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January 2024: Readers' Choice results, seeing green, and hopes for a better year

Dear friends,

It’s been another very rough month here. Some days it feels as though the sadness is all-enveloping, and no amount of avocado picking can help. Other days, I try to stave off the darkness by amplifying moments of joy and gratitude, which, for me, means working, reading, writing, biking, volunteering, and spending time with friends and family, not necessarily in that order. I hope you’re finding some moments of beauty and things to be joyful about these days. Scroll down if you want to get straight to the 2023 Readers’ Choice results, book recommendations, two Literary Modiin events, poems of the month, resources for writers, a recipe and more.

Update from Israel

Since I last wrote, no further hostages have been released or rescued, and nearly every morning, we wake to the news of more fallen soldiers. As of this writing, 173 soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive. Since I last wrote, we’ve had more heartbreak: the terrible news that three hostages - Alon Shimriz, my daughter’s friend, Yotam Haim, and Samer Talalka - were accidently killed by our own troops. A few days ago the bitter news came that Judih Weinstein, an American-Israeli from Kibbutz Nir Oz, had been killed on October 7 and her body is being held in Gaza. This news came only days after the announcement that her husband, Gadi Haggai, died in captivity. And today Kibbutz Be’eri announced the death of Ilan Weiss, a member of the kibbutz’s emergency response team, who had been considered missing since October 7.

We await and pray for the release of ALL hostages still being held in Gaza, including the four we know personally: Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Gali and Ziv Berman, and Andrey Kozlov. Please continue to post on social media, and take one minute of your day to call your representatives. #BringThemHomeNow

At the stroke of midnight last night, to usher in 2024, Hamas sent off another barrage of rockets towards central Israel, including Modiin. I was the only one still awake at home, working on this newsletter, but my husband, daughter and I all quickly got to our safe room. And the other fronts are heating up, with the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea and Hezbollah in the north. It’s still too much. None of us want to be in this place of mourning and grief and uncertainty, but here we are. Among my friends, we speak about balancing the need to “not look away” - to hear the horrible stories and read the reports of survivors - while also doing things to protect ourselves from sinking into a morass.

I do want to point out that many things in central Israel have resumed and though nothing is the same, life is marching forward. The rush hour trains are full of people going to work. People are going out to restaurants. Today I received an email from our local cultural center about a new season of plays and movies and ballets. Facebook also served me an ad for an upcoming Shlomi Artzi concert. My 9th grader has been back at school and at her full activities for a while. And last Friday, after picking avocados with my brother-in-law and nephew, we went to the beach, my first time back since October 6th.

I am heartened by the many volunteers like my brother-in-law, nephew, and childhood friends who are coming to Israel to help in the agricultural sector or to make sandwiches or Shabbat food for soldiers or to take part in the hundreds of other daily volunteer opportunities here. If you’re interested in coming to volunteer but don’t know where to start, feel free to write to me and I can help.

Lastly, one piece of good news/something for which I am grateful this week: yesterday my two oldest kids were officially released from their IDF reserve duty (for now, anyway) and began the first year of their studies at their respective universities. History and economics at Hebrew U for my son and industrial engineering at Ariel for my daughter. Going from one day in the army to the next day at school won’t be simple, and clearly this was not the beginning to their university careers that anyone anticipated or wanted, especially as thousands of their fellow students (including many of their friends) are still fighting (and others are in captivity). I pray that their classrooms will soon be back at full capacity.

Writing News from Me

My essay, Seeing Green in Southern Israel, was published by Moment Magazine. It’s about my experience picking avocados at Kibbutz Sa’ad, a few kilometers from Gaza, and for some reason, it’s the piece of writing that I’m most proud of this year. I hope you’ll give it a read.

Brief writing update: I’m inching my way towards a finished first draft of my short story-in-process, the final story for what I hope will be a new novel-in-stories. This story (which I started before Oct 7) takes place during the summer of 1939, partly on Shabbat Nachamu (the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, when we commemorate multiple tragedies in Jewish history). Reading some of the commentaries and the words of Isaiah (the haftarah begins with חֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ - Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God) has actually brought me some comfort in these dark days. A reminder that - as one commentator put it - out of the flames of tragedy and loss come the sparks of redemption and change.

Here’s to redemption, change, the immediate return of all hostages, safety for our brave soldiers, and less suffering for everyone in 2024.

Readers’ Choice 2023

Thank you to all 106 people who participated in my “Readers’ Choice” survey. Joyce Maynard’s latest novel, The Bird Hotel, came in first. (Ironically, it’s the only one of the six winners that I haven’t read). Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead came in second, Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water came in third; Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures came in fourth; and tied for fifth were James McBride’s The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store and Geraldine Brooks’ Horse. Notably, this is Horse’s second year on the list, along with runners-up Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Lessons in Chemistry. See the full list of winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions (too many to put on the graphic).

I’ll call out one of the honorable mentions - Anne Berest’s The Postcard - to say that I was surprised this one did not end up among the winners, which leads me to believe that not enough people have read it. So my (not-at-all-subtle) message: go read it!

Recommended Reading

I completed my Goodreads challenge (85 books), and did one better, finishing at 86 for 2023. Not bad considering it’s been hard to concentrate for the last three months. My mom, by the way, clocked in at 101 books for the year. Here are this month’s recommendations:

Our Little Histories by Janice Weizman: This joy of a novel goes backward in time, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different member of an extended family. Starting with a fairly assimilated American Jewish woman who has been contracted to put on a living installation of a rural Belarus Jewish family, the novel takes us to a pre-independence kibbutz, 1930s Chicago, pre-war Vilna, Minsk, and a tiny shtetl called Propoisk, where a mother seeks a way to save her three young sons from the Czar’s army. I was very invested in the characters and their stories from every time period, and the structure of the book gave this reader the feeling of completing a satisfying puzzle. One of the characters is a literature teacher in 1939 Vilna, and after he’s met a promising young writer, he muses about coming across such talent. “There are quite a few who can write well, and of those perhaps a fraction show mastery, but only the smallest fraction of those have an inborn sense of hot to balance the elements into a cohesive, satisfying whole, while disguising the great effort of creation to make it seem simple and natural.” Janice has done exactly that - balanced the elements to create a cohesive, satisfying whole. Come hear Janice speak about her book at Literary Modiin’s second January event on Jan 28 - in-person if you’re in driving distance of Modiin or on Zoom if you’re not. Highly recommend!

Study for Obedience by Sarah Bernstein: I noticed this one when it was shortlisted for The Booker Prize, and I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author. The description says the novel is “for readers of Shirley Jackson…a haunting, compressed masterwork from an extraordinary new voice in Canadian fiction.” A young woman, an unnamed narrator, moves to a remote, unnamed northern country to be a housekeeper for her older brother, whose wife has recently left him. We come to understand that the narrator is Jewish and has returned to a land where her ancestors were persecuted, but the entire Jewish aspect is very subtle. The book explores many themes, including prejudice, guilt and criminality. I was fascinated by the author’s choices and also felt like I’d need to reread it, or have someone who is better at close reading help me “unpack” the novel. In fact, I immediately sent off a message to the publisher to see if the author would like to appear at Literary Modiin, but so far no response, so we’ll see. I agreed with this assessment from The Globe and Mail: "A strange, unsettling, and profoundly beguiling book. . . . The sly ambiguity of Study for Obedience practically demands rereadings. And while the story of the stranger who arrives in town and appears to upset the order of things is an old one, Bernstein’s novel feels entirely original; something ancient and unnervingly modern all at once." I think this would be a good for a book club discussion.

We Are Too Many by Hannah Pittard: I hadn’t heard of this one until one John Warner (the longtime book critic of The Chicago Tribune who writes The Biblioracle Recommends Substack) said this was the best book of the year. It’s “sort of” a memoir, in which the author chronicles the story of the discovery that her husband and best friend are having an affair. She dissects her entire relationship with both of them to try to understand if she could have predicted this, including sections where she’s having imaginary conversations with her husband. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, and I appreciated her frankness and acerbic wit. As the Southern Review of Books puts it, the book is “…a hybrid of memoir, short essays and scripts, or, perhaps more to the point, a speculative memoir that curates memories alongside and intertwined with imagined scenarios and, snappy, wry and a pleasure to read.”

The Golem of Brooklyn by Adam Mansbach: This was a fun read, with many lines that had me laughing out loud. It’s an irreverent romp featuring Len Bronstein, a Brooklyn art teacher, who, upon getting stoned, creates a 9’6” massive golem. As golems are only made in times of crisis, Len’s golem (called The Golem) wants to know why he was created. At first The Golem only speaks Yiddish, but with the help of television and Miri, a former member of a Hasidic sect, they are able to communicate. With an upcoming white nationalist march, The Golem finds his purpose, and the three take off on a “bonkers road trip.” Join me to hear Adam Mansbach discuss the book at the January 7 Literary Modiin event.

Events & Classes

I’m excited for two (!!) Literary Modiin events in January. Both of these were rescheduled in the wake of October 7th. Celebrating Jewish literature and hearing about new books is one of the ways I’m staving off the darkness these days, and I hope you’ll join me!

Our January 7 event (on Zoom), will feature Adam Mansbach (THE GOLEM OF BROOKLYN), Annie Kantar (MEANS TO BE LUCKY), and Nancy Ludmerer (SARRA COPIA: A LOCKED-IN LIFE). Register here.

Our January 28 event (hybrid - in-person and on Zoom), will feature Janice Weizman (OUR LITTLE HISTORIES), Ruth Marks Eglash (PARALLEL LINES) and Jennifer Lang (PLACES WE LEFT BEHIND). Register here. Also: I recently wrote a review of Jennifer’s PLACES WE LEFT BEHIND in the Atticus Review - please check it out!

The three Literary Modiin Israel solidarity events were very moving, and perhaps we’ll be back with a fourth in February - stay tuned. Missed a (regular or solidarity) event with Literary Modiin? Catch the recordings here.

Class: As I do every January - I’m going to sign up for One Story’s “Write with One Story” - a week of fun, generative prompts. Join me!

Poems of the Month: Haikus by Judih Weinstein

I mentioned the tragic news about Judih Weinstein z”l above. I did not know her, but I’d heard she was in a writing group and that she primarily wrote haikus. Here she is, reading some of them on YouTube. Judih was an English teacher who worked with children with special needs and used meditation to treat children suffering from anxiety caused by years of rocket fire from Gaza. You can hear in these poems what a calming presence she must have been. May her memory be a blessing.

Resources of the Month

Happy 20th anniversary to The Practicing Writer 2.0 by Erika Dreifus - hands-down the best resource for writers submitting to literary journals. Each month, Erika curates fee-free opportunities that pay for fiction, poetry, & creative nonfiction. If you’re a writer, you need to subscribe to this terrific resource!

One other resource I’ll mention for writers: The Emotion Thesaurus. It contains body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for 130 emotions, and I have it on-hand when I’m revising a scene and trying to individualize a character’s reactions.

Recipe of the Month: Cold & Crunchy Rice Salad

Welcome to the end of the newsletter (almost), where you’re rewarded with a yummy recipe. One of my new favorite recipes from Adeena Sussman’s SHABBAT is this cold & crunchy rice salad. Perfect for leftover rice. In fact, the first time I made it was Oct. 7, when we hadn’t set our plata (hot plate) because we thought we’d be having a big Simchat Torah kiddush at shul. I did have enough leftover rice from the night before and various ingredients that this worked. You can basically throw in anything crunchy.

5 cups of cold cooked rice - basmati/jasmine (I’ve used sushi rice and it’s fine)

1/2 cup of whole almonds (I’ve used slivered almonds)

1-2 stalks of celery, diced

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

1 small zucchini, sliced into rounds

3 small radishes, thinly sliced

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

I’ve also added:

1 kohlrabi, thinly sliced

1 cup green or purple cabbage

Dressing: juice of 2 lemons, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 TBSP Dijon mustard, 3/4 tsp kosher salt, 1/2 tsp dried basil, 1/4 tsp black pepper.

If using whole almonds, toast lightly then coarsely chop them. Mix all of the salad ingredients, and then add the dressing just before serving. Enjoy!

That’s it for this month. I’ll leave you with a few pictures from my month, as well as these lines from my favorite song in Hamilton, “One Last Time.” (I’ll admit that I could listen to Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in the original Broadway cast, sing this song on repeat for hours. Here’s a recording from the Kennedy Center Honors evening). The President is telling his trusted trusted advisor (Hamilton) why he is retiring from office (and quoting Micah 4:4), as he often did in real life.

Like the scripture says:

“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid.”

They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made

I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree

A moment alone in the shade

At home in this nation we’ve made

My wish for 2024 is that all of us — hostages, soldiers, Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and non-Jews — shall be able to sit under our own vines and fig trees.


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