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March 2024: Turning to the Natural World, Book Recs, and Greetings from Eilat

Dear friends,

Where has the time gone? Another (Gregorian) month over, another 29 days the hostages have been in captivity, now a total of 147 days. My social media feeds and whatsapp groups are filled with links to depressing articles - I’m sure many of yours are as well - so for the most part I’m going to stick to writing about things that bring me joy, namely: great books, the writing life, a yummy recipe, an upcoming Literary Modiin event, and of course, the amazing natural beauty that I am privileged to witness right outside my door. February and March are the best months to visit Israel!


(You can find my “Update from Israel” towards the bottom of this newsletter).


Brief writing update: I’m working on a new project, a novel inspired by some portions of my great-aunt’s life. We’ll see what happens. (For the real story, or at least part of it, check out my essay Czarna, Reimagined). Now I am literally trying to imagine the parts I don’t know into life.


I’ve also started to submit some of the new stories I’ve been writing over the last few years, stories intended for a new novel-in-stories. Given the fact that many of these stories are on the long side (6,500 - 10,000 words) coupled with the growing climate of antisemitism in the literary world (at least one journal declaring “No Zionists” need submit), I’m not overly optimistic I’ll be able to place any of these, but we’ll see. Even in the best of times, writers need thick skin and a healthy dose of relentless optimism. Wish me luck.


Unfortunately we did not get enough registrants for the literary mission I was pushing, but fortunately I still have…


Happy/nice things in the upcoming month: A wedding and a few bar/bat mitzvahs! Close friends coming to visit! The Jerusalem Marathon! I’ll be doing the 10K and not my usual half-marathon. A bit crazy, because I’m flying to Frankfurt for work next week, landing back home at 12:30 am the night before the race, but I don’t want to miss one of my favorite days of the year, even though this year the tone will be different. And right now, I’m writing to you from Eilat, where I’m here to support my husband, doing his 15th Israman triathlon (the half).


Recommended Reading

I’m up to 11 books so far this year, three behind schedule. Here are this month’s recommendations:


The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B. Miller: You might wonder why I chose to read this coming-of-age, World War II art-heist-adventure tale in the middle of our own war, but I am a big fan of Derek Miller and I didn’t want to miss his newest novel. The story begins in 1943, when 14-year-old Massimo finds himself orphaned after his parents are killed in an American bombing raid in Rome. He is befriended by a charismatic and cryptic man calling himself Pietro Houdini, a self-proclaimed “Master Artist and confidante of the Vatican,” who brings Massimo to the Benedictine abbey of Montecassino to serve as his assistant. Together with a colorful cast of characters - a nurse concealing a nefarious past, a café owner turned murderer, a wounded but chipper German soldier, and a pair of lovers along with their injured mule - they must lie, cheat, steal, fight, kill, and sin their way through battlefields to survive. I appreciated - as Booklist puts it - the “fascinating setting; rich, quirky characters; tragedy, suspense, warmth and humor.” I listened to the audio version of this one, and would recommend it to audiobook listeners.


In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me by Courtney Sender: This is a fantastic debut collection of linked stories, in which the author explores the legacy of modern dating, love and longing alongside the magnitude of the Holocaust. Many of the stories raise questions about who we are, what we’re willing to give up for those we meet, and what the responsibilities of the subsequent generations of Holocaust survivors. As the book description says, the stories are “suffused with magic and myth, dark wit, and distinct humor. Here, ancient loss works its way deep into the psyche of modern characters, stirring their unrelenting lust for life.” These are highly-satisfying stories that have won accolades from the likes of (my hero) Ann Patchett, who calls the collection “a miraculous balance between the personal and the universal.” I think this would make for a great book club discussion. Watch Courtney speak about her book in last month’s Literary Modiin event.


Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion: This was my local book club’s “classics” selection for the year, and though I had mixed feelings about some of the essays as I read them, it’s definitely a worthwhile read. Part of my mixed feelings may have had to do with the fact that I read the first part of the book on the Kindle, and I found it hard to concentrate, but when my hard copy arrived and I switched to that, I was able to appreciate the points she made and the writing much more. The late, award-winning author was as a prominent member of the New Journalism movement, and Anne Tyler called Didion’s voice "a slant vision that is arresting and unique...Didion might be an observer from another planet--one so edgy and alert that she ends up knowing more about our own world than we know ourselves." I especially like the essays in the last third of the book, in which she chronicles her experiences in seven different places she has visited or lived. I appreciated “Goodbye to All That” as a young woman encountering New York City for the first time, and “Letter from Paradise” in which the legacy of Pearl Harbor, 25 years after the fact, is central to the story of Hawaii.


Events

Please join me for Literary Modiin’s March author event - Sunday, March 10 at 19:00 Israel time and 1 pm Eastern. (Israelis please note that the event will be an hour earlier than usual due to daylight savings time in the US…). We’ll be hearing from Nora Gold (IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH/YOM KIPPUR IN A GYM and 18: JEWISH STORIES TRANSLATED FROM 18 LANGUAGES), Avi Shalev (THE ONLY JEW IN THE ROOM) and Jay Michaelson (THE SECRET THAT IS NOT A SECRET). Register here.



Story of the Month: Bittersweet

Bittersweet by Julie Esther Fisher (Tahoma Literary Review): A powerful story in which trees step in to care for a woman when her husband dies. As the author wrote in her author’s note: “In a time of loss and grief, I turned to the natural world, drawing inspiration from its embrace and wisdom.” Yup. Give it a read.


Resource of the Month: Iron Words Israel

Iron Words Israel is a new website dedicated to "Coming together to tell the story of our people," an artistic initiative for writing on topics such as living through the war, volunteering, remembering the fallen, praying for our hostages, having loved ones in the army, and more. Writers: they accept reprints! My own two essays - Seeing Green in Southern Israel and It’s Too Much have been republished there. Please follow their FB page and give them a like!


Recipe of the Month: Skillet Chicken with Cherry Tomatoes and Peppers


Welcome to the (almost) end of the newsletter where you’re rewarded with a yummy recipe. I made this easy Yewande Komolafe recipe from the NY Times and it got rave reviews from my family.


Ingredients

  • 2 lbs skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (4 to 8 thighs)

  • Salt

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

  • 1 small onion, diced

  • 2 medium bell peppers (any color or a mix of colors), diced

  • 5 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

  • ½ to ¾ teaspoon red-pepper flakes (I skipped this)

  • ¼ cup sherry vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes

  • ¼ cup chopped fresh basil or parsley (optional)


Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently until just starting to soften, 2 minutes. Add the peppers and cook until just beginning to soften, 1 minute. Add the garlic and red-pepper flakes and season lightly with salt. Cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant and the onions are beginning to brown slightly, 2 minutes. Move the cooked vegetables to a plate. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the skillet. Place the chicken skin-side down and sear without moving until the skin is golden brown, 6 to 10 minutes. Turn and cook the other side until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Pour out all but 1 tablespoon fat from the pan. Add ½ cup water to the skillet and stir and scrape to loosen any stuck bits. Stir in the sherry vinegar and honey. Cover with a lid or foil, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook until the meat is cooked through, about 8 minutes. Uncover, raise the heat to medium-high and cook until the sauce is thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook until they begin to soften and burst, 3 to 4 minutes, smashing open if needed. Return the onion-pepper mixture to the skillet, stir to coat in the pan sauce and cook, uncovered, until warmed through. Taste and add more salt if needed and remove from heat. Drizzle more olive oil over the top and garnish with a shower of basil or parsley, if using.


Israel Update


Things still feel (and are) grim over here. It takes effort not to slip into full-time despair. I dream about the hostages and their families nightly, and in my waking moments, sometimes I’ll pass a parent with a young child on the street and think - he/she/they could have been murdered or taken captive on Oct 7th. It could easily have been me or my family.


This past Tuesday was municipal elections day, and everyone had the day off. After a lovely bike ride in the morning, my husband, friend and I drove down to Kibbutz Saad. We weren’t sure what volunteer work we’d be doing, but we were told we’d be helping get the kibbutz back in shape for the members to move back. We ended up cleaning the house of one of the families. As the father told us - basically everything is how they left it on October 8th when they were evacuated. We dusted and washed the floors and bathrooms, folded laundry, cleared the cobwebs off the windows, pulled up the crazy weeds that had grown all over their garden and on the front walkway. Afterwards we spent about an hour speaking with another kibbutznik who had just come back two days before. We spoke about the complexities the community faces now - some who don’t want to move back, others who want to move somewhere else, together, to retain the sense of community. And Saad is in better shape than many of the other communities where things were completely destroyed on October 7th. All we could do was murmur לא פשוט (“not easy/simple”) and give her hugs as we left.


I rejoice when I hear about some of the soldiers I care about - my friends’ kids, my kids’ friends - who are released from miluim (reserve duty). But many are still in Gaza, as are many doing their regular army service. This morning I heard the news that the son of a former colleague/friend was severely injured a few days ago. Please add Moshe Aharon ben Leah Beila משה אהרון בן לאה בילה to your prayers and mishuberach lists.


At my lunch table at work, we discuss the meaning behind wounded statuses - does a “moderately” wounded classification apply to someone who has lost a leg, or is that “seriously” wounded? What will be with this war? When will it be over? We ask this to each other, to ourselves, many times a day.


As I mentioned above, I’m in Eilat right now for the Israman triathlon. There is a sobering exhibit of five triathletes who lost their lives on October 7th or in the aftermath.



Left: "In Memoriam" to the 5 triathletes killed since Oct 7th. Right: Congrats to Josh and his training partner Simon on finishing their half-Ironman. Josh ran across the finish line with a poster of Gali and Ziv Berman, 26-year-old twins from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, friends of our daughter, who are still being held in Gaza.


Volunteering continues to sustain us, and if you’re able to come to Israel to help, please do. This morning a friend who runs a garden therapy clinic sent me a picture of a small thing I’d done and completely forgotten about - on Tu B’shvat, I went to her therapy garden and painted a planter to be given to a family evacuated from the south. My friend grew the plant until it was ready to be rehoused, and this morning she gave it to a family from Kibbutz Nirim.



I’ll end with a prayer for healing, for the swift and immediate return of all hostages, for the safety of our dear soldiers, and for less suffering for everyone.


Beautiful Israel

A few beautiful things from my month. B’sorot tovot, may we hear good news soon.



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