50 Children

061314_mishmash_bookBy Steven Pressman
Harper, 296 pages

Britain justly gets credit for taking in 10,000 European Jewish children between 1938 and 1940 in a project called the Kindertransport. The United States admitted only about 1,000 unaccompanied children, and 50 of them, one in 20, were brought in by one Philadelphia couple, Jewish socialites Gil and Eleanor Kraus.

Those were the “largest single known group of children, traveling without their parents,” legally admitted during the Shoah, says author Steven Pressman, a journalist who earlier produced an HBO documentary on the subject.

Gil Krause and the family’s German-speaking pediatrician, Robert Schless, sailed for Europe on April 7, 1939 — two Jews going into Nazi Germany with no protection but their U.S. passports. In the newly German Austria, they found hundreds of parents desperate to send their children out.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, the Americans and the chosen 50 left for Berlin in late May, still uncertain they would get visas. Thanks to two righteous State Department officials, they did, and the group sailed for New York on a U.S. liner.

Pressman, whose easy-reading account is captivating, says the Krauses’ rescue occurred “within the context of a profoundly hostile social and political environment in the United States that made the achievement all the more stunning — and, sadly, all the more singular.”

Henny Wenkart, one of the 50, puts the tragedy simply: “What people don’t understand is that in the beginning, you could get out. Everyone could get out. But nobody would let us in.”

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War

060614_mishmash_bookBy Steven Pressfield
Sentinel, 430 pages

Israel’s spectacular triumph over the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria nearly five decades ago has been written about extensively by both Israeli and American writers. In “The Lion’s Gate,” author Steven Pressfield focuses on the human dimensions of the conflict: the thoughts, feelings and gut-level fears of average Israeli soldiers, military leaders and civilians during the course of the six-day conflict and its immediate aftermath.

Let it be said at the outset that any author who relies on diary entries and interviews with individuals who, in one way or another, experienced these events firsthand is asking us to take a leap of faith that the information — always partial — is complete and accurate. This is what one might call, “take it or leave it” journalism. I make no claims to being an expert on the region and Israel particularly. Based on what I know, however, the “take it” side of the argument wins hands down.

With the dubious value of hindsight, it’s easy to forget how close Israel came to military catastrophe. The balance of forces, at least on paper, strongly favored the Arabs. And, even though Israel’s antagonists ended up losing this war, their very existence as nations was not at stake.

Paraphrasing one Israeli general a day before the carnage ensued, Pressfield writes: “Other nations can afford to lose the first battle and still recover and carry the day. … This will not work for Israel. If we fail in the initial clash, our nation will be overrun.” And such remains the case today.

The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World

053014_mishmash_bookBy George Prochnik
Other Press, 390 pages

In 1938, Vienna Jew Stefan Zweig was the world’s most widely translated living author and a literary superstar.

­Second son of a wealthy family, Zweig began writing before World War I and appeared often in Neue Freie Presse, newspaper of Theodor Herzl — Zweig’s mentor for a time. But Zweig, a pacifist and humanist who deplored nationalism, opposed Zionism.

Author George Prochnik calls Zweig “one of the most lionized writers in the world,” popular even in America into the 1940s. Prochnik does a good job of acquainting us and showing how Zweig was molded by his interests, genius and times — the last recounted in his hit memoir, “The World of Yesterday.”

Zweig, whose books were burned and banned in Germany, began his exile in 1934, first in Britain, then in the United States — which he found culturally backward — and finally in a town near Rio de Janeiro that he considered paradise for its scenery and civic harmony. Uncommonly among refugees, he had plenty of money, yet “he was no closer to finding a palliative for all he’d lost.”

Prochnik lightly salts this story with his own family’s exile from Vienna in 1938, adding a warm, first-person touch.

The story does not end happily, but it is enlightening and enjoyable.

The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

052314_mishmash-bookBy Arthur Allen
W.W. Norton & Company, 400 pages

While it can be hard to find positive stories from World War II, Arthur Allen tells a gem of a tale.

While uprisings such as the one that took place in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943 are well documented, resistance in scientific labs is not as commonly spoken of in the Holocaust narrative.

The books tells the tale of Rudolf Weigl, a Christian, and Ludwik Fleck, his assistant and Jewish immunologist, who were tasked to come up with a typhus vaccine for the Nazis. They feared the disease, which was transmitted by body lice, equating the louse with “parasitic” Jews.

Weigl and Fleck used their cover to protect Jewish doctors, mathematicians, writers and others, turning their lab into a center of resistance at great risk. They sent high doses of the vaccine to Polish ghettos, while sending weakened vaccines to the German troops. Fleck would later vaccinate prisoners at Buchenwald when he was forced to re-create the vaccine there.

While some parts of the book may be better suited for the scientific minded, the book’s telling of two scientists who stood by their morals in the face of dangerous pressure is a fine addition to the Holocaust story.

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman


By Eve Harris
Black Cat, 371 pages

Long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman” by first-time novelist Eve Harris takes the reader behind the scenes and into the lives of 19-year-old Chani Kaufman, her fiance, Baruch Levy, and Rabbi Chaim and Rebbitzin Rivka Silbermann, who counsel the young couple on the practical and spiritual aspects of their impending marriage.

The story begins on Chani and Baruch’s wedding day but moves backward, tracing the couple’s brief courtship and examining the religious journeys and marital relationship of the rabbi and rebbetzin, who were both raised in nonreligious families.

Harris, who is of Israeli-Polish descent and a secular Jew, was inspired to write the book after she found herself teaching in an ultra-Orthodox girls school in Northwest London — a world that was entirely new to her and unfamiliar to many secular and non-Jews.

Chani and Baruch met only four times before their wedding, and the novel explores their fear and excitement in the days and months leading up to the celebration. Through the rabbi and rebbetzin, who met in Israel during the 1980s, we see what attracted the once-secular Jews to an Orthodox lifestyle and discover the problems that can arise when individuals question or defy their community’s mores.

This is an extremely readable novel with memorable and sympathetic characters. It provides a window into a culture that will most likely fascinate those not knowledgeable about haredi culture.

Menachem Begin, The Battle for Israel’s Soul

050914_mishmash-bookBy Daniel Gordis
Schocken, 320 pages

Daniel Gordis calls Menachem Begin “the most Jewish of Israel’s prime ministers” and a leader now much missed.

“I wrote this book to find out why,” said Gordis, also a rabbi and senior vice president at Shalem College in Jerusalem. How could “someone so polarizing, so controversial … appear today as the soul not only of Israel’s best self, but as a living fusion on Jewish consciousness and aspiration?”

The answer, said the author, is “bound up with his unabashed, utter devotion to the Jewish people.”

In “Menachem Begin,” Gordis examines that devotion’s linkage with belief in Jewish dignity — no more subservience — in democracy and in adherence to law, advocated by a slight man who could impress with speech, charm with warmth and madden with stubborn-seeming consistency.

Some new esteem may come from later leaders’ behaviors, including the bribery conviction of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. As detailed in this easy-reading biography, Begin lived honestly and modestly, giving his Nobel Prize money to a foundation for disadvantaged students.

“There was something about him,” said Gordis, “that led the powerless to believe he cared for them, not as a matter of policy or political wisdom, but as a matter of instinct.”

Shabbat Schnoodle

050214_mishmash_bookBy Isabelle Foreman
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 34 pages

As the uncle of two, a boy who will soon be 4 and a girl who will soon be 7, I read this book with great interest to see if I could pass it on to them.

With a concept all ages can grasp, vivid illustrations and an adorable yarmulke-wearing dog, my niece and nephew would get a kick out of this book.

“Shabbat Schnoodle” takes the reader through Shabbat, from walking to shul on Friday night to Havdalah on Saturday. Any dog lover will get a chuckle out of the schnoodle with a big piece of challah in his mouth.

For those with children, the book is great for family reading, and it could be a great opportunity for older siblings to read to their younger siblings.

Not only are there some challenging words for a new reader, there are also enthralling illustrations and basic explanations of Shabbat rituals. This is a good, short read for any Jewish family with young children.

The New Reform Judaism: Challenges and Reflections

042514_mishmash_bookBy Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan
Jewish Publication Society, 367 pages

By now, the changing landscape of modern American Jewry is not news, what with soaring rates of
intermarriage and assimilation and, with the exception of Orthodox Jews, the dramatic reduction in synagogue attendance and affiliation. What some may not have heard is what might be done about the new reality.

Enter Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, who begins his book by presenting a brief history of Reform Judaism. Throughout, he draws on the work of innovative and influential Reform leaders such as Rabbis Maurice N. Eisendrath, Alexander M. Schindler and Eric H. Yoffie, arguing that because Reform Judaism is flexible and always evolving, it presents many alternative ways to engage modern Jews. Yet, he points out that Reform Judaism’s flexibility and elastic boundaries present challenges in determining where its limitations lie. “Most Jews feel that the most egregious violation of traditional norms is the integration of Christian elements into Jewish practice,” Kaplan offers by way of example, “as in the case of Messianic Judaism.”

Some of the questions Kaplan poses involve whether the sprawling campuses and huge buildings built by many congregations in past years are still necessary; whether online religious education and worship will become the norm for many Jews; and, perhaps most importantly, whether Judaism will focus less on community and more on the spiritual quest of the individual. Kaplan believes that the Reform Judaism of the future will be quite different than the Judaism of today, but that by holding onto “the values at the heart of Reform theology and building communities around a common and passionate commitment to those principals,” it has a bright future.

Jabotinsky: A Life

041814_mishmash_bookBy Hillel Halkin
Yale University Press, 235 pages

Vladimir Jabotinsky was passionate, unpredictable and full of contradictions. He was also the fiery leader of the Revisionist Zionist Movement.

Author Hillel Halkin deftly tells Jabotinsky’s story, first taking considerable time to illustrate why growing up in a city like Odessa truly shaped Jabotinsky’s outlook — on life, politics and the need for a Jewish state.

Then Halkin dissects Jabotinsky’s life in two parts: before, then after “his Zionist activity dominated all else.”

But throughout his life, Jabotinsky was a prolific writer in Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish — he was an accomplished journalist, poet, novelist and playwright, and he wrote hundreds of letters. Halkin includes excerpts of Jabotinsky’s writings throughout the book, allowing the reader an even more personal insight.

In the epilogue, Halkin conjures a conversation between himself and Jabotinsky, posing questions about some of his famous contradictions and even present-day Israeli issues.

Overall, the author works to undo some of the stereotypes about Jabotinsky through the telling of successes and the eventual failure of this political maverick. But ultimately Jabotinsky “was more prescient about most things than the men he opposed, [yet] he never had their power to influence events.”

Slices of Life, A Food Writer Cooks Through Many a Conundrum

041114_mishmash_bookBy Leah Eskin
Running Press, 408 pages

Sometimes it’s best to describe something in terms of what it’s not.

In that vein, readers looking for the newest entrant in the cookbook genre of today — think coffee-table tomes of glossy photos that make mouths water and desires burn — will not find it in culinary columnist Leah Eskin’s “Slices of Life.” Nor will they find in its paragraphs the encyclopedic collection of yesteryear, as in Irma S. Rombauer’s still-in-print classic, “Joy of Cooking.”

What Eskin, a Baltimore resident, instead achieves is not unlike her “Home on the Range” column found in the Chicago Tribune and, every now and then, in the pages of The Baltimore Sun. Her cookbook is more autobiography, representing the epicurean adventures of a writer who also loves to cook. And while there’s nothing inherently Jewish about her menu — recipes for decidedly non-kosher dishes abound — her journey is distinctly a Jewish one, including such episodes as her foray into the intimidating world of brisket and a full-hearted attempt at a traditional Shabbat meal, only to be thwarted by the demands and last-minute interruptions of life.

“This book isn’t about how to raise the perfect child or set the perfect table or even turn out the perfect dinner party,” Eskin admitted. “It’s about normal, messy, frustrating, interesting life.”