Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lost in Translation

Many people who have made Aliyah realize that while they were hoping to be fluent in two languages, they end up illiterate in both. My family has decided that a good way to maintain our English skills and build our Hebrew skills it to read a book in English, then read the same book in Hebrew. In theory this should work well. Since you already know the plot of the story, you have some context for reading. You know you already enjoyed it in English, so you're likely to enjoy it again, and the challenge of reading in Hebrew will be worthwhile. It's also interesting to compare the Hebrew and the English:

With Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the title and author are spelled phonetically in Hebrew. He is also riding Buckbeak the hippogriff on the cover -- same as the English version. But Muggles as known as "Mooglim" and The Daily Prophet is "Navi HaYomi. "Toldot Hakishuf," which translates to "Annals of Magic" is required at Hogwarts.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The Hunger Games translates pretty well: it would literally be "The Games of the Famine" from the Hebrew. The second book in the series is title "Hitlachot," which means conflagration, inflammation or ignition.  Pretty close to Catching Fire. The final book in the trilogy is Mockingjay. We would have thought it would be translated phonetically, but the Hebrew title is "Orvanei Chakeen," or "Mixed-up Mimic," which is a good description of the titular birds.

Another favorite trilogy, the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, gets similar treatment. The Hebrew title for the series and first book is "Mefutzalim," which means divided or fissured. Divergent in Hebrew is either "mesutaafim," which is more like a tree branching out; or "metupalgim,"which means to split. Neither captures the idea of the novel. Looking up the words has increased our vocabulary as well as given us an appreciation for the nuances of the Hebrew language.

Then there is Letters to Talia by Dov Indig (Gefen 2012). The book is a collection of letters exchanged between Talia, a secular kibbutz girl, and Dov, who was combining military service and Torah study through a hesder program. The book is not only helping with language development as we read in Hebrew and English, it is also helping us to understand the divisions between secular and religious society in Israel, which is also an important part of our klita (absorption).

No beautiful sights to share -- we are now experiencing a horrible winter storm with massive downpours and snow expected in mountainous areas. 

But we did manage to see some real cats of Israel before the deluge.

Happy Reading! Kriyah S'maycha!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Love and hope and sex and dreams are still survivin' on the street…

This lyric from “Shattered” by the Rolling Stones sums up my reading this month.

Warning: This entry is meant for adult readers and there will be spoilers.


Erotica for Hanukkah

Fifty Shades of Gray took the world by storm. Entertainment Weekly calculated the equation of its success: “erotica plus fan fiction plus a book-buying female readership liberated by a choice in literary delivery systems equals a whole new garden of opportunities for the publishing world in the digital age.” This sensation (soon to be a movie) inspired several copycats and a lot of spoofs, but this is the first one I’ve encountered with a Jewish angle.

Fifty Shades of Oy Vey! by E. L. Jamesbergstein stays close to the original plot line. College senior Anatevka Stein interviews bagel mogul Chaim Silver for the Hillel Newsletter and sparks fly at their first encounter. “His age and his waist size are both roughly 40. He has a pale, sickly Yeshiva boy glow. Yet I am drawn to him. Powerfully drawn to him.” Except this version includes Jewish mothers, lots of ethnic food and a “kinky Ketubah.” There is an exchange of emails and an encounter with a salami in the “Blue Room of Broadloom.” While I know I should be offended and appalled by both the SMBD and the stereotypical Jewish jokes, I was amused. Instead of Anatasia’s “inner goddess,” Anatevka has an “inner yenta.” Billed as “so erotic, you’ll plotz,” it’s an entertaining parody.

Discussing Sexuality with Kids

I recently reviewed Talking about Intimacy & Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents by Dr. Yocheved Debow (Ktav and OU Press, 2012). While the book contains important information, most people will not give it the attention it deserves. For more traditional Orthodox readers, there is no approbation, so they may be reluctant to read it. For more modern Orthodox readers, they can get a lot of the information from secular sources and on the internet. In a 342-page book, I found that page 167, where the chapter on “Relationships between the Sexes” was where the book really began to deal with the intersection of sexuality education and halacha (Jewish law). What I got out of the book was the media’s pervasive influence on our body image, perception of sexuality, and perception of what’s “normal.” Included in the book are “Helpful Conversations,” which give examples of how to broach such topics as sexuality, dress and identity, and homosexuality. The test subject, my adolescent teenager, ran out of the room screaming when I tried to start these conversations.

At the same time I was reviewing Dr. Debow’s book, I got a copy of a Sex & Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence by Kate Ott (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), which is a “grace-filled guide (Christian approach) to bringing the good book and the “big talk” into loving and lasting relationship.” The first time the author mentioned Jesus, I thought “What Would Jesus Do?” Well, besides some rumors about him and Mary Magdalene (read The Da Vinci Code for more on that legend), it seems he did not have a relationship with a woman. Then I thought, what would happen if he asked his mother, the Virgin Mary, “Where did I come from?” “Well, son, we lived in Nazareth, but you were born in Bethlehem. Let’s leave it at that.”

Getting past my initial musings, I liked the tone of the book. Ott urges respect for all others, and stresses the value of appropriate information. She evens suggests some of the same resources as Dr. Debow and has similar suggestions for answering questions. In the first chapter, Ott debunks several myths and stresses the need for constant communication with children about “relationships, our bodies, what it means for us to be a boy or a girl, and yes, occasionally sexual intercourse.” For those who are squeamish about this discussions and mentioning body parts, it is important to remember that “accurate language for body parts helps children feel comfortable and knowledgeable talking about their bodies. This way, they can communicate with adults if they need help getting dressed or using the bathroom, and they can also accurately report and describe abuse if it happens.”

Although Jesus is mentioned 38 times (Thank you, Kindle), if you can get past this, Ott’s is a sensitive and straight-forward presentation. She suggests some great resources throughout the book, and she includes a list of them in the back matter, as well as additional resources. The screaming teenager was also more receptive to the question and answer format than the model conversations.

The Age of Innocence versus The Innocents          

I am a huge Edith Wharton fan. I love The Age of Innocence for all the reasons I love literary fiction: great characters, sense of place and time, twists and turns. This was also a rare case when I enjoyed the movie as much as the book because of the lush scenery and the performances of Winona Ryder as May Welland, Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen Olenska. You can see the exact moment when Newland falls in love with Ellen, and the subtle change in countenance when May realizes Newland has fallen. I also love it because it’s such a period piece. This story could never happen now. Newland would either break his engagement or have an affair, not marry and be concerned about his sense of duty and May’s honor.

But what if it did take place in modern times, in London, with Jewish protagonists? The Innocents by  Francesca Segal won the 2012 Costa Award for First Novel, as well as the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize, and a 2013 Betty Trask Award.  It was long-listed for the 2012 Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize). Despite these accolades, I was not as blown away as most readers. I enjoyed the sense of place in London, and I did enjoy the Jewish aspects. While there were not the strict dictates of early 20th century society, there were definitely dictates of the Jewish community in which the characters lived. Looking at the novel on its own, not as a book based on another one, it was a good story because of the conflicted characters. As a book based on an earlier work, it lacked the subtlely of Wharton’s novel, and thus fell short of the mark for me.

  Interesting that Fifty Shades of Gray was panned as derivative fan fiction (a rip-off of Twilight), and The Innocents is receiving such high praise when it is based on someone else’s original story.

Wishing those in the United States a Happy Thanksgivukkah from the land where it is Thanksgiving every day and where the miracles of Hanukkah occurred.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Start With This

Recent kosher cookbooks have set a standard of expectation:

  • interesting "main stream" or "gourmet" recipes (not a kugel to be had!)
  • the latest "in" ingredients like quinoa, tilapia, etc.
  • mouth-watering color photographs
  • clear layout with different fonts in different colors and enough white space to read the recipe clearly
  • detailed index
  • "bonus" information about measurements, substitutions, cooking techniques, appropriate wines or the like.

To this, I had my own checklist:

  • consistency - all measurements are either in volume, ounces or grams. Bonus points if the volume measurements are also converted to grams for those who live in Israel.
  • no more than 10 ingredients
  • no more than 6 steps to make the recipe
  • easily obtainable, reasonably priced ingredients that will be used in other recipes
  • something a little out of the ordinary for the Sabbath or a holiday, but not too weird
  • things my family will eat.

Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek's latest book, Starters & Sides Made Easy, has earned the coveted 12 checks. It continues in the tradition of their joint effort, Passover Made Easy, and Leah's solo effort Fresh & Easy Kosher Cooking. These busy ladies are also the editors of the Whisk section of Ami Living, and maintain a website,, with recipes, serving suggestions and travel tips.

Starters & Sides Made EasyAs my Mancunian neighbor (who is not a perfectionist; she just likes to do things properly) would say with her ever so lovely accent, "starters are a very important part of the meal. They set the tone for the whole seudah (festive meal)."

Shall I extol the virtues of this jam-packed little gem? Why not?! Let's start at the beginning. This is a paperback with what some call a "french fold" cover, so you can hold your place in the book. I love a big heavy cookbook as much as the next person, but when you think about it, how many recipes do you really use out of those huge tomes, and how hard is it to follow the recipe when you keep the book far away from the cooking space for fear of staining it? The $15.99 suggested retail price will make a small dent in your wallet but a big impact on your menu. The recipes are arranged in sections by main ingredient, which makes it easy for those of us who think, "I'd like to serve a vegetable as a first course" or "I'd like to try a new grain instead of the rice or kugel I always serve."

In the acknowledgments, the first mention is Hashem (God). The second mention is family. Just as the starter sets the tone of the meal, starting with this appreciation sets the tone of the cookbook as more than just a collection of recipes, but as an inspired effort.

The introduction is a conversation between Victoria and Leah, complete with speech bubbles. These ladies are passionate about their cooking, but as the same time are aware of the needs of those who aren't so enamored. A colorful Spice Guide follows. The numbering is a little hard to follow on the first pages, but if you don't know your spices, you should learn them by now!

One of the nicest features of the cookbook is "Building Blocks." These are quick tips to help you either expand a recipe or think out of the box. Instead of plain mashed potatoes,  you can leave the skin on, add garlic or onions, or use different vegetables, like sweet potatoes or broccoli.Other "Building Blocks" offer suggestions for rice, and roasted vegetables. It's like getting even more recipes for free!

This versatility extends to all the recipes. Things like "Chessy Onion Rolls," "Barbecue Noodles," and "Terriyaki Mushrooms" work well as either starters or sides. While some of the meat and fish dishes may not be perfect as sides, never fear! There are instructions at the back of the book for making several recipes into "mains," some as simply as adjusting portion size or serving over rice.

It seems this cookbook was published just for me. Each recipe is presented on a double spread, with the  ingredients and instructions on the left, as well as the number of servings and some tips and tidbits (Who knew that in the past, the most common variety of eggplant was small, round and white and actually looked like an egg?). The right side of the spread includes the clear color photo, how to plan ahead (prepare the sauce, freeze dough to use later), as well as a note that could be a serving idea or an anecdote.

Finally, for those who enjoy the aesthetics of food, there are plating ideas and serving ideas that include little cups made out of egg roll wrappers and stacking and arranging methods. I learned the scallion curling method from my Mancunian neighbor; it's a great way to add a little color.

As a responsible reviewer, I needed to try out several recipes, even though they are "triple-tested." The Terriyaki Mushrooms were very tasty - my crowd preferred them over a bed of rice.  I would make a big batch and use this one as a side instead of a starter. The Barbecue Noodles were "interesting," which meant some liked the novelty of a new dish, others thought they were very tasty, and still others were trying to be polite, but were not thrilled. Overall, a big success for eaters who like to eat the same thing every week.
 Bitayavon! (Hearty appetite in Hebrew)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Literary Day in Israel

Today’s activities in the Tel Aviv area involved two favorite spots: Halper’s Book Store and Old Yafo.

Halper’s is described as “a labyrinthine trove of over 50,000 titles.” Although most of them are in English or Hebrew, there are quite a few French and German books as well. While in the two chains that control most of the Israeli market, Tzomet Sfarim (Book Junction) and Steimatzky, current English language paperbacks sell for about 23 dollars (82 shekels), I walked away from Halper’s with a full shopping bag for 142 shekels (about 40 dollars). For bibliophiles, it’s a treat to walk through the aisles and aisles of books and come upon old favorites, interesting titles, shelves of fantasy and science fiction.

 From Halper’s, it was onto Old Yafo, which is a short drive along the Mediterranean.


This seemed a particularly appropriate time to visit. During the High Holiday season, Jews perform the ritual of Tashlich, where the previous year’s sins are ceremoniously cast off into a natural body of flowing water. Living inland, my community usually goes to a neighbor’s backyard and uses a small fish pond. Inspired by New Year at the Pier, April Halprin Wayland’s Sydney Taylor Book Award winner; and given the quality and quantity of my sins, I needed a larger venue. So I stood by the sea and recited the prayers, hoping for “my mind to be at ease,” and to be “granted the privilege of being joyful with regard to serving God” as I cast all my sins into the depths of the sea.
On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Book of Jonah is read. Rabbi Menachem Posner (at gives two reasons for this: the story of Jonah teaches us how no one is beyond the reach of G‑d's hand. Just as Jonah's endeavor to escape G‑d's providence was unsuccessful, so, too, we are incapable of eluding divine justice for transgressions we may have committed; and on a more uplifting note: G‑d spared the people of Nineveh although He had already decreed that they would be destroyed because of their evil ways. This teaches us that no matter our past behavior, G‑d's benevolence and mercy awaits us if we only repent full-heartedly.

Jonah tried to flee. “He went down to Jaffa and found a ship bound for Tarshish” (Chapter 1, verse 3). The Old Yafo area is replete with history, evidenced by the archeological finds dating back to 7500 BCE.

The harbor area has many shops, galleries and restaurants, included The Old Man and the Sea.

While they do not serve marlin (or shark), the Hemingway title also seemed relevant to the season with its symbolism (albeit Christian) and its themes of persistence and pride.

After meeting some “Real Cats of Israel,” it was home to start reading my treasures from Halper’s.

 Happy Reading!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Nosh This, That and Especially Page 72

I have several vices, or virtues, depending on how you look at it, which, during the High Holiday season, is an interesting thing to ponder. One of them is books, which encompasses the love of the written word, an appreciation for the creativity of illustrators, and also the physical aspect of books that define almost all the rooms of my home. As Marcus Tullius Cicero said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” In the Jewish home, the kitchen is often the soul of the house. Providing nutritious, sustaining meals and enhancing holidays with customary and symbolic foods are integral functions of this room. How many people have warm memories of special foods made by a loving mother or relative, the smell or taste of which floods the senses with nostalgia?
Another vice (or virtue) is baking. Mixing ingredients and seeing them transform into a delicious dessert, the aroma of freshly baked items, and the fact that you normally don’t have to bake every day make it a little more special than cooking, which has to be done every day. Baking challah is a one way we transform a physical act into a spiritual one with intention and prayer (if you are separating challah).
So the intersection of books and baking is cookbooks. My collection ranges from an old notebook in which my grandmother wrote down recipes after some prodding. The secret recipes with “a handful of flour,” or “fill this cup half full of water” had to be converted to standard measurements because my mother’s and my hands are bigger than my grandmother’s and neither of us has her special cup. Then I have plenty of those spiral bound ones that were compiled by a local sisterhood or PTA. Though not very pretty, some of my best recipes come from these: simple and tasty. I also have several of the “cookbook as memoir” variety, where stories are dispersed amongst the recipes, or maybe the recipes are dispersed through the narrative. I’m a purist: although I love to look through cookbooks, I like to either cook/bake or read, not do both at the same time.
Then there are recent cookbooks, which are beautiful, with clear color illustrations accompanying every recipe, lots of white space around the recipe so it is easy to read, and detailed indexes of the content.
But what do you do when, because of food sensitivities, your family cannot partake in the treats of yesteryear made with wheat flour? You run, do not walk to the store (physical or online) and get the brand new Nosh on This: Gluten-Free Baking from a Jewish-American Kitchen by Lisa Stander-Horel and Tim Horel. It is published by The Experiment and distributed by Workman Books, and I thank my friends at both places for providing a PDF. I’ve hit the trifecta again:
  • a gorgeous cookbook
  • with recipes the whole family can enjoy that include some traditional Jewish favorites,
  • created by someone whose ancestors come from the same corner of the world as mine (Romania/Hungary/Transylvania).

In my case, it was my great-aunt who pined, “It’s so fresh, and it’s so dahlicious, and if you don’t eat it, I will have to throw it in the garbage.”
Many of the recipes are available on the author’s blog, Gluten-Free Canteen, but as already discussed, it’s just not the same unless you’re holding this book in your hands and debating whether to make another batch of Rugelach or try the Chocolate Babka (or make both because you never know you might stop by!)
Although all the recipes sound amazing, there are several that invoke the High Holiday spirit – the Apple Upside Down Cake with Pomegranate Honey Syrup (yes, on page 72), or the Honey Cake (page 71), or the Baked Honey Bites (page 138). One could even argue that the Linzer Hearts would remind us to open our hearts and that the Black and White cookies are a nice visual for illustrating the darkness of sins versus the whiteness of purification. But we decided to go even deeper than that. The mazal or astrological sign for this season is Libra, the scales. So as our good deeds are weighed in the Heavenly Court, we’re going to have some coffee and Goldie’s Pound Cake!
May we all be inscribed for a year of health, happiness, peace, and delicious gluten-free baked goods.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

E-Reading and Jerusalem

I recently joined the 21st century by purchasing an e-reader. For as long as I’ve felt like a Luddite, I’ve also felt ambivalent about getting one. I love the physical book. I love collecting books, holding books, looking through books, the smell of books, the sound of pages turning – a totally sensory experience before I even get to the contents of a book. But as they taught in library school, the content has not changed, just the format. So I wonder if those who had to “upgrade” from papyrus to codex, or from codex to book were feeling the same way.

Truth be told, there are some advantages. In the past, when I ordered books, there was the thrill of anticipation waiting for them to be delivered. Now, it’s pretty thrilling to have the books load into the e-reader automatically, especially when I need information immediately. I love highlighting passages, and I kind of like the estimated reading time. Two distinct disadvantages: if I’m in the middle of a good book, I can’t continue reading it on the Sabbath; or if the juice runs out at a really good part in the book, I have to stay close to an electrical outlet. Another disadvantage is that if you want to lend your friend a book, you have to lend her the e-reader, too, which I’m sure people do, but at the rate that people return borrowed books to me, I would not do it without taking some collateral (passport, first-born, etc.)
Thank you to Anna Levine for sending me The New York Times article “Books to Have and to Hold” by Verlyn Klinkenborg. She discusses her relationship with her e-reader, and she has similar concerns. “Physical books are constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, ‘We’re still here,’ or ‘Remember us?’ These are the very things that e-books cannot say, hidden under layers of software, tucked away in the cloud, utterly absent when the iPad goes dark.”

Here’s what I’ve been reading.

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is getting a lot of attention. For those of us in Israel, we know the phrase in Arabic as Bukra fe mesh mesh. The apricot season here is relatively short, and people love apricots. In fact, the children collect the pits and play a game called “Gogo’im,” often creating elaborate boards with holes in which to pitch the pits.

But the deeper meaning is a little more quixotic, a little Orpan Annie, a little Scarlett O’Hara. It’s looking forward to something in an idealistic way. Just as I go to the supermarket waiting for the apricots to appear, and when they do, hoping they last for at least three weeks, my other hopes and dreams include world peace, an end to world hunger, and thin thighs. Tomorrow there will be apricots!

Back to the book. It has been getting rave reviews, and one friend finished it in less than three days. It started slow for me. The narration switches between Lorca, a fourteen-year-old girl who cuts herself as well as inflicting other types of wounds;  and Victoria, who gave up a daughter for adoption. Victoria’s husband, Joseph has passed away, and she and Lorca develop a relationship as Lorca takes cooking lessons from Victoria. I will not give away any more details. It stayed a slow read for me. I liked many of descriptions of food, weather, etc. by Jessica Soffer. Lorca and Victoria are sensitive women who feel their pain and sadness profoundly, so while some will revel in the depth of emotion, it was not my cup of tea. It wasn’t until the very end of the book that I felt the hopefulness implied in the title.

I was also happy to find a rather old one available as an e-book: My Name Is Asher Lev. I had to read this book, and, as mentioned above, it was amazing to have it download immediately, be able to highlight the book, and be able to carry it with me wherever I went. Why did I have to read this book?

I had the pleasure of representing the Association of Jewish Libraries at the 16th World Congress of Jewish Studies. My presentation was entitled “Off the Derech and Onto the Page,” and I discussed books about Orthodox Jews that either leave the community completely or become less religious. Check the AJL Website for the bibliography. It was great to see other AJL members, and hear about a variety of library-related topics.

The view of Jerusalem from Hebrew University. Amazing!

Finally, I love Engineer Ari and the Rosh Hashanah Ride by Deborah Bodin Cohen with illustrations by Shahar Kober (Kar-Ben, 2008). This multi-purpose book about the first train from Jaffa to Jerusalem manages to combine history, Israel, trains, and the meaning of a Jewish holiday. I enjoyed a visit to the old Jerusalem train station, which has been spruced up and includes shops, restaurants, a very cool train display, and plenty of space to walk around. As I walked along the tracks that remain, I thought about that journey in 1892.


Coming soon: Cooking for the Jewish holidays.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

To Book Expo and Back Again

Between an early deadline, an international flight and jet lag, there was no way to make the deadline for the June Jewish Book Carnival. Book Expo America (BEA) is a fond memory. It was great to see friends and colleagues. The highlights: spending time with a very good friend, having Lemony Snicket sign a book for my daughter, and a surprise meeting with an old friend.

I had the Pink Pig Press on my list of booths to visit. It sounded interesting, though not kosher. I walk up and see Vell Sweeny, the publisher, who has a mission: “every author should have a chance to be published whether they already have been or not.” So besides the pink pigs and the fun hats, I recognized the name. No, not from her adult fiction, The Moon Says It Will and Try Not 2 Die, nor from the book she wrote and her daughter illustrated, Second Hand Cat, but from Facebook.

While the pros and cons of Facebook are a “whole ‘nother” discussion, it is rare to meet a Facebook friend, and the term “friend” is used very loosely. Most of these people are not really friends, and a lot delude themselves that they are loved and popular because they have an electronic connection with people who they will never meet in person. Well, Vell’s husband is my Facebook friend because I know him from kindergarten. We went through elementary, junior high school and high school together. His mother was there, and she lives in the same house in our hometown. So while interacting with authors, publishers, friends (not the Facebook type) and colleagues, seeing my kindergarten buddy was very cool.

In a semi-related encounter, I waited on the long line to have Adriana Trigiani sign The Shoemaker’s Wife, a “breathtaking multigenerational love story that spans two continents, two World Wars, and the quest of two star-crossed lovers to find each other again.” This could describe many of the Jewish books I read, and as others have noted, with our loves of food, wine, and religion, I feel like this Italian-American author and I are simpatico. Adriana (all her readers feel like she is a good friend) is always full of energy and love. She asks everyone what they do. “You’re an independent bookstore owner. I love you. You’re a librarian. I love you. You like my books. I love you.” It was very nice to have a “love break” amidst some people rather aggressively walking the show floor.

I picked up some interesting reads at the Javits Center:

I was very excited about Cats on Ben Yehuda Street. Ann Redisch Stampler has established herself as the master of the folktale (Something from Nothing, Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost, The Rooster Prince of Breslov and The Wooden Sword). She’s also written for YA (Where It Began and the soon-to-be-published After Party). I am obviously a fan, and now Ann has combined two things I love: Israel and cats. Francesca Carabelli’s cheerful illustrations give the book a touch of whimsy, and there must be “Armon HaDag - Palace of Fish” store somewhere in Israel. It’s a sweet story of neighbors who become friends when a cat goes missing. But most people in Israel HATE the stray cats, often called “Israel’s squirrels.” They are usually found eating out of garbage dumpsters and are not cuddly and friendly. While this is not fodder for children’s books, it may be for a new reality show: The Real Cats of Israel.

I picked up a “free uncorrected proof” (not sure how this is different from an advanced reading copy) of My Basmati Bat Mitzvah (interesting, alliterative title) by Paula J. Freedman (reminiscent of Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume). It’s about Tara Feinstein, an Indian-Jewish-American who is facing this Jewish rite of passage with some ambivalence. While this theme is not new (Sam I Am by Ilene Cooper, The Truth about My Bat Mitzvah by Nora Raleigh Baskin), the bits of Indian culture had a new twist. Some of the elements of this dramatic pre-bat mitzvah time were captured well: the shopping, the boy who was a friend but now may be a boyfriend but there is so much pre-adolescent awkwardness about it that it takes a while, and the struggle to be your own person and make your own decisions without parental input or approval. Part of the drama is that Tara decides to incorporate her Indian heritage into her bat mitzvah by wearing a sari and serving ethnic food. It’s a cute story, not too heavy, and reading it (for deadline) brought back fond memories of the STBAC.

Consider the Birds is definitely not a Jewish book. It is written by Debbie Blue, a pastor at the House of Mercy Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. It is published by Abingdon Press, which touts itself as “continuing a tradition in religious publishing for crossing denominational boundaries with thought-provoking and enjoyable books,” although it is an imprint of The United Methodist Publishing House. But as Pastor Blue considers the birds she “approaches scripture like a farm wife handles a chicken, carefully but not delicately, thoroughly but not exactly cautiously.” Part of this approach is to use VERY Jewish sources, like Aviva Zornberg and Rabbi Natan Slifkin, better known as “The Zoo Rabbi.” So just after we read the weekly Torah portion about quail (Parshat Beha’aloscha; Numbers 11, verses 30-34), I read the chapter about “Quail: Desire and Slavery.” She asserts that “the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, learning to know God—is not merely an item of Biblical history. These are stories that help us understand what our life is like with God. We still wander, we doubt, we wonder if it has been foolish to follow God because we often find ourselves in the desert. The quail in the Bible are both a sign of God’s extravagant care, and a sign that the Israelites’ desires need transforming. We are not exempt from the desert wanderings—but how else would we be transformed?” Jewish readers can skip the chapters about the pelican, and the chicken, but essays about the eagle and the ostrich provide for thought-provoking reading.

I was disappointed that there weren’t as many Jewish publishers or books, but I was happy to see my friend from Gefen with his Israeli flags displayed. Ilan was handing out advance reading copies of the English translation of Lihi Lapid’s book Woman of Valor (Eshes Chayil). According to the publisher’s description, “Lihi Lapid tells a true-life story of women and men struggling to live up to modern pressures: a story about shattered dreams, and about finding the strength to gather up the pieces and to learn to smile again.” She includes much of her own story of balancing her career as a photographer and newspaper columnist with giving her three children enough personal time and attention. “Her man” is Israel Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

I also stopped by the Cinco Puntos Press booth. This small but mighty press from El Paso has published such fine books as Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, the winner of the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, and recent Sydney Taylor Honor Book Blood Lie by Shirley Reva Vernick. But I was there to see my fellow Israeli Eve Goldberg Tal, author of Double Crossing and Cursing Columbus, both Sydney Taylor Notable Books for Teen Readers. We live less than an hour away from each other, but I had to travel 6,000 miles to see her in person. I was rewarded when she signed my copy of her first book in Hebrew, Ha-Agala Borachat (The Runaway Baby Carriage). I found this gem from 1985 at a used book store, and although it is an ex-library book in barely acceptable condition, I treasure it – partly because I know Eve, and partly because I can understand the story. Eve informed me that a new edition is going to be published shortly. I will have to make a date in Israel to have her sign that one!

Go2Films did not have a booth at Book Expo. Founded in 2005 and specializing in the distribution, marketing and exhibition of Independent Israeli films, my friends there opened my eyes to the diverse aspects of Israeli society and culture before I made aliyah. I’ve seen many films from their catalog, and I’ve learned something from each one. One of their latest had me laughing and crying at the same time: Welcome and Our Condolences. As Misha and his family emigrated from Russia in 1991, he was given a camera to occupy him. While making aliyah is challenging, it is even more so when your aunt dies on the plane and you have to deal with Israeli bureaucracy. Sitting around waiting to be processed, needing the right forms, having government employees yell at you and get angry when you yell back—ah, such fond memories!! Watching the movie, with some bad camera angles and some big pauses, I thought it was a real documentary until the credits rolled.
Looking forward to…


Coming soon: I enter the 21st century and a fabulous gluten-free cookbook.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Leadership in the Wilderness

What is the Jewish equivalent of achieving Nirvana, and am I even allowed to compare my elation to that state of being?! But to use yet another phrase that may not be totally appropriate, I feel like I’ve hit the trifecta:

An advance reading copy;
Of a book by Erica Brown;
About the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar).

Yes, Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority & Anarchy in the Book of Numbers by Dr. Erica Brown is hot off the presses of Maggid Books.

Reading an advance copy, also known as an ARC, is like being in on a secret before everyone else. How smug are you when people start talking about a book, and you can say, “I got an advance reading copy?” Since it’s not a “real” book, you can mark it up, not worry about folding down pages and making “dog ears,” and not worry about what the humidity conditions will do when you are in a steamy bathtub. The only drawbacks are that you cannot sell it, there is a twinge (infinitesimal) of guilt when you have to buy the final copy of the book because it was so good, and many times you cannot pass on the ARC to your friends.

I think I am Erica Brown’s number one fan, but not in a creepy, break your legs, Annie Wilkes from Misery way. When I read, the word that immediately comes to mind is “scholar.” But the second word is “teacher” because she makes her scholarship accessible to non-scholars like me. It is such a pleasure to read and learn and appreciate every turn of phrase, the succinct vocabulary, and the high level, in which Dr. Brown presents a topic or subject in such an unpretentious way.

When I saw In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks (Maggid Books, 2011), I grabbed it off the shelf. While the Jewish calendar often dictates that we should be happy (Sukkot) or sad (Tisha B’Av), it is often challenging to evoke these emotions in the course of daily living, even more so during the three week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, which falls out during the summer days of sunshine and vacation. The promise of the book’s description was fulfilled: “For each day of the Three Weeks, she presents a short, inspirational essay based on biblical texts followed by a kavana, a spiritual focus that involves reflection, imagination or action to transform these somber days of remembrance into a period of introspection and spiritual growth. Alongside the traditional prophecies of doom and consolation traditionally read during the Three Weeks, In the Narrow Places offers a new process for rebuilding and a re-affirmation of hope.”

I was lucky enough to get a review copy (almost as good as an ARC, but not quite) of Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe (Maggid Books, 2012). The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also challenging in terms of the hectic schedule of prayer in the synagogue, festive meals, and the excitement in the autumn air of going back to school and work. But Dr. Brown reminds us that “we have these ten days…to pray, to cry, to improve, to change, to forgive, to apologize, to become what we’ve meant to become, to return, to come home, to build a sanctuary that is repentance.” Each chapter centers on a theme from the quintessential Yom Kippur Prayer, the Vidduy, or confession. These themes include Faith, Compassion, Gratitude, and Anger. Let’s face it: it is the amazing person who can make a noticeable change in their outlook and behavior in just ten days. That’s why this book has to be in an easy access spot on the bookshelf. Pull it out during another period of contemplation, the Counting of the Omer, and see if you can make some more tweaks before Shavuot.

Finally, I love a good parsha book. I love seeing a pasuk come to life; seeing why the grammar is the way it is, seeing that no word in the Torah is superfluous, that everything is somehow connected. I also feel that reading a chapter on Friday night puts me more in touch with the Torah, especially when the text describes things like sacrifices in The Temple, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, or Moses not being allowed to enter Israel. Even with points of view with which I do not agree, I give credit to the author as I think, “How did he get that from the text? That’s an interesting take.”

Dr. Brown has studied leadership using both biblical textual analysis and modern management theory before. 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. Dr. Erica Brown lays the framework for working through important leadership issues and illustrates how great leadership can be learned when you are equipped with resources, reflective training, and a helpful network of mentors. It includes personal anecdotes from experienced Jewish leaders, questions for reflection, and easy-to-do exercises. It is a valuable sourcebook is ideal for professionals and volunteers who want to hone their own skills as well as facilitate group leadership development.”

This outing focuses on the leadership of Moses, the environment (physical, emotional, spiritual) in which Moses “managed” the Israelites, and the passing of this mantle of leadership to Joshua. As I was reading, I thought of the “nature versus nurture” argument. It seems the wilderness brought out the worst in many people, but as the same time, honed the skills of the leadership to deal with the challenges, although Moses was often exasperated with God’s followers. Through Brown’s careful analysis, we see that “the wilderness experience” shaped the nation. Through plagues and punishment the numbers were winnowed and a new generation entered the Land of Israel.

That said, Erica Brown’s new book is satisfying on so many levels. In the preface, she lays out the elements of the equation, so to speak. “The wilderness is an excellent metaphor for leadership that depends on flexible skills to confront unexpected dangers and unanticipated dramas.” The “rules” are “a set of commandments designed as a moral and spiritual constitution to determine and shape the character and commitments of a nation. Receiving them in a place of transition, we were to understand that the rules we live by transcend any limited boundaries. They were given to us to shape a future that would always be precarious and unknown.” Looking at parshiot like Korach and Balak, it is clear that “leaders in Numbers faced a breakdown of authority, the decay of trust and faith, and the near anarchic rabble-rousing of those beset by discontent.” What kind of leadership did it take to take a group of slaves out of Egypt to meet their destiny?

She notes that almost every leadership encounter in Numbers falls within the framework of “critical interplay between the desire to be ruled by power-hungry leaders and the divine mandate to limit human power through constitutional leadership.”

I know that many people do not like to mix in secular sources when studying Torah, but I love the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream.” A perfect description of the Israelites forging a new identity and contending with all the emotions involved in dealing with a strange environment and new rules.

This book does not go through the parshiot in order. Rather, it hits on themes and leadership issues: the Nazarite as gadfly (Parshat Naso); the juxtaposition of the “scouts/spies” episode with the commandment of tzitzit and Korach’s rebellion (Parshat Shelach), as well as the passion (zealotry) of Pinchas.

Needless to say, I suggest everyone run out and get a copy immediately!

On a reading break, I had to go to the American Consulate. Right near the Consulate is S.Y. Agnon’s house. Although there was a school there on a tour, the director graciously let me run up and see the library and Agnon’s Nobel Prize:

Hag Shavuot Sameach and Happy Reading!

Monday, April 8, 2013

An Author Groupie in Israel

This is a story about an author groupie, the incredibly small world of Jewish geography, and the joys of living in Israel, which came together in interesting ways in the week before and during Passover.

I am an author groupie. I love meeting authors, especially authors of books that I love. I have the utmost respect for someone who can craft a book that captures my attention and my imagination. I often save quotes or a turn of phrase that says something perfectly and succinctly. When I attended Book Expo, I would wait on lines for hours to meet some of my favorites. Attending the Baker & Taylor preview meetings was also a great way to meet authors and hear about how they write and what inspires them. It’s hard to believe that at a small venue in Central Jersey, I met Laura Amy Schlitz (Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!), Tony DiTerlizzi (Spiderwick Chronicles, Search for Wondla), and Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terebithia). One of the coolest authors I’ve encountered is Shannon Hale (Goose Girl), who was willing to sign a book to my daughter with the sentiment “to my dear, close, personal friend.” Not all my meetings have been as awe-inspiring as these. I’ve been yelled at by authors who thought they should have won the Sydney Taylor Book Award, and there have been a few that were aloof, but most are very appreciative of their fans.

Recently I met three creative people and learned about their work.

It’s a Small World
I had the joy of attending the wedding of an amazing young lady that I’ve known for all of her life. It was very emotional and very satisfying to see her looking so beautiful and so happy. Seated at my table was… an author!

Sheryl Prenzlau is the author of The Jewish Children’s Bible (Pitspopany Press) and some of the books in the Kid Sisters Series (Targum Press), both of which were familiar titles. Her most recently published book is Room for One More: A Modern-Day Fairy Tale (Feldheim, 2013). Sheryl lives in Jerusalem, and she also works as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. She graciously took time from her busy schedule to answer some questions.

She actually wrote the book over 20 years ago, but other projects took priority. When it came time for the pictures, her editor at Feldheim suggested an illustrator, Adi Katz, and Sheryl was able to work closely with him, making suggestions for colors as well as particulars in the illustrations. Sheryl’s children and grandchildren also had input into the details of the story. The result is a funny and eye-catching rhyming version of the "crowded house" story with many surprises.

The Gemara (Sukkah 28a) tells of Jonatan ben Uzziel, one of the 80 tannaim who studied under Hillel the Elder. It was said that while he was absorbed in studying Torah, if a bird flew over his head, it would be burnt. L’havdil, when Rebbetzin Shira Smiles is teaching Torah, I think if a bird flew over her head, it might also ignite. Rebbetzin Smiles lectures all over the world; teaches in a seminary, gives audio and video classes, and is the author of three volumes of Torah Tapestries, based on her studies and lectures. Being a big fan of books about the weekly Torah reading, I asked to review Breishis and Shmos for the AJL Newsletter. As I’ve mentioned in my reviews, I can almost hear her voice when I read the essays. I love her style of posing several questions and answering them by illuminating the cogent points in the parsha. It has become my habit to read from her books on Friday night. She also happens to live down the block from me in Ramat Bet Shemesh.

When I saw her buying vegetables for Passover, I was taken aback. Someone of her brilliance actually does mundane activities like shopping and cooking for Passover? Since we started reading the book of Vayika, what would I do on Friday night without a book? I asked when her new book would be out, and she said “Thursday.” I sent my son to pick up a copy, which Rebbetzin Smiles autographed. As you will read in my review in the AJL Newsletter, it’s easy to find relevant lessons in stories about the patriarchs or matriarchs or in the Ten Commandments. It’s a bigger challenge to find them in detailed descriptions of Temple sacrifices. But she manages to talk about parenting, looking at things with “a good eye” and explains the juxtaposition of the dedication of the Mishkan and kashrus (parshat Shemini) with her inimitable style.

Finally, I visited with a new bride and groom. The groom is a friend/colleague of my husband, and it turns out that his wife is a film maker. The Second Front, released in 2002, is a documentary about Jewish partisans during World War II. Ed Asner narrates, and archival footage, recent explorations of Belarus and Vilna, and interviews with many partisans combine for wide perspective on partisan activities. While we tend to romanticize many of these heroes (think Daniel Craig in Defiance), the footage and first-person accounts show a precarious existence and the constant threat of death and starvation. The film also emphasized the interaction between the partisans, the Communists and the Russian army.

Deborah Freeman’s mother and uncle were involved in the partisan movement, and the story of their ghetto, Marcinkantze, was included in Yuri Suhl's book They Fought Back. In fact, her uncle, Beryl Novick, was one of the men who tried to ambush the German soldier who was rounding up the Jews. She made over ten trips to Lithuania and Belarus, discovering her family history and making friends along the way. Ms. Freeman also noted that in many of the villages that actively resisted the Nazis, there were yeshivot. If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the film, you can contact her.

In a related note, I am trying to read The Hare with Amber Eyes for a book discussion that will be taking place at the Bet Shemesh library. In it, the author describes a Buddhist funeral where the custom, after cremation, is to pick out the bone fragments with special chopsticks and give the deceased a kaimyo, a precept name. This name supposedly prevents the return of the deceased if his name is called. I’m also reading the latest Jodi Piccoult novel, The Storyteller. (When I read a lot of her books in succession, I met her at a Barnes & Noble book signing.)There is a character in her book who is a funeral director, who must arrange a funeral ceremony for a Japanese Buddhist – the same details of the special chopsticks and the naming ceremony.
Still reading The Hare with Amber Eyes, I learned a new word, amanuensis, which means “one employed to write from dictation or to copy manuscript.” (Thank you, Merriam-Webster.) The word also makes an appearance in yet another book I am reading: Future Tense by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

I feel like I am studying for the SAT’s. More vocabulary words from “Hare”:
mahout – someone who leads an elephant; vitrine – a glass fronted cabinet for bibelots (known to many as tzochkes); flaneurial – another blogger was also perplexed by this one. It seems to be derived from the French, flaner, which means to stroll or idle. Apparently de Waal’s ancestor was a man about town, who did a lot of strolling and idling while his bibelots sat in the vitrine; vertiginous – causing vertigo by being extremely high or steep; apogee - the point in the orbit of an object (as a satellite) orbiting the earth that is at the greatest distance from the center of the earth; meretricious - apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity; Empyrean - the highest heaven, supposed by the ancients to contain the pure element of fire (used in a phrase about Proust – “drinking in Charles’ empyrean conversation” – a little pretentious, no?; bagatelle - billiards-derived indoor table game; venal - Showing or motivated by susceptibility to bribery; screed – a ranting piece of writing; risible – such as to provoke laughter; heterodox - contrary to or different from an acknowledged standard, a traditional form, or an established religion; scumbled – modified (a painting or color) by applying a very thin coat of opaque paint to give a softer or duller effect; parvenu – one that has recently or suddenly risen to an unaccustomed position of wealth or power and has not yet gained the prestige, dignity, or manner associated with it; uritarian – Of, relating to, or having the characteristics of a mythical place of high, typically comic-opera romance; putto - is a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged; fiacre - a small four-wheeled carriage for public hire; grandiloquent - pompous or extravagant in language, style, or manner, esp. in a way that is intended to impress; feuilleton - The part of a European newspaper devoted to light fiction, reviews, and articles of general entertainment; consanguinity - relationship by blood or by a common ancestor; en fête - being in festal dress: making a holiday showing.

I have to stop so often to consult the dictionary that I hope I finish the book in time.
More joys of living in Israel:

Visiting the Kotel on Passover

Visiting Ashkelon on a beautiful day

Pomegranate tree in my yard

Happy reading!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Jerusalem International Book Fair

I attended the Jersualem International Book Fair at Binyanei Hauma, the International Convention Center. As I love a good book fair, I was very much looking forward. There was very little swag to be had and there were no ARC's, etc. - only books for sale. In fact, I went to the booth for books from India and found one I really liked, but I will probably have to order it online if I want a copy.

First stop: a duchan (Hebrew for booth or market stall) with Israeli author Mirik Snir. She has a new book about the seven days of creation that is imaginative and gorgeous, also probably not for general circulation in the library.

Next stop was an event at The Literary Cafe. The "stage" was set up like someone's living room, and the "audience" sat around tables on armchairs, so the could sip their coffee while listening to the discussion between Dr. Chaim Peri, former director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village and Judie Oron, author of the 2010 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens, The Cry of the Giraffe. The book has been translated into Hebrew, and it is getting a lot of attention, as people feel it is time to hear the amazing stories of the Ethiopians' arduous journeys to Israel.

I met a friend and walked around the fair. There were exhibitors from Russia, Spain, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Angola and France. One section of the display had beautiful illuminated books created by modern Israeli artists. Most of the events were in Hebrew, and as much as I complained about sitting in Ulpan for five months, I understood what was going on. I sat down for the end of a discussion with Ronit Matalon and Ariel Hirschfield about their novel, Undue Influence. Through letters, it tells the love story of Lori and Natanel. Next on the schedule was "Between Reality and Redemption," which was supposed to be in English. An Israeli translator spoke with a Norweigian author. She began speaking Hebrew, and he read from his book, in Norweigian. She spoke a very broken English, and he contradicted what she said. If she said, "the opening line is very simple;" he said, "no, it's very complex." After about fifteen minutes of this, I got a headache trying to figure out what they were talking about, so it was on to the next session.

I thought I would enjoy the seminar entitled "Literary," and I was right. This was billed as an open discussion between bloggers about cultural criticism on the web. The participants:

Mark Sarvas, author whose blog, The Elegant Variation is updated sporadically.

Maud Newton - blogging as Maud Newton.

Naomi Alderman - author, teacher, game writer and another sporadic blogger -

Boaz Cohen - the only Israeli on the panel, who blogs in Hebrew. I could not figure out whether his blog is entitled "London Calling" or "London Culling" because the word is transliterated into Hebrew, but either way works for me.

Again the room was arranged so the discussion participants werre sitting around talking while the audience members enjoyed the discussion. At times I felt the group was "too cool for me," but not in a bad way. They are all "in the know" and on the cutting edge of books and culture, kind of how I wish I could be. There were some very interesting observations and points made: don't blog about something unless you are passionate about it; if you are fooling around on the computer all day, it appears you are working and being productive, while if you sit and read a book, it appears you are goofing off, while quite the opposite could be true.

One of the most pleasant surprises of the afternoon was hearing Naomi Alderman. Her literary fiction ponders the meaning of life (pretty heavy), but in person she was quirky, funny and very good at creating metaphors (that's why I love her books!).

So all of this led up to the highlight of the day, a panel with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Binyamin Lau and Professor Moshe Halbertal. I had to line up an hour early and the hall was completely packed and buzzing with excitement. The topic: "The Leader, the Rabbi and the Professor: Varieties of Jewish Leadership." The evening was a tribute to the Rabbi and a prelude to the release of a new book: Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The book "brings together thirteen luminaries of Jewish and Western thought to explore the intellectual legacy of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Centered on the fundamental themes of his work - ethics, justice, religion, and leadership - this collection advances Rabbi Sacks's lifelong quest to bridge Torah and secular wisdom, highlighting the relevance of the Jewish tradition to the challenges of the twenty-first century." Thank you, Yehudit Singer for the review copy. I can hardly wait to read it. My only problem will be creating the bibliographic information, as the book is published by the London School of Jewish Studies, The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of YU Press, and Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers.

Rabbi Lau spoke mostly in Hebrew, and Professor Halbertal discussed a story from the Gemara, and then Rabbi Sacks spoke. He began in Hebrew, talking about the power of ideas, but then switched: "And now I will speak in English so I can understand what I'm saying." With his trademark combination of scholarship, charm and humor, he discussed the need for Jews to participate in the world. He terms it as the relationship between Torah and hochma (wisdom). One excellent point Rabbi Sacks brought out: with material goods, like food or money, the more you share the less you have. But with spiritual "goods," like love or caring, the more you share, the more you have.

After this incredible inspiring and thoughtful panel came the antithesis: the bus ride home. I had to stand most of the way, and my fellow city inhabitants (you know you who are because they write about you in The New York Times) made the trip that much more unenjoyable.

After a computer tuneup, I am back to work.