Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Ideas and books abuzz at Sydney Jewish Writers Festival

Bondi was abuzz this weekend as hundreds of people gathered for the 2016 Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.

The festival opened at the Bondi Pavilion with a fascinating and hopeful discussion between award-winning Israeli journalist Matti Friedman and stereotype-defying Rabbi Dov Lipman about fractures in Israel and the quiet, slow progress being made to overcome some of them.
“Israel is such a dynamic and complex place, it is always wonderful to hear different perspectives on issues,” said Festival Director Michael Misrachi. “Friedman and Lipman offered analysis, reflection and vision, which are as essential as ever.”
(L-R) Festival Director Michael Misrachi, Rabbi Dov Lipman, moderator Debbie Whitmont, author and journalist Matti Friedman and Waverley Councillor Leon Goltsman.

Audiences were then serenaded by Lee Kofman and Adi Sappir, who performed the poetry of celebrated Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.

Orli Wargon, David Gonski, Kathy Shand & Michaela Kalowksi 
The program continued on Sunday at Waverley Library with sessions on refugees, music, true crime, and both fictional and real-life stories of Holocaust survival. Audiences were inspired by philanthropist and businessman David Gonski, and moved by authors Shelley Davidow and Alexandra Joel, who explored how one passes on a family legacy without transmitting difficult and traumatic aspects. Matti Friedman spoke to a capacity crowd about his books, The Aleppo Codex and Pumpkinflowers, which promptly sold out at the bookshop.

Davidow, who appears at the Brisbane Writers Festival in the coming weeks, enthused that the program was so topical: “It explored issues facing the country, the world, and people’s lives.”

Dina Gold’s riveting story of reclaiming a family building stolen by the Nazis, the book launch of Rebellious Daughters, and the session on death – which featured authors Leah Kaminsky and Steven Amsterdam along with Rabbi David Freedman and SMH Literary Editor Susan Wyndham – also drew particularly large crowds.

“Audiences flocked to engage with the issue of the end of life, which touches us all but remains highly emotive and still largely taboo,” Misrachi said. “It was thought-provoking and poignant to confront issues like suicide and euthanasia, as well as the panellists’ personal experiences with death.”
Kids enjoyed getting to meet the mother-daughter team of Barbara and Anna Fienberg, authors of Tashi. 
Children were also highly engaged at the festival through three sessions run in conjunction with PJ Library. Kids played with words and language with Erica Bental, author of Has a Book Got a Spine, and intensely quizzed Anna and Barbara Fienberg about how they wrote the beloved series Tashi.

For photos from the Festival please go to our facebook page.

Stay tuned to www.sjwf.org.au for podcasts from the 2016 Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. 
Looking forward to next year!

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Matti Friedman: soldier, journalist and author

by Sydney Jewish Writers Festival

Canadian-born author and former Associated Press journalist Matti Friedman will be speaking exclusively in Sydney this weekend as the guest of the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival before travelling to the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Matt Friedman
Friedman has travelled from Jerusalem to Sydney for the SJWF 2016, and is currently promoting his newly released book Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story.

Pumpkinflowers centres on the contentious withdrawal of the Israeli Army from Lebanon in the late 1990s, and Friedman’s own experience as a soldier for Israel during that time stationed on an isolated hilltop outpost called ‘the Pumpkin’.

Friedman describes himself as “the first, and I fully expect to be the last, historian of this particular hill”. 

“For many years, this hill was very important to me and was probably the most important place in the world,” Friedman has written since releasing Pumpkinflowers.

“If you map my mental landscape, the centre of that landscape is the Pumpkin.”

Friedman explains his motivation to write this book: “I thought that if I could nail the story of the Pumpkin and make it comprehensible, and make it understandable to people very far away, it would enrich people's understanding of what has happened in the Middle East since this new century began.”

The book has received high praise already: The Jewish Standard has described Pumpkinflowers as “well on its way to joining the select group of wartime narratives that continue to grip and grate on the conscience long after they have been read, put back on the shelf, or passed along”; while the New York Times’ book critic Jennifer Senior described it as “a truly fine war memoir”.

Friedman will talk to many of the issues raised in his book as well as the broader geo-political realities of the Middle East in the opening night session on Saturday August 28 at Bondi Pavilion. The session entitled Israel’s battle lines with former Israeli parliament member Rabbi Dov Lipman will discuss both the internal and external challenges faced by Israel.

Before Pumpkinflowers, Friedman has previously received great acclaim for his 2012 book The Aleppo Codex; as well as viral internet attention in 2014 for essays Friedman wrote in Tablet and The Atlantic about the ties between foreign press corps in Jerusalem and non-governmental organisations that results in media bias against Israel, and in early 2015 for a speech he made on the subject at the annual Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM) dinner.

Friedman boldly stood up at that dinner and explained the systematic bias against Israel inherent in media organisations in his experience as a journalist covering Israel and the Middle East for The Associated Press in its Jerusalem bureau. 

Friedman speaking at the 2015
BICOM dinner
“In my time in the press corps I saw, from the inside, how Israel’s flaws were dissected and magnified, while the flaws of its enemies were purposely erased.

I saw how the threats facing Israel were disregarded or even mocked as figments of the Israeli imagination, even as these threats repeatedly materialised.

I saw how a fictional image of Israel and of its enemies was manufactured, polished, and propagated to devastating effect by inflating certain details, ignoring others, and presenting the result as an accurate picture of reality.”

The video of the speech can be viewed here

The Aleppo Codex, which traces the journey of the thousand year old manuscript of the Hebrew Bible known as “the Aleppo Codex” through the Middle East – discovered hidden in a grotto in the Great Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria; smuggled between countries; and eventually arriving in Israel in the late 1950s. The book explores how 200 of the pages went missing, who was involved, and the cover ups surrounding the whole affair.

The Aleppo Codex earned Friedman the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, the American Library Association’s 2013 Sophie Brody Medal, the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for History, and the book was named one of Booklist’s top ten religion books of 2013.

An incredible speaker on all matters relating to Israel and more, Matti Friedman is a must see at this year’s SJWF!

Matti Friedman will be speaking in two sessions at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. In “Israel’s battle lines” on Saturday August 27 from 7:30-8:40pm, Matti will be speaking alongside former Knesset member Rabbi Dov Lipman about the challenges currently confronting Israel from all angles, moderated by Four Corners reporter Debbie Whitmont

Michael Visontay will be in conversation with Matti about his own journey and experience as a journalist, soldier and now author on Sunday August 28 at 12:30-1:30pm in “Unearthing Israel’s hidden stories: In Conversation with Matti Friedman”.

Book your tickets now to see Matti in his only Sydney public appearance at www.sjwf.org.au!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Has a table got legs?

by Erica Bentel

“Has a table got legs?”  
“Yes it has.”
“Oh, so does that mean this table can go running around the library??”

… and then you see their eyes light up. And you see them start laughing as they click onto the humour. And now they are playing with language…. thinking creatively, thinking laterally. 

And the games begin…

But will a four year old get this? You’d be amazed!! How about a 6 or 7 year old? They find it sooo funny. 8 & 9 year olds? Absolutely! In the same way I found it funny when I first came up with the idea for this book. The English language is quirky and when you look at it like this you’ve just got to love it.

“It’s quite simple – if you want your child to love reading, find them books they love to read.”

Parents often ask me how to get their child to like reading. To me it’s quite simple. Find them books they love to read.
… As adults we’re no different. When we read a great book, we go looking for another. When we’re going through a dry phase and can’t find a book that grabs us, we end up watching TV. 
So when people ask me what books to buy for their kids, I have one answer – think about your child and then find them something they’ll love.

Erica Bentel
This is also why I make my children’s workshops laugh-out-loud fun. Reading should be an absolute joy. Lateral and creative thinking should be revelled in. It’s a skill, like any sport. In fact… I see writing as sports for the brain.

“Writing for me is like Sports for the Brain”

So in my workshops with the youngsters I introduce them to this love of language – to the sheer joy you can have with playing with words and language... which leads to the joy of playing with ideas… which itself leads to lateral and creative thinking.

Which brings me to Can You Crack Them? 
The word games in this book are for ages 6 – 106.

Here’s one, see if you can crack it….

The clue is in the sentence above, so the answer means “neat”.

Tie + D = TIDY (which is another word for neat)  

Get it? Neat!

They get tougher and tougher and often your children will crack them faster than you, much to your horror and their absolute delight!

What makes these books special for me is the interaction that takes place. These are books that families can enjoy together. All ages, Bobbas and Zaidas included. 

So… parents, grandparents are welcome to attend these sessions. My only request is, if you are bringing your children to the workshop/s, please don’t let them see the books in advance. They’ll have heaps more fun if it’s all new to them!

If you’re not coming to the workshops but choose to get the books anyway, I hope you have the best fun with them.

Hoping to see you at the Festival! 

Me … I can’t wait!!!!!!!

Erica Bentel will be lead two workshops for children with PJ Library at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday August 28: "Has a Book Got a Spine?" at 9:45am - 11:00am suitable for children in Years K to 3; and "Can You Crack Them? Word Puzzles" for children in Years 1 to 5 at 11:00am - 12:15pm.

Book today at www.sjwf.org.au!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story

by Alexandra Joel

Imagine a woman. She is twenty-five: an arresting Jewish beauty with thick chestnut hair and restless, toffee-coloured eyes. She has been married since the age of eighteen. Her husband is a respectable man of means. She is a mother with a five-year-old child. The place is Melbourne, the year 1905. All seems well.

But this is the moment when everything changes. 

The woman leaves, abandoning both her husband and her daughter. Even worse, she runs away with a handsome half-Chinese fortune-teller called Zeno the Magnificent.

Alexandra Joel
Zeno has read her palm, convinced her that what lies ahead is an exotic destiny. He practises enchantment, but so does she. Together with her lover and a new identity, the woman travels to the other side of the world.

He claims to be a distinguished Japanese Professor, she decides it would be rather smart to be American. Leading members of the British aristocracy and European royalty are bewitched by her and fall, willing captives to her spell.
She sounds like an invention, a character from a fairy tale. But she is not. This astonishing woman lived. Her name is Rosetta and she was my great-grandmother.

Rosetta created an extraordinary life. 

She took great risks and ignored almost all of society’s constraints, while at the same time forging intimate relationships with lords, ladies, and the heirs to several European thrones. But, after she ran away with Zeno, she never saw her child again.

I have always known that my great-grandmother did a dreadful thing. It must have been when I was very young that I was first told she had deserted her only child. This alarming knowledge – some mothers simply chose to disappear – became a part of the child I was, my identity.

What I did not know was how such a calamity had come about. Where had my errant great-grandmother gone, and why?

No doubt even in the far-off 1950s, when children were not encouraged to be forthcoming but, rather, to know their place, many were braver than I was, asked more questions, demanded answers in response. I did not.

I don’t believe it was simple timidity that caused my questions to remain unspoken; it had something more to do with the risk I sensed. Perhaps all families have secret, bruised place to which one journeys at one’s peril. I was a child, yet still I understood the way in which a misplaced query might disturb these tender realms.

Even after the details of Rosetta’s remarkable life had, finally, been revealed, it was many years before I began to write this book. 

I was too conflicted: one part of me marvelled at her courage, her defiance of convention and brilliant ability to invent an existence as improbable as it way thrilling. But the other part – darker, more turbulent - was furious. A single question resounded in my mind: ‘How could you leave your child?’

Eventually, I found this question impossible to ignore. Conversations might be avoided and thoughts suppressed, but feelings have a way of working their way through the line and texture of one’s being. And there was something else. It was a kind of insistence, as if Rosetta herself were demanding to be brought back to life.

Despite all my misgivings, I went in search of her. Like so many before me, I too had fallen beneath her spell.

Alexandra Joel will be talking about how knowing one's family history can help to make sense of the past but also affect the present in the session 'Inheriting the past - family legacies', alongside Shelley Davidow, moderated by Michaela Kalowski, on Sunday August 28, 11:15am - 12:15pm at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. 

Book today at www.sjwf.org.au!

Friday, 12 August 2016

Whispers from the past and miraculous discoveries

by Shelley Davidow

When I first began to write Whisperings in the Blood I planned on writing it as a novel. It was going to be called 'The Immigrant'. 

Shelley Davidow
I wanted to tell a story of generations of immigrants based on my gran Bertha’s life, because her life was kind of cool and interesting. I only knew a few things: that when my gran was 10 and living in Indiana, USA, her mother died, and she and her brother were sent to the Jewish Orphan Home in Ohio. I knew that my gran, at age 22, went out to Africa to marry a man she’d never met. 

Then, in 2012 I told my dad in South Africa what I wanted to write, and he said there was this box of letters he’d been holding onto and would I like them?

Every letter written to my gran from 1937 until her death lay in this box, including the love-letters from my grandfather Phil, asking her to come to Africa and marry him after just seeing her photograph. Once I’d read everything, I was stunned. The novel had to become a biography. Then my uncle in Israel said, ‘well, Shell, you know I have Bertha’s diaries. Should I scan them for you?’

A picture of Bertha on her 21st birthday 
that she sent to Phil before they had met.
I couldn’t believe it. Finding Bertha’s own voice,  I discovered miraculous parallels between my gran and myself. The book became then, a biographical memoir! I was blown away to discover that so many of my decisions, my fears, my illnesses, my longings, already existed in the generations that came before me. I uncovered what I can only call, a ‘whispering in the blood’ … a series of motifs and themes that have run through my family for over a hundred years. 

For all that time my Jewish family on my father’s side has been on the move, making immigrant journeys in a restless trans-generational search for home. Great-grandfather Jacob escaped the Pogroms in Eastern Europe and fled to America. His daughter Bertha escaped the Great Depression in the USA to go to Africa and marry someone she’d never met. I grew up during Apartheid and left to escape rampant violence… and then left America to escape health issues, and I thought all my decisions were simply contextual. 

I know that recent research at Emory University in the USA shows that trans-generational trauma can be quite literally passed down through our DNA, but in my book Whisperings in the Blood, I’m aiming to transcend even that… going deeper, into the realm of metaphor, into ‘soul dispositions’ that are more than genetically encoded responses to the world. I see our lives connecting to those of our forebears in a profound, intricate way, and in honouring the immigrants, the refugees of past world events, I want to shed light on our current issues: every non-indigenous person in Australia is an immigrant of one kind or another; we are uninvited ‘guests’ on Aboriginal land. 

I want to acknowledge that, as well as the trauma that flows through every Aboriginal person’s veins as a result of the decimation they’ve suffered over the last 200 years. And when I think of the Jewish refugees in my family since the early 1900’s, and refugees from Syria now, there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’! We have all been people running from dangerous places searching for a safe haven. 

Perhaps Whisperings in the Blood might help dissolve the idea of the ‘other’. Through reading other people’s lives we become them; we’re less likely to then be xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, sexist bigots. We become more empathetic, less fearful, less ignorant.

Shelley Davidow will be talking about how knowing one's family history can help to make sense of the past but also affect the present in the session 'Inheriting the past - family legacies', alongside Alexandra Joel, moderated by Michaela Kalowski, on Sunday August 28, 11:15am - 12:15pm at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. 

Book today at www.sjwf.org.au!

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Baba Schwartz and The May Beetles

by Joan London

Baba Schwartz, and her husband Andor, survived the Holocaust before emigrating to Australia.

Joan London
Photo: Abby London
Morry’s (Baba’s son) is a brave voice in publishing, and it is now hard to imagine our Australian culture without The Quarterly Essay, The Monthly, and The Saturday Paper. And without Black Inc, with their books, as beautifully presented and edited, and necessary, as The May Beetles.

One of my most intense and formative reading experiences took place when I was 11 years old and read Anne Frank’s Diary of A Young Girl

Up until then, I had never heard of the Holocaust, and knew only two Jewish people, a couple who played bridge with my parents. Anne Frank’s diary opened my eyes to mid-20th century history,  to the devastating, incomprehensible mass murder of millions of one race by another, a tragedy that could even sweep up a girl, my age, with my young hopes and aspirations.  

I could hardly believe when I got to the end of the book, that Anne Frank was not saved. It left me bereft, shaken, that in her world, that existed only 15 years before I got to read about it, and unlike any other book I’d read, evil had won.
Baba Schwartz
Photo: Caitlin Muscat

One of the privileges of having spent some time in Melbourne over the past few years has been getting to know Baba Schwartz, and enjoying her wise, calm, and generous company. The last time that I visited Baba was in her new apartment on the 16th floor, where I ate some of her delicious freshly cooked pastries, and where it seemed entirely appropriate that Baba should have such an overview of the world all around her. 

Baba has written a wonderful memoir, The May Beetles. A beautiful, generous, book, both in its  physical presentation – the irresistible cover photo of the girl with the dazzling smile, the quality of the paper, the endpieces which reproduce traditional embroidery that speak of a lost pre-war world – and then, most importantly, in the acuity of the memory that informs the book and the generosity of the spirit of the writing.  

It is, of course, also a horrifying book, with its account of a culture turning on some of its own people, their rounding up, deportation, and subsequent slaughter, made so vivid in the writing, alongside the reproductions of chilling old documents issued with ruthless Nazi efficiency.  

Baba writes: 
This life I am revealing – this father, this mother, this family – is the life I would wish for everyone. No harm in any of us, but a sense of the inexhaustible sources of delight in the world. Yes, if I could bestow a gift on others, it would be to live as my family had lived before the great darkness. (p.75)
Again and again she refers to the beauty and happiness of that old world, that lost way of life:
I recall the summer of 1942 more vividly and in more detail than any season during the years of growing danger. I recall the warm winds that carried the fragrance of blossoms. I recall flirting with boys with intense delight in the long evenings. The dusk crept over us by such slow degrees that the darkness settled without our noticing it…Each evening, as I entered our house, I hoped that tomorrow would be as enthralling as was today.
Thirteen years ago, Baba’s husband, Andor Schwartz also published a memoir, Living Memory, and both books constitute a profound witness of the devastation that overtook the Jews of Europe in the late thirties and early forties of the 20th century. These books are there for the record, in all their vivid, detailed testimony of that great darkness that must never be forgotten. 

The wall above the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes Deuteronomy:
Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children. 
The Schwartzs’ survival, and the subsequent remaking of their lives in this country, has been part of the infinite enrichment brought to Australia by postwar immigration.

Baba, a huge reader, is a natural writer, with the writer’s impulse to record, to witness, to interrogate. She has always been a writer.  

As she says in the preface to The May Beetles: I write all the time – diary notes, contemplations, poetry, recipes … And most recently, this wonderful memoir. 

Baba Schwartz will be talking about her story for the first time in the session 'I'm still here: Survivors speak', alongside Frank Vajda and Marcel Weyland, moderated by Rita Nash, on Sunday August 28, 10:00am - 11:00am at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. 

Book today at www.sjwf.org.au!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Do fences make good neighbours?

by Meredith Jaffe

The story of how The Fence came to exist is a story in parts. 

I was writing another novel when the character Gwen, the elderly protagonist of The Fence, appeared in my head. She was persistent, so I’d write a few words about her, saving her for later.

Meredith Jaffe
Over time, her neighbours Babs and Val joined her. Pretty soon I knew they’d all been living in the same street since early in their married lives. I knew Babs would die and new neighbours would move in. Apart from that, I had no story. 

However, life has a way of throwing ideas at you when you’re a writer, even if at first you don’t have a clue how to use them

In this case, our neighbours of ten years decided to downsize. The couple who bought their home was a generation younger with a young son and big plans for their first ever house. And they wanted a fence. To be fair, that came as no surprise. But what they wanted and what we were prepared to agree to were worlds apart. 

It soon became apparent that people invest a lot of emotional energy into fences and I began to wonder why. Then it dawned on me: Gwen had her story.

What makes writing about fences fascinating is not what they are but what they mean. Fences loom large in our psyche from the immense like The Great Wall of China to our own suburban walls. The fences we build around ourselves define our boundaries and keep what matters to us contained within. They speak to our secret anxieties and our desire to protect what is ours. 

However, think about anytime you have wandered the streets of your own neighbourhood. See a gigantic hedge and you’re immediately intrigued. What are they trying to hide? Impenetrable fences are not only an invitation to curious outsiders, they are advertising for whatever lays beyond.

Our language is rich with fence imagery. The grass is always greener on the other side. The phrase sitting on the fence became fashionable in the 1880s. We build emotional walls, we compartmentalize and when we feel we have damaged relationships we talk of mending fences. Is it any wonder their tangible counterpart stirs great emotion inside us?

So, back to Gwen. 

Her new neighbours are also a young family, although not the one from real life. Francesca and her brood are far, far worse. The issue of whether or not to build a fence would be a short novel indeed were it not for the fact it acted as a springboard to talk about a whole lot of other fascinating issues. Such as, the difference in attitudes to raising children between my parent’s generation and the generation after mine. Gwen is a woman born before women’s lib, Francesca is a product of it. Has feminism given us a good hand or are we still missing a few cards? Was it ever possible to have it all – career, family, economic freedom – at the same time? It’s not only fences that divide opinion.

Researching fence stories made me shake my head in horror. That people have actually died because of neighbourly disputes is terrible. 

Conversely, some neighbour stories are hilarious for the ridiculous lengths people are willing to go to prove a point—as long as it’s not happening to you! 

The best part of publishing The Fence will be hearing everyone else’s fence stories. I’m guessing it will be quite a collection!

Meredith Jaffe will be speaking about her experience as a new author in the session 'Making an entrance: Debut fiction writers' with fellow panelists Nathan Besser and Lexi Landsman, moderated by Alison Green, on Sunday August 28, 4:30pm - 5:30pm at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. 

Meredith will also lead the session 'The Keeper of Secrets: In Conversation with Julie Thomas', where author Julie Thomas will reflect on the Jewish stories that inspired her two novels that are set during and in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Book today at www.sjwf.org.au!