Book Reviews, Literature

999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz – Heather Dune Macadam

Writer and researcher Heather Dune Macadam has given over a decade of attention to the narratives at the core of her book’s work, and her devotion to her subjects presents readers with a remarkably original and balanced narrative. In 999, she follows the first group of young Jewish women to be deported to Auschwitz, some of whom were just teenagers at the time. With her sharp focus on this specific group of young women, Macadam moves beyond the numbing catalogue of horrors endemic to so much Holocaust writing. Instead, it gives her book the structure, compassion, and moral compass that helps to direct readers through the terrors she that describes.

As with any book that weaves together multiple stories, keeping track of the various strands, especially as many of the young women shared common names, requires readers to pay attention. For Macadam, that is clearly part of the point – to understand that each of these Martas and Ediths were, in fact, individuals with families, histories, and dreams for their futures. Readers will quickly realize that remembering these names honors their memories.

Macadam’s work as a researcher shines in her descriptions of the group’s arrival in Auschwitz, how the concentration camp developed over time, and the women’s experiences at liberation. As she describes the barrenness of the landscape and the women’s initial experiences of pain and humiliation at the hands of the SS, there is a tremendous sense of foreboding. Readers trace the development of the concentration camp as it moves from being in the trial stage of base cruelty, to the well-oiled machine of death that it would become. Macadam highlights that Auschwitz was a place that was built, that depended on the labor of its earliest inmates, and had a culture that grew out of a desperation to survive. In doing so, her readers have little choice but to acknowledge Auschwitz as an atrocity of intentional, human design, which if they have a conscience, can only be heart-breaking.

Should any reader’s heart remain unmoved, Macadam’s writing about the women’s experiences at the time of their liberation is a primal scream for humanity. She openly questions what it meant for these young women to have been imprisoned during their formative years. One of the themes that she returns to often is that having been the first to be deported, the families, homes, and towns they left were mostly intact – and had been almost completely annihilated in their absence. However, even as Macadam demands that readers connect viscerally with the women of 999, she treats their stories with utmost respect. She does not describe cruelty for shock value, glamorize their pain, or encourage vicarious victimhood. Macadam’s work is rather a straightforward narrative of pain and chaos inflicted by one group of people on another, and the imperfect ways in which everyone fights to survive.

This book is likely to be most meaningful to those with some background in Holocaust history. Such context is necessary to appreciate the micro-attention to the particular group of women in Macadam’s work. With an engaging and concise writing style, 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz provides a deeply moving and densely researched tiny slice of a much larger story.

BooksAndBlintzes.com received a copy of this book from the publisher for the express purpose of writing a review. The contents of this review are the personal reactions and opinions of its author.

Book Reviews, Literature

The Song of the Jade Lily – Kirsty Manning

A grandmother and her granddaughter face the secrets of their past in Kirsty Manning’s elegant and lovingly told novel The Song of the Jade Lily.

Romy fled Vienna with her parents in 1939, arriving in Shanghai comparatively privileged among the Jewish refugees seeking a safe haven from the Nazis. Their new neighbors, the Ho family, are ethnic Chinese, and when the city is captured by the Japanese, become active in the resistance. Romy’s story is a tale of loss and survival, as she, her family, and her friends struggle through the daily threats of the war and occupation.

Alexandra is Romy’s granddaughter. Romy and her husband Wilhelm raise their granddaughter in Australia, after their daughter Rose is killed in a car accident. When Alexandra’s work brings her to Shanghai, she hopes to uncover the truth about her mother’s parentage.

Manning nimbly jumps across her novel’s multiple time and geographic settings, guiding her readers as they try to match her agility. Details about the location, especially Shanghai, saturate the narrative, helping readers navigate the book’s complex mix of language and cultures. Manning’s extensive research shines through on every page, adding depth and texture to Romy and Alexandra’s story. While the setting occasionally overshadows the narrative, it gives the book the heft it needs to make it a remarkable read.

Although the story is connected with the Holocaust and Jewish persecution by the Nazis, it stops short of considering particular questions of Jewish identity and experience. Manning’s focus on the universality of love, grief, respecting other cultures and fighting for justice makes her characters both more widely sympathetic and less fully-articulated in their selves. Readers will find plenty to talk about as they explore Romy and Alexandra’s experiences, and the included author’s notes and book club guide both give excellent direction. It is a well-written book that is an enjoyable and engrossing read, ideal for sharing with a friend.

Book Reviews, Literature

Journey To Open Orthodoxy – Rabbi Avi Weiss

With his new collected volume of writings Journey To Open Orthodoxy, Rabbi Avi Weiss presents how his thinking and experiences have come together to shape his vision for the future of the Jewish people. Reaching beyond the limitations of a denominational platform, these essays articulate a menu of possibilities on a wide-range of topics, from halacha to Jewish leadership, diversity and inclusion in Jewish life, and the State of Israel. Although he intends his ideas to be linked under the umbrella of “Open Orthodoxy” each individual essay has the sturdiness of resolve and principle to stand on its own.

As some of the contents have been previously published, and in some cases over 20 years ago, the strength of each individual essay is hardly surprising. What is most striking about the collection is how it enables the reader to travel along with Rabbi Weiss as his thinking matures and sometimes changes. The gradual development of Rabbi Weiss’ positions, as he gains experience as a pulpit rabbi, visits and re-visits traditional texts, faces new challenges in his family relationships, and addresses stormy political seas emerges as his ultimate lesson. Living a full Jewish life, being fully immersed in the well-being of loved ones, community, and Am Yisrael is a long-term commitment, one that can be uncomfortable and deeply painful. In this volume, Rabbi Weiss powerfully demonstrates that his commitment to continuing on this journey has enabled him to create a space for a different kind of religious engagement and practice, one he hopes will emerge as a significant force in the future of Jewish peoplehood. Individual readers may not be in the position to affect the international conversation about what should constitute normative Jewish practice and participation, but they will be inspired to understand that their opinions about such subjects may change over time, and that there is tremendous value to exploring multiple options.

There will be readers who chafe at Rabbi Weiss’ characterizations of other Jewish denominations, and who will actively disagree with some of his halachic positions. While the book invites an in-depth critique of the movement he calls “Open Orthodoxy” readers need to be cautious not to judge Rabbi Weiss for not moving far enough or fast enough (or for going too far too fast). It can be difficult to separate his writing from the generally privileged religious, socio-economic and political contexts of his community in Riverdale, New York, and readers with limited experience with the formal study of Jewish texts may occasionally be overwhelmed. Readers who have been closely following Rabbi Weiss’ work and writings will probably not find much new material, although they will likely be most appreciative of having this well-edited and conceived collection. The best hope for this volume is for those who have accompanied Rabbi Weiss in his past decades of service to the Jewish people to better understand his journey, and that those who are less familiar with his work may learn from his experience and embrace the uncertainty of fully engaging in the conversation and journey of their own.

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Literature

The 5780 BooksAndBlintzes Holiday Bookshelf Guide – From Rosh HaShanah to Simchat Torah

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The air is getting chillier, leaves are exploding with color, and Jewish communities around the world are getting ready to celebrate a month-long holiday-palooza. In addition to (hopefully) eating delicious food and spending time with our loved ones, we may also be spending hours in synagogue services, which along with all the screen-free days for the more traditionally observant, gives us plenty of quality reading time. So however you choose to celebrate this festive season, we’ve got a book list to help you elevate your holiday experience.

Days of Awe by SY Agnon – A classic and accessible collection of nearly 300 Jewish teachings related to the high holidays. Drawn from sources spanning 2000 years of Jewish experience and organized according to the order of services, this book serves as an ideal companion to the traditional liturgy.

But Where Is The Lamb? by Dr. James Kugel – In this thoughtful retelling of the story of the binding of Isaac, Professor James Kugel offers new insights and commentary into the centerpiece of the Torah portion that is traditionally read on the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah. His scholarly attention to detail and nuanced language invites all readers to re-imagine the story they think they already know.

The Days Between by Dr. Marcia Falk – A collection of the author’s poetry and writings, Falk’s book offers a modern interpretation of the theological and liturgical themes of the high holidays. Her innovative service for “tashlich” (the symbolic casting away of sins) is just one example of how this work inspires readers to immerse themselves in the experience of the holidays.

All These Vows by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman – Rabbi Hoffman takes a deep dive into the ideas, language, and artistry of the “Kol Nidre”, one of the liturgical highlights, not only of the high holidays, but of the entire Jewish calendar year. Discover its history and new understandings of how it became such a popular and essential part of the Yom Kippur and Jewish prayer consciousness.

Jonah: A Modern Commentary by Rabbi Leondard Kravitz and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky – By the time we get aroun to reading it in the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, the book of Jonah doesn’t always get our full attention. This scholarly work wakes readers up, providing insight and context for this often-simplified biblical story.

My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin – While this expansive book includes all the holidays that make up the Jewish calendar, the material that addresses the high holidays and those that follow in the month of Tishrei deserves its own mention here. The author’s focus on celebration and ritual makes her writing especially relatable, and readers will likely find much to enrich their personal appreciation for these special times.

Every Person’s Guide to Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah by Rabbi Ron Isaacs – More of a “how-to” guide, this book provides excellent instruction about the origins, meaning, and observances of the titular holidays. For readers who wonder how to keep the holiday spirit alive after the break fast, Rabbi Isaacs makes it appealing and empowers them to get started on the next stage of their Jewish journey.

JPS Bible Commentary – Ecclesiastes by Rabbi Michael Fox – This volume of the JPS Bible Commentary series includes the text and intensive scholarship on the book of Ecclesiastes which is traditionally read during the holiday of Sukkot. This book, with its combination of traditional text and modern commentary, is a treasure trove for those who enjoy a sophisticated grappling with theological issues and questions of human nature.

The Wisdom Books – Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes by Dr. Robert Alter – In his translations, the author approaches these canonical books as works of literature, and the results are a breathtaking. For readers who appreciate the linguistic and poetic subtleties that underly the larger moral and metaphysical messages. Read Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, be inspired to read Job and Proverbs throughout the year.

And God Said… A Brief History of Creation by Barbara Leff – On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the creation of the world, and on Simchat Torah we celebrate that we get to read about it again in the new year. Leff’s poetry collection draws from the Jewish tradition and is the perfect jumping off point to appreciate the return to the beginning of the Torah reading cycle.