nonfiction

Book Review: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower

My second book lately by Wendy Lower (the first being The Ravine). She’s an amazing researcher and fabulous writer, but her books are heavy, so beware. I added Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Chatto Windus, 2013) as soon as I learned about it, but it took me a bit to get to it, due to life business and waiting to be in the right mental space. It does share a lot in common with James Wyllie’s Nazi Wives, so if you’re looking to learn more about that aspect of World War II and Holocaust history, both these books should be on your reading list.

When we learn about the history of Germany in the 1940’s, the names in the books read like a long parade of men. It’s men who did the killing, who perpetrated all the harm, who were responsible for the mass death and suffering. But is that true? Using well-honed research skills, interviews, and original source documents, Wendy Lower says no. Not only were many, many German women supportive of the mission, especially on the Eastern front, more than a few of them participated in the murders and created suffering and pain for many others.

Many were there to support their husbands; others signed up to be stationed on the eastern front out of a sense of adventure. For whatever reason they came to be part of the Nazi killing machine, plenty of women supported Hitler’s ideals and bought into the antisemitism and hatred that was par for the course at the time. And far be it from learning anything; these attitudes followed many of these women – few of whom were prosecuted for their actions – long after the war ended.

Not an easy read. The women Lower portrays are the furthest from ‘sugar, spice, and all things nice’ as one can possibly be. These women are hateful and murderous, finding the death of human beings funny and entertaining. They delight in the suffering they cause, only to deny and weep when brought to trial. While women were often looked at as weaker and unable to perpetrate such horrors, Ms. Lower shows that this was absolutely not the case. Women were just as disgustingly brutal, and in some cases more so, than the men.

Rough book, but an important one.

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fiction · graphic novel

Book Review: White Bird by R.J. Palacio

At some point, I learned about the existence of White Bird by R.J. Palacio (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019) and looked for it at the library, but it never seemed to be in, and since I never formally added the book to my TBR, I kind of forgot about it. But my daughter has discovered a love for graphic novels, and on our last trip to the library, I finally found that elusive copy of White Bird. Into my bag it went.

It’s been quite a few years since I read Ms. Palacio’s Wonder, so I didn’t quite remember Julian, Auggie’s bully, but he’s back in White Bird, interviewing his grandmother Sara, who survived the Holocaust thanks to the kindness of a local family. (The story stands alone, so reading Wonder beforehand isn’t necessary.) Julien is the boy who sits next to Sara at school. He’s survived polio and uses crutches, making him a target of many of the other students, but Sara’s never really spoken to him. The day that the Nazis come to take away the Jewish students, Julien helps Sara to hide, then takes her to his home, where her parents stash her in the barn.

As the war rages on, the two children grow, mature, and establish a firm friendship, and Sara comes to understand her prior selfishness and immaturity. But there are few Holocaust stories without loss, and through Sara’s story of survival, her grandson Julian learns what true friendship is, and how we can’t change the past, but we can move on as better people.

A beautifully drawn graphic novel, White Bird would make for a gentle introduction to an emotionally charged subject. The Holocaust and all its devastation and atrocities isn’t easy to introduce to children, but it’s a vital part of history that needs to be taught. Parents, you wouldn’t be remiss in checking this out of the library and just leaving it around the house. Odds are your kids will spot it and dive in. There’s nothing graphic or too overtly scary, but there are mentions of death; I’d put this as okay for mature fourth grade and up. Be prepared to have some discussions with your kids about the book afterwards; they’ll likely have a lot of big feelings when they turn the last page.

This is a fast read, but the story, though fiction, will stay with you. The drawings are simple, allowing Sara and Julien’s story to take center stage, and placing the reader in its various settings: running from the Nazis at school, hiding in a bale of hay in a barn, struggling to keep terror and an overwhelming sense of loss at bay. I’m glad I finally came across a copy on my library’s shelves, and I’m glad that it’s such a popular choice that I did struggle to find it. White Bird shouldn’t be missed. Especially not now that it’s being released in movie format on October 14, 2022.

Visit R.J. Palacio’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Third Daughter by Talia Carner

I belong to a few different book groups on Facebook. I’m not hugely active in any of them, but it’s always interesting to see what everyone’s reading and what they think about it as I scroll through my feed (although, annoyingly, there’s a lot of, “Has anyone else read fill-in-the-blank-with-this-New-York-Times bestseller???” and a weird amount of apron-string-strangling posts like “Is Great Expectations an appropriate read for my 17-year-old son?” ARE. YOU. SERIOUS.). A few weeks ago, someone in my Jewish women’s book group mentioned how much she was enjoying The Third Daughter by Talia Carner (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2019), so I looked it up, and whoa. Historical fiction about a period of Jewish history I had never heard of. Onto my TBR it went.

1890s Russia. Life is bleak for Jewish peasants. Pogroms are raging, poverty is rampant, hunger is the norm. Batya and her family are barely managing to eke out the most meager of livings when a rich Jewish man appears in town, offering marriage and a better way of life for the whole family. Though Batya is only fourteen, her parents agree to send her off to America with him, and that’s when the nightmare begins. This man is not a potential husband, but a pimp running a brothel in Buenos Aires, where prostitution is legal and young Jewish girls are trafficked in unimaginable conditions thanks to a Jewish crime ring known as Zwi Migdal.

Batya learns to cope with her life of being trafficked, depending on the support of the girls who live in the brothel with her, but she never loses the spark of what makes her her, and when the opportunity comes to take Zwi Migdal down, she warily agrees, on the condition that she finally get her family out of Russia.

This book obviously comes with many, many content warnings. Rape features heavily throughout this story, as do the various consequences of being trafficked in the 1890s. This is emotionally a very heavy book, so if you’re already dealing with a lot and can’t handle more, be kind to yourself and put this book off until you’re able to manage.

I knew nothing about this period of history prior to picking up this book; I hadn’t known that Buenos Aires was a hotbed of human trafficking, nor had I ever heard of Zwi Migdal. What a horrifying, soul-crushing nightmare the lives of these young women turned into. Their lives were constantly at risk from disease and murder (from their pimps, from their clients) and death due to being thrown out on the streets. After they’d outlived their usefulness to the brothel, there was nowhere else for them to go; even their own community misunderstood what was happening to them and refused them any sort of help or support. Devastation abounded for these women, and the best most of them could hope for was to be kept as someone’s mistress on the side, thus freeing them from a lifetime of forced prostitution to a parade of men.

Batya is a strong character. She’s far from perfect; she develops a tough exterior in order to survive, and this doesn’t always serve her well, but it keeps her adapting and alive. The conditions Ms. Carner describes are deplorable and frightening. While historical fiction often suffers from a sort of literary distance, the writing in this book keeps it feeling immediate and urgent. You’ll fly through the pages, desperate for some sort of positive resolution, because for anyone to live like this otherwise is unthinkable. That this story is based on the real lives of thousands of young girls is utterly heartbreaking.

Although this is an incredibly heavy book, it’s ultimately triumphant, though bittersweet, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s painful, but it’s a story that deserves to be told, read, shared. I’m glad it’s a book I spent time with.

Visit Talia Carner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein

I should never be trusted in the library alone.

I ran my son over there this week; he had lost his wallet earlier this year and hadn’t yet replaced his library card, plus there was a book he wanted to check out, so we stopped in. “I don’t need anything,” I told him. “Don’t let me look at books. I have two library books to read right now, plus two from NetGalley waiting for me. I don’t need to bring home another book.”

Friends, I brought home another book.

But how could I not??? I’d heard of When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teens by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021). I hadn’t added it to my TBR, but it remained lodged in my brain, and as soon as I saw it standing on top of a shelf in the New Books section, I gasped and grabbed it (and then mentally yelled at myself, and then yelled at myself for yelling at myself). And then I checked it out and took it home, being sure to keep my eyes off all the other tempting books before we left the library.

I didn’t realize until I was at home that Mr. Krimstein is the same author of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, which I read and enjoyed right before the beginning of the pandemic (I’m going to assume the stress of that time erased his name from my brain, because I’ve thought of that book often since reading it). Always nice to spend more time with an author I’d previously enjoyed!

Just before Poland was invaded, writing competitions were held for Yiddish-speaking young adults in eastern Europe. Because of the invasion, the winners were never announced, and the manuscripts were hidden away from the book-burning bonfires of the Nazis. They were discovered again in 2017, painting a vivid picture of what life was like for young people standing on the edge of likely destruction.

As the competitions required anonymity, only one of the author’s identities has been discovered (and fortunately, she survived), lending the book a haunting feel when you read with the hindsight and clarity of knowing what was to come for these optimistic teenagers. The illustrations add to this feel, and the overall book is at once tragic and wistful, optimistic and with an overarching sense of doom. It’s a miracle that these writings survived at all; that they’ve been illustrated and published is an amazing testament to our strength and our ongoing fascination with this subject and our determination to not let these voices be silenced.

Because of the nature of this book- it’s graphic nonfiction- it’s a quick read, but the wonder and the unanswered questions will stay with you.

Visit Ken Krimstein’s website here.

Follow him 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.

fiction · historical fiction · YA

Book Review: They Went Left by Monica Hesse

When I was in my early 20s, I picked up a copy of After the War by Carol Matas, about a group of Jewish teenagers and children making their way to Palestine after surviving the Holocaust (this is an excellent book; I highly recommend it). Upon reading this, I realized that most books about the Holocaust focus on the horrors of the concentration/death camps; they mostly end when the camp is liberated, and few books talk about what happened next. What happened to those people who lost everything, who witnessed unspeakable nightmares every day for years? How did they move on with their lives? Could they even move on? This period of history, post-WWII for the survivors, has intrigued me ever since, and that was how They Went Left by Monica Hesse (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021) ended up on my list. I was glad to learn of its existence.

18 year-old Zofia Lederman has survived- survived the war, survived the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and survived most of her family. Separated upon arrival at the camp, she was sent to the right; the rest of her family went left. But Zofia is broken; her body has been ravaged by starvation and brutal workloads, and her mind has fractured as a result. She can no longer remember the last time she saw her younger brother Abek, and so she leaves the hospital early and begins to search for him, her only remaining family member.

Her search leads her across multiple countries, to orphanages and displaced persons camps, where people are struggling to rebuild shattered lives, some with more success than others. Zofia marvels at the ones who have picked up and moved on so easily; how is it that they are able to keep living, when she’s barely hanging on? After a while, it seems Zofia is one of the lucky ones…or is she? With the help of her new friends and the lessons she learns from them, Zofia is able to find a future in the unexpected, even if it does mean heartbreak and coming to terms with everything’s she- and everyone else- has lost.

This is a powerful book. Monica Hesse cuts no corners in painting pictures of the brutality suffered during this period of time. Mass graves, murdered babies, horrific medical experiments, survivors committing suicide after Liberation, sexual favors exchanged for survival or better work details, she leaves nothing out. This is not a light and easy novel; this is an in-your-face exposé of all the ways Jews were tortured and reaped of their dignity and their lives throughout the Holocaust. There is suffering and pain on every page, and it’s all thoroughly researched and well-woven into this story.

I appreciated that Zofia wasn’t just another strong character. She’s deeply broken at the beginning of the story, losing time and lapsing into what she’s not sure are memories or just wishful fantasies. The search for her brother is a nightmare in and of itself; we’re so spoiled today with the internet and cell phones, with such instant communication. All families had back then were unreliable phones, letters (likely with a slow, unreliable post at the time), and placing names on lists of organizations (none of whom communicated with one another). Imagine trying to find one person out of millions in that manner, when millions of your people had been slaughtered. The desperation of this method of searching is highlighted throughout this book, and the whole thing just broke my heart.

I’m not sure any book about the Holocaust can truly have a happy ending- even the few whole families who managed to survive still lost homes, friends, communities, their entire way of life. The best, most powerful books end with resolve, and that’s what They Went Left offers: the digging deep and reaching out to find what one needs to keep living. Monica Hesse has created a novel that offers exactly that.

Visit Monica Hesse’s website here.

Follow her 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.

nonfiction

Book Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn

A good title draws a reader in immediately. A provocative title makes the whole world sit up and take notice. And it was a provocative title that had me clicking the want-to-read button on Goodreads last week immediately, without even needing to learn more about the rest of the book. I’ve heard of Dara Horn before, but hadn’t read any of her writing before this. But when someone in one of my Facebook groups mentioned her latest book, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present (W.W. Norton Company, 2021), I knew it would have to go on my list. Because that title…it’s true, isn’t it?

Dara Horn is a writer, professor, and scholar, often known for her essays on Judaism and Jewish-themed topics. But she came to the realization that she was always asked to write about dead Jews, never living ones. And this became the topic for her latest book: the world has a fascination with dead Jews, but rarely affords the same respect to living Jews. How many Holocaust novels are out there, often with a happy ending, often with a Gentile rescuer as the main character? How often do you think those happy endings happened in real life? How much do you know about the trauma suffered by survivors, the anger, the refusal of governments to help those who had lost everything, the many survivors who were murdered after leaving the camps? How many Jewish heritage sites exist around the world with no mention as to why there are no Jews living at those sites anymore? Why is The Merchant of Venice still one of Shakespeare’s most-performed plays, despite its blatant antiseminism (and what do you think that says to the Jews in your life)?

Our country’s education does a lot of things right, but it fails to instruct our students on so much of world history, and even when it does, it misses the mark in a big, big way. (Props to my daughter’s class, which is currently looking at various cultures around the world, and including a glimpse into both the history and the religions of those areas.) So many students are only exposed to the existence of Jews when they’re mass-murdered (as often happened throughout history, and continues to happen today), and they learn only what Hitler thought and taught about them- not what Jews actually are, what Jews actually do, what Jews have contributed to the many, many societies that have been home throughout the centuries. And that leads to people only appreciating and sometimes fetishizing dead Jews, and not appreciating live ones.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen, in one of my online book groups, someone mentioning that Holocaust fiction is a favorite genre. (I think I actually recoiled from the computer at the last post I saw. Their post and tone were so…cheery.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying books about the Holocaust shouldn’t be written. They should. The Shoah was a devastation that shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and writers should engage with it in order to demonstrate again and again, the horror of it all, and why such devastation and the attitudes that lead to it should be cut off before they begin. BUT. There’s definitely a trend of Holocaust rescuer books, of happy ending stories, of Nazi-guard-with-a-conscience stories. And those just aren’t reality. And we need to ask ourselves why we need those stories so badly as a society. What are we trying to convince ourselves of here? Whose stories are we leaving out when we pile on the ones with a lovely rainbow arc of redemption?

This is not an easy book to read- not for me, as a Jew; hopefully it won’t be for you, either- it’s not meant to be. It’s meant for people to take a hard look at why our world sets up Holocaust museums (which are absolutely necessary) but won’t deal with the growing wave of antisemitism spreading wider and wider. Why we’re so eager to blame Jews for their own demise, as Ms. Horn points out after yet another antisemitic murder; why newspaper articles on other murder victims don’t talk about the murderer’s frustration with Jews who had moved into the area (where the murderer didn’t even live. Imagine an article that said something like, “Understandably, Steve’s frustration only grew when his neighbor didn’t put away the dinner dishes away in her own house as quickly as he thought she should do. After a series of social media posts where he documented his unhappiness, police weren’t surprised to find her murdered body on the front lawn the next morning.” People would rage! But the article Ms. Horn quotes from, about murders at a kosher supermarket, isn’t much different).

People Love Dead Jews is a tough, thought-provoking read that is beautifully well-written (I wish I had half of Dara Horn’s brainpower). If you’ve ever looked forward to the release of a favorite author’s upcoming novel set during the Holocaust, or if this mass tragedy is the only Jewish history you’ve ever learned about, this is probably the book you need to read. (A good companion read would be Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.)

Visit Dara Horn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky

Right along with books, I’ve long been obsessed with languages. I learned a bunch of Japanese when I was in grade school, took four years of Spanish and of French and one of German in high school (our school schedule was structured in a way that made this possible), have been through Duolingo’s Norwegian tree five times now, and am currently picking up some Hebrew. The many different Jewish languages fascinate me as well (there are more than just Yiddish and Hebrew!). And where Jewish language and books meet is Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center and author of Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (Algonquin Books, 2005). I’ve known about Mr. Lansky since my son was very young and I read him a children’s book about how Mr. Lansky saved Yiddish books, so when I learned that he had written a book for adults, it immediately went onto my list (and my library had an ebook copy!).

As college students learning Yiddish, Aaron Lansky and his classmates had a difficult time finding reading material. New Yiddish books weren’t really being published, and most libraries didn’t have much, if anything, on their shelves. And then he learned the terrible fate of many of the Yiddish books in existence: they were being thrown out. When elderly Yiddish speakers died, their children, who often couldn’t speak or read the language, didn’t know what to do with the books and so they got tossed. Horrified, Mr. Lansky began collecting these books. As more and more books piled up when people learned that he wanted them, he opened the Yiddish Book Center and began racing against time (and weather, and terrible storage conditions) in order to preserve the literary traditions and history of a world that no longer exists.

It wasn’t an easy job. Funding was always an issue. Space was another problem. Vans that broke down, elderly folks who overfed Mr. Lansky and his crew while sharing the stories of their lives and their books (and putting them hours behind schedule!), people who didn’t seem to understand what he was trying to do, trips to pick up books that were downright dangerous, there were a lot of obstacles in the way, but things always seemed to work out, and today, the Yiddish Book Center is an amazing institution that has helped the modern-day study of Yiddish flourish.

This was such a great read. It’s right at the intersection of a bunch of things I care deeply about- books, languages, Judaism- and Mr. Lansky tells the story of his life in a truly engaging way. The Yiddish language has never been dead; it’s still in use today as a living language, though mainly among the more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups, who, in general, don’t engage with the mainly secular literature in the books Mr. Lansky was trying to save (which is why it was so important he collected them; these books are history, culture, linguistics. They’re the legacy of a people who survived some terrible times, but who left behind a rich literary treasure trove). And Yiddish has seen a bit of a resurgence among this current generation of non-Haredi Jews (are there any non-Jews engaging with the language on a widespread basis? I don’t honestly know). There are Yiddish classes in the city near me; the University of Chicago also offers Yiddish courses (my kingdom for a winning lottery ticket so that I could afford to attend!). It makes me happy that non-native speakers are continuing to engage with this beautiful language (to me, it sounds a little like Norwegian, which I think is gorgeous!). (I really love parentheses, if you couldn’t tell. Eesh.)

The people who gave Mr. Lansky their books are deeply moving. So often, they had already lost far too much in their lives; they understood the importance of the books they loved, and they shared their lives and their stories (and their homecooked food!) with the Yiddish Book Center crew. Elderly as they were, many of them went on to help collect books for the Center. You’ll be moved by their stories, their pain, their joy, and their enthusiasm for and dedication to their book collections (seriously, as literary people, we ALL get how important books are! The thought of any books ending up in trash heaps, regardless of whether or not I can read them, makes me scream inside my heart!).

Outwitting History left me in awe of everything Aaron Lansky has accomplished. He saw a problem- a whole culture and history being erased- and dedicated his life to solving it. And in return, scholars of Yiddish visit and contact his center every day. The Center sends Yiddish books all around the world, and Yiddish literature was the first to be digitized. He has done the world a massive service by preserving so many books, and though I don’t speak the language (though at some point, I’d like to learn some!), I’m deeply grateful to him for the books he and his crew have rescued. Imagine what the world would have missed out on had all those books been lost forever.

Visit the website of the Yiddish Book Center 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.