The ProsenPeople

New Reviews October 15, 2018

Monday, October 15, 2018 | Permalink

How the 2016 Election Changed the Plot of my Book

Monday, October 08, 2018 | Permalink

By Katherine Locke

The morning after the 2016 election, I sat on the floor of my bathroom waiting for the shower to warm up, and thought to myself, “I have to get fit. So I can survive the camps.”

It was a devastating thought. I am sitting at my computer writing this for you because my great-grandparents escaped from Eastern Europe. The family members who did not leave perished at Babi Yar. Buchenwald. Dachau. And at other massacres and pogroms throughout Eastern Europe.

The camps have not come for me (yet). But everything else I feared would happen has happened at a more accelerated pace than even my worst nightmares. And for those more marginalized than me—people of color, Muslims, immigrants, Latinos—the effects of the current administration’s policies have been even more severely and swiftly felt. These are facts.

I got off the floor. I showered. I got to work. What else could I do?

At the time, I was writing the second book in my Balloonmakers series. In this series, blood magic becomes a way to free people from places of oppression to places of freedom, starting with the Holocaust. In the first book, The Girl with the Red Balloon, which came out just over two months before the election, a Jewish teenager from our time, Ellie Baum, accidentally time travels to 1988 East Berlin where she’s pulled into a conspiracy of history and magic. How she got there, and the magic that’s being created, is related to how her grandfather escaped a death camp.

The second book, the one I was writing, The Spy with the Red Balloon, was about two Jewish-American siblings, Wolf and Ilse, being pulled into WWII and finding their magic to be an important asset. In my original proposal for this book, neither Ilse nor Wolf knew about their magic at the start of the story. Wolf became a pilot, and Ilse went to Oak Ridge to work on the Manhattan Project. I had Ilse discover her magic at about the same time Wolf was shot down and imprisoned in Berga, a concentration camp where hundreds of Jewish or Jewish suspected American POWs were held.

In another world—the one where Nazis were not praising the president on Twitter, where Jewish community centers weren’t receiving bomb threats, and Muslims were not being banned from entering the country—that’s the version of the book I would have written.

But I didn’t write the book in that world.

I wrote it in ours.

I sat down to write Ilse’s half of the book, and the words came. But every time I needed to write a chapter about Wolf, I froze. I was sick to my stomach. I could not write a concentration camp, or even read about it for research, while I feared being in one, or witnessing others being taken to them.

By late February 2017, I was staring defeat in the eyes. I could smell its breath. It looked like a deadline, and a quarter of a novel that wasn’t working, and a topic I couldn’t even think about. I had to email my agent, and then my editor to say I’m struggling. The book I proposed isn’t the book that I can write, not anymore. I talked with writer friends and came up with a new plot, one that felt doable while tackling the same themes, issues, and relationships as the first plot. It was still about World War II and the Manhattan Project. It was still about siblings. It was still about Wolf and Ilse and the limitations and ambitions of magic users in this world.

But instead of being trapped in a concentration camp, Wolf is now a spy behind enemy lines, stealing Germany’s nuclear secrets and destroying their labs so they can’t build the nuclear bomb first. I gave Wolf the freedom of movement and choice; I gave him the agency to do what I needed to read characters doing. He punches Nazis. He kisses someone he loves, regardless of what society says. He finds himself and who he wants to be in the world despite of, or because of, the conflict and upheaval around him.

I wrote the book I need to read right now, an antidote to the political realities of our time. I wrote about queer Jewish teens fighting for the world they want over the world they live in, about a girl who struggles with the morality of what she’s supposed to be doing and her sense of patriotism, about a boy who is ferociously loyal and single-minded, and believes that principles still have a place in a time of war.

And though I sometimes wonder what the other, alternate-world version of The Spy with the Red Balloon looks like, I am proud of what it became.

Participate in a live Q&A with Katherine on our Instagram story this Wednesday, October 10th, from 12-1pm ET!

Katherine Locke lives and writes in Philadelphia, PA where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She is the author of The Girl with the Red Balloon, a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and 2018 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book. The Spy with the Red Balloon is out now. Katherine can be found online at @bibliogato on Twitter and Instagram, and on her website,

New Reviews October 8, 2018

Monday, October 08, 2018 | Permalink

Jewish Astronauts and Nazi Scientists

Wednesday, October 03, 2018 | Permalink

By Tom Seigel

It was 2003, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, had died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. I was struck, as I’m sure many were, by the fact that both Ramon and Judith Resnik, the first Jewish American in space, suffered the same terrible fate in two separate shuttle accidents. It felt like more than just a sad coincidence or very bad luck. It felt like an atavistic curse: “Let there be no escape.” In one of those ineffable moments of unconscious thought we might call inspiration, I remembered the MS St. Louis, the German ocean liner that, in 1939, carried Jewish refugees from port to port in desperate search of safe harbor from the growing menace in Europe. Instead of finding the welcoming light of the Statue of Liberty, they found the golden door slammed shut by the dark and bigoted immigration policies of the era. For many of those refugees, the denial of entry was a death warrant. No escape, no shelter. Into this swirl of reflection flashed the scene from The Ten Commandments where Joshua (John Derek) learns that Moses (Charlton Heston) will not lead his people across the Jordan River. God’s punishment: You may gaze upon the promised land but may never enter.

Escaping, wandering, the eternal (and perhaps impossible) return home, and the elusiveness of sanctuary—all of these concepts coalesced in my mind. Then the notion that “flight” contained elements of both adventure and escape took hold. If the exodus story can serve as a metaphor for liberation of the oppressed, could the unique, peripatetic story of the Jews serve as a metaphor for the future of humanity in space? Are we exploring the cosmos as mere intellectual pastime or because we know that another exodus will be needed?

It was more than enough to get me started. To that oft-quoted, endlessly interpreted mantra “write what you know,” I would add this variation: Write what won’t go. I was hooked. I began devouring books on the history and future of space exploration, which led me to the whitewashed past of Operation Paperclip, the United States military’s recruitment of German rocket engineers and scientists after World War II. In the last decade, several excellent nonfiction books have been published exposing the details of this secret program. Though frequently described as innocent bystanders during the war, some of our prominent Third Reich recruits—who ended up as leaders at NASA—were Nazi party members, SS officers, and in some cases, likely war criminals.

In my novel, The Astronaut's Son, Jonathan Stein, an Israeli American and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, attempts reconciliation of the past and the future in a very personal way as he prepares to travel to the moon at the dawn of the twenty-first century. His father, an Israeli fighter pilot specially chosen for the fictitious Apollo 18 crew, died mysteriously two days before launch. It was the early 1970s, when the Operation Paperclip Nazi rocket engineers, like Wernher von Braun, were still alive and working at NASA. Was there foul play? Did his father die as the last, belated victim of the Shoah? Or was he cursed? Did the curse of no escape dictate his father’s death? When Jonathan receives the diagnosis of a heart condition at the book’s open, he fears that the ancestral curse has been passed down and that the moon will likewise remain beyond his reach. Jonathan wrestles with ghosts, hoping to end the multi-generational hex, and, in that struggle, asks himself what sacrifices can and should be made for the sake of not just technological but moral progress.

How much gravity must be left behind to reach escape velocity? What ballast is needed to keep our trajectory true? Space may be a blank slate, an unpromised frontier of unknown potential, but we always bring baggage, every ship both ark and archive. We’ve sent probes into deep space with universal messages of math, music and language meant to communicate, but when we humans go forth to our next home, we will carry with us those things we want to preserve. The struggle of how to balance the weight of the past with the weightlessness and limitlessness of space consumes Jonathan as we follow him on an emotional trek to the stars.

Tom Seigel has served as both Deputy Chief and Chief of the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn, prosecuting members and associates of La Cosa Nostra. After twenty years as a litigator, Tom earned an MFA in fiction writing. The Astronaut's Son is his debut novel.

New Reviews October 1, 2018

Monday, October 01, 2018 | Permalink

Finding a Portable Homeland in Yiddish

Friday, September 28, 2018 | Permalink

After my mother died, I realized I needed to study Yiddish.

My mother didn’t actually speak Yiddish, but she peppered her conversation with Yiddish words. In the kitchen: “Hand me that shisl (bowl).” At the window on a rainy day: “A pliukhe (downpour)!” On the phone: “The woman’s a makhesheyfe (witch).”

When my mother died, I missed these words laden with heritage. (My father, though a great lover of all things Jewish, had been raised a Christian and couldn’t help.) Bereft of my mom, and wanting a way to maintain my connection to my Jewish forebears, I went looking for a beginners’ class in the language once heard in kitchens, lanes, marketplaces, and union halls on both sides of the Atlantic. Yiddish became my home within Jewish culture.

When I became a translator from Yiddish into English, I learned that Yiddish had a long history as a portable homeland for writers. In the words of the scholar Sebastian Schulman, Yiddish literature is “a truly transnational republic of letters, a body of texts that since its earliest days has been written, read, and sung across political boundaries.”

Sholem Aleichem was only one Yiddish writer who made a conscious choice to write in mame-loshn (mother tongue). Another was Yenta Mash (1922-2013), a little-known giant among Yiddish women writers whose work I’ve translated and collected in On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018).

Mash is a master chronicler of exile. Her characters are always on their way to or from somewhere, always arriving or departing. Her work is urgently relevant today, as displaced people seek refuge across the globe. I put her alongside Jhumpa Lahiri, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and André Aciman for her keen insights into the experience of migration, assimilation, and resilience.

Gripping, honest, and somehow inspiring, no matter how grim the setting, Mash’s stories draw heavily on her own life—a life disrupted by repeated uprootings.

Born and raised in a small town, or shtetl, in the southeastern region of Europe once known as Bessarabia (today Moldova, east of Romania), Mash was deported to Siberia by the Soviets at the beginning of World War II. Though her exile saved her from the fate of Jews murdered by the Nazis, she suffered extreme hunger and privation during her seven years of hard labor. In 1948 she returned to Soviet Moldova, where she worked as a bookkeeper—and did not write—for three decades, before immigrating to Israel in the 1970s. There, finally, her words came pouring out, and received immediate acclaim. She published four volumes of short stories, appeared in Yiddish journals throughout the world, and received several literary prizes.

Those prizes were well deserved. Mash tells us much that we didn’t know about little-explored corners of Jewish experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and she does so in a richly elaborated literary style that is full of the friction of disparate cultures rubbing elbows.

As her characters struggle to adapt to new circumstances—whether in a harsh labor camp, in the postwar Soviet system, or in the not-always-friendly land of Israel—Mash portrays the most harrowing circumstances in meticulous detail. At the same time, though, she makes clear, as one critic wrote, that even “under hellish conditions, goodness and beauty can exist under the same roof. Often a kind of special illumination seems to shine forth out of that pitiless darkness.”

We see relationships forged, inner strength called upon, and a ceaseless wrestling with God. Mash’s characters keep the faith in their own way. They don’t stop believing, but neither do they let the Almighty off the hook for his many missteps.

When Mash arrived in Israel, her new land was hardly welcoming toward Yiddish, which was seen as an emblem of European oppression. Yet, like Sholem Aleichem and many others before her, Mash remained stubbornly loyal to her native tongue.

“Yiddish is my language,” she said. “In Yiddish I feel at home.”

Ellen Cassedy, the translator of On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash (2018), received a PEN/Heim translation grant and a Hadassah Brandeis Institute fellowship for her work on Mash. She was the co-translator, with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016), awarded the Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize.

New Reviews September 24, 2018

Monday, September 24, 2018 | Permalink

An Interview with Tamara Faith Berger

Thursday, September 20, 2018 | Permalink

Tamara Faith Berger’s latest novel, Queen Solomon, is a dark coming-of-age story that follows a disturbed teenage narrator during the summer his family hosts an Ethiopian Jewish girl from Israel, and the enduring influence that summer has on him. It’s a challenging book that tackles, among other issues, racism in the Jewish diaspora, the legacy of Israel’s aliyah operations, and the fluidity of victimhood.

Berger talked to the Jewish Book Council about the impact that learning about Ethiopian Jews had on her as a pre-teen, the tradition of crass Jewish comics, and what she hopes readers will take away from the book.

Natalie Aflalo: Do you consider the books you write to be “Jewish books”?

Tamara Faith Berger: Queen Solomon is my first seriously Jewish book. There is maybe a Jewish sensibility that I tapped into in my previous books, but Queen Solomon is the first book where I’m dealing with Jewish topics, Jewish themes, Jewish marginalia . . . I think it’s because I’d never really allowed myself to fully go into everything I wanted to say about Jewishness before.

I see the Jewish sensibility in my books as being somewhat in the tradition of the crass, male comic— like Lenny Bruce, and maybe also kind of Philip Roth-ian, this sort of urge and desire to say everything and get it all out. And I know that there’s a female tradition of this as well: Sarah Silverman, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer . . . I think it’s just Jewish in general: this comic, crass tendency.

NA: How did you come up with the premise for Queen Solomon?

TFB: I first heard about Ethiopian Jews when I was in about grade seven or eight, when Operation Moses had recently happened. A girl in my class did a presentation on the Falashas, as they were called back then. I think that just the awareness that Black Jews existed made a huge impression on me as a twelve-year-old. It probably appealed to my pre-teen sensibility—this sort of romanticism, in a way, of Jews being in Ethiopia and being "rescued" by Israel. In the pictures I remember people all garbed in white, leaving the plane, and kissing the tarmac . . . It really made a strong impression on me because I grew up in a very particular class of Jewish people—very monoculture, very Ashkenaz. My experience of Judaism was not multicultural or multiethnic.

My interest in Operation Solomon was rekindled when I started reading about what has been happening in Israel over the last ten or so years in terms of non-Jewish African refugees.

NA: Can you talk about writing the dialogue between the narrator’s parents? They have these really opposing ideas about Israelthe father is very defensive of Israel, of Jews, of the IDF, and the mother has a much more critical approach.

TFB: Once I started, those were probably some of the most fun things to write in the book, because it’s crazy how opposing views are about Israel in any given Jewish community. I mean, it’s exaggerated in my book, but I’ve heard all of it. There is a comedic element to the Israel commentary that goes on within the family which aims to get at the uncomfortable truth of just how irreconcilable the sides seem to be.

NA: The narrator of Queen Solomon is really interested in the writings of Ka-Tzetnik 135633, and wants to write his master’s thesis about his work. What is the significance of Ka-Tzetnik to you? Reading about his work I definitely see some parallels to your writing: intends to shock, depicts perverse sexuality, etc.

TFB: I found House of Dolls, Ka-Tzetnik’s most famous book, at a garage sale. The book was a sensation when it first came out in 1955. It was the first Holocaust novel and was marketed as based on the diary of a girl (Ka-Tzetnik’s sister) who had been forced into prostitution in Auschwitz. The book was thought of simultaneously as a novel and as "testimony." Somehow this tension co-existed without conflict until much more recently. As I describe in Queen Solomon, House of Dolls has this very titillating cover of a woman ripping open her prison shirt and showing the number tattooed on her chest along with the name "Feld Hure," which means "field whore." It’s a very shocking image on purpose. It’s meant to sell. But ironically, House of Dolls is hard to read because it’s not very titillating! It’s about the Nazis taking over a Polish city, it’s about a way of life being destroyed, it’s about being taken to a concentration camp in a cattle car, it’s about losing your family members, with a little bit about being a sexual slave in Auschwitz and a female Nazi guard. It’s a really sad, dense book of pulp. Anyway, I am fascinated by the blurred-genre phenomenon of House of Dolls and the biography of Ka-Tzetnik. I actually think his best book is his last one, Shivitti: A Vision, which I also talk about in Queen Solomon. It’s basically about him doing LSD therapy in Amsterdam in the ‘70s to try to cure his PTSD (which was called Concentration Camp Syndrome). The book is a powerful, sickly, totally unique document of Ka-Tzetnik’s treatment and his hallucinations.

I relate to a lot of different things in Ka-Tzetnik’s books, especially this deep desire to tell about trauma, which ends up as this sort of slippery slope or slippery feeling between fact and fiction, between pleasure and pain, between telling everything that you know, and becoming a hermit—feeling mute, and shutting it up and shutting it all away.

NA: That slipperiness can be really controversial when thinking about the Holocaust, right?

TFB: Yes, it’s a really controversial thing to talk about the notion of what is truth and what is fiction as it relates to the Holocaust. But there actually is a literary tradition among Holocaust survivors who were artists—and Ka-tzetnik was a writer before he was at Auschwitz—making some kind of fiction about their experience. It’s perhaps a small and marginal contingent who understand that fiction and fictionalizing is a fertile place to deal with trauma. I’m interested in the idea of traumatized people/survivors writing fiction and transgressing notions of what’s "true," what's "real." I mean, we’re still constantly asking writers, traumatized or not, about what’s real and what’s not real in their work; the question is not new. As it relates to tragic historical events, it’s a challenge—it’s challenging of the reader, mostly, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with challenging readers.

NA: Throughout the book, you explore the idea of Jews as victims and as saviors, as well as perpetrators or abusers. Can you talk about that?

TFB: I’m actually reading this book right now about anxiety in the novels of Philip Roth, and your question is basically this guy’s thesis. He argues that, thematically, so much of Roth’s oeuvre is about this dual or competing anxiety between being a victim and being a perpetrator, and he calls this a very Jewish anxiety. Obviously there’s a huge history of Jews being victims, and a lot more recently there’s this anxiety about whether you're a Jewish perpetrator.

I'm exploring this slippery continuum of the (notably) white, male savior slash anti-savior—someone who causes harm and at the same time is trying to do good in the world. It’s a really intense conflict that seems to shoot between the past and the present, and I think that I feel it psychologically, too. I mean, I know that I am implicated in this really twisted system of Jewish perpetration on one side and acknowledging the history of Jewish victimization, on the other.

NA: What do you hope Jewish people who read this book will take away from it?

TFB: Jewish people will have to tell me what they take away from it. But I think in general, it’s a provocation to open, to see more, to see the inequities happening in front of our faces.

Natalie Aflalo is the Jewish Book Council's digital content manager.

New Reviews September 17, 2018

Monday, September 17, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews September 9, 2018

Sunday, September 09, 2018 | Permalink