Category Archives: Jewish Themes

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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“The Orphan’s Tale,” by Pam Jenoff

Jenoff

Can you imagine a Holocaust-related story that features circus performers? Can you imagine the Nazi regime, as it spreads across Europe, tolerating these vagabond entertainers? Historical facts support Jenoff’s imaginative story of hidden Jews, vulnerable women, younger and older lovers, twisting loyalties, and valiant spirits in The Orphan’s Tale, a colorful and moving dual narrative.

 

Jenoff tells her tale through two alternating characters whose similarities and differences bring out the best and the worst in each. Noa is a troubled teenager whose pregnancy leads to her parents casting her out. She seeks a means to support herself, and longs for the child she is forced to give up. Noa looks the perfect Aryan, but her baby does not. Her journey leads to the discovery of a boxcar filled with infants. One of the babies seems familiar to her. She takes him in her arms and can’t let go of it. After she discovers that the tiny boy is circumcised, Noa finds a hiding place in a milk delivery truck and takes the baby with her. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council Review, click here: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff | Jewish Book Council

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Stolen Legacy: Nazi Theft and the Quest for Justice at Krausenstrasse 17/18 Berlin

Revised and updated edition. By Dina Gold. Ankerwycke. 328 pages. Trade paperback $17.95.

 

This meticulously researched and powerfully presented story examines how a prominent Berlin commercial building was taken from its Jewish owners, the Wolff family. The building, which housed the family’s highly successful fur business, was a notable structure from 1910 onward. In 1937, Nazi efforts led to a forced sale of the building, after which it became headquarters for the German railway system. The Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 complicated legal matters regarding ownership status, and even after Germany’s reunification the status of such properties was mired in red tape.

Dina Gold

Gold’s original text puts most of the pieces together. It also tells several stories at once. One is the background history of Jewish life in Nazi Germany; another is the engaging yet chilling family history; and yet another is the story of the author’s valiant investigative enterprise that had the ultimate goal of unearthing the truth and pushing for a just resolution of this particular and yet powerfully symbolic Nazi crime. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Stolen Legacy – Jewish Book Council . You will also find a list of discussion questions.

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Her Year of Living Jewishly

My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew. By Abigail Pogrebin. Foreword by A. J. Jacobs. Fig Tree Books. 336 pages. Hardcover $22.99.

What a joy it is to be able to share vicariously this talented and energetic author’s journey, a journey self-designed to deepen her Jewish knowledge and identity. At first glance a sure-fire, gimmicky publishing venture, it turns out to be much more than that. It’s a kind of Jewish makeover. It has soul and determination and great sensitivity.  myjewishyearcover_border_

As the subtitle makes clear. Pogrebin organizes her book around the calendar of Jewish holidays, including an unexpected number of fast days. Each chapter is part embellished journal entry, part citations of relevant observations – short teachings – by rabbis whom the author interviewed along the way. Abby Progrebin as character in her own book is presented as a somewhat rebellious family member who feels her Jewish life has not been as rich as it might have been. She has set out to see what, if anything, she has missed – and to decide what to do about it.

What new understandings will she turn into changed behavior? This question not only generates suspense, but also deepens our interest in the implicit question that lies behind it: what new understandings will she gain? How will she react to them? How will her readers react?

Readers are encouraged to let Pogrebin be their guide, to imagine themselves in her place. To measure their reactions against hers. To trust her certainties and her uncertainties.

Pogrebin wrestles with the fact that Judaism provides a range of templates. Her search leads her to encompass more than the Reform Judaism that is her home territory. She questions authorities from other worship traditions within the Jewish family. She visits a variety of temples and synagogues. They contrast not only in worship style, but in many other ways as well: size, prominence, formality, secular setting (major urban center, suburb, etc.).  Pogrebin crisscrosses the country to touch as many bases as she can, though of necessity the book remains a bit New York centric.

Pogrebin

Pogrebin

The author’s quest brings a payoff that might not have been expected. Yes, she gains insight and appreciation for the individual holy days and rituals, especially the most holy of all – the Sabbath. Beyond this, however, she comes to feel the genius of the sacramental and liturgical Jewish year as an overarching structure both in time and beyond time. There is a rhythm to the changing emotional seasons of grief and joy, defeat and victory, scarcity and plentitude.

During this experimental year, she realizes more strongly than ever that the hold and power of the holidays depends upon one’s preparation and intention.

Helping Pogrebin and her readers are quotations from rabbis that she has met or read along her journey. These quotations are selected to underscore key issues connected with the holidays and the ways in which the calendar structures Jewish life. Some of the quotations introduce a theme or a chapter, while others simply arise when they are needed to lend clarity and authority.

Other useful tools are the special appendices: “A Jewish Year in Bullet Points,” a list of rabbi’s and other authorities interviewed as part of Pogrebin’s research, a bibliography, and a glossary.

Throughout her travels, inquiries, and meditations, Pogrebin continues to underscore her experiences as a Jewish child and woman, as wife and mother, and as an accomplished professional and unsatisfied seeker. These are parts of the tapestry. Now one of its threads, the thread of her Jewish selfhood and spirituality, is a much more prominent part of the design.

This remarkable book accomplishes its ends with great vitality and generous, inspiring openness.

A note on the author

Abigail Pogrebin worked for Mike Wallace as a producer on 60 Minutes. Her other books are Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish and One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin. Her work appears in such periodicals as Newsweek, New York magazine, The Daily Beast, the Forward, and Tablet.

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

 

 

 

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Ambition, loyalty, and obsession darken dazzling bio-fiction treatment of Marc Chagall

The Bridal Chair, by Gloria Goldreich. Sourcebooks Landmark. 496 pages. Trade Paperback $14.99.

Who was Marc Chagall? Of course he was an immensely talented and prolific artist in many styles and various media whose works brought him a towering reputation and towering sales figures over several decades. He was a Russian Jew raised in a religious household whose life, until after the end of World War II, was a series of relocations brought on first by the need to escape Russian / Soviet anti-Semitism and later the Nazi’s brutal takeover of France. Though he spoke Yiddish and employed Jewish imagery and themes in some of his most renowned works, he was not otherwise attached to Jewish culture, theology, or ritual. bridalchaircover

While these elements of Chagall’s identity are well dramatized in Goldreich’s book, her main concerns are his personality and his relationships. The central strategy in revealing these aspects of the historical Chagall is Goldreich’s brilliant decision to make Chagall’s daughter, rather than the man himself, the book’s central character. It is through tracing (and perhaps imagining) Ida Chagall’s journey from the age of seven into early middle age as the adoring daughter, business manager, and enabler of Chagall’s best and worst qualities that the author paints her astounding word picture of the man in his time and in his places.

The teenage Ida is a ravishing young woman, a real head-turner who enjoys the smiles on men’s faces. She is confident, intelligent, fashionably attired, and articulate. Living in a world of art and artists, she is already quite knowledgeable about that world. She is pleased to be her father’s daughter. In time, she will want to be more than that – but Mark’s approval will always be important.

In fact, Marc’s estimate of people is directly proportional to how well they serve his needs. Vain in matters of appearance and status in the world of art, he is insecure and dependent in other ways. In some ways a rebel, he is also a slave to propriety. When Ida becomes pregnant, he is horrified. He and Ida’s mother, Bella, insist on an abortion. This is not Ida’s preference, but she agrees to it.  Somewhat less threatening to Marc is Ida’s marriage to a non-Jew, but he accommodates himself to it as long as Ida puts her father’s needs above all else.

And, sometimes reluctantly, she does. Her place in the world is not as someone’s wife, or an independent identity (which she often longs for), but as the great Marc Chagalls’ daughter.

Ida becomes the manager of the Chagall domestic situation and the Chagall industry. She selects their various residences, arranges for the smooth running of these households, and becomes the principal agent for the display and marketing of her father’s artworks. Thus she is in constant contact with prominent collectors, dealers, gallery owners, and museum curators. These overlapping responsibilities, which she handles with determination and skill, define her place in the world.

They also limit it. She couldn’t be doing this for Picasso, or for herself. Indeed, her personal artistic ambitions are sacrificed to serving her father, whose appreciation is rarely shown. She even arranges for his mistresses (officially housekeepers), one of which, non-Jewish, brings a Chagall son into the world.

Marc is a grand manipulator, whose practiced ineptness in many areas leaves others to pick up the pieces. He is not lazy. Indeed, his dedication to his art consumes him, but he shuns everyday responsibilities and insists that his work demands ideal environments without distractions.

Generally, he gets what he wants.

Eventually, Ida also gets what she wants: a fine, devoted husband; three children; respect; and much-needed piece of mind.

Goldreich’s narrative has many strengths beyond those of characterization and the exploration of relationships (though the large cast of vividly depicted characters is a powerful achievement). Readers will learn a great deal about the history of modern art, artistic technique, and the business of art. The author’s descriptions of particular artworks are spectacular.

Her handling of setting is also superb. Readers are invited to visit many places exquisitely described, places that have not only dimensions, materials, and colors, but atmosphere. We explore homes in Paris and its environs, other communities in France, New York City, upstate New York, Zurich, and many more. Goldreich’s descriptions are lavish backdrops for her characters’ actions. Almost too lavish.

The pace is leisurely, and on occasion seems too slow. The detailed descriptions slow it down. Some readers will feel that less would have been more. Others will enjoy every morsel of information.

All in all, The Bridal Canopy is a towering achievement: emotionally powerful, psychologically deft, and a feast of sensory images.

This review appears in the December 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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“Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories,” by Blume Lempel

Translated by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub.  Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $26.95; Trade paperback $16.95.

These spare, skillful tales are both introspective and illuminating.

oedipus-coverDoes it make sense to talk about a writer’s voice when responding to a translated work? In the case of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, a book with two translators, a distinctive English voice — a blend of attitudes, mannerisms, and rhythms — rises off the page. In what ways is it true to the Yiddish original? This reviewer will never know. Still, the voice tests boundaries between the private and the public self, intimacy and isolation, confidence and insecurity.

Presented as works of fiction, these stories — many of them brief vignettes — have the ring and the stance of polished journal entries or memoir. These memories, meditations, and musings, which inhabit the same settings that author Blume Lempel lived in or visited, are at once introspective and filled with sensory detail. The searching soul often moves by association, turning many corners.

A good many of these pieces are inner portraits of the narrator, just as many are the narrator’s exploration of one other character — a person who is important to her life and to her understanding of it.

Lempel moves us back and forth among the sights, sites, and sounds of Jewish Poland, intriguing Paris, multilingual Brooklyn, with its heavily Jewish neighborhoods, Long Island’s Long Beach, and a handful of other places. Different phases of the narrator’s life — childhood, young womanhood, motherhood, spousal dynamics — are braided into each other beyond the simple, single thread of neat chronology.  2-lempel_blume-older

Lempel’s story titles, as translated, most often contain the name of a character: “Pachysandra,” “My Friend Ben,” “Yosele,” “Cousin Claude,” and “The Bag Lady of Seventh Avenue” are among the tales bearing such sparse, straightforward titles. Though the stories usually show the title characters in relationships (and Lempel has a fine ear for creating compelling dialogue), a recurrent sense of isolation nonetheless permeates the collection.

It springs out vividly in “The Little Red Umbrella,” when Janet Silver, out on a blind date, misplaces the umbrella that was meant to identify her for the poet she intended to meet. Janet seeks a relationship, though she has reveled in her independence. Suddenly, she is overwhelmed by the realization that freedom does not have the meaning it had in her younger days: “Now it meant free to bang her head against the wall and not even hear an echo.”

In “Neighbors over the Fence,” Jewish Betty tells the time by noting the routines of her neighbor, Mrs. Zagretti, an Italian widow. The women bond over their appreciation of horticulture. Mrs. Zagretti becomes a mentor to Betty, whom she considers a much better companion than her son’s wife, even though Mrs. Zagretti has long ignored her Jewish neighbor.

Feeling isolated from her son and daughter-in-law, she leans on this unexpected connection with Betty. She even confides her desperation: “Can you imagine feeling close to a fly?” She confesses that a fly’s death has shaken her: “I felt as if I’d become a widow for the second time.”

Here and elsewhere, Lempel connects this sense of aloneness to the Jewish condition. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories | Washington Independent Review of Books

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