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.
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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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.
With a vibrancy and complexity that brings her characters and their stories to life, Gila Green’s latest book, White Zion is a celebration of her artistry. Written as a collection of stories, it weaves together the tales of generations as Green crosses continents, watches empires fall, and new countries and families emerge.
Readers who are familiar with Green’s other works will find themselves returning to the stories of old friends, as some of the material in White Zion refers to her earlier narratives. New readers will relish the introduction to a diverse cast of characters and insights into the highly personal side of history. Through the lenses of different family members, national and international political, religious, racial, and gender movements become intimate, headlines become the background to individual lives.
Green’s connection to the Jewish Yemenite community in Israel and Canada forms the strong backbone for her work, and White Zion beautifully captures their multi-faceted experiences. Especially enticing are the stories set in the first half of the twentieth century, before the founding of the State of Israel. This earlier Yemeni pilgrimage to Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine, and the stories of the established Yemeni community at the time of Israel’s founding provides a vivid portrait of the country’s popular roots. As readers travel through time and around the world, Green maintains a skillful balance of particularity and universality in each individual narrative.
Readers who enthusiastically embrace White Zion’s epic journey will find themselves carried along in this current of adventures and discovery of identity. In order to stay connected to the myriad characters and settings, readers may prefer to inhale the whole book in a few short sittings, then return to savor favorite stories at a more leisurely pace. White Zion contains someone or something for everyone to relate to and its historical and geographical diversity adds to its book club conversation potential. For readers who are looking for a refreshing approach to the history of Israel, its Yemeni community, and the immigrant experience, White Zion checks off all the right boxes and should jump straight to the top of the to-read list.
Like many others of my generation, my earliest images of the Catskill mountains and its Jewish summer bungalow and resort communities, came directly from the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. While my imagination will always equate the Catskills with the fictional Kellerman’s and the popular mythology of real-life Kutcher’s , Andrea Simon’s new book Floating In The Neversink showcases the summer Jewish experience in the mountains in an equally engaging, if much harsher narrative.
Floating In The Neversink is a complex and tightly woven “novel in stories” told from the perspective of young Amanda (Mandy) Gerber. A pre-teen when the book opens in 1955, it follows Mandy through her adolescence and high school years, recounting her summers with her extended family in the Catskills and the other seasons back in Brooklyn. Simon’s remarkably detailed descriptions of these settings are an immersive treat for her readers, being gritty enough to overcome any over-enthusiastic nostalgia. And as the book includes subject matter related to the sexual assault of children, mental illness, racism, and suicide, readers should be prepared with trigger warnings.
Yet even as Simon’s writing exposes the sharper edges of the Catskills for Mandy and her family, it also celebrates the best of these memories. Her deep relationships with her grandmothers and seeing how Mandy, and her sister and cousins are shaped by their shared experiences, is a joyful tribute to family that shines out from the underlying dark conflicts. Over the course of the stories, Simon deftly unfolds the nuances of her characters, all of whom are humanly imperfect, yet all of whom remain somewhat shadowy around the edges. This is the essential challenge of the book as a collection of short stories. It succeeds because of the strong continuity and its detailed character development. It succeeds when understood as a series of memories, but readers will be left without the whole of Mandy’s story.
Will readers be satisfied with this sense of incompleteness? Floating In The Neversink demands that its protagonist accept that there are things that can’t or won’t be discussed. That there are secrets and things that are unknowable in every family. And Simon doesn’t give her readers any more insight than she allows to Mandy. The result, is a thought-provoking and beautifully written book that will challenge how its readers think about how an individual weaves the tapestry of her family’s collective memory.
BooksAndBlintzes..com received an advance review copy of the book for the express purpose of writing this review. Its contents are solely those of its author.