The ProsenPeople

Writing the Jewish Rust Belt

Monday, April 16, 2018 | Permalink
Allison Pitinii Davis is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“Falls in Love, or Reads Spinoza,” a poem from my 2017 collection Line Study of a Motel Clerk, is in conversation with H. Leivick’s cycle on Spinoza and Charles Reznikoff’s “Spinoza” (1934). It is also in the tradition of rebelling against T.S. Eliot, joining Emanuel Litvinoff’s “To T.S. Eliot” (1951), Hyam Plutzik’s “For T.S.E. Only” (1955), and Philip Levine’s decision to skip meeting Eliot at a bookstore in 1953 after spending “a sleepless night wondering what I might do if Eliot were suddenly to blurt out a racist remark.” I anticipate anti-Semitism when reading Modernists, so I was prepared for Eliot’s overtly problematic poems, but nothing prepared me for this line in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921): “The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other…”. That is, unless, Spinoza is part of your worldview. That is, unless, you have a father who reads Spinoza relentlessly, who leaves a copy of Ethics on the back of the toilet so “the latter” might take a shit and read Spinoza, let alone fall in love. But Eliot didn’t grow up in my home. And he certainly didn’t have my father.

The kind of Judaism that shaped my collection was handed down to me by my father and uncle, who run a trucking motel in the Rust Belt. It was originally opened in 1960 by my grandfather, the eponymous “motel clerk” of my collection. To the casual onlooker, the motel isn’t Jewishly marked. The mezuzah is painted over (by accident? for safety?) and we only sell Manischewitz through the beer-and-wine drive-thru before Passover. My father’s perpetual head covering is a baseball hat, not a kippah. But the motel is where, behind spare ashtrays and wooden tire thumper, my old Jewish Studies books line the bookshelf. Where, between checking in drivers, my father wrote his address for my sister’s bat mitzvah. Where I drove to at dawn the morning of my wedding to pick up my grandma, fresh in from Deerfield Beach, and originally from Montreal, where she was raised down the street from Mordecai Richler.

Beside the motel is a roadside restaurant—the setting for my poem “The Marquee Is Empty at the Big Rig Saloon.” My father and I have been eating at the restaurant since we’ve been babies. Currently, its interior includes deer heads and a steady stream of country music and Fox News. It is perhaps not a likely place to find a man with a name that you don’t hear outside of Canadian Jewish nursing homes and his poet-daughter, but when I’m home, it’s where my father and I go after work for a drink. Whatever we talk about ends up being about the Holocaust because my father, when not reading about Spinoza, reads about the Holocaust. He reads books with titles so grim that he tapes paper over them when reading in public so people don’t give him looks. When we walk into the restaurant, truck drivers around the bar offer to buy him beers. We sit in a booth, drink Coors Lights, and then we stop passing as normal customers because we are drunk and talking too loud about Treblinka.

I wrote that poem and this essay because I suspect that there are readers like me who find nothing strange about love and Spinoza, about Coors Light and Treblinka. If there is a particular strain of Rust Belt Jewish culture, perhaps it’s in “Once” (1999) when a weary Philip Levine shows up at a restaurant in the Lower East Side and the owner exclaims, in disbelief, “They got Jews in Detroit!” It’s Murray Saul, the 1970s-era DJ in my poem “The Motel Clerk’s Son Gets Bad Reception of Cleveland 100.7 FM,” who welcomes in Shabbat stoned and gurgling with his own ferocious spit. It's mothers writing beautiful, cursive notes excusing their children from school on the High Holidays only to have the attendance workers stare at the graceful lettering in suspicion. It’s parents naming their children “Allison Davis” so we “don’t seem too ethnic.” It’s the economy never recovering from post-industrialism, the persistence of racial and class inequalities. It's everyone leaving town, and synagogues struggling to make minyans. It's knowing that Jewish culture will only survive if you shoulder part of the weight, or rather, as you’re born with the extra weight already on you, it's accepting the gravity, accepting that if you escape it will be at the expense of never feeling grounded again.

I sensed this obligation at a young age, one day in the motel office, when my uncle, after a particularly frantic series of phone calls, told me “Allison, there are two things you should never do: run a trucking motel or be the president of a synagogue.” Yet, all over the Rust Belt, countless people like my uncle are doing what it takes to keep businesses and synagogues open, because the region is our spiritual home, our diaspora once removed from the coasts. It has its own beauty and wilderness, and its authors are navigating it in all of its diversity and complexity. The rest of America can fly over the middle, but not without missing critical literature of our time.

Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award’s Berru Award for Poetry, and Poppy Seeds, winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Her poetry appeared in Best American Poetry 2016. She is a PhD student at The University of Tennessee.

Image via Allen/Flickr

On Poetry Swallowed by Prose

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 | Permalink

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is the author of Sadness Is a White Bird. He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The first page of my novel, which is one of my favorite pages, owes everything to poetry. I wrote this page early in my process of second-drafting, and then revised it well over a hundred times: some of these revisions just entailed changing one or two words, or altering the spacing, but each of them felt extremely consequential. It felt, in other words, like editing a poem. (I can recite the entire page by memory, and would often revise out loud, while walking or running or riding the bus: like in poems, the cadences and rhythms and sounds of the words all felt like they mattered as much as—if not more than— their literal meanings.) Beyond that, contained in this page are multiple references to poems by Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai, a half-reference to the poetry of the Book of Judges, and two lines that were partially cannibalized from my own unfinished poems, which now lie chewed up and forsaken in a dusty digital folder somewhere deep in the recesses of my desktop, never to be opened again. (Sorry, little poems).

My novel’s debt to poetry does not end there: the poem by Mahmoud Darwish, “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies,” plays a major role in the narrative, and the novel’s title is derived from one of the lines of this poem (“Sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield/ Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.”) Other poems by Darwish, “Identity Card” and “The Earth is Closing On Us,” are also quoted, and play important roles in the story, as do “My Mother Baked the Whole World for Me,” by Yehuda Amichai, and an untitled poem by the narrator’s Salonican great-uncle Jacko Sadicario (which was also mostly taken from an unfinished poem of my own). And then there are the references to the poetry of the Bible, and the sections that seek to emulate poetry’s pacing and poetry’s word-pairings and even poetry’s ‘about’lessness. And indeed, the novel has been called “poetic,” which I appreciate. But what about poetry itself: not poetic-but-ultimately-plotted prose, or pieces of poems, or poetry-like rhythms, but actual poetry?

While writing this book, I encountered the following passage from Ben Lerner’s novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, quoted in his essay on poetry called “The Hatred of Poetry”: “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.” (Incidentally, Ben Lerner is one of my favorite fiction and essay writers, and I have been unable to resonate with any of his poems I’ve read.) I found Lerner’s passage to be both indicting, and right-on. And it led to me the question: what debt do I, as a writer, owe poetry?

As a start, I declared a private micro-war on italics, at least when it came to poetry, in my novel. At the very least, I decided—knowing my own instinct as a reader to see poetry italicized in a book and skip over it, deeming it nonessential, decorative, uncritical to the plotI would de-italicize all poem fragments, in hope that the snippets of poetry embedded in the novel would not be skipped over so easily. (This micro-war grew to include transliterations that appear in the book as well. As poetry reminds us, words are not only meanings: they are also a collection of scattered syllables and crunched-together consonants. I hope the reader will be a mote less likely to skip over unitalicized fragments of Arabic or Hebrew or Judeoespanyol, even if she speaks none of these languages). And next, I hope that folks who resonate with parts of this book will decide to read (or reread), in full, some of the poetry referenced in it, starting with Darwish and Amichai, and then continuing onwards, perhaps, to other favorites of mine, both from the region—Taha Muhammad Ali, Sami Shalom Shitrit, Yona Wallach, Nizar Qabbani, Hezy Leskly—and from elsewhere—Terrance Hayes, Osip Mandelstam, Allen Ginsberg, Robin Coste Lewis, Frank O’Hara, Rokhl Korn, Jacob Glatstein, Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Ocean Vuong, Philip Levine. Or any other complete poems, really: my poetical/polemical hope is that all of us readers of fiction and nonfiction and history and essays and blogs—myself included—read a bit more poetry, for poetry’s sake.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is an American-Israeli writer (and poet). Sadness Is a White Bird (Atria Books) is his debut novel.

Image credit: Emna Mizouni/Wikimedia Commons

G-d Gave Us the Rainbow: A Valentine's Day Reading List

Thursday, February 08, 2018 | Permalink

Sacha Lamb is a part-time librarian, part-time student, and part-time YA writer and reader. He is blogging here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Living at the intersection of gay and Jewish can be lonely. We’re about ten percent of less than two percent of the population in the United States, which is technically enough for a minyan, but sometimes it doesn't feel that way. For teens, especially teens with limited resources, it’s even harder to find your people. Luckily, we have always had books, and now we have more books than ever—Jewish books, gay books, and even a few of the greatest treasure of all: gay Jewish books.

As a reader and writer of young adult fiction, I’ve been excited over the past couple of years to see Jewish characters appearing in stories about gay teens. There are still big gaps on my bookshelf—most Jewish teens in YA fiction, particularly in the LGB romances I have been able to find, identify as secular, and so far I have found only one transgender character who expresses a sense of Jewish identity, J in Cris Beam’s I am J. As far as I know, the only book so far which features Jewishness as centrally as romance is Sarah L. Young’s independently published Nice Jewish Boys.

I would like to fill the gaps on my shelf, but while I wait, I am grateful for the books that do exist. In the spirit of making Valentine’s Day more sweet and less lonely, I’ve gathered a short list of young adult Valentine's reads for gay Jews. There is at least one gay or bisexual Jewish character in each of these books, and all of them get happy endings, even though the way to happiness is tough at times. Whether you're alone on February 14th or you're looking for something to read aloud to a partner, these books will bring a little more love into your life.

Cover of Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

For those who like their romance with a bit of a darker turn, Amy Rose Capetta’s Echo After Echo tackles an issue that's been front and center over the last few months, with a plot about a theater director who gets away with abuse because he is so admired for his art. It also offers a passionate romance between a young actress and an apprentice lighting designer. Zara is Jewish and Eli is Latina, and their romance is painted in the beautiful brushstrokes of Capetta’s prose. This is the perfect read for a girl who likes girls and theater and murder mysteries, and a little bit of menace, but still wants a happy, romantic ending.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert was one of my favorite new releases last year. Suzette, the protagonist, is dealing with a lot of things: she’s one of the only black girls at her New England boarding school, her brother Lionel is struggling with bipolar disorder, which Suzette doesn’t know how to respond to, and at the same time she’s developed a crush on the same girl Lionel likes! The romantic plot is great, but what really sold this book for me is the portrait of a close, complicated, loving Jewish family.

The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller, features another gay Jewish teen, and another struggle with mental illness. Matt is the one gay kid in his small town, his sister is a runaway, and the only thing that makes him feel powerful is controlling how he eats. Eating disorders are incredibly common among LGBT youth, and Miller’s portrayal is raw and real and necessary. Of all the gay, Jewish YA I’ve read, this is perhaps the most difficult to read, but at the same time the most powerfully cathartic. By the end of the book, Matt is on the road to recovery and he’s no longer so alone: this book will certainly break your heart, but then it will glue you back together better than ever before.

Image result for simon vs the homo sapiens agenda 

To bring it back to a lighter, sweeter, chocolatier tone, the wonderful Becky Albertalli has given us not one, but two books with significant Jewish characters and significant same-gender relationships. Next month, the film Love, Simon will bring one of those relationships to the big screen, in a huge moment for teen romantic comedies. Although the main character of the original book, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, isn't Jewish himself, he's one of those Gentiles whose friends are all Jewish—and no spoilers, but the mysterious figure behind the email address of “Blue,” Simon’s online crush, is Jewish too. Albertalli’s second book, The Upside of Unrequited, stars the Jewish cousin of one of Simon’s best friends. Molly herself is straight, but Jewishness plays into her love story, and she is surrounded by women who love other women: her moms, her sister, and her sister’s friends and girlfriend.

Albertalli’s world isn't free of the scourges of bullying and body image issues that plague real teenagers, but it's a world full of sincere and loving people, and a world where being gay, or bi, or Jewish, or, yes, LGB AND Jewish, feels entirely expected and natural. Baruch HaShem! I look forward to more of the same warmth from her upcoming title, Leah on the Offbeat, following one of Simon’s best friends as she comes to the realization that she is bisexual.

G-d gave us the whole rainbow—I hope I can soon have the whole rainbow on my bookshelf. Until then, I'm going to reread the books that already exist, and maybe some fanfiction, too. Or is that midrash?

Happy Valentine's Day, and happy reading! <3

Sacha Lamb is a graduate student in library science dedicated to crafting stories for kids who need to know that they are magic. His published work featuring gay, trans Jewish teens offers some bittersweet:“Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live,” and some just sweet:“Miss Me With That Gay Shit (Please Don’t)."

How Journalism Has Changed

Thursday, July 20, 2017 | Permalink

Lynda Schuster, author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

As I was writing my memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, I thought a lot about how journalism has changed over the decades. The book—which begins with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and ends with the 2014 Gaza War—chronicles my time as a foreign correspondent covering international conflicts for the Wall Street Journal and as the wife of a U.S. ambassador. Journalism’s transformation during those years, both in its dissemination and in the role of its practitioners, is nothing short of remarkable.

Much of the change is due, obviously, to the advent of the Internet and the rise of social media. When I started out at the Journal in the early 1980s, we were still using typewriters to bang out our copy. (That thumping noise you hear is my dinosaur tail being tucked discretely behind me.) Back then, when I wanted to file a story to the States while covering the wars in Central America, say, I had to be beg, plead, cajole—bribe, even—the telex operator at my hotel. And that assumed the power grid hadn’t been attacked. Barring a sympathetic hotel typist, I had to strike out, often in the dead of night to make my deadline, to the city’s central telephone exchange. Still, there was something thrilling about the clacking, clattering noise of the machine sending your story.

The years passed, and the technology improved. My first portable computer could accommodate about three sentences on the screen; to send a story, I had to fit rubber cups over the ear- and mouthpiece of a telephone. (That telephones even had mouthpieces tells you right there this is ancient history.) Those computers were prone to epic failures. Once, after writing up a story in Buenos Aires that I had spent several days reporting, I flew to Rio de Janeiro with the intention of filing the piece from there. (I was on a crazy deadline to finish a Brazilian story as well.) As soon I got to my stringer’s office, I attached the cups, dialed New York, pressed “send”—and pouf! The story disappeared. Gone. Vanished forever. The computer had neither hard drive nor memory—and I had nothing to file. So I did what any self-respecting reporter on deadline would do: I panicked. Once I’d finished hyperventilating, though, I sat down and miraculously recreated the story from memory. After I made deadline, my editor—who apparently liked the article I’d pieced together—said: “Maybe you ought to try losing your stories more often.”

Fast forward to today, with all the fancy, light-as-air laptops and instantaneous means of transmission. But while the Internet has made the actual job of journalism easier, social media is, in many ways, rendering reporters superfluous. That’s especially true when it comes to foreign reportage.

First, consider the vital role as conduits that we journalists used to play. When I covered southern Africa in the late 1980s, the civil war in Angola—a proxy conflict for Cold War supremacy in the region—had been raging for almost fifteen years. Amid talk of a possible peace accord, another reporter and I were flown by the South African military to Angola to interview the head of the rebels. We arrived at their base—only to find the rebel leader had flown off an hour earlier to consult with the president of a West African country. His armed soldiers made it clear, however, that we were to remain as their “guests” until the leader returned. And there we were, stuck in a place so remote the former Portuguese colonists called it “the land at the end of the earth.” No means of communication, no way of getting out (the South Africans left after dropping us off), nothing to do but sit in a hut and wait. For days. Until the leader returned: laughing off our consternation at being held hostage, he gave us a lengthy interview, then summoned a plane to return us to South Africa.

The rebel chief had wanted his opinion of the pending peace accord transmitted to the world—and we were the only means to do so. Nowadays, that wouldn’t happen. The rebels most likely would possess their own website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, all manner of methods to disseminate their message without having to rely on journalists. Which accounts, in some ways, for tragedies such as the beheading by ISIS of reporter James Foley in 2014: we are more valuable as pawns to garner international attention than as interlocutors.

Yet one essential thing about the profession hasn’t changed. Witness the remarkable reporting of late by the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, on matters that otherwise would have remained unknown to us citizens. No amount of technological transformation can ever replace that cornerstone of our democracy.

Lynda Schuster is a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor. She reported from Central and South America Mexico the Middle East and Africa. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Atlantic, Granta, and Utne Reader. She is the author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver and A Burning Hunger: One Family's Struggle Against Apartheid.

An Inside Look at an Early Draft of Bed-Stuy Is Burning

Thursday, July 13, 2017 | Permalink

Brian Platzer, author of Bed-Stuy Is Burning, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Bed-Stuy Is Burning is a novel about a fictional race riot in contemporary Bedford Stuyvesant, one of the most historically volatile neighborhoods in New York City. The novel initially focuses on Aaron, a disgraced rabbi turned Wall Street banker; Amelia, his journalist girlfriend; and Simon, their infant son. The infusion of upwardly mobile professionals—like Aaron and Amelia—into Bed-Stuy’s historic brownstones belies the tension simmering on the streets below. After a cop shoots a boy in a nearby park, conflict escalates to rioting—with Aaron and Amelia at its center.

Below is an early-draft excerpt from when the novel was written in alternating first-person voices. Here, Amelia is more blunt and callow than she becomes in later drafts. In this passage, she thinks about her infant son and the actor Adam Driver.

I didn’t want my Simon to suddenly die, but if he did, I wanted it to be Aaron’s fault. I could survive Simon suffocating, and I could forgive Aaron if he accidentally suffocated Simon, but I didn’t know if Aaron could forgive me.

When a couple gets engaged, they’re repeatedly asked a series of questions: How did he do it? Did she know it was coming? Did she cry? Can I see the diamond?

The questions allow friends and family to share in the couple’s joy, to feel part of their love. The answers matter less than the conversational enthusiasm they enable. When a couple has a child, they’re asked questions that play a similar a role: what was the birth weigh? How long was the labor? Who do you think he looks like? Do you love him so much? More than you ever loved anything?

It was hard to say I loved Simon before he knew I existed. Before he knew that I was different from the wall and my boyfriend and himself. I’m not sure non-reciprocal love exists. I cried when I leaned around and saw his little head sticking out of my body. I knew he was inside me and I felt him there for months, but when I saw the baby who would be my son for the rest of my life, it was the most powerfully emotional moment of my life.

But it wasn’t exactly love.

It was pride, for one—a kind of pride that makes me wonder if adopting is more significantly different from giving birth than I would have thought. I’m proud that my body—with its bad eyes and thin hair and lactose intolerance and basal cell carcinomas—could make a new body inside it. I’m proud that I made a thing as fat and short and perfect as Simon. But my guess is that the pride fades away and what’s left is the other most powerful emotion I feel, that of protection.

My son turned one a few weeks ago, and I’ve just now stopped waking up every night to hover over his crib to make sure he is breathing.

But if he does die, I don’t want it to be my responsibility. I want it to be Aaron’s. But it won’t be. It will be mine. I know that. Somehow I know.

I couldn’t sleep so I thought about what would happen if Simon were to die, and I thought about my boyfriend sleeping next to me, and I thought about my interview with Adam Driver, who played Adam, Lena Dunham’s boyfriend, on Girls and now is in the Star Wars movies. I interviewed him that day and I liked him. He had many of the same mannerisms as his character on Girls, and he even had a background that I imagined his character shared—like his father in real life was a preacher, and he joined the military after 9/11—but he also had this unassuming, almost apologetic smile that he fell back into all the time in real life that the director or editor or someone on Girls must have worked hard to remove all traces of, because in real life he has an athletic boyishness that balanced his self-seriousness. That’s what I’m going to write about. His boyishness.

Adam Driver is married, but the whole time I was with him I knew that if I was feeling better about my body and I wasn’t breastfeeding and I was feeling sexual again and not just a mother and I wasn’t attached to Aaron because of Simon and Aaron wasn’t such a great guy and it wouldn’t hurt him so much if he found out and if it wouldn’t ruin Simon’s life, I’d really want to sleep with Adam Driver. And not just as a physical thing. I’d want to sleep with him as a life-experience thing. Almost as if I were doing it for Simon. For Simon’s future. In the same way I think it’s good for him to live in Bedford Stuyvesant and grow up in such a diverse neighborhood, I think it’d be good for him for his mother to be intimate with Adam Driver.

Brian Platzer has an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and a BA from Columbia University. His writing has appeared often in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as in The New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Bed-Stuy, and teaches middle school English in Manhattan. Bed-Stuy Is Burning is his first book.

An Open Letter of Apology to Chad Harbach

Tuesday, July 11, 2017 | Permalink

Brian Platzer, author of Bed-Stuy Is Burning, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Five years ago I wrote a series of intellectually insincere articles with the sole purpose of building a resume. I was a few years out of my MFA and beginning the search for an agent to represent my own fiction, and I wanted to boost my credentials above those of my peers who, like me, had academic accomplishments but few or no publications to their names.

I’d earned my MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, a wonderful program with brilliant teachers who focused on teaching craft over professional development. However, they always implied that the proper stepping-stones into publishing were literary journals. The idea was that we were workshopping our stories each week both to learn skills and to polish the stories themselves to the point where they’d be submittable to the journals we had lying around the department offices. But aside from very rare exceptions, we were all rejected. I certainly was, over and over again. Dozens, then hundreds, of times.

I was eager to believe my more sophisticated and cynical classmates when they told me that the world of literary journals was governed by nepotism. That until I had favors to trade I wouldn’t get published, and that most of these magazines had more people submitting to them than actual readers. The truth was I didn’t know if any of this was accurate. What I knew was, just as when I hadn’t been invited to the party in high school, I was happy to hear stories of how only scumbags had been there, anyway.

So upon graduation I figured the next best thing was to review books for reputable publications. I sent clippings from college everywhere, from the Times to Time Out New York to websites that covered my Brooklyn neighborhood, but, again, nobody responded.

I’d been querying agents at the time, and no one was responding those emails, either, so I was growing desperate. I selected a novel that was receiving a lot of attention—The Art of Fielding—and I wrote a reckless takedown. I emailed the review to a random editor at, who attached a click-bait headline that barely had to do with my piece—English teacher: I was wrong about “Hunger Games”—and published within 24 hours. My wife and I celebrated.

But the piece was really, really bad.

In it, I admit to urging a student to read The Art of Fielding before I’d read it, myself. I affect the tone of a moral librarian, instructing readers on what constituted more and less valuable literature. Try to make sense of this sentence: “If the literary establishment wants our teenagers to fall in love with literature, it must stop cynically writing and imprudently reviewing books like ‘The Art of Fielding’ as though they were examples of adult literary fiction.”

What did I mean by any of this? What was this “literary establishment” that was both “cynically writing” and “imprudently reviewing” books for “our” teenagers?

All that stands out to me now is my naked opportunism and, mostly, jealousy. Jealousy of Harbach’s success, of his having accomplished everything I wanted but that seemed so far from my grasp, and of the reviewers who were blessed to be reviewing for the Times or the New Yorker where they could think honestly and wisely about a work of art—and where they could build reputations with which to publish their own novels.

Harbach, of whom I’d always been a fan (I’d circulated his essay on the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry), had never made any of the claims that I was so vainly dispelling. He’d simply written an entertaining novel about baseball, academia, sex, love, and friendship.

Well, my strategy worked. With this piece, I was able to I publish elsewhere. I slowly built a resume.

Today, July 11th, is the publication date my debut novel. Not only do I shudder at the prospect of reciprocity—that someone will use the novel that I’ve spent years writing as a stack of papers to publicly set aflame in order to gather attention—but also, like a job applicant scanning through Facebook at pictures of him or herself making lascivious faces and drinking Jagerbombs in a skimpy bathing suit, I’m horrified not to be able to erase the wanton indiscretion of my needy and vulnerable years.

When I am at my most self-forgiving, I allow that these early essays were a means to an end. That what really mattered was my novel. I did what I had to, and people have done far worse. But I’m not sure. Why does a novel that a few thousand people will read matter so much more than essays that a few thousand people will read? The novel has more cultural cache, but that’s probably just among my friends who spent years earning their MFAs. I’ve worked harder on the novel, but that just means I should have worked harder on the essays. Nowhere did I, even for a moment, elevate any work of art—whether Harbach’s or my own—over my ego or ambition. And even after all this, even as I write these words, I can’t help but still hope that I’ll be noticed.

Brian Platzer has an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and a BA from Columbia University. His writing has appeared often in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as in The New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Bed-Stuy, and teaches middle school English in Manhattan. Bed-Stuy Is Burning is his first book. Check back on Thursday to read more from Brian Platzer.

Longing for New York

Wednesday, July 05, 2017 | Permalink

Hannah Lillith Assadi, author of Sonora: A Novel, is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

My father’s family lived in Safed, Palestine for over four centuries, overlooking the lake where Jesus was said to have walked on water. In April 1948, when he was five years old, his family fled from Palestine on foot. Like so many families, they believed that they would return once the fighting had ended, but never did. They lived in refugee camps in Damascus, for a few years before going to Kuwait where my grandfather was hired as an engineer. At 17, my father went to Italy, and some years later moved to, and remained for 20 years in New York. He was a taxi driver when he met my mother in a Tribeca bar. After a life of abrupt departures, my father finally settled with my mother in Arizona in the early 1990s.

They were married in Andalusia, Alabama, perhaps the first marriage to lend weight to the town’s namesake, the region in Spain in which Jewish and Muslim coexistence flourished before the Inquisition. But this was only coincidence. They were married there because my mother grew up in a small town named Florala thirty minutes southeast of Andalusia. Hers was the only Jewish family in that town, their estrangement further intensified by her father’s vehement support of the Civil Rights movement, and on the eve of Trump’s presidency she told me for the first time that neighbors would steal into their yard in the middle of the night and poison their dogs. My mother sometimes says she believes her mother died of longing for her hometown of New York, that this was why she passed so young of complications related to Alzheimer’s. My mother and her siblings left early for boarding school, but my grandmother remained without many friends, tending mostly to her garden. My grandfather, on the other hand, played the piano on Sundays at the local Baptist church. My mother has not been to Florala since my grandfather passed away though it is in that town where a burial plot awaits she and my father. Where I too could go to rest, should I be inclined. My mother shudders when she speaks of that town, asking me if I think she has become just like her mother, living far from New York as she is now in Arizona, longing for New York still.

New York City, this great dream, smashing us together as we grip the poles of our ever stalled trains, managed to bring my mother and father together, two people of seemingly incongruent faiths and backgrounds. But it also bankrupted them. Collections agents hounded my father, he believed, because he was a Palestinian. He was taken in for questioning after the NYPD found letters written in Arabic in the trunk of his cab. They were letters from a friend who had remained in Italy about a very dangerous thing: the end of a love affair. The Middle East would follow him everywhere, except, he thought, to the desert. The desert was cheap, expansive, entirely separate from the rest of the planet and its cursed politics.

Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She was raised in Arizona by her Jewish mother and Palestinian father. She lives in Brooklyn. Sonora is her first novel.

Sophia and Mrs. Goldman

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

“Why did you make Sophia Latina?”

That’s a question I have been asked several times in interviews about Sophia Hernandez, the protagonist in my newest book, A Hat For Mrs. Goldman. At first, I was surprised by that question. I hadn’t thought about why I made Sophia Latina. I just thought of her that way. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t Sophia be Latina or Hmong or from the Congo like many of the students my husband now works with at our local high school? They are here. They live with us. Our lives intersect, and at that intersection is a story. Why wouldn’t Sophia be a character in my books?

Still, I know why I am asked that question. But equally important, I think, to having a diverse character, is the depiction. The roundness and believability of that character. If I had been asked about that, how I was able to make her universal in her needs and wants, I would have a very different answer. It turns out that although I have always been interested in creating books that show diversity, I didn’t always understand what that meant. Many years ago, when I was working on La Pa Lia’s First Day, the first book of my Jackson Friends series, I had a chance to read an early draft to a small group of St. Paul school kids. The kids were part of Meera’s class—my oldest daughter—and included her Hmong friend, Kabo. In the ways that we share our lives with our school buddies, Meera told Kabo that I was writing a book about a Hmong girl. At that time, there were no children’s books with Hmong characters. Before I met with the group, I knew Kabo was anxious for my story. I had not really understood until I saw her anticipation that I was about to disappoint her. As I read my draft, I realized I had created a flat, almost folktale character. How had I missed that? After, I would change Pa Lia, make her worthy like Kabo. When I wrote A Hat For Mrs. Goldman, I knew that Sophia was Latina. I didn’t worry about her worthiness because I had learned a great lesson from writing about Pa Lia. I knew I could get Sophia right if I listened to her story, and followed her emotionally.

Of course, Americans need diverse books. We need to read about Pa Lia’s first day of school worries and Sophia’s relationship with Mrs. Goldman. We need the everyday in our books to reflect our everyday world. That means we also need diverse books for our young Jewish readers. Our Jewish communities are diverse, and our world, our country, our towns, and the neighborhoods we live in are diverse. We need books that tell all our stories and show us how we all connect.

That’s why Sophia is Latina.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Check back tomorrow to read more from Michelle Edwards.

Knitting and Love

Monday, June 26, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

I have been knitting all my life, since the age of five or so. Much of what I have done, I have done with my needles at the ready. So, it makes sense that I would have some stories to tell about knitting and life. Still, it took me a long time to realize this, and to tap into the well, which now often feels bottomless.

It was 1997 and I was at a small exhibit with Serge Klarsfeld’s collection of photos of French children who perished in the Holocaust, when I discovered how much of life I had viewed as a knitter. The show was in St. Paul, Minnesota, where my family lived back then. My kids were young—too young, I thought, for the bigger questions and stories about the children. So they stayed home. Instead, I asked my husband to join me. We went out to lunch first, then we walked to the exhibit. There were many noisy school kids there. Looking back on it, I wonder how they felt when they saw the black and white photos from decades before, clearly not American kids like themselves. Well, that’s another topic. Let’s make this one about knitting.

What I am sure of now, though, is that we each saw something deeply personal. And, in my case, knitterly. Among the photos, there were snapshots of the Jewish French children, sometimes with their mothers, clearly wearing some hand-knit item, like a sweater. I knew what having something handmade just for you meant. In the long and cold Minnesota winters, I had knit plenty of warmth for my own children. They came with me to yarn stores and cuddled skeins to test for softness and spring. They helped me sometimes, winding the wool into balls, so that they were easier to knit from. They took off their socks and let me measure their feet for more socks that I was knitting them. They allowed me to mess up their hair, all for the sake of getting the hat to fit.

We had a unique relationship that was all about making for them, loving them in a wooly way. That is what I saw in those pictures. Clearly, the child in the beautiful sweater was loved the way I loved my daughters. Fiercely. This child had been to yarn stores the way mine had. Maybe, on a bitterly cold day she might have picked the softest, warmest wool in the store, an expensive alpaca indulgence reserved for our heart-songs. As it was being knit, she might have tried that sweater on endlessly, so the knitter, the mom, the grandmother, could get the fit just right.

I could see their lives through my knitter’s eye. I felt their untold stories in those pictures so deeply I could barely move. Eventually, I started to write about knitting, shyly, at first. Then came many, many stories. In fact, sometimes I need to button-up when I am in yarn stores, at fiber gatherings, or around other knitters. They mention a knitting problem or a wooly discovery, an entanglement with yards of finely spun whatever, and I smile instead of letting them know how I wrote about that once.

I had planned this post to be a knitting story somehow tied to my latest book, A Hat For Mrs. Goldman: A Story About Knitting And Love. But here I am, nearly at the end of the story I had wanted to tell, and only now, through finally writing down about that day, do I realize how the two stories connect. Knitting and Love. That’s it.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Check back tomorrow to read more from Michelle Edwards.

My Father’s Letters

Friday, June 23, 2017 | Permalink

Ronna Wineberg, author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

After my mother died six and a half years ago, at 84, my father did not want to live in their house alone. They had lived in a small house near Chicago for fifty five years, and raised two daughters there. He came to live in New York with me for a few months, and my sister and I had to decide what to do about the house.

He wanted to move to a senior community in the same town where he’d lived. He didn’t want to spend time in the old house or sort through possessions. They reminded him too much of my mother. My father didn’t say this, but it was clear that the house, which had been a happy place, was full of sadness for him now. After she died, he wandered around the house in a way he never had when she was alive or he just sat in the kitchen. The house felt empty of her presence, yet somehow full of her presence.

My sister and I consulted with him, but she and I took over the task of selling the house. We had to find a realtor, set a price, and prepare the house for sale.

This was a difficult time. We were all grieving my mother. But the task of dismantling the house had to be completed and done quickly. My father moved to an apartment in the senior community, a trial, to see if he would like living there. In the meantime, my sister and I began to clean the house, go through closets, drawers, cabinets, shelves, our parents’ lives. There was so much emotion and discovery. Fifty-five years’ worth of possessions were crammed into the rooms.

As a writer, I find that my emotions sometimes make their way into fiction. This doesn’t always happen, and I often imagine emotions, but it happened with the house. In my new collection of short stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, there are two stories about a parent’s death and cleaning out a family home, “Relocation” and “Excavation.”

I was astounded by the things we found in my parents’ home: cards, letters, invitations from sixty years ago, war savings bonds, old photos, old clothing—even my mother’s home-made wedding dress. So much family history. I imagined other objects one might find and other scenarios; these made their way into the stories. The stories are fiction. What is true about them, though, is the emotion—the feelings of loss, letting go, the discovery of a parent’s past that a child may not have known about.

Over the course of months, my sister, some cousins, my children, and I cleaned the house. In a small room in the basement, my father’s office, we found a bulging manila envelope in a pile of papers. Inside the envelope were letters he’d written home from the army during World War II. Some were written on thin pieces of paper, airmail stationary, in his tiny scrawl. He wrote to his mother, sisters, and brother, sometimes just to a sister, about what it was like to be a soldier at that time in history and time in his life. I discovered he wrote beautifully.

My father was a quiet man and often listened when in a group of people. He had a great sense of humor and intelligence. He owned a wholesale store in Chicago where he sold men’s clothing and later was a manufacturer’s representative for a company that imported men’s clothing. The family story is he had wanted to be a doctor when he was young, but his father died when my dad was seventeen. My father helped support the family then and took over the small dry goods business.

He was responsible, smart, informed, practical, nurturing, and devoted to the family. We all understood that in the hierarchy of importance, he felt family came first. He knew about politics, facts, figures, history, and enjoyed music and theater, but he did not talk much about emotion. He did, however, in the letters.

The letters are sitting in the bulging envelope in a file cabinet in my apartment. I have read only a few of them. He died four and half years ago; the loss had felt too fresh. Those I’ve read offer a glimpse into a part of my father he did not talk about.

I didn’t, of course, know him when he was a young adult, but his voice, hopes, disappointments are there on the pages he wrote home. The war, history, and politics are on those pages, too.

“I read years ago that every letter has two lives,” a character in my story collection says, “One in the writer’s mind, and the other that the reader gives to it.”

I’m ready to read my father’s letters now, to give them their second or, perhaps, third life. Who knows what I will find or the emotions that will arise as I read them, the emotions I will discover. Perhaps in some form, some manner, they will make their way into fiction someday, too.

Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place, her first novel, which was the winner of the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition, 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. Her newest book is Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life. 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.