Thursday, May 26, 2016

2016 JWWS

Once again, Tamar Ansh and Esther Heller put together a packed day for the Jerusalem Women Writers' Seminar. Again, a beautiful relaxation corner sponsored by Menucha Publishers with those delicious little bite-sized pastries and an assortment of teas and coffee. Again, some nice swag from Israel Bookshop. What is amazing is that the program was filled with lively speakers and interesting information and very different from last year. After a Dvar Torah by Esther Leah Avner, an "experienced" author and educator, Shifrah Devorah Witt talked about "Making the Most Out of Your Writing Time!" Her suggestions are applicable to anyone who works at home: focus - no laundry, no checking Facebook (and then wasting an hour), setting boundaries with family.

Next were Yael Mermelstein, Sarah Shapiro and Shoshana Schwartz. While Yael suggested adding tags and beats, Shoshana suggested getting rid of the tags and the beats. Sarah Shapiro asked "Is There Such a Thing as Non-fiction?" Three different authors, three different styles, three different processes.

My favorite speaker of the day was Sherri Mandell, author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart, a 2004 National Jewish Book Award Winner. After reading this one, I felt like I knew her because she shared her most intimate thoughts and feelings after the murder of her son Koby and his friend Yosef Ish-Ran in 2001. Sherri discussed her new book The Road to Resilience (Toby Press, 2016) and how to apply the "Seven C's" to keep writing well.  A witty and engaging speaker, she described the "pavement" of Chase, Community, Choice, Creativity, Commemoration, Consecration, and Celebration.  These are all augmented by Curiosity. Through these steps, almost any journey, especially grief and writing, can become almost spiritual and expand you.

There was a Meet the Press Panel with questions and answers for those interested in submitting their work to the weekly Jewish magazines and newspapers.

For those who could not be there in person, these sessions were videotaped and are available (for a fee) through Torah Anytime.

Chana Levitan spoke about how she "accidentally wrote a best-selling book" (I Only Want to Get Married Once, Gefen (2010) and Grand Central Life and Style (2013)).

Over lunch, I got to talk with some of the "celebrities" of Orthodox Publishing: Yaffa Ganz, Libi Astaire and Chaya Baila Lieber.  I also had the pleasure of presenting Miriam Zakon with a certificate for her Sydney Taylor Notable Book, Floating Minyan of Pirates' Cove (Judaica Press, 1986). Yes, the book was recognized 30 years ago, but there was no internet and no cell phones, so Miriam was never notified about the honor. Our little ceremony also gave me a chance to look at Miriam Stark Zakon's extensive back list of books authored and/or edited. I'm hoping to be able to present some more certificates to Miriam (and Yaffa, Libi and Chaya Baila) in the next 30 years!

Between the topics and presenters it was hard to choose which workshops to attend. I learned a lot in Avigail Sharer's "Step Back in Time: How to Bring the Past to Life in Your Fiction." Sharer writes under the pen name Leah Gebber, and has many fans due to her articles and stories that are published in Mispacha Magazine - particularly Sisters Under Siege. Sharer handed out pictures of artifacts - coins, articles of clothing, etc., and asked the participants to think of five questions about the item. Then, we were asked to take one question and try to answer it. Much like "Ode to a Grecian Urn," a whole story can develop by looking at an object.

I picked up a very important book -- Healing from the Break (Menucha Publishers, 2016). While there are many volumes in your local Jewish bookstore about trying to repair a relationship or the laws (halacha) of divorce, there is nothing available that provides "stories, inspiration and guidance for anyone touched by divorce." Insightful and sensitive, the book looks at a challenging situation from many perspectives. Healing from the Break is the "frum divorce blog" and includes articles and resources.

As I left the seminar, I was blessed with that beautiful interplay of sun and clouds that seems to make Jerusalem glow.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Day at the Library

Thank you to my friend Tanya for inviting me to join her and her colleagues from ETAI (English Teachers Association of Israel) at their winter event at the National Library of Israel.

 My interesting and informative morning began with a presentation by AJL colleague Nachum Zitter about the history of the library and its collections. From there, the first stop was the map room, where Ayelet talked about the maps. While some of the originals are in huge books, many posters have been made, and it was interesting to see the different depictions of Israel, some of which included bible personalities and sea monsters.

Part of the map collection at the National Library of Israel

From the second floor,there is a great view of the stained glass windows. It was a rainy day, so I did not see them in their full glory (another reason to return for another visit). 

From there, it was on to one of the nine reading rooms.

After the short tour, the group heard about the resources available, in English, at the National Library: classes, programming and tours and their website - 

The site includes an open access digital primary resource database and educational activities and games. To give students and library patrons a multimedia experience, you can check out the audio recordings available at the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song and find songs and chants.

Another project, also available online is "Time Travel," which is a collection of Israeli ephemera (posters, pamphlets, menus, etc.). The collection is searchable by company, time period, language and more.

At one time the library had a program for bar and bat mitzvah-age students to do research on a subject of interest. A video showed the delight of one boy who was interested in the Bermuda Triangle and discovered the magic of the library. Another student did her project on Surika (Sarah) Braverman, the "first lady of the IDF," Braverman parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary with Hannah Senesh, but was able to escape. The girl was able to travel to Kibbutz Shamir and interview Surika as part of her library project. While the one-on-one program is no longer available, classes and groups can arrange to do research at the library.

A plug for ETAI and then some real cats:

"Founded in 1979 by teachers for teachers, ETAI's aim is to provide professional support, advice, teaching ideas and background knowledge to teachers of English."

Happy Reading!

Friday, December 11, 2015


In Secret Restaurant Recipes (Mesorah, 2014), Leah Schapiro and Victoria Dwek learn the secrets of the best kosher restaurants around the world and pass them on to readers. Recipes include Deviled Kale Salad, Duck with Sour Cherry Reduction, and other sumptuous dishes.

In Everyday Secret Restaurant Recipes (Mesorah, 2015), the dynamic duo of kosher cookbooks present recipes "from you favorite kosher cafes, takeouts and restaurants." Using the same format, there are chapters for Starters and Sides, Soups and Salads, Sandwiches, Chicken and Meat, Fish, Brunch and Lunch, and Baked Goods and Desserts. In the Table of Contents, each recipe is listed with the restaurant where it was created; the back matter includes a list of restaurants by country, state, and city, and a detailed index.

The recipes are presented on double spreads with clear color photographs that will have our mouth watering -- Morning Scramble from Boeuf and Bun in Brooklyn, made with with a burger, beef fry, an egg (on a bun) with sauteed mushrooms, potato sticks and horseradish mayo quickly comes to mind. The assembly of this one is beyond my culinary skills, but the Harvest Twist Salad from  The Pantry in Toronto, made with sweet potato and feta (yum!), served with a Tomato Rice Soup from the Sunflower Cafe in Brooklyn, makes for an easy weeknight meal. A Tuna Melt (from Bagels and Greens in Brooklyn) becomes a gourmet meal with a cheese/garlic sauce and made with tortillas. And as for inventive names, the Cali Love Panini from Holy Schnitzel is made with chicken breast, roasted eggplant and a pesto mayonnaise, topped with avocado and sun-dried tomatoes (good thing you can't see drool on the computer as I think about making these for dinner). The Asian Noodle Salad from Rimon in Israel sounds amazing, although I would probably skip the housemade teriyaki sauce and use my mother's, z"l, secret recipe. Zucchini Pasta, sometimes called "Zoodles," is full of vegetables (from Alice's in Brooklyn), and in the comfort of my home, I would not have to go across town to Crawford's to get a Creme Brulee Freezer.

How about some authentic Gong Bao Chicken from Dini's in Beijing?

1 lb chicken breast, cubed

3 Tbsp cornstarch
2 Tbsp water
Pinch coarse black pepper
oil, for frying
2 Chinese leeks or scallions
3 Tbsp salted peanuts
2 tsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp sugar
4 tsp vinegar
2 tsp hot sauce
4 tsp ketchup

Place chicken into a small bowl. Sprinkle with cornstarch; top with water and black pepper. Mix to coat the chicken. Let stand for 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a wok or sauté pan over high heat. When oil is very hot, add chicken cubes in batches; fry for 4-5 minutes. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.
Drain oil from the pan. Add soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, hot sauce, and ketchup. Cook until sauce thickens slightly, 2-3 minutes. Add chicken and scallions; toss to coat. Top with peanuts.
Tidbit: Dini makes her own version of hot chili sauce to use in the restaurant. She says it’s the Asian equivalent of Israeli red schug.

Home Cook: We’ve tested this with all different types of hot sauce and they’ve all been successful. Halve the quantity if serving this dish to children.
Recipe from Everyday Secret Restaurant Recipes by Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek
Reprinted with permission from the copyright holders: ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications

There are tips for home cooks, interesting descriptions of the restaurants, and insightful advice between the chapters about cooking fish, plating, and sandwich tips. The chefs who shared their secret neither received nor gave remuneration ($$) for the inclusion of recipes in this volume.

On the one hand, part of the restaurant experience is eating things that you cannot or would not prepare at home due to lack of time, equipment or inclination. Some of the recipes require ingredients that are not available in some places -- golden tomatoes, artisanal breads, and more unusual kosher fish.

On the other hand, its very cool to recreate favorite dishes in your own kitchen and impress family and friends with tastes and textures from restaurants. My rule of thumb is usually no more than 10 ingredients and no more than 5 steps in the instructions, and happily, most of these recipes conform, so I will be using it quite often. It is a rather large tome (336 pages), so it will be a challenge as I keep it FAR from the cooking area. For those of us who don't get out much, Everyday Secret Restaurant Recipes is a great way to travel the world of kosher cuisine.
(Be-tai-avon - healthy appetite in Hebrew)

As always, some real cats of Israel:

Happy Hanukkah!
Happy Reading!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Yet Another Literary Day in Jerusalem

First stop: Sefer V'Sefel (Book and Mug), my favorite used bookstore. It's located off Jaffa Road in an alleyway and up the stairs, which adds to its charm. It's full of all kinds of English language books: new, used, fiction and non-fiction.  The best part is looking through all the volumes and finding treasures.   This visit I picked up a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, a book I wanted to read (but not buy at full price), and a bunch of recent magazines.

Although "mug" is in the name of the store, sadly there are no mugs of beverages, so...

Next stop: Coney Island Bakery on Jaffa Road for some coffee and pastries. Yet another reminder of America, the storefront looks a little like a subway:

From there, it's a quick ride on the light rail to Yad Vashem.

"Children from the Holocaust" is currently in the Exhibition Hall.  Through video testimonial, artifacts, and recent artwork inspired by the stories of Holocaust survivors, their experiences evoke a mix of feelings - sadness for their suffering and for those that did not survive, happiness for their brief moments of happiness, and awe for both the creativity and the strength of spirit. A case of dolls and stuffed animals that survived the war was particularly touching, as the stories of the owners accompanied each toy.

As Yogi Berra said "It was like deja vu all over again" in the main hall and the art gallery:

In One Jew's Power, One Jew's Glory: The Life of Rav Yitzchak Shumuel Eliyahu Finkler the Rebbe of Radoschitz in the Ghetto and Concentration Camps (Feldheim,1991), Yechiel Granatstein recounts a story about Reb Yitzchak'l that took place in the Skarszysko Labor Camp: the Rebbe was able to obtain, at the expense of the inmates' secret valuables, a ram's horn, out of which another inmate, Moshe Waintreter, at the risk of his life, formed a shofar. "The Rebbe was beaming with joy that they were able to keep the mitzvah of blowing the shofar." Remembering these passages, I was taken aback when I saw the actual shofar on display:

Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin by Susan Goldman Rubin (Holiday House, 2000) tells the story of a trained art therapist who brought her supplies to the concentration camp and brought hope and enjoyable diversion to the bleakest of environments. Dicker-Brandeis' "Figures" is on display. Alas, no photographs in the gallery and no images online, but this pastel, "View of Theresienstadt" was recently on display at the University of New Mexico Art Museum.

 Then it was back home. With shorter days and the blessing of rain here in Israel, it's a perfect time to catch up on my reading.

On the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, I am enjoying Killing a King by Dan Ephron. It is fascinating to see how much has changed in 20 years, and how events are put in perspective with the passage of time. 

I finished Heather Streltzer Gelb's From Hilltop to Hilltop: My Path from Rwanda to Israel. While the details of her time with the Peace Corps made for interesting reading, her path meandered through Rwanda for about 90 percent of the book and the next 20 years of her life were wrapped up pretty quickly. For this reader, a map of Rwanda would have been very helpful.  

My book club read Lovingkindness by Anne Roiphe, which I had reviewed for Fig Tree Books.  Although it was published in 1987, the group found the mother-daughter relationship and the Israel experience fertile topics for discussion.

A Whole Lot of Wholeness

I recently received two books for review with "Wholeness" in the title:  Increasing Wholeness by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz and Everyday Wholeness by D.B. Estrin. Thinking "wholeness" may have replaced "mindfulness" as the new buzzword, I did a quick scan of Amazon: 3,535 books.  In the Jewish category, there are 125, but Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi is included, and that one doesn't quite fit. It's definitely trending, but it means different things to different people.

D.B.Estrin's book is subtitled "Self-Coaching for the Jewish Family." The author, a life coach with an Orthodox perspective, looks at many aspects of life and offers some tips for managing the household cheerfully and efficiently, developing healthy habits (eating and exercise), organizing the home, and enhancing prayer.

Rabbi Spitz is the rabbi of a conservative congregation in California, has authored several other books, and focuses on spirituality.  The subtitle of his book is "Jewish Wisdom and Guided Meditations to Strengthen and Calm Body, Heart, Mind and Spirit." His goal is "to surprise you with ancient wisdom and imaginative insights that move you toward greater inner ease and effectiveness" -- a wholeness that means "a fuller sense of awareness of your inner life and greater integration and strengthening of the physical, emotional, intellectual and intuitive dimensions of self."

While I ponder what I will need to do to achieve wholeness (am I currently at half-ness?!), I will leave you with some Real Cats of Jerusalem.  Happy Reading!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Of Making Many Books There Is No End

Note: This blog is based on/inspired by a presentation I gave at the 2008 Jewish Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Seminar in New York City. I chose to update it for several reasons: during the holiday of Sukkot, we read the Book of Ecclesiastes -- from which this quote is taken, so it is timely. Also, the 17th Annual Jewish Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Seminar, sponsored by the Jewish Book Council, will take place on Sunday, November 15th, 2015 (in New York City), again timely. Also, this month's deadline sneaked up very quickly, so I wanted to post in a timely fashion. Enough with timeliness and onto the books!

Of Making Many Books There Is No End - Ecclesiastes Chapter 12, Verse 12 

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a journal of King Solomon’s attempt to answer a difficult question: what is the purpose of life? Near its conclusion, he warns, “Beware, of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” As a reviewer, editor and book lover, I see hundreds of books every year. While we all know the pleasure of  reading a great book, it is very hard to have to read bad books, books with errors that could have been corrected with a Google search, books about Israel with a political agenda, or books that include graphic details inappropriate for children.  As the weather starts to turn colder and it starts to rain in Israel, I've put these books on my reading list:

In 2013, I had the pleasure of representing AJL at the World Congress of Jewish Studies (see E-Reading and Jerusalem). My topic was "Off the Derech and Onto the Page," and I talked about books by and about people who left their Orthodox Jewish Communities. Since then, the market as been flooded with even more books. Here are a few of the memoirs:

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen (Graywolf Press, 2015)
Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews by Lynn Davidman (Oxford University Press, 2015)
Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent (Penguin Books, 2014)
Uncovered by Leah Lax (She Writes Press, 2015)

There is a certain sadness to all of these stories, so I try to alternate between sad books and happy or funny books, which leads to a book I'm enthusiastically anticipating:

Yes! Mirka is back in this 3rd book of the series by Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner Barry Deutsch. This time Mirka is a travelling baby-sitter. A magic fish, sibling rivalry, and some Jewish wisdom - I can hardly wait!

Of Making Many Book There Is No End – Rashi notes that it is not possible to  commit everything to writing, and Rabbi Yisroel Salanter cautions that not everything that man thinks must he say; not everything he says must he write, but, most important, not everything that he has written must he publish. Here's a title that came to mind: The Book of Jewish Secrets: and Why Most of Jews are Not Real Jews. I guess it would be worth $2.99 for a Kindle edition to learn the secret. I also think about this when I see Clifford, Grover, and mice celebrating Hanukkah. I didn't even know they were Jewish. But, if Hello Kitty starts celebrating, I just might have to read about her. 

In the meantime, Leslea Newman's Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed will fit the bill for feline reading -- cats, music, friendship - MEOW!

Of Making Many Books There Is No End - The Midrash comments on this verse that there are 24 books in the Jewish canon, and that it should be ample reading material.  Indeed, Jewish culture is full of potential topics. I just started a book by Heather Streltzer Gelb about her path from Rwanda to Israel - From Hilltop to Hilltop. So far I am reading about her experiences working for the Peace Corps in Rwanda in the early 1990s (before the genocide), and while there is a tiny bit of Jewish content, her daily life in Africa makes for interesting reading.

Next month: more on Heather's path and some Lovingkindness.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

And Yet...

Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, zt"l, said that the most hopeful phrase contains just two words -- and yet.

Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa also expresses this in his haiku:

Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
The world of dew –
A world of dew it is indeed, 
And yet, and yet . . .”

while the world is fragile, it is the only world we have.

Last summer three teenage boys were kidnapped and murdered. Operation Defensive Shield led to the discovery of tunnels and a heinous terrorist plot.  More than 70 people, most of them young soldiers, were kill in the operation.  The sirens went off and I spent some time in the bomb shelter.  This summer has been just as emotional: a toddler and his parents were killed because of an arson attack on their house, and a 16-year-old girl died as the result of stabbing wounds inflicted by someone opposed to the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade.

And yet, this evening I am sitting outside recalling the song I sang at summer camp and thinking how it came true:

Next year we'll sit on the porch and count the birds;
Children on vacation will play tag between the house and the fields...
(Bashana Haba'ah - lyrics Ehud Manor; music Nurit Hirsch)

Elul is the time in the Jewish calendar when we reflect on the past year and hope to do better in the coming year. I try to find reading at this time of year that will inspire this goal:

Koren has published The Neuwirth Edition of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with translation by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and commentary by Rabbi Marc D. Angel. One of my favorite Jewish texts, it is customarily read on the long summer afternoons between Passover and Rosh Hashanah. At this time of year, the words of Rabbi Tarfon has particularly meaningful:

The day is short, the task is great, 
the laborers are lay, the reward is much, 
and the Master insistent.

He used to say:

It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it. 

(Ethics of the Fathers, 2:20-21)

Rabbi Tarfon's kever in the Galilee

I've been reading a lot of review books, and I have not been impressed with any of them.  Taking a break, I read an ARC I picked up at Book Expo in 2013: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (Dial Books for Young Readers). Though I am assuming the author is Jewish, there is no overtly Jewish content. But the story of a quirky genius who unites other quirky people into a community and a family has so many Jewish values laced through it -- kindness to others, tikkun olam, treating everyone with respect and acceptance of others, quirks and all -- that it was a perfect pre-Rosh Hashanah read. 

Shana Tova!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

That's Why We Pray

This month's theme is prayer, which is even more appropriate with all that is going on in the world.

Although MC Hammer will ultimately be remembered for "Hammer Time" and those silly pants, one of my all-time favorites is "Pray:"

We're sending this one out to the Lord
And we thank You and we know we need to pray
'Cause all the blessings that are good they come from above
And once again we want
To say "thank You" to the Lord with all our love

That's why we pray, ah, yeah, pray
We need to pray
Just to make it today.

Wikipedia defines prayer as "an invocation that acts or seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication." This sounds rather cold, distant and technical, and not really what Jewish prayer is about. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks waxes most eloquently in the introductory essays in the Koren siddurim: "Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. We talk to God. We bring Him our thanks and our hopes, our fears and our dreams."

Anne Lamott grew up atheist and considers herself a "born again, left-wing Jesus lover." But her thoughts about faith and prayer are universal. She shares her insights in Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers (Riverhead Books, 2012). "Asking for assistance, appreciating the good we witness, and feeling awe at the world...get us through the day and show us the way forward."  Filled with her hallmark honesty and wit, Lamott reminds us that "prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.)"

Koren has embarked on a new project: the Koren Magerman Education Siddur Series includes age appropriate prayer books for several levels. "With emphasis placed firmly on the critical foundations of Reflection, Connection, and Learning, this series of siddurim creates an impactful prayers experience that places God and the user at its center."

The siddur for ages five to seven-year-olds (kindergarten through second grade) is very cute, with mixed media illustrations, large clear print, and a key at the bottom of each page that indicates the part of the service (Morning Blessings, Amida, Shabbat Morning). It is also filled with questions and comments, like "How can we show that Hashem is King?"

The second siddur in the series is for ages eight through eleven (grades three through five), and has fewer and more "mature" illustrations, but continues with the easy-to-use format with the key at the bottom of the page. While the prayers are not translated word-for-word, key phrases are highlighted, and there are more questions and comments, as well as stories and parables.

Both of these come with an "Educator's Companion" for teachers and parents that includes explanations of the text of the prayers, the significance of the accompanying illustration, and the kavanot or intentions. The Youth Siddur companion also includes a review of the educational themes and thought questions.

Young daveners graduate to a prayer book suite to twelve to fifteen-year-olds (grades six through eight), and then to the Ani Tefilla Siddur, which is for grades nine through twelve (ages fifteen and up). Thank you Koren for the beautiful "Summer Camp Siddur and Chumash for reflection, connection, and learning. One of my not-so-fond memories of camp was scrambling through a pile more suited for shaimos (a repository for sacred texts to be disposed of respectfully) than for daily use. Alas that this volume did not exist with its Foreword by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and diagrams of the structures of the prayer service. The commentary are divided into four sections: one that explains the context or words and phrases of the prayer; a look at the deeper meaning of the prayer; the laws of prayer; and selections to "encourage connection and tefillot in a direct and personal way. I think I am going to use this one myself to enhance my daily prayers.

In another volume from Koren Publishers, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality (Maggid Books, 2014), Rabbi Avi Weiss shares "ideas, concepts, themes, and approaches that have helped him on his personal journey to realize the infinite depth and power of prayer." The book is divided into three sections: Goals of Prayer, Why Set Tefilla? (time, place, text) and Spirituality. This is such a great choice for people looking to enhance their experience, and must like the holistic approach to medicine, it encompasses the whole person - mind, body and spirit.

We pray for the Ultimate Redemption -- may it come speedily and in our day!