The ProsenPeople

New Reviews April 23, 2018

Monday, April 23, 2018 | Permalink

On First Drafts

Friday, April 20, 2018 | Permalink

Mark Sarvas is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I remember the day I sat down to read back the first draft of my second novel, Memento Park. I was in the lobby of the Jerusalem Crowne Plaza, a guest of the Jerusalem Book Festival, at the end of a four-year long journey to complete a workable first draft. (In contrast, my first novel, from idea to finished version, took three years.) Life had interfered along the way with this book, but more dramatically, I chose to write it without an outline, to allow my instincts to guide me to a story. It had taken much longer, and the process was filled with uncertainty—but the result was a stronger novel, I felt sure of it.

As an instructor of creative writing, one of the most common conversations I have with my students is about first drafts. I see so much hesitation, resistance, and uncertainty when the process should be one of joyful discovery. It’s a common complaint: “I can’t seem to move forward. I can’t really get started. I can’t get any momentum going.” Instead, beginning writers often end up forever revising the first 25 pages. At the risk of generalizing, most commonly, there are one of two things at play: control or vanity (though I suppose the two are related). In the first draft, both of these must go.

Control: Time and again, a student tells me she or he can’t make progress in the draft because they don’t know where it’s going. That’s the time I usually trot out the famous E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For some writers, sure, an outline can be a useful guide. (I used one for my own first novel, Harry, Revised.) But I increasingly hold with what Bernard Malamud said: “First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about.” The writer who can relinquish control, who doesn’t need to know in advance, will discover all sorts of miraculous things on his or her journey. The novel that doesn’t surprise the writer will not surprise the reader; and how can the writer be surprised if all is sketched out up front? The number one writing fallacy: you have to know what it’s about to begin. Wrong. You have to trust yourself and write.

Vanity: This is even more insidious. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the first draft. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is shit.” No one should see your first drafts, they are your dirty little secret. You will never have the courage to be adventurous and take risks if you’re worrying about who is going to judge it. The first draft is a blueprint, a back-of-the-napkin sketch, something never meant to be shown to anyone. I tell my students to imagine a grand chasm, the kind of thing Indiana Jones might have to get across. The first draft need be no more than a rickety rope bridge, something that just barely spans the gap, often with plenty of treacherous holes along the way. It’s just a down payment on a future, sturdier bridge that will be built up over time, layered through multiple revisions.

Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, a writer friend told me something a writer friend had told him: Write two pages a day. One page isn’t enough to develop a thought, and three can start to feel like a lot. But anyone can do two pages; that’s about the length of Doctorow’s headlights. And in six months (or four years), you can have a first draft. But don’t show a soul; now, the real work begins.

Mark Sarvas is the author of Memento Park: A Novel and Harry, Revised, which was published in more than a dozen countries. His book reviews and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Threepenny Review, Bookforum, and many others. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, PEN/America, and PEN Center USA, and teaches novel writing at the UCLA Extension Writers Program. A reformed blogger, he lives in Santa Monica, California.

My Special Needs Child, and Our Israel Story

Friday, April 20, 2018 | Permalink

Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

No one could have known it from my confident smile, but I almost turned tail before my plane took off. I was about to embark on a nine-day tour of Israel with people I’d never met. That wasn’t the scary part. The scary part was separating from my four-year-old daughter.

I know lots of moms get nervous before leaving their kids for the first time. But my kid happens to have a condition that prevents her from talking or walking without assistance. And I have a condition that prevents me from acting rationally when I’m more than ten feet away from her. In seriousness, I’d had postpartum anxiety for years, and I’d gotten good at it.

Still, I’d applied for this trip, drawn by a magnetic pull toward Israel that was more powerful than even my most ornate fears. My husband had assured me that everything would be great.

Then I’d envision our daughter in her little walker, stumbling over a crack in the sidewalk, and check my trip cancellation insurance.

Let’s backtrack.

My daughter’s birth had quickly been followed by many types of therapies. Speech therapy, physical therapy, play therapy...and nearly all the therapists had come bearing books. Most of those were the “indestructible by milk teeth” variety, but a certain few were real literature that commanded hundreds of rereadings. Those were the ones, I came to learn, that included three common elements: rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. It also turns out those three are what make language easiest for the brain to process.

Being a writer, I decided to try my hand at books like those, ones that would be accessible to kids like mine. Because my daughter is half-Israeli on my husband’s side (and Jewish on both sides), I found Israel making its way into my stories.

Two years later, I sold my first children’s book, followed by my second, third, fourth and fifth. And then, the clouds parted and I received an invitation to apply for the first-ever PJ Library Author Adventure, a tour of Israel with nineteen other children’s book authors—all of whom turned out to be much more lauded and illustrious than I am. (I was fairly sure I’d been selected by accident.)

The opportunity was at once thrilling and terrifying. I was being catapulted from the very books I’d written for my daughter into a situation that would take me away from her.

Still, Israel called me. Loudly. With deadlines for, say, getting to the gate on time.

Somehow, in the days before the flight, instead of becoming more nervous, I reached a strange state of calm, not unlike in the days before giving birth. Admittedly, it could have been catatonia.

At the airport, I cried a little. But I didn’t use that trip insurance.

And then, I was on the plane with major children’s authors. In a thunderbolt moment, I realized that all those people cared about the same things I did: children, Judaism, and Israel. Almost immediately, they treated me as family. I felt honored, overwhelmed. And never more so than when one renowned author I’d just met crossed the entire airport to tell me she and some others were sitting down to dinner, and would I like to join them?

We arrived in Israel as a group, already bonded. And then another “family member” took me in: Israel, itself. I explored kibbutzes, met major Israeli authors (Meir Shalev! Etgar Keret!), dug in 2,000-year-old soil, and prayed at The Western Wall. I walked a rainwater tunnel under the City of David. I got lost, and found, between the jewelers and juice shops on Shenken Street in Tel Aviv. And, with my tribe of author friends, I breathed in, and out, stories.

I also made many FaceTime calls, during which I was assured that my daughter was very much okay (when I asked her, she blew me kisses and clapped, which is her shorthand for “Yes!”). My husband loved the opportunity to be the parent-in-charge, without my neuroses along for the ride. And somewhere between the Dead Sea and the mountains of Tzfat, I left some of those neuroses behind.

My pulse slowed. My spirit rose.

I returned home with so many stories to tell, I can’t write them fast enough. But one of my most important stories is this one: that, for all my championing of special needs kids, my child is a child first. Her story is that of a strong kid, a happy kid, and a Jewish kid.

It is not the story of a special needs kid who can’t be apart from her mom. It’s that of a child who enjoys her life, and who is becoming more independent every day.

And my story is that of a writer with a great family that supports me, a community of amazing authors, and a huge love of Israel.

I thought I’d gone abroad to gather stories. Instead, it seems I’ve had my own story edited quite neatly. And the new ending is so much happier.

Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh is a writer, editor, and author. Her children's books include Can You Hear a Coo, Coo?, and three upcoming titles from Kar-Ben Publishing: A Hoopoe Says "Oop!", Listen! Israel's All Around, and The Biggest of All.

Nathan Devir on Emerging Jewish Communities

Thursday, April 19, 2018 | Permalink

with Adam Rovner

A world expert on African Jewish communities, Nathan Devir is assistant professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. His acclaimed first book, New Children of Israel: Emerging Jewish Communities in an Era of Globalization, describes groups who are claiming—or reclaiming—their Jewish identity in the developing world. Devir’s readable scholarship takes readers on a fascinating journey of discovery to Jewish communities across Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Adam Rovner: Your book focuses on “emerging Jewish communities.” Can you explain what that means?

Nathan Devir: “Emerging” is an imperfect term, sometimes used alongside qualifiers such as “Judaizing” or “neo-Jewish.” These words indicate that a community is not part of a conventionally-recognized sector of klal yisrael, the worldwide Jewish people. Because Jews are such good record keepers, and because correspondence between divergent communities about matters of halacha has been part and parcel of post-exilic Jewish life, we have a pretty good idea about where Jews have settled. But it’s the communities that fall outside of that rubric—whether they claim to be part of the Ten Lost Tribes or of other “vanished” communities, or whether they’ve only recently adopted the Jewish faith—that are frequently labeled as “emerging.” I don’t intend any denigration whatsoever of these communities’ histories or validity by the use of such terms. I only employ them to demarcate the lines between communities that are conventionally accepted and known about, and those that are not.

AR: In what ways are the “Judaizing” communities in your book different from mainstream Jewish communities in the diaspora?

ND: It depends. Many communities claim that they’ve been missing from the fold since 722 BCE, when the Ten Lost Tribes were supposedly scattered. These groups have a Jewish worldview that is pre-rabbinic, and often based on a literalist interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. So, in addition to the standard customs that Jews the world over follow, such as circumcision, food and hygiene taboos, and Saturday Sabbath, they often practice things that are considered bizarre to modern Jews: polygamy, animal sacrifice, Levirate marriage, or libation-pouring. Almost without exception, they no longer have any knowledge of Hebrew. They’re often closer to Samaritans or to Karaites than they are to any normative Jewish denomination. The trend seems to be that when they become aware of how rabbinic Judaism works, they wish to follow that stream since it’s the norm for the Jewish world now. Interestingly, there’s no casual “ethnocultural” or secular identification with one’s Jewish roots among such communities. They want to follow the Law to the letter, and they can’t understand how Jews in Israel or the West could ever lead secular lifestyles and still call themselves Jewish.

AR: What attracted you to the phenomenon of self-identified Jewish groups in the developing world?

ND: As early as the 1990s, when I was living in Israel, I was fascinated by the stories of my Ethiopian friends who had recently arrived there. I got to know a lot about them, but I never thought I’d use any of that knowledge in my professional life. Then, before I finished my PhD, I discovered the work of Tudor Parfitt, who was the first Western academic to seriously investigate the heritage narratives and claims of Judaizing groups in Africa. His groundbreaking work on history, religion, and culture captured my imagination and inspired me to follow his lead.

AR: As a scholar originally of Jewish literature, why did you move from the study of texts to the study of culture?

ND: As much as I love literature, I needed more on-the-ground interaction with people than literary studies afforded me. Books and archives are great, but traveling to new and exciting places, and meeting new people who are eager to share their stories—that’s just so much more rewarding for me. Also, it enables me to interact with academics from other disciplines that I find fascinating—sociology, anthropology, religious studies, folklore, political science. I feel like this move created a sea change in my intellectual perspectives on a whole range of subjects, and I’m grateful to my colleagues for allowing me the flexibility.

AR: What lessons might emerging Jewish communities hold for established Jewish communities in the diaspora?

ND: I think it’s moving to see what so many of these people are ready to give up in order to lead Jewish lives. For those of us who live in developed and relatively stable countries, we can live as Jews without having to draw much unwanted attention to ourselves, or without having to sacrifice major components of our livelihoods—the occasional anti-Semitic instance notwithstanding. But for someone who lives in a developing country where eking out a living is a constant struggle, being willing to give up a day’s wages because one won’t work on a Saturday represents a sacrifice that most of us are no longer faced with. Not to mention, of course, the danger of self-identifying as Jewish in locales where Islamist terror cells are present, or where European-derived anti-Semitic blood libels are rife. So, I think the commitment among emerging communities to preserving their identity can galvanize those of us in established countries to reflect on what kind of privileges we’ve been afforded.

AR: How might Jewish communities in North America support the “new children of Israel” your book describes?

ND: There are several key ways. First, I would recommend getting to know about the activities of the organization called Kulanu, which supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world. Kulanu has many educational and volunteer opportunities that can be meaningful for those who wish to support these “new children of Israel.” Second, I would suggest that synagogues, Jewish community centers, Hillel groups, and other Jewish venues consider hosting someone from an emerging community, whether as a speaker, as a scholar-in-residence, or just as a guest. Such face-to-face encounters challenge pre-existing perspectives and create lifelong connections that can be transformative. Anyone who wishes to do this should let me know—I’d be more than happy to make the shidduch!

AR: Are you willing to hazard a prediction about how mainstream Jewry in the diaspora will receive emerging Jewish communities a generation from now?

ND: Yes, most definitely. I think that in countries such as the U.S. and Canada, where the vast majority of Jews hold principles of inclusion and progressive values dear, there will be continued efforts to engage members of emerging Jewish communities. Many Jews in North America are frustrated that they seem to be excluded from certain liberal agendas because of the perception on the left that one cannot be a Zionist and a progressive at the same time. And so, engaging with underrepresented populations with an eye toward bolstering Jewish diversity, doing work that highlights social justice and economic advancement, and broadening one’s intellectual and cultural knowledge at the same time—these are things that many Jews in the diaspora want as part of their projects of tikkun olam.

AR: And what about in Israel?

ND: With regard to Israel, I think it could go one of two ways. There are many in Israel who are in favor of engaging such groups—indeed, even of encouraging them to settle there—whether that stems from a wish to help Israel maintain its Jewish demographics and character, or whether it’s related to messianic expectations about the “ingathering of the exiles.” On the other hand, there are many who fear an influx of economically disadvantaged people whose Jewishness is in question. Such opponents will therefore take measures to keep out even those who have legitimately converted. But whether or not Israel decides to embrace this trend is ultimately a moot point in my view. Because there are millions of people from the developing world who are claiming, or reclaiming, their Jewish roots (quite likely many more than the estimated 15 million or so conventionally-accepted Jews), what Israel does or doesn’t do will not make much difference. A generation from now there will be so much interaction because of globalization, international migration, and racial diversity, that this notion of “emerging” might even be passé. It will simply be the new face of global Jewry.

New Reviews April 16, 2018

Monday, April 16, 2018 | Permalink

Writing the Jewish Rust Belt

Monday, April 16, 2018 | Permalink
Allison Pitinii Davis is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“Falls in Love, or Reads Spinoza,” a poem from my 2017 collection Line Study of a Motel Clerk, is in conversation with H. Leivick’s cycle on Spinoza and Charles Reznikoff’s “Spinoza” (1934). It is also in the tradition of rebelling against T.S. Eliot, joining Emanuel Litvinoff’s “To T.S. Eliot” (1951), Hyam Plutzik’s “For T.S.E. Only” (1955), and Philip Levine’s decision to skip meeting Eliot at a bookstore in 1953 after spending “a sleepless night wondering what I might do if Eliot were suddenly to blurt out a racist remark.” I anticipate anti-Semitism when reading Modernists, so I was prepared for Eliot’s overtly problematic poems, but nothing prepared me for this line in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921): “The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other…”. That is, unless, Spinoza is part of your worldview. That is, unless, you have a father who reads Spinoza relentlessly, who leaves a copy of Ethics on the back of the toilet so “the latter” might take a shit and read Spinoza, let alone fall in love. But Eliot didn’t grow up in my home. And he certainly didn’t have my father.

The kind of Judaism that shaped my collection was handed down to me by my father and uncle, who run a trucking motel in the Rust Belt. It was originally opened in 1960 by my grandfather, the eponymous “motel clerk” of my collection. To the casual onlooker, the motel isn’t Jewishly marked. The mezuzah is painted over (by accident? for safety?) and we only sell Manischewitz through the beer-and-wine drive-thru before Passover. My father’s perpetual head covering is a baseball hat, not a kippah. But the motel is where, behind spare ashtrays and wooden tire thumper, my old Jewish Studies books line the bookshelf. Where, between checking in drivers, my father wrote his address for my sister’s bat mitzvah. Where I drove to at dawn the morning of my wedding to pick up my grandma, fresh in from Deerfield Beach, and originally from Montreal, where she was raised down the street from Mordecai Richler.

Beside the motel is a roadside restaurant—the setting for my poem “The Marquee Is Empty at the Big Rig Saloon.” My father and I have been eating at the restaurant since we’ve been babies. Currently, its interior includes deer heads and a steady stream of country music and Fox News. It is perhaps not a likely place to find a man with a name that you don’t hear outside of Canadian Jewish nursing homes and his poet-daughter, but when I’m home, it’s where my father and I go after work for a drink. Whatever we talk about ends up being about the Holocaust because my father, when not reading about Spinoza, reads about the Holocaust. He reads books with titles so grim that he tapes paper over them when reading in public so people don’t give him looks. When we walk into the restaurant, truck drivers around the bar offer to buy him beers. We sit in a booth, drink Coors Lights, and then we stop passing as normal customers because we are drunk and talking too loud about Treblinka.

I wrote that poem and this essay because I suspect that there are readers like me who find nothing strange about love and Spinoza, about Coors Light and Treblinka. If there is a particular strain of Rust Belt Jewish culture, perhaps it’s in “Once” (1999) when a weary Philip Levine shows up at a restaurant in the Lower East Side and the owner exclaims, in disbelief, “They got Jews in Detroit!” It’s Murray Saul, the 1970s-era DJ in my poem “The Motel Clerk’s Son Gets Bad Reception of Cleveland 100.7 FM,” who welcomes in Shabbat stoned and gurgling with his own ferocious spit. It's mothers writing beautiful, cursive notes excusing their children from school on the High Holidays only to have the attendance workers stare at the graceful lettering in suspicion. It’s parents naming their children “Allison Davis” so we “don’t seem too ethnic.” It’s the economy never recovering from post-industrialism, the persistence of racial and class inequalities. It's everyone leaving town, and synagogues struggling to make minyans. It's knowing that Jewish culture will only survive if you shoulder part of the weight, or rather, as you’re born with the extra weight already on you, it's accepting the gravity, accepting that if you escape it will be at the expense of never feeling grounded again.

I sensed this obligation at a young age, one day in the motel office, when my uncle, after a particularly frantic series of phone calls, told me “Allison, there are two things you should never do: run a trucking motel or be the president of a synagogue.” Yet, all over the Rust Belt, countless people like my uncle are doing what it takes to keep businesses and synagogues open, because the region is our spiritual home, our diaspora once removed from the coasts. It has its own beauty and wilderness, and its authors are navigating it in all of its diversity and complexity. The rest of America can fly over the middle, but not without missing critical literature of our time.

Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award’s Berru Award for Poetry, and Poppy Seeds, winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Her poetry appeared in Best American Poetry 2016. She is a PhD student at The University of Tennessee.

Image via Allen/Flickr

The Star Around My Neck

Wednesday, April 11, 2018 | Permalink
Piper Weiss is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I was twelve, my father gave me a necklace—a pendant with a gold wafer, etched with a Jewish star. It was the perfect length for flipping between my teeth during English class, or sucking on during the Lord’s Prayer at school assemblies.

My parents chose the all-girls private school I attended for its academic rigor and reputation. The weekly prayers ritual was simply part of the school heritage. I wasn’t required to recite the bible verses or sing the hymns; at times, though, I wanted to. A chorus of 600 girls chanting in unison was seductive. It didn’t matter what they were saying—what they were saying, to me, was that they belonged.

My father instructed me to not say the prayers. I sucked on my star in salivary resistance. The condition of being apart from the group, it seemed, was my own heritage. We were chosen, my father would trump, as if we were on a winning team. We were persecuted, I had read in my Hebrew school textbook, which made winning all the more triumphant. We were resilient, I had learned over Passover dinner and on a trip to the Jewish Museum, and in documentaries my father and I watched together—and that resistance is what kept us alive. Resistance was how I existed.

So, at age twelve, my star necklace became a symbol of team spirit—not unlike a Boston native might wear a Red Sox hat—as a stake in my own inherited identity.

“I wouldn’t wear that to school every day,” my mother said one day, pointing to the necklace. It wasn’t the right place for that, she explained, and I understood enough to remove it and return it to the box in which my father had presented it. That was no longer my team, but a symbol of straddling between two ideas: Be proud, be quiet. It was a reminder that I didn’t know where I belonged.

My parents were graduates of Forest Hills High School in Queens, where the student body in the late ‘50s was largely Jewish. But as children of immigrants, they were treated as outsiders by the world beyond their community. My father was regularly threatened because of his background (his college roommate asked to see his horns), which only emboldened his Jewish pride. My mother, no less proud, had a different reaction to anti-Semitic sentiment. She was raised to iron her hair smooth, to downplay her nose, to follow the aesthetic expectations of a culture she was expected to assimilate to rather than shape.

Together, they moved to Manhattan’s Upper East Side—a world away from their Queens upbringing—where they joined the geographical ranks of those wealthy country club members who once shunned their kind.

But belonging to such a community they didn’t inherit came with unspoken caveats. Perhaps my mother worried that it could all be taken away. Perhaps she associated wearing the Jewish star with such a risk as it had been for her own parents. Perhaps she didn’t know that in reclaiming the symbol, the reverse might be true. I didn’t know either. I just missed the simplicity of belonging to a team—the reminder of who I was or wasn’t in times of doubt.

In place of the star, I was given a Tiffany necklace, the one all the girls wore at school. The pendant was a hollow silver lima bean. When I sucked on it during prayers, it flattened out into a misshapen thing with teeth marks. 

Piper Weiss is the author of You All Grow Up and Leave Me: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession published April 10 by William Morrow.

New Reviews April 9, 2018

Monday, April 09, 2018 | Permalink

On Jews and Communism

Friday, April 06, 2018 | Permalink
Steven J. Zipperstein is the author of Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History.

Communism retained a vague, if still somewhat sinister potency in the early ‘60s as I came of age in a densely Jewish wedge of Los Angeles a mile or two south of the Hollywood Hills. There was the Emma Lazarus Club, a greyish storefront on a stretch of Pico more Black than Jewish, a mile or so from the Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. I had heard that this was a group favored by Jewish fellow travelers and found myself staring intently at the building as we drove home from my yeshiva high school. My early adolescent mind was certain of the Jacob Frank-like bacchanal going on behind its deceptively nondescript exterior. I also noted how often certain relatives and family acquaintances—their names rarely mentioned again except in whispers or exaggerated grimaces—disappeared not into the clutches of authorities but were thrust out of the clubby embrace of our landsmanschaft gatherings. What I came to understand was that those exiled still had CP membership, or at least sympathies. In my early twenties as I embraced anti-war activities, wearing my hair long and replacing the rock-heavy orthopedic shoes I had always worn with sandals—roughly at the same time I started studying Russian—my mother complained to anyone who would listen that her son was now a communist. A former schoolmate I met just a few months ago all but asked whether I was still a party member.

Thus, Communism in our family circle—which hailed back to a small town in the Lithuanian marshes just beyond Pinsk, this among the more politically inflected regions of the former Pale—was a source of mostly sequestered, if intermittently acute unease. My parents had been born in Chicago, long a CP hub, settling eventually in Los Angeles. There the Communist Party, numbering some 3,000 in the 1930s, included the country’s largest proportion of Jews: 90 percent of its members were Jewish, not including still more numerous non-party supporters. The party’s influence was felt most strongly in the Jewish enclaves of Boyle Heights and Hollywood. Nearly all of this had disappeared by the time I reached my early adolescence, though with a lingering presence—at least in the milieu in which I grew up—much like once-potent, only recently eradicated medical perils such as tuberculosis or polio.

The disinclination to look squarely at Communism’s Jewish allure as a feature of American Jewish life is obvious in its many elisions in historical writings. Barely a glimmer in Judd Teller’s 1966 portrait of Jewish cultural and intellectual life Strangers and Natives: The Evolution of the American Jew from 1921 to the Present; one citation in Charles Silberman’s bestselling 1985 portrait of contemporary Jewish life A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today; no index entry in Howard M. Sacher’s more than 1,000-page A History of the Jews in America, published in 1992. True, Jewish party membership was, in terms of its actual numbers, minuscule and depleted, on and off, since the late 1920s in the wake of the Hebron riots, the Stalin-Hitler pact, mounting anti-Communist intimidation, and news of the eradication of Russia’s Yiddish intelligentsia. And although the Jewish allegiances of Jews devoted to it were, on the whole, tenuous, its resurgence amid the Soviet travails of the Second World War were widely felt and the numbers of fellow travelers, while impossible to calculate with any precision, far exceeded party membership. Communism’s rapid erasure from historical memory was—as the saying goes—anything but accidental.

Yuri Slezkine’s blitzkrieg on Jewish historiography, The Jewish Century, makes much the same point with regard to the role of Jews in the making of the Soviet Union. This is further elaborated in his recent book, The House of Government. In a fascinating tome, resembling a metropolitan telephone book (1123 pages) but reading, in no small measure, like a lengthy Jewish wedding list, Slezkine reminds us of the extent of the Jewish presence in at least the first years of Bolshevik rule: The head of state was then Sverdlov, chief negotiator at Brest-Litovsk Joffe (born a Karaite). Then there was, of course, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Trotsky alongside the now lesser known but once-famed jurist Stolts, the head of the Communist International Piatnitsky, the famed journalist Koltsov, famed foreign trade expert Karsin, famed economist Larin, Chekist Uritsky as well as Radek and Bela Kun. The belief was then rife that Lenin’s original name was Zederbaum. Heading anarchist/sometime Bolshevik-ally Makhno’s Cheka-like arm was a Jew; so was the ubiquitous translator, later financier Alex Bomberg who helped Louise Bryant and many other reporters negotiate the turbulence of 1917. Odessa Jew Steklov would be the longtime editor of Izvestiia, the Bundist Liber was among the pre-October Soviet’s most visible figures, the Menshevik Martov was widely regarded, even during his decline as an influential leader in 1917, as Marxism’s most subtle contemporary thinker. Zvi Gitelman has astutely likened the shock of Jews running the Bolshevik government between 1917 and ’21 to what it might have felt for the whites of Mississippi in 1950 to having an African-American as governor or chief of the state police.

Much the same scenario was replicated at or near the top of the U.S. Communist food chain: Longtime leader Joseph Pepper, mass agitator Max Bedacht, literary enforcers Michael Gold and Alexander Trachtenberg, political tacticians Lovestone, Shachtman and Gitlow, millionaire founder of International Publishers Heller, and Bertha and Samuel Rubin who started the party’s official publishing house the Workers Library. Probably no less than 50 percent of the cultural apparatus of the party was in the hands of Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s, with the vast majority of those engaged in interracial work, then a Party priority. “The Jewish group …later came to dominate leftwing affairs in a degree all out of proportion to its numbers,” complained Harold Cruse in the Black nationalist denunciation, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Freiheit’s circulation in 1925 was 22,000 with the subscription base of Daily Worker no more than 17,000. Breakaway groupings headed by Shachtman and Lovestone were almost entirely Jewish. This wasn’t, to be sure, an international phenomenon: far less true for, say, England or France, but certainly the case in interwar and postwar Poland, Hungary, and Romania.

The number of Jewish party members was nearly always tiny, with the outsize presence of Jews in Soviet Russia’s Communist Party a temporal phenomenon far less disproportionate already by the mid- or late-1920s. But whatever its allure for Jews, the topic remains to this day, of course, achingly difficult to air coherently because of its presence as a crucial ingredient in the toxic arsenal used by anti-Semites to defame and attack. The belief that a penchant for both communism and, for that matter, capitalism is somehow intrinsic to Jews—these patently contradictory but sharing, as some continue to insist, reliance on a conspiratorial intelligence and on forces hidden from view—remains a stubborn fixture of contemporary life. Russian TV's new multi-part series on Trotsky as the true fountainhead of the Russian revolution provides fresh evidence that such beliefs retain potency.

Adapted from the author's keynote address delivered on November 6th at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research conference.

Who Is the Chaim Potok of Today?

Thursday, April 05, 2018 | Permalink
Beth Kissileff is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When Bad things Happen to Good People. As a Driven Leaf. The Lonely Man of Faith. God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know. The Jewish Catalog. The Chosen  and My Name is Asher Lev. Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide.

Flummoxed by the commonality between these titles? All were written by rabbis.

As someone who learned much from these books, as well as others, I want to know: Is there a way to create more of them? Who is the Harold Kushner or the Chaim Potok or the Milton Steinberg of today? Is there another Joseph Soloveitchik or Lawrence Kushner trying to write, but not quite sure if she can?

In an effort to begin to answer this question, the Jewish Book Council put together a program to encourage more rabbis to write. Well Published Rabbi, part of JBC’s Jewish Writers’ Seminar, was a chance for rabbis of varied backgrounds and interests to come together and discuss strategies for writing and getting published.

For a few hours, rabbis of myriad backgrounds listened to presentations on self-publishing and mainstream publishing, how to write a query letter and how to promote their own expertise.

A Lubavitch rabbi who wants to write a novel dramatizing the ethical issues around slaughter sat with a Reform rabbi who is working on a book about how to choose a synagogue. A rabbi writing a commentary for his denomination sat with one writing her own Haggadah for people with disabilities. A Modern Orthodox and a Reform rabbi presented their perspectives to the group.

As the organizer of this session, I felt a profound sense of holiness. The word for holiness in Hebrew, kadosh, literally means to set aside. In this context, the setting aside was both setting aside time to consider the work of writing and publication, and setting aside the many differences between the rabbis in the room.

I don’t think I've ever been in a forum where people with such different ideologies and worldviews set their differences aside to focus on what brought them together, and how they might learn from each other. All of those present in the room were engaged in the same struggles—how to value one’s ideas and work enough to dedicate their time to the enterprise of publishing a book; how to best convey the Jewish wisdom accumulated both over years of counseling others and from study of Jewish texts; how to write with a style and passion that is both compelling and consequential.

It was a pleasure to present a session with Rabbi Barry Schwartz of the Jewish Publication Society, the author of a number of books himself, most recently Path of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life. Schwartz inspired the group by sharing that the Jewish Publication Society counted 26 congregational rabbis among its current roster of authors, as well as by sharing some of his own experiences as a playwright and author of books for children and adults.

The “wizarding rabbi,” Moshe Rosenberg, shared the work that went into the self-publishing success he achieved with his Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah. In a humorous PowerPoint, he illustrated that even when publishers don’t like taking risks, it is possible to write and publicize your work. How? In the words of Rosenberg, by “dressing your sermons in wizarding robes.” Magic is not something everyone can do, but it was enchanting to have a true sorcerer conjure up a bit of it for the group.

As the organizer, the main takeaway that I hope participants grasped is that as rabbis and writers, they have a particular expertise and wisdom that can and should be shared with an audience larger than those in their own congregations. The books I opened with have had—and continue to have—a lingering impact on the minds and hearts of readers. I’m hoping this is the first of many Well Published Rabbi sessions that will help create new titles that have the same intense impact on readers as their predecessors.

Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundraising and writing grants to develop a program to assist rabbis of all denominations with writing and publishing books. Kissileff is a rabbinic spouse and author of the novel Questioning Return  as well as editor of the anthology Reading Genesis: Beginings. Visit her online at

Image via Vladimir Tkalčić/Flickr