The ProsenPeople

Interview: Jonathan Weisman

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 | Permalink

with Michael Dobkowski

In (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, Jonathan Weisman explores the disconnect between his own sense of Jewish identity and the expectations of his detractors and supporters. He delves into the rise of the alt-right, their roots in older anti-Semitic organizations, the odd ancientness of their grievances―cloaked as they are in contemporary, techy hipsterism―and their aims―to spread hate in a palatable way through a political structure that has so suddenly become tolerant of their views.

Michael Dobkowski: In many ways your book is about Jewish identity and experience in the Trump era. How has the American Jewish experience changedgenerally, and for you, personally?

Jonathan Weisman: I grew up in a very Reform household. Although I was raised to identify as Jewish, I—like many Jews of my generation—drifted away, in part because Jews had become entirely comfortable in a pluralistic, liberal democracy that seemed to be progressing inexorably toward tolerance and acceptance. I thought of anti-Semitism as an issue of the past. Then came the Trump campaign and the emergence of swarms of white nationalists who pressed for Mr. Trump’s election. I became a target of the alt-right’s attack, forcing me to reconsider my identity in light of how the bigots were identifying me.I could embrace Judaism as a system of beliefs, a culture, and a religion or I could shun it. But I could no longer ignore it. And so I embraced my Judaism. I fear that too many Jews have rationalized away the threat of white nationalist hate to justify political and social views that were formed before the emergence of this changed reality.

MD: Do you think these changes are temporary and reversible or have we reached a tipping point?

JW: It is difficult to know whether we are living in a temporary era of intolerance that will be seen as a brief interruption in the post-World War II progression toward pluralism and democracy—or whether that post-war progression was, in fact, the historical aberration. It is not just the rise of hate and intolerance. Democracies and fledgling democracies like Hungary and Russia have slipped back into crony authoritarianism. Intolerant nationalism is rising around the world. I still have faith that Americans love our institutions and traditions, and that we can save what makes us Americans. But I am less sure by the day.

MD: Much has been written about the so-called “new anti-Semitism." Do you think the threats posed by the alt-right and their allies are fundamentally different from earlier expressions and manifestations of American anti-Semitism?

JW: The alt-right’s anti-Semitic beliefs and tropes are oddly anachronistic. They are precisely the aspersions that I learned about as a child in Sunday school: Jews are both rapacious, greedy capitalists and dangerous, left wing anarchists; they are at once all-powerful puppet masters and sniveling weaklings; they control the media and through it, they have corrupted popular culture with their decadence—yet they are forever foreigners, never truly Americans, never truly part of American culture. It makes no sense, but those contradictions have shown remarkable staying power, and in that sense, the “new anti-Semitism” is centuries old. What distinguishes the alt-right from its predecessors is its method of organization, its technological savvy, its sarcasm and irony, and its ability to at least seem ubiquitous. By spreading its ideology on Twitter, Reddit, YouTube comment sections, 4Chan and 8Chan, the alt-right has become unavoidable for my children’s generation. It is not an invisible subculture, talking to itself on its own websites, segregated from the wider World Wide Web. The alt-right is disseminating its ideology. Most young people reject it, but there will always be disaffected searchers who will be drawn to the sophistry of hate.

MD: Are racism and anti-Semitism becoming normalized in certain segments of American society—and if so, what does it mean to normalize these social pathologies?

JW: Racism and anti-Semitism have always been normal in certain segments of American society. But when the president of the United States says “very fine people” marched in Charlottesville on both sides, has so much difficulty condemning the bigots who love him, and presses policies that are seen by racists and anti-Semites as dog whistles that ratify their beliefs, we are all at risk. Expressions of intolerance are no doubt more tolerated now than they were two years ago. We are learning that pluralism and diversity are not as valued as we once thought.

MD: You are not afraid in this book to talk about things that happened to you, your family, and other Jewish journalists. Why do you feel it is so important to tell this story?

JW: I wanted this book to be personal, to not be abstract or theoretical. And I believe that my background—a not-particularly observant Jew who struggled through a mixed marriage and tried, not very well, to impart a Jewish identity to my children—would be recognizable to a lot of Jews of my generation and younger, and to non-Jews who wrestle with their own identities in an atomized society. For someone so assimilated as myself to be singled out and attacked by anti-Semites should have resonance beyond observant communities, but that resonance would emerge only if I was willing to delve into the personal.

MD: Who are some of the writers and scholars who helped you understand the state of American society today? The state of American Jewish society?

JW: I read Bernard-Henri Lévy, Hannah Arendt, Timothy Snyder, and Melissa Fay Greene, but this book was shaped more by the rabbis, activists, and victims I spoke to: Rabbi Francine Roston and Tanya Gersh in Whitefish, Montana, who suffered through anti-Semitic attacks far, far worse than anything I saw; Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, who taught me to apply Jewish law to shape a response to bigotry; Rabbis Jonah Pesner and David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who helped me put the current moment into modern history; Ken Stern of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation who was frank and honest about his time at the American Jewish Committee; and Zoe Quinn, who showed me the technological roots of the alt-right and the nuts and bolts of a technological response.

MD: Since you finished writing the book, are there any developments that would lead you to modify your argument, or even strengthen it?

JW: I had just about finished this book when Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in chants of “Jews will not replace us” and bigoted violence, and the Internet hordes of the alt-right jumped into visceral reality. I was able to lace the book with references to Charlottesville, but the progression of bigotry has not stopped. Since Charlottesville, some have said the alt-right has retreated. And it is true that after the book was finished, the symbols of nationalist intolerance within the White House lost their purchase. Steve Bannon quit, and then with the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury he was excommunicated from the president’s inner circle. Sebastian Gorka finally left the administration, though he remains a public cheerleader. The leaders of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville vowed that they would return, again and again. They haven’t. But the president called African nations “shithole countries,” ended protected status for Haitian and Salvadoran refugees, and provoked a showdown over young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin businessman from the Tea Party right who has challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan, has openly embraced anti-Semitism as an organizing principle for his campaign. The question of what kind of a country we want is still front and center.

MD: You write with such ease, passion, and energy. Was this a particularly challenging book to write or a project you felt almost a mission to complete?

JW: It was remarkably easy. My first book was a novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane. It took about three years to write. I have another novel that is three-quarters finished and doesn’t seem to be progressing at all. This one just spilled out. I conceived of five chapters, wrote the most rudimentary of outlines, and then filled it in. I guess I just had to get it off my chest. I also wanted it published as soon as possible.

MD: Who do you consider the ideal audience for your book? What are the most important ideas you would like readers to come away with?

JW: This book is pretty tough on American Jews, too many of whom have subverted the interests of our community and the broader nation for the comfort of their present. I make note that the obsession of American Jews with Israel—especially major American Jewish institutions—has atrophied attention on current events in the U.S. There are progressive Jewish institutions, conservative Jewish institutions, and moderate Jewish institutions, and they all argue over Israel. This obsession blinded American Jewry to the rise of the alt-right. So I would say the ideal audience is the complacent Jew who has not reflected on the Jewish community’s place in America and the importance of democratic pluralism to the security of Judaism itself. But I do not want the audience to be—nor do I think they will be—solely Jewish. All Americans should be vigilant about the erosion of democratic institutions and the rise of intolerance. That is what I hope readers will take away from the book.

MD: If you could require the president to read one book in addition to your own, what would it be?

JW: The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, but if that is too challenging, Timothy Snyder’s brief, eloquent On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century will do.

MD: Toward the end of the book you say that institutions matter, they need to be defended, and they do not survive on their own. Do you, like Timothy Snyder and other scholars, fear that we may be sliding toward an American authoritarianism?

JW: That is my biggest fear, yes. I would never wish economic hard times on this country, but the strong economy, low unemployment, surging stock market and new tax cuts have made me far more worried that voters will overlook the affronts to our Constitution and democratic principles and decide against a change of course. Short-term economic gain is a powerful anesthetic.

MD: Are you sanguine or worried about whether we have the adequate institutional and constitutional protections to prevent this?

JW: As I wrote in the book, Americans do not seem to be marching as sheep into some authoritarian future. The public sphere crackles with dissent. There is joy in rebellion. We do believe in our institutions, and thus far, the courts appear to be maintaining their independence and the free press is reveling in its freedom. That said, Congress—the first branch of Constitutional democracy—has been remarkably docile. Oversight is almost nonexistent. Even Democrats have been unable to articulate a principled stand for pluralistic democracy, worried that any elevation in rhetoric could drown out the search for lunch-pail issues that could win back white working class voters who drifted to Trump. It really is up to the American people to stand firm. Their representatives in Washington won’t.

Interview: Jessica Keener

Tuesday, March 06, 2018 | Permalink

with Jonathan Arlan

Jonathan Arlan recently spoke to Jessica Keener about her moody and captivating novel, Strangers in Budapest.

Jonathan Arlan: Annie and Will are Americans living in Budapest in the 1990s, not long after the fall of Communism. They are idealistic and hopeful about starting a new life in the city, and about the possibilities that could open up to them—there seems to be a boom happening all around, culturally and financially. Yet it remains just out of reach. What was it about putting these people in this very particular place and moment in time that appealed to you?

Jessica Keener: The mid-1990s were a unique time in Hungary. Because Communism was no longer the organizing structure for the country, there was a tremendous sense of freedom and release, but also of uncertainty and fear. When old structures are dismantled, what will replace them? When old ways are no longer the norm, what is the norm? My characters, Annie and Will Gordon, are also attempting to dismantle something in their lives and reach for something new and untried. They quickly learn that change is not so easy—it takes time and it’s evolutionary. Budapest, with its confluence of conflicting and opposing impulses, perfectly mirrored externally what I was trying to capture and reveal internally about my characters.

JA: You spent time in Hungary in the 1990s. What were your initial impressions of the city? How do you think those memories informed Annie and Will’s experience in the novel?

JK: I’m a Boston native, and when I visited Budapest for the first time, I was smitten by the similarities between the two places—the architecture of the buildings, the streetcar systems, the rivers that run through each city. Budapest has the Danube. Boston has the Charles. There are even paths that cut through the hills of my town in Brookline (which is just outside Boston) that are very similar to the ones in Buda, the hilly side of Budapest. When I was living in Budapest, many of the buildings were riddled with bullet holes. It was a constant reminder of human destruction. I visited the Jewish district and was haunted by the old synagogue that was empty and in disrepair. (It has since been renovated.) At the time, no one talked about the Jews or how the country sent 800,000 Jews to death and work camps. This haunted me for many reasons, but foremost because my father fought in World War II and his army division helped liberate Dachau. I created Annie and Will to explore one way in which people manage their lives after experiencing or witnessing violence.

JA: Have you been back to Budapest since?

JK: No. But, now that my novel is finished and out in the world, I would love to return. It’s a beautiful city. The synagogue has been restored. There’s a memorial on the Danube that honors the lives of Jews slaughtered on the riverbanks of the river during World War II. I want to see those changes and more. At the same time, I’m concerned about the political shifts going on there. Humanity is messy.

JA: The Jewish underground movement is a fascinating chapter in the long history of Jews in Hungary. In the novel, two Hungarian friends of Annie and Will had been involved in the movement during World War II and are now living in the United States.How did you first learn about the underground? Why was it important to incorporate this piece of history into the book?

JK: When I was living in Atlanta, I met an older Jewish woman, Hannah Weinstein Entell, who had worked for the underground, providing food for prisoners of war. Hannah was born in Vienna and escaped Austria in the 1930s. I was taken by Hannah’s zest for life, her positive energy, her interest in people, and her fortitude. She also introduced me to George Friedmann, a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Germans during World War II. He, too, had an amazing life force that inspired me. In my novel, there is a minor character, Rose, who once worked for the underground and sets things in motion for Will and Annie. I incorporated this aspect of history into my novel as a reminder that people are complicated and not what they appear to be on the surface. People who have lived through unthinkable struggles and walk by us every day. As a Jew, I feel an acute awareness surrounding this idea of hidden stories.

As I wrote, I thought about all the immigrants who have come to America to escape oppression. My grandfather came through Ellis Island in order to escape the Russian Czar, and I exist because of this decision my grandfather made. It takes enormous courage to speak up, to risk your life and flee. My character Edward Weiss is a fighter for justice. He is in pursuit of the truth. I wanted readers to encounter someone like Edward in my book and think about how difficult it is to actually stand up and take action against wrongdoing.

JA: The relationship between Annie and Edward is both tender and, in some ways, tragic. What do you think they see in each other?

JK: Recently, at an author event, a person in the audience observed that both Annie and Edward drink a lot of water in the novel. (My novel takes place in the summer and heat is a factor.) The person commented that she thought Annie and Edward were both thirsting for life. Without giving away plot points, I think Annie is drawn to Edward because he’s able to tap into her life force—her most authentic self—something she found hard to do. Edward is drawn to Annie because there is something about her that reminds him of his dead daughter. Getting to know Annie is Edward’s second chance to love his daughter with more empathy and compassion, something he failed to do when she was alive.

JA: At one point, you draw an interesting comparison between Vienna and Budapest—both former capitals of the Austro-Hungarian empire. You write, “In Austria, remnants of greatness left imprints like fossils.” In contrast, Budapest is messy, worn-down, and full of energy—it is taking risks. Was the novel always set in Budapest? How different do you think it would have been if you’d set it in Vienna?

JK: The novel was always set in Budapest and truthfully I could not envision my story set anywhere else—certainly not Vienna. This is because Vienna is a much different place. It has immense wealth. It dominated Europe at one point. Austrians speak German, not an uncommon language globally. Hungary is much more insular because of is language, which most people don’t know. Budapest is like the poor country cousin to Vienna. It has to prove more to the world in order to be heard and recognized. At the same time, Budapest is more mysterious, intriguing, and haunting—that word again. This is the atmosphere I wanted to capture in my novel.

JA: I’m curious about Annie and Will, Edward, and Stephen. They are very different people, from completely different backgrounds—different generations, different countries. But they’re thrown together in this story in a way that feels organic and almost inevitable. How did these characters come together for you?

JK: I’m glad you asked this question. I wanted my story to be multigenerational, to encompass the life cycle from young to old. It’s why I also have a baby in the story (Annie and Will’s infant son). I wanted to show that history is something that is passed on in our personal, domestic lives as well as our cultural and social lives. I’m also interested in what people can learn from each other despite differences in age, religion, or experience. Often we learn the most when we meet someone we think is very different than who we are. Usually, we find the common denominator through a meeting of the heart. My characters are different on the outside, yet they are each pushing hard to come to terms with who they really are.

JA: What are you working on next?

JK: A novel set in Boston, in present time, which deals with spirituality, marriage, and love.

Interview: Rachel Lynn Solomon

Thursday, February 22, 2018 | Permalink

With Emily Stone

You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone is a stunning and lyrical debut novel about twin sisters whose lives are forever changed by a brutal medical diagnosis. It’s also a novel that addresses a set of themes that are quite new to Jewish YA. Rather than focusing on the Holocaust, the Catskills, or summer camp, it depicts a Jewish teen in an assimilated, digital American landscape.

Emily Stone: In writing this book, was your initial aim to fill a hole in Jewish YA? Or did you first set out to explore the plotline of twins who receive an unfair genetic result, and then decide to make the characters observant?

Rachel Lynn Solomon: The premise is what came to me first—one twin testing negative and one testing positive—and the first scene I wrote took place on Yom Kippur. Subconsciously, and then consciously as I immersed myself more deeply in the drafting process, I was yearning to write the kinds of Jewish characters I hadn't really seen in contemporary novels. You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone was my fifth completed manuscript but the first with Jewish protagonists. For the longest time, I thought the only stories we had to tell were Holocaust narratives—and while we must never stop telling those stories, they are not the only ones we have. Growing up, I was usually the only Jewish kid (occasionally, one of three) in school, and when I saw myself in books I saw tragedy, and I saw history. I'm hopeful Jewish teens will be able to see pieces of themselves in this book.

ES: The character Adina is very aware of her sexuality, and wields it, while her twin Tovah is discovering herself in the romance department. You’ve talked a lot about wanting to write female characters who are sex positive. Why is this important to you, especially in the era of #MeToo?

RLS: A lot of the books I read growing up painted a stark picture of female desire. Boys were allowed to want sex, and girls—modest girls, good girls—were supposed to push boys away. The way kids and teens are taught about sexuality and bodies is intensely harmful. Boys' bodies are sources of pleasure; girls' bodies bring them pain. We learn that above all, girls have to be careful, and while this is true (for anyone, definitely not just girls), there's often little discussion of sexuality beyond the negative. Growing up, I truly didn't think girls were supposed to have those desires. I wanted to write a sexually confident female character (Adina) because I hadn't read very many of them in YA, and I wanted teen girls to see that having those desires and safely acting on them is normal and okay and healthy! In terms of #MeToo, and as a sexual assault survivor, I aim to put my female characters in sexual situations where they are in control. That's always been important to me. I highly recommend the narrative nonfiction book Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein, which delves into all of these issues in a frank and respectful way.

ES: Why did you choose to make the twins’ mother Israeli? Do you have a close emotional connection to Israel?

RLS: Their mother was inspired by my own mother, who was raised in Mexico City, and also my former college Hebrew professor, who is Israeli. While I haven't been to Israel, I do feel drawn to it, and I can relate to having an immigrant parent speak another language (in my case, Spanish) in your house. Like me, the twins haven't been to Israel and each has a different kind of emotional connection to the country—one is desperate to learn more because of her strong relationship with her mother, while the other, who is more devout, is interested mainly for religious reasons.

ES: At the heart of the book is a terminal diagnosis that threatens to destroy a family already struggling to hold on. How do you write a book with this topic and still keep it entertaining? Does one need to get readers in their feelings to write good YA?

RLS: Getting readers in their feelings (I like that phrase a lot!) is definitely what I aim to achieve, but I also don't think a book needs to be heavy in order to do that. I've read some hilarious books that have also moved me to tears, and other lighthearted books that have overwhelmed me with sweetness. My main focus is always on the characters. If your reader doesn't care about your characters or can't relate to them, they're not going to care what happens to them. This doesn't mean they have to be likable, not by any means—I am usually drawn to characters who are intriguing rather than likable. But they should have goals, and the reader should be able to see how important those are. And when you place obstacles in the way of those goals, you want your reader to have an emotional reaction.

ES: You grew up in the Reform tradition. What drew you to writing characters who are significantly more observant?

RLS: With each book, I grow closer to writing my own experience, and that's really the beauty of fiction; it gives us the space to explore who we are. I wanted to write more observant characters for a few reasons: Right now I tend to shy away from writing anything remotely autobiographical because I love learning; I love researching. So this was an opportunity for me to learn more about Conservative Judaism. I also really wanted to give readers a window into Judaism that I didn't have as a teen. I've loved hearing reactions from readers—Jewish readers who are seeing themselves on the pages, and non-Jewish readers who are being exposed to something new.

ES: Where do Jews fit into the #OwnVoices movement? What other Jewish YA novels do you recommend and why?

RLS: There's a lot of room for more #OwnVoices Jewish books! I would really love to see more contemporary YA novels featuring Jewish protagonists of all types. For example, I can name only one #OwnVoices Orthodox Jewish book—Playing With Matches  by Suri Rosen. Aside from that, I also recommend Katherine Locke's The Girl With The Red Balloon and Leah Scheier's Your Voice is All I Hear.

ES: Has writing these characters made you more engaged with your Judaism? Can we look forward to more Rachel Lynn Solomon YA novels with Jewish protagonists?

RLS: Absolutely. I cannot imagine writing a book without a Jewish protagonist at this point. All my works in progress feature Jewish protagonists, all of them relating to religion in a slightly different way. That's probably my favorite thing about the way I personally identify—that all of us have a unique, special relationship with Judaism, and yet we all still feel so connected.

Interview: Susan Krawitz

Tuesday, February 06, 2018 | Permalink

with Michal Hoschander-Malen

Susan Krawitz author photo

Michal Hoschander Malen, our editor of children's and young adult book reviews, recently had the chance, as part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour, to talk to Susan Krawitz about her book Viva, Rose!, a debut fiction finalist in this year's National Jewish Book Awards. Viva, Rose! was also honored in this year's Sydney Taylor Book Awards, a program of the Association of Jewish Libraries. The star of Krawitz's story is thirteen-year-old Rose, part of a traditional and observant Jewish family in El Paso, Texas. When her older brother joins Pancho Villa's army, she decides she has to rescue him and embarks on a frightening but exciting desert adventure.

Michal Hoschander-Malen: The historical setting of Viva, Rose! is unusual in young adult Jewish literature. What motivated you to write a Jewish Western?

SK: This fictional story was inspired by a true one; my grandfather’s family settled in the west when they immigrated from Russia around the turn of the twentieth century, and one of his first cousins rode with Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican Revolution. I’d heard stories of this cousin Abraham and his sister Rose as I was growing up, but they seemed too wild to be true. Rose was a cabaret singer? Abraham played chess on horseback? But then my older sister found an actual article about Abe’s life in a 1932 San Antonio newspaper. The first sentence read: “Every once in a while you come across a life story that in its color and action seems almost fictional.” Even this journalist thought Abraham was quite a character! I’d already started writing short children’s fiction by then, but these words lit a fire that would smolder inside of me until I this took these “almost fictional” story parts and turned them into a novel.

Cover of book Viva, Rose! by Susan Krawitz

MHM: What kinds of research did you do to make the era and the setting so vivid? How much fact is mixed in with the fiction?

SK: I crawled all over the internet to learn about Jewish settlement in the west and research family records and genealogy; I also watched every movie I could find about Pancho Villa, and read every book, both factual and fiction, about him. One of my most valuable resources was Insurgent Mexico, written by a well-known journalist of that time named John (aka Jack) Reed. (He was portrayed by Warren Beatty in the 1981 movie, Reds.) He lived and traveled with Villa’s gang for several months, and may have been not only the first journalist embedded with an army, but also the first to use an impassioned narrative style that brought readers into scenes and situations in an up-close and personal way. His eloquently detailed first-person viewpoint offered me invaluable flesh to put on the bones of the legendary villain/hero Pancho Villa.

You could also say my life experiences were a sort of research as well. Many years of riding horses gave color to Rose’s equestrian scenes, and a long-ago rock climbing trip to Hueco Tanks State Park in El Paso, Texas offered the location of Villa’s desert hideaway. Not all research needs to be conducted indoors!

Regarding the mix of fact and fiction, I found the real-life elements of Pancho Villa’s army were, like Abraham’s life, too “almost fictional” to be true. The Mexican Revolution, which had a main goal of ensuring equality for peasant farm workers, was an important social justice movement of the early twentieth century, and all kinds of people came from all kinds of places to support Villa’s efforts. I based many of the characters in the Villa camp on actual people, including barnstormers Farnam T Fish and Wild Bill Heath, and a San Francisco bank robber named Oscar Creighton. Legendary silent movie cowboy Tom Mix declared he‘d spent time there (though some say he just said so for publicity) and of course, I had to put Jack Reed in the camp with Rose as well. Additionally, Rose and Abraham and their family are drawn from research and relatives’ stories of their lives.

MHM: Can you tell us something about the Jewish life of the period?

SK: An 1878 survey by the Union of American Hebrew Conference showed that 21,465 Jews were living in eleven western states and territories. Incredibly, it’s been estimated that by 1880, California’s Jewish population was bigger than that of New York State.

Jews worked as peddlers, merchants and tradespeople, led wagon trains, and explored the frontier. My relative Solomon Solomon, Rose and Abraham’s father, immigrated to San Antonio at the very end of the 1800s, and worked as a kosher butcher and an Orthodox rabbi. The city had a well-established Jewish community by then. The first synagogue, Beth-El, was opened in 1874; a Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society and a Young Men’s Hebrew Association soon followed. By the time my relatives arrived, there were several synagogues and a Jewish cemetery.

MHM: Rose faces moral dilemmas one after another as she navigates the events of the exciting plot. She tries to do the right thing even as she lies, deceives her parents, and confronts people she originally perceives as “bad guys.” She faces complicated choices for which she’s had no preparation. What is your intended takeaway for a young reader watching Rose handle these tricky situations?

SK: I’d guess my goals for a young reader’s takeaway are the same as my story-goals for Rose: to begin to move away from the black and white thinking of early adolescence towards a more complicated, but more rewarding and self-actualized way of being in the world. Life would certainly be easier if the good guys wore white hats and the bad ones black, but without this coding, we’re perpetually challenged to create our own unique moral path. In a world that seems to be experiencing a moment of deep polarization, I think we can’t overemphasize the concept that most of life actually exists not in the blacks and whites, but the varied shades of grey.

I think we find some of the truest, most gratifying parts of life in the cracks between everything we’ve always thought to be true.

MHM: What exciting things can we expect next from the pen of Susan Krawitz?

SK: I’m currently finishing an adult novel set in Ireland, blowing the dust off some picture book manuscripts, and working on a sequel to Viva, Rose! The real-life Rose had yet another brother who did incredible things and he did them in New York City, which offers me another chance to get Rose out of her comfort zone and into some deliciously challenging hot water.

Interview: Eshkol Nevo

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 | Permalink

Author photo of Eshkol Nevo. Credit: Moti Kikayon.

Israeli author Eshkol Nevo’s latest novel, Three Floors Up (vividly translated by Sondra Silverston), is set in one of the rapidly growing suburbs outside Tel Aviv. It encompasses three narratives corresponding to characters who dwell on one of three floors in the same apartment building. Each is terribly self-absorbed by their own worries, but occasionally we glimpse each protagonist through the judgmental eyes of the others with amusing results. Nevo places the reader in the role of listener to their terribly intimate secrets, and the effect is absolutely captivating.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: The idea of “home” is truly a profound and pervasive theme in your novels, and yet you never seem to repeat yourself. I’m fascinated by the contrast between your earlier book Neuland,with its epic temporal and spatial sprawl (from pre-WWII Mandatory Palestine to contemporary South America) and the single apartment building in which most of the action takes place in Three Floors Up. Were you conscious about setting yourself a challenge in moving from that earlier expansiveness to having to work within these relatively claustrophobic confines? Did you imagine yourself creating a kind of microcosm of human behavior?

Eshkol Nevo: I guess I have an unconscious tendency to rebel against my own books. I prefer to always explore something that is completely new. It is not that I am afraid of repeating myself, I just cannot. The new challenge for me in Three Floors Up was in writing characters I am not in love with. The three confessors in this book are full of flaws. As I wrote I found myself resenting them—and also understanding them deeply. And that made the writing process extremely emotional. I wrote this book in five explosive months. I just couldn’t stop writing. I wanted to find out what happens in the end. Both plot-wise and moral-wise.

ROS: I can’t immediately recall another novel that made such memorable use of a single building to suggest an entire society besides The Yacoubian Building by the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany.Was that book at all an inspiration for you in imagining the chaotic, intersecting lives in Three Floors Up?

EN: The Yacoubian Building is indeed a wonderful book. But actually if I had to name one book that I was thinking about while writing Three Floors Up, it would be The Fall by Albert Camus: a man confessing to a bartender about his awful sin. I was trying to capture this unique rhythm of a confession, this "I have a dark secret. I have been keeping it for too long. Now I am going to tell you” kind of urgency.

ROS: In Three Floors Up, as in your other novels, homes are precious spaces of belonging in both a familial and a national sense. Your characters are seized by so much longing and nostalgia for them. Yet in my reading of your works, they can often be very tense spaces imperiled, by wars, divorces—all sorts of conflicts. Why does the problem of home seem to loom so large in your imagination?

EN: I assume it’s a combination of the fact that I moved a lot as a child (thirteen different homes until the age of eighteen, including two in the United States) and the fact that I am living in a country built on immigration. Even the parents’ WhatsApp group of my younger daughter's class runs in four different languages—Hebrew, English, French, and Spanish. I think, though, that Three Floors Up represents a dramatic shift in focus regarding the theme of home. The question is no longer “Where is home?” but rather “Can we be happy, free, and authentic living in a home with our family?” or “Do we sometimes have to lie to preserve a home?”

ROS: The tripartite Freudian structure of Three Floors Up is a marvelous device; the “three floors” of the English title alludes to the manifestation of id, ego, superego in the three loosely connected stories. It seems as playful--we can’t avoid the provocative pun of the idea of “story” and the structurally separate stories (floors) of the apartment building--as it does profound. Was this something you wanted to explore for a long time? Toward the end of the novel, one of your characters seems to contradict Freud in a deeply moving epiphany.

Cover of Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo

EN: The Freudian topographic model wasn’t in my mind at the beginning. At the beginning I was only writing, compulsively. Then, when I reached the second floor, I suddenly saw the strong potential of this psychological architecture of a building. And the minute I saw it I could not resist the temptation to build it. Of all the ideas Freud had (and he had a lot), the one that really echoes within me as truth is the fact that every moment of our existence is conflicted: a struggle between competing inner forces. I also disagree with Freud on certain matters–I don’t believe human beings are islandsand I think that is also represented in the book, especially in the conclusion.

ROS: Going back to your wonderful 2004 novel Homesick, it seems that you have long expressed a fondness for the epistolary form. You explore it even more fully here either in the form of written letters, monologues directed to an unseen interlocutor, and, perhaps most memorably, in the form of an extended series of answering machine messages. Much of that communication seems to have a very confessional nature. Why are you so drawn to this subgenre?

EN: I was always fascinated by confessionals in churches. Always wondered what would it be like to share my sins with a priest and be immediately forgiven. But I am a Jewwhat can I do? Every book is a long letter to an unseen reader, if you think of it.

ROS: I feel that Neuland stands as a kind of milestone in the very long trajectory of Israeli cultural arguments about rootedness vs. diasporic attachments. In the early years of Jewish statehood, the New Hebrew was configured as utterly rooted, uninterested in travel abroad, the antithesis of the “Wandering Jew.” By contrast, your novel seems to recast Jewish identity in the Diaspora and indeed the very notion of Homeland itself. In your Neuland, a father has gone missing in South America, and his adult son sets off in pursuit. Traumatized by his war experiences as well as the recent loss of his wife, father leaves a stream-of-consciousness narration in his journals that reveals a deeply wounded psyche and a struggle to find a suitable shell in which to shield himself from his hyper-nationalized militaristic past. I wondered if in inhabiting this character so empathically, something changed in your own view about home and belonging in some way? And how do you feel Israel has changed in this regard over the years?

EN: I am part of a new generation of Israelis, specifically those who led the big 2011 social demonstrations that are mentioned in Three Floors Up. We were born here. We speak, think, and dream in Hebrew. Israel for us is an axiom: we are less haunted by the ghost of the past. Therefore we are not intimidated by traveling or even living outside of Israel for a while. Wandering does not threaten our identity. Israelis who choose to leave Israel and find their happiness in Berlin or Miami do not threaten our identity. On the other hand, we demand more from Zionism itself. “Being a safe autonomic territory for Jews” is not enough anymore for us. We are looking for ways to add more values to our national identity (than merely surviving), and culture is intrinsic to that. Of course when I write I do not think about all of this. I am following the footsteps my characters. But when I look back on twenty years of writing (my first story was published in 1997), I would like to believe that I am taking part in this effort of creating a new and more open-minded Israeli society.

ROS: You created a memorable Palestinian character in Homesick with his own sense of attachment to what has become a Jewish Israeli home. And in Three Floors Up, the Rothschild Boulevard social justice tent protests of 2011 transform the life of a lonely widow. In yet another story, there seems to be a hint that a character’s impulse rage and potential for violence might relate to his experiences in the Intifada. Yet for the most part you seem reticent about casting a strong didactic judgment about Israeli society in the manner of Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and others.

EN: I am deeply interested in the osmosis between public-political life and private-psychological life. I care about my country, but usually I have more questions than answers about that. And when I do have answers, or opinions, I write articles. I have been doing it quite a lot lately since the current government in Israel is trying to slowly change its democratic nature and in my opinion this is a very clear and present danger to the Zionist vision.

ROS: Apropos of my previous question, there is a startling moment when Devora angrily recalls her late husband’s affinity for clean, well-ordered suburban life (she dismissively calls it “bourgeoisville”), which he hoped would overtake the entire country as the fulfillment of Herzl’s vision of Zionism. Now he is gone, and in response to the agitation of young men and women protesting on the streets, she retorts: “Zionism is losing and the people in this building are asleep while it’s happening. Until someone knocks these walls down on them and they wake up—there is no chance that anything will change.” Ironically, the protagonists of each story receive precisely that kind of blow and are shaken out of their complacency for better or worse. This is such a highly-charged moment that I was left wondering if it was expressing something personal for you about how people are living their lives in Israel today? And from your perspective, did those social justice protests achieve anything lasting? If not, would you like to see a return to those days?

EN: It is returning. Actually I am just on my way to a big demonstration against corruption in the government. Israel has the potential to be the most wonderful place on earth, “a light for the gentiles,” but hopeless and visionless people who build their career on creating conflicts, instead of trying to solve them, currently lead the country. Because we lack a real opposition in Israel, the “civil society,” as we call it here, has a responsibility to shout, once in a while: there must be another way.

ROS: Two of your most memorable female characters in Three Floors Up, Hani (a woman whose life consists of little more than caring for her children due to her husband’s frequent trips abroad) and Devora (a retired judge whose late husband fills her restless mind, and whose son no longer speaks to her) are exceptionally three-dimensional and complicated women. In creating their richly imagined inner worlds (or earlier female characters of similar complexity) do you ever consult your wife or other female readers, or do you simply trust your own instincts?

EN: I have three daughters, man. I am surrounded by women in this house. In some conversations at the dinner table I actually feel excluded. Recently my second daughter got a male rabbit as a birthday present. I was so happy that I finally have a buddy! We watched soccer together. Had some man-to-man talks. Until one day a veterinarian friend came to visit. I showed him my new buddy. He took it, examined it and told me: “Sorry, bro, but I have to tell you: it’s not a he, it’s a she!” Seriously–I just listen to women. And men. That’s all you have to do to imagine inner worlds of people: just listen to what they are saying. And not saying.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville. His latest book is Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film.

Image credit: Moti Kikayon

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?

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.