Sunday, November 9, 2014

Maran HaRav Ovadia

"He had a mind big enough to master all of Torah.  A spirit big enough to lead his people. And a heart big enough to contain all of Klal Yisrael."  If you didn't know who these words were describing, you'd think it was a promo for some kind of cheesy Orthodox superhero movie.  While we often classify superheroes by their physical strength or superpowers (X-ray vision, invisibility), this super human being had tremendous knowledge, strength of character and compassion:

Maran HaRav Ovadia Yosef zt"l




Although no introduction is necessary, these words draw the reader into Artscroll's recent biography (May 2014) by Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz, which chronicles Rav Ovadia's life and achievements.

While I have some familiarity with Ashkenazi rabbis and the chain of tradition passed down through them, I sorely lacked any idea of the rich Sephardic heritage and the scholars and righteous men who upheld  and disseminated Judaism, often under dire circumstances. Although sometimes not directly about Harav Ovadia, it is an important part of the book.

There are many vignettes and anecdotes from various sources that paint a portrait of a man of integrity and commitment.  Some of my favorites:

During Harav Ovadia's first year at Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, the head of the city's kashrut department asked Harav to sign off on the Hilchot Pesach that the Tel Aviv Rabbanut published each year.  Harav Ovadia told the man that one line needed to be changed before he could sign it: "Rice and beans are prohibited, and the Sephardim have a custom to eat them." Harav said the correct phrasing should be "Rice and beans are halachically permissible, but the Ahskenazim have accepted upon themselves a stringency not to eat them."

The head of the kashrut department protested that the text had been that way for years. He was also a little nervous because Rav Isser Yehuda Unterman, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, has authored the document.  Rav Unterman said that Harav Ovadia was correct, and the document was changed.

Rav Mordechai Toledano recalls that when his family moved to Haifa after his appointment to the Rabbanut beit din, his father-in-law Harav Ovadia exhorted him to establish as many shiurei Torah as possible, not to suffice with serving on the beit din nd learning for his own sake. When it became known in Haifa that Rav Toledano was willing to deliver shiurim upon public request, invitations started streaming in from the entire city. Once, he was invited to speak at a particular school, and only after accepting the invitation did he learn that the school was co-ed. He felt uncomfortable delivering a shiur in that type of environment, but he was also loath to renege on his commitment, so he called his father-in-law for advice.

"When he heard my query," Rav Toledano relates, "he answered in one line: 'The sun shines for everyone.'


"He felt that to bring Torah to the masses, you had to be like the sun, which does not differentiate between the various peoples of the world; it shines for everyone. So, too, I would have to get used to the idea of delivering shiurim to all sorts of audiences if I was to have an effect on the masses."



Overall, I learned a great deal, and my admiration for Rabbi Ovadia has grown now that I know "the whole story." But no book is perfect.  The text is 564 pages, and the final chapter or epilogue is a little too whimsical to end a book about a Torah giant.  There is a glossary, but some of the words in the text, like meishiv, are not included in the glossary.  Other phrases, like  atzeret teshuva, are defined literally, but the significance of a "repentance gathering" is omitted.  With non-fiction, it is always helpful to include a timeline and short biographies of key personalities mentioned in the book.  While there are many photographs, some from personal collections, maps would have been an added bonus, as would an index for a book of this length. In some ways the book reminded of The Hare with Amber Eyes. Why? Because even when I wasn't interested in the intricate details, it was evident that the author put a lot of time and effort into gathering the vignettes and organizing the wealth of information he collected.

Finally, while details of many of Harav Ovadia's personal challenges were included, some of the less than glowing stories were omitted.  How did Harav Ovadia react when former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Goren (with whom he disagreed on many issues) died?  How did Harav Ovadia react when his protege, Aryeh Deri, was sent to jail for accepting bribes?  These sound like questions asked because "inquiring minds want to know," but many biographies paint our Torah giants as so great that the average person could never aspire to come anywhere near that greatness. Seeing the more human side of these luminaries helps the rest of us know there is hope.

Harav Ovadia's funeral is mentioned -- 850,000 people jammed the streets of Jerusalem to pay their respects. While it is amazing how many people, from all walks of life, felt compelled to be there, the magnitude of this event should be put in perspective:  Israel has about 8 million citizens, which means about 10 percent of the total population of the country showed up.  If 10 percent of the American population showed up for a funeral, that would mean about 34 million people would be in attendance!! Another testament to the greatness of Harav Ovadia.

In a related story, hasgacha pratis (Divine Providence) made itself obvious in the course of my reading.  I had to renew the American passports for some family members, and they came back with our last name spelled wrong, which meant I had to go back to the American Consulate and get them fixed.  As long as I was in Jerusalem, I decided to do some other errands.  I ended up by the Sanhedria cemetery, and I did not know why there was so much activity.

It turns out that day was the one year yarzheit (anniversary of the death) of Harav Ovadia (3 Cheshvan, which fell on October 27th this year).  I got to pray in the cemetery (I could not get close to the grave), and I picked up some items for my son, who is a big fan.






Sunday, October 12, 2014

Whoosh! Graphic Novel with Agnon Stories

One of the great things about being a librarian is that I often hit the trifecta.  Not at the racetrack, but in terms of my reading material.  This month's win: From Foe to Friend and Other Stories,a graphic novel by Shay Charka using three stories by S.Y. Agnon. Yes, a graphic novel, with stories from an Israeli author, published by Koren and the Toby Press.

Shmuel Yosef (known as "Shai") Agnon was born in 1888 in what is now the Ukraine and home schooled.  He arrived in Palestine in 1908, and wrote several stories that were published.  He later moved to Germany, where is met his wife.  They moved to the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem in 1929. He was awarded the Bialik Prize for literature twice (1934 and 1950) and the Israel Prize for literature twice (1954 and 1958). In 1966, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature "for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people."  His work reflected the communities in which he lived, and he based many of his stories and his use of language on the Torah and on rabbinic sources.

From Foe to Friend is someone autobiographical, with a man enjoying the (then) sparsely populated area of Talpiot and trying to build a place to live.  The wind is his foe, who blows down his structures, until a solid house is built and the wind cannot knock it down.  He becomes friends with the man, and when he visits, "he brings with him a pleasant smell from the mountains and valleys" and behaves nicely.

The graphic novel format is perfect for portraying the wind as a character with a huge personality, and the details of the illustration are amazing:


Depiction of Agnon's house in Talpiot
The house as it looks today





















The Fable of the Goat takes place in a shtetl.  When the doctor advise an old man to drink goat's milk, he buys a goat and brings her home.  But soon the goat disappears.  She comes back several days later, and her milk tastes incredible. The man instructs his son to find out where the goat went, and so ensues the tale.  Again, wonderful use of the format to depict the son's journey and the emotions of the son and his father. 

In the final story, The Architect and the Emperor, the architect is commissioned to build a magnificent new palace.  The architect paints a picture instead... and so ensues the tale!  This one reminded me a little of Borges -- exploring another culture with a little bit of magic mixed in.

Real cat of Israel:


Happy reading!


Friday, September 12, 2014

What I Read During the Matsav II





Although it was been hard to concentrate because of the sirens and the news, I've had quite a few books to keep me occupied while I sat in my bomb shelter.

A big thank you to the folks at Koren Publishers/Maggid Books.

The fifth and final book in the Torah Lights Series by Rabbi Shlomo Riksin was published just in time to read along with the weekly portion of the book of Deuteronomy or Devarim.  The subtitle for this volume is "Moses Bequeaths Legacy, History, and Covenant," and it emphasizes Moses' role as he addresses the Jewish nation for the final time, reminds them of the laws and ordinances, and prepares them to enter the Land promised to them by God. Each essay analyzes a verses or verses from the weekly reading.  There are quite a few essays for each parsha, sometimes analyzing the same verse from a different perspective.  Although not noted, it seems these commentaries have been published previously.  In almost everyone, Rabbi Riskin mentions Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik, zt"l, as his rebbe and mentor.  For Parsha Eikev, there are several essays about the importance of saying Grace After Meals, based on the verse, "And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you" (Deuteronomy 8:10).  Rabbi Riskin explores why it is so important to thank God for bread.  We see that if there is human involvement, the human look upon his own efforts and not fully appreciate the part that God played in bringing food to the table.  "The more the individual is involved, the greater the sanctity and the higher the praise.  God is constantly in search of humans to be His partners in perfecting the world and thereby to bless Him."


























Speaking of Rav Soloveitchik, zt"l, the Rav was rebbe and mentor to many. One of the biggest challenges of Tisha B'Av is maintaining the atmosphere of mourning throughout the day.  It is hard to fully grasp the lost of the Temple because there hasn't been a temple in our times (yet!!!). There is also a prohibition against Torah learning on this solemn day.  One way to understand this loss and learn something in the process is by using the Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot (the Lookstein Edition).  The commentaries explain the poetry and allusions clearly, pointing out the intricate and disciplined structures.  The liturgical poems are put into context with the information about the authors and their backgrounds.  I can't say it was an enjoyable read, but it is definitely an informative read that made Tisha B'Av more meaningful.

A Temple in Flames: The Epic Story of the Final Battle for Jerusalem is also from Maggid Books and also appropriate Tisha B'Av reading.  It was recently published in cooperation with Megalim: City of David Institute for Jerusalem Studies.

It is authored by Gershon Bar-Cochva and Ahron Horovitz, and is "based mainly on the descriptions of Josephus Flavius, who was an eyewitness to the fighting from the Roman side."  This is my favorite kind of non-fiction book.  First of all, the author's passion for the subject matter is evident throughout the pages.  These pages are filled with maps, time lines, pictures of coins, Roman salary slips and other artifacts, and detailed illustrations of Jerusalem and the battles. There are so many points of interest in the book:  political history, archaeology, Israel, military tactics and weaponry, that almost everyone will want to take a look at this book -- some to browse, others to read in detail. For those of us in Israel, it is amazingly cool to see the actual sites mentioned in the book and walk the same pathways.

Sometimes a title sparks your interest, and such was the case with Relics for the Present: Contemporary Reflections on the Talmud by Rabbi Levi Cooper (Maggid, 2012).  "This work explores the world of the sages, seeking relevance in the timeless texts of the Talmud. Each section analyses a passage from Berakhot, the first tractate of the Talmud, chapters one to five, presenting the commentators' insights, searching for meaning and hoping to provide inspiration for our generation." This is neither a quick read, nor a page turner, but Rabbi Cooper's analysis makes the arguments of the Talmud more accessible for the rest of us. Why in Jewish law does the day begin at night? "Improving our society can be achieved only by a combination of the roaring of the lion and the cooing of the dove -- by public proclamation and by private inculcation." And in these turbulent times, an essay about "War as a solution, diversion or catalyst" revealed how timeless our sacred writings truly are. Bonus points for a list of sources cited that includes when and where the authors lived.

Coming soon:  a biography of Ovadia Yosef and a book about Holistic Prayer.

And, of course, real cats of Israel:




Best wishes for a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.




Saturday, August 16, 2014

Trends in Book Covers





Recently YA reading shows a trend of cover art -- head shot of a girl lying down.  I am not the first trend spotter. Elizabeth Bluemle wrote about it for Publisher's Weekly in 2010: The Season of Windblown Hair — Or, the Zeitgeist of Book Covers.  

I hope to update as I spot more recurring themes.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What Did You Read During the Matsav?

I missed the deadline for the July Jewish Book Carnival because, as a citizen of Israel there has been a lot going on that effects both my free time and my ability to focus on a book.  So what have I been reading during this current situation?



From June 12th, the day that Gilad Sha'ar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel, may God avenge their blood, were kidnapped, I was reading an ancient text that still provides comfort today -- the Book of Psalms.

I repeated the "magic formula" of Psalms to say in a time of trouble -- 13, 20, 83, 121, 130, 142 -- every day, and I sat with women's prayer groups almost every day and read books and books of Psalms, hoping against hope that these boys would return to their families alive and unharmed.

On Monday night, June 30th, when their murdered bodies were discovered, I continued to recite Psalms to find some solace in the words of King David, to comprehend the incomprehensible question of why the righteous suffer.  These verses were particularly poignant:

Psalm 13 - For the Conductor.  A psalm by David.  How long, God, will you endlessly forget me?  How long will You hide Your countenance from me?  How long must I set schemes within myself, is my heart melancholy even by day; how long will my enemy triumph over me?  Look! Answer me! God, my God; enlighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death.  Lest my enemy boast: 'I have overcome him!' Lest my tormentor rejoice when I falter.  But as for me, I trust in Your kindness; my heart will exult in Your salvation.  I will sing to God, for He has dealt kindly with me.

Psalm 20 - May He grant your heart's desire and fulfill your every plan.

Psalm 83 - Against your nation they plot deviously...

Psalm 121 - I raise my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?

Psalm 130 - Let Israel hope for God

Psalm 142 - I pour out my plaint before Him, my distress I declare before Him.

As life was slowly returning to what passes for normal only in Israel, I was able to squeeze in a book that I had doubts about liking and ended up enjoying very much.  I met Menucha Chana Levin at the Jerusalem Women Writers' Conference (see my previous post), and she was nice enough to give me a copy of her new book, A Family for Frayda.  It was originally serialized in Binah Magazine and it is based on a true story of a girl longing for a family whose mother was a rather cold and indifferent woman.  In Frayda's story, she does find a family and live somewhat happily every after.  As a reader of YA fiction, I found its simplicity refreshing -- no paranormal creatures, no explicit language or sex.  I was also impressed that in a book from an Orthodox publisher there are nuanced characters that are not perfect.  There are times when someone can be preachy, but even then another character will respond, "You sound like a therapist."  There is a strong sense of place in Jerusalem, and unlike quite a few serials that appear in magazines, the chapters end with loose ends, not overly dramatic cliffhangers.  For those of us who had awkward teenage years of not being an ideal weight and challenging relationships with their parents (raise you hand if you DIDN'T), A Family for Frayda will definitely touch your heart.

I also found either my new best friend or a codependent in Jen Mann, whose new book, People I Want to Punch in the Throat, will be coming out in September.  Her collection of essays chronicles life's little (and big) annoyances.  The working title of my book on the subject is When I Go on My Ax Rampage, but her list is similar to mine in that it includes, carpools, snooty mothers with obnoxious kids, pretentious preschools and the like.

Operation Defensive Shield began shortly after I finished these books.  When the sirens go off, we all run for the safe room (bomb shelter).  I still pull out the Psalms and say them until we get the "all clear."

As we enter The Three Weeks, I have started reading Rav Schwab on Iyov (Artscroll 2005).  The Book of Job is an appropriate read during this time of semi-mourning, and also in this time of murders and war.  I'm hoping this insightful book, based on Rav Schwab's lectures, will help me to reconcile the fact that I do not -- and cannot -- understand the workings of God.

Besorot Tovot (Hoping to hear good news)!


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Dairy Diary aka Shavuot in Israel

Two of the many advantages of living in Israel is that Shavuot is a one-day holiday and that for dairy lovers, there are a plethora of dairy products available.  Also an advantage, a copy of Dairy Made Easy, the new cookbook from Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek arrived right before Shavuot.

Number One recipe for this reviewer and her "tasting committee:"  Israeli Pizza Dip.  It's bad enough that people put corn on their pizza here.  It's bad enough that the secret ingredient pizza spice is a combination of sugar and MSG (probably lethal in large quantities).  Then you have to dip your pizza.  Many stores give out packages of Thousand Island Dressing, but it is not the same.  These two talented cooks have captured the flavor and enhanced it with the right combination of spices, a little kick, and no added sugar.  I could not figure out why someone would want to add anything to an already delicious slice of pizza, but after tasting this dip, I can see why it is so popular.

Shavuot is also a great time for dairy baking with real butter, which tastes so much better than margarine.  We had a standard Israeli cheesecake, which disappeared; and a layered dessert, which will probably not be made again because it did not disappear.  On the list for next year's dairy baking:  Chocolate Cheese Muffins with Chocolate Ganache and Sour Cream Chocolate Chip Cake.

Leading up to Shavuot is the Counting of the Omer.  The period between Passover and Shavuot is an opportunity to get ready to receive the Torah.  For me, once I have cleaned out the chametz, not just the physical bread and pasta, but any spiritual chametz in terms of ego or patterns of behavior that are not working, it's time to keep the momentum going. The mere act of counting these days has a meditative and anticipatory quality, and although I do not look forward to the Omer in terms of no music or celebrations, I do look forward to some spiritual growth.

I found an interesting book to add to my collection of  "Omer" books (see the AJL Bibliography Bank for a list). Through the Gates:  A Practice for Counting the Omer by Susan Windle took me out of my comfort zone.  She is a poetess who is involved with the Jewish Renewal Movement, and her life and background are totally different than mine.  But I identified with the Omer has a sacred time and space to think about different aspects of relationships with God, with other people, and with myself.  I also identify with following the structure of the count (at night, with a blessing, mentioning both days and weeks), while finding a way to make it your own, either through poetry, chanting, or just quiet time.

Jeanette Walls says that "one benefit of summer is that each day we have more light to read by."  Some I'm looking forward to more light and more reading.  What about you?
 


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Another Literary Day in Israel

I recently traveled to Jerusalem and enjoyed two book and writing-related meetings.  It was a little sad to have to return home early and miss the goings on at the Jerusalem International Writers' Festival, which took place May 18th through the 23rd, and was "a week of conversations between Israeli and guest authors, panel discussion and workshops, literature and film including events for children and a celebration of the poet Yehuda Amichai, all hosted by Mishkenot Sha’ananim."

My first stop was at Tmol Shilshom, a favorite cafe located in a courtyard near Jaffa Road.
The "bookstore-cafe-restaurant" takes its name from a novel by Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon.  After a bracing cup of coffee,
it was time to work out at the Writing Gym.  Judy Labensohn served as trainer for this session, but she will be alternating with award-winning journalist Ilene Prusher in the weeks to come.  What is a Writing Gym?  It's where you give your imagination and your writing skills some exercise.  Judy provided three writing prompts, and the group considered each topic and wrote - either by hand or on a computer.  As someone who aspires to write, but never takes the time or gets sidetracked by the baskets of laundry, this was a welcome opportunity to get in the habit of writing something every day.  Some of the participants read their work, and it was really interesting to see how different people approached the topic.


From there I took the cross-town bus to Talpiot, where I met with Tzvi Maurer of Urim Publications.  This publisher is mostly known for excellent non-fiction and biography, but I heard about a new work of fiction.

The Mystery of the Milton Manuscript by Barry M. Libin.  It is "the story of Keith Jessup, a PhD student at Oxford, whose professor is murdered before delivering a lecture disclosing Milton’s own explanation of Paradise Lost. In his stead, Keith takes up the quest to find the Milton Manuscript and finally unravel the meaning of the epic poem. The scholarly hunt proves perilous as he discovers a plot to conceal the manuscript. Why? What could it contain that would spark such fear and murder over the centuries?"



After seeing some "Real Cats of Israel,"  I returned home to my baskets of laundry.



Happy reading!