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.

Book Reviews

The Rabbi Finds Her Way – Robert Schoen with Catherine de Cuir

What does a rabbi do all day? This is the question at the center of this lively and entertaining introduction to Rabbi Pearl Ross. Readers join her journey as she steps into her position as Assistant Rabbi at a large and prosperous Reform congregation near her hometown, falls in love, and addresses a long-time rift with her estranged sister.

Robert Schoen and Catherine de Cuir’s writing, particularly their humor, keeps the tone of the novel light and well-paced. As we get to know Pearl, her family, and the Lakeshore Temple community, the characters jump off the page and invite readers into their stories. The authors ably balance their characters’ fallibility and humanity, with emotional depth and dramatic life experiences. In a day at the Lakeshore Temple, it seems like anything can and will happen. Readers, along with Pearl, are encouraged to meet these challenges with a strong sense of humor.

While the book doesn’t shy away from the more difficult experiences of death, aging, illness, and imprisonment, it does approach them with a some privileged rose-colored glasses. The congregation that Schoen and de Cuir create is financially wealthy, with supportive lay-leadership, and an incredible staff; even its bar and bat mitzvah students and their families are intelligent and enthusiastic! Pearl’s dating, marriage, and motherhood have no apparent impact on her career. While not everyone is always happy, Schoen and de Cuir are letting Pearl live the dream. Just enough reality gets into the novel to make it relatable – alas congregational life is rarely as neat and tidy as they allow it to be here.

The Rabbi Finds Her Way is a book with easy appeal for anyone who has ever spent any time with, or has an opinion about, organized religion, whether Jewish and other. The narrative includes a number of scenes with sermons and speeches about various Torah portions that would contribute to a book club, adult education, or synagogue meeting. For those who remember Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small series, Schoen’s Rabbi Pearl Ross-Levy has the potential to follow his lead for a new generation.

BooksAndBlintzes received a free copy of this book for the purposes of writing this review. It represents the sole opinion of the reviewer.

More information about the book and its authors is available at: https://www.robertschoen.com

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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

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.