The ProsenPeople

800 Labor Day Fatalities

Monday, November 09, 2015 | Permalink

Bruce Jay Friedman shares the inspiration behind his latest book, The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories as a Visiting Scribe this week on The ProsenPeople.

Where do stories come from? A whim, an impulse, an observation. Some stories simply “happen,” alight on the shoulder, like a butterfly. A man, on the night of his honeymoon, meets a woman and realizes that he’s taken the wrong bride. A freeway driver hears the radio announcer say that there have been 800 Labor Day fatalities, which is close to the record. He yearns for the record to be broken. Yet another man helps an elderly woman home in the rain, and feels an irresistible urge to snatch a diamond pendant from her neck.

Some stories arise from voluminous reading, others from simply waking up in the morning and going about one’s business. In the lives of each of us, there will always be something that is unusual, that isn’t quite right. Most shrug it off; the writer pounces.

Once, in Jerusalem, at the King David Hotel, I was approached by an Arab room service attendant who begged me to help him escape from Israel so he could attend his brother’s wedding in Kew Gardens, Queens. I couldn’t help him, but the brief encounter stayed with me, and became the seedbed of my new book, The Peace Process. William Kleiner suffers a near-death accident in Jerusalem. An Arab, Mahmoud, rescues him, obligating Kleiner to arrange for and to join him in his escape to Queens. Throughout their torturous journey, the two fight, embrace, infuriate one another, and struggle for some mutual understanding. In many ways, their dilemma exemplifies the actual diplomatic peace process, as it groans along in the Middle East. The book, if the author is permitted to say so, is maddeningly funny.

Bruce Jay Friedman is a novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and screenwriter, widely considered one of the finest black humorists of American literature.

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10 Awesome Books for the 10 Days of Awe 5776

Monday, September 14, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Each year produces a fresh crop of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and memoir addressing the Jewish High Holidays and the themes they embody: reflection on the past, forgiveness and reconciliation, spiritual cleanse and personal redemption, and transitioning into a new phase of life—both as an individual and as a community. Building on last year's list, here are ten recommendations for the first ten days of 5776.

1. The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Though the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri

One of the most compelling contemplations of faith—a thoroughly Jewish faith, and the faith of a writer in his own work—which might be the same thing—to fly under the radar, Avi Steinberg’s sophomore memoir is as profound as its premise is bizarre. To study Joseph Smith’s life and legacy is, for Steinberg, a refreshing reflection on the Hebrew Bible, our hero’s childhood in Jerusalem, the nostalgia for belief of his youth.

2. The Book of Numbers: A Novel

Joshua Cohen’s brilliantly unsettling imitates-life bend of fiction hits full force with his latest novel. Playing with science fiction, technology, and identity crisis The Book of Numbers traces the rambling paths of contemporary quests for forgiveness and redemption that emerge when titan of the Digital Age contracts a freelancer who shares his name to write his biography, all in Cohen’s signature engrossing, thoroughly Jewish-postmodern voice.

3. Made in Detroit: Poems

Marge Piercy dedicates an entire section of her nineteenth collection of poetry to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the turn of the Jewish year in stirring imagery and recurring meditations on family, love, and wishes and failure to be better next year.

Apples and honey for the new year
but you are my year round sweet
apple. The apple of my eye, apple
of temptation and delight. My honey:

I was never truly happy before you.
I was never truly whole before you.

4. Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and
the Trial of the Nazis

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, revisited in Tim Townsend’s riveting account of U.S. Army chaplain Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran clergyman assigned to minister to the Protestant defendants tried and imprisoned in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice following World War II. The story is a fascinating history of America’s military chaplaincy, the Lutheran Church and its mission in the United States, and the jurisprudential and journalist community encouched in postwar Germany—as well as a compelling biography of Gerecke and a respectful examination of the members of his flock awaiting condemnation. Besides being my go-to recommendation for a nonfiction read, Mission at Nuremberg is a fascinating study of confronting evil, religious compassion, and the impossible question of what redemption means for the Nazi arbiters of the Holocaust.

5. A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined
House in France

Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s memoir of rooting about her family history in attempts to uncover the secret that separated her grandparents half a century ago is a reflective work of self-discovery and rumination on reconciliation. Get a taste of the book and its author with Miranda’s Visiting Scribe posts on questioning Holocaust survivors about their past and the “madeleine moments” she shares with and observed in her grandfather.

6. After Abel and Other Stories

A richly provocative perspective to carry in rereading the Torah afresh starting next week, Michal Lemberger’s collection of nine heartbreaking stories imagines the experience of the women of the Bible, translating their traditional depictions as virtuous, villainous, or simply present into human actions and responses to the experiences and events they witness without voice in the original text. Also a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople, Michal shared her fascination with the story of Lot’s Wife, the narrative struggle of turning King David into a villain, and what the Lifetime adaptation of The Red Tent got wrong with the Jewish Book Council “way back” in 5775.

7. Thresholds: How to Thrive through Life's Transitions to Live a Fearlessly and Regret-Free Life

The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one of transition in the Jewish year and within. If you’re looking to embrace this moment of spiritual transmigration beyond the customary liturgy and ritual practices, embark on the personal examination of self in time and place with Rabbi Sherre Hirsch’s mindful guide to discovery.

8. Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker

Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering present a graphic narrative of the 1971 Hoe Avenue peace meeting brokered by the Ghetto Brothers’ president and Nuyorican marrano Benji Melendez to establish a truce between the warring gangs of the Bronx. Alongside Melendez’s discovery of his crypto-Jewish heritage and return to the hidden religion of his ancestors, Ghetto Brother is an absorbing true story of unlikely reconciliation and the birth of Hip Hop.

9. How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey

Certainly you recognize David Gregory from his career as a former NBC newsman and Meet the Press moderator, but you might not know how his strong Jewish identity instilled from his upbringing developed into belief over the course of a decade of study with an Orthodox Jewish scholar. Prompted by a question from George W. Bush during David’s assignment as chief White House correspondent, How’s Your Faith? considers the “ Unlikely Spiritual Journey” from one of television journalism’s most recognized faces.

10. Days of Awe: A Novel

You name your book Days of Awe, it pretty much has to be on this list. While the novel does not overtly address the Ten Days, it spins around themes of past wrongs, forgiveness, and the rending process of beginning anew. One of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribes over the Ten Days of Awe 5776, read Lauren Fox’s entries on The ProsenPeople here.

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Interview: Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Wednesday, October 01, 2014 | Permalink

by Nat Bernstein

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was recently named one of the National Book Foundation's 2014 5 Under 35 Honorees. Her debut novel Panic in a Suitcase was published in July by Riverhead.

Nat Bernstein: What was the impetus behind Panic in a Suitcase? What inspired the novel, and what pushed you to write it?

Yelena Akhtiorskaya: The impetus for Panic in a Suitcase was really just the vague but potent need to write that is always present, always nag­ging, like a feral beast-child that will bite off your arm if you don’t keep throwing things at it. The only thing I happened to have on hand was “my experience.” I wish I could’ve given it something tastier and more satisfying, but it was an emergency situation and the most important thing is that I saved myself—for now.

The inspiration was my family and the hilarious and devastating ab­surdity that is Brighton Beach. What pushed me to write it, other than compulsion, was a desire to chronicle, understand, and conquer.

NLB: Your bio indicates that you share roots in Odessa and Brighton Beach in common with your characters. To what extent is the novel autobiographical?

YA: With the novel it’s hard to say, but my bio is almost entirely autobio­graphical.

NLB: As a writer, where or how do you see your fiction and nonfiction writing interact?

YA: I don’t write very much nonfiction, and, to be honest, when I do I have the sense that I’m tricking somebody because I don’t entirely understand the distinction. A piece of writing is either good or not. The good is true, the not good is false. Everything a person writes should be infused with her opinions, thoughts, feelings, moods, dreams. Basically, the goal is to have a really good infusion mechanism worked out.

NLB: We tend to focus on the isolation and perpetual homelessness of the immigrant experience (I’m thinking of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, in particular, or Junot Diaz, Julie Otsuka) but the cast of Panic in a Suitcase convey the opposite phenomenon: the transplants—Marina, Esther, Robert—share a groundedness in where they are and con­nectivity with the members of their family and acquaintances, while Frida and Pasha seem individually alienated and alienating both at home and abroad. Do you find something unifying in the immigrant experience of which perhaps their rooted relatives feel an absence or distance?

YA: For better or worse, you take yourself wherever you go, so people who are grounded, practical, sane, and social in the old country, will be the same in their new land, whereas people who are miserable, unbearable, and isolated are going to stay that way wherever they go (which is why it’s probably best they stay put). Pasha and Frida are of the latter variety. It doesn’t matter where they are. The outside world, made of crowds and noise, is there to be bristled against and pushed out. But I absolutely think immigration can be invigorating, and serve to strengthen bonds.

NLB: Pasha is set (or sets himself) apart from his family in every conceivable way: a poet in a family of medicine, he languishes in Odessa rather than joining his eager parents and sister in the United States—and renounces his religious heritage for Christianity. What do you feel is the starkest line of division between him and his immediate relatives?

YA: The Atlantic Ocean is a pretty good partition, even considering Skype. There’s just something to be said for sheer distance. Essentially, the starkest line of division is an invisible one—it’s something inside of Pasha that allows him to have an independent way of thinking and to make the decisions that then seem to be the things that set him apart. The specific decisions matter less. Pasha could’ve substituted Christian­ity with a lot of things. But I don’t know if he could’ve been as apart if he lived on the same block in Brighton Beach.

NLB: Is Pasha—as the persona of Pavel Robertovich Nasmertov, “the great Russian poet”—based or inspired by a real-life or literary figure?

YA: I should probably be coy about this, but my uncle is a Russian poet, and he is pretty great.

NLB: Do you share Frida’s sublimated belief that “old Odessa’s great­ness lay solely in its Jews”—many of whom relocated to the commu­nity in which you grew up?

YA: I think that’s being simplistic about it! Like you said, a large contin­gent of Odessan Jewry relocated to Brighton Beach and yet it’s very dif­ficult to imagine that the Brighton Beach community ever contributed to a city’s greatness, let alone been solely responsible for it. And I don’t think getting a quarter million Jews to settle in Odessa today would bring back the magic—though some would say that the magic isn’t even gone, and on certain days I might agree; it’s really a lovely city. But I attribute the city’s current loveliness to a mixture of nice architecture, a quaint feeling, the eternal sea breeze, nostalgia, and the glowing em­bers of true historical specialness. That specialness was a result of many factors, but the Jews were, I think, the most integral.

NLB: The current literary scene is boasting a wealth of novels exploring the simultaneous collective and individual narratives of Soviet immi­grant families, pervaded by something of a chronic melancholy, or dis­satisfaction, or detachment. Do you think Soviet-heritage writers have been in a sense doomed to write about “unhappy families” since Tolstoy penned the opening to Anna Karenina—does the common exploration of family micro-turmoil stem from a literary legacy, or from something intrinsic to the culture and identity of a Russian-speaking household?

YA: Tolstoy had a catchy line but I think all writers regardless of culture or era are doomed to write about unhappy families because they’re doomed to live in them, and often be the singlehanded cause of the un­happiness. Probably immigrant writers in general are going to be crank­ing out more family-heavy stuff because often it’s the family unit that gets unmoored and transplanted into a new place where everything is strange and foreign. The walls around the family fortify and inside those walls temperatures rise, resulting in a thick, garlicky, incestuous stew that is irresistible to write about. (What else are you going to do with it?) If there’s anything particularly Russian, though, it’s the chronic melancholy and dissatisfaction. That is the Russian tradition. Russians are fantastic, maybe the best, at suffering.

NLB: What other works inform your writing? Which authors—classic or contemporary—were most influential while you worked on Panic in a Suitcase?

YA: As far as I’m aware, it’s still a mystery how the brain decides which input will inform the output and which will be filed away in some unknown location, never to be accessed again except in polite dinner conversation. Since I don’t have control over this process, it’s necessary to be extremely careful. Even one crappy book is dangerous. While writ­ing this book, I was reading Bellow, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Platonov, Leonard Michaels, Clarice Lispecter, Harold Brodkey. It wasn’t on purpose, but it seems that if I was reading you, you’re Jewish, Russian, or Russian-Jewish, and dead.

NLB: What are you reading now, and what can your readers expect from you next?

YA: I’m reading Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and a statistics textbook. I just read Elaine Kraf’s The Princess of 72nd Street and it is unbelievable. I urge you to read it! As for what’s next, I’ve learned this is a giant letdown, and I apologize in advance, but I’m afraid it’s going to be a story collection.

Nat Bernstein is the JBC Network Coordinator at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.

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Paperback Release Party in NYC

Thursday, May 06, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Start your summer off by joining Heeb for the paperback release party for Zoe Klein’s Drawing in the Dust. Details below:

Join Heeb to celebrate the paperback release of Drawing in the Dust (Simon & Schuster) at Common Ground (206 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009) onTuesday, June 8 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.mOriginal Sin is providing complimentary cider. In present-day Israel, Page Brookstone’s incredible discovery shakes the foundations of the world’s religious knowledge, sparking both political consequences for the entire country and very personal consequences for Page. Both a love story and an Archaeological adventure, Rabbi Zoe Klein’s beautiful first novel delves deeply into Jewish history, merging lost relics, biblical tales, a cross-cultural romance and even a lyrical counterpoint to the Book of Jeremiah.

Find the original post here.