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  • Why “Back to the Future” is About the World to Come


    By Matthue Roth for Jewniverse

    Ben Lerner is not primarily a novelist – he’s a poet. He’s also not a Hasid. But his new novel 10:04 opens with a quote: “Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here…Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

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    Story of the Jews, The: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD

    By David Wolpe in Hadassah Magazine

    Story of the JewsAlmost 30 years ago in the preface to The Embarrassment of Riches (Vintage Books), his sumptuous chronicle of the Dutch golden age, Simon Schama wrote that “all history tends towards autobiographical confession.” Now Schama ranges across lands and times and languages to confess through his own people, in The Story of the Jews.

    Schama tells us that his father was obsessed by British and Jewish history. Demonstrating the wisdom of Jung’s axiom that the greatest influence on children is the unlived lives of their parents, the son has written the absorbing multivolume A History of Britain (Hyperion) and now this first of two books on Jewish history.

    The personal thread throughout the narrative is one of its most engaging features. There is something at stake in this retelling; it is never bloodless. Here are the Jews for whom nothing human is alien—housewives and papermakers, scholars and sufferers, rakes and magnates, physicians and artists.

    Jewish history is a history of words, as Schama reminds us, and his easy eloquence and gentle wit fill each page. Dhimmi are “the tolerated benighted.” We know Josephus is the first Jewish historian “when, with a twinge of guilt, he introduces his mother into the action.” Most histories of the Jewish people are indifferently written; this is in the gripping and preternaturally fluent British tradition of historians like A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper.

    Schama celebrates the artistry of Judaism, from the floors of ancient synagogues to the pageantry of a modern service. Too often in Jewish history people have elevated Moses but not Bezalel, as if no Jew thought imagistically until Chagall sprung from the head of modernity. Schama traces the long engagement of Jews with the world. He notes the “glowing, brilliant” frescoes of ancient synagogues, where “If you were a Jewish father or mother in Dura-Europas and you were with your children in that synagogue, there would be much to tell them, pointing this way and that at the painting.”

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    Jewish Women’s Surprisingly Prominent Role in Ancient Jewish Magic

    Live from the Lilith Blog by Maggie Anton

    Enchantress(Wait, doesn’t the Torah say something about not allowing a sorceress to live?)

    It does indeed. “You shall not tolerate (let live) a sorceress,” is the way the Jewish Publication Society translates Exodus 22:18. Or you may have seen the King James Version’s “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Even knowing these lines, the most astonishing thing I learned while researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter was how prevalent—even ubiquitous—sorcery was among the same people who gave us Talmud and Midrash.

    Early on, I came across information about Babylonian “magic bowls.” Unearthed under homes in what is now Iraq, the land where the Talmud was created, these were common items of household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy and other misfortune.

    Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote Torah, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Some quote Mishna and the rabbinic divorce formula. And that’s not all. Archaeologists have found, wherever our people lived during the first six centuries of the Common Era, Jewish amulets, curse tablets, and magic manuals.

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    The Secret Legacy of Biblical Women: Revealing the Divine Feminine

    ("The Secret Legacy of Biblical Women: Revealing the Divine Feminine" by Melinda Ribner)

    Review by Judith Fein for Hadassah Magazine

    Revealing the Divine FeminineIn this startling and passionate book, Melinda Ribner, a psychotherapist and teacher of Kabbala, meditation and healing, pushes back against the domination of men in the field of biblical interpretation. Not only does she profile the biblical matriarchs and provide ways we can learn from them and pray to them for Divine intercession, but she gives each of them a voice and interviews them; she asks them pointed questions about how we can benefit from their knowledge, wisdom and life stories.

    From Eve, we learn to enter into dark places in our lives to heal what is wounded. Sarah instructs us to remain true to our visions and walk in grace. Rebecca encourages us to discern truth from falsehood. Rachel, Leah and the handmaidens Bilha and Zilpa call for a new consciousness and greater connectivity to the world. Dina’s spiritual teachings allow us to transform negativity. Miriam helps us to express our own vision and to inspire others. Batya encourages us to follow the truth of our own souls, even when others try to dictate who we should be or how we should behave. Chana instructs us in the power of prayer. Queen Esther gives us courage to do what is difficult by using faith, courage and intelligence.

    Sometimes the voices of the women are so clear, transcendent and powerful that it is tempting to believe the author is channeling them. At other times, the book is more informational and didactic. Ribner wants us to form groups to study, read about, learn from and pray to these biblical women.

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    In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist: A Novel

    By Sara Trappler Spielman in Hadassah Magazine

    In the Courtyard of the KabbalistIn her second book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books, 207 pp. $16 paper), set in Jerusalem in 1999, Ruchama King Feuerman depicts the human landscape by building contrasting religious and political portraits. Romantic, suspenseful and insightful, the author has created a compelling connection between a Jew and a Muslim, Isaac and Mustafa, skillfully crafting an unusual yet believable friendship and intertwining plot. Short chapters switch between their narratives.

    Mustafa, a lonely 55-year-old Arab janitor, works scrupulously on the Temple Mount, subservient to the domineering Sheikh Tawil. Isaac Markowitz, a 43-year-old Orthodox single man, moved to Israel from the Lower East Side after his mother died. He is working as an assistant to an elderly kabbalist, Rebbe Yehudah.

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    Interview: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

    by William Liss-Levinson for

    TelushkinWilliam Liss-Levinson, member of the Board of the Jewish Book Council, sat down with fellow Board member and noted author, scholar and speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, to discuss this newest book, Rebbe, focused on the life and teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

    William Liss-Levinson: A number of books have been written in the past few years about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And it’s twenty years since his death. What prompted you to write this book?

    Joseph Telushkin: The Rebbe might well be the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides. I can think of no other rabbi who is as familiar to Jews in Israel, the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and France, the four most populous Jewish communities in the world today. So it certainly seemed that that this was a man whose life deserved to be studied in depth.

    WL-L: You’ve also chosen a unique approach, to discuss the Rebbe—according to thematic issues across time, with a fifty page chronologi­cal biography at the end. Why did you choose that approach to his life?

    JT: I thought that what most mattered about the Rebbe were his viewpoints and his unique approach to a variety of issues. Also, I really was interested in writing a biography of his years of leadership. In 1951 he took over a small movement and turned it into the most dynamic religious movement in modern Jewish history—and that is what intrigued me; how he did it. A biography would need to focus in detail, for example, on things I was not as interested in: his years as a child in Russia and the years he spent in Germany and France in university. I was interested in that, and write about it in the book, but this was not what most interested me about the Rebbe.

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    A Russian Jewish Mom Turns to the Internet For Dating

    Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel

    By Ester Bloom for Jewniverse

    Here is what’s less than stellar about Anya Ulinich‘s graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: The title is confusingly clunky, and certain pages feel overstuffed with text. But that’s it! This lavishly illustrated, imaginative, acerbically funny chronicle of a Russian-Jewish divorcee’s expedition into the underworld of OkCupid is, otherwise, near letter- and pixel-perfect.

    Continue reading and to watch video interview with the author.

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    The Pat Boone Fan Club My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

    Author: Sue William Silverman

    Pat Boone Fan ClubGentile reader, and you, Jews, come too. Follow Sue William Silverman, a one-woman cultural mash-up, on her exploration of identity among the mishmash of American idols and ideals that confuse most of us—or should. Pat Boone is our first stop. Now a Tea Party darling, Boone once shone as a squeaky-clean pop music icon of normality, an antidote for Silverman’s own confusing and dangerous home, where being a Jew in a Christian school wasn’t easy, and being the daughter of the Anti-Boone was unspeakable. And yet somehow Silverman found her way, a “gefilte fish swimming upstream,” and found her voice, which in this searching, bracing, hilarious, and moving book tries to make sense of that most troubling American condition: belonging, but to what?

    Picking apricots on a kibbutz, tramping cross-country in a loathed Volkswagen camper, appearing in a made-for-television version of her own life: Silverman is a bobby-soxer, a baby boomer, a hippy, a lefty, and a rebel with something to say to those of us—most of us—still wondering what to make of ourselves.

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    The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

    Author: Eve Harris

    Review by Shira Schindel for The Jewish Book Council

    The Marrying of Chani KaufmanChani and Baruch do not know one another, but they are about to wed.

    Baruch Levy is obedient and religious, and makes his parents proud with his keen Torah study, until the day he announces the name of the girl he’d like to court. A quick forbidden glance to the women’s section enthralled him with Chani Kaufman, and he won’t take no for an answer.

    Nineteen years old and increasingly frustrated with the obligations of her Ultra-Orthodox community, Chani follows the only permissible route of escape—getting engaged. Though she finds Baruch attractive in his earnest, if fumbling, attempts at courting, she has no idea what to expect next.

    As the couple navigates their path of parents, matchmakers, and mikvehs, their closest confidants and friends explore the romantic and sexual relationships possible within and without marriage. Rebbetzin Zilberman remembers the sacrifices she made for the man she loves, while Avromi explores a world previously forbidden. On the outside, these characters are obedient and true to the traditions they value, but from inside passions ignite and regrets long hidden are reawakened, no longer willing to be ignored.

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    Why Tom Rachman Imagines the Child in the Corner

    Sophomore Novel Spans Decades and Continents

    By Anna Goldenberg for The Jewish Daily Forward

    RachmanBefore he started writing, novelist and journalist Tom Rachman had a peculiar visual image: A child being led into a room with a couple of adults who pay no special attention to her. The person who brings her there leaves, and the child sits quietly in a corner. As the hours pass, it becomes clear that nobody is going to collect her. The adults and child have to figure out what to do next.

    In the end, there was “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” the second novel by Canadian-born Rachman, 39, whose 2010 debut “The Imperfectionists” was a bestseller that was translated into 25 languages. “The Rise & Fall” tells the story of Tooly Zylberberg, who leads a reclusive life as the owner of a bookstore in a Welsh village — until a former boyfriend contacts her, which encourages her to revisit the places in which she grew up. Having spent most of her childhood and adolescence as the forgotten child in the corner, being shuttled between countries and four enigmatic adults — socially awkward computer programmer Paul Zylberberg, Russian book lover Humphrey Ostropoler, flimsy Sarah, and crooked but warm Venn — she tries to untangle the secrets of her youth.

    The novel offers vivid imagery of life across three decades and three continents, and is rich in literary references, witty dialogue and astute observations of the human psyche.

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    A rememberance of Bel Kaufman, author, Up the Down Staircase

    Bel passed away in July at age 103.  She obviously inherited much of the humor and wit of her grandfather, Sholem Aleichem.  Even at 100 she's sharp, funny and insightful.  Enjoy this talk she gave at Iona College.

    The Jew Who Turned the Left Against Israel

    A new book shows how Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky was the ancestor of the Jews who now serve in the hate-Israel movement

    By Joshua Muravchik for Tablet Magazine

    KreiskyFor the first quarter-century of its existence, Israel could count on one bastion of foreign support: the Socialist International, an agglomeration of moderate Leftist parties like the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats, and the French Socialists. Among the world’s democracies, no country was molded more by socialist ideas than Israel, and this commanded the admiration of other socialists worldwide.

    But in the 1970s, one European leader took up the mission of reversing this good opinion. He was Bruno Kreisky, the Chancellor of Austria, Vice President of the International, and one of the most memorable European politicians of his era.

    By turning around the Socialists, Kreisky hoped to effect a larger transformation. “I set out to change [the] attitude on the part of the Western world” whose sympathy for Jews as a consequence of the Holocaust was, in his view “exploited by those in power in Israel in the most brutal fashion.” As he saw it, “The European parties were one-sidedly pro-Israeli, and I considered this short-sighted and dangerous.”

    Remarkably, Kreisky was himself of Jewish lineage, born in 1911 to a well-to-do secular Viennese family. But he apparently felt nothing for this heritage—at least nothing positive. At age 19 or 20, he had taken the trouble to have his name stricken from the official list of Austrian Jews. A few years earlier he had become a devoted member of the Social Democratic Party, a disciple of Otto Bauer’s, the chief theoretician of Austrian Marxism.

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    Jennifer Weiner On Her New Book, Her Boyfriend & Tweens With Santa Envy

    By Cara Paiuk for Raising Kvell

    Jennifer WeinerThirteen years ago, a friend gave me a book to read saying that I would love it. And I did. A curvy, Jewish girl who had a neurotic dog and is dating a doctor? Check, check, and check. I felt an immediate kinship with Cannie Shapiro and the woman who created her. With each subsequent book by Jennifer Weiner, I, and thousands of other women, fell deeper in love with her heroines and their creator.

    I sat down with Jen to discuss her fantastic new book, “All Fall Down,” about a suburban mommy blogger who succumbs to an addiction to prescription meds, her boyfriend (he loves her kids!) and what makes her kvell (same thing as most of us!).

    What was the hardest part of writing “All Fall Down”?

    People tell me they’re reading it with their hearts in their throats because every time Allison takes a pill, it’s like, “Is this going to be the one where there’s a real bad consequence?” And the hard part for me was my dad died of an overdose. It was sort of like putting myself into that headspace of: you know you shouldn’t be doing this, you don’t really want to be doing this, but you’re addicted. So your body is telling you “no” and your brain is telling you, “Oh just one more, doesn’t matter, no big deal.” And you know, Allison puts her kid at risk, so basically, just even imagining doing it, just writing the character of a mom who’s an addict, was hard.

    Do you like Allison Weiss? Is she someone you would be friends with?

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    Invisible City

    A book by Julia Dahl; Jewish Book Council
    Invisible CityJust months after Rebekah Roberts was born, her mother, an Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, abandoned her Christian boyfriend and newborn baby to return to her religion. Neither Rebekah nor her father have heard from her since. Now a recent college graduate, Rebekah has moved to New York City to follow her dream of becoming a big-city reporter. But she’s also drawn to the idea of being closer to her mother, who might still be living in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

    Then Rebekah is called to cover the story of a murdered Hasidic woman. Rebekah’s shocked to learn that, because of the NYPD’s habit of kowtowing to the powerful ultra-Orthodox community, not only will the woman be buried without an autopsy, her killer may get away with murder. Rebekah can’t let the story end there. But getting to the truth won’t be easy—even as she immerses herself in the cloistered world where her mother grew up, it's clear that she's not welcome, and everyone she meets has a secret to keep from an outsider.

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    Meet Tom Freud, Sigmund's Famous Niece

    by Cheryl Kempler for Jewniverse

    You’ve probably heard of Lucian Freud, Sigmund Freud’s grandson, and a master of 20th-century painting, but he wasn’t the first member of the famous clan with visual acumen. The famous psychoanalyst‘s niece, Martha, who went by the name Tom Seidmann-Freud (1892-1930), was an imaginative illustrator and author whose work from the 1920s is avidly…

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    Top 12 Summer Reads of 2014

    By Jordana Horn for Raising Kvell

    Welcome to the Third Annual Jordana Horn Summer Reading List! This list is by no means conclusive, but it’s a list of books I’ve read in the past six months that I thought were particularly terrific. Please put your own ideas and suggestions for great reads in the comments, and friend me on GoodReads (I’m “Jordana Horn Gordon” there) so we can keep talking books, which I love passionately. Without further ado, here are some great reads that should sit on your shelf or device this summer, in no particular order.

    To Rise Again1. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

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    How to Write to Your Long-Lost Love, In Yiddish

    Dear MendlImagine, esteemed reader: Your son has recently arrived in America from your shtetl, and you want to warn him about the temptations of the goldene medina. But how do you find the right words in the right order to remind him to keep shabbes and not spend too much time at the theater? You need a guide—a brivnshteler.

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    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse

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    Bad Israeli Blood in a Holy Spanish City

     The RetrospectiveIn master novelist A.B. Yehoshua’s most recent book, The Retrospective (published in Israel in 2011), Yair Moses, an aging Israeli film director, arrives in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela for a retrospective of his earliest work. A rotation of Spanish monks, film connoisseurs, and his frequent and troubled star, Ruth, accompanies him. But on Moses's mind is the bad blood between him and his estranged screenwriter, with whom he collaborated on the honored films, and an unusual painting hanging in his hotel room.

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    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse

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    Rivka Galchen’s Short Stories Transport Readers Into Magical Worlds

    Israeli Writer Tells Surreal Stories of Culture Shock

    By Shoshana Olidort for The Jewish Daily Forward

    Rivka GalchenThe stories in Rivka Galchen’s “American Innovations,” aren’t all fantastical — although a fair number include elements of magic realism and science fiction — but even the most realistic stories in this collection have a kind of magical quality about them that transports the reader into a world that feels at once real and surreal.

    In “Real Estate,” the narrator moves into a haunted building where she meets a man, or imagines she meets a man, Eddy, who she will never see again. Opening her fridge, she finds not the Armenian string cheese she thought she had purchased too much of, but the apples she thought she had “only contemplated buying.” At a nearby gyro place she encounters a man who reminds her of her dead father, and whom she begins to refer to as “my dad.” She wonders: “Had I slipped through a wormhole of time?”

    Galchen gives phantom and reality equal space in her stories, as if to underscore the fact that for her characters, the distinction between these two spheres is less important than the recognition that the imaginary and the actual are both a part of the experience of life. In the title story, the protagonist wakes one morning to find herself newly endowed with a third breast on her lower back. She consults a doctor, who asks a series of personal questions about the patient’s family life and emotional well-being, because, as she says, “It’s very common to manifest these things in our body… Your body speaks a language. It’s like a foreign language we all speak but have forgotten how to understand.”

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    Summer 2014 Jewish Book Preview

    From the Jewish Book Council

    Now that almost all of the books from our spring preview are available at your local bookstore, we're picking up where the last JBC Bookshelf left off with a few highlights from the summer list. We're excited to share a peek into next season's books! Look out for a biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin; the next Jewish Book World book club pick, Boris Fishman's A Replacement Life; a fascinating history of two scientists who used their work toward a cure for typhus to sabotage the Nazis; Stephanie Feldman's novel, The Angel of Losses, described as The Tiger's Wife meets History of Love; and a slew of other great books.

    Now there's another reason to look forward to summer!

     Summer 2014 Jewish Book Preview

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    An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty

    Review by Laurel Corona for

    Ode to SalonikaReaders picking up Renee Levine Melammed’s An Ode to Salonika: The Ladino Verses of Bouena Sarfatty expecting to find an undiscovered Keats or Dickinson may be disappointed, but those wanting insight into the world of Greek Jews before, during, and after the Holocaust are likely to find this unique work well worth their time. Melammed divides the book into two sections, providing a biographical, historical, and so­ciological essay to introduce Bouena’s poems about Salonika before the war. A second essay discussing the Holocaust and the aftermath introduces the second set of poems. These succinct, well written essays give the reader a sense of the culture and dynamic of this part of the Sephardic diaspora, spreading outward from Bouena Sarfatty’s personal story, to that of her town, and to Greece as a whole.

    Readers unfamiliar with the tradition of “coplas” may find the poems a bit odd and even “unpoetic.” The traditional copla is an im­provised verse, typically praising or poking fun at a neighbor or commenting on something happening in the village, and ending with a toast to an individual, most often not even alluded to in the poem. “At the balls there is a dance card./ The boys write which dance they are going to dance./ If the girl has a lot of money, everyone waits his turn./ Let us drink to the health of Salomon Amar.” Most of Sarfatty’s 413 coplas in the first collection and 99 in the second follow this tradition, creating such a sense of intimacy with the town that readers will want to raise a glass in toast to people who have come to feel like their own neighbors.

    Sarfatty’s tone is ironic, amused, sardonic, and tender in the first collection. In the second half, anger, horror, and bewilderment oc­casionally cause her to abandon the tradi­tional copla style altogether. Collaborators, particularly the Ashkenazic rabbi (an outsider who never bothered to learn Ladino and manipulates the situation to save his own life at the expense of other Jews) and Hasson (a neighbor turned thuggish enforcer for the Nazis), are frequent targets of her outrage. The last coplas were written after the war, as Sarfatty reflects on what was lost and the magnitude of the tragedy.

    Those interested in Ladino will also enjoy the layout of this book, with Ladino versions of the coplas on the verso side and English translations by Melammed on the recto side.

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    Ruth: A Shavuot Story from Treasures of the Heart

    Diane Wolkstein

    Treasures of the Heart is a unique rendition of stories in the Hebrew Bible that are part of the foundation of Judaism and Western literature. Structured according to the Jewish calendar, Diane Wolkstein retells various stories that are traditionally read on each holliday. Below is the story of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot as an example of committment and devotion.

    Where You Go, I Will Go

    Treasures of the Heart When the judges ruled Israel, there was chaos and terrible corruption in the land. There was no king and the people did as they wished. During this time, there was a famine, and a wealthy man named Elimelech left Bethlehem with his wife, Naomi and their two sons. They might have stayed to help their own people, but the husband, Elimelech, chose to go to the land of Moab, even though the Moabites had been enemies of Israel.

    Soon after they settled in Moab, Elimelech died, and his wife, Naomi, was left alone with her two sons. The sons married Ruth and Orpah, daughters of Eglon, the king of Moab. Naomi welcomed her daughters-in-law. She rejoiced and danced at their weddings, but then misfortune struck the family--ten years of misfortune. Their horses died; their donkeys died; their camels died. They had no children. Then Naomi's sons both died, and she was left poor and bereft, a widow in a foreign land.

    One day when Naomi was working in the fields, she overheard a wandering peddler telling the workers that God had remembered Judah. There was bread again in Bethlehem, and the famine was over. At once, Naomi left the fields where she had been working and the place where she had been living and set out barefoot for Judah. Her two daughters-in-law accompanied her.

    After they had gone a short distance, Naomi stopped. She turned to her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. She embraced them and said, "Thank you for accompanying me on my way, but now, each of you return to your own mother's house. How can I thank you? When your husbands died, you might have run after other men, but you stayed and comforted me, you fed and supported me. May God care for you with as much hesed, kindness, as you have shown to me. And may you be blessed with comfort and peace in the homes of new husbands."

    Again Naomi kissed them. Standing on the road, the three women raised their voices and wept loudly, realizing that if Naomi went on to Judah and the younger women went back to Moab, they would never see one another again. Suddenly, the two younger women protested, saying, "No. We will go with you to your people."

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    Fiction Meets Reality in Croatian Novel About Nazi's Son

    Dasa Drndic's Work Invites Comparisons With 'War and Peace'

    By Todd Gitlin for The Jewish Daily Forward

    DrndicIn Gorizia, near Trieste, near Italy’s border with Slovenia, an 83-year-old woman named Haya Tedeschi has been waiting 62 years — since 1944 — for the return of her abducted little boy, Antonio. For years she has been collecting shards of the history that surrounds her life story — writing notes, collecting old, cracked photos and news clippings, rearranging them “as if shuffling a pack of cards.” The promise of this grave, staggering book by the Croatian writer Daša Drndić is that we will eventually get to the bottom of a mystery. We will find out not only what became of Tedeschi’s son but why, as his mother awaits him, she remains “wildly calm.”

    “Her story is a small one,” Drndić writes, but a necessary one, for Tedeschi, a mathematics teacher, knows that if she succeeds in “sweeping away the underbrush of her memory,” her testimony will take its place in “a vast cosmic patchwork,” and some truth might emerge about the grotesquely unnerving history she’s lived through.

    Tedeschi’s forebears were citizens of the republic of displacement. They spoke Italian, German and Slovenian. Their saga begins long before 1944, in the southern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand pays a visit not long before heading for Sarajevo in 1914. From there, the saga bulges out in many directions, heading forward, backward and sideways, folding back upon itself more than once, swelling into a boundless weave of facts and inventions, so that everything in Tedeschi’s story touches a million other stories in a delirium through which a historical sequence pokes out, like bones.

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    A Replacement Life

    A new novel by Borish Fishman, coming out June 3, 2014

    replacement lifeA singularly talented writer makes his literary debut with this provocative, soulful, and sometimes hilarious story of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: forge Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York.

    Yevgeny Gelman, grandfather of Slava Gelman, “didn’t suffer in the exact way” he needs to have suffered to qualify for the restitution the German government has been paying out to Holocaust survivors. But suffer he has – as a Jew in the war; as a second-class citizen in the USSR; as an immigrant to America. So? Isn’t his grandson a “writer”?

    High-minded Slava wants to put all this immigrant scraping behind him. Only the American Dream is not panning out for him – Century, the legendary magazine where he works as a researcher, wants nothing greater from him. Slava wants to be a correct, blameless American – but he wants to be a lionized writer even more.

    Slava’s turn as the Forger of South Brooklyn teaches him that not every fact is the truth, and not every lie a falsehood. It takes more than law-abiding to become an American; it takes the same self-reinvention in which his people excel. Intoxicated and unmoored by his inventions, Slava risks exposure. Cornered, he commits an irrevocable act that finally grants him a sense of home in America, but not before collecting a lasting price from his family.

    A Replacement Life is a dark, moving, and beautifully written novel about family, honor, and justice.

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    Animating the Love, Hope, and Despair of the Forward’s Legendary Advice Column

    In ‘A Bintel Brief,’ Liana Finck draws a love-letter to the cowards, stoolies, brides, and sons who inspired Abraham Cahan

    By Seth Lipsky for Tablet Magazine

    Bintel BriefOne of the mysteries of the life of Abraham Cahan is why in mid-career he quit writing fiction. By the end of World War I, Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, had met with much success with The Imported Bridegoom, Yekl, and The Rise of David Levinsky. Then suddenly, with more than 30 working years ahead of him, he quit. It bothered a lot of people, including H.L. Mencken. My own theory is that Cahan got wrapped up in the struggle against communism. But it may just be that the stories bubbling up on the Lower East Side were better in real life than anything Cahan could conjure.

    A Bintel Brief, Love and Longing in Old New York, a wonderfully illustrated gem of a book by Liana Fink, would confirm the latter view. In it, Finck tells some of the tales from readers that came into the Forward each day and were answered by Cahan or the other editors in the famous column known as the “bundle of letters.” They wrote of missing the old country and being confused by the new. They sought advice on the problems that beset them in the new world. Some were mundane, such as how to use a handkerchief, or whether to play baseball. Others were profound.

    The eleven stories illustrated by Finck are particularly choice. They start with one of the most famous letters, from the woman who told her son “not to be such a good boy.” But he worked in the sweatshop until his fingers bled and saved his pennies until he had enough money to buy a watch. At one point, the family pawned it to buy food, but got it back. Eventually, though, it “disappeared.” She suspects the woman down the hall, and writes to the Forward in hopes that the suspect will see the letter and return the watch. She promises “we will remain friends like we always have been.”

    Cahan advises that the “letter-writer is in a bad situation” and that “it can be that she has let her imagination run away with her.” So he goes off on a harangue about the “wretchedness of the workers lot.” Not that Cahan is indifferent. He allows that the story “pierces our hearts” and adds: “If these lines were to portray how hundreds of workers kill themselves each day, it would make less of an impact than this small but extraordinarily human story about the watch and chain.” I’ve read that story several times over the years, but rarely savored it quite the way I did with Finck’s book.

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    Jew and WASP, in 20th-Century Manhattan

    Joanna Hershon's fervently readable new novel, A Dual Inheritance, follows friends of different ethnicities and classes as they swerve through the awkwardness of adolescence into the complexity of middle age. Like Rich Boy, The Interestings, and A Fortunate Age, Inheritance drops Jewish strivers and alienated WASPs into the boiling pot that is 20th-century Manhattan, stirs and lets sit, and then fishes them out to examine how they and their children have changed, revealing the truth of their stripped-down selves.

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    - Ester Bloom for Jewniverse
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    Judging the World Library of America’s Bernard Malamud Collections

    By Cynthia Ozick for New York Times Book Review

    Bernard MalamudHart and Schaffner are dead; Marx, ringed round with laurels, has notoriously retired. But the firm itself was dissolved long ago, and it was Saul Bellow who, with a sartorial quip, snipped the stitches that had sewn three acclaimed and determinedly distinct American writers into the same suit of clothes, with its single label: Jewish Writer. In Bellow’s parody, Bellow, Malamud and Roth were the literary equivalent of the much advertised men’s wear company — but lighthearted as it was, the joke cut two ways: it was a declaration of imagination’s independence of collective tailoring, and it laughingly struck out at the disgruntlement of those who, having themselves applied the label in pique, felt displaced by it.

    Who were these upstarts, these pushy intruders (as Gore Vidal had it), who were ravishing readers and seizing public space? Surveying American publishing, Truman Capote railed that “the Jewish mafia has systematically frozen” gentiles “out of the literary scene.” In a 1968 essay, “On Not Being a Jew,” Edward Hoagland complained that he was “being told in print and occasionally in person that I and my heritage lacked vitality . . . because I could field no ancestor who had hawked copper pots in a Polish shtetl.” Katherine Anne Porter, describing herself as “in the direct, legitimate line” of the English language, accused Jewish writers of “trying to destroy it and all other living things they touch.” More benignly, John Updike invented Bech, his own Jewish novelist, and joined what he appeared to regard as the dominant competition.

    Yet it was not so much in response to these dubious preconceptions as it was to a rooted sense of their capacious American literary inheritance that all three unwillingly linked novelists were reluctant to be defined by the term “Jewish writer.” “I am not a Jewish writer, I am a writer who is a Jew,” Philip Roth announced in Jerusalem in 1963. And Bellow, pugnaciously in a 1988 lecture: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.” Earlier, he had asserted that he would allow no “environment” to circumscribe or confine him, and repudiated the phrase “Jewish writers in America” as “a repulsive category.”

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    A Talk with Ari Shavit

    Stewart Kampel for Hadassah Magazine

    After his book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, was published, it sparked popular discussions and Israeli author and journalist Ari Shavit could be seen and heard on myriad talk shows. Here is Stewart Kampel’s conversation with Shavit.

    ShavitFor several decades, Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land (Spiegel & Grau), has been a leading journalist and columnist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. He writes in English and Hebrew. Shavit, who is also a commentator on Israel’s public television channel, traces his Israeli roots to his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, a well-to-do British lawyer who led a group of Zionist pilgrims to Palestine from London in 1897. Bentwich was a Cambridge-educated pedagogue who helped develop Israel’s education system after settling in the wine-producing region of Zikhron Ya’akov, and his father was a chemist at the center of Israel’s nuclear program.

    Born in Rehovot in 1957, Shavit served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and studied philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Shavit headed the nonprofit Association for Civil Rights in Israel and served as an unofficial spokesman for Israel’s political left. But in 1995, as suicide bombings became a monthly routine in Israel, Shavit broke with the left and wrote columns blasting the Oslo Accords as a “fraud” foisted on Israel by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Today, Shavit is considered a centrist. He is married, has a daughter and two sons and lives in Kfar Shmaryahu.

    Q. Your book is getting strong reaction in the United States, from a warm embrace by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, a friend, to misgivings from Jews who believe your “promised land” is off the mark. What is your reaction to the book’s response?
    A. What happened during the first week of my book’s publication went beyond anyone’s expectations, beyond my dreams. Four leading American Jewish intellectuals—David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker; Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic; Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic; and Tom Friedman—praised the book with generosity and enthusiasm, even love. It is a remarkable phenomenon. They are menschen, and I am deeply grateful.

    Q. And what of the substance of the book?
    A. For such a long time, the conversation about Israel has been corrupted by elements of tribalism, hate and gamesmanship, among other things. People who basically love Israel have been frustrated that it did not live up to expectations because of the occupation or ultra-Orthodox influences. This created a deep thirst. What I do in the book is to bring back a deep love of Israel in a realistic way.

    Some commentators say that Israel can do no wrong or no right. Let’s relax. Let’s take a step back. Israel is a remarkable phenomenon and deserves our admiration. Because I’m such a committed Zionist, I’m very secure in my loyalty and commitment that I have no problem discussing Israel’s flaws. Zionism tried to create a nation as legitimate as any other nation. I see this as a mission. I want the book to be a launching pad to reach out to the American Jewish community. I want a fresh, new debate.

    Q. How do you put the history of Israel in context?

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    Tova Mirvis on Motherhood, Orthodoxy & Her Latest Novel “Visible City”

    By Adina Kay-Gross for Raising Kvell

    Visible CityI recently had the pleasure of chatting with Tova Mirvis about her new book, “Visible City,” the all-consuming nature of parenting, and the freedom that comes with accepting imperfection.

    In “Visible City,” unlike your previous novels, Judaism isn’t a central theme. What took its place in this book?

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    The Little Prince's Best Friend

    Little PrinceIt's probably a bit surprising that The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved 1943 children's book, is dedicated to an adult. Even more surprising is that that adult, Léon Werth, was a Jewish anarchist and leftist Bolshevik supporter.

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    - Zachary Solomon for Jewniverse

    What Ever Happened to Italy’s Jews?

    TriesteWe usually think of historical fiction as storytelling that attempts to simulate the events and atmosphere of the past—but what if historical fiction recreated not the past itself, but the historian's process of trying to put the past back together?

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    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse

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    The Best Little Jewish Publishing House in London

    Peter and Martine Halban run England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press

    By Vladislav Davidzon for Tablet Magazine

    Martine HalbanLast month, readers at London’s celebrated annual Jewish Book Week were introduced to a strikingly polished Holocaust memoir titled Motherland, written by Rita Goldberg, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard. Goldberg reconstructs the complex trajectory her family followed from Germany and through Amsterdam, Belgian war resistance cells, DP camps, independence-war-era Israel and then America. The book focuses on Goldberg’s mother as she begins to lose her memory to Alzheimer’s in the late 1980s, yet as with any Dutch Holocaust memoir, the book is by necessity inextricably shadowed by and linked to the story of Anne Frank. Unlike most Dutch Holocaust memoirs, the connection in this case is a deeply abiding one: Hilde Jacobsthal was a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s; her father and Otto Frank cofounded a liberal synagogue together in Amsterdam after immigrating from Germany; and Otto Frank was the godfather of the book’s author.

    Because Goldberg’s book recounts a far longer swath of history than the average Holocaust memoir, it charts the generational rather than merely singular effects of the tragedy of European Jewry on individual psychology. It is 100 pages into the narrative before Jacobsthal takes refuge in Belgium, where she spends a year and a half hiding out in the castles of anti-Semitic minor nobility. (She looked after their children and did their laundry, rebuffed their son’s advances by day while working as a courier for the resistance by night.) Jacobsthal’s childhood playmates Anne Frank and (her sister) Margot died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, a few months before she arrived there to work as nurse and interpreter.

    One of the surprising things about Motherland is that it was an unsurprising choice for its publisher, Halban, the bantam-sized English press that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, whose own story is inseparably intertwined with the personal stories and illustrious European Jewish parentage of its founders. Peter and Martine Halban belong to the family of the great British-Russian philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, whose distinct liberalism hovers over the slim, battlement-topped white tower at 22 Golden Square in London, where England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press makes its home.

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    Secret of the Megillat Esther

    By Avi Lazerson for

    The secret of the Megillat Esther is deduced from its name. The word Megilla has two meanings and the word Esther has two meanings. Megilla traditionally is interpreted to mean a rolled document such as the scrolls that were rolled up in the ancient and medieval periods of history (before the invention of paper). The second meaning of the word is to expose, from the word in Hebrew, âìåé. The word Esther is traditionally interpreted to mean a women's name. The second meaning of the word is concealment, from the Hebrew word to hide, ìäñúéø.

    Secret of Megillat EstherUsing the second meaning of each word Megilla Esther literally means to expose the hidden.

    In the Megilla itself we find a very interesting phenomena. This is the only book in the twenty four books of the Bible, the five books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Holy Writings which does NOT have in it, even one time, the name of G-d. Yet it is included as a Holy Book. Why is it that not only the name of G-d is not mentioned, but even a hint of the existence of G-d is not mentioned?

    To understand why this is, it is necessary to understand miracles. What is a miracle? Very simply speaking, we say that a miracle is a change in the state of nature for a specific event. As an example, the splitting of the Red Sea, when the Jewish People left Egypt was a miracle. Why? Simply because the nature of the water is not to stand upright but to fall down until it reaches the lowest place possible. When the Jewish People left Egypt, the sea split in half. Each side stood like a wall, and the sea floor became a dry path. This existed only as an escape route for the Jewish People at that time. This is called a miracle. This was a suspension of the laws of nature for a particular time and purpose.

    Another example was the turning of the water of the Nile into blood. A large body of water like the Nile (picture the mighty Mississippi) with all it's tributaries suddenly turning into sickening blood! It's not natural. Yet this was also a suspension of the laws of nature for a particular time and place.

    Now one of the most popular questions of today seems to be: If G-d did miracles for the Jewish People then, why doesn't he do it for us now? It's a good question. The answer is this: The truth is that there are two types of miracles: the hidden miracles and the open miracles. What is the difference between them? Simply, the open miracles are like the examples above. The hidden miracles are different. A hidden miracle is one that happens in the guise of nature. The event that G-d wants to take place, takes place, but in a totally natural manner, in a manner that can be called a "coincidence".

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    ‘The Museum of Extraordinary Things’ Is Extra Ordinary

    In her latest novel, Alice Hoffman renders the brutal world of Lower East Side immigrants in the romantic hues her readers expect

    By Adam Kirsch for Tablet Magazine

    DreamlandToday, the building at 23 Washington Place in Manhattan, just off Washington Square, is known as the Brown Building, and it is part of NYU’s ever-growing Greenwich Village empire. But in 1911, it was called the Asch Building, and its eighth, ninth, and 10th floors were occupied by a sweatshop called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where some 500 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian girls, produced women’s blouses. When fire broke out there on March 25 of that year, nearly 150 workers died, in part because their bosses had locked the exit doors from the outside. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was the deadliest disaster in New York City until the collapse of the World Trade Center 90 years later.

    The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was not the only great conflagration to shake New York City in 1911, however. Just two months later, on May 27, the Coney Island amusement park Dreamland caught fire and burned to the ground, after workmen preparing for the summer opening accidentally knocked over a pail of boiling tar. This blaze, while big enough to incinerate blocks of Coney Island and call out firemen from all over Brooklyn, claimed no human victims, which is why it is so little remembered today. Instead, it killed the dozens of wild animals who were part of Dreamland’s menagerie, including a lion and an elephant. One of the strangest exhibits at the park was a demonstration of incubators for premature babies, then a new invention; happily, all the babies were rescued.

    None of the extraordinary things in The Museum of Extraordinary Things, the new novel by Alice Hoffman, beats the true stories of those two fires. Set in New York in the first half of 1911, with flashbacks to the previous decades, Hoffman’s novel is bookended by vivid set-piece descriptions of the disasters. A New Yorker herself, she describes the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire using images that invoke the iconography of Sept. 11. The parallel is doubtful in some ways—Sept. 11 was an attack, not an accident, and the casualties were worse by several orders of magnitude—but the vision of falling bodies is something both disasters had in common:

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    The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism

    Review by Michael N. Dobkowski for

    Devil That Never DiesIn this rich and provocative book, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen examines the worldwide resurgence of anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century. Its reach is unparalleled, both historically and today and hundreds of millions of people have been exposed to it, especially in the internet and satellite television age. It is practically an article of faith in much of the Arab and Islamic worlds which subscribes to the foundational anti-Semitic paradigm that holds Jews to be essentially different from non-Jews and dangerous. But it also exists in subdued forms among Christians. The range of people spreading and believing in anti-Semitism is unusually broad. From common “folk” to university professors and political leaders, from people on the political right to those on the left, from the secular to the devout believers in God—all sectors of society have been moved by its associated passions, including hatred and violence. One of the most effective and disturbing arguments Goldhagen musters is that the resurgence of anti-Semitism over the past decade or so is shock­ing because it does not seem to shock. The horrific calumnies leveled against Jews in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa seem to be accepted without challenge by the masses, opinion makers and elites alike. This has a self-reinforcing dynamic of persuading more and more people of anti-Semitism’s claims.

    Goldhagen makes a strong case for anti-Semitism’s unique and enduring character. It has the ability to change and mutate over time, rendering it continuous with earlier forms and yet substantially new. It is more dangerous than at any time since the Holocaust, threatening politically and physically Jewish communities around the world, includ­ing Israel’s very existence. He is particularly cogent in his nuanced treatment of the issue of criticism of Israel and when it slides into anti-Semitism. He exposes the historical and intellectual weaknesses of comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and the hypocrisy of academics and leaders who judge Israel by different standards.

    This is an important book providing a comprehensive catalogue of “globalized anti-Semitism.” Unfortunately, however, the book is long on denouncing and short on evaluating. His criticism of other religions, particularly Islam, is excessive and borders on the conspiratorial. The fact that much of his research comes from the web and public opinion surveys makes his book less appealing than the more scholarly ap­proaches to anti-Semitism offered in recent works by David Nirenberg, Anthony Julius, Alvin Rosenfeld, and Robert Wistrich. The writing is often dense and repetitive and the tone is occasionally shrill and hector­ing, with some of his points bordering on hyperbole—yet the message is compelling and important. Anti-Semitism is back and we need to be concerned.

    Joyce Carol Oates in Conversation with Alan Cheuse

    On November 14, Moment fiction editor Alan Cheuse spoke with fellow writer Joyce Carol Oates at the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest awards ceremony at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. This interview is adapted from that conversation. To read the full text and watch the video, visit

    OatesCheuse: How did you begin writing?

    Oates: I was very interested in literature and was reading ever since I was eight or nine when I was given Alice in Wonderland. I had tablets that I drew pictures on a little bit like Lewis Carroll’s, and then I graduated to the typewriter about the time I was in ninth or tenth grade, when I was reading Hemingway and tried to write Hemingway-inspired stories. My grandmother gave me the typewriter, which at the time was an astonishing thing. I was sure I was the only one in the whole county with a typewriter.

    Cheuse: Did your friends know what you were doing?

    Oates: No, but I gave some of these stories to my teachers. I also had phases in which I was influenced by Faulkner and Fitzgerald. I was like an apprentice to these great writers. I remember how exciting that was, pretending I was a real writer, typing away.

    Cheuse: Your family encouraged you to write at a rather early age.

    Oates: My grandmother encouraged me—I had a Jewish grandmother. We didn’t know she was Jewish. She was from a family that came from Germany in the 1890s, and they disguised their identity and came to western New York. Why anybody would willingly go up there where it’s so cold, I’ve got no idea. We lived out in the country and it was relative wilderness. This part of the family didn’t want to say they were Jewish. They just had a kind of amnesia. My grandmother never talked about her background at all. She was the person who bought books for me and took me to the library in the city. I was her favorite, and I think I’ve become a writer because of her. She was always giving me books. So I came away with a false idea of reality. I thought my grandmother was someone whom I knew. I didn’t know her. I only knew a grandmother. I knew somebody who was playing a beautiful role with her family, but she must have gone home and she must have been really lonely. But the German-Jewish strain, and here I’m sorry to talk in clichés, but this is the intellectual strain. I think, “Why do I read books and why do I love books?” I think it’s probably that inheritance. There is something about Jews who revere books and education and language and art and music in a very wonderful way.

    Cheuse: Your teachers must have encouraged you greatly.

    Oates: I was very lucky to have teachers who were encouraging. I went to a one-room schoolhouse out in the country, and it was very rough and kind of primitive. It was one large room, one teacher and eight grades. I’ve written a lot about that school because it was such an interesting experience, and people don’t have any idea what it’s like today. Books were so prized and valuable—and in my household there were so few of them—that to me, the book was an aesthetic object. It had a sort of magical value, whereas I think younger people today, who may just be reading online, don’t have that same feeling for the aesthetic properties.

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    'Tiger Mom' Amy Chua Roars Again

    By Elissa Strauss for The Jewish Daily Forward

    Amy ChuaJewish husband Jed Rubenfeld and in it she looks at the parenting practices of six cultural groups who, she claims, create more successful people. These include Indians, Chinese, Iranians, Lebanese-Americans, Nigerians, Cuban Exiles, Mormons and, you got it, Jews.

    Her thesis in “The Triple Package” is that all these cultures have a competitive edge because they impart on their children feelings of superiority, insecurity and impulse control, which push their children to do better in America than others in terms of income, test scores and occupational status.

    The book, which I haven’t read yet, has already ignited a backlash from those who see a little too much overlap between Chua and Rubenfeld’s superior cultural groups theory and the racist social philosophy of eugenics. I too feel uncomfortable with the essentialization of certain groups and am no fan of Jewish exceptionalism, or how it can backfire, either.

    Still, there is one more thing that bugs me about this new book and it is the way Chua and Rubenfeld have hijacked the Jewish mother stereotype.

    Not that I love stereotypes any more than I like the idea of making a list of superior races, but if we are going to be trading in stereotypes about Jewish mothers can we please go back to the old one because she is so much more likeable.

    “The Triple Package” mother sounds like a cold and stern task-master who imparts upon her children a feeling of inferiority, chosenness and discipline. Yuck. The stereotypical Jewish mother is an endlessly doting, food-pushing, busy-body who wants their child to succeed, but not if it takes them too far away or makes them unhappy. She may not be the most open-minded woman, nor is she necessarily calm under-pressure, but she can be relied on for love, and unconditionally.

    Of course most Jewish mothers are not either of these, but if one stereotype about Jewish mothers is being promoted out in the world I much prefer the loving one. And, for whatever its worth, I imagine that that love and the sense of security it provides is a factor in creating well-adjusted children, even if Chua and Rubenfeld left it off the list.


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    Anti-Semitic Hatemail Never Looked This Good

    HatemailHatemail is probably the most bizarre book to ever grace a coffee table. Oversized, gorgeous, and with vivid and full-color matte printing, it's packed with turn-of-the-century art and extensive scholarly commentary...about anti-Semitic picture postcards.

    There's an 1899 German postcard that depicts a trio of "Glucksschwein," Jews dressed up as pigs, which is a visual pun on the meaning of the word (it means "lucky charms" and "lucky pigs"). A 1907 cartoon touts the "competition of fierce animals, division of misers, first prize" to an effeminate-looking mouse that bears striking similarity to Art Spiegelman's creation.

    Some of these items you can easily picture people laughing at, like a novelty postcard in a downtown dollar-store today. Others, like a Jew using a machine to squeeze money out of gentiles, are more sinister. And some are out-and-out propaganda, like a 1910 nursery-rhyme—a long nursery rhyme—about a Jewish boy who begs his father for an umbrella, then is horrified that they must pay for it. As a historical document, Hatemail is rare, surreal and valuable.

    But we're still not sure we'd want it in our living rooms.

    - Matthue Roth for Jewniverse

    The People of the Book vs. The People of the Kindle

    What happens when our libraries are purged from our homes, replacing spines with screens?

    By Ann Marlowe for Tablet Magazine

    Kindle vs BooksThe other day, my friend John said he was getting rid of almost all his books. By the time I visited his apartment, he’d already pruned his library by a quarter, dumping most of it in the garbage. “I read everything on Kindle now,” he explained, a trifle defensively. The immediate cause of his decision was his impending move to a starkly minimalist apartment with spectacular river views—and room for bookshelves, had he wanted them.

    What led to John’s decision was a disgust at the accumulation of things that I partly understood. I had even recently told a non-Kindle-owning friend that I didn’t understand why one-fifth of my house was taken up by a library I rarely entered. And I find myself very impatient with people who say they refuse to get a Kindle because they love the physicality of books. These are people who don’t produce culture, I thought. It’s just a consumer preference. They’re the same people who go compulsively to the theater and see rubbish because it’s “theater.”

    Of course, minimalism dates at least to Le Corbusier, and it was possible to purge one’s library before Kindle, but then it meant relying on public libraries. Now, if you have the money to re-purchase on Kindle everything you want to own, you can have those bare white walls and still read. My editor has suggested to me that book-purging is an essentially Protestant impulse, which solves a particularly Protestant problem, in which personal reading of the Bible must be reconciled with a ban on the worship of objects. There’s something to this, particularly when you think of the interiority of the Kindle, which is a personal space much as one’s Bible was for, say, a Puritan in Boston circa 1640. Jews and Muslims, meanwhile, both venerate the physical version of their holy books: We all know what an outcry Quran-burning causes, while Jews actually bury Torahs that are deemed to be too damaged to use.

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    My Crazy Century: A Memoir

    Review by Annette Gendler for the Jewish Book Council

    My Crazy CenturyThe 500 pages covering internment in the Nazi concentration camp Terezín and persecution under the Communist regime of Czech writer Ivan Klíma’s memoir My Crazy Century could be intimidating, but it isn’t. Klíma guides the reader steadily, hurtling through events from the 1930s to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. It is his story, and the story of Czechoslovakia and its writers.

    Mainly, My Crazy Century is the story of a writer: discovering the power of storytelling at Terezin; getting the idea for his first allegorical play, The Castl; editing a literary magazine; publishing his work only abroad and in a clandestine magazine typed up with friends during the twenty years they are banned from publishing at home. While Klíma details the harassment and persecution his friends and family suffer, he neither rages nor dwells. Oddly, for a Holocaust survivor, he is unperturbed when, in the late 1940s, a neighbor in Prague disappears. “He was a bougie,” his father, an ardent Communist, explains. When his beloved father is later imprisoned for “sabotage,” Klíma displays remarkable nonchalance. He worries about his first love, being a good member of the Communist Party, and providing for his family, rather than about his father’s fate. Disappearances are not seen as the alarming hallmark of a totalitarian regime but rather as the way things are. Perhaps, sadly, that is a survival skill learned in Terezín.

    Being classified as Jewish by the Nazis comes as a surprise; Klíma had been raised entirely secular. He remains so, exhibiting bemused indifference toward all things Jewish, despite his Jewish wife’s interest in Judaism. She initiates, for example, their visit to an Israeli kibbutz in the early 1960s. There he is more interested in the Kibbutzniks’ successful experiment in communal living than in the realization of the Jewish state.

    Klíma finds himself in London and later at the University of Michigan as a guest lecturer when the Soviet tanks crush the Prague Spring. Nevertheless, Klíma decides to return. Thankfully, he addresses why: “For me, the only meaningful work was writing, telling stories that were somehow connected to my life, and this was interwoven with my homeland. The thought of writing in a foreign country about things that deeply touched me but with which I had cut off all ties seemed foolish.” Thus, My Crazy Country is an illuminating account of what it meant to be a Czech writer in the twentieth century.

    A Great Jewish Novel, Out of South Africa

    The Lion SeekerJews spend a lot of time thinking about "what if?" What if you fall and break your neck, God forbid? What if God had brought us out of Egypt but never given us the temple, huh? What if every great American immigration novel was set in Africa instead?

    Johannesburg-born writer Kenneth Bonert's debut novel, The Lion Seeker, borrows from American Jewish masters of the novel to create a story of Jewish immigration and assimilation that's uniquely South African. His hero, Isaac Helger, together with his mother and sister, joins the family patriarch in Joburg from Dusat, Lithuania, to grow up against a backdrop of pre-WWII politics, changing technologies, and ugly race relations.

    Recalling in equal parts David Schearl from Henry Roth's classic and Augie March, Isaac vows to be a success for the sake of his mother, who aches for family left behind in Lithuania. Amid doomed business ventures and girl-chasing, though, Isaac realizes that what he loves is fixing cars. This pursuit becomes a metaphor for Isaac's exploration of his family's troubled past. After all, he learns in this absorbing tale, it only takes a second to smash something to bits, but lots of careful work to make it new again.

    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse

    How The Hobbit Learned Yiddish

    Yiddish HobbitYour grandparents might have read Yiddish translations of Shakespeare or Jules Verne (which were always "fartaytsht un farbesert," of course). But they couldn't have read The Hobbit—until now. As we say farewell to 2013 we salute an author who made waves: Computer programmer-turned translator Barry Goldstein (aka Berish Goldsteyn), for taking on the fan-friendly task of translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic into Yiddish.

    This translation marks the book’s 61st language. Yiddish seems fitting for a work by Tolkien, who was a philologist as well as a writer who worked on the "W" (for "wizard"?) section of the Oxford English Dictionary. He was also a proud opponent of the Nazis.

    Tolkien was enamored of mythology (he disdained Esperanto precisely because it lacked legends), and so it is perhaps fitting that a language so rich in stories should spin the tale of The Hobbit.

    The translation wasn’t easy, said Goldstein, but, "after years of obsessing about complicated computer programs, I found reproducing the Trolls' grobe diburim, or rhyming poems, to be…much less stressful than wrestling with a recalcitrant computer."

    - Sarah Zarrow for Jewniverse

    The Midwife of Venice

    by Roberta Rich

    Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach for

    Midwife of VeniceThe Midwife of Venice is an imaginative, suspenseful tale about a sixteenth-century Jewish midwife from Venice's Ghetto Nuovo. Hannah Levi sorely misses her merchant husband, a captive in Malta after mercenaries attack his trading ship. "He had been fond of eating oranges in bed, feeding her sections as they chatted. She had not washed the blanket since Isaac had departed for the Levant to trade spices."

    When a Christian nobleman comes to her house by dark of night and begs her to assist his wife, Hannah knows she must turn him down or risk torture for breaking the law. Jewish midwives are forbidden to deliver Christian babies. But the nobleman has heard Hannah is a wonder worker. Indeed, she has a dangerous secret for which she could be accused of witchcraft: "her birthing spoons, two silver ladles hinged together." The spoons can save lives, but they can kill, too. "At a recent confinement, she had exerted too much pressure and had crushed the skull of the baby instead of easing it out." But the nobleman is desperate and will pay her price, a sum high enough to ransom her husband away from the Knights of Malta.

    With a baby at the center of the tale, The Midwife of Venice is as fast-paced as any thriller, the childbirth scene as gripping as any battle story. Cliffhanger chapter endings bounce readers back and forth between Hannah and her husband as each faces a series of potentially deadly perils. The setting is well researched, although the way Hannah pushes boundaries and encounters one worst-case scenario after the other can make the story seem frothy and implausible. Readers willing to suspend disbelief, though, will find her a swashbuckling midwife in a novel whose pages seem almost to turn themselves. (2011; 329 pages, including a bibliography and a brief Author's Note on the historical background)

    They Called Her Rebbe

    They Called Her RebbeWhile rifling through the bargain bin at your local bookstore for a dime novel to read on the plane, you come across what looks like just the right smut: a classically pulpy woman on the cover, eyes cast down to the text in front of her. Even the title, with its exaggerated cursive font, seems right: They Called Her Rebbe.

    Not a bodice-ripper after all, this 1991 release tells the story of Chana Rochel, the 19th-century girl Talmudist known as "the Maiden of Ludomir." While Jewish boys were spirited from their families to serve the czar and Hasidism swept Jewish practice from Kiev to Chernobyl, Chana Rochel became a controversial but charismatic Jewish leader.

    After a solitary girlhood, Chana Rochel argued with her father, rabbis, and yeshiva-bocher fiancée for the right to study the way men do, jettisoning "the noodle board," in the words of I.B. Singer's Yentl. The book—written with a slight pop-psychology bent—is part hagiography, part egalitarian soapbox, and seems aimed more for the gender studies classroom than the beach. But with the side story of Chana Rochel's very long engagement (reader, she moved to Palestine instead), They Called Her Rebbe almost makes good on its pulpy cover.

    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse

    A New Era of Anti-Semitism Is Here. Daniel Goldhagen Blames Globalization


    In his new book, the controversial author warns against complacency, saying that prejudice against Jews is uniquely adaptable

    By Vox Tablet

    In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen unleashed a fury of controversy when he published the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, in which he argued that the Holocaust took place not because Germans were especially obedient to authority, or because a few bad apples came into power, but because an eliminationist prejudice against Jews was woven into the very fabric of German culture. Germans “considered the slaughter to be just,” Goldhagen wrote. His book hit a nerve—critics called Goldhagen out for using overly broad generalizations to indict an entire country—but that criticism didn’t hurt the book’s reception; it was a phenomenal success in Germany and around the world.

    Nearly 20 years later, Goldhagen has broadened his scope in a new work. The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism offers an in-depth look at anti-Semitism around the world. He argues that it’s an almost pathological prejudice that spans centuries and cultures and therefore is a uniquely destructive force that has redoubled its strength thanks to a new age of globalization and information-sharing. Goldhagen joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry to discuss why anti-Semitism is distinct from other forms of prejudice, how globalization has contributed to its resurgence, and what we can do to combat this scourge. [Running time: 29:40.]

    Click here to listen to interview.

    The Ghost Shtetl of Trochenbrod

    Lost TownOnce upon a time there was a shtetl named Trochenbrod. In its heyday, Trochenbrod, which is located in Western Ukraine just 30 kilometers northeast of the city of Lutsk, was home to approximately 5,000 Jews, with seven synagogues, and a rich farming culture. In typically frank Yiddish fashion, Trochenbrod means "bread without butter."

    And then one day, Trochenbrod was wiped off the map. In 1942, the Nazis liquidated the shtetl, murdering all but 200 of its inhabitants.

    Today, Trochenbrod isn't an easy find. It is so elusive, in fact, that Jonathan Safran Foer fictionalized his own journey to Trochenbrod in his debut novel Everything Is Illuminated.

    Now author Avrom Bendavid-Val is exploring the place, too—only this time there's nothing fictional about it.

    Lost Town, a haunting new documentary, follows Bendavid-Val, whose late father emigrated from Trochenbrod years before the Holocaust, on his voyage to track down his ancestral homeland. On the heels of his 2010 book on the same subject, the film is a poignant journey into the past, bringing Bendavid-Val into contact not only with survivors of the shtetl, but with his own personal history as well.

    - Zachary Solomon for Jewniverse

    Kosher Pajamas and Cosmetic Surgery in Ritzy Tel Aviv

    TextilesWhat do cosmetic shoulder blade surgery, flak jackets made of spider silk, high-end shopping sprees as a stage of grief, and The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling have in common? Nothing, perhaps, but their convergence in Textile, a newly translated novel by celebrated Israeli writer Orly Castel-Bloom.

    Published in Hebrew in 2006, Textile features the quintessentially 21st-century coping mechanisms of the Grubers, a wealthy, anxiety-ridden family falling apart in a new, glitzy suburb of Tel Aviv. Amanda, the matriarch, runs the family kosher pajama factory and shields herself from her son's life as an army sniper by having countless plastic surgeries; Irad, her husband, is a scientific genius obsessed with his own virility. And their 22-year-old daughter Lirit masquerades as a kibbutznik, but would rather be shopping.
    With her son on a sniper mission, Amanda undergoes shoulder blade enhancement surgery (which, don't worry, doesn't really exist). Meanwhile, an Israeli expatriate in Ithaca, NY invites Irad to learn top-secret scientific findings in the field they share. In lieu of a redemptive ending, Castel-Bloom maintains this sharp portrait of one family's self-made isolation structuring their ways of love and grief.

    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse

    Polish Catholic Brothers and a Village's Unsavory Past

    AftermathThe past might never be dead, but just how deeply can it be buried? That's the question brothers Franek and Jozek grapple with as they uncover the secrets of their rural Polish village 60 years after World War II, in Władysław Pasikowski's controversial film Pokłosie (Aftermath).

    Franek returns to Poland from Chicago when he learns that Jozek's wife has left him. In an effort to understand why, Franek discovers that Jozek became a local pariah when he ripped up a road that German occupiers had paved decades earlier—with headstones from a Jewish cemetery.

    Franek reluctantly supports Jozek's effort to collect the village's remaining Jewish headstones and erect them in his wheatfield. Villagers who live on formerly Jewish land try to discourage them—most viscerally through defacing their home with a dead dog and anti-Semitic graffiti. As they investigate, the brothers discover that their family's role in the destruction of the village's Jews was greater than they'd thought. The result is an unrelenting, unsentimental interrogation of historical revisionism and the ways grown children try to atone for their fathers – and a fascinating look at contemporary Poland.

    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse


    An Israeli Paratrooper's Path to Extremism and Terror Told in 'Like Dreamers'

    How Udi Adiv Veered Far Off Zionist Path

    By Yossi Klein Halevi for The Jewish Daily Forward

    Like DreamersYossi Klein Halevi’s new book, “Like Dreamers,” is about seven of the paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. Their lives spiraled out from that triumphant moment in dramatically different directions, emblematic of a country that has been stretched between the extremes of right and left over the past 40 years. This week’s excerpt, the second to be published by the Forward, focuses on Udi Adiv, one of those paratroopers, who veered sharply to the left in the early 1970s. This is the story of how Adiv, a kibbutznik and son of kibbutz founders, found himself part of an anti-Zionist terrorist group, trained with militants in Damascus, and was even praised for his militancy by Yasser Arafat from the rostrum at the United Nations. Adiv would eventually repudiate his actions, but not before serving 12 years in an Israeli prison.

    Udi walked the cobbled streets of Wadi Nisnass, Haifa’s Arab neighborhood near the docks. Burlap sacks with dried chili peppers and fava beans lined the sidewalks. Workmen’s restaurants served hummus for breakfast. Udi was charmed. He belonged here, he felt, more than among the Jews.

    Udi was leading a schizophrenic existence. He was enjoying student life at the University of Haifa, Israel’s most integrated Arab-Jewish campus, and he felt as comfortable there as he could in any Israeli institution. He joined the university basketball team and was rarely without at least one girlfriend. But his political life was drawing him farther toward the fringe. When Naif Hawatmeh, leader of a Marxist faction of the PLO, called for incorporating “Israeli progressives” into the Palestinian war against Israel, Udi was elated.

    One of Udi’s regular stops in Wadi Nisnass was a Marxist bookshop run by Daoud Turki, an Arab Israeli who had been expelled from Israel’s Communist Party for supporting terrorism. The corner bookshop was so small, there was scarcely room for a table and chairs. In his early forties, Daoud was a self-taught political theorist. He told Udi about the humiliation of growing up under Israeli military rule, which all Arab

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    How Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce Changed Judaism Forever

    David Kaufman's Book Revisits the Turbulent '60s

    By Seth Rogovoy for The Jewish Daily Forward

    Jewhooing the Sixties
    by David E. Kaufman
    Brandeis University Press

    DylanThe final week of September 1961 proved to be an auspicious one in American Jewish history — or, at least, in the history of Jewish-American celebrities.

    Within a matter of just a few days, Sandy Koufax set his first National League strikeout record; comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges; a then-unknown folksinger named Bob Dylan would play an opening set for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village that would capture the attention of a reviewer for The New York Times; and a 19-year-old cabaret singer named Barbra Streisand made her off-Broadway debut.

    The rest, as they say, is history, as well as the launching pad for David E. Kaufman’s “Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity.” An associate professor of religion, and the Florence and Robert Kaufman Chair in Jewish Studies at Hofstra University, Kaufman suggests that the approximately simultaneous rise to fame of these four third-generation American Jews was “a turning point in the history of both American celebrity and Jewish identity.”

    He likens them to postwar American Jewish culture’s “Mount Rushmore of fame,” whose achievements would go on to “reshape the image of the American Jew” for both Jew and non-Jew alike.

    These four were by no means the first of their kind. One could easily rattle off several lists of Jewish forebears who blazed trails beforehand, including baseball star Hank Greenberg; comedians including Groucho Marx, Jack Benny and George Burns, to name just a few; musical theater stars Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice; and in music, Benny Goodman and Irving Berlin.

    But as Kaufman goes to great lengths to argue, this quartet was more transformational than those who came before, both in their personal identity as Jews and in what they represented to Jews and society at large as Jews.

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    'The Lottery' and The Jews

    The Lottery"The Lottery" might be the most famous American short story. Written by Shirley Jackson and published in the New Yorker in 1948, it tells of an unnamed American town where, once a year, residents draw slips of paper from a black box, choosing one person to be murdered by the rest of the village.

    Jackson, whose writing wrestles with social propriety and discomfort, hated to comment on her own work. When "The Lottery" was first published, The New Yorker was inundated with thousands of letters, many of which expressed readers' confusion. The magazine had never received so much feedback about any short story. Jackson kept mum. Later, however, she confided to a friend that the story was an allegory for anti-Semitism and violence in the modern world. A fascinating detail, considering the year of its publication.

    Jackson's interest in anti-Semitism was personal. Her marriage to a Jewish English professor and jazz critic named Stanley Hyman was a subject of great speculation and controversy for both of their families—and, thankfully, inspired great literature.

    - Matthue Roth for Jewniverse

    Moo. Please No Murder Me- and Other Torah Commentaries

    UnscrolledSo begins "The Song of the Red Cow," one of 54 strange and delightful Torah commentaries in Unscrolled, a motley collection of essays, memoirs, cartoons, and shticks. Each is as unique as the poor red heifer, who we come to see as young, beautiful, unblemished…and tragically doomed.

    Unorthodox? For sure, in both senses of the word. No straight commentary here. For example, see Aaron's defensive take on the sin of the golden calf: "For starters, it was not a calf. It was more like a pig." Or check out Murray, God's tailor, lamenting the colorful priestly garments: "Crazy ostentatious. The taste level…is fresh off the boat." Then there's Moses' father-in-law, who's drawn wearing a Jethro Tull T-shirt, and counsels Moshe to "stop wasting your time with small-time crap. Delegate!" Not to mention their clever solution to building the Tabernacle in land-starved midtown Manhattan. ("Think vertical.")

    The book is a product of Reboot, a national network of young, creative Jews. They're making sure you never look at the weekly Torah portion the same.

    - Marc Davis for Jewniverse

    Kibbutzniks On Mars

    Martian SandsPlenty of fictional energy has been devoted to what might have happened if a modern Jewish state were established somewhere other than the Middle East: Michael Chabon has examined Alaska and Ben Katchor upstate New York. But what if some enterprising Jews left Planet Earth entirely?

    In his new novel Martian Sands, available as an e-book, Israeli-born Lavie Tidhar's imagines "New Israel" and its kibbutzniks on Mars. They share citizenship of the Red Planet with descendants of other earthlings, who survive on the waterless surface under a biodome. Tidhar weaves an elaborate backstory to explain the economics and culture of the planet: in this society, New Israel rules, and "old" Israeli political heavyweights like Ben-Gurion and Meir are fabricated by a simulacra shop and recycled by Martian constituents. Meanwhile, a man named after a movie star travels back in time to instruct FDR to not go to war in the Pacific, and instead to focus his energy on liberating Jews from the Nazis.

    Steampunk, cinematic, and occasionally disorienting in the manner of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—where we share the characters’ surprise and wonder—Martian Sands ultimately makes us ask: if we had the technology to change the course of history, would we use it?

    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse

    The Tumultuous Life and Nuanced Work of Israel’s Greatest Children’s Book Writer

    After tragedy, Dvora Omer found flaws, beauty in the nation’s founding figures, turning them into literary heroes

    By Liel Leibovitz for Tablet
    Dvora OmerThere are many different ways to be dumb about literature. When you’re in high school, the men and women who teach it to you—sometimes passionate and sweet, too often underpaid, insecure, and sour—insist that your primary task as a reader is to decipher the hidden meanings that the author weaved throughout the text like a serial killer leaving behind clues to taunt his weary pursuers. When you’re in college, the men and women who teach it to you—also underpaid, also probably sour—turn their attention from text to author, wrestling the creative spirit down to the therapist’s couch and squeezing it until, anguished, it is ready to cry uncle, or, more likely, mother. Both approaches are vile and joyless, but when it comes to Dvora Omer—the great Israeli writer of novels for young adults who passed away earlier this year—they seem inevitable: More than those of any other writer I can think of, Omer’s life and work are best understood as threads of the same tale, an epic poem of sacrifice and betrayal on which all Israeli children were reared.

    Omer was born in a northern kibbutz in 1932, and her parents divorced when she was an infant, her father moving to another kibbutz and marrying another woman. He would visit his firstborn infrequently, once every few months, each visit culminating in the little girl sobbing and begging him to stay. He never did. Then, Omer’s mother died when the future literary lioness was only 11 years old. At the time, she was told that her mother was unhappy and had shot herself. At the funeral, Dvora was ordered to stop crying, as weakness was unbecoming of true and tough kibbutzniks. If that wasn’t enough, Galia, her caretaker at the kibbutz, disappeared shortly thereafter, leaving Omer all alone.

    She took to writing, making up fantastical tales in which everyone was happy and no one was dead. Her teachers told her that her stories were horrible, often adding that she had no talent and urging her to abandon her literary ambitions for more useful tasks like cooking or cleaning. Omer, however, persevered: In 1959, after a stint as a teacher, she published her first book, The Pages of Tamar, a novel in diary form detailing the everyday life of a perfectly normal girl from a perfectly normal family living in a fictitious kibbutz. It was a hit. Tamar and her tightly knit clan were for Israelis what the Ingalls family had been for Americans—a shamelessly romanticized and utterly charming account of frontier life that was both an operatic celebration of the nation’s founding pioneers and an intimate portrayal of daily life in harsh conditions.

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    Firestorm Over Canada's 'Guys Only' Prof

    By Renee Ghert-Zand for The Jewish Daily Forward

    GilmourIf you’ve been anywhere near a Canadian newspaper or news website in the last week, then you’ll know that a scandal involving author and English professor David Gilmour has been dominating the headlines. The dustup is in response to remarks Gilmour made discounting Canadian, women and minority writers.
    I asked some Canadian Jewish writers and literature professors for their takes on the controversy, which has not only taken up many column inches, but also led Gilmour’s fellow academics to distance themselves from him, and students to stage protests.

    But before we get to the commentary, here is a summary of what led to the brouhaha.

    Gilmour’s remarks came in a short, informal interview with a writer named Emily M. Keeler for Random House’s Hazlitt literary blog. According to the transcript of the conversation, Gilmour, an award-winning author who has been teaching (as a non-tenured lecturer) undergraduate courses in modern short fiction at the University of Toronto, is willing only to teach “stuff I love.” This apparently means Russian and American literature (“I just haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach”) by middle-aged white men like him.
    When the interviewer pressed him to explain why he doesn’t teach works by women writers, he answered, “When I was given this job I said I would teach only the people that I truly, truly love. And, unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Um. Except for Virginia Woolf.” Then he went on to complain about Woolf being too sophisticated for his students.

    It seems common for Gilmour to be questioned about his reading lists. “Usually at the beginning of the semester someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I’m good at is guys.”

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    Amos Oz, 74 Years Old and a National Treasure, Still Dreams of Life on the Kibbutz

    In a wide-ranging conversation, Israel’s greatest novelist talks about working the land, making art, and Natalie Portman

    By Vox Tablet

    Amos OzThere’s no other living Israeli author who is as well known around the world as Amos Oz. Inside Israel, he’s one of the country’s most respected cultural figures. Oz has lived a tumultuous life. When he was 10 years old, he witnessed the founding of the Jewish state. When he was 12 years old, his mother committed suicide. When he was 15, he joined a kibbutz and changed his last name to Oz, Hebrew for “strength.” He eventually left the kibbutz for the desert because of his son’s asthma, but as he tells Vox Tablet contributor Daniel Estrin, he still dreams of kibbutz life at least once a week. In his newest short story collection, Between Friends, he revisits the early years of the kibbutz, when the collective farms were still a wild Israeli ideological experiment. Estrin sat with Amos Oz in his home in Tel Aviv for a far-ranging discussion about the new book, his love of Hebrew, his predictions for Israel’s future, and a bit of celebrity gossip. [Running time: 27:45.]

    Click here to listen.

    101 Great Jewish Books

    A catalog of the works that shape the Jewish mind in America today

    Welcome to Tablet's list of 101 Great Jewish Books--works that, taken together, define the living Jewish cultural inheritance in America today.

    101 Greatest Jewish BooksBefore we explain what the list is, we should tell you what it’s not: It’s not a list of “The Greatest Jewish Books of All Time,” an undertaking that would involve sifting through thousands of texts in dozens of languages produced over the course of millennia and that could only result in either a Cecil B. DeMille-like cast of thousands or a list with one entry: the Bible. What we wanted to create was a library of works that have actually moved us and shaped the way we understand ourselves as Jewish human beings in the world. We read some of these books as children; some we read under our covers as teenagers; some we got off college syllabi; some we discovered, with wonder and awe and surprise, as adults. But all are books of supreme importance in shaping our lives and our understanding of the different ways one might be a Jew in the world—whether the authors are religious Jews, or secular Jews, or not Jewish by your definition or someone else’s definition, or by any definition at all.

    When it came to organizing the list, we thought about what these books meant to us and soon came up with the metaphor of the human mind. Just as each one of the brains individual lobes is useless except as a part of the grander whole, these categories, too, are meant to serve not as hard barriers but rather as points of connection and contemplation. More than a few decisions here will raise eyebrows—why, for example, is Portnoy’s Complaint filed not under the Laughing & Complaining category but under Appetites? Why is Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl not in Suffering & Loss? The answer in all cases is that we tried to place each book according to what felt for us to be its most generative material. Some of you, we know, will disagree, and others will question the very categories themselves. That, we think, is exactly the point of putting out lists.

    In order to be included, a book had to meet three requirements:

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    The Hidden One of N.J.: Why Dara Horn Is the Best of the New Breed of Jewish Novelists

    Her fourth novel, ‘A Guide for the Perplexed,’ reanimates the past without falling into the traps of ‘Shtetlworld’ nostalgia

    By Saul Austerlitz for Tablet

    Horn NotebookDara Horn’s home, like her life, has two levels. On the higher level are rooms full of toy dinosaurs and Babar posters. On the lower one, shelves full of Yiddish and Hebrew books and Zambian carvings and wooden panels from China do battle with water guns and baby bottles. “I live a double life,” she said as she provided me with the abbreviated grand tour of her Essex County, N.J., home. “I think all parents have a double life.” Horn’s double life is just a bit more double than most other parents’; perhaps we can call it her quadruple life. The relevant statistics: age 36; four children; and, with the publication of her new book, A Guide for the Perplexed, four novels.

    In addition to two levels, Horn also has two desks. The first, in her bedroom, is home to a haphazard pile of books and school forms and cover mockups. The second is in her living room and is completely bare except for a slim laptop. Horn prefers working at her second desk, where the everyday concerns of her other life can be temporarily left behind. Her work day lasts from 9:30 until 2:30, when her children finish school, and she heads off in her minivan, outfitted with four car seats, to pick them up. On this midsummer day, though, her kids are in camp, and the workday has been extended for an additional hour.


    Inspired by the stranger-than-fiction story of the Cairo geniza, an archive of a millennium’s worth of letters, documents, and religious texts discovered in a Cairo synagogue in the late 19th century, A Guide for the Perplexed alternates among three interlocking stories.

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    A Simulated Diary of a Jewish Hamburger

    The InvestigationAn Internet diary that, instead of serving news and musings, takes you moment by moment through an 80-year-old story: this is the vision of Swedish novelist, pilot, and documentarianTorkel S. Wächter, mastermind behind the literature and family history project On This Day 80 Years Ago.

    Compelled to investigate what happened to his German-Jewish grandfather after the Nazis took power, Wächter uncovered a huge trove of documents in his parents' attic. The sprawling, hybrid result of his findings brings to light the suddenly altered course of one family’s history.

    On This Day, the companion to Wächter's 32 Postkarten, follows Gustav Wächter, a Jewish senior tax inspector, and his family during Hitler's rise to power, from January through July 1933. As the situation in his native Hamburg grows tense, the behavior of Wächter's colleagues and friends changes according to their political loyalties. Eventually, his superior is forced to write a report that dismisses Wächter from government service, and each of his sons is blacklisted.

    The site offers an innovative model for engaging history—through family, technology, and writing—and makes for a fascinating, if difficult, read.

    - Leah Falk for Jewniverse

    Freud’s Jewish Mistress

    Freud's MistressVienna, 1895. Minna Bernays, a laughably incompetent lady's companion, moves in with her sister Martha and Martha's husband, Sigmund Freud. Freud, a 39-year-old struggling professor of the fledgling field of psychotherapy, is charmed by the intellectually-minded Minna, who attends to the Freuds' 6 children and, owing in part to her fascination with her brother-in-law's work, begins enjoying his romantic attention as well.

    Or at least that's how Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman tell it in their new novel, Freud's Mistress. Whether or not Sigmund and Minna actually entered into a sexual relationship has long been debated. But a 2006 discovery of a Swiss hotel log showing that the pair once checked into a hotel room as husband and wife offers some fairly convincing evidence.

    While the authors do an impressive job evoking late 19th-century Vienna, the most remarkable aspect of this novel is meeting Sigmund Freud, lover.

    Can we really come to embrace the father of psychology as a character who says things like, "I will indeed unlock the mystery of your dreams. And you, my dear"? Well…now that we think about it—maybe we can.

    - Elie Lichtschein for Jewniverse

    Mark Leibovich Channels Jewish Outsider Status for Beltway Bestseller 'This Town'

    Spirituality and Partisan Fervor Intersects in Washington D.C.

    By Nathan Guttman for the Jewish Daily Forward

    Mark LeibovitchWASHINGTON — An anecdote described in the opening of the new book that has been rattling the nation’s capital tells the story of NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell and former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein, who are described as “Jews by religion and local royalty by acclamation.”

    Invited to a dinner party at the mansion of the Saudi Arabian ambassador on the eve of Yom Kippur, both felt “pangs of Jewish guilt,” according to Mark Leibovich, the author of “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.” But it ended up to be, the author wrote, “such a coveted social function” that the pair “could not say no to this most holy of obligations.”

    “Spirituality in Washington can be more of a — I don’t want to say it — but, a networking opportunity,” Leibovich said in an August 5 interview with the Forward. “Religion is often used opportunistically in the political conversation."

    A month after the launch of his book, and after reaching the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list, Leibovich was vacationing in Cape Cod, trying to get away from the buzz that his book has created in his hometown of Washington. It is a brutally sober look at the back stage of the real Washington, where politicians, consultants and journalists make up a class of their own, an unelected elite for whom personal gain trumps ideology.

    Some of Leibovich’s heroes are household names, at least for those following politics. But many are known only inside the close-knit Washington circle: press secretaries to congressmen, lobbyists working behind the scenes and local socialites who show up at every event. The book, Leibovich told the Forward, has become “a marker for disgust” felt by Americans across the nation toward their political system.

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    Is Jewish Control Over the Slave Trade a Nation of Islam Lie or Scholarly Truth?

    When Louis Farrakhan says, ‘You need to get this book,’ he means an insidious 1991 title whose claims to scholarship echo today

    By Batya Ungar-Sargon for Tablet Magazine

    FarrakhanAt a recent rally for the Voting Rights Act in Alabama, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam spoke of the Jews. Surrounded by a cadre of tall, glowering men with snappy suits, sunglasses, and folded arms, Farrakhan addressed an enthusiastic crowd in terms that would be unsurprisng to anyone familiar with his unique way of stirring up an audience. After asserting, with a benevolent smile, that he is not an anti-Semite, Farrakhan dove into his feelings about Jews: “I just don’t like the way they misuse their power,” he said. “And I have a right to say that, without being labeled anti-Semitic, when I have done nothing to stop a Jewish person from getting an education, setting up a business, or doing whatever a Jewish person desires to do.” The remarks were evocative of the sentiments he has shared widely throughout his decades-long career as a public figure—namely, that blacks should not trust Jews.

    It’s a position that Farrakhan has articulated for years. Perhaps the most noxious element of Farrakhan’s position, that the Jews are no friends to African Americans, has been locating its point of origin in the idea that Jews were heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1991, the Nation of Islam, a branch of the Black Nationalist Movement, published a copiously footnoted book intriguingly titled The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. The Nation of Islam won’t say who wrote the book, though in one sermon, Minister Farrakhan attributes it to an individual by the name of “Alan Hamet.” It is published by “The Historical Research Department of the Nation of Islam,” which has three titles to its credit: The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, vol. 1, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, vol. 2, and a third book simply titled Jews Selling Blacks. “This is a scholarly work, not put together by nincompoops!” Farrakhan exclaimed about The Secret Relationship during a sermon. The book claimed to provide “irrefutable evidence that the most prominent of the Jewish pilgrim fathers [sic] used kidnapped Black Africans disproportionately more than any other ethnic or religious group in New World history.” Awash in footnotes and quotes from reputable, often Jewish, historians, the book provides such details as lists of slaves, lists of Jews, and their relationship (disproportionate, The Secret Relationship concludes). “The history books appear to have confused the word Jews for the word jewel,” the anonymous author states. “Queen Isabella’s jewels had no part in the finance of Columbus’ expedition, but her Jews did.”

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    Across-the-Jewniverse Summer Wish List

    Barely-Guilty Beach Reads

    Yeah, yeah you promised yourself you'd read Proust one of these days, and you still haven't gotten to Pride & Prejudice. But how can you, when all these great new books are coming out? Our faves:

    Beach Reads

    Jacques Derrida’s Life as an Algerian Jew Revealed in Newly Translated Bio

    The philosopher’s influential legacy is reshaped by the part of his life story that is often overlooked

    By Scott Krane for Tablet Magazine

    Derrida“Writing a biography means living through an intimate and sometimes intimidating adventure,” writes Benoît Peeters in his newly translated biography of Jacques Derrida, who would have turned 83 today. But what is the difference between the biography of a living man and a dead man? In the Introduction to Derrida, published in France in 2010 and now beautifully translated into English by Andrew Brown, French artist, critic, and author Peeters writes, “Whatever happens, Jacques Derrida will not be part of his own life, like a sort of posthumous friend. A strange one-way friendship that he would not have failed to question.” The author continues in the book’s introduction: “I am convinced of one thing: there are biographies only of the dead. So every biography is lacking its supreme reader: the one who is no longer there. If there is an ethics of biographers, it can perhaps be located here: would they dare to stand, book in hand, in front of their subject?”

    Peeters is pleased that his book is now appearing in English. “My biography of Derrida, the first to be based on research work first-hand, was very well received when it was published in France,” Peeters told me in a recent interview. “And Derrida as a thinker is reflected in the world; it was logical that my book be translated. The United States played a decisive role in the reception of deconstruction. It is therefore not surprising that the English translation was the first to appear,” he said. Soon, he added, there will be translations available in German and Spanish, as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

    Continue reading.

    Norway, Jews, and Political Murder

    Nowegian by NightDerek B. Miller‘s debut novel, Norwegian by Night, is about aging snipers. Or, it’s about parenting and loss. Or, the lingering traces of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It feels about as full as life itself, and almost as real.

    Through shifting perspectives, Norwegian tells the tale of 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz. After finding himself widowed and possibly suffering from dementia, Sheldon leaves New York to join his granddaughter in Norway. When the young boy from upstairs witnesses his mother’s politically-motivated murder while hiding in Sheldon’s closet, the 2 run away before the boy can be hurt, too.

    Overlaying the dark drama of it all is Sheldon’s Jewishness. While recalling trying to take his deceased son golfing at a country club or settling into a country that finds Jews, as one character puts it, “unsettling,” Sheldon waxes philosophical on everything from the rules of kashrut to Europe’s dearth of Jews post-WWII. It remains unclear if we should trust Sheldon and his experience—his dementia and lucidity are continually up for debate—but his points are salient, his struggles are arresting, and the stakes are unforgettably high.


    An Illustrated Kafka For Kids

    My First KafkaChildren's books, with their large glossy pages and sparse text, often follow puppies on magical adventures, and always end happily. My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents & Giant Bugs is no such book. The pages may be visually beautiful thanks to illustrator Rohan Daniel Eason, and the text may be spirited thanks to Jewniverse's own founding editor, Matthue Roth, but this funkily patterned cockroach and rodent party wll wend its way into your subconscious and creep around in there, long after lights-out.

    My First Kafka revisits 3 Kafka stories, including The Metamorphosis. While they're familiar, they create and inhabit a new world, thanks to Kafka's inimitable sensibility, Roth's cheeky style, and Eason's quirky and endearing etchings. (The metamorphosed cockroach has more flair than your average hipster.)

    Kafka enthusiasts will find a familiar friend in this spunky volume. Roth successfully channels Kafka's sense of
    "filial shame, ineradicable guilt, and parental condemnation" that some tie to his "interest in his Jewish heritage." While My First Kafka does not revolve around explicit Jewish themes, it does evoke a world of threat and alienation—the very world in which Kafka lived and wrote in pre-WWII Prague.

    - Jessica Young

    The Plot Against England

    Man Booker winner Howard Jacobson talks about English anti-Semitism, ping-pong, and the seriousness of Jewish jokes

    By Howard Jacobson for Tablet Magazine

    JacobsonThe British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson’s eleventh novel, The Finkler Question, was awarded the Man Booker Prize today. On the eve of the announcement, Jacobson spoke to Tablet Magazine about English anti-Semitism, Israel “swaggering around,” and why Jews used to be good at ping-pong. Plus: The first U.S. publication of Jacobson’s 1999 profile of table tennis champion Marty Reisman.

    You described your 2007 novel Kalooki Nights as “the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody anywhere” and we agree—

    It certainly uses the word “Jew” more than any other novel.

    So what do you mean by that?

    I suppose I meant that its preoccupations are unrelievedly Jew talking to Jew thinking about Jew. This was deliberate. That’s what I wanted to write. Jew, Jew, Jew, joke, joke, joke, the world as seen entirely through the eyes of Jews for Jews. There are some Jews who live like that. To a degree, there’s a possibility in every Jew I ever met, for them to live like that. That you ask the question “Why?” and then back you go to the Holocaust and back to the pogroms before that, and everyone wants to know what it is that’s made this particular kind of Jewish morbidity into a positive feature now of the Jewish imagination. So, the book was really about that. Jews thinking about Jews talking about Jews to Jews written by somebody who is a Jew, who is obsessed by the subject, has some crazy obsession, who wants to get to the bottom of this obsession and wonders where this obsession comes from. And will deploy every kind of act of the mind to think about it, including, primarily, what Jews do best, which is make jokes. No one makes jokes like Jews.

    So, it’s not only the most Jewish book ever written, it’s got more Jewish jokes in it, good or bad, than any book ever written. Certainly more about Jews and more jokes in it than the Old Testament.

    That leads us directly to Shylock. What do you make of him?

    Continue reading.

    ‘What If The Messiah Is A Woman?’

    by Susan Reimer-Torn, Special To The Jewish Week

    Philistine ForeskinsNot long ago, a woman rabbi raised a provocative question: Might we dare imagine Judaism as it would be if the tradition had been shaped and transmitted by feminists? Or to put it differently, how is Judaism experienced through the mind/body of a spiritually attuned woman?

    Tova Reich’s “One Hundred Philistine Foreskins” (Counterpoint) explores this essential question through the lifelong travails of its central character, Ima Temima, a prophetic guru and iconoclast teacher of our times. The novel moves between Temima’s life as a charismatic spiritual leader in Israel and her brutally isolating girlhood in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn. At age 11, already a voracious reader and original thinker, Temima is shattered by the death of her mother and left to the brutish cruelty of her father. Her school principal, whom she encounters lurking among the reeking garbage in the building’s basement, subjects her to sexual abuse. She withdraws into study and deep contemplation, seeking sanctuary at her mother’s grave. A few years later, Temima uses a marriage of convenience to a Zionist zealot who works at the neighborhood deli as a ticket to Israel, where she eventually makes her name as a visionary leader.

    The book opens with a tumultuous, end-of-days scene in which Temima and her mob of followers — “a mixed multitude of hanger-ons and groupies, assorted fans and freaks and misfits” — are winding their way through the streets of Jerusalem, with the aged, veiled Temima, hidden like the divine presence in a portable arc, transported by four hefty bodyguards. The raucous scene, like those vividly rendered throughout the book, is set in cinematic detail. The throngs are “dancing, stamping their feet, twirling, clapping their hands, swaying, many bearing musical instruments, drums, tambourines, rattles, bells, roaring, ululating, whooping, chanting the Te-Tem-Ima-Temima-from-Brooklyn mantra.” 

    Continue reading.

    Ten Great Books to Read This Summer

    By Jordana Horn

    Welcome to the Second Annual Jordana Horn Summer Reading List, in which I recommend books for your summer reading pleasure. Some are new releases; some you may have missed because you were “working” or “taking care of children” or some other time-consuming endeavor. If you do get a few peaceful moments this summer, though, any one of these reads would be worth your while. My list last year was deemed “too intellectual,” so I’ve thrown in a few suggestions of lighter fare as well. Please feel free to add recommendations in the comments as I am always reading and always excited to find new books!

    KarenFowlerKaren Joy Fowler we are all completely beside ourselves1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

    I read a review before reading this book. While I wouldn’t say the review “ruined” the book for me, it was definitely a spoiler. This book hinges on one key fact which I would think would work better as a surprise, so I will leave you in suspense. Suffice it to say that this book rocked my world: my perception of family interactions, and what a fiction book can accomplish were changed by it. I am so glad I read it, and think you will be, too.

    2. Schroder, by Amity Gaige

    Beautifully written story of what happens when an East German-born man who has appropriated a new American, Kennedy-esque identity decides to make a post-separation run for the Canadian border with his young daughter.

    Continue reading.

    Kafka's Hasidic Sidekick

    JiriLangerIn 1894, boys like Jiří Langer were a dime a dozen: Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Prague, there was nothing notable about him until, at 19, he bought "a railway ticket to a little place in eastern Galicia," where he met the Hasidic rebbe of the town of Belz. He returned to Prague wearing traditional dress and observing Hasidic customs.

    This was in an era when being a baal teshuva was unheard of. Years later, in the introduction to Nine Gates, Jiří’s collection of Hasidic tales, his brother František reflected: "Jiří resembled Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis, in which a family finds its way of life completely upset when the son is suddenly changed into an enormous cockroach."

    The allusion was not to a distant literary figure but to a real person in the young man's life. Though his parents tried to talk Jiří out of his new religiosity, the famous surrealist author took an interest in just that. Jiří, who was anything but a "normal" Hasid, started studying Jewish mysticism with Kafka, and circulating among Prague's avant-garde artists. He even published several books, including a volume of poetry called The Eroticism of Kabbalah. Probably not who you'd have expected to find in Kafka's inner circle.

    - Matthue Roth

    Lower Manhattan Supernatural

    Golem and JinniEvery culture has its superstitions and its supermen: the German imp, the South African giant Abiyoyo, the golem of Jewish lore, and the jinni of Arabic mythology. What if, during one of America’s great waves of immigration, 2 of these mythic creatures collided?

    That’s what happens in The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker's compulsively readable debut novel. At the junction of 19th-century NYC's Little Syria and the Jewish Lower East Side, Chava, a female golem, meets Ahmad, a once-powerful jinni. Chava, who was created by a slightly sinister, failed rabbi to wed a man who died en route to America, now serves no master—not technically, anyway. But poor Chava feels compelled to help everyone whose fears or desires she senses: an impulse that can be a pleasure or a liability. And Ahmad has been trapped inside a metal vessel for centuries, imprisoned after a battle he doesn't remember.

    As Chava's jealous creator and Ahmad's captor catch up with them, Wecker's writing jumps between magic realism and fantasy, existential exploration and adventure.

    It's not quite your grandmother's immigration story. Or is it?

    - Leah Falk

    The Gospel According to Jesus’s Mom

    Liars Gospel
    The more familiar a story, the greater the challenge for a novelist. How do you convince readers to look out for more than they already know? Naomi Alderman's 3rd novel, The Liars' Gospel, takes on this challenge: in 4 richly interior, interwoven narratives, Alderman reimagines the effect of Jesus's—Yehoshuah's—life and teaching on his Jewish friends, family, and their Roman-ruled society.

    Rooted in primary texts—The Jewish War, the Talmud, and the Gospels themselves—the novel's dramatis personae isn't too surprising. We follow Mary (here known as Miryam), Judas (or Iehuda), and Caiaphas the High Priest of the Second Temple, all in the political aftermath of Yehoshuah's crucifixion. But we also hear from an anonymous Jewish rebel, Bar-Avo, who has a serendipitous encounter with Yehoshuah just before Yehoshuah is put to death.

    Admirable in its ability to bring a few ancient facts vividly to life, The Liars' Gospel also puts forth a theory of storytelling: that the most powerful stories start with a lie. "Do not believe that an impartial observer exists," Alderman warns, suggesting that the multiple "gospels" of her characters—each biased for their own reasons—are as close to the truth as this story is going to get.

    by Leah Falk for Jewniverse

    A Bus Accident in Israel, and Afterward

    Half-Life"After living with a disability for 22-plus years and trying in vain to write about it for almost as many, I've finally gotten my thoughts down on paper." So Joshua Prager introduces his new memoir Half-Life, which details the aftermath of a devastating bus accident that occurred on his visit to Israel at age 19.

    In the e-book Prager renders himself astonishingly vulnerable, in part by asking difficult questions: If I no longer feel like myself, am I still myself? And if I'm not, how do I interact with others?

    In finely crafted language ("a cement staircase lined with dirt and dead thistles depositing me at the edge") Prager shares piercing details, ruminations, and conclusions about his journey through grief into recovery. He offers, for example, his experience with Brown-Séquard Syndrome, "which roughly meant that one half of me could move better, the other half feel better."

    He fills the pages with selections of poetry and returns again and again to Herman Melville, whose words he uses to investigate not just what it has meant to cope with the immense loss of the life he knew, but what it means for anyone to understand and accept themselves.

    Watch Prager's TED Talk here.

    - Jessica Young 

    Spotlight on Emily Michelson

    Pulpit and the PressDr Emily Michelson is a transplant from the United States, and has previously lived in Italy, Jerusalem, Salt Lake City, Manhattan, and other parts of the US East Coast. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1995 in History and Literature of the Renaissance and Reformation. Despite vowing never to go to graduate school, and taking a few years off after university to pursue other interests, she returned to the field to earn a PhD from Yale in 2006 in History and Renaissance Studies.

    Emily is a cultural historian of the Reformation era, with a focus on Italy. She is especially interested in how religious change affects standards of behavior for individuals and for groups, and the tensions between external social norms and internal experience. Her recent book, The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation Italy (Harvard University Press, 2013), examines the role of Italian preachers during religious crisis and schism. The book credits preachers with keeping Italy Catholic when the region’s religious future seemed uncertain, and with creating a new religious culture that would survive in an unprecedented atmosphere of competition and religious choice. She is also the co-editor of A Linking of Heaven and Earth: Studies in Religious and Cultural History in Honor of Carlos M.N. Eire (Ashgate, 2012); among other topics, the book tackles head-on the question of how to study miracles in an age of skepticism. Emily currently runs a project, funded by the British Academy, studying how people heard (or misheard) sermons in the Reformation era, and whether audience behavior links to growing religious differences. From 2010-2012 she was interim director of the Reformation Studies Institute. 

    Emily’s new research examines the social and theological significance of Roman Jews in the Catholic Reformation. This project has brought her speaking engagements in Edinburgh, Tel Aviv, Rome, and Dublin. She will be spending the 2013-2014 academic year in Florence as the Robert Lehman Fellow at Villa I Tatti (the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies), where she plans to complete the bulk of the research for this project.

    Continue reading. 

    Letting It Go: A Post-Holocaust Delight

    Letting it GoThe world of Holocaust literature is filled with horrific stories of murder and gritty survival – think Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Art Spiegelman. Seldom does a book come along from a Holocaust survivor that can truly be called delightful.

    Letting It Go by Miriam Katin is that book.

    Katin, a New York artist born in Hungary during World War II, has created a graphic novel about moving past her anger toward Germany. On the surface, it's the true story of Katin's reaction to her son moving to Berlin – news that, at first, sends her into a tailspin.

    But Letting It Go is not a memoir of Holocaust sorrow. It's a book full of life – a colorful novel of pencil drawings portraying a million small moments that make up Katin's current life: An obsessive crusade against kitchen cockroaches; a cheer-me-up shopping spree for expensive sunglasses; an embarrassing case of diarrhea in a hotel bed; and, throughout, a touching, loving, supportive relationship with her husband.

    Katin emerges as an immensely likable, complex woman – a friend you'd enjoy meeting for a drink.

    - Marc Davis

    The Liars' Gospel

    Review by Ada Brunstein

    Liars Gospel"It is important to quiet the lamb, that is the first thing." So begins Naomi Alder­man's The Liars' Gospel, a fictional account of Jesus' life set against the backdrop of the Jews' struggles against Roman rule.

    Alderman gives us four points of view, or gospels, on the life of Yehoshuah (Jesus), focusing mainly on the time between his departure from home and his death. We hear from his mother, Miryam (Mary), who laments her son's departure and has trouble accepting him in his new role as a “teacher.”

    We hear from his follower, confidant, and later his betrayer, Iehuda (Judas), one of the most compelling characters in this story. It is through Iehuda's eyes that we see Yehoshuah evolve from a man who has gathered a few supporters through his messages of forgive­ness and healing, to a man who is leading a movement of thousands of followers. Through Iehuda we see how Yehoshuah loses his way gradually, in small missteps, veering incrementally farther away from the messages he started his teachings with and into a more self-serving role.

    We hear from the high priest, Caiaphas, whose life's work was to maintain the precari­ous balance between the desires of the Jews and the demands of the Romans.

    And finally we hear from a young Jewish rebel, Bar-Avo (Barabbas), in whose hands lies the fate of the Jewish people at the time.

    Continue reading the review and an interview with the author, Naomi Alderman.

    Ancient History: A Jew Among Romans

    A Jew Among RomansOn the long list of all-time greatest Jewish calamities, the destruction of the Second Temple is surely among the Top 10. We remember it every year on Tisha B'Av, and at every wedding when the groom smashes a glass. But how do we even know about this 2,000-year-old catastrophe?

    Mainly from the writings of one man: Flavius Josephus, a remarkable Roman-Jewish warrior-historian. Frederic Raphael's recently published A Jew Among Romans captures both the gory ancient war that led to the Temple's destruction and the life of the scribe himself.

    To be sure, the book is not an easy read. It's interspersed with dry patches and esoteric phrases like "mimetic opportunism" and "divine afflatus." But it is also filled with wry observations and unexpected humor. About Nero: "He was the first ruler for whom the X factor of showbiz trumped statesmanship or martial prizes." About Josephus: "Josephus entertained many ideas, and they entertained him."

    Ultimately, Raphael concludes that the Judean Jews had "no great principle at stake" in their rebellion, and that they "had only themselves to blame" for the Temple's destruction.

    Francesca Segal wins Sami Rohr Prize

    Francesca SegalNovelist Francesca Segal won the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature for her debut novel, "The Innocents."

    Segal will receive the Jewish Book Council's first prize award of $100,000. The novel is set in modern-day London, in a community living in the shadow of the Holocaust and the demands of tradition.

    "Segal's attention to details of Jewish traditions will deeply resonate with Jews of all communities," the judges said.

    The award ceremony will be held in New York on May 30.

    The runner-up was Ben Lerner for his novel "Leaving the Atocha Station." He will receive a $25,000 prize.

    Other finalists were Shani Boianju for “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid"; Stuart Nadler for “The Book of Life"; and Asaf Schurr for “Motti."

    The Rohr prize has been given annually since 2007 and considers works of fiction and non-fiction in alternating years. It honors the contribution of contemporary writers in exploring and transmitting Jewish values.

    Suddenly, a Knock on the Door

    Suddenly A KnockAn armed man forces his way into the house of a man named Etgar Keret. He orders Keret, "Tell me a story." But before Keret can rattle something off, there's a knock at the door. And then another. Suddenly, Keret has 3 armed men in his home, pistols aimed at him, and he can’t come up with a story that appeases any of them.

    This scene isn't just a glimpse into the strange and ingenious imagination of Israeli writer Etgar Keret; it's also the plot of the title story of Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, his latest collection.

    Like his prior short story collections—which are peppered with unusual characters overflowing with big hearts—Suddenly exemplifies the kind of idiosyncratic and magical fiction Keret is famous for. In "Hemorrhoid," a man's hemorrhoid replaces his conscience as the ethical center of his body. And in "Lieland," the protagonist finds himself in a mystical land in which all of the lies he has ever told come to life, and are played out before his very eyes. Sounds crazy, and it is. But that's just an ordinary day in Keret's world.

    Open with a Joke

    Socrates and the Fat RabbiIt's a common rule of public speaking: Tell a joke, and you loosen up the crowd. This idea isn't a recent one--it can actually be found in the Talmud.

    "Before he began his lesson to the scholars," says the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 30b), "Rabba used to say a joking word, and the scholars were amused. After that, he sat in dread, and began the lesson."

    According to Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin in his book, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, the joke isn't merely an attention-getter or an aperitif, something to make the serious lesson go down easier. Instead, Boyarin says, the two are equally necessary to teach any lesson. On one hand, laughter creates connection with another person, making it possible to communicate knowledge from one to another. On the other, there needs to be some yirah--usually translated as "fear" or "awe"--which refers to the respect, deference, and attention that students pay their teacher.

    We've all had teachers that we've feared, and teachers that we've loved. Perhaps what the Talmud (and Boyarin) is suggesting is the best teachers are those who, in measured doses, make us feel a bit of both.

    A Secret History of Yiddish

    YiddishkeitIf languages had personalities, then Yiddish would probably be gruff and sardonic, with several unexpected surprises up its sleeve--much like the admired comic book writer Harvey Pekar who died last year.

    One of Pekar's last projects was co-editing Yiddishkeit--a new, gorgeously illustrated cartoon history of the Yiddish language and its speakers. Though Pekar's books were nearly always personal memoirs, this collection is well-researched and authoritative.

    Some pieces are more straightforward histories, and some take liberties, both with art and story. Hundred-year-old Yiddish political cartoons are explained and placed side-by-side with tribute comics created especially for this volume. "Shrayber un Arbeter (Writers and Workers)" portrays the Yiddish newspaper in a Wizard of Oz-type theme--the world of the immigrant is depicted as a stark, black-and-white place, but the newspaper offers an escape, a color-soaked fantasia of Yiddish stories and jokes.

    Stories about the lives of luminaries such as Sholem Aleichem and Leon Kobrin are interspersed with more personal tales, such as Pekar's own recollections of reading I.J. Singer in a hospital room, conducting imaginary arguments with the author about the future of Judaism.

    The Wanting

    TThe Wantinghe long-awaited second novel from Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award recipient Michael Lavigne. Michael's new novel follows Roman Guttman, a Russian-born postmodern architect who is injured in a bus bombing, as he journeys into Palestinian territory. Roman's story alternates with the diary of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Anyusha, and is enriched by flashbacks of Anyusha's mother's life, a famous Russian refusenik who died for her beliefs.

    Jewish Book Club

    The National Jewish Book Awards host America’s most lucrative literary prize

    By Jessica Weisberg

    JewishBookAwardsThe winner of the Sami Rohr Literary Prize—which, at $100,000, is one of the most generous literary awards in the world—won’t be announced until April, but many of the finalists, along with some 150 writers, editors, and publishers, attended the National Jewish Book Awards, held last night at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Sitting for dinner at what people took to calling the “Rohr Kids Table,” writers, both nominated and not, gossiped nervously about the five finalists: Francesca Segal (The Innocents), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station), Stuart Nadler (The Book of Life), Shani Boianjiu (The People Forever Are Not Afraid), and Asaf Shurr (Motti). “If you don’t hear by 10 a.m., you didn’t get it,” said Allison Amend, a novelist and Rohr finalist in 2011, to Boianjiu, who was visiting New York from Israel.

    The Rohr Prize is intended for an emerging writer of Jewish literature—but the way the award defines “Jewish literature” is somewhat vague. “We look for books written with a Jewish pen and Jewish eyes, that have a kernel of Jewish content,” said Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council, which hosts the awards. “Strong feelings of Jewish identity now might change the writers’ focus in the future.” There are no submissions; finalists are nominated by a panel of judges. “Otherwise, I’d have to rent out the Empire State Building,” to house all the eager entries, Hessel said.

    All of the council’s other awards are submission-based and define Jewish literature in a more straightforward way, recognizing books about Jewish people and history; there are categories like “Education and Jewish Identity” and “Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice.” In 1992, when Hessel became director of the National Jewish Book Council, awards for books written in Hebrew and Yiddish were given on the basis of more traditional categories, such as “Children’s Picture Book,” and “Israel.”

    Continue reading.

    New haggadahs: Edgar Bronfman’s and an interactive version for kids

    Brongman HaggadahBOSTON (JTA) -- Francine Hermelin Levite and Edgar Bronfman have been using unique versions of the Passover Haggadah for years. Now both have decided to publish their versions of the Exodus story.

    Hermelin Levite, 43, the mother of three school-aged children, is the author of “My Haggadah: Made it Myself,” an interactive version for children of the ritual-laden book that is now available on Amazon.

    Bronfman, 84, the business giant and Jewish philanthropist, offers “The Bronfman Haggadah” (Rizzoli) illustrated by his wife, the artist Jan Aronson.

    Hermelin Levite's journey to publishing a Haggadah began about eight or nine years ago when she joined some unaffiliated young Jewish families living in lower Manhattan who were banding to create a Passover celebration. Growing up in Detroit, Hermelin Levite says she enjoyed lively and inspirational seders led by her father, who followed the traditional haggadah embellished by music he composed and other innovations. But she knew it was not a universal experience.

    Hermelin Levite, a one-time journalist, educational software developer and graphic designer, volunteered to compile the haggadah. She said it had to resonate with kids and families of multiple backgrounds.

    Made It MyselfShe also was motivated by the needs of her young son, who has severe food allergies to nuts, chicken and wheat.

    “He was allergic to the food of Passover,” she recalls thinking and vowed to create a seder in which he could participate.

    Hermelin Levite recognized that children communicate in various ways.

    “The book is designed to invite artistic expression ranging from simple stickers to more complex collage and discussion,” she said, adding that her husband, also a graphic designer, helped with the images.

    Over the years, her do-it-yourself, hands-on haggadah has become popular through word of mouth. Last year she decided to self publish and was amazed with the number of orders from far-flung locales such as Budapest and Hong Kong.

    This year, with a grant from Reboot, a nonprofit that supports innovative projects to engage young, unaffiliated Jews, Hermelin Levite is traveling across the country introducing the haggadah to new audiences. The spiral-bound haggadah will appeal to kids with all levels of knowledge of Jewish observance.

    To illustrate the passage of the four children -- the wise, wicked, simple and silent -- the haggadah offers four blank faces in which kids are asked to draw the personalities of guests at their seder. Blessings are written in Hebrew with English transliteration.

    In retelling the Exodus story, children are presented with an empty suitcase and asked to think about what they would take if they had to leave in a hurry. Hermelin Levite hopes the provocative questions spark conversation.

    She credits her Jewish education and a family that fostered a love of Jewish experience with the inspiration for creating the haggadah.

    “I used to think I was an accidental children's book author,” Hermelin Levite wrote to JTA in an email. “But given my upbringing, professional path and journey raising my kids, [writing the haggadah] seems to make the perfect sense.”

    Bronfman, too, has fond memories of his childhood seders as joyful gatherings of family, but says they were uninteresting, uninformative and rote. Over his lifetime, dissatisfied with the available haggadahs, he has cut and pasted passages from various versions to create more engaging seders in his own home. A few years ago he decided to create his own haggadah.

    “I wanted to get all the words right,” he said.

    The popularity of Passover offers a unique opportunity, he tells JTA.

    “We have a chance to teach young people what Judaism is about,” Bronfman said.

    Children's author Eric Kimmel, the author of “Wonders and Miracles,” a Passover companion filled with art that in 2004 won a National Jewish Book award, applauds that spirit.

    “If the traditional version doesn't work for you, come up with something else,” he advocates, with a nod to the tradition but also with a dose of disrespect, he adds with a laugh. “What's important is to follow the biblical injunction to tell your children the story of Passover.”

    “The Bronfman Haggadah” is written entirely in English -- Bronfman quips it's to appeal to most American Jews, who do not know Hebrew. The reading takes about an hour-and-a-half. Unlike the traditional haggadah, Bronfman includes Moses, who he holds as a role model of a leader who asks questions and disrupts the status quo. But all the characters of the Exodus, including God, are represented as metaphor and not historical facts, he writes.

    Welcoming Elijah the prophet earlier in the seder underscores the Jewish value of welcoming in strangers, Bronfman says.

    New words to the popular song "Dayenu" express gratitude for establishing a homeland in Israel. Bronfman ends the seder with a call for spiritual peace in Jerusalem among Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, and all warring peoples.

    Notably, Bronfman expands the narrative of the traditional haggadah to include the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. While the foundation of Jewish law is the theme of Shavuot, he acknowledges that most Jews are unaware of the holiday that follows Passover.

    “Freedom doesn't mean anything without the responsibility of law,” Bronfman tells JTA. “To be free is a privilege we too often take for granted.”

    Aronson, who has fond memories of Passover seders growing up in New Orleans, spent nearly a year working on the illustrations for the "Bronfman Haggadah," determined to avoid cliched images. To keep the images fresh -- and to entertain youngsters -- she changes up the artistic styles from one page to another -- some are realistic, others abstract or geometric -- and also varies the mood and colors. A biblical map of the Exodus depicts the possible routes traveled by the Israelites.

    For the Ten Plagues, Aronson draws a large singing insect that will capture the attention of children. Miriam's tambourine is vibrantly colored with long flowing ribbons that complement the joy described in the narrative as the Israelites escape bondage.

    Data: A Love Story

    dataAmy Webb, in-demand internet consultant and math whiz had experienced one too many disastrous JDates.

    After one particularly awful one—on which the guy started taking phone calls from his wife—Webb went home, settled down with a bottle of wine, and began creating order out of online dating chaos.

    First she created a series of male JDate profiles so she could scope out her competition. Then she gave her own profile a makeover so she appeared as easygoing and unintimidating (not to mention skin-bearing) as the top-ranking women. She found herself besieged with suitors.

    Webb refused to even consider going on a date with anyone who didn't pass a threshold qualifying score on her list of non-negotiables. And it turns out she was on to something; her next first date was her last one. Webb found love, settled down, and wrote the just-released book Data: A Love Story. In addition to some very practical tips for online dating, Data offers a quirky tale of self-actualization and romance, and some words of wisdom about putting your best face—or other body part—forward and refusing to compromise when it comes to love.

    Unterzakhn: The Graphic Novel

    unterzakhnIn the beginning, there was the Lower East Side – the place where it all began for hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews. Crowded, dirty, poor. Home to more hopes and tragedies than should ever be squeezed into two square miles.

    Author-artist Leela Corman perfectly captures the tumult and heartbreak of the neighborhood circa 1910 in her graphic novel Unterzakhn (Yiddish for "underthings"). It’s the story of twin sisters growing up in relentless poverty with an overbearing mother, and whose lives take dramatically different paths. Death stalks nearly every page – death by horse cart, by botched abortion, by Cossacks (in a flashback). If tragedy isn't your thing, you might not love this one – but if amazing illustrations are, you will.

    "Pictures are central," Corman said in an interview. "I'm a visual artist, not a novelist." The book is chock full of indelible images of a time long past: Laundry hanging on the clothesline between tenements. Packed-earth streets crowded with pushcarts. Salesmen hawking herring and apples. Newsboys shouting at passersby. Burlesque girls and whorehouse madams.

    We’ve seen the Lower East Side in movies, but seldom in such gritty detail, in a setting that will resonate with every American who traces their lineage through the Lower East Side.

    Breaking and Entering

    Breaking and EnteringThe year is 1994 and psychologist Richard Shapiro has accidentally burned down a California state forest. Weeks earlier, his young patient had committed suicide, and the blazing forest hastens Richard's slide toward mental breakdown. He and his wife Louise, an exasperated school guidance counselor, decide to start their and their daughter's lives anew in small-town Michigan. They look forward to a life of simplicity: the cornfields, the friendly neighbors, the Victorian house they renovate for a song. And those are just the opening pages of Breaking and Entering, Eileen Pollack's utterly absorbing, juicy, and timely new novel.

    But the Shapiros' hopes for idyll quickly fade: Richard starts joining a Michigan Militia member for target practice even though the friend believes Richard will go to hell for being a Jew; Louise falls for a Unitarian minister who seems to offer everything Richard lacks; and 6-year-old Molly runs away from home without anyone noticing. Meanwhile, Louise's liberal politics threaten her employment prospects and Molly finds graphic anti-choice propaganda strewn across their front lawn. When the Oklahoma City bombing happens and Richard and his militia friends find themselves on the defensive we see just how enmeshed the Shapiros have become in America's cultural and political battles, and just how high the stakes really are.

    Sydney Taylor Blog Tour February 11-15


    2013 Blog Tour

    The Sydney Taylor Book Award will be celebrating and showcasing its 2013 gold and silver medalists and a few selected Notables with a Blog Tour, February 11-15, 2013! Interviews with winning authors and illustrators will appear on a wide variety of Jewish and kidlit blogs. For those of you who have not yet experienced a Blog Tour, it’s basically a virtual book tour. Instead of going to a library or bookstore to see an author or illustrator speak, you go to a website on or after the advertised date to read an author’s or illustrator’s interview.

    Below is the schedule for the 2013 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments!


    MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2013

    Ann Redisch Stampler, author of The Wooden Sword
    Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older ReadersCategory
    At Shelf-Employed

    Carol Liddiment, illustrator of The Wooden Sword
    Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older ReadersCategory
    At Ann Koffsky’s Blog

    Continue reading.

    A Priest and a Rabbi Walk Into a Book

    Sacred ApplesIsaac Frankel’s recently-released first novel, Sacred Apples, fascinatingly explores the intersection of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—both in Jerusalem, where the plot unfolds, and beyond. With some lines taken directly from the Bible and the Talmud, and the rest matching their high, formal tone, the novel's language evokes Jerusalem's religious atmosphere and heritage. The story follows a young Catholic priest, Father Joseph, and, through his friendships and acquaintances, a religiously diverse cast of characters.

    One of the most poignant of these relationships is between Father Joseph and a Haredi rabbi living in the orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim. The two pursue a friendship (despite their communities' harsh disapproval), and it is ultimately their trust and faith in people, regardless of religious background, that brings about a somewhat miraculous turn of events that saves Father Joseph's life.

    Frankel, himself an observant Jew who regularly visits a monastery in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, creates characters whose complex relationships with each other illustrate the value of being open to the wisdom of religious traditions other than one's own.

    The Loopy Truths of Jewish Signatures

    SignaturesBy now you've probably heard: Jack Lew, President Obama’s nominee for Treasury secretary, signs his name like your Uncle Saul after too much Manischewitz. And now his sloppy John Hancock may get scribbled across our $10s and $20s for years to come.

    Though Lew is the one currently in the spotlight, he isn't the only Jew who writes like a kindergartner.

    Have you seen Adam Sandler's comedic autograph? How about Mark Spitz's waterlogged scribble? Or Henry Kissinger's, which is a diplomatic crisis in the making? Luckily, we have Dr. Robert Yaronne's The Genius of Jewish Celebrities: What Their Handwriting Reveals to tell us what all this scribbling means.

    "We all possess secrets – strengths as well as weaknesses – which carve their influence into our subconscious, essentially controlling our behavior, and this is revealed in handwriting," Yaronne writes.

    Among his findings: Bette Midler’s open "B" indicates a very talkative personality. Ben Stiller’s "N" indicates a self-deprecating character. And Goldie Hawn's illegible signature suggests she's hiding her true identity. Hiding or not, if autograph were any indication, she may have what it takes to be the Secretary of the Treasury, too.

    The Plot Against America

    PlotPolitical zealots had a field day during the recent presidential election. Right-wingers painted Obama as a Kenyan communist. Leftists painted Romney as a plutocrat who would steal bread from babies.

    A new low? Not really. Fear-mongering has a long, nasty history in American politics, and Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America has never seemed more relevant. The novel explores this unfortunate American tradition through the eyes of a nerdy Jewish boy in Newark, N.J. named Philip Roth. The novel asks: What if aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who became a prominent—and anti-Semitic voice—of American isolationism in the 1930s, had won the 1940 presidency?

    You might have guessed: It turns out badly for the Jews. Anti-Semitism sweeps the country. The Roth family disintegrates. The Jewish neighborhood is decimated. The novel climaxes with a conspiracy that invokes Amelia Earhart, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, all at once. In a 2009 TV interview, Roth said he never intended The Plot Against America as a cautionary tale, but acknowledged it struck a nerve among many Americans. "The atmosphere of fear…touches something that’s alive in their experience," Roth said. And as November’s election illustrated, the same seems true today.

    Persian Literature, in Hebrew

    Orly NoyWhen Orly Noy did a Hebrew-language Google search for "Persian literature" Google asked her: "Do you mean Russian literature?" Amazingly, not a single Persian novel had ever been translated into Hebrew.

    Noy, whose family left Iran for Israel shortly after the Islamic Revolution, when she was 9 years old, was already an accomplished translator when she decided to translate two novels from the language of her childhood to the language of her adopted country. The first, Iraj Pezeshkzad's My Uncle Napoleon (1973), is a popular comic Iranian novel set during the 1940s, and the second, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's The Colonel, was deemed subversive by Iranian authorities and was published in German translation in 2009 instead.

    For most translators, selecting a work is the easy part. Not so for Noy, who tasked herself with a historic burden: "You're talking about 6,000 years of culture and civilization, and not a single translation," she said in an interview.

    The Hebrew translations that result are major feats of not just literary and cultural merit, but of political value as well. It was a challenge, Noy says, "to get the Israeli reader to see how much [Iranians and Israelis] actually have in common, what happens when great ideologies and great thoughts and hopes and revolutions become violent and lose their humanity." Through this literature, Noy is aiming to undercut ideology—in both her native and adoptive countries— and restore what humanity has been lost.

    Treasure Hunt in Prague

    Blood and ShadowIn the late 1500s, Prague was a cultural hotspot. The reigning monarch of the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Rudolf II, was a patron of the arts and humanities, including scholars, sculptors, and mystics.

    Rudolf also had a close relationship with the Jews of the region. Rabbi Judah Loew, the reputed creator of the Golem, was a guest at the Emperor’s castle--and, according to some historical accounts, Loew taught the Emperor about kabbalah and other Jewish mystical ideas.

    The new novel The Book of Blood and Shadow, by Robin Wasserman, starts in the present day--but it doesn't remain there for long. A group of friends have been working on a college project, translating a series of letters from the 1500s. Soon, their work attracts the attention of a secret society, and the friends find themselves traveling to Prague, retracing the footsteps of Rudolf's inner circle of artists. This leads the students right to Rabbi Loew's old haunts, the Old-New Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

    It's thrilling to read as the friends find themselves trapped in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, following clues they find tucked inside a centuries-old mezuzah. The story's climax is like all the good parts of The Da Vinci Code layered together, but without the extended history lessons, and with some cool winks to those of us who know about Judaism. It's half historical mystery, half thriller…and wholly amazing.

    Telegraph Avenue

    Telegraph Ave

    Critics have been speculating for years about who will pen the next Great American Jewish Novel. All signs pointed to Michael Chabon when his 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union conceived of an alternate history in which a Jewish homeland was established in Alaska instead of Israel. But Chabon’s latest release is sending critics and Jewish-literature soothsayers back to their laptops and crystal balls.

    Chabon’s new novel, Telegraph Avenue, is markedly not so Jewish. The novel tells the story of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl store in 2004 Berkeley, CA. It explores the friendship of the shop’s two co-owners, as well as the lives and dynamics of their families.

    Instead of defining the basic idea of the novel as in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the Jewishness of Telegraph Avenue, Chabon says, is "not an overt theme of the book." We see it, rather, in the way the characters live their lives: in the tensions between the black and Jewish families at the center of the story and, as Chabon said in one interview, in "the thread of Jewish involvement both in the production and distribution of [black popular] music." But, the author insists: "The book is not about that… It’s about two guys who own a record store."

    Meet the Middlesteins

    MiddlesteinsIn Jami Attenberg's new novel The Middlesteins, the relationships between members of one suburban Chicago family are riddled with emotional landmines that all seem to link back to one woman: matriarch Edie Middlestein, sixty-something and morbidly obese. The novel centers around the family’s relationships with Edie, her food addiction, and the spiraling health problems which are now threatening her life.

    The character of Edie is an unusual protagonist in contemporary American literature: a woman whose health struggles are front and center, whose physical being, in all its inelegant detail, is depicted viscerally on the page. This in itself makes The Middlesteins a notable new fall read, but the ensuing family mishugas makes it a juicy character drama as well.

    The action begins with Edie’s husband, Richard, leaving her, protesting that he "couldn't watch her kill herself anymore." Now Richard cruises the internet for Chicago’s middle-aged Jewish widows and divorcees while negotiating the new, painful tension between himself and his grown children, who want little to do with him.

    One of those children, the ever-brooding Robin, falls into a romantic relationship seemingly against her own will, and the other, Benny, starts balding under the stress of planning his twins' b'nai mitzvah of the century with his high-strung wife. It’s a tumultuous series of events complete with a blowout b’nai mitzvah party. Mazel tov!

    So You Want to Dress Up As Santa?!

    Kosher Christmas

    By: Joshua Eli Plaut

    So you want to dress up as Santa?!!! This is not as unusual as it might seem! I have covered this phenomenon in my recent book A Kosher Christmas; ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and other published articles. Interestingly, it is still a noteworthy occurrence as occasional reports of Jewish Santas still appear in the press. The phenomena of a Jewish Santa is still alive and kicking!

    In a New York Times article (November 18, 2012) titled “Skinny Santa Who Fights Fires,” journalist Corey Kilgannon writes about Jonas Cohen, a member of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps. Jonas has played Santa for his department for over thirty years!

    Also, take note of a fabulous short story by Nathan Englander, included in his debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Alfred Knopf, 1999). Englander recounts the story of Reb Kringle, an Orthodox rabbi, who, despite inner turmoil, plays Santa Claus in a department store for forty years. Reb Kringle’s motivation is purely economic. All starts to unravel when a young boy tells Santa that his new stepfather is imposing the celebration of Christmas on the household and then asks Santa for a menorah and to celebrate Hanukkah.

    Lastly, comedian Alan King described his encounter with a Yiddish speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justified the ho-ho-ho by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn—it’s a living.”

    The underpinnings for playing Santa Claus are myriad. Whether to enhance neighbors’ holiday Christmas celebration by promoting good neighborly relations between Jews and Christians, or whether from a yearning to be a participant in the good cheer of the Christmas holiday or whether purely for economic gain, Jews are enacting Jewish values that are syncretized with the Christmas message of bringing joy to the world.

    The Best Kids’ Books of 2012

    It was the best of publishing years; it was the worst of publishing years. OK, mostly it was the worst. But it was a remarkably good year for books aimed at the 8- to 14-year-old crowd. I can’t remember another year with such a diverse, well-written, and fascinating crop of books with Jewish themes.

    Here’s a list of the best of the lot, just in time for Hanukkah, so you can find the perfect selection for the kids in your life. Because you know what the best gift is for a little Person of the Book? A book!


    As usual this year, I thought most of the picture books were pretty meh. Why are so many Jewish picture books so didactic? Why do they feature tooth-achingly cutesy or smeary-sappy pastel art? Why are the texts so leaden, the rhyme schemes so awkward? Don’t ask why. Just celebrate and buy the few good ones.

    How Do dinosaurs....How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?, by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague. The holiday season can make wee Jews feel like the odd kid out. So, it’s nice to be able to give them a book from a series familiar to the majority culture but aimed specifically at Jewish audiences. Most will already know the gazillion-selling “How Do Dinosaurs” series by Yolen and Teague. In this installment, naughty dinosaurs model bad Hanukkah behavior (a Dracorex dances around maniacally, sticking out its tongue as the text tsk-tsks, “Does a dinosaur act up/on Chanukah nights/when Mama comes in/with the holiday lights?”). Good dinos, of course, sing along with the prayers, take turns with the dreidel, clear the table, and are gracious to Bubbe and Zayde. Charming, oversized, beautifully published. Teague’s illustrations are funny, and your kid will learn new scientific dino names (written in tiny letters alongside each creature) along with good manners. What more do you want? (Ages 2-7)Jean Lafitte

    Jean Laffite: The Pirate Who Saved America, by by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Jeff Himmelman. How the hell did I not know the pirate was a Jew? Lafitte led a double life as a dashing privateer on the high seas and a handsome, respected Jewish citizen of Louisiana. He grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the late 1700s, then saved New Orleans during the War of 1812 by foiling a British plot to invade the city. In an author’s note, Rubin explains that after the Spanish expulsion of 1492, many Jews hated Spain and were happy to hire themselves out to plunder Spanish ships. (One pirate-rabbi even had a kosher chef aboard his vessel!) I loved learning about this swashbuckling Hebrew and appreciated Rubin’s thoughtful afterword about Jewish piracy and Lafitte’s ambivalence toward slavery. The book is utterly compelling even though the stately, slightly stilted illustrations (done with Photoshop and paint) are not my thing. (Ages 6-10)

    A Hen For IzzyA Hen for Izzy Pippik, by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Marie LaFrance. A new book by the author of Bagels From Benny should make all Jewish parents sit up and take notice. This one is based on both Jewish and Islamic folktales. A little girl finds a gorgeous chicken, whose emerald green feathers have golden speckles. She knows it belongs to the absent Izzy Pippik and protects it and its ever-growing band of babies from the irked and greedy denizens of her village. The faux-naif, scratchboard-esque art is fun, with chicks running crazily all over the place. Spoiler alert: The little girl’s menschiness is rewarded, and the village lives happily ever after. (Ages 4-8)

    Continue reading.

    Arise! Arise!

    Illustration from AriseI’ve adored illuminated manuscripts all my life — as a child and teenager, these were the postcards I’d take home from museum trips. I’ve done hundreds of ketubot and this is my third book project published in 7 years, and as absorbing as each of these projects has been, Arise! Arise! has the deepest claim on me.

    Arise! Arise! is a memorial to my late husband, David, who passed away in March 2009 after a long struggle with a unique spinal cord cancer. A couple of afternoons before he died, my father-in-law, Arnold Band, a renowned scholar of Hebrew literature, and I were sitting and talking quietly beside David’s bed in our family room, which had now morphed into a home hospice. “So, you know what your next project is going to be?” he asked. I rolled my eyes and said something like, “I know you’re going to tell me.” He knew perfectly well that I’d been working on Esther insofar as the illness allowed. “Yes,” he said, “your next project is going to be “Shirat Devorah and do you know why? Because you are the Devorah.” The real reason, however, the one that neither of us could yet bring ourselves to say, was that this would be a memorial to the son and husband we were about to lose.

    Why Shirat Devorah? This two-part tale from Judges —a prose narrative and the much older epic poem, one of the oldest chunks of the Tanakh— had been David’s bar mitzvah haftarah, and he really loved its blood and guts war story. Indeed, the previous night I’d asked our younger son, Gabi, to chant the haftarah for his Abba so that he could hear it one more time. So, Deborah intrigued me, but two aspects of the project presented a puzzle. Solving those puzzles, however, gave me something from “my own life” to focus on, a sense of future against the backdrop of the bitter absurdity and disaster of my husband’s loss.

    Continue reading.

    Debra Band's most recent book, Arise! Arise! Deborah, Ruth and Hannah, is now available. Her work in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts draws upon her love of both the manuscript arts, and Jewish tradition and learning.

    Herman Wouk’s ‘The Lawgiver’ Marks Return to Form

     At 97, a Writer Remembers the Past

    What kind of author writes himself into his own novel? One with a great deal of hubris, it would seem. But if that writer is a 97-year-old Pulitzer Prize writer, with over 60 years of best-selling books behind him, we might judge him more sympathetically. His story, after all, amounts to literary history. And in the case of Herman Wouk, it is a highly unusual history.

    Herman WoukWouk’s life work presents some unusual literary statistics. How many writers have the opportunity to update one of their best-selling novels, 55 years after its original publication? How many have contributed to American literature on the scale of Herman Wouk? Approaching his centenary, Mr. Wouk has been writing for the majority of that time, showing considerable range in style and subject. A strong candidate for the “most widely-read American Jewish novelist,” Wouk won a Pulitzer for “The Caine Mutiny,” appeared on the cover of Time. His books, including “Marjorie Morningstar,” “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” have been made into movies, Broadway plays and television miniseries.

    Highlights of Wouk’s past books are on display in his latest novel, “The Lawgiver.” The story follows the making of a movie about the biblical figure, Moses — a topic that the character of “Herman Wouk” just happens to be trying to tackle in a novel. Although it is a fine place for Wouk beginners to start, “The Lawgiver” offers a trip down memory lane for those familiar with his oeuvre. In particular, Wouk looks back to his 1955 “Marjorie Morningstar.”

    “Marjorie,” a novel with a long gestation period, caused Wouk much anxiety, coming as it did after the Pulitzer prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny.” In 1952, Wouk wrote in his journal (portions of which are now housed at Columbia University’s Manuscripts and Archives): “At the moment I’m all muscle bound — rusty, aware of the Mutiny, vague, unsure of where or how to get going. But all this will pass and the cork will come out of the bottle, and Marjorie will let live. She does live. She asks only ink and paper and some honest sitting at the desk.” 

    Continue reading. 

    Books for Children This Hanukkah

    Looking for some great Jewish books for children this Hanukkah?  Look no further than Jvillage's Pinterest page.  A whole slew of Jewish books, Hanukkah and non-Hanukkah themed, for your child's reading pleasure.


    Dream of Scipio

    ScipioWhen you think of Provence you probably think of the region’s famous French scenery and wine. But when novelist Iain Pears thinks of Provence he thinks of its deep—and often dark—history.

    His 2002 novel The Dream of Scipio weaves together three Provencal stories. One concerns a Gallic aristocrat obsessed with preserving Roman civilization in the midst of its fall. The next concerns a medieval poet involved in the Papal Court at Avignon during the Black Death. And the third, set during World War II, features a French scholar deciding whether to cooperate with the Vichy government. Linking these three men is their obsession with "The Dream of Scipio," a classical text that poses philosophical questions as pertinent in the Middle Ages as they are today.

    Though The Dream of Scipio does not seem primarily concerned with Jewish matters, Pears illustrates how anti-Semitism and Jewish scapegoating have, throughout history, been employed to solidify communities threatened by barbarian invasions, the Black Death, and economic decline. In each section, we, along with Pears's characters, wonder at how often Jews become cast as a threat.

    With Hanukkah around the corner, The Dream of Scipio could be a perfect gift for a history buff, a philosophy student, or anyone who loves a gripping read.

    One Book, Two Holocaust Novels

    TThe_Canvashe next great Jewish novel is coming from the heart of Germany.

    The Canvas by Berlin-born Benjamin Stein, is a mystery novel with an innovative form. It's actually two books in one: Start from one side, read your way through, then flip the book over and find a separate novel waiting for you on the other. The Canvas features two distinct stories that are tied together through some common characters and the same mysterious, final event.

    Amnon is a young ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student in Israel. One day, he discovers a locked cabinet in his parents' house containing secular books. Shortly later, when a rabbi at school catches him with an Oscar Wilde novel tucked inside his Talmud, he is sent away to Switzerland, where he meets an elderly man with a riveting Holocaust history. He convinces the man to write a book.

    On the novel’s flip-side is Jan Wechsler, father of two. He lives in Munich, where he's a recently-Orthodox baal teshuva and a member of the city's small Jewish community. One day, a suitcase arrives at his house bearing his name containing books that he's apparently written, though he has no recollection of writing them. Through these books Wechsler discovers that he had once investigated a fake Holocaust memoir by an elderly Swiss man.

    The way these two storylines--and three characters--spiral together is perplexing, but seductive. Not just an ingenious riddle, The Canvas is a tantalizing, innovative, and psychologically complex story.

    Jewish Spies and Arab Wives

    Jewish Spies In movies and TV, intelligence operations are often portrayed as glamorously dangerous human chess matches with a series of sexual entanglements and ingenious double crosses. The operatives are master manipulators, forming intimate relationships they must cast off at mission’s end.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover just how closely these storylines reflect reality.

    A new book by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Spies Against Armaggedon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, tells the history of Israel’s intelligence establishment, whose main (known) arms are the Shin Bet (domestic intelligence), the Mossad (foreign intelligence), and Aman (military intelligence).

    One of the book’s most vividly described operations launched in 1952. A Shin Bet unit of Iraqi Jews infiltrated Arab villages to monitor the population as a potential "fifth column" that might join with Israel’s enemies in case of war. The spies lived in these villages and most of them married local women and had children. As time passed, the intelligence provided by the men "proved to be almost worthless," according to Melman and Raviv, but the emotional toll suffered by agents and their families was profound.

    The unit was disbanded in 1959, and the spies’ wives, who faced particular hardship, were given the choice of being relocated to an Arab country or resettling with their husbands in Jewish communities in Israel. Almost all chose to stay with their husbands. Decades later, the project’s commander is still haunted by the social and psychological trauma the operation had on the children of these marriages.

    The Secrets of Arab Men

    Secrets of Arab MenSayed Kashua has made a career out of being an anomaly: A Hebrew-speaking Muslim Israeli Arab. As a writer, he pens a weekly column for Ha'aretz, a major Israeli newspaper, and he writes the hilarious sitcom Arab Labor for Israeli TV.

    His new novel, Second Person Singular, is about being Arab in a majority-Jewish country, and it's also about being a man, and a husband, and a father. In the set-up, an Arab lawyer from Jerusalem--we never learn his name--finds a love letter inside a secondhand book, written in his wife's handwriting. It's addressed to someone named Yonatan--a Jewish name. Consumed with jealousy, the lawyer attempts to track down the letter's original recipient, a quest which takes him across the country--ending in a poor Arab village, just like the one where he grew up.

    Most of the book takes place inside the lawyer's head, but it's about very real conflicts--with the lawyer's wife, who was the first woman he ever dated (and whom he still doesn't know very well), and with Israeli Jews, whose upward mobility he identifies with, but whose social and sexual mores threaten him.

    Second Person Singular is a startling novel about a culture in Israel that's all but invisible. As the lawyer becomes consumed by tracking down Yonatan, the pressure builds to a crescendo in his head--showing us the very real insanity caused by clashes of both relationships and cultures.

    Are You a Member of the Scribe? You Can Become One

    Members of the ScribeABOUT MEMBERS OF THE SCRIBE

    The latest in Jewish literature, culled from all ages and all genres. Members of the Scribe is a collaboration between MyJewishLearning and Jewish Book Council, a blog written by the authors of some of today's best new books. Each week, we'll have a different author helming the blog and writing about their book, their Judaism, their own favorite authors, and whatever inspired madness they choose to bring.


    By: Stefanie Pervos Bregman 

     As a Jewish blogger and editor, I always say that the period leading up to Jewish Book Month is one of my favorite times of the year. So many books come across my desk for review—I only wish I had the time to read them all. Each author, each new book, is not just a potential article for my magazine or blog post. To me, every author—whether they write fiction or non-fiction— is a storyteller, adding their own piece to our collective Jewish story.

    living jewishlyThis year the tables have turned, and I’m the one hoping and wishing that Jewish editors and writers will choose my book from among the great pile for review—the thought makes me feel proud, humble and frightened all at once.

    In putting together my new anthology, Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, I hoped to be a storyteller as well. In the Jewish world, engaging 20- and 30-somethings is a hot button issue—questions like ‘How do we get young Jews to feel connected to Israel? To affiliate with traditional Jewish institutions? To care about Jewish continuity, ritual and tradition?’ float around waiting to be answered.

    Continue reading.

    The Jewish Don Quixote

    MendeleMiguel Cervantes' Don Quixote is considered one of the greatest books of all time. So it's no surprise that the epic is subject to plenty of parodies and spoofs, including a Jewish version, written by one of the founders of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Shalom Yakov Abramowich, commonly known by the name of his most famous character, Mendele the Book Peddler.

    In Abramowich’s novella The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third, we're told the story of two "fools" from a poor Jewish town who get the travel bug in a major way—yearning  to find the Jewish kingdom that they have read about in the legends of the Ten Lost Tribes.

    But like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Benjamin and his crony Sendrel don't make it very far. In fact, they barely make it past their own town limits before falling into hijinx after hijinx.

    The title of the book itself refers to a well-known travelogue by the medieval Spanish-Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, making Benjamin the Third a book steeped in the influence of other texts. 

    Books for Sukkot and Simchat Torah has a treasure trove of children't books for Sukkot and Simchat Torah.  Here are a few for your child's enjoyment:

     sammy spider simchat torah hillel Engineer Ari Bubbe Isabella Torah_Our_Treasure

    High Holiday Books for You and the Kids

    RH Readings

    Drawn from a variety of sources—ancient, medieval, modern, Jewish and non-Jewish—this selection of readings, prayers and insights explores the opportunities for inspiration and reflection inherent in the subjects addressed on the Jewish New Year: sin, repentance, personal and social change, societal justice, forgiveness, spiritual growth, living with joy and hope, commitment to high ideals, becoming our truest and most authentic selves, deepening our capacity to love and savoring the divine gift of life. 

    YK ReadingsAs Rosh Hashanah ends and you look ahead to Yom Kippur, what do you think about? The familiar melody of Kol Nidre? The long hours of fasting? The days of self-examination? You know that the Day of Atonement is the holiest on the Jewish calendar, but sometimes it just feels long, tiresome and devoid of personal meaning. The readings in this book are for anyone seeking a deeper level of personal reflection and spiritual intimacy—and a clearer understanding of just what makes Yom Kippur so holy.

    In this candid and comprehensive probe into the nature of moral transgression and spiritual healing, Dr. Louis E. Newman examines both the practical and philosophical dimensions of teshuvah, Judaism’s core religious-moral teaching on repentance, and its value for us—Jews and non-Jews alike—today. He exposes the inner logic of teshuvah as well as the beliefs about God and humankind that make it possible. He also charts the path of teshuvah, revealing to us how we can free ourselves from the burden of our own transgressions. 

    Some other books to check out:

    Every Person’s Guide to the High Holy Days” by Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs
    Who by Fire, Who By Water; Un’taneh Tokef,” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman
    A Faithful Heart: Preparing for the High Holidays by Benjamin Levy, Foreword by Rabbi Norman Cohen

    Some of our favorites for the kids:

    worlds bdayhardest wordsound the shofarSammyApples and Honey book

    Like Father, Like Son, the Sendak Men Collaborate, Sort of

    In Grandpas house In Grandpa's House

    Maurice Sendak illustrated over a hundred books, both his own stories and those written by others. The illustrated book In Grandpa's House might be his most personal illustration project--the author of the text is Philip Sendak, Maurice's father.

    Written in 1970, the year before Philip Sendak’s death--and just after the death of Philip's wife Sarah--the short book is a simple, lyrical story (with illustrations, it's a mere 40 pages). It starts out as an autobiography about Philip's boyhood in a Polish shtetl. Then, in the middle, it abruptly becomes a magical story about a boy named David whose grandfather dies and whose parents disappear. To find them, he must go on a search through a demented fairy-tale world filled with talking animals, miniature people, and giants.

    If one were to name the source for Maurice Sendak's own preoccupation with death, kidnapping, and the macabre, this book might be it. (Remember some of the books authored by the younger Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are, in which Max runs away from his parents to a land where monsters rampage all night, and Outside Over There, in which Ida's baby sister is stolen by goblins.) But unlike many of Maurice’s scary stories, Phillip's gives us a satisfying resolution and a happy ending.


    Ten Books You Should Read This Summer

    By Jordana Horn 

    ten_booksMy husband Jon has frequently commented that my cooking might taste better if I did not regularly read novels while I cook. I tell him that this is a charming detail about me that will elicit loving laughter when he mentions it during his eulogy at my funeral. He finds this annoying, for whatever reason. He then says something like, “A smoke alarm should not be what makes you put down the book,” or that normal people do not have books in the drawers under the stove. Well, I never said I was normal, hon.

    Here are some recommendations for those few-and-far-between moments you might snatch for yourself this summer. This list is both newer books and older ones, paperbacks and hardcovers, fiction and non, spanning various levels of intellectual rigor–though you will note that a certain bondage fantasy has conspicuously been left off the list!

    Please feel free to add suggestions (along with a little topical blurb) in the comments. A friend of mine mentioned she was going on a no-television-summer…and now that Mad Men and Game of Thrones are over, I may join her. Kveller book club, anyone?

    Continue reading. 

    Jewish Wild West Women

     Looking for interesting reading this summer?  Two biographies of Jewish women make for a fascinating read.  Read the stories of Rachel Bella Kahn and Rebecca Cohen Mayer to see what tough stock from which these women were made.

    RachelIn 1894, eighteen-year-old Rachel Bella Kahn travelled from Russia to the United States for an arranged marriage to Abraham Calof, an immigrant homesteader in North Dakota. Rachel Calof's Story combines her memoir of a hard pioneering life on the prairie with scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background and show her narrative to be both unique and a representative western tale. Her narrative is riveting and candid, laced with humor and irony.

    The memoir, written by Rachel Bella Calof in 1936, recounts aspects of her childhood and teenage years in a Jewish community, (shtetl) in Russia, but focuses largely on her life between 1894 and 1904, when she and her husband carved out a life as homesteaders. She recalls her horror at the hardships of pioneer life—especially the crowding of many family members into the 12 x 14' dirt-floored shanties that were their first dewllings. "Of all the privations I knew as a homesteader," says Calof, "the lack of privacy was the hardest to bear." Money, food, and fuel were scarce, and during bitter winters, three Calof households—Abraham and Rachel with their growing children, along with his parents and a brother's family—would pool resources and live together (with livestock) in one shanty.

    Continue reading.


    Rebecca Cohen Mayer was born to German-Jewish immigrants in 1837 and raised in Mexico and Texas. When she was 15 years old, she married a man twice her age and set off on the Santa Fe Trail. In a company of over 50 explorers, she was the only woman.

    The new book With a Doll in One Pocket and a Pistol in the Other is a retelling of her life. Historian Kay Goldman came upon Mayer's diary, written in the style of a memoir, and Goldman used it to reconstruct Mayer’s story and family history.

    Curiously, Mayer's diary opens not with her own birth, but with her husband's, in Ober Ingelheim, Germany. Mayer can be forgiven for romanticizing, if only because her style is so colorful and energetic:

    "In the quiet little town where Henry Mayer was born, very few exciting things ever happened. However, when Henry was seventeen he visited an aunt who lived some distance away. While there he heard a great deal about America, the land of adventure, where all men were equal and even a poor man could amass a fortune. Best of all there were Indians there to conquer."

    Unlike Rachel Calof, a frontier mail-order bride who kept a diary, Mayer was born in America, and embarked on the wagon train of her own free will. As the story attests, she also has a much more daring spirit: Meeting Indians, exploring on her own (on foot and on horseback) when the wagons are camped, and managing the sometimes-less-than-competent menfolk.

    Best Bathroom Reading


    Bathroom reader

    According to Jewish law, it's inadvisable to read holy materials, or even mention God's name, in a bathroom.

    On the other hand, there's a classic rabbinical admonition never to waste a second. According to one apocryphal story, the famed 18th-century Rabbi Elijah of Vilna reconciled these competing values by writing his book of mathematical philosophy, Ail Meshulash, while on the can.

    In the same vein, for the past twelve years, Time Out New York music writer Jay Ruttenberg has written and compiled a magazine, The Lowbrow Reader, that's billed as "bathroom reading for intellectuals." Highlights from quarterly magazine were recently collected in the just-released bookThe Lowbrow Reader Reader.

    The Lowbrow Reader Reader
     isn't all Jewish stories, but many are, including a piece on the comedic genius of Adam Sandler, the story of an uncomfortable date with Jackie Mason ("Dinner with Jackie is like falling into an Old World Jewish fortune cookie....Imagine unspooling a Dead Sea Scroll of Yiddish-inflected commentary from the inner helix of a rugelach"), and biblical-minded cartoons by David Berman, the singer for the band Silver Jews. It's not officially a Jewish publication, but, written mainly by Jews, featuring Jews, and with a distinctly Jewish sense of humor, it might as well be.

    Summer's Coming. How Many of These Jewish Books Have You Read?

    Jewish Books: 18 Essential Texts Every Jew Should Read

    Jews are known as the "People of the Book" for good reason. The Torah, otherwise known as the Hebrew Bible, has inspired debate and sparked imaginations for thousands of years, and the Talmud is itself an imaginative compendium of Jewish legal debate. Throughout the centuries, reflections and commentaries on these texts have continually expanded and transformed the way Jews understand their religion, their history and the possibilities of their future.

    HeschelGiven how much has been written by Jews, for Jews on the subject of Judaism, we thought it would be good to get guidance on where those looking for quintessential Jewish knowledge and wisdom should start. We asked some of our Jewish bloggers to submit their top picks for books that every Jew should read. From the good Five Books and the wisdom of the Sages to mystical musings and a feminist Jewish treatise, this list spans the ages and tastes of Jewish thought. But it is by no means comprehensive. That's one debate we don't wish to ignite.

    What's your favorite Jewish book? Send your suggestions to

    The Book of Ruth

     Excerpted with permission from Every Person's Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

    In traditional settings, the Book of Ruth is read on the second day of Shavuot. The book is about a Moabite woman who, after her husband dies, follows her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, into the RuthJewish people with the famous words "whither you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God." She asserts the right of the poor to glean the leftovers of the barley harvest, breaks the normal rules of behavior to confront her kinsman Boaz, is redeemed by him for marriage, and becomes the ancestor of King David.

    The custom of doing this is already mentioned in the talmudic tractate of Soferim (14:16), and the fact that the first chapter of the Midrash of Ruth deals with the giving of the Torah is evidence that this custom was already well established by the time this Midrash was compiled. [Tractate Soferim is one of the latest books of the Talmud, probably dating no earlier than the eighth century.]

    There are many explanations given for the reading of Ruth on Shavuot. The most quoted reason is that Ruth's coming to Israel took place around the time of Shavuot, and her acceptance into the Jewish faith was analogous of the acceptance of the Jewish people of God's Torah.

    Continue reading.

    Judaism's Great Debates

    We Need More Jewish Debate, Not Less

    Great debateSome will tell you that we need less debate in the Jewish community; that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate….

    My new book, Judaism’s Great Debates, posits that debate is not only desirable but is central to Judaism. Abraham, Moses, Ben Zakkai, Hillel, the Vilna Gaon, Geiger, Herzl… heroes of every era of Jewish history are engaged in great debates. Moreover the Talmud is replete with debate; it is at the very core of rabbinic reasoning. Indeed it is the Talmud that coins a unique Jewish expression, makhloket l’shem shamayim-an argument for the sake of heaven. The tractate Avot famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven will make a lasting contribution. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.” (5:20) Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism. A debate for the wrong reasons detracts from Judaism.

    Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history was Hillel and Shammai (after Abraham and God, that is). In actuality it was not these two sages but their disciples that did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin states: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Bet Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim hayim, both are the words of the living God.” Deep respect is given to both schools because both sides are speaking the truth as they see it, and have the welfare of the community in mind.

    Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in practice one viewpoint will usually prevail (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), “both views will have permanent value because…[they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed.

    Continue reading.

    Haggadah - With Many to Choose, Find One That's Right for Your Seder

    Has your family ever led a Seder before?  Are there young children present?  Is it all adult?  

    Do you enjoy discussions or would you rather just get on with the meal?  There are many Haggadot to choose from.  

    Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, an athiest or a non-observer, find one that’s right for your needs:



    Foer Every few years there’s one Haggadah that comes out that captures the imagination and prevailing zeitgeist.  This year Jonathan Safran Foer (“Everything is Illuminated”) and Nathan Englander (“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”) have come out with the New American Haggadah.  Jonathan Safran Foer orchestrates a new way of experiencing this text. His unique book is beautifully designed and illustrated by the acclaimed artist and calligrapher Oded Ezer, with a new translation by Nathan Englander. It brings together: Howard Jacobson, Lemony Snicket, Alain de Botton, Simon Schama, Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Jeffrey Goldberg and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. 

     Read an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer in the latest edition of Hadassah Magazine.


    sacks  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's Haggadah: Hebrew and English Text with New Essays and Commentary by Jonathan Sacks
    From the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, this Haggadah is actually two books in one. At what would be the back of an English-language book is the Haggadah in large, beautiful Hebrew typography, with an English translation adapted and with a running commentary by Rabbi Sacks.  


     go forthGo Forth and Learn:   David Silber (Author), Rachel Furst (Collaborator) Hebrew and English text with new commentary and essays.  Rabbi Silber has given us two books in one: the Haggadah itself, in English and Hebrew, with his Seder commentary and a collection of essays that provide close readings of the classic biblical and rabbinic texts that inform Seder-night ritual and narration. Both parts work beautifully together to illuminate the central themes of Passover: people hood, Covenant, our relationship to ritual, God’s presence in history, and other important issues that resonate with us all.  


     Elie Wiesel (Author), Mark Podwal (Illustrator)

     With this Passover Haggadah, Elie Wiesel and his friend Mark Podwal invite you to join them for the Passover Seder. Wiesel and Podwal guide you through the Haggadah and share their understanding and faith in a special illustrated edition.
    Accompanying the traditional Haggadah text (which appears here in an accessible new translation) are Elie Wiesel's poetic interpretations, reminiscences, and instructive retellings of ancient legends. The Nobel laureate interweaves past and present as the symbolism of the Seder is explored.


     children's haggadahShmuel Blitz and his brilliant children’s books never cease to amaze. This is his seventh book -- and they just seem to get better and better. This time, he puts his talents to the task of creating a Children’s Haggadah, and the result is one that will be enjoyed by child and grown-up alike. Specifically written for children ages 4-8, the full Hebrew text of the Haggadah is accompanied by a child-oriented, yet accurate English translation. There are clear, precise instructions that will guide the child through every stage of the Seder. And, each page contains a box that provides additional information about the Pesach narrative for the interested youngster.

    goldnerby Harriet Goldner.  Adults and children alike will appreciate this traditional Seder presented in a non-traditional way.

    It is easy to understand, enjoyable, and interesting.  One six-year-old asked if it was written by Dr. Seuss!

    What better way to engage children in this wonderful, ritual observance?



    30 minute30-Minute Seder

    The "Must Have" Haggadah written for the contemporary Jewish family.
    Whether you purchase the book or download the print-your-own version of 30minute-Seder™... this refreshingly brief, rabbinically approved Passover Haggadah maintains the reverence of Passover while keeping the high points intact. The contemporary gender-neutral text, beautiful full-color illustrations, and Seder songs make for a memorable Passover Seder that engages and entertains the entire family.

    New for 2012 

    Sharing Written by Alan S. Yoffie Illustrations by Mark Podwal 

    The inclusive text, commentary, and magnificent original artwork in this new Haggadah will make all family members and friends feel welcome at your seder. Young and old, beginners and experienced seder participants, will experience the joy of celebrating Passover together with clear step-by-step explanations, inspiring readings on the themes of justice and freedom for all, and opportunities for discussion. Songs to sing along with will be available for download also.  



    feministFeminist Haggadot emphasize the role of women in the Passover story.  “The Journey Continues: The Ma’yan Passover Haggadah,” from 2006 as part of the Jewish Women’s Project, tells the story of the Exodus in the voices of both men and women and reflects a vision of a world in which freedom belongs to all people.  



    This website offers 8 downloadable Haggadot crossing all lines, from novices to experts, even non-observant Jews, including the vocalized Haggadah, enabling you to hear the Seder service.

    The Wandering is Over - from JewishBoston.comThis free, downloadable half-hour Seder might be just the thing for you and your guests.  It’s pretty bare bones but has all the essentials.


    GLBT Passover Haggadah


    The GLBT Haggadah integrates GLBT Passover traditions within the spirit of the traditional Passover experience. It includes a GLBT-specific Seder plate, the Four GLBT Children, the Prophetess Miriam's Cup, a Timeline of GLBT Events that parallels the Magid and much, MUCH more. This Haggadah is interactive and allows participants to color-in graphics for a unique & colorful personal touch. Download and read more.


    Anne Frank: Still Writing in the Attic

    Jope: A TragedyAt the start of Shalom Auslander’s staggeringly nervy new novel “Hope: A Tragedy,” a doleful Jewish non-farmer named Solomon Kugel climbs fearfully into the attic of his recently acquired farmhouse. He hopes the tapping sounds in the attic are being made by nothing worse than mice.

    No such luck. The tapping is from a typewriter. And the typist, a stooped, foul-mouthed old lady who does not suffer fools gladly, is the single person about whom Jewish writers most avidly fantasize: Anne Frank.

    Other fiction writers have gotten this fresh with Anne Frank. But they don’t get much funnier. Mr. Auslander (not to be confused with Nathan Englander, whose “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” is imminent) is neither a voyeur nor a romantic when it comes to conjuring Anne. He is an absurdist with a deep sense of gravitas. He brings to mind Woody Allen, Joseph Heller and — oxymoron here — a libido-free version of Philip Roth.  

    As a man who becomes involved with a famously and totally unattainable woman, Mr. Auslander’s Kugel aligns nicely with Mr. Allen’s Kugelmass, the guy who was dropped into the midst of “Madame Bovary” only to find out how overrated Emma Bovary’s charms could be. Certainly that’s how “Hope: A Tragedy” unfolds at first. When Kugel first encounters the old bat claiming to be Anne, he is too dumbfounded to be diplomatic. Indignantly, he calls her an insult to the memory of the young girl who died in Auschwitz. “It was Bergen-Belsen, jackass,” Anne Frank replies. (She was imprisoned in both.)

    “While there’s never a good time to find Anne Frank in your attic, this was a particularly bad time,” Mr. Auslander writes. The Kugels are recent transplants from New York City to the countryside; they have a dangerously nosy tenant who demands storage space in the attic where Anne is living; and Kugel’s mother lives with the family, pretending to be dying. She is also obsessed with the Holocaust; she travels with baggage that she will never unpack, “just in case.” The only item she makes an exception for is a large framed picture of Alan Dershowitz that she hangs on the wall.

    Continue reading. 

    Is Jewish Funny? Is Funny Jewish

     Comic Relief

    The Arts: Comic Relief

    Leah F. Finkelshteyn

    What is “Yiddishkeit”? The term encompasses Jewish culture, secular or religious. Its language, Yiddish, was born from a fusion of Hebrew, German and Slavic tongues. Its attitude can be cultured and warm or folksy and abrasive.

    A new, superbly illustrated anthology, Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land (Abrams, 240 pp. $29.95), edited by the late comics writer Harvey Pekar and historian Paul Buhle, seeks to describe what Neal Gabler in the book’s introduction admits is a “large, expansive and woolly” concept. With a loving eye—and emphasizing early socialist leanings—Pekar and Buhle extract moments and personalities from Yiddish history. They trace the culture from Eastern Europe, through its flourishing in American theater, periodicals and novels and to current nostalgia, influences and revival, with rich vignettes illustrated by over a dozen artists, largely using the storytelling argot of comics.

    As Gabler notes, the book is “sprawling, kaleidoscopic, eclectic,” because Yiddishkeit cannot be defined neatly in word or pictures. “You sort of have to feel it by wading into it.”  Click here to enjoy a selection of the wonderful, eclectic and evocative illustrations from the book.

    Q&A: Calvin Trillin on What's Funny

    Calvin Trillin

    By Curt Schleier

    Journalist Calvin Trillin is a long-time staff writer at The New Yorker who has written over two dozen books. But he is perhaps best known as a humorist, a career that began in 1978 when then-editor of The Nation, “the parsimonious Victor Navasky,” took him to lunch.

    As Trillin recalls, Navasky wanted to “discuss his grand vision for transforming The Nation from a shabby Pinko sheet to a shabby Pinko sheet with a humor column.” That column, which ran from 1986 to 1995, was eventually syndicated in newspapers and then ran in Time magazine from 1995 to 2001.

    It was in 1990, with a brief rhyme titled “If You Knew What Sununu,” that Trillin added poetry to his repertoire. He became what he called a “deadline poet” for The Nation, writing one new poem about current events each week, except in warmer months. “The Nation is published only every other week of the summer, even though the downtrodden are oppressed every day of the year,” Trillin explained.

    Over the years, many of his columns and poems were collected in book form, including the just-published “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff.” It includes a number of his Jewish-themed pieces in a section called “Bagels, Yiddish and Other Jewish Contributions to Western Civilization.” Trillin spoke to The Arty Semite about finding inspiration and his Jewish sense of humor.

    Curt Schleier: When did you realize you could make people laugh?

    Continue reading. 

    Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe

    Lisa Alcalay Klug’s new book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe, is a history and how-to manual of…well, being a cool Jew. Among other things, she has a yarmulke decoder, a “Marley or Matisyahu?” lyric contest, and the funniest example of Jewish Geography-in-action I’ve ever seen. But our favorite part of the book is this brief history of the book Curious George…and how it narrowly escaped from the Nazis. And just to give you an extra bonus, Klug has done a DVD-extras version of the page. Just click away to see.

    The following is an excerpt from Cool Jew. Printed with permission, Andrews McMeel Publishing and Lisa Alcalay Klug, © Lisa Alcalay Klug 2008

    Cool Jews

    Did you know Curious George is a Heebster? It’s true. The “parents” of Curious George, Hans Augusto Rey and his wife Margret Rey, first met in their native Hamburg, Germany. They remet and married in Rio De Janeiro.

    Later, the happy couple moved to Paris and there, they conceived their story about a lovable, inquisitive monkey. As the Nazis began their advance on Paris, Hans realized they were in danger. Much like their beloved George might, Hans cobbled together spare parts into two bicycles. And in the early hours of June 14, 1940, he and Margret started pedaling.

    Within hours, the Nazis occupied Paris but the Reys had already escaped to safety. Four days later they reached the Spanish border, bringing their precious manuscript with them. From there, they traveled on, to Lisbon, Brazil, New York City, and finally, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they lived out the rest of their days.

    Continue reading.

    Best 100 Contemporary Jewish Books Since 1985

    With 2011 coming to a close and the holiday season upon us, you may be looking for some books as gifts to friends, or yourself, of great Jewish reading.  Michael Lerner compiled a list of 100 significant books from the last 25 Booksyears that have a profound message or are written in ways that are overwhelmingly beautiful and compelling or have had a profound impact on public Jewish discourse or have influenced the most creative people in their take on reality or are likely to have that impact.

    And so, in alphabetical order: 

    1. Rachel Adler,

    Engendering Judaism 

    2. S.Y. Agnon,

    Only Yesterday 

    3. Rebecca Albert,

    Like Bread on the Seder Table 

    4. Robert Alter,

    Canon and Creativity 

    5. Yehuda Amichai,

    Open Closed Open 

    6. Judith S. Antonelli,

    In the Image of God 

    7. Aharon Appelfeld,

    The Conversion 

    8. Yehuda Bauer,

    Rethinking the Holocaust 

    9. Saul Bellow,


    10. Meron Benvenisti,

    Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948 

    11. Ellen Bernstein,

    Ecology and the Jewish Spirit 

    12. David Biale,

    Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History 

    13. Harold Bloom,

    The Book of J 

    14. Daniel Boyarin,

    Carnal Israel 

    15. Melvin Jules Bukiet,

    Stories of an Imagined Childhood 

    16. Jules Chametzky and others (eds.),

    The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature 

    17. Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen,

    The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America 

    18. David Cooper,

    God is a Verb


    19. Anita Diament,

    The Red Tent


    20. Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman (eds.),

    Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality 

    21. Evan Eisenberg,

    The Ecology of Eden 

    22. Yaffa Eliach,

    There Once Was a World 

    23. Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi,

    Booking Passage 

    24. Marcia Falk,

    The Book of Blessings 

    25. Michael Fishbane,

    The Exegetical Imagination 

    26. Eva Fogelman,

    Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust 

    27. Ellen Frankel,

    The Five Books of Miriam 

    28. Saul Friedlander,

    Nazi Germany and the Jews 

    29. Tikva Frymer-Kensky,

    In the Wake of the Goddesses 

    30. Neil Gilman,

    Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew 

    31. Sander L. Gilman,

    Jewish Self-Hatred 

    32. Allan Ginsberg,

    Selected Poems, 1947-1995 

    33. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen,

    Hitler's Willing Executioners 

    34. Elyse Goldstein (ed.),

    The Women's Torah commentary 

    35. Rebecca Goldstein,

    Mazel: A Novel 

    36. Allegra Goodman,

    Paradise Park 

    37. Roger S. Gottlieb,

    A Spirituality of Resistance 

    38. Arthur Green,

    Seek My Face, Speak My Name 

    39. Irving Greenberg,

    The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays

    40. David Grossman,

    See Under Love 

    41. Moshe Halbertal,

    The People of the Book 

    42. David Hartman,

    Israelis and the Jewish Tradition 

    43. Geoffrey Hartman,

    The Longest Shadow 

    44. Judith Hauptman,

    Rereading the Rabbis 

    45. Susannah Heschel (ed.),

    Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel 

    46. Lawrence Hoffman,

    My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries 

    47. Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore,

    Women in America 

    48. Rodger Kamenetz,

    Jew in the Lotus

    49. Aryeh Kaplan,


    50. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (eds.),

    Reading Ruth 

    51. Alfred Kazin,

    God and the American Writers 

    52. Irena Klepfisz and Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz (eds.),

    The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology 

    53. David Kraemer,

    Reading the Rabbis 

    54. Chana Kronfeld,

    On the Margins of Modernism 

    55. Lawrence Kushner,

    God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know 

    56. Tony Kushner,

    Angels in America 

    57. Lawrence Langer,

    Art from the Ashes 

    58. Emmanuel Levinas,

    Nine Talmudic Readings 

    59. Deborah E. Lipstadt,

    Denying the Holocaust 

    60. Bernard Malamud,

    The Complete Stories of Bernard Malamud 

    61. Daniel Matt,

    The Essential Kabbalah 

    62. Diane Matza (ed.),

    Sephardic American Voices 

    63. Benny Morris,

    Righteous Victims 

    64. Jacob Neusner,

    Recovering Judaism 

    65. Peter Novick,

    The Holocaust in American Life 

    66. Carol Ochs,

    Our Lives as Torah 

    67. Debra Orenstein,

    Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones 

    68. Amos Oz,

    In the Land of Israel 

    69. Grace Paley,

    Collected Stories 

    70. Marge Piercy,

    The Art of Blessing the Day 

    71. Peter Pitzele,

    Our Fathers' Well 

    72. Judith Plaskow,

    Standing Again at Sinai 

    73. Letty Cottin Pogrebin,

    Deborah, Golda, and Me 

    74. Marcia Prager,

    The Path of Blessing 

    75. Riv-Ellen Prell,

    Fighting to Become Americans 

    76. Adrienne Rich,

    Selected Poems, 1950-1995 

    77. Thane Rosenbaum,

    Elijah Visible 

    78. Philip Roth,

    The Counterlife 

    79. Steven J. Rubin (ed.),

    A Century of American Jewish Poetry 

    80. Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi,

    Paradigm Shift 

    81. Nosson Scherman (ed.),

    The Stone Edition of the Chumash 

    82. Howard Schwartz (ed.),

    Gabriel's Palace: Stories from the Jewish Mystical Tradition 

    83. Tom Segev,

    The Seventh Million 

    84. Rami M. Shapiro,


    85. Laurence J. Silberstein and Robert L. Cohn (eds.),

    The Other in Jewish Thought and History 

    86. Isaac Bashevis Singer,

    Shadows on the Hudson 

    87. Art Spiegelman,

    MAUS: A Survivor's Tale 

    88. Ilan Stavans (ed.),

    The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories 

    89. Adin Steinsaltz (ed.),

    The Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud 

    90. Aryeh Lev Stollman,

    The Far Euphrates 

    91. Joseph Telushkin,

    The Book of Jewish Values


    92. Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton,

    Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality 

    93. Michael Walzer and others (eds.),

    The Jewish Political Tradition 

    94. Arthur Waskow,

    Down-to-Earth Judaism 

    95. Susan Weidman Schneider,

    Jewish and Female: Choices and Changes in Our lives Today 

    96. Elie Wiesel,


    97. Leon Wieseltier,


    98. A.B. Yehoshua,

    Mister Mani 

    99. Richard Zimler,

    The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon 

    100. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg,

    Genesis: The Beginning of Desire

    Books You'll Kvell Over this Fall

    Summer ends, and things begin to get a little more hectic.  That's why we're recommending a bit of "light" that we think you'll kvell over.  Take a break from preparing your holiday meals and pick one up today!

    Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish
    by Abigail Pogrebin
    Journalist Abigail Pogrebin first began to grapple with her Jewish identity at 25, when her Jewish mother disapproved of her Irish Catholic boyfriend. Fifteen years later, married (to a Jewish man) and raising two children, she was still trying to understand her own relationship with Judiasm. She decided that speaking with other Jewish people would help her find her own answer.

    In her new book, "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish," Pogrebin interviewed 60 people about their cultural and religious experience. She spoke with Hollywood stars, such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Dustin Hoffman, and luminaries such as Gloria Steinhem. Barney Frank and Tony Kushner talked about what's like to be gay and Jewish.

    [Linked] is the prologue of the book and the "Sarah Jessica Parker" chapter.

    One Foot in America
    By Yuri Suhl
    Tablet Magazine

    Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep—a masterpiece of Jewish immigrant life—was published to considerable acclaim in 1932 but soon vanished from literary consciousness. It languished until 1960, when Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler named it “the most neglected book of the past twenty-five years.”

    Make it the second-most-neglected book: One Foot in America, Yuri Suhl’s recently reissued immigrant novel, covers much of the same territory as Roth’s masterpiece, but whereasCall It Sleep is dark and brooding, Suhl’s book is a fast-paced, entertaining picaresque.

    Continue Reading

    Sarah's Key
    By Tatiana de Rosnay
    Good Reads

    Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

    Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

    Tatiana de Rosnay offers us a brilliantly subtle, compelling portrait of France under occupation and reveals the taboos and silence that surround this painful episode.

    Summer Reading Lists

    It's finally time to brush off those beach blankets, pull out those umbrellas and head to the beach or pool!  What better than to relax under the sun with a good book?  Why not try a book from one of's Jewish reading lists?   

    These lists compile the best fiction, non-fiction and memoirs from Jewish authors, on Judaism or Jewish history.   

    With thousands of titles to choose from, you're bound to find something that inspires you pool-side or maybe just makes you smile.

    Get a Head Start on Your Summer Reading List!

    Spring means that summer is right around the corner!  Every summer, we sit at the beach or pool and dive into a great book, but why wait?  This year, spend your spring reading some of the best books in Jewish-American literature.  In his American Jewish Fiction, Josh Lambert lists what he thinks are the top 125 books in this category.  Or you can start by checking out some of the best young, Jewish authors like Jonathan Safran Foer.

    Everything is Illuminated: a book by Jonathan Safran Foer

    by Judy Bolton-Fasman

    reprinted from Everything is Illuminated

    Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel showcases two distinct narratives that illuminate the truths embedded in historical events and acts of memory. It's an ambitious agenda that Safran Foer advances with sharp observation. But Everything is Illuminated is also a very funny book, a laugh-out-loud funny book that earns the reader's admiration through linguistic acrobatics and feats of good, old-fashioned storytelling. 

    At the heart of Safran Foer's narrative beats the classic road-trip novel, replete with unlikely buddies. Think of a Jewish-American version of Don Quixote. The hero of the book--the author's fictional alter ego is also named Jonathan Safran Foer--is on a quest to the Ukraine to find a woman named Augustine, who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, the only thing that Jonathan has to identify this woman with is an old photograph that he found in his late grandfather's personal effects. The Sancho Panza of this story is Alexander Perchov. Safran Foer constructs a brilliant parallel narrative using Alex's mangled English. I'm not a fan of written dialect, but Safran Foer has gone beyond presenting odd spellings and strange random words: he has constructed a new language (let's call it Russienglish). Alex is a young, self-consciously hip Ukrainian who embodies post-Soviet culture. He is an amusing rogue who provides the book with a unique vibe.

    Continue Reading 

    The Consummate Showwoman

    Reprinted with permission from My Jewish Learning 

    Sarah Bernhardt flirted with the novelist Alexandre Dumas, posed for the painter Alphonse Mucha, had an affair with Victor Hugo, and was, in the late 19th century, the most famous actress in the world.Sarah-B.

    Bernhardt was a character in her own right too. For several years, she slept in a coffin, claiming that it helped her identify with her tragic roles. She was also proudly Jewish, despite living in a time and a country (France) where the general populace harbored significant anti-Semitism.

    Read more.
    Buy the book on Amazon.

    Winter Reading List

    CocoaWinter is the perfect time to cozy up with a cup of tea or cocoa and settle in with a good book. If you're in need of some great new titles, look no further than the Association of Jewish Libraries. They've compiled Book Club reading lists from over a dozen congregations around the country.


    Jewish Voices, New and Old

    Joanna_smith_rakoffThe Foundation for Jewish Culture has awarded the 2010 Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers to Joanna Smith Rakoff. Her debut novel, A Fortunate Age was also a New York Times Editors' Pick, a winner of the Elle Readers' Prize, a selection of Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, an IndieNext pick, and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As a journalist and critic, she's written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, Vogue, Time Out New York, O:The Oprah Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals. She has degrees from Columbia University, University College, London, and Oberlin College.

    What Jewish Book Changed Your Life?  

    BookWhat do contemporary writers Jonathan Rosen, Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis, and Dara Horn all have in common? Each of them has been deeply influenced by Jewish literature. Read more here, and consider asking your partner, your friend, or your colleague: What Jewish book changed your life?

    On Matters of Faith

    Wolpe_CoverI haven’t seen the new movie Religulous yet, but my guess is director Bill Maher didn’t invite Rabbi David Wolpe to be a guest in his film. Religulous, the documentary by the comedian best known for his show Politically Incorrect, pokes fun at religious believers and all the wacky things—from biblical parables to the tenets of Scientology to the ultra-Orthodox case against Zionism –that they believe. For anyone curious to see the movie, but scared of how it might challenge their own faith, it might be wise to bring a copy of Why Faith Matters to the theater.

    It’s serendipitous that this movie and Rabbi Wolpe’s new book are coming out around the same time, but Wolpe’s book actually originated as a response to Maher’s print predecessors. For years, secularist and atheistic books like The End of Faith by Sam Harris,Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and God Is Not Greatby Christopher Hitchens have found their place on bestseller lists. Wolpe, who openly details his own struggles with faith and periods of doubt, decided after overcoming a bout with cancer that it was time to set the record straight.

    Continue reading "Wolpe's Faithful Response" by Rebecca Phillips, and check out Rabbi Wolpe's blog post on the question of faith. 

    On One Foot

    A new Nextbook Press biography of Hillel makes clear that the rabbi's words and thoughts—though millennia old—resonate today  


    According to rabbinic tradition, Hillel the Elder, one of the great sages in Jewish history, died 2,000 years ago, in the year 10. But even after two millennia, there is a contemporary urgency to his life and thought, particularly at this moment of debate not simply over the mechanics of conversion but over the very essence of Judaism itself. Hillel was, as the Talmud describes him, a poor man so desperate for an education that he nearly froze to death as he lay in a snowstorm on the roof of a study house, listening in on the study of Torah below. That sense of being the outsider never left him and lights up many of the stories told about him in the Talmud. He emerges, in Joseph Telushkin’s new book, Hillel: If Not Now, When?—the prologue of which appears below—as a sort of once and future rabbi, a teacher whose fearless openness to Gentiles seeking conversion, and whose insistence on morality as the core of Judaism, make him as relevant today as he was 2,000 years ago. 

    On One Foot 

    Credit: Allison Michael Orenstein  

    I was sitting with a rabbinic friend swapping stories about our lives and our work. He started talking about an encounter he had recently had: “A Jewish man, probably in his early thirties, and his non-Jewish girlfriend came to speak with me. They want to marry, but his parents are dead-set against their only son marrying a Gentile. I asked the woman what she thought about the parents’ attitude, and she was honest. She said it seemed primitive and ridiculous. But she also said that, if necessary, she’d be willing to convert. After all, she wants to be a good person, and Judaism, she assumes, wants people to be good and might well have something to teach her about goodness. That’s how she put it, ‘might well have something to teach her about goodness.’ ”

    “And what did you tell her?” I asked.

    My friend, a rather traditional rabbi, answered: “I told her that we’re in no rush to bring people in, that conversion to Judaism is a not a quick business: ‘Presto, you’re a Jew.’ There’s a lot to study, a lot of rituals to learn, and I certainly can’t convert you before you do all that studying, and commit yourself to practicing all that you study.”

    “And what did she say to that?”

    “It was the boyfriend who spoke up. He seemed really annoyed. ‘I told you this was pointless,’ he said to the girl, and then he turned to me. ‘We’re getting married in six weeks, rabbi. With or without your help.’”

    My friend shrugged. “I told them that even if the two of them had come in with a more open attitude, six weeks was way too quick to do a conversion. Six months would be a stretch. They walked out with a book I gave them, but they’re not coming back, I can tell.” My friend shook his head back and forth a few times, his expression a mixture of sadness and annoyance. “What I was really thinking was that they’d be better off going to City Hall, and just getting their license. We don’t need converts like that. One day, if she’s interested in becoming a real Jew, she can come see me.” He shrugged his shoulders, and regarded my skeptical face. “I know, I know, that day’s never going to come.”

    Interested in Jewish literature?



    Check out this nifty breakdown of David Lehman's poetry at See how his drafts progressed into a poem later published in The Atlantic 

    I was quiet a minute, thinking about, of all things, a 2,000-year-old talmudic sage named Hillel, and about an American-Jewish community that’s been getting smaller and smaller and whose members have now been intermarrying at rates of 40 percent for over 30 years.

    “What about that comment she made to you?” I finally asked him.

    He looked puzzled. “Which comment?”

    “That Judaism might well have something to teach her about being a good person.”

    “Nice words,” he conceded. “But I would have been a little more encouraged if she had actually said something about religion. Like maybe she had read about Shabbat and wanted to observe it. Or was willing to keep kosher. At least then I would have felt that I had something to work with. But this couple gave me nothing to work with.”

    Nothing to work with. His words reverberated in my head.

    Read the rest. 

    This article was reprinted with permission from Tablet Magazine. 

    On the Bookshelf

    On rootlessness and family trees 

    No place like homeA midsummer day’s nightmare: shlepping all your worldly possessions to a new apartment. Everybody wants to settle in before the High Holidays and the school year starts, making June, July, and August the busiest season for moving companies. This also explains why the sections of Brooke Berman’s No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments (Harmony, June) typically run from one summer to another. A prize-winning playwright who had already auditioned under a stage name (“Brooke Alison—it sounds less Jewish”) by the time she began her peripatetic New York City sojourn at the age of 18, Berman manages somehow to make relocating almost 40 times in half as many years sound more like an ongoing adventure than like a godforsaken, perpetual exile.     Shteyngart interviewCheck out Rabbi Harvey's cartoon interview of Gary Shteyngart on his new book, Super Sad True Love Story, from  

    Berman’s bohemian-ish wanderings may seem inevitably less stultifying than life in the suburbs, but as readers of John Cheever and Richard Yates know, subdivisions harbor roiling inner lives all their own. Soon to be available in paperback, David Kushner’s account of harsh real-estate politics, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb (Walker & Company, August) describes the attempt integrate one of the famed model communities planned by Abraham Levitt and his sons. While the Levitts were self-conscious of themselves as Jews and claimed to have “no room … for racial prejudice,” they sold homes only to whites. In late summer 1957, a Communist-leaning Jewish family in the Pennsylvania Levittown subverted the developers’ policy by arranging a private sale to an African-American couple. Riots and harassment followed, with visits from the Ku Klux Klan, all of which provides a reminder of the complex and often distasteful history of American suburban living. 

    But then again, the city has its fair share of problems. Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan (Spiegel & Grau, July) romps its way through a borough so thoroughly saturated with literary pretension that it would be insufferable to visit, let alone reside there. (Sort of like the real one is, some might say.) Telling a tall tale of publishing aspiration and fraud, Langer packs the novel with inside jokes and goes so far as to invent a slang based on the names of contemporary and classic authors, in which, for example, a “chabon” is “a wavy mane” and a “ginsberg” “a somewhat unruly beard.” The author knows whereof he satirizes, having toiled as a literary journalist before publishing his own fiction: “I’ve been blown off by E.L. Doctorow,” he reports, “condescended to by Harold Bloom … treated to lousy herring by Gary Shteyngart, [and] regaled with unprintable, really yucky stories by Jonathan Safran Foer.” 

    Read more about this book and others.  

    Reprinted with permission from Tablet Magazine. 

    Unorthodox Theology

    Ashkenaz Unbound 

     Ashkenaz Unbound  

    Two years ago, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which is devoted to the study and preservation of Ashkenazic culture, published the trailblazing Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. A remarkable resource, it offers some 1,800 entries on everything from general topics like art to key figures like Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto. Earlier this month, YIVO launched an online version, which not only offers free access to scholars and students the world over, but also provides supplemental material like audio and video recordings that the print edition couldn’t.

    To discuss the project, and the new possibilities offered by its digital version, Tablet Magazine’s Gabriel Sanders had a chat with the encyclopedia’s editor in chief, McGill University historian Gershon Hundert.

    Hear the conversation at Tablet Magazine.


    An anthology of liberal Jewish thought evinces a deep unease with traditional conceptions of God 

    Unorthodox TheologyEarlier this month, in Jerusalem, more than 100,000 haredi Jews took to the streets to protest the Israeli government’s attempt to desegregate an Orthodox girls’ school. The school had been physically separating Ashkenazi and Sephardi students, ostensibly because the latter did not live up to the standards of piety and modesty demanded by parents of the former. When Israel’s High Court ordered the barriers removed, a group of parents belonging to the Slonim Hasidim withdrew their daughters from the school, and when the court ordered them to return, the parents preferred to go to jail. These arrests triggered the massive protest, in which signs were displayed that read “God will rule for all eternity.”

    To turn from headlines like these to Jewish Theology in Our Time (Jewish Lights), a new book of essays by professors and rabbis associated mainly with the Reform and Conservative movements, is to see the dilemma of liberal Judaism in a starkly ironic light. In Bnei Berak—and, for that matter, in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Crown Heights—are thousands upon thousands of Jews who not only know with utter certainty just what Judaism is and what God wants from them, but are willing to defy the powers of the earth to do it. Meanwhile, the contributors to this book—edited by the rabbi of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, Elliot Cosgrove—can barely even use words like God and Judaism without a blizzard of explanations and qualifications.

    “God,” writes Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of rabbinic studies at American Jewish University, “is the dynamic that makes for novelty, innovation, complexity, and growth.” Similarly, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum writes that “divinity is the radical force that moves the entire cosmos.” Such a God, quite obviously, cannot be the God who walked in the cool of evening in the Garden of Eden, or spoke to Moses out of a burning bush. Eitan Fishbane, Men of MysteryMen of Mystery                    Alan Furst’s bestselling spy novels depict the secret allegiances and betrayals that animated interwar and wartime Europe, but what distinguishes his work from others who’ve toiled in the genre is the attention he pays to the flavor of everyday life. Amid the forged documents and concealed identities, he still manages to conjure things like the meal a well-to-do couple traveling through the Belgian countryside might have eaten in 1941: radishes, salted beef tongue, “some kind of white, waxy cheese,” dried winter apples, and a loaf of bread.Hear the podcast with Alan Furst at Tablet Magazine. assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, confesses that “I could not believe in the God of heavenly transcendence, the highly anthropomorphic deity of classical Judaism.” And if, as Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky agrees, “The character in the Bible is not God,” then everything the Bible tells us about the covenant between God and the Jewish people is equally incredible: “[W]e cannot imagine that only Israel … possesses the covenant with God.” Rabbi Or N. Rose is still more explicit: “I do not believe that the Jewish People are God’s chosen people.”

    This article was reprinted with permission from Tablet Magazine. Read the rest.

    Coffee & Conversation

    Back in April, JBooks teamed up with Peet's Coffee & Tea to present a very interesting live event in which Elinor Lipman kibbitzed with Anita Diamant about Diamant's latest novel, Day After Night, and a batch of other Interesting Things (Jewish, Literary, Feminist, and Otherwise). Well, this illuminating conversation has been videotaped and edited and can now be seen in three easy-to-watch parts:

    Part I, in which Elinor Lipman admits to pitching Diamant's latest novel, Day After Night, as a movie and Diamant tells the fascinating story of the Atlit detention camp.

    In Part II we learn how Bill Moyers and Tony Kushner helped Diamant write The Red Tent. There's also a little joke about hummus...

    Part III showcases Diamant's idea that we're living in "the century of the Jewish woman." She also says that she and novelist Stephen McCauley have "study hall," in which the two authors force themselves to get together and write at the same time. "It's a way to keep... the ass in the chair," says Diamant.

    Alice Apologizes

     By Elinor Lipman

    "I came up with the opening line standing at my stove, then went up to my computer and pretty much wrote it," says Elinor Lipman about this story. "I liked the sound of the 'Jews-on-the-beach' theme, with its suggestion of something slightly comic and (sorry) fish-out-of-water-ish. If the assignment had been 500 words on just anything, I don't think I would have been inspired." To see what else the assignment inspired, read Dara Horn's "Song at the Sea," Neal Pollack's "Mr. Pacific Beach," and Danit Brown's "Jews at the Beach."

    It is absolutely not the making of amends, nothing 12-stepish or externally imposed, merely Alice, on her 50th birthday, promising herself she'd apologize to those whom she thinks she's offended. Her list is short. There is a sweet boy from tenth grade whose sexual overtures she had rebuffed for a prudishness she now regrets. There are playground and roommate insensitivities and a Thanksgiving meltdown over a dropped chafing dish that didn't even break. But first: her 30-year-old discourtesy, a week's worth, from her whitewashed lookout, Red Cross lifesaving badges sewn proudly to her orange tank suit, whistle between her straight front teeth.

    They were a whole family: mother, father, two boys, unmistakably Jews on the Edgartown beach, needle-pointed yarmulkes bobby-pinned to dark hair. Their lunch was the same every day: hard-boiled eggs, carrot sticks, grapes, cheese, crackers. She knew the boys' names because their mother called to them unabashedly, "Dovey! Shmuely! Not yet! You just ate! Another ten minutes!" Had Alice heard accents? Were they from New York? Were they even Americans?

    She had studied this family, and had noted a failure of fashion in their bathing suits and motel towels. Her fellow lifeguards knew them, too. Dovey and Shmuely were ecstatic and squealing little fish, requiring attention. Between car and sand, they'd drop whatever bundles had been assigned them, and run into the water, regardless of temperature, of sand castles, of tides.

    Their chosen spot hardly changed, in the shadow of the lifeguard's chair, umbrella never planted with any athletic grace. Despite the smiles and waves offered to the handsome college students on duty—we're here; please protect us—Alice pretended that her job was ignoring those on sand, while staring conscientiously out to sea. Who had recommended Martha's Vineyard to these Bernsteins, their name shouted in Magic Marker on their red-and-white cooler, their rations kosher, their skin pale?

    And finally to be reckoned with: An impulse within Alice that had allowed Mr. Bernstein to flounder for—how long had it been?—ten seconds longer than the fastest leap she was capable of from chair to ocean? "You have no business out here in rough water if you can't swim," she had scolded.

    "I can swim," he had answered. His wife, throwing a towel and a protective arm around her husband's shoulders, had given Alice a condemning stare. I know the person you are, it said.

    They hadn't come back to the beach. "Embarrassed," said the blond Duke senior who shared Alice's shift and who lived on his own, unchaperoned, that summer. "It's Saturday," she might have said.

    In order to apologize, she would have to find them. The Bernsteins of where? Dov, David, Shmuel, Sam? 

    Alice remembered the overhead buzz of planes towing banners, aerial declarations—"I love you, Brenda, marry me, Vinny." What would hers say that was adequate, and over what crowded beach? "Dear Bernsteins, wherever you are. Forgive me. I didn't hate you. I knew you. Your lifeguard, Alice Eisenberg, coward."





    Elinor Lipman is the author of nine novels, including "The Inn at Lake Devine," "Then She Found Me," and most recently, "The Family Man."

    This article was reprinted with permission from, the online Jewish book community. To hear Elinor Lipman read “Alice Apologizes,” click here.