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.

Culinary Arts

Havdalah Is A Treat – Rachel Teichman

Books and Blintzes is happy to introduce our guest contributor Rachel Teichman.

Havdalah is a Treat

By Rachel Teichman

Havdalah is how I started the week every Monday morning during grade school. The whole school would gather in the gym and say the prayers together, along with “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Hatikva” and “The Pledge of Allegiance.” This was where I memorized those three things. And the ceremony really did create a separation from Shabbat and the weekend, from the school week for us all.

The word “Havdalah” literally means “separation.” By engaging all of our senses, we are able to create a connection to this separation and to the memories of the past Shabbat. Havdalah also gives us a way to look forward to the coming week. I love the use of the five senses, and it makes it such an easy observance to share with children.

During the short service, we watch the light from the Havdalah Candle and feel its warmth. We smell the spiced besamim, and taste the grape juice or wine, custom willing. And we hear the prayers, along with the sizzle of the flame asit is put out in the wine.

The element of cinnamon and other spices, besamim, which represents the sweetness of the memory of Shabbat, is an easy one to share with kids. From cinnamon sprinkled on toast and hot cocoa, to spiced rugelach and snickerdoodles, there is no end to the list of treats that can be prepared ahead of time or once Shabbat has ended.

A new treat in our home is Havdalah Candle Cinnamon Rolls. They bake up quickly for a Saturday night dessert or Sunday brunch, and don’t require many ingredients. They are fun for kids to create, decorate and eat, and are sure to start anyone off with a sweet week!

Havdalah Candle Cinnamon Rolls

Ingredients:

1 package ready to make cinnamon rolls with icing

Small pretzel sticks

Sprinkles or mini chocolate chips (optional)

Will also need:

Baking sheet

Parchment paper

Directions:

Preheat oven according to package directions. Cover baking sheet with parchment paper. Unroll all of the cinnamon rolls. Cut each strip into 6″ pieces, or whatever length you prefer depending on how many/what size treats you would like. Make groups of three strips. Make an X with two strips and lay a third vertically over the X. Begin braiding in the middle, tucking the pieces under at both ends. Bake according to package directions. When they are browned and toasted, remove from the oven. Poke 3 pretzel sticks into one end of the braid as the candle wicks. Place the baked goods on a cooling rack on top of the baking sheet and drizzle the icing on the candles, forming the melted wax. Toss on sprinkles or mini chocolate chips if you would like extra sweetness. Store according to package directions.

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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.