Category Archives: Jewish Themes

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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A new and challenging understanding of a most imaginative, penetrating, and influential Jewish mind

Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud, by Barry W. Holtz. Yale University Press. 248 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

This recent addition to Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series addresses what can be discovered and reasonably imagined about the life of a man for whom there is no physical record. Rabbi Akiva, known as the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, is mentioned everywhere, but the mentions were written long after his death. Indeed, in Rabbi Akiva’s lifetime (considered to be 50-135 CE), the kind of recordkeeping and documentary evidence that is at the heart of biographical and historical writing did not exist. 

What’s a scholar to do?

In this case, he can write the biography of his subject’s mind, achievements, and reputation as transmitted to those many generations after Akiva’s time. They, the rabbis to follow, inherited and rehearsed the tales of his extraordinary insights into the Torah and how these insights live in the Talmud (and elsewhere), thus continuing to inform our sense – even today – of what Judaism is. Rabbi Akiva is the major founder and exemplar of Rabbinic Judaism – the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the failed revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE). The Jerusalem Talmud calls him a “father of the world.”

In many ways, Rabbi Akiva must remain a mysterious figure. Nothing is known about his parents. We don’t know the place of his birth and where he resided. Stories about his execution have legendary power, but there are no references to this event in Talmudic sources. There is a frequently visited alleged burial place on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, but scholars don’t give it much credence. As Dr. Holtz puts it, what we must accept is in searching for Akiva “we remain caught between fact and legend, history and the shared memory of an old culture.

In order to put Rabbi Akiva in context, Dr. Holtz devotes a chapter to what is known about the world in which he lived. He draws upon the fairly proximate picture painted by the Jewish historian Josephus “who managed to negotiate the boundaries of the Jewish and Roman worlds in a savvy and successful way.” The author gives us enough history to make us understand that Jews, then as in more recent times, “were a nation, ruled by a foreign power.” They constituted roughly 50% of a Roman region called Palestine that had about one million people. Prof. Holtz explores the Great Revolt, it’s causes and consequences, and the important rabbis with whom Akiva interact. He explains how the group of scholar-leaders called rabbis emerged. He connects Akiva to the rabbis who were first his teachers, men who eventually saw him as their master.

Barry W. Holtz

The story goes that Akiva reached middle age with no significant Jewish identity or learning.  He was, in all the ways that we might deem important, a self-made man. One tradition suggests that Akiva the unmarried shepherd ‘began his studies for the love of a good woman.” Another tradition finds him already a married man with a son when he – on his own volition – took on the career of learning.

Does it matter? Perhaps not. What does matter is that his abrupt transition captured the imagination people who can never ask enough questions. Dr. Holtz guides us to understanding what it meant for others to probe, perhaps half-create, their hero teacher-scholar Akiva. If their answers to questions about this enigmatic figure are contradictory, so much the better. Comparing various sources, and the sources of the sources, Dr. Holtz develops a notion that important stories about Akiva led to discovering  Akiva’s own insights about the  shaping  — strengthening or softening – of his heart.

Much about Akiva concerns his career – in both life and afterlife – as an exemplary figure. For example, his modesty is often praised. We are urged to remember that his origins were in poverty. That he was a true nobody until he became committed to his religious studies.

Rabbi Akiva’s engagements with religious and ritual issues are often at the center of these biographical snapshots. One such tale involves Akiva coming upon a corpse and puzzling over its final disposition. The complexities of Jewish law make the decision difficult, and the still-young rabbi realizes how much he must learn in order to make sound decisions about what is the “right thing” to do.

Another tale tells of Akiva’s presence as part of a rabbinic triumvirate determined to overturn another celebrated rabbi’s earlier decision. The interplay among the rabbis clearly illustrates Akiva’s stellar status among them. He is regularly given the final – and decisive – word on a contested issue. This importance is underscored by the rabbinic interchange recorded in the Haggadah in which Akiva has the prevailing argument. Here and elsewhere, Dr. Holtz reinforces the Akiva principle of interpretation that “requires paying careful attention to every detail in the text.”

Other Akiva stories find him portrayed as “a spiritual master, a person capable of attaining an insight into God and God’s hidden realms that other worthy figures were unable to attain.”

Over and over, Dr. Holtz suggests and demonstrates fruitful ways of reading and drawing understanding from the Akiva stories. His book may be best valued as a remarkable primer in today’s methodology.

At the end of a reader’s journey through Holtz’s remarkable and inspirational “life of Akiva,” one is likely to agree with the author’s feeling that Akiva, a most eminent sage at the center of early rabbinic Judaism, prepared the Jewish world for its future.

This review appears in the July-August, 2017 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

 

 

 

 

 

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Dahl’s CONVICTION a gripping, worthy addition to her Rebekah Roberts series

 Conviction, by Julia Dahl. Minotaur Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

The latest entry in Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts series is a powerful exploration of how unjustifiable convictions occur and what the consequences are. It also evokes the spiritual overtone of the title word. The storytelling mode is particularly effective, mixing sections told in the main character’s voice with other sections that enter the minds and emotions of other important characters.

It’s all about perspective.

Something horrible happens in Brooklyn during the summer of 1992. A black mother and father, along with one of their foster children, are murdered in their Crown Heights home. Another foster child is convicted of the crime, a false confession wrung from him via despicable police interrogation.

The narrative moves back and forth, alternating between two timelines. One describes the sequence of events as they happened in 1992. The other reveals events of 2014, especially those that follow journalist Rebekah Roberts, who is sparked into action by a letter from fortyish prison inmate DeShawn Perkins. He claims that he has been in jail for 22 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

To explore the background and consequences of this claim, Dahl designs a layered plotline that includes the relationships between the African-American and Jewish communities; the abusive and often criminal practices of city landlords; the unwillingness of police and district attorneys to reopen closed cases; the decline of U.S. newspapers; and the shoddy journalism that arises from the tension between getting the facts straight and being first to break the story.

And that’s not all. Conviction probes the texture and dynamics of parent-child relationships in a remarkably rich way. It’s not all good news. The relationship between Rebekah and her mother, Aviva, for instance, is very rocky. . . .

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

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Recent biography of Herzl brings us closer to the man and his times

Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State, by Shlomo Avineri. Trans. Haim Watzman. BlueBridge. 304 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

This gets the “must” award; that is, it’s a “must for every Jewish library.” Private or public. Personal or university. First published in Israel in 2008, it was translated into English for publication in Great Britain in 2013. BlueBridge brought out a hardcover edition three years ago. Now the paperback is here.  

There are many other Herzl biographies, many of them quite fine, but this one has a special value because it comes closer than any of the others to reflecting Herzl’s own perspective. This is because it leans much more heavily on Herzl’s diaries as well as the works he published during his lifetime. We have here Herzl the polemicist, Herzl the novelist, and Herzl the playwright – all looming large in combination many other aspects of an unusually complex Jewish man.

Like much successful biography – and fiction – this study begins with a gripping point of attack. It is the fall of 1898. Herzl and other Zionist leaders have come to interact with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who is touring the Holy Land. The chapter backgrounds the preparations for this trip, the expectations Herzl had, and the unfolding of the group’s ten days – mostly in Jerusalem. Herzl had to fight through a fever, but he was already speculating on how to restore dignity to the ancient, decaying city. Herzl had his audience with the German emperor, but his efforts at diplomacy that would lead to a Jewish State did not bear fruit. Yet seeds to that end were planted in the public arena.

What led up to Herzl making this trip? How had he prepared for it and arranged it? We must step back in time to understand how this journalist and playwright became a voice and a force for an independent Jewish nation. Then we can move forward, pick up his trail in the aftermath of his visit to Jerusalem, and follow him step by step until his untimely death in 1904.

Professor Avineri imbeds Herzl fully in his time and place. The author recreates the upheavals of later 19th century Europe, the ebbs and flows of Jewish hopes of ascendance followed by despair – which is to say the widening and narrowing of Jewish opportunities to live lives untrammeled by anti-Semitism.  He narrows the lens to focus on Herzl’s growing interest in the Jewish question and his growing understanding and rigorous search for the answer while his life and career moved through Budapest, Vienna, and Paris.

Avineri

We see the importance of Herzl’s journalistic eye and curiosity in the fashioning of means to an end. How he realized the necessity of the Jewish question becoming an international question at the highest levels of political power. He sought opportunities to lecture, to organize the unsteady threads of Zionist activity and commitment, to seek the attention and the ears of government functionaries who might in time get him an audience with a major office holder who might just get Herzl an audience with someone at the top of the ladder.

With Avineri, we wind through Herzl’s newspaper pieces, his trial balloon proposal titled The Jewish State, the building of the energy and connections that lead to the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland, after which the succeeding annual congresses became benchmarks of progress – or of something less than progress.

The author’s strategic use of materials from his subject’s diaries allows readers to feel something like Herzl’s emotional, ideational, and locomotive pulse. He was a traveling man. It’s not clear how or how well he rested. He mostly faced defeat. How did he keep picking himself up? How did he become a man of the world (or at least the world he had to win over), respected as the leader of a nation not yet born?

Professor Avineri examines Herzl’s several plays, drawing out how the operate to explore conditions and relationships relevant to his overarching concerns. He examines the compromised success of Altneuland, Herzl’s quasi-utopian novel that develops a middle road between collective and individual autonomy.

Avineri stands behind Herzl as the almost-prophet tries out the alternative homeland flavors – from El-Arish through Uganda (in the view of many Herzl’s greatest miscalculation). We feel the exhaustion and pain in Herzl’s need to heal the fractures that often crippled the Zionist movement.

Everywhere, the author blends Herzl the thinker with Herzl the doer – the activist: the man in motion. He does this with a sure hand and an attractive style that keeps readers engaged with the study’s scholarly underpinning.

At his death, Herzl could have been considered a failure. In the following decades, he would be revered, more and more, as the great prophet and leader who, like Moses himself, was not able to enter the Promised Land.

 

SHLOMO AVINERI, Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a graduate of the Hebrew University and the London School of Economics, and served as Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He held visiting appointments at Yale, Cornel, University of California, Cardozo School of Law, Australian National University, Oxford and Northwestern University; and has been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both in Washington, D.C., the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow, and Collegium Budapest.

He is Recurring Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest.

In 1996 he received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian decoration.

Among his books: The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Israel and the Palestinians, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, The Making of Modern Zionism, Moses Hess: Prophet of Communism and Zionism, and Communitarianism and Individualism.

This review appears in the June 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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