Monthly Archives: July 2013

Jews as Rebels

The Gods Are Broken!: The Hidden Legacy of Abraham, by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin. Jewish Publication Society / University of Nebraska Press.  176 pages. Trade paperback $19.95.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, & Survival, by Christopher Benfey. Penguin Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $25.95. Trade paperback $16.00.

The rebellious streak as a Jewish cultural trait is given far less attention than the conformist one. Here are two very different books that envision the rebel side of Jewish character.

Rabbi Salkin sees the breaking by Abraham of his father’s idols as a paradigmatic story that opens a main current of Jewish experience and thought. Salkin notes that the father, Terah, began a journey but then (theologically speaking) settled prematurely in a new place. Abraham’s action begins the continuation of the journey into the kind exilic existence that has characterized most of Jewish history. Breaking the statues of the pagan deities identifies Abraham to God as his worthy vessel for the people who will become Israel. 

In a breezy, excited style, the author explores all aspects of the meaning of brokenness as a Jewish identifier. Likewise, he explores the tension of stasis and change. To break is to break away, to break convention, and ultimately to create anew. Salkin reminds us that idolatry does not require idols. Too strong a focus on ritual for its own sake can become idolatrous. An obsession with halakha or institution building (especially the material building) can shut us off from our spiritual nature and journey.  JeffreyKSalkin

Smoothly weaving together contemporary scholarship, midrashic elaborations of scripture, and meditation on the key symbols that evoke his central issue, Rabbi Salkin provides a map of Judaic meaning. By comparing and contrasting Abraham’s breaking of his father’s idols with the breaking of the first set of tablets by Moses, he opens up a investigative mode that has far-reaching consequences for the world Jewish community, both present and future.

Salkin writes, “Healthy iconoclasm – shattering the false gods of class, privilege, power, radical individualism, and even the unfettered worship of science – would bring together believers of all faiths, allowing them to see beyond their crucial theological differences and retrieve, once again, the mantle of their father, Abraham.”


Part memoir, part family history, and part meditation, this lyrical journey invents its own shape and genre while probing undervalued sources of American art and artisanship. Benfey celebrates the processes that turn nature into art and utilitarian commodity – sometimes both at once, as in ceramic vases and pitchers. He exhumes and celebrates the soils from which a nation builds its roads and homes, its jugs and jars.

Indiana and North Carolina are key territories in Benfey’s journey to locate himself and his ancestors in the American story. It’s the story of the special white clay that can rival Chinese porcelain; of potters who place folk craft, high art, and domestic manufacture in dynamic equilibrium; and of two peoples of great particularity: Jews and Quakers.

The Benfey name is a modification of a Hebrew or, more likely, Yiddish name. There were Jewish Benfeys who migrated to the U. S. before and after the Holocaust. Many of these people, several of significant accomplishment, had already converted to Christianity. Of course, they would be defined as Jews during the horrendous upwelling of anti-Semitism that swept Europe. 

The later pages of the book’s first section trace the Jewish thread of family history; the meditative aspect of Benfey’s journey sends off “if only” reverberations, suggestions of identity compromised and spiritual treasure lost.  Jewish artists show up elsewhere in the book, oddly connected with the avant-garde community of Black Mountain. These include the unparalleled Jewish potter Karen Karnes and her one-time husband David Weinrib, also an important artistic figure.

Christopher Benfey

Christopher Benfey

Bauhaus artist (and Benfey relative) Anni Albers, who called herself “Jewish in the Hitler sense,” left Germany in 1933 with her more famous husband Josef to mastermind experimental Black Mountain College. The couple transplanted revolutionary Bauhaus theory and style to a new setting. And yet they blended into an American cultural mosaic whose foundational Quaker contribution was thriving.

The story radiates outward from fabled Black Mountain College, where a miraculous synergy of exiled (or self-exiled) Europeans and American seekers struggled with and against one another to remap American community life and revitalize its art.

One theme of this unique and splendid history/reverie is: “There is something deep in the American grain in the idea of cultivating individuality through community.” Briefly but emphatically, Christopher Benfey sounds the Jewish note within this paradox.

Derived from two separate reviews that appear in the Summer 2013 issue of Jewish Book World. Reprinted by permission.

This double review appears in the August 2013 issues of The Jewish Times (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties).


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Past and present collide in Mid-East archaeological thriller

The Riddle of Solomon, by D. J. Niko. Medallion Press. 458 pages. $14.95.

Ms. Niko’s archaeological thriller continues the romantic and professional saga of Sarah Weston, a strong-minded, courageous woman determined to make her mark no matter what the risk. Teamed with anthropologist (and love interest) Daniel Madigan, she is working at an archaeological site in Saudi Arabia. They discover a papyrus scroll that holds a riddle. Before they can do much about dating the artifact, translating the hieratic script, and solving the riddle, their expedition is beset by sabotage and violence. The scroll disappears.  RiddleOfSolomon_front

The title gives away what patiently emerges in the narrative: they have stumbled upon rarities from the time (10th century B.C.E.) and perhaps the very person of King Solomon. These items and others may have found their way from the Judean hills as part of a caravan that perhaps had a connection with the queen of Sheba. At a time when modern archaeology has largely served to undermine the historical utility of scriptural narrative, this find may lead to the verification and even the elaboration of the majestic stories recounting King David’s aspirations and King Solomon’s achievement. 

The investigation leads to heart-pounding adventures in India, Jerusalem, and the rugged Judean region. Slowly, the information gained unlocks pieces of the riddle, revealing that it was indeed written by Solomon to insure the future. The hieratic riddle and a mysterious ring that they discover are connected to a manuscript that is nothing less than the plan for Solomon’s fabled temple.

Several blocking forces are at work: interests that would wish to possess the information and eventual authority of the truths that Sarah and Daniel are pursuing. Paramount among these is the megalomaniacal Trent Sacks, who has been looking for the evidence that would sanction his grand delusion – that he is the inheritor of the royal line that passes from David to Solomon and continues on an obscure path. If Trent is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy about the bloodline from which will spring the Messiah, then he must be . . .  You get it!

D. J. Niko

D. J. Niko

Author Niko taps into the extreme position in Jewish Orthodoxy that anticipates and sometimes urges on the rebuilding of the ancient temple (or construction of a Third Temple) as a prerequisite for the Messianic Age. Biblical prophesies of purgative catastrophes become battle plans for Sacks, who sees the need to foment the war out of which the divinely ordained peace will arrive. With the wealth of a major energy company at his disposal, along with superlative industrial and military technology, Sacks is ready to mount the Temple Mount as Israel’s savior.

Sarah and Daniel must foil his plans in order to avert calamity. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the July 17, 2013 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 18 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter editions, click here Florida Weekly – Riddle of Solomon 1 and here Florida Weekly – Riddle of Solomon 2.

Reprinted in the October 2013 issue of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).

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Confessions of a book reviewer

“So many books, so little time” is the credo emblazoned on one of my sweatshirts.  Isn’t that the truth?  Among my favorite tee-shirts is “Lead me not into temptation … especially bookstores.” I confess: I’m addicted to reading. Worse, I’m addicted to blabbing about what I read. I want to do you the favor of knowing what I think. You see, dear reader, I’m looking out for your best interests. philjason loves books

Well, not really. Usually I do not warn you when a book is not worth your time. With rare exceptions, I do not write negative reviews. Why not? Wouldn’t a balance of negative and positive reviews give my work more credibility? Perhaps it would. I don’t care. I don’t have enough space to tell you what not to read or why you won’t like something. Besides, if a book is inferior, it will sink under its own weighty badness – it doesn’t need my help. Silence can be a good thing.

Many writers, especially novices, do not understand my refusal to write reviews of their efforts. My “Florida Writers” column brings me a lot of email from authors (and publicists) whose attempts at gaining my respectful attention are so poorly scribed that I can only imagine how poor the actual book is. Still, if I see any hope of being able to praise it, I’ll ask for a copy (or a pdf or an e-version). Too often, I end up not reviewing the book, hoping to cast my refusal so that it doesn’t do unnecessary harm.

“But I’m a Florida Writer – why not?” It is not true, I insist, that all publicity is good publicity. Why find yourself insulted by my honest appraisal? Easy Writer cannot imagine that his book could garner negative reviews. I pretend to agree that the problem is simple: there’s something wrong with me.

“But you’re the only person doing regular book reviewing around here. If you don’t help me get the word out, no one else will either.” Sure, I feel guilty. However, book reviewing is not public relations work; at least it shouldn’t be. (You want a planted, paid-for review?  I’ll tell you how to buy one.)

In case you’re dying to know the exception to my rule about not writing negative reviews, here it is: I will write a negative review when a well-established, talented author slips from the standard that he or she has set and that readers expect. Here’s a case in point. Though I love Randy Wayne White’s work, a couple of Doc Fords ago I thought he had let us down and said so. Fortunately, I was soon able (and happy) to praise his first Hannah Smith novel and the most recent Doc Ford.


“Confess, Phil, confess that sometimes you do not review a book that you know is pretty good. What’s the deal here? Lazyness?” Sometimes I’m lazy, but more often I just don’t think that the book and I are compatible. I can’t get excited about its virtues. I need to move on to another book that engages me more fully or that I feel will be of value to my readers “out there.” I don’t have time to agonize about the one that gets away. Again, my publication space and reading-writing time is limited. Careful selection is what gets me through. It’s like dating.

“Why do you review so many self-published books? Aren’t they bound to be just awful?” Hey, you snobs out there, with all the mediocre books put out by the trade houses, the burgeoning body of self-published titles offers a truly viable alternative for the serious reviewer looking for quality publications. I don’t let the publishing industry make up my mind for me, and I’m prejudiced against prejudices.  While there are many periodicals that refuse to publish reviews of self-published titles, Florida Weekly has allowed me the privilege of deciding by the case and not the category. . . .

For more “confessions,” as they appear in the full article found in the July 10, 2013 isssue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 11 issues of the Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here  Florida Weekly – Jason’s Confessions 1 and here  Florida Weekly – Jason’s Confessions 2


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Surviving the challenges of caring for aging parents

Pauline Hayton, If You Love Me, Kill Me. CreateSpace. 158 pages. $6.99. Kindle e-book $3.99.

What happens when your life becomes a living hell? What happens when you reach your own retirement age and find yourself trapped in the most difficult, exhausting, and demoralizing job you ever had – caring for aging parents who have begun a long, painful decline that seems to have no vanishing point? How does one handle the battleground of resentment and guilt that turns your life into something very dark?  Hayton_Book_Cover

In Ms. Hayton’s case, things kept going from bad to worse. After she lost her father, whose caretaker she also had been, her mother went into a deep decline. It reached the point that the author could not have more that fifteen minutes between her mother’s frantic, fearful yet commanding calls to her to come back to her room. Ms. Hayton could barely get anything else done before having to respond to her mother’s voice.

Worse yet, that voice yelled out “Barbara, Barbara!” Who was Barbara? Pauline Hayton never figured that out.

The story begins with Ms. Hayton revealing that she had survived deep conflicts with her mother that had been resolved through counseling. The resolution had left the author with a somewhat detached relationship with her mother: “I accepted her and her controlling ways (that caused me to leave home when I was seventeen) without allowing her to have power over me.” She adds, “but I adored my father. He was a very special person.”


So, when it was decided that her parents, both blind, should not face their declining years alone in England (where Ms. Hayton was born and raised), it was also decided that she and her husband would take care of them. During the first three years, the situation was managed well enough, and caretaker Pauline became closer than ever to her father. But then his health plummeted, and his death followed soon after.

Her mother’s decline accelerated after the father’s death.  At one point, Ms. Hayton became plagued with cancer. Eventually, her husband left because the stress of the situation was something he couldn’t handle. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the July 3, 2013 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the July 4 Bonita Springs edition, the July 18 Naples edition, and the July 25 Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter edition, click here Florida Weekly – Hayton 1 and here Florida Weekly – Hayton 2

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