The ProsenPeople

Obituaries as Literary Inspiration

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 | Permalink

Bruce Henderson, author of Sons and Soldiers, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series. Check back throughout the week to read more from him.

How we get ideas for a book is the one question most asked of authors. Given that I am a nonfiction writer, my subjects generally don't come from a daydream or bolt out of the blue. Often, I find the nuggets I'm looking for in a documentary or an article or book. I'll tell you this secret: a number of my ideas for books have come from obituaries, my favorite section of the newspaper because they introduce me to interesting people I never had the chance to meet. (The New York Times obits are the best.)

In early 2014, I was in the midst of writing a book about World War II in the Pacific when I read an obituary in my local paper about a German-born nonagenarian who had escaped the Nazis as a young boy in the 1930s with the help of a Jewish Relief Organization, was drafted into the U.S. Army during the war, and trained to be an interrogator of German POWs at a top-secret Military Intelligence center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Only a decade removed from his boyhood escape, he returned to Nazi-occupied Europe as a member of a special band of U.S. soldiers-most of them German Jews-known as The Ritchie Boys. My first thought was that his life story had an astonishing dramatic arc from nearly victim to liberator. As a voracious reader of military histories and the author of several books about World War II, I couldn't believe that I had never heard of the Ritchie Boys. Who were they? How many were they? What had it been like for them to go back and fight the Nazi evil from which they had only a few years earlier escaped? I ripped the article from the paper, looked at my wife, and said, "I think I've found my next book."

Six months later, I was ready to start answering those questions. First, I searched online for book titles on the subject, and found none. I did find and watch the documentary, "The Ritchie Boys," which was very moving. I was soon on the trail of retired Wayne State University professor Guy Stern, himself a former Ritchie Boy, who had curated a 2011 special exhibit called, "Secret Heroes: The Ritchie Boys," at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I telephoned Guy, and learned that the traveling exhibit had been up for a year but was now in storage. He told me that it was all digitized, however, and I could have access to it if I came to Michigan. I quickly packed my bag. I spent a week in Farmington Hills, going over oral histories, letters, official documents and wartime photos, and interviewing Guy, a warm, intelligent man blessed with a photographic memory. I returned home convinced that the story of the Ritchie Boys was one of the last great sagas of World War II that had not yet been the subject of a major book. An estimated 300 Ritchie Boys-all in their nineties-were alive when I began my research, and I went around the country interviewing dozens of them. When I was ready to start writing, I selected six German-born Ritchie Boys to follow in "Sons and Soldiers," beginning with their harrowing escapes from the Nazis, reaching their new homes in America, and their experiences in the war when they went back to their homeland in the fight against fascism. 

Although there were many more who could have been included, I didn't want the book to read like the Manhattan white pages; I decided on a infinite number of characters who were doing different things at different times and gave us complete coverage of a big theater of war. Also, I wanted the readers to remember the characters whenever we came back to them, and feel a bond with them. That would have been more difficult with a larger cast. The Ritchie Boys returned to the United States after the war, and many went on to stellar careers in a variety of fields, including science, politics, business, the law, the arts, and academia. Even more than half a century later, their surviving members vividly recalled fighting two different wars: the world's and their own. I am honored to tell the epic story of these little-known heroes.

Bruce Henderson is the author or coauthor of more than twenty nonfiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell, the national bestseller Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, and Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II, as well as Sons and Soldiers. An award-winning journalist and writer, he has published work in Esquire, Playboy, Reader's Digest, and other periodicals. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

Julia Dahl's Reading List for Writing an Ultra-Orthodox Mystery Novel

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 | Permalink

This week, Julia Dahl—the author of Invisible City, available in paperback today blogs for The Postscript on her recommended reads for exploring the world of her novel.

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

As a Reform Jew growing up in Fresno, Calif., I had no exposure to the world of the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. It wasn’t until moving to New York City in 1999 that I even realized so-called “black hat” Jews existed in the United States. I was fascinated by the idea that the men and women I saw on the subway wearing peyos and sheitels were Jewish, like me, and yet so unlike me. That fascination turned to curiosityand when writers get curious, we write.

But before I began writing, I began reading. Below are recommendations for books, articles and radio reports that helped me research my first novel, Invisible City, and its upcoming sequel, Run You Down. I hope they deepen your enjoyment of my books, spur discussion, and contribute to better understanding your fellow Jews.

The first book I read about this community was Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston, an intrepid, award-winning journalist and sociologist. The book tells the stories of several men and women trying to leave their cloistered world. It is full of funny, strange, and heartbreaking details about people living inside America’s great melting pot and struggling to understand the non-Jewish world around them.

I also recommend the novel, Hush. Originally published under the pen name Eishes Chayil (which translates to a Woman of Valor), the author was later revealed to be a woman from Brooklyn named Judy Brown. Brown based the book on her childhood in Borough Park and the death of a close friend.

Last year, The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv investigated the aftermath of an ugly sexual abuse trial in Borough Park—and the injustice that befell the man who pushed for a conviction.

The New York Times recently published two interesting articles about the haredi. The first is a profile of a sex therapist who counsels ultra-Orthodox women (one telling quote: “We have an intake form to fill out, and they get to ‘orgasm’ and go to the receptionist and ask, ‘What is this?'”); the second focuses on haredi men who make their living begging in Lakewood, New Jersey.

This investigation into substandard education at some Brooklyn yeshivas by Sonja Sharp of DNA Info tackles the thorny issue of how the state regulates—or fails to regulate—religious education.

As more haredi move from liberal, diverse New York City to the rural and suburban counties outside the city, the tension created by their large families, private yeshivas, and apparent lack of interest in forming meaningful connection with their new neighbors, is causing great distress. New York Magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports.

A compliment to Wallace-Wells’s reporting is this 2014 episode from public radio’s This American Life, which focuses on the battle between the haredim and their neighbors over control of the East Ramapo School District.

I recommend two articles related to the issue of parents leaving the ultra-Orthodox and subsequently losing custody of (and connection with) their children. This 2008 New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson and this essay by Shulem Deen in Tablet. Deen is the editor of and the author of the must-read upcoming memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (out March 23 from Greywolf Press).

I also recommend reading almost anything by Frimet Goldberger, a writer who frequently contributes to the Jewish Daily Forward. Goldberger was raised in the strict Satmar Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, N.Y., and she writes about her attempts to live a more modern – but still Jewish – life. The columns on learning to drive and the anniversary of the last time she shaved her head are particularly interesting.

Finally, I recommend this report from WNYC’s Arun Venugopal, which reveals an interesting upside to life in a homogeneous community like Borough Park: an honor system that allows financially strapped members of the community to bring home groceries without having to pay immediately.

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Trying Not to Drown in a Glass of Water On My Way to Cuba

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Ruth Behar, the author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba and Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys, blogs for The Postscript on her Jubana grandmother and traveling to Cuba.  

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Ruth at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

Throughout the 1990s, when my grandmother Esther, my Baba, was still alive, I’d stop in Miami Beach to visit her on my way to Cuba. I was lucky to know all four grandparents. But Baba, my mother’s mother, lived the longest, to the age of 92. In her, I saw my closest mirror, for she was a thinker and an independent woman.

If I flew in early in the day, I’d drop my things in the guest room, where Baba liked to watch “Divorce Court,” and go running to Publix to buy groceries for her. She always claimed she didn’t need anything, but the refrigerator was empty and she was out of toilet paper. When I returned carrying several bags, she complained, “Who is all this for? I don’t need anything.” Saying "thank you" didn’t come easily to Baba. She only had respect for women who weren’t needy. Nothing was more pathetic to her than a woman so weak she could “drown in a glass of water.” Baba tried hard to be tough. But I knew her secret: she suffered from terrible nightmares, chased into dark alleys from which there was no escape.

Baba was part of a generation of Jewish immigrants who settled in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s. Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Ashkenazi Jews from Poland came on the eve of the Holocaust and found Cuba to be a hospitable place. Within a few decades, they built a vibrant Jewish world and had no wish to go north to the United States. Their children and grandchildren were born happy and healthy in Cuba, and they expected to remain on the island for generations.

Then Fidel Castro came along in 1959. First he snatched up the businesses of the wealthiest people, mostly Americans and some Cubans, including a few Cuban Jews. Soon after, he took away little mom-and-pop shops. The majority of the Jews had poured their hopes into these shops, thinking they offered a secure livelihood. That was true for Baba and Zayde; they had a lace store in Havana, below their walk-up apartment, where they spent every waking moment, and losing it was devastating. Along with most of the Jews of Cuba, my family fled to the United States. But the memory of the island scratched at our hearts.

Baba was from Goworowo, a shtetl near Warsaw. She had the yizkor book from her hometown and periodically she’d bring it down from the shelf and reread the stories of those who’d perished in the Holocaust. She got together with Yiddish-speaking friends from Cuba every Saturday afternoon to play kalukah, after attending Shabbat services at the Cuban-Hebrew Congregation. American Jews had given Cuban Jews the cold shoulder when they arrived in Miami, so the “Jubans” had built their own synagogue a few blocks from Lincoln Road. On a wall inside the sanctuary hung a picture of their beloved synagogue in Havana, the Patronato.

I never learned Yiddish, but fortunately Baba loved speaking Spanish as much as I did, so that was the language we spoke to each other. We should have spoken of profound things—of life and death, of loss and grief, of laughter and longing—but I was in a rush. Miami was a stopover for me on my way to Cuba.

Baba didn’t like that I was going to Cuba so much. She could understand going to Cuba for one or two visits. More than that seemed unnecessary, even suspicious. But I was obsessed with the small Jewish community on the island. Where once there had been 15,000 Jews, a thousand were left, almost all of mixed heritage or married into the faith. I wanted to learn all I could about these Jews who lived under tropical communism. They were more intriguing than “Jubans” like Baba, who lived in Miami Beach weighed down by their memories of all the hopes and dreams they’d had to leave behind.

Now I think back to all those times I said goodbye to Baba at the door of her modest apartment, sixteen blocks from the seashore, and I realize I lost my chance to learn her story and the story of her generation. There were so many questions I never got to ask. What had it been like to arrive in Cuba in a woolen coat and feel the lush heat of a Caribbean island caress your skin? What tropical fruit had been most amazing to encounter—a mango, a guava, a papaya, a banana? How did it feel to bathe in the ocean for the first time? To hear the trance-inducing beat of the drums calling the African saints, which can be heard in every corner of Cuba?

I try not to have too many regrets. I know I absorbed a great deal from Baba through the years. She didn’t live long enough to see my book, An Island Called Home, but she would have read it with as much devotion as she read the novels of Danielle Steele. She adored books and passed that passion on to me.

Baba would shake her head watching me schlepping the huge suitcases I took to Cuba filled with gifts. As I went out the door, she warned, “You’re going to get a kileh!” That was Yiddish for hernia. Now I know we each carried a different sort of heaviness that made us vulnerable. She was weighed down by memories, and I was going to Cuba in search of memories.

So many years later, I still travel back and forth to Cuba. Wanting to be strong for Baba’s sake, I never did tell her how there’s a part of me that’s always a bit scared about going to Cuba. What if a catastrophe befalls me there, will I be able to flee, as we did when I was a child? But I kept silent. I didn’t want to seem like one of those women that can “drown in a glass of water.” Now I imagine Baba looks out for me. She’s my guardian angel, making sure I come back in one piece.

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Unexpected Guests in Fiction

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Permalink

This week, Judith Felsenfeld, the author of  Blaustein's Kiss blogs for The Postscript on the reaction of some friends and family to her work of fiction. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

A couple of days after Blaustein’s Kiss, my collection of short fiction, is published, my cousin Roz phones to say how much she loves the book but — miniscule correction — the ‘shayna kupp’ issue came up around Thanksgiving, not a Seder. On Facebook, a former roommate posts that her memories of the years she and I hung out together differ substantially from mine. She unfriends me. In an e-mail, Aunt Flo, who moved to Oaxaca in 1985 and is not often in touch, calls the book a fabulous read and expresses her gratitude that finally someone understands where she’s coming from, family-wise. My niece shoots me an e-mail: Really enjoyed your stories. Quick fact check - Mom was no longer playing the cello when Dad passed away. She had given it up several years before, due to lower back issues.

Why is it, I wonder, that these friends and family members assumed I was writing about them? Why are people driven to insert themselves into works of fiction, particularly the fiction of someone close to them? Is it a kind of hubris, validation? There I am in black and white on the page, therefore I exist?

In the interest of clarification: I write fiction. However, as in the stories in Blaustein’s Kiss, there was a much beloved grandmother in my childhood; a boy in my son’s class contracted diphtheria; friends of mine set up a not-for-profit that provides sanctuary for abused women; I once sat next to a mouthy little girl on the Broadway #104 bus who entertained the entire back row with funny, inappropriate remarks; a neighbor’s kid took oboe lessons; the death of our family dog was a totally wrenching experience; we carry a quilt in the back seat of our car. It comes in handy.

Recipes for Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

With the publication of Kristin Hannah's new book, The Nightingale, earlier this month, JBC Book Clubs worked in cooperation with St.Martin's Press to create a book club kit with a Jewish twist. The kit includes historical information, discussion questions, recommended reads, and, of course, recipes! You can download the full kit here, but a few of the recipes are shared below. 


(adapted from Saveur
Baguettes play a role in the resistance as well, hiding Isabelle’s underground newsletters and delivering blank identity papers to Viann as an unusual filling, Henri’s maman’s special recipe. And, well, it’s France. 

1 ½ cups tap water, heated to 115° F
1 tsp. active dry yeast
3 ¼ cups all–purpose flour
2 tsp. kosher salt
Canola oil, for greasing bowl
½ cup ice cubes

Use a whisk to combine the yeast and water in a bowl, and let sit about 10 minutes, until the yeast is foamy. Add in flour and stir with a fork until a dough forms. Add salt and begin to knead on a lightly floured surface, until dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.

Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl and turn over once to make sure that all sides have a light coating of oil. Cover with with plastic wrap and allow to rise for an hour, until doubled in size.

Roll dough into a rectangle and fold all four sides in toward the middle (first with the long sides, then the short) to create a rounded packet. Seal the seam and return the dough, with the seam facing down, to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap again, and allow to rest until it doubles in size again, approximately one hour.

Place a cast iron skillet on the bottom shelf of the oven and preheat to 475 degrees.

Transfer dough to the floured work surface, and divide it into three equal pieces. Form 12-14 inch ropes out of each piece. Cover a cookie sheet (or any rimless baking pan) with parchment paper and dust it with flour.

Evenly space the ropes of dough across the sheet, and then create dividers between the dough by pulling up the paper in between each loafand use rolled kitchen towels under the paper pleats to help the loaves keep shape as they rise. Cover the pan loosely with plastic and allow the dough to rise again for about 45-60 minutes, until doubled in size.

Uncover loaves, remove the towel dividers, and straighten the paper to space the loaves out. Make four slashes (about ¼ in. deep and 4 in. long) on each loaf with a paring knife. If you are using a baking or pizza stone (recommended), slide parchment paper onto the stone and place in the oven. Add ½ c. of ice cubes to the skillet on the bottom shelf of the oven (to create steam which helps create the soft inside before the crusty outside bakes). Bake for about 30 minutes, until the bread is golden and crispy (it should sound hollow when tapped).

Naturally Fermented Sour Dill Pickles

Viann does a lot of pickling and canning to make her garden harvests last through the winter. One of Viann’s pickled vegetables is cucumbers, so why not serve pickles at your book club? 

For this recipe, we asked writer and pickler Jeffrey Yoskowitz for advice. Learn more about Jeffrey following the recipe. 

1 quart jar
1 lb of small, fresh pickling cucumbers (Kirby or Persian cu-cumbers)
1 T non-iodized kosher salt
1-2 Bay Leaves
3 peeled but whole cloves of garlic
2-3 sprigs of dill
1 dried chili pepper
¼ tsp coriander
¼ tsp mustard seed
¼ tsp black peppercorns
a few cloves
Any other spices and herbs you want to add (optional)

Fill the jar halfway from top with cold water. Add salt, tighten lid and shake to dissolve salt. Add garlic, dill and spices. Pack quart jar with cucumbers. Make sure vegetables are below water level—you can wedge them under the neck of the jar.

Leave the jar out on the counter at room temperature with the lid on, but not too tight. After the first two days, “burp” the jar (open lid to relieve pressure). After 3-4 days (for half-sour pickles), 5 to 7 days (for full-sours) or whenever you like the flavor, transfer the jar to the fridge. Enjoy!

Jeffrey Yoskowitz is a writer, pickler and entrepreneur. He was recently named to Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 list in Food and Wine and was a guest chef at the James Beard House kitchen in both 2013 and 2014.

In 2012, Yoskowitz co-founded The Gefilteria (, a venture re-imagining Old World Jewish Foods through unique dining experiences, talks and demos and production of an artisanal gefilte fish sold around the country. He got his start in the food world at Adamah Organic farm in Litchfield County, Connecticut, where he worked as a farm fellow and returned a year later as a pickle apprentice.

Yoskowitz has written about food and culture in publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Tablet, Gastronomica, Meatpaper, The Forward, among others. Through his writing and research he has become an authority on food and culture. In 2016, his forthcoming cookbook The Gefilte Manifesto will be published by Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan.

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The Path From Inspiration to Art

Tuesday, February 03, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Joshua Max Feldman—the author of The Book of Jonah, just released in paperback from Picador
blogs for The Postscript on the mystery of inspiration, its sources, and the path from inspiration to art. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Joshua at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

Writers get asked a lot of questions about inspiration. Where do the ideas come from? How are characters created? Are plot twists or dramatic reversals invented or drawn from real life?

If you ask a writer such questions, though, you'll likely get some mealy-mouthed response about process and imagination versus articulation or something like that.

As a writer, I want to state that we aren't trying to be evasive. There isn't some secret website filled with great stories and crackling dialogue and compelling characters that you can pull from as soon as you get the URL and pay the membership fee. The truth is that inspiration is a mystery—and I think to some extent, the more time you spend writing, the more profound the mystery reveals itself to be. I can't explain why when I go to sleep wrestling with some structural problem in a story, I'll sometimes wake up in the morning with an elegant solution. I wasn't consciously thinking about it; I wasn't conscious at all.

Some part of our minds that sits outside of our awareness is at work on nights like that. And it's this part of our minds that generally offers up the best ideas. But how to feed this shadowy part of ourselves? That, as they say, is the question.

I think the best approach is to trust your instincts: surround yourself with art—books, movies, music, anything—that you like. And if you can't say why you like it, all the better. Liking something without knowing why means that the invisible corners of our minds are singing its praises. When the time is right, they'll send a message regarding why you like it, or at least what you ought to do about it.

The origin of my novel, The Book of Jonah, was very much this sort of experience. The novel is a modern retelling of the biblical Book of Jonah, a text I liked a lot without being able to understand fully why. I'm interested in spiritual matters, but I'm not especially observant; there are other books in the Bible that provide more obvious material for a contemporary recreation. But there was something about the story of a man getting a message from God, ignoring that message, in the course of trying to escape it getting swallowed up and spat out by a giant fish, finally fulfilling his duties to great success, but ending up pretty grumpy about the whole experience nonetheless—something in that story inspired me. In many ways, writing of my novel was a way for me to answer the question of why I liked the Book of Jonah so much. What I discovered is that it speaks to the contradictions and quandaries of faith in the modern world with unusual clarity.

Typically, though, the path from inspiration to art is more circuitous. An image grows into a novel; a lyric in a song becomes a movie. Inspiration does not have to come exclusively from art, of course, either: a look, a texture, a certain slant of light—it's all the stuff of words yet to be written.

One of the wonderful things about making art of any kind is that you appreciate how many sources of inspiration there are out there. You can find a hundred novels walking out your front door.

Remaining Russian Through Food

Tuesday, January 27, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Boris Fishman—the author of A Replacement Life, just released in paperback from HarperCollins
blogs for The Postscript on one of his favorite paragraphs in his book and the importance of food. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Boris at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

One of my favorite passages in my debut novel, A Replacement Life— the story of a failed young writer who starts forging Holocaust- restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn who have suffered, “but not in the exact way [they] need to have suffered in order to qualify” — appears on page 20 and has no verbs or adjectives; there isn’t even a complete sentence in it. It’s a list. I reproduce it here, along with the preceding paragraph for context. The young writer’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, has just passed away, and he makes his first return to south Brooklyn, where so many Russian-Americans live, in over a year — he has been trying to force his past out of his life — for her funeral and commemoration. (The first names in the first paragraph refer to the home aides that looked after his grandmother when she was ill.) 

Slava used to sit at one of these tables once a week, the cooking by a Berta or a Marina or a Tatiana, uniformly ambrosial, as if they all attended the same Soviet Culinary School No. 1. Stout women, preparing to grow outward even if they hadn’t reached thirty, in tights decorated with polka dots or rainbow splotches, the breasts falling from their sailor shirts, their shirts studded with rhinestones, their shirts that said Gabbana & Dulce.

Stewed eggplant; chicken steaks in egg batter; marinated peppers with buckwheat honey; herring under potatoes, beets, carrots, and mayonnaise; bow-tie pasta with kasha, caramelized onions, and garlic; ponchiki with mixed-fruit preserves; pickled cabbage; pickled eggplant; meat in aspic; beet salad with garlic and mayonnaise; kidney beans with walnuts; kharcho and solyanka; fried cauliflower; whitefish under stewed carrots; salmon soup; kidney beans with the walnuts swapped out for caramelized onions; sour cabbage with beef; pea soup with corn; vermicelli and fried onions.

I am often asked in what way I remain Russian more than a quarter of a century after my family left the Soviet Union, when I was nine. I feel no political kinship with the Soviet Union’s fallout republics (I was born in Belarus), and the one return visit I made, in 2000, excavated powerful sensory memories but left me with an equally powerful distaste for the lack of civility, paranoia, and xenophobia that continues to thrive there. So my answer tends to refer to the Russian literature that was my path back to my home culture after I’d spent a decade in America trying to forget it; the language, earthy and comic and supple and brusque; and the food. Is it because professional opportunity — not to mention other forms of personal expression, such as religious identity — was so much more circumscribed in the Soviet Union that so much more ceremony and ritual significance was given to meals and community? All I can say is that to this day, my family — its opportunities and self-expression circumscribed in America all the same, due to imperfect English, advanced age, and plain shyness — sits down to meals as to a great respite from the ordeals of the day. Great care is taken to prepare the meal, almost always at home, from scratch; it is pounced upon with an equally great hunger that sometimes feels spiritual more than alimentary. The food is gone in a third of the time it took to prepare. It’s not the French or Italian model. 

There may be another reason. Looking from America, Russian food feels like a paradox. (I am calling it “Russian” only as an economical shorthand; there is as much French as Central Asian influence in it, and Jewish, too, if buried — a Ukrainian Orthodox woman I know had been making kasha varnishkes for decades before she realized its provenance.) Industrial agriculture, with its reliance on chemicals and preservatives, was never practiced in the Soviet Union to the degree that it is in America; strawberries used to taste like strawberries there, and you could count on finding them for sale only in late summer. (Things have changed somewhat now, but in today’s Ukraine, for instance, Belarussian food products sell at a premium because Belarus avoids GMOs; products advertise this prominently. Isn’t that something? The Soviets were local and organic — and progressive on GMO usage and labeling — long before all this caught on in America.) But neither was health-consciousness a priority in the same way; when it wasn’t butter in the pan, it was sunflower oil, and lots of it. So, well-raised products cooked in the good stuff: Perhaps it’s no mystery why Russians love to eat. 

Because food is so important both to the novel and its author — so much so that, having finished my second novel, out from HarperCollins next year, I am contemplating a Ukrainian cookbook as my third project — I invite you to make it a part of your book club discussion of A Replacement Life. Cross-pollination is welcome: One club, in Knoxville, TN, fortified its discussion with vodka and lox. If there’s a Russian grocery store nearby, raid the shelves. And if you’re willing to try your own hand at a staple of the Russian table, I include a recipe for borshch from the woman whose cooking I want to highlight in the Ukrainian cookbook. I went down to south Brooklyn, where she looks after my grandfather, just last night, and made it together with her. You won’t regret the (not very taxing) effort. And in case it’s your discussion that needs fortification, I am also including a handful of discussion questions. Finally, I am available through the JBC Live Chat program to call or Skype into your book club if that would be of interest; you can reach me at 

Happy eating, reading, and talking: The Jewish national pastimes. 

Oksana’s Borshch 

The night before, boil three medium-size beets (anywhere from forty minutes to an hour and change depending on their size and age). Leave the skin on and refrigerate. This helps the beet keep its color and not blanch when it’s cooking the next day. 

You can make the soup with plain water, or ready-made stock, but you can also make your own — with chicken bones, meat on, or pork bones, ditto, or beef bones. In a 3L pot, cover the bones with 2L of water and bring to a boil. Once the stock is boiling and the surface has covered with fat skimmings from the meat, remove the bones, empty the pot of the liquid, and wash it out get rid of the film on the sides. Refill with 2L of water and return to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat and slide the lid slightly off to prevent it from boiling too hard.

Day of: 
- Bring the stock to a boil, then lower to medium heat and slide the lid slightly off. 
- Peel three medium-size potatoes, and cube. 
- Peel one medium-size parsnip and dice into disks, halving the larger slices. 
- Wash and de-seed one jalapeno, and dice into tiny pieces. 
- Shred a quarter of a medium-size cabbage head. 
- Add all of it — they require the same cooking time — into the boiling pot, along with one nearly full tablespoon of salt. The soup stays at medium heat, lid slightly off. 

While vegetables are cooking (one hour): 
- Peel and grate two big carrots. 
- Peel and cube one medium-to-large onion. 
- Cover the bottom of a saute pan generously with oil (Oksana uses corn oil) 
- Add the onions and saute until they are golden-brown. 
- Add carrots and keep sauteing until they are cooked all the way. If you throw in carrot sooner, it will give off a lot of juice and the mixture will braise rather than saute. 
- Add a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste using a dry spoon. (Wet spoon will cause mold in the paste. To preserve tomato paste after opening a can, cover with oil.) 
- Press or grate two large garlic cloves into the soup 

- Skin the beets — if you run them under water, the skin should come off in your fingers. 
- Dice into relatively small pieces 

After the soup has been going for an hour: 
- A dusting of coriander and curry into the soup (Spices get tossed in with about 20% cooking time left. Otherwise, the flavor isn’t sharp.) - Slide the onion/carrot/tomato paste/garlic mixture into soup 
- Deglaze pan with water and add to soup 
- Add 1/2 tbsp. of Vegeta or salt to taste 
- Add the beets and turn heat to low. Add salt to taste. Does it need acidity? Options: Lemon, vinegar, the brine of pickled cabbage. (Oksana added 2 tbsp 4% vinegar.) 
- Add one teaspoon of white sugar. - Add a generous helping of dill. (Oksana’s was from the freezer.) 
- Press or grate two large heads of garlic into the soup. 
- Add a little bit more salt to taste — borshch always tastes like it needs salt the next day. 
- Turn the heat to high; at the first signs of boiling, shut it off or the beets will start to lose color. (When reheating, reheat only serving portions — not the entire pot.) 

Leave for the next day.

Boris Fishman was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The London Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in New York. Just out in paperback, A Replacement Life is his first novel. It received a rave on the cover of The New York Times Book Review — “Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant young émigré writer? There had better be, because here he is. Boris Fishman’s first novel, ‘A Replacement Life,’ is bold, ambitious and wickedly smart... The only problem with this novel is that its covers are too close together... Undoubtedly, comparisons will be made — to Bellow and the Roths (Henry and Philip).” — and was selected by The New York Times as one of its 100 Notable Books of 2014, by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers program and as a finalist for Jewish Book Council's Sami Rohr Prize.

Reading Like a Senator, Loving Like a Grandparent

Tuesday, January 20, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Claude Knobler— the author of More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia blogs for The Postscript on his mother's reaction to his parenting memoir. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

It was the first time I can ever recall my mother acting like a U.S. senator. 

The advance copy of my book, More Love, Less Panic about all that I learned about parenting after my wife, two kids and I adopted a five year old boy from Ethiopia, was finally ready. Knowing I was in New York visiting my parents, my editor had my copy sent to their apartment. 

Where my mother was lying in wait. 

Think about how you browse through a book when you first see it. You might start at the first page. Or you might glance at the table of contents. Some people probably flip to the middle to see how they like the writing. 

And then there are politicians. And mothers. 

Bookstore employees in Washington DC have long been used to seeing senators march straight to a new book and go directly to the index page. Then, without hesitation, they scan to see how many times their own name appears. After that, they go to those pages, make sure that they approve of what has been written about themselves, close the book and wander happily (or not so happily) away. 

It’s not really how I thought my mother would approach my book. 

But, when I came into her apartment, there she was, reading the last chapter, and only the last chapter of my book. The one, as it happens, that was about her. The chapter is titled, "Grandparent Your Kids." One of the many remarkable experiences I had after we adopted was seeing the instant connection between my new son and my parents. 

Perhaps that connection shouldn’t have surprised me. My mother had been placed into a Catholic orphanage by my grandparents in Belgium during WWII. Because of their sacrifice, she survived the war, they did not. Eventually she was adopted and brought to America. 

That she and my son Nati would connect makes perfect sense, but how to explain the fact that Nati and my father also quickly became the best of friends? In the book, I write about how I learned that loving without demanding that your child change into someone they’re not—the sort of love that grandparents often excel at—is the kind of love I hope to show my own children. (And I also write about how even before he learned English, my mother was telling Nati that one day he would grow up and marry a nice Jewish girl. Some things never change!).

The chapter is, I think, very complimentary about my parents, but my mom wasn’t going to take my word for it, and so, she made sure to read that chapter, before ever looking at anything else in the book. Only when she was sure she’d been treated fairly, did she move on, back to the front of the book. 

And so, much to my own surprise, I find myself thinking of this topic….where did my parents go right? Growing up I had a great many complaints, and to be fair, I parent very differently from how I was raised but…..seeing my parents now, seeing how they listen to anything my kids tell them, seeing the joy in their faces when they get to share a meal with any of their grandchildren, leaves me wondering how can I grandparent my own children. Yes, I have responsibilities as a father that my parents no longer have to worry about (they eat a lot of cake at my mother’s house. A lot.) but they also have a joy in being grandparents that I simply am unwilling to postpone feeling. 

Of course, I didn’t quite get a 100% approval. Recently my sister told me that my mother had complained that there were moments in the book where I’d made her look a bit too much like, well, a Jewish mother. Everyone’s a critic. Or a senator. ᐧ

Judging a Book by the Discussion

Thursday, November 06, 2014 | Permalink
Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

What separates a good book discussion from a blah one? When you've left your book club feeling like you had a really good conversation, what is it that set it apart from previous conversations? Was it the depth or thoughtfulness of the comments? The sharing of ideas and personal reflections? Something you learned or that you thought about in a new way? 

Book groups, actually, are one of the few places, outside of a classroom, where these kinds of conversations occur. They are, by nature, often a comfortable setting in which people are inspired to read and think, share ideas, respond to the ideas of others, and start new conversations – and they can be on any topic. So while book groups are fun and social, an informal place to sit back, take off your shoes, and pore over the contents of the book in your lap, they are also place of education and study. 

 So many books can inspire a great conversation, and sometimes completely unexpectedly. When many readers look for a book to read with their book clubs, it's often a work of fiction or possibly narrative non-fiction in the form of a memoir, biography, or history. A good book from one of these genres is a wonderful catalyst to a lively, passionate, thoughtful conversation. However, books from other genres, many of which are not considered to be good "book club books", can also provide an interesting reading experience and an engaging discussion. 

Take a book like Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's Biblical Images: Men and Women of the Book. This is a book of scholarship and Jewish thought that explores and elaborates on characters in the Bible. Not a book that most book clubs choose on a regular week. But when you view it as a character study of figures with whom many people already have some familiarity, it can become the centerpiece of one of those thoughtful and interesting book group talks. If this kind of conversation sparks your interest, JBC Book Clubs developed a reader's guide for Biblical Images for The Global Day of Jewish Learning (next Sunday, Nov. 16), both for a single chapter and for the entire book, which can be downloaded as part of the toolbox at

Another book that might get overlooked as "not a book club book" is Ruth Calderon's A Bride for One  Night: Talmud Tales. This book, a collection of stories from the Talmud accompanied by MK Calderon's own expansion of the narratives, reads like a short story collection that will raise questions and examination at every turn. For a book group looking for fascinating, thought-provoking stories (that also happen to have a basis in Jewish texts) to discuss, it's a book to consider (and MK Calderon will be speaking as part of The Global Day's 24x24 series, so you can watch her live!). 

 Of course, finding the right book for you or for your book group isn't simple. And finding a book that will touch off a spirited conversation is never a given, no matter how interesting, thoughtful, or popular a book is. But when you find one that works, it can be an invigorating and enlightening hour or two.

It’s All About the Journey

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Zoe Fishman— the author of Saving Ruth, Balancing Acts, and her latest, Driving Lessons— blogs for The Postscript on her own driving lessons and the quest for something familiar. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Zoe at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

It’s true that the basic premise of Driving Lessons — city slicker trades in the hustle and bustle for smaller town living — was based on my own decision to move south to Atlanta with my husband after thirteen years in New York. True also that my protagonist Sarah’s inability to drive was autobiographical — I hadn’t been behind the wheel in seventeen years (!) when I arrived. 

 I’ll never forget my first foray onto the highway, with my husband in the passenger seat. 

“I can’t drive!” I pleaded. “It’s been too long and I wasn’t even that good to begin with!” “

No, no, you can do this, you just need practice,” he calmly responded, convinced that I was exaggerating. “Let’s go.” 

Needless to say, arriving safely, not to mention still married, at our destination via a virtual sea of driving lanes was no small miracle. 

Unlike Sarah however, who is ambivalent about motherhood despite what she feels is a ticking time bomb of doom suspended above her thirty-six year old head, I was pregnant and happy to make the transition. Rather than fight my way onto the subway with a stroller or join a preschool waiting list before the start of my second trimester, I would gestate and write; perhaps finally learn how to roast a chicken. 

 So that’s what I did for the remaining months of my pregnancy. I wrote, learned how to cook and cobbled together my baby registry with the precision of a neurosurgeon. Atlanta seemed okay, but I didn’t really know why. I was too busy nesting, napping and not driving to say for sure. Oh, those naps. How I miss them! 

 And then, my son Ari arrived, and everything changed. 

The reality of my decision—to leave all that I knew and start over some place else as the new Mommy version of my former self—proved very different from what I had imagined. In the exhaustion of new parenthood, I missed New York’s nonstop energy. I missed my friends. I missed my schedule. I missed my favorite restaurants and boutiques and coffee shops and bars and well, me. Part of that was of course, post-partum nerves and a sleeplessness the likes of which I had never known, but the other part was a real sense of yearning for something—anything—that felt familiar in such uncharted territory. And to find the familiar in Atlanta you have to drive. So, finally, with my tiny infant in tow, that’s what I did.

Really, that’s what I wanted to explore in this book - the yearning for the familiar in times of transition. Whether it’s motherhood, or a new job or relationship, I think all women can relate to idealizing the past when we’re scared about the future. It’s the process of conquering that fear which helps us redefine our present.

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