Novelist Dani Shapiro examines her own life in her second memoir, Devotion (Harper, cloth, $24.99), her quest for religious and spiritual meaning in particular. Raised Orthodox, the product of a religious father and an anti-religious mother, we learn early on that the author has chosen a life free of religion, but remains haunted by spiritual and existential questions.
The book opens with a memory of her father putting on tefillin. She returns to this image and other memories of her father as she weaves together vignettes that go back and forth in time. She has left Judaism so far behind that at age 5 her son is disappointed to learn he isn’t even “a little bit Christian.” Moving to semi-rural Connecticut from New York only fuels her religious isolation.
Shapiro is a devotee of yoga and her practice, and things she learns from her teachers, are an important part of the book. Shapiro doesn’t mind sharing with us her confusion and her doubt as she relates her experiences with her son’s near-fatal illness in infancy, goes to yoga retreats seeking solace, seeks instruction form rabbis of various denomination, and visits her Orthodox relatives who seem safe and secure in their lives and observance even as she deals with her difficult mother.
Toward the end of the book one of her “smartest friends” asks if she’s concluded that God exists.
“There’s nothing trickier than trying to talk about personal belief,” says Shapiro. “I believe in God more than I did a couple of years ago. But not the God of my childhood. Not a God who keeps score, and decides whether or not to inscribe me — or anybody else — in the Book of Life.
“I believe there is something connecting us…that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.”
And, much to the author’s surprise, her friend does not ridicule her.
Katherine Rosner’s If You Knew Suzy (Harper, cloth, $25.99) opens with her mother’s death after years of metastasizing cancer. In response, Rosner and her sister grab Suzy’s credit card and head off for a shopping spree. It’s what she would have wanted them to do.
It sounds macabre, but it’s a humorous way to start this intriguing, moving portrait of a strong and unusual woman who happens to have been the author’s mother.
Rosner didn’t want to remember her mother just as someone who died of cancer, though the illness consumed their lives for years. Realizing her mother had friends and interests she hadn’t shared with her kids, Rosner—a Wall Street Journal reporter—sets out to use her investigative skills to document her mother’s life.
The result is a biography of a consummate individualist, a Pilates teacher years ahead of the trend, an athletic, stylish and very generous woman who could also be a crabby and demanding woman, even until the moment of her death.
“I was desperate,” says the author, “to reconnect with my healthy, vivacious, free-spirited, moody, pain-in-the-ass, nurturing, imperfect, perfect mother.”
In the process, she adds, “I hadn’t considered that…I might heal myself.”
The 12th-century medieval Andalusian poet Yehuda Halevi wouldn’t have dreamed of writing a personal history like Shapiro’s and Rosner’s. He likely couldn’t have imagined reading such a thing. His poetry and philosophical discourse are what he left us, and even when expressing love we don’t know the object of his affections. (In the custom of his times it was definitely not his wife!)
Therefore, it is left to his most recent biographer, Hillel Halkin, in this new release from Nextbook (Schocken, cloth, $25), to parse the details of Halevi’s life from his poems, letters, and his philosophical-religious treatise, The Kuzari, an imagined dialogue between an unnamed rabbi and the king of the Khazars, the 7th-century central Asian tribe that converted to Judaism.
Both Halevi’s beginnings and details of his death are shrouded in mystery, although one poem alludes to his Castillian (northern Spanish) origin. He bursts on the scene as a young man trying to impress the Granadan poet Moshe ibn Ezra, the leading poet of his time, and soon supplants his teacher. (He was also a rabbi and a physician.)
We will also never know why, as an elderly man, he chooses to abandon a comfortable life and travel to Israel in a time when Crusader rule made the area dangerous to both Jews and Muslims. Halkin traces the journey as far as Egypt, but no definitive record of the poet’s death has been found.
Halkin’s book is popular and scholarly, extensively researched, and with an accessible writing style that nonetheless requires focus. What really shines are Halkin’s translations of Halevi’s poems. He even manages to capture rhyme and other poetic conventions of the time, a true challenge when translating Hebrew into English using medieval Arabic conventions.
Halevi writes about love and drinking, about his great faith, and sometimes about losing faith. Rabbi Niles Goldstein writes about acting out our faith in Gonzo Judaism (St. Martins, cloth, $22.95). Borrowing from Hunter S. Thompson’s idea of gonzo journalism, Goldstein challenges us to shake things up at our synagogues, make worship more personal, dynamic and exciting, add more singing, more dancing and different types of studying, lest we lose Jews under 30 with our staid practices.
Goldstein certainly gives those of us concerned with Jewish attrition (which may worst in this part of the country) something to think about. And where are the gonzo Jews locally? Only Kol HaNeshemah in West Seattle gets Goldstein’s nod.