Thursday, 17 August 2017

On Writing As the Lonely Fly, Sara Dowse

Sara Dowse
It was a winter’s night in Canberra, 1974. My American mother had come from sunny LA to help look after my kids, but she found Australia’s capital less than hospitable. It was too cold and I was too busy. The Whitlam government had just been re-elected after Gough had called a double dissolution. It took two weeks to learn whether they were still in office or not.

I was the bureaucratic back-up to Elizabeth Reid, Whitlam’s women’s adviser, and we had a lot of work to do. We were working to get a child care program up, finding funding for refuges and plans were afoot for the International Women’s Year program the following year. We had done our best to make my mother feel welcome, but she was bored in the company of women. We were going to change the world, but my mother had been around and had her doubts. Would Australia become a feminist paradise? She didn’t think so. I did arrange for her to have dinner with Moss Cass, Whitlam’s environment minister, and she was happy with that, but she remained highly sceptical. She was an actor, and had been blacklisted in the McCarthy years. She was exasperated with our seeming naiveté.

The kids had gone to bed, and we were trying to get warm in front of the house’s one oil heater. (This was Canberra in the 70s.) Suddenly my mother blurted out, ‘You women think you’re such hot shots. You had an aunt who was a member of the Soviet Politburo!’

What? I had never heard of this woman, but it turned out that she was one my grandfather’s sisters. I had known the other two, but not this Lisa. That was her name – Lisa Fich. It also turned out that my mother had all her facts wrong. Yet when I eventually did learn the story, I found it far more compelling than anything my mother had said. Of course, her aunt had never been on the Politburo – no woman had. And though my mother had said she was some kind of high-ranking apparatchik, that wasn’t true either. Lisa Fich was a dedicated Zionist who went to Palestine after the First World War, changed her name from Lisa to Leah, and joined the G’dud Ha’Avodah, or Labour Battalion. Even before the Battalion split into factions, she and some of her colleagues had joined the Communist party and in 1929 were sent back to Russia, where they set up a kolkhoz, Voya Nova, in the Crimea.
My dream was to write a biography of her, and I began by learning Russian, and saturating myself in Russian and Zionist history. In my search for her story, I interviewed many people, including one who knew her when she was still alive. But I was stymied on a couple of occasions – once, when I got to Israel and found that the Central Zionist Archives were closed for renovations; another time, in Moscow, when I was given a wrong lead and lost an opportunity to look for her in the recently opened Soviet archives. And because of changes in my personal life, I wasn’t able to travel anymore, so I finally decided to abandon my idea of a biography and write another novel. This is As the Lonely Fly – my sixth. The shorthand is that it took 25 years of research and writing, but there were many interruptions, including two other novels in the meantime.

Only last year, as this latest novel went to the printers, an Israeli friend found a mention of my great aunt. She was listed as the G’dud’s delegate to the Histadrut conference sometime in the 1920s. This would have been before the G’dud was ostracised by the Labor Zionists – Ben Gurion’s crowd. I would like to follow this up, but it was clear almost from the beginning of my research that she and her comrades were dissidents who came to renounce the idea of a Jewish state. Their reasons were partly ideological – they subscribed to Trotsky’s permanent revolution, to which they gave priority over nationalism – but the catalyst for their breaking with Political Zionism was what they saw happening to Arab labour. With the advance of Jewish settlement, idealistic as it was, many Arabs lost their jobs, and they were as well excluded from the Histadrut. For the first time in my life, I began to see, through this story, that the path that Herzl laid out for us was a very dangerous one indeed. It was sobering to realise that there were many, including my grandfather’s sister, who saw that right from the beginning.

Now, some say, we have the fact on the ground - Israel is a nation, a Jewish state, and it’s far too late to question the wisdom of its creation. But my answer to this is that knowing that there were paths not taken can help us find a way out of the very grave situation the Jewish-privileged state is in. I have come to believe that we in the Diaspora have a very important role to play in this; we need to probe our consciences and recognise our responsibilities. There is, in my opinion, no escaping this.
As the Lonely Fly is a novel, not a polemic. The characters throw light on the complexity of the situation and, through them, various perspectives are explored, each of them with sympathy and understanding. The story is the story, and it’s a big one – bigger than you or me – but the Jewish tradition that I was raised in was, above all, a tradition of justice, and I’m very proud of that. But I have had to ask myself, where does justice lie now?

Sara Dowse
August 2017

To hear Sara speak about this story she had to tell, join her at the Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on Sunday August 27th at 3.15pm.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

GripLit: Some Thrilling Reads

The weather is perfect for curling up in bed with a thrilling read and this week I've been doing just that with some of my favourites appearing at this year's Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival - Nicole Trope, Megan Goldin and Lexi Landsman. I don't want to share any spoilers, but I do want to tell you that each of these three authors is well worth reading!

Nicole Trope's sixth book, FORGOTTEN, tells a story that many of us will find familar. Malia is a young mother with three young children, an absent and distracted husband and a pile of bills. One morning she races to the petrol station to buy some milk and makes a decision that in an instant alters the course of her life and leads to the disappearance of her baby. The Detective, Ali Greenberg, who takes the case has her own demons that she is struggling to lay to rest and she knows that solving this case and finding this baby will present some closure to her that she cannot name. Edna, an elderly resident at a boarding house provides a third perspective on the turmoil that unfolds in this gripping domestic noir thriller that critics have compared to the work of Jodi Piccoult.

Megan Goldin's novel, THE GIRLS IN KELLERS WAY, tells the story of Detective Melanie Carter who is charged with identifying a body found buried near the desolate forest road of Kellers Way. The crime is a cold case and Carter has to rely on Julie West who regularly jogs along Kellers Way to clear her head and escape her own disatisfying existence. Goldin has crafted a story that seems to follow a logical path and then twists to disorient readers, leading them to question everything that they thought was true. The characters are interesting and complex and not always likable and the plot is just uncertain enough to keep readers on the edge of their seat.

THE PERFECT COUPLE is Lexi Landsman's second book and her first in this genre. It is a book filled with secrets; about the past, about relationships and about our own perceptions of events as they unfold. Landsman has chosen a beautiful setting against which to unfold this story and that adds enormous value to the plot. The characters are layered and wonderfully complex which makes for delicious winter reading. Finally, the plot itself is filled with twists and turns enough to ensure that readers keep wanting more.

Each of these fascinating authors brings something distinctive to the genre by creating complicated and nuanced characters balanced against detailed and unexpected twists in the plot. With the artful guidance of Tali Lavi, Trope, Goldin and Landsman will share insights into the craft, the joys and the challenges and inspiration for writing crime thrillers which so artfully engage audiences. Don't miss this fascinating discussion to be held at the Shalom | Sydney Jewish Writers Festival at Waverley Library on Sunday 27th August at 2pm. Book Now!

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Dark Room, Rachel Seiffert

xthe-dark-room.jpg.pagespeed.ic.Ffw8CWEf_mThis is the third of Rachel Seiffert’s books that I have read. I have loved them all in very different ways; but I think this one most for the cavernous depths that it attempts to navigate in such soulful and patient ways. It is also the most complex of the Seiffert books that I have thus far read – the others have been relatively straight forward in terms of their narrative structure, but this one presents three vignettes which each shed light on some different aspect of the war. Reading these vignettes made me feel as though I was looking through a tiny porthole, seeing a slice of history, a moment of time, captured and held in the palm of my hand, separated from everything else happening at that moment but somehow connected because of its inescapable context. I loved the way that Seiffert managed to create this reading experience. It made it rich and particular and somehow spirited.
In the first story we meet Helmut. A German boy born to German parents. He is wholesome, the apple of their eye but imperfect, missing a muscle in his chest. The parents mourn but are determined to provide him with every opportunity that other boys his age have. Helmut flourishes, relatively unaware of his difference, until he is rejected by Hitler’s army and then, unable to serve, he becomes the flanuer, walking the streets of Berlin, trying to find a formula to account for the numbers of people leaving. Helmut apprentices as a photographer and it is through his camera lens that we, the readers, come to know Berlin. “He can see the war in the queues outside shops, and the ever-present uniformed figures. But tonight he can also see … an ordinary, busy city. Lively and full. … the faces, arms and legs, the many hats on many heads… His Berlin, his home.”
But Helmut’s Berlin is not as pure as he imagines and one day he stumbles upon a group of Nazi’s herding a community of gypsies to their death. He is shocked by what he witnesses and even more traumatised by the fact that he fails to capture the raw emotion of the moment on film. He flees and Berlin crumbles around him.
The second segment of the book is called LORE. The perspective presented in this piece is vastly different to that of Helmut. It’s Bavaria, 1945 and Lore is one of the daughters of a Nazi officer. The war is over and Lore’s mother is trying to save her children. In desperation, she gives Lore money and jewelry and tells her to take the children and travel to Hamburg to her grandmother. Lore is 12. Her mother is arrested by the Americans and Lore is left to fend for her young siblings. This part of the book is majestic in its scope, and even though it is short, it has epic qualities. I won’t spoil the story but Lore finds help in an unlikely source and eventually finds her way to Hamburg and her grandmother.
The third vignette, MICHA, is set in Autumn 1997. It tells the story of Micha, a young man who discovers that his grandfather was an SS officer and becomes obsesssed with finding out exactly what his grandfather did during the war. He travels to Belarus where his Opa served, carrying with him his photograph, hoping that someone will identify him and testify to his actions. In Belarus, Micha has meets a man called Kolsenik who himself committed terrible sins during the Nazi occupation. Kolsenik says: “I made the choice, you see? I watched the Germans kill the Jews for almost two years and then I killed, too. It was my choice, you see?” and then: “It is hard to say this, Herr Lehner, even after so many years. It is difficult to know this about myself, do you see? I can give all these reasons. I lost my father. I was hungry, I wanted to help my family, orders were orders, I was not responsible, they said the Jews were Communists, Communists caused my pain. Over and over I can say these things. Nothing changes. I chose to kill.”
Although it is spare, her writing is filled with movement, across plains, over hills, through rubble. Reading this book is quite literally a journey through an experience that is at times quite macabrely beautiful and at times so sharp and painful that it hurts to keep going.  The boundaries of the story are as firm as the boundaries of the spaces that Seiffert explores – Micha stands in the room of the museum. He “doesn’t cross to the other side of the room; he doesn’t dare risk seeing the same faces again over there.”
Seiffert’s message is expressed by Micha: How do you make it right? “Is it enough to feel sad?” Kolesnik’s answer is simple: “How can I apologise? Who can I apologise to? Who is there to forgive me?” There is no punishment fit for this crime.
And throughout this magnificent novel, there are the beautiful bookends of photographs – capturing a moment in time in still life frame, artificial but preserved and remembered, a testimony to existence like a forgotten song on the wind.
This is one of those life changing books. You have to read it. At least once.
You can hear Rachel Seiffert speak about this book at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on August 27th at Waverley Library.

Guest post from Justine

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 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!

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!

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!