Tag Archives: Jewish Culture

Once upon a time – the Hebrew language yesterday and today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glinert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The making of a mensch

My Adventures with God, by Stephen Tobolowsky, Simon & Schuster, 320 pages Hardcover. $25.00

By Philp K. Jason

Premier character actor Stephen Tobolowsky offers a wide-arching memoir in the form of a series of remarkable vignettes. He positions himself as a man of faith who remains a questioner. He describes himself as a man whose outlook involves an internal competition between experience and more formal modes of learning. Light doses of Torah and Talmud interact with memories of crises, illuminations, losses and unalloyed satisfactions. Tobolowsky’s insights are often humorous, but never cruel. He takes us on a remarkable voyage – a sophisticated everyman, a committed yet somewhat restless Jew, and a profound and fluid storyteller.

Tobolowsky

The overall story could be accurately labeled “The Making of a Mensch.”

In telling his stories, Tobolowsky draws amazingly efficient portraits of those who meant the most to him: his parents and children, his first and second wives (and his childhood love for his second-grade heartthrob), rabbis and others from whom he gained understandings and solace, and close friends. As a man trained to inhabit a character, he has an instinct for the telling detail. As a man trained to deliver his part of a scripted conversation, he has an ear for recreating the vivid and meaningful conversations of times gone by.

The vignettes are grouped into several sections whose titles reinforce Tobolowsky’s development as a committed member of the Jewish community across time. You will recognize the echoes: “Beginnings,” “Exodus: A Love Story,” “The Call,” “Wilderness” and “The Words That Become Things.” Within these sections, which hold between five and eight stories (in some cases linked stories), Tobolowsky displays his marvelous ability to draw meaningful comparisons between the distant past, today, and stops along the way. Though the plan is primarily chronological, it is not always so. Sometimes, episodes are linked by association rather than by chronology. Sometimes, it is necessary to proceed backwards.

The author shares with us his interests and his explorations of books both sacred and secular, often the result of blurring such distinctions. He attests to the importance of dreams in his life, which he tells us “whisper rather than roar.” He is a man open to epiphanies. He is a man open to the mysteries of science and the possible parallels, if not necessarily links, between scientific thought and religious experience.

This is not a career biography. Readers won’t discover much about Tobolowsky’s work in GleeMississippi BurningGroundhog DayMemento and other roles. Details about auditions and rehearsals, career successes and failures, and showbiz gossip, rarely surface (perhaps waiting for another book). An exception is the treatment of his first wife’s giant success as a playwright. Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The story of Stephen and Beth’s relationship becomes a cautionary tale.

The focus, rather, is more on Tobolowsky’s life as a synagogue regular. How it began, how it developed, what kind of structure it gave his days and weeks, how it adjusted his vision of human nature on the one hand and Jewish wisdom on the other.

One can imagine that this book could have been more Job-like, more about the author’s quarrels with God. To use the word “adventures” in the title suggests an attitude of openness, of seeking and accepting challenges. It has a humorous tone. Throughout, it is this humor that floats the friendly scholarship, serious intent and occasional desperation of an exemplary seeker. It releases the joy.

This book is good for the Jews. It’s good for all lovers of wonderful stories.

 

Note: Tobolowsky appears December 6, 2017 at Jewishbookfestival.org.

 

This review, slightly reduced, was first published on the Jewish Book Council website and is reprinted with permission in the November 2017 editions 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). Find the original at jewishbookcouncil.org/book/my-adventures-with-god

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Extraordinary Jewish family drama explores questions of identity and obligation

Elizabeth Poliner, As Close to Us as Breathing. A Lee Boudreaux Book. 368 pages. Hardcover $27.00.

There is no shortage of books focused on Jewish family life, but Elizabeth Poliner’s novel stands apart as an instant classic. It is an inspired literary exploration of the tension between personal and family identity, between masculine and feminine models of achievement, between tradition as habit and tradition as choice, between love that gives and love that demands.  Poliner_AsClosetoUsasBreathing

Though the novel examines an extended family and its world over three generations, its point of focus is the summer of 1948, immediately following modern Israel’s birth and, for the Leibritsky family, the trauma of its youngest member’s accidental death. Spatially and culturally, its main arena is a place informally named Bagel Beach: the family vacation area on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound that constitutes a summer Jewish beachfront neighborhood in the midst of other ethnic enclaves.

The narrative reaches us through the voice of Molly, middle child and only daughter of Ada and Mort Leibritsky. Mort, the kingpin of the family, owns Leibritsky’s Department Store in Middletown, inherited from his father. His brother, brother-in-law, and, occasionally, his older son work there. A moderately observant Jew, Mort carries on his father’s mantra of responsibility to his God and to the Jewish people. It’s a noose and a blessing.

The men enjoy the beach cottage over weekends; the women live there through the summer months. Beautiful, queen-like Ada reigns over the household: her sisters Vivie and Bec; her children Howard, Molly, and young Davy; and Vivie’s daughter, Nina, who is a few years older than Molly. At the time of her brother’s death, Molly is twelve years old; in her middle age, she delivers the grand Leibritsky saga, passed down to Molly by her parents and aunts.

Poliner

Poliner

Poliner treats the summer of 1948 as if it were the hub of a wheel from which extend spokes of increasing significance through the power of this family disaster. Like all families, this one has many challenges, as do its individual members. Molly allows us to see them, feel them, and understand them. Sisters are estranged. Love is frustrated by duty. Marriages fail. A boy dies for no reason. And still, individuals persevere to lead remarkable lives. By opening and closing the aperture, Poliner is able to sweep us through decades of change, growth, accomplishment, and frustration. We witness her characters responding to social changes, their own maturing and aging, their own realized or thwarted sense of destiny.

Poliner handles the texture of Jewish family life with brilliance, authenticity, and a touch of wistfulness. Mort makes Jewish identity and ritual observance a debt always in need of servicing. Why can’t people inconvenience themselves a bit for what others have died for? Howard’s decision to follow Mort’s sense of tribal duty and forsake his Irish-Catholic true love turns him to a life of meeting the expectations of others. He marries a Jewish woman, has children, muddles through as a physician, but passes away at an early age—as if his sacrifices of the heart have shortened his life.

Scenes of men praying and of women preparing—excitedly or grudgingly—for Shabbat dinners create a pronounced background music for the characters’ largely secular lives and concerns. What do you owe your parents, your people, and your creator? What do you owe yourself? When have you paid enough?

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Book Council. Find daily new reviews, reading recommendations, and more at www.jewishbookcouncil.org

Reprinted in the August 2016 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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“As Close to Us as Breathing,” by Elizabeth Poliner

Lee Boudreaux Books. 368 pages. Hardcover $27.00

There is no shortage of books focused on Jewish family life, but Elizabeth Poliner’s stands apart as an instant classic. It is an inspired literary exploration of the tension between personal and family identity, between masculine and feminine models of achievement, between tradition as habit and tradition as choice, between love that gives and love that demands.

Though the novel examines an extended family and its world over three generations, its point of focus is the summer of 1948, immediately following modern Israel’s birth and, for the Leibritsky family, the trauma of its youngest member’s accidental death. Spatially and culturally, its main arena is a place informally named Bagel Beach: the family vacation area on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound that constitutes a summer Jewish beachfront neighborhood in the midst of other ethnic enclaves. Poliner_AsClosetoUsasBreathing

The narrative reaches us through the voice of Molly, middle child and only daughter of Ada and Mort Leibritsky. Mort, the kingpin of the family, owns Leibritsky’s Department Store in Middletown, inherited from his father. His brother, brother-in-law, and, occasionally, his older son work there. A moderately observant Jew, Mort carries on his father’s mantra of responsibility to his God and to the Jewish people. It’s a noose and a blessing.

The men enjoy the beach cottage over weekends; the women live there through the summer months. Beautiful, queen-like Ada reigns over the household: her sisters Vivie and Bec; her children Howard, Molly, and young Davy; and Vivie’s daughter, Nina, who is a few years older than Molly. At the time of her brother’s death, Molly is twelve years old; in her middle age, she delivers the grand Leibritsky saga, passed down to Molly by her parents and aunts.

Poliner

Poliner

Poliner treats the summer of 1948 as if it were the hub of a wheel from which extend spokes of increasing significance through the power of this family disaster. Like all families, this one has many challenges, as do its individual members. Molly allows us to see them, feel them, and understand them. Sisters are estranged. Love is frustrated by duty. Marriages fail. A boy dies for no reason. And still, individuals persevere to lead remarkable lives. By opening and closing the aperture, Poliner is able to sweep us through decades of change, growth, accomplishment, and frustration. We witness her characters responding to social changes, their own maturing and aging, their own realized or thwarted sense of destiny. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner | Jewish Book Council

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“After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition”

by Hillel Halkin. Princeton University Press. 240 pages. Hardcover $27.95.

 This new edition to the Library of Jewish Ideas series is at once a scholarly journey, a meditation, and a remembrance. Most likely there is nothing comparable in print. In fact, toward the end of the book, Halkin lets us known that the concerns he has pursued are barely mentioned in the works of modern and contemporary Jewish writers, including those who belong to one or another segment of Orthodoxy. hillel-halkin1

Halkin_AfterOneHundredAndTwenty

And yet Halkin has created something at once intellectually stimulating, profoundly frightening, and ultimately reassuring. It is like plunging into the abyss and finding the buoyancy and healing power of salt water. Some sugar as well.

Halkin makes it clear that his perspective is that of a non-observant Jew, yet he is a knowledgeable one and, perhaps more importantly, he is a curious one. He asks, “how can a life that has existed cease to exist without a trace? How can the universe have no memory of it?” From here he enters the world of Jewish texts that consider Jewish notions of the afterlife.

After a pleasantly teasing introduction, Halkin builds five sturdy chapters in which he navigates through the history of ideas as Jewish culture undergoes large and small shifts and larger and smaller degrees of influence from neighboring cultures. He sets Jewish considerations of death and something beyond it in the context of Greek, Egyptian, and Babylonian constructions, finding the common denominators and the essentially Jewish distinction. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: After One-Hundred-and-Twenty | Jewish Book Council

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FLEXIGIDITY: THE SECRET OF JEWISH ADAPTABILITY

by Gidi Grinstein / review by Philip K. Jason

This is truly a most remarkable, original, and inspirational book. While aimed at building a body of knowledge and skills for a new leadership of the Jewish people in individual communities and worldwide, it deserves a readership among all Jews and, indeed, all students of the Jewish journey through history. It is nothing less than a map for the Jewish future based upon a keen understanding of the Jewish past and the challenges of the present situation – a mixture of prosperity and power on the one hand, vulnerability on the other.  flexigidity

Get past the gimmicky title: the jamming together of the counterpoint traits of flexibility and rigidity that Grinstein sees as the essential character of Jewish experience. Get past the unconventional but highly functional design, an extended outline form laced with text boxes and boldface passages that announce the most important concepts. Forgive what seems like a technical report or systems analysis approach. This book is nothing but good sense writ large.

Although the author takes us through almost all of Jewish history to make his points about the processes of Jewish survival, he pays particular attention to the last 130 years “of radical and fundamental transformations” resulting “from the compounded effect of repetitive disasters in Europe, as well as from the dramatic successes of Zionism and Americanism.” Grinstein urges the necessity of a productive respect among Zionists and Israelis for a healthy and growing Jewish diaspora and a powerful understanding in the diaspora about the essentiality of Israel for the Jewish future. . . .

To read the entire review, as it is posted on the Jewish Book Council website for later publication in Jewish Book World, click here: Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability

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SINGER’S TYPEWRITER AND MINE: REFLECTIONS ON JEWISH CULTURE

by Ilan Stavans / University of Nebraska Press, 2012 / Paperback  392 pp. $24.95

This major collection of Ilan Stavans’ shorter writings confirms his place as a premier interpreter of the Jewish experience in the Americas. Primarily concerned with the narrative arts (literature and film), his range is wide and his penetration is deep. As he battles through the distinctions between the intellectual and the academic, the creative spirit and the critical one, Stavans is at once erudite, relaxed, and friendly. Often seriously engaged with high-brow achievement, he is not condescending to writers of lower elevation – such as Leo Rosten.  StavansCover

Stavans employs his considerable intelligence and knowledge in a particularly therapeutic way. For one thing, he reminds us not to confuse Spanish speaking Jews with Sephardim. Born into an Ashkenazi Mexican family, he represents a stratum of Latino culture underrepresented on most North American maps of Jewish life and achievement. Yet Stavans has made New York and Boston his homes for half of his life. Intellectually and emotionally, he is at home with the giants (and the overlooked) of modern western culture in both its Spanish and English streams. And let’s not forget about Yiddish!

In this dazzling sampler of his work, we encounter short essays (book reviews, brief critical meditations, tributes) and longer sojourns into multi-layered topics: “Thinking Aloud: The Education of Maurice Samuel,” “Rereading Lionel Trilling,” “Sephardic Literature: Unity and Dispersion,” and – of course – the magnificent title essay “Singer’s Typewriter and Mine.” In many of these pieces, Stavans knits the circumstances of his own life into the exploration of his ostensible subject. Somehow, he manages to make this kind of risk-taking productive rather than intrusive. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears ALONG WITH AN INTERVIEW on the Jewish Book Council web site and in the Spring 2013 issue of Jewish Book World, click here: Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture

This review and interview was reprinted in the April 2013 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, FL), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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