Sunday, September 13, 2015

And Yet...

Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, zt"l, said that the most hopeful phrase contains just two words -- and yet.

Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa also expresses this in his haiku:

Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
The world of dew –
A world of dew it is indeed, 
And yet, and yet . . .”

while the world is fragile, it is the only world we have.

Last summer three teenage boys were kidnapped and murdered. Operation Defensive Shield led to the discovery of tunnels and a heinous terrorist plot.  More than 70 people, most of them young soldiers, were kill in the operation.  The sirens went off and I spent some time in the bomb shelter.  This summer has been just as emotional: a toddler and his parents were killed because of an arson attack on their house, and a 16-year-old girl died as the result of stabbing wounds inflicted by someone opposed to the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade.

And yet, this evening I am sitting outside recalling the song I sang at summer camp and thinking how it came true:

Next year we'll sit on the porch and count the birds;
Children on vacation will play tag between the house and the fields...
(Bashana Haba'ah - lyrics Ehud Manor; music Nurit Hirsch)

Elul is the time in the Jewish calendar when we reflect on the past year and hope to do better in the coming year. I try to find reading at this time of year that will inspire this goal:

Koren has published The Neuwirth Edition of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with translation by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and commentary by Rabbi Marc D. Angel. One of my favorite Jewish texts, it is customarily read on the long summer afternoons between Passover and Rosh Hashanah. At this time of year, the words of Rabbi Tarfon has particularly meaningful:

The day is short, the task is great, 
the laborers are lay, the reward is much, 
and the Master insistent.

He used to say:

It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it. 

(Ethics of the Fathers, 2:20-21)

Rabbi Tarfon's kever in the Galilee

I've been reading a lot of review books, and I have not been impressed with any of them.  Taking a break, I read an ARC I picked up at Book Expo in 2013: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (Dial Books for Young Readers). Though I am assuming the author is Jewish, there is no overtly Jewish content. But the story of a quirky genius who unites other quirky people into a community and a family has so many Jewish values laced through it -- kindness to others, tikkun olam, treating everyone with respect and acceptance of others, quirks and all -- that it was a perfect pre-Rosh Hashanah read. 

Shana Tova!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

That's Why We Pray

This month's theme is prayer, which is even more appropriate with all that is going on in the world.

Although MC Hammer will ultimately be remembered for "Hammer Time" and those silly pants, one of my all-time favorites is "Pray:"

We're sending this one out to the Lord
And we thank You and we know we need to pray
'Cause all the blessings that are good they come from above
And once again we want
To say "thank You" to the Lord with all our love

That's why we pray, ah, yeah, pray
We need to pray
Just to make it today.

Wikipedia defines prayer as "an invocation that acts or seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication." This sounds rather cold, distant and technical, and not really what Jewish prayer is about. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks waxes most eloquently in the introductory essays in the Koren siddurim: "Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. We talk to God. We bring Him our thanks and our hopes, our fears and our dreams."

Anne Lamott grew up atheist and considers herself a "born again, left-wing Jesus lover." But her thoughts about faith and prayer are universal. She shares her insights in Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers (Riverhead Books, 2012). "Asking for assistance, appreciating the good we witness, and feeling awe at the world...get us through the day and show us the way forward."  Filled with her hallmark honesty and wit, Lamott reminds us that "prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.)"

Koren has embarked on a new project: the Koren Magerman Education Siddur Series includes age appropriate prayer books for several levels. "With emphasis placed firmly on the critical foundations of Reflection, Connection, and Learning, this series of siddurim creates an impactful prayers experience that places God and the user at its center."

The siddur for ages five to seven-year-olds (kindergarten through second grade) is very cute, with mixed media illustrations, large clear print, and a key at the bottom of each page that indicates the part of the service (Morning Blessings, Amida, Shabbat Morning). It is also filled with questions and comments, like "How can we show that Hashem is King?"

The second siddur in the series is for ages eight through eleven (grades three through five), and has fewer and more "mature" illustrations, but continues with the easy-to-use format with the key at the bottom of the page. While the prayers are not translated word-for-word, key phrases are highlighted, and there are more questions and comments, as well as stories and parables.

Both of these come with an "Educator's Companion" for teachers and parents that includes explanations of the text of the prayers, the significance of the accompanying illustration, and the kavanot or intentions. The Youth Siddur companion also includes a review of the educational themes and thought questions.

Young daveners graduate to a prayer book suite to twelve to fifteen-year-olds (grades six through eight), and then to the Ani Tefilla Siddur, which is for grades nine through twelve (ages fifteen and up). Thank you Koren for the beautiful "Summer Camp Siddur and Chumash for reflection, connection, and learning. One of my not-so-fond memories of camp was scrambling through a pile more suited for shaimos (a repository for sacred texts to be disposed of respectfully) than for daily use. Alas that this volume did not exist with its Foreword by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and diagrams of the structures of the prayer service. The commentary are divided into four sections: one that explains the context or words and phrases of the prayer; a look at the deeper meaning of the prayer; the laws of prayer; and selections to "encourage connection and tefillot in a direct and personal way. I think I am going to use this one myself to enhance my daily prayers.

In another volume from Koren Publishers, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality (Maggid Books, 2014), Rabbi Avi Weiss shares "ideas, concepts, themes, and approaches that have helped him on his personal journey to realize the infinite depth and power of prayer." The book is divided into three sections: Goals of Prayer, Why Set Tefilla? (time, place, text) and Spirituality. This is such a great choice for people looking to enhance their experience, and must like the holistic approach to medicine, it encompasses the whole person - mind, body and spirit.

We pray for the Ultimate Redemption -- may it come speedily and in our day!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Male and Female

Life got in the way of making the deadline for this month's Jewish Book Carnival, but please be sure to check out the great selections there.

About the time that Bruce Jenner decided he was Caitlyn,

and the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality,

I started reading one of the most erudite pieces I've read in a long time. Circle Arrow Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism (Mekor Press, 2014) is a thought-provoking study of how the male and female impact every aspect of our lives. Author Miriam Kosman looks at three levels. "First, reality in its ideal sense -- the way things were meant to be; second, reality in its compromised, sociological sense -- the ways things actually are; and third, and most importantly, a path to the perfection of the hoped-for and long-awaited future." While the book has nothing to do with Caitlin Jenner or the Supreme Court, it looks at how male and female manifest in the world: through giving and receiving, through the external and the internal, and the interplay between opposite forces that also have an attraction to each other. Although some topics were challenging -- why women don't learn Talmud, why men control divorce in Jewish law, part of my enjoyment of the book was the author's way of laying out the topics and arguments in an orderly way, pulling in many references and presenting clear and cogent points. 

This lead me to another very intelligent and very deep analysis of male and female in the world - not man or woman, but archetypes and interactions. Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine & Feminine by Sarah Schneider (Jason Aronson, 2001) "is based on two equivalences, the correspondence of sun with all things masculine, and moon with all things feminine." In some ways the books present the same approach -- woman's sexual center is circular and man's is linear. But Schneider delves in the Kabbalah and its commentaries to look at how the diminishment of the moon caused so much inequality in the world, and how this inequality will only be rectified with the coming of Mashiach (the Messiah), when the moon will be restored to its (her) full glory. Very esoteric, but full of points to ponder:

"God intentionally designed each person with a unique combination of male and female attributes and each must discover a place on the continuum of gender that integrates all the disparate parts of him or herself in healthy and productive ways."

I don't think she had Bruce/Cait in mind!

Monday, June 15, 2015

June Jewish Book Carnival

It is my pleasure to host this month's Jewish Book Carnival, a selection of  book reviews; interviews with authors, publishers, librarians and others about Jewish books; and essays about Jewish books and literature. 

The purposes of the Jewish Book Carnival are to build community among bloggers who feature Jewish books on their blogs and to promote Jewish reading, and fields supporting this reading such as publishing and library services.

Without further ado, here are this month's selections:

At Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, Deborah talks with author Barbara Stark-Nemon about Barbara's new book, Even in Darkness, a novel based on her great-aunt's concentration camp experiences. 

At The Best Chapter, Diana Bletter interviews Michelle Brafman on her first novel, Washing the Dead, about how participating in a tahara ritual helps the narrator turn her life around.

The Fig Tree Books blog celebrates what would have been Saul Bellow's 100th birthday (June 10th) with some notes gleaned around the Web and three writers' discussions of Bellow novels.

Erika Dreifus shifts from the page to the screen as she recommends "Above and Beyond," a documentary about the (mostly) American pilots who helped Israel win its independence. Find her review at her blog --  My Machberet.

Photojournalism and romance are the topics of interest at Lorri M. Writings and Photography, where Lorri reviews Waiting for Robert Capa by Susana Fortes.

Heidi at The Book of Life blog hosts a podcast interview with filmmaker Ian Rosenberg about his documentary "Welcome to Kutsher’s," a loving tribute to the last Catskills resort.

At the Whole Megillah, Barbara Krasner interviews Tracy Newman about her new picture book, Uncle Eli's Wedding.

Finally, I left the comfort of my reading spot and ventured into Jerusalem for Hebrew Book Week and The Festival of Light. You can "picture" it at Life Is Like a Library.

I'd like to thank all the contributors for sharing, and for making my first time hosting much less daunting than I thought it would be.  One of the benefits:  I got to see all these great blogs first!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Book Week and the Festival of Light

Hebrew Book Week takes place every June in Israel. While I will rant another time about why every event has to take place at First Station when they are many beautiful venues around Jerusalem, it is always nice to see so many people enthused about books, especially children. Alas for me, but maybe good for my wallet, almost everything was in Hebrew. Equally impressive was the variety of books for so many different interests.

I missed seeing Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner Penina Moed Kass when she was there, but I spotted her Berele the Snail books:

I also enjoyed seeing the Hebrew versions of the Minions from Despicable Me and, of course, Captain Underpants:

From First Station, it was on to the Old City for dinner and a dose of bad grammar:

As the sun began to set, the lights came on and the crowds teemed.  Although I did not get to see all the installations and displays, I really enjoyed "The Large Pendulum Wave" and "Tower of David Ramparts:"

This month's reading did not include any standouts, but my book club read The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. We had a lively discussion about the sadness of this story and what an amazing job Friedman did in laying out the saga with its cast of characters and cultural nuances. I had read the book when it first came out in 2012, and one of the first things I did was go see (what's left of) the Codex in the Israel Museum:

This manuscript was beautifully "written out" in 925 and was used by the Rambam as a reference.  Although "stranger than fiction" and "non-fiction that reads like fiction" are quite trite and overused, the book is both of these and more.

More pictures than words this month, but looking ahead:

A book about challah
A memoir
Beating the Elul Rush

Happy Reading!

Monday, May 4, 2015

2015 Jerusalem Women's Writers' Seminar

It was another beautiful day in the united and eternal capital of Israel as I attended the Jerusalem Women's Writers' Seminar. Once again, Tamar Ansh and Esther Heller did an amazing job in every way.  I love going to a "women's event" with the coordinating napkins and the little pastries in the relaxation corner sponsored by Menucha Publishers. I love me some swag, which at this gathering meant free magazines and a beautiful mug, healthy muffin and notepad from Israel Bookshop.

But obviously the best part of the day was the packed (and on time!) schedule of speakers and workshops throughout the day. I met some of my favorite authors and "celebrities" of the Orthodox publishing world:

Mrs. Yaffa Ganz, is a Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award Winner and author of the ever-charming Savta Simcha books, the Bina and Benny Holiday Series, and Mimmy and Simmy books. Her latest is a soon-to-be released book of poetry, but while you're waiting, adults should read  Cinnamon and Myrrh (Feldheim, 2013), a "delicious" collection of essays, while Bubbleglum Glue and Other Adventures with Dr. Emmanuel J. Mitzva (Feldheim 2014) is a great choice for kids.

Miriam Zakon is the acquisitions editor at Artscroll Publications.  She is also the author of the 1986 Sydney Taylor Notable Book The Floating Minyan of Pirate's Cove (Judaica Press, 1986).  Emmy Zitter, PhD, is the Chair of the English Department at Michlala Jerusalem College. They are also twin sisters who, with their other sister, Marcia Meth, write the monthly "Sister Schmooze" for Mispacha Magazine/Family First. Their excellent presentation "A Schmooze You Can Use: Turning Everyday Life into Good Writing" explained their process for coming up with topics for the column. Taking random words, the audience came up with different stories.  While the sisters discussed double meanings and metaphors they were informative and entertaining.  Their ending with "you've been a great audience" reminded me of how many comics end their stand-up routines because the sisters were so funny and engaging -- and encouraged writers to look for humor in situations.

Shout out to Libi Astaire, another Sydney Taylor Notable Book author.  Her charming Jewish Regency Mystery Series continues to grow, and my bookshelf (and Kindle) include The Disappearing Dowry, The Ruby Spy Ring, Tempest in the Tea Room, The Doppelganger's Dance, Too Many Coins, General Well'ngone in Love, and her most recent, The Moon Taker. Libi gave a workshop on self-publishing at the Seminar, but for those who did not attend, Libi's Is Self-Publishing for You? (self-published!) provides great suggestions. 

I met a sort-of, kind-of neighbor who has some great books to share.  Leah Chana Rubabshi starting out writing poetry.  Like KRS, she is "using her gift to uplift" and her rhyming children's books are very cute. A Kosher Fish Tale (Menucha Publishers, 2014) is about a boy and his father discovering all the kosher fish on a boating trip with the refrain "'Cause we know that they're not kosher if they don't have fins and scales." Librarian and teachers: use this book for rhyming, for "boy" stories, and definitely for Parshat Shemini, which details the laws of kashrut. Fins and Scales (Kar-Ben, 1992) is one of my all-time favorites, but Rubabshi's book is illustrated with vibrant colors by award-winning Israeli illustrator Nurit Yuval and has a nifty "Kosher Fish Key" at the end.

From the same author, The Hidden Artist (Hachai, 2014), introduces emunah (faith) to young readers. "With all this beauty, great and small, 'I wonder, Who's behind it all?" is the question a young boy ponders as he sees animals, plants and trees. A Rainbow World (Feldheim, 2014) is the story of a boy discovering the colors all around him.

Another sort-of, kind-of neighbor also authored an excellent book. Who Is Annie White (Fish)? by Judy Belsky (Menucha Publishers, 2014) is a question asked by the 14-year old titular character. Her parents are international engineers, and their current project has taken them to Micronesia. Annie decides to stay with her Aunt Becka, an artist who lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Small-town life gets boring real fast for Annie.  But much like her world travels, when she meets Esty Krystal, she is intrigued by a new and interesting culture: Orthodox Judaism. Annie and Aunt Becka start to explore their own heritage and find relatives in Brooklyn, learn why their name was changed, and grow closer to each other and to Judaism.  I was finding the free verse a little overused in secular publishing, but I am happy to see that an Orthodox publisher took the bold step of using this format. Dr. Belsky, whose many hats include writer, artist, and psychologist, has obviously drawn on her knowledge to explore early teenage self-consciousness, family interactions, art, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Annie is often wise beyond her years, but this is chalked up to her world travels.  The free verse also highlighted some great imagery:  the mother of a large family who was "like a great ringmaster at a circus," and the thoughtfulness of the characters: "I could not turn the page onto the next chapter of my life when so many chapters were missing the story did not make sense."

Achrona, Achrona, Chaviva (saving the best for last), Rebbetzin Sara Meisels attended the event.  The Bobover Rebbetzin is an avid reader and book lover, but the Rebbetzin is the kind of woman whose strength of character and warm heart literally fills the room.  

Thank you again, Esther and Tamar for a day that left me feeling more connected, more informed, and uplifted.

A Deocat of J-Town:

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A (Jewish) Dog's Life

Last month was all about cats, but this month it's about a dog. I stopped by the Urim Publications booth at the Jerusalem International Book Fair and picked up a copy of The Jewish Dog by Asher Kravitz (Penlight Publications, 2015).  The book was originally published in Hebrew as HaKelev HaYehudi by Yedioth Ahronoth in 2007.

This dog narrates his own story, starting with his birth (in 1935) and through a succession of owners. He goes from "the white one with the black circle around his eye and brown patch on his chest"

to being Caleb, as his mother's family decides to keep him and give him a proper name. Caleb loved the Gottlieb family and they loved him. The children would feed him table scraps, and Caleb always knew when it was the Sabbath because he got more delectable leftovers from the meals.

But he lives in challenging times.  The situation in Germany deteriorates quickly, and his carefree days as a well-fed and loved puppy are overshadowed by harsh reality.  First, the Nuremberg Laws are enacted, which means Jews cannot own dogs nor use the public parks.  Caleb is given to a former colleague of Kalman Gottlieb and from there is handed off to a variety of owners. Caleb can understand human language and human emotion, so he can sense which people are fearful, or keeping secrets, or are confident and secure.

You will have to read this one for yourself, but you'll be happy you did.  While it is Caleb's story, different aspects of life in Nazi Germany are integrated into the plot, so you get both a dog story and a sense of history and its effect on individuals.

This was one of those books that I enjoyed reading for its cleverness and twists and turns, but read with some anxiousness, wondering what would happen next.  Because of the Holocaust content and some adult themes, it is very highly recommended for young adults and adults. It is also my pick for the Mildred L. Batchelder Award - the American Library Association Youth Media Award :"given to the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States."

Coming soon:
Jewish fiction
A report from the Jerusalem Writers' Seminar
and more Real Cats of Israel.

Happy Reading