Category Archives: Jewish Themes

“Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World,” by Avi Jorisch

Gefen Publishing House. 284 pages. Hardcover  $27.00

Innovation, suggests author Avi Jorisch, is the sacred calling of modern Israel. But while many have written about Israel’s grand success in developing problem-solving technologies, this is the first study to focus primarily on Israeli innovations that extend, improve, and save lives. Presenting uplifting profiles of fifteen innovations, all framed as contributing to Israel’s success at being “a light unto the nations,” Jorisch argues that the Israeli commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world, is a characteristic written in Judaism’s spiritual DNA. 

The innovations Jorisch describes are modern miracles—miracles resulting from the genius and dogged determination of exceptional, and frequently colorful individuals. The biographical profiles of these individuals are half the fun of the book. The creation of their inventions, often in the face of enormous obstacles, is the other half.

Avi Jorisch

 

 

 

Many of the innovators, Jorisch recounts, received nothing but scorn for their unconventional ideas. Others endured multiple failures before their world-changing concepts were transformed into successful businesses that solved monumental problems—not just for Israel, but for all who would learn how to take advantage of their breakthroughs.

Jorisch details the story of the Hatzalah ambucycle organization that sharply reduced the time between accidents and the arrival of first responders. This is a wonderful story of the interaction between informed, trained volunteerism and established professional expertise. It is also a story of cooperation between Arabs, Jews, and Christians. The influence of United Hatzalah on other nations has been enormous. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Thou Shalt Innovate

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Melting pot Boston in mid-twentieth century explored from Jewish perspective

Review by Philip K. Jason

My Mother’s Son, by David Hirshberg. Fig Tree Books. 368 pages. Hardcover  $23.95.

This is one beautiful book. It portrays a pivotal period in U. S. history flavored by the scrambling lives of European immigrants, their acculturated children, and their more fully Americanized grandchildren. Its action springs from family and historical events of 1952-1953, though it manages to cover decades both before and after. The narrator, not yet thirteen as the story begins, is looking back from near the twentieth century’s end. His name is Joel. At one point he is told that he wasn’t named for anyone in particular, but for the Jews as a whole.

The shadow of the Holocaust haunts Joel’s family, and for very good reasons that are made clear in the stretches of family history and family memory that run through the book. The Korean War is threatening to become the next world war.  The polio epidemic is on everyone’s mind. On the local level, Boston’s beloved Braves, a baseball team with which so many identify, may be preparing to relocate to Milwaukee. The seeds are being planted in Boston for the future presidency of a still very young and inexperienced Massachusetts politician – a man whose Catholic identity inspires the immigrant population and points to the character of the city.  

There are signs that the keyholders of political and other kinds of power may be changing. Representing this change is Joel’s powerful grandfather – a man whose business, ostensibly furniture, interfaces with various criminal activities. Even Joel and his brother Steven are involved.

Aside from marvelously recreating the time and place action, Hirshberg does a fine job of balancing the understanding and sensibilities of the young Joel against the much older and wiser version of himself that is telling the story. The story itself grows out of the bits and pieces of the past – and the application of the past to current events – that have been the bread and butter of the radio show that has been Joel’s occupation and occupational therapy for almost fifty years, drawing a large audience.

Devices that deepen the novel with additional key perspectives include most notably entries in his Aunt Rose’s diary. Rose is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Her attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust, with her years of travel as a circus performer, her transit to the United States, and her relationship to her husband Jacob– whose long preparation for death is a chilling strand of this complex, vividly detailed, yet  richly satisfying novel.

Conversations between family kingpin “Papa” Mischal (Rose’s father) and his lieutenants Murph Feldman and Moses O’Neil (whose names are symbols of the immigrant melting pot) explore the motives behind the shady dealings out of which Boston’s family, community, and political lives are constructed. It’s payback time for repressed or humiliated minorities.

Hirshberg

And these underhanded enterprises are presented in colorful prose vignettes that suggest a kind of innocence to the era while admitting to its harsh edges.

Although the early 1950s period is the core of the book and the fulcrum of Joel’s meticulously painted coming-of-age self-portrait, Hirshberg understands the need for readers to discover the steps that lead to the grandfatherly Joel whose voice has dazzled his listeners for so many decades. He allows us summary glances at Joel’s high school and college years, his military service, and his lifelong situation of needing to wrestle with important and transformational secrets about identity and the many faces of love.

It may seem curious that Hirshberg, after concluding his narrative, adds a glossary of foreign language terms – the list reinforcing the polyglot nature of Boston at the middle of the twentieth century. This spray of German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, and Yiddish – plus a dash of Latin – suggests how the various ethnic groups interacted with one another, and in an unexpected manner, it enriches the cultural broth.

The glossary is also a reminder, if one is needed, that this is a very Jewish book – Jewish in the American way of successive generations being influenced by and reshaping a vanishing but not quite extinguished past. It is a world of Hebrew School lessons, Yiddish phrases being maintained and even penetrating the dominant non-Jewish community, and ethnic foods and – of course – memories. There are stories hidden until they must be revealed. There are other stories repeated and reshaped, perhaps with no expiration date.

I have not addressed the title of the book because to do so carries the likelihood of giving away something important too soon. I say this, dear reader, to entice you to this beautifully prepared feast of wisdom and discovery.

This essay appears in the May 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

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“The Stakes of History,” by David N. Myers

The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life, by David N. Myers. Yale University Press. 192 pages. Hardcover $27.99

While this densely-packed volume is aimed primarily at scholars of history and historiography, Professor Myers has kept the non-expert reader in mind by offering just the right amount of thematic repetition and exemplification. Is the author striving to demolish the ostensible conflict between history and memory? Well, the answer depends upon the prejudices and background of the reader. History that moves in the direction of pure fact, he suggests, misses opportunities to generate larger meanings and applications. History in the service of memory is likely to offer suspect compromises, to be overly and pointedly selective, perhaps to be, ultimately, not much more than propaganda.

David N. Myers, photo by Scarlett Freund

The author’s introduction, “History, Memory, and What Lies in Between,” defines the intellectual playing field. Three numbered chapters identity and explore three significant functions of history with scintillating articulation. These are “History as Liberation, “History as Consolation,” and “History as Witness.” Myers microscopically explores just how each function operates, its memorializing potentialities, and – by implication at least, its limitations.

The stream of references within the discussion, the positioning of vivid or at least conveniently enlightening oppositions among scholars of history, sharpens and textures the issues. . . .

To see the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: The Stakes of History

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Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel

  • By Moriel Rothman-Zecher. Atria Books. 288 pp. Hardcover $26.00.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes to life in this devastating tale of friendship and tragedy.

Searing in its beauty, devastating in its emotional power, and dazzling in its insights, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, is, I promise you, like nothing you’ve ever read.

If I’m wrong, you’ve been luckier than I have. His particular vision of today’s Israel, told through a coming-of-age story, will break your heart.

Has this author named himself, or has he grown into his name? After the hyphen, the name translates (from Hebrew) into “memory”; the first name into something like “God is my teacher.” There is something in a name.

The book’s protagonist and narrator, Jonathan, has returned to Israel in his late teens. He looks forward to joining the Israel Defense Force, in part to honor his freedom-fighter grandfather. His life undergoes a radical change after he meets and becomes intimate with Laith and Nimreen — dynamic Arab-Israeli brother-and-sister twins with whom he shares his deepest thoughts.

The three are inseparable. Their closeness offers a hint of hope for the remaking of Jewish-Arab relations. Indeed, for the remaking of Israel, almost by osmosis, as a peaceful, co-national state.

Can you love and admire people so deeply that the barriers between you are conquered? Will the real world even allow it?

The closer Jonathan comes to his military induction date, the more his various strands of identity are stressed. How can he become a soldier who will be at war with his dear friends’ people? How can he become an agent of their disgrace and humiliation?

For all of their ease with the Israeli brand of Western culture, Laith and Nimreen are, at a deep level, strangers. This is true even though they are the children of Jonathan’s mother’s friend.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher

The story, told by Jonathan, is presented as if he is addressing Laith. Sometimes, it seems as if he is rehearsing or imagining the conversation; at other times, it’s as if it’s really happening. Occasionally, it’s as though he’s addressing a dead person.

There is almost nothing of Laith responding, yet there are other scenes in which these friends are engaged in three-way conversations that are amazingly revealing.

Jonathan wavers somewhat before fully committing to his required military duty. And he wavers again when pressed into putting down a potentially dangerous demonstration. In the aftermath of the skirmish, Jonathan is imprisoned by his superiors.

The novel sings out in the distinctive voices of Rothman-Zecher’s characters, in their almost palpable presence, and in their hopes and hesitations. The authenticity of the voices is especially strong in the scenes populated by Jonathan’s friends, all serving in or inevitably bound for the IDF.

Rothman-Zecher shows great skill in portraying different neighborhoods, not only in terms of physical characteristics, but also through capturing the cultural and atmospheric dimensions. As an author/narrator, he seems to be on familiar ground. One wonders to what degree the novel is rooted in direct, if transformed, experience. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Sadness is a White Bird.

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A young, partly Jewish German soldier serves as a member of elite SS unit

The Soul of a Thief, by Steven Hartov. Hanover Square Press. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

“Mischling” is a German term employed in the period of Nazi rule for those with mixed ancestry; that is, less than fully Aryan parentage. Most often it connotes individuals of mixed Aryan and Jewish blood. The narrator of this admirable historical novel, Shtefan Brandt, is one such person.  

Somehow, Shtefan – like approximately 150,000 people of similar ethnic/racial status – came to serve in Germany’s military during WWII. In this case, because the SS leader found something attractive about him, Shtefan became an adjutant to Colonel Erich Himmel and thus attached to the Waffen SS command.

It is not clear if Himmel knew that his young functionary was of tainted blood. What is clear is that Shtefan’s status made him especially vulnerable. His true identity, if known, could lead to all kinds deprivations. It could even lead to his death (as if the risk of death in battle was not enough). If Himmel was aware of the mischling, he would take opportunities to exploit Shtefan’s marginality. For reasons beyond the ladder of command, Shtefan could not question any command, let alone say “no.”

Shtefan, as memoirist-narrator, draws a complex portrait of Himmel. The man is skillful, charismatic, and gregarious. However, he also exhibits cruelty, extreme egocentricity, and unquenchable lust. For the most part, he effectively rallies those in his command. Yet he is frequently unpredictable. He certainly takes every opportunity to abuse women, and he does so monstrously and without remorse.

In a way, Himmel is Shtefan’s benefactor. He insists that his fighting men are real men. No virgins will do. And when Shtefan reveals his sexual innocence, this leader makes the appropriate arrangements. The young man is terrified, though finally successful, oddly appreciative, and indebted.

Hartov

Shtefan adores the colonel and despises him at the same time.

Nazi-occupied Europe during 1943 and 1944 is the novel’s overall setting. Many scenes are set on the Russian front, and many others in occupied France. Hartov’s portraits of the places and the battle actions are magnificent. Through the lens of Shtefan’s processing of Himmel’s decisions and leadership strength, readers witness appalling combat scenes. Sensory detail is abundant: uniforms in repair and disrepair, weapons of all kinds, and the effects of those weapons on combatants, buildings, and vegetation.

And then there is Gabrielle Belmont. This gorgeous young woman lives in the town of Le Pontet, now occupied by Nazi forces. Himmel has discovered her and sends Shtefan to bring her to the colonel’s bed. She resists these second-hand advances, which impresses Shtefan immensely. In fact, the young adjutant has fallen in love with her. Eventually, Himmel finds a way of forcing her to his will. Shtefan is crushed, but he eventually learns that she had no choice.

The stretch of the novel that involves the interplay of these three characters – Shtefan, Gabrielle, and Himmel – includes many of the book’s most memorable scenes. Many other fine scenes take readers through stages of the Allied invasion. Hartov boldly paints the dashed hopes of Nazi leadership and the ensuing chaos leading up to Hitler’s death.

And then, once Himmel comes to see that he will be on the losing side of the war, there is his plan to steal Allied money and “retire” – probably to another continent! Shtefan, privy to the plan and no longer in thrall of Himmel, intends to play along but them take the money and run.

Though I enjoyed this book immensely for its hard-pulsing action, sharply drawn combat scenes, and distinctive characters, I kept waiting for the consequences of raising the mischling issue. Somehow, it’s just not there. Nor is the relevance of Gabrielle eventually being identified as a Jewess. A closing reference to the Jewish Brigade seems forced.

Nonetheless, I heartily recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction and combat literature. Also, just for good measure, there is a surprising amount of wit and humor mixed in with the horrors of the Nazi war machine.

STEVEN HARTOV is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller In the Company of Heroes, as well as The Night Stalkers and Afghanistan on the Bounce. For six years he served as Editor-in-Chief of Special Operations Report. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, FOX, and most recently the History Channel’s Secret Armies. A former Merchant Marine sailor, Israeli Defense Forces paratrooper and special operator, he is currently a Task Force Commander in the New York Guard. He lives in New Jersey.

This review appears in the April 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“Secrets and Shadows” by Roberta Silman

Campden Hill Books, 295 pages. Hardcover $24.00. Trade paperback $12.00

The plot of this intriguing new novel oscillates between a Jewish boy’s life in wartime Berlin and that same person’s life as a temporary returnee in 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall comes down. Author Roberta Silman carefully measures the changed and unchanged conditions in Berlin in these two eras, both for the city at large and for Jewish-German relations. 

Successful lawyer Paul Bertrand, born Paul Berger, was the child and is the man returning to face his past. Paul was divorced by his wife, Eve, five years earlier after twenty-three years of marriage, in part because of his unfaithfulness—yet he has somehow persuaded her to accompany him back to Berlin. The Bertrands have three young adult children: two sons and a daughter. The manner in which Paul and Eve, separately and together, have parented these children is an interesting thread through the novel. The couple’s relationship to their own parents and other relatives also informs the narrative in significant ways.

Silman

 

A prosperous family, the Bergers were secreted during the war in their own home. Silman vividly paints the sharply contrasting characters who protected them. Her astute portrait of the families’ interactions reveals a toxic mixture of indebtedness and resentment. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Secrets and Shadows.

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“An Accidental Messiah” by Dan Sofer

An Accidental Messiah, by Dan Sofer. Self-published. 354 pages. Trade paperback $11.97.

This is the second book in Sofer’s highly imaginative, comically visionary Dry Bones Society series. The setting is Jerusalem today. The premise is that the Final Redemption is at hand. The first book, An Unexpected Afterlife, follows the remarkable second chance given to Moshe Karlin – man literally reborn. Yes, dead and then back again. As you might expect, Moshe has trouble convincing anyone of his status – even without a naval. However, when more and more dead Israelis become undead, the question becomes what to do with them.

For the returnee, the question becomes how do they reconnect to their prior lives? Or do they?  

The present installment brings back key character from the first. These include the learned but modest Rabbi Yosef, who has become a leader of the Dry Bones Society, which is quickly morphing into a significant political party as the reborn population swells. Government leaders and politicians must decide whether to accept or discredit this new force –  a force whose presence signals for many that the end of days is at hand.

Moshe is still striving recapture the love of his former wife, Galit, whom he had let down in his first life. Can he regain her trust and bring her once again to the chuppa? Not if his former friend Avi, mad with jealousy, continues to undermine and betray him.

Then there is Eli Katz, AKA Elijah the Prophet. Is he an eternal. pre-ordained figure ushering in the epoch of Redemption, or a madman with alternative selves? Sofer keeps this ambiguity provocatively alive throughout the narrative.

Dan Sofer

And what about Eli’s sometimes girlfriend and budding scholar, Noga, whose research suggests that part of Israel’s Arab population can be genetically traced back to Jewish priests of ancient times? Indeed, there is an Arab character in the story who seems to be one of the returnees.

A number of lesser characters are offspring of Russian immigrants, another strong faction in the Israeli population. Largely represented as ruffians and mobsters, they are colorful and well-individualized minor figures.

Much of the fun of the novel – and there is plenty of fun – comes out of Sofer’s parody of Israel’s political culture. It’s exciting and absurdly humorous to see powerful figures and special interest parties vying for a chance to link up with the new Dry Bones Society political entity. But Moshe is careful about what kind of deals he will make. He is seeking true unity, not merely unstable alliances. Rebranding his group as Restart, he wants the new image to be not only a name for the born-again Israelis but also a shared hope for the future of Israeli society.

The author’s press material gives the best overview: “The Final Redemption is here. What took so long? According to Jewish traditions (based on the Old Testament), the End of Days will involve a Resurrection of the Dead, a Messiah King, an Ingathering of Exiles, a Rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, a World War, great upheavals, and a very large banquet of fish (or, in the very least, one very large fish).” You have here the content and tone of the whole.

As one might expect, the Redeemer as represented in the novel is a false Messiah. However, he easily attracts followers. Indeed, the wish for the Messianic age is so powerful that an otherwise level-headed person like Rabbi Yosef is temporarily swept away.

Sofer’s dazzling and sometimes zany exploration of his key “what ifs” is handled in a fluid and attractive prose style. The book is teaming, perhaps somewhat overstuffed, with interesting characters. It keeps an engaging balance between the serious and humorous perspectives that the subject invites. It brings contemporary Jerusalem to life on all levels: the physical-sensory, the cultural, and the spiritual.

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 imbued with magical realism. Many of these take place in Jerusalem. His earlier novel, A Love and Beyond, won the 2016 Best Books Award for Religious Fiction. An Unexpected Afterlife (reviewed in April 2017) was presented as Book I of The Dry Bones Society series. Following An Accidental Messiah, the author plans to bring out A Premature Apocalypse – book three in the series..

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 February 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Great Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Charlotte and Lee Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee). 

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“The Orchard,” by Yochi Brandes; Daniel Libenson, trans.

 Gefen Publishing House.  382 pages. Hardcover $24.95

Originally published in Hebrew as Hapardes shel Akiva in 2011, this unusual historical novel furthers biblical scholar Yochi Brandes’s refashioning of our understanding of Judaism’s roots, recently amplified in her novel The Secret Book of Kings

Can you imagine sitting down with Rabbi Elisha, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabban Gamaliel, and other sages of the first centuries of the common era? Can you imagine eavesdropping on their debates, their moments of uncertainty, their jealousies, their alliances and misalliances?

Can you imagine an era during which those spiritual leaders interacted not only with the ruling Roman power but with the dawning Christian culture and its challenges?

Yochi Brandes

Can you imagine their bewilderment—a mixture of awe and suspicion—when the illiterate shepherd who married far above his station bloomed in exile from his wife, Rachel, until he took his place among them and then became their master?

Yochi Brandes imagines these scenes and many more in this astonishing novel that expands our understanding of how early modern Judaism and Christianity began. The book is centered on the powerful fable concerning Rabbi Akiva’s ascendancy and is dressed in all of the surrounding, attendant history—in particular the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans. . . .

The full Jewish Book Council review may be found at JBC – The Orchard

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Once upon a time – the Hebrew language yesterday and today

The Story of Hebrew, by Lewis Glinert. Princeton University Press. 296 pages.  Hardcover $27.95.

Lewis Glinert, Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, has made a complicated and challenging story line as accessible as possible without oversimplifying the facts and the issues. His goal is well-served by choosing the word “story” rather than “history” for his title. This decision creates a mild and friendly kind of personification – “Hebrew” becomes a character in a lively narrative. This character is multidimensional, like any protagonist worth reading about. He (let’s say “he” for convenience) has his ups and downs.

Though he’s been around a long time, and hasn’t always aged well, he has had spectacular periods of rejuvenation. There are times, however, when his friends can hardly recognize him.

Prof. Glinert, after a concise introduction, traces his character’s life in eight meaty chapters, usually offering subsections in each to help focus issues and underscore turning points. These subsections provide necessary breaks for that even the most ardent followers will welcome. 

Early on, the author reminds us of the unique situation of Hebrew: for much of Jewish history, “Hebrew was not a mother tongue to be spoken naturally. Rather, Jews kept it alive by raising their young men to study and ponder Hebrew texts.” How could it survive without being part of an everyday exchange among members of a civilization?

Among the many partial answers to that question is the recognition that the Jewish Bible had literary flexibility and richness. It contained law, stories, poetry, and wisdom: tools for life and for living together. While its status as a divine gift urged attention and dependence, the text was rewarding for simply providing stimulation and pleasure. And it wasn’t all in Hebrew!

Prof. Gilbert traces the ways in which Hebrew worked, or sometimes didn’t work, to maintain and sustain a population scattered and scorned. He regularly provides insights into key characteristics of the language, both its unique and shared features. These examples enliven the story, but they are subordinate to the grand discovery and appreciation of Hebrew’s journey through time.

Each reader will make a personal decision about which parts of the story are most intriguing. On of these is certain to be “Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome,” notable for its vivid presentation of a long developing clash of civilizations that birthed unending consequences. Within this chapter is a sketch of Ezra, perhaps the most indispensable figure in the story of the Jewish people. It was he who “led a new wave of Jewish returnees from Babylonia” and helped to re-establish a vibrant Jewish life in Hebrew’s home territory. This “charismatic scholar-priest . . . orchestrated a religious revival and strove to bring the Torah to the masses.”

This same chapter stresses the centrality of the Mishnah in organizing Jewish life and the planting of seeds that would, over time, grow into the standard Hebrew prayer book.

Glinert

The dazzling middle chapters of The Story of Hebrew balance an exploration of “The Sephardic Classical Age” against “Medieval Ashkenaz and Italy.” The first epoch, beginning around 900 and continuing for 600 years (until the Spanish Inquisition), was a period of the highest cultural achievement. This process included “a renewal of a biblical Hebrew aesthetic and a reigning in the rabbinic mode.” The region of Andalusia fostered a “golden age of Hebrew poetry and linguistics.” Great minds were at work contesting the question of Hebrew language purity. What was required for the conveyance knowledge, whether new or old? For Jonah ibn Janah, the mastery of grammatical understanding was indispensable.

What version or refinement of Hebrew will best serve the Jewish imagination?

The chapter on “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination” opens a world that most Jewish individuals, even the most culturally and linguistically sophisticated, rarely if even enter. Prof. Glinert traces the fate of Hebrew in the early stages of the Christian theological revolution and in later periods as well. He examines Christian churchmen’s need to engage Hebrew as the best way to find authority for Christian dogma. Such a mastery could also be a powerful conversion tool. The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Christian Europe featured a dynamic interest in Hebrew among Christians, an interest that had waned by the early nineteenth century.

By the later nineteenth century, the Zionist enterprise was in full swing, and Prof. Glinert gives the movement’s effect on Hebrew detailed, engaging attention. Similar is given to the Hasidic enterprise

The author’s treatment of the more recent periods, most importantly the connection between the founding of the modern state of Israel and the state’s commitment to Hebrew as a (essentially “the”) national language, is likely to be the chapter that will attract reading, re-reading, and discussion in contemporary Jewish circles. This discussion is full of excite and wonder about the melding of a people, a language, and a homeland.

Prof. Glinert provides generous chapter notes, suggestions for further reading, and a highly useful index.

This book is a masterpiece that is likely to hold sway over the important and fascinating issues it discusses for many years to come.  Jewish readers who enter this challenging space will find their understanding of Jewish identity mightily expanded.

The essay appears in the January 2018 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).

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“The Ruined House: A Novel” by Ruby Namdar

Translated by Hillel Halkin. Harper. 528 pp. Hardcover $29.99.

This breathtaking tale of a prominent professor’s undoing is expertly woven with biblical passages.

Some books are so spectacularly original, so far beyond the boundaries of any reader’s expectations, and so challenging that they establish a new point of reference for any further discussions of literary achievement.

Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House, set at the dawn of the 21st century, explores the givens of a cataclysmic era that may become a period of tumultuous cleansing. Though centered on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual disintegration of a successful, middle-aged college professor, it fully engages the new American century’s self-masking: its adulation of elites and its confusion of cultural values.

Namdar

Andrew P. Cohen, an accomplished and proud secular Jew, has tripped over the scales of hubris and found himself to be a foul beast. His aura of polite self-congratulation has become contaminated and slowly begins to smother him. His many faults, the recognition of which he has artfully hidden from himself for decades, are in the process of being revealed.

The selfishness with which he ended his marriage is exposed to him. The comfort and security he felt in his academic achievements, the physical attractiveness and health that he nurtured and in which he delighted, and his assumption of fully controlling his always upward-bound destiny are most painfully stripped away.

Namdar tells his story, almost sings it, with a lyricism that is only the richer for the hideous images that increasingly fill up Cohen’s world as he falls apart. The erotic turns into its hideous opposite. Images of grotesque tongues and penises fill his imagination.  He sees signs of what’s coming, has nightmares and incredible daydreams, and they all finally rest on how his being — if not his world — has been penetrated, irradiated, by ancient texts: sections of Old Testament with accompanying Mishnaic commentary.

This material, represented in the graphic style of the original manuscripts, focuses on the preparation of the Temple’s high priest for performing his duties during the seven days leading to Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. These duties are largely rituals of purification, but also include various kinds of sacrifices — offerings to God.

Inner and outer cleansing of the self and the temple are described, along with a number of sacred objects like fire pans and candelabras. The strange ceremonial practice of purifying holy places by sprinkling them with blood is included. . . .

To read the full review, click here: The Ruined House

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