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.

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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.

BooksAndBlintzes..com 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.

Book Reviews, Literature

Spies of No Country by Matti Friedman

In Spies of No Country, Matti Friedman turns his laser-like investigative focus to the “Arab Section”, a tiny group of Jews from Arab countries who were recruited to secure intelligence for the pre-Israel military. As he did in his debut Pumpkinflowers, Friedman offers a sliver of history, a small narrative easily overlooked in the saga of a much large conflict. In Pumpkinflowers it was a hilltop. In Spies of No Country, it’s a spy unit.

Friedmans’s deep dive into the formation and activities of the “Arab Section” brings with it close look at life in final days of British Mandate Palestine. His attention to the experience of mizrachi Jews in both Israel and their countries of origin provides a breathtakingly fresh approach to the often European-centric view of the establishment of the State of Israel. Friedman is respectfully direct in addressing the racial, social, political and economic inequalities that existed prior to Israeli Statehood. He effectively describes the tensions between both the Jews and their Arab neighbors, and Jews from different national backgrounds. In this way, Friedman’s work challenges readers with fundamental questions about the definition and formation of Israeli identity.

Friedman’s writing maintains a scholarly distance while staying sensitive to the humanity of his subject. In Spies of No Country, Friedman includes photos and interview transcripts, enlivening the story and providing additional background into his research process. They allow him to balance his roles as reporter, narrator, and interpreter, giving full color to the Arab section, the men who were a part of it, and the places where it operated.

Spies of No Country will appeal to all those who seek a greater understanding and knowledge of the State of Israel. The desire to recognize and learn more about those who lived through the time that it was established and fought for its survival is well-served by Friedman’s work. A basic background on the British Mandate in Palestine, the War of Independence, and the geography of Israel and her neighbors is necessary to truly appreciate the book. Spies of No Country would make an excellent selection in education settings from high school and above.

Book Reviews, Literature

From Longing To Belonging by Shelly Christensen

It’s the book every Jewish institution has been waiting for – a comprehensive and practical approach to making inclusion an actionable organizational principal. While nearly all synagogues, educational programs and community service providers WANT to be accommodating and attentive to the needs of their stakeholders, knowing HOW to do this is where so many get stuck. And for those, who like the 4th child in the Passover seder, don’t have the language to ask where to begin, From Longing To Belonging may seem like a literal God-send.

Shelly Christensen has been leading the movement for greater inclusion in the Jewish community from her home base in Minneapolis for decades, and her focus on clear plans that real people and organizations of all shapes, sizes, and budgets can implement is reflected in this new book. With her emphasis on participation and strategic planning, Christensen highlights how supporting inclusion for all members (and potential members) strengthens the organization’s mission. While the book could certainly apply across faith and denominational communities, Christensen’s professional background with Jewish communal service agencies, as well as her personal Jewish identity and practice all put the North American Jewish experience at the center of her writing. This is a refreshing change from the many excellent guides to inclusion in faith communities that focus on the Christian experience that can be adapted for Jewish audiences. From Longing To Belonging keeps Jewish thought, belief, and practice at the forefront of the conversation. Christensen makes it nearly impossible for readers to respond “this doesn’t apply to our shul/temple/federation/school/JCC…!”

From Longing To Belonging doesn’t just belong on the bookshelf of every rabbi, cantor, Jewish educator, or executive director of a Jewish communal institution. It should be required reading for all of these professionals, as well as the lay leaders who serve on the committees and Boards of Directors of Jewish community organizations. While every chapter may not apply in every situation, Christensen’s book provides the lens and tools that the Jewish community needs to encourage all of our constituents to feel connected and to be included as valued participants. Not many books have the potential to fundamentally change the way the Jewish community sees and organizes itself for a more powerful future. Shelly Christenen’s From Longing To Belonging does.