The ProsenPeople

Emojis and Exodus: An Interview with Martin Bodek

Friday, April 19, 2019 | Permalink

with Ada Brunstein

The trials of the bloody, insect-ridden, watery exodus from Egypt have been told and retold in languages across the globe, yet Martin Bodek has found a new way to tell them: with emojis. His beautifully produced haggadah, written entirely with emojis, is a pictorial translation of the English version. I interviewed Bodek over email to get a glimpse of the method behind the meshuggaas.

Ada Brunstein: An all-emoji haggadah—how did this idea spring to mind? Did it come to you in a dream? Was it whispered through the ancestral grapevine?

Martin Bodek: It did not come from dreams within.

It did not come from grapey skin.

It did not spring into my mind.

No, this is how the tale unwinds:

My family always dresses up for Purim, and thus far, as the kids are still young, we’re themed. Our shalach manot follow along with the theme as well, and I always create a little ditty to include in them.

Two years ago, we dressed up as emojis, and we put in all manner of smiley-face stuff in the shalach manot. When it came time to devise the usual poem, I got a little stuck. However, what I settled on doing was drafting the Book of Esther into an emoji synopsis.

When I stepped back from my creation, the first thought that came to mind was, “Hmmm, how could I flesh this out on a large scale?” The full Esther is not what came to mind. Rather, the haggadah flashed instantly, and I got immediately to work.

AB: How long did it take you and what made you persevere through the whole thing (as opposed to, say, doing the four questions and leaving it at that)?

MB: Firstly, Martin Bodek finishes what he starts. There is no, “Well at least you showed up” in my personal philosophy. You’ve got to see things through to the end. This one of the values I try to instill in my children. I won’t even quit board games before they’re officially over.

Secondly, I knew I was brewing something interesting, so that kept me going.

Thirdly, I had self-published five books prior to finding a publisher with this one. I had to keep persevering because I had a feeling that could be my big break. And if not? Then the energy poured into it would be lesson-learning for me. Go big or go home. I choose to go big—or at least, to go all the way.

AB: What were the most challenging sections and why?

MB: The most challenging sections were those filled with conjunctions and prepositions. Words like “but,” “or,” “nor,” and “the” are completely missing from the emoji set, and when certain sections were heavy with them, I felt I might lose some meaning. In the “How To Read” guide at the end of the book, I do my best to explain this difficulty, and hopefully make it easier to relay to the reader how this is properly to be read.

AB: What was your process for searching for fitting emojis?

MB: Originally, with the self-published version, I’d put’s haggadah up on screen, and another tab with I’d then insert the next word up, pop it into the emoji site, and see what comes up, or whatever is close, or use another word that might stand in. For example, the word “first.” I’d type in “one,” see what comes up. Then I’d type in “1” see what comes up. Then I’d try “first.” Ooh, gold medal. That’s the one, and that’s probably the simplest of all. It got much more complicated than that.

Now, for the published version, you must first understand a pivotal moment in the creation of the book. Here’s a very long story, very short:

I submitted the final manuscript to the publisher. The publisher went to print. The publisher said it didn’t render properly. I would have to use a completely different emoji set, and I had ten days to deadline. I was overseas at the time. I returned, spent a day working out how I was going to interact with the new emoji set, the plug-ins, and drivers, and whatnot. I then rewrote the entire book in six days, after the original took me two years. I did not sleep. After a thirteen-hour typing day, I was done, just in time to watch the end of the Super Bowl, which was tied 0-0 at the time, so I missed nothing.

Now with that, I did the same thing: inserted a phrase, saw what came up, found another creative way of phrasing if that didn’t work, and so on.

AB: What were the linguistic parameters you used? Do the emojis represent Hebrew or English text? Do they represent words or sounds or phrases?

MB: I used a large toolset, but I also first started with the simplest translation. The translation itself is directly from the English. My first choice was always to find an emoji that was a direct translation. If I couldn’t find that, I went with an emoji combo. If I couldn’t find that, I’d try a pun. I did not allow myself to get stuck. I had to come up with something for everything. Human names were the hardest. Place names were the easiest—the emoji set is filled with flags.

AB: Can you give an example of a word or phrase you struggled with, along with the different emoji candidates you grappled with before deciding on the final one?

MB: An example comes to mind easily: “field.” There is no field emoji. What was I going to use for field? I went with the emoji for “field hockey,” and prayed that people would get it.

When I started working on the published 2.0 version, this emoji wasn’t there (as a matter of fact, the new set I was working with was fully 1,500 emojis short of the original Apple set I worked with). I went with the emoji for a baseball stadium. That’s known as a field! Perfect—but wait! The plug-in was buggy, and wouldn’t insert it. So I finally went with the emoji that looks like a meadow, my tertiary option. Similar things happened a lot, but that one stands out.

AB: What’s your favorite emoji that you used in the haggadah?

MB: For some strange reason, my favorite was Rabbi Gamliel. Why? Because all other names were mostly literal translations of the name. For example, Yaakov means “heel,” so I put in the shoe emoji. Eliezer means “help of God,” so I put in the SOS emoji, and my symbol for God. Easy.

But what does Gamliel even mean?

I went with a rebus! The game (console) emoji, the Mali flag, and an elf. Smoosh it all together and you have Game+Mali+Elf. Said quickly, it sounds mostly right. I just amused myself to death with that one.

AB: Writing an all-emoji haggadah is pretty out-of-the-box thinking. Have you thought about what other ways there might be of telling this particular story?

MB: I’ll leave that to everyone else I’m trying to leap over in the Amazon rankings. There is an abundance of original haggadahs, several of which I purchased this year, and there’s no end to the creativity on display. I’m just glad I have my part in it all.

AB: You work in technology. Are there ways in which you can imagine tech changing the way we interact with ritualistic texts? (Imagine a guy just like you, fifty years from now. What kind of haggadah is he writing?)

MB: He’s writing an abbreviated version of it, because we are increasingly moving towards getting our information in the shortest form, and in the quickest conduit possible. We have entire websites dedicated to showing you moving clips that are a maximum of seven seconds long. We have a cute movement to define everything in our lives in exactly six words. Whatever it will be, it will be shorter.

The above commentary was highly influenced by a book I’m currently reading called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It is the wisest book ever written. He is the first son.

AB: What’s your next project?

MB: I’m wondering myself. Once the mania in my life dies down from all the love and attention my book is getting, I’m going to focus on making this decision. The Book of Esther? Do I revisit that? Song of Songs? Metaphor version? Non-metaphor version? Genesis? The Bible? I think I’ll conduct a Facebook poll and see what comes out.

On the non-emoji front, I am currently penning and translating my grandfathers’ memoirs. Both led extraordinary lives, which are worth telling.

Now that I have a relationship with Ktav publishing house, many doors have opened for me. I’ll put myself out into the wind, and see in which direction it will send me.

New Reviews April 8, 2019

Monday, April 08, 2019 | Permalink
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New Reviews April 1, 2019

Monday, April 01, 2019 | Permalink

A Conversation Between Amy Feltman and Hilary Zaid

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 | Permalink

When Hilary Zaid’s Paper Is White opens in 1997, Holocaust oral historian Ellen Margolis and her girlfriend decide to get married despite the fact that same-sex marriage was not yet legal in the United States. Ellen's search for a blessing leads her into a complicated relationship with a wily survivor of the Kaunas Ghetto, a woman in search of a blessing of her own.

Amy Feltman’s Willa & Hesper also focuses on the relationship between two women—in this case, two MFA students who meet one night in Brooklyn. The two quickly fall in love—but when Willa starts to know Hesper too well, Hesper shuts her out. Escaping the relationship, she follows her fractured family back to her grandfather’s hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia. Meanwhile, heartbroken Willa joins a group trip for Jewish twenty-somethings to visit Holocaust sites in Germany and Poland. When this experience proves to be more fraught than home, she must come to terms with her past-the ancestral past, her romantic past, and the past that can lead her forward.

The two authors discuss each other’s books, writing about the Holocaust at a generational remove, faith and assimilation, and the emotional pull of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List.

Hilary Zaid: One might call Willa & Hesper an anti-romance, structured as it is on the aftermath of a relationship between two young women, who then go on to search for their individual histories. In certain ways, your protagonist Willa reminds me of the protagonist of Paper is White, Ellen Margolis, an oral historian of the Holocaust. In particular, both of these women grow up in emphatically assimilated Jewish homes. "It's fine to be a Jew," Ellen's mother likes to tell her, "but you don't have to make a career out of it." Likewise, Willa remembers her mother's warning: "We're not those kind of Jews . . . You don't need to be a fanatic about it." Both Ellen and Willa have Jewish identities that develop in contrast to this assimilationist impulse. I think Willa's journey in particular reflects a drive toward faith. Do you think that's accurate and can you say more about where that comes from?

Amy Feltman: For a writer, it’s interesting to examine the generation once-removed from a genocide or similarly large-scale traumatic event. We assume that survivors of the Holocaust would have a complicated relationship with faith, and that their children would be raised with the impulse to “pass” and assimilate no matter what. Now, American Jews are sufficiently removed from that trauma to have to reckon with what's lost in the process of assimilation as well as what their ancestors' faith looked like, and whether it can be accessible in some form today.

I started this book with some of those issues rattling around in my subconscious, but mostly I wrote from a personal vantage point to start. Willa's relationship to G-d and to her Jewish identity are closely aligned with my own. There have definitely been points in my life where I felt less connected to faith and Jewishness, and the loss of that connection felt lonely and alienating. Even though Willa is in love in the beginning of my book, she's also trying to jump-start the relationship she used to have with G-d and the harder she tries, the more she doubts it. I wanted Willa's journey to be about all of these different pieces of herself—personal trauma, inherited trauma, the beauty and heartache of a short-lived relationship—and laying them out into a mosaic, so to speak.

AF: How about you? When you began writing Ellen's character, how did you form her relationship to faith and cultural identity? Were there any specific texts or experiences that you had in mind?

HZ: I think, in every generation, there is usually one person in a family who is interested in the past, who wants to understand the stories. Within her assimilated, twentieth-century Jewish family, Ellen Margolis is that person (to her mother’s consternation!), and a significant part of what draws her to the Jewish past is the silence that surrounds it. Her desire to plumb the unspoken leads her to her work with Holocaust survivors. We read a lot of historical novels that attempt to give us a picture of the past. I wanted to write a novel about what it means to live in the aftermath of history and to live with not knowing, which is the situation for most of us.

Ellen’s interest in her Jewish identity isn’t only about the past. She and her partner, Francine, are planning a wedding. The year is 1997, and in the absence of legal marriage, Ellen and Francine seek legitimacy in the rituals of the Jewish wedding. They both feel a solid connection to a Jewish identity, and they want to take part in a tradition that connects them to thousands of years of Jewish history. Ellen’s question is not one of faith, but of belonging.

HZ: What about Willa? Willa is a young woman who falls in love with another young woman, who imagines a wedding cake and children. But, when she sees an Orthodox couple on the subway, Willa is stricken with shame. She seems deeply conflicted about the relationship between her sexuality and her faith, even asking a rabbi whether it is possible to be both lesbian and Jewish. I admit, I found these passages both surprising and painful--painful because, like Willa’s willingness to be presumed heterosexual for the length of a Jewish young adult roots trip, they reminded me of a time not long ago when gay men and lesbians lived lives of fear in the closet, a time I lived through. And surprising, because, twenty years after the women of my generation were chanting in the streets and blazing a path toward marriage equality, Willa (and to a degree, Hesper as well) are still struggling to claim their place in the world. What’s happening for them?

AF: Willa is dividing the world into safe spaces and unsafe spaces throughout the whole book, hedging about whether people will accept her. In some cases, she worries about being accepted because of her queerness, and in others, she worries about her faith marking her as different. Nowadays, when you live in a generally accepting environment in a liberal city, sometimes you assume that everyone accepts you, and you can get snapped back into this reality when you remember that not everyone does. I wanted to explore that, because it’s such a recent phenomenon that a queer person might automatically be accepted by everyone. One of the people whom Willa fears rejection from the most is a religious figure, and I wanted that to be there because if you’re religious, that community is who you seek acceptance from the most. When a religious authority figure rejects you, it’s not just one person rejecting you. It feels like a whole community turning against you. For Hesper, the stakes are much lower because she sees herself as an individual, and doesn’t crave acceptance from a particular group.

AF: I found the setting of your book interesting. You mentioned your experiences in the ‘90s. Could you talk more about why you decided to set the book in that time and place?

HZ: I think you are so right about the assumptions people make about where we are in terms of acceptance, and that this is something that is still changing—not always in a forward direction. That’s something I needed to address in Paper is White as a novel about marriage equality set in the 1990s, but published in 2018, when that concept had shifted so radically. I would like to say that I “chose” to set the novel in 1997, but the time really presented itself, in part, if you can believe it, because I wrote the very first little pieces of the novel then. In retrospect, the ‘90s were such a hopeful time in American history, a time of a great paradigm shift in LGBTQ history, and the novel, for that reason, has become a historical novel about the grassroots of marriage equality. At the time I was writing, I was also thinking of the ‘90s as a fraught, transitional point in our understanding of the Holocaust because survivors were starting to become very old and that living history to feel so fragile. As a writer, I’m interested in what it means to be alive on this planet right now, and one of the interesting things about having written a novel set in the not-too-distant past is appreciating, through it, how much has changed so quickly,in something as seemingly fixed as the setting. The Bay Area of 1997 is worlds away, now, from the Bay Area of 2019, and I miss it!

HZ: This leads me to a question I had about the relationship between Willa and history. You’ve mentioned the importance of the distance Willa’s generation has from the traumas of her grandparents and parents. I was struck when Willa describes a traumatic moment from her own past: when she is a child, a Hebrew school teacher yells at her for wearing a red coat. Because the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List died. It seems the little girl in the movie about the Holocaust has become a proxy for the Holocaust itself.

AF: That’s such an interesting way to view that memory. To be honest, I included that scene because it happened to me when I was in Hebrew school; I was about eight or nine, and I loved that red coat. I was completely unprepared for the teacher’s response when I came into that room. One reason I have Willa recall the incident in dialogue, rather than showing it in flashback, was that I don’t remember the details super clearly—only the refrain of her yelling, It will happen again.

Now, I think about what it must be like to feel such an intense burden of responsibility about teaching the past to generations who will grow up detached from it. What would drive a person to tell a room full of third- and fourth-graders that another genocide is right around the corner. She must have felt so strongly that she needed to warn us of that danger.

When I thought about Willa’s connection to the past, and how in some ways it leaves her spinning in this kind of liminal space between honoring those who came before her and masochistically retracing their steps, this memory seemed to fit really nicely. When Willa relates this traumatic memory, it’s to a group of strangers during an icebreaker. I wanted to choose a really squirmy moment for her to say this because it highlights her difference from the others in the group right away. She isn’t speaking the same language as the other participants in the Jewish young adult tour group. Later, Willa’s candor and vulnerability set the scene for her friendship with Bren, who ends up being a real source of emotional support for her. I loved writing their friendship, and I wanted to have someone in the narrative who views Willa’s faith as something admirable, if mysterious.

AF: What did you have in mind as you wrote the trauma in Paper is White? Ellen’s work as an oral historian allows for such candid conversations about the events of the 1930s and ‘40s. I was particularly struck by one observation by a Holocaust survivor early on in the book, who says: “These young people are very shy, very timid about the past.” I notice that in Ellen’s interviews, these events are often detailed in blunt, matter-of-fact tones. I wondered if that stylistic choice was influenced by that idea of confronting trauma? What sorts of things did you have in mind when developing the voice of this story?

HZ: There are so many ways to respond to what happens to us, including silence, including telling our stories. I wanted, above all, through this novel to explore the question about the impact of staying silent about our experience and not to answer that question in any definitive way, but to see the ways in which silence can be a tool of survival for some—like Elizabeth Landau, the character you just mentioned—and a very destructive force, as it was for Ellen’s dissertation advisor, Annie Talbot. Elizabeth Landau is a survivor who has come to a point in her life in which she decides it is time to tell her story,and from that point on, there’s no holding her back. That’s true of the real person who inspired that character, a Holocaust survivor named Lucille Eichengreen who spoke to an undergraduate English class I taught at UC Berkeley, and who wrote her own memoir about her experiences. I think that bluntness is a tool of survival. At the same time, we learn that Elizabeth and her husband (not based on Lucille’s life), also a survivor, never spoke to each other about their experiences during the war. And Elizabeth’s sister, like Lucille’s real sister, fainted when she saw commercials for Schindler’s List.

HZ: Speaking of the intergenerational transmission of trauma . . . Your novel is about two young women who have a familiar history of genocide. Hesper, Willa’s ex-girlfriend, discovers on a family roots trip to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia that her grandfather escaped as a child from a genocide in northern Europe and that what everyone thought was his birth family in fact were the people who rescued him. One of the novel’s threads is the discovery of Hesper’s family history. Given that the novel has sent these two women on separate paths, what was your plan in giving them these parallel histories, and are they a reflections of or foils for each other? Also, I have encountered readers who complain that stories about the Holocaust elevate it above other tragedies, or somehow give the upper hand on loss to the Jews.Did you feel like it was important to reflect that there are other genocides in the world?

AF: Hesper’s family history was something that came along later in the game as I was working on the novel. I knew that I wanted her grandfather to be from a former Soviet country, and that he’d escaped when the rest of his family had not, but the details of their family history came together relatively late in her character development. For Willa, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust was very out in the open, although shrouded in silence. Since Willa was very young, it’s been known that this atrocity happened, and if she had been born a few decades earlier in a different part of the world, she would’ve died in the Holocaust. At least, that’s how she’s thought of it-- that her survival is purely by chance. For Hesper, the revelation that her grandfather escaped from a genocide is a complete surprise. Hesper hasn’t ever considered her life as a stroke of luck, or had to think about fighting for survival being a part of her family history. The end of the book finds Hesper grappling with the past and starting to tackle this darkness, but not really having an idea how to go about it. The last words of Hesper’s story are “in a language that wasn’t mine.” I meant that literally—she’s piecing together words in Georgian through Google Translate—but also figuratively, that Hesper is learning to see history through a lens that she never had to access before, and she’ll have to reckon with that past and what it means to her and to her family.

To answer the last part of your question, yes, it was important to me to reflect the other genocides that have happened in the world besides the Holocaust. I’ve also heard that opinion discussed and I find it compelling. I tried to inject moments of that awareness in Willa’s narrative, too.

AF: I would love to hear about what influenced Paper is White. What were you reading (or watching/listening to/thinking about) while you worked on this project? Were there any voices in particular that shaped Ellen’s world?

HZ: Most directly, this novel project was influenced by the death of my grandmother. I was very close to her growing up, and she was the person in my family who held the history. She was a Hadassah Woman of the Year and the only person in my family who still went to Shabbat services. I wanted to write a novel that memorialized my love for her and was about something I thought would be meaningful to her, which is Jewish survival. At the time these seeds began to germinate, I was a graduate student studying English Romantic poetry. My undergraduate education, too, focused on poetry, and, formally, the rhythms of lyric poetry are strong influences for my work. Milton’s Paradise Lost is an influence here and, above all, the Wordsworthian conception of time, which was also the topic of my doctoral dissertation. For the last few years, I’ve been thinking about surveillance capitalism, and my current novel project takes that as its plot.

HZ: What about you? What are you working on next?

AF: I’ve been working on a new novel for a few years now and it’s been a messy, chaotic process so far, very unlike how Willa & Hesper was in the early stages. The new novel is a family drama about addiction, redemption, trauma, and Internet friendships. The novel begins (at least right now) with one of the protagonists being led from their high school after a classmate brings a gun in his backpack, but it’s confiscated. So right from the start, there’s this tension escalating between what almost happened and how to move past that jolt of thwarted danger, and whether that ever leaves you. I’m interested in exploring issues of gender and class in this book, too. After writing such a personal book, I’m trying to get away from myself a bit with this one, though you can only run so far!

New Reviews March 25, 2019

Monday, March 25, 2019 | Permalink

New Reviews March 18, 2019

Monday, March 18, 2019 | Permalink

Writing a Cosmology of the Gilded Age

Thursday, March 14, 2019 | Permalink

By Na'amit Sturm Nagel

It’s rare to find a book that combines Victorian literature and Jewish literature, the two genres I love most, so I consider Rosellen Brown’s Lake on Fire to be a great gift. While the writing is fresh and new, Brown draws on older structures and stories to create layers of depth. The novel, which takes place at the end of the nineteenth century, contains undertones of Sholem Aleichem and nods to the flawed concept of the American Dream.

Na’amit Sturm Nagel: The Lake on Fire not only takes place in the Victorian era but reads like a Victorian novel. Was that intentional? Did any Victorian writers or books inspire you?

Rosellen Brown: Yes, the style of it is very nineteenth-century. It has long, intricate sentences, unlike my other books. People have compared it to other novels of the time, which is very nice. I really tried to write the book in a style compatible with the time I was writing about.

One book which inspired The Lake on Fire is Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie—a miserably written book, but fascinating and a great story. I was looking for an epigraph for The Lake on Fire and came across this wonderful sentence in the book: “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.”

NSN: Can you speak to the idea of your novel as a fairy tale? While, as a whole, the book seems anti-fairy tale, the characters still have their own versions of fairy tale endings. Were you trying to create a new form of a fairy tale?

RB: That kind of lurked in the background. The girl arrives from the cinders, the ashes, and actually does end up in the palace. But the difference is she doesn’t strive for it, it just happens. If you want to tell a realistic Cinderella story, maybe this is the way it would go. There’s a big difference between someone who actively pursues their fairy tale ending, like Sister Carrie, and someone to whom it happens.

One other book that influenced me is I Belong to the Working Class by Rose Pastor Stokes, a Russian immigrant journalist who married a railroad heir. It was publicized in the papers as a Cinderella marriage. I just thought, That’s too simple. That’s not what real life is really like.

NSN: Do you see The Lake on Fire as a Jewish book?

RB: Well, yes and no. I kind of blew my cover as a Jewish writer with this book. Although there have been Jewish characters in my other books, it has not been the major thrust.

Chaya is a secular Jew; she marries a man who isn’t Jewish—it bothers her but not enough to not marry him. She’s not religious like some of the Orthodox people on the farm. I see it as a Jewish book, but up to a point. I really wanted it to be more than that. You never write about one thing.

NSN: There have been all these discussions about how people don’t want to be considered Jewish authors—Philip Roth, for example. Do you consider yourself a Jewish author?

RB: To a certain extent every writer wants to be considered as just a writer—it sort of goes without saying. But I don’t see why you can't ride two horses at the same time.

NSN: What kind of research did you do for this book?

RB: The stuff about the Columbian Exposition is easy if you live in Chicago. Anyone with forebears who go back a few generations has some souvenir from the fair. Twenty-three million people went to it! In terms of knowing how to make characters sound like they’re from the period they live in, I read novels.

NSN: What or who was the inspiration for the character of Asher?

RB: I don’t know where he came from. He just lit down on the page like something with wings and said, “Here I am.” I guess I realized I needed some sort of foil for Chaya.

I have no idea why it occurred to me that he would be this little genie, this little imp that isn’t quite real. I first wrote him as a five-year-old. He was a real magical realist kind of character and a good friend said to me, “He can’t be five. Make him older.” He’s still a little unreal. He’s very smart and a little strange and a little obtuse.WhenI aged him he didn’t lose too much of his fascination with language.

Someone recently was very excited about how on the first or second page he tells his mother that her breast milk is curdled. I sort of started with that, and it gave me the idea that he was going to be this wunderkind who had all of this language on the brain. A lot of people prefer Asher to Chaya; they find her tiresome but they like him.

NSN: You’ve been writing novels about complicated American family dynamics for years, and this book is no exception. How do you see The Lake on Fire as different from, and how is it similar to, your past work?

RB: Both its language and the setting are so completely different from my previous books. There is no way to compare them. Yes, my past books are about families, but they have been focused on one set of people. This book is really meant to represent the cosmology of the Gilded Age.

With this book I wanted to write about class, something I don’t do much in my other books. In The Lake On Fire, poor people come to Chicago, they’re starving. Chaya wakes up one morning with frost on her lips because they’re so cold. Then there are these people over in the fancy part of town living the Golden Age. At the center of the book is this girl who thinks she’ll betray her class if she marries this wealthy man; she grapples with her desire to be good, her desire to be useful. She grudgingly gives up her class.

Image credit: Lynn Sloan

7 Jewish Women Writers Share Their Must-Read Books for Women's History Month

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 | Permalink
In honor of Women's History Month, we asked seven Jewish women writers with books of their own coming out this spring to each recommend two favorite titles. The picks are wide-ranging, from classic short story collections and recent novels, to soul-searching autobiographies and provocative graphic memoirs. Taken together, the books make a great introduction to contemporary Jewish women's writing. Keep reading for selections from Julie Orringer, Mandy Berman, and more. 

Leah Cohen, author of Strangers and Cousins (May 14)


After Abel and Oth­er Sto­ries by Michal Lemberger

It could so eas­i­ly have felt like a gim­mick: retell Bible sto­ries from the point of view of their bare­ly-men­tioned female char­ac­ters. But as Lem­berg­er inhab­its these women — from the well-known to those so obscure they remain unnamed — each comes vivid­ly alive. Their voic­es ring true. More than that, their voic­es ring out. In prose that is unsen­ti­men­tal, direct, and deeply mov­ing, Lem­berg­er grants these char­ac­ters their ful­ly com­plex human­i­ty, ren­der­ing their sto­ries new­ly intrigu­ing and relevant.

Bewil­der­ments: Reflec­tions on the Book of Num­bers by Avi­vah Got­tlieb Zornberg 

The live­li­ness of Torah radi­ates from this explo­ration of the book we know so bor­ing­ly in Eng­lish as Num­bers. In Hebrew it’s Bamid­bar, or ​“In the Wilder­ness,” which is pre­cise­ly where the author fear­less­ly plunges us: into kalei­do­scop­ic wilds of inter­pre­ta­tion. A Torah schol­ar, Zorn­berg is as com­fort­able read­ing through the prisms of art, psy­cho­analy­sis, poet­ry, and phi­los­o­phy as she is cit­ing the ancient sages. Learned with­out being pedan­tic, wise with­out sac­ri­fic­ing play­ful­ness, she is a qui­et­ly thrilling guide.

Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (April 2)

Inher­i­tance by Dani Shapiro  

This is a sur­pris­ing book because even though the osten­si­ble mys­tery at the heart of Dani’s sto­ry — who her bio­log­i­cal father real­ly is—is solved at the begin­ning of the mem­oir, the book reads like a sus­pense­ful exis­ten­tial thriller as she unrav­els the big ques­tions of iden­ti­ty that are both spe­cif­ic to her and uni­ver­sal to the human con­di­tion. How much of our essence is deter­mined by genet­ics? By envi­ron­ment? By who loved us or didn’t love us the way we want­ed to be loved? How do even the best-kept secrets seep into our lives any­way? And how do we make sense of our her­itage when it wasn’t all that it seemed?

Ein­stein and the Rab­bi by Nao­mi Levy

While this is a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry about a let­ter that Ein­stein sent to com­fort a rab­bi, it’s also Rab­bi Nao­mi Levy’s sto­ry, which is no less riv­et­ing. It’s hard to cat­e­go­rize this book—it’s not self-help but does offer use­ful guid­ance; it’s not pure mem­oir, though Levy delights us with expe­ri­ences from her own life, rang­ing from hilar­i­ous to poignant; and while Jew­ish texts are explored, the wis­dom applies to peo­ple of any faith. The result is both sooth­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing, ask­ing us to ask our­selves to take a clos­er look at our souls, because we might just be pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by what we find.

Jennifer Acker, author of The Limits of the World (April 16)

The UnAmer­i­cans by Mol­ly Antopol

An imme­di­ate sen­sa­tion when it was released five years ago, Antopol’s debut col­lec­tion of sto­ries of love, ambi­tion, and politi­cized world­views bur­rows deep inside Jew­ish fam­i­lies—large­ly dis­si­dents, artists, and intel­lec­tu­als—from Los Ange­les to Prague to Jerusalem over the course of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Each tale is both swift and thought­ful, and the end­ings are a mar­vel — sat­is­fy­ing read­ers’ nar­ra­tive crav­ings while mak­ing us hunger for the next savory and metic­u­lous­ly con­coct­ed course.

When We Argued All Night by Alice Mattison 

Dis­agree­ments are a sta­ple of good fic­tion, but Alice Mat­ti­son rais­es them to high art. This vibrant and event­ful nov­el chart­ing the inter­con­nect­ed polit­i­cal and famil­ial lives of two Jew­ish New York­ers, Harold and Artie, opens in 1936 and car­ries us rip-roar­ing through the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Come for the friend­ship, stay for the argu­ments; laugh, cry, and learn along the way.

Mandy Berman, author of The Learning Curve (May 28)

How Should a Per­son Be? by Sheila Heti

Heti is the daugh­ter of Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish immi­grants, and her fic­tion­al­ized mem­oir grap­ples, among oth­er things, with the strug­gles of her ances­tors. As Heti her­self said in a New York Times inter­view, ​“The char­ac­ters in my book are wan­der­ing; they’re aim­ing for the Promised Land, but, like the Jews of the Bible, are fat­ed not to enter it.” The auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal narrator’s Jew­ish­ness is inte­gral to the nov­el, as is the ques­tion­ing she does of her her­itage and of herself.

My Year of Rest and Relax­ation by Otes­sa Moshfegh 

Reva, the Jew­ish best friend of this novel’s self-involved nar­ra­tor, is every­thing the nar­ra­tor is not: gen­er­ous, loy­al, and deeply feel­ing. Reva is also plagued with an eat­ing dis­or­der and a dying moth­er, and my heart broke for her more than it has for a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter in a long time. She’s the emo­tion­al core of this nov­el, an empath serv­ing as a con­trast to its often unfeel­ing antihero.

Rachel Barenbaum, author of A Bend in the Stars (May 14)

If All The Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan 

In this pas­sion­ate mem­oir the über-brave Kur­shan opens her heart and takes us through her sear­ing, per­son­al jour­ney. From a dev­as­tat­ing divorce and the lone­li­ness of liv­ing in Israel as a new­ly sin­gle olah chadashah (immi­grant), through the painstak­ing steps of build­ing her­self back up, Kur­shan leans on the pow­er of books, humor, and daf yomi (dai­ly page of Tal­mud), and blazes a trail — reveal­ing that heart­break can lead to even greater love and that romance is not dead.

The Mar­riage of Oppo­sites by Alice Hoffman

This lumi­nous, for­bid­den love sto­ry set in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that strad­dled St. Thomas and Paris in the 1800s fol­lows the extra­or­di­nary life of Rachel, the moth­er of the painter Camille Pis­sar­ro, as she’s forced into a love­less mar­riage and then jumps into a defi­ant, pas­sion­ate affair. The mag­ic of island life bleeds into every line of this aston­ish­ing novel.

Julie Orringer, author of The Flight Portfolio (May 7)

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Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg

The amazing Myla Goldberg returns with a finely wrought novel in the form of notes from a photography exhibition catalogue—written not by a dispassionate critic, but by the photographer’s daughter. Lillian Preston, the photographer, earned notoriety for her nude photos of her child; in an assemblage of letters, journal excerpts, and descriptions of the work itself, her daughter blows aside the clouds of public opprobrium to reveal a brilliant and complicated artist—and a loving, if imperfect, mother.

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The Collected Stories by Grace Paley

Rarely do we find more truth in fiction than in Grace Paley’s stories, where life in New York meets motherhood, artisthood, hoods, progressive politics, existential philosophy, and self-aware second-wave feminism. In drawing from her home idiom—a Russian- and Yiddish-tinged English—as well as from the New York English of the street—she creates a language, a dialogue, that feels like its own new music, yet is as familiar and true as our own grandmothers’ voices. Her cast of characters quickly becomes beloved family, and her stories are our stories, now and forever.

Sarah Lightman, author of The Book of Sarah (May 23)

Toward a Hot Jew: Graphic Essays by Miriam Libicki

These extra­or­di­nary graph­ic essays explore Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, Zion­ism, Israeli pol­i­tics, angst, ambiva­lence, and attach­ment through the most exquis­ite and apt pen­cil work, bright inks, and rich blur­ring wash­es of water­col­or. Libicki’s engage­ment with the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal is as rich, dynam­ic and lay­ered as her mate­ri­als: from the Israeli sol­dier that her younger self lust­ed over who is now an ​“adorable oppres­sor,” to the anx­ious in-law in Cana­da who she dis­obeys (“Promise me you won’t go to Haifa”), to the dig­i­tal peti­tion she signs against the depor­ta­tion of African refugees from Israel while at home with her Cana­di­an baby.

Glitz-2-Go: Collected Comics by Diane Noomin

Comics pio­neer Diane Noomin, in the intro­duc­tion to this remark­able col­lec­tion, tries to char­ac­ter­ize her rela­tion­ship with DiDi Glitz — her ​“id or alter ego,” or ​“non-per­son­al per­sona.” DiDi is amorous, bouf­fant, busty, fab­u­lous, and fat­ed as she shares her wis­dom and life expe­ri­ences. But per­haps DiDi is best under­stood in ​“I was a Red Dia­per Baby,” in which Noomin uses pho­tos and post­cards to uncov­er what was hid­den in her own child­hood in Hemp­stead, Long Island: her parent’s secret lives in the Com­mu­nist under­ground, revealed by the mimeo­graph hid­den in the attic.

New Reviews March 11, 2019

Monday, March 11, 2019 | Permalink

Meet National Jewish Book Award Winner Alice Shalvi

Monday, March 04, 2019 | Permalink

In advance of the 68th Annual National Jewish Book Awards ceremony on March 5th, 2019 (which you can buy tickets for here), Jewish Book Council is sharing short interviews with the winners in each category.

Alice Shalvi’s memoir, Never a Native,is the winner of the 2018 Barbara Dobkin Award for Women’s Studies. In her book, Shalvi recounts the lives of her parents and siblings, her family’s encounters with antisemitism, her Cambridge education, her commitment to Zionism, and her 1949 decision to make aliyah. She also discusses her happy and fruitful marriage and the challenges of balancing an academic career and raising six children. The judges on the Women’s Studies panel say: “Central to this story is Shalvi’s account of her gradual recognition of the endemic sexism in Israeli life and her emergence as an advocate for women’s welfare and for increasing women’s visibility and leadership in every aspect of Israeli society. Shalvi has been recognized and honored for her achievements both in Israel and the United States. Her vibrant memoir will enhance her legacy even as it inspires her readers to emulate her accomplishments.”

Which three Jewish writers, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?

Glückel of Hameln, who, though not strictly an author, nevertheless wrote one of the most fascinating accounts of the life of a female entrepreneur; Emma Lazarus, because I’d like to know what inspired her to write “The New Colossus,” that wonderful embrace of strangers seeking refuge and a new life in an unknown country; and Ada Levenson, who was a witty English socialite and friend of Oscar Wilde and other eccentric authors and artists, and whose novels brilliantly convey the spirit of the fin-de-siècle.

What's your favorite book that no one else has heard of?

Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, a collection of witty poems that purport to be the biography of Mehitabel the Cat as written by Archie the Mouse. It is full of brilliant aphorisms, of which my favorite is “Time time said old King Tut / is something I ain’t / got anything but.”

Which Jewish writers working today do you admire most?

Etgar Keret. His work captures the current nature of Israel, but in a light, witty manner.

What are you reading right now?

Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I just received it from a dear friend and I’m curious to know more about this remarkable woman (who could herself admirably fit the role of president).

What are your greatest creative influences (other than books)?

Life, people, music, and nature. the first two lead me to contemplate the workings of the human soul and mind. The last two lead me to meditate on what I have learned. That, in turn, serves as a source of inspiration.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

To never give up on the hope of creating a better world, and to resolve to be actively involved in attempting to bring that world into being.

Image credit: Debbi Cooper