The words “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” automatically brings a certain tune and song to the minds of almost all readers. Whether or not you were alive when this Allan Sherman song became a hit, most Americans know it or have heard it parodied — though it was already a parody of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” Part of Sherman’s brilliance was pairing his decidedly mediocre voice with beautiful orchestral arrangements and backup singing.
Mark Cohen’s Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman (Brandeis, cloth, $29.95) brings the life of expert song parodist and comedian Allan Sherman vividly to life, and in great detail. Sherman was a poster boy for the truism that the foundation of successful comedy is tragedy. A neglected child, he was passed from relative to relative. It was during the short, but relatively stable time in the care of his grandparents that he learned about Jewish culture, but it was enough to be able to accurately skewer Jewish Americans of that time.
Sherman carried his childhood angst into adulthood of excesses of food, work and booze. Fully integrated into the ’60s popular culture, his story reads like an episode of television’s “Mad Men.” Even when his income couldn’t justify it, whether he was writing Broadway shows in New York or television shows in Los Angeles, he insisted on living larger than life, albeit for too short a time.
Whether readers are interested only in Sherman, or in the history of that era, this book is interesting on many levels. This Sherman fan’s only complaint is that two of his later and most brilliant songs are given short shrift, probably because they never achieved the popularity of “Letter from Camp” referenced above. Those would be “You Went the Wrong Way Old King Louis” (“We’re gonna take you and the queen/down to the guillotine/and shorten you a little bit”) and “Good Advice” (“good advice costs nothing and it’s worth the price”).
Set in 1960s Kansas City, the fictional coming-of-age story, Saving Dr. Block (independent, paper, $14.95), dovetails nicely with Sherman’s biography, illustrating the racism and anti-Semitism common to that time through the eyes of 12-year-old Howard Block. In addition to preparing for his Bar Mitzvah (which includes memorizing a speech the rabbi has written for him!), Howard has decided to help save his father from a fraudulent medical malpractice suit.
Modeling themselves after their newest pop culture hero James Bond, Howard and his two best friends save the day and, yes, get the girl, with some entertaining and touching results.
While there are clearly fictional elements, the reader will assume that some of the author’s vivid scenes are drawn from his own childhood. A physician who served as literary editor of the Harvard Lampoon as an undergrad, L.M. Vincent has published fiction, non-fiction and plays, and divides his time between Boston and Seattle.
Turning to Germany, Yascha Mounk, now a Ph.D. candidate in political thought at Harvard, tells us how even a 30-something growing up Jewish in Germany couldn’t escape that country’s long and complicated history and relationship with Jews. In Stranger in My Own Country (FSG, cloth, $26), Mounk recounts his family’s fascinating story in that country, putting it together with history and politics so it becomes much more than a memoir.
“I never thought to question why my family might be so small,” says Mounk of his childhood. His grandparents, Polish Holocaust survivors, turned to the Communist movement as young adults, as did many of their peers. While it saved them from Hitler — Mounk’s grandfather worked in a munitions factory in Siberia during the war — postwar Polish anti-Semitism drove them from their home country and circumstances found them in Germany.
“Since having Jewish ancestors marked me out as alien, or even inferior, I was all the more determined to call myself a Jew,” he writes. Perhaps one key to honing Jewish identity is a good dose of alienation.
On a similar note, the poetically written novel My Mother’s Secret (Putnam, cloth, $19.95), by J.L. Witterick, is a fictionalized account on the story of righteous gentiles Franciszka Halamajowa — the mother of the title — and her daughter Helena. Residents of Sokal, a small Polish town, the Halamajowas managed to safely hide two Jewish families and a pacifist German soldier in their tiny house. With a focus on all the mothers involved, the author tells the story in a brief but touching fashion.
Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss (Norton, cloth, $24.95). What makes this Holocaust memoir different than others is that the author’s diary survived the Shoah. A quick thinking 15-year-old, she lied about her age when she and her mother were deported from Terezìn to Auschwitz. She survived Auschwitz, the labor camp at Flossburg, and a forced march to Mauthausen, and was one of only 100 children alive after the war of the 15,000 sent originally from Terezìn to Auschwitz. She gave her diary — some stapled-together paper — to an uncle working in the offices at Terezìn and was able to reclaim and complete it after the war. The book includes reproductions of some of her illustrations she made at that time.
The Boxer’s Story by Nathan Shapow (Biteback, cloth, 24.95). Shapow was a professional boxer, and a champion of his sport in Riga, Latvia, when the Nazi invasion ended his career. He experienced a different kind of fight in the ghetto and the work camps. Miraculously, he survived and went to Palestine to help form the Jewish State and now lives in the U.S. It’s an exciting story told with the help of journalist Bob Harris.
Savage Coast, by Muriel Rukeyser (The Feminist Press, paper, $16.95). In her long literary career, Rukeyser was much better known as a poet and a political activist, but she started working as a journalist at age 21 and at 23 she found herself in Barcelona during the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. She was already a published poet in the U.S., but her editor severely rejected her novel and she never wrote fiction again. As a novel, brought to us here only slightly edited and posthumously, “Savage Coast” doesn’t work that well, although the language has some beautiful, poetic components. It rates high, however, in witnessing history as Rukeyser’s protagonist, the young journalist Helen, describes the war from the perspective of someone on the ground and also captures some social norms of that time that now seem quaint. The introductory essay by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein will enhance the reader’s appreciation of the work.
The Canvas, by Benjamin Stein (Open Letter, paper, $16.95). This wonderfully intriguing double novel is two books in one, beginning at either end of the volume and coming together in the middle. Is it possible to lose your memory so completely that you don’t recall your own heinous deeds of the past? Jan Weschler, an observant Jew living in Munich, receives a mysterious delivery one Shabbat that causes his life to unravel. On the other side is Amnon Zichroni, a young man from ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim, who is sent away to school when his parents catch him reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Whether you read each section separately, or go back and forth between stories, you’ll be on the edge of your seat wondering when and how the two men’s stories will intersect.
The Geneva Option, by Adam Lebor (Bourbon Street, paper, $14.99). This is a pretty traditional spy thriller, put together with a high level of political knowledge from a political journalist and author with numerous non-fiction books to his credit. In what promises to be the first in a series featuring Israeli UN employee Yael Azoulay, we meet this special operative who has to unravel some secret and ugly UN dealings in Africa in order to get her job back.
Now They Tell Me: 50 Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in School, by Ed Harris (Fifty Tales, paper, $12). JTNews columnist Ed Harris, a former technology entrepreneur, has been busy cranking out fiction and non-fiction these past few years, and as you read this review his newest book is probably available for purchase. In “Now They Tell Me,” Ed shares short chapters on lessons gleaned from life, and, as the title implies, not what he learned in school. Truisms are often not true, he’s discovered, while falsisms (yes, it’s a word!) might be. Whether you agree with him or not, Ed is always entertaining.
The Rabbi and the Nuns, by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD (Mekor, cloth, $19.99). A descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, and an Orthodox rabbi and a psychiatrist, Rabbi Twerski has written over 60 books, many of them on the subject of addiction and self-help. Here he turns to stories from his own life, focusing entertainingly on his 20 years as director of the department of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Pittsburgh. A man who walks between many worlds, Twerski brings an interesting and bemused world view to all that he does.
Standing Up: Memoir of a Funny (Not Always) Life, by Marion Grodin (Center Street, cloth, $23). Based on a little YouTube sampling, Marion Grodin is quite funny on stage, but while there are funny stories in this memoir, she also shares many of her life’s bleakest moments: Her drug and alcohol addictions, her failed marriage, her mother’s death, and her breast cancer diagnosis. A fast and absorbing read, we learn that the stabilizing force and supporting foundation in her life has been her father, actor Charles Grodin.
Survival Lessons, by Alice Hoffman (Algonquin, cloth, $13.95). This little book is a treasure of wisdom that this author of 23 adult and young adult novels gleaned from cancer treatment, and an appreciation of all the survivors she has known. She helps us see that “our lives are made up of equal parts of sorrow and joy, and it is impossible to have one without the other.”
Passover Parodies: Short Plays for the Seder Table, by Shoshana Hantman (Sidney Books, paper, $15). Only two more months till Passover, folks, but that should be enough time to get this book and start learning your parts for the play you and your family or friends are going to perform at your seder! Here you’ll find amusing riffs on Pesach themes in the styles of Shakespeare, Harry Potter, “The Lambshank Redemption,” Broadway musical and many more. (Try, “something that’s bloody/something that’s muddy/something for everyone/a plague for every night” to “Comedy Tonight.)
Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, by Gil Troy (Oxford, cloth, $29.95). On Nov. 10, 1975, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, declaring Zionism a form of racism. Afterward, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made a famous speech” “The United States rises to declare…it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.” Presidential historian Gil Troy examines this historic moment in great depth, calling it the start of a more confrontational, national-interest-driven foreign policy and a moment that marked a rise of neo-conservatism in American politics. Moynihan lost his job, but gained a U.S. Senate seat while American Jews responded enthusiastically in support of Israel.
Twenty-five years ago, the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee recognized children’s author/artist Patricia Polacco for her book The Keeping Quilt, a loving tribute to her family’s past. I was one of those who voted to honor her for showing family continuity through the years, handed down in the form of a warm and comforting quilt. Now you can read not only the 25th anniversary edition of this story, updated to show how the quilt continues to be treasured, but also Polacco’s new and related book, The Blessing Cup (Simon and Shuster ).
When her ancestors fled Tsarist Russia, they gave their special china tea service in gratitude to the kindly doctor who had come to their aid and made it possible for them to escape. They kept just a single “blessing cup” so they could continue the ritual of sharing blessings and sips from it on every family occasion. In her turn, Polacco received the cup from her mother when she married. Truly blessed, even the 1989 California earthquake would not destroy this symbol of family, tradition and love.
A great story to read aloud when the family gathers, as are books by the following author.
All by herself, Rabbi Sandy Sasso is a lesson in theology, ethics, values, midrash, tradition and morality — her 2013 picture book Creation’s First Light (IBJ Publishing), and some of her other works, are greatly enhanced by the contribution of Joani Rothenberg’s glowing and moving paintings. In this thoughtful book, pictures and words take the light of that first day and evolve it beautifully, relating the creation of the world to the creation of our inner selves, of hope and dreams, of the soul and of love.
Open discussion, often Sasso’s prescription for spiritual growth and harmony, is the central theme in The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other (Jewish Lights) also illustrated by Rothenberg, which won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Best Illustrated Children’s Book. However, a pre-schooler doesn’t have to be Jewish to be captivated by the imaginative solution that emerges when opposing factions, fighting over how to affix mezuzot, actually pay heed to the first word of the Shema, and listen.
Ilan Stavans, recent scholar in residence at Temple Beth Am, understands differences well. Along with many respected works for adults, Stavans has written Golemito (NewSouth Books), a unique illustrated book, slim and bright. It might initially appear to be for younger readers but, in its language and message, is definitely for 5th grade and up. A specialist in Latin American and Latino culture and professor at Amherst College, Stavans has produced here a blend of Jewish tradition with a love of Aztec poetry and mythology, as two boys create a miniature golem in response to bullying at their Jewish school. Simple and bold illustrations by Teresa Villegas, artist and graphic designer, underscore the message of courage and determination Sammy finds in the Aztec Warrior Song by Nezahualcoyotl — “I shall never disappear” — a message of inner strength from both his Jewish and Latino traditions.
A second new book about blending cultures and honoring differences is Heidi Smith Hyde’s picture book Elan, Son of Two Peoples (Kar-Ben), illustrated by Mikela Prevost, and aimed at 5-9 year olds. Elan is son of a Jewish father and Native American mother, now Jewish. On the occasion of his becoming a Bar Mitzvah, his age has also made him eligible for the Pueblo manhood ceremony, part of his mother’s family’s tradition.
“Always remember you are the son of two proud nations” his parents tell him. That’s why after celebrating his Bar Mitzvah in San Francisco, the family travels to New Mexico. There, on the following Shabbat morning, he chants his Torah portion to his Indian family before going that night with his father and the tribal elders to the kiva (ceremonial room) for the ritual exclusively performed by men.
The story was inspired by a historical figure, Solomon Bibo, who married the granddaughter of an Acoma Pueblo chief and raised their children as Jews. He lies buried with his wife in a Jewish cemetery in California.
Human creativity takes many forms, whether pursuing new solutions to old problems, adapting traditions to link families through the years, or finding ways to express personal talents and share them with others. Kar-Ben has a couple of new books, both for 4-8 year olds, based on what I would describe as beneficial outbreaks of personal creative expression. The first, Ziggy’s Big Idea, is by Ilana Long, an author, stand-up comic, improv actress and English teacher. She’s “seriously funny,” according to her publisher. Illustrator Rasa Joni provides bright and tasty pictures.
Little Ziggy is an inventor at heart, a problem solver by nature. Not all his ideas are good, but when Moishe the baker mentions that his innovative boiled and baked buns are soggy in the center, Ziggy has a brainstorm that changes the world as we know it. Of course, we don’t know for sure whether Ziggy invented the bagel, but does it matter? Just pass the lox and cream cheese, please.
Our last book proves that creativity has no “use-by” date. Its Brooklyn-based author, Betty Rosenberg Perlov, 96 years old, grew up in the Yiddish theater. Always busy with arts, education and family, she has just now gotten around to creating a charming children’s book, Rifka Takes a Bow. In first person, she describes Rifka’s life hanging out with her parents who work at the Grand Theater on Second Avenue. She tips off readers to how some stage special effects are pulled off. She tells how Rifka (Betty?) sat in the wings and watched while her parents performed. And she describes that careless moment when Rifka inadvertently finds herself front and center onstage, with an audience calling on her to “Say something!”
“Piff-Paff,” says Rifka, keeping her cool. “Not to worry! I am going to act on the stage when I grow up!” No wonder; it already felt like home!
As another demonstration of a beneficial culture swap, “Rifka Takes a Bow” has been imaginatively and exuberantly illustrated by Zosei Kawa, a Japanese artist who teaches at Kyoto University of Art and Design.
Whenever a new book on the life and thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel appears, I always have two reactions.
One is to marvel at the fact that Heschel is the only one of the star-studded Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) faculty to which he belonged who is still studied and written about today. No one would have believed back in the days when I was a student at JTS that Heschel — and Heschel alone — would be the subject of continued study in our time, for back then he was isolated and even made fun of by many members of the faculty and many of the students.
The second reaction I have whenever I read a new book on Heschel is to hope that the author will focus on his spiritual insights, and not just on his involvement in civil rights, the anti-Vietnam movement, and the cause of Soviet Jewry. For Heschel was above all a religious thinker, and even if his involvement with these causes was important to him, they should not be the only things for which he is remembered.
Shai Held’s new book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence” (Indiana University Press, 2013. 332 pages. $30), does precisely what needs to be done if Heschel is to be properly understood by a new generation. Held focuses on Heschel’s religious insights, for although Heschel was a scholar who made significant contributions to every field of Jewish studies, at his core he was a philosopher of religion whose goal was to make the spiritual insights of Judaism understandable to a generation that needed to know them.
Readers will come away from Held’s book with an understanding of why Heschel was so lonely in his time. He was a Yiddishist and a Hebraist of inordinate ability, yet he was worlds away from the secularism that characterized both of those movements. He was poles apart from both the fundamentalism of many of the Orthodox thinkers of his time, and from the naturalism of many of the Reform and Reconstructionist thinkers of his time. He was passionate about social justice, like the Reform, and he was deeply concerned with the Jewish people, like the Reconstructionists, but he saw social justice and Jewish peoplehood through the lens of a yearning to do the will of God. He was an academic, like the rest of his colleagues at JTS, but he saw his task not as editing manuscripts or studying history, as they did, but as articulating the insights of the Jewish heritage to a generation that was starved for meaning in life. Held therefore is right to focus on the central spiritual insights in Heschel’s thought, and not just celebrating his political or social activities.
Held begins, as Heschel did, with the concept of wonder, which he explains as the ability to recognize and respond to the God who calls on us to share His dreams and work with Him to make this a better world. He explains that for Heschel, God is the very opposite of the Unmoved Mover of Greek Philosophy. He is the “Most Moved Mover,” the One who transcends Himself in order to reach out to man, and who calls upon man to transcend himself in order to respond to God.
Heschel lived through what was perhaps the most barbaric and demonic period in all of human history. He lived in Germany during the years when the Nazis rose to power, and he lost much of his family in the Holocaust, so he knew the ability of egotism and selfishness to wreak havoc on humanity. He saw the dehumanizing effects of scientism up close, so he argued for an awareness of the holy dimension of life and for the need to control the self for the sake of that which is more than the self.
The unique barbarism of our time, Heschel believed, stems from unlimited self-assertion and from callousness to the call of God. The only hope for humanity lies, he believed, in a rediscovery of wonder and a renewed openness to demands that come from beyond us.
As he put it, “There must be a counterpart to the immense power of man to destroy. There must be a Voice that says No to man, a voice not vague, faint and inward, but equal in spiritual might to man’s power to destroy.”
Held’s study of Heschel is meticulous and careful. Unlike some of the others who have written about him, his is not a work of uncritical adulation, but an honest wrestling with what is valid in Heschel’s work and what needs greater clarification.
The purpose of this book is to make the insights of Heschel clear for a new generation. The first chapter, on wonder, speaks about the sense of radical amazement that is, for Heschel, the response to the awareness of the gift of life. The second chapter, on religious anthropology, sets Heschel within the context of the religious thinkers of his time and ours. The third chapter, which Held calls “On revelation and co-revelation,” struggles with the issue of the role and the limitations of human beings in the understanding of God’s word. The fourth chapter deals with the concept of the Divine Pathos, God’s ability to transcend Himself and to empathize with us, which is central to Heschel’s understanding of God. The fifth deals with Divine Silence, and the question of how we can hold on to faith despite the evil we see in this world. The final chapter deals with prayer, not only as a moment for self-expression, as we usually think of it, but as a moment for self-transcendence, as a moment for opening ourselves up to the God who seeks our partnership.
In each of these chapters, Held not only teaches Heschel’s ideas and clarifies them when necessary, but also occasionally challenges them.
This is an important book for everyone who wants to understand one of the most significant religious thinkers of modern times. It brings the man whom Reinhold Neibuhr described as “one of Eastern Europe’s greatest spiritual gifts to America” to the attention of a new generation, which needs his warning and his vision.
Author Louise Steinman talks about the reclamation of her Polish history at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Dec. 3.
When Louise Steinman first faced the suggestion of writing about Poles and Jews, she was unequivocal: No. Growing up Jewish with a mother whose parents had immigrated from Poland in 1906, she inherited what she calls “received prejudices” about Poland.
“I had no intention of setting foot in Poland or pursuing the topic,” she says.
But Steinman also knows there is truth to the cliché that writers don’t choose their stories; their stories choose them.
Her story began with an invitation from Rabbi Don Singer, leader of an informal Jewish congregation near Los Angeles that incorporates teachings from Zen Buddhism. He served as rabbi for an annual interfaith retreat to Auschwitz-Birkenau, at which participants bear witness and meditate together. He invited Steinman to join them.
“You would have to be out of your mind to do that,” Steinman thought.
Like some other American Jews of Polish descent — a population that comprises about 80 percent of American Jews — she felt no interest in reconciliation. But she became curious.
From early years working in theatre performance in Seattle, Steinman understands the power of art and experience to heal. She accepted Singer’s invitation and began to research.
She was surprised to find online a yizkor, or memory, book, from Radomsk, the town of her mother’s ancestors. These books, works of collective memory gathering written after the Holocaust, served as records of Jewish communities that had just been destroyed. Many are being translated into English from the Yiddish.
Steinman delighted in the details about her ancestral town, whose lively Jewish community co-existed with Polish Catholics and where, she writes, “a Polish Catholic painted the synagogue’s blue ceiling and a Jewish tinsmith roofed the spires of the Catholic church.”
The yizkor book pleaded: “Please! Descendants of Radomsk, wherever you are in the world; teach your children and grandchildren about our town and its people.”
“Surely they’re not talking to me,” Steinman said. “I’m a secular Jew. I go to Friday night services in a Zen center. I don’t keep kosher.” But this, she realized, is who many descendants are.
The interfaith gathering at Auschwitz-Birkenau was intensely powerful. It became the first of her nine trips to Poland over the course of a decade. Her new book, “The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation,” published last month by Beacon Press, is a personal memoir of these geographic journeys and her own personal journey within Polish-Jewish reconciliation. She spoke about the book and shared slides from her trips on Dec. 3 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company.
The book’s title, like many Jewish anecdotes, has more than one meaning. A Polish priest, Józef Tischner, wrote: “When reflected in a crooked mirror, the face of a neighbor is distorted.” But Steinman also discovered there had been a satiric section of the Yiddish newspaper in Radomsk called Der Krumer Spiegel, The Crooked Mirror.
Steinman describes writing the book as an act of repairing the world. The book takes the reader along on that personal journey of serendipity, grief, disappointments, and connections.
Drawing on the Talmud’s statement that “a dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read,” Steinman’s book is rich with descriptions of dreams as means of sorting out emotions of a journey.
Her story has resonated with people trying to connect or reconcile with their pasts, fill gaps in family history, or examine received prejudices. At the University of Southern California, several African American students related to the challenge of connecting with a past with a truncated ancestry. One student, working on a memoir, asked Steinman, “What do I do about all the gaps in the story?”
“You have to use them,” Steinman replied. Gaps and ruptures, she said, make us who we are.
Ruptures, she notes, have shaped the history of many American Jews. Almost every American Jew lost family in the Holocaust; we just may not know who they were. While her generation grew up with the maxim “Never forget,” the next step, she says, is remembering what existed before the trauma.
Her past had always felt full of nameless relatives her mother just called “the ones who didn’t get out of Poland.” Steinman found names and a great-aunt’s former house. But finding them was bittersweet.
“To gain people,” she said, “is also to lose them again.”
Rather than the generation that suffered the trauma, she says, reconciliation belongs to the next generation. But “reconciliation isn’t necessarily about forgiveness. It’s about looking at history together.”
Steinman tells of people in Poland willing to look together at the past, even the shameful past. She has become close with some of these people, and is tickled to realize that she now has friends living in Radomsko, modern-day Radomsk.
Some of her Polish friends are working on historical-memory art projects themselves, resonating with Steinman’s theater performance days. Art, she said, can help to make an absence palpable when other tangible remnants of history have been destroyed. She showed a photo of one installation: Beams of light rising from manholes in all that remained of a city’s Jewish quarter, the basements of houses long paved over.
For young Poles, there is also a sense of reclamation. Under Communism, it was taboo to talk about the fate of the Jews. When people went looking for an authentic Poland in the history of Poland’s Jews, it was a rebellious act. Times have changed: September 2014 brings the exhibition opening at Warsaw’s new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, dedicated to the hundreds of years of history of Jews in Poland.
“There’s no way to bring back the past,” Steinman says. But she believes in making symbolic gestures that resonate. Having put aside her own crooked mirror, she now hopes her book will be translated into Polish. There is interest already.
Happy Any Day Now, by Toby Devens (New American Library, paper, $15). Raised by her single Korean mother in a poor section of town, Judith Soo Jin Raphael’s childhood was also shaped by her father’s Jewish relatives — the father who abandoned her when she was a toddler. Despite these setbacks, Judith becomes a professional cellist with a brilliant career, but less successful with romance. On the eve of her 50th birthday, two men re-enter her life, an old college flame and her father. With her world falling apart, Judith finds she is the only one who can reassemble the pieces in this highly entertaining novel, rich in two cultures.
The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, by Dana Sachs (Wm. Morrow, paper, $14.99). It’s not entirely clear why, but the 35-year-old widow Anna decides to drive her grandmother’s Rolls Royce, with grandmother in tow, from New York to California. Grandma Goldie is the antithetical Jewish grandmother, curt, crabby and critical, and the two have barely spoken since Anna’s husband’s death. Goldie’s behavior continuously threatens the trip, yet as the two widows get reacquainted, Anna learns about her grandmother’s youth and a valuable piece of art that needs to be returned to a Japanese family in San Francisco.
Zix Zexy Ztories, by Curt Leviant, (Texas Tech, cloth, $24.95). At the heart of these well-crafted stories — certainly sexy, and sometimes quirky — is a man who desires a woman. We find the usually Jewish protagonists in settings around the world: Italy, London, Israel, and “the vast goyland that stretched beyond his gerrymandered New York.” Desire here has nothing to do with love, only lust, often mixed with revenge, which gets Leviant’s characters into strange situations. Another journalist once called Leviant “one of the greatest novelists you’ve never heard of.”
The Chaff, by Joel Chafetz (self, cloth, $12.56 Amazon). This adventure novel by local author Chafetz takes place in three action-packed days in 1881 Russia. Usell is one of two survivors of a pogrom, thanks to her secular education and the help of an American gun smuggler, a princess, and a handful of revolutionaries. The plot is dense with action and characters, making it sometimes hard to follow, but the idea intrigues as the reader wonders if this could have really happened.
American Jews & America’s Game, by Larry Ruttman, (Nebraska, cloth, $34.95) This wonderful compendium of narratives encompasses personal, American and Jewish-American history within the framework of baseball. Ruttman — a lawyer by vocation — collected oral histories from players, family, team staff and memorabilia collectors. Organized by era, the 500-page book begins in the 1930s with recollections from Hank Greenberg’s family. It concludes in the 2010s with Texas Ranger Ian Kinsler.
The Philosophical Child, by Jana Mohr Lone, (Rowman & Littlefield, cloth) If you’ve ever had a child ask you why the sky is blue (or gray), or why water is wet, or how we know we’re not dreaming, University of Washington professor Lone hopes you have taken these questions seriously. In her very readable — but scholarly — book, she explores children’s natural and earnest philosophical nature and the best way adults can respond, often using popular children’s books as the source of discussion.
The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, by Nick Zubin and Michael Zusman, (Andrews McMeel, cloth, $27.99). Stopsky’s Delicatessen on Mercer Island is one of the “temples of modern Jewish gastronomy” included in this cookbook and history, and the restaurant’s “Pastrami Benedict” and pretzel recipes are among the 100 deli-style recipes found here. The West Coast gets a nod with “Left Coast Gefilte Fish,” handed down to author Zusman from his paternal grandmother Edith, the daughter of Portland’s kosher butcher Harry Schnitzer and his wife Maritka. Mouth-watering photos, clear instructions, and heart-stopping photography are part of this review of traditional and contemporary Jewish fare.
Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts, by Jane Yolen, Heidi E.Y. Stemple and Sima Elizabeth Shefrin (Crocodile, cloth, $25). For each Jewish folk tale in this book, retold by Yolen, author Stemple has provided a child-friendly recipe — simple enough to prepare with children or at least food that children generally enjoy. Illustrator Shefrin of Gabriola Island, BC, illustrates with charming cloth collages reminiscent of Eric Carle, but the pancakes here are latkes and blintzes of course!
17 Cents and a Dream, by Daniel Milstein (self/Amazon, paper, $13.33). When Milstein published “The ABC of Sales” last year, it was clear he had another story to tell — of how he arrived in the U.S. from Russia as a penniless teenager and became one of our country’s most successful mortgage brokers. Milstein has now written that fascinating story in this short book, including the trauma and anti-Semitism his family suffered in Kiev, and his return there as a free adult, finally able to visit his grandparents’ graves. Self-published, the book suffers a bit from lack of design and typos, but the story still holds.
Songs from the Territories, by Chaim Bezalel, (iUniverse, paper, $5 Amazon download or author website www.stanwoodhouse.com). Camano Island resident Bezalel combines poetry, photographs and an essay to create an interesting approach to memoir. The poems are very accessible and some of the most interesting concern his service in the IDF. The convoluted path that took him to Israel makes for thought-provoking reading. The black and white photographs, unfortunately, don’t translate well to the printed page, but clearer versions can be seen at the author’s website (above).
Unterzakhn, by Leela Corman (Schocken, cloth, $24.95). For fans of this art form, and for those interested in the darkest underbelly of life on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, comes this graphic novel whose title translates as “underthings.” Corman brings us the story of two sisters and their struggles in a world filled with poverty, sexism and anti-Semitism.
This year, as usual, we find a plethora of new stories ready to ride the Christmas/Hanukkah gift train into children’s hands. However, the first book I will focus on is an older, award-winning story that inspired an Academy Award-winning short film, and which might have been written especially for this most unusual Hanukkah we are about to celebrate. “Molly’s Pilgrim,” by Barbara Cohen, is illustrated in a new edition by Daniel Mark Duffy.
In 1983, Cohen (perhaps best remembered for her Passover book, “The Carp in the Bathtub”) wrote, from her family’s experience, about Molly, a young Russian Jewish immigrant who feels keenly out of place in America. As Thanksgiving approaches, like Hanukkah’s Hebrews surrounded by a Hellenistic culture, Molly faces being mocked and excluded for being different. Worse yet, when her mother helps dress a doll for her to bring in as a pilgrim for the 3rd-grade class project, Molly is shocked to find the doll not in gray and white, but instead like the Russian child her mother once was. Molly’s mother patiently explains how she was a pilgrim, too — as are all immigrants who come to America for religious freedom as those in the traditional story did long ago. As Molly feared, the other children at first do make fun of her very different doll. But with the help of her sensitive teacher, they all begin to understand the true meaning of Thanksgiving and the courage of those, then and now, who take risks for the sake of what they believe in. See why this is a perfect Thanksgiving story for Hanukkah?
Now for the new releases. Want the facts? Try these:
“The Story of Hanukkah,” by David Adler, illustrated by Jill Weber. A traditionally told and brightly illustrated introduction to the holiday by prolific author Adler; includes a latke recipe and instructions for playing dreidel.
“Eight is Great,” by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Hideko Takahashi. A bright little board book that uses the number eight to introduce customs and symbols, though the number itself is never shown, just the word. The pictures show a family (of guess how many!) as it lights candles, eats latkes, gets presents and celebrates for eight days.
“ABC Hanukkah Hunt,” by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by Helen Poole, is a “hunt” because unlike most alphabet books, the next letter in sequence isn’t used to begin a noun about the holiday and its symbols, but might be found highlighted anywhere on the page, hidden in the description, starting an adjective or a verb as often as a noun. Cartoonlike characters and imagination provide information along with lots of interaction opportunities.
Light, Learning and Laughter
“Sadie’s Almost Marvelous Menorah,” by Jamie Korngold, charmingly illustrated by Julie Fortenberry is an appealing Kar-Ben release that touches many bases. Day by day, Sadie’s teacher Morah Rachel leads her class in learning to make their own menorahs. Sadie grows more and more excited about her creation. Then, disaster! Sadie drops it and it breaks. Only the shamash survives to become an important part of the family’s celebrations for always. Includes the blessings.
In Lauren L. Wohl’s “The Eighth Menorah,” illustrated by Laura Hughes, young Sam is busy making a menorah in his Hebrew School class. But Sam’s family is already awash in hanukkiot. With seven already in his house, he worries his creation will be unneeded. When he visits his Grammy in her new condo, he realizes this will be the perfect home for his very special menorah — warmly welcomed here to replace the electric menorah in the community room and light up the holiday for Grammy and her delighted neighbors.
Speaking of light, no candles can compete with the magnificent lights of the Aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, which illuminate the sky in Barbara Brown’s “Hanukkah in Alaska,” illustrated by Stacey Schuett. Living in a snowy landscape, a young girl is dealing with a very hungry moose. She celebrates the holiday with her family while trying to figure out how to protect her favorite backyard tree, which he’s gradually devouring. This entertaining story provides insight into life in Alaska, shows a miraculous burst of light in the sky on the night of the last Hanukkah candle, and introduces a practical new use for freshly fried latkes—-as moose bait. A different approach and fun…
And speaking of fun, Eric Kimmel, award-winner and fun-bringer, has revised his wonderful old story, “The Chanukah Guest” (1992), bringing the punch line into the title and the secret visitor out into the open. In the earlier book, we met Bubba Brayna, the best latke maker in the village, 97 and very near sighted but still lively enough to invite everyone, even the rabbi, over on the first night of Hanukkah. When there was a thump on the door and a figure wearing a heavy winter coat lumbered in, naturally she assumed it was the rabbi. Only we realize the real nature of her “guest.” Happily she makes him piles of latkes; grunting, he gobbles them all up. Only after he leaves, cozily wrapped in a warm woolen scarf— his first Hanukkah gift— and the villagers, including the real rabbi, arrive do they all realize Bubba Brayna has served all her latkes to a bear. Hanukkah Bear, freshly and playfully illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka, introduces Old Bear on the first page as he sniffs the air and follows his nose to Bubba Brayna’s house to participate in candle lighting and dreidel playing before he can eat and return home, full of latkes, to sleep again. Includes Bubba Brayna’s latke recipe and the author’s note about the holiday.
Jane Yolen and Mark Teague have done it again. Since their “How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night” (2000) delighted children and became an ALA Notable book and a New York Times bestseller, over 14 million dinosaur books have looked at love, sickness, school, eating, dogs, cats, birthdays and Christmas through the eyes of their mischievous dinosaur. Now it’s Hanukkah’s turn. We meet Dinosaur as he cavorts through both the bad manners possible and the good manners preferred in the observance of the eight festive days. The marriage of text and picture will entertain, the small letters identifying each kind of celebratory dinosaur will educate, and the artist’s exuberance will exhilarate.
Esther the Gorilla, determined to give each of her friends just the perfect Hanukkah gift, spends the day shopping till she almost drops. The result is shown in “Esther’s Hanukkah Disaster” by Jane Sutton, illustrated by Andy Rowland. When Esther delivers each “perfect” present, she is appalled to realize that not one of them is suited to its recipient. Meanwhile each of her friends gives her a gift perfectly chosen for Esther’s pleasure. Embarrassed and unhappy, she thinks of a solution: She’ll have a party on the last night and have everyone bring the gift she gave them. The party is a great success; even better is the gift swap Esther suggests they carry out when it is over. Everyone ends up happy with their final choice.
The Season of Shared Joy
Finding the right gift has always been hard to achieve. In “Boris and Stella and the Perfect Gift,” Dara Goldman owes her inspiration in part to O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” as she shows how two charming bear friends — Boris, a musician from Russia and Stella, a brilliant baker from Italy — determine to find the perfect gifts for each other though each has little money. Each sells something precious to be able to buy the other a very special item, not realizing this sacrifice might backfire. The story has a real warm and uplifting O. Henry twist — the last words are exactly what to say to make the reader and listener feel better.
Selina Alko has written and illustrated a work that acknowledges today’s reality of so many families celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah, sharing traditions of both religions. Her picture book, “Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama,” begins boldly: “I am a mix of two traditions. From Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama.” It continues with page after page of mixed symbols and actions: Daddy makes latkes and leaves them on the mantle with milk, near where Mama hung the stockings. There’s gelt under the tree, candy canes on the menorah branches, and songs about dreidels and silent nights.
While probably not acceptable to more traditional families or schools, this book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, should be welcomed by many families looking for read-alouds that mirror their family experience and carry a message of acceptance and respect.
Many general publishers produce Hanukkah books each year to add to their ongoing holiday series. Here are a few, all of which follow the usual format of these informational works:
“Hanukkah” by Lisa M. Herrington is a “Rookie Read-About Holidays” book by Scholastic. An early reader divided into short chapters with history, symbols, food, crafts and games, etc.
“Let’s Throw a Hanukkah Party!” by Rachel Lynette is a “Holiday Parties” book from PowerKids Press. This one has a related websites as well.
“Hanukkah Sweets and Treats” by Ronne Randall is a “Holiday Cooking for Kids!” book, a beginner’s-level cookbook very well laid out, organized for ease of use, with warnings about having an adult around for actually frying the latkes and donuts.
“Caleb’s Hanukkah” is a Cloverleaf “Fall and Winter Holidays” book from Millbrook Press. Somewhat livelier than the others, it’s told from first person, has a premise (Caleb wants to win at playing dreidels), introduces the concept of tzedakah and sharing, and recommends a few books, as well as websites, to learn more or play dreidel online.
David Laskin will appear at Stopsky’s Delicatessen, 3016 78th Ave. SE, Mercer Island on Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. Check his website for more appearances and for much more information on the author and his work at www.davidlaskin.com.
Speaking from Miami, about halfway through his book tour for “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century,” David Laskin was pleased with how the trip was going.
Published by Viking, “The Family” is Laskin’s own family’s saga of “ur-20th-century Jewish stories,” he says. He puts his ancestors squarely in the midst of history and traces the “three branches that became two.”
Laskin has heard equally compelling tales from his tour audiences.
“They thank me for writing the book and then they want to share what happened to their uncle, their aunt,” which creates a “sense of connection and community.”
The tour has been a Jewish homecoming of sorts for Laskin, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Great Neck, N.Y. The first event was at the Eldridge Street Synagogue (and museum) on the Lower East Side, “one of the most beautiful and one of the most historic” synagogues in our country, he says. Laskin felt it “was a sacred spot…[possibly] holy to my grandparents and their generation.” Today he makes his home here in Seattle.
At Shabbat services at Pittsburgh’s Rodef Sholom, Laskin spoke about the book, struck by how well it worked as a sermon, “how we have suffered, how we have endured, what we have in common.”
Laskin makes it clear that he is not conventionally religious, but says writing the book and touring have created a stronger connection to Judaism.
“I am a secular Jew,” he says, “but I’ve come to feel that category does not adequately describe who I am.”
“My grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather…were scribes,” and Laskin says he is a type of scribe. “I write history, I write family stories. In writing the book, I came to feel that I am also a religious Jew.” Even if he doesn’t attend synagogue, he adds, it “doesn’t mean I don’t revere Judaism, I don’t revere Torah and the survival of our people.” The writing drew him to “the most meaningful and the most powerful parts of our religion.”
To write the story, Laskin took two “roots” trips, one to Israel to meet his Israeli cousins, and one to Belarus to see where his family had once lived — both those who survived through emigration and those killed in the Holocaust.
At the Western Wall, “I felt the generations were bridged,” he says, and “felt how much my ancestors would have wanted to be there.”
He felt that again at Rodef Shalom, “moved by the beauty of the prayers, the beauty of the songs…I felt this was my place.”
A freelance journalist whose pieces often appear in the New York Times, Seattle Met and the Seattle Times, Laskin describes in the introduction how the book started with a bubbe meise, Yiddish for apocryphal story. Because the Russian form of the family’s name was Kaganovich, a cousin suggested that “Stalin’s notorious henchman Lazar Kaganovich was a relative.”
Laskin was taken by the idea that while his great aunt Itel (Ida) Rosenthal was building Maidenform Bra Company, her cousin was engineering a famine that killed over 7 million people in Ukraine.
It wasn’t true, Laskin quickly learned from his Israeli cousin, “but that got me going.”
“The real gift” of his research, he says, was a “treasure trove of letters” Laskin’s cousin Benny had in Israel, most “written by people who were killed in the Holocaust.” Together the cousins, who have become great friends, translated letters from Yiddish into Hebrew and English. Back in Seattle, Laskin got Hebrew translation help from local tutor and Israeli native Aza Hadas, who offered insights as well as translation.
Laskin and his wife Kate O’Neill moved to Seattle in 1993 when she was offered a job at the University of Washington law school. He loves “the beauty, the recreation, the library systems, the gardening,” he says. “I even love the weather.”
He’s written two other books: A World War I history, “The Long Way Home,” and for kids, “The Children’s Blizzard.”
Laskin also enjoys Seattle’s “vibrant literary community,” where he counts many local writers as friends. He got both guidance and inspiration from local history writer Jackie Williams who herself has done extensive genealogical research, and who steered Laskin to JewishGen.org, “a great resource.”
“The Family” was featured on Amazon as one of October’s best books, which the author attributes partly to the allure of “the Maidenform connection,” a great American success story about “a four-foot-eleven Jewish chain-smoking tycoon,” who “started out as a socialist and ended up as the Henry Ford of brassieres.”
What Laskin does so well in “The Family” is insert his family’s personal and intimate story into the larger world history that swirled around them. Outside — and sometimes inside — the walls of their houses, pogroms raged, countries fought wars, and borders shifted. The line of demarcation between Germany and Russia in World War I cut through one of the family’s shtetlach. The world changed. Young people were drawn to Zionism or Socialism. Yet inside their houses they tried to keep the traditions of a thousand years alive until history drove them from their homes.
A variety of new books are unintentionally riding the wake of the recent Pew Center report on contemporary American Judaism. While written and published before the report’s release, they illustrate the study’s demographic numbers, some of which have caused hand-wringing in the established Jewish community.
The problem, some might say, is that many Jews subscribe to a non-conventional Jewish life. They intermarry, they practice other religions, they waver in their practice. But, the study shows, they identify somehow as Jewish, enough to be counted.
In “True Jew: Challenging the Stereotype” (Algora, paper, $22.95), business professor and amateur historian Bernard Beck traces Jewish world history in a slightly different way than usual, offering the perspective that there have always been “hidden” Jews, assimilated like those called out by the current Pew study, but not daring to be counted. (Beck relies on the Pew study from 2001 for some of his data). Turning to the future, he offers a different perspective on how modern Judaism can survive using a more entrepreneurial model. He suggests that our model be the Enlightenment, with encouragement of learning, education and values. This reviewer lacks the academic qualifications to evaluate the history, but Beck’s interpretations and ideas are fascinating.
Susan Katz Miller’s “Being Both” (Beacon, cloth, $25.95), subtitled “Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family,” draws on personal experience and others’ anecdotes to broadly demonstrate the success of intermarried couples and children. Brought up Jewish by a Jewish father and a non-practicing Christian mother, and the product of Hebrew school and a Bat Mitzvah, Miller grated at being told throughout her life that she was not really Jewish. After marrying a non-Jew and having children, she and her husband began to look for a faith community to which they could both comfortably belong. It turns out that there are such communities around the country — not many, but numbers are increasing — that serve Jews and Christians together with religion school and religious celebration.
Of course, the approach on both ends is quite liberal. Jews will want to know “What about Jesus?” and Christians might ask, “where’s Jesus?” These dual-religion communities are not proselytizing, so Jesus becomes more a historical figure, a Jewish one, and an ecumenical understanding is fostered. Children brought up like this are not guaranteed to become Jews. Many of them end up as Quakers, Unitarians, or claim both religions, comparing it in one case to bisexuality.
That brings us to the question of Jewish continuity. Fortunately — and again, this has probably been true throughout the ages — there are people like Vladimir Tsesis, M.D., who escaped Soviet religious oppression and chose to rediscover the religion of his birth. In “Why We Remain Jews: The Path to Faith” (Academy, paper, $19.95), Dr. Tsesis talks about his life, his views, and why he thinks Judaism is so great. Having emigrated from the Soviet Union, Tsesis and his wife were complete Jewish neophytes and had to learn their way around a culture, a system, really, that wasn’t always welcoming. Christian churches were often more welcoming and how they resisted this proselytizing makes for interesting reading.
Local author David Blatner probably didn’t expect his science book “Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe from Infinitesimal to Infinity” (Walker, cloth, $25) to appear in an article about religion, but in his clever, well-written book about the physical world, he makes a point about the array of Judaism represented here. Whether we are considering the nature of sound — molecules in motion that vibrate our eardrums — or the nature of belief — a mixture of ideas, practice and faith that vibrate the strings of our soul — our perception and experience is always on a spectrum. I think these authors would all agree that to acknowledge the spectrum of Jewish experience from the beginning until now would increase our acceptance and our understanding.
Finally, if we are so concerned about the supposed diminishing numbers of Jews, and if we combine the information generated by the Pew study and recent genetic research that shows that there is no unified Judaism — if we accept that Judaism is a religion, that is, a system of beliefs, and we put this all together, why not count all the folks who say they are Jews, who want to be Jews, who have a Jewish parent?
Much of what is seen as “new” in Pew is actually old. The difference, as our first author would hopefully agree, is that now we can let the hidden Jews — the intermarried, the dual-religionists — stand up and be counted.
“A true Jew,” writes Beck, “maintains his pride in being Jewish and his commitment to Jewish continuity.”
Funny, you don’t look blue-ish…
Before we move away from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and out into the Seattle sukkahs we pray will not be too heavily rained upon, I have one last shortcoming to confess. I forgot to mention in the High Holidays roundup how enthusiastically Jewish the residents of Sesame Street have become, thanks to Kar-Ben’s partnership with Shalom Sesame. “The Count’s Hanukkah Countdown,” “It’s a Mitzvah, Grover,” and “Grover and Big Bird’s Passover Celebration” led the way. But this introspective month found Brosh baselessly suspicious, blaming Grover for stealing his favorite blue cap. His evidence? None except that his hat perfectly matches Grover’s fur. An apology is obviously called for after Grover rescues the cap Brosh had carelessly lost in the market and returns it to him. “I’m Sorry Grover: A Rosh Hashanah Tale,” by Tilda Balsley and Ellen Fischer warns against spreading false accusations and leaves Brosh far more aware of others’ feelings. And now, into the hut.
Back to the booth
Susan Axe-Bronk’s “The Vanishing Gourds: a Sukkot Mystery” brought back vividly the days in Southern California when we planted a major gourd garden to decorate our vastly oversized sukkah without extravagantly wasting edible fruits and vegetables. Though they got their gourds from a farm, Sara’s family, like ours, loved everything about Sukkot, especially trimming with the brightly colored and variously shaped gourds. Then, yellow, orange and green, they begin to mysteriously disappear.
Little children will enjoy learning who the culprits are and how they repay Sara the following year for what they have taken. Gratitude for the harvest, compassion for animals, and understanding of the cycle of nature are all found in this simple tale, brightly illustrated by Marta Monelli.
Another simple Sukkot story is “Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast” by Jamie Korngold, softly and charmingly illustrated by Julie Fortenberry. Sadie and little Ori decide to have breakfast in the family’s beautiful sukkah, so they load up a tray with all they need, only to discover that sometimes carrying a little at a time works best. When they are finally ready to eat, nobody else is awake, so they fulfill the mitzvah of offering hospitality in the sukkah by imaginatively surrounding themselves with wonderful and much-loved friends. A warm and basic story for the very young.
Sylvia A. Rouss, an early childhood educator, can be counted on for creative approaches to almost every Jewish theme. After all, how many authors explain Jewish holidays through the awareness of a curious little Spider named Sammy, who this year celebrates his 20th year in print? Though Rouss and her collaborator Shannan Rouss did not include Sammy in their latest book, “A Watermelon in the Sukkah,” it offers an entertaining twist on the usual carrot- and grape-laden booth.
No gourds here: All the kids in young Michael’s class have agreed to decorate their sukkah by each one bringing his or her favorite fruit. Michael is especially excited because his favorite by far is… a watermelon. What to do? How to hang it? His teacher accommodates his choice, and his class enjoys trying to solve the problem while learning about the holiday and its celebration in the process. When Michael finally figures out a solution that works, illustrator Ann Iosa’s bright and happy pictures capture the humor of Michael’s inventive solution, which may inspire kids of any age to get inventive on their own.
“Sukkot Treasure Hunt” by Allison Ofansky is set in Israel, and well-illustrated with photographs by Eliyahu Alpern. It follows a family living in Tzfat as they build their sukkah and then set out to find, not buy, the “four species” they will use in celebration. Pictures and words combine to give an overview of Israel’s timeless natural environment, flora and fauna, as family members find not just the four sought-after species but grapevines, pomegranates, dates and a wonderful adventure.
The author and her family are involved in environmental and “eco-peace” projects and those with similar interests should especially enjoy this work and its illustrations.
On saving the earth
Two older titles also address ecology, one general and the other about Israel, neither specifically on Sukkot. Not for children but for families who would like to use their time in the sukkah to explore green ideas, you might look for “Ecology & the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet,” a crossover work emphasizing a spiritual approach to its ecological message. Experts from all branches of Judaism, from Orthodox to secular, have contributed to this excellent resource, well worth adding to your bookshelf for year-round use.
“Listen to the Trees: Jews and the Earth,” a work for middle graders, by Seattle’s own Molly Cone (who is also one of the authors of “Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State”) uses Torah texts and traditional Jewish stories to present an exploration of ecology and the interconnectedness of all life on earth.
This is the season to tally our blessings, settle our debts, evaluate the year gone by and pray for good in the year to come. So, too, for those of us with an eye on the world of children’s book publishing. In years past, while we blessed the bounty — the sensitive authors, talented illustrators, and astute editors who give books the capacity to enchant and delight — we also struggled to forgive publishing its sins: The pictures that disappoint, the text that drags, the editor asleep on the job, the bindings that didn’t bind, and the distribution system that didn’t distribute until the week after the holiday ended.
However, with new technology changing everything, this may be the year when these abuses dwindle and the lives of trees are less apt to be sacrificed in vain. While Kindles, Nooks and iPads can never replace the joyful human connection that comes from holding a real book while reading to a real child, judiciously supporting use of their electronic counterparts can help empower a budding reader and expand an early connection with words.
Meanwhile, here are a few recent works especially suitable to entertain and enlighten your favorite children as the New Year begins.
Jewish life calls on us to observe mitzvot, but as we introduce children to God’s sacred commandments — learning from the Torah, listening to the shofar, observing Shabbat — we usually broaden the meaning to include gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness. Why not use It’s a… It’s a… It’s a Mitzvah (Jewish Lights, $18.99) by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman, delightfully illustrated by Laurel Molk? In this charming new book, a menagerie of appealing animals act out activities that show examples of good deeds even very young children can perform. Whether welcoming newcomers, sharing food, respecting elders, or forgiving mistakes, the exuberant Mitzvah Meerkat and his chevra of happy do-gooders show clearly the warmth and satisfaction to be found in everyday kindness and a commitment to tikkun olam (repairing the world).
In What a Way to Start a New Year: a Rosh Hashanah Story (Lerner), Jacqueline Jules presents a perfect opportunity for a community to perform mitzvot as she imagines what it’s like for Dina and her family to move to a new house in a new town just as the New Year begins. A new beginning, it’s true, but one any child will understand is full of difficulties, adjustments and fear of change. With the help of Judy Stead’s bright and expressive illustrations, the story describes how the generous hospitality of Dina’s new community and the warm familiarity of synagogue tunes and Jewish rituals bring with them the promise of a truly happy New Year to be shared with many new friends
Hannah’s Way (Kar-Ben) by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, shows that friends don’t have to be Jewish to do mitzvot. When Hannah’s father loses his job during the Depression, her Orthodox Jewish family has to move to Minnesota, where she is the only Jewish child in her class. Her teacher unwittingly arranges a special class picnic on a Saturday, trying to put Hannah into a carpool. What can she do? She wants to go to the picnic and maybe make some new friends, but she cannot ride on the Sabbath. Maybe she could go, Papa agrees, if someone would walk the two miles with her to the park. But who would be crazy enough to do that, she wonders, when she’s so new and hardly anybody even knows her? The book’s last double spread answers Hannah’s doubts and fears, providing a lovely story of friendship, kindness and community.
Maybe people aren’t the only ones who can share and practice mitzvot. Mitzi’s Mitzvah (Lerner) by Gloria Koster, illustrated by Holly Conger with charm and texture, shows what happens when a lovable puppy is taken to a nursing home to visit the elderly residents on Rosh Hashanah. At first she’s excluded from the holiday gathering while young visitors and the residents eat and play together. But once she’s invited inside, just by being Mitzi, she brings happiness to the residents, showing clearly that you’re never too young and puppyish, or too old, to need (or to provide) attention, companionship and the sweetness of friendship.
In Sylvia B. Epstein’s amusing tale, How the Rosh Hashanah Challah Became Round (Gefen), the rabbi’s wisdom saves the day after Yossi, the baker’s cocky son and assistant, drops a whole tray of long braided Rosh Hashanah challahs. To his dismay, they all roll down the stairs, changing shape on the way. Too late to make a new batch, the baker brushes them off and sells them, even to the rabbi’s wife, who takes two. It’s the rabbi who gives the new shape a special meaning to suit a special day. Ever since, the holiday challah has been round, a shape without end, like each new year holding the promise of sweetness, happiness and hope.
Leslie Kimmelman’s Sam and Charlie (and Sam too) (Whitman, Albert & Company) is an Easy Reader collection of five stories filled with Jewish flavor. The last is “I’m Sorry Day,” a.k.a. Yom Kippur. A silly story but with a serious objective as Charlie and Sam determine to be better friends in the year ahead. However, they reserve the right to make a few mistakes so they’ll have something to deal with on the next “I’m Sorry Day.” Illustrated by Stefano Tambellini.
Sylvia A. Rouss and Katherine Janus Kahn have again collaborated as writer and illustrator to bring you the best Jewishly informed arachnid in town, intrepid Sammy who lives in Josh Shapiro’s house. In Sammy Spider’s First Yom Kippur (Lerner), Sammy is, as usual, greatly interested to listen and learn as his mom explains the Shapiros’ upcoming holiday. Mrs. Shapiro tells Josh to make a list after dinner of everyone to whom he should apologize. Before then, however, Josh’s disobedience affects the welfare of Sammy and his mother. Realizing he has destroyed their web, Josh knows he must add them to the list of those he has wronged.
As usual, the clear story and bright pictures make this Sammy book a great way to introduce very young children to a simple understanding of taking personal responsibility, a basic Jewish value.
To remember those we love on Yom Kippur through the observance of Yizkor is an important facet of the holiday, but not one usually shared with young children. However, let me recommend Zayde Comes to Live (Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.), an award-winning story by Sheri Sinykin, beautifully illustrated by Kristina Swarner. This sensitive work concentrates on what happens before the loss, when Rachel’s grandfather has come to live at her house because he is dying and she worries about what will happen to him afterwards. Her friends reassure her: Megan says he’ll go to heaven if he believes in Jesus while Hakim describes a beautiful paradise waiting for those who believe in Allah. But Rachel is Jewish, so she asks the rabbi what will happen. With great honesty and beauty, he describes to her the comforting continuity of life. At peace, Zayde, too, helps her realize that as long as he is alive and she can snuggle close to him, they are creating memories that will allow him to live forever in her love. The pictures, linoleum prints with watercolor and colored pencil, show the family but backgrounds have a feeling of timelessness and depth. And though the family is Jewish, the situation and the emotions are universal. Zayde’s love and Rachel’s memories are set in a story that opens a door for discussions about many faith traditions and beliefs.
When someone asks me Judaism’s position on a particular subject, I usually answer, “Which Jewish tradition do you want to hear?” I’m not just talking about the differences between contemporary religious movements, but the fact that Judaism — from biblical times to the present day — offers contradictory ideas about a variety of topics. For example, as Rabbi Elaine Rose Glickman notes in “The Messiah and the Jews: Three Thousand Years of Tradition, Belief and Hope” (Jewish Lights Publishing), there is no one idea concerning the Jewish messiah. The word itself comes from the Hebrew root mem-shin-chet, which means “anointed.” Anointing played a role in biblical times for priests, recovering lepers and kings, but, as Glickman writes, it simply meant that “oil [was] poured onto a person’s head.”
Glickman’s interest in the topic comes from her belief that “the conviction that the Messiah is coming is Judaism’s greatest gift to the world. It is a promise of meaning. It is a source of consolation. It is a wellspring of creativity. It is a reconciliation between what is and what should be. And it is perhaps our most powerful statement of faith — in God, in humanity, and in ourselves.”
However, she also believes that many people don’t understand the Jewish messianic concept or realize the many different representations of the messiah that have occurred throughout the centuries.
The author clearly notes that while the messiah is revered, he is not a divine being: “For all of the Messiah’s singular acts, he does not share in the divinity of God and, like all of God’s creations, must yield his place — and his glory — before the Most High.”
Jewish tradition generally accepts that the messiah will be a descendent of King David; however, his nature and his expected accomplishments are open for debate. For example, will the messiah be constrained by the physical realities of the world or will he have the ability to abridge natural law? Many stories treat the messiah as a kind of superhero, who will — as the prophet Isaiah suggests — make the wolf and lamb live together in peace.
One debate centers on whether the messiah’s miracles will be restricted to the people of Israel; by the time of the Babylonian exile, writers suggest that while God’s main focus will be on the chosen people, the rest of the world will not be ignored.
There are similar discussions about whether or not the Messianic Age will be preceded by a time of war and destruction. Those who prescribe to this idea see the messiah as a warrior. Apocalyptic literature focuses on the battles the messiah will have to fight, for example, with mighty chieftains and primordial creatures. Since the idea of a warrior messiah clashes with the image of a peaceful messianic reign, a second messianic figure came into being: Known as Messiah ben Joseph, he is said to be a descendent from Jacob’s son Joseph, as opposed to the patriarch’s son Judah (the ancestor of King David and, therefore, the second messianic figure now known as the Messiah ben David). In one variation of this tale, the Messiah ben Joseph will lead an uprising, only to be cut down by his enemies. After 40 days, the Messiah ben David will arrive and lead the Israelites to their final redemption.
Other traditions focus on a different type of messiah, the poor beggar who waits patiently for the world to be ready for redemption — a redemption that will only take place when all Jews perform a particular mitzvah, for example, celebrating the Shabbat at the same time. That raises the question of whether one can force the messiah to come. Some groups — including several mystical ones — believe it’s possible if only they can create the right circumstances. Others see this as an affront to God’s wisdom, noting these attempts can only end in chaos. Glickman also discusses false messiahs, the best known of whom is Shabbatei Zevi, a self-proclaimed messianic figure who converted to Islam when threatened with death.
The author also offers other interesting tidbits concerning the messiah and the end of days. There are debates about whether the dead will rise once the messianic age begins. If so, will they wear clothes? Would those with disabilities return whole? If a widower took a second wife, will he spend eternity with his first spouse or his second? Will humanity need to eat during the messianic age? Some tales do include a feast of the righteous, which will feature wine and the flesh of three great mythical beasts. Others see the feast as allegorical, interpreting the idea of food and wine to mean the ability to receive “esoteric knowledge of God so far withheld from humanity.”
Glickman concludes with a personal note about how she experiences a taste of the messianic age “through the observance of Shabbat.” She notes that “the rituals and ceremonies of Shabbat expressly foreshadow the days of deliverance. The elaborate Shabbat dinner parallels the Feast of the Righteous, the shunning of work corresponds to the era’s endless serenity and abundance, and the prayers and songs herald a time when all shall know Divine Presence.”
While I love the imagery Glickman uses, her suggestion will not satisfy skeptics or those who long for a time of peace and justice. However, her thoughtful exploration of Jewish ideas of the messiah makes “The Messiah and the Jews” an excellent education resource.
Each of these five new novels has a strong message or theme. Some themes are disturbing, such as Rwandan genocide or abusive institutions. Others just get you thinking, raising more questions than answers.
But here’s a question: Do fiction readers want a strong message, or just a good story? Does a story work if the message dominates it? Do readers like their history or intellectual challenges couched in a novel or are novelists just writing for book club discussions? (And doesn’t your book club just sit around and drink wine after spending 15 minutes talking about the book?)
The Explanation for Everything, by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $24.95)
Stuck in a small college in a small town, widower Andy Waite is sure his life is about to turn around. He’s trying hard to get the mice in his lab to become alcoholics, but finds they are merely social drinkers who merely nap after a few nips. Still recovering from the death of his wife, he’s raising preteen girls, and fending off fundamentalist Christian students who insist on drawing him into the battle between evolution and intelligent design. Everything is going well until Melissa — one of those aforementioned students — walks into his office and into his life. Challenging him to accept her independent study to scientifically prove intelligent design, he accepts, catapulting his life and his work into a deep moral crevasse.
Good Kings Bad Kings, by Susan Nussbaum (Algonquin, $23.95)
The winner of a Bellwether prize for socially engaged fiction manages to keep a lighthearted tone while telling this distressing story of disabled young adults trapped in an insidious system that keeps them institutionalized, sometimes against their will. Using multiple points of view, the author reveals the plot at a steady pace through the thoughts and observations of the young people and the institution’s employees. Even with shifting perspectives, the story is easy to follow and absorbing. While the main characters are vindicated, Nussbaum leaves us wondering about these institutions and who is running them — for a profit — an issue very much in the news today.
Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron (Algonquin, $14.95)
Is any book about genocide a Jewish book? The Jewish content here is limited to two minor characters and, one assumes, the author’s heritage. That aside, this prizewinning book (Bellwether Prize, an Amazon best book and No. 1 Indie Pick) about a young Tutsi man who only wants to become an Olympic competitor in track for his beloved country, Rwanda, draws us in even as we dread the awful events we know will happen. Through Jean Patrick’s eyes and experiences, we see the hatred and civil conflict swell as he holds on to the last vestiges of his naïveté, hoping literally and figuratively to run away, as the violence grows. The eternal question about genocide comes to mind: How can this happen, and how important is it that we continue to bear witness? While we and Jean Patrick witness the near unspeakable, the author is smart enough to also bring us the joys of love, family and hope. The book is dense and detailed, but readable, and only suffers from what appear to be multiple endings.
The Almond Tree, by Michelle Cohen Corasanti (Garnet, $14.95)
Ichmad Hamid, the narrator of this fictional memoir, becomes a bridge between Palestinian and Israeli worlds. The opening, in his village in 1955 when his baby sister wanders into a minefield, is bound to make readers squirm. Some Jewish readers might give up at this point — this reviewer almost did — but while the subject is often painful, Corasanti uses her narrator to illustrate the problems, perils and occasional good that define Israeli-Palestinian relations. A brilliant science student, Ichmad’s parents and village ensure that he has a good education. His career becomes our hope for peace as he studies with an Israeli physicist and ends up a successful professor in the U.S. while trying to help his family and his people back home.
The Wayward Moon, by Janice Weizman (Yotzeret, $14.95)
The least disturbing of this selection still brings to mind a pressing question: Could the events described in this book really have happened to a Babylonian teenage girl in the ninth century? If you suspend a little disbelief, you will be intrigued and entertained by Weizman’s imaginative tale. The book opens as Rahel is waiting and eager to meet the boy who she will marry. Before that can happen she is forced to flee and, disguised as a boy, she sets out on a journey to escape detection and save herself, with varying degrees of success. Weizman must have done a lot of research for this book and through her protagonist’s eyes she explores an interesting time, the Golden Age of Islam, and its effects and influence on the Jewish and Christian cultures within it.
Whatever is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, by Helene Aylon (Feminist Press, $29.95). The author is a visual and conceptual artist whose work has been exhibited around the world. Her writing is casual, but the story is fascinating as she explains the influence of her Orthodox girlhood and how she struggles, even as a grandmother herself, to try to make her mother happy by integrating her Judaism into her work. The black-and-white photos probably don’t do her work justice, but provide an excellent and necessary complement to the written word.
Future Tense (Schocken, $15.95)
Britain’s chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks never lacks something interesting to say, and the same applies to this book, which is about his 30th volume. Surprisingly, Sacks encourages us to remember Judaism’s place and role in the entire world and tells us to commit ourselves to stand alongside our kindred of all religions, and non-believers, too. Our obligation to tikkun olam — to repair the world — is an obligation to the entire planet.
“It’s not very Jewish,” a friend commented, leafing through Jason Prangnell’s New Jewish Cooking, (Absolute, cloth, $37.50). But that’s half the point of these meat and parve recipes from London’s Bevis Marks Restaurant. Kosher cookbook authors have long extended “kosher” past the kugel, kasha varnishkes, bumuelos, or other cuisine of our parents’ or grandparents’ kitchens, and Asian and Middle Eastern influence abound.
The famed Bevis Marks restaurant is attached to the Sephardic synagogue of the same name. Its owners wanted to show that a kosher restaurant could serve cuisine as fine as any Continental restaurant with food that could be enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews alike. Pragnell takes inspiration from many cultures and alongside the meat recipes, provides lots of side dishes, desserts, syrups and even a few pages of cocktails, for which you’ll need the syrups. Rosemary gnocchi and vegetable tart share pages with Jewish classics such as dill latkes and “aubergine (eggplant) rice” from Turkey. Measurements are given in weight as well as volume, and recipes are surprisingly simple. Start by making the chicken or vegetable stock, as many of these recipes start with that basic ingredient.
Lavender shortbread was delicious, as was a perfect summer pea and corn bulgur pilaf, but a note of caution: Prangnell’s kasha “pilau” (pilaf) skips the usual step of coating uncooked groats in egg before cooking. This doesn’t work, unless you like mushy kasha, so keep the grains firm and keep the egg.
It’s good news-bad news that we have a new cookbook from the queen of kosher cooking, Helen Nash. The good news is New Kosher Cuisine: Healthy, Simple and Stylish (Overlook, cloth, $35). The bad news is that her husband had to have a stroke to give her the time she needed to stay home and go through the “arduous process” of developing and testing recipes for a book, while she cared for him. She lets us know in her introduction that she never intended to publish another cookbook, but it’s our gain.
With their European and Asian influences, Nash’s recipes produce food both for every day or special occasions that tastes good and is fun to eat. The shredded sweet potato with cumin salad was fresh and different, and the sesame-thyme chicken marinade is a guaranteed success. There are no Jewish holiday recipes here, but you’ll find plenty in her other books.
Despite the deceptively lavish photos, Esther Deutsch gives us equally fundamental and delicious recipes in Chic Made Simple: Fresh, Fast, Fabulous Kosher Cuisine (Manna11, cloth, $36.99). Deutsch, a New York-based food stylist, columnist and food editor of Ami magazine, relies on a combination of fresh and prepared ingredients, especially sauces, to simplify recipes. Her salads are especially creative. With summer fruit in season, try “spring mix with candied hazelnuts and pecans and balsamic-strawberry vinaigrette.” The kani (imitation crab) slaw was a hit at my house. As far as her presentation goes, enjoy the pictures, but don’t try this at home. It would take all the simplicity out of the preparation.
While those new kitchen experiments are cooking or cooling, settle in with Elissa Altman’s delightfully touching and funny memoir, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking (Chronicle, cloth, $27.50).
Drawn from Altman’s blog of the same name, it’s more of a series of connected vignettes, each followed by a recipe or two (not kosher!) reflecting the author’s evolution as a cook, journeying from an obsession with the complex to appreciation of the basic.
We also learn about her parents’ complicated relationship with each other and with food. Her mother is a rail-thin fashionista who pushes food around her plate while her father sneaks Elissa out for steak dinners at New York’s best restaurants. This is also the story of love found, and the other thread here is her growing relationship with her partner Susan, a small-town Connecticut Yankee who grows her own vegetables and won’t turn on the air conditioning. This is a very sweet book with some marvelous — and simple — recipes.
A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews by Sherwin T. Wine (IISHJ, paper, $24.95). The late author was a founder of the Humanistic Judaism movement, dubbed the “atheist rabbi” in a 1960s Time magazine article. In this overarching history, mixed, as the introduction explains, with some opinion, Wine draws on secular sources, emphasizing that humanism give no credit to any supernatural powers in the actions of people. Probably his most interesting assertion is that the roots of European anti-Semitism are not in religion, but in the strong Jewish role in commerce that dates back to ancient times.
Holy Wars: 3,000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land by Gary L. Rashba (Casemate, cloth, $32.95). The author is a career defense-industry writer with an expertise in the Middle East. He turns to a more general audience here with 17 readable chapters, each covering a significant battle in what is now Israel, from biblical times to the 1982 Lebanon war. Rashba, who has lived in Israel for 20 years, demonstrates that today’s conflicts are just part of a series of almost unending conflict in that region.
Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (Jewish Lights, cloth, $24.99). A variety of rabbis, cantors, teachers and communal leaders have contributed these commentaries specifically for high school students. For Parashat Noah, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin asks teens to be the “un-Noah” and speak up in the face of the world’s wrongs. In Shelach-Lecha, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman uses the line “we looked like grasshoppers” to encourage readers not to shy away from a challenge. Clear, short and to the point, these writings are ideal for bringing Torah relevance to teens.
Two recent Holocaust-themed books focus on those who resisted and those who escaped. Doreen Rappaport’s Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust (Candlewick, paper, $22.99) is written as a textbook for students ages 10 and up, but still makes for interesting — and chilling — reading. Tens of thousands of Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe resisted during World War II, demonstrated here by individual portraits of courage in the face of death. The award-winning author based her writing on personal interviews and extensive research for this book that took six years to complete.
Professor Steve Hochstadt of Illinois College brings us a collection of interviews with Jews who managed to get out of Europe in Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich (Palgrave, paper, $28). Sixteen thousand European Jews were able to get visas to enter the one place that permitted free entry, at least until 1939. While the stories Hochstadt has collected provide a fascinating look into this chapter of Jewish history, his initial discussion of how an interviewer melds the randomness of a conversation into a cohesive narrative was equally interesting. The book is part of the publisher’s “Studies in Oral History” series.
Trusting Calvin: How a Dog Helped Heal a Holocaust Survivor’s Heart by Sharon Peters (Lyons, cloth, $19.95). As a teenaged prisoner in a Nazi work camp, Max Edelman witnessed a horrific dog attack on a fellow prisoner. He then suffered a brutal beating by prison guards that left him blind. How he managed to survive the camp is an incredible story on its own. Then, at age 68, he was forced to overcome his terrible fear of dogs when his wife’s crippling arthritis made it clear he would need a guide dog to maintain his independence. Peters describes how Max and Calvin, a chocolate lab provided by Guiding Eyes for the Blind, work around their mutual difficulties in a touching and entertaining fashion.
Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner, by Lela Gilbert (Perseus, cloth, $25.99). The author came to Israel for a pilgrimage six years ago and is still there. She arrived at the height of a war, already fascinated by a land of international conflicts of epic proportions, and found a country of “warm-hearted, smart and lively people.” A writer and a poet, she turned to journalism, writing about visits to Mamilla Mall and bomb shelters, and her conversations with Israelis, Jewish and Arab. She hopes this collection of her writings will promote understanding and harmony particularly among Jews and Christians.
Gefilte Fish for Neshama by Anna Shvets (Neshama Books, paper, $15.99). Here’s my dirty secret: I like jarred gefilte fish and never even had homemade gefilte fish until well into adulthood. Shvets’s well-crafted short book — part memoir, part cookbook — is filled with color photos of Israel where the Russian émigré spent her formative years before she moved to Vancouver, BC and opened Neshama Books. Her grandmother’s detailed gefilte fish recipe is illustrated with step-by-step photos and tempted me to try it. But I was deterred. Not by the live carp to be gutted and scaled after swimming in the bathtub, or even the popping out of the eyeballs so the sockets can be a handhold to secure the head while pulling out the spine with a pliers. It’s the smell that will linger in the house for a week after two hours of simmering the fish on the stove. (After reading this, you should read or re-read the classic children’s book, “The Carp in the Bathtub.”)
A Wedding in Great Neck by Yona Zeldis McDonough (New American, paper, $15). Relying on cultural stereotypes to propel its story forward, this light, but entertaining book errs more on the side of sitcom than literature. A wealthy Great Neck matron hosts a wedding at her mansion for her type-A, go-getter daughter while her type-B hippie daughter languishes in the background. Unruly teenagers, well-meaning grandmothers, and an impulsive act that threatens the entire wedding are some of what you’ll find here.
The Other Shore by Fred Skolnik (Aqueous, paper, $21). This saga-length novel follows a motley cast of Israeli types through the 1980s between the Lebanese War and the outbreak of the first intifada. Skolnik, editor of the award-winning second edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, has lived in Israel since 1961 and is a skillful writer and entertaining observer of Israeli society. The story illustrates the decade that saw the final shift in Israel from a Zionist-Socialist society to a Western-style consumer culture.
Only one of the four books featured here is an actual detective novel, and that’s “The Missing File,” a new murder mystery from Israel by D. A. Mishani (Harper, cloth, $25.99).
Set almost entirely in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, the novel is cleverly bracketed by references to Israeli detective literature, something our detective protagonist, Avraham (Avi) Avraham claims on page two, doesn’t exist.
“Why doesn’t Israel produce books like those of Agatha Christie, or ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?’” he asks a mother who comes in to report a missing son.
Avi claims it’s because life in Israel, and crime in Israel, is just too ordinary.
He’s wrong on both counts, it appears, as Mishani unfolds the plot of the missing boy. With its requisite twists, turns and red herrings, the book leaves the reader guessing until almost the very end and, of course, the book becomes that Israeli detective novel Avraham claims doesn’t exist.
A morose and neurotic chain smoker, Avi is a bachelor whose bickering parents live nearby. We wonder if he really knows what he’s doing as he goes up against faster-moving detectives, tangles in office politics, and tries to figure out what to do with the missing boy’s neighbor, who behaves more and more strangely as the book progresses.
A bonus for American readers are Mishani’s vivid images of Israel and Israeli life, aptly translated by Steven Cohen, and a glimpse into neighborhoods and lives rarely seen by tourists.
Nancy Richler’s new novel, “The Imposter Bride” (St. Martin’s, cloth, $24.99), is less a whodunit than a “where-went-she.”
Lily Azerov is a mail-order bride, a refugee from World War II Europe whose entire family perished. She arrives in Montreal to marry Sol, a stranger to her and who rejects her immediately. But Sol’s brother Nathan falls for Lily, and they are soon married and have a daughter, Ruth. As time passes, it becomes clear to family and friends that Lily is not who she says she is.
Shortly after Ruth’s birth, the already quiet and retiring Lily disappears and Ruth grows up with the mystery of her mother’s disappearance and true identity weighing on her.
Richler uses multiple points of view and shifts back and forth from third person to first person, which can be confusing and frustrating, especially in the beginning of the book. However, Ruth’s first-person narratives always feel most authentic and bring out the author’s best writing. As Ruth grows up, her voice takes over the story and it begins to flow. The reader will be on tenterhooks until the very end trying to figure out Lily’s identity, motives and fate.
Richler, the author of “Your Mouth is Lovely,” also uses the plot to illustrate the horrors of war, and explore the challenges of the new immigrant and the psychological damage of extreme loss.
Local author Patty Lazarus has documented her journey to find a daughter in “March into My Heart: A Memoir of Mothers, Daughters and Adoption” (independent, paper, $14.95).
In her quest to complete her family with a daughter and to overcome both the grief of losing her own mother too early and the grief of infertility, Lazarus sets out to adopt a daughter through open adoption.
The mystery here is, Will She or Won’t She? Will the birth mother come through in the end? As with many memoirs, the reader knows the answer — here it’s in the cover photo — but Lazarus skillfully and movingly constructs the story and keeps up a good level of tension that leaves the reader guessing till close to the end. Lazarus acknowledges she is already blessed when she begins her quest, with a loving husband and two sons, but she’s smart enough to be emotionally honest with herself and to share that honesty with her readers. Her willingness to be open about her life and her feelings adds to the success of this book and the story of the adoption will certainly encourage others seeking to adopt children in this country.
Finally, in “The Art Forger” by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin, cloth, $23.95), we meet Claire Roth, a talented young artist who earns a living copying famous works of art for a publisher. Claire is caught up in the intrigue of art forgery when she is asked to copy a work she is sure is stolen. Flaunting morality for ambition, she agrees to do it in exchange for a one-woman show at a gallery.
The foundation of this novel is a true story: In 1990, thieves stole $500 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, including Degas’ “After the Bath,” featured in Shapiro’s novel. Shapiro writes from Claire’s perspective, going into great detail about the painting process itself, about art forgery and learning, as Claire does, about 19th- and early 20th-century art and the relationship between Degas and Isabella Gardner.
How about preparing the children for the seder as carefully as you prepare the gefilte fish? Passover (and any holiday) takes on more meaning if a parent or grandparent demonstrates its significance by personally sharing children’s books on the background of the upcoming festivities. And since Passover is one of the only two Jewish holidays that almost every year sees a new crop of titles, we should take advantage. Be careful though, sometimes these calendar-driven books can be very misleading. For instance, Ideal Publishing put out “A Passover Book for Jewish Children” some years ago, which began innocuously enough but ended focused on a very unexpected seder, the Last Supper.
Here you’ll find some holiday titles, totally kosher l’Pesach:
For the youngest children:
Lotsa Matzah by Tilda Balsley, illus. by Akemi Gutierrez. (Kar-Ben Publishing, $5.95). A rhyming board book for toddlers, this 12-page charmer makes its way to their hearts through the stomach, introducing Passover’s traditional food presented and enjoyed in many different ways. Tasty and fun.
Grover and Big Bird’s Passover Celebration by Tilda Balsley and Ellen Fischer, illus. by Tom Leigh (Kar-Ben Publishing, $16.95). A Shalom Sesame book that has the Sesame Street crowd in Israel eager to celebrate the first seder at Brosh’s house. But they’re running late, continually delayed by stopping to perform mitzvot. The story and meaning of Passover are woven in, as are introductory words in Hebrew. Even grouchy Moishe Oofnik performs a mitzvah, grudgingly giving the group a lift in his old truck to get them there in time for the Four Questions. Naturally, he stays to enjoy the seder and three helpings of bitter herbs, his favorite.
What Am I? Passover, by Anne Margaret Lewis, joins the “My Look and See Holiday Book Series” (Albert Whitman & Co., $9.99), as the first Jewish holiday added to their popular Christmas, Easter and Halloween books for very young children. Brightly illustrated by Tom Mills, it features a series of simple holiday-related riddles on pages designed with flip-up flaps and brief explanations of symbols and the main components of the seder. Perfect for ages 2 through 4.
A Sweet Passover by Leslea Newman, illus. by David Slonim (Abrams, $16.95). A delicious read-aloud for 4-8 year olds who may well relate to young Miriam. By the final day of Passover, she has had it with matzoh and refuses to eat another bite. As in many lovable stories about family traditions and Jewish cooking, the older generation (in this case, Grandpa) comes to the rescue with his out-of-this-world “Passover French Toast.” His “shayneh maideleh” cannot resist and neither will you. The illustrations are humorous and a super matzoh brei recipe is included, as well as a glossary of Passover terms. Newman, a fine writer of children’s books, has done it again.
Sarah’s Passover by Lisa Bullard, illus. by Constanza Basaluzzo (Milbrook Press/Lerner Pub, $6.95). Mini-chapters with lively cartoonish pictures move this Cloverleaf Books “Holidays and Special Days” work along briskly, providing a lot of information in its four sections and supplementary material. From the preparation of house and food, to the seder, to the meaning of the holiday, it emphasizes fun and freedom. Back matter includes a pillowcase project, a glossary, and a list of resources.
The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman, illus. by Paul Meisel (Holiday House, $6.95). This entertaining Pesadika spin on a favorite old tale follows the hardworking little red hen as she plants, harvests, shleps and grinds the wheat, cooks the dinner and bakes the matzoh for the holiday, all without a bit of help from her friends. Will they work? Oy, no. But, will they eat? You bet. Will she forgive and feed them? The author includes a quote from the Haggadah, a matzoh recipe, a note on Passover traditions, plus a glossary of Yiddish words. A matchmaker couldn’t have found a better companion to this kosher l’Pesach version than Meisel’s rollicking artwork, created with ink, watercolor and pastel.
For any age
Matzah Mishugas: Eight Passover Tales (Light Publications, $14.95; ebook, $9.95). Part of the “Chelm Series” by Mark Binder, self-proclaimed author, storyteller, and nice guy. This former editor of the Rhode Island Jewish Voice-Herald wrote the first Chelm story of the series to fill space when a contributor didn’t meet a deadline. It was well received and, in true Chelm fashion, things just got out of hand after that. Only in Chelm would lead sinker matzoh balls save the village from a flood; only there would a knock on the door on Pesach bring in not Elijah, but a surprise visit by Mark Twain. Great for family reading aloud.
The Longest Night: a Passover Story by Laurel Snyder, illus. by Catia Chien (Schwartz & Wade Books, $17.99). This a unique Pesach picture book is told in verse (not usually my favorite approach) and richly illustrated with absorbing acrylic paintings. This young girl lives in Egypt through the time of slavery and into the time of Exodus. “Every morning with the light / Came another day like night./ In the heat and blowing sand/ Each gray dawn my work began.” A book as real as the hard labor the children perform, as unreal to today’s children as the mysterious events that begin, are seen but never understood. A river running red? Frogs, fleas, and then, worst of all, wolves! Each of the plagues is depicted and the people endure until the longest night, the night of the marked doorposts.
Poetic, evocative; by using the child’s viewpoint, this work makes us truly remember as if we were there. And remember, too, that even today, in many places, children are not free. Recommended by the publisher for reading to ages 4 to 8, but consider using it with older kids and teens as an opener for some interesting conversations at the seder table.
If Meir Shalev’s beautiful The Loves of Judith is Israel’s soul, then Pamela Peled’s For the Love of God and Virgins is the face Israel puts forward to the world, and Shani Boianjui’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is the guts of that country — hidden, ugly even, but vital.
Peled is a South African-Israeli who in real life is annoyed by comparisons of apartheid South Africa and Israel. In “For the Love of God and Virgins” (Miriam’s Legacy, paper, $18) so is her protagonist, Jennifer Moran. Widowed at a young age, Jennifer has raised her daughter to adulthood in a suburb of Jerusalem where she attempts to convey the finer points of English grammar to Israeli high schoolers.
With the outbreak of the second Intifada, she becomes frustrated by the skewed English-language news reported from Israel. Turning her ire on British TV correspondent David Sanders, Jennifer engineers a meeting, meant to be a diatribe, but finds herself instead in the grip of political intrigue and danger as the relationship becomes very personal.
Peled weaves actual events into her fictional account, although she explains in her introduction that she changed some dates to make them work with the plot. Both author and character are united in the efforts to bring factual information about Israel to the world.
“For the Love” is the most traditional of these three novels, told in a straightforward, chronological fashion. Well-written, funny and poignant, it’s so enjoyable that we can overlook a few glaring editorial errors. The author is a teacher and a Shakespeare expert who lectures all over Israel and the world.
Inside of all of us is a remarkable collection of organs. They are not pretty, and to see them involves cutting through flesh and spilling blood, but they keep us alive. Some of the more uncomfortable parts of “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” (Hogarth, cloth, $24) are like glimpsing the awful parts that lie inside.
Shani Boianjiu is a talented young Israeli author whose work has already been published in The New Yorker. Boianjiu went to Harvard to study writing following her mandatory military service, the inspiration for this book.
The novel follows Avishag, Lea, and Yael, who have grown up together in a dusty, isolated village in northern Israel. Their lives are marked by the same tedium and ennui teenagers find in small towns around the world. Graduation and army induction mark a major change for all of them.
Boinajiu’s book moves back and forth in time, weaving in the waxing and waning of the girls’ friendships and the changes that come over them as they serve their country. Some sections of the book read like separate short stories, but the friends come together in the end under grueling circumstances.
Army service brings almost the same level of ennui and tedium as they had at home, only this time they are in uniform, carrying guns, and sometimes have power over others. Service brings absurdities that contribute a little humor to the book, besides, but also requires them to bear witness to some shattering events that bring light to the social ills of Israel (and the rest of the world). Through her vivid writing, Boinajiu explores the psychological effects on her characters, reminding us that Israel is a country like any other, facing harsh issues of immigration, human trafficking and sex abuse in the military.
Originally published in the 1990s, Schocken has re-released Meir Shalev’s delightful, mystical and poetic novel, “The Loves of Judith” (paper, $15.95). In the vein of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” this whimsical story is set in a small northern Israeli village populated by bemusing and idiosyncratic characters from the Old Country — a piece, certainly, of Israel’s soul.
Our narrator is a boy named Zayde, “grandfather,” so called by his mother Judith to confuse the Angel of Death. Zayde grows up thinking he is immune to fatalities.
He’s also a boy with three fathers, Rabinovitch, Sheinfeld, and Globerman, and Zayde has inherited a characteristic from each.
Zayde’s whimsical view of the world and his fascination with birds enchants. Doves cooed when he was born, clever crows fascinate him, and on a hot summer night “the darkness of the village surrounded them with the silence of owls’ wings.”
The overriding theme of this book, full of Yiddish language, lore, and the superstitions of Eastern European culture, is “a mensh trakht un Gott lakht” — a man plans, and God laughs. As the book takes us from the 1930s to the 1960s, and as Zayde tries to piece the story of his genesis together, plans certainly go awry. Perhaps God laughs a bit, and cries, too.
As Alyson Richman’s novel The Lost Wife (Berkeley, paper, $15) opens, an elderly man attending his grandson’s wedding realizes the bride’s grandmother is the woman he married in Prague right before the Nazi invasion. Losing contact, each presumed the other was dead. The rest of the novel goes back and forth in perspective between Lenka and Josef and their separate survivals. Lenka became an artist in the Terezín concentration camp’s drawing workshop, where Jewish artists copied famous paintings, and Josef escapes to America with a lifetime of guilt for failing to bring Lenka along.
Richman was inspired by a number of true stories, but journalist Leslie Maitland tells the more compelling and absorbing true story in Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed (Other, cloth, $27.95). In a dramatic account worthy of a fictional epic, Maitland explores family history focusing on her mother, Janine, who was separated from her fiancé in the confusion and panic surrounding the Nazi invasion of France. Compelled by her family to board the fabled ship Lipari, Janine’s escape takes her to Casablanca, Jamaica, Mexico, and internment in Cuba before she gets to New York. Through all that, and subsequent marriage and family, she clung to the hope of reuniting with her beloved, a Catholic Frenchman she left behind.
To appreciate The ABC of Sales: Lessons from a Superstar (Gold Star, paper, $19.95) it helps to know about the author, Daniel Milstein. The founder and CEO of Gold Star Mortgage Financial was a teen when his family left post-Soviet Russia for the US, where he struggled to learn the language, floundered in school, and found refuge in work. He worked fast and furiously — compulsively, even — but it resulted in his successful mortgage and financial business. He shares how he did it with lots of practical advice from someone who really proved the American Dream.
The truth is, you’re probably going to pick up David Fishof’s Rock Your Business (BenBella, paper, $14.95) less for business advice and more for the stories about all the music stars he’s worked with. Learn why Fishof, founder and CEO of Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, had a rare Yellow Submarine jukebox and how Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler came to be an “American Idol” judge. Fishof tells how the camp got featured on an episode of the Simpsons and gives out solid business advice, too. Lots of photos of famous people accompany the text.
Scholar and rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut brings both scholarship and entertainment to A Kosher Christmas (Rutgers University, paper, $22.95). The short but fact-filled examination of the role of Christmas in the lives of American Jews is part history and part sociology (it’s priced like a text book — the hardcover will run you $68), but there is much to interest the general audience. Plaut examines the different attitudes toward Christmas of German and Eastern European Jews and how they played out in this country, why we eat Chinese food on Christmas, and how Hanukkah has risen in popularity alongside the birth and growth of the state of Israel.
Editors Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy have assembled some first-rate writers in Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame (Twelve, cloth, $26.99). Journalism and literary luminaries such as Jeffrey Goldberg, Deborah Lipstadt, Simon Schama, and David Remnick explore the careers of world-class, and not-so-world-class, Jewish athletes. The book opens with “The King’s Pugilist” Daniel Mendoza, an 18th-century British boxer whose notoriety merited him a meeting with King George III, and concludes with Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs. In between are Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax and plenty of others probably unknown to most. There’s even a profile of competitive eater Don Lerman, who holds the world record for the most butter eaten in five minutes (3 1/2 pounds).
In A Light Unto My Path: A Mezuzah Anthology (Maon Noam, cloth, $15), Dr. Alexander Poltorak takes on a subject ever-present in Jewish life, but which he says has almost never been comprehensively examined: The mezuzah. Poltorak, who holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and is the CEO of General Patent Corporation, also writes on Torah and science for Chabad.org, where this book can be found in electronic format. In addition to explaining the history and significance of the mezuzah, Poltorak describes the Chassidic and mystical aspects in depth.
You certainly know that the banana you sliced into your cereal this morning did not come from the United States. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, cloth, $27) is the story of how that fruit became ubiquitous in America, and it’s the story of a penniless Russian Jewish immigrant who saw an opportunity on the docks of New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century. Sam Zemurry started buying and quickly selling the bananas that had ripened in transport, which would spoil before hitting the markets and therefore be discarded. He eventually took over United Fruit, amassing a multi-million dollar fortune on the way.
Naomi Wolf tackles the social and scientific history of the defining female organ in Vagina: A New Biography (Ecco, cloth, $27.99). This is a fascinating look at biology and behavior toward the subject that has, over human history, gone from object of veneration to object of derision. Wolf explores the science that reveals the complex nerve system that connects vagina to brain, and how both language and sexual assault are used not for gratification, but for subjugation. It’s a radical and enlightening book that should be read by both sexes.
The 1960s and its shifting societal attitudes are a common thread in four new novels of Jewish interest.
Closest to home is Issaquah author Jane Isenberg’s newest mystery-cum-historical novel, The Bones and the Book (Oconee, paper and on-demand, $14.95). Isenberg, who we just profiled as one of our five women to watch, is the award-winning author of the Bel Barrett mystery series and of a memoir about teaching.
The 1965 Seattle earthquake makes an unexpected widow of Rachel Mazursky, but it also uncovers a leather bag of bones and an unsolved murder in Seattle’s underground. There’s also a diary in the bag, written in Yiddish. Suddenly in need of both employment and diversion, Rachel offers to translate it for a University of Washington professor and becomes absorbed in the life of Aliza Rudinsk, a young Jewish immigrant who came to Seattle in 1890. While Rachel wrestles with the translation, she wrestles with her new circumstances in a world that is still prejudiced against working women. Rachel finds parallels in Aliza’s world as she doggedly pursues the circumstances of Aliza’s death.
Moving back and forth from the 1960s to the late 1800s gives the author a chance to explore the roles of women in both eras, along with creating a page-turning mystery. (The novel had to be set no later than the ‘60s, says the author, or the bones would have decomposed.) Isenberg researched extensively, and the book is filled with wonderful details about Seattle of both eras and other tidbits about clothing and immigration that lend an authentic touch.
Andrew Goldstein’s The Bookie’s Son (617 Books, paper, $14) offers an interesting contrast, set in a tough Bronx neighborhood in 1960 and told from a guy’s perspective. The press release reveals that this wonderful story is based on the author’s memories.
Twelve-year-old Ricky Davis tells the story. Ricky’s family does not live the idyllic life pictured in old TV shows. His father is a small-time bookie indebted to the Mob, which has brought a constant threat of danger into his family’s life. Young Ricky is determined to rescue them, particularly his beloved mother and grandmother, with both funny and disastrous consequences. He remains sweetly naïve despite dangers of neighborhood bullies and sociopathic gangsters, all while preparing — barely — for the biggest danger of all, his Bar Mitzvah.
The author’s varied career has included organic farming and Zamboni driving. Now he’s given us a very promising debut novel.
Poet Alan Shapiro’s first novel, Broadway Baby (Algonquin, paper, $13.95), doesn’t fully live up to expectations from the author of more than 10 books of poetry. The main character, while riddled with faults, is intriguing enough to keep the reader going, but the writing is flat, never developing the emotional tension and relief expected of a novel.
“Broadway Baby” does make important points about a number of issues, all worthy of discussion. Perhaps Shapiro was just trying to do too much in a short book.
Miriam has been damaged by distant parents and the anxious grandparents, Holocaust survivors, who raise her. Growing up in the 1950s, she abandons dreams of a stage career for a conventional life and marries too young. Confined and suppressed by societal expectations, although she doesn’t really know it, Miriam pushes her middle son to become a musical theater performer.
Shapiro states in his notes, “personal experience is not art, and art is not personal experience,” but the reader suspects this is a memoir in disguise. The book disparages Miriam, who is indeed carping, critical, thoughtless and unsympathetic, but also struggles to understand her and the family and society in which she grows up. Her inability to connect with, or even understand her children, is tragic, but until the very end she inspires no other emotional response, besides cringing, in the reader.
Twelfth & Race by Eric Goodman (U of Nebraska, paper, $18.95) doesn’t take place in the ‘60s, except for an opening flashback that is crucial to understanding the rest of the book.
Thanks to an identity theft, the life of white Jewish Richie Gordon takes an unusual turn when he starts dating the black woman who is the ex-girlfriend of the man who stole his wallet.
When a white man dates a black woman in a racially charged (fictional) city in Kansas, questions of identity and belief are bound to arise. On top of that, Richie discovers something about himself and his family that radically changes his self-perception. After a young black man is shot and killed by police and the city erupts in riots, Richie has to make some choices about where his loyalties lie and what family really means to him.
These books, upon reflection, share another common thread. Even with a male narrator or protagonist, they are about women, women who by personality or circumstances are unusual or quirky, just a little outside of the norm.
The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich (Gallery, paper, $15). America of the 1960s (see “Learning Jewish History,” page 18) was definitely a better place for Jews than Europe of the 1560s. In this novel, a young Jewish midwife leaves the Venice ghetto to illegally deliver a noblewoman’s baby. She needs the fee to free her husband, a spice trader who has been captured and enslaved by the Knights of Malta. But her success propels her into a family conflict that could prove deadly to her and her community.
The author, while inspired by a visit to that ghetto, tells us that the history is correct, but the characters and plot are entirely imagined, as very little information exists about women of that time. Though occasional plot points may seem unlikely, the story keeps the book moving.
A Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman (Akashic, paper, $15.95). In the wake of World War II, three narrators tell their stories (with only a few distracting diversions into the third person), slowly weaving their tales until they twist together at the end.
Shifting between Shanghai, to London, and New York, Caroline, Marilyn and Oscar tease out their connections at a languid pace as the reader tries to put the specifics together — and please don’t read ahead. The publisher calls it a “thriller,” but it would be better termed a “puzzler.” Nayman, a psychologist and writing instructor, has crafted an absorbing and intriguing third novel.
The Golem of Rabbi Loew by Johnny Townsend (Booklocker.com, paper, $16.95, ebook, $2.99). This collection of interesting and well-written short stories needs a “graphic sex” warning. Despite the promiscuous cruising gay lifestyle that turns up in many of these stories, most are concerned with the characters’ issues of identity around sexuality and religion. Townsend explores other themes, too, including science, education and family, all hinting at personal experience. We do know he is a gay excommunicated Mormon who converted to Judaism. His Jewish characters represent a wide diversity of observance, from Reform to ultra-Orthodox. While some may find the sex unsettling, there are more distressing things than that happening in some of the characters’ lives.
The Final Reckoning by Sam Bourne (Harper, cloth, $26.99). The protagonist of this fast-paced thriller — written under the pen name of British journalist Jonathan Freedland — is cynical attorney Tom Byrne, called in to investigate the shooting death of an elderly man mistaken for a terrorist at the UN. Tom soon suspects the victim was less innocent than he seemed, as he discovers a hidden brotherhood of vengeful Holocaust survivors.
It’s a brisk and absorbing read, but Bourne relies too heavily on typical thriller plot devices, red herrings, anonymous shadowy characters and secret diaries. Most interesting is the bit of history that inspired the book — a covert group of Holocaust survivors really did hunt down former Nazi officials — and the Holocaust-era scenes are vividly drawn. This edition has not been edited for American readers and the British slang provides additional entertainment. When a character is as shocked as if he’d just seen “Snow White having a fag,” it’s just a cigarette, so wipe that smirk off your face.
We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust by Ellen Cassedy (U Nebraska, paper, $19.85). This moving, well-crafted book explores the legacy of the Holocaust in contemporary Lithuania through the lens of the author’s family.
A vibrant religious and cultural Jewish community flourished in Lithuania before the Holocaust destroyed it. In 2004, longing to recover the Yiddish she’d lost with her mother’s death, the author enrolled in a Yiddish-language summer intensive in Vilna, once known as the “Jerusalem of the North.” She also resolves to explore the history of her family and the Jewish community in her ancestral homeland. Right before she leaves, her uncle reveals a disturbing story, and an elderly man from her family’s village makes an unusual request.
Yiddish proves complicated and complex, and Cassedy’s frustrations with her lessons are interwoven with frustration about contemporary Lithuanian attitudes toward the Holocaust. But that is paralleled by her respect for those Lithuanians — some Jewish, mostly gentile — working to restore Jewish history and culture in that country while they still heal from the abuses of Soviet authority. The issues are much less black and white than the author wants them to be as she learns of genocide, rescue, and compromises of survival. This is a personal story, too, inspired by a daughter yearning for her mother and all the words — Yiddish or otherwise — that were never said.
The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora by Ben Frank (Globe Pequot, paper, $17.95). Frank is an experienced traveler and travel writer who has circled the globe, who always seeks out remote outposts of Jewish communities where he can find them. Part history, part anthropology, part travel guide, this is a fascinating and entertaining account of his travels and the far-off communities he’s connected with in places like Myanmar, Tahiti and Siberia.
State of the Nation Report: Society, Economy and Policy in Israel 2010, edited by Dan Ben-David (Taub Center, paper). A policy wonk’s total delight which, caveat emptor, this reviewer did not actually read. Lots of interesting information can be gleaned, though, from perusing the book’s many tables and graphs. Produced by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the book explores public spending, education, income inequality, education and more in that country. One graph that stands out shows that the U.S. and Israel are fairly equal in underpaying teachers compared to seven other developed nations, including South Korea (at the top), Australia and Denmark.
Jewish Book Month ends the day before Hanukkah begins, the obvious message being that books make perfect Hanukkah gifts. I agree. Therefore, I want to make you aware just how many of the new Jewish children’s books I’ve written about today (and have reviewed in the past) would not be available were it not for Judyth Groner and Madeline Wikler. These two women saw a need and began to fill it.
Thirty-seven years ago, they started Kar-Ben Copies, Inc. to publish “My Very Own Haggadah,” a children’s Passover haggadah they had created for use with their own families. Followed by other “My Very Own…” Judaic works, their haggadah went on to sell over 2 million copies. The company, which soon diversified its list, was named after the two founders’ youngest children, Madeline’s daughter Karen and Judye’s son Ben.
As a Judaica librarian, I frequently met up with Groner and Wikler at conferences, sometimes at CAJE, often at the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). Year after year, lively and helpful, they sat behind exhibit tables and networked with educators and librarians. They connected with parents too, attending Jewish book fairs and always looking for new subject ideas. Under their leadership, Kar-Ben published more than 150 books for Jewish children and their families, the creative work of over 60 authors and illustrators. The pair were recognized for their “outstanding contributions to the field of Jewish children’s literature,” by AJL’s Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.
In 2001, with its founders ready to slow down, Kar-Ben became a division of Minneapolis-based Lerner Publishing Group — not an ending but a new beginning. Under the leadership of publisher Joni Sussman, Kar-Ben Publishing now releases over 16 new titles of Jewish content each year, for children from pre-school through middle school, both fiction and non-fiction. Kar-Ben continues to give us award-worthy children’s books on such subjects as Jewish holidays, crafts, folktales, picture books and contemporary stories.
Kar-Ben’s Latest Hanukkah Books
The Count’s Hanukkah Countdown by Tilda Balsley and Ellen Fischer, illus. by Tom Leigh. A collaboration with Sesame Workshop has brought the Count, furry blue Grover, and several Israeli Muppet friends to us in this first of four Shalom Sesame stories. Aimed at expanding Jewish knowledge for those already familiar with Jewish life, while introducing information in an engaging way to those just beginning to learn, it deals with Hanukkah basics — candle lighting, food, and stories — while doubling as a numbers concept book.
Jeremy’s Dreidel by Ellie Gellman, illus. by Maria Mola. Gellman’s experience teaching in Jewish schools informs this engaging story about Jeremy, who signs on to a dreidel-making workshop at the JCC with a very definite goal in mind. While other kids design a bouncing dreidel, an optical-illusion dreidel and other imaginative tops, Jeremy’s simple clay dreidel is intended as a gift for his blind father. The clay dots are Braille Hebrew letters. When his dreidel is selected to be put on special display in a glass case, spoiling the surprise by making it impossible for his dad to play with it, Jeremy and his friends work together to find a good solution for the problem. Very well illustrated by Mola, with soft colors and lovable kids. Included are directions for making various types of dreidels and lots of insights into how technology helps the blind to navigate well in a dark world.
Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler, illus. by Ursula Roma. The founders of Kar-Ben Copies have returned to their basic beginnings by creating holiday traditions — food and fun — in this family-friendly book. It features eight kinds of latkes and eight theme parties, with plenty of recipes to mix and match. It includes kitchen tips and keys to difficulty of preparation, along with games, crafts and the candle lighting blessings.
Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue by Heidi Smith Hyde, illus. by Jamel Akib. Nine-year-old Emanuel Aguilar’s father owns a shop in New Bedford, Mass., the center of the whaling industry in early America. But Emanuel would rather go to sea than work in a shop. He scorns his father’s fears, brought with him from Portugal, which cause him to still hide any sign of being Jewish. Never would he or his Jewish neighbors let their Shabbat candles be seen; never, on Hanukkah, would his father light the menorah. So, Emanuel, wanting to be free, brave, and strong like the whalers, decides to hide on a boat setting out to sea. But when a dangerous storm strikes, damaging the lighthouse, and making the ship lose its bearings, he learns about fear. With no beacon or stars to guide them, every man aboard expects to be dashed upon the rocks. When a mysterious glow appears on the horizon, lights of courage and hope bring them safely home.
More Gift Ideas
In Green Bible Stories for Children, Kar-Ben presents a timely take on the Bible, which author Tami Lehman-Wilzig descibes as containing “a blueprint for how to preserve planet earth.” She and illustrator Durga Yael Bernhard include simple descriptions of an ecosystem, tell selected Bible stories, and recommend many fun activities designed to raise awareness and a sense of responsibility. Using the building of the Tabernacle as an example of the three R’s, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, the author then addresses Sabbath itself and the importance of a shmita year, a Sabbath for the land.
These newer titles still adhere to Judye and Madeline’s original goal of helping families with young children understand, enjoy and love living Jewishly.
Joseph and the Sabbath Fish, by Eric Kimmel, Eric, illus. by Martina Peluso (2011). Kimmel is a master reteller of Jewish tales, and his latest version of a well-known and much-loved story about Joseph, whose Sabbath joy and generosity are scoffed at by his stingy and cynical neighbor. Though Joseph’s fortunes ebb, in the end he is rewarded for his faith and kindness, and even his selfish neighbor is granted understanding and peace.
The Shabbat Princess by Amy Meltzer, illus. by Martha Aviles. Young Rosie decides that since she can’t be the Shabbat Queen, she would like to be a Shabbat princess, and asks her parents to gradually make their Shabbat table worthy of a royal visit. A charming story about the concept of “hiddur mitzvah” — the enhancement of observances with objects of beauty.
Lights Out Shabbat by Sarene Shulimson, illus. by Jeff Ebbeler. A rare snowstorm in Georgia gives a young boy, spending Shabbat with his grandparents, an unforgettable experience when the power fails, not returning until Havdalah is over. Shabbat customs and family closeness illuminate the dark and keep everyone warm.
The Shabbat Box by Lesley Simpson, illus. by Nicole Inden Bosch. This PJ Library Book is a reissue of a 2001 title. It beautifully introduces Shabbat by telling of a very special box, which all the students in Ira’s class took turns taking home for the weekend. When Ira loses the box on the way home, he is distraught until he figures out how to make a replacement, one that will make Shabbat even more beautiful and special.
Bim and Bom: A Shabbat Tale by Daniel J. Swartz, illus. by Melissa Iwai. Turning gender expectations on their heads, Bim and her brother Bom work very hard, she as a carpenter and builder and he as the best baker in town. Each of them, however, spends Fridays on mitzvot, building and baking tirelessly for those without enough money to buy. At day’s end, they celebrate Shabbat together, warm in Bim’s nice house and nourished by Bom’s delicious challah. A cozy story, very nicely illustrated.
Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom!
Emily K. Alhadeff
Deb Perelman, founder of the popular food blog Smitten Kitchen, speaks to an audience of more than 100 at the University Bookstore during her Seattle visit.
Deb Perelman is dreaming about a pumpkin cheesecake gingersnap pie.
“I think I just dream [recipes] up most of the time,” Perelman explained. “They just haunt me.”
Perelman, the woman behind the wildly popular Smitten Kitchen food blog, is currently touring the United States with her just-released book, “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” (Alfred A. Knopf, cloth, $35).
Perelman spoke to a packed room of salivating fans at the Book Larder and the University Bookstore in Seattle on November 7 and 8 before signing books.
“Smitten Kitchen” details Perelman’s cooking exploits from her 42-square-foot New York City apartment kitchen. Her focus on accessible ingredients and “comfort foods stepped up a bit,” accompanied by professional-grade photographs, have driven her from casual cook to foodie fame.
“I thought it was going to last six months,” Perelman said of Smitten Kitchen when she launched it in 2006. “I wasn’t a cook, I had never been to cooking school…. I get excited about pancakes.”
This year, Smitten Kitchen was listed as one of Forbes’ 100 Top Websites for Women and it won Best Food Weblog at the 12th Annual Bloggies Awards; in 2011, it won Best Cooking Blog by Saveur magazine and was listed as one of the 25 Best Food Blogs of 2011 by Time. It has attracted the attention of Martha Stewart, Gwyneth Paltrow, and dozens of magazines and newspapers. Her Facebook page is just shy of 100,000 likes.
Perelman jokes about her massive fan base. “My mom writes them a check every month,” she said (she has also won accolades for humor). “I’m still really dumbfounded. I don’t know how it happened.”
Perelman started blogging in 2003, just as the phenomenon of documenting personal experience online was going mainstream. Smitten (pre-Kitchen) tracked life in New York, dating and “general early 20s blather,” Perelman said. “I roll my eyes at the thought of how clever I thought I was.”
The Carrie Bradshaw dream quickly ended, though, when Perelman met her husband a few months later. She was cooking a lot and reading food blogs, so she closed down Smitten and opened Smitten Kitchen. And history was made.
Though Perelman scoffs at the idea that she’s famous, she’s a member of the upper echelons of female food-bloggers-gone-viral, women like Julie Powell (Julie and Julia), Molly Wizenberg (Orangette), and Clotilde Dusoulier (Chocolate & Zucchini), who sought a creative escape from ordinary life and laid bare their personal lives through quiche Lorraine and lemon tarts. Their followers enjoy reading about their lives and their foibles as much as they return to the site over and over again for the “food porn.” When Perelman announced the birth of her baby boy, 2,274 of her fans posted heartfelt congratulations in the comments boxes.
“I’m not a cook, I’m not a photographer,” Perelman said. “[Popularity] just happened slowly and gradually.”
Perelman is an omnivore who was raised on her mother’s French cooking, inspired by Julia Child.
“I feel like I missed the part of my childhood where I was supposed to be eating traditional Jewish foods,” she said. “It wasn’t tsimmis, it was boeuf Bourgignon.”
Yet she has strong feelings about Jewish foods.
“There’s a great affection for kugel in my family,” she said. She cites a family legend: When her parents were dating, her mother asked her father’s family for their scrumptious noodle kugel recipe. His aunt told her that if she wants it, she’d have to marry him.
“I guess people have gotten married for worse reasons,” Perelman laughed.
Perelman has mixed feelings about the latter-day foodie trend of reclaiming and modernizing traditional recipes. Traditional dishes have a comfort value — when you go home to visit your parents, and your mother says she’s going to make her potatoes, “you’re hoping your mom is going to make potatoes the way you’ve always had potatoes.”
At the same time, she said, “I’ve been told to behave, and I just can’t.
“There are times you can make adjustments for the better without losing the soul of the dish,” she said. “You can make a new brisket without being rude to the old brisket.”
Perelman says she jots down ideas as they come to her, and she’s got a list of about 1,000 more dishes to try. Of the thousands of recipes she’s created and posted over the past six years, they’re all her baby — in addition, of course, to her own.
“I couldn’t pick a favorite,” she said. “It would be like picking a favorite child.”
The fictional movie poster of fictional Luther Stallings’ fictional film persona.
Back in his prime, Luther Stallings was the biggest, baddest, blackest Kung Fu champion and action movie star to walk the streets of L.A. With his co-star Valletta Moore by his side, the man was the definition of cool. Even 30 years later, after the drugs and the drinking and the comebacks gone bad, the star of the infamous Blaxploitation “Strutter” series could knock out a couple of oversized henchman so fast that if you blinked, you’d miss it.
What Luther Stallings couldn’t do was save Michael Chabon’s new novel. In fact, Luther, despite his talents, never made it beyond supporting character in a cast that’s too vast. As I read. And read. And read, I couldn’t figure out what bothered me so much about “Telegraph Avenue” (Harper, $27.99). Then it hit me. This book, it’s like the menu at Cheesecake Factory. It’s got pages and pages of just about anything you’d want to eat, but none of it feels authentic. It’s all oversalted, high cholesterol, and sampled by focus groups. And they’re almost the same number of pages.
These are, admittedly, harsh words for an author who wrote my favorite book of all time, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” and whose 2007 “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is among my top 10. That an author so imaginative might not be able to top two masterpieces shouldn’t be unimaginable — who talks about Beethoven’s 10th, after all? — it’s that with this go-round, it feels like he’s trying too hard.
Luther’s son Archy is the closest thing this story has to a hero — though a tragic one. Archy and his best friend Nat Jaffe own Brokeland Records, a failing music store on an uncharted desert island between Berkeley and Oakland that sells nothing but vinyl — in 2004, when the record business is suffering and those ubiquitous white headphones have been popping up all over town.
The writing is on the wall now that Oakland native and former NFL star quarterback Gibson Goode, a.k.a. G Bad, the fifth richest black man in America (he owns a zeppelin!) has come back home. City councilman Chandler Flowers III, who’s got his own checkered history with Luther, has just thrown his support behind G Bad to build a Dogpile Thang, his popular chain store geared toward black consumer culture, complete with an expanded vinyl record section, just two blocks from Brokeland.
Naturally, Archy and Nat smell a rat, and their reactions trickle into to their marriages. Gwen, Archy’s about-to-be-estranged wife, and Aviva, an ace midwife who has long suffered husband Nat’s Brooklyn transplant neuroses, are business partners as well, dealing with their own issues. Gwen, 36 weeks pregnant and livid about revelations of her husband’s infidelities, has put her professional partnership and their hospital access in jeopardy following complications during a homebirth.
Then there’s the kids: Julius, Nat and Aviva’s 14-year-old son, has fallen in love with Titus, the 15-year-old son that Archy kind of knew he had, but had not laid eyes on until, well, just now.
Everything up to this point has taken place on the day the story opens. Tired yet?
Also on day one, just before he encounters his “new” son, Archy has his first encounter in years with Valletta. It appears that Luther is back in town, news that Archy doesn’t exactly welcome. Things head downhill from there.
Chabon jumps into the heads of each of these characters, and many others, but so many feel crudely drawn that even toward the end the only character I felt I really knew was the young, heartsick Julius with his unrequited love.
The author writes the language of black Oakland through Archy and the old men who hang out at the record store all day, but Toni Morrison is far better at the dialect, and Percival Everett’s contemporary black fiction (not to mention the laissez faire attitude both he and Chabon try to get across in the writing process) feels much more like the real thing, because it is the real thing.
In the end, though, it’s Chabon who saves his own book. As a writer he is still unique, musical, and a joy to read. In the hands of an amateur, “Telegraph Road” wouldn’t have made it past the literary agent’s desk.
But like the obnoxious advertisements on the pages opposite Cheesecake Factory’s menu items, he resorts to gimmickry — Gwen, grumpy and about to burst, also happens to be a black belt in qigong and catches a teacup flung at her head from close range (never mind that Chabon, breaking the cardinal rule of “don’t write in a gun that you don’t plan to shoot” never gives Gwen another chance to break out her lethal fists); a fundraiser at a Berkeley mansion features a certain African-American state senator from Illinois with his own race for U.S. Senate well underway (this is 2004, remember); a 12-page, single sentence in which Fifty-Eight, Mr. Jones’s parrot, surveys the goings-on in the East Bay upon being set free.
Imagine a climax of this story that’s something akin to the last fight scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” a Busby Berkeley-esque scene of synchronized Kung Fu fighters. Which would have made sense, given how much ink Tarantino gets in this book, and given that if you’re going to remove your story from the authenticity of the Blaxploitation era, you may as well give credit to the original homage rather than the real thing. But sorry, not here. All we get is over-sugared cheesecake.
It’ll probably be a good five years until we see Chabon’s next novel. You might be better off waiting.
Kale, beet and seaweed salad.
If you’re going to buy one Jewish cookbook this year, make it Lévana Kirschenbaum’s “The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple” (Lévana Cooks, $39.95).
But be warned: Lévana has no patience for fad diets, box mixes, the dearth of extreme television cook-offs, deceptive marketing, can’t-lose-weight pity parties, “bad-bad-bad-for-you additives, preservatives, supplements and whatnot,” and proofreaders.
The co-owner of Manhattan’s haute-kosher Lévana Restaurant, which recently closed after a three-decade run, takes a whole foods approach. (The “whole foods” in the title is not connected to Whole Foods Market). Even in the Northwest, where farm-to-table is becoming household language, a kosher cookbook focusing on holistic dining is refreshing — and necessary.
Lévana opens this 400-page hardbound beast of a book with a polite, 18-page tirade about American food culture. She is outraged by low-carb diets (“I would hate to add myself to the glut of people who feed you a barrage of information on low-carb foods, which leaves me, for one, confused and not an ounce thinner”), liquid meals and various marketing sleights-of-hand that fool consumers into thinking they’re saving a few grams of fat, when in fact they’re eating a higher-calorie product pumped with unpronounceable manmade ingredients.
Aside from a fresh — literally — approach to Jewish cooking, one that does not require such kosher-aisle offenders as MSG-laden powdered soup stock and Passover cake mixes with no ingredients found in nature, Lévana’s recipes are beautiful, easy and inventive. Recipes like “Quick Black Bean Chocolate Soup” and “Mushroom and Feta-Stuffed Tilapia Rolls” make me fall in love with food all over again. Well, since yesterday.
This is an excellent go-to book for holiday recipes, not only for traditional recipes (with an emphasis on Lévana’s Moroccan background) but also because each recipe makes enough to feed a small army. No need to worry about making an elaborate dish, only to find out it serves four supermodels or one normal person. And in case you overdo it, you can burn off some calories bench-pressing the book.
One note of caution: Some recipes call for pantry items like preserved lemon, which takes two weeks to make. While most ingredients are readily available at the supermarket or farmers’ markets, be sure to read through ingredients first.
Here are a few recipes that use in-season ingredients and will bring symbolic meaning to your holiday tables. B’tayavon!
Kabocha Sweet Potato Soup
Round lentils symbolize the cyclical year, and at Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seders gourds — based on Hebrew word play — represent the tearing apart of evil judgments on us, and the announcement of our merits before God.
1 Kabocha squash, about 2 pounds, unpeeled, seeded, and cut into large chunks (use a hammer)
2 large sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks
1 large red onion, cut into large chunks
2 cups red lentils or yellow split peas
6 ribs celery, peeled
1 large bunch dill, fronds and stems
1∕3 cup olive oil
6 bay leaves, or 1 tsp. ground
1 Tbs. turmeric
Sea salt to taste
12 cups water
Ground pepper to taste
Bring all ingredients to a boil in a wide heavy pot. Reduce to medium, cover, and cook 1-1/2 hours. Cream with an immersion blender. Adjust the texture and seasonings. Makes a dozen ample servings.
Kale, Beet and Seaweed Salad (Gluten Free)
Give this one a chance! Kale is abundant right now, and in the Sephardic seder beets and scallions symbolize the hope that our enemies will retreat and be eliminated by God.
1 bunch kale, tough stems removed, leaves cut into very thin ribbons
1 large beet, red or golden, grated very fine (food processor fine shredding blade)
6 scallions, sliced very thin
1/4 cup hijiki or other seaweed: wakame, arame, etc. (available in health food stores), soaked in hot water to cover
1/4 cup sesame or other seeds (chia, flax, hemp, etc.), toasted
1 cup Chinese green tea dressing (see below)
Place all salad ingredients in a mixing bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss. Store refrigerated in glass jars. Makes 8 servings.
Chinese Green Tea Dressing
Servings: 2 1/2 cups
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1/2 cup toasted sesame oil
1/2 cup strong green tea (or Red or White) Decaf OK
2 tablespoons honey, agave, or maple syrup
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup unfiltered apple cider vinegar or brown rice vinegar
dash of bottled hot sauce to taste
Grind the ginger finely in food processor. Add all remaining ingredients and process until smooth. Store refrigerated in a glass jar.
Roasted Salmon with Maple Glaze (Gluten Free)
Bluefish will be suitable here, as well as any thick white fish.
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 Tbs. soy sauce
3 Tbs. Dijon-style mustard
3 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
1 Tbs. cracked pepper, or less to taste
1 whole side salmon, about 3 lbs., skin off, bones out, trimmed
Preheat the oven to 500º. Mix all but last ingredient in a bowl. Place the salmon skin side up in a baking pan just large enough to fit it snugly in one layer (if you have empty spaces, the liquids will burn). Pour the sauce evenly over the fish. Bake 18 minutes, or a minute or two longer, until the fish is tender but firm to the touch. Transfer to a platter and pour the cooking juices over the fish. Serve hot, or at room temperature. Makes 8 main course servings, or a dozen ample first course servings.
Lemon Coconut Mousse (Gluten Free)
1-1/2 envelopes unflavored kosher gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1 15-oz. can coconut milk
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3 tsp. lemon zest
1/4 cup rum
1 cup light agave syrup
1 lb. silken tofu
1 8-oz. container dairy-free cream cheese
1 cup toasted coconut for topping (about 15 minutes in a 325°F oven), optional
Dissolve the gelatin in the water and reserve. Bring the coconut milk and the lemon juice to just below boiling in a small saucepan. Transfer the warm mixture to a food processor with the reserved gelatin mixture and process about 30 seconds. Add all remaining ingredients and process until perfectly smooth. Pour into a bowl or small individual cups and chill. Top with toasted coconut, if desired. Makes a dozen servings.
Many of Lévana’s recipes are available on her website, levanacooks.com. Here are a few personal recommendations:
Moroccan Fava Bean Soup
Though the reputation of fava beans was permanently altered for the worse by Hannibal Lecter, this soup is incredible. The spice mix will put some hair on your chest, too.
Made with vegetables peaking right now, this is a wonderful side dish or vegetarian main dish. To boost the protein content, throw in a can of chickpeas. Make this a day ahead to enjoy a bolder flavor.
Fish and almonds are related to fertility and abundance, good things to hope for in the New Year.
Brisket in Coffee and Brandy Sauce
This is a perfect example of Lévana’s experimentation with “wacky ingredients” and a result “that comes out to die for!” I might just have to come out of vegetarianism for this one.
Occasionally, a book comes out that changes history. One of these books is the Aleppo Codex, the Hebrew Bible manuscript that has survived a millennium and several perilous journeys. Another is “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” by Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman (Algonquin, $24.95).
In or around the 10th century CE, a scribe in Tiberias named Shlomo Ben-Buya’a completed an authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible — the five books of the Torah, the prophets and writings. Written on folios of animal hide, rather than as a scroll, this Bible was not meant for religious purposes.
By the time Ben-Buya’a set his tree-gall, iron-sulfate, black-soot ink to the page, the Jewish people had been dispersed for about 1,000 years and lived in independent communities, most of which were now under Islamic rule. Like Jewish communities across the world today, they read from the Torah throughout the week and relied upon it for religious guidance. But the Torah wasn’t written in stone, and the need arose for an accurate Bible with codified spellings and pronunciations that Jewish communities could refer to without differentiation. This version became known as the codex, or the Crown.
The Crown lived intact for 1,000 years, managing to escape, unscathed, attacks by the Seljuk Turks, the Crusaders, the Mongols, and a devastating earthquake. It was ransomed along with human lives and traveled from Tiberius to Jerusalem to Cairo, making its final stop in Aleppo, Syria. The ancient community of Aleppo Jews guarded the Crown in a safe in a grotto in the bowels of the main synagogue. They revered it, even believing it harbored protective powers.
So, how, after a millennium of survival in death-defying conditions, sometime after 1947, did nearly half of the pages of the Crown of Aleppo get lost? This is the story Friedman is here to tell.
It’s a story others have tried to tell, and failed.
Friedman, who currently writes for the Times of Israel and has specialized in religion, archaeology and politics in the Middle East, is a master storyteller. He weaves through a millennium of history with the ease of a seasoned time traveler, starting in 1947 Flushing Meadow, N.Y. From there it’s to Aleppo and a zigzag to Crusader-sacked Jerusalem, 1940s Syria, 12th-century Egypt, and 1950s Israel, coming up for air periodically at the present day, where he holds scraps of history that crumble to dust in his hands.
The popular story goes like this: When news of the vote to establish a Jewish state hit the Arab world, mobs looted and burned down synagogues and Jewish businesses, and in Aleppo they dragged the codex from its safe and burned it. After the dust settled, Jewish community members collected the scraps of parchment and saved what they could; other fragments disappeared with individuals, later to turn up in people’s homes and wallets in New York, where they were cherished as talismans. Rumor had it the codex was lost. In time, however, it resurfaced almost entirely intact. After much pressure and one botched operation, the Aleppo Codex was smuggled into Israel in 1958 and entrusted to the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. The book’s story of survival, rescue and return would seem to be no less miraculous than the Jewish people’s itself.
Today the codex lives inside a secret vault at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. But the manuscript that reportedly left Syria complete is now missing almost half of its story: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and most of Deuteronomy, Amos and Song of Songs are gone.
Friedman stumbled upon the Crown in 2008 while working on an article for the Associated Press. He was intrigued by its virtual anonymity. How was it that hardly anything was known about this epic work, which came to dictate the Bible’s pronunciation and cantillation for the future of Judaism, and about the 40 percent of it — including almost the entire Torah — that disappeared? But as he started investigating the deeper questions about the book’s missing sections, his leads went cold, and his contacts stopped returning his calls.
Friedman found himself in the Aleppo Codex Underground, with a cast of characters chasing the same elusive goal: The missing pages.
“Listen,” Ezra Kassin, amateur Crown sleuth and Aleppo émigré to Israel, says to Friedman in the book’s introduction, “you’re entering a minefield.”
“I nodded, pretending I knew what he meant,” writes Friedman. “He shook his head. I had no idea.”
The Aleppo Codex, as it turns out, has had more sightings than Elvis, and the story of its emergence from the synagogue’s flames has several vastly different versions. In the 1990s, Mossad operatives went into Syria looking for the missing pages. Even they came back empty handed. Something happened to the Crown, and the onus, Friedman comes close to but shies away from concluding, is on the Israeli government.
In this way, Friedman is no more successful than his predecessors at closing the case. The key witnesses won’t talk, have given contradictory statements, or have died. Friedman, talented investigative journalist as he is, continuously runs toward the heart of the mystery, only to realize it is a trompe l’oeil as he smacks into another wall.
Friedman’s narrative provides hope: The rest of the codex is out there, and, as one player informs him, readily available if someone would come forward with just $1 million. But hope dissolves into frustration. “The Aleppo Codex” challenged some of my most staunchly held beliefs: That libraries are always the best places for books, that Zionism was good for all Jews, that human beings will ultimately do the right thing.
It’s painful to think about the possibilities for the codex’s fate. How could the people of the book “lose” half of the most important manuscript outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Could it have been stolen and sold by Israeli officials, who worked so hard to obtain it? Could a community that feared the supposed awesome power of the book be reduced to selling its desecrated pages on the rare book circuit?
Friedman passes over, disappointingly, one other theory: The spiritual potency of the Crown is keeping it hidden. Ronen Bergman, writing in the New York Times Magazine (“A High Holy Whodunit,” July 25), picks up this thread. The Crown was inscribed with a blessing and a curse: “Blessed be he who preserves it and cursed be he who steals it, and cursed be he who sells it, and cursed be he who pawns it. It may not be sold and it may not be defiled forever.”
At one point, Bergman writes, Israel’s chief rabbi reversed the curses, so that anyone harboring parts of the Crown would be cursed and hence turn them in. But the community replied that “the faith of the Jews of Aleppo in the power of the codex is greater by far” than the rabbi’s pronouncement. Could it be that the keeper of the rest of the Aleppo Codex is not a thief, but instead perceives the Western-influenced State of Israel, with its unquestioned faith in libraries and institutions, as the real thief?
It requires a paradigm shift, and it may be out of left field, but I wish Friedman had pondered the possibility.
That critique aside, “The Aleppo Codex” is a rare example of untold Jewish history. It’s riveting, mysterious, and a piece of good literature, like its subject.
“There’s nothing more depressing than waking up in your shoes.”
That about sums up Silver’s life. He had it good once. Once. He and his bandmates wrote a hit that still gets airplay on the classic rock stations and the wedding and Bar Mitzvah circuit. He had a wife he loved and a daughter he worshipped. Unfortunately, life for Silver hasn’t been a two-way street. After his wife left him — once she realized he’d never emerge from his attempts to rekindle the magic of that one wonderful song — it’s been a slow downward spiral.
Now, at 44, Silver’s lonely, out of shape, obviously unhappy, and living in a residence hotel off some interstate in New Jersey. And that’s where we find him at the beginning of “One Last Thing Before I Go,” Jonathan Tropper’s just-released novel (Dutton, $26.95).
Tropper’s last go-round, “This is Where I Leave You,” set in a family’s childhood home during the weeklong shiva mourning period following the patriarch’s death, was laugh-out-loud funny and hard to top as far as premise goes. Put a family that can hardly stand each other in a house for a week, and watch hilarity ensue.
How else would he be able to attract such names as Zac Efron, Jason Bateman and Goldie Hawn to the upcoming film treatment?
Tropper’s new novel is more of a downer, but it certainly is far more poignant. Early in, Silver is feeling his age. The bulk of his income and what can be called his love life are one and the same: His weekly visits to the local sperm bank. Even the broken, lonely women he picks up at bars and brings back to his apartment want only to snuggle.
So when he gets a visit from his 18-year-old daughter, he’s got reason to celebrate. Casey has hardly spoken to him in years. Their relationship, especially since the divorce, has been tenuous at best. But then she pops the big news: She’s pregnant. He’s overjoyed that his daughter has come to him for support, for help with her decision on what to do with this cluster of cells that will eventually turn into a baby. But even that’s not all it’s cracked up to be: “Why’d you come to me?” he asks her.
Her response: “I care less about letting you down.”
Silver drives her to the appointment nonetheless. But as they’re waiting, something happens. He blacks out. When he wakes up, his surgeon — the man his ex-wife is supposed to marry in a week, incidentally — gives him the bad news. He’s got a problem with his heart. Get a quick surgery, you’ll be up and at ‘em in no time, Rich says, otherwise you’re going to die.
I’ll take death, Silver says.
And that’s where the fun begins. Freed from the constraints of living, Silver starts to rebuild his relationship with his daughter. He begins to say what’s on his mind — mostly because he also suffered a series of small strokes that took away the filter in his brain that shuts people up. Most important, the spark that had made him a star finally starts to come back. He even works up the nerve to ask out the cute folk musician he’s been stalking in the bookstore for well over a year.
He also realizes that people care about him. Get the surgery, says Casey. Get the surgery, say his two friends who live in the hotel. Get the surgery, says his ex-wife.
His father, a rabbi who has watched his son’s fall and been helpless to do anything about it, issues a challenge: Come to four lifecycle events — a bris, a Bar Mitzvah, a wedding, a death — and see if that doesn’t change things?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess whose wedding Silver crashes. Things have to get worse before they get better, right? But things are starting to get better. Apart from the fact that he could die at any moment, anyway. So if he chooses life, does it all come crashing down again? These are the big questions Tropper is asking.
Tropper has a lot of characters to deal with, a lot of messed-up heads to get inside. Silver has screwed up the lives of a lot of people in his relatively short time on earth. But the author does so deftly and without making the subject matter too heavy. He doesn’t give us the belly laughs of his previous work, but he does examine the philosophical questions of life and death that elevates the novel from flavor of the week to something with a hopefully longer shelf life.
And while I won’t give away whether Silver eventually gives in and lets Rich perform the surgery, life sometimes has a way of making those decisions for us.
I have two words for you: Duck “prosciutto.”
If you are reading this around the time of publication (Aug. 31, 2012), you have just enough time to start the two-week curing process that will result in this yummy-sounding kosher version of that “other” cured meat, one which probably needs a better name. Kosher duck breasts may be hard to find locally, though. (Calls to QFC and Albertsons did not find any in store, but there are on-line sources.) And you need to have room in your fridge to hang the meat while it’s curing. The author recommends duct tape — no pun intended — to attach the cheesecloth-wrapped breasts to the top of the fridge.
This is one of the creative recipes in “Kosher Revolution” by Geila Hocherman and Arthur Boehm (Kyle, cloth, $29.95). A photo of it even graces the cover, along with the grilled balsamic figs and homemade baguette crostini.
Hocherman has a Cordon Bleu certificate from Paris and she brings that very French sensibility to kosher cooking, along with particular attention to sauces. The authors include many recipes inspired by other food cultures, including Asian, East Indian, Moroccan and Italian dishes. Each recipe is accompanied by a full-color, equally scrumptious photo. A superficial sampling of recipes resulted in a delicious and completely vegan roasted eggplant and pepper soup (can be made parve, dairy or meat) and a sophisticated and savory chicken liver-stuffed turkey breast with a fabulous sauce. (The recipe calls for veal, but if you substitute poultry, as I did, much shorter cooking time is required.)
This book is not for the novice cook. Some complicated instructions — and an occasional typo — require an experienced cook’s touch.
Two other new cookbooks are rich with approachable recipes suitable for all levels of experience.
“Feed Me Bubbe,” co-authored by the on-line television chef “Bubbe” and her grandson/television producer Avrom Honig (Perseus, paper, $16), brings a heimish (cozy and homey) touch to basic kosher cooking probably very much like your own grandmother used to make, if she was of the Ashkenazic variety. I found recipes here very similar to my maternal grandmother’s style of cooking, although no spaghetti with ketchup that my mother recalls being served on meatless night. “Cucumber and Scallion Salad with Fresh Dill,” hit a nostalgic spot for me. It was truly just like Grandma used to make.
As much of a memoir as a cookbook, Bubbe shares personal stories and recollections such as “First Taste of Lox” and “The Best Hot Dog I Ever Ate.” With lots of instructions and explanations, the book is both entertaining and a great introduction to basic kosher cooking. You can enhance your experience of Bubbe by watching her at www.feedmebubbe.com.
More fun and easy-to-make recipes can be found in Leah Schapira’s “Fresh and Easy Kosher Cooking,” a sure bet with recipes requiring few ingredients and simple preparation enhanced by big color photos (Artscroll, cloth, $34.99).
Schapira is the co-founder of www.CookKosher.com, and says her mother introduced her to cooking as a way of overcoming Leah’s finicky eating.
Schapira also draws on and combines Jewish and other ethnic cooking traditions. Recipes include “Basil Chicken Wraps,” “Lazy Man’s Cholent” and “Sriracha Thai Noodles.” The “Rotisserie-Style Chicken Skewers” were a big hit in my house, made the night before and perfect for a picnic at ZooTunes.
Authors of “easy” cookbooks rely heavily on pre-prepared and processed ingredients to simplify cooking. Store-bought barbecue or teriyaki sauces or breadcrumbs do make life easier and allow for last-minute preparation, but can also mean extra sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and preservatives. You can make sauces like teriyaki sauce and barbecue sauce in advance (as I did for the chicken skewers) and keep them in the fridge.
“Fresh and Easy” is well organized with good menu ideas. Schapira could have improved it with a pantry section, listing ingredients to have on hand. “Kosher Revolution” has an excellent pantry and instruction section, although more sophisticated, and Bubbe includes two helpful pages of cooking definitions for the novice cook and metric conversion charts.
“In Jewish thought there are no latecomers,” said novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick. This phrase should be on the dust jacket of Edward Alexander’s collection of essays, “State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal” (Transaction Publishers) as an invitation to follow this scholarly Cicerone on a tour of the Jewish condition.
Alexander is the author of “Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew” and many articles over the years on Jewish history, politics and literature. To open the lid of this much-traveled steamer trunk is to experience Alexander’s perceptive mind, dry humor, and exquisite sense of irony. Alexander is an entertaining dinner guest at your mental dining room table.
Most readers will have some familiarity with the literary lights that populate the work, including Yehuda Halevi (whom he calls the first Zionist), Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow and many more. But writers less well known to me (but, I discovered, well known to my more literate friends) offered the most delightful surprises. My favorites were Ruth Wisse and Cynthia Ozick.
Alexander introduces us to Ozick through her brilliant 1985 Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard on metaphor and memory. Briefly summarized, she notes that Mathew Arnold made a distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism by crediting the Greeks with inspiration and the Hebrews with memory and metaphor. Memory is the opposite of inspiration, she says, because it carries the judgment of history. Thus the Jews, a “slave rabble,” brought something new into the world by turning their memory of enslavement in Egypt into “a metaphor…a way to convert imagination into a serious moral instrument.”
Ozick then warns about the dangers of universalizing metaphors. She cites the polemical distortion of what happened at Auschwitz (beloved by universalists all over the world), which says that the victims were “human beings” or “humanity” at large, or which applies the term “Auschwitz” to every instance, real or imagined, of “man’s inhumanity to man.” Jews, she insists, “are no metaphors — not for poets, not for novelists, not for theologians, not for murderers, and never for anti-Semites. Auschwitz is not a metaphor, and there are no metaphors for Auschwitz.”
Another author with similarly powerful moral clarity is Ruth Wisse, a teacher and scholar of Yiddish literature and language at Harvard. Alexander opens his essay on Wisse with this: “Clear your mind of cant.” Has anyone who writes about the political dimension of the Jewish experience ever taken this motto of Samuel Johnson’s to heart more than Ruth Wisse? Has any voice ever laid siege more effectively to the barricades of stale cliché and bad logic that obscure “the Jewish problem?” Have you heard that Jews are an intransigent minority responsible for communism in capitalist countries, capitalism in communist countries, cosmopolitanism in nationalistic countries, and, in the minds of “realist” foreign-policy experts, every evil on the globe except avian flu?
Alexander captures Wisse’s signal idea in this passage: “Do you think that moral superiority over their enemies is the chief desideratum for the Jews, as when Golda Meir told Sadat she could forgive him for killing ‘our sons’ but not for ‘making us kill yours.’ Think again, urges Wisse, remember that survival precedes definition, and that your enemies’ designs upon you are a more compelling concern than your children’s decency. To be decent, you need to be alive.”
“State of the Jews” contains 24 essays grouped as “The Victorian Background,” “History,” “Politics,” and “Literature.” Alexander rescues the art of “criticism” from its current meaning, tearing it down to its classical meaning, seeing the thing for what it is and finding truth.
His commentary has clarity and the power to “clear your mind of cant” if you are disconcerted by the self-defeating extremes of Jewish thought and opinion. Those whose progressive ideologies and Jewish identity have merged (so that the former has replaced the latter) will not like this book. Alexander does not suffer fools or hardened ideologues gladly. He makes this evident in his penultimate essay and laudatory review of “The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson, a satire on self-hating Jews and their shame over Israel.
To get a quizzical look from gentiles, tell them Jews are unique. It’s something Jews know but non-Jews can’t seem to grasp. In the current controversy between liberal-minded American Catholic nuns and the dogmatic imperatives of the Holy See, my money is on the Pope. But the brouhaha is a ripple on a pond compared to the raging sea of contention among Jews, especially with regard to Israel.
Alexander goes headlong into that storm. As a former professor of English literature, he insists that the terms be properly defined. He traces the European history of that awful misnomer, “anti-Semitism” (better to have stayed with “Jew hatred”) from its origins to the “new anti-Semitism,” in which we have gone from a pariah people to a pariah state, Israel.
While Catholics have a Pax Romana, Jews are uniquely free to reach their own conclusions. Alexander’s scholarship will guide our steps and light the way.
Now that the Olympic torch has been extinguished in London, leaving us with images of exceptional athletes and a wild closing celebration featuring pop culture and musical idols, this year’s Association of Jewish Libraries 2012 Sydney Taylor Book Award winners for older readers and for teens feel especially important, dealing as they do with music and sport.
Since 1968, AJL has recognized outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category.
“Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein” by Susan Goldman Rubin
Two-time Honor Book Award author Susan Goldman Rubin went from silver to gold this year with her superb biography, “Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein.” Concentrating on Lenny’s formative years, his childhood in Boston and his passion for the piano, the book culminates in his first appearance, at age 25, conducting at Carnegie Hall.
Rubin offers an inspiring story of the young musician’s determination to succeed despite family opposition. An accomplished pianist, he overcame the lock European conductors seemed to have on classical music in the 1930s and 40s through hard work and a spirit that wouldn’t quit. The intergenerational struggle with his father will certainly speak to young readers, while many excellent and varied photos bring the book’s subject to vibrant life.
Rubin has included a timeline, an introduction to his music, a discography, bibliography, index, a careful source list of quotations, and biographies of selected teachers, musicians, friends and associates who influenced Bernstein over the years. AJL committee member Barbara Krasner commented that “Rubin’s well-researched and polished narrative was filled with tension that today’s kids can relate to.”
“The Berlin Boxing Club,” by Robert Sharenow
Robert Sharenow won the 2012 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s Teen Readers category for “The Berlin Boxing Club.” This historical novel of World War II is also a strong sports story. It reveals the history of Nazi Germany through the eyes of Karl Stern, a typical 14-year-old German assimilated Jew who had little connection to any religious life. With the rise of the Nazis, he faces bullying in school and determines to learn to defend himself. Unlike his father and sister, Karl can “pass,” which makes him a person who can fit in for safety’s sake, someone teens may identify with.
When Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, negotiates with Karl’s art dealer father to give his son boxing lessons in exchange for a portrait, Karl jumps at the chance. As he grows stronger and better at boxing, he discovers a deep love and talent for the sport and increased admiration for Schmeling. Then Schmeling defeats African-American Joe Louis and becomes Germany’s poster boy, “proof” of Aryan superiority. When he and his actress wife publicly associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, Karl begins to wonder where his mentor’s sympathies really lie. Meanwhile, the author has effectively juxtaposed the “civilized” violence, controlled by the honor-bound rules of the Berlin Boxing Club where Karl trains, with the senseless violence against Jews in the streets.
Karl’s life from 1934 to 1938 is a rough one. The author weaves his story well into the cultural milieu of Kristallnacht, degenerate art, Picasso and Matisse, Jesse Owens, Superman and Joe Louis (who decked Schmeling two minutes into a 1938 rematch, much to German disbelief, dismay and rage). A talented cartoonist, Karl’s own cartoons and drawings add visual depth to the novel. Well researched and dramatic, with a strong sense of time and place, this book should inspire teens to self-determination, as Karl gradually transforms himself from passive victim to a young man of strength and confidence, acting to protect his family.
“Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Baseball Pioneer,” by Shelley Sommer
For ages 10 to 14, the Older Reader Honor Book by Shelley Sommer, “Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Baseball Pioneer,” is a very good biography of Hank Greenberg. Greenberg, a Jewish boy from New York City, was a contradiction to stereotype — neither small nor scholarly, but rather over 6 feet tall, strong and healthy, and able hit a baseball out of the park. He played with the Detroit Tigers, leading his team to several pennants and the World Series but, like Jackie Robinson, whom he later encouraged, he had a lot to rise above. He did it with courage and integrity, even when his decision to miss a season-ending game in a tight pennant race to observe Yom Kippur actually became a national issue.
In many ways it’s a typical sports biography, but Sommer puts it into perspective for young readers when his experiences were unique. For example, a brilliant first baseman for seven years, Greenberg was asked to change to outfield for team benefit. He was praised for agreeing, and even won MVP in the new position. But the author also tells us one reason he learned to love the outfield was because he no longer had to listen to the constant anti-Semitic insults from the visiting team’s bench near first base. Sommer draws Greenberg realistically, using photographs, quotes and source notes, resources and a bibliography.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s “As A Driven Leaf” is possibly one of the most widely read works of modern Jewish-themed fiction. Published in 1939 and reissued in 1996 by Behrman House, it has inspired generations. Steinberg was a leading Jewish scholar, popular speaker and defender of Zionism who died in 1950 at age 46.
About 15 years ago, publisher David Behrman was told of an unfinished novel Steinberg was working on when he died, and he received permission to publish “The Prophet’s Wife” (Behrman, cloth/paper/Kindle, various prices). Rather than have another writer complete it, he published it unfinished with closing essays by Professor Ari Goldman of Columbia University, Rabbi Harold Kushner and novelist Norma Rosen.
Formed from the barest thread of information, this biblical novel focuses on the prophet Hosea and his wife Gomer, who came “from whoredom” (JPS translation). Steinberg imagined them as childhood friends who marry despite class differences and family disapproval, creating two humanly flawed characters beset by tragedy. Despite the title, it’s much more about Hosea, and what really shines through is Steinberg’s depiction of life in 8th century BCE Israel.
The opportunity to read a work in the making is as interesting as the story itself. While the book’s potential is clear, this raw version is overly long — Steinberg would surely have edited it. The writing is a bit old fashioned, yet part of the entertainment is imagining how the author might have completed it. Goldman, Kushner and Rosen help readers puzzle through this.
Alan Cheuse’s “Song of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild” (Sourcebooks, cloth, $25.99) presents us with a number of interesting ideas, but multiple story lines and large amounts of varied information pull the book apart rather than bring it together.
Cheuse — NPR’s book reviewer and a writing teacher at George Mason University —follows and then intertwines the lives of three very different characters. Nathaniel Pereira is a young Jewish man from New York whose father sends him to inspect the family rice plantation in the mid-19th–century South. There he meets his cousin Jonathan, the owner of Liza, the family’s beautiful and enchanting house slave, and he falls in love.
Cheuse brings many fascinating historical details to the novel. He traces Liza’s family back to Timbuktu and the beginning of the slave trade. He vividly describes the horrors of slavery, of the ship crossing, the physical and sexual abuse of the captives, and the slave market, which causes Nathaniel to be sick to his stomach.
The idea that Jews were slaveholders in the South is intriguing, and Cheuse explores those contradictions, contrasting the lives and culture of Northern and Southern Jews (none of them particularly observant here). Part of the book’s problem is the density of each story line. Nathaniel or Liza’s stories could have stood alone, and Cheuse could have easily written a history book. The author seems overly focused on the sexual tension between Nathaniel and Liza, as well as Jonathan and the slaves he takes advantage of. These are disturbing truths, but here Cheuse seems to eroticize them inappropriately.
Three more novels, all written by non-Americans, have the Holocaust at their core, or perhaps more as a shadow that darkens the lives of the characters. If these represent Holocaust fiction, that genre seems to be moving toward exploring the long-term impact of the Shoah on survivors and subsequent generations. Each of these authors brings a piece of her family history to the stories.
The beautifully written and intriguing “I Am Forbidden,” by French novelist Anouk Markovits (Hogarth, cloth, $25), opens in 1939 Transylvania and focuses on two sisters grow up in a Hasidic Satmar home. Mila was adopted after her parents were killed during the war, and she and her stepsister Atara become fast friends. The family moves to Paris, where their father has been sent to minister a local congregation. There, Mila becomes increasingly more religious, eventually moving to Williamsburg to marry. Atara, drawn to the outside world, eventually leaves the fold. Yet it is Mila who struggles against her values and religious law when she is unable to get pregnant.
Even though this is her first novel in English, Markovits writes beautifully, bringing a slightly mystical quality to a gripping and tragic story about belief, faith and family. The author, we are told, left her Satmar family to escape an arranged marriage.
Canadian author Alison Pick’s second novel, “Far to Go” (Harper, paper, $14.99), is about the Bauer family, assimilated, upper-middle class Czechoslovakian Jews devoted to their homeland. The Bauer’s young, gentile nanny, Marta, is very attached to their son Pepik. None of them has a clear grasp on the political changes happening around them.
Naïve and uneducated, Marta inadvertently betrays the family to Nazi invaders, but tries to redeem herself by helping get Pepik on a Kindertransport. Pick paints a sad and vivid picture of a family in distress, a young woman’s disquiet and a boy’s tragic loss.
“The House at Tyneford” by British author Natasha Solomon (Plume, paper, $15) is billed as a book for fans of the “Downtown Abbey” TV show. Solomon is expert at vivid descriptions of the manor house, and beautifully depicts the surrounding English countryside.
Elise Landau is a Viennese 19 year old whose parents are prescient enough to make her take a job as a maid in England. Thousands of German and Austrian young women escaped the pre-war Continent with English work visas, working mostly as domestics. Like our fictitious protagonist, they left well-off homes and were shocked by the intensely hard work as household help. (The character was inspired by the author’s great-aunt.)
While this is an absorbing story of a girl’s maturation and eventual romance with the master’s young son, Solomon’s lack of treatment of the Holocaust leaves a gap in the story. I assume this was a deliberate choice, knowing the horror has been depicted elsewhere and often. So while Elise pines for her parents and learn specifics of her mother’s death, her lack of curiosity about her friends’ and family’s fates may leave the Jewish reader, at least, slightly puzzled.
As the kids get ready to go back to school, it’s time to reload our grown-up backpacks with some new reads by Jewish (Jew-ish) authors and celebrities.
“The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time,” edited by Eitan Fishbane (Jewish Lights, paper, $18.99). Drawing on Hasidic teachings, Fishbane selects texts to enhance the appreciation of Shabbat, from candle lighting and Kiddush to sacred eating. The author has translated a number of sources previously unavailable in English.
Tops on this quarter’s list is the entertaining and touching “The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast: One Family’s Cross-Country Ride of Passage by Bike” by Matt Biers-Ariel (Mountaineers, paper, $18.95). When the author’s son, Yonah, refused to have a Bar Mitzvah, shunning religion in that recalcitrant teenage manner, his parents told him to come up with another significant way to mark his Jewish adulthood. They settled on a cross-country bike ride from California to Washington, D.C. to present a petition on climate change to Congress. At first it’s just father and son, but when little brother Solomon insists on coming, mom (Djina) has to join, too. Solomon is too small to ride alone so Matt purchases an older model tandem bike with a temperamental personality that leads it to become “The Beast” of the title.
Adventures and general discomforts befall this family as they schlep across the midsection of our nation in the hottest possible weather, but it’s a learning and bonding experience, a rite of passage for all, and makes a great story.
“The Legend of Shane the Piper: A Novel Memoir,” by Rick Spier (Moon Donkey, paper, $8.50). This local author has clearly done a lot of work (read: therapy) toward personal improvement, and shares his and his family’s history of dysfunction in a tough-talking, entertaining fashion. Spier focuses on his undergraduate life at Dartmouth, where lot of drinking was involved, resulting in the typically bad events that follow a lot of drinking. His relationship with his parents — a different kind of horror story — is a big part of his account as well. The author’s connection with Judaism is minimal, through his stepfather who raised him, but he gives it honorable consideration adding it, and the specter of the Holocaust, to the complicated equation of his family history. Spier cleverly calls this a “novel memoir,” allowing him to fudge some details and protect himself, too.
“The Guttenberg Bible,” by Steve Guttenberg (Dunne, cloth, $25.99). This memoir of life in Hollywood in the 1980s is much like the actor: Cute, fun and entertaining. Guttenberg stresses his working-class Massapequa (Long Island) roots, and is most entertaining when relating his parents’ kibitzing conversations on the phone. Guttenberg’s early success in Hollywood involved an elaborate ruse of pretending to be Michael Eisner’s son, but he insists he hasn’t let Hollywood go to his head. Like his career, the book is a bit inconsistent, ranging from well written to choppy, yet it’s perfect for fans of behind the-scenes Hollywood. Guttenberg scrupulously refrains from the negative and makes a point of complimenting many of the support staff that really makes a movie run. But where’s the Jewish content? Aside from his use of “G-d” and learning that Leonard Nimoy makes stuffed cabbage (Nimoy’s mother’s recipe), Guttenberg sadly ignores his Jewish roots.
Famous people writing books
“Beyond the Sling,” by Mayim Bialik (Touchstone, cloth, $23.99). Best known as the star of the long-running 1990s sitcom “Blossom,” and as Amy, the non-girlfriend of Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory,” Bialik is also a neurobiologist with a doctorate from UCLA and an overarching interest in child development. This book about attachment parenting draws on her personal parental experience and her interest in the human brain to counsel parents on the best way to bring up baby. Bialik stresses a reliance on instinct (rather than books — like this one?) and advises on some areas of most parental concern, including breastfeeding, sleeping and discipline, all supported by brain-based research. Just in case you might think she’s arrogant, she repeatedly stresses that she is not perfect. It’s the brain, stupid.
“The New Rules,” by Bill Maher (Blue Rider, cloth, $26.95). Subtitled “a funny look at how everybody but ME has their head up their ass,” fans of the late-night TV comedian will enjoy this long collection of short reflections on life. Others may not appreciate the irreverence. To assess this book I turned to a more rigorous consumer of popular culture, one of my 17-year-old sons, Ethan. He calls the book, “funny, crude, sometimes spot-on,” adding that not every piece is amusing and it’s not a book to sit and read. “Just open it up randomly,” he advises. In other words, it belongs in that basket of reading material you keep in your bathroom. Caveat: By his own admission, Maher’s father is Jewish and his mother raised him Catholic. The entertaining website “Jew or Not Jew” gives him a score of eight out of 15.
How long does it take to get a book done right? The first draft is never the one that should see print, of course. But take the evolution of a fairly minor character in Joshua Henkin’s new novel, “The World Without You.”
“Some of the characters, Lily in particular, were pretty vague to me until I got deeper into the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh drafts of the book,” Henkin told JTNews.
And that’s even with one of Henkin’s foibles.
“I am compulsive and I have a tendency to revise as I go along,” he said. “I think that’s really bad for a novelist.”
Henkin’s got some credibility in this department. He’s now got three novels under his belt, but he’s also a professor who runs the fiction program in Brooklyn College’s Master of Fine Arts program.
“I love teaching,” he said. “I’m often working late at night after my kids go to bed, but I’m really not in an office.”
He does work — though he considers himself a social person, he’ll spend as much as six or seven hours a day just writing. And he marks his writing time, to the minute, on a calendar, so he’ll know if he’s not being disciplined.
“When I don’t write in a day, I write a big zero,” he said. “I believe in the work ethic when it comes to fiction writing.”
Henkin came to Seattle this month to promote his newest book. “The World Without You” (Pantheon) brings together a grown family in the midst of myriad transitions. It’s the anniversary of Leo’s death, the only son and the youngest of David and Marilyn’s four children, who died one year ago while on assignment as a journalist in Iraq. The family and Leo’s widow, Thisbe, have come to their vacation home in the Berkshires for a memorial service, which puts them all under one roof for a long weekend.
Marilyn and David are grappling with how to break the news of their decision to separate. Clarissa and Nathaniel are having trouble conceiving. Lily’s longtime boyfriend Malcolm is taking the weekend off, so she’s on her own to keep her temper in check. Naomi and her husband Amram have come in from Jerusalem, with their four kids. Amram, can’t hold down a job and the family is suffering from both marital problems and a financial meltdown. Thisbe, whose marriage wasn’t quite the storybook everyone assumed, must tell her in-laws about her new, quite-serious relationship. No doubt about it: Something has to give.
The story’s original tension, Henkin said, was between Marilyn and Thisbe, with Thisbe as the book’s main character. That was then.
“But then I started writing the sisters and it became apparent to me that it was much more of a group book,” he said. “There’s really five or six main characters.”
Naomi is the biggest wild card in this powder keg. Her life through high school and beyond consisted of jumping from one boy’s bed (or back seat) to another. Her embrace of Orthodoxy keeps her grounded — in Jerusalem, anyway.
“It’s very threatening to her to come back,” Henkin said. “She needs to get back to Israel in a big way in order to maintain her sense of self.”
A moment in Henkin’s own life started him on the path to what you’ll find on your bookstore’s shelves.
“The inspiration for the book is a story from my family — I had a cousin who died of Hodgkins disease when he was in his late 20s,” he said. “But his death hung over the family for years.”
Thirty years later, at the annual Purim family gathering, the cousin’s mother startled everyone when she stood up and said, “I have two sons.”
“This was her way of saying that was the seminal event in her life, and that she was never going to get over that, whereas my cousin’s wife got remarried, had a family, and she moved on,” Henkin said. “It got me thinking about the gap between what it’s like to lose a partner and what it’s like to lose a child.”
But inspiration only gets you to the keyboard.
“I think that a fiction writers get in trouble when they think it’s about inspiration,” he said. “I find that some of my least-inspired work comes when I’m feeling most inspired and some of my best work comes when I’m feeling least inspired.”
While he had some ideas of where he wanted the book to go, “if you outline the story before you actually have gotten to know your characters you get what a friend of mine calls Lipton Cup-o-Story, you’re basically injecting your characters into a pre-ordained plot.”
Nothing ended up pre-ordained here. Henkin threw away 2,000 pages of his writing for “The World Without You” — with no regrets.
“Most of the stuff I threw out was bad. Some is good but it doesn’t belong,” he said. “Once I’ve written it, it’s kind of like what economists call sunk costs. There’s no taking back that time. I like cutting. It’s kind of like a detox process for me.”
In the end, everyone returns home. The freshly reopened wounds begin to scab over again and the family moves on. Just like life. Which is how, eventually, Henkin wanted it.
A habitual liar who sticks his hand into a hole in the ground — and ends up in a place where he finds all the lies he’s ever told. A divorced man whose toddler wants him to kill his ex-mother-in-law. A woman who discovers the man she’s sleeping with has a zipper under his tongue, which turns him into another person after she unzips him.
What goes on in the mind of Etgar Keret that he can produce such fantastical tales? His newest book of stories, “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” (FSG Originals) is so quintessentially Israeli, yet it isn’t. Released last year in Hebrew, and in English last month by three translators (including Keret’s protégé Nathan Englander), “Suddenly” doesn’t go where Oz, Appelfeld, Agron and so many others in the canon of Israeli literature have gone: War, identity, the land, the history. But his stories, stories of normal people living unexceptional lives who find themselves in exceptional situations, cut so close to the Israeli psyche.
What American, approached by an angry husband in a diner and accused of cheating with his wife, would play along and take the kick to the ribs rather than deny everything? Who else could spend two pages describing the contents of his pockets and turn it into a story about loneliness and the hope that a gift of a postage stamp might lead to love?
Keret bottles the aggressive laissez faire attitude of so many Israeli men and the driven ebullience of its women into his 35 stories, but he also captures the downtrodden, the depressed, the downright suicidal. Sure, these are Israelis (at least most of them), they’re Jews, they’re interesting. But they’re not special. They’re just like everyone else, trying to live their lives no differently from you or me. But when we’re talking about Israeli literature, that makes “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” exceptional.
Unlike Hanukkah or Passover, children’s books specifically for Shavuot are few and far between. Instead, the holiday finds us using books for young children focused on mountains, large and small; rules, welcome or resisted; and blintzes — always welcome.
A perfect example is Kar-Ben Publishing’s new book for Shavuot, “Sadie and the Big Mountain” by Jamie Korngold, illustrated by Julie Fortenberry. Sadie’s synagogue nursery school classmates are excited about their forthcoming hike to commemorate Shavuot, but Sadie is definitely not. She hates hikes, is afraid of heights, and is sure she’s much too little to climb, like Moses, high enough to reach God. Sadie worries each day as Morah Sarah helps everyone prepare for the dreaded Friday when they will make the ascent with Rabbi Jamie — author Korngold is referred to as the “adventure rabbi” — and picnic on the blintzes the class prepared. But her worries prove as out of scale as the “mountain” the class will climb. Rabbi Jamie explains that even the real Mt. Sinai was not so big, that God chose a small mountain to teach that anyone can climb high enough to reach God.
To learn how and why God chose a small mountain, look for “The Littlest Mountain,” simply told by Barb Rosenstock, charmingly illustrated by Melanie Hall and published by Kar-Ben. Based on a Midrashic legend, the story attributes human qualities to the various mountains, all competing for the honor of being chosen as the site for the giving of the Ten Commandments. Only Mt. Sinai stands silent, convinced it is neither grand nor important nor beautiful enough to be considered for such an important job. The story’s geography may not be accurate, but this tale is right on the mark about arrogance and humility, whether in mountain or in humans.
You want rules? “Ten Good Rules” by Susan Remick Topek lays out 10 simple rules for pre-schoolers, each set on a handsomely designed page that illustrator Rosalyn Schanzer has made double as a counting book by featuring a child’s hand pop up the right number of fingers. In “No Rules for Michael” by Sylvia A. Rouss, Susan Simon’s pictures clearly show the chaos that results when his teacher grants Michael’s wish for no rules at all in his classroom.
You prefer blintzes? Sylvia Rouss also wrote “Sammy Spider’s First Shavuot,” which takes preschoolers through the sequential preparations for making blintzes and otherwise celebrating receiving the Torah, to provide us with a “recipe for life.” (Kar-Ben, again, for all three.)
Just for a change, PJ Library has reissued an old favorite, “A Mountain of Blintzes” by Barbara Diamond Goldin (Marshall Cavendish Children). Nicely illustrated by Anik McGrory, it humorously shows how a family works together to make a delicious holiday celebration possible. Includes a recipe and a web address, www.PJLibrary.org, where you can learn more about the Jewish-book-a-month program.
Tzedakah, the word we are most likely to translate as “charity,” is actually derived from a Hebrew root meaning “righteous” or “justice.”
Judaism gives us many ways to perform tzedakah — correct acts, or acts of integrity — whether the simple donation of money or direct service to the needy.
Where Justice Dwells is, as the subtitle explains, Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s “Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights, paper, $24.99). Jacobs is the director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (named one of Newsweek’s most influential rabbis). This, her second book, is a practical manual and textbook for doing the right things, and gives us the opportunity to explore our motivation for our actions.
The book could be used for a class or book discussion group, as each chapter concludes with a list of discussion questions. In three sections, Jacobs explores what makes social justice Jewish, integrating Jewish life and social justice (including some text study) and how to take action, along with additional resources for action and further reading.
One of the more interesting questions Jacobs asks, accompanied by a bit of Talmud, is what constitutes your community, and which is the community to which you are required to give? Is your obligation to your neighborhood or to Israel? To your school or to your synagogue? To your people or to your country? Our lives have become a complex web of charitable opportunity both within and without the Jewish community and this book will either propel you to action or enhance what you do already.
What is more righteous than raising a happily Jewish child? In Raising Kids to Love Being Jewish (K’hal, paper, $15.99), Doron Kornbluth sets out a clear-cut recipe for achieving just that. Kornbluth’s opening chapter offers the most important advice, “Practice Joyful Judaism,” followed by the second chapter’s “Be a Role Model.” There’s little reason to follow the rest of the usual advice — send kids to a Jewish preschool or day school, or at least to Hebrew school, send them to camp, observe the holidays, belong to a synagogue, explore your genealogy and get grandparents involved — if you aren’t going to do it with a positive attitude and demonstrate that you enjoy it yourself. (Raise your hand if you were told you had to go to Hebrew school, but were treated to a litany of complaints about religion when you got home.)
Despite Kornbluth’s upbeat writing peppered with interesting personal anecdotes, there is a dark side to all this: It doesn’t always work, as parents know, despite all efforts. I recently met a woman whose parents had followed most of these principles, including Jewish summer camp, which many experts regard as the top Jewish retention tool. Yet this woman found her camping comrades so cliquish and arrogant it turned her off her religion forever.
There are no pat answers for something this complex, but I would add to Kornbluth’s list to keep an open dialogue between you and your kids, be receptive to hard questions, and don’t pretend that you — or anyone — has all the answers.
Readers can enjoy entertaining stories of good deeds in Tales of the Righteous, retold by Simcha Raz and translated by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (Gefen, cloth, $24.95). The author has rendered these Chassidic tales into a format easily appreciated by a modern audience. As Elie Wiesel notes in his foreword, “[Raz] presents us with the fair, literary, and humane countenance of Chassidism.” These short stories are grouped by category, alphabetized from “Anger” to “Prayer” to “Wisdom” (plus a separate section on “This World and the Next” at the end).
Certainly another great righteousness act is to help women who suffer from post-partum depression, as husband-wife team Rabbi Baruch and Michal Finkelstein do in Delivery from Darkness (Feldheim, paper, $19.99). Feldheim publishers has a mission of producing books on “essential, worldly topics, written with sensitivity toward the Torah-observant Jew.” While the authors assume their readers are observant, there’s plenty of good information here from which any reader can pick and choose. The authors explain the physiology and psychology of this fairly common disorder, and take pains to assure the reader that no one should be blamed for having it. Because of the religious angle, the authors are able to add a spiritual dimension to the multi-pronged approach — medical, nutrition and mental health — they propose.
Torch in the Dark: One Woman’s Journey, by Hadiyah Joan Carlyle (Book Publishers, paper, $16.95). This is a brave and poignant memoir about the author’s young adult years trying to survive as a single parent in the counter-culture movement, first in California and then in Bellingham. Carlyle’s dream-like writing is entrancing as she takes us on her difficult journey, haunted by memories of abuse and grappling with emotional and physical illness. The title alludes to her career as one of the country’s first women welders since World War II, but also to her son, Washington state Representative Reuven Carlyle. He clearly was a light she followed as they both, in a way, grew up together.
Inhuman Resources, by Rita Weinstein (Amazon, paper/ebook, $2.99) Set in the grittier side of Ballard, this mystery introduces Piper Steele, who is thrust into the world of the jobless and homeless when she loses her job and her unemployment, and turns to a food bank for help. A new friend from the food bank soon turns up murdered and Piper sets out to help solve the mystery. Weinstein draws on people she met and stories she heard setting up a soup kitchen and clothing bank in Ballard. She uses “Inhuman Resources” to draw attention to the struggles of the unemployed and often newly homeless, victims of the current recession.
Matricide, and Uncle Louie, by Michael B. Druxman (Create Space, paper, $9.99 each). Druxman, a Seattle native and Garfield alumni, had a long career as a Hollywood screenwriter. As he notes in his introductions to these screenplays, every screenwriter “has spec scripts sitting on his shelf that did not sell.” Now retired, Druxman has effectively used the independent publishing industry to get these screenplays out in book form so they can entertain us on the page. In “Uncle Louie,” an aging Damon Runyonesque gangster visits his modern-day family in Hollywood in the late 1980s and gets his grand-nephew out of a pickle. “Matricide” is a darker murder mystery set in Seattle, where the violent murder of a former starlet leads a public defender and her ex-cop/ex-husband on an adventure of international intrigue. Screenplays make for quick reads and half the fun is imagining how you yourself would make the movie.
Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, by Rodger Kamenetz, (Nextbook/Schocken, cloth, $25). This wonderfully imagined and written book delves into two of the author’s literary and religious interests, Kafka and Nachman. Although they lived centuries apart, Kamenetz draws fascinating parallels between the two storytellers, including troubling father-son relationships, an interest in Chassidic tales and a mystical streak. Kamenetz, author of the equally engaging memoir, “The Jew In the Lotus,” wonders, in Kabbalistic fashion, if Kafka somehow influenced Nachman instead of the other way around.
All These Vows: Kol Nidre, edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman (Jewish Lights, cloth, $24.95). It is possibly the most perplexing piece of the Jewish liturgy. It’s in Aramaic and it’s a legal document, yet it has become one of the most significant and memorable High Holiday prayers for Jews around the world. This volume, part of the Prayers of Awe series, brings together the writings of 30 scholars and rabbis who analyze and explain this prayer’s history, sources, relevance and contemporary meaning in a very readable way.
Festpredigten: Twenty Festival Sermons (1897-1902), by Isaac Rosenberg, translated from the German by Fred Gottleib (Gefen, cloth, $18.95). The audience for this little book is probably narrow, but even the general reader might be interested in comparing these 110-year-old sermons to what might be heard in our synagogues today. Rosenberg was one of a new and modern type of rabbi who held a secular doctorate and a rabbinical smicha, or ordination. These sermons also represent radical changes in German Jewish culture and religion as Emancipation gained stronger influence and many Jews turned to the growing Reform movement. The translator, a retired physician, escaped Germany on a kindertransport in 1939.
No Way Back: The Journey of a Jew from Baghdad, by J. Daniel Khazzoom with Mairin Khazzoom and Ellen Graham (KOH, cloth, $42.95). This fascinating and moving memoir by a Baghdad-born, now retired, U.S. college professor, is an important historical and sociological document. The author was both young enough and old enough as a child in Iraq to recall family anecdotes and open a personal window on that country’s ancient Jewish culture. A Jewish presence in Iraq dates to biblical times, but Jews often lived as second-class citizens. The author had a mostly pleasant childhood until violent pogroms in 1941 awakened a desire to emigrate to Israel. There he was subjected to a different kind of prejudice against non-European Jews. Educational opportunities eventually took him to doctoral studies at Harvard and research and teaching positions in economics at McGill and UC Berkeley. While he’s had a successful life in the U.S., Khazzoom shares his continued sadness at the loss of his homeland, and the disappointments he encountered in Israel, the land of his dreams.
Jewish Threads: A Hands-On Guide to Stitching Spiritual Intention into Jewish Fabric Crafts, by Diana Drew (Jewish Lights, paper, $19.99). This collection of 30 Jewish-themed fabric projects includes step-by-step instructions for quilts, vests, challah covers, torah mantles and more. Each project is introduced with a short biography of the artist who created the piece and a description of the holiday or ritual for which the piece is designed. Divided into home, synagogue, holiday and lifecycle creations, the projects offer those who are talented with a needle to express Judaism through the work of their hands.
The Devil Himself, by Eric Dezenhall, (Dunne, cloth, $25.99). This historical novel illuminates a little-known chapter in American history. It’s the early 1980s and recent Dartmouth graduate Jonah Eastman hopes his internship at the White House will help distance him from his family’s mafia connections. But fate intervenes when his supervisor asks him to reach out — secretly — to his notorious mobster “uncle,” Meyer Lansky, an old family friend. A few of President Reagan’s aides believe that Lansky and associates worked closely with the Navy during World War II to rid the New York waterfront of Nazi infiltrators. Jonah visits the dying Lansky in Miami and sets about writing down his uncle’s contributions to the war effort. What Jonah learns reveals more about his uncle, heritage and country than he could ever imagine. Dezenhall weaves these little-known facts into a story that is both enlightening and entertaining.
Spring brings flowers; winter brings snow. Both seasons also yield a new crop of children’s books geared to the primary holiday each celebrates. For us, lo, winter is (almost) past so it’s time for Passover books to blossom in all their variety. Some mundane, a few terrific. Pick a bunch to give, to share and to enjoy.
Books on Passover often concentrate either on the Exodus story or on the holiday’s ritual observance. In “Passover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then” (Blue Apple Books/Chronicle), Harriet Ziefert and gifted illustrator Karla Gudeon use an interesting format to successfully meld the two. Combining lively folkloric art, foldout pages, double-page spreads and an ongoing contrast of current practices with their ancient origins, this visually delightful work provides it all: A simplified adaptation of Exodus, a description of holiday preparations, and a concise guide to the service for this ritual meal. “Now” on the left side, with its charming borders, like the Haggadah, tells us what to do; the facing page shows the described symbol central to this step, and the beautiful foldouts depict scenes from “Then” — the item’s historical origins and significance. Great for use with young children, this is a work Passover and art lovers of all ages can appreciate and will want to own.
Borrowing from Ziefert’s concept, let’s first look at some of the “Now”-type books you’ll see on your local bookstore shelves. As usual, your go-to source for dependable Jewish children’s holiday books is Kar-Ben Publishing. Formerly a small mom-driven, independent publisher and now a division of Lerner Publishing Group, Kar-Ben often has zeroed in on topics very much needed in today’s world. This year, look for “A Tale of Two Seders” by Mindy Avra Portnoy, illustrated by Valeria Cis. Told in the first person, it opens, “The year after my mom and dad stopped being married to each other, I went to two seders in two places — one at Dad’s apartment and one at Mom’s house.” Three years and six seders later, despite her original worries about the future, we see this young girl celebrating with each parent and their friends, all of them adjusting to the new lives and traditions her family has created, both separately and together.
Not all of Kar-Ben’s holiday books are this on target sociologically. They also annually produce picture books with slightly skewed angles such as “Jodie’s Passover Adventure” by Israel resident Anna Levine. Levine uses the Passover school holiday in Israel to take her amateur archeologist Jodie down into Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a famous secret water tunnel in Jerusalem. A little mystery, a little history, a little treasure; not much specific Passover, but interesting.
Want humor? Try the zany rhyming “Izzy the Whiz and Passover McClean” by Yael Mermelstein, another resident of Israel, who, very aware of the cleaning challenges of Passover, sets amateur inventor Izzy the Whiz to work creating a machine capable of miraculously ridding the entire house of chometz — but not without some startling glitches. Then, adding music to humor, Rabbi Joe Black and illustrator Linda Prater came up with their own “Afikomen Mambo,” a picture-book-cum-CD based on one of Rabbi Black’s songs for young children. Lively, colorful pictures, enhanced by a mambo beat, should inspire your young searchers to do their very best.
A more typical tie-in, published by Albert Whitman & Co., is “Hoppy Passover,” by Linda Glaser with simple illustrations by Daniel Howarth, showing a cozy family of bunnies as they move through preparing for, learning about, and celebrating the holiday. Pleasant, happy and accurate, it would be nice for sharing in any pre-school or library setting.
However, I cannot recommend the book “Passover” by Julie Murray, part of the ABDO Publishing Company’s Holiday Series. Some information, while cursory, is reasonably accurate; much is wrong or jarring. Cases in point: The questionable transliteration given for the word “Haggadah” (“huh-GAH-duh); the strange statement that the green veggie we dip stands for human bodies; the misleading information that as the Passover story is told, the food on the seder plate is eaten or removed. So strange. They dressed tiny chapters with a table of contents, index and glossary, avoided fact checking, and stayed superficial to the max (“During World War II, Jews were treated very badly. To stay safe, they honored Passover in secret.”) Puleeze….
My “Then” books don’t recount the Exodus story or revisit ancient times. Instead they show Passover integrated into stories of Jewish life at various times and under various conditions in our history. The first, “Rebecca and the Movies,” is by Jacqueline Dembar Greene (well known for her earlier juvenile novels on Sephardic history). This mainstream book in the popular “American Girl” Series continues the story of Rebecca, a Jewish immigrant girl living in New York City in 1914-1915 as she observes Passover with her family, including Mama’s cousin Max, a glamorous fellow who is, to Grandpa and Bubbie’s annoyance, an actor. When Max takes Rebecca to the studio with him as a special treat, he only intends to compensate for her birthday falling on Pesach, preventing a big party for her friends. Neither Max nor Rebecca ever imagined that, instead of simply watching the cameras roll, she would end up in front of them, a “natural” with a new dream for her future. In the seventh of the Rebecca stories in the American Girl series, Greene integrates Passover, Jewish customs and ideas, and American history in a quick readable work for ages 8 and up.
Moving back in time, two excellent books tie Passover to Civil War days when slavery again was a crucial issue for Northern and Southern Jews alike. The first, “Private Joel and the Sewell Mountain Seder” by Bryna J. Fireside, with illustrations by Shawn Costello, is an earlier Kar-Ben release based on a true story. When Yankee soldiers camped in West Virginia manage to arrange a shipment of matzoh sent to their camp, Private J. A. Joel and his fellow Jewish soldiers hold a seder to celebrate freedom together with three black enlisted men, slaves who had escaped the South and joined the nearby Union forces to fight for freedom for all.
Also based on a true story, “The Yankee at the Seder” by Elka Weber (Tricycle Press) was chosen for Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance “Once Upon a World” Honor Book Award in recognition of its sensitive story of Jews on opposite sides of the civil conflict and its extraordinary illustrations by Adam Gustavson. On the very day after the Confederate cause ended in defeat, a Southern Jewish family is preparing for the first seder, while 10-year-old Jacob, resentful of the Yankees patrolling his town’s streets, sits munching matzoh on his front porch. Shocked when a passing enemy soldier wishes him a good holiday and asks if he might have a bit of matzoh, Jacob is even more shocked when his mother invites Corporal Myer Levy of the Union Army to come eat with them. Their shared Passover meal, though occasionally awkward, demonstrates to everyone how shared values and simple humanity can overcome differences and resentments as they discuss what it really means to be free, then, now, or during the Exodus. This work is highly recommended.
Finally, for 4- to 8-year-olds and everybody else, I urge you to seek out and open “The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale” by Linda Leopold Strauss, set in a “Then” time many Passovers ago, wonderfully illustrated by Alexi Natchev with woodcut prints hand-colored with watercolor.
These give a totally appropriate folkloric sensibility to the tale of the Galinskys and the Lippas, neighbors who for years shared seders together. But not now. An argument has blown out of proportion, and only their children, Rachel and David, who love each other dearly, are determined that their families should once again celebrate Passover together. They enlist the rabbi, who enlists the rest of the neighbors, and the plot for reconciliation begins to thicken. But will it work? Plan to open “The Elijah Door” to find out. Another winner from the appropriately named Holiday House Publishers.
Here’s to a kosher and well-read Pesach.
Rabbi Harvey gets ready for a duel — of the wits.
Steve Sheinkin, the creator of the “Rabbi Harvey” graphic novel series, rolled through town on the last weekend of February to talk to local synagogues and schools about the popular Wild West wiseman. Seven-year-old Ben spoke with Sheinkin about this new take on Jewish folklore in the unique town of Elk Springs.
Ben: Is everyone Jewish?
Steve: Yes. When I came up with the idea for doing the book, I decided to make up my own town, because when you do a book one of the cool things is you can make up whatever you want. I said, Let’s make it in a real place, in Colorado, in about the 1870s, and for some reason everybody in the town was Jewish. I never explained that or why that happened, but it’s just the way it is. And I wanted the bad guys to be Jewish as well.
Ben: It’s really cool.
Steve: Thank you. When I started researching the book, because I had just made up the idea, I didn’t realize that there really were…a lot of Jewish communities in what we called the Wild West in those days. Because I’m from New York, and when you’re from New York everyone thinks everyone came to New York and settled in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. But it turns out there were, as you guys know, Jewish communities everywhere in the West.
There’s this book that I read called Pioneer Jews, and one of the things that I love about it is when you look at these pictures — look at all the different crazy beards and moustaches — that’s really fun to draw all that stuff. So I try to use a lot of that in the book.
Ben: That’s kind of what it looks in Elk Springs.
Steve: Yeah, exactly. And I look at old Western movies. These movies are before my time, even, back in the ‘50s. But again, doesn’t that look like Elk Springs? Those old buildings, that little walkway that they built out of wood. I like to draw things like that.
Ben: How did you decide it was Elk Springs?
Steve: I knew I wanted it to be my own place that I made up. I don’t even know where the name came from. Sometimes you make up stuff and you don’t even know where it came from. Or when you’re drawing, you just make it up. Actually, one of the books I have here is a book I got from my dad when I was a little bit older than you, maybe 10 or so. It’s called 101 Jewish Stories. I read it and a lot of the stories that are in the Harvey books I first read in here. I just loved them so much that they just really stayed with me that whole time. When I was older and I wanted to retell my own versions of these stories, that’s when I made up the whole Elk Springs idea. This is a place where I could set them. When you make the stories it’s fun to make up the bad guys. He faces off against this rabbi—
Ben: Rabbi Ruben, who people call The Wisdom Kid?
Steve: I think he made that up for himself, calling himself The Wisdom Kid. But he’s very wise too, he just misuses all these teachings that he knows to try to make money and take over the town.
Ben: Big Milt and Wolfie also try to take over the town. Like they eat huge meals.
Steve: Yeah, they’re pretty obnoxious. It can be fun to write the bad guys.
Ben: Did Rabbi Harvey ever get married?
Steve: At the end of the first [book]…a lot of people told me Harvey seems kind of lonely. Did you get that feeling when you read it? Does he seem lonely to you? He lives alone, he works alone.
Steve: I never even thought about it. That’s his role, that’s just his life, his calling to do this work. But everybody, including my wife, told me, “I think he just seems kind of sad, he seems so alone.” So I said all right, I’ll listen to that advice. So I created this character Abigail.
I think they’ll probably get married, though it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t want to give anything away. Actually, I haven’t decided, but I think they will.
Ben: How did you come up with this idea?
Steve: Well, it was based on these [Jewish folktales] stories. Do you ever read a book and you wish it would just keep going? That’s how I felt about these. I wanted to write my own and make them have dialogue, you know where people were talking, even add jokes. That would be funny. And why I set it in the Wild West? I think it was because I loved those Wild West stories as a kid. And I loved that setting, I thought it was very exciting.
Ben: How long did it take you to write the stories?
Steve: The books take about a year, a year and a half altogether. Which is funny because you read them, it doesn’t take long at all. How long did it take you?
Ben: Like three or four days.
Steve: It takes a long time, but that’s because there are so many drawings in it. I spend most of the time doing the drawings, as you can image. You know how the background, there’s always the wood in the background everywhere? Those wood grains? It’s silly, but that’s half the time. I’m glad I did it, but some days I’m not glad.
Ben: Are there going to be anymore Rabbi Harvey books?
Steve: Yes! I think so. I’m not working on any right now. I’m actually working on a different comic right now. But I feel like there should be more.
Ben: What comic are you working on right now?
Steve: It’s a new story, it takes place in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Ben: And what’s it about?
Steve: There’s something called Crypto-Jews. It’s families that didn’t realize they were Jewish. If you go way, way back to the 1400s, people who were living in Spain and other countries — a lot of countries in Europe expelled, or kicked out, Jews, or forced them to convert to be Christians, and so a lot of families did that and then forgot over the generations that they were actually Jewish. But they had these traditions like lighting candles or not eating pork that they kept even though they didn’t know why. So this is a story that takes place in modern times in New Mexico, where a lot of these people ended up settling. It’s sort of a mystery-thriller story. It’s pretty different from what I’ve done before.
Ben: Do you have any other job?
Steve: My main job is actually not writing these comics, but writing history books for kids, too. They’re aimed at kids who are middle school age, and they’re U.S. History books. I used to write textbooks for many years. I hated it because you couldn’t say anything good in them. I couldn’t tell any of the stories. So I started writing my own books to tell the stories I wasn’t allowed to put in textbooks, and that’s become my new career.
Courtesy Galya Diment
S.S. Koteliansky in 1918, at the height of his relationships with the Bloomsbury Group.
It’s a real mystery: How did Samuel Solomonovich Koteliansky become close to the major figures in modern English literature of the early 20th century? He lived through the eruption of two world wars, genocide of his people, endured anti-Semitism. Yet through his peripheral yet intense connection with members of the Bloomsbury group, this shtetl-born Jew added something special that is detailed in the publication of University of Washington professor Galya Diment’s A Russian Jew of Bloomsbury: The Life and Times of Samuel Koteliansky.
Released by academic publisher McGill-Queens University Press, the hefty hardcover contains the life story of S.S. Koteliansky, known as “Kot” to his British friends.
It sounds like a familiar enough story. Koteliansky, an Eastern European Jew from Ostropol, becomes educated enough to push beyond the limitations imposed on minorities, especially Jews, and flees the deadly discrimination and terror of Czarist Russia. He leaves to make his fortune in London, which still proves anti-Semitic, but without the murderous pogroms that plague his homeland.
His colleague at London’s Russian Law Bureau invites Koteliansky for a two-day hike in England’s Lake District. Joining the men are two other friends, an engineer and a writer. Kot becomes friends with the writer, whose full name was David Herbert Richards Lawrence — better known as D. H. Lawrence. From that moment, Samuel Solomovich Koteliansky’s professional and social life were forever changed.
Lawrence’s social circle widened to include Kot. Though his name became Anglicized, he did not. He maintained an “insider-outsider” social and working relationship with various members of the Bloomsbury Group. In fact, Kot was frequently referred to as “the Jew.” However, Diment also provides broader evidence about the complex relationships between Jews and gentiles of the time: Imagine D.H. Lawrence at a Shabbat dinner; members of the Bloomsbury Group eating latkes; Kot recommending a Hebrew dance group touring London. All true.
For a time, Kot worked for Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, translating several major Russian works of literature. His translations included Gorky, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov. In memory of his mother Beila, Kot was able to publish two of her stories, “Maimonides and Aristotle” and “The Salvation of a Soul,” about the founder of the Chassidic movement. Though Kot traveled far beyond his beginnings, he never forgot his origins.
Besides Lawrence, Kot maintained friendships with other notable authors, writers, artists and even the occasional aristocrat of the time: Katherine Mansfield, H.G. Wells, May Sarton, Mark Gertler, Lady Ottoline Morrell. Intense friendship was his calling, but he was not hesitant about strongly communicating his dislikes. Woe to those who fell out of favor with this “dark Russian.” Lawrence’s wife Frieda was in this category from the very beginning.
One unfortunate limitation Kot could not escape from was his reoccurring, self-described “black mood” that worsened, eventually resulting in a suicide attempt in later years, and electroshock therapy. But his circle of friends, primarily younger women, cared for him until his death at 75. Diment believes Kot was probably bipolar, given his symptoms. One could only imagine how different his life could possibly have been with contemporary medical treatments.
The book gives an inside perspective, based on original documents, interviews and primary correspondence between Kot and his coterie of friends, as well as relatives who emigrated to Canada. Some material is published for the first time. Photographs accompanying the text are generous in number and help the reader relate to the subjects.
Descriptions of Koteliansky’s early life and family origins will resonate with Jews descended from similar shtetl ancestry, or those interested in learning more about that lost era. “Shmilik,” the book’s first chapter, is a real gift for the reader. Here Diment’s dedicated research and understanding of Russian-Ukrainian history allows her to weave together the various strands of history and family lore, fact and folkways into a very readable chapter. The extensive notes show the lengths to which Diment goes; no straying into Fiddler-style nostalgia for her.
Galya Diment’s day job as chair and professor in the UW’s Slavic Languages and Literature department gave her limited time to work on the book, but grants helped her proceed with research. Diment’s sensitivity and interest in her subject stems from her own self-described love of English literature; her research (traveling to modern-day Ukraine is invaluably aided by her native fluency in Russian and understanding of Ukrainian; her own family’s legacy as Leningrad Jews who experienced, survived and left the Soviet Union speaks for itself).
During our interview, Professor Diment shared some stories about her own background. With rabbinic ancestry on her father’s side and Bolshevik on her mother’s, Diment presents a mixture of differing Jewish experiences this reviewer thinks would make for a very interesting read. This might be the time, following the success of Forward writer Gal Beckerman’s award-winning When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone.
The story of an immigrant life takes on a heightened dimension when that immigrant becomes close to literary stars of the era. This was Kot’s world, this circle of writers, artists and other assorted bohemians who influenced the development of modern English literature and furthered the popularity of Russian literature as well.
Almost one quarter of the 437-page book contains supporting materials: A chronology relating Kot’s life to historical events and thorough notes detailed by page sections — the “Who’s Who” reads like a playlist. It’s clear Diment did her homework for this friend of the stars of the day.
For Diment, the biography about Koteliansky was a true “labor of many loves and many years” — 10 years in all, she wryly notes. Let’s hope we don’t need to wait another 10 for her next book.
My career as a librarian working with children, primarily in Jewish settings, began in the days when most mainstream publishers’ booklists for kids were heavily rooted in reality. Judy Blume and her compatriots ruled. One reviewer commented that the key to Blume’s popularity lay in the way her narrative techniques “are used to communicate a style of experiencing and perceiving the self and the world and a definition of what it means to be a pre-adolescent child in suburban America,” concluding that such books are “poor nourishment for the imagination of children.”
Another said, with disapproval, that while books used to provide children with valuable windows onto a larger world, Blume-era books provided only mirrors, reinforcing a self-involved, insular and frequently superficial world view.
Fast-forward some 30 years. The picture has diversified and books for elementary and middle school kids often seamlessly include Jewish values and family life in contemporary stories that still have crossover appeal and lots of imagination. Here are just two I recently received and much enjoyed.
Beyond Lucky by Sarah Aronson (Penguin, ages 11-14). In 12-year-old Ari Fish’s life, lucky rituals rule. So when he finds a rare soccer trading card of his hometown’s soccer hero, Wayne Timcoe, he takes it for a sign that he and his team are under magical protection. But things get complicated when the addition of a girl named Parker to his team creates friction, his best friend Mac starts acting strange, and Ari’s lucky card disappears. Worrying about his older brother Sam, a missing fire jumper, Ari negotiates some of his difficulties by talking with his parents and his rabbi, but mostly he comes through the challenges in this fast-moving coming-of-age story by learning to rely on himself and not on omens or lucky cards. A good book for boys and, because of talented Parker Llewellyn’s determination and character, girls will like it too.
When Life Gives You O.J. by Erica S. Perl (Knopf, ages 8-12). Erica Perl’s new middle grade book is a great example of how a modern Jewish family can be integrated smoothly into a broadly appealing small-town American story. It’s complete with humor, intergenerational differences, and a very clever shtick devised by Zelly Fried’s Yiddish-spouting grandfather.
After Zelly’s grandmother dies, her family moves from Brooklyn to Burlington, Vermont to live with her eccentric Grandpa Ace. He sympathizes with her desire for a dog, persuading her to convince her parents she can be responsible by pretending an old orange juice jug is a dog and treating it accordingly. Zelly, aka Zelda, eventually meets Jeremy, a Jewish boy who has also moved into the neighborhood. She takes on walking real dogs along with O.J. (orange juice), her practice jug/dog, and has adventures sure to delight any dog-loving 3rd grader and up. Includes a glossary of Yiddish words so the reader can enjoy Ace’s jokes and references.
Where is Israel going? And where has it been? These questions are explored in four new books — non-fiction and fiction — that highlight aspects of Israeli history, life and culture.
Hirsch Goodman will give you a good sense of where Israel is going in The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival (Public Affairs, cloth, $26.99). The longtime journalist, now a senior researcher at the University of Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, assesses his country’s prospects for long-term peace and prosperity. Summarizing Israel’s history and place in the Middle East, he reviews the challenges to its survival, both internal and external. He offers a hopeful stance that conflict is not inevitable.
Goodman can probably be described as center-left, although he might resist characterization. “Israel has to move ahead with peace without Gaza,” he writes. “There is a potential partner in the West Bank, and that is where Israel has to invest its energies…. Peace is possible…the risks tremendous.”
The very thoughtful Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel (Atlas, cloth, $26.95), by Hadara Lazar, uses personal testimony to bring a specific era into sharp focus. Lazar traveled Israel and the world to interview those who lived through the time of the British Mandate, before Israel’s independence. Over the course of 25 years, the Haifa-born journalist talked to British, Arab and Israeli witnesses to that time of enforced peace, when intelligentsia of all backgrounds mingled professionally and socially, putting aside differences and perhaps ignoring growing unrest as the quest for independence grew.
“Of course it was beautiful,” says one of her Arab subjects — one of many living in the U.S. or Europe. As Lazar brings current politics into these mostly positive memories at the end of the book, she says “It was because of the uprising, in fact, that we could discuss what I had wanted to: shifts in memory after forty years, the last years of the Mandate as a time of transition, and recollection itself.” A fascinating story of a time not much discussed.
Yael Politis’ novel The Lonely Tree (Holland Park Press, paper, order at www.hollandparkpress.co.uk) is a near-epic sweeping through Israel’s formative years, from the 1930s to 1968. Tonia Shulman is our protagonist; her family has emigrated from Europe to religious kibbutz Kfar Etzion, before independence.
Tonia does not share her parents’ Zionist fervor for the land and the hardship of kibbutz life, and she clashes with her father. Allowed to attend high school in Jerusalem, she mingles enviously with privileged girls and dreams of a peaceful life, one that involves a little house with a white picket fence — in America. In order to achieve this she must discard her first love, Amos, a Yemenite Jew from her kibbutz. But Amos haunts her and draws her back.
War is as big a character in this book as any of the fictional characters, and the events are historical. Kfar Etzion was purchased from local Arabs in the 1920s and its development fluctuated over the decades. During the 1948 war it was overrun by Arab forces and a tragic massacre occurred there. During the war of 1968 the land was reclaimed and it is now a city of 70,000 people. These battles bracket Tonia’s life, and Politis gives them a larger role in the book than even the birth of her children.
Finally, Evan Fallenberg, author and translator of A Pigeon and a Boy, brings us his excellent second novel, When We Danced on Water (Harper, paper, $14.99). Two lost souls are drawn together by their art in this story set in contemporary Tel Aviv. Teo is a world-renowned choreographer and Vivi is a waitress in the coffee shop where he has his daily coffee and where they first begin to discuss the meaning of art. In his 80s, coming to grips with his mortality, Teo is at the end of his career. Vivi has never married, and never quite recovered from an early love affair gone bad, one that left her estranged from her family and disconnected from her creativity. As they become friends, and Teo reveals his deeply disturbing Holocaust survival story for the first time, they discover a strange commonality in their pasts. Without quite meaning to, they come together in a journey of creativity and healing. A lovely piece of fiction from a prize-winning author.
The Rescuer’s Path, by Paula Friedman (Plain View, paper, $15.95). Readers will not be surprised to learn that the Portland-based author is also a poet, and brings that spirit her novel. At the heart of this story is Malca, 15 years old when the book opens during the turbulent early 1970s in Washington, DC. Weaned on her mother’s stories of surviving the Holocaust hidden in a gentile friend’s attic, Malca takes that message of rescue and compassion to heart. So when she finds an injured fugitive in a wooded park, she feels obliged to aid him. The Rescuer’s Path is not traditionally written, presented in short chapters jumping back and forth in time and told from varying characters’ perspectives. Really it’s as much a story as a question put to the reader, inspired, according to the author, by the events of 9/11. How do we make peace, both in ourselves, and in the world?
Lucia’s Eyes and Other Stories, by Vancouver, BC based Marina Sonkina (Guernica, paper, $18) is a collection of five novellas, each one an intriguing character study. Sonkina’s characters are lonely people, struggling against a confusing world they cannot contain, and which spirals out of control. Many of the stories are set in pre- and post-Soviet Russia, and Sonkina’s literary and cultural roots are clearly there. Even while bad things are happening to her characters, their situations are evoked with beautiful language.
Religion Gone Astray: What We Found at the Heart of Interfaith, by Mackenzie, Falcon and Rahman (SLP, paper, $16.99). The Three Amigos, the clerical triumvirate of Pastor Don Mackenzie, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman, run through a shopping list of things seen as wrong with religion, including “Staking Claim to a One and Only Truth,” “Justifying Brutality in the Name of Faith,” women’s inequality and homophobia. Each writer responds to each subject, explaining his perspective from a personal and theological point of view, in an effort to combat bigotry and chauvinism (of all types) and an important attempt to bridge the interfaith gap.
The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors (Oxford University Press, cloth, $35). Those who were treated to any of Dr. Levine’s lectures on Judaism and Christianity in Seattle and on Mercer Island last month may want to tackle directly some of the New Testament to which she referred. This scholarly volume gives the ambitious reader a Jewish perspective on the Christian Bible through introductory essays and extensive footnotes. There is no refutation here, but explanations that bring an appropriate Jewish focus on these books whose writers were familiar with Jewish texts and practice, and were often addressing the Jewish community of the time.
Open Minded Torah by William Kolbrener (Continuum, paper, $19.95). The New York-born Modern Orthodox author lives and teaches in Israel, where he is an English literature professor at Bar Ilan University. This collection of short personal essays covers a wide range of topics, illustrating how open mindedness allows us to more genuinely engage with our Judaism. Some of his more moving pieces are about his son who has Down syndrome, but he covers Shakespeare, quantum physics and psychoanalysis, too.
Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat by Yvette Alt Miller (Continuum, cloth, $34.95). For those who want to expand their observance of Shabbat, or to delve into weekly observance more deeply, the author offers clear advice on both a spiritual and practical level. Although she is observant, she recognizes that not all her readers are, so her advice is basic without being condescending, and she attempts to anticipate any questions readers might have. There are recipes, too, of course, and advice on how to keep children occupied during Shabbat afternoon (read: While the adults are trying to nap).
Soul to Soul: Writings from Dark Places by Deborah Masel (Gefen, paper, $14.95). This short and very readable book is the moving narrative of the author’s double journey: Her experiences with Judaism and her experiences being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. The American-born author lived in Israel and has since settled in Australia, where she has become a well-known Torah teacher. Her diagnosis forces her to reconsider her personal and professional life and she shares that journey with us with poignancy, humor and great insight.
The Price of Escape by David Unger (Akashic, paper, $15.95). Samuel Berkow is fortunate to have a wealthy uncle give him passage from Germany to Guatemala in 1938. But Sam is a spoiled and sheltered not-so-young man who doesn’t know how to comport himself in difficult situations. The plot unfolds during his first three disastrous days in Guatemala, where he is stuck in a backwater of a poverty-stricken banana company town, rank with sewage flowing through open drainage ditches. Trying to connect with his estranged cousin, he is not sure if he’ll even get the help he needs. Unger vividly captures the steamy, threatening atmosphere of the town and Samuel’s soul.
The Little Bride by Anna Solomon (Riverhead, paper, $15). Solomon drew on Jewish memoirs of settler life on the prairie to create the story of Minna, an orphaned teen in Odessa who becomes a mail-order bride. The America she imagines escaping to is New York, but on her arrival she is whisked to a train for a three day journey to “Sodakota,” where she finds herself living in one room carved out of a hillside with her unskilled, older and very religious farmer husband and his two teenage sons. The story — and Minna’s distress — move along at a good pace in this interesting work of historic fiction.
Jews in Service to the Tsar by Lev Berdnikov (Russian Live, paper, $22). A fascinating account of 28 Jews who served Russian royalty from the 15th to the 19th centuries, including businessmen, diplomats, scholars and doctors, a police chief, minister of finance and two “court jesters.” Originally published in Russian, the book has enjoyed popularity in the author’s native country. The author’s access to untranslated source documents enhanced his research and opens a window onto Russia’s long and conflicted relationship with its Jewish citizens.
Lost causes, forsaken beliefs, impossible loyalties! How many of these figure in, and sometimes disfigure, Jewish history. False messiahs like Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. Jewish homelands in Uganda or Birobidjan or pre-state Alaska. Yiddish as the official language of the State of Israel. Judaism “reconstructed” as ethical culture or liberalism. Jewish national renewal in medieval Spain or late 19th-century Poland or — and this is the subject of Michael Weingrad’s fascinating book, American Hebrew Literature (Syracuse University Press, 2011): 20th-century America.
With the foundation of the State of Israel and the adoption of Hebrew as its official language, the rivalrous relationship between Hebrew (the holy tongue) and Yiddish (the mameloshen or vernacular) assumed a new aspect. Hebrew, precisely because it had been preserved for centuries in the warm storage of Yiddish, had been reborn while other attempts at linguistic revival (in Ireland and Wales) had largely failed. But its success exacted a price. The destruction of European Jewry had transformed Yiddish, the language of millions of recently silenced mouths, into the language of martyrdom, with its own claim to being the holy tongue; and Hebrew had become a language of everyday use in the Jewish State, including the mouths of peddlers of unkosher meat in Tel-Aviv.
In 1954, the literary critic Irving Howe and the poet Eliezer Greenberg published A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, an anthology of “a literature virtually unknown to Americans” which they dedicated “To the Six Million.” In a heroic attempt to rescue a literature, merely 150 years old, that had been cut short by mass murder, they translated many stories themselves and enlisted the help of numerous translators, among them Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, Julius and Frances Butwin. They also provided a stunning introduction, which claimed the great themes of Yiddish literature to be “the virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured.” They took account of the partnership between Hebrew and Yiddish, adding that “Yiddish literature releases a profound yearning for a return not to the supremacy of Hebrew but to those conditions of life that would make possible the supremacy of Hebrew — that is, a yearning for the end of the dispersion and a reintegration of Jewish life.”
That yearning is also the subject of Michael Weingrad’s magisterial attempt at another heroic rescue, of an even more short-lived Jewish literature, the American Hebrew writing of maskilim (Enlightened Jews) who arrived in America as a tiny minority within the Jewish migrations of 1880-1920. Their linguistic and cultural allegiance was to the Hebrew language. Their brief flowering began in about 1915, and by the 1960s most had died or (a crucial fact) moved to Israel. Weingrad calls his book a counter-history of American Jewish culture, a “road not taken” by the majority. The spate of egregious recent books by stridently “non-Zionist” Jewish Studies professors invoking that title of Robert Frost’s famous poem, may well set off alarm bells; but they should not. Weingrad, who runs the Jewish Studies program at Portland State University, is not averting his gaze from the worldwide campaign to expel Israel from the family of nations by excavating from obscurity Jewish writers who opposed Zionism. Quite the contrary: Weingrad explicitly warns against “post-Zionists” imposing their ideological prejudices and “Diasporism” onto these writers (one of whom, Naftali Imber, composed Hatikvah).
This is a body of writing even less well-known to Americans than the Yiddish writers were when Howe’s Treasury appeared in 1954; and Weingrad’s rescue operation is more arduous than Howe’s because he has done the massive work of translation mainly by himself. His book is a major contribution to Hebrew Studies, to American Studies, and to understanding the unresolved dilemma of American Jews, as expressed in the novel Ad Mashber (Point of Crisis) by the preeminent American Hebrew writer Shimon Halkin: “This is America! If it weren’t for Jews and Judaism, you couldn’t find a nicer place in the world.”
The range of Weingrad’s books — and intellect — is evident from his chapter titles and subtitles: “America Is My Cage” — in a zoo for “defeated languages”; “The Indian in American Hebrew Literature”; “I Am Not in New York” — Hebrew writers in small-town Christian America; “Messiah, American Style” — an apparently anachronistic but actually brilliant digression to Mordecai Noah, who tried (and failed) to establish a Jewish “City of Refuge” for oppressed and persecuted Jews (and dispossessed American Indians ) near Buffalo; “The Last Mohicans” — the label applied by poet Gabriel Preil to himself and other remnants of a disappearing American-Hebrew culture. With the death of I.B. Singer in 1991, the whole prose literature of Yiddish had come to an end; the death of Preil in 1993 did nearly the same for American Hebrew poetry.
Secular Hebrew writers were more quixotically idealistic than their Yiddishist counterparts because they tried to create an American center of Hebrew culture at a time when (as Alan Mintz observes in his excellent foreword) “there was virtually no such thing…as a native speaker of Hebrew.”
Nevertheless, they had grasped an important truth: Hebrew, a kind of “portable homeland,” could connect American Jews both to their past and to Jews around the world. The Hebraists’ struggle against the “Americanization” of Jewry in general and Jewish illiteracy in particular was not without notable successes. Numerous teachers’ colleges that trained Jewish educators were staffed by immigrant Hebraists; many prominent Jewish intellectuals were schooled in Hebraist summer camps. Thanks to their efforts, many of us studied Hebrew in public high schools.
Some of the most talented writers, like Avraham Regelson and Shimon Halkin, deserve special posthumous honors as the most bountiful of literary uncles. Cynthia Ozick has said that Regelson, her uncle, was for her “a kind of spiritual model” who made it seem “quite natural to belong to the secular world of literature”; and Hillel Halkin has said that the Zionism of his Uncle Simon “had always been a model for me.”
Yet the failure of the Hebraists commands more attention than their successes. The aforementioned Noah, when Ararat, his proto-Zionist project for a temporary Jewish refuge in America had come to naught, admitted that “every attempt to colonize the Jews in other countries [than Palestine] has failed.” His 20th-century successors thought the addition of a stringent Hebrew-language requirement might create a Jewish way-station in America. It did not.
Ironically, the greatest literary successes were poems and novels bemoaning failure to create a significant Hebrew cultural life outside of Israel.
“My Zionism,” wrote Halkin, “was crueler than theirs” (the other American Hebraists) because he recognized before they did that Jews could not “exist as a historical people except in one place, in the Land of Israel.”
In 1949 he emigrated to Israel, as did most movement leaders. Their valiant efforts were not sufficient to disprove the axiom that, as his nephew Hillel has relentlessly insisted, Eretz Yisrael is the only land and Hebrew the only language to which the whole of Jewish history and the Jewish people resonate and respond.
Edward Alexander is professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah. In bookstores everywhere, among the children’s holiday books crowding the shelves, Hanukkah is definitely a featured player. But there are Hanukkah books and then there are Hanukkah books. Some are delightful, insightful or pleasantly informational. Others should bear a warning label alerting you that the contents may be derivative, written by Jewishly unaware writers, prone to missed nuances and occasional inaccuracies, making them questionable as appropriate gifts for the children in your lives.
For Younger Children
Choosing pre-school and picture books published by Kar-Ben Publishing is one way to guarantee Jewish authenticity. Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah by Tilda Balsley, illustrated by David Harrington, is a case in point. The basic story is told in rhyme, the illustrations of the Grecian gods include a tippler and a body builder, and the text reminds us that “sometimes it only takes a few/who know what’s right and do it too.”
Engineer Ari’s third historic adventure, Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap, by Deborah Bodin Cohen, is set on board a train in 1890s Palestine. Ari’s effort to celebrate Hanukkah with his fellow engineers almost gets derailed as his holiday daydreams cause a near collision with a camel on the tracks near Modi’in, the very place where Hanukkah began. When the camel’s Bedouin owner comes to his aid, the two men share an impromptu discovery of the miracle of friendship and cooperation. Delightful art, historical backstory, and a photo of the actual 1892 train between Jerusalem and Jaffa round out the book.
On the pleasantly informational side, Harvest of Light by Allison Ofanansky is illustrated with photos by Eliyahu Alpern and shows how an Israeli family raises and processes olives, using some of the oil to light their Hanukkah menorah. School Library Journal calls this a “wonderfully different Hanukkah book…resonating with familial warmth and a shared purpose.” Who could argue? I’ll never look at an olive the same way again.
Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles, by Tami Lehman-Wilzig with Nicole Katzman and illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau, is a family story. It’s told by Jacob, whose older brother Nathan is autistic and often an annoyance, especially in front of new friends. How can you celebrate with new neighbors when Nathan has trouble understanding how the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremonies are carried out? The solution devised by Jacob’s mother is a bit strained, but in a work obviously intended to introduce developmental problems to young children and families, it underscores the importance of inclusion and compassion.
An author to be trusted is Erica Silverman, whose When the Chickens Went on Strike, Liberty’s Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus, and Sholom’s Treasure are just a few of her good children’s books. She’s done it again with a humorous and lively work called The Hanukkah Hop (Simon & Schuster). The Hanukkah symbols and story which open the book are later downplayed in favor of the high energy and comical action that comes when the klezmer band kicks in. Illustrator Steven D’Amico has fun showing the extremely diverse partygoers wearing themselves out by dancing to the point of collapse. Rhyming text and repetition are designed for younger children. Though it’s a bit long for its target age, even you will enjoy chiming in on “Biddy-biddy-bim-bom-bop…at our Hanukkah Hop.”
And now we come to my “warning label” books. They may be well intentioned and attractive, and some of my colleagues and some of you, in fact, may welcome them, but I find them problematic on some basic level. The first two books have much in common, as you will see. One, a new Hanukkah book for children put out by Viking, is called Jackie’s Gift: A True Story of Christmas, Hanukkah and Jackie Robinson (Penguin). Written by Robinson’s daughter Sharon, it tells of the year 1948, when Jackie and his family moved in next door to the Satlow family, whose 10-year-old son Steve befriends Sharon and even helps her family trim its Christmas tree. When Jackie Robinson realizes the family next door doesn’t have a tree, he doesn’t know it’s because the Satlows are Jewish. Thinking they’re too poor, Jackie brings them the generous gift of a tree, which the family, with some trepidation, awkwardly accepts. While explaining that they’re Jewish, they decide that this will be the year they will have both a tree and a Menorah, and set about trimming their tree with their new friends.
It’s a well-written and illustrated book and has been praised by many for demonstrating tolerance and good black-Jewish relations. Still, it’s a work I consider to be linked more to Christmas than to Hanukkah, a holiday, after all, which commemorates the courage of the Maccabees in resisting the attractions of Hellenistic assimilation. I understand the appeal of advocating tolerance, but for a kid, the message may not be that the most important thing is not to embarrass anyone and to have peace with your neighbors. Instead the message may be that if you have a generous enough neighbor, your dad will let you have the Christmas tree you’ve always wanted so you can be like all the other kids. A strange tribute to the Maccabees indeed.
And then there’s A Chanukah Noel (Second Story Press) by Sharon Jennings with illustrations by Gillian Newland. When young Charlotte moves to France with her family, she’s faced with a new school, a new language, and new children to befriend. Overwhelmed by arriving in the midst of the entire town’s celebration of the Christmas holiday, she is fascinated by Christmas and tries to calm her envy by deciding to give Christmas to a poor girl in her school, one who isn’t even nice to her. The writing is good, the illustrations are exceptional, but what’s the message here? Charlotte convinces her dad that her family should play Lady Bountiful to the very poor Christian family. The dad at least worries about shaming the other father, but to me the family’s effort to make the Christian family happy by providing excesses they could never afford feels sadly insensitive, with altruism tweaked to make one’s self feel outstandingly generous and also to buy into vicarious Christmas celebration. I think the work was well intended; I just don’t see the audience or the message as being carefully thought out.
The Story of Hanukkah Howie, written by locals Jan Dalrymple and illustrated by Bob Dalrymple, is another book done with loving hands and nicely packaged but appears to be at odds with the real message of Hanukkah: Resistance against going along with the crowd. When baby Howie’s hair develops strange spikes each December, an additional one for each of Hanukkah’s eight days, his parents resign themselves to trying to cover it over with hats, creams, and even glue. Then one day Howie, now in college, takes a job delivering holiday gifts from house to house in his neighborhood. Now known as Hanukkah Howie, he finds his bag is magically kept filled with gifts for everyone. Finally, with all presents distributed, he steps out into the night air, speaks words of hope and light, and drives off with a wave of his hand. To test my critical judgment, I shared the book with some kids and asked them for a reaction. Shall I quote? “So, why’d they write about a skinny Jewish Santa Claus with funny hair?”
The Santa tie-in may not bother some people, but for those into the Jewish meaning of Hanukkah, I thought a heads up (pun intentional) was in order.
Another local, the multi-talented Arthur Feinglass, whose efforts toward establishing a Jewish Theatre in Seattle are off to a good start, also has a picture book, The Lonesome Dreidel (CreateSpace). With a talking dreidel as the central figure, our heroes Talya and Aitan find the dreidel, chase it as it spins away, teach it to play the dreidel game, and give it a happy home. A bit influenced by the Gingerbread Man, a bit by the Runaway Latke, but mostly a simple story for very young children “because the lonesome dreidel wasn’t lonesome anymore.” Illustrated by R.M. Florendo.
Last, storyteller Mark Binder has collected a number of his previously published stories about the holiday of Hanukkah in Chelm, the village of fools, into a single volume, A Hanukkah Present (Light Publications), for readers 8-12 or listeners of any age. Humor and adventure, plus nice rhythm and pacing, make this a real gift, providing stories just right to read aloud each night while the candles burn down. Also available as an e-book edition.
Courtesy Seattle Arts and Lectures
Celebrated Israeli writer David Grossman is on tour in the U.S. to talk about his latest novel, To the End of the Land, his first to deal with the matsav — the political and security situation — in Israel. After her son goes off to war, Ora decides to hike part of the Israel Trail, where she hopes no one will be able to find her when they come to notify her of her son’s certain death. Before finishing the novel, Grossman’s own son was killed during the final hours of the Lebanon War in 2006. Grossman says of this experience: “After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of reality in which the final draft was written.”
David Grossman spoke with JTNews about his life, his writing process, life and literature prior to his appearance last week at Town Hall.
JTNews: We know your own life and To the End of the Land overlap. But how did the idea for this story come about in the first place?
David Grossman: It’s very hard to trace the birth of an idea. Suddenly it is there. But I was looking for this idea for some years. I was looking for the way to write the story about the “situation” in Israel, but I was also trying to find a family story, the story of a family that will have to live within this situation and to show how the situation radiates itself into the life of the family.
My second son Uri was about to join the army, and a half-year before I finally got this idea of a woman who refuses to collaborate with the situation, to be herself and not function as a material of the situation. She decides that she will not sit at home and wait for the notifiers [the officials who would inform her of her son’s death] to come, she says, “to dig their notification into her.” By doing the most trivial act of not waiting for them she managed to reshuffle the whole situation.
JT: How much did you feel you were writing about your own life?
DG: I walked from the end of the land [from the northern border with Lebanon on the Israel Trail] to my home near Jerusalem. And when the book was finished I continued to walk in parts.
This was one of the sweetest experiences of writing this book: Being out, being in nature, being alone in nature, which is a special feeling. When you walk with another person you are more attuned to him or to her, and less to nature. When I walked alone, I became one more animal, one more creature.
I always like to know what I’m writing about. When I write about internal reality, I don’t have to leave my home for that. When I write about things that happen in the outer world, I like to take part in them. I remember when I wrote The Zigzag Kid I joined the detective unit for the Jerusalem police. When I wrote Someone to Run With I spent nights on the street. I love the way can integrate objective reality into subjective reality.
JT: Why did you choose a female character to tell this story? Was that a device you chose to use?
DG: I thought that a book that tells so much about family and raising a child, for me it was both natural and challenging.
I always feel in women — not in all of them — a slight skepticism regarding the big systems of our life, like governments, armies, war — all these systems that are created by men. They are regarded more by men, even though they kill them more. Men will sit at home and wait for the notifiers. It’s a woman who will refuse to take part in this automaton game.
JT: Why does Ora have the sense that her son won’t return?
DG: I think every parent in Israel…this is the most dominant feeling. The whole country lives in such fear for its own existence. The facts of death are so deeply formulated for us and engraved in our minds. There was almost no week or no day in Israel that someone has not died or been injured. The death of your beloved ones is so near to the surface.
JT: How is this story received in America and other countries outside of Israel? Do people have a hard time relating to such an Israeli experience?
DG: Everywhere I went, people said, “You wrote our story.” I’m coming here after a week in Scandinavia. They didn’t know war for 200 years. And yet, I think every individual feels his life is in a kind of danger. Everyone feels the fragility of his primal relationship to family, to friends. Everyone feels this doubleness. On the one hand, it’s a strong subcurrent of fear and anxiety. But the book is about life. Anyhow, the book is out here for a year now, so I really cannot complain about the way it was received here.
JT: To the End of the Land flows so naturally. Even in translation, the story just seems to spill out of your head onto the page. Explain your writing process. How was it compared to your other writing experiences?
DG: The writing process was no different than previous processes. I always write many versions. I have a vague idea, but I surrender to it. I write, then I get to a certain point and turn back. I never want to get to the ending. I want my book to surprise me. It was more difficult to organize this book because it has so many subplots, but I like it this way. It’s like a couple, between the writer and the book. Like a couple, you work together and change each other. This has really been the heart of my life.
The Holocaust provides powerful foreshadowing, albeit unintentional by the author, in White Picture: Poems by Jiri Orten, translated by prizewinning Seattle poet Lyn Coffin (Night, paper, $9.99). Orten was a Czech Jew from a middle class secular family, and a young man when the portents of World War II became evident. While some of his family fled, he remained behind, perhaps because of his devotion to the Czech language and the arts. By the time he wrote most of the poems presented here in expert translation, he knew “his life had been slit,” writes Edward Hirsch in the introduction. This gives his work an added dimension, as he becomes increasingly aware that he won’t survive. He was killed by “a speeding German car” in 1941.
Rilke, Brodsky and the Bible clearly influenced Orten’s work, from which Coffin will read at the Magnolia Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Dec. 1.
In his new novel, The Warsaw Anagrams (Overlook, cloth, $29.95), Richard Zimmler (The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon) brings a touch of the supernatural and a murder mystery to the grim times of the Warsaw Ghetto. The narrator is Erik Cohen, a well-respected psychiatrist who is forced into a ghetto apartment with his niece and her son, Adam. Times are tense, but residents have little clue to their fate. So when Adam turns up dead, Erik chooses to believe it is more than just another random act of Nazi cruelty and sets about unraveling the mystery, despite the protests of everyone around him. Zimmler explores the question of what people will do to survive when illness and starvation are close at hand in an expertly written but disquieting story.
Two new nonfiction books tell the story of gentiles brave enough to shelter Jews during that time. Frans and Mien Wijnakkers are a young married couple living in a rural Dutch town when Frans is approached by resistance workers to take in a Jewish family in Two Among the Righteous Few by Marty Brounstein (Tate, paper, $12.99). Thanks to a special hidden addition to their house, they manage to shelter, or find shelter for, a large number of Jews, including children. One of those children is born in hiding and they pretend she is their own, and she became Brounstein’s wife. The Wijnakkers have both been honored by Yad Vashem.
Diane Kinman wrote Franca’s Story (Wimer, paper, $16.95) about her Portland neighbor Franca Mercati Martin. As she got to know the talented painter, Kinman learned that Franca came from a wealthy Florentine family who, despite their own wartime hardships, sheltered Jewish children and helped them escape. While the book mostly concerns Franca’s family, the section on the Jewish children makes for dramatic and touching reading. Franca is still living and painting, and the book is illustrated with black and white reproductions of her paintings, which can be seen in color on the publisher’s website, wimerpublishing.com.
When Art Spiegelman published the graphic novel Maus in 1986, he had no idea he was creating a sensation. The international bestseller, which depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, was based on his family history gleaned from his parents, who survived the Holocaust. In Metamaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus (Pantheon, cloth, $35), Spiegelman explores the Maus phenomenon in great depth, analyzing his art, the Holocaust, his parents and his Pulitzer prize-winning book. The volume comes with a DVD that includes a copy of The Complete Maus (it became a two-volume work) that links to an archive of materials including audio interviews with Spiegelman’s father, historical documents and writings and sketches from the author’s notebooks.
For World War II buffs, Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front, edited by Konrad H. Jarausch (Princeton, cloth, $35), is the story of a German officer’s increasing disillusionment with Nazi policies, as told in letters edited by the writer’s son. Jarausch is a noted German historian and it took years before he could even look at the letters, because he feared learning of his father’s (also named Konrad) nationalist politics. What he discovered is a once-patriotic man so horrified by the war his country started that he became sympathetic to Germany’s victims. The elder Jarausch died of typhoid in a POW camp.
Also new and noteworthy:
Murderous Intellectuals: German Elites and the Nazi SS, by Jonathan Maxwell (Milennial Mind, paper, $25.95)
The Bugs are Burning: The Role of Eastern Europeans in the Exploitation, Subjugation and Murder of Their Jewish Neighbors During the Holocaust, by Dr. Sheldon Hersh and Dr. Robert Wolf (Devora, cloth, $21.95)
Bones Beneath Our Feet, by Michael Schein (B&H, paper, $16.95). This book is difficult to read, not because of its rich and dense language — which suits an historical novel — but its tragic 19th-century story. The crux of the tale is Nisqually Chief Leschi, who in 1855 chose war against the territorial white government (called “Bostons”) rather than banishment to a reservation. There is a large cast of characters here, white and native, whose ethics range from best to worst. Leschi eventually was captured and prosecuted for the murder of a soldier killed in a skirmish, convicted and hanged. This era created a win-lose situation for the native population as their lives, land and culture in Puget Sound were taken over. We still share this land with Leschi’s descendants, but the author emphasizes the price one group paid to allow another group to thrive. The book suffers slightly from a shifting narrative voice, but the glossary and character list are well thought out, and the bibliography will help readers further explore local history. Leschi was vindicated in 2004 by an historical court of inquiry, the killing declared one of war “between lawful combatants.”
Daughters of Iraq, by Revital Shiri-Horowitz (independent, paper, $11.21 at Amazon). A novel about one Iraqi family’s immigration to, and settlement in Israel, told from the perspectives of three women: Violet, who died of cancer but whose voice lives on in diary form; her sister Farida, and Violet’s daughter Noa, a young woman trying to figure out her heritage and her life’s direction. Despite some confusion as the viewpoint shifts between characters, the stories hold our attention as we learn of Iraqi Jewish life before and after immigration. The author lived on Seattle’s Eastside for many years, and is now back in Israel.
Baseless Hatred, by René H. Levy, Ph.D. (Gefen, cloth, $26.95). Citing both religious texts and modern political commentary, and drawing on psychology and history, Levy urges us to address “sinat hinam (baseless hatred) among Jews and its antidote arevut (mutual responsibility),” which he explores on interpersonal and international levels. Levy’s scholarly approach makes casual reading a bit difficult, but the advice is practical: Know what makes you hateful, take steps to change it, and be tolerant of others. “Diversity is not fragmentation,” he says: We can learn to get along. Levy is Professor and Chair Emeritus of Pharmaceutics at the University of Washington.
Memoir and Biography
Wendy and the Lost Boys, by Julie Salamon (Penguin, cloth, $29.95). A personality as complicated as Wasserstein’s deserves a book this long and detailed. Salamon interviewed around 600 people to compile information about the playwright who died in 2006 at age 55, from what appeared at the time to be a mysterious illness. Salamon delves into the Wasserstein family psychology — overachieving and demanding, but intensely private — and the theater world that became Wasserstein’s second family. That world included Seattle, where two of Wasserstein’s most popular plays were previewed and revised at the Seattle Rep under the direction of Dan Sullivan. The author treads lightly, perhaps because family and friends still survive, and seems reluctant to analyze Wasserstein’s sometimes bizarre behavior. She tells the stories and leaves us to ponder what made this hugely creative and oversized personality tick.
Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extraordinary Son, by Tom Fields-Meyer (New American Library, paper, $15). This utterly charming memoir is well written, poignant and funny. The author recounts his journey, so far, learning to parent his autistic son Ezra, now about 15. Fields-Meyer — a longtime correspondent for People magazine — blends anecdotes with his inner musings to show how he and his rabbi wife go from strict problem-solving mode to accepting Ezra for who he is. The narration builds in almost novel-like fashion as we wonder how Ezra is going to cope with his Bar Mitzvah. Have a hankie ready.
Love at First Bark: How Saving a Dog Can Sometimes Help You Save Yourself, by Julie Klam (Penguin, cloth, $21.95). Klam has already written one dog-oriented memoir, continuing here with the rescue of Morris the pit bull, found chained to a fence and abandoned in their not-so-savory New York neighborhood. We also learn of her rescued and wacky Boston terriers, her trip to New Orleans to rescue dogs abandoned in the aftermath of Katrina, and how caring for animals helps her and her family put their own problems in perspective. Klam can laugh at herself, and we get to laugh along with her.
The Smartest Woman I Know, by Ilene Beckerman (Algonquin, cloth, $15.95). This whimsical, appealing memoir of the author’s grandparents focuses on Beckerman’s grandmother, Ettie Goldberg, a tough and blunt immigrant with a barely communicative husband. The grandparents eked out a living from their tiny stationery store on New York’s Madison Avenue, and raised their granddaughters, whose mother had died and father had abandoned them. With short chapters and funny illustrations, the author shares memories and lessons from her unconventional childhood.
The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Encounter, cloth, $23.95). “And everybody hates the Jews,” goes the punch line to Tom Lehrer’s 1968 song, “National Brotherhood Week.” Professor Himmelfarb (emeritus, City University of New York) has grown tired of Jewish history focusing on anti-Semitism and reminds us here that Jews have had supporters, too. In this entertaining and enlightening read, she covers English thinkers who wrote and spoke favorably of Jews in the centuries after Jewish repatriation to the British Isles in 1655, among them Newton, Locke, Smith and Churchill.
Rasputin and the Jews: A Reversal of History, by Delin Colón (independent, paper, $15 at Amazon). As the infamous adviser to Tsar Nicholas II, Rasputin’s perceived main fault may have been his belief in human equality, including for the Jews, and his anti-war stance. These views were reviled by the Russian aristocracy in a time of warmongering and feverish anti-Semitism. As for Rasputin’s prophetic powers, Colón writes, “it does not take a psychic to foresee that the extreme oppression of a large population will…lead to agitation and revolution.” This book becomes a short course on revolutionary Russian history and gets gold stars as an example of a well-produced self-published book.
Lakol Z’man: A Time for Everything, by Yossi Huttler (independent, contact the author at email@example.com). This little book of short, free-verse poems reflect on the Jewish holiday and liturgical cycle. Many are prayer-like and will enhance the holiday experience. For example, Elijah is a “herald in whose silence/I strain to hear/divine tidings.” The detailed glossary is welcome as Huttler shares his feelings about all major and minor holidays.
There is no better way to locate the best in Judaic children’s books for sharing and giving as gifts than to turn to the international Association of Jewish Libraries. AJL’s annual Sydney Taylor Book Awards are given in three categories — younger readers, older readers and teen readers — to acknowledge works of high literary worth which also exemplify authentic examples of various aspects of the Jewish experience. The awards memorialize Sydney Taylor, whose classic All-of-a-Kind-Family series, published in the ‘50s, is still popular among Jewish and non-Jewish children alike. Here are some of AJL’s 2011 recognized books — winners and honor books — plus a couple of extras which might be of interest:
FOR YOUNGER READERS (Pre-K–2nd Grade)
The gold medal winner is Gathering Sparks, by poet and folklorist Howard Schwartz and beautifully illustrated by Kristina Swarner. Both second-time winners, this team’s collaboration, based on Rabbi Isaac Luria’s concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is both inspiring and exquisite. Full of love and reassurance, it nonetheless calls for everyone, however young, to take part, whenever possible, in gathering the sparks of kindness and help restore peace. This is a work that can be used by all faiths.
Modeh Ani: A Good Morning Book by Sarah Gershman, also illustrated by Kristina Swarner, offers a selection of simplified morning blessings from Birkot HaShachar, with illustrations which beautifully express the joy to be found in waking to the beauty of the world and the excitement of each new day. The back of the book contains excerpts from the Hebrew original service and translations.
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty, by Linda Glaser with illustrations by Claire A. Nivola. (K-3rd). A wonderful blend of text and illustration, this book brings Emma Lazarus’s privileged world into bold contrast with the poverty and desperation of the immigrants whom she was determined to help. By showing her humanitarian efforts and then focusing on how she found the words to speak to and for those who had no voice of their own, this work has much to say to today’s immigrants as well.
FOR OLDER READERS (Grades 4–7)
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, the gold medal winner. Because of its unusual format as a graphic novel adventure starring an Orthodox Jewish heroine and featuring fantasy elements such as witches and dragons, it was a real trailblazer. That AJL chose it for its 2011 Gold Medal practically guarantees that more works by Jewish artists and writers will follow the current trend toward graphic novels in general publishing, carrying on the legacy of the famous 20th-century Jewish graphic novelists.
To prove the point, honor book Resistance: Book 1, by Carla Jablonski with illustrations by Leland Purvis, is a WWII graphic novel that tells of how young Paul and his sister determine to rescue their Jewish friend, Henri, who has escaped a roundup and been left behind. Their efforts to hide him, deal with their own family troubles and dangers, and work with the French Resistance, are well expressed in this highly visual format.
Another graphic work is not one of the AJL nominees but I thought I’d mention it for its historic and feminist interest. Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins, illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh, tells of a 14-year-old Jewish girl from Vienna who escaped to England with the Kindertransport. A real figure, whose photographs are liberally included, Lily got to the U.S. and eventually became a well-known comic book artist, specializing in comic strips about women heroines fighting the Nazis. Who knew about Jewish women comic strip artists? I certainly didn’t.
Jewish female graphic novelists are little known, but are vibrant and rising in their field.
FOR TEEN READERS (Grades 8–12)
Choosing this year’s gold medal teen award winner and honor books was no easy task. Each of them has something distinctive to say about an important part of the Jewish experience and says it well.
The gold medal book by Dana Reinhardt, The Things a Brother Knows, is the story of what happens when an Israeli-American family tries to reintegrate and understand their oldest son Boaz, who had shocked them by joining the Marines upon graduation from high school. Now returned from active duty, lauded as heroic, he is silent, withdrawn — a changed person. When he sets off on what he claims is a solitary hiking trip, his worried younger brother Levi decides to follow him, join him, and discover his true destination. Levi shows his own kind of strength as he determines to uncover the true depth of his brother’s pain, to understand the nature of his heroism, and to help his family heal. A serious story but leavened with humor and realistic family dynamics.
I could not put down Hush, the honor book, which was published under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil for reasons that quickly become obvious. The author, raised in a Chassidic world of schools, synagogues and summer camps, establishes both the insularity and warmth of the community surrounding 9-year-old Gittel and her best friend Devory. But, rule-bound and secretive, this life gives Gittel no guidance in dealing with her confusion and guilt when she witnesses an act of mysterious violence against her friend. Unable to speak out or be listened to, she cannot save her from destruction. Years later, as a young wife haunted by Devory, she understands what she had seen and eventually finds courage to break through the earlier silence forced upon her by the community she trusted. The author, whose pen name was unpronounceable by the Third Place Books clerk I asked for help in locating the book, is truly a woman of valor for making clear that walls built to keep out the cold, terrifying world can also make people forget that the greatest enemies always grow from within.
Let her speak for herself: “This is for all the children—past and present—who still suffer. I have used a fictitious name, Yushive, for the main sect in Hush. I did this because I refuse to point a finger at one group, when the crime was endemic to all.”
Sarah Darer Littman’s honor book, Life, After, was of particular interest to me since I have family in Buenos Aires. Dani’s life, before, exploded when the terrorist attack on the AMIA building in 1994 killed her aunt and her unborn child. That insecurity expanded exponentially as the terrible economic crisis of 2001 destroyed the middle class and her family’s future in Argentina. The story follows teenaged Dani and her family as they decide to emigrate and deal with making a new life in New York.
The final teen honor book, Once, by Morris Gleitzman was reviewed in an earlier column on Holocaust books. Read it first, before its sequel, Then, now available. I recommend both books, and their depiction of innocence and evil, with the author’s own words, “This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable.”
Who owns a public memorial? How should a nation decide which symbol will express its grief? Should the families of the dead receive special consideration? Does the intent of the artist matter or the work alone? These are only a few of the questions raised in Amy Waldman’s absorbing first novel, The Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which envisions an America looking to commemorate those killed in a 9/11-style attack. The memorial selection process is an anonymous one, yet the winner proves controversial: The chosen design was submitted by a Muslim.
What need is there for a memorial? The head of the selection committee notes several commercial and political reasons for having a concrete symbol. For example, “the developer who controlled the site wanted to re-monetize it and needed a memorial to do so, since Americans seemed unlikely to accept the maximization of the office space as the most eloquent rejoinder to terrorism.” Yet the emotional needs of the population also had to be taken into consideration as they affect the political climate of the times: “The longer the space stayed clear, the more it became a symbol of defeat, of surrender, something for ‘them,’ whoever they were, to mock.” Something is needed to fill the space so the public can either heal or, at a minimum, move on.
Yet, it’s not its discussion of politics that makes The Submission such interesting reading, but the personal perspectives offered by its characters. Waldman creates a group of fascinating, realistic people who are forced to look at their lives and prejudices during the course of a very public and emotional debate. Her complex studies show how public opinion can affect people’s personal desires and thoughts, leaving them wondering what path they should follow. Among the many characters are:
Paul Rubin, the grandson of a Russian Jewish immigrant. The retired banker sees his chairmanship of the memorial committee as a first step into a life of public service.
Mohammad (Mo) Khan, a non-practicing Muslim architect who refuses to defend or disguise his heritage.
Claire Burwell, who became a single parent when her husband Cal died in the attack. At first a defender of the memorial, she starts to second guess her decision when Khan refuses to explain his design choices.
Sean Gallagher, whose brother died in the attack and who looks to redeem himself in his parents’ eyes by opposing the memorial.
Asma Haque, an illegal immigrant whose husband also died in the attack and who seeks to remain in the U.S. for the sake of her infant son.
Alyssa Spier, a reporter who’s always looking for the big story, whether or not its revelations will destroy other people’s lives.
All of these people find themselves being forced to view the world in shades of gray, even as they search for black-and-white answers, those easy answers that no longer exist in contemporary times.
The Submission also looks at how the process of assimilation into American culture has changed. One conversation between Rubin and Khan shows the shift in thought between generations. Rubin notes that “my grandfather — he was Rubinsky, then my grandfather comes to America and suddenly he’s Rubin. What’s in a name? Nothing, everything. We all self-improve, change with the times.” Khan, on the other hand, feels he should be accepted as is, suggesting that “not everyone is prepared to remake themselves to rise in America.” Do people need to change and assimilate in order to be accepted? While many of those who arrived in the U.S. during the 20th century did so without thought, the Muslims in Waldman’s novel feel they can be fully American and fully Muslim at the same time.
Waldman’s greatest success is making readers understand the thought processes of all her characters. She does this by showing their strengths and their weaknesses in a way that makes it easy to empathize with them. Readers may find themselves agreeing with first one point of view and then another as each side of the debate is eloquently portrayed. The Submission is an impressive work, offering readers a view of an America searching to define itself in the 21st century.
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Have I got a secret agent for you!
When Hamas is smuggling missiles, and Iranians are building A-bombs deep underground, to whom can Israel turn? 007? No way. He’s too busy playing baccarat or keeping the world from being fried by space lasers. He hasn’t time for the Middle East.
But Israeli secret agent Israel Bond, code named Oy-Oy-7? Now he’s the man to call, or was, when author Sol Weinstein first created him in the 1960s.
With the recent reissue by About Comics of Weinstein’s four novels parodying the works of Ian Fleming, we can discover if Bond — that is, Israel Bond — can again rise to the occasion and save the day.
Originally published in 1965, the books feature the yiddishe derring-do of an Israeli secret agent whose cover is as a salesman for Mother Margoles’ Old World Chicken Soup. Looking at them now, the titles seem much like a precursor to the bubbling over of American Jewish pride that would follow the Six-Day War in 1967.
According to Weinstein, the four books — Loxfinger, Matzohball, On the Secret Service of His Majesty, the Queen and You Only Live Until You Die — were reported to have sold a million copies. Looking back at that figure now, Weinstein feels it was lower.
“Certainly a few hundred thousand,” he said. “I was wallowing in total obscurity, and now I was a semi-unknown.”
Before the publication of the books, Weinstein was a writer for The Trentonian, a New Jersey daily. Loxfinger, the first title in the series, originally appeared in condensed version in Playboy magazine. It imagined a Jewish secret agent fighting evil in a world where swimming pools are filled with chicken soup and the Israeli spy headquarters is shaped like the giant can from which the soup might have been poured. It’s such a Jewish world, the praying mantises come with their own prayer shawls and poison darts are shot from mezuzahs.
The book is unadulterated Jewish slapstick, a world away from the sober Federal District of Sitka, Alaska created by Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. In the 1960s, I remember seeing one of the titles, Matzohball, on my parent’s nightstand. Having just seen Thunderball, I felt in on the Jewish joke: Israel Bond was our secret agent, saving Israel from destruction in a quick-reading cartoonish plot.
Now, more than 40 years later, with the battle for Israel’s security front-page news and Jewish humor 10 notches broader than the Borscht Belt, are the books still good for the Jews? Hitting the market when 1960s-themed shows like “Pan Am” and “Mad Men” are drawing an audience, I wonder if Loxfinger would work now as a touch of Jewish retro, a test of how yesterday’s Jewish sensibilities would play today.
As I read Loxfinger, I saw how Weinstein’s hero still successfully played off of Fleming’s tall, suave and murderously gentile James Bond. Everyone, including the original Bond’s archenemies, know that he likes his vodka martini shaken, not stirred. Israel Bond, we soon discover, prefers egg creams — and not just any old way.
“The seltzer should be cold enough to stand on its own with a 3.5 ratio of pinpoint carbonation,” says Bond (Israel Bond).
“A fourth of the glass should be filled with Walker Gordon non-pasteurized milk,” he continues. “Only Fox’s U-Bet syrup should be used…mixed delicately with an 1847 Rogers Brothers spoon, dairy silver of course.”
“And maybe served with a little kasha varnishkes,” said Weinstein, when I asked what his character might like to have as a nosh with it.
Like 007, Weinstein’s Oy-Oy-7 has a license to kill, but when he is attacked by a bear in his hotel room, he is reluctant to use it. He only has his milchig knife with him and does not want to mess up his kashrut.
But his most dangerous weapon is his wit, or at least half of it; the puns and one-liners he flings with far deadlier aim than when Oddjob tosses his derby. (That’s a “Goldfinger” reference, kids. Look it up).
I asked Weinstein, now in his 80s and living in New Zealand, and who wrote jokes in Hollywood for Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., to explain his incorrigible punning.
“I’m a paronomasiac,” he answered, which he defines as a person addicted to wordplay and puns.
Even the book’s femme fatale, always a key element in a Bond tale, does not escape his pen.
“If Ian Fleming can have a character named Pussy Galore, I can call my character Poontang Plenty,” Weinstein reasoned.
In fact, in contrast to the Jewish sexual neuroticisms of Philip Roth novels, Weinstein’s Bond is a bold, self-assured, wise-cracking Jew — “quite a hunk of man,” even if Weinstein has him hailing from “the Land of Milk and Magnesia.”
As to why to reprint the books now?
“I want to make a few bucks,” said Weinstein, whose reply this time seemed to come from a man for once playing it straight. Plus, “I want to spread a few laughs around, and some Jewish feeling.”
All four Oy-Oy-7 books are available at www.oy-oy-7.com in paperback, or at amazon.com as a Kindle e-book or as a Barnes & Noble Nook e-book.
It began with a story.
A bit of family lore that lured a bright, young writer on a quest to find out more, and then, as can sometimes happen to very lucky, and very good, first-time authors, to find a story that begat a story and then another and then another and lo and behold, a book. And not just any book, but one that has snared the attention of the book world, snagging huzzahs from critics in such high places as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
So Brook Wilensky-Lanford tells it, as she chats about her recently released Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, $25 hardcover), which maps the journeys of a parade of paradise seekers looking to locate the earthly garden.
“A little kernel got the wheels turning,” she explains from her Jersey City, N.J., condo where she lives with boyfriend Gianmarco Leoncavallo and their two rescued cats, Garlic and Saison, “and I began pulling on the thread.”
The intriguing kernel was a story, as Wilensky-Lanford relates in the book’s prologue, that her great-uncle, William Sherman, an upper East Side Manhattan allergist at Columbia University’s Medical Center, where his father, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, had discovered the structure of vitamin B1, had had a penchant for paradise and sometime in the 1950s hatched a plan to go find it. Alas, she later learned from William’s daughter, Phoebe, the plan was never realized, but it was enough to fire up Wilensky-Lanford’s imagination and inspire her search.
She takes readers along with her from the North Pole to outer Mongolia to Mesopotamia with stops closer to home in places such as Ohio, Missouri and Florida. She relates the well-researched tales of the seekers, beginning with great-uncle William, with a light, often whimsical touch, probing the appeal of the biblical Eden for each and the particular theory of its location. Each pursuit begins with the same passage in Genesis 2:10-14 that puts Eden on the biblical map — “A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches” — but often ends in an entirely different geographic place.
“The Bible sounds positively nonchalant: If you can pinpoint the four rivers, you can locate paradise,” writes Wilensky-Lanford. But, she observes, of the four rivers mentioned, only two, the Tigris and the Euphrates, can be found; it’s uncertain as to where the others, the Pishon and Gihon, are or were.
Yet even more intriguing than the pursuits of William F. Warren, a Methodist minister and the first president of Boston University or German Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch or Chinese revolutionary, businessman and journalist Tse Tsan Tai, each of whom warrants a chapter in the book along with others, is the philosophical scaffolding on which Wilensky-Lanford hangs the entire enterprise. Beginning with great-uncle William, Wilensky-Lanford probes the tension between religion and science that underscores each of the stories and the potent implications of their mix.
She uses her quirky cast of characters to frame a discussion of biblical literalism, delving into the conflict between evolutionists and biblical creationists that still rages, and to make a case for biblical criticism and its multivocality.
“I do not believe that there is any one interpretation of any part of the Bible,” says Wilensky-Lanford. “There are so many translation systems and not every one is as good as every other one. I wanted to line up a whole lot of different stories and show that there are a lot of serious people who went about it in a different way.”
Wilensky-Lanford’s intellectual gravitas really surfaces toward the end of the book where she maps Eden’s — and the Bible’s — place in the current political firmament. Relating the story of science education professor Lee Meadows, who has spent his career trying to reconcile his deep Christian faith with science; visiting the multimillion-dollar Creation Museum in northern Kentucky; and tracking the Mormon migration and search for paradise on earth, Wilensky-Lanford establishes both the immensity of her inquiry and its relevance in today’s world.
Wilensky-Lanford comes by her interests — and her accomplishments — by way of a degree in religion and theater from Wesleyan University and an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. She’s carved out a niche writing literary essays for Huffington Post, Salon, Triple Canopy, Killing the Buddha and other outlets, working on the side as a freelance copy editor.
Growing up in Maine, literally, says Wilensky-Lanford, in the children’s bookstore owned by her mother, Sheila Wilensky, a former social studies teacher and now assistant editor of the Arizona Jewish Post in Tucson, imbued her with a love of stories, a fascination with history and an abiding idealism, absent any particular religious grounding.
Her mother, justly proud of both her daughter’s and her son’s successes (Ethan Wilensky-Lanford is also a writer), says her children’s involvement in the world of ideas is cause for hope.
“I’m about changing the world, all about changing ourselves,” she says. “I have great faith in them and people like them.”
(Tablet) — In the 1930s, Hank Greenberg chased Babe Ruth’s records and won the 1934 World Series with the Detroit Tigers. The national pastime wasn’t friendly territory for a Jewish athlete then, but by proudly staking out a claim, Greenberg proved that Jews could play the game as well as anyone else. To his co-religionists cheering in the stands, this was proof that they could participate in American society.
Greenberg was progress incarnate. But there was another Jewish sports story of that decade — one far less uplifting and therefore far less retold.
Once upon a time, Jews ruled basketball. Not the way they do now — the NBA’s commissioner and a majority of its owners are Jews — but on the court. If baseball was Middle America’s sport, basketball at the time, like boxing, was redolent of city squalor and shady dealings. Images of those short, pale men in belted shorts launching set shots in poorly lit, makeshift gyms are today virtually ignored; basketball has just evolved too much since then, and Jews played too little of a part in its development. That history is like a dream or, at worst, a bad joke.
But that history is also the subject of Jewball, Neal Pollack’s new Kindle novel about the real-life Jewish team that is generally regarded as the best basketball squad of the era. The Philadelphia Sphas — the name came from the acronym for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, which sponsored the team — dominated early pro basketball, winning seven championships in 13 seasons with the American Basketball League in the 1930s and 1940s.
Pollack delivers crisp, vivid episodes of the team in pitched battle, capturing the era’s style as well as that of key players. Around these scenes he weaves a fast-moving tale of underworld intrigue, the looming Nazi threat, love lost and found, and plenty of sharp-tongued banter.
In Alternadad and Stretch, Pollack brought his outwardly prickly but secretly warm persona to bear on parenting and then yoga; he was an outsider learning to fit in on his own terms. In Jewball, described in the acknowledgements as “a true labor of love,” Pollack pays homage to these unsung Jewish athletes and their colorful milieu. But for all his historical detail, Jewball ultimately tells us not only what was, but what Pollack would like to have seen.
Take Inky Lautman, the Sphas’s sure-handed point guard from 1937 to 1947. Though plenty is known about Lautman’s on-court exploits — he was one of the top scorers in the league — and about the Philadelphia of the time, Pollack creates his Lautman from scratch, bringing to life a cynical, scarred anti-hero for whom basketball is an escape from doing dirty work on the streets. (The real Lautman did quit high school at 15 to earn money for his family.) This kind of invention allows Pollack room to provide both startlingly well-researched game scenes and a madcap adventure that, plausible or not, makes the sports go down easier for those who aren’t fans.
In Pollack’s story, Eddie Gottlieb, the coach-owner-impresario of the Sphas, owes money to the German-American Bund, U.S. Nazi sympathizers with a strong base in Philadelphia. To pay off his debt, Gottlieb must have the Sphas take a dive against a team of Aryan supermen in Minneapolis, thus demonstrating the inferiority of the Jewish race and ceding their sport to the Nazis. Inky Lautman, so alienated and broke that he occasionally works for the Bund on what the character calls “non-Jew matters,” finds himself asked to make sure Gottlieb complies. Inky gets religion, so to speak, after being forced to attend an enormous Bund rally at Madison Square Garden. But the debt remains, Minnesota beckons, and the Bund isn’t exactly out for a fair game.
How will the Sphas get out of this jam? Answer: Lots of violence. And a barnstorming tour that allows Pollack to show us more of the great teams of the 1930s, like the African-American Harlem Rens or the all-female All-American Redheads. The history is fascinating but at times can drag, especially given the pending collision with the Bund.
Historical novels are inherently speculative, but Jewball is something else altogether: A fantasy that doesn’t politely look for space to imagine but instead proposes that an entire period is one best understood through the imagination. As Pollack explains in a “Notes on History” section at the end of the book, Gottlieb was never in debt to the Bund, and Lautman had no affiliation with it. The Minnesota game, too, is his invention. So little is known about the off-court lives of most of the Sphas, including Lautman, that Pollack created characters where history had left none.
The book’s bad guys — figures such as William Dudley Pelley, founder of the American fascist group the Silver Legion, and German-American Bund leaders Fritz Julius Kuhn and Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze — are more faithfully portrayed, perhaps because they left more of a historical record with which to work.
Thus Pollack’s characterization of Lautman is less about revealing a real person than it is about imagining the ideal protagonist for the Jewball era — a nasty, uproarious, and at times glorious one. This isn’t a historical novel so much as it is a tall tale, or better yet, an attempt to at once reclaim the past and lend it the same antic, outrageous quality that the shtetl took on for I.B. Singer. Pollack wants to find new ways to revitalize a dead era.
The brand of nostalgia in Jewball may play right into the hands of the book’s villains, or the history that has deified Hank Greenberg and consigned Inky Lautman to the shadows. Or just maybe it’s entirely the right note to strike when reclaiming Lautman — not as a source of shame or consternation, but as another kind of Jewish hero who not only fought back, but liked to fight — and almost always fought dirty.
Bethlehem Shoals (the pen name of Nathaniel Friedman) is a founding member of the now-defunct basketball writers’ collective FreeDarko.com and co-author of The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com.
We have seen plenty of literature, films and nonfiction about the horrors of the Holocaust. Even more so now as the survivors of those horrific years are passing away in ever greater numbers. What has not been nearly as well documented has been the immediate aftermath: The refugees, the homeless, the ongoing hatred of Jews in countries that had often served as safe havens during the war as well as those that did not.
That is what makes The List unique. Well-regarded NBC reporter Martin Fletcher has set his first foray into fiction in the fall of 1945 with a story about the everyday lives of a group of survivors, in particular a young couple who found love on the run from the Nazis and must now make lives for themselves in their adopted country of England.
Nothing, as they discover, is easy. Strong-willed Edith escaped from her home in Vienna mere minutes before the Gestapo came with arrest papers in her name. Despite her doctor’s orders to rest, she continues her work as a seamstress while fighting off the anxiety of the impending birth of her first child. Georg is a lawyer unable to find work in a climate where any job worth having is being reserved for the soldiers returning from the front.
The couple lives in a boarding house with several other survivors and the home’s owners, who face pressure from their neighbors to evict these welfare-sucking, ungrateful Jews who should return “home” now that the war is over — Britain’s military heroes need housing, after all.
Neither Georg nor Edith knows many details of what happened to their families. They, like the circle of refugee friends they have created, continually check the boards at the welfare offices and Red Cross for a glimmer of hope about a surviving family member or, more commonly, confirmation of death. The book’s title refers to a list that Edith and Georg keep of their own family members, and the names they continue to cross out.
But finally Edith receives some good news. Her cousin Anna — beautiful, gregarious Anna — comes to stay with them. Yet they hardly recognize each other on the train platform when Anna arrives from the other side of hell. It’s clear she has experienced unspeakable horrors, and the tension of Edith’s desperate need to know what happened to her father against Anna’s need to keep what was done to her buried as deeply as possible is palpable.
Then there’s the shadowy, anti-Semitic Egyptian Ismael, whose overtures to this damaged young woman appear creepy and inappropriate. But are they really? Edith cannot bring herself to trust this strange, dark man who constantly makes rude comments. Yet more than once he appears in the right place at the right time to save Georg and his friends from that era’s version of skinhead thugs.
While this multifaceted cast of characters deals with its own problems, swirling around them are meetings held by groups who want to “send the aliens home.” The meetings are packed, hot and contentious. Different people stand up to give different voices to each grievance, many of them legitimate. In the end, the strong, pregnant Edith somewhere finds the strength to defend her fellow refugees, saving the day — at least in this scene of the story.
It’s these scenes where the novel begins to run into trouble. Fletcher paints a picture sympathetic to these people’s plights while remaining unafraid to gloss over the hardship they endure to keep themselves fed and clothed, or the extreme sadness they feel about losing yet another family member while trying to keep positive outlooks on their own futures.
But Martin Fletcher the journalist has trouble making the leap to Martin Fletcher the novelist. Like any good journalist, he shows a natural inclination to get all sides of the story. But because each of these characters represents a different viewpoint, they end up becoming the perspective itself instead of multi-dimensional people.
Fletcher puts us inside all of the heads of this cast of characters — sometimes from one paragraph to the next. Writers have plenty of techniques they can employ to do this smoothly, but Fletcher just can’t manage to pull it off. Then, further complicating things, is a storyline in faraway Palestine, with characters that don’t always survive their own chapters.
As more details get meted out in this story-within-a-story, the British military closes in on the underground movements for an independent Jewish state. But the connection between these murdered freedom fighters and the son of Edith and Georg’s landlords, not to mention another important character, is just too coincidental. Those scenes, while adding a bit of cloak and dagger to what is otherwise really a love story, could have been left out and we probably wouldn’t have missed them.
Georg and Edith are the real heroes of The List but they’re also symbols for the plight of everyone else recovering from this war. The problem with symbols, however, is that they retain a natural symbolism, meaning that between the two of them they accomplish far more than a family in a similar situation ever could have. Then, as the couple’s baby is born, the level of detail actually flips the story and instead of symbols we get portraits of people that actually feel too close-up.
The List’s shortcomings, unfortunately, take away from what is otherwise a fascinating story set in a fascinating time.
Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, during a recent visit to the University of Pennsylvania.
One would not expect a novel about a battered woman and her protectors, identity confusion, and murder to be written by a male septuagenarian Holocaust survivor. But as one of Aharon Appelfeld’s characters says, “Contradictions don’t put me off.”
Appelfeld’s newest novel to appear in English — Until the Dawn’s Light, published in Hebrew in 1995 — draws on his experiences surviving World War II by hiding with criminals between the ages of 8 and 14. Appelfeld, author of 39 books, is a master storyteller and allegorist. He recently made his first visit to the U.S. in a decade, for a two-day conference on his life and work at the University of Pennsylvania.
This novel, set at an indeterminate time in pre-World War II Europe, features a Jewish woman, Blanca, who converts to Christianity to marry a non-Jewish man, Adolf, who abuses her. Blanca does not take care of her father once her mother has passed away, allowing her father to return alone at night to an old-age home (Adolf will not let him in their home), and the father goes missing.
Blanca gives birth to a child and can’t tell the news to her blind grandmother, who stands outside the now-closed synagogue, cursing the converts. She is afraid to speak to her grandmother because of her disapproval of Blanca’s conversion and marriage to a non-Jew. The irony in their world is that when the man from the burial society says “We Jews stand by one another” at the funeral of Blanca’s mother, the crowd realizes “most of them were converts.” Yet, there is still a core of faith in them — Blanca remembers her mother saying “There is a God in heaven and he watches over all his creatures.” Her father argues that this is her ancestors’ faith, not her own, yet her mother counters, “mine too, if I may.”
The attenuated Jewish faith of Blanca the convert, abused by her Christian husband and his family, is preserved through the ministrations of Dr. Nussbaum, whose own daughter Celia, Blanca’s classmate, discovers how Jewish she feels reading Martin Buber in the convent Celia has joined. Celia has come to realize that her Jewish forebears “were truly the flesh of her flesh.” Dr. Nussbaum’s care for Blanca and her child helps him cope with being cut off from his daughter the nun.
However, like Appelfeld himself said during his visit that he had “no messages, only words,” Blanca sinks “deeper and deeper into writing” to create her life and memories through her imagination. Blanca comes to realize that “Death isn’t darkness if you take your dear ones with you. It’s just a change in place.” Blanca and the people around her are living in a world on the cusp of being destroyed, and their hope is to find a way out.
Contradictions and all, Appelfeld has again shown readers the way that fictional Jews in the liminal world of Europe between the wars coped with the uncertainties of their lives.
Shelly Harrison Photography
Doctors Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband.
Perhaps doctor doesn’t know best. In their new book, Your Medical Mind: How To Decide What is Right For You, husband-wife physician team Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband lay the groundwork for making sound medical decisions.
None of our choices are completely independent, the authors say; rather, they are influenced by a set of values and history. Understanding what makes us tick is vital in making the correct medical decisions for ourselves.
“We’re all just flooded with information about health and conflicting advice from experts,” says Groopman, an oncologist and chief of experimental medicine at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who writes on medicine and biology for The New Yorker. “We wanted to write the book to give people the framework, the tools to make the best choice for themselves.”
The authors offer four main categories that people tend to fall into when it comes to medical bias. The first is technology orientation (people who believe that the best treatments lie in cutting-edge research or new procedures) versus naturalism orientation (people who feel that the body can heal itself if supplemented by herbs and other natural products). There are also the maximalists (who believe the more treatment the better) versus the minimalists (who say less is more).
Finally, there are the believers and the doubters. Believers have faith that a solution for their problem exists, whereas doubters view all treatment options with skepticism. Some of us are risk averse, while others are more prone to taking risks.
While doubters tend to be risk averse, naturalists can be maximalists (think of that friend that takes every herbal tea and vitamin known to man). The categories aren’t necessarily linear, but it is important to understand which we fall into in order to gain more clarity and control over our decision making.
Hartzband, an endocrinologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, emphasizes, “doctors as well as patients have these mindsets.” So, if a doctor is a maximalist, they may be prone to recommending more treatment than necessary.
In order to assess your own — and your doctor’s — biases, the authors recommend that you inform yourself and build your “health literacy.”
“What does it really mean to be informed?” they write. “It means knowing the numbers about a particular medication or procedure, its likely benefits and side effects, but it also means being alert to how the presentation of these numbers can confuse or mislead you.”
To illustrate their point, the authors present the case of Susan, a generally healthy woman who discovered she had high cholesterol. Her doctors recommended she take a statin, a very common drug, but Susan — a minimalist and naturalist — decided to do her research first. After speaking to a friend, Susan discovered that statins could have a side effect of muscle pain. When she voiced this concern to her doctor, he emphasized that that side effect seemed relatively insignificant compared to the 30 percent reduction in risk for heart attack over the next 10 years if she were to take the drug. Susan returned to her research, went online and calculated that given her age, cholesterol number, and lifestyle, her risk for having a heart attack in the next 10 years was only 1 percent. She decided not to take the drug.
Susan’s process, the authors describe, is reflective of a few key ways to get informed. The number one factor influencing preference is stories we hear of people in similar situations. The authors caution that these stories also have the potential to distort our vision “by making the rare appear routine.”
Today, many of the stories we hear come from the Internet. According to Hartzband, the availability of these stories can be beneficial, but also misleading.
“The Internet has lots of excellent information, and there’s also a lot of misinformation,” she says. “You have to figure out how that information applies to you.”
Armed with this information, the authors argue, you’ll be in a better position to make an informed decision.
“Anyone can do this,” says Groopman, “even someone who’s not good at it. Start with ‘What will happen to me if I have no treatment?’”
A final component the authors note is the “focusing illusion,” our tendency to focus on how one part in our life would be affected by a particular side effect of a treatment. In doing that, we fail to see how adaptive we can be to living without perfect health, Groopman argues.
Various models now ask people to place a value on different aspects of health such as sight or sexual potency. However, Groopman says it is nearly impossible for a healthy person to really imagine what life would be like without those things, so placing a value on them is irrelevant.
Who are the Feldheims and why are they messing with my food obsession?
The first question is the easy one to answer — they’re more a what than a who. Feldheim is a third-generation, family-owned publisher of Jewish-interest books. They offer a wide-ranging selection of titles in Hebrew and English (www.feldheim.com).
Three recent Feldheim cookbooks are guaranteed to send the serious — or beginner — cook into a spatula-whipped kitchen frenzy. However, because these books all look as luscious as the food they’ll help you concoct, you’ll get equal satisfaction lying on the couch looking at the full-page, full-color pictures that accompany the recipes.
All three authors claim their recipes are easily followed and not too challenging. The most challenging overall is probably Efrat Libfroind’s Kosher Elegance: The Art of Cooking With Style. Libfroind, a well-known Israeli chef and mother of six, is focused as much on style as on taste. She encourages us to add a little pizzazz to our tired old menu with a dash of culinary presentation. Thus, a regular old green salad is now served in individual crystal dishes and topped with rings of curly sweet potato fries. (Libfroind loves sweet potatoes, which are now grown in Israel. Who knew?)
You’ll need to drag out all those wedding gifts or make a run to the cooking store to accomplish some of these dishes (or buy your molds and pastry bags at the author’s website), but just as many can be done by the average cook in the average kitchen. The large format keeps recipes on one page and easily read and followed. Each one is illustrated by a full-page color photo. The dessert section, one third of the recipes, might be the most challenging for the inexperienced. If you’re like me, you might stick to tormenting yourself with the amazing photos of fabulous chocolate concoctions. Kosher Elegance comes with a well-thought-out index arranged by ingredient.
In the middle, in terms of complexity, is Persian Food for the Non-Persian Bride and Other Sephardic Recipes You Will Love by Reyna Simnegar (mother of five boys!). Simnegar was not born into a Persian family, so a good part of her text are stories of learning to cook from her mother-in-law and getting to know her Persian family and their ancient culture. These recipes range from easy to complex, but are well thought out and well laid out. The most complicated section seems to be the one on rice. Even after a two attempts I could not seem to master the art of “tadig”— re-cooking rice until that crunchy crust forms on bottom of the pan — which Persians have made into an art. One of the book’s simplest recipes, garbanzo salad, has become a staple in my house. The combination of culture, food and photos make this cookbook highly entertaining.
Cookbook author Jamie Geller made her mark on the food world with her first book, The Bride Who Knew Nothing. From that nothing, Geller has practically become a kosher food institution with a series of cookbooks, a blog, and as chief marketing officer for Kosher.com. Now Geller (mother of four) has come out with Quick and Kosher: Meals in Minutes. As with the other cookbooks featured here, this one is large format with one recipe per page and a big color photograph of each dish, but adds a bonus of a suggested side dish or salad recipe and wine recommendation included on each recipe page.
Geller’s focus is the less-experienced cook, although anyone can benefit from her techniques and advice for fast meals. The book is organized by preparation time into 20-minute, 40-minute and 60-minute recipes. The quicker the meal prep, the more prepared ingredients it calls for (many of which you can purchase, of course, at Kosher.com, if you can’t find them locally). While she offers plenty for the sophisticated palate, many recipes will clearly appeal to kids, or to the kid in you, like fish-and-chips sandwiches, chicken tacos and lemon-blueberry pancakes (for dinner, yes!).
Both Geller and Simnegar offer suggestions for holiday menus as well, and Libfroind’s entire book could be seen as a challenge to dress up your holiday table. All these books are reasonably priced at $35, considering their size and full-color presentation.
“It is a wise child that knows its own father, and an unusual one that unreservedly approves of him.”
— Mark Twain
In the circle of life we start as children, become adults, and usually going on to become parents ourselves.
The family circle may be better characterized as a spiral. As parents we draw on a widening circle of friends and experts for advice and assistance. Unfortunately, one type of person Americans are likely not to call on is a neighbor. If you know some of your neighbors well enough to help each other out, you are probably a minority in our culture.
This is the focus of Peter Lovenheim’s In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time (Perigee, paper, $13.95). Living in Rochester, New York’s most exclusive suburb (Houston Barnard), he is deeply affected by a tragic murder-suicide only a few houses away from his own.
This started him wondering: If the murdered woman had known her neighbors — even one — would she have gone to them for help? Would she have fled to safety if she knew she had a nearby place to go?
Lovenheim (he’s an attorney and mediator by training) sets out to know his neighbors and to increase the safety and well-being of the neighborhood. He even asks some if he can sleep over at their houses, to get to know them and to observe them. A few consent and this is the author’s report and musings on the subject. It’s a fast read and a great starting point to get us thinking about our own neighborhoods and our roles as neighbors in them.
As spouses and parents, though, we are probably more likely to turn to a book than we are to turn to our own family or neighbors for advice. In Letting go With Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century (Avery, paper, $18), Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg of the UPenn School of Medicine joins journalist Susan FitzGerald to give parents practical, thoughtful and contemporary strategies for achieving those goals stated in the book’s title. In addition to the usual teen struggles, parents now seek the balance in moderating electronic media and social networking. Are kids being forced to grow up more quickly or being encouraged to be more dependent? Ginsburg offers suggestions based on his experience as a pediatrician and as a father of teens. Read it from beginning to end or pick and choose the sections that apply.
It’s great if we can turn to family in a crisis. What I Learned About Life When My Husband Got Fired (RedandBlack, paper, $25) is written by a sister duo who have taken the nom de plumes Red and Black. It details Red’s attempt to comprehend and control family finances in the wake of her husband’s — and sole bread winner’s — job loss. She starts from zero and, with the help of her older sister, with her 30 years of corporate experience, builds a solid knowledge of personal finance.
We learn along with her step-by-step as Red relates hundreds of phone calls, emails and instant message exchanges between the sisters. It’s a personable and do-able approach. The book has already been used as a textbook and a teacher’s guide is also available. Houston’s Jewish community, of which the duo are a part, have embraced the book and the stories within.
Finally, we can only hope as parents that our kids grow up to respect us and, even better, let us know it.
My Parents Were Awesome, edited by writer, producer and comedian Eliot Glazer (Villard, paper, $15), is a collection of mostly sweet essays culled from the popular website of the same name. There, in 2009, Glazer began encouraging people to find vintage photos of their parents and reflect on those parents’ lives before children and the challenges of raising a family. The title gives the impression that only good memories are in store for the reader, but the book is not saccharine. Many of these writers turn an eye to their parents’ faults, but not with intent to blame. It’s done with the love and compassion that we hope to acquire once we reach that certain stage of adulthood. (Some of these parents, though, might have done well with a little of the expert advice referenced above.)
It so happens that many of these writers are Jewish, but many are not. Overall, the respect, love and yes, awe, conveyed here transcends race and ethnicity.
Jerusalem Maiden, by Talia Carner, (Harper, paper, $14.99). Carner’s real skill in this, her third novel, is in her vivid descriptions of settings. She brings Jerusalem’s pre-World War I Mea Shearim neighborhood alive in this story of Esther Kaminsky, oldest daughter of an ultra-Orthodox immigrant family. Esther struggles to balance her religious and family obligations and her love of drawing, which she studies in school. Married off to a less religious man in Jaffa (as a punishment), she follows him to Europe and gets stuck in Paris alone during the war, another place Carner captures so well. Conflicts between religious and secular life, and strong statements about women’s independence dominate this historical novel, based loosely on the author’s grandmother’s life.
The Blood of Lorraine, by Barbara Corrado Pope (Pegasus, cloth, $25). On the eve of the Dreyfus trial, French magistrate Bernard Martin and his pregnant wife have just moved to Nancy in Lorraine, where Martin is asked to investigate a series of troubling crimes. A baby is murdered and mutilated and the parents insist it is the act of a wandering Jew. Then two prominent members of the local Jewish community are killed. During the investigation Martin, a non-Jew and steadfast believer in republican ideals, becomes aware of the dark undercurrent of anti-Semitism that grips his town and his nation all while coping with personal tragedy. The author is a University of Oregon professor. This is her second historical mystery featuring Martin’s character.
Song Yet Sung, by James McBride (Riverhead, cloth, $25.95). The bi-racial author, whose mother was born Jewish, is best known for his memoir, The Color of Water. This novel of slavery in northern, coastal Maryland in the mid-1800s brings historical and mystical elements together as the lives of free, captive and escaped slaves blend with white slave hunters, abolitionists and hard-working fisher folk in a tense drama. The story focuses on Liz, an escaped slave whose head injury has given her seemingly prophetic dreams. She is hunted by a vicious band of bounty hunters and by a more sympathetic oysterman. With the “Promised Land” of the north only 80 miles away, and the Underground Railway operating nearby, Liz desperately tries to make her way to freedom.
Roll Over Hitler, by Daniel Bruce Brown (Inkwater, paper, $25.95). This political farce finds Ron Goldberg, a liberal U.S. Senator, elected the first Jewish president of these 51 United States (Israel has been added to the roster). It’s a rollicking White House adventure with an angry first lady (living in a hotel while the White House is renovated), old flames and dead fathers resurfacing, all while the prez has to contend with political infighting and international disdain. The solution, well, it might be out of this world if it works. A first novel and a good first effort.
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, by Chris Moriarity (Harcourt, cloth, $16.99). Harry Potter meets One of A Kind Family in this early 20th-century magical crime novel. Thirteen-year-old Sacha is from a poor but happily eccentric Lower East Side family. When the police learn he can see magic they send him to work for the department’s top “inquisitor,” where he is paired for training with snobbish Upper East Sider Lily Astral. The working poor of the city want to keep their old-country magic, used mainly for chores and work, but wealthy industrialists like “James Pierrepont Morgaunt” seek to control it all.
While our heroes hunt a murderous dybbuk, we learn about immigrant life in old New York. Young readers might not get the jokes, but adults will be amused at Moriarity’s historical satire. The IWW is now the International Witches of the World and Sacha’s “Uncle Mordechai had been kicked out of Russia for being a Bavatskyan Occulto-Syndicalist,” but “he was actually a Trotskyite Anarcho-Wiccanist.”
Israel for Beginners: A Field Guide for Encountering the Israelis in Their Natural Habitat, by Angelo Colorni (Gefen, paper, $16.95). A very funny look at Israel and Israelis by an Italian with an American wife who has made his home there for 30 years. Designed to serve as a guide either for tourists or new residents, Colorni covers learning the language, the people, their lifestyles and popular tourist destinations. In addition to his sardonic observations, the author begins each subject section with a biblical quote, usually taken out of context in hilarious manner. The epigram for fashion: “They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons;” and for politics: “Let his days be few; and let another take his office” (Psalms). In “real” life the author is an authority on diseases of aquatic organisms at the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Center.
The Ablest Navigator, by J. Wandres (Naval Institute Press, cloth, $32.95). Even civilians can enjoy this dense but relatively short biography of a little-explored piece of Israeli history. In 1944 Paul Shulman was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and one of 50 Jewish midshipmen commissioned in his class. His mother was an executive with Hadassah and after the war he helped buy supplies for the Haganah. In 1948, Ben-Gurion called Shulman to Israel to establish a naval training academy. Starting with almost no assets he took the Israeli squadron into action against enemy ships in less than three months. After the war of independence Shulman settled in Israel.
Out of the Depths, by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau (Sterling, cloth, $24.95). This is the memoir of Israel’s former chief rabbi, who served in that position from 1993 to 2003. At age 8, Lau was liberated from Buchenwald, and he lost most of his family in that tragedy. He chronicles his time in a French orphan camp and his arrival in the newly formed state of Israel. The book is filled with interesting stories of early Israel and its leaders, the author’s education, and how he came to be a public figure who has met with popes, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, U.S. presidents and many other global leaders. Shimon Peres wrote the forward.
NEW YORK (JTA)—If there’s one thing J Street is good at, it’s getting attention.
Supporters, critics and relatively neutral observers all have conspired—with plenty of prodding from J Street’s own aggressive communications operation—to shine an intense media spotlight on the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization. The result has been waves of positive attention and tough scrutiny, often out of proportion with any actual accomplishment or misdeed.
The debate over all things J Street is likely to continue with the July 19 release of “A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation (Palgrave MacMillan),” the new book by the organization’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami.
Like the previous rounds of the J Street debate, the book will sway few people. Instead, it will serve as a Rorschach test or proxy fight on a slew of wider issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S.-Israel relations and the Jewish body politic.
What you think about J Street probably says a lot about what you think about Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, AIPAC, settlements, terrorism, the peace process, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and the limits of criticizing Israel. The same probably goes for what you’ll make of the book.
Ben-Ami starts with a historical analogy that is sure to drive many of his critics bonkers: He compares J Street to the Bergson Group, the band of right-wing loyalists to Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The group was ostracized by the U.S. Jewish establishment in the 1930s and ‘40s for waging an aggressive campaign to finance illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine and publicly pressuring the Roosevelt administration to do more to help European Jewry.
What gives the comparison extra punch is that Ben-Ami—a former Bill Clinton and Howard Dean staffer—is the son of the late Bergson Group member Yitshaq Ben-Ami.
“My organization, J Street, is attacked ... from the right for being left-wing, while the attacks in the 1930s against the Bergson Group came from the left and called them ‘fascist,’ ” the younger Ben-Ami writes. “If the experience of the Bergson Groups teaches us anything, it is that the appropriate way to deal with those new voices is not to reflexively shut them down but to engage them on the merits and see what value there may be in what they are trying to say.”
It is true, as Ben-Ami asserts in his book, that some right-wing and centrist critics of his organization have launched vitriolic and distortion-filled attacks against J Street and its leaders, often working to blackball them from various forums.
And he’s also right in arguing that many of J Street’s main policy positions—a Jewish state in Israel, a demilitarized Palestinian state, borders based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, no Palestinian right of return, a compromise on Jerusalem—fall well within the Israeli and Jewish mainstream. To boot, J Street has criticized Palestinian incitement and worked with other Jewish organizations to head off anti-Israel boycott campaigns.
At the same time, Ben-Ami papers over, outright ignores or misrepresents several controversies in which criticism of J Street was more widespread and rooted in reality.
Take George Soros-gate, the controversy over the news that the billionaire funder of anti-communist and anti-Bush causes—and a critic of some Israeli security and settlement policies—in fact had been a leading donor to J Street.
“The revelation of his support generated a storm of controversy,” Ben-Ami recounts. “So did the decision not to make his support public when it began.”
Well, not exactly. The issue wasn’t funding but credibility: J Street had spent years essentially denying Soros was a donor when in fact he was one of the organization’s biggest funders.
In another flash of denial, Ben-Ami writes that “if, God forbid, war were to break out tomorrow and Israel’s existence were to be threatened, the American Jewish community and Jews worldwide would—without a doubt and appropriately—rally to the flag.”
Maybe most Jewish groups would, but not J Street—at least not in December 2008, when Israel went to war against Hamas to stop rocket attacks on its cities. Just hours after the Israeli operation started, J Street criticized it on strategic grounds. And then, in a move that would upset even sympathetic liberals, one of J Street’s spokesmen sent out a mass e-mail suggesting that those backing the Israeli operation lacked “sanity and moderation” and proudly declaring that “there are many who recognize elements of truth on both sides of this gaping divide.”
But perhaps the most consistent blind spot are the repeated calls by Ben-Ami and J Street for a wide communal tent and respectful dialogue even while they are swinging sharp elbows.
Ben-Ami’s book is no exception. “A New Voice for Israel” contains several unfair and inaccurate generalizations about other Jewish organizations.
For example, Ben-Ami criticizes the Anti-Defamation League for its opposition to the Islamic community center near Ground Zero, and a few sentences later laments that “overall, the response from the established American Jewish community to growing intolerance all across the United States has been muted at best.”
Criticizing the ADL’s position on the Lower Manhattan Islamic center is fair game, but Ben-Ami’s broader claim is an outright falsehood. The ADL itself has issued frequent condemnations of anti-Islamic bigotry and participated in an effort to defend the general right of American Muslims to build mosques.
Judging from the book, J Street continues, in the name of open discourse, to defend engaging with harsh critics of Israel—including having a BDS supporter speak on a panel at its conference—even while arguing that Jewish groups and U.S. lawmakers should give the cold shoulder to right-wing Christian Zionists.
Ben-Ami also lumps centrists who favor a two-state solution together with those who oppose Israeli concessions and push for settlement expansion. And he suggests that politicians and Jewish organizational leaders who disagree with J Street or criticize the organization fall short on supporting peace and democracy—or they have bowed to intimidation from pro-Israel forces.
Of course, name a major Jewish advocacy organization—ADL, AIPAC, American Jewish Committee, Zionist Organization of America, etc.—and you might find some combination of political and policy miscues, potentially embarrassing funder information, misleading comments, examples of playing dirty or failing to live up to stated ideals. So J Street is hardly alone.
On the policy front, Ben-Ami’s book serves as a healthy reminder that while J Street has described itself as the Obama administration’s “blocking back,” the organization actually disagreed with the president’s early overarching focus on pressuring Israel to enact a settlement freeze. In the end, Obama has come around to J Street’s approach: having the United States publicly outline the favored parameters of a deal, starting with borders and security.
While this, too, is likely to fan anti-J Street flames in some centrist and right-wing circles, in the end the organization’s biggest challenge could well come from the left.
During the past year, one could make the argument that the upstart Jewish Voice for Peace has emerged as the main challenger for the hearts and minds of Jews on the left who feel alienated from Israel and the Jewish establishment. That’s bad news if you count yourself as a pro-Israel activist.
You don’t like J Street’s policies? Jewish Voice for Peace supports some boycotts and divestment measures targeting Israel and takes no position on whether it backs a two-state solution.
You don’t like J Street’s tactics? JVP activists heckled Israel’s prime minister at another Jewish organization’s conference.
By comparison, Ben-Ami’s talk about Zionism, support for U.S. aid to Israel and opposition to the BDS movement sound downright establishment. And if JVP’s influence and popularity grow, it might not be long before establishment folks start telling themselves that maybe J Street wasn’t so bad after all.
Readers can often benefit from learning history through fiction, a testament to historical fiction’s enduring popularity. An author can “know” a fictional character more deeply, creating a more sympathetic, moving and personal portrait than an historical figure might make. This in turn gives the reader deeper empathy and a more personal experience of history.
Three new historical novels, all from foreign authors, bring us to different times in Jewish history, offering some insight into specific periods spanning about a century of time.
Gratitude, by the Hungarian-Canadian author Joseph Kertes (St. Martin’s, cloth, $26.99), explores Hungarian Jewry’s short but traumatic entry into the Holocaust, starting with the 1944 Nazi invasion, through the end of the war. Until the moment of invasion, Hungarian Jews and gentiles lived under an illusion of protection they assumed the Hungarian-German alliance gave them. Kertes dramatically captures the speed at which the Nazis move to violate and dismantle the lives, confidence and patriotism of those Jews.
We learn the facts through the characters of the Beck family in Budapest, whose first hint of the future comes when they take in Lily, the sole Jewish survivor of her village’s ruthless evacuation by Nazi and Hungarian soldiers. Their individual and group actions show the range of experience of survivors and martyrs alike. Some are killed, some hide, and some become Swedish citizens under the auspices of Raoul Wallenberg, a small, but important character in the book. Jewish and gentile characters are pulled into the maelstrom. Some go to the camps, some disappear, and as the living nightmares churn on, we see how people react — some driven to action, some to despair, and some to heroism.
In Valley of Strength, (Toby, cloth, $24.95), Israeli novelist Shulamit Lapid novelizes a period not often given much thought.
While we tend to draw a direct line between the Holocaust and the creation of modern Israel, more than 50 years before that, horrific pogroms were sweeping across Eastern Europe, driving many to emigrate.
Written in Hebrew in 1982 and only recently translated into English, Valley tells the story of Fania, a 16-year-old girl, the sole survivor of her village’s pogrom, who arrives in Ottoman-ruled Palestine in the late 19th century with her deranged brother, her intellectual uncle, and her baby, a product of rape. Desperate to keep her shameful secret, and to become a productive member of society, she hastily agrees to marry a farmer and moves to the remote farm settlement of Gai Oni, now the town of Rosh Pinah. Through Fania’s life we learn the early history of the area and of Israel’s earliest European immigrants who, side by side with their Arab neighbors, struggled to make a living off an unyielding land.
The writing is dense, as much Israeli fiction is, and the book is peppered with historical details unfamiliar to most casual American readers, but it’s worth taking the time to look things up — as I often did —to fill in this piece of Israeli history.
From 20th-century terror we move to 21st-century terrorism in The Fourth Target, by Nik Klieman (independent, paper, $15). I only finished this book, by an American-born Israeli, a former El Al publicist, because it has map of Washington on the cover with an alarming flag pin stuck into Tacoma, marking it as a target of terrorism.
Seattle was an Islamicist terrorist target in 2001 and Portland (also in the book) was targeted in 2010, and we know that airline terrorism is a real and current threat, so nothing in the book’s premise rings untrue.
The main character, journalist Jonathan Summers, is an airline terrorism expert who becomes an amateur detective, enmeshed in an international conspiracy, when his daughter is killed in an airline bombing. The book suffers from many of the problems of indie press books (the current term for self-published books). After reading a few chapters I couldn’t help whipping out my pencil and marking up the book. Despite writing, punctuation and factual problems (it’s Pike Place Market, not Pike’s Place, and it’s Puget Sound, not the Pacific!), layout and formatting issues, the story still held my interest. And, of course, I kept reading to learn the Pacific Northwest’s role in plot.
In Breakfast with the Ones You Love, by Eliot Fintushel (Bantam, paper, $12), Lea Tillem, a 16-year-old runaway with unusual powers, meets Jack Konar. Jack is building a spaceship in anticipation of the arrival of the Chosen Ones, who will in turn herald the coming of the Messiah. The author — a stand-up comic and hurdy gurdy player — thrives on word play and esoteric Jewish knowledge, and I can’t help think that in his defense he’d say that there’s nothing wilder here than some of the stories in the Tanach.
The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead, cloth, $25.95). As in her bestselling The Ten Year Nap, Wolitzer entertains us with sharp-edged and sharp-eyed observations about modern life. “Nap” was a Manhattan book. The Uncoupling moves to a suburban New Jersey high school where a new drama teacher is staging “Lysistrata,” Aristophanes ancient Greek play in which women refuse to have sex with men until they end the Peloponnesian War.
With a touch of magical realism (and no specific Jewish content), the play casts a “spell” over the school’s faculty, staff and students, and we see what the ensuing revolt brings to this contemporary community. There are great descriptions of high school life from both the kid and adult perspective, and of married life, too. Wolitzer is expert at getting inside characters’ heads.
Imagine: John Lennon and the Jews, A Philosophical Rampage, by Ze’ev Maghen (independent, paper, $12.50). Don’t be put off by the title of this book, it’s about a lot more than John Lennon, although the author uses a critique of the song lyrics as a foundation for his “philosophical rampage.” His “Why be Jewish?” argument has its roots in a long-ago encounter with some Israeli Hare Krishna acolytes at the Los Angeles airport. Maghen — American-born, but now an Israeli professor of Arabic literature and Islamic history at Bar-Ilan University — writes, “the ensuing pages are what I would have said to them,” had he had the time and opportunity.
Maghen is smart (very!), funny, critical, irreverent and lucid, and he puts it all together with equal doses of philosophy, pop culture and religion, and lots of entertaining anecdotes. Where else could you find Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and philosopher Immanuel Kant quoted in the same paragraph? Even if you don’t agree with him (and he delineates at the beginning who should and shouldn’t read this book), it’s a thought-provoking and entertaining ride.
In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief, by James Kugel (Free Press, cloth, $26). When this preeminent biblical scholar got a cancer diagnosis about 10 years ago, and given only a few years to live, he was not just worried. He writes that “the background music stopped…the music of daily life that’s constantly going, the music of infinite time and possibilities.”
In the face of death, in that silence, and in the passive state of “patienthood,” he thought he discovered clues to the origins of religious belief. Fortunately, Kugel survived to write this book, an exploration of scripture and scholarship, in which he proposes that religion developed in response to the common human existential emptiness and ability to see ourselves as a very small part of a very big world. It’s that “ancient sense of self,” which Kugel felt personally when his “background music” stopped, that led him to explore this phenomenon on a wider scale. Building on the framework of his personal cancer experience, he brings history, neurology, anthropology, poetry and religious writing together to paint a portrait of the development of religion in human society.
God of Me: Imagining God throughout Your Lifetime, by Rabbi David Lyon (Jewish Lights, paper, $16.99). Lyon, in a sense, introduces us to God. This short and sweet book bridges the God-talk gap, helping bring God into our modern, everyday lives. Moving through the different stages of life, he uses Torah to demonstrate the point of each chapter, and concludes with questions for discussion. Parents of teens and young adults may find this book particularly helpful when following the Deuteronomy’s injunction to “teach them to your children to discuss them,” especially while their kids are at the stage of questioning their beliefs or challenging their parents’ beliefs or instructions.
The Eichmann Trial, by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken-Nextbook, cloth, $24.95). The award-winning historian presents a readable and fascinating reevaluation of the groundbreaking trial that became a touchstone for judicial proceedings worldwide in which victims of genocide confront their perpetrators. Beginning with the capture of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1960, Lipstadt moves on to describe his televised Tel Aviv trial, which riveted the world. Lipstadt was a leader in bringing Holocaust survivors to talk publicly about their experiences and focuses on the dramatic effect that survivor testimony had in that court of law, testimony that itself was not without controversy. In a world that had not really understood the personal stories of the millions who died and the hundreds of thousands who survived, the trial meant, writes Lipstadt, “the story of the Holocaust…was heard anew… The telling may not have been entirely new, but the hearing was” (author’s emphasis).
Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, by Alina Tugend (Riverhead, cloth, $25.95). We are all wrong on occasion, and we all make mistakes, so why is it so hard to admit them? The New York Times columnist tells us that a piece she wrote about making mistakes became one of the Times’ “most e-mailed” articles, and the responses filled the author’s inbox with readers’ stories about their own mistakes. Tugend explores how we make mistakes, usually cover them up, and how we should really go about handling them as parents, as spouses, as students, as doctors, but most especially in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008, as business people. There’s a downside to striving for perfection, and rewards in acknowledging and embracing the imperfection in all of us.
Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community, edited by Noach Dzmura (North Atlantic Books, paper, $16.95). This fairly radical topic covers issues of gender identity, religious teaching and observance in Judaism. Essayists make it clear that they desire one thing above all: The acceptance of their religious communities. The writers combine tales of personal experience with scholarly examination of halachah, with a few of the contributors appearing in a similar book, Keep Your Daughters Away from Them, a more personal collection that focuses on LBTQ women released last year. Dzmura’s collection, with a more intellectual approach, is geared toward transgendered individuals (which dictionary.com defines as “a person appearing or attempting to be a member of the opposite sex“), giving both male and female perspectives, as well as what is medically known as “intersex” or “ambiguous genitalia,” but popularly called “hermaphroditic.” (This potential birth defect — medical literature estimates about one case in every 1,500 to 2,000 births — is covered in rabbinic literature.)
It’s probably no accident that the two chapters on Israel in Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s new book, Future Tense (Schocken, cloth, $26.95) occupy almost the exact center of the work. Sacks is England’s chief rabbi, and a prolific and eloquent writer. Israel is just one component of this book that captures the rabbi’s worries on the state of the Jewish people — over-assimilated, over-intermarried, fractious and factionalized, he says. As a microcosm of the Jewish world, Sacks calls on Israel to be the beacon of justice the Bible says it is, to create “a new civic Judaism, one that embraces religious and secular, Jew and Palestinian, alike.” (Perhaps he could extend this attitude to inter-denominational relations within Judaism.)
Two other sides of Israel — with its dizzying array of facets — are presented in Lone Soldiers by Jerusalem Post columnist Herb Keinon (Devora, cloth, $27.95) and By Hook and by Crook: Israeli Settlement Policy in the West Bank, a report from B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
Lone Soldier is the uplifting story, told in words and photos, of Jews from around the world who come to Israel to serve as volunteers in its otherwise all-conscription army. Oftentimes living out of their cultural and linguistic element, they are dubbed “lone soldiers” and their plight can indeed be lonely but for the help they get from reserve officer Tzvika Levy, a volunteer himself, who seeks them out and provides a sense of connection and family. The lone soldier phenomenon is increasing, according to the author, because of the Birthright program, which is exposing increasing numbers of young Diaspora men and women to Israel and the IDF.
The B’tselem report is not so uplifting. It’s a detailed — though short — accounting of the legal maneuvers to which Israel has resorted in order to acquire land to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The report demonstrates the deception behind these land claims, calling the settlements “illegal.”
The same Birthright program that has brought more lone soldiers to Israel is the topic of artist Sara Glidden’s fascinating graphic (comic book) memoir, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (Vertigo, cloth, $24.99). Glidden arrived in Israel a confirmed skeptic with decidedly negative views about her host country. As the tour proceeds and she learns about both Israel’s history and the lives of all of its residents today, she struggles to assimilate her beliefs and her experiences, at times becoming emotionally overwrought. Despite her doubts she honors those she meets on her trip with balance and an open mind. Glidden’s account is moving and honest, funny and entertaining, and she captures some of the combination of angst and affection American Jews often feel about Israel.
Among the most moving sections of Glidden’s Birthright tour comes when the group meets a bereavement group. Glidden pays tribute to the victims of terrorism, depicting them as ghosts who stand beside their surviving family members as they share their stories.
In A New Shoah, (Encounter, cloth, $27.95) Italian journalist Gulio Meotti also honors Israeli victims of Islamist terrorism by telling the stories of their lives. Meotti is outraged at these deaths, which he feels are generally ignored by media in the West. He draws a straight line between Nazi anti-Semitism and Islamist anti-Zionism, calling both an excuse to kill Jews.
While the writing is impassioned, Meotti’s tone can be strident and a little off-putting. There’s no arguing, however, with his tender obituaries or his view that these victims probably deserve more recognition, even within Israel. Some of their plights are all the more tragic because they are either Holocaust survivors or their descendants. While generally well translated, there are still some errors in English and continuity within.
Finally, an Israeli-Moroccan author, Therese Zrihen-Dvir, puts her tribute to Israeli victims of terrorism into novella form in Stairway to Heaven (Gefen, paper, $14.95). The life of protagonist Naomi is permanently altered when she witnesses a terror attack on soldiers waiting at the Beit Lid junction, a waypoint between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The attack is real — it happened on January 22, 1995 — as are all the events in the story, although parts have been fictionalized for privacy. A memorial there, a stairway with 22 soldiers climbing it, inspired the author when she saw it in 2003. She interviewed surviving families and incorporates their words into a moving homage, weaving the fictional details of Naomi’s life with the stories of the dead. By the time Naomi’s grandson is born, she is, despite her pain — her own and her country’s — convinced that “life will always beat death.”
Art and Holocaust
Burning Forest: The Art of Maria Frank Abrams, by Matthew Kagan (Northwest Museum of Art, cloth, $40). This book gets high marks on all counts. It is the captivating biography of Maria Frank Abrams, Seattle-area artist and Holocaust survivor; it is a lavishly illustrated contemporary art history text; and it highlights the career of a local artist who enjoyed success in a field that is challenging for anyone, but was particularly so for women in the mid-20th century. The author, an art critic and author of 15 other books, told this reviewer that he decided to write the book after Abrams had a revival show at Woodside Gallery in 2005, not only because of her artistic contributions, but because “it’s always the right time to have something about remembering a Holocaust survivor because their number is diminishing and we need to record their stories.” This is a beautiful book, to be enjoyed on many levels.
Two new novels, one adult and one for pre- and younger teens, have much in common. Both are stories of Orthodox Jewish families living in the Boston area with smart female protagonists struggling with Jewish community and family life.
From Naomi Ragen, Orthodox feminist commentator and author, playwright and Internet columnist, comes The Tenth Song, about a family in crisis (St. Martins, cloth, $24.99). Abigail Samuels, a mother, grandmother, bastion of her community and wife of a successful CPA, is happily planning her youngest daughter Kayla’s wedding when her husband is thrown into the middle of a very public international scandal. As their lives quickly unravel, Kayla flees to a desert commune in Israel. Abigail follows, but instead of a rescue she learns more about her family — and herself — than she ever did at home.
In One Is Not a Lonely Number, award-winning author Evelyn Krieger brings us Talia Shumacher, the daughter of a wealthy Orthodox couple who struggles with the idea of being an only child in a community that values big families (YM Books, paper, $15.95). As she worries over her fate, she also faces academic and social challenges typical of her age: Friendships gone wrong and an important math tournament looming. Plus, she has to figure out why her parents have let a former ballet dancer stay in their house long-term.
Both books use the novel form to teach about Judaism. Ragen delves into prayer and mysticism, and examines how we treat people when things go wrong in their lives (not well, usually). Kreiger introduces Orthodox life to the unfamiliar reader openly and positively. This educational approach sometimes hijacks the flow of each book, but overall these are absorbing stories and good reads.
Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority, by Sue Fishkoff (Schocken, cloth, $27.95). Another great book from journalist Fishkoff (The Rebbe’s Army), this one takes us inside the world of keeping kosher and kosher food production. Fishkoff covers the history of kosher food in America, then delves into the worlds of kosher wine, meat and processed foods and the people responsible for them. She examines the disappearance of the kosher deli and the lives of mashgichim — the mostly men and a few women who take on the often tedious work of supervising kosher production, including one who works in China. Quite a few locals receive mention in the book, and readers will learn that it’s not just Jews who shop for kosher food and why so many manufacturers go to the trouble and expense of getting rabbinic approval and reach the consumers driving this multi-multi-billion dollar business. Finally, Fishkoff explores the new moral and ethical approach to food influencing kosher keeping — or is it the other way around?
Truths Desired by God: An Excursion into the Weekly Haftarah, by Meir Tamari (Gefen, cloth, $29.95). We are enjoined to study Torah on Shabbat, but not the Haftarah — the selection from the Prophets read in synagogue after the weekly Torah selection. Tamari, an economist better known for his work in business ethics, questions that tradition, arguing we have just as much to learn from these books in which “[a] major part of Judaism’s special and specific message is played out.” He offers a quick and insightful analysis of each of the 54 regular readings plus those for festivals and holy days, and through the lens of ethics and 30 years in Israel, makes these relevant to history and the present day.
Torah Tapestries: Words of Wisdom Woven from the Weekly Parasha-Bereishis, by Shira Smiles (Feldheim, cloth, $19.99). Smiles, a well-known women’s teacher in the Orthodox world, does a very good job explaining the basics of each Torah portion in Bereshit, highlighting significant elements and showing their relevance. An index and glossary serve the beginning student well.
Where’s My Miracle: Exploring Jewish Traditions for Dealing with Tragedy, by Morey Schwartz (Gefen, cloth, $24.95). Put this book on the shelf next to the classic When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Analyzing a wide variety of Talmudic sources, Rabbi Schwartz — with a background in psychology — demonstrates that there is no one Jewish view on why bad things happen to us, why the just sometimes suffer, and the wicked sometimes prosper.
The Fiddler in the Subway, by Gene Weingarten (Simon & Schuster, paper, $15.99). After an early career as a reporter, Weingarten spent 20 years as an editor, including time at the Miami Herald where he edited Dave Barry (yes, he’s that Gene) and learned to write humor from the man himself. He then returned to journalism at the Washington Post, fortunately for us, because whether being funny or serious he is a talented writer with an amazing ability to capture both the facts of, and the emotion behind, a story. There isn’t a lot of Jewish content here, but the pieces about his father are among the best in this collection.
Who Knew?! Unusual Stories in Jewish History, by Jack Cooper (Gefen, cloth, $21.95). Did you know a medieval Spanish Jew once headed the king’s army? That Rasputin had a Jewish business manager? That Hitler couldn’t pass his own “Aryan” test? With his background in education, Cooper has put retirement to good use compiling this entertaining and interesting book of little and lesser-known Jewish history from biblical to modern times. No story here is more than a page long, so Who Knew?! makes good reading for everyone in the family, from adults on the run to older kids.
It took seven years for Yann Martel to write his most recent book, Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel (Spiegel & Grau, 2010). The story began as a two-act play that served as an allegory to the Holocaust, from which he took fragments to use in his novel. It eventually evolved from the interplay between the two animals for which the book is named into a story featuring a mysterious taxidermist — because taxidermists attempt to give the appearance of “life” to deceased animals — and a character named Henry.
On tour promoting his latest book, Martel, whose bestselling Life of Pi earned him the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, shared Beatrice and Virgil at an intimate writer’s salon last month in support of the upcoming 26th Annual Cherie Smith Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver Jewish Book Festival — taking place Nov. 20-25 — and The Vancouver Holocaust Education Center.
Martel went into extensive detail about his process of writing the book, defending the use of fiction as a lasting and moving testimony to relating the horrors of the Holocaust.
Playing on positive Jewish stereotypes, Martel explained that Henry represents Jewish life in Germany. He plays the clarinet, considered a “very Jewish instrument” because of its use in Klezmer music. He also drew upon a 125-page essay he wrote on representations of the Holocaust that feature at the beginning of the book.
Beatrice and Virgil is a story about a writer who meets a taxidermist and together, in a sense, they meet the Holocaust. Martel deals with the Holocaust in a non-literal and non-historical fashion, compared to other books that express the tragedy, like Anne Frank, among so many others.
Just as in Life of Pi, Martel features animals as metaphors. In Beatrice and Virgil, a story far darker in tone and storyline, the significant difference is Martel’s application of his metaphors to the Holocaust, in this case, two stuffed animals — Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a monkey. According to Martel, the main characters are named in reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy, an allegory on 14th-century Italy, in which Virgil and Beatrice served as guides to help Dante find his way back from moral confusion by travelling through hell, purgatory, and heaven.
For Martel, animals operate outside of a moral framework, which inspires sympathy. Since animals have the effect of drawing people in, he anthropomorphized the animals in the play within the novel, and signal Martel’s allegorical intentions.
Martel explained how he used the literary technique of animal allegory to signal to readers that the book was not a historical analysis, but a fictional method of relating the true horrors of the Holocaust.
“I’m not Jewish and I’m not European,” Martel says, though he spent his formative years attending a British school in France. “My link to the Holocaust is as a complete outsider.”
A descendant of a Canadian family rooted in Quebec, his parents briefly moved to Spain, where he was born.
“I have no personal experience, no familial experience, no genetic experience at all with the great tragedy [of the Holocaust], the greatest tragedy of the 20th century,” he says.
Yet Martel says he has been profoundly affected by the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jewish people.
While a child studying history in school, he found the study of war to be comprehensible, whereas to him the Holocaust was not. Though war is violent and tragic, “the idea of having an enemy whom you must fight makes sense,” suggests Martel. However, the dynamics of the Holocaust — equally as violent as war — did not make sense to him.
“In war you have an enemy and you go to war against your enemy,” Martel says. “The Holocaust seemed to be, you take your friend and you shoot him.”
The Jews of Europe were fully integrated in society, contributing greatly to each society in which they lived. So why were Jews suddenly targeted by the Nazis for murder? Martel could not come to terms with this historical fact compared to the dynamics of war, which he feels is much more easily understood by children.
The Holocaust, relates Martel, “stayed in my memory as a historical oddity.” Later, Martel studied the Holocaust in greater depth, first reading historical works and then literature, watched Hollywood films and European documentaries, and, as an adult, visited Auschwitz and Yad Vashem. He did all of this because, he says, the Holocaust “always startled me and horrified me.” Eventually, after the success of The Life of Pi, he decided he wanted to write about the Holocaust, but in his own way – through the lens of fiction.
Martel admits that Holocaust survivors will likely hate his use of metaphor and allegory, but he maintains the technique is needed by those who did not experience the Holocaust themselves.
In writing his work of fiction, Martel insists the Holocaust needs to be seen through art as well as history because, in his view, works of art last longer than works of history, and there is a timelessness to art and fiction absent in non-fiction.
When challenged about the relevance of fiction if readers lack understanding of the actual events, Martel conceded that knowledge of history is a prerequisite to reading such fictional works as Beatrice and Virgil.
Like Orwell’s Animal Farm being an allegory of Stalin’s Russia, Martel uses animals to describe Hitler’s horrors perpetrated against the Jews. But in a book on the Holocaust, the reader essentially knows the tragic conclusion. Art is an interpretation, but one must first know the history.
If one wants to know about Russian history, suggests Martel, one should not start by reading Orwell’s Animal Farm. Teach history, then literature.
Arthur Wolak is a freelance writer in Vancouver. A version of this article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.
Courtesy The Schuster Group
Mark Schuster at the Mosler Lofts construction site.
Mark Richard Schuster did not set out to become an author. But after the Seattle entrepreneur completed development on Mosler Lofts, the Belltown condo project that has become his signature achievement, he felt he had a story worth telling. Schuster’s book, Lofty Pursuits: Repairing the World One Building at a Time, was published in September.
“I’m a big reader but I didn’t really have a goal to write a book,” Schuster told JTNews. “What happened was the story of this building. Mosler Lofts was the catalyst.”
Mosler Lofts, finished in 2007, was the first high-rise condo in Seattle to be certified LEED Silver. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green-building rating system sets benchmarks for environmentally friendly design and materials.
“When Mosler Lofts was done, the reason it became the catalyst was that it became the most nationally acclaimed and awarded project of its kind in the country in 2008,” Schuster said. “It became a landmark expression of sustainability and design.”
In Lofty Pursuits, Schuster uses the story of Mosler Lofts as the centerpiece for a book about his personal history, his family, and his community. The book is also a plea for ethical business practices. Schuster uses Mosler Lofts to demonstrate how a business can balance profit seeking and principles.
Lofty Pursuits strikes an informal tone. Schuster’s prose is direct in a casual, face-to-face sort of way; the book reads as if the author was sitting across a table and simply telling his story. His tone, perhaps, is the result of Schuster’s method in composing the book.
“I spent a year writing down my thoughts on sticky notes, napkins at restaurants, pieces of paper, you name it,” Schuster said. “I had a drawer in my office and I threw all those ideas in that drawer. Eventually I started to consolidate them and organize them into 875 pages of transcription.”
Finally, with an editor, Schuster trimmed his thoughts down to a workable manuscript. In its published form, Lofty Pursuits is a manageable 215 pages — not quite as ambitious in scope, as say, the condo project that inspired it. But the book is as much about family and community as it is about business.
“I wanted to share that story [Mosler Lofts] and in doing so, it gave me an opportunity to share my own personal story as a businessman and a member of the community,” Schuster said. “As in, how did I go from my first business at age 16 to developing this $80 million award-winning project? And what happened in between — not only in my business but my personal life and involvement in community and philanthropy.”
Tikkun olam, repair of the world, is Schuster’s guiding principle. In Lofty Pursuits, Schuster outlines the influence of his family on his approach to business. The building itself is named for his maternal grandfather, George Mosler, who encouraged Schuster to pursue his dreams in business and reminded him of the importance of an ethical approach. The book presents family, Judaism, philanthropy, community, and business as intertwined means to make the world a better place.
To communicate this message, Schuster turns to different anecdotes from his life. As the book follows the conception and eventual construction of Mosler Lofts, it turns also to stories of failed business ventures, to a trip to Israel Schuster took with the Anti-Defamation League, of which he is a big supporter, to recollections of Schuster’s days as a Boy Scout.
Now, Schuster says, he hopes readers will realize that the message applies beyond real estate development.
“I think it’s bigger than one product type,” he said. “I think it’s a philosophy of doing business and leading your life. What I try to do is take tikkun olam outside of what I learned at home, outside of synagogue, outside of temple youth camp.”
Lofty Pursuits is on sale at Elliott Bay Book Co. and both Third Place Books locations, with availability soon at Barnes and Noble in downtown Seattle and University Village. Schuster hopes people read it, but he isn’t too concerned about sales.
“I didn’t write the book to become a New York Times bestseller,” he said.
“I wrote the book because I had a story I wanted to share.”
I was delighted to receive a review copy of Scott Simon’s Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: In Praise of Adoption (Random House, cloth, $22), since I have already been intrigued by his radio essays on the subject. Simon is the host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” and he and his wife adopted two girls from China. Now he can expand on his personal experiences and reflect on adoption in general, Chinese adoption in particular, and the negative impact of that country’s one-child policy on the human rights of women.
Simon masterfully captures the poig-
nant process of “falling in love” with his daughters and also shares the stories of other adoptive families. Most have happy endings, including some reunions with birth parents, but he doesn’t shy away from a few bad endings. Raising an adopted child, we see, is just as satisfying and fraught with peril as raising a birth child.
The book moves along at a good clip and Simon gets us laughing and crying as he explains how families really are made.
No matter how your family was made, here are a number of books for the children in your life.
A clever book, and a clear tribute to Dr. Seuss, The Kvetch Who Stole Hanukkah (Pelican, cloth, $16.99), by Bill Berlin and Susan Isakoff Berlin, with illustrations by Peter Welling, sends us on a rhyming romp through the town of Oyville. There, a kvetch has decided to turn Hanukkah upside down, disappointing the local children. (“‘Hanukkah, shmanukkah—it’s all about gifts,’/Shouted the kvetch, and he sounded quite miffed.”) It is the children’s efforts, though, that create a true Hanukkah miracle.
Ann Redisch Stampler re-tells a Chassidic tale in The Rooster Prince of Breslov (Clarion, cloth, $16.99) with illustrations by Eugene Yelchin. An overindulged young prince, fed up with his life of leisure, acts out by pretending to be a rooster. Doctors and magicians fail to cure him, but an ordinary old man bests them with his simple wisdom in this story of what it really means to be a human being, or, if you will, a mensch. The author learned this story from her grandmother, who came “from an impoverished village in eastern Europe.”
In Nathan’s Hanukkah Bargain by Jacqueline Dembar Greene (Pelican, cloth, $15.95), a boy who badly wants his own menorah and doesn’t have enough money, is subtly helped by an understanding grandfather to find a real treasure. The illustrations are by Judith Hierstein.
For older readers (9 and up) comes the engaging and exciting graphic novel Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Portland graphic artist Barry Deutsch (Abrams, cloth, $15.95). While it features Orthodox characters in an Orthodox Jewish town, this book does not belong to the sub-genre of books aimed at only Orthodox readers. Featuring “yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl,” Deutsch appeals to almost any reader with his heroine Mirka. She just wants to do something a little different, but ends up involved with a witch and a talking pig. The author cleverly incorporates explanations of cultural and religious values, along with a little Yiddish, in this clever blend of fantasy and reality.
Now parents, take note: in a mere blink of an eye, the adorable preschooler you are reading these books to will transform into a much larger child who will need to be sent off to college.
To the myriad of college guides already available, you might add Oy Vey, It’s Time to Apply: A Cultural Guide to Colleges for Jewish Parents by Jerome Ostrov (self-published, paper, $17.95 Amazon.com). The author is not a college advisor, but an attorney with a passion for colleges who wants to share information he’s gathered over many years. He admits his subjectivity, “both unscientific and time honored,” and stresses that it’s no “shanda” (shame) if your brilliant Jewish daughter or son attends a college that is not one of the country’s top-ranked.
Providing an historical overview of American Jews and higher education, he profiles the attitudes of today’s average Jewish parent. Ostrov then summarizes 100 colleges of interest from a Jewish perspective ranging from best-known to almost unknown (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, anyone?). He concludes with chapters on getting in, paying for it, and coping with college life.
Oy Vey reads well, but suffers from a lack of proofreading common in self-publishing.
For your son or daughter already in college, the little College Knowledge for the Jewish Student: 101 Tips by David Schoem (U. of Michigan, paper, $20.95) is a handy four-year survival guide full
of encouragement and wisdom for the student in your life.
Simply Southern With a Dash of Kosher Soul, from the Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South (cloth, $34.99 plus shipping). The Jewish community of Memphis gained some notoriety with the publication of Tova Mirvis’ novel The Ladies Auxiliary, but they make up for it with this big book of scrumptious recipes ranging from down-home “Dixie Caviar” (black bean salad) to gourmet “Raspberry–Pecan-Crusted Lamb Chops.” Featuring color photos and readable recipes, this large-format book is a fundraiser for the school. This reviewer took the liberty of making “real” southern fried chicken from the book — yum! Order it at www.simplysoutherncookbook.net, or call the school at 866-715-7667.
Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, (Wiley, cloth, $40). These 656 amazing pages will steal the breath of every serious foodie on your list with a jam-packed compendium of Jewish food history, trivia and recipes. The author, a founding editor of Kosher Gourmet magazine, author of five cookbooks and James Beard winner, is also a rabbi. Marks covers food from Adafina (Sephardic Shabbat stew) to Zwetschgenkuchen (plum cake)with Kubaneh (Yemeni bread) in the middle and includes a timeline of Jewish history. (Author’s note: I’ve been trying for years to work “zwetschgenkuchen” into this column.)
500 Judaica: Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art, by Ray Hemachandra and Daniel Belasco (Lark Crafts, paper, $24.95). Another big book jammed with interesting Jewish items, but this time they are stunning ritual objects selected by a curator from The Jewish Museum. The creativity and variety that these artists and artisans have brought to ritual objects is wonderful to see. Works include the usual hanukkiot (menorahs) and mezzuzot along with hand-washing vessels, Torah embellishments and a striking variety of spice and tzedakah boxes. A few featured artisans with local connections are Seth Rolland, Gabriel Bass and Nancy Meagan Corwin.
The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement, by Steven L. Pease (Deucalion, paper, $19.95). This comprehensive examination (topping more than 600 pages) of Jewish accomplishment focuses on the period from Enlightenment on. Remarkably, the author is not Jewish. But he admits to a life-long fascination with Jewish success in a variety of fields from academia to entertainment, where Jews are represented disproportionately to their numbers in the general population. This essential reference for any Jewish library includes history, profiles, factual tables and thorough footnotes. Is the author (a Spokane native) displaying some bias by selecting Noam Chomsky as his representative social activist? On the whole, though, the book is balanced and extremely informative.
Back to the Beginning, by Mark Hoenig (Xlibris, paper, $19.99). The author, an attorney by training, joined with his siblings in paying tribute to their late father by studying every Torah portion for a year. Hoenig wrote responses to each one and on conclusion realized he had a book. This personable approach by a Modern Orthodox lay scholar allows readers to feel as if they’ve joined him in weekly study.
This is an example of a well-done self-published book. It is well written and, more importantly, well edited, and even footnoted. If Hoenig produces another edition, I would only recommend he add a glossary for Hebrew terms that may be unfamiliar to some readers.
Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery, by Kenneth Chelst (Urim, cloth, $34.95). An interesting and unusual take on a familiar idea from an equally interesting author — a professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at Wayne State University and an ordained rabbi. Chelst delves into the story of Biblical slavery — using a variety of sources and commentary — and compares and contrasts it with the historically documented experiences of African-American slaves in a way that enriches the reader’s understanding of both. He explores social, psychological, religious and philosophical dimensions in a dense, but readable tome, and his passion shines through. With illustrations, footnotes and glossary.
Hillel: If Not Now, When? by Joseph Telushkin (Schocken, cloth, $24). Hillel is the latest addition to Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series by one of America’s preeminent Jewish scholars. We know so little about Hillel outside of limited Talmudic commentaries, yet the author cleverly brings those resources forward into the 21st century, presenting 2,000-year-old teachings in a positive, current, and perhaps even radical way. Telushkin wastes no time in letting us know that he thinks we should take the most famous Hillel story — “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow…the rest is commentary” — as instruction to be more welcoming to potential converts, but there’s more here than that.
Land of Blood and Honey, by Martin Van Creveld (St. Martins, cloth, $26.99). This unfortunately titled book is actually a concise and readable history of Israel written by someone who has lived a better part of it. The author, a leading Israeli military historian and theorist, has been on the faculty of Hebrew University since 1971. He falls on the conservative side of the fence —
or the wall, actually — but offers a good summation of Israel since its founding, including some current analysis of the country’s economy.
Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor (Viking, cloth, $35). Another big book (558 pages), this one is stuffed with the celebrated 20th-century novelist’s missives to a wide variety of recipients. These never-before-seen letters add a personal dimension to other biographical information available, and since Bellow corresponded with many other significant literary figures of the time, also serves as a “who’s who” of American letters, as well as providing glimpses into the author’s personal life and dry wit.
Unexpectedly Eighty and Other Adaptations, by Judith Viorst (Free Press, cloth, $17). When she was dealing with the vagaries of child rearing, Judith Viorst turned her sardonic eye to the life of a child in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Now that she is about to turn 80, the author turns the same eye to the vagaries of aging in this highly entertaining and funny little book of verse. “My scalp is now showing./My moles keep on growing./My waistline and breasts have converged./My teeth resist brightening./I’m in decline./It’s positively frightening.”
The Stormchasers, by Jenna Blum (Dutton, cloth, $25.95). In the bestselling Those Who Save Us, the author paid fictional tribute to her Jewish ancestors. In her new page-turning novel of twins separated and united, Blum turns to her non-Jewish Midwestern roots, set in the drama of Tornado Alley. Karenna George desperately misses her twin brother, whose erratic behavior tore their family apart. He has disappeared into the strange subculture of storm chasers, but when she learns he’s nearby she tries to find him again. Joining a storm-chasing tour as a journalist, she begins her complicated adventure of reunion. Blum has a gift for rendering contemporary dialog into readable form. Learn more about the author and her Jewish roots at www.jennablum.com.
BOSTON (JTA) — Rhyming verse, lively family scenes, a cute pig who eats kosher pickles — and yes, menorahs, latkes and the Maccabees — are featured in a new crop of Hanukkah books for children written by some of the country’s most popular award-winning
Eight Winter Nights
Laura Krauss Melmed, illustrated by
Chronicle Books, $16.99; ages 3-8
Laura Krauss Melmed, the award-winning author of an earlier Hanukkah book, Moishe’s Miracle, shines with her lifelong love of rhyme in this delightful family story set in verse. Krauss Melmed captures the warmth of the holiday with a poetic celebration that evokes ritual as well as whimsy.
With each night and new candle, there’s something new to celebrate. On the fifth night, the doorbell rings and in rush the cousins.
“Wild ones, noisy ones/There must be dozens!/
What a commotion, what a delight/when cousins come calling this/
An ode to applesauce that accompanies the latkes has a contagious beat that will entertain and engage young kids.
Schlossberg’s gloriously colored illustrations bring life to the lively verse. Her depiction of a simple arc-shaped menorah with a rainbow of glowing candles are almost luminous on the page.
Krauss Melmed, a former teacher who holds a master’s degree in early childhood education, said she wanted to write a book for younger kids that captures the feeling of a family celebrating Hanukkah, a home-based holiday.
The Hanukkah Trike
Michelle Edwards, illustrated by
Albert Whitman, $15.99; ages 4-8
In this simple, heartfelt story that offers a good introduction to the holiday, Gabi lights the menorah, eats latkes, helps her father retell the victorious story of the Maccabees, and is surprised with the gift of a shiny new blue tricycle she names Hanukkah. When she has a hard time learning to push the pedals and falls off, the trike gets dirty and Gabi gets bruised.
With encouragement from her mother, and remembering the determination and courage of the Maccabees, they clean the trike, and Gabi gets back on and learns to ride.
Edwards captures the small details that resonate with young kids, such as giving the trike a name and placing her blankie in the trike basket. A winner of the National Jewish Book Award for her first picture book, Chicken Man, Edwards was inspired to create the spunky Gabi Greenberg from years of reading with her own daughters such children’s classics as Madeline, Babar and even Harry Potter, who all celebrated Christmas.
“Being Jewish, we didn’t,” she told me via e-mail. “Our years of reading together made me want a spirited character like them.”
Kathryn Mitter’s illustrations are playful and appealing for young kids, who will enjoy Gabi’s friendly puppy appearing in almost every scene.
Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher
Laurel Snyder, illustrations by
Tricycle Press, $15.99; ages 4-10
Here’s a fun-filled escapade that will delight readers of all ages with a lovable piglet who’d be welcome in any family.
On a Friday afternoon before sunset, a friendly Jewish man waiting at the bus stop describes to Baxter the wonders and magic of Shabbat, a day of rest with gleaming candles that “glow and dance while our sweetest voices lift in song!”
Poor Baxter: All week he yearns to be invited for a Shabbat dinner.
“You’re not kosher,” a man laughs.
In his quest to become kosher, the curious little pig consumes jars of kosher pickles, loaves of challah and even tries to imitate a cow — a kosher animal, he’s told. At last, Baxter meets a female rabbi who clears up the misunderstanding while assuring Baxter that it is a mitzvah to invite strangers to share a meal.
As the rabbi’s Shabbat guest, Baxter watches as she lights the candles before he finally raises his sweet voice in song. The appealing story may hold special appeal to interfaith families, or anyone who has ever felt left out.
The illustrations are an entertaining and engaging combination of cartoon-like characters and collage. Jars of Bubba’s Kosher Pickles fill the store aisles, along with other traditional Jewish and Israeli foods.
An author’s note describes the custom of inviting guests for Shabbat dinner. A glossary includes helpful, somewhat offbeat, lighthearted descriptions of the book’s Jewish words and expressions.
Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah
Tilda Balsley; illustrated by David
Kar Ben, $17.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback; ages 4-8
Here is an animated rhyming version of the Hanukkah story of King Antiochus, the Maccabees and religious freedom. Young kids will enjoy the repeated refrain, “Sometimes it only takes a few,/ Who know what’s right, and do it, too.” Kar-Ben continues its devotion to producing original, creative Jewish children’s books with a wide appeal.
Based on the book “Hanukkah Haiku”
by Karla Gudeon
Blue Apple Books, $15.99; ages 4-8
A two-sided, 36-piece puzzle featuring two of the colorful, festive illustrations by Karla Gudeon from her book Hanukkah Haiku, a National Jewish Book Award finalist. A menorah is featured on one side, and the other is a family celebration of dancing around the menorah. The puzzle comes in its own carrying case box shaped like the star of David and can be paired with the book.
Being Jewish on the East Coast is not the same as being Jewish on the West Coast. It’s a feeling a lot of people may have, but can’t quantify in any specific way beyond the availability of pastrami and corned beef. Ellen Eisenberg has made her career about the study of those differences, and how the history of Jews on the West Coast is so different from those who either migrated to or stayed East.
“American Jewish history is so dominated by New York, and there is sort of an attitude that once you know New York Jewry, you know American Jewry and everything else is a kind of microcosm.” Eisenberg said. “We know that’s not the case.”
Eisenberg, a professor of American History at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. has spent between the last 12 and 15 years studying West Coast Jewry. She came up to Seattle at the beginning of the month for two separate events based on two separate books she has recently authored or co-authored. One, a history of Jewish response to Japanese Internment, The First to Cry Down Injustice? Western Jews and Japanese Removal During WWII, was the subject of a talk she gave for the Stroum Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington. The other, Jews of the Pacific Coast: Reinventing Community on America’s Edge, was written over the course of 10 years with fellow experts Ava F. Kahn and William Toll. Eisenberg spoke about this book and heard from many of the people most interested in the subject of local Jewish history at the Washington State Jewish Historical Society’s annual meeting.
Eisenberg said there has been ongoing debate about whether differences exist between different populations of Jews around the country, as well as the importance of those differences.
“At some times it’s reduced to, ‘Are Jewish Southerners more like other Southerners or are they more like Jews in other parts of the country?’ and there are proponents on both sides of that,” Eisenberg said. “As we compare notes on different communities in different time periods, we really came to a conclusion that the differences were significant, that it wasn’t just superficial.”
In the case of Jews that came West, often starting with the gold rush in the mid-1800s, those differences were immediate.
“Starting from the moment of settlement, Jews came in with everybody else, so they weren’t newcomers coming to this established society,” Eisenberg said. “The diversity of the population here meant that Jews were received as part of the white majority.”
The openness and inclusion that came with everyone being new to these parts meant that the sensibility of being a white minority religious group was different than in the East.
That inclusion extended into areas where Jews typically might not have been allowed in places like New York, including country clubs, chambers of commerce, and even elected office.
Here in Washington, one of Seattle’s early mayors, Bailey Gatzert, was Jewish, as was one of its territorial governors. In some of the smaller towns, the Jewish store was often the centerpiece and sometimes the first brick building. Anti-Semitism did rear its head at times, including a period in the 1920s and ‘30s in Los Angeles when Jews who had founded the chamber of commerce were no longer allowed to be members. But, Eisenberg noted, “that didn’t happen in other cities.”
What has distinguished the Seattle area from its other West Coast counterparts is its Sephardic population.
“The Sephardic community made up a larger percentage of the total Jewish community than anywhere else, really,” Eisenberg said.
Jews of the Pacific Coast covers ground all the way to the beginning of the 21st century.
“I get nervous when the history gets too recent, because it’s hard to draw conclusions based on something that happened last week,” Eisenberg said. “But we did try to move the book in that direction.”
Research took time, and having access to records was a challenging experience at times — though not always.
“We’re very fortunate here in Seattle that they’re all consolidated here at the University of Washington,” Eisenberg said. “There are communities that have some of their own records, but the Jewish Historical Society has done a good job of bringing them together in one place, with professional archive management. That’s not true in many other places.”
Meeting some of the people whose families and institutions she has written about has been an eye-opening experience, she said. Though nobody has offered significant conflicting historical accounts, Eisenberg said she has heard some feedback from history enthusiasts that sifting through archives can’t offer.
“They were quick to correct my pronunciation of local names and terms,” she said.
Author Joseph Skibell takes questions during his Oct. 7 reading at Richard Hugo House. He also performed, on guitar, the song he wrote for his two-minute pitch to a Jewish literary council, based on the music of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” from the Pirates of Penzance.
Jewish lore has a rich history of the supernatural, from the clay golems whose creators bring them to life to dybbuks, spirits from the afterlife who inhabit weak bodies to send messages from the great beyond. One author had an idea that kicked around in his head for years: To have a dybbuk take over the body of Sigmund Freud.
What emerged from that idea is A Curable Romantic, Joseph Skibell’s third novel, about a dybbuk who manifests itself not in Freud, but (initially) in one of his most well-known patients, Emma Eckstein.
Getting the idea off the ground took a lot more than inventing a dead character, however. It involved research — into Freud and his writings, into the Esperanto movement, and into the Warsaw ghetto — to create a story about Jakob Sammelsohn, an eye doctor married at a very young age to the village idiot in late-19th-century Galicia, who then escapes to Vienna to begin his life anew.
Sammelsohn is similar to Woody Allen’s Zelig or to Forrest Gump, fictional characters who pop up in some of modern history’s most important moments, except, as Skibell points out, “Forrest Gump runs.”
Skibell spoke with JTNews when he visited Seattle on Oct. 7 to kick off his tour in support of A Curable Romantic. Between novels, he’s an associate professor in the English Creative Writing program at Emory University.
Sammelson exhibits some of the same haplessness as the fictional film characters, though where Gump himself was the village idiot — and not married to her — Sammelson is still ignorant in the mysteries of love, despite having been married twice before he even reached the tender age of 21.
“I was really interested in that kind of protagonist who was terrified of sex as much as he was drawn to sex, and what seemed to me the honesty of the portrayal of the man who really wanted love that actually also wanted sex,” Skibell says.
And what better way to tease that terror than to inhabit the man’s object of desire as she lies prone in the city sanatorium? This dybbuk, it turns out, is the spirit of Sammelsohn’s jilted wife Ita, who drowned herself upon the discovery of her husband’s escape.
“The thing about demonic possession is the person is free to act out this other…libidinal self,” Skibell says. “It was a real letting out of oppression, so I think it was intimately connected with sex.”
In doing his research, Skibell found as many as a hundred documented cases of dybbuk possessions, dating as far back as Josephus in Rome and as recent as 1999 in Israel — though even the most holy of modern rabbis believed, as Freud purported to, that these supposed possessions were merely psychiatric problems.
Sammelsohn and Ita are fictitious, but many of the other characters in this book are not.
“Very little is actually made up,” Skibell says. “At one point, Freud has boils in between his legs that he needs to get lanced. That is in The Interpretation of Dreams.”
Skibell considers himself an admirer, but Freud still comes off as a cocaine-addicted narcissist. It was a balance he simply had to come to terms with.
“A lot of the dialogue is just Freud,” Skibell, who used text from the doctor’s letters, says. But, he asks, “Why did people revere Freud so much for so many years? When you read his case histories, like the case history with Dora, it seems like he doesn’t help her. But then at the same time, you realize he transformed all of society, universally almost, and probably for the better, so what can you do?”
This story isn’t Freud’s, however. It’s Sammelsohn’s. And it’s a classic love story, written with a very Jewish sensibility. Sammelsohn promises Ita, in return for her taking leave of Eckstein’s body, that he will wait for her. But as men will do, in particular men who have never partaken of the wonders of the marital bed, he forgets and pursues another.
And it’s that woman who leads us to Dr. Ludovic Zamenhof, a fellow eye doctor and the creator of the international language Esperanto, to whom Sammelsohn becomes a confidante. And from there, as Sammelsohn squanders that relationship and enters his later years, comes the Holocaust and basic survival. But Ita is never too far away, and whether it’s reminding him of his promise or saving his life, she continues to remind her husband of her presence.
On one level — both figuratively and literally, though we’ll leave it at that to keep from spoiling the story — the story is about how God sees humanity.
“What I was also trying to do was show that God was weeping, and the way that human beings end up treating each other on earth, it’s not that God wills it, it’s the way that human beings act,” Skibell says.
But Skibell also sees his book as a commentary on differences in perception as the centuries turned, from the 19th to the 20th and the 20th to the 21st.
It’s here that this very Jewish book becomes a story that can appeal to everyone, Skibell believes.
“It wasn’t even just Dr. Zamenhof who had this utopian idea that humankind was on the lip of perfection. I read a lot of Emile Zola’s work, because of the Dreyfus trial, and here was this heavy-hitting French novelist intellectual, but he too believed that war was about to disappear, and disease was about to disappear and science and rationalism [would take hold],” Skibell says. “I thought it was interesting that in the year 1900 there was all this great hope, but when the year became 2000, we were probably as cynical as we’ve ever been.
“Even though it really follows the character in the Jewish experience, it really is the creation of the 20th century and how it went from such bright hopes to such dark realities.”
Though modern Israel is not a direct result of the Holocaust, despite new generations that have grown up or emigrated there, its legacy still weighs heavily on the country’s authors. Still struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of that genocide, they claim it in their own words, sharing memory and vision before the survivors are gone.
Recent books from two of Israel’s most popular novelists tackle the Holocaust from a child’s perspective, one during, and one after the war.
Aharon Appelfeld’s latest novel published in translation is Blooms of Darkness, (Schocken, cloth, $25.95). Now 78, Appelfeld has made Holocaust remembrance the focus of his prolific career.
While he often uses allegory (as in his last novel, Laish), here he tells a more realistic tale through the eyes and words of a child. Hugo — sheltered and somewhat immature — has just turned 11 in the ghetto when his mother tells him he is to go into hiding. He spends the rest of the war in the closet of his mother’s childhood friend, a gentile Ukrainian prostitute, a woman whose love as much as anything allows Hugo to survive the end of the war. Appelfeld manages to capture the child’s confusion and naiveté by sticking rigorously to Hugo’s sad and confused perspective.
Another beloved Israeli novelist, Haim Sabato, picks up the post-Holocaust narrative in Israel in the early 1950s. The Mizrachi rabbi uses his childhood memories as the basis of a thinly veiled fictional account of his first years as a refugee in Israel in From the Four Winds (Toby, cloth, $24.95).
Sabato’s family came from Egypt and our young (2nd grade) narrator is finding his new home quite confusing. His mother is busy with her younger children and his father works day and night, so no one is available to explain this odd custom of wearing costumes for Purim.
“And why would they dress up on Purim as a cowboy or an Indian? And what was a cowboy anyway?... I ruminated on the Hebrew word “cowboy” and tried to think of its origins. Of course I didn’t dare ask.”
But through his childish puzzling about the new world into which he’s been thrust, young Haim becomes aware of the experiences and the suffering of his European neighbors during the war, compounding their poignancy through his youthful and innocent observations.
Sabato also paints a wonderfully vivid picture of life in a resettlement neighborhood in 1959, with its varieties of immigrants and their attempts to get along.
The Holocaust is at the center of an excellent debut novel, Sara Houghteling’s Pictures at an Exhibition (Vintage, paper, $15), but this story focuses on Paris before and after the war and the tragedy of a different kind of annihilation — the looting and destruction of France’s most valuable art by the Nazis.
Max Berenzon is the son of one of Paris’ most successful art dealers. His father guides him to medical school, insisting he lacks the instinct for the family business. After the war he and his father return to Paris from their hiding place in the country to find their gallery and home looted and occupied. Anxious to prove his worth, Max goes to the brink of madness trying to locate the things most important to him: The family paintings, his best friend, and his paramour, who becomes the key to the mystery of the artworks’ fate.
Houghteling based her book on extensive research and interviews. It’s through her we feel the pain of the loss of these great works of art, few of which have been recovered.
Modern Israel is the location of American Joan Leegant’s captivating first novel Wherever You Go (Norton, cloth, $23.95). Intriguing and well crafted, Leegant tells the stories of three very different Americans in Israel for equally different reasons: A young woman trying to connect with her estranged sister who lives in a religious settlement; a young man with a famous father trying to carve out a radical identity for himself; and a scholar, a baal teshuva, struggling to find his place in the Orthodox community in which he teaches. Their lives collide dramatically as Leegant subtly demonstrates the destructive nature of religious extremism and the political and religious contradictions in that country.
Finally, a little off topic — although one could argue a link between Medieval Europe, the Holocaust and Israel — comes a clever novel from Kenneth Wishnia, The Fifth Servant (Morrow, cloth, $24.99). Wishnia combines an intricate historical novel with a classic murder mystery, all while demonstrating excellent knowledge of Jewish texts. The setting is Prague in 1592 and Benjamin has arrived in the city to work as a shammes for the famous Rabbi Lowe — or is that shamus? Almost as soon as he arrives, a young gentile girl is murdered, Jews are accused, and clever Benjamin must save the Jews from Christian wrath. It’s a complicated plot, but an entertaining offer that meets lots of interests.
The Executor, by Jesse Kellerman (Putnam, cloth, $25.95). The author is the son of two famous novelists (Faye and Jonathan), so you may have fallen into the trap of dismissing his work. If so, climb out quickly: Kellerman fils proves a worthy heir. The prize-winning, New York Times bestselling author and playwright wins praise all around. He does not mimic the action-packed writing of his parents here, but uses most of this crime novel to paint an in-depth portrait of his main character, the failed philosophy student Joseph Geist. There’s not much Jewish content here, although Joseph’s ex-girlfriend is from an Iranian-Jewish family. No spoilers here for this enjoyable and suspenseful read.
The Last Ember, by Daniel Levin (Riverhead, paper, $16). A very good debut by Levin, a good-looking young lawyer with a classics background whose main character is…a good looking lawyer with a classics background. I assume the similarity ends there as that character, Jonathan Marcus, is unwittingly thrust into an archeological Rome-to-Jerusalem-and-back mystery that spans 2,000 years. It’s a formulaic thriller made more interesting by the ancient Jewish subject matter and intrigue involving a lot of bad guys who should be good. No spoilers here either, but here’s a general thriller take-away: if you think you’ve killed someone, make sure they’re really dead before you walk away.
Gilded Lily, Lily Safra: The Making of One of the World’s Wealthiest Widows, by Isabel Vincent (Harper, cloth, $25.99). Authored by a veteran investigative journalist, this is a book for those interested in the lives of the rich and famous, in true crime, and maybe just for the voyeur in us. Lily Safra is the widow of the wealthy Brazilian-Jewish banker Edmond Safra, found dead after an apartment fire in Monaco in 1999. An accident, or murder? Eleven years later it’s still unclear. Four times married to wealthy men, twice widowed, twice divorced, Lily still travels in wealth and style.
Louis D. Brandeis, by Melvin Urofsky (Pantheon, cloth, $40). In writing this very long (700-plus pages) biography, Professor Urofsky of the University of Virginia had access to personal and professional documents never before available. The book focuses on Brandeis’s adult life and career from graduation from Harvard law school before age 21, to his involvement in the American Zionist movement (he visited Palestine in 1919), to his appointment to the Supreme Court. Urofsky makes sure we know Brandeis tried to correct economic injustices he saw in this country, problems that included “manipulation of stocks and securities, the overweening power of big banks, irregular employment, and, of course, the curse of bigness.”
Every Day, Holy Day: 365 Days of Teaching and Practices from the Jewish Tradition of Mussar, by Alan Morinis (Trumpeter, paper, $17.95). The daily guidelines and teachings offered in this little book are taken from Mussar, a Jewish spiritual tradition that asks us to pay attention to our extreme traits — good and bad — and through study, bring them back to a balanced center. Developed in 19th-century Lithuania and almost obliterated during the Holocaust, Mussar is again becoming popular. Each page includes a reading from rabbinic, Talmudic and Torah sources, a key phrase, an instruction for each day, and a small area in which to make notes.
Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life, by Shmuley Boteach (Basic, cloth, $22). Cultures teach values, but the vastness, prosperity and diversity of America has created a cultureless society. Boteach, the popular TV rabbi, returns with more insight into what’s wrong with America today, offering spiritual and ethical guidelines for change. “We’re the wealthiest nation on earth,” he writes, “and consume three-quarters of its anti-depressants.” The reason? “Embracing the wrong values.” Our superficial desires are conflicting with our deepest needs for sacred time, enlightenment and gratitude.
Contemporary Jewish Writing in Brazil, edited by Nelson H. Vieira (Nebraska, cloth, $60). This intriguing collection illustrates similarities and differences between North and South American Jews of the early 20th century, who frequently came from the same parts of Europe, and the influence of local culture on the succeeding generations. Readers will find the exotic and the familiar both in these stories and book excerpts, plus a fascinating introduction to the history of Jewish writing in Brazil.
I Only Want to Get Married Once, by Chana Levitan (Gefen, paper, $12.95). A practical and accessible guide for those wishing to cut through the haze of infatuation that often begins romantic relationships and figure out if that guy or gal is right for you. The Jerusalem-based author and counselor hopes to give people the tools they need “to create a successful marriage…the first time around.” Her advice can also be used to help with problems in a current relationship or understand a past divorce.
A Baby at Last! The Couple’s Complete Guide to Getting Pregnant, by Zev Rosenwaks, M.D., and Marc Goldstein, M.D. (Simon & Schuster, paper, $15.99). This book, authored by two doctors from the “trailblazing” fertility program at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, offers a good starting point for couples who think they might be having problems conceiving. (Seattle doctors have blazed quite a few trails in the fertility field as well.) Covering causes, emotional responses and treatment, the book also includes a chapter on getting pregnant after cancer as well as alternative medicine.
First Aid for Jewish Marriages, by Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch (self published). At one time, Rabbi Schonbuch (Sweet Book?), a marriage and family counselor who works with Orthodox couples, might have photocopied his advice, put it in a binder and offered it to his clients as part of treatment. Now, thanks to the new world of self-publishing, he can take those same materials and make them into a book, which you can buy at www.jewishmarriagesupport.com. While the book suffers from some of the usual problems of self-publishing (poor layout, lack of proofreading), there is good basic advice here for couples with problems.
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.
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.”
BOSTON (JTA) — Over the past 10 to 15 years, as the offering of Jewish children’s books has burgeoned, the style and variety of Passover books for children has expanded, too.
Given the huge selection of Passover Haggadot, perhaps it is no surprise.
There are traditional biblical retellings of the Exodus story, toddler board books, children’s versions of the Haggadah, fanciful picture books starring spiders and frogs, books of songs, historical fiction of celebrating Passover in different times and cultures such as the Holocaust or in the Civil War era.
While they may differ in approach, setting, purpose and even quality, the books reflect the popularity of Passover for American Jewish families.
Here are some new books that will add to the variety for young kids, enlivening and adding beauty to this beloved holiday that celebrates freedom.
The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah
Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Paul Meisel
Holiday House, $16.95. Ages 4-8
Time to make the matzoh, the Little Red Hen realizes in this Passover version of the well-known tale. The can-do Little Red Hen sets out to grow special wheat as she prepares to bake special matzoh for her Passover seder. But who will help with the chores?
“‘Not I,’ said Sheep.
‘Sorry, bub,’ said Horse.
‘Think again,’ said Dog, a little bit rudely.”
And so it goes. Little Red Hen is on her own, planting, harvesting and schlepping the wheat to the mill. All along, her lazy friends do nothing but lounge around the farm. This is no ordinary hen. She’s got a Yiddish tongue.
Sprinkled throughout the delightful, lighthearted tale are common Yiddish phrases such as kvetch, chutzpah and Oy, gevalt!, with a glossary in the back.
Meisel’s gloriously bright, whimsical illustrations are a perfect pairing with Kimmelman’s upbeat, engaging prose. Kids watch as the hen bakes the matzoh and prepares the traditional Passover food of hard-boiled eggs, parsley, apples and nuts, and gefilte fish.
When her no-goodnik farm friends show up at Hen’s door all ready to partake in the seder, Hen reminds herself of the Haggadah’s imperative to welcome all who are hungry. Together they enjoy a festive seder. Best of all, in the end, Hen gets to recline.
End notes include a short description of Passover and a kid-friendly recipe to make matzoh.
A Tale of Two Seders
Mindy Avra Portnoy, illustrated by Valeria Cis
Kar-Ben, $17.95. Ages 5-9
In this engaging, thoughtful story, a young girl whose parents are divorced celebrates Passover with two sets of families, in two homes, with many versions of charoset. It’s easier than Thanksgiving, the girl notes, because she doesn’t have to decide where to eat — and there’s still lots of food.
The story takes place over three years; that means six seders and six charoset recipes.
The first year, “Dad’s charoset didn’t really stick together,” the girl says, and mom’s charoset tasted mostly like figs.
The girl is comfortable at her mom’s house and at her dad’s apartment. Wise and inquisitive, the girl expresses her reactions and worries honestly. She understands that her parents worry that she might be unhappy. At night she dreams sometimes that her family is back together.
While the story centers on a serious subject, the author is not heavy handed. It’s a Passover story in a contemporary American family. The girl is likeable, believable and upbeat. She enjoys the seders and comments on the many versions of charoset that seem to differ from home to home and year to year, depending on the cook.
The third year brings a comforting surprise that reminds the little girl that like the many varieties of charoset, each family can be sweet in its own way.
Passover, Celebrating Now, Remembering Then
Harriet Ziefert, paintings by Karla Gudeon
Blue Apple Books, $17.99. Ages 3-7
The history, symbols and traditions of Passover come to life in this lavishly illustrated book by the award-winning team of Harriet Ziefert and Karla Gudeon, who created a similar book for Hanukkah. The Passover book contrasts the ancient Exodus story with a joyful family celebration of a Passover seder.
Each two-page spread offers a simple explanation and illustration of how the holiday is celebrated now. The page flaps open to reveal lively portrayals of the holiday long ago.
Colorful, folk-inspired artwork depicts various scenes from the Egyptians chasing the Israelites through the desert to the parting of the sea, to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It’s perfect for young children, who will enjoy the whimsical depiction of preparing for a seder. They can recognize the symbols such as the egg, the glass of wine, matzoh. They will delight in opening the flaps of the double pages to reveal the hidden illustrations.
The narrative is simple but informative, presented in poetic style.
Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim
Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrated by Jago
Kar-Ben, $8.95. Ages 4-8
Published last year, this elaboration of a tale from rabbinic lore won several prestigious awards, including a 2009 Sydney Taylor Honor Award. The author and illustrator offer a creatively imagined tale of the ancient story of Exodus. Told from a young boy’s perspective, the book inspires courage and faith.
Revenge against the Nazis — the ultimate battle between good and evil. Could it be more clear-cut? Maybe, maybe not.
This theme is visited in two new works of fiction that have the Holocaust at their center. The first is an interesting murder mystery by contemporary, non-Jewish German historian Christian von Ditfurth. A Paragon Of Virtue (Toby, cloth, $25) is set in modern-day Hamburg and translated for British audiences by Helen Atkins.
Ditfurth’s protagonist, Prof. Stachelmann, is also an historian, specializing in World War II Germany. While struggling to complete his long-delayed thesis, the very shy Stachelmann is persuaded by an old school acquaintance, now a police detective, to help solve a series of puzzling murders. It’s his historian’s thoroughness that leads him to clues before almost becoming a victim himself. These crimes go to the heart of his expertise; all concern the appropriation of Jewish property by local police at the time.
The case also forces him to look at, and finally confront, what his father did during the War. The author is only about 50, but he has clearly struggled, as many Germans have, with the moral and ethical questions that arise over actions of “ordinary German citizens at the time.” Readers of both mysteries and of Holocaust literature will be interested in seeing how Ditfurth has handled the subject in this format.
Vengeance lives in the heart of novelist Norman Lebrecht’s new work The Game of Opposites (Pantheon, cloth, $24.95), which also deals with questions of good or evil and what ordinary citizens did during the War.
His protagonist, Paul, escapes a brutal work camp a few days before the end of the War. Almost dead from starvation, he collapses while scavenging for garbage and is found, taken in and hidden by the 19-year-old daughter of a local innkeeper.
During the time she harbors and nurses him, they fall in love, marry and have a child while Paul becomes an established part of the town. They never speak of his past, but as he becomes a village leader he continues to hate his neighbors for ignoring the plight of the men who were worked to death outside the town. He also lives with his obsession of revenge against the commandant of the camp. As he becomes friend and family to a few, good and evil become less black and white.
Lebrecht tries to make this a story without a place. The camp, the village, the country, the war — all remain unnamed. It’s an interesting idea, assuming Lebrecht wants to free the reader from preconceived notions, but it proves too challenging to sustain through to the end. It also removes the reader emotionally from the characters, but remains an interesting idea in an interesting book.
More common Holocaust literature is the memoir and as Holocaust survivors reach the ends of their lives, we see more books written by their children.
One new offering is Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village (Nebraska, paper, $16.95) by Mimi Schwartz.
Schwartz had an all-American childhood and didn’t pay much attention to her father’s stories about the Holocaust or growing up in a German village that was half Jewish. But years later, she hears that her father’s Christian neighbors saved the synagogue’s Torah on Kristallnacht, and she is consumed with curiosity about her dad, his home and surviving villagers, Jewish and gentile. Traveling to Germany and Israel to hear first-person accounts she finds that judgment, which seemed so easy before, is a little muddier.
Readers of the New York Times may already be familiar with the work of Sandra Hurtes, whose personal essays are collected in a short book, On My Way to Someplace Else (Poetica, paper, $15).
Hurtes’s parents were both survivors of Auschwitz. Survivors seem to fall into two groups: The tell-all and the tell-little, with Hurtes’ mom of the tell-all persuasion. Hurtes writes movingly about the influence of these stories on her life and how they made her the person she is today, even creating her career. Even when not writing directly about the Holocaust or her parents, they still shadow almost everything she does.
A more typical Holocaust biography is The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt (Schocken, cloth, $26). A decade ago, Swiss journalist Hannalore Brenner met 10 of these surviving, now-elderly women at their annual reunion in Europe and decided to bring their stories to us.
In Holocaust history, Ronald Florence tells the story of Joel Brand and the Jewish Rescue Committee of Hungary in Emissary of the Doomed (Viking, cloth, $27.95). The committee, which had successfully brought individual Polish and Slovakian Jews to the relative safety of Hungary, then turned their efforts to saving Hungarian Jews, including secret negotiations with Adolf Eichmann. Without the aid of the Allies, they lost their race against time.
Other new Holocaust non-fiction includes Who Will Write Our History: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto, by Samuel D. Kassow (Vintage, paper, $16.95) and Rediscovering Traces of Memory: The Jewish Heritage of Polish Galicia, by Jonathan Webber, photographs by Chris Schwarz (Indiana U, paper, $27.95) from the Littman Library.
JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible, retold by Ellen Frankel (JPS, cloth, $35). Illustrated by Israeli artist Avi Katz (Jerusalem Post), this 225-page book focuses on the most plot-driven sections of the Tanach. Frankel, a scholar of folklore and Midrash, and the editor-in-chief of JPS, adds some interesting notes for the grownups on the challenges of introducing “American children to the language and rhythms of the Hebrew Bible.”
Subversive Sequels in the Bible, by Judy Klitsner (JPS, cloth, $35). In this book, subtitled “How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other,” the author makes unusual pairings of biblical stories and shows how the later story may comment on or even subvert the earlier one. Noah and Jonah are linked, for example, as are the Tower of Babel and the midwives of Exodus. Fascinating and thought-provoking work (and just a tad scholarly) from a senior faculty member at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.
The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh, by Varda Polak-Sahm (Beacon, cloth, $28.95). A fascinating culmination of 10 years of research on the part of the Israeli author, this book dissects the historical and cultural significance of the mikveh and its value in today’s world. Based on in-depth interviews with balanyiot (immersion supervisors), and of Orthodox and secular women from a myriad of different cultures plus her own experiences, Polak-Sahm explores the most secret, sacred and sensual moments in a Jewish woman’s life.
The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz, by Michelle Cameron (Pocket, cloth, $25). Historical novelist Cameron weaves fact and fiction together in this tale of European medieval Jewry during one of the most challenging periods in Jewish history. The fictional Shira is witness to some of the more horrific events of the times: Talmud burning, religious disputations, executions and Crusader massacres. Shira has a real-life husband, Meir of Rothenberg, a distant ancestor of the author, which adds to the book’s appeal. As often occurs in this genre, the author sometimes works too hard to include all the historical details, but it reads well and is entrancing in parts.
The Defector, by Daniel Silva (Putnam, cloth, $26.95). Silva’s Israeli spy-art restorer-hero Gabriel Alon returns to again combat the evils of terrorism, counter-espionage and international crime, enduring the usual threats on his life and his family. An exciting page-turner, but nothing especially unique
or different here. Perhaps this is Alon’s retirement party? After all, how much abuse can one man take, even in the service of his country?
Jewish Sages of Today: Profiles of Extraordinary People, edited by Aryeh Rubin (Devora, paper, $16.95). One inspiring profile after another of rabbis, scholars, scientists, advocates and more all working in service to the Jewish community. The cover states the subjects are drawn from “across the U.S. and Israel,” but from this Northwest outpost the book seems a little New York-centric. Surely a few people west of the Rockies are doing a few things of value in the Jewish community.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Story Behind the Song, by Canfield, Hansen and Geffen (CSS, paper, $14.95). Here are the “exclusive, personal stories behind 101 of your favorite songs.” Of course, not all songwriters are Jewish, but many of them are, so you can enjoy a little John Legend (“Ordinary People”) with your Barry Manilow (“Mandy,” etc.).
Comics & Humor
The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah, by Joel Chasnoff (Simon & Schuster, cloth, $25). As Chasnoff begins his basic training he has the following encounter: “‘Hey, I think you misspelled my name,’ I said to the guy at the dog tag machine. ‘So don’t die,’ he said and shooed me out the door.” A proverbial 98-pound weakling lies his way into the Israeli armed forces in order to live in Israel and — of course — impress a girl. Comedian Chasnoff has lived to tell the tale of war — and make us laugh.
Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form, edited by Paul Buhle (New Press, cloth, $29.95). Reading an early political cartoon in this book, it occurred to me that my grandfather, who arrived on these shores in 1912, might have viewed this exact piece: Karl Marx as Moses, leads “the working class to the land of milk and honey, the land of economic freedom” through a Red Sea of woes consisting of tenement houses, child labor, war, corruption, hunger and “rotten food.” Entertaining and educational.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! by Jonathan Goldstein (Penguin, paper, $15). Public radio listeners may be familiar with the work of this Canadian comedian (“Americo-Canadian” according to Wikipedia), a staff member on “This American Life,” and host of “Wire Tap,” his own CBC show, which airs in Seattle on KUOW 94.9. Goldstein puts his spin on a number of biblical tales both famous and obscure and gives familiar characters sardonic, neurotic and poignant personas, saying and thinking things you’d never imagine. “Since…every village needs a mayor as well as a village idiot, it broke down in this way: Eve: mayor; Adam: village idiot.” Goldstein takes us all the way to Mary and Joseph, the latter whining about how difficult his life is now that his girlfriend has been impregnated by the Lord.