The Binky Conspiracy: True Tales of Mommydom, by Ilana Long (Amazon, paper, $6.99). A collection of funny and entertaining essays about child rearing by a formerly sleep-deprived mom of twins. Long, a middle school teacher, relates stories of life with two babies and later adventures, including a year spent living in Mexico. Stories are embellished by cartoons by the author.
Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right, by Benjamin Balint (Public Affairs, paper). The author grew up in Seattle and now lives in Israel. A fellow at the Hudson Institute, he has written this “biography” of Commentary magazine, a publication intimately linked with contemporary Jewish-American history. Balint’s expert recounting of goings on at the magazine is both a tad gossipy — with dissections of personality and editorial conflicts — and historically informative, as what happens to the magazine is unavoidably tied up with sea changes in the Jewish social, literary and political world.
A House Divided: A Novel, by Noah S. Friedland (self, paper, $14.99). This dramatic adventure novel brings Israeli-American professor Jonathan Geller, self-exiled to the United States for 12 years, back to Israel in the wake of his brother Danny’s death during an IDF training exercise gone unusually wrong. After being passed a note by a mysterious stranger, Jonathan sets out to solve the mystery, falling quickly into a world of subterfuge, drug dealing and political infighting in the Israel Armed Forces. This first novel can be quite absorbing, but sometimes suffers from the kind of awkward writing that often stems from inexperience. Friedland, a local technology consultant who has worked in the private, public and academic sectors, should keep writing, though. (As I always advise self-published authors, he should consider hiring both a copy editor and developmental editor.)
In Praise of Strong Women: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir, by David Kirkpatrick (Granville Island, paper, $24.95). Kirkpatrick, a Vancouver, B.C.-based psychiatrist, starts with the strongest woman he knew, his late wife Betsy, who died of cancer in 1991. He then connects the dots back in time to other strong, and not-so-strong, women in his life to create a combination of memoir, biography, an examination of what makes women (and men) strong, with a bit of psychoanalysis thrown in. Kirkpatrick is a convert to Judaism, but that journey is not part of this book.
Exoneration: The Rosenberg-Sobell Case in the 21st Century by Emily and David Alman (Green Elms, paper, $24.95). This important new book will be available in June from a local publisher. The authors knew the Rosenbergs before they were put on trial and executed, and attempted to help them and their children during that black time in recent American history. They provide a detailed historical social setting for the trial — including anti-Semitic attitudes of the judge — and draw on testimony only recently released to the public. Exoneration proves that misconduct on the part of the federal prosecutors, judge, and others created an illegal trial that invalidates the justifications given for the execution.
Specific Jewish Interest
How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences, by Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe (Brandeis, paper, $24.95), and Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity, by Leonard Saxe and Barry Chazan (Brandeis, paper, $24.95). The Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture and Life is keeping Saxe and other academics busy publishing studies that show the benefits of group Jewish activities for our young people. Although these are academic works complete with charts and tables, there are enough anecdotes for the casual reader to glean some entertainment. In the camping book, the authors relate that one survey of counselors’ Jewish identity was probably skewed when the camp distributed the survey after camp started, as opposed to before. When asked about future career options, one counselor replied, “after this experience, nothing related to children.” (Kids—behave!)
But for parents looking to justify the time and expense of camp, and possible anxiety of sending their children to Israel, there’s plenty of fodder here. Because the Birthright book is devoted to one specific program, there is much more here in terms of history and organizational explanations. Probably the chart most interested parents and Jewish communal workers want to see is the one on page 142 which shows that one, two and three years post-Birthright, participants reported much higher levels of various types of Jewish identity than their non-Birthright peers (although numbers go down over the years, so clearly some kind of maintenance is required).
Capitalism and the Jews, by Jerry Z. Muller (Princeton, cloth, $24.95). This small, academic, but highly readable book goes where many of us are afraid to venture — into an exploration of Jews’ historical relationship with money. This topic of speculation, humor and vituperation is often left to the handling of anti-Semites, but the reality is that Jews have been very successful in capitalist societies and that has been tied to their fate around the world. One of the most interesting chapters is in the middle of the book, where Muller explores the opposite: Why were so many Jews drawn to embrace Communism, the most extreme antithesis of capitalism?
Soldiers’ Testimonies and Women Soldiers’ Testimonies (Breaking the Silence, paper, download at www.shovrimshtika.org) These booklets are from a series produced by the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence. There is disturbing stuff in here, as I think you would find in the testimonies of active duty soldiers of any nationality serving in a war zone. Some may find it objectionable and, indeed, the organization has been severely taken to task for this exposure of weakness in the IDF. Its director, Dana Golan, however, feels the testimonies reflect an additional “moral deterioration of the commanders and soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces,” and an Israeli society that “prefers not to look in the mirror.” These testimonies provide a dramatic non-fiction accompaniment to A House Divided, reviewed in the “local interest” section.
Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, by Maxim Shrayer (Syracuse, cloth, $24.95). This is a collection of wonderfully written, bittersweet stories. Whether set in the U.S., Europe or Shrayer’s native Russia, he examines the internal and external conflicts faced by Russian immigrants and their grown first-generation children. The author is a professor of Russian and English and chair of the Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages at Boston College and is a previous National Jewish Book Award winner.
Jewish as a Second Language: How to Worry, How to Interrupt, How to Say the Opposite of What You Mean, by Molly Katz (Workman, paper, $8.95). The second edition of this book, which the author/comedian wrote to educate her non-Jewish husband in the cultural norms of her family (apparently when his mother-in-law said she would take a taxi to a doctor’s appointment, he merely replied, “okay,” after which she stopped talking to him). Some of it is still funny, but some of the humor — mostly the typical East Coast variety — is a little strained, especially for those of us on the West Coast who tend to hike, go to the gym, and politely hold our tongues when the waiter gets our order wrong.
Life, Love, Lox: Real World Advice for the Modern Jewish Girl, by Carin Davis (Running, paper, $13.95). An entertaining look at life as a single, observant Jewish woman from the singles columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Davis teaches young hipsters how to mix their Jewish roots into their modern lives. “After lighting the menorah, place it in the window. This lets Santa know you’re a flyover house. [It also]…lets everyone know you’re celebrating Hanukkah. And by everyone I mean the handsome lawyer in 3B.”