Paper Brigade: Jewish Literature in Conversation with the World

Gordon Haber
Paper Brigade for 2022 / 5782. Illustration: Eleni Debo. Design: Katherine Messenger.

One of the great things about running a Jewish arts and culture newsletter is that you get to spend a lot of time with, well, Jewish arts and culture. Some of my happiest hours so far have been spent with Paper Brigade, the Jewish Book Council’s yearly journal. (Buy it here.)
As you likely know, the Jewish Book Council (JBC) is “the longest-run­ning orga­ni­za­tion devot­ed exclu­sive­ly to the sup­port and cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture.” The JBC has tirelessly promoted Jewish letters since 1944, helping authors and bringing readers together for meaningful discussions, through a literary lens, about Jewish life, identity, and culture. 
CANVAS proudly supports JBC, an organization that deserves its own discussion. But today I’m focused on Paper Brigade, both due to the quality of the journal and because there is nothing else like it. We have Jewish newspapers, Jewish magazines, websites that publish Jewish fiction, and so on. But not all of them unashamedly rejoice in Jewish letters, teasing out trends, celebrating established writers, and spotlighting emerging ones.
Paper Brigade takes its name from the writ­ers and intel­lec­tu­als in the Vil­na Ghet­to who res­cued thou­sands of Jew­ish books and manuscripts from destruc­tion. But it is a journal of the present, publishing new fiction, poetry, nonfiction, interviews, and graphic works. 
Editorial Director Becca Kantor told me that a guiding idea is to “highlight the breadth and diversity of Jewish books today. We’re looking to provide a window onto a world readers don’t know about, a portrait of the literary landscape in the US and abroad.”
“I really think it emphasizes that Jewish literature isn’t just for Jewish people,” she continued. “It can be interesting and appealing to other people. We’re showing Jewish literature in conversation with the wider literary world.” 

The JBC’s Literary Map of Australia. Illustration: Katherine Messenger.

Reading this year’s Paper Brigade, I was struck by certain themes or motifs—one of which is the golem. (Indeed, Executive Editor Carol Kaufman told me that “this could be called ‘The Golem Issue.’”) It’s exciting to see the myth used in so many ways. Helene Wecker’s essay “Giving Form to the Invisible: On Writing Magical Realism” places the clay creatures of her own novels within that literary tradition; “Into the Mud,” by Yael van der Wouden, is a strong coming-of-age short story in the same vein. There is even a kind of ekphrasis with the “Golem Sonnets” by Moriel Rothman-Zecker—poems inspired by Julie Weitz’s performance piece “Golem v. Golem” (produced by CANVAS grantee Asylum Arts for Dwelling in a Time of Plagues, a Jewish creative response to the pandemic).
Now, the reappearance of the golem in Jewish letters is not surprising given all our current anxieties—antisemitism, climate change, the pandemic. But it’s not all doom and gloom. This year’s Paper Brigade also demonstrates a healthy commitment to diversity. What really interested me as a reader was how the range of artists and writers—geographic, ethnic, physicality—really does point to the breadth of the Jewish experience. 
“We’re trying to amplify Jewish voices that are often marginalized,” Kantor said. “For a very long time, the American Jewish literary tradition was white, Ashkenazi, and not queer. So we have great writers who address race or queerness or disability.” 
One standout is “Hunger,” Qian Julie Wang’s heartbreaking piece on how fasting for Yom Kippur brought back painful memories of her impoverished childhood. And Sigal Samuel’s essay, “The First Female Rabbi Was Not Who You’d Expect,” is a brief, lively piece about Osnat Barzani, an early 17th century Kurdish Jew, born in 1590 in Mosul, who ran a rabbinical academy. “How Does a Family Lose Its Past” is excerpted from Laura Arnold Leibman’s Once We Were Slaves, a fascinating book on the New York Sephardi family whose ancestors were in fact enslaved people in Barbados. 
The works that address disability are especially encouraging, as this is an aspect of diversity that often gets lost in the public discourse on issues of representation and equality. 
Jennifer Glaser’s essay “People of the Body: Jewish Physicality in Recent Graphic and Illustrated Narratives” is interesting in and of itself, but also for the work it discusses: Ariella Elovic’s Cheeky: A Head-to-Toe Memoir, Shira Spector’s Red Rock Baby Candy, and Riva Lehrer’s illustrated memoir, Golem Girl (a fine addition to the golem theme). 
I’m running out of space, and I haven’t yet mentioned that every year Paper Brigade presents a “literary map” of Jewish writing from a featured country; this year it’s Australia (see above). Nor have I mentioned that Paper Brigade has a great approach to interviews, “juxtaposing authors who have written about similar topics to highlight their commonalities and revealing differences,” Kantor said. In this issue, notably, its Colum McCann and Joshua Cohen, whose recent novels investigate Israel-Palestine.  
Astute readers may have noticed that some of the links above go to the Paper Brigade’s online journal. But many of the pieces are not available online, so you should still buy it. You should also sign up for this year’s launch party, which will feature short readings and studio visits with artists. 
About those links: I know there are a lot of them. After reading this year’s Paper Brigade cover-to-cover, my own “to-read” list has grown tremendously. I’ll never get to all the authors that this fine journal has introduced me to, but it’s going to be a lot of fun trying.

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