The ProsenPeople

A Lonely Golem

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthue Roth wrote about why kids love scary stories. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was trying to figure out how to get people to buy My First Kafka from me directly instead of, say, Amazon. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy when anyone buys my book from anywhere, but it's a nice feeling when you actually sell the copy yourself. (Also, you make slightly more than the 43 cents per copy or whatever that you get from your publisher, but that's a different story.)

So I wrote this tiny mini-book. It's a short story, and it's called "The Last Golem in Prague." It was an eleventh-hour creation in every sense. The books had just arrived in the mail, people were actually buying them, which I couldn't (and still mostly can't) believe, and I had to send out something. For months I'd sat in front of my notebook, page blank, wondering what sort of story I should write for whatever people might buy my weird children's book.

And then, at 11:59 or so, everything clicked together.

Here's what I wasn't thinking when I started writing:

a) I should write something that sounds like Kafka.
b) I should write a story for adults, since mostly it'll be adults buying a copy for children and they deserve something of their OWN to read, too, dammit.
c) I should read something Kafka would want to read.

...and a bunch of other stuff, I wasn’t thinking, either. What I was thinking was how I used to live in Prague, in a student dorm that had a country & western dance club in the basement, and a convent surrounded by vast woods next door.

Now, I never went down to the basement club (unfortunately), and I never went to the convent (even more unfortunately), and just saying either of those things in a story is way too unreal-sounding to be true. You can't actually write it because nobody will believe it.

So I kept the details to myself, and I wrote a story that starts when I hear the pounding noise of the club and go down to investigate. And I try to dance. I won't tell you much more about the story, but it does feature my two favorite themes in the world (loneliness/isolation/existential peril and girls) and there is a golem involved.

The Hidden Track, Unfolded

I pulled back when I finished. I realized that maybe I hadn't written the sort of story that Kafka would have written himself, but there was more than a little bit of him that got sucked in. In the end, the story wasn't about the place at all, but the feelings and the thoughts and the experiences.

Matthue Roth's newest book is My First Kafka: Rodents, Runaways, and Giant Bugs. He lives in Brookyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at

Scandal and Self-Correction in Kosher Food Certification

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week Timothy D. Lytton wrote about organized crime and kosher food certification. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

This past March, the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, Los Angeles’s largest purveyor of kosher meat, was discovered smuggling repackaged meat of unknown provenance through the back door of his butcher shop. The mashgiach (kosher supervisor), had unlocked the door for deliveries and then, against kosher protocol, left the premises to attend to personal business, leaving the market unsupervised. Erupting the day before the start of the Passover holiday, the scandal cast doubt on the status of thousands of briskets roasting in ovens throughout the city. An emergency council of rabbinic authorities held just in time for Passover seder that consumers could presume that meat previously purchased from Doheny was kosher.

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which provided supervision to Doheny’s came under fire for the misfeasance of its mashgiach.

As a result of the scandal, the RCC’s reputation suffered. Several restaurants under RCC supervision switched to a rival certification agency, Kehilla Kosher. To stem the damage, the RCC called in the nation’s largest kosher certifier, the Orthodox Union (OU), to audit its supervision at three L.A. restaurants and reassure the public of its reliability. According to coverage by L.A.’s Jewish Journal:

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, OU chief operating officer for kashrut, said that since his New York-based agency got involved in April, he has visited Los Angeles once and [OU executive rabbinic coordinator Rabbi Yaakov] Luban has visited twice. The OU is the largest kosher certifying agency in the country, but its policy is to leave supervision of local kosher businesses in the hands of local boards of rabbis. In this case, Elefant said, the OU’s intent is to support the RCC, not to supplant it. “To a degree, we’re competitors,” he said. “But as much as we’re competitors, we all understand that we have a higher mission here, and we’re happy to learn from each other.”

Additionally, the RCC asked the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), the national trade association for kosher certifiers, to promulgate a set of standards for all kosher certifiers in Los Angeles.

It now appears that Doheny may reopen under new ownership with RCC supervision.

Although there are occasional scandals today, kosher meat certification has come a long way since the early 1900s when it was estimated that somewhere between 40% and 65% of the meat sold as kosher in New York City was nonkosher. The Doheny scandal illustrates several features of kosher certification that help to account for its improved reliability.

First, kosher agencies are highly brand sensitive, and fierce competition between competing agencies for accounts is the norm. One sees this in the alacrity with which the RCC’s main L.A. rival, Kehillah Kosher, acquired RCC accounts and in the RCC’s readiness to call in external auditors from the OU to shore up its reputation. Brand competition makes certifiers progressively more vigilant over time to avoid mistakes in their own operations and leads them to scrutinize the operations of their competitors.

Second, kosher agencies are interdependent in the sense that a public scandal caused by one agency tends to undermine public confidence in kosher certification generally, which gives agencies incentive to monitor each other and promote uniformly high industry standards. The OU’s willingness to provide an independent audit of RCC operations—free of charge, according to the Jewish Journal—reflects a common interest among rival agencies in reassuring the public that, collectively, kosher certification is reliable.

Third, kosher agencies have developed a shared sense of mission that counteracts incentives to cut corners and promotes cooperation between competing certifiers. Each agency seeks to cultivate among its personnel and in the industry as a whole a religious commitment to what Rabbi Elefant called “a higher mission” of providing reliable kosher certification.

The kosher certification business is far from perfect, but it has come a long way from the era a century ago (see my earlier post on the Baff murder) when widespread fraud and corruption were common.

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) and Holding 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.

June 2013 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 | Permalink
What we're reading this month:

Miri: Goodbye, Columbus (Philip Roth) | Carol: No Joke (Ruth R. Wisse)
Emma: Portrait Inside My Head (Phillip Lopate) | Naomi: A Guide to Being Born (Ramona Ausubel)

Why Kids Love Scary Stories

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 | Permalink
Matthue Roth's newest book is My First Kafka: Rodents, Runaways, and Giant Bugs. He lives in Brookyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My parents are getting ready to move, to abandon the house I’ve lived in since I was born, and we traveled down to Philadelphia to help them. (No, that’s a lie: We traveled down because I had a reading for my new picture book, My First Kafka, and school is out, and we were getting ready to dump the kids with them for a week.) Everything is in boxes. If there’s one thing my kids are good at (there’s a million things), it’s causing chaos. They promptly set to work unpacking the remains of my parents’ life.

My five-year-old daughter promptly uncovered Treasure Island. Yes, the book. It was an illustrated—though uncut—edition. “Read it,” she demanded.

Hey, what kind of father would I be to deny classic literature to my next of kin? I read.

We reached the first death—a gristly scene where Billy Bones, an old seaman, gorges himself on rum, stabs an old fellow pirate, then collapses dead on the floor. “Are you sure you want me to keep going?” I asked her.

“Read,” she urged me.

Similarly, the second death (Old Pew, trampled by horse-hoofs cutting into his ribs) and the third (the night of Long John Silver's violent mutiny aboard the Hispanola—no, actually, there was no death here, but a whole lot of swordfighting). We took a breath, not because she demanded it, but because my lungs were getting tired. "Are you really sure you want to read this?" I asked her. "Do you know what's going on?"

She looked up at me with earnest, pleading eyes.

"The pirates are getting ready to kick off the good people from the ship," she said. "Now they want to decide if they should kill them or hurt them or leave them on the island all alone."

Kids: one point. Me: zero points. Robert Louis Stevenson: having a freakin' veritable party in his coffin somewhere, I'm sure.

In the past few weeks, I've talked a lot about why kids like dark stories. What I told the New Yorker was, it's because they're still trying to understand the world, things like death and disease and renewal. They're still getting used to existence, and they're exploring this existential state as well as its corollary, what it would mean to NOT exist. That's why they become fascinated with simple, pretty things like flowers and animals, as well as why they'll stare in fascination as a just-stepped-upon ant crinkles slowly in its dying throes.

But I also think that the boundary between dark, depressing stuff and normal, happy stuff doesn't exist for them, not the way it does for us. We as adults have a remarkable capacity to compartmentalize—work and home life, cartoons vs. reality. Kids not only don't need to do that, they don't want to. They're more fascinated with the paradoxes of the universe than the idea that these things could be paradoxes. They don't sit around all day talking about what it could mean that a person could be transformed into a giant bug and what it represents symbolically because, to them, it doesn't represent anything symbolically—it's an actual story.

I’ve been avoiding reading my book to my kids lately. It feels too self-indulgent, too performative; I’m much more comfortable with Maurice Sendak or Arnold Lobel. But at my Philadelphia reading last Sunday, I read one of the stories from the book, “Josefine the Singer, or, the Mouse-People.” The ending is really sad, and I almost cried onstage. My kids, sitting about halfway back, had these huge toothy smiles. After everyone had gone, I asked what they thought of that, weren’t they sad? “It was sad when you were reading it,” said my younger one, “but it’s a story. It’s supposed to be sad.”

Check back all week for more from Matthue.

Anne Frank Unbound and Justin Bieber

Monday, June 24, 2013 | Permalink

by Nat Bernstein

In honor of the upcoming anniversary of the Frank's entry into hiding (July 6th), Nat Bernstein explores a recent book from Indiana University Press, Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory, and Justin Bieber's recent visit to the Anne Frank Museum.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for Anne Frank.

Amid facing a Michigan parent’s accusations of writing indecent material—in her own diary—and the unveiling of a sapling from her beloved chestnut tree planted in the Boston Common, Frank drew fresh attention when the Anne Frank House’s Facebook account publicized international teenage heartthrob Justin Bieber’s visit to the museum:

Yesterday night Justin Bieber visited the Anne Frank House, together with his friends and guards. Fans were waiting outside to see a glimpse of him. He stayed more than an hour in the museum. In our guestbook he wrote: "Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber."

Tonight Bieber will give a concert in Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Bieber’s comments instantly went viral, repeated and disseminated in disgust and derision across news sources and social media. Expressions of revulsion at his irreverence ran rampant for days: Bieber’s self-referential reflection on his visit to the Secret Annex hit a serious nerve. His appreciation for Anne Frank’s story whittled down to the loss of a potential, virtually insignificant member of his behemothic fandom is not, perhaps, the reaction one would wish—but why do we expect anything different? Why was the response to Justin Bieber’s musings on Anne Frank such profound disappointment?

Ladies, gentlemen, and teenyboppers: It’s time to crack open Anne Frank Unbound.

Compiled out of the 2005 Mediating Anne Frank symposium organized by the Working Group on Jews, Media, and Religion of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, Anne Frank Unbound "exemplifies the Working Group’s commitment to innovative, cross-disciplinary approaches to studying phenomena at the intersection of religion and media, broadly defined" in its eclectic critique of the contemporary iconicism of the young writer and Holocaust victim. The volume is a collection of essays presented by a diverse collection of scholastic and artistic figures, addressing the representation and legacy of Anne Frank across cultures, media, and disciplines.

Anne Frank Unbound is an academic read, but a pleasurable one nonetheless. While its contributing authors share many of the same references and critiques, the diversity of writing and perspective renders the collection intriguingly repetitive rather than redundant, varied rather than scattered. Its strength lies as much in its content as in its approach: a truly interdisciplinary examination of Anne Frank’s cultural representation over the last half-century.

The collection’s perusal of subjects extends beyond the cultural outputs beckoning passive engagement with Frank’s personal and writing—plays, films, museums and monuments, educational curricula, the publication of the diary itself—to the representations and tributes created by the intended “audience” in its turn. Liora Gubkin, for example, contributes her exploration of the inclusion of Anne Frank in the American Passover seder as a “personalized Jewish religious practice” endemic to the post-World War II American expectation of “an individualized quest for spiritual meaning” in all religious practice and ritual; Leshu Torchin’s chapter on “Anne Frank’s Moving Images” delves into the burgeoning public library of Frank-inspired homemade video blogs in conversation with feature films and television series; Sally Charnow’s explication of Frank’s work as a true diarist, in which Charnow draws upon the modern gender discourse surrounding the private journals of Victorian women, is not to be missed.

Sarah R. Horowitz’s examination of visitor entries in the guest book placed in in the 2003 “Anne Frank, the Writer: An Unfinished Story” exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is directly relevant to the “Belieber” uproar:

In stark, transparent, and sometimes dramatic terms, the amalgamation of comments encapsulates how the figure of Anne Frank has been interpreted, transformed, or made to signify in the almost three-quarters of a century after her murder.

Visitors’ comments overwhelmingly identify Anne Frank with the Holocaust in its entirety. Frank did not merely endure hardships and finally die as a result of Nazi brutality; she, one of millions, stands—or stands in—for the Holocaust as a whole. To read the diary, then, even to gaze upon it, is to know the Holocaust, to encounter it intimately and personally, even though many scholars object to seeing Anne Frank this way. Lawrence Lanfer, for example, views Anne Frank’s story as a soft version of the Nazi genocide, one that allows an easy identification with the girl who has not yet encountered the concentration camp universe and whose expression of optimism leave one feeling good about humankind and the world generally.

Let us not, however, lose sight of the fact that Justin Bieber’s scribble in the Anne Frank House guest book hardly reflects this complicated commentary zeitgeist. In fact, Bieber’s reaction to touring the Secret Annex expresses a somewhat touching if egotistical connection with Anne Frank as the actual person she was and not as the simplified “stand-in” for the greater historical event that caused her tragedy. As the more nuanced critics of the “Belieber” incident readily admit, it is actually fairly likely that Anne Frank would have been a member of Bieber’s teen fandom given her real-life engrossment with pop icons of her time. Perhaps more troubling, then, is the global incensement over the star’s misguided yet sincere tribute rather than the comment itself: as evinced in each isolated chapter of Anne Frank Unbound, the global beautification of the young writer warps public understanding of both Frank herself and the catastrophe that she has come to represent. It is this very over-idealization of Anne Frank that has caused the current generation to push back against the force-fed martyrship and attempt to reclaim Anne Frank as who she truly was, as a human—rawly human—individual. “So sanctified is Anne Frank,” Edward Portnoy demonstrates in his presentation of Anne Frank in popular humor, “that the actual teenager—who was also mad about boys, movies, and clothes—vanishes, and all that remains is the girl who pondered the epochal events taking place around her.”

Portnoy cites satirical New Yorker publications, internet memes, and episodes of animated contemporary crank comedies South Park and Robot Chicken to illustrate his point, locating in each example the catalytic discomfort with the idyllic, emblematic portrayal of Anne Frank that the writers and comedians share with their audience:

What might at first appear to be a comic assault on Anne Frank’s life and work is, rather, an attack on works of contemporary mass media targeting a teenage demographic. The moral integrity of Anne Frank is a foil for vacuous American teen culture, which is characterized as ignorant, self-involved, and superficial, obsessed with fashionable trends in clothing and music, and incapable of imagining history without recourse to the clichés of popular film genres. The comedy and its incisive cultural critique rely on an audience fluent in the popular culture that is under attack as well as sufficiently aware of Anne’s life and work to recognize the disparity between this icon of morality and their own frivolity.

[...] Unlike humor that arises during or just after a tragedy, jokes about Anne Frank have appeared decades after her murder. They do not respond to her tragedy, or the Holocaust itself, but rather to the popularization of Anne Frank through the publication of her diary, performance of her life story on stage and screen, and opening of the Anne Frank House. A generation raised on official presentations of Anne’s story and reverential way in which one is supposed to respond to it pushes back with irreverence. Apparently “immune to ethical judgment,” art and humor find their moral center in an irreverence that reenergizes fatigued icons for a new generation.

Consider the backlash triggered by Bieber’s comment—celebrities and comedians coming forward in a mix of outrage and bemusement, defending Anne Frank against Bieber’s narcissism through use of vaguely crude Holocaust humor: “If I could make one birthday wish,” tweeted Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys, “it would be that all children who were killed at death camps could hear #believeacoustic. :(“; “I agree with Justin Bieber,” added British comedian Ricky Gervais, “Anne Frank would’ve loved his stuff. It’s perfect for being played really really quietly so no one can hear it.” Comedian Jenn Dodd quickly posted a video of herself as Anne Frank responding to Justin Bieber on her sketch comedy site, “I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt and listen to your album,” Dodd addresses the camera in a thick Heidi accent and black wig. “I mean hey, maybe if I hadn’t been locked in an attic with seven other people, mice, and two cats with fleas for over two years without seeing the light of day, while constantly fearing for my life, I would have enjoyed the depths and complexities of your lyrics...” She continues to recite the words to Bieber’s hit single “Boyfriend,” pausing to ask blankly, “What’s ‘swag’?”

The message from Dodd and her fellow critics is clear: not only do they find Bieber and his music overstated and soulless, but they want to make the world aware of the fact that between the two figures, Frank is the genuine talent. As Portnoy points out, however, such responses are as much a rebellion against the culture generated around the young writer as they are poking fun at the living teenage celebrity. They, too, use Anne Frank as the symbol for the entire tragedy of the Holocaust, but in self-aware defiance of the generally accepted sanctity necessary in the invocation of her name. If you’re going to ignore the taboo, they seem to say, at least do it outright.

“The greatest challenge for readers of the diary today,” declares Briggite Sion’s submission on Anne Frank as the paradigmatic icon of human rights, “may not be defending Anne’s life and work from attack; rather, it may be engaging her individual history and personal vision free of the redemptive values with which she has been burdened by others.” The Mediating Anne Frank colloquium serves perhaps as the start of a recognized movement to reclaim Frank from the shrine, from the pedestal, from the cross. In Anne Frank Unbound, the critiques and interpretations of contemporary writers, comedians, artists, scholars, and laypeople are brought forward and appraised with equal legitimacy. It is a brief and worthwhile anthology, a provocative turning point in the discourse surrounding Holocaust representation worldwide, and an excellent resource in moments of cultural controversy—the current Bieber fiasco proving no exception.

Folks, let’s all give Justin Bieber a break. Think about it this way: a pampered teenage superstar has two days in Amsterdam, one of them completely consumed by the concert he carries out for his international audience under what must be a tremendous amount of pressure. He spends his one free day in a cosmopolitan city with endless attractions visiting the Anne Frank House. Troubling as some facets of the culture around Anne Frank undoubtedly are, clearly that culture got something really, really right.

Pick up a copy of Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory here.

Nat Bernstein is a Jewish Book Council intern and a graduate of Hampshire College

Organized Crime and Kosher Food Certification

Monday, June 24, 2013 | Permalink

Timothy D. Lytton is the author of the recently published Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard University Press). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The Toronto Star recently reported that several firebombings of kosher restaurants in Quebec may not be the work of anti-Semites but rather part of “a kosher restaurant war in the predominantly Jewish west-end neighborhood of Hampstead.” The Star described the latest bombing in a June 15 article:

Around closing time last weekend two men walked into Montreal’s Chops Resto-Bar, tossed a flaming Molotov cocktail toward the bar and escaped on foot, though not before a security camera picked them up.

The damage was limited to a scorched section of the restaurant’s wall and shock among the 20-odd diners wrapping up their meal shortly after midnight Saturday. But there was clearly something nefarious at play. This was the third time since 2011 that Chops, a kosher establishment that serves Asian fusion cuisine, had been targeted with a flaming bottle.

While shocking, this kind of violence is not new in the kosher world.

In one of the most notorious cases, in 1906, a group of New York City poultry distributors organized the Live Poultry Commission Merchants’ Protective Association, which fixed wholesale prices for kosher poultry and forced poultry retailers to buy exclusively from the association. The association punished retailers who refused to cooperate by establishing competing stores that sold at lower prices.

Thirteen association members were ultimately convicted of illegal price-fixing in 1911 based on the testimony of Bernard (Baruch) Baff, a poultry retailer. Baff’s horse and chickens were subsequently poisoned, his summer cottage and one of his stores were bombed, and he was gunned down in 1914 in the Washington Market by unknown assailants, who fled in a getaway car.

The Baff murder remained unsolved for several years, during which time suspicions focused on the poultry distributors. As it turned out, the murder was paid for by a group of one hundred poultry retailers who resented Baff’s dominance in the retail poultry trade, which he achieved by dealing directly with poultry farmers, obtaining a fleet of trucks, and operating his own slaughtering operations—thereby cutting out middlemen and allowing him to charge lower prices than his competitors.

While kosher food certification today is hardly a hotbed of extortion rackets and drive-by shootings, recent events in Quebec hark back to a darker era in the history of kosher corruption.

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) and Holding 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.

Younger Than That Now

Thursday, June 20, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kathy Ebel wrote about her German-Jewish family and Nice Jewish Girl protagonists from New York City. Her first novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Memorial Day, 2007. I’ve drifted away from a Santa Monica beach party to gaze out at the Pacific Ocean, plus my navel, when an unfamiliar woman approaches. We chat a bit—she’s a literary agent based in New York, the sister of the hostess—and then she asks the dreaded question. “So…what are you working on these days?” I pause to consider before answering. You know when people say to cute, charismatic single women, “You’re so fabulous—I just can’t believe you’re single!” and they want to punch them in the face and then kill themselves? This was a work version of that.

You see, I’ve been living in Los Angeles for seven years, having left my native New York City to seek my fortune as a screenwriter with a soap opera credit and a fresh pile of TV spec scripts in my kit bag, but the steady ascent I’ve pictured, and that I’ve seen other people achieve, hasn’t happened. I’ve been working so damn hard for so long and I feel like I’m nowhere, other than crushed. How could that be, when I’ve done everything I’ve seen other people doing—and what my various agents have told me to do?

I mean: I got a driver’s license at age 30 in order to drive cross-country in a U-Haul piled with whatever possessions my husband and I didn’t sell when we left Brooklyn. I sat in a rented house in the Hollywood Dell with a vintage metal desk and a pristine view of a walled garden that gave me a squirrely Barton Fink feeling, and I cranked out material and rolled calls. I got a job on a show—the researcher on Law&Order:SVU in its first season—and I wrote two freelance episodes…but I wasn’t put on staff. I re-wrote a teen comedy feature for Paramount…but my broadly comic take was poorly received. I sold a TV dramedy pilot, a high school musical…but the executives involved walked away when I’d banked they’d burst into song. Eventually, motivated by the stretches of unemployment between these gigs, I developed a freelance sideline, writing copy for entertainment-based ad campaigns. And then, just weeks before the beach party at which I’m now a wallflower, a literary manager who’s read what I thought were my best scripts delivers a disturbing critique. “Your work is solid,” she says. “It’s well written and it proves you can do it. But I can’t do anything with it, because it’s generic. I would be interested in working with you, but first I’d need to see material that only you could write. Write some new stuff this summer and send it over after Labor Day.” Generic? New stuff? Sounds like me? Fecch.

Beach Party Book Agent is staring at me. I repeat her question. “What am I working on these days?” Then: “I actually have no idea.” She kindly offers to read anything I write, if I’d ever care to send it along. I thank her politely and turn back to my doubtful view of the horizon. Whatever the fuck that would be, I think to myself.Then I kick some sand.

A few weeks later, when I sit down at my desk, I’m surprised by what comes out. Not a TV pilot in the vein of somebody else’s hit cable series, or a high-concept romantic comedy involving an action sequence and a makeover montage to which Reese Witherspoon may want to attach. It’s a short story, with a title inspired by Morrissey (Hold On To Your Friends) and a main character named Claudia Silver, in which Claudia is visited by the ghost of an estranged friendship. I haven’t written one of these puppies in close to 15 years.

Back then, at Barnard College, I pursued a double major in English literature and creative writing. My tumultuous upbringing, marked by most of the foibles of the 1970’s along the sex, drugs, and divorce axis, drove me not just to succeed, but to survive. I dreamed of becoming a novelist, but, as I neared graduation, my dream seemed ever more unlikely and irresponsible. How dare I think I could possibly make a living doing what I love? So, following the lead of college friends who headed for film or drama schools or straight to Hollywood, I told myself I would achieve a lucrative screenwriting career. Someday, around the age of (gasp) 40, having acquired a hefty pile of credits, cash, and prizes, and achieving the security I had never known, I would reward myself by allowing myself to write novels. Having honed this world view as an insecure 19-year-old, I lugged it with me for the next two decades.

Labor Day, 2007. The summer has passed, and I’ve written three stories, all about the same character: Claudia Silver, a 24-year-old maybe not-so-Nice Jewish Girl from Brooklyn prone to personal drama. The manager who judged my scripts “generic” months before calls me a few weeks later. “These are great!” she exclaims. “You need a literary agent.” I remember the conversation I’d had at the beach party months before. When I tell the manager about it, she’s silent for a beat. Then, somewhat astounded, she reveals that the woman I’d met is a hugely respected heavy-hitter in the book business, known for her taste and influence. “She may not respond,” the manager warns, “but you should go for it.”

I send Big Deal Beach Party Book Agent my stories, and she gives me the greatest compliment of my entire career. “You,” she says, “are hot shit.” She tells me that what I must do next is write a novel, and if I do, she will sell it. It takes me yet another year and half to turn the ship around. In that time, as fate has it, I finally land a staff writer position, on the CBS cop show Cold Case, where I work hard and make great friends, but am not very good at my job. In the writers’ room, while everybody else is hotly debating the placement of DNA evidence, all I can think is: “The victim’s in a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress, with a navy and red geometric print.” When I’m not asked back to the show, I’m finally ready to stop trying so hard.

I part ways with my TV agents and sign with Big Deal Beach Party Book Agent. I land a day job in entertainment advertising, begin a 40-hour corporate work week, and start rising at 4AM in order to write Claudia Silver to the Rescue. I liberally apply my TV experience to my fiction writing. I structure the tangled web of my book’s heavily populated plot as a detailed outline, from which I write closely. I end every section of the story with an “act out”—wanting my audience to come back after the commercial break. I “cast” my ensemble of characters with the perfect actors for the parts and block the scenes in my mind, and I select design elements with maniacal exactitude and endlessly move them around. As I write, I also find inspiration in shows that I experience as novels unspooling on the screen: The Sopranos, The Wire, and the one I can’t live without, Mad Men.

As for the backwards world view I’d been carrying on my back for two decades, the one that said I must delay what I love to write until I’ve earned the right? I finally put it down. Man, was it heavy. What am I working on these days? My next novel.

It’s about a television show.

Kathy Ebel, a first-generation American, was born in Manhattan. Her blog, Fatherland: There’s No Place Like Home, or How and Why a Nice Jewish Girl Asked Germany to Take Her Back, chronicles her quest to have her German citizenship restored. Kathy considers Brooklyn her hometown and currently lives with her family in Los Angeles. Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is her first novel.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Thursday, June 20, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

When You’re A Jet You Stay A Jet

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kathy Ebel wrote about Nice Jewish Girl protagonists from New York City. Her first novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic.” As a kid, wandering around the kiddish reception at our shul collecting cellophane ruffle-topped toothpicks in a plastic cup, I heard these terms bandied far above my head by adults and had no idea what they meant. Were these languages? Politicians? Street gangs, like in West Side Story? As a first-generation American and the daughter of German-Jewish refugees, I was pretty sure these mysterious terms didn’t have anything to do with me. We were Jews who kept kosher and went to shul, but we didn’t eat or do the things that seemed officially Jewy, like, Fiddler on the Roof-Jewy. My single mother didn’t bake kugel, or encircle the flames of the Shabbat candles with her hands when she made her brachot, or bobby pin a white nylon doily to the back of her head for services (nor would she have dreamed of wearing a kippah like some of her friends from her Consciousness Raising group). My mother used no Yiddishims in her speech, other than “shul” and “schlep” and, while cursing other drivers, “schmuck.” I wasn’t sent to Jewish sleepaway camp to meet my future spouse or bridesmaids or employers. And on Christmas Day, we did not go to the movies or eat Chinese food.

What I did know, always, was that we were German, from old families. We ate our pizza with a knife and fork. We liked marzipan, in whimsical shapes like fried eggs and, yes, piglets. We wore pinky rings stamped with a family crest based on the corporate logo of my industrialist ancestors’ metals business. We kept glass bottles of 4711 eau de cologne in the bathroom. Phrases like “yeah” and “okay” were frowned upon.

Somehow, I had always known the name of the enormous limestone home my paternal grandfather owned in Antwerp, where his own business was based: it was “the Rue Rembrandt,” where my grandparents lived as newlyweds among my grandmother’s extended family, several of whom, so deeply ensconced in their enclosed world of privilege, fatefully delayed their own departures from Europe and were murdered during the Shoah. As a little kid in the 1970’s, I had no real idea what this all meant, but a deeper idea was communicated. We were not entirely American, not entirely home, and needed to keep our ties to the past alive, because that’s where our impeccable pedigree – and our ghosts – were housed.

My beloved grandmother, whom we all called Moumie, was a woman of great style, in the tradition of a certain kind of tailored European lady. She had returned to Europe after the War. She wore shirtwaist dresses and low-heeled pumps, with a well-tied silk scarf and a leather purse held in the crook of her arm. She had a knack for arranging flowers, wrapping gifts, dashing off delightful note cards, and hosting simple, elegant afternoon teas. She lived in The Hague, and came to visit once a year, at Pesach. One afternoon, it occurred to me that she might possess the answer to the question burning in my mind.

“Moumie,” I asked her. “What’s the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic?”

“Ah,” she replied, with a sage nod, as though she had been waiting for this one. Her expression, as it often did, drifted into an elegant reverie. “In the Rue Rembrandt, our housekeeper was Ashkenazi.”

Many years later, when crafting the character of Claudia Silver in my debut novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue, I dug in to my experiences of class, race and history. The perceptions and inner life of the character of Edith Mendelssohn, Claudia’s indomitable mother, are shaped by her refugee experiences and the grip of memory. Claudia, meanwhile, is coming of age in a housing project neighborhood in Brooklyn on the cusp of gentrification in the late 1980’s. Claudia is tuned in to the tension and the cross-pollination that rising property values in her neighborhood bring. And she is simultaneously imprinted by a tragic family history from which she is one generation removed. Claudia’s responsibility, like it or not – and mine – is to stay engaged with that history. When it comes to the recent disasters of our civilization – American slavery and the Holocaust among them – one generation removed is not much time at all.

Many years after my Grandmother didn’t explain what Ashkenazi meant, I laughingly re-told this story to my friend Dov during a kiddish lunch at IKAR, our Los Angeles shul. He’s Israeli.

“Ah-ha!” he exclaimed. “So you’re a Yekke!”

“A Yekke? What’s that?” I asked, never having heard that one before.

“A snob,” he replied.

Kathy Ebel, a first-generation American, was born in Manhattan. Her blog, Fatherland: There’s No Place Like Home, or How and Why a Nice Jewish Girl Asked Germany to Take Her Back, chronicles her quest to have her German citizenship restored. Kathy considers Brooklyn her hometown and currently lives with her family in Los Angeles. Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is her first novel.

Book Cover of the Week: Some Day

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

New Vessel Press, an independent publishing house founded in NYC last year, is about to release their first six titles. Specializing in the translation of foreign literature into English, one of their first books is Some Day by Israeli novelist, film director, and screenwriter Shemi Zarhin. The work, translated by Yardenne Greenspan, will be published this fall. Read more about the Some Day here.

Bonus: The designer of Some Day's cover is none other than Liana Finck, this past year's Jewish Book Month poster designer and past Visiting Scribe. Can't say I'm surprised.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here