The Arty Semite

Kafka and the Parable

By John Kessel

John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly are the editors of “Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka.” On Monday, James Patrick Kelly wrote about a man as puzzling as his stories and today, John Kessel looks at Kafka and the parable. Their blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Since my first encounter with Kafka’s writing, I’ve been interested in a quality that, while he was alive, stood in the way of his achieving a large reputation: his allegory. Kafka’s inevitable tropism for the allegorical puts him in marked opposition to the realism that dominated the literary world of the first half of the 20th century.

Though a realist writer might acknowledge that his story set in the mundane world might have allegorical readings, the trend in the first half of the 20th century was to flee allegory for either the documentation of the external world, or of individual psychology. Even experimentalists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, despite streams of consciousness or wild flights of imagery, assume that fiction is about what is, the surface of events and things and people. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, de Maupassant and Flaubert, Hardy and Dickens before him, Anton Chekhov and Joseph Conrad while he was alive and writing, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner after him, no matter how elaborate their rhetoric or symbolisms, insist upon the reality of their worlds.

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Kafka: A Man as Puzzling as His Stories

By James Patrick Kelly

John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly are the editors of “Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka.” Today, James Patrick Kelly writes about a man as puzzling as his stories. Their blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Franz Kafka was a man who struggled with his many contradictions. Although his writing has come to be intensively studied, as a man he is hard to know, even given all the scrutiny of recent years. He was born in 1883 into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the third largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had five siblings, two younger brothers who died in infancy and three sisters who survived him, only to perish in Hitler’s camps during the Second World War. He was a member of the dominant German-speaking minority, just three percent of the population of Prague at the time, but he was also fluent in Czech. As a young man, he was athletic, taller than average, fond of swimming, rowing, and bicycling. Yet for much of his life he was also a hypochondriac: It was not until 1917 that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him seven years later at the age of 40.

Of all the contradictions in Kafka’s life, two stand out for the modern readers. Kafka was a student of Yiddish literature, and in his youth championed Yiddish theater, much to the puzzlement of some of his literary friends. He was sympathetic to Zionism and yet there are no overt allusions to Jews or Jewishness in his fiction. “What have I in common with the Jews?” he wrote. “I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”

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Destination Bat Mitzvahs

By Shulamit Reinharz

Earlier this week, Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick wrote about the history of the bat mizvah and Barbara Vinick shared her own story. Today, Shulamit Reinharz writes about meaningful celebrations away from home. Their blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


The other day I had a discussion with a group of girls about their ideal bat mitzvah (the celebration that marks female coming of age at 12 or 13 among Jews and sometimes of adults who missed the opportunity as adolescents). Several of the girls said that that their ideal was to celebrate away from home. A few wanted to go to Israel, specifically the Western Wall or Masada. Other ideas were more surprising: “Germany, because it has great technology,” “Japan, because I love anime,” and “France, so I can see a real fashion runway.” One Massachusetts girl actually had her wish for an overseas bat mitzvah come true. She and her family celebrated in Amsterdam “because it is the midpoint between my relatives in the U.S. and Israel, and because of Anne Frank.

We’ve all heard of destination weddings and birthday parties. But what about destination bat mitzvahs? Our book, “Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World,” includes the amazing example of two American sisters whose joint bat mitzvah took place in a Tunisian desert town, complete with camel rides, drummers, and a religious service under the stars in honor of the father’s Tunisian heritage.

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The Sisterhood of Bat Mitzvah

By Barbara Vinick

On Monday, Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick wrote about the history of the bat mitzvah. Today, Barbara Vinick writes about her own experiences. Their blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


I didn’t have a bat mitzvah, the ceremony that marks the coming of age of Jewish girls. When I reached 13 in the 1950s, girls who attended three-day-a-week Hebrew School at our suburban Conservative synagogue north of Boston did not have that option. In those post-World War II years before the second wave of feminism, a public coming of age ceremony at Temple Beth El was strictly the realm of the boys. I didn’t really mind being excluded. After all, who wanted to go to special practice sessions with the cantor all year?

Not me. And the thought of chanting Hebrew and giving a speech in front of an audience of my parents’ friends gave me chills. Ditto for a party with boys; I’d rather read a book. So I was relieved, even if I had to forgo the presents.

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Today I Am Woman

By Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick

Shulamit Reinharz and Barbara Vinick are the editors of the recently published “Today I Am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah around the World.” Their blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


In the few months since our book was published, women of different ages have come up to us with stories of their own experiences of bat mitzvah — the ceremony that marks a Jewish girl’s coming of age at 12 or 13. These stories have brought home to us in a personal way the trajectory of Jewish women’s experience in the last half-century in the United States.

Grandmothers of today’s bat mitzvah girls tell us that bat mitzvah was not available to them when they were girls. Some resented the discrimination against them, as their brothers and male classmates celebrated bar mitzvah as a highlight of the Jewish lifecycle; others didn’t particularly care. Although the first bat mitzvah in the U.S. took place in 1924 in New York City, it took the women’s movement that re-emerged in the 1960s and ’70s to enable women to look at their status anew, to try to create change, and to popularize the concept of a women’s coming of age ceremony.

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Poetry on Demand

By Jake Marmer

On Tuesday, Jake Marmer wrote about poems as a noisy Mediterranean duplex. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Reputedly, Rachmaninoff once said: “There’s no such thing as inspiration. You sit down and do the work.” There’s so much to like about the quote! I think the maestro must have seen art — in his case, music — as something of a daily practice; a certain anti-climatic quality of his pronouncement is also a promise for consistency. He would probably agree that the intentional seeking or digging isn’t called inspiration — curiosity maybe — so, just start talking. Or humming, whatever.

Working on the last stages of my new book, “Jazz Talmud,” I was lucky to have the mentorship of Stanley Moss, my editor, publisher and also a really excellent poet. I’ve never agreed with anyone offering me editorial advice as much as I did with Stanley. Except for this one thing.

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Poem as a Noisy Mediterranean Duplex

By Jake Marmer

Jake Marmer is the author of “Jazz Talmud.” His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


About a decade ago I read a Billy Collins poem called “Advice to Writers,” where this former U.S. Poet Laureate suggests:

wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

There’s wisdom there: it feels good to write with an uncluttered mind, unburdened by other concerns.

But taking Ajax to your literal and metaphorical surroundings could border on sterilizing. And also, silencing. Sure, Collins is at least in part joking — it’s a funny poem — but I’m sure he means it, too. The poetic voice he is suggesting his readers to summon, in a clean-pristine room, is very much a solo. People, things — out of the way! The poet is talking! (to himself, and being funny - don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, however tempting, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.

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From Scratch

By Stanley Ginsberg

Earlier this week, Stanley Ginsberg wrote about the meaning of a Jewish bakery and the sweet and sour sides of life. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


One of my pet peeves is the veritable deluge of prepared foods and “meal assembly” emporia that have overtaken America and seem to be spreading like a stain across the rest of the world. Walk into any store selling food, and there they sit — ready-to-heat main courses and sides of every imaginable ethnicity and ingredient, indistinguishable, or so the labels claim, from home-cooked. (And, of course, priced at a hefty premium over the cost of the ingredients themselves.) Nor is it only the mains and sides: To see how pervasive the ready-tos have become, take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket and keep mental notes of all the things you can eat right out of the container, or that pre-mix key ingredients (think cake mixes).

Even as recently as 20 years ago or so, an industrial food takeover on this scale was inconceivable, yet very much in the cards. I forget the context, but I remember reading an article in the ’90s that spoke about seasoning mixes that would enable butchers to reap higher profits from value-added, ready-to-cook steaks, roasts, and poultry. At around that same time, during my stint on Wall Street, I worked with the CEO of a company, now defunct, that pioneered treatments for cut fruits and vegetables that all but eliminated discoloration. One has only to look at the proliferation of pre-bagged cut produce to see how visionary the idea was.

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Sweet and Sour

By Stanley Ginsberg

On Monday, Stanley Ginsberg wrote about the meaning of a Jewish bakery. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


In my grandparents’ homes, as in the shtetlakh from whence they came, the food was sweet and sour — just as life itself was sweet and sour. For me, a grandchild of immigrants growing up between two worlds in 1950s America, sweet and sour came to symbolize both the contrasts and convergences of my multifaceted existence.

Sour was during the week. It was school and afternoon cheder for me, jobs that took my father and grandfather away from before I woke up until after I had my supper; and for my mother and grandmothers, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and all the other things stay-at-home wives did back then.

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What Is a 'Jewish Bakery'?

By Stanley Ginsberg

Stanley Ginsberg, a native of Brooklyn, grew up in a close-knit neighborhood where generations lived side by side. He learned to cook and bake from his grandmother, who lived just upstairs in the same apartment building, and has continued cooking and baking ever since. His book, “Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking,” is now available. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Not too long ago, during a radio interview centered on “Inside the Jewish Bakery,” the host asked me, “What is a Jewish bakery?” I have to confess, I was stunned: No one had ever asked me that question, nor, indeed, had I ever asked it of myself. In my world, everyone knows what a Jewish bakery is — a bakery that sells Jewish baked goods.

But here’s where it gets complicated. What exactly are “Jewish baked goods?” The ones that come first to mind — bagels, rugelach, onion rolls, challah — appear to be no-brainers, but in fact all can be traced back through their Yiddish forebears to the gentile Central and Eastern European societies in which the Jews found themselves living at various times.

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Adventures in the Cartoon Trade

By Richard Codor

Earlier this week, Richard Codor wrote about his cartoon education and how he came to write “Too Many Latkes!” His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


When I walked down the airplane gangplank for the first time in Ben Gurion airport, I immediately noticed the baggage handlers unloading our plane. I was told they were “gruzinim,” or Georgian Jews. I had thought Israel would be filled with people who looked like my neighbors, my temple congregation, or even me. But they were totally different. I didn’t realize what an amazing variety of Jews and cultures had come from every corner of the world to make up the population of Israel.

I lived in Jerusalem and worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority doing illustrating and drawing animation for children’s programming. If I needed models for my work, all I had to do was to step out into the street and walk in any direction.

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'Too Many Latkes!': Twenty Years in the Making

By Richard Codor

On Monday, Richard Codor wrote about his cartoon education. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


The idea for “Too Many Latkes!” came from one of my fondest childhood memories. My mother was the office manager of our synagogue and in charge of organizing the annual “Latke Fundraiser.” She would always say, “This year we’re going to make a mountain of latkes!” Every year, all the latke cooks would gather at the temple on Hanukkah and fry huge amounts of latkes. They never quite made enough latkes for a mountain but the image stuck in my head.

When I had my own kids and we began a tradition of making elaborate holiday parties with ceremonies, music and song. I looked around for something entertaining that I could do. The first thing that came to mind was that latke mountain. Taking bits and pieces from the many stories I illustrated and animated for children’s programming in Israel and the U.S., I came up with the outline of “Too Many Latkes!” At the time I was a storyboard artist for Doug, the animated TV show and daily I would make little Post-It flip books to work out scripted action. It seemed natural to make “Latkes” into a big newsprint flip book that I could act out in front my guests, the way I would a storyboard pitch.

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A Cartoon Education

By Richard Codor

Richard Codor’s most recent book, “Too Many Latkes!” (Behrman House), is now available. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


The memory of my cousin handing me my first copy of MAD Magazine when I was 12 is still fresh in my mind. I can feel my hands tremble as I looked down at the cover painting of Alfred E. Neuman as a scarecrow. My cousin said this magazine was going to change my life and he was right. From that moment on I was hooked. I was a cartoonist. As I turned the pages I knew all I wanted to do was to make drawings that everybody would laugh at, just like that group of talented idiots.

This was also the time when I was obsessed with the Marx Brothers movies. There was no Netflix, Internet, VCRs, or 24/7 TV. There were just three channels on our black and white set and they usually went off the air before midnight. I’d scour the TV listings for weeks looking for one of their films. If one did appear it was usually scheduled beyond my bedtime. That night, when everyone was asleep, I’d sneak downstairs, turn on the TV with the volume just above a whisper and watch, my eyes as big as saucers, the incredible comic anarchy of the Marxes. The next morning, I’d trudge to school where I’d spend the better part of homeroom, Latin, and Geometry classes filling the margins of my notebooks with super heroes, goofy weirdoes and slimy monsters, inspired by my real mentors.

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Jews in Narnia

By Lavie Tidhar

Earlier this week, Lavie Tidhar wrote about his fixation on historical figures and being compared to Philip K. Dick. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Michael Weingrad made something of a splash last year in writing “Why There is no Jewish Narnia” at the Jewish Review of Books. Of course, Weingrad misunderstands Narnia. To explain the seven novels succinctly, let us refer to the following equation:

Jesus was Jewish (therefore) Aslan was Jewish (therefore) Narnia = Jewish Autonomous Oblast (and) The White Witch = Christianity/Rome. QED.

But before you give me the combined Nobel Prize for Physics and Literature, let’s think about that seeming paradox. The fields of both science fiction and fantasy are filled with Jewish writers, from Isaac Asimov (can you get more Jewish than that?) to, erm, William Shatner. (Yes, he wrote “TekWar”! No, the Federation is not proud). Why, then, do so few genre works deal with Jewish universes? Where are the vampires who laugh at a crucifix, the Space Navy with Stars of David proudly painted on the hull of the ships? Imagine the ending for “2001: A Space Odyssey”: “My God! It’s full of Jews!”

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Being Compared to Philip K. Dick

By Lavie Tidhar

Earlier this week, Lavie Tidhar wrote about his fixation on historical figures. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Courtesy of Lavie Tidhar

Being compared to Philip K. Dick is great, especially when they secretly mean “will die a penniless paperback writer at the age of 53.” In other words, such a comparison doesn’t exactly invite trust.

My new novel, “Osama,” recently came out. It’s available on the Kindle, and in a fancy hardcover edition from its small, UK-based publisher. It got rejected more times than Andie Macdowell’s character in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” had sex (“less than Madonna, more than Princess Di… I hope”). One can see why. For one thing, it’s called “Osama.”

The comparison I mention is, specifically, to Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” made recently by reviewers for both the UK’s Guardian newspaper and The Financial Times. Yes, I’m tooting my own horn here. Someone has to! But of course “Osama” owes a huge debt to Dick’s brilliant alternative history, where the United States has lost World War II and is divided between the victorious Germans and Japanese.

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Historical Figure Fixation

By Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar’s most recent novel is “Osama” (PS Publishing). His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


I might be obsessed with historical figures. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. But my two most recent books were “Osama” (a novel) and “Jesus and the Eightfold Path” (a novella) — though the one may be too early to be called historical, and the other may not be historical at all. Josephus Flavius, supposed chronicler of my novella (“The Gospel According to Josephus,” we learn halfway through) is our only contemporary historian to mention Jesus, but it appears quite likely the mention — a single paragraph — was inserted into the text centuries later.

Be that as it may, with a recent short story called “The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara” (in the “Solaris Rising” anthology) chronicling the effect multiple clones of the legendary revolutionary had on the world’s various conflicts and wars, I think I might suffer from Historical Figure Fixation, and that just sounds like a bad Woody Allen movie. (Which is, basically, any Woody Allen movie after 1985. Badabing.)

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Jews, Non-Jews, and Being Losers Together

By Matthue Roth

Earlier this week, Matthue Roth blogged about publishing a real life old-fashioned book and getting up early. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Yesterday, I put out a Twitter call: What should I write about? The always-dependable dlevy asked, in reply, “have you talked about responses to your work from non Jewish readers?” I haven’t, not yet – but I also haven’t really talked about my response from Jewish readers. (And, sort of on that subject, I could also puzzle why I’ve gotten such amazing Amazon reviews from readers I don’t know – because, as you know, all Jews know each other – but the one review that I know is from a friend is, well, nice, but so short.)

Weirdly, if you want to keep a scorecard, I’ve written two books that are about Orthodox Jews, my first two, and then two books (and a movie) that have nothing to do with Orthodox Jews. I say it’s weird because, as I’ve become more and more fundamentalistly Hasidic, I seem to be writing less overtly about Jews.

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Writers Should Get Up Early

By Matthue Roth

Yesterday, Matthue Roth blogged about publishing a real life old-fashioned book. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


As a glutton for torture (and as a recent parent, which is kind of the same thing), I’ve been taking advantage of early mornings. My kids wake up at 6:30 or so, and I leave for the day job at 8:00ish — so if I’ve ever dreamed of getting anything done before I leave (ha ha, I said dreamed), I’d better be doing it early.

I often get asked what my best writing times are. Usually I go on for hours — I’m either the best or worst interview you’ve had, if, you know, you’re an interviewer — but that question is simple. Late at night or early in the morning. Partly, it’s because no one else is around to distract you. Partly, I think, it’s that those are the times that are closest to sleep, when your mind is most open and your memories are all jumbled up and free-associating and fictionalizing themselves. Those are the times I started writing “Automatic.” It’s a book where a lot of things blend together, the people I grew up with and growing up Jewish and working class and my best friend dying and the music that we were listening to as it was all happening.

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Publishing a Real Life Old Fashioned Book

By Matthue Roth

Matthue Roth’s latest book, “Automatic,” is now available. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Here’s the thing about being both an author and a blogger: It makes you impatient. When I write a rant or draw a cartoon, I scan it in, click a few buttons, and — zoomba! — the world gets it. Or, you know, anyone who happens to be looking at my Twitter page at that moment. When I write a book, I send it to my agent, the editor, the publisher, the copy editor, and then, three years later, you can walk to a bookstore and pick it up.

I’m sure there’s some Jewish lesson I should be able to glean from this. Like, how Jerusalem wasn’t burned in a day or how over a thousand years passed between the time the Gemara was written and the time it was printed up in its first printed version, the Vilna Shas, the kind that we read today, with all the wacky columns and stuff.

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Bringing the Lower East Side to Life

By Chris Moriarty

Earlier this week, Chris Moriarty wrote about writing her new book and songs of hope and failure. Her blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


One of my main goals in writing “The Inquisitor’s Apprentice” was to bring the Lower East Side to life for my own kids and make it a place they’d want to visit and learn more about. And what brings the past to life better than food, music, and theater?

Of course there’s a plethora of great books about every aspect of life on the Lower East Side. But here — as cultural comfort food for the soul — are my favorite books about food, klezmer, and Yiddish theater.

The best book bar none about food on the Lower East Side is Jane Ziegelman’s “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement.” Ziegleman turns bare bones menus into a comprehensive account of how immigrant families worked, shopped, ate, and lived on the Lower East Side. Her portraits of the five families are sensitive, beautifully written, and at times deeply moving. And the book is packed to the gills with gems of forgotten culinary history. Such as the fact that shmaltz was mostly made with goose fat until the 1930s, when Jewish gangsters began to run illegal chicken farming operations near the East River. Who knew?

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