The ProsenPeople

Talking Books with Carol Zoref

Thursday, October 12, 2017 | Permalink

Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. Earlier this week, she wrote about communal sin and collective responsibility in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


What books of Jewish interest or by Jewish authors are currently on your nightstand?
Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark, in anticipation of hearing her speak at the 92nd Street Y with Jenny Erpenbeck. As soon as I finish the Krauss novel, I will dive into Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which was recently translated from German by Susan Bernofsky—they are a trifecta of smart writers/translators. In nonfiction, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths by Emily Katz Anhalt. Anhalt, a classics scholar, shines light on how the Greeks struggled with human violence and the desire for moral evolution.

What’s the last great book you read?
Impossible question, but the work I keep recommending is by the twentieth-century Soviet author Vasily Grossman. His novel Life and Fate is a masterpiece. All of his other books—fiction and reportage—are outstanding.

What’s the best classic Jewish novel you recently read for the first time?
Pioneers: The First Breach by S. An-sky, translated from Yiddish by Rose Waldman. I was seated next to Rose at the Jewish Book Council Network Conference last spring, where she showed me the beautiful new edition of this ninety year-old novel about the reach of Haskalah, a Jewish enlightenment movement, into small-town life.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
There’s nothing that no one has heard of. Rather, there are authors whose work doesn’t receive the attention that it should or that it used to. Grace Paley is the perfect example. She was widely admired while she was alive, both as an author and a political activist. She is shockingly unknown by younger readers and writers a mere ten years after her passing. Those of us who teach can help to set this right by keeping her magnificent short stories front and center. Farrar, Straus and Giroux recently released The Grace Paley Reader last spring. Buy it. Then go out and buy the individual collections of short stories.

Which Jewish writers—novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets—working today do you admire most?
In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, I’m always ready for fiction and nonfiction by Cynthia Ozick. I’m sad that I won’t be reading anything new by Philip Roth, unless he breaks his promise and comes out of authorial retirement. I was bowled over by Paula Vogel’s play, Indecent, when it appeared last year off-Broadway. I was cheered that it received such a warm welcome when moved to Broadway. It’s heartening to know that there is still a place uptown for serious drama. The recent re-staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures by the Classic Stage Company demonstrated, yet again, the insights about colonialism revealed by this beautiful musical. David Remnick is keeping The New Yorker on fire, both as editor-in-chief and as a writer.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
I read any time that I can, however much or little, day or nightsimultaneously a novel, a book of poems, a collection of short stories, and something nonfiction. I’m happier with an actual book in my hands, but I’d rather read electronically than not at all. When I travel, I no longer get anxious about what to bring along or worry that I will run out. If I fall in love with a book that I’ve read electronically, I buy a hard copy.

How do you organize your books?
I don’t. That said, ask me for a book that I own and I’ll pull it off a shelf pretty quickly.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain was not a Jewish author nor is there a single Jewish character in “Huck.” But it’s a novel that I return to again and again: a story of immoral and moral behavior in immoral times, of the development and collapse of conscience, of hope and hopelessness, and so much more. It was a gift when someone told me to read it again as an adult. It is loathed by people on the Right, it is loathed by people on the Left, and it is adored by me. I could go on—and I’ve been known tobut I’ll let it go at that.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
Insatiable.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
I’d rather recommend a book than dis one. However, the last novel that outraged me was Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. The plot premise—that illiteracy resulted in a woman becoming a concentration camp guard—was infuriating. I read the whole thing in the hope that the novel, not the character, could redeem itself. There is no guarantee that literacy shapes ethical behavior, nor that education guarantees insight.

What do you plan to read next?
David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar, Der Nister’s story collection Regrowth, and Joan Silber’s forthcoming novel Improvement.

Carol Zoref’s recent novel Barren Island was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. It received the AWP Award for the Novel.

Interview: Dorit Rabinyan

Monday, July 31, 2017 | Permalink

with Michelle Zaurov

Dorit Rabinyan recently spoke with Michelle Zaurov for the Jewish Book Council about her newly translated novel All the Rivers.


Michelle Zaurov: Why do you think the Israeli Ministry of Education banned All the Rivers?

Dorit Rabinyan: I think it was because I show the other [Palestinians] to be as human as Israelis. Liat, who is Israeli, allows herself to see Hilmi, a Palestinian, in different ways. She doesn’t avoid stereotypes, she doesn’t avoid feeling fear, suspicion, or all those elements in her education that shaped how Israelis perceive Palestinians. But she allows herself to get more personal knowledge, to acknowledge that someone from the other side is an individual. She explores his identity and sees how much their two identities brush up against each other, and how much they are rooted in the same climate. So, when you read the Ministry of Education’s report, you can see that this is what they were afraid of: They could see the impact of the emotional voyage that my character is going through and it was intimidating for them.

MZ: Is that the message you wanted to convey in this book?

DR: I don’t write novels to send messages. If there is anything from this book that can be summed up in a message, though, it is the feeling that “us” and “them” have this shared destiny that requires acknowledgement. You cannot live your life blinded and self-anesthetized, as many Israelis do.

MZ: I noticed that all the trivialities in Liat’s life seem to reflect her Israeli guilt. Is this common for the average Israeli? Do you think you feel this underlying guilt?

DR: I appreciate your highlighting the guilt that runs through Liat’s character. Even before she meets Hilmi and before she commits this “crime” (according to her Zionist education), she felt guilt. Once she meets Hilmi, she feels that her being on the stronger side of the conflict demands her acknowledgment. It’s not only classic Jewish guilt because she betrays her community and, in a way, turns her back on the religious command not to assimilate. It’s also a very Israeli kind of guilt. My generation is different than the current generation, which is swept up in the nationalistic wave of a more extremist political climate. My generation had tasted the intoxicating drop of promise that it can be different. The peace process of the Oslo Accords under Yitzhak Rabin’s leadership gave us an unforgettable option: Peace was a possibility. The millennials who were banned from reading my book in high school never experienced the possibility that their lives did not have to be dominated and shaped by a conflict. They don’t know that they can be liberated from this burden of being oppressors and occupiers. Even the taste of guilt has been different for my generation than for the current one.

MZ: Do you think this book has made a significant difference in people’s lives?

DR: It starts with feelings, because I don’t open novels to have my mind changed. I open a novel to explore my emotions. All the Rivers suggests empathy. That is the magic that literature has—empathy. Even by dipping into the identity of the narrator and characters you read, it makes you taste what it is to be somebody else.

MZ: You write, "I could not understand how even we, with all of our closeness and love, failed again and again where everyone else had failed all these years." How does Hilmi and Liat’s relationship reflect the overall conflict?

DR: I don’t think the relationship is a reflection of the conflict, it is more a reflection of the fact that these two young Middle Eastern lovers carry the conflict within themselves. It is not only part of their biography, it is also an element of their personality and their view of the world. It’s who they are. They carry the conflict, the ambivalence, and the complexity of being an Israeli and a Palestinian. There is a balancing act within Liat’s character—the need to keep her Jewish identity safe, and at the same preserve the liberal values that democratic life has given her. Her emotional and mental landscape has been colored? by those two elements: her Jewishness and her liberal and democratic self.

MZ: Has your perspective on Israeli-Palestinian romantic relationships change throughout your life? How did the novel play a role in that?

DR: I don’t see myself in a position of knowing better about mixing or keeping the Jewish identity going. When I was writing the novel, I had the thought that I should have investigated more by talking to mixed couples. I gave up that idea because my theme wasn’t so much about the love that Liat was experiencing with Hilmi. Of course, it was about the love, but it was more the fear of this opportunity for exploration that she’s been given by diasporic adventure—being away from home. In Israel, this experience is so challenging and demanding. It’s rare for a West Bank Palestinian to come across a Tel Avivan Israeli and to be given the freedom to enjoy one another so fundamentally. But Liat and Hilmi are not swept by this promise of unlimited opportunity. You’re not as much of a free spirit as you wish. You have powers that not only push you, but also pull you back. It’s a devastating acknowledgment about yourself.

MZ: What was the most difficult part of the writing process?

DR: One of my major obstacles was to avoid a certain cliché. Israeli literature, cinema, and art tend to romanticize the conflict, especially when it comes to relationships between men and women from opposite sides of the border. I don’t find anything about the conflict to be romantic; there’s nothing romantic about this kind of a war. At so many points in my story I needed to avoid this danger of making it romantic. Liat and Hilmi are not only politically aware but are also aware of the danger of falling into this trap.

MZ: I know that Liat and Hilmi’s relationship was based on your own relationship with a Palestinian artist. How much of this novel was reflective of that?

DR: It was inspired by a bright, talented, charismatic Palestinian artist named Hassan whom I got involved with in New York when I was living there in 2002. This was the first time I became close with a Palestinian. He was part of a group of Palestinian scholars and artists that I was hanging out with. I was empowered by this encounter and exploration of the other, but I never thought I would write a novel out of it. But there was something so demanding about this relationship. I needed to maintain the dialogue, to keep the conversation that we had going.

MZ: Were you and Hassan as romantically involved in real life as Liat and Hilmi were in the book?

DR: You know, people in real life are not as dramatic as literary characters. We were more easygoing. Our relationship wasn’t as formulated, it was more natural. I made Liat reflective of me in that I took my bad qualities and put them in her: She’s so self-critical, fearful, and honest. But I’m more forgiving toward myself than she is.

MZ: Why did you decide to make her less forgiving?

DR: I was trying to develop an idea, to reflect something about the Israeli Jewish anxiety of being devoured by the neighboring identity, the one you mix with, the one that is so involved with your territory and is so symbiotic with your environment, that you might lose your independent self and get mixed beyond recognition. So, I had to have her more self-aware and more neurotic than myself.

MZ: You mentioned that Hebrew was a reflection of your nature. But this novel has been translated into many other languages – do you feel like the translations take anything away from the Hebrew text?

DR: I am fortunate to have such brilliant translators; in the English translation it’s Jessica Cohen. She’s has done marvelous work on my book. – I feel that my poetry is being sung through her throat. This is actually the only translation that I can read and appreciate.

MZ: What do you think the title signifies about your beliefs regarding the Israeli-Palestinian relationship?

DR: When my editor at Random House suggested “All the Rivers” I thought it had a poetic resonance. It takes the theme of the sea and puts it at the front of the novel. It doesn’t say the sea, but it implies that all the rivers run to the sea. The sea captures so much of our desires and so much of our anxieties; it plays a major role not only in the novel but also in the conflict. It’s the only force of nature that is still biblical, that is the same and hasn’t changed. The land has changed and the landscape can be reshaped but this is the view that both our and their ancient ancestors, who were also around this region, saw when they looked westward. If there’s a conclusion to come to, it is that they’re not that different. They have so many more similarities, being brought up under the sun and facing this view. What may be seen as a wall is only a curtain. It’s intimidating to acknowledge how much you have in common with your enemy.

MZ: Why did you decide to split the novel into seasons?

DR: Because of the winter. I wanted to have winter play a role in the story line and in the engagement of their two identities and alienation toward the New York harsh climate. It emphasized their Levantine identities and mutual sense of exile. It put a spotlight on how winter plays a role in their homesickness. It’s not so much the ground or the soil that they miss when they want to return home—they want to feel the warmth of their homeland.

MZ: The last scene is Hilmi and Liat taking a picture together and Hilmi asking "Are you smiling?" Why did you decide to end it on that moment?

DR: It brings me back to Liat’s difficulty imagining her and Hilmi in a shared partnership in which she has to maintain a division, a separation between her Israeli identity and his Palestinian identity. Hilmi sees a romantic, intimate relationship as a wholeness or togetherness; it’s to have the two identities become one. She’s so fearful of being devoured, of being mixed, of feeling washed by the Arab colors that she keeps wishing for a two-state solution. The two-state solution and the one-state solution are their ways of seeing love, not only the conflict. I’m playing a duet between being an individual and being part of a team. There’s another duet that I’m playing: the fear of love and the fear of peace. Liat’s fear of getting involved with no boundaries may be reflective of the Israeli fear of harmonious existence as Jews within this Islamic region. Maybe there is a subconscious fear in the Israeli collective mind that fears peaceful assimilation. This unknown anxiety that pounds within the minds that refuse to acknowledge how much we have in common, how much our Jewishness runs through the Arabs.

MZ: What are you working on now?

DR: I’m playing around with some thoughts of writing a play. It’s a different language than literary writing but it’s also very demanding. I’ve written a script for a movie and I have a partner with whom I’m developing an idea for a TV series. I’m thinking maybe it’s the time to develop my storytelling skills into different forms, to taste different aspects of my talent.

MZ: What about the content? Will you still be focusing on the general theme of cultural divides or Israeli/Palestinian identity?

DR: It’s Israeli life that I describe because it’s the one that I’m coping with. My antennae respond to the tensions around my personal life and it’s always a reflection of subconscious powers that run under my reality.

Dorit Rabinyan was born in Kefar-Saba, Israel, to Persian parents and wrote her first novel, Persian Brides, at twenty-one. An award-winning international bestseller translated into ten languages, Persian Brides established her as the voice of a new generation in Israel. Rabinyan won the Israeli Film Academy Award for best television drama of 1997 for Shuli’s Fiancé, and the Eshkol Prize for her second novel, Strand of a Thousand Pearls. She lives in Tel Aviv.

Itamar Rabinovich: A Profile of the Author of a New Rabin Biography

Monday, July 10, 2017 | Permalink

with Maron Waxman

Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and president of Tel Aviv University, has written several books on Middle Eastern affairs and is most recently the author of Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, a volume in the Yale University Press series Jewish Lives. He talked with me about the book and Prime Minister Rabin.

Although he thought he knew Yitzhak Rabin well and worked closely with him, Professor Itamar Rabinovich says he learned much more about him while writing this biography. The most notable revelation was Rabin’s family background and the big influence his mother had on him. Rosa Cohen—Red Rosa as a left-wing radical in Russia—was a strong-minded intriguing woman who became a Labor Zionist in Tel Aviv. Rabin also had a certain sovereignty; if he believed in something, did it. He was anti-political parties, and it took him a long time to join one.

Another notable point was how early in Rabin’s career his talent for military affairs came through. Rabin had an intuitive grasp of military thinking and the ability to impart it. He was a good instructor—according to one student, the best military instructor he ever had, including those at the preeminent French École de guerre. Yigal Alon identified Rabin’s skills early on and elevated Rabin quickly.

The War of Independence in 1948 was a painful experience for Rabin. He lost half his men in the fighting on the road to Jerusalem. Leadership had not prepared for war. Rabinovich recalls an evening in Jerusalem when Bill Clinton and Rabin stood on a balcony overlooking the city and Rabin recounted the details of the failed attack to save the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. Almost forty years later it was still in his mind. He remembered it vividly.

After the War of Independence, Rabin stayed in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) despite its hostility to the Palmach (an elite fighting force in the prestate underground army), which Rabin had joined in 1941, and rose to the top of the military pyramid as chief of staff of the IDF. After the victory in the Six-Day War, Rabin was a major national figure and had to plan his next step. He had no interest in business and wanted to stay in public life; Rabinovich says the only way for him to be part of public policy was to move into politics. But he needed to hone his skills, and Washington was the place to do it. He asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol for the ambassadorship to the United States, and Eshkol gave it to him.

In Washington, Rabin met Henry Kissinger, who in many respects became his mentor. He also had a good relationship with President Nixon. Despite what Americans may think of Nixon as president, Rabinovich notes that he was a great geopolitical thinker. He saw Israel through the lens of the Cold War and in a cold, calculated way considered Israel an asset. Rabin had treated Nixon well when he was a has-been, investing a whole day touring him in Israel, for which Nixon was grateful; the time spent laid the groundwork for their relationship. Rabin did the same for Jimmy Carter in 1973, when no one spent time with the governor of Georgia. But Rabin saw him as a stepping stone, although the time invested in Carter didn’t work out down the road. Rabin and Clinton clicked personally—a mutual love story—and had a close relationship. Clinton knew that what he saw with Rabin was what he would get; he knew where Rabin stood and what the situation was.

Rabinovich describes Rabin as a political dove and a military hawk. As early as 1963, Rabin had seen that Israel would not be able to keep up an arms race with the Arab and agreed to Israel’s nuclear project. But he saw the territory won in the Six-Day War as a bargaining chip to get recognition of Israel by the Arab states, not as an area for the settlers to move into, which Rabin strongly opposed. At this point the settlers were a minor movement that did not become a force until the mid-1970s. By the 1990s Rabin believed enough was enough. It was time to make peace. And it was a good moment—the United States was on an upswing after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, Russia was down after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rabin recognized the moment and grasped it. The center left saw opportunities to use its bargaining chips.

Of the tracks to peace that had been opened, Rabin preferred to work with Syria, an immediate neighbor, to counter the greater danger he saw in Iraq. Rabinovich, as chief negotiator with Syria, was in the middle of these events. He says the advantage of being a diplomat after being a professor of history was that he had a critical sense of what was happening. In August 1993, as negotiations with Syria were to begin, Rabin deposited with the U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher an oral offer that Israel would leave the Golan, but during his negotiations Christopher was to keep to himself until Syria agreed to a set of conditions. Rabinovich remarked to Dennis Ross, his US counterpart, that he could hear the wings of history in the room. Looking back, he says all three parties—Hafez al-Asad, the president of Syria; Israel; and the United States—made mistakes. Christopher put the offer on the table; even if Asad had been interested in making peace, he began negotiating, according to Rabinovich, like the victor, not the vanquished. The opportunity was missed. With the track to Syria closed, the Oslo process, begun in 1992, was the only game in town.

When we spoke, Rabinovich had just finished reviewing the play Oslo. He sees it as good theater but not a good rendition of reality. It places too much emphasis on the people in the negotiating room and not enough on the leaders. Rabin agreed to Oslo only because the deposit in Syria failed.

Of the relationship between Rabin and Shimon Peres and their relationship with the Israeli public, Rabinovich observes that although Rabin had a blunt manner, the Israeli public saw this bluntness as a sense of his directness. He was someone who spoke candidly, and he built credibility and authority. This was what allowed him to come back in 1992. Peres was a very gifted man, but he had a credibility problem with the public. Peres and Rabin did not like one another, but they complemented one another and when they collaborated, they were very powerful. When he was ambassador to the United State under Rabin and Peres was foreign minister, Rabinovich was in the middle, between them, and saw both sides. He did not play games. He avoided the familiar technique of going around the foreign minister by sending telegrams directly to the prime minister. Peres knew who Rabinovich was and knew he was loyal to Rabin. They developed a good relationship that endured.

The year 1995 was a bad time. The Israeli mind set was that, if there was an assassination attempt, it would be by an Arab. Security was planned to protect the prime minister from Arabs, not Jews; Jews do not kill Jews. After the assassination, Israel copied the US security model.

In answer to whether it was hard to go back over this material, Professor Rabinovich said this is life, and life goes on. He was invited to be president of Tel Aviv University and after that has continued serving in academic and public life.

Prior to starting work with Rabin, Rabinovich had a superficial social friendship with him. During nearly four years of work with him, he was Rabinovich’s leader, and the two also developed a close personal relationship. Rabin was an introverted man, but once you gained his confidence, he became accessible. He demanded loyalty but also gave it. It was a pleasure to work for a leader who was wise, experienced, open, and trustworthy. A word was a word. You always knew where you stood, and you also knew that you were part of a great historical moment.

Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club. She also leads editorial workshops.

Interview: Annette Gendler

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 | Permalink

Annette Gendler’s memoir Jumping Over Shadows pulls readers into the drama of World War II with its family tale of an ill-fated marriage between a Jewish man, Guido, and his Christian wife, Resi; interwoven is the equally gripping contemporary love story of Gendler—Resi’s great-niece—her German Jewish boyfriend and eventual husband, and her conversion to Judaism. See the full review.


Amy Spungen: Annette, please tell us how you came up with the idea of your memoir Jumping Over Shadows. Was it something you toyed with writing about for years or did you seize upon the idea and go for it full steam ahead?

Annette Gendler: My first trip to my grandparents’ hometown in the Czech Republic in 2002 is the origin of the book. I felt so many undercurrents there that I had to write about because I write to understand. I knew that what had happened there in the ‘30s and ‘40s had profoundly affected my life, and while I knew most of the stories, I didn’t know them well enough to reconstruct the sequence of events. When I presented a collection of essays on the family’s past as my MFA thesis in 2007, one of my advisors remarked that the past was only interesting in terms of how it affected the present. That’s when I understood the full scope of the project, namely that I had to tell my own story in juxtaposition to the story of the past. It took me another five years, on and off, to write my own story and complete the story of the past.

AS: Was it daunting to consider how much research needed to be accomplished to flesh out your story? The amount of time and effort that must have gone into traveling to places like Reichenberg in order to conduct research and beautifully recreate them for your readers was impressive.

AG: Thank you but it was not daunting at all. I love that stuff! The beauty of this kind of family history memoir is that it is valuable in and of itself to my family and me; I did the research for myself and in return got a book out of it.

AS: Did telling your own story come more easily, given your proximity to the subject (being the subject, really), or did you find that writing the Annette–Harry Gendler story had its own challenges?

AG: Writing my own love story was the hardest thing about writing Jumping Over Shadows. Not so much in terms of conceiving of myself or Harry as characters—I’d done that before in shorter pieces of memoir and in personal essays—but how do you write your own love story without being soppy? Conveying the subtle feelings between two people was really hard. I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how I managed it, but whatever I did, it seems to have worked because so many readers see the book as a love story.

AS: The title of your memoir is both intriguing and evocative. It’s based on a specific observation by Harry’s father but seems to apply more broadly to the themes of the holocaust and forbidden love. Can you tell us why you chose "Jumping Over Shadows" as the title?

AG: Coming up with this title was truly a group project; it was not my working title. I wrote about how it all happened in How to Come Up with a Book Title, but briefly: My publisher didn’t like my working title and I wasn’t married to it, so the copy editor brainstormed a few titles and sent me a list. It so happened that I had just read an essay by Ann Patchett about how she came up with the title of her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. I used her focus group technique with my memoir students, and they argued for the title Jumping Over Shadows. When one of them pointed out that she felt it implied an active protagonist, I knew this was the right title. I love that it comes organically from the book, that it’s based on a German idiom and thus encapsulates the multicultural aspect of the book. I also appreciate that it can be interpreted so many different ways by the reader.

AS: Could you tell us a bit about your writing process? There are practically as many methods to writing a book as there are authors to write them, but it’s always interesting to see what works…or doesn’t!

AG: What works for one writer doesn’t work for another. Committing to writing early in the morning made a huge difference in my development as a writer. I churned out the first draft of Jumping Over Shadows during a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. While there, I employed Hemingway’s method of producing at least 500 words per day but also calling it a day when I’d reached a good point and when I knew where I’d continue the next day. However, big chunks of time entirely devoted to writing happen only rarely in my life, so the daily practice of putting pen to paper, even if it’s only to do my Morning Pages (I’m a firm believer in that practice) makes all the difference.

AS: Do you feel like you are done with the memoir form now or do you see writing another down the road? Please tell us about the writing projects are you working on now. When can readers expect to see something new from you?

AG: Memoir is my favorite genre but I don’t think I’ll write another book-length memoir myself; my life, thankfully, isn’t that dramatic but you never know, right? I do have a children’s book ready that is based on a true story that happened to my mother-in-law as a hidden child in France. I only have to find a publisher! I’ve done all the research for another children’s book that would also be historical fiction, and I have another adult story that I’d like to pursue that most likely will also turn into historical fiction, so that might just be my new genre.

AS: What would you advise someone preparing to delve into their family history in hopes of writing a memoir?

AG: Start small. Find one story, one occurrence that you find compelling, perhaps because it affected you personally (the past, after all, is only interesting in terms of how it affects the present!), and then work on shaping it into a story. Down the line, several small projects can turn into a book—that’s how it worked for me—but it is best to learn how to write by focusing on making a short piece work.

Amy Spungen, a freelance writer and editor, lives near Chicago in Highland Park, Illinois.

Interview: Sana Krasikov

Monday, June 12, 2017 | Permalink

with Dalia Wolfson


Sana Krasikov, winner of the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, published her first novel in January. The Patriots  explores the conflicting loyalties of a Jewish family as they navigate their lives between Russia and the United States. Read an excerpt from the novel in the 2017 issue of Jewish Book Council literary journal, Paper Brigade.

Dalia Wolfson: The book grew from a story you heard from a friend about his mother, Pauline Friedman. How much “raw material” on her story did you start with, and why did this story appeal to you?

Sana Krasikov: I knew about Pauline’s story for a couple of years before I sat down and interviewed Timothy. I think his mother’s reverse immigration spoke to me on such a deep level because it suggested a life’s journey totally different from my own. My family had arrived embracing the American dream; Pauline had turned her back on it.

I knew Pauline had worked for Amtorg—the American Trade Mission—in New York. Amtorg midwifed all the big business deals between Soviet factories and American industry. Since the U.S. didn’t officially recognize the Bolsheviks, Amtorg served as a de facto embassy, but also the nerve center for all the spying that happened on American soil. The fact that business, politics, and espionage were all mixed up in its carpeted halls made Amtorg endlessly fascinating to me. Under the cover of all this official opprobrium, our countries were forming these intricate alliances. Talk about history catching up to the present!

Later Timothy sent me his mother’s interrogation files from the Lubyanka, Moscow’s political prison. The way her whole life was put on trial in those documents was both engrossing and heartbreaking. I used the documents as a kind of roadmap, but I also diverged from them because Pauline’s life was more unbelievable and dramatic than anything I could put into a book. Were I to include it all, the novel would have been twice as long.

DW: The Patriots provides a rich context—both historical and contemporary—for its interweaving plots, referencing items as diverse as the Davies incident, Dovid Bergelson and the interior of the restaurant at the Metropol Hotel. Can you tell me a bit about your research process for the novel?

SK: I always look for the detail that doesn’t fit, because that’s usually the one that’s true. Then I flesh out the picture like a Sudoku puzzle. There’s definitely a lot of history in the book, but I tried to integrate it in a kaleidoscopic way so the reader could truly inhabit it. By the end it was hard for me to tease apart the story of Russian Jews from the story of American Jews in the twentieth century because they were so intertwined.

The most surprising chapter for me had to do with learning about the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which played a huge role in raising funds during World War II. On Stalin’s orders, the greatest lights of Yiddish literature and the Jewish stage—people like Solomon Mikhoels (the original Tevye) and David Bergelson, who was second only to Isaac Babel—were put to work winning the hearts and minds of American Jews. They wrote articles and essay published in the States, and then were brought over and taken around to JCCs and Hadassah chapters, where Jews listened to them talk about Jewish unity, and opened up their purses. These men figured out how to tap into the miracle of Jewish giving and came back to Russia with something like $90 million for the Red Army. But it wasn’t a cynical undertaking—the Soviet Jews who’d been listening to these Yiddish poets on their radios were also moved. For the first time in decades, they permitted themselves to embrace a national identity that had been quietly suppressed since the revolution. So much so that by the time Golda Meir made her first visit to Moscow in 1948, thousands of Jews went out into the streets to cheer her and shout “next year in Jerusalem!”

The JAFC became a kind of heart of Soviet Jewry, an advocacy group for those whose homes had been illegally appropriated by their own countrymen during the war. But of course once the JAFC became an actual grassroots phenomenon, it could no longer be tolerated. The crackdown was swift and brutal, and these writers were rounded up and murdered for essentially doing their service to the state. The purge became a dress rehearsal for the better-known “Doctor’s Plot” to follow, and touched the lives of many Americans in Russia, like Pauline and Sam, who were working as translators. But even the murder of these “poets” couldn’t entirely suppress the Jewish awakening that had started blossoming on the power of these poets’ words. They became almost like secret martyrs for Russian Jews.

DW: Your book is such a complex operation of stories happening in parallel. Can you tell me more about the structure of interlocking narratives in three separate “books”?

SK: In some ways the story is your classic hero’s journey—a departure and a return. But I also thought of the three acts of Florence’s life as coinciding with her relationship to each of the three men in the book: Sergey, Leon, and Henry. Sergey and Henry are almost mirror images; Sergey is her Russian in America, and Henry, the Korea pilot she meets in the labor camps, is her American in Russia. In his own way, each one leads her through to the other side of the looking glass.

But as I began to write, the image of the dialectic also became an operating metaphor for the novel’s chapters, threading through the relationships between the generations as well as between the nations. I’m not just talking about Marxist theory here, but also the idea of the dialectic that stretches back to Hegel and the Greeks: the very notion that binaries are not permanently stable, but rather are always interpenetrating one another, struggling, resolving, turning into something new. Each break from the past is a dialectic negation that creates the possibility for a second, opposite, movement. History is like a helix coming back around, each time at a new level. I wanted the novel itself to walk that narrow spiral between the public and the private, to examine the deepest emotions between a family torn apart by a century of cold war, but also to interrogate the ideas and philosophical arguments supporting that war.

DW: Florence remains quite opaque, in some ways, although her story is told by an omniscient narrator who is prone to break into imaginative, over-the-top scenes (as with the Roosevelt-Morgenthau encounter) or launches into meditations (as with the history of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee). How did you settle on this voice for the Florence chapters?

SK: Originally I wrote the whole book in Julian’s voice, because I was processing the story of his mother through his eyes, and also because Timothy’s voice—and the voices of so many immigrant men I know—played strongly in my head. As I wrote, that voice began to take on the characteristics of omniscience, in much the same way that books like The Great Gatsby, or Philip Roth’s oeuvre, or even classic novels like Wuthering Heights, take on an element of omniscience whenever a human-sized character is narrating the story of a somewhat opaque, bigger-than-life character. I began to think about omniscience as a loop in which the first-person voice and the all-knowing “God” voice came around to touch. But at some point I also realized that for Julian to be on his own journey—to get to a place where he truly understood his mother—he couldn’t also be the person telling her story. So I divorced the two voices and gave each narrative its own corporeality, its own coordinates.

This process helped me embrace omniscience as a mode of storytelling. I think it’s a mode that’s been abandoned by many twentieth century modernists, but is being taken up again by some excellent contemporary writers. It’s possible we’re seeing a return to omniscience in the post-internet age because the collective intelligence suddenly feels like so much part of the everyday.

DW: Your previous publication, One More Day, was a collection of short stories. What were the challenges of writing a novel?

SK: Letting myself veer away from that narrow modernist voice was a big part of it. I felt like I had to unlearn everything I’d learned about writing.

DW: Throughout the book, we see a variety of survival strategies in the Logic-Free zone—believing in a “becoming” utopia, self-centered negotiating, deep-seated cynicism, self-censorship etc. Are these mentalities that you recognize from your own upbringing, and what would you like readers to learn from them?

SK: Oh yeah, those are frames you carry around in yourself as a product of people who are products of the Soviet Union. Ways of thinking that seem wildly inconsistent to my American peers feel perfectly natural to me, and vice versa. You know, I hear the word “resistance” being thrown around a lot these days. And the American image of resistance always makes me think of Martin Luther nailing that list of grievances to the church door. That image of jump-starting a reformation, of standing up and being counted—that’s the subconscious image of heroism here. But what if you live under a system where that’s not an option? It won’t lead to any reform, and you’ll only bring punishment on yourself. Well, then, getting by often involves adopting the mechanisms of the same system that’s oppressing you and manipulating it to make life more livable. But also attempting to do it in a way that won’t deform you morally and psychologically.

I’m not interested in writing “about Russia,” I’m interesting in writing about people. What does “courage” or “dignity” even mean under circumstances so different from our own? Those are some questions I hope a reader might be asking.

San Krasikov won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her collection One More Year, also named a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and awarded the National Book Foundation's ‘5 under 35’ prize. To research The Patriots, she traveled to oil fields in Texas and KGB warehouses in Moscow. She lives with her husband and children in Hastings, New York.

Interview: The Worlds of Dalia Rosenfeld

Sunday, June 04, 2017 | Permalink

with Adam Rovner

Dalia Rosenfeld, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, moved to Israel two years ago to reinvent her life. And though she has been publishing sharply observed literary fiction in American journals and magazines for two decades, The Worlds We Think We Know (Milkweed Editions) is her first collection. The wait for these twenty new stories has been worth it.

Adam Rovner: The Worlds We Think We Know has already garnered praise from major American writers, including Adam Johnson, Cynthia Ozick, and Gary Shteyngart. Shteyngart has called your work “very funny, Jewish and wise.” Are you conscious of being a “Jewish writer?” What does that mean to you?

Dalia Rosenfeld: I wish I knew! I was hoping I was far enough removed from the immigrant experience to be unqualified to answer that question, but here I am, suddenly the holder of a second passport, a new immigrant to Israel. But that doesn’t help much either, because the days of linking “Jewish writer” to immigrant status are pretty much over now. If the question implies loyalty to a people, I feel that strongly outside the context of writing, but on the page my loyalty is to language. Jews owe their survival to the power of the written word—you can’t take your land with you into exile, but you can take your stories—which is not to suggest that focusing on language alone makes one a Jewish writer, but feeling at home in language constitutes a major part of the Jewish experience.

AR: Your prose certainly demonstrates that you feel at home in English, but can you really use a non-Jewish language to convey Jewish sensibility?

DR: I don’t know if such a thing as a “Jewish sensibility” exists. What I do know is that there are certain states of mind or being that I associate with Jews, and that my Jewish characters often possess. For one thing, they are conscious of a collective past, but rather than this past functioning as a unifying force, my characters find it hard to feel rooted in the present. It gives me great pleasure to reference the Jewish past because doing so connects me with what is familiar and offers a sense of comfort and continuity: a poppy seed cake burning in the oven, a Yiddish phrase, a story from the Torah that a bar mitzvah student couldn’t care less about. Maybe it’s this seeking a conversation with the past that makes one a Jewish writer?

AR: The collective past in the guise of the Holocaust appears in your title story and several other standouts. Can you speak about why the Holocaust’s long shadow enters your work?

DR: Until recently, the Holocaust shaped my identity more than any other chapter in Jewish history. My father is a Holocaust scholar, and I grew up in a house in which the entire living room was given over to books on this subject. While my friends were reading Jane Eyre, I was reading about the Jews of Vienna being forced to clean the sidewalks with toothbrushes. What’s interesting is that I never felt burdened by this history; haunted, yes. Absolutely. Because it wasn’t just the books: it was also listening to the stories of survivors who came to see my father. When you relive your own memories, it’s traumatic, but when you experience another person’s, it’s something abnormal, unsettling. And it’s those haunted echoes that appear in my stories, sometimes just with a single image, such as a survivor reusing a tea bag until it resembles a shriveled walnut. Since moving to Israel, my preoccupation with how Jews died has shifted somewhat to how they live.

AR: Who are some of the writers who help you understand how Jews lived yesterday and how they live today?

DR: A partial list in no particular order would include Israeli authors Yaakov Shabtai, Yoel Hoffman, A. B. Yehoshua; American writers Rivka Galchen, Cynthia Ozick, Bellow, Malamud, Nicole Krauss, Jamaica Kincaid; Europeans such as Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Leo Perutz—a now obscure Austrian novelist (not to be confused with Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz)—and both I. B. and I. J. Singer.

AR: I can see the affinity your collection has with many of these writers. What I mean is that your stories often depict a sense of displacement. Sometimes it’s geographic—Americans in Israel, Russians in America, cosmopolitans in small towns. Why are uprooted characters so common in your stories?

DR: I’m drawn to characters whose actions are informed by an inner logic they themselves are not aware of, and that is guided—as you put it—by a state of displacement, sometimes forced, sometimes self-imposed, in which fixed boundaries fall away to give the characters a chance to redefine themselves. But they often squander the opportunity by engaging in a series of missteps, or self-sabotage, such as in my story “Swan Street,” where Misha, the protagonist, moves to America only to end up in a kind of voluntary exile, avoiding situations that would allow him to settle into his adoptive homeland. At the end of a story, I always discover the same thing: that human behavior is inscrutable—but still fun to write about.

AR: That comedy of human inscrutability comes across in your stories, many of which possess a wry sense of humor. Is humor difficult for you to write?

DR: I honestly wasn’t aware of this wry humor people keep pointing out until they started pointing it out. There’s no doubt that it’s healthier to find the humor in horrible situations than to stew in your own juice—something that I tend to do in real life. One of the purposes humor serves is to highlight our vulnerabilities without being held hostage by them.

AR: Many of your characters are women who reveal their vulnerabilities while at the same time demonstrating resiliency. Are you conscious of writing resilient female characters?

DR: I think a lot of writing happens on an unconscious level. The craft part is a conscious thing, but what motivates the characters to do what they do—they’re just like us, acting on impulses, intuition, instinct, feelings, all those things that can’t be explained rationally but that ultimately make us human. While I don’t divide the world into male/female, I find it hard to argue with a phrase I recently came across describing men as “expressively economical” with their emotions. This implies that women are not—that women are something else. And it is this “something else” that makes it hard to speak the same language, to enter into a realm of closeness that both sides desire, but in different ways. The resilience of a character comes when the love she seeks isn’t within her grasp, but still she can find beauty in the world.

AR: Your characters often seem lonely to me. Is writing a lonely activity for you?

DR: No! Writing is an antidote to loneliness. It’s what connects me with the world and helps me understand it better. Especially since I write in cafes, and in Israel people never leave you alone. For the last week, the same man has come up to me every morning and said, “Did you change that part of your story I told you to change?” He had shared some Persian proverb with me months ago, which I liked but altered a bit, and he was of the conviction that I should leave it the way it has been for the last five hundred years. I probably shouldn’t have showed him what I did with the proverb, but at the time I wanted to thank him. This morning he abbreviated his question to a single word: “Nu?”

AR: Nu? So what are you working on now?

DR: I thought I was working on a novel called The Physics of Time Travel in which an American woman moves to Israel and imagines parallels between her personal life and the trajectory of her adopted country. When I read the first chapter, I realized it was a stand-alone story and my interest in the theme had been exhausted, but in a good way. In a way that allowed me to write a second story about something totally different, and without feeling guilty about it. I’m now fifty pages into a second collection called The Physics of Time Travel.

Dalia Rosenfeld is the author of The Worlds We Think We Know a collection of short stories called “A profound debut from a writer of great talent” by Adam Johnson. She teaches writing at Bar Ilan University and lives with her three children in Tel Aviv.

Adam Rovner is Associate Professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. He is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press), a narrative history of efforts to establish Jewish homelands across the globe.

Interview: Barbara Bietz

Monday, May 22, 2017 | Permalink

with Michal Hoschander Malen

Barbara Bietz, author of The Sundown Kid, talks to Michal Hoschander Malen about the pioneer Jews of the American West, their reception in the wide open spaces of their new homes and the building of new communities.

Michal Hoschander Malen: Among the other fine values peeking out from within the text, the story personifies the Jewish concept of Hachnasat Orchim, or welcoming outsiders, and also highlights the importance of family. What gave you the idea for this particular story?

Barbara Bietz: I have read and researched a lot about the brave families who settled the Southwest. While I am particularly drawn to the stories of Jewish families, what deeply touched me was the way different groups came together in support of one another. I wanted to capture that sense of cooperation in a meaningful way. I have said before that The Sundown Kid is my love letter to all those families that came before me, who created communities that are still thriving today.

When I set out to write The Sundown Kid, my heart was really with Mama, who promises some things will never change, even in a new home far away. How hard it must have been to leave a whole life behind! I flipped the perspective to the boy who wants to help his Mama feel at home in “the wide open spaces,” so he invites their new neighbors for Shabbat dinner. The Jewish value of welcoming strangers is as important today as it was in biblical times. Our differences disappear over a shared meal.

MHM: Have you spent time in that part of the United States, yourself? Did you have a particular town in mind for the setting as you haven't specified one? Did you do any research on the time period?

BB: I was born and raised in California and went to college and grad school in Tucson, Arizona. My identity is deeply rooted in the Southwest. Many Jewish immigrant stories began at Ellis Island, but not all families stayed in New York. I did extensive research over a long period of time before I wrote The Sundown Kid. I was inspired by Pioneer Jews by Harriet and Fred Rochlin. I had the opportunity to hear Harriet speak about the lives of Jewish pioneers. When she said, “We were there, too,” my heart skipped a beat. Moving forward, I was especially interested in the strong women who maintained Jewish rituals in spite of great challenges.

I discovered an anonymous family in Tucson had commissioned a series of dolls to honor Jewish pioneer women. I wrote an article about the dolls for Doll World magazine. A wonderful artist named Andrea Kalinowski did a series of mixed media paintings of quilts to honor Jewish pioneer women, and I was deeply touched by her work, too. I love the notion of using traditionally feminine art forms to share stories of women.

MHM: Do you have a backstory for the family who made the long trek from East to West? What did they hope to find? How did they think life would unfold for themselves so far away from an established Jewish community?

BB: My backstory for the family is about hope—the universal hope that families have shared historically. The hope of being able to support their families, practice their faith in peace, and create a meaningful future for their children.

MHM: You focused on the role of Shabbat and on the role of food as two of the components in the "glue" that binds Jewish communities and here is used to create bonds with others, as well. Why do you think these and other touchstones are so important from generation to generation?

BB: Rituals connect us to one another. The smell and taste of something familiar will always evoke an emotion. Sharing food we love, or food that has a traditional significance elevates the eating experience from biological to spiritual. Shabbat gives us pause to honor a day, and each other, in a meaningful way. The greatest gift we can give our children is the tradition of rituals.

MHM: How do you think teachers, librarians, youth leaders, etc., can use this story to help children develop a sense of community and to help them further understand its value?

BB: My goal as a writer is to share a story that resonates with readers. I am also passionate about educational opportunities for children. I was very lucky to find an educational specialist who created a beautiful educational guide for The Sundown Kid, which is available on my website for any interested parents or teachers.

MHM: A good picture book is a perfect blend between the text and the art. How do you feel about the illustrator's vision of your idea?

BB: John Kanzler brought this story to life so beautifully. He created subtext that added depth and meaning in such a thoughtful way. I am in awe of his work.

MHM: What can we expect next from the pen of Barbara Bietz? Is there anything coming up in the near future for us to look forward to?

BB: I am working very hard on a few projects, including a picture book biography and a middle-grade historical novel.

Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council's young adult and children's book reviews. She has lectured on a variety of topics relating to children and books and her greatest joy is reading to her grandchildren on both sides of the ocean.


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Interview: Marjorie Ingall

Sunday, May 14, 2017 | Permalink

with Nat Bernstein

Jewish Book Council had the opportunity to talk with Marjorie Ingall about the importance of reading for pleasure, Mark Twain's philosemitism, the history of marketing books to Jewish women, and her parenting guide, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, an excellent and enjoyable resource for Jewish and non-Jewish parents alike.

Nat Bernstein: Nefertiti Austen recently wrote an essay about authoring parenting guides for women of color and how no publisher has embraced that market. Do you see the same scarcity for Jewish women, or has Judaism staked a claim on a parenting technique that has a wider appeal in the publishing world?

Marjorie Ingall: Publishing is constantly seeking the widest audience humanly possible. For Mamaleh Knows Best, there was a constant pushback from my editor, who kept asking, “Why do you want to talk about Philip Roth all the time?” For her, it was not universal; she wanted a book on how to use Jewish parenting to make a good goyish child. And I understand that: publishing is so risk-averse now that a niche market is not going to get you a book deal. I can imagine the same thing is happening if publishers assume that only black women will buy a black parenting book. But the stories of my black mother friends—especially mothers of sons—and how the kinds of worries they have are not anything like the kinds of worries I have, that would be beneficial for all Americans to read.

NLB: Since we’re talking about how to market books, can you share more about the history of marketing books and reading to Jewish women?

MI: When publishing became more scalable—when printing presses became more widespread—in the late nineteenth century, it created a colossal market—and not just within the Jewish community—of translations into Yiddish of popular books, a lot of them Romance novels. I write for the Times Book Review, and I think it’s hilarious that the Times pretends that the Romance genre doesn’t exist. Romance is a humongous part of the publishing market, and that was true in the late 1800s, too! Jewish women drove popular fiction.

We also have, in our spiritual line, tchines, these prayer books written by and for Jewish women, and that too was a huge market. They included prayers for a healthy pregnancy, prayers that your child will marry well, prayers for successful breastfeeding. All of this stuff was part of our culture, and it would be cool if more Jewish women knew about it. There were early marketing attempts to get women to buy these tchines: “Women! If you only have a few pennies, isn’t this a good way to spend them, for your own spiritual enlightenment for the whole future?” (If this is something that interests you, the index in the back of my book will give you a lot more places to go with that.)

NLB: You have a really lovely and clever chapter on spirituality, in which you observe that taking your kids to religious services is like taking your kids to a restaurant?

MI: As your kid gets older, you teach them how to behave. I don’t believe you should whisk your kid out the first time they make a peep, but you also don’t let a kid scream and disturb everyone else’s spiritual experience. The only way to acculturate a kid is by giving them the experience: no one is born knowing how to behave in shul! One thing I think the Orthodox Jewish community, in particular, has done really well is tolerating noise and chaos in shul. The first shul I went to with my baby—I wanted to join a Conservative shul that was closest to my house—I was getting such a fisheye when she made any noise that I never went back. I tried joining the family service, but I felt that it was cliquey. I found another congregation where the women in front of me kept turning around and making googly eyes at Josie out of delight, and that’s such a small thing, but it made all the difference.

NLB: In one of the early chapters of Mamaleh Knows Best, you point out that “The world is constantly telling us we’re doing parenting wrong.” Is that “we” specific to women?

MI: Yes. We’ve all seen the dudes in the playground, and everyone says, “You are so awesome for babysitting your kids.” You’re not babysitting, it’s your child! We also see the eight zillion Disney movies that all miraculously have missing mothers. It’s not just Jewish women, it’s all women who are told that however they’re doing things is wrong, which is a function of misogyny. It’s not unique to the Jewish Mother stereotype: if you troll Buzzfeed and all these other media sites now, you see Tiger Moms and black moms—it’s a mom thing, which is a problem.

NLB: It’s interesting how much this anxiety over perpetual perfection is transmitted to kids—you write that you “worry that kids today don’t want to be beginners, don’t want to be imperfect, don’t want to ever to look clueless.”

MI: We are always newly shocked when there are cheating scandals at all these fancy schools, but it happens because we have told these kids that they’re not allowed to fail. Surveys of American teenagers in general show that they see their parents as saying one thing and really thinking another when it comes to what their values are: when it is “be Number One at all costs,” you set up your kid if not to fail, then to certainly think I have to do whatever it takes to be Number One.

NLB: I love the Yiddish proverb you discovered: “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best.” You include it in a chapter about teaching kids to distrust authority, which I imagine runs counter to a lot of the parenting advice out there?

MI: Kids are expected to know what they want to be really early, and aren’t encouraged to mess around and explore and be dreamers and figure out what they really love and value. I don’t think our culture, or the pop culture they absorb, helps them with that. One of my regular rants is about live-action TV aimed at kids, where being a quirky, weird, geeky kid is a subject of mockery. Historically, Jews have been geeks, and it’s been really good for us! We should encourage our kids to have obsessions and passions and not be embarrassed about them.

Always having a little bit of distance and viewing authority with a gimlet eye has always been a good thing for the Jews, as well. It is certainly counter to the stereotype of the Tiger Mom, where the view is that the classroom is a fiefdom in which you do what your teacher wants. For the Jews, disrespecting authority is a thread that has gone through our culture from the beginning, whether we have lived in a time when we had tension with the ruling parties or during a period in history when we were very acculturated and had powerful jobs within the ruling culture. I think it’s telling that we don’t have the equivalent of a pope, that we are a dialogic and diverse and fractured-in-a-good-way kind of people. For a parent and for a creative or scientific mind, being a little bit of an outsider is a good thing.

NLB: On the subject of distrusting authority… What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Jewish parents in the next four years?

MI: Despite the title being in present tense, the intention behind Mamaleh Knows Best was to look back through Jewish history and examine what child-rearing traits seem to have served us well. I feel like I’m not entirely qualified to talk about politics or the future, but I do think that one thing that has been essential for Jews is that we are a people who take care of others. Mark Twain wrote this great essay about why you don’t see Jewish beggars—and it’s not because there aren’t Jewish poor people, it’s because Jews take care of their community. As we are entering the age of a leader who uses Twitter to say mean things about people, we want to be sure that we are talking to our kids about being kind. There are other political figures we can point to and say, “Look at this mentschy behavior.” Making sure that our kids are aware of other people’s suffering and helping other people ameliorate that suffering will help us all: everybody feels better when they are do something good, and we can all do that as both parents and citizens.

NLB: In the book you mention the Hebrew Benevolent Societies of the mid-nineteenth century, which as you note popped up in Jewish communities across the United States—on either side of the Mason-Dixon line—really quite rapidly. These societies were founded by women! And run by women! And they were actually the first instance of American—not just Jewish, American—women mobilizing and establishing their own institutions and assuming positions of leadership in an organized way: the Hebrew Benevolent Societies were really the first independent women’s movement in American history, and this is what opened the door for women abolitionists and suffragists across faiths within the same generation. Religiously, theologically, these charitable organizations weren’t necessarily shaking up a whole lot, but the social fabric of American Judaism was suddenly and drastically being rewoven by Jewish mothers at the time that Twain was writing: the standards he saw in Jewish communities were set by its women. (And his appreciation for those standards allowed him to recognize and even confront antisemitism in other parts of the world, which you write about elsewhere.)

MI: Also, let’s talk about American Jewish education: no one really talks about it, but so much of where American Jewish education started was from Jewish women. An unfortunate thing I discovered was that the women who created Jewish education and the women who created these benevolent societies, a lot of them weren’t mothers. Just as leaders of the feminist movement were not mothers. It’s really hard to have a career and to “have it all.”

NLB: And to find time to read?

MI: A thread throughout the book is to not be a “Do as I say, not as I do” parent. It’s important that our kids see us reading, and see that we enjoy it, and see us reading for pleasure as well as betterment. I include in Mamaleh Knows Best all the statistical backup about how important reading is, how a love of books increases empathy, makes your kid do better in all aspects of school. International studies that correct for income and background still find that in houses where everybody reads, the kids do better. For Jews in general, we are the People of the Book, and literacy has often been our ticket into another class, or to not being so quickly killed. Reading is really, really important.

And reading at home should serve a very different function from reading at school: at home, you need to create a safe space for your kid to really enjoy reading. They want to read the same book a gazillion times, fine. My librarian friends have so many stories about parents coming in and saying, “She’s ready for chapter books, can you not let her take out any more picture books?” I still read picture books, I still bring home picture books for my 12-year-old, and the snobbery about graphic novels makes me want to cry: all reading is good reading.

NLB: You also emphasize the importance of humor in parenting—and in transmitting values. How do you view the current generation of Jewish comedians in popular culture?

MI: In general, acculturation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s great to have people not killing us, but on the other hand, the distrust of authority and the gimlet eye has worked in our favor: that is a great place for comedy to come from. Comedy is a great tool for questioning authority, for making people like you even when you’re not like them, and for gaining respect. Look at studies about the use of comedy in the office: bosses who have a sense of humor, who embrace a sense of humor, are reviewed much more favorably by their staffs than bosses with no sense of humor or ones who have belittling senses of humor. I think that’s telling.

NLB: I was particularly heartened to read not only how many female comedians you named among the future of Jewish humor, but also how they are changing Jewish humor.

MI: One of the chapters in the book looks at the history of the Jewish Mother stereotype. It’s important to note that the first Jewish Mother in American culture was not this grasping, neurotic stereotype. It was Mrs. Goldberg! This is a woman who was the first recipient of the first Best Actress Emmy, who had a wildly successful radio show followed by a wildly successful TV show. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she was the executive producer of the show. She created a persona that was, yes, a meddler, but she was smart, she was competent, and she was caring.

Now, we are starting to see American Jewish women as executive producers of comedy shows once again. If you look at the Broad City girls, if you look at Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, if you look at Girls, yes, the mother characters are still flawed, but they are flawed in interesting, complicated ways. And you’re going to have flaws, because comedy requires flaws, but not this knee-jerk, dumb, schticky, mocking, disparaging kind of thing. I would like to think that as more and more Jewish women are in charge of their own storytelling, the Jewish Mother figure will become more nuanced—again.

NLB: You’ve succeeded in raising two kickass feminist daughters of your own. Do you have any advice for raising feminist sons?

MI: Nipping any kind of misogynist behavior in the bud and making sure your kid is aware of sexist language, making sure they treat all people with respect, and talking about women’s achievements despite barriers—they should know that historically it has not been a level playing field for women and men, which is something that anti-feminists will not acknowledge. And, this sounds flippant, but it’s not: the best way to raise a feminist son is to let him have an older sister. I can point to my brother as proof.

Nat Bernstein is the contributing editor and manager of digital content, media, and special programs for the Jewish Book Council.


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Interview: Miriam Libicki

Thursday, May 11, 2017 | Permalink

with Michelle Zaurov

Jewish Book Council had the pleasure of featuring Miriam Libicki as part of Ink Bleeds History: Reclaiming and Redrawing the Jewish Image, a panel of graphic stories on the representation of Jews in comics and graphic novels. We followed up with Miriam to discuss her collection of drawn essays, Toward a Hot Jew.

Michelle Zaurov: I notice you talk a lot about graphic artists who are Jewish. Do you feel like being Jewish has had any influence on your relationship with comics or being a comic artist?

Miriam Libicki: We read Marvel comics when I was young, but I think it was Peter David who put a lot of Jewish content in in his ‘80s comics and I was aware pretty early on that comics were a Jewish medium. I grew up Modern Orthodox, so it wasn’t super strict, but I felt like in my schooling and community there was a sense that visual art wasn’t really a thing that Jews do. The notion was that it’s nice for kids to have coloring books, but art is not a serious or intellectual pursuit. I was into fine arts and history of Western art, and that didn’t feel very Jewish to me, whereas comic art managed to feel Jewish somehow and have some Jewish sensibility to it.

MZ: These essays seem to be on disparate topics: you have one about art and another about Jewish identity. Did you mean for them to all go into a cohesive graphic novel?

ML: Well, I did them all separately. It was 10 years’ worth of essays, so I did them all as self-published zines. I was doing comics and going to comic cons, I had an ongoing series, jobnik!, which is about my time in the Israeli army, that morphed into a graphic novel. Whenever I had some rant or thought that I wanted to put in comic form, I would put out one of these drawn essays and sell it at a convention. Once I had two or three of them, I decided that once I had enough of these graphic essays, I would submit the full collection to publishers.

MZ: Why did you decide on these subjects?

ML: It just seems to be what I care about. I didn’t really intend to focus on Jewish subjects, and I think it was a reaction to leaving Israel and coming to Vancouver. I felt that Vancouver was not really a Jewish place after being in Israel, and I was afraid of becoming just another white person. People wouldn’t even perceive me as Jewish, and somehow that bothered me. So, my art at that time started becoming more Jewish. I found myself making excuses to have Jewish themes in my art as a way of asserting my identity that felt comfortable to me. This seemed like an authentic way to express and explore my Judaism on my own, when I didn’t have my community or my whole country reinforcing it.

MZ: How did you feel when you returned to Israel and interviewed actual Israeli citizens after being away?

ML: It was very different. I was grappling with my identity because I had made aliyah, served in the Israeli army, and the idea was to become a real Israeli and not an American tourist, and somehow earn my place in Israeli society. But I moved to Canada right after the army. So, I undermined that whole project and I felt very ambivalent about it for a long time. I still wondered how I could be a part of the Israeli conversation, and that is what the early essays were about: if I can understand the Israeli mindset, then maybe I am still partially Israeli. But, each time I go back, I get more rooted in Canada. I got married, had Canadian kids, and now when I travel with my family to Israel, I won’t even speak Hebrew most of the time. I really feel like a tourist with pretty good Hebrew. And I guess that’s ok. Now I am more interested in defining my Judaism as a Diaspora sort of Judaism rather than an Israeli one. I stopped struggling with it; I don’t feel the need to prove myself as an Israeli anymore.

MZ: On a more general note, what was the most difficult part of the artistic process with this novel?

ML: The part that takes longest is always the art. In order for me to do the art, I need something to keep me going, like a strong story that can sustain all these hours working on art. It’s difficult in the beginning to figure out what I’m writing and why I am writing it. Once I get over that, the rest comes pretty quickly, but the art is still long because I don’t draw or paint fast.

MZ: I noticed that some of your essays lack in color while others are colorful, is there a tactful reason for that?

ML: It was more practical. “Towards a Hot Jew” was meant to be a drawn essay, and it was a breakthrough in what I wanted to do in comics. It’s in black-and-white because I didn’t want to make it more complicated, and it was more about the writing and the ideas rather than the art. I felt like if I added color, I would have worried about the realism of the art. The other ones atr in watercolor because I wanted to teach myself watercolor, and the “Jewish Memoir” was commissioned for an academic anthology publication, and I couldn’t put that in color for cost reasons. The final essay is in a limited orange palette, and that was kind of for the same reason. When I was still two-thirds of the way through the art, I didn’t have a publisher for it, but the idea was that I wanted to get it published in an academic context, like a journal or an anthology. I also knew that this was the essay that would put me over the top for the essay collection in terms of page count.

MZ: In the book, you say that “comic style editorializes human appearance” and “fictionalizes it in order to bring certain aspects of humanity to light.” How have you done that with some of the characters you drew up in this book, and what aspects of humanity did you hope to bring to light?

ML: My avatar in the essays is based on the character that I drew for jobnik!. I kept drawing that character until one felt right to me. Her looks did undergo a transformation over the course of the first few issues and stories I wrote about my army experience. I gave her bigger eyes than mine, but she certainly isn’t glamorous. She’s shorter than me, which is kind of how I feel. Sometimes I feel more slight and observant, and not physically dominating. The eyes are emphasized but the rest of the face is fleshy as well because in my late teens and early twenties I didn’t like my appearance very much. It’s not that she’s hideous; the point that she’s just not glamorous and put together, and her body is sort of lumpy. After that, I didn’t pay attention to how much she looked like me. When I did the essay “Jewish Memoir Goes Pow! Zap! Oy!,” it was the first time I had that character addressing the reader and expressing thoughts on literary criticism. I picked the appearance of what I was redrawing at the time of the jobnik! stories, which was the Miriam character with the short bob cut and casually half out of the army uniform. That suited the tone I was going for with writing the essay about memoirs—it was in the authority of lecturing but in the form of someone human and vulnerable. She not only has a body, but a flawed body, and even when I’m talking about the history of race relations it’s still coming from a human.

MZ: In the “Towards a Hot Jew” essay, you touch upon the sexual stereotypes of Jewish men and women. Do you feel like Jewish stereotypes, specifically of young Israeli soldiers, differ from those of the average young Jew?

ML: Definitely! I feel like there’s a whole thing about soldiers who were the guards in the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall in Jerusalem: those are the soldiers who would get all the action. Now, for the past 15 years, it’s been the armed escort on a Birthright tour. Everyone wants to have their “sex with an Israeli soldier” experience. Among Israelis, soldiers aren’t necessarily seen as sexy, but they know that they’re perceived as such in the rest of the world. I feel like Israelis have caught on that their sex appeal is one of their selling traits, and there’s definitely more of an internal fetish as well. Which is a little bit disturbing because it’s one thing when outsiders think Israelis are sexy and it’s quite another when official branches of the Israeli government are putting up sexy soldier pictures.

MZ: You also talk about how there’s an imperfection that goes with Jewish culture. Do you feel like that plays a role in the sexuality of Jews?

ML: I think so. I feel like sexuality influenced by Christian doctrine, you get the Madonna-whore complex: either the woman is ideal or totally dirty. I would hope that in Judaism, especially since we don’t have a Madonna, that we would have less of that, that someone could be human and still be desirable. Maybe we can avoid putting each other on pedestals; maybe we can acknowledge that we are all not perfect and that we all have big noses and are sexy anyways.

MZ: In one of your essays, you say that “psychoanalysis is a quintessential Jewish pursuit.” What do you mean by that?

ML: A lot of people have made the point that Freud’s middle-class Jewish upbringing was why he had his specific thoughts on familial relationships, that if it weren’t for the very specific German-Jewish family structure Freud grew up with, he wouldn’t have had all those theories about what parents and children relationships are. I definitely feel like psychoanalysis caught on among Jewish people earlier than it did with the mainstream, who were initially largely anti-psychoanalysis or found it disgusting that people went to talk to psychoanalysts about their private life—which is reminiscent of the way they found Jews to be dirty and disgusting. It’s a Jewish thing to believe that you should talk about yourself and acknowledge your flaws, and that talking or complaining about a subject endlessly is a method of taking action to solve problems.

MZ: Do you feel like these Jewish stereotypes were fading when you moved to Canada?

ML: I think people on the West Coast and in Canada had less of these stereotypes than what you might find on the East Coast and the United States. A lot of people aren’t familiar with the Jewish stereotypes out here, let alone Jews. In “Towards a Hot Jew,” I talked about the concept of the Jewish American Princess (“JAP”) being shallow and materialistic. I was doing that project in Canada that asked non-Jewish Canadians if they had a version of the JAP, like a Jewish Canadian Princess, and they uniformly claimed that there isn’t. So I would say there’s a little bit less awareness.

MZ: In the later essays, you were pointing out the downfalls of the Israeli government, like how they have alienated Ethiopian Jews and the Sudanese throughout history. As an Israeli citizen, do you feel a personal guilt on behalf of the government? Or do you feel like you removed yourself from that because you moved away?

ML: I have that guilt, but it’s not huge. Even if I tried to make things different I can’t have that much of an effect: there is no absentee voting in Israel, so I can’t vote unless I made a date to be in Israel on Election Day. I could have more of an influence, but I feel like I can’t be that much of an activist outside of Israel. I do tweet and say “Shame on Netanyahu!” but I feel like there is a real sense in Israel that the rest of the world can’t judge them. The American Jewish community does have a place in talking about Israeli policies, but insofar as to actually effect what happens inside Israel, I’m not sure I can have that much effect as an American/Canadian.

MZ: Why did you decide to end the book on the quote “How can we deliver a message about our humanity from behind the bars of quotation marks?” What does this mean?

ML: That is a quote from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He was a World War II refugee who survived a prisoner of war camp, and a philosopher before and after the war. His core idea is empathy, and he was one of the people to really try to define it. He was also an Orthodox Jew and talks about it in spiritual terms, like the image of God. He talks about the need to look beyond categories—when he thinks about categories he thinks of the Germans walking outside of his camp who presumed they were a different kind of humanity than he was. If you have those categories then there’s no way you’ll be able to communicate, and everything you say will just become a symbol of how that person has already defined you. In the essay I was grappling with the ideas of identity politics, that you need to have identity politics because otherwise you have identities and categories and hierarchies that are left unspoken. It’s better to have them spoken, but it’s also important not to retreat so far into them that the only thing you can express is the identity you have been sorted into. It’s important to examine structures and hierarchies but it’s also important to take those and put them in their place and try to see the infinite in all of us, as well.

MZ: Identity and categories and how they shouldn’t be at the forefront of society seems to be a huge emphasis in your essays. Were you raised with this notion?

ML: I think so. My parents were Orthodox, however neither of them grew up Orthodox. My mother was a convert and my dad was more Conservative-Reform. Their attitudes towards Orthodoxy was more about how they chose to live their life and acknowledging that everyone has their own paths in life. They gave me spirituality and tradition but their moral sense was much more universal. I feel like I have the ideas of universal morality and empathy. We all believe there are many paths to the truth and ways to be a good person.

MZ: What are you working on now?

ML: I’m working on a bunch of projects right now. I just worked with the original underground comic artist and comic feminist historian, Trina Robbins. She is putting out a collection of fiction by her father that was published originally in Yiddish, which she found, translated, and adapted as a comic script, which she gave it to different artists to draw. I’m also working on another short piece about graphic -novel responses to the Holocaust. It is closer to fiction than non-fiction, so it’s more of a narrative than an essay. I’m also doing my Masters right now and working on my thesis, which is also a graphic novel.

Michelle Zaurov is a student at Binghamton University in New York, where she studies English and literature. She has worked as a journalist writing for the Home Reporter, a local Brooklyn publication. She enjoys reading realistic fiction and fantasy novels, especially with a strong female lead.


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Interview: Yaakov Katz

Thursday, May 04, 2017 | Permalink

with Philip K. Jason

Yaakov Katz is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post. He previously served for close to a decade as the paper's military reporter and defense analyst. Katz was a 2012 – 2013 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and is currently a faculty member at Harvard's Extension School, where he teaches an advanced course in journalism. He is the co-author of two books, The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower and Israel vs. Iran: The Shadow War.

Philip K. Jason: In The Weapon Wizards, you observe that Israel's enemies have not ceased building arsenals of rockets and missiles, even though Israel's Iron Dome and Arrow systems have rendered such stockpiles ineffective. Is any hope that more elaborate defensive (or offensive) weapons will change the operations of Hezbollah and Hammas?

Yaakov Katz: Originally, when Israel developed its missile defense systems, it hoped that their success would make Israel's enemies—particularly Hamas and Hezbollah—reconsider their investment in missile systems. The theory was that they would see that their missiles are ineffective and would understand that it is not worth investing in. That has not happened.

This does not mean that the missile defense systems are not effective. They are and they save Israeli lives. They have also given the government what we call “Diplomatic Maneuverability”, the ability to think before responding to rocket attacks, rather than being drawn into a conflict immediately. The systems have taken a weapon that could be of strategic consequences and turned them into a tactical issue that does not necessarily need to evolve into war.

PKJ: If there is no military solution to Israel's quest for an end to war, can resources be allocated to programs more likely to be successful?

YK: Military means are not an end to conflict but a means to be used to reach a diplomatic resolution. Although this has not yet happened for Israel when it comes to Hamas and Hezbollah, it has worked though with the two countries Israel made peace with, Egypt and Jordan. Both countries understood, after defeat on the battlefield, that war will not overcome Israel. Israel continues to invest in additional defense and offensive programs, which will help keep Israelis safe and ensure that wars are fought quicker. But they will not defeat an enemy's desire to destroy Israel.

PKJ: What are the benefits to Israel of its astounding success in weapon development, manufacture, and sales?

YK: The first clear benegit is that by developing top-tier weaponry, Israeli ensures its qualitative military edge in a very volatile region and as more potential conflicts loom on the horizon. The second benefit is economic: Israel today is one of the world's top arms exporters and brings in about $6.5 billion annually to the Israeli economy in arms sales.

PKJ: How did you and your coauthor, Amir Bohbot, "share the load" of creating this book?

Amir and I are both veteran military correspondents who have worked closely together covering Israel's different wars and operations since the early part of the 2000s. We split up the writing based on chapters: I wrote one chapter and he wrote another. The process was a bit more complicated. First, we would meet before starting to work on a new chapter. We would brainstorm for a while and the draft a chapter outline together—what stories will be there, who needs to be interviewed, etc. After spending one or two months researching and writing, when the chapter was done we’d share it with one another. Each of us would then add what was needed, make other comments, and then meet again to complete it. It was a genuine partnership.

PKJ: In the process of writing this book, did you discover any surprises? Did your research lead you to modify your views on anything, or anyone, connected with this topic?

YK: Coming into the project, both Amir and I were intimately familiar with the IDF and its different units. What we discovered while doing the research for this book was just how innovative the military was when it comes to the technology that it uses. Our research also gave us the opportunity to meet the scientists, engineers and officers who invented and came up with the ideas for some of Israel's unique weapon systems like the first drones, Iron Dome or the Ofek satellite. The stories behind each and every one of these weapons is what surprised us.

PKJ: Have any of Israel's developments in weapon technology been applied in other areas?

YK: Yes. Cameras and sensors, for example, originally developed for weapon systems like satellites or drones, can also be used for agricultural purposes. One company took a camera from a missile and integrated into a pill that a person can swallow so doctors can see what is happening inside that person's stomach.

PKJ: Who would you consider the ideal readers for your book? What are the most important ideas or pieces of information you'd like them to come away with?

We envision four different audiences: people interested in Israel, people interested in military affairs, entrepreneurs and business executives, and anyone looking to understand the future of the Middle East. We would like readers to walk away with a deeper understanding of just how important a role technology and weapons play when it comes to Israel's survival and its continued qualitative edge in a very volatile region. The stories told in this book show an amazing sense of innovation, creativity, and ingenuity in a country that was the established without any resources. When Israel was founded in 1948 there was only one resource—the Jewish brain—and that is what enabled Israel to survive. We are all familiar with the saying "Necessity is the mother of invention." But we like to stick to the dictum told to us by the IDF colonel who came up with the idea in 1977 for Israel to build its own satellite: "The shadow of the guillotine sharpens the mind."

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don't Wave Goodbye: The Children's Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.


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