Book Reviews

Jerusalem As A Second Language – Distelheim

The story of a Russian family that finds itself suddenly part of the wave of Jewish immigration to Israel in the aftermath of the fall of communism, Jerusalem As A Second Language has all the hallmarks of the best kind of coming of age story. As the Zelinikov family learns to navigate their new country, and the new religious, political, economic, and social relationships that go along with it, author Rochelle Distelheim brings imagination to their struggle to reclaim their identities and what matters most in their lives.

Distelheim gives each of the Zelinikovs – main protagonist Manya, her husband Yuri, and their teen-aged daughter Galina – a distinct voice and the freedom to experience their journey as new immigrants on their own terms. The author’s facility with Russian and Israeli culture, multiple languages, and sense of place, provides the diverse cast of characters and the strong foundation the narrative needs to thrive. It is a testament to Distelheim’s experience as an author of short stories that she is able to weave so many different threads together, and in this, her second novel, the parts do all add together to a greater whole.

For those who are less familiar with the experience of Russian olim in Israel, this book provides the necessary background information so readers will not get lost in the details. Distelheim strikes the difficult balance between the particular characteristics of the community and individual character’s backgrounds without allowing them to become stereotypes. This is true for the other communities and individuals the Zelinikovs interact with as well. Furthermore, Distelheim should be complimented for the lightness and humor that permeates the novel, without losing sight of the underlying seriousness of the challenges the family faces. There’s plenty in this book’s narrative and characters for readers to sink their teeth into, as well as potential book club conversations. For readers who have been spending more time at home in 2020, Jerusalem As A Second Language may not provide an escape from 2020, but they will enjoy joining the Zelinikovs on their international and more introspective journeys.

Book Reviews, Literature

999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz – Heather Dune Macadam

Writer and researcher Heather Dune Macadam has given over a decade of attention to the narratives at the core of her book’s work, and her devotion to her subjects presents readers with a remarkably original and balanced narrative. In 999, she follows the first group of young Jewish women to be deported to Auschwitz, some of whom were just teenagers at the time. With her sharp focus on this specific group of young women, Macadam moves beyond the numbing catalogue of horrors endemic to so much Holocaust writing. Instead, it gives her book the structure, compassion, and moral compass that helps to direct readers through the terrors she that describes.

As with any book that weaves together multiple stories, keeping track of the various strands, especially as many of the young women shared common names, requires readers to pay attention. For Macadam, that is clearly part of the point – to understand that each of these Martas and Ediths were, in fact, individuals with families, histories, and dreams for their futures. Readers will quickly realize that remembering these names honors their memories.

Macadam’s work as a researcher shines in her descriptions of the group’s arrival in Auschwitz, how the concentration camp developed over time, and the women’s experiences at liberation. As she describes the barrenness of the landscape and the women’s initial experiences of pain and humiliation at the hands of the SS, there is a tremendous sense of foreboding. Readers trace the development of the concentration camp as it moves from being in the trial stage of base cruelty, to the well-oiled machine of death that it would become. Macadam highlights that Auschwitz was a place that was built, that depended on the labor of its earliest inmates, and had a culture that grew out of a desperation to survive. In doing so, her readers have little choice but to acknowledge Auschwitz as an atrocity of intentional, human design, which if they have a conscience, can only be heart-breaking.

Should any reader’s heart remain unmoved, Macadam’s writing about the women’s experiences at the time of their liberation is a primal scream for humanity. She openly questions what it meant for these young women to have been imprisoned during their formative years. One of the themes that she returns to often is that having been the first to be deported, the families, homes, and towns they left were mostly intact – and had been almost completely annihilated in their absence. However, even as Macadam demands that readers connect viscerally with the women of 999, she treats their stories with utmost respect. She does not describe cruelty for shock value, glamorize their pain, or encourage vicarious victimhood. Macadam’s work is rather a straightforward narrative of pain and chaos inflicted by one group of people on another, and the imperfect ways in which everyone fights to survive.

This book is likely to be most meaningful to those with some background in Holocaust history. Such context is necessary to appreciate the micro-attention to the particular group of women in Macadam’s work. With an engaging and concise writing style, 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz provides a deeply moving and densely researched tiny slice of a much larger story. received a copy of this book from the publisher for the express purpose of writing a review. The contents of this review are the personal reactions and opinions of its author.

Book Reviews, Literature

The Song of the Jade Lily – Kirsty Manning

A grandmother and her granddaughter face the secrets of their past in Kirsty Manning’s elegant and lovingly told novel The Song of the Jade Lily.

Romy fled Vienna with her parents in 1939, arriving in Shanghai comparatively privileged among the Jewish refugees seeking a safe haven from the Nazis. Their new neighbors, the Ho family, are ethnic Chinese, and when the city is captured by the Japanese, become active in the resistance. Romy’s story is a tale of loss and survival, as she, her family, and her friends struggle through the daily threats of the war and occupation.

Alexandra is Romy’s granddaughter. Romy and her husband Wilhelm raise their granddaughter in Australia, after their daughter Rose is killed in a car accident. When Alexandra’s work brings her to Shanghai, she hopes to uncover the truth about her mother’s parentage.

Manning nimbly jumps across her novel’s multiple time and geographic settings, guiding her readers as they try to match her agility. Details about the location, especially Shanghai, saturate the narrative, helping readers navigate the book’s complex mix of language and cultures. Manning’s extensive research shines through on every page, adding depth and texture to Romy and Alexandra’s story. While the setting occasionally overshadows the narrative, it gives the book the heft it needs to make it a remarkable read.

Although the story is connected with the Holocaust and Jewish persecution by the Nazis, it stops short of considering particular questions of Jewish identity and experience. Manning’s focus on the universality of love, grief, respecting other cultures and fighting for justice makes her characters both more widely sympathetic and less fully-articulated in their selves. Readers will find plenty to talk about as they explore Romy and Alexandra’s experiences, and the included author’s notes and book club guide both give excellent direction. It is a well-written book that is an enjoyable and engrossing read, ideal for sharing with a friend.

Book Reviews, Literature

Journey To Open Orthodoxy – Rabbi Avi Weiss

With his new collected volume of writings Journey To Open Orthodoxy, Rabbi Avi Weiss presents how his thinking and experiences have come together to shape his vision for the future of the Jewish people. Reaching beyond the limitations of a denominational platform, these essays articulate a menu of possibilities on a wide-range of topics, from halacha to Jewish leadership, diversity and inclusion in Jewish life, and the State of Israel. Although he intends his ideas to be linked under the umbrella of “Open Orthodoxy” each individual essay has the sturdiness of resolve and principle to stand on its own.

As some of the contents have been previously published, and in some cases over 20 years ago, the strength of each individual essay is hardly surprising. What is most striking about the collection is how it enables the reader to travel along with Rabbi Weiss as his thinking matures and sometimes changes. The gradual development of Rabbi Weiss’ positions, as he gains experience as a pulpit rabbi, visits and re-visits traditional texts, faces new challenges in his family relationships, and addresses stormy political seas emerges as his ultimate lesson. Living a full Jewish life, being fully immersed in the well-being of loved ones, community, and Am Yisrael is a long-term commitment, one that can be uncomfortable and deeply painful. In this volume, Rabbi Weiss powerfully demonstrates that his commitment to continuing on this journey has enabled him to create a space for a different kind of religious engagement and practice, one he hopes will emerge as a significant force in the future of Jewish peoplehood. Individual readers may not be in the position to affect the international conversation about what should constitute normative Jewish practice and participation, but they will be inspired to understand that their opinions about such subjects may change over time, and that there is tremendous value to exploring multiple options.

There will be readers who chafe at Rabbi Weiss’ characterizations of other Jewish denominations, and who will actively disagree with some of his halachic positions. While the book invites an in-depth critique of the movement he calls “Open Orthodoxy” readers need to be cautious not to judge Rabbi Weiss for not moving far enough or fast enough (or for going too far too fast). It can be difficult to separate his writing from the generally privileged religious, socio-economic and political contexts of his community in Riverdale, New York, and readers with limited experience with the formal study of Jewish texts may occasionally be overwhelmed. Readers who have been closely following Rabbi Weiss’ work and writings will probably not find much new material, although they will likely be most appreciative of having this well-edited and conceived collection. The best hope for this volume is for those who have accompanied Rabbi Weiss in his past decades of service to the Jewish people to better understand his journey, and that those who are less familiar with his work may learn from his experience and embrace the uncertainty of fully engaging in the conversation and journey of their own. received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of writing this review. Its contents solely reflect those of its author. If you have a book that you would like to have considered for a review on our website, please use the submission form on the “Guest Post Information” page.

Book Reviews, Literature

White Zion – Gila Green

With a vibrancy and complexity that brings her characters and their stories to life, Gila Green’s latest book, White Zion is a celebration of her artistry. Written as a collection of stories, it weaves together the tales of generations as Green crosses continents, watches empires fall, and new countries and families emerge.

Readers who are familiar with Green’s other works will find themselves returning to the stories of old friends, as some of the material in White Zion refers to her earlier narratives. New readers will relish the introduction to a diverse cast of characters and insights into the highly personal side of history. Through the lenses of different family members, national and international political, religious, racial, and gender movements become intimate, headlines become the background to individual lives.

Green’s connection to the Jewish Yemenite community in Israel and Canada forms the strong backbone for her work, and White Zion beautifully captures their multi-faceted experiences. Especially enticing are the stories set in the first half of the twentieth century, before the founding of the State of Israel. This earlier Yemeni pilgrimage to Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine, and the stories of the established Yemeni community at the time of Israel’s founding provides a vivid portrait of the country’s popular roots. As readers travel through time and around the world, Green maintains a skillful balance of particularity and universality in each individual narrative.

Readers who enthusiastically embrace White Zion’s epic journey will find themselves carried along in this current of adventures and discovery of identity. In order to stay connected to the myriad characters and settings, readers may prefer to inhale the whole book in a few short sittings, then return to savor favorite stories at a more leisurely pace. White Zion contains someone or something for everyone to relate to and its historical and geographical diversity adds to its book club conversation potential. For readers who are looking for a refreshing approach to the history of Israel, its Yemeni community, and the immigrant experience, White Zion checks off all the right boxes and should jump straight to the top of the to-read list.

Book Reviews, Literature

Floating In The Neversink – Andrea Simon

Like many others of my generation, my earliest images of the Catskill mountains and its Jewish summer bungalow and resort communities, came directly from the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. While my imagination will always equate the Catskills with the fictional Kellerman’s and the popular mythology of real-life Kutcher’s , Andrea Simon’s new book Floating In The Neversink showcases the summer Jewish experience in the mountains in an equally engaging, if much harsher narrative.

Floating In The Neversink is a complex and tightly woven “novel in stories” told from the perspective of young Amanda (Mandy) Gerber. A pre-teen when the book opens in 1955, it follows Mandy through her adolescence and high school years, recounting her summers with her extended family in the Catskills and the other seasons back in Brooklyn. Simon’s remarkably detailed descriptions of these settings are an immersive treat for her readers, being gritty enough to overcome any over-enthusiastic nostalgia. And as the book includes subject matter related to the sexual assault of children, mental illness, racism, and suicide, readers should be prepared with trigger warnings.

Yet even as Simon’s writing exposes the sharper edges of the Catskills for Mandy and her family, it also celebrates the best of these memories. Her deep relationships with her grandmothers and seeing how Mandy, and her sister and cousins are shaped by their shared experiences, is a joyful tribute to family that shines out from the underlying dark conflicts. Over the course of the stories, Simon deftly unfolds the nuances of her characters, all of whom are humanly imperfect, yet all of whom remain somewhat shadowy around the edges. This is the essential challenge of the book as a collection of short stories. It succeeds because of the strong continuity and its detailed character development. It succeeds when understood as a series of memories, but readers will be left without the whole of Mandy’s story.

Will readers be satisfied with this sense of incompleteness? Floating In The Neversink demands that its protagonist accept that there are things that can’t or won’t be discussed. That there are secrets and things that are unknowable in every family. And Simon doesn’t give her readers any more insight than she allows to Mandy. The result, is a thought-provoking and beautifully written book that will challenge how its readers think about how an individual weaves the tapestry of her family’s collective memory. received an advance review copy of the book for the express purpose of writing this review. Its contents are solely those of its author.

Book Reviews, Literature

Never A Native – Alice Shalvi

Alice Shalvi is a force to be reckoned with, and in her memoir, Never A Native, she describes how a refugee German Jewish girl became one of the most important voices in Israeli feminism and social politics. From its early descriptions of her family’s fight from the Nazis to England in the 1930s to her celebrated work re-shaping the academic and political fabric of a new nation state, Shalvi’s rich and courageous personal story shines through.

Shalvi’s focus on her early life and her relationships with her family provide more than just her personal history. Her attention to these details firmly place her story as part of the narrative of the Jewish people. As she recounts her journey from Germany, to England, to Israel, readers will recognize in her individual story the pathways and experiences of their own families and neighbors. Within the intimacies she shares about being a partner with her husband, parent to her children, a daughter, sister and friend, Shalvi emerges as a powerful storyteller that makes her professional attainments seem inevitable. She is hardly invincible, but showcases the intelligence and determination that empowered her and so many other women to speak and achieve their goals.

For readers who think they know Israeli political history but are unfamiliar with its women’s movement, Never A Native is an essential primer on this part of the country’s development. Similarly, those who are interested in Israel’s academic and social welfare institutions will find in Shalvi’s work a thorough examination of how they were shaped. Shalvi is not so disingenuous as to try to pass off her life experiences as being “typical” of her generation, but she balances a very fine line between acknowledging her privilege as a Western European, highly educated women with some of the economic and political hardships that were common in the early years of the state.

Never A Native deserves the accolades and attention that it has received. While not every page is teeming with fast-paced action, Shalvi provides her readers with so many opportunities to reflect, question, and be inspired. Educators will find it rich in material to share with high school, college, and adult learners. And everyone should be grateful to Shalvi, not only for the tremendous work she has done to support women’s rights in Israel, but for her willingness to share her story in such an approachable and thorough way.