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June 2024: Fangirling, a Pair of Stories, and a Powerful Prompt

Dear friends,

I’m a few days late, but I hope you had a decent month and that June will bring better news. Amid the ongoing, 241-day nightmare for our hostages and their families, the horror and death that comes with war, I’m trying to stay sane by focusing on the things in my control (spending time with friends and family; work; volunteering; exercise; attending literary events; and of course, writing and reading). Scroll down for your monthly dose of book reviews, literary events, a writing prompt, two stories of the month, a recipe, and, towards the bottom, an update on Israel and additional resources.

Brief writing update: My work-in-progress, a novel inspired by my great aunt, plods along. (For those new to the newsletter, my essay, Czarna, Reimagined, gives a brief overview of the real-life events). I try to write most days, even if it is only revising a few paragraphs. Too easily, I allow myself to research a detail and I end up down a research rabbit hole, even when the detail isn’t particularly important. I sense I am soon going to enter a phase of research only. (I’ve come to this conclusion after hearing Anne Berest at the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival and Sarah Ansbacher at Literary Modiin’s May event and reading Stephen J. Dubner’s Turbulent Souls - review below. Each of them read hundreds of testimonies or interviewed dozens of people). I’ll need to find a way to square that with my desire to tinker with sentences a bit each day.

I’ve also slowly been submitting some of the short stories from my new novel-in-stories to literary journals. No luck yet, but I did receive two very nice rejections over the weekend (“we found much to admire / we were very impressed with your writing / please try us again” etc., etc.) so that is something.

Something to look forward to on the personal front: After Shavuot, in honor of my parents’ 80th birthdays this year, nearly all of us (my parents, sisters, their families, everyone in my family except my son in the IDF) are headed to Corsica, where, among other things, we’ll meet our newfound cousins! (See Czarna, Reimagined, above).

Recommended Reading

I made good reading progress this month, and I’m up to 34 books so far this year, one behind schedule. Here are my top reading recommendations this month:

Wan by Dawn Promislow: Written in sparse prose and a haunting voice, Dawn Promislow’s novel about a Jewish family in South Africa raises important questions about complicity, which I found to be relevant not only to Apartheid but to a number of issues. Jacqueline is an artist from a well-off family whose life begins to unravel once an anti-Apartheid activist comes to hide in their guest house. From the outset, we know that Jacqueline and her family have moved to the US, and it is from this vantage point many years later that she looks back and narrates past events, after a lifelong avoidance of reckoning with her own actions. I think this would make a great choice for a book club discussion. As Antanas Sileika wrote in a blurb for the book: “The atmosphere in this powerful novel is the literary equivalent of the highly charged atmosphere you feel before a major storm. I couldn't put this book down." That was my experience as well. I’m very excited to hear Dawn speak about it at our June Literary Modiin event on June 9. See below and register here!

Displaced Persons by Joan Leegant: Each story in Joan Leegant's collection is exquisite - what a joy to read! Her characters include teenage girls on a trip to Israel with their parents, daughters and sisters trying to support their older parents or their ailing siblings, lecturers or volunteers, grouchy parents, two former soldiers, all of whom are struggling with - what Janice Weizman calls in her review the "ongoing juxtaposition of high and low, good behavior and bad, truth, fiction, and the very fuzzy line between them." Half of the stories take place in the "East" (Israel), and the other half in the "West" (the US), but no matter the setting or storyline, the characters are immediately recognizable as reflections of ourselves. This would make a great choice for a book club discussion, especially short story book clubs that discuss each story per week. Highly, highly recommend! I'm looking forward to hearing Joan speak about her work at Literary Modiin's June event on June 9. See below and register here!

Wave After Wave by Sarah Ansbacher: I really enjoyed Sarah Ansbacher’s latest novel, which is about a little-known escape from Nazi Europe, a flotilla of boats that - with Eichman’s permission - attempted to sail through the Danube and across the Mediterranean to Palestine. (This was before Hilter’s Final Solution, when (some) Jews were allowed to leave Europe, and the problem was that most countries wouldn’t accept them). Sarah has done a terrific job of researching the history of the Atlantic (one of the ships in the flotilla), and the characters came to life beautifully. Even throughout their harrowing journey I could feel and appreciate their faith that they would make it to Eretz Yisrael. It was a pleasure listening to Sarah speak about her research and her book at May’s Literary Modiin event - catch the recording here.

Turbulent Souls (republished under the name Choosing My Religion) by Stephen J. Dubner: This book came out ~25 years ago but I’ve only just read it now. Stephen Dubner, of Freakonomics fame, was the youngest of eight children born to Veronica and Paul Dubner, previously known as Florence Greenglass and Sol Dubner. In the midst of World War II, longing to escape from their claustrophobic Jewish homes, both Florence and Sol gravitated to Catholicism, and then to each other. They became devout Catholics, moved to upstate New York and proceeded to raise their growing brood with strict adherences to the Catholic Church. As an adult, Stephen finds his way to Judaism and back to his Jewish family. Simply a fascinating story and journey, well-told.

One more quick review: Weyward by Emilia Hart - three women from the same family, over the span of hundreds of years, enduring similar relationships and challenges. Three terrific British narrators (one of whose voices was so similar to a character on Downton Abbey that I looked it up…alas, not the same person). A good listen.

More Reading Recommendations:

While I’m on the topic of recommended reading, May was Jewish American Heritage Month #JAHM and Canadian Jewish Heritage Month. On May 8, I wrote to, reminding them of this fact, and wondering if they might celebrate JAHM as much as they celebrate many other heritage months…I recommended that they feature Erika Dreifus’ curated list from last year and/or offered to curate another list for them. After many delayed responses on their part, my curated list went up on their homepage on May 29th, two days before the end of the month (!!)…Here, also, is Erika’s new list for 2024/5784, which features books “that, in various ways, embody connections and intersections among Jewish people in the United States (and Canada) and in Israel.” I hope that next year, we’ll see a better, earlier response…

In any case, although we’re in June, it’s always a good time to read the books on these lists!


Two literary events I’m very excited about this month!

Started yesterday...June 2-4: “History, Prophecy, Art,the 2024 International Creative Writing Conference at Bar Ilan University, in memory of Founding Director Shaindy Rudoff, z’’l. The conference is in-person, free and open to the public and features an amazing lineup of workshops with some of my favorite teachers (Ilana Blumberg, Evan Fallenberg and others) and keynotes from literary heavyweights Joshua Cohen, Iddo Gefen, and Ruth Franklin. I’ll be reading something at lunchtime on June 4th. Hope to see you there!

June 9: Please join me over Zoom for Literary Modiin’s June author event - Sunday, June 9 at 20:00 Israel time and 1 pm Eastern. We’ll be hearing from Joan Leegant (DISPLACED PERSONS), Don Futterman (ADAM, UNREHEARSED) and Dawn Promislow (WAN). Register here!

Last week was the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival…I attended two events, 1) the opening session entitled War, Comfort and Pain, in which numerous writers and family members of people killed on or since October 7th got up to speak or read poetry or essays or give tribute to their loved ones. It was very powerful. I can’t begin to capture their beautiful words, but I will share (below) a prompt offered by Eshkol Nevo; 2) a discussion with Anne Berest about her award-winning book (my favorite read of 2023), The Postcard. I came right home and wrote up a few things she said here. (Now I wonder why I posted it on my blog instead of here, on Substack. Hmm…). I did not make it to the David Grossman event, but my friend Vivian did, and she wrote about it here.

Fangirling Anne Berest, together with fellow writers Jennifer Lang and Jessamyn Hope

Prompt of the Month: …זה בסדר שאני

At the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival, Eshkol Nevo said he’s been giving this prompt in every writing workshop he’s done since October 7th. To me it sounds better in Hebrew, זה בסדר שאני… but in English it also works very well. “It is okay that I…”

Now make a list…For example: “It’s okay that I am sad. It’s okay that I can’t write. It’s okay that I sometimes need to get away from everyone. It’s okay that I don’t go to protests. It’s okay that I don’t listen to the news. It’s okay that I haven’t been to visit the Nova site. It’s okay that I walk away from a conversation about the war because I am sick of talking about it. It’s okay that I listen to happy music. It’s okay that I’d rather spend my Fridays in the trees. It’s okay that I’m not okay…”

Parallel Stories of the Month

Two new powerful stories for you this month, in some ways parallel: Zeeva Bukai’s Requiem for the Lost (published in Of the Book, a new-to-me publication) is a powerful piece about a young woman on her year abroad in Israel. Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish resounds throughout the story…parts of it will feel quite familiar to anyone who has spent a year abroad here. On the flip side, Sara Lippmann’s The Houseguest (winner of the fiction prize in Lilith) is about young Israelis coming to stay with a family in New York. Read to the very powerful end…and yes, this will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever hosted Israelis traveling abroad.

Recipe of the Month: Homemade Pesto

Welcome to the near-end of the newsletter, where you are rewarded with a yummy recipe. My friend Yaffa Shira (whose birthday it is today - happy birthday, YS!) makes delicious, homemade pesto, and lucky me, I had some over Shabbat!


2 cups of basil leaves

1/3 cup pine nuts

1/5 tsp salt

1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

1 garlic clove

1/4 cup olive oil

Process the first five ingredients in the food processor, and while the processor is going, drizzle in the olive oil until creamy. Enjoy!!

Israel Update & Resources

I’m not sure I have much new to report here, other than the very obvious fact that we are all sick of this situation and would like this nightmare to be over. We want all of the hostages to be returned home immediately, those who are alive and those who are not. We’d like our children and friends’ children to be done fighting. We’d like the attacks from the north and Gaza to cease. We’d like those who have been displaced from their homes — Israeli and Palestinian — to be able to return home in safety and start to rebuild. We’d like tragedies like the fire that broke out in Rafah to never have happened.

We’d like to stop waking up, nearly every day, to new names that have been cleared for publication, more soldiers killed, more remains of hostages found. (Two days ago, it was a close friend of my daughter’s best friend from the army. Two weeks ago, a 39-year-old father from our school community, and a few days before that, another graduate from our school). For these families, it will never be over.

I just scrolled through the entire day’s headlines to try to find the one I was looking for from this morning. “Tens of thousands rally in Tel Aviv to demand hostage deal, denounce government,” it read. In the coming weeks, there will be more of a convergence of the protest movement linked with a deal for the hostages. Meanwhile, as I scrolled, I noticed how many different drone and rocket attacks were launched by Hezbollah in the north in the course of one day.

My daughter has been called up for reserve duty, this time in the north, for about a month and a half, beginning at the end of June. Whether it will be pushed off or not, as sometimes happens, is anyone’s guess.

I am still going out, nearly every Friday, to volunteer. I think I mentioned in my mid-month report how lovely it was the meet a busload of Dutch volunteers, here with Christians for Israel. The following week I bumped into 60 counselors from Camp Ramah, which was awesome, and the Friday after that, with my writer friend Maxim Shrayer in tow, I planned to go to the same places where the (next group of) Ramahniks would be, my nephew included. I met a fellow Israeli, a psychologist working with survivors from Kibbutz Beeri and Kibbutz Kfar Aza. He said that he, too, comes to volunteer every Friday since “the trees have no trauma.” So I figure I’m on the right track. He also said that he’s been inspired by people’s resilience, the way these survivors are determined to go back to their homes and rebuild their lives. Am Yisrael Chai.

On the literary/antisemitism front, many of you no doubt saw the piece in the New York Times, “A Chill Has Fallen Over Jews in Publishing” but in case you haven’t, please read (that is a gift link). As the author reports towards the end:

“It’s very clear you have to have real courage to acquire and publish proudly Jewish voices and books about being Jewish,” a prominent literary agent told me. “When you are seen as genocidal, a moral insult to humanity because you believe in Israel’s right to exist, you are now seen as deserving of being canceled.”

Please also read (and share with your college-age kids/friends) this hopeful piece by Natan Sharansky in Tablet, The 500, in which he lauds the Columbia Jewish students who wrote this excellent letter and calls upon others to join them. He hopes this is a turning point for American Jewry.

They flatly rejected attempts to victim-blame the Jews for the hatred that targets them. Most remarkably, they all signed the letter with their full names, proudly and openly, shedding the self-censorship and silence of the doublethinker for the proud stance of the dissident….Dear Jewish students of America, today, you are on the front line. The future of American Jewry, and maybe even America itself, is in your hands. Be brave.

Reminder of some excellent Substacks dealing with the conflict, to which I recommend subscribing:

Next week is Shavuot, so chag sameach to those celebrating. I suppose we got through Pesach (Passover), Yom Ha’zikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, so we will get through this next holiday, too. I do think of the crudely made sign by the Modiin hostage chairs display that says “Don’t chag sameach me,” which have been there since Pesach.

Halavai (may it come to pass) that by Shavuot, our hostages will be home, and there will be less suffering all around. B’sorot tovot. I’ll leave you with a some pictures from the last few weeks. Am Yisrael Chai!

Picking apricots and plums at the Mauerman farm in Karmei Yosef with Maxim, my nephew Evan, and my friend Kira. Conveniently, Maxim and I had copies of our books with us!


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