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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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Interview: Dina Elenbogen

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 | Permalink

by Howard Schwartz

Jewish Book Council sat down with Dina Elenbogen, poet and author of Drawn from Water: An American Poet, An Ethiopian Family, An Israeli Story, to talk about her experience of writing the book, living in Israel, and witnessing history.

Howard Schwartz: You kept a detailed journal for many years. At what point did you decide to write Drawn from Water, and how many years did it take?

Dina Elenbogen: It is difficult to say how long it took, because in between visits to Israel and drafts of the book I was also writing other things, teaching, raising children, and waiting for my next return. I had been keeping a journal for a long time, particularly while living in Israel, when I was constantly inspired by daily life and writing down my impressions of and encounters with the Ethiopian community. I had received a grant to return to Israel to see how the community was faring five years after Operation Moses, and my assignment was to report on my findings, so on all of my return visits I was both reporting and writing personal impressions. It wasn't until the Nineties, the aftermath of Operation Solomon, that I realized that my personal relationship with Israel, poetry, and the Ethiopian Jewish community were meant to be part of the same narrative.

HS: As a poet, you naturally brought a poet's perspective to your experiences. How did this impact your life in Ma'alot?

DE: I felt everything deeply. I saw both the beauty and the ugliness. I listened to people's words and silences. I understood the nuances. I also struggled with the fact that I was a poet and not an anthropologist: there were times when I wanted to be more of an anthropologist, to have a more objective and theoretical understanding of the absorption process. It wasn't until I was far into the book that I came to peace with the fact that what I had to offer was the story as told from a poet. When I found an editor who asked me to revise with my poet's hat on, I knew my task was almost complete.

HS: What was your impression of most Israeli’s attitude towards the Ethiopians? Did the immigrants feel welcome, despite their difficulties?

DE: There was and continues to be a mixed response to the Ethiopian community in Israel. In the aftermath of Operation Solomon in 1991, Israelis of all kinds were so moved by the sight of 15,000 Jews brought to Israel over one Shabbat in such a heroic effort. Though many of these new citizens proved to be good soldiers, workers, and students, Operation Solomon coincided with a huge aliyah—a wave immigration to Israel—from Russia, as well as the aftermath of the Gulf War, and Israelis were faced with the challenges of all of these events all at once. There were many who welcomed them, brought clothes and goods and tried to make them feel at home; but there are those who feared and discriminated against them, and continue to now.

HS: Drawn from Water not only chronicles the Ethiopian aliyah, but also the changes you experienced. How did your romantic view of Israel evolve into a more realistic attitude?

DE: I witnessed the evolution of racism against Ethiopian Israelis. I was there at the beginning and saw the potential of this community to contribute so much to Israeli society. At first it seemed that Israeli children throwing stones and adults referring to them as barbaric would pass. However, some of the racist attitudes have become institutionalized: teachers give up on Ethiopian students for being behind and don't look for creative ways to help them; the more recent offenses of police brutality are incomprehensible, extremely concerning and disillusioning. I try to hold onto the dream to a certain degree, but I have become more of an advocate than a dreamer. Fortunately this next generation of Ethiopian Jews, born in Israel, is standing up for itself, protesting in a louder voice. Hopefully it will be heard.

HS: You made the difficult decision not to make aliyah and to return to your life in the United States. Do you ever wonder about your alternate destiny if you had remained in Israel?

DE: I do. I would have to have made aliyah when I was still young and idealistic. The country has changed profoundly over the past thirty years and I have become less tolerant of Israel, particularly current policies. I have built a wonderful life with my family in America. Yet even now, when I walk for a day on Israeli soil, visit with my friends throughout the country—particularly with the Ethiopian families I befriended—something is still moved in me. The dreamer returns and I remember what I love about the country and how in some inexplicable way it feels more like home to me than anywhere else in the world.

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In Search of Theological Modesty

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 | Permalink

by William Liss-Levinson

I wrote In Search of Theological Modesty: Biblical Lessons to offer some perspectives that may enable readers to re-conceptualize themselves as thoughtful, spiritual Jews. The twenty-first century is emerging as a challenging time for people with faith-based traditions who also seek paths of openness to pluralistic voices and streams of spirituality. I have been personally troubled by fundamentalism, extremism, triumphalism and an intolerance that is garbed in the certitude of how one person or one group speaks the “The TRUTH” in contradistinction to the views and beliefs of others. In Search of Theological Modestyis deeply rooted in traditional Jewish approaches to biblical exegesis, but also finds new ways to support a commitment to tolerance and respect through examination of key stories and commandments in the Torah.

Blending homiletics with psychological insights, with this book I sought to create images, themes, and lessons that are both particularistic and global. Through analysis of Biblical texts in the Five Books of the Torah, I illustrate three special themes I see within Judaism: placing God, and not ourselves, at the center of the universe; understanding the boundaries and limitations we have as human beings; and, recognizing the dangers inherent in the certainty that one’s beliefs and perspectives are the only ones reflective of God’s truth and will. This book will hopefully paint backdrops of possibilities for Jews, regardless of their particular beliefs, rituals, and practices, to be open to the potential validity and worthiness of the views and perspectives of others, a concept which I call “Theological Modesty.”

This book is intended primarily to raise questions and suggest some possible answers that require one to look through a different lens. Because the chapters are each relatively brief, the book is well-suited to be incorporated into synagogue adult education programs and in a variety of other educational forums, through which these issues can be explored. Finally, for theologically committed people of other faiths, I have hopefully presented the Jewish texts and other Jewish sources in a manner such that they, too, will find value in these chapters. Issues of pluralism and openness to differing views are certainly very much alive in other faiths as well. Intra- and inter-religious understanding is a challenge we all share. I invite people of varying backgrounds and understandings to join in my own search to more humbly approach my beliefs, other people, and their beliefs and faiths.

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Soon, I'll Know All the Words They Know

Monday, August 17, 2015 | Permalink

Parnaz Foroutan is the author of The Girl from the Garden, a novel of the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles and its origins in Iran. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

It was uncanny, her portrait in black and white on the cover of the book and my own school picture. The same smile, the same cheekbones, the same nose. The same black, thick hair, cut just above the shoulders and held back by a barrette. And dark eyes, like mine. The book had small black words crowded together, page after page, bleeding through the pages, endless. I whispered the words of the title, tested their weight in my mouth, “Anne… Frank… Diary…”

On the playground, I listened silently to the conversations, the laughter, the sounds of names being called and words being screamed. An entire universe of exchange about matters of whose turn it was to hit the ball, about the pulling of hair and the sharing of cookies. An entire universe of interaction through words that flew by too quickly and only left a moment of confused pictures behind.

“Maman, I am going to learn to speak English very well. I am going to learn three new words every day. Soon, I’ll know all the words they know.”

The lady who read to us had hair the color of rain clouds when the sun shined through them. She sat in a chair while we sat on the floor. She held lovely books and read the words slowly, her voice like the sound of fat raindrops on the leaves of the oak tree outside my bedroom window. Wild Things. She read and I saw monsters that hid in dark basements and wailed like air raid sirens in the night. After she finished reading, she gave us a few minutes to walk around the large room and look at the shelves of books that ran from wall to wall. I opened their covers and looked into those pages, searching for beds that turned into boats and bedroom floors that became tumultuous waves.

“I got you a present.” I loved her, even though she pulled me out of class and the other children taunted me as I walked past them. “It’s a book. It’s about this girl named Madeline. She’s the one with red ribbons in her hair.” She read the words to me, slowly. She defined them, slowly. Then, when the story ended and I wanted to hear it again, she’d read it once more. Years later, I found that book at the bottom of a box filled with letters and old dolls.

The book with the photograph of the dark-eyed girl sat on my desk for weeks and each afternoon, when the fourth grade teacher announced reading time, I picked it up and struggled past words until they became sentences, past those until they became paragraphs.

“She looks just like you,” Steven Bookbinder said it loud enough so that everyone at the table heard and rushed to look at the book in his hand. No one looked like me, except this girl in an old photograph on the cover of a book that the librarian insisted was too hard for me to read. I pulled the book from his hand, angry and ashamed. He had touched something that was mine. Not the object—that dog-eared copy that had circulated in the library of Brookside Elementary School year after year—but an entire world in a lonely attic that I shared with a girl named Anne.

It happened one day, just like that. The words on the page disappeared and I found myself hearing her voice, looking through that little window beside her. The words opened into a story, and I was there. And when that book ended, I opened another, and another. I was a German soldier on the front, a redheaded boy in love with a pony the color of a sunset, a poor man, a murderer hounded by my conscious, a prostitute. And to this day, still, when I need to find some redemption, some grace that raises me from the loneliness and isolation of being, I open a book, and wait for the words to invite me in.

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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New Jewish Book Reviews August 8, 2015

Friday, August 14, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council Reviews:

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Don't miss hearing us on Vox Tablet's feature on summer reads for 2015!