memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou

Another Jewish book from NetGalley! I’m on a roll, baby!!!

I’ve followed Shannon Gonyou on Twitter for a while now. She converted to Judaism, like me, and I’m always interested in the perspectives of other converts: the whys, the similarities and differences to my own conversion. Shannon has always seemed insightful, with a good sense of humor, so I was thrilled to learn she’d written a conversion memoir. Lo and behold, there it was on NetGalley! I requested (of course!), and voilà, the acceptance email for Since Sinai: A Convert’s Path to Judaism by Shannon Gonyou (Msi Press, 2022) landed in my inbox a few days later. I may have gasped in excitement. Huge thank you to NetGalley, Msi Press, and Shannon Gonyou for the opportunity to read and review this book!

Shannon Gonyou grew up Catholic, the stipulation of her birth mother to the parents who adopted and raised her. They weren’t super into it, but they dutifully raised her in the faith, which didn’t particularly interest her as a young child, but in which Shannon took a greater interest as she grew older. She had a lot of questions, of course; maybe more questions than her religious educators cared for, and the answers often rang a little more hollow than she would’ve liked, but Shannon held on, trying to carve out a place for herself in Catholicism. The evangelical church she tried out next was much the same. Both churches’ white savior complexes felt faulty, along with their one-size-fits-all belief systems. What’s a spiritual-seeking girl to do?

Judaism was something Shannon just kept coming back to, over and over. She’d question friends, co-workers, classmates, anyone who she met and learned was Jewish. The tradition kept calling to her until finally, she blurted out to her husband one Christmas eve (what better time?) that she wanted to be Jewish. To his absolute credit, despite being caught somewhat off guard, her husband was remarkably understanding, and eventually he came to fall just as deeply in love with Judaism as Shannon did. This is the story of Shannon’s religious journey, from questioning Catholic to deeply committed Jew, and all that happened in between.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Shannon’s story is winding, full of questions and the struggle to find herself in traditions that weren’t quite meant for her. Conversion is a huge, intimidating leap (I sat in front of my first email to the rabbi I converted with for over a week, struggling to come up with the exact words that expressed how deeply I had fallen in love with Judaism); being able to travel her journey with her in all its stops and starts, in the moves she now considers uncomfortable at best (such as the mission trips she went on), was truly enjoyable. I saw a lot of my own story in hers and it was a true joy to not only read about Shannon’s path to the mikvah, but to also be able to compare and relive my own journey there.

This is no dry, dusty, stodgy memoir; Shannon Gonyou writes as though she’s having a warm, comfortable conversation with her oldest friend, and every sentence is infused with her love of Judaism and her absolute delight in having made her way home to where she belongs. If you don’t know much about Judaism and are curious as to why someone would choose to become a member of a traditionally persecuted group, Since Sinai will lead you to a greater understanding. If, like me, you’ve converted to Judaism, you’ll definitely see yourself in these pages. And if you’re in the process or are considering converting, this book will enlighten you as to what the process might look like for you – and you can pass it along to your family and friends when they have questions, too.

Since Sinai was an absolute delight to read. Pre-pandemic, I was staying off the internet on Shabbat, but fell away from that practice when the internet became my sole connection with family and friends who were similarly isolated. Reading this moved me back to the place where I felt ready to do that again, and I very much welcomed that haven of calm and peace the last few weeks.

Follow Shannon Gonyou on Twitter here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer

Jewish romance? Yes, please.

Jewish romance where the heroine has chronic medical problems? WHAT?????? SIGN. ME. UP.

Diversity in fiction, which has grown the past decade, means many things, but it’s rare that I see so much of myself in fiction. I’m pretty sure that I learned about The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer (MIRA, 2021) from either a list on Twitter or a list on Alma (and of course slapped it directly onto my TBR), but when my friend Sharon mentioned reading it and enjoying it, I knew it had to switch statuses to ‘Currently reading’ soon. And it finally appeared at the library, and I let out a little yelp of joy as I spotted it and yanked it off the shelf. Because I am entirely normal and that is a completely normal way to behave in the library.

Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is carrying a lot of things in her life. The daughter of the well-known Rabbi Goldblatt, her myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, rules her whole life, from her daily activities to her career. Which…no one knows, but Rachel, Jewish daughter of a famous rabbi, is the woman behind Margot Cross, the bestselling author of a series of Christmas romance novels. Rachel loves Christmas…but no one can know, just as she refuses to let her agent and editors know about her ME/CFS. But there’s a problem: her last few books aren’t selling well. Christmas is out, and diversity is in. Rachel’s team wants her to write a Hanukkah romance. What’s a Jewish Christmas romance novelist with limited physical resources to do?

Enter Jacob Greenberg, Rachel’s camp nemesis and one-time tween boyfriend. He’s now a bigtime millionaire event planner, and he’s swinging back into town to throw the Hanukkah event of the millennium: the Matzah Ball Max. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s single and wayyyyyyyy easy on the eyes.) His attendance at her parents’ Shabbat dinner gives Rachel an in, and she manages to finagle a ticket to the Matzah Ball by – gulp – agreeing to volunteer (with her ME/CFS a constant presence? YIKES). What better way to get the Hanukkah novel inspiration she needs? But Jacob’s reappearance in her life strikes up some feelings – for both of them, and they’ll both have some deep Yom Kippur-style reflection to do if they want to move ahead in their lives…maybe even together.

LOVED THIS.

LOVED THIS SO MUCH!!!!!!!

While my medical issues are different from Rachel’s, I saw so much of myself in this book. The constantly having to tailor your entire life to what your body demands; other people not understanding what’s going on with me medically; love of Judaism; writing. It’s all there, and I felt so represented on almost every page of this! I love that chronic illness is showing up in more and more novels.

Rachel can be blunt and a little brash at times, but she knows what she needs and is a good advocate for herself (and who can blame anyone for dealing with constant pain and fatigue and/or other medical issues and being a little crabby? Well, lots of people, but I digress…). Jacob is a swoonworthy hero. He’s not without his flaws; he’s still grieving the loss of his mother and how his father walked out on the family, and despite his success in life, he still has some growing up and learning to do – about lots of things. He and Rachel make a good fit, and the constant slight pushing from their families to get together only adds to the fun of the story.

I am 100% here for Jean Meltzer’s next novel. Already on my TBR, and I’m poised and waiting. (No pressure. Just excited!) Her writing style is fun and light, serious when it needs to be, but still keeping the overall tone enjoyable and never too serious. It’s exactly what I’m looking for in fiction, and I can’t wait to see what she does next!

Visit Jean Meltzer’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Reivew: Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer

I was going through my email a few weeks ago when I came across one from the Jewish Women’s Archive. They hold a few virtual author talks every now and then, and I’ve attended quite a few, all of which have been fabulous. The email was announcing the newest round, and one of the books sounded familiar. I looked it up on Goodreads, and sure enough, it was on my TBR! I picked up Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (One World, 2020) from the library the next day and immersed myself in the world of art and disability activism.

Riva Lehrer was born in 1958. Her mother, a former researcher, recognizes her infant daughter’s spina bifida immediately. At this point in history, infants with disabilities like these aren’t expected to survive. Most are institutionalized, but Riva’s mother is sure she can care for her daughter’s complex medical needs. Riva becomes among the first of her generation with spina bifida to live to adulthood.

That doesn’t mean her life is easy. Everyone around her, including her family, defines her by her disability and by their own standards for her, constantly telling her that she’ll never have a romantic partner (she’s given a hysterectomy at age 15, ostensibly due to cysts, but disabled people were routinely sterilized at this point in history), she’ll never live alone, she’ll never hold down a real job. But she forges ahead anyway, living out her life as an artist, a queer person, whose disability affords a unique perspective of the world. Riva Lehrer’s art is displayed throughout the pages, offering the reader a journey through her career and the empowering way she views her friends and colleagues with disabilities.

This is a fabulous memoir (and it’s so beautifully Jewish!). Riva has lived a complex, fascinating life, and I wish I could sit down with her and hear more stories. She’s been through so many surgeries and medical procedures, and her success has obviously been hard-won; how could it not be in such an ableist society?

There are so many gems scattered throughout this book that provide such insight into what Ms. Lehrer’s life has been like, and what the world was like and how it’s changed (and how it hasn’t…) for those with disabilities. From the stories of her earliest days growing up in a hospital, to the way her parents and her teachers spoke to and about her, the dawning realization of her queerness and what that meant for her life, the casual mention of her countertop coming up to her mid-chest (the world really isn’t built for those whose bodies differ from the standard issue), her writing paints a very clear picture of a woman who has definitely struggled, but who has forged ahead despite not only the obstacles her health has presented, but those placed in front of her by both society and the people who loved her.

I really enjoyed this and was sad that it ended. Fascinating fact: I figured out about halfway through this book that Ms. Lehrer works (at least sometimes) in the same (very large!) building my husband does. I love when my reading life and real life collides. : )

Visit Riva Lehrer’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.

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.

fiction

Book Review: Invisible City (Rebekah Roberts #1) by Julia Dahl

I *think* Invisible City (Rebekah Roberts #1) by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books, 2014) ended up on my list during the time I searched for Jewish books in my library’s digital card catalog, but I could be wrong. I’m a member of a few different book groups on Facebook, so it could have come from there. Either way, it ended up on my list as an ebook, and I dragged my feet long enough that my library no longer had it listed as an ebook. Bummer! (And I’ve got a new attitude about how quickly I’ll get to ebooks on my list.) Interlibrary loan to the rescue!

Rebekah Roberts is a young reporter on the beat in New York City for one of the city’s rattiest tabloids. She’s the daughter of a Christian father (who raised her) and a Hasidic mother (who split and returned to her community not long after Rebekah’s birth, leaving Rebekah angry and bitter and confused), and when she’s assigned to the story about a dead body discovered in a scrapyard, she’s on it…and is even more intrigued when she finds out the victim was a young Hasidic mother, and the scrapyard is Hasidic-owned.

The police’s chummy relationship with the Hasidic community means the investigation barely gets off the ground, and thanks to a friend of her father’s, Rebekah finds herself deep in the search for the truth. What happened to Rivka that she ended up dangling from a crane in a scrapyard? What did her insular community have to do with the circumstances that led to her death? And what does all of this have to do with Rebekah and her mother?

I have mixed feelings about this one. I don’t read a ton of thrillers and crime novels (and I’m absolute garbage at figuring out whodunit), but I tend to enjoy most of the ones I do read. I enjoyed the pacing of this story; it moved quickly but without keeping me anxious and on the edge of my seat, which I can’t stand. The writing was fine; I didn’t find it anything phenomenal, but it was readable without having to think too deeply, which I appreciate. I’m not much of a literary fiction reader; when I dive into fiction, I’m doing it to be entertained, not to discuss the themes of the book with a group of professors at a wine and cheese party.

The setting was interesting. There aren’t a ton of novels out there set among the Hasidic community, so that felt fresh, but Rebekah’s lack of curiosity about the Judaism she inherited from her mother was a bit irritating to me. Her anger at her mother was understandable, but her almost complete lack of knowledge (despite her dad being some sort of religious scholar), felt…off.

What didn’t work for me was the disrespect I felt towards multiple groups in this book. Let’s start with the Hasidic Jewish community. These are people living their lives in the way they think is best. I disagree with a lot of what they believe and teach, but they’re still my people, and it irks me a bit to see them placed in such a fishbowl. There are many, many problems in the community (as happens in every insular group out there), but to me, this felt like all those books setting romances and thrillers in the Amish community: exploitative. It felt more to me like this community was the setting for a grisly murder of a young mother more for the shock value than anything, and that bothered me. Especially since this is a series and there’s another Hasidic murder in the next book. This bothered me a lot as I got deeper into the book.

Secondly, the constant use of mental illness as a reason for violence really bothered me. I’m not saying that the Hasidic community does a great job dealing with mental illness; from what I’ve read, a lot gets swept under the rug for fear of making families look bad and ruining chances of children making good marriages (sigh). But mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of serious crimes than to be the ones committing them, and perpetuating this stereotype that mentally ill people are often violent and go around constantly murdering people…nope. Didn’t like that one bit. And there’s a LOT of references to mental illness in this book that didn’t quite hit the mark for me as a respectful, thoughtful way to discuss these conditions, even in a community who doesn’t necessarily have a perfect track record in how they handle it.

So this book had its ups and downs for me. I likely won’t continue on with the series, though I am curious what happens if/when Rebekah makes contact with her mother. If you’ve read the series, feel free to spoil this for me in the comments. ; )

Visit Julia Dahl’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn

A while back, I did a search through my library’s card catalog (from home. My older readers, remember when physical card catalogs existed? I have a scar on my left hand from dropping the H drawer on it. My library tattoo, if you will…) for Jewish books. There’s not a ton of fiction out there with a Jewish theme (beyond the hordes of Holocaust books, that is. Though there has been more non-Holocaust fiction lately, and I’m thankful for that!), so I was happy to stumble across Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn (Walker & Company, 1992). A historical romance with a Jewish bent? Sign me up!

Miriam’s parents want to marry her off, but she’s shocked by the pale, nerdy Torah scholar they’ve chosen for her and immediately proclaims her intentions to travel through Europe with her doctor uncle instead of marrying that guy, shocking everyone in the room and humiliating the young man. A decade later, her uncle has passed away and Miriam is stuck in France, thanks to the war between France and England. A deal struck with Jacob Rothschild to return her home teams her up with Isaac Cohen, a fellow Jew, and Felix, an antisemitic British aristocrat fallen on hard times. They’ll be smuggling some gold back into England on their long journey home, and the tension between the three- for various reasons- is enormous.

Difficulties befall the group constantly while traveling across France, and Miriam and the two men begin to work out their differences- kind of. She develops affections toward both of them, but in the end, she’ll have to make a choice- if they get home safely, that is.

Miss Jacobson’s Journey turned out to be a really entertaining read. Felix and other characters’ antisemitism was, obviously, unpleasant to read, but it was necessary to both further the plot and in order to be historically accurate. Historical fiction, oddly, can sometimes not age well, but despite having been published when I was twelve, this seemed just as fresh as though it were a new release. Carola Dunn’s voice reminded me distinctly of Tessa Dare, and this book was an enjoyable read the whole way through.

Miriam is a delightful character, headstrong and independent, curious about the inner workings of her religion/ethnicity that have been denied to her by dint of having been born female (it wasn’t considered proper for women to learn Torah back then and Miriam’s curiosity and Felix’s ignorance of anything Jewish make for interesting educational bits that help further the plot). Isaac is sweet and proper; Felix, while being a smarmy oaf, makes decent strides in becoming a better person. And journeying through France in the 18-teens made for a wonderful literary field trip while being stuck in the house due to freezing temps and Omicron.

Visit Carola Dunn’s website 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.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

I’ve enjoyed Hannah Moskowitz since she first blasted onto the YA scene with Break in 2009. Her addition to It’s a Whole Spiel blew me away, and so I was thrilled that the next book on my TBR (ebook edition, since that’s what I’m focused on now) was her Sick Kids in Love (Entangled: Teen, 2019). The tagline for this book is, ‘They don’t die in this one,’ which was a relief to read (you know, having been traumatized by all the Lurlene McDaniel tragedy porn I read growing up, and then again by John Green with The Fault in Our Stars). I still stressed out while reading this excellent book, though.

Isabel is sick. She’s had rheumatoid arthritis since she was eight (not diagnosed until age nine), so she knows pain and what it’s like to live with a debilitating illness, what it’s like to have to plan your entire life around your unpredictable body, what it’s like to have no one around you really get what it’s like to live with this always hanging over you, what it’s like for an illness to just be part of who you are. She doesn’t date- for a lot of reasons- but then she meets Sasha, another chronically sick kid, and her life turns upside down. Sasha gets it. Sasha understands what it’s like to have a body he can’t trust. And dammit, he’s cute with a capital CUTE.

When she decides to let go and jump in with both feet, things are…good. There are the usual romance ups and downs: they annoy each other; they like different things; Isabel can’t make up her mind about anything; both of them have struggles with their conditions. And then the little things become big things, and things get tough. Isabel needs to learn to make decisions, to speak up for herself and maybe learn to make the necessary changes that come when you’re no longer alone and have to compromise to get along.

I loved this. I loved this a lot. Hannah Moskowitz (who is indeed a sick kid; she has ankylosing spondylitis, a type of spinal arthritis- I’m familiar with it because it shares a lot of symptoms with my back/pelvis issues and is often misdiagnosed as what I have for years. Which makes me wonder a lot, but doctors don’t seem to want to investigate further, so whatever) is wise beyond her years and shows it all over the place yet again. Life with chronic pain is so eloquently explained in this book; if you live with chronic pain or you love someone who does and want to understand, you NEED this book. NEED. I’m going to quote a section below that made me gasp. I read it, read it again, reread it, and then copied it down, because it summed up what chronic pain is like so, so well:

You stop noticing pain, is the thing.

You notice it when it’s really bad, or when it’s different, but…on the rare occasion someone asks me what it’s like to live with RA, I don’t ever know what to say. They ask me if it’s painful, and I say yes because I know intellectually it must be, because the idea of doing some of the things that other people do without thinking fills me with dread and panic, but I always think about it mechanically. I can’t do x. I don’t want to do y. I don’t continue the thought into I can’t do that because it would hurt. I don’t want to do that because then I would be in pain.

You can’t live like that. There’s only so much you can carry quietly by yourself, so you turn an illness into a list of rules instead of a list of symptoms, and you take pills that don’t help, and you do the stretches, and you think instead of feeling. You think.

And you don’t soak in hot water and feel the tension bleed out of your joints because it’s just going to remind you that it will come right back.

This is it. This is it entirely. This is what I live with, and Hannah Moskowitz has put it into words. All hail our new leader! Long live the queen! Seriously, this put my feelings and frustrations into words far better than I can at this point (it’s been a really bad year for pain for me; I’ve been on steroids four times since the pandemic started- my doctors don’t think that’s at all a problem, apparently- my neuropathy is going wild, my gabapentin doses have increased 300% and still aren’t covering it all, the Celebrex doesn’t work at all anymore so I’ve stopped taking it…). The tests coming back normal when you’re barely able to function- when that happened to Isabel, I nearly wept, because that’s something I so understand (right along with being blown off by doctors. It’s like there’s a giant belief of, “It’s just pain, why do you care so much?” attitude in the medical community. Quality of life means nothing, and it’s so, so good to hear someone else talk about this. THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ.

(Also? Two Jewish main characters, THANK YOU, HANNAH MOSKOWITZ. Truly. Long live the queen!)

So I loved this. It was a fun, sweet love story about two kids who get each other, but who are also still trying to get themselves, because they’re teenagers, and on a large level, it drops some serious truth bombs about life with health problems that aren’t ever going away. This book got me- as a forty-year-old woman, it got me, and I am so utterly grateful for that.

Follow Hannah Moskowitz on Twitter here.

Check out her Wikipedia page here.