The ProsenPeople

Creating Coherence Out of Formlessness

Thursday, June 07, 2018 | Permalink

Steven Zipperstein author photo and the cover of his book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History

Professor Steven Zipperstein's new book, Pogrom, is about the massacre of Jews in Kishinev in 1903. Bob Goldfarb spoke with him recently about his findings.

Bob Goldfarb: In Pogrom, you document how Pavel Krushevan, an anti-Semitic newspaper publisher in Kishinev, fabricated the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”—and you uncovered some facts about his life that were previously unknown. It’s quite a breakthrough. What led you there?

Steven Zipperstein: It was really accidental. Many authors of the first books about the “Protocols” had no idea that the Kishinev version had even been published. Later an Italian scholar demonstrated that the word endings in the book version of the “Protocols”indicate quite clearly that it had originated in or around Bessarabia. I was able to connect that version to the pogrom. A superb German scholar, Michael Hagemeister, mentioned to me that a Moldovan Jewish journalist in Brookline, Massachusetts had something, and I was in Boston on my way to Moldova the next day. I called this man and asked him if I could come by. I’m sitting in his living room, and from a shelf in his living room, he takes a large white folder, massively packed with documents, and I begin to leaf through it. What I discovered are treasures.

BG: What was in the folder, and where did he get it?

SZ: The archive came to the journalist because he was writing a history of an insane asylum at the edge of Chisinau (Kishinev), and he had befriended a nephew of Krushevan’s. The nephew admired his uncle, and Krushevan gave the nephew his most sensitive papers, documenting financial misdeeds, shenanigans, bankruptcies. Still more surprising was his diary, written at the age of 15 or 16. He’s staying with relatives in Odessa, and he’s having joyous sex with a Cossack—they come in only one gender. And he declares that he wishes he had been born “a lady.”

BG: Did the documents shed any light on the man he became?

SZ: Krushevan is one of the great totems of anti-capitalist, homophobic, anti-Semitic attitudes. I also discovered that Krushevan’s life was spent in close proximity to Jews. His stepsister had run off with a Jew, moved to Baltimore, and is pictured in a Russian-language newspaper as an Orthodox Jew living a Jewish life with her husband. What’s more, from the age of two, Krushevan was raised by a stepmother who was Jewish.

BG: You write that there was not a lot of overt anti-Semitism in Kishinev before the pogrom, that the populations lived relatively amicably together. It calls to mind more recent cases of pogroms, or genocides, where the same was true. In Jedwabne, Poland, Jews and Poles knew one another intimately, yet the Poles savagely murdered their Jewish neighbors. In Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side, intermarried, and then the Hutus perpetrated genocide against the Tutsis on an incomprehensible scale. Shouldn’t familiarity bring sympathy and understanding?

SZ: In the Kishinev pogrom we have a good many instances of Jews under attack who run into the courtyard of Gentile friends, expecting their protection and not infrequently being protected. But there is a relationship between familiarity and outright ferocity, as Jan Gross argues in his book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. That serves as a cautionary note with regard to the notion that knowing someone better—as liberalism would like to believe—moderates negative feelings.

In Kishinev, one woman was raped by a man whom she had suckled when he was an infant. A shoemaker was attacked by a man one week after the shoemaker repaired his shoes. Another sobering example is that of Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve, whose hatred for Jews seems to have deepened as a young boy growing up in Warsaw in a neighborhood close to Jews. He attributes some of his animosity toward Jews to that proximity.

BG: Is there any lesson to be drawn from this?

SZ: For me, the most sobering lesson to be drawn is about what we now call “fake news.” So much of what resonated about the pogrom were myths, fictions. Myth and fiction have a kind of coherence history doesn’t have. History is full of loose seams and odd edges. With Kishinev, here’s an event that’s probably the best documented in all of Russian Jewish history, and at the same time the most mythologized. The massive amount of documentation does relatively little to unsettle the myths over the course of the last century.

BG: The Hearst newspapers played a large role in publicizing the Kishinev massacre in the United States. The Hearst newspapers also whipped up fervor in favor of a war with Spain in 1898 by fabricating atrocities. The Kishinev pogrom did happen; the Spanish atrocities did not. If a story has the same power whether it’s true or not, it gives one pause, doesn’t it?

SZ: I would go even further. The made-up stories have greater power than the actual stories. They’re fuller, more zaftig, than the news can possibly be. The so-called Plehve letter surfaced a few weeks after the pogrom, and it seemed to furnish empirical proof that the Russian government was behind the pogroms. The letter was a forgery. Yet, it had considerable impact on facilitating mass migration by Russian Jews to the U.S.

BG: Speaking of myths, you conclusively demonstrate that the “Protocols” is a fraud. It’s another great example of the persistence of myth in the face of fact.

SZ: It’s striking that the “Protocols” is really the only anti-Semitic text—among so many anti-Semitic texts that have been published—that continues to have a real life. It actually provides a voice, albeit a false voice, of the “Elder.” One reason for its success is its redundancy. You don’t need to read more than a page to get what it’s about. Somehow this text, which is profoundly localized, ends up speaking to so many different audiences in so many countries.

BG: One of the myths that helped inform the pogrom in Kishinev is that Jews drained the blood of Christian children. It seems to be another example of people believing what they want to believe, so it becomes a kind of “truth,” like the other myths we’ve been talking about.

SZ: You’re right. Disproving something that doesn’t exist is extraordinarily tough. Every time there was a ritual-murder accusation, the coroners set about testing whether the body was drained of blood. The act of disproving the murder serves to validate the notion that ritual murder exists! How do you disprove an absurdity?

BG: You talk about how Kishinev has vastly disproportionate prominence in people’s memory. Many, many more people were killed in pogroms in subsequent years. Yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of casualties in later years, Kishinev stands out. Why?

SZ: This is the first pogrom in a new century. And it’s institutionalized: in Zionist memory, in Socialist memory. It’s adopted by the now-powerful Yiddish-speaking Left in New York. It’s introduced not only into politics but also into plays, synagogue ritual, and arguably the best poem in a Jewish language in modernity, Bialik’s “City of Killing.” It inspired the very play that introduced the notion of the “melting pot.”

There’s also an interplay with the relatively small number of Jews who were killed, all of whom can be pictured in a single photograph, shrouded before their burials. It’s impossible to photograph 600 dead, let alone 200,000 dead. We’ve discovered over time that unthinkable catastrophes are best concretized in small numbers.

BG: You point out that the impact of Kishinev went well beyond the Jewish community. News of Kishinev affected Booker T. Washington, and at least indirectly led to the founding of the NAACP. It’s hard to imagine how a distant atrocity could have such impact.

SZ: In some ways it’s precisely because it’s hard to imagine it that it had the impact that it did. It dominated the headlines for weeks, and was denounced by Theodore Roosevelt. It changed the way lynching is discussed in the U.S. The outrage over Kishinev, in contrast to the lack of outrage over lynchings in the U.S., was itself felt to be outrageous and sparked a corrective on American soil.

BG: Reading history, one can’t help but look for some sort of redemptive lesson: if pogroms could bring about a movement for social change, perhaps that’s a kind of comfort. Yet the pogroms were also followed by the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S., and the massacre of Armenians in 1915, so the anti-lynching movement is only part of a larger picture.

SZ: One of the most extraordinary aspects of history is its formlessness, and the way people try to create a coherence out of this formlessness; that’s what I study. I leave moral lessons to others. What came to intrigue me at the outset is how this particular episode stuck so resolutely, while others—arguably more important—have disappeared. If I’ve explicated that, I’ve done what I set out to do.

Author photo: Tony Rinaldo

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 islands—and 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 Jew—what 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

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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Interview: Chanan Tigay

Tuesday, December 06, 2016 | Permalink

with Daniel Estrin

For Jewish Book Month, Jewish Book Council spoke with Chanan Tigay about his debut book, The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World's Oldest Bible, about the author’s quest to find a lost biblical manuscript, and to solve the historical riddle of its alleged forger, nineteenth-century Jerusalem antiquities dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira.

Daniel Estrin: Your book seeks to solve a real-life mystery of a lost ancient manuscript. How did you come across this story?

Chanan Tigay: I first heard of Moses Wilhelm Shapira from my father, a Bible scholar and rabbi who spent 15 years writing a commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy for the Jewish Publication Society. We were sitting around the Shabbat table one Friday night. I’m a journalist, and I started talking about some articles I had recently written—they had discovered Noah’s Ark again, which seems to happen at least annually. It was a team of Chinese Evangelicals this time, and they had come out with the news that they discovered wooden beams that had been a portion of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. It became a big story in the news, as it tends to be, and then within days, of course, a guy who had been a part of the expedition came forward and admitted that it was all a hoax. I was telling my family about some articles I had written about all this, and the interviews I was doing. When I was finished, my dad said, “Hey, speaking of Biblical hoaxes, there was this guy named Shapira who in 1883 showed up at the doorstep of the British Museum claiming to have the oldest copy of a portion of the Bible in the world.” And then he went on to tell the story in fairly light detail, because he knew the general outlines but he was not an expert on the case. Like many bible scholars, he knew the contours of the story—which immediately attracted me.

DE: That led to a four-year quest to solve the case. At what point did you decide to write a book about it?

CT: Initially, I was just interested in it the way I might be interested in astronomy. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to write about it. But being a journalist and a writer, there’s always that spark when you hear something interesting that gets you thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a good story.” And the more I dug, the more I realized this story had endless, unexpected twists and turns. At that point, I realized I could write something about this, but the initial thought was that it would be an article about the case. Very gradually, I came to the idea that it might actually be a book. I think that happened when I came to the realization that I wanted to hunt down Shapira’s missing Deuteronomy manuscript. At that point, it sort of solidified itself as an idea for a book.

DE: What has been the prevailing wisdom about Shapira's scrolls and why did you doubt it?

The prevailing wisdom pretty much until today had been that Shapira himself had forged the manuscript of Deuteronomy—a very odd manuscript, I should add, with many, many variant readings from the traditional text of Deuteronomy, including a shuffling of the Ten Commandments, and the addition of a new commandment. The idea was that Shapira had forged this manuscript; that he tried to sell it to the British Museum; that he had been caught; that, humiliated over having been caught, he had killed himself; and then, once that happened, that the manuscript had made its way to Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s auctioned it off: it was purchased by a British book dealer named Bernard Quarich, and Quarich, it was believed, sold the manuscript to an English-Australian nobleman named Sir Charles Nicholson. Nicholson lived in Australia, but at the end of his life lived in the north of London. His large estate burned down in 1899, and, the thinking went, the great likelihood was that Shapira’s manuscripts went up in flames along with the rest of Nicholson’s home.

The more research I did, the more it seemed to me that this theory was, at best, unlikely—or that I could think of other possibilities of what had happened to Shapira’s scrolls that were at least as likely if not more so.

DE: There are other detectives out there who have been on this hunt, too. You mention a particularly dedicated one, an Israeli documentary filmmaker named Yoram Sabo. Why did you think you could find answers when others hadn't?

CT: Initially, I didn’t. When I first met Yoram Sabo and he put out the faint possibility that he and I might work together, my instinct was to go for it. Because I felt like he had a 30-year head start on me, and there was no way I was ever going to catch up to him, that’s just seemed impossible. This guy was the Shapiramaniac as far as I could tell. He’d been searching for three decades at that point and so I didn’t think I was likely to be the one to find it. So I wanted to work with him. And ultimately that didn’t work out, so I was left with two possibilities: one was to quit, and the other was to say, hey, if he hasn’t found it in 30 years, maybe he’s not going to find it, and maybe what I need to do is start looking for different approaches, different angles from which to search, angles no one else has tried before.

DE: You traveled to seven countries, across four continents over the course of four years. Sometimes you wondered whether a trip was a "colossal waste." You mention "grasping at straws," and a "series of extreme long shots." Trip after trip, and archive after archive, led to a lot of dead ends. I found myself wondering: did you ever lose faith that you would find anything?

CT: I did, for sure. Here’s the thing: you’re right in saying it was dead end after dead end. But the other side of that was, each one of those dead ends taught me something new. Even if it was a tiny little new fact, often times it gave me some new insight, some new avenue that I thought I could follow up, that maybe then would hold out the hope of making a great discovery in the end. And so, even though stop after stop I didn’t find what I was looking for—and yes, that was extremely frustrating, because I wanted to find it, because I was spending time and money trying to find it, and because I had a publishing house waiting for this book that wanted me to find it, so there was a lot of stress and a lot of weight on my shoulders—I was always learning something new and potentially important.

Continue Reading »

Daniel Estrin is an American journalist in Jerusalem. He has reported on archaeology for The Associated Press, NPR and The New Republic.

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Interview: Michelle Adelman

Thursday, May 12, 2016 | Permalink

with Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Michelle Adelman's debut novel introduces a heroine whose failings, grief, and disability have become the background music of her life, but who nonetheless grows stronger because of her scars. Jewish Book Council chatted with the author about this unusual novel, Piece of Mind, its portrayal of the family dynamics in dealing with disability, and how Judaism emerged as a source of comfort to its protagonist, Lucy.

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone: Your background is in nonfiction and journalism. How did you become interested in writing fiction? And how did you use those skills when you wrote this novel?

Michelle Adelman: I started working in magazines, but after a couple of years I discovered that I wanted to write more creatively. I did an MFA in fiction and started to write short stories and then realized I wanted to write a novel.

The first elements of Piece of Mind came from my sister, who inspired Lucy. They were rooted in my observations, almost in an essayistic way. But I had to do a lot of research because as a family we never really talked about her traumatic brain injury. I enjoyed the research process, but also that I wasn't constricted to facts.

NLG: Did anything else help clarify how you wanted to tell this story?

MA: I started writing the book in third person. But when I switched to first person, a lot of my inadvertent judgement went away. It wasn't a conscious shift, but it granted the reader more empathy.

NLG: Lucy's condition is wrought by tragedy and accident. Why did you want to use more of the same to move the plot forward?

MA: I think I needed something to propel Lucy into the unfamiliar.

NLG: So it had to be something sudden.

MA: Yes, an accident was the only way I could conceive of it happening. It was the only way to push her past what she thinks she can do. And, it helped up the drama.

NLG: Can you tell me about Lucy's relationship to her father? It's loving but it's definitely not healthy.

MA: I wanted the love and care to be there—the good intentions were important. But I also wanted to convey that almost delusional quality they're both living in. They've coexisted in the same way for so long that they've become codependent.

NLG: They don't seem totally happy, but they also don't seem like they want to change.

MA: Exactly. It's unclear if either of them knows there's an issue.

NLG: Why is Lucy's mom out of the picture, too? It's almost too much! Lucy's father keeps her alive, and loves her, but isn't totally practical. I felt more sad about Lucy's longing for her mother than I did about her father's death.

MA: I always had the mother out of the picture, because I think it's harder for fathers and daughters to relate and wanted to explore that dynamic. The importance of a mother figure grew as I was writing. Lucy is seeking that maternal relationship.

NLG: Why is Lucy so opposed to the idea of being “disabled”?

MA: It's part of the way she's lived with her dad for so long, to be conditioned to think that her greatest goal is to be “normal.” But her development in the book is to understand that no one is normal or perfect, and that it would be much better for her if she took the world on her own terms. That refusal is a fundamental piece of her character.

NLG: Something that I love about Lucy is her inability to function gracefully. By refusing or being unable to do basic tasks, she throws the farce of our habits into high relief. It's like she can't help but ask, “what's the point of doing it this way?”

MA: She's almost like a time traveler or someone from another planet!

NLG: The Judaism in Piece of Mind seems to come up more strongly after tragedy strikes and Lucy needs comforting.

MA: I realized that when these characters are dealing with tragedy and accidents, they would turn to religion to help explain what's happening. It made sense that Lucy would go back to her Jewishness to explain the bigger world around her. Her father's belief system plays a role in who he is and how he abided by tradition. It grounds their whole family.

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone is a dance artist, choreographer, curator, writer and editor living in NYC. Read her dance criticism at The Dance Enthusiast and peep her curation @thebunkerpresents.

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