January 5, 2011

Dear Readers,

If you're in the New York City area and are hankering for a night of edifying entertainment, then head over to the 14th Street Y, on Wednesday, January 19th, by 7 p.m.


Novelist/Musician Rick Moody and Poet/Musical Historian David Lehman will be talkin' bout Bob Dylan.

You may recall how these two recently improvised some great things about an amazing photo of Dylan, The Band, and Cher. If not, read this post from the Forward's Arty Semite blog and/or click these links:



So if this free literary, musical, Dylan-Moody-Lehman-Cher-themed event, sounds like your kind of thing--and we hope it does--RSVP at the event's Facebook page.

Would be great to see you there.

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

December 2, 2010

Dear Readers,

At JBooks.com, we love Bob Dylan. Yes, sometimes we worry too much about how Jewish he is (or isn't), but generally speaking we just dig the guy's work. So when we saw that the 14th Street Y in Manhattan had put together a fascinating live event on December 5--Bob Dylan and The Band: What Kind of Love Is This?--we knew we had to contribute.

We borrowed a rare photo by William G. Scheele--who, as the equipment/stage manager for The Band and Bob Dylan from 1969 to 1976, had an interesting angle on our subjects, and whose work is featured at the 14th Street Y event--and sent it to two major writers, novelist Rick Moody and poet David Lehman. We asked them to improvise written responses. Best part about the picture: it showed Dylan and The Band jamming with, of all people, Cher. Cher!

Here's Moody's piece, which is, in our opinion, a superlative piece of musical criticism. Analysis. Appreciation. Whatever you call this real-time composition, it resists any goofy attempts at classification.

This is Lehman's fine new poem, in which an annoying journalist in a "Jerk mask" interviews first Cher, then Robbie Robertson, and finally Dylan. Want to know what happens when the journalist encounters the artist? Click and read, friend.

Legendary cultural critic Greil Marcus; John Niven, author of the novella Music from Big Pink; and Dana Spiotta (Eat the Document) answer a few Dylan questions with some funny and intelligent remarks. Like this: "[Dylan is] the relative you've heard about but never seen. Everyone tells stories about him and none of them fit together. You fantasize that you'd have a lot to say to each other, but you'll never have to put it to the test. Also, Cher is better dressed than Dylan. Those 70s wing collars were worse than shoulder pads. But there's a 1965 picture of Dylan with Sonny Bono that's really the one," says Marcus.

To wrap up, Stephen Hazan Arnoff, the executive director of the 14th Street Y, puts Dylan in the context of sociologist Max Weber and the Song of Songs. "The Song of Songs is a covenantal love song," he writes. "It's a song for grown-ups, not to be confused with pop. It contains commitment, conflation, threat, desperation, poetry, and it's completely out of line: a covenantal love song of the biblical kind, and Dylanesque."

We hope you love the Dylan compilation as much as we enjoyed assembling it.

Oh, one last thing: Rick Moody and David Lehman have agreed to do a live Dylan-based event, on January 19, 7 p.m., at the 14th Street Y. More details to come. Would love to see you there.

Looks like we're heading for a very Happy Hanukkah!

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

September 23, 2010

Dear Readers,

This issue, the multifaceted David Lehman kicks off our new Jewish Manuscript Project--in which we peek at the creative process of our best authors--by walking us through the various stages of his "Poem in the Prophetic Mode." Observe closely as it evolves from a scratched out rough draft, to a word-processed revision, to final publication in The Atlantic.

Lehman has long been a poet unafraid to bring readers his unfiltered stuff. In The Daily Mirror, he published two year's worth of spontaneous daily verse. To get even closer to his process, watch his real-time QuickMuse improvisations, which found their way into his latest published volume, Yeshiva Boys. Book trailer here.

You might also be interested the Musical Lehman. He is something of an authority on Jewish-American songwriters: so much so that he wrote a Jewish Encounters book on the topic. Here's a list of Lehman's top-ten Jewish-American standards, for those of you who still care about standards...

Perhaps you'd like to meet David Lehman, the editor. As the curator of the Best American Poetry Series, he has made himself into one of the more influential people in the poetry world.

I hope you've enjoyed our brief introduction to this tireless poet, prose writer, and editor. In the New Year, let's all strive to be more Lehmanesque in our literary lives.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

July 19, 2010

Dear Readers,

The cartoon you see here is one strange piece of online literary history. Gary Shteyngart--author of Super Sad True Love Story and a man whom Edmund White blithely dubs "our finest satirist"--appears in his first-ever illustrated interview. His interlocutor is Rabbi Harvey, of whom The New Republic writes: "Riding diffidently to our rescue, on pages printed in a subdued palette of sepia, mustard, sorrel, and beige, our hero appears in view, a thoroughly brilliant creation." It's the cartoon clergyman's first interview as well (though he has done a few book reviews before: here and here). Read, if you dare, these 14 unusual pages and learn what happened when Harvey met Gary... but if this feels too much work, and you'd like to meet an even more cartoonish Shteyngart, watch this wacky video, which co-stars Mary Gaitskill, actor James Franco, a small flock of debutantes, and Jay McInerney. Adjust your äppäräts, and enjoy!

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com


May 24, 2010

Dear Readers,

I woke up this morning and realized that JBooks is (weirdly) getting into the video business. Well, sort of.

First, for those of you who couldn't make it to our fantastic event, in which Elinor Lipman charmingly interrogated Anita Diamant, we have a treat. Their illuminating conversation has been videotaped and edited and is now available to you, in three easy-to-watch parts:

Part I, in which Elinor Lipman admits to pitching Diamant's latest novel, Day After Night, as a movie and Diamant tells the fascinating story of the Atlit detention camp.

In Part II we learn how Bill Moyers and Tony Kushner helped Diamant write The Red Tent. There's also a little joke about hummus...

Part III features Diamant's idea that we're living in "the century of the Jewish woman." She also says that she and novelist Stephen McCauley have "study hall," in which the two authors force themselves to get together and write at the same time. "It's a way to keep... the ass in the chair," says Diamant.

Now let's talk about you. We are in the process of making a fundraising video featuring cameos by some superlative Jewish authors, including people like Gary Shteyngart, Michael Wex, Dara Horn, Alan Dershowitz, Tova Mirvis, and Shalom Auslander--to name just a few. We would love to add you to the cast. So grab your iPhone, or the iPhone of a friend, and videotape yourself saying, "My name is [Your Name], and I'm a friend of JBooks." If we like your clip, you could wind up in the video. If you are indeed a friend of ours, please your video here.

Happy reading (and viewing),

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

March 5, 2010

Dear Readers,

Bestselling author Anita Diamant recently published a novel called Day After Night. Bestselling novelist Elinor Lipman read it, loved it, and promptly emailed Diamant to express her enthusiasm. Now JBooks.com and Peet's Coffee & Tea have arranged for the two writers to continue the conversation, in person, at the Peet's store in Newton Centre, Mass., on April 8. The conversation will last from 7-8 p.m. You're invited to eavesdrop as these two talented writers talk shop—with no critics or editors or academics to get in the way. Seating is extremely limited, so click here, right now, to register.

Address: 776 Beacon Street
Store phone number: 617.244.1577

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

February 23, 2010

Dear Readers,

Last year, I published an essay on MyJewishLearning.com called "Seize the Day School." I worried about this essay. "Seize" spelled out, in great detail, my own ambivalences—note the plural—about sending my daughter to Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. I feared that once the piece was published, her teachers might treat my little girl… differently; that the school moms would stop smiling at me and my wife; that our tuition bill would start growing exponentially.

My fears were unfounded.

In fact, people seemed to like the damned thing. The editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning said that "Seize" "received a more impassioned response than almost all of our other articles." The people at the school were jazzed, and I heard from a number of day school parents about it. Why? I think they were happy to see someone articulate his own nuanced feelings about Jewish education.

Clearly, there was a lot to say about day school, but only the rare opportunity for people to speak candidly in public. So after the story went live, I teamed up with the Project for Excellence in Jewish Education—you can call them PEJE—to get other people writing essays. The project produced a number of "Seize"-like pieces from a diverse group of authors, who had either attended, or who had kids in, day school. The results were varied, stylish, thoughtful and honest, so much so that the Forward decided to republish them.

In "Et Tu, Brute?" Michael "Mr. Yiddish" Wex waxes poetic about the immense value of his daughter's Hebrew education.

Joshua Halberstam, philosophy professor and author of the recent novel A Seat at the Table, compares his severe yeshiva education to his kids' more liberal day school lives. It's funny. Interesting. And a little sad.

And novelist Rachel Kadish talks about how enrollment in day school is perhaps a matter of turning one's child into an apikores or an am ha'aretz.

Please also read the following terrific essays:

Josh Lambert's "Jewish Power Tools"
Michael Kress' "An Unorthodox Education"
Jane Ulman's "So Done Being a Day School Parent"
Rachel Brodie's "Applied Probability: Day School Plus Mazel"

Have you got a day-school story of your own? Send it to us! And, as always, feel free to follow us on Twitter.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

January 26, 2010

Dear Readers,

What happens when Jewish authors sit down to write spiritual books? Is it a few sessions of eyes-closed typing at the laptop, Judaic emotions recollected in tranquility? Or brilliant words scribbled quickly into a notebook and then mailed off to the publisher for instant fame and fortune?

Not exactly.

It's writing, and as such it's damned hard work. These people have to balance the necessary idol-smashing required to speak authentically to one's self and one's time, and the importance of respecting one's literary ancestors. Then there are the problems of knowing how to appropriately, or effectively, address one's audience and the inherent difficulties of bringing such work to market.

Jay Michaelson, author of Everything Is God, kicks things off with a piece that candidly admits: "Often, the best—i.e., the highest quality—spiritual writing is ineffective as spiritual teaching, because it has more to do with an excellent poetic experience than creating an excellent spiritual one. Take Abraham Joshua Heschel. 'Time is God's gift to the world of space.' Beautiful—sounds great—not sure what it means. Heschel never tells us how to light candles, he tells us that doing so builds a cathedral in time. When I read Heschel, I feel great. When I quote him, I feel great. But when I try to follow him in my life, I'm often left without a compass."

Then the wise Lawrence Kushner responds by taking us back to Abraham's conflict with his idol-peddling father. "Judaism begins when Abraham decided that his father's business, his life-work, and all his gods were bunkum," writes Kushner. "And he then communicated this to his father in an act of what can only be called adolescent, iconoclastic rebellion. Abraham doesn't merely reject his father's profession and faith; he ridicules it; he demonstrates it's folly; he destroys it. (So much for honoring parents.)"

Finally, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature for her memoir Surprised by God, has a few words for Michaelson about "spirituality" and "religion." She says that his notion of spirituality "seems to be about the personal, individual journey of the brave individual self—one pictures Jack Kerouac setting out on the road, needing nobody and finding no use in external help," and that this image "belies 2,000 years of nuanced theology."

Sounds interesting? Want to hear more? If you'll be in the Boston area at the end of the month, please come to our event, Everything is God: A Boston Jewish Spiritual Woodstock, on January 31, at Harvard Hillel, featuring both Michaelson and Ruttenberg. Details are here, and we'll be tweeting about it here.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

October  27, 2009

Dear Readers,

Sorry to have been so quiet lately. Much has been happening behind the scenes.

1. We've moved. JBooks.com has a brand-new address. If you want to reach us we're at:

92 Crescent Street
Waltham, MA 02453

Authors, publishers, editors, and publicists: please direct your new books here.

2. JBooks just received an important grant from the Koret Foundation. Students of contemporary literary history will recall that we co-administered, with Koret and the Foundation for Jewish Culture, the 2006 Koret International Jewish Books Awards. Read our Koret-related content here. We vigorously thank Koret for the help.

3. We're gearing up for a big live event this spring, in cooperation with Peet's Coffee & Tea. More details to come, but it will feature none other than... Anita Diamant. Should be great fun.

Plan to see some big changes in the site over the next few months. We'll soon have some interesting new content, I promise.

As always, I'd love to hear from you.

Shana tova,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

September  17, 2009

Dear Readers,

Rosh Hashanah isn't traditionally a funny holiday. It's a time for reflection and moral self-improvement, which is why at this time of year we normally point you to things like this list of high-minded High Holiday books or this review of S.Y. Agnon's monumental anthology, Days of Awe. But this year, we have something that is both seasonally appropriate and, gulp, humorous. It's an essay about my family's attempt to build our own shofar, following the instructions in a Jewish do-it-yourself article. Click here to read about the sub-Bob-Villa-level result... and if you have any tips on how I can build a better shofar, please let me know.

The JBooks family wishes you a joyous Shana Tova!

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

August 18, 2009

Dear Readers,

Some very big JBooks.com news. Please see the press release below.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

Note: I have a new email address: kgordon@jbooks.com. Feel free to use it.


JBooks.com Editor Takes Over Site from JFL Media
Publisher Gives Employee a Shot at Ownership

Newton, Massachusetts—Aug. 26, 2009. Ken Gordon, the editor of JBooks.com since March 2004, is the new owner of JBooks.com. JFL Media, long-timer publisher of BabagaNewz, JVibe, and Sh'ma, has transferred ownership of the site to Gordon.

Since May 1, 2009, JFL Media has been winding down its publications. JFL has shown great confidence in Gordon's ability to assume control of the Jewish-books website.

"We can't think of a better person to take it over," says JFL's Chairman of the Board Evan Schlessinger. "We've help nurture an employee to grow and develop into an independent publisher, and Ken's demonstrated success made this decision an easy one for the JFL board to support."

Amir Cohen, CEO of JFL, adds, "JBooks.com is Ken Gordon and Ken Gordon is JBooks.com. This move makes an enormous amount of sense. Having the incubator [JFL] finish its job—watching a successful new program go out on its own—is a most gratifying feeling."

JBooks.com will operate under the fiscal sponsorship of the Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Paul Zakrzewski, the FJC's Program Officer for Literature and Scholarship and the editor of Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge, says Gordon is "easily one of the most entrepreneurial guys I've ever come across in the Jewish world."

As the editor of JBooks.com, Gordon has produced some rather innovative content, such as graphic essays and musical book reviews. JBooks writers include National Jewish Book Award winner Dara Horn and Alan Dershowitz. One of the most notable pieces of JBooks content was a fundraising music video featuring Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. In his non-JBooks.com life, Gordon founded QuickMuse, the unique website that takes world-class poets and has them improvise a block of verse, online, in real time.

JBooks.com boasts an archive of over 860 articles and thousands of loyal subscribers. It partnered with the Koret Foundation and the Foundation for Jewish Culture in running the 2006 Koret International Jewish Book Awards. JBooks has also won awards, including a Writer's Digest "Top 101 Website" Award, a Webby Worthy citation, and a Rockower Award from the American Jewish Press Association.

"This is the chance of a literary lifetime," says Gordon. "It's the rare editor who builds a site and then is invited to take it over."

Under Gordon's stewardship, JBooks will surely win an even more prominent place in Jewish culture.

CONTACT: Lisa Gordon, 617.851.5112

SOURCE: JBooks.com, Inc.

August 18, 2009

Dear Readers,

Prepare for one highly unusual summer-fiction issue. For this installment of JBooks.com, we commissioned four seasonal short stories by four wildly talented writers. We threw out the assignment—write 500 words on the theme of "Jews at the Beach"—and back flowed these amazing pieces, as beautiful and individual as shards of sea glass.

"I came up with the opening line standing at my stove, then went up to my computer and pretty much wrote it," says Elinor Lipman about her story "Alice Apologizes." "I liked the sound of the 'Jews-on-the-beach' theme, with its suggestion of something slightly comic and (sorry) fish-out-of-water-ish. If the assignment had been 500 words on just anything, I don't think I would have been inspired." Lipman fans take note: She also reads the story!

"The subject 'Jews at the beach' seems to ask for a story about caricatured people with Long Island accents," says Dara Horn. "But I am not interested in social satire or anthropology, and to me, what makes literature Jewish is its resonance with Jewish sources. And of course there happens to be one fairly important ancient Jewish story about Jews at the beach."

Of "Mr. Pacific Beach," Neal Pollack's seaside story, the author says, "Believe it or not, that story is based on my own grandfather. The details have been changed to protect the innocent, though that doesn't matter much because he passed away 16 years ago."

Danit Brown reports that, for days after I assigned her the topic, she "walked around chanting, 'Jews at the beach. Jews at the beach.' There's just something about the way those words sound together—maybe it's the stresses on 'Jews' and 'beach.' At the same time, I was teaching Rick Moody's 'Boys' at the Indiana University Writers Conference and unable to shake the hypnotic hold of the incantation 'Boys enter the house,' which forms the structural basis of the story. And so... " There's an audio version of this story as well.

Enjoy the stories, and what's left of the summer.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

June 5, 2009

Dear Readers,

The Bible scared me.

I grew up, like so many American Jews, allergic to the idea of Torah. I suspected that somehow the words of the Bible would sneak up and rob me of my self or my liberty or my coolness. The Bible was something for our great-grandparents, our lame Hebrew school teachers, prudes, anti-scientific dopes, everyone and everything that seemed to prevent us from asserting our own various brands of all-American freedom.

I've outgrown that particular allergy. The Bible, it's now very clear, is a rich and serious work; not something to be glibly dismissed. But what I retain from my pisherhood is the idea that it's a great book among many. That the damned thing is canonical because it has so much in it, too much to be reduced to the syrupy simple ideas that appeal to tyrants of every stripe. I think of the Bible now, and I think of the astonishing variety of things readers and writers have done with of it.

This American Life's Jonathan Goldstein makes fictional use of the Bible in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! "In interpreting these biblical heroes for our own quick-and-easy-kosher-style proclivities, Goldstein robs them and us of our differences. It is not that these stories aren't funny—they are," writes reviewer Tamara Mann. "In fact, many are laugh-out-loud funny. But the result of this callow attempt at engagement and relevance is also somewhat sad."

Rabbi Jill Hammer's up next, with an extremely personal review of Avivah Zornberg's latest volume, The Murmuring Deep. "Zornberg's existentialist, therapeutic exegetical method has an uncanny way of speaking to the reader," writes Hammer. "(Zornberg's own definition of uncanny, 'familiar but alien,' is exactly my meaning.) While living in Jerusalem for a year, I had the opportunity to study with her, and week after week I found myself feeling that she was speaking directly to me, as if she knew the events of my life."

Then Shmuley Boteach gets biblical on sex. "My argument in The Kosher Sutra is: what's the point of knowing ten trillion positions [when] it's all worthless if you don't have the desire to implement them," he says in our interview. "The first step is you must have lust in your relationship. Notice that the Tenth Commandment is that you shall not lust after your neighbor's wife. By implication, you sure as heck should be lusting after your own wife."

Famed poet Alicia Ostriker, in a lovely essay on her book For the Love of God, admits, among other things: "When I read the Song of Songs, the 16-year-old in me revives. Once again I am in love for the first time, body and soul are fused, and the world itself is holy."

Finally, the great tanslator and commentator Robert Alter takes us deep into the language of the Psalms. "Any sensitive reader of the poetry in the Hebrew is likely to be annoyed by the profusion of words and syllables (frequently an arhythmic profusion) of the English translations, which often run to two or three times the number of words, syllables, and accents of the Hebrew. What I set out to do, then, in translating Psalms was to tamp down the English language, eliminating words and substituting monosyllables for polysyllabic terms (and, like the Hebrew, concrete terms for abstractions) in order to fashion a poetic language that sounded something like the Hebrew."

Happy reading,

—Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

May 15, 2009

Dear Readers,

Is it sill accurate to call Israel "The Land of Milk and Honey"? How about "The Land of Superlative Wine and Creamy Hummus"? Or even "The Land of A.B. Yehoshua and Binyamin Netanyahu"? Yes, these are ultimately unfair descriptions of the Jewish State, partly because Israel is a complicated place. You can't do it justice in a phrase. Which is why, I suppose, we need books about Israel. And yet, when I think of the immensity of my Jewish ignorance, I think of how I merely know Israel though books.


I can't in good faith, Jewish or literary, say that this book-knowledge deserves the adjective "mere." Books about Israel are essential to the idea of Israel itself. And even if you haven't read the latest volume by, say, Amos Oz, the man's work is so powerful, so important, so influential in Israel, that you are probably being influenced by it, whether you know it or not.

And so we'll begin the Israel issue of JBooks.com with a look at Oz's latest novel, Rhyming Life and Death. Reviewer Rachel Somerstein says that "critics talk about the suspension of disbelief: the mental labor performed by readers to make a book 'work.' Oz gives us the inverse of this operation, the way it looks from the novelist's point of view: a sustained belief in the unbelievable which, through repetition and revision, becomes real."

Secular Culture & Ideas has a special treat: An exclusive video interview with Amos Oz, in which the eminent Israeli novelist discusses the seductions of Jewish culture. "There are treasures outside the synagogue," says Mr. Oz, who champions Jewish literature, music and folklore. "I myself am not a synagogue goer," he explains, but rather a culture lover. "All of those are our treasures; all of them are our heritage."

"The Peculiar Case of Hebrew Literature in America" next. "Americans—non-Jews too—grow up with a very particular idea of Israel that often has little to do with reality," writes George Washington University professor Yaron Peleg. "The vibrant and lively little country, with its dazzling mixture of contradictions and paradoxes, and especially its irrepressible penchant for self-critique, often to the point of self-flagellation, seems to Americans so, well, un-American."

Reviewer Bezalel Stern has some critical words for the venerable Aharon Appelfeld's allegorical Laish, which recently made its way into English. "That the novel must be read metaphorically to be truly appreciated is somewhat fascinating, but it is also the book's primary fault," says Bezalel Stern. "It's hard to stay interested in characters who, one feels, have no real life, are only ultimately stand-ins for larger, more universal themes."

Then a look at how a book actually changed the course of Israeli history. Allis and Ronald Radosh, co-authors of A Safe Haven: Harry Truman and the Founding of Israel, write: "[I]n 1944 a soil conservationist named Walter Clay Lowdermilk published a book called Palestine, Land of Promise. Surprisingly, the little book became a best-seller and had a significant impact on the debate in America over the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. "

And while we're on the topic of "making the case"... let's look back a classic JBooks.com essay: Alan Dershowitz's Rockower Award-winning piece, "The Hazards of Making The Case for Israel." Here's how it begins: "Publication of The Case for Israel has made me the target of vicious personal attacks. A systematic effort to discredit the book, and me, has been undertaken by a well-organized group of Israel bashers led by Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and Alexander Cockburn. As soon as the book reached the bestseller lists and began to get good reviews around the country, this triumvirate went to work. They had a model for their attack going back 20 years."

Happy Reading and Shabbat Shalom,

—Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

April 2, 2009

Dear Readers,

April means two things around these parts: Passover and poetry. They sit so nicely next to each other at the seder table, no? The essence of Jewish history is compressed into the story of Pesach, while poetry is language radically compressed, or as the anti-Semite Ezra Pound once said, "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree." (April is also National Poetry Month. You might have heard.) It makes perfect literary and Judaic sense for April to be, on JBooks.com, the home of National Jewish Poetry Month.

A few of you look nervous--don't be. There's no need to be afraid of poetry here. This is good heimish stuff. In fact, if taken in the proper dosage, poetry will go a long way to making your Passover more meaningful and interesting.

Poetry invigorates the most overdone of Passover rituals, such as leaving the door open for the endlessly tarrying Elijah. We've teamed up with QuickMuse, to open the door in a whole new way. The Pulitzer prizewinning Philip Schultz bids goodbye to the "dear Prophet of absence" and asks that he "once again" fail to appear. And then David Lehman, famed editor of the Best American Poetry series, improvises a few phrases on Elijah's violin.

A poet's sensibility fosters an appreciation of how meaning and language truly function, at Passover and elsewhere. "In a seder, the foods are not primarily what they are, but symbols of something else," says Matthew Zapruder, in his essay, "The Poet at the Plate." "This idea in poetry—that the words in a poem, like the foods in the seder, are some kind of symbolic code for something else—is highly corrosive. It distances a reader from what the poet is actually saying, and causes him to run away from the actuality of the poem into all sorts of ridiculous and untethered searches for the true message that supposedly underlies all the fluff of the poem."

When a true poet, like Charles Rezinkoff, writes--even if he writes a novel--it turns into a poem. As Phillip Lopate says, in a piece on the novel By the Waters of Manhattan, Reznikoff "hewed to the diction of ordinary American speech, carving his material into tight, haiku-like images and wry vignettes that could best convey the often comical sufferings, struggles, contradictions, and consolations of the everyday human beings he observed, including himself."

A study of Jewish poets is a study of Jewish people. As Joy Katz suggests, there are Wise Poems and Wicked Poems, Faithful Poems and Poems That Ask No Questions. I love the idea that there are many poets on the books as there are Jewish children.

Then the Velveteen Rabbi, a.k.a. Rachel Barenblat, gives us the inside scoop on the metamorphosis her life undergoes during this very dramatic month. "April brings an embarrassment of riches for Jewish poets: both National Poetry Month and Passover. Wouldn't it be nice if they were a few weeks apart so we could celebrate each with appropriate focus? But the calendar often demands that they collide. It's overwhelming."

For this JBooks issue on Jewish-American poetry, Secular Culture & Ideas brings you three of Ruth Knafo Setton's poems, "The Loss of Certainty," "When God Yelled at Me," and "Queen of the Air." Knafo Setton is an American Jewish writer born in Safi, Morocco. Drawing upon her experiences as a Moroccan Jew, a woman, and an immigrant she writes about people leaving their home, strangers in a new land, living in exile, and rebellion—all foundations of the Passover theme.

And that's the final verse. Happy reading and happy Passover.

—Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

March 5, 2009

Dear Readers,

Time to take a breath. Forget for a second about rising worldwide anti-Semitism and crashing 401(k)s and the bad name of Bernie Madoff (anyone got a grogger?). Time to revel in absurdity, excess, hamentashen. To celebrate, we've throwing a terrific online Purim party.

Just listen to all the chatter! The Spiel, our modest Purim video, has written about by the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Boston Globe, the Forward, Beliefnet, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and others. The JTA's Fundermentalist blog said, "This might be the best pitch for a philanthropy during hard times I have seen."

Alicia Ostriker, the two-time finalist for the National Book Award, has composed a post-party Purim scene for us, in which Esther and Vashti banter meaningfully about war-mongering men:

"Seventy-five thousand, eight hundred Persians, including women and children, killed in two days," Vashti says. "Their enemies," Esther reminds her. "Whom they called their enemies," Vashti says. "Power. What is it about power?" Vashti does a small tap dance step. Esther repeats the step, seizes a cup from the table, and throws it into the fireplace, where it shatters. "Power? Power corrupts. All of us."

The author of An Hour in Paradise, Joan Leegant, has a message for the non-smilers at her spiels ("We'll hear the Megilla, give to charity, eat prune-filled pastry, but you can't make us be happy. We will be merry only on our own terms") and it goes like this: "It is taught that in messianic times, only the festival of Purim will continue to be celebrated. They might want to start preparing."

Rob Kutner—the Emmy-winning writer and the brains behind John Oliver's Literature Rodeo—explains why Purim is his chag. "Every year around Adar, my colleagues notice me being a little less 'available' to stay late and watch presidential speeches. Our props and wardrobe people annually get a crazy list of requests from me (How fortunate that the show happens to own a beautiful Haman-hanging noose!). And every year, one or two Daily Show correspondents has been kind enough to star in my show, whether it was Aasif Mandvi doing his astonishing John McCain impression, Lewis Black ranting about the five things he hates about Purim, or Stephen Colbert praising Haman and tearing Mordecai a new one."

This week Secular Culture & Ideas brings you "The True Story of Purim" by Judith Seid. Sharing the history of Purim and the Story of Esther, Seid writes, "the whole story is profoundly secular in nature," she continues, "we learn from this story not to rely on heroes, but to understand that people are responsible for the course of history." Though Purim is a holiday that raises important ethical questions about power, powerlessness, and human responsibility, Seid also reminds us "First and foremost, Purim is fun! All else is commentary!"

Happy Reading and Happy Purim.


February 2, 2009

Dear Readers,

Books aren't, generally speaking, a great way to make money. Jewish books especially. When I was in college, the Smart Money headed straight for Business School, or perhaps Medical or Law School--not the English Department. Decidedly not.

This kind of thinking retraces the ancient Jewish line between earners and learners, and it's a division we must learn to rethink, if we're to get a full understanding of Jewish culture. Besides, today's awful economy demands that everyone, even our underpaid bookies, become more conscious about the meaning of money. Thus in this issue of JBooks.com:

National Jewish Book Award winner Dara Horn does a fascinating reading of Sholem Aleichem's classic Tevye the Dairyman, in the light of L'Affaire Madoff. She reports that Aleichem inherited a huge amount of money from his father-in-law and then "lost the entire fortune on the Kiev stock exchange, and spent the rest of his life evading his creditors. Sholem Aleichem was a man whom Madoff would have hoodwinked just as he did everyone else. But at least we would have gotten a good story out of it."

Next, a chat with Danny Levine, owner of J. Levine Booksellers and Judaica. Levine has been in the book biz for 40 years and knows the industry very well. "Some of these Jewish publishers' websites have specials where they give 33 percent off and free shipping," says Levine. "It's unfair business practice—they have the ability to go as low as they want. That really bothers me because every time a customer goes to their website they're putting a dagger through the heart of the Jewish bookstore."

Historian Paul Buhle settles an old account with Mike Gold's Jews Without Money, concluding that the novel is "alive as long as Jewish-American immigrant history plays a vivid role in collective memory—and that shows no sign of dissipating."

Allison Schachter, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, says that "the cultural representation of Jewish women as greedy consumers is a recent phenomenon" and finds, in the 17th-century memoir of Glückel of Hameln, a different sort of woman, one who "lovingly describes her marriage as a business partnership, boasting that her husband would turn only to her for business advice."

Shulamit Reinharz, the director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, reviews Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and Lost World of Global Commerce, calling the volume an "historic breakthrough" that blurs "the line that divides economic and cultural history."

This week Secular Culture & Ideas features an essay on the roots of Jewish secularism. "There were many approaches to what Jewish life should look like in the modern era," writes Dr. Paul G. Shane. "But secular Jews agreed that the realization of their ideals depended on human rather than supernatural intervention."

And that's all for now. This winter, I hope everyone out there keeps warm, keeps their jobs, and keeps paging through great Jewish books.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

January 9, 2009


Dear Readers,

Great Jewish writing isn't often the product of rigid ideological or religious or ethical conviction. One typically finds it in the sentence, or passage, or page, or book, that asks, and keeps asking, "What do we mean when we say, 'Jew'?" The books that pose the best questions, as opposed to the ones that provide the most comforting answers, are the ones we reach for--or should reach for--again and again.

In my (somewhat feverish) essay "On Being a Marginally Jewish Reader," I take a run at the idea of marginalia--the very Jewish tradition of arguing with an author in the margins of a given text. This essay comes straight from the pages of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, complete with my own marginal notes (of course).

To continue the commentary: "Lots of people who don't know Spanish have read Don Quixote; lots of people who don't know Russian have read Anna Karenina. How did they do it?" asks Michael Carasik. He answers: "[T]hey didn't," adding that "[s]ynagogues are full of Jews who argue about what 'the Torah' is saying when they are really arguing with Rabbi Hertz, or some other translator/commentator."

We then take Jewish writing into the political and historical realm with Adam Kirsch who, in researching his new book on Benjamin Disraeli, found that "Being a Jew, being a writer, and being a leader were, for Disraeli, three ways of responding to his deepest passion—to impress his personality on history."

Expand your notion of Jewish literary history with a look at the new Israeli poetry anthology, Poets on the Edge. The venerable American poet Alicia Ostriker tells us that this volume will "send readers who know Hebrew scrambling for the originals of many of the poets here, and will make those who don't know Hebrew want to learn—precisely because these translations are so alive. For English-speaking readers (and writers), both Jewish and non-Jewish, the book will explode whatever lingering stereotypes there may be about Israeli culture."

Perhaps even more explosive is a book entitled Hebrew Writers on Writing. Sheila Jelen says it "reflects deeply and brilliantly on the ambiguity inherent in the secularization of the sacred, the modernization of the ancient, the nationalization of a diasporic people—all dichotomies that characterize the miracle, as well as the madness, of the revival of Hebrew in belles letters throughout the 20th century."

This issue of Secular Culture & Ideas features an essay on the great 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine. Uruguayan journalist Egon Friedler, reviewing a biography of Heine, writes that Heine "preceded millions of contemporary Jews who refuse to confine their Judaism to rigid theological straitjackets." Friedler continues: "Belonging and cultural identity take precedence here over questions of metaphysics: a historical community, with great traditions, forged in the continuum of more than four thousand years, is the patrimony of Jews like Heine."

A few final questions for you. What else would you like to see from JBooks.com? Do you want to know more about the books or authors from this issue? And are there any writers you'd like to question? Respond here, and we'll see where that takes us.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

December 21, 2008


Dear Readers,

This video made me laugh. Hard. When's the last time you watched a real celebrity "sell," on a much-watched TV show, the idea of Hanukkah (and in the process sing the words "Kislev," "dreidel," "good yontiff," and, um, "dreck")? Say what you will about this duet, but it succinctly captures how many Jewish-American grownups often feel towards Hanukkah: It's a great holiday for kids, but for adults... it can be troublesome. Part of the reason is that most of the stories we tell about Hanukkah are so simplistic, even childish, and many of them suffer because of embarrassed comparisons to Christmas. (Stephen Colbert sums this up neatly when he sings to Jon Stewart, "I'll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes.")

But let's shut off the TV for a second. Fact is, children's Hanukkah books can work a little bit of magic on our pishers. Indeed, it is wonderful to watch kids get dazzled by tales of miracles and oil and latkes. So those of you with young people in your life will want to read our roundup of kids' books. Penny Schwartz writes about four Hanukkah volumes, which bring mice, a bargain, an archeological dig, and haiku into the Festival of Lights.

Expanding this into aural territory is the latest Book of Life podcast, in which host Heidi Estrin talks to legendary kids' book authors Eric Kimmel, who penned Herschel and the Hannukah Goblins, and Sylvia "Sammy Spider's First Hanukkah" Rouss.

Then, for the visually inclined, there is an illustrated book review from Steve Sheinkin's Rabbi Harvey, who gets, as a holiday gift, Howard Schwartz's Leaves from the Garden of Eden. When's the last time you saw an animated cartoon character do a book review? Oh, yeah.

Now we shift into a more adult register, and end with two serious treatments of the holiday.

This issue of Secular Culture & Ideas features an essay on the historical and secular origins of this holiday, which is celebrated and spelled in many different ways. "By the dawn of the secular age," wrote Sherwin T. Wine, "Hanukka was one of several minor celebrations of the Jewish calendar." Nevertheless, today it is one of the most celebrated of the Jewish holidays. And Wine's essay is a tribute to the holiday that exemplifies "the increasing power of people to use the world to enhance the quality of human life."

To light the final candle on this literary menorah, here's my take on A.B. Yehoshua's superlative new novel, Friendly Fire: A Duet. It's the rarest of Hanukkah stories: a piece of holiday fiction for adults. The Israeli novelist has pulled off something truly miraculous here. It is "a volume stewing in a variety of Jewish passions, among which are a sharp ambivalence toward Jewish history and a fraught relationship to Jewish militarism."

My hope is that these stories help brighten this surprisingly dark December. Chag sameach to you, from all of us here at JBooks.com.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

November 28, 2008


Dear Readers,

The latest issue of Secular Culture & Ideas presents a wide variety of secular experiences. Enjoy it.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com


Dear Readers,

In this issue of Secular Culture & Ideas, we highlight the many expressions of Jewish secularism. This focus illuminates the tradition of Jewish secularism from the Bible’s secular works to Harvey Pekar’s highly acclaimed comic books. Looking at figures such as the Bible’s powerful women prophets, and father of the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), Moses Mendelssohn, Jewish secularism and culture are explored throughout history in a multitude of voices.

Our first piece is a podcast of our exclusive interview with world-renowned comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, who discusses Studs Terkel, other Jewish secularists, and his own secular Jewish identity. In this interview with American historian Paul Buhle he says, “Judaism has had a very strong impact on me even although I'm not at all religious.”

In our second piece, Rachel Elior focuses on the transformation of women prophets from powerful visionaries in the Bible, to suppressed subjects in the rabbinic tradition. Elior explains, “In biblical tradition, female prophets are depicted as a natural phenomenon.” She contrasts this with the rabbinic period, wherein, “The sages, who upheld a non-egalitarian ideology, distanced the entire female community from the world of authority and knowledge.”

Also looking at ancient Jewish texts, Yaakov Malkin introduces the Bible’s secular literature. Focusing on “the Bible’s greatest work of secular poetry, Song of Songs,” he demonstrates that the poem’s “sensuality, its erotic and aesthetic force, and its contribution to understanding the sublime spirituality of physical love,” has allowed the Song of Songs to remain a vibrant piece of secular Jewish literature and culture.

In our next article, Olga Gershenson reviews Pavel Loungine’s humorous and touching movie Roots, providing an overview of post-Soviet Russian-Jewish cinema and expressions of Russian-Jewish identity. Gershenson reminds us that “Mixing and matching cultures, languages, and gags” is an integral component of Jewish culture and identity.

Also in this issue, Norman Massey introduces us to Moses Mendelssohn, father of the Haskalah. Mendelssohn was a revolutionary freethinker who “was able to incite many Jews to think, rationalize and question the hitherto unassailable rabbinic traditions,” causing a renaissance in modern Jewish thought.

This issue also presents a review of Jonathan Sarna’s A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew. Beginning with the Jewish calendar, Sarna reflects on the meaning of Jewish life in contemporary America. Reviewer Jesse Tisch writes, “Dr. Sarna has a simple message—it can be shrunken to a haiku, almost—for younger Jews: Be engaged. Don't be ignorant. Keep an open mind. The rest, as they say, is commentary.”

More broadly, Barry Kosmin briefly explains the origins of secularism and processes of secularization following the French and American revolutions. Just by looking at the reverse of the U.S. national seal and the one-dollar bill, where the Latin phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum appears, we can see that “the founders of the American Republic viewed the ‘new order of the ages’ quite deliberately as a new era in which the old order of King and Church was to be displaced from authority over public life by a secular republican order.”

We hope that you enjoy just some of the many expressions of Jewish secularism!

—The Editors of Secular Culture & Ideas

November 17, 2008


Dear Readers,

Forget Summer Reading, Beach Books, the whole over-hyped Summertime Literary Party. Instead, give me books for the fire. Books for the frost. Hand me some hearty Petrarchan metaphors to sustain me through the Fall, and I'm a happy man.

Which is to say, my friends, we haven't been reading enough fiction. During our exhausting election season we've rather desperately focused on fact. We seemed to think, like Dickens' screwy pedagogue, Gradgrind: "Facts alone are wanted in life."

But then--and this is an improtant then--we, the book bound, know that "facts alone" aren't enough. Fiction offers us a kind of existential breathing room that can be found nowhere else. Which, in itself, is reason enough for this Fall Fiction Issue. (Plus, I've been accumulting some great writing about fiction, and I can't hold on to it any longer.)

In "What Jewish-American Writers Need (and I Mean Really Need)?" Sanford Pinsker writes about how his students used to vote on their favorite Jewish-American text. "The novel that won, hands down, every semester, every year, was Chaim Potok's The Chosen, a perfectly good novel for junior high school readers but not especially challenging, I thought, for college students. Why, I kept wondering, didn't they choose Henry Roth's Call It Sleep or Saul Bellow's Herzog? After mulling this question over for a couple of years, I decided (a) that estimations about art should never be put to a democratic vote; and (b) that I had to discontinue my end-of-semester questionnaire. "

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter gives us a fictional Yiddish author, Itsik Malpesh, who travels the long road from Kishinev, to WWI-era Odessa, to the Lower East Side of New York "during the most heady days of the Yiddish literati," then to Baltimore, and lastly to Israel. Writes reviewer Andrew Furman: "If this imagined realm lay well outside the felt experience of any young Jewish writer in America, author Peter Manseau—not merely a gentile but the son of an estranged priest and former nun!—writes from well outside the outside."

A word on the latest from Philip Roth. Professor Pinsker is unimpressed. "Sherwood Anderson set a high bar for the coming-of-age novel," says Pinsker. "Indignation does not meet, much less surpass, that bar; and I say this knowing full well how 'indignant' this will make Mr. Roth feel."

Then more diminishing returns! "Tamar Yellin's Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is not only a beautiful book; it is also an incredibly and unremittingly depressing one," says Bezalel Stern. "After the first story, admittedly bleak but also beautiful, I felt as if I had found the next great author. After the second, I was ready for a little sunshine. By the 10th, I felt as though my capacity for joy had been somehow diminished."

Adam Wilson reads The Men's Club. The novel hilariously brings up some memories of his father, novelist Jonathan Wilson, who once belonged to a group quite like the one Michaels describes in his book. "It was a poker club, comprised of men from our neighborhood, Jewish men with loosened ties and occasional facial hair who were lawyers, shrinks, and venture capitalists. These were not the characters from which literary fiction is made; they drank but rarely got drunk, gambled but no more than 20 bucks, didn't even smoke cigars. They did, however, discuss blow jobs and tell dirty jokes, one of which, I recall, had a punchline involving the unbeatable trifecta of Racquel Welch, a desert island, and a sheep. I listened cautiously and attentively."

Here's an interview with Joanna Hershon, author of The German Bride. "My journey of writing this novel began with a friend saying: 'My ancestors were Jewish cowboys.' I was intrigued by the statement and then really intrigued when he continued to explain that his great-great-grandmother was currently a famous ghost who haunted a Santa Fe hotel."

Finally, a return to fact. Secular Culture & Ideas presents Jesse Tisch's review of Secularism & Science in the 21st Century, a book about secular values and the battle over science education. What do science and secularism have in common? "There are indeed many points of confluence," write two of the contributors, Barry Kosmin and Juhem Navarro-Rivera, "including commitments to this, that, and the rest." Furthermore: "embedded in modernity is the idea that science is a major building block of the secular worldview."

Don't know about you, but I find this issue's fiction-talk quite bracing. I like the idea of spending more time amongst novels and short stories, to stretching my imagination just a bit. If you agree, let me know what great works of Jewish fiction you have read lately. The more stories, the merrier.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com


November 6, 2008


Dear Readers,

There is life, and there is literature. Sometimes they intersect; often they don't. One of the great self-delusions book people carry around is that reading and writing are qualitative substitutes for reality. They aren't, and we know this.

Therefore it's occasionally smart--or perhaps necessary--to read books with an eye to the narrative happening off the page. Which is the plot of this particular issue of JBooks.com.

We begin with a memoir. Jonathan Wilson jogs us through his athletic past, reminding us that for many Jews, speed is a matter of safety. "I was always a fast runner, and this was lucky for me. I ran away from a kid in my local park who held a knife at my throat. He was very determined to know whether I was Jewish or not. He kept asking me, but my urge to flee was stronger than my urge to reply."

Children's author Richard Michelson provides some election-season lessons from A. J. Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. "I have spent many of my adult years writing books for young children that attempt to address and heal society's racial wounds; though as likely I am trying to heal the rift within myself," writes Michelson. "I think of the healing process, and recall that by the time King and Heschel arrived in Montgomery, four days after they left Selma, 25,000 people of all colors and religions had joined their march in pursuit of a common goal."

Brown historian Paul Buhle reviews Arie Kaplan's From Krakow to Krypton, an insider's take on Jews and the comic-book industry. Fascinating to hear about the Sock and Pow of industry politics from Kaplan, a longtime scriptwriter for Mad magazine.

Early Bright next. A novel about Louis Greenberg: pianist, con artist, and Good Jewish Boy. Benjamin Pollak reports on the novel's various sharps and flat.

Go back in time, and get off the page. Click here for an audio-visual look at Get Lit 2008, the event JBooks and JVibe did back at the end of September. A good, real-world time was had by all.

Finally, Secular Culture & Ideas presents "Spinoza: The Marrano of Reason," in which a noted scholar decodes the heresy of Spinoza.

There are many ways to travel off the page, and hopefully the ones we've pointed up will be pleasant, and perhaps instructive, journeys for you.

Happy Reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

October 13, 2008


Dear Readers,

I'm sorry. Really. I should have sent this newsletter out before Yom Kippur. I feel lousy about the delay, but at this point there's nothing I can do but ask for your forgiveness. Will you please keep reading?

Thank you.

Actually, it's probably a good idea to keep the High Holiday spirit kindled. Too often our New Year's resolutions have a way of melting into the background of our daily activities. So take the following pieces of belated High Holiday content and use them as a way to continue your self-examination, to keep an honest eye on your ethical improvement.

Read Todd Hasak-Lowy's hilarious essay on the annual agony of the hunger headache. Hasak-Lowy gives us a glimpse into his Jewish sense of self and how it evolved through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood.

Sanford Pinsker comes clean about a novel he reviewed positively, but which now gives him second thoughts: Nicole Krauss' much-praised The History of Love.

Next, a look at Danya Ruttenberg's new memoir, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religions. Reviewer Judy Bolton-Fasman calls the book a "luminous, intelligent memoir," and then reveals some rather private spiritual information. A fascinating piece.

Rabbi David Wolpe's Why Faith Matters, is given the once-over by Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips, who used to be Wolpe's editor at the popular religion website. Phillips reports that, with this book, "Wolpe wants to reach far beyond a Jewish audience." We'll see what happens.

For this issue, our friends at the respected journal Sh'ma lent us Julian Levinson's smart essay about Franz Kafka and his literary encounters with "an inscrutable God."

And from Secular Culture & Ideas comes "The Fall Holidays," in which a secular Jewish rabbi briefly explains the holiday season.

Enough for now. Here's to a bright and bookish new year and I wish you, one and all, a shana tova.

--Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

September 26, 2008


Dear Readers,

Here's an interesting take on the back-to-school theme from Secular Culture & Ideas.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

Dear Readers,

In this back-to-school issue of Secular Culture & Ideas, we highlight the Posen Foundation Program for the Study of Secular Jewish History and Cultures. Through this landmark program, academic courses are being developed and taught about the study of Jewish secularism and secularization on campuses across North America, Israel, and Europe. In fact, all of the essays in this issue were either written by professors who teach these courses, or are excerpts from books that appear on course syllabi. The professors’ essays introduce their unique and exciting research on secular Jewish culture, history, and enlightenment. After all, why should students be the only ones to enjoy this material?

Our first piece, Baruch Spinoza: The Last Medieval Heretic or the First Secular Jew? by David Biale, explores Spinoza as a heretical enlightened thinker who 350 years after his death “continues to challenge our definitions of Jewish identity.” Examining Spinoza’s philosophy, Biale—the author of the forthcoming Not in the Heavens: An Intellectual History of Jewish Secularism—presents Spinoza’s “secularism with a soul.”

In our second piece, Rachel Rubenstein, a professor at Hampshire College, shares her latest research about the way Jews use Native American life and culture in order to reflect upon their Jewish identity. “Jewish engagement with Native Americans was fueled by serious literary and political motivations,” she writes. Rubenstein concludes that “Jewish interest in Native Americans served as yet another way to work out anxieties about how to negotiate the collision between ‘tribalisms’ and modern, Enlightenment liberalism.”

Also in this issue, Anna Shternshis, author of Soviet and Kosher, compares North American and post-Soviet Jewish perceptions of the shtetl. By looking at “non-Kosher Jewish restaurants” in Eastern Europe, she demonstrates that post-Soviet Jews imagine the shtetl as a center of cultured and intellectual life, whereas North American Jews imagine it as a beautiful and simple place. Shtershis, who teaches at the University of Toronto, examines contrasting stereotypes of the Jewish shtetl in her piece Gefilte Fish or White Piano?

The next piece in our back-to-school issue is an excerpt from David Fishman’s The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture, one of the many books taught in the Posen grant courses on Jewish secularism. Fishman presents an overview of the birth of Yiddish culture and the tremendous influence of Chaim Zhitlovsky on the development of post-religious, secular Yiddish culture. Fishman writes that “For Zhitlovsky, the rise of Yiddish, and its displacement of Hebrew, symbolized a cultural revolution taking place in Jewry–the end of the era of religious Judaism and the dawn of the era of free, secular Jewish culture.”

In our next article, Rebecca Alpert of Temple University introduces a surprising way to explore secular Judaism–through sports. She explains that sport “helps us confront questions of American Jewish life, and understand Jews as a cultural group in the United States.” Alpert also reflects on her in-class experience of teaching this Posen course. “I was surprised to find that for many of the students the topic of Jews and Sports was not an oxymoron,” she writes. “The stereotype of the unathletic Jew who doesn't care about sports was unknown to them.”

Speaking of new and innovative ways to explore Jewish secularism, we also present an interview with Rebecca Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza, a widely acclaimed book used in Posen-supported courses on Jewish secularization. In this interview, which originally appeared in Contemplate:The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought, Goldstein explains why Spinoza is a secular Jewish thinker, and explicates his unorthodox conception of god.

Continuing with our presentation of influential books utilized in courses on Jewish secularization, we turn to Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century. In this excerpt Slezkine explains how secular, enlightened Jews tried to assimilate into a modern European milieu. This process was fraught, Slezkine writes: “Success at 'assimilation' made assimilation more difficult, because the more successful they were at being modern and secular, the more visible they became as the main representatives of modernity and secularism.”

Gregory Kaplan, a professor at Rice University, concludes the issue with a brief intellectual history of Jewish secularism. In this brief but encompassing piece, he explores the development and transformation of secularism in the modern period. “Until recently, a generic ‘theory of secularization’ held sway,” Kaplan writes. Now, however, that “theory has been questioned by scholars.” Kaplan explores why it may be “still useful” in this interesting piece.

We hope that you enjoy this introduction to some of the exciting research on Jewish secularization currently being taught in classrooms worldwide.

Happy reading.

—The Editors of Secular Culture & Ideas

September 11, 2008


Dear Readers,

I was clicking around on YouTube the other day--some great stuff: a fascinating black-and-white conversation with Vladimir Nabokov and a sweet clip of young Joni Mitchell live--when I somehow wandered into a Plot Against America Era interview with Philip Roth, in which the famed author pronounced literature "one of the great lost causes of our time." He added, "I don't think in 20 or 25 years people will read these things [novels] at all.... [T]here are other things for people to do, other ways for them to be occupied, other ways for them to be imaginatively engaged, that are I think probably far more compelling than the novel. So I think the novel's day has come and gone, really." 

Well. It was, and is, shocking to watch the leading novelist of our time foretell his own craft's doom--and there's something doubly depressing about discovering this forecast while screwing around on YouTube. But is our genius alter kocker right? Will the readers of tomorrow, today's youngsters, have zero appetite for literature? 

I've been asking myself this question for some time. A few months ago, Lindsey Silken, editor of JVibe Magazine, and I decided to see if we couldn't maybe co-publish a great big back-to-school issue that emphasized how literature, real literature, could be a way to connect generations. The result: I think that Roth might have overstated the case. I certainly hope so. Read this issue and find out for sure.

National Jewish Book Award finalist Jonathan Wilson says that "Portnoy's Complaint is… as important a rite of passage for a young Jewish boy as his bar mitzvah." And to prove it, he gave his 13-year-old son Adam a copy of Roth's novel, and an issue of Playboy. Adam--who grew up to be, like dad, a writer--tells his (very funny) side of the story here.

Then slightly different teenaged literary experience: Tova Mirvis' encounter with Hester Prynne. In high school, many of us snoozed through The Scarlet Letter, but for the yeshiva-ensconced Mirvis, Hawthorne was an aesthetic alarm clock. A great instance of a great book rousing a young person to life.

Young Adult novelist David Levithan (co-author of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) explains why "YA" is not just half of the word "yawn." In fact, according to Levithan, who is also Scholastic's Editorial Director, "Teen literature kicks ass." Click here to find out why.

Secular Culture & Ideas revives the young-adult novel Allegra Maud Goldman, in which a secular Jewish girl struggles with issues of identity, equality, and coming of age.

Last but not least, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, author of We Plan, God Laughs: Ten Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted, answers a pointed question of teenaged angst.

That's it. I don't know if this issue will help stave off literature's day of doom, but it makes me feel a little more optimistic. We book-lovers can and should introduce young people to literature. In fact, the first step is pretty easy, just lead by example: read great books on your own, and then talk about them with der kinder.

Teach, as they say, your children well.


--Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com


August 15, 2008

Dear Readers,

Tu B'Av always puts JBooks.com in a romantic mood. (It's nice when a holiday has such a positive effect on one's literary outlook, no?) So be warned: each and every piece of content this issue will be on the seriously amorous side.

We start with the very funny work of Danit Brown, whose new short-story collection, Ask for a Convertible depicts the interestingly awkward aspects of sex. Brown's essay "No, Really, That Wasn't Me," addresses three major dangers of getting sexy in one's prose. Read this, and you'll never think of Judy Blume the same way.

Achtung! Maxim Biller, German author of a recent volume entitled Love Today, gives us this extremely honest essay about a woman he calls "The Right One." Biller contends that "[m]en are kind of like women, only much more romantic." What do you think?

Then there's Josh Lambert and his "Literary History of the Dirty Jew." "Without denying the persistence of anti-Semitism or the painful power of a classic epithet, we shouldn't take for granted living at a time when, as Jews, we can safely be just as dirty as we want to be," says Lambert. This is the kind of smart-yet-earthy literary history you can only get on JBooks.com (and only on Tu B'Av).

What would Tu B'Av be without some poetry? The translator Linda Zisquit muses on famed Israeli author Yona Wallach, whose sexual and poetic daring make her the perfect poet for the holiday.

Secular Culture & Ideas presents a discussion on love between Ilan Stavans and Veronica Albin. Stavans' book Love and Language, from which this piece is excerpted, is comprised of six dialogues between Albin and Stavans, in which they trace the evolution of Jewish love, from the biblical idea—a mainly procreative function—to a more modern, secular concept in the post-Enlightenment era.

Finally: the life and loves of Grisha Bruskin, whose interestingly episodic memoir, Past Imperfect, demonstrates that even in the closed, cold world of Soviet Russia, love manages to have its way.

Ah, Love: ain't it grand? Or isn't it? You know what I mean. Happy Tu B'Av and Happy Reading.

--Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

August 14, 2008

Dear Readers,

Provocation is the name of the game this issue.

To begin, we marry apocalyptic literature and... Comedy Central's Daily Show. Believe it or not, readers, John Oliver, The Daily Show's in-house Brit, appears in this video to offer his Applebee's-fueled thoughts on ApocaLit. But don't take this humorous little film too seriously. It is, in fact, the brainchild of Daily Show writer Rob Kutner, whose latest book is called Apocalypse How: Turn the End-Times into the Best of Times!

Then cut from the tube to the stage. Playwright Tony Kushner always has something interesting to say. This issue he tells us, in the Secular Culture & Ideas section of our site, "I am a Jewish writer, and I am a gay writer, and I am an American writer, and I don’t see any point in trying to argue about that. Maybe if I was a better writer than I am then I would think I’ve transcended all of these things, but if Tolstoy didn’t transcend being Russian, fair bet that neither I nor any of the people we’ve mentioned have transcended our American-ness, or our Jewishness."

What do you know about Jewish Kurdistan? If the answer is "Not much," you will surely want to check out Ariel Sabar's new book My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. But before you do, read this touching essay, in which Ariel Sabar and his elderly Kurdish Iraqi father travel abroad in a voyage of discovery.

Look out: The Book of Life Podcast is getting argumentative, with a show entitled "Two Jews, Three Opinions."

Anyone for some Atmospheric Disturbances? This smart debut novel, by one Rivka Galchen, takes meteorology and contemporary notions of identity and thoroughly blends them with heart and philosophical inquiry.

The issue skids to a full stop with the ever-provocative S. Y. Agnon. Bezalel Stern reviews the Nobel Laureate's last novel, To This Day, recently rendered into English by the amazing Hillel Halkin. Stern says that the book is among Agnon's "most important. Agnon is often at his best when he is at his most difficult and elusive, and while this is often not an easy book, it is also a minor masterpiece."

I take it you've been sufficiently provoked for one issue. You are now dismissed: go and enjoy the rest of your summer.

Very happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

July 8, 2008

Dear Readers,

We Jews have been known to smash an idol or two. At the same time, we're always striving to repair, as they say, the world. The combination of tough-minded iconoclasm and careful rebuilding is not just a characteristic of Jewish behavior... it's how the best authors write their books. This two-fold attitude has helped create many weird hybrid literatures. We're talking about big, risk-taking writers, who demolish literary conventions, entire genres, and then reassemble brilliant original mosaics out of the wreckage.

Let's begin with an extremely emotional phone conversation I had this April with Pulitzer prizewinner, Philip Schultz. The author bravely bares his soul--and then reveals how his poetry is informed by both reporting and fiction-writing.

Steve Stern's new novella, The North of God, mingles Holocaust narrative, a yeshiva bucher, demonic possession, and sex in a highly appealing manner. Sandford Pinsker says that it's destined to become a classic.

From Bialik to bird calls, Haim Watzman reports on Jonathan Rosen's recent foray into bird-watching and nature-writing.

Then the great Jorge Luis Borges speaks on the intersection of literary genres. It's a terrific shock and pleasure to hear the Argentine writer intone, "b'reshit bara elohim."

Rachel Somerstein looks back at E.L. Doctorow's superlative The Book of Daniel, a novel that combines numerous genres in a highly intelligent and artistic way. Somerstein says the book should be understood as a historical text, even though so much has been fictionalized.

Finally, an essay from Secular Culture & Ideas: a look at courts and gender in the
religious-secular conflict in Israel.

And that is all for now, Readers. I hope this issue inspires you to consider any idols in need of smashing... and your latest plans for tikkun olam.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

Jun 13, 2008

Dear Readers,

I'm very excited about the new articles in Secular Culture & Ideas, all of which talk about the varied tongues of our loquacious people. Enjoy.

Happy Reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com


Dear Readers,

In this issue of Secular Culture & Ideas, we celebrate the diversity of Jewish languages, looking closely at Hebrew and Yiddish, of course, but also beyond those to the multitude of languages Jews speak (and have spoken) around the world. The essays in this issue explore the influence of Jews on language; the literary engagement of Mizrahi Jews; the dynamism of Jewish languages; and the continuing development of Jewish languages such as Yiddish and Hebrew.

Our first piece is an exclusive preview of Ilan Stavans' forthcoming book Resurrecting Hebrew. Stavans, a scholar, book critic, and all-around man of letters, considers his evolving relationship with modern Hebrew and the secularization of Hebrew. Sharing memories of his encounter with Hebrew as a child in Mexico City in secular Bundist day-schools, Stavans challenges ideas and explores the relationship between language, identity, and place.

In our second piece, Benjamin Pollak interviews Amos Oz's translator, Nicholas de Lange,. Pollak and de Lange discuss the act of translation, the role of literature in introducing culture, and the way that a translator becomes "a tour guide, not a travel agent" through the act of translating. de Lange shares that that he "doesn't think of English as a diaspora language," and that bringing Oz into English opens Oz's work and values to the world.

Also in this issue: Laura Levitt considers English as "a thriving contemporary Jewish language" in her essay "English as a Jewish Language." Reflecting on her role as a scholar and her father's encounter with English and language, Levitt explores "how American Jews negotiate place through language."

Also exploring the influence of place on language, Dalia Yasharpour writes that Persian Jewish identity "became inextricably connected to Iran and was thereby shaped by Iranian history, culture, and language." Surveying the rich literary history of Persian Jews, she demonstrates that secular Judeo-Persian poetry "is just one creative manifestation of Iranian Jewry's complete acculturation into Iran."

Like Yasharpour's piece, "Judeo-Arabic in Mizrahi Jewish Life," by Raymond Scheindlin, attests to the acculturation of Jews in Islamic lands. Scheindlin's essay reveals that Hebrew remained a ceremonial language, and that Arabic was the vernacular and secular language for Middle Eastern Jews. The adoption and use of Arabic and the engagement in Arabic literary circles paved the way for the introduction of secular poetry into Hebrew.

Moving from Middle Eastern traditions to legacies of European Jewish life, Neal Karlen playfully examines Yiddish humor books such as Yiddish with Dick and Jane (2004), and Yiddish with George and Laura (2006), and their role in contemporary American life. Looking at the transformation and appropriation of Yiddish in the United States, he explains that though "Yiddish joke books are admittedly light and fluffy" they "are approachable reads that initiate young, ignorant, and/or curious people into Yiddish, the sui generis language of magic and loss."

In our final essay, which explores the secular embrace of biblical stories in Yiddish poetry, Mika Ahuvia, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, writes about "one of the more striking Bible stories": the story of King David and Abishag, from the biblical book of Kings. How the story has been interpreted is, in its own way, an interesting story. "It didn't inspire much interpretation until modernist writers—and in particular, secular Yiddish writers—began exploring it, making their own artful, smart and subversive way through the story."

As Jews have moved from place to place, they have carried languages with them, adopted new languages, and influenced local languages and literary culture. Thus we turn to the multitude of Jewish languages, exploring the relationship that Jews have had with languages, both throughout history and around the world.

Happy Reading,

The Editors of Secular Culture & Ideas

June 6, 2008


Dear Readers,

Why is this century different from all other centuries? In the 21st century, our attention spans have been dramatically truncated. It's a time in which television has become a slow way to consume narrative. In 2008, we live online: we read daily, hourly, at our computer screens.

For me, this means that the time we once reserved for reading books is collapsing. Indeed, this very letter has just shaved off a few minutes of our reading life. (Fortunately, since I'm about to introduce you to some interesting new books, it'll probably balance out in the end.)

Our highly digital and visual culture has changed the way we tell stories. And while many of them have the same old themes, the vehicles that drive them are considerably different. In addition, the nature of literary culture isn't what it used to be. Books and authors have become quite self-effacing, cognizant that they slump at the margins of our culture.

And yet I'm not here to complain, but to try and understand. So in this issue of JBooks.com, we look at books that seem very much of this particular moment and identify what's so contemporary about them. To wit:

JBooks gets graphic on the rabbinate in this one-of-a-kind illustrated book review. It's an amazing day when a cartoon rabbi can evaluate a graphic novel in the form of an illustrated book review. Enjoy Steve Sheinkin's amazing, groundbreaking work of art!

The author of The Red Leather Diary journeys to her Bubbe. New York Times reporter Lily Koppel brings a great 20th-century story to our time—a story she fished out of a Manhattan dumpster—and uses it to connect to her long-dead grandmother.

As though to prove that the Era of the Serious Jewish Intellectual has passed, Sanford Pinsker sounds off on a self-consciously up-to-the-minute novel called All the Sad Young Literary Men. In response, Ben Pollak, an actual young literary man himself, talks back. And while we're mining this particular vein, The End of the Jews looks at the complicated lives of a family of contemporary Jewish artists—which includes a graffiti-writing DJ/novelist and a jazz photographer. Andrew Furman reports.

Also in this issue: Secular Culture & Ideas brings us the final installment of their series "The Original Atheists With Attitude," featuring Sigmund Freud's concept of religion as neurosis.

I hope you enjoy these articles, and the interesting culture of our still-young century.

Happy Reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

May 19, 2008

Dear Readers,

It's hard to know Israel from the news. Hard to understand the country and her people from reading op-eds and feature articles, especially when you live outside the Middle East and aren't fluent in Ivrit.

To get a visceral sense of contemporary Israel, many of us turn to Israeli literature in translation, to English-language books on Israel, even to Israeli music. So this issue, in honor of the country's 60th birthday, we invite you into this mediated-yet-powerful world of Israeli culture.

Etgar Keret's stories make quite an interesting noise in English. Our reviewer, Josh Lambert, says of Keret's latest microfiction collection, The Girl on the Fridge, "So if even a handful of the stories haunt you, shake you, throw you for a loop—and they will—you'll feel like you've won the literary lottery."

Then we look at S. Yizhar, whom Todd Hasak-Lowy says is "the first accomplished modern Hebrew writer for whom Hebrew was his native language, a writer who produced a considerable body of work, is arguably the greatest of all Israeli prose writers." Hasak-Lowy has some arguably fascinating things to say about Yizhar's recently translated 1949 novella, Khirbet Khizeh.

You want to know the State of Israeli letters? Then you have to take into account Ron Leshem's Beaufort, which sold over 130,000 copies and occupied the nation's bestseller lists for a considerable time. Yaron Peleg gets to the heart of what made the "gritty military action novel that follows closely an infantry combat unit in Lebanon on the eve of Israel's withdrawal from that country in 2000" such a hit in the Holy Land.

From here, we journey to Gregory Levey's funny memoir of how he went from being a law-school student to Ariel Sharon's speechwriter. The comedy here is dark. Bezalel Stern says: "if Levey's perceptions are correct—and there is no reason to believe that they're not—the Israeli State is in trouble. The upper levels of the Israeli government are no Elders of Zion; if anything, Israel's government often operates like the blind leading the blind."

The Book of Life podcast gives us a diverting program entitled A Musical Israel @ 60. Listen, and listen closely, to what happens when the State's narrative is delivered in musical notes.

To wrap up, Secular Culture & Ideas presents Dan Mahler's brief history of the politicization of secular Judaism in Israel.

Happy Reading and Shalom.

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

April 29, 2008

Dear Readers,

John Keats, not a Nice Jewish Author but a good one, once wrote that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," but experience informs us that truth can get ugly. Fast. Which is why it's so difficult to be fully honest in our day-to-day conversations with people.

This social contract, in which we try to detour around unkind words, has a particularly Jewish expression. It's the practice of avoiding what's known as evil speech or loshon hora, about which Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says, "The fact that a statement or incident is true does not mean that others have the right to know about it."

But do we want to our authors to be relentlessly polite? Myself, I prefer writers who make honesty their first order of business. As John Updike once said, "our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another's brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves." (For those keeping score, that's the second Gentile mentioned in this newsletter!)

Turns out, I'm not the only kind of Jewish reader out there. I remember once meeting a person, someone my own age, who refused to read Philip Roth because his father said that Roth defamed the Jews. This was difficult for me to digest—I couldn't believe this guy let his dad's sensibilities determine his own literary choices!—until I recalled Roth's terrific 1994 novel, Operation Shylock, and the way it detailed how effectively the loshon hora process works, or could work, in the Jewish world. In this essay, Rachel Somerstein pays Shylock a return visit.

And here's what else our writers have to say on the subject of literature and loshon hora:

In this smart article by Stephanie Wellen Levine, Naomi Alderman, Shalom Auslander, and Reva Mann talk freely about writing, loshon hora, and the religious communities they come from.

A series of graphic novels aims to redefine the term "Jewish superhero" by teaching kids, "Every single day we wait for Mashiach to come, but—do you hear this—he is being held back because we are speaking loshon hora!" Josh Lambert says that the result is visually fascinating but ultimately less-than-super.

The Forward's literary critic, Joshua Cohen, gets rough on the punishment for speaking evil. It goes by the intimidating name of tzaraat... which is a frighteningly biblical skin disease. "The sufferer of tzaraat, splotched over with an albescent fungus, was to be separated from the community, as lepers once were. The Talmud identifies four types of this leprotic white: one case of tzaraat is the white color of snow; another white is the whiteness of lime; the third degree is the white of an egg; and the fourth, the white of white wool," writes Cohen.

This is a book about Jews and sex, a pairing that might make some readers out there more than little uncomfortable. (The book is entitled, straightforwardly, Jews & Sex.) Menachem Wecker reports.

And while you're here, check out the latest article from Secular Culture & Ideas, in which Paul Kurtz tells why secular values matter today.

Which brings us to the end of this issue. I sincerely hope it got you thinking about the ethical import of your words, and those of your favorite authors.

Happy Reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

April 4, 2008

Dear Readers,

It's time for the Passover edition of Secular Culture & Ideas. Click around and enjoy some terrific articles about liberation.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com


Dear Readers,

In this issue of Secular Culture & Ideas we turn to Passover, exploring its meaning for secular Jews, what the themes of liberation and freedom mean in a modern context, and, on a perhaps lighter note, the changing culinary traditions of the holiday. Secular Jews relate to Passover in modern, innovative ways, rewriting haggadot, adding new foods to the seder plate, and reconceiving the holiday as a call to action.

In our first piece, Elliot Ratzman revisits the role of Moses, considering him not as a biblical hero but as a role model for modern day revolutionaries. “Remembering Moses’ role in the Israelite freedom struggle is important to recall in our time,” Ratzman writes. Reminding us that “liberation doesn’t happen by accident,” he praises Martin Luther King Jr. as a modern day Moses, “one who helped coordinate the talent, the people, and the strategy to win concrete victories.”

Also in this issue: Rachel Elior praises “god, the handiwork of man,” as she explores the importance of freedom in the foundation of Jewish peoplehood. She considers the ideas and philosophies that humankind has created which became powerful guiding principles—divine principles. As Elior writes, “There was not a single society in the ancient world that thought it possible to alter an inherited or acquired social structure, with the exception of the Jews, with their faith in the power of the divine promise to make slaves into free men.”

Freedom and liberation are integral to Passover, but so is eating. In our next article, food writer Clara Silverstein explores the multitude of culinary options for secular Jews, including Southern Jewish matzo toffee, Midwestern matzo lasagna, and New Orleans creole-seasoned matzo balls.

Our fourth piece has multiple authors. Secular Culture & Ideas asked seven secular Jews to reflect on the holiday and to describe, in a paragraph or two, their own innovative secular Passover traditions. From rewritten haggadot to Passover games, these new traditions make the holiday meaningful and bring it to life.

Michael Felsen’s seder, which he describes in our next piece, reflects the “central view that while we are grounded in Jewish culture and heritage, our frame of reference is really all of humanity.” By drawing attention to contemporary struggles for freedom, Felsen finds renewed meaning in the celebration of Passover.

Rabbi Adam Chalom presents a brief history of the holiday and reminds us that Passover traditions have always been adapted to reflect contemporary values. For a perfect illustration of this principle, read Rabbi Peter Schweitzer’s irreverent version of a classic Passover song: Who Knows One?

Passover has always been a time for gathering, innovation, and reflection on the central values of freedom and liberation. This issue of Secular Culture & Ideas celebrates this tradition—and whatever traditions you wish to add. Happy Passover!

—The editors of Secular Culture & Ideas

March 20, 2008

Dear Readers,

Truth: Can we talk about it? Can we talk about it, that is, seriously? Without quotation marks? Without qualification? In Hebrew well call it emet; in Yiddish emes, but neither of these fine words brings us terribly close to the concept. In fact, the more we meditate, examine, and worry the facts of life, the less certain we seem to possess them. As the brilliant, and sometimes anti-Semitic, poet Philip Larkin once put it:

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.

I was reminded of this when reading Rachel Somerstein's superb review of Mimi Schwartz's Good Neighbors, Bad Times, a defiantly multidimensional memoir of a small German town during WWII. Writes Somerstein: "because [Schwartz's] book is comprised of oral history and memory, the 'truth' advanced here is by necessity a fluid one. To her credit, Schwartz does not shy away from the contradictions and gaps in these histories... These competing stories give the book a casual feel that belies the rigorousness of Schwartz's reporting."

That's the kind of impassioned and serious truth, no matter how fluid, we need to take seriously. Several kinds of truth-seeking tomes appear elsewhere in this issue.

For instance: The Book of Dahlia. Elisa Albert's debut novel slices through the clichés that cloud around mortality with comedy, pathos, and frozen pizza. Our reviewer, Sarah Weinman, says that the book's heroine faces death "in a way that, if not quite the beacon of clarity, is infused with honesty."

There's a great Russian saying, "He lies like an eye-witness," which implies volumes about the Soviet-era disdain of free speech. In a new memoir, Maxim Shrayer recounts what it was like to make his way out of Russia and into democracy, with ample helpings of comedy and thanksgiving.

Jay Neugeboren's 1940 attempts to bring the moral enormity of the Shoah into human perspective by featuring a fictionalized version of the life of Hitler's pediatrician. Sanford Pinsker gives the book his typically intelligent read, and compares the novel's medical man to history's.

To wrap up, Secular Culture & Ideas presents the second part of "The Original Atheists With Attitude," looking at Karl Marx, religion, and economics.

And that's all for now. Here's hoping that when your life and your books are filled with truth, it's an experience that enriches and instructs you.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com

March 3, 2008

Dear Readers,

David Gantz is dead. An absurdly talented illustrator and writer, Gantz died at the age of 85, on December 14, 2007. I didn't hear about this from a friend of his or a relative, but through a Google Alert message, which is incredibly ironic in that Gantz was no one's idea of an Internaut, and he certainly didn't know from email. When we talked about him creating a history of the Jewish graphic novel for JBooks, we talked on the phone. Dave was a terrific older guy--and I used to love kibbitzing with him because he had been around.

Gantz had lived through, and fought in, WWII. He was high-school pals with Mad Magazine's Al Jaffee! He'd worked for Stan Lee! I'm still not quite sure why he agreed to create an illustrated essay for a webzine (I'm not sure he knew what a webzine was), but I was damned glad to work with a guy with a real and true historic sense. You can find this in the last book he ever published, an amazing, one-of-a-kind volume, Jews in America: A Cartoon History.

The loss of Gantz reminds me of our ever-diminishing sense of history. Our attention spans contract, our lives are continually crowded with information. So we forget. We need order and clarity to understand ourselves and our history, and I get that order from books and authors. To try and compensate for the loss, and to honor the work of David Gantz, we present several pieces of historically informed content:

We chat with Geraldine Brooks, author of a strong new novel, People of the Book, about the Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks tells a great story of how she was "possessed by Jewish history."

Michael Chabon swashbuckles his way through the past, conjuring up a Frankish physician and an Abyssinian giant who travel Silk Road around the year 950. Blood, guts, and provocative commentary on Life in the Diaspora.

Chicago native Robert Birnbaum reviews Touch and Go, the memoir by Chicago legend Studs Terkel. A fascinating look at the art collecting oral history.

Secular Culture & Ideaspresents a review of The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby, who writes passages such as: "the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to a functioning democracy."

And then there's Dough, a funny, touching, and strange slice of personal history about a family bakery, Jewish identity, and inheritance.

There's a lot here to read, a lot to remember. It's grand thing to think about books preserving our people's history. And it's been grand talking about it to you here.

Happy reading,

Ken Gordon, Editor, JBooks.com