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May 2024: A beautiful discovery, a plethora of literary events, and four great books

Dear friends,

I hope it will be a happy May, a month that will see our hostages returned home and in which there will be less suffering all around. Today marks 208 days since October 7th, when our lives were irrevocably changed. Things are bleak - here and there - but my aim in this monthly newsletter is to bring comfort in the form of literary goodness: book reviews, events, a resource for writers, an essay of the month and more, so scroll down for all of those things. (A brief update on Israel and additional resources can be found towards the bottom of this newsletter).

Brief writing update: With the holiday and guests, progress on my work-in-progress was slow-going last month. But today I’ve started to get back into the routine. I made the coolest discovery ever! Thanks to one of Mary G’s prompts, I was trying to write a fictional scene that takes place leading up to, during, and after an actual event that took place in my grandparents’ shtetl in Galicia. We have two paragraphs in our family history book about the pogrom that broke out in May 1919, but wanting to know more, I entered “may 16 1919 kolbuszowa pogrom” into Google. One of the top items that came up was a photo gallery from YIVO with the preview text “Kolbuszowa 1929, A Group of Young Women…” The link had nothing to do with the pogrom, but lo and behold, I’d stumbled across a picture of my grandmother from 1929! She was 20 at the time, just before leaving for America, and I recognized her immediately.

“Kolbuszowa, 1929. A group of young women, standing together on a wooden porch, and laughing.” My grandmother, Pearl Glantz Zuckerman, z”l, is second from the right, looking at the camera.

I then noted that the picture was a still taken from a movie…more links led me to a 27-minute silent movie, put together in 1930, by my great uncle, my grandmother’s future brother-in-law. So now I have several seconds of a clip of my grandmother, a few more seconds of a different great uncle, and an incredible resource for seeing daily life in the shtetl. Thank you, Google, Mary G, YIVO, and Uncle Phil (Pesach) Zuckerman, z”l!

Some nice news:

  • A local Modiin book club has decided to read The Book of Jeremiah, so I’ll be visiting their group in-person! (I am happy to Zoom in to any book club, anywhere and/or I’ll be in the CT/NY/NJ tri-State and Boston areas for around 2 1/2 weeks in Oct/Nov and happy to meet any book club in reasonable driving distance).

  • I was honored to be asked to participate in “History, Prophecy, Art,the 2024 International Creative Writing Conference at Bar Ilan University in memory of Founding Director Shaindy Rudoff, z’’l (June 2-4). See more about this free, public conference below in the events section.

May Literary Matters

Did you know that May is short story month? Did you know that May is also Jewish-American Heritage Month? And Asian American and Pacific Islander [AAPI] Heritage Month? I’m no longer on Twitter/X but if you are, check out Erika Dreifus’ thread from last year, in which she spotlighted a different book every day, or see her list on Bookshop. (And thanks, Erika for featuring The Book of Jeremiah on your list!)

This year, Erika plans to:

highlight books that, in various ways, embody connections and intersections among Jewish people in United States (and Canada) and in Israel, where just about half of the world’s current population now lives. Call it a project imbued by the sense of K’lal Yisrael, a sense of Jewish peoplehood, which was integral to my own Jewish upbringing—and which I’ve experienced more than ever before since October 7.

Follow Erika on Twitter for the daily book highlights (and if you don’t already subscribe to her monthly newsletter, The Practicing Writer 2.0, what are you waiting for?)

Also speaking of May, my book, The Book of Jeremiah turns five on May 3rd! Enormous gratitude to Press 53 and Kevin Morgan Watson, publisher and editor-in-chief. Haven’t read it yet? Buy a signed copy here.

Recommended Reading

I’m up to 23 books so far this year, five behind schedule. Here are this month’s recommendations:

Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld: Such a fun book! I was sad when it was over. My friend had been recommending it to me since last May, and I finally bought myself a copy. The story revolves around Sally Milz, a sketch writer for a SNL-like show, who has abandoned her search for love and whose entire existence revolves around work. When Sally’s workmate gets engaged to a super-model, she writes a sketch about the phenomenon/unfairness of average-looking men getting involved with beautiful and talented women while the opposite is never true. Enter Noah Brewster, the host and musical guest for this week’s show, and as they collaborate on sketches Sally wonders if he’s feeling the chemistry…I won’t say more, other than that I found the novel to be a funny and fun read with a smart protagonist, perfect for our times. These two blurbs sum it up: “If you’re in need of [a] smart, sophisticated, and fun diversion right now (and who isn’t), this is your book” (Oprah Daily) and “Zingy . . . electrically compelling, with steady warmth as well as drama” (The Guardian).

The Only Jew in the Room by Avi Shalev: A fascinating look into the author’s experiences as the first Jewish student at Al-Qasemi College (an Islamic Sufi institution) in the Israeli Arab town of Baka al-Gharbiyye. Following a full career in the IDF and Civil Administration, Lt. Colonel Avi Shalev enrolled in the college to become a Arabic teacher, disregarding his family and friends who told him he was crazy (but who then wanted to hear all about it). Avi started keeping a journal of his experiences in class and with fellow students, which then turned into the book (it was published in Hebrew a few years ago, and only recently in English). Nearly every encounter seems to lead Avi to more questions and a sense that the cultural chasms are greater than he could have imagined. But it is Avi’s relentless curiosity and grace, together with the response and openness of his fellow students that gives me some modicum of hope for a shared future. Halavai (may it come to pass) that each of us puts forth even a fraction of the effort that Avi does towards mutual understanding with our neighbors. Listen to Avi discuss his book at the Literary Modiin event in March.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman: After reading and loving Still Life, I thought I’d give the author’s earlier novel a try. It did not disappoint, and I read it in one day. The writing is beautiful and I’m a sucker for a story with a Van Gogh painting in it, especially one of his sunflowers paintings. The story begins with an unhappily married pregnant woman who wins a replica of the painting in a raffle, and then jumps forward in time. The novel focuses on the woman’s son, Ellis, his close friend Michael, and later Ellis’ wife Annie. The boys are inseparable in childhood, and when Annie comes into the picture, she is fully welcomed into this friendship. Over time, Michael fades away from the couple, reappearing a decade later, and Ellis must confront where/why/what has happened to his friend while they were out of touch. I like this blurb from BookPage: “Laced with tenderness and kindness, Winman's latest novel is the story of three people and their lives of love, beauty and roads untaken.... Rich in emotion and proves that great things do come in small packages.”

The Bridesman by Savyon Liebrecht: This was my first time reading a Savyon Liebrecht novel and I enjoyed it very much. Centered on an Iranian Jewish family in Israel, we first meet Micha as a 9-year-old at a large family gathering. His mother and aunts and uncles have come to decree whether Adella, an outsider and orphan, will be a suitable match for their bachelor brother. Micha is the only one who shows Adella any kindness (the adults are rather horrible to her). Eventually, when Adella and Micha’s uncle get engaged, it is Micha who Adella picks to serve as her “bridesman" at the wedding. Despite this, he can’t protect her from his bullying family members. The story unfolds during the rest of Micha’s childhood and then much later, after Micha is living in the US. Adella, now a successful businesswoman, sends Micha a ticket to visit her in Israel. I like this blurb from Maariv: “The Bridesman is an expertly carved miniature, a piece of delicate embroidery that floods the heart, chamber by chamber.” I will definitely be checking out her other novels!


I’m excited for several upcoming events this month and next!

On May 19, Literary Modiin will hold another hybrid event - in-person and on Zoom, featuring Gila Green (WITH A GOOD EYE) , Sarah Ansbacher (WAVE AFTER WAVE), and Sheryl Abbey (ALONG THE EDGE OF ABSENCE). Doors open at 19:30, program will start at 20:00 / 1 pm ET. Register here.

It’s not too early to get a head start on Literary Modiin’s June event (on Zoom only). June 9 at 20:00 IL time / 1 pm, featuring Joan Leegant (DISPLACED PERSONS), Don Futterman (ADAM, UNREHEARSED) and Dawn Promislow (WAN) . Register here.

Other upcoming events of interest (so much literary goodness in Israel!):

  • Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) May 11: Our friends at Jerusalism are hosting Nora Gold for an in-person, in-Jerusalem book launch at the Besarabia bar in downtown Jerusalem. Nora (who appeared at our March Literary Modiin event) will be discussing her new book (two novellas), IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH/YOM KIPPUR IN A GYM.

  • May 27 - 30: Jerusalem Writers’ Festival in Mishkenot Shaananim. The annual festival is happening this year, and I am exceedingly grateful to the writers coming from abroad, including Anne Berest, whose book The Postcard was my favorite book of 2023 (and inspired my own new writing project), and John Irving, whose books The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany were among my favorite reads in my 20s. Kol hakavod! Some events are free, some are ticketed. Read the statement from the festival’s artistic director, Julia Fermentto- Tzaisler, about the changes and considerations they made this year.

  • 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 free and open to the public and features an amazing lineup of workshops and keynotes, from literary heavyweights Joshua Cohen, Iddo Gefen, and Ruth Franklin. I’ll be reading something at lunchtime on the 4th. Hope to see you there!

Essay of the Month: String of Pearls

String of Pearls by Ann V. Klotz (Midstory Magazine): I enjoyed this beautiful essay about a mother’s love for her soon-to-leave-for-college son (and her mislaid pearls). While we don’t quite have the same empty nest phenomenon here in Israel (our kids tend to come home many weekends during their army service and university years), I can relate to many of the things she writes about here. (And fair warning to my sister, Rebecca: this will make you cry).

Resource of the Month: Midstory Magazine

Midstory Magazine, founded by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger, is “an intimate space for readers and writers at midlife to come together and feel less alone.” They publish essays, prompts, host workshops, and are fostering a community of midlife women writers. (Full disclosure: my post-Oct 7th essay It’s Too Much was published by Midstory, but unrelated to that, I very much enjoy the essays they publish and I’ve just upgraded to a paid subscription because I’d like to support their work).

Recipe of the Month: Oyster mushroom, pickled onion & kale salad

Welcome to the (near) end of the newsletter, where you’re rewarded with a yummy recipe. In the last two weeks I’ve gone volunteering at my favorite herb packing place twice, the Levi farm in Matzliah, so that my parents could come as well, helping to pack while sitting. It is cool to see the pallets of basil or thyme or kale or whatever we’re packing that day stack up. And the volunteers are invited to take whatever they want home. Ergo, I’ve been on a kale kick. This salad is one of my new favorite recipes from Adeena Sussman’s SHABBAT cookbook. Even non-kale fans in my family like it.

For the onions:

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

Juice of 1 large lemon

1 tsp ground sumac

1/4 tsp kosher salt

For the dressing: (I’m in the minority, but I’m not a tahina fan, so I usually skip this part, dressing the salad with a bit of lemon juice)

1/4 cup pure tahini paste

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 TBSP water

2 TBSP olive oil

1/4 tsp kosher salt

For the salad part:

8 cups kale leaves, any kind

6 TBSP olive oil

1 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (I skip)

1/4 tsp ground turmeric

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1 lb oyster mushrooms (I used regular button mushrooms, also fine)

1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

4 large eggs

Flaky sea salt

Pickle the onions by tossing together the sliced onion, lemon juice, sumac and salt, and let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Save the extra onions for up to a month in the fridge. Whisk the dressing together until creamy. Tear the kale into bite-size pieces and place in a large bowl. Add 1 TBSP of olive oil and massage the kale until it is evenly coated and the leaves become more tender, 2-3 minutes. Pour the tahini dressing over the kale and toss to evenly coat the leaves (or not). In a large bowl, combine the remaining olive oil with cumin, cayenne, turmeric and kosher salt. Add the mushrooms and toss to coat, then sauté the mushrooms over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and pickled onion to the kale, and then fry the eggs until the whites are set but the yolk still runny. Place the eggs on top of the salad and garnish with sea salt. Enjoy!

(From SHABBAT by Adeena Sussman, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright 2023 by Adeena Sussman)

Israel Update & Resources

Last month I wrote that I was hoping for a Pesach miracle. In a sense, as harrowing and surreal as it was to see the Hamas propaganda video of Hersh Goldberg-Polin (23), and a few days later of Keith Siegel (64) and Omri Miran (46), it did feel a bit miraculous to see them alive. Both videos seemed to be taken fairly recently, and for their families, for all of us, this was the first sign of life since October 7th. I can tell you that everyone I know was in quite a state when they were released, unable to do or think about anything else. Jon and Rachel, Hersh’s parents, continue to be role models for us all, fighting so hard for their son and speaking so beautifully in every interview. Here is one such amazing interview, mostly in English. As I write, there are rumors that we are close to a deal. Halavai halavai that it will happen, that living hostages will soon be reunited with their families and that the families of those who have been killed will be able to be buried their loved ones with honor.

On seder night, a few days before the first video was released, many families placed an empty chair at their seder table to represent a hostage, and it was profoundly sad to think of the ~1600 bereaved or hostage families who had to confront a literal empty chair, or perhaps several of them, at the seder. מן השמיים תנחומו (Min hashamayim tanhumu - may these families be comforted from the heavens).

I have no words to describe what has been going on on college campuses across the US for the last week and a half, my own alma mater at the epicenter. Complete madness. As of last night, I understand that the protestors have been removed from Hamilton Hall, and I hope that the university will take more measures to “forcefully and decisively to end the anarchy that has been allowed to overtake and endanger the Columbia campus.” If you are a Barnard or Columbia alum from any school, please consider signing this alumni petition. And please read Haviva Ner-David’s piece From a Columbia Alum Israeli Peace Activist in the Times of Israel. Wise words, indeed, from someone who is out there, day in and day out, doing the hard work of building a shared society.

Two more pieces well worth reading:

  • From the River to the Sea: Getting it Right, Getting it Wrong (Salmagundi) - A great interview with Susie Linfeld (author of The Lion’s Den: Zionism & The Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky)

  • We Are No Longer Welcome (Jewish Book Council) - Essay by Yardenne Greenspan on what it’s like to be a Zionist and a writer these days. I would like to quote all of it here, but Substack is telling me I’m almost at my limit.

FYI many things here are continuing as normal. Today I was back in my office. Last night my daughter had three friends over to study for a math test. They made quite a ruckus and a mess in the kitchen but they were adorable, being regular 15-year-old girls. They took a break to count the omer with my husband and then continued on with their studying.

I’ll leave you with a some pictures from the last few weeks. Am Yisrael Chai!

Left: hollyhocks in bloom everywhere. Middle: packaging basil with my parents and sister. Right and bottom: orange gathering in Nes Tziona with my sister.

May May see our hostages returned home, a return to sanity on college campuses, and less suffering all around. B’sorot tovot.


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