The ProsenPeople

New Reviews November 20, 2017

Monday, November 20, 2017 | Permalink

30 Days 30 Authors: Adam Valen Levinson

Monday, November 20, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Adam Valen Levinson, author of The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Middle East, shares the story of the birth of Sammy Spider and the book that inspired her. 

30 Days 30 Authors: Sylvia Rouss

Sunday, November 19, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Sylvia Rouss, author of many books for children including the Sammy Spider series and The Littlest booksshares the story of the birth of Sammy Spider and the book that inspired her. 

The story of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna influenced my decision to become a Jewish educator and ultimately, a writer. He is often referred to as the Vilna Gaon or Genius of Vilna. Born in 1720, he was studying the Bible and Talmud by the age of 6. Although he grew to be proficient in all things Jewish, he continued to study 18 hours a day. According to a popular Jewish legend, a young student asked his Rabbi why he studied so much. He answered, “If the Vilna Gaon studies Torah 18 hours a day, the rabbis in Poland will study 10 and in the more enlightened climate of Germany, the rabbis will study 6 and the rabbis in England will study 2, then the Jews of England will at least keep the Sabbath. But if the Vilna Gaon only studies 10 hours a day then the rabbis of Poland will study 6, and the rabbis in Germany only 2, and the rabbis in England only ½ hour, what will become of the Sabbath observance of English Jewry?”

As a Jewish educator, keeping Jewish learning alive has been a priority. Early in my career, I taught two-year-old children and I wanted to find a way to engage them in learning about Jewish holidays and traditions. I was familiar with secular rhymes and finger plays and saw how they delighted young children. So, I decided to write Jewish rhymes to introduce the holidays to the children I was teaching. For each holiday, I created new rhymes and accompanying finger puppets as well as flannel board props to engage the children. The collection ultimately became my first published book, Fun with Jewish Holiday Rhymes.

Later, when I began teaching older children I used the limited resources available to me at the time. One of my favorite stories was The Mouse in the Matzah Factory by Francine Medoff, a wonderful story that allows the reader to observe the process of making matzah. Through the eyes of a little mouse, we watch the care that is taken from growing and harvesting the wheat, to transporting it to the matzah factory and finally, baking it into matzah.

I think this story more than any other inspired my writing. I wanted to create a relatable character that would engage young children ---a character who exhibits childlike curiosity and who wants to discover and participate in the events occurring around him. And so, Sammy was born!

The first Sammy holiday adventure was Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah. Although Sammy spins webs, he has a desire to spin dreidels like the child in the story. At the time, I never dreamt I would be writing additional Sammy Spider stories. I was thrilled when my publisher wanted me to write more Sammy holiday books and today there is an entire Sammy Spider holiday series featuring the precocious little spider. Sammy has been translated into French, Dutch and Spanish, and one day I hope the stories will also be published in Hebrew.

Although I have written picture books about other characters, Sammy Spider remains my favorite. Today, I am happy to see that there are many wonderful Jewish Children’s books and that Sammy is in good company. The Mouse in the Matzah Factory that so inspired me, has been republished with colorful illustrations in place of the monochromatic sepia colors of the original. I shall forever be grateful to the little mouse that took me on a journey of discovery and led me to Sammy Spider.

30 Days 30 Authors: Bruce Henderson

Saturday, November 18, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Bruce Henderson, the author of the bestselling book Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, on the the relevance of his most recent book to today's news and the importance of immigrants to this country.

When I set out in Fall 2014 to write a book about the Ritchie Boys of World War II, I had no idea that this work of history would become so relevant to what was about to take place during and after the 2016 presidential election. Yet, that is exactly what happened when Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned to Fight Hitler was published in July 2017. The theme and content of my nonfiction book walked right into today's headlines for more than one reason, and unfortunately so.

I say unfortunately because it is terribly disheartening how some people deny history and its hardest lessons. Three weeks after my book's release, the airwaves were filled with images of the hatred in Charlottesville; protestors wearing Nazi paraphernalia, carrying flags with swastikas, waving quotations by Adolf Hitler, while shouting Nazi slogans and antisemitic slurs such as "Jews will not replace us." Then, the one thing that could make these scenes even worse happened: The leader of our country refused to condemn them.

Regretfully, I find it all too easy to make comparisons with the evil person I wrote about who rose to power in 1933 by skillfully subverting his nation's democracy and promising to make Germany great again with the political neophyte of narcissistic tendencies who broadcasts a similar message while manipulating our own democratic institutions.

The six individuals profiled in my book are German Jews, who as boys were able to get out of their homeland in the 1930s, most of them saved by Jewish relief organizations. A number of these boys had to leave their families behind, and they lived in this country in foster homes or with distant relatives. Young men when war broke out, they went into the U.S. Army, which secretly trained them at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, to interrogate German prisoners of war and collect valuable intelligence. Before being sent overseas, they went before a federal magistrate and were sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens.

Until the very moment when they numbered among the newest Americans, the Ritchie Boys were "enemy aliens" — immigrants from a country with which we were at war — and as such were openly distrusted in some quarters. Yet, they turned into enormous assets for our military in that they knew the language, culture and psychology of the enemy we were fighting better than anyone and were highly motivated to defeat them. (A postwar Army report found that nearly 60% of the most valuable intelligence gathered in Europe came from the teams of German-speaking Ritchie Boys.)

The wholesale demonization of immigrants is another of today's headlines that resonates with the stories in Sons and Soldiers. With quotas being slashed and the residents of some countries banned from entering the U.S., there are inescapable parallels with America's backward immigration policies of the 1930s. Too few immigrants from Nazi-occupied Europe were given entry into the United States, as our leaders refused to increase restrictive quotas set in 1920s at a cost of countless lives during those perilous times.

The current wave of anti-immigration policies, as well as efforts to paint all members of the world's second largest religion as equally suspect, is not worthy of our history as the world's great melting pot. After all, other than Native Americans, we are all from immigrant stock that came from elsewhere.

Just as those young men who served as Ritchie Boys during an earlier war, some of those individuals hoping to escape to our shores today could be assets in the new war we are fighting for which we need Muslim intelligence officers, interpreters, special forces operators, CIA officers and FBI agents.

As former Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote to me after reading Sons and Soldiers: "The Ritchie Boys helped defeat the enemy that persecuted them and their families. The message of their courage and patriotism should not be lost in today's war on terrorism."

30 Days, 30 Authors: Idra Novey

Friday, November 17, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Idra Novey, the author of  the Sami Rohr Prize winning novel Ways to Disappear, shares the view from Kafka's window, and the impact that  his Judaism had on his writing —and on her own as well.

Like many Americans, my first introduction to Kafka was in high school with what he referred to as his “bug piece,” The Metamorphosis. My husband, who grew up in Chile, was introduced to Kafka via The Metamorphsis as well. In both Chile and in my public high school in rural Pennsylvania, our teachers gave us numerous biographical facts we were expected to regurgitate for an upcoming quiz.

Yet amid all this grade school emphasis on biography, neither of our teachers ever mentioned Kafka’s family was Jewish. It was not until I came home and shared my astonishment about the “bug piece” with my father that I learned this life-altering writer named Franz had gone to Hebrew school as well, and had also grown up feeling acutely, continually aware, as I did in rural Pennsylvania, that he would always be seen as an outsider.

Several years later, in my literature classes at Barnard College, and on my own, I read more about the impact Judaism had on Kafka’s worldview and his sensibility as a writer. While living in Chile, and later in Brazil and translating novelists from Spanish and Portuguese, I became increasingly interested in Kafka’s theories about outsider writers in minor languages as the ones most likely to “indicate breaking points” in literature and push fiction in new directions. This certainly seemed true of the Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector, and I returned to Kafka’s theories while translating one of her novels.

Both Kafka and Lispector became significant influences on my own writing, and on the outsider Brazilian Jewish author I invented in my first novel, Ways to Disappear, all of which contributed to my eagerness to visit Prague and see Kafka’s childhood home along the Vltava River for myself.

This past summer, after the extraordinary gift of receiving the JBC’s Sami Rohr Prize, I finally made that pilgrimage. As my husband and I moved through the exhibit about the influence of the Yiddish theater on Kafka’s writing, and how often Judaism came up in his fraught relationship with his religious father, we were both surprised at what a Jewish-infused version of Kafka’s life the museum presented.

To have a chance to view Prague through Kafka’s windows was exhilarating and the museum does an extraordinary job of recreating a sense of coming closer to the untouchable, unknowable aspects that shape the sensibility of a writer. Touring the exhibits, I kept thinking about one of my favorite, lesser-known Kafka stories about an untouchable animal that lives in a synagogue.

Written in 1920, it is a wry tale whose humor didn’t really come alive in English until Michael Hoffman’s excellent new translations of Kafka’s short fiction, Investigations of a Dog. The synagogue where the untouchable long-necked animal has chosen to live is a tiny one, and the synagogue’s population is shrinking by the year. The Jewish community is having a hard time finding the funds to keep up the building. The description brought to mind the increasingly empty synagogue my parents belonged to in Pennsylvania and also the one I’d come to know in Vina del Mar, Chile with my father-in-law—those ever-emptier synagogues that exist in places where teachers will make a case for reading Kafka by leaving out any mention of his love of Yiddish theater, or of his strange story about the long-necked, untouchable animal in a synagogue who comes to know three generations of Jews, more and more of whom have moved away from the tiny town where they grew tired of being continually perceived as outsiders.

30 Days 30 Authors: Adam Greenberg

Thursday, November 16, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Adam Greenberg, the author of Get Up: The Art of Perseverance, tells us about how his grandfather's story inspired him.

30 Days 30 Authors: Judy Laufer

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, J.E. Laufer, the author of Choices, shares her favorite book, a classic in Holocaust literature, All But My Life by Gerda Weissman Klein.

30 Days 30 Authors: Pamela Ehrenberg

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Pamela Ehrenberg, the author of Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017), on the need for diversity in Jewish children's literature. 

For much of 2015, I grappled with how to answer my rabbi’s provocative question, “Are Jews white?”

I grappled most strongly while riding the Metro with my seven-year-old son, whose goal was to occupy as much space as possible while attempting to swing from the poles. That year, fifty miles away, police killed Freddie Gray. And with every indulgent smile my son encountered, I grew more convinced: of course my son is white—and if he’s white, I guess I am too. I continued checking “white” on school forms, though always with a pause.

In 2017, I’m wrestling less with the answer than with who is included in the question itself. When I spend time with the diverse Tot Shabbat families at our synagogue, or scroll through photos of my kids with their friends at Camp Havaya, or talk with new friends at B’chol Lashon, I remember that the Jewish community has always been diverse: what’s changing is that our Jewish institutions are actively seeking to be more inclusive. And more of us recognize that advocating for diversity should in no way stop at the doorways of our Jewish institutions—or at the bookshelves inside.

Within Jewish kidlit, PJ Library, which is funded through the private Harold Grinspoon Foundation, is a unique advocate. Beyond its role as a resource for individual families, PJ Library makes it financially sustainable for publishers to take a chance on publishing a book that fills a role for libraries and communities. Even if Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas is never a bestseller, PJ Library’s commitment ensures that my publisher won’t lose money on its investment—which then allows the book to find a wider audience beyond PJ Library subscribers.*

In 2017, most of us writing Jewish books (myself included)—as well as those publishing and reviewing them and those who select them for synagogue libraries and Jewish book festivals—do not reflect the diversity of perspectives and experiences that make our Jewish communities so strong. While addressing those limitations for the future, what responsibility does each of us have right now to help all Jewish children see themselves and others reflected in Jewish literature, today and as they grow into adulthood?

I’d suggest that we each commit to buying and circulating from the library diverse Jewish books for the children in our lives and for ourselves—providing publishers with evidence that such books are not a sales risk but a good business model. (The Book of Life blog has provided a helpful starting list here). And I suggest that we encourage everyone in our communities to tell their own stories wherever there is a venuethe B’chol Lashon blog and the PJ Library wish list are two to consider—and to create new venues where there is a need.

Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas represents an imperfect compromise: a pairing of a Jewish-but-not-Indian author with an Indian-but-not-Jewish illustrator. My hope is that readers who have traditionally had fewer opportunities to see themselves in books will be inspired by this and other diverse Jewish books to grow up and tell their own stories, coming ever closer to literature that reflects the breadth and depth of our many Jewish experiences.

From strength to strength and story to story: it is an honor to share Jewish Book Month with all of us—and each of us—together.


*If anyone knows a philanthropist who might like to try Harold Grinspoon’s model with a different subset of the diverse books community, I’d encourage that person to reach out to

New Reviews November 13, 2017

Monday, November 13, 2017 | Permalink

2018 Natan Book Award Finalist James Loeffler

Monday, November 13, 2017 | Permalink
James Loeffler has earned an international reputation as a rising star among Jewish historians. He is a Professor of History and Jewish Studies on the Berkowitz Family Endowed Chair at the University of Virginia and author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire, which won eight awards and honors. He has written widely for media outlets including The New Republic, Slate, Tablet, Time, Haaretz, and Mosaic. Among his other honors, James Loeffler was a U.S. Fulbright Fellow, a Dean’s Visiting Scholar on the Andrew Mellon New Directions Faculty Fellowship at Georgetown University Law School, a Kluge Scholar at the Library of Congress, a Robert Savitt Fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a Fellow of the Sami Rohr Literary Institute of the Jewish Book Council.  

James's book, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, finalist for the 2018 Natan Book Award at the Jewish Book Council, explores the history of Jews and human rights through the lens of modern Jewish politics, charting the twisted routes traveled by the five forgotten founders of international human rights. It offers a panoramic view of a century-long drama about politics and morality in international affairs built around a series of epic events (the Holocaust, the formation of the United Nations, the creation of Israel, the Six-Day War). It will be published by Yale University Press in Spring 2018.

Read more about James's new book here.

See the full list of Natan Book Award awardees here.