Book Reviews, Literature

The Dark Young Man – Jacob Dinezon

Dark Young Man All contemporary fiction eventually becomes historical fiction, especially when it’s translated and re-published 125 years after its initial release. Yiddish readers first celebrated Jacob Dinezon’s novels in 1877, but thanks to Tina Lunson’s new English language translation of his debut The Dark Young Man (adaptation by Scott Hilton Davis), his writing is now more accessible than ever before.

Reading Dinezon’s work, it’s easy to understand why The Dark Young Man became a best-seller in its time. Dinezon is a natural story-teller, maintaining humor and suspense throughout the book. His diverse cast of characters, while sometimes veering towards the predictable, jump off the page with a vibrant humanity. Readers may feel like they’ve met them before, but it’s with this sense of familiarity that Dinezon brings authenticity to their voices.

With its cosmopolitan setting, The Dark Young Man offers a sharper, less nostalgic image of Jewish life in Eastern Europe than readers of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer may expect. Yosef, the book’s protagonist, navigates the tension between his traditional upbringing and exposure to modern ideas without succumbing to unbearable angst. The business of middle-class life, trade, and politics all occur in tandem with the Jewish calendar and life cycle events. Above all, The Dark Young Man is the story of a family – the lovers at its center and the forces that threaten to upend their happiness. As such it has a timeless quality, with themes as relevant now as they were 100 years ago.

Lunson’s faithful translation maintains Dinezon’s original pacing and is painstaking in its attention to Yiddish idiom. Non-Yiddish speakers will be perfectly at home in this narrative, although those more familiar with the language might find it overly formal in places. Characters take leave of each other with “go in good health”, an accurate if solemn expression of the Yiddish “zei gezunt”. Others are described as “idlers” when they’re clearly schnorrers. Most readers would probably experience smoother sailing if Lunson had simply left such phrases untouched. Alas, in the debate for colloquialism versus consistency, consistency must have won the day.

Readers who enjoy a good story with a strong plot and well-developed characters will find much to appreciate in The Dark Young Man. It is well-suited to book club discussions and as a starting point for examining the lives of middle class Jews in Russia in the 19th century. As an example of popular Yiddish literature, it’s a fun and fast read, perfect for a relaxing Sabbath afternoon.

BooksandBlintzes received an Advance Reader Copy of this book at no charge for the express purpose of writing this review. The views included here are solely those of the reviewer. The Dark Young Man has a publication date of February 12, 2019. Additional information about the book and its adaptation can be found at https://www.jewishstorytellerpress.com/the-dark-young-man-press-room

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Book Reviews, Literature, Poetry

Texts to the Holy – Rachel Barenblat

Texts to the Holy

Rachel Barenblat’s Texts to the Holy approaches some of the most serious topics with the lightest of touches. Barenblat’s linguistic dexterity gently guides her readers through an examination of faith. It is a brilliant example of how words can keep our feet on the ground while our minds and hearts explore more ephemeral ideas.

Barenblat’s poems bridge literature and liturgy, and reading them slowly are a meditative practice. Prayer book editors, clergy, and others who are looking to incorporate contemporary writing into their religious services, may find Barenblat’s work to be exactly what they need.

Barenblat successfully avoids the pitfalls of cliche and over-familiarity, protecting the sophistication of both her subject and writing. The collection will likely resonate more profoundly with a mature reader, acting as an effective foil to one’s personal life and spiritual experience. The close partnership between poetry and reader may mean that this text may be difficult to use in a larger educational setting. However, Barenblat’s work deserves a wide showcase as an example of the power of modern Jewish poetry.

Book Reviews, Literature, Poetry

The Sabbath Bee – Wilhelmina Gottschalk

With heSabbath Beer slim volume of prose poems The Sabbath Bee, Wilhelmina Gottschalk gives readers an incredibly relatable and inspiring work about experiencing the Jewish Sabbath. The poems appear as easily digestible vignettes reflecting both traditional and contemporary ideas of observance. The collection stands as a sturdy yet playful bridge to such philosophical ideas as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “palace in time”, mystical imagery of Sabbath brides, queens, and theological concepts like the neshama yeteira (the additional soul) and hiddur mitzvah (embellishing the commandment).

While individuals will certainly find much to appreciate in reading The Sabbath Bee, it also has tremendous potential value as a pedagogical tool. Gottschalk’s writing reflects an enormous breadth of shabbat observances and is an ideal companion to studying legal, liturgical, and philosophical texts. The book offers opportunities to discuss with students from high school through adulthood about finding meaning in different types of shabbat experiences, the gendered imagery that developed over centuries, the roles of the individual, family, and community in Shabbat (and all Jewish life), and the intersection of the physical and spiritual aspects of the day… just to name a few. With this potential The Sabbath Bee deserves a place on every clergy and educator’s book shelf. For synagogues and others looking for gifts for its youth (bar mitzvah, confirmation, Hebrew High graduation) The Sabbath Bee ought to be considered.

The only inconsistency in the volume comes in its organization. Gottschalk includes a number poems related to special shabbatot (those designated in the calendar as being directly related to holidays, such as Shabbat Shuvah, which occurs between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Unfortunately, she doesn’t include all of them, and they seem to appear haphazardly throughout the book. I would have preferred to see them at the intervals and in the order in which they arrive on the calendar.

When Ben Yehuda Press initiated its Kickstarter campaign to fund its poetry series, BooksAndBlintzes.com was proud to be a supporter. The Sabbath Bee perfectly captures why we needed to make this investment. So to Gottschalk and the publisher – we’ll be here anxiously waiting for more!

Book Reviews

Passport Control – Gila Green

Passport Control Overflowing with drama, politics, personality, and angst, Gila Green’s Passport Control delivers on all these fronts.

It’s 1992. When twenty year old Miriam learns that she is no longer welcome to live in her father’s Ottawa home, she heads off to her parents’ native Israel to continue her studies at Haifa University. Hoping to find out more about her estranged family, Miriam ends up tangled in a web of old secrets, vengeance, and pain. Green does not give Miriam or her readers the satisfaction of a true coming of age tale. Instead, she offers us the richer, messier journey of a young woman whose search for greater understanding leads to a more honest confusion.

Green plants Miriam in the Israel of the Oslo peace process, a time and place that highlights her naivite and ignorance about “the real Israel”. Green expects her readers to catch up just as quickly. From the Haifa University dorms and dining room to Jerusalem’s Old City and a northern kibbutz, Green’s writing gets directly to the core of Israeli society. Green presents her characters and their setting in vivid detail, while still allowing her readers to make their own emotional connections to the time and places in Miriam’s story. Throughout Miriam’s experiences Green weaves a sophisticated commentary on the political and socio-economic divisions in Israel and Diaspora Jewry. This is a tremendous gift to readers who will understand all its subtleties. Book clubs will find an endless stream of discussion topics. Casual readers will appreciate Green’s ability to fit so much nuance in a tightly written narrative. Like Miriam, all will emerge with a greater empathy for those who need to live with a complicated past.

BooksAndBlintzes.com received a free copy of this book for the purposes of writing this review. For more information about Gila Green and her other work, please visit www.gilagreenwrites.com

 

 

Book Reviews, Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, Literature

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novick

Spinning Silver

Naomi Novick’s most recent book, Spinning Silver, immerses her readers in a world of fairy tales and magic. As she re-tells a hybrid of Rumplestiltskin and other classic stories, she creates an irresistible world, filled with the greatest promises for redemption, and the greatest terrors of defeat.

Miryem Mandelstam, the moneylender’s teen-aged daughter, commands the book’s central plot, as her unusual powers make her an ally and an enemy to the fabled Staryk forest creatures. As she struggles to hold her ground between her world and the Staryk kingdom, Miryem’s personal fate is inseparable from the destiny of the empire. From her family to the Czar, everyone in the kingdom needs her protection, and it takes a complex network of supporting characters for Miryem to reach her fullest potential.

It is a great pleasure to read a book that features such an incredibly strong young female protagonist as Miryem, and that Novick’s book features a whole cast of them underlines some of the darker questions beneath the narrative. Like the best fairy tales, Spinning Silver is not about getting to the “happily ever after”, and readers who expect such simplicity are going to be disappointed. Readers who are unafraid to engage with issues surrounding gender roles, anti-Semitism, political intrigue, and justice will find themselves thinking about the book long after they turn the last page. Novick’s ability to balance beautiful storytelling with a study of deeper human conflicts, without becoming preachy or dismissively flighty, makes Spinning Silver a book that readers will enjoy returning to over and over again.

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.

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.