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On Golems and Empathy: An Interview with Jonathan Auxier

Monday, February 11, 2019 | Permalink

I recently had the opportunity to ask Jonathan Auxier, author of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, some questions about his acclaimed novel. Sweep—a finalist for the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature and winner of the 2019 Sydney Taylor Gold Award in the Older Readers category—has impressed both readers and critics with its compelling characters and exciting narrative, as well as its sophisticated integration of history and fiction. Auxier has made a significant new literary contribution to the Jewish myth of the golem, a supernatural being invested with the hopes and fears of oppressed people.

Emily Schneider: You mention your visit to Prague at the age of nineteen, and how much the city seemed imbued with the myth of the golem, Rabbi Loew’s sixteenth-century monstrous creature sent to rescue the Jewish people from danger. At the time, you weren’t familiar with this mysterious figure in Jewish folklore, but you became fascinated by it. Why you do you think you maintained this fascination over the years, and eventually pursued it as an author?

Jonathan Auxier: It’s hard to say why certain ideas lodge into the heart of a writer. I think many traditional monsters lack complexity that feels true to the way the world works. That’s not the case with the golem of Prague. His entire genesis is rooted in the (ugly) way the world works. And even when Rabbi Loew uses magic to save his community, the outcome is not unambiguously happy: the golem himself, for all his enchanted might, cannot escape the pain of what it means to live in this world.

Another reason the golem stuck with me for all those years was that it still felt like unexplored territory. The golem is a creature of folklore, rather than literature. He has not been confined to a single definitive text (contrast this with Frankenstein’s monster or Count Dracula or Mr. Hyde—all of whom are inextricably linked to their authors). The golem of Prague is certainly the most famous golem, but he is not the only golem. Virtually every golem I’ve ever encountered is slightly different than those that have come before. There’s a freedom to this, as it lets a writer build a story around a specific character rather than a canonical narrative. Also, they’re fun to draw!

ES: One of the most rewarding qualities of your book is its simultaneous sophistication and accessibility. Young readers will become wrapped up in the excitement of the story, but there are so many intricate historical and literary ingredients that bring it to life. The past of children’s literature is very much alive in your book! Can you tell us about the literary influences on Sweep?

JA: The chief non-golem literary influence is definitely Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. Some say this was the first “modern” children’s book. It’s a strange, very dated novel, but the beginning is gripping: it details the horrible life of a “climbing boy”—one of countless children working as chimney sweeps in the nineteenth century. Once I read Water Babies, I was hooked. The more I researched climbing boys, the more I knew I wanted to write a story set in that world.

The one problem is that the history of climbing boys is unimaginably bleak. There were research days I was so emotionally destroyed that I didn’t think I could go on. And so I began looking for stories that might teach me how to find hope in hopeless situations. I ended up coming back to two favorites: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. I think those stories, each in their own way, showed me a path through the impossibly bleak world of chimney sweeps.

ES: Your young heroine, Nan Sparrow, is vulnerable and strong. As parents, we know that our children all begin life in need of our protection. You have written about how becoming a parent of three children, one with special needs, had a definite impact on your vision of Nan. Can you explain this connection between your life and your work?

JA: Just to be clear, my youngest daughter’s disability only relates to this question insofar as she came with attendant health problems (chiefly, a congenital heart defect called AVSD); facing the possibility that she might not survive forced me to reckon with what it means to care for someone who I might not be able to protect from harm. That experience was a heightened version of what any parent experiences with any child. Being a parent changes you. All of this to say that having daughters was less about informing Nan’s characterization and more about deepening my understanding of the Sweep—the whole story stems from what he can and cannot do to protect Nan from harm.

ES:Another quality that stands out in Sweep is empathy: for children, for laborers, for women, for Jews. If you will excuse the chutzpah of this question, how did you develop and convey such a great sense of empathy for the Jewish people (which is central to the novel, in the myth of the golem and in the character of Esther Bloom)?

JA: I’m glad to hear that empathy came through, because it’s certainly there—the warm reception of Sweep in the Jewish community has meant so, so much to me. In practical terms, I worked with a number of outside readers and had a lot of conversations about the Jewish experience, which is a big part of it. And before that came years of research: as with many of the uglier aspects of human history, the only way to deny it is to ignore it. It’s impossible to read about marginalized groups in Victorian London and not be horrified—and it’s impossible not to read current headlines and see that these issues are with us still. I think it was Neil Gaiman who referred to books as “little empathy machines.” I came to care about these other identities and concerns by reading books. It is my deepest hope that Sweep has that effect on some future reader.

ES: In the historical note included at the end of the book, you remind readers that child labor is still, tragically, a reality today. How did you achieve a balance in Sweep between telling the stories of unique individuals, and bringing in social issues which are important to you?

JA: This is a place where Nan’s journey mirrors my own. I’m not an activist at heart—I’m a homebody who just wants to be left in peace. At the beginning of the book, Nan is very similar: she wants to keep her head down, do her job, and survive. Characters repeatedly try to form relationships that she rejects. It isn’t until she’s saddled with an infant golem that she has no choice but to open herself up to relationship. And once that happens, it’s a slippery slope! Once you start caring about one other person, it pushes you to care for another and another and so on until you start to care about the world. At some point while writing Sweep I understood that Nan’s journey was one of isolation to social consciousness—of connecting herself to her larger community in service of justice. Over the ten years it took to write this book, I underwent a similar change . . . I’m still not sure if Nan led me there or vice-versa!

Emily Schneider is a writer and educator living in New York City. She has published on children's literature, feminism, and politics in Tablet, The Foward, Jewcy, and Family Reading at the Hornbook. She blogs about children's books at https://imaginaryelevators.blog/.

This interview was coordinated in collaboration with the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the Association of Jewish Libraries. Check out all of the interviews with Sydney Taylor Award winners being published this week.

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Bram Presser

Thursday, February 07, 2019 | Permalink


In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt  is the winner of the 2018 Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction. The Debut Fiction panel judges write: The Book of Dirt is “the mystery of Jakub Rand, the chronicler of Jewish books for the Nazis’ planned Museum of the Extinct Race. It is the story of Frantiska Roubickova, who watches her mischlinge (mixed) daughters taken away by the Nazis, and who persevered in providing for them under impossible conditions. And it is the story of two courageous sisters who embraced life in the face of intolerable challenges . . . Presser succeeds in giving us a first novel that goes well beyond what is expected from a debut. The Book of Dirt firmly establishes Presser as an author to watch.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Bruno Schulz, Oliver Sacks, Aharon Appelfeld. Though I’d prefer they were alive at dinner.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislav Fuks. A dark, surreal delight. Can I also put in a nod to The Maimed by Hermann Ungar? Kafka’s contemporary, woefully underappreciated.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Shalom Auslander, Cynthia Ozick, Arnold Zable, Ben Marcus, Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon, David Grossman, Rutu Modan, Orly Castel-Bloom. I could go on forever.

What are you reading right now?

Godsend by John Wray, My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, and The Emigrants by WG Sebald.

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Chance encounters. Nightmares. Caffeine. And punk rock.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that through my family’s story, readers of The Book of Dirt go away thinking differently about how we might carry the torch of Holocaust remembrance, the sort of stories we can tell and the way in which we tell them. Moreover, I hope it challenges readers to ask how well they really know the people they love and then to go and talk with them, question them, truly engage before it’s too late.

Image credit: Adrian Elton Creative

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Erika Meitner

Tuesday, February 05, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Erika Meitner's Holy Moly Carry Me is the winner of the 2018 Berru Poetry Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash. As reviewer Emily Heiden writes, the book "taps into national conversations on topics including motherhood, infertility, terrorism, Judaism, school shootings, the 2016 election, and race . . . A real, honest, scared voice [pervades] the work, asking questions like: How are we so vulnerable? How do we care for each other? How can we stay safe? Meitner gives voice to the fears of the moment in this portrait of a very unsettled American time."

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

I would love to go for Sunday morning dim sum with Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Barbara Myerhoff.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

My current favorite book no one has heard of is Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated by Lisa Dillman), an amazing novella about crossings and translations.

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

There are so many amazing younger Jewish poets writing right now: Jason Schneiderman, Rachel Zucker, Jehanne Dubrow, Rosebud Ben-Oni, sam sax, Chanda Feldman, Robin Beth Schaer, Ilya Kaminsky, Alicia Jo Rabins, Laura Eve Engel, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Matthew Lippman—I could go on and on. In terms of novelists, I am perpetually amazed by Idra Novey, Rachel Kadish, and Eduardo Halfon.

What are you reading right now?

I usually read many books at one time. Right now I'm actually reading two books—Milkman by Anna Burns (which is about Northern Ireland, where I was a Fulbright Fellow in 2015), and Laura Eve Engel's Things That Go (poems, just published this month, which are partially a retelling of the story of Lot's wife).

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

I adore visual art of all kinds—but especially photography, sculpture, and painting—and when I'm back in New York City (or any city, really) I always try to make it to museums or gallery shows for inspiration! The Hilda af Klimt show at the Guggenheim, and the David Wojnarowicz and Andy Warhol shows at the Whitney were both fabulous!

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope my book complicates narratives of Appalachia, and moves people beyond stereotypes. I also hope it challenges readers to think about the ways in which we often see people as 'other,' and to consider what it really means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Image credit: Toya Earley

Naomi Alderman's "Disobedience" is Now a Film

Friday, September 15, 2017 | Permalink

Mazel tov to Naomi Alderman! Her novel Disobedience, which was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, has been adapted into a film directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio and starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. The story is about a young woman who leaves behind her ultra-Orthodox upbringing – and the distinguished rabbinical family she was part of – to seek happiness and fulfillment elsewhere. The movie just premiered last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, but critics have already praised it as "a beautiful, fraught, and emotionally nuanced drama" and a "respectful and immersive..portrait...of the many forms love can take."

The Rohr judges on why they loved the book: Many novels of disobedience in Jewish literature, from the beginning of the modern period on, paint the world left behind in largely or entirely unsympathetic terms; when the main character is forced, by circumstance, to return to that world, one of Alderman’s achievements is to complicate that picture by rendering it in subtle shades and its inhabitants as real people, not caricatures. Alderman’s abilities are by no means limited to ethnography, though; through a series of surprising developments, she explores how and whether change can come to a world that prides itself on holding fast against change; and how her characters’ various disobediences are themselves, if not necessary, seemingly inevitable.


The Holocaust Book Award in Memory of Ernest W. Michel Named for 2017

Tuesday, March 07, 2017 | Permalink

For Immediate Release

New York, March 7, 2017 - Beginning in 2017, the National Jewish Book Award for Holocaust studies and narratives will be named to honor the memory and legacy of the late Ernest W. Michel.

Deported from his hometown of Manheim, Germany by the Gestapo at 16 years old, “Ernie” Michel escaped seven years later after the death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald and dedicated the rest of his life to Jewish life and Holocaust remembrance. A founding trustee of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, Michel served as executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal from 1970 to 1989, in which capacity he raised billions of dollars for Jewish causes, oversaw the UJA-Federation of New York merger, and organized the 1981 World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem.

The Holocaust Book Award in Memory of Ernest W. Michel fulfills a particular legacy of the National Jewish Book Awards, a program founded by the Jewish Book Council in the late 1940s in response to the events in Europe as a means of preserving the Jewish narrative. Now approaching the program’s 67th year, the National Jewish Book Awards celebrate Jewish literary achievement in a wide range of genres and form, honoring writers in 20 different categories each year.

The Holocaust Book Award in Memory of Ernest W. Michel will be administered by the Jewish Book Council, a not-for-profit dedicated to the enrichment of Jewish life and education through literature. Promoting the reading, writing, and publication of books of Jewish interest, Jewish Book Council is the flagship of Jewish Book Month, the National Jewish Book Club, and the JBC Network of JCCs, Federations, synagogues, and other institutions.

Submissions for the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards will be accepted beginning in June 2017. For more information, please visit www.jewishbookcouncil.org or contact the Jewish Book Council at njba@jewishbooks.org or (212) 201-2920.

Learn More About the Jewish Book Council:

A Week of Jewish Literary Honors

Thursday, January 12, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It’s been quite a week in the world of Jewish literature: Jewish Book Council and the Association of Jewish Libraries both released major announcements on the same day, naming the books and authors to receive this year’s National Jewish Book Awards and Sydney Taylor Book Award medals!

Awarded in roughly twenty different categories each year, the National Jewish Book Awards honor authors of outstanding Jewish literature across a wide range of genre and subjects. Academic press winners for the 2016 National Jewish Book Awards include Michael Bazyler's Holocaust, Genocide, and the Law: A Quest for Justice in a Post-Holocaust World (Oxford University Press), Never Better!: The Modern Jewish Picaresque by Miriam Udel (University of Michigan Press), Anti-Jewish Riots in the Crown of Aragon and the Royal Response, 1391 – 1392 by Benjamin R. Gampel (Cambridge University Press), Extraterritorial Dreams: European Citizenship, Sephardi Jews, and the Ottoman Twentieth Century by Sarah Abrevaya Stein (University of Chicago Press), Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece by Devin E. Naar (Stanford University Press), Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food by Roger Horowitz (Columbia University Press), and Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders, and the World They Made (Princeton University Press).

Daniel Gordis’s Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn received the Everett Family Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year, and Michael Chabon was awarded Jewish Book Council’s Modern Literary Achievement Award for his lifetime contribution to Jewish Literature.

In fiction, winners included Rose Tremain for The Gustav Sonata (W. W. Norton & Company), Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit (Knopf Books for Young Readers) for Debut Fiction, and Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire (Harper) won the inaugural Debby and Ken Miller Award for Book Club titles. Stanly Moss’s Almost Complete Poems (Seven Stories Press) received newly dedicated Berru Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash for Poetry, and awards for Young Adult and Children’s Literature went to On Blackberry Hill, a self-published novel by Rachel Mann, and I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster).

CLICK HERE for the full list of 2016 National Jewish Book Award Winners and Finalists

Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley also received the Syndey Taylor Award Gold Medal for their children’s illustrated biography of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as did Gavriel Savit for his YA crossover debut. The Gold Medal was also awarded to Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly for The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog (Dutton Children’s Books). Silver Medalists included Richard Michelson’s Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy (Knopf Books for Young Readers), illustrated by Edel Rodriguez; A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting and Love by Michelle Edwards and illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Schwartz & Wade); A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (Viking Books for Young Readers); and 2016 – 2017 JBC Network author Joel Ben Izzy’s novel Dreidels on the Brain. For the full list of 2017 Sydney Taylor Award winners, honorees, and finalists, read the official press release here.

Last week, the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize 2017 Shortlist was announced, naming 2015 National Jewish Book Award-winner The Crime and the Silence by Anna Bikont (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Little, Brown & Company), Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933 – 1949 by David Cesarani (St. Martin’s Press), All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, and Philippe Sands’s East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, a 2016 – 2017 JBC Network book.

Jewish Book Council also recently launched the Natan Book Award, a two-stage prize to encourage writers in writing and promoting their work before it has been published. Do you have a forthcoming book of interest to Jewish audiences? Find out more about Jewish Book Council’s programs, resources, and awards for 2017!

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New Categories and Honors for the 66th National Jewish Book Awards

Thursday, August 18, 2016 | Permalink

Celebrating its 66th year, Jewish Book Council is pleased to announce two new developments for the National Jewish Book Awards. Starting this year, a new category focused on book clubs has been added to the program: The Debby and Ken Miller Book Club Award, dedicated to promoting Jewish continuity for the next generation, will recognize outstanding work of fiction or nonfiction that inspires meaningful conversation about Jewish life, identity, practice, or history. The award recognizes the power of books to inspire Jewish community and thought-provoking discussions.

Additionally, the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry is newly named the Berru Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash, dedicated to honor the memories of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash, who were respected leaders in their Northern New Jersey community for over 50 years. A dynamic couple with both substance and style, Ruth and Bernie Weinflash were not just avid readers but were astute critics, honing in on what spoke to both them as well as the world at large.

The National Jewish Book Awards are presented at a celebratory gathering each spring, following the publication of the books under consideration. The evening includes a dinner and ceremony for the winning authors and is attended by the authors and leading names in Jewish publishing and literature.

The National Jewish Book Awards program began in 1950 when the Jewish Book Council presented awards to authors of Jewish books at its annual meeting. Past notable literary winners include Chaim Grade, Deborah Lipstadt, Bernard Malamud, Michael Oren, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Jonathan Safran Foer, Deborah Dash Moore, and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.

Today, the National Jewish Book Awards honor exceptional Jewish literature in over 20 different categories annually. Guidelines for submission and the online application, which must be completed by October 7, 2016 to qualify for this year’s nominations, can be found on Jewish Book Council’s website to submit a book for this year’s awards. Please contact njba@jewishbooks.org with any questions regarding submissions or reservations for the spring ceremony.

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The Origins of Oskar: Where Jewish Children's Book Characters Come From

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 | Permalink

In honor of the 65th National Jewish Book Awards, Jewish Book Council asked some of this year's winners to share their top rules for writing an award-winning book. Richard Simon, recipient of the 2015 award for Children’s Literature—together with his wife and co-author, Tanya—for Oskar and the Eight Blessings, decided to go in a different direction entirely.

In the summer of 1969 I was ten years old. The Mets were having their best season ever, and Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon, paving the way for me to fulfill my destiny as World’s Youngest Boy Astronaut. I thought a lot about space travel and escape—specifically out of Levittown, Long Island, the predominantly Catholic working class town where I grew up and learned first-hand how anti-Semitism felt.

The week of the moon landing was also the one time a conversation with my grandfather went beyond “How’s school?” or “Quiet, I have to hear this race.”

In the summer of 1969 I was ten years old. The Mets were having their best season ever, and Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon, paving the way for me to fulfill my destiny as World’s Youngest Boy Astronaut. I thought a lot about space travel and escape—specifically out of Levittown, Long Island, the predominantly Catholic working class town where I grew up and learned first-hand how anti-Semitism felt.

The week of the moon landing was also the one time a conversation with my grandfather went beyond “How’s school?” or “Quiet, I have to hear this race.”

“When your father was ten, we had some unexpected visitors.” He motioned for me to sit. “Three rabbis from the old country, from the city my father came from. Black coats, black suits, black hats, black beards down to here, the works. All they spoke was Yiddish, not a word of English. I understood them okay, but I don’t speak Yiddish, so Grandma had to translate for me. I couldn’t figure out how the hell they even got to New York, forget about how they tracked me down to Avenue K.”

“Why did they have to track you down?” I suspected gambling debts, but thought better of saying so.

He rubbed his forehead and winced more than smiled. “It was crazy. They said my grandfather, their big rabbi, had died, and they had to find his successor.” He shook his head. “I said, ‘You’re telling me you don’t got enough rabbis over there to do the job?’ They said, ‘We got plenty rabbis, but nobody in the lineage.’ Turns out the big rabbi had to be the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son, going back God knows how long.”

He went on. “I told them they couldn’t have found anyone more wrong for the job. I barely had a bar mitzvah, and I hadn’t been in a shul since. I don’t know Hebrew. I can’t speak Yiddish. I’m the exact opposite of a rabbi. Do I have to eat a ham and cheese sandwich on Pesach to prove it?”

This made me laugh.

“You should try it, it’s good. Especially with a milkshake.” He winked. “Anyway, they’re not buying. ‘Don’t worry,’ they say. ‘We’ll teach you everything,’ they say: ‘Hebrew, Yiddish, Torah, Talmud— you’ll learn it all, because you have the blood. And our city will be saved because we will once again have a leader who will guide us through these dark times.’”

He stared into his sweating drink and took a slow sip. “I told them, ‘No.’”

I leaned forward, “What happened when they got back?”

My grandfather blinked and looked at me. “What do you mean?”

“Without a new big rabbi—did they get in trouble?”

My grandfather could be brokenhearted about a losing horse for five minutes, but he was never on his worst day anything close to sentimental. At that moment, though, he took my hands in his giant calloused ones. “Richie, that was just a couple of years before the war. They were all killed.”

Decades later, I had a daughter. Two years ago she turned seven, and I found myself gazing into her eyes as she asked me why Jews were being attacked in France, and what exactly the Holocaust was. I immediately thought back to Grandpa and our conversation. Remembering how my own awakening to the Holocaust was framed by helpless rage, I didn’t want my daughter to feel that, even as I didn’t want to revise history to protect her.

Tanya and I talked about what we wanted our daughter to take away from the stories of brutality that our people had endured. Our answers were the same: that you can survive. And so we told her, but we balanced death with life, and tempered loss with hope. We told her about the Nazis, about accommodation and complicity, and about the camps—then we told her stories of cunning, of will, of survival.

And in this telling the character of Oskar was born. Oskar is the spirit of survival, the part of me, of Jews, of all oppressed people, that can escape, mourn, and be born into a new life. He is for me the embodiment of not forgetting, never forgetting, but also refusing to let memory be delineated only by grief. Oskar was born because I needed the example of his life.

Over time I have found a way to make peace with the fact of the Holocaust, if not the details, although I along with every Jew on the planet will forever live in its shadow. Kristallnacht in particular had always disturbed me. Why didn’t they all flee? The three rabbis—why did they go back? And did my grandfather feel guilt? Of course he did, or he might have chosen a different way to tell me. To spare me, as I was sparing my own child.

Richard Simon is chair of the language department at an independent school and is co-author of a successful off-Broadway play. He lives and works with his wife and co-author, Tanya Simon, in Westchester, New York.

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Nine Rules for Writing Jewish Letters

Monday, March 07, 2016 | Permalink

In honor of the 65th National Jewish Book Awards, Jewish Book Council asked some of this year's winners to share their top rules for writing an award-winning book. Co-authors Alice Nakhimovsky and Roberta Newman, recipients of the 2015 award for Anthologies and Collections for Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russian and America, decided to stay true to form.

Hamilton, New York, Torah portion Mishpatim, 5776

Dear Roberta, Shining Light of Her Generation,

What is this Jewish Book Council after? They want Nine Rules for Writing Letters. I understand that everyone wants to write a good letter, because how else can we keep in touch, and most importantly keep tabs on our grown-up children, may they live. Frankly it would be better if readers went straight toDear Mendl, Dear Reyzl, from which they can extract letter-writing rules for all situations a Jew might encounter, not just nine of them. For example, what if you are a wife stuck in Europe with three small children while your husband is cavorting with a missus somewhere in Manhattan? What you need in this situation is a good sentence. You need, “I’m writing not with black ink but with the last drops of blood.” That’ll show him.

In the meantime, up here in Hamilton, all is well. Isn’t it wonderful that I can write you a letter and you will get it in a week or so? On the other hand, the Jewish Book Council says it wrote to me, and I haven’t gotten that letter yet, but Hamilton has only one mailman, and maybe he’s ill, poor thing.

From me, your true devoted friend,
Alice

Manhattan, Torah portion Terumah, 2016

Dear Alice, may you live,

I'm in good health and hope to hear the same from you. I see from your letter that we have given the Jewish Book Council our first rule: if you are in a bad situation, deploy a good sentence. I’m glad you said that "all is well in Hamilton," because I was afraid you had forgotten Rule 2: speak of health frequently and repetitively.

It's very interesting that you write to me in the week in which we read the Torah portion Mishpatim, because those chapters of the Torah deal with all sorts of regulations. And letter manuals are full of rules. Imagine if those manual readers could text! There would have been much less need for rules. And yet, our abbreviations like LOL, IMHO, CUL8R—do they not resemble the Hebrew acronyms with which Jewish correspondence is replete? Mem-zayin-tet (Mazel Tov), Ayin-mem-shin (Im mishpakhto, with his family)… There are hundreds of them, and they appear in tables. Isn’t that modern?

Of course, the main thing that letter manuals are full of is fake letters for people to copy or just read. And the fake letters are full of drama. So now we can take up Rule 3: Let it all hang out. Anger and sorrow are why you’re writing. No emoticons, though: it would have been considered uncouth and uneducated to express emotions in pictures instead of words. Writing well was what it was all about. Remember when we thought that Jewish literacy in Russia and Poland was so widespread? It didn’t spread to everybody, and even for the educated it only went so far and didn’t necessarily extend to the kind of skills required for everyday life. Letter manuals filled the gap, giving all comers the opportunity to create or simply copy good Yiddish prose. And so, Rule 4: Education counts, even if you got yours from a letter manual. Write grammatically. Spell correctly.

I have to say, dear Alice, I was a little distressed that you dropped out of sight all last week. As a letter manual would put it, “From what I can see you have once again forgotten that you have a friend.” Let that be Rule 5: guilt-tripping is culturally sanctioned. But no more of that from me tonight. Hoping that the mailman in Hamilton will deliver this to you and that you will remain happy and healthy,

Your loyal friend,
Roberta

Hamilton, New York, Torah portion Tetzaveh, 5776

Dear Roberta, may your light shine,

I received your dear letter with the greatest of joy, which was followed by terrible anxiety because we have only five rules, and we promised nine, and this may lead to some kind of misfortune, God forbid. I know you are busy, going to work every day, so here are four more. Rule 6: Authenticity is over-valued. Writing from America to Europe, it is fine to say one thing to your parents and another to your friend. She won’t talk to them. Rule 7: No politics. No politics in Russia, because there’s a censor, and they don’t like Jews anyway; no politics in America, because this is a commercial genre, and we don’t want to cut off our market. Rule 8: if you’re writing a love letter before 1905, keep in mind that it will be read aloud to the whole family. Post 1905, you’re on your own. Rule 9: If you are writing a business letter to a Russian or an American, practice brevity and restraint. If you are writing to another Jew, why would you bother?

From me, your devoted friend,
Alice

Alice Nakhimovsky is a professor of Russian and Jewish Studies at Colgate University, where she directs the Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies. Roberta Newman is an independent scholar, currently the Director of Digital Initiatives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

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Interview: Laura Amy Schlitz

Tuesday, February 09, 2016 | Permalink

with Michal Hoschander Malen

Jewish Book Council and Laura Amy Schlitz sat down to talk about Laura’s young adult novel The Hired Girl, which recently won both the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award, as part of a blog tour through the Association of Jewish Libraries

Michal Hoschander Malen: Joan is a character absolutely bursting with personality, charm, wit and exuberance. Did you model her on anyone in life or in literature?

Laura Amy Schlitz: No, I didn’t—in fact, I seldom base a major character on anyone I know. When I begin a novel, I know I’m going to spend a lot of time with the people in it, so I like to begin by not knowing them too well. That way, there are mysteries to solve. Curiosity helps me to keep writing.

MHM: Joan is remarkably free of prejudice, unusual in her time (and in any other). She is also very open to the world around her and able to learn from a variety of people and experiences, also a struggle for many young people. Joan develops these characteristics in spite of a singularly harsh youth. Do you think young readers can subtly learn something from this?

LAS: Now here I disagree with you: I think Joan shares many of the prejudices of her time. Joan is a girl of the early twentieth century, a time when religious prejudice and ethnic stereotypes were rife. Early in the book, for example, Joan takes pride in telling Malka that her forebears were Scottish and German, not Irish; she shares the widely held belief that the Irish were inferior. When she first meets Kitty, Anna’s Irish cook, she observes that her kitchen is spotless, and discards her belief that the Irish are dirty.

And while similar prejudices and stereotypes of the time make Joan’s love for David is truly forbidden and her friendship with the Rosenbachs is triumphant, Joan is largely insulated from antisemitism in the country. She lives in a very small world, and most of what she knows about the Jews--or thinks she knows--comes from Ivanhoe and the Bible. When she first meets the Rosenbachs, she’s dependent on them for a safe place to sleep. By the time she discovers that they’re Jewish, she has already been won over by Solly’s kindness and Mrs. Rosenbach’s elegance. The Rosenbachs are the kind of people Joan aspires to be: cultivated, literary, and—this is important to Joan—fashionably dressed.

If Joan is admirable, it’s because she thinks for herself. She has prejudices, but they aren’t deep-rooted, and she’s not psychologically driven to despise others. I try not to think didactically when I write a story, but I would be delighted if young readers sought to emulate Joan by seeing the world for themselves.

MHM: The diary format enables the reader to see much of what makes Joan tick. It also helps us appreciate her incredible sense of humor. Did you plan from the outset to use this format or did you consider telling the story in another way?

LAS: I intended to write the book as a diary from the very beginning. I was coming off another book, Splendors and Glooms, which had five protagonists and multiple points of view. I promised myself that if I ever escaped from Splendors and Glooms, I would write a book from a single point of view.

My decision coincided with a special gift from a student at the Park School, where I work. A child named Lance (he is a young man now) gave me a blank book as a Christmas present. It had a leather cover, thick creamy pages, and a ribbon marker. It was almost too beautiful to spoil with writing, but I thought, I’m going to write in it anyway; I’m going to write straight through. Writing in that book helped me remember that the story was a diary. I wrote easily and spontaneously. I think Joan’s humor is a reflection of my joy when the words came so quickly.

MHM: The history of the era comes vividly to life in the pages of the book, from Joan’s farm life to the vibrant Baltimore Jewish community of the time. What kinds of research did you do to make the period details feel so right?

LAS: I began the book knowing the period fairly well, because I set a previous novel, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, in 1909. I had general books on the period: books about houses and clothing and Victorian America. But I needed a lot of specific research—especially about domestic technology, because Joan does so much housework. Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book was a great help to me in planning meals and figuring out how to keep the meat and milk dishes separate.

Daniel E. Sutherland’s Americans and Their Servants was helpful, because Americans differed from Englishmen in their view of domestic service—the very term “hired girl” is an American euphemism meant to distinguish the paid laborer from the slave. Another book that helped me with Joan’s place in the workforce was Nan Enstad’s Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

For local history, I was greatly indebted to Isaac M. Fein’s The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920. I also used Gerald Sorin’s The Jewish People in America and Philip Kahn’s Uncommon Threads: Threads That Wove the Fabric of Baltimore Jewish Life. I was lucky enough to find a history book from 1910, The Jews of Baltimore, by Isador Blum.

I bought a sheaf of women’s magazines from 1900 at a yard sale—they were helpful for period details. I consulted my grandmother’s girlhood diary from 1912. One valuable resource was a facsimile 1908 catalog from Sears Roebuck, which told me what things cost—money is of course important to Joan, because before she joined the Rosenbach household, she never had any.

MHM: Can you tell us a bit more about the Jewish community you describe? Are any of the characters in the book from that community based on people who really lived there?

LAS: I first became aware of the Jewish community around Reservoir Hill when three of my friends—Hillary Jacobs, Julie Schwait, and Michelle Feller-Kopman—were researching a Centennial history of the Park School, where I’ve worked for 25 years. I knew that it had been founded as a progressive school for Jewish andChristian children, but I hadn’t known much about the founders. Many of them were German Jews, and some of them lived in Eutaw Place. As my three friends explored the archives, they showed me documents, letters, photographs, and ephemera. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and I took to driving around Eutaw Place in search of a house for Joan to clean.

This is as good a time as any to remind my readers that The Hired Girl is a work of fiction. I tried to make it as accurate as possible, but I took full advantage of the magical powers with which all storytellers are endowed. For example, I placed a park bench where I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. I conjured up heat waves and thunderstorms without consulting the National Weather Service. And I created the Columbia Parnassus Touring Company with one stroke of my magic wand—though the Academy of Music was real. The Rosenbachs were not real people. But like the founders of the Park School, they were cultivated, intellectual, and forward thinking.

MHM: What do you think will happen to Joan as she continues her journey into the big, wide world and expands her education? Will her natural warmth lead her to toward establishing her own family?

LAS: At the end of every novel, I lead my characters up a hill where they can see down in every direction. From there, they can choose where to go next. If I’ve left them in a promising place, I feel I’ve done my job, and I bid them Godspeed.

Joan has some interesting possibilities to explore. After graduation, she could become a teacher or a librarian, two fields that were open to women at that time; she might go on to college; she may well become a writer—she certainly spends a lot of time scribbling. I don’t know whether she’ll marry or not. She’s ardent and romantic, but she also grew up seeing what a miserable business marriage can be. My guess is that if she marries, she’ll find her profession first.

I worry a little bit about my dear Rosenbachs, because World War I is on the way. The German heritage of which Mrs. Rosenbach is so proud is about to become a liability. I don’t want David or Solly to have to fight in the trenches, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to escape it. (I ought to have had more foresight and given them flat feet.) If David survives the war, he’ll probably become a pretty good society painter, though he might not be quite as talented as Joan thinks he is.

Mimi will definitely run the department store.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a retired librarian and editor of reference books. She is Jewish Book Council's editor on books for young readers.

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