Book Reviews, Literature

My Mother’s Son – David Hirshberg

My Mother's SonDavid Hirsherg’s debut novel My Mother’s Son is a celebration of family in all its complex imperfections. The narrative centers around a retiring radio personality, Joel, telling his own story about growing up in post-war Boston. Local and international politics, the relationships between Joel’s Jewish and other large ethnic communities in the city, a public health crisis, and the drama surrounding the local baseball team all shape his childhood and understanding of his world.

Joel has a strong cast of supporting characters that bring humor, depth, and vibrancy to the young man’s story. The book is as much about how Joel gains maturity in understanding himself as it is about his becoming more aware of the people around him. Hirshberg succeeds in crafting characters with full personalities without allowing them to become caricatures of themselves.

Notwithstanding Harry Potter, it’s been a long time since I the story of a 12 year old boy has engaged me so fully and emotionally as Hirshberg’s novel has done. While there were points in the novel where I wished the author would pick up the pace, I also appreciated that as the story develops, it maintains multiple levels of truths that readers can only tease out slowly. The story of the family develops over generations. It wouldn’t be fair to expect Joel to discover all its intricacies without taking some detours.

Anyone who grew up in a Jewish community in the shadow of the Holocaust will likely find a great deal to relate to in Joel’s story. Anyone with ties to the city of Boston or who has strong memories of major league baseball in the 50s won’t be able to read this book without strong feelings of nostalgia. Even as Joel’s story is very much his own, the family’s immigrant history and network of connections contribute to the universal nature of this book. My Mother’s Son isn’t just the story of Joel and his family, but the story of a generation.

BooksandBlintzes received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this novel from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

 

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Book Reviews, Textiles

Embroidery and Sacred Text: New Designs in Judaic Needlework – Rachel Braun

Embroidery Embroidery and Sacred Textand Sacred Text: New Designs in Judaic Needlework is the author’s journal of her personal voyage into tying the mathematics of cross stitch design, planning and the final execution of the design to the celebration of various passages from text such as torah, tehillim, piyutim, decorative articles for the home, and personal family life cycle events.

The introduction sets the stage for the theme of repetition in Judaic text with the integration of math concepts present in embroidery design.

It discusses the idea of repetition that is evident in the Jewish calendar cycle, biblical passages that detail textual lists: of names, places, instructions for offerings, and instructions for the preparation and decoration of the mishkan.

The writer is a mathematician and is drawn to the orderliness of these lists, charts, the constant counting, columns, and the constant counting. She notes a similarity in the repetition of graph paper to woven fabric, particularly of Aida cloth which is the base for her embroidery echoing of the multitude of identical stitches needed to create the embroidery patterns.

The book consists of 22 full colour plates of embroidery in the “Blackwork” style. Blackwork, sometimes called Spanish work, is a very old type of counted thread needlework, traditionally done using black thread. Rachel Braun has given a new life to the form by using coloured threads to provide variations and contrast.

The book is divided into four parts. The first section of consists of beautiful colour plates of the embroideries. Each of the 22 colour plates is accompanied by a completely detailed artist’s statement and explanation.

The second section details the mathematical processes involved in creating and planning each pattern. The author delves into the concepts of geometry, symmetry, rotations, counting, and area, complete with enlarged detail colour plates.

Part three explains the differences between fill and border work in Blackwork embroidery, complete with an illustration of the graphing technique used. There are 3 pages of showing “fill” techniques, 2 pages of “corner” and “border” and “medallions”, and 1 page detailing progressive pattern (with a graph), all with colour plates.

The last section has both English and Hebrew fonts, graphed out for ease of use.

I enjoyed the detail in the colour plates and the artist’s use of colour. The embroidery work is exceptional. The attention to every stitch, every thought, and diarizing of each piece is intense, and would be most appreciated by an advanced hand embroiderer, a student of textile and embroidery arts, and one with a scholarly interest in Judaic textiles.

Paula Shuchat MillerThis review was written by guest contributor Paula Shuchat Miller. Paula is a Toronto-based textile and mixed-media artist, a certified Paverpol instructor, and a long time member of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Textiles in Canada. You can learn more about Paula, her work, and custom creations
at www.millerartfabrications.com.

Book Reviews, Words of Wisdom

An Interview With Elana Zaiman, Author of The Forever Letter

In the fall of 2017, BooksandBlintzes shared a review of Rabbi Elana Zaiman’s book “The Forever Letter”. We followed up with the author to find out more about her work and inspiration, and are excited to feature this follow-up interview.

INTERVIEW QUESTIONS with Rabbi Elana Zaiman, Author of The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe for Those We Love

What is a forever letter? The Forever Letter

I conceived of Forever LettersTM as a process for self-reflection that focuses on healing, uplifting and deepening our most important interpersonal relationships. One of the outcomes can be letters that share our values and wisdom, ask for forgiveness or forgive, and express our gratitude and love. We hope that our letters are treasured as enduring, timeless gifts.

Why are Forever Letters so meaningful for you?

I have seen so much pain in families and in relationships. I know people who haven’t talked to family members or friends for years, not even remembering why they had not been speaking. I have found that sometimes these letters can open a door that has been closed for years and give a defunct relationship a jump start.

Do you think the letter writing process can be adapted for those who aren’t able to read and/or write due to disability? How do you think this could enhance or complicate the process?

If an individual cannot read or write, that person may still be able to speak their words for someone else to write them down.
This can be an amazing process, helping someone to get their thoughts and feelings down on paper in the form of a letter. Not only does the letter have the possibility of deepening the relationship between author and recipient, it also has the possibility of creating a deeper bond between the author and the person transcribing the author’s words on the page.
A complication can emerge in helping anyone write down their thoughts and feelings, and that is this: that the written word ends up sounding more like the person writing and transcribing the words than it does like the individual speaking them. Great care needs to be taken to hold onto the voice of the author.

What are the longest and shortest letters that you have ever written/seen others write?

I have seen letters of a few sentences, a paragraph, a few paragraphs, a few pages, many pages, book length. It depends on the desire of the author and the purpose of the letter.

Have you personally, or do you know of anyone, who has regretted something he/she wrote?

I don’t know of anyone who has expressed regret. In my book, I emphasize the importance of taking the recipient’s feelings into account before writing, as well as, putting aside the letter for a while and then re-reading it a couple times from different perspectives. Despite our best efforts, having regrets may still happen. If our heartfelt intention is to heal, uplift, and deepen our relationship then we can always reach out again.

You are a writer. What is it in you that impels you to write?

The need to know myself. When I don’t write for extended periods of time I lose a connection to myself, I feel less whole.

Elana Zaiman loves connecting wiElana Zaimanth people. She is the first woman rabbi from a family spanning six generations of rabbis. Elana travels throughout the U.S. and Canada as a scholar-in-residence, speaker, and workshop facilitator. She teaches and lectures at social service agencies, law firms, women’s organizations, private salons, synagogues, churches, interfaith-gatherings, geriatric residencies, and elder-law, health-care and financial and estate-planning conferences. She’s a chaplain at The Summit at First Hill, a retirement community in Seattle; a certified Wise Aging instructor (IJS), and Adjunct Faculty at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital CPE Program. In addition to being the Ethics and Spirituality columnist for LivFun, a publication for Leisure Care retirement facilities in 10 states, her writing has been published in The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Post Road, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere. Elana also volunteers as a co-partner in the Seattle Limbe Sewing Circle, an intergenerational and interracial community which brings together Jews, Muslims, and Christians to create feminine hygiene kits for girls in Cameroon, Africa. Elana lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and their son.

 

Book Reviews, Literature

Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig

Miss Burma by Charmaine CraigCharmaine Craig’s semi-biographical novel “Miss Burma” could hardly be more timely. With ethnic violence in Myanmar making headlines again, Craig’s story, which begins in the 1930s, traces one family’s experience of the country’s political upheaval and racial divisions.

Craig’s book gives readers a rare, and all too brief, glimpse of South East Asian Jewish communities at the end of the British colonial period. Benny, the titular character’s father, was born to a Jewish family in India. The death of his parents, his years in Catholic schools, and his marriage to a woman from the Karen minority sever his relationship to the Jewish community. He aligns himself with the cause of the Karen people, his Jewish identity all but disappearing into the shadows of the past. Following the second world war and independence, the Jewish community in Myanmar all but disappears, with most Jews emigrating to other parts of the Commonwealth. The idea of peoplehood – that an individual can be connected to a larger community with shared values – is one of the central themes of the novel. Craig’s brush with Benny’s Jewish roots encourages readers to explore the history and structure of the Myanmar Jewish community, but will leave others wondering why Craig chose to include this connection in a n already busy narrative.

And “Miss Burma” is a busy book. Spanning several decades and the breadth and width of the country, I’m surely not the only reader who could have really used a map. Craig’s description of the country’s intricate political history is informative, but there is a real tension between providing the necessary background and driving the story forward. It is a slow read, but the setting will draw readers back in every time. Readers who enjoy a meandering family saga will appreciate the character’s diversity and development over the years. “Miss Burma” brings a new perspective to questions of Jewish identity and experience, but readers must be willing to dig through the many other elements in the book to find it.

Book Reviews, Literature

Enchanted Islands – Allison Amend

Enchanted Islands Amend

The question of independence is at the center of Allison Amend’s novel Enchanted Islands. Loosely based on the memoirs of Frances Conway, the book explores the struggle of a woman creating a life for herself, straddling the conventions of her time.

Born to a poor immigrant (Polish) Jewish family in the mid-western US, Frances never quite has a place to call her own. Her friendship with Rosalie, the daughter of an established German Jewish family highlights every limitation, even as she discovers that things are not always as they appear. As young women the two friends leave their hometown together, but after Rosalie’s betrayal, Frances decides to make her future on her own.

Frances remains an isolated character, a position that gives her the freedom to take on her adventure with the military intelligence. Away from society and the constraints of expected behavior, Frances finds a sort of peace. Or gets as close to being comfortable in this world as she is ever going to be.

Amend’s novel has a sense of disarray and incompleteness that complements Frances’ independent spirit. The world is an untidy place, and any single person who must live in it necessarily lives in that messiness. Amend is at her best as a writer describing the natural world of the Galapagos. She captures the connections between the islands and the surrounding trade and political infrastructure with clarity and succeeds in highlighting the uniqueness of her setting.

Readers who enjoy American military and social history will most appreciate this book. Amend’s characterizations of the Jewish community slant towards the cliche and are a weaker aspect of the novel. The diversity of its characters and military connections provides lots of potential for book club discussions. It is difficult to read this book without considering one’s personal experiences and understanding of WWII, the military, the Jewish community and sexism. Readers who are open to allowing Amend to plumb the depths of their memories will be rewarded with an imaginative and touching book. Others will find that they prefer to leave these complexities buried.

Book Reviews, Literature

The Soul of a Thief – Steven Hartov

The Soul of a Thief HartovSteven Hartov’s The Soul of a Thief offers readers an intentionally sparse and unsatisfying story of a young Jewish officer conscripted into the army of the Third Reich. Set in France in the winter of 1944, Stephan Brandt’s commander Colonel Erich Himmel has realized that the Germans are going to lose the war and enlists Shtefan’s help to carry out the plan that will allow him to escape the victor’s justice when the war ends.

Hartov moves the action along at a quick pace, deftly maneuvering between battle scenes, describing the mundane routine of army camp life, and unfolding the love triangle that threatens to undo his hero. Hartov relies on simple language, and it adds a necessary crispness to the narrative. While it may strike some readers as impersonal, in general it helps the reader to understand the objectivity with which Shtefan is trying to tell his story. Shtefan’s role in the army, indeed his whole character, requires that both he and the reader maintain an emotional distance from the events as they unfold. This tension between being willing to acknowledge the depth of feeling and hiding this truth even from yourself ultimately provides the backbone to Hartov’s novel.

While Shtefan’s abstraction keeps readers at arms length, his love interest, the Jewish French woman Gabrielle, grabs the limelight and emerges as the story’s true protagonist. The Soul of a Thief offers readers a portrait of gender and sexual politics that Holocaust and World War Two literature often glosses over. Gabrielle’s connection to her identity and her ability to act with clear intention provides a strong foil to Shtefan’s detachment. I can’t help but wish that Hartov will return to tell us the same story from Gabrielle’s perspective.

This book will most likely appeal more to those who enjoy a good spy thriller than richly detailed historical fiction. The people and their ruses, not lengthy descriptions of the French countryside under occupation, that drive Hartov’s book. Readers hoping for a thoughtful and suspenseful account of one person’s experience will most appreciate The Soul of a Thief.

 

BooksandBlintzes received an electronic copy of this title from NetGalley.com for the purpose of writing this review. The opinions presented belong only the post’s author.

 

Book Reviews

Casting Lots – Susan Silverman

Casting Lots is the story of family. How it is created, what it means to belong, and perhaps most vividly, how it changes with time. In this memoir, author Susan Silverman describes her journey as a mother of internationally adopted children. With exceptional emotional clarity, Silverman writes about how the process of adopting her sons from Ethiopia affected her as an individual, and in all her family roles of wife, birth mother, sister, and daughter. Her attention to these webs of relationships added a deep sense of humility and vulnerability to her writing. Silverman’s willingness to share in such authenticity provided solid grounding to an emotionally powerful book. I do not think it is possible to read this book without reflecting on the roles we play in our own families. Readers should be prepared to make personal discoveries both for the better and the worse.

I received this book as a “Parent’s Choice” through the PJ Library program. As I read it, I especially appreciated the underlying themes of inclusion and the primacy of love in establishing Jewish families. Silverman’s story indirectly, but powerfully, challenges the out-dated and limiting community expectations of nuclear families in Jewish life. In Silverman’s book, our families are built with love, compassion, friendship, and kindness. Understanding does not always come easily. Racism, sexism, and fear are present and painful enemies. The world in which we want to raise our children is not the one we navigate every day.

I suspect that more experienced parents will find more depth in Casting Lots than those just starting out on their parenting journeys. The book has the potential to be a remarkable resource for extended families, provoking meaningful conversations among parents, siblings, and older children. Silverman provides practical and supportive insights into the systems of international adoption, and those considering such a step will likely find it encouraging. And all readers will remember that each of us is capable of feeling and sharing so much more love than we ever thought possible.