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!

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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.

 

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.