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.

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Book Reviews

The Orchard – Yochi Brandes

Fans of Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf and Maggie Anton’s Rashi’s Daughters will be thrilled to discover Israeli-author Yochi Brandes’ latest work. The Orchard recounts the story of Rabbi Akiva and the sages of his generation, giving the powerful voice of the narrator to his wife, Rachel. In this meeting of rabbinic tradition, a women’s perspective, and the political intrigue of the Roman rule of Judea, readers have a front row seat at what is truly a battle to establish the course of Jewish history.

The world of the rabbis is a complex one, and readers would be well-served to have more than a passing knowledge of the main actors. The schools of Hillel and Shammai, the relationships and rivalries between the leaders of the main centers of learning, as well as the religious and secular governance structures of the time all feature in the narrative. With a story whose plot is heavily interspersed with rabbinic terminology, theology, Hebrew language, and allegory, an index including family trees and a historical time line would be of immense assistance to most casual readers. For those with the necessary a background, an index of the included texts (mostly mishnah) would have been a powerful tool for further study. As required reading for an adult-education course on rabbinic history, this book could easily be the primary source.

Reading this book in translation is intensely rewarding, as it makes much of the traditional sources accessible to a new audience. It is much to the Brandes’ credit that her characters and drama of the story are so vividly drawn that she makes readers forget that they may already know the ending. Daniel Libensons’ translation is a monumental effort in maintaining the seamless movement between Brandes’ descriptive prose and rabbinic legends. It reads so beautifully in English that readers may find themselves wishing they could appreciate every last nuance of the Hebrew original.

In The Orchard, Yochi Brandes has once again showcased her exceptional story telling skills and encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish history. For those who seek a window into the world of the sages, who strive to understand how the rabbis nurtured their faith and created the framework of two millennia of Jewish practice, The Orchard is an absolute must-read.

Book Reviews, Literature

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

“Intense”. This is the word that kept coming up during my book club’s discussion of Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. Readers described their visceral reactions to her characters, their actions, and her portrayal of Israeli society. No one needed any prompting to share these strong feelings either. In a group that rarely reaches a consensus, Waking Lions stood out for its ability to powerfully affect everyone who read it.

What made this such an intriguing book? The true force is Gundar-Goshen’s fearlessness as she portrayes Israel’s complexity, in all its geographic, socio-economic, racial, sexual, and violent tensions. Gundar-Goshen doesn’t have to create these elements – they exist in the country’s headlines and the lives of all Israelis. Her ability to capture these experiences in her characters’ personalities, motivations, and actions, demonstrates her keen insight into the struggle of this country and her people to survive.

Gundar-Goshen’s writing style mimics the opacity of her characters – the way she writes about them presents their discomfort with their own ideas and often the limitations they place on themselves about what they choose to understand. In keeping her characters so absolutely messy and human, some are harder for readers to connect with than others. There is no true protagonist in this book. Readers who like to cheer for a hero will almost certainly be frustrated. Readers who enjoy searching for the deeper meanings behind people’s actions – “why they do what they do” – will fully appreciate all of the narrative’s twists and turns.

While a basic understanding of Israeli immigration law and the current Eritrean refugee crisis, the Israeli medical system, the relationship between Israel and its Bedouin inhabitants, drugs and criminal activity and racial and gender conflicts may help readers acclimate to the plot, the book does include enough information to provide the necessary background. It will almost certainly challenge the readers’ perceptions and knowledge of the country. But those who read and understand will be ever richer for doing so.

 

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, 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

The Book of Love and Hate – Lauren Sanders

Lauren Sanders - Book of Love and HateThe title of Lauren Sanders’ novel, The Book of Love and Hate, nearly perfectly describes my feelings about reading it. Sanders’ writing is razor-sharp, a stark contrast to the intentionally fuzzy edges of her characters and setting. As Sanders flings her readers along on the protagonist’s jumbled attempt to find the truth about her father, we understand just how illusory the truth can be.

In The Book of Love and Hate, nothing is exactly as it seems. Sanders’ characters are complex, muddled by dysfunctional family relationships, substance abuse, Olympic ambition, wealth, and politics. She covers them with a layer of grittiness that matches the roughness in her depiction of Israel. Sanders uses Jennifer Baron as the constant narrator, but as she goes back and forth between Jennifer’s present and past. The challenge of tracking the time actively works against the consistency of Jennifer’s voice.

Sanders shows that she is a master in drawing in her readers, and relentlessly pushes the boundaries of suspense and credulity. Reading The Book of Love and Hate was alternately deeply frustrating and shockingly refreshing. I wanted to read it on the beach in Tel Aviv, soothed by the waves while surrounded by the crackling vitality of the city. Reading it in my home by myself was far too quiet. And reading it was hard work. Sanders’

book rewards readers who appreciate the craftsmanship of writing, rather than the simplicity of a straightforward plot. If you are prepared to accept this balance of investing your intellectual curiosity while surrendering control to the author’s whims, The Books of Love and Hate is a knock out. Less adventurous readers should consider themselves forewarned.

Books and Blintzes received a copy of this book from LibraryThing.com in order to compose this review. This review only reflects the views of its author.

Book Reviews

The Afterlife of Stars – Joseph Kertes

A story a person tells about his life can never express the fullness of this experience. This seems to be the starting point for Joseph Kertes’ novel about a young Jewish boy’s flight from Hungary at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1956. Along with his family, the 9 year old protagonist Robert Beck, escapes from the only home he has known, becoming a refugee in Western Europe, and eventually arriving in France. As a result of this journey, he learns how his family survived the Holocaust, and the long and lasting shadows this trauma has cast over them all.

Kertes writes from Robert’s perspective, effectively capturing the child’s focus on his present. This point of view contributes both a sense of simplicity and immediacy to the novel, making it sharper and more intense. However, Kertes occasionally uses sophisticated language and turns towards ephemeral thinking, which are sometimes inconsistent with the mental and emotional maturity of his narrator. Robert’s main foil is his older brother Attila, who at 13 seems to be more honestly stuck between childhood and adulthood. As a reader with little direct experience with boys of these ages, it was difficult for me to evaluate if their interactions were realistic. My book club shared mixed reports. Our collective ability to be caught up in the book definitely hinged on our individual abilities to connect with the central relationship between the two brothers.

Kertes is not afraid to use vivid imagery and direct language to tell Robert’s story, and the historical context is as much a character in the book as the family members themselves. Younger readers who may be less familiar with the history of the Cold War may find themselves wishing for more information about the Soviet takeover of Hungary. However, the part of Kertes’ narrative that details the family’s escape from the Nazis with the help of Raoul Wallenberg and its impact on the family’s post-war life is breathtakingly effective in highlighting the historical continuity of Jewish life in Europe.

Kertes may be drawing significantly on his family’s own experiences, or at the very least, is personally steeped in the history that he is writing about. I almost wonder if some of the linguistic inconsistencies would be resolved if the book had actually been written in Hungarian. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the post-war history of European Jewry, well-written historical fiction, and what it’s like to be a 9 year old boy.