Book Reviews, Culinary Arts, Literature

Hazana – Paola Gavin

Hazana

If you have ever wondered what to serve to a vegetarian family member or guest, or are hoping to expand your vegetarian repetoire, Hazana – Jewish Vegetarian Cooking is exactly the book you have been looking for. Paola Gavin presents simple and diverse recipes inspired by traditional Jewish dishes from across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Gavin includes the basic culinary history of the Jewish communities from which she draws her recipes at the beginning of the book, which allows her to give homage to their roots while maintaining a clear emphasis on ingredients and instructions further on. Her associations of the dishes with Shabbat and other holidays are an added bonus for the meticulous menu-planner. While Gavin’s writing assumes that readers know their way around a kitchen, the recipes are not overwhelming for the novice cook. With her emphasis on ingredients and enthusiasm for her subject, Gavin succeeds in encouraging her readers to try something new, while allowing more experienced cooks the freedom to experiment with difference techniques and flavors. For those who are willing to sacrifice total authenticity for time-saving conveniences, most of the recipes in this book can easily transform into quick, healthy, and delicious weekday dinners.

So go ahead and buy some eggplant, watch the cauliflower disappear from your children’s plates, and savor the taste of traditional Jewish vegetarian cooking from around the world.

 

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Book Reviews

The Orchard – Yochi Brandes

Fans of Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf and Maggie Anton’s Rashi’s Daughters will be thrilled to discover Israeli-author Yochi Brandes’ latest work. The Orchard recounts the story of Rabbi Akiva and the sages of his generation, giving the powerful voice of the narrator to his wife, Rachel. In this meeting of rabbinic tradition, a women’s perspective, and the political intrigue of the Roman rule of Judea, readers have a front row seat at what is truly a battle to establish the course of Jewish history.

The world of the rabbis is a complex one, and readers would be well-served to have more than a passing knowledge of the main actors. The schools of Hillel and Shammai, the relationships and rivalries between the leaders of the main centers of learning, as well as the religious and secular governance structures of the time all feature in the narrative. With a story whose plot is heavily interspersed with rabbinic terminology, theology, Hebrew language, and allegory, an index including family trees and a historical time line would be of immense assistance to most casual readers. For those with the necessary a background, an index of the included texts (mostly mishnah) would have been a powerful tool for further study. As required reading for an adult-education course on rabbinic history, this book could easily be the primary source.

Reading this book in translation is intensely rewarding, as it makes much of the traditional sources accessible to a new audience. It is much to the Brandes’ credit that her characters and drama of the story are so vividly drawn that she makes readers forget that they may already know the ending. Daniel Libensons’ translation is a monumental effort in maintaining the seamless movement between Brandes’ descriptive prose and rabbinic legends. It reads so beautifully in English that readers may find themselves wishing they could appreciate every last nuance of the Hebrew original.

In The Orchard, Yochi Brandes has once again showcased her exceptional story telling skills and encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish history. For those who seek a window into the world of the sages, who strive to understand how the rabbis nurtured their faith and created the framework of two millennia of Jewish practice, The Orchard is an absolute must-read.

Book Reviews, Literature

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

“Intense”. This is the word that kept coming up during my book club’s discussion of Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. Readers described their visceral reactions to her characters, their actions, and her portrayal of Israeli society. No one needed any prompting to share these strong feelings either. In a group that rarely reaches a consensus, Waking Lions stood out for its ability to powerfully affect everyone who read it.

What made this such an intriguing book? The true force is Gundar-Goshen’s fearlessness as she portrayes Israel’s complexity, in all its geographic, socio-economic, racial, sexual, and violent tensions. Gundar-Goshen doesn’t have to create these elements – they exist in the country’s headlines and the lives of all Israelis. Her ability to capture these experiences in her characters’ personalities, motivations, and actions, demonstrates her keen insight into the struggle of this country and her people to survive.

Gundar-Goshen’s writing style mimics the opacity of her characters – the way she writes about them presents their discomfort with their own ideas and often the limitations they place on themselves about what they choose to understand. In keeping her characters so absolutely messy and human, some are harder for readers to connect with than others. There is no true protagonist in this book. Readers who like to cheer for a hero will almost certainly be frustrated. Readers who enjoy searching for the deeper meanings behind people’s actions – “why they do what they do” – will fully appreciate all of the narrative’s twists and turns.

While a basic understanding of Israeli immigration law and the current Eritrean refugee crisis, the Israeli medical system, the relationship between Israel and its Bedouin inhabitants, drugs and criminal activity and racial and gender conflicts may help readers acclimate to the plot, the book does include enough information to provide the necessary background. It will almost certainly challenge the readers’ perceptions and knowledge of the country. But those who read and understand will be ever richer for doing so.

 

Literature

Emily Solis-Cohen

Emily Solis-Cohen, born March 20, 1886 in Philadelphia. An award-winning author and leader in creating Jewish literature for children. Her original story collections, translations, and other writings were powerful tools for the education of Jewish children and symbols of leadership for Jewish women.

Book Reviews

Ben’Oni L’Benyamin – Sara Berman

Ben-Oni Sara BermanRabbi Sara Berman is on a mission: to lay bare the experience of depression, to fight the stigma that accompanies it, and to showcase the Jewish texts that allow us to provide greater support to those who suffer and their loved ones.

Ben’oni L’Binyamin is her story. As a memoir, it describes Berman’s personal struggles with depression, and how they have impacted her health, her family, her career, and her relationship with Judaism. As Berman walks her readers through her experiences, the annual cycle of Torah readings and holidays act as both signposts and and mirrors framing the reality of living with depression. As she references these texts, she provides clergy and lay leaders with language and images they can use to increase awareness and understanding for mental illness in the Jewish community. The books highlights her skills as a pastoral caregiver, as she translates her sources with delicacy and deep respect for traditional interpretations. While each section is deeply personal, and Berman does not shy away from sharing painful and intimate details, the texts provide the balance that allows for this book to reach beyond her immediate circle. As such, Ben’Oni L’Binyamin stands on its own as an accessible resource for those seeking to provide spiritual care to those dealing with the challenges of depression. It is a tool that easily earns its spot on a congregation’s bookshelf and in a community support group.

The simplicity of Berman’s writing style makes this book particularly manageable for a non-expert, as well as anyone who might struggle with reading about such a difficult topic in large chunks. Nevertheless, most readers will likely benefit most from having someone with whom to reflect on her words, especially as they will hit close to home for most of her intended audience. It’s not a book to jump into lightly, but those who are prepared to brave the darkness will be richly rewarded for their effort.

Book Reviews, Literature

My Mother’s Son – David Hirshberg

My Mother's SonDavid Hirsherg’s debut novel My Mother’s Son is a celebration of family in all its complex imperfections. The narrative centers around a retiring radio personality, Joel, telling his own story about growing up in post-war Boston. Local and international politics, the relationships between Joel’s Jewish and other large ethnic communities in the city, a public health crisis, and the drama surrounding the local baseball team all shape his childhood and understanding of his world.

Joel has a strong cast of supporting characters that bring humor, depth, and vibrancy to the young man’s story. The book is as much about how Joel gains maturity in understanding himself as it is about his becoming more aware of the people around him. Hirshberg succeeds in crafting characters with full personalities without allowing them to become caricatures of themselves.

Notwithstanding Harry Potter, it’s been a long time since I the story of a 12 year old boy has engaged me so fully and emotionally as Hirshberg’s novel has done. While there were points in the novel where I wished the author would pick up the pace, I also appreciated that as the story develops, it maintains multiple levels of truths that readers can only tease out slowly. The story of the family develops over generations. It wouldn’t be fair to expect Joel to discover all its intricacies without taking some detours.

Anyone who grew up in a Jewish community in the shadow of the Holocaust will likely find a great deal to relate to in Joel’s story. Anyone with ties to the city of Boston or who has strong memories of major league baseball in the 50s won’t be able to read this book without strong feelings of nostalgia. Even as Joel’s story is very much his own, the family’s immigrant history and network of connections contribute to the universal nature of this book. My Mother’s Son isn’t just the story of Joel and his family, but the story of a generation.

BooksandBlintzes received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this novel from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

 

Book Reviews, Textiles

Embroidery and Sacred Text: New Designs in Judaic Needlework – Rachel Braun

Embroidery Embroidery and Sacred Textand Sacred Text: New Designs in Judaic Needlework is the author’s journal of her personal voyage into tying the mathematics of cross stitch design, planning and the final execution of the design to the celebration of various passages from text such as torah, tehillim, piyutim, decorative articles for the home, and personal family life cycle events.

The introduction sets the stage for the theme of repetition in Judaic text with the integration of math concepts present in embroidery design.

It discusses the idea of repetition that is evident in the Jewish calendar cycle, biblical passages that detail textual lists: of names, places, instructions for offerings, and instructions for the preparation and decoration of the mishkan.

The writer is a mathematician and is drawn to the orderliness of these lists, charts, the constant counting, columns, and the constant counting. She notes a similarity in the repetition of graph paper to woven fabric, particularly of Aida cloth which is the base for her embroidery echoing of the multitude of identical stitches needed to create the embroidery patterns.

The book consists of 22 full colour plates of embroidery in the “Blackwork” style. Blackwork, sometimes called Spanish work, is a very old type of counted thread needlework, traditionally done using black thread. Rachel Braun has given a new life to the form by using coloured threads to provide variations and contrast.

The book is divided into four parts. The first section of consists of beautiful colour plates of the embroideries. Each of the 22 colour plates is accompanied by a completely detailed artist’s statement and explanation.

The second section details the mathematical processes involved in creating and planning each pattern. The author delves into the concepts of geometry, symmetry, rotations, counting, and area, complete with enlarged detail colour plates.

Part three explains the differences between fill and border work in Blackwork embroidery, complete with an illustration of the graphing technique used. There are 3 pages of showing “fill” techniques, 2 pages of “corner” and “border” and “medallions”, and 1 page detailing progressive pattern (with a graph), all with colour plates.

The last section has both English and Hebrew fonts, graphed out for ease of use.

I enjoyed the detail in the colour plates and the artist’s use of colour. The embroidery work is exceptional. The attention to every stitch, every thought, and diarizing of each piece is intense, and would be most appreciated by an advanced hand embroiderer, a student of textile and embroidery arts, and one with a scholarly interest in Judaic textiles.

Paula Shuchat MillerThis review was written by guest contributor Paula Shuchat Miller. Paula is a Toronto-based textile and mixed-media artist, a certified Paverpol instructor, and a long time member of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Textiles in Canada. You can learn more about Paula, her work, and custom creations
at www.millerartfabrications.com.