The ProsenPeople

30 Days, 30 Authors: Lynda Schuster

Monday, December 11, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Lynda Schuster, the author of  Dirty Wars and Polished Silver: The Life and Times of a War Correspondent Turned Ambassatrix, writes a tribute to a hero of hers, Nora Ephron. 

While writing my memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, I happened on a quote in Not I, Joachim Fest’s magisterial account of his family’s resistance to the Nazis while Fest was growing up in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s:

One does not, in retrospect, record what one has experienced, but what time—with its increasing shifts in perspective, with one’s own will to shape the chaos of half-buried experiences— has made of it. By and large, one records less how it actually was than how one became who one is.

I thought it a perfect epigraph to any memoir and happily attached it to mine. But the words looked so solemn, sitting there on the page in all their eloquent wisdom. And my book, while covering such weighty matters as death and love lost, is anything but grave. The obvious solution to injecting a bit of levity as counterbalance? Why, juxtapose the excerpt with the late, great Nora Ephron’s iconic quote, “Everything is copy.” Of course.

Ephron, the journalist, blogger, screenplay writer and director who died in 2012, was and is my hero. In her writing, she combined a feminist’s sensibility with the ability to turn pain into laughter—the latter the very essence of Jewish humor. To quote the protagonist in her novel, Heartburn, the thinly disguised tale of the collapse of her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein after he took up with another woman while Ephron was pregnant, “Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”

Heartburn, for my money, is a classic: smart, hysterically funny, bittersweet, with set pieces and gag lines to rival those of the Marx Brothers. In the world of comedic writing, Ephron was to women what Woody Allen is to men, only better. After all, who could forget Meg Ryan’s feigned orgasm scene in a deli in “When Harry Met Sally”—or the response of the woman sitting at the next table, who tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

But Ephron’s genius was more than just witty one-liners. (“If pregnancy were a book, they would cut the last two chapters;” “In my sex fantasy, nobody ever loves me for my mind.”) Rather, she had the unique ability to translate personal experiences into writing that resonated deeply with readers and moviegoers. Despite a proclivity for perhaps too-tidy endings, she nailed male-female relationships in her films. And, while we’re at it, the ignominy of aging--particularly for women--in her later essay collections, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing. As Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist, said of Ephron, “It takes a particular combination of winning voice and brutal candor, of intimacy and objectivity, to turn what happens to you into a story that means something to the wider world.”

I just wish she were still around to give us her take on the spate of sexual misconduct and assault allegations that have recently come to light against male luminaries in journalism, Hollywood, politics and the like. No doubt it would be wry and insightful and ironic and, of course, funny. To say nothing of beautifully crafted. Because Ephron always managed to make the stringing together of words look easy. This, despite her sage analysis of the author’s craft, a fitting way to end a post celebrating Jewish Book Month: “The hardest thing about writing is writing.”

30 Days, 30 Authors: Matthue Roth

Sunday, December 10, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Matthue Roth, the author of  The Gobblings, My First Kafka andLosers, shares some of the best Jewish books that aren't getting published.


The best books are the ones you've never heard of and the ones you'll never read. That's conventional publishing wisdom, right? They’re too risky, too weird, too unproven. Everyone wants to publish a book like Harry Potter, but no one wanted to be the first to publish Harry Potter.

I'm not saying this because it happened to me. It did happen to me, of course. My last novel got sold, then the publisher wanted to change it from a story about a story about rape into a love story, and so I ended up publishing it for free.

Go read it! But not now! Now I want to tell you about these other books that you need to read. They're books that I love, that you will probably love, even if conventional publishing wisdom tells you that you won't. Because they haven't gotten published yet. So, if you're a publisher, or you just have a printer at work that you can use for free, track down these authors! Ask them if you can see their books! I highly recommend it.

The Bearded Lady Falls in Love, Goldie Goldbloom

Goldie Goldbloom has written one novel you can buy—The Paperbark Shoe, about love and woodland magic weirdness among country hicks and Italian prisoners of war in World War II-era Australia—and another, Gwen, which is only out in Australia, and is an incredibly erotic take on the painter Gwendolyn John and her unconventional internship with Auguste Rodin.

My favorite book of hers, though, is the magically-titled The Bearded Lady Falls in Love, which is about the decidedly less-conventionally-sexy subject of octogenarian Jewish anarchists. They also live in rural Australia, and have a commune. There's family drama (but when is there not?), and two elderly lesbians with a ton of children. There is a giant beached whale. There are explosives, both metaphorical and literal. There are cautionary tales and crazy stories of family drama and growing up in the Australian wilderness, and it's dizzying and scary and bursting with so much love.

Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi, MaNishtana

The reason that the writer MaNishtana belongs in the Cynthia Ozick/Bernard Malamud/I.B. Singer/Nicole Krauss canon of eternal Jewish writers is not that he's a several-generation African-American Orthodox Jew or that he's a prolific essayist and provocateur. It's just that he writes these stories that mix wildly knowledgeable and wildly inventive interpretations of incredibly nuanced textual material and are more informed, and more playful and delightful, than pretty much anyone else who's ever written fiction informed by a Talmud passage. His fluency with text and contemporary life is more than remarkable, it's freaking insightful.

The Book Room at the End of the Third Floor, Elie Lichtstein

The tradition of secret rooms and secret passages in literary works has a long and hallowed history. My own first experience was probably the Woods between the Walls in the Chronicles of Narnia, although the more I think about it, the older the concept seems, dating back to kevitzas haderech in the Torah and the unpacking of words into verses into many-page stories in the Midrash.

In The Book Room, 12-year-old Igz Levine learns that he’s a Book Keeper--not the traditional Jewish sort of accountant, but part of an actual tradition that dates back thousands of years and crafts mezuzahs and Torah scrolls to keep mystical creatures safe. It wears its references to Rick Riordan and Suzanne Collins on its sleeve, along with, yes, Harry Potter, but Book Room is a whirling fizzgig of Jewish tradition and original magic that is completely its own.

Matthue Roth's newest book is Rules of My Best Friend's Body (which you can find here). It's $6 on Amazon. By day, he's a creative writer at Google.

30 Days, 30 Authors: A.J. Sidransky

Saturday, December 09, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, A.J. Sidransky, author of  Forgiving Maximo Rothman, Stealing a Summer's Afternoon  and Forgiving Mariela Camacho, on reading and writing Jewish. 

I have been an avid reader all my life. While I read the YA standards of the mid-twentieth century as a pre-teen, it wasn’t until we moved from Rosedale, Queens, to Trumbull, Connecticut in 1970 at age 14, that Jewish literature became the focus of the pile of books on my night table.

The move from heavily Jewish Rosedale to Trumbull, a town more like Mayfield in Leave it to Beaver, was my first real experience living as a member of a minority. Of course, not all our neighbors in Rosedale were Jewish, but in Trumbull, none of them were. I rarely saw others who looked like me, sounded like me or celebrated my holidays and traditions. Jewish books, Jewish literature, whatever label you want to use, was my lifeline to my identity.

Many of the books I read have stayed with me. Non-fiction works like Jews, God & History by Max Dimont, World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe, My People and My Country by Abba Eban. Fiction such as The Settlers by Meyer Levin, The Chosen by Chaim Potok, anything by Philip Roth or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Two authors stand out though, one from those early, teenage years and the other from adulthood. Both have had a significant influence on my own work, Leon Uris and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Uris’ Exodus was by far my favorite book growing up. Historical fiction written for a contemporary, paperback, genre reader, Uris’ work transported me through time and space, to Palestine fighting for a Jewish state, to the Warsaw ghetto fighting Nazis, to Czarist Russia escaping a pogrom and walking all the way to Palestine.

I knew these characters. Their stories were the stories of my family, my people, and they anchored me in a world where Christmas was at the center of the calendar, and the label Jew still held stigma. There were country clubs we couldn’t belong to, colleges we couldn’t attend and careers for which we had to anglicize our names. That was white-picket-fence America in the 1970’s. A place where Jews tried to blend in by not being too obvious about their heritage, culture or beliefs.

As a writer, what affected me most was Uris’ story structure. He would intertwine two, three, even four stories into one unified whole. The back stories of each major character informed the reader of the character’s actions and motivations in the novel’s present. Uris not only inspired me to write about Jewish subjects, themes and personal conflicts, but guided me in creating the structure for my own novels. The multiple story lines in my debut novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, and its companion piece, Forgiving Mariela Camacho, reflect his influence.

Foer, who came to prominence in my adulthood is a very different kind of writer than Uris. He’s literary and more introspective. His books, particularly Everything Is Illuminated, reflect the influence of magical realism. What I learned from Everything is Illuminated, and admittedly from interviews done with Foer, is to peel back the layers of a story and to see clearly what lay beneath. That method of delving deeper and deeper, of seeking emotional truth rather than accepting a story as told, leads me to peel back the layers of my stories rather than reveal them as absolute truth.

No writer exists in a vacuum. We learn to write by reading. We learn to tell stories by experiencing the story-telling of others.

30 Days, 30 Authors: Shari Rabin

Friday, December 08, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Shari Rabin, author of  Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth Century America, talks about being introduced to Frontier Jews.

Shari Rabin is assistant professor of Jewish studies and director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston. She received a PhD in religious studies from Yale University in 2015 and is the author of Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (NYU Press, 2017).

30 Days, 30 Authors: Matti Friedman, winner of the Natan Book Award

Thursday, December 07, 2017 | Permalink

Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

This week, we are featuring the finalists and winner of the Natan Book Award at Jewish Book Council

Today, Matti Friedman, winner of the 2018 Natan Book Award at the Jewish Book Council for his forthcoming book Spies of No Country (Fall, 2018) and the author of  The Aleppo Codex and Pumpkinflowers, writes about a newly translated book that you should be reading. 

I thought I’d dedicate these few words to a (dead) Jewish writer and a (very much alive) translator, and a new co-production of theirs that’s worth attention.

The great French novelist Romain Gary was once well-known in America, but has been largely forgotten since his suicide in Paris in 1980. Gary, who flew with the Free French air force in WWII and went on to write a series of celebrated books that made him a major literary figure at home and abroad, was a fascinating and slippery character. He wrote a famous work (The Life Before Us) in the voice of an Arab orphan and under a pseudonym, Emile Ajar, denying that he was the writer and employing someone else to pretend to be Ajar. He worked with an American translator, John Markham Beech, who didn’t exist, and was none other than Gary himself. And though a patriot and cultural champion of France, Gary was born a Lithuanian Jew named Roman Kacew.

Due in part to legal and family complications — a specialty of Gary’s — his last and perhaps best book, The Kites, was never translated into English. It did appear in Israel in a Hebrew translation, however, and became wildly popular; this is the version that I read. It is a knowing, sad, and sweet book about a French peasant boy’s love for a girl, and for France, during the years when Normandy was occupied by the Nazis.

The writer and translator Miranda Richmond Mouillot (A Fifty-Year Silence), who has spent many years in a village in rural France, happened upon Gary’s book, was smitten, and set out to solve the legal puzzle that would allow a translation to proceed. (The story, which Mouillot told me when I met her in Paris in 2014, could be a book in itself.) The result, just published in October by New Directions, is wonderful. Mouillot’s work perfectly captures Gary’s mix of romantic memory and sharp but sympathetic observations of human nature.

Gary didn’t play up his Jewish sensibilities. But they’re present here for anyone looking — in the character of an earthy and resourceful Parisian madame, for example, and in the book’s strange and abrupt ending with an expression of admiration for the real-life pastor André Trocmé, who saved Jewish children in the war in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Whether you’ve been waiting 37 years for this translation to finally appear, or whether you’re hearing Gary’s name for the first time, The Kites should be high on your reading list.

30 Days, 30 Authors: Ilana Kurshan

Wednesday, December 06, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

This week, we are featuring the finalists and winner of the Natan Book Award at Jewish Book Council

Today, Ilana Kurshan, the author of the  If All the Seas Were Ink, shares a reading list of books that take a creative approach to stories of the Talmud. 

This piece is an excerpt from the 2018 edition of JBC's annual literary journal, Paper Brigade, which is now available to order. To read the full article, click on the page. 


30 Days, 30 Authors: James Loeffler

Tuesday, December 05, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

This week, we are featuring the finalists and winner of the Natan Book Award at Jewish Book Council

Today, James Loeffler, the author of the forthcoming book Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, writes about his discovery of "The Third Roth."

It was sometime in my first year of college when I discovered I had never heard of the greatest Jewish writer of the twentieth century. Or so I learned one day from a precocious friend with a subscription to the New York Review of Books. Have you read Joseph Roth? They say he’s the greatest Jewish writer of the century. You must mean Philip Roth? I responded. No, Joseph Roth. I paused, flummoxed. Then I tried again. Oh, you mean Henry Roth, the modernist immigrant bard, author of Call It Sleep? No, Joseph Roth. He’s Central European. The phrase conjured up Kafka. But I still drew a blank. Intrigued, I headed for the library to find out what was so special about this unknown Roth.

From the first pages of Joseph Roth’s magisterial 1932 novel Radetzsky March, I was hooked. Here was an author nothing like the other Roths or even Kafka. He didn’t play with language or stylize reality. Instead, he peered directly into the terrors of history, even as he sweetly eulogized his beloved Habsburg Empire and its anguished, expectant Galician Jews. In place of the two dominant images of Jewish Eastern Europe—shtetl sentimentalism and pre-Holocaust shadows—he offered a different Old World: majestic and cruel, violent and graceful. For many modern Jewish writers, irony was an escape from a harsh world. For Roth, it was a scalpel to cut still more deeply into the flabby tissue of the present.

What he exposed in those surgeries shocked me. I still recall my astonishment at seeing Roth mention Hitler by name in his first novel – from 1923! Already he sensed Europe was lurching towards an abyss, the Nazis were a dangerous new kind of political evil, and the Jews were the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The same held true for his poignant non-fiction. In his brilliant 1927 collection, Wandering Jews, he recognized in the uprooting of East European Jews after World War I a new kind of human category: the refugee. He went on to point out in his early 1930s writings that Jews were destined to suffer not only because of Nazi antisemitism or Western indifference but because of Europe’s own crisis. “Let me say it loud and clear,” he wrote in 1933 in “The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind,” his essay on Nazi book-burning, “The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination.”

European Jews, however, did not suffer for lack of imagination. In my forthcoming book, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, I show how hard international Jewish lawyers fought in the 1920s and 1930s to create new kinds of law to protect minority groups from precisely the kind of rising terror of the times. In a sense, modern human rights began with these forgotten efforts. Yet these early human rights activists found themselves stymied by European politics at the newly created League of Nations.

I took the title of my third chapter, “Golden Shackles,” from a passage in Roth’s Wandering Jews. There he writes already in the 1920s of how the League of Nations is powerless to help the Jews of Europe. In spite of fancy titles and new laws, the League is hamstrung by the “golden shackles that its best-intentioned commissioners wear,” unable to issue basic papers to protect imperiled Jews. The same geopolitical forces that gave rise to the League held it hostage at the moment when it was needed most. “Animal welfare groups enjoy more popularity in every country, and with every level of the people, than does the League of Nations,” he adds bitterly.

“Golden Shackles” nicely sums up the fate of Jewish human rights activists before World War II. Much like the bureaucrats in Geneva, the Jewish rights-defenders found themselves hand-cuffed, in their case by the shiny bonds of British imperial politics. The one European power strong enough to stop anti-Jewish persecution in Europe and support the interwar Jewish human rights vision viewed Jews as a political liability because of the Arab-Jewish conflict in British Mandatory Palestine.

It is often said that Jews were the last true Austrians. Long after every other Habsburg citizen had become only a German, a Czech, a Pole or a Ukrainian, Jews like Joseph Roth held onto a broader liberal ideal of an Austria united in its diversity. But more than a nostalgia for a lost Austria, Joseph Roth also reminds us that Jews like him were arguably also the last Europeans. In fighting for international protection at the League of Nations, these Jews were the few remaining foot-soldiers who had yet to abandon “the noble ranks of the European army.”

Today, as we struggle to understand a new world of Middle Eastern refugees, rising antisemitism, and an unceasing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it makes sense to re-read Henry Roth on the traumatic American Jewish experience of immigration and Phillip Roth on the complex American Jewish relationship to Zionism. But we should also not neglect Joseph Roth. His sober commentaries remind us that the story of modern human rights, too, has a Jewish past whose beginnings can be found in interwar Europe.

30 Days, 30 Authors: Jeremy Dauber

Monday, December 04, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

This week, we are featuring the finalists and winner of the Natan Book Award at Jewish Book Council

Today, Jeremy Dauber, the author of  Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, shares the top ten punchlines to Jewish jokes. 

Jeremy Dauber’s Top 10 Punchlines to Jewish Jokes


Okay, these aren’t necessarily my favorite Jewish jokes. And they’re not even necessarily the funniest Jewish jokes out there, or the ones that are the most illustrative of Jewish humor through the ages. (You’ll find lots more of those in my new book, Jewish Comedy: A Serious History, on sale now.) And even without giving you the whole thing, I’m fairly sure there’ll be someone out there who suggests that I’m telling them wrong. But these are ten goodies, that’s for sure - perfect for every bar or bat mitzvah, and commonly known enough that if you happen not to know a few of them, you can ask a well-meaning grandfather or great-aunt and they’ll be happy to tell them to you.

  • 10. “That’s a nickel fan. With a penny fan, you hold it still and wave your head from side to side.”

  • 9. “Who’s he gonna tell?”

  • 8. “Vell, vot time is it?"

  • 7. “I make a living."

  • 6. “For my health, nothing is too expensive."

  • 5. “Religion? My good man, I am a goy."

  • 4. “As a soldier, he was unknown. But as a furrier, he was famous."

  • 3. “What’s the matter, you didn’t like the other tie?"

  • 2. “Sheldon, enough is enough.”

  • 1. “He had a hat."

30 Days, 30 Authors: Haim Watzman

Sunday, December 03, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Haim Watzman, the author of Necessary Stories, talks about the landscape of Israel and his upcoming book.  

30 Days, 30 Authors: Orli Auslander

Saturday, December 02, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Orli Auslander, the author of  I Feel Bad: All Day. Every Day. About Everything, shares how a Kafka story deeply impacted her. 

You know that feeling you get right after you’ve been slapped in the face?

Before the message that you’ve been hit even reaches your brain, before the stinging pain becomes real, it’s the shock of the impact that gets your attention. Disorientation and confusion take over. Then alarm, fear, sadness and anger before reality sets in.

This is what happened the first time I read Franz Kafka’s one page story, "An Imperial Message."

The story, also known as "A Message From the Emperor," tells of an Emperor, the most important guy in the land, who has sent you, the reader, the least important, most contemptible shittiest subject in the land,I’m paraphrasing here, a vitally important message from his deathbed.

He has sent this message via a fearless, tireless, messenger  who fights his way through crowds, courtyards, staircases, etc in order to get the message to you.

But there are so many obstacles in his way that the messenger will never make it in a million years.

I’m about to spoil the ending so you can either stop reading this, or you can read Kafka’s story here before continuing:

When I first read this story, two important things were going on in my life. I had just given birth to my first son and as a result I had reconnected with my father after several years of estrangement.

The latter seemed like the right thing to do until I remembered how my father, who had once been the Emperor in my life, made me feel… 

These two events were causing an internal conflict which resembled the Middle East.

We’d been back in touch for a year but only by phone, and already I’d regressed to being the angry, toxic, self loathing daughter, while having trouble embracing my new role as an empowered nurturing euphoric mother. The two opposing roles seemed incompatible mostly because the new mother in me was being bulldozed by the much more experienced aggressive daughter in me.

As the daughter I was stuck, desperate for my father’s approval, as though it were necessary in order to progress to the role of mother. And though it was obvious to my therapist, the daughter in me was unable to accept that perhaps my father was incapable of saying the things I needed to hear. Both daughter and mother were in deep denial.

As is often the case with me, my brain took the steering wheel and I became obsessed with An Imperial Message. While my son slept, I read this story hundreds, if not thousands of times. I picked apart every sentence as if it were Torah. I had the story laminated and carried it around with me as I used to carry my Tehillim in my religious days. I couldn’t explain my sudden obsession with this story but I studied every available translation as I had once studied Rashi. I even used dictionaries to come up with my own translation, knowing how much author and translator’s intentions can differ.

But the core message was always the same.

The message ain’t coming you twit! I’m paraphrasing.

But it was the last line that really delivered Kafka’s stinging slap:
Like a schmuck you’re still waiting. Paraphrasing.

It was one of the most difficult decisions I’d ever face but a few months later, I took a second hiatus from speaking with my father, this time for more than a decade.

Some years later, when estrangement from my father was the new normal, I felt compelled to illustrate every sentence of Kafka’s story. The drawings were to be exhibited in London at a Kafka festival and as I assembled them to be shipped, I found it ironic that I had received The Message for which I’d waited so long, and that it had reached me loud and clear. Though it may not have come from the Emperor as I’d hoped it would, it had, in fact, come from a dead man.

Cheers Franz.