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No, I Have Not Read 'The Jew in the Lotus'

Thursday, July 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We all have one: that book recommended to us over and over again that we never read. Perhaps it becomes something of a personal badge past a certain number of echoed suggestions, or an internal protest against being repeatedly pigeonholed. I have little better reason than that, but it’s been nearly ten years since I was first asked if I’ve read The Jew in the Lotus—a question posed so consistently since then I can sense it forming before it’s uttered—and no, I still have not.

The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India is the 1994 bestselling chronicle of the 1990 dialogue at Dharamsala between Tibetan rinpoches and a delegation of Jewish Buddhists, scholars, rabbis, and mystics: thirty years into its people’s exile following the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Central Tibetan Administration sought counsel from a council of Jews on organizing and mobilizing a diasporic ethnic and religious community into a nation that could thrive in the modern world. In an inspired and inspiring moment of interfaith collaboration, the Dalai Lama held a forum on how these two of the world’s oldest religions had managed to withstand both time and persecution up to the present day, and what they could learn from each other’s histories and models for the future. Kamenetz’s account of the encounter found a wide, passionate audience among Jews, Buddhists, clergy and adherents of all faiths, and anyone interested in the unlikely survival of a small, esoteric religion and what wisdom it could impart on another of its kind, facing the same challenges two centuries apart.

Monday was the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, an occasion commemorated through the week across the globe and with special fervor in New York City, where he is celebrating his reincarnativity among the Tibetan denizens of the City and pilgrims from afar—among them my best friend from high school.

Tenzin had been forcibly enrolled in an ESL course at the start of our Freshman year, at the same large district school where I took an accelerated language program that our home school did not offer. We would wait for the bus shuttling us back to our small, alternative high school with our winter coats on backwards, a lazy accommodation for the backpacks we couldn’t be bothered to take off or adjust from the moment we left our classrooms on one campus until we took our seats in opposite corners of the Science lab we shared at the second. We built a cursory friendship on complaining to each other about our respective morning waste-of-time enrollments—until Tenzin successfully tested out of the unnecessary ESL class and I switched to an independent study, continuing my studies through classes at the local university instead. By the spring semester of our Sophomore year we were coordinating our schedules to take all of our electives together, claiming the far corners of classrooms, sitting in the windowsills and snapping our gum against our teeth. Anything that could not be graded we shared only with each other: our (blessedly angst-free) forays into creative writing, our most embarrassing, unconquerable crushes, stories from retreats and shabbatonim and their most tantalizing unchaperoned moments, questions of identity and the values with which we’d each been raised.

The first place I drove as a licensed motorist was to Tenzin’s house, the same afternoon I passed my driver’s test. We celebrated over a classic Bollywood movie and Frooti frozen into mango popsicles we scooped out of their severed juiceboxes with the straws. We spent our Senior year sitting comfortably at separate tables in the classes we shared, operating from opposite ends of the room in our benevolent unified reign over the school. Tenzin held court among the athletes, the jocks, Model UN, Black Student Union (there wasn’t much other support for students of color), the funky girls, the girls who had tried out cheerleading for a neighboring school Freshman year, the guys whose parents were frequently out of town and purportedly oblivious to the SOLO cupped parties reliably thrown in their absence; I kept company with the musicians, dancers, artists, and stoners in and about the studios on the first floor, the Science Olympiad and Mock Trial competitors, the editors of the satirical school newspaper, and the uninhibitedly brilliant clowns cramming in the same credits I was catching up on over our final semester of high school. (We left the theater kids to themselves.) We would converge on the back lot where only seniors were granted parking spots around the large grass square that was the hub of social activity (for as long as it was cleared of snow); we sat on the hood of Tenzin’s car and caught each other up on the affairs of our peers, favorite teachers, families, and selves each day before heading home.

These are the examples I gave when a more newly acquired friend asked what my relationship with my high school best friend “does for me.” It was an awkward question to consider—What does any friendship “do” for a person?—and it became frustrating evident that these memories were not answering what was meant by it. “I mean, what do you two find in common?” It took me a while to connect that this unsatisfied curiosity about an observant Jew’s friendship with a Tibetan Buddhist was at its core just a variation on the old classic: “Have you read The Jew in the Lotus?”

Throughout high school and since, every time someone from my nuclear and extended Jewish community met or heard about Tenzin, invariably I would see the inquiry scrawled their intake before the blurt as soon as the word “Tibetan” dropped. The Jew in the Lotus (and, indeed, the dialogue it chronicles) is by most accounts an excellent work, and an interesting, provoking piece of modern interfaith history involving some of the most revered Jewish leaders and thinkers of our time—a concentration of my personal heros among them—yet I still cringe every time someone insists I must read it. It’s a recommendation that reduces a significant relationship in my life to a perceived experiment, as though it developed out of a philosophical fascination with another culture instead of an innate and deep affinity between two people—who just happen to each come from rich and somewhat unusual heritages. Our friendship is not a project; it is not founded on some mission of mutual understanding or a quest to solve or contemplate the future of the nations we belong to. One assumes I’ll appreciate The Jew in the Lotus because it addresses so many of my “interests”—but my best friend isn’t an interest, and to suggest so is a subtle yet troubling exotification—on the shallow yet slippery end of the spectrum of dehumanization—of a person very dear to me.

But the cultural exchange is indeed part of our relationship. We connected as teenagers over being raised in traditional households and belonging to small and stretched communities steeped in custom and faith. We spend holidays together with each other’s families as often as we can: Losar, Sukkot, Shabbat, rinpoches’ teachings. We learn more about our respective cultures’ death and wedding rites as those events become increasingly relevant to our lives. We continue to discuss our personal musings on identity, of diaspora, of peoplehood together; we slip into the languages and names we use only at home and pick up each other’s foreign phrases and scattered words; we fill each other in on the political or violent moments facing our communities and the histories and complexities behind them.

Today the Dalai Lama begins a series of teachings for the people honoring him on his accession to octogenarnia. If I can make it out of the office in time, I will be joining his audience—not to carry out some interfaith agenda, not to observe a foreign sacred space, but to sit with my friend’s family at an occasion important to them, without any thought beyond that as to what it means to be a Jew in the lotus.

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Internal Dialogue: What's With All the Social Justice Seders?

Thursday, April 09, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I’m afraid to admit it, but I have little patience for Passover. Almost none. And the seder least of all.

Don’t get me wrong: I observe the holiday to the letter. I clean out the house, sell my chametz, and subsist on a standard diet of matzah, cream cheese, and eggs with the variable vegetable and odd protein for the entire week, and I not only endure but participate in both seders with my family as I have done since the good ol’ Ma Nishtana days. And I hate every minute of it.

Partly, I just don’t do well with structure. As both a product and proponent of alternative education, I struggle with the hours of prescribed “order” that we’re all forced to adhere to on this so different a night: stand up, sit down, lean to the left, say this, drink that, eat this, eat that, now sing… It feels more like a rigid second grade day school classroom than a meal, let alone a celebratory feast. And, much like that same second grade classroom, the strictly regimented agenda doesn’t yield proportionate efficiency—in fact, it feels, just the opposite.

Mainly, though, it’s the repetition that gets to me: the required regurgitation of the same story year after year. It’s gone from boring to insufferable and at some moments even oppressive—and that’s just the impatience, before the late hour or physical hunger sets in—but I bear through the retelling two nights in a row every year because that part is unquestionably essential to Judaism and Jewish identity—for, as we know all too well, in every generation one must see oneself as though they, too, left Egypt.

There are many in the Jewish community who have chosen to interpret that imperative as a summons to reflect on the events and ills of our lifetime and more recent history: college chaplains organize “freedom seders” joining Jewish and black students on campus; women convene on feminist seders and family members clash over current Israeli policies; rabbis at the pulpit bring up the uncomfortable realities of slavery in our time—on that note, if you read one other essay today, make it this one (although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t written by a rabbi).

The seder also becomes a fertile millennial arena for the social justice bender Jews in their twenties and thirties are on with renewed fervency at the approach of every holiday. This year more than any other (yet), social media housed countless queries and responses for social justice haggadot and supplements—, for example, assembles their top ten picks of new social justice-themed Passover resources each year—and that’s a wonderful thing. But even with the obvious parallelable narratives of freedom and oppression, there’s something curious about an entire generation insisting on telling a multitude of other peoples’ stories on a night we’re supposed to focus entirely on our own one. Is the Exodus somehow less meaningful, less critical to Jewish history or the modern experience, if it isn’t directly relatable to the world around us and its victims? Why on this night do we continue to layer stories on top of the one we’re required to tell?

Reading The Lost Book of Mormon (it’s a Jewish book—very Jewish, I promise, bear with me here) I was inspired to think of the social justice seder phenomenon in terms of a book—more accurately, in terms of a book series, or any narrative-driven franchise. In relating new stories and new struggles to the Passover narrative, these supplements create a sequel to the Exodus. Seder participants take one of our most glorious tales and stretch it across centuries so as to continue to enjoy the original by connecting with not only to the story but the storytelling itself. As Avi Steinberg observes in in his new memoir:

Maybe our tendency to make sequels is somehow embedded in how we think. Just as we want and need a story to end, we also want and need a story to never end. We make sequels as a way of bringing our stories closer to life. As a matter of convention and convenience, stories have endings, but if we were to tell them honestly, stories would never end, just like life, whose dramas dip in and out of time and memory, are recalled, shared, stolen, reprised, recovered, revised—anything but neatly concluded. A sequel may well be a deformed kind of story, a pale likeness—as its critics have long charged—but even if it’s silly or tragic or nobly deluded or tainted by a shameless profit motive, or, more likely, all of these at one, then all the more is it like life.

Steinberg’s rumination on the sequel began with watching new episodes of The Simpsons at his laundromat and realizing that in two decades since the show premiered, nothing in the animated world of Springfield had ever changed, its denizens stuck in a bright, eternal Groundhog Day:

Sequels don’t necessarily believe in progress, but they do insist on the passing of time, or at the very least a change of place. By contrast, a serial like The Simpsons can remain in a state of animated paralysis for eternity.

Critic Terry Castle has described sequels as tragic because they are motivated by a desperate human need to reproduce the original sensation of some pleasurable experience, an impulse, a “mad hope,” she says, that is fated to miserable disappointment. But when I saw Bart still throwing spitballs at Springfield Elementary over twenty years later, that to me seemed like the tragedy of repetition: Sisyphus on a skateboard.

At the Passover seder each year, Judaism makes that same attempt to reproduce the original sensation of one of the greatest miracles ever witnessed by our ancestors: the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, by the hand of God. But the haggadic retelling isn’t a sequel; it’s a loop; it’s Bart Simpson’s same old antics week after week; it’s forty years circling the same patch of desert. We know that experience all too well—and how it can lead to communal loss of faith, rebellion, kvetching, and even idol worship [see: Golden Calf].

In finding a sequel to the Passover story—in the histories and current issues of Civil Rights, feminism, and modern social justice movements—perhaps we restore our faith by breaking out of that cycle, just enough to bring it closer to life. It reifies that the story didn’t end—that the story of the Jewish people didn’t end—with Exodus, that it is an evolving legacy rather than an outgrown or outgrowable childhood tale. We want to relive the experience of leaving Egypt without despairing of it, without growing bored, without losing appreciation for this among the narrative pillars of Jewish history.

The power of the sequel, Avi Steinberg discovered, “meant that the old biblical saga wouldn’t simply replay forever but somehow, some way, find a way out, maybe even a way forward. It boldly reentered the original and steered it in a different direction. Maybe the sequel isn’t the tragedy of repetition: it’s a solution to it.”

So maybe I just need to find my Passover sequel. Maybe one day I’ll write my own.

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Internal Dialogue: Book Programs and Community Partnerships

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Sunday morning I had the pleasure of participating in one of the smartest planning events I've seen since coming onto the JBC Network staff. (Book program coordinators, take note: each and every one of our member sites should hold similar sessions—on a regular basis—for your organization's entire staff and lay leadership across all auxiliaries.) Organized and facilitated by Rabbis Joshua Stanton and Karen Perolman of Temple B'nai Jeshurun of Short Hills, NJ, the Temple's first Community Partnerships Meeting brought a roomful of congregation leaders and members face-to-face with representatives from the organizations, agencies, and local businesses that TBJ works with in creating ongoing and innovating programming for Jews of all ages in the area.

Participating TBJ members joined for their active involvement (or interest) in the Temple's groups and auxiliaries, including:
Adult Education
Early Childhood Center
Prime Time—"If you've got the time, we've got the program"
Religious School
Tikkun Middot—monthly learning around Jewish ethics
Tikkun Olam—community service and social justice programs
Women's Association

Following a round of introductions to familiarize auxiliary leaders with the community partners and the resources they offer—and to help the community partner representatives understand the missions and needs of each TBJ program—a round of planning "speed-dating" ensued: informal private consultations to discuss the opportunities for partnership between TBJ and outside initiatives. Jonah Zimles of Words Bookstore discussed upcoming events with local authors and the bookstore's unique programming for patrons and employees with special needs; Doris Cheng of Writers Studio brainstormed with Prime Time planners on how to increase enrollment in TBJ's writing courses; Beth Sandweiss of the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey emphasized the benefits of mindfulness, musar, and stress relief practices across all ages. The American Jewish Committee addressed the recent events in Europe and, of course, the Jewish Book Council presented anyone interested with our full trove of resources for book programs, from author tours to book clubs to reviews and web media.

The brilliance of this event lay in its tacit recognition of the diverse and often untapped array of opportunities for partnership between a Jewish community, religious, or education center and the organizations it works with. Calling in community partners ordinarily utilized for one specific group to meet with representatives from all of TBJ's programs brought fresh perspectives and sparked new ideas for engaging Temple members: mindful parenting workshops for young parents; a men's book club to revitalize discussion within the Brotherhood auxiliary; intergenerational, interfaith play readings in a local book shop.

It's important to remember—and to remind everyone you work with, across departments—that authors know so much more than the art of writing. They take subject matter and craft it into a story we can't put down, we can't ignore—precisely because those stories are at their core about us, because they hum along to our lives in a voice so distant yet so familiar that we can't help but stop to listen and, consequently, learn about ourselves and the people around us.

That's what a community is, too: the recognition of a common shared experience, with enough differences to effect and encourage learning and growth. Encountering others' family histories and relationships, the universal yet unique tragedies and triumphs that befall or bolster us all in such distinct, such similar ways, and our individual and collective tastes and values shape us personally and as a whole as we connect, disagree, and collaborate with one another. And what better to facilitate that interaction than a really good book?

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Spicing Children's Literature with Jewish Humor and Jewish Life

Friday, November 14, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The 16th Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Seminar was held on Sunday, November 2nd at the Jewish Book Council offices in New York City. An intimate gathering of 30 or so authors and artists spent a full day workshopping and learning about different facets of children’s book publishing.

Book designer, artistic director, and children’s author Claudia Carlson kicked off the seminar with a keynote speech about her personal trajectory climbing the ropes in a very difficult industry. Claudia’s tenacity—necessary for any aspiring illustrator, designer or writer—immediately struck and resonated with her audience: unable to find the kind of work she desired upon entering the publishing world, Claudia enrolled in as many workshops and courses as her schedule allowed, took jobs in departments she had never considered before, and spent her lunches browsing bookstores to “research” how other designers approach books. “A good book cover will make someone pick up a book already asking a question—but none of it can make up for bad writing,” she observed.

Claudia named Uri Shulevitz’s Writing with Pictures as the ultimate resource for illustration and book design, and recommended taking calligraphy courses to sharpen one’s eye across the page. Book covers are more about typography and design than art—Claudia recalls a former mentor repeating, “Stop illustrating the cover!” over her drafts—and the interiors have to be set to match the stories they contain. “Good book design is like a table setting,” Claudia quipped, “people should remember the food and conversation, not the plates. A good designer illuminates the words and pictures, never overpowers them.”

Seth Fishman and Shira Schindel followed with a split presentation on researching and querying literary agencies and exploring e-publishing options. Seth, a literary agent and current JBC Network author, offered earnest advice on finding the right agent—“An agent works for you: if you’re with the wrong agent it can really burn your career. You want to find a partner in your agent; editors, publishers come and go, but agents take their clients with them wherever they end up.”—and outlined the optimal query letter. Seth has noticed a “direct correlation between research and quality of writing,” observing that authors who have clearly put in the time to learn about the agencies their querying and the industry in general ten to prove the better writers in the “slush pile.” Shira, who heads acquisitions for Qlovi, heartily agreed with Seth on the importance of making a strong impression from the slush pile, mentioning that most firms assign interns to sort through all query letters for standouts. She discussed the advantages and drawbacks of e-publishing and digitally-enhanced books, comparing different sites and sources—and their terms.

Freelance journalist and children’s book review Penny Schwartz facilitated an author panel featuring Leslie A. Kimmelman, Linda Marshall, and Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum. Leslie’s career in Jewish children’s book writing grew out of a personal need for a vibrant library for her own children. “At the time, there was only Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, All-of-a-Kind Family, and Zlateh the Goat. The only Jewish children’s books when my kids were growing up were pedantic, dated, and small-press.” She recalled her children asking her why Charlie Brown celebrates Christmas as an example of how few literary characters existed to whom they could relate during the holidays. “I think it’s really important for kids to read Jewish books that aren’t about the shtetl or the Holocaust—non-Jewish kids, too—in order to teach children about Judaism, and to teach non-Jews about Judaism.”

Linda agreed, adding that she frequently hands her book to non-Jewish parents—even ones specific to Jewish holidays or history. “The Jewish values and Jewish stories I write about are applicable everywhere, to everyone; I’ll hand The Passover Lamb to the man who runs the newsstand on my way to work—and he’s definitely not Jewish—and ask him for feedback, what his kids think of the book.”

“I really want to develop a library of books that speak to Jewish children,” Leslie followed up. “Books that are universal but just happen to be Jewish; characters are doing Jewish things, but that’s not the focus.”

“It’s like a spice when you’re cooking something,” illustrated Andria, whose own desire to be a writer arose out of a love for the sound of literature from listening to her father read science fiction and Robert Louis Stevenson novels aloud. “You have this delicious spice that will enhance the book, the story, but you add too much and it tastes terrible.”

“I happen to think it tastes great,” Leslie chuckled, “but maybe other people just don’t like the spice! The characters that always stuck out to me—even now—are the villagers of Chelm: every time I read a Chelm story I think it’s hysterical. Jewish humor is so distinctive, and such a wonderful device for children’s literature, especially. I could it eat it by the bowlful.”

After bowlfuls of actual food, following the lunch break Vivian Newman from the PJ Library presented on how children’s books teach and transmit social and moral lessons. Children acquire values through discussion, role models, and experimentation with different behaviors—and books serve as a vehicle for all three. “Reading with children presents an opportunity to bring up issues or ideas that might not arise in daily life; characters serve as role models and anti-role models; and parents can use books to show a child what interests them and other adults in the child’s life, on top of presenting new perspectives that the child might not encounter elsewhere.”

Claudia Carlson returned for a Q&A session together with Penguin Random House editor Avery Briggs to answer questions about what they each look for in a manuscript and the shift in children’s book publishing to accommodate the Common Core.

The presence of several Jewish Book Council Board and staff members—including Jewish Book World’s Children’s & YA section editor Michal Malen—exhibits the Jewish Book Council’s dedication to the reading, writing, publishing, and distribution of Jewish children’s literature. See what children’s and YA titles been reviewed in the most recent issue of Jewish Book World and the full index of starred children’s reviews online, and contact the Jewish Book Council through the form below for more information about next year’s seminar!

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The Fight for Jewish Feminism in Israel

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Monday night, a group of Jewish students and professionals in their 20s gathered in the common room of the newly opened Moishe House of the Upper West Side over plates of kosher Chinese food for a discussion with JBC Network author Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman about her new book out from Sourcebooks, The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom.

Elana opened her talk with a brief description of a recent El Al flight in which the plane’s departure was delayed half an hour while passengers scrambled to accommodate a religious man assigned to the seat next to hers and insisting on another arrangement. The experience inspired an impassioned post on her blog,, that was quickly picked up and circulated by numerous news and media outlets including Tablet, The Telegraph, and Haaretz and launched a petition to El Al demanding an end to complacency in the harassment of female passengers by Ultra-Orthodox fliers. “If I had known that piece, out of all my writing and blogging, would be so widely forwarded, I would have never admitted that I cried,” Elana chuckled.

“All over the world, whenever religious extremism comes to power, women are always the first victims,” Elana pointed out, citing Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, “and Judaism is no exception.” The most visible outcome is the high premium placed on women’s modesty—“I hate to use that word, because modesty in Judaism was originally a beautiful idea, going back to Moses: true Jewish modesty is about putting the other person first, about putting others before yourself.” What it’s evolved into, she observes, is a way of controlling and hiding women’s bodies. “In the Orthodox world today, modesty is used as a measurement. We literally measure, inch by inch, religious observance against women’s bodies.”

Elana gave examples of how women are silenced, separated, removed, and prohibited from public spaces across Israel, from radio stations to cemeteries to sidewalks. Until recently, images of women were not allowed on billboards or other public advertising in Jerusalem; female scientists, educators, and medical professionals were barred from presenting at conferences in their fields or receiving awards at official ceremonies. “The levels of patriarchy are astounding: we go from modesty, covering women up, to removing women entirely, to the removal of images of women, to removing women’s voices. This is what’s going on in Israel, and it’s becoming violent.”

Questions for Elana ranged from pragmatic (“How can men and other outside groups be better allies to the religious feminist movements?”) to rhetorical, often raising personal experiences and responses. Members of the audience were appalled at the incidents of violence against Israeli women mentioned in Elana’s talk—stories of vandalism, of rocks thrown at women and their children for their attire or for turning down a segregated street, of women physically assaulted for sitting at the front of a public bus. “So a Haredi man can touch a woman to drag her off a bus and beat her, but he can’t sit next to her?” one participant blurted out, furious with indignation.

There, Israel has seen some progress: segregated buses are down to a third of where they were three years ago, and after a driver was heavily fined by the government for the assault of a female passenger on his bus Eged employees have made a better habit of intervening when a passenger is harassed or threatened. There have been other victories for women’s civil rights in Israel over the past couple years: grassroots campaigns and initiatives have gained firm footing in Israeli society, enabling partnerships across denominational lines and placing much-needed accountability on the government and political leaders—not just the religious ones. “The story here is about the secular government, the state apparatus, supporting religious extremism. The story is not about religious extremists, but how the secular world enables them.”

Globally, Elana holds, there needs to be less tolerance—even on the lay level—for religious fanaticism. This applies to the Jewish world, both in the Diaspora and in Israel: “There is a limit to pluralism; there’s a limit to how much we can accept as ‘multiculturalism’. This is not a legitimate culture, these are not legitimate demands. It is never acceptable for there to be a space in Israel in which women are not allowed.” She shared several examples from her own upbringing, career, and family to illustrate the challenges of upholding feminist values in the Orthodox world, even in her own life. When Elana apologized for adding such personal anecdotes to the discussion, the room erupted in protest: “No, these stories are amazing,” someone called out. “This is exactly what we came to hear.”

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The Reason Jews Shouldn’t Celebrate Halloween Is Exactly Why We Should

Friday, October 31, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It’s a question every Jewish American parent faces at the waning of October: Will you allow your children to trick-or-treat?

The deliberation generally comes down to whether one considers Halloween a secular holiday or acknowledges its pagan-Christian origins. The former interpretation is held as the justification for Jewish participation in All Hallow’s Eve festivities and customs; the latter dredges up some discomfort for those committed to traditional Jewish values, observances, and/or identity.

But maybe—just maybe—we have that backwards.

The increasingly profane treatment of this old, old holiday in the United States in many ways brings out the worst of American culture. Why should Jews feel more comfortable aligning with that than with a foreign but spiritually significant observance?

In the Christian tradition, Halloween kicks off Allhollowtide, a three-day remembrance of the dead. It precedes the ensuing solemnity of All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day with a sort of vigil for the departed. Costumes were incorporated to confuse wakeful imps and wandering souls, lest a loitering spirit attempt to exact vengeance on its last night of purgatory before passing on to the next world. Tricks and pranks developed in mimicry of such menacing forces, and the somber rituals were often followed by merry community and family gatherings. Halloween was a time to celebrate what scares us, to employ “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.”

Yes, the premise for this holiday and its triduum is very not-Jewish, but there are certain parallels. While ghouls and goblins and pixies and saints reside in a realm completely distinct from Jewish lore, our history includes an appreciation for spirits of the dead, dybbuks, witches, and mischievous demons. Jews, too, symbolically welcome visits from our ancestors—ushpizin—and play all sorts of tricks to ward off evil forces of superstition and the supernatural.

And when it comes to laughing at death, no one—no one—does gallows humor like the Jews.

Jews sit with death—literally: our communities hold an obligation to sit night and day with the bodies awaiting burial; Jewish families gather on the floor to contend with the loss of a loved one for a solid week—or perhaps it’s death that sits with Jews. Our literature, especially in the current generation of Jewish writers, orbits around the specters of the departed and the grief of those who survive them. A foundational component of “Cultural Judaism” in the present age is how its adherents cleave to and from the traditional death rites: the subject of the millennium’s most popular novels, adaptations, and short films.

Death is a constant and continuous discussion in every aspect of Jewish life, from parenting to friendship to religious practice to humor. Why should we deliberately ignore the intentionality of a day designed to confront it?

Hence, in lieu of spooky stories or tales of horror, tonight's Jewish Book Council reading compilation is a short selection of books that engage with loss, that explore how Jews of varying backgrounds and identities cope and contend with death:



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Internal Dialogue: The Days of Awe 5775

Monday, September 22, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein.

Prayer doesn’t come easily to everyone. Whether one considers oneself religious, spiritual, observant, or curious, finding that optimum of space, intention, liturgy, and nirvana is for many a constant challenge, heightened by the stretch of High Holidays on which we embark this week. Jews of all affiliations and identities often feel a sense of urgency around this time, searching for a service, practice, or community that will house their spiritual needs during this holy week and a half.

“The High Holiday liturgy, with its emphasis on sin and judgment, can strike a discordant note even for those who pray regularly during the year,” observes 2014-2015 JBC Network author Marcia Falk in her introduction to The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. A worthy companion to her previous book of original liturgy, The Book of Blessings, Marcia has composed “inclusive, nonhierarchical” prayer specific to the Ten Days of Awe “for all those seeking to participate in Jewish civilization and culture without compromising intellectual or spiritual integrity… to speak to the widest possible spectrum of Jews seeing a new experience of the High Holidays.”

Offering original benedictions in both Hebrew and English, Marcia Falk guides her reader from the Rosh Hashanah feast through the sanctification of the new year, the Tashlikh ritual, meditations for each of the Ten Days, the pre-fast meal before Yom Kippur, and Yizkor remembrance to N’ilah, the closing of the Heavenly gates. An accessible explanation of the rituals attending each custom introduce each section, and the verses themselves do indeed “bring fresh language and meaning to the seasonal liturgy.”

Marcia is joined in the 2014-2015 JBC Network by fellow blessing brewer Alden Solovy and his Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, a collection of selections from over 400 original prayers and meditations written since the sudden death of Alden’s wife, Ami. He offers sacred poetry for Hopes; Praises; Family; Love and Friendship; Meditations Near the End of Life; Yizkor and Memorial Prayers; 9/11 Remembrance; Facing the Holocaust and Antisemitism; Physical Healing; Surgery; Pregnancy and Fertility; Cancer; Critical Illness; Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Dementia; Addiction and Mental Illness; Hospice Care and Letting Go; Medical Science and Medical Professionals; Sorrows; Bereavements; and Surrender. Following his writing over the past several months—with all of the personal and global difficulties they contained—Alden’s gift for bringing comfort to others through words proved its mettle.

“A modern-day liturgist,” he writes,” is a witness to the essential longing that occurs in all of us during the most uplifting and the most devastating moments in our lives. A modern-day liturgist is a witness to the yearning to express our joys—and our fears—to a God, to a higher power, to the soul of the universe."

Modern-day liturgists are not limited to paper and pen, either: with the release of Popular Problems on his 80th birthday, Leonard Cohen reminded his faithful listeners and a whole new generation what a religious experience music can be. It seems no accident that this Cohen’s latest album came out this week, just in time to inspire reflection and spiritual serenity as we approach the Ten Days of Awe. In his posts on The ProsenPeople, 2014-2015 JBC Network author Liel Leibovitz wrote about accepting Leonard Cohen as his personal savior—in lieu, almost, of a bar mitzvah—and on the relative experiences of rock ‘n’ roll and religion. These essays expound on Liel’s current book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, an exquisite biography that elucidates the Jewish religious influences on Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre and articulates the redemptive, restorative quality of his poetry, lyrics, and music:

You feel the same hum at a Cohen convert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too, can somehow transcend[...] He is attuned to the divine, whatever the divine might be, not with the thinker’s complications or the zealot’s obstructions, but with the unburdened heart of a believer—it’s not for nothing that he referred to himself in song as “the little Jew who wrote the Bible.” Millennia ago, as we began asking ourselves the same fundamental questions we still ponder, we called men like him prophets, meaning not that they could foresee the future but that they could better understand the present by seeing one more layer of meaning to life. The title still applies.

If you’re struggling to find the spiritual serenity you seek as we approach and enter into the new year, throw on a Leonard Cohen record, read A Broken Hallelujah, and sift through The Days Between and Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing. You might just find something that works.

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Internal Dialogue: Fall 2014 Author Interviews

Thursday, September 18, 2014 | Permalink

Gearing up for the next issue of Jewish Book World, the Jewish Book Council has been churning out author interviews with increased voracity over the past few weeks—and we’re delighted to see we’re not the only ones!

This week NBC’s Peter Alexander interviewed his sister Rebecca, who is a 2014-2015 JBC Network author touring with her memoir, Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found. Diagnosed at age thirteen with Usher Syndrome type 3, a rare genetic disorder that deteriorates vision and hearing, Rebecca has remained upbeat and determined to live life the fullest over the past 15 years. In her book and in the interview she shares her belief that with the worsening of her senses her life has improved, that she is happier now than she was before her diagnosis. A practicing psychotherapist and an “extreme athlete” who did a full workout in her hospital gown in the minutes before undergoing surgery for cochlear implants, Rebecca’s story and outlook is tremendously inspiring, and her conversation with her brother is extraordinarily heartfelt.

More specific to the JBC Network program, JCC Greenwich has published an entire series of interviews with the authors it is bringing to its community over the coming months. The series is ingenious promotion for the organization’s book events; their program director, Laura Blum, gives a clear explanation of what the author’s live presentation will entail ahead of the transcribed discussion, in which she truly brings out the best of these authors:

Joshua Safran Discusses Chaotic Boyhood and Ongoing Advocacy for Domestic Violence Survivors

You say your mother was a free spirit, but she was also hostage to fantasy. Why wasn't she more concerned about the impact she was having on the two of you, and how did she reconcile her enslavement to Leopoldo?

To some degree my mother and I were both very encumbered spirits. On one hand my mother would dance around in the woods and celebrate the rising moon, but on the other hand she'd fret that her rising moon ceremony is exploitative of a Native American ritual that she doesn't have the privilege of using. She has this passionate striving, yet this very worldly concern about the impact she's having on real or theoretical people.

Part of the book is a cautionary tale in the unintended consequence of being a free spirit. When you have no rules, there's a great amount of freedom, but you also expose yourself to the Hobbsian state of nature in which those who are nasty and brutish can take advantage of you. That's exactly what happened with Leopoldo, who on the one hand was a shaman, a poet and a healer, and he appeared to fit in with my mother's free-spirited world view, but by right of being a free spirit, he was able to be a tyrant. One of the publishers described the book as "the dark side of the Age of Aquarius."

Knish: Laura Silver Goes In Search of the Jewish Soul Food

As your readers will learn, the K-N-S triradical rears up in Hebrew, meaning "to assemble," "to come in." They'll also come across Isaac Bashevis Singer's description of the knish as "the stuff of longing." In what way does the knish in-gather family and community around a common yearning for the past?

In those books by Jack Finney—Time and Again, From Time to Time— he talks about the Brooklyn Bridge and the Dakota as these architectural gateways to another time because they're the same now as they were then. Something about the knish is transportative too. It's not a uniquely Jewish tendency to cleave to the past, but it might be something we'd be advised to do a little differently. There's so much holding on; I wonder if there's a way to preserve some aspects but still move forward. I've heard so many say, "You can't get a good knish anymore!" And I started saying, "Well, what if you make your own?" They'd be like, "Oh, we don't want to do that." Well, how much do people want to contribute to the future of what Jewishness is?

The Bible's Cutting Room Floor: A Conversation with Dr. Joel Hoffman

How do inconsistencies in the unpublished scriptures strengthen or weaken the belief that the Bible is of divine origin?

There's a phenomenon of professional atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who point out how absurd the Bible is. Most of them haven't understood it. But if you don't think that the Bible is connected to God, then you have a real problem, because you have to explain why, of all the texts from antiquity, this one is not only still around but so widely read. The minute you say that theBible is no different from, say, Aesop's Fables, you have to explain why it is that the Bible has stretched to every corner of the Earth and Aesop's Fables hasn't. If you think it's about a connection to God, at least you're starting out with an answer. If you don't believe it has to do with God, you have to ask yourself: what is it about these texts that made them endure?

I don't think anyone has the right to say they're an expert in what God does or doesn't touch: that's hubris. But one of the reasons I like the texts from the cutting room floor as well as the Bible is that I think these show remarkable insight into the human condition. These texts -- more than Aristotle and more than Plato and more than Ovid -- explain what it's like to be alive.

Ayelet Waldman Unlocks the Secrets of Love & Treasure

An alternative title to Love & Treasure could be Indifference & Property. In a particularly pungent passage, you describe a client of Amitai's firm whose only connection to a diamond brooch that he "had never set eyes on" from a dead relative "he'd never even known existed" was the windfall check he received. What resonated for you about attachment to, or detachment from, stuff?

I have these silverplated candlesticks that I inherited from my great-grandmother. They're my most prized possession. They're objectively hideously ugly. They aren't worth very much because most of the silver plating has rubbed away, but they're valuable to me because of the connection. I saw an identical pair of candlesticks when I visited Yad Vashem this spring. They were in a pile of objects that belonged to a group of Polish Jews who had been murdered. They had value only as part of this exhibition, for the loss they evoked. My great-grandmother's candlesticks had value in the sense of family that they evoke. Absent that human element and connection, it's a trusim to say that property has no meaning. I was thinking of this notion of treasure and the valuelessness of property as opposed to the value of life.

Nomi Eve Paints a Picture of Yemenite Jewry in Henna House

How did you come to incorporate scenes of magical realism in which characters entertain contradictory visions?

As a writer, I grew up on the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American writers, and I have magical realism in my heart. What's real? What's folkloric? Magical realism allows you to explore this. In reading folktales of the Yemenite Jewish community from the North, I felt that those stories had a fairytale quality to them that seemed to naturally go with my impulse toward magical realism. Magical realism is the realm of metaphor: this pain is sweet; this love is taking flight. I see images in my head: "Maybe a bird pecked on her ear." But they're not embellishments; they're the heart of the matter.

Annabelle Gurwitch to Make an Effort in Greenwich

In this latest volume, you take us from crushing on an Apple Genius Bar techie to helping a friend die to "sandwiching" between your son and your parents. How do you balance comedy with solemnity?

The thing that attracts me to movies, to books, to any kind of art is the fine line between comedy and tragedy. I wasn't kidding when I wrote in the book that after my mom's mastectomy, I asked her doctor why they didn't make breast implants for people her age if they could make a Tempur-Pedic. Why does she have to have a breast implant that's going to make it look like she has a 20-year-old breast? Can't they figure that out? It's so dark. We needed that laughter.

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Parent-Child Book Club: Shanghai Jews

Thursday, August 21, 2014 | Permalink

What trends in adult literature often sees its reflection in children’s publications—and now, more than ever, the other way around. In reviewing the 2014-2015 JBC Network titles, consider the parallel subjects between the different sections of the Authors on Tour book. Here’s one that jumped out at us right away:


Shanghai Escape is Kathy Kacer’s latest Holocaust remembrance book for young readers. It shares the experience of the over twenty thousand Jews who fled Europe for Shanghai through the true story of Lily Toufar and her family, Viennese Jews who escaped immediately after Kristallnacht. In a narrative peppered with primary documents and photographs, young readers learn of the interwar community in Shanghai and the resettlement of the Jewish refugees to a Hongkew ghetto under Japanese edict after Shanghai fell to the Land of the Rising Sun.

This same piece of Shanghai’s history is explored in Nicole Mones’s historical fiction, Night in Shanghai. Told through the perspective of a young black jazz musician who headlines the city’s interwar nightlife scene, the novel touches on the international balances before the “Chinese Jazz Age,” the struggle between nationalists and the budding Communist movement, the long-standing enmity between China and Japan, and the plight of the Jewish refugees streaming in as heavily and swiftly as Ho Feng-Shan could sign escape visas.

Shelly Sanders is also participating in the 2014-2015 JBC Network with the third and final installment of her Rachel trilogy, Rachel’s Hope. Based on the true survival story of her grandmother, Sander’s three-part series follows the protagonist as she and her family flee progroms in Russia in hopes of reaching America. The second installment of the trilogy, Rachel’s Promise, takes place in Shanghai, where Rachel works as a laundress and aspiring writer while she and her family are waylaid in the Far East. The Rachel trilogy is considered appropriate for readers ages 10 and up and would make a for great parent-teen book club program.

We’ve been hearing a lot about parent-child book clubs in the past few months, in which children and their parents read and discuss a book that suits the younger readers’ ages and reading level. It’s a program that teachers, librarians, and parents have put together as a means of encouraging reading and social interaction, and of fostering communication between parents and their kids.

It’s a great model, but it can also be pushed a step further: Add a companion read for the adults in the group, with the establishment of a supplemental parent’s book club to follow up on the discussion and experiences shared with the younger readers. How did the children’s book inform the parents’ reading of the accompanying selection of adult literature? Did the kids’ observations in the intergenerational club affect the adults’ perception of the second book? What was each family’s process for reading the shared book, and how did the experience differ from the adult solo?

There are a number of online resources for starting a parent-child book club—and you can always avail yourself of the JBC Book Club Concierge for additional support. Our favorite suggestions are keeping a book journal to share or at least reference during club meetings and holding a hands-on activity to add an experiential component to processing the book (and to keep the participants engaged!).

Volumes have been written on the American Jewish relationship with Chinese cuisine—let this be an opportunity for kids to explore their tastes! Incorporate a food workshop—learn to make dumplings, rice cakes, or hand-pulled noodles, for example—or hold the event at a local Chinese restaurant, making sure to have the staff help plan and explain the menu. If you can, try to find an establishment that serves cuisine authentic to Shanghai or its surrounding provinces.

And what better activity is there than a session with the author herself? If your community is planning to host Kathy, Nicole, or Shelly, plan to attend their event as a club. Younger readers will have the opportunity to address the author with ideas and questions honed and developed—and recorded in a book journal, if the reader does maintain one—in discussion with their peers and parents. If the author cannot make it to your community in person, arrange to Skype her in through the JBC LiveChat program!

Inside the Pigeonhole

Sunday, August 10, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Thursday evening Stephanie Feldman, Liana Finck, and Boris Fishman sat down with a microphone and a moderator at Greenlight Bookstore for a panel discussion on Jewish Life and Literature. Author and journalist Carmela Ciuraru facilitated the event, prompting the authors with questions of identity, community, and the writing process.

Stephanie, Liana, and Boris are all participating authors in the 2014-2015 JBC Network, a Jewish Book Council program that connects current writers and Jewish community organizations as a means of furthering Jewish book fairs and literary events throughout North America. Having embraced this particular market in promoting their respective works—A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, Liana’s graphic novel rendering of Abraham Cahan’s famous column in Forverts; The Angel of Losses, a novel by Stephanie exploring the legend of the White Rebbe; A Replacement Life, Boris’s debut novel about a young man embroiled in the Holocaust retribution cases of his grandparents’ generation—the three authors in conversation named a number of enduring questions and quandaries about themselves as writers, as artists, and as Jews.

Asked how she feels about being a “Jewish writer,” Liana described the changing landscape of the literary and artistic world, and her personal transition within it: “I’m in a place where I love niche—I feel like it’s become this whole postmodern thing,” she observed. “There’s a lot you can do as a niche writer that you can’t do as a 5’10” white man.” The audience, Liana feels, for labeled writing has also changed rapidly between generations. “The people reading pigeonholed books are a lot smarter, and it’s going to become an honor to be a pigeonhole author,” she predicts.

“Readers respond to what you give them,” Boris followed up. He added emphatically that “craft goes beyond classification,” that readers will remember a book in its own right—independent of marketing labels—if the writing is good and the story is well-told.

The story must be also be well-researched. Liana described her struggles with depicting historically accurate fashions and facial expressions in the artwork for A Bintel Brief, noting that the most informative and most enjoyable piece of the process was reading Abraham Cahan’s biography, “one of the greatest American stories ever written—second only, maybe, to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.” Stephanie shared her initial inspiration for The Angel of Losses, how she had intended to follow the Gothic tradition of the Wandering Jew—only to discover that the lore is a strictly Christian narrative, with no Jewish basis or context. (For a full account of how Stephanie expanded her search of sojourning sages in Jewish history and mythology, read her 8 Favorite Wandering Jews blog post on The ProsenPeople Visiting Scribe series.)

Boris’s research process hit much closer to home, involving frequent and difficult interviews with his grandparents. On top of the generational divide and reticence to talk about the past, Boris articulated his struggle to spend the necessary time in his immigrant grandparents’ company: “In ex-Soviet families—Jewish ex-Soviet families, especially—there’s this idea that your children are supposed to be your friends, which is impossible, because you’ve brought them to a country that’s made them completely different people from you.” The expectation of tacit intergenerational connection placed a heavy strain on Boris’s visits, but perhaps nothing was as challenging as the discomfort faced as soon as the research reached its end, with no objective remaining to drive Boris to his grandparents’ home.

The relationship between the authors and their upbringing held particular interest to their audience at Greenlight Bookstore—and to the authors themselves. The first question from the audience raised the role of rebellion in the three novels and their composition. Liana acknowledged the “literary tradition that a character rebels against the religion they were raised in,” but experienced her own religious trajectory as more of a placid progression from the Judaism instilled in her childhood; Stephanie “started the novel on the idea that rebellion is impossible—how frightening it is when you can’t rebel.” Boris, however, pointed out that writing is itself an act of rebellion, especially in his case: “If you are going to write about the Holocaust, you need to find new forms; those forms have to be by definition rebellious because reverence alone for the Holocaust doesn’t work anymore.”

Just before the panel discussion came to an end, the authors turned the conversation back to their audience. “Can you be a narrowly cultural Jew—can there be a strictly cultural Judaism—without a religious context?” Boris pondered. The crowd chimed in, sharing a diverse array of opinions, experiences, and anecdotes on Jewish identity, religious practice, and community participation. Stephanie reflected on the response to her colleague’s question, concluding the event with an observation on the vast and differing customs and traditions between Jews across the world: “The thing that is universal about Judaism is this idea that Jewish identity and religious practice can be separate. How we structure identity is so vital in Judaism, and as a novelist I think that Judaism will consequently continue to inspire and influence me—even if the story isn’t Jewish, the character isn’t ‘Jewish.’”

Related content:

  • Internal Dialogue blog series
  • Essays by Boris Fishman
  • Essays by Liana Finck
  • Essays by Stephanie Feldman