Book Reviews

Jerusalem As A Second Language – Distelheim

The story of a Russian family that finds itself suddenly part of the wave of Jewish immigration to Israel in the aftermath of the fall of communism, Jerusalem As A Second Language has all the hallmarks of the best kind of coming of age story. As the Zelinikov family learns to navigate their new country, and the new religious, political, economic, and social relationships that go along with it, author Rochelle Distelheim brings imagination to their struggle to reclaim their identities and what matters most in their lives.

Distelheim gives each of the Zelinikovs – main protagonist Manya, her husband Yuri, and their teen-aged daughter Galina – a distinct voice and the freedom to experience their journey as new immigrants on their own terms. The author’s facility with Russian and Israeli culture, multiple languages, and sense of place, provides the diverse cast of characters and the strong foundation the narrative needs to thrive. It is a testament to Distelheim’s experience as an author of short stories that she is able to weave so many different threads together, and in this, her second novel, the parts do all add together to a greater whole.

For those who are less familiar with the experience of Russian olim in Israel, this book provides the necessary background information so readers will not get lost in the details. Distelheim strikes the difficult balance between the particular characteristics of the community and individual character’s backgrounds without allowing them to become stereotypes. This is true for the other communities and individuals the Zelinikovs interact with as well. Furthermore, Distelheim should be complimented for the lightness and humor that permeates the novel, without losing sight of the underlying seriousness of the challenges the family faces. There’s plenty in this book’s narrative and characters for readers to sink their teeth into, as well as potential book club conversations. For readers who have been spending more time at home in 2020, Jerusalem As A Second Language may not provide an escape from 2020, but they will enjoy joining the Zelinikovs on their international and more introspective journeys.

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. 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.