The ProsenPeople

Interview: Gena Feith

Thursday, November 05, 2015 | Permalink

by Becca Kantor

Jewish Book Council sat down with artist Gena Feith to talk about the inspi­ration behind her Jewish Book Month poster, the connection between writing and art, and illustrating her best friend’s challah recipe.

Becca Kantor: Tell me about your inspiration for the Jewish Book Month poster. What drew you to this project?

Gena Feith: Books and writing and painting are my passions, so this project combined a lot of the things in my wheelhouse. It seemed like a great fit. When I talked to Naomi [the Executive Director of Jewish Book Council] about what the vision was, I understood the essence of what they were trying to communicate—that what the Jewish Book Council has done for ninety years is not just the promotion of Jewish books, but it’s also fostering community and connection through books. The idea was to depict community through reading. I pitched them a bunch of different ideas, and it’s funny, this is the one I threw on at the end. It was actually a photograph of three blind children reading. That’s why the books are so big. But I kept the books really big because I liked that their presence is sort of like another character in the painting.

BTK: What does the composition of the painting symbolize to you?

GF: Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re painting until you’re painting it, and then you find meaning in it. I like the fact that the children are all involved in their own books, and the girl in the center is daydreaming. Even when I’m very absorbed in a book I have the tendency to drift off and think about how it relates to my life, or life in general. I like how the painting ended up evoking the dreamy quality of entering into these other worlds, and the work you can get done while dreaming.

Reading is such an intimate thing—it’s just you and this book—but some of my greatest friendships have been forged through reading together. Life doesn’t always allow for solitary, uninterrupted quiet time, especially when you have kids, when you have work, when you have this and that. But it can be such an important getaway into another reality.

BTK: In addition to being an accomplished artist, you also earned an MFA in creative writing and worked as speechwriter for several years. How does your background in writing influence your visual art?

GF: I got my MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia. When I was getting my MFA I had a tendency to write with a painterly quality. I collected words sort of like they were dabs of paint on my palette. I do appreciate a good story, but what was tricky was that I would get so consumed by the wordy painting of these worlds that it was like: what really hap­pened in the story? I’m not really sure!

When my daughter was born, I started painting again because it was sort of a way of writing; it was a way of making stuff and telling stories. I found a lot of joy in it. And it made sense—I used to write how I painted, a little bit, and I hope that I paint a little bit like how I write. Just the digressions, and the things that catch my eye, and the things I think are beautiful.

BTK: You’ve also combined writing and art in previous projects, like your graphic novel The Illustrated Eulogy of Herman Katz: Spaniel, Lover, Snackohol­ic. Do you feel that illustrations or art can be an integral part of books? Were you influenced by illustrations when you read as a child?

GF: Totally, completely. And I do miss that in books. The illustrations in Alice in Wonderland are like nothing else. I wish that there were more of that. Even now with my daughter we read the same books over and over and over again. That gets a little tedious, but I enjoy going back to these books so much. I’ve always loved writing and painting, but some of my favorite painters and writ­ers, even my favorite adult painters and writers, are sort of like visual storytellers.

BTK: Is Judaism important themati­cally in your art?

GF: Probably the most resonate ways that my Jewish identity comes through in my work is through my focus on family and memory. I work mostly from photographs and I paint a lot of paintings of old pictures of my family and new pic­tures of friends and mementos and keepsakes. I did a whole series of pillowcases that my mother needle­pointed in the 1970s while waiting in cars for my father (who is notori­ously unpunctual). And they’re such treasures to me—to me they tell such a story. It’s funny how these things that you paint can become a little bit of the person but they also become a little bit of you.

Right now I’m illustrating my best friend’s challah recipe. She taught me how to make challah maybe six months ago, and it’s become a mindfulness practice for me. I’d love to tell you that I’m the most mindful person, but actually I’m somewhat frenetic and I don’t really think in a very linear way at all. But making challah every Friday helps me remember the rest of my week, because otherwise it’s a blur. And the ritual of it—I love it. It just makes my soul feel good. I can’t explain it. It’s sort of magical.

BTK: What are you looking forward to reading during Jewish Book Month?

GF: I just read After Birth by Elisa Albert. It was unputdownable. It was compelling to hear a lot of my incoherent gripes so lucidly and beautifully distilled. I started rereading The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who is the coolest guy in the world. He was totally a ladies’ man. He looked like a little troll, but he used to walk around the Upper West Side and just pick women up, apparently. That’s one of the tidbits I learned in my MFA. And The Collected Short Stories of Deborah Eisenberg. All of her short stories are like little paintings in themselves. They’re weird and funny and deep.

Becca Kantor received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and her MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is the Managing Editor of Jewish Book World.

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The Knish as an Instrument of Social Justice

Monday, January 19, 2015 | Permalink

Laura Silver is the author of the book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food and an award-winning journalist whose writing on food and culture has appeared in The New York Times and the Forward and on NPR. She is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Je suis Charlie.
Je suis juive.
And yes, je suis knish.

The world is still reeling from brutal attacks in Paris. The events of Ferguson and the Eric Garner trial resonate. Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s time to consider the knish as an instrument of social justice.

1. Accessible Edible

The carbohydrate-rich knish stuffs the stomach and provides caloric intake for a low price point. The pillow of dough — round or square, sweet or savory — could feed an army, a small family or serve a single person for two meals. There’s a low barrier to entry for this simple food that is easy to produce in vegan and gluten-free varieties.

2. Instrument of Peace

Knish maker Gussie Schwebel offered to share “the humble knish” with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt – and asked if she could be of service to her adopted country “by way of introducing the knish, which is very wholesome and not costly to produce, into the diet of our armed forces.” And, years later proclaimed her potato pies as a catalyst for rapprochement on domestic and international fronts. She set out manufacture “Republican and Democratic knishes — the delicious dishes” and believed that knishes, when served with vodka, could help bring an end to the Cold War and usher in an era of world peace.

3. Catalyst for Caring

The 1970 novel Teitelbaum’s Window by Wallace Markfield introduces the Knishe Queen, who reigns over the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, with tenacity and a taste for the political, as evidenced by her letter to Mahatma Gandhi:

We want to once again wish you good luck in your freeing of India.
Our biggest hope of the Brighton Beach Jewish community is that
you don’t overdo it with your fasting because your country is not
going to appreciate if you come out of prison a nervous wreck.
May we therefore suggest that you think of yourself and do what
is good for you by breaking your fast on one of our blackberry or
gooseberry currant knishes which are so lightly fried in the finest
quality peanut oil that the word fried doesn’t even apply. As made
in our modern kitchens, these knishes are strictly parveh, meat
doesn’t go anywhere near them.

4. Capsule of Culture

The knish has been immortalized by Issac Baschevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem and Barbra Streisand, who, in her welcome back to Brooklyn concert in 2012, adapted the lyrics of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from the musical Sunset Boulevard to pay homage to the street food of her youth.

Yes, a world with hot knishes
Is incredibly delicious

Hip hop artist SD3 (an abbreviation of Sammy Davis III) has used the knish to bridge cultural and culinary divides – and to spur conversations, using — nu? — the knish. Case in point, the lyrics of ditty he belts out in a music video set at – where else? – a bar mitzvah.

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Knish
A table full of Bubbe’s goodies is what I wish.

The potato pie also works as an ambassador. Wrapped pastries like Jamaican patties, aloo pies, samosas and empanadas that occur in culinary traditions of all ethnicities and flavors count as knishing cousins.

5. Champion of Underdogs and Unmentionables

The knish doesn’t shy away from tender topics. Nightclub crooner Pearl Williams harnessed its Yiddish slang meaning to project female power. Her 1961 record album (yes, vinyl), A Trip around the World Is Not a Cruise, oozed innuendos, loud, proud and unapologetic.

I found a new way to do it. For money.
Don’t laugh. For years . . . I was doing it for love. Then one day I
took a ride through the Holland Tunnel and I saw a big sign: “Pay as
you enter.” What an idea hit my brain. Now I have a tattoo above the
knish: “Pay as you enter.” Underneath, I have a tattoo: “Thank you,
call again. Member of the Diners Club.”

So, if you’re feeling distraught about the state of the world, or need to summon strength for a Day of Service, reach for a knish. It contains multitudes and will help you steel yourself for the challenges to come. Remember, it’s not our job to finish it, but we must begin.

Laura Silver has been a writer in residence at the Millay Colony, the Banff Centre, and the New York Public Library. She is considered the world’s leading expert on the knish.

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Internal Dialogue: Book Programs and Community Partnerships

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Family Histories and Fiction

Friday, December 26, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ronna Wineberg wrote about saying Kaddish for her mother and also shared a deleted scene from her first novel, On Bittersweet Place. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Russian portions of On Bittersweet Place are loosely based on my family history.

When I was growing up, though, I knew only the broad outlines of that history. My paternal grandparents came from Lithuania and met in Chicago. I knew very little about their lives. My grandfather had died when my father was seventeen. My grandmother didn’t speak about the past except to tell us that we were related to a great, intellectual family, The Katzenellenbogens, and to the teacher of Albert Einstein. She didn’t talk about her parents or siblings or life in Europe.

I knew more about my mother’s family. She was the first child born in America. Her parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles all came Russia. Our small house was filled with visitors, relatives who spoke with thick accents. Though I’m a second generation American, I often felt as if I had a foot in each world then, the old and the new. My great grandfather had been murdered in a pogrom. I didn’t know how or when.

When I was in college, my cousins and I decided to talk to my mother’s family about Russia. We gathered relatives in the living room of my parents’ house and asked questions. We were riveted by stories of hardship, persecution, and flight. The discussions were passionate; people disagreed about the details of what had happened. My great uncle, a man in his late sixties, described his father’s murder in Russia. As he did, my uncle cried. That moment stayed with me.

I never learned more about my father’s family. I knew I was fortunate to have learned about my mother’s history. I knew, too, I wanted to write about an immigrant family in the 1920s. But I wrote short stories about other subjects, a collection of stories, Second Language.

Finally I went back to the family history. Writing On Bittersweet Place taught me how to use fact in order to create fiction. This is what I learned:

1. Family stories aren’t enough. I realized I didn’t know the history of the period. I did research about the world of 1912 to 1928 first. Questions arose as I wrote and revised. I had to do more research. Were matchbooks used in 1927? Yes, I discovered. Was “big shot” a phrase in 1927? No, I learned. The details needed to be right.

2. Facts can interfere with imagination. I began to write about life in Russia using the facts of my great grandfather’s death. This didn’t work. I decided I wanted to capture the emotion surrounding his death but not to duplicate the facts. This decision felt liberating. I created a new family and characters. When I discovered Lena’s voice, On Bittersweet Place developed a rhythm, a direction. Lena isn’t based on a real person. She led me through the book.

3. A novel begins with an idea: what if. Recently, I read from On Bittersweet Place at a synagogue. During the Q&A, an eighth grader asked, “How did Lena know she wanted to become an artist if she had never tried to draw?”

“Each person is different from the other,” I said, struck by the question. “One person wants to draw, another to swim, and another to sing. Do you ever get an idea that you want to try something you’ve never done before?” I asked.

“Oh, yes.” He nodded.

“That’s what happened with Lena and drawing. She just wanted to try it. Try to be an artist.”

I realized this is a description of writing a novel. A novel is an idea that comes to a writer. It may be based on a phrase, an image, a fact. The writer doesn’t know if he or she can actualize the idea. But the writer tries. As I wrote, I wondered: what if this happened or that happened. I experimented, surprised by the characters and plot twists.

4. Characters will guide the writer. Lena’s brother Simon pushed me to make him a more important character than I’d anticipated. Lena behaved in ways I didn’t expect when I began to write the book.

5. The writer needs time. All writing, especially a novel, needs time to percolate. I needed time to focus on the book in a consistent way. Since fiction isn’t bound by fact, scenes and characters can be re-imagined and rewritten in draft after draft. That’s one of the pleasures of writing. The author Paul Theroux has said, “Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” Everything in a novel is open to change. Until the book is published. Then the characters and story fly away from the writer. The book takes on a life of its own.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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The Little Shul

Tuesday, December 23, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ronna Wineberg wrote about Chanukah and shared a deleted scene from her first novel, On Bittersweet Place. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When my father died at 93 in June 2012, I wanted to do something to mark his death. To say Kaddish. My mother had passed away in 2010. We sat shiva for her. Afterward, in the flurry of clearing out the house near Chicago where they’d lived for 55 years, taking care of my father, and moving him to an apartment, I hadn’t said Kaddish for her with regularity. This was a nagging omission.

At the time of his death, I was revising my novel, On Bittersweet Place. I stopped the revisions, shaken by the loss. Though my father lived a long life, he’d been doing well and died suddenly. As I wrestled with my grief, I realized I might have been too cavalier about the deaths that occurred in my novel.

A friend once told me that losing the last parent is like losing a third parent. Now I understood. I felt the loss of my father, my mother, of who they were together, and also of the protective, loving layer they had provided for me. In the best circumstances, there was a hierarchy to mortality; the buffer had fallen away.

After my father’s shiva, I returned home to New York and proceeded with my plan. I didn’t have high expectations when I went to my first Friday night service at the little shul in Greenwich Village. The synagogue I attended for holidays was far. I chose the one in the Village because it was close to where I lived. I was disappointed to learn there was no daily minyan, only Friday evening and Saturday morning services, occasionally Sunday morning. I thought of the synagogue as the “little shul.” The old building was set back from the street, behind a courtyard, and it was tiny, like a rustic city house. I went there hoping the synagogue would be a repository for my grief. I imagined I should be able to weather my parents’ deaths with ease, perspective, and acceptance. But, in truth, I felt unanchored.

That first Friday night, twenty congregants sat in the small sanctuary. When I stood to say Kaddish in this new venue, shock swept through me. I had reached this point in life: an orphan. I was flooded with an ache for my mother, my father, the world they had created together. My father’s humor, the tilt of his head when he laughed, his quiet wisdom. When I was younger—with youthful arrogance—I had been critical of him. Now I was flooded with love for him, the depth of which I hadn’t realized when he was alive. The words of the Kaddish, like a chant, calmed and comforted me.

After services, the rabbi, cantor, and congregants greeted me warmly. I met a man at synagogue that night, also a writer. He became a friend. His mother had just died, too, two days after my father. This became the ritual that summer, fall, winter, and spring: Friday night I attended services, looking forward to Kaddish, to thinking about my parents. Judaism was important to them. In the little shul, I felt close to them. Sometimes I attended on Saturday morning. After services, I visited with others in the congregation. Then my new friend and I walked home together. We parted when our paths diverged. He went west. I continued south. But first we stood on the sidewalk and talked about our losses, the raw grief, the administrative details, family complications, the closing up of a parent’s life and final closing up of an essential part of our own lives. We talked about our writing. He and I were walking down the same road.

I said personal prayers at home because there was no daily minyan.

To my surprise, I began to look forward to going to services, seeing the rabbi, my new friend, and others. We developed a bond. The predictability of the routine comforted me. I was grateful I’d found this new world.

During the year of saying Kaddish, I went back to work on my novel and considered what it meant to suffer a loss. Suffer. I thought about what a parent can give to a child. Not a physical gift. But time, attention, emotional connection.

I saw more clearly what the Czernitski family in On Bittersweet Place could give to one another. I felt greater empathy for my characters, for Lena and especially her mother and father who had lost parents. And I remembered a quote by Sigmund Freud I’d read years ago. He wrote about his father’s death: “By the time he died his life had long been over, but at a death the whole past stirs within one.”

I knew the past stirred within many of the characters in On Bittersweet Place. Lena and her family had fled their homeland in the Ukraine after the October Revolution and settled in Chicago in the 1920s. They had been persecuted, lost relatives and a home. I knew the past stirred within me when I thought of my parents. Like Lena, I wanted to slam shut the gates of tears. I understood the characters with new depth and felt a kinship. I understood the poignancy and finality of absence. I dove into the work of revision, eager to help the characters wrestle with their grief, mourn, and join the world of living again.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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Chanukah: A Repository of Memory

Monday, December 22, 2014 | Permalink

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, her first novel, and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Chanukah is here again. The holiday’s arrival reminds me of the sweetness of celebrations when I was a child and when my children were young. Chanukah is also a reminder that another year has passed, a marker of time, and a reminder of the winter darkness that lies ahead. The glowing candles seem like hopeful beacons in the harshness of winter.

When I was a child, we celebrated the holiday with our large extended family. My mother’s parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles were born in Russia. The sounds of our celebration were a mix of English spoken without an accent, with an accent, and Yiddish. The children were given gifts, usually what we needed: a new winter coat, a wool sweater and socks, sometimes a decorative piece of clothing like a blouse or colorful scarf. The presents were utilitarian, but the celebration was joyous with scents of latkes filling the house.

In school, of course, Christmas was the dominant holiday. A few progressive teachers spoke about Chanukah and displayed a menorah. We didn’t know about Kwanzaa then. My children celebrated all three holidays in school; each holiday was given equal weight.

For the characters in On Bittersweet Place, who live in Chicago in the 1920s, Chanukah has a similar meaning but is also a stark reminder of their otherness. They are immigrants, strangers in their new land. Today’s immigrants are strangers, too, and still need to overcome the same obstacles the Czernitski family faced: learning a new language, finding work and housing, understanding a new culture, and dealing with prejudice. No amount of desire for assimilation can help immigrants feel comfortable with certain customs.

Lena feels her otherness even more strongly during the holidays, feels the precarious balance between her two worlds. Her teacher leads the class in Christmas carols and reads aloud Christmas stories.

Here is a scene that did not fit into the book. Although I liked this scene, I felt it didn’t move the narrative forward in the way I’d hoped, and so I didn’t include it in the novel. Lena hurries home after singing Christmas carols at school and walking past the Christmas tree displayed in the school hallway. She feels dejected. She didn’t know the words to the carols sung at school; her otherness has been exposed. The small apartment on Bittersweet Place is filled with the familiar smells of latkes. This is the same smell that lingered in the house when I was a child and when my children were young. The simple copper menorah sits on the ledge of the Czernitski kitchen window. Blessings are sung; candles are lit, flicker and glow. Small presents are given. Lena’s mother Reesa distributes the gifts, which are not wrapped. She wears a yellow apron over her blue cotton dress; she has been cooking. Lena’s brother Simon receives a red wool hat, Lena a pair of black wool gloves, thick to withstand the winter cold. Reesa gives nothing to her husband Chaim. She prefers to save money and use it for what the children need. But she prepares a favorite sweet for him, egg kichels. He brings her a single yellow rose, bought from a flower shop, an extravagance and uncharacteristic gesture of tenderness.

The holiday is a repository of memory for the Czernitski family and, perhaps, for every family, especially immigrants. Year after year we celebrate with the same foods, melodies, and prayers. Those with whom we celebrate, changes. Children grow up and move away, people we love become ill and die, we may move from one country to another, but the traditions remain. While Chaim reads the Chicago Tribune at the kitchen table, waiting for the aunts and uncles to arrive, Reesa sits in the living room with Lena and Simon, telling stories about family members who were killed in Russia. Year after year, the same stories, the same names.

For Lena, there is relief when the stories, songs, Christmas carols, Christmas tree, and the pull of the past ends. Reesa sets the menorah on a high kitchen shelf. The holiday is over. Lena can dive into life again and continue on her journey to find her “true nature” and the sense of safety and belonging she hopes for in her new home.

Ronna Wineberg is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.

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5 Alternate Histories of Zion

Friday, December 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam Rovner wrote about what he thinks would have been the most viable Zion outside of Israel and top five alternative Jewish homelands that he didn't explore in his new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, out this week from NYU Press. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel presents a narrative history of modern proposals to create autonomous Jewish territories beyond the borders of Israel. I’ve referred to my book as a “shadow history” of Zionism—an effort to bring to light the forgotten struggles of a failed branch of Jewish nationalism called territorialism. Territorialism’s adherents believed in the necessity of establishing a Jewish home somewhere in the world other than the land of Israel. While researching and writing my book, I came across a number of works of fiction that imaginatively engaged with territorialist what-if scenarios. Here’s a list of five alternate histories of Zion in English and Hebrew:

Number 5—Herzl Amar (2011)

Israeli author Yoav Avni’s novel considers what might have happened had a Jewish state been established in East Africa. The plot follows two friends who plan a trip to Palestine after their compulsory military service in a counterfactual African Israel. This clever and often satiric vision of contemporary Israel owes a debt to the historical proposal advanced by Theodor Herzl in 1903 to create a “New Judea” in what is today western Kenya. A chapter of my book is devoted to the so-called Uganda Plan and the crises it engendered, including a rupture at the heart of the Zionist Organization and an assassination attempt against Herzl’s lieutenant. An excerpt appeared in English last year in

Number 4—IsraIsland (2005)

Nava Semel’s genre-bending Hebrew novel imagines in one of its three sections what might have happened had Mordecai Manuel Noah’s planned Jewish micronation of Ararat developed into a city-state in the Niagara River. Ararat, in Semel’s vision, becomes a force in American politics and succeeds so wildly that Jews can barely recall their biblical homeland. In my book, I describe Noah’s urgent call to European Jewry to resettle in America following the notorious Hep-Hep Riots of 1819. No one came, and Noah himself was ridiculed by religious leaders in France and England, and by the press in the United States.

Number 3—“Noah’s Ark” (1899)

British author and early Zionist leader Israel Zangwill published “Noah’s Ark” during a period of close collaboration with Herzl. The story imagines that Noah’s call for immigration is answered by a German Jew, Peloni, a name derived from the Hebrew word for an anonymous “someone.” Fired by inspiration, Peloni sails for the New World intending to make Noah’s Ararat his home. He soon settles upon the site of the planned Jewish sanctuary near Buffalo, New York, but he remains the sole occupant of Noah’s utopian project and is condemned to loneliness and despair.

Number 2—“The Last Jew” (1946)

This compelling and bizarre short story was penned by Jacob Weinshall, a doctor, author, and supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s right-wing Revisionist party. In the story, the Nazis have emerged victorious from World War II and exterminated every last Jew, except for a single survivor living in Madagascar. He is eventually discovered and condemned to death by a technocratic Nazi regime. Some Hebrew readers consider “The Last Jew” to be the first literary work to imagine a Nazi victory, now a staple plot in the alternate history genre. My book examines Jewish efforts to create a refugee colony in Madagascar, and how that plan was ultimately perverted by the Nazis. Though doubts remain, my research leads me to believe that Jabotinsky himself supported limited Jewish relocation to Madagascar, a fact which may help explain Weinshall’s hallucinatory tale.

Number 1—The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

Michael Chabon’s clever novel may be the most familiar example of a territorialist what-if. Chabon makes use of the detective genre to explore the fictional world of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish territory in Sitka, Alaska. The premise derives from a real proposal to channel Jewish immigrants to Alaska that was supported by Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, in 1938. Chabon, however, revealed to me that his fantasy also has its origins in his long-standing fascination with Mordecai Manuel Noah’s plan for Ararat.

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Where Should We Have Gone?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Adam Rovner wrote about the top five alternative Jewish homelands that he didn't explore in his new book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, out this week from NYU Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often describe my book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, as the biography of an idea: the modern idea that Jews needed a national home somewhere—anywhere—except the biblical land of Israel. This Jewish nationalist ideology was known as territorialism and is nearly forgotten today. But in some eras it was more popular than Zionism. My book explores six territorialist projects in a variety of far-flung locations: upstate New York, western Kenya (the “Uganda Plan”), Angola’s fertile plateaus, the central highlands of Madagascar, extreme southwestern Tasmania, and the lush tropics of Suriname. I traveled to each of these sites of territorialist aspiration, and whenever I speak about my research, audiences ask me which location would have been best for the establishment of an autonomous Jewish colony.

That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. It’s far easier to cross off places from the list. Certainly Angola, with its centuries of colonial exploitation at the hands of the Portuguese, doesn’t seem as if it would have been a promising promised land. Kenya, too, would have been a site fraught with ethnic, tribal, and decolonization struggles. Nonetheless, the regions under consideration in both Angola and Kenya are extraordinarily fertile and would have been agriculturally superior to much of the soil in Ottoman Palestine. The expense of settling remote areas lacking infrastructure, like Madagascar and Tasmania, would have been immense. In the case of Tasmania, the area proposed for settlement would have been nearly impossible to cultivate due to climate and environment.

That leaves upstate New York and Suriname as the two most reliable contenders. There’s little doubt that Grand Island in the Niagara River near Buffalo would have prospered. Located at the terminus of the Erie Canal, Grand Island might have become a commercial center in the 1820s as Mordecai Manuel Noah had prophesied. But the temporal distance of Noah’s plan renders it difficult to compare to the other proposals, all of which were put forward in the twentieth century. And so, I think Suriname, the smallest independent country in South America, would have been the most viable alternative Zion.

Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, possesses the oldest continual Jewish presence in the New World, which dates back to the first half of the seventeenth century. In the late-eighteenth century, residents of Jodensavanne, a Jewish community of sugar planters and mercantilists located along the Suriname River, boasted a level of autonomy unheard of at that time—and for long after. By the time the Dutch colony was considered as a potential sanctuary for Jewish refugees from Europe in the late 1930s, much of the population of Suriname claimed some Jewish heritage. I imagine that this rich history would have smoothed the path for Jewish immigrants.

Likewise, Suriname’s rich natural resources, generally healthy climate, fertile soil, sparse population, and proximity to the U.S. and major shipping routes might have sped the pace of agro-industrial development and economic growth. But that’s all just a boring rationale. Really, I like to imagine what a Yiddish-speaking community of pineapple farmers living at the edge of a rainforest would look like.

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Top 5 Promised Lands I Didn’t Explore

Monday, December 08, 2014 | Permalink

Adam Rovner is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel out this week from NYU Press. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My book, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, details six modern efforts to create Jewish homelands beyond the borders of biblical Israel. Most of these plans were advanced by territorialists—Jewish nationalists who sought to settle a land other than Eretz Israel. While conducting archival research, I visited each of the potential territories my work describes: Angola, Kenya, Madagascar, upstate New York, Suriname, and Tasmania. But there were several other plans for Jewish states I didn’t examine, either because they never advanced far enough to be considered serious proposals, or because I didn’t want get myself killed. Here’s a list of alternate Zions for that sequel I’ll never write:

Number 5—Arctic Ocean Islands (1931)

The famed Graf Zeppelin, fresh from its historic flight over the Holy Land, departed on a mission to map the polar regions of northernmost Europe in 1931. On board was a young journalist, Arthur Koestler, who had lived in British Mandate Palestine and become an ardent Zionist frustrated with British policies. Koestler plotted to drop “blue-and-white [flags] with the shield of David in gold in the center” from the hatches of the Zeppelin over undiscovered Arctic islands. The hot-headed reporter believed that by doing so, he could claim land in the name of the Jewish people. The concept of ownerless land—terra nullis—was frequently invoked in the era of exploration, and so Koestler’s idea was not as harebrained as might be thought. The expedition did indeed discover uncharted islands, but Koestler never dropped any flags. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a grant generous enough to allow me to charter a dirigible to the Arctic. Does the MacArthur Foundation read this?

Number 4—New Caledonia (1936)

This French territory consists of several islands in the Coral Sea and lies about 800 miles from the eastern coast of Australia. Photographs show it to be a paradise of white sand beaches and palm trees reflected in clear blue water. In November 1936, the Paris branch of the Freeland League for Jewish Colonization—the major territorialist organization at the time—pushed for mass emigration from Europe to French possessions. Representatives met with the French Colonial Minister to disclose their plans for establishing a “new Jewish center” for refugees fleeing European anti-Semitism. The Minister was sympathetic to the cause and seriously considered the Freeland League’s call to investigate opportunities in New Caledonia, French Guiana, and Madagascar. After studying their proposals, the Minister announced that Madagascar presented the most favorable option for a Jewish colony. New Caledonia dropped from the territorialist agenda as the Freelanders turned their attention to Madagascar. I examine the Madagascar Plan in my book, and sometimes I still dream about a Jewish State with lemurs.

Number 3—Baja California (1933)

In the early 1930s, American rabbi and Zionist George Richter struck up a friendship with the powerful press magnate William Randolph Hearst. At the time, Hearst possessed large land holdings along the Baja Peninsula south of California. Richter, concerned about Hitler’s rise to power, worked to convince Hearst to create settlements for Jewish refugees on his lands. Richter raised funds and promoted the plan with the help of American Zionists and territorialists. But the Mexican government had no interest in ceding control over its territory to impoverished Jewish refugees, even if they had Hearst’s tacit support. Likewise, at least according to one historian, American powerbroker Rabbi Stephen Wise opposed the scheme in the mistaken belief that Hitler would soon fall from power. I ended up traveling to Baja while writing In the Shadow of Zion, but that was for the book photographer’s bachelor party in Los Cabos. No archival research ensued.

Number 2—Guyana (1938)

Just two days after Kristallnacht, America’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy—yes, that one—went to Downing Street to discuss the crisis with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The idea of settling Jewish refugees in British Guiana (now independent Guyana) originated with Kennedy. The Ambassador sought a way to help Chamberlain salvage “peace in our time” and also aid his patron, President Roosevelt, whose advisors had spent months debating what to do with the waves of emigrants fleeing the Reich. American, British, and Yiddish newspapers got wind of their efforts and reported on the Anglo-American proposal to settle 50,000 Jews in British Guiana. Chaim Weizmann opposed the plan, but momentum gathered and in January 1939 an expedition was dispatched to the South American colony. Their report was cautiously optimistic about settling Guyana’s teeming jungles, but there was little enthusiasm for the scheme and no funds were forthcoming. I did make it to Guyana for a few days of preliminary research and I’m happy to report that they have excellent, and potent, rum.

Number 1—Libya (1908)

In 1905, after the 7th Zionist Congress rejected the idea of an African Zion in “Uganda” (actually today’s Kenya), British author and prominent Zionist Israel Zangwill formed a rival movement, the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO). Zangwill’s ITO rejected the idea of creating a Jewish national home in Ottoman Palestine as impractical. ITO supporters examined a host of other territories, including Australia, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Libya, specifically the eastern coastal region of Cyrenaica. In 1908, the ITO sent a scientific commission to explore Cyrenaica and consult with local Ottoman authorities. They traveled by camel over the course of several weeks from the eastern city of Derna west to Benghazi. Their report was disappointing: the land was both less fertile and more populated than had been thought. And so, the plan was stillborn. I had originally hoped to trace the route of the 1908 expedition for my book despite having two strikes against me: I’m a dual American-Israeli citizen. What would have been unwise in 2010 became suicidal after Libya plunged into chaos in 2011. Perhaps one day I’ll get there. Maybe if the photographer for my next book throws a bachelor party in Benghazi.

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Four Generations of Lunch, from India to Australia

Wednesday, December 03, 2014 | Permalink

Elana Benjamin is an Australian freelance writer. In 2014, her work has been published in major Australian publications including The Sydney Morning Herald and Sunday Life magazine. My Mother’s Spice Cupboard is her first book. She is blogging here today for the Jewish Book Council and is available to speak to book clubs through JBC's Live Chat program.

“Will there be leftover chapatis for me to take to school tomorrow?” my daughter asks. It’s 5:00 PM and I’m preparing dinner, hurriedly rolling dough into imperfect circles. “You can have two for your lunchbox,” I reply. But that’s not enough. She requests another chapati. Although I’m certain she could eat a third Indian flatbread, the extra one’s not for her. It’s to distribute among her closest friends.

My mother often made delicious chapatis for my brother and me when we were children. She intended them to accompany one of her bhajis – perhaps spinach, or cauliflower and potato. But neither my brother nor I had an appetite for spiced vegetables. Australian-born junglees, we preferred to devour our warm, slightly chewy chapatis doused in butter, cinnamon and sugar; our own Indian-pancake creation.

But Mum never packed chapatis for our school lunches. My lunchbox staple was a peanut butter and honey sandwich on white bread, cut into two identical triangles. It was pauper’s fare compared to the hot, hand-delivered meals which my mother feasted on thirty years earlier as a Bombay schoolgirl.

The movie The Lunchbox has been screening in cinemas around the world. It’s the story of a mistaken delivery in Mumbai’s remarkable lunchbox delivery system. But these are no lunchboxes that a Westerner might imagine.

Termed dabba in Hindi (and also known as tiffins), they are cylindrical metal canisters comprising stackable containers which clip together with a handle. Each container is filled with a different food item to make a complete meal (for example rice, meat and vegetables). The dabba is transported around Mumbai by a network of approximately 5,000 delivery men known as dabbawallahs. Every working day these dabbawallahs – most of whom are only semi-literate – transport more than 130,000 ‘lunchboxes’ all over the city.

In 1950s and 60s Bombay (now Mumbai), my grandmother spent her mornings cooking elaborate meals for her family’s lunch. Her deadline was the dabbawallah’s arrival at the entrance of her apartment building. Each day, he came to collect three dabbas: one for my grandfather in his city office, the rest to be delivered to my mother and her siblings at school.

My mother’s dabba was already waiting when she arrived at her designated seat in the lunchroom of her all-girl Catholic school - even during the heavy rains of the monsoon season. One container was always filled with rice, but my grandmother’s cuisine otherwise varied. Sometimes it was meatballs with beetroot. Other days her menu featured chicken and okra, or dhal and chapati.

When she’d finished eating, my mother packed up her dabba and left it on the table to be collected by the dabbawallah and returned to my grandmother for washing and the next day’s use.

Many of my mother’s fellow students also received dabbawallah-transported lunches. But Mum was one of only a handful of Jewish girls in a school which numbered over a thousand. Her family strictly observed Judaism’s dietary laws, so it was imperative that her meal wasn’t mixed up with another, non-kosher lunch. Yet my mother never received the wrong dabba. Indeed, a Harvard University analysis concluded that only one in a million dabbas is ever delivered to the wrong address.

My mother left this world behind when she emigrated from Bombay in 1966, eventually settling in Sydney in 1970. Busy building a new life in Australia, my parents didn’t dwell on the past. My mother never explained the significance of the metal canister with three containers which sat in the corner cupboard of our kitchen. She didn’t tell me stories of the dabbawallahs and the lunches they’d delivered to her. And yet, my parents’ native India was the invisible lodger in our Bondi home.

Despite their English mother-tongue, my parents regularly switched to Hindustani to convey secret adult messages (“bacha lok ka samne mat bat karo” – “don’t speak in front of the children”). We shopped for groceries at the local supermarket, but also made regular expeditions to ‘Eze Moses’ – one of Sydney’s earliest spice shops. In the pungent-smelling aisles, we stocked up on sacks of basmati rice, bags of lentils, jars of brinjal (eggplant) pickle, and the item I coveted most – tall bottles of hot pink, rose-flavoured syrup. Foods which were unseen and unheard of in the kitchens of other families I knew.

I quickly learned the dances of blending in and belonging. Kotmir and piala chai were for home. ‘Coriander’ (cilantro) and ‘cup of tea’ were for out. Fresh young coconuts – if my father could get track them down – were for home. Coca Cola and lemonade were for out. Like a chameleon, I commuted between my two worlds, never mentioning chapatis, rose cordial or coconut water outside the house.

I shouldn’t have felt this tension – almost all my friends were Jewish, just like us. But in many ways, they weren’t like us at all. Most were unfamiliar with the existence of light-skinned Jews from India whose ancestors were Arabic speakers from Iraq.

Yet my nine-year-old daughter has a different approach. For her, our differences are to be embraced, not concealed. Sherequests extra chapatis to share with her friends in the playground, and eagerly shows off her ability to count in Hindi.

The current generation of children are growing up with vocabularies which include ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’. Supermarkets flaunt aisles brimming with international food. And Indian movies are shown in mainstream cinemas, prompting me to tell my daughter the story of Mumbai’s remarkable dabbawallahs and their role in our family’s history. Wide-eyed, she listens intently. And finally, I am not embarrassed by my unique heritage, but deeply proud.

Elana Benjamin holds an Arts/Law degree (History major) from the University of New South Wales. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children. Read more about her at

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