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Book Cover of the Week: Pascin by Joann Sfar

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Joann Sfar's biography of the Jewish modernist painter Pascin (Julius Mordecai Pincas) will soon be available in the U.S. with a translation by Edward Gauvin. Uncivilized Books will publish the title on October 15th.

The U.S. cover is on the left:


The French edition was published as six separate books (I could only find 5 covers), which are particularly lovely as a set:

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

The Balabusta Gene

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Jamie Geller wrote about her very first potato kugel. Jamie, known as the "Queen of Kosher" (CBS) and the "Jewish Rachael Ray" (New York Times), is Founder and Chief Creative Officer of the Kosher Media Network, publisher of the award-winning Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller magazine and the website. Her newest cookbook, Joy of Kosher, will be published by William Morrow on October 15th. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Some folks are born with the balabusta gene and others are not. It’s that simple. If you didn’t happen to grow up where the term balabusta was freely thrown about, let me try to define it for you. I say “try” because Yiddish is a language that requires paragraphs of explanation for one tiny word. Nu, let’s give it a go.

In the glossary of my first cookbook I define a balabusta as the perfect homemaker. She cooks, she cleans, she bakes, she owns the best spice rack. And she does it all with grace, donating her spare time to local charities.

My grandparents were blessed with the balabusta gene (like most everyone from the old country), which comes along with natural cooking instincts that sense exactly what’s needed to make a dish sing. Yet, like twins, it skipped a generation or two and I was born clearly defective in this area. As my grandfather would say to anyone that would listen, “she’s no balabusta.”

For most of my life, it didn’t matter. As far as my mother was concerned, I was destined to become the first Jewish woman president of the United States, and I would have a squad of chefs preparing my state dinners anyway. My dad would kinda show me on the sly how to scramble an egg and how to turn on a stove, skills he deemed useful in emergencies. (That and how to replace a carburetor.) But the lessons (both kitchen and car) didn’t take.

I did my best to learn once it became important to me. That’s code for “I got married and Hubby asked me ‘what’s for supper?’” Funny, he never mentioned he’d be expecting dinner on our dates.

He was in for some inedible awakenings. But I saw how important it was to him, so it became important to me. I was gonna become the balabusta of the century, come hell or high water.

So I experimented and Hubby choked down every morsel. After a couple of years I had this thing under my belt (and on my hips). At last, I crowned myself a “Balabusta” (well no one else was gonna make me kitchen royalty).

But neither Hubby nor I was ready for the sudden emergence of Extreme Balabusta. I’m sure it was the result of one of those hormonal domestic frenzies; it happened just before I had a baby. Like a culinary Madame Curie, I spent ten straight hours making 60 quarts of chicken soup and froze them in individual 2-quart containers. Then I made 120 carrot muffins and froze them in bags of 8-10. Next I produced 4 challah kugels, and a huge brisket (frozen in 3 separate portions), and 90 meatballs (frozen 10 to a container), and 10 pounds of mashed potatoes (also portioned and frozen). We’re talkin’ really hormonal. My mother-in-law looked on in disbelief as I had humongous pots (almost as big as my humongous belly) bubbling on all 5 burners. There was 12-quart vat in which I was mixing my muffin batter, and enough ground beef to compete with Kosher Castle (that’s the Jewish Burger King).

So I had a freezer full of homemade goodies that lasted well into the year. But by the time the baby was three months old, I had to reactivate that balabusta mechanism which had gone dormant. I actually had to cook dinner.

And as Yogi Berra famously said, “It was déjà vu all over again.” I discovered that I had not endowed myself with a genuine balabusta gene; I had simply copied it by artificial means. I had to drag myself back into that kitchen, with Hubby prodding me along as my ever-hopeful cheerleader.

It was time to start over.

Check back on October 15th for Jamie Geller's final post for the Visiting Scribe.

Confessions of a Jewish Bride

Monday, September 23, 2013 | Permalink
Known as the "Queen of Kosher" (CBS) and the "Jewish Rachael Ray" (New York Times), Jamie Geller is Founder and Chief Creative Officer of the Kosher Media Network, publisher of the award-winning Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller magazine and the website. Her newest cookbook, Joy of Kosher, will be published by William Morrow on October 15th. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ll confess right off that this is not my most embarrassing culinary moment, because I actually air the worst ones in my cookbooks. Like "Brisket: A Love Story," "Chicken Soup: A Disaster Story," and "Chocolate Mousse: A Scary Story." Although all could be simply classified as epic kitchen tragedies. Dunno why exactly I always tell all. Must be that I feel taking the humiliation to an uber-public level will serve as penance of some kind. But that’s just a guess, after all I am a cookbook author, not a psychotherapist.

You see, I was not a “born cook.” (But boy was I born to eat!) So when I had to cook up my very first Shabbat meal as a married lady, every course was a different form of disaster. You wouldn’t think there are so many ways to ruin good food.

My potato kugel was a perfect example. Sitting at our Shabbat table was Hubby, my mommy, my granddaddy and my dear sis. They had all come to “help” this inexperienced cook, not to snicker. At least that’s what they said. When it came time to serve the kugel, even I knew that it didn’t even resemble one. It looked more like an off-color giant latka that had been run over by a truck. I cried, and I decided not to serve it.

But I couldn’t fool Hubby. He knew I had labored over it because potato kugel is one of his favorite Shabbat foods. So he asked about it. I shook my head, wide-eyed. “Come, on, I know you prepared it,” he prodded gently. I shook my head again, searching his face desperately for understanding. Finally, staring at my shoes, I whispered that I was too embarrassed to bring it out. He sweetly, calmly and lovingly told me that I should never be embarrassed about my food, that I had worked hard on it for him and he wanted to have his new wife’s first potato kugel. (He scored extra points from the family with that speech.) So head hung, I brought it out. A suppressed gasp gripped the table. Hubby smiled weakly. Everyone else looked over their shoulders at the wall, the ceiling, the floor. But he gallantly cut himself a piece and sent it down, as I watched in horror. Ever the noble prince, he actually ate another piece. Then he announced his verdict. “Perfect,” he paused, “for a Passover cake!”

That’s his secret: when I want to cry, he makes me laugh. When I want to scream, he makes me laugh. So I laughed through my tears, everyone relaxed, and the kugel mysteriously disappeared from the table.

Check back all week for more from Jamie Geller.

New Jewish Children's Book Reviews

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 | Permalink
Find the full list of the latest children's book reviews here.


New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

A Magical Mother, Golems, and Surprising History

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Donna Minkowitz wrote about how Judaism became the foundation for her memoir Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My mother always told us she could do magic. And though my sisters and I were modern children of the '70s, brought up by this very same mother to be lefties and intellectuals, we believed her - all the way into early adulthood. She was that powerful a figure to us.

She said her beloved bubbe and zaide had taught her the potent, sometimes scary elements of Jewish magic - part of the "folk Kabbalah," I would later learn - that allowed her to predict the future, interpret dreams, and - did she actually say this, or was it extrapolated by me as a frightened five-year-old listening? - manipulate the world to her liking.

As an older child, I once boldly asked her to teach me "the signs" she mentioned so often, by which she could read the future. She refused, saying "Once you know them, you'll see them everywhere, and it will terrify you." I couldn't imagine anything more terrifying than her warning.

Still, part of me was incredibly intrigued. "Magic" was the thing I myself most wanted to do from an early age, and J. R. R. Tolkien became my favorite writer at the age of nine (and remains my favorite today). Fantasy and sword-and-sorcery were among the genres I loved the most, but I had never heard of any Jewish sorcerers or magicians until my mother mentioned them.

One of the most surprising things my mother told me about her early magical education was that it mixed Jewish enchantments with magic derived from the European pagan tradition. My mom said her Romanian bubbe taught her not just spells from our landsmen but "Romanian gypsy magic," which frankly shocked me because what I had always heard of relations between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in Europe seemed to preclude friendly cultural exchange.

(Yes, I now find it funny that I found the claims about magic easy to believe, but I was more doubtful about amiable exchange of myths between Jews and goyim.)

One of the things I remember most pointedly from my three years of yeshiva is Abraham being revered for smashing the idols of pagans, and the almost unbearable horror of the Greeks' turning the Jewish Temple into a pagan one (on the occasion in the 2nd century B.C.E. that gave rise to Chanukah).

Even as an adult, my understanding of Jewish and pagan contacts in the homelands of my grandparents (Russia, Romania, and Austria) was that there never would have been much merry sharing of stories, traditions, or magic. Each side, I thought, regarded the other with too much distaste and even hatred.

I'm delighted to have discovered I was wrong. When I researched the histories of the golem legend and of Jewish magic itself for my memoir, Growing Up Golem, I learned that there was, in fact, cultural intermingling going on for centuries. No less an authority than Gershom Scholem writes of pagan, Christian and Jewish elements intermingling in some traditions associated with the Kabbalah, and the late scholar Joshua Trachtenberg, in a fascinating work called Jewish Magic and Superstition, discusses enthusiastic sharing going back millennia (and continuing into the modern era). In fact, alchemy, Kabbalah, and Gnosticism have been crossing paths and borrowing from one another for many hundreds of years.

I'm proud to be part of a culture where Jewish difference turns out to be based in part on a cultural soup that got its nutrients from many places, where purity turns out to have been less important than a vital intercourse and commingling, one that gave rise to the legend of the golem itself.

Donna Minkowitz's most recent memoir, Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates, will be published by Magnus Books on September 25th. She won a Lambda Literary Award for her first memoir, Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, Salon, and The Nation. Read more about Donna here.

What, I’m Jewish! You Want I Should Write a Happy Ending?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Allison Amend, the author of A Nearly Perfect Copy and the Sami Rohr Prize finalist Stations Westblogs for The Postscript on the endings and why they are not always so happy. The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Allison at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

My father has a cousin, Joanie, who is a “reader” in the old fashioned sense of the word: books, lots of them. Though her eyesight is deteriorating, rare is the week Joanie doesn't demolish at least three books. She favors mysteries, hard-boiled detective stories, but there's rarely been a genre which didn't somehow strike her as worth reading. 

Joanie is a hoot; she may be prouder of me than my own proud parents. Still, when I saw her at my book party, she frowned at me through her drawn-on eyebrows (the pencil the same magenta color as her hair), and said, "Honey, why don't you write a happy book? Why are all of your books so sad?" 

"Because," I replied, "life is full of pain and suffering, and as a Jew you should know that." Then I smiled to show I was joking. I'm actually a rather optimistic person. I believe everything works out ok in the end. I've also been accused of being funny. But my books are certainly not the kind where the protagonist rides off into the sunset.             

Why not? Because life is full of pain and suffering, duh. To quote The Princess Bride, anyone who says differently is selling something.             

Also, endings are tricky. They are the most complained-about portion of books, my nonscientific poll suggests. 

As readers, we enter into relationships with these characters—we know their innermost thoughts, their faults, their dreams. And we want them to succeed the way we want our children to succeed, to live happily. But what life is lived without adversity? And why on earth would we want to read about such a life?             

The best endings make the reader gasp in surprise and then recognize the conclusion as inevitable. The characters’ live extend beyond the reach of the novel; and we’re left to think about what their journey tells us about ourselves.

Of course, many books end happily. There are entire genres devoted to reuniting separated couples, or bringing murderers to justice, or vanquishing alien aggressors. And these novels are comforting to us the way the predictability of a 3-minute pop song is comforting, or a cup of Starbucks coffee. But these are not pieces of culture that stay with us, that change us or move us.        

My novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, is the story of two art-world denizens (a director of an auction house in New York and a Spanish artist living in Paris) who turn to forgery to get what they want, their principles thus sacrificed in the hopes that the end will justify the means. There is no way that the resolution of their story can involve puppies and rainbows.             

Which is not to say that you’ll finish my book imbued with hopelessness and despair. As my fellow novelist Nelly Reifler says, “even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.” 

And that, Cousin Joanie, is the reason why my books don’t have “happy” endings. Also [insert Borscht-Belt comedian accent] what, I’m Jewish! You want I should write a happy book? 

To read more from Allison, see her Visiting Scribe posts here

Interview: Dara Horn

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 | Permalink
by Miriam Bradman Abrahams 

Speaking with Dara Horn on the phone felt like conversing with one of my brightest, most enthusiastic friends. Since I was the first person to interview her regarding her new book, I was her "sounding board" as she excitedly discussed A Guide for the Perplexed. She will travel the country during Jewish Book Month for JBC.

Miriam Bradman Abrahams: How did you come up with the idea for your new book?

Dara Horn: I had been asked to write fiction inspired by a specific abstract artwork for an exhibit at Yeshiva University Museum which showed contemporary art inspired by the book of Genesis. I wrote a piece called "How Did It Begin" about two sisters who destroy each other, taking my ideas about family and personal identity from the story of Joseph.

MBA: There are references in the book not only to the stories of Joseph being thrown into the pit by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, but also to Tamar's seduction of Judah in order to maintain the family, and Rachel and Leah's sibling rivalry. You have also woven episodes from the lives of historical figures in this contemporary fiction. The dynamics in the relationships of the Rambam with his brother David, Solomon Schechter with his twin brother, Srulik, the twin Victorian adventurers Agnes Smith and Margaret Lewis, live alongside the invented modern day sisters Josie and Judith. Why are there so many sisters and brothers in the novel?

DH: I have always been interested in sibling relationships, both biblical and personal. I think siblings share a past but not a future. However, the past shared is so different based on individual memory. For example, Schechter and his brother make life decisions based on their different interpretations of their father's insightful advice. Josie and Judith remember opposing experiences growing up with their mother. By the way, my own sibling relationships have been wonderful!

The novel also came out of my interest in the Genizah, the repository of hundreds of thousands of stored documents written in Hebrew from 870-1880. I had the opportunity to view some of them during the year I studied in Cambridge and was especially interested in documents which inadvertently recorded the daily existence of the people of Fustat. I have kept journals since I was a child and am fascinated with the idea of recording and preserving things.

Continue Reading

Donna Minkowitz on How Judaism Became the Foundation of Her Memoir

Monday, September 16, 2013 | Permalink

Donna Minkowitz's most recent memoir, Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates, will be published by Magnus Books on September 25th. She won a Lambda Literary Award for her first memoir, Ferocious Romance: What My Encounters with the Right Taught Me About Sex, God, and Fury. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The one thing that has really shocked me about my new book is how Jewish it is.

I'm a nonobservant Jew, except for going to a seder every time I'm invited and vaguely wishing I did more to celebrate Purim because I love its spirit of play and rebellion. In my writing life, I've identified much more as a lesbian than a Jew. My own religious feelings tend toward pagan or atheist, and living in New York my entire life, I've encountered much less overt anti-Semitism than I have homophobia. So why did I wind up writing my memoir, Growing Up Golem, with the fabulist premise that instead of giving birth to me, my mother had actually used magic from Kabbalah to create me as her own personal golem?

One reason is that my parents' lives were extraordinarily affected by anti-Semitism. As American Jewish children during the Holocaust, they grew up with the terror that they themselves would almost certainly have been killed, had they but lived in Europe. My mother quite frequently mentioned her lifelong consciousness of this fact to me. And my parents' fears were hardly confined to the hypothetical. My father, growing up in the Bronx in the '30s and '40s, was beaten up every Halloween by young toughs in his neighborhood because he was Jewish. Later, drafted into the Army and stationed in Germany during the Korean War, he was so viciously Jew-baited by his own sergeant that he actually attacked the man and was put in the stockade (and, probably more damaging, given a less-than-honorable discharge).

My mother was raised largely by her grandmother and grandfather, immigrants from Romania and Austria respectively, who educated my mom in the folk Kabbalistic tradition as a young child (I know the young are not supposed to be taught Kabbalah, but my mother very definitely was), and encouraged her to study Jewish philosophy, at a time almost no girls were. As adults, my parents were both fierce about fighting to preserve Jewish identity, their own, mine, and everybody else's: "You're a Jew if Hitler would have killed you for being a Jew," my mother would say bluntly.

I was sent to yeshiva for the first three grades of school, by parents who wanted me to have a strong foundation in Judaism, despite the fact that they themselves were almost entirely secular.

It worked. I'm a would-be radical writer of 49, but the stories that have the most emotional relevance for me, in the whole of human history, are the Hebrew Bible stories I learned before the age of eight:

Samson, a man of superhuman strength, betrayed by the woman he loves until the Philistines gouge out his eyes and his only remaining remedy is suicidal. Jacob pretending to be Esau, a hairy, masculine man, so that his own blind father will give him the blessing intended for his brother, the favorite. Joseph, who his own father, Jacob, loves the best, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Jacob, again, wrestling with God (with God!), getting his thigh pulled out of its socket in the process, and demanding (and wresting) a blessing from the Lord. Gritty, often violent stories, filled with personal emotion - rivalry, envy, love, betrayal.

These stories are not superficial, not mealymouthed, not "nice" in the sense of bland, inoffensive, "pious."

They are not easy stories, and Jewish culture at its depths is not an easy, sanitized, goes-down-smooth culture.

Precisely why I love it, and why I (a woman educated in the antireligious theories of deconstructionist literary criticism and the English (Christian!) literary tradition), made it the foundation for my book.

Read more about Donna Minkowitz here.