I have no cheery greeting this month. It has been a horrible time for most of us, whether you are in Israel or not. I will try to get to the business at hand of my regular newsletter - book recs, a story of the month, events, etc. - but forgive me if the sections are not in their usual order, the book reviews are not as in-depth, and everything feels like a jumble.
As I write, fierce fighting is going on in Gaza, following the murderous, barbaric assault by Hamas on the citizens of Israel on October 7. An assault on all of humanity, really. Many of my close friends have sons and daughters down there right now, and it is tough to concentrate or do anything at all. As I write, the news has just come in that two more soldiers were killed today, one of whom was from Modiin and beloved by many people in my community. As I write, there are still 240 hostages held by Hamas, including several my family and I know personally: Hersh Goldberg Polin, 23, the son of our friends Jon and Rachel; Gali Berman, 26, a close friend of my daughter’s; Gali’s twin brother Ziv, 26; Andre Kozlov, 27, who I worked with in my previous job. If you’re on social media, you’ve seen the massive social media storm to #bring_hersh_home and #bringthemhome. If you haven’t already seen it, please watch and share this extraordinary speech by Rachel Goldberg at the UN. As I write, I am praying that today’s fierce fighting will at least bring some good news of the rescue of the hostages, but so far it hasn’t.
(Edited to add: I wrote the above paragraph yesterday, and today has brought more bitter news. There were 13 additional soldiers killed yesterday, one from the same company as my friends’ sons, another the cousin of a woman in my shul who lost her brother in the first days of the attack. Each story is devastating).
Thank you to everyone outside of Israel who has reached out - some multiple times - in these last few weeks. I’ve tried to respond to everyone, but a few messages may have fallen through the cracks - my apologies. I appreciate every message and I’m sending all my love and strength back to you from the bottom of my broken heart. Sometimes responding to Whatsapps feels like a full-time job. But it’s also the way my various friend and family groups keep in touch, especially now, everyone constantly checking in, sending pictures of their soldier-kids, even if they only get five minutes to hug them and hand over a bag of stuff.
I am one of the fortunate ones here, writing from central Israel, and though both my sons are serving in the IDF, neither are in the area of Gaza. My younger son had his training cut short by six weeks and moved to the “kav” (the “line”) today, to what will be his permanent base in the West Bank. As of this writing, we’ve had only two sirens in Modiin. But all day long, we hear fighter jets and the Iron Dome, sometimes shelling. If you’d like to know more about my experience through the first tumultuous week, you can read my essay “It’s Too Much” published by Midstory Magazine. Two weeks later, and it is still too much.
Depending on the day, I’m trying to write a bit, journal-style, because — to paraphrase Ilana Blumberg from our Literary Modiin solidarity event last week — the days are such a blur right now that it will be impossible to accurately reconstruct this time later on.
Occasionally I’ve found the concentration to get back to my story-in-progress, which takes place in the US, in July 1939. Long before Oct 7, I wondered: racial laws and Kristallnacht notwithstanding, would any of my characters have had a sense about what was about to befall the Jews in Europe? I doubt it. I’m not sure I’m expressing this well, but it feels almost antithetical that anyone with a shred of humanity could imagine such barbarity, both prior to the Holocaust and prior to October 7th. Our minds can’t stretch to allow it.
One heartening thing has been the hundreds of grassroots efforts to house, feed, and clothe the evacuees from the southern communities, the people making sandwiches and BBQs for the soldiers, the thousands donating blood, the thousands showing up to help in agricultural fields, everyone doing what they can. A trend is that businesses from the areas near Gaza are hand-delivering produce, flowers, whatever to various cities. In the last few weeks I’ve bought 18 kilos of mangoes (to share with my friends), avocados, roses, and more.
I’ll close this introductory section with a prayer: May God give our soldiers the strength to do the jobs they’ve trained for, and may they all return home safe and sound, together with every single captive.
Resources of the Month from Erika Dreifus
Before October 7th, I was thinking that my next featured resource of the month would be Erika’s The Practicing Writer Substack (which every writer here should definitely subscribe to). In this month’s issue, Erika has added the very necessary compilation called After October 7: Readings, Recordings, and Resources. According to Erika: This list “does not aim to be comprehensive. . Its purpose is both personal—to record many of my own encounters with texts and other materials following the launch of Hamas’s terrorist attack on southern Israel the morning of October 7—and educational. As an academically trained historian, educator, and multi-genre American Jewish writer who happens to possess more than a passing familiarity with Israeli history, literature, and culture, I’m offering this document as an informed resource.”
Both the regularly scheduled Literary Modiin sessions for October and November have been postponed. See below for the new dates. Instead, Literary Modiin held a very meaningful Israel solidarity session on October 22, featuring readings by Iddo Gefen, Ilana Blumberg, Yotam Tolub, Agi Mishol with Joanna Chen, and a new story by Haim Watzman read by Annabelle Landgarten. View the recording here.
A second Israel solidarity session will take place on Sunday, November 19, at 20:00 Israel time / 1 pm Eastern, featuring readings by Vivian Cohen, Rachel Neve-Midbar, Yonatan Berg with Joanna Chen, Aviya Kushner, Joan Leegant and possibly a few more. Register here!
The Literary Modiin event originally scheduled for October 15 with Linda Kass (BESSIE), Daniel Victor (THE EVIL INCLINATION), and Tara Ison (AT THE HOUR BETWEEN DOG AND WOLF) has been rescheduled for December 3 at 20:00 IL / 1 pm ET. Register here.
The Literary Modiin event originally scheduled for November 5 (in-person and over Zoom), with Janice Weizman (OUR LITTLE HISTORIES), Ruth Marks Eglash (PARALLEL LINES) and Jennifer Lang (PLACES WE LEFT BEHIND) has been rescheduled for January 28. Register here.
And we’ll double up in January - there’s another event scheduled for Jan 7 (Zoom only), so stay tuned for more details there.
Story of the Month: Cold Water
Cold Water by Haim Watzman (Jewish Book Council): In Haim’s new story, a woman tries to take refuge from the news and our new reality by going for a swim. Every word feels true and chilling. You can read it here, or listen to Annabelle Landgarten’s masterful recitation of the story at the first Literary Modiin solidarity event. And PS I am amazed that Haim had the wherewithal to write a brand new story under these circumstances!! For more of Haim’s writing, subscribe to his Substack.
Given the situation, it’s been hard to concentrate on reading. I finished four books this month, bringing my yearly total to 75. A few quick recommendations:
Still Life by Sarah Winman: This is the first I’ve read of Sarah Winman, for my local book club, and it’s a winner. The book begins in Tuscany at the end of World War II, with an encounter between two Brits: Ulysses Temper, a young soldier, and Evelyn Skinner, a middle-aged art historian trying to salvage paintings from the ruins. The novel follows both Ulysses and Evelyn and their chosen families over the decades, from Tuscany to London and back. If you like books with a large cast of very likeable characters (think: Amor Towles) and with beautiful prose (think: Maggie O’Farrell), this book is for you. (Also, they seem to be drinking wine on every other page). Makes me want to visit Florence again. Highly recommend.
Girls They Write Songs About by Carlene Bauer: A book I randomly picked up at Three Lives & Co in New York this summer, and I’m glad I did. The novel, billed as a power ballad to female friendship, is about two young women in NYC, circa the late 1990s, who become close friends working for a music magazine. Rose - brash and self-possessed - is a staff writer, and Charlotte - hesitant, bookish - is an editor. In addition to the ups and downs of this vital friendship, I enjoyed the gritty depictions of New York. This blurb from the NY Times rang true to me: “[the book] is a love story about two friends, but it's also something thornier--a narrative about the cycles of enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment that make up a life."
The Evil Inclination by Daniel Victor: Although both born and bred in Brooklyn, Lev Levitski and Angela Pizatto come from vastly different worlds. When they meet in college, Lev is an observant Jew, more knowledgeable about the Talmud than about the opposite sex, and Angela is a fast-talking Italian beauty. They quickly become lovers, but must go to great lengths to keep the relationship a secret, galivanting around Brooklyn while attempting to enlighten each other. Angela is truly curious about Judaism while Lev is in a constant moral crisis between his passion and his religion. Told with a great deal of humor, The Evil Inclination proves that it’s possible for a book to touch on serious themes — family, faith, responsibility and temptation, to name a few — while still being an enjoyable, fun read. Join us for Literary Modiin’s December event to hear Daniel speak about his book.
Recipes of the Month: Easy Comfort Foods
One of the things I’ve been busy with in the last few weeks has been making food for people. Families sitting shiva, families displaced from their homes, families needing help because the husband has been called up to the IDF. I’ve been making two main, easy items, lasagna and a (gluten-free) dairy casserole, or what we call here a dairy pashtida. The guy behind the cheese counter at our local supermarket must be wondering what’s going on, considering the amount of grated cheese I am buying each week.
Quick & Easy Lasagna
Pre-cooked lasagna noodles
Tomato sauce (homemade or store-bought)
3 containers (~750 g or 3 cups) of cottage cheese/ ricotta cheese. I can’t speak for the cottage cheese in the US, but here I use a mixture of the 5% and 9%.
300 g / ~1 1/2 - 2 cups of grated cheese (any kind of light yellow, mozzarella is fine but so are many other kinds).
Preheat the oven to 175 C / 350 F.
For homemade tomato sauce: dice and sauté a small onion, add a large can of crushed tomatoes, 1 small container of tomato paste, salt, pepper, & spices to taste. Mix the cottage/ricotta cheese with the egg in a small bowl. To assemble: Spread a layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the pan. Cover with lasagna noodles. Add another layer of tomato sauce. Then add half of the cottage cheese mixture. Top with 1/3 of the grated cheese. Repeat (another layer of noodles, tomato sauce, cottage cheese mixture, grated cheese). For the final layer, add another layer of noodles, tomato sauce, and grated cheese. Bake for about 35 minutes or until the cheese on top is melted and bubbly.
Dairy pashtida / crust-less quiche/casserole
This is my good friend Anna’s recipe, and ever since we found out my daughter is celiac, we’ve been making it. It’s very versatile, so you can use any vegetable. (She says tuna is also okay, but that’s not my thing). After making three mushroom onion pashtidot in the last two weeks, I made a zucchini one for Shabbat, pictured below.
2 cups of either mushrooms or zucchini or any other vegetable
150 g (3/4 c) of grated yellow cheese
1 container cottage cheese
1 container of white cheese (probably the closest thing to this in the States is sour cream?, though here it is not sour)…
2 TBSP of mushroom or onion soup mix
Salt & pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 175 C / 350 F. Sauté the onion in butter or olive oil. Add the mushrooms/zucchini/whatever and sauté those too. Mix all of the cheese, eggs and soup mix together, add the sautéed vegetables, and then bake in any shaped pan for about 40-45 minutes until the center is firm.
That’s it for this month. Once again, may our hostages and soldiers return safe and sound, quickly, may we keep our humanity in the face of the horror, and may we know peaceful times soon.