Tag Archives: memoir

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

Review by Philip K. Jason

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

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

Flatow

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

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

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

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INDELIBLE WIT: The Political Cartooning of Bill Sanders

NewSouth Books. 232 pages. Hardcover $28.95

For sixty-plus years, Fort Myers resident Bill Sanders has made a living as a political cartoonist. Yes, he’s one of those rare birds who can make your laugh – or at least grin – at individuals and actions in the political world that might otherwise simply make you sick. He can make you angry, too. Riled up about some piece of nonsense about which you share Bill’s perspective – or angry at Bill because you disagree. In either case, you wouldn’t be bored.  

Readers can find the engaging story of Bill’s live – both personal and profession – in a gorgeously designed book with a longish but fitting title and subtitle: Against the Grain: Bombthrowing in the Fine American Tradition of Political Cartooning. Bill’s memories about the stages of his life are accompanied by a generous supply of his classic cartoons. The book, published by New South Books, lists for $28.95, but who buys list? Just get it online for about $10 less from Amazon.com.

Editorial cartoons are meant to be opinionated. That’s why we read them. In the case of a practitioner like Bill Sanders – or such other masters of inky bombs as Herblock, Oliphant, Trudeau, and foreword writer Jules Feiffer – a well crafted political cartoon requires a knowledge base, a sense of the ridiculous, and distinctive skill with the pen. For these commentators, their drawing style is their trademark. Bill Sanders most likely spends more time researching the material that will spark a cartoon than most. He needs to know what he’s talking about before he plays with the issue in ink.

Bill Sanders

Over the years, his main “home base” publication vehicles were the Greensboro Daily News, Kansas City Star, and Milwaukee Journal. His work was syndicated in 100-plus other papers. It’s clear that he had talent, perseverance, and made an impact. He covered everything of political consequence from the Eisenhauer era into the time of Trump, most recently publishing his work on an internet blog. Take a look at http://sanderscartoon.blogspot.com/.

Born in Springfield, Tennessee, Bill fell in love with sports there. His family moved to Dothan, Alabama and then Pompano Beach, Florida. Bill was a high school basketball standout at Pompano Beach High School and was named to the Florida All-State Team in 1948. He later played on a University of Miami freshman football team before transferring to Western Kentucky University, where music and art became important parts of his life. He started dabbling in drawing seriously there, and he also set an NCAA pass completion record while on the WKU football team that won a minor bowl game.

By the mid-Fifties, Bill had married his lifetime partner, Joyce, and found himself wearing an Army uniform in Korea. He began cartooning for armed forces Stars and Stripes publications and found himself imagining making a career of it – if he could. He calls this turning point his “Herblock Epiphany.”

To see the full article, as it appears in the Jan-Feb 2019 issue of Ft. Myers Magazine, click here: Bill Sanders

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Dazzling epic about memory that integrates fiction with memoir is deeply original and ambitious

Returning, by Yael Shahar. Kasva Press. 504 pages. Hardcover $28.95; Trade paperback $19.95

Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.

What genre does is belong to? Author Yael Shahar once thought of calling it “fiction memoir,” but that does not capture enough of its essence.

The workings of dreams are central to the book’s technique and meaning, but what if you dream someone else’s dreams? What if someone else dreams yours and remembers yourmemories? Shahar’s artistry is to make these “what-ifs” credible and meaningful; in fact, inevitable and necessary. She imbeds these actualized possibilities in a theological — or, at least, a biblical — context.

The primary character is an older man named Alex. He is a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who has lived in Israel for many decades following his escape from slave labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Greek Jew from Salonika (“Saloniki” throughout this book), Alex, whose given name is Ovadya (servant of God), was part of a sonderkommando crew, mostly Jewish, who were worked to exhaustion day after day hauling away the bones and ashes of incinerated Jews and other doomed prisoners.

All of his adult life, Alex has been trying, without much success, to resist the constant pressures of memories that take him back to his sonderkommando experience, a trauma that he’d like to forget. As an unwilling witness and assistant to the obliteration of his people, Alex is a man with a diseased soul. Part of him knows that he must face his past and accept responsibility for actions taken and not taken.

He seeks the help of Rabbi Ish-Shalom (“man of peace”), a person of remarkable learning, wisdom, and sensitivity. The rabbi becomes a spiritual coach who leads Alex on the path of self-knowledge, atonement, and redemption.

Yael Shahar credit Rahel Jaskow

But this is not a feel-good journey; it is filled with harrowing confrontations with Alex’s younger self. The rabbi insists, through a series of questions and refutations of Alex’s answers, that there are times when the giving of one’s own life may be the moral choice.

Alex’s resistance to his job of making room for the next victims to be pushed into the gas chambers would not have saved those lives, but that defense is slowly taken away during his conversations with the rabbi.

As Alex releases his memories, first by writing them down and later by speaking them aloud, he undergoes renewal and revelation that properly elevate his sense of self. He can take back his given name because he earns his right to it.

Yael Shahar as a character in her book is an intermediary between Alex and Rabbi Ish-Shalom. She brings them together. In a literal sense, with her name given as author of the book, she is telling Alex’s story — including his dialogue with the rabbi. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Returning

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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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“Patient Care: Death and Life in the Emergency Room,” by Paul Seward, MD

  • Catapult.  240 pp.  Hardcover $25.00.

This insider account of the ER provides high drama, fascinating detail, and unexpected humor.

Paul Seward’s half-century in the emergency room has yielded a bounty of stories illustrating the joys and frustrations of his trade. The 21 friendly, well-carved vignettes he shares in Patient Care penetrate the mysteries of emergency medicine while underscoring the compassion, skill, and dedication of the modest practitioner/author.

One of the recurrent concerns expressed by Seward is his inability, when sharing his reminiscences here, to remember everything relevant to a particular patient’s case and to his own behavior during the crisis. He fills in these blanks by explaining what his customary action would likely have been.

Why does he take the time to worry about these memory lapses? Perhaps it is one way of admitting the human fallibility to which physicians, like all people, are prone. And while he often puts his colleagues on a pedestal, he keeps himself on the ground.

Paul Seward.. credit Carl Burkard

Seward reveals that he has always taken great personal interest in the people and situations he has encountered. While emergency medicine is characterized by its dependence on tried-and-true routines, it’s important to recognize when a situation is going off the rails — and to be able to improvise or ask for help.

It’s a highly pressurized workplace in which minutes, even seconds, can mean the difference between life and death. Seward emphasizes this reality over and over. And he makes the stakes feel real for readers.

One of his patients in the ER was a middle-aged man sitting stiffly in a wheelchair, a pair of shears sticking out of his back. The man looked like “some kind of grisly windup toy with a key in the back of his neck shaped like the handle of a pair of shears.”

The man was a professional gardener attacked by a co-worker; the shears’ blades had entered “exactly in the midpoint of his neck, halfway from his shoulders to the back of his neck.” They stopped just short of the spinal cord.

The description of the neurosurgeon removing the weapon, with exquisite care, is charged with suspense, but the real miracle was the amazingly lucky placement of the shears. The man just needed to have the wound flushed and closed. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Patient Care

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“You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death, and in Between,” by Daniela Lamas

 Little, Brown and Co. 256 pages. Hardcover $27.00

The physician-author’s tremendous writing skill elevates this winning work.

Most people have close friends or relatives who’ve faced important medical decisions. Too many people have had to do so alone; others have been part of a group. The good news is that choices are available. The better news is that they include options that are likely to prolong a life threatened by a serious condition.

The nine essays in this valuable book are not clinical studies. Though they deal in sufficient detail with the science of the individual health crises that needed to be met, the principal focus is on the human cost of pursuing a promising solution and the unforeseen trade-offs of successful surgery or other treatments — “successful” often being subjective.

A fine medical journalist as well as an experienced physician, author Daniela Lamas exploits these two skillsets admirably. The common denominator is her talent as an interviewer. This, as well as her curiosity and her commitment to healing, has allowed Lamas to enter the harrowing emotional journeys of her patient-subjects. They have trusted her with their stories as well as a portion of their care.

Lamas is their voice in an era of amazing strides in medical technology that seems to promise a utopian future. She offers good news wrapped in true-life cautionary tales.

These stories involve patients whose stays in acute-care facilities often lasted months. Staying alive meant leaving a normal life: being tied to machines that helped them breathe, aided circulation, or helped flush their blood of impurities.

The subjects often needed ever-changing regimens of drugs, some with terrible side effects and unintended consequences. Others forced themselves into physical therapy routines that consumed their waking hours, leaving little time for other endeavors or pleasures.

Lamas transmits her keen awareness of the extent to which medical professionals are both in and out of touch with their patients:

“For my colleagues and me, the time in hospital when we intersect with patients…is generally all we know of their trajectories. Perhaps we see them if they get sick enough to return to the unit and if that readmission coincides with our time on service. But we rarely have an opportunity to follow them out through long-term acute care hospitals, infections, delirium, readmissions, and maybe, if they are lucky, back home to a life that looks something like what they left.”

Because she has approached these patients as an empathetic journalist, Lamas has had some degree of intimacy with their hopes and fears, their courage and exhaustion. She has come to know the family members who will have their lives changed by the condition of their loved one. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: You Can Stop Humming Now

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Collier County Jewish Book Festival goes from strength to strength

By Phil Jason, Jewish Book Festival co-chair

This season, the third annual Collier County Jewish Book Festival will build upon the successes of its first two years, continuing this superb contribution to the cultural life of our community. A project of the Jewish Federation of Collier County in cooperation with the Jewish Book Council, the Festival will offer 11 book events at several venues, with a total of 18 authors visiting from November 2017 into April 2018.

Five of the Festival events will feature a dynamic solo presenter. Another five will feature two authors matched by a common theme. The authors sharing the bill will not co-present or share the stage, but provide back-to-back presentations. Each speaker will give a 30- to 45-minute talk followed by 15-20 minutes of Q&A plus book-signing time. There will be a short break between presentations. One event will showcase the writing talents of three debut novelists. Each author will speak for approximately 25 minutes, followed by a Q&A session with the three authors on a panel.

Dorff

On Thursday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m. at the Hilton Naples, meet Steve Dorff, author of I Wrote That One Too…a Life in Songwriting from Willie to Whitney. This witty biography includes anecdotes about stars who have recorded Steve’s songs, many of them Top 10 hits. Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Ray Charles and Garth Brooks are among the stellar cast. Steve will perform many of his best-known songs and share the stories behind them. Refreshments provided.

Wednesday, December 6 at 11:30 a.m. brings another solo presentation at the Hilton. Eminent actor Stephen Tobolowsky will discuss his memoir, My Adventures with God, a series of vignettes, at once humorous and profound, that review his Texas childhood, his adventures of the heart, and his struggles with matters of faith aided by encounters with the Torah and the Talmud. You’ve seen this top-drawer character actor in Mississippi Burning, Glee, Groundhog Day and Memento. Tobolowsky, who has been in more than 100 movies and over 200 television shows, has become a legendary storyteller. The event price includes a luncheon and a copy of the book.

Tobolowsku

On Sunday, December 10 at 7:00 p.m., return to the Hilton for Alexandra Silber’s After Anatevka – A Novel Inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof.” What happens to the characters invented by Sholem Aleichem and brought to the stage (and screen) after the curtain falls? It takes an actress like Alexandra Silber, who knows the play from the inside, to imagine what comes next. She does so in a sweeping historical novel. Silber has played Tzeitel in the play’s most recent Broadway revival, and Hodel in London’s West End. Alexandra will blend musical stylings with spoken words from her book in a theatre-like setting. Refreshments provided.

On Monday, January 8 at 1:00 p.m., the Naples Conference Center is the venue for history. In his Angels in the Sky, Robert Gandt relates “How a Band of Volunteer Airmen Saved the New State of Israel.” It’s a suspenseful and upbeat story tracing these courageous volunteers from their various home countries as they moved themselves and the needed equipment to the nascent Jewish state. This is popular history at its best, drawing upon first-person interviews and extensive archival research. It’s David-and-Goliath all over again. Gandt is paired with Bryan Mark Rigg, author of The Rabbi Saved by Hitler’s Soldiers. Amid the chaos and hell of the emerging Holocaust, a small group of German soldiers shepherded Rebbe Joseph Isaac Schneersohn and his Hasidic followers out of Poland on a dangerous and circuitous path to America. You will be surprised to learn about the Wehrmacht soldier who led them.

Silber

On Wednesday, January 24 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom, meet Pam Jenoff (The Orphan’s Tale) and Gavriel Savit (Anna and the Swallow Man). Both of these inventive novels touch upon the Holocaust in unique ways. Jenoff’s, based on true stories, tells of a German circus that becomes the home and refuge of two young women. Teenage Noa, disgraced by her pregnancy, is forced to give up her baby, but she rescues another – a Jewish child – from a boxcar destined for a concentration camp. Astrid, Jewish and a professional trapeze artist, is already headlining the circus, but must teach Noa the necessary skills to fit in. Their unstable relationship is magnetically portrayed. Savit imagines Krakow in 1939. Young Anna, her father taken by the Nazis, meets a mysterious, somewhat magical fellow whom she follows through the most dangerous situations. This startling novel will entrance readers of all ages – especially if they are interested in European Jewish history. 

Stop by the Hilton on Monday, January 29 at 1:00 p.m. and you are likely to go away laughing. Multi-talented sitcom writer Susan Silver will talk about Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms. She promises that the book is funny and sexy, so let’s see if she keeps her promise. Tales of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Newhart and Maude can’t be anything but riotous. But who can tell the tale of Joan Rivers? No one better than her biographer, Leslie Bennetts, author of Last Girl Before Freeway. The story of the trailblazing comedian’s battle to break down barriers for women is not all laughs, but there should be enough of them to balance out the darker moments in her subject’s life as ambition and insecurity collide. After all, Rivers made people laugh for 60 years.

Family-focused memoir is the theme on Wednesday, February 14 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom. Playwright and film producer Peter Gethers’ My Mother’s Kitchen tells the heartwarming story of his determination to bring his aging mother’s friends and loved ones to the table one last time for a feast featuring her favorite dishes. This desire springs from Peter’s growing closeness to his mother and his desire to hear about her colorful past and her kitchen secrets. Actress Annabelle Gurwitch’s Wherever You Go, There They Are describes the family she tried to escape and the ones she joined by accident or on purpose, including her southern ancestors, the sisterhood, and an adult summer camp for vegans. She trades one crazy family for several. Annabelle has appeared on episodes of Seinfeld, Murphy Brown and Dexter, and she formerly hosted Dinner and a Movie on TBS. 

On Monday, February 26 at 1:00 p.m. at the Naples Conference Center, three authors will discuss their new works and their careers. Meet Jane Healey (The Saturday Evening Girls Club), Sana Krasikov (The Patriots) and Ellen Umansky (The Fortunate Ones) as they make individual presentations and then interact with one another. The title of Healey’s book refers to a group of four young immigrant women who meet with others to escape hectic home lives in Boston’s North End during the early 1900s. Krasikov’s novel follows a young woman who leaves her middle-class Brooklyn Jewish family during the depression expecting a better life in Stalin’s USSR. What she discovers is not what she expects. Umansky’s book is set in 1939 Vienna, from which Rose Zimmer’s parents try to send her to safety via the Kindertransport. The search for a missing painting and the consequences of that search lead to unexpected revelations.

On Wednesday, March 7 at 1:00 p.m. at Temple Shalom there will be a love and relationships session with Marilyn Simon Rothstein’s Lift and Separate and Renee Rosen’s Windy City Blues. Rothstein creates Marcy, a Jewish mother of three grown children, whose husband of 33 years leaves her for a fitting model he met at his brassiere empire. How she rebounds from this setback will keep you reading. Rosen’s riveting story, set in 1950s and ’60s Chicago, tells of a young Jewish Polish immigrant, and a black blues guitarist who left the south to play in the burgeoning Chicago music scene, who risk threats of violence in an era in American history that frowned on mixed-race couples. Their story of forbidden romance is weaved into the history of Chess Records and the birth of the blues and rock ’n’ roll in Chicago.

Friday, March 16 at 1:00 p.m. brings five-time Emmy Award-winner Alan Zweibel to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples. A writer for Saturday Night Live and Curb Your Enthusiasm, his novel The Other Shulman won the Thurber Prize for American Humor in 2006. He collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning play 700 Sundays. His latest project is the Passover Haggadah parody For This We Left Egypt? – co-written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach. Light food and refreshments provided. And laughs!

The Festival closes on Monday, April 9 at 2:30 p.m. at Beth Tikvah Synagogue with Abigail Pogrebin, who will talk about My Jewish Year. As a character in her own book, Abigail is presented as a somewhat rebellious family member who feels her Jewish life has not been as rich as it might have been. So she embarks on an entire year of research, observance, and writing about every ritual, fast and festival in one Jewish year.

Zweibel

Festival sponsors include: Florida Weekly, Hilton Naples, U.S. Bank, Barnes & Noble Waterside Shops, Steinway Piano Gallery, Women’s Cultural Alliance, JFCS of SWFL, TheatreZone, John R. Wood Properties, JNF, Senior Housing Solutions, AJC West Coast, Beth Tikvah, Collier/Lee Chapter of Hadassah, Clive Daniel Home, FIDF Miami Chapter, Holocaust Museum & Education Center of SWFL, Temple Shalom Sisterhood, Dr. Barrett Ross Ginsberg and Naples Jewish Congregation.

A complete schedule of events, ticket information, venue locations, author bios and book synopses is available at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. For more information or to order tickets by phone, call Renee’ at the Jewish Federation of Collier County at 239.263.4205.

Note: This article appeared in the October 26, 2017 Naples Florida Weekly.  See CCJBF 2018

 

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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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Big girls don’t cry, nor do small girls who think and act big

“Play Big,” by Jen Welter with Stephanie Krikorian. Seal Press. 288 pages. Hardcover $26.00.

At once sports memoir and empowerment handbook, this feisty and engaging “how-to” is bound to attract a lot of attention. The author, a Vero Beach native, broke the glass ceiling in professional football in a variety of ways. She moved from being a championship performer in women’s professional football to playing for a men’s professional team to becoming linebacker coach for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.  

They said such a thing couldn’t be done and that the “boys’ club” would not accept her, but Jen Welter made it happen through a die-hard attitude and relentless self-improvement. Along the way, she became Dr. Jen, with a Ph.D. in psychology.

This book builds upon her work as a coach. It is a master plan for “being limitless.” Though directed at women from all walks of life, it has plenty of powerful advice for men as well.

The bite-sized chapters oscillate between vividly drawn scenes of major challenges in Ms. Welter’s life and the attitudinal and behavioral adjustments necessary for her readers to reach their highest aspirations. At five feet and two inches, Jen Welter would never be big, but she would find the way to play big. In sports and in life. That means taking risks. It means learning how be touch and to enjoy the pains of perseverance. It means never giving up.

There is a recurrent graphic motif from chapter to chapter that puts key concepts into sharp focus. Each chapter begins with something that looks like a gummed label. Here Couch Jen provides a terse thematic overview of the chapter. Another graphic part of the graphic motif is a series of boxed and shaded mini-essays that boil down the chapter’s concerns. Sometimes these shaded areas contain a series of bullet points. 

Chapter titles tend to be essential truisms that have the energy and memorability of mantras for the coach’s students. “What Makes Us Different Makes Us Stronger,” “Once It’s Been Done, It Can’t Be Undone,” and “When It’s Us Against Them, We All Lose” are examples of the kind of readily applicable aphorism with which the coach beats the drum of self-awareness and self-improvement.

The heart of the book, for most readers, will be Ms. Welter’s story-telling. One key narrative is about her small size and her concern about being too small to earn a place on the Mass Mutiny women’s professional football team. She relates how she handled the insecurity and played her way onto the team. She discovered, as well, that one could manifest a presence much larger than one’s physical dimensions. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 18, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 19 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, click here: https://naples.floridaweekly.com/pageview/viewer/2017-10-19#page=61

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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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