A Podcast About Jewish Kidlit (Mostly)

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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy

October 27, 2020 is the second anniversary of a horrific act of domestic terrorism, the antisemitic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. In memory of the lives lost on that day, I bring you a conversation with the editors of Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy. This book highlights the voices of those who were significantly affected by the deadliest antisemitic act on American soil. Although the gunman killed 11 innocent souls, injured 6, and created deep wounds within the community, he was unable to silence them or disconnect them from their ties to their faith. 
I got my Masters of Library Science at the University of Pittsburgh and worked for a few years at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville Branch in the 1990s. I love Pittsburgh, so I was especially eager to hear the local perspective from co-editors Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji.

Beth and Eric, can you please each give us a little background about yourself? What do you do? What other books have you written? What's your relationship to Pittsburgh and to the events of October 27, 2018? 
BETH: I have lived here since 2010, but my husband grew up here and my mother in law is here, so I first visited in 1987 when I started dating my husband. My husband is the rabbi of New Light, one of the three congregations which used the Tree of Life building and was in the synagogue that day- he hid himself and others. 
Background on me – I am a PhD in comparative literature and have written a novel, Questioning Return, and edited an anthology where I ask academics to write about Genesis from the position of their field of expertise. I have a volume on Exodus coming out too. I am a full time freelance writer for a variety of publications. I’ve taught at universities in the past but since coming to Pittsburgh, with the exception of one semester teaching, I have mainly been focusing exclusively on writing though with the right opportunity, I’d be happy to return to the classroom. 
ERIC: I work at the Rauh Jewish Archives, preserving the historic records of the local Jewish community. I grew up in Squirrel Hill and spent most of my career in journalism before gradually moving over to this line of work. I mostly write about local Jewish history, including a biography of Rabbi Walter Jacob titled The Seventeenth Generation
Please give us a brief overview of Bound in the Bond of Life. What is it about and what is its scope? Who is its intended audience? 
ERIC: The book has 24 essays by local writers, offering their thoughts on the attack. The selections are diverse. They represent the broad spectrum of Jewish belief, as well as a few non-Jewish writers. There are journalists, academics, clergy, and poets. Taken together, these essays tell one small story about the challenges of living through this experience over the past two years. There are many, many more stories still to be told. 
How did you come to create this book? How did your creative roles differ?
BETH: After our congregation, New Light, went to Charleston, in January 2019 for MLK weekend, I gathered the participants in the trip to write up our experiences. I was going to send these short pieces to those who hosted us as a way of thanking them. I never did that, but started thinking about putting an anthology together. I approached Eric, thinking he could help with photos of the objects left at the site, but he suggested we focus on local authors. 
I think we both edited the pieces and spoke with authors, though I knew more of the authors than Eric did and had a number of preliminary conversations with many of them before they even began to write. Eric is more organized and computer savvy than I am and was good at setting deadlines and dividing tasks. 
What does the title "Bound in the Bond of Life" mean? 
ERIC: It’s a common phrase in Jewish mourning liturgy, best known for appearing as an acronym on many Jewish gravestones. It is a request for divine protection for the dead, but it is also a call of responsibility for the living to keep the dead present in our lives. 
It must be very difficult to write about a tragedy that occurred in your own community. What was the most difficult thing about putting this book together? What was the best thing about doing so? 
BETH: The best thing was encouraging others to express the important things they had to say, and helping them to articulate their ideas more clearly. The most difficult part was writing my own piece and being honest about the pain I and my family experienced. 
What do you hope readers will take away from this book? 
ERIC: That grief and trauma persist long after coverage of an event ends. And that it is okay to yield to the unexpected ways that grief and trauma can manifest themselves.
For readers who would like to support reforming gun laws, what actions do you suggest taking? 
BETH: Calling and writing to your elected officials to let them know your opinion. Joining an organization, such as Squirrel Hill Stands against Gun Violence or Students Demand Action, that my kids are involved with. 
Would you please share your voting plan with us? Why is voting important to you?
BETH: I mailed my ballot in. I am making calls, sending postcards and going door to door for the candidate that chooses life, as I wrote in this Op Ed for the Forward
ERIC: I’m voting in person. Masked and as distanced as the venue allows. 
Is there anything else you'd like to say that I haven't thought to ask you? 
BETH: The book is essays about the human condition and how people cope with a difficult circumstance. It is not grim or gruesome, though it is not light reading. Any reader will come away with greater respect for his/her fellow humans and the ability to cope even in the face of impossibly difficult circumstances. 
Beth and Eric, thank you for sharing your thoughts with The Book of Life.

Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Mitzvah of Voting, Part 1

This episode is a call to action for U.S. citizens eligible to vote, and a reminder to listeners everywhere that voting is your superpower. If you are a U.S. citizen eligible to vote in the upcoming presidential election, please do so! For information about how to vote, visit VOTE.ORG. In this special 3-part series, some of your favorite Jewish kidlit authors will be sharing why they vote and they'll give some recommendations for ways to keep our democracy healthy. Listen to PART 2 | PART 3

The Mitzvah of Voting, Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of our 3 part series, The Mitzvah of Voting. It's October 2020 your favorite Jewish kidlit authors want all eligible US citizens to vote in the upcoming Presidential election, and listeners around the world to vote in their own local elections! My author guests will be sharing why they vote and they'll give you some recommendations for ways to keep democracy healthy. Listen to PART 1 | PART 3

The Mitzvah of Voting, Part 3

Welcome to the third and final entry in our series, The Mitzvah of Voting. It's October 2020 your favorite Jewish kidlit authors want all eligible US citizens to vote in the upcoming Presidential election, and listeners around the world to vote in their own local elections. My author guests will be sharing why they vote and they'll give you some recommendations for ways to keep democracy healthy. This time, we will leave you with some musical inspiration to carry you through Election Day. Listen to PART 1 | PART 2

Sunday, October 11, 2020

"Pond Life" - FISH Out of Water & TURTLE Boy

For this "Pond Life" episode, I paired the books Turtle Boy with Fish Out of Water, to highlight the similar themes I saw in both middle grade bar mitzvah novels. Wonderfully, authors Joanne Levy and Evan Wolkenstein really hit it off and they actually helped to interview each other! In fact, Joanne said she felt like their two books were holding hands and she created this adorable image:

And one more thing, I just want to give a shout-out to Sidura Ludwig for becoming a Book of Life supporter at Patreon.com!

Learn More: 

Guest recommendations: Boosting Black Voices




VIDEO (starring a Lego Evan Wolkenstein):


Your feedback is appreciated! Please write to bookoflifepodcast@gmail.com or call our voicemail number at 561-206-2473. 

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Honey on the Page

October 6, 2020 is the book birthday for Miriam Udel's Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children's Literature! I was not able to fit an audio interview into The Book of Life's schedule, but to bring your attention to this worthy book I offer you this conversation-in-print with Miriam. Enjoy!

Buy Honey on the Page at Bookshop.org

THE BOOK OF LIFE: What inspired you to create Honey on the Page?

: Honey on the Page represents the convergence between my vocation as a language instructor and my avocation as a mother. I sought authentic materials that my second-semester Yiddish students would be able to read profitably and without frustration. At the same time, I was searching for representations of Yiddish-speaking life and childhood that I could share with my own children. When I discovered the large, mostly untranslated and forgotten corpus of Yiddish children’s literature, I knew that I had to create at least one anthology that would help to retrieve these texts for contemporary, English-speaking Jewry and those curious about modern Jewish life.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Tell us about the scope of the stories in this book. Do they all take place in a Fiddler on the Roof type of setting?

MIRIAM UDEL: Absolutely not! The stories were published on four continents and represent about 15 different settings, whether realistic or fantastical. I chose a few of the stories in part because of the locales they represented, which we wouldn’t think of as typical for Yiddish storytelling. These include Zina Rabinowitz’s pandemic tale “The Mute Princess,” set in Casablanca and her Yom Kippur tale “Senor Ferrara’s First Yom Kippur,” set in Trinidad, as well as Isaac Metzker’s “Life of Don Yitzhak Abravanel,” set in medieval Spain and Portugal. We have the Eastern European countryside and shtetl life, but we also have bustling modern Warsaw and Brooklyn, and farming communities outside Boston and in southern New Jersey.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Talk about the translation process. What are the challenges of rendering these stories into English?

MIRIAM UDEL: The primary challenge with translating the book as a whole is that I needed not only to translate across language but across time periods and cultures. Should I assume that my readers know what “kiddush” is, or should I gloss it as “the blessing recited over the Sabbath wine?” I usually erred on the side of trying to make things more accessible, even if that risked diminishing the heymish, or homey, feel to the translation. A further challenge, which I mention in my introduction, is that we are witnessing the moment of creation for Yiddish literature, and when Yiddish authors began to address children, they didn’t necessarily have a separate linguistic register in which to do so. That took several years to develop. So in a text from the 1920’s, perhaps the Yiddish says “desolate,” whereas a contemporary child is more ready to parse “sad and lonely.”

Translating rhyming poetry is both very difficult and extremely rewarding. It really engages the puzzle solving part of my brain, and there is an almost audible click when the right word engages and locks into place. I knew I wanted to include Leyb Kvitko’s “Boots and the Bath Squad,” about a gluttonous boy who refuses to bathe, but I wasn’t a skilled or confident enough translator at the outset. So I took off the pressure and did a non-rhyming translation. At the end of the project, I reopened the file, and said, “let’s give it another shot.” And then I had a rollicking good time turning the poem into English verse. The advantage of working on a book for seven years is that you can actually become a much better translator over the life of the project!

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Other than language, what differentiates these stories from the children's literature we are used to? What makes these stories unique?

MIRIAM UDEL: There is a lot of very candid proximity to historical violence and to politics, which Americans, at least, are not used to in children’s literature. Some of these stories really model how parents can talk with their children about anti-Jewish and other violence. The idea of labor organizing and striking for better workplace conditions is brought down to a level that a child—or an exceptionally clever dog like Khaver Paver’s “Labzik”—can understand. As a body of work, the distinctive feature is the frankly leftist worldview and the commitment to empowering kids to lead through kindness as part of that worldview.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Children's literature is not typically published by NYU Press. Talk about how you struck a balance between creating a scholarly work and a book for families.

MIRIAM UDEL: This balance—or tension—was one of the hardest aspects of getting the project sold! I was picturing a book with illustrations that would be a resource for families, but I also envisioned curious, intelligent adult readers like my friends who would want to know something about the lives of the authors represented in the anthology. The acquiring editor at NYU, Eric Zinner, was willing to take something of a risk on this book because of the success he had had with Julia Mickenberg and Philip Nel’s anthology of American leftist and anarchist kidlit, Tales for Little Rebels. There was a template, albeit one without many illustrations. But when I met Paula Cohen, who ended up creating dozens of new images, that was a turning point. She has a whimsical, joyful style that really reflects the liveliness of the tales themselves. Everyone at NYU Press was won over by her work. The design team did an incredible job, through creative font distinctions and use of white space, of creating a book for both adult and child readerships. I think that there are a lot of subtle, perhaps sub-conscious cues to kids that they can read over certain “boring” parts and just get to the good stuff: the stories and poems.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Why should modern English-speaking children be interested in these stories?

MIRIAM UDEL: As I explain in the note to young readers, some of the stories are about experiences we can all relate to: celebrating a birthday, going ice skating, visiting grandparents, celebrating holidays. And some of them portray experiences we can only have in books: riding on a lion’s back, getting snatched by a giant, or losing a calf in a farmer’s long beard. Children, like all humans, appreciate stories of both the familiar and the fantastical.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: It's Tikkun Olam time. This is your chance for a little bit of activism. What action would you like to invite listeners to take to help repair the world?

MIRIAM UDEL: I would like to appeal to parents (including me!) to be more truly receptive to our children’s own sense of injustice and the need to intervene. They see a hungry person and want to give food, they see somebody lonely and want to extend friendship. We parents are full of reasons why we can’t derail our morning in order to do X or Y. But maybe we should be in the habit of keeping some goodie bags in the car or find other ways to take seriously our children’s strong urges toward concrete tikkun olam. And as participants in a democratic society, we have a moral duty as well as a civic right to vote—as if our children’s lives depend upon it.

THE BOOK OF LIFE: I've been asking my guests to help me boost black voices. Is there a black author whose work you'd like to shout out today?

MIRIAM UDEL: My book will share a birthday with that of an Emory colleague, Dianne Stewart’s Black Women, Black Love: America's War on African American Marriage. She is a brilliant scholar of religion, race and society, and while this book interrogates the effects of sustained, systemic racism on black families, it also offers a portrait of familial resilience.[Buy Black Women, Black Love at Bookshop.org]

THE BOOK OF LIFE: Miriam Udel, thank you so much for appearing on The Book of Life!