The ProsenPeople

Updating Old World Jewish Foods for the Modern Cook and Eater

Tuesday, October 17, 2017 | Permalink

Sarah Rich is the co-editor of Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles. Cipe (pronounced “C. P.”) was one of the most influential graphic designers of the twentieth century, and the first female art director at Condé Nast.

Illustration and recipe by Cipe Pineles

When I first flipped through Cipe Pineles’s hand-painted recipe book from 1945, it felt deeply familiar. This was my family’s food—not the food we ate for dinner on an average evening during my childhood, but the food we kept in our cultural pantry.

It was a wonder to see these dishes rendered with so much vibrancy and character in Cipe’s art. In my mind, many Eastern European Jewish foods were fairly plain and monotone. You could paint matzo balls, gefilte fish, potato latkes, noodle kugel, kasha and brisket all within a spectrum from beige to brown. Yet here was a rainbow of beets, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes; not to mention the cool blue enamel and warm clay of the cookware. It was a visual celebration of a cuisine that typically feels nostalgic, comforting, old.

Cipe’s paintings, too, were old by the time we found them—almost seventy years old—but the food felt alive, the aesthetic very current. I remember thinking, Why can’t this food feel contemporary and dynamic? Jewish deli foods were coming back into vogue. Places like Mile End Deli and the reinvigorated Russ & Daughters were New York City destinations, while Wexler’s and Wise Sons were served “appetizing” on the west coast. I figured it must be possible to go beyond deli fare and give a modern update to some deeply Jewish classics.

There were a few challenges to doing this. For starters, the recipes as Cipe had written them did not always hold up as a set of specific instructions. It would take an experienced home cook to read through her writing and know where to adjust and improvise in order to arrive at a tasty result. When I first tried her kalacha (aka meatloaf), for example, I followed her recipe to the letter, and ended up with more of a sauce than something sliceable.

The second challenge was deciding where the line was between modernizing a dish, and fundamentally changing it. What makes these dishes what they are? If you took “hard rolls” and chicken fat from her veal stuffing, and instead used breadcrumbs and butter, would it still contain the DNA of the original? And what if instead of veal, you used steak? The politics of animal rights and emphasis on seasonality that characterize today’s food choices just weren’t factored into recipes in 1945.

To develop the updated versions, I worked with an assistant, Christian Reynoso, who cooks at the famed San Francisco restaurant, Zuni Café. He did not have a background in Jewish food. He did have a deep familiarity and great proficiency with the ingredients of the moment in California cuisine. Together we waded around the grey area in between old world and new, and aimed to make something that would tempt today’s cooks and eaters.

For many of the original recipes, it’s possible to skip the first few steps by virtue of what’s available now in grocery stores. Cipe’s soup recipes often start by making a stock, then removing the flavoring materials, whether vegetable or meat, and moving on to the actual dish. For the new recipes, I provided two basic stock recipes—one vegetable and one chicken—as a foundation for the entire collection, with the idea that if you have this (or pre-made stock from the store) on hand, you’re already several steps into the recipe when you start.

The updates vary in how far they divert from Cipe’s originals. The chicken soup I felt was a revelation almost just as she’d written it. I had never heard of putting a short rib bone (what was called flanken) into a chicken soup but I will never do it another way henceforth.

In the middle ground was the bulbenick, a baked potato casserole of sorts for which Cipe had two variations. As written, it really didn’t turn out too well with either variation, so we developed our own, still using the bare bones of her recipe (grated potato, flour, egg), but leavening it gently with baking powder and throwing in herbs for added dimension.

Finally, one of the updates that departs most dramatically from the original is probably the lamb stew. Certain practices common to today’s cooking, like seasoning meat a day ahead and browning it before simmering, were absent in Cipe’s recipe. We felt the flavor and texture turn out much better using these modern approaches, so we changed up the order of operations, added a few steps, and then finished it off with garbanzo beans and yogurt—two ingredients that often pair with lamb in Middle Eastern cookery.

It was a real creative adventure to develop these updates, and an interesting exercise to think through what are the defining and fundamental aspects of a dish. In the end, I’m glad we were able to publish both the unaltered originals and the modernized collection, so that readers can pick and choose, compare and contrast, and draw their own conclusions about what makes a recipe a recipe.

Below, see Cipe's recipe for lamb stew followed by Sarah's updated recipe.

Illustration and recipe by Cipe Pineles

Sarah Rich is a writer based in Oakland, California. She is the co-editor of Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles. She is a former editor at Dwell, Smithsonian, and Medium; and co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project.

Fiction and Physics

Friday, October 13, 2017 | Permalink

Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. Earlier this week she wrote about collective responsibility in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, and shared her favorite Jewish books and her #toberead list. She has been blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi was once asked why he hadn’t become a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman. Rabi replied:

My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist!'

Fiction writers are not scientists. Fiction writers work in a realm that values most what might or could happen, rather than one that emphasizes what, in fact, does happen. Yet our work shares important features. Fiction writing, like the work of physics, is a process of exploration, not declaration. The fiction that I like best doesn’t offer answers or advice. Writers of my ilk, like the theoretical physicist, pose and explore questions, hoping to bring them into sharper relief in an effort to deepen our understanding. Perhaps we discover a definitive answer to a question or two, yet anything resembling an answer to anything large, anything important, anything of serious consequence, only serves to provoke new questions.

My novel Barren Island opens not with a question, but with a prompting for a question: “Ask about the smell,” advises Marta Eisenstein Lane, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. This has always been the opening line, from the moment I started writing the book one Thanksgiving weekend to the day I finally handed it off to two author friends some seven years later.

I was, when I began Barren Island, a writer of short stories, of essays, of longform nonfiction, and of poems. But I, the author, had commenced writing with a question of my own that was different than Marta’s. My question: I wonder what that was like? was a question that I believed I could address in the space of a short story, albeit a long one. Instead, it took 400+ pages before I was confident that I had explicated the question.

The question—my question, not Marta’s question—came about after reading a newspaper article that featured a man who had grown up on the historic Barren Island in Jamaica Bay, New York. Barren Island was the site of glue processing plants, the last of which was closed by Robert Moses in the 1930s. Workers and their families lived on Barren Island from the time that these plants opened in the nineteenth century. Many of them lived their entire lives there, some without ever leaving. Imagine living within sight of Brooklyn or Manhattan yet never going there.

Though the Brooklyn and Manhattan of the 1850s were markedly different than they are today, they were already remarkable loci of aspiration, industry, and immigration. They were also the sites of expulsion, land theft, and indentured servitude. Then came World War I and with it a nation, and an island, inculcated by modernity. How, I wondered, did the residents of Barren Island navigate the changes that were the hallmarks of The Interregnum, the years between WWI and WWII? What about the Great Depression? What about the labor movements? What about a Europe that was unable to stabilize following the Armistice? One question led to another led to another.

There was no way for me to know for certain. I am neither a historian nor a scholar of urban life. I never saw a photo of Barren Island until long after the novel was completed and the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library digitized their photo collections. But unlike theoretical physicists, who calculate provable theorems, I had to rely on what is referred to as ‘acquired knowledge,’ meaning the flotsam and jetsam of information that one absorbs as an avid reader, observer, and listener. I also knew that I wouldn’t want to tell an untrue story about real people, so I shifted my story to Barren Shoal, a place that resembles Barren Island but is an invention of my imagination. Unlike the physicist, I had no obligation to the facts about Barren Shoal because there were none. The place that I wrote about never did nor ever would exist, nor would the characters that I placed there.

Some of the novel’s events that take place off-island did indeed happen, and to those facts I stay true, whether it was Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin or the German-American Bund rally in 1939 at Madison Square Garden. And I titled the book Barren Island in order to honor the actual people who lived there, the very real people whose stories I do not tell, so that they, too, will be remembered. I made certain to honor the truth without hindering my imagination.

Carol Zoref’s recent novel Barren Island was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. It received the AWP Award for the Novel.

Talking Books with Carol Zoref

Thursday, October 12, 2017 | Permalink

Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. Earlier this week, she wrote about communal sin and collective responsibility in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


What books of Jewish interest or by Jewish authors are currently on your nightstand?
Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark, in anticipation of hearing her speak at the 92nd Street Y with Jenny Erpenbeck. As soon as I finish the Krauss novel, I will dive into Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone, which was recently translated from German by Susan Bernofsky—they are a trifecta of smart writers/translators. In nonfiction, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths by Emily Katz Anhalt. Anhalt, a classics scholar, shines light on how the Greeks struggled with human violence and the desire for moral evolution.

What’s the last great book you read?
Impossible question, but the work I keep recommending is by the twentieth-century Soviet author Vasily Grossman. His novel Life and Fate is a masterpiece. All of his other books—fiction and reportage—are outstanding.

What’s the best classic Jewish novel you recently read for the first time?
Pioneers: The First Breach by S. An-sky, translated from Yiddish by Rose Waldman. I was seated next to Rose at the Jewish Book Council Network Conference last spring, where she showed me the beautiful new edition of this ninety year-old novel about the reach of Haskalah, a Jewish enlightenment movement, into small-town life.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
There’s nothing that no one has heard of. Rather, there are authors whose work doesn’t receive the attention that it should or that it used to. Grace Paley is the perfect example. She was widely admired while she was alive, both as an author and a political activist. She is shockingly unknown by younger readers and writers a mere ten years after her passing. Those of us who teach can help to set this right by keeping her magnificent short stories front and center. Farrar, Straus and Giroux recently released The Grace Paley Reader last spring. Buy it. Then go out and buy the individual collections of short stories.

Which Jewish writers—novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets—working today do you admire most?
In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, I’m always ready for fiction and nonfiction by Cynthia Ozick. I’m sad that I won’t be reading anything new by Philip Roth, unless he breaks his promise and comes out of authorial retirement. I was bowled over by Paula Vogel’s play, Indecent, when it appeared last year off-Broadway. I was cheered that it received such a warm welcome when moved to Broadway. It’s heartening to know that there is still a place uptown for serious drama. The recent re-staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures by the Classic Stage Company demonstrated, yet again, the insights about colonialism revealed by this beautiful musical. David Remnick is keeping The New Yorker on fire, both as editor-in-chief and as a writer.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
I read any time that I can, however much or little, day or nightsimultaneously a novel, a book of poems, a collection of short stories, and something nonfiction. I’m happier with an actual book in my hands, but I’d rather read electronically than not at all. When I travel, I no longer get anxious about what to bring along or worry that I will run out. If I fall in love with a book that I’ve read electronically, I buy a hard copy.

How do you organize your books?
I don’t. That said, ask me for a book that I own and I’ll pull it off a shelf pretty quickly.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain was not a Jewish author nor is there a single Jewish character in “Huck.” But it’s a novel that I return to again and again: a story of immoral and moral behavior in immoral times, of the development and collapse of conscience, of hope and hopelessness, and so much more. It was a gift when someone told me to read it again as an adult. It is loathed by people on the Right, it is loathed by people on the Left, and it is adored by me. I could go on—and I’ve been known tobut I’ll let it go at that.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
Insatiable.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
I’d rather recommend a book than dis one. However, the last novel that outraged me was Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. The plot premise—that illiteracy resulted in a woman becoming a concentration camp guard—was infuriating. I read the whole thing in the hope that the novel, not the character, could redeem itself. There is no guarantee that literacy shapes ethical behavior, nor that education guarantees insight.

What do you plan to read next?
David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar, Der Nister’s story collection Regrowth, and Joan Silber’s forthcoming novel Improvement.

Carol Zoref’s recent novel Barren Island was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. It received the AWP Award for the Novel.

The Second Amendment, Yom Kippur, and the Las Vegas Massacre

Tuesday, October 10, 2017 | Permalink

Carol Zoref is the author of Barren Island, which was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Every time a mass shooting takes place, great numbers of Americans hope that Congress will pass “common-sense gun laws.” How could they not? people ask. These were elementary school children. These were people at a prayer meeting, at a dance club, at a movie. Great numbers of Americans also worry that Congress will pass gun laws which, they believe, would flout the Second Amendment. It is a violation of my constitutional rights, people declare. I have the right to protect my loved ones and myself. I have the right to bear arms.”

On only one thing do all agree: mass murders are a bad thing. Yet, somehow, massacres take place frequently, most recently in Las Vegas. In many cases, the perpetrators acquire their weapons legally. Are these murders, therefore, the responsibility solely of the shooters, or do we, as a nation that aspires to function by the rule of law, somehow bear responsibility as well?

Every year at Yom Kippur services, we repeat aloud the Al Chet in the third-person plural. We have sinned against You… It is tempting to protest that it makes no sense to confess to sins we did not commit. Why should we confess to the sin of swindling when we, in fact, have been swindled? Wouldn’t it make more sense to acknowledge our own actual acts of wrongdoing? Chanting the Al Chet, as I’ve come to understand it, is our collective way of challenging ourselves to take responsibility for and do better on behalf of every community to which we belong, regardless of our personal shortcomings. I might not have defrauded anyone, ever, but have I looked away when someone else has? Did I, at the very least, tell my representatives in Congress that the TARP bailout in 2008 needed to be accompanied by the prosecution of subprime mortgage sellers and others who willingly brought our financial system to its knees? That someone needed to go to jail?

Each group selectively emphasizes the clauses of the Second Amendment that best supports its position. The National Rifle Association and its supporters, including some legal scholars, focus on "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Millions of others, including other legal scholars, emphasize the opening clause, "A well regulated Militia…," pointing out that a massively-armed individual in an expensive Las Vegas hotel is neither well-regulated nor a militia. Regrettably, parsing the language of the Second Amendment has not brought us any closer to common cause or common sense.

Renewed conversations about the Second Amendment are guaranteed to get us nowhere unless we read the text through the lenses of both common sense and shared responsibility. Should people be able to purchase and own guns? While this is not a choice that I would make, I could not object were it done in a well-regulated fashion, meaning through common sense gun laws that remove military-grade arms from the public sphere. And it’s my responsibility to make that position known to every political candidate who wants my vote.

The sins of premeditated murder will never disappear. Sins never do, which is why the Al Chet will never be shorter. But fewer mass murders and fewer deaths sound good to me. It’s the responsibility of all of us to make certain that we move towards this goal in a manner that is responsible, respectful—meaning with common cause—and driven by common sense.

Carol Zoref’s recent novel Barren Island was Longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. It received the AWP Award for the Novel.

Original image via Flickr/Talya Modlin

Love as Freedom, Love as Separation, in Japanese and Jewish Tales

Thursday, October 05, 2017 | Permalink

Kenny Fries is the author of the recently published memoir In the Province of the Gods. Earlier this week, he wrote about being disabled, gay, and Jewish in Germany. He is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I am the only one who gets off the train at Tōno. Disabled since birth, I’ve come to this rural Japanese outpost to research disability representation in the famous folktales of the region.

The most popular character of the Tōno legends is the mischievous kappa, seen all over the town: on postboxes, in souvenir shops, and even at the koban, the police box. The kappa is somewhat frog-like and has long skinny limbs, webbed hands and feet, a sharp beak, and a hollow on the top of its head. At the Tōno City Museum, I learn about the belief that women who become pregnant with a kappa’s child give birth to deformed babies. According to the tale, passed down for generations, these babies are hacked to pieces and buried in small wine casks.

As often happened during my time in Japan, I did not expect to find what I found in Tōno. I left the city haunted by a tale unrelated to my research, which reminded me both of tales by Sholem Aleichem and the paintings of Marc Chagall.

First, the tale: A girl falls in love with her family’s horse. Day and night she visits the horse in his stable. The girl’s father becomes worried about his daughter’s attachment to the horse, but no matter what he says the girl continues to visit the horse. She is discovered spending her nights sleeping with the horse.

The father takes the horse out into the forest and kills it, hanging it from a mulberry tree. When he returns to the house, his daughter is gone; she cannot be found anywhere in or near the house.

The father returns to the forest. He stops in his tracks. He sees his daughter now hanging with the horse from the tree. Before he takes another step, the horse rears up and ascends into the sky, carrying the girl with him to the heavens.

What is it about this tale of forbidden love in the shadow of loss that connects to my Jewish soul?

This story reminds me of Tevye’s reaction to his daughters’ marriages outside the conventions of their shtetl in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye’s Daughters. Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, wants to marry for love rather than through the traditional matchmaking. This, Tevye figures out how to accept, allowing the marriage without compromising his values.

However, it is the love of Chava, his third daughter, for Fyedka, a Ukrainian Christian, and her conversion to Christianity, that puts Tevye to the test. In the Aleichem tale, Tevye does not pardon Chava’s defection. Tevye pronounces her dead and observes shiva, until Chava repents and returns to her Jewish home. Those familiar with the story from Fiddler on the Roof, the beloved Broadway musical, might be confused because this resolution was changed for the stage. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye eventually accepts Chava back into the family and, as the rest of his family leave Anatevka for America, he watches his daughter depart with Fyedka to Poland.

In the Tōno tale, the father’s reaction to his daughter’s forbidden love is similar to that of Aleichem’s Tevye. But what if the father reacted more like the Tevye in Fiddler, finding his way to accept his daughter’s nontraditional love? What would have been lost? He might have saved his daughter’s, and the horse’s, life.

And what to make of the vision of the flying horse, carrying his daughter away from him, up into the heavens? For me, Chagall’s flying figures and animals, especially in “Song of Songs IV,” a 1958 illustration for the Old Testament, further illuminates the Tōno tale. In the painting, a flying horse carries a newly married couple into the sky. Nowhere in the text of the “Song of Songs” is a flying horse mentioned. Nor are upside down birds, also included in Chagall’s painting. Here, Chagall represents the spirit of the bride and groom’s marriage as spiritual ecstasy freeing them from the scene below. An angel trumpets their celestial ascension in a sky neither dawn nor sunset, with both sun and moon.

Relating Aleichem and Chagall unlocks for me deeper meanings that answer why the Tōno tale still haunts me. Love can be both a means to freedom and to separation, sometimes at the same time. In love, we can find a freedom both of and from ourselves. But it is also love that can separate us from family, friends, and the culture or society from which we come.

The price of forbidding—whether through love, or by having a body that looks different—is a theme central to many Tōno tales. Like the kappa tale, in which deformed babies are killed and buried, the forbidden love of the daughter and her horse has serious repercussions. This, too, is what becomes of breaking social barriers. At the heart of these stories are both the ecstasy of, and the price we sometimes pay, for love.

Kenny Fries’s new book is In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant. His other books include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany). He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.

Images (LTR) via: Crown Publishers, Kadowaka Shoten, and WikiArt

The Nazi Trifecta

Tuesday, October 03, 2017 | Permalink

Kenny Fries is the author of the recently published memoir In the Province of the Gods. He will be blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


At a dinner party soon after I moved to Berlin, a German guest recounted the story of his struggle to restore the bomb-battered grave of his grandfather at the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee. He regaled the dinner guests, telling us about his phone call to the cemetery administrator, who told him the requirement that all new gravestones are required to quote scripture.

“But my father wasn’t a believer,” he complained to the administrator. “He wouldn’t have wanted scripture, Jewish or otherwise, on his tombstone. He was a Communist.”

“Make up your mind,” demanded the administrator. “Was your grandfather a Jew or a Communist?”

The story got a good laugh. I laughed, too. But I also thought about my own intersecting identities. I am disabled, gay, and Jewish. A former boyfriend has called me "The Nazi Trifecta."

In Berlin, where I’ve lived for the past three years, I’m often asked what it’s like to be a Jew living in Germany. In fact, after I presented my research on Aktion T4, the Nazi program to kill disabled people, at a conference of young American Fulbright student grantees, I was sought out not because the students wanted to ask about this crucial aspect of disability history, but because the Jewish students wanted to talk to another Jew.

“None of the Jews in Rostock speak English,” one student told me. “I went to the synagogue, but everyone spoke either German or Russian.” This didn’t surprise me since the second language for those who grew up in what was communist East Germany was Russian, not English.

Only in Germany have I been asked if it’s more difficult to be disabled, gay, or Jewish. And, in Germany, this is a weighted question because of the intertwined fates of those who were imprisoned, subjected to forced labor in concentration camps, and killed in extermination camps.

Beneath this question lurks not only curiosity about how a life may be lived as a disabled person, a gay man, or a Jew, alone or in combination, but also reveals that to my interlocutors all three identities are seen as pejorative. And the reason for this is because of the long history of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, as well as the criminalization, of the disabled, gays, and Jews.

Previous to living in Germany, I spent time living in Japan. Missing bones in my legs when I was born, I have become accustomed to people staring at me in public places. But when I arrived in Japan, I was surprised that I was treated as different because I was a gaijin, a foreigner, rather than because of my shorter, differently shaped legs. My walking with a limp, my use of a cane and specially molded orthopedic shoes to get around, didn’t attract much attention.

Disabled since birth, I had never considered being looked at as “other” because of anything but my disability. If I’m not seated, one look at me, and someone knows I’m disabled. This isn’t the case for all people with disabilities. There are many invisible disabilities that don’t attract attention. My other identities are not visibly noticeable. It would take more than walking down the street for someone to know I am gay or Jewish. Perhaps it is this ability to control, in certain circumstances, my gayness or Jewishness, that separates my disability from the other two major identities I claim. 

In Nazi Germany there were many assimilated Jews who didn’t “look Jewish” or “act Jewish.” Nevertheless, once revealed as Jewish by neighbors, or the Gestapo, or the requirement to register as Jews, they were subjected to the same fate as Jews who wore traditional Orthodox clothing. Similarly, many gay Germans who didn’t “look gay” or “act gay” were sent to prison and concentration camps after being snitched on, or blackmailed, or discovered in flagrante. If I had been alive during the Third Reich, all I would have had to do was walk down the street and the authorities would have known I was disabled. Perhaps my inability to pass as nondisabled would have made me an earlier target of persecution.

It is difficult to explain this on the spot to those who blithely ask me, “What’s more difficult: being disabled, gay, or Jewish?” I could tell them I think different oppressions, however similar, can’t be quantified. Or ask if they’ve considered why they’re asking this question. But after the dinner party story about the grave at the Jewish cemetery, I found a way to deflect this question.

“If only I were a Communist,” I now reply.

Kenny Fries’s new book is In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant. His other books include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany). He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.

Image: Flickr/anna and liz

The Family Plot: Childhood Lessons on Death

Thursday, September 28, 2017 | Permalink

Méira Cook is the author of the recently published novel Once More With Feeling. Earlier this week, she wrote about learning to mourn for her mother. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the process of writing a novel about family, I realized that all families have their secrets. I’m not referring here to the Binder family, whose secrets I became aware of while living for so long inside the pages of Once More With Feeling, but to my own family of origin whose secrets I knew so well that I had forgotten that others might find them interesting.

If, as I grew to suspect, all families have secrets, then ours was death. Although most of the older generation passed away at an early age, I never discovered how anyone had died. They died, was the reply to all my questions. How does a person die? This was always offered with a shrug and an eloquent hand gesture meant to imply resignation: Well, how does anybody die?

Ever valiant, my father once explained to my sister and me that the cause of death was when a person’s heart stopped beating. This was always the case, no exceptions. Even cancer, he said, even old age or an automobile accident. If a man jumped out of an eleventh floor building and was shot on his way past the ninth floor and choked on a pigeon as he passed the seventh floor and was decapitated by a flying hatchet as he plummeted past the fifth floor, he still died of a not-beating heart.

Disease and accident might set a person off on their mortal trajectory, he said, but it all came down to the heart in the end. The hour and minute and second hands on the old ticker stopping, for want of a better word: dead.

Once a year, during the busy, God-bothering, sociable days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my mother would visit her family, all of whom were domiciled in the nearby Westpark Cemetery, although not in any particular section because we were not the kind of family to admit to, let alone plan for, death, by way of advance booking and family plots. She would pass the day with her uncles, her grandmother, and her mother, but it was at her father’s grave that she lingered. She missed him the most because she’d missed him the longest.

I used to ask my mother what she did in the cemetery because I wanted to know what I might be expected to do one day at my parents’ graves — although this was not a thought I could articulate, even to myself. As she had once demonstrated how to separate whites from yolks, as she had once bought me tampons and explained how to use them, I wanted her to show me how to mourn, even if the object of my mournfulness was the distant vanishing point of her someday-never disappearance from the world.

She shrugged. I just catch him up on the family, she finally said. What you and your sister are up to. A lot happens in a year, she clarified. Babies and so forth.

Does he . . . I started to ask but stopped because I couldn’t think how to finish.

Of course not, she snapped. Dead is dead, what can he say?

Dead! She had never voiced that word before and it shocked me. Dead is dead, kiddo, don’t make me spell it out! My mother’s nihilism, even—especially—in the context of her sentimental attachment to the hospitable dead would be devastating, I knew, at some future point of her not-thereness when she could no longer be questioned about mortality because, like a drop of water falling into the ocean, she had become indivisible with her death. She was an elusive silver fish, always swimming away, and water was her medium because it was fluent and mysterious and unlikely to be caught in a child’s imperfect, sieve-like understanding.

But what are the lessons of water? That it takes the shape of the vessel into which it is poured? That it rises as steam and falls as rain, its molecules in constant motion as if agitated by their own indecisiveness? That it provides the solvent for the ounce or so of human chemicals from which we are made?

When I was little I didn’t like to be separated from her, so one day my mother sat me on the kitchen counter and poured a glass of water from the faucet. Then she inserted her pinky finger in the water.

What happens when you take out the finger? she asked.

Nothing. Nothing happens.

This was how she taught me that no one is indispensable, that water closes over what has displaced it, that loss finds its own level.

Méira Cook was born in Johannesburg and worked as a journalist in South Africa. Since coming to Canada, she has published widely as a poet and fiction writer. She has won the CBC Literary Award for poetry, the Walrus Prize for poetry, and the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. Cook lives in Winnipeg.

Al Chet, or The Long Confession

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 | Permalink

Manny Waks is the author of the recently published memoir Who Gave You Permission?: the memoir of a child sexual-abuse survivor who fought back


For survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community, especially those abused within an institutional setting, Jewish holidays can be particularly challenging. The desire to survive this period — to literally remain alive — may be a daily, if not an hourly struggle.

Unfortunately, based on personal experience, I fully understand some of these challenges.

I was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Chabad family in Melbourne, Australia. Between the ages of around eleven to fourteen and a half — some of the most important years of a religious child, which include the venerated bat mitzvah — I was sexually abused by two different men. Some of the abuse took place inside places of religious significance, including a synagogue and a mikvah — a ritual bath.

During the period of abuse and its aftermath, I rebelled against everything I knew, not least my religion.

My experience of sexual abuse left a lasting impact on my Jewish identity: The place I feel most uncomfortable in the world is inside a synagogue. I instinctively tune out most religious discussions. I am unsure whether I believe in God.

Yet, forgiveness — as I was taught at my childhood school, Yeshivah College, the venue of some of my abuse — is a core Jewish value.

It isn’t easy to forgive, especially when the person seeking forgiveness has caused you profound pain. A mere apology, we think, cannot possibly be sufficient. But forgiveness is necessary, especially in the context of significant injustices. Moreover, it may be a powerful tool, both for the one giving the apology and its recipient.

Over the years, I have received and accepted dozens of apologies, including from those in the Orthodox community. I have sought to forgive the many who have wronged me and others: for the cover-ups, the intimidation, the inaction. My only condition has been that the apology be genuine, which has not necessarily always been easy to discern.

All those who have apologized should consider: Was that one-off apology or public statement sufficient? If you claim to follow halach — Jewish law — was your apology consistent with halachik requirements? Can you be doing any more to alleviate the pain you caused your victims?

In this context, the Australian Rabbi Moshe Gutnick’s 2013 powerful Yom Kippur apology on behalf of the Orthodox Rabbinate deserves a mention. It demonstrated that the Rabbinate was (belatedly) acknowledging some of its gravest failures. This apology had an incredibly positive impact for many around the world.

However, based on recent developments — the hiring, for example, by an orthodox Melbourne school of a rabbi who was forced to resign from his community leadership positions after his attacks on victims and their families, and the continued safe haven offered by Israeli courts to a fugitive Melbourne school principal who abused several of her students — we still have a very long way to go.

Despite the ongoing personal cost, I will continue to advocate for justice, accountability, and prevention, because I have witnessed the significant progress that is possible.

Perhaps, at some point, my fellow victims and I may finally be able to rejoin the broader community in holiday celebrations.

Manny is a consultant, advocate, and public speaker, and has extensive experience in social entrepreneurship and leadership. In 2011 Manny disclosed his experience of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community. In 2012 he established Tzedek, an Australia-based support and advocacy group for Jewish victims/survivors of child sexual abuse. He is currently the CEO of Kol v’Oz, an international organization that he established to address child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community.

Image: Flickr/adriana komura

Counting the Ways: How I Learned to Mourn for My Mother

Monday, September 25, 2017 | Permalink

Méira Cook is the author of the recently published novel Once More With Feeling. She will be blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many of the characters in my novel Once More With Feeling are haunted. They are haunted by the living and the dead, and by all the usual apparitions: memory, ghosts, forgetfulness, weather, good deeds, and bad decisions. I can relate to these characters as I, too, have felt haunted all my life—but never more so than when my mother died.

This year is the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. Her yahrzeit is the day after Shavuot, which sometimes falls in late May and sometimes falls in early June. 

My mother did not believe that a daughter could say kaddish for her parents because in the orthodox tradition in which she was raised, only men were counted as members of a quorum of ten mourners. Women don’t count, she said.

Counting is of some significance nevertheless, because Shavuot is calculated by counting off exactly seven weeks from the second night of Passover. Passover, the holiday that celebrates the emancipation of slavery, is linked to Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, in this way establishing a connection between physical and spiritual freedom. 

The forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot are known as the "counting of the Omer," a time of semi-mourning and a strict accounting of days. My mother fell ill shortly before Passover and died the day after Shavuot.

Because of the moon-skewered Hebrew calendar, Shavuot occurs in late May some years and early June in others. And this is true in the country where I was born, South Africa, as well as the country where I now live, Canada. Although it’s fall in one place and spring in the other, both are restless seasons of turning or budding leaves, of early or late rains, of the dying or the greening year.

What counts is time, however it is added or subtracted. What counts are the days that accumulated before she died, which were forty-nine, and all the days to follow which, I grew to understand, would be incalculable.

Even writing about my mother feels like a transgression. She kept her own counsel, was fiercely private, and did not believe in self-expression. The modern idea that feelings are dangerous when repressed, as uncomfortable and potentially explosive as wind on the stomach of a colicky baby, would never have occurred to her.

She was neither heartbroken nor heartless. But neither was she openhearted, and her most characteristic gesture was to tap her wrist, smile at me, and then slowly turn over her hand so that she could tap the inside of her wrist. The message—to me, her daughter, the divining rod of her remote moods—was clear: show the outside, conceal the inside.

She was the most dignified person I’ve ever known, dignity the spinal column that kept her upright, and secrecy what ran through her as marrow through bone. When I left her, not as daughters usually leave their mothers—which is to say when they grow up—but before I was quite grown, and for a wild adventure and a fierce man and another country—which is to say forever—she was stoic, a Spartan mother. 

But I knew what to expect; she had taught me the lesson of the turned wrist: how to transform pain into a graceful gesture, how to show only what I was willing to display, how not to break down in airports.

Dignity has a price, of course. For years I didn’t believe that I counted, either as a Jew or as a daughter. It was too painful to live within the narrow mathematical calculations of these double negatives which, since they didn’t cancel each other, seemed to cancel me. But when she died I realized that, whatever she said, my mother had always counted to me, and that I too counted because the pain I felt was more convincing than any prohibition against expressing it. 

And so I have attended synagogue on the last six anniversaries of my mother’s death and recited kaddish in her memory. It’s my way of remembering her and I hope it counts, counting being a matter of memory work in this case, and not mental arithmetic. But counting, I have learned, is not always chronological and, except for Genesis, words rarely create the world.

Sometimes it is necessary to count forward as when a mother recounts stories to waylay death, and sometimes it is necessary to count backward as when a daughter encounters these stories, these creative and wholly fruitful truths. Remembrance flows in both directions at once, like a mythic river, and like that old Greek river, cannot be the same river even once.

Every year my children accompany me to synagogue in late May or early June. Although there is no obligation to say kaddish for a grandparent, my daughter and sons stand up with me and chant the Mourner’s Kaddish. Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba. We sit together, amongst a congregation of men and women who are equal. I look at my children and hope that I am teaching them to mourn. It is, after all, a way of counting, of adding your number to a necessary quorum of mourners. It is a way of being counted upon.

Méira Cook was born in Johannesburg and worked as a journalist in South Africa. Since coming to Canada, she has published widely as a poet and fiction writer. She has won the CBC Literary Award for poetry, the Walrus Prize for poetry, and the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. Cook lives in Winnipeg.

I’ll Have the Burger, Hold the Exposition: On Research for Fiction Writers

Thursday, September 21, 2017 | Permalink

Allan Appel is the author of The Book of Norman, out September 26th from Mandel Vilar Press. Earlier this week, he wrote about the careful balance fiction writers must strike between truth and story. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "Interior, Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah"

A friend of mine, a high school history teacher old enough to have learned to drive in the stick shift era, once described his preparation for teaching a course as something akin to gunning the engine and then pulling back on the choke.

By that, he meant his approach was to learn everything he could about the subject, stuffing himself with wonderful and interesting information. However, when, at the first session, the students looked up at him glassy-eyed, he started to back up; he slowed down; he offered salient points and context and sine qua nons of all the knowledge he had obtained. In other words, he refrained from, as editors warn reporters, dumping the whole notebook.

Novel writing, and specifically my experience in researching The Book of Norman, very much followed that kind of arc of erudition. When my characters began to lead me to their growing concerns about the afterlife, both the Jewish and Mormon versions, my first stop was the Mormons and I began with biographies of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the group’s history.

I think some not-so-latent prejudice was at work in that I didn’t want to pick up a book devoted to straight Mormon theology. Why? Having in the course of a normal life cruised by Mormon visitor centers in New York and elsewhere, having looked in the window at their mannequin-evocations of the Angel Moroni and other celestial figures, I concluded there was not much here of intellectual richness.

Wrong! That was my point of view. Not the characters’.

My characters were deeply interested in the stuff, and if they were, I had to be. I found Mormonism for Dummies (yes, that yellow-and-black cover series from Wiley Publishing Company that—please don’t titter—is really immensely helpful). My Jonathan character, the younger of my two brothers, would be going, as an enthusiastic potential convert, to classes where he learned Mormonism 101, and so would I.

So I learned the distinctions between celestial, telestial, and other levels of Mormonism’s elaborate heavenly architecture. I learned that Mormonism’s Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father propagate souls on a distant planet called Kolob. Mormonism for Dummies itself is a little embarrassed about these interplanetary, science-fiction origins and it comes through in the little jokes the authors seem to make about such aspects of Mormon theophanies.

But there it was. I gathered the kinds of Mormon afterlife information I needed to be conversant in, and then not snobbery but ignorance kicked in when it came time for me to learn something of Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.

My experience growing up in a Conservative Jewish community in L.A. was such that the afterlife hadn’t played much of a part in our education or concerns. When it came down to it, I knew very little. My Norman, who was to become a reluctant defender of the faith against his brother’s increasingly sophisticated queries on Jewish afterlife beliefs, drove me to the Jewish library this time. 

I read Abba Hillel Silver’s Where Judaism Differs; I re-read Milton Steinberg’s As A Driven Leaf. I was studying with a Chasidic rabbi in Brooklyn at the time, DovBer Pinson, and I read his book on the afterlife as well as several by Conservative-trained rabbis. I got much better stuff about dybbuks and ibburs and other emanations of the Jewish soul, lots of folk beliefs, from DovBer than from the superstition-cleaned theology presented by the more “respectable” seminary trained writers. My old 1919 Kaufman Kohler-edited Jewish encyclopedia had extensive articles on Jewish angelology; who knew such things existed even where I grew up, in the City of the Angels?

So now I knew stuff and I could stuff my stuff into my characters to prove that they knew it too. Novel writers, heed the warning! Mistake. After having thrown out a first draft because I knew I was too close to the origins of the story and it went emotionally all wrong, I wrote another draft or two that were emotionally much closer to the truth, but they were obscured because I had too many Planet Kolobs and/or one too many references to how the rabbis told us to distinguish an angel—they apparently have no Adam’s apple.

My erudition was necessary but not sufficient to make the characters real. In the early drafts, they were in too many places talking heads for the author, and so I edited away and edited away. I lost interchanges that included many witty moments of intellectual dueling between nascent Mormon Jonathan and seminary dropout Norman. As the playwriting teacher tells the student, "You must learn to throw away your babies."

In short, knowledge and information are critical, but beware of using too much of it. This becomes a particular danger if you yourself grow interested in the material, as I did. I’m old enough to be thinking about the afterlife, if there is one, far more than I did when I wrote my first novels decades ago. So to the same extent that you attach to the material, you have to find it in yourself to detach in order for it to be there for the characters.

If you don’t let the research become exposition, it turns into a kind of energy that fuels the novel and it becomes a resource so the novel can slow down, or accelerate, to get back to our initial motor vehicle metaphor, or sputter, and then, with a jolt of surprise, take off. Just like life itself.

Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Allan Appel is a novelist, poet, and playwright whose books include Club Revelation, High Holiday Sutra, and The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.