Category Archives: Jewish Themes

“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

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Real and fake terrorists bring Israel-based TV cooking competition mayhem and edgy humor

The Two-Plate Solution: A Novel of Culinary Mayhem in the Middle East, by Jeff Oliver. Bancroft Press. 224 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

Do you like something zany? Something that risks going out of bounds? Something that mixes hilarity with an acute awareness of our addiction to so-called reality television and social media? It’s here at last in Jeff Oliver’s tongue-in-cheek fantasy. Come to the playground Israeli city of Eilat and witness the filming of Natural Dish-aster season five. How do ever-pressured producers and staff keep the ratings up? By mixing the ridiculous with the sublime.  

The cast of character is a mind-boggling mix of media-savvy chefs, production staffers at various levels of the power pyramid, Israelis connected to the production as security liaisons, Islamic terrorists, and actors pretending to be Islamic terrorists. Sure enough, the real thing takes over.

The Grand Sheba Excelsior, home of the production (and not yet open to the public), is the scene of several crimes against sobriety.

Sexual appetites are as much on display as foodies lusting for taste sensations. The competition for climbing the executive ladder of the production company is as cutthroat as any kitchen rivalry.

Perhaps only Jeff Oliver could dream up the possibility of a cooking challenge like “baking bread while running through the desert almost getting murdered by slave owners.”

As the aficionados of cooking competitions know only too well, the televised production often offsets the action with the voices of the contestants as they are interviewed before or after that action. Oliver has a lot of fun with this, interspersing his main action with slices of interviews that reveal his characters’ attitudes.

He also has a lot of fun with puns and improbabilities. One of the competitive teams, “Team Mis En Bouche,” prepares a “deconstructed Seder plate” that includes a Palestinian touch to suggest “a time of racial harmony, without walls, and Arabs were one with the Jews.” It doesn’t matter that one of the characters, Al-Asari, comments: “That interpretation of history is insane.” Or does it?

Jeff Oliver

The dialogue among these reasonably well-defined characters is catchy and fast-paced throughout, though sometimes a bit off-color. Oliver has an ear for language, both scripted and spontaneous, and it serves him and his readers well. Indeed, there are so many characters that is astonishing how sharply individualized they are. Catchy names and heavily underscored traits help the cause.

The character through whom Oliver gets the most mileage in revealing the enormous levels of stress and insecurity that haunts this industry is Genevieve Jennings, an executive whose position and future seem in jeopardy. Manic fear and ambition collide in her personality, but she finds a way of coming through. She gets the job done largely on her own terms. But why is she labeled with her last name in a female group including Sara, Ruti, Sharon, and Tanya?

While much of the author’s satiric direction is quickly understood, leaving the book’s structure to be basically a “can you top this” stream of frenzied ingenuity, there are enough refreshing surprises to keep readers turning pages.

One of these is the introduction of Ruchama – The Halva Queen of Eilat – who so impresses the production staff that she is invited to become a contest judge. Taking advantage of her respected skills and knowledge, the chefs compete for an unexpected prize by conjuring the most satisfactory and unusual halva recipe. And why not? Even the ones with savory features stand a chance.

Friendship, romance, and rivalry are the umbrellas under which the many and diverse relationships may be found. And, indeed, relationships undergo changes in this ultimately hopeful adventure.

Oliver knows that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is no joke, but he chooses to pretend, and invite his readers to pretend, that it is. Or that the answer might be found through humorous exploration. The punning title begins the process. You’ll have to make your own journey to discover how it ends.

About the Author:

Jeff Oliver is Vice President of Current Production at Bravo and a former executive at the Food Network, where he developed the hit series Cutthroat Kitchen and worked on other such epic culinary hits as Worst Cooks in America and The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia. He is the author of the acclaimed debut novel Failure to Thrive. Jeff lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife, Liz Blazer, and son.

Meet Jeff on Thursday, November 29 at 11:30 p.m. at the Hilton Naples, where be speaking at a special luncheon session of the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival. For more info, check out www.jewishbookfestival.org

The review appears in the November 2018 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples).

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Coming Events, Jewish Themes

“Promised Land: A Novel of Israel,” by Martin Fletcher

Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press. 416 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

Martin Fletcher’s Promised Land is a literary triumph of near-contemporary historical fiction that is magnetic, surprising, and should be read and enjoyed for decades to come. The scope of the book runs from 1950, shortly after Israel’s establishment as a modern nation, to 1967, a time of its most severe testing.  

Fletcher deals in wars: the wars amongst the Jewish citizenly, the wars with Israel’s neighbors, and the wars within an extended family that contains Egyptian Jews exiled (fortunately) to the Jewish state.

And there is the aftermath of war, too, expressed through the sons of Holocaust victims, the elder of whom reached freedom in the United States before settling in Israel, and the younger son — emotionally wounded — who was incarcerated, tortured, and barely escaped with his life.

For all of its impression of compactness, Promised Land is a novel of generations, reminiscent of the Old Testament’s presentation of Jewish families to whom, as the story goes, the Creator conditionally gave the original promised land. What would seem more biblical than warring brothers?

When they were still children, Peter Berg was put on a train that took him west, the initial stage of a journey that led to safety with an American family. He grew up with their children. Arie, then called Aren, was somewhat later put on a train that took him, his parents, and his sisters to the concentration camps. Aren alone survived, but at great cost to his psyche.

Martin Fletcher – Credit Chelsea Dee

Miraculously, the brothers are reunited in 1947. Peter, who had been in the U.S. Army, is already a founding agent of the young CIA. Learning of his brother’s survival, he searches for him in Palestine. Aren Berg is now named Arie ben Nesher, and Peter Berg decides to become Peter Nesher, transferring his allegiance to the cause of Jewish nationhood.

Peter becomes a leader in matters of Israeli security, and Arie becomes a prominent entrepreneur who enjoys showing off his wealth. Along the way, another family enters their lives, a family of Jewish-Egyptian refugees whose glory is their beautiful, intelligent daughter Tamara.

The time markers move along: 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956, and so on into the 1960s, with the author carefully developing his characters and his portrait of the burgeoning Israeli nation, along with reminders of the constant menace of its nearby Arab-Islamic neighbors. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Promised Land.

Martin Fletcher appears on the January 9 program of the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival. See GNJBF

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Coming Events, Jewish Themes

Comedy superstar headlines Greater Naples Jewish Film Festival

When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win (Villard, 2009) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying (Quirk, Books, 2014).

Carol Leifer

Carol Leifer’s stories bring tonic laughter and wacky wisdom.

As she does in her classic stand-up routines, Carol Leifer talks about herself as a way of talking about all of us, certainly the female spectrum of all of us. The chapters of these two books, books which are different in several ways, are either chapters in her own life or observational chapters about what goes on around her. Sometimes abrasive, sometimes sensitive, but always funny and wise.

In When You Life About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, a good deal of the focus has to do with turning forty and what follows from that time marker through another decade or so.

The perspective is feminist, Lesbian, and Jewish all braided into one brainy package. 

It is not about her career, but in a way it is very much a part of her career. You can hear her voice bringing her material to an audience – all of us.

The title of the second chapter says it well: 40 Things I Know at 50 Because 50 is the New Forty.

Enjoy family stories about growing up, mom and dad, exploring and enhancing her Jewish identity, discovering and acting on her Lesbian inclinations, and the family she creates with her partner and their adopted son. The stories explore the tension that we all share between the way we’d like things to be and the way they are: our appearance, our values, surviving our mistakes, our health, and our relationships – including relationships with pets.

Considering the need for better quality breast implants, devices she would never use, she shouts out in the safety of her thoughts: “Why am I fighting for your fake tits when you’re not bringing anything to my table?”

Carol wonders about the women she meets who are a generation or two younger than herself. She doesn’t see them carrying the torch as she and her contemporaries carried through the earlier decades of the Women’s Movement.

She wonders about her “quid pro quo” attitude toward gift-giving. Is getting even what it’s all about? Is it just a family or “Jewish” thing? And how did a classic gift, the “chafing dish,” get its name? Should it be treated with Vaseline before use?

Have we become “lazy-ass weenies,” she asks, needing “comfort grips” on our tooth brushes and pens? What’s that all about? 

Carol’s experiences in her various doctors’ offices will bring knowing smiles from her readers. But when they get to the part about a mammogram, when the radiology tech says that the doctor wants “a few more films of your left breast,” readers will know we’ve slid off the comic table for a page or two. Luckily all turned out well. What tremendous emotional resonance is in that vignette.

Ultimately, this earlier book is a celebration of aging. Carol helps us all celebrate together.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying, published in a small page format, is also a memoir, and it covers some of the same thematic concerns. This time, however, Carol plunges into her career history as both a hugely successful stand-up comedian and brilliant television comedy writer. Guess what? Carol has found a way to make this self-help book applicable to almost any career that one might wish to enter. And it’s not just about breaking in, but about staying and rising to the top.

While she draws examples from her own experiences – and these are all terrifically entertaining stories – she extracts the transferable lessons in a way that make sense to anyone aspiring to get started in the world of work, to change directions, or to reach a higher level of achievement.

Carol underscores the need for constructive attitude building that leads to positive action plans. She explores the value of making and keeping useful connections. She insists that consistently treating others well will pay off, while treating them poorly is likely to come back to haunt you and block your path. She shows how you can rebound from a negative experience and often transform it into something unexpectedly positive.

It doesn’t hurt that we get to encounter models of successful professional performers whom we think we already know: Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Bette Midler, David Letterman Jay Leno, and Frank Sinatra are only a small handful of the many show business celebrities with whom Carol has worked and who have helped shape her own expertise about climbing the ladder of success and not falling off. Her rules for the road are in themselves quite a ride. Laughs are everywhere.

An extra added ingredient in this book is the inclusion of dozens of photographs.

Well known for her stand-up specials on TV and her award-winning contributions as a writer to such television series as Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, and Modern Family, Carol Leifer will be joining the staff for the upcoming season of Curb Your Enthusiasm as a Writer/Producer.

Come to the Hilton Naples to laugh and learn when trailblazer Carol Leifer leads off the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival on October 17 at 7:30 p. m.  Schedule and ordering Information is available online at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. You can also send email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

This review appears in the October 2018 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples) and also in the Naples Florida Weekly. See Leifer

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Coming Events, Jewish Themes

GREATER NAPLES JEWISH BOOK FESTIVAL 2018-2019


 

BEGINNING THIS MONTH AND CONCLUDING in April, the fourth annual Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival offers a series of events likely to surpass the stellar achievements of its first three years. A project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Naples in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, the festival brings 25 authors to 16 events at several venues. As in past year, several events feature two authors matched by a common theme or genre; others will showcase a solo presenter. Here’s the fall lineup:

¦ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, at the Hilton Naples: Comedy writer and performer Carol Leifer – Television comedy was an exclusive all-boys club for years — until Ms. Leifer came along, blazing a trail for funny women everywhere. From “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live” to “Seinfeld” and “Modern Family,” Ms. Leifer has written for and/or performed on some of the best TV comedies of all time. Her memoir, “How to Succeed in Business without Really Crying,” charts her extraordinary three-decade journey through show business. An earlier title, “When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win: Reflections on Looking in the Mirror,” will also be available for purchase and author signing. Light snacks and beverages included.

TOBOLOWSKY

TOBOLOWSKY

¦ 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, at Temple Shalom, Naples: Actor and storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky, back by popular demand – USA Today listed Mr. Tobolowsky as the ninth most frequently seen actor in movies, having appeared in more than 200 films and TV shows. He is also the consummate storyteller, warm, funny and profound. This year’s festivalgoers will enjoy hearing more tales from his life and his two books, “My Adventures with God” and “The Dangerous Anima ls Club.”

¦ 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 5, at the Hilton Naples: Jean Chatzky and Dr. Michael Roizen – Two of the world’s leading experts will explain the vital link between health and wealth, sharing an actionable plan to add years to your life and dollars to your bank account. The financial editor for NBC’s “Today Show,” Ms. Chatzky is an award-winning personal finance journalist, bestselling author and AARP personal finance ambassador. Dr. Roizen, chief wellness officer for the Cleveland Clinic and frequent guest on “The Dr. Oz Show,” is the coauthor of seven New York Times bestsellers. A copy of their book, “Age-Proof: Living Longer Without Running Out of Money or Breaking a Hip,” is included in the ticket price. Light snacks and beverages will be served.

CHATZKY

CHATZKY

¦ 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at the Hilton Naples: Jeff Oliver, author of “The Two-Plate Solution” – Mr. Oliver’s wacky novel takes a team of chefs through a TV cooking competition set in Israel. The show’s producers put the chefs into culinary competition against fake “terrorists” — but then actual terrorists invade the set. What’s going on? Mystery and romance join hysteria in an adventure cooked up by the former Food Network executive who invented the hit series “Cutthroat Kitchen” and knows reality TV from the inside. Lunch is included in the ticket price.

ROIZEN

ROIZEN

¦ 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18, at the Hilton Naples: Jamie Bernstein, the oldest daughter of composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein – Ms. Bernstein will share insights from “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein,” her intoxicating meditation on a complex and sometimes troubled man, the family he raised and the music he composed – music that is an unforgettable part of modern American culture. The author shares her family’s relationships with other cultural icons like Mike Nichols and Jerome Robbins. A singer will join Ms. Bernstein to perform some of the legendary composer’s works.

Light snacks and beverages included.

 

¦ 10 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples: Brunch with author TBA.

The festival continues in January as follows:

¦ 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, at Temple Shalom: Two authors whose books are set in Israel – Izzy Ezagui’s “Disarmed” follows the aftermath of the loss of his arm in a 2009 mortar attack and is a story of determination that focuses on his long and torturous rehabilitation. Martin Fletcher was an NBC correspondent in Israel for 26 years and has won almost every award in TV journalism. His novel “Promised Land” is set in the early years of the new Jewish state, when two brothers reunite.

¦ 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, at Temple Shalom: Two nonfiction narratives – Stephen Flatow’s “A Father’s Story” recounts the author’s successful struggle to bring Iran, the funder of his daughter’s terrorist murder, to accountability. Gregory Wallance’s “The Woman Who Fought an Empire” tells the story of Sarah Aaronsohn’s heroic leadership of a Middle East spy ring aimed at saving Palestinian Jews from possible genocide.

¦ 1 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, at the Sugden Community Theatre: The inside story on the making and astounding success of the classic film “The Graduate” – Beverly Gray’s “Seduced by Mrs. Robinson” tells the story of how a film made from an obscure novel became an iconic hit and influenced future filmmaking. This event will include a screening of the film and a presentation by Ms. Gray, a film industry veteran and entertainment journalist. What makes “The Graduate” a Jewish film? Come and find out.

¦ 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, at the Hilton Naples: Comedy tonight! – Several members of the local community, chosen from auditions, will perform comedy routines with Jewish themes. After an intermission with drinks and snacks, author and professor Jeremy Dauber will discuss his book “Jewish Comedy: A Serious History.”

¦ 1 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18, at the Naples Conference Center: Two nonfiction studies – Ariel Burger’s “Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom” offers a provocative and inspiring look at a Jewish icon who was also his decades-long friend and mentor. Yvette Manessis Corporon’s “Something Beautiful Happened” tells the story of how people of the small Greek island of Erikousa hid a Jewish family from the Nazis during WWII. The author, decades later, found the man’s descendants in Israel.

¦ 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, at the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island; and 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, at Temple Shalom: Jenna Blum and Alyson Richman – Ms. Blum’s “The Lost Family” features a husband devastated by grief he cannot voice, a frustrated wife competing with a ghost she cannot banish and a daughter sensitive to family pain. The repercussions of the survivors’ Holocaust tragedies are brilliantly portrayed. Ms. Richman’s “The Secret of Clouds” is told from the perspective of a young mother and the devoted teacher who befriends her son. Spanning two countries and several decades, it examines what it means to live life with a full heart.

¦ 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 6, at the Naples Conference Center: A day of fiction – From 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Carol Zoref (“Barren Island”) and Moriel Rothman- Zecher (“Sadness Is a White Bird”) will discuss their new works. Ms. Zoref’s book traces several generations of a Jewish immigrant family living on an island near Brooklyn, N.Y. Ms. Rothman-Zecher’s lyrical debut novel explores a young Israeli’s relationship with two Palestinian siblings. Grab a quick lunch (or bring a brown bag) and settle back in from 1:30- 4:30 p.m. to hear from Mark Sarvas (“Memento Park”) and Elyssa Friedland (“The Intermission”). Mr. Sarvas narrates the story of a Hungarian family’s painting that was looted during WWII. Ms. Friedland presents alternating husband/ wife perspectives to illustrate how shallow our knowledge can be about those we love most

¦ 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 27, at Temple Shalom: Rachel Kadish and Tova Mirvis – In “The Weight of Ink,” historical fiction author Ms. Kadish provides an interwoven tale of two women set in London of the 1660s and the early 21st century. The women are linked by a document for which one was the scribe and the other is summoned to assess many centuries later. In “The Book of Separation,” Ms. Mirvis explores the tensions in her own life as a child in a tight-knit Orthodox family whose doubts eventually lead her, in her 40s, to separate from her marriage and from her Orthodox religious community. How can you enter a new way of living and remain close to those who believe differently?

¦ 1 p.m. Monday, April 8, at Beth Tikvah: Two nonfiction writers, both relatives of Naples residents: David Litt, at 24, became one of the youngest White House speechwriters ever. He also became President Obama’s go-to writer for comedy. Mr. Litt will discuss his “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years.” In “The End of Old Age,” Marc Agronin, director of the memory center and research program at Miami Jewish Health, helps readers rethink the traditional view of old age as solely a time of loss and decline. Instead, he sees the aging process as a developmental force bringing unique strengths, creativity and opportunity. ¦

>> What: 25 authors, 16 events Oct. 17-April 8

>> Where: Various venues in Naples and Marco Island

>> Tickets, author bios and book synopses: www.jewishbookfestival.org.

>> Questions: 263-4205 or fedstar18@gmail.com

— Phil Jason is co- chair of the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival.

Published in Naples Florida Weekly on October 4, 2018. Also in Bonita Springs and Fort Myers editions.  See Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival and scroll to pp. C20-21. First appeared in September 2018 Federation Star.

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Coming Events, Jewish Themes

“On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash”

Ellen Cassedy, trans. Northern Illinois University Press. 192 pages. Trade Paperback $16.95.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The sixteen stories in this collection, carefully selected and translated from Yenta Mash’s life’s work in Yiddish, form a series of quiet explosions. Though they sometimes cry out, the voices are strangely subdued, recording as they do life behind the Iron Curtain in the decades of Soviet strangulation of subject peoples. Communities in Bessarabia, Moldova, and Siberia were at best unofficial prisons for aspiring souls and curious minds and at worst, official ones. For the surprisingly large, if relatively unknown, Jewish communities, the burdens included that of anti-Semitism.

For some, including Mash, immigration to Israel during and after the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the 1970s was a mixed blessing. There was so much that was unfamiliar, so much to get used to. More importantly, there was so much to remember before the memories would vanish.

In one story in this collection, Mash takes us into the lives of two young women, foresters working long hours for a bare subsistence. They cut down trees, prepare the trunks and branches for usable lumber, and carry them to be examined by their boss. The narrator is dependent on her more skillful coworker, Riva, without whom she would be lost. It’s the dead of winter, and there is no expectation of respite from the frozen misery of their lives. These intimates are the family breadwinners. From time to time, they make one another laugh. Though their relationship turns sour in later years, readers are left with their strength and indomitable spirits. What’s enchanting in this story and others is the comfortable way in which the characters carry their Jewish selves—with a mixture of knowledge and habit that sometimes seems more nourishing than any other part of their existence. . . .

To see the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: On the Landing

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion,” by Nachman Shai

SUNY Press. 284 pages. Hardcover $85.00.  

Review by Philip K. Jason

Hasbara, or Israel’s social diplomacy, is the focus of Knesset member Nachman Shai’s excellent study Hearts and Minds, winner of the 2013 Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. According to Shai, hasbara is what Israel’s leaders have neither taken seriously enough, nor implemented well enough throughout the country’s existence.

נחמן שי
Nachman Shai

 

 

Moving chronologically, Shai analyzes how Israel’s leadership has dealt with conflict. Though Israel has won many victories on the military front by exercising hard power, in the arena of soft power, or hasbara, Shai argues, resources have been either ineffective, reluctantly employed, or nonexistent. There are recent signs, however, of shifting attitudes. Public and private media and non-governmental organizations are playing a growing role in the battle for “hearts and minds.”

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here:  Hearts and Minds

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, by Jonathan Weisman

St. Martin’s Press. 256 pages. Hardcover  $25.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The heat of Weisman’s outrage, tempered by the precision of his arguments, elevates this book to a must-read examination of the contemporary renaissance of anti-Semitism.

It is a call for action, part warning and part how-to manual, addressing individual American Jews, Jewish communities, and, especially, Jewish institutions. The ugly head of

anti-Semitism has returned to “the land of the free,” most notably in the messages and methods of the alt-right movement. According to Weisman, it is time to cut it off.Partly rooted in Timothy Snyder’s writings, Weisman’s study provides a compact history of the rise of the alt-right, its canny exploitation of social media, its odd success at resurrecting ancient European clichés about Jews, and the affinity that seems to exist between the group’s rise and that of Donald Trump.

Jonathan Weisman credit Gabrielle Demczuk

Weisman’s first chapter begins: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Weisman considers the Age of Trump to be an Age of Walls, at least in its aspirations. He identifies the success of the man he calls “the first Jewish citizen of the world,” Maimonides, as an outgrowth of the

tolerance of the twelfth-century Islamic Empire, a time and place of fewer boundaries. Weisman goes on to address other exceptional “international” Jews in the context of their times, including Moses Mendelssohn. . . .

To see the rest of this Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Semitism

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Dazzling epic about memory that integrates fiction with memoir is deeply original and ambitious

Returning, by Yael Shahar. Kasva Press. 504 pages. Hardcover $28.95; Trade paperback $19.95

Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.

What genre does is belong to? Author Yael Shahar once thought of calling it “fiction memoir,” but that does not capture enough of its essence.

The workings of dreams are central to the book’s technique and meaning, but what if you dream someone else’s dreams? What if someone else dreams yours and remembers yourmemories? Shahar’s artistry is to make these “what-ifs” credible and meaningful; in fact, inevitable and necessary. She imbeds these actualized possibilities in a theological — or, at least, a biblical — context.

The primary character is an older man named Alex. He is a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who has lived in Israel for many decades following his escape from slave labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Greek Jew from Salonika (“Saloniki” throughout this book), Alex, whose given name is Ovadya (servant of God), was part of a sonderkommando crew, mostly Jewish, who were worked to exhaustion day after day hauling away the bones and ashes of incinerated Jews and other doomed prisoners.

All of his adult life, Alex has been trying, without much success, to resist the constant pressures of memories that take him back to his sonderkommando experience, a trauma that he’d like to forget. As an unwilling witness and assistant to the obliteration of his people, Alex is a man with a diseased soul. Part of him knows that he must face his past and accept responsibility for actions taken and not taken.

He seeks the help of Rabbi Ish-Shalom (“man of peace”), a person of remarkable learning, wisdom, and sensitivity. The rabbi becomes a spiritual coach who leads Alex on the path of self-knowledge, atonement, and redemption.

Yael Shahar credit Rahel Jaskow

But this is not a feel-good journey; it is filled with harrowing confrontations with Alex’s younger self. The rabbi insists, through a series of questions and refutations of Alex’s answers, that there are times when the giving of one’s own life may be the moral choice.

Alex’s resistance to his job of making room for the next victims to be pushed into the gas chambers would not have saved those lives, but that defense is slowly taken away during his conversations with the rabbi.

As Alex releases his memories, first by writing them down and later by speaking them aloud, he undergoes renewal and revelation that properly elevate his sense of self. He can take back his given name because he earns his right to it.

Yael Shahar as a character in her book is an intermediary between Alex and Rabbi Ish-Shalom. She brings them together. In a literal sense, with her name given as author of the book, she is telling Alex’s story — including his dialogue with the rabbi. . . .

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

Florida, families, and fruit trees anchor a dazzling fiction set in the early 1960s

Goldens Are Here, by Andrew Furman. Green Writers Press. 364 pages. Trade paperback $21.95.

There are so many strands and points of interest in this fine, highly original novel that it’s hard to know where to begin. In the background is the Cuban Missile Crisis, the blooming (technically and economically) of Florida’s Space Coast, and the Civil Rights struggle. In the foreground is the Florida citrus industry in the early 1960s as represented by a body of small grove owners along or near the Indian River.  

In these communities, the white folks own the groves and the black folks perform much of the labor. Race relations are in an uneasy truce, a tangle of old habits and shaky dependencies. A great freeze threatens to destroy the groves, even if insects don’t.

The central character, Isaac Golden, has abandoned his career as a physician and set out on a grand adventure with his wife Melody and their two young children – Sarah and Eli. Moving away from the Philadelphia area, where their Jewish identity was readily reinforced, they have settled in a small town with only one other Jewish family and a considerable ride to Jewish institutions. The Goldens are clearly outsiders, and the way they are addressed by many of the townspeople carries a brand of politeness that barely veils a cultural tradition of anti-Semitism.

Professor Andrew Furman
Credit Benjamin Rusnak

Prof. Furman portrays how Isaac and Melody deal with their displacement and discomfort with skill and sensitivity.

The story of Isaac’s attempt to develop improved breeds of oranges becomes a continuing lesson in citrus science. Prof. Furman provides a large specialized vocabulary that is the basis for reader understanding of Isaac’s mission and of the industry he has entered. This material and the extensive exposition should fall flat, but somehow the author makes it sing. He does this by capturing Isaac’s poetic passion, especially his interest in avoiding chemical pesticides and employing means of protecting his groves using natural, nontoxic agents.

Well, he is spending more money than he is likely to make. Melody develops a roadside business selling from her vegetable garden, from the groves, and from the kitchen – her wonderful pies add much-needed income to the Goldens’ enterprise. . . .

To see the entire review, as it appears in the August 22, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 23 Naples, Bonita Spring, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Goldens Are Here

2 Comments

Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors, Jewish Themes