April 26, 2019

N.Y. Times Seen as Bad News for Jews

The New York Times remains the gold standard in world journalism, but its luster has been blemished by its own missteps over its long and ongoing run as America’s newspaper of record. That’s the point of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016,” by Jerold S. Auerbach (Academic Studies Press), a study of what Auerbach regards as its sins of omission and commission when it comes to the Jewish state.

“Along the way, [publisher] Adolf Ochs’s enduring motto was inverted,” Auerbach asserts. “All the news ‘fit to print’ became news printed to fit New York Times’ discomfort with the idea, and since 1948, the reality of a thriving Jewish democratic state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.”

As Auerbach points out, the Ochs and Sulzberger families, owners of The New York Times starting in the late 19th century, were assimilated Jews who were disturbed by “the ominous cloud of dual loyalty” that hung over the Jewish community in America. For that reason, it was a practice of the Times to use only initials for reporters whose first name was “Abraham,” including distinguished journalists whose last names were Raskin, Rosenthal and Weiler. And the heroic achievements of the founders of Zionism in the first half of the 20th century were “only occasionally noticed by the Times and invariably disparaged.” 

That’s a fact of history, of course. But Auerbach’s book is meant to persuade his readers that the Times has only gotten worse. He is unsettled by the editors, reporters and commentators who are responsible for the coverage of Israel. He argues that the Six-Day War sparked a renewed period of hostility toward “a triumphant Israel,” and he charges the Times with failing to meet “the challenge to provide fair coverage” to Israel’s first right-wing government in 1977. “His support for settlements in what had been Jordan’s West Bank elicited incessant criticism of Israeli ‘occupation’ that shows no sign of abating,” Auerbach writes.

The villains, according to Auerbach, include U.S.-based writers such as Thomas Friedman, Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof, op-ed contributors from Israel such as David Grossman and Ari Shavit, and the late Amos Oz, whom he blames for launching “a fusillade of criticism of Israel.” Auerbach is troubled by the fact that in 2015, then-Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren and reporter Isabel Kershner were “joined by Diaa Hadid, a Muslim advocate of the Palestinian cause who was hired in response to the Public Editor’s suggestion that an Arabic-speaking journalist would enhance Times coverage.”

 “Print to Fit” is a work of special pleading, perhaps best summarized by a blurb that characterizes the book as an effort to answer “the question of whether Jews should judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times or the Times by the standards of Judaism.

Ironically, Auerbach himself has been a contributor The New York Times, and his author bio points out that one of his 11 books was chosen as a New York Times Noteworthy Book in 1976. He is Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College and served as a Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Yet “Print to Fit” is a work of special pleading, perhaps best summarized by Edward Alexander, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, whose blurb characterizes the book as an effort to answer “the question of whether Jews should judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times or the Times by the standards of Judaism,” whatever Alexander (or, for that matter, Auerbach himself) understands by the phrase.

To his credit, Auerbach documents the sometimes nausea-inducing and heart-breaking record of The New York Times at various crucial points in Jewish history. He concedes, for example, that Adolf Ochs was “[a]nguished by the persecution of the Jews” in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but he argues that Ochs “remained determined that the Times must not be identified as a Jewish newspaper.” As a result, the Times underplayed or overlooked the facts of the Holocaust even as Jews in the millions were suffering and dying, a policy that he rightly calls “an appalling dereliction of journalistic responsibility.” Not until 1944, he points out, did the Times begin to find space for the facts of mass murder, but even so, “[t]he horrors of Auschwitz never made the front page.”

Auerbach’s use of quotation marks around the word “occupation,” as quoted earlier in this review, is a clue to his method and his motive. He complains that the West Bank is “rarely identified as biblical Judea and Samaria” in the pages of the Times, and yet Auerbach himself puts quotation marks around the phrase “West Bank” as if the phrase were an artifact of propaganda. We are left with the impression that Auerbach would be more comfortable if the Times adopted the aspirational vocabulary of Likud instead of plain English words to describe the facts on the ground in the Middle East. Or, to put it another way, he objects to the hiring of a Times reporter whom he condemns as “a Muslim advocate of the Palestinian cause,” but he appears to lament the absence of Jewish reporters who are willing to act as advocates of the Israeli cause. 

So we are left with the painful question quoted above — should we judge the Times by the standards of Judaism? And, even if so, what standards of Judaism does Auerbach embrace? It’s significant that he finds “West Bank” to be an off-putting way to refer a geographical feature of the Jordan River, and he describes that place as “the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.” To some Jewish readers, the phrase he prefers is a cherished article of faith. For others, however, it may be an argument, but it is certainly not a phrase we should expect to find in a secular newspaper whose mission is to serve the American democracy.

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

A Therapist’s Tell-All Book

Anyone who has spent time in a therapist’s office has wondered: “What is my therapist thinking?” An even more unsettling question is: “What is my therapist saying when she talks to her own therapist? Both of these questions are answered — and much more is put on public display — in Lori Gottlieb’s smart, funny, high-spirited and highly confessional memoir of her life and work, “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Gottlieb is a practicing therapist in Los Angeles, but that’s not everything you need to know about her. She is also the author of four previous books (starting with the best-seller “Stick Figure”), and she contributes the “Dear Therapist” column to The Atlantic. She is a frequent talking head on the subject of psychotherapy on television. And her newly published book is already a hot item — it appeared on The New York Times best-seller list immediately after publication, and it is in development at ABC as a television series starring Eva Longoria.

The success of Gottlieb’s tell-all is hardly surprising. She takes us to places where many readers have never gone before, both inside on our own heads and inside hers. She tells us secrets that most therapists keep to themselves, including secrets about herself. And she describes her own tumultuous course of therapy after she finds herself in a sudden relationship crisis that begins when she asks her boyfriend, “Hey, is something up?” For a working therapist, it’s a fraught question.

“The answer is obviously yes, because in the history of the world, nothing reassuring has ever following this question,” she writes. “When I see couples in therapy, even if the initial response is no, in time the true answer is revealed to be some variation of I’m cheating, I maxed out the credit cards, my aging mother is coming to live with us, or I’m not in love with you anymore.”

“Lori Gottlieb takes us to places where many readers have never gone before, both inside on our own heads and inside hers.”

The most vulnerable readers may not be thrilled to know how they come across to their therapists: “[I]f I’ve learned anything as a therapist, it’s that most people are what therapists call ‘unreliable narrators,’” Gottlieb writes. She is open about the trade secrets of her profession: “High-functioning is therapist code for ‘a good patient,’ the kind most therapists enjoy working with,” she writes. And she discloses that even therapy can have a placebo effect: “[P]atients often feel hopeful after making that first appointment, before even setting foot in the therapy room.”

Sometimes, Gottlieb describes what goes on in the therapy room with such brutal honesty that we began to feel sorry for the clueless patient. She describes one man named John who “is telling me about all of the people in his life who are ‘idiots’ ” and who wonders out loud if “it has something to do with all the artificial chemicals that are added to the food we eat nowadays.” The patient concludes: “That’s why I try to eat organic. So I don’t become an idiot like everyone else.” Gottlieb stifles a yawn and it comes out as a burp. “Of course,” she writes, “John doesn’t seem to notice.” Her conclusion? “Today he just seems like an asshole.”

But Gottlieb is no less candid when it comes to telling the truth about herself. She is so shattered by her confrontation with her boyfriend that she shows up at her office the next day in a pajama top that says “Namast’ay in Bed.” She carefully considers what she will tell her own therapist, Wendell, at their next session, but when she enters his office, “all that comes out is a torrent of tears.” She points out that insight is overvalued as the goal of therapy: “ ‘Insight is the booby prize of therapy’ is my favorite maxim of the trade,” she quips.

“So while the image of me with mascara running down my tear-streaked face between sessions may be uncomfortable to contemplate,” she confesses, “that’s where this story about a handful of struggling humans you are about to meet begins — with my own humanity. … Of all my credentials as a therapist, my most significant is that I’m a card-carrying member of the human race.”

While she is honest about what therapy can and cannot accomplish, she is also hopeful. “Why would we choose a profession that requires us to meet unhappy, distressed, abrasive or unaware people and sit with them, one after the other, alone in a room?” she muses. “The answer is this: Because therapists know that at first, each patient is simply a snapshot, a person captured in a particular moment. … Therapists have to be interpreters of those blurry snapshots, aware that patients need them to be fuzzy to some extent, because those first snapshots help to gloss over painful feelings that might be invading their peaceful inner territory. In time, they find out that they aren’t at war at all, that the path to peace is to call a truce with themselves.”

So Gottlieb wants her readers to understand the inner workings of therapy itself. For that reason, and entirely aside from its sheer entertainment value, “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” is the book that you should read if you’re contemplating therapy or if you’re already in it.

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

A Remarkable Life: From Arab Sahara to Jewish Los Angeles

As I read Ed Elhaderi’s powerful memoir — “Nomadic Soul: My Journey From the Libyan Sahara to a Jewish Life in Los Angeles” — I kept hearing the words God said to Abraham, our Biblical father: Lekh lekhah, “Go forth from your land, the land of your birth, the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” A Chasidic master once pointed out that the phrase lekh lekhah, ordinarily translated as “go forth,” has a more literal meaning: lekh means to go or walk, and lekhah means “unto yourself” or “for yourself.”

Elhaderi’s journey outward is also a journey inward. As he discovers a new land and language, a new world and people, a new sense of inner tranquility and direction, he also goes on an inner journey of discovering how to stitch together the world from which he came — the rural, primitive, poor village in Libya of the 1950s and early 1960s — with the world in which he now lives, as a Jew-by-choice in Los Angeles.

I must confess that I thought I knew Elhaderi. We attend the same synagogue each week and greet each other as friends. He is always respectful and courteous, even a bit shy. It is apparent his manners were shaped by a different culture, one more traditional than the avant-garde world of the city in which we live. But the more I read of his life, the more I understood that I had only glimpsed the surface of his story and the length of his journey.

Elhaderi was raised with little contact with the outside world. His family occasionally read newspapers and books, but they had no television and limited access to radio broadcasts. His world was oral — words were spoken, stories were told.

In his book — written with the critically acclaimed memoirist Tom Fields-Meyer of Los Angeles — he is able to convey that world, to depict his distant father and his loving mother, his extended family and his brother, the friends that shaped him and the restrictions of that world.

Elhaderi’s work reminds us of how diverse the Jewish community is today, how many stories we have to tell, and how in our synagogues and communities we must remember to discover one another.

Education offered him an opportunity. His intellect took him from his village to the big city and ultimately to the United States. Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi wanted to transform his country and bring it into the modern world, so he invested in the education of his most gifted youth. The nonathletic and lower-class Elhaderi took advantage of the opportunity by studying at the University of Tripoli and then pursuing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Qaddafi believed that the young people like Elhaderi who were now educated would return home, but education changed Elhaderi, making him realize that he could not return to the land of his birth and the house of his father.

In Libya, Elhaderi had been raised to distrust Jews, even to despise them, though he never met one. Nearly all of Libya’s Jews had left after Israel achieved statehood in 1948, but after Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War, anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiment (one and the same in Libya) intensified. Raised in that atmosphere, Elhaderi came to the United States and almost immediately experienced cognitive dissonance between the Jews he was taught to hate and those he encountered in his university’s classrooms and laboratories. They were accomplished men and women, gifted and dedicated teachers, helpful colleagues, not the horned monsters he had been led to expect.

Author Ed Elhaderi

He was smart enough and hard-working enough to succeed in his education, and open enough to let his journey take him where it was to take him — to encounter the enemy as a person. That courageous openness transformed his life in ways he could not have imagined, in large part because he encountered a Jewish woman who was equally open to him, and a rabbi and a community that welcomed him with open arms. 

William James in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” distinguishes between the “once born” and the “twice born.” My Judaism is that of a “once born,” a natural inheritance from my parents and theirs before them; a tradition transmitted to me by teachers and community, from my land, the place of my birth, and the house of my father. Jewish tradition was the first language of depth that I encountered; the melodies of my childhood were deepened by the adult sensibilities I have developed. At times, particularly in those moments when the theology of the prayers I recite challenges the world I inhabit, I return to the native belief of my childhood, suspending disbelief, at least for a time.

Elhaderi is a “twice born” — at least a twice born; perhaps many more times than that. He stands at a distance from his childhood, the world of his youth, the community and tradition that shaped him. He came to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people as an adult, already with a family and a sense of self. He experienced that community and that tradition as the goal of a long journey. He encountered it as transformation and not just continuity.

The Talmud wisely states that “In the place of one who returns” — teshuvah means repentance but more basically return — “even the righteous cannot stand.” I am certainly not righteous but I am deeply indebted to Elhaderi, whose story has enriched my experience and deepened my community. I cherish him as a man and revere the place where he stands.

Elhaderi’s work reminds us of how diverse the Jewish community is today, how many stories we have to tell, and how in our synagogues and communities we must remember to discover one another. I know for certain that we will be enriched by that encounter.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

Author and Scholar Talks About the Importance of Words and Meaning

Robert Alter

Robert Alter, professor emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley and author of “The David Story” and “The Five Books of Moses,” spoke with Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch by phone about Alter’s new books, “The Hebrew Bible” and “The Art of Bible Translation.”

Jewish Journal: Bible scholars sometimes refer to the “place in life” of a particular biblical text as it existed before the Bible itself was canonized. What do you regard as the “place in life” of your translation?

Robert Alter: What I want to do is to make the literary greatness of the Bible available to modern readers. The Hebrew Bible has very few abstractions, and the human situation was imagined through the body and the physical world. A lot of that gets obscured in existing translations. I try to give readers a better sense of the concrete world view of the biblical writers by hewing to the physicality of the original text.

JJ: What has been the response to your translation?

RA: In the age of email, readers are much more ready to write authors than when they had to put a stamp on an envelope. What has surprised me, really astounded me, is that I’ve gotten an outpouring of mail from religious people — some religious Jews and many religious Christians, including clergy. I assumed that literary people, including entirely secular people, would be keen to get a translation that does more justice to the literary art of the Bible, but it seems that there is a hunger among many believing people for a translation that takes us closer to the world view of the original Hebrew. 

JJ: I suspect that many of your readers first encountered your early writing on the Bible in the context of a “Bible as literature” class. Do you feel comfortable with that category?

RA: Yes and no. In many colleges, there are no specialists in the Religion Department, and the Bible is represented in the curriculum in the English Department. I’m OK with that. But it’s a slightly odd label because it is like saying “Dante as literature.” Dante’s writings are works of literature, but he is also a deeply religious writer.

JJ: Do you feel that any of the word choices in your translation have an impact on the theology that traditional rabbis and sages have extracted from the biblical text?

RA: Yes, I do. For example, the word “salvation” as equivalent of the Hebrew word “yeshua” still has a terrific amount of currency in modern translations of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian. In the Bible, however, the Hebrew doesn’t mean anything like salvation. Salvation suggests the sky opening up and the soul gloriously redeemed. The biblical word is a here-and-now word, and it means something like “getting out of a tight fix.” That’s why I translate it as “God is my rescue.” 

JJ: Much effort has been expended to blur the gender of the deity in Jewish liturgy in the more progressive movements in Judaism. Did you make any word choices in your new translation to address the feminist critique of the Bible as a patriarchal document?

RA: Not really. Grammatically, God is unmistakably masculine in the Bible. I don’t think we can honestly translate the Bible to fit our own 21st-century values. Some of the values in the Bible we may find objectionable, but there is no question that it was a patriarchal society and they thought of God as male.

Excerpt From “The Art of Bible Translation”
The practice of translation, as I have learned from experience, entails an endless series of compromises, some of them happy, some painful and not quite right because the translator has been unable to find an adequate English equivalent for what is happening — often brilliantly — in the original language. The reflections in this book, then, on translating the Bible are offered in the spirit of humility, not triumphalism, with the underlying point that I have tried to do in my English version of the Bible what others translators by and large have not seen the need to do because they had at best only a patchy sense of the literary aspects of the Bible.

From the beginning my translation was impelled by a deep conviction that the literary style of the Bible in both the prose narratives and the poetry is not some sort of aesthetic embellishment of the “message” of Scripture but the vital medium through which the biblical vision of God, human nature, history, politics, society, and moral value is conveyed.

I did not initially have a very clear sense of the audience to which my work was directed. My only thought was that I wanted to make the Bible available for English readers in language that might at least intimate something of the power, the subtlety, and the beauty of the Hebrew. 

The actual readership was broader and more varied than I would have imagined. As it turned out, I received enheartening words from Orthodox Jews, from a Methodist minister, from a Presbyterian organist, even from an Episcopalian nun who said that my translation of Psalms had changed her spiritual practice. Responses repeatedly came from unexpected quarters, such as the fourteen-year-old girl at a Jewish day school who told me in impressively literate English that she had come to trust my commentary more than any other.

Both the narrative and the poetry of the Bible deploy an extraordinary imaginative use of language that has very few equals in the whole ancient world and none among the geographical neighbors of ancient Israel. These formidable literary resources were of course usually marshaled for what we must call, lacking a better term, religious ends, but the full breadth of nuanced perspective on the interactions between the human and divine realms will not be visible in translation if the stylistic subtleties of the original are ignored. Translations are inevitably approximations of the original, but all of us engaged in the enterprise need to aspire to closer approximations. That is what I have sought to do in my own translation of the Bible.

Excerpted from “The Art of Bible Translation” by Robert Alter. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Alter. Reprinted by permission.

Read More: A Masterful Primer on Bible Translation

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

A Man’s Search Leads Back to His Flock

Nathan Englander was born and raised in an Orthodox community in New York, but he reinvented himself as one of America’s leading Jewish authors (“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” among other works) by writing about the points of friction between religious practice and secular life. And that’s exactly what is going on in his latest novel, “Kaddish.com” (Knopf), a sharp-edged and slyly comic account of a Jew who finds himself bouncing back and forth between the many competing versions of contemporary Judaism.

The story he tells in “Kaddish.com” focuses on a young man named Larry. Like the author, Larry is no longer observant; he embraces “Zazen mindfulness” and various other beliefs and practices that his father dismisses as “narrishkeit and bunk stuff,” but he’s also a kind of updated Portnoy, searching the internet for “the world’s filthiest filth.” As an advertising man, he spends his days “selling junk” and his nights “trying to catch an STD.” 

When his father dies, Larry dutifully sits shivah in his sister’s home in Memphis, Tenn., but he is so estranged from the traditional obligations of a son in mourning that “he keeps raising his hand to the top of his head, checking for the yarmulke, sitting there like a hubcap for all its emotional weight,” as Englander puts it. But the weightiest challenge is the duty of an only son to say Kaddish eight times a day for a full year. “Tell me you get that the Kaddish is on you,” warns his older sister, Dina.

Dina is dubious that Larry will carry the burden, and she turns to her rabbi in despair. “Fix it, Rabbi,” Larry says. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” The rabbi, in fact, comes up with a solution: “You could assign a kind of shaliach mitzvah — like an emissary. A proxy to say it in your stead.” And Larry “begins googling his way toward a solution for all that ails,” quickly finding his way to kaddish.com, “a website based in Jerusalem, and behind that website was a yeshiva, and behind that place of study was a group of deeply committed students who — for a fee — would say the Mourner’s Prayer.” As Englander jokes, kaddish.com “was like a JDate for the dead.”

Thus does Englander invite us to follow Larry down the rabbit hole into a series of comic and tragic encounters with Judaism. “I do not share the story to brag, or show off, or even to make excuses for all the years of lost time,” Larry is made to muse out loud. “I only share it to say, it’s never too late to live one’s true life.”

“What Shuli finds — and what he does — will come as a shock to the reader, a blow to the heart that leaves a lump in the throat.”

Larry’s true life, or so he believes, is his old life. He adopts his Hebrew name and returns to the study of Torah and Talmud, and we come to see him as Rebbe Shuli, a charismatic rabbi and teacher. But even so, “all his years of t’shuvah, a lifetime of redemption had … done nothing.” Suddenly, and shatteringly, he plumbs the depth of the deal he had made so many years ago when he signed up at kaddish.com. “Shuli was living a ghost life,” Englander writes. “After all the years of teaching and outreach, all the effort dedicated to t’shuvah, it was as if he’d been saving money for twenty years only to find that he’d been depositing it into someone else’s account.”

Larry — or Shuli, as we now know him — finds himself tortured by his memories of Chemi, the yeshiva student who had been assigned by kaddish.com to say the Mourner’s Prayer for Larry’s father. He is no less tortured by the plight of one of his students, a boy named Gavriel, who is also troubled by the duty of saying kaddish for his late father. Between these two sources of affliction, Shuli is confronting yet another crisis. “Gavriel is the one to tip you over,” warns Shuli’s wife, “but I’ve watched, for too long, as you teeter on the edge.” Yet it is Gavriel, an expert in navigating the internet, turns out to be Shuli’s savior: “Here, it all waits to be plucked out of the air by a child.”

Now Shuli experiences yet another revelation. “Shuli recognizes the source of it all,” Englander writes. “The flashes of pure energy through cables under the ocean, soaring up, and making their way to satellites turning in the heavens. All the world’s understanding transformed into waves of light and sound, to modulated impulse and frequency, everyone’s deepest desires broadcast in an ever-expanding and invisible net.” It is the internet, “a singular Godlike mind,” that holds the answer to Shuli’s quest for meaning and connection.

At the climax of Englander’s book, we follow Shuli to Jerusalem, where he hopes and prays to find Chemi. “He watches everyone darting about with their plastic shopping bags, filled with hippy-dippy Tzfat candles, and DON’T WORRY AMERICA, ISRAEL’S GOT YOUR BACK T-shirts, and candy bars with Hebrew names,” Englander writes. “If he was going home without the one thing he’d come for, at least he should bring gifts.” What Shuli finds — and what he does — will come as a shock to the reader, a blow to the heart that leaves a lump in the throat.

“Kaddish.com” is funny but also profound, a saga of spiritual transformation that is deeply rooted in Jewish thought and practice. Englander seeks to explain the real function of religious observance. “This is what ritual does,” Larry/Shuli says. “It binds us from chaos.” Amid the chaos in which we all live nowadays, “Kaddish.com” is a bright light in a dark world.

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

The Challenge of the Middle

Orthodox, Conservative and Reform embrace the fundamental principle that Judaism is a work in progress. All three movements originated in Germany in the early 19th century as a response to the emancipation of the Jewish people in the Western world, and they differ only in how much or how little they are willing to change in Jewish belief and practice. Orthodoxy is generally perceived as having changed the least, Reform is perceived as having changed a lot, and Conservative Judaism, like Goldilocks, appears to prefer an approach that falls somewhere in between.

Yet, according to Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Conservative Judaism is “rooted in and grow[s] from Jewish tradition, law, and moral values,” as he writes in “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice” (University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society), a book that offers a commanding view of the history and destiny of the Conservative movement as explained to us by one of its leading lights.

“For those readers who grew up in the Conservative movement, this book may serve as an illuminating backstory you may have never known, explaining not only what the movement believes and practices but how and why it arrived at these conclusions,” Dorff explains. “For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism, I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.”

Dorff emphasizes the developments that have taken place over the last 50 years, but he uses a medieval Jewish credo to provide a path through the sprawling theological terrain: “Israel, Torah and God are one.” As Dorff points out, he has reversed the order of the triad. Thus, the first section of the book is theological, the second section focuses on how the Conservative movement understands and teaches the ancient Jewish texts, and the final section explains “why Conservative leaders today remain personally committed to Israel even when they may disagree with official Israeli policy.”

Dorff’s book is the latest title in the JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought series, which is published by the University of Nebraska on behalf of the Jewish Publication Society and the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization whose membership consists of some 1,700 Conservative rabbis in North America, Israel and around the world. 

“Rabbi Dorff’s publications include more than two hundred articles on Jewish thought, law, and ethics, together with twelve books he wrote and another fourteen he edited or co-edited,” writes Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to serve as chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly (or, for that matter, any major rabbinical organization), in her foreword to Dorff’s book. “We might suggest that Rabbi Dorff’s extensive teaching, speaking, and writing constitute a lifetime of preparation for this new book.”

“Dorff refuses to apologize for the velocity or scope of change that the Conservative movement has brought to the Jewish world. Indeed, he celebrates innovation as an authentic and essential Jewish value.”

While “Modern Conservative Judaism” deserves to be described as Dorff’s magnum opus, he also serves as the curator of writings by other leading rabbis and scholars in the Conservative movement. The book includes selections from these men and women, living and dead, including the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Dorff’s fellow faculty member at the American Jewish University, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.

Dorff brings a bracing intellectual honesty to his work. The Shema may be the credo of Judaism, but exactly what we mean when we refer to “the Lord Our God” is not prescribed by the Torah, which presents God in a great many different guises. While Dorff insists that “Judaism cannot be detached from belief in, or beliefs about God,” he also concedes that “God is also a source of great perplexities and confusions.” Above all, he reminds us that one can call himself or herself a Jew without believing in God at all.

“One cannot be a Christian without believing, in some manner, that Jesus is Christ, and one cannot be a Muslim without believing Muhammad is the primary prophet of God,” he explains. “Judaism, in contrast, defines a Jew through matrilineal descent or conversion. A Jew can therefore be an agnostic or atheist or believe all kinds of other things about God (except perhaps that God is more than one or incarnated in a particular person) and still be a Jew .”

“For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism, I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.” — Elliot N. Dorff   

On the questions of who is a Jew and who is a rabbi, we find one of the great heartbreaks in the Jewish world. Dorff affirms the fundamental importance of Zionism and the Jewish state in the Conservative movement — known as Masorti in Israel — but he cannot overlook the fact that the State of Israel engages in what he frankly calls religious discrimination against all Jewish denominations except Orthodoxy. “The Israeli government funds only secular and Orthodox schools and grants allocations solely to Orthodox congregations for their buildings, maintenance, and rabbis’ salaries,” he points out. “Furthermore, only Orthodox rabbis may officiate at a wedding of two Jews in Israel or process a divorce, and the Orthodox also control which conversions to Judaism count for eligibility to marry a Jew.”

Notably, Dorff refuses to apologize for the velocity or scope of change that the Conservative movement has brought to the Jewish world. Indeed, he celebrates innovation as an authentic and essential Jewish value. “In fact, Conservative rabbis and lay leaders reveled in the diversity of opinion and practice within the movement,” he insists. “They did not want to squelch its creativity and liveliness, and, furthermore, they believed it would be Jewishly inauthentic to adopt a rigid definition of what a Conservative Jew must believe or do.”

As someone who is both an activist and a dean in the Conservative movement, Dorff is not reluctant to serve as an advocate. “Conservative thinkers and leaders will affirm with some justification that the synthesis of tradition with modernity that Conservative Judaism represents is historically the most authentic form of Judaism and the he=althiest form of Judaism for the future,” he writes. “I believe readers of this book will learn why both of these claims are true.”

Authenticity, I fear, is a dangerous word when it comes to religion. All varieties of Judaism acknowledge, whether explicitly or implicitly, that there is some irreducible set of beliefs and practices that serves as a benchmark against which each expression of Judaism must be measured. All too often, they are quick to accuse one another of “inauthenticity.” The lesson that we learn in Dorff’s important book, however, is that respect, tolerance and inclusiveness are a crucial measure of what makes a movement Jewishly authentic.

Read excerpts from the book and Q+A with Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff here. 

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

Excerpts from ‘Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice’

From the very beginning of the twentieth century, men and women worshipped side by side in Conservative synagogues, and boys and girls, as well as men and women, studied together in the classroom. (To this day, in most Orthodox communities, after the third or fourth grade, learning occurs in gender-specific classes. Also, teenage boys often study Talmud, while teenage girls study Bible, commentaries, and laws governing Jewish practice.) 

In 1922 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan inaugurated the bat mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith, and by the middle of the century most Conservative synagogues were scheduling them for young women. The ceremonies varied, however. Some bat mitzvah girls did what most bar mitzvah boys did: recite Kiddush on Friday night, chant the Torah blessings and the haftarah on Saturday morning, and give a homily on the Torah reading. At other synagogues, the bat mitzvah only recited some readings and delivered a homily on Friday night.

Some Conservative synagogues were fully egalitarian by the late 1940s, but that was rare. Only in the 1970s did a significant number of Conservative synagogues move in that direction. Gradually, legal rulings were needed to justify the emerging customs and to augment them in areas that custom could not determine. This happened with the decision to ordain women in 1983 and with subsequent CJLS [Committee on Jewish Law and Standards] rulings that enabled women to count as part of a prayer quorum, to lead services, to act as witnesses on documents, and to serve in other capacities in Jewish life.

Unlike other developments in women’s Jewish rights that entered Conservative Jewish practice first by custom, the Conservative movement’s ordination of women rabbis was a conscious decision grounded in extensive legal and moral reasoning. At present, about three hundred of the approximately seventeen hundred Rabbinical Assembly members are women. 

In 1977 the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA, or, more commonly now, JTS) and the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative movement’s rabbinical association) formed the Commission on the Ordination of Women as Rabbis. As you will read in the following excerpts from the official 1979 report, the majority of members believed that women could be ordained because most of the tasks rabbis do are not restricted to men in Jewish law. Since then, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has validated rabbinical rulings that open to women the few remaining rabbinical functions traditionally limited to men, such as leading services and serving as witnesses on documents. Even so, women rabbis can choose not to take advantage of these permissive rulings and ask men in their community to perform these tasks instead. 

“The role of the rabbi as we know it today is not one that is established in classical Jewish texts, but rather is one that has evolved through social need and custom. Consequently, there is no specifiable halakhic category that can be identified with the modern rabbinate, nor with the currently accepted mode of ordination. … To summarize, then: The halakhic objections to the ordination of women center around disapproval of the performance by a woman of certain functions. Those functions, however, are not essentially rabbinic, nor are they universally disapproved, by the accepted rules governing the discussion of halakhah in the Conservative Movement. There is no direct halakhic objection to the acts of training and ordaining a woman to be a rabbi, preacher, and teacher in Israel.”

When the authors of classical Jewish law weighed ethical issues in medicine many hundreds of years ago, they could never have imagined today’s incredible medical advances. As a result, whereas the conditions and therefore also the rules for building a sukkah have not changed much in more than two thousand years, the medical rulings of yore offer few straightforward answers to most of today’s bioethical questions. 

Modern Conservative movement thinkers have consequently approached new medical realities by applying traditional Jewish perceptions and values to the new circumstances. Sometimes that may mean trying to balance conflicting goals. For example, one responsum permits contraception and yet encourages couples not to wait too long to have children and then to have three or more if they can. Because of the radically new medical realities of our times, it should not be surprising that different Conservative rabbis who endeavor to strike the right balance in applying the tradition to contemporary circumstances sometimes arrive at different conclusions. (This is true in the Orthodox and Reform movements as well.) So, for example, Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Avram Israel Reisner agree on most end-of-life issues but differ on whether it is legitimate to withhold or withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from a dying patient and the amount of morphine that may be used in quelling pain.

The following responsum by Rabbis Miriam Berkowitz and Mark Popovsky asks: When is contraception permitted within Jewish law, and what classical teachings should guide the decision to employ it? When contraception is permitted, does Jewish law determine which contraceptive method is preferable? Does Jewish law distinguish between contraceptive methods initiated prior to intercourse and “emergency” or other contraception introduced only after intercourse?

“Assuming that all aspects of safety and efficacy with respect to more than one contraceptive method are equal for a particular couple, the couple is advised to follow the order set out in this teshuvah from most to least preferable means: Hormonal contraception (the pill, implants, vaginal insertion, transdermal patch) 

“Intrauterine device — copper or hormonal (IUD) 

“Diaphragm, cervical cap 

“Sponge, including spermicidal gel; spermicidal gel in combination with another method 


“Emergency contraception (‘the morning after pill’) — only after the fact and not for regular use”

“If a woman elects to employ a method of contraception farther down the list for reasons of health, safety or efficacy specific to her circumstances, she may rest assured that such a choice represents a halakhically valid decision, fully justified within normative Jewish practice. Birth control of any means is far preferable to abortion. Every effort should be made to ensure access to and accurate information about contraception for all who might engage in sexual intercourse. The concern that such measures will encourage risky sexual activity or promiscuity is unsupported by scientific evidence and insufficient to warrant the increased health risks borne by those in communities where access to contraception is limited.”

“Today the challenge is one of seduction into the general, secular culture through assimilation, intermarriage, and a commitment to work over family. … How shall we meet this challenge? Upholding the legal norm imposed by the later Rabbis on the male member of the couple of unlimited reproduction is neither practical nor desirable. Nor does it seem right or wise to say to the female member of the family, ‘Give up higher education and a career to have a large family.’ Rather, a reasonable course would be to encourage a fertile couple to have at least two children in compliance with the early Halakhah and at least one additional child to help the Jewish people replace those lost in the Holocaust and maintain its numbers in the modern world. The first two children that a couple produces are mitzvah children in the sense that they enable the couple (specifically, the man) to fulfill the command to procreate. We would like to suggest that the third child (and any further children) also be designated ‘mitzvah children,’ not only in the sense that classical Jewish law requires us to have as many children as we can, but also in the sense that having three or more children helps the Jewish people maintain its numbers and even regain a bit of the numbers we lost in the Holocaust. Another way to think of this is that the couple should have, if possible, at least one more child than they were planning for the sake of the Jewish people, with a minimum of three.”

Excerpts from “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice” by Elliot N. Dorff.

This story was featured as part of Jonathan Kirsch’s Feb. 22, cover story

The Truth Is Out There in Israeli Science Fiction

“The State of Israel may be regarded as the quintessential science fiction (SF) nation,” write Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem, the co-editors of “Zion’s Fiction (Mandel Vilar Press), “the only country on the planet inspired by not one, but two seminal works of wonder: the Hebrew Bible and Zionist ideologue Theo-dor Herzl’s early-twentieth century utopian novel, “Altneuland (Old New Land).” 

Yet it is also true that the 17 stories collected in “Zion’s Fiction” reflect the here and now of modern Israel. “This book will pry open the lid on a tiny, neglected, and seldom-viewed wellspring of Israeli literature, one we hope to be forgiven for referring to as ‘Zi-fi,’ ” write the co-editors in an introduction to the anthology. “We define this term as the speculative literature written by citizens and permanent residents of Israel — Jewish, Arab, or otherwise, whether living in Israel proper or abroad, writing in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, or any other language spoken in the Holy Land.”

The introduction to “Zion’s Fiction” and an introduction by Robert Silverberg, one of the living masters of the SF genre, are admirable works of literary history and commentary in themselves, and they provide an illuminating context for the stories that follow. But the stories, of course, are the real attraction, and “treasury” is exactly the right word to describe what we find in the collection. Buried in these fascinating exercises in imaginative fiction are glimpses of the anxieties and aspirations of the real Israel.

“The Smell of Orange Groves” by Lavie Tidhar, for example, imagines a future version of Israel as a poly-ethnic nation that includes not only Arabs and Jews but men and women whose ancestry reaches all the way to Mars. Their religious leaders now include such new-fangled authorities as Saint Cohen, the Oracle of the Others, and Brother R. Patch-It of the Church of Robot. “The question of who is a Jew had been asked not just about the Chong family, but of the robots, too, and was settled long ago,” muses Boris Chong, the hero of the story, a Russian-Chinese Jew who finds himself inexplicably haunted by dreams of the far-distant era when Tel Aviv did not yet exist and the place where he lives consisted of “orange groves, and sand, and sea.” After thrusting us into a strange new world, the author reminds us that sentimental memory provides no relief from the terrors of the world we already knew.  

“Buried in these fascinating exercises in imaginative fiction are glimpses of the anxieties and aspirations of the real Israel.”

In “The Believers,” Nir Yaniv describes the sudden appearance of God on Earth in the guise of a judge who inflicts sudden and gruesome death on anyone He judges and finds wanting. All too many modern Jews, it turns out, are deemed to be worthy of divine punishment. The narrator, for example, recalls the night when he and his girlfriend could no longer wait for marriage before sleeping with each other. “A weird smell woke me up in the morning,” he recalls. “Just beside me, in bed, a gray-red-purple sack, moist, dripping went. Still twitching. Fluttering about. My girlfriend, turned from the inside out.” So God is proven to be utterly real and highly dangerous, but the narrator turns out to be just as judgmental. Like Abraham and Moses, he is perfectly willing to stand up to God.

“I have always believed in God,” he tells us. “It’s about time that He started believing in me.”

Not every story is quite so theological or so apocalyptic. “Death in Jerusalem” by Elana Gomel begins as a simple and poignant boy-meets-girl story, but the woman called Mor senses something strange about her b’sheret, David. “His kisses were sterile; his mouth tasted of nothing.” When they marry in a civil ceremony in Cyprus, and she meets his family, she sees them as avatars of death by plague, by suicide, by old age. The life that Mor and David live is normal enough (“They watched Netflix and ate dinner”), but something threatening is always just below the surface. Eventually, Mor is forced to confront a dire presence that “was there when Neanderthals scattered ochre around the skeletons of the eaten ones … when shamans withered babies in their mothers’ wombs and flayed men alive without even touching them.” The ending owes more to “Rosemary’s Baby” than to anything in the Tanakh, and some readers will be reminded of the ghost stories that Isaac Bashevis Singer loved to tell. 

Many of these science fiction stories, however, can be understood as a kind of modern midrash. The Bible’s talking donkey was Balaam’s ass, of course, but we are introduced to his modern counterpart in “My Crappy Autumn” by Nitay Peretz, a wildly comic parody that features a Yiddish-speaking and wisecracking donkey named Tony. “Believe me, everyone’s an ass,” Tony insists. “But at least this ass knows what he’s talking about.” The character who tells the tale is Ido, whose girlfriend has dumped him and sent him into suicidal despair. His weapon of choice is a chrome-plated Jericho Magnum: “When it comes to death, only Made in Israel will do.” But he is diverted when a UFO lands in Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, where it is surrounded by “three Merkava Mark II tanks and one Chabad Mitzvah tank.” Ultimately, the lesson that Ido
learns from Tony is reminiscent of Balaam and his famous ass: “Some Jews have the heart of a donkey, and some donkeys have a Jewish heart.”

Science fiction and fantasy may be understood as a refuge from the harsh reality of the world in which we find ourselves. But, as “Zion’s Fiction” shows us, it actually seeks to show us a way to solve our problems rather than just hiding from them. “SF dreams (and nightmares) are products of the imagination, but they are inspired by reality,” writes Aharon Hauptman in an afterword. “If humans fail to understand our potential futures, our alternative realities, it is mostly due to the failure of imagination.” When Hauptman argues that “an SF story is a thought experiment about alternative realities,” he is defining exactly what all of us need to find a path forward.

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

Sam Lipsyte — Hark, the Mental Archer Sings

“Writers are just regular people, if not a bit more vain and shallow than most,” one of the characters in “Hark,” Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, explains.

Lipsyte spoke with the Journal by phone from his home in New York.

The son of New York Times Sports Columnist Robert Lipsyte and novelist Marjorie Lipsyte, he grew up in a house “where people were going to work at their typewriters for hours at a time” and the home was always “full of books and book talk.” Lipsyte started writing at an early age, but as many children who have gone into the family business have discovered, “you have to branch out in your own category.” 

Over the years, Lipsyte, 51, definitely has done that. As with his previous novels (“Home Land,” “The Subject Steve,” “The Ask”) and his short story collections (“Venus Drive” and “The Fun Parts”), “Hark” is full of sharp satire, verbal dexterity, black humor and deep compassion. His characters tend to live on the fulcrum of middle-class life and utter ruin, overeducated and barely getting by. 

Set in the near future, “Hark” tells the story of Hark Morner, the inventor of “Mental Archery,” a mindfulness technique, and his acolytes. Hark goes from itinerant huckster to giving presentations at corporate retreats, where he’s booked as a joke to relieve stress, to leader of a quasi-religious cult. Mental Archery’s chief tenet is focus, which is achieved through various poses explained through Hark’s invented history lessons. And the meaning of this? Hark repeatedly tells his most devoted followers that there is no meaning. 

“[My books] have secret Jewish currents running through them. They’re not very overt, and they don’t get me invited to synagogues.” — Sam Lipsyte

Lipsyte admits that Hark, the character, could be seen as Trumpian, but he started writing this novel in 2012, when President Donald Trump was still best known as a TV reality show host. “I see Trump ultimately as a symptom of the direction we’re going in,” Lipsyte said. “So I think, even before Trump was elected, I was picking up signals about the state of our republic.”  

The most obvious connections between Hark and Trump, he said, is “not so much the lying, but that they don’t really stand for anything.” Mental Archery is a reaction to “the distraction, the atomization, the feeling that there’s no story that we all belong to, that’s part of it. People have lost faith in the political system and the civic system.” 

He added that the search for meaning in today’s climate is one he takes “very seriously, because this is a real yearning that people have had in the absence of other kinds of meaning in their life.”

In “Hark,” Lipsyte has created two clearly Jewish characters, Fraz Penzig, Hark’s most devoted acolyte, and Fraz’s wife, Tovah. However, Lipsyte makes it clear he doesn’t consider himself a “Jewish novelist. I don’t sit down and say, ‘Today, I’m going to write a Jewish novel.’”  

Nevertheless, as a Jewish writer from New Jersey, Lipsyte said he feels “in some ways, deeply connected to author Philip Roth. In others ways, I need to run away from him as far as possible just to get out of his shadow.”  

He cites his biggest influences as the “so-called post-modernists” of the 1960s and ’70s, specifically the dark comic writer Stanley Elkin. “That’s somebody I’ve read very deeply and revere, and he’s a literary hero of mine,” Lispyte said.

Lipsyte wasn’t raised in an observant Jewish home. Rather, he said, “my father said we were ‘stomach Jews’ — we ate the Jewish food.” Nonetheless, Lipsyte said he still has “a very strong identification with my Jewishness, but I feel I’m always in a constant conversation with myself about what that means.”

And what does that mean? “If it’s just the practice of religion, I’m not sure,” Lipsyte said. “If it’s connected to a wonderful culture and a tradition of artistic and intellectual excellence, that is very important to me. I think it’s always in flux.” 

Still, he said, his books “have secret Jewish currents running through them. They’re not very overt, and they don’t get me invited to synagogues.”

Sam Lipsyte will read from “Hark” at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 31. 

10 Ways to Save Money on Fall Decorating

As the temperatures finally drop here in Southern California and it feels a little bit like fall, you may be in the mood to spruce up your home for the season. Autumn is one of my favorite times to decorate because it’s all about being cozy and comfortable. But instead of spending a lot of money buying fall-themed accessories at the store, there are many inexpensive — and free — decorating hacks you can take advantage of.

1. Collect free foliage
Look in your backyard for branches, leaves, pinecones and other natural elements that you can place in vases and bowls around the house. Bringing the outdoors in will give your home that fresh fall feel.

2. Eat your accessories
Some of the best accessories you can display are those you can also eat. Apples, oranges and pomegranates in bowls around the house add cheery color, while walnuts in jars or serving dishes provide autumnal charm. You can also display spices like whole cloves and cinnamon sticks for some irresistible fall aromas.

3. Upcycle those cans and jars
Wash out your used tin cans and glass jars and repurpose them as rustic vases and organizers. Wrap them in ribbon, fabric or string to decorate them.

4. Decorate with books
Create vignettes around the house with old books. If you don’t have vintage-looking books, wrap your current best-sellers in decorative paper or even plain butcher paper, and they’ll become chic accessories.

5. Re-cover your pillows with clothes
Give new life to throw pillows by covering them in old shirts and sweaters. You don’t even need to cut them up in case you want to wear them again. Just wrap them like you would a package and safety pin the excess fabric in the back of the pillow. Talk about cozy.

6. Dig out those old pots
Do you have a cabinet full of old pots and pans you haven’t used in years but don’t have the heart to give them up? (Full disclosure: I do.) Let them see the light of day by using them as display vases and bowls. The more banged up they are, the better. 

7. Frame some leaves
Find colorful leaves in your neighborhood or a nearby park, press them in a book to dry and flatten them, and then put them in a frame. Instant art! 

8. Pick up some potted flowers
Instead of purchasing cut flowers, which will last only about a week, opt for pots of fall-hued flowers such as chrysanthemums. At my local supermarket, a pot of mums costs about the same as a bouquet of flowers, but it will last all season long.

9. Paint it
Metallic copper or gold spray paint is one of my decorating secrets. Spray paint old candlesticks, jars and other tchotchkes with a metallic patina, and they are transformed and expensive-looking. If you’re not into spray paint, try chalk paint. It’s easy to apply and gives your decorative objects a different kind of vintage look that’s just as beautiful.

10. Look in your garage
There are many utilitarian objects in your garage that can be repurposed to give your home that vintage farmhouse feel this season. Rickety ladders, wooden tool boxes, galvanized buckets and other hidden gems in the garage can be the focal point of a gorgeous fall vignette. Even random things such as nuts and bolts or old work boots can find unexpected new life in your decor. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at jonathanfongstyle.com.

Ephron Stumbles Across Magic in Researching Her Fantasy

Amy Ephron

I called Amy Ephron, expecting the usual type of interview to take place, presenting one by one the questions I had carefully outlined about her newest books, “The Castle in the Mist” and its companion, “Carnival Magic,” and then jotting down her replies.

But I should have known that creative minds possess their own rhyme and rhythm, their own unexpected turns and particular mode of delivery. So, right after the initial “hello and thank you,” I was treated to a generous outpouring of stream of consciousness that practically answered my every question about the books, the prose, the characters, why she shifted to children’s books now, and a lot more. Particularly why, unlike most children’s books today, there’s an absence of violence and death in both books.

Ephron calls “The Castle in the Mist” and “Carnival Magic” a modern-day mash-up of old-fashioned children’s books, in which reality meets magic and the reader doesn’t know whether it’s real or imagined. The beauty of great writers, Ephron said, is their ability to create characters and worlds that readers are convinced exist, stories that draw in readers the same way a film can;  the same way the characters in “The Secret Garden,” one of

Ephron’s favorite books, existed for her, the same way that world was as real to her as the world she lived in as a child. 

The books are infused with an ethical subset, too, such as the way Tess and Max have the capacity for empathy, the capacity to take care of each other, as well as possessing a self-protective veneer. Or how they run tapes in their heads about what their parents had said to them that makes sense to use as tools when they’re on their own. 

Although there’s danger, and certainly more of a proper antagonist in the second book, Ephron assured her readers that there’ll never be any explosions or any threat of violence, even though Tess and Max are being thrust into the unknown. Have they travelled through time? Has time changed? Has time collapsed? Where exactly are they?

Ephron lamented that everyone is dealing with so much these days, particularly kids. When on tour in Florida the week of Valentine’s Day, she was in Parkland at River Glades Elementary on the same campus as Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a gunman shot and killed 17 students and staff. She was privy to students dealing with much uncertainty in this sociopolitical environment, the global political environment, and the danger in their own spaces that are supposed to be safe.

“These kids are amazing,” Ephron said, referring to kids she meets on her speaking tours in schools across the country. “We’re raising a really interesting generation of kids. Many of them have extraordinary values and a belief that they can make a difference.”

Drawing from her experiences with her siblings and her own children, who might fight with each other but, when push comes to shove, have each other’s backs, Ephron created a fearless heroine in Tess, who pinkie swears with her mathematical brother, Max. A sign to each other not to worry, a promise that they’re right here for each other, have each other’s back.

“It was really fun to create worlds where we don’t know where we are and apply the same rules to them.” — Amy Ephron 

“Tess reminds me of me,” Ephron said, letting loose her throaty laughter. “There’s a kind of indomitable spirit that’s incredibly strong and, in its own way, incredibly pure, true and honest. You push us back, and we’ll come back as survivors, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep our chin up and hope that we don’t hit our knee too hard when we fall. 

“It’s really crazy!” Ephron said with a chuckle, referring to the numerous incidents that have occurred in her life that found their way into the books. “A kind of crazy magical realism,” especially with “Carnival Magic.” Although familiar with Hampshire, where “The Castle in the Mist” takes place, Ephron didn’t know South Devon, where “Carnival Magic” is set. On her way to her rented cottage in Torquay, Devon, when the driver pulled down to the side of the road, Ephron was astonished to see that a carnival had come to town and was putting up stakes.

“Meanwhile I’d already put the carnival in the story! You’re going to start laughing,” Ephron said. Over lunch, she told her friend about the traveler’s wagon in “Carnival Magic” and about the character who plays the violin, and her friend told Ephron that a man does indeed come to town every summer and parks a traveler’s wagon by the side of the road.

“And sure enough there he was!” Ephron said. The day she went to research Paignton Zoo, she learned that three endangered tiger cubs had been born in the zoo. In the meantime, she had invented the three tigers in the story.

But wait, there’s more. She learned from the taxi driver that the entire town of Paignton was once owned by Paris Singer, whose mistress was Isadora Duncan, known as the mother of modern dance. Hence, the inspiration for the aerial ballet sequences in “Carnival Magic.” 

Ephron prefers readers to decide for themselves whether the incidents occurring in the books are magic or imagined. She said her intention was for Tess and Max to try to make sense of the things that happen to them in terms of the contemporary world they live in. “The hawthorn tree for me is an amazing metaphor, and I learned a great number of things about hawthorn trees that I didn’t know about when I’d written them and put them around the castle and had William say,  ‘Beware of the hawthorn trees.’

“After deep research, I learned that hawthorn trees used to be thought to be a cure for a broken heart — if I only knew that when I was in my 20s, I’d have eaten hawthorn berries. Now they’re doing some research on hawthorn trees in terms of heart failure. They actually think there might be some medicinal value to hawthorn and hawthorn berries. Meanwhile the hawthorns are also thought to be, and it’s in the book, a gateway to the land of the fairies, and if you sit beside them, you might get whisked away, and if you bring the flower of the hawthorn tree inside in May, something terrible might happen to the woman of the house, which is a metaphor for the children’s mother. So the hazard of the trees for me is a metaphor for what was going on all around them.” 

I brought up the mysterious character in “Carnival Magic,” who refers to a silver plane named The Flying Lady as “a symbol of an equation … that potentially proves the existence of the possibility of an alternate universe.” I asked whether Ephron, too, believes in an alternate universe that our senses might be incapable of detecting? “That was kind of a weird thing, too.” After she drew the equation on the side of the plane in “Carnival Magic,” Ephron looked it up and learned that a similar physics equation exists that may prove the existence of an alternate universe. That’s “if you believe in physics. But who knows if physics believes in physics!”

Ephron said she had once read “a bunch of books about quasars and black holes and maybe this could be some kind of sense memory of an equation that I remembered because I actually know a little bit more math than I look like I know. It’s just an odd thing about me.”

Ephron does not see her foray from writing adult books into children books as challenging or as shifting gears because a lot of what she has done, including her journalism, has been what she calls period writing. She said that no matter what period a writer is writing about, one has to find the voice and all the other accoutrements that go along with the time — the pace, the food, the slang, the clothes and the emotions. Every single piece has to fold together to create a world.

The sociopolitical backdrop is also what defines a period. “It defines the way you and I politically view the world,” she said. “It defines our actions. It defines the people we revere and want to emulate. It defines our sense of conscience, even though it’s really getting trying to have a big sense of conscience these days. So for me, in terms of being a stretch, it was more an extension of all the writing that I’ve done until then. It was really fun to create worlds where we don’t know where we are and apply the same rules to them. I’m not really someone who goes by rules, but I do know what can be jarring.

“That’s something I’ve been playing with since ‘A Cup of Tea,’ the language that captures the place you evoke. The fun for me about writing these books has been letting them tell their own story to some degree. I always find that if you don’t over outline, a character can make a right turn or left turn that you weren’t expecting.” 

Ephron said that a number of adults who’d read the book had made the same observation as I had: that the books can be enjoyed at any age. She hopes that’s the case, although she made a few concessions, particularly in the first book, where the language is easy enough and understandable enough so as not to lose the third- or fourth-grader.

I wanted to know whether the mother of the siblings will have a stronger presence in “The Other Side of the Wall,” Ephron’s forthcoming book. After another peal of laughter, she replied that she can’t verify whether the mother is going to get there because the parents’ plane is presently delayed because of “incredibly bad weather in Europe. Their mom has somewhat recovered from her illness and decided to join the dad in Berlin because their marriage has been a little stressed by the fact that he took the job in Berlin. I’m still trying to get the mother to the other side of the wall.”

I, for one, am confident that Tess and Max, with the help of magic and their own resourcefulness, will find a way to get their mother to the other side of the wall. 

READ MORE: Ephron Masterfully Weaves a World of Magic


Walking With the Jews Who Created Christianity

A distinguished Christian scholar has written a fascinating book about a crucial moment in Jewish history and about one Jew in particular, perhaps the most famous Jew of all — Jesus of Nazareth.

“When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation,” by Paula Fredriksen (Yale University Press), offers a glimpse in tight close-up of the Jewish community in Jerusalem in the first century of the Common Era, when “the Jesus movement,” as Fredriksen puts it, was a sect within Judaism that regarded Jesus as the long-promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, she argues provocatively, the Christian Scriptures can be seen as “a genre of Jewish scriptural improvisation.”

Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and a member of the Faculty of Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has written often on the linkages between Christianity and Judaism, and her previous books include “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” and “Augustine and the Jews.” Indeed, she wrote her new book in Jerusalem, and she was inspired by setting her own feet on the ground where David and Jesus once walked.

“Simply being here, being able to walk to and in the Old City, to stand near the Kotel and, when local politics allowed, to pace the Muslim area built upon the ruins of Herod’s magnificent temple, charged my imagination and filled me with sadness and wonder,” Fredriksen explains. “What a beautiful, blood-soaked, beloved, contested piece of the planet Jerusalem is.”

Throughout her account, Fredriksen parses the Christian Scriptures to tease out “the intra-Jewish religious arguments” that they embody. When she invokes the founding fathers of Christianity, Fredriksen pauses to note: “All of these men were Jews.” Above all, she reminds her readers that Paul —who cut the ties between Judaism and “the Jesus movement” and thus can be regarded as the actual creator of Christianity — boasted proudly of his Jewish identity: “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born to Israel.”

Her knowing attention to detail often turns the Christian version of the life story of Jesus on its head.  For centuries — and, thanks to Mel Gibson, even in our own times — the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as depicted in the Gospels has been a source of deadly Christian anti-Semitism. Pilate is shown to blame the Jews of Jerusalem for demanding the execution of Jesus. “As history,” Fredriksen argues, “the scene cannot fit into what else we know had to have been the case — namely, that Jesus’ popularity is what led him to his cross.”

Nor is it plausible, as the Christian Scriptures suggest, that the Temple priests contrived to frame Jesus because they regarded him as a dangerous subversive. “After all, just southeast of Jerusalem, at Qumran, an entire community was busy producing their own biblical commentaries, developing their own halakhic practices, disdaining the current temple, reviling its priesthood, and anticipating the Endtime arrival of an entirely new temple, which at least implied the destruction of the current one,” Fredriksen writes. “Against them the Jerusalem priesthood never so much as lifted a finger.”

“What a beautiful, blood-soaked, beloved, contested piece of the planet Jerusalem is.”
— Paula Fredriksen

Paul may have looked beyond Judaism when he brought the Jesus movement to Rome, but even he carried the threads of Jewish tradition into Christianity. The earliest followers of Jesus expected the world to end in their own lifetimes, and they embraced what Fredriksen describes as “the contours of late Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic eschatology.” Jesus is explicitly described in the Christian Scriptures as the direct descendant of King David precisely because his fellow Jews expected the Messiah to carry David’s blood in his veins. 

“The figure of Jesus was draped in the antique robes of Davidic traditions; and those traditions were thereby ‘updated’ by being conformed to the figure of Jesus — his death as ‘King of the Jews’ and his postresurrection anticipated return,” Fredriksen writes. “It is through this process that Jesus became ‘Christ.’ ” 

Even as Christ, however, Jesus was expected to bring a version of the end of the world that owes much to Jewish messianism. “Not only would life be restored to the dead; the ten tribes of Israel, ‘lost’ to the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C.E., would be restored to the nation, ‘gathered in’ with the exiles of Israel,” Fredriksen summarizes. “The false gods of the nations, subdued in their turn, would themselves acknowledge the God of Israel. … And the mother city of the wide-flung Jewish nation, Jerusalem, restored and resplendent, would shine in the End as the place of God’s presence, the seat of his Kingdom.”

The best evidence that Christianity began as a “small messianic sect” within Judaism is that the authors of the Christian Scriptures “retrofitted” the life of Jesus to recall specific passages of the Hebrew Bible, an exercise that would have been meaningful and convincing only to their fellow Jews. “All Israel had been awaiting such a messiah, they proclaimed,” Fredriksen writes. “Moses and the prophets together witnessed to the significance of Jesus and the messiah. … Finally, finally, and in their own days, these prophecies had already been — and would soon be — fulfilled.”

Exactly here is where “the Jesus-community,” as Fredriksen puts is, branches off  from its Jewish theological roots. The Jews who expected Jesus to return in apocalyptic glory during their own lifetimes died off. “The single biggest problem was that the End, stubbornly, continued not to come,” the author writes, and “[t]ime continued to continue.” Subsequent generations of believers in Jesus now sought to convert the gentiles among them and to bring their “good news” to Rome and beyond. Thus did the first Christians explain the delay in the Second Coming: “’The gospel must first be preached to all nations’ before the End can come.”

Surely it is no coincidence that Fredriksen is able to conjure Jerusalem in ancient times while seated at a desk in modern Jerusalem, but it is deeply ironic. Both the Jewish world and Jerusalem in particular are the seat of conflict today, and Fredriksen shows us that it has always been so.

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

‘God Is in the Crowd’: A Memoir and Warning

“My prognosis for the Jewish future is grim,” announces Tal Keinan at the very outset of “God Is In the Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism” (Spiegel & Grau). For precisely that reason, Keinan urgently seeks to start a conversation with “the Crowd,” which he defines as “a critical mass of the world Jewish community,” about ideas that he readily describes as aggressive and even radical. But he insists that what is at stake is the very survival of Judaism: “In an era of seemingly limitless personal options, our choice as a community is stark: Create meaning in Judaism or accept extinction.”

Keinan is an activist and an entrepreneur rather than a religious scholar. He attended Israel‘s Air Force Academy and spent eight years as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force (IAF), an experience that “left almost no time for contemplating Judaism.” He holds an MBA from Harvard and runs an investment firm called Clarity Capital. As co-founder of Koret Israel Economic Development Funds, his contribution to Israel focuses on making loans to small businesses. To put it another way, he knows how to fly an F-16 in combat, and he is an expert at number-crunching and asset management, but he relied on Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller for the accuracy of his references to the Talmud and Halacha.

The author starts with the assumption that Jews today, both in America and Israel, do not face the same threat of physical extinction that confronted Judaism during the Holocaust. “Like America, Israel has brought the blessings of security, freedom, and prosperity to many individual Jews.” But he insists that “complacent American Judaism” and “a fundamentally divided, visionless, and consequently rudderless Israel” remain a direct threat to our survival. “American Jewry is dying in its sleep,” he writes, and Israel is growing ever more estranged from the Diaspora: “Israel’s viability will be deeply compromised if the country comes to represent nobody but its own inhabitants.” His book, then, is a cry of alarm and a call to action addressed to the Jewish people in their entirety.

“Keinan’s book is a cry of alarm and a call to action addressed to the Jewish people in their entirety.”

At the same time, “God Is In the Crowd” is an intimate memoir of his own aliyah. Keinan makes the storytelling compelling by allowing us to accompany him through the harrowing experiences of applying to and training for the IAF, and then serving under enemy fire. He writes candidly and movingly about the rough bumps of his own transformation from American immigrant to Israeli citizen. In one memorable moment, he shows us what the offer of a melted cheese sandwich from a kibbutznik on Yom Kippur meant to a soldier from America at a post in the Negev: “I took it without hesitation,” he recalls. “Just like that, the single annual anchor of my Jewish identity melted in the heat of the Negev.”

Above all, he confronts us with what Israel really asks of its men and women, both young and old, whose duties include military service on fighting fronts. “The leap between war and work,” he writes, means the repeated transition from “a normal professional and family life that any Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Wall Street investor, or American Jew would recognize” to “a world fraught with terror, loss, irreversible consequences, and unavoidable guilt.” Only rarely are readers offered an opportunity to ride along in the cockpit of an F-16 on a combat mission in the “Syrian missile umbrella,” and his account is far more thrilling than any movie or video game that offers an ersatz version of the same experience.

The last one-third of the book consists of Keinan’s courageous and visionary attempt to make sense of the conundrums and contradictions that he has explored in the first two-thirds. His goal is “to offer a model of Judaism compelling enough that the vast majority of Jews, in America and in Israel, will embrace it willingly.” He turns to a very modern-sounding (but actually quite old) approach to decision-making variously called “Vox Populi” and “Wisdom of Crowds,” and he insists that “Jewish Crowd Wisdom” has always served as a tool for Jewish self-definition and self-correction. “Perhaps paradoxically, the diversity of our individual readings, and our diverse choices of destination, help to define us as a coherent nation,” he argues. “The Jewish Crowd in Diaspora did not receive dogma from above. It wrestled with its own moral governance.” Drawing on his own expertise in financial analysis, he asks: “Could the evolving Jewish moral code be a representation of a continuous moving average of more than three thousand years of religious, cultural, and moral data points?”

“God Is In the Crowd” rewards the reader with a vivid and affecting account of life in Israel today, while at the same time challenging us to ponder and perhaps even revise our understanding of what it means to be a Jew, both in Israel and America. That’s what Keinan means when he refers to the evolving moral code that is the highest expression of Judaism. “Modernity will end Jewish history and, with it, the distinctive contribution of the Jews to human history,” he warns, “unless the code, and the community that serve as its medium, can be revived.”

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

U.S. and Them: How Americans See Themselves in Israel

On our first trip to Israel, we traveled via Rome to Jerusalem. At the hotel in Rome, we needed to get a converter from the front desk to operate our electric appliances, and the only English-language TV channels were BBC and CNN. Our room at the King David, by comparison, was equipped with a U.S. outlet, and we could watch episodes of “CSI” in English with Hebrew subtitles.

That’s only one measure of the cultural affinity between America and Israel, of course, and Amy Kaplan drills down much more deeply in “Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance” (Harvard University Press). Be forewarned: Kaplan is a harsh critic of Israel, and she questions all of the assumptions that prompted President Barack Obama to affirm the existence of an “unbreakable bond” between the two countries.

Kaplan is the Edward W. Kane Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, a former president of the American Studies Association, and the recipient of fellowships from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.  Her scholarly eye falls on every aspect of what she characterizes as the “mythic status and tenacious appeal” of Israel in the American imagination, and she sharply criticizes what she calls “the strangeness of an affinity that has come to be self-evident.”

Indeed, the title of her book reaches all the way back to 1799, when a New England minister preached a Thanksgiving sermon about “Our American Israel” because, as he saw it, “the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel than any other nation upon the globe.” She is just as intrigued by the way that artifacts of popular culture, such as Leon Uris’ 1958 best-selling novel, “Exodus,” and the subsequent movie version have shaped American perceptions of Israel: “One cannot overestimate the influence of ‘Exodus’ in Americanizing the Zionist narrative of Israel’s origins.” And she points out that AIPAC sent a copy of the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust” to every member of Congress “as part of an intense lobbying campaign against a plan to sell aircraft to Saudi Arabia.”

Kaplan recognizes how the hard realities of recent American experience have only brought us closer to Israel. “After September 11, 2001, Israel’s experience of terrorism offered Americans a ready-made vocabulary for articulating their own sense of unprecedented trauma,” she writes. But she also points out that the theological longings of “Christian Zionists” are equally powerful in shaping American policy toward Israel: “The significance of Israel was not in realizing the political goal of Jewish sovereignty, but in manifesting’s God’s sovereignty and making it possible for some Jews to convert to Christianity to correct the fatal mistake they had made in rejecting Christ two millennia ago.”

“Kaplan insists on showing us the other side of every coin. ‘The Six-Day War’ is commonly considered the turning point in the special relationship between the United States and Israel…yet the victory also marked the emergence of a ‘global counternarrative.’”

Kaplan often confronts us with facts of history that are sometimes awkward and uncomfortable. A British participant in the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, which studied the impact on Jewish migration to Palestine in 1946, pointed out a certain dire parallel between America’s manifest destiny and the Zionist project: “Zionism after all is merely the attempt by the European Jew to rebuild his national life on the soil of Palestine in much the same way as the American settler developed the West,” wrote Richard Crossman. “So the American will give the Jewish settler in Palestine the benefit of the doubt, and regard the Arab as the aboriginal who must go down before the march of progress.”

Kaplan insists on showing us the other side of every coin. “The Six-Day War is commonly considered the turning point in the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” she writes. “The small nation’s lightning victory and righteous cause appealed to a nation embroiled in the Vietnam War, and Americans en masse fell in love with Israel.” Yet the battlefield victory also marked the emergence of “a global counternarrative,” one that “framed the rise of Palestinian nationalism as a Third World revolutionary movement and linked Israel not with anti-colonial struggles but with American imperial power in Vietnam.” By 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, the atrocities in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps prompted columnist George Will to declare: “Palestinians have now had their Babi Yar.”

Ironically, the tragedy in Lebanon only validated the Palestinian in the eyes of some American observers. “A liberal consensus emerged in the 1980s around a narrative of two peoples fighting over one land, and a belief that only mutual recognition could resolve the conflict between them,” she explains. Thus did the two-state solution become an article of faith in American foreign policy, at least until President Donald Trump, “with Vice President Mike Pence, a Christian Zionist, by his side,” recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. By doing so, Kaplan argues, “he appealed not only to his pro-Likud Republican Jewish backers, but also to white Christian evangelicals, who overwhelmingly supported him in the election.” And so “[the] liberal consensus has now been replaced by a conservative one.”

Kaplan concludes that Israel today is perceived by Americans not as a light unto the nations but as “an invincible victim constantly besting the challenges of a perpetual war.” Her concerns and doubts about Israel, which run throughout “Our American Israel,” are eventually spoken out loud. She concedes that Israel, nowadays hailed as the “start-up nation,” is seen by some Americans as “an idea factory, manufacturing the ‘meta-ideas’ of the future.” But she argues that “it will be a dystopian future: all around the world, people will inhabit cities that look like military zones, occupied by police indistinguishable from soldiers, and monitored by sophisticated systems of homeland security.”

Kaplan must already know that she will draw unfriendly fire from the right for the point of view she expresses in “Our American Israel,” but no American who loves and supports Israel can afford to ignore the arguments that she makes. She points out that the phrase “no daylight between the United States and Israel” has joined the phrase “unbreakable bond” in the vocabulary of the Americans who support Israel, but she refuses to ignore the facts of history or to refrain from the advocacy of even the most challenging ideas. “We must let in daylight if Americans are to understand why and how this bond has come to be seen as unbreakable,” Kaplan writes, and surely she is right about that.

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

Seven Books to Keep on Your Summer Reading Radar

Still working on your summer-reading list? Here are just a few forthcoming books of Jewish interest that you may want to look out for.

“Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein”
by Jamie Bernstein (Harper)

In this centennial year of Leonard Bernstein’s birth — and a year in which Jewish American Heritage Month (May) has spotlighted Jewish contributions to American music — this memoir by the eminent composer/conductor’s eldest daughter is likely to hold wide appeal. (Consider reading it before Aug. 25, when Lenny would have celebrated his 100th birthday.)

“Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah”
by David Biale (Yale University Press)

I’m a fan of the “Jewish Lives” biography series, so this new entry caught my attention. Biale’s book will acquaint readers with Scholem (1897-1982), whom the Press describes as “the seminal twentieth-century historian and thinker who pioneered the study of Jewish mysticism and profoundly influenced the Zionist movement.”

“The Lost Family”
by Jenna Blum (Harper)

The Holocaust suffused Blum’s first novel — the best-selling book-club favorite “Those Who Save Us”; the cataclysm’s lasting effects hover over this one, too. Here, readers will encounter a New York chef who also happens to be an Auschwitz survivor. And they’ll meet the family he builds in New York while he continues to grieve those whom he lost in Europe.

“A Terrible Country”
by Keith Gessen (Viking)

Perhaps your interest in this novel, like mine, has been piqued already by a recent excerpt in The New Yorker. Perhaps you have yet to learn anything about protagonist Andrei Kaplan — a Jewish, Moscow-born American 30-something (who shares certain biographical similarities with author Gessen). Regardless, the tale of family and politics that unfolds as Andrei returns to his native Russia — now Putin’s Russia — to care for his ailing grandmother, may well be one you’ll want to spend some quality summertime with.

“The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies”
by Dawn Raffel (Blue Rider)

Born in 1869 as Michael Cohn in Krotoschin, Prussia (now Poland), “Dr. Martin Arthur Couney” saved thousands of premature American infants by placing them in incubators in sideshows and hiring skilled nurses to care for them (he funded treatment by charging the public admission). By 1937, he was also signing affidavits to help rescue Jews from Europe. Significantly, his hometown was known as the site of a famous publisher of the Jerusalem Talmud. Through Raffel’s account, readers may well come to see his story as an atypical but worthy embodiment of Sanhedrin 4:5: If one saves a single life, it is as if one has saved the whole world.

“Historical Atlas of Hasidism”
by Marcin Wodzinski (Princeton University Press)

Want to brush up on your knowledge of Chasidism? Definitely not a beach read, this one is being billed as “the very first cartographic reference book on one of the modern era’s most vibrant and important mystical movements. Featuring 74 large format maps and a wealth of illustrations, charts and tables, this one-of-a-kind atlas charts Chasidism’s emergence and expansion; its dynasties, courts and prayer houses; its spread to the New World; the crisis of the two world wars and the Holocaust; and Chasidism’s remarkable postwar rebirth.” Cartography by Waldemar Spallek

“For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors”
by Laura Esther Wolfson (University of Iowa Press)

If essays are your reading jam — and they’re often mine — you should check out this collection, which was selected by Meghan Daum for the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. Within its pages, the publisher promises, you’ll read about the author’s “years of immersion in the Russian and French languages; her struggles to gain a basic understanding of Judaism, its history, and her place in it; and her search for a form to hold the stories that emerge from what she has lived, observed, overheard, and misremembered.”

Erika Dreifus is a New York-based writer and book publicist (although she is not representing any of the books/authors cited here). Visit her online at www.ErikaDreifus.com and follow her on Twitter at @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets “on matters bookish and/or Jewish.”

Books: The Jewish DNA

“I cannot live without books.” These famous words were spoken by Thomas Jefferson on June 10, 1815, but they were most likely born on the 6th of Sivan — Shavuot — some 3,300 years ago at Mount Sinai. On that day, when God gave the Jewish people one book — the Torah — the 3,000-year-plus Jewish love affair with books began.

On a daily basis in our evening prayers, we affirm that we cannot live without books, “for they are our life and the length of our days.” In their jointly written book “Jews and Words,” Amos Oz (father) and Fania Oz-Salzberger (daughter) say that “Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words,” and that Judaism’s lineage is “not a bloodline, but a textline.”

Drawing on a personal example of this “textline,” I was raised by a Moroccan father whose mother was the descendant of a long line of kabbalistic rabbis originally from Spain. My father’s grandfather, Rabbi Yosef Pinto (died in 1953), was the last in that line in Marrakesh. In Pinto’s old age, his eyesight was weary, and my father told me that he became his “grandfather’s eyes.” Pinto had an extensive library filled with classic Jewish books — Torah, commentaries, Talmud, Midrash and kabbalah — and my father spent every Shabbat and holiday in his youth reading from these books to his grandfather, and listening to his explanations.

My father was curious about his grandfather’s distinguished lineage, so one day he asked him, “Please tell me about our family. Where do we come from?” Pinto answered, “We come from a book.” Perplexed, my father asked for a further explanation, and his grandfather replied, “A long time ago, our ancestor Rabbi Jacob Pinto wrote a book called ‘Mikdash Melech.’ It’s a kabbalistic commentary on the Torah. That’s where we come from, that is our origins, that book.”

When my father asked his grandfather to point him to the place on the bookshelf where the book could be found, Pinto’s face turned sad and he said, “We don’t have the book. It was borrowed many years ago by students who left on a long journey, and they never returned. Not them, not the book.”

From childhood, I grew up with this story. I was blessed to live in a home whose bookshelves were filled with hundreds of Jewish books, but I nonetheless felt that one book was missing. As a child, I Imagined what that book might look like, its font, its pages, its binding. What would it feel like to hold the book that, according to my great-grandfather, is my roots, my origin, my DNA. I left a symbolic empty spot on one of my bookshelves, with the hope that one day this special book would find it’s rightful place in my home.

My journey to “Mikdash Melech” is but one of millions of Jewish journeys within the world of sacred books.

At the age of 17, I left Los Angeles to study in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel. The yeshiva’s main building comprised a large beit midrash — the study hall where we spent most of our day studying Talmud in pairs (chavrutot) — and a smaller library of rare books upstairs. The upstairs library was barely used, as most of the books were rare, out of print, and often not in readable condition.

One day, my study partner was sick and didn’t come to the beit midrash. Being a bibliophile, I took this opportunity to venture upstairs and check out the rare books. As I browsed through shelves of ancient books, I thought of my family’s missing book. I chanced upon a small card catalogue, and I flipped to the Hebrew letter “mem,” in search of “Mikdash Melech.” I flipped and flipped the cards, and almost flipped out when I saw one card that read “Mikdash Melech.” I nervously followed the catalog number to the shelf. My heart was filled with hope that this was the book, but my mind kept saying, “It’s probably another book by the same name.”

I found a book named “Mikdash Melech,” and with trembling hands I opened its frail pages, soon to find a name on the title page that had me jumping for joy like a little boy in a candy store: Rabbi Yaakov Pinto.

I ran to a pay phone to call my father, and when he answered the phone, I told him, “Guess what I’m holding in my hands? I’m holding our family’s DNA, what your grandfather called the book of our origins, the book where I come from, where you come from, where our family comes from.”

With tears of joy my father said, “Please read to me.” Here I was, long distance, doing for my father what he did for his grandfather. For that moment, I became his eyes, and over the phone, I read to him from the opening page of this one magical book, the book that represents my family’s textline.

My journey to “Mikdash Melech” is but one of millions of Jewish journeys within the world of sacred books. We are a people for whom reading is not just a pastime, it’s an act of spirituality. Studying is not something we do for exams; rather, it’s our primary mode of religious expression. We treat our books with respect, admiration and love. Every word is sacred, and every letter can give birth to a wealth of new ideas.

While Islam referred to the Jewish people as “The People of the Book,” I would say a more accurate title for us is “The people of the interpretation of the book.” Through thousands of years and millions of pages of interpretation, we have helped our original book give birth to innumerable other books, all that tell the Jewish story in one way or the other, and all that collectively speak to our passionate love affair with books.

In his book “The Genius of Judaism,” French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy writes, “The genius of Judaism is the Book and books. And it is when one chooses to close these books — that is, to comment on them no further, to challenge and oppose them no more — that the genius dies.”

As we enter our festival of books — Shavuot — let us renew our commitment to reading, studying, discussing, arguing, commenting, explaining and exploring the meaning of our ultimate symbol — our books. As we spend the night of Shavuot expressing our love for Torah and contemplating our Jewish identity, let us remember that, in my great-grandfather’s words, we all “come from a book.” Our DNA is not found in labs, but in libraries. I know that when I was 17, that’s where I found mine.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

Why New Book, ‘Judaism, Zionism and the Land of Israel,’ Fills a Void

For decades, Rabbi Yotav Eliach, esteemed principal of Rambam Mesivta High School in Long Island, has accumulated his teachings, writings, and those of many other scholars and rabbinical authorities, tracking the history of Israel. His mission was not just to chronicle the dispossession and repossession of a people, as Walter Laqueur did in A History of Zionism, but to go beyond. Rabbi Eliach completes the circle and ties in the religious component— spiritual Judaism itself. The result is a massive and incisive tome, Judaism, Zionism and the Land of Israel. It is designed to bridge the intellectual space between Israel’s cultural, political, intellectual, diplomatic, juridical, and historical pillars. Skillfully and doggedly, Rabbi Eliach weaves in the Biblical and Talmudic quintessence that laces it all together.

The work spans the millennia between Abraham’s covenant with God right through the fiery twentieth century and into the modern, post-Oslo Accords era. In this compilation, God is an acknowledged factor as much as turning-point wars, crumbling international agreements, and fractious diplomacy. On an early page, Rabbi Eliach writes, “The Israelites’ relationship to Hashem was based on a covenant binding God and Israel through a series of obligations.” God is written about as a real and all permeating force, an ipso facto that functions as the alpha and omega of the story—dwelling above all events.

The Divine is a part of the Israel equation that many modern commentators do not emphasize. But Rabbi Eliach magnifies the role of the Lord, intertwined with those of skillful diplomats and brave warriors, from the perspective of a believer, as one who walks in the aura of understanding that too many analysts in the secular world circumvent.
Many, regardless of religious rigor—myself included—assisted Rabbi Eliach in the pursuit of his literary quest—admittedly in a world and an era where such books may not be welcome.

For example, the estate and publishers of the late, great historian Martin Gilbert have allowed Rabbi Eliach to republish many of Gilbert’s treasured and classic maps in this volume. Alan Dershowitz, who famously argued for the Jewish State in The Case for Israel, endorsed Rabbi Eliach’s book with a back cover blurb: “The case for Israel must be made anew in every generation and to every audience,” wrote Dershowitz, adding, “Rabbi Eliach has been making the case to generations of high school students. Now he brings his insights and experience to a general public that is desperately in need of history and current realities.”

Prize-winning journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, whose works, such as We Were Like Dreamers, set forth the religious, political, and cultural perspective of Israel also blurbed the book: “With passion, clarity, eloquence and most of all love,” he wrote, “Yotav Eliach lays out the story of Zionism and the case for Israel. At a time when that story is under growing and systematic attack, Rabbi Eliach has given the Jewish people an indispensable gift.”

Four of Long Island’s most distinguished rabbis agreed to assemble at Rambam Mesivta on May 7 for the book launch. They are Rabbi Heshie Billet and Rabbi Shalom Axelrod of Young Israel of Woodmere, Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom, and Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum of Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst. The revered Rabbi Elie Abadie, a leader of the Sephardic Jewish community, opened up his Manhattan East Synagogue for the book’s Manhattan launch. StandWithUs added its name to the endeavor and gave logistical support for his book launches.

What began on a typewriter in the 1980s was finally completed on a computer only earlier this year. In an unusual publishing move, the book has been released simultaneously in 17 countries.

At a time when Jewish and Israeli history is being battered by revisionist theories and alternate narratives amplified by hate groups, Judaism, Zionism and the Land of Israel cements the centuries together in one binding that will be a compelling fundamental resource for Jews, Christians and anyone seeking a factual platform to gather atop, from where they can peer far back and far forward.

Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust. He can be found at www.edwinblack.com.

Holocaust Survivors Sue Polish Publisher for Publishing Holocaust Denial Books

Photo from YouTube.

A couple of Holocaust survivors and a former Polish Home Army member are suing a Polish publishing company for publishing books that feature Holocaust denialism.

The publisher, Andrezj Ryba and Katmar, published the books The Age of Hitler 1 and The Age of Hitler 2. Hitler the Democrat, which were written by former SS Officer Leon Degrelle. The books openly deny the Holocaust and spew pro-Nazi propaganda, as evident by passages that downplay Jewish suffering during the Holocaust as “pro-Zionist” propaganda that was “designed for financial gain.” The books also attempt to portray Hitler in a more favorable light, claiming that “being cruel was not in his nature.”

The attorney for the survivors, Wojciech Kozlowsk, told the Jerusalem Post that this was the first time such a lawsuit has been issued in Poland.

“Although promotion of Nazism and Holocaust denial is a criminal offense in Poland, and in theory prosecutable in the criminal courts, in practice the public prosecutor fails to act effectively in the majority of cases,” Kozlowsk said.

The plaintiffs, who remain anonymous, are in their 80s. Two of them were rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto and the other was a part of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They are requesting that the publisher pay 40,000 Zlotys ($11,600 in U.S. dollars) to charity and issue an apology.

“The motivation behind my involvement in this case is to protect historical truth about Nazi crimes and to pass this truth on to the young generations of Poles,” a plaintiff said.

Brooke Goldstein, executive of The Lawfare Project, which is supporting this lawsuit, hailed the plaintiffs as “heroes.”

“Their harrowing testimonies are a reminder of the unimaginable horror of the Nazis,” Goldstein told the Post “Despite their age, and the trauma of their experiences, it is humbling to see their courage in standing up for the truth.”

Looking a ‘Nazi in the Eye’

In 2015, Jordana Lebowitz was a 19-year-old freshman at Canada’s University of Guelph when she heard about the trial of Oskar Groening. Three weeks later, she was wearing translation headphones in a German courtroom, sneaking in forbidden paper and pens, and blogging for the Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Kathy Kacer, a well-known Canadian children’s author, heard about Lebowitz’s experience and together they wrote a highly readable and very important young-adult book that is one of the first to re-examine Holocaust education aimed at the current “third-generation.”

Kacer is the daughter of survivors; Lebowitz is the granddaughter of survivors. Who will be left to serve as witnesses after the survivors are gone? The remarkable tale recounted in the book “To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A Teen’s Account of a War Criminal Trial” answers that question and leaves readers inspired and hopeful.

When Lebowitz sat in that courtroom, 94-year-old Groening was known as the “Bookkeeper of Auschwitz,” a former SS agent on trial for aiding and abetting the murder of 300,000 Jews. In his opening statement, he expressed remorse at what he had witnessed on the concentration camp train platforms (he was responsible for removing and organizing all valuables from the belongings of new arrivals) but felt he was simply a “cog in the machine,” and because he personally didn’t kill anyone, he should not be convicted. Lebowitz knew that this was possibly the last trial of its kind in Germany, because of the advanced ages of the perpetrators. But since the time three years earlier when she had visited Poland with the March of the Living, she knew in her gut that she needed to serve as a witness for her generation.

The page-turning narrative follows Lebowitz to Germany, where she meets Canadian survivors intent on the brave act of testifying about their horrifying experiences to the packed German courtroom and a multitude of reporters in the room. She also meets a Holocaust denier and even the grandson of Rudolf Hoess. The relationships she develops with the survivors, whom she eventually views as surrogate grandparents, are quite touching. Kacer includes much of the survivors’ wrenching testimonies in alternating chapters and, because of this, the book is recommended for grades seven and up. Readers will read parts of testimonies about being separated from family members at the platform, fears of the gas chambers and experiments with twins supervised by Josef Mengele. However, to counter these difficult parts of the book, the author relates Lebowitz’s surprise and relief at meeting present-day Germans and finding out that they are actively attempting to atone for their forefathers’ sins and taking responsibility for what happened in their country.

Teens reading this account of Groening’s trial through the eyes of Lebowitz will probably identify with her very human reaction when she sees the aged and bent-over German prisoner; she feels conflicted.

“Suddenly the door at the front of the courtroom opened. Jordana sat straighter in her chair. This is it, she thought with a sudden quickening of her breath. She was about to stare into the eyes of a Nazi. … She grasped the arms of her chair and leaned forward. And then she gasped, as an elderly man shuffled in. At ninety-four, Oskar Groening was frail, small, and hunched over. He didn’t look evil. He didn’t look like the murdering Nazi that he was accused of being. With a complete exhalation of breath, Jordana thought, he looks like my grandfather.”

“This trial was not merely addressing history, it was very much applicable to the present.” — Jordana Lebowitz

An additional hero of the story is Thomas Walther, the German prosecuting attorney and Nazi hunter, who is seen as a sort of heir to Simon Wiesenthal. In his retirement, he had taken on subsequent life’s work — bringing Nazis to justice. Because Lebowitz had sent him a rather brazen email request to allow her to attend the trial, he realized the importance of her presence and facilitated the entire thing.

Although Lebowitz spent only the first week at Groening’s trial, the authors’ epilogue reveals it lasted a few months and eventually he was declared guilty and sentenced to four years in prison. When Lebowitz contacted Hedy Bohm, one of the survivors she had befriended, to ask about her thoughts on the light sentence, Bohm replied, “I’ve said all along that it’s not about the sentence. It’s about all of us speaking and being heard around the world. It’s an acknowledgement of what went on in that terrible place.”

Now Groening is 96 years old. He had appealed the verdict and requested he not serve jail time because of his deteriorating health. But a quick Google search revealed that, as of this month, he had run out of options. A CBS News headline of Jan. 17 read, “Ex-Nazi Death Camp Guard’s Final Bid to Avoid Prison Reportedly Rejected.”

An authors’ note at the end of the book explains that Lebowitz, now 22 years old, has become an advocate for Holocaust remembrance and human rights.

When asked what was the most important lesson she learned in regard to her experience at the trial, Lebowitz replied, “It’s that time exists on a continuum. That is to say that every period is connected: past, present and future. … This trial was not merely addressing history, it was very much applicable to the present and set a precedent for the future. From this trial, I gained the knowledge and sense of responsibility rooted in past tragedy to combat human rights violations in the present and help create a better future.”

Lebowitz and Kacer will appear at 3 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. They also will appear at several local private schools. Their Los Angeles authors’ tour is sponsored by the Canadian Consulate of Los Angeles. Information is available at wcce.aju.edu.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

Hanukkah Books for Kids Are Full of Wit, Whimsy

Many new Hanukkah-themed illustrated children’s books are full of wit and surprises this year. Some books take on the holiday with a bit of a twist, while others comfortably rely on traditional stories, newly told. All the recommended choices here celebrate the holiday with humor — from a fractured fairy tale and a reimagining of the beloved Chelm stories, to modern-day stories of multicultural families and, surprisingly, even the vaccine controversy.

“Little Red Ruthie: A Hanukkah Tale” by Gloria Koster. Illustrated by Sue Eastland. Albert Whitman & Co.

Spunky Little Red Ruthie wears a puffy, red-hooded parka on her way to Bubbe Basha’s house on the other side of the forest. It’s snowing as she kisses her mother goodbye and leaves her comfortable, modern home with her basket filled with sour cream and applesauce. When a frightening wolf appears on the path and threatens, “Little girl … I am going to eat you up!” Ruthie stays strong and brave. Like the Maccabees of old, she “would stand up to her enemy too.” Ruthie meets up with the wolf again at Bubbe’s house and cleverly tricks him into delaying his evil plan by telling him the story of Hanukkah and frying up lots of latkes. The hungry wolf overindulges and gets too full for another bite of anything else as he is escorted out the door. The humorous illustrations enhance the well-told tale. A useful latke recipe is included.

“Way Too Many Latkes: A Hanukkah in Chelm” by Linda Glaser. Illustrated by Aleksandar Zolotic. Kar-Ben.

Chelm stories are supposed to be funny, and this one will inspire giggling in any child, particularly if the reader hams up the character voices. We learn that Faigel makes the best latkes in all of Chelm, but unfortunately for everyone else, she makes only enough for herself and Shmuel, her hapless husband. One year, she inexplicably forgets the recipe and her husband must go to the rabbi (“the wisest man in Chelm”) to ask how many potatoes need to be used. The rabbi tells him to “use them all” without realizing that Shmuel and Faigel’s larder is full. The cycle is repeated with the other ingredients (eggs, onions) and silliness ensues. The comic-style illustrations capture the kitchen mayhem, idealized shtetl life and the over-the-top storyline with amusing flair. Of course, the whole town gets to partake in the deliciousness by the story’s end.

“The Missing Letters: A Dreidel Story” by Renee Londner. Illustrated by Iryna Bodnaruk. Kar-Ben.

Children will be delighted to find out that dreidels come alive at night at the dreidel factory and talk to one another. Actually, they like to argue about the fairness of the dreidel game rules. The nuns are jealous of the gimels because … who wants to get a nun, anyway? But the shins have the most legitimate complaint, since people have to add to the pot when the dreidel falls on their letter. The heys, shins and nuns band together to figure out a way to make the gimels disappear before Hanukkah begins. They come up with elaborate ways to hide the sleeping gimels in a fun and busy double-paged, purple spread that kids will enjoy deciphering. In the morning, when it is time for the dreidel makers to add on the letters, they can’t find the gimels! When the dreidel maker explains the historical importance of the dreidel, the mischievous letters feel remorseful and do the right thing to make the dreidels whole again. It is a fun and silly story with delightfully appealing cartoonish illustrations and lots of purple — everywhere.

“Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas” by Pamela Ehrenberg. Illustrated by Anjan Sarkar. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The family members of the boy who is this story’s narrator are preparing for Hanukkah, but something about them seems different. They stop at the Little India Market on the way home from Hebrew school, bringing along his “amma-amma” (grandma), who is clothed in traditional Indian dress. They purchase dal and rice, but our unnamed narrator’s active little sister is climbing around the store, upsetting the coconut milk display. To distract her, he makes up new words to an old song: “I had a little dosa, I made it out of dal.” We learn that his father grew up Jewish and his mother is from India, and they have a family tradition of making dosas (a type of pancake fried in coconut oil) at Hanukkah. When they are locked out of their home by mistake at a large family celebration, little Sadie saves the day by using her climbing skills. Multicultural children’s books for Jewish families are an important addition to the literature as they reflect the lives of real families where children can see themselves represented and accepted as part of their community.

“Judah Maccabee Goes to the Doctor: A Story for Hanukkah” by Ann D. Koffsky. Illustrated by Talitha Shipman. Apples & Honey Press.

Kids need books to help them through scary experiences, and getting a shot is clearly one of those times. This book connects the bravery of Judah Maccabee with the bravery of a little boy, also named Judah, as he visits the doctor for a shot. The text emphasizes how much pride he has in being a good brother to his baby sister and how much he wants to protect her, particularly by using the Maccabee shield he gets as a Hanukkah gift. When his dad explains that getting his shot actually will act as a shield to protect his sister in a different way, he sticks out his arm for the doctor and the deed is done. He is proud of his “on-the-inside” bravery and realizes that heroism can manifest itself in a variety of ways. While it is an unusual combination of two subjects, the book is an important validation of science in response to vaccine misinformation. It stands as quite a Jewish educational feat, considering that all the incensed Amazon anti-vaccine reviewers calling it propaganda from “Big Pharma” also learned a lovely lesson on the origins of the Hanukkah holiday.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

Just for kids: New books for a new year

“Big Sam: A Rosh Hashanah Tall Tale”

couple of books with holiday themes grace our fall list of recommended children’s books, along with others that explore perseverance, a child’s perspective of the Six-Day War,  and the importance of inclusiveness and acceptance of unfamiliar cultures.

“Big Sam: A Rosh Hashanah Tall Tale” by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Jim Starr. (Apples & Honey Press, 2017)

The engaging cover illustration depicts a Paul Bunyanesque character grasping a giant shovel and standing guard over outsized containers of apples and honey  in the Pacific Northwest.

The character’s name is Samson the Giant -— “Big Sam to his friends.” He’s preparing for the High Holy Days, but on a very large scale. When he makes challah: “He dug a big hole in the ground to make a mixing bowl. It’s still there today. We call it the Grand Canyon.” He whittles a giant mixing spoon from a fallen redwood tree, lets the bread dough rise in the heat of a Yellowstone geyser and bakes it in the Mount St. Helens volcano. The narrative takes a turn when displaced animals complain to Sam that his holiday preparations have damaged some natural habitats. Realizing that Rosh Hashanah is about “mending the world,” Big Sam works to make things right by planting trees and flowers and clearing away boulders that had blocked the river. The illustrations of covered wagons, old-time trains and expansive Wild West landscapes complement the engaging tale and ensure it will become a family favorite.

“The Little Esrog”

“The Little Esrog” by Rochelle Kochin. Illustrated by Janice Hechter. (Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, 2016)

Only 10 Jewish families live in the small village of Sislotch, so every year on Sukkot they request a box of etrogs from the nearby city. The large etrogim in the box brag about their beauty and size and bully the smallest one, who wishes only to be useful for the sake of the holiday mitzvah.

The well-meaning wagon driver, tasked with transporting the precious cargo, unwittingly removes all the pitomim (tips) from the big etrogs to preserve them, but overlooks the little etrog, which remains intact.

The townsfolk are inconsolable until young Rivka finds the little etrog, now the sole kosher fruit that can be used for the blessing, and the village rejoices. Those big, beautiful (and mean) etrogim get what they deserve as they are made into “big, beautiful jam.” This book is targeted at an observant audience, but the message of inclusiveness and kindness will appeal to all.

“Drop by Drop”

“Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva” by Jacqueline Jules. Illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

Jewish heroes and sages often serve as inspiration for a variety of children’s stories, but first-century sage Rabbi Akiva is long overdue for a picture book relating his very engaging life story.

This well-written and beautifully illustrated book serves as a sort of biography of one of Judaism’s most venerable sages who did not learn how to read until age 40 and became a scholar only because of the persistent encouragement of his loving wife, Rachel.

The story begins with Akiva, a poor shepherd, noticing a stone in a brook that has been worn away by water. He realizes his “mind is not harder than a rock,” and if he can just learn a little bit each day, he can change his life. When he is laughed at by the children in his first-grade class, Rachel comforts him and says, “Pay no attention to those who laugh. Work hard and you will succeed.” Worthy advice in any generation.

“Yaffa and Fatina”

“Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam” adapted by Fawzia Gilani-Williams. Illustrated by Chiara Fedele. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

The prolific British-born author of children’s books on Islamic holidays and folklore turns her attention to the well-known midrashic tale of two brothers whose love for each other sanctifies the holy ground that eventually becomes the city of Jerusalem.

By adapting the story to feature two loving neighbors — one Jewish, one Muslim — living long ago in the “Land of Milk and Honey,” she creates a satisfying account of what could be when neighbors truly are friends.

While “Yaffa prayed in a synagogue” and “Fatima prayed in a mosque,” they each own date groves and sell the fruit at a market. When times get tough, they help each other out, as friends should. Children will enjoy the simple text and large, well-researched illustrations that depict the respective cultures and religious practices. An important and inspiring book that encourages acceptance and sharing of different cultures.

“The Six-Day Hero”

The Six-Day Hero” by Tammar Stein. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

In this compelling novel suitable for readers in fourth to seventh grades, we meet young Motti, an Israeli boy living in Jerusalem in 1967. His brave older brother, Gideon, is in the army, and Motti looks up to him as a role model.

Family life is generally uneventful, with soccer games and schoolwork, but tensions rise as war with the neighboring Arab states looms. Motti’s best friend flees the country and Gideon faces danger. The author does an excellent job at capturing the voice of a smart 12-year-old boy living through a harrowing experience, mirroring a historical moment of a young country fighting to survive.

This work of gripping historical fiction is especially meaningful in this year of the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem. Its subject matter and suspenseful plot will surely grab and keep the interest of preteens who know little or nothing about this important time in Israel’s history.

A Poet’s Passionate Reflection in Prayer

Prayers are a particularly usable form of literature. And because they are composed by human beings to answer our most intimate needs, the stock of prayers always grows and changes. One scholar, for example, claims to count only 85 prayers in the Hebrew Bible, but the accumulation of Jewish prayer is now far beyond numbering and continues to grow ever richer and more plentiful.

Marcia Falk, author of “The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival” (Reform Jewish Publishing/CCAR Press), is among the most prolific and influential of our contemporary prayer-makers. I first encountered her work when I reviewed her provocative and illuminating translation of “The Song of Songs,” and I admired “The Book of Blessings” when it was first published two decades ago. Now her classic book of prayer has been issued in a 20th-anniversary edition, which provides us with the occasion to reconsider the vitality and longevity of what she has contributed to Judaism.

Falk is not a rabbi. Rather, she is a poet and a painter, a scholar of biblical and Hebrew literature and a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish texts, all of which serve to inform her work as a modern maker of prayers. She declares that she stands in the tradition of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, whose heartfelt prayer was misapprehended by Eli the priest but not by God. “ ‘The Book of Blessings’ is a branch of a tree whose seeds were planted three millennia ago by a woman who prayed from her heart,” says Falk, whose poems occasionally appear in the Journal.

Yet she sees it as her obligation to find new ways of praying, precisely because traditional prayer is not accessible or meaningful to every Jew.  “ ‘The Book of Blessings’ is for those immersed in Judaism, and for those standing at its gates, looking for a way in,” she writes. “It is, especially, for those of us who have, at some time in our lives, stood like Hannah outside the sanctuary’s walls, suffused with longing, or anger, or pain.”

It is significant that “The Book of Blessings” is published under the auspices of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a branch of Judaism that shares the egalitarian values that are so deeply embodied in her prayers — “the forging of fully inclusive and embracing communities,” as she puts it.

Falk derives many of her newly minted prayers from ancient biblical texts, and she honors the oldest traditions of Judaism by, for example, providing all of the prayers in Hebrew. At the same time, she seeks to make the prayer book fully accessible by including both the English translation and the transliteration of the Hebrew text. And she pointedly insists on replacing the patriarchal deity who is invoked in traditional Hebrew blessings — “Lord Our God, King of the Universe” — with a wholly gender-free phrase: “the source of life.”

To be sure, Falk’s prayer book will strike some readers as a step away from Jewish tradition.  The fundamental prayer of Judaism, as it is rendered in “The Book of Blessings,” starts with a familiar phrase — “Sh’ma yisra’eyl” (Hear O Israel) — but continues with words and phrases that amount to something far more elusive than the original text: “The divine abounds everywhere and dwells in everything; the many are One.” And, strikingly, she omits the traditional mourner’s prayer, the Kaddish, and offers a meditation based on a contemporary poem, “Each of Us Has a Name.” For many Jews, I suspect, that’s a step too far.

If Falk’s exquisite and evocative prayers are the heart of “The Book of Blessings,” the brain is to be found in the commentary that she provides at the end of her book. Here we find a frank explanation of her approach to prayer, a sophisticated discourse on Jewish theology and an eloquent justification of the courageous changes she proposes to make in the trappings of Jewish observance. Significantly, she quotes Ira Eisenstein, a student of Mordecai Kaplan and a leading figure in the Reconstructionist movement, for the notion that Jewish values can and should become “the central theme of passionate reflection,” which is exactly how I would describe Falk’s enduring classic.

“Hebrew is my s’fat dam — the language of my blood,” Falk writes. Like her biblical exemplar, Hannah, Falk has poured out her heart to God, and we are privileged to not only witness but to participate in that “passionate reflection.”

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

An interview with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman about confronting the Occupation

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Photo courtesy of ActiveStills

half-century ago, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I attended a rally in support of Israel at the Hollywood Bowl. At that moment, Israel was fighting for its life, and the anxious crowd did not yet know the war would be over in only six days. We could not even imagine that victory on the battlefield would change not only the shape of Israel but its identity and destiny, too.

Best-selling authors, and husband and wife, Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”) and Ayelet Waldman (“A Really Good Day,” “Love and Treasure”) — perhaps the most accomplished literary couple in contemporary American letters — have chosen the anniversary of the Six-Day War to call our attention to the darker aspects of Israel’s historic victory in “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation” (HarperPerennial).

The book is a project of Breaking the Silence, which describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

The authors will participate in a public conversation about “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR and Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence at 8 p.m. on June 5 at the Pico Union Project on Valencia Street. The event is co-sponsored by IKAR, the New Israel Fund and HarperPerennial. (Information and tickets for the event are available at olivesandashtour.nif.org.)

When Waldman attended the Jerusalem International Writers’ Festival in 2014, members of Breaking the Silence took her on a tour of Hebron.  The experience inspired her and Chabon to recruit some two dozen writers to visit the West Bank and Gaza and report on what they saw for what would become “Kingdom of Olives and Ash.” The contributors include Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron; publishing powerhouse Dave Eggers; Chabon’s fellow Pulitzer Prize winners Lorraine Adams and Geraldine Brooks; and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. In their essays, all of them serve as eyewitnesses to life on the ground in the territories that Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War, and their testimony shines a light on aspects of the daily conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that are mostly invisible in media coverage.

“Storytelling itself — bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered — has the power to engage the attention of people, like us, who had long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up,” Waldman and Chabon explain in their introduction to the anthology.

In advance of their upcoming appearance, I spoke with the authors by phone.

Jonathan Kirsch: You write about yourselves that “we didn’t want to write or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified.”  What caused you to shun the subject for so long, and what attracted your attention now?

Ayelet Waldman: What caused us to shun the subject was the incessant cycle of oppression and violence, the refusal of Israel in particular to acquiesce to any meaningful peace process, the round after round of failed endeavors, and the seeming hopelessness of it all. We decided that, as people who believe in equal rights and the principles embodied in the United States Constitution, we couldn’t rationalize our moral values with the Israeli governmental policies. But it also seemed like we couldn’t do anything or change anything. And so we just turned our back so we wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. The change happened when I went to Hebron and saw the reality on the ground, which was infinitely worse than my worst imaginings. When I returned to Tel Aviv, I realized that I couldn’t turn my back on the injustices that were taking place an hour’s drive away.

JK: The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is the occasion for celebration in most Jewish circles. What has been the reaction to your book, which is decidedly not celebratory?

AW: Where you see the real rage is in the idea that, “This is my goddamn holiday — how dare you not let me celebrate it?” The Six-Day War was a moment when, yes, the Israeli army was victorious over other armies that sought to end the country, but it was also the beginning of this brutal occupation that has now lasted for 50 years. If there were no occupation, there would be no book. If there were no occupation, I might be dancing a horah in the streets of Tel Aviv.

JK: American Jews who hold dissenting opinions about Israeli policy sometimes feel awkward about expressing them out loud and especially in public on the grounds that our children are not the ones at risk. What makes you feel empowered and even obliged to speak out?

AW: It’s a convenient tool of oppressors to say: It’s not your business. On the most basic level, we are all taxpayers. Israel is the single largest beneficiary of American foreign aid. As long as $4 billion go to a government that is oppressing millions of people, we have the right to say no. On a higher level, we are humans, and as humans we have a right and a duty to speak up against oppression. And if Israel calls itself the homeland of the Jews, and we are Jews, we have the right to say: Not in my name.

JK: In your introduction to the book, you chose to refer to “Palestine-Israel” rather than Israel and Palestine. Did you discuss that choice of language?

AY: Endlessly, back and forth, back and forth. But we didn’t have a rule for the other writers who contributed to the book. Even the simplest thing — the word you use to identify a place — is such a fraught decision that we told the writers: You’re just going to have to figure it out for yourself.

Michael Chabon: Maybe we should just call it “Semite Land.”

JK: Do you see a constituency for a two-state solution?

AY: It has become very convenient for the government of Israel to pretend to support a two-state solution in order to prevent a full-scale international boycott. If Israel admitted that they have no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state, there would be no more travel to Europe for people with Israeli passports, no more diplomatic relations, and Israel would be cut off as a pariah state. The pretense is that Israel is willing to accept a two-state solution but the Palestinians are not.

MC: And while the Israel government is saying it, they are making it absolutely impossible.

JK: You quote an Israeli Defense Ministry official as saying, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.” The thought will occur to more than a few of your readers that the Palestinians don’t Gandhi very well, either. Do you see a solution to the problem that is created when Palestinians turn to violence as an act of protest and Israel responds with violence?

MC: Those who hurt other people are simultaneously hurting themselves, but that’s equally true of Israel. The attempt to combat the perceived or actual violence coming from Palestine is doing great harm to Israelis.

AW: I do think that the best way to combat a violent oppressor is controlled nonviolence. Suicide bombers give the Israeli government the cover it needs to continue to oppress. On the other hand, when people are traumatized and hopeless, the trauma and hopelessness leads to violent behavior.

JK: Michael, you write about how every experience in the West Bank is freighted with political meaning, even flushing a toilet, since water is scarce for the Palestinians and plentiful for Israelis. And you make the point that privation is as much a part of the occupation as checkpoints and barbed wire. Are you concerned that there is much talk about sovereignty but much less talk about poverty and scarcity when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians?

MC: That was my primary takeaway from my brief encounter with the occupation — the realization that what’s happening right now has ultimately nothing to do with the one-state solution, the two-state solution, the right of return and all of those other issues that everyone gets themselves entangled in. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. It is irrelevant whose fault it is. What’s relevant is how to put a stop to it immediately so the suffering comes to an end. The vast majority of people — children, families, ordinary people — are not terrorists; they are just trying to survive. It’s a burning house. When a house is on fire and people are trapped inside, you don’t stand around outside and argue about who started it. You put it out.

JK: Are you concerned that some politicians in Israel have called for the exclusion of writers and activists who criticize the policies of the current Israeli government?

MC: Ayelet actually tweeted an open challenge to [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu to try and keep her out.

AW: I gave him our flight number and arrival date to make it easy for them. We will wait and see. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.

‘The Story of Hebrew’ is a scholarly, engaging history of the language

kirsch-hebrew-copyOne of the curiosities in “The Story of Hebrew” by Lewis Glinert (Princeton University Press) is that the author manages to write a history of the Hebrew language without using a single Hebrew letter in the text, although Hebrew appears in the illustrations, including a page from Franz Kafka’s Hebrew notebook. Indeed, Glinert announces at the outset of his richly detailed and wholly fascinating book that it is “not much a book about what Hebrew words mean as about what the Hebrew language has meant to the people who have possessed it.”

Another curiosity is to be found in the fact that Hebrew started out as one of the languages of ordinary life in the ancient Middle East, was preserved in the holy texts of the Jewish people, and was reinvented to serve as the lingua franca of the modern Jewish homeland. To be sure, the most observant Jews still regard Hebrew as leshon ha-kodesh, a language so holy that they insist on using Yiddish for everyday transactions. And yet, as Glinert points out, Hebrew is also “the language of secular Jewish culture,” and the revival of Hebrew was one of the great successes of the Zionist project: “Whether religious or national in spirit, or both, creativity has driven the Hebrew language and its literature to ever-new vistas and forms.”

Glinert, a renowned linguist and professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, is willing to entertain a pious question: “What language, then, did God speak?”  He points out that Jewish mystics proposed that “God was creating or deploying Hebrew itself, rather than waiting for a human being to do so,” and that Maimonides regarded all speech attributed to God in the Bible as purely metaphorical. History and science, however, offer a different explanation: “Scholars have long insisted that Hebrew was simply one of many Canaanite dialects, albeit one that happened to survive into the Common Era.”

The watershed moment, Glinert explains, was the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Hebrew disappeared in various places around the Diaspora, and many Jewish communities required Aramaic and Greek translations in order to understand what is written in the Torah. But the leadership of the exiles who later returned to Judea, “in a remarkable textual act of spiritual resistance,” embraced Hebrew as the language in which the Midrash, the Mishnah and the liturgy were to be expressed: “Out of this grew a great corpus of Hebrew literature, embodying the religion and culture of the Jews down to modern times.”

“The Story of Hebrew” is deeply rooted in scholarship, but Glinert is an engaging storyteller, always lucid, wry and accessible. Thus, for example, he explains the intricacies and inner workings of Hebrew liturgy as it developed in antiquity, showing how “the poets were tempted to produce extravagant flights of fancy, building new words from old in ways even native speakers would have been unlikely to attempt.” And then he sums up: “Could the average worshipper fathom it all? Probably not. (Most modern Israelis can’t, either.)”

Throughout the book, the author reminds us that the survival of Hebrew over several millennia of history is remarkable in itself, although we can thank the generations of translators known as Masoretes for what might seem wholly miraculous. “They preserved both the living sound and shape of biblical Hebrew and the biblical text itself as canonized by the Rabbis two thousand years ago,” he writes. “Thus they ensured that Jews across the Diaspora would study from (more or less) identical copies.”

Yet Hebrew itself changed over time. In that sense, “The Story of Hebrew” is actually a story of the Jewish people, both in the Holy Land and throughout the Diaspora. For a thousand years or so, between the completion of the Talmud and the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century, “Hebrew was primarily a religious language.” Once the Jews began to leave the ghettos and enter the secular world, Hebrew was reinvented as a modern national language. “It was not only necessary to invent words denoting [the] locomotive, telegraph, or parliament; the language would also need to express such conceptual distinctions as people, nation, and state.”

Hebraists turned to “the lucid, no-nonsense rabbinic style of Rashi and Maimonides” to coin the new words they needed. While Theodor Herzl assumed that German would be the national language of the Jewish homeland, lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and their like-minded colleagues devoted themselves to nothing less than the remaking of the Hebrew language.

Significantly, Glinert always finds a way to make these facts of history come fully alive for his readers, which is why “The Story of Hebrew” is both an eye-opening study of the Hebrew language and an extraordinarily pleasurable reading experience. For example, the author describes how Ben-Yehuda and his first wife, Dvora, resolved to speak only Hebrew when they arrived in Palestine — “an agreement that initially bound her to silence since she knew none.”

The rule was still in place when their first child was born. “Dire warnings by fellow Zionists that the child might grow up retarded seemed confirmed when he turned 3 without yet uttering a word — until one day Ben-Yehuda caught his wife singing a Russian lullaby and flew into a rage, when suddenly the frightened child blurted out Abba, Abba! (Daddy, Daddy!).”

What Amy Krouse Rosenthal taught me

Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Photo via Facebook/Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

I first connected with Amy Krouse Rosenthal when I sent her an email in the late summer of 2009 to tell her how much I had enjoyed one of her books.

You may have heard Amy’s name lately. She was the Chicago writer whose essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” became a sensation after it appeared in The New York Times in early March. Nearing the end of her journey with ovarian cancer, she composed what amounted to a dating profile for the man to whom she had been happily married for 26 years.

By the time Amy died on Monday at 51, millions of people had read the column, which, like all of Amy’s writing, celebrated the world’s small delights (taster spoons, pancake breakfasts) and the preciousness of love and life.

On Amy’s website, she called herself “a person who likes to make things.” By any measure, she made a lot of things. She wrote 28 children’s books — whimsical, creative, clever — and two idiosyncratic and inventive memoirs. She created uplifting, homemade videos (in one, she had bystanders cheer for commuters exiting a train at day’s end as if they were marathoners), delivered TED talks and loved visiting kids at schools.

All of her work inspired two reactions: (a) it made you start noticing little things and moments and  appreciating them in new ways, and (b) it made you want to be friends with Amy.

Both of those explain why I felt compelled to email Amy to tell her how, while reading a library copy of her memoir “Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life,” I had noticed a smudge at the bottom of a page. Looking more closely, I saw that a previous borrower, after accidentally smearing mascara there, had penciled a note to future readers because she “thought it was in line with this book to write about it.”

Amy didn’t respond immediately, but a few days later, at a shivah, I ran into my friend Julie, who had relocated from Los Angeles to Chicago. Knowing that I was a writer, she immediately asked if I had heard of Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Had I heard of her? I had just written to her!

Julie told me she was helping Amy with a movie project, a sort of crowd-sourced create-a-thon called “The Beckoning of Lovely.”

When Amy finally replied to my email, she had learned through Julie that I had once been a writer at People magazine. In her note, Amy expressed — in the gentlest and least self-promoting manner possible — how wonderful it would be if People ran a story about her film project.

It was less a pitch than a prayer. “That’s my little note,” she wrote, “scribbled down in earnest, placed in a small metal tin, and buried in the ground that is cyberspace. Thanks for listening.”

I politely explained that I didn’t work at the magazine anymore, and since the movie was in its early stages, it probably wasn’t ripe for a People story just yet.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but it was just the beginning of a lengthy exchange of emails, one writer to another.

Amy asked what I’d been working on lately. I told her I had just sent out a proposal for my own memoir, about my son Ezra, who has autism. Amy kindly offered to introduce me to her literary agent. I told her that what I could really use was help with an idea Ezra himself had, for a children’s book.

She asked if I was comfortable sharing the idea. I did, and she wrote back almost immediately: “i love this idea. and i love the serendipity that just happened 10 minutes ago at lunch. i have to talk to you.”

I phoned, and Amy told me she had just come from a fruitless brainstorming session with Tom Lichtenheld, the illustrator who was her creative partner on many books. Ezra’s idea was just the kind of thing he was looking for. So she connected me with Tom.

That conversation led to a collaboration. Soon Tom was at work on a children’s picture book based on an animated video called “Alphabet House” that Ezra had created at age 12.

Two years later, my memoir about Ezra was published. And a month after that, Tom and Ezra’s book, “E-mergency!,” came out. Ezra was just 15.

On my book tour, I was about to start a reading at a suburban-Chicago bookstore when a petite woman with red hair approached me to introduce herself. It was Amy. I can still picture her, standing in the back through the whole event, a big, supportive smile on her face.

I learned later that Amy’s life was full of the kinds of coincidences I had experienced. Another mutual friend first met her when they struck up a conversation in a Miami bookstore. It turned out they were both Jewish writers who lived in the same neighborhood and belonged to the same synagogue a thousand miles away, in Chicago.

I’m not sure that these things happened to Amy more than to the average person. She was just more open to them. And more open in general: to people, to connection, to inspiration, to whimsy.

Still, it was difficult to fathom how a person could bring so many ideas to fruition. I often show my writing students a TEDx talk in which Amy explains how she utilized what she called the crevices of life, “those 20, 30, 40 minute interstices that dangle in the space between the real thing I just finished and the real thing I have to do next.”

Watching that lecture now, I am struck by one sentence Amy says: “It seems that tight parameters and small windows of time can yield the biggest results.”

They certainly did for her. In the last weeks of her life, facing, as she put it, “a deadline, in this case, a pressing one,” she penned the piece about her husband. Those 1,320 words generated far more attention than anything she had created in her five decades, making newscasts and headlines across the globe.

I couldn’t help but notice one small thing: an article under the headline, “A Wife’s Final Gift.” It appeared on page 53 of People magazine. If you scribble a note to the universe, your prayer might be answered. You just have to be open to it.

Tom Fields-Meyer, a Los Angeles writer, is author of “Following Ezra” and co-author of “Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism.” He teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and assists individuals in writing memoirs.

Fun Purim books for children arrive for the holiday

Purim, which begins this year on the evening of March 11, usually isn’t a holiday that inspires many new children’s books, but this year we have three that directly relate to the holiday and two others, both humorous, that reflect a bit of Purim spirit.

“Talia and the Haman-tushies” by Linda Elovitz Marshall. Illustrated by Francesco Assirelli (Kar-Ben Publishing).

Young Talia, along with her perennial food malapropisms, returns for the Purim holiday after her previous forays into “rude vegetable soup” for Rosh Hashanah and “yum” Kippur breakfast. When she’s certain she hears that Grandma wants to bake “Haman-tushies,” she emphatically decides she will never eat one. As they bake together, Grandma tells her the story of Queen Esther. The large illustrations and simplified Purim story are perfect for the toddler set.

“Purim Chicken” by Margery Cuyler. Illustrated by Puy Pintillos (Albert Whitman & Co.).

Farmyard animals with names such as Cluck, Quack, Moo and Neigh put on a yearly Purim play, with Quack always starring as Queen Esther. But this year, a hungry fox is preparing Quack to be the star of his dinner instead. Cluck, who covets the Queen Esther role, manages to save the day. Not much information about the holiday, but silly and fun nevertheless.

“Is It Purim Yet?” by Chris Barash. Illustrated by Alessandra Psacharopulo (Albert Whitman & Co.).

This sweet introduction to Purim is part of a series that introduces very young children to some of the Jewish holiday traditions. (Previous titles covered Chanukah and Sukkot.) The lyrical text opens with spring waking up from “deep winter sleep” and continues with chronicling the activities of children as they make hamantashen, pack up gift baskets, wave noisemakers and dress up for a joyful Megillah reading at synagogue.

“Maddie the Mitzvah Clown” by Karen Rostoker-Gruber. Illustrated by Christine Grove (Apples & Honey Press).

Clowns and Purim often go together, but becoming a “mitzvah clown” is a new thing. Some national Jewish youth-oriented organizations are encouraging teens to clown around (in costume) at adult senior homes and children’s hospitals instead of engaging in typical mitzvah-themed activities such as visiting soup kitchens. They say that entertaining others in this way also helps shy teens become more comfortable in social situations in general. This picture book expands on that idea through the story of Maddie, a shy mouse who loses
her inhibitions after learning the art of clowning when she performs the mitzvah
of bikur cholim (visiting the sick) at a senior convalescent home.

“The Silly World of Chelm: Everyone’s Favorite Tales of the Wise Men of Chelm” by Shepsel (Howard Spielman) and Avraham (Arnold Fine) (Two Lights Publishing).

More than 150 funny and logic-challenged folktales regarding the town of Chelm have been gathered together in an appealing compendium that the publisher called the “World’s First Definitive Encyclopedia of Chelm Stories.” The editor has collected the stories from those originally published weekly over decades in The Jewish Press newspaper. The original line-drawn comic-style illustrations also have been included. Each story is two or three pages in length and certain to provide much amusement for any family. The book is a delightful gift for kids who can’t get enough of those unforgettable and noodle-head residents of the mixed-up village of Chelm.

LISA SILVERMAN is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

Eclectic array of books a holiday gift for readers

The good news in the publishing industry is that books, whether the old-fashioned or the new-fangled kind, are continuing to attract the attention of readers, which explains why there are always so many gift-giving opportunities for the holidays. As Chanukah approaches, here is a book for every taste:

Michael Chabon, a New York Times best-selling author with a Pulitzer Prize, has just published his latest novel, “Moonglow” (Harper), a family chronicle set amid the tensions and turmoil of America in the 1950s. Styled as the deathbed confession of a grandfather to his grandson, Chabon tantalizes the reader with the assertion that he has “stuck to the facts except when facts refused to confirm with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” To put it another way, the author relies on poetic license, and his own powerful imagination, to conjure a surprising life — a “patrimony of secrets,” as the author puts it — for a man who grew up in a poor Jewish neighborhood of South Philly, played a stealthy role in the invasion of Nazi Germany and lands in prison, among other unlikely adventures. 

Above all, the book reminds us of the unique role of rocketry in the American imagination, ranging from model-makers to the greatest exertions of the United States space program. “Moonglow” is another literary tour de force by one of America’s great writers, extraordinarily rich and poignant.

Another one of our leading novelists, Jonathan Safran Foer, has reappeared after a long interval with “Here I Am” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Like his earlier novels, “Here I Am” is funny, highly literate and intentionally shocking, even if the plot focuses on a marriage that is slumping toward failure. At the same time, Foer invents a natural disaster with geopolitical repercussions — a mega-quake whose epicenter is under the Dead Sea. The cataclysm promises to draw Arab refugees into Israel in search of food, shelter and medical treatment, and a regional war yet again threatens Israel’s survival.
The marital crisis in the Bloch family and
the existential threat to the Jewish state collide in “Here I Am,” and the Blochs are compelled to choose between their private lives and their place in history, a choice that
was denied to so many Jews in previous

That’s what “Here I Am” is really all about. Indeed, the story that Foer tells reaches a moment of stirring moral grandeur, but it ends on a sorrowful and deeply poignant scene. Still, the moments of pain and loss do not diminish the vital spirit, so authentically Jewish, that is the real glory of “Here I Am.” “Life is precious,” goes the mantra of principal character Jacob Bloch, “and I live in the world.” 

The real heroes in the war against terrorism often go unnoticed and unpraised, but their story is revealed in Samuel M. Katz’s “The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism” (Berkley Caliber), a work of investigative reporting that often reads like an international thriller. Katz introduces us to the “alpha-type” men of the Ya’mas, an undercover unit of the Israeli border guard that consists of
Arab-speaking Jewish, Druze and Bedouin citizens who seek to prevent or punish acts of terrorism. 

These courageous officers go where no other Israeli fighters are willing or able to go: “Breaking up violent riots by infiltrating the demonstration was … the classic mission of the undercover units,” Katz explains. “Ya’mas operatives injected themselves deep inside the rage-filled cauldron to apprehend the ringleaders who were directing the violence.” And Katz credits the exploits of these secret soldiers with results that exceed their small numbers: “[T]here are never any “happily-ever-after endings in the Middle East,” he writes. “For Israel, there are only prolonged periods of cherished quiet that are secured by those who operate in the darkness, strike from the shadows, and rush inside
the danger.”

Fans of novelist Maggie Anton, author of the “Rashi’s Daughters” and “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” series, will find something different in “Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Had to Say About You-Know-What” (Banot Press). Drawing on her own deep knowledge of Jewish history and literature, as well as a sly sense of humor, Anton invites us to study “texts that sound more like they belong in a locker room than in a seminary.” 

The irony that suffuses her book is spoken aloud: “[A]ccording to the Torah … a Jewish man is both obligated to have sex, under certain circumstances, and forbidden to have sex, under other circumstances,” she explains. “This means the Talmudic rabbis had to use their prodigious intellects to determine those precise circumstances — how, when, where, with whom?” 

True to her mission as a historical novelist, Anton offers a woman’s take on what has been a mostly male enterprise. And Anton’s high-spirited text is ornamented with lovely line drawings by Richard Sheppard that manage to remain mostly, if not wholly, chaste while, at the same time, delivering a ribald message. 

The single most sumptuous book available for gift giving is “The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel” (Chronicle Books). It consists of a “treasure box” that contains four books, four DVDs, a portfolio of photographs, a map, a flash drive encased in a beautifully carved wooden case that contains animated vignettes, and even a limited-edition scarf from Frau Blau in
Tel Aviv. 


The story of a Jewish enclave in the Soviet Union

Who can tell the things that befell us in Birobidzhan?

Now only a footnote in history, Birobidzhan was a godforsaken stretch of Russian swampland between the Bira and Bidzhan rivers, not far from the Manchurian frontier, where Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin decreed the establishment of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland in 1928. The story is told with wit, discernment and not a little heartbreak by Masha Gessen in “Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russian’s Jewish Autonomous Region,” the latest title in the distinguished Jewish Encounters series from Nextbook and Schocken.

Gessen, author of the best-selling “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” is a Jewish émigré from Russia. When her family considered its options in 1978, it considered Israel, the United States, Australia and Canada, all places where Soviet Jews were granted asylum. “Just two generations earlier — indeed, even a generation earlier, just after the second World War — this conversation would have included one more option, one that had now receded to something between fantasy and a joke,” she recalls. “Time was, it was spoken of with the same breathless hope with which my friends and I now spoke about Israel or Paris. … The place was called Birobidzhan.”

Indeed, we cannot really understand the history of Zionism without understanding Birobidzhan.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the dream of a Jewish state was not necessarily grounded in the Holy Land. Uganda was seriously proposed as a place of refuge, and so was Madagascar. So it was not farfetched when Joseph Stalin created “facts on the land” in the Soviet Far East by making a place in the wilderness for the Jews to settle. Nor was Zionism necessarily linked with Jewish religious observance, as Gessen points out. Martyred historian Simon Dubnow’s notion of “a secular Judaism as the basis for national identity” provided the ideological rationale for a place like Birobidzhan and, as Gessen confides, “the foundation of my own Jewishness.”

Then, too, Birobidzhan was conceived as a refuge not only for the Jews but also their mama loshen, the Yiddish language. The Bolshevik regime was hostile to Hebrew, the ritual language of the Jewish faith, and the commissars were actively “pulling the Yiddishists into the fold,” as Gessen explains. Indeed, Gessen focuses on the life’s work of the celebrated Yiddish author and playwright David Bergelson, a man who felt at home in the literary coffee houses of Berlin, who arrived on a visit to Birobidzhan in 1932, where he was welcomed by the Jewish settlers “as if he were a long-lost descendant of a royal Yiddish tribe.” 

By 1936, Birobidzhan was elevated to the status of a “Jewish Autonomous Region,” the first step toward becoming a “national republic.” The Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow issued its own fact-challenged version of the Balfour Declaration: “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, its burning desire for a homeland, for the achieving of its own national statehood, has been fulfilled.” When Lazar Kaganovich, one of the few Jews among Stalin’s inner circle of commissars, visited the place, he attended a performance of Sholem Aleichem’s “Di Goldgreber” (The Gold Diggers) and praised the “traditional Jewish cooking” he was served.

The hard-pressed Jewish pioneers barely scratched out a living in Birobidzhan, but they had plenty to read. Six Yiddish-language schools were in operation, a Yiddish newspaper and a Yiddish publishing house, whose first publication was a 62-page book by an 18-year-old author “who, to Bergelson, may have been the single most important argument in favor of Birobidzhan.” The courts, police and municipal government conducted their business in Yiddish. Bergelson penned a manifesto titled “Why I Am in Favor of Birobidzhan,” in which he declares: “I want to work in and on behalf of Birobidzhan, because I wish to partake of those fascinating, delectable juices of life that our Soviet regime bestows upon me.” 

Alas, those “juices of life,” if Bergelson was earnest when he used the phrase, dried up quickly.  The thousands of Jews who were expected never arrived, and the Jewish population stagnated at 18 percent of the Soviet total. Although it was nearly 4,000 miles from Moscow, Birobidzhan was well within the grasp of Soviet terror. By 1939, when Stalin acquired half of Poland under his nonaggression pact with Hitler, he exiled many of his newly acquired Jewish citizens to Siberia, rather than sheltering them in Birobidzhan. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union two years later, and the mass murder of Jews was escalated to an industrial scale, the Jewish Autonomous Region was far beyond reach. 

Once Germany was defeated, Stalin was faced with the challenge of finding a place for the Jewish survivors to live. Sending them back to Belarus and Ukraine, where most of them lived before the war, was regarded as “a disaster” by all concerned. Crimea was considered briefly as a place for Jewish resettlement, but Birobidzhan no longer exerted any appeal: “You are trying to create a new ghetto!” wrote Soviet-Jewish journalist Ilya Ehrenburg. Only a few Jewish survivors managed to find their way to Birobidzhan, “alone or in pairs, shards of families killed by the Nazis, lone remnants of communities that had been destroyed.” Even so, the local officials protested: “These were the poor, the maimed, weakened and hungry Jews who no longer had any home anywhere, and they were not welcome here.”

The once-noble idea of a Jewish homeland within the Soviet Union was dead by the time Stalin turned on the Jews of the Soviet Union in the last few years of his life. “The Jews were becoming the main enemy within,” Gessen explains. Bergelson and other famous Yiddish writers were denounced, arrested, tortured and condemned to death by firing squad for their supposed efforts to “inflame nationalist sentiment among the Jewish population.” Back in Birobidzhan, “[a] policy of Russification was applied … much as it had been to places like Chechnya, from which the indigenous Muslim population had been deported by Stalin.” When Gessen visited Birobidzhan in 2009, only a couple of thousand Jews remained there — and only one of them spoke Yiddish.

The tale of Birobidzhan ends up like a Jewish joke: “[A] place with a Yiddish language newspaper and no Yiddish-speaking residents,” as Gessen puts it, “one of the world’s two Jewish states — the one where the Jews did not live.” But, like any good Jewish joke, it is dense with meaning and memory, tinged with sadness and fatalism, and yet redeemed by its insistent truth-telling. All of these qualities apply equally to Gessen’s beautiful and important book. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

The Jewish con man who scammed Hitler

“A con man with a heart of gold.” That’s how Variety described Freeman Bernstein in his obituary. The vaudeville manager, boxing promoter and fake-jewel salesman loved to tell wild tales, and his favorite was how he’d once swindled the Third Reich. He sold the Nazis 35 tons of embargoed Canadian nickel, but instead delivered scrap metal and tin.

Political columnist Walter Shapiro was told many such stories about his great-uncle by his father, but it all seemed so implausible. Shapiro’s father, a mild-mannered city planner who spent his evenings in zoning board meetings, described Bernstein with reverence. Shapiro treated the stories with skepticism.

After his father’s death, Shapiro began digging into newspaper archives and government files. He uncovered hundreds of files from the New York District Attorney’s office, several federal agencies and the State of California archives, as well as 2,500 newspaper clippings about his great-uncle. He found the stories were not just true, but more incredible than he had believed.

Shapiro’s new book, “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Führer” (Blue Rider Press), offers a deep dive into the debauchery of Hollywood’s early days, revolving around a man who loved to play fast and loose with celebrities and with his creditors. Sime Silverman, publisher and founder of Variety, once called Bernstein the “Pet of Broadway.” With his flamboyant style (Bernstein loved men’s fur coats), over-the-top pronouncements to the press and a knack for slipping out of the justice system’s grasp, it’s not hard to see why. 

Shapiro, a longtime political reporter and columnist for Roll Call, is in the midst of covering his 10th presidential race. He said in an interview with the Jewish Journal that on the book tour, he’s often asked to compare Bernstein to GOP nominee Donald Trump.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest difference is that my great-uncle Freeman Bernstein was good-hearted; went through life with a smile on his face, not a snarl; and ultimately wasn’t a hater,” Shapiro said. “He liked foreigners. He particularly liked those foreigners who had never heard his hustle, so he might be able to use some of his old ones on them.”

Bernstein claimed to have met Hitler, and that the Führer spoke flawless English. There’s no evidence such a historic meeting occurred, or that Hitler could speak any English at all. But Bernstein did travel to Germany in 1935, when it was still possible for Jews to visit Germany using a foreign visa. According to Shapiro, he probably attended High Holy Day services in Germany around the same time the Nuremberg Laws were introduced. 

Bernstein was born in Troy, N.Y., to Jewish immigrant parents. Shapiro couldn’t find any evidence in synagogue records that Bernstein had a bar mitzvah. He married a young, blue-eyed vaudeville singer of Irish-Catholic descent, May Ward. An Orthodox rabbi officiated the wedding, perhaps to assuage Bernstein’s parents. Or, as Shapiro writes in the book, the rabbi “was willing to work cheap, since he had been in America for less than two years and lacked a congregation.”

In one anecdote in the book, Bernstein was trying to provide a refuge for vaudeville actress Laura Biggar, who was wanted for inheritance fraud. “He had put a deadline that they have to be in touch with me by noon,” Shapiro said. “The deadline was there, we found out, because it was sundown of Rosh Hashanah.”

It’s not clear how deep his relationship with Judaism went. “He was conscious of being Jewish; he probably celebrated the High Holy Days, but it was certainly not a major priority in his life,” Shapiro said.

Bernstein’s name could be in the dictionary next to chutzpah. He once ran a vaudeville troupe through Outer Mongolia, accepting payment in furs. After jumping into the silent movie business, the struggling producer ended his business with an insurance fire. He later ran an Irish festival in Boston under the unlikely name of Roger O’Ryan, and disappeared with the gate receipts. The Boston press dubbed him “O’Ryanstein.” As recounted in Mae West’s biography, Bernstein smuggled diamonds into the U.S. by feeding his adorable little dog a “mineral-rich diet” three hours before arriving at port.

But his biggest scheme involved defrauding the Führer. Germany needed the nickel for lining guns, and there was a boycott on selling such goods to Germany. Bernstein was paid what today would amount to $2 million for the rusted car parts and tin cans he actually delivered to the Nazis. He later claimed in a pamphlet that the nickel was swapped on the high seas without his knowledge. But he also boasted of the scam to the press and tried to spin his actions as political, so what really happened is anyone’s guess.

One amusing anecdote in the book involves Bernstein trying to sell jewels to West at her Hollywood apartment in February 1937. The two had known each other since 1903, when Bernstein was a vaudeville booking agent in New York and hired the 10-year-old West as a performer in some of his theaters. 

The movie star was no stranger to jewels, real or fake. After pulling out her scale, she bought some rubies and sapphires, but handed the artificial diamonds back, telling Bernstein that if they really were such high quality, “then you should have no trouble selling them.”

The night ended just after Bernstein left West’s apartment. He was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department from the back of a chauffeured limousine. Through a middleman in New York, the Nazis had indicted him for grand larceny. Then-New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, at the request of the German government, issued the warrant. 

A major Los Angeles extradition fight followed the arrest. The Jewish community in Hollywood, including Al Jolson and film-studio executive Joseph Schenck, put together a Freeman Bernstein support network and successfully prevailed upon then-California Gov. Frank Merriam not to extradite him.

According to Shapiro’s research, the Los Angeles Times visited him for a jailhouse interview after he had been in jail for a day. As the unnamed reporter put it, Bernstein requested a cigar. When he was told no cigar was available, he reluctantly took a cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring.

Shapiro’s book resurrects a lively character otherwise forgotten by history. His body lies in a nearly unmarked grave in a small Jewish cemetery just outside Los Angeles. 

“If this was a fictionalization,” Shapiro said, “I would’ve had a few happier elements at the end. But the point was, more than anything, he wanted to be in the game to the end.”

Bernstein died in 1942 after suffering a heart attack in the hotel suite of William K. Howard, a major Hollywood director. That suggests that “even in decline, even in being nearly broke,
he still was considered someone to reckon with, someone who could get a meeting,” Shapiro said.

Perhaps, in that final meeting, Bernstein was pitching his life story. It certainly would have made a riveting feature film.

Sex with Jews is fun — just ask Kellen Kaiser

When she started writing in about 2005, Kellen Kaiser had planned to call her book “How to Plan a Gay Kosher Wedding for 250.” Instead, her relationship with the story’s male lead unraveled. 

In May, Kaiser published “Queerspawn in Love: A Memoir” (She Writes Press), an allegorical, even cautionary, tale of Jewish love. 

Over bibimbap at a Koreatown strip mall, Kaiser, who was in town for a July 7 reading at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard, delivered her one-liner on what the book is about: “What happens when the daughter of a quartet of lesbians falls in love with a guy serving in the Israel Defense Forces.” 

Kaiser’s circumstances are unusual to the point of being singular: Raised with an abundance of motherhood by four lesbians, she was called upon at a young age to act as a precocious spokesperson for “queerspawn,” the children of gay parents.

Hers has been a life examined. Kaiser knew during her youth in Berkeley that she was growing up as a test case of a “small pioneering demographic.” Today she’s a companionable 35-year-old with a wide smile and little in the way of a filter. 

“Part of having gay parents is that people talk to you about sexuality at a much younger age than average, because they talk to you about your parents’ sexuality, and sexuality in general,” she said. “So, like, when I was 5, I had reporters ask me if I’d ever been molested by my parents.” 

But Kaiser belongs to an even smaller demographic than queerspawn — she is, as her transatlantic love story impresses beyond a doubt, Jewish queerspawn. 

“Queerspawn in Love” is the story of how Kaiser, before she was old enough to buy booze, fell in love with Lior Gold, an American-born IDF recruit, and embarked on a long-distance relationship that survived an intifada and an invasion of the West Bank only to flounder back in the States.

The IDF is rarely as sexy as in the scene where Kaiser for the first time undresses her lover from his army uniform.

“He took off his M16, removed the ammunition and locked it somewhere separate from the gun, then checked the empty chamber and put the rifle away,” she writes. “Finally, I could undress him.”

Kaiser is well suited to the task of dissecting Jewish sexual mores, a large part of what she does in the book. 

Her Jewish credentials run deep. She spent a year on a kibbutz in Israel before college and taught Sunday school at a Reform synagogue after graduating — all this in spite of the fact that she is not, in a technical sense, Jewish.

Her dad was Jewish, and a Cohen, no less, but also a one-night stand in Paris who was more or less duped into conception. Kaiser has puzzled over the ethics of this situation even while at the same time half-seriously considering the same course of action in Israel (“Watch out, boys,” she said over lunch).

Kaiser’s biological mother, Nyna, is not Jewish, but she married a Jewish woman  during Kellen’s childhood, and they celebrate Jewish holidays. Kellen is, by her own telling and according to her long Jewish C.V., “a very Jewish person.”

Her brother has the opposite situation: a Jewish biological mother, a non-Jewish father and little attachment to the faith.

“And we’re like the classic sort of reactions to it, where I was bat mitzvahed, grew up in a labor Zionist youth movement, went to Israel, worked for Hillel,” she said. “My brother did none of it. None of it! And he’s like, ‘I’m a Jew.’ ”

Wherever Kaiser finds herself, she said, she seeks out Jews and gays. 

During a five-year stint in Los Angeles after the events in her book, she flirted with the Jewish community here, but her tryst through the city’s multitude of Jewish singles events was a qualified success.

“They got me laid, but I’m still single,” she said with characteristic candor.

“I think it was mainly geared toward conservative Sephardi Westsiders, some of whom were ridiculously good looking,” she went on. “They were some of the prettiest Jews I’ve ever seen in my life. Beautiful, beautiful Jews.”

Kaiser now lives in Mendocino County and works as a sex education teacher and part-time cattle farmer on a ranch belonging to one of her mothers. But her book makes her a de facto spokesperson for Jewish sex positivity.

According to her research and experience, “Jews just have a much more healthy sexual culture and philosophy than Christians do, generally speaking,” she said over lunch. “Jews are much more sex positive than Christians. They don’t have the same dynamics in terms of shame.”

As evidence, she pointed to the “preponderance of Jewish lesbians.”

“I have zero data on that,” she said. “But I just know so many Jewish lesbians.”

Kaiser is well groomed for the role of Jewish sex evangelist: “I have always loved having sex with Jews,” she said. 

Her romantic experience has been Semitic from the moment of her first kiss, which took place at her LGBT synagogue during the waning minutes of Yom Kippur when she was 13.

“It was right at the break-fast,” she recalled. “We were hanging out by the giant tables of food, and at the time my crush was like, ‘I’m going to eat something.’ And I’m like, ‘You can’t — there’s not three stars in the sky yet, it’s not time.’ He’s like, ‘I’m going to do it.’ I’m like, ‘You should kiss me instead.’ ”

Cheesy, sure, but effective — he kissed her.

The only thing missing from Kaiser’s Jewish love story is an ending.

She’d imagined her wedding as a place where all her different crowds — queer, Jewish and otherwise — could come together in all their kaleidoscopic color. That hasn’t happened. But her book tour has been something of a consolation prize, she said.

On July 7, Kaiser was the last in a group of six women authors brought together by her publisher to read in front of a crowd of some two dozen in a narrow, book-lined space looking out onto Sunset Boulevard.

The reading went well, the audience laughing at the proper moments. Afterward, the authors adjourned to a table in front to sign books, with cookies and wine on offer.

Kaiser quickly found herself with a line of callers, while the other authors chatted idly with one another. Asked if they were fans or friends, Kaiser barely needed to glance at the line.

“Entirely friends,” she said.