Tag Archives: Israel

“The Way Back,” by Jonnie Schnytzer

Self-published. 260 pages. Trade Paperback $12.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

This idiosyncratic novel, a splendid representation of Israel’s dark side set against its glorification by advocates, excels in characterization. Schnytzer penetrates the interior world of his principal figures, exposing their strengths, weaknesses, goals, and fears. We meet successful government leaders and aspiring candidates for the highest offices. We enter the shadowy world of Mossad operatives and the work-a-day drudgery and ambitions of an aging veteran police inspector, Moshe Biton. We meet a fascinating figure just released from prison, David Hartbacher (“tough guy”), and learn of the lineage that has contributed to his present identity as an Israeli vigilante, and his involvement with the kidnapped son of a senior Mossad agent.

We meet the disgraced and somewhat disgraceful Limor Schwartz as she tries to claw her way back to her former position as a senior Mossad operative, using all the skills and tools at her disposal. We explore a society that has a bifurcated identity, captured somewhat by the slogan “It’s time to replace Zionism with Judaism.” Under the pressures of Israel’s situation, many of the characters are at war with themselves.

Schnytzer

We encounter, along with the Israeli characters, a host of Arab people responding to the Palestinian situation. We visit Cairo, Benghazi, the Israeli capitals, and many other vividly drawn locations. We meet terrorist leaders, their underlings, and their victims. We learn how members of the enemy camps are recruited to serve a new controller and develop a new, if vulnerable, allegiance. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: The Way Back

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“The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World,” by Robert Mnookin

    PublicAffairs. 320 pages. Hardcover $28.00.

Who gets to decide what it means to be a Jew?

In The Jewish American Paradox, Robert Mnookin puts effective lawyerly reasoning and compelling personal experience to work in service of sketching the situation of 21st-century American Jews. He plays and wrestles with large questions regarding the elements of Jewish identity and how the power of these elements has changed over time.  

The author launches his discussion with an attention-getting overview of “identity” illustrated by the life and work of identity’s master theorist, Jewish-born Erik Erikson. This strategy proves to be intellectually stimulating and colorful. Having grabbed the reader’s attention, Mnookin holds onto it with an accessible presentation about how to make both the “American Jewish community” and the various American Jewish communities thrive.

Among the many traditional components of Jewish identity probed by Mnookin are identification through matriarchal lineage, religious commitment, and the racial — or “Jewish blood” — concept. He probes deeply into each, testing its utility for a vibrant Jewish future.

Mnookin

The context here is the declining Jewish population. Can changes in the dynamics of Jewish identity stabilize or reverse the downward trend in the identified Jewish population?

Mnookin finds most of the identity elements restrictive and therefore limiting. Can one have a Jewish life without Jewish knowledge? Without Jewish DNA (if there is such a thing)? Without ascribing to behaviors (both does and don’ts) provided in holy scripture and authoritative commentaries?

Mnookin argues for inclusiveness, and his arguments are well shaped and compelling. He is more comfortable with notions like nationhood or peoplehood, in part because such concepts have malleable borders. . . .

To see the full review as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  The Jewish American Paradox

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“God Is in the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism,” by Tal Keinan

Spiegel & Grau. 336 Pages.  Hardcover  $28.

Review by Philip K. Jason

This game-changing exploration of a possible path for a Jewish future is both alarming and hopeful. The facts Keinan relays about Jewish population trends, weakening Jewish identity, and the costs of exclusivity in Jewish movements and organizations are heartbreaking. His most frightening observation is that his book, and the understandings and arguments it offers, may be ninety years too late. Keinan is pointing the way toward a revolution, a last-ditch effort to combat and counter the forces that, if not checked will, in a few generations or less, make Judaism extinct.  

Keinan won’t allow Jews to keep betting on God’s love for the “chosen people” to save the day. God’s love has always been conditionalIf God is anywhere, it is in the hard-won consensus about Jewish identity and values that those who care will bring about. In this way, God is in the crowd.

Tal Keinan

In a situation that demands greater inclusivity, Keinan argues that embracing the standards, practices, and goals that approach universal acceptance among Jews worldwide represents our best best at turning the tide and ensuring a Jewish future. To get there, educational patterns and priorities must change, and steadfast commitment needs to go viral. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: God Is in the Crowd

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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). It is also found in several local editions of Florida Weekly.

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“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

 

 

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“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

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“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

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

Gefen Publishing House. 284 pages. Hardcover  $27.00

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

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

Avi Jorisch

 

 

 

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

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

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

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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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“Karolina’s Twins: A Novel,” by Ronald H. Balson

  • St. Martin’s Press. 320 pp. Hardcover $25.99.

An emotionally rich Holocaust thriller about long-kept secrets.

Karolina’s Twins is the third book in a trilogy (hopefully, to be a series) by Ronald H. Balson. Part legal thriller and part Holocaust narrative, the story echoes the pattern of Balson’s first novel, the highly successful Once We Were Brothers. As with the earlier book, the author risks the possible tedium of putting readers through long stretches of extremely detailed conversations in which one voice dominates. This time, it is the voice of Polish-born Lena Scheinman Woodward, a Holocaust survivor who has a complex story to tell, a promise to keep, and a secret. In her late 80s, Lena is in fine physical and mental condition; she speaks with elegance and precision.

Karolina'sTwins_FC

The setting for her storytelling is primarily the law office of Catherine Lockhart, a lawyer whom Lena insists should represent her. But as much as Lena reveals to Catherine, the lawyer feels that her client is holding something back. Meanwhile, Lena’s son, Arthur, is prepared to have her declared incompetent: He fears she will squander family resources on an old obsession, and he strives to take control of the assets.

To Arthur, Lena appears obsessed and delusional. But Lena’s preoccupations stem from a promise to return to Poland and find her best friend Karolina’s twin daughters. The infant girls, traveling to a concentration camp along with Karolina and another woman, were cast out of a railroad car in order to save their lives.

The unfolding narrative, which requires many meetings, is in part shaped by Catherine’s questions. Often, Catherine’s husband, private investigator Liam Taggart, is in the room. It will be Liam’s task to verify the facts of Lena’s story — including the reliability of her memory.

So there is the story Lena tells, mostly focused on her experiences during the Holocaust, the story of the legal proceedings, and the story of the relationship between Catherine and Liam, appearing in the trilogy together, for the third time (including the second book, Saving Sophie).

The Holocaust narrative is fascinating, horrifying, and yet on the whole, uplifting. We are witness to terrible suffering via the full range of Nazi cruelty and the defiant, generous actions of a handful of individuals. It lives in the authentic details of place, especially the Scheinman family’s small town, which is occupied by Nazi forces. Balson’s historical research goes far beyond the story he was told by the woman whose life served as his main source. Moreover, he employs that research smoothly and stunningly.

Balson

Balson

Once the legal proceedings are underway, Balson is writing a courtroom drama. Arthur’s lawyer is truly nasty: a fine match for his client. The unfriendly, self-important judge threatens Catherine with contempt of court if she does not reveal information that would sacrifice attorney-client privilege. The competency hearing requires more than the display of Lena’s obvious mental and physical health. How can she prove that she is neither fabricating nor imagining seemingly far-fetched events?

To read the full review, please click here: Karolina’s Twins: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

Mr. Balson will be speaking about this novel at the Collier County Jewish Book Festival on January 11 at Temple Shalom. Also on the program, which begins at 1:00pm, will be Alyson Richman, author of The Velvet Hours. Full JBF program soon available at jewishbookfestival.org.

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