The ProsenPeople


Thursday, June 22, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi, the editor of "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union, has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Alexander Smukler presents a samizdat copy of Exodus in Russian to
author Leon Uris. Moscow, November 1989. Collection of Inna and Yuli Kosharovsky.

Jewish activism in the Soviet Union, supported by a movement to free Soviet Jewry abroad, resulted in a massive exodus. As Yuli Kosharovsky noted, concerning the late Soviet period and early 1990s, “In the years of mass emigration, the overwhelming majority of Jews—more than 1,500,000 people—left the borders of the former Soviet Union. The majority of those who left—around 900,000—settled in Israel.” The struggle and its outcome were of massive historical proportions, and it seemed natural to many observers and advocates to use Biblical language when they demanded that the Soviet leaders “Let My People Go!” and when they spoke about the liberation of Soviet Jews from the grip of the “Red Pharaoh.”

Certainly, there were important geo-political factors at work in the events that unfolded leading to this massive exodus, many of which are detailed in "We Are Jews Again". Against the backdrop of those forces and the high-level decisions and negotiations that took place, there was a core of more modest and incremental efforts that made the huge Aliya and revival of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union possible. Such grassroots initiatives included the work to make texts like Leon Uris’s 1958 novel Exodus available to Soviet readers in so-called “samizdat” (self-publishing). An early Zionist activist, David Drabkin, talked about translating Exodus with fellow activists Viktor Polsky and Vladimir Prestin for readers of Russian. At that time, in the late 1960s, Moscow was, as Kosharovsky wrote, a center for production and distribution of samizdat:

Moscow was a clearing house for samizdat distribution. Some books and printed material, including Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, were produced simultaneously in a few places. The quality of the translations and of the production work and the scope of samizdat distribution varied greatly. The movement was ripe for more effective coordination and division of labor.

The variety of translations of Uris’s novel – which appeared in samizdat editions as both Iskhod and Eksodus – may have been inevitable, given the powerful appeal it had for Soviet readers. Viktor Polsky recalled in his interview with Kosharovsky:

We received literature from the Baltics. Lea Slovin would come to us. David Drabkin had a channel. We … translated, copied, bound, and disseminated the novel Exodus. This book transformed my mother from a woman who had been intimidated by relentless persecution into a Zionist. For me, this was incontestable proof of the novel’s power to exert a strong emotional effect.

People recalled doing and reading 600+ page translations of Uris’s novel. The amount of labor that would have gone into producing that kind of samizdat text at home, with a typewriter and/or a photographic camera and prints developed in the bathroom, speaks to the feelings Uris’s novel inspired in Soviet readers. Others were moved to produce their own translations or slimmer adaptations. All accounts agree that Exodus was a central text of Jewish samizdat for activists and non-activists alike. Evidently, Uris’s tale about building and defending the state of Israel resonated profoundly with Soviet Jews who felt anxious for and then proud of Israel during the Six-Day War. That pride counterbalanced the often vicious anti-Israel propaganda from Soviet authorities. Moreover, Uris’s portrait of muscular, modern Jews resonated with qualities many Soviet Jews wanted to see in themselves, as it counteracted persistent negative stereotypes of cowardly Jews who shirked military service.

Alexander Smukler, pictured above with Uris, was one of those who helped expand the variety of material available to Soviet Jewish readers. Soviet Jewish samizdat included fictional works and poems from home and abroad, Hebrew language-learning materials, news bulletins and journals with articles and commentary on world events and administrative affairs. For example, the samizdat journal Jews in the USSR, initiated by Alexander Voronel and published from 1972-79, provided a crucial forum for Soviet Jews to reflect on their identity and concerns, in their own words and without the burden of official censorship. Smukler and a handful of others published the Information Bulletin on Issues of Repatriation and Jewish Culture, which appeared between 1987 and 1990, in Moscow. Foreign help – including the imaginative charge of Uris’s novel – mattered a lot for Soviet Jews. However, without the networks of readers and writers Soviet Jews created for themselves, working together to share stories, information, news and reflection, the revival of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union and the massive aliya would not have been possible.

Ann Komaromi is the editor of the recently published "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union.

Excerpt: All Our Wrong Todays

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | Permalink

Excerpted from All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai's latest science fiction novel.


So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.

That means nothing to you, obviously, because you live here, in the crappy world we do have. But it never should’ve turned out like this. And it’s all my fault-well, me and to a lesser extent my father and, yeah, I guess a little bit Penelope.

It’s hard to know how to start telling this story. But, okay, you know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases. All that dazzling, transformative technology our grandparents were certain was right around the corner. The stuff of world’s fairs and pulp science-fiction magazines with titles like Fantastic Future Tales and The Amazing World of Tomorrow. Can you picture it?

Well, it happened.

It all happened, more or less exactly as envisioned. I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the present. Today, in the year 2016, humanity lives in a techno-utopian paradise of abundance, purpose, and wonder.

Except we don’t. Of course we don’t. We live in a world where, sure, there are iPhones and 3D printers and, I don’t know, drone strikes or whatever. But it hardly looks like The Jetsons. Except it should. And it did. Until it didn’t. But it would have, if I hadn’t done what I did. Or, no, hold on, what I will have done.

I’m sorry, despite receiving the best education available to a citizen of the World of Tomorrow, the grammar of this situation is a bit complicated.

Maybe the first person is the wrong way to tell this story. Maybe if I take refuge in the third person I’ll find some sort of distance or insight or at least peace of mind. It’s worth a try.


Tom Barren wakes up into his own dream.

Every night, neural scanners map his dreams while he sleeps so that both his conscious and unconscious thought patterns can be effectively modeled. Every morning, the neural scanners transmit the current dream-state data into a program that generates a real-time virtual projection into which he seamlessly rouses. The dream’s scattershot plot is made increasingly linear and lucid until a psychologically pleasing resolution is achieved at the moment of full consciousness...

I’m sorry-I can’t write like this. It’s fake. It’s safe.

The third person is comforting because it’s in control, which feels really nice when relating events that were often so out of control. It’s like a scientist describing a biological sample seen through a microscope. But I’m not the microscope. I’m the thing on the slide. And I’m not writing this to make myself comfortable. If I wanted comfort, I’d write fiction.

In fiction, you cohere all these evocative, telling details into a portrait of the world. But in everyday life, you hardly notice any of the little things. You can’t. Your brain swoops past it all, especially when it’s your own home, a place that feels barely separate from the inside of your mind or the outside of your body.

When you wake up from a real dream into a virtual one, it’s like you’re on a raft darting this way and that according to the blurry, impenetrable currents of your unconscious, until you find yourself gliding onto a wide, calm, shallow lake, and the slippery, fraught weirdness dissolves into serene, reassuring clarity. The story wraps up the way it feels like it must, and no matter how unsettling the content, you wake with the rejuvenating solidity of order restored. And that’s when you realize you’re lying in bed, ready to start the day, with none of that sticky subconscious gristle caught in the cramped folds of your mind.

It might be what I miss most about where I come from. Because in this world waking up sucks.

Here, it’s like nobody has considered using even the most rudimentary technology to improve the process. Mattresses don’t subtly vibrate to keep your muscles loose. Targeted steam valves don’t clean your body in slumber. I mean, blankets are made from tufts of plant fiber spun into thread and occasionally stuffed with feathers. Feathers. Like from actual birds. Waking up should be the best moment of your day, your unconscious and conscious minds synchronized and harmonious.

Getting dressed involves an automated device that cuts and stitches a new outfit every morning, indexed to your personal style and body type. The fabric is made from laser-hardened strands of a light-sensitive liquid polymer that’s recycled nightly for daily reuse. For breakfast, a similar system outputs whatever meal you feel like from a nutrient gel mixed with color, flavor, and texture protocols. And if that sounds gross to you, in practice it’s indistinguishable from what you think of as real food, except that it’s uniquely gauged to your tongue’s sensory receptors so it tastes and feels ideal every time. You know that sinking feeling you get when you cut into an avocado, only to find that it’s either hard and underripe or brown and bruised under its skin? Well, I didn’t know that could even happen until I came here. Every avocado I ever ate was perfect.

It’s weird to be nostalgic for experiences that both did and didn’t exist. Like waking up every morning completely refreshed. Something I didn’t even realize I could take for granted because it was simply the way things were. But that’s the point, of course-the way things were . . . never was.

What I’m not nostalgic for is that every morning when I woke up and got dressed and ate breakfast in this glittering technological utopia, I was alone.


On July 11, 1965, Lionel Goettreider invented the future.

Obviously you’ve never heard of him. But where I come from, Lionel Goettreider is the most famous, beloved, and respected human on the planet. Every city has dozens of things named after him: streets, buildings, parks, whatever. Every kid knows how to spell his name using the catchy mnemonic tune that goes G-O-E-T-T-R-E-I-D-E-R.

You have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you were from where I’m from, it’d be as familiar to you as A-B-C.

Fifty-one years ago, Lionel Goettreider invented a revolutionary way to generate unlimited, robust, absolutely clean energy. His device came to be called the Goettreider Engine. July 11, 1965, was the day he turned it on for the very first time. It made everything possible.

Imagine that the last five decades happened with no restrictions on energy. No need to dig deeper and deeper into the ground and make the skies dirtier and dirtier. Nuclear became unnecessarily tempestuous. Coal and oil pointlessly murky. Solar and wind and even hydropower became quaint low-fidelity alternatives that nobody bothered with unless they were peculiarly determined to live off the main grid.

So, how did the Goettreider Engine work?

How does electricity work? How does a microwave oven work? How does your cell phone or television or remote control work? Do you actually understand on, like, a concrete technical level? If those technologies disappeared, could you reconceive, redesign, and rebuild them from scratch? And, if not, why not? You only use these things pretty much every single day.

But of course you don’t know. Because unless your job’s in a related field you don’t need to know. They just work, effortlessly, as they were intended to.

Where I come from, that’s how it is with the Goettreider Engine. It was important enough to make Goettreider as recognizable a name as Einstein or Newton or Darwin. But how it functioned, like, technically? I really couldn’t tell you.

Basically, you know how a dam produces energy? Turbines harness the natural propulsion of water flowing downward via gravity to generate electricity. To be clear, that’s more or less all I understand about hydroelectric power. Gravity pulls water down, so if you stick a turbine in its path, the water spins it around and somehow makes energy.

The Goettreider Engine does that with the planet. You know that the Earth spins on its axis and also revolves around the Sun, while the Sun itself moves endlessly through the solar system. Like water through a turbine, the Goettreider Engine harnesses the constant rotation of the planet to create boundless energy. It has something to do with magnetism and gravity and . . . honestly, I don’t know-any more than I genuinely understand an alkaline battery or a combustion engine or an incandescent light bulb. They just work.

So does the Goettreider Engine. It just works.

Or it did. Before, you know, me.


I am not a genius. If you’ve read this far, you’re already aware of that fact.

But my father is a legitimate full-blown genius of the highest order. After finishing his third PhD, Victor Barren spent a few crucial years working in long-range teleportation before founding his own lab to pursue his specific niche field-time travel.

Even where I come from, time travel was considered more or less impossible. Not because of time, actually, but because of space.

Here’s why every time-travel movie you’ve ever seen is total bullshit: because the Earth moves.

You know this. Plus I mentioned it last chapter. The Earth spins all the way around once a day, revolves around the Sun once a year, while the Sun is on its own cosmic route through the solar system, which is itself hurtling through a galaxy that’s wandering an epic path through the universe.

The ground under you is moving, really fast. Along the equator, the Earth rotates at over 1,000 miles per hour, twenty-four hours a day, while orbiting the Sun at a little over 67,000 miles per hour. That’s 1,600,000 miles per day. Meanwhile our solar system is in motion relative to the Milky Way galaxy at more than 1,300,000 miles per hour, covering just shy of 32,000,000 miles per day. And so on.

If you were to travel back in time to yesterday, the Earth would be in a different place in space. Even if you travel back in time one second, the Earth below your feet can move nearly half a kilometer. In one second.

The reason every movie about time travel is nonsense is that the Earth moves, constantly, always. You travel back one day, you don’t end up in the same location-you end up in the gaping vacuum of outer space.

Marty McFly didn’t appear thirty years earlier in his hometown of Hill Valley, California. His tricked-out DeLorean materialized in the endless empty blackness of the cosmos with the Earth approximately 350,000,000,000 miles away. Assuming he didn’t immediately lose consciousness from the lack of oxygen, the absence of air pressure would cause all the fluids in his body to bubble, partially evaporate, and freeze. He would be dead in less than a minute.

The Terminator would probably survive in space because it’s an unstoppable robot killing machine, but traveling from 2029 to 1984 would’ve given Sarah Connor a 525,000,000,000-mile head start.

Time travel doesn’t just require traveling back in time. It also requires traveling back to a pinpoint-specific location in space. Otherwise, just like with regular old everyday teleportation, you could end up stuck inside something.

Think about where you’re sitting right now. Let’s say on an olive-green couch. A white ceramic bowl of fake green pears and real brown pinecones propped next to your feet on the teak coffee table. A brushed-steel floor lamp glows over your shoulder. A coarse rug over reclaimed barn-board elm floors that cost too much but look pretty great . . .

If you were to teleport even a few inches in any direction, your body would be embedded in a solid object. One inch, you’re wounded. Two inches, you’re maimed. Three inches, you’re dead.

Every second of the day, we’re all three inches from being dead.

Which is why teleportation is safe and effective only if it’s between dedicated sites on an exactingly calibrated system.

My father’s early work in teleportation was so important because it helped him understand the mechanics of disincorporating and reincorporating a human body between discrete locations. It’s what stymied all previous time-travel initiatives. Reversing the flow of time isn’t even that complex. What’s outrageously complex is instantaneous space travel with absolute accuracy across potentially billions of miles.

My father’s genius wasn’t just about solving both the theoretical and logistic challenges of time travel. It was about recognizing that in this, as in so many other aspects of everyday life, our savior was Lionel Goettreider.


The first Goettreider Engine was turned on once and never turned off-it’s been running without interruption since 2:03 p.m. on Sunday, July 11, 1965.

Goettreider’s original device wasn’t designed to harness and emit large-scale amounts of energy. It was an experimental prototype that performed beyond its inventor’s most grandiose expectations. But the whole point of a Goettreider Engine is that it never has to be deactivated, just as the planet never stops moving. So, the prototype was left running in the same spot where it was first switched on, in front of a small crowd of sixteen observers in a basement laboratory in section B7 of the San Francisco State Science and Technology Center.

Where I come from, every schoolkid knows the names and faces of the Sixteen Witnesses. Numerous books have been written about every single one of them, with their presence at this ultimate hinge in history shoved into the chronology of their individual lives as the defining event, whether or not it was factually true.

Countless works of art have depicted The Activation of the Goettreider Engine. It’s The Last Supper of the modern world, those sixteen faces, each with its own codified reaction. Skeptical. Awed. Distracted. Amused. Jealous. Angry. Thoughtful. Frightened. Detached. Concerned. Excited. Nonchalant. Harried. There’s three more. Damn it, I should know this . . .

When the prototype Engine was first turned on, Goettreider just wanted to verify his calculations and prove his theory wasn’t completely misguided-all it had to do was actually work. And it did work, but it had a major defect. It emitted a unique radiation signature, what was later called tau radiation, a nod to how physics uses the Greek capital letter T to represent proper time in relativity equations.

As the Engine’s miraculous energy-generating capacities expanded to power the whole world, the tau radiation signature was eliminated from the large-scale industrial models. But the prototype was left to run, theoretically forever, in Goettreider’s lab in San Francisco-now among the most visited museums on the planet-out of respect, nostalgia, and a legally rigid clause in Goettreider’s last will and testament.

From the book All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai. Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © Elan Mastai, 2017.

Friends From Abroad

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi, the editor of "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union, has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

This 1975 photo, used on the cover of "We Are Jews Again", shows noted refusenik activists Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, Yuli Kosharovsky, Vladimir and Maria (Masha) Slepak and Vitaly Rubin along with a number of Israeli wrestlers and weightlifters who came to visit the Soviet Union and spent time with Soviet Jews. The photo acts as a window onto one of the brightest moments of Jewish life at that time. The smiles and relaxed poses of the people shown here – notice the way Masha Slepak leans her head familiarly onto Zeev Rom’s shoulder! – suggest that informal Jewish life in the Soviet Union was animated by happy social events and that it benefited from mutual support among members of the community and the friendship of allies from abroad. Unofficial Jewish life was warm and supportive in those ways, but such events took place under the malevolent gaze of KGB officers, who were certainly keeping an eye on this gathering. The possibility of persecution always haunted those involved in unofficial activities. Not too long after this celebration, in March, 1977, Sharansky, would be arrested on false charges of spying and imprisoned for nine years. The police would arrest the Slepaks in June, 1978, after they unfurled a banner from their apartment balcony with the demand for the right to leave and join their son in Israel. For that action the Slepaks were sent to Siberia. The Slepaks were able to leave the Soviet Union, like many of the activists, only after perestroika was well established, in 1987. Those were far from the first arrests for “Zionist” activity, and that hostile environment gives this seemingly ordinary moment the aura of the extraordinary.

People risked coming out with their families for unofficial Jewish celebrations, and foreign visitors made the long journey to see fellow Jews in the Soviet Union and bring them messages of encouragement and support. Such extraordinary efforts resulted in a profound feeling of solidarity and deep ties among people. Recently, work on identifying the people in the photo underscored the tenacity of connections created at that time. Enid Wurtman, a former American activist for Soviet Jewry and a research assistant working with Yuli Kosharovsky on "We Are Jews Again" since 2003, went to great lengths to identify and contact the people shown in this photograph. Enid located Solomon Stolyar, shown here in the back row, who is today head of the Israel Wrestling Federation. He helped put her in touch with the Israeli athletes who had been in Lunts Meadow on that fall day more than 30 years ago. Then-child Ephraim Rosenstein, seated at front with Yuli Kosharovsky, turned out to have been the bar-mitzvah “twin” for Enid’s son in Israel. Bar-mitzvah “twinning” was a common means for raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews who could not provide their children with that kind of celebration. In addition, Oksana Iablonsky (also spelled Oxana Yablonsky), standing on the right, was identified by Enid’s friend, Shoshana Fain, widow of the refusenik leader Benjamin Fain. Oksana, it turned out, is an acclaimed pianist who like Enid and like many other refuseniks made aliya to Israel. She played in a Chamber Music Festival in Eilat which Enid’s other son was involved organizing. There was something magical about the connections created and sustained for so many years over the course of this history of the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews.

The warm support and enthusiasm of all those contacted about the publication of Yuli Kosharovsky’s history of the movement testify to what that movement has meant to Jews both inside and outside the USSR.

Check back tomorrow for Ann Komaromi's final post for the Visiting Scribe series.

Photo Caption: Cover Photo. Refuseniks celebrate Succot with Israeli sportsmen in Lunts Meadow outside Moscow, 1975. First row, seated, from left: Anatoly Sharansky, Zeev Shakhnovsky, Ephraim Rosenstein (child), Yuli Kosharovsky. Second row: Isakhar Aharoni, Michael Bronstein, Menachem Berkowitz, Shlomo Fried. Back row, standing: Rami Miron, unidentified, Solomon Stolyar, Zeev Rom, Vladimir Slepak, Maria Slepak, Vitaly Rubin, Lev Gendin, Oksana Iablonsky.

It's Personal

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi is the editor of Yuli Kosharovsky's "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Inna and Yuli Kosharovsky with son Moty, Moscow, 1981. Collection of Bill Aron.

Yuli Kosharovsky (1941-2014) wrote a history of the Jewish movement that is intensely personal. The book We Are Jews Again is punctuated by Yuli’s conversations with fellow former activists as well as passages recounting his own experiences and reflections on them. In the first set of recollections, Yuli remembers the tensions he felt as a highly-trained and privileged Soviet specialist working in strategic weapons development living amidst anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda following the Six-Day War. He describes a moment of revelation:

…I was walking along a noisy street and my head was buzzing from lack of sleep. Suddenly everything around me vanished, it became quiet, and the passersby and cars disappeared. A bright light illuminated my consciousness and I saw with piercing clarity who I was, where I was going, and what I wanted. I knew that this was not a fantastic trick, that I was seeing my path. It was a divine beacon to my atheistically educated soul.

I don’t know how long this lasted, but then once again the street became noisy and the cars were moving.

That moment ended all doubts.

Until my departure, another long twenty-two years would pass. It would be difficult and hard to endure because of fear, pain, and exhaustion. There would be children who would grow up in the midst of all this.

At the most difficult moments, I would return in my mind to that spark of consciousness, to that clarity, and my strength would return.

It is stunning to realize that Yuli struggled after this insight for twenty-two years in the Soviet Union, sustained by the dream of leaving for Israel. For eighteen of these years, he was a “refusenik,” a status that came from applying for an exit visa and being refused and which meant no more privileged job in the weapons laboratory, ostracism from general Soviet society, and intermittent persecution by the authorities. Yuli was like many refuseniks, in that he took what jobs he could to survive and feed his family, turning to the Jewish community around him for social life and support. Unlike most other refuseniks, Yuli’s early moment of clarity and the force of his conviction propelled him to become a leader. He learned and taught Hebrew despite the de facto ban on the language, organized other Hebrew teachers in an underground network, and helped coordinate and support a host of unofficial activities designed to support Jewish education, identity and the movement for the right to emigrate and make aliya. Details about the extent of this organized activity in the Soviet Union help make this book a real contribution to the history of the movement.

This photo [see header] of Yuli, his wife Inna and their son Moty show the personal side of this activity – these were not activists working in isolation. The activists had family and friends who shared the risks they took because they all believed that to live as Jews with dignity and rights was a noble cause. They aimed to teach their children to live that way, despite the resistance of the society and State in which they found themselves.

Read more about "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union here and check back tomorrow to read more from Ann Komaromi.

Researching and Writing Short Stories

Monday, June 19, 2017 | Permalink

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

One of the pleasures of writing is doing research about a subject that makes its way into fiction. My new collection of stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, is set in the contemporary world, but even so I had to do research for the book. I needed to learn about the characters’ professions and find facts about the locales where stories take place. Two stories refer to World War II and Holocaust survivors; I had to be sure the details were correct.

I wrote the stories over time. Compiling them into a book was a different process from writing a novel or individual pieces. The stories in the collection aren’t linked, and I needed to make sure each story, character, and profession was unique.

Much of what happens in fiction is serendipity, unanticipated, no matter how carefully a writer plans. A story idea changes as I write and is influenced by the characters, my imagination, what I see and hear in the world, and the research I’ve done.

And my research can become part of a story, often in unexpected ways.

“A Celebration of the Life of the Reverend Canon Edward Henry Jamison,” the last story in the new collection, is narrated by a Jewish woman. Her cousin marries an Episcopalian minister. The story is about intermarriage and how love changes over time. At the end, the narrator sits in an Episcopal church during a funeral service. I had once been in an Episcopal church during a service and was fascinated by the ritual. As a Jew, though, I’d felt like an outsider, especially when the congregation went to the front of the sanctuary for communion, and I stayed seated. I didn’t know enough about the service to describe the details accurately in the story—didn’t understand the order, what a priest might say, and when the congregation would rise and sing.

After I wrote the story, I called an Episcopal church in New York, explained my questions to the woman who answered, and she directed me to a sacristan. He told me what happens at an Episcopal funeral service, and also about the Liturgy of the Eucharist, theology, the prayer book, and what a sacristan does. He suggested resources on the Internet and the prayer book. We looked at some together on our computers. We talked for a long time about faith, G-d, life, death, the lack of control in the face of death, the service and its intent. I had assumed he would give me a dry account, but the conversation was full of substance, spirituality and hope; we compared the Episcopal and Jewish traditions.

His descriptions were poignant, lifted me up, and so in the story, the Episcopal service lifted up the narrator. That section of the story had ended on a negative note, but after I spoke to him, I rewrote it. I was able to include a correct chronology of the service and to end on a note of farewell and joy, just as I’d heard in the man’s voice.

“Bare Essentials,” another piece in the collection, is about love, divorce, and an affair. In the story, the narrator tries to understand what strengthens or weakens relationships. I decided she would edit medical research papers for a journal, studies about bacteria, Campylobacter or C. difficile. I did research before I wrote the story and learned about the ways bacteria behave and interact with a host. This became part of the narrative. Early in the story, the narrator says, “I know that a hundred trillion good bacteria call the body home. Even the mouth has several species of bacteria…The body is like space or the ocean, a vast unknown, like the mind. Like a relationship.” Later she tells the reader, “People are, in the microscopic regions of the heart, not so different from bacteria…Some are resilient. Others disappear in the struggle to survive.”

Bacteria became a central metaphor, woven throughout the piece. The story developed in a direction I didn’t anticipate because of what I’d learned.

The characters in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life have a variety of jobs and life experiences. There are lawyers, real estate agents, Holocaust survivors, doctors, businessmen, a relocation expert, teachers, an employee of the United Nations, a postal worker, rabbis, and others. Stories take place in Poland, New York, Nashville, Denver, Chicago, Vienna, and Michigan. In my research, I found details for the settings. I learned about the characters’ jobs and professions so I could add descriptions to give the characters authenticity.

This was both hard, exacting labor and joyous work. I felt as if I was an actor or as if I had experienced all these jobs and lived the different lives in all the various places.

As I researched and wrote the stories, I discovered that the act of writing can open up new worlds not just for the reader, but for the writer as well.

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.

An Emphasis on Leaders

Friday, June 16, 2017 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series.

Our goal was for The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 to faithfully depict the contributions and achievements of the WJC’s leaders over the course of the past 80 years, including in addition to Ambassador Lauder the WJC’s founders Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Dr. Nahum Goldmann, its longtime secretary-general Gerhart M. Riegner, and its president from 1981 to 2007, Edgar M. Bronfman.

In the interest of full disclosure, a brief personal note seems appropriate. I am not a totally disinterested observer of many of the events and individuals described in the pages of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016. My father, Josef Rosensaft, worked closely with many of the leaders of the WJC between 1945 and 1950 in his double capacity as chairman of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany and the Jewish Committee that administered the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp. During those years he developed what proved to be life-long friendships with Goldmann, Riegner, and numerous other other WJC leaders. As a result, I grew up knowing many of these WJC personalities and became aware of the organization’s activities in the international Jewish arena almost by osmosis. Decades later, I ran an international foundation for Ambassador Lauder from 1995 to 2000, and since 2009, as the WJC’s general counsel, I have worked closely with Ambassador Lauder, CEO Robert Singer, Secretary-General Emeritus Michael Schneider, Chief Program Officer Sonia Gomes de Mesquita, and the entire senior lay and professional WJC leadership.

Among the contributors to The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 who share their personal experiences and perspectives are Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli, vice prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, who recalls the WJC’s pioneering role in crafting a new Catholic-Jewish relationship; Gregg J. Rickman, who led the US Senate Banking Committee’s examination of Swiss banks and their treatment of Holocaust-era assets during and after World War II and who depicts the WJC’s key role in forcing Swiss banks to disgorge more than one billion dollars they had wrongfully withheld from Jewish Holocaust victims and their heirs; Eli Rosenbaum, the longtime head of the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, who as my predecessor as the WJC’s general counsel oversaw the WJC’s exposure of Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past; Natan Lerner, professor of law emeritus at IDC Herzliya, the director of the WJC’s Israel Branch from 1966 until 1984, who writes about the WJC’s relationship and interactions with the State of Israel; Evelyn Sommer, chairperson of the WJC’s North American Section, who was instrumental in the campaign to rescind the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism; and Maram Stern, the WJC’s deputy CEO for diplomacy, who reminisces about the complexities of attempting to maintain relations with Jewish communities in Communist countries during the Cold War years.

Other chapters in The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 are devoted to, among other topics, the invaluable assistance the WJC provided to the prosecutors at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, and the organization’s successful diplomatic negotiations on behalf of Jews from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. In the book’s concluding chapters, Ambassador Lauder lays out his vision of the Jewish future, and Robert Singer describes the activities and accomplishments of the World Jewish Congress today.

I am deeply honored that Ambassador Lauder and Robert Singer entrusted me with the task of compiling and editing this book, and am grateful to them for their constant encouragement and support. It is our hope that The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 will become an essential resource not just for an understanding of the World Jewish Congress, but for anyone interested in Jewish political history of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017).

Header photo credited to The World Jewish Congress.

New Reviews June 16, 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017 | Permalink

But Wait, There’s More! (Part 2)

Thursday, June 15, 2017 | Permalink

Annabelle Gurwitch been guest blogging for the Visiting Scribe this week about her latest collection of essays, Wherever You Go, There They Are. Her second post elaborates on the story about her mother's philanthropic side which she did not get to include in her collection.

As much as I was moved by mother’s recounting of her mission to aid the Refuseniks in Russia, I wasn’t able to fit that story into either my book or my assignment for Oprah’s website. This is an example of how even if you have a story that holds great meaning for you and it has intrinsic value on it’s own, it just might not find a home in what you are publishing.

Then, in December, a friend invited me to a ritual in celebration of the winter solstice. I typically roll my eyes at such things, but it had been a month since my mother’s death and the idea of communing with friends seemed comforting and I heard there would be wine.

At the ritual, our circle of friends was invited to share on the subject of when we felt the happiest and without thinking I blurted out, “When I am being useful to others.”

Without thinking I’d uttered the same phrase, with the exact same inflection as my mother and although I’ve never smuggled medical supplies into another country, I mentor high school seniors, an activity that I find deeply rewarding. At the same time, I could have easily answered, “When receiving a deep tissue massage.” Ok, in truth, being useful ranks a bit below the massage, especially if hot stones are included. I moved this section up closer to the mother’s statement so it would be connected. You can decide where this next section belongs.

Evolutionary biologists have shown that as a species we adapted in a way that makes us predisposed to want to help our communities, this is part of how Homo Sapiens managed to survive, thrive and to dominate the Neanderthals who never quite managed that level of cooperation with each other. So, this idea isn’t limited to Jews, to be fair, still Kelly, who was leading the ritual, then invited us to close our eyes and think of one word that could encapsulate a spiritual wish for our new year. I closed my eyes and quieted my mind. The only word I could think of was word.

That’s right, a certain kind of what I call, “obtusitude,” a prideful streak of obtuseness, runs in our family as well. Near the end of her life, my mother started calling the hospice rabbi, “Aquaduct,” which makes sense in a certain way so it was hard to tell if she was deliberately referring to the rabbi as a conduit to the source of all life or if her brain function was deteriorating. I noticed I’d passed this trait on to my offspring when my four year old was asked to draw something at a kindergarten evaluation and all the other children in the session drew colorful depictions of rainbows and families holding hands, while my kid refused to use crayons, instead, producing a pencil rendering of “a foot inside a foot.” That drawing hangs in a place of honor on a wall of my home. So, I planned to say, “Word,” on my turn.

One by one, people offered a variety of aspirational type wishes on the order of: ease, mindfulness, and centering. Just once, I’d love for someone to say: “self-deprecating sense of humor”at one of these types of things, alas no one did. Surprising myself, “Elegance” is what popped out of mouth when it was my turn. Elegance? I’ve never considered that a spiritual aspiration but it does connote a sense of ease, mindfulness, centering and another thing I place a high value on: quality footwear. What happened to “word”? Did it strike you that you had changed your mind?

Several days later the furniture I’d shipped from my mother’s apartment arrived at my house. As I gave my neighbor Barbara a tour of she stopped in her tracks in front of a pair of art deco lamps and said, “Elegant.”

For the record, I do not truck in any sort of mystical or “mean to be” type of thinking. After years of losing lucky necklaces, hoarding crystals and visualizing my great jobs and even better parking spots, I kicked that kind of thinking to the curb.

Still, sometimes the random universe gifts us with a reminder of a connection that even if it exists only in our minds, delights us with the promise of stylish shoes that are comfortable enough to run in and that keeps our bond to our ancestors alive.

Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and New York Times bestselling author of I See You Made an Effort, You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up with Jeff Kahn, and Fired!—the book and documentary. Annabelle co-hosted Dinner & a Movie on TBS, and appeared in Dexter, Seinfeld, Oprah, Bill Maher's Real Time, The Today Show, New York Comedy Festival and The Moth Mainstage. She was a regular commentator on NPR and humorist for The Nation.

The First Political Body for Jews

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series.

In order to place the different essays that make up The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 in their historical context, it is important to understand the origins of the organization.

While the WJC formally came into being at its first plenary assembly in Geneva in August 1936, its roots actually lie in an ad hoc body called the Comité des Délégations Juives Auprès de la Conférence de la Paix – the Committee of Jewish Delegations at the Peace Conference – that was formed in 1919 to advocate at the Versailles Peace Conference for minority rights – that is, primarily, Jewish rights – in eastern and central European countries in the aftermath of World War I.

The Comité des Délégations Juives was an anomaly at the time in that it included representatives from Jewish groups in Canada, Eastern Galicia, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, in addition to B’nai Brith and American Jewish organizations such as the newly founded American Jewish Congress and the 13-year old American Jewish Committee.

This was literally the first time that such an umbrella body representing at least a meaningful segment of world Jewry had come into existence.

The participation of the American Jewish Committee in the Comité des Délégations Juives was particularly noteworthy since it was otherwise categorically against any association with other Jewish groups in any endeavor that could be interpreted as an international Jewish politically oriented initiative, as opposed to one that was strictly American and philanthropic in nature.

Following the end of the Peace Conference, the Comité des Délégations Juives remained in existence under the leadership of a prominent Paris-based Russian Zionist named Leo Motzkin, and continued to make representations on behalf of Eastern European Jews before the League of Nations and other international bodies.

At the same time, throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of the founders of the American Jewish Congress, called for the establishment of a world Jewish Congress – over the fierce objections of the American Jewish establishment, in particular the American Jewish Committee.

In August of 1927, 60 delegates from the US, 12 other countries, and Mandatory Palestine gathered in Zurich for what was billed as the World’s Conference on Jewish Rights. Again, the purpose of this conference was to find some means of coordinating efforts to help Jewish minorities in central and eastern European countries where they were being discriminated against if not actively persecuted.

Wise continued his quest for a world Jewish congress over the next several years, as Hitler’s Nazi Party was becoming increasingly powerful in Germany.

In August of 1932, the first of three World Jewish Conferences took place in Geneva, this time with 94 delegates from 17 countries, but without the participation of the American Jewish Committee, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, or the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden, the umbrella body of Germany’s Jewish community. By then, Wise had enlisted a young Russian-born German Zionist leader, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, to organize the event. It was the beginning of a friendship and political association between the two that would last until Wise’s death in 1949.

Two more such world conferences followed, both taking place in Geneva after Hitler’s rise to power.

By the third World Conference in 1934, Wise and Goldmann were planning the formation of a World Jewish Congress, modeled on the American Jewish Congress, as a mechanism to counter Nazi anti-Semitism, and in August of 1936, the WJC formally came into being as an organization.

This was the first time that Jewish leaders from different countries joined together as a decidedly political, rather than philanthropic, body, for the express purpose of representing Jews around the world. And over the following several years, the fledgling organization rapidly became the most outspoken defender of Jewish rights, both publicly and in behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017). Check back on Friday to see more from Menachem Z. Rosensaft.

Header photo credited to the World Jewish Congress.

Taking Jews to the Beach

Tuesday, June 13, 2017 | Permalink

Jamie Brenner, author of  The Forever Summer, is a guest blogger for The Jewish Book Council as a part of the Visiting Scribes series.

A reader recently asked why my latest novels are set in coastal towns and I said, “I guess I wanted to take the Jews to the beach.” I was half joking, but there is some truth to the sentiment. I love beach books—stories about family and love set in beautiful little towns by the ocean. And while I read them voraciously, the truth is, there is very little in the beach town experience depicted in these books that I recognize. It’s not just that there are few, if any, Jews in the stories. It’s more that the novels often center around a charming Cape Cod or Outer Banks cottage that has been in the family for generations, and that’s alien to me.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I spent my summers at the Jersey Shore. My grandparents did not have a beach cottage, they had a condo on the boardwalk. It was the same for my friends and their grandparents. From the terraces, we had views of the beach and of the new casinos sprouting up in Atlantic City. As teenagers, we would meet in the mornings at the beach, then have lunch at one of the cheesesteak and “hoagie” places a few blocks from the water. At night, while our parents hit the casinos, we congregated in the lobby of one of the buildings until a manager shooed us upstairs to our own apartments. It was idyllic to us, but far from the classic backdrop of the books I grew to love.

In my new novel, The Forever Summer, I chose Provincetown, Massachusetts as the setting because it’s beautiful, remote, and unconventional in every way. I realize now I wasn’t ready to write about the Jersey Shore, but I did feel compelled to write about a place that veered at least slightly from the more typical settings in beach novels. The Forever Summer is the story of two young women—one Jewish, one not—who discover they are half sisters and travel to Provincetown to meet the grandmother they never knew they shared. The characters in this story not only find new family, they inherit a true sense of belonging in their grandmother’s quirky beach town.

For my next book, The Husband Hour (coming spring 2018), I returned to Longport, New Jersey. While the stretch of towns from Ventnor to Longport have gone through changes since my summers in the 1980s, I found the character of the shore very much intact. The boardwalk, the cheesesteaks places, the ice cream parlors, the eclectic landmarks like Lucy the Elephant, are still there exactly as I remembered them though my grandparents and their condo are long gone. In The Husband Hour, the Jersey Shore is both the family retreat and the heroine’s escape from the problems of her adult life. For her, as for me, the beach does not represent a generations-old family legacy. Instead, it offers the memory of a simpler moment in time.

Some readers have asked me if I will set future books in the same town, the way some authors return to places like Nantucket or Hilton Head. My answer is no. While I don’t write “Jewish” books, I can’t help but tell stories through a Jewish lens. Maybe it’s because I come from a wandering people, but I prefer to explore a different town in each of my novels. Maybe, some day, one of them will feel like home. But for now, I’m just happy for a view of the ocean.

Jamie Brenner is the author of The Forever Summer, a novel People magazine calls, “A captivating tale of family secrets and strong women.” Jamie’s previous novel, The Wedding Sisters, is in development as a feature film. She lives in New York City with her husband and two teenage daughters. Twitter: @JamieLBrenner; Instagram: @jamiebrennerauthor;

Header image credited to Argos'Dad.