Category Archives: Jewish Themes

“A Spy in Exile: A Thriller,” by Jonathan de Shalit

Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 384 pages. Hardcover $27.00

Review by Philip K. Jason

A pseudonymous former senior staffer in the Israeli intelligence community has crafted an exciting, highly original espionage thriller. The premise: Israel’s intelligence operatives are getting predictable and lax. The Prime Minister, wishing to shake things up, establishes a nameless new entity under deep cover, an extremely fluid team that answers only to him.

pseudonymous!

Though recently removed from her position at the Mossad, Ya’ara Stein–beautiful, resourceful, and ruthless–is selected to head this unit. The six team members she recruits generally work in pairs to fulfill missions, developing personal as well as spy-craft relationships. They learn tradecraft on the job: training and assignment execution are compressed into one tense and explosive experience. The group must remain invisible, with no recourse to outside assistance. . . .

 

To read the full Jewish Book Council Review, click here: A Spy in Exile. 

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“The Secret of Clouds: A Novel,” by Alyson Richman

Berkley.  384 pp. Hardcover $26.00

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

An exquisite story about how teachers and pupils enhance one another’s lives.

The spellbinding The Secret of Clouds balances timelines and points of view. One narrative follows a young Ukrainian couple living in Kiev during the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in 1986. Katya and Sasha Kransky, one a promising ballerina and the other a science graduate student, are rattled by the calamity and their government’s reaction to it. After an injury severely handicaps Katya’s chances for a ballet career, they find an opportunity to relocate to the United States, settling in a small town on Long Island.

While the novel’s prologue establishes Katya and Sasha’s crumbling world of Chernobyl, most of the book takes us into the Long Island world of the Topper family, where the story is mainly narrated by Maggie Topper.

Thus, author Alyson Richman effectively shuffles between past and present, between two worlds, and between two starkly different female characters. The inherent contrast in these pairings expresses itself through a profound interaction: In her second year of teaching in the Franklin Intermediate School, Maggie meets Yuri Kransky and his parents, Katya and Sasha.

Richman

Yuri suffers from a heart defect. He has little stamina and is unable to participate in conventional classroom life. Maggie is asked to teach him one-on-one at his home. As one who idealizes the teaching profession and aspires to its worthiest goals, she cannot refuse.

As one would expect from such a setup, Maggie’s devotion to Yuri becomes a situation in which she is as much the learner as the teacher.

The immigrant Kransky family lives in relative isolation; Maggie, however, interacts with her family, New York area friends, other teachers, and a full complement of students. She also has a boyfriend, Bill, with whom she shares a modest, but distinctive, home.

Through Maggie’s portrait of Yuri’s ups and downs, intelligence, and courage, Richman brings him fully to life. He has a damaged heart but boundless “heart.” Though Katya is understandably super-protective of him and constantly on edge, Maggie convinces her to give Yuri carefully monitored exposure to the classroom and fellow students.

Maggie’s influence on Yuri is balanced by his influence on her, and Richman handles Maggie’s growth as a teacher faultlessly. If there is one element of the book that stands out, it is the respect the author shows for the teaching process and the value of skilled, committed educators. The portrait of Maggie’s colleagues provides a cross-section of teacherly types, but what’s going on in the Franklin school community is good news. . . .

To read the full Washington Independent Review of Books version, click here: The Secret of Clouds

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“A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror,” by Stephen M. Flatow

Review by Philip K. Jason

For many years, while waging a legal battle against Iran for sponsoring a suicide bus bombing in Israel that killed his daughter, Alisa, Stephen M. Flatow has told his story. His new book, which includes material not previously published, is less an account of the tragic event itself than it is a story about the nature of such loss in the context of a particular family’s history and values.

One thread of the story is the shortened life of Alisa: her promise, her personality, and her influence on others, as a child and then as a young woman. It was Alisa, readers learn, who from a very young age influenced the family to fully embrace Judaism and Israel. Flatow shows how much a parent can learn from a child, and how family members can work through their grief—though it never really ends.

Flatow

While the narrative generally proceeds from past to present, there are openings in the strict chronology that reveal additional background or impart new understandings and emotional resonance. These passages add to the book’s impact, providing it with heart and wisdom. . . .

To read the full Jewish Book Council review, click here: A Father’s Story

For a review of an  important related book, see The Bus on Jaffa Road

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“The Dark Young Man,” by Jacob Dinezon

Tina Lunson, trans; Scott Hilton Davis, ed. / Jewish Storyteller Press. 253 pages. Trade Paperback $19.95

Review by Philip K. Jason

First published in 1877, Jacob Dinezon’s Yiddish novel The Dark Young Man, with its blend of romance and realism,launched him as a major voice in the Jewish literary world. Tina Lunson’s excellent English translation (the first ever) vividly captures mid-nineteenth century Jewish life in Eastern Europe, revealing not only its particular culture but also its parallels to today’s Jewish experience.

When young Yosef leaves his parents’ home to work for a wealthy family, he is admired by the members of his new household—except Meyshe, the husband of the family’s oldest daughter. He soon sees Yosef as a threat, someone who might replace him as the person with authority over the family and its fortunes.

The Dark Young Man might make readers feel overwhelmed—as the main characters are—by the novel’s overall mood of claustrophobic despair, intermittently pierced by brief periods of hope. The only major character who doesn’t share this emotional ride is Meyshe Shneyur, the dark young man of the title. Unlike most title characters, Meyshe is far from the story’s hero. He is the villain, the destroyer of all hopes, made gleeful by his destructive accomplishments and the suffering of others—and Dinezon’s novel is a treatise on this dark soul’s power and methods.

This family drama is set against the cultural background of mid-nineteenth century Jewish life in Eastern Europe. This was the period of Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, when long-observed Jewish traditions were being questioned and threatened. Those holding on to the old ways had no respect for new ideas and assimilationist tendencies, and the young moderns saw little value in traditional strictures that seemed unjustified by new secular learning. . . .

To see the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  The Dark Young Man

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“The Wartime Sisters: A Novel,” by Lynda Cohen Loigman

  • St. Martin’s Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99.

Women bond — and sometimes break apart — in WWII-era New England.

The title of Lynda Cohen Loigman’s new novel, The Wartime Sisters, has two dimensions. The more obvious is the horribly strained relationship between two sisters, Ruth and Millie Kaplan. The other is the wider sisterhood of women who toiled in preparing the U.S. to enter WWII and during the war years that followed. These are women who had factory jobs or positions, clerical and otherwise, that supported the manufacture of weapons.  

The Brooklyn-born Kaplans, first Ruth and, later, Millie (the younger by three years), relocate to Springfield, Massachusetts, to rebuild their lives after shaky, if conventional, beginnings.

They seem to have been the victims of unrealistic expectations and misguided parenting. Ruth’s controlling nature, an echo of their mother’s, leaves Millie feeling demeaned and marginalized. More open and spontaneous, Millie’s attractiveness to people, especially to boys and then men, is a constant threat and humiliation to Ruth.

The narrative is structured to oscillate among three kinds of scenes: Scenes that give an overview of their early years; scenes set in Springfield that reveal the sisters as young adults making their separate ways in the world; and scenes reverting back to more detailed Brooklyn episodes that explore the seeds of conflict and unwise decision-making that continue to have consequences in their new environment.

Loigman

Loigman further complicates the bond between the sisters through the jobs they have in Springfield. Ruth does paperwork, and Millie puts triggers together on the assembly line. From Ruth’s perspective, Millie is trouble — a person who always needs looking after. Ruth had enough of that unwanted responsibility as a girl; she doesn’t want it now as a married woman raising children — especially when her husband is called away from his position at the Armory to dangerous duty in Europe.

But back in Brooklyn, Millie was rather desperate. She was alone in the wake of their parents’ death in an accident, and her ill-fated marriage left her a victim of abuse. Maybe Springfield will supply an answer, whether it be via Ruth or in some other way.

The war between the sisters is carefully orchestrated and is the central action that holds readers glued to the story. However, the portrait of the Springfield Armory community is also a major achievement. Persuasively imagined over a framework of impressive research, the sights, sounds, and patriotic flourishes of its residents during 1942 and 1943 leave readers with a sense of pride.

However, all is not well in this capital of wartime industry. Questions of social and economic justice loom. . . .

To read the entire review at it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Wartime Sisters.

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“The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World,” by Robert Mnookin

    PublicAffairs. 320 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Who gets to decide what it means to be a Jew?

In The Jewish American Paradox, Robert Mnookin puts effective lawyerly reasoning and compelling personal experience to work in service of sketching the situation of 21st-century American Jews. He plays and wrestles with large questions regarding the elements of Jewish identity and how the power of these elements has changed over time.  

The author launches his discussion with an attention-getting overview of “identity” illustrated by the life and work of identity’s master theorist, Jewish-born Erik Erikson. This strategy proves to be intellectually stimulating and colorful. Having grabbed the reader’s attention, Mnookin holds onto it with an accessible presentation about how to make both the “American Jewish community” and the various American Jewish communities thrive.

Among the many traditional components of Jewish identity probed by Mnookin are identification through matriarchal lineage, religious commitment, and the racial — or “Jewish blood” — concept. He probes deeply into each, testing its utility for a vibrant Jewish future.

Mnookin

The context here is the declining Jewish population. Can changes in the dynamics of Jewish identity stabilize or reverse the downward trend in the identified Jewish population?

Mnookin finds most of the identity elements restrictive and therefore limiting. Can one have a Jewish life without Jewish knowledge? Without Jewish DNA (if there is such a thing)? Without ascribing to behaviors (both does and don’ts) provided in holy scripture and authoritative commentaries?

Mnookin argues for inclusiveness, and his arguments are well shaped and compelling. He is more comfortable with notions like nationhood or peoplehood, in part because such concepts have malleable borders. . . .

To see the full review as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Jewish American Paradox

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“God Is in the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism,” by Tal Keinan

Spiegel & Grau. 336 Pages.  Hardcover  $28.

Review by Philip K. Jason

This game-changing exploration of a possible path for a Jewish future is both alarming and hopeful. The facts Keinan relays about Jewish population trends, weakening Jewish identity, and the costs of exclusivity in Jewish movements and organizations are heartbreaking. His most frightening observation is that his book, and the understandings and arguments it offers, may be ninety years too late. Keinan is pointing the way toward a revolution, a last-ditch effort to combat and counter the forces that, if not checked will, in a few generations or less, make Judaism extinct.  

Keinan won’t allow Jews to keep betting on God’s love for the “chosen people” to save the day. God’s love has always been conditionalIf God is anywhere, it is in the hard-won consensus about Jewish identity and values that those who care will bring about. In this way, God is in the crowd.

Tal Keinan

In a situation that demands greater inclusivity, Keinan argues that embracing the standards, practices, and goals that approach universal acceptance among Jews worldwide represents our best best at turning the tide and ensuring a Jewish future. To get there, educational patterns and priorities must change, and steadfast commitment needs to go viral. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: God Is in the Crowd

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“To Catch a Traitor,” by D. B. Shuster

Crime Bytes Media. 308 Pages . Trade Paperback $16.99

Review by Philip K. Jason

In this prequel to her Sins of a Spy series, D. B. Shuster deftly portrays Soviet Jews’ collective state of mind during the 1980s. Soviet Jews continue to face anti-Semitism; they are confined to low-paying work and are used as convenient scapegoats for others’ disappointments. Laws don’t protect them. The KGB shadows them relentlessly, especially those who, for whatever reason, are felt to be a danger to the Soviet system. These conditions are magnified by the desire of many to emigrate either to Israel or the United States. Their goal of escape makes them traitors.

Shuster

The novel centers on the Reitman family—especially on clever, curvaceous Sofia, who has dedicated her life and her talents to achieving Jewish freedom from Soviet oppression. Though KGB agents are everywhere, she has found satisfaction in risk-taking and has become a spy, trained to photograph secret Soviet documents that can be used to shape world opinion and modify Soviet policy. Her handler, Paul, is a CIA agent.

When Sofia’s husband, Mendel, is released early from his five-year prison sentence for teaching Hebrew, he is a greatly altered version of the man Sofia married. It is not clear if his early release involved a deal with his jailers. Mendel won’t talk about it, and it seems that the former intimacy between them cannot be restored. He has learned to be suspicious, even of his wife. . . .

To read the entire review, as found on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  To Catch a Traitor

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“Suitcase Charlie” by John Guzlowski

Kasva Press. 328 Pages. Trade Paperback $14.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

John Guzlowski beautifully conjures up the seamy side of the allegedly innocent 1950s with a thrilling serial murder mystery featuring two boozehound detectives. For Detective Hank  Purcell, memories of World War II, now ten years distant, invade with regularity. Both he and his Jewish partner, Marvin Bondarowicz, have been known to break the rules. Both men are survivors of the mean streets, appealing in their humorous repartee and in their willingness to seek justice, even if insubordination is part of their means to that end. 

Guzlowski

The case Hank and Marvin are on requires an answer to this question: Who cruelly dismembered a young boy and stuffed his body into a suitcase left on the sidewalk, no doubt meant to be discovered? What is the motive for such cruelty? Hank can’t help but remember the Nazi butchery he witnessed firsthand. Has it found its way to 1956 Chicago?

Soon after the detectives undertake their investigation, several parallel incidents occur; it’s unclear if this is a crime spree by one perpetrator, or if these are independent copycat murders. What will the effects of these horrendous crimes be in the neighborhoods where the suitcases turn up? Why these neighborhoods? Why are the soles of the victims’ feet sliced in an isosceles triangle pattern? To represent, when placed together, the Star of David?

Slowly but surely, the author builds credible references to anti-Semitism and its consequences. Leads appear that Hank would like to pursue, but Marvin, who now announces himself a defender of his people – in fact, makes it clear that their persecution had been his motive for becoming a cop – turns Hank away from pursuing the anti-Semitic possibility. After all, the victims in the suitcases are not Jews. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: Suitcase Charlie

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“Death in Shangri-La” by Yigal Zur

Oceanview Publishing. 272 pages. Hardcover $26.95.  

Review by Philip K. Jason

This high-stakes thriller—the second of three titles in the Dotan Naor Thriller series, but the first to be translated into English—takes its protagonist, a former Israeli security operative now working as a private detective, far outside of his usual terrain. It’s not Israel or Israel’s neighboring states that Naor visits on his mission, but the Far East: India, the disputed Kashmir region, and other Asian nations touched by the Himalayas.

Yigal Zur

Naor has agreed to find the missing son of an acquaintance who has made millions as a cutthroat Israeli arms merchant. Willy Mizrachi’s son, Itiel, is seeking peace at an ashram in the Himalayas, a region popular with young Israelis. In his father’s eyes, Itiel’s goals are worthless, yet Willy believes he’s redeemable, or at least persuadable. He wants him back home. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: Shangri-La

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