Book Reviews

Book Reviews

The Forever Letter – Elana Zaiman

Rabbi Elana Zaiman is passionate about making connections. Her book, The Forever Letter, will convince any writing-shy scribbler that putting words onto paper (or typing them into a computer) is the most effective way to communicate what is in our hearts to the dearest people in our lives. Zaiman has been teaching and speaking on the topic for years, and her experience is evident in the book’s clarity and organization. She includes the questions, writing prompts, and detailed process notes that empower the reader to use it to write their own letters. While I read it as an e-book, many will prefer to be able to jot down their thoughts and ideas in the margins as they go.

This book does stir the pot with readers’ emotions. Zaiman uses her extensive professional background as both a pulpit rabbi and chaplain to challenge readers with difficult and intimate questions. The paradox of Zaiman’s forever letter is that it may be most valuable to its writer and reader at the time when it may be most difficult to write and read it. Forever letters can be a tremendous source of comfort and a powerful tool for connecting to the important people in our lives. But they are time consuming and thought-intensive to write, which makes it difficult to have them handy at times of crises. Forever letters could certainly be the basis of the sage Hillel’s famous teaching “don’t put off what you can do today”.

The tradition of the Jewish ethical will forms the backbone and background for Zaiman’s work, but she separates her explanation of this practice in an appendix at the end of the book. Readers who are less familiar with Jewish ethical wills and their history may find it useful to review this appendix before jumping into forever letters. Other readers may prefer to read it first as it more firmly grounds Zaiman’s book within the world of Jewish practice. Still others may overlook it altogether, particularly if they are more interested in the book as a practical resource for writing letters of their own.

Because the book’s subject matter is so deeply personal, Forever Letters is best left to the reader’s discretion. Parts of it could be useful for discussion and counseling with families who are planning life cycle events, and close friends will also appreciate having a trusted reading buddy with whom to reflect. Forever Letters is not a beach read, but as we begin to look towards the High Holidays, it could lead to a profound experience of possibilities in the new Jewish year.

I received a copy of this e-book via NetGalley specifically for the purpose of writing a review. The thoughts and opinions in this review are mine alone.

 

Music

Hermann Leopoldi – Buchenwaldlied

Inside page of the January 1946, no. 1 issue of the Yiddish DP newspaper, ‘Buchenwald: Bulletin of the Buchenwald Youth in France.’ The column on the left is entitled, ‘Our Lives’. At the bottom is a poem called ‘The Song of Buchenwald’ (translated into Yiddish), sung by all the Buchenwald internees. [Photograph #44247]
Source: http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/places/camps/central-europe/buchenwald/
Herman Leopoldi, composer of the Buchenwald song (“Buchenwaldlied”), August 15, 1888 – June 28, 1959. The camp commandant organized a song competition soon after the camp opened. Leopoldi and his partner Fritz Lohner-Beda wrote the winning entry, although a non-Jewish kapo submitted it to the contest. The camp guards would command prisoners to sing the Buchenwaldlied as a way to cover up the sounds of torture and other acts of cruelty and murder. Some prisoners found meaning in this song as a symbol of resistance. Singing of freedom and the future gave them the opportunity to express their hopes for the demise of their captors.

To listen to a recording of the song, please click here.

Av - Nachamu

Needlepoint Comfort – Chaim Parchi

We were mesmerized by the colors and fluidity in Chaim Parchi’s needlepoint design. With the words of “Nachamu – comfort” surrounding images of Jerusalem, Parchi’s design embraced us. We couldn’t help but wonder how the completed needlepoint would feel under our fingertips, magnifying how our sense of touch is connected with the idea of comfort and safety.

Thank you to the artist, Chaim Parchi, for his permission to use this image, and to Doreen Finkel at www.artneedlepoint.com for connecting us. More information and his other work can be found at http://www.artneedlepoint.com/artists/parchi-chaim.

Av - Nachamu

Nachamu – The Power of The Words

Israeli-artist Michael Sgan-Cohen created this acrylic and oil pen work in 1978. The street sign and emphasis on the words highlight the prophetic nature of the verse. It is a direction and call to action underlining the power of words to bring comfort.

By Michael Sgan-Cohen (מיכאל סגן-כהן) (Ktavim) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Av - Nachamu, Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries

Nachamu Nachamu Ami – The Music

Follow the links below to hear recordings or watch videos of musical arrangements for this month’s Jewish Text Art Challenge. We are always looking to increase the diversity of the art that we showcase. If you have original compositions or can connect us with someone who does, please be in touch!

We will add to this page as our collection grows. Let us know when you hear something that is especially meaningful or moves you.

  1. Pizmon (Co-ed Jewish A Cappella Group – Columbia University, Barnard College, Jewish Theological Seminary) Performs at Edgar M. Bronfman Memorial at Lincoln Center 1/28/2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGyLErU34Sw&feature=youtu.be
  2. Chai Notes (Co-ed Jewish A Cappella Group – Cornell University) Chai Notes alumni song Spring 2016 concert. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hWw4imCV44&feature=youtu.be
Book Reviews

The Afterlife of Stars – Joseph Kertes

A story a person tells about his life can never express the fullness of this experience. This seems to be the starting point for Joseph Kertes’ novel about a young Jewish boy’s flight from Hungary at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1956. Along with his family, the 9 year old protagonist Robert Beck, escapes from the only home he has known, becoming a refugee in Western Europe, and eventually arriving in France. As a result of this journey, he learns how his family survived the Holocaust, and the long and lasting shadows this trauma has cast over them all.

Kertes writes from Robert’s perspective, effectively capturing the child’s focus on his present. This point of view contributes both a sense of simplicity and immediacy to the novel, making it sharper and more intense. However, Kertes occasionally uses sophisticated language and turns towards ephemeral thinking, which are sometimes inconsistent with the mental and emotional maturity of his narrator. Robert’s main foil is his older brother Attila, who at 13 seems to be more honestly stuck between childhood and adulthood. As a reader with little direct experience with boys of these ages, it was difficult for me to evaluate if their interactions were realistic. My book club shared mixed reports. Our collective ability to be caught up in the book definitely hinged on our individual abilities to connect with the central relationship between the two brothers.

Kertes is not afraid to use vivid imagery and direct language to tell Robert’s story, and the historical context is as much a character in the book as the family members themselves. Younger readers who may be less familiar with the history of the Cold War may find themselves wishing for more information about the Soviet takeover of Hungary. However, the part of Kertes’ narrative that details the family’s escape from the Nazis with the help of Raoul Wallenberg and its impact on the family’s post-war life is breathtakingly effective in highlighting the historical continuity of Jewish life in Europe.

Kertes may be drawing significantly on his family’s own experiences, or at the very least, is personally steeped in the history that he is writing about. I almost wonder if some of the linguistic inconsistencies would be resolved if the book had actually been written in Hungarian. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the post-war history of European Jewry, well-written historical fiction, and what it’s like to be a 9 year old boy.