Tag Archives: Jewish

“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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Highly original novel explores the damage that false spiritual gurus can inflict

The Kabbalah Master, by Perle Besserman. Monkfish. 202 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

Besserman has penned a fascinating portrait of an insecure Jewish woman, Sharon Berg, who in her mid-thirties becomes infatuated with a somewhat charismatic spiritual leader. Rabbi Albert Joachim is the head of The Center for Mystical Judaism; Sharon studies there and becomes a slave to her “Kabbalah Master.” She works long hours for little pay and scant attention. 

Sharon’s life had run aground. Divorced, with two children, and with few prospects, she is easy prey to her own imagination. Her needs are projected on an imagined version of a caring Rabbi Joachim who seems to be simply using her. Sharon fantasizes that he will return her love. Perhaps divorce his wife and marry her.

Unable to properly parent her children, she had invited her mother to move in and help out. This situation has an upside and a downside.

Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and other sections of New York, The Kabbalah Master offers a rich ethnic taste. Its temporal setting is 1972, a time of social change and continuing experimentation initiated in the 1960s. Perle Bessemer knows the territory and handles it with authority.

Sharon, a somewhat time-worn nice Jewish girl, is desperate for validation. Enter Junior Cantana. Junior is seven years younger than Sharon and gives the first impression of being much younger than that. Their meeting is fortuitous. To Sharon’s eyes, he has movie star looks. He is polite, caring, and alternates between seeming vulnerable and sure of himself. There is a genuine attraction between this couple.

However, they have backgrounds that put pressure on a possible relationship. What is Sharon doing, she imagines others saying, flirting with this younger man. She wonders herself. The image of Rabbi Joachim flits through her mind, his gravitas, learning, and remarkable allure so much in contrast to Junior’s aura. Lots of little things define him. “He smelled pleasantly of trees in the rain.” Sharon has always believed her destiny is to marry a Jewish man, to raise Jewish children, and to deepen her Jewish knowledge and identity.  She had already attempted that life, and though the Jewish children are still there, the husband is gone.

Can she really flourish in a relationship with this Italian-American Vietnam War veteran? Is her attraction to him a counterbalance to her adoration of Rabbi Joachim? Won’t she always seem an old lady in his circle of friends?


Rabbi Joachim is not present for a substantial part of the novel. He is off visiting his wife and children in Israel. Jewish mysticism, however, continues to be represented by a neighborhood occult book store owned and run by Seymour Priceman. He is also Rabbi Joachim’s publisher. An astute businessman, he admits to having absolutely no personal interest in the concerns of the books he sells and publishes.

Ms. Bessemer, through Priceman’s stance, suggests that most who dabble in mysticism, Jewish or otherwise, are charlatans. Clearly enough, in the author’s view, many are. And in that group, perhaps, is Rabbi Joachim, whose writings on the curative powers of herbs are under attack. The “clover cure” has caught the attention of the FDA.

And yet Priceman, who is as publisher is likely to be sued, is willing to believe that Rabbi Joachim is sincere, although misguided in his enthusiasms.

There is a lot to like about this book. Many chapters read like detachable vignettes of New York life, the main characters peripheral to others who populate these scenes. These sections are not at all distracting; rather they set Sharon into a larger, richer, and more complex cultural environment.

Moreover, though the story’s main thrust aligns with serious current concerns about false, manipulating gurus taking advantage of women, readers will find a smile on the author’s face. The book is rich with a wise and unexpected humor.

Will Sharon be able to build a new life for herself? Read the book and make your own decision.

About the Author:

Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Houghton Mifflin published her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, and Bamboo Ridge, among others. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages. Her most recent books of creative non-fiction are A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan) and Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, coauthored with Manfred Steger (Wisdom Books). Two novels, Kabuki Boy, and Widow Zion, and Yeshiva Girl, a story collection, are available from Aqueous Books, Pinyon Publishing, and Homebound Publishing, respectively.

A Q&A with Perle Besserman, author of The Kabbalah Master: A Novel

When did you start writing?

I published my first story when I was 9.

What inspired you?

I was trained as an actor, singer, and dancer from an early age, so my life as a performer influenced my vision of life as a narrative filled with multiple characters and situations calling for expression.

Where do those characters and stories come from?

They are enacted on the stage of my imagination, my dreams, and my memories, similarly to what William Butler Yeats described as a sort of mediumistic trance.

What was your childhood like?

My parents were both storytellers.  Books, movies, and the arts in general were the basis for the life drama enacted at home—a perfect maelstrom of love and conflict between creativity and Jewish orthodoxy.

Why write about Kabbalah? 

It was part of my spiritual search; I also made trips around the world and wrote books about “Oriental Mysticism”, and women’s spirituality (The Way of Witches). I sat with Tibetan and Sufi teachers and found my home, finally, in Zen.

How do you feel about writing in the digital age?

I start out with a problem, so I can’t answer that question objectively.  Years ago, when first working on a computer, I discovered that my electromagnetic field was antithetical to computers and most digital devices. Things got so crazy, when I was teaching at Illinois State University, that my department chair had to bring in the IT staff to see why I was killing the list serve, and why my syllabi couldn’t get downloaded. Anyway, the IT people tested me (a couple of Bell Labs physicists had studied the problem years before) and found that I was among 4 % of the population with that electromagnetic field problem.  So, all I can say, is that, my creative urge, the characters and situations demanding to be written, are still alive and well–despite my fraught relationship with the digital age.

 Who are among your favorite authors? 

James Joyce; Flaubert; Dickens; the Brontes; Alice Munro; W.B. Yeats; Homer . . . In spite of his solipsism and sexism, I kind of like Karl Ove Knausgaard; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name a few.

 Where do you get your material?

The stage of my imagination is filled with characters and stories needing to be told.  I tune in and listen.  Sometimes that stage is bare, so I have to stay quiet and respectfully wait for the characters and their stories to enter.

This review, along with the biographical information and interview, appear in the June 2018 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).




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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.


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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“Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir” by Annette Gendler

  • She Writes Press. 232 pp. Trade paperback $16.95.

An exquisitely written conversion story which expounds upon personal and collective identity.  

On the website of Israeli-born New York artist Hanan Harchol, readers learn that “Harchol uses the family as a microcosm for the larger human condition, exploring the universal through the personal.” Annette Gendler’s new memoir, Jumping Over Shadows, does much the same thing, though the particularities of Gendler’s experience are deeply underscored and the universals are more subtly evoked.

Annette was born in New Jersey to an American mother and a father from Czechoslovakia. The family, including Annette and her siblings, moved to Munich, where she was educated. They practiced a sort of Catholicism-Lite. “In fact,” Annette writes, “to say I was raised Catholic is almost a misnomer.”

In her early twenties, she met Harry — a friend of a friend — who belonged to a traditional Jewish family. Their romance was guarded; each knew that a marriage between them was likely to shake their families to the core.

As Annette discovered, such a marriage had rocked the family when her German great-aunt had married a Czechoslovakian Jew in the early 1920s. Later, the Nazi takeover caused this mixed marriage to pose enormous problems for the extended family. Such was the baggage carried by these 1985 sweethearts.

Memoirist Annette alternates between scenes that trace her developing relationship with Harry and scenes that recapture the dilemmas brought about by her great-aunt Resi’s marriage. She makes the people and times of her family’s past ordeal, the taint of the family’s problems, come alive. She paints a world she never knew but learned to understand.

The question is, of course, what will Annette and Harry do and how will they negotiate the obvious problems — and the not-so-obvious ones? What will each give or give up? A major portion of this story springs from Annette’s carefully considered decision to convert to Judaism. In part, this is an intellectual process, but it is much more than that. The author recalls the steps that she took, the growth in her learning, and how her exploration of Judaism and of possibly becoming Jewish changed her.

Learning the tenets of the faith and some history is one thing; learning recipes for gefilte fish and other Jewish foods is another. Learning Hebrew is yet another. Discovering how to lead a traditional Jewish life and learning to love Israel are two more necessary strands. Annette’s education becomes an education for the general reader and a new kind of blueprint for the less observant or less committed Jewish reader. . . .

To see the entire review, click here: Jumping Over Shadows: A Memoir | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Dahl’s CONVICTION a gripping, worthy addition to her Rebekah Roberts series

 Conviction, by Julia Dahl. Minotaur Books. 320 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

The latest entry in Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts series is a powerful exploration of how unjustifiable convictions occur and what the consequences are. It also evokes the spiritual overtone of the title word. The storytelling mode is particularly effective, mixing sections told in the main character’s voice with other sections that enter the minds and emotions of other important characters.

It’s all about perspective.

Something horrible happens in Brooklyn during the summer of 1992. A black mother and father, along with one of their foster children, are murdered in their Crown Heights home. Another foster child is convicted of the crime, a false confession wrung from him via despicable police interrogation.

The narrative moves back and forth, alternating between two timelines. One describes the sequence of events as they happened in 1992. The other reveals events of 2014, especially those that follow journalist Rebekah Roberts, who is sparked into action by a letter from fortyish prison inmate DeShawn Perkins. He claims that he has been in jail for 22 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

To explore the background and consequences of this claim, Dahl designs a layered plotline that includes the relationships between the African-American and Jewish communities; the abusive and often criminal practices of city landlords; the unwillingness of police and district attorneys to reopen closed cases; the decline of U.S. newspapers; and the shoddy journalism that arises from the tension between getting the facts straight and being first to break the story.

And that’s not all. Conviction probes the texture and dynamics of parent-child relationships in a remarkably rich way. It’s not all good news. The relationship between Rebekah and her mother, Aviva, for instance, is very rocky. . . .

To read the entire review, click hereConviction: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

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“The Sea Beach Line,” by Ben Nadler

Fig Tree Books. 385 pp. Trade paperback $15.95.

A young man with an uncertain future seeks answers about his past.

Ben Nadler’s new novel, The Sea Beach Line, is astonishingly powerful, thoughtful, and more than a bit troubling, but it is not to be missed. In it, Isaac (“Izzy”) Edel, cast out of Oberlin College for drug use, determines to clean up his act and discover whether his father is dead or alive. The-Sea-Beach-Line

Izzy has some pleasant childhood memories of his father, but since his parents’ divorce and his mother’s remarriage, he has had little contact with his father. Polish-born Alojzy (“Al”), who had fought in the Israel Defense Forces, made little effort to have Izzy in his life, perhaps for his son’s own good.

Izzy cannot move forward without finding out about Al and, if possible, getting in touch with him. His actions are triggered by a mysterious card from his father and a note to his mother that arrive at the home of his mother and stepfather in New Mexico, where Izzy has been living following his university disgrace. Returning to neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Izzy begins an arduous journey, both physical and spiritual, to find his father, or traces of his father, in order to find himself.

Following the few leads he has, mostly from suspicious characters who knew Al, he finds the storage locker out of which his father ran his Manhattan bookselling business. Soon enough, Izzy steps into his father’s footprint, taking over the business, making the storage space his home, and continuing his investigation.

Izzy works hard, networks, develops friendships on the street, and soon becomes a familiar presence among the Fourth Street tribe of book vendors. He takes every opportunity to find information about Al, and he becomes absorbed in the nature of his father’s life as remembered by others and both fantasized about and echoed by himself.



He discovers a collection of sketches drawn by his father. He meets an artist named Goldov, who had written the note to Izzy’s mother. Goldov runs a gallery/museum specializing in the works of another artist, R. Galuth.

One of the paintings by Galuth is of a woman who bears a strong likeness to a shy, young Jewish woman named Rayna whom Izzy meets on the street. She seems disoriented, and it turns out she is a runaway. Rayna cautiously allows Izzy to befriend her and shelter her. A strong relationship grows. They live and work together in the storage locker. It is clear Rayna has been abused in some way, but she won’t talk about it — or about her family.

The glory of this book is in its allusive texture. Izzy, our narrator, is widely read in Jewish scriptures and midrash. His language is filled with references to such reading, and this technique sets his adventures and decisions into a rich context of religious lore and values. Similarly, stories Rayna shares, especially a version of the Purim story, work to the same end. We are all hidden within and revealed by the tales we tell — and retell. . . .

To read the full review, click here: The Sea Beach Line | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Hate mail challenges a complacent Jewish community

Strength to Stand, by Sheyna Galyan. Yotzeret Publishing. 306 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This is the second of Galyan’s Rabbi David Cohen suspense novels. Set in Minneapolis, it provides a Rabbi’s-eye view of life in a diverse North American Jewish community. Though Rabbi Cohen is central, the other major characters have truly major roles. Several of them are rabbis and spouses of rabbis.  StrengthtoStandfrontcoverHR

These characters face significant crises, at least one of which affects the entire community.

As much as Rabbi Cohen is fulfilled by his Beth Israel pulpit and community activities, he is paying a tremendous price in the accumulated stress of the demands made upon him and what he expects of himself. It is hard to put family first, though he tries. His wife, Sara, has a diminished sense of her own identity and importance as the rabbi’s attention is always compromised by his calling.

Their eight year old son, Ben, is plagued by being defined as “the rabbi’s son,” while the young twins are not yet ready to feel so burdened.

Sara’s solution, for herself and for the relationship, is to move beyond being the rabbi’s almost invisible wife. She is drawn to the idea of the quasi-official role of rebbetzin, an active “first lady” of her husband’s congregation – a spiritual counselor to and leader of the women. But she is not fully prepared for important aspects of the role, and husband David is far from enthusiastic. Her well-meant initiative is bringing more strife rather than bringing them more closely together.

While this issue creates an important plot line in the novel, the overriding one is the series of threats that have come to Rabbi Cohen’s good friend, Batya Zahav, the female Reform Rabbi of Temple Shalom. The verbal assaults, which come by letter, by phone message, and by email, are extremely frightening. As they become more and more intense, local law enforcement has a reason to investigate and protect Rabbi Zahav.

She is, as one might expect, a woman who needs to feel in control. It is not like her to request or accept protection. Yet more and more she is forced into that position. The danger is real, and she has the mixed blessing – in this situation – of being married to Israel-born police sergeant Arik Zahav.



Author Galyan skillfully balances attention to her different plot lines, along the way providing a detailed portrait of Rabbi Cohen’s daily work. A continuing issue threaded through this tapestry is an unmarried congregant’s request for some fairly significant changes to make single members more welcome and more engaged in congregational life. Like most congregations, the one led by Rabbi Cohen is family oriented, and singles almost always feel out of place.

Batya calls David about her hate mail even before she tells her husband. She is reluctant to tell Arik, or to make a “big deal” out of it, because she fears he will go overboard in attacking this problem. Soon, Batya’s problem is David’s, and he is drawn away from his routine to assist her in thinking matters through. More and more, the frightening messages paint her as someone evil who needs to be destroyed. Is it because she is a Jew? A Jewish woman? A Jewish woman rabbi? Is it simple anti-Semitism or something else?

Interfaith relations goals bring David to speak at a Lutheran church. He presents himself as a “religious Jew” surrounded, at this time of the year (Chanukah) with the gift-giving rituals of Christmas and the smiling “Merry Christmas” that he finds so upsetting. He explains, using the Chanukah story, why this is such an uneasy time for most Jews – a challenge to their identity and values. He describes the enormous pressure to distort Chanukah into a Christmas wannabe.

He makes a plea for continued dialogue so that the various neighboring religious communities can learn the “intentions, motivations, and aspirations” of the others. David’s talk goes fairly well, though he does receive some rude responses. The issue of majority insensitivity is reinforced when, as they do every year, Sara’s Christian paternal grandparents send Christmas cards.

Galyan leaves it for the reader to link (or not) David’s experience in the church and the hate mail that Batya has been receiving. Soon, she is “gifted” a dead mouse and then a doll that looks like Batya with a bullet hole in its head. Such harassment and intimidation brings more aggressive police action.

The author introduces a third rabbi. The Cohens’ friends, Rabbi Eli and his wife Bev, visit during Chanukah. Eli was David’s rabbinical school classmate and they have remained close ever since – though David’s pulpit is in Washington state. Eli joins the team effort to comfort and aid Rabbi Zahav and her husband. He also serves most usefully as confidant and exemplary counselor for David. Eli temporary fills the bill of the local “rabbi’s rabbi” that he insists David – and every rabbi – should seek.

Sara’s friend and confidant is Talia Friedman, the wife of a rabbi who teaches at several local universities. She tells Sara about the network of rebbetzins and how they help each other to develop the attitudes and skills to succeed.

Halfway through the novel, Chanukah begins. The following chapters intensify Galyan’s portrait of Jewish family and community life. We appreciate the Cohens’ hosting efforts, learn from their visitors how to be good guests and not pests, and savor the special character of a Shabbat meal. We see David interact with a potential convert, hear him give a sermon, and respect his adroit way of working with synagogue staff and occasionally troublesome lay leaders.

The police investigation of Batya’s fearful dilemma takes a surprising turn (involving yet another rabbi), and as it moves toward a resolution, so do the novel’s other concerns: Sara’s need to define herself, David’s need to find balance in his life, and the Jewish community’s needs to enhance its relationships with other religious groups.

Sheyna Galyan offers a sophisticated blend of insight and entertainment; suitably complex, flawed, and yet commendable characters; well-developed action and suspense; and an authoritative rendering of synagogue-centered Jewish life. This is a very fine book group selection and teaching text.

This review appears in the September 2015 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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“Run You Down,” by Julia Dahl

  • Minotaur Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

This page-turner of a mystery, set in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, brings a mother and daughter together at last.

It would be hard for author Julia Dahl to match the impact of her novel from last year, Invisible City, let alone provide a fresh experience with a story that mines a similar milieu: the mysterious death of a woman in New York’s Hasidic community. However, she has done it — in part by having left the door open for a continuation of the earlier work’s underplot: a young woman’s quest to find the mother who abandoned her as a baby.
One would suspect that Run You Down was in development even before Invisible City was published. In the later book, tabloid stringer Rebekah Roberts, a half-Jewish woman raised in Florida by her Christian father, Brian, has taken a step up the ladder at the New York Tribune. She’s doing rewrite, an indoor job, rather than chasing around the city investigating possible stories. Rebekah is also fighting a severe bout of depression in the aftermath of her first major assignment.

Her roommate, Iris, is pushing her to get help.Rebekah meets with her friend Saul, a retired policeman and the one person of her acquaintance (besides her father) who’d known Aviva, her mother. Aviva had contacted Saul about possibly getting in touch with her daughter. Saul passed on the message, but Rebekah’s nerve failed when it came to picking up the phone; too much fear and anger, too many unknowns.While wrestling with this problem, which is pulling her into a dangerous withdrawal state,

Rebekah agrees to meet Levi, a man from the Haredi (extreme orthodox) world. Levi’s young wife, Pessie, has recently died, but he suspects something has gone wrong with the investigation of her death. (Echoing the circumstances in Invisible City, Pessie was rushed to the funeral home without an autopsy being done.)Levi can’t find out how she died . . .

Read the entire review at: Run You Down | Washington Independent Review of Books

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“Made in Detroit: Poems” by Marge Piercy

Alfred A. Knopf  2015
192 Pages    $27.95

 Review by Philip K. Jason

Marge Piercy’s nineteenth collection of poetry—to go along with her seventeen novels—celebrates the working-class roots of a fierce American writer who became a voice at once strident and sensitive for social justice, the value of work, and humanity’s place in the embracing, injured natural world.

Her poems are often lean and tough, with sharp juxtapositions of words and images challenging the reader’s imagination and confronting complacency. marge-piercy

The book is divided into six sections, and in the first three Piercy’s references to her Jewish identity are sparse and defensive. In “City bleeding” she talks about learning to survive on Detroit’s “ashgrey burning streets / when as a Jew I was not white yet . . . .” Judaism seems a troubled reminder, in “What my mother gave me,” as the writer remembers “how cats would circle / your feet purring your Hebrew name.” In a prose poem, she remembers “feeling very alien, feeling very Jewish and judged.” She remembers her mother telling her not to putJew on a job application in “My time in better dresses”—Jewishness as a burden.

How surprising and uplifting, then, to find the entirety of Made in Detroit’s fourth part a full-throated acceptance and affirmation of Jewish identity. This section, mostly a meditation on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), soars. These poems, at once personal and public, reveal an engaged Jewish consciousness, a woman who tells us, “I like Rosh Hashanah late, / when leaves are half burnt / umber and scarlet” and when “migrating birds perch / on the wires davening.”

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council blog and will appear in a forthcoming Jewish Book World, click here: Made in Detroit by Marge Piercy | Jewish Book Council


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A soaring cry, a classic expression of the Jewish American experience

Prayers for the Living, by Alan Cheuse. Foreword by Tova Mirvis. Fig Tree Books. 380 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.

A major literary achievement, Alan Cheuse’s magnificent novel takes us through three generations of a Jewish American family, revealing an odd mix of dysfunction and accomplishment, belonging and estrangement, sacrifice and betrayal. Minnie Bloch’s story, told from the perspective of her identities as immigrant and grandmother, reaches us through intermediary listeners, visitors whose near silence tempts us to ask questions. However, if we – the ghostly eavesdroppers – can be patient, they will all be answered. Though she protests otherwise, Minnie has all the answers. Though her eyesight is failing, her insight rarely falters. PrayersForTheLiving-forWebNov14

The impact of the novel comes from two centers of interest: Minnie’s arcing, arching voice and her son Manny’s careers. The voice, like the spirited personality behind it, is inexhaustible. In her stream of revelations showered upon Mrs. Pinsker and a few other visitors, she elaborates what others would most likely keep secret about unfortunate familial matters. There is a great need in Minnie to reveal all: the successes of course, but why the frailties and failures?

There is no stopping her soaring cry. When Mrs. Pinsker remarks that she too has a life story to tell, Minnie replies: “I’d love to hear, Mrs. Pinsker, but not now. Now I’m remembering my own. Oi, I remember so hard.” And indeed, she does.

The texture of Minnie’s life and that of her family is built up in arcs of repetition. Crucial memories and images, key words and phrases, are repeated over and over again, gaining significance and force. Layer upon layer, Minnie’s memories grow and expand; themes and variations compound and resound. The voice becomes hypnotic and embracing, releasing as it unfolds the voices of her late husband Jacob, of Manny and his wife Maby, of Maby’s abusive brother Mord, of the rebellious granddaughter who has renamed herself Sadie, and of many others in the sweep of her long life.

All is hung on the identical trademark black suits of Manny, all is illuminated by Manny’s white mane, which bursts upon his head when he is very young, in the aftermath of Jacob’s accidental death. If Jacob is the father, an echo of his namesake who sired the Israelite clan, then Manny – Emanuel – is the assurance that, at least for the rabbinic part of Manny’s adult life, God is with us.

Young Manny studies at the Reform seminary in Cincinnati and becomes a successful pulpit rabbi in New York. His is a master of the ordinary things expected of him – the routines of educating, inspiring, influencing committee meetings, and fundraising. His most successful religious service is one in which he needs to present a sermon on the concentration camps. After much agonizing and writer’s block, he offers as his sermon twenty minutes of absolute silence. It’s the high point of his pulpit career. His congregants love it. There are low points too, including one in which he takes a literal and figurative fall.

Gradually, another calling overtakes Manny. That of entrepreneur, investor, and man of business. One business is added to another, and then another: shipping, warehousing, and ultimately major agricultural interests in Central America. Once he redefines himself as a businessman and former rabbi, Manny readily discards the life of the synagogue and traditional observance. How does he make this transition so effortlessly? How deep did it ever run?

The story of Manny enfolded in Minnie’s linked narratives is also the story of his ill-fated marriage to Maby (a family nickname), a beautiful woman overwhelmed by insecurity and alcoholism. She spends way too much of her life in a comfortable rehab center, but when she ventures out in the world – at one point attempting to become a writer – she makes poor choices that lead to new bouts of depression.

Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse

Along the way, Manny is drawn to another woman, Florette, a Holocaust survivor.

Both Maby and Manny are weak parents whose emotional absence predicts Sadie’s rebellious behavior. Is she a victim by nature or nurture? Sadie’s traumatic gang rape by college boys is an almost incredible echo of Maby’s rape by her older brother Mord (who later ends up being Manny’s business partner).  Maby’s idealization of a self-seeking writing guru almost predicts Sadie’s infatuation with her super-liberated and exploitative female art teacher.

Looking for encouraging authority figures, mother and daughter succumb to false gods.

We must remember, of course, that these stories and the repeated patterns and voices they contain all go back to Minnie’s memory and her conscious or unconscious mission. These coincidences are no more unlikely than the repeated narrative patterns in the Jewish Bible: older brothers being replaced by younger, parental favoritism warping sibling relationships, and former slaves repeatedly longing for the comfort of their predictable slave lives.

What hath Cheuse wrought? A one-woman show with one character playing many parts? A prose epic of the American Dream corrupted by some kind of insidious moral disease? A portrait of the archetypal Jewish grandmother?  Prayers for the Living reminds me of Frank Norris’s McTeague, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (especially the portrait of the hero’s mother and the irony of the title), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Allan Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” (don’t ask me why), and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep.

It also reminds me of Molly Goldberg, Gertrude Berg’s iconic character who embodied the Jewish-American quest for and realization of upward mobility. Not only the “yoo-hoo,” but also the worship of family.

I expect a long life for this book, though not necessarily an explosion to the top of the best seller lists. It is made of sturdy stuff, esthetically and imaginatively. It requires a patient reader, and it pours abundant riches on such a reader. It may very well take its place among the classic novels of the Jewish American experience.

This review appears in the June 2015 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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