Book Reviews

Book Reviews, Literature

Never A Native – Alice Shalvi

Alice Shalvi is a force to be reckoned with, and in her memoir, Never A Native, she describes how a refugee German Jewish girl became one of the most important voices in Israeli feminism and social politics. From its early descriptions of her family’s fight from the Nazis to England in the 1930s to her celebrated work re-shaping the academic and political fabric of a new nation state, Shalvi’s rich and courageous personal story shines through.

Shalvi’s focus on her early life and her relationships with her family provide more than just her personal history. Her attention to these details firmly place her story as part of the narrative of the Jewish people. As she recounts her journey from Germany, to England, to Israel, readers will recognize in her individual story the pathways and experiences of their own families and neighbors. Within the intimacies she shares about being a partner with her husband, parent to her children, a daughter, sister and friend, Shalvi emerges as a powerful storyteller that makes her professional attainments seem inevitable. She is hardly invincible, but showcases the intelligence and determination that empowered her and so many other women to speak and achieve their goals.

For readers who think they know Israeli political history but are unfamiliar with its women’s movement, Never A Native is an essential primer on this part of the country’s development. Similarly, those who are interested in Israel’s academic and social welfare institutions will find in Shalvi’s work a thorough examination of how they were shaped. Shalvi is not so disingenuous as to try to pass off her life experiences as being “typical” of her generation, but she balances a very fine line between acknowledging her privilege as a Western European, highly educated women with some of the economic and political hardships that were common in the early years of the state.

Never A Native deserves the accolades and attention that it has received. While not every page is teeming with fast-paced action, Shalvi provides her readers with so many opportunities to reflect, question, and be inspired. Educators will find it rich in material to share with high school, college, and adult learners. And everyone should be grateful to Shalvi, not only for the tremendous work she has done to support women’s rights in Israel, but for her willingness to share her story in such an approachable and thorough way.

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman

In Spies of No Country, Matti Friedman turns his laser-like investigative focus to the “Arab Section”, a tiny group of Jews from Arab countries who were recruited to secure intelligence for the pre-Israel military. As he did in his debut Pumpkinflowers, Friedman offers a sliver of history, a small narrative easily overlooked in the saga of a much large conflict. In Pumpkinflowers it was a hilltop. In Spies of No Country, it’s a spy unit.

Friedmans’s deep dive into the formation and activities of the “Arab Section” brings with it close look at life in final days of British Mandate Palestine. His attention to the experience of mizrachi Jews in both Israel and their countries of origin provides a breathtakingly fresh approach to the often European-centric view of the establishment of the State of Israel. Friedman is respectfully direct in addressing the racial, social, political and economic inequalities that existed prior to Israeli Statehood. He effectively describes the tensions between both the Jews and their Arab neighbors, and Jews from different national backgrounds. In this way, Friedman’s work challenges readers with fundamental questions about the definition and formation of Israeli identity.

Friedman’s writing maintains a scholarly distance while staying sensitive to the humanity of his subject. In Spies of No Country, Friedman includes photos and interview transcripts, enlivening the story and providing additional background into his research process. They allow him to balance his roles as reporter, narrator, and interpreter, giving full color to the Arab section, the men who were a part of it, and the places where it operated.

Spies of No Country will appeal to all those who seek a greater understanding and knowledge of the State of Israel. The desire to recognize and learn more about those who lived through the time that it was established and fought for its survival is well-served by Friedman’s work. A basic background on the British Mandate in Palestine, the War of Independence, and the geography of Israel and her neighbors is necessary to truly appreciate the book. Spies of No Country would make an excellent selection in education settings from high school and above.

Book Reviews, Literature

From Longing To Belonging by Shelly Christensen

It’s the book every Jewish institution has been waiting for – a comprehensive and practical approach to making inclusion an actionable organizational principal. While nearly all synagogues, educational programs and community service providers WANT to be accommodating and attentive to the needs of their stakeholders, knowing HOW to do this is where so many get stuck. And for those, who like the 4th child in the Passover seder, don’t have the language to ask where to begin, From Longing To Belonging may seem like a literal God-send.

Shelly Christensen has been leading the movement for greater inclusion in the Jewish community from her home base in Minneapolis for decades, and her focus on clear plans that real people and organizations of all shapes, sizes, and budgets can implement is reflected in this new book. With her emphasis on participation and strategic planning, Christensen highlights how supporting inclusion for all members (and potential members) strengthens the organization’s mission. While the book could certainly apply across faith and denominational communities, Christensen’s professional background with Jewish communal service agencies, as well as her personal Jewish identity and practice all put the North American Jewish experience at the center of her writing. This is a refreshing change from the many excellent guides to inclusion in faith communities that focus on the Christian experience that can be adapted for Jewish audiences. From Longing To Belonging keeps Jewish thought, belief, and practice at the forefront of the conversation. Christensen makes it nearly impossible for readers to respond “this doesn’t apply to our shul/temple/federation/school/JCC…!”

From Longing To Belonging doesn’t just belong on the bookshelf of every rabbi, cantor, Jewish educator, or executive director of a Jewish communal institution. It should be required reading for all of these professionals, as well as the lay leaders who serve on the committees and Boards of Directors of Jewish community organizations. While every chapter may not apply in every situation, Christensen’s book provides the lens and tools that the Jewish community needs to encourage all of our constituents to feel connected and to be included as valued participants. Not many books have the potential to fundamentally change the way the Jewish community sees and organizes itself for a more powerful future. Shelly Christenen’s From Longing To Belonging does.

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Tammuz - Two Tablets of Stone

Jewish Text Art Challenge – Tammuz – The Two Tablets

Jewish Text Art Challenge - Tammuz

In the middle of summer and the Torah reading cycle firmly in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), why does this month’s Jewish Text Art Challenge text come from the book of Shemot (Exodus)?

This verse, which is part of the famous narrative of the Ten Commandments and the golden calf, is also part of the Torah reading for minor fast days. One of these is the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates the day the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, beginning the siege that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple. It also marks the start of a three-week long period of mourning in the Jewish calendar that culminates on the 9th of Av.

The Torah reading for the minor fast days speaks of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. This image of Moses preparing to renew this relationship with the creation of the new tablets stands as a counterpoint to the images of loss and devastation that characterize the three weeks. It reminds us that even when the Isrealites appeared to be beyond redemption, their connection with God is never fully destroyed. In this way, even as the 17th of Av makes us mourners, it nevertheless cautions us not to give in to despair.

Over the next month, we are looking forward to sharing art that speaks to this balance of sorrow and hope and highlights the bond between God and the Jewish people.

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Sivan - Bikkurim - First Fruits

Jewish Text Art Challenge Sivan – First Fruits

Celebrated on the 6th day of the hebrew month Sivan, the holiday of Shavuot is a highlight of the Jewish calendar. As one of the three Biblical pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot has significance as a celebration of the harvest and as an agricultural festival. It is also celebrated as the time when God gave the Israelites the Torah at Mount Sinai, establishing God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people. Bikkurim – the bringing of the first fruits from the annual harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem – was an essential part of observing the holiday in ancient times. Artists throughout the ages have been inspired by this practice and we are looking forward to sharing their work.

Book Reviews

The Rabbi Finds Her Way – Robert Schoen with Catherine de Cuir

What does a rabbi do all day? This is the question at the center of this lively and entertaining introduction to Rabbi Pearl Ross. Readers join her journey as she steps into her position as Assistant Rabbi at a large and prosperous Reform congregation near her hometown, falls in love, and addresses a long-time rift with her estranged sister.

Robert Schoen and Catherine de Cuir’s writing, particularly their humor, keeps the tone of the novel light and well-paced. As we get to know Pearl, her family, and the Lakeshore Temple community, the characters jump off the page and invite readers into their stories. The authors ably balance their characters’ fallibility and humanity, with emotional depth and dramatic life experiences. In a day at the Lakeshore Temple, it seems like anything can and will happen. Readers, along with Pearl, are encouraged to meet these challenges with a strong sense of humor.

While the book doesn’t shy away from the more difficult experiences of death, aging, illness, and imprisonment, it does approach them with a some privileged rose-colored glasses. The congregation that Schoen and de Cuir create is financially wealthy, with supportive lay-leadership, and an incredible staff; even its bar and bat mitzvah students and their families are intelligent and enthusiastic! Pearl’s dating, marriage, and motherhood have no apparent impact on her career. While not everyone is always happy, Schoen and de Cuir are letting Pearl live the dream. Just enough reality gets into the novel to make it relatable – alas congregational life is rarely as neat and tidy as they allow it to be here.

The Rabbi Finds Her Way is a book with easy appeal for anyone who has ever spent any time with, or has an opinion about, organized religion, whether Jewish and other. The narrative includes a number of scenes with sermons and speeches about various Torah portions that would contribute to a book club, adult education, or synagogue meeting. For those who remember Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series, Schoen’s Rabbi Pearl Ross-Levy has the potential to follow his lead for a new generation.

BooksAndBlintzes received a free copy of this book for the purposes of writing this review. It represents the sole opinion of the reviewer.

More information about the book and its authors is available at: https://www.robertschoen.com

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Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Shevat - Flowing With Milk And Honey

A Land Flowing With Milk And Honey

blog coverThe verse we selected for the Hebrew month of Shevat focuses on the connection to the land of Israel inspired by the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. The annual celebration of the “birthday of the trees” takes place on the 15th of this month, and connects Jewish ideas of environmental stewardship, homeland, and peoplehood. Communities plant trees and gardens (as Israel enters its mild spring), and savor the seven species named in the Torah. Together we seek to celebrate the gift of the promised land – the land flowing with milk and honey.