Book Reviews, Literature

Memento Park – Mark Sarvas

Memento ParkMark Sarvas’ acclaimed novel Memento Park centers around the mystery of ownership – a painting, a family, and a past.

Readers meet the protagonist, Matt Santos, who has just learned that he *might* be the rightful heir of a valuable painting that disappeared during the Holocaust. Hesitant but intrigued by the possibility that the painting did belong to his family, Matt follows the threads of his father’s stories back to his native Hungary, and the family and secrets left behind.

More than recounting the now familiar story of stolen European art, Sarvas focuses on the intimate questions of how Matt Santos understands his family’s history and how this understanding frames his actions, and ultimately his future. Santos’ family story is not a particularly heroic one. His relationship with his father has always been strained, with hurt and frustration long-standing pillars on both sides. Santos approaches his father and everything to do with the painting as he would taking off a band-aid – however he does it, it’s going to hurt. But Santos is an actor, and brings a constant tension to the narrative as readers untangle how much of his actions are sincere, and which elements might be performative.

Happily, Sarvas’ excellent writing saves Santos from being an angry, nebbishy, caricature of the suffering son. Sarvas gives Santos and his other characters enough flaws to to be human, but not so many as to be truly disagreeable. His clear and uncluttered writing style is an especially good match for the voices of Santos and his father, while keeping the narrative going at a solid pace.

A basic knowledge of 20th century Hungarian history and a quick glance at the country’s map are more than enough to be able to follow along with the action. Sarvas ably steers readers through the events and settings that underpin the story, as well as any necessary Hungarian language.

Memento Park is most likely to appeal to those who appreciate well-written fiction, especially with some globe-trotting and historical twists. An interest in the post-war American immigrant experience and the Hungarian community is a strong bonus. This book will be best enjoyed with a cup of hot coffee and fresh strudel.

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Book Reviews

If All The Seas Were Ink – Ilana Kurshan

If-All-the-Seas-Were-Ink I didn’t read Ilana Kurshan’s award-winning memoir If All the Seas Were Ink. I inhaled it.

In her book, Kurshan tactfully and gracefully captures her reflections about her study during the daf yomi cycle and the coinciding seven years of her life. She roots her experiences firmly in her own time and place, presenting both her stories and the relevant Talmudic texts in an approachable and intelligent voice. As a reader, I celebrated with Kurshan as she persevered with her learning and discovered meaning and personal truths in the ancient words she studied. I celebrated in the journey that she takes over so many years, developing a confidence and maturity as a student, a writer, and in her Jewish identity.

In fact, the seven year long time-frame is one of the elements that I most appreciated about Kurshan’s memoir. The extended time line truly allows readers to become engaged in her story, and perceive how her experience has contributed to her personal growth. Kurshan’s book demonstrates a slow unfolding of talent and understanding – there are fewer aha! moments, and more moments and teachings that stand out against the rest. I did not come away from Kurshan’s book eager to jump into the daf yomi study program myself. I came away from Kurshan’s book eager to continue to explore the Jewish practices, rituals, and texts that inspire and challenge me. I came away from Kurshan’s book eager to appreciate the opportunity for growth and connection that Jewish tradition and community offer to me and my family.

In addition to Kurshan’s personal story, If All the Seas Were Ink also offers readers a snapshot of the role that the daf yomi learning program in the international Jewish community. Even as it brings people from starkly difference parts of the Jewish world together, it can highlight fissures along the lines of gender, location, economic class, and education. Kurshan’s memoir offers a thoughtful commentary on the status of women, religion in Israel, and access to the instruction and study of sacred texts. Her ability to capture both her own experience and these broader issues make Kurshan’s book a must-read for anyone interested in Jewish life as lived in the twenty-first century.

 

Book Reviews, Poetry

Poetry for the Soul

Poetry Fall 5778

Sometimes a book comes along at exactly the time you need to read it.

When Ben Yehudah Press ran a Kickstarter campaign last spring to publish a new collection of Jewish poetry, BooksAndBlintzes.com was excited to back it. After all, highlighting diverse voices in Jewish art and promoting new work is what we live for.

But then the first three volumes arrived in the mail, and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually read poetry.  Maybe for a Hebrew literature class in rabbinical school? Something in the margins or an alternative reading in a prayer book? So I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in this particular literary genre, I can only speak to what this collection stirred in me as a reader.

I started with Yaakov Moshe’s “Is – Heretical Jewish Blessings and Poems”. Without really being sure what to expect, by the time I had finished it, I had filled this slim volume with notes and underlined passages. The time I read these poems coincided, unintentionally, with one of my most difficult professional experiences, and Moshe’s balance of spirituality and humor offered all of the sensitivity and wonder that my soul needed. Moshe’s sharp writing and focus, and his ability to frame fundamental questions of individual identity and community with unstinting clarity, makes this book fully engrossing and potentially transformative. This poetry isn’t about being pretty. Moshe speaks his truth. And in presenting the questions and ideas that leads him to the words on the page, readers will find this search for self, for meaning, and the sometimes ridiculous nature of this search, to be honest, thoughtful and nourishing.

Next up was “Words for Blessing the World” by Herbert J. Levine. This volume is a lush explosion of language, the kind that draws you in and begs you to spend time just reveling in the words. Levine’s poems are printed in both Hebrew and English, with the two languages mirroring each other on the page. While each version of the poem easily holds its own as a complete literary entity, readers who can appreciate both can take this collection to a whole other level. That Levine’s work can be so accessible to novice poetry readers and offer such a complex challenge to experienced poetry lovers makes it absolutely extraordinary. Not only do his poems fully engage his readers, the collection brings the best possible attention to what Jewish poetry can be and its relevance in the 21st century.

The 3rd volume was Maxine Silverman’s “Shiva Moon.” Of the three collections, reading this one felt the most intimate. As Silverman relays her deeply personal experience of grief, she challenges readers to push the boundaries of story telling and understanding. As a sensitive and raw description of death and mourning, Silverman’s words provide a powerful alternative frame to the discuss these experiences in a Jewish setting. Because of the subject matter, readers are primed to viscerally respond to Silverman’s work, and some may find it overwhelming. However, readers who are willing and able to fully engage with the poems will find unparalleled depth and feeling here. “Shiva Moon” succeeds in showcasing how poetry can bridge the divide between personal and universal experiences, and how it can give voice to an otherwise silent struggle.

I will be looking forward to the next three volumes in the series. Thank you to Ben Yehudah Press for bringing this collection to life.

Book Reviews

Unlocking Past – Shira Sebban

Unlocking the Past

Shira Sebban’s Unlocking the Past documents her mother’s experiences as a young woman living in the new State of Israel in the 1950s. Carefully drawing from her mother’s diary entries from this time, Sebban painstakingly pieces together a vibrant social history to provide a peek inside an individual story behind the larger international events.

Among the most striking elements of Sebban’s book are the photographs. Sebban includes both personal and archival photographs, and the juxtaposition of the two amplifies the inter-connectedness of the personal and national narratives. The Israel that Naomi inhabited was a country brimming with young people and potential. The country’s tiny geography adds to the intimacy of the setting and the relationships that Naomi experiences.

So what did a young, educated, and single woman do in Israel in the mid-1950s? Naomi’s life, according to her diary entries, was largely defined by her work as an economist, her connection to the Hebrew University, and an endless stream of movies, concerts, and small parties in people’s apartments or at cafes. It was a largely secular and urban life, with perhaps the only traditional element being the expectation that a young single woman must be looking for a husband. Sebban does not gloss over the military and security threats, but she addresses them apolitically, with direct reference to how they affected her mother’s day to day experiences. Readers who are hoping for a story of spiritual-awakening and efforts to make the desert bloom will be severely disappointed. Readers who wish to engage with the energy of young people eager to establish their roots in a new home will find abundant inspiration.

As Sebban has tried to stay true to her source material, the narrative sometimes feels choppy or distant. The excerpts she includes in the book make it clear that her mother was not given over to flowery prose in making her diary entries, and Sebban is faithful to the simplicity and sharpness of Naomi’s writing. It is to her credit that Sebban chooses not to try to speculate or fill in the blanks where her mother’s story is incomplete. Rather, she gives her readers a priceless gift – the hint of a personal narrative that makes us question and want to explore more fully the lives of those we hold most dear. We will never know the whole story, but we can try to find connections that will support out shared memories, and allow us to better understand ourselves.

BooksandBlintzes received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review. The opinions and content of this review are solely those of the review’s author.

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.

 

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.