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April 2024: Booker Prize recs, unity in an orange grove, and Pesach brownies

Dear friends,

Hopefully this month will bring better news. As one friend put it, she’s moved on from hoping for a Purim miracle to hoping for a Pesach (Passover) miracle. It’s day 178, and we’re still reeling. But again, my aim in this monthly newsletter is to bring you literary goodness, so read on for book recommendations, an essay of the month, a new resource for writers, a yummy (Pesadic) recipe, a new Israel solidarity literary event and more. (My Israel update can be found towards the bottom of this newsletter). By the way, this month marks four years since I started sending out a monthly newsletter, so happy anniversary, and a big thank you for your support, dear readers!

Brief writing update: My work-in-progress continues. It’s early days, and at the moment I’m writing various scenes without any kind of outline, going down various research rabbit holes. I guess I am what they call a “pantser” rather than a “plotter.” To give you an idea of some of the scenes I’ve been working on, here are some random tabs open on my browser: 1) the fun stuff: a map of pre-WWII Jewish cultural sites in Warsaw; an article about Poland’s legendary Jewish tangos; info about a particular Yiddish play (Yankl der Schmid); an article from a 1920 Journal of American Folklore on Yiddish proverbs; a website of a train consultant/railway historian; and 2) the sobering stuff: a Yad Vashem article about Transport X on September 15, 1942 (from Caserne Dossin, Belgium to Auschwitz); info on visiting the Bobigny Deportation Memorial and the Drancy Memorial; an article on the Vélodrome d'Hiver (or "Vél d'Hiv") roundup, the largest French deportation of Jews during the Holocaust; and about a dozen other Holocaust-related tabs.

You never know where the research will take you. I was looking for a detail about someone else, and I stumbled upon information about my family members I’ve never seen before. It was a bit surreal to be sitting in my usual coffee shop before work and to come across the Nazi records of Transport X, which included the names, birthdates, and professions of five family members, two of my grandmother’s sisters, their husbands, and the two-and-a-half-year-old baby of one of my great-aunts (ie my father’s first cousin), all killed at Auschwitz as soon as they disembarked.

L: Czarna (listed here by her French name, Sonia) Glanz Kleinhandler and Abraham Kleinhandler. R: Toba (listed by here as Henia) Glanz Feld, her husband Abraham Feld, and their baby Josef Feld.

I’d decided, around the time of reading Anne Berest’s The Postcard last summer, so pre Oct 7, that this would be my next writing project. I can’t explain why delving into this research and writing is helping me get through the days, but somehow it is.

Recommended Reading

I’m up to 17 books so far this year, four behind schedule. Here are this month’s recommendations:

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch - This won the Booker Prize last year, and it’s easy to see why: beautiful writing and a heart-wrenching story that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The novel begins in Dublin, when Eilish Stack, a scientists and mother of four, finds members of the newly-formed Irish secret police on her doorstep. They’ve come to question her husband, a trade unionist, but immediately she feels some evil has entered her home. As things unravel in Ireland, Eilish tries desperately to keep her family together. It’s dystopian in the sense that the events described haven’t actually happened in Ireland, but it feels as if they could, a warning about how easily and quickly modern countries can spiral into chaos when their democratic institutions/norms are curbed (ahem!). I listened to the audio version, and the narrator was excellent. I suspect this will make my top five reads of the year. Let me know if you’ve read it and if you’d like to discuss the ending! This would make a great choice for a book club.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almedia by Shehan Karunatilaka - On a lighter note, this Sri Lankan novel won the Booker Prize in 2022 (you can see I’m on a Booker Prize kick at the moment), and the audiobook was a true delight. This novel focuses on Maali Almedia, “war photographer, gambler, and closet queen,” who has turned up dead in a sort of waystation for ghosts. Maali has no idea why or how he was killed, but given the rival factions in Sri Lanka, the list of suspects is long. One might assume that a novel set during the Sri Lankan civil war is a heavy read, but it isn’t at all, and the author strikes a brilliant balance between tragedy and wit. From the Economist: "Comic, macabre, angry and thumpingly alive... [Maali’s voice] has bite, brilliance, and sparkle... Still, the furious comedy in Mr. Karunatilaka’s novel never courts despair." This one is also a strong candidate to make my top five reads this year - highly recommend!

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver - I knew there were a few Barbara Kingsolver novels I’d missed over the years, but when someone in my book club mentioned that The Lacuna is a historical novel that brings together Lev Trotsky’s sojourn in Mexico, the artists Friedo Kahlo and Diego Rivera, I knew I’d want to read it. The protagonist is (the fictional) Harrison Shepherd, born in the US and raised in Mexico, never at home in either. He learns what he can from various housekeepers and cooks, and eventually lands himself a position as a plaster mixer for Rivera, all while scribbling away in his journals. Eventually he becomes a personal secretary to Trotsky, and later a best-selling author, only to be caught up in a McCarthy-era witch hunt. I liked this blurb from the NYT: “The Lacuna can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people...But the fuller value...lies in its call to conscience and connection."


Literary Modiin’s Fourth Israel Solidarity Event will take place on Sunday, April 14, at 20:00 IL time / 1 pm ET. This is a chance to hear short readings from writers inside Israel and abroad relevant to our current moment. Featuring readings by Avner Landes, Gili Haimovich, Shlomi Hatuka, Sarah Sassoon, Rebecca Bardach and Elissa Wald. Register here.

Missed any of our previous Literary Modiin events, solidarity or otherwise? Catch them here.

Other events: Last night I went to an in-person Jerusalism event at which Haim Watzman read from one of his new stories and discussed “Fiction and War” with Lonnie Malka. (Join the Jerusalism mailing list here). And a reminder that tomorrow, April 2, the National Library of Israel is hosting “The Language of War: Lost in Translation?” with Ambassador Michael Oren and Elisa Albert, Iddo Gefen, and Aviya Kushner.

Essay of the Month: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

What to Expect When You’re Expecting by David Saltzman (The Ilanot Review). Terrific essay with a great voice, about parenting and youth and growing up.

Resource of the Month: what now?

A relatively new Substack by Mary G. with weekly prompts that go directly to your inbox. (I don’t know her last name, or if I’ve read her work, but according to her “About” page, she is a published novelist, short story writer, essayist, etc.). I’m enjoying her prompts thus far, and I’ve used quite a few to start some scenes in my work-in-progress.

Recipe of the Month: Passover Brownies ala Martha Stewart

Welcome to the (near) end of the newsletter, where you’re rewarded with a yummy recipe. Since we learned that my daughter is celiac two years ago, a lot of my cooking has become gluten-free, and Passover is the holiday on which she can eat almost all of what the rest of us can (though we do have to get special GF matzah). Anyway, my friend Jen brought over these brownies a few months ago, and they were such a big hit, I’ve been making them everywhere I go. The basis is a recipe from Martha Stewart, but it is quite easy to adjust the recipe and make them gluten-free/Pesadic and pareve. I also tried cut down the sugar by a third and it works just fine. So here is my adapted, pareve, Pesadic recipe. I’ll put Martha’s original quantities in parentheses.

  • 1/3 cup canola oil (Martha: 1 stick (100 g) unsalted butter, cut into large pieces)

  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

  • 1 cup sugar (Martha: 1 1/2 cups)

  • 3 large eggs

  • ¼ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

  • ½ teaspoon coarse salt

  • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons Gluten-free/kosher-for-Passover flour (Martha: all-purpose flour)

Melt the chocolate (if making dairy, melt together with the butter). Mix everything together, and spread into a square baking pan. Bake for 35-40 min at 350 F/ 175 C. The key here is the 1/2 tsp of coarse salt. It gives the brownies a great sweet/salty feel. Enjoy!

Israel Update & Resources

The protests are heating up. Yesterday I was working on this newsletter on my way to the Jerusalism event I mentioned above — standing room only on my train, as people converged on Jerusalem for a protest at the Knesset. It definitely had the feel of the judicial reform protests of a year ago, but with the addition of people carrying posters of the hostages. But I’ll let you read about the protests in the Israeli press…It’s day 178, and the hostages are never far from our minds. One only need walk outside, literally anywhere in this country, to be reminded. #BringThemHomeNow!!

Top row: pictures from the Navon (Jerusalem) train station last night and an event for Gali and Ziv Berman, 26-year-old twins, still captive in Gaza. Bottom row: massive signs outside my office in every direction + our empty chairs in Modiin, along my regular running/biking/walking route.

Speaking of the Israeli press, I appreciated this message from David Horovitz, editor of The Times of Israel, who was asked by visitors on a solidarity mission for some “good news.” This is what he came up with:

…amid the ongoing nightmare of October 7 and a war we have yet to decisively win, facing monstrous terrorist armies on two borders, battling to survive within an increasingly intolerant international context, and led by failed, dysfunctional leadership, much about this country remains inspirational. Our people are widely resilient, competent, wise and patriotic — qualities we deserve and do not have in our current leadership. We rebuilt our ancient homeland in spectacularly unpromising circumstances, focused innovation and inspiration to make it thrive, and have been fighting as one to defend it and restore its security through six hellish months.

Read the whole article here: Silver Linings in an Ongoing Nightmare, The Times of Israel, March 27

This resilience bears out my experience, or at least the experiences I actively seek. Regular readers of this newsletter know that I’ve been volunteering in the agricultural sector nearly every Friday, as I first wrote about in Finding Green in Southern Israel. This past Friday, for the third week in a row, I went to a citrus orchard and helped pick clementines. See below for a picture of just one branch of a clementine tree, and you’ll understand why last week it took four of us a full 90 minutes to clear one tree. I’ve met people from all over - grandparents, tourists, soldiers, and even a PhD student in astrophysics - all coming to volunteer.

Last Friday, none of my friends could make it, so I went by myself. There was a minibus of other volunteers, a group of Mexican Jews now living in San Diego and Miami, here on a trip through Maccabi Olami. Many of them spoke Hebrew quite well, and when one of them said we needed music, I volunteered to play my happy Israeli songs playlist. Many of them knew the songs and sang along as we filled our pouches with clementines. Let me tell you, there is no better feeling than singing שבת אחים ואחיות (A Tribe of Brothers and Sisters) and the chorus of מהפכה של שמחה out loud in a clementine grove with Jews from all over the world. It was the 2024 version of Safam’s “Sitting in a hall, in Kiryat Shemoneh…”

Alas, right before Shabbat on the same day came the terrible news that a soldier from Modiin had been killed and 16 others wounded, one of whom succumbed to his wounds yesterday. May their memories be a blessing, and may all the wounded heal quickly. My friend Leah’s son is still in an induced coma; please continue to pray for the healing of Moshe Aharon ben Leah Beila and all our soldiers.

ICYMI: Read Joanna Chen’s From the Edges of a Broken World, and then the interview with her in The New Republic on the background of Guernica pulling her essay, and her way forward. “The conversation has begun,” she says.

Also, two more great resources on Israel: Elissa Wald’s Substack, Never Alone, and Dan Senor’s Call Me Back podcast. Both excellent.

Unrelated but of interest:

Rest in peace, the Honorable Joe Lieberman z”l. Ethan Tucker, his stepson, shared a beautiful and moving eulogy on Facebook. I had the honor of meeting my former senator once, when he and Hadassah graciously welcomed me to their Shabbat table in 1990. I was spending a fairly lonely summer interning in DC, but that meal was a highlight. Instead of speaking of politics, he seemed genuinely interested in asking me about life on campus and my experience at the Columbia Daily Spectator, as he himself had been the editor of the Yale Daily News in his day. From Ethan’s eulogy:

Tokho ke-varo—His inner gilded character and generosity shone through to all those who encountered him. His סבר פנים יפות, his gleaming countenance, was not a well-executed politeness. It reflected the inner joy he truly felt when he encountered each person. There was no person, no matter their station, their seniority, their origin, their ideology, who was not capable of evoking this response from him.

יהי זכורו ברוך - May his memory be a blessing, and may we merit future leaders like Joe Lieberman

Pesach bonus: My husband Josh is in the US now, for his usual pre-Pesach teaching trip. This year he’s been studying the haggadot used by Jewish soldiers in the US and British army and in early kibbutzim, and finding many inspirational messages of Jewish agency. He’s been posting images from these hagaddot on Facebook. Follow him there to see some of his findings.

Beautiful Israel

I’ll leave you with some images from my month.

Sides: The anemone are gone and the cyclamen are coming to an end but we have lots of red buttercups these days, and Judean viper's bugloss. Center: picking clementines and artichokes (Actually we were there to pick asparagus, but the artichokes in the next field over were more picturesque).

Wishing those who celebrate a חג כשר ושמח (happy and kosher Passover) or a happy belated Easter or a Ramadan kareem. May we be able to celebrate the freedom for all the hostages by the time we sit down at our seders. May the wounded be healed, and may this month bring less suffering for everyone.

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