fiction · YA

Book Review: Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen

There aren’t a ton of books out there set in Orthodox Jewish communities, so finding a really fun one- especially a YA!- is like discovering a twenty-dollar bill in the crispy fall leaves at the edge of the sidewalk when you’re out for a refreshing autumn walk. That’s how I felt about Playing with Matches by Suri Rosen (ECW Press, 2014). I think this one came to my TBR via a suggestion in one of my Facebook groups, possibly one for Jewish women (that would make the most sense!), but I have book suggestions flying every which way at me on every social platform, so I’m not 100% sure. Either way, I was excited to read it and very much enjoyed this fun, spirited story.

Raina Resnick doesn’t have the best track record lately. Kicked out of her last school, she’s been shipped off to Toronto to live with her aunt and uncle, while her parents head to Hong Kong for her father’s job. The message is clear: if Raina doesn’t shape up, both academically and behaviorally, high school will become a Hong Kong homeschool nightmare. Toronto for Raina is lonely; there’s no breaking into the social scene, and her sister’s appearance clues her in that something has gone very, very wrong in their formerly close relationship. It’s this loneliness that pushes Raina to strike up a friendship with the woman who sits next to her on the bus every day, and before she knows it, Raina is setting her new single friend up with a family friend.

It’s a match, but Raina’s excitement is tempered by the fact that this family friend had been meant for her already-heartbroken sister. Whoops. But when word of Raina’s matchmaking gets around, all of lonely Toronto wants her anonymous services…including Leah, her sister. One mishap after another befalls her, but the successes and the potential to repair her relationship with her sister keep her going, despite the hits to her schoolwork. But when her secret comes out…how will everyone around her react???

This was fun. More a comedy-of-errors than I usually enjoy (you know, when everything that can possibly go wrong DOES go wrong, in a way that keeps you cringing and just so, so uncomfortable???), but Raina is so earnest, despite having messed up in the past, that you can’t help but root for her. Her family obviously wants what’s best for her, but they’re seeing her through a very narrow lens, which obviously leads to other problems.

It’s helpful to know a little about the Orthodox Jewish community, but not necessary; Raina does a pretty good job of explaining the ins and outs and why matchmaking is serious business, along with other tidbits that come up. Really, Raina’s just an average teenage girl, wanting friendship, a better relationship with her sister, to help other people and do some good in this world. Her path towards those goals may be a roundabout one, but she gets there and it’s so much fun to watch.

I hope Suri Rosen eventually writes more YA, because her voice is so authentic and enjoyable.

Visit Suri Rosen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood by Mark Oppenheimer

As soon as I heard that Mark Oppenheimer was writing a book about the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting, I added the book to my want-to-read list. This horrible even happened before my conversion, but converting had been something I’d been considering many, many years prior. I was sitting in the waiting area of my daughter’s gymnastics class that Saturday when my phone started buzzing and the news that a shooting had happened in a Pittsburgh synagogue began to fill my news feed. As I have a friend who lives in the area, I went to her Facebook page and began frantically refreshing her feed, trying to ascertain whether she was safe or not (she was; Tree of Life was not her congregation). And as I did that, a little voice in my brain said, “What about now? Still want to convert?” And the immediate answer was, “Absolutely. These are my people.” It took a little longer, but I made it happen, and it still hurts to read about this tragedy. Someone from my congregation lost family because of this shooting. The Jewish community is close-knit and well-connected with each other, and we’re all still feeling this. Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood (Knopf Publishing Group, 2021) is a beautiful testament to the strength of community and how a neighborhood and the greater community can come together in the wake of tragedy.

In the morning of October 27, 2018, a man walked into the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregation (which also housed two other congregations, Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation) and gunned down eleven Jews, injuring six more, and traumatizing all the rest. The focus of this book isn’t on what happened during the shooting, but rather, what happened afterwards, because there’s no need to glorify the killer or focus on the line of thinking that brought him to this point. Mark Oppenheimer’s family lived in Squirrel Hill for many generations; it’s a heavily Jewish area that is very close-knit, and the book delves into the beauty of recovery, of neighbors helping neighbors, of the wider world lending a hand and stepping in to help dry the tears of a hurting people.

People traveled from multiple faraway states with therapy dogs, homemade memorials, and more. The local firefighters memorialized one of the victims who always stopped by the firehouse for a chat. People came to prepare food for the victims’ families, borrowing another synagogue’s kitchen to ensure that the food would be kosher. Public art began appearing in support of the local Jewish community, most notably in a Starbucks window, where it can still be viewed today. Not everything was easy to take; a young Black woman expressed distress that when her people are shot and killed, no one shows up like this (and her distress is entirely understandable and this needs to change); just like at Mother Emanuel, the AME church in Charleston where nine Black worshippers were murdered, trauma tourists came by to ogle the site; a local newspaper editor lost his job after his bold decision to use the first few words of the Mourner’s Kaddish (a prayer recited for the dead, which has no mention of death in it) as a headline. But Squirrel Hill is a special place, and the way the community came together after this nightmare will show you exactly how special it is.

It takes a special writer to make me want to pack up and travel anywhere; Maeve Binchy does it with her novels about Ireland, and Mark Oppenheimer has done it with this book. From a terrible, unthinkable crime sprang a community’s love and support, and that’s about the best you can hope for when so many are suffering. He manages to both respect individual grief and trauma while composing a love letter to his ancestral neighborhood, amplifying the good that they shouldn’t have had to engage in but still chose to.

Security has always been tight at all the synagogues I’ve been to; I can imagine that this has only increased worldwide in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre. Several police officers are on guard outside every service we have; the doors are always locked and you have to be buzzed in (or know the code); if you’re going somewhere new, it’s considered good form to call first and let them know you’re coming, so they’re not alarmed by the presence of a new person at services. It’s an absolute shame, but not surprising, and Squirrel Hill will show you exactly why all of this is necessary.

This is a sad, but lovely book, one that I highly recommend.

Visit Mark Oppenheimer’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

graphic memoir

Book Review: Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil

I need to read more graphic novels. I always, always forget how fun the format is, how relaxing it is take in the art as I page through the story- even when the story isn’t necessarily an easy one. Currently, our teen graphic novels are squished in with the manga, which makes them kind of difficult to find amidst all the brightly colored series books, and the adult graphic novels are tucked away in a far corner of the library that I’m never by, so I don’t always remember to go looking for them. I’m really hoping that they have a more prominent place when our new library building opens up late next year (I get so excited driving past the building site on Main Street and seeing the progress they’re making. It’s slow- they started tearing down the old abandoned grocery store that formerly sat in that site late this past spring, and it’s now just an empty lot with heaps of broken concrete, and the start of a small basement, but it’s definitely progress!) All that to say, I had a bit of a hard time locating Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir by Amy Kurzweil (Black Balloon Publishing, 2016) during my last trip, but I’m glad I finally found it squished in there on the bottom shelf.

Growing up the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor isn’t easy for Amy. Her mother, a psychologist, overanalyzes everything; her grandmother has never really shared what she went through, but Amy, a budding artist, wants to learn her family’s stories. What happened to Bubbe? What does it all mean for their family, for Amy, for their future? Sliding around in time and incorporating the stories of all three women- grandmother, mother, daughter- Amy writes and illustrates the story of her grandmother’s survival in Poland, all that she lost, and all that she carries with her to this day. By doing so, Amy explores the trauma all three generations have suffered because of it.

Graphic memoir is such an interesting format for such a heavy topic. It’s still an intense subject, and Bubbe’s experiences fleeing, hiding, and losing almost her entire family absolutely reach in and rip out the reader’s soul. But the format tempers it slightly in a way that plain print doesn’t- it doesn’t lessen the emotional impact at all, but the illustrations wrap a fuzzy blanket of comfort around your shoulders as you digest the tragedy. Ms. Kurzweil represents her grandmother’s pain well, but her drawings, frame by frame, help soothe the ache and make the long-term effects of the tragedy easier to understand.

While this is definitely an emotional subject, Flying Couch is still a fast read (just take the time to appreciate all Ms. Kurzweil’s fabulous artwork!). I flew through it Sunday morning and it’s given me an even deeper understanding of the toll of generational trauma, and the importance of sharing our stories.

Visit Amy Kurzweil’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar

Combing through the selection of ebooks on my library’s website one day, I came across a book titled My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008). UM, YES! I’m always fascinated by the diversity of Jewish communities around the world and I love reading further about ones I’ve only ever heard mentioned by name (like the Jews who fled to Shanghai, China during World War II, which I hadn’t really known much about until I read Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin). And lo and behold, this book was in as I’ve been working my way down the ebooks on my TBR. Win all around. 😊

Ariel Sabar wasn’t the greatest son growing up. He never connected with his dad and treated him terribly, especially as a teenager, but as an adult, he became curious. Who was this father of his? Yona Sabar is one of the world’s foremost scholars of neo-Aramaic, a language of which he happens to be a native speaker. He grew up in Kurdish Iraq, in the mostly Jewish town of Zakho, the last generation to live there in the years before modernity reached the town. His family fled to Israel in 1951, where he struggled to learn the language and live in a way that was entirely different from everything he’d ever known. A hard worker and a good student, Yona earned a place at Hebrew University, where his studies of the linguistics of his native language, via the folktales and lullabies he grew up with, propelled him into a career that would take him around the world and have him consulting with Hollywood when they needed help with Aramaic translation.

This is the story of a man whose life has undergone numerous massive changes. Time and time again, Yona has had to reinvent himself and learn how to survive and thrive in entirely new societies, in entirely new languages, and he’s always risen to the challenge, though maybe not to the level of coolness his teenage son desired. His son worked hard to understand him as an adult, however, to research and pen this riveting account of a fascinating life, and to do what he could to make up for the ways he felt he had failed his father. My Father’s Paradise is a beautiful account of a son’s understanding of his father, but it’s also a look at how the world has changed over such a short period of time, and what’s necessary for survival when times are difficult.

Wow. This was truly a fascinating book. Imagine growing up in a small Iraqi village with no electricity, with dirt roads full of sheep, where clothes are still dyed by hand and washed in the river, and by the time you’re verging on retirement, your life consists of air travel, credit cards, air conditioning, the Internet, all viewed from your modern home in Los Angeles. Yona Sabar grew up thinking he would likely take over his father’s dyeing business or work some other small job in his village of Zakho, and because life happened, he’s a world-renowned scholar and professor. That much change is absolutely mind-bending. How anyone could even begin to process all these changes is mystifying.

Ariel Sabar truly captures the spirit of the Zakho his father grew up with, a Zakho to whom modernity has finally arrived. It’s a place that exists only in memory now, with modern buildings and American pop music a part of its current landscape, but through the power of Ariel’s writing, the Zakho of old comes back to life. If you enjoy writing with a strong sense of place and books that will transport you to another world (especially worlds of the past), this is a must-read. But more than a sense of place, he captures the strength and determination of his quiet, humble father, a man who, despite circumstances that haven’t always been easy or pleasant, despite coming from a family that has suffered trauma along the way, has always risen to the challenges presented to him. He’s a father to be proud of, with a proud past and a proud history, and watching his son recognize all of this is heartwarming.

This is a lovely, fascinating book. You’ll learn a lot- about the Kurdish Jews of Zakho, of course, and what their lives were like, but also about strength, perseverance, and what it takes to mend a frayed father-son relationship. I really enjoyed this.

Visit Ariel Sabar’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips

A few weeks ago, when my article on Alma came out, I was contacted via Instagram by Stacey Smith, who made me aware of a new book on conversion to Judaism. Of course this delighted and intrigued me, and I said I’d be more than happy to read and review it. A message from Bradley Caro Cook soon appeared in my blog email, and within a few days, I was happily swinging on my back yard porch swing, reading Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips (Kindle Edition, 2020). In Judaism, a convert is viewed as no different from a born Jew, but we do have certain things in common and experiences that are unique to our group, so it’s always comforting to read stories of people who have been through this process, who have experienced some of the same things I have, and who have come out Jewish on the other side. Reading the stories in this book was like receiving a warm hug from a good friend.

Choosing Judaism is a collection of stories by 36 different authors (some of whom I was happy to see live not that far from me!). Most are prose, written in essay form, but there are a few poems in there to mix things up. Each explains their discomfort with the religion they were born into (hellooooooooooooo, feeling like you’re the only one in the pews just. not. getting. it!), their questioning (and how that questioning wasn’t often acceptable to whatever branch of Christianity they previously belonged), what initially drew them to Judaism, and the process of conversion, which- as was true for me- often stretches on many years. Some authors are newly converted; others have been living Jewish lives for many years, including raising Jewish children who are now Jewish adults themselves.

These are truly beautiful, intriguing stories that will be intimately familiar to you if you’ve ever felt drawn to Judaism or have considered or are in any stage of conversion. You’ll recognize yourself in the questioning, in the arguments with family, in the wonder of realizing that there’s a you-shaped space in this beautiful and ancient tradition. Conversion isn’t a decision anyone makes lightly, and this book illustrates that over and over again. From those who were introduced to Judaism by a romantic partner but found it met their needs regardless, to those who came in on their own, from secular Jews to Orthodox, from Jews by Choice who make their homes in the deep South to those who have made aliyah and now live in Israel, straight people and gay people, this is an inclusive book of stories that will touch the heart of anyone who has been touched by conversion to Judaism.

There’s no shying away from the reality of conversion in these stories, either. The authors are honest about the difficulties, from struggles with family, to not being moved by the mikvah (the Jewish ritual immersion bath; immersing in the mikvah is a part of halachic conversion. I’d heard so many people talk about how they didn’t find it moving that I was actually surprised that I got choked up when I was saying the blessings during my immersion!), to the vast amounts of work that go into a conversion (so much reading! Yay!), to the changes Judaism affected on their during-and-post-conversion lives, I found myself nodding along and being able to relate to so much as I rocked back and forth on my swing and read.

This is a lovely, VERY current collection of stories about what conversion to Judaism looks like- the process (both before and after contacting a rabbi, because so often, those of us who are interested are intimidated and too shy to approach our local synagogues and put it off for years *blushes*), the struggles, the beauty, the joy, and the often long and winding road that leads to the place where we converts truly belong. I’m still not able to connect much with my synagogue community, since we’re still maintaining a high level of pandemic precaution due to our young child (come on, vaccines for kids!), so reading this felt like a respite from all of that, a moment of connection with community, with people who truly understand. If you’re in the process of conversion, wondering what it looks like, a little Jew-curious yourself, or you’re trying to understand a convert in your life, this is a fabulous collection of writing that will help you to connect, to understand, and to feel seen and heard.

Huge thanks to Brad and Stacey for offering me a copy of this book. Reading it was an absolute delight!

nonfiction

Book Review: Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age by Ayala Fader

I…can’t actually remember where I learned about Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age by Ayala Fader (Princeton University Press, 2020). Which is weird, because the book is pretty new, but it was also released in 2020, and that year just kind of ate my brain as a whole. It’s gotten a *little* better since the thick of the pandemic, but my brain is definitely not the same as it was before (and, uh, thanks to a daughter who woke me up 4-6 times per night for eighteen months straight, it had plenty of issues pre-pandemic as well *twitch*). Anyway, as soon as I learned about this brand-new book that examined Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews who are questioning their faith and/or way of life, with the new influence of the internet aiding their search for answers and human connection, onto my TBR it went.

Ayala Fader is a professor of anthropology, and in her latest work, she spends time- a lot of it- in many of New York’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, following those whom she calls double-lifers: people who have come to doubt the truth of what they’ve been taught, but who, for a variety of reasons, are still living in said communities. She follows their struggles, their flirtations with the outside world, the ways they violate the commandments and social mores they’ve been taught to keep, how the internet aids their search and connects them to other double-lifers, and what their community is doing to try, not only to curtail internet usage among their followers, but to bring back those who doubt into the fold.

There are numerous reasons why doubters remain in the community- social, financial, emotional, logistical. Leaving may mean cutting all contact off with not only your family, friends, and spouse, but your children as well. Some doubters have yet to fully master English (though surreptitious internet usage is helping to change this). Some have few skills useful outside the community. Women, in particular, struggle to connect with other doubters, since oftentimes their internet access is solely at the behest of their husbands, and their extra responsibilities at home keep them from connecting frequently with other female doubters. Throughout all of this is a discussion of language, of how doubters use it, which language they use, how their gender affects which language they use and how they use it, and what the internet has done for language usage among the Ultra-Orthodox.

Whew. This is a hard-hitting ethnography, written in a more academic style but that’s still accessible to the interested lay reader. It’s likely not meant as an introduction to the Ultra-Orthodox; while Ms. Fader defines all Yiddish and Hebrew terms and explains their usage, there’s definitely a certain level of assumed knowledge about these communities going into the book. There are plenty of great memoirs out there by former members of Ultra-Orthodox communities; I highly suggest picking a few of those up to understand the communities on a more personal level before jumping into this more heavily academic work.

That’s not to say that this isn’t excellent and informative. Ms. Fader gets to know her subjects and a few of their children, showing how deeply complicated it is for parents to live a double life in a community that their children are going to spend their lives. How do they encourage their children to think for themselves, how do they prepare them to create a life with more choices, when almost every last bit of their lives is dictated by the rules, mores, and standards of the communities in which they live? The final section expands on this, though not enough; I wished she had written more, though honestly, there’s likely enough there to fill an entirely new book.

I really enjoyed this, as it’s right up my alley. If you’re deeply interested in the subject matter and don’t mind a more academic style (as opposed to the more personal styles of a memoir or a lighter ethnographical examination), it’s likely something you’ll enjoy as well.

Visit Ayala Fader’s page at Fordham University (and sigh in disappointment with me that I cannot take every single one of her classes).

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve likely heard a lot about Israel and the fighting that’s been going on. And odds are, you have an opinion on it, whatever that is. I’m not going to get into the many sides there are to this millennia-long story, but there are a lot of them. Israel and its history and politics are complex, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand it, but I can keep trying, and that’s how the graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden (Vertigo, 2010) wound up on my TBR.

This graphic memoir chronicles Ms. Glidden’s Birthright Israel trip. (Jews under a certain age- I’m too old!- qualify for a free group trip to Israel, via this donor-funded group. I have a younger friend who just had his Birthright interview.) Ms. Glidden goes into the trip deeply conflicted about her feelings on Israel and its struggle with the Palestinians over territory. Isn’t how Israel treats the Palestinians wrong? Is this trip just going to brainwash her and be full of propaganda getting her to take Israel’s side without further introspection? She’s skeptical from the very start.

But traveling throughout the country and hearing multiple perspectives makes her realize the trip is a little more balanced than she had expected, and that the situation is indeed complicated, possibly even more than she had originally thought. And while she doesn’t come away from the trip with any concrete answers, it’s given her a lot to think about.

I really enjoyed this. The artwork is lovely, and I enjoyed the literary field trip the book took me on. I did learn a lot about the country and what a Birthright trip looks like, which was pretty awesome (because I’ve heard a lot about them, but nothing as in-depth as this). There’s a lot of history in here, and a lot of different perspectives on many of the issues that still divide opinions on Israel today. You’ll come away with a slightly more nuanced understanding of how complex the topic really is.

What you won’t come away with is answers. Ms. Glidden doesn’t preach or offer up set opinions on what you should think or feel; what she does offer, however, is confirmation that Israel’s problems are exactly as confusing as you think, and maybe there are no good solutions, but that there are definitely people working to better things and to create a more peaceful life for everyone who lives there. At one point, she attends a presentation put on by both Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict; while this book was published in 2010, this organization is still working for peace, as I heard an interview with several parents from the group on NPR a few days ago. I’m glad they’re still out there; I’m sorry that they still have to be.

This graphic memoir is a lovely take on something that confuses the majority of us, and for which there truly may be no perfect solution that will work well for everyone. But it does encourage you to keep thinking about it, and that’s something I really appreciate.

Visit Sarah Glidden’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam

I will never understand the Holocaust. I don’t know that anyone will. Because there’s no good answer to all the many, many whys and hows of it. Why would anyone do that? How could anyone act with such cruelty? I don’t know. I don’t know how the perpetrators never once took a hard look at what they were doing and went, “Wait a minute…” But I keep trying, because these stories need to be told and read and shared, and that’s how 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz by Heather Dune Macadam (Citadel Press, 2019) ended up on my TBR. I heard so much about this a year or two ago, and it was just now that I had the mental space for it. It was worth the wait.

In 1942, 999 young unmarried women in Slovakia, including a lot of teenagers, were rounded up and shipped off, away from their homes and friends and family, under the guise of three months of forced government work. They were the first group to whom this happened. Instead of working in a shoe factory, as they expected, they were taken to Auschwitz, where their nightmare began. Working outside in the worst of weather with no shoes (or wooden sandals at best) and only a thin dress to cover their emaciated bodies. Starvation. Shaved heads that blistered in the sun. Barely adequate water, if they were lucky. Typhus. Injuries that went untreated. Being made to stand naked outdoors for hours in all kinds of weather in order to be counted. The threat of death, yours or someone you loved, at every possible moment. There was no end to the nightmares suffered by the young women imprisoned there, and Ms. Macadam doesn’t shy away from the details.

This is a heavy book, filled with the stories and memories of the few who survived, and the stories and blessed memories of those who did not. The survivors’ pain is evident in what they choose to share. Ms. Macadam points out several times things that are not common knowledge and that most survivors don’t share, due to shame or embarrassment, even all these years later. They still cry as they share what they went through, and when they share stories about their families who were torn from them and murdered solely for being Jewish. It’s a heartbreaking book, one that I had to set down a few times and take a lot of deep breaths before I could continue reading, so great is the pain on each page.

It’s hard to write about these books that are so emotionally difficult to read, in a way that will convince people to read them as well. “Here’s this book that highlights the worst of humanity and that deftly portrays images that (hopefully) only show up in nightmares these days; you should read it!” is one heck of a take, right? But you should. It brings honor to the survivors, honor to the memories of those who didn’t survive, when we read their stories and further our commitment to speaking out against human rights violations and working for a better world. It helps us to recognize the signs of fascist governments that are bound on stripping our fellow citizens of their rights and of their humanity. ‘Never again’ isn’t just a slogan; it’s a directive. And if we’re truly committed to an atrocity like the Holocaust never happening again, it’s up to us to understand it to the best of our ability. And that is why we should read these kinds of books, even when it’s hard and unpleasant and scary.

Heather Dune Macadam brings to life a world that no longer exists in pre-war Slovakia, and shows us the horrors that happen when we stop recognizing the humanity in others. This is a deeply important book, one that I recommend highly, but it’s okay to wait until you’re able to handle it, because it’s a lot.

Visit Heather Dune Macadam’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch

Another memoir! I’ve been reading off of my TBR as usual and have been ordering a bunch of these memoirs from interlibrary loan. I’m wondering if I had found a list of Jewish-themed memoirs and that accounts for this streak in my TBR. Probably! Anyway, that’s likely how Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch (Shocken, 2015) wound up in my reading pile. The publishing world has seen quite a few memoirs written by people who have left the Haredi world, but honestly, I’m not tired of these at all. There’s something that fascinates me deeply about the hows and whys of people who radically change the way they live- whether it’s going from living a strict religious life to a more relaxed one (or the other way around!), leaving a terrible relationship, going from rags to riches (or the opposite way around!), moving to a new country, all of these scenarios intrigue me. I’m so grateful to all the memoir authors who dig deep and allow us to take a peek into their lives and hearts and minds.

Chaya Deitsch was raised in a not-terribly-strict Lubavitch family. Lubavitchers are best known these days for Chabad houses and Mitzvah Tanks. If your city has a yearly giant menorah for Hanukkah, odds are that Chabad is responsible for it (Nashville used to have one down on Broadway by the river; it always used to make me smile when I’d drive by it every November/December). Over Chaya’s life, the movement went from being more kabbalistic and hyperspiritual to one more focused on outreach and bringing secular Jews back into regular observance. Chaya’s family lived in New Haven, Connecticut, outside of the Lubavitch center of Crown Heights, New York City, and thus, with the eyes of the community not on them full-time, the parents are more relaxed and Chaya and her sisters are allowed more freedom than most other Lubavitch girls.

From an early age, Chaya knew that life as an adult Lubavitcher wasn’t for her. The early marriage, soon followed by an ever-increasing pack of children, wasn’t what she wanted for herself. The restrictions on female worship- being separated from the men by a sheet or a mechitza (or being tucked away altogether upstairs in the balcony), not being allowed to sing, not being allowed to fully study or engage in religious debates- grated. The focus on modesty and gender-based dress standards irritated her. None of this was what she wanted for her life, though in her late teens, she made a last-ditch effort to please her parents by attending a strict British seminary (a post-high school year or two of religious study for Orthodox students).

There’s no set moment where Chaya decides to walk away; there’s no big moment where she dashes away in the night or blows up her life by making a single decision that will take her away from the fold altogether. Rather, she slowly moves away from her strict Orthodox standards, small step by small step, into a life that feels more authentic to her.

If you’re looking for major drama, you won’t find it here, but you will find a story of a woman who understands both she and her parents tried their best, and that there’s no set way to live that works for everyone. Unlike most other stories of people who have walked away from Haredi or Hasidic families and who are summarily shunned, Chaya still manages to maintain a good relationship with her family. They may not fully understand her, and she may not fully admit to them all the parts of her new life that don’t jive with how they live, but they’ve kept each other, a testament to the strength of their bond and the unconditional love of her parents. This is a really big deal and I have to say I was extremely impressed with how understanding her parents are. I hope I can always accept the choices my kids make with such grace.

This is a really lovely memoir of a woman who recognizes early on that what she’s raised with isn’t right for her- not because she wants to act out or defy anything in a religious sense, merely because it’s just not a good fit, and I find that incredibly admirable.

Follow Chaya Deitsch on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: TREYF: My Life as an Orthodox Outlaw by Elissa Altman

Sometimes it’s hard to write a review of a memoir. The best memoirists are able to craft a narrative of their lives that centers around a theme, that has a direct story arc that continues throughout the story and wraps up in, if not a full conclusion, then an understanding that makes the whole story make sense, that shows the growth and maturity the author has experienced. This is what I hope for from every memoir I delve into (and I read a lot of them; it’s a genre I enjoy, because I appreciate the glimpse into someone else’s life), but I had a harder time with this in TREYF: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw by Elissa Altman (Berkley Books, 2016).

The definition of ‘treyf’ is something that is unkosher and forbidden. Ms. Altman writes a lot about what made her family treyf, and what made her treyf: her family’s departure from the religious and ritualistic aspects of Judaism; their consumption of unkosher foods; her preparation of pork products in her deceased grandmother’s kosher kitchen; the dawning realization that she’s not entirely straight (a much bigger issue in the 80’s and 90’s than today).

Despite its occasionally focus on unkosher foods, this is really a memoir of a dysfunctional family. Mom and Dad’s marriage was strained and unhealthy. Mom pushed her daughter towards seriously unhealthy eating habits. Grandma had some seriously repressed sexuality. The creepy neighbor moved away quickly after it became known that he had a thing for little girls; Ms. Altman alludes several times that she was one of those little girls, as well as being molested by a teenage neighbor (neither is written about in graphic detail, but heads up if this is a difficult topic for you). The family is close but struggles in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons, and their struggles are common to both families from that era, and to families who have survived trauma or who have recently immigrated in the past few generations.

The memoir ends on a depressing note; Ms. Altman remarks that she is exactly the person her family made her to be, and that if you belong everywhere, you actually belong nowhere, a thought that gave me pause. Who do we become when assimilation is the end goal? Should assimilation be a goal at all? Why? Are we stronger instead as separate pieces of a mosaic?

I enjoyed this book as a story of a family with its own deep-seated difficulties, but that wasn’t what I had expected going in. The use of the phrases ‘treyf’ and ‘unorthodox outlaw’ had me expecting a memoir akin to Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, but instead, this was more along the lines of a random family that just happened to be Jewish and who rarely interacted with the religious aspects of it (which is fine! I’m not at all judging that, to be clear. I had just expected a memoir about a woman who had moved away from the religion she had been raised with, and instead found a story where her father fed her canned Spam as a girl).

So I didn’t dislike this, but I didn’t love it, either. Her descriptions of her grandmother’s goulash sounded incredible, however (even though I don’t eat meat!). Food is always better when it’s cooked with love, and it sounded like Ms. Altman’s grandmother packed that dish full of it. 😊

Visit Elissa Altman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.