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A Peek Into the Jewish Book Council’s Luscious New Literary Journal

‘Paper Brigade’ is named after the group of Jewish writers from the Vilna Ghetto who secretly rescued thousands of Jewish books from the Nazis

Marjorie Ingall
December 16, 2016

Paper Brigade is a new annual literary journal published by the Jewish Book Council. The cover, depicting a Marla-Frazee-like assemblage of readers captivated by their books, is an indication of what’s within: An older woman in pearls sips tea and reads The Puttermesser Papers as her dog naps at her feet; a dark-skinned, knee-socks-sporting young girl with a yellow book bag at her side is hunched on stone steps, utterly absorbed in All-of-a-Kind Family; a balding prepster/hipster in gray jeans and deck shoes, curved in on himself in a classic bentwood chair, pores over The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; a bearded gentleman in a wool tartan cap crosses his legs in a silver bistro chair as he reads Night. Many kinds of readers, and many kinds of books, are depicted (by designer Katherine Messenger) in an approachable and unpretentious way.

The magazine is named after the group of Jewish writers in the Vilna Ghetto who secretly rescued and hid thousands of Jewish books that the Nazis were planning to destroy. The original Paper Brigade saved work by Maxim Gorky, Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Nachman Bialik, and Theodore Herzl. They salvaged a manuscript by the Vilna Gaon. They stashed away original drawings by Marc Chagall. Ultimately, most of the 40 members were murdered by the Nazis. But their work lives on.

Neil Gaiman tells the story of his cousin Helen, who hid a purloined book behind a loose brick in the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto – where books were illegal — and told stories from it to fellow residents. “And just for that hour, these girls got out of the Warsaw Ghetto,” he said. “This made me realize that [literature] is not just escapism; it can actually be escape. And it’s worth dying for.”

Despite the journal’s name, the inaugural issue isn’t all somber. You’ll find excerpts from books by Abigail Pogrebin, Ruth Gilligan, Sana Krasikov, and Jerome Charyn; a discussion with non-Jewish all-stars of middle-grade Jewish literature Lois Lowry, Makus Zusak and Laura Amy Schlitz; an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer by Josh Lambert of the National Yiddish Book Center; Etgar Keret and Ann Goldstein engaged in conversation about the art of translation. There’s a look at the history of Jewish cookbooks and Shulem Deen’s musings about how not to write a memoir. There are three contemporary poems by Esther Schor, and three older poems by original Paper Brigade resistance member Abraham Sutzkever.

Visually, the publication is luscious: There’s a selection of Marisa Scheinfeld’s photos of the colorful, decaying relics of the Borscht Belt, contrasted with contemporary, lively, joyful midcentury black-and-white photos of young Jews in the Holy Land. There are delightful sketches of Jewish Book Council authors by Christopher Noxon, a border of snazzy stamps from around the world depicting famous Jews, a smattering of vintage sporty Jews on bubble-gum trading cards.

“We were aiming for a magazine that was thoughtful, that could be read by a literary audience, but was also engaging and fun, which is where the visual piece comes in,” said Becca Kantor, the publication’s managing editor. “All the little questions and sidebars—it’s not a slog.”

The JBC had published the quarterly Jewish Book World for many years, but as more reviews and interviews were published online, JBC staff wondered what the best use of print might be. “What would a keepsake, an annual, something worth preserving in print, something you can’t get immediately online?” Kantor asked rhetorically. “We can do more deep reflection on current literature.”

For now, you can order Paper Brigade on the JBC’s website; look for the publication in bookstores bimheirah b’yameinu, speedily in our days.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.