Monthly Archives: October 2017

Collier County Jewish Book Festival goes from strength to strength

By Phil Jason, Jewish Book Festival co-chair

This season, the third annual Collier County Jewish Book Festival will build upon the successes of its first two years, continuing this superb contribution to the cultural life of our community. A project of the Jewish Federation of Collier County in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, the Festival will offer 11 book events at several venues, with a total of 18 authors visiting from November 2017 into April 2018.

Five of the Festival events will feature a dynamic solo presenter. Another five will feature two authors matched by a common theme. The authors sharing the bill will not co-present or share the stage, but provide back-to-back presentations. Each speaker will give a 30- to 45-minute talk followed by 15-20 minutes of Q&A plus book-signing time. There will be a short break between presentations. One event will showcase the writing talents of three debut novelists. Each author will speak for approximately 25 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with the three authors on a panel.


On Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m. at the Hilton Naples, meet Steve Dorff, author of I Wrote That One Too…a Life in Songwriting from Willie to Whitney. This witty biography includes anecdotes about stars who have recorded Steve’s songs, many of them Top 10 hits. Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Ray Charles and Garth Brooks are among the stellar cast. Steve will perform many of his best-known songs and share the stories behind them. Refreshments provided.

Wednesday, December 6 at 11:30 a.m. brings another solo presentation at the Hilton. Eminent actor Stephen Tobolowsky will discuss his memoir, My Adventures with God, a series of vignettes, at once humorous and profound, that review his Texas childhood, his adventures of the heart, and his struggles with matters of faith aided by encounters with the Torah and the Talmud. You’ve seen this top-drawer character actor in Mississippi Burning, Glee, Groundhog Day and Memento. Tobolowsky, who has been in more than 100 movies and over 200 television shows, has become a legendary storyteller. The event price includes a luncheon and a copy of the book.


On Sunday, December 10 at 7:00 p.m., return to the Hilton for Alexandra Silber’s After Anatevka – A Novel Inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof.” What happens to the characters invented by Sholem Aleichem and brought to the stage (and screen) after the curtain falls? It takes an actress like Alexandra Silber, who knows the play from the inside, to imagine what comes next. She does so in a sweeping historical novel. Silber has played Tzeitel in the play’s most recent Broadway revival, and Hodel in London’s West End. Alexandra will blend musical stylings with spoken words from her book in a theatre-like setting. Refreshments provided.

On Monday, January 8 at 1:00 p.m., the Naples Conference Center is the venue for history. In his Angels in the Sky, Robert Gandt relates “How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel.” It’s a suspenseful and upbeat story tracing these courageous volunteers from their various home countries as they moved themselves and the needed equipment to the nascent Jewish state. This is popular history at its best, drawing upon first-person interviews and extensive archival research. It’s David-and-Goliath all over again. Gandt is paired with Bryan Mark Rigg, author of The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers. Amid the chaos and hell of the emerging Holocaust, a small group of German soldiers shepherded Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and his Hasidic followers out of Poland on a dangerous and circuitous path to America. You will be surprised to learn about the Wehrmacht soldier who led them.


On Wednesday, January 24 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom, meet Pam Jenoff (The Orphan’s Tale) and Gavriel Savit (Anna and the Swallow Man). Both of these inventive novels touch upon the Holocaust in unique ways. Jenoff’s, based on true stories, tells of a German circus that becomes the home and refuge of two young women. Teenage Noa, disgraced by her pregnancy, is forced to give up her baby, but she rescues another – a Jewish child – from a boxcar destined for a concentration camp. Astrid, Jewish and a professional trapeze artist, is already headlining the circus, but must teach Noa the necessary skills to fit in. Their unstable relationship is magnetically portrayed. Savit imagines Krakow in 1939. Young Anna, her father taken by the Nazis, meets a mysterious, somewhat magical fellow whom she follows through the most dangerous situations. This startling novel will entrance readers of all ages – especially if they are interested in European Jewish history. 

Stop by the Hilton on Monday, January 29 at 1:00 p.m. and you are likely to go away laughing. Multi-talented sitcom writer Susan Silver will talk about Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms. She promises that the book is funny and sexy, so let’s see if she keeps her promise. Tales of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Newhart and Maude can’t be anything but riotous. But who can tell the tale of Joan Rivers? No one better than her biographer, Leslie Bennetts, author of Last Girl Before Freeway. The story of the trailblazing comedian’s battle to break down barriers for women is not all laughs, but there should be enough of them to balance out the darker moments in her subject’s life as ambition and insecurity collide. After all, Rivers made people laugh for 60 years.

Family-focused memoir is the theme on Wednesday, February 14 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom. Playwright and film producer Peter Gethers’ My Mother’s Kitchen tells the heartwarming story of his determination to bring his aging mother’s friends and loved ones to the table one last time for a feast featuring her favorite dishes. This desire springs from Peter’s growing closeness to his mother and his desire to hear about her colorful past and her kitchen secrets. Actress Annabelle Gurwitch’s Wherever You Go, There They Are describes the family she tried to escape and the ones she joined by accident or on purpose, including her southern ancestors, the sisterhood, and an adult summer camp for vegans. She trades one crazy family for several. Annabelle has appeared on episodes of Seinfeld, Murphy Brown and Dexter, and she formerly hosted Dinner and a Movie on TBS. 

On Monday, February 26 at 1:00 p.m. at the Naples Conference Center, three authors will discuss their new works and their careers. Meet Jane Healey (The Saturday Evening Girls Club), Sana Krasikov (The Patriots) and Ellen Umansky (The Fortunate Ones) as they make individual presentations and then interact with one another. The title of Healey’s book refers to a group of four young immigrant women who meet with others to escape hectic home lives in Boston’s North End during the early 1900s. Krasikov’s novel follows a young woman who leaves her middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family during the depression expecting a better life in Stalin’s USSR. What she discovers is not what she expects. Umansky’s book is set in 1939 Vienna, from which Rose Zimmer’s parents try to send her to safety via the Kindertransport. The search for a missing painting and the consequences of that search lead to unexpected revelations.

On Wednesday, March 7 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom there will be a love and relationships session with Marilyn Simon Rothstein’s Lift and Separate and Renee Rosen’s Windy City Blues. Rothstein creates Marcy, a Jewish mother of three grown children, whose husband of 33 years leaves her for a fitting model he met at his brassiere empire. How she rebounds from this setback will keep you reading. Rosen’s riveting story, set in 1950s and ’60s Chicago, tells of a young Jewish Polish immigrant, and a black blues guitarist who left the south to play in the burgeoning Chicago music scene, who risk threats of violence in an era in American history that frowned on mixed-race couples. Their story of forbidden romance is weaved into the history of Chess Records and the birth of the blues and rock ’n’ roll in Chicago.

Friday, March 16 at 1:00 p.m. brings five-time Emmy Award-winner Alan Zweibel to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples. A writer for Saturday Night Live and Curb Your Enthusiasm, his novel The Other Shulman won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2006. He collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning play 700 Sundays. His latest project is the Passover Haggadah parody For This We Left Egypt? – co-written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach. Light food and refreshments provided. And laughs!

The Festival closes on Monday, April 9 at 2:30 p.m. at Beth Tikvah Synagogue with Abigail Pogrebin, who will talk about My Jewish Year. As a character in her own book, Abigail is presented as a somewhat rebellious family member who feels her Jewish life has not been as rich as it might have been. So she embarks on an entire year of research, observance, and writing about every ritual, fast and festival in one Jewish year.


Festival sponsors include: Florida Weekly, Hilton Naples, U.S. Bank, Barnes & Noble Waterside Shops, Steinway Piano Gallery, Women’s Cultural Alliance, JFCS of SWFL, TheatreZone, John R. Wood Properties, JNF, Senior Housing Solutions, AJC West Coast, Beth Tikvah, Collier/Lee Chapter of Hadassah, Clive Daniel Home, FIDF Miami Chapter, Holocaust Museum & Education Center of SWFL, Temple Shalom Sisterhood, Dr. Barrett Ross Ginsberg and Naples Jewish Congregation.

A complete schedule of events, ticket information, venue locations, author bios and book synopses is available at For more information or to order tickets by phone, call Renee’ at the Jewish Federation of Collier County at 239.263.4205.

Note: This article appeared in the October 26, 2017 Naples Florida Weekly.  See CCJBF 2018


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An engaging history of Fort Myers through the lens of its private residences and their owners

River & Road: Fort Myers Architecture from Craftsman to Modern, by Jared Beck and Pamela Miner. University Press of Florida. 208 (oversized) pages. Hardcover $45.00.

This copiously illustrated book is a lifestyle junkie’s delight. Delightful story-telling traces the history of the city’s architectural heritage while providing engaging stories of the houses’ various owners. Landmark neighborhoods get special attention, as does the interplay of the natural and man-made environments. 

The prose style of this book, at once technically professional and adoring of its subjects, makes one wonder just how the selection process was made. How many residences had to be eliminated so that the twenty-eight survivors could be presented to tell the story?

After an efficient and yet alluring introduction, the book jumps into high gear with the exploration of a Craftsman bungalow with an oriental motif. Most people think of Craftsman structures as being fairly small, but this one on Osceola Drive in the Riverside Subdivision has imposing dimensions as well as the character of an edgy individual.


The blending of styles is not unusual, or perhaps it’s a characteristic that the authors value highly. The very next representative, a “Spanish-Italian-Moorish hybrid,” introduces readers to the all-important McGregor Boulevard area, the proud spine of Fort Myers. The photographs, here and elsewhere, are dazzling and make a powerful contribution to the book. These, credited to Andrew West, are exceptional.





One of the features of sub-tropical living is the interaction of indoor and outdoor living. This factor is evidenced in the discussions of most of these homes, including the “porch-centric bungalow” (another Crafstman), which also is notable for its evolution through layers of renovation over the years. This feature is inevitable for older homes too attractive to demolish and yet not up to the needs of modern family life. The question is, how faithful to the essential character of the original dwelling are the renovations and additions? This Poinciana Park property evidences judicious compromises. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the October 25, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 26 Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and  Palm Beach editions, click here:

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The making of a mensch

My Adventures with God, by Stephen Tobolowsky, Simon & Schuster, 320 pages Hardcover. $25.00

By Philp K. Jason

Premier character actor Stephen Tobolowsky offers a wide-arching memoir in the form of a series of remarkable vignettes. He positions himself as a man of faith who remains a questioner. He describes himself as a man whose outlook involves an internal competition between experience and more formal modes of learning. Light doses of Torah and Talmud interact with memories of crises, illuminations, losses and unalloyed satisfactions. Tobolowsky’s insights are often humorous, but never cruel. He takes us on a remarkable voyage – a sophisticated everyman, a committed yet somewhat restless Jew, and a profound and fluid storyteller.


The overall story could be accurately labeled “The Making of a Mensch.”

In telling his stories, Tobolowsky draws amazingly efficient portraits of those who meant the most to him: his parents and children, his first and second wives (and his childhood love for his second-grade heartthrob), rabbis and others from whom he gained understandings and solace, and close friends. As a man trained to inhabit a character, he has an instinct for the telling detail. As a man trained to deliver his part of a scripted conversation, he has an ear for recreating the vivid and meaningful conversations of times gone by.

The vignettes are grouped into several sections whose titles reinforce Tobolowsky’s development as a committed member of the Jewish community across time. You will recognize the echoes: “Beginnings,” “Exodus: A Love Story,” “The Call,” “Wilderness” and “The Words That Become Things.” Within these sections, which hold between five and eight stories (in some cases linked stories), Tobolowsky displays his marvelous ability to draw meaningful comparisons between the distant past, today, and stops along the way. Though the plan is primarily chronological, it is not always so. Sometimes, episodes are linked by association rather than by chronology. Sometimes, it is necessary to proceed backwards.

The author shares with us his interests and his explorations of books both sacred and secular, often the result of blurring such distinctions. He attests to the importance of dreams in his life, which he tells us “whisper rather than roar.” He is a man open to epiphanies. He is a man open to the mysteries of science and the possible parallels, if not necessarily links, between scientific thought and religious experience.

This is not a career biography. Readers won’t discover much about Tobolowsky’s work in GleeMississippi BurningGroundhog DayMemento and other roles. Details about auditions and rehearsals, career successes and failures, and showbiz gossip, rarely surface (perhaps waiting for another book). An exception is the treatment of his first wife’s giant success as a playwright. Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The story of Stephen and Beth’s relationship becomes a cautionary tale.

The focus, rather, is more on Tobolowsky’s life as a synagogue regular. How it began, how it developed, what kind of structure it gave his days and weeks, how it adjusted his vision of human nature on the one hand and Jewish wisdom on the other.

One can imagine that this book could have been more Job-like, more about the author’s quarrels with God. To use the word “adventures” in the title suggests an attitude of openness, of seeking and accepting challenges. It has a humorous tone. Throughout, it is this humor that floats the friendly scholarship, serious intent and occasional desperation of an exemplary seeker. It releases the joy.

This book is good for the Jews. It’s good for all lovers of wonderful stories.


Note: Tobolowsky appears December 6, 2017 at


This review, slightly reduced, was first published on the Jewish Book Council website and is reprinted with permission in the November 2017 editions of  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). Find the original at

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Big girls don’t cry, nor do small girls who think and act big

“Play Big,” by Jen Welter with Stephanie Krikorian. Seal Press. 288 pages. Hardcover $26.00.

At once sports memoir and empowerment handbook, this feisty and engaging “how-to” is bound to attract a lot of attention. The author, a Vero Beach native, broke the glass ceiling in professional football in a variety of ways. She moved from being a championship performer in women’s professional football to playing for a men’s professional team to becoming linebacker coach for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.  

They said such a thing couldn’t be done and that the “boys’ club” would not accept her, but Jen Welter made it happen through a die-hard attitude and relentless self-improvement. Along the way, she became Dr. Jen, with a Ph.D. in psychology.

This book builds upon her work as a coach. It is a master plan for “being limitless.” Though directed at women from all walks of life, it has plenty of powerful advice for men as well.

The bite-sized chapters oscillate between vividly drawn scenes of major challenges in Ms. Welter’s life and the attitudinal and behavioral adjustments necessary for her readers to reach their highest aspirations. At five feet and two inches, Jen Welter would never be big, but she would find the way to play big. In sports and in life. That means taking risks. It means learning how be touch and to enjoy the pains of perseverance. It means never giving up.

There is a recurrent graphic motif from chapter to chapter that puts key concepts into sharp focus. Each chapter begins with something that looks like a gummed label. Here Couch Jen provides a terse thematic overview of the chapter. Another graphic part of the graphic motif is a series of boxed and shaded mini-essays that boil down the chapter’s concerns. Sometimes these shaded areas contain a series of bullet points. 

Chapter titles tend to be essential truisms that have the energy and memorability of mantras for the coach’s students. “What Makes Us Different Makes Us Stronger,” “Once It’s Been Done, It Can’t Be Undone,” and “When It’s Us Against Them, We All Lose” are examples of the kind of readily applicable aphorism with which the coach beats the drum of self-awareness and self-improvement.

The heart of the book, for most readers, will be Ms. Welter’s story-telling. One key narrative is about her small size and her concern about being too small to earn a place on the Mass Mutiny women’s professional football team. She relates how she handled the insecurity and played her way onto the team. She discovered, as well, that one could manifest a presence much larger than one’s physical dimensions. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 18, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 19 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here:

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“A Crime in the Family” by Sacha Batthyany, translated by Anthea Bell

 Da Capo Press. 224 pages. Hardcover $28.00.  

Originally published in German in 2016, this disturbing memoir tells of journalist Sacha Batthyány’s confrontation with the truth and meaning of the heinous crime his family committed during the twilight of WWII.


During a party held by the author’s great aunt, Countess Margit Batthyány, her friends and relatives murdered 180 enslaved Jewish laborers.

Though Sacha Batthyány was not the first to write about this horrendous deed, his compulsive research and meditations enormously broaden the scope of information and understanding. He draws from his personal experience as well as diaries, public records, private papers, and interviews conducted with a mixture of determination and anxiety. His journey into the past becomes a journey into his deepest self – his life as a grandchild and child, as a husband and father.

To read the full review, click here:

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Terror thriller balances momentum, restraint

Assassin’s Code, by Ward Larsen. Forge Books. 368 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

The fourth David Slaton novel keeps Mr. Larsen on top of the spy thriller mountain. While it works well as a stand-alone novel, readers who know the series will gain even more from their longer exposure to Slayton’s character, skills, and past. As ever, the precision with which the author details Slaton’s planning and execution of his assignment is totally engaging. However, the handling of brilliant tradecraft is only part of the book’s appeal. Mr. Larsen’s plot develops from a powerful premise that echoes present-day realities – and perhaps anticipates the future. 

Europe, and particularly France, is fighting what seems to be an end-of-days war against ISIS. Retired (except when on call to top level Mossad missions) operative and assassin David Slaton discovers a strange message that that seems to have been left for him alone. A computer memory stick holds a photo of a man named Zavier Baland, the fasted rising Frenchman slated to take over DGSI, his nation’s premier counterterrorist agency.

The photo shocks Slayton, who recognizes the person as Ali Samir, an Islamic terrorist who Slayton murdered fifteen years back. Or did he? Who is responsible for leaving this clue for Slayton? What should he do about it?

If Samir survived to reinvent himself as Baland, is France about to install an ISIS secret agent as its bulwark against terrorism? Could anything be more dangerous for the French Republic? Can Baland be exposed and/or stopped?

The plot is revealed through the alternating perspectives of several key players. Principal among these is Slayton, whose domestic live is portrayed as the antithesis of his murderous, if patriotic, occupation. His concern for his wife and child are consistently as war with his concern for Israel, Israel’s allies, and humanistic values.


Mr. Larsen enters Baland’s mind and probes deeper and deeper into Baland’s sense of self: his core identity and values. Like Slayton, he is a compromised family man. Readers are privy to the decisions Baland is formulating as the time of great crisis for France and for the West approach. The increasing frequency and violence of terrorist acts may or may not be his agenda.

Mr. Larsen provides are facts and perspectives through the presentation of two additional characters. One is a rather mysterious young woman, Malika, a terrorist operative of great skill and determination. She is a master of disguises and subterfuge. She is an expert marksman. Like Slaton, she is totally professional in choosing the best vantage points from which to gather information while keeping hidden, the best vantage points for firing her weapons. She is great at mind games. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 11, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:

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When farmed tilapia are dying from bleach, it could be big


Coastal Corpse, by Marty Ambrose. Five Star. 229 pages. Hardcover $25.95. Ebook $3.99.

Mallie Monroe is at it again in the fifth “Mango Bay Mystery.” She’s juggling two beaux. One is Cole, whose engagement ring she has managed to misplace (Freudian slip). The other is Nick, the chief police detective on Coral Island. Mallie seems to have a commitment problem. 

She has other problems as well. Her job as a reporter for the “Coral Island Observer” has been immensely complicated by the secretary-receptionist’s honeymoon and the editor’s disappearance. Suddenly, she finds herself in charge of just about everything, including getting out the next issue of the paper. There are just too many stories waiting to be researched and written. Which is the feature and which are the fillers? Mallie is not happy about having to enlist the help of people with little or no experience. Things are chaotic.

A local crazy is trying to pin all her problems, including a bad landscaping job, on Mallie and actually attacks her. Aging lothario Pop Pop keeps imagining that he’s Mallie’s boyfriend. Madame Geri, a local psychic, does more harm than good as a fill-in reporter. There is also a character whose violin bears scratches that resemble a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Should Mallie choose this item as the lead story? Probably not.


And there is trouble at the Town Hall meeting where former friends and business associates are at each other’s throats. When one of the ends up dead in a fish tank, the other is an obvious suspect – but there are plenty of other suspects to choose from, including jealous women. Now there’s a story.

Even Mallie’s friend and landlord, Wanda Sue, campaigning for a town council seat, finds trouble.

Many of the characters – and there are perhaps too many of them for a relatively compact novel – are quite colorful. Their excesses are part of the novel’s fun. Several don’t act their age – their relatively advanced age. Others are simply wacky. It’s a community in which a frenzied motormouth like Mallie is the pillar of stability.

More complications. Bad fertilizer made from farm-raised tilapia killed by bleach is ruining gardens and crops. Who’s behind this? Why? Mallie has to help track down the culprit. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the October 4, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the Naples and other local editons for October 5 , click here:

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Florida’s soul music heritage comes alive, as do its makers

Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band, by John Capouya. University Press of Florida. 374 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

For a scholarly enterprise, this book is notable for its high energy and conversational tone. One can feel the author’s obvious excitement over the opportunity to celebrate the dazzling contributions of those in the art and business of soul music. It’s a sizeable group of talented and inventive characters who make longer or shorter appearances in this lively slice of Florida’s cultural history. Interestingly, though soul is thought of as a sturdy branch in the tree of Afro-American music, Mr. Capouya makes it clear that white performers and other white music industry professionals played major roles in the regional and national success of this musical genre. 

Mr. Capouya’s chaptering system links the recording artists and other music professionals with key ciites, large and small, in the history of the genres development and significant presence. His titles add up to a map of the world we are exploring, but without an actual map. Clearly, the state has been saturated with native born or adopted Floridians who build a musical tradition. Of course, Soul did not grow out of nothing. The author explores its roots in gospel music, its intimate connections with R & B (rhythm and blues), and its sometimes unwelcome offspring, disco.


Not only does John Capouya provide vivid career biographies of the major players who achieved significant record sales, in many chapters he allows them to speak for themselves by providing the results of extended interviews. Some achieved stellar (bankable) accomplishments in many fields: as lead instrumentalists and singers, as back-up musicians, as songwriters, as nightclub owners, as record producers, as managers and as tour arrangers.

Soon or later during soul’s heydays in the Sixties and Seventies, everybody seems to have worked with or at least appreciated (by imitation) everyone else. It was a vibrant community of music-makers in which a person was a headliner one day and part of a back-up group the next. Although competitive, these men and women fostered a sense of mutual support. Only a few were committed loners. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 27, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and several September 28 local editions, click here:

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A young mother’s letters and poems testify to the Nazi madness that she did not survive

Dancing on a Powder Keg, by Ilse Weber. Translated with Foreword by Michal Schwartz. Bunim & Bannigan Ltd. in association with Yad Vashem. 340 pages. Hardcover $34.95.

First published in Germany in 2008, this startling book is one of the most revealing eye-witness accounts of the Nazi diminishment of Jewish life and, finally, the destruction of Jewish lives. It is comprised primarily of letters written by the Czech children’s author and radio scriptwriter to her Swedish friend Lilian von Löwenadler. In these letters, written with great regularity and growing alarm, Ilse conveys the growing horror of the Nazi occupation on Czech Jews in general and on her own family in particular.

Beginning in 1939, Ilse wrote many letters to her older son, Hanus, who was taken on the Kindertransport to London where Lilian, who lived there, met him and took him to safety in Sweden. The surface concern of most letters is to offer and report family news to a good friend already acquainted with Ilse’s family, and to encourage letters in return. The more urgent concern, rapidly accelerating, is the one expressed as early as 1936: “Antisemitism is shutting all doors on me.” The context here is the contraction of Ilse’s professional status and opportunities.  

In Ilse’s community, traditional Jewish life goes on without much interruption for many years after Hitler’s rise to power and Czeschoslovakia’s subjugation. Jewish holidays are observed (in the case of Chanukah interwoven with Christmas), and Jewish education continues. But Ilse worries about turbulence in Palestine and the reliability of the Balfour Declaration.

Ilse exhibits no desire to hide her Jewish identity or pretend to be ashamed of it. However, she is very much attached as well to her German cultural identity. Though a Czech, German is her natural language. She is an ardent admirer of German literature, music, and art. Now, as a Jew and a Czech, circumstances distance her from a central part of her identity. She loves her homeland and her adopted culture, but it is all being taken from her. “That I am Jewish is beginning to appear like a curse to me.”

Conditions worsen in her part of Czechoslovakia. For everyone. Milk becomes scarce and electric power is lost. The local broadcasting station is in German hands. “Our homeland is destroyed.” And part of the destruction is the arrival of Jewish refugees from other countries. By late 1938, Ilse is ashamed of her former German friends and acquaintances, who have almost all disappointed her as human beings. She looks away when she sees them.

The dream of settling in Palestine flutters in and out of various letters. It would seem to be the only answer to “a world that so calmly overlooks this violation and robbery of the Jews.” In 1939, Ilse refers with dred to the expulsion (from Czechoslovakia and elsewhere) of the Polish Jews who were forced to leave their homes and businesses but not allowed to enter Poland.

By this time, Ilse is worrying about her failing health and the collapse of medical care. Her second son, Tommy, has lost his physician. She doesn’t know how to prepare for her family’s survival. Life in her town is “like dancing on a powder keg.” She sees a synagogue in flames. Jews cannot leave their homes after eight o’clock. Frequent relocations are necessary. Employment for her husband is now a matter of hard labor, which has ruined his health. The Jewish cemetery is the only garden that Tommy is allowed to enter. The surprisingly free-flowing mail communication is threatened.

And then it happens. Ilse’s desperation and desire to be of use brings her to volunteer as a nurse and teacher in Theresienstadt. There is a break in communications for a while, and when it returns only short passages come off Ilse’s pen. (At this point, I think she no longer has a typewriter.)

These letters are supplemented by an essay by Ruth Bondy, “The World of Theresienstadt,” which illuminates the nature of this combination ghetto and concentration camp. Though brief, it does a fine job of creating a useful context for Ilse’s life there and for the poems that Ilse wrote in Theresienstadt, that make up a major section of the book.

These poems are remarkable for the ways in which they balance intensity with calmness, outrage with understanding. Many of them describe the lives of the children whom Ilse nurses and teaches. She worries about the substandard and uncertain nourishment, she wonders at their innocence. She writes a poem about the concealed lute with which she entertains (although music is prohibited), the horribly crowded quarters, the destruction of family life, the misery in the children’s ward. She invents an inmate child’s moving prayer to God. She ironically celebrates the ration card that allows her to pick from the war’s refuse.

Ilse Weber

These poems are most often rhymed, with a variety of stanza forms being well-exploited. Whether the translations carry these patterns over from the German originals I cannot say. I assume they do.

In one poem, Ilse confesses that her “Judaism was not a gift” but rather “a gray cloud of anxiety.”

It is a very generous selection, perhaps all that Ilse’s husband Willi, who survived the nightmare, was able to hide – and then rescue after the liberation. They deserve a separate publication.

Ilse’s life did not end in Theresienstadt. When the youngsters that she nursed and taught were being relocated to Auschwitz, she volunteered to accompany them. Ilse and her younger son perished there. That is, they were murdered, like so many, many others.

This book, the preservation of her writings, is a miracle. It is her afterlife. We can hear her words, feel her pain, honor her compassion and courage.

Dancing on a Powder Keg is concluded with an “Afterword: Against Forgetting” by Ulrika Migdal, a scholar who sought out at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem “literary voices from the Theresienstadt ghetto.” Her essay illustrates how these letters and poems can be used in the service of remembering and commemorating what must never be forgotten.

This review appears in the October 2017 issues of 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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Can ISIS outdo the 9/11 day of horror?

Isis in the City, by EE Hunt. Xlibris. 365 pages. Hardcover $29.99, Trade paperback $19.99.

Let me say this up front: I am reviewing this book because of its interesting and timely premise, its well-imagined action, and its fairly well-drawn characters. However, I am fully aware of its shortcomings: awkward sentence constructions, missing words, typos, and a general lack of professional editing. I still think it’s worth the reader’s time. 

Mr. Hunt (I don’t know which of his clerical and academic titles to use) takes readers into the very possible scenario of a small cadre of Islamic extremists planning something like a repeat performance of 9/11. One, named Nadir, seems to be a truly able leader, while another – Assad –  is a compulsive complainer and uncharacteristically tall. The remaining two, Amin and Khalid, are not sharply individualized until one of them is tapped to take on a particularly important role. We eavesdrop on their planning sessions and their attempts to keep a low profile in established Muslim neighborhoods. Mr. Hunt does a fine job of tracing their day to business, their hopes, and their fears.

That is, he gets into their heads so that we sense the degree of their radicalization.

We follow them as they carry out two missions of destruction. One is set at a Times Square area theater. They attack the theater audience and anyone else in the vicinity, including law enforcement officers. They chose the right time for maximum chaos. They are largely successful, even though their attack was anticipated.

Mr. Hunt provides alternating chapters and sections of chapters. Those not focused on the terrorists focus on another team of four. This is the counterterrorist team that includes Lieutenant Sherry Williams, the courageous and shapely team leader; Ted, her husband-to-be and FBI agent; and Charles, CIA representative and love interest to the formidable Fatima – the Muslim voice of peaceful coexistence who hates the hijacking of her religion.

The interactions of the couples and this tightly bonded foursome are carefully and credibly portrayed, especially as the time drawers near for the major terrorist event.

What could be more powerfully symbolic for the terrorists than destroying the National September 11 Memorial & Museum? What could be more disheartening for American patriots – and especially security workers – than such a catastrophe?

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 20, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the September 21 issues of the Naples and other editions, click on link or copy and paste this URL:

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