Sunday, September 11, 2016

Elul 5776: Blessings and Gifts

Elul is the time in the Jewish calendar when we reflect on the past year and look to where we can improve in the coming year. For this year's Elul reading list, I concentrated on appreciating all the blessings and gifts bestowed upon us by God:

Miriam Adahan points out that It's All a Gift (Though It May Not Seem Like It at First Glance)(Feldheim, 1992). This volume is packed with insights for realizing the gifts we receive, even if they come in the form of opportunities or challenges, are truly for our benefit. One of the most important points is that you cannot be passive in this process. "There is no pill, blessing, charm, herb, therapist, rabbi or doctor that can give you maturity, strength of will, depth of understanding, a loving heart or a hard-working nature. It is your work, and yours alone, day after day, to overcome patterns of negativity which have been programmed into your mind and muscles" (page 326).

Wendy Mogel's The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Scribner, 2001) is one of the most popular books in the Jewish parenting section of the library. Combining her education and experience in psychology with Jewish wisdom, she showed readers how to instill values and model behavior. Drawing again on her personal experience, Mogel's The Blessing of a B Minus (Scriber, 2010) givesus more of that common sense and steers parents through the teenage years, which are trying for both parent and young adult. As a parent of adolescents, besides validating my challenges and explaining why it is important for kids to experience failure and pitfalls, the chapter on "The Courage to Let Them Go" was particularly helpful.

In Moe Mernick's The Gift of Stuttering (Mosaica Press, 2016), he chronicles his challenges with fluency. Besides speech therapy and relaxation techniques, he also explored spirituality, realizing that God had given him this specific challenge for a reason. Seeing that another famous Moshe also had issues with speech, Mernick flourished when he realized that stuttering was just a small part of a total package. "After becoming comfortable with who we are, we begin to exude a healthy dose of self-confidence -- whether while on a date or at a business meeting or social gathering. People are attracted to that. After all, if we accept ourselves, it only follows that others will accept us too." Mernick is a successful businessman and educator.

On May 8, 2001, 13-year-old Koby Mandell and Yosef Ish-Ran were brutally murdered by Arab terrorists in a wadi a short distance from their home in Tekoa (they had to be identified by their dental records). I cannot imagine how a mother can cope with a loss of this magnitude. Sherri Mandell's The Blessing of a Broken Heart (Toby Press, 2003) was a 2004 National Jewish Book Award Winner. In it, she tells how she dealt with this tragedy and how it changed her. Instead of wallowing in sadness and anger, the family established a foundation that includes a camp for bereaved children and orphans whose parents or siblings have been killed by terrorists; women's healing retreats where groups and widows and bereaved mothers can attend workshops and take a break; family healing retreats, and other therapeutic sessions. A fundraiser for these activities is "Comedy for Koby," where the audience is entertained by a variety of comedians.

While many aspects of the book were very sad, there was also a beauty in embracing the sadness and moving past it:

"When you touch broken hearts together, a new heart emerges, one that is more open and compassionate, able to touch others, a heart that seeks God. That is the blessing of a broken heart."

"Pain is like carrying a heavy barbell in your backpack. You can't go as freely as you used to. But the more you carry it, the stronger you get."

Although not a Jewish book, The Gentle Art of Blessing by Pierre Pradervand (Atria, 2009) shows
"that the practice of blessing has the power to unleash tangible benefits into every aspect of your life." He draws on many traditions and shows how the practice of blessing can shift your attitudes and outlook. The chapters explore ideas like positive expectations, unconditional love and universal harmony, and at the end of each chapter are some questions for thought. While much of the book centers on a rather broad interpretation of tikkun olam, Pradervand also reminds us to be loving and forgiving with yourselves with the words of Zephaniah: "The Lord thy God is in your midst, the Mighty One Who will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will be silent with His love; He will be joyful over you with glad song" (3:17).

Wishing you a year filled with blessing and gifts and the discernment to appreciate them ALL.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Positively Israel

Librarians and teachers are always looking for resources about Israel that are educational but also fun. While I usually shy away from straight promotion, I recently met two entrepreneurial ladies who sensed a need in the community and are filling it.

I met Miriam Lottner at a local mega-mall (a variety of vendors rent tables at a local hall and the community can find all kinds of gift items, housewares, services, etc.). She is the driving force of the new and innovative game Reveal Israel. The game was created by five mothers, who met through a mother's networking group, who decided that their kids should be playing Jewish games and learning to love Israel in the process. The amazing thing is that in the deck of playing cards there are more than 70 locations in Israel (photographed by Miriam) that "reveal" the history, geography and culture of the area. One feature I love is that there is a map on every card that shows where the site is located in Israel.

It is three games in one: a matching game similar to Spot It! but all the symbols have to do with Israel; a quiz game with questions and answers, and a spin game to challenge older players. While the target age is six to twelve, the game has fans ranging in age from three to 90, as it is easy to play and compact enough to bring wherever you go. 

The game has been so well received that many more are in the works: Reveal Chai - an exploration of Jewish Life, Holidays and Customs; Reveal Jerusalem - celebrating 50 years since the reunification of the city; and other locations including Florida and New York City.

The game comes in both English and Hebrew and is available at their website. You can also contact them if you are interested in creating a deck for your city or state.

The goal of String Bridge Kids is to help kids connect to their Jewish heritage and tradition through creative expression. Leah and Yossi Karp are originally from Melbourne, Australia. They and their six kids currently live in Israel.  They formed String Bridge to give young people a creative outlet and tactile experience while learning about Israel.

Named after the iconic modern landmark at the entrance to Jerusalem, the company currently offers a choice of two different boxes of craft projects:

Hello Jerusalem! includes three great projects: a shopping bag stamped with a design of the domed buildings of the city, a mezuzah, and a Jerusalem scene with the String Bridge.

Hello Teva! introduces young crafters to the sight and sounds of the rest of Israel with a decoupage vase, a model of the Sorek Stalactite Cave and a panorama of kayaking on the Dan River.

"Every craft (3 per box) comes with instructions to do the craft, as well as "5 Fun Facts" about the craft." For the mezuzah, for example, the Karps interviewed a sofer stam and contacted mezuzah artist Ester Shahaf. For the String Bridge craft, a map of the light rail, translated from Hebrew to English especially for String Bridge is included.  "We make sure to give a page of interesting information, pictures, websites or maps on every craft."

The boxes are most appropriate for those aged six to twelve, but younger kids (and adults) will also enjoy making the projects. The boxes are sent directly to the child, and he or she will also receive a card on their birthday. String Bridge also has an affiliate program and the boxes are available as fundraisers for your organization.

And there are more on the way! Get Festive! is a six-pack of boxes featuring the major Jewish holidays, and different themes including art and the Seven Species are also in the works.

In the summer heat of Israel, the real cats are looking for shade:


Thursday, May 26, 2016

2016 JWWS

Once again, Tamar Ansh and Esther Heller put together a packed day for the Jerusalem Women Writers' Seminar. Again, a beautiful relaxation corner sponsored by Menucha Publishers with those delicious little bite-sized pastries and an assortment of teas and coffee. Again, some nice swag from Israel Bookshop. What is amazing is that the program was filled with lively speakers and interesting information and very different from last year. After a Dvar Torah by Esther Leah Avner, an "experienced" author and educator, Shifrah Devorah Witt talked about "Making the Most Out of Your Writing Time!" Her suggestions are applicable to anyone who works at home: focus - no laundry, no checking Facebook (and then wasting an hour), setting boundaries with family.

Next were Yael Mermelstein, Sarah Shapiro and Shoshana Schwartz. While Yael suggested adding tags and beats, Shoshana suggested getting rid of the tags and the beats. Sarah Shapiro asked "Is There Such a Thing as Non-fiction?" Three different authors, three different styles, three different processes.

My favorite speaker of the day was Sherri Mandell, author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart, a 2004 National Jewish Book Award Winner. After reading this one, I felt like I knew her because she shared her most intimate thoughts and feelings after the murder of her son Koby and his friend Yosef Ish-Ran in 2001. Sherri discussed her new book The Road to Resilience (Toby Press, 2016) and how to apply the "Seven C's" to keep writing well.  A witty and engaging speaker, she described the "pavement" of Chase, Community, Choice, Creativity, Commemoration, Consecration, and Celebration.  These are all augmented by Curiosity. Through these steps, almost any journey, especially grief and writing, can become almost spiritual and expand you.

There was a Meet the Press Panel with questions and answers for those interested in submitting their work to the weekly Jewish magazines and newspapers.

For those who could not be there in person, these sessions were videotaped and are available (for a fee) through Torah Anytime.

Chana Levitan spoke about how she "accidentally wrote a best-selling book" (I Only Want to Get Married Once, Gefen (2010) and Grand Central Life and Style (2013)).

Over lunch, I got to talk with some of the "celebrities" of Orthodox Publishing: Yaffa Ganz, Libi Astaire and Chaya Baila Lieber.  I also had the pleasure of presenting Miriam Zakon with a certificate for her Sydney Taylor Notable Book, Floating Minyan of Pirates' Cove (Judaica Press, 1986). Yes, the book was recognized 30 years ago, but there was no internet and no cell phones, so Miriam was never notified about the honor. Our little ceremony also gave me a chance to look at Miriam Stark Zakon's extensive back list of books authored and/or edited. I'm hoping to be able to present some more certificates to Miriam (and Yaffa, Libi and Chaya Baila) in the next 30 years!

Between the topics and presenters it was hard to choose which workshops to attend. I learned a lot in Avigail Sharer's "Step Back in Time: How to Bring the Past to Life in Your Fiction." Sharer writes under the pen name Leah Gebber, and has many fans due to her articles and stories that are published in Mispacha Magazine - particularly Sisters Under Siege. Sharer handed out pictures of artifacts - coins, articles of clothing, etc., and asked the participants to think of five questions about the item. Then, we were asked to take one question and try to answer it. Much like "Ode to a Grecian Urn," a whole story can develop by looking at an object.

I picked up a very important book -- Healing from the Break (Menucha Publishers, 2016). While there are many volumes in your local Jewish bookstore about trying to repair a relationship or the laws (halacha) of divorce, there is nothing available that provides "stories, inspiration and guidance for anyone touched by divorce." Insightful and sensitive, the book looks at a challenging situation from many perspectives. Healing from the Break is the "frum divorce blog" and includes articles and resources.

As I left the seminar, I was blessed with that beautiful interplay of sun and clouds that seems to make Jerusalem glow.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Day at the Library

Thank you to my friend Tanya for inviting me to join her and her colleagues from ETAI (English Teachers Association of Israel) at their winter event at the National Library of Israel.

 My interesting and informative morning began with a presentation by AJL colleague Nachum Zitter about the history of the library and its collections. From there, the first stop was the map room, where Ayelet talked about the maps. While some of the originals are in huge books, many posters have been made, and it was interesting to see the different depictions of Israel, some of which included bible personalities and sea monsters.

Part of the map collection at the National Library of Israel

From the second floor,there is a great view of the stained glass windows. It was a rainy day, so I did not see them in their full glory (another reason to return for another visit). 

From there, it was on to one of the nine reading rooms.

After the short tour, the group heard about the resources available, in English, at the National Library: classes, programming and tours and their website - 

The site includes an open access digital primary resource database and educational activities and games. To give students and library patrons a multimedia experience, you can check out the audio recordings available at the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song and find songs and chants.

Another project, also available online is "Time Travel," which is a collection of Israeli ephemera (posters, pamphlets, menus, etc.). The collection is searchable by company, time period, language and more.

At one time the library had a program for bar and bat mitzvah-age students to do research on a subject of interest. A video showed the delight of one boy who was interested in the Bermuda Triangle and discovered the magic of the library. Another student did her project on Surika (Sarah) Braverman, the "first lady of the IDF," Braverman parachuted into Nazi-occupied Hungary with Hannah Senesh, but was able to escape. The girl was able to travel to Kibbutz Shamir and interview Surika as part of her library project. While the one-on-one program is no longer available, classes and groups can arrange to do research at the library.

A plug for ETAI and then some real cats:

"Founded in 1979 by teachers for teachers, ETAI's aim is to provide professional support, advice, teaching ideas and background knowledge to teachers of English."

Happy Reading!

Friday, December 11, 2015


In Secret Restaurant Recipes (Mesorah, 2014), Leah Schapiro and Victoria Dwek learn the secrets of the best kosher restaurants around the world and pass them on to readers. Recipes include Deviled Kale Salad, Duck with Sour Cherry Reduction, and other sumptuous dishes.

In Everyday Secret Restaurant Recipes (Mesorah, 2015), the dynamic duo of kosher cookbooks present recipes "from you favorite kosher cafes, takeouts and restaurants." Using the same format, there are chapters for Starters and Sides, Soups and Salads, Sandwiches, Chicken and Meat, Fish, Brunch and Lunch, and Baked Goods and Desserts. In the Table of Contents, each recipe is listed with the restaurant where it was created; the back matter includes a list of restaurants by country, state, and city, and a detailed index.

The recipes are presented on double spreads with clear color photographs that will have our mouth watering -- Morning Scramble from Boeuf and Bun in Brooklyn, made with with a burger, beef fry, an egg (on a bun) with sauteed mushrooms, potato sticks and horseradish mayo quickly comes to mind. The assembly of this one is beyond my culinary skills, but the Harvest Twist Salad from  The Pantry in Toronto, made with sweet potato and feta (yum!), served with a Tomato Rice Soup from the Sunflower Cafe in Brooklyn, makes for an easy weeknight meal. A Tuna Melt (from Bagels and Greens in Brooklyn) becomes a gourmet meal with a cheese/garlic sauce and made with tortillas. And as for inventive names, the Cali Love Panini from Holy Schnitzel is made with chicken breast, roasted eggplant and a pesto mayonnaise, topped with avocado and sun-dried tomatoes (good thing you can't see drool on the computer as I think about making these for dinner). The Asian Noodle Salad from Rimon in Israel sounds amazing, although I would probably skip the housemade teriyaki sauce and use my mother's, z"l, secret recipe. Zucchini Pasta, sometimes called "Zoodles," is full of vegetables (from Alice's in Brooklyn), and in the comfort of my home, I would not have to go across town to Crawford's to get a Creme Brulee Freezer.

How about some authentic Gong Bao Chicken from Dini's in Beijing?

1 lb chicken breast, cubed

3 Tbsp cornstarch
2 Tbsp water
Pinch coarse black pepper
oil, for frying
2 Chinese leeks or scallions
3 Tbsp salted peanuts
2 tsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp sugar
4 tsp vinegar
2 tsp hot sauce
4 tsp ketchup

Place chicken into a small bowl. Sprinkle with cornstarch; top with water and black pepper. Mix to coat the chicken. Let stand for 2 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a wok or sauté pan over high heat. When oil is very hot, add chicken cubes in batches; fry for 4-5 minutes. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.
Drain oil from the pan. Add soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, hot sauce, and ketchup. Cook until sauce thickens slightly, 2-3 minutes. Add chicken and scallions; toss to coat. Top with peanuts.
Tidbit: Dini makes her own version of hot chili sauce to use in the restaurant. She says it’s the Asian equivalent of Israeli red schug.

Home Cook: We’ve tested this with all different types of hot sauce and they’ve all been successful. Halve the quantity if serving this dish to children.
Recipe from Everyday Secret Restaurant Recipes by Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek
Reprinted with permission from the copyright holders: ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications

There are tips for home cooks, interesting descriptions of the restaurants, and insightful advice between the chapters about cooking fish, plating, and sandwich tips. The chefs who shared their secret neither received nor gave remuneration ($$) for the inclusion of recipes in this volume.

On the one hand, part of the restaurant experience is eating things that you cannot or would not prepare at home due to lack of time, equipment or inclination. Some of the recipes require ingredients that are not available in some places -- golden tomatoes, artisanal breads, and more unusual kosher fish.

On the other hand, its very cool to recreate favorite dishes in your own kitchen and impress family and friends with tastes and textures from restaurants. My rule of thumb is usually no more than 10 ingredients and no more than 5 steps in the instructions, and happily, most of these recipes conform, so I will be using it quite often. It is a rather large tome (336 pages), so it will be a challenge as I keep it FAR from the cooking area. For those of us who don't get out much, Everyday Secret Restaurant Recipes is a great way to travel the world of kosher cuisine.
(Be-tai-avon - healthy appetite in Hebrew)

As always, some real cats of Israel:

Happy Hanukkah!
Happy Reading!

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 recounts 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 and Guided Meditations to Strengthen and Calm Body, Heart, Mind and 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.