Three Surprises for Maggie Anton

I don’t often run guest posts here on My Machberet, but I’ve admired Maggie Anton for such a long time–and she asked me so nicely!–that I had to agree to her request. I hope you’ll enjoy discovering “three surprising things” that she learned about Jewish history while researching her latest novel, Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter, which has been described as “a novel that weaves together Talmudic lore, ancient Jewish magic, and a timeless love story set in fourth-century Babylonia.”

Maggie Anton is the award-winning author of historical fiction series “Rashi’s Daughters” and “Rav Hisda’s Daughter.” She is a Talmud scholar, with expertise in Jewish women’s history. Intrigued that the great Talmudic scholar Rashi had no sons, only daughters, Anton researched the family and decided to write novels about them. Thus one acclaimed trilogy was born, to be followed by National Jewish Book Award finalist, Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice.

Please welcome Maggie Anton.

Three Surprising Things I Learned About Jewish History While Researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter

Guest Post by Maggie Anton

Before getting to what I learned, I will admit how little I knew. Although Talmud has been the source of Jewish law and traditions for over 1500 years, only a few scholars are familiar with the rabbinic community who produced it. I was aware that Rav Hisda’s daughter lived in fourth-century Babylonia while the Talmud was being created there. I was intrigued that when he asked her which of his two best students she wanted to marry, she then replied, “Both of them.” And when I found that she eventually did marry both men, I was determined to write her story. That’s when my research really started. (more…)

Tevye in Amherst: A Glimpse into the Great Jewish Books Program

I have known Hannah Elbaum literally since before she was born. Hannah’s mom and I have been fast friends since our freshman year in college; I was a bridesmaid in Hannah’s parents’ wedding; and I was among the first to hear that Hannah was on the way (and to meet newborn Hannah in the hospital).

So you can imagine how I began kvelling when I heard that Hannah had been accepted to the 2014 Great Jewish Books Summer Program for high school students at the National Yiddish Book Center. I asked Hannah if she would be kind enough to write up a guest post about her experience, in part because I wish I could attend the program myself. How I would love to spend an entire week in beautiful Amherst, Massachusetts, reading, discussing, and arguing about Jewish literature! When Hannah agreed to contribute her insights, I suggested that she might share with us a typical day in the program. She complied, and I’m delighted to present this glimpse into what was apparently a vibrant and memorable week.

Hannah Elbaum is a high school senior, eagerly awaiting the next chapter in her life. She was a Diller Teen Fellow of 2012-2013, and a Rising Voices Fellow of 2013-2014. Currently, she is the president of the senior youth group at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she has held a variety of leadership roles and is an active participant in the North American Federation of Temple Youth-Northeast Region.

Please welcome Hannah Elbaum! (more…)

Guest Post: Mark Shechner on Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories, by David Shrayer-Petrov

Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories. By David Shrayer-Petrov, edited by Maxim Shrayer. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 262pp. $29.95.

Review by Mark Shechner

The present situation for Jewish writers and their readers bears little resemblance to the scene of just two decades ago. It has been so transformed as to be scarcely recognizable. If there is a prior state of affairs, however, in which our time can see itself in an historical mirror it would be the ferment of the early 20th century, the springtime of Jewish writing in America, when writers ambitious to speak for their culture and their moment commonly had at least two languages to choose from, Yiddish and English. We know that some even wrote in Hebrew, and who now remembers the names of those whose also wrote in Russian and Polish? Who recalls Dusk in the Catskills by Reuben Wallenrod, published in 1957? Wallenrod doesn’t appear in any of the standard histories. Nor will he any time soon. He wrote fiction in Hebrew.

The contemporary moment recycles history in this sense: much of it is fueled by émigrés from abroad who work in multiple languages: a handful still in their native tongues, but most in English, sometimes a decentered English under the tonal canopy of another language. The FSU (former Soviet Union) writers are the most remarkable cases in point. 2014 alone has seen the publication of books by Lara Vapnyar (The Scent of Pine), Anya Ulinich (Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel), Gary Shteyngart (Little Failure: A Memoir), Boris Fishman (A Replacement Life), David Bezmozgis (The Betrayers), and David Shrayer-Petrov (Dinner with Stalin and Other Stories). And that is just a single year’s production. These writers are either themselves members of the refusenik generation that forced open the prison gates of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s or their children. Wherever they settled, they brought with them their passion for the written word, their febrile imaginations, and their stories.

David Shrayer-Petrov, born in 1936, continues to write in Russian, though he has lived in the United States since 1987 where, besides writing, he has worked as a doctor. Though he has a reputation in Russian émigré circles, his name is little known in American discussions, even though Syracuse University Press has previously published two volumes of his fiction: Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America (2003) and Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories (2006). Both books were edited by his son Maxim Shrayer, a professor at Boston College and himself a fiction writer: Yom Kippur in Amsterdam (Syracuse, 2012). (more…)

Guest Post: Behind the (Chap)Book (Plus, A Giveaway!)

I rarely feature guest posts here on Practicing Writing, but I’m making an exception for Chloe Yelena Miller, a writer I met back in 2004 when we were both attending the Prague Summer Program. We’ve stayed in touch since then (we even collaborated on a successful panel proposal for a conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs not too long ago). Chloe was also kind enough to host me back when Quiet Americans and I went on our virtual book tour.

Now, Chloe’s poetry chapbook, Unrest, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. I’ve had the good fortune to read it; I wondered about the chapbook’s “backstory” or unifying structure, and so I’ve invited Chloe to address those questions here.

Chloe’s work is published or forthcoming in Alimentum, The Cortland Review, Narrative Magazine, Poet’s Market, and Storyscape Literary Journal, among others. Her poetry was a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s Poetry Prize and the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. Chloe has an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She worked on Lumina and later on The Literary Review and Portal del Sol. She has participated in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center residency and the A Room of Her Own Writers’ Retreat.

Chloe teaches writing online at Fairleigh Dickinson University, George Mason University and privately, and leads writing workshops at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. Contact her and read some of her work at

Please welcome Chloe Yelena Miller. (more…)

Yom HaShoah Reflections on Eva Hoffman’s AFTER SUCH KNOWLEDGE (A Guest Post by Ellen Cassedy)

As we approach Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), author Ellen Cassedy shares reflections on an influential book in this guest post.

Remembering the Holocaust with Eva Hoffman

by Ellen Cassedy

“What meanings does the Holocaust hold for us today – and how are we going to pass on those meanings to subsequent generations?” These are the questions Eva Hoffman poses in her courageous book, After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust.

Hoffman’s acclaimed memoir, Lost in Translation, recounts her emigration from Poland at age 13 with her parents, who were Holocaust survivors, and her struggles to adjust to her new home in Canada. Published 15 years later, in 2004, After Such Knowledge is less well-known, but it made a deep impression on me when I first read it. As we observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’ve been rereading it and finding it as provocative and valuable as ever.

The book is a multi-faceted meditation. It draws on Hoffman’s personal experiences and those of other children of survivors; her extensive reading in the fields of psychology, culture, and politics; and her years of conversations with Poles and Germans of all ages.

I discovered the book at the exact moment that I myself was embarking on a journey to the Old World – to Lithuania, the land of my Jewish forebears. (more…)

Writing Jewish-themed Children’s Books: A Conference Dispatch by Barbara Krasner

Writing Jewish-themed Children’s Books: A Conference Dispatch
Guest Post by Barbara Krasner

For about two years, Kent Brown, head of the Highlights Foundation, and I had been discussing the possibility of bringing a workshop for writers of Jewish-themed books to the line-up of the Highlights Foundation workshops. We finally scheduled it for May 23-25, 2010.

Intended for ten participants only (okay, we let an extra person in for a total of 11), this three-day conference in an intimate workshop setting featured:

  • Lisa Silverman, children’s book review editor of Jewish Book World and director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles
  • Peninnah Schram, master storyteller and professor at Yeshiva University’s Stern College
  • Jane Yolen, award-winning author of some 300 books
  • Devorah Leah Rosenfeld, editor, Hachai Publishing
  • Françoise Bui, executive editor, Delacorte (Random House)
  • Rubin Pfeffer, agent, East/West Literary
  • Mary Kole, agent, Andrea Brown Literary Agency
  • Carolyn Yoder, editor, Calkins Creek Books
  • Debra Hess, senior editor, Highlights for Children

Eleven participants gathered at the Poconos home of Highlights founders in Boyds Mills, PA. Among the participants, we had two author-illustrators and several accomplished authors.

After brief introductions, Lisa Silverman started us off with a comprehensive overview of Jewish children’s literature, starting with the 1930s Adventures of K’ton ton and moving through each decade to today’s contemporary YA. She then described the book review process at Jewish Book World and the author support services the Jewish Book Council offers.

Peninnah Schram talked about getting oral tradition down on paper. She told us a few stories and we could see why she’s a master storyteller. Several of us teared up at her stories, she told them so vividly.

After dinner, Lisa led us in a book discussion of three picture books and a chapter book.

Day Two began with an editors/agents panel, each one stating what he or she looks for. These talks will be available soon on my blog, The Whole Megillah, in video format. Each workshop participant had a scheduled time to meet with an editor or agent to discuss her work in depth. By late afternoon, we gathered as a group once more to hear about writing Jewish fiction from Jane Yolen.

Jane was joined by Highlights senior editor Debra Hess in providing critiques in an after-dinner group critique session. For many of the participants, this was the workshop’s proverbial icing on the cake.

On our final day, Boyds Mills art director Tim Gilner joined us for breakfast and met with our author-illustrators. We then devoted our remaining time together to a discussion of each individual’s challenges and goals for the next 12 months. After lunch, several participants took the tour of Highlights and Boyds Mills Press and spoke with some of the editors.

Whew. Will this become an annual event? If this year’s participants have anything to say about it, the answer is yes.

So, for those of you who write Jewish-themed children’s books, stay tuned. Also be sure to be on the lookout for more information about the one-day conference in New York City, now sponsored by the Jewish Book Council and scheduled for Sunday, November 21 at the Center for Jewish History. We’ve got a great agenda lined up for you!


Bio: Barbara Krasner is an award-winning author and speaker based in New Jersey. She blogs at The Whole Megillah The Writer’s Resource for Jewish-themed Children’s Books and has an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Jewish Book Week 2010: Guest Post by Andrew Sanger

Jewish Book Week 2010

by Andrew Sanger

This year, London’s Jewish Book Week coincides with Purim. Plenty of extra fun is promised as an unlikely band of comedians and academics get together to put on a Purim Spiel “with a contemporary twist and some all-new conspiracy theories.”

Jewish Book Week is not just Europe’s biggest festival of writing for, about and by Jews. It’s a highlight of the UK’s non-Jewish literary calendar, too. Few other events in Britain attract so many highbrow and high-profile speakers. In fact, the modest billing as a “book week” doesn’t do justice to a culture-fest delving the whole eclectic mix of arts, science, politics and ideas.

The venue is surprisingly low-key – three conference rooms in a dated 3-star hotel in the heart of Bloomsbury, traditionally London’s literary district – and in the typically British way there’s nothing slick about it and no razzmatazz.

Yet during the course of the week, as many as 10,000 visitors come to browse, buy and, most of all, attend a succession of talks and debates with an astonishing array of leading journalists, novelists, historians, philosophers, playwrights, actors and broadcasters.

There are quite a few non-Jews among them. The 2010 programme includes talks by the popular mathematician Professor Marcus du Sautoy and former Sixties activist and present-day Leftist political writer Tariq Ali (who is of Pakistani Muslim origin).

Of course, the “Jewish” in Jewish Book Week covers the whole spectrum, from militantly secular to devoutly Orthodox. Among this year’s speakers are the anti-Zionist novelist Will Self, the fertility expert Professor Robert Winston (who manages to combine being a leading scientist and a lord with being an observant Jew) and Britain’s Orthodox Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The biggest names are usually scheduled for 7 p.m. and 8.30 p.m., but the show is open all day long. There’s something going on all the time.

Up-and-coming authors can often be heard at lunchtime talks. I was lucky enough to be a speaker myself last year, at a “Meet The Author” event. These take place in the early evening, when many people drop in after finishing work. An interview about my novel The J-Word was followed by comments and questions that turned into a terrific discussion on the issues the book raises about secular Jewish identity.

Friendly, intelligent and informal, talks usually end with a book signing, perhaps a chance to exchange a few thoughts of your own with the author or even to continue in the JBW café.

Andrew Sanger is a well-established travel writer living in London, England. He has contributed to a wide range of British newspapers and news-stand magazines, and is the author of more than 30 guidebooks. His first novel, The J-Word, published in England in 2009 to wide acclaim, has just been released in the United States.

An Author’s Visit to a Jewish Book Festival: Guest Post by Jessica Handler

Jessica Handler’s affecting memoir, Invisible Sisters, remains one of my most memorable reads for 2009. When I saw that Jessica, a Jewish Book Network author, was to appear on a panel of memoirists at a Jewish Book Festival earlier this month, I e-mailed to ask if she’d report on the experience. Jessica graciously agreed, and I am happy to present the resulting guest post. Please welcome Jessica Handler.

About a month ago, my good friend G. asked me, “So, what is the Jewish platform for your book?”

She’d read Invisible Sisters, and that evening we were practicing our digital video connection for my upcoming visit to her book group, in a city 700 miles from mine. I was surprised that she asked about Invisible Sisters and Judaism. She is Modern Orthodox, a Jew by choice. She sends out email Purim cards every year, photos of herself, her husband, and their children, decked out as King Ahashverus, Queen Esther, and (boooo) Haman. She makes an effort to find the Jewish connection in every part of her life. Is it so difficult to locate that connection in this memoir?

Her question gets me wondering about the Jewish presence in my book. I wrote Invisible Sisters with my family’s Judaism very much on my mind, although our practice was what my mother called cultural Judaism. I didn’t grow up religious, but secular Judaism was key to our identity. Jewish artists, writers, and musicians like Marc Chagall, Maurice Sendak, and Leonard Bernstein were revered in my family. My father swore in Yiddish. The Jewish “parts” of the book are no more evident or distinct than the Jewish “parts” of my appearance. I have dark hair, but my sister Sarah was blonde. I have my grandmother’s diamond Magen David, but because necklaces make me uncomfortable, I don’t usually wear it. I don’t look Jewish, as the saying goes, but maybe my point is: what is Jewish, really?

My Judaism is as integrated in to the book as my multi-faceted self.

Which leads me to Jewish Book Festivals. In the spring, I participated in the Jewish Book Council‘s “speed dating” get-together in New York, at which I pitched my book in a two-minute speech to Jewish Book Festival representatives. And then, like the many other authors there that night and the night before, I went home to wait for the good word.

Six months later, I’m in the Atlanta airport, waiting for a flight to a city in the Midwest, where I am to participate on a Jewish Book Festival panel.

About a week before our event, the two other panelists and I met by phone, then by email, to get to know each other a little bit and discuss the commonalities in our books. We decide that although our memoirs differ in topic and tone, they are each about family, survival, and identity. That’s our common ground.

At breakfast in our hotel, I run into one of the panelists. I recognize her from her book jacket photo, and, I figure, she recognizes me from mine. She’s energetic and cheerful. We have buffet breakfast, scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, toast, and coffee. We talk nonstop about our books, about families in general, politics, baseball. We have a mutual friend in another city. We hit it off.

I find that I am expected, over the course of this day, to eat a lot.

We are taken to brunch by a lovely woman: a festival macher. We talk book business. I try out a co-panelist’s Kindle and decide I like it. I have what the menu calls tuna salad salad, I guess to distinguish it from tuna salad sandwich.

Over brunch we decide further that our common ground is family lore, the Jewish ability to make it out of constricting circumstances, a kind of optimism and faith in the future. I soon learn that in Hebrew, the word for “Egypt” (as in what we escaped from) is a word that also means “constriction.” The word is Mitsrayim. Pressed in.

And then it’s two o’clock, and we’ve had our pictures taken, and we’ve fixed our hair and our lipstick, and a charming woman – a social worker – introduces us to an attentive audience. We get up, one by one, and read short selections from our books. We talk about our stories, why we wrote what we did. One of us is mostly funny, another mostly serious, another takes the historical view. We take questions, and every single one is thoughtful and engaging.

We sign books, and I’m thrilled and touched to see a long line waiting for us. A woman buys Invisible Sisters for her synagogue library. I am stymied by what to write but decide on “May we always practice Tikkun Olam.” This is a theme of my book. It was a theme in my family. I’m pleased with this dedication.

A Jewish Book Festival is an optimistic, celebratory event for Jews, for readers, and for writers. As I write this, I imagine rooms across the country – gymnasiums, auditoriums, conference centers, theaters – filled with book lovers gathered to listen, to think, to question. That people come on a Wednesday afternoon, a Tuesday night, a Sunday morning to hear about books and ideas, to meet authors, and to share ideas makes us people of the book, indeed.

Please click here to learn more about Invisible Sisters and its author, Jessica Handler.