In The Courtyard Of The Kabbalist

083013_mishmash_bookAt times whimsical, at times scary, Ruchama King Feurman has crafted a novel portraying a panoply of occasionally realistic characters living in Jerusalem. Somewhat Oz-like, there is an expatriate — a confirmed American bachelor who gave up his life in the states and traveled to Israel to find purpose in his life. Opposite him is a nonconformist baalat teshuva (newly religious young woman) who is seeking her beshert. And finally, there is a handicapped Arab who is searching for his manhood.

As their lives bizarrely intersect, we are introduced to some Jerusalem staples. Much of the action takes place in a contrived Chassidic rebbe’s court, as well as on the Temple Mount. Some contrast is drawn between the realities of the leadership in each of those societies. Mixed in are some shady Mossad-like characters, as well as criminal figures and an overbearing police official.

While the story itself stretches credulity, it is an easy and often entertaining read. More importantly, it invites readers to examine their own preconceived notions about people from others cultures. Rather than demonizing the Arab, as in so many books, he is made into a rather sympathetic figure with real human feelings. The rebbe is shown to be holy, but behind his holiness there is some weakness and perhaps a power of which no one else is aware.

And throughout the book, one adage is made clear: Behind every successful man, there is a woman.

My Mother’s Secret

082313_mishmash_book“My Mother’s Secret” is an intense look at four families and their struggles, fears and courage in the face of the Holocaust.

Told from the perspectives of Helena, Bronek, Mikolaj and Vilheim, each with a story of their own, this novel tells the tale of Franciszka Halamajowa, a poor Polish woman, who, with the help of her daughter, Helena, protects two Jewish families and a rogue Nazi solider.

Helena expresses the fear and uncertainty she feels as the Germans invade Poland and the love she finds amid chaos.  Bronek describes the fear and violence of life in the ghetto. He speaks of creating hand gestures that he and his son can use to communicate; they make shadow puppets to help the time pass while in hiding. Mikolaj provides details about his mother and father and their love. He describes how every night he and his mother imagine their old life while hidden in a small cellar. Vilheim tells of his life with his grandmother and the sharp contrast that comes with being drafted into the army and the way in which he was brought up. He describes having to lie flat in a cramped space and thinking of his grandmother in order to remain hopeful.

Witterick’s fictionalized account of Franciszka and Helena and the people they aided, capture the breadth of the human condition, demonstrating that it is possible to transcend the fear that often prevents good people from doing what is right.

Peace for Peace

081613_mishmash_bookShiloh Israel Press 2013, 228 pages

Welcome to the “grand illusion” is the theme of “Peace for Peace.” David Rubin clearly defines why peace in the Middle East has never happened and never will. The book provides a great history of how the Jews came to inhabit and own the land of Israel.  He defines a peace plan that derives its guidance from Israel’s history, both modern and ancient. In contrast, he outlines the Islamic mission to obtain world domination starting with the destruction of Israel.

Rubin points out that we have witnessed the negative aspects of Islamic law in the Iranian
Revolution in 1979 and currently in Arab protests in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Rubin’s foundation is that there is a false premise to peace negotiations.

This book is extremely thought-provoking but very biased.  It will definitely make readers think.

Believing Israel is the Jews’ God-given inheritance, Rubin indicates that a peaceful two-state solution is not possible. Facts in the book support Rubin’s thesis, but are the facts accurate?  Are they taken out of context?  Rubin proclaims all Islamic people believe in the termination of Israel as a Jewish state, which makes this is a very disturbing book.  Do we all need to wake up to his “reality?”

As a Jew, I support the State of Israel with all my heart, but I question a book that appears to be so black and white.  I learned a lot from this book, but I was left with more questions than answers.

— Michele J. Floam

Yiddish Genesis

080913_mishmash_bookBrick House Books, Inc., 2012, 90 pages

Richard J. Fein, poet, essayist and Yiddishkeit maven, has published a compilation of his work related to the first book of Torah, Genesis. There is a play on words here as well, as Fein muses about his own relationship to Yiddish and how the language and its nuances have shaped his life.

The most telling affect in the book is Fein’s repeated reference to Yehoash’s translation of Genesis into Yiddish; a powerful voice emerges from this application, as if our grandparents and great-grandparents knew the Almighty on a personal basis.

Fein pays tribute to the traditional Yiddish poets (Yankev Glatshteyn, Mani Leib, etc.) as consummate manipulators of a language that on its face can be read many ways.

As a memoir, “Yiddish Genesis” is a story of love abandoned, forsaken and then found and embraced, as Fein charts his childhood rejection of the mother tongue to his rejoicing in its life-giving properties. He says, “I have been vivified by Yiddish at the very time that it dwindles away. I can say of Yiddish literature and of myself: In its end is my beginning.”

The reader has to be willing to throw himself on the altar Abraham built for Yitzchak to appreciate the depth of passion Fein exudes for the Yiddish language and for the stories of Genesis that survive the generations. This is a tall order for the average reader, but faith is not a requirement here. One need only believe that the ties that bind us are braided within the power inherent in language and story.

Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch

080213_mishmash_bookYale University Press, 2012 216 pages

There have been dozens of attempts to write biographies of major biblical characters. Some attempt to delve into a character through the pshat, simple meaning of the text. Others look toward midrash, traditional and modern interpretation, to fill out a character. Still others use modern scholarly techniques to get to the “real” story.

In “Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch,” Yair Zakovitch attempts to use all three methods and falls short in each area. In trying to interpret using the pshat and midrash, Zakovitch tries to force the evidence into his particular theory, suggesting everything that happens in Jacob’s life is punishment for his treatment of Esau.

Some events are punishment, such as Jacob’s treatment by Laban and even his son’s treatment of Joseph. But with other events, there is a tenuous connection, such as Joseph’s request to see Benjamin before revealing himself is a test of the brothers’ character, not a punishment of Jacob. Joseph would seem unlikely to further bereave his beloved father intentionally.

On the scholarly side, Zakovitch has a difficult task, as there are no direct extra biblical references to Jacob (or any of the patriarchs). While his connection of Jacob’s dream to being a claim on
the land by Israel during a time of war with a neighboring nation seems plausible, the paucity of outside references makes the scholarly interpretation somewhat thin.

While there are some interesting insights in this work, ironically it would have been better served by being longer. If Zakovitch had taken the space to delve more deeply into each type of interpretation and then blend them in the end, this book may have been a more useful compendium of Jacob’s life and times.

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Rivka’s War

072613_mishmash_bookBy Marilyn Oser
Mill City Press 2013, 262 pages

“Rivka’s War” is a must-read.

When I first picked up this book, I was skeptical. The storyline seemed fine from the cover’s description, but the beginning few pages were hard to endure. However, within a short while, the story encapsulated me, and I was glad I decided to read it.

“Rivka’s War” tells Rivka’s story, a young woman from Russia, born and raised in the early 1900s. As the Great War breaks out, Rivka’s family is torn apart. All that she knew — and the traditional life that she planned for — dissipates. Instead, as the czar’s army suffers, Rivka is recruited to join the war. She is in a women’s unit, run by a hardcore peasant officer. Her delicate hands become the hands of a soldier; she learns to shoot, take and give orders and to fight for Mother Russia.

But the war goes badly. Rivka is on the losing side of Russia’s internal strife, and finally she is forced out of the field and onto another adventure. Ultimately, she travels to Palestine. There, she becomes a spy and involved in yet another war — the Jewish war to secure Israel from the British. This time, she is more successful in her mission.

Ultimately, Rivka meets the unlikely love of her life.

Rivka’s story is a historical fiction that opens the reader up to the times, and that touches the heart.

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Echoes of Eden: Sefer Shemot

071913_book
By Rabbi Ari D. Kahn
OU Press 2012

Whenever I set out to read a book like this, I get nervous. In my experience, most are poorly written at best and vapid, wearisome and intellectually void at worst.

So you can imagine my pleasant surprise as I read through the gems offered on every page of Rabbi Ari Kahn’s well-written and inspiring book. It is filled with sharp and essential questions on each of the weekly Torah portions and answers that are novel, thorough, intellectually stimulating and drawn from an eclectic array of sources spanning multiple millennia. There is a little something for everyone, be it practical or mystical, ancient or modern, concisely simplistic or utterly complex.

Each parsha essay has a simple pattern: Rabbi Kahn unabashedly explores questions of critical importance, then expands upon the query with further inquiries, dazzling the reader with his thorough erudition. After several pages of pleasantly written scholarly magic, Rabbi Kahn wraps up the original problems with answers of intel-lectual honesty and integrity that inspire toward more religious vigor and stimulate to just be a better person.

In a genre in which the norm is mediocrity, it is refreshing and invigorating to know that some roses exist among the thorns. This book comes with my highest recommendation.

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Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet

071213_mishmash_bookAbraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

It is rather dismaying to read this book’s first hundred or so pages. The authors painstakingly describe the types of bigotry and hate speech that are spreading online and discuss the legal and practical roadblocks in preventing the dissemination of such messages. Even defining hate speech is far from simple. It seems like a hopeless fight.

The last two chapters, however, offer hope. Primarily, they encourage counterspeech and education. When good people are silent in the face of evil, it leaves the impression that the evil is acceptable and even right. Not sending a message of disapproval is a tacit message of approval, and each of us is then responsible for the evil that is permitted to flourish.

Counterspeech is not synonymous with attacking the promulgators of hate speech or of engaging with them. Too often, attacking is playing into their hands, and engaging offers them a platform. But speaking against hate speech in your own online (or offline) forum, and encouraging and supporting others who oppose such speech, will create barriers to the further spread of hate messages.

This message is reminiscent of the Talmudic saying, “It is not your responsibility to complete the job, but nor are you exempt from it entirely” (“Pirkei Avoth” 2:19).

While there may not be a solution to bigotry, there are things we can, and must, do to combat it.
Chayim Lando

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The Fifth Assassin

070513_mishmash_bookBy Brian Meltzer
Grand Central Publishing 2013; 448 pages

The Fifth Assassin started off with a bang, literally. I was intrigued and could not wait to keep reading. However, that enthusiasm quickly diminished.

The chapters were really short, generally two to four pages, which I typically like. However, every chapter jumped to a different time frame: present day, 18 years ago, 16 hours ago, one week ago, etc. Each jump in time involved different characters. This made me lose focus very quickly.

The chapters were not long enough to get a grasp on what was happening. In the end, the plot and characters all came together, but it was difficult to get there.

This was a sequel to Meltzer’s “The Inner Circle.” If I had read that book, would I have liked this one more? Would more background information on the main characters have helped? Possibly, but I will never know.

I liked the plot, and each character was developed nicely. The execution just fell flat.

A Suitable Husband

062813_book2By S.B. Lerner
On The Edge Books 2012, 320 pages

S.B. Lerner tells the story of Bianca, a girl who has her head in the clouds and must return to reality in order to make the most important decision of her life. Set in 1930s Poland, the plot focuses on the Libors, a poor family in a small rundown apartment. While Bianca dreams of being an author and a proponent of change in Poland, she doesn’t seem to realize that as a Jew she is not only discriminated against, but also in real danger. Her mother plans to marry her off to someone who can move them to a better apartment and care for Bianca — unlike Bianca’s father, who gambles and drinks. Pani Libor’s regrets fuel her plans for Bianca to avoid a similar fate.

The rise of anti-Semitism in Poland drives Bianca to the Guardsman, a group dedicated to supporting the settling of Palestine as a Jewish homeland. There she is introduced to Wolf, a leader who tries to convince her to come to Kibbutz training camp with him. But a matchmaker has found a doctor who wants to meet and perhaps marry Bianca.

Lerner paints her characters well — the struggling matriarch, the confused teenager on the cusp of adulthood — and keeps them relatable. It comes down to a choice: a stable and unhappy life versus one of fulfillment despite risk and danger.

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