an Irish Catholic beauty queen. They move to an idyllic spot in rural New Jersey and raise their only daughter, a stutterer, who eventually in the ’60s becomes a terrorist, a tool of Black Power and the Weathermen, responsible for several deaths. Though Sara and Merry were raised during the same political era, Sara’s political activism—becoming involved with the women’s liberation movement and the burgeoning field of women’s studies—took more constructive forms than Merry’s. I realized though, in reading Roth, that I knew so much more of Merry’s personal history than the reader knew of Sara’s.

In my original manuscript, the reader learned what led Sara to feminism only in dribs and drabs through flashbacks of the young Sara. I gleaned from Roth that to understand the genesis of an activist, the reader needs to know her full history, her family background, and her social/economic context. Roth is genius at creating the upward-mobility pressure cooker in which Merry is raised: her father, Seymour’s, success-driven glove factory; her mother, Dawn’s, personal farm where she raises cows; their professional-class network of friends. What does the reader need to know, I wondered, about Sara’s motivation to create new courses on women and teach them in the university? And if the reader is introduced to the triggers of Sara’s activism, will the reader then sympathize more fully with her determination to change the system?

Here is a scene from the final version of The Fix that was published, created as the origin of eight-year-old Sara’s passion to save women from domestic abuse. Sara’s mother, Helen, is confronting her husband, Josef, for the first time about his addiction. He is demanding that she turn rent money over to him for drugs, and Sara is witness to their argument:

“I’m not going to feed your habit!” Helen shouted. And when she didn’t go to the broom closet to get the money, when Josef saw her back away from him and quickly place her hand in her apron pocket, he lunged at her. “You’re insane!” she screamed, taking hold of the roll of bills and drawing both arms behind her back. Sara’s father darted toward her like a ferocious King Kong. Sara had seen the monster movie several times on TV and had nightmares about a large ape terrorizing people. “No! No! Daddy, stop!” Sara saw her father shove her mother against the wall, twist her arm, and rip her apron . . . Fear mingled with hate welled up inside her. Her mother was in danger, and she must save her. But how? Sara clenched her teeth. She pictured the sharp, gleaming knife that her father kept in the kitchen drawer, the one he used to carve roast beef and turkey (Chapter One, 1955).

Sara imagined “the grainy feel of the knife’s wooden handle in her palm” and thought, Do I really want to kill my father? The father she knew and loved might turn around and say in his jolly voice, “Sara, my Sha-Sha,” and she’d feel ashamed. Flooded by feelings of love, fear, and hate, she fell asleep, exhausted.

I was hoping to show, in contrast to Roth, that an activist does not have to become a terrorist. I wanted to give feminism a better rep. In the published novel, a maturing Sara extends her politics to include Civil Rights, my goal being to show that several popular movements of the ’60s offered Sara productive consolations from her family turbulence.

In my next piece, I’ll take a look at Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and how it affected my use of dialogue between Sara and her father in The Fix.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at SharonLeder.com.

From Journalism to Publishing

Thursday, July 27, 2017 | Permalink

Bruce Henderson, the author of Sons and Soldiers, has been guest blogging this week as part of our Visiting Scribe series.

Q: Was there a particular moment when you knew you were a writer?

I started out as a newspaper reporter in my early 20s, and at some point down the road, amid all the interviews and deadlines and stories filed, I realized that I was becoming a writer. It didn't happen overnight, and I've told my writing students over the years (at Stanford and the USC School of Journalism) that writing is like exercising. The more you do it, the stronger you get. For me, newspaper articles led to magazine pieces which led to books; each step was a natural progression. My first book was published when I was still in my 20s, and it was an expansion of a newspaper article I had written. I didn't become a full-time book author until about 10 years later.

Q: Career high point and career low point?

The high point was when my third book, And the Sea Will Tell, became #1 on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list. I kept calling, over and over, the Times recorded message number to hear the weekly bestseller list: “And #1 is…” What a thrill!

Low point: When after delivering a book, I go more than a few months without a new deal. It always feels as if I’ll never work again. That doesn’t happen very often, as I usually am able to go from one book to the next, but when it does I get very antsy. I don’t play golf or work with wood or paint still lifes or tend a garden. Writing is my hobby, as well as my career.

Q: Most unforgettable characters you’ve encountered through your past writing?

Mercury 7 astronaut “Gordo” Cooper is one. After first reading about him in The Right Stuff, I was able some years later to work with him on his autobiography, Leap of Faith.

Also on the list is Dieter Dengler, the subject of my book, Hero Found. Dieter was a U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War, and led an organized escape from a POW camp in Laos. Against seemingly overwhelming odds, he made it out alive. We served on the same aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger, and were good friends for many years. He was bigger-than-life, unforgettable, and one of my heroes.

Q: Was there a book that changed your life or career?

There were two: In Cold Blood and The Right Stuff. Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe opened up to me the world of long-form narrative nonfiction, which they almost single-handedly made commercial. They not only provided a bridge from journalism to books for writers like myself, but they created an entire genre—one in which I have made my living for twenty-plus years.

Q: You have sold several books for film adaptation. Some writers go their whole careers without having a book turned into a movie. What’s your formula for film sales?

And the Sea Will Tell was a four-hour CBS miniseries, and went to the heart of what television executives were looking for at that time: true murder mysteries set in paradise. A couple of other books of mine are currently under option, and are in various stages of development as either a feature film or for television. Movie folks are always looking for good stories, and they particularly like true ones. This brings us back to narrative nonfiction, in which we utilize the tools of a novelist, descriptive scenes, dialog and so forth, and only every word is true. More than one filmmaker has told me that a book of mine is easy to visualize as a movie. Also, authors need to have specialized film agents—and good ones—to represent their work to Hollywood, just as writers need literary agents to submit their works to book publishers.

Q: What have you read recently that you couldn’t put down?

The Lost City of Z by David Grann. For fun, I always jump on the latest Bosch title by Michael Connelly.

Q: What does it mean to you to be a writer?

That I have a platform to tell real stories about real people. A writer is a storyteller. Facts teach people, and “truisms” are often arguable opinions. Tell a good story, however, and it will live in hearts forever.

Q: What’s new and upcoming?

My new book, Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, was published on July 25. It will also be published in six foreign countries. It’s my third consecutive World War II book. For all of them, I went around the country interviewing members of the Greatest Generation, which turned into a labor of love. They are now nonagenarians, and we are losing them rapidly. They are an extraordinary generation who fought a good-against-evil war. Had they not been victorious, the world would look much different today. I am now writing a proposal for another WWII book set in Europe, a story I came across while researching Buchenwald concentration camps for Sons and Soldiers. 

Bruce Henderson is the author or coauthor of more than twenty nonfiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell, the national bestseller Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, and Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II. An award-winning journalist and writer, he has published work in Esquire, Playboy, Reader's Digest, and other periodicals. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

Obituaries as Literary Inspiration

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 | Permalink

Bruce Henderson, author of Sons and Soldiers, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series. Check back throughout the week to read more from him.

How we get ideas for a book is the one question most asked of authors. Given that I am a nonfiction writer, my subjects generally don't come from a daydream or bolt out of the blue. Often, I find the nuggets I'm looking for in a documentary or an article or book. I'll tell you this secret: a number of my ideas for books have come from obituaries, my favorite section of the newspaper because they introduce me to interesting people I never had the chance to meet. (The New York Times obits are the best.)

In early 2014, I was in the midst of writing a book about World War II in the Pacific when I read an obituary in my local paper about a German-born nonagenarian who had escaped the Nazis as a young boy in the 1930s with the help of a Jewish Relief Organization, was drafted into the U.S. Army during the war, and trained to be an interrogator of German POWs at a top-secret Military Intelligence center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Only a decade removed from his boyhood escape, he returned to Nazi-occupied Europe as a member of a special band of U.S. soldiers-most of them German Jews-known as The Ritchie Boys. My first thought was that his life story had an astonishing dramatic arc from nearly victim to liberator. As a voracious reader of military histories and the author of several books about World War II, I couldn't believe that I had never heard of the Ritchie Boys. Who were they? How many were they? What had it been like for them to go back and fight the Nazi evil from which they had only a few years earlier escaped? I ripped the article from the paper, looked at my wife, and said, "I think I've found my next book."

Six months later, I was ready to start answering those questions. First, I searched online for book titles on the subject, and found none. I did find and watch the documentary, "The Ritchie Boys," which was very moving. I was soon on the trail of retired Wayne State University professor Guy Stern, himself a former Ritchie Boy, who had curated a 2011 special exhibit called, "Secret Heroes: The Ritchie Boys," at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I telephoned Guy, and learned that the traveling exhibit had been up for a year but was now in storage. He told me that it was all digitized, however, and I could have access to it if I came to Michigan. I quickly packed my bag. I spent a week in Farmington Hills, going over oral histories, letters, official documents and wartime photos, and interviewing Guy, a warm, intelligent man blessed with a photographic memory. I returned home convinced that the story of the Ritchie Boys was one of the last great sagas of World War II that had not yet been the subject of a major book. An estimated 300 Ritchie Boys-all in their nineties-were alive when I began my research, and I went around the country interviewing dozens of them. When I was ready to start writing, I selected six German-born Ritchie Boys to follow in "Sons and Soldiers," beginning with their harrowing escapes from the Nazis, reaching their new homes in America, and their experiences in the war when they went back to their homeland in the fight against fascism. 

Although there were many more who could have been included, I didn't want the book to read like the Manhattan white pages; I decided on a infinite number of characters who were doing different things at different times and gave us complete coverage of a big theater of war. Also, I wanted the readers to remember the characters whenever we came back to them, and feel a bond with them. That would have been more difficult with a larger cast. The Ritchie Boys returned to the United States after the war, and many went on to stellar careers in a variety of fields, including science, politics, business, the law, the arts, and academia. Even more than half a century later, their surviving members vividly recalled fighting two different wars: the world's and their own. I am honored to tell the epic story of these little-known heroes.

Bruce Henderson is the author or coauthor of more than twenty nonfiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell, the national bestseller Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, and Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II, as well as Sons and Soldiers. An award-winning journalist and writer, he has published work in Esquire, Playboy, Reader's Digest, and other periodicals. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

How Journalism Has Changed

Thursday, July 20, 2017 | Permalink

Lynda Schuster, author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.


As I was writing my memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, I thought a lot about how journalism has changed over the decades. The book—which begins with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and ends with the 2014 Gaza War—chronicles my time as a foreign correspondent covering international conflicts for the Wall Street Journal and as the wife of a U.S. ambassador. Journalism’s transformation during those years, both in its dissemination and in the role of its practitioners, is nothing short of remarkable.

Much of the change is due, obviously, to the advent of the Internet and the rise of social media. When I started out at the Journal in the early 1980s, we were still using typewriters to bang out our copy. (That thumping noise you hear is my dinosaur tail being tucked discretely behind me.) Back then, when I wanted to file a story to the States while covering the wars in Central America, say, I had to be beg, plead, cajole—bribe, even—the telex operator at my hotel. And that assumed the power grid hadn’t been attacked. Barring a sympathetic hotel typist, I had to strike out, often in the dead of night to make my deadline, to the city’s central telephone exchange. Still, there was something thrilling about the clacking, clattering noise of the machine sending your story.

The years passed, and the technology improved. My first portable computer could accommodate about three sentences on the screen; to send a story, I had to fit rubber cups over the ear- and mouthpiece of a telephone. (That telephones even had mouthpieces tells you right there this is ancient history.) Those computers were prone to epic failures. Once, after writing up a story in Buenos Aires that I had spent several days reporting, I flew to Rio de Janeiro with the intention of filing the piece from there. (I was on a crazy deadline to finish a Brazilian story as well.) As soon I got to my stringer’s office, I attached the cups, dialed New York, pressed “send”—and pouf! The story disappeared. Gone. Vanished forever. The computer had neither hard drive nor memory—and I had nothing to file. So I did what any self-respecting reporter on deadline would do: I panicked. Once I’d finished hyperventilating, though, I sat down and miraculously recreated the story from memory. After I made deadline, my editor—who apparently liked the article I’d pieced together—said: “Maybe you ought to try losing your stories more often.”

Fast forward to today, with all the fancy, light-as-air laptops and instantaneous means of transmission. But while the Internet has made the actual job of journalism easier, social media is, in many ways, rendering reporters superfluous. That’s especially true when it comes to foreign reportage.

First, consider the vital role as conduits that we journalists used to play. When I covered southern Africa in the late 1980s, the civil war in Angola—a proxy conflict for Cold War supremacy in the region—had been raging for almost fifteen years. Amid talk of a possible peace accord, another reporter and I were flown by the South African military to Angola to interview the head of the rebels. We arrived at their base—only to find the rebel leader had flown off an hour earlier to consult with the president of a West African country. His armed soldiers made it clear, however, that we were to remain as their “guests” until the leader returned. And there we were, stuck in a place so remote the former Portuguese colonists called it “the land at the end of the earth.” No means of communication, no way of getting out (the South Africans left after dropping us off), nothing to do but sit in a hut and wait. For days. Until the leader returned: laughing off our consternation at being held hostage, he gave us a lengthy interview, then summoned a plane to return us to South Africa.

The rebel chief had wanted his opinion of the pending peace accord transmitted to the world—and we were the only means to do so. Nowadays, that wouldn’t happen. The rebels most likely would possess their own website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, all manner of methods to disseminate their message without having to rely on journalists. Which accounts, in some ways, for tragedies such as the beheading by ISIS of reporter James Foley in 2014: we are more valuable as pawns to garner international attention than as interlocutors.

Yet one essential thing about the profession hasn’t changed. Witness the remarkable reporting of late by the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, on matters that otherwise would have remained unknown to us citizens. No amount of technological transformation can ever replace that cornerstone of our democracy.

Lynda Schuster is a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor. She reported from Central and South America Mexico the Middle East and Africa. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Atlantic, Granta, and Utne Reader. She is the author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver and A Burning Hunger: One Family's Struggle Against Apartheid.