Ellen Litman dreamed of being a writer when she went to school in Moscow in the 1980s. There was only one problem: She was Jewish, and thus she was advised to focus on something more practical, since in the Soviet Union, Jews couldn’t be successful at writing.
Litman studied math and computer programming, and immigrated to Pittsburgh with her family in 1992. It took her several years to work up the courage to take a writing class; she worried that she couldn’t write in a language that was not her native one. It turned out she could: In 2004, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. In 2007, she published her first book, “The Last Chicken in America,” which deals with the experiences of a young woman from Russia trying to settle into Pittsburgh.
In March, Litman, who is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and teaches writing and English, released her second novel, “Mannequin Girl.” Set in a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis, it tells the story of a Jewish girl, Kat, and her journey into adulthood dealing with her parents, who teach at her school, as well as unrequited love and latent anti-Semitism.
Litman, 40, lives with her husband and two children in Mansfield, Conn. She spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about playing with autobiographical elements and why moving to the United States hasn’t changed her idea of Judaism.
When Lisa Robinson name-checks Elton, Mick and Iggy, it sounds completely natural. It should; through four decades, the legendary music journalist has been nearly as pivotal a pop figure as her subjects. Robinson famously introduced David Bowie to Iggy Pop, helped The Clash and Elvis Costello score record deals, and hung out with the Beatles. In great detail, she recounts these and other unbelievable-but-true anecdotes in “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll” (Riverhead Books), a vivid, richly detailed memoir that functions as a de facto history of rock — and of an edgier, bygone New York.
Robinson culled her copy from thousands of hours of tape-recorded interviews she’s collected since her first columns were published in the British music weekly Disc and Music Echo in 1969. Today, as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, she oversees music coverage and profiles pop royalty like Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga — who ended up cooking Robinson pasta. The Forward caught up with Robinson by phone from Manhattan, where she lives with her husband of more than four decades, Richard Robinson, himself a onetime rock journalist who produced Lou Reed’s first solo album.
Michael Kaminer: “There Goes Gravity” offers all of these fascinating anecdotes about pop legends, but gives away very little about Lisa Robinson. Why did you leave out autobiographical details?
New York author Susan Shapiro and her Muslim physical therapist, Kenan Trebincevic, bonded, and together they wrote the recently published “The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return” (Penguin Books). The book tells the story of the Bosnian War through Trebincevic’s eyes.
In 1992 he was 12 and living a normal, happy childhood, until his beloved karate coach arrived at the door one day with an AK-47 rifle and yelled, “You have one hour to leave or be killed.” Christian Serb neighbors and classmates turned on him and his family. Their crime? They were Muslim. Trebincevic fled to America. Now, after two decades in the United States, Trebincevic is going back to visit his homeland to confront the neighbors who’d betrayed him and his family.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Shapiro for an exclusive interview.
Dorri Olds: How did you come to co-write “The Bosnia List”?
Even if you’re not a theater nerd, Warren Hoffman’s “The Great White Way” (Rutgers University Press) makes a fascinating read. The book’s subtitle, “Race and the Broadway Musical,” only hints at its breadth, and the depth of Hoffman’s laser-sharp analysis of an all-American art form. Billed as “the first book to reveal the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals for almost one hundred years,” “The Great White Way” also delves into Jewish contributions to the musical stage, including a kind of myopia around race and ethnicity as Jews fought to fit in themselves. Hoffman, a playwright himself, works by day as associate director of community programming at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He spoke to the Forward from his Philly office.
MIchael Kaminer: It’s hard to believe that no one’s explored a topic this ripe. Why is that?
Warren Hoffman: Until recently, musical theater hasn’t been given real attention. People looked at it as a fluffy art form with nothing to say of real significance. “Oh race, that’s too serious, how can a musical be about that?” But it’s all over the place. Because you don’t see African Americans or Asian Americans when you look at show like “Hello Dolly,” people ask how it can be a show about race — there are no people of color present. But that’s almost a misstep. People have missed some of what’s actually in front of their faces.
Every year, of the 75,000 young Israelis who complete their military service, it is estimated that around one third leave everything behind to go backpacking. The nomadic ramble through Southeast Asia and South America in that indeterminate period between youth and adulthood is hardly unique to Israel, but it takes on its own characteristics at the end of mandatory service — a break from order and a getaway from the confines of a small state under siege.
While one can escape Israel, one cannot escape Israeliness. On the road, for linguistic, cultural and emotional reasons, Israeli backpackers have come to constitute their own community. Along the so-called “hummus trail,” as Dor Glick reported for Ha’aretz, there has built up “a chain of laid-back refuges in which the sacred tongue rules in loud tones and the de rigueur item of clothing is a T-shirt signifying the conclusion of an army training course.”
Literature is in Zeruya Shalev’s genes. Born in Kvutzat Kinneret in 1959 — a kibbutz by the shores of the Galilee where the songwriter Naomi Shemer was also born — Shalev grew up with a father who was a literary critic and an uncle who was a poet. Her cousin is the acclaimed novelist Meir Shalev, author of “The Blue Mountain” and “Four Meals.” Her husband, the writer Eyal Megged, is himself the scion of writers Eda Zoritte and Aharon Megged.
Writing, then, for Zeruya Shalev was practically predestined. “Encounters with pain and sorrow made me want to write. When I was 6, I was already writing sad poems about cats and dogs that had been killed and soldiers that were dying in war,” Shalev said at a recent event at London’s Jewish Book Week. “It’s in my DNA.” During the Six Day War, she composed poetry while cocooned in the bunker at Kvutzat Kinneret, verse that she still remembers to this day.
After failing in her training to be a therapist while conducting her military service, Shalev sees now that her career is to be “a therapist for literary figures. Normally the characters I create are busy in some sort of crisis and, as a literary therapist, it is my job to help them overcome it.”
The idea that the trial of Alfred Dreyfus inspired Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” is “simply not true,” Shlomo Avineri declared in a pointed, fluent, and well-received lecture that opened the first full day of London’s Jewish Book Week on February 23.
Discussing his biography of the father of modern Zionism, “Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” Avineri asserted that through examining Herzl’s diaries and letters, he concluded that the Dreyfus affair did not preoccupy Herzl’s thoughts at that time. Only in hindsight would the fate of Alfred Dreyfus come to be seen as a pivotal moment both for European Jewry and the history of the Zionist movement.
Rather, the background to “The Jewish State” was the collapsing scenery of 19th-century Europe and specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had, up until that time, been “the best country for Jews in Europe” and had been referred to as the “goldene medine,” even before the United States. Emancipation began towards the end of the 18th century, while in the 19th century the Emperor Franz Joseph I obtained the moniker “Froyim Yossel” from his Jewish subjects who during his reign became more equal members of his multi-national, multi-ethnic empire.
During the 1890s, however, “nationalism threatened the unity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” while the advent of democracy resulted in the emergence of “racist, populist, and anti-Semitic candidates” for office. This affected Herzl’s city of Vienna, where Karl Lueger of the Christian Social Party won municipal elections in 1895 by decrying “corrupt liberalism” and charging that Jews controlled the Austrian economy and the press.
The sea of love can be a “dark and scary place — deep, cold, impenetrable, and populated by billions of freakish creatures lurking in the depths with their gnashing teeth and electrified appendages,” Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love essay column in The New York Times, writes in his new book, “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers),” (HarperCollins).
Jones should know: He receives about 100 submissions a week for the column, which he’s edited for the past nine years. Appearing in the Sunday Style section, Modern Love is one of the most-read columns in the world — by women, anyway. Columns have resulted in at least 37 different books, making the column one of the most sought-after reads by writers, as well.
You might expect Jones to know everything there is to know about love, but he denies being a guru. In “Love Illuminated,” he examines the trends he’s seen over the past decade, broken down by stages from “Pursuit” to “Connection” to “Monotony” to “Infidelity,” mixed with anecdotes from published essays, his own pre-Internet path to marriage and amusing questionnaires.
The Forward’s Amy Klein spoke to Jones, who has a Jewish grandfather and his wife is Jewish, about concepts like destiny, soul mates, the role religion plays in love and, of course, what type of stories pique his interest enough to be published in Modern Love.
There’s never been any kind of publicity author Gary Shteyngart hasn’t liked, but it seems the same cannot be said about Canadian fiction.
The Russian-American writer, currently making the rounds on a book tour for his new memoir, “Little Failure,” managed to dis the oeuvre of writers north of the border while being interviewed by Vulture in New York.
In response to a question about whether literary creativity should be financially subsidized, Shteyngart replied, “Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is.”
Canadians, earnest as they are, took this off-the-cuff insinuation that Canadian fiction is well, boring, far too much to heart. The National Post ran a piece on January 9 titled, “Canadian fiction dull? Blame government: Grants creating ‘a lack of funny in this country.’”
The life and times of the late rocker Lou Reed will be detailed in a biography that will be penned by Rolling Stone magazine writer Will Hermes, publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux said on Wednesday.
Reed, the frontman of the 1960s influential band The Velvet Underground, died of liver disease last October at the age of 71, months after receiving a liver transplant.
“Over six decades, the sound of Lou Reed’s voice defined everything that’s smart and streetwise about New York City, while his songs set the standard for what can happen when popular music takes artistic risks,” said Alex Star, senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“His influence is everywhere, but the full story of his life remains to be told,” he added in an email.
The book is tentatively titled “Lou: A New York Life.” No publication date has been set, but a spokesman said it is about two to three years away.
The Brooklyn-born Reed, whose solo songs include “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Perfect Day,” formed The Velvet Underground with musician John Cale as an experiment in avant-garde rock. The group was managed early on by pop artist Andy Warhol, who spotted them after they performed in New York clubs.
At this time of year, I’m confronted with the many books published in 2013 that I haven’t yet managed to read. It seems that every day another “best-of” list materializes to remind me of the recurrent truth: There’s just never enough time to get to all of the books that I’d like to read, not even if I limited myself to books of Jewish interest, or to novels and short-story collections. And yet, as we approach the new year, publishers’ 2014 catalogs promise a new array of tempting titles. Here are just five of the notable “Jewish books” that I’m already anticipating.
By Molly Antopol
I’m not the only one with high expectations for this debut collection of short stories. Anointed by the National Book Foundation as one of its “5 Under 35” honorees, Antopol and her book (which W.W. Norton will release in February) have received plenty of pre-publication buzz. “My stories move from McCarthy-era Los Angeles to modern-day Jerusalem to communist Prague,” Antopol has said in an interview, adding that many of the stories were inspired by her family history.
“Falling Out of Time”
By David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen)
Anytime this acclaimed Israeli author publishes a book it’s newsworthy. Coming in March from Knopf, “Falling Out of Time” is being billed by its publisher as “a genre-defying drama—part play, part prose, pure poetry—to tell the story of bereaved parents setting out to reach their lost children.” As was the case when Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” was published in the U.S. in 2010, it may be hard to separate the work from the author’s life: One of Grossman’s sons, Uri, was killed while in IDF service during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
Set in one of northwest London’s tight-knit Jewish communities, Francesca Segal’s debut novel “The Innocents” tells a tale of family and love that includes all the ingredients of a widely read story: lust, betrayal, doubt and commitment. Adam and Rachel are in their late 20s and engaged to be married. Then Rachel’s free-spirited and vulnerable cousin Ellie enters the scene, causing uneasiness in the conservative community — and in Adam’s life.
First released in June 2012, the novel has won 33-year-old Segal six awards, including the 2013 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In early December, she was awarded the Harold U. Ribalow Prize for Jewish Fiction by Hadassah Magazine. The book has been translated into German, Italian and French, and Carnival Films, the company that produced “Downton Abbey,” has secured the film rights.
Segal, the daughter of late Erich Segal, the author of “Love Story,” is a journalist and writer who lives in London and New York. She has just started working on a new novel, and met with the Forward before the award ceremony for the Ribalow Prize in New York to talk about her self-identification as a female Jewish writer, her own experiences growing up in northwest London, and how Jews behave on the subway in the United States.
Anna Goldenberg: You studied experimental psychology at Oxford. How did you make the leap from that to writing?
If poetry requires disclosure, I’ll start with one: I am a friend of Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s, and a fellow Yiddish poet. He sent me his book with a kind dedication, and an additional inscription in his neat hand: bet-samekh-daled. That is, the author of this book entitled “Prayers of a Heretic” noted that his signature to me was written “besiyata-dishmaya,” with the aid of Heaven.
Such a juxtaposition is an illuminating introduction to the contradictions in Taub’s work. He left the ultra-Orthodox community, but that is not the subject of his poems any more than sex is the topic of Yona Wallach’s — that departure makes the poems possible, but the volume is not merely a translation of his personal story into poetic biography. Rather, this transformation gave him a set of tools. To become someone else is a lasting condition of every living person; Taub’s particular experience of that change makes him able to perceive it in others.
Taub’s poems are like short stories, or cleverly caught snapshots. His depiction of diverse personalities is sympathetic, sometimes even tender in its broadmindedness, and nearly unerring. Characters in a city crowded with people, abandoned and alone in their apartment, “snot pooling on [their] floorboards” (this from “The Woman Who Did Not Turn Her Sorrow Into Art” — itself a thought-provoking title); couples gay and straight, old and young, having sex in a real bed or in their imagination; cigarette smokers thrown into the world (“Temporary Outcasts”).
There are the eccentric denizens of the libraries which are their only refuge, and the quasi prophets caught in a dystopia they are powerless to prevent (these are some of Taub’s most strident, least nuanced, and thus least successful poems). Of course, as well, we meet those who have left the ultra-Orthodoxy of Taub’s youth.
Half the Kingdom
By Lore Segal
Melville House, 176 pages, $23.95
Since 2001, the already-abundant anxieties of living in New York City have been ratcheted up by an exponential factor. Abandoned bags have become potential tools of terror; mysterious smells could be toxic; the sounds of sirens or of helicopters overhead might signify an emergency unfolding close to home.
That unspoken anxiety has been captured in several notable fictional works: Jonathan Lethem’s “Chronic City” presented an altered Manhattan that nonetheless alluded to everything from middle-class displacement to the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 in surreal, though no less wrenching, terms. Thomas Pynchon’s new “Bleeding Edge” is a more realistic account of several months of September 2001, albeit with Pynchon’s trademark mysterious and ominous portents looming in the background.
Lore Segal’s new novel “Half the Kingdom” taps into that same well of anxiety, and ups the ante by adding two more dimensions: the frustration of the unrecognized artist (which Segal’s 1976 novella “Lucinella” also ably channeled) and the terrors of growing old. “Having an Alzheimer’s epidemic?” asks Joe Bernstine, one of the book’s central characters, during a visit early in the novel to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. That chilling concept, with all it implies, pervades the actions that follow.
Joe, retired from a think tank and now at work on “The Compendium of End-of-World Scenarios,” teams up with Dr. Miriam Haddad to investigate whether the onrush of dementia in Cedars of Lebanon is a coincidence, medical emergency, or terrorist attack. He enlists family and friends to take part in this investigation, and once this premise has been established, the course of action seems clear: we’re in caper territory. Right?
Happy Mutant Baby Pills
By Jerry Stahl
Harper Perennial, 272 pages, $14.99
The narrator of Jerry Stahl’s new novel “Happy Mutant Baby Pills,” has a serious case of unrest. Lloyd earns his living writing pharmaceutical copy — specifically, disclaimers for the side effects of various drugs. He’s also got a fairly severe heroin habit, and possesses a general sense of detachment from the world.
Lloyd is a particularly deadpan narrator. He’s bleakly funny, world-weary, and appropriately candid. Stahl (and, through him, Lloyd) is handy with a turn of phrase, as in a pastor who makes reference to the “withered as the dugs of Satan.” Late in the novel Lloyd notes that one character “looked exactly the same, except for missing an arm.” In the novel’s lengthy prologue, he says that years of drug use occasionally affect his sense of time, and warns the reader that “I used to write greeting cards. Sometimes I relapse.” Thankfully, those nods to cliché manifest themselves as the bleakest of comedy — something this satirical, occasionally transgressive novel has in abundance.
Lloyd is savvy enough to come up with the perfect reference for nearly every situation, from nods to Nick Tosches’s similarly harrowing body of work to Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” to Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love.” Curiously, there is one instance where Lloyd barely acknowledges a cultural reference point: the discovery of a character with a name echoing Fernando Pessoa, author of “The Book of Disquiet.” Is Stahl paralleling Pessoa’s account of one writer’s flights of fancy from his day job, and contrasting those idle thoughts with Lloyd’s journey from frustrated writer to outlaw?
A family rumor was the genesis of David Laskin’s extraordinary new book, “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century.”
Laskin heard from his mother who heard it from her cousin Barbara who heard it from her parents: that they were related to Lazar Kaganovich, henchman of Joseph Stalin and a perpetrator of the famine genocide that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s.
Because Laskin’s great aunt Itel (Ida) Rosenberg founded the Maidenform Bra Co., at one point the largest privately held company in America, Laskin, who spoke to the Forward on the phone from his home in Seattle, thought he had “a fantastic idea for a new book, the juxtaposition of a communist monster and a capitalist tycoon in the same family.”
While his research proved the Stalin connection a canard, he discovered there was another part of his family he knew absolutely nothing about: “an entire branch of the family killed in the Holocaust,” Laskin said.
Laskin found out about his family’s tragic past when he met his Israeli cousin Benny Kaganovitz for the first time while traveling to Israel for his research.
Benny had interviewed his mother, Sonia, a pioneer, and wrote two unpublished memoirs about her early experiences. He also saved over 300 letters Sonia received from her family in the Pale, of the Settlement, in Volozhin, home of the famed Volozhin yeshiva. Going back at least four generations, the family patriarchs were torah scribes. Among the letters, which were written in Yiddish, were several from Sonia’s grandfather, Sholom Tvi, who’d gone to visit relatives in the United States, just before World War.
The Holy Days are barely behind us, and we’re already preparing for Hanukkah (the first day of which, as some have realized, coincides with American Thanksgiving this year). But between these events comes something else that should be on your calendar: Jewish Book Month.
Running this year from October 26 to November 26, Jewish Book Month is associated most visibly with the New York-based Jewish Book Council. Many of the author visits to North American synagogues and Jewish community centers that are highlights of local Jewish book festivals occur during this time period. Check this list of sites associated with the Jewish Book Council to see what may be planned during Jewish Book Month in your area.
But whether you’re in New York or New Zealand, you can find ways to appreciate the richness and diversity of Jewish books and writing over the next month. Here are 10 suggestions:
1) New York’s 92nd Street Y will host the East Coast premiere of “Saffron and Rosewater: Songs and Stories from Persian Jewish Women” (November 23). The performance is adapted from work by Gina Nahai, Angella Nazarian, Farideh Goldin, Dora Levy Mossanen, Esther Amini and composer Niki Black. The writers will participate in a Q&A following the performance.
Chani and Baruch are about to get married. In her heavy, layered dress, the sweat drips down the hollow of her back and collects in pools under her arms. She has never been kissed, never held a boy’s hand. As for Baruch, such is his panic that he cannot even remember Chani’s face, though they had been on three or four dates. The wedding night is within sight, a cause of anxiety for them both, each knowing nothing of the other or much about the act itself.
The Rebbetzin, meanwhile, is pregnant at 44 and knows that this child will be her last. One evening she awakes to find the bed wet and sits up in a spasm of panic. She calls upon her husband, Chaim, to do something and yet he is impotent in the moment, frozen by the scene playing out in front of him. The best he can do for his wife is cover her hair as she is carried off on a stretcher into the waiting ambulance.
Set in the ultra-Orthodox enclaves of northwest London, Eve Harris’s “The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann” takes these scenes as its starting point, ambitiously shifting between perspectives and generations and examining a cloistered world with a judgmental outsiders’ eye. “Chani Kaufmann” was recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (though not shortlisted) and sold out its initial print run in the United Kingdom. The attention has been a surprise to many not only due to the narrowness of the subject but since its publisher, Sandstone Press, is a relatively small outfit based in Scotland.
“The writing is fresh and bold and the author has shone a light on an unfamiliar corner of life and experience,” Eilidh Smith of Sandstone Press told The Forward, when asked why they would pick up and publish a novel about London’s Haredim. “The terrific subplot of the Rabbi’s wife and her struggle is another element which really leapt out for us, making this book, which was already far more than a boy meets girl story, quite dazzling — endings and beginnings and the bit in-between.
If you’re Jewish, and a sports star, you probably have an assured spot in David J. Goldman’s “Jewish Sports Stars: Past and Present.” But if you’re found to be violating Major League Baseball’s enhancing drug policy, you might not make the cover.
So it goes for Ryan Braun, the disgraced slugger who was suspended for the remainder the 2013 baseball season after he tested positive for steroid use. Braun has now been removed from the cover of “Jewish Sports Stars,” published by Kar-Ben, Publishers Weekly reported.
Kar-Ben publisher Joni Sussman told PW that “While Ryan Braun is a very talented baseball player and we were originally excited to have a contemporary sports figure of his talent and stature with such a strong identification to his Jewish heritage on the cover, there was no question that, after the steroids scandal surfaced, his image was tarnished and he was no longer appropriate to serve as a role model for Jewish kids.”
The book, now in its second edition, was scheduled to be published in August but was delayed until October for the change to be made. The original cover showed Braun alongside Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman. Braun will be now replaced by — who else? —Sandy Koufax.
A version of this post originally appeared on Ron Hogan’s Beatrice blog.
I owe my discovery of Bernard Malamud’s “The German Refugee” — published 50 years ago Saturday — to “The Best American Short Stories of the Century,” which joined my bookshelf shortly after its release. And although I don’t normally use the word “frisson” in everyday conversation, it describes exactly what went through me when I saw the title of Malamud’s story in the anthology’s table of contents.
Reading this story as a writer, I noticed several elements. First, there is the first-person narrator through whose eyes we learn of another character and his conflicts. Perhaps the most famous example of this technique is the Nick Carraway narrative of Jay Gatsby’s story in “The Great Gatsby.” In “The German Refugee,” American Martin Goldberg recounts the tale of the eponymous “German Refugee,” an older German-Jewish man named Oskar Gassner, whom Martin describes as “the Berlin critic and journalist” who had fled Germany in the months after the Kristallnacht of November 1938. In those days, Martin tells us, he “made a little living” by tutoring such refugees in English, and the meat of the story recalls the summer of 1939, when Martin worked with Gassner in preparation for the latter’s delivery of a lecture in English.
Then, too, for anyone who focuses on language, this story yields rich rewards. One sees how a character — in this case, a refugee character — gains definition through speech: “‘Zis heat,’ he muttered…. ‘Impozzible. I do not know such heat.’ It was bad enough for me but terrible for him. He had difficulty breathing.”