Monday, December 23, 2013

Gingerbread Succah

I also considered naming this blog post A Happy Jew at Christmas, or Intermarried Bliss. Although most people will recommend against intermarrying, I’m here to tell you that there are some real perks and practicalities to marrying someone outside of your faith or culture. For example, you never have to argue about whose family to go to over the holidays. There are twice the festivities to attend, twice the yummy food, and twice the gifts, sometimes even twice the ideas. Of course it helps to be married to a very flexible partner. For example when I ask my husband to come to Purim, he asks, “Will there be cookies?” When my kids ask me to put up the Christmas lights, because they’re tired of asking their father, I shrug and say sure.

If I had to define our family’s intermarried state I would say, I’m Jewish; my husband celebrates Christmas. Christmas is a big deal for him. Let’s be clear about this, this is not the Christmas of Jesus, but the Christmas of trees, stockings, turkey and pie. And so I`m a Jewish person who also celebrates Christmas. And not just for one day, because we all know Christmas is at least two weeks long. While my non-consumerist antenna start to tingle when my husband merely mentions the word stocking (junk holder) I do get very excited about making a gingerbread house. I strongly suggest that Jewish people should find some holiday to make these for, because there’s nothing intrinsically Christian about them and they’re delicious and fun. Okay, mostly fun. My children learn a few choice swear words every year as I struggle to get my walls to stay put. That’s because being the masochist that I am, I refuse to buy a kit, but make one from scratch. 
I’ve climbed a steep learning curve on gingerbread houses. For example, the first year I didn’t know about royal icing, the glue that holds gingerbread together, which meant I had to build my walls around books and then hold the whole thing together with a festive red ribbon. This year, due to the ice storm, the power went out while I was baking, resulting in not quite 90 degree angle walls.
Beautiful kid-made Gingerbread house.
I keep thinking maybe it’s time to get a kit, but I feel the same way about making gingerbread houses from scratch as I did about natural childbirth. When I was pregnant it was EXTREMELY important to me that I not have an epidural during birth. I had heard all kinds of stories about failed epidurals, epidurals that left you with no feeling below the waist, or with an awful headache. I wanted to experience the pain, and then be able to talk about it afterwards. And so, experience the pain I did. After my sons were born, I wondered why I needed to be such a martyr about the whole thing. My friend Erin, who was also pregnant and due shortly after me, tells me that when she came to see my newborn son a few hours after the delivery with the memory of the pain still fresh, I told her to, “take the drugs.” And so last night after swearing and cursing and the gingerbread walls caving in seven times, I thought, buy the darn kit next year. I probably won’t though. I seem to have a tendency to do things the hard way. I think maybe I’m used to it through writing. (This would be an interesting chicken-and-egg question: do writers learn to edit and edit and fight through their drafts because they are that kind of person, or does writing make us that way?)

About Jewish people finding a motive for gingerbread making… my older son came up with a great suggestion. The boys asked to build their own houses this year, so I baked some extra gingerbread and they struggled to get their own mini houses to stay up. They decorated the roofs with so many Smarties they threated to collapse. When we were all done, my older son said their smaller houses looked like succahs. (These are the harvest huts Jews build in their yards or balconies for the Jewish holiday Succot.) Then he corrected himself and told me that if it was a real succah it would have an open roof. He got very excited and suggested we make gingerbread succahs for Succot next year at Hebrew school, and went on to describe the candy we would need. All this made me the very proud Jewish mother of a gingerbread-making son, especially since I teach the Hebrew school.

In case you’re inspired to make a Gingerbread house from scratch, (or a succah next fall) or just gingerbread people, here’s the recipe. Happy holidays!

3 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon each cloves and nutmeg
½ cup butter
½ cup white sugar (otherwise known as white death)
1 egg
2/3 cup molasses
Beat eggs and sugar until fluffy, add egg and molasses. Gradually add sifted dry ingredients. Mix well. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill overnight.
Roll out dough and cut into gingerbread men, or house walls (carefully cut your pattern out of cardboard-cereal boxes work well- and then use it as a pattern for your house walls). Bake at 350 degrees for 8- 12 minutes.
That’s it for now, I have to go hang the Christmas lights.


New YA

Two new YA books that have come across my desk recently deserve special attention. The first is Gabrielle Pendergast’s verse novel, Audacious (Orca Books). Pendergast covers lots of ground in this exciting novel about one teenage girl’s attempt to navigate the pitfalls of high school and self expression. When sixteen-year-old Raphaelle’s provocative art work angers her community, Raphaelle finds herself in more trouble than she’s been in before. Pendergast’s page-turner covers everything from cyber-bullying to cross-cultural love as well as mental health issues. It’s a book that draws you in and keeps you reading until the final page.

And for something completely different, check out Jill Bryant’s Phenomenal Female Entrepreneurs for the young reader on your holiday shopping list. Bryant’s book is the latest installment in Second Story Press’ Women’s Hall of Fame Series. It introduces the reader to a variety of female business entrepreneurs, both current and past. I learned about Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American woman who became a millionaire by creating hair products for black women at the turn of the last century, to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. The book’s mix of inspiring stories and practical suggestions makes me eager to share it with students at my elementary school.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Poetry In The Woods

poet Rob Smith

This weekend was our annual neighbourhood poetry gathering, Poetry In The Woods. A few families get together, go for a walk in the conservation area and share some poems we like. We also eat chips and drink wine, and the kids feed the chickadees build teepees. For the past couple of years Rob and I have also been trying to write a poem for the event. Since I've been inspired lately, I had one prepared, but Rob sat down in a burst of creativity and wrote his piece this morning. 

Here are are poems. 


Love In the Hood
by Rob Smith

No, no, upon reflection, there is little to change.
Perhaps,  only my time to spend among the living.
A fools wish, a common hope,
our being, fleet of wing,
flies blind down the axis of time

So many of the parameters of life are we born into.
Other’s accidental, and some,
few, mutable by our own hand.

Divined by God or not
willed by choice or
accidental as a Royal flush
on a Saturday night’s ending play

I find myself here in the woods
loved friends stand as trees to witness my thoughts
strong and true as always
being as always was

Tonight in my nest with my love
I will again be thankful
For the love in the hood
and as the poet Orpheus,
ponder wondrous happenstance

Jonah wants a Spring Solstice Parade
by Leanne

My friend’s son Jonah wants a spring solstice parade
To celebrate the day when there is as much daylight as darkness
I shrug, and invite the neighbours
And even though there is still snow and boots and mittens,
The evening is bright, bright!
And so we march down the street
beating drums, clashing cymbals, to announce spring,
Or as my husband says, to scare away the snow.

Despite our attachment to electronic items that beep,
our distance from farms, we are hinged to these seasons
My kids try to understanding time
When the pond freezes its my birthday, right?
Yes, and when the snow melts into dirty wrinkles
it is time for Easter and Pesach chocolates.
School ends when it is hot enough for the sprinkler.

And so we beat our drums and eat our pizzas,
Christians, Jews, mostly pagans
The noise showing our desire for nights warm enough
to eat in the backyard, for the sizzle of barbecues,
for children with soccer balls and tiki lamps, and sundresses,
for cold drinks shaken not stirred.

Jonah you asked for a parade, and I was only too happy to provide.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Just How Segregated Are We?

This past week I spoke at the Kingston Writer’s Festival here in Kingston, Ontario with authors Alma Fullerton, Shyam Selvadurai and Tim Wynne-Jones. I also attended various events, including interviews and reading with some of my favourite authors such as Ania Szado and Joseph Boyden. My favourite event was an interview with Thomas King and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson on Native storytelling. I chose this event because I love Thomas King’s stories and I’ve never heard him read, although I did meet him briefly in Eden Mills a few years ago. As an added bonus, Simpson and King were interviewed by Sheila Rogers of The Next Chapter.
As King and Simpson were talking about Native stories, I remembered a collection of Native books that came across my desk at the end of last term from my school board. The books were all about Native culture. They came with a teaching guide suggesting Native culture be introduced across the curriculum, including in the Core French program that I teach. Well, I took the books home and read them to my son who is seven. We talked about our own Jewish culture with its special holidays, foods and language and then we compared it to Native culture’s traditions. I explained to my son that Native people had been in Canada longer than any other Canadians. 

Since school began this September I haven’t looked at those books yet. As the talk went on, I wondered why I hadn’t read them to my students. One answer would be that I’m pretty snowed at work and September has been a whirlwind, but the real answer is that I’m intimidated to teach about Native culture. This is different than teaching Native history. I don’t have any Native friends and I can’t think of anyone I know who is Native. Sure I’ve read Thomas King, Joseph Boyden and Eden Robinson, but this isn’t the same as knowing anyone. It didn’t help that the books were all in French, my students’ second language.

When the question period began, I stood up and asked how I should proceed. “How would you like non-Native people to teach about your culture in our schools?” I asked. I explained that I didn’t know any Native people and while I liked the ideaof reading about Native culture in theory, in reality I was unsure. Leanne Simpson suggested I should reach out, that I could probably find Native people to come and talk to my students. If there were Native people in Kingston why I hadn’t met them, I wondered? Why hadn’t I met them in any city I’ve lived in? As if reading my mind, Sheila Rogers talked about the incredible segregation between Native and non-Native Canadians. 

Meeting Aboriginal people in Kingston, as Simpson suggested, turned out to be incredibly easy. I didn’t even have to leave the interview ballroom. When the session ended no less than seven people came up to meet me. Some were native people who came by to introduce themselves. One was the aboriginal educator at Queen’s University. Another offered to introduce me to the Aboriginal curriculum coordinator at my school board. Even two days later, a man sat next to me at a poetry session and wrote me a note thanking me for my question. (He also told me that he thought it was a shame Harlequin didn’t think organic farmers were sexy – see my former blog post if you’re curious about this one!) Lastly, I met Rick Revelle, an Algonquin. Rick’s first novel, I Am Algonquin, is being published by Dundurn this fall. I’m going to his launch November 30th at my favourite book store here in Kingston, Novel Idea.

Sometimes I think I ask too many questions. Sometimes I wonder why I want to get at that microphone, why I always have something to say. Sometimes I wish I could listen more. And sometimes, I think, if you ask the right questions, you’ll get good answers.

Thanks to all the Native and non-Native people for their advice, friendliness and resources. I’m looking forward to reading some books about aboriginal culture to my students.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Organic Farmers Turn Me On?

In my early writing days, one of my ideas was to actually make a living from
writing. I had just moved to Toronto after living in Asia for several years, and was teaching ESL for very poor pay. While I had been meditating in Japan and chasing men across India, my friends at home had graduated from law, medical and business school. I needed a career path quickly, so I decided to try writing Harlequins. It seemed an easy way to make some money. With my boyfriend Rob's amused support, I wrote away for the Harlequin guidelines. Yes, I know this makes it sound like it was a zillion years ago, but it was 1999, and write away for guidelines is what you did then. (Okay, it was a zillion years ago...)

A quick perusal of the guidelines led me to some choices: did I want to write a Harlequin American Romance, Harlequin Intrigue, Harlequin Victorian, a Harlequin Medical Romance or one of many other choices? I decided to attempt a contemporary story with a moderate level of sexual morality. The characters would obviously have sex in the book, but not before they had made some kind of commitment. As research, I checked out a bunch of Harlequins from the library and took notes on structure, tone and euphemisms. I wrote out my required proposal and sent it off. A few months later Harlequin wrote me back and asked me to write some sample chapters. I happily sat down in my closet of an office and typed out the required pages. My book was about a sad but beautiful artist who moved to a small Island off the coast of BC and fell in love with a local man. Periodically, Rob would stick his head in my office and narrate corny sex scenes to me. He always began, “He looked across the room at her and felt his heart sing.” I would ignore him and add details about my heroine's long black hair and her moody paintings.

While waiting to hear back from Harlequin, Rob and I were invited to my cousin Louise's house for a Jewish holiday. Louise asked what I was up to, and before I had a chance to respond, Rob cheerfully told her I was writing Harlequins. I had never told him it was a secret, or that I wouldn't publish them under my own name. I blushed the same colour as the kosher wine. In my effort to shush Rob, I confused Louise who then thought I was spending my days READING Harlequins, not writing them. When I tried to explain, she patted my hand and said it was okay. "We all need a little smut in our lives sometime," she said. I was mortified. Her son was in law school and I was reading Harlequins? Luckily, I was also an intern at Toronto's NOW magazine and Rob was able to distract her with a small book review I had written.

A few months later, I received a polite rejection letter from Harlequin. It included some feedback on my proposal and chapters. Apparently, my male lead wasn't manly or dashing enough. He lacked the necessary swash buckling heroism. I tucked the rejection letter in a drawer and forgot about it. I was already applying to teachers college and journalism programs, which seemed a more secure form of employment. Months later when Rob asked about the book, I explained that Harlequin had found my male lead a little weak. "What did he do?" Rob asked. When I explained he was an organic farmer, Rob laughed so hard, he nearly missed my explanation that my farmer was also moody, sensitive and had a ponytail. This only made him laugh harder.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Orca Limelights

I just finished a first draft of a book for a new series my publisher Orca Books is starting called Orca Limelights. I’m excited about this performing arts series because I love reading about music, theater, and dance, and there are so few books being published today about kids performing.As a kid I loved all the Dancing Shoes books by Noel Streatfeild. Ballet Shoes was one of my favourite books ever, with Dancing Shoes coming in a close second. I loved these books as a child because I took dance lessons and enjoyed performing, but I also liked them for their portrayals of British children’s lives. Even if the kids were orphans or lived with uncles who disappeared leaving them in questionable financial situations, there was also a daily regularity to their lives that I found comforting. 

Noel Straetfieild
While I always assumed Noel Streatfeild was a man (and that he must have lived eons before I was born), a quick Google search has shown me that the author was actually Mary Noel Streatfeild, and that she was still alive when I was reading her books as a kid. Streatfeild was born in Sussex  in 1895 and lived until 1986. She worked in the in the theatre for ten years and used her experience in performing arts to write her books. Streatfeild also wrote many adult books, including three semi-autobiographical novels which I am keen to read.   

While my own book won’t be out until 2014, there are several books coming this fall from the series that sound really promising. Attitude by Robin Stevenson, author of Record Breaker and many other great YA titles, is about a girl trying to fit into a new ballet school. Cassie is an exchange student from Australia who is being bullied. When she realizes other summer visiting students are being threatened, she decides to speak out. Stevenson’s book sounds like it will resonate with a lot of teens. It also has the kind of cover I would have been all over as a pre-teen. 

Also out this fall is Cut the Lights by Karen Krossing. Cut the Lights is about a girl named Briar trying to direct a school play. Briar has a vision for the one-act play that her cast and crew don’t seem to share. I think anyone who has tried to direct a play, or who has struggled to work on a group project will relate well to this story. It also has a great cover.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Saigon Salad

Even though it doesn’t feel like summer here in Kingston, ON I am starting to think about summer meals. I’m looking forward to beet borscht and some spicy gazpacho with avocado. My family is not looking forward to these soups, and most likely I will eat them for lunch, when they’re not around. They do enjoy my version of Saigon Salad, so we’ll be eating that throughout the summer. Saigon Salad, from the excellent Rebar cookbook, is sure to please everyone because the ingredients are served in many small bowls and everyone assembles their own salad according to their level of pickiness. Like most Rebar recipes, this one takes quite a bit of prep time. I like to make it with my sister so we can chat as we chop veggies. Happy summer, and happy eating!

Saigon Salad
2 cups shredded lettuce
½ package rice noodles, ¼ inch wide
4 scallions, minced
½ cucumber
2 carrots, shredded
2 tomatoes, chopped
4 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs (cilantro, mint or basil)
2 Tbsp peanuts, roasted and chopped (optional)

1 package tofu, cut into cubes and fried in oil in and garlic (you could also use chicken)

1 cup hot water
4 Tbsp brown sugar
2 garlic cloves
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
1 tsp sambal oelek
4 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp soy sauce
6 Tbsp lime juice

-Dissolve sugar in hot water and let cool. Whisk in the rest of the dressing ingredients.
-Fry tofu or chicken in garlic. Set aside to cool.
-Boil rice noodles according to package directions. Rinse well and set aside to cool. I douse the noodles liberally with sesame oil for flavour and to prevent them from turning into a gluey mess.
-Chop veggies. (Keep chopping... )
- To assemble salad, place lettuce in the bottom of each bowl and then add noodles and other vegetables. Top with herbs, nuts, tofu and ladle on dressing to taste.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Creation of Lauren Yanofsky

Last month my third YA novel, Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust was published by Orca Books. Quite a few people have asked about the title, and just how I came to write a book about a Jewish teenager who hates the Holocaust. "Why does Lauren hate the Holocaust?" people ask me. I respond, "Please, does anyone like the Holocaust?"
I launched the book at Novel Idea, Kingston's amazing independent bookstore and before I read from the book, I gave a short talk about how I came to write the book. Below is an an excerpt from my talk that evening.
Good evening friends and thanks for coming.
Several of my members of my book club are here and I know many of them might find it amusing that I have written a book called Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust since I’ve been claiming to them for several years now that I don’t read books about the Holocaust. One would assume that I also don’t write books about the Holocaust, but that appears not to be true, something that also surprises myself. Perhaps I’ve captured some of that ambivalence in the title, because Lauren doesn’t just confront the Holocaust (a title my father suggested) or memorialize the Holocaust, the way Jewish and non-Jewish communities are doing all over the world this week because it is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, she hates it. She hates it because she believes it has overtaken her Jewish culture and her own Jewish identity. She hates the way it has co-opted what it means to be Jewish, the way mentioning your cultural identity brings up images of gas chambers and death trains.
For many years, I was like Lauren Yanofksy. I just hated the Holocaust. I didn’t want to talk or think about it. I was tired of books and movies and reverent glances of non Jews. Could we not focus on something other than the big H? Even terrorism and war and occupation of Israel/Palestine were couched in the language of the Holocaust. The Palestinians accused the Israelis of being Nazis and the Israeli government would bring up the memory of the Shoah, the Holocaust, at the drop of the hat to justify their actions.
Then, while teaching here in the Kingston area, one of my grade six students made a swastika armband during my French lesson. And it stopped me short. The student claimed to have learned about the Nazis from watching the History channel and claimed not to know about the atrocities they had committed. He seemed genuinely surprised when the principal explained why the armband was so offensive, especially to me. The student apologized, the armband was confiscated and the incident forgotten.
Except I didn’t forget about it. And I was surprised at how emotional my reaction to that armband was. It bothered me because it represented the death of so many people, and it bothered me that the student didn’t know about it, and mainly it bothered me that it bothered me. Even though I had tried to forget the Holocaust and not have it be part of my identity, it still was. And it would continue to be so. There was no avoiding it. Even when I read seemingly non Holocaust books, it would pop up mid way through. Or it would be on the news, or my twitter feed. I talked to my father who was still voraciously reading Holocaust books. He said the Holocaust was an opportunity for teaching tolerance. I sighed, and said, surely there’s another way, a more “Gandhian” way. What I really meant was not necessarily a more peaceful way, just one less personal to me.
The armband incident stuck with me for a long time, and so did my Holocaust ambivalence and discomfort. Then one morning I woke up with a title in my head, Lauren Yanofksy Hates the Holocaust. I knew Lauren would hate it because of the atrocities committed, but also because of the complicated legacy to Jewish culture and identity. I knew I was going to have to write the book to work out my uncertainties and ambivalence. And so I have.

Author Leanne Lieberman with her very excited and enthusiastic friend, Karen Zabel
Novel Idea Bookstore, Kingston ON April 2013

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How NOT To Write a Book

I’m in the midst of editing a book and it’s not going well. I also haven’t finished it, which is problematic. The first four chapters just rock right along, and then in the middle section none of the chapters (or are they short stories?)  really link up. Then there’s the unwritten third section. All this has made me quite qualified to write a book called How Not To Write A Book: A Guide To Failed Manuscripts and Other Literary Mishaps. I’ve noticed already that this is not a title I should ever choose because writing it even once is re-activating my tendinitis. (Which leads to a flare-up of TMJ, which is an acronym I always have difficulty unpacking, but it means my jaw really hurts.)
Anyhoo, here are ten possible chapters for HNTWB.
1)      Start in the middle and assume you’ll just figure out the beginning.
2)      Plan to write short stories and then decide to make them into chapters.
3)      Use every single idea you’ve ever had so that you have over eleven significant characters.
4)      Overload your main character with every possible life crises - abuse, miscarriage, early death of mother figure, sleazy husbands and of course, deep dark family secrets.
5)      Send your character to a foreign country to see how she makes out.
6)      Create plots that revolve around specific historical events that make later parts of the book completely implausible. For example, you want your heroine to be old enough to experience World War Two, but you also want her to have children in the eighties.
7)      Write half the chapters in the present tense and the other half in the past tense.
8)      Write half the chapters in the first person and mysteriously change to third person half way through the book. Neither is convincing so change the whole book to the very difficult second person. Spend a lot of time changing pronouns.
9)      Kill off characters early on in the book because they are inconvenient or hold up the plot. 
10)  Include long sections from your personal life or experience that you know have very little bearing on the story but are just too good to leave out. Spend A LOT of time perfecting these, even though you know they’ll get axed later.
How Not To Write A Book will also have a special section on procrastinating for writers: changing font size and paragraphing to look like you’ve done some writing, starting a blog (ahem), and re-reading other failed manuscripts to see if they can be revamped etc.
Wish me luck over the next year as I try to pull this book from its current mess into something amazing.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dear Teen Me

This week a letter I wrote is featured on the popular blog Dear Teen Me, a site where YA authors write letters to their former teen selves. It’s an inversion of the grade eight guidance exercise where you had to write a letter to your future self. Initially I thought these letters would be full of boring, wholesome platitudes like “be yourself” and “things come out okay in the end.” Instead the letters are intensely personal stories, mini memoirs, with lots of teenage blood and gore.
My first attempt to write my Dear Teen Me letter were full of boring platitudes (Just relax! Don’t stress!), but when I started digging deeper, I started remembering some intense high school memories. I had to stop and take a couple of deep breaths. I remembered things so
intensely personal and shameful that I couldn’t possibly imagine sharing them online. It also felt masochistic to relive some of those experiences, even for the purpose of educating or entertaining others.
I did manage to write a letter to myself that is deeply personal and a hard to read, but doesn’t make me look like a complete idiot. You can read it at In the mean time, here are some shorter memos to myself in the same teenage vein.

Dear Teen Me,
When you go to France, please don’t tell your host family you came to meet men. It doesn’t go over well and you have to move to another family. Yes, you’ll get a lot of mileage out of this story later, but at the time it’s devastating. So please, use a dictionary. You came to France to meet people, les gens, not les hommes.
Dear Teen Me,
When you have a party, don’t let the boys throw the beer bottles in your trash cans behind your house. Your father will come home, recycle them and make tame comments about the boys from the nearby school drinking in the lane. Then your mother will show up at your Hebrew school bottle drive with a station wagon full of beer bottles and also not say a word. Their total silence will
drive you bonkers.
Dear Teen Me,
Please don’t tell your sister to f-off in front of the rabbi during your bat mitzvah pictures. It makes your parents REALLY unhappy.
Dear Teen Me,
If you’re going to lie to your parents about where you’re going for the weekend (Sin Island), get your friends to cover for you. Otherwise they’ll know your parents are worrying about where you are and feel obliged to call and tell them. This isn’t good for anyone’s relationship.
Dear Teen Me,
If you’re going to fall off your sister’s bed and get gouged by the metal frame, please get stitches instead of “just using a band aid.” It’ll leave a smaller scar and you won’t have to wear shorts in February to accommodate the massive bandage on your leg.
Please feel free to share your own hopefully embarrassing Dear Teen Me moments.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Painted Girls by Cathy Buchanan

For my birthday I received a copy of Cathy Buchanan’s The Painted Girls, which has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for quite some time. I was excited to read the book not only because I had heard great things about it in the press, but because I also know Cathy. I met her through my friend Ania Szado, also a great writer with a new book out- Studio St. X. A number of years ago Cathy invited me to her home to meet author Brian Francis, author of Fruit and we’ve kept in touch loosely since I moved away from Toronto.          

So does Cathy’s book live up to the hype? You’d just have to ask my children how I ignored them for large swathes of the Easter weekend with my nose in her book to answer that question. Yes, Cathy’s book is really great. Set in the belle époque period of Paris in the 1880’s, it tells the story of two sisters living in the poverty stricken world of Montmatre. Like all good historical fiction, The Painted Girls takes you deep into the Paris demimonde with its meticulous research. The book is narrated by Marie and Antoinette Van Goethem. With their father dead and their mother addicted to absinthe, theses two young girls must find a way to support themselves. Marie becomes a dancer at the Paris Opéra and then a model for Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. Antoinette works as an extra in Emilie Zola’s play L’Assommoir. Cathy describes the girls’ attempts to survive in a world where poor women have little protection in a deeply moving and compelling way. I was swept up by The Painted Girls not only by the sisters’ rivalry and the period details, but also because it provided a female view into the time period. Instead of the erotic male gaze, the book gives voice to the underclass of women who served as their models and this was a welcome change to the experience of viewing Impressionist paintings. 
I’m looking forward more of Cathy’s books. In the mean time, I have CS Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris to keep me occupied with all things francais.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tolerance speaks!

I don't usually spontaneously blog, but I heard something on the radio that really moved me this week. Every day I leave my house in time to hear Jian Gomeshi announce the letter of the day on Q and then I listen to his feature interview. If I miss his show, the day just isn't right. Occasionally, I get to work and I have to stay in my car until the news comes on. Since my day isn't terribly media-rich, this is my daily dose. And so I find myself listening to interviews with Michael Bolton, but also Eve Ensler and my world is slightly widened.
Well, this week as I was cruising up Princess Street, Jian interviewed David Abitbol from Jewlicious and two women, Megan and Grace Phelps Roper, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church. I had never heard of the church before but they do things like picket synagogues and fill the Internet with anti-Semitic and gay-hating propaganda. David and Megan "met" on Twitter a few years ago and what started out as provocation from Megan, quickly turned into an honest discussion about what Judaism was. Megan had been taught to hate Jews, but since she's a curious and intelligent individual, she started to do a little research on what she was supposed to hate. A few years later, she and her sister Grace made the heavy decision to leave their church since they no longer could abide by the church's hate-filled ideas. What moved me most about the interview was not the tremendous story of two young women who can clearly think for themselves, but the tolerance David Abitbol showed them by not responding merely with disdain or disgust. Instead he took the time to respond to their inquiries with genuine patience. Tolerance speaks!
And that's the kind of Jew, and human being, I want to be-a tolerant one.

Orca Spring Titles

Not only does my excellent publisher Orca Books do a super job editing, designing and promoting my work, but I also find myself in an excellent “pod” of writers. This spring is no exception. One of my favourite upcoming titles is Allegra by Shelley Hrdlitschka. While attending a performing arts school, Allegra is forced to take a music theory class. Allegra is initially annoyed by the both the course and the instructor, but when the teacher assigns her a music theory project that is both challenging and engaging, Allegra starts to change her mind about both the project and the instructor.
One of the things I liked best about the book is how Hrdlitschka tackles Allegra’s anxiety. A growing issue among teens, I’m sure many readers will see themselves reflected in this novel.

Next up is Damage, by Robin Stevenson, from the Orca Soundings List, (short high-interest novels with contemporary themes). When the protagonist, Zach, leaves his annoying parents at a California hotel to travel with a beautiful girl named Ronnie who used to babysit him, he thinks he’s going on a Hollywood road trip. Ronnie may be beautiful but she’s got a crying toddler and an ex-boyfriend who is a cop looking for her. Zach finds himself in way over his head.
Stevenson’s novel is both well-written and a page-turner.

Also by Robin Stevenson is Record Breaker, a novel for 9-12 year olds. Set in 1963, twelve-year-old Jack’s family is reeling from the death of his baby sister. Jack tries to relieve his mother’s sadness by setting a new world record. When attempts at record setting by sausage eating or chair rocking don’t seem to help his mother, Jack sets out on a different path with the help of some friends.
Stevenson’s characters are memorable and the time period perfectly evoked.  Interesting male and female characters will make this book appeal to a wide variety of kids.
Happy reading everyone.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Re-emerging The Jews of Nigeria

It’s official, April is going to be a Lieberman Family Arts Double Header. Not only am I launching my novel Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust on April 11th at 7:30 pm at Novel Idea Bookstore here in Kingston, my brother’s film RE-EMERGING: The Jews of Nigeria, will play at The Screening Room on April 13th at 7:30 pm.
The film is about the little-known communities of Igbo people who are practicing Judaism throughout much of Africa's most populous nation, and who believe they are continuing the traditions of their ancestors.  Jeff travelled to Nigeria with a Conservative Maryland rabbi to meet several of these communities six years ago. I remember it well because he was in Nigeria when my first son was born.
I recently watched the film and was curious to see how he had presented the story after listening to descriptions of his work for the past several years. While I knew it was about Jewish Nigerians, I didn’t know it would also delve into the lives and culture of the Igbo people. I was fascinated by the different Igbo synagogues and the different characters in the film. Probably my favourite part was watching a congregation sing “Oh Sey Shalom.” If you’ve grown up in the Christian tradition, perhaps you’ve seen songs you know well sung by others from around the world, but for me this was the first time I had heard a song sung by others so far away. It was both familiar and also utterly different, and that held me captivated.
The film includes a wide range of American academics detailing the Igbo history, including shedding new light on the Igbo origins of thousands of slaves captured during the Atlantic Slave Trade and brought to American shores. The film also delves into this history and travels to the southeast coast of Georgia, where locals still speak of the Igbo spirit alive and well at a riverbed called Ibo Landing. Both Jeff and I were both recently in Georgia on St. Simon’s Island and I got to tour around some Igbo sites.
Although the film doesn’t delve directly into the “Who is a Jew” debate, it does raise some interesting questions. Who gets to be a Jew might seem a tame question, but it’s not. If you want to be a Christian, you can easily become one. For Jews, it’s a little different. Jews don’t proselytize and in order to be considered Jewish you either have to have Jewish parents, or go through a long and complicated conversion process. The question of who is a Jew becomes more interesting in light of Israel’s “right of return,” policy. According to Israeli immigration, anyone Jewish has the right to come to Israel and live as a citizen. However, the Orthodox Rabbinate has the power to declare some conversions not up to their standard. While North American Jews might not be moving to Israel in droves, for Africans, it might be appealing. If Jewish Nigerians  decide to move on masse to Israel, they have the potential to create an enormous refugee problem. Not so subtle racism also underlies the “Who is a Jew” debate.
Not only is Jeff coming to Kingston (and Toronto -April 17th and 18th) Jeff’s film has now screened at the Boston, Washington, DC, Phoenix and Vancouver Jewish Film Festivals, and the 92nd Street Y in New York.
Sound interesting? For film trailers, photos, bios, synopsis, screening info, reviews you can check

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Martha, Helen and Me

My co-worker Trish was eating something delicious looking at lunch the other day- red lentil cakes. An avid vegetarian, I’m always looking for something to stick in a bun that doesn’t come from a cow or other animal. I’ve made black bean burgers, tofu cutlets, tofu and beet burgers and my personal favourite: chickpea cutlets. Everyone in my house likes chick peas, so even my youngest (and fussiest child) will dig in. So I asked Trish just where she had gotten the recipe and she said Martha Stewart. We then had what I call, The Martha Stewart Conversation. You see, I’m not supposed to like her. She’s too omnipresent, too conventional, too perfect. People like me, we’re supposed to read Vegetarian Times, Bust and Adbusters, which I do. But I also have a soft spot for Martha. Her magazines are decorating-porn for me. When I read the Martha Stewart Living magazine, I too have an upper East-side apartment with a living room the size of the square footage of my entire house. I have a closet just for dinner napkins and a room for gift wrapping and flower arranging. Which I don’t really want, except for sometimes. Don’t tell anyone.
There’s another reason I have a soft spot for Martha. You see, I still have a stash of Martha Stewart Living magazines on my closet shelf at my cottage. I read them in the summer and I think of my mother-in-law, Helen. They were her magazines and it used to be her cottage, which she loved. And so when I sit in my darkened bedroom in the afternoon for a few minutes away from my kids and flip through a spread of vintage tea towels or porcelain milk pitchers shaped like birds, I like to imagine Helen is still out on the front porch. She’s watering her geraniums or digging in her garden, and I imagine any minute she’ll come to me with some vegetarian recipe she found in the magazine and ask me if she should try it out.
Here’s the recipe for Lentil Cakes. I’m not sure Helen would have liked them, but she would have tried them with great open-minded gusto, just like she approached everything else in life. 


  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 3 scallions, pale-green and white parts chopped; greens thinly sliced on bias
  • 1 tablespoon harissa (or chile garlic paste or other spice)
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • Coarse salt
  • 1 large egg plus 1 large egg white
  • 2 1/2 ounces goat's-milk or sheep's-milk feta cheese, crumbled (1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon finely grated garlic (from 1 small clove)
  • 1/2 English cucumber, cut into half-moons (1 cup)
  • 1/2 ounce upland cress or watercress (1 cup)
  • 1/4 ounce fresh mint leaves (1/2 cup)
  • 2 teaspoons safflower oil


1.       Cover lentils with 2 inches cold water. Soak 4 hours at room temperature or up to 1 day in refrigerator. Drain well. Pulse pale-green and white parts of scallions in a food processor until minced. Add harissa, turmeric, baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and egg and egg white; pulse to combine. Add lentils; puree until almost smooth. Transfer mixture to a bowl, and stir in a little more than half the feta.
2.       Whisk remaining feta, the yogurt, lemon juice, and garlic in a small bowl. Combine cucumber, cress, and mint in another bowl. (I gotta tell you, I never got to the greens part, and it was still delicious.)
3.       Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Place a scant tablespoon of scallion greens in pan, and spoon about an eighth of the batter on top, spreading to make a 3-inch cake. Repeat, making 4 cakes at a time. Cook until golden brown, flipping once, about 6 minutes. Add remaining teaspoon oil, and repeat.
4.         Divide sauce among 4 plates; top with salad. Place cakes next to greens,

Monday, February 18, 2013

Last week I was tagged by the talented Sarah Aronson, author of Beyond Lucky, in The Next Big Thing. So now it's my turn to answer some author questions. Here we go!

1) What is the working title of your next book?
Lauren Yanofsky Hates the Holocaust
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
A couple of years ago a student made a Nazi armband during my French class. It got me thinking about my feelings about the Holocaust.  
3) What genre does your book fall under?
Contemporary YA
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Logan Lerman (Perks of Being a Wallflower) would play the hunky basketball player and love interest of Lauren Yanofsky. Lauren would be played by Alexis Bledel, but there’d be a time warp and Alexis would be sixteen again.
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Lauren is sick of hearing about the Holocaust but must make some tough choices when boys from her school start playing Nazi war games.
6) Who is publishing your book?
Orca Books
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
A year.
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
There are a lot of books for teens written about the Holocaust, but none that I know of about contemporary teens grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust. I'd love to hear of other books.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My father’s interest in World War Two has led me to think a lot about the Holocaust and the after effects it has had on the Jewish religion and culture.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
Not only does this book address some serious issues, there’s also some basketball and even some kissing.