November 19, 2018

Authors Offer Insight Into Filmmakers, Faith and Family Trees

Chanukah and Jewish Book Month, which precedes the annual Festival of Lights — from Nov. 12 to Dec. 12 this year — are great occasions for selecting a few of the choicest titles from publishers large and small, whether for giving as gifts or keeping for ourselves. This year’s titles span topics ranging from film and the Coen Brothers to local rabbis sharing lessons on suffering and the future of Judaism. Here are a few of my favorites.

A particularly sumptuous book is “The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmakers and Their Work” by Ian Nathan (Aurum Press) A richly illustrated and slip-cased hardcover, it serves as a kind of scrapbook for both fans and serious students of America’s most distinctive auteurs, a couple of Jewish boys from the Midwest whose cinematic work ranges from film noir (“Blood Simple” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There”) to Westerns (“No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit”) to a movie that might be described as pure theology (“A Serious Man”). As the author explains: “Just as ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ was a comic variation of ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘A Serious Man’ was ‘The Book of Job’ played for laughs.”

The author is a London-based film critic, author, producer and journalist. His book is prominently marked as “unofficial and unauthorized,” but it’s the real thing when it comes to authoritative film history and penetrating film criticism, a deep dive into the influences that shaped the Coen brothers and the craft, imagination and sheer genius that define their highly distinctive work. It’s the perfect companion volume for any of the films in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre or, for that matter, the movies to come.

A.J. Jacobs is best known for his remarkable book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” and he is back now with an account of his relentless search for the roots of humankind, “It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree” (Simon & Schuster). The high-spirited and often comic adventure began when the journalist received an email from a dairy farmer on a kibbutz in Israel: “You don’t know me, but you are an eighth cousin of my wife, who, in my opinion, is a fine lady.”

Inspired by the idea that somewhere in the distant past are “the real Adam and Eve,” whom Jacobs defines as the “Y-Chromosomal Adam” and the “Mitochondrial Eve,” he travels the world to find out everything that can be known about ancestry, both his own and everyone else’s, too. He quickly discovers that his own family tree includes 80,000 men and women, although he confesses that “I’d be happy to trim a few branches.”

By the end of his smart and rollicking book, Jacobs seeks to convince us that the biblical notion of universal descent from a single pair of “uber-grandparents” makes it possible to imagine — and to actually convene — a global family reunion. After all, “we are all cousins, whether we like it nor not,” as Henry Louis Gates Jr. announced to one of the gatherings that took place simultaneously in 40 cities and attracted some 10,000 “cousins.”

Closer to home — geographically at least — two of Los Angeles’ most distinguished spiritual leaders have published books that draw on their years of service as congregational rabbis. The first is Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood and the author of “Why Judaism Matters: Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation” (Turner/Jewish Lights).

Each entry in the book is addressed to his two adult sons, David and Daniel: “The question I want each of you to ask yourself is: ‘Why stay Jewish?’ ” And his own daunting mission is to suggest the right answers: “I’d like to make the case that to identify as a liberal Jew in America today is to connect with a deeply intellectual, skeptical, activistic, and optimistic tradition that has at its core a nuanced spirituality, strong ethical roots, and clarity of values.” Along the way, he touches on ethics and theology, politics and social justice, love and marriage (including intermarriage), good and evil, war and peace.

In a touching coda, his sons respond to their father’s teachings and blessings. “What’d you think?” asks David at the outset of their extended conversation on Google Hangouts. “I was just beaming,” Daniel replies. More than that, Rosove’s message has gotten through to his sons. “My identity is very much tied to our tribal past and present,” Daniel explains. “[W]hat is most important is raising Jewish children — to uphold, as Dad said in his letter to us, ‘Jewish continuity.’ ”

Steven Z. Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, draws on a lifetime of experience in comforting his congregants at moments of pain and loss in “More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us” (Hay House) — “I call the couch in my office ‘the Couch of Tears,’ ” he writes — and presents his readers with a redemptive message.

“I don’t intend to glorify suffering or suggest that the lessons we learn from pain are somehow worth the cost,” he writes. “But the truth is that most often for most people, real change is the result of real pain.” His points of reference range from Moses to Maimonides to Marlene Adler Marks, a much-beloved and much-missed contributor to the Journal. “I know nothing about bravery,” she wrote about her own final illness. “I know only about need, [about] reaching out, to friends who are close at hand.” Whether the suffering originates with injury, divorce, death or any of the other afflictions of life, Leder delivers a wholly redemptive message: “Pain cracks us open,” he writes. “It breaks us. But in the breaking, there is a new kind of wholeness.”

If the title of “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East” by Adam Valen Levinson (Norton) sounds like a joke, it’s no accident.  The author is a high-spirited young man — “an un-barmitzvahed Jewish boy,” as he puts it — who acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the Arabic language and set out to wander through the Muslim world with the intention of finding out why we fear it so much.

As it happens, a couple of Chabad rabbis from Brooklyn catch up with him in Abu Dhabi, conduct a candlelighting for Chanukah (“a more Jewish gathering than I’d ever gone to in Pennsylvania”), and arrange for him to be called to the Torah in a ceremony in what he describes as “the Jewish liturgical version of a Las Vegas wedding.” That’s only the beginning of his adventures, and we are invited to witness all of them. Thus does Levinson follow in a long tradition of Westerners who have written travel books about the Middle East with great wit, insight and verve. And now is exactly the right moment for an open-minded and good-humored book on the subject.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.