Emily Solis-Cohen, born March 20, 1886 in Philadelphia. An award-winning author and leader in creating Jewish literature for children. Her original story collections, translations, and other writings were powerful tools for the education of Jewish children and symbols of leadership for Jewish women.
David Hirsherg’s debut novel My Mother’s Son is a celebration of family in all its complex imperfections. The narrative centers around a retiring radio personality, Joel, telling his own story about growing up in post-war Boston. Local and international politics, the relationships between Joel’s Jewish and other large ethnic communities in the city, a public health crisis, and the drama surrounding the local baseball team all shape his childhood and understanding of his world.
Joel has a strong cast of supporting characters that bring humor, depth, and vibrancy to the young man’s story. The book is as much about how Joel gains maturity in understanding himself as it is about his becoming more aware of the people around him. Hirshberg succeeds in crafting characters with full personalities without allowing them to become caricatures of themselves.
Notwithstanding Harry Potter, it’s been a long time since I the story of a 12 year old boy has engaged me so fully and emotionally as Hirshberg’s novel has done. While there were points in the novel where I wished the author would pick up the pace, I also appreciated that as the story develops, it maintains multiple levels of truths that readers can only tease out slowly. The story of the family develops over generations. It wouldn’t be fair to expect Joel to discover all its intricacies without taking some detours.
Anyone who grew up in a Jewish community in the shadow of the Holocaust will likely find a great deal to relate to in Joel’s story. Anyone with ties to the city of Boston or who has strong memories of major league baseball in the 50s won’t be able to read this book without strong feelings of nostalgia. Even as Joel’s story is very much his own, the family’s immigrant history and network of connections contribute to the universal nature of this book. My Mother’s Son isn’t just the story of Joel and his family, but the story of a generation.
BooksandBlintzes received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this novel from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
In the fall of 2017, BooksandBlintzes shared a review of Rabbi Elana Zaiman’s book “The Forever Letter”. We followed up with the author to find out more about her work and inspiration, and are excited to feature this follow-up interview.
INTERVIEW QUESTIONS with Rabbi Elana Zaiman, Author of The Forever Letter: Writing What We Believe for Those We Love
I conceived of Forever LettersTM as a process for self-reflection that focuses on healing, uplifting and deepening our most important interpersonal relationships. One of the outcomes can be letters that share our values and wisdom, ask for forgiveness or forgive, and express our gratitude and love. We hope that our letters are treasured as enduring, timeless gifts.
Why are Forever Letters so meaningful for you?
I have seen so much pain in families and in relationships. I know people who haven’t talked to family members or friends for years, not even remembering why they had not been speaking. I have found that sometimes these letters can open a door that has been closed for years and give a defunct relationship a jump start.
Do you think the letter writing process can be adapted for those who aren’t able to read and/or write due to disability? How do you think this could enhance or complicate the process?
If an individual cannot read or write, that person may still be able to speak their words for someone else to write them down.
This can be an amazing process, helping someone to get their thoughts and feelings down on paper in the form of a letter. Not only does the letter have the possibility of deepening the relationship between author and recipient, it also has the possibility of creating a deeper bond between the author and the person transcribing the author’s words on the page.
A complication can emerge in helping anyone write down their thoughts and feelings, and that is this: that the written word ends up sounding more like the person writing and transcribing the words than it does like the individual speaking them. Great care needs to be taken to hold onto the voice of the author.
What are the longest and shortest letters that you have ever written/seen others write?
I have seen letters of a few sentences, a paragraph, a few paragraphs, a few pages, many pages, book length. It depends on the desire of the author and the purpose of the letter.
Have you personally, or do you know of anyone, who has regretted something he/she wrote?
I don’t know of anyone who has expressed regret. In my book, I emphasize the importance of taking the recipient’s feelings into account before writing, as well as, putting aside the letter for a while and then re-reading it a couple times from different perspectives. Despite our best efforts, having regrets may still happen. If our heartfelt intention is to heal, uplift, and deepen our relationship then we can always reach out again.
You are a writer. What is it in you that impels you to write?
The need to know myself. When I don’t write for extended periods of time I lose a connection to myself, I feel less whole.
Elana Zaiman loves connecting with people. She is the first woman rabbi from a family spanning six generations of rabbis. Elana travels throughout the U.S. and Canada as a scholar-in-residence, speaker, and workshop facilitator. She teaches and lectures at social service agencies, law firms, women’s organizations, private salons, synagogues, churches, interfaith-gatherings, geriatric residencies, and elder-law, health-care and financial and estate-planning conferences. She’s a chaplain at The Summit at First Hill, a retirement community in Seattle; a certified Wise Aging instructor (IJS), and Adjunct Faculty at Seattle’s Harborview Hospital CPE Program. In addition to being the Ethics and Spirituality columnist for LivFun, a publication for Leisure Care retirement facilities in 10 states, her writing has been published in The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Post Road, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere. Elana also volunteers as a co-partner in the Seattle Limbe Sewing Circle, an intergenerational and interracial community which brings together Jews, Muslims, and Christians to create feminine hygiene kits for girls in Cameroon, Africa. Elana lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and their son.
- For more information about Elana Zaiman and her work, please visit www.elanazaiman.com.
- To inquire about a workshop, event or potential speaking engagement, please contact Elana at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “The Forever Letter” is available for purchase from Amazon, the Llewellyn Publishing Company, and Barnes & Noble. *these are not affiliate links.
Charmaine 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.
The question of independence is at the center of Allison Amend’s novel Enchanted Islands. Loosely based on the memoirs of Frances Conway, the book explores the struggle of a woman creating a life for herself, straddling the conventions of her time.
Born to a poor immigrant (Polish) Jewish family in the mid-western US, Frances never quite has a place to call her own. Her friendship with Rosalie, the daughter of an established German Jewish family highlights every limitation, even as she discovers that things are not always as they appear. As young women the two friends leave their hometown together, but after Rosalie’s betrayal, Frances decides to make her future on her own.
Frances remains an isolated character, a position that gives her the freedom to take on her adventure with the military intelligence. Away from society and the constraints of expected behavior, Frances finds a sort of peace. Or gets as close to being comfortable in this world as she is ever going to be.
Amend’s novel has a sense of disarray and incompleteness that complements Frances’ independent spirit. The world is an untidy place, and any single person who must live in it necessarily lives in that messiness. Amend is at her best as a writer describing the natural world of the Galapagos. She captures the connections between the islands and the surrounding trade and political infrastructure with clarity and succeeds in highlighting the uniqueness of her setting.
Readers who enjoy American military and social history will most appreciate this book. Amend’s characterizations of the Jewish community slant towards the cliche and are a weaker aspect of the novel. The diversity of its characters and military connections provides lots of potential for book club discussions. It is difficult to read this book without considering one’s personal experiences and understanding of WWII, the military, the Jewish community and sexism. Readers who are open to allowing Amend to plumb the depths of their memories will be rewarded with an imaginative and touching book. Others will find that they prefer to leave these complexities buried.
Steven Hartov’s The Soul of a Thief offers readers an intentionally sparse and unsatisfying story of a young Jewish officer conscripted into the army of the Third Reich. Set in France in the winter of 1944, Stephan Brandt’s commander Colonel Erich Himmel has realized that the Germans are going to lose the war and enlists Shtefan’s help to carry out the plan that will allow him to escape the victor’s justice when the war ends.
Hartov moves the action along at a quick pace, deftly maneuvering between battle scenes, describing the mundane routine of army camp life, and unfolding the love triangle that threatens to undo his hero. Hartov relies on simple language, and it adds a necessary crispness to the narrative. While it may strike some readers as impersonal, in general it helps the reader to understand the objectivity with which Shtefan is trying to tell his story. Shtefan’s role in the army, indeed his whole character, requires that both he and the reader maintain an emotional distance from the events as they unfold. This tension between being willing to acknowledge the depth of feeling and hiding this truth even from yourself ultimately provides the backbone to Hartov’s novel.
While Shtefan’s abstraction keeps readers at arms length, his love interest, the Jewish French woman Gabrielle, grabs the limelight and emerges as the story’s true protagonist. The Soul of a Thief offers readers a portrait of gender and sexual politics that Holocaust and World War Two literature often glosses over. Gabrielle’s connection to her identity and her ability to act with clear intention provides a strong foil to Shtefan’s detachment. I can’t help but wish that Hartov will return to tell us the same story from Gabrielle’s perspective.
This book will most likely appeal more to those who enjoy a good spy thriller than richly detailed historical fiction. The people and their ruses, not lengthy descriptions of the French countryside under occupation, that drive Hartov’s book. Readers hoping for a thoughtful and suspenseful account of one person’s experience will most appreciate The Soul of a Thief.
BooksandBlintzes received an electronic copy of this title from NetGalley.com for the purpose of writing this review. The opinions presented belong only the post’s author.