Category Archives: Jewish Themes

Once upon a time – the Hebrew language yesterday and today

The Story of Hebrew, by Lewis Glinert. Princeton University Press. 296 pages.  Hardcover $27.95.

Lewis Glinert, Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, has made a complicated and challenging story line as accessible as possible without oversimplifying the facts and the issues. His goal is well-served by choosing the word “story” rather than “history” for his title. This decision creates a mild and friendly kind of personification – “Hebrew” becomes a character in a lively narrative. This character is multidimensional, like any protagonist work reading about. He (let’s say “he” for convenience) has his ups and downs.

Though he’s been around and long time, and hasn’t always aged well, he has had spectacular periods of rejuvenation. There are times, however, when his friends can hardly recognize him.

Prof. Glinert, after a concise introduction, traces his character’s life in eight meaty chapters, usually offering subsections in each to help focus issues and underscore turning points. These subsections provide necessary breaks for that even the most ardent followers will welcome. 

Early on, the author reminds us of the unique situation of Hebrew: for much of Jewish history, “Hebrew was not a mother tongue to be spoken naturally. Rather, Jews kept it alive by raising their young men to study and ponder Hebrew texts.” How could it survive without being part of an everyday exchange among members of a civilization?

Among the many partial answers to that question is the recognition that the Jewish Bible had literary flexibility and richness. It contained law, stories, poetry, and wisdom: tools for life and for living together. While its status as a divine gift urged attention and dependence, the text was rewarding for simply providing stimulation and pleasure. And it wasn’t all in Hebrew!

Prof. Gilbert traces the ways in which Hebrew worked, or sometimes didn’t work, to maintain and sustain a population scattered and scorned. He regularly provides insights into key characteristics of the language, both its unique and shared features. These examples enliven the story, but they are subordinate to the grand discovery and appreciation of Hebrew’s journey through time.

Each reader will make a personal decision about which parts of the story are most intriguing. On of these is certain to be “Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome,” notable for its vivid presentation of a long developing clash of civilizations that birthed unending consequences. Within this chapter is a sketch of Ezra, perhaps the most indispensable figure in the story of the Jewish people. It was he who “led a new wave of Jewish returnees from Babylonia” and helped to re-establish a vibrant Jewish life in Hebrew’s home territory. This “charismatic scholar-priest . . . orchestrated a religious revival and strove to bring the Torah to the masses.”

This same chapter stresses the centrality of the Mishnah in organizing Jewish life and the planting of seeds that would, over time, grow into the standard Hebrew prayer book.

Glinert

The dazzling middle chapters of The Story of Hebrew balance an exploration of “The Sephardic Classical Age” against “Medieval Ashkenaz and Italy.” The first epoch, beginning around 900 and continuing for 600 years (until the Spanish Inquisition), was a period of the highest cultural achievement. This process included “a renewal of a biblical Hebrew aesthetic and a reigning in the rabbinic mode.” The region of Andalusia fostered a “golden age of Hebrew poetry and linguistics.” Great minds were at work contesting the question of Hebrew language purity. What was required for the conveyance knowledge, whether new or old? For Jonah ibn Janah, the mastery of grammatical understanding was indispensable.

What version or refinement of Hebrew will best serve the Jewish imagination?

The chapter on “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination” opens a world that most Jewish individuals, even the most culturally and linguistically sophisticated, rarely if even enter. Prof. Glinert traces the fate of Hebrew in the early stages of the Christian theological revolution and in later periods as well. He examines Christian churchmen’s need to engage Hebrew as the best way to find authority for Christian dogma. Such a mastery could also be a powerful conversion tool. The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Christian Europe featured a dynamic interest in Hebrew among Christians, an interest that had waned by the early nineteenth century.

By the later nineteenth century, the Zionist enterprise was in full swing, and Prof. Glinert gives the movement’s effect on Hebrew detailed, engaging attention. Similar is given to the Hasidic enterprise

The author’s treatment of the more recent periods, most importantly the connection between the founding of the modern state of Israel and the state’s commitment to Hebrew as a (essentially “the”) national language, is likely to be the chapter that will attract reading, re-reading, and discussion in contemporary Jewish circles. This discussion is full of excite and wonder about the melding of a people, a language, and a homeland.

Prof. Glinert provides generous chapter notes, suggestions for further reading, and a highly useful index.

This book is a masterpiece that is likely to hold sway over the important and fascinating issues it discusses for many years to come.  Jewish readers who enter this challenging space will find their understanding of Jewish identity mightily expanded.

The essay appears in the January 2018 issues of the 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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“The Ruined House: A Novel” by Ruby Namdar

Translated by Hillel Halkin. Harper. 528 pp. Hardcover $29.99.

This breathtaking tale of a prominent professor’s undoing is expertly woven with biblical passages.

Some books are so spectacularly original, so far beyond the boundaries of any reader’s expectations, and so challenging that they establish a new point of reference for any further discussions of literary achievement.

Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House, set at the dawn of the 21st century, explores the givens of a cataclysmic era that may become a period of tumultuous cleansing. Though centered on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual disintegration of a successful, middle-aged college professor, it fully engages the new American century’s self-masking: its adulation of elites and its confusion of cultural values.

Namdar

Andrew P. Cohen, an accomplished and proud secular Jew, has tripped over the scales of hubris and found himself to be a foul beast. His aura of polite self-congratulation has become contaminated and slowly begins to smother him. His many faults, the recognition of which he has artfully hidden from himself for decades, are in the process of being revealed.

The selfishness with which he ended his marriage is exposed to him. The comfort and security he felt in his academic achievements, the physical attractiveness and health that he nurtured and in which he delighted, and his assumption of fully controlling his always upward-bound destiny are most painfully stripped away.

Namdar tells his story, almost sings it, with a lyricism that is only the richer for the hideous images that increasingly fill up Cohen’s world as he falls apart. The erotic turns into its hideous opposite. Images of grotesque tongues and penises fill his imagination.  He sees signs of what’s coming, has nightmares and incredible daydreams, and they all finally rest on how his being — if not his world — has been penetrated, irradiated, by ancient texts: sections of Old Testament with accompanying Mishnaic commentary.

This material, represented in the graphic style of the original manuscripts, focuses on the preparation of the Temple’s high priest for performing his duties during the seven days leading to Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. These duties are largely rituals of purification, but also include various kinds of sacrifices — offerings to God.

Inner and outer cleansing of the self and the temple are described, along with a number of sacred objects like fire pans and candelabras. The strange ceremonial practice of purifying holy places by sprinkling them with blood is included. . . .

To read the full review, click here: The Ruined House

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“Barren Island: A Novel,” by Carol Zoref

New Issues Poetry & Prose. 408 Pages. Hardcover  $26
Review by Philip K. Jason

Can you imagine making a life in the shadow of a rendering plant, a place where the stench of rotting horse carcasses and related animal decay is ever present—a place isolated from the Brooklyn shore, though regularly visited by barges bringing an unending supply of disintegrating remains for the glue factory? Such is Barren Shoals, which, like the neighboring Barren Island, is a last resort for poor immigrant families. 

Zoref’s narrator, eighty-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, was born and raised in this repugnant place. Through Marta, the author traces the life of a neglected, impoverished community that is distanced in every way from the American Dream. Indeed, a critique of that dream is one level at which this exceptional and surprising novel operates.

There are many other levels. Zoref’s book is truly an historical novel, taking us through the aftermath of World War I, the brief epoch of good times for many that followed, and the crushing Depression eventually to be relieved by the dawning of World War II. She explores how people outside of the mainstream receive news and process it: news about government programs, about the unionization of labor, and about the various utopian “isms” for redistributing power and wealth.

Carol Zoref

The heart of the novel covers Marta’s life from the age of about seven through her high school graduation and her refusal to pursue an opportunity to enter Hunter College. It focuses on the Eisenstein family and other immigrant families (Greeks, Italians, etc.), revealing the hardships of their lives and the power of their passions. Its large cast of memorable characters includes Marta’s mother and brother, her best friend Sophia, and her teacher—the wise, talented, and effective Miss Finn. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Barren Island by Carol Zoref | Jewish Book Council

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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.

Dorff

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.

Tobolowsku

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.

Silber

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.

Zweibel

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 http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. 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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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.

Tobolowsky

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 Jewishbookfestival.org.

 

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 jewishbookcouncil.org/book/my-adventures-with-god

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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.

Batthyany

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:  https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/a-crime-in-the-family

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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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“Forest Dark: A Novel,” by Nicole Krauss

Harper. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99

This ambitious meditation on spiritual transcendence and self-reflection hits all the right notes.

Only a handful of books that come out each year immediately signal “masterpiece.” Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark, a brilliant effort that defines the human condition in an original way, is one of them. It is transformational, and it is about transformation. If not deeply religious (though perhaps it is), it is religiously profound.

The narrative unfolds in alternating chapters with two protagonists. One is a successful, fortyish writer whose path seems blocked. The other, nearing 70, is a successful lawyer and investor who discovers that his life’s patterns have been shaken up in a liberating way.

The transformations the characters undergo, whether sought after or suddenly realized, are described with staggering acumen and accuracy. Each conversion defines and redefines one of the central characters. The chapters that focus on the novelist — let’s call her Nicole — are told in the first person. Those given over to Jules Epstein (most often referred to as “Epstein”) are told in the third person, though the narrator has lavish access to the man’s thoughts and feelings.

Epstein’s life changes are extreme. Soon after his parents die, he ends his marriage, leaves his partnership in a law firm, and frees himself from the intimidating personality and identity he had built. He seems released into an alternate self. He smiles more, reads books on mysticism, and enters a new zone of experience characterized by a sense of lightness. He no longer believes in assurances. He wishes to be open.

His children worry about him.

Nicole comes to realize that her life has been overly structured. She is the result of confining and defining forces, including meeting other people’s expectations. She speculates about how space and time affect people’s identities and destinies. She notices her lack of drive to plan things, and she takes this suspension of will — as Epstein has taken his changes — as a kind of freedom.

A good part of the novel is played out in Israel, particularly Tel Aviv, which holds promises and challenges for both characters. It has long been part of their individual lives. The Tel Aviv Hilton looms large in Nicole’s psyche. Her ostensible reason for staying there is to base a novel on the hotel. However, while she knows that readers expect fictional characters to have reasons for what they do, she wonders if the actions of humans are truly rooted in such reasons.

Nicole is penetratingly occupied with such philosophizing. The author has the astounding ability to make her characters’ streams of interrogation and postulation as vivid and engrossing as powerful descriptions of places and actions. Her contemplations have the solidity and luster of polished stone.

Each character’s journey involves a sidekick, a kind of spiritual tour guide who often seems half-real. Epstein’s guide is Rabbi Menachem Klausner, who is in charge of researching the Davidic line, an enterprise in which the Epstein name plays a significant role. Or is he a charlatan? It’s hard to be sure. Klausner will open new vistas for Epstein by taking him to the renowned sacred city of Safed, a center for Jewish spiritualism.

Eliezer Friedman, a former literature professor, plays a role in Nicole’s journey that has similar ambiguities. He’s part mentor, part confessor, part spiritual seducer. Friedman has a strange destiny in mind for Nicole: finishing an unknown work by Franz Kafka. This goal allows the Nicole sections of the book to open up into an exploration of Kafka’s peculiar life and career. In these segments, as well, the mystique of King David, particularly his age-old role as a transcendent literary figure, haunts the narrative.

Tour-guide Friedman, rather than returning Nicole to her quarters at the Hilton, becomes — a bit forcefully — her guide to an Israel with which she is not familiar. His speech is hypnotic, somewhat like that of Rabbi Klausner, who magically flew from New York to Tel Aviv on the same plane as Epstein.

Of course, like Nicole, Epstein is staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Forest Dark: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Three kings, a mad princess, and their times reimagined in dazzling, expansive novel

The Secret Book of Kings, by Yochi Brandes. Translated by Yardenne Greenspan. St. Martin’s. 416 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

First published in Hebrew in 2008, this is a book about the power of stories. It recognizes the truth that the stories we inherit are most often the stories of those who prevailed. We must understand that this aphorism includes the stories of the Jewish Bible. In retelling and reimagining these stories – the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon – Brandes includes many scenes in which scribes are at work – or thought to be at work – writing and rewriting history. To the victors go the spoils of war – including have the final, authoritative word. That is, until the lines of power are rearranged and new versions of what happened replace older ones. 

But the older ones remain concealed only until they are needed again. And stories may be written, and purposely be concealed, for later revelation.

“Stories are deadlier than swords. Swords can only harm those standing right in front of them, while stories determine who will live and who will die in future generations.”

An official web site for the book provides resources to foster complex reader involvement.  Readers can discover “how the Bible’s stories as told in the novel are deeply rooted in the Biblical text and also read the texts differently from the perspective of the Biblical author(s), as well as the perspectives of traditional interpreters. The resources presented here are meant to aid interested readers in learning more about traditional and modern perspectives on the Bible, as well as to guide readers in comparing the Biblical text with the book’s text.”

Two voices dominate this sprawling epic. One is the voice of Shelomoam, a conflicted young man who grows up living in fear and enveloped by secrets. His true identity is a secret, and the one he is cloaked in is a fabrication meant to protect him. The early story of Shelomoam, mainly provided in his own words, launches the novel. It is followed by one section of the story of Michal, daughter of King Saul and abandoned queen of King David. Once again, the main character is the narrator. She is soon identified as the Mad Princess, and we will discover why.

The novel continues to alternate perspectives and locations with a suspenseful building of story-telling rhythms.

The cast of character is enormous, and the names of many are both strange to English ears and yet so much like other names that it’s sometimes hard to keep all the character straight. However, the situations and the emotions they produce are always vivid and clear.

Yochi Brandes

The twists and turns of the plot spin around opposites: loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, modesty and arrogance, palaces and temples, frankness and cunning, passion and coldness, tribe and nation, royal splendor and simple family life.

Though the author’s scholarly preparation, fueled by her imagination, allows her to recreate the lands, the politics, the genealogies, and the material and spiritual culture of these turbulent times with great particularity, she strives for and attains a welcome sense of universality.

Anyone who read this book with the concluding stages of the recent U. S. political campaigns in mind will find many parallels in the campaigns of the ancient candidates for kingship and their subordinates. Brandes makes a point of having her characters reflect on the stories they know, seeing parallels in their own lives to the stories about the patriarch generations, especially  the rivalries within the families. Parallels are also drawn to portions of the Moses saga.

In other words, the more things change the more they remain the same.

Yochi Brandes is to be commended for how brilliantly she brings her characters to life. Her penetration into the longings, confusions, deliberations, and joyful moments of these characters us remarkable. Many undergo changes that are convincingly motivated though not predictable. Almost all the major figures are complex individuals whom the readers come to know intimately. King David is one particularly complex character, but there are so many.

With the online supplementary material, this is a great choice for book groups.

Yochi Brandes was born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. Earning her BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies, Brandes taught bible and Judaism for many years. She is the author of novels and essays on biblical women-all of them best-sellers in Israel. She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Platinum Book Prizes for seven of her books, including The Secret Book of Kings, and the Steimatsky Prize for Akiva’s Orchard. She lives outside of Tel Aviv.

This review appeared in the January 2017 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir” by Annette Gendler

  • She Writes Press. 232 pp. Trade paperback $16.95.

An exquisitely written conversion story which expounds upon personal and collective identity.  

On the website of Israeli-born New York artist Hanan Harchol, readers learn that “Harchol uses the family as a microcosm for the larger human condition, exploring the universal through the personal.” Annette Gendler’s new memoir, Jumping Over Shadows, does much the same thing, though the particularities of Gendler’s experience are deeply underscored and the universals are more subtly evoked.

Annette was born in New Jersey to an American mother and a father from Czechoslovakia. The family, including Annette and her siblings, moved to Munich, where she was educated. They practiced a sort of Catholicism-Lite. “In fact,” Annette writes, “to say I was raised Catholic is almost a misnomer.”

In her early twenties, she met Harry — a friend of a friend — who belonged to a traditional Jewish family. Their romance was guarded; each knew that a marriage between them was likely to shake their families to the core.

As Annette discovered, such a marriage had rocked the family when her German great-aunt had married a Czechoslovakian Jew in the early 1920s. Later, the Nazi takeover caused this mixed marriage to pose enormous problems for the extended family. Such was the baggage carried by these 1985 sweethearts.

Memoirist Annette alternates between scenes that trace her developing relationship with Harry and scenes that recapture the dilemmas brought about by her great-aunt Resi’s marriage. She makes the people and times of her family’s past ordeal, the taint of the family’s problems, come alive. She paints a world she never knew but learned to understand.

The question is, of course, what will Annette and Harry do and how will they negotiate the obvious problems — and the not-so-obvious ones? What will each give or give up? A major portion of this story springs from Annette’s carefully considered decision to convert to Judaism. In part, this is an intellectual process, but it is much more than that. The author recalls the steps that she took, the growth in her learning, and how her exploration of Judaism and of possibly becoming Jewish changed her.

Learning the tenets of the faith and some history is one thing; learning recipes for gefilte fish and other Jewish foods is another. Learning Hebrew is yet another. Discovering how to lead a traditional Jewish life and learning to love Israel are two more necessary strands. Annette’s education becomes an education for the general reader and a new kind of blueprint for the less observant or less committed Jewish reader. . . .

To see the entire review, click here: Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir | Washington Independent Review of Books

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