Category Archives: Jewish Themes

“Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion,” by Nachman Shai

SUNY Press. 284 pages. Hardcover $85.00.  

Review by Philip K. Jason

Hasbara, or Israel’s social diplomacy, is the focus of Knesset member Nachman Shai’s excellent study Hearts and Minds, winner of the 2013 Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. According to Shai, hasbara is what Israel’s leaders have neither taken seriously enough, nor implemented well enough throughout the country’s existence.

נחמן שי
Nachman Shai

 

 

Moving chronologically, Shai analyzes how Israel’s leadership has dealt with conflict. Though Israel has won many victories on the military front by exercising hard power, in the arena of soft power, or hasbara, Shai argues, resources have been either ineffective, reluctantly employed, or nonexistent. There are recent signs, however, of shifting attitudes. Public and private media and non-governmental organizations are playing a growing role in the battle for “hearts and minds.”

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here:  Hearts and Minds

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(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, by Jonathan Weisman

St. Martin’s Press. 256 pages. Hardcover  $25.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The heat of Weisman’s outrage, tempered by the precision of his arguments, elevates this book to a must-read examination of the contemporary renaissance of anti-Semitism.

It is a call for action, part warning and part how-to manual, addressing individual American Jews, Jewish communities, and, especially, Jewish institutions. The ugly head of

anti-Semitism has returned to “the land of the free,” most notably in the messages and methods of the alt-right movement. According to Weisman, it is time to cut it off.Partly rooted in Timothy Snyder’s writings, Weisman’s study provides a compact history of the rise of the alt-right, its canny exploitation of social media, its odd success at resurrecting ancient European clichés about Jews, and the affinity that seems to exist between the group’s rise and that of Donald Trump.

Jonathan Weisman credit Gabrielle Demczuk

Weisman’s first chapter begins: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Weisman considers the Age of Trump to be an Age of Walls, at least in its aspirations. He identifies the success of the man he calls “the first Jewish citizen of the world,” Maimonides, as an outgrowth of the

tolerance of the twelfth-century Islamic Empire, a time and place of fewer boundaries. Weisman goes on to address other exceptional “international” Jews in the context of their times, including Moses Mendelssohn. . . .

To see the rest of this Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Semitism

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Dazzling epic about memory that integrates fiction with memoir is deeply original and ambitious

Returning, by Yael Shahar. Kasva Press. 504 pages. Hardcover $28.95; Trade paperback $19.95

Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.

What genre does is belong to? Author Yael Shahar once thought of calling it “fiction memoir,” but that does not capture enough of its essence.

The workings of dreams are central to the book’s technique and meaning, but what if you dream someone else’s dreams? What if someone else dreams yours and remembers yourmemories? Shahar’s artistry is to make these “what-ifs” credible and meaningful; in fact, inevitable and necessary. She imbeds these actualized possibilities in a theological — or, at least, a biblical — context.

The primary character is an older man named Alex. He is a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who has lived in Israel for many decades following his escape from slave labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Greek Jew from Salonika (“Saloniki” throughout this book), Alex, whose given name is Ovadya (servant of God), was part of a sonderkommando crew, mostly Jewish, who were worked to exhaustion day after day hauling away the bones and ashes of incinerated Jews and other doomed prisoners.

All of his adult life, Alex has been trying, without much success, to resist the constant pressures of memories that take him back to his sonderkommando experience, a trauma that he’d like to forget. As an unwilling witness and assistant to the obliteration of his people, Alex is a man with a diseased soul. Part of him knows that he must face his past and accept responsibility for actions taken and not taken.

He seeks the help of Rabbi Ish-Shalom (“man of peace”), a person of remarkable learning, wisdom, and sensitivity. The rabbi becomes a spiritual coach who leads Alex on the path of self-knowledge, atonement, and redemption.

Yael Shahar credit Rahel Jaskow

But this is not a feel-good journey; it is filled with harrowing confrontations with Alex’s younger self. The rabbi insists, through a series of questions and refutations of Alex’s answers, that there are times when the giving of one’s own life may be the moral choice.

Alex’s resistance to his job of making room for the next victims to be pushed into the gas chambers would not have saved those lives, but that defense is slowly taken away during his conversations with the rabbi.

As Alex releases his memories, first by writing them down and later by speaking them aloud, he undergoes renewal and revelation that properly elevate his sense of self. He can take back his given name because he earns his right to it.

Yael Shahar as a character in her book is an intermediary between Alex and Rabbi Ish-Shalom. She brings them together. In a literal sense, with her name given as author of the book, she is telling Alex’s story — including his dialogue with the rabbi. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Returning

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Florida, families, and fruit trees anchor a dazzling fiction set in the early 1960s

Goldens Are Here, by Andrew Furman. Green Writers Press. 364 pages. Trade paperback $21.95.

There are so many strands and points of interest in this fine, highly original novel that it’s hard to know where to begin. In the background is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the blooming (technically and economically) of Florida’s Space Coast, and the Civil Rights struggle. In the foreground is the Florida citrus industry in the early 1960s as represented by a body of small grove owners along or near the Indian River.  

In these communities, the white folks own the groves and the black folks perform much of the labor. Race relations are in an uneasy truce, a tangle of old habits and shaky dependencies. A great freeze threatens to destroy the groves, even if insects don’t.

The central character, Isaac Golden, has abandoned his career as a physician and set out on a grand adventure with his wife Melody and their two young children – Sarah and Eli. Moving away from the Philadelphia area, where their Jewish identity was readily reinforced, they have settled in a small town with only one other Jewish family and a considerable ride to Jewish institutions. The Goldens are clearly outsiders, and the way they are addressed by many of the townspeople carries a brand of politeness that barely veils a cultural tradition of anti-Semitism.

Professor Andrew Furman
Credit Benjamin Rusnak

Prof. Furman portrays how Isaac and Melody deal with their displacement and discomfort with skill and sensitivity.

The story of Isaac’s attempt to develop improved breeds of oranges becomes a continuing lesson in citrus science. Prof. Furman provides a large specialized vocabulary that is the basis for reader understanding of Isaac’s mission and of the industry he has entered. This material and the extensive exposition should fall flat, but somehow the author makes it sing. He does this by capturing Isaac’s poetic passion, especially his interest in avoiding chemical pesticides and employing means of protecting his groves using natural, nontoxic agents.

Well, he is spending more money than he is likely to make. Melody develops a roadside business selling from her vegetable garden, from the groves, and from the kitchen – her wonderful pies add much-needed income to the Goldens’ enterprise. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the August 22, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 23 Naples, Bonita Spring, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Goldens Are Here

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“The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion,” by Steven R. Weisman

Simon & Schuster. 368 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

Recounting the ways the ancient faith redefined itself in the 18th- and 19th-century United States.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

There’s the story of the rabbi who went to a Jewish community center mixer to welcome newcomers. When someone asked him what kind of rabbi he was, he answered: “Jewish. I’m a Jewish rabbi.”

Was he making a joke? Didn’t he know that the questioner wanted to know if he was Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Hasidic, or some other variation of the religious spectrum? Of course, he knew. It was a serious answer, but with a bit of a wink.

The story that Steven R. Weisman tells in The Chosen Wars is, among other things, the story of the search for a unified Judaism responsive to time and place and seeking to be confident about a Jewish future. It’s the story of growing opportunities for Jews to enter cultural mainstreams and the costs and consequences of admission. It is a story told with power and precision.

Steven R. Weisman

After sketching the earliest arrivals of Jews in New Amsterdam (1654) and examining Jewish life in the Colonial period, Weisman explores the peaks and valleys of migration — most often peaks — that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. He details the early prominence of Charleston, South Carolina, as a place where immigrant Jews could build a vibrant community.

He examines the interplay between becoming an American with almost unimaginable rights and holding on to the traditional responsibilities of Jewish life as it had existed in past centuries. Along the way, Weisman explores the vying strands of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish culture.

Part of the process of fitting in had to do with imitating what Americans expected in houses of worship. To that end, many synagogues echoed the grandeur of churches, particularly Presbyterian churches.

But how did Jews make the transition from various corners of Europe, where they were so often victims of persecution, to an unaccustomed security and even prominence in the land of the free? Weisman presents the saga in its many parts, drawing on a series of fascinating characters and stressful crises. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Chosen Wars

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“In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song,” by Jerome Charyn

Review by Philip K. Jason

Bellevue Literary Press. 272 pages. Trade paperback $16.99.

A prolific novelist and cultural critic, Charyn has brought together a group of autobiographical and critical essays energized by a distinctive, memorable style at once accessible and brimming with erudition. As the all-American child of parents defined by the immigrant experience, Charyn includes several essays having to do with his Bronx childhood. His parents’ silences were the silences of displacement, and Charyn’s eventually countervailing life in language becomes his ironic emergence from that silence into well-scored, elevating song.

Jerome Charyn – photo by Jorg Meyer

Charyn writes with passionate precision about writers, films and filmmakers, about New York’s marginalized classes, and all manner of cultural icons. He gets under the veneer of icons like Negro League baseball titan Josh Gibson. He celebrates the works of such Jewish writers as Isaac Babel, Henry Roth, the underpraised Samuel Ornitz, and the game-changing Saul Bellow, putting their radically different oeuvres in context. (His essay on Babel, a gem over fifty pages long, dazzles.)

 

 

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here:  In the Shadow of King Saul

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A war orphan’s journey from trauma to transcendence, with all the stops along the way

Review by Philip K. Jason

A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan, by Sylvia Ruth Gutmann. Epigraph Books. 318 pages. Hardcover $26.95, trade paperback $18.95.

This is one of the most heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting Holocaust narratives. While the Holocaust is mostly in the background of this personal memoir, it is the driving force of the author’s life – and of her parents’ death and the death of many other relatives. It is the story of living in a vacuum that created self-doubt, depression, and poor choices. Sylvia’s story is a highly complex story that is simply told in an open, friendly manner. It is a story of self-discovery and self-making. It is a story about victory after failures, humiliations, and destructive patterns of behavior. It is honest to its core. 

Three-year-old Sylvia’s parents managed to arrange for the young girl and her two older sisters to reach safety before the parents met their deaths at Auschwitz.  She reached the United States at the age of seven, along with her sisters Rita, then fourteen, and Susi, a year or so younger. The series of traumas that brought Sylvia to New York obliterated her memory and left her with emptiness, foreboding, and a sense of unworthiness. She is taken in by her Uncle Sam, who shows strong affection, and his wife Gerdy, who treats her terribly, amplifying the child’s sense of unworthiness. This couple has two sons, the older of which, Michel, becomes a life-long friend, but there are periods of hostility between these cousins.

Sylvia has no memories, and she has a struggle to access the English language necessary for her education. Her sense of her younger self comes from conversations with Rita, who serves a maternal role. Rita builds a sense of Sylvia’s past that is largely accurate, but many decades later, as an old woman, Sylvia discovers inaccuracies and fills in blanks that were outside of Rita’s knowledge.

During her school years, Sylvia gains solace from her sense of non-belonging by over-indulging in sweets, and her weight problem brings humiliation. Addictive behavior of various kinds shows up throughout much of her life, as do periods of self-control and achievement. Her choices in men seem to bode well at first, but too often end up being disasters, plunging her into despair. However, she finds employments that allow her a modest income. The yearning to free herself from poor choices and low self-esteem brings her to successful periods of professional therapy. And Rita is always available, if not in person, then over the phone, to console her.

Over time, Sylvia gains self-knowledge and strength. Her one positive marriage, with Milton, a very wealthy and caring man, helps her gain balance, but after his death, with no continuing support from his heirs, she is back in a panic situation for herself and her son David, whom she must often support even in his adulthood.

One of her more eccentric relationships is with a young man named Jannek, a Czech student studying in Germany. At sixty-two, Sylvia is about forty years older than her suitor, but she travels to Germany to live with him. It is in the country that still holds the secrets of her early childhood that Sylvia begins telling her story to various groups, people of all ages and backgrounds, and their positive responses create a mission that soon dominates her life. The feedback she gets even ameliorates her hostility to the German people.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann

While in Germany, she finds the place of her birth and meets individuals who knew her parents – and even knew the toddler Sylvia. Amazingly, she also meets the woman who so many years ago, at the age of nineteen, was entrusted by Sylvia’s mother with the fate of her three daughters.

While the historical and personal events, the few satisfying and frequent debilitating relationships, the kaleidoscopic moods, and hard-won insights of A Life Rebuilt are enough to draw readers to the book and its amazingly resilient author, it is Sylvia’s voice that is extraordinarily compelling. It is a voice like no other: sometimes frantic, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes fragile, sometimes strong, but always authentic and deeply revelatory. Over the decades, it shifts from being a voice of innocence to a voice of experience. It is a most remarkable and valuable voice. Hear it and you will be moved, enlightened, and changed.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann immigrated with her two older sisters to the United States in 1946, four years after the murder of her parents in Auschwitz. Sylvia is a former spokesperson on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York City. Every year she shares her story at numerous Holocaust remembrance and Wounded Warrior ceremonies organized by the U.S. Military. She has also spoken extensively throughout Europe and was granted honorary German citizenship in 2002 for her peace activism. Sylvia currently lives in Massachusetts. In addition to having spent several years in Berlin, Germany, she has also lived in New York City, San Diego, Miami, Washington, DC, and Rhinebeck, New York. Over the years her friends learned to use a pencil when adding her home to their address book!!

See https://sylviaruthgutmann.com/

This review appears in the August 2018 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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The surprisingly influential Jewish community at the southernmost corner of the United States

The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969), by Arlo Haskell. Sand Paper Press. 208 pages. Deluxe Trade Paperback $24.00.

In seven well-shaped chapters, Haskell packs an enjoyable and frequently astonishing history of Key West’s Jewish community. Hearing of the topic, some people will assume that this is a slender thread to spin into a book. However, they would be wrong. Haskell’s research has turned up a considerable amount of information that brings to life 144 years of Jewish involvement in this most idiosyncratic town.

Young Men’s Hebrew Association

The chapters bite off chronological slices of history, each focusing on the economic and cultural aspects of Jewish life. Thus, the journey begins with a discussion of sailors and merchants in an era of military events,stressing the importance of Key West as a port town, a multilingual place that had an international flair. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was tiny, hardly a real community. Early Jewish settlers included Mordecai White and Samuel Cline, who were tailors and clothes merchants. The naval presence brought them customers.

During a twenty-year span that followed the initial attraction of Jews to Key West, opportunities in a growth industry took hold and swelled the population, including the Cuban and the Jewish population. Samuel Seidenberg “was the first manufacturer to capitalize on the fact that a cigar as good as the Cuban ones could be made in Key West at significantly lower cost.” He constructed a huge factory. His Jewish rivals included M. Myerson, Max Marx, the Pohalski brothers, and Julius Ellinger. Haskell’s narrative of the Key West tobacco boom shows how it promoted the town’s economy, attracting investment with its hundreds of employees. The Pohalski brothers built a company corner of town with homes for their workers. Their section of Key West gave rise to dry good and grocery stores, as well as a drug store and a saloon. These leaders were primarily secular Jews.

Arlo Haskell photo Nick Doll

As he traces the growth of the Jewish presence in Key West, Haskell keeps us in touch with larger issues of the time, including the Civil War and the Ten Years’ War fought to liberate Cuba from the Spanish Empire. He points out parallels in the age-old Jewish and nineteen century Cuban struggles for autonomy and independence. Haskell points out the need for Key West’s Jews to form alliances with exiled Cubans who, under the leadership of José Martí, had made Key West their command center.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century mark the beginning of a true Jewish community. New Jewish settlers in Key West often continued their European enterprises as peddlers and shopkeepers. Though Key West was ravaged by a fire in 1886, the rebuilding of the town brought new opportunities. Abram Wolkowsky and other Eastern European Jews shared religious customs, the experience of exile, and the Yiddish language. Slowly, Jewish institutions begin to take hold. Congregation B’nai Zion, still functioning, gives 1887 as its date of origin.

The Jewish Alliance’s Key West chapter emerged in 1891. Its primary concern was to establish a Jewish cemetery, and it did so. As the century wound down, “Jews had become an important and highly visible component of Key West business life.” One of the community leaders, Louis Fine, was not only a successful business man, but also served as lay leader for religious matters until Key West had its first rabbi.

Fine’s grocery store had a lower level used “to store weapons for the [Cuban] rebel army.” Haskell devotes a chapter to exploring the phenomenon of “Jewish Revolutionaries” in the 1890s.

The first two decades of the twentieth century witness a strong, thriving Key West Jewish community. The Jewish congregation held services and other activities on the second floor of the Fine family’s hardware store. When Fine was not available, itinerant Rabbi Herman Horowitz handled the community’s religious needs. All kinds of Jewish businesses were set up along and near Duval Street.

Marks, Rosenthal & Wall Family

Jewish shoe merchants

On top of the Honest Profit House, a clothing store run by the Wolkowsky family, sat the office of the U. S Immigration Inspector, and through that office many hundreds of Jews took their first steps toward citizenship.

Key West rode the wave of nationwide improvements in communication and other technologies. The growing Jewish population was serviced by efforts of the Jewish Alliance to find jobs for Jewish immigrants. This initiative included relocating immigrants from overcrowded New York to various other places around the country, Key West included. By 1905, the Jewish community reported having 158 members. Its members joined efforts to reunite Jewish families that had been separated. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 4, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 5 Naples and  Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 1  and Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 2

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“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” by Yossi Klein Halevi

HarperCollins. 224 pages. Hardcover  $24.99.

Yossi Klein Halevi yearns for a meaningful conversation with a Palestinian counterpart who is willing to read, listen respectfully, and respond. He hopes to determine whether two peoples can share a land while maintaining their separate contiguous states. Halevi understands that his overture must be rooted in his own willingness to listen. With some admitted reluctance, he has accepted the two-state solution as the only way to move forward.

Halevi

Halevi makes this overture with the utmost sincerity and a fully nuanced understanding of modern Israel’s evolution and challenges. He seeks a Palestinian partner whose desire for peace is equally fervent, a person whose vision of the past includes the understanding that neither party can afford to be stuck in that past. The voice in the letters is filled with empathy, hope, and a bit of despair. It has an inviting, embracing, and winsome lyricism, as well as dignity and resolvethe perfect pitch for its colossal purpose.

Halevi has crafted a sequence of ten letters, imagined for a reader whose dwelling is nearby but who he hasn’t yet encountered. The letters have overlapping concerns, with undulating shifts in emphasis. These concerns include the functions of Holocaust memory, the need to pursue justice, and the many profound parallels in Jewish and Islamic holy texts and religious practices. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: Palestinian Neighbor

See also this Interview with Yossi Klein Halevi

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Highly original novel explores the damage that false spiritual gurus can inflict

The Kabbalah Master, by Perle Besserman. Monkfish. 202 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

Besserman has penned a fascinating portrait of an insecure Jewish woman, Sharon Berg, who in her mid-thirties becomes infatuated with a somewhat charismatic spiritual leader. Rabbi Albert Joachim is the head of The Center for Mystical Judaism; Sharon studies there and becomes a slave to her “Kabbalah Master.” She works long hours for little pay and scant attention. 

Sharon’s life had run aground. Divorced, with two children, and with few prospects, she is easy prey to her own imagination. Her needs are projected on an imagined version of a caring Rabbi Joachim who seems to be simply using her. Sharon fantasizes that he will return her love. Perhaps divorce his wife and marry her.

Unable to properly parent her children, she had invited her mother to move in and help out. This situation has an upside and a downside.

Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and other sections of New York, The Kabbalah Master offers a rich ethnic taste. Its temporal setting is 1972, a time of social change and continuing experimentation initiated in the 1960s. Perle Bessemer knows the territory and handles it with authority.

Sharon, a somewhat time-worn nice Jewish girl, is desperate for validation. Enter Junior Cantana. Junior is seven years younger than Sharon and gives the first impression of being much younger than that. Their meeting is fortuitous. To Sharon’s eyes, he has movie star looks. He is polite, caring, and alternates between seeming vulnerable and sure of himself. There is a genuine attraction between this couple.

However, they have backgrounds that put pressure on a possible relationship. What is Sharon doing, she imagines others saying, flirting with this younger man. She wonders herself. The image of Rabbi Joachim flits through her mind, his gravitas, learning, and remarkable allure so much in contrast to Junior’s aura. Lots of little things define him. “He smelled pleasantly of trees in the rain.” Sharon has always believed her destiny is to marry a Jewish man, to raise Jewish children, and to deepen her Jewish knowledge and identity.  She had already attempted that life, and though the Jewish children are still there, the husband is gone.

Can she really flourish in a relationship with this Italian-American Vietnam War veteran? Is her attraction to him a counterbalance to her adoration of Rabbi Joachim? Won’t she always seem an old lady in his circle of friends?

Besserman

Rabbi Joachim is not present for a substantial part of the novel. He is off visiting his wife and children in Israel. Jewish mysticism, however, continues to be represented by a neighborhood occult book store owned and run by Seymour Priceman. He is also Rabbi Joachim’s publisher. An astute businessman, he admits to having absolutely no personal interest in the concerns of the books he sells and publishes.

Ms. Bessemer, through Priceman’s stance, suggests that most who dabble in mysticism, Jewish or otherwise, are charlatans. Clearly enough, in the author’s view, many are. And in that group, perhaps, is Rabbi Joachim, whose writings on the curative powers of herbs are under attack. The “clover cure” has caught the attention of the FDA.

And yet Priceman, who is as publisher is likely to be sued, is willing to believe that Rabbi Joachim is sincere, although misguided in his enthusiasms.

There is a lot to like about this book. Many chapters read like detachable vignettes of New York life, the main characters peripheral to others who populate these scenes. These sections are not at all distracting; rather they set Sharon into a larger, richer, and more complex cultural environment.

Moreover, though the story’s main thrust aligns with serious current concerns about false, manipulating gurus taking advantage of women, readers will find a smile on the author’s face. The book is rich with a wise and unexpected humor.

Will Sharon be able to build a new life for herself? Read the book and make your own decision.

About the Author:

Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Houghton Mifflin published her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, and Bamboo Ridge, among others. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages. Her most recent books of creative non-fiction are A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan) and Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, coauthored with Manfred Steger (Wisdom Books). Two novels, Kabuki Boy, and Widow Zion, and Yeshiva Girl, a story collection, are available from Aqueous Books, Pinyon Publishing, and Homebound Publishing, respectively.

A Q&A with Perle Besserman, author of The Kabbalah Master: A Novel

When did you start writing?

I published my first story when I was 9.

What inspired you?

I was trained as an actor, singer, and dancer from an early age, so my life as a performer influenced my vision of life as a narrative filled with multiple characters and situations calling for expression.

Where do those characters and stories come from?

They are enacted on the stage of my imagination, my dreams, and my memories, similarly to what William Butler Yeats described as a sort of mediumistic trance.

What was your childhood like?

My parents were both storytellers.  Books, movies, and the arts in general were the basis for the life drama enacted at home—a perfect maelstrom of love and conflict between creativity and Jewish orthodoxy.

Why write about Kabbalah? 

It was part of my spiritual search; I also made trips around the world and wrote books about “Oriental Mysticism”, and women’s spirituality (The Way of Witches). I sat with Tibetan and Sufi teachers and found my home, finally, in Zen.

How do you feel about writing in the digital age?

I start out with a problem, so I can’t answer that question objectively.  Years ago, when first working on a computer, I discovered that my electromagnetic field was antithetical to computers and most digital devices. Things got so crazy, when I was teaching at Illinois State University, that my department chair had to bring in the IT staff to see why I was killing the list serve, and why my syllabi couldn’t get downloaded. Anyway, the IT people tested me (a couple of Bell Labs physicists had studied the problem years before) and found that I was among 4 % of the population with that electromagnetic field problem.  So, all I can say, is that, my creative urge, the characters and situations demanding to be written, are still alive and well–despite my fraught relationship with the digital age.

 Who are among your favorite authors? 

James Joyce; Flaubert; Dickens; the Brontes; Alice Munro; W.B. Yeats; Homer . . . In spite of his solipsism and sexism, I kind of like Karl Ove Knausgaard; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name a few.

 Where do you get your material?

The stage of my imagination is filled with characters and stories needing to be told.  I tune in and listen.  Sometimes that stage is bare, so I have to stay quiet and respectfully wait for the characters and their stories to enter.

This review, along with the biographical information and interview, appear in the June 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

 

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