Monday, August 6, 2018

Elul 5778

Another year has flown by, and it seems that the more books I read, the more there are that I want to read. I see that my reading tastes are changing: I no longer have the patience for the flowery details of literary fiction, nor anything sad.  But I still read a lot of non-fiction, both Jewish and secular, about character development and thinking and acting more kindly.

This year's Elul reading list has quite of mix of books:

It is customary to read Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) during the long Sabbath afternoons between Passover and Rosh Hashanah. For those who have been doing this for a while, it's sometimes nice to change it up with a new translation or edition. For those who want to be totally blown away and see these verses of the Mishnah brought to life, run and get a copy of The Illustrated Pirkei Avot: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Ethics (Print-O-Craft Press, 2017). Jessica Tamar Deutsch's work is so creative and upbeat that the ancient text gets its due as the timeless work it is. Okay, one of the first pages with the "Featured Sages" have them looking a little like a collection of owls, but the historical dates are very useful. As I like to say, the rest of the book "utilizes the graphic novel format to its fullest," with double- and single-page spreads, boxes, comic panels, clouds and speech bubbles. "Evil" makes its appearance several times as a spiky little (or big) creature.  Here's one of my favorite verses - Chapter One, Mishnah Seven:

©2017 by Jessica Deutsch.  All rights reserved. Used with permission of Print-O-Craft Press.

  I found my copy at the Israel Bookshop in Brookline, Massachusetts, but it can also be ordered through the publisher. Because there are several cycles, I anticipate enjoying the book for at least one cycle of every summer.


Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah by Dr. Louis E. Newman (Jewish Lights, 2010) is a great book on the subject for those who really want to understand the process of repentance and make change. Newman draws on classic sources like Rav Soloveitchik's  On Repentance and Rav Kook's Lights of Penitence. He quotes non-Jewish sources, and adds his own insights: "Through the process of teshuvah we evolve morally, becoming the sort of people who can no longer conceive of falling back into the old patterns of misconduct that characterized our past." Although a little over 200 pages, a careful reading, with time to absorb the ideas and approaches, will take some time. This book is highly recommended to those who are looking to identify patterns and break them.



Sarah Knight's book title may off put some, but The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k (Quercus, 2015) is a straight-forward approach to using your time more efficiently. Much like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press, 2014), and upon which Knight bases her method, if we are spending time doing things we don't want to do, we have to sort through our lives, get rid of the things we don't absolutely love, and fold the rest neatly for easy access. Obviously the book is filled with f-bombs, but it also reminds us of the famous words of Rabbi Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when?" (Pirkei Avot 1:14). Funny and full of examples, it will take some practice (and budgeting) to prioritize (translation: decide what things in your life are worthy of f**ks), but it really is life changing to politely reclaim your time.

I recently went to a retreat at beautiful Dor Beach (located between Hadera and Haifa), and I met the beautiful author of Heart 2 Heart Healing (self-published, 2016). Shira Chernoble is a pastoral counselor who studied under Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and practices a unique method of healing that incorporates pastoral counseling, shiatsu massage therapy, and aromatherapy. Her book's subtitle is "Stories of Hurt, Healing and Hope in Coping with Chronic Illness and Death." I would not say this is a happy read, nor one I would pick it up off the shelf, but the stories of real people coping with challenges will give strength to those in similar situations.

Elul is a time to review the past year and think about changes for the coming year. So for me, it's a reminder of what one person can do to make a difference in the world, especially with grieving souls. Shira started the Neshama Project in 2014 to distribute a custom-blended therapeutic oil to "people grieving for lost family members or dear friends." For more information, Shira can be reached at neshama101@gmail.com.


Thank you to super colleague and friend Kathy Bloomfield for suggesting The Outlaw by Nancy Vo (Anansi Press, an imprint of Groundwood Books, 2018). The tag is that "the outlaw leaves behind a trail of misdeeds and then suddenly disappears. But one day, a mysterious stranger rides into town, and things begin to change." Although probably not considered a "Jewish book," the story is about repentance and making amends. The illustrations "were done with ink, watercolor and newsprint transfer on special paper, using newspaper clippings and fabric patterns from the 1850s and 1860s, and the text is set in the font commonly found on 'wanted' posters." The text and illustrations -- a dark scheme with splashes of color-- complement each other perfectly.

And finally, what can we learn from The Real Cats of Israel appropriate for Elul? Well, I found a great post at "Notes from a Jewish Thoreau" about Jews and cats. The Talmud states that dogs know their master, while cats do not. Cat owners figured this one out on their own. Elul is a good time to think about serving our Master, God, in all that we do, so, in this case, do not take the example of cats.

Happy Reading!

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!





Saturday, June 23, 2018

Ink

Two recent books with Jewish content have "ink" in the title:  If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan (St. Martin's Press, 2017), winner of the Jewish Book Council's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and Rachel Kadish's The Weight of Ink (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), winner of both the 2017 National Jewish Book Council Book Club Award and the 2018 Jewish Fiction Award of the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Besides the title:

  • both books are about intelligent women
  • both books involve Jewish scholarship
  • both books involve the love of books.


If All the Seas Were Ink

I went to hear Ilana Kurshan speak in Jerusalem on May 1. The event took place in the Beis Midrash of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, but unlike the four rabbis of the Talmud (Hagigah 14B), I walked out alive, (relatively) sane, and with more knowledge than when I walked in.

Kurshan's memoir is the kind of book I like to read: I want to finish it to see how it ends, but then again, the book is so enjoyable, I want to go slow and savor every word. It takes its title from a famous quote found in rabbinic literature: "God's eternal glory could not be described even if the heavens were parchment, and the forest quills; if all the seas were ink, as well as every gathered water; even if the earth's inhabitants were scribes and recorders of initials." After reading the book, I feel like I know Ilana Kurshan, and more than that, I think we would be friends. We are both lovers of books, and we both value our privacy. We both live in Israel, and we both juggle motherhood, wife-hood and career. After meeting her in person, I learned we are both left-handed, and she is just as sharp and smart in person as she is on the page.

The book is her account of learning the daf yomi, the daily study of Talmud instituted by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin. She decided to take on the project as a coping mechanism for the challenges in her life at the time, which included divorce after a brief marriage, living in Israel alone, and a tendency to keep to herself. Instead of plodding through life, it became measured in pages learned, and Kurshan woke up every morning looking forward to what she would learn that day. She kept a journal, wrote notes in her Talmud, listened to podcasts when she couldn't sit with the book, and wrote limericks and sonnets to fortify her understanding of the rabbinic discussion. She spoke about how the Talmud page informs daily experience and how experience deepens her understanding of the text. Five years ago she had given birth to twins and was learning the tractate of Shabbos. The description of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son living in a cave felt apropos, as Kurshan spent her days nursing two babies, rarely interacting with anybody else. When she did go out, she was reminded that when Rabbi Shimon and his son finally emerged from the cave, they were overwhelmed and shocked by the mundane pursuits of the world. Rabbi Shimon said to his son, "You and I suffice for the entire world," and they returned to their cave.

Besides over 2,700 pages of Talmud, what did Kurshan learn? How to be a better parent, the value of humility, the willingness to listen to other people's opinions, and that to truly learn Torah, you must write it for yourself. She shared one of her sonnets, about Kiddushin 82b, that ends, "A job may suit a young man when he's spry; But Torah gives old men the wings to fly."

At the lecture, the topic was Talmud. In the book, Kurshan wove her love of literature, particularly poetry, into the story, especially when she and her now husband were getting to know each other. Now that she is on her second cycle of daf yomi, she has moments when she is intrigued by the text and realizes that she enjoyed those passages in the first cycle. She also enjoys the aggadot embedded in the halachic framework, so that the stories inform the law and vice versa.

The Weight of Ink

The lives of two women connect across centuries as Helen Watt, an ailing twenty-first century historian delves into a cache found in an old London home that contains the work of Ester Velasquez, who lived in 1660s London and worked as a scribe for a blind rabbi. The first big discovery for Watt and her assistant is that the rabbi's scribe is a woman, a situation unheard of in "those days."

For me, I knew of certain key points and personalities in that period of history: Oliver Cromwell, Spinoza, Sabbatai Zevi, the Plague, the Inquisition, the first Jews in New Amsterdam. Kadish weaves all of these into the story, making Spinoza's excommunication and Zevi's false Messianism a big part of the story. There is a very strong sense of place in London, so much that you can almost hear the sounds and smell the odors as Ester walks through the streets of the neighborhood on her errands.

She spoke at the Association of Jewish Libraries Conference on June 20th, where she accepted the inaugural Jewish Fiction Award. Kadish told the rapt audience that she starts writing when something is bothering her and she doesn't know what she thinks about it. She wanted to write a story about a woman who doesn't want to die without writing a word. In the Jewish community of the late 1600s, she saw a beautiful and fierce desire to rebuild, but the fragility of the Jews' position in society.  It was fascinating to discover that Kadish doesn't outline first, and that her research and writing are an interactive process. For example, if she decides that her characters will be eating a meal, she then researches the types of foods and how they were cooked, the cost of food, the different utensils, etc.

The day before, Ellen Share led a lively breakfast "book club" meeting, where attendees discussed the book. Ellen's insightful questions sparked debate, and, for me, brought together some of the elements of the story and how they related to each other (NO SPOILERS). We also discussed the merits of reading the book versus listening to it on audio.

Alas, I did not meet any of the Real Cats of Boston, but I was happy to come home to some Real Cats of Israel:

Happy Reading!


Friday, May 11, 2018

The International Writers Festival 2018

I ventured into Jerusalem on a beautiful May afternoon, and I was on triple duty. I went to attend one of the sessions at the International Writers Festival. Since it is held at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, I was able to do a test run on a new book by Tali Kaplinski Tarlow, ScaVentures Jerusalem: The Experiential Guidebook.  I also got to have coffee with one of my favorite authors, Anna Levine.

Tali was nice enough to answer a few questions. Originally from South Africa, she " came to the tourism industry from the world of education having been a teacher, curriculum developer and informal educator for around 20 years" before she founded Israel ScaVentures.  The first tour game was the Nachlaot Scavenger Hunt, and from the outset she applied her “ScaVenture method”, and it brought a fresh approach to learning the story of a neighborhood in an experiential way. A ScaVenture can take around 50-100 hours to prepare, it involves extensive historic research, interviewing people, perhaps going on a tour or two, going into the area and getting lost (her favorite part), figuring out the unique story that the area needs to tell and writing up the material in a way that gives the area it’s voice. Tali will integrate the roles of the group members, which is a way of engaging each person directly with the area and the experience.  There is a tab on the website for "proposal." I thought it was where you could "propose" a potential tour, but it's actually a very cool and romantic way that couples get engaged -- looking for clues, and "popping the question" at the appropriate moment.

I reviewed the guidebook before I took the bus into town. There are five routes to explore: the Old City, the First Station, Machane Yehuda, Har Herzl National Cemetery, and Mishkenot Sha'ananim/Yemin Moshe.  After reading a little bit about the history of Jerusalem and how to use the book, I went to the appropriate pages of the book, which is color-coded for each route. Each chapter includes a short introduction, preparation tips, directions to the area via public or private transportation, loads of information about what to see, and lots of places to record thoughts or attach photos later one. Over 30,000 people have participated in ScaVentures.  For more information, you can visit the website. So....off we go!

Since I was on my own, I played all the suggested ScaVenture roles: tour guide, mission manager, prophet (the reader of biblical verses, quotes and other important primary sources), navigator, and detective (also the photographer). Mishkenot Sha'ananim means "peaceful dwellings," but the neighborhood was originally named the Courtyard of Judah Touro, since he provided the funding for the new neighborhood. But the area is closely associated with Moses Montifiore, who arranged to buy the land and built the famous windmill to grind wheat (which didn't quite work out, but that's a whole 'nother story).

The area is still quaint and quiet and includes an auditorium where cultural events are held and a music school. I was able to visit the Windmill and "the short building," which are just two of the eight stations included in the guidebook, but I am anxious to return and explore more of the sights.




Meeting with Anna Levine is always a pleasure, especially in a secluded little cafe. We talked about her two books that are coming out in the near future:  Scout's Honor, a PJ Library Our Way pick about a trip to one of the many caves in Israel (about 15 minutes from where I live!) where bravery and quick thinking will come into play. Then there's All Eyes on Alexandra (Kar-Ben, August 2018), the story of a migrating crane that can't quite stay in the "V formation." Anna went to a writing workshop "inspired by biblical heroines."





I attended "Saving Anne Frank Exhibition Opening and Conversation between Author Ari Folman, Graphic Illustrator David Polonsky, and Deakla Keydar." The title reminds of  a stupid library question: "Who wrote The Diary of Anne Frank?". Ari Folman is the editor of this edition, but an ingenious one. He and Polonsky worked together on Waltz with Bashir, the 2008 Oscar-nominated film where "an Israeli film director [Folman] interviews fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to reconstruct his own memories of his term of service."

Quite frankly, I have seen many versions of the diary, and so many books about Anne and her family, including graphic novels, that I was skeptical of "the graphic diary." But I was totally blown away by this project. Ari Folman painstakingly went through the entire diary and changed it from prose to conversations. David Polonsky did an amazing job with the graphics, creating detailed and nuanced images of everything from the neighborhood in Amsterdam to the personalities themselves, based on their photographs. This is a graphic novel that has bite and humor and puts the "graphic" in graphic novel with creative layout and great use of color and text bubbles.

Even more interesting, is that the Anne Frank Foundation allowed this version to be published. All of Anne's unkind comments about her mother are included and laid out "graphically," with a scene depicting Anne as uncaring if her mother should die. The "lady parts word" is also included. This is not a comic book, and both editor and illustrator stressed that even though Anne wrote the diary when she was twelve to fourteen (until the family was caught in hiding), it is not a book for children. They also spoke of putting a lot of the content in context, one has to know that a panel with the inhabitants of the Secret Annex dreaming of different foods is taking place during wartime and rationing and in hiding.

Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation (Pantheon) will be available in English on October 2, 2018.



I saw some "Real Cats of Jerusalem" before I took the bus home:



Happy Reading!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Counting the Omer 5778

It's spring, and while Alfred, Lord Tennyson labeled it as the time "when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," it is also a significant period on the Jewish calendar -- SEFIRAT HAOMER, or Counting the Omer. The 49 days between Passover and Shavuot are a time when flowers and trees blossom, when the weather becomes warmer, and when the Jewish people transform from a group of slaves to a nation worthy of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.  Much like the plants and trees, it requires light, nourishment, and quite a bit of effort to produce results. These books can aid in the process.

Counting

There are many books to use during the Omer, including
  • Counting of the Omer by Simon Jacobson (Meaningful Life Center, 1996);
  • Sefiros--Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer by Rabbi Yaacov Haber and Rabbi David Sedley (JP, 2009);
  • Omer: A Counting by Karyn D. Kedar (CCAR, 2014);
  • Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide by Min Kantrowitz (Gaon Books, 2009); and
  • Through the Gates: A Practice for Counting the Omer by Susan Windle (self-published, 2013).
There are two relatively new books that are excellent:


Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman's Sefirat HaOmer: The Significance of the Days Between Pesach and Shavuot (Ohr Chadash, 2018) offers a clear presentation of how the count inter-relates with the Kabbalistic sefirot, and the pages for each day offer quotes from the Jewish canon, significant events that occurred on the day, a spiritual meditation, and questions of the day. The entries are short enough to make daily reading enjoyable, but long enough to contain some real substance and ideas about which to think.



Journey through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer by Rabbi Yael Levy (A Way In, 2017) includes beautiful pictures of the American Southwest. Each daily entry is very succinct, with a line or two about the sefirot of the day, a practice, and a quote from Psalms. The words "journey" and "mindfulness" are a bit worn out from overuse, but the content is very worthwhile. 





Then there are books that are not specifically about Counting the Omer, but that focus on the same principles of character development, self-improvement, and improving relationships with God, other people, and ourselves.

Stages of Spiritual Growth


Batya Gallant's book is subtitled "Resolving the Tension Between Self-expression and Submission to Divine Will" (Urim, 2010). This unassuming little volume is the perfect complement to Sefirat HaOmer because the Stages of Spiritual Growth focuses on chesed (lovingkindess), gevurah (strength or self-control), and emes (truth, or tiferet - balance). Gallant defines the levels within each stage, so that one would hope to grow in chesed through the care and nurture of self, to the care and nurture of others. This is based on the formula of Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900), a Chassidic master of Torah, but the ideas are timeless and the presentation is right on target and very clear. And there is no spoiler here: expression ourselves and reaching our potential spiritually is what God wants for us.

Fiction

Yochi Brandes is a prolific Israel author. Her bio from the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature reads: 

Yochi Brandes was born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. She holds a BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies. Brandes taught bible and Judaism for many years, as well as creating courses on Jewish thought for various schools. She regularly participated in TV programs on Jewish studies, had her own column in the daily Maariv, and was the editor of a book series on Judaism. Today she lectures widely on bible and literature. Her writing is inspired by all Jewish sources: the Bible, the writings of the sages of Israel, Jewish law and prayers, the Kabbala, and Hassidic lore. Brandes has published novels as well as essays on biblical women—all of them best-sellers in Israel. She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Platinum Book Prizes for seven of her books, including Kings III (2008), and the Steimatsky Prize for Akiva's Orchard (2013).


The Orchard is the recently published English translation of Brandes' 2013 book (Gefen 2017). It is the story of Rabbi Akiva narrated by his wife Rachel. The first 33 days of the Omer are a period of semi-mourning because during this time, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students died. While this vignette is not included, Brandes weaves together the stories of Jewish Sages with the history of the period. The title is taken from an incident recorded in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Hagiga 2:1), where Rabbi Akiva and three other rabbis hope to delve into mystical matters, and he is the only to come out of it unscathed. Those who enjoy "biblical fiction" will want to read this one. 

The Courage to Change

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883) was the father of Mussar, a movement that strives to further ethical and spiritual discipline by developing one's character traits, or middos.  He made the following observation:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. 

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.

The Courage to Change (Al-Anon, 1992) is part of the official literature of Al-Anon,  12-Step fellowship for the families and friends of alcoholics. But you can be neither and still need to change the way you relate to people, whether you need to detach from unproductive relationships, or to take care of your own needs without feeling selfish. This book works well for the Omer because it is a collection of short, daily readings, and it offers such insights as "Recovery does not mean that I have to become a different person. It means I need to start being myself again."


And for those who need a musical reminder, Lenny Solomon of Schlock Rock parodies a Paul Simon song to let us know that there are "49 Days to Count the Omer:"


And, our course, the Real Cats of Israel are enjoying the spring weather:



Happy reading!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Jewish "Romance" Books and Coffee

Readers of this blog already know that I enjoy meeting authors and drinking coffee, so when I can combine the two, it is a happy day. Even happier to be in Israel, drinking five shekel coffee at Cofix, and talking with a local author.

Yael Levy grew in Brooklyn, but made aliyah with her family from Atlanta, Georgia. Three of her novels have been published under the Crimson Romance imprint. There are no spoilers, so you will have to read the books.

Brooklyn Love (2012), not to be confused with the urban (African-American) romance series A Brooklyn Love Story, focuses on Orthodox Jewish young women who are dating. As most people are aware, Orthodox Jews do not date for fun or companionship; they date to get married. The book is influenced by real life events -- hundreds of people's stories and things Levy heard. It is not autobiographical, although she did attend the Fashion Institute of Technology like one of the main characters.

While it is a story of relationships and finding true love, it goes a little deeper than many of the bodice-rippers typical of the romance genre. Levy prefers "social commentary" over "social criticism" to describe the book, but there are some harsh realities for the characters. "Why else would a couple marry [other than true love]? asks Jacob, to  whom Rachel feels a connection. "For money, security, to fit into the community. For a Brooklyn Love," replies Rachel, who is engaged to someone who possesses all of that, but for whom she feels no passion.

Then there is Hindy, who has such a good soul and is a competent bookkeeper, but alas, is overweight and has thinning hair. In a rather awkward scene, Hindy is set up with a real "catch:" the son of a rabbinic dynasty from one of the top yeshivas. But her date has eyes for her stunning younger sister. Then there is Leah, who is under a lot of pressure from her mother to get married, but who wants to go to medical school and be able to support herself. With a widowed mother and a nasty rumor flying about the borough, Leah's choices are limited.

In some ways Brooklyn Love is very much a romance novel. There are some stock characters, and things like yichus, or family ancestry, the ability to provide for a young couple (dowry), and some twists and turns and miscommunications, do make for humor and some happy endings. In other ways, it addresses some of the issues of placing so much emphasis on status and income. Some of the "love stories" in the book end in heartbreak, leaving the characters hurt and bitter. In one of the twists of fortune in the book, the commentary is quite sharp, reminiscent of Naomi Ragen's biting criticism of hypocrisy in the Orthodox community.

There isn't a strong sense of place in terms of Brooklyn, although the characters do frequent places like Ocean Parkway, Avenue J and 13th Avenue, as well as the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead. But there is a strong sense of types: the Hungarian Holocaust survivor who does not want "dark" Jews as matches for her sons and worries about "being caught and taken away;" the yeshiva student who is supposedly learning full time, but has no enthusiasm for his studies; the "boy" (anyone who isn't married is referred to as a "boy" or a "girl") who works full time, but is very enthused to learn during his free time, but is discounted because he works and isn't sitting in yeshiva; the attractive girl who has more to her than looks, and the attractive girl that doesn't.

Then there is Touchdown (2013), which is touted as a paranormal romance, not the kind where the male lover turns into an eagle or is a vampire, but where Goldie Fischer,a New York socialite, comes back as a dybbuk and inhabits the body of a southern football hero. Levy classifies this one as a comedy geared toward young adults. There are many comedic moments, including when Goldie takes over for Clayton and enjoys shopping with his Southern Belle girlfriend, Carolyn. Goldie's fight to save her family and earn her place in heaven gets a little complicated, but all ends happily when the characters choose love over practicality.

Finally, Starstruck (2013) is the story of Abby, a busy Jewish mother of three who longs for a life as romantic as the soap opera she watches every day. Her best friend Sara, an orthodox Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn is on the case of the Russian Mafia, but as she turns thirty, she hopes there is more to live than her career, though it doesn't seem likely with the string of losers that she's been dating. Can the two friends find romance, solve the case of the severed hand, and remain true to their faith? Expect a happy ending, and something better than soap opera romance - true affection.




Members of snooty book clubs that fancy themselves connoisseurs of literature probably would not be interested in these books. But those who enjoy a light read, some "brain candy," if you will, will be charmed by the characters and plots of these stories.

And, as always, some Real Cats of Israel:

 

Happy Reading!


Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Magic of Three and Gefen Publishing

What is it about three? Who knows? But many attest that both bad things and good things come in threes. From Multiplication Rock we know that "Three is a Magic Number." And Meatloaf knew that "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad."

I had two errands near the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, and since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to arrange a visit to Gefen Publishing. I was able to return my old router to the telephone store (why the guy who delivered the new one couldn't take back the old one is another story), but I could not donate blood at Magen David Adom because my kitten had scratched my hand. But, unlike Meatloaf, I found the metaphorical "ruby in a mountain of rocks" in a beautiful old building behind the bus station.

Gefen Publishing was founded by Murray Greenfield, whose colorful life including making aliyah in 1947; transporting Jews to Israel from Europe and Cyprus on "rust bucket" boats and breaking the British blockade; serving as Executive Director of AACI; and working to encourage investment in Israel. In 1973, Greenfield wrote a book, How to Be an Oleh, but no one wanted to publish it, so he ended up publishing it himself. The book sold 50,000 copies and provided guidance for new immigrants to Israel, especially about housing and finances.  From there he took on typesetting jobs and officially started the publishing company in 1981.  Since then, more than 700 books have been published. I enjoyed a lively conversation with Murray's son, Ilan, the current CEO, about Gefen, Jewish books, and publishing.


Gefen's mission has always been to "export Israel" and provide a variety of books about the Jewish experience including history and the Holocaust, books about Jewish communities of the past in Spain and Lithuania and communities in Ethiopia and elsewhere, biographies, books about all aspects of Israel including art and culture and the Israeli military.

Gefen publishes between 20 and 40 books a year. Here are three recent ones that are outstanding:



We spend a lot of time talking about probably the most significant book Gefen has published to date -- And Every Single One Was Someone. This unusual volume is a memorial to the Holocaust and sort of an art book, with the word "JEW" appearing 6 million times over 1,250 pages (4,800 Jews on every page). It has been reviewed in the New York Times, been presented to American senators and congressmen, and others have bought books in multiples of hundreds to give to Jewish leaders and libraries.

Ilan Greenfield presenting the book to Vice Preseident Pence.
Photo courtesy of Ilan Greenfield

Combining exquisite photography and reflections from a variety of luminaries that includes Israeli politicians, rabbis, pastors, and Jewish leaders and scholars, My Jerusalem, is a stunning tribute to all the places and people that make it the most beautiful city in the world.


Room for Rent is the new English translation of the classic Israeli children's book, Dira Lehaskir. The adorable story of four animals looking for a new housemate is told in rhyme, and while there is no overt Jewish or Israeli content, there are some great lessons in judging others and friendship.  For this nit-picky reviewer, the translated rhyme is genius, and the vintage illustrations are absolutely charming.



For those who cannot visit Gefen in person, their books are available through Amazon and Book Depository.

Finally, those Real Cats of Israel are ever-resourceful:


Happy Reading!

Monday, July 10, 2017

19 Tammuz

The nineteen of Tammuz is my mother's yahrzeit. My mother died on July 6, 2015, and observing the customary mourning period was challenging. I missed several weddings and bar mitzvahs of close friends and neighbors, and I sorely missed listening to music and going to live events.The Jewish custom is to honor a loved one's memory by doing good deeds and giving to charity, and I undertook a project "for the elevation of the soul of Chana Rachel bat Moshe." I also started knitting, something my mother enjoyed, but was never able to teach me.

Now that the second yahrzeit is approaching, I am finding that I can look farther back than the recent past, recount stories and silly songs and corny jokes to her grandchildren, and reflect on what was a complicated relationship. How does a librarian do that? With books.

I have been a fan of Roz Chast since she started at the New Yorker in 1978, which is about the time I started reading the New Yorker, which means looking through the magazine to get to her cartoons. Her 2014 memoir, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloombury) chronicles her parents' decline and demise. She "could see that they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age -- and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture." Although my mother's trajectory was different, I dealt with many of the same issues including the lifetime accumulation of such clutter as old eyeglass frames and free gifts from opening bank accounts; sorting through endless financial and medical papers; and that pull between spending time visiting her at a senior facility versus spending time with my children.

Hilarious, touching and spot-on, I mostly laughed and sometimes cried (and sometimes laughed until I cried). It seems I am not the only one who felt like their father's daughter and heard, "I'm not your friend; I'm your mother" many times. My mother also had a fearsome temper and a strong aversion to doctors, whom she "knew" were in cahoots with the pharmaceutical and insurance companies to overcharge and prescribe drugs so they could go to conferences in Hawaii.

But perhaps this tenacity was what enabled both women to live past 90. My mother, a"h, cheated the Angel of Death many times. She outlived the "normal" diagnosis for Alzheimer's patients. She collected every penny of her long-term care insurance, and lived way past the expectancy for those who break hips. She was in and out of ICU several times. She was hospitalized on 19 Tammuz of the previous year, and a rather inept doctor encouraged us to "let her go and stop being selfish." Well, the gauntlet was thrown down. My mother lived another year, just to show the doctor that she was horribly wrong.

©Roz Chast, 2017, ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, used with permission.


Another memoir, The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner (Harper Wave, 2016) is about Betsy's mother and her mother's bridge partners. Growing up, Lerner saw them as a group of suburban housewives who got together once a week around a card table, but as a grown up, she discovered a new respect for these women who show up every Monday, always dressed tastefully and with accessories, and have a friendship defined by a love of the game and a presence in each other's lives.

My mother did not play bridge with the ladies, but she and my father enjoyed playing with other couples. They would set up the card table in the living room, put out some bridge mix (best part of the game for me. Interesting fact: the chocolate covered nuts and confections seemed to be the perfect snack for card players), and spend the evening playing cards and talking. This is another one of her hobbies that she tried to teach me and that I couldn't master, which might be a good thing, since none of my friends play bridge, either. But Lerner practiced the game and improved, learn the intricacies of play, and bonded with her mother over the game.


Lesléa Newman's I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, 2015), is also a chronicle of her mother's dying and death in a series of poems that vary in style, format and tone that follow both her and her mother's journey during this time. She touches on all phases of the mother-daughter relationship as well as the physical and emotional challenges for both parent and child. Newman found inspiration in classic Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Dr. Seuss works, as well as more modern voices. Her own voice shines through with rhymes that are full of love, sadness, and often irony. She vividly captures the experience: "My mother tells me where she hides her jewels/a nurse comes in to ask about her stools." And in the aftermath "but I know, too, that my mother is involved in everything I know." 


Thanks to AJL super-colleague Rachel Kamin for suggesting these books on several platforms, and for the Hashgacha pratis that I got to read them when I did -- another example of bibliotherapy.

My mother, a"h loved poetry, and one of her prize possessions was a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that she received as a birthday present. So many lines are so appropriate:

"This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless, 
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best. 
Night, sleep, and the stars."


"I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or 
wake at night alone, 
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again, 
I am to see to it that I do not lose you."


Finally, not one of the Real Cats of Israel, but the best cat ever, Connie, whom my mother trained to not go upstairs and not jump on tables or counters.  Everyone thought they were Connie's favorite human, but Connie was very smart -- she knew who was in charge of the food (and who didn't chase her around the house to try and play with her), so my mother was Connie's best friend.







Stay cool and happy reading!