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Jewish Festival of the Book 2010

Editor’s note: The 2010 Jewish Festival of the Book included six authors whose work represents the wide range of Jewish volumes available to readers – from serious historic efforts to comedy to Jewish cooking and values. Four of the six programs are highlighted in this article. The fifth took place as Community was being prepared for the press.

You’re invited to attend the sixth and final Book Festival event of the year this Sunday, November 21, at 10 a.m. at The Temple. Bring the kids to hear Laurel Snyder present Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher. This one is open to the public and free of charge.

Evie Topcik is chair of the 2010 Jewish Festival of the Book, which is a program of the Jewish Community of Louisville. It is sponsored in part by the Mayer and Frances Shaikun Lecture Fund. A new and used book sale, in conjunction with the festival, is underway at the Jewish Community Center.

The 188th Crybaby Brigade
[by Phyllis Shaikun]

The Jewish Festival of the Book 2010 got off to an auspicious start on Wednesday, November 3, with Joel Chasnoff, stand-up comic, writer and author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade, which tells about the author’s adventures in the Israeli army. In her introduction, Festival Chairperson Evie Topcik said when Chasnoff’s coming was first announced, four local Jewish professionals (and even her out of town family) commented about how very funny he is.

“My book is from the heart and completely honest,” Chasnoff began, and he never deviated from that course in either his manuscript or his presentation. By the time he was 24-years old (he’s now 36), the Jewish Day School and University of Pennsylvania grad found his career as a stand-up in limbo and the time had come to make a serious change in his life. His decision: put his fluent Hebrew to a test and fulfill his lifetime dream of joining the Israeli military.

Almost from the beginning, however, there were issues. His dream of joining his heroes, the “gun-toting muscular hunks” that make up Israel’s fighting force defending Zionism dissolved into a youth army led by officers at least three years his junior. He stood out because he was the only American in his unit and his worldview and motivation to serve differed widely from his fellow soldiers, who were pretty much there because it was the thing to do when you finished high school.

He related some of the more hilarious adventures and misadventures in his book including one in which he told his direct superior that his name was misspelled on his dog tag. “It says my name is Schitznitz,” Chasnoff reported. “Well then don’t die,” the officer responded. While fighting the Hezbollah one day in the field, he was afraid that might actually happen sooner rather than later. That’s when he came to the realization that as the child of a mother who converted to Judaism, he could die for Israel but he couldn’t get married there!

By the end of his tour of duty, the author came to know and love the Israelis with whom he served and they developed a special bond as a community. “They were warm and generous and they care for one another.” Although some were aggressive and stubborn, they still had a softer side. In hindsight, he concluded, it was a nationalistic experience not available anywhere else.

Interesting sidelines: Women were pretty much the teachers in the army schools and there are many other jobs open to them in the military. Traditionally they did not jump from planes, although now they can do that too. Also, you do not have to make aliyah to serve in the Israeli military – you can serve as a volunteer. And, if you do not have family living in the country, you can claim “Lone Soldier Benefits,” a stipend from the Jewish Agency for Israel that pays for a place for you to live (a portion of your contribution to the JCL Annual Campaign goes to support JAFI’s work).

The Recipe Club: A Novel about Food and Friendship
[by Phyllis Shaikun]

Although explaining the concept of their book, The Recipe Club: A Novel about Food and Friendship, took authors Nancy Garfinkel and Andrea Israel several minutes to accomplish, their wildly successful tome has obviously been easily understood and has captured a hugely appreciative audience in this country and abroad. In fact, they say the book was such a hit in Italy that they’ve been receiving love letters from men living there and it will soon come out in two dialects of Chinese.

The book is about two characters, Lilly Stone and Valerie Rudman, whose relationship is cemented when they create their own recipe club as10-year-olds in 1963. For several years they exchange letters about their lives and include recipes that helped them deal with the problems of growing up (from Lilly’s “Lovelorn Lasagna” to Valerie’s “Forgiveness Tapenade).
The story is told in three parts: part one concerns their connection as young girls; the second includes the cache of letters they exchange, connecting the recipes with the story (i.e., I felt so bad about my father yelling at me that I made a lasagna); and the third provides an overarching look at the characters who catch-up with one another after 25 years of estrangement and try to recapture their lost trust and reunite once more.

After traveling around the country on their book tour, the authors say many readers report they have begun their own clubs so members can share both their stories and their recipes. During one visit n Denver, for instance, a woman told the story of her unhappiness with the way her father treated her. She shared her angst and her recipe for “Daddy, Why Don’t You Love Me Pie?” Some recipes in the book were supplied by Melissa Clark, a food writer for the New York Times and some are from their families.

Although initially self-published, they signed a contract with Harper Collins to sell the book internationally. They have appeared on The View and Good Morning America and are current planning a second book.

This presentation took place on Sunday, November 7, at Robin Stratton’s home.

Louis D. Brandeis: A Life
[by Phyllis Shaikun]

Author Melvin Urofsky, whose newest book is billed as “the first full-scale biography of Louis Brandeis in over 25 years,” was the third author in this year’s Festival of the Book series. His presentation on Wednesday, November 10, at the Jewish Community Center could only be summed up as stimulating enough to keep his audience spellbound for about 90 minutes. His intellect as an attorney and professor of law notwithstanding, Urofsky still has the ability to relate to everyone in the audience at their level, which made his appearance that much more enjoyable.

So all encompassing is Urofsky’s connection to his subject that he says his wife married him for better or worse but maybe not for Louie. In fact, his wife wondered if he could let Brandeis go, now that his book is finished.

Ever organized and with meticulous skill, Urofsky described Brandeis as having had four separate careers: as an attorney who loved Harvard Law School, loved the law and functioned as a much sought after advisor to presidents and business tycoons; as a reformer who saw things that were wrong and tried to right them on behalf of those who had no voice; as head of the Federation of American Zionist Organizations and as a Supreme Court Justice. He explored each of these venues honestly and was able to answer questions posed by the audience at each juncture.

Brandeis always felt the law dealt with past events – you were wronged and you had to defend yourself after the fact. He instead encouraged clients involved in big business to be proactive in their approach. By the late 1890s, he was earning the equivalent of $1 million a year in current terms. Since he didn’t need the money, he pretty much decided to take on pro bono work and would only work with causes he believed in. He tried to change the world through advocating for those in need and, in fact, began one of the first advocacy groups in America to help care for individuals with mental health issues.

In 1905, after dealing with insurance scandals, which resulted in poor individuals being mistreated by life insurance companies, Brandeis helped found savings bank life insurance policies in Massachusetts. His anger with the offending companies led him to write the first of his famous Brandeis Briefs and argue against their policies. He and a handful of others became lynch pins of reform networks, and he became presidential advisor to Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt.

By 1914, Brandeis began donating to Jewish groups, and became involved with Zionism. Although not a religious Jew, he donated minimally to Jewish causes, but came to realize that many of the Jewish values of justice for all meshed completely with his own. He thought to be a good American is to be a good Jew and the best Jews were Zionists. In 1918 he raised $180,000 for the cause. Nominated to the Supreme Court, he equated free speech as essential to the people to know how justice works. Some of his most famous opinions were dissents.

Despite his fame, Brandeis was a private person who lived simply. He was a single parent for weeks on end because his wife was mentally much of the time. And, according to Urofsky, you could never get a full portrait of Brandeis because there would always be things you didn’t know. He was a hard worker and he made sure his students learned the use of the law. His majority opinions for the Supreme Court were short as were his dissents. His ashes and those of his wife are buried at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law.

The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back
[by Jenna Koff]

On Monday evening, November 15, as part of the 2010 Jewish Festival of the Book, Louisville welcomed Kevin Salwen, author of The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back. Salwen and his 14-year-old daughter Hannah co-wrote this book about their life-changing decision and its surprising results. Salwen discussed the origins of his family and their lifestyle. He, being a writer and entrepreneur, and his wife, having been a consultant, were able to afford to live in a grand, old home in Atlanta. Even though they regularly contributed to charitable organizations, a chance meeting with a homeless man spurred a conversation between the parents and their daughter. Hannah wanted to do more for her community and, in jest, her father suggested that they sell their home and donate half of the money to charity. This is exactly what happened.

As the family downsized, an interesting thing happened. The dynamics of the family changed. They moved to a smaller home, which physically brought them closer. While deciding which charity the money would go to, the entire family had a vote. Therefore, the entire family became leveled. The relationship between parent and child changed, since each member of the family had an equal say. They decided to donate their money and efforts to a project to fight hunger in Ghana, which helped 30,000 villagers.

Mr. Salwen read a chapter from his book, which is for sale at the JCC. He closed his discussion with an idea. He said that when you give of yourself, what really happens is that you give to yourself. Since his family gave away half of their home, they gained a closer, more rich relationship with one another…which is priceless. He suggested that we could all do the same. We all can. He says poignantly, “We are at our best, our happiest, while we’re sharing.”

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