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

Monday, February 2, 2015

Cats and Israel

One thing you notice when you are in the major cities of Israel is the number of feral cats. One 2012 study estimated 2 million stray cats running around Israel. Considering there are about 8 million people, the number is staggering.



Most people do not like these furry creatures, who are often found eating out of garbage dumpsters and have been dubbed "Israel's squirrels." There are also large colonies that are often loud and smelly.

But for cat lovers, it's kind of a treat to see the variety of felines and their playful kittens. Two recent books combine two of my loves: Israel and cats.

The Cats of J-Town

In Raphael N. Karp's The Cats of J-Town: A Clash of Colonies (Contento de Semrik, 2014), something is brewing in J- Town. The Teacher, who is the leader of her colony, calls in Flax and Hiker. Their mission is to deliver a message to the leaders of the 45 colonies throughout the territory: the Teacher is calling a grand meeting in the junkyard of the Old City to insure that the colonies live together in relative peace.  The cat colonies, to one degree or another, follow The Shargtha Laws: nine tenets that including respecting your fellow feline and not being greedy.

This is also the coming of age story of Flax, a young cat who has never ventured outside his colony's territory before. This mission challenges him in many ways, and he returns a changed cat. First he and his "guard" Hiker encounter the Deocats, who are either black, white, or black and white, and led by Mushka. They also pray (in Shargtha Law -- Hatsis) nine times a day.  While Mushka tends to be a Lubavitch name, it looks like the cats stumbled into Meah Shearim, with the cats rigidly following the laws and praying in groups. The female cats pray separately from the male cats, and if perchance a calico is born in the colony, she will be sent away.



The next colony are the Climbers, led by Zimra.  They are much more laid back, vegetarian cats, who only have nine cats in the colony. They also practice Catscension, which is a method of cat focus and meditation. Flax tries it and has amazing results.



From there they visit the Chasers -- polite and speedy, then onto the "Faircats," who area all shades of ginger, yellow and light brown;



the "Rollers," who roll and groom;




Easterners -- very religious cats who keep themselves busy hunting and grooming,



Shufflers, who enjoy dancing, the Authenticats, who also host the cat army, and the self-proclaimed "Protectors of J-Town," who seem to be the anarchists of the group.

When the grand meeting takes place, there is definitely tension.  The Deocats see the meeting at pointless unless the "Protectors" show up.  They finally make their appearance, and their leader, No-Tail, tries to convince the gathering to abandon the Shargtha.  When No-Tail's colony surrounds the junkyard, Flax and Hiker organize the cats for battle and...NO SPOILERS - go and read the book!

Did I love this book? Of course! It reminded me a lot of Erin Hunter's Warrior Series with the different clans and the codes and the prophecy and ALL THE CATS!

FLAX
Hiker reminded me of one of the cats that frequents my backyard, whom I have been calling Notorious B.I.G.



The Cat at the Wall

After Three Wishes and a teaser on the back cover that begins "On the West Bank...", I did not have high hopes for Deborah Ellis' most recent book, The Cat at the Wall (Groundwood Books, 2014). But I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued by Clare the Cat. She was a 13-year-old girl growing up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania when she was killed.  She comes back as a cat in Bethlehem in the Middle East, and is in the middle of a tense situation: Israeli soldiers have commandeered a house to use for surveillance, unaware that a young boy is hiding there. Clare, who was a rather selfish and snarky pre-teen, uses her new felines skills to help the boy.  I loved Clare's voice, and this time around Ellis shows the nuanced and complicated relationships between different factions in the region.

I imagine Clare:



Coincidentally, or maybe not, as I was reading these books, a colony moved into my area. Here are the cats of B-Town:

AXLE

WHITEY

A-4 


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Jews and Garlic

Being a garlic lover, I was intrigued to find Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World's Most Pungent Food--with over 100 Recipes by Robin Cherry (Roost Books, 2014). Ms. Cherry's book could be subtitled "Everything You Wanted to Know About Garlic, but Were Afraid to Ask," as it is replete with interesting facts (and rumors) about history, mythology (think vampires), agriculture, medicine, and culture. 

"In a 2000 study titled "Effects of Garlic Bread on Family Interactions, Dr. Alan Hirsch, neurological director of The Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, reported that the smell of garlic bread enhanced positive family interaction by 68.4%, while the taste of it increased pleasant communication by a staggering 99.4%."  I know one family that wouldn't mind eating garlic bread every night, and this may explain the popularity of Olive Garden Restaurants.

What was even more interesting was the connection between Jews and garlic.




One of the first is when the Israelites were wandering in the desert and complained to Moses: "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge; the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. (Numbers 11:5).

In fact, legend has it that garlic boost stamina, so "the Israelite slaves were fed garlic to keep up their strength as they built the fortified cities of Pithom and Raamses for the pharaohs.

When the Jews returned to Israel after the Babylonian exile, Ezra, their leader, decreed several ordinances to perpetuate Judaism: the reading of the Torah on Monday and Thursday (as well as the Sabbath) and, among others, the requirement to eat garlic on Friday nights "because garlic served as an aid to passion and fertility and so would enhance the marital relations that couples were encouraged to enjoy as part of Jewish Sabbath observance." The Talmud (Shabbat 118a-b) suggests a dish of cooked beets, large fish and cloves of garlic to enhance Oneg Shabbat (the enjoyment of the Sabbath). 

The Talmud (Bava Kama, 82a) mentions five qualities of garlic: it satisfies hunger, it warms the body, it illuminates one's face, it increases seed, and it kills parasites in the intestines.

Rabbi Levi Cooper ("World of the Sages -- Garlic Breath," The Jerusalem Post, June 12, 2008) noted that "Eating garlic was so part of Jewish identity that the Mishna rules that if someone pronounces a vow prohibiting benefit "from those who eat garlic," the one who pronounced the vow may not derive benefit from a Jew (M. Nedarim 3:10). This vow is recorded in the Mishna together with two other vows: If someone vowed not to benefit "from those who rest on Shabbat" or "from those who ascend to Jerusalem" - the vow prohibits benefit from any fellow Jew. Thus, just as our people were known to ascend to Jerusalem, and just as our people were known for refraining from work and resting on the seventh day, so too we were known as garlic munchers!"

Jews called themselves garlic eaters (as a compliment), but it was also used as an anti-Semitic slur by Romans, "where the Latin expression 'allium olere' (stinking of garlic) was used to refer to people belonging to a low social class." The medieval concept of the foetor Judaicus (Jewish stink) linked "the sulfurous devil to the base, garlic-smelling Jews and differentiated them from the pure, sweet-smelling (and baptized) Christians. During this period, the German cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz were the most important communities of Jewish education in the Holy Roman Empire. The three cities were known collectively as 'shum' (Hebrew for garlic)."

Maimonides wrote a letter to his son in which he warned: "Guard your soul by not looking into books composed by Ashkenazi rabbis, who believe in God only when they eat beef seasoned with vinegar and garlic. They believe that the vapors of vinegar and garlic will ascend their nostrils and thus make them understand that God is near them...You, my son, should stay only in the pleasant company of our Sephardi brothers...because only they have brains and are clever." I found this interesting because present-day Sephardim use a lot of garlic in their cooking.  

Garlic has been referred to as "Russian penicillin, Bronx vanilla, and Italian perfume." Many cultures have a long association with garlic.  Besides the culinary delights, it is also touted with medicinal qualities and it is used in Indian Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and traditional European medicine. 

While I was intrigued by how many varieties of garlic there are, I was hoping for more Jewish cooking in the recipe section. Cherry credits Lebanon (not Israel) for hummus, and many of the Middle Eastern dishes that Jews eat have been adopted when living in countries like Morocco, Yemen and Tunisia.  She includes "Carciofi alla Giudia" (Artichokes Jewish Style), which is a classic of Roman Jewish Cuisine. Although considered a trendy, ethnic dish now, Jews ate artichokes because they were inexpensive and one of the few foods available in the Jewish ghetto. The "Braised Brisket with 36 Cloves of Garlic," though not particularly Jewish, would make a lovely addition to a holiday meal, and the "Bukharian Fried Fish with Cilantro-Garlic Sauce" is touted as "a traditional Jewish Sabbath dinner in Uzbekistan." If this is so, let's hope they're not using catfish, which is not kosher. One day when I am feeling adventurous, I will attempt the "Roasted Garlic Crème brûlée."

As the Yiddish proverb goes, "A nickel (now $2.50!) will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat."




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 somewhat 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.  The wind befriends 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 advises an old man to drink goats' 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.