On a recent summer Monday, a group of hip young people gathered in a darkened bar to hear four writers read on the topic of “Missed Connections.” Though this particular evening happened to be the mini-holiday of Tu b’Av — what has been dubbed the Jewish Valentine’s Day — and the reading happened to be in Crown Heights on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the riots, the event’s organizer insists that the topic had nothing to do with the calendar date.
Each month for the last two-plus years, regulars and newcomers alike descend on the Franklin Park Bar and Beer Garden on St John’s Place for the Franklin Park Reading Series. It is the brainchild Penina Roth, an employee of Chabad’s website and a self-proclaimed “groupie” of the literary set. She chooses the theme, handpicks each of the night’s readers and scopes out her talent by frequenting other book events; Roth reaches writers, some of whom are quite well known, through contacts in the publishing world. Featured Jewish authors have included Darin Strauss, Dani Shapiro and Justin Taylor. In what L Magazine has named the best prose reading series in Brooklyn, admission is free, drinks are cheap and readers get 10 minutes. Books are for sale by Unnameable Books, a Prospect Heights independent bookstore.
The daughter of an army chaplain, Roth moved often as a child, and was raised Modern Orthodox. She became involved with Chabad as a young adult and currently lives with her family in an apartment (with an overflowing bookshelf) off of bustling Kingston Avenue in somewhat of a Lubavitch bubble; nearly all of the surrounding businesses are owned by and cater to members of the community. Just a few blocks away the tenor changes, becoming Jamaican: chayote, yucca and goat meat are for sale.
All the same, Roth must tread carefully in the secular world of her series. While she encourages patrons to buy drinks throughout the evening, Roth sticks with water or grapefruit juice at the bar, adhering to a strictly kosher diet; navigating Orthodox Judaism’s laws of modesty and gender with the writers requires tact.
Roth has made it her business to regularly step outside her world, shopping for clothes in West Indian-owned stores nearby and making her series as diverse as possible. She selects writers from varied backgrounds and favors books that “that take narrative risks”; her lineup often mixes experimental and mainstream writers.
Nick Juravitch is a loyal attendee who runs a local blog and is a doctoral student at Columbia. “As a new arrival myself, the series has given me an opportunity to hear the voices of writers from the Chabad-Lubavitch and Caribbean communities that have characterized Crown Heights for generations.”
Housed in a former mechanics garage, the bar features indoor and outdoor space and connects internally to a hamburger shop. Matt Roff, owner of Park Slope’s Southpaw, and Anatoly Dubinsky of Prospect Heights’ Soda, (both members of the tribe) built the bar in the spring of 2008; the series began in December of that year. Franklin Park’s unique location makes it a Petri dish for the changes taking place in what was once a much less desirable neighborhood. As the community marks 20 years since the Crown Heights riots, the scene at Franklin Park shows just how far this neighborhood has come. On that Monday night, men and women of all ethnicities — including a handful of visibly ultra-Orthodox men — mostly in their 20s and 30s, drank and mingled under the stars until the wee hours of the morning.
The evening’s headliner was Joshua Cohen, author of six books, and a former contributor to the Forward and Tablet. Much of Cohen’s writing is infused with Jewish history and knowledge of Israel; Cohen himself maintains a digital Geniza of his fiction. “Witz,” Cohen’s most recent novel, uses wordplay and experimental syntax to detail the decimation of the Jews (here the “Affiliated”) save for one reluctant man, Benjamin Israelien, who becomes an unwilling celebrity. In this darkly comic novel, whose title is the German word for joke, Judaism itself is never named, though it is everywhere in the book’s” references.
Cohen’s selection for the evening was from “A Heaven of Others,” his recently released book in which a Jewish boy is killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem and finds himself lost in the Muslim heaven. Cohen read from a meandering section called “Shoes,” which he described in his introduction as “written like a shoelace.”
A series regular is hard to define; Roth counts people of all backgrounds among those who come monthly; attendees are sometimes writers themselves. Matthue Roth (no relation to Penina), is an author who has read at the series. As he noted of his experience in an e-mail, “You aren’t just a writer reading to other writers. There are folks who live around the corner, and chasidim on dates, and folks who just want to grab a beer. And Penina gets insanely good readers — sometimes famous, but always brilliant. It’s crazy that I can say Ma’ariv at 770 [Lubavitch headquarters], walk a few blocks, and then listen to Colson Whitehead read from his new zombie novel.”