Category Archives: Jewish Themes

“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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Interview with Yaakov Katz, co-author of “The Weapon Wizards”

Philip K. Jason: In The Weapon Wizards, you observe that Israel’s enemies have not ceased building arsenals of rockets and missiles, even though Israel’s Iron Dome and Arrow systems have rendered such stockpiles ineffective. Is any hope that more elaborate defensive (or offensive) weapons will change the operations of Hezbollah and Hammas?

Yaakov Katz: Originally, when Israel developed its missile defense systems, it hoped that their success would make Israel’s enemies—particularly Hamas and Hezbollah—reconsider their investment in missile systems. The theory was that they would see that their missiles are ineffective and would understand that it is not worth investing in. That has not happened.

This does not mean that the missile defense systems are not effective. They are and they save Israeli lives. They have also given the government what we call “Diplomatic Maneuverability”, the ability to think before responding to rocket attacks, rather than being drawn into a conflict immediately. The systems have taken a weapon that could be of strategic consequences and turned them into a tactical issue that does not necessarily need to evolve into war.

PKJ: If there is no military solution to Israel’s quest for an end to war, can resources be allocated to programs more likely to be successful?

YK: Military means are not an end to conflict but a means to be used to reach a diplomatic resolution. Although this has not yet happened for Israel when it comes to Hamas and Hezbollah, it has worked though with the two countries Israel made peace with, Egypt and Jordan. Both countries understood, after defeat on the battlefield, that war will not overcome Israel. Israel continues to invest in additional defense and offensive programs, which will help keep Israelis safe and ensure that wars are fought quicker. But they will not defeat an enemy’s desire to destroy Israel.

PKJ: What are the benefits to Israel of its astounding success in weapon development, manufacture, and sales?

YK: The first clear benegit is that by developing top-tier weaponry, Israeli ensures its qualitative military edge in a very volatile region and as more potential conflicts loom on the horizon. The second benefit is economic: Israel today is one of the world’s top arms exporters and brings in about $6.5 billion annually to the Israeli economy in arms sales.

PKJ: How did you and your coauthor, Amir Bohbot, “share the load” of creating this book?

Amir and I are both veteran military correspondents who have worked closely together covering Israel’s different wars and operations since the early part of the 2000s. We split up the writing based on chapters: I wrote one chapter and he wrote another. The process was a bit more complicated. First, we would meet before starting to work on a new chapter. We would brainstorm for a while and the draft a chapter outline together—what stories will be there, who needs to be interviewed, etc. After spending one or two months researching and writing, when the chapter was done we’d share it with one another. Each of us would then add what was needed, make other comments, and then meet again to complete it. It was a genuine partnership.

PKJ: In the process of writing this book, did you discover any surprises? Did your research lead you to modify your views on anything, or anyone, connected with this topic? . . .

For the full interview, click here: Interview with Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post

For the book review, click here: The Weapon Wizards: JBC.

 

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“Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence”

by Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. University of Toronto Press. 320 pages. Oversized hardback $44.95.

An amazing exploration of the relationship between two marginalized peoples, Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s narrative is accompanied by 335 color illustrations and 29 maps in a well-designed oversized page format.

Magosci

After an introduction that focuses on the stereotypes and misperceptions that Jews and Ukrainians have had about either other over the centuries, the authors of this interdisciplinary work lay out twelve chapters, at once accessible and complex, covering a wide range of topics. One explores physical and human geography, another explores history, while others examine economic life, traditional culture, religion, language and publications, material and artistic culture, and diaspora life as defined and experienced by Ukrainians and Jews. Latter chapters focus on the contemporary situation.

Petrovsky-Shtern. Photo by Andrew Collings.

The structure of each chapter is such that the section featuring some aspect of the Jewish situation in Ukraine is framed by the necessarily much larger treatment of the Ukrainian experience and situation. This pattern often becomes complicated by the fact that the Jewish situation is not necessarily uniform throughout Ukraine and because the story of Ukraine is a story of flux. Jews of Galicia, Bukovina, and Transcarpathia require treatment distinct from that of Jews who live—or once lived—elsewhere in Ukraine. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence

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Once dead man finds himself spiritually adrift with no navel to guide him

An Unexpected Afterlife, by Dan Sofer. Privately published. 284 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

Dan Sofer’s book is an unexpected mind-opener. It asks a fundamental question about the possibility of life after death. The perspective is Jewish, and the subsequent questions are manifold. If one’s afterlife identity mirrors that of one’s original span of years, and if the new being (or reactivated being) returns to the world he or she left, how will those who knew this person react? 

Suppose this happens to you. Will those who believe that you had died now think you had deceived them for some nefarious reason? Or will they suspect that your reappearance is a fraud? What is your place in this world – or the next?

Sofer makes the theoreticals concrete. Moshe Karlin, a man who ran a successful business dispatching taxies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, awakens one morning on the stony grounds of the Mount of Olives Cemetery. He is not only without clothes, but he is also without a navel; thus, he is no longer “born of woman.” He quickly finds out that two years have passed since his demise and that his wife is soon to marry his former best friend, a man who has poisoned the vulnerable woman against him. Though only recently undead, Moshe is determined to win her back.

Trying to reestablish his former life, Moshe discovers that his positive view of himself was not shared by others. He was not a great husband or father. Has he been given a second chance?

Sofer soon populates the novel with a series of similar resurrections, individuals who accompany Moshe on this eerie journey toward reaffirmation and vision. Is this collection of returnees the early sign of ancient prophesies being realized?

Moshe and his growing entourage are protected and counseled by a kind, though perplexed, neighborhood rabbi. Soon, an important council of rabbis is convened to pass judgment on these strange happenings. Readers will be surprised by the council’s conclusion.

Rabbi Yosef is a finely drawn character whose dedication to helping this oddball collection threatens his status and the well-being of his own family. These returnees are, paradoxically, familiar strangers. To Rabbi Yosef, they are still God’s creatures and deserving of compassion and justice. Let the renowned rabbis argue over whether these theological misfits are angelic or demonic, Rabbi Yosef will feed them, clothe them, shelter them, and in all the ways that he can – comfort them.

Dan Sofer

Then there is Eli Katz. Yes, a present-day Elijah the Prophet. Or a time-traveling Elijah. Or a man whose recent injuries and near-death experiences have triggered a hallucinated identity. His mission is to prepare the world for the Resurrection. Dan Sofer employs this madcap character to pay homage to and yet question the efficacy of prophetic tradition. This strand of the novel is a magnificent tour de force.

How does Sofer give a sense of reality to his fantasy materials? Well, for one thing he gets into his characters’ heads so fully that we believe in their observations and see and feel the way they do. Moreover, he sets them into the very real neighborhoods of present-day Jerusalem with a degree of detail that has authenticity. By firmly rooting us in that reality, Sofer opens the door that allows us to walk into and accept the “what if” world of his imagination.

Another “unexpected” characteristic of this book is that Sofer has a light-hearted touch, a leavening that keeps hardships and serious theological concerns from pushing readers into depression. The book also offers more than a little teaching, a surprising amount of wit, and a good-sized cast of strong supporting characters. This highly original novel is likely to be controversial in the best of ways: provoking thought and discussion.

About Daniel Sofer

Dan was born under the sunny blue skies of South Africa in 1976. A traditional Jewish upbringing and warm community moved Dan to study and volunteer in Israel as an adult. In 2001, Dan made Jerusalem his home, and the city’s sights, sounds, legends, and spirit of adventure fill his stories. When not writing tales of romantic misadventure, he creates software for large corporations. “Dan Sofer” is a pen name of Daniel J. Miller.

Dan writes tales of romantic misadventure, many of which take place in Jerusalem. His earlier novel, A Love and Beyond, won the 2016 Best Books Award for Religious Fiction. An Unexpected Afterlife is presented as Book I of The Dry Bones Society series. The next book in the series, An Accidental Messiah, is coming later this year.

Dan Sofer’s books are readily available in print and ebook editions via the major internet bookstores. Or find him at http://dansofer.com

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

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“The Weapon Wizards” by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot

 The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Superpower, by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot. St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages. Hardcover $17.99

 Review by Philip K. Jason  

A dazzling “feel-good” book in the tradition of Start-Up Nation and Let There Be Water, Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot’s analysis of Israel’s rise to prominence as major inventor and manufacturer of sophisticated weapons and weapon systems has a dark side. It is one thing to protect your own nation, another to be fully invested exporter in the arms business. Yet the billions of dollars in income from arms deals are a protective shield for this tiny nation, and mass production lowers the costs of the weapons for Israel’s own arsenals.

The authors’ exciting and surprising narrative is loosely chronological, following the path of Israel’s advances in technology while bringing into play the political and military crises that provoked accelerated research, invention, and even improvisation. One constant theme is that Israelis cannot relax: they always need to be pushing to gain the upper hand, creating a safe distance between themselves and those that threaten them.

Katz

From early on the mantra has been that quality would prevail over quantity. The best planning, the best minds, the best manufacturing, the best training, and the highest level of civilian and military cooperation would prevail over greater numbers of weapons and enemy combatants.

Bohbot

The chapters focus on specific weapons, detailing both offensive and defensive technologies: drones, armor, satellites, rockets and missiles, “intelligent machines,” and cyber viruses. However, while the history of Israel’s military ascent is largely technical, the methods of reaching and moving readers are quite varied. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  The Weapon Wizards: JBC

 

And here is the long-awaited interview with Yaakov Katz:  Interview with Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post

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