Tag Archives: Jewish history

“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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“To Catch a Traitor,” by D. B. Shuster

Crime Bytes Media. 308 Pages . Trade Paperback $16.99

Review by Philip K. Jason

In this prequel to her Sins of a Spy series, D. B. Shuster deftly portrays Soviet Jews’ collective state of mind during the 1980s. Soviet Jews continue to face anti-Semitism; they are confined to low-paying work and are used as convenient scapegoats for others’ disappointments. Laws don’t protect them. The KGB shadows them relentlessly, especially those who, for whatever reason, are felt to be a danger to the Soviet system. These conditions are magnified by the desire of many to emigrate either to Israel or the United States. Their goal of escape makes them traitors.

Shuster

The novel centers on the Reitman family—especially on clever, curvaceous Sofia, who has dedicated her life and her talents to achieving Jewish freedom from Soviet oppression. Though KGB agents are everywhere, she has found satisfaction in risk-taking and has become a spy, trained to photograph secret Soviet documents that can be used to shape world opinion and modify Soviet policy. Her handler, Paul, is a CIA agent.

When Sofia’s husband, Mendel, is released early from his five-year prison sentence for teaching Hebrew, he is a greatly altered version of the man Sofia married. It is not clear if his early release involved a deal with his jailers. Mendel won’t talk about it, and it seems that the former intimacy between them cannot be restored. He has learned to be suspicious, even of his wife. . . .

To read the entire review, as found on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  To Catch a Traitor

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

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

Review by Philip K. Jason

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

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

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

Jonathan Weisman credit Gabrielle Demczuk

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

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

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

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“The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion,” by Steven R. Weisman

Simon & Schuster. 368 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

Recounting the ways the ancient faith redefined itself in the 18th- and 19th-century United States.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

There’s the story of the rabbi who went to a Jewish community center mixer to welcome newcomers. When someone asked him what kind of rabbi he was, he answered: “Jewish. I’m a Jewish rabbi.”

Was he making a joke? Didn’t he know that the questioner wanted to know if he was Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Hasidic, or some other variation of the religious spectrum? Of course, he knew. It was a serious answer, but with a bit of a wink.

The story that Steven R. Weisman tells in The Chosen Wars is, among other things, the story of the search for a unified Judaism responsive to time and place and seeking to be confident about a Jewish future. It’s the story of growing opportunities for Jews to enter cultural mainstreams and the costs and consequences of admission. It is a story told with power and precision.

Steven R. Weisman

After sketching the earliest arrivals of Jews in New Amsterdam (1654) and examining Jewish life in the Colonial period, Weisman explores the peaks and valleys of migration — most often peaks — that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. He details the early prominence of Charleston, South Carolina, as a place where immigrant Jews could build a vibrant community.

He examines the interplay between becoming an American with almost unimaginable rights and holding on to the traditional responsibilities of Jewish life as it had existed in past centuries. Along the way, Weisman explores the vying strands of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish culture.

Part of the process of fitting in had to do with imitating what Americans expected in houses of worship. To that end, many synagogues echoed the grandeur of churches, particularly Presbyterian churches.

But how did Jews make the transition from various corners of Europe, where they were so often victims of persecution, to an unaccustomed security and even prominence in the land of the free? Weisman presents the saga in its many parts, drawing on a series of fascinating characters and stressful crises. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Chosen Wars

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A war orphan’s journey from trauma to transcendence, with all the stops along the way

Review by Philip K. Jason

A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan, by Sylvia Ruth Gutmann. Epigraph Books. 318 pages. Hardcover $26.95, trade paperback $18.95.

This is one of the most heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting Holocaust narratives. While the Holocaust is mostly in the background of this personal memoir, it is the driving force of the author’s life – and of her parents’ death and the death of many other relatives. It is the story of living in a vacuum that created self-doubt, depression, and poor choices. Sylvia’s story is a highly complex story that is simply told in an open, friendly manner. It is a story of self-discovery and self-making. It is a story about victory after failures, humiliations, and destructive patterns of behavior. It is honest to its core. 

Three-year-old Sylvia’s parents managed to arrange for the young girl and her two older sisters to reach safety before the parents met their deaths at Auschwitz.  She reached the United States at the age of seven, along with her sisters Rita, then fourteen, and Susi, a year or so younger. The series of traumas that brought Sylvia to New York obliterated her memory and left her with emptiness, foreboding, and a sense of unworthiness. She is taken in by her Uncle Sam, who shows strong affection, and his wife Gerdy, who treats her terribly, amplifying the child’s sense of unworthiness. This couple has two sons, the older of which, Michel, becomes a life-long friend, but there are periods of hostility between these cousins.

Sylvia has no memories, and she has a struggle to access the English language necessary for her education. Her sense of her younger self comes from conversations with Rita, who serves a maternal role. Rita builds a sense of Sylvia’s past that is largely accurate, but many decades later, as an old woman, Sylvia discovers inaccuracies and fills in blanks that were outside of Rita’s knowledge.

During her school years, Sylvia gains solace from her sense of non-belonging by over-indulging in sweets, and her weight problem brings humiliation. Addictive behavior of various kinds shows up throughout much of her life, as do periods of self-control and achievement. Her choices in men seem to bode well at first, but too often end up being disasters, plunging her into despair. However, she finds employments that allow her a modest income. The yearning to free herself from poor choices and low self-esteem brings her to successful periods of professional therapy. And Rita is always available, if not in person, then over the phone, to console her.

Over time, Sylvia gains self-knowledge and strength. Her one positive marriage, with Milton, a very wealthy and caring man, helps her gain balance, but after his death, with no continuing support from his heirs, she is back in a panic situation for herself and her son David, whom she must often support even in his adulthood.

One of her more eccentric relationships is with a young man named Jannek, a Czech student studying in Germany. At sixty-two, Sylvia is about forty years older than her suitor, but she travels to Germany to live with him. It is in the country that still holds the secrets of her early childhood that Sylvia begins telling her story to various groups, people of all ages and backgrounds, and their positive responses create a mission that soon dominates her life. The feedback she gets even ameliorates her hostility to the German people.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann

While in Germany, she finds the place of her birth and meets individuals who knew her parents – and even knew the toddler Sylvia. Amazingly, she also meets the woman who so many years ago, at the age of nineteen, was entrusted by Sylvia’s mother with the fate of her three daughters.

While the historical and personal events, the few satisfying and frequent debilitating relationships, the kaleidoscopic moods, and hard-won insights of A Life Rebuilt are enough to draw readers to the book and its amazingly resilient author, it is Sylvia’s voice that is extraordinarily compelling. It is a voice like no other: sometimes frantic, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes fragile, sometimes strong, but always authentic and deeply revelatory. Over the decades, it shifts from being a voice of innocence to a voice of experience. It is a most remarkable and valuable voice. Hear it and you will be moved, enlightened, and changed.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann immigrated with her two older sisters to the United States in 1946, four years after the murder of her parents in Auschwitz. Sylvia is a former spokesperson on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York City. Every year she shares her story at numerous Holocaust remembrance and Wounded Warrior ceremonies organized by the U.S. Military. She has also spoken extensively throughout Europe and was granted honorary German citizenship in 2002 for her peace activism. Sylvia currently lives in Massachusetts. In addition to having spent several years in Berlin, Germany, she has also lived in New York City, San Diego, Miami, Washington, DC, and Rhinebeck, New York. Over the years her friends learned to use a pencil when adding her home to their address book!!

See https://sylviaruthgutmann.com/

This review appears in the August 2018 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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The surprisingly influential Jewish community at the southernmost corner of the United States

The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969), by Arlo Haskell. Sand Paper Press. 208 pages. Deluxe Trade Paperback $24.00.

In seven well-shaped chapters, Haskell packs an enjoyable and frequently astonishing history of Key West’s Jewish community. Hearing of the topic, some people will assume that this is a slender thread to spin into a book. However, they would be wrong. Haskell’s research has turned up a considerable amount of information that brings to life 144 years of Jewish involvement in this most idiosyncratic town.

Young Men’s Hebrew Association

The chapters bite off chronological slices of history, each focusing on the economic and cultural aspects of Jewish life. Thus, the journey begins with a discussion of sailors and merchants in an era of military events,stressing the importance of Key West as a port town, a multilingual place that had an international flair. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was tiny, hardly a real community. Early Jewish settlers included Mordecai White and Samuel Cline, who were tailors and clothes merchants. The naval presence brought them customers.

During a twenty-year span that followed the initial attraction of Jews to Key West, opportunities in a growth industry took hold and swelled the population, including the Cuban and the Jewish population. Samuel Seidenberg “was the first manufacturer to capitalize on the fact that a cigar as good as the Cuban ones could be made in Key West at significantly lower cost.” He constructed a huge factory. His Jewish rivals included M. Myerson, Max Marx, the Pohalski brothers, and Julius Ellinger. Haskell’s narrative of the Key West tobacco boom shows how it promoted the town’s economy, attracting investment with its hundreds of employees. The Pohalski brothers built a company corner of town with homes for their workers. Their section of Key West gave rise to dry good and grocery stores, as well as a drug store and a saloon. These leaders were primarily secular Jews.

Arlo Haskell photo Nick Doll

As he traces the growth of the Jewish presence in Key West, Haskell keeps us in touch with larger issues of the time, including the Civil War and the Ten Years’ War fought to liberate Cuba from the Spanish Empire. He points out parallels in the age-old Jewish and nineteen century Cuban struggles for autonomy and independence. Haskell points out the need for Key West’s Jews to form alliances with exiled Cubans who, under the leadership of José Martí, had made Key West their command center.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century mark the beginning of a true Jewish community. New Jewish settlers in Key West often continued their European enterprises as peddlers and shopkeepers. Though Key West was ravaged by a fire in 1886, the rebuilding of the town brought new opportunities. Abram Wolkowsky and other Eastern European Jews shared religious customs, the experience of exile, and the Yiddish language. Slowly, Jewish institutions begin to take hold. Congregation B’nai Zion, still functioning, gives 1887 as its date of origin.

The Jewish Alliance’s Key West chapter emerged in 1891. Its primary concern was to establish a Jewish cemetery, and it did so. As the century wound down, “Jews had become an important and highly visible component of Key West business life.” One of the community leaders, Louis Fine, was not only a successful business man, but also served as lay leader for religious matters until Key West had its first rabbi.

Fine’s grocery store had a lower level used “to store weapons for the [Cuban] rebel army.” Haskell devotes a chapter to exploring the phenomenon of “Jewish Revolutionaries” in the 1890s.

The first two decades of the twentieth century witness a strong, thriving Key West Jewish community. The Jewish congregation held services and other activities on the second floor of the Fine family’s hardware store. When Fine was not available, itinerant Rabbi Herman Horowitz handled the community’s religious needs. All kinds of Jewish businesses were set up along and near Duval Street.

Marks, Rosenthal & Wall Family

Jewish shoe merchants

On top of the Honest Profit House, a clothing store run by the Wolkowsky family, sat the office of the U. S Immigration Inspector, and through that office many hundreds of Jews took their first steps toward citizenship.

Key West rode the wave of nationwide improvements in communication and other technologies. The growing Jewish population was serviced by efforts of the Jewish Alliance to find jobs for Jewish immigrants. This initiative included relocating immigrants from overcrowded New York to various other places around the country, Key West included. By 1905, the Jewish community reported having 158 members. Its members joined efforts to reunite Jewish families that had been separated. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 4, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 5 Naples and  Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 1  and Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 2

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“The Stakes of History,” by David N. Myers

The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life, by David N. Myers. Yale University Press. 192 pages. Hardcover $27.99

While this densely-packed volume is aimed primarily at scholars of history and historiography, Professor Myers has kept the non-expert reader in mind by offering just the right amount of thematic repetition and exemplification. Is the author striving to demolish the ostensible conflict between history and memory? Well, the answer depends upon the prejudices and background of the reader. History that moves in the direction of pure fact, he suggests, misses opportunities to generate larger meanings and applications. History in the service of memory is likely to offer suspect compromises, to be overly and pointedly selective, perhaps to be, ultimately, not much more than propaganda.

David N. Myers, photo by Scarlett Freund

The author’s introduction, “History, Memory, and What Lies in Between,” defines the intellectual playing field. Three numbered chapters identity and explore three significant functions of history with scintillating articulation. These are “History as Liberation, “History as Consolation,” and “History as Witness.” Myers microscopically explores just how each function operates, its memorializing potentialities, and – by implication at least, its limitations.

The stream of references within the discussion, the positioning of vivid or at least conveniently enlightening oppositions among scholars of history, sharpens and textures the issues. . . .

To see the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: The Stakes of History

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“Secrets and Shadows” by Roberta Silman

Campden Hill Books, 295 pages. Hardcover $24.00. Trade paperback $12.00

The plot of this intriguing new novel oscillates between a Jewish boy’s life in wartime Berlin and that same person’s life as a temporary returnee in 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall comes down. Author Roberta Silman carefully measures the changed and unchanged conditions in Berlin in these two eras, both for the city at large and for Jewish-German relations. 

Successful lawyer Paul Bertrand, born Paul Berger, was the child and is the man returning to face his past. Paul was divorced by his wife, Eve, five years earlier after twenty-three years of marriage, in part because of his unfaithfulness—yet he has somehow persuaded her to accompany him back to Berlin. The Bertrands have three young adult children: two sons and a daughter. The manner in which Paul and Eve, separately and together, have parented these children is an interesting thread through the novel. The couple’s relationship to their own parents and other relatives also informs the narrative in significant ways.

Silman

 

A prosperous family, the Bergers were secreted during the war in their own home. Silman vividly paints the sharply contrasting characters who protected them. Her astute portrait of the families’ interactions reveals a toxic mixture of indebtedness and resentment. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Secrets and Shadows.

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