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New Jewish Book Council Reviews August 28. 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015 | Permalink

This week's book reviews from Jewish Book Council:



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August 2015 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Thursday, August 27, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Arie Monas

Read what the staff of the Jewish Book Council has been reading for the month of August!

Mimi

"This month, I’m reading The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach by Pam Jenoff. I’ve read all her other books and I enjoy her style of writing. I’m in the beginning of the book so I don’t have too much to say. It takes place in WWII, which is interesting to me. It’s a well-written book. I recommend it to people who like the time period of WWII."

Becca

"The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein is about two Jewish New Yorkers, a 21-year-old woman from Manhattan and a Russian born boy who has recently graduated high school. They both find themselves in Norway in the summertime. The nights there are unusual. The sun doesn’t full set, which leaves a beautiful scenery. The author does a great job of incorporating beautiful imagery into a very readable plotline. I definitely recommend it to everyone."


Miri

I’m reading Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. It’s a book about a young girl coming of age in the 1930’s. I’m re-reading it because it’s interesting to see the differences between young adults now and then.

Nat

"I’m reading two books this month. The first one is Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. It’s an absorbing, mind-bending novel that has caused me to miss my subway stop more than once! Cohen plays with science fiction, technology, and personal identity in his signature engrossing, thoroughly Jewish-postmodern voice.

"The second book is Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sara Monguso. As somebody who has also journaled for many years, Monguso’s reflections on her own diaries truly resonate with me."


Suzanne

"I’m reading Thresholds: How to Thrive Through Life’s Transitions and to Live Fearlessly and Regret-Free by Sherre Hirsch. Hirsch talks about how we all have times of transitions. She says that we have many in our lives and need to find a new way of “thinking, feeling and being.” Being a parent, watching my last child go to a far way college and the reality of becoming an empty nester, is one of those thresholds of my life. Hirsch’s book gives us the tools to help cross those thresholds both major and minor and to be strong as we go from one room in our lives to the next."

Evie

"One of Green's lesser known books, An Abundance of Katherines, is an exciting adventure of a road trip to nowhere—where friendships are tested and limits are broken. A book that gives us the realization that there is freedom in not having all the answers."


Naomi

"Having recently enjoyed a lively Persian Shabbat dinner in LA, I've taken a dive into some of the incredible stories that focus on the Persian Jewish community. Of particular note is this recently published novel by JBC Network author Parnaz Foroutan set in in early twentieth-century Iran and contemporary LA. The Girl from the Garden is Foroutan's debut novel and focuses on family legacy."

Carolyn

"This month, I'm reading As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. This is an unbelievable book and a must-read for everyone. If you haven't read it yet, I strongly recommend it."


Joyce

"This month, I'm reading An Improbable Friendship by Anthony David. Anthony David's biography of Ruth Dayan and Raymonda Tawil is amazing. He manages to tell each woman's story in her own voice against the backdrop of the history they lived as Israel struggled to become a nation. They reveal heartbreaking stories that often conflict with the stories we have come to hold as true. And yet, through it all, these two women fight not only for self determination, but for the rights of all women. That they forged a friendship during those years of war is itself amazing. That they fought to hold on to each other and their shared vision for peace should give us all hope that their dream could become a reality."

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Ruffled Collars

Thursday, August 27, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpted from Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman.


By the time the nation celebrates the birth of its democracy each Fourth of July, the nine justices of the Supreme Court have mostly left town. But before departing the capital for their summer recess, they must first decide all the cases they have heard since their current term began the previous October. The hardest, most controversial cases, where the unelected Court orders the society to change in a big way, are often left to the end. As the days for decision tick away in late June, the tension in the courtroom is as hot and heavy as the Washington summer air.

On the morning of June 26, 1996, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the high court since its founding, slipped through the red velvet curtain behind the bench and took her seat at the end. Five places along the majestic curve sat Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, since 1981 the first woman on the Supreme Court, or the FWOTSC as she slyly called herself. Each woman justice sported an ornamental white collar on her somber black robe, but otherwise there was no obvious link between the First and Second, any more than between any of the other justices. On that day, however, the public got a rare glimpse at the ties that bound the two most powerful women in the land.

Speaking from the depths of the high-backed chair that towered over her tiny frame, Justice Ginsburg delivered the decision of the Court in United States v. Virginia. From that morning in June 1996, Virginia’s state-run Virginia Military Institute, which had trained young men since before the Civil War, would have to take females into its ranks. The Constitution of the United States, which required the equal protection of the laws for all persons, including women, demanded it.

Women in the barracks at VMI. Women rolling in the mud during the traditional hazing, women with cropped heads and stiff gray uniforms looking uncannily like the Confederate soldiers VMI had sent to the Civil War a century before. Six of Ginsburg’s “brethren” on the Court agreed with her that VMI had to admit women, but the case was much more contentious—and momentous—than that robust majority of seven reflects. Until that day, VMI had been the shining symbol of a world divided between men’s and women’s proper roles. Before the case got to the Supremes, the lower federal courts had supported VMI’s sex-segregated ways. For years, opponents of feminism used the prospect of women in military settings as the prime example of how ridiculous the world would become if women were truly treated as equal to men. VMI was one of the last redoubts. And now Justice Ginsburg, who, years ago as Lawyer Ginsburg, had been the premier advocate for women’s equality—the “Thurgood Marshall of the women’s movement”—was going to order the nation to live in that brave new sex-equal world.

Few people listening knew that Ginsburg got to speak for the Court that morning, because her sister in law, O’Connor, had decided she should. After the justices voted to admit women to VMI at their regular conference, the most senior member of the majority had the right to assign the opinion to any justice who agreed. He assigned it to the senior woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, but she would not take it. She knew who had labored as a Supreme Court lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union from 1970 to 1980 to get the Court to call women equal. And now the job was done. “This should be Ruth’s,” she said.

Continue Reading »

Copyright © 2015 by Linda Hirshman. Reprinted with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Diana Bletter's Top 11 Jewish Quotes for Writers

Wednesday, August 26, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Diana Bletter wrote about being not just a writer or a Jewish writer, but a Jewish woman writer. Her novel A Remarkable Kindness is about a quartet of women brought together by the rituals of Jewish burials in Israel. Diana is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

I treat my office like a high school hallway. All over my walls are inspirational quotes to keep me going. Writing is a lonely task: it’s being the Sisyphus of sentences. Every now and then, I pretend to invite imaginary cheerleaders (including my best friend’s daughter) to my office before I sit down to write, with them cheering, “You can do it! Go… WRITE!”

What follows are the top thirteen inspirational Jewish quotes I turn to when I feel like I’ve fallen down that deep, dark chute of writing nothingness.

“In knowing who you are and writing from it, you will help the world by giving it understanding.” — Natalie Goldberg

“Surprising things can happen when you start to pray…” — Jacqueline Osherow

“Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow, grow.” — The Talmud

“Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.” — Baruch Spinoza

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” — Albert Einstein

“Two strides across, the rest is dark...Life is a fleeting question mark…” — Hannah Senesh

“You become a writer because you need to become a writer. Nothing else.” — Grace Paley

“Take your life into your own hands…” — Erica Jong

“Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.” — Golda Meir

“Had I not fallen, I would not have arisen. Had I not been subject to darkness, I could not have seen the light.” — Midrash

“If we survived Pharoah, we’ll survive this.” — Meir Arieli

Diana Bletter's writing appears in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Her novel A Remarkable Kindness is now available from William Morrow.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Secret of Chabad

Wednesday, August 26, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Veteran Chabad emissary to Yorba Linda and sitting president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County and Long Beach, California Rabbi David Eliezrie offers an intriguing insight into one of the most successful and influential movements of contemporary Judaism:

The Secret of Chabad: Inside the World's Most Successful Jewish Movement illuminates the key elements of Chabad Lubavitch's modern phenomenon. Drawing on interviews with shluchim and lead figures the world over, historical trajectories and events, and the author's personal experience, this book has caught the attention and admiration of prominent (non-Lubavitch) Jewish voices like Dennis Prager and Alan Dershowitz. The Secret of Chabad comes out September 2015 from The Toby Press; we're already fascinated by the book cover alone!

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A Scribe Among Scribes

Monday, August 24, 2015 | Permalink

Diana Bletter is the author of A Remarkable Kindness and lives in Israel. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I was standing in front of the Treasury Building in Petra, Jordan, a colossal structure carved right out of—or into—a rose-colored cliff, built about 500 C.E. The setting was mind-bogglingly magnificent, but it seemed sort of ghostly. Empty. For me, there was no echo, no resonance. Why? Because the Nabateans kept no written records. I could not connect to what was going on there. I had no way to understand or imagine how this building was used or what it meant to the Nabateans.

How lucky I am to belong to a nation of studiers and scribes! I have a rich written history to fall back on, to prop me up. I’m one more link in a chain of Jews that stretches back to ancient times and I can study texts to feel the connection.

But I also belong to a sub-category within that group: I am a Jewish woman. Which leaves me the task of reading between the lines when it comes to understanding Jewish women’s history, in the clues and meanings implied, inferred, or hidden within the Bible and Talmud

A writer’s job is to define the world. This very act of naming things, as Adam did in the Garden of Eden, is crucial for writers. We write what we see and feel. Writers have the privilege—and the responsibility—to translate our perspective into words. Those words give us power. And observing, followed by transcribing, is the power that gives us the art of writing.

I grew up in an age when Jewish women were not doing the writing as much as being written about. I feel fortunate to have witnessed a golden age for Jewish women writers. We can use our freedom to shape our own texts—and our own lives. We witness the world from our unique perspective, and we can share that outlook with others. It is our self-appointed task as writers to be independent, insightful, irreverent, faithful, thoughtful, spiritual, and creative all at once.

A while ago, I was visiting the United States (I moved from New York to northern Israel in 1991) and met with a Jewish Community Center program director who was considering inviting me to speak about my new novel, A Remarkable Kindness. The book tells the intertwined stories of four American women who are members of a hevra kadisha—what I call a burial circle—in Israel. The director looked at me skeptically and asked, “Why do you think your book would appeal to a general audience?”

I glanced above him; on the wall was a painting of a religious Jewish man studying an ancient text.

“That’s why,” I said, pointing up at the painting.

A man can symbolize all of Judaism. A woman’s connection to her beliefs, heritage and traditions all too often lies on the sidelines—not for a general audience. My first book, The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, was an attempt to give women center stage and provide the opportunity to speak about their Jewish experiences; my new novel allows four fictional characters to participate in and witness a mostly hidden Jewish ritual which ultimately transforms their lives.

I’m proud to take my place as a scribe in a nation of scribes. I feel fortunate, blessed to be writing when I can write exactly what I want—not necessarily because I want to preserve my words for the future or because I want to understand the past, but because I want to tell a good story, conveying what life is like right now, in the present.

Diana Bletter's writing appears in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He novel A Remarkable Kindness is now available from William Morrow.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews August 21, 2015

Friday, August 21, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Mississippi, Mon Amour

Thursday, August 20, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpt from The Hands of Peace: A Holocaust Survivor’s Fight for Civil Rights in the American South by Marione Ingram.

It was exhilarating to be so involved in the struggle to combat centuries of racial subjugation. Like others, I had volunteered for the task in Mississippi because I believed that Mississippi was where the need was greatest, where oppression was a way of life and a frequent cause of death. Perhaps because of what had been done to my family and others like them, I felt that the cause of African Americans was mine also and that I owed it to my past and to our mutual future to intervene. But if I had been moved to come to Mississippi mainly by feelings of anger and duty, these were soon replaced by the somewhat delirious feelings of an affair of the heart.

Yes, I missed my husband and three-year-old son; in fact, missed them more and more every day. Lying on my side I missed the feel of Daniel’s shoulder beneath my cheek and his slightly hairy chest beneath my arm. That was my rightful place, the place where I basked in his love and he in mine, and we in ours for our son. It was a place of arousal—we never wore pajamas—as well as relaxation, of dreams and somber reflection, contentment and deep yearning, even tears. It was my one most special place and I missed it.

What’s more, I was even more in love with Daniel now than when the bogus Dr. Black pronounced us husband and wife. In Mississippi, it was sunshine clear that Daniel’s trust was my most valuable asset. I thought I was probably the only SNCC worker then in Mississippi who had left a toddler and loving husband at home. I had come knowing that many people there and even a few in DC would say that I should have stayed at home and must be out for sexual adventure. Neither accusation bothered me, although I knew the importance of denying evil-thinkers ammunition. Both Daniel and I understood that racism is harmful to all children and wanted to be able to look ours in the eye when he asked later on what we had done to oppose it. Given my experience with the racial genocide that would later be called the Holocaust, which few SNCC workers knew much about and, so far as I knew, none had shared, I probably would have gone to Mississippi even if Daniel had insisted that it was too dangerous, but it was my good fortune to have his full support.

Each morning I awoke excited by the challenges that lay ahead, and each day I became more attached to the people I lived and worked with. I loved them for the dangers they had passed as well as for the content of their character. I adored their cool as they invoked the wrath of Mr. Charlie, their stubborn dignity in the face of intimidation and derision, their deft skewering of pretensions and their irrepressible humor before, after, and even during a confrontation. But most of all I loved them for their warmth and openness to me, for sharing their vulnerability as well as their strength, and for allowing me to nest in their affections.

In my expanded emotional state, I wrote to Daniel, telling him that I had been “seduced by an intangible,” and was suffering from “a disease called Mississippi.” I said it was “a seduction of the mind,” but that “every third day I have a minute of lucidity in which I see Mississippi as it is.” I also wrote that I saw the law as the oppressor, and that “the KKK holds its meetings in police stations.” I confessed that I feared that I would not escape from Mississippi even if I left it, since “I have Mississippi in my blood, and the disease has taken hold.” But “freedom will provide a cure,” I continued, and we would see a new day of honor and dignity “when a man no longer has to be afraid but can be a man in every sense of the word.” I waxed feverish about our need to succeed, saying that “it is only through Mississippi and because of her that we will change America into what it can and should be.”

As a former southerner, Daniel worried constantly about my safety, but was never less than fully supportive. He conveyed no hint of reproach or discouragement, but assured me that he and Danny were doing fine and were getting considerable help from friends, especially from our dear friend Bernice Hooks, who made sure Danny received hands-on maternal affection by taking him into her extended family on many weekends. My mother, however, responded to my letters with brief notes saying that I should return at once to my husband and child, where I belonged. Although I did not doubt that she was concerned for my safety, her tone made it clear that she believed I was shirking my basic duty as a wife, albeit for a laudable cause.

Continue Reading »

Excerpted with permission from Marione Ingram. Copyright 2015, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

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Book Cover of the Week: Piece of Mind

Thursday, August 20, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Whenever W. W. Norton & Co. picks up a work of fiction, you know it's going to be good—especially when they give it a book cover like this one:

Piece of Mind: A Novel tells the story of Lucy, a twenty-seven-year-old challenged by the ins and outs of daily life and human relationships since suffering a brain injury in early childhood. Forced out into the world—and into her brother's college living space in New York City—upon the unexpected death of her father, Lucy must learn who she is and find strength she never knew she possessed. Norton recommends this February 2016 novel for readers who love The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or wish to discover "one of the most endearing and heroic characters of contemporary fiction."

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Of Lutis and Looters: History as the Sister of Fiction

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Parnaz Foroutan wrote about her childhood determination to learn English after seeing a girl who looked just like her on the cover of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Her novel The Girl from the Garden is partly based on her childhood and family history in Iran before moving to the United States, where she now resides.

Recently my aunt sent me an e-mail in response to an essay I had written about a supposedly villainous character from our family history. She told me that my description of M’amad Ali Ghehnel was interesting, but she didn’t think I should refer to him as a Luti, since historically and culturally, the Lutis were considered folk heroes, and Ghenel participated in the pogroms against the Jews of Kermanshah, where Muslim mobs broke into Jewish homes, raped women inside, and stole the property within.

The story goes that during the pogrom of 1908 in Kermanshah, M’amad Ali Ghehnel stood on the rooftop of the family estate and, while all the other houses of the Jews in that mahalleh, or quarter, were looted, he waited with his shotgun, yelling threats from the rooftop of our ancestral home to the mob below, protecting the house from their advances.

The elders of my family have guessed, over the years, that M’amad Ali Ghenel was waiting on the rooftop with the shotgun to mark the estate as his own territory, waiting for the crowds to subside before he pillaged the house for his own gain, but the Governor called for a cease to the looting and crimes before Ghehnel had a chance to descend from the rooftop and claim his goods. Theories aside, the fact remains that Ghenel stood on top of that roof, protecting the house and its inhabitants and, in the end, after the riots and chaos, he descended and left, quietly and empty-handed.

The books I read about this time and place in history fall into two categories: Jewish scholars who list their historical grievances, making little room for the exceptions, and Muslim scholars who ignore the atrocities or offer excuses in their stead. Hence, when it comes time for me to tell the story, the truth is something that I must forge between the two. The Jews of Iran were oppressed, beaten, raped, murdered, humiliated, and certain ulama did rile up the anti-Semitic sentiments of the uneducated masses as a means to achieve their own ends, but amidst all this institutional hatred, there must have been human beings, capable of love and understanding? Why did Ghenel defend that home? What relationships, undocumented and untold, existed between him and the human beings occupying that house so long ago?

Should we render history simply in terms of the black and white? The innocent sheep and the ravenous cruelties of wolves? Isn’t that more the stuff of fairy tales; isn’t the reality of human experience full of contradictions and exceptions?

History is the sister of fiction. The two are not so dissimilar. The scholars will also take facts and choose and shape and retell them to fit their narratives. What we know of this story is that M’amad Ali Ghehnel stood on the roof of our family estate, stood with his shotgun aimed, yelling threats to the advancing mob, and when dusk descended, he did not enter that home. And all explanations of his action must be constructed by the imagination, because neither he nor those he protected explained the why’s of this story. Who knows what resides in the hearts of men? Perhaps Ghenel was foiled by the Governor’s orders. Or, maybe, his reasons for not participating in the violence directed toward the Jews of that mahalleh were born of something higher than the laws and orders of other men.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran and spent her early childhood there. Her novel The Girl from the Garden, for which she received PEN USA's Emerging Voices award, was inspired by her family history.

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