The ProsenPeople

Interview: Eshkol Nevo

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 | Permalink

Author photo of Eshkol Nevo. Credit: Moti Kikayon.

Israeli author Eshkol Nevo’s latest novel, Three Floors Up (vividly translated by Sondra Silverston), is set in one of the rapidly growing suburbs outside Tel Aviv. It encompasses three narratives corresponding to characters who dwell on one of three floors in the same apartment building. Each is terribly self-absorbed by their own worries, but occasionally we glimpse each protagonist through the judgmental eyes of the others with amusing results. Nevo places the reader in the role of listener to their terribly intimate secrets, and the effect is absolutely captivating.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: The idea of “home” is truly a profound and pervasive theme in your novels, and yet you never seem to repeat yourself. I’m fascinated by the contrast between your earlier book Neuland,with its epic temporal and spatial sprawl (from pre-WWII Mandatory Palestine to contemporary South America) and the single apartment building in which most of the action takes place in Three Floors Up. Were you conscious about setting yourself a challenge in moving from that earlier expansiveness to having to work within these relatively claustrophobic confines? Did you imagine yourself creating a kind of microcosm of human behavior?

Eshkol Nevo: I guess I have an unconscious tendency to rebel against my own books. I prefer to always explore something that is completely new. It is not that I am afraid of repeating myself, I just cannot. The new challenge for me in Three Floors Up was in writing characters I am not in love with. The three confessors in this book are full of flaws. As I wrote I found myself resenting them—and also understanding them deeply. And that made the writing process extremely emotional. I wrote this book in five explosive months. I just couldn’t stop writing. I wanted to find out what happens in the end. Both plot-wise and moral-wise.

ROS: I can’t immediately recall another novel that made such memorable use of a single building to suggest an entire society besides The Yacoubian Building by the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany.Was that book at all an inspiration for you in imagining the chaotic, intersecting lives in Three Floors Up?

EN: The Yacoubian Building is indeed a wonderful book. But actually if I had to name one book that I was thinking about while writing Three Floors Up, it would be The Fall by Albert Camus: a man confessing to a bartender about his awful sin. I was trying to capture this unique rhythm of a confession, this "I have a dark secret. I have been keeping it for too long. Now I am going to tell you” kind of urgency.

ROS: In Three Floors Up, as in your other novels, homes are precious spaces of belonging in both a familial and a national sense. Your characters are seized by so much longing and nostalgia for them. Yet in my reading of your works, they can often be very tense spaces imperiled, by wars, divorces—all sorts of conflicts. Why does the problem of home seem to loom so large in your imagination?

EN: I assume it’s a combination of the fact that I moved a lot as a child (thirteen different homes until the age of eighteen, including two in the United States) and the fact that I am living in a country built on immigration. Even the parents’ WhatsApp group of my younger daughter's class runs in four different languages—Hebrew, English, French, and Spanish. I think, though, that Three Floors Up represents a dramatic shift in focus regarding the theme of home. The question is no longer “Where is home?” but rather “Can we be happy, free, and authentic living in a home with our family?” or “Do we sometimes have to lie to preserve a home?”

ROS: The tripartite Freudian structure of Three Floors Up is a marvelous device; the “three floors” of the English title alludes to the manifestation of id, ego, superego in the three loosely connected stories. It seems as playful--we can’t avoid the provocative pun of the idea of “story” and the structurally separate stories (floors) of the apartment building--as it does profound. Was this something you wanted to explore for a long time? Toward the end of the novel, one of your characters seems to contradict Freud in a deeply moving epiphany.

Cover of Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo

EN: The Freudian topographic model wasn’t in my mind at the beginning. At the beginning I was only writing, compulsively. Then, when I reached the second floor, I suddenly saw the strong potential of this psychological architecture of a building. And the minute I saw it I could not resist the temptation to build it. Of all the ideas Freud had (and he had a lot), the one that really echoes within me as truth is the fact that every moment of our existence is conflicted: a struggle between competing inner forces. I also disagree with Freud on certain matters–I don’t believe human beings are islandsand I think that is also represented in the book, especially in the conclusion.

ROS: Going back to your wonderful 2004 novel Homesick, it seems that you have long expressed a fondness for the epistolary form. You explore it even more fully here either in the form of written letters, monologues directed to an unseen interlocutor, and, perhaps most memorably, in the form of an extended series of answering machine messages. Much of that communication seems to have a very confessional nature. Why are you so drawn to this subgenre?

EN: I was always fascinated by confessionals in churches. Always wondered what would it be like to share my sins with a priest and be immediately forgiven. But I am a Jewwhat can I do? Every book is a long letter to an unseen reader, if you think of it.

ROS: I feel that Neuland stands as a kind of milestone in the very long trajectory of Israeli cultural arguments about rootedness vs. diasporic attachments. In the early years of Jewish statehood, the New Hebrew was configured as utterly rooted, uninterested in travel abroad, the antithesis of the “Wandering Jew.” By contrast, your novel seems to recast Jewish identity in the Diaspora and indeed the very notion of Homeland itself. In your Neuland, a father has gone missing in South America, and his adult son sets off in pursuit. Traumatized by his war experiences as well as the recent loss of his wife, father leaves a stream-of-consciousness narration in his journals that reveals a deeply wounded psyche and a struggle to find a suitable shell in which to shield himself from his hyper-nationalized militaristic past. I wondered if in inhabiting this character so empathically, something changed in your own view about home and belonging in some way? And how do you feel Israel has changed in this regard over the years?

EN: I am part of a new generation of Israelis, specifically those who led the big 2011 social demonstrations that are mentioned in Three Floors Up. We were born here. We speak, think, and dream in Hebrew. Israel for us is an axiom: we are less haunted by the ghost of the past. Therefore we are not intimidated by traveling or even living outside of Israel for a while. Wandering does not threaten our identity. Israelis who choose to leave Israel and find their happiness in Berlin or Miami do not threaten our identity. On the other hand, we demand more from Zionism itself. “Being a safe autonomic territory for Jews” is not enough anymore for us. We are looking for ways to add more values to our national identity (than merely surviving), and culture is intrinsic to that. Of course when I write I do not think about all of this. I am following the footsteps my characters. But when I look back on twenty years of writing (my first story was published in 1997), I would like to believe that I am taking part in this effort of creating a new and more open-minded Israeli society.

ROS: You created a memorable Palestinian character in Homesick with his own sense of attachment to what has become a Jewish Israeli home. And in Three Floors Up, the Rothschild Boulevard social justice tent protests of 2011 transform the life of a lonely widow. In yet another story, there seems to be a hint that a character’s impulse rage and potential for violence might relate to his experiences in the Intifada. Yet for the most part you seem reticent about casting a strong didactic judgment about Israeli society in the manner of Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and others.

EN: I am deeply interested in the osmosis between public-political life and private-psychological life. I care about my country, but usually I have more questions than answers about that. And when I do have answers, or opinions, I write articles. I have been doing it quite a lot lately since the current government in Israel is trying to slowly change its democratic nature and in my opinion this is a very clear and present danger to the Zionist vision.

ROS: Apropos of my previous question, there is a startling moment when Devora angrily recalls her late husband’s affinity for clean, well-ordered suburban life (she dismissively calls it “bourgeoisville”), which he hoped would overtake the entire country as the fulfillment of Herzl’s vision of Zionism. Now he is gone, and in response to the agitation of young men and women protesting on the streets, she retorts: “Zionism is losing and the people in this building are asleep while it’s happening. Until someone knocks these walls down on them and they wake up—there is no chance that anything will change.” Ironically, the protagonists of each story receive precisely that kind of blow and are shaken out of their complacency for better or worse. This is such a highly-charged moment that I was left wondering if it was expressing something personal for you about how people are living their lives in Israel today? And from your perspective, did those social justice protests achieve anything lasting? If not, would you like to see a return to those days?

EN: It is returning. Actually I am just on my way to a big demonstration against corruption in the government. Israel has the potential to be the most wonderful place on earth, “a light for the gentiles,” but hopeless and visionless people who build their career on creating conflicts, instead of trying to solve them, currently lead the country. Because we lack a real opposition in Israel, the “civil society,” as we call it here, has a responsibility to shout, once in a while: there must be another way.

ROS: Two of your most memorable female characters in Three Floors Up, Hani (a woman whose life consists of little more than caring for her children due to her husband’s frequent trips abroad) and Devora (a retired judge whose late husband fills her restless mind, and whose son no longer speaks to her) are exceptionally three-dimensional and complicated women. In creating their richly imagined inner worlds (or earlier female characters of similar complexity) do you ever consult your wife or other female readers, or do you simply trust your own instincts?

EN: I have three daughters, man. I am surrounded by women in this house. In some conversations at the dinner table I actually feel excluded. Recently my second daughter got a male rabbit as a birthday present. I was so happy that I finally have a buddy! We watched soccer together. Had some man-to-man talks. Until one day a veterinarian friend came to visit. I showed him my new buddy. He took it, examined it and told me: “Sorry, bro, but I have to tell you: it’s not a he, it’s a she!” Seriously–I just listen to women. And men. That’s all you have to do imagine inner worlds of people: just listen to what they are saying. And not saying.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville. His latest book is Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film.

Image credit: Moti Kikayon

New Reviews January 15, 2018

Monday, January 15, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews January 8, 2018

Monday, January 08, 2018 | Permalink

Why I Write Stories About Religion

Monday, January 08, 2018 | Permalink

Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalistswrites for JBC's Visiting Scribe series about how growing up in an interfaith family has inspired her to explore issues of faith and religion in her writing.

I often attribute my interest in religion to the fact that, after my parents’ divorce, I grew up with two of them. My mom is the daughter of an Episcopalian minister, and as a child, I went to Sunday School at our local Episcopalian church. My dad, meanwhile, is ancestrally Jewish but presently atheist. I often tease him about the fact that his first wife is a minister’s daughter, and his second—my stepmother, Ellen—is a Jewish spiritual director.

Ellen grew up in Lorraine, Ohio, in a conservative Jewish family. Now a member of San Francisco’s reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El, she brought Jewish history and culture into our home. I was fascinated by the stories, the language and the traditions, from praying over candles, wine and challah on Shabbat to the rituals of Passover. When I asked Ellen to teach me Hebrew, she found an introductory textbook clearly geared toward children half my age and helped me learn.

As the years passed, I did not go through a confirmation or a bat mitzvah. Still, I remained curious about religion. (Broadening my purview, I even asked for Islam for Dummies one birthday!) I never felt pressure from either side of my family to choose. My dad still identified as an atheist, though he went to temple with Ellen. My mom’s side of the family has always been progressive, pro-gay rights, feminism and rebellion in a church that didn’t always feel the same way. Encouraged, I explored religion in my work. The thesis for my graduate program in Creative Writing was a collection of linked short stories that followed one family’s experience of Christianity and sexuality. Religion was less prominent in my first published novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, but it became a focus again in my second, The Immortalists, released this month.

The Immortalists follows the Golds, a conservative Jewish family in New York’s Lower East Side. In 1969, the four Gold children hear of the arrival of a mysterious woman who claims to be able to tell anyone their date of death. The grandchildren of Eastern European Jews who fled persecution, the siblings receive their prophecies on the fifth floor of a building on Hester Street. The novel then follows each of them over five decades of American and interpersonal history—and questions the way that the fate, chance and expectation shape their futures.

The Gold siblings each have different orientations toward Judaism, just as they have different orientations toward their prophecies. Simon, the youngest, is a gay man who feels condemned by Leviticus. Klara becomes a magician whose belief in magic parallels her father’s strong religious faith in surprising ways. Daniel is a military doctor whose wife, Mira, brings Judaism back into his life. And Varya, the eldest, identifies most with Judaism’s emphasis on the power of words and stories.

I was drawn to Judaism in the context of this novel for multiple reasons. While Christianity places great focus on life after death, Judaism’s gaze remains fixed on olam ha-ze: this world. I was curious about how the siblings would approach their mortality without the imaginative “escape hatch” of heaven. I was also eager to plumb my own family history on my father’s side. Like Saul, the patriarch of the Gold family, my great-grandfather, Max, ran a tailoring business in New York City. And just as the parents of Saul and his wife, Gertie, came through Ellis Island from Eastern Europe, so too did my ancestors enter the country in New York after long journeys from Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.

My grandmother’s ancestors were Jews who fled from Poland, as well as the Ukrainian pogroms. My grandmother attended Hebrew school, but organized religion was not often mentioned in the family home. Still, she found herself fascinated by the range of cultures that surrounded her in New York.

“When I began to study French at Fieldston,” she wrote to me, “my teacher invited members of the class to attend the group performance of Handel’s Messiah. I was dazzled and began a lifelong habit of annual attendance to the event. With a boy in my class, I spent many Saturdays investigating the varied ethnic enclaves of Manhattan: Hungarian, Polish, Greek. Each visit included a meal in a local eatery. This was our own idea and firmly fixed in my mind a leitmotif of what I call ‘OPR,’ or other people’s religions. Without naming it as such, I was a budding anthropologist, visiting the core institutions of polyglot New York City. This has been my most compelling interest ever since.”

Years later, as a more mature woman and a mother, she became involved in her local Planned Parenthood. It was there that she met a man named Ed Lane, a Unitarian minister, and began to attend his church. Eventually, she completed a Masters Degree at the University of Pennsylvania in primitive and ancient religions.

“I have found favor with a quasi-religious affirmation of the sanctity of the human mind,” she continued. “The investigation of others’ adherence has remained compelling. With Felix Adler, the Jewish founder of Ethical Culture, I find that ‘The place where men (sic) gather to seek the highest is holy ground.’ With Martin Buber, I think that God is ‘in the transactions of one human mind to another.’”

My grandfather, meanwhile, grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood in New York City’s Upper West Side. His parents belonged to a Conservative temple on West End Avenue; he has memories of being stopped on the street and asked to help make up a minyan. Some of my favorite family stories come from his upbringing—such as the time his mother, my great-grandmother, buried the silverware after she caught one of her children using it for something non-Kosher! When he chose to leave the family business, his parents worried about how he would function in a Gentile world. Finally, his father took him to lunch with a group of Gentile businessman friends, who helped to lessen those fears.

Although my grandfather eventually moved away from Jewish observance—even exploring Unitarianism with my grandmother—he told me that he still feels culturally Jewish in many ways.

“I was emotionally attuned to Israel’s welfare in its battle to exist,” he wrote. “In my culture, the Jewish religion was never a big deal—but the sense of being Jewish was. So there was not much rebellion in going to a Unitarian Fellowship. It didn’t seem to threaten my sense of Jewishness much, if at all.”

His comments drove home to me what I’ve heard many of my Jewish family members and friends say: that what it means to be Jewish goes beyond attending religious services, that it is a much broader cultural identity. Like my grandparents, I remain fascinated by the ties that bind Jews to other Jews—and those that bind Jews to all religious seekers.

In the delightful and surprising way that life brings things full circle, my stepmother, Ellen, became a counselor for interfaith couples: a perfect fit for our diverse, modern family. I can’t help but see the parallels between family and religion. Both ideally offer a sense of solace and community—a connection to what lies beyond the self. Like my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents before me, I’ll hold tight to those I love as I keep searching.

Chloe Benjamin is an author from San Francisco, CA. Her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2014), received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her second novel, The Immortalists, was released by Putnam/Penguin Random House in January 2018.

Image via Flickr/Ze'ev Barkan

How My Grandfather Shaped My Writing Style

Friday, January 05, 2018 | Permalink

Author: Sam Graham-Felsen

If one can inherit a writing style, I probably got mine from my grandfather, Leo Felsen, who was the most serious and unserious person I’ve ever known.

He was a Holocaust refugee who poured his survivor’s guilt into his work as a theoretical physicist, specializing in complex waves. He labored incessantly, publishing several books and hundreds of academic papers, some of which helped pave the way for cellular and microwave technology. But he was also a world-class goofball, who made an art out of self-deprecation. On his 80th birthday, my family threw him a small party. He was suffering from both muscular dystrophy and prostate cancer, and he arrived at our home with a handmade sign around his neck that read, “My Golden Years Are Pyrite.” On his head was a party hat that he had fashioned out of one of his adult diapers.

When he wasn’t at work on one of his interminable mathematical formulas, he loved reading, writing, and listening to rhyming verse, including hip-hop, and he even occasionally engaged me in freestyle rap battles. The point of these battles was to wittily praise oneself and snappily bash the other, and in a way, our entire relationship was like this. Until he died, in 2005, he was my most enthusiastic supporter and my nastiest critic. One day, it was “I’m proud of you, Sam. You’re really becoming a writer. Let me buy you a Boston Creme donut.” The next, it was “I’m paying for your college. You call this crap an essay?”

Speaking of the college he paid for—by the way, my grandfather, like the Holocaust-scarred grandfather in my debut novel, Green, never spent a penny on himself—it was during my junior year there that he gave me the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

I’d had my heart broken by my girlfriend, and was in a prolonged funk. My grandfather knew something about funks. His wife, Sima, a fellow refugee from Nazi Germany, was so scarred by her past that she spent much of her life in a depression, and ended up committing suicide. Sima died before I was born and my grandfather never once spoke her name to me. But I knew he was thinking of Sima’s funk, and of his own lifelong battle with heartache (he never remarried), when he shared the secret of his own resilience:

Whenever you may feel depressed,

Or of a dire mood possessed,

Instead of muttering curses,

Try some humor, phrased in verses.

I didn’t exactly take his advice; I certainly didn’t begin scribbling a humorous ditty. Most likely, I chuckled at the “muttering curses” line, thanked him, and then went back to my dorm room, where I obsessed over my ex, and muttered curses into my pillow all night long.

But that poem stirred something of a sea change in me as a thinker, and eventually, as a writer. It’s what got me to start taking humor seriously—to view it as an essential stay against darkness. My grandfather had every reason to stop living: his sister was murdered by Nazis, he was ripped out of the country he dearly loved, his wife left him in the worst way imaginable, his body was ravaged for decades by muscle-eating disease. But he pressed on. I used to think it was the big, important scientific work that kept him going. Now, I think it’s just as likely that it was the diaper on his head.

In one of his last poems, my grandfather wrote, “I am constantly amazed by the ways a wave behaves.”

My favorite books are those that behave like waves—that modulate, in the words of Philip Roth, from “sheer playfulness” to “dead seriousness.” And if my grandfather were alive today, I hope he’d read Green, that it would give him both pause and delight, and that the characters—especially the one loosely based on him—would make him laugh.

Sam Graham-Felsen is a writer based in Brooklyn, author of the novel Green (Random House, Jan 2018), and former chief blogger for Barack Obama.

Jewish Books to Look Forward to in 2018

Wednesday, January 03, 2018 | Permalink

It's the first week of January, a.k.a. time to compile our reading lists for the year ahead. There are so many amazing Jewish-interest books coming out in 2018...We have a lot of reading to do! Here's just a small selection of forthcoming releases that we're particularly excited about.

The Magnificent Esme Wells (April) is set in the thrilling and merciless early days of the intertwined worlds of Las Vegas casinos and Hollywood studios, when both were dominated by ruthless, power-wielding Jewish mobsters. An aspiring Vegas headliner and her precocious daughter (that's Esme) are the focus of this compelling story that brings to life an important, fascinating era. —Carol Kaufman, Editorial Director

Image result for sadness is a white bird

Sadness is a White Bird (February) is the story of a young Israeli-American man who, as he is preparing to join the IDF, befriends two Palestinian siblings, and is forced to confront his own identity; this includes an attempt to understand his grandfather's family history and commitment to the creation of the State of Israel after his community in Salonica is destroyed by the Nazis. —Naomi Firestone-Teeter, Executive Director

 Image result for we are gathered jamie weisman 

I'm looking forward to the release of The Chateau by Paul Goldberg (February). Who couldn't relate to a novel about a crooked condo board? On the lighter side, We Are Gathered (June) by debut novelist Jamie Weisman is a tender and funny story that describes an interfaith wedding in Atlanta from the perspectives of its (adoring, envious, resentful, hilarious) guests. —Stefanie Shulman, Associate Director, Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

This Narrow Space by Elisha Waldman The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas

This Narrow Space (January) is the very intense and well-written memoir of an American doctor about his experiences in Israel. The Last Watchman of Cairo (March) is an outstanding story about the reign, over many generations, of the watchmen of the major synagogue in Cairo. —Carolyn Starman Hessel, Director, Sami Rohr Prize 

I'm excited to read The Iron Season (October), the sequel to Helene Wecker's historical fiction/fantasy novel The Golem and the Jinni. —Suzanne Swift, Director, JBC Network

The Diamond Setter by Moshe Sakal (March) is the tale of a famous blue diamond, a love triangle between three men from Tel Aviv and Damascus, and an intimate yet wide-reaching evocation of the Middle East throughout the twentieth century. It's been a bestseller in Israel, and I'm thrilled to see it translated into English by Jessica Cohen. —Becca Kantor, Managing Editor

Writing Jewishly

Tuesday, January 02, 2018 | Permalink

Author: Sam Graham-Felsen

Cover image of the novel Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

The writer I’ve spent the most time reading, by far, is Philip Roth. When I first read Portnoy’s Complaint in college, there was something about the style that instantly clicked with me—and it soon became clear to me that it was the Jewishness of Roth’s prose. The loquaciousness, the repetitiveness, the obsessiveness, the shpilkes, the manic exuberance about sensory experience, the tragicomic slant—it was how I talked, how my dad talked, how my grandfather talked. This was the writer of our experience.

But was it our experience? My grandfather and father—sure. But me? The older I got, the less certain I felt. As I became a writer, and fantasized about writing the Great Jewish-American Novel, I began to realize that Roth’s big theme—the Jewish boy’s quest to become American—was not my generation’s theme. Most of the Jews I knew, like me, were already exceedingly Americanized. None of us had ever been bullied for being Jews. None of our parents cared if we married a non-Jewish person. Most of us had a non-Jewish parent ourselves, had Christmas trees, and gorged on holiday ham. Very few of us even knew the word traif. In college, three of my roommates were half-Jews; none of them had been Bar Mitzvah’d or had ever set foot in a shul. Once, one of those friends saw a Bazooka Joe gum for sale at a Jewish deli, and asked the guy at the counter why he was selling gum with Chinese lettering on it. The guy laughed and explained that it was Hebrew.

So what was there to write about, Jewishly, when my generation of Jews was, increasingly, utterly assimilated? Our lives, compared to the lives of every single generation of Jews that had come before us, were amazingly frictionless. We’d made it. We’d blended in. We didn’t struggle, and without a struggle, what was there to write about?

But some of us did struggle. Some of us found that blending in wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Some of us found that we, in fact, yearned for otherness and the communal bonds that came with it.

In Boston, where I’m from, thousands of Jews who had been raised assimilated, or who had rejected their religious upbringings, have flocked to the Workmen’s Circle, a secular progressive Jewish organization that hosts high holiday events and runs a secular Sunday school. I attended this shule as a kid, which culminated in a secular Bar Mitzvah ceremony. I didn’t learn Hebrew or study Torah, but I sang Yiddish songs and learned about the history of the bund and the Triangle Shirtwaist strikers. At the time, I hated it; I much preferred to sit at home and watch football. But those songs are still with me, and the heroic history of the Jewish left still courses through my veins, and always will. And, as it turns out, I now live in a kosher household, with my observant Jewish wife and our son, Lev. I’m not saying I married a Jew and gave my kid a Hebrew name because of the Workmen’s Circle. But growing up in a strong Jewish community—and seeing how anchoring and enlivening that community has been for my parents over the years—certainly made me inclined to build a Jewish household of my own.

The narrator of my novel, Green, Dave Greenfeld, is more similar to my college roommates. He is raised with very minimal Jewish identity, and, as one of the only white kids at his almost entirely black and Latino middle school, the last thing he wants to broadcast is that he’s Jewish on top of being white. In order to bond with his peers, he pretends to be Christian, even wearing a crucifix around his neck. But as the novel progresses, Dave begins to feel the rumblings of desire for a more authentic identity.

In his remarkable essay collection, Notes on American Literature, D.H. Lawrence writes:

Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, acting in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.

I thought about these words a lot as I wrote Green, and think about them still as I continue to work out the kind of life I want for my family. As a younger man, I fetishized Wild West-style freedom. I believed that the Portnoy-like (or Swede-like, or Mickey Sabbath-like) breakaway from the old country, from communal boundaries and familial expectations, was the ultimate aim. But the older I get, the more I crave the freedom that comes not from bucking, but from belonging.

Breaking away, I discovered, is not my theme as a Jewish-American writer; it’s breaking back in.

Sam Graham-Felsen is a writer based in Brooklyn, author of the novel Green (Random House, Jan 2018), and former chief blogger for Barack Obama.

New Reviews January 1, 2018

Monday, January 01, 2018 | Permalink

The Best YA Novels with Jewish Protagonists

Wednesday, December 27, 2017 | Permalink

Author: Rachel Lynn Solomon

Growing up, I only saw Jewish protagonists in Holocaust literature. The kind of books I loved—realistic YA—occasionally had a main character with a Jewish friend, but that was it.

While I don’t believe we should ever stop writing about the Holocaust, for a long time, that was the only narrative I thought we had as Jewish people. People like me didn’t get to be protagonists. For a while, this stuck in my mind: the first four manuscripts I wrote before my debut, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, had no Jewish characters.

But there is so much richness to explore in a modern setting that hasn’t been explored nearly enough. The following novels feature my favorite representations of Judaism in contemporary realistic YA.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

There is so much intersectionality in this book: most notably, the protagonist, Suzette, is queer, Black, and Jewish. She converted when her mother remarried a Jewish man, and there’s a scene with the family preparing Shabbat dinner, including a description of braiding the challah, that is so, so lovely. Little & Lion centers on a tense sibling relationship—Suzette’s brother has bipolar disorder—but it’s also a book about identity and figuring out where you fit when you cannot be contained in just one box.

Your Voice is All I Hear by Leah Scheier

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Scheier’s raw, dark sophomore novel deals with mental illness, too. April isn’t sure what to do when her boyfriend is diagnosed with schizophrenia, pushing their new relationship to its limits. April is Jewish, and Scheier folds the religion into the book so naturally; April celebrates Hanukkah and observes Shabbat. It’s informative but never didactic, and the book as a whole packs a powerful punch.

Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen

This is one of the few representations of Modern Orthodox Judaism in contemporary YA—and it’s so much fun. Playing with Matches effortlessly dismantles stereotypes about Orthodox Judaism simply by acting as a window into the life of sixteen-year-old Raina, who finds she has a talent for matchmaking. Throughout, there are casual references to mezuzahs and the family’s dairy sink without halting the narrative for an explanation. I’d never heard it described this way, but the concept of the “Jewish grapevine” is too real. The book is fresh, charming, and hilarious— proof that Jewish literature does not have to center on tragedy.

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb

The title, while adorable, is a bit of a misnomer, as there isn’t actually very much kissing in the book. Romance novel-obsessed Eva is on a mission to track down a boy who abruptly left town, but Kissing in America focuses more on friendship, family, and grief. While on a cross-country road trip with her best friend, Eva learns more about her Jewish heritage through relatives they meet along the way.

It’s a Whole Spiel, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman


Okay, I cheated on this one because the book isn’t out yet, but I’m just so excited about it! This collection of contemporary intersectional Jewish short stories by Jewish authors will be published by Knopf in fall of 2019. Some of the contributors include David Levithan, Nova Ren Suma, Dana Schwartz, Adi Alsaid, Lance Rubin…and me! I’m so honored to be part of this project. I would have loved to read something like this as a teen, and I’m so glad it will exist.

Rachel Lynn Solomon is the author of the contemporary YA novel You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone, with another book to follow in 2019. A former journalist, she has worked for NPR, produced a radio show that aired in the middle of the night, and currently works in education. You can find her online at http://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/ and on Twitter @rlynn_solomon.

New Reviews December 25, 2017

Monday, December 25, 2017 | Permalink