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, 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

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.

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.

Iyar - "V'Ahavta L'Reiacha Kamocha" ואהבת לרעך כמוך, Jewish Text Art Challenge Galleries

Drop By Drop

drop by drop

The Jewish Text Art Challenge text – “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” is just one way to introduce children to Rabbi Akiva’s life and teaching. Jacqueline Jules’ book Drop by Drop is another opportunity for the whole family to learn together about the important leader and what he represents in our tradition. And Yevgenia Nayberg’s illustrations will help the text come alive to the smallest readers.