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.