The ProsenPeople

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Ronald H. Balson

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Ronald H. Balson’s The Girl from Berlin is the winner of the 2018 Miller Family Book Club Award in Memory of Helen Dunn Weinstein and June Keit Miller. Balson’s novel centers around a seventy-eight-year old woman, Gabrielle, who is facing eviction from her Tuscan villa by one of Italy’s largest wine producers. Her nephew hires a Chicago lawyer and private investigator to help her keep her home. A handwritten memoir from the 1930s enters the picture; it holds the key to resolving the mystery of Gabrielle’s emotional attachment to the property, and the rightful ownership of the villa and land. The Book Club panel judges write that The Girl from Berlin is “a fast-moving, suspenseful and well-researched novel that illuminates the cruelty and horror of Nazi Germany and the heroism of ordinary people.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Elie Wiesel, for his wisdom and poignant memories. Leon Uris, to discuss how he researched and created his stories. Jake Tapper, because of the clever things he would say.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

There is no such book. I love old Joan Didion books. I read them when my prose gets stiff and I need a new voice.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Not a fair question. Who to leave in, who to leave out? There are so many excellent Jewish writers.

What are you reading right now?

Mainly research on a new book. On the side I’m reading Eunice by Eileen McNamara, and Big Fella by Jane Leavy.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

(Do my eight children count? Can I say that?) OK, then it would be music.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope my readers will gain a better understanding of how the gradual impact of Nazification affected artistic life in Berlin, and ultimately Italy as well. I also hope readers will appreciate that the issue of Nazi seizures and confiscations continues through the present day.

Image credit: Monica J. Balson

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Leon Wiener Dow

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Leon Wiener Dow’s The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law is the winner of the 2018 Myra H. Kraft Memorial Award for Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. Bringing together qualities of memoir, modern Jewish thought, and halachic literature, The Going represents an innovative force in Jewish literature. Dow presents a vision of halacha (Jewish law) that can speak to Jews regardless of where they place themselves on the denominational spectrum. He explores halacha with an eye that balances reverence for tradition with a passion for what its future manifestations could be like. Judges say: “To read this book is to feel encouraged to embrace the challenge of locating traces of the divine in the world. [Dow’s’] powerful writing brings to the fore a fresh voice that is bound to influence the conversation of Jews around the world.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Franz Rosenzweig, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. I would savor the opportunity to get a sense of the extent to which they live their writing.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Jean Amery, At the Mind’s Limits. Every time I read one of Amery's essays I feel as if I have received a blow to the torso. I also have to include my brother Mark’s unbelievable book of poetry, Plain Talk Rising.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

I’m privileged to be able to go with my friends and colleagues—in English, Ilana Kurshan and in Hebrew, Dov Elbaum.

What are you reading right now?

I’m finally paying an outstanding debt to one of Daniel Boyarin’s early works, Carnal Israel. My “fun” reading is David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Without a doubt, my greatest creative influence is certain people—friends, relatives, and teachers who are models of humanity for me. But the loving caress of nature and soulful music wield a profound creative influence on me as well.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that upon finishing the book, readers will sense that the halacha offers a horizon of thoughtful, spiritual practice—one that nurtures and fulfills, even while it demands.

Image credit: Tamir Platzmann

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Ariel Burger

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Ariel Burger’s Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom is the winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Biography. Elie Wiesel was mentor, trusted friend and advisor to author Ariel Burger for nearly twenty-five years. This remarkable book gives readers a front row seat in Wiesel’s classroom at Boston University, and allows us to benefit from his distinct teaching style. Burger honors Wiesel by striving to perpetuate and teach his mentor’s “methodology of wonder.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

The great medieval mystic and legalist Nachmanides; the historian Shimon Dubnov, murdered by his own student, a Nazi; and Leonard Cohen, who, in addition to a being a great songwriter, was a great writer and thinker.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, a strange meditation on identity, memory, and narrative in three parts. (I hope I'm mistaken and people have heard of this.)

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Rachel Kadish, Tova Mirvis, Shulem Deen, Yossi Klein HaLevi, and Dara Horn.

What are you reading right now?

The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Elie Wiesel—his writing but also his teacher and presence as a person. My composer father, Rebbe Nachman's Tales, Ursula le Guin, Palker Palmer, Borges’s nonfiction, Chris Claremont, Kate Bush, Lewis Hyde, Thomas Merton, the songwriter Jason Molina, Maurice Sendak, Regina Spektor, and Jewish history.

Image credit: Maor Ziv-Kreger

New Reviews March 4, 2019

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Michael David Lukas

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 | Permalink


In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is the winner of the 2018 JJ Greenberg Memorial Award for Fiction. In a beautifully written novel that toggles between Cairo in the eleventh century, the nineteenth century, and the present day, Lukas has created a captivating story detailing the history of Cairo’s Ibn Ezra Synagogue, its treasures, and the divisions among people in its midst. The judges say: “Part family quest, part detective story, Lukas weaves a thrilling tale that brims with intellectual and emotional passion. This historically significant and distinctly modern novel is filled with erudition and charm.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

That’s a tough one. Part of me would want to invite Freud and Philip Roth then sit back and let them go at it. But, when it comes down to it, I think I would invite Emma Goldman, Moses Maimonides, and Franz Kafka.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Not sure that no one's ever heard of it, but I'm a big fan of Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood around 1900.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Another tough one. But, if I’m thinking about their influence on my own writing, I would go with Michael Chabon, Nicole Krauss, Etgar Keret, and Nathan Englander.

What are you reading right now?

Flights by Olga Tocarczuk. I read in transit, in little snips. And it’s hard to imagine a better book for that mode of consumption.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

My family, my students, and other writers. Also my dog, Rashi, who is almost always there with me when I’m writing.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope every reader takes from the book what they most need. As far as what I took away from the writing process, the biggest thing was probably a broader understanding of Jewish history in general and specifically the history of Muslim-Jewish coexistence.

Image credit: Irene Young

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Rebecca Erbelding

Monday, February 25, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Rebecca Erbelding’s Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe is the winner of the 2018 JDC-Katzki Award for Writing Based on Archival Material. Rescue Board is the first systematic, historical treatment of the War Refugee Board, the only official American response to the Nazi massacre of the Jews. Meticulously researched and utilizing almost exclusively archival resources, Erbelding has written a dramatic, poignant, and highly readable book. The panel judges write: “The book makes a critical and invaluable contribution to the historiography of World War II and the Holocaust, while further complicating our understanding of American responses to the murder of Europe’s Jews.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Yehuda Amichai, Maurice Sendak, and Emma Goldman. I'd just love to listen to their stories.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Very few people have read Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny. You can't call it a "favorite" but it haunts me.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Particularly now, I'm grateful to journalists in general—and those I admire most almost all happen to be Jewish.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished Esme Weijun Wang's The Collective Schizophrenias and am about to begin the late David Ceserani's final masterpiece, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Baking and architecture (and Netflix shows about baking and architecture). Just like writing a book, baking and building are about taking pieces and putting them together in the right order to make something great.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope readers will be inspired by the story of the War Refugee Board, a group of dedicated Americans who altered U.S. policy towards European Jewish refugees and saved tens of thousands of lives during the Holocaust. It is a reminder that debates about refugees are not new—and that if we keep raising our voices, change is possible.

Image credit: Miriam Lomaskin

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Alan L. Mittleman

Saturday, February 23, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Alan L. Mittleman’s book, Does Judaism Condone Violence?: Holiness and Ethics in the Jewish Tradition, is the winner of the 2018 Dorot Foundation Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience in Memory of Joy Ungerleider Mayerson. In his book, Mittleman offers a powerful analysis of the concept of holiness and a rich philosophical exploration of some of the most challenging biblical texts involving acts of violence. The judges on the Modern Jewish Thought and Experience panel say: “This book was selected as winner . . . because of Mittleman’s exceptional ability to blend an intellectually rigorous analysis of biblical texts and philosophical concepts with accessible language and imagery. He succeeds in presenting a complicated and often misunderstood topic in a way that is engaging to a wide range of readers who may themselves be searching for a deeper understanding of holiness and morality, and who struggle with the religious violence we see all too often in our world today.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Philo, Hasdai Crescas, and Isaac Breuer. I would like to dissuade Philo from his misogyny, find out just what Crescas thought about free will and determinism because his surviving views are so unclear, and let Breuer talk to his heart’s content about Kant and Schopenhauer.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

I can’t say that I have a favorite book. Two books which made a huge impact on me as a tender undergraduate were the late Michael Novak’s The Experience of Nothingness and my teacher William A. Johnson’s The Search for Transcendence. Many years later, I got to know Michael, which was very satisfying. Bill Johnson is still, thankfully, a part of my life. I dedicated one of my books to him a few years ago.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

I very much like Allegra Goodman’s novels, as well as her father, Lenn Goodman’s, philosophical and scholarly work. I also draw a lot of intellectual stimulation from David Novak’s philosophical theology. They are all at the top of their game.

What are you reading right now?

Right now I’m reading a book by a British mathematician and philosopher, E. Brian Davies, called Why Beliefs Matter. It’s a set of reflections on the epistemology of science. Mostly it’s an argument against lingering traces of Platonism, especially in mathematics.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

The shower. Every good idea that comes to me seems to come first thing in the morning in the shower. Then it’s all downhill the rest of the day.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

It won’t surprise any reader to learn that there are often significant conflicts between our contemporary understanding of ethics and some of the very old moral norms embedded in the Bible. Hardest to understand are biblical texts that seem to underwrite violence for an alleged holy purpose. The relationship between holiness and ethics can be supportive—or it can be fraught. This book provides readers with models for thinking about that relationship and, I hope, defusing the potential for violence that religious texts still contain.

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Omer Bartov

Monday, February 18, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, is the winner of the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in Holocaust Studies in Memory of Ernest W. Michel. Bartov’s book explores how genocide took place in the East European border town of Buczacz, Poland (now Ukraine). The panel judges write: “Bartov’s monograph demonstrates the historical significance of towns and narratives that might otherwise be forgotten. It also helps us understand the complexity of interethnic conflict, which continues to trouble our world today.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Isaac Babel, master of the short story and herald of the twentieth century’s horrors; Vasily Grossman, narrator of the titanic struggle in Stalingrad; and Joseph Roth, chronicler of Jewry’s harrowing journey to modernity.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Y. Agnon's Ir u-Melo'ah (A City in Its Fullness), a Nobel Prize laureate’s masterful biography of his hometown Buczacz and the lost world of Jewish Galicia.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Edmund de Waal, Jewish only by heritage, whose Hare with Amber Eyes is an extraordinary tale of the rise and fall of a Jewish dynasty and Europe’s descent into barbarism.

What are you reading right now?

Yael Neeman’s Hyoh Haytah (Once There Was a Woman), a new Hebrew-language novel about the fleeting life of a gifted woman and victim of her parents’ Holocaust victimhood.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Travel liberates me from my desk and books; conversations with strangers remind me of the vastness and familiarity of human experience.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

The book illustrates that the thin crust of social order can easily crack once we identify certain groups in our midst as outside the universe of human solidarity, and how quickly the forces of law and order can be turned against us.

Image credit: Brown University

New Reviews February 18, 2019

Monday, February 18, 2019 | Permalink

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Jonathan Decter

Thursday, February 14, 2019 | Permalink


In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Jonathan Decter's Dominion Built of Praise is the winner of the 2018 Mimi S. Frank Award  for Sephardic Culture in Memory of Becky Levy. In his book, Decter analyzes panegyric writing—dedications to poets, patrons, merchants, communal leaders, and scholars—written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, among other languages, from the tenth through thirteenth centuries in the Islamic Mediterranean world. Judges on the Sephardic Culture panel write, "Elegantly written and prodigiously researched, Dominion Built of Praise opens a window on the cultural norms and political ambitions of the medieval Mediterranean, and the place of Jews and Muslims—and poetry—in this vibrant and culturally rich context.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Judah Halevi (for the most beautiful words), Hannah Arendt (for fierce independence of thought), and Saul Bellow (because I'm entering middle age).

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Risalat al-ghufran (The Epistle of Forgiveness) by Abu Alaa al-Maari, an Arabic work that features a tour of heaven and hell, anticipating Dante. He was highly irreverent.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

I live in the Middle Ages.

What are you reading right now?

Be-hazarah me-Emek Refa'im (Returning from the Valley of Shades) by Haim Be'er. It’s about a revered author from Jerusalem, renowned for his knowledge of the city, who had become a Christian.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Islamic geometric designs and hikes in forests and mountains.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

A sense that Jewish culture in the Medieval Mediterranean worked according to its own particular social logic and aesthetic sensibility, and that this world was very different from our own.

Image credit: Brandeis University