Monday, June 15, 2015

June Jewish Book Carnival

It is my pleasure to host this month's Jewish Book Carnival, a selection of  book reviews; interviews with authors, publishers, librarians and others about Jewish books; and essays about Jewish books and literature. 

The purposes of the Jewish Book Carnival are to build community among bloggers who feature Jewish books on their blogs and to promote Jewish reading, and fields supporting this reading such as publishing and library services.


Without further ado, here are this month's selections:

At Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, Deborah talks with author Barbara Stark-Nemon about Barbara's new book, Even in Darkness, a novel based on her great-aunt's concentration camp experiences. 

At The Best Chapter, Diana Bletter interviews Michelle Brafman on her first novel, Washing the Dead, about how participating in a tahara ritual helps the narrator turn her life around.

The Fig Tree Books blog celebrates what would have been Saul Bellow's 100th birthday (June 10th) with some notes gleaned around the Web and three writers' discussions of Bellow novels.

Erika Dreifus shifts from the page to the screen as she recommends "Above and Beyond," a documentary about the (mostly) American pilots who helped Israel win its independence. Find her review at her blog --  My Machberet.

Photojournalism and romance are the topics of interest at Lorri M. Writings and Photography, where Lorri reviews Waiting for Robert Capa by Susana Fortes.

Heidi at The Book of Life blog hosts a podcast interview with filmmaker Ian Rosenberg about his documentary "Welcome to Kutsher’s," a loving tribute to the last Catskills resort.

At the Whole Megillah, Barbara Krasner interviews Tracy Newman about her new picture book, Uncle Eli's Wedding.

Finally, I left the comfort of my reading spot and ventured into Jerusalem for Hebrew Book Week and The Festival of Light. You can "picture" it at Life Is Like a Library.


I'd like to thank all the contributors for sharing, and for making my first time hosting much less daunting than I thought it would be.  One of the benefits:  I got to see all these great blogs first!




Sunday, June 14, 2015

Book Week and the Festival of Light

Hebrew Book Week takes place every June in Israel. While I will rant another time about why every event has to take place at First Station when they are many beautiful venues around Jerusalem, it is always nice to see so many people enthused about books, especially children. Alas for me, but maybe good for my wallet, almost everything was in Hebrew. Equally impressive was the variety of books for so many different interests.






I missed seeing Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner Penina Moed Kass when she was there, but I spotted her Berele the Snail books:

I also enjoyed seeing the Hebrew versions of the Minions from Despicable Me and, of course, Captain Underpants:



From First Station, it was on to the Old City for dinner and a dose of bad grammar:

As the sun began to set, the lights came on and the crowds teemed.  Although I did not get to see all the installations and displays, I really enjoyed "The Large Pendulum Wave" and "Tower of David Ramparts:"



This month's reading did not include any standouts, but my book club read The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. We had a lively discussion about the sadness of this story and what an amazing job Friedman did in laying out the saga with its cast of characters and cultural nuances. I had read the book when it first came out in 2012, and one of the first things I did was go see (what's left of) the Codex in the Israel Museum:

This manuscript was beautifully "written out" in 925 and was used by the Rambam as a reference.  Although "stranger than fiction" and "non-fiction that reads like fiction" are quite trite and overused, the book is both of these and more.

More pictures than words this month, but looking ahead:

A book about challah
A memoir
Beating the Elul Rush

Happy Reading!






Monday, May 4, 2015

2015 Jerusalem Women's Writers' Seminar

It was another beautiful day in the united and eternal capital of Israel as I attended the Jerusalem Women's Writers' Seminar. Once again, Tamar Ansh and Esther Heller did an amazing job in every way.  I love going to a "women's event" with the coordinating napkins and the little pastries in the relaxation corner sponsored by Menucha Publishers. I love me some swag, which at this gathering meant free magazines and a beautiful mug, healthy muffin and notepad from Israel Bookshop.

But obviously the best part of the day was the packed (and on time!) schedule of speakers and workshops throughout the day. I met some of my favorite authors and "celebrities" of the Orthodox publishing world:

Mrs. Yaffa Ganz, is a Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award Winner and author of the ever-charming Savta Simcha books, the Bina and Benny Holiday Series, and Mimmy and Simmy books. Her latest is a soon-to-be released book of poetry, but while you're waiting, adults should read  Cinnamon and Myrrh (Feldheim, 2013), a "delicious" collection of essays, while Bubbleglum Glue and Other Adventures with Dr. Emmanuel J. Mitzva (Feldheim 2014) is a great choice for kids.

Miriam Zakon is the acquisitions editor at Artscroll Publications.  She is also the author of the 1986 Sydney Taylor Notable Book The Floating Minyan of Pirate's Cove (Judaica Press, 1986).  Emmy Zitter, PhD, is the Chair of the English Department at Michlala Jerusalem College. They are also twin sisters who, with their other sister, Marcia Meth, write the monthly "Sister Schmooze" for Mispacha Magazine/Family First. Their excellent presentation "A Schmooze You Can Use: Turning Everyday Life into Good Writing" explained their process for coming up with topics for the column. Taking random words, the audience came up with different stories.  While the sisters discussed double meanings and metaphors they were informative and entertaining.  Their ending with "you've been a great audience" reminded me of how many comics end their stand-up routines because the sisters were so funny and engaging -- and encouraged writers to look for humor in situations.


Shout out to Libi Astaire, another Sydney Taylor Notable Book author.  Her charming Jewish Regency Mystery Series continues to grow, and my bookshelf (and Kindle) include The Disappearing Dowry, The Ruby Spy Ring, Tempest in the Tea Room, The Doppelganger's Dance, Too Many Coins, General Well'ngone in Love, and her most recent, The Moon Taker. Libi gave a workshop on self-publishing at the Seminar, but for those who did not attend, Libi's Is Self-Publishing for You? (self-published!) provides great suggestions. 







I met a sort-of, kind-of neighbor who has some great books to share.  Leah Chana Rubabshi starting out writing poetry.  Like KRS, she is "using her gift to uplift" and her rhyming children's books are very cute. A Kosher Fish Tale (Menucha Publishers, 2014) is about a boy and his father discovering all the kosher fish on a boating trip with the refrain "'Cause we know that they're not kosher if they don't have fins and scales." Librarian and teachers: use this book for rhyming, for "boy" stories, and definitely for Parshat Shemini, which details the laws of kashrut. Fins and Scales (Kar-Ben, 1992) is one of my all-time favorites, but Rubabshi's book is illustrated with vibrant colors by award-winning Israeli illustrator Nurit Yuval and has a nifty "Kosher Fish Key" at the end.

From the same author, The Hidden Artist (Hachai, 2014), introduces emunah (faith) to young readers. "With all this beauty, great and small, 'I wonder, Who's behind it all?" is the question a young boy ponders as he sees animals, plants and trees. A Rainbow World (Feldheim, 2014) is the story of a boy discovering the colors all around him.


Another sort-of, kind-of neighbor also authored an excellent book. Who Is Annie White (Fish)? by Judy Belsky (Menucha Publishers, 2014) is a question asked by the 14-year old titular character. Her parents are international engineers, and their current project has taken them to Micronesia. Annie decides to stay with her Aunt Becka, an artist who lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. Small-town life gets boring real fast for Annie.  But much like her world travels, when she meets Esty Krystal, she is intrigued by a new and interesting culture: Orthodox Judaism. Annie and Aunt Becka start to explore their own heritage and find relatives in Brooklyn, learn why their name was changed, and grow closer to each other and to Judaism.  I was finding the free verse a little overused in secular publishing, but I am happy to see that an Orthodox publisher took the bold step of using this format. Dr. Belsky, whose many hats include writer, artist, and psychologist, has obviously drawn on her knowledge to explore early teenage self-consciousness, family interactions, art, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Annie is often wise beyond her years, but this is chalked up to her world travels.  The free verse also highlighted some great imagery:  the mother of a large family who was "like a great ringmaster at a circus," and the thoughtfulness of the characters: "I could not turn the page onto the next chapter of my life when so many chapters were missing the story did not make sense."

Achrona, Achrona, Chaviva (saving the best for last), Rebbetzin Sara Meisels attended the event.  The Bobover Rebbetzin is an avid reader and book lover, but the Rebbetzin is the kind of woman whose strength of character and warm heart literally fills the room.  

Thank you again, Esther and Tamar for a day that left me feeling more connected, more informed, and uplifted.


A Deocat of J-Town:

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.