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May Jewish Book Carnival

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is pleased to be this month's Jewish Book Carnival host. The series, which is about to celebrate its 2-year anniversary, is a monthly event where book bloggers who promote Jewish literature come together to share some of their best content from the past month. Take a look at the below links, read the great articles, reviews, and interviews, and feel free to join the conversation by commenting on the posts. 

We'll kick this one off with a few May reading lists on our site, which you can find here.

Leora Wenger shares her Holocaust reading list in honor of Yom HaShoah (find JBC's list here).

On My Machberet, Erika Dreifus reflects on the late Anthony Shadid's memoir, House of Stone.

Listen to Heidi Estrin's podcast interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, over at The Book of Life.

Jonathan Kirsch reviews Benjamin Taylor's Naples Declared in The Jewish Journal.

Jean Naggar, author of the memoir Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt, shares her thoughts on the art of the memoir with AJL's People of the Books.

Over at The Whole Megillah, Barbara Krasner reviews the new picture book Jean Laffite, The Pirate Who Saved America and interviews Ellen Cassedy, author of We Are Here.

The Hebrew Union College’s Libraries got a rare peek at everyday life in the Holocaust era ghettos with the donation of Lodz Ghetto money (and the cataloger got a dose of realia).

Finally, find links to JBC's reviews of titles mentioned in this month's Jewish Book Carnival posts below:



 

A Nice Jewish Girl on the Balance Beam

Monday, May 14, 2012 | Permalink
Dvora Meyers is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When you tell someone that you used to do gymnastics, she frequently answers that she, too, did it. When she was seven. And hadn’t thought about it in years. The implication is clear — gymnastics is the sort of sport you’re supposed to outgrow. In most instances, you start doing it before you know how to sign your own name and it’s over by your first adolescent growth spurt, joining the childhood hobby trash heap, which for me includes rollerblading and playing with Barbie dolls.

But in my case, I couldn’t seem to shake the sport unlike the rest of my practice peers, who ended their involvement with gymnastics by the end of high school. There I was, about to start grad school in Creative Nonfiction at twenty-three, still checking the online message boards devoted to the sport daily in order to learn which Romanian gymnast had a new vault or who was injured and or who quit and so on. (The gymnastics community, both online and in real life, is especially tight knit for the same reasons that Jews tend to cluster together — there are so few of us who give a damn.)

As I was trying to figure out the topic for the first essay I wanted to write for my workshop, my mind drifted to the sport, which I hadn’t really written about much (even if I talked about it ad nauseum and watched YouTube videos of competitions from two decades prior merely to admire the way a particular Soviet pointed her toes). Hey, I said to myself, I’m still as obsessed with gymnastics in my 20s as I was at seven. In a very Seinfeldian way, I wondered — What’s that about?

So I wrote my first essay exploring the role of the sport in my life. Like Genesis, I started at the beginning, or at least what I thought was the beginning — my seemingly coming-out-of-nowhere obsession with gymnastics. In those earliest examinations, it seemed like I had woken up one day and decided that I must learn how to flip over my hands. It was a pretty unsophisticated piece, both in writing and insight, and thankfully none of it made its way into any formally published work.

But even in those early efforts, what was becoming very clear was the role that my family’s strict observance of Orthodox Jewish rules was playing in my participation in the sport and how it added fuel to the fire of my obsession. There was the fact that I couldn’t go to a real competitive gym because their afterschool classes started too early for someone with the longer hours of a yeshiva student. Or that leotards posed a religious problem to someone who wore only skirts and longer sleeved skirts outside of the gym. And nearly all competitions took place on Shabbos. When it came to the lower level ones, I simply wasn’t allowed to compete. As for the elite, televised ones—I had to learn how to program the VCR so I could eventually watch them after the stars came out on Saturday night. All of these limitations imposed by Judaism simply made me want to do and think about the sport even more. I like to imagine that if I had been totally unfettered by religious doctrine, I probably would’ve left the sport behind when it became apparent that I simply wasn’t any good at it.

During one after class drinking sessions at a local bar, my workshop professor, who had been subjected to a semester-long barrage of gymnastics, tipsily looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve got this whole Potok thing going on. Except with a weird thing about gymnastics.”

While my personal essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, bears little resemblance to Potok’s novels—fiction vs. nonfiction, male vs. female protagonists, different eras—I’d like to think that perhaps had Potok been enamored with gymnastics instead of the national pastime then maybe Reuven Malter, the main character in The Chosen, would’ve hit his head on the balance beam instead of getting nailed in the eye by a baseball. That would’ve been cool.

Dvora Meyers has written for The New York Times, Deadspin, and Tablet. She was never allowed to compete professionally, but she is the recipient of a gold medal for gymnastics obsessiveness. Her new book, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, is out now.

Montefiore’s Ramsgate

Friday, May 11, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award Winner Dr. Abigail Green wrote about the making of a good biography and traveling in the footsteps of Montefiore. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. 

Sunday June 17th will be Montefiore day in Ramsgate, the faded seaside resort where Sir Moses and his wife Judith lived for nearly fifty years. Ramsgate was incorporated in 1884, the year Montefiore turned 100, and the town’s most distinguished resident donated the new mayor’s chain of office - gold, as you would expect, but rather surprisingly made up of the Hebrew letter Mem, Montefiore’s own initial. For the first time in many years, Ramsgate has its own mayor again – and the chain has reminded him of the town’s distinctive Jewish heritage. So Ramsgate has launched a Montefiore Heritage Society, and is inviting the great and good to commemorate the opening of Montefiore’s private synagogue there on June 17, 1833.

It’s good to see the town embracing its Jewish past because it hasn’t always been thus. And yet to Victorians, Montefiore and Ramsgate were synonymous. Before Montefiore’s arrival, this was a typical English working port, with a good beach and some gracious Georgian housing. By his death it had acquired not just a synagogue, but a replica of the Tomb of Rachel (where Montefiore mourned his own lamented Judith), a range of Jewish schools and boarding houses, and something called the Lady Judith Theological College, which was a cross between a yeshiva and an Oxford college. And of course there was East Cliff Lodge itself: Montefiore’s home, a neo-Gothic gentleman’s residence that was at once typically Victorian and full of the most extraordinary Judaica.

My cousin Robin Sebag-Montefiore was born in East Cliff Lodge, and my mother’s elderly relatives can still remember playing in its fabulous gardens during their school holidays. Others have told me how the whole Jewish community was invited to the house for Sukkot, and of the wonderful tea parties held on its lawns. But Robin’s father died when he was 3, and his young widow sold the house and much of its contents. Like so many grand houses it fell into decay – occupied by the army during the Second World War, sold to the Borough of Ramsgate in 1952 and demolished in 1954. All that remains now are the greenhouses – ambitious, curved, glass buildings that predate the Crystal Palace. The Judith College suffered a similar fate. It was training North African rabbis as late as the 1950s, but demolished in 1961, when the Sephardi community chose to transfer its activities to London. 

And so it is that I mostly associate Ramsgate with funerals. Because the Montefiores are the only members of London’s Sephardi community who still chose to be buried here. It’s strange visiting a cemetery where so many family members are buried close together, and its strange burying so many family members so far away from their loved ones that for most of the year their graves lie forgotten and unvisited. 

I’m glad there are others now to remember the Montefiore past: to visit the greenhouses, and to walk down the steep footpath, past the synagogue and on towards the cemetery; to stop for a pint at The Montefiore Arms before heading on to catch a glimpse of the sea.

Dr. Abigail Green is Lecturer (CUF) in Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford University. She is the 2011 Choice Award winner for the Sami Rohr Prize. Her new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.

June Twitter Book Club

Thursday, May 10, 2012 | Permalink

Announcing our June Twitter Book Club: June 19th with Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen. Find more details here.

New Reviews

Thursday, May 10, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:




 

Jewish Journeys

Wednesday, May 09, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award Winner Dr. Abigail Green wrote about the making of a good biography. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For the past ten years I’ve been travelling the world in Moses Montefiore’s footsteps. This was a man who spent much of his (long) life on the road: besides the usual round of European tourist destinations (Paris, Florence, Rome, Frankfurt and Berlin), he visited Jerusalem seven times in total and passed through innumerable Jewish communities as he embarked on politically motivated missions to places like St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Marrakesh and Bucharest.

But what does it mean to travel in the footsteps of a man who’s been dead for over 120 years, and why bother? After all, it’s impossible to recreate the nineteenth century travel experience in our world of cars, planes and high-speed trains. (I once met a Reform Rabbi who followed the Montefiores’ route during their first trip abroad; apparently it was very scenic, involving only minor roads.) More to the point, most of the places Montefiore visited have changed beyond all recognition. It’s not just that Bucharest is full of shabby, Ceausescu high-rise flats, or that a whole quarter of Marrakesh is devoted to glitzy hotels. The real problem is more fundamental. The shifting currents of world history mean that places that were once heartlands of the diaspora are now barely Jewish places at all.

And yet, it was worth the trouble. I found no echo of Montefiore’s visit when I travelled through Poland and Lithuania, but the scale of Jewish absence helped me to understand the ways in which twentieth century developments had erased his achievements. Sitting through Shabbat services in Rome’s empty Great Synagogue and the even emptier Choral Temple in Bucharest, I could not fail to notice the ways in which synagogue architecture paid tribute to the aesthetic values of the non-Jewish world. Nothing could have prepared me for the florid extravagance of the former or the delicate, Byzantine beauty of the latter – surely the most beautiful synagogue in which I have ever been privileged to sit. Only retracing the boundaries of Rome’s ancient Ghetto could have shown me how pitifully small it was. Only by visiting the tiny Moroccan sea-port of Essaouira could I appreciate the rocky isolation of this wealthy entrepot that was once home to so many of Moroccan Jewry’s financial and commercial elite.

If anything, then, I regret the places I left unvisited. Damascus and Alexandria are only names to me. But if I close my eyes I can see the golden sands of the beach that is the old Jewish cemetery of Essaouira; I can see the crumbling stone fantasies of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw; and I can see streets of the old Jewish quarter in Vilna, empty now but in Montefiore’s day teeming with vibrant, impoverished, contentious Jewish life.

Dr. Abigail Green is Lecturer (CUF) in Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford University. She is the 2011 Choice Award winner for the Sami Rohr Prize. Her new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.

Internship Opportunity

Wednesday, May 09, 2012 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is looking for a summer intern June-August 2012; dates and time are flexible (please include available dates/time along with resume). An ideal candidate will be a rising high school senior or college student interested in literature, journalism, publishing, social media, and expanding their network. Please note that this is an unpaid internship. Details can be found here.  

Book Cover of the Week: Jerusalem

Tuesday, May 08, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Drawn and Quarterly published Guy Delisle's Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City in April. Click here for a preview.



Acclaimed graphic memoirist Guy Delisle returns with his strongest work yet—a thoughtful and moving travelogue about life in the Holy City.

Guy Delisle expertly lays the groundwork for a cultural road map of contemporary Jerusalem, utilizing the classic stranger in a strange land point of view that made his other books, pyongyang, shenzhen, and burma chronicles required reading for understanding what daily life is like in cities few are able to travel to. In jerusalem: chronicles from the holy city, Delisle explores the complexities of a city that represents so much to so many. He eloquently examines the impact of the conflict on the lives of people on both sides of the wall while drolly recounting the quotidian: checkpoints, traffic jams, and holidays.

When observing the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations that call Jerusalem home, Delisle’s drawn line is both sensitive and fair, assuming nothing and drawing everything. Jerusalem showcases once more Delisle’s mastery of the travelogue.

Historians, Biographers

Monday, May 07, 2012 | Permalink

Dr. Abigail Green is the author of Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

What makes a good biography? I thought about this question a lot when I was writing my book about Moses Montefiore, and I’ve been thinking about it again recently. As a historian, my preference has always been for biographies that illuminate the broader context – books like Elisheva Carlebach’s The Pursuit of Heresy, which brought the world of the itinerant Jerusalem rabbi Moses Hagiz so vividly to life, or Perfecting the World – a wonderful book about Montefiore’s life-long friend, the Quaker philanthropist and physician Thomas Hodgkin.

Of course, such books don’t necessarily make for easy reading.

A couple of weeks ago I contributed to In Our Time, one of the most popular and long-lived discussion programs on British radio. The subject was Moses Mendelssohn, a fascinating character about whom I know rather less than I should. Preparing for this broadcast, I came across Shmuel Feiner’s brilliantly readable little biography of the German-Jewish philosopher, which just came out in the Yale Jewish Lives series. I loved the way it opened with youths throwing stones at Mendelssohn and his family as they walked down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s smartest promenade; and ended, by alluding both to this episode and to German Jewry’s terrible future. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that this pearl of a book was written by the author of The Jewish Enlightenment, a superb piece of scholarship but famously heavy-going.

Biographers tend to get bogged down in detail, and my own book is no exception. Something about the brief, interpretative format of the Yale series seems to have liberated Feiner. He tells us everything we need to know about Mendelssohn’s thought and brings the man to life, all in about 70,000 words. Each of which is precious. It’s a far cry from Altmann’s classic, 900 page intellectual biography and infinitely more enlightening.

Feiner’s elegantly concise approach contrasts starkly with the other biography I’m reading at the moment: Jonathan Steinberg’s psychologically driven Bismarck, which I’m reviewing for the European History Quarterly. It’s a bulky volume, and like me he had difficulty cutting a life down to size. Steinberg’s earlier books, such as All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust seemed to me to ask the right questions (why did the Italians and the Germans behave differently during the Holocaust?) without coming up with really satisfactory answers. This time, however, he seems to have struck gold. The style is genuinely sparkling, and focusing on an individual rather than broader societal structures seems to play to Steinberg’s strengths. Two things that resonated for me were Steinberg’s emphasis on the emotional dimension of Bismarck’s approach to politics and the way in which the story of Bismarck’s life was intertwined with the evolving and deeply ingrained hostility Junkers like Bismarck felt towards Jews as alien symbols of change and modernity.

Oddly then, these are both books about the German-Jewish symbiosis. Despite their different qualities, they share the same fundamental virtue. Both Feiner and Steinberg are drawing on a lifetime of knowledge – and you can tell that in writing these biographies they had the time of their lives.

Dr. Abigail Green is Lecturer (CUF) in Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford University. She is the 2011 Choice Award winner for the Sami Rohr Prize. Her new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.

A Yiddish Writing Contest

Monday, May 07, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Are you the next Sholem Aleichem or Avrom Sutzkever? Check out this Yiddish Writing Contest from Yugntruf.