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.

 

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.

 

Book Reviews

Rebbe ~ Joseph Telushkin

Joseph Telushkin’s 2014 biography of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson is an exquisitely detailed and thoughtful description of the the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life and his influence on the international Jewish community. As a semi-outsider in the Crown Heights and Chabad orbit, Telushkin writes with a reverence for what the indefatigable Rebbe accomplished, without glossing over the controversial aspects of his leadership.

I picked up this title while browsing through the Kindle Deals of the Day earlier this year, and was surprised by how quickly Telushkin drew me into the Rebbe’s story. I have never been affiliated with Chabad, the Rebbe died when I was a teenager, and I have some strong reservations about the movement’s organizational structure and theology. Event still, reading this book was a deeply moving personal experience. The Rebbe’s leadership, his mission to reach out to Jews around the world, and his vast celebrity, fundamentally shaped what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. Telushkin’s writing brings the Rebbe’s imprint on my Jewish life into sharp focus.

I especially enjoyed reading about the Rebbe’s years as a university student in Europe before the Second World War and his emphasis on connecting individually and intimately with Jews seeking his guidance.  I was less interested in the controversies relating to his accession to to the position of Rebbe, and the legal battle surrounding the Chabad library. And as impressive as the Rebbe’s influence among political and religious leaders truly was, Telushkin’s continuing references to such relationships threatened to become tiresome. I wish that Telushkin had included more information about the Rebbe’s wife, Chaya Mushka, but I can’t blame him for not including material that doesn’t exist. As a celebration of the Rebbe and his work, I appreciated every detail that provided context about how the Rebbe was able to become such an inspiring leader.

Telushkin’s writing is engaging and accessible, although some readers may find the Yiddish terminology difficult. Readers who have exceptionally strong opinions about the Lubavitcher movement may struggle with Telushkin’s portrait of its structures. This biography should be required reading for aspiring clergy, and would be a useful tool for Jewish lay leaders who want to understand the interplay between leadership and community-building. The book has the power to move readers in surprising ways.

 

Book Reviews, Literature

King Solomon’s Table – Joan Nathan

45 seconds. That was how long it took me to get to the front door, open the box, and start reading after I go the alert on my phone that Amazon had delivered Joan Nathan’s latest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table. In this sequence of events, I broke a number of house rules: 1. my phone was on the table during dinner; 2. I looked at the messages on my phone during dinner; 3. I opened a non-birthday package at the table in the middle of dinner; 4. I was reading during dinner. Luckily only the four year old mini-bookandblintz was home with me that evening, and she doesn’t particularly care about those rules. She was more than happy to join in the fun and announce that each picture looks delicious. And she was right.

It’s impossible to read this book without thrilling over just how far kosher cookbooks have come. This volume is nothing less than an exultant celebration of the art, the clarity of writing, the range of available ingredients and the diversity of Jewish food in cookbook form. A quick comparison between this book and the three other Joan Nathan cookbooks sitting on my bookshelf kicks the party into high gear. This book has a polish and sophistication that cooks could only dream of Jewish Cooking In America was published 50 years ago.

As I read through the volume, my joy came as much, if not even more so, from the stories and descriptions that accompany each recipe.  Nathan has achieved an impressive balance between presenting functional instructions for food preparation, a travel and professional memoir, and a textbook on the history of Jewish communities and their appetites. The only potential fault is in the possibility that younger readers may find it more difficult to relate to her scenes of delightful domestic cooking without finding it just a bit twee. Nevertheless, I think this cookbook belongs on the shelf in every home that considers itself to be connected to the Jewish heritage. King Solomon’s Table would make an excellent gift for anyone taking a new step as a Jewish cook, from an epicurean bar mitzvah boy to a downsizing retiree. Basically, anyone with a kitchen and a willingness to try cooking something other than toast.

I have yet to try cooking any of the recipes myself, but I expect the book to prove user-friendly. While the recipes are grouped by meal, course, and ingredient (breakfast, starters, salads, meat, etc.) I suspect that one of the unique attributes of this collection is the versatility of so many of the dishes to be eaten and served at different times and places. As diverse cultural practices and local ingredients dictated traditional foods and when they were eaten, readers will inherit this wider array of options, allowing for even greater creativity. I will, of course, follow up with this review to show off the results of my experiments.

There is just one question that this book leaves unanswered. As a native Torontonian, the blueberry buns Joan Nathan associated with my hometown are less familiar to me than the exquisite “cheese bagels” we enjoyed during our trips to Montreal to visit my grandparents. These pastries, relatives of the humbler cheese danish, are shaped liked horseshoes, have a ricotta/cream cheese filling, and are ideally finished with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. I can only imagine that the author does not have the recipe, otherwise I must beg her to add it to the next edition.

 

 

Book Reviews

Tell Me How This Ends Well – David Samuel Levinson

Getting ready to read Tell Me How This Ends Well was sort of like being stranded in traffic without knowing why. I requested an early reviewers copy from LibraryThing.com, based on the description, and was alternately looking forward to the indulgence of reading it, and worrying about the dysfunction and ugliness it may contain. As it turned out, my instincts were right on. In Tell Me How This Ends Well, David Samuel Levinson has written a sharp, funny, and chaotic book. With substantial characters and a spectacular sense of setting, Levinson provides readers with a beautiful literary mess that’s impossible to leave unfinished.

The messiness is clearly intentional, and it comes mostly from the characters. This is a diverse and dysfunctional family, all with strong personalities and hidden (and not-so-hidden) personal agendas. It is a difficult balance between highlighting the individual quirks of each family member without entering into the absurd. To his credit, Levinson succeeds in drawing distinctive characters and relationships that nod towards Jewish stereotypes,  but that never become caricatures. The book’s timeline, with most of the action taking place over the period of a few days, is tremendously helpful to its organization and flow. Although memories regularly intrude into the narrative, the tightness of the timing keeps everything focused on the plot.

Most of the book takes place in Los Angeles, in 2022, which creates a strange sense of reality. The book is set linguistically and technologically firmly in the present, but with just enough catastrophe in the next 5 years to make it look foreign. The result is a chilling combination of anti-Semitism and an isolationist United States meeting reality tv.

Tell Me How This Ends Well will likely appeal to the same readers as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am. Levinson’s writing style is more narrative than Foer’s dialogue driven work, and at *only* 400 pages, it is a less intimidating commitment. The two books are complimentary, but a book club will probably find Levinson to be less divisive, while raising many of the same discussion points.

 

Book Reviews

Conviction – Julia Dahl

One of the most fun parts of writing book reviews is getting to read books that are outside of my usual comfort zone. Because we like to keep things positive here on Books and Blintzes, you will never hear about the duds. But every so often a book arrives at my doorstep that surprises me as just being the right book at the right time. Conviction, the third installment of Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts mystery series, was just that book.

Being too impatient for most mysteries, I had missed Dahl’s acclaimed debut installment, Invisible City. The good news is that Dahl includes enough of the characters’ back stories in Conviction to make sure readers can get up to speed quickly. So go ahead and read Conviction first. Then, when you’re hooked, you can go back and enjoy the other two books.

This book caught my attention because of its setting. Investigative reporter Rebekah Roberts is drawn into the story of a gruesome murder that took place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn shortly after the riots in the summer of 1992. Now, 22 years later, she’s exploring the possibility that the wrong person was convicted. This gives Dahl a platform to incorporate not only the politics of the relationship between the Hassidic and African-American residents of Crown Heights in 1992, but also to highlight the issues of gentrification, police brutality, and the ongoing tensions in race relations that have intensified rather than disappeared. Readers interested in the way that the media portrays local events and the crime beat will appreciate Dahl giving them a front row seat to the action.

Dahl drives Conviction with strong characters and respect for the communities she portrays. Her straightforward prose keeps the pages turning, and aside from a generous sprinkling of Yiddish and Jewish religious terms, the book is accessible to anyone who might enjoy a crime novel. I will confess that even though the Conviction held my attention enough that I burned through it in less than 24 hours, I still flipped forward to read the ending when I was halfway through. Without any effort, I was able to think of five other people who I knew would be interested in this book. I will be enthusiastically sharing my copy, which is just about as good as a popular mystery can get.

 

I received a free pre-release ARC from the publisher, Minotaur Press, in order to write this review.

Book Reviews

The Genius of Judaism – Bernard-Henri Lévy

For readers who are interested in the French Jewish community, current trends in Western philosophy, and biblical scholarship, The Genius of Judaism is a rare gift. Author, activist, and thinker Bernard-Henri Lévy presents as his core thesis the idea that the Jewish people exists because of its relationships with other nations. Without the Jews, there can be no gentiles. Without the gentiles, there can be no Jews. Destined to be the eternal “other”, Jewish communities around the world and throughout history have been tasked with, and must continue to, navigate this dynamic for the purpose of human religious, civic, and social development. No pressure, right? From here, Lévy provides an intriguing analysis of anti-Semitism, Zionism, and what all this means for Israel and the international Jewish community.

Considering the scope of Lévy’s topic, his attention to detail is striking. He includes a range of specific examples of laws, events, and headlines encompassing Jewish history from the Exodus from Egypt to the present. The result is dizzying in its breadth, as well as making it impossible to read without reflecting on the news of the day. Lévy may or may not have been able to foresee the results of the 2016 US Presidential election, but reading this book in its political aftermath is an almost revelatory experience. For better or for worse, much of Lévy’s writing sounds as if it may be better suited to being presented as a lecture. His words contain a passion that makes a reader want to hear more, but also come across as slightly disorganized. It’s also necessary to caution readers that parts of this book are deeply immersed in philosophical and academic language. Having a strong background in 19th and 20th European philosophy is almost a prerequisite to reading certain chapters.

While the philosophical discussion may be beyond the understanding of most lay readers, Lévy’s musings on the existence and role of the State of Israel and his interpretation of the biblical Book of Jonah are both fascinating and accessible. His understanding of Israel and the Book of Jonah jump off the page as animating for any adult education or study group – the floors of the halls and classrooms where readers meet to discuss these topics might shake from the impact of the resulting intense discussions. To a certain extent, The Genius of the Jews is really two distinct works: the deeply intellectual and philosophical study of Jewish history and texts, and the deeply emotional and spiritual extrapolation of what it means to be Jewish across history and in the 21st century. This book will make any reader reflect on the Jewish experience, and the lucky reader will have someone with whom to share their insights along the way.

For the purposes of writing this review, the reviewer received an electronic advanced reader copy via NetGalley.com.