Saturday, December 1, 2018

Yet Another Beautiful Day in Israel

One of the great things about Israel is that so many diverse people and cultures come together, and that so many interesting things are readily accessible for reading, sightseeing, and buying. Like myself, the awesome creative women below are immigrants. They are using their talents in different ways to enrich the lives of others, so thank you ladies!

As the weather in Israel turns cold and rainy (which is a good thing), I look forward tackling my TBR (to be read) pile. There has been a lot of buzz about The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner (Orbit, 2018).  Dubbed a "Jewish fantasy book," I was skeptical because I am NOT a fan of fantasy, and I have yet to see a Jewish book in the genre that fully develops the fantasy aspect. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the Jewish content is such an integral and interesting part of the story, and that the fantasy aspect (no spoilers, but there are a swan and a bear on the cover) is also interesting and developed nicely, On top of that, I loved the "YA" aspect of two sisters who are growing and changing and coping with their relationship with one another, "boy problems," and the bigger issues of threats to their community.

I originally reviewed  ScaVentures Jerusalem: The Experiential Guidebook in the September/October 2018 edition of the Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter. I had the pleasure of meeting its author, Tali Kaplinski Tarlow, in person recently. I had noted that "the book can be used in family or groups, and while appropriate for all ages, planning and executing any of the 'missions' would be an amazing experience for a bar or bat mitzvah trip. If one is not able to visit in person, it is an invaluable resource for teaching and learning about Jerusalem in an innovative and exciting way." I have found yet another way to use the book. Since I travel to Jerusalem pretty frequently, I have been doing "mini-missions:" reviewing the book before I hop on the bus, and picking one or two things to learn about and find. Recently, I looked at Route 4 - The Many Faces of Shuk Machane Yehuda - Beauty in Diversity, and look what I found:

See Page 109 to find out what this is!
Yes it is legal, and we love it in Yemenite Soup.

Not a book, but a great accessory for librarians and teachers that is made in Israel. This apron is from the Tracy Lipman Collection, and while Tracy originally created one for herself to use at vendor events and at flea markets, etc., it works well in the library and classroom for holding pens and note paper, scissors, change for the copy machine, etc.

And of one the Real Cats of Israel is worn out after a busy day: 

Happy Reading, Touring, and Shopping!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Follow My Lead

"Leadership" is yet another buzzword that gets tossed around frequently. What does it mean to be a leader? What if you don't have a "leader personality?" And in these turbulent times, what can we learn about leadership that we can use in our daily lives?

If you're a migrating bird, it's important to stay in formation and follow the flock. But when you're not so good at following directions, maybe it's not because you have executive function issues (yet another buzzword, this one for parents, which is a whole 'nother discussion), but because you are meant to be a leader. Such is the case in Anna Levine's wonderful All Eyes on Alexandra (Kar-Ben, 2018). Chiara Pasqualotto's beautiful illustrations show a crane who is curious about volcanoes and waterfalls. But Alexandra can sense when the weather changes, she has studied the wind, and she is "never afraid to try new things." Her Saba (grandfather) decides she is ready to lead the flock to Israel, which she does with (sorry for the pun) flying colors.  

At a stall in my professional life, I started reading Parker J. Palmer's Let Your Life Speak (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), a collection of short essays about "Listening for the Voice of Vocation." It talks about leadership as "a concept we often resist. It seems immodest, even self-aggrandizing, to think of ourselves as leaders." But he has come to understand that we "lead by word and deed simply because we are here doing what we do." This seems very deep and encouraging, but much like when a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, or like blogging away in cyberspace, I am leading if no one is following? 

Erica Brown has focused on Jewish leadership. Her Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) explores Jewish leadership through “ancient models of Jewish leadership, contemporary professional business literature, and Jewish texts.” Her Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers (Maggid Books, 2013) delves into the fourth book of the Bible. It highlights the development of Moses' leadership, from his own attitudes, to environmental challenges while wandering in the desert, to defiance from Korach and his group, and threats from Bilaam and the Midianite women to the Israelites' very existence. These show how Jewish leaders are made: “Discover yourself in the wilderness of a future you know not. Go outside to go inside. Grow where the wild things are. Learn from that which almost kills you. Leave the past and discover God.”

Obviously Moses was not the only biblical leader. In another Maggid (2015) book, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes about Lessons in Leadership. In one of my favorite format, Rabbi Sacks, "mines the weekly Torah portions for insights into the nature of power, authority, and leadership. Based on the understanding that no man is born a leader, the book explores the principles, and perils, of becoming one." One reviewer gushed that "These essays take everything to a whole new level; personal responsibility, moral responsibility, human responsibility, collective responsibility. People often ask why I do what I do, and so far this book is giving me a framework to attempt to explain." It is also interesting that so many reader reviews on Amazon mention its relevance to non-Jewish readers and teachers.

Brene Brown's latest book is Dare to Lead (Random House, 2018). Known for one of the most popular TED talks of all time about the power of vulnerability, she researches and writes about being brave, taking risks, and really connecting with other people. Although it builds on her other books, this one stands on its own in terms of content. And there is a hub on Brown's website with nine ways to engage in the "Brave Work," including downloads, finding certified Dare to Lead facilitators, and schedules for a team or organization read-a-long. 

And, of course, the Real Cats of Israel follow their own lead:

Happy reading!

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

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


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. 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.


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.


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!