Category Archives: Judaica

Books About Books: The People and the Books by Adam Kirsch

About 10 years ago Grove Atlantic Press published a series of books called Books That Changed the World. By enlisting established writers and other subject matter experts to write a brief “biography” of some of history’s most seminal books, Grove Atlantic produced a nice line of books devoted to the West’s most significant works. With Karen Armstrong writing about the Bible, Christopher Hitchens discussing Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Bruce Lawrence weighing in on the Quran, how could any lover of history, comparative religion or bibliophile not fall in love with a series like this.

Late last year, I learned  W. W. Norton & Company recently published a book by Adam Kirsch in which he took Grove Atlantic Press’ Books That Changed the World concept and applied it to the great works of Judaism. When I discovered my public library recently purchased a copy I immediately put it on reserve and before long I had my hands on a treasured copy. The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature is gifted and poet and literary critic Kirsch’s history of Judaism as seen through what he considers, and probably rightfully so, its most important books. From the Biblical books of Deuteronomy and Esther to the Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories (think Fiddler on the Roof) it’s a detailed but still readable and relatively concise look at the books that profoundly shaped Jewish history.

I found The People and the Books full of fascinating and thus pleasant surprises. For instance, I never would have considered the book of Esther such a significant text, but after one takes into account the substantive issues it touches on like assimilation, civic duty and the threat of genocide, all within a very surprising secular context (it’s probably the only book in the Bible, including the Christian New Testament that rarely, if ever mentions the name of God) one quickly realizes Kirsch appreciates the book’s vital significance. While I expected to see mentioned in a book like this works by luminaries Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, Maimonides and Spinoza, my own subject matter ignorance precluded me from considering worthy of inclusion the writing of  Tsenerene, whose Yiddish paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible served as one of history’s early adventures in chic-lit.

I didn’t know a lot about The People and the Books before starting it but in the end, Kirsch impressed me. (The only part of the book I didn’t like that much was portion on the Zionist fiction of Theodor Herzl.) Not only has he crafted an excellent book but my goodness the man knows his stuff. For anyone seeking quality books on Jewish history, The People and the Books should by all means be including in that reading list.

7 Comments

Filed under History, Judaica

Soviet Spotlight: The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel

The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet JewryLast year, when I heard the news Elie Wiesel passed away like many others I was saddened because the world lost not only a powerful writer and wise man but also a survivor one of history’s darkest episodes. Over a prolific career spanning over half a century, his extensive body of work was undoubtably shaped by not just the horrors of the Holocaust but also his quest for meaning in the modern age. Throughout his many writings he asked how does a Jew, or really for that matter any person live a just and fulfilling life?

Saddened to hear of his passing, I later found myself inspired to read more from his extensive body of work. I even thought about doing some sort of ongoing series, perhaps calling it an Elie Wiesel retrospective. Unfortunately, like so many blogging projects I’ve vowed to embark upon, I never got around to doing so. Typical of me.

I stumbled upon his book The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry completely by accident while fumbling through my public library’s catalog of available Kindle downloads. Seeing it was a collection of Wiesel’s newspaper dispatches he wrote in 1965 chronicling his travels across what was then the western portion of the former USSR observing Jewish life under the authoritarian rule of the Communists I simply HAD to borrow this book. So of course, I did.

Despite being a slim book (the paperback version is only 144 pages) it nevertheless punches above its weight. Wiesel recalls in detail the conversations he had with his coreligionists throughout the major cities of the USSR including Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Vilnius. He describes meeting Jews who are free, but not completely free of oppression. He learns despite the Soviet lines of proletariat equality and all men are brothers old prejudices die hard. The USSR’s Jews are still looked at with suspicion by some in power, and are seen as “rootless cosmopolitans” with questionable allegiance to the Soviet state. Worse, some see them as a potential fifth column secretly supporting America or the (then young) modern state of Israel. All of this is made worse by living under one of the mid-twentieth century’s most oppressive regimes.

The Jews of Silence left me wanting to read more stuff by Wiesel. It also made me wanna read Gal Beckerman’s 2010 book on the Jews of the USSR When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone which I’m happy to report I bought myself as a Christmas present late last year. So with that in mind, look for more books by Wiesel and one by Beckerman to show up on my blog.

4 Comments

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Judaica

About Time I Read It: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

The subject of my previous post, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 happened to be the selection of one of my three book clubs. In keeping with this theme, the book featured in this post, The Golem and the Jinni, was recently selected by one of my other book clubs. Yesterday I met with members of my book club at a local wine shop/bar to discuss it. I’m happy to report to the last man and woman, all of us enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, and when a whole book club likes a book, it means it’s a pretty darn good.

Published in 2013, I’ve been wanting to read The Golem and the Jinni ever since one of those those “based on your history, you should read this” algorithms utilized by Goodreads brought the novel to my attention. Once my book club chose it as our May selection, I was able to secure an available copy through my public library. Despite being 657 pages long, it felt like I made my way through the novel rather quickly. Which, like having your whole book club praise a book, is never a bad thing.

Blending elements of fantasy, romance, mythology, religion and historical fiction, Wecker’s tells the story of two supernatural beings, who through strange twists of fate find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York City. One is Chava, a beautiful golem originally created by a one-time rabbinical student turned malevolent magus to serve as a submissive wife to a somewhat moneyed but nevertheless loser lech. The other, a roguish but likable Jinni named Ahmad, suddenly finds himself in Gotham after spending the last thousand years or so imprisoned in an old flask. While physically appearing normal, neither Chava or Ahmad are human. But on the other hand, neither are lacking in humanity. Their interactions with the diverse denizens of New York show the depth and width of the human condition. We readers are kept entertained by their supernatural abilities (physical as well as mental) as well as their sometimes fumbling attempts to pass as lowly mortals.

Despite The Golem and the Jinni popularity among readers, some reviewers were critical, taking issue with the novel’s length. I on the other hand have no such complaint, since it allowed Wecker to flesh out the unique and memorable cast of supporting characters who populate the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni and can easily see it making my year-end Best Fiction list.

5 Comments

Filed under Arab World, Fiction, History, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa

Trieste by Dasa Drndic

Every once and awhile I grab a book that wasn’t exactly what I expected. Mind you, whenever this happens it hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. More than once it’s turned out pleasantly surprising. Other times, I’ve been disappointed. Then there’s the times I’ve been left scratching my head, unable to decide if I my disappointment was justified or had I really been treated to an excellent book that just didn’t work for me.  Croatian novelist Dasa Drndic’s Trieste is one of those books.

After spying an available library copy of Trieste I was drawn to Drndic’s 2014 novel for a number of reasons. One, it’s set in Italy and therefore eligible for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Two, much of it takes place during World War II. Three, I’ve always had a fascination with the “border cities” of old Europe: cities located on the border of two countries that over history find themselves tossed back and forth between empires. Cursed by geography, places like Gdansk (Danzig), Lviv (Lemberg) and Trieste have always had special place for me.

As novels go, Trieste is a bit of an odd duck. If there’s a chief storyline, it’s that of Haya Tedeschi, an Italian Jew who, during the Second World War had an unlikely love affair with a German SS officer that resulted in the birth of her son. Tragically, mere months after his birth the infant was stolen by German agents as part of the Lebensborn project: an SS-coordinated plan to fill Hitler’s Reich with Aryan infants by any means necessary, including kidnapping children from across occupied Europe. 60 plus years later the elderly Haya has pulled off the near impossible task of locating her long-lost son and nervously awaits a reunion with him in the northeastern Italian town of Gorizia.

I called the book an odd duck because in addition to lots of Hays’s familiar history, the rest of the books seems to alternate between fiction and history, in addition to taking a number of odd and lengthy detours.  Therefore, while there were parts of Trieste I enjoyed, there were parts I didn’t. If you ask me if I liked this book or not, I’m not sure I can offer up a convincing answer.

2 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

About Time I Read It: The Pity of It All by Amos Elon

The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933I can’t remember how long ago, but once a book popped up on my Goodreads page I simply had to read. Published in back 2002, Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933 looked like one of those books that’s right up my alley. And not just any book on Jewish history, but one devoted to the history of Jews in Germany. Therefore, like many promising books I read or hear about, I vowed to someday read it. Then, like I’ve done so many times in the past promptly forgot about it. That is, until I was surfing my public library’s online catalog and was it was listed. I quickly placed a hold and before I knew it, a copy become available. Once again, I found myself kicking myself because I should not have waited so long to read Elon’s outstanding book.

The Pity of It All begins with Moses Mendelssohn’s arrival in Berlin. Not yet 15 years old but confident, purposeful and smart enough to trade his backwater Jewish community in Dessau for the brighter lights of Berlin. (This, in an age when the Prussian military’s presence in the city was so huge some joked that Prussia was an army in search of a state.) Even though the city’s gate masters were officially tasked with keeping itinerant Jews from entering the city, Mendelssohn nevertheless made it inside. Once settled, he went on to become not only one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, but also an early advocate of Jewish assimilation and interfaith dialog. Much like their co-religionists the Rothschild’s, in time the Mendelssohn family name would be associated with fame and accomplishment, from banking to composing.

As one might expect, according to Elon the history of Jews in German is ultimately a tragic one, both in nature and irony. As German Jews embraced German culture, language and education and thus assimilated, like so many of their Christian neighbors Germany’s Jews became increasingly secular. Unfortunately, with many of Germany’s top positions in academia, the military and the like still closed to them, countless German Jews converted. Cynically, or depending how you look at it realistically, those like the poet Heine figured it was an easy transition from non-practicing Jew to non-practicing Christian. Fearing Jews would continue to convert and in great numbers, (one person wrote at the time it seemed like half of Berlin’s Jews were converts) a kind of Jewish Counter Reformation arose with its goal to preserve traditional Judaism while keeping it relevant in a modern secular age.

When it comes to tragedy and irony, during the 200 year history of Germany’s Jews the worst was saved for last. During the First World War and the run-up preceding it, some Germans accused the nation’s Jews of not being patriotic, and thus not German enough. However, in reality a number of influential Jews in academia and industry were solidly behind the Germany’s military endeavors, issuing supportive pronouncements and urging the nation to fight on. Later in the War, after four years of brutal trench warfare and Britain’s naval blockade left Germany hungry and bled white, antisemitic elements looking for scapegoats accused the nation’s Jewish soldiers of lacking bravery. A fact-finding report was issued and when completed, showed Jewish soldiers were fighting as hard as and taking as many casualties as the rest of the German army. (One crazy historical footnote I learned from Elon’s book is the German officer who went to bat for a young Adolf Hitler and made sure he was decorated for bravery was Jewish.) After Germany’s government collapsed at the end of WWI, the nation’s first democratically elected government arose from the political ashes. Also for the fist time in Germany’s history, many Jews held positions of responsibility in the new government. But that young government’s inability to effectively negotiate with the victorious Allies led to significant losses in German territory. (A war that right up to the end, the German people were told they were winning.) This would lead to a decade of widespread anger and resentment, and after the horrors of the Great Depression, opened the doors of power to the antisemitic Nazis in the early 30s.

The Pity of It All is an outstanding book and could easily make my year-end Best of List. It’s also a great companion book to Howard Sachar’s 2007 masterpiece A History of the Jews in the Modern World. Please consider The Pity of It All highly recommended.

1 Comment

Filed under Europe, History, Judaica

Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston

Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic RebelsAfter having great luck with Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox I was on the lookout for other great stuff by or about former Hasidic Jews. When I discovered my public library had an available copy of Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels I didn’t hesitate to get my hands on it. Just like I did with the two above-mentioned memoirs, I whipped through Winston’s Unchosen while thoroughly enjoying it.

Like Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Unchosen is a polyvocal text. The voices heard in Winston’s book are rebellious (believe me, in this context it’s a relative term) Hasidic Jews or those trying to leave the community, many of which are from the highly insular and morally restrictive Satmar sect of New York. Slowly, over a long period of time the book’s author Hella Winston, a nonobservant Jew met got to know some of them as they shared their respective life stories with her.

For a disillusioned Satmar or member of a similar community to up and leave is no easy task. Members have been inculcated from day one with religious beliefs that speak of the group’s divine chosen status contrasted with the moral depravity of the greater world, making integration within the lager Jewish community, to say nothing of secular society in general difficult. In addition, young Hasidim are pressured to marry early in life and produce large families, thus making it a challenge to server those  family relationships and obligations should they want to leave. Lastly, because of the lack of secular education or quality vocational training, members are ill-suited to make it in the outside world. (Males receive roughly the equivalent of a 4th grade education. Everything after that is religious training. Women, since they’re not allowed to study religious topics like the men, ironically, receive a bit more secular eduction. Both sexes are educated in the community’s preferred language of Yiddish, making interaction with the English-speaking world even harder.)

In Winston’s book we meet an interesting array of individuals including a young man who struggles to leave his community but his lack of resources, confidence, English skills and support network make it next to impossible; a religious instructor who’s lost his faith and a young woman striving to start a halfway house for those transitioning out of Hasidism. My favorite Hasid in Winston’s book had to be Steinmetz, an employee at a Hasidic-approved store who spent his off the clock time reading forbidden books at of all places the library of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. Like any good rebellious bibliophile I salute Steinmetz and consider him a man after my own heart!

I found all the life stories discussed in Unchosen fascinating and well worth my time. The individuals featured in Winston’s book are complex and multifaceted, with little, if any black and white and mostly shades of gray. No wonder I enjoyed this book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Judaica

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land

The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective StoryI hate to admit it, but some books just take me forever to read. Whenever this happens, frequently it says less about the quality of the book and more about my inability to stay focused and not be distracted by the first interesting book to come my way. Take for instance Patrick Bishop’s The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land-A True Detective Story. Here’s a very good book that took me close to a year to read. Had it not been for my public library’s generous policy towards book renewals there’s no way I could have kept this book around without finally finishing it. Trust me, it’s not like I found the book’s subject matter boring. For most of my adult life I’ve loved reading about the Middle East, especially Israel. So when I learned my public library had a book on the old Stern Gang of course I had to grab it. I just didn’t think it would take me that long to read. And that’s a shame because it’s a pretty good book.

For those who might not know, out of all the groups in British Palestine striving to establish the modern State of Israel the Stern Gang was the most hardcore. Besides robbing banks, blowing off bombs and assassinating people, Avraham Stern and his crew were willing to do just about anything to drive out the British and the Arabs. So passionate was Stern’s hatred against the British rulers of Palestine that he even sought assistance from Fascist Italy, and later the Germans. Of course, that a Jew would be willing to enlist the forces of Nazism in his crusade to rid Palestine of British rule looks completely absurd and reckless when seen with the hindsight of history. But history is full of individuals whose narrow-minded interests and uncompromising agendas ultimately lead to their destruction.

Bishop’s book is well written and well researched. While I thought it lost a bit of punch towards the end it’s a pretty decent book overall. Shame on me for taking so long to read it.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Israel, Judaica, Middle East/North Africa