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.

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Book Reviews, Culinary Arts

Modern Jewish Baker – Shannon Sarna

Modern Jewish Baker Cover

As an avid fan and follower of Shannon Sarna on The Nosher, I have been looking forward to the September release of her cookbook Modern Jewish Baker for months. And I mean “looking forward to” at the pre-ordered, delivery tracking, and mailbox stalking level. Even with such great expectations, Modern Jewish Baker did not disappoint.

The book is divided into 7 main sections with “master recipes” for challah, babka, bagels, rugelach, hamentaschen, pita, and matzah. Sarna keeps it simple, in the organization, photography, and typeset, rightly focuses the reader’s attention on the recipes and directions, resulting in a user-friendly cookbook. While the design makes it coffee-table display worthy, you’re better served keeping it handy and using it in the kitchen.

Throughout the book Sarna celebrates her Jewish heritage and brings diverse ingredients to the table. She raises the standards of Eastern European favorites to new culinary heights, with a decidedly cosmopolitan approach and international flair.

The recipes are so clear, and the results so delicious, that anyone who loves Jewish baked goods will find a way to incorporate Sarna’s work into their Shabbat and holiday menus, and will want to make enough for the rest of the year too. My family inhaled the onion jam babka and balsamic apple date stuffed challah so fast on Rosh HaShanah that I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t bake them again next year. Actually, I suspect that my freezer is about to start working harder than ever. Sarna expects her readers to have access to a well-appointed kitchen, but the ingredients and timing proved more important than the equipment. Modern Jewish Baker is a gift to bakers who are willing to experiment, and who appreciate the solid back-up of detailed directions. Sarna has clearly done her homework in the kitchen, and the result is a book with the power to create mouth-watering Jewish memories for generations.

Book Reviews

The Forever Letter – Elana Zaiman

Rabbi Elana Zaiman is passionate about making connections. Her book, The Forever Letter, will convince any writing-shy scribbler that putting words onto paper (or typing them into a computer) is the most effective way to communicate what is in our hearts to the dearest people in our lives. Zaiman has been teaching and speaking on the topic for years, and her experience is evident in the book’s clarity and organization. She includes the questions, writing prompts, and detailed process notes that empower the reader to use it to write their own letters. While I read it as an e-book, many will prefer to be able to jot down their thoughts and ideas in the margins as they go.

This book does stir the pot with readers’ emotions. Zaiman uses her extensive professional background as both a pulpit rabbi and chaplain to challenge readers with difficult and intimate questions. The paradox of Zaiman’s forever letter is that it may be most valuable to its writer and reader at the time when it may be most difficult to write and read it. Forever letters can be a tremendous source of comfort and a powerful tool for connecting to the important people in our lives. But they are time consuming and thought-intensive to write, which makes it difficult to have them handy at times of crises. Forever letters could certainly be the basis of the sage Hillel’s famous teaching “don’t put off what you can do today”.

The tradition of the Jewish ethical will forms the backbone and background for Zaiman’s work, but she separates her explanation of this practice in an appendix at the end of the book. Readers who are less familiar with Jewish ethical wills and their history may find it useful to review this appendix before jumping into forever letters. Other readers may prefer to read it first as it more firmly grounds Zaiman’s book within the world of Jewish practice. Still others may overlook it altogether, particularly if they are more interested in the book as a practical resource for writing letters of their own.

Because the book’s subject matter is so deeply personal, Forever Letters is best left to the reader’s discretion. Parts of it could be useful for discussion and counseling with families who are planning life cycle events, and close friends will also appreciate having a trusted reading buddy with whom to reflect. Forever Letters is not a beach read, but as we begin to look towards the High Holidays, it could lead to a profound experience of possibilities in the new Jewish year.

I received a copy of this e-book via NetGalley specifically for the purpose of writing a review. The thoughts and opinions in this review are mine alone.

 

Music

Hermann Leopoldi – Buchenwaldlied

Inside page of the January 1946, no. 1 issue of the Yiddish DP newspaper, ‘Buchenwald: Bulletin of the Buchenwald Youth in France.’ The column on the left is entitled, ‘Our Lives’. At the bottom is a poem called ‘The Song of Buchenwald’ (translated into Yiddish), sung by all the Buchenwald internees. [Photograph #44247]
Source: http://holocaustmusic.ort.org/places/camps/central-europe/buchenwald/
Herman Leopoldi, composer of the Buchenwald song (“Buchenwaldlied”), August 15, 1888 – June 28, 1959. The camp commandant organized a song competition soon after the camp opened. Leopoldi and his partner Fritz Lohner-Beda wrote the winning entry, although a non-Jewish kapo submitted it to the contest. The camp guards would command prisoners to sing the Buchenwaldlied as a way to cover up the sounds of torture and other acts of cruelty and murder. Some prisoners found meaning in this song as a symbol of resistance. Singing of freedom and the future gave them the opportunity to express their hopes for the demise of their captors.

To listen to a recording of the song, please click here.

Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries, July/Tammuz "Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya'acov" How Goodly Are Your Tents O Jacob

A Mezuzah to Bring the Blessing Home

Shraga Landesman is a Haifa-based artist who invites you to link your home to the ancient Israelite camp. He crafted this mezuzah case as “a moving tribute to the strength of the Jewish home”.  Hanging a mezuzah on the doorpost is a clearly visible sign of Jewish ownership, demonstrating the willingness to be recognized as part of the community. The words from the blessing Ma Tovu express the hope that this connection will support peace and tranquility in the home.

For more information about the artist and his work, please see http://www.landesman-shraga.israel.net/ Thank you for giving us permission to share your image and your words.

This is the description that accompanies the mezuzah case.

Book Reviews, Literature

King Solomon’s Table – Joan Nathan

45 seconds. That was how long it took me to get to the front door, open the box, and start reading after I go the alert on my phone that Amazon had delivered Joan Nathan’s latest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table. In this sequence of events, I broke a number of house rules: 1. my phone was on the table during dinner; 2. I looked at the messages on my phone during dinner; 3. I opened a non-birthday package at the table in the middle of dinner; 4. I was reading during dinner. Luckily only the four year old mini-bookandblintz was home with me that evening, and she doesn’t particularly care about those rules. She was more than happy to join in the fun and announce that each picture looks delicious. And she was right.

It’s impossible to read this book without thrilling over just how far kosher cookbooks have come. This volume is nothing less than an exultant celebration of the art, the clarity of writing, the range of available ingredients and the diversity of Jewish food in cookbook form. A quick comparison between this book and the three other Joan Nathan cookbooks sitting on my bookshelf kicks the party into high gear. This book has a polish and sophistication that cooks could only dream of Jewish Cooking In America was published 50 years ago.

As I read through the volume, my joy came as much, if not even more so, from the stories and descriptions that accompany each recipe.  Nathan has achieved an impressive balance between presenting functional instructions for food preparation, a travel and professional memoir, and a textbook on the history of Jewish communities and their appetites. The only potential fault is in the possibility that younger readers may find it more difficult to relate to her scenes of delightful domestic cooking without finding it just a bit twee. Nevertheless, I think this cookbook belongs on the shelf in every home that considers itself to be connected to the Jewish heritage. King Solomon’s Table would make an excellent gift for anyone taking a new step as a Jewish cook, from an epicurean bar mitzvah boy to a downsizing retiree. Basically, anyone with a kitchen and a willingness to try cooking something other than toast.

I have yet to try cooking any of the recipes myself, but I expect the book to prove user-friendly. While the recipes are grouped by meal, course, and ingredient (breakfast, starters, salads, meat, etc.) I suspect that one of the unique attributes of this collection is the versatility of so many of the dishes to be eaten and served at different times and places. As diverse cultural practices and local ingredients dictated traditional foods and when they were eaten, readers will inherit this wider array of options, allowing for even greater creativity. I will, of course, follow up with this review to show off the results of my experiments.

There is just one question that this book leaves unanswered. As a native Torontonian, the blueberry buns Joan Nathan associated with my hometown are less familiar to me than the exquisite “cheese bagels” we enjoyed during our trips to Montreal to visit my grandparents. These pastries, relatives of the humbler cheese danish, are shaped liked horseshoes, have a ricotta/cream cheese filling, and are ideally finished with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. I can only imagine that the author does not have the recipe, otherwise I must beg her to add it to the next edition.