This Year in Jerusalem

040414_mishmash_bookBy Jeffrey F. Barken
Banjo Press, 128 pages

What begins as a collection of short stories quickly turns into an intriguing narrative in “This Year in Jerusalem.”

Barken, who based the book on his own experiences living on a kibbutz in southern Israel from 2009 to 2010, incorporates characters from almost every walk of life to weave together a complex and well-written story that readers will find hard to tear themselves away from.

The main character, Myles, is likable at first, but as the reader learns more about him and why he has made the journey from New York to Israel, lines begin to blur. Readers follow along as he lives on a whim in the country he has run to in an effort to escape the mistakes he made at home, meeting all kinds of people along the way, many of whom are trying to escape their own demons. At the same time, readers are given a look into the life he left behind, watching as his friends and family back in America try to create new lives for themselves and pick up the pieces he left behind.

Scripted as just a snapshot in time, by the end of the book, there are still many unanswered questions, but that only adds to the appeal.


032814_mishmash_bookBy Marty Makary, M.D.
Bloomsbury Press, 246 pages

Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and an associate professor of health policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, has written a spell-binding, deeply troubling book on the shameful condition of U.S. hospital care and what steps should be taken to reform it.

Let it be said at the outset: Makary would have done himself and his reading public a great service if he had taken a bit more time to purge the narrative of trite writing such as, in the event of contracting a fatal disease, he would move to the Caribbean and enjoy “what’s left of my days with a pina colada in hand and the sand between my toes.”

Makary’s reform agenda is composed of three overlapping parts: Encourage health consumers (patients) to get second opinions rather than, as is too often the case, meekly accepting the first diagnosis; foster an environment that makes it easier for younger practitioners to challenge the judgments of senior colleagues without fear of retribution; and creating a publicly available information system on “hospital outcomes,” such as the average length of stay for each medical condition or avoidable events that should never happen.

For those of you who are interested in this subject, I would heartily recommend reading this book.

The Story Of The Jews

032114_mishmash_bookBy David J. Goldberg    
Andre Deutsch, 96 pages

Venturing into a field characterized more by the voluminous tomes written over the last couple of centuries, David J. Goldberg offers a coffee table worthy bird’s-eye view of Jewish history. As rabbi emeritus of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, Goldberg is perhaps better known for his interfaith work and advocacy on Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives than for his views toward history. He is the first to admit that, telling readers right off the bat that he is “not a professional historian.”

But on a certain level, Goldberg doesn’t need to be, especially when his work — which spans the entire Jewish experience, from biblical times into the modern era — is as visually appealing as it is engaging.

It even includes reproductions of 15 rare documents, from pages of the oldest illustrated Bible to a copy of David Ben-Gurion’s 1948 speech declaring Israeli independence.

More troublesome than Goldberg’s backhanded critique of traditional Jewish life and interpretations of biblical events — and some instances are quite apparent — is the book’s lack of identifying information to accompany the stunning artwork that graces its pages. Hopefully, it’s an oversight that future volumes will correct.

Habad Portraits: Interesting People, Events, and Curiosities in Habad Hasidism

031414_mishmash-bookBy Rabbi Chaim Dalfin
Jewish Enrichment Press, 226 pages

Looking at the title of Chasidic ethnographer Rabbi Chaim Dalfin’s latest work, it would be easy to conclude that “Habad Portraits” is the sort of book that only appeals to either adherents or the academics studying them. Such an impression would be wrong.

Presenting a collection of the stories not often told about the Chabad-Lubavitch movement from the viewpoints of those not often heard from — the first volume, which was just released, begins with the tale of Rabbi Menahem Nahum Schneersohn, the only son of the Second Lubavitcher Rebbe but over whom the dynasty passed, and ends with selections from the memoirs of Barry Gourary, whose famous dispute with his uncle, the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, ended up in federal court — the book offers a peak into the lives of the ordinary citizens whose devotion to Judaism and Chasidic teachings weathered a storm of challenges stretching from the late 18th century and on into the current one. In doing so, it also points out that the challenges of “then” are the same as today’s and that in the rush to respond to the pressures of a foreign society and restless youth, perhaps what is needed is a heartfelt farbrengen.

The Imposter Bride

030714_mishmash_bookBy Nancy Richler
St. Martin’s Griffin, 368 pages

“The Imposter Bride” begins with the wedding of Lily Azerov, fresh from the experience of World War II, to Nathan Kramer, a Jew from Montreal. Lily is not who she claims to be. She is working hard to put her past behind her and build a new life with a man who adores her. But she cannot hold it all together and leaves a few months after the birth of their daughter.

Ruthie Kramer has lived her entire life without a mother. She constantly wonders why her mother held on to a journal written in Yiddish by a stranger. Ruthie spends her life trying to piece together her mother’s story and not be affected by it.

This is a gripping novel. The author pulls the reader back in time with her. I found myself connected to both main characters and wanted them both to succeed and find fulfillment. I appreciated the many historical references in this novel. My only disappointment was with the ending. But I definitely recommend the book, which can be appreciated by a wide audience.

Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation after My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood

022814_mishmash_bookBy Leah Vincent
Nan A. Talese, 228 pages,

“Cut Me Loose” is a memoir describing Leah Vincent’s journey of leaving strict Jewish Orthodoxy and ending up a non-Observant Harvard attendee. The book begins with her rebellious teen years
in Pittsburgh. Eventually, she is sent to Israel to study in a seminary for older girls who are finding themselves. She describes her loneliness and naivety, which cause her to attach herself to any boy who looks her way. Vincent moves to Brooklyn, working a low-end job and living in a dingy apartment. With very minimal contact with her family and no friends, she begins sleeping with a Rastafarian and turns to cutting to let out her pain. This memoir takes the reader through a painful life of abandonment and self-discovery.

I found this book to be eye-opening and raw. I felt very sad for Vincent and wished that she wouldn’t have turned toward some of the damaging behaviors she exhibited. I also wished that she would have shared more in her ending and not left the reader to wonder how she turned her life around. I recommend this book to any open-minded individual who will not judge Orthodox Judaism based on one memoir.

The Keeper of Secrets

022114_mishmash-bookBy Julie Thomas
William Morrow Paperbacks, 384 pages

“The Keeper of Secrets” weaves together the stories of three men, each facing his own battle but sharing a love of classical music. The novel begins with the journey of Daniel Horowitz, a young boy in the United States who is a gifted and internationally acclaimed violinist. When Daniel suddenly decides to give up music, those around him join together in an effort to inspire him to embrace his musical gift. This is the catalyst for what becomes a mystery of sorts, ultimately centered on what is hypothesized to be an elusive, and very expensive 1742 Guarneri del Gesu violin.

In unraveling the musical history of the Horo-witz family, conductor Rafael Gomez finds himself also unraveling the history of the Guarneri violin, long believed to be destroyed during the Holocaust. The author beautifully juxtaposes Daniel’s musical talents with those of his grandfather, Simon, who grew up in Berlin and was sent to Dachau with his brother, and Sergei Valentino, a young boy coping with loss in Communist Russia.

The story highlights the beauty and complexity not only of human relationships, but something more. It displays the importance of music in a historical context and the ability that music has to touch the soul. Perhaps most importantly, this novel shows how music can bond people in a profound and moving way.

Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid

021414_mishmash_bookBy Joshua Safran
Hyperion, 288 pages

“Free Spirit” is an autobiography of a boy raised by a mother whose main quest is to change modern society 10 years after the hippie movement of the 1960s. She believed that government and corporations were corrupt and needed to be stopped and was always in search of a group that would help her accomplish her mission.

Safran spent his childhood “off the grid,” living from place to place in buses, desolate cabins and communes without modern conveniences such as running water or electricity. He and his mother lived mostly on welfare and meager earnings from his mother’s occasional odd jobs. He was home schooled by his mother and didn’t regularly attend school until age 12, when his upbringing made him a target for bullies.

Although there were people who influenced him along the way, most of Safran’s childhood was filled with neglect and abuse. For many years, he witnessed the severe physical and mental abuse of his mother by one of her husbands.

I do not like books that deal with abuse, so the harsh life and abuse the author endured made this story hard to get through. Safran never caught a break, and I agonized with him though his journey.

But that is what made this story and Safran so inspirational. Despite adversity, Safran joined society and lived the real American dream. As the phoenix rose from the ashes, Safran became more successful than he could have ever dreamed.

Life With a Superhero: Raising Michael Who Has Down Syndrome

020714_mishmash_bookBy Kathryn U. Hulings
University of North Texas Press, 288 pages

Get ready for some humor and sensitivity training in biographical form. This is the life story of a Down syndrome boy and his very special family, told by his remarkable and loving mother, Kathryn Hulings.

It isn’t just Michael who is a superhero; his parents have their own super powers. The author, beset with her own physical challenges, and her husband adopted Michael at infancy. This big, loving family raises Michael with the intent of his reaching his maximum potential. Nothing stands in the way of reaching that goal: not school systems, bad educators, social attitudes, illness or Michael’s seeming limitations. From Michael’s earliest days — through education, employment and courtship — the reader sees the creativity and courage that goes into raising Michael.

Among the book’s great strengths is the aut-hor’s enchanting writing style. From the table of contents, poetically written in progressive tense, to the ending acknowledgments’ sincere gratitude, the writing is often lyrical and sensitive. A resource appendix is an added bonus.

This is a biography with great charm, wit, courage and candor. Sometimes there is a little too much candor, but it doesn’t affect the message of the book. It is both an eye opener and a soul lifter. It will not only change the way you think of people with special needs and their families, it also may have you thinking differently about your own life.

A Fine September Morning

013114_mishmash_bookreviewBy Alan Fleishman
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 382 pages

Just as the Israelites fled Egypt for Sinai while chased by Pharoah’s chariots, so did Eastern European Jewry flee for the promised land of America, in many cases chased by pogroms. Alan Fleishman’s novel follows Avi Schneider from 1905 Russia to the immigrant’s dream — and nightmare — of turn-of-the-century New York City and then to the post-Holocaust world. We witness his personal failings and triumphs as he starts a business, brings his family from Russia and tries to acclimate to the New World. Throughout it all, he is assisted by a kind, young rabbi and the successful immigrants who came before him. Fleishman weaves the continuing struggles of Eastern European Jews into the story, focusing on Avi desperately attempting to convince, and then finally rescue, his brother and family from a devolving Russia. The desire of his brother, Lieb, to cling to the Motherland and Avi’s promise to his dying mother to rescue her son form the crux of the action.

The novel is a good read for those unfamiliar with the various struggles of immigrants, both personal and in the realm of business, during the first half of the 20th century. Assimilation was a constant pressure in America, with success often measured by how “American” one could become. As we live Avi’s life with him, we are taught the values of honor, of devotion to family and of bonds that even when frayed last a lifetime.