Book Reviews

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Shevat ~ עץ חיים היא

“It Is A Tree of Life”

Tree of LifeAs we welcome the new Hebrew month of Shevat, we enter a new season of growth and creativity in our communities. The holiday of Tu B’Shevat (the 15th day of this month) celebrates the new agricultural year in Israel. Its origins are in finding a way to mark “the birthday of the trees”, allowing farmers to calculate the age of crops and fulfilling the Biblical commandments related to agricultural tithing and sacrifices.

Tu B’Shevat’s focus on the land opens up infinite opportunities for artists to connect with the ecological and natural worlds through a Jewish lens. One of the most well-known images in Jewish text and art is the “Tree of Life”. The idea of the etz chayim as an accessible source of strength and pathway to holiness is the central theme of this month’s Jewish Text Art Challenge.

Throughout this new month of Shevat, Books and Blintzes will be showcasing art that draws on the verse “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה” – “It is a tree of life for all who hold fast to it”. We hope that these works will inspire you to make new connections and find deeper meaning in your own art and spiritual journeys.

To submit your work to be included in the Shevat Jewish Text Art Gallery, please complete the contact form at https://booksandblintzes.com/home/jtac/

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Book Reviews, Words of Wisdom

An Interview With Elana Zaiman, Author of The Forever Letter

In the fall of 2017, BooksandBlintzes shared a review of Rabbi Elana Zaiman’s book “The Forever Letter”. We followed up with the author to find out more about her work and inspiration, and are excited to feature this follow-up interview.

INTERVIEW QUESTIONS with Rabbi Elana Zaiman, Author of The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe for Those We Love

What is a forever letter? The Forever Letter

I conceived of Forever LettersTM as a process for self-reflection that focuses on healing, uplifting and deepening our most important interpersonal relationships. One of the outcomes can be letters that share our values and wisdom, ask for forgiveness or forgive, and express our gratitude and love. We hope that our letters are treasured as enduring, timeless gifts.

Why are Forever Letters so meaningful for you?

I have seen so much pain in families and in relationships. I know people who haven’t talked to family members or friends for years, not even remembering why they had not been speaking. I have found that sometimes these letters can open a door that has been closed for years and give a defunct relationship a jump start.

Do you think the letter writing process can be adapted for those who aren’t able to read and/or write due to disability? How do you think this could enhance or complicate the process?

If an individual cannot read or write, that person may still be able to speak their words for someone else to write them down.
This can be an amazing process, helping someone to get their thoughts and feelings down on paper in the form of a letter. Not only does the letter have the possibility of deepening the relationship between author and recipient, it also has the possibility of creating a deeper bond between the author and the person transcribing the author’s words on the page.
A complication can emerge in helping anyone write down their thoughts and feelings, and that is this: that the written word ends up sounding more like the person writing and transcribing the words than it does like the individual speaking them. Great care needs to be taken to hold onto the voice of the author.

What are the longest and shortest letters that you have ever written/seen others write?

I have seen letters of a few sentences, a paragraph, a few paragraphs, a few pages, many pages, book length. It depends on the desire of the author and the purpose of the letter.

Have you personally, or do you know of anyone, who has regretted something he/she wrote?

I don’t know of anyone who has expressed regret. In my book, I emphasize the importance of taking the recipient’s feelings into account before writing, as well as, putting aside the letter for a while and then re-reading it a couple times from different perspectives. Despite our best efforts, having regrets may still happen. If our heartfelt intention is to heal, uplift, and deepen our relationship then we can always reach out again.

You are a writer. What is it in you that impels you to write?

The need to know myself. When I don’t write for extended periods of time I lose a connection to myself, I feel less whole.

Elana Zaiman loves connecting wiElana Zaimanth people. She is the first woman rabbi from a family spanning six generations of rabbis. Elana travels throughout the U.S. and Canada as a scholar-in-residence, speaker, and workshop facilitator. She teaches and lectures at social service agencies, law firms, women’s organizations, private salons, synagogues, churches, interfaith-gatherings, geriatric residencies, and elder-law, health-care and financial and estate-planning conferences. She’s a chaplain at The Summit at First Hill, a retirement community in Seattle; a certified Wise Aging instructor (IJS), and Adjunct Faculty at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital CPE Program. In addition to being the Ethics and Spirituality columnist for LivFun, a publication for Leisure Care retirement facilities in 10 states, her writing has been published in The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Post Road, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere. Elana also volunteers as a co-partner in the Seattle Limbe Sewing Circle, an intergenerational and interracial community which brings together Jews, Muslims, and Christians to create feminine hygiene kits for girls in Cameroon, Africa. Elana lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and their son.

 

Book Reviews, Literature

Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig

Miss Burma by Charmaine CraigCharmaine Craig’s semi-biographical novel “Miss Burma” could hardly be more timely. With ethnic violence in Myanmar making headlines again, Craig’s story, which begins in the 1930s, traces one family’s experience of the country’s political upheaval and racial divisions.

Craig’s book gives readers a rare, and all too brief, glimpse of South East Asian Jewish communities at the end of the British colonial period. Benny, the titular character’s father, was born to a Jewish family in India. The death of his parents, his years in Catholic schools, and his marriage to a woman from the Karen minority sever his relationship to the Jewish community. He aligns himself with the cause of the Karen people, his Jewish identity all but disappearing into the shadows of the past. Following the second world war and independence, the Jewish community in Myanmar all but disappears, with most Jews emigrating to other parts of the Commonwealth. The idea of peoplehood – that an individual can be connected to a larger community with shared values – is one of the central themes of the novel. Craig’s brush with Benny’s Jewish roots encourages readers to explore the history and structure of the Myanmar Jewish community, but will leave others wondering why Craig chose to include this connection in a n already busy narrative.

And “Miss Burma” is a busy book. Spanning several decades and the breadth and width of the country, I’m surely not the only reader who could have really used a map. Craig’s description of the country’s intricate political history is informative, but there is a real tension between providing the necessary background and driving the story forward. It is a slow read, but the setting will draw readers back in every time. Readers who enjoy a meandering family saga will appreciate the character’s diversity and development over the years. “Miss Burma” brings a new perspective to questions of Jewish identity and experience, but readers must be willing to dig through the many other elements in the book to find it.

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Tevet "Chazak Chazak V'Nitchazeik"

Chazak – Be Strong

Jewish Text Art Challenge TevetDuring the Hebrew month of Tevet, we celebrate the final days of Chanukah and finish reading Genesis/Breishit, the 1st book in the Torah reading cycle. We hope that the lights of Chanukah continue to burn brightly, leading us towards discovering new paths in our lives. We hope that the words of the Torah continue to challenge and inspire us. We proclaim “Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazeik” – “Be Strong, Be Strong, and We Shall Strengthen!”, remembering that life is a journey, and we are always striving to build stronger connections to the people and places that matter most in our lives.

As this month’s text, “chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik” will focus on the ideas of strength, power, and support in Jewish texts and traditions. We look forward to sharing art that inspires us to grow, become stronger, and which nurtures the core of our commitment to all our work here at Books and Blintzes.

If you have work that connects with this text and would like to add it to our galleries, please complete the contact form on the main Jewish Text Art Challenge page at https://booksandblintzes.com/home/jtac/

Chodesh Tov! A good month to all!

Book Reviews, Literature

Enchanted Islands – Allison Amend

Enchanted Islands Amend

The question of independence is at the center of Allison Amend’s novel Enchanted Islands. Loosely based on the memoirs of Frances Conway, the book explores the struggle of a woman creating a life for herself, straddling the conventions of her time.

Born to a poor immigrant (Polish) Jewish family in the mid-western US, Frances never quite has a place to call her own. Her friendship with Rosalie, the daughter of an established German Jewish family highlights every limitation, even as she discovers that things are not always as they appear. As young women the two friends leave their hometown together, but after Rosalie’s betrayal, Frances decides to make her future on her own.

Frances remains an isolated character, a position that gives her the freedom to take on her adventure with the military intelligence. Away from society and the constraints of expected behavior, Frances finds a sort of peace. Or gets as close to being comfortable in this world as she is ever going to be.

Amend’s novel has a sense of disarray and incompleteness that complements Frances’ independent spirit. The world is an untidy place, and any single person who must live in it necessarily lives in that messiness. Amend is at her best as a writer describing the natural world of the Galapagos. She captures the connections between the islands and the surrounding trade and political infrastructure with clarity and succeeds in highlighting the uniqueness of her setting.

Readers who enjoy American military and social history will most appreciate this book. Amend’s characterizations of the Jewish community slant towards the cliche and are a weaker aspect of the novel. The diversity of its characters and military connections provides lots of potential for book club discussions. It is difficult to read this book without considering one’s personal experiences and understanding of WWII, the military, the Jewish community and sexism. Readers who are open to allowing Amend to plumb the depths of their memories will be rewarded with an imaginative and touching book. Others will find that they prefer to leave these complexities buried.

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Kislev "Nes Gadol Haya Sham", Poetry, Words of Wisdom

Dreams and Responsibilities – Schwartz

Schwartz Dreams

Remembering Delmore Schwartz, celebrated Jewish American poet, born December 8th 1913.

Do our miracles give us responsibilities like our dreams?