Category Archives: Jewish Themes

Today’s Jewish Diaspora communities at once threatened and resilient

Exile: Portraits of the Jewish Diaspora, by Annika Hernroth-Rothstein. Edited by Tiffany Gabbay. Bombardier Books. 208 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

Sometimes a relatively compact book has a lot to offer. It’s so unusual to find a book whose author has a fascinating and necessary idea about Jewish culture, digs into the topic, and comes up with a result that is dazzling in its factual base, its interpretation of gathered evidence, and its engaging voice.

This Jewish journalist from Sweden set herself a challenging mission and the results are illuminating. The stories she tells are as once consoling and a bit frightening as well. Where is the Jewish diaspora today? It’s in places you might not expect.

Come with Annika Hernroth-Rothstein (hereafter simply “Annika” on her magical mystery tour – a tour that took two years.

After an introduction in which she described the sources of motivation for her project, the author launches her diaspora guide with a study and reminisce about the Djerba community. Djerba, an island in Tunisia, is a good starting point. She introduces her to guides and community leaders who shape her introduction to this unfamiliar place. She learns about the town of Hara Kbira, almost exclusive Jewish. It has twelve synagogues. As in other Jewish centers within Muslim countries, these people operate discretely and without calling attention to themselves. The town has a full range of Jewish institutions and outlets. They have struggled against persecution and assimilation and found a way to survive and flourish. The island is home to fifteen hundred Jews whose commitment assures, to the extent possible, a future sprung from an impenetrable core. These people know that they must “plant their feet firmly in the past.”

Modern day Uzbekistan is a place where people have lived since the “Old Stone Age.” Annika outlines is remarkable history through the shifting of empires. She reminds us that Uzbeks fought in the Red Army against Nazi Germany and “500,000 of the soldiers were Jewish. This nation gained independence in 1991. A humorous scene involves what Annika calls an “Uzbek Orthodox flirtation.” She described the conflict between the Ashkenazi and Bukharian Sephardi communities. Throughout its history, the Jewish Uzbeks have fought against assimilation, and the community has often “teetered on the brink of extinction.” Accusations of dual loyalties posed serious problems. Through all of these, Uzbekistan’s Jews have survived. The community continues to maintain its strong presence in “a peaceful, multi-religious melting pot. These Jewish citizens are at once “equal,” and yet not “truly free” under the USSR shadow that still darkens today’s Russia.

A favorite chapter for many readers is likely to be the one on Morocco. Arriving in fabled Marrakesh the day before Passover, Annika enjoys the synagogue service Lazama Synagogue build in 1492 “and now housed inside of a sixteenth century Riad Mellah (ghetto). She toys with the commonplace that in Morocco the lives of Muslims and Jews have been intertwined, but sshe also notes that this is true only in certain restricted area. Annika moves gracefully for the old, historic places of Jewish community to the more modern ones, noting that Jews had served in important diplomatic positions. Jewish life in Morocco can seem and perhaps be one of subservience to the Muslim community. It is a life adaptation that is no uncommon in the diaspora.

She reminds us that tens of thousands of Jews arrived in Israel between 1948 and 1956, shrinking Morocco’s Jewish community.

Can you imagine that such a book would contain have a healthy section on Siberia? Well it does.

Annika relates the fact that – perhaps not ironically, Siberia means “The End” in the regional dialect of Ostyak. Siberia is immense. But for many Jewish immigrants is offered a new beginning. It is a place rich in natural resources that demand a labor force to take advantage of them. Millions of people have benefitted from the the Trans-Siberian Railway, including those helped build this marvel.

Annika finds the towns she visits somehow familiar. It’s like a homecoming to this Jew of partial Russian ancestry, It is no surprise to find a Chabad-Lubavitch presence whose leaders are the “head and heart” of the Irkutsk Jewish community, which is home to at least five thousand Jews. The synagogue is jammed, assimilation seems under control, and Jewish institutions, educational and otherwise, are active. Strangely, Putin is an ally of Russian Jews, who are deeply patriotic and also open about their Zionism.

This is only one of the many chapters filled with surprises.

Aside from the four chapters skimmed to give a taste of this valuable study, there are additional chapters detailing the past and present communities of Jews in the following places: Cuba, Iran, Finland, Sweden, Palermo, Turkey, and Venezuela. Annika’s adventurous nature, her passion for Jewish culture and history, and her openness regarding her personal experiences exploring these varied communities is a treasure and a joy.

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a former political advisor for the conservative coalition of Sweden, and now a full-time journalist and author. She contributes to such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Israel Hayom, Commentary Magazine, National Review, Mosaic Magazine, The Washington Examiner, and The Jerusalem Post. When she is not writing, she travels the world and is a sought-after public speaker on issues of religious freedom, European politics, and the Middle East.

For even more about the author, go to https://annikahernroth.com/

 

 

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“The Old Stories,” by David Selcer

How a seemingly ordinary individual can play an extraordinary role

Review by Philip K. Jason

The Old Stories, by David Selcer. Biblio Publishing. 234 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.

It’s hard to separate the strands of memoir, history, biography, and imagination in David Selcer’s provocative, informative, and deeply moving book. Perhaps the genre doesn’t matter that much. It’s a feast of information and revelation, past and present, satisfaction and regret.

As the Nineteen Century came to a close in the town of Kherson within the Ukrainian province of Greater Russia, a young boy – not at all a scholar – toiled with his lessons at the Great Choral Synagogue. He hated his studies, but enjoyed paging through the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the great Jewish storyteller whose Yiddish tales offered humor and profundity. At nine, Chaim Zelitzer could not absorb the great teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. He had a practical turn of mind. At a young age, his was happy enough to please his father and uncle by becoming a skilled metal worker. But he stumbled through his Bar Mitzvah preparation.

Chaim did honor the traditional goal of the Tzadik: of becoming a righteous man.

His older brother, Shmuel, was on his way to becoming a famous cantor.

Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1905) prompted the teenage sailor (Chaim) to “go AWOL” to Manchuria.

He made his way to the United States via Canada (where the immigration process changed the name to Selcer), and a fortunate arranged marriage provided the opportunity to raise a family, and, with his wife, run a business. His children were often embarrassed by his accent, his foreign ways, and a certain coarseness of manner.

No one expected that this man, in his middle years, would become a hero of sorts. Without explanation, soon after the close of WWII, Chaim (now long known as Hyman), became involved for about eighteen months as a worker for the entities that would soon help bring forth the State of Israel. This man, who never had a birth certificate, somehow, with his sophisticated and well-connected Ohio friend Herschel Bloom, worked for the cooperating Jewish organizations that would change the history of the Middle East.

They were part of Aliya Bet, the secret organization that created a secret Jewish fleet for the purpose of facilitating Jewish immigration to Palestine, a crucial step toward undermining the power of the British Mandate for Palestine, which favored other political outcomes for the remains of the former Ottoman empire.

This part of the story is told, long after Hyman’s death, by Bloom, who is questioned relentlessly by Hyman’s younger son, Lester. Lester had been a resentful son growing up in the shadow of his older brother Ben. Just like Chaim had grown up in the shadow of Shmuel. Lester never could please his father; never received praise, encouragement, or even useful answers to his questions. His understanding of his father is modified through hearing Bloom’s narrative of courage and commitment.

This brief stretch of time within the overall narrative includes a romantic subplot in Hyman’s relationship with an attractive woman, Leila, he meets on Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz that absorbed many newcomers to nascent Israel.

Mr. Selcer’s prose has an abundance of descriptive power. He is able to put his complexly-drawn characters into vivid, realistic settings across the decades of his fable-like tale. The author is also able to set forth the historical issues and events with clarity and precision. Moving as well is his handling of the various characters emotional ups and downs.

Is Lester, who is the novel’s primary first-person narrator, actually David Selcer in disguise? It sometimes seems that way. But no: David Selcer is the son of Lester and thus the inventor of the needed fictional answers to the narrative’s questions that would otherwise go unanswered.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A former Ohioan, David Selcer now lives in Sarasota, Florida with his wife, where he decides employment cases for federal agencies as a Federal Agency Decision Writer. Always a buckeye, the Buckeye Barrister (lead character in Selcer’s 4-part mystery series) is an avid OSU fan. Another of his books is the historical novel Lincoln’s Hat and the Tea Movement’s Anger.

This review first appeared in the May-June 2020 issues Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation Lee and Charlotte Counties, and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).  It was also expected to run in my Florida Weekly “Florida Writers” column, but that column, if not dead, is on hiatus. 

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“Disengagement: A Novel,” by Daniella Levy

Kasva Press, 232 pp. Hardcover $21.95

An Israeli microcosm of the polarization that infects politics across the globe.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

This brilliant and troubling novel pursues what many Israelis consider a national disaster, and others consider a necessary accommodation to reality. In 2005, Israel forcibly removed those Israelis who had settled and lived in Gaza for the better part of a generation. 

To tell the story in Disengagement, author Daniella Levy invents a representative settlement, Neve Adva, and populates it with a large cast of characters with a range of perspectives about the disengagement and each other. These characters had various reasons for relocating to the Gaza Strip: patriotism, religious conviction, and the opportunity to shape and nurture a community in their own image.

Generally, they are presented in family groupings, and a good number of the children cannot remember another home. The characters’ motives seem like a modified version of those that fed the modern Jewish state’s founding, but the parallels are not drawn in detail.

Most historical narratives of Israelis in Gaza go something like this: On June 5, 1967, some weeks after Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran and cut off Israeli shipping, Israel launched an attack against Egypt, beginning the Six-Day War. After swiftly and thoroughly defeating the neighboring Arab states, Israel assumed control over the Gaza Strip and held the area by populating it. A series of border communities, the settlements served as a defensive measure against incursion into Israel by various Palestinian forces.

Israeli interaction with Palestinian “neighbors” was almost nonexistent.

Levy’s storytelling, however, is best approached without such historical trappings. Its heart is found in the settlers’ varied reactions to the Israeli government’s decision in 2005 to send its soldiers into the settlements for the purpose of destroying them. That is, destroying the lives and hopes of Israeli citizens.

Readers receive heart-wrenching descriptions of individual reactions to this disastrous upheaval in their lives. Several of these passages have the grace and resonance of prose poems. . . .

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

 

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“The Interpreter: A Novel,” by A. J. Sidransky

  • Black Opal Books. 324 pp. Trade Paperback  $14.99

An unrepentant Nazi harbors key information about the whereabouts of a Holocaust survivor’s long-lost love.

 The Interpreter, the first installment in A.J. Sidransky’s “Justice” series, is a highly original look at the dimensions and consequences of the Holocaust that is at once emotionally devastating and technically impressive. It’s a work of fiction based on factual elements in the life of the author’s extended family.

The story of Kurt Berlin, and the Jewish Berlin family, needed to be told, and Sidransky fashions it as a testimony to the resilience of survivors and the demonic cruelty of Hitler’s regime and its brutal, sadistic culture.

The novel has two timelines. One takes readers into Vienna in 1939, focusing on Kurt as a sensitive and intelligent youngster in his teens. The other, which alternates with the first, presents an older and almost totally devastated Kurt in 1945 Brussels. While other locations come briefly into play, these two dominate.

Vienna in 1939 is reeling from the Anschluss of the year before, the annexation by Hitler of Austria into the now-expanded German nation. This forced union changed the game for Austrians, especially Austrian Jews, who had their heads in the sand. The future of a Greater Germany under Nazi rule stems from this early step.

In the Vienna chapters, the author follows the struggles of Kurt and his parents, Hertz and Berta, as they pass through the crippling of European Jewry. They accumulate resources to bribe petty officials and malleable non-Jewish neighbors; they shape and solidify Aryan identities; and they strive to arrange transport away from the hell that Europe is becoming.

The detail in these chapters is stunning. How does Hertz, who wears a Nazi armband, manage to pass himself off as the Reich’s new representative to the Dominican Republic? Largely, it’s through the simple ploy of dressing well.

Sidransky

Young Kurt has a special concern. His girlfriend, Elsa, though seemingly protected in a monastery, is still subject to great peril. Should he stay behind to be with her, or should he try to leave with his parents and other relatives?

The 1945 timeline conveys the immediate postwar situation in Brussels. Kurt is six years older than when we last encountered him in transit to a new life and U.S. citizenship. The American military is looking for ways to counter the Soviet push toward world dominance. Both the U.S. and Russia are seizing upon incarcerated Nazis with special abilities. It’s a strange competition.

Kurt, because of his superb language skills, is assigned as an interpreter for this project. Colonel McClain is the head of his task group. The selected prisoner, no doubt one of many, is Joachim von Hauptmann, an unrepentant, Jew-hating Nazi who seeks to make a deal. He has information as his bargaining chip. . . .

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

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“Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947,” by Norman Lebrecht

Scribner. 464 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

A brief taste of an amazing book!

Nor­man Lebrecht’s study is filled with ener­gy, irony, and new angles of vision. He makes a pow­er­ful point that most of the fig­ures fea­tured in this book made their con­tri­bu­tions in what was essen­tial­ly an anti­se­mit­ic world. While the par­tic­u­lars of such con­di­tions run through the book’s six­teen chap­ters, more engag­ing is the author’s blend of diverse per­son­al­i­ties with var­ied rela­tion­ships to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty: reli­gion, cul­ture, law, and peoplehood.

Although most of the chap­ters detail impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions by Jews to the ben­e­fit of mankind with­in the stretch of this hun­dred-year peri­od, many chap­ters focus on sig­nif­i­cant changes par­tic­u­lar to Jew­ish cul­ture and iden­ti­ty. His­tor­i­cal writ­ings con­tin­ue to applaud the accom­plish­ments of Ein­stein, Kaf­ka, Marx, Freud, and oth­ers of world-chang­ing stature, but it is inside the inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that the con­tri­bu­tions of giants such as Theodor Her­zl and Solomon Schechter are celebrated.

Norman Lebrecht – photo credit Abigail Lebrecht

Lebrecht enjoys devel­op­ing his explo­rations through com­par­isons and con­trasts. The Her­zl-Schechter chap­ter titled ​1890: Two Beards on a Train” is one pow­er­ful exam­ple. It ends with the intro­duc­tion of a third shaper of Jew­ish des­tiny, a foil to Schechter’s role in birthing the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment; this part­ner is Men­achem Mendel Schneer­son, who invig­o­rat­ed and mas­ter­mind­ed Chabad Lubavitch. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  Genius & Anxiety

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“Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest,” by Andrea Simon

Vallentine Mitchell. 300 pages. Trade paperback $24.95

Bearing Witness: Andrea Simon’s Bashert marks an important addition to the Holocaust canon

Samuel D. Kassow’s highly applauded Who Will Write Our History came out in 2007, following a long silence in the publication of Holocaust history. It tells the story of how the Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum created the Oyneg Shabes scholarly group to capture and preserve the experiences of those trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto. The project, which began in 1940, is sometimes known as “the archives hidden in milk cans.”

The answer to Kassow’s provocative title question has emerged. Over 20 years later, it has led to a blossoming of Holocaust narratives. These include Judy Stone’s Resilience: One Family’s Story of Hope and Triumph over Evil; D.Z. Stone’s No Past Tense: Love and Survival in the Shadow of the Holocaust; Debbie Cenziper’s Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America (reviewed here); and Heather Dune Macadam’s 999:The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz (reviewed here).

Recent historical fiction about the Holocaust includes Andrew Gross’ disturbing The Fifth Column and Tara Lynn Masih’s unforgettable My Real Name Is Hanna.

Andrea Simon

Several of the narratives above were written by children or grandchildren of survivors. And the survivors themselves were able to contribute stories of their relatives and friends murdered by Hitler’s minions — in too many cases, aided by the neighbors of those victims.

Andrea Simon’s astonishing Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, first published in 2002 and recently re-released, tells not only the stories of what her research and interviews uncovered, but also — and perhaps more importantly — the story of her determined, compulsive journey to discover the truth about her extended family’s past. Both those who perished and those who survived.

What drove the author? What were her victories and what were her defeats? What kept her going? The memoir dimension of this brave and uplifting book answers these questions and serves as a model for similar projects.

Perhaps all of these confrontations and breakthroughs were fated; that is, meant to be. Such terms are the usual translations of the Yiddish word bashert that titles Simon’s book. Bashert, as well, were dozens of unexpected outcomes of adventures (and misadventures) that wind through the book.

Paramount is the independence and improvisation handed down to the author by her grandmother Masha, whose life seems to be a series of unexpected outcomes. Masha’s journey was a long one: from Volchin — the largely Jewish village of her birth in present-day Belarus — to escaping the death marches, moving to the U.S., then on to Israel and Berlin. Andrea follows her grandmother vicariously and, in her travels, chronicles the trails and trials of her family’s large, segmented odyssey.

Her research shifts the balance within the world of Holocaust history. It is no longer haunted solely by the sorrows and annihilations of Jews from Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Germany itself. The material and cultural landscape is pulled in another direction, taking us to Czarist and Communist Russia and their satellites.

For the Jews who found their way to these places only to run into the Germans’ often successful attempts to absorb them, Bashert is a story not so much of concentration camps and death in the gas chambers, but rather of pogroms and mass shootings at Volchin, Brest, the Brona Gora forest, and elsewhere. Simon discovers, over and over, that there are few innocent bystanders.

Her chapters are numbered, but more crucially, they are given one-word titles that trace the movement from concept to concept: protest, connection, longing, collaboration, isolation, annihilation, response, and survival. These are the steppingstones along a meaningful path that was clearly meant to be.

This essay first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books

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“999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz,” by Heather Dune Macadam

Citadel, 480 pages. Hardcover $28.00. 

Aided by solid research, the author bears compassionate witness to unspeakable horror.

In recent years, an astonishing number of new books have provided insights about the utter darkness of the Holocaust, as well as the suffering and courage of its victims and survivors. Heather Dune Macadam’s 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitzdeserves a prominent place in this flowering of books that reshape our understanding through revelations and heartbreaking vignettes.

The author’s narrative, set in Slovakia and other crushed European countries, focuses on a program designed to destroy Jewish womanhood. The action begins in late March of 1942, when a roundup of Jewish females, announced in advance, gets underway. These women — mostly teenagers and young adults — were summoned to report to authorities and board an overcrowded train in the town of Poprad.

The screws had already begun tightening when the Slovak government implemented the Jewish Codex, a series of laws and regulations designed to cripple the country’s Jewish population. Their former rights quickly vanished.

Though pre-roundup escape plans were dangled before some, most of these tempting arrangements were hoaxes that did not pan out. Families were persuaded that the women would participate in a kind of government service for the Reich. They would work in factories and have an opportunity to be true patriots!

Macadam

Many of these female “draftees” came from the towns of Humenné and Prešov, both of which had sizable Jewish populations. And just in case they behaved irresponsibly while being shipped off, they would be policed by the Fascist Hlinka Guard, who would also beat up any interfering brothers and fathers, if required.

The women’s lives at Auschwitz do not turn out as expected. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  999: The Extraordinary Young Women

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“Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” by Debbie Cenziper

Hachette Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $28.00

A Pulitzer-worthy investigation of escaped war criminals.

When Adolf Hitler’s defeat in World War II was imminent, a great number of Nazi functionaries made their way to the United States and essentially hid in plain sight. They moved into American cities and suburbs, took on new identities, and successfully evaded any responsibility or punishment for their crimes. They obtained citizenship.

Though attempts were made to bring these war criminals to justice, most cases failed. Many plausible leads were never pursued. However, the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI), in part by hiring capable and committed historians, as well as legal experts, slowly excavated the facts needed to turn the tide and bring such people to justice.

In Citizen 865, author Debbie Cenziper provides stunning insights into these Nazi hunters’ skill, accomplishments, and dedication. She retraces their steps, giving us two layers of investigation. We learn how these professionals went about their work, interpreted the law, and prevailed in their cases. We also learn quite a bit about how Cenziper did her own investigation of the investigators, making the case for our appreciation of their efforts.

To accomplish this, she provides capsule biographies of many key figures, illuminating their ambition, their frustrations, their sacrifices, their home life, their intelligence, and their courage. They are real people we get to know and like.

Debbie Cenziper

The title of the book refers to Jakob Reimer, one of the monsters who did what he was told and helped slaughter untold thousands of Jews in Trawniki, Poland, where, in the early 1940s, the Nazis set up a “school” for committing mass murder.

The book’s attention-getting opening focuses on the story of 19-year-old Feliks Wojcik and Lucyna Stryjewska, a few years younger. It is a story of overwhelming threats to their lives and communities. These characters are vividly drawn individuals scrambling to survive the Nazi programs built to annihilate them.

It is set in Lublin, a Polish town rich in Jewish history and institutions, but now without support for Jewish survival. The horrors of Feliks and Lucyna’s experiences bring them together, and readers are temporarily left wondering about their chances for a future, allowing the author to paint a different section of her broad canvas. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Citizen 865

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It’s a little bit Brooklyn, a little bit Lower East Side

L’Chaim and Lamentations: Stories by Craig Darch. NewSouth Books. 160 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of writing about Richard Slotkin’s short story collection titled Greenhorns. I take the same pleasure in sharing Craig Darch’s somewhat similar collection. Darch, a professor at Auburn University, has crafted a compact, resonant memorial to the Jewish ethos as it existed in New York City for many decades.

Though there are few time markers, the ambiance seems to suggest the 1920s through the 1950s. These decades have faded away, with their various tones of hope and disappointment. They are almost forgotten, but the author brings them back through the sensibilities of people who themselves are on a point of balance between forgetting and remembering – as well as being forgotten.

Many live lonely lives, many have fallen upon – or always had – hard times. Many have a special kind of dignity and even courage. Darch’s nostalgic heart has made their ordinariness extraordinary.

These are people surviving inside their loneliness. The world they once fully inhabited has changed around them. The corner delicatessens run by hardworking neighbor- owners have vanished or been transformed.

Darch’s seven stories are seven gems.

Craig Darch

“Sadie’s Prayer” offers two aged roommates, Sadie and Esther. They are a kind of odd couple. Esther’s temperament demands neatness and convention. She can’t understand why the good lord has given her such an annoying partner and how the Jewish housing agency brought them together. Esther cannot adjust to Sadie’ smoking, to her Communist leanings, to her messiness. Esther looks backward; her memories of life with her deceased husband are a kind of anchor. She seems to talk to him, and Sadie is crass enough to point out that “Max is reading the newspaper and having his bagels someplace else this morning.”

Esther voices her wish that she had perished with her husband, and Sadie chides her for her silliness.

Knowing that they are each guilty of making each other’s lives much more miserable than they need to be, they agree – at Sadie’s suggestion – that the each treat the other with civility. Fat chance of that happening – at least not yet. They are wired differently and most likely it is too late for them to change.

While the women’s bickering dialogue is quite humorous, and perhaps will seem familiar to many readers. We all know people like this. They are our relatives, if not necessarily our friends.

They compete about who suffers the most, who prays the most, and who taste is superior.

In a sense, one can’t live without the other, and the conclusion makes clear that Sadie knows it and knows that even in the afterlife, Esther will need a friend like Sadie.

In “Kaddish for Two” we enter the lives of Zev Abramovitch and his thirty-three-year old unmarried son, Aharon. For Zev, it’s very important that his son continue the family line and experience its joys in the traditional manner. Readers will suspect the reason for Aharon’s resistance to such conversations long before Aharon ends the useless fencing back and forth by announcing that he is gay. Darch’s credible and powerful handling of this situation, the horrors of moral blindness and disappointment that overwhelm both men, is stunning. The premise, that a Jewish man needs a son to guarantee that there is someone to say Kaddish for him, resonates both in comfortable and uncomfortable ways.

“Who’s the Old Crone” raises the issue of Jewish continuity in a different way. Three old friends are chatting and noshing at a restaurant, Schwartzman’s Nosh, run by Sybil. They see a woman they haven’t seen there before who looks down and out. She seems at once pitiful and imposing. But who are they to judge? They are the remnants of the Romanian synagogue “bankrupt and boarded up years ago.”

Indeed, they are its last rabbi, last sexton, and last cantor. They are learned and somewhat cantankerous. The sexton, Eisenberg, “could kvetch fluently in seven languages.” Nachman, the cantor, who had lost his once-glorious voice, magically gets it back. Rabbi Fiddleman holds the group together. They have nothing to do except appraise the dishwasher and overhear a (beautifully rendered) mother-daughter confrontation.

An incident in the Nosh leads the three men, each in his own way, to contemplate death. The rabbi explains that “the Torah makes no definitive statement about an afterlife.” A year passes, and they are still talking about the old crone and muttering about how after coming to Schwartzman’s for ten years, there is “never a waitress when you need one.”

These tales, and their four companions, are sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes consoling, always luminously true.

This review appears in the January 2020 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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Author of Thrilling WWII novel about a cadre of 12 young female spies speaks at Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival

Review by Philip K. Jason, Jewish Book Festival Co-Chair

The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff. Park Row Books. 368 pages. Trade Paperback $16.99.

A dazzling, deliciously complicated novel based on historical events and seasoned by Jenoff’s spectacular imagination, The Lost Girls of Paris is likely to be on book club reading lists for a long time. Once Jenoff discovered the startling fact that a group of female secret agents played a prominent role in aiding resistance to Nazi occupation toward the end of World War Two, she couldn’t help but meet the challenge of bringing this dangerous operation to life.

The narrative moves back and forth between the events of 1944, when the clandestine mission was set in motion, and 1946, when it began to be revealed. It also oscillates between Europe and the United States and is developed, smoothly and boldly, through the rotation of three points of view.

Readers first meet Grace Healey, a recent widow who has settled in New York. She works for Frankie, a lawyer specializing in war refugee issues. She has had a recent, unexpected dalliance with her late husband’s best friend, Mark, which is causing her uncertainty and dismay.

The novel’s action starts with Grace discovering a suitcase in Grand Central Station that contains photos of a dozen young women. She takes the photos, soon after regrets this action, and attempts to return them, but the suitcase is gone.

The scene shifts to London where the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) is located. This special agency, headed by Director Gregory Winslow, is charged with supporting French partisans and creating chaos in the hope of dismantling Nazi plans by spreading misinformation.  The agency, while hoping that sabotage and subversion will win the day, is itself is in a state of chaos, but Eleanor Trigg, a Polish national who also happens to be Jewish, has an idea: the program needs to train a special team of women to help accomplish its ends. She lobbies the director until she is promised an opportunity to move from being a secretary to running the program she has invented: recruiting and training the women and putting a detailed plan into action.

The photos that Grace had found happen to be photos of the twelve women Eleanor had trained, now considered dead.

One of these women is Marie, mother of a five-year-old daughter, who is highly motivated to become a secret agent, worrying only about the necessary separation from her child, Tess. Marie’s language skills make her an attractive recruit. Through Marie’s perspective, Jenoff presents the severity of the training program and the relationships among the chosen dozen. Of course, Eleanor’s perspectives on the young women’s progress overlaps with Marie’s observations. The spy ring women work primarily as couriers and radio operators.

Pam Jenoff / photo by Mindy Schwartz Sorasky

In the final stages of the war, they seem to vanish simultaneously. What happened to them is one of the mysteries that gradually unfolds, in part through Grace’s determination to keep searching for missing details about the photos in the suitcase. She wished to bring what she finds to light in order to honor these women.

One theme that takes hold, dominating much of the novel, is that of possible betrayal. Too many things are going wrong, and they can’t all be attributed to the youth and inexperience of the young women agents. Jenoff teases us with the possibility that someone on the team, perhaps someone at a high level of trust and access, is a double agent.

There is some likelihood, as well, that the German’s have somehow mastered the technology and coding of the radio communication system that is crucial to the group’s task. Indeed, the complication of the system is at once an assurance and a potential detriment.

While the author’s descriptions of administrative and technological matters become an important and fascinating part of the story, her splendidly nuanced portraits of the three key “point of view” characters are what will most fully engage readers, set their imaginations soaring, and tap into their emotions. However, beyond Grace, Eleanor, and Marie, readers will find a large cast of well-drawn and sharply individualized subordinate characters, interacting with each other and with the central trio, who help define the period and places in which the novel is set. Jenoff’s descriptions of the various settings are masterful.

Like her recent New York Times best-selling The Orphan’s Tale, Jenoff’s Lost Girls is strikingly cinematic. Let’s hope her agent can get the studios bidding.

Pam Jenoff is the author of several novels of historical fiction. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a master’s degree in history from Cambridge University. In addition, she received her Juris Doctor from the University of Pennsylvania. Jenoff’s novels are inspired by her experiences working in the Pentagon and also as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.

Historical novel fans can hear Jenoff discuss this unusual thriller – which traces the creation and exploits of the team – at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom on Wednesday, January 8. Also speaking at that event will be Melanie Benjamin, author of Mistress of the Ritz. The books will be available for sale and signing. Find details about the complete Festival series of events, along with an order form, author bios, and contact information, at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

 This review appears in the December 2019 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples)

 

 

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