Category Archives: 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.

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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.

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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.

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

Isaac’s Army by Matthew Brzezinski

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied PolandAlan Furst is one of my favorite contemporary fiction writers and when he highly recommends a book, I take notice. One night while searching my public library’s online database I noticed there was an available copy of Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Since I already had a ton of library books in my possession I was a bit hesitant to borrow one more. But with Alan Furst giving Isaac’s Army a glowing recommendation, calling the book “a riveting account of the Jewish resistance in wartime Poland” how could I say no. After making my way through Isaac’s Army I can happily say Mr. Furst did not steer me wrong. Isaac’s Army is a superb book and probably one the best books on the Holocaust I’ve ever read.

Published in 2012, Brzezinski’s (yes, he’s related to President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski since he’s his nephew) book begins with Warsaw on the eve of German invasion. Cursed with having Nazi Germany on the West and Stalin’s USSR on the East, the country’s leaders  nervously and with overconfidence look to Britain and France to hold back the invading tide. Even though Poland’s right-wing authoritarian regime has been showing its antisemitic stripes of late, overall, the Jews of Warsaw are doing well. With half a million Jews calling Warsaw home, the Polish capital isn’t just one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe, it’s a vibrant and populous Jewish mecca.

But then came the Nazi and Soviet onslaughts. After Poland’s crushing defeat Warsaw’s Jews were eventually exiled to the city’s newly created ghetto. Behind the Warsaw Ghetto’s walls parallel power structures and factions materialized, and some of its residence acting out of desperation, venality or naivety became informers, or even collaborators. Before the final round of deportations to the Death Camps, the ghetto’s last residents staged a furious uprising. Believing the Jews were cowardly and too timid to fight back, the Nazi’s were completely taken off guard. Although the rising was ultimately crushed, a number of brave, resourceful and lucky souls escaped death through the sewers. Some of these fighters went on to take part in another failed insurrection a year later, when the Polish Underground rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.

What separates Isaac’s Army from your typical books on WWII is this a book about individuals, not armies and generals. Through Brzezinski’s eyes you see their day-to-day struggles over a six-year period. Since they are presented as real people fighting a merciless and powerful enemy of demonic proportions, readers of Isaac’s Army are able to see them as flesh and blood individuals. Contrary to what Stalin would have liked the world to believe, they are human beings, not statistics.

Brzezinski’s book is incredibly researched and contains tons of detail without feeling dry or tedious. So impressed was I with Isaac’s Army that I’m pretty confident it’ll make my year-end Best of List. Just like I did in my previous post with Christian Caryl book Strange Rebels, consider this book highly recommended.

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

Underground in Berlin by Marie Jalowicz Simon

Sometimes you don’t like a book as much as you respect it. That’s how I feel about Marie Jalowicz Simon’s 2015 memoir Underground in Berlin: A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi GermanyFor whatever reason, I just didn’t enjoy reading it that much. Maybe it was the writing, maybe it was the overall structure, maybe it was the editing but for whatever reason, I just never fell in love with it. I never took a liking to memoirist Jalowicz Simon either. But my goodness, after reading how she survived as a Jew in Nazi German during World War II whatever issues I had with Underground in Berlin seemed oh so trivial. I came away from her memoir in awe that any human being could have pulled off what she did and lived to tell the story.

I came across a copy of Underground in Berlin through my public library and knowing I could use a book set in Germany for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured myself a copy. (Come to think of it, I think I might have seen the book listed on Goodreads since it looked kind of familiar.) Probably because I wasn’t too enamored with the book, it took me forever to get through Underground in Berlin. But like I mentioned earlier, once I did finish it, my respect for its author knew no bounds.

It’s one thing to cheat death once, or even twice during a lifetime. Jalowicz Simon did it on a daily basis for over half a decade, living under one of history’s most efficiently murderous regimes. The fact she survived at all is proof her own resourcefulness and perseverance. She also never would have survived without the assistance a huge constellation of individuals, each person with his/her reason for helping, and not all those reasons pure and noble. Lastly, to risk being profane even Jalowicz Simon concludes good fortune, usually masquerading as simple dumb luck played no small part in keeping her alive.

If you’re like me and a big Alan Furst fan, my guess is you’re also fascinated to some degree what civilian life must have been like in Nazi Germany. If that’s the case, then you might want to explore Underground in Berlin. If you’re a reader who finds yourself drawn to books on the Holocaust, you too might want to read this since Jalowicz Simon’s memoir shed light its horrors right down to an individual, almost prosaic level. Once again, while I might not have enjoyed Underground in Berlin, I sure as hell respected it.

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The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona

As I proclaimed in one of my earlier postsRose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has inspired even this diehard nonfiction fan to read more fiction. Of course, if I’m going to read fiction there’s a strong likelihood it’s going to be historical fiction since that’s what this old history buff is going to read. So, when I found out my public library had available a novel set in the 15th century on the Iberian peninsula I figured what the heck and grabbed it.

Published in 2014, Laurel Corona’s The Mapmaker’s Daughter tells the story of Amalia Riba, a Sephardic Jew and Converso. The story begins with her as a young girl living in Spain. A child prodigy possessing intelligence and talent far beyond her years, she eagerly assists her mapmaker father in translating documents and other important duties. After her mothers dies, her and her father move to Portugal so he can supply his cartographical skills to Henry the Navigator. Upon growing to young womanhood, she’s married off to a Portuguese explorer but without revealing any spoilers let’s just say the only things good about her marriage is it was short and resulted in the birth of her daughter. From there she falls in love with a dashing and intelligent Moorish ambassador and moves to the Muslim kingdom of Grenada to be with him. Later, she leaves Grenada returning to both Portugal and Spain. The novel ends with Amalia a much older woman, reflecting on the events of her life as she and her co-religionists are being cast out of Spain per Ferdinand and Isabella’s infamous royal decree.

The Mapmaker’s Daughter made for light, but nevertheless entertaining reading. Kudos to author Corona for weaving into her story true historical figures like Spain’s Queen Isabella and Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. If you’re a history fan like myself it’s hard not to like the novel The Mapmaker’s Daughter.

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Filed under Arab World, Fiction, History, Judaica

Books About Books: The House of Twenty Thousand Books

How can any true bibliophile resist a book called The House of Twenty Thousand Books? I mean come on, just look at that picture on the cover. If you’re a true book lover, who wouldn’t want to live a house like that, with books stacked floor to ceiling? So who could blame me for wanting to read Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books when I discovered the book while surfing my public library’s online catalog. After leisurely making my way through it I’m happy to report The House of Twenty Thousand Books did not disappoint this lover of books, especially old books.

The House of Twenty Thousand Books is the story of Chimen Abramsky, Sasha’s grandfather. Born in 1916 near Minsk in the old Russian Empire,  later Chimen emigrated to England to escape Stalinist oppression. Even though Chimen’s father, an incredibly gifted and esteemed Rabbi suffered mightily at the hands of the Soviets, (he narrowly escaped being executed only to spend several years in the Gulag) nevertheless, not long after his arrival in England Chimen became a diehard Communist. So steadfast in his political beliefs that despite Stalin’s purges, show trails and legions of atrocities only in the late 50s would Chimen abandon Communism in favor of a less dogmatic and more liberal form of humanism.

But books was Chimen’s passion. His Communist zeal inspired him to collect rare books and manuscripts dealing with socialism, labor and Marxism. With some of his treasured editions containing handwritten margin notes by Karl Marx himself, Chimen’s personal library was the envy of Communists and leftists from around the world. Later in life, as he drifted away from Communism, Chimen began to collect rare and vintage Jewish books, many of them acquired from behind the Iron Curtain, thus saving them from obscurity and possible destruction. As he built his massive library, filling his home with books each room would be devoted to a certain subject, with the master bedroom serving as a kind of “holy of holies” of Chimen’s most precious volumes where only special guests could enter.

Published in 2015, The House of Twenty Thousand Books is one of those rare books that succeeds in being many things. On one level, it could be considered a memoir since Abramsky recounts his childhood growing up in London before he left for American to attend graduate school. It’s also a biography of his grandfather Chimen, the tireless bibliophile who over decades created the house of books. But it’s also a history book, chronicling not only the history of the Abramsky family, but that of England, with a focus on left and far left politics. It’s also a fine book of Jewish history. Therefore, with that all said I thoroughly enjoyed The House of Twenty Thousand Books and have no problem recommended this fine book to any bibliophile.

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Filed under History, Judaica, Memoir