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Soon-to-be-classic Holocaust narrative is a gripping tale of reinvention and romance

No Past Tense: Love and Survival in the Shadow of the Holocaust, by D. Z. Stone. Vallentine Mitchell. 288 pages. Hardcover $49.00, Trade paperback $22.95.

D. Z. Stone

This unique and almost accidental biography of two young people, separately, living through horrible events during the Holocaust is bound to be considered a classic telling of the Holocaust experience. How is it accidental? Willi and Kati Salcer spent decades of there lives as Holocaust survivors shunning any and all opportunities to tell their stories. They were not interested in bringing those memories to the surface. Kati, in particular, did not think their horrible experiences could be made shareable. They finally succumbed at the insistence of their son Ron, who came to understand – without knowing any details – that his parents, once two young Jewish Czech teenagers, had been through terrible experiences during WWII.

He managed to have them record their experiences for the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1996. The Foundation is housed at the University of Southern California. Ron felt that more could be drawn out of them, and he also felt that their story to be available in book form. He sought and found the ideal person to build the chronicle for readers, preserving the couple’s voices while adding her own as well as an engaging narrative structure. That person is journalist and cultural anthropology specialist D. Z. Stone. 

Katarina Kellner and William Salcer, both from small Czech villages, met in 1944. Both had been educated in topnotch Budapest schools. After the German’s invaded Hungary, the young people, who had met in a ghetto, found themselves forced into labor camps. Willi survived Mauthausen and Kati survived Auschwitz. Hearing of Willi’s survival after Germany’s defeat, Kati successfully searched for him. Though their personalities and values were not entirely harmonious, they married. In 1946, they smuggled themselves into pre-state Israel, where they flourished until they felt the need to move on.

After leaving Israel, they lived in many places, but most of their several homes were in the United States where they maintained citizenship and where Willi rebuilt and improved upon his remarkable career as an inventor and businessman. He held sixteen patents.

All through the early part of their lives, and even into their later years, the Salcers suffered frequent, and sometimes unspeakable, hardships, as did their Czech relatives. How they faced and fought through those obstacles is illuminated by the dozens of stories synthesized brilliantly by Ms. Stone.

Every reader will have his or her favorite story. Here are some of the:

In April 1944, Hungarian Gendarmes push Kati – along with her mother, brother, and grandmother – from their home. Laughing all the way, the gendarmes direct them to enter the next-door home. Incredibly, this new Jewish ghetto included the home of Kati’s great uncle, Oscar Bing. It was actually a very nice home, well-supplied with food and other necessities. It was the nicest place of confinement one could imagine. Other aspects of the ghetto, however – as stepping stones to labor camps – were not so pleasant. Soon enough, the confiscated homes of the town’s Jews were taken over by their non-Jewish neighbors, few if any of whom showed any sympathy for their plight.

In August of 1945, after Kati’s liberation from Auschwitz and return to her family’s village, she went to the mayor’s office to discuss the return of the family-owned home and pharmacy. She wanted those Christians to be gone and everything restored. After the mayor hemmed and hawed, not ready to take such a step, Kati took matters more fully into her own hands and moved into the adjacent gardener’s shed. She became a grand example of positive chutzpah. In Kati’s own words decades later, she explained: Yes, you can say this was a provocative act. I knew people were watching from the house and there was a small crowd of villagers pointing at me and whispering, “What is she doing?” I was glad I was getting attention; let the entire village be reminded of what they had done.

In February 1946, the recently married young couple, disgusted with conditions in postwar Europe, connected with an organization called Hakshara. This entity provided agricultural training for Jews hoping to emigrate to Palestine. Illegal immigration was the only immigration possible for the Salcers and other Jews. Just as luck would have it, while they were pursuing this aliya hope, Willi received a notice demanding him to report for duty in the Czechoslovakian army! How they finally made their way to a new life in pre-state Israel is one of the most fascinating stories in the book. The ship purchased for the voyage was renamed “The Jewish Soldier.” Willi contributed his skills for what would become the new Jewish State by designing and constructing tanks. Thus, he played his part in the unofficial Israeli army. Soon after, in 1948, he became a member of the newly formed Israeli Air Force.

These vignettes, presented much more elaborately in the book, offer a taste of what No Past Tense has in store for readers. In the domain of their experience, there can only be now and the future. Thus the book’s title. October 16, the book’s publication date, is also the couple’s wedding anniversary. Even though they are gone from this world that tested them so severely, their abiding love and resilient natures come alive on every page.

This review appears in the October 2019 editions of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte County), and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota Manatee).

 

 

 

 

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Jewish Book Festival Launches Fifth Season

By Phil Jason, Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival Co-Chair

Beginning in November and concluding in March, the 2019-20 Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival will offer a dazzling series of author events, building upon the highly regarded and jam-packed 2018-19 season. The festival, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Naples in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, will once again provide an outstanding contribution to the cultural life of our community. The festival will offer 12 events at several venues, covering 19 books with 22 visiting authors. 

Many of the festival events will feature two authors matched by a common theme or genre. Other events will feature a dynamic solo presenter. One event will feature a book created jointly by three talented authors, all of whom will be on hand.

Be at the Hilton Naples on Tuesday, November 5 at 7:00 p.m. for the festival’s lead-off speaker, Elyssa Friedland, who will discuss her novel The Floating Feldmans. Annette Feldman, hoping to inspire family unity, has chosen to celebrate her 70th birthday on a cruise ship with her entire family. It’s a high-risk piece of wishful thinking that troubled relationships will be healed and that proximity will foster togetherness. Pathos and humor blend as rivalries re-emerge, secrets are revealed and surprises abound. This opening event will feature a 15-minute preview of the entire festival. The event features cruise-themed fun, with prizes for the best cruise photos; book and ticket giveaways; music; drinks and light bites; and other surprises.

On Monday, November 11 at 1:00 p.m., enjoy a fiction session at the Naples Conference Center. Best-selling thriller writer Andrew Gross will talk about his terrifying work of historical fiction, The Fifth Column. A huge Nazi rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden eerily suggests Hitler’s popularity in the winter of 1939. Charles Mossman, despondent from losing his job and family, strikes out at a Nazi group. Two years later, still struggling as the threat of war grows, Mossman finds himself in a world in which Nazi spies are everywhere and his daughter Emma’s life is in jeopardy. Former New York Congressman Steve Israel’s novel, Big Guns, takes us behind the scenes into the political mayhem of the gun debate. After the mayor of a small Long Island town passes an ordinance to ban guns, he is countered by an arms manufacturer’s scheme to promote a recall election. As with Gross’s book, the possible future is horrifying and what seems absurd may come to pass.

On Monday, December 2 at 11:30 a.m., a special food-related event comes to town. Alana Newhouse’s book, The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List, becomes the inspiration for lunching at the Hilton. The James Beard Foundation nominee for innovative storytelling is informative, passionate, quirky and rich with layers of tradition and history. Which Jewish foods are the most significant, culturally and historically, to the Jewish people? Find out from this book, brimming with recipes and thoughts from a gallery of important contributors. Newhouse is the founder and editor of Tablet, the daily online magazine of Jewish news, culture and issues.

History lessons continue with the hilarious A Field Guide to the Jewish People by Dave Barry, Adam Mansbach and Alan Zweibel. Return to the Hilton on Monday, December 9 at 7:00 p.m. as the authors let us in on such critical information as why yarmulkes are round and who was the first Jewish comedian. Finally, you can learn why random Jewish holidays keep springing up at unexpected times. Floridians are long familiar with Pulitzer Prize-winning Barry. Mansbach has several bestselling titles and an award-winning novel, The End of the Jews. Zweibel, who wowed us during the 2017-2018 festival, has won five Emmy awards for his work on The Late Show with David Letterman and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

On Thursday, December 19 at 7:00 p.m., come back to the Hilton for a non-fiction duet. Hear Adam Chandler expound on America’s romance with fast food as described in Drive-Thru Dreams. It’s been at least a century since the bond between American life and fast food took hold. The food has been addictive; the operations of the major players have been questionable. Chandler reveals the industry’s history through heartfelt anecdotes and fascinating trivia. From its White Castle beginnings to its international charisma, Chandler provides food for thought and thought for food. Stephen M. Silverman, who has written 13 books, takes readers on the ultimate nostalgia trip with his captivating history of The Amusement Park. He tells the story through tracing the lives of the characters who envisioned and built these parks. Have a reading vacation with him as you visit Sea World, Coney Island, Tivoli Gardens, Six Flags, Dollywood, Riverview and all the rest. Silverman’s work appears in such topnotch periodicals as Harper’s Bazaar, The London Times and Vogue. Enhancing their presentations, both authors will use photos and graphics projected on large screens in the Hilton ballroom.

Jenoff

On Wednesday, January 8 at 1:00 p.m., Temple Shalom will be the venue for a historical fiction session. In Pam Jenoff’s The Lost Girls of Paris, a seemingly abandoned suitcase is found by a woman who discovers that it holds photographs of 12 different women. Through a series of setting and point-of-view shifts, Jenoff reveals that the woman who misplaced the suitcase was the leader of a cadre of women who served as secret agents during World War II. They did their work in Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators. Several of these women are profiled in detail and their fates are revealed. Melanie Benjamin’s Mistress of the Ritz is a fictionalized representation of Blanche Auzello’s amazing life. This Jewish-American woman used forged papers to create a new life as an undercover Resistance worker. Her cover was playing hostess to the invading Germans at the legendary Ritz in Paris. Both authors have several bestselling books. 

Monday, January 13 brings the festival to the Naples Jewish Congregation for a memoir session beginning at 1:00 p.m. Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love relates the experiences of a mixed-race woman who, after 15 years of estrangement from her racist great-aunt, helps bring her home when Alzheimer’s strikes. This inspirational story probes what people inherit from their families: identity, disease and, in the best case, love. Gad holds an advanced degree in modern Jewish history from Baltimore Hebrew University. Angel Himsel’s A River Could Be a Tree tells of being the seventh of 11 children growing up in southern Indiana in an apocalyptic, doomsday Christian faith. A trip to Israel to learn what’s behind the church’s strict tenets made her question Christianity and ultimately convert to Judaism. Himsel’s writing has appeared in The New York Times and Jewish Week. Her book is listed in 23 Best New Memoirs (bookauthority.org).

On Tuesday, January 28, return to the Hilton at 7:00 p.m. for an exciting non-fiction event showcasing two entertainment media specialists. Ken Sutak’s Cinema Judaica: The Epic Cycle 1950-1972 is the stunning sequel to Cinema Judaica: The War Years 1939-1949. It is illustrated with more than 400 four-color, high-definition images of Jewish heroines, heroes and history (biblical Holocaust and Israel foun­dation) taken from the breathtaking movie poster art of the post-war cycle of spectacular, epic films. Sutak has also produced museum exhibits and is a donor of the Cinema Judaica Collection at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Elizabeth Weitzman’s Renegade Women in Film & TV blends stunning illustrations, fascinating biographical profiles and exclusive interviews with icons like Barbra Streisand, Rita Moreno and Sigourney Weaver to celebrate the accomplishments of 50 extraordinary women. More names? Lucille Ball, Oprah Winfrey and Nora Ephron. Weitzman was named one of the top film critics in New York by The Hollywood Reporter.

This year, the Evy Lipp People of the Book Cultural Event will be part of the Jewish Book Festival. Be at Temple Shalom on Wednesday, February 5 at 7:30 p.m. to hear psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb talk about her book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. Gottlieb invites us into her world as both clinician and patient, examining the truths and fictions we tell ourselves and others as we teeter on the tightrope between love and desire, meaning and mortality, guilt and redemption, terror and courage, hope and change. The book is a disarmingly funny and illuminating account of our own mysterious lives and our power to transform them. The author is well known for her many television appearances and contributions to such periodicals as The New York Times and The Atlantic’s weekly “Dear Therapist” column.

Also at Temple Shalom, on Wednesday, February 26 at 1:00 p.m., is a multifaceted program that begins with Bob Mankoff’s Have I Got a Cartoon for You. The cartoon and humor editor for Esquire and former New Yorker cartoon editor has put together his favorite Jewish cartoons. He explains the importance of the cartoon in the vibrant history of Jewish humor and plumbs Jewish thought, wisdom and shtick for humorous insights. “It might be strange,” says Mankoff, “that the People of the Book became the People of the Joke.” Jewish culture is more broadly explored in The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia by Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz and Mark Oppenheimer (Butnick and Oppenheimer will present at the festival). The authors host Tablet magazine’s wildly popular Unorthodox podcast. Their book is an edifying, entertaining and thoroughly modern introduction to Judaism, an alphabetical encyclopedia of short entries featuring an exhibition of divergent voices.

On Wednesday, March 4 at 1:00 p.m., the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island will be the venue for two Holocaust-related non-fiction books. Jack Fairweather, former Baghdad and Persian Gulf bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph and former correspondent for The Washington Post, discusses his book The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz. A Polish resistance fighter infiltrates the camp to sabotage it from within. He attempts to warn the Allies about the Nazis’ plan for a “final solution” before it’s too late. Jack J. Hersch’s Death March Escape: The Remarkable Story of a Man who Twice Escaped the Nazi Holocaust tells the story of 18-year-old Dave Hersch’s year in Mauthausen Concentration Camp, his two escapes at the end of the war, and his son Jack’s journey back to Mauthausen decades later. After a year slaving in Mauthausen’s granite mine, Dave was put on a death march. Weighing 80 pounds and suffering from several diseases, he found the strength to escape, but was quickly returned to Mauthausen. Put on another death march, he escaped again.

On Wednesday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m., Temple Shalom hosts the final session of the Jewish Book Festival. Josh Frank’s Giraffes on Horseback Salad: Salvador Dali, the Marx Brothers, and the Strangest Movie Never Made is a re-creation of the lost-and-found script for the film in the form of a graphic novel. The book honors the would-be film by reflecting its gorgeous, full-color, cinematic, surreal glory. It is the story of two unlikely friends: a Jewish superstar film icon and a Spanish painter – and the movie that could have been. This is Mr. Frank’s fourth book and second illustrated novel. The event will include a multimedia presentation with film clips and photos, live music and songs.

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

 

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One family’s story of hope and triumph over evil

Resilience, by Judy Stone. MD. Mountainside MD Press. 384 pages. Trade paperback $17.95.

As the number of Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle, only a scant remnant remains to tell their stories and verify the facts. Scholars continue to explore the field, but testimony is so much richer than the results of research. Dr. Judy Stone, the daughter of survivors and, with this book, the voice for both the survivors of a large, extended Jewish-Hungarian family and their memories of those who perished, connects the past with the present in an inspired and chilling way. 

The time came when Judy Stone knew that it was up to her to convey the traumas of her elders, giving meaning to their perseverance and courage, remembering their trials and tribulations, and acknowledging that the dead can tell no tales: whether those who died in the nightmare of the Holocaust or those who survived it either speechless or simply mortal. In the latter case, the author needed to get their stories before it was too late.

It’s all here, the result of committed passion lifting the heavy weight of assumed responsibility.

This is one of the answers to the haunting question “who will tell our story?” that becomes more pressing every year.

Dr. Stone has a second motive for bringing her family’s Holocaust experiences, and the political backgrounds of those experiences, to the attention of readers. She sees, and hopes her readers will see, the parallels between what happened in Europe before and during the Holocaust years and what has been happening once again in Europe as well as in the U. S. and elsewhere. She fears the rise of nationalism and isolationism. She fears the vilification of the mainstream press and the proliferation of hate crimes. For her, the handwriting is on the wall – in blood! She is bringing us her family history, in context, so that such potential atrocities are recognized and snuffed out early so that the hideous mass crimes of the past will not be repeated.

Many aspects of this book are remarkable, among them the simple fact that there were so many survivors. The extended Ehrenfeld and Glattstein families suffered in almost every way one can imagine. They were imprisoned into forced labor inside of and outside of concentration camps, places whose names we know all to well. They were tortured. They suffered from malnutrition, exhaustion, and sheer barbarism. Among them were Judy’s mother and father. She writes of her parents’ siblings – her aunts and uncles. These people have stories now told because Judy drew the stories out, laboriously, and over a long period of time.

Listen to the names: Magdus (the author’s mother), Bözsi, Miklos, Klari, Kati, Pista, Miki (the author’s father), and Sanyi.

Judy Stone

These Hungarian Jews, some more religious than others but generally followers of traditional Jewish customs, established and maintained households, educated themselves, ran businesses, and watched – with growing concern – the beastly takeover of Hungary and the ascendance of Nazi rule. In late 1938, they heard about Kristallnacht and then later (after German occupation) saw it paralleled in their hometown of Sáránd. Soon after, everything was gone. Hungarian Jews were either in hiding or essentially prisoners of the Nazi empire.

Dr. Stone tells their stories, which include their various relationships, in an accessible, colorful style. We get to know them. We see them in full disorientation after the Allies turn the tide of war. We see them attempt (often with success) to rebuild their lives. We see most of them, each in his or her own time, decide that Hungary is not the place to continue their lives. We see them rebuilding lives and having families in the United States. We see their children, Dr. Stone’s generation, participate in the American Dream.

We witness family reunions, temporary returns to Hungary, and – ultimately – the deaths of the Holocaust generation: Dr. Stone’s mother, as well as her aunts, uncles, and cousins. We know there must have been instances and prolonged periods of trauma, yet their lives turned out to be the heartbeat of resilience.

 

 

About the author:

Dr. Judy Stone, with her longstanding interest in genealogy and oral history, has fulfilled the wishes of her mother by researching and writing her survivor family’s memoir.

Professionall, she is an infectious disease physician who is experienced in conducting clinical research. She is the author of Conducting Clinical Research: A Practical Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Study Coordinates, and Investigators, which a text used widely in medical education.

For twenty-five years, she ran a solo practice in rural Cumberland, Maryland, and she now cares for patients part-time as a locum tenens (substitute) physician. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, then completed medical school at the University of Maryland, residency at Rochester General Hospital (New York), and a fellowship at West Virginia University.

Dr. Stone is a Forbes Pharma and Healthcare contributor and former columnist for Scientific American.

This review appears in the September 2019 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).

Proceeds from this book are donated by Dr. Stone to organizations that promote Holocaust education.

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“Mark Twain’s Literary Resources: A Reconstruction of His Library and Reading”

By Alan Gribben. NewSouth Books. 328 pp.  Oversized hardcover $45.00.

This astonishing portrait proves the iconic author was a committed bookworm. 

The immense Mark Twain’s Literary Resources, requiring two more volumes for completion, is a model of disciplined, lively, and monumental literary scholarship. It is an expansion of Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library, originally published in 1980. This first effort was already a momentous work, but over the decades, new information has come to light that the author has now included, along with updated commentary. The additional volumes are expected later this year.

Though Samuel Clemens, as Mark Twain, often projected the persona of a somewhat noble savage, he was, in fact, a voracious book collector and reader, as well as a committed annotator of books.

Alan Gribben

He helped create libraries. He moved collections from one home to another. He lived in his books and was influenced by them. He learned about his world, past historical periods, literary classics, and the craft of writing through his adventures as a reader.

It is great fun to join Gribben as he puts us into this significant part of Twain’s life. While much of Gribben’s work is the bedrock business of fact-collecting, the delights come from his many ways of exploring for his readers what Twain’s collected reading means in understanding the classic American author as a man, a creative force, and as both an appreciator and detractor of the writings of others.

One strand of excitement for readers is Gribben’s discussion of Twain’s relationship with the eminent man of letters William Dean Howells, whose comments about Twain being an “unliterary” literary man held sway until they were slowly revealed to be false.

Twain himself enjoyed painting himself as an infrequent reader, but over decades the truth of his addiction to books — of many kinds — became indisputable. Why the charade? Was it to tamp down expectations?

First in his personal life, and later in his public life, Twain demonstrated a penchant for reading aloud. For him, the voicing of an author’s words was essential for full understanding and enjoyment. At his urging, he and his wife, Olivia, read to one another at the end of the day. Twain encouraged such activity in social settings at which he would frequently be the center. He was, more and more, a showman as well and an author, and his skills in both areas were complementary.

Twain was a popular lecturer and literary performer. His readings drew audiences, amplified as they were with comments on the text he voiced. Perhaps his favorite author to read aloud was Robert Browning, the study and performance of whose dramatic monologues may have helped Twain develop the right pattern of emphasis, pace, and tonality for creating the voices of his fictional characters.

In poetry and prose, he loved to find the “illusion of talk.” He worked hard a perfecting his deliveries, and what he learned in the process informed his own writings. . . .

To explore the entire review, as published in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Mark Twain’s Literary Resources

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

Review by Philip K. Jason

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

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

Flatow

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

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

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

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Musical genius helped others reach success while fighting his inner demons

Phil Gernhard, Record Man, by Bill DeYoung. University Press of Florida. 208 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

The University Press of Florida has published an unofficial series of books about the state’s role in American’s popular music. These include “Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band,” “Music Everywhere: The Rock and Roll Roots of a Southern Town” (about the Gainesville scene), and “Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida” (all reviewed in these pages). Mr. DeYoung’s effort is essentially a biography of a relatively unknown giant in the popular music world. Following along the trail Phil Gernhard’s life, the author paints a vivid picture of the U. S. music industry in the second half of the twentieth century.  

Trained neither as a musician nor a businessman, Gernhard picked up what he needed to know through hustle and hard work. He began early, and by the time he was nineteen he had produced a million-copy recording: “Stay,” a monstrous hit performed by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. It was 1960, and Gernhard had already recorded a few other songs by his group.

Gernhard’s career was hardly a straight or unbroken line. He had many ups and downs. Still, he managed to produce an amazing amount of recorded music, and a high percentage of those releases become hits, bringing money into the pockets of the musicians, songwriters, studio technicians, and owners of record labels. He succeeded through changing times and changing tastes.

DeYoung

Mr. DeYoung makes it only too clear that Gernhard was an accomplished and somewhat greedy dealmaker, negotiating contracts that gave him many slices of the pie. Sometimes songwriter credit for doctoring a needy lyric, sometimes a percentage for enhancing production quality, and sometimes simply by writing himself into the contract for being able to put all the pieces together. He was labeled as a producer, and he produced.

He worked to get studio time, rehearsal time, radio play, engagements for live performances, and whatever else might make a record a success. When the industry changed from one in which singles lost out to albums in the economics of the industry, Gernhard learned how to adapt and how to help others adapt.

Originally based in his home state of Florida, Gernhard also rose the ladder of influence in such music capitals as Los Angeles and Nashville.

Now it’s time to name names: Dion DiMucci’s career was resurrected by Gernhard with the improbably successful ballad “Abraham, Martin and John.” He produced hits for Lobo, Jim Stafford, the Bellamy Brothers, Rodney Atkins, and Tim McGraw. It wasn’t just hustling. Gernhard was credited with having “magic ears.” He could tell that a song (or a singer) had a lucrative future. He knew how to match a song and a singer for maximum effect. . . .

 

To read the full review, as it appears in the June 27, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the June 28 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Record Man  

See also: Skyway

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Showing kids how ordinary people can have enormous effects on our world

I Am Gandhi and I Am Sacagawea, by Brad Meltzer. Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos. Dial Books for Young Readers. 40 pages. Hardcover $14.99.

Meltzer

These two recent titles add scope and impact to the already substantial “Ordinary People Change the World” series. The series of picture books, which has 2 million copies in print, provides young readers (as well as their parents and grandparents), with laudable heroes. The hook is that as children they were no so exceptional. Another attraction is that Mr. Meltzer has these historical characters tell their own stories. He invents friendly voices for each of them, voices inviting to the children being addressed. 

“I Am Gandhi,” the narrator announces his inauspicious beginnings. Small of stature, the socially backward boy was a poor soccer player and a mediocre student. Early on, he became attracted to the lives of those who had helped others. He was sensitive to the fact many people were desperately poor and consistently treated as unworthy beings. Laws prevented them from improving their lives.

He reveals how his life in South Africa, where Indians were suppressed, led him to be politically active but never violent. He would break laws that were prejudicial, accept the punishment, and exercise his mind to find new paths for successful protest. His paved the way for the Indian Relief act of 1914 and set the pattern for his later activities back India through the Indian National Congress. This political force slowly broke down the shackles of British rule of India. Gandhi’ commitment to nonviolent but unshakeable protest influenced future leaders throughout the world.

“I Am Sacagawea” repeats the formula while providing insights into a very different slice of history. The young Shoshoni Indian tells about her tribe being attacked by another tribe. Captured, she was given to a French Canadian man. At that time, she received her name. She also became pregnant and had a child named Pomp.

This teenager proved her worth as a translator, as someone who understood the terrain that the Lewis and Clark expedition first encountered, and as someone capable of finding food and of rescuing supplies that had fallen off a boat. . . .

Eliopoulos

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 22, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 23 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Meltzer’s books for kids

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A new and challenging understanding of a most imaginative, penetrating, and influential Jewish mind

Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud, by Barry W. Holtz. Yale University Press. 248 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

This recent addition to Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series addresses what can be discovered and reasonably imagined about the life of a man for whom there is no physical record. Rabbi Akiva, known as the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, is mentioned everywhere, but the mentions were written long after his death. Indeed, in Rabbi Akiva’s lifetime (considered to be 50-135 CE), the kind of recordkeeping and documentary evidence that is at the heart of biographical and historical writing did not exist. 

What’s a scholar to do?

In this case, he can write the biography of his subject’s mind, achievements, and reputation as transmitted to those many generations after Akiva’s time. They, the rabbis to follow, inherited and rehearsed the tales of his extraordinary insights into the Torah and how these insights live in the Talmud (and elsewhere), thus continuing to inform our sense – even today – of what Judaism is. Rabbi Akiva is the major founder and exemplar of Rabbinic Judaism – the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the failed revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE). The Jerusalem Talmud calls him a “father of the world.”

In many ways, Rabbi Akiva must remain a mysterious figure. Nothing is known about his parents. We don’t know the place of his birth and where he resided. Stories about his execution have legendary power, but there are no references to this event in Talmudic sources. There is a frequently visited alleged burial place on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, but scholars don’t give it much credence. As Dr. Holtz puts it, what we must accept is in searching for Akiva “we remain caught between fact and legend, history and the shared memory of an old culture.

In order to put Rabbi Akiva in context, Dr. Holtz devotes a chapter to what is known about the world in which he lived. He draws upon the fairly proximate picture painted by the Jewish historian Josephus “who managed to negotiate the boundaries of the Jewish and Roman worlds in a savvy and successful way.” The author gives us enough history to make us understand that Jews, then as in more recent times, “were a nation, ruled by a foreign power.” They constituted roughly 50% of a Roman region called Palestine that had about one million people. Prof. Holtz explores the Great Revolt, it’s causes and consequences, and the important rabbis with whom Akiva interact. He explains how the group of scholar-leaders called rabbis emerged. He connects Akiva to the rabbis who were first his teachers, men who eventually saw him as their master.

Barry W. Holtz

The story goes that Akiva reached middle age with no significant Jewish identity or learning.  He was, in all the ways that we might deem important, a self-made man. One tradition suggests that Akiva the unmarried shepherd ‘began his studies for the love of a good woman.” Another tradition finds him already a married man with a son when he – on his own volition – took on the career of learning.

Does it matter? Perhaps not. What does matter is that his abrupt transition captured the imagination people who can never ask enough questions. Dr. Holtz guides us to understanding what it meant for others to probe, perhaps half-create, their hero teacher-scholar Akiva. If their answers to questions about this enigmatic figure are contradictory, so much the better. Comparing various sources, and the sources of the sources, Dr. Holtz develops a notion that important stories about Akiva led to discovering  Akiva’s own insights about the  shaping  — strengthening or softening – of his heart.

Much about Akiva concerns his career – in both life and afterlife – as an exemplary figure. For example, his modesty is often praised. We are urged to remember that his origins were in poverty. That he was a true nobody until he became committed to his religious studies.

Rabbi Akiva’s engagements with religious and ritual issues are often at the center of these biographical snapshots. One such tale involves Akiva coming upon a corpse and puzzling over its final disposition. The complexities of Jewish law make the decision difficult, and the still-young rabbi realizes how much he must learn in order to make sound decisions about what is the “right thing” to do.

Another tale tells of Akiva’s presence as part of a rabbinic triumvirate determined to overturn another celebrated rabbi’s earlier decision. The interplay among the rabbis clearly illustrates Akiva’s stellar status among them. He is regularly given the final – and decisive – word on a contested issue. This importance is underscored by the rabbinic interchange recorded in the Haggadah in which Akiva has the prevailing argument. Here and elsewhere, Dr. Holtz reinforces the Akiva principle of interpretation that “requires paying careful attention to every detail in the text.”

Other Akiva stories find him portrayed as “a spiritual master, a person capable of attaining an insight into God and God’s hidden realms that other worthy figures were unable to attain.”

Over and over, Dr. Holtz suggests and demonstrates fruitful ways of reading and drawing understanding from the Akiva stories. His book may be best valued as a remarkable primer in today’s methodology.

At the end of a reader’s journey through Holtz’s remarkable and inspirational “life of Akiva,” one is likely to agree with the author’s feeling that Akiva, a most eminent sage at the center of early rabbinic Judaism, prepared the Jewish world for its future.

This review appears in the July-August, 2017 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

 

 

 

 

 

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Recent biography of Herzl brings us closer to the man and his times

Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State, by Shlomo Avineri. Trans. Haim Watzman. BlueBridge. 304 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

This gets the “must” award; that is, it’s a “must for every Jewish library.” Private or public. Personal or university. First published in Israel in 2008, it was translated into English for publication in Great Britain in 2013. BlueBridge brought out a hardcover edition three years ago. Now the paperback is here.  

There are many other Herzl biographies, many of them quite fine, but this one has a special value because it comes closer than any of the others to reflecting Herzl’s own perspective. This is because it leans much more heavily on Herzl’s diaries as well as the works he published during his lifetime. We have here Herzl the polemicist, Herzl the novelist, and Herzl the playwright – all looming large in combination many other aspects of an unusually complex Jewish man.

Like much successful biography – and fiction – this study begins with a gripping point of attack. It is the fall of 1898. Herzl and other Zionist leaders have come to interact with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who is touring the Holy Land. The chapter backgrounds the preparations for this trip, the expectations Herzl had, and the unfolding of the group’s ten days – mostly in Jerusalem. Herzl had to fight through a fever, but he was already speculating on how to restore dignity to the ancient, decaying city. Herzl had his audience with the German emperor, but his efforts at diplomacy that would lead to a Jewish State did not bear fruit. Yet seeds to that end were planted in the public arena.

What led up to Herzl making this trip? How had he prepared for it and arranged it? We must step back in time to understand how this journalist and playwright became a voice and a force for an independent Jewish nation. Then we can move forward, pick up his trail in the aftermath of his visit to Jerusalem, and follow him step by step until his untimely death in 1904.

Professor Avineri imbeds Herzl fully in his time and place. The author recreates the upheavals of later 19th century Europe, the ebbs and flows of Jewish hopes of ascendance followed by despair – which is to say the widening and narrowing of Jewish opportunities to live lives untrammeled by anti-Semitism.  He narrows the lens to focus on Herzl’s growing interest in the Jewish question and his growing understanding and rigorous search for the answer while his life and career moved through Budapest, Vienna, and Paris.

Avineri

We see the importance of Herzl’s journalistic eye and curiosity in the fashioning of means to an end. How he realized the necessity of the Jewish question becoming an international question at the highest levels of political power. He sought opportunities to lecture, to organize the unsteady threads of Zionist activity and commitment, to seek the attention and the ears of government functionaries who might in time get him an audience with a major office holder who might just get Herzl an audience with someone at the top of the ladder.

With Avineri, we wind through Herzl’s newspaper pieces, his trial balloon proposal titled The Jewish State, the building of the energy and connections that lead to the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland, after which the succeeding annual congresses became benchmarks of progress – or of something less than progress.

The author’s strategic use of materials from his subject’s diaries allows readers to feel something like Herzl’s emotional, ideational, and locomotive pulse. He was a traveling man. It’s not clear how or how well he rested. He mostly faced defeat. How did he keep picking himself up? How did he become a man of the world (or at least the world he had to win over), respected as the leader of a nation not yet born?

Professor Avineri examines Herzl’s several plays, drawing out how the operate to explore conditions and relationships relevant to his overarching concerns. He examines the compromised success of Altneuland, Herzl’s quasi-utopian novel that develops a middle road between collective and individual autonomy.

Avineri stands behind Herzl as the almost-prophet tries out the alternative homeland flavors – from El-Arish through Uganda (in the view of many Herzl’s greatest miscalculation). We feel the exhaustion and pain in Herzl’s need to heal the fractures that often crippled the Zionist movement.

Everywhere, the author blends Herzl the thinker with Herzl the doer – the activist: the man in motion. He does this with a sure hand and an attractive style that keeps readers engaged with the study’s scholarly underpinning.

At his death, Herzl could have been considered a failure. In the following decades, he would be revered, more and more, as the great prophet and leader who, like Moses himself, was not able to enter the Promised Land.

 

SHLOMO AVINERI, Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a graduate of the Hebrew University and the London School of Economics, and served as Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He held visiting appointments at Yale, Cornel, University of California, Cardozo School of Law, Australian National University, Oxford and Northwestern University; and has been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both in Washington, D.C., the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow, and Collegium Budapest.

He is Recurring Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest.

In 1996 he received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian decoration.

Among his books: The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Israel and the Palestinians, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, The Making of Modern Zionism, Moses Hess: Prophet of Communism and Zionism, and Communitarianism and Individualism.

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

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Touring with young Elvis: the making of a phenom

Elvis Ignited: The Rise of an Icon in Florida, by Bob Kealing. University Press of Florida.  280 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Bob Kealing makes the case that the best Elvis is the earliest Elvis and that the managerial strategies of Tom Parker kept a great American original from reaching his full potential. By focusing on the emergence of Elvis during his Florida tours in 1955 and 1956, Mr. Kealing can handle in lavish detail the months of a young, unschooled performer’s leap from total unknown in May of 1955 to – by August of 1956 – a celebrated icon of a burgeoning culture without a name. A hillbilly rocker with a sexy performance style, Elvis had the girls swooning, their parents fuming, and the music industry paying close attention. 

Tom Parker helped shape the Elvis who caught fire, but his dominating and generally conservative decisions about girlfriends, songs, and – only too soon – insipid movie rolls, repressed rather than released Elvis’s unique talents. Parker shielded Elvis from other influences and demanded total loyalty.

Packaged in road tours to Daytona Beach, Tampa, Fort Myers, Ocala, Orlando, Jacksonville, and elsewhere, Elvis and the two musicians who accompanied him nurtured a distinctive sound blending various musical and cultural traditions. They learned by doing. They didn’t begin as headliners, but in a remarkably short time ascended to top billing. They moved from smaller venues to more prestigious ones and attracted both critical and supportive journalists who helped shape expectations.

Bob Kealing has the details. Ransacking print coverage of the young troubadour, interviewing scores of people who met him along the way, following the one-lane paths of those early tours, the author captures the spirit of time and place as a new kind of music made its way up of the charts. Mr. Kealing must have tracked down almost every young woman still alive with whom Elvis flirted in about a year and a half of performances. No longer young, they have great memories to share.

Kealing

 

As have other biographers and music historians, Mr. Kealing pays attention to the nurturing of Elvis by the genial owner of Sun Records in Memphis. When Parker pushed for the big time by switching Elvis over to the giant, less edgy RCA, something was already lost.

West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Pensacola, Miami, Lakeland, (Waycross Georgia), St. Petersburg – and then on to the greater stages of big cities, television, and movies. It’s as if once out of the Florida orbit, Elvis lost his essential self, smothered under packaging that distorted his true nature and gift. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the April 5, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the April 6 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editons, click here: Florida Weekly – Elvis Ignited

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