Friday, September 14, 2012

Some Rosh Hashanah Reading

Here are three books that, at first glance, seem to have no Jewish content. But looking just a little deeper, they provide fodder for some thoughts worthy of this propitious period in the Jewish calendar. While Rosh Hashanah is a time for families, food, and prayer, it is also a time for introspection. Rabbi Yaacov Haber tells us to “leave the complications behind us and start a brand new year.” Let’s resolve not to be complicated people, but rather to shine in our simplicity.” Shimon Apisdorf asserts that “the message that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur send is clear: to be engaged in life is to be engaged in the ultimate relationship; our choices and their consequences are of paramount importance, and God cares so deeply that He cannot not judge us.” It is the time to reassess the direction of our lives. Much as with my wonky GPS, my life needs periodic recalculation for me to reach my destination, and hopefully to get there via a more pleasant road than through the bowels of Newark, New Jersey.

The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels (Spiegel & Grau, 2012) seems to be another self-help book. Stutz, a psychiatrist, and Michels, a psychotherapist, have combined their skills and experience to provide a framework for bringing about change. The good things about this book are that there is almost no “psychobabble,” and most of the real-life experiences are typical situations. The two mental health professional present a somewhat novel approach in that past events are not as important positive action now. It’s also interesting that the tools are counter-intuitive. If someone pushes your buttons, send them love. If you lack confidence in certain situations, embrace your vulnerable side. If you are avoiding a situation, feel your fear and pain and you will be able to deal with the situation. While these techniques may be novel in the world of psychotherapy, they have always been a part of Judaism.

The High Holy Days are a great time to use “the tools.” We look back on the past year, not so we can beat ourselves up for our inadequacies, but so that we do better in the coming year. When someone has upset us, we forgive them. Whatever way we have wronged others, we ask their forgiveness. We forgive ourselves for not meeting our own expectations. I particularly liked reading about the tool of “Inner Authority” and “The Force of Self-Expression.” We don’t want to see ourselves as bad or evil or inadequate. But instead of trying to hide these traits or deny them, we need to embrace ourselves as a whole person. Much like classical Mussar (Jewish character development), we need to see that all aspects of our personality are neither good nor bad. They need to be balanced for us to be whole, optimally functioning human beings. There’s also a great quote of W.H. Murray: “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too…raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”

For great fiction, there are two books by two of my favorite authors: Harmless by Dana Reinhardt and I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak. In Harmless, Anna, Emma, and Mariah make up a story so they won’t get in trouble for doing something they shouldn’t be doing. “What happens next challenges their friendship, their community, their relationships with their families, and their sense of themselves.” What they believe to be an innocent lie made up to protect themselves gets an innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. Many are familiar with the Jewish folktale of the woman who gossiped. The rabbi told her to take a bag of feathers and release them in the wind. Then he asked her to collect all the feathers. From this, the woman (and the reader) learns the power of gossip: you can’t take it back and you don’t know how far it will go. Although there is no Jewish content, it is much the same in Harmless. Once the lie is told, no one can control the consequences. Through the alternating three-voice narration, we see the events unravel from each girl’s perspective. For those who have graduated from “Feathers,” Harmless provides what has made YA books so popular: complex characters, real-life situations, a little hair and fashion, and, of course, Reinhardt’s brilliant prose.

I Am the Messenger also embraces a Jewish concept with no Jewish content. Ed Kennedy is your average ne’er-do-well. “His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence.” After he stops a bank robbery, he starts receiving playing cards in the mail. These cards provide instructions to go to specific places at specific times in order to intercede in other people’s lives. To this end, Ed helps a woman in an abusive relationship, helps a congregation find a parish, and visits a lonely old lady. Through these actions, he is able to help himself and becoming a better person. Helping others and helping yourself? Sounds a lot like tikkun olam, the Jewish idea that we are put on this earth for a purpose – to improve ourselves and make the world a better place. Zusak seems to embrace characters that seem ordinary on the surface, but end up in situations that tap their inner strength and character. Another great message for the coming year: you are very special. It’s time to tap into your strengths (and weaknesses) and use this year to develop your potential and by doing so make the world, even for just one person, a nicer place to live.

May we all be inscribed for a year of health, happiness and peace.
K’tiva v’Chasima Tova.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mussar from Mirka

I have been anxiously awaiting Hereville 2, which has an “official” publication date of November 1, 2012. I saw the cover on a book at Book Expo, got very excited, and then grabbed it to open it and find the cover encased the first Hereville book. Needless to say, that was not the only dummy in the room. When I complained to Jason Wells, he told me it would be available on Net Galley.

When I returned home from Book Expo, I immediately registered for Net Galley. It’s free, and I’ve been enjoying my subscription immensely for a number of reasons. I feel like I have a wonderful secret because I am seeing books pre-publication. I have the kid in the candy shop experience of perusing titles, but from the comfort of my home (often in pajamas). My family appreciates that there are no physical books coming into the house to crowd them out. Finally, since we moved to Israel, it is prohibitively expensive and slow to have books shipped. So yay for Net Galley.

Now, back to Mirka. The net galley is definitely not the final product. There are some pictures missing, some pictures sketched, and some that need some coloring. But, honestly, it’s Mirka! My favorite plucky, knitting, Sabbath-observing heroine is back with another adventure.

I don’t want to give away the plot, which involves a meteorite, an evil twin, and a witch wearing shorts and going barefoot, but it is another trip through the amazing creative world of Barry Deustch, who has again managed to combine humor, drama, and Judaism into an eye-catching graphic novel. But what really struck me about the book is the mussar, or character lessons, that were taught without the preachy, didactic tone that is often associated with “values education.”

Okay, a little plot spoiler. Mirka is faced with an exact physical copy of herself, but the copy is stronger, neater and better in many ways. But when it comes down to it, the copy can never truly be Mirka because it is Mirka’s way of doing things, of not being neat or strong or good at math that makes her who she is. It is reminiscent of the story of Reb Zusha, who does not worry whether, at the time of judgment, he will be questioned as to why he was not like Moses, but that he was not like Zusha.

I also liked that Fruma, Mirka’s stepmother, was a little more nuanced and provided more of the mussar. One aspect of this was showing Mirka that using your brain to figure out strategy, like in chess, is a way of winning in battle. She also emphasized acting like the person you want to be – excellent practice for developing character.

Loved the knitting (spoiler – new projects!) and the Regret-O-Meter. And I loved the Moon. Consistent with Jewish thought, the Moon is female, and she does her thing in a modest and helpful way, also teaching Mirka that not everyone has to know when you do something good or wonderful – just the act of doing it brings you closer to being the person you hope to be.

So to Barry, a grosse yasher koach (a big congratulations). Now I am even more excited to see the final product, and I am looking forward to Hereville 3.