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.

nonfiction

Book Review: Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt

I believe I learned about Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt (Schocken Books Inc, 2019) while combing through the library’s digital card catalog for Jewish-related books at one point (remember actual, physical card catalogs? I miss those things. In what may be my nerdiest story yet, I actually have a scar on my left hand from when I was 12 and the H drawer of the card catalog fell out of its place and the metal parts of the underside of the drawer sliced my finger). It’s a topic I’ve encountered before plenty of times in my reading, but this was a recent publication, and I knew I needed to read it. I’m so glad I did.

Antisemitism is a lot like racism, in that it’s everywhere. It goes far deeper than Nazis and concentration camps, and there are a lot of ways to be antisemitic (if you’re unsure of exactly what that means or can’t think of more than one or two, this is likely something you should read). Structuring her book as a conversation over email with a student and a colleague, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor and historian, discusses antisemitism: what it is, what it looks like in its many forms, how to respond to it as a Jew and a Gentile, how to process feelings about it. She clarifies a lot of information on the topic, including a discussion on people who may not necessarily be antisemitic themselves but who enable those who are (a massive problem these days, unfortunately, and again, if you can’t think of any examples of this, you’re the target audience for this book, because it’ll open your eyes). The section of Jeremy Corbyn and the antisemitism of the Labour Party disturbed me deeply- I knew things weren’t great, but reading all the examples Ms. Lipstadt laid out helped me to understand how big the problem is there. I don’t know too much about British politics, so I really found this helpful in understanding what has been happening there.

This is not and should not be a comfortable read. Go into this prepared to learn, to recognize antisemitic statements and actions in yourself, in your friends and family, in your favorite politicians (yes, on both sides, and she doesn’t shy away from that unfortunate truth. Both sides absolutely do have an antisemitism problem), in the media you consume, and be prepared to be honest with yourself and change your ways, or call out antisemitism in those around you (they won’t like that. Big deal; do it anyway). Creating a better, safer world is everyone’s responsibility, yours included, and books like this are an important resource in doing just that.

I will say that while this is a deeply serious subject and one that isn’t necessarily pleasant to read about, the tone of this book is kept as light as possible, making it, while not the easiest of reads, a deeply engaging one. I flew through this book, always looking forward to the next chapter and appreciating the education on every page. It’s a book I wish I could get everyone I know to read; it’s that important. If you know and love Jewish people (or even just know, to be honest- and if you’re reading this, you know me! Hi!), if you were horrified by the tiki torch-waving alt-right marching through Charlottesville while screaming antisemitic garbage a few years ago, if you’ve read stories about the uptick in antisemitic events (including the stabbing of a rabbi in Boston last week), and especially if you fit into none of these categories- this is the education you need to be a good friend, a good citizen, and a good ally.

Visit Deborah E. Lipstadt’s website here.

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: Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America by Beth B. Cohen

There are a lot of myths surrounding the Holocaust survivors who came to America after the war. They worked hard, they learned English easily (so eager were they to move beyond what had happened in Europe and forget their pasts), they integrated well into society, and they didn’t talk about their experiences. Right? Not exactly, says Beth B. Cohen, author of Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America (Rutgers University Press, 2006). There are a lot of stories Americans like to tell themselves that gloss over the gritty truth, and this is one of them. I knew I had to learn the whole story, and onto my TBR this book went. Thanks, interlibrary loan! (Seriously, is it not the greatest?)

Think back to what you learned about those fortunate few who survived the massacre of European Jewry during the second World War. What did you learn about what happened to them? Some of them came to the US, some of them made their way to the new country of Israel, maybe a few stayed in Europe or went elsewhere. And then what? They worked hard to assimilate and make new lives for themselves, had families, started over. Sure, that was true for some of them, but not all- maybe not even the vast majority. The agencies in the US tasked with helping them rebuild their lives had an agenda, and too bad for anyone who didn’t fit into that agenda’s narrow confines. The displaced persons who came here had one year to become self-sufficient. Health problems, emotional problems, mental illness, language difficulties, having watched your entire family murdered and being the sole survivor after having ended your education at age 10, none of that mattered. One year, and then your case was closed.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people struggled with this. The trauma the survivors had suffered was summarily ignored; work would be what cured them (…sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Orphaned teenagers were looked at not as victims of unspeakable horror who needed specialized assistance, but as self-absorbed narcissists who expected everyone to cater to them. The physical trauma people had suffered was dismissed as being psychosomatic and a sign that these were lazy, lazy people who didn’t want to work. How dare they expect any different treatment than other newcomers to America?

Ms. Cohen delves into the difficulties different groups faced: the religious Jews who struggled to find their place in a country that didn’t respect their beliefs and way of life; the unaccompanied minors who seemed to be almost universally looked upon by both agencies and their own extended families as massive burdens; the newly-formed families fracturing under the weight of all the burdens they carried. Occasionally an understanding caseworker would come along, but the majority of them seemed to resent their clients.

The style of this book is heavily academic; it’s not a long book, but it’s packed with information and a complex understanding of the survivors’ plights via how the agencies treated them and less via their personal and emotional struggles, and thus it’s a bit of a slow read. The horror is there, though it’s often couched between the lines, but Ms. Cohen doesn’t shy away from calling the agencies and caseworkers out as insensitive and uninformed. The United States has always been a hard country that seems to view the existence of a social safety net as a weakness and a moral failure, but this book really makes it seem as though this country delights in making every situation as difficult as possible for people who have already faced some of the worst situations imaginable. I’m guessing things have not gotten much better for new refugees from places like Syria, who have witnessed terrible nightmares of their own.

If you don’t mind the more academic style, Case Closed is a really eye-opening book. It highlights the insensitivity Holocaust survivors faced from basically every corner. They did make connections amongst themselves, amongst other survivors who understood and could relate to what they’d been through, but others didn’t seem to want to listen for a really long time after the war. It’s a heartbreaking book that tells a story that shouldn’t have happened this way, a story that disappointed me, but that didn’t really surprise.

Be kind to each other, people. It’s tough out there.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

This! This is the book that has held up my blog updates for so long. Sorry, fellow booklovers! I hadn’t realized The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn (Harper, 2006) was so long (512 pages), or that it would be such a challenging read. I knew it would be tough- Holocaust books are always emotionally difficult, and this came at the time during my class when we were studying it, so at least it was a timely read- but the complex story and masterful writing, combined with the painful subject matter (and small print!) made for a read that was informative, intriguing, wrenching, and one that I had to put down quite a few times in order to maintain my sanity.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up as his family’s historian, the grandchild who was always interested in the family lore and who was always collecting stories and tidbits and information from his relatives who fled to the US from modern-day Ukraine. The stories of his aunt, uncle, and four cousins who didn’t make it out, who died at the hands of the Nazis, always gripped him, and as an adult, he began the worldwide search to discover what really happened to them. What parts of the stories he had growing up were true? When and where did they die? What had they been like before the Holocaust destroyed everything about them, and was there any part of them left in the place they used to live?

Mr. Mendelsohn’s search is a race against time; the survivors he travels to interview are all in their 80’s and 90’s, many in failing health. The information he receives isn’t always what might give him a more complete picture of his missing family members (quick: think of a family who lived across the street from you, or down the hall from you, when you were fourteen. Think of what you would tell their relatives today. “They always waved”? “They had a black and white dog”? Could you give much more information than that?). Sometimes, the memories are still too painful or frightening, or shameful, to talk about; his interview subjects still get choked up seventy years later, remembering how they suffered, how their parents disappeared, how they watched their friends, neighbors, family slaughtered in front of them, often while they hid in fear for their own lives.

From country to country, continent to continent, from archive to darkened living room, Daniel Mendelsohn pieces together the story of his grandfather’s brother’s family and how they were all murdered. The full story takes years to fully stitch together, from multiple sources in multiple languages, mined from memories that contain some of the most painful images known to humanity. His dedication to uncovering the truth as to what happened to his lost family members should be a reminder to the everyday reader as to just how much was lost during this horrific period of time.

Heavy, heavy book. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be said, but this is a book about the Holocaust; there are many pages that contain gruesome imagery and descriptions of the worst things that could possibly be done to other human beings. They’re real, they happened to real people, and reading of how they suffered, while necessary to ensure that their stories will never be forgotten, takes an emotional toll. If at all possible, space this book out with some lighter material. Remembering the stories of the victims doesn’t mean breaking ourselves down.

The Lost should serve as a master class in family research. The lengths to which Mr. Mendelsohn had to go, the hoops he had to jump through, the flights he had to catch and translators he had to hire, to be able to produce this story, while all of it was likely exhausting and expensive, it’s likely a dream come true to people who engage in serious genealogy and family research. His story wound up with a concrete ending, with solid knowledge as to what happened to the final surviving members of the family who remained in Bolechow. Not all- maybe not even most- genealogists are so fortunate to end up with such clear answers, but I’m guessing everyone who wants to engage in such serious research could learn a few things from his techniques and his dedication, or at least be better prepared for the Odyssean journey ahead.

The Lost is a long, painful book of the atrocities suffered by one family and the grandson who was determined to shine a light on their lives and their ultimate fate. It’s meticulously researched and crafted, with the desperation and determination to give voices to the dead and ensure that their lives and their suffering will never be forgotten. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s worth every second of the time it takes to read and every moment you’ll set the book down, take a few deep breaths while staring off into space while wondering how anyone could ever do that, and then begin reading again.

Visit Daniel Mendelsohn’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper

I like nonfiction. I like history. I like justice. All of these come together in Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Secret Soldiers in America by Debbie Cenziper (Hachette Books, 2019). (And huh, I’m just now seeing the discrepancy between the Goodreads title and what’s on the cover of the book!) I believe this came to me from a book list- either a list of amazing nonfiction, or a list of Jewish-themed books. Either way, it hung out on my TBR for a bit, until I made my latest order-for-pickup at the library, and then I dove right in as soon as I picked it up. Be warned, though: even if you’ve read plenty about the Holocaust before, this is a rough read.

Citizen 865 tells the story of the OSI, the Office of Special Investigations within the Department of Justice. It focused on bringing to justice former Nazi soldiers and collaborators who became naturalized US citizens under false pretenses, after lying on their citizenship documents about their activities during World War II. Because alongside Holocaust survivors who had lost everything and who had journeyed to America to start all over again, hundreds of former Nazis who had spent their war years carrying out Hitler’s orders to torture and murder slipped into the country as well.

Debbie Cenziper recounts the difficulties of puzzling out exactly who these men were and what they did during the war, a task made even more challenging because many countries refused access to identifying records and documents. The historians and lawyers who staffed the OSI worked long hours and traveled long distances in order to ensure justice was served to the millions of murdered souls and the survivors who fought so hard to rebuild after everything had been stolen from them. While not a simple or easy job, it proved a satisfying one.

This is a rough, rough read. I kept having to put the book down and scroll through Twitter or Facebook in order to get a bit of a mental break after reading some particularly heinous detail about how the Jews of Poland were tortured and murdered by people who took such glee in it. No matter how much I read about the Holocaust, I don’t think I’ll ever, ever understand how one person could perpetrate such horrors on another human. Ms. Cenziper doesn’t go into graphic details, but the stories the OSI digs up are nightmarish in nature. If you’re sensitive, be sure to balance this book with something lighter. These stories deserve to be heard, lest we ever forget, but they’re not easy to read.

While grief and despair are definitely feelings that Citizen 865 evokes, rage is also prevalent, so be prepared for that. There were plenty of American politicians who defended the Nazis, who thought that enough time had passed and that the victims should just get over it and move on from the murders of their entire families,- unity, amirite? (STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE *eyeroll*). I’ll give you one guess which political party these Nazi defenders belonged to. I spent a lot of time taking deep breaths and trying not to explode in a fiery ball of fury. So, so little has changed. What are we even doing???

Debbie Cenziper makes digging through historical documents to build a legal case deeply intriguing. Under her treatment, the historians are detectives, justice- and truth-seekers of the highest degree, and their jobs go beyond poring over decades-old documents. The survivors’ stories are treated with the utmost of respect, and while I feel it’s a bit clichéd to note when nonfiction reads like a novel, this absolutely does. It’s difficult subject matter, but it’s one worthy of your time, and Ms. Cenziper’s writing will keep readers turning the pages.

(I apologize if this review isn’t up to my usual standards. This is an amazing book and I don’t feel like I’ve done it justice. It’s a bad day for pain here and I’m struggling to come up with words. When the pain gets this bad, it’s the equivalent of trying to focus on the television with someone blaring the radio right behind you at full volume. ☹ )

Visit Debbie Cenziper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

anthology · fiction · nonfiction

Book Review: How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert

So, I was a weird kid. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) I became fascinated with foreign languages on a Brownies field trip to the library at age seven (somewhere I was already intimately familiar with!). The librarian took us on a tour of the children’s section, pointing out where the fiction section was, and then letting us know what the nonfiction section held. She pointed out the foreign language section and I was immediately intrigued. ‘There are other languages???’ I remember thinking. A copy of a learn-to-speak-French book came home with me that day (the very first French sentence I ever learned to say: Où sont les toilettes? Super useful!), and I’ve been fascinated ever since, digging briefly into Japanese as a tween before studying Spanish, French, and German in high school, studying French in college (and marrying a native speaker!), dabbling in sign language here and there throughout my life, and picking up Norwegian as an adult. All this to say that a copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came home with me from the library when I was around eleven or twelve, which may have seemed weird if I had opened with that, but now that you know my history, eh, maybe not so much. I’ve always thought Yiddish was a cool language, and so I was glad my library had a copy of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert (Restless Books, 2020).

This 500+ page anthology is a quilt, a little bit of everything for the Yiddish-curious reader. Essays, interviews, poetry, short stories, excerpts from novels. There are discussions of modern-day Yiddish, trips back to the shtetls that haven’t existed for decades, glimpses of a way of life long gone, and both optimism and pain. There are stories of shame and devastation, but also of triumph, of Aaron Lansky’s rescuing of millions of Yiddish books, of poetry so beautiful that I only wish it were better known (Emily Dickinson, eat your heart out!). If one format doesn’t interest you, the next piece will likely be entirely different, which makes for a really interesting read.

I was expecting something different, however; I had thought this was more a book about Yiddish and not just occasionally about Yiddish and then a lot of Yiddish-writing-translated-to-English. That’s not a bad thing, just different than what I was expecting. I was also expecting it to be entirely nonfiction, instead of including a lot of fiction and poetry. Again, not bad, just different.

It was also fun to see familiar faces in the book. I’ve known about Aaron Lansky for ages; his book is on my TBR and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read Ilan Stavans before; Resurrecting Hebrew is a fascinating look on how the Hebrew language was brought back from being almost solely a textual language to the fully functional national language of Israel. And while reading the introduction, which spoke of how translated pieces were included in this anthology, I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder…” and I flipped through the index in the back. And sure enough, the wife of one of the rabbis who taught my Intro to Judaism class has a translated piece in the book! She’s a Yiddish professor. Small world, eh? 😊

Even if you’re not super interested in languages or Yiddish as a language, this book almost has the feel of reading a magazine, with all of its different pieces and formats. Reading it kept me engaged throughout its 512 pages, which is no easy feat!

Follow Ilan Stavans on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

Book lists are so dangerous for my TBR; one quick scroll sends my TBR shooting up to excessive numbers, but it’s always so, so worth it. It was a list of awesome Jewish fiction that had me adding What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018), and despite the oftentimes intense and difficult content, I’m glad I did. This is a gorgeously illustrated book with so much depth and feeling that I feel like I would discover new things on every page every time I reread it.

Young teenager Gerta’s life in Germany was disrupted by the Nazis. Previously, Gerta hadn’t even realized she was Jewish. Now, having lost everything but having survived, she must rediscover who she is- what Judaism means to her, what she wants to be, how she wants to live, what she wants her future to look like, and with whom she wants to spend it. Flashbacks tell the story of her before-life, of her training as an opera singer and how she came to be in the camps, followed by the nightmare of what life there was like. Brace yourselves; this is no gentle read.

Gerta struggles to define who she is when friendly, comforting Lev expresses interest, but attractive Michah makes her heart race. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to sing again. How do you rebuild, how do you relearn to be a person again when everything you ever had and almost everything you were was destroyed? What the Night Sings is a story of devastation followed by the soft, tentative rebirth of hope that will wrench your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and never let you forget it.

(I loved Lev. Loved him so much. Swooooooooooooon.)

What. A. Book. There were moments when I had to stop and breathe through the story because the details were so horrific and painful (to be expected with any book on the Holocaust, of course; I don’t think that any book set during this time period needs a separate content warning). Ms. Stamper’s writing is so fluid and so immediate that the reader is placed directly in the story with Gerta, living each painful moment and feeling the uncertainty of indecision. While Gerta’s story is specific to the time period she lived in, her story- needing to rebuild your life after everything changes- is universal, and this is further illustrated in the author’s note at the end (I won’t spoil this for you, but she’s got a really neat story).

Ms. Stamper’s art style is stark and lovely and fits this story perfectly. My own recent dabbling with art has made me appreciate artists’ skills even more, and I deeply enjoyed the illustrations in this book. I’m looking forward to reading more from her; my library has her other book, and she has a new one coming out in 2022, so this makes me extremely happy.

I cannot recommend What the Night Sings highly enough. If you’re looking for a book that will shove your heart through the ringer, yet still leave you full of hope, this book is it.

Visit Vesper Stamper’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin

Don’t we all go through book lists to make ourselves feel better? 30 New Books You Can’t Miss This Year! 10 YAs That Will Make You Cry! 23 Books That Will Murder You In Your Sleep If You Don’t Read Them Immediately!!!!! (Okay, maybe not that last one.) And I think a lot of us have been doing more adding to our TBRs than reading, whether that’s because we can’t focus as well right now (yes) or we just don’t have as much time to read at the moment (also yes). Browsing through one of those book lists was how I learned about Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2019). The brief description said that the book was set during the Second World War and told a fictionalized tale of the Shanghai Jews, and my brain went, “…the what now???” This was something entirely new to me, and I had to know more.

Lilia and her family, circus performers, are set to flee the persecution of 1940 Warsaw when their plans go awry and Lilia’s mother gets separated from the rest of the family. Knowing that their lives are on the line, Lilia and her father and sister must continue their journey to China, hoping Mama will continue on behind them as they sail to Shanghai in search of a place they can live in safety. Shanghai is under Japanese occupation, but the Jewish community that has fled there is grateful for any place that will take them in. Existence there is bleak and difficult: jobs are almost non-existent, food is scarcer than that, hunger is a constant companion, and fears about the future and worry over whatever happened to Mama never end.

But there are small joys to be found amidst the heartbreak and fear. Lilia’s friendship with Wei, the Chinese boy employed to clean her school, is a bright spot in the darkness, and the connection she makes in a desperate search to make money for her family ends up resulting in an unexpected miracle. Lilia’s broken-up family is far from home, struggling to survive with every breath, but their story isn’t to be missed.

Y’all. This story is bleak. The poverty Lilia’s family suffers is enormous, to the point where you’ll feel something like survivor’s guilt if you eat while reading this. The conditions they live in are foul and oppressive, and they’re uncomfortable to read. It’s important to bear witness to this kind of historical pain, though, so don’t skip this one. Put it off for later if you need to, when reading may be easier, but put it on your TBR, because Lilia’s story is based on real Jews who fled to China during the brutality of Hitler’s regime. It’s a remarkable history I’d never known anything about, and I’m glad I know more now. It’s just not an easy read.

Lilia’s relationship with her little sister Naomi is sweet. Naomi is young but already highly delayed at the start of the story; the trauma the family endures doesn’t help, but Lilia’s care of her never wavers. And Lilia’s friendship and slight crush on Wei are adorable. There are plenty of tense moments in the story, however, including multiple deaths for a variety of reasons, and allusions to sexual assault. There’s also a deeply heavy scene near the end of the book that broke my heart as a mother, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. It’s a painful, complex story, but one that deserves to be heard.

I’m learning better to balance out my reading this year, so I had to follow this one up with a lighter romance novel, but it’s definitely worth the read, especially if you’re into historical fiction. It’s YA but don’t let that stop you if that’s a genre you don’t normally read- Lilia’s problems are very much adult in nature, and Ms. DeWoskin’s masterful writing makes this a powerful, emotional story for readers of any age.

Visit Rachel DeWoskin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.