Category Archives: Jewish Themes

“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

Stay tuned for interview with Yaakov Katz. Coming in early May.

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“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

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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).

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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).

1 Comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“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

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

2nd annual Jewish book festival will delight Greater Naples area

nazititaniccoverThis winter, the second annual Collier County Jewish Book Festival will strive to top its highly successful inaugural edition, continuing this outstanding contribution to the cultural life of our community. A project of the Jewish Federation of Collier County in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, the Festival will offer 12 book events at several venues, with a total of 20 authors visiting through the winter season.

karolinastwins_fc

With five exceptions, each of the Festival events will feature at least two authors matched by a common theme. Three of those exceptions are food-related events. The others guarantee food for thought. At the multi-author events, the authors sharing the bill will not co-present or share the stage, but provide back-to-back presentations. Each speaker will give a 30- to 45-minute talk followed by 15-20 minutes of Q&A plus book-signing time. There will be a short break between presentations.

For a complete schedule of events, ticket information, venue locations, author bios and book synopses, visit www.jewishbookfestival.org. For questions and general information, call 239.263.4205 or email fedstar18@gmail.com.

jbf-logo-blue

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Coming Events, Jewish Themes

“Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn,” by Daniel Gordis

  

Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. 576 pages. Hardcover $29.99.

Daniel Gordis’s new history of Israel should become a standard for years to come, perhaps even a classic. At 576 pages, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn can indeed be considered concise, as so much more could be and has been written about each era and associated issues addressed in the book. Clear, forceful, frank, and often inspiring, this mighty tome of both academic and personal writing explores the ups, downs, and turning points in a history that begins with Theodore Herzl’s vision and ends with tomorrow’s challenges.

Gordis

Gordis

Gordis is masterful at stepping into the personalities of the key thinkers and doers of the modern Jewish state. His portraits are alive, and his judgments are shrewd. He understands and conveys with authority the ways in which, for the most part, the right leaders arise to encounter the troubles of specific eras, such as Menachem Begin’s fruitful ascendency following a period of relative disgrace and invisibility. Quick to point out the flaws in his parade of Israel’s pre-state and later leaders, Gordis exposes how the times make the leader (and vice versa) with sensitivity and nuance.

As vigorously as he draws the pre-state decades of Zionist immigration, Gordis’s depictions of independent, modern Israel’s remarkable and even miraculous ability to absorb millions of émigrés are truly uplifting; the statistics are staggering, especially those examined from periods when Israel’s economy was relatively weak. Each of Israel’s major and minor wars receives its due in terms of its relative complexity and consequence. Perhaps the most intriguing chapter is “Six Days of War Change a Country Forever” about the 1967 war: the euphoria which followed Israel’s multilayered victory is palpable straight off the page. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis |

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“Mischling,” by Affinity Konar

Lee Boudreaux Books. 400 Pages. Hardcover $27.00.
Set in the autumn of 1944 and the first half of 1945, Affinity Konar’s fictional treatment of Dr. Josef Mengele’s maniacal experimentation on young twins and other victims incarcerated at Auschwitz is astonishing.Mischling (meaning “hybrid” or “mixed-blood”) is a novel based on carefully mastered research processed by the author’s artful and spiritually charged imagination. It is the most risk-prone type of coming-of-age tale that one is likely to encounter, held as it is in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic frame.
Konar - credit Gabriela Michanie

Konar – credit Gabriela Michanie

The first half of the novel is set primarily within Auschwitz, in the dormitories, labs, and operating stations known as the Zoo. We meet the Zamorsky sisters, Pearl and Stasha, who have been temporarily saved from the usual work camp-to-execution passage due to Mengele’s mad interest in exploring the physical and psychological nature of twinship. He considers himself a rigorous scientist above all else, but it is clear that his perverted genius is driven by something quite different from a passion for scientific method. As the experiments go on, one twin loses much of her sight and hearing while the other loses the use of her legs. Mengele, who asks his charges to call him Uncle Doctor, works by taking the sisters away from each other, watching the consequences of their bonded natures being severed. . . .
To see the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Mischling by Affinity Konar | Jewish Book Council

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

“Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life,” by Sarah Kaminsky. Trans. Mike Mitchell

DoppelHouse Press. 256 pages. Trade paperback $18.95.

 finalcover-kaminsky-webSarah Kaminsky provides a brilliant biography of an enormously complex, creative, and heroic individual: her father.

Based on Adolfo Kaminsky’s extensive answers to his daughter’s questions, Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life was first published in French in 2009 and was subsequently released in many European languages before reaching English readers.

Adolfo with daughter Sarah.

Adolfo with daughter Sarah. Credit Amit Israeli

Adolfo Kaminsky’s remarkable journey was powered by intelligent longing and a deep, engaging sensitivity to personal destiny, Jewish peoplehood, and freedom. As a teenager, Adolfo (who wore many names in many roles) was fascinated by chemistry and technology. During the Nazi occupation of France, he became an important member of the Resistance movement—a collection of loosely linked organizations attempting to undermine Nazi domination and save lives in one way or another.

One important initiative of the Resistance was its provision of convincing identity documents that would fool authorities, which enabled many would-be victims of the Holocaust to avoid arrest (or worse) with these false papers and even cross the borders of Europe to freedom and safety. Adolfo became an essential player, managing to hide his own identity and activities while mastering the art of forgery. This art included the fabrication of authentic-seeming papers, inks, dyes, seals, solvents, and bindings of all kinds, as well as typography, signature forging, stain removal, and the production of rubber stamps. Adolfo invented solutions to technical problems and also developed skill as a photographer, which quickly proved itself another useful tool in his forgery career—and something he could use to support himself: though often starving, Adolfo took no money for his forgery efforts. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here: Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky | Jewish Book Council Review

Leave a comment

Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes