The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness By Elliot Jager Toby Press, 189 pages

mishbookElliot Jager, who unwillingly has no children, strongly protests what he says is Judaism’s stigmatization of the childless. He’s “searching for a defense counsel, someone to offer perspective to my bill of particulars charging Judaism’s canon with disrespect, disregard, even disdain for the childless.”

That idea never had entered my mind. Nor, I suspect, does it occur to many Jews who, like me, are blessed with children.

“Pater” is a short, punchy revelation of how Judaism and Jewish life are centered on the commandment to be fruitful and multiply and of how isolating it can feel to be a Jew — especially an observant Jew — who wants children but cannot have them.

It’s even worse if, like Jager, you’ve moved to family-centered Israel, where, he says, people believe that “childless people have empty lives. That this attitude is understandable doesn’t make it any less condescending.”

“Pater” — Latin for “father” — is more than a personal lament. Its interlocking themes tell of being abandoned by his Shoah survivor father at age 8 and being raised impoverished as an only child; feelings and experiences of other childless Jewish men; data on childlessness and IVF; Bible characters’ fears of childlessness; re-establishing contact with his father after 30 years of silence; the fear of being forgotten after death; and what he says seems the unfairness of it all.

Reading of children abused, abandoned, even killed by their parents angers him. He asks: “Why would God give children to the people who didn’t want them or couldn’t care for them, instead of to us?”

Disraeli: The Novel Politician, By David Cesarani Yale University Press, 282 pages

mishBookBenjamin Disraeli, the only Jewish-born prime minister of the United Kingdom, may have been Jewish by birth, but his life and  descriptions of the Jewish people were anything but orthodox.

David Cesarani’s new monograph of the historic leader begins with a short introduction about Disraeli’s father and grandfather. As a child, Disraeli becomes a Christian after his father gets into a bitter dispute with their synagogue.

This defining moment in Disraeli’s life sets the stage for his somewhat confused relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people.

Cesarani takes the reader through all aspects of Disraeli’s life, such as the overwhelming amount of debt he incurred, his several failed attempts at establishing a political career and his novels, which give insight on some of the stereotypes he associated with Jews.

What is most intriguing about Disraeli is his attempt to reconcile the public perception of Jews with his unrelenting determination to be a political force in the United Kingdom during the late 19th century.

Return to Zion: The History of Modern Israel By Eric Gartman University of Nebraska Press, 331 pages

MishBookMost people are familiar with the history of Israel, but they weren’t standing on Masada more than 2,000 years ago when what had been the last Jewish stronghold fell to the Roman Empire.

That is where Eric Gartman’s account of modern Israeli history begins before fast-forwarding to the turn of the 20th century, the rise of Zionism and eventually the struggle for independence. Gartman, an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Department of Defense, follows the key events in modern Israel’s history, including the British Mandate, the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars, the Camp David Accords and the more recent
Second Intifada.

In describing the events, Gartman provides both context and historical documents that display the raw emotions of the major players involved in the creation and maintenance of the Jewish state. He includes, for instance, the passionate arguments David Ben Gurion would have with leaders of the Haganah in anticipating how to respond to an invasion from Egypt or Syria. Gartman’s writing is particularly effective at making the reader feel as if he were present during meetings, where one could cut the tension with a knife.

“Return to Zion” alternates in tone between that of a historical account and a thriller novel. Gartman does not insert his opinion into the Arab-Israeli conflict but rather provides an objective lens for people to learn about why the country is often in turmoil. His account will satisfy anyone who wants to take it one step beyond what we
already know about Israel and focus on the human element of its struggles.

The 613 By Archie Rand Blue Rider Press, 622 pages

MMBookIt took Archie Rand almost five years to produce the paintings featured in “The 613,” an illustrated interpretation of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, from the Torah. Each panel measures 20 inches by 16 inches and takes up about 1,700 square feet of wall space when exhibited together, which has happened only once, for four hours, in a Brooklyn, N.Y., warehouse. But the panels have been photographed in full color and are available to viewers in their entirety within this hardcover volume.

More a high-end religious comic book than a coffee-table tome, each page includes a painting and commandment text. And Rand, collected by museums worldwide, has no fear of color — the book is filled with characters and settings painted in bold visible brushstrokes using intense blues, electric greens, chartreuse and magenta, edged
in thick gold and Hebrew letters indicating the commandment number. The imagery ranges from irreverent and obtuse to outrageous and literal with black contour lines and displays of big actions and emotions, which adds to the comic-book feel and makes it inviting to page through.

One art critic described Rand as “bravely creating radical Jewish art” for decades, and in 1974, he was commissioned to paint murals for the entire 9,000-square-foot interior of Congregation B’nai Yosef in Brooklyn. Stopped mid-project and his images put on trial for heresy, a rabbi acquitted the paintings, and the project was completed. This book could raise an eyebrow or two, but it seems that’s all part of Rand’s fearless devotion to his art.

Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World By Seth M. Siegel Thomas Dunne Books, 352 pages

Mishmash_BookSpeaking from Austin, Texas, in between his 55th and 56th speaking engagements, author Seth M. Siegel laments how the Barnes & Noble retailer places his book in the wildlife section. There isn’t a single animal mentioned anywhere in the volume.

“They have me in the wildlife section because they don’t have a context,” Siegel says. “I would love to see a day, and I think it’ll happen soon, that there’s a water section in the bookstore.”

Indeed, at Siegel’s current pace, that day is fast approaching. The New York businessman never believed he would sell the book to a major publisher but scored a deal with Thomas Dunne. He didn’t think he had a bestseller for any list, let alone the book’s eventual designations as a New York Times science bestseller and a Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller. He never expected his flood of invitations to speak nationwide — more than 300, of which he has accepted 120. Despite the natural Jewish interest in a book that tells a story about Israeli achievements, only a third of Siegel’s speaking invitations are from Jewish groups.

Everything considered, “Let There Be Water” is shaping up as not just a popular book, but a grassroots movement that Siegel hopes will help influence water policy around the world.

“Most authors, their goal is to sell as many books as they can,” he said. “While to be sure I’m happy to sell as many books as I can, my goal here is to start a conversation.”

My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things By Joseph Skibell Algonquin Trade Paperback, 224 pages

Mishmash_bookPerhaps Joseph Skibell’s unusual approach to life’s occurrences is related to his family’s unusual
pronunciation of the truncated version of its European name.

Americanized — sort of — Skibelski became, “against all orthographic convention,” SKY-bell, which, the author says, almost everyone mispronounces.

The author also has experiences and views not always conventional, as shown in this little 16-piece dessert of a book. The liner notes claim that “these stories are 100 percent true,” but Skibell says early on that “my sisters have always insisted, especially when it comes to family history, that my grasp of reality is … less than firm, that for me, memory and imagination are like two converging rivers.”

They say he misremembers things — or makes them up. “Even I will admit that the two of them seemed to have grown up in an entirely different household from mine,” he says.

In the title chapter, he realizes that his memory misled him to think that the guitar his father left him is a cheaper substitute for the one promised.

Another chapter tells of turning the tables on soliciting callers by asking them for money so he can attend an international Esperanto convention in Sweden. He says he’s worked for years to learn that invented, would-be world language, he says, “to the derision of almost everyone,” including wife and daughter.

Skibell’s written three novels, among them “A Blessing on the Moon,” and has won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Sami Rohr Award in Jewish Literature and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Good Reads

“Being Nixon: A Man Divided” By Evan Thomas
Random House, 531 pages
“One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon” By Tim Weiner
Henry Holt and Company, 317 pages
“The Last of the President’s Men” By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 182 pages


Richard Nixon was the most reviled American president of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. Open any of these books and read a few pages and the reason for Nixon’s infamy becomes clear. The conversations recorded by his White House taping system or recalled by Nixon’s aides display not the majesty of the office of the leader of the free world, but rather the morality of a Mafia don, the
viciousness and vindictiveness of a street thug.

In 1970, with the Senate threatening to cut off money for air strikes against Cambodia and Laos, Tim Weiner notes that Nixon gave orders to White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to establish “a political atack … to declare war “on prominent Senate Democrats, including possible presidential nominees Ted Kennedy and Edmund Muskie “as part of what Nixon called ‘an all-out hatchet job on the Democratic leaders.’”

He told Haldeman in that same year, Evan Thomas reports, to “check the income taxes of all our opponents. Harass them and follow up.”

His anticipated re-election in 1972 was to the president a time to wreak vengeance on his political enemies. “Now we’re going to get them, Bob [Haldeman]. Now we’re going to nail those sons of bitches,” Nixon said, according to Bob Woodward.

Nixon also was an anti-Semite who told Haldeman in 1971 that “the government is full of Jews … [and] most Jews are disloyal,” Thomas reports. And yet, Henry Kissinger, a Jew who had escaped Hitler, was Nixon’s most important adviser.

That complexity is revealed most in Woodward’s account, which focuses primarily on the relationship between the president and one of his top aides, Alexander Butterfield. Butterfield brought down the president by revealing the existence of the White House tapes.

Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel By Dan Ephron Norton, 336 pages

MishBookYigal Amir believed that killing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would prevent a transfer of the ancient Jewish heartland to Arab control, and he was willing to die to do it.

Rabin’s assassination at a pro-peace rally on Nov. 4, 1995 “triggered a violent backlash by both Palestinians and Israelis opposed to the conciliation process,” says Dan Ephron in “Killing a King,” which the former Newsweek Jerusalem bureau chief calls his “detailed account of the murder and the two years leading up to it.”

Ephron combined news reports, interviews and video recordings of investigators’ interrogations to create a compelling account of how Amir and his older brother Hagai — religious, middle-class students living with their Yemeni Jewish parents in Herzliya — discussed their perceived need and different means to get Rabin.

Modest Rabin wasn’t a king — he eschewed the perks of power — but his murder sent Israel into shock; it was unthinkable. The last suspected assassination had been in 1933, when Chaim  Arlosoroff was shot on a Tel Aviv beach, an unsolved crime for which Israel’s left blamed the right for decades.

Unregretful Yigal told investigators that the killing “needed to be done.” He’s serving a life sentence, forbidden to talk to journalists. Ephron’s interviews include Hagai, released in 2012 after 16 years in prison and his mother,  Geulah. The result is credible and revealing.

Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer By Alan M. Dershowitz Schocken, 208 pages

In his latest sharp-witted work, the world’s perhaps best-known Jewish lawyer profiles the man he considers to the first-ever Jewish lawyer: the biblical patriarch Abraham.

Retired Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who has been called “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer” and one of its “most distinguished defenders of individual rights,” says he has been working on the book for essentially 70 of his 79 years.

“Abraham is the only biblical character that starts his career arguing with God,” the attorney and Israel advocate explains, referring to Abraham’s protest against God’s planned destruction of the town of Sodom. In this narrative, Abraham convinces God not to “sweep away the righteous with the wicked.”

“What could be more appropriate for a criminal lawyer? … I have taught about him and thought about him, and finally, at the age of 77, decided to write about him — since that was about the age that Abraham was when some of these adventures took place,” says Dershowitz.

The book also profiles some of the leading Jewish attorneys since Abraham, including Louis Brandeis, Theodor Herzl, Rene Cassin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Irwin Cotler. It highlights Dershowitz’s understanding of why Jews are so prominent in the legal field — “We’ve had a lot of practice, as a people, in defending ourselves, but also defending others,” he says — and candidly elucidates the author’s four decades as a practicing lawyer.

Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life By Rabbi Harold S. Kushner Knopf, 171 pages

MishMash_BookWhen bad events challenge our childhood faith in God’s goodness or even in God’s
existence, “it is not only permissible but a religious obligation” to question our beliefs, says Rabbi Harold Kushner.

But then seek answers to the questions.

“The only religiously unacceptable response is to reject religion entirely and close your mind to further speculation,” says Kushner, 80, and rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Mass.

“To be a religiously serious person need not mean banishing all doubt,” he says in his delightful, insightful 13th book. What it means is “a readiness to live with doubt” and giving God the benefit of the doubt, “as we would for any person we cared about.”

Doubts about God don’t necessarily mean a lapse of faith but “can be seen as manifestations of faith, concerns born of caring enough to be troubled by life’s unevenness,” he says.

Kushner sometimes surprises people by telling them “that there is no commandment in Judaism to believe in God.” The first of the Ten Commandments “is not a commandment at all,” he says, but an explanation of “why the assembled people should obey the subsequent precepts.”

That statement appears in a chapter called “Religion is what you do, not what you believe.” Many others are in the especially good chapter, “Leave room for doubt and anger in your religious outlook.” He notes that even Moses got angry with God.