Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Yet Another Literary Day in Jerusalem

First stop: Sefer V'Sefel (Book and Mug), my favorite used bookstore. It's located off Jaffa Road in an alleyway and up the stairs, which adds to its charm. It's full of all kinds of English language books: new, used, fiction and non-fiction.  The best part is looking through all the volumes and finding treasures.   This visit I picked up a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, a book I wanted to read (but not buy at full price), and a bunch of recent magazines.

Although "mug" is in the name of the store, sadly there are no mugs of beverages, so...

Next stop: Coney Island Bakery on Jaffa Road for some coffee and pastries. Yet another reminder of America, the storefront looks a little like a subway:

From there, it's a quick ride on the light rail to Yad Vashem.

"Children from the Holocaust" is currently in the Exhibition Hall.  Through video testimonial, artifacts, and recent artwork inspired by the stories of Holocaust survivors, their experiences evoke a mix of feelings - sadness for their suffering and for those that did not survive, happiness for their brief moments of happiness, and awe for both the creativity and the strength of spirit. A case of dolls and stuffed animals that survived the war was particularly touching, as the stories of the owners accompanied each toy.

As Yogi Berra said "It was like deja vu all over again in the main hall and the art gallery:

In One Jew's Power, One Jew's Glory: The Life of Rav Yitzchak Shumuel Eliyahu Finkler the Rebbe of Radoschitz in the Ghetto and Concentration Camps (Feldheim,1991), Yechiel Granatstein a story about Reb Yitzchak'l that took place in the Skarszysko Labor Camp: the Rebbe was able to obtain, at the expense of the inmates' secret valuables, a ram's horn, out of which another inmate, Moshe Waintreter, at the risk of his life, formed a shofar. "The Rebbe was beaming with joy that they were able to keep the mitzvah of blowing the shofar." Remembering these passages, I was taken aback when I saw the actual shofar on display:

Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin by Susan Goldman Rubin (Holiday House, 2000) tells the story of a trained art therapist who brought her supplies to the concentration camp and brought hope and enjoyable diversion to the bleakest of environments. Dicker-Brandeis' "Figures" is on display. Alas, no photographs in the gallery and no images online, but this pastel, "View of Theresienstadt" was recently on display at the University of New Mexico Art Museum.

 Then it was back home. With shorter days and the blessing of rain here in Israel, it's a perfect time to catch up on my reading.

On the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, I am enjoying Killing a King by Dan Ephron. It is fascinating to see how much has changed in 20 years, and how events are put in perspective with the passage of time. 

I finished Heather Streltzer Gelb's From Hilltop to Hilltop: My Path from Rwanda to Israel. While the details of her time with the Peace Corps made for interesting reading, her path meandered through Rwanda for about 90 percent of the book and the next 20 years of her life were wrapped up pretty quickly. For this reader, a map of Rwanda would have been very helpful.  

My book club read Lovingkindness by Anne Roiphe, which I had reviewed for Fig Tree Books.  Although it was published in 1987, the group found the mother-daughter relationship and the Israel experience fertile topics for discussion.

A Whole Lot of Wholeness

I recently received two books for review with "Wholeness" in the title:  Increasing Wholeness by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz and Everyday Wholeness by D.B. Estrin. Thinking "wholeness" may have replaced "mindfulness" as the new buzzword, I did a quick scan of Amazon: 3,535 books.  In the Jewish category, there are 125, but Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi is included, and that one doesn't quite fit. It's definitely trending, but it means different things to different people.

D.B.Estrin's book is subtitled "Self-Coaching for the Jewish Family." The author, a life coach with an Orthodox perspective, looks at many aspects of life and offers some tips for managing the household cheerfully and efficiently, developing healthy habits (eating and exercise), organizing the home, and enhancing prayer.

Rabbi Spitz is the rabbi of a conservative congregation in California, has authored several other books, and focuses on spirituality.  The subtitle of his book is "Jewish Wisdom & Guided Meditations to Strengthen & Calm Body, Heart, Mind & Spirit." His goal is "to surprise you with ancient wisdom and imaginative insights that move you toward greater inner ease and effectiveness" -- a wholeness that means "a fuller sense of awareness of your inner life and greater integration and strengthening of the physical, emotional, intellectual and intuitive dimensions of self."

While I ponder what I will need to do to achieve wholeness (am I currently at half-ness?!), I will leave you with some Real Cats of Jerusalem.  Happy Reading!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Of Making Many Books There Is No End

Note: This blog is based on/inspired by a presentation I gave at the 2008 Jewish Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Seminar in New York City. I chose to update it for several reasons: during the holiday of Sukkot, we read the Book of Ecclesiastes -- from which this quote is taken, so it is timely. Also, the 17th Annual Jewish Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Seminar, sponsored by the Jewish Book Council, will take place on Sunday, November 15th, 2015 (in New York City), again timely. Also, this month's deadline sneaked up very quickly, so I wanted to post in a timely fashion. Enough with timeliness and onto the books!

Of Making Many Books There Is No End - Ecclesiastes Chapter 12, Verse 12 

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a journal of King Solomon’s attempt to answer a difficult question: what is the purpose of life? Near its conclusion, he warns, “Beware, of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” As a reviewer, editor and book lover, I see hundreds of books every year. While we all know the pleasure of  reading a great book, it is very hard to have to read bad books, books with errors that could have been corrected with a Google search, books about Israel with a political agenda, or books that include graphic details inappropriate for children.  As the weather starts to turn colder and it starts to rain in Israel, I've put these books on my reading list:

In 2013, I had the pleasure of representing AJL at the World Congress of Jewish Studies (see E-Reading and Jerusalem). My topic was "Off the Derech and Onto the Page," and I talked about books by and about people who left their Orthodox Jewish Communities. Since then, the market as been flooded with even more books. Here are a few of the memoirs:

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen (Graywolf Press, 2015)
Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews by Lynn Davidman (Oxford University Press, 2015)
Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent (Penguin Books, 2014)
Uncovered by Leah Lax (She Writes Press, 2015)

There is a certain sadness to all of these stories, so I try to alternate between sad books and happy or funny books, which leads to a book I'm enthusiastically anticipating:

Yes! Mirka is back in this 3rd book of the series by Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner Barry Deutsch. This time Mirka is a travelling baby-sitter. A magic fish, sibling rivalry, and some Jewish wisdom - I can hardly wait!

Of Making Many Book There Is No End – Rashi notes that it is not possible to  commit everything to writing, and Rabbi Yisroel Salanter cautions that not everything that man thinks must he say; not everything he says must he write, but, most important, not everything that he has written must he publish. Here's a title that came to mind: The Book of Jewish Secrets: and Why Most of Jews are Not Real Jews. I guess it would be worth $2.99 for a Kindle edition to learn the secret. I also think about this when I see Clifford, Grover, and mice celebrating Hanukkah. I didn't even know they were Jewish. But, if Hello Kitty starts celebrating, I just might have to read about her. 

In the meantime, Leslea Newman's Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed will fit the bill for feline reading -- cats, music, friendship - MEOW!

Of Making Many Books There Is No End - The Midrash comments on this verse that there are 24 books in the Jewish canon, and that it should be ample reading material.  Indeed, Jewish culture is full of potential topics. I just started a book by Heather Streltzer Gelb about her path from Rwanda to Israel - From Hilltop to Hilltop. So far I am reading about her experiences working for the Peace Corps in Rwanda in the early 1990s (before the genocide), and while there is a tiny bit of Jewish content, her daily life in Africa makes for interesting reading.

Next month: more on Heather's path and some Lovingkindness.

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!