Category Archives: Culture

My Culinary Journey

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

June Hersh is the author of The Kosher Carnivore: The Ultimate Meat and Poultry Book, available this week. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

If you had told me on my 55th birthday that in the coming year I would have a cookbook published and a second one in the works I would have told you to promptly return your crystal ball to Amazon and ask for a full refund. Prior to that year I had many roles, foremost mother and wife, and secondarily as a teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School, founder of Fancy Schmancy, a children’s clothing company, and resource coordinator for my family’s lighting business. But cookbook author was not on my resume.

After we sold our business, my sister stated what would become our mantra– we did well, now let’s do good. I took those as marching orders and proceeded to discover my newest incarnation, cookbook author. It seemed like a natural choice. I have always been a student of everything food, an adventurous eater and fearless cook. I find that there are not many endeavors that give you the instant gratification cooking does. Maybe it’s the Jewish mother in me, but the act of nurturing and nourishing is in my DNA. So many of my favorite memories are set around the kitchen table as a child, watching my mother lovingly prepare even the simplest dish. She could turn grilled cheese and tomato soup into a five star experience. So it seemed so natural that this would be the niche that I found to bring a new richness to my days.

My first project was Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival, a book focused on the stories and recipes of Holocaust survivors. I would personally interview each and every survivor or their family member and write their remarkable story and recreate their cherished recipes. The good would be that I would donate all the proceeds to the Museum of Jewish Heritage, an institution that stands as a living memorial to the Holocaust. The experience was life-changing and resulted in a beautiful book that has raised both funds and awareness.

Once I was bit by the cookbook bug I didn’t want it to end. That incredible project was something that excited me every morning and kept me up at night. I dream in shades of medium rare, so it seemed to be an organic decision to write a book focused on meat and poultry. Happily, St. Martin’s Press agreed. The Kosher Carnivore was a revelation as it took my cooking to the next level. This time I wasn’t rebuilding other people’s recipes, I was creating my own. What could I do to meld succulent lamb shanks with pomegranates bursting with ripe seeds? How could I incorporate the summer’s sweetest peach into a gingery glaze for chicken? What new twist could I put on roast duck that would make the skin so crispy you could hear it crackle down the hall? My aim was to develop eclectic and innovative delicious food that happened to be kosher.

Shopping bags were replaced by grocery bags as I spent hours behind the counter of some of New York’s finest butchers. Donning an apron, I would carefully watch the butcher turn cuts of beef into works of art. I drooled over the fatty cap that rests atop the prime rib oozing with marbling. I marveled as the butcher ground brisket and chuck to create the juiciest hamburger blend. I questioned every stroke of the knife and every emphatic crash of the cleaver until I felt assured that I knew exactly how to expertly prepare the meat I was toting home. I returned from my visits with the same glow others get from an amazing facial.

I am now a veritable walking encyclopedia of bits of information about kosher cuts of meat. Invite me to a dinner party and I will regale you with cooking tips, wine suggestions and cookware advice. Want to hear how to best sear a duck breast or grill a juicy rib-eye? I’m your girl. And because I do love meat and potatoes, I can tell you how to turn Yukon golds into pareve mashed potatoes so creamy you want to take a nap in the bowl. My on-off switch is usually on, but a soft kick under the table or a gentle hand on my knee, tells me to change the conversation and save my riveting news about short ribs for another time.

Over the next few days I want to take you along on my culinary journey as I navigate the world of cookbook writing. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Moroccan Lamb Shanks with Pomegranate Sauce

Lamb shanks are rich, meaty, and succulent as the layer of fat that envelopes each shank bastes them while they cook.  This Moroccan version features aromatic spices, which blend to give the shanks a punchy taste, while never overpowering their natural flavor. The addition of pomegranate juice brings a subtle sweet tart flavor to the sauce.

Behind the Counter The singular taste of lamb shanks really has no equal. Alternate cuts  short ribs (+$) or osso buco (+$) or even turkey drumsticks cut osso buco style (-$)

About 4 servings

Start to Finish: Under 3 hours

4 (12 – to- 16-ounce) lamb shanks
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
6 cloves garlic, smashed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 dozen juniper berries
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup sweet red wine
2 cups beef stock
1 cup pomegranate juice (derived from the seeds of 1 large or 2 medium pomegranates), or 1 cup bottled juice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the shanks with kosher salt and pepper.  Heat the olive oil in a braising pot and brown the shanks, over medium to high heat, on all sides, about 10 minutes.  Be sure to stand the shanks on the edges to brown all sides.  Remove the shanks and cook and stir the onion and garlic, over medium heat, until lightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add the spices, tomato paste, wine and stock.  Stir over medium heat for 5 minutes.  Add the shanks to the pot cover and roast at 350 degrees for 2 hours. Check the shanks every 30 minutes, turning them over in the sauce each time you check and admire them.  While the lamb cooks, Process the pomegranate seeds if starting from scratch (see feedback), otherwise take a well deserved break.

When the lamb is nearly cooked, after 1½ hours, add the pomegranate juice.  Continue cooking 30 minutes longer or until the meat on the shank is buttery soft and nearly falling off the bone. When finished, the sauce will be thick and concentrated (you can thin it with a little water or stock if needed). Spoon the sauce over the shanks and serve alongside rice, noodles or couscous.

Feedback

While pomegranates are loaded with antioxidants, their real power is to stain anything porous they come in contact with.  If you are working with fresh pomegranates, I applaud your initiative.  Late fall, October and November is the best time to buy fresh pomegranates, when they burst off the shelves with ripe seeds.  Here are some tips for handling this persnickety fruit.

1. Wear something that can take a joke, you could end up looking like a victim from Law and Order, stained with red splatters

2. Cut, then squeeze the pomegranates over a bowl so you don’t lose any of the precious juice.  There is additional juice in the tiny seeds.  To juice those, fill a bowl with water, with your fingers gently loosen the seeds, over the bowl, and separate them from the papery membrane.  The seeds will fall to the bottom of the bowl, while the thin fiber will float. Strain the water, reserving the seeds.

3. Pulverize most of the seeds in a blender (reserve a few for garnish). Strain the liquid pressing on the solids to extract all the juice. Discard the solids.  Between the squeezed juice and the pureed seeds, you should have about ¾ – to- 1- cup of fresh juice from 1 large or 2 medium pomegranates.

Alternatively, you can buy pomegranate juice.  It’s cleaner, easier but not nearly as much fun!

Check back all week for more posts and recipes from June Hersh.

Posted on September 12, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Songs for Jewish Cowboys

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Let’s get started for the weekend early with a little song. Matisyahu might be JDub Records‘ biggest export, but this is what we’re dancing to during these pre-Shabbat hours today: SoCalled’s amazing song about Jewish cowboys (another of our obsessions), “You Are Never Alone.”

 

 

Posted on September 9, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Grandparent-Grandson Relationship

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Earlier this week, Avrom Honig shared a behind-the-scenes look at the photoshoot for Feed Me Bubbetalked about coming to the Big City, and introduced us to his production assistant, Zadie. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Well, if you’re watching this blog closely you have seen already part 12, and 3.  Now I am thrilled to present to you part number 4 featuring the star of the show herself.  Bubbe is here to talk a bit about the importance of having a grandparent and grandchild relationship.
We want to thank all of you for joining me over these past few posts.  If you want more entries from me, leave comments below, and who knows, maybe we might do some future updates from the Book Tour with more behind the scenes action if you are interested.

For now thank you to all that have purchased our book Feed Me Bubbe.  Due to your support we can proudly state that we are an Amazon Best Seller in the Kosher Category.  We know this is just the beginning and we look forward to having you join us on our facebook page and over at http://www.feedmebubbe.com.

Avrom Honig and Bubbe’s new book, Feed Me Bubbe!, is now available.

Posted on September 9, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Meet Our Production Assistant, Zadie

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Earlier this week, Avrom Honig shared a behind-the-scenes look at the photoshoot for Feed Me Bubbe, and talked about coming to the Big City. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council andMyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

Hope you’ve enjoyed parts one and two, and now, this time, I have a special guest for all of you. We got one of the big unknown stars of our show, Zadie.  “Zadie” is the Yiddish word for “grandfather.” Zadie plays a huge roll on the show making sure to keep everyone in line.

Any good production is all about having a behind-the-scenes team that really makes sure that everything is perfect. There are times that we are shooting videos where Zadie stops us before we even record because a phone may need to be taken off the hook, or perhaps an item is in the kitchen needs to be adjusted because it just doesn’t look right.

There are many times when during the process of making the book where Zadie looked over everything multiple times to make sure the pages were in the right order and that nothing was missing. In fact there were sections of the book that we knew we wanted to be in the book but if it was not for Zadie reminding us we probably would have never had it in the book. This includes menus, cooking terms, and even Bubbe’s favorite Yiddish songs which can all be found in the back of the book.

We have one more post coming up, and of course another special guest.

Just wait and see, this is a special one!

Avrom Honig and Bubbe’s new book, Feed Me Bubbe!, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

Posted on September 8, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Feed Me Bubbe’s Journey to New York City

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Yesterday, Avrom Honig shared a behind the scenes look at the photoshoot for Feed Me Bubbe. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.


If you want to know more about Feed Me Bubbe and an introduction to how we got started then be sure to check out Part 1.  Just for those joining us we created a book based upon our hit online and televised cooking show because our audience really wanted it.  Of course before I knew it we had an agent, a publisher, and found myself heading to New York City to represent our new book.

The name of the organization was the Jewish Book Council and I would be presenting a two minute speech to representatives from the Jewish Book Network.  To someone that was not used to speaking in front of a crowd this could be a huge undertaking.  In fact they even told us that the on deck chair was nicknamed the sigh chair, or the deep breath chair.  The reason for this is because everyone gives a big breath before they go up on stage, perhaps a sign of nervousness.

In my case I had nothing to be nervous over and just pretended that I was standing in front of the camera or friends just talking normally.  It really was a change of pace for me looking at such a large crowd but, I didn’t mind and adjusted my microphone and just went for it.

Of course I had a good meal before the presentation over at a restaurant in New York City called Noi Due which I was told is pronounced as NOY – DUE – E.  What impressed me about the place is everything was so light and yet filling.  For akosher establishment it was incredible.  You would never believe walking in that it was actually a kosher restaurant from the menu, the decor, and even the customers.  It just looked like any other amazing restaurant located in New York.

What made this place even more amazing is that it was a dairy restaurant.  Usually in New York I go to meat restaurants making sure I have food that is filling and satisfying but I have to say Noi Due is the exception to the rule.  The waiter recommended a delicious cake which looked so heavy and yet was light and went down very easily.  In fact it looked so incredible here is a picture:

Next time, I have a special guest for you that you are sure to love.

Check back all week for more posts from Avrom Honig, co-author (with his bubbe) of Feed Me Bubbe.

Posted on September 7, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The “Feed Me Bubbe” Book: Behind the Scenes at the Photoshoot

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Avrom Honig is the co-author, with his bubbe, of Feed Me Bubbe!originally a hit YouTube series, and now a book. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

Greetings, everyone! Let me first introduce myself:  My name is Avrom, and I am co-author on an exciting new book based on a hit online and televised cooking show entitled Feed Me Bubbe.  On the show, my bubbe works on making her family favorite dishes.  (By the way, if you don’t know, Bubbe is the Yiddish word for “Grandmother.”)

When we first started out, I was just trying to make my mark on the Hollywood industry, trying to find a job.  As any good applicant knows having a demo reel is the key to success.  After having a family discussion, we finally decided that what would make the most sense is for me to take a camera and film Bubbe making her favorite food at home.

Well the response was incredible and before you know it we are finding ourselves working on a book.  To make everything even more exciting we had been told that Essdras M. Suarez would be our photographer.  Essdras is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer (go to http://www.essdrasmsuarez.com where you can see some of his incredible other projects).

It was quite an unusual experience to see my bubbe being treated as a model during the entire photoshoot.  If you could only have seen it for yourself!  Well, actually, you can.  Being a video technology enthusiast, I decided that over these next few blog posts we will include some special videos made just for you.  You may even see some special guests along the way — so stay tuned for blogs and videos!

Avrom Honig and Bubbe’s new book, Feed Me Bubbe!, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

Posted on September 6, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Are E-Books Kosher?

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Earlier this week, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing, the meaning behind the names of a few of his characters, and a gay Jewish reading list.

There’s a scene in my novel Sweet Like Sugar where Benji, the main character, finds himself alone in an Orthodox rabbi’s house. The first thing he does is check out the bookshelves that line every wall: religious commentary in the study, nonfiction (in English and Hebrew and occasionally Yiddish) covering everything from ancient Jewish history to the Holocaust in the living room, coffee table books about Israeli art and archaeology in the dining room, kosher cookbooks in the kitchen, even a shelf of poetry in the bedroom. Benji notes the differences between the rabbi’s collection and that of his Conservative parents, which has less scripture but more fiction (Roth, Malamud, Sholom Aleichem), as well as a smattering of non-Jewish books: Civil War histories, Tom Clancy novels, biographies of Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Two Jewish households,” Benji muses to himself.

Benji can tell a lot about people by the books they keep. Everyone can. But for how much longer?

We all know about the rise of digital books, whether they’re on your Kindle or your Nook or your iPad. Print editions, meanwhile, are on the decline.

E-books have obvious virtues: they’re cheaper, friendlier to the environment, and take up less shelf space than traditional books. Paper-preferring holdouts fret about who loses in this digital revolution: bookstores with no products to sell, publishers with declining revenue despite healthy sales, authors whose royalties evaporate, readers who miss the physical pleasures of holding a real book – cracking the spine and dog-earing the pages.

But regardless of whether e-books are good or bad for literature, they offer a bleak future for people like Benji (or me), who see books — what people read, what they keep, what they display — as a window into their owners’ psyches. Writers and readers may adjust to digital formats, but we snoops will definitely suffer.

Some people peek into medicine chests when visiting a house for the first time, but I linger around the bookshelves to see what books reveal about their owners. One might have a disconcerting penchant for self-help books or Family Circus cartoon collections, while another has leather-bound volumes that, in their unopened state, seem obviously intended only to impress onlookers. Some hold on to college textbooks, while others check out mystery novels from libraries. One might pile paperbacks haphazardly on a nightstand while another alphabetizes books on well-ordered shelves. (Some people don’t have any books in their houses; they are the oddest of all.)

On a visit to Prague several years ago, I met a local man and struck up an acquaintance. We shared a few afternoons and a couple of meals, talking about art and politics and pop culture. We seemed in synch. When he asked if we could stop by his apartment on the city’s outskirts before dinner one night, I immediately accepted. I nodded along for the basic tour – the kitchen filled with slightly unfamiliar appliances, the sleekly European bathroom – but as soon as he excused himself to get us a drink, I headed straight for his bookshelves. Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Michael Cunningham, and biographies of everyone from Madonna to Sigmund Freud. Cultural criticism, history, philosophy, geopolitics. In English—which, I discovered, was just one of about a half dozen languages he spoke. There were books in Spanish and French, Czech and his native Romanian, works by authors I had on my own shelves in Greenwich Village alongside those by people whose names I could neither recognize nor pronounce properly.

I’d already had a good feeling about my new acquaintance – good enough to visit his home. But it wasn’t until I saw his books that I really understood him, and felt certain I wanted to know him better. His books indicated to me a shared sensibility: curiosity, humor, skepticism, thoughtfulness. Sure enough, we have remained close friends for years despite being an ocean apart.

I have dozens of similar experiences, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Book snoops have taken stock of many unsuspecting people’s shelves, scanning titles, checking for dust, building personality profiles based on what we find. The joy of book-snooping isn’t even limited to potential friends or paramours; you can get to know a stranger just as easily.

The place I rented three summers ago on Cape Cod lacked air conditioning or a bathroom door that closed properly. Delivery trucks and a faulty smoke alarm made it a difficult place to find peace and quiet. But never mind: It was filled with books. Whole shelves of well-worn plays, a wall of nonfiction about local history, an entire room for hardcover novels. I never met the books’ owner—I found the rental through an intermediary broker — but it was clearly someone organized, a focused collector and avid reader. It made an otherwise unremarkable, small apartment feel like a perfectly curated live-in library, and I felt connected to the unknown owner, and his apartment; I’ve reserved the same place every summer since, I’m staying there again this weekend when I kick off my book tour in Provincetown, and I’ll go back next summer, too. And I’ll be checking the shelves again, seeing what’s been added or removed or rearranged and trying to deduce what those changes imply.

We are what we read. If you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can still judge a person by his books. But this isn’t possible with e-books, unless you plan to swipe someone’s Kindle and scroll through the downloaded titles behind his back.

So hail, or at least grudgingly accept, the e-book – this novel marks my e-book debut, so I’m not knocking the format – but with one caveat: If, in the future, books and bookshelves have vanished from our homes, it will be a loss for anyone who uses those objects to learn more about us. Some things, an e-book simply can’t do.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips. He is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book NETWORK. For more information on booking Wayne, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org

Posted on September 1, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

JDate and Superheroes

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Our dear friend JT Waldman alerted us to this cool little wink to the Jewluminati. This week, DC Comics — the company that publishes Superman and Wonder Woman — is completely rebooting its line of comics. What does this mean? Watch this video, and you’ll know more than you ever wanted to. (Don’t worry. It’s funny.)

A totally minor caveat: The video isn’t overtly Jewish at all until 1:27. Then, for the final 3 seconds, it is nothing BUT Jewish.

Oh, I know JDate is an easy punchline. But I have to confess (as someone who’s never been on the site), it does what it’s supposed to do. My sister met her boyfriend on JDate, and they’re getting married this weekend. Did you notice there’s absolutely no sarcasm in this post? JDate really does work magic.

Posted on August 31, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What’s in a Name?

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

On Monday, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing.

When it comes to a novel, what’s in a name? There are often dozens of characters in a novel, and some of their names have stories behind them. Others, less than it might seem.

In my first draft of Sweet Like Sugar, I had a very good reason – I can’t remember it now, but I remember that it was a very good reason – that all the characters my protagonist dated had to have names that started with the letter “C.” My husband Mark, who has been the first person to read my work for more than two decades, told me this was confusing. I revealed my very good reason for keeping the names despite the confusion, and he assured me that my reason was not so very good. He was right, of course; that’s why he’s the first person to read my work.

Some characters in Sweet Like Sugar are named for real people. Most notably, an older woman named Irene is based – in the vaguest way – on my great aunt Irene, who passed away last year. My aunt was never in the situations that define Irene the character, nor did she ever say the things that Irene the character says. But there’s something about my aunt’s soul, her perspective on life, her ability to bring people together, to be direct without being cruel, to be loving without resorting to guilt, that I wanted to instill in my character. Giving her my aunt’s name helped me understand my character’s heart, and how she might act in certain circumstances. She’s not my aunt – a woman to whom no writer could do justice – but she possesses enough of my aunt’s essence to warrant her name.

Sometimes hardly anything connects the characters to the people I’ve named them for. In Sweet Like Sugar, for instance, the main character’s roommate is named Michelle, and her boyfriend is Dan. I named them for my own college roommate Dan and his wife, simply swapping which person lived with me. The characters in the book bear some passing resemblance to their namesakes -– Michelle has dark curly hair and alert eyes, while Dan is blond and tall (or taller than I am, at any rate, which is also true of half the men in the world). There aren’t any deeper specific resemblances beyond the physical, though. I just needed names for a wonderful straight couple for whom I could feel some personal affection, and they’re the ones who came to mind.

More often, there are characters who are based on real people whose names have been changed. A dancer from Rochester who opens my protagonist’s eyes about his own sexuality? He’s based on a real person in my life, but his name wasn’t Donnie, as it is in the book. A guy who chases after Jewish men, calling them “bagel boy,” hoping it’ll seem endearing instead of grossly fetishistic? He was real, too, but I changed his name to protect the not-so-innocent. Ditto a bully at summer camp, a finger-wagging grandmother, and a girl with whom I found myself in a compromising (albeit entirely innocent) position as a teenager.

If they’re based on real people, why change the names? This is fiction, remember. Sweet Like Sugar is not my autobiography. Benji, the protagonist, might be a gay, Jewish man from suburban Maryland, but despite those similarities, he’s most definitely not me: We’re from different generations, have very different families and friends, and have traveled decidedly different journeys both as gay men and as Jews. His story isn’t my story. So it’s only right that the characters in his story have different names from the characters in my real life – even in those instances where the characters are based on real people.

Although readers wouldn’t know the difference, giving characters new names allows me to disconnect them from my reality, and it lets me tweak their personalities, actions, and motivations if need be, without worrying about misrepresenting any real people.

There’s one name in Sweet Like Sugar that’s a nod to another author. It is not Rabbi Zuckerman, the old man who befriends young Benji. Yes, I’m well aware that Philip Roth has made the Zuckerman name quite famous already; my father is a Newark native who went to the legendary Weequahic High School just a few years after Roth, so I’m well aware of most everything Roth does. I had reasons – I can’t share them without spoiling the plot, sorry – for choosing that name, but rest assured, I chose it despite Roth, not because of him.

No, the name I borrowed – consciously – from another author is Zisel. A Yiddish nickname meaning “sweet little thing,” it’s also the mysterious moniker of a character in Sweet Like Sugar. I borrowed it from Isaac Bashevis Singer. In his short story “Two,” a young yeshiva student named Zisel “began to find virtues in his own sex,” and built a loving, if covert, relationship with another man. The story has a tragic ending, and the sexual politics of Singer’s shtetl are far from my own. But I loved the name, and thought it would be appropriate for my story, where two men try to bridge the vast gulf between contemporary gay life and longstanding Jewish traditions.

I don’t know if my readers will get the reference, or see the connection. But I do.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips.

Posted on August 30, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Funny Thing Happened — True Story!

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Wayne Hoffman‘s most recent book, Sweet Like Sugar, is now available. Hoffman is the deputy editor of Nextbook Press and will be blogging for theJewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog all week.

My mother has always been a great storyteller: In recounting any anecdote, she knows exactly which details to leave out and which ones to exaggerate for maximum impact. She has a keen sense of the ridiculous. Plus she’s got impeccable timing. Meet her for the first time or the hundredth time, and she’ll launch into a story that’ll have you laughing in thirty seconds.

Okay, maybe that makes her more of a stand-up comedian than a storyteller. But we’re Jews. It’s a fine line.

With her excellent sense of what makes a story compelling, she’s always on the lookout for her son-the-writer. “Here’s something you could write about,” she’ll tell me as she launches into a new bit, almost begging me to steal her material. Or, after I tell her something she finds particularly amusing, she’ll advise me: “You should write a book about that!”

If I wrote a book about everything my mother thinks is book-worthy, I’d have a very busy literary agent. But the truth is, the things I find fascinating or hilarious for a few seconds would rarely retain my interest for an entire book, while the events that inspire me to write a novel aren’t always neat and self-contained anecdotes.

An example:

Several years ago, I was working as managing editor at the Forward, an English-language Jewish newspaper. We shared space with the legendary Forverts, our sister newspaper, published in Yiddish. One day, an editor from the Forvertscame into my office and asked if one of his employees could rest on my couch. I looked up and saw a man behind him, holding himself up against the wall. He had a full gray beard, thinning hair and spectacles and a yarmulke on his head, and I figured he was somewhere past his 80th birthday.

I didn’t know him, didn’t know his name, and didn’t even know if he spoke English – not everyone at the Forverts did. But he was very ill and clearly needed to lie down, and my office had the only couch in the newsroom, so I said yes. He came in, kicked off his shoes, and lay down on my couch without a word.

Every few minutes, one of my reporters would walk into my office to ask me a question or complain about something. (That’s what managing editors are for.) I’d hold up a finger to shush them, and then point at the couch. They’d give me a confused look – they didn’t recognize this man either – but they’d back out and leave him in peace.

Periodically, I’d look over at him as he lay there, snoring or moaning or mumbling, and I’d be amazed that the two of us were sharing this space, even temporarily. I wondered what we could possibly have in common – an elderly Orthodox man who spoke Yiddish, and a (relatively) young, gay, secular Jew who was more comfortable in Spanish. If he woke up, what would we say to each other? What could we say to each other?

There’s no great ending to this scene, no punch line; eventually the old man got off the couch and went back to work. But that afternoon started the gears turning, and eventually inspired the opening scene of Sweet Like Sugar. It’s not what happened that captured my imagination. It’s what might have happened that drove me to spend the next few years writing the novel.

Plenty of other fascinating things happened in that office. There was the night an unmarked package that was ticking arrived in the newsroom, and I was the designated person to deal with it. (“I’m running toward the bomb as fast as I can,” I assured my boss when he got on my case. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a bomb, but an ill-advised promotional toy from the NBA.) There was the time we sat around trying to come up with the most outrageous headlines for a story about an elderly Yiddish poetess who’d started writing erotica. (Most of them were too bawdy to mention, but I’ll include my favorite headline-that-dared-not-be-printed: “Oy, Me So Horny.”) There were all the wonderful typos that made it into print despite our best efforts – including an error that turned the title of a show about Golda Meir from Golda’s Balcony into Golda’s Baloney, which has a very different ring.

Those are all great stories. I tell them all the time. But I’m not going to write a book about them, no matter what my mother thinks.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips.

Posted on August 29, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy