The ProsenPeople

Interview: Dina Gold

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 | Permalink

with Maron L. Waxman

Amid its account of the legal battle to recover ownership—or at least the recognition of ownership—of the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 in Berlin, Dina Gold’s Stolen Legacy is the story of her maternal grandparents’ wealthy and largely secular Jewish family, ousted from Germany and scattered to Israel and Great Britain.

Maron L. Waxman: You write that although your grandmother often said that when the Berlin Wall came down you would all be rich, it seemed like a fantasy to the family. Did anyone believe her?

Dina Gold: I believed her, but I was the only one in the family who did. My mother told me in no uncertain terms to ignore my grandmother’s tales because Nellie had always been a fantasist and she had, sadly, become mentally quite unstable in her later years. When I decided to look into whether or not the family really had owned the building, my mother strongly urged me not to waste my time and energy: as far as she was concerned, the past was the past and should remain that way and one should not look back. I disagreed.

MLW: What made your grandfather decide to emigrate to Palestine?

DG: To my mother it was always something of a mystery. She would say that after Hitler came to power, suddenly her father “found his Zionist heart.” He wanted to be with other Jews. Maybe he was affected by the way my mother was treated at her school, where she was the only Jewish child. Her classmates, mostly the daughters of German army officers, started to pick on her. On opening her desk, she would find a copy of Der Stürmer, the Nazi newspaper filled with vicious anti-Semitic cartoons, left there to taunt her; the little girls would put her on a chair and dance around her singing “wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt, dann geht’s nochmal so gut” (“When Jewish blood spurts from the knife, then things are twice as good”). Shortly after the February 1933 Reichstag fire, the Gestapo raided Herbert’s house, looking for his Communist younger brother, Fritz. They finally caught him and incarcerated him in Spandau prison. Herbert saw the way things were going and left Germany. His wife and three children followed a few months later.

MLW: When you started looking into the case, you were an investigative journalist working for the BBC. Did that influence you to look into your grandmother’s story?

DG: Being a BBC journalist helped. I certainly wasn’t frightened at the prospect of taking on the German government. I had experience of investigative journalist techniques, knew how to conduct research, and was not easily put off. I tried to be as unemotional as possible because getting upset at what I discovered in the process was not going to help. The key point was that I knew from the start that I would have to prove the case, make it a legally watertight claim. Gathering all that evidence was a challenge and took several years to complete.

MLW: When you first visited Berlin, you had virtually no documents whatsoever. How did you even start your investigation?

DG: On my first trip to Berlin, in December 1990, all I had was a copy of a page from a 1920 business directory with an advertisement for H. Wolff, nothing more to link me to the property. I marched in and asked to speak to the most senior person on the premises, and when he arrived in reception, I announced, “I’ve come to claim my family’s building!” To say that he was surprised is an understatement. You could say it was pure chutzpah, and you’d be right. But bluff is often what investigative reporters have to do—and it proved useful. After phoning head office in Bonn, this man told me that his superiors had confessed to him that they knew the building had once been owned by Jews but they did not know if anyone had survived. After I told this man my story, he said something which greatly surprised me: “You must get this building back for your mother.” He was an East Berliner with a keen sense of history, and he was extremely interested in my family story. He confided in me that the people who worked there, forty five years after the end of the war, still referred to it as “the Wolff building” but claimed they didn’t know why.

MLW: How did you manage with all the German documents and lawyers?

DG: My mother and father both spoke German. It was their secret language when they didn’t want me and my brother to know what they were talking about. Of course, I picked up a little, but my mother could translate the documents for me and the lawyers acting for my mother were bilingual.

MLW: What effect has the book had?

DG: I’ve been part of the JBC Network for the past year and have been invited to speak at a number of venues. I’m often asked by people for advice on getting restitution for their long-lost family property. This is a very live issue, and so many families are still trying to get back their stolen property. I’m mindful that the Holocaust was an immense act of murder and nothing can compare with it. But it was also the largest theft in history, which hasn’t been resolved, by any means. I did my little bit, but there’s so much more still to be done.

MLW: How has this experience affected you?

DG: I don’t regret for an instant doing it. I’m now fighting to have a plaque put on the front of the building at Krausenstrasse 17/18 to attest that it was stolen from Jews. Three years ago I was promised such a plaque, but to date nothing has happened. When I first sat down to write the book, I did it so that my three children would know their heritage—having it published was a bonus. I wish other families had been so successful in their petitions, but I hope that my example will give them the courage to pursue their cases as vigorously as I pursued my mother’s.

Maron L. Waxman is a retired editorial director of special projects at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club. She also leads editorial workshops.

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What Does Purim Mean to My Autistic Son?

Monday, March 21, 2016 | Permalink

Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism. This week she begins an exclusive series on celebrating the Jewish holidays in a family with special needs as a Visiting Scribe guest contributor on The ProsenPeople.

Purim is one of the many “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” Jewish holidays. But for an autistic child like my son Mickey, Purim is first and foremost a holiday about sensory overload.

It starts with the noise: the raucous Purim spiel; the cacophony of gragers; the booing, howling, hooting, and hissing to drown out Haman’s name during the Megillah reading. Add blazing lights, the pink sugary smell of cotton candy, the bang and clang of carnival games, and the press of a hundred children pushing past him to grab the Dunkin Munchkins. It’s simply too much for an autistic child with a hyper-vigilant sensory system.

Just as Broadway theaters have been creating sensory-friendly theater experiences for kids on the spectrum, I’d love to see synagogues offer a sensory-friendly Purim. But maybe that’s an oxymoron. What’s Purim without the tumult?

It isn’t that our temple hasn’t tried. In elementary school, Mickey attended a Hebrew school class run by Matan, a nonprofit that advocates for students with special needs to have access to a rich and meaningful Jewish education. Our temple opened the Purim carnival to Matan students an hour early, so that they might enjoy the food and games in a less hectic environment. Even though it was in his beloved temple, the familiar common room packed with carnival games and trays of sweets was still a sensory assault to him. It took just ten minutes until he reached his tipping point. “Take me home,” he said. “I’m done.”

Words I’ve learned to heed.

When Mickey was eight years old and his brother Jonathan thirteen, we flew to Arizona for their cousin’s bat mitzvah. Mickey fidgeted but managed to sit through the service, even singing along to familiar songs. But when we moved to the banquet room, we slammed up against a wall of thrumming music and flashing lights. Mickey flung himself to the floor, and clutched his hands over his ears. People stared. We scooped him up and took him back to our hotel room.

Having a child with these sensitivities opened a window into myself. As a kid, I also hated crowded rooms. Strobe lights. Roller coasters. I thought it was a character flaw, that I was simply too timid. I didn’t realize it was just the way I was wired—the way my son is wired, too.

Still, I wish he could enjoy Purim the way I did as a child. I remember the joy I felt dressing up as Queen Esther for our temple’s carnival. I wore a sequined-covered, neon green costume with gauzy harem pants. I delighted in feeling like a different person. But Mickey doesn’t do costumes. “I hate dressing up,” he says. “I just like normal.”

“I’ve had enough.” He says it adamantly, often when the rest of us are still having fun. For years, I cajoled, reasoned, even bribed: I wanted him to sit longer, stay later, last through the meal. Was that more for my sake than his? Or am I beating myself up too much? It took me a long time to understand that he doesn’t mean to be difficult. He is simply advocating for what he needs.

I believe it’s my job as his parent to expose him to as many new experiences as I can. I want to open the richness of the world to him. When is it okay to push? How hard? When to pull back? It’s an intricate dance. Mickey is 23 now, and I am still learning the steps. I can still supply the props—the food, the family, the prayers, the stories—but now the rest is up to him.

After we retreated from the carnival at our temple, a thoughtful neighbor brought him mishloach manot, a Purim basket overflowing with cookies, chocolates, clementines, bottles of grape juice, and a pair of Purim finger puppets. “I love Purim!” he told me.

As I watched how excited he was to go through that basket of goodies, I realized that Purim was whatever Mickey wants to make of it. I don't know what being Jewish means to him. But seeing his pleasure in something as simple as that basket of treats gave me joy. Maybe that’s enough for both of us.

Liane Kupferberg Carter is a nationally-known writer and advocate for the autism community and a co-author of the Autism Speaks Advocacy Took Kit. She will be touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her book Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable through the JBC Network.

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Making Sense of Esther: Beyond Beauty

Monday, March 21, 2016 | Permalink

Rebecca Kanner’s second novel, Esther, is an adaptation of the story of the Megillah. With Purim on the horizon, Rebecca will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

The book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts the genocide of her people. Though it’s read aloud in synagogue each year, the reading is accompanied by so much raucous celebration that I never paid close attention to the details. I listened for Esther’s and her cousin Mordechai’s names so I could cheer, and I listened for the evil Haman’s name so I could shake my noisemaker and boo. The costumes, treats, drunkenness—the experience of the Purim holiday celebration—distracted me from the intricacies of the story.

I thought the story was a simple one: a beautiful Jewish girl wins the king and saves her people with the encouragement of her cousin. I couldn’t understand why it took so long to read. Each year, about a quarter of the way through the reading, my thoughts had already sped ahead to hamentashen, wine and dancing.

To see what was delaying the final phase of the party, I started to read along. Later, I read it again on my own. I was confused. Esther didn’t seem like a true heroine. She seemed to be an indecisive girl who would have allowed the genocide of her people if not for Mordeachai’s harsh prodding. Beauty and obedience are the only assets mentioned. In fact, the king’s choice of Esther from among all the virgins is summed up, “The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins,” leaving us to look for the description of her up to this point that may have made her attractive to him. The most telling description of her seems to be that she was “shapely and beautiful.” Beyond that, we have only her deference to the wisdom of Hegai, “She did not ask for anything but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch and guardian of the women, advised. Yet Esther won the admiration of all who saw her…” and her deference to Moredechai, “But Esther still did not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had instructed her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai’s bidding, as she had done when she was under his tutelage.”

When she finally does disobey a man, it’s not due to a new strength and independence. It’s due to cowardice. Mordecai instructs her to go to the king to reveal that she’s a Jew and ask for her people’s lives. She responds that going before the king without being invited is an offense that is punishable by death. Mordechai, upon learning that saving her people is not enough of a reward for risking her life, tells her, “Do not imagine that you, or all the Jews, will escape with your life… if you keep silent… you and your father’s house will perish.” It is only then that she decides that she will go to the king, and issues the most famous quote from the story, “…if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

What sort of heroine is Esther?

To answer this question, I dove more deeply into the story. What I discovered was that on the face of them, a number of Esther’s choices don’t make sense. Beneath the surface, however, is an Esther who is strategic and cunning.

Stay tuned for my next post, in which we’ll dig deeper into what I believe is Esther’s true role in the story: that of an intelligent and courageous girl who learned to think for herself.

Rebecca Kanner is the author of Esther: A Novel and Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife. You can learn more about her and find links to selected stories, essays, and videos at

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New Book Reviews March 20, 2016

Saturday, March 19, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new book reviews at Jewish Book Council:

Featured Content:

Book Cover of the Week: Warp

Friday, March 18, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

You know how some shows take a few episodes to find their legs? I initially gave up on Parks and Recreation, for example, disappointed in the early run of a program I had greatly anticipated, and returned a couple seasons later to what by then quickly became one of my favorite comedy sitcoms of all time. After seeing the show through its finale I went back to the beginning of the series and discovered the brilliance of the early episodes I had shunned: though the humor had evaded audiences at the start of Parks & Rec, the writers were subtly developing the comedic arteries of the show, laying the foundation for the rest of the sitcom's seven-season run. Rewatching Season 1 with the full anticipation of what would follow made appreciate it on a whole new level.

The same can be true when it comes to books: an author's debut flop transforms to treasure on the merit of their later works, prized for the early strains of the writer's more popular books and progression it showcases.

Just such a phenomenon is promised with the re-release of Lev Grossman's first book, originally published in the late '90s. Tor Books revealed the cover for the September 2016 edition from St. Martin's Griffin earlier this week, attesting that "this re-publication of Grossman’s debut novel shows the roots of his Magicians hero Quentin Coldwater."

The author, for his own part, was a little more self-effacing: "St. Martin's published my first novel WARP in 1998," he announced this week on Facebook. "Unsatisfied with the amount of money they lost on it last time, they're republishing it (with an introduction by me) in September. Here's the new cover."

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The End Game

Friday, March 18, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I love the land of Israel, irrationally—nearly everything about it—but there is only one thing that I like about the Western Wall. When I stand before its looming stones, I can’t help but marvel at the birds that make their nests in the plants that sprout there, twenty feet into the sky. How do they do that? How can green grow from rock? Oh, to be one of those birds, that makes its home in the life that springs forth, in spite of it all!

The Kotel stands in opposition to my Judaism in every other way. It is made of stone, which the Torah specifically forbids worshipping. It was the outer retaining wall of the Temple complex, where God rested between the gaze of two golden cherubs, anticipating Levinas in the most poetic fashion. It is an ultra-Orthodox prayer space, with the added perk of a post office to heaven—neither of which remotely reflect my understanding of the Divine, or how God works in the world.

Why then should the recent decision by the Israeli government to create a third egalitarian section at the Kotel matter to me at all?

It shouldn’t, but somehow it does. Whether I like it or not, the Western Wall’s very existence begs the question: What are we going for here, in this project that we call the Modern State of Israel? What is our end game?

The Temple Institute in Jerusalem has an answer. A non-profit organization funded but American and Israeli money, they are dedicated to preparing for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. They have already reconstructed all of the necessary décor—the altar, priestly garments, menorah, etc., (many made of pure gold)—and are training priests to resume animal sacrifice. All that stands in their way is the birth of a red heifer, a cow whose fur is entirely red, and the destruction of Islam’s third-holiest site. The Institute recently announced that a red heifer is indeed being raised now in the United States according to the dictates of the Torah and will soon be sent to Jerusalem. Were they to have their way, Judaism would revert to a patriarchal, sacrificial religion, sanctioning the End of Days and perhaps welcoming a male messiah and a Zombie-like resurrection of some subset of deserving people.

When my bafflement subsides, I have one reaction to the Temple Institute: We are not ready! We, the Jewish world, is not ready for our end game. We have so much more growing yet to do.

Thankfully, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate agrees with me. A sign hangs above the entrance to the Temple Mount announces and warns: “According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to its sacredness.” According to Jewish law, one must be ritually pure, even of the imprint left by contact with death, in order to walk the ground where the Temple stood. The ritual detergent for such purification is found in the blood and burnt ashes of the red heifer (hence the Temple Institute’s anticipation). We are not ready.

The Western Wall, the Kotel, is the most powerful Jewish symbol in existence today. It links the three most operative dimensions of Jewish identity: history, religion and purpose. It is of our past, from the single moment in Jewish history when our people were one. It has endured until today, through two destructions, 2,000 years of exile, the Holocaust and the founding of the modern State of Israel. It is the screen on which the Jewish story is projected—which is precisely why the Kotel decision matters so much.

Every other nook and cranny of this contested land has the blessing of anonymity, when compared to theWestern Wall, but the Kotel cannot hide. Its power as a symbol demands that it offer us a reflection of the redeemed world if it is going to make any statement at all, and the recent government decision falls short. And so, until the Jewish people succeeds in reconciling the tension between Isaiah’s universalism and Abraham’s particularism, until we are ready to undo the curses levied upon us when we were banished from the Garden of Eden, and until the children of Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob are ready to gather again to peacefully bury their fathers, better that the Kotel remain an outer retaining wall of a Temple that once was, and that, for now, the lofty birds perched in its heights suffice as our best symbol of hope.

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at

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Hijacking the Language of Holiness

Thursday, March 17, 2016 | Permalink

Alden Solovy is the author of Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing , a book of original liturgy in Hebrew and English. In April 2015 he was brutally attacked defending women reading Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and graciously agreed to share his thoughts on recent developments at the Kotel here on The ProsenPeople blog.

A tight shot of colorful notes stuck into a crack in the Western Wall illustrates the cover of my first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing. What other Jewish image could capture the yearnings of a people?

Yet I was warned against it. Several previewers— including a rabbi—said that the Kotel no longer represents the heart of Jewish hopes and dreams. As a de facto ultra-Orthodox synagogue, praying at the Kotel is meaningful to some and exclusive of others.

The same debate has come up in the wake of the Mandelblit Plan, the recent political deal expanding the egalitarian prayer plaza at Robinson’s Arch. Simply put, the question is this: Is the Kotel holy?

Of course it is. No question. It’s a pilgrimage site for Jews from around the world. It’s become the iconic Jewish metaphor for seeking nearness to God.

At the same time, of course it’s not. Silly thought. It’s just a retaining wall, the relic of an old thoroughfare, a spot meaningless in its day.

Even after being viciously stomped upon in the stomach when I helped pass a Sefer Torah to women’s prayer at the Kotel—even after harassment and hostility month after month—to me it’s still a place where a special kind of holiness resides, a holiness that cannot be taken away by misogyny or violence.

As the Mandelblit plan is touted by supporters, listen carefully to the “holy” versus “not holy” rhetoric. The language of “holiness” is being used as a political tool to distract the discussion from the deal’s content.

When leaders and supporters of Anat Hoffman’s Women of the Wall say, “It’s the same wall,” this is to elevate the status of Robinson’s Arch to that of the Kotel. It attempts to blur the distinction between the locations. The goal is to claim a victory at the Kotel itself. When other supporters say that the “stones are not holy,” the intent is to trivialize the goals of the Original Women of the Wall.

O-WOW is led by women who founded WOW. They’ve organized to continue the 27-year struggle for women’s religious expression at the Kotel itself, not Robinson’s Arch. The “stones are not holy” argument is aimed at minimizing the importance of the specific location.

Both claims run in the undercurrent of the proponent’s rhetoric. Using both is verbal sleight of hand and a disingenuous combination.

One question is lost in the rhetoric of holiness. Does the Kotel matter to the Jewish people? Does the space once vehemently rejected by the WOW—Robinson’s Arch—have the same emotional, cultural and spiritual gravitas as the Kotel itself?

The Kotel matters because it’s ours, the icon of our yearnings. All of us. The entire Jewish people.

Robinson’s Arch is a beautiful place, but it’s simply not the Kotel. It never has been. And here’s where the language of the proponents gets even more interesting:

Supporters have portrayed the deal as a modern-day Hanukkah, the holiday commemorating the rededication of the Jewish Temple, proclaiming that Robinson’s Arch will, in time, attain the same level of holiness and stature in Jewish ethos as the Kotel itself. In this third contradictory message, Robinson’s Arch is neither Kotel nor not-Kotel; it’s an unrealized, potential Kotel waiting to be claimed.

Together, here are the three messages:

  • All of the Western Wall is equally holy, so Robinson’s Arch is actually the Kotel
  • Stones cannot be inherently holy, so the specific location doesn’t really matter
  • Robinson’s Arch is Kotel-in-waiting, ready to be sanctified by the expanded prayer plaza

  • Yes. No. Maybe. All the bases are covered in this rhetoric of obfuscation.

    For detractors, this is not Hanukkah. It’s an epic betrayal. It’s a Jewish feminist Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple. It’s the destruction of Jewish women’s rights at the hands of other Jews. If the plan is implemented, women’s voices at the Kotel will be silenced.

    The Kotel is embedded in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people. The cover of my book will stand the test of time.

    Alden Solovy is a Jewish poet, liturgist, and teacher. A three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism, he has written nearly 600 pieces of original liturgy, a selection of which can be found in his book Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing and at

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    Kol Isha—A Voice for Every Woman

    Wednesday, March 16, 2016 | Permalink

    Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

    I am a cowardly feminist. I lived in Jerusalem for three years between 2000 and 2006, and I never prayed with Women of the Wall (WOW). I am embarrassed to admit it.

    During my years in Jerusalem, I had a good excuse. It was the time of the Second Intifada, and buses were blowing up all around us. I did go to the Wall then, though, even walking through Palestinian East Jerusalem on Shabbat, smiling at the sweet Arab children and enjoying the smell of fresh baked bread. It was a matter of soul, not safety that kept me away from WOW’s monthly gatherings, and mine was bunkered in the fortress I had built in my heart. I reserved my energy for deep breaths and resisting the urge jump off the Israel-shaped ship I was on, thereby caving to terror. To seek out additional tension, on purpose and among my own, by standing with WOW seemed unthinkable then.

    For nearly thirty years, WOW has shone light squarely on a face of Judaism that I preferred not to see. I was in my twenties, a newly religious student in a co-ed pluralist Yeshiva, and I was in love with all of it. Having tired of the limitless freedom of the American university experience, I embraced the structure and strictures of religious life; a child of a liberal Jewish household, I found myself now a part of a great, ancient story. It was a story of unity—one God, one Jewish people. I was a part of it, and it was mine.

    Women of the Wall bore witness to another story entirely.

    There are few things in our modern world that demand the depths of my courage, strength, and resilience more than staring into the eyes of silenced women. Such women elicit more cognitive dissonance than abject poverty in some far off land or victims of natural disaster, where blame animates my courage. They are the homeless man on my corner, whom I pretend to ignore every day, but they look just like me. They are me, whenever I am not advocating for change.

    American culture denies us a name for the silenced woman, but Judaism does not. Judaism names her voice, calling it kol isha, compartmentalizing and legislating it. “The voice of a woman is alluring.” and “It may not be heard during the time of prayer [as not to draw away a man’s attention]” (Talmud Bavli Berachot 24b). In Orthodox Jewish spaces where these rules are at play, women are forbidden from singing and leading prayer, from generally occupying the spotlight based on other complimentary prohibitions against women’s leadership in general and in favor of modesty.

    The mission of Women of the Wall was to call upon all of us to hear women’s voices, the kolot nashim that had been silenced for so long. They pursued their mission by gathering as women in a women’s space at the Koteland doing what the boys were doing; they prayed together, complete with the ritual garb worn by devoted Jewish worshippers. No more, no less. Their behavior perplexed almost everyone, because they took up an issue that the liberal Jewish world had leapt beyond: secular modernity granting women some aspect of voice.

    Women of the Wall called our attention to the work of justice still emergent, to the feminist work that is not yet complete. For 2,000 years, unquestioned patriarchy ruled the world. Women only won the right to their own voices yesterday, relatively speaking; we have just begun to uncover the many crevasses where her silence was felt, where the absence of her voice and wisdom left the world too quiet.

    As a thinking, feeling being, one naturally locates themselves within the “haves” rather than “have nots.” As a young woman in Jerusalem, a devoted student of Torah, I certainly did. It was so much more pleasant to stand quietly among the “haves,” assuming that I was welcome. But, had I opened my eyes, I would have seen that I was welcome to pass only if I was willing restrain my voice. Now that I call Israel my home and count myself a member of the progressive, pluralistic Kibbutz Hannaton, I regret that I have lost my opportunity to stand with these women, to take up this cause. Their work is not yet complete, and gathering as women in the newly created egalitarian section, lacks the symbolic power of their former struggle. We will all have to find new venues to continue to spread their simple message. The Jewish world, and the world at large, will not be complete until women’s voices—indeed all voices—can be heard.

    Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at

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    Interview: A. J. Sidransky

    Tuesday, March 15, 2016 | Permalink

    with Barbara M. Bibel

    A. J. Sidransky’s novels Forgiving Máximo Rothman and Forgiving Mariela Camacho combine history and mystery to provide readers with excitement and a look at important issues. His main characters, New York City Police detectives Tolya Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez, represent two of the immigrant communities living in Manhattan’s Washington Heights; despite their different backgrounds, they are close friends, solving difficult cases, supporting each other, and dealing with complex family issues.

    Barbara Bibel: Both of your Forgiving novels deal with immigrants and refugees in different eras. One deals with refugees during World War II, the other deals with Soviet Jews; both deal with the Dominican community. How do these experiences differ?

    A. J. Sidransky: I wanted to write about immigration. When I moved to Washington Heights, I encountered three immigrant communities: German Orthodox Jews who moved there in the 1930s, Dominicans, and Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union placed there by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Later Generation X-ers started to move in. None of these groups interacted. Each community was trying to recreate its former life, a bit of home in a faraway land. They all want the same thing: a better life. They arrive with high expectations, but the new place is never what they expect. When they go back for a visit, it is never the same.

    BB: Where did you get the idea for this series?

    AJS: Máximo's story is actually based on my uncle's life. He and his wife escaped the Nazis, ended up in an Italian camp, and went to Sosúa, Dominican Republic. He lost the rest of his family. The story of the Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic is not well known and my books give readers an opportunity to learn about it.

    The story of Mariela Camacho is based on more current events. There is no stability in the Dominican Republic: corruption is rampant and there are no jobs. Since 1961, Trujillo’s successors have ruled, pocketing any foreign aid that comes in, so the only opportunity for earning money is drug trafficking to the United States, Spain, and Italy, through the Dominican communities abroad.

    BB: Families are important in your books: Pete’s wife, Glynnis, has to contend with his infidelity; Tolya and Pete both have father issues; Máximo and his son, Shlomo, have a difficult relationship because Shlomo has become observant. How do you deal with such complex relationships?

    AJS: Families are the source of stability as well as the source of conflict. My characters illustrate both of these. Both Tolya and Pete are immigrants. This is a basis for bonding. Add to this the fact that they are partners in the police department and they become brothers. Both of them also have father issues: Tolya’s father was ruthless and abusive; Pete’s was absent—is uncle Polito served as a surrogate father, but he is a criminal, which makes the relationship very complex. Both men are very devoted to their wives and children, despite Pete’s problem with fidelity. I plan to write a third book, Forgiving Steven Redman—who becomes Shlomo Rothman—to address that story.

    BB: Jewish identity is a very strong element in your books. Is it an important issue for you?

    AJ: Yes. The Jewish community today is too divisive. Intermarriage is a fact of life today. We need to stop worrying about how Jewish a person is and start welcoming people if we are to survive; we need to be more inclusive and accepting.

    BB: Have you spent time in the Dominican Republic?

    AJS: Yes, I go every year, to Sosúa. The country is very poor and there is little opportunity there because the government is corrupt, but the people are warm and welcoming.

    BB: How do you research your stories? Do you work from an outline, or do you let your characters drive?

    AJS: I always have a general idea for my stories, but I let the characters dictate the plot. I did not know who the murderer was until I was two-thirds of the way into the story of Máximo Rothman. And I do extensive research; I used my uncle’s stories and read three books on Sosúa for the Forgiving books. The project dictates the research, but I do not take too much liberty with history.

    BB: Your novels are crossovers. They are marketed as mysteries, but they are also historical novels. You use flashbacks very effectively to tell your stories. Do you feel a need to label them?

    AJS: Not at all! I find it is much harder to get my books published because they are crossovers. Publishers like to fit them into a specific niche; I prefer that they not be formulaic. I hope that this will change, and that the publishing world will become more open to non-traditional formats.

    Barbara M. Bibel is a librarian at the Oakland Public Library in Oakland, CA; and at Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, CA.

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    Adding Walls to the Wall

    Monday, March 14, 2016 | Permalink

    Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

    I was born in 1978, so as a Jewish American child, I was expected to know about three walls: The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

    With portions built as early as the seventh century BCE, the Great Wall of China is a good, old fashioned wall. Marking the historic northern border of China, it was built in stages, over the course of hundreds of years, in order to protect the Chinese from northern raiders. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a pride of the Chinese people.

    The Berlin wall, on the other hand, was a bad wall—a slice of the Cold War captured in stone, a symbol of the outer limits of the reaches of democracy, or so said the American narrative. One must admit, though, that this wall served its purpose, staving off war, allowing enemies to rest on either side of it. We rejoiced in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down, allowing the Germans to express in concrete their renewed will for unity.

    The Western Wall in Jerusalem seems to be another kind of wall entirely. Old like the Great Wall, the Western Wall is a monument to destruction and to the cherished past of the Jewish people. The Western Wall, or the Kotel, is a masterpiece of ancient construction, its oldest stone standing nearly as tall as I do. First destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt and destroyed again by the Romans, one external wall of the great structure remains: weighty and strong, a symbol of Jewish resilience and unwillingness to forget.

    In its time, the Western Wall was nothing special at all, just a retaining wall demarcating the outer edge of the elevated Temple platform. But, as a survivor, it became something else entirely, a site of Jewish pilgrimage throughout the ages; a beleaguered wall for a beleaguered people.

    No one better captures the power and symbolism of the Kotel than Yitzhak Rabin, the fifth prime minister of Israel. Reflecting on his experience there when his unit of Israeli Paratroopers retook the Wall from the Jordanians, who had controlled it since 1948, Rabin recalled in an address to Knesset in May 1995, “It was as if Providence had directed the whole thing: the paratroopers weeping—loudly and in pain—over their comrades who had fallen along the way, the words of the Kaddish prayer heard by the Western Wall's stones after nineteen years of silence, tears of mourning, shouts of joy, and the singing of “Hatikvah.”

    Walls were added to the Wall from the moment the Kotel returned to Jewish hands in 1967. The war was fought just weeks before the sacred holiday of Shavuot, and the leaders at the time were aware that Jews would flock to the site to celebrate the ancient pilgrimage festival. In order to make it a fitting place for Orthodox prayer, a mechitza, a partition separating men and women, was erected. This new wall transected the old one, as a symbol for the recognized Judaism in the Holy Land—men empowered on one side, and women, whispering like their matriarch Hannah on the other. Secular and liberal Jews were welcome to visit, as long as they were willing to don the costume of the Orthodox and divide themselves accordingly.

    In late January of this year, the Israeli Government undertook the historic decision to add a second wall to this ancient Jewish space, creating a third domain for those who do not wish to separate by gender, who do not find themselves in the categories constructed by Orthodox Judaism.

    If our ancient wall is like the Great Wall of China, what is the status of these new, younger walls?

    In recent weeks, the creation of the newest wall has been heralded by the leaders of the liberal Jewish movements as a great success: “One Wall for One People,” they proclaim. If so, then we are a people divided. I prefer to regard our new walls like the Berlin Wall, serving a purpose for a time, but not a reflection of the ideal. An ancient wall in the heart of a besieged city surrounded and transected by walls of separation is not the metaphor I choose for my homeland.

    Instead, as a new immigrant to Israel, one here to pursue justice and build peace, I’d rather look just a few blocks away, to an interlocking grid of tiny partitions at the open-air market, Shuk Machne Yehuda, for inspiration. There, humans born in countless countries, speak Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, Spanish, and more, offer tastes of goods grown from this sacred earth, to shoppers heading home to feed families nearby, a celebration of diversity of every kind. And, as for our ancient wall, I hold out hope that its partitions will come down some day, so that a Hatikva resonant with the one sung by the paratroopers in 1967, a song of hope and unity, can be heard at the Kotel once more.

    Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at

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