The ProsenPeople

Not All Autobiographical Elements Are Created Equal

Monday, July 08, 2013 | Permalink
Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR News Station. He will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

I get this question all the time: How autobiographical is your novel?

The book’s style, setting, and protagonist invite the question: It’s a first-person coming-of-age debut. It takes place largely in New York and Boston, where I’ve spent most of my life. And the main character—the Zinsky of the title—is my age.

But my honest answer is this: “The life I’ve lived is different from the tale I spin about a fictional character named Zinsky. But I’ve used plenty of ammunition from my life to create Zinsky and his story.”

The thing is—there’s heavy ammunition, and there’s light ammunition.

In the category of heavy ammo, I’d list the following:

  • My parents separated when I was six. Same thing happens to Zinsky.
  • My mother was an English teacher. That, too, is the profession of Zinsky’s mother.
  • I’m a zealot of all things related to literature and football. So is Zinsky.

And yet, I never quite feel like the heavy ammo provides the entire picture. The book contains dozens of minor elements—in the form of small descriptions, single scenes, and turns of phrase—that are also autobiographical. This is what I call “light ammo.”

For example: There’s a wedding scene in Chapter 21, in which two characters—bored by the ceremonies—play a game of prayerbook baseball. Here’s how it works: Zinsky whispers a page number to Jimmy Calipari, the character sitting next to him. Jimmy attempts to open his prayerbook to exactly that page. If he succeeds, he’s hit a home run. If he gets within five pages, it’s a triple. Within 10, a double. Within 15, a single. Beyond 15, it’s an out. So the game begins, with the same general rules—three outs to a half-inning—as regular baseball.

A friend taught me this game in seventh grade. We were sitting next to each other during the bar mitzvah ceremony of another friend. We were bored out of our skulls. And this was 1987, so you couldn’t just take out a smartphone.

So you see, prayerbook baseball’s appearance in Zinsky is an autobiographical element. It’s not the heavy stuff of location, vocation, or family; but any way you slice it, it’s material from my life that I mined to create a fictional scene.

The point is, it’s easy to think of a novel’s autobiographical elements in terms of big-picture similarities between the author’s life and the life of his or her main character.

But just as often, it’s the small stuff.

Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR News Station. Read more about Ilan here.

10 Jewish Books for July 4th

Wednesday, July 03, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Amalia Kaufman

Celebrate July 4th with these titles focused on American Jewish life:


1. Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Martha C. Nussbaum)
2. A Land of Big Dreamers: Voices of Courage in America (Neil Waldman)
3. American Jewish History: A JPS Guide (Norman H. Finkelstein)
4. America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story (Bruce Feiler)
5. A Timeless People: Photo Album of American Jewish Life (Saul H. Landa)
6. American Presidents, Religion and Israel (Paul Charles Merkley
7. American Jewry’s Comfort Level: Present and Future (Manfred Gerstenfeld and Steven Bayme, eds.)
8. From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America (Michael Grunberger, ed.)
9. Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech (Victoria Saker Woeste)
10. Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking our Declaration of Independence (Alan Dershowitz)

My Biggest Love

Wednesday, July 03, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, David Ehrlich wrote about the shared culture, language, and fate of Israelis. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My third book was published this week. Needless to say, I'm somewhere between panic and excitement. It's the first one in English after my two books in Hebrew. When I come up with a new book I'm preoccupied with all kinds of questions, such as:

  • Will people buy it?
  • Will they like it?
  • Will the reviewers like it?

With my new book published in the US, I also have worries as an Israeli author, such as:

  • Will my writing be interesting to a foreign reader?
  • Will people who are not Jewish or those who know nothing about Israel want to read it?
  • Will the book be received as universal, even though certain stories are clearly set in my own country and culture?
  • Will the Israeli "situation," as conveyed in my book, seem bizarre or extreme from a distance?

But now I have a new set of questions that have to do with technology. Take these, for example:

  • Do people still read books?
  • Is there life outside of Facebook?
  • Will there still be bookstores in 10 years?

So many times have I been advised to start a blog or publish on the web. But there's no way. I'm too attached to the print, the paper, the smell of the book. It's a totally sensual experience, isn't it? How can I give up on my first and biggest love? Like everybody else, I live a considerable part of my day on the computer, but I resist giving up on the rest of the world. Here's a universal message that has nothing to do with being Jewish or Israeli: I'll continue reading and writing books, real physical books, even if I’m the last one to do so.

David Ehrlich has published two books of short stories in Hebrew, 18 Blue and Tuesday and Thursday Mornings. His newest book, Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel, is now available. His bookstore-cafe in Jerusalem, Tmol-Shilshom, is a haven for avant garde artists and writers, hosting readings by authors such as David Grossman, Etgar Keret, and A. B. Yehoshua.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Wednesday, July 03, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Birthright Israel Alumni, Come Read With Us!

Tuesday, July 02, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

Ready for a whole new way to enjoy your summer reading? Invite your friends to join a NEXT book club!

Boston and Bay Area Birthright Israel alumni, we have your next book right here! JBC and NEXT have teamed up to help  alumni like you organize book clubs for your friends in the Bay Area and Greater Boston Area this summer. Call a few friends, choose a great book (don't worry, there's a book for everyone on the list), then grab a bottle of wine or some tasty snacks for your book club, maybe call the author up for a video chat Q&A, and don't forget to snap a picture to send in. If you registered your book club meeting before August 31, NEXT will reimburse you for the cost of the books that you bought! To find out more about the program, see the recommended book list, or register your book club, visit the NEXT Book Clubs page here

Only in Israel

Tuesday, July 02, 2013 | Permalink
David Ehrlich has published two books of short stories in Hebrew, 18 Blue and Tuesday and Thursday Mornings. His newest book, Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel, is now available. His bookstore-cafe in Jerusalem, Tmol-Shilshom, is a haven for avant garde artists and writers, hosting readings by authors such as David Grossman, Etgar Keret, and A. B. Yehoshua. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Here's something that just happened to me. I was walking with an American friend in the picturesque quarter of Neve-Tsedek in Tel-Aviv, looking for an ice cream place called "Savta" (Grandma). We asked someone where it was and he showed us the way, just two blocks from there. "But you know what," he confided, "There's an even better ice cream place in the other direction, also very near." We still continued to Savta's, either because of the attractive name or because we saw from a distance the beautiful setting in a shady, flourishing side alley. Ice cream is not only ice cream, it's also the experience around it, right?

As we took our seats, my American friend said, "I can't believe it. In the US they'd have told you exactly how to get there and that's all. Here, they'll tell you that there's a better ice cream."

"Of course," I said, "and I'm surprised this guy didn't recommend the flavors."

It reminded me of an incident that Amos Oz shared when he spoke at my bookstore café, Tmol-Shilshom, a few months ago. According to Oz, a plane full of vacationing Israelis had landed in Cyprus. One of them spotted a distinguished fellow traveler walking into the terminal by him—the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fisher (who just terminated his term last month). "Aren't you the Governor of our central bank?" he asked. "Yes I am," said Fisher. Lo and behold, the man asked: "Out of the Change places here, where will I get the best rate for my money?"

Only with Israelis this could happen, concluded Oz.

He sure is right. Only Israelis would lead you to the best ice cream place even if you didn't ask. For better or for worse, only on an Israeli street would total strangers tell you that your kid should be wearing another layer (when it's cold) or one less layer (when it's hot). "If I were to drop dead on the street," said Oz, "it'd better be an Israeli street, where people would care."

I agree, even though we pay a toll. People here think your business is their business. Only here you'd be asked very personal questions by people you hardly know. You could even be asked how much your salary is, believe it or not. But like Oz, I like living in a place where people care. Moreover, there's a sense of an extended family. People care about you because it's (still) a small place, and in a strange way, they kind-of-know-you even if they don't. We Israelis share special culture and language and fate. We have been together through wars and more wars but also some exhilarating times. We're still surrounded by borders that we can rarely cross, so we mix with each other (unless we buy a vacation deal in the nearby Cyprus, but even then we end up mixing with our own). We live under an existential threat. We fear we might be wiped out at some point. Some of us will never admit this anxiety, and others will talk about nothing else. In any case, to me, being an Israeli is a unique experience which a stranger will never understand.

The first story in my new book is called "To The Limit," and it couldn't take place anywhere else in the world. It’s about two drivers who experience road rage all the way from one end of this small country to the other. The last story in my book (which gave its name to the collection), "Who Will Die Last," is more universal. I feel that my book exists in the tension between these two poles, and so do I.

Check out David Ehrlich's collection, Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel, here.

Interview: Maryann Macdonald

Monday, July 01, 2013 | Permalink

by Michal H. Malen

Maryann Macdonald is the author of Odette’s Secrets (Bloomsbury).

Michal H. Malen: Please tell us some more about the real Odette Mey­ers, the person on whom your fictional character is closely based.

Maryann Macdonald: Odette Meyers was a woman described by those who knew her as having a generous and courageous heart. Her child­hood was just as it has been described in Odette's Secrets. She was born in Paris in 1934, the daughter of Polish immigrants Berthe and George Melszpajz, secular Jews and socialists. They lived in a small apartment in a working class neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement on what was then called the rue d’Angouleme (now the rue Jean Pierre Timbaud). Just one flight below lived the building’s concierge, Marie Chotel, a Catholic, who was their close friend and the self-proclaimed godmother of Odette. As Odette wrote in her autobiography, “In the upstairs-down­stairs world of my early childhood, I went up and down like a yo-yo, at home in either place.”

When WWII broke out, George joined the French army, was captured by the Germans, and became a prisoner of war. Berthe continued work­ing in a knitting factory to support herself and Odette, and also became involved in the Resistance. Before dawn on July 16, 1942, the Vichy police arrived in the neighborhood to arrest all the Jewish people living there. Madame Marie was able to hide Odette and her mother in her broom closet, while distracting the police from their job with wine and conversation. After their departure, Berthe left to try to warn her sister about the round-up. Odette then had to travel to the remote French countryside where she would “hide in plain sight,” posing as a Catholic schoolgirl and living with a foster family. Berthe later joined her in the country where, despite many difficulties, the two survived until the end of the war.

In 1949, concerned by the Cold War, Odette and her family left Paris and moved to California. Odette went to college, became a university professor of literature, married the poet Bert Meyers and had two children, Anat and Daniel. She was active in her community, speaking about her childhood experiences in schools, churches and synagogues, and making many devoted friends. She made several trips back to France, and visited those she knew during the war years. She died in 2001 and was much mourned in her community in Berkeley.

MHM: How closely is the fictional Odette based on the real one?

MM: My goal in writing Odette’s Secrets was to paint as true a picture of Odette’s life as possible. When I first discovered Odette’s memoir, Doors to Madame Marie, on a visit to the American Library in Paris, I was fascinated by it. I pored over the photographs of her and her family and friends. I read and reread her adventures, especially the passages where she described what it was like to switch selves, not once but twice, both in the remote countryside of the Vendee where she hid and then back in Paris again after the war. I learned that thousands of French children had had similar experiences. I visited the street where Odette’s family lived, and sat in the square opposite studying the door and their apart­ment window. I searched for her school. I explored the alleyway where her dear cousins lived, the cousins who left France weeks after their ar­rest and never returned. I strolled in the park where Odette played, and in the cemetery where she went with her mother to honor the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust.

One night, I told my husband Odette’s story. Together, we took the Metro to the 11th arrondissement and stood outside Odette’s apart­ment building. “I so wish I could go inside!” I said, looking at the oak door at the front of the building, a solid street door of the type that is always locked.

“Let’s see if we can,” my husband said, and pressed his fingertips against the door. It swung open! In moments we were standing in the tiled hallway where Odette had played with her red rubber ball. I couldn’t believe my luck…it seemed like a sign. I just had to write the story of Odette’s remarkable life for children.

But how? I knew I would need the permission of her family. And I knew she had a son, and he lived in Paris.

I found Daniel’s number in the Paris telephone directory. With my heart in my mouth, I dialed the number. I left a message, explaining who I was and what I hoped to do. Then I waited. A few days later, Daniel called me back and invited me to lunch in his sunny apartment on the rue Rambuteau. He listened to my request and made his decision almost immediately. He was sure his mother would want her story to live on. As her literary executor, he gave me permission to use the facts of her life as the basis of a book for children.

I was thrilled, but wanted to learn as much as I could about Odette and her family and experiences first. Daniel gave me his grandmother’s autobiography and some of his mother’s poems. He showed me film clips and more family photographs. He also told me that although Odette and her three friends thought they were the only Jewish children in their small village in the remote country area of the Vendee, in fact, more than forty children were hidden there by local families.

I decided I needed to visit the Vendee. I took the train to Nantes, as Odette did at the time of her escape from Paris. All the way I studied the farmhouses, the villages and the train stations passing by. What was there in 1941? Did Odette see it as I did? Then I drove to Chavagne-en-Paillers, the first village where Odette was hidden in plain sight during the war. My husband and I were standing outside the house she lived in when a kindly old man appeared at the upstairs window and invited us in. He was Jaques Raffin, one of the children in the family who had taken Odette in. He showed me the garden where they played together on the swing and fed the doves. Afterwards, we visited the school Odette attended with her friends Cecile and Paulette, and the church where she went to Mass every Sunday. Finally, we went to the hamlet where Odette and her mother lived together under assumed names. We saw the forest and the square where she played hide and seek and hopscotch and the pathway she took walking to school in the town of St. Fulgent. The fields, the cows, and the cottages were all still there. Now that I had seen as much of Odette’s wartime world as I could, I was ready to write, ready to bring Odette’s childhood to life, as best I could.

MHM: What are the parallels between the Madame Marie of the book and her real-life counterpart?

MM: Again, I have tried to stay as close as possible to Odette’s own descriptions of Madame Marie and her actions. She was a woman who had experienced pain and difficulty in her early life in the Lorraine. She met Monsieur Henri during WWI and joined him in Paris after the war. Later, she became the concierge in Odette’s building and also her self-appointed godmother, caring for the little girl, teaching and guiding her in her early life. As Odette wrote of her in her book, “…my godmother…had indeed fulfilled her role, not only in shaping my soul but in saving my life and that of my mother.” Madame Marie was also responsible for helping to save others. Her name and that of Monsieur Henri are recorded at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, at Yad Vashem, and on the wall of Righteous Gentiles in Washington, D.C.

MHM: Madame Marie is a marvelous character, warm, loving and caring. Although a believing Catholic, she risks her life to help Jewish families survive. Can you tell us a bit about the interreligious relation­ships of the time and place? Where do you think she found the cour­age to act as she did?

MM: The French motto, “Liberte, Egalite et Fraternite” attracted large numbers of immigrants to France, including many Polish Jews in the 1930s. In fact, immigrants constituted 70% of the Jewish population of 350,000 before WWII. Immigrants, as is often the case today, were com­monly thought during this period to be responsible for taking jobs away from the rest of the population. They were also sometimes suspected of being spies. When the Vichy government came into power, Jews and communists—and many working class Jews from Easter Europe were communists or socialists—were both considered enemies and targets for persecution.

Catholic church leaders took a passive attitude towards the Vichy regime until the mass deportations of Jews began in France in the summer of 1942. But at that point, the Bishop of Montauban wrote a letter denouncing “the uprooting of men and woman, treated as wild animals.” This letter was read in churches throughout France, and over the BBC’s daily broadcasts, encouraging the French, most of whom were at least nominally Catholics, to protect Jews. It may have had some of its intended effect. Three quarters of the French Jewish population survived, including 84% of French Jewish children.

But free thinkers among the French population who acted to save the lives of Jews before that time acted according to their own consciences, as did Madame Marie. According to Odette, when Madame Marie was asked by Berthe why she had hidden them when the Pope had not spoken out on behalf of Jews, her friend replied, “Don’t worry. Popes and governments come and go; only God is eternal. This is between me and God. If he thinks I’ve done wrong, He will let me know.”

MHM: Odette is afraid to leave her comfortable surroundings for a new and uncertain life in the country yet she adjusts to country life and, returning to Paris finds her old life unfamiliar and strange. What can today’s children learn from Odette about security and permanence and adjusting to the unexpected?

MM: Odette’s story is partly a coming-of-age one, and in coming-of-age stories I think children learn about the inevitability of change. But earlier on, Odette is seen to grow in the resilience that brings security by responding with child-appropriate courage and determination to the needs of each new situation in which she finds herself during the war years. Later, she also learns to find security in family and community. “I’m a child of my family, a child of France,” she says after the war, “But more than these, my heart now tells me, I’m a child of my people.” Last but not least, Odette demonstrates that she has developed a conscience of her own and has learned to trust it in dealing with the unexpected, as in when she is suddenly confronted by the woman in mourning at the Pere La Chaise cemetery. “My heart tells me what to do,” she says. “It’s so simple. Let this woman be your mother. Be her daughter. So I hug her. I stroke her back as a lost-and-found daughter would. I am every Jewish daughter who has died. She is every Jewish mother who has lost a child.” Odette’s compassion for this grieving woman helps her get past what might otherwise have been a traumatic confrontation.

MHM: The book is written in a gently flowing free verse. Why did you make this literary choice in the telling of this story?

MM: At first, I tried to write Odette’s story as a straight biography. This seemed too dry. Then I remembered that Odette loved poetry. She believed the beauty of poetry was one of the things that helped her to survive her experiences in the Vendee. She even wrote poetry in her later years. So, I began trying to write her story in first person, in free verse, imagining insofar as I was able, the childhood voice of Odette, a poet-to-be.

At this point, since I was imagining Odette’s voice, the work became fiction, although I did not make up any of the events mentioned in the book. What I did was add detail, such as giving Odette’s doll a name, and putting into words conversations alluded to in her book and in her mother’s handwritten autobiography.

MHM: Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story with us.

MM: My pleasure, absolutely.

Michal H. Malen is a librarian and editor of reference books. She is the children's editor of Jewish Book World.

Win a Copy of Howard Jacobson's Kindle Single

Thursday, June 27, 2013 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Click below enter to win a copy of Howard Jacobson's new Kindle Single for Tablet Magazine, "The Swag Man." Read an excerpt here.

Browse through Jewish Book Council reviews of Howard Jacobson titles here.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Thursday, June 27, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Consumer Vigilance and the Kosher Cookies-and-Cream Ice Cream Caper

Thursday, June 27, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week Timothy D. Lytton wrote about a recent scandal at a kosher meat market in L.A. and organized crime and kosher food certification. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Kosher food certification has come a long way in the past one hundred years (see my earlier posts on the Baff Murder and the L.A. kosher meat scandal). Consumer vigilance has been a key factor in improving the reliability of kosher certification. Of the estimated 12 million American consumers who buy kosher products because they are certified kosher, 8% are religious Jews who eat only kosher food. This core of religiously observant consumers is highly motivated to monitor the reliability of kosher certification. They call agency hotlines to report improperly labeled products—for example, products with a pareve (indicating the absence of any dairy products) label that nonetheless list dairy ingredients on their packages, packages with agency symbols that appear to be counterfeit, or items that contain ingredients that the consumers suspect are not kosher.

The role of active consumers in helping agencies monitor food companies is illustrated by the story of an Orthodox Union (OU)-certified company that made cookies-and-cream ice cream with cookie pieces in it. One day, the company notified OU executive rabbinic coordinator Rabbi Yaakov Luban that it had received a new account from a client who wanted cookies-and-cream ice cream made with real Oreos, which at the time were made with lard and were therefore not kosher. The company promised to keep the Oreo cookies-and-cream production separate from the kosher production, and the OU, after much deliberation, allowed the arrangement.

Several months later, a kosher consumer called the OU and reported that while eating OU-certified cookies-and-cream ice cream she discovered Oreo cookie pieces in it. As a religious kosher consumer, she knew that Oreos were not kosher certified. Luban went to the company and requested ten boxes of cookies-and-cream ice cream, took them back to the OU offices, and put them under the faucet to melt off the ice cream, whereupon he discovered Oreo cookie pieces in all ten boxes.

When the OU confronted the company, the manager explained that the account for the Oreo cookies-and-cream ice cream had been cancelled after the company had purchased $25,000 worth of Oreos with a relatively short expiration date. After attempting to find a new client for them, the company decided to use the Oreos in the kosher production.

The OU notified the company that it was terminating the certification. The company owner called OU rabbinic administrator Rabbi Menachem Genack in a panic and explained that he had just acquired the company a few weeks prior for $25 million and had been unaware of the wrongdoing. He explained that without OU certification, the company would be worthless since its private-label business depended on kosher certification. The owner offered to fire the entire staff and start over if the OU would maintain its certification. The OU agreed to continue certification if the owner fired the entire staff and paid for constant supervision to oversee production. The owner eagerly accepted this arrangement.

The consumer vigilance demonstrated by this story provides a much needed layer of additional oversight that strengthens the reliability of kosher supervision.

Timothy D. Lytton is the Albert & Angela Farone Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School. He holds B.A. and J.D. degrees from Yale University and has served as a fellow in the Harvard University Program in Ethics and the Professions as well as the Hartman Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food recently published by Harvard University Press (2013) andHolding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse also published by Harvard University Press (2008). In addition, he has published book chapters and articles on the roots of law and jurisprudence in biblical and rabbinic texts.