fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich

Reading lists are both the best thing ever and the bane of my TBR. I don’t know that I’ve been able to look at many lists titled things like, “100 Books Coming Out This Year That You Can’t Miss!” or “You Will Literally Die If You Don’t Read These Books!” without my TBR growing exponentially. It’s really the best problem to have, isn’t it? It was a reading list that introduced me to Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich (Penguin Group, 1997). The premise had me hitting that want-to-read button immediately, and interlibrary loan delivered the book into my hands- in a stack of other interlibrary loan books, of course, because, as we know, everything always comes in at once!

It’s not until she’s an adult and has children of her own that Elizabeth Ehrlich begins deeply pondering what her Jewish identity means. Never fully identifying with the religious aspects, she turns to the kitchen of her mother-in-law Miriam, a Holocaust survivor who still maintains a kosher kitchen and cooks nearly everything from scratch. Homemade noodles, chopped liver, all the dishes that Elizabeth remembers her grandmothers laboring over appear on Miriam’s table, and Elizabeth wants to know more. Something in these old ways calls out to her, and at Miriam’s side, she begins to learn and ponder the traditions that have been passed down for millennia through her family. Little by little, she moves toward a kosher kitchen, toward trying out the religious aspects of Judaism, seeing what fits, seeing where she belongs, all the while recounting the stories of her family members- mostly women, but some of the men as well. These people lived through some of the worst violence humanity has ever perpetrated on their fellow men; the miracle of their survival pushes Elizabeth to look deeper, work harder, to create something to pass down to her children. Even if they ultimately reject it, giving them something from which to turn away- and maybe return to one day- feels right.

This is an absolutely lovely memoir. Miriam and Ms. Ehrlich’s bubbes and her mother are women of valor, women who experienced horrors, who weren’t given many options in their lives, but who persevered anyway, doing the best they could with what they had. They exemplified hard work and honor, working both in and outside the home, without many of the tools we take for granted. Seeing all they did without many of the luxuries I own really made me think while I was reading this.

I deeply identified with Ms. Ehrlich’s draw toward certain aspects of Judaism, that pull without fully understanding the why of it. Sometimes you just feel moved toward something that doesn’t necessarily make logical sense- it’s a bit like falling in love, I think. There’s not always a rhyme or reason to it. When she was faced with the daunting task of kashering her kitchen and living a kosher life, she was somewhat dismayed by all the extra work it will take, all the time and emotional labor necessary to remember which sponge is used for wiping up meat spills and which for dairy, all the strength it takes to tell her children no, that we don’t eat that, and then cooking after a long day at work. But still she felt drawn to do it, even knowing the difficulties, and that is something I understood and felt on a visceral level. (Not for the exact same reasons- I’m vegetarian, so that cuts out like 99% of the problem right there, and I live in a house with three non-religious, occasional meat-eaters, so unless I wanted to maintain my own set of pots and pans and dishes, keeping a kosher kitchen wouldn’t really be possible for me. I *could*, but I don’t know that anyone else in the house would remember which dishes were just mine, and I’d end up having to re-kasher them like twelve times a day…)

She’s hard on herself, seeing all the ways she falls short of Miriam’s ideal, but still forging ahead and jumping in with both feet, which I found deeply admirable. So often, we shy away from what intimidates us- I know I’m guilty of this- especially when we know that perfection is unattainable. But she begins anyway, taking the steps to live the life she feels drawn to, and that’s a message to live by.

I wonder if Miriam ever felt intimidated by the older women in her life, if she ever felt that her cooking, her kitchen, wouldn’t measure up. Will Ms. Ehrlich’s grandchildren feel the same as they observe her preparing Miriam’s recipes? Do we all feel like this to some degree, that we’ll never be the strong, capable women our foremothers were? This book raised a lot of questions about how we connect to our pasts and what we carry with us into our futures, what we pass down, and I’m glad this ended up on my TBR. I don’t know that I’ll try any of the recipes in it- some of them sound absolutely delicious, but in terms of heart-healthy cooking, they’re not something I would normally make (thank you SO much, genetic cholesterol levels!). Perhaps one day, I’ll get up the courage…

I don’t see any websites or contact information for Elizabeth Ehrlich; if you’re aware of any, let me know in the comments and I’ll amend this post. Miriam’s Kitchen is the winner of a National Jewish Book Award.

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.

nonfiction · Uncategorized

Book Review: Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine

I love it when a good title catches your eye, draws you in, and makes you go, “Ooh, what’s that about?” That’s how I felt when I saw the cover of Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) on NetGalley this spring. “Is this about rabbis doing needlepoint?” I wondered, until I caught sight of the subtitle and went, “Ohhhhh, fascinating!” As an occasional crafter, I understand how important making things can be to one’s identity, and as my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was winding down, I definitely wanted to keep reading and learning. And to my surprise, I was quickly approved for the book! Totally made my day.

Jodi Eichler-Levine has penned an academic deep-dive into the intersection of arts- and craft-work and Jewish identity, a study that spanned three years and included not only interviews but observation and research into online crafting communities (Pinterest, anyone?). Her focus is not necessarily on individual artists- although plenty of those are celebrated as well- but on what crafting means as a collective and for the collective. How do crafters express their Judaism and connect with it on a deeper level through the things they create? How does the process of creation help them connect with other Jews? What messages do their various forms of creation send when viewed through the lenses of Judaism? Her study answers all these questions and more in a way that artists and crafters will appreciate.

Horror vacui, the fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces, especially in an artistic composition, is discussed in terms of a crafter’s need to create and fill their friends’ and loved ones’ lives with the fruits of their hard work, as is the fact that creation, by necessity, also means consumption, something that I’ve been trying to come to terms with over the years. Keeping one’s supply stash under control and down to a manageable amount while still ensuring that you have what you need in a pinch (or a pandemic when the stores are closed!) is a never-ending battle for every crafter; do you overbuy and run the risk of never using those materials, or do you save money and not buy but potentially regret it later? “Things ground, though they can also overwhelm,” she states succinctly, something that I very much understood. Another quote summed it up perfectly:

“Acts of creation are never simple. They are not isolated from the act of consuming, and consuming in a hypercapitalist culture has itself taken on a religious valence. Those who can afford to do so revel in their possessions but are also possessed by them, leading to a sense of claustrophobia that sparked the latest minimalism purge.”

(And yes, Marie Kondo does earn several mentions!)

The sections that resonated the most with me were about parenting and how one’s identity as a crafter, an artist, a creator, is often dashed to the ground once the task of caring for tiny humans becomes front and center. Everything falls to the side, leaving parents, particularly mothers, feeling lost and like overworked automatons. She acknowledges that even as we celebrate these new lives, there is grief as we mourn for the loss of ourselves and the identities that kept us afloat Before Parenting. Ms. Eicher-Levine’s analysis of Heather Stolz’s work, Hanging By A Thread (viewed here in Ms. Stoltz’s Kveller article, Being Jewish Kind of Sucks Now That I’m a Mom), very much hit home for me. Her piece has to do with the difficulties of finding a connection to her Judaism when her more immediate responsibilities are to ensuring the safety and well-being of her children, but it’s something to which most moms will be able to relate. I know it took my breath away. A quote from another crafter echoed another familiar, sobering realization:

“I tried to embroider a Hebrew wall hanging for my son when he was born. That was before I realized that having children would end, for a while at least, my embroidery career.”

This is the circle of women I needed when I first began having children, but I’m grateful that a new generation will have Ms. Eicher-Levine’s words to reassure them that these feelings are normal.

Stories of craftivism; of religious restrictions on creation during Shabbat and how artists deal with that; the juxtaposition of two craft movements that seem to be, on the surface, different, but have more in common than they first appear; Ms. Eichler-Levine covers so many different topics in this book with a scholarly look, but one that has heart. One of the most poignant sections deals with Jewish crafting in the wake of the Holocaust and the urgency to fill the void of having no family heirlooms, and whether there’s a deeper meaning to it. That wasn’t an aspect of the Holocaust that I’d ever really considered, so I especially appreciated her work making me aware of that.

There is some discussion of infertility in the book, and how that affects one’s artwork and identity. Infertility can be a painful subject to read about for many people, while others find comfort in seeing they’re not alone in their struggles and feelings. Be kind to yourself and never feel ashamed about waiting until you feel ready to read subjects that may be difficult for you.

While the book is more academic than literary, it’s definitely enjoyable if you’re interested in how artistry and crafting intersect with identity- Jewish identity specifically, but if needlework or painting or quilting is a part of who you are, you may find much with which to identify in these pages regardless of your connection to Judaism. Terms with which the non-Jewish or non-Jewishly educated reader may not be familiar are defined, making this book accessible for readers of every background.

Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis is a lovely take on how what Jewish women (and some men!) create furthers their Jewish identity. Maybe it’ll inspire you to pick up or continue your own work! It absolutely did for me. I’d been working on this blanket for a while and had put it down after getting close to finishing it. But reading this book put me in the crafting mood again, and I finished the last few rows and the border. The blanket, laid out on the floor, takes up half my living room! Thanks for the inspiration, Ms. Eicher-Levine!

Much thanks to NetGalley and the University of North Carolina Press for allowing me to read an early copy of this.

Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine is due out on October 19, 2020. Order your copy here (not an affiliate link), or from your local bookstore.

Read a bio of Jodi Eichler-Levine here, and then join me in wishing I could take every single class she offers.

fiction · YA

Book Review: In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Another book list gem! I picked up a copy of In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Caplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 2019) on my last trip from the library (during which I looked at my stack of like six books and went, “Well, that’s gonna take a while to get through…” and I’m already going to have to go back today and pick out a few more. BUT…I have an idea for a new project. I’ll write up a post about that later!). I’m super fortunate that my library has *so* many of the books from my TBR!

It’s 1958, and Ruth Robb has moved to Atlanta with her mother and younger sister after her father suddenly passed away. The move is already tough, but it’s complicated even more by the fact that Ruth is Jewish (her father was born Jewish; her mother, an Atlanta native, converted, a fact that is important to this story), and the South isn’t exactly friendly to Jews. Neither is her grandmother, who doesn’t fully accept that her daughter converted and is raising the girls Jewish. Ruth immediately falls in with the debutante group of girls from her grandmother’s club, but she knows she has to hide who she really is- admitting she’s Jewish is a recipe for immediate ostracization.

But it’s so much fun to be popular, and Davis Jefferson, the gorgeous popular guy, is falling for her. When Ruth’s mother starts requiring her to attend synagogue, she meets college student Max, who’s as dedicated to fighting for integration and social justice as the rabbi. He’s deeply intelligent, proud of who he is, and never hides anything about himself. When the politics of the day blow up in a way Ruth can no longer ignore, she has to make serious choices about who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to live her life.

I lived in the South for five years and oof, so many parts of this book rang true and made me feel claustrophobic again. Ruth’s grandmother is antisemitic- not in a Nazi-style manner, but in a dismissive way, in a way that it’s obvious she finds Jewish people kind of icky and different, and she’s constantly trying to encourage her daughter to abandon the religion and her granddaughters to hide who they are. I imagined that Ruth’s mother needed to do a LOT of tongue-biting in order to not tell her mother exactly where to get off; as they were living in the grandparents’ guest house, she needed to maintain at least some level of civility. She handled it far better than I would have.

As a reader, it’s sometimes frustrating watching Ruth make the decisions she does, but they’re understandable. After being wrenched away from her home, from everything familiar, in a place where there are plenty of other people like her and now dealing with the grief from her father’s death, she just wants to fit in and find a bit of normalcy, but in a place that demands conformity and spits out anything or anyone different, that’s not so easy to find unless you’re willing to compromise major parts of yourself. Ruth makes some difficult choices; to her credit, she never seems fully comfortable with the ones that require her to hide being Jewish. Her romance with Davis made me deeply uneasy; I may be an adult reading YA, but it wouldn’t have felt good to me as a teen, either. There are certain things I’ve never been willing to compromise, not even for the cute popular boy, but I think this was a realistic choice Ms. Carlton made as an author. The teen years are hard and full of challenging decisions. Figuring out who we are, especially when who we are goes against cultural norms, isn’t easy, and strength of character takes time to develop. Oftentimes, it only comes through adversity, as it did for Ruth, and she’s a great example for younger readers on doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, even when it comes at a cost.

I do wish there would have been a bit more of a build-up to the climax; the end felt a tiny bit rushed, but man, does Ms. Carlton do a fabulous job of setting the scene. 1958 Atlanta is steamy and full of tension; you’ll practically be able to taste the sweet tea and the Coca-Cola and feel the sweat trailing down your back and the girdle squeezing your midsection. I have zero desire to move back to the south (a former colleague who moved to North Carolina just informed my husband of a job opening at his new workplace; I LOVE that area, but nope nope nope, not for me and not for us as a family, sadly), but wow, did Susan Kaplan Carlton absolutely made me feel like I was there again.

I deeply enjoyed this. History, religion, politics, YA, it’s a perfect storm of so many of the things I love about reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Ms. Carlton comes up with!

Visit Susan Kaplan Carlton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman

One of the last tasks I had to complete for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge– until my library holds come in, that is!- was to read the first book I touch on a shelf with my eyes closed. That happened to be Confessions of a Closet Catholic by Sarah Darer Littman (Puffin Books, 2005). I ran across this book earlier this year, pre-pandemic, at a local thrift store. It’s a late middle-grade book and the title intrigued me. I checked the book out on Goodreads before purchasing, however; I wasn’t looking for a faith-based novel (not my particular cup of tea, personally, though I’ve read a few okay ones in the past), but the reviews didn’t trend in that direction, so I coughed up a quarter and took it home (I love that thrift store so much).

Justine Silver has recently moved out of New York City and to the suburbs, where her new best friend, Mary Catherine, is Catholic. Justine’s intrigued, and so while Mary Catherine gives up chocolate for Lent, Justine decides…to give up being Jewish. Her secret practice of Catholicism, which takes place quite literally in her bedroom closet, involves confessing her sins to her teddy-bear-turned-priest, reciting the Hail Mary (just without the Jesus parts) and taking communion, which is made up of grape juice and last Passover’s matzoh. Close enough. Justine, whose family isn’t all that observant, is looking for religion she can connect with, and she’s hoping this is where she finds it.

Stress is running high in the Silver household, however. Bubbe, her grandmother, has just had a stroke. Justine’s worried she’s not going to get better. Her search for religious understanding causes even more disruption during this turbulent time, but it’s Bubbe who restores the family’s peace and helps Justine toward the path of ultimate understanding.

So. I really enjoyed this novel about a tween’s search for religious understanding. Justine is EveryKid at age eleven, quirky, awkward, nervous about all the changes in her life, and unsure of her place in this world. She’s searching for answers and meaning, and her parents haven’t done the best job of educating her in their own traditions in a way that grounds her. She sets off on a clandestine examination of her best friend’s faith, which seems mysterious and beautiful to her, testing it out in the only way she knows how, and when her secret practice is discovered, her parents aren’t happy. Justine’s grandmother intervenes the best she can, but ultimately it’s Justine who takes the reins and finds where she belongs on her own.

I’m not sure if this would have appealed to me at the age it’s meant for. It might have; I did enjoy reading explorations of religion even back then, but there are times when I felt that Kid Me might have found the story a little too esoteric for my maturity levels at that age. This is the type of book that I think would work best as a parent-child read, where you read it together and discuss afterwards. There are a lot of good topics to cover here: are we obligated to stay with the faith we’re born into, even if it doesn’t feel like home? What does it mean to try on a new faith? At what point should kids be able to make their own religious decisions? How should a family handle a child’s religious exploration, both of their own faith (if applicable) and of one that interests only the child? This should lead to some really great parent/child or family discussions, if everyone feels free to speak openly and honestly, without fear of retribution or shame.

Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a sweet book about a girl searching for a religious identity. I’m pleased to see that Sarah Darer Littman has written a plethora of other books; I really felt she covered a lot of the bases of a religiously questioning tween here and am looking forward to seeing if her obviously deep understanding of kids that age extends to other topics and ages. Have you read this or her other works? I’d love to hear about it! 🙂

(I feel like this review isn’t up to my normal standards; we bought a patio swing last week, and it turns out my old lady inner ears can no longer tolerate swinging for long periods of time. I’ve felt like I’ve been swinging for two days now, even though it’s been two days since I last got on the swing. Guess there’s a time limit for me! All that to say, it’s hard to come up with words when my brain and ears are making me feel slightly dizzy even when I’m sitting, so please forgive me.)

Visit Sarah Darer Littman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel

Another book right up my alley! Funny story about A River Could Be a Tree by Angela Himsel (Fig Tree Books, 2018). So my library opened up this week to start doing curbside pickups. Cool, cool. (They also, after four years of arguing with our local park district, made the move to purchase an empty grocery store downtown and will be building an entirely new library, but that’s beside the point- but can you FEEL my excitement?!?!?!!????) They have a really great selection of ebooks, including early chapter books for kids (like The Magic Tree House series and the Junie B. Jones series) so we’re managing okay, and thus I figured I’d leave the curbside pickup services to people who don’t have the privilege of checking out ebooks. But on the very first day of curbside pickup, I received an email letting me know that this book, which I’d placed on hold via interlibrary loan in MARCH, was waiting for me (and had been this whole time, but the library had been closed). Woot! Even with their reduced hours, I was able to run over and grab it that day. This is the first paper book I’ve read since the end of March or early April!

Angela Himsel was raised in the basically-a-cult Worldwide Church of God (now Grace Communion International), a bizarre fundamentalist sect which forbade celebrating birthdays and Christian holidays (which they considered pagan) and instead celebrated appropriated versions of Jewish holidays, including observing the Sabbath on Saturdays. The church’s focus on the End Times eclipsed most everything else, and Angela grew up pondering some of the more esoteric points of the Bible, such as which of her ten siblings her parents would eat in the end of days. She believed in the religion of her childhood so fervently; this, coupled with growing up in a very small, very white town in southern Indiana, very much stunted her views on what the rest of the world looked like.

A meeting with her high school guidance counselor put her on the path to college; a single glimpse of a study abroad brochure had her making plans to study in Jerusalem. Once there, Angela fell in love with Israel, but the more she searched, the more difficult it became to find the answers to her many questions about the religion she grew up with. And in Israel, she made the surprising discovery that Jews- those Hebrews of the Bible that had so fascinated her- still existed! (Ahhh, growing up in small Midwestern towns. I so understand this.) Her faith struggles continued well after moving back to the US and setting up a life in New York City, but getting involved with a man raised as the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi set her on the path to an eventual conversion and finding a new home for her soul.

There are some content warnings for this book, including the death of a child and a few other deaths (though these occur later on in life), and a few brief mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

Reading about Ms. Himsel’s childhood and about how she didn’t know about the seedy underbelly of her church (including financial scandals, sexual abuse, and more) until long after she reached adulthood made me so, so grateful for the flood of information that is the internet. It’s so much easier these days to check into an organization, and anything we want, a luxury that Ms. Himsel and her family didn’t have during the days before the internet’s existence. I can’t help but wonder how much heartache has been saved simply because people can now look into religious groups before committing their time, their money, and their lives. Ms. Himsel’s parents remained in their whole lives, most likely due to the sunk-cost fallacy or escalation of commitment, essentially doubling down after terrible outcomes instead of admitting one’s losses were for nothing. And their losses here were sizable and painful.

I so enjoy these kinds of memoirs, learning what once drew the author to a certain religion or religious group and what eventually pulled them away, but my one beef is that generally, if/when the author does find a religious home in which he or she is comfortable, that section is usually more rushed and lacks as much depth as the beginning. That’s not just a criticism of this book; most memoirs of this genre seem to follow that same path, so this feels more like a general editing decision for all books of this type, and I wish editors would reevaluate this. I’d love to hear more about what draws the authors down their new paths (if there is one), what appeals to them about their new practices and why. Ms. Himsel’s Orthodox conversion only covered a very small amount of pages in this book, and I would have loved to read more- more about why this was the right decision for her, more about what she loved about living a Jewish life, more about what she found surprising or difficult or especially wonderful (if anything) after her conversion.

I’m counting this book as my choice for the Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt of a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack thereof) that is not your own. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with this challenge (this year has been so weird and reading is so different right now that I’m thinking about completing the PopSugar Challenge and calling it good!), but this book was on my TBR and so I’m thrilled to finally have read it!

A River Could Be a Tree is deeply fascinating. While I wish it would have gone deeper into her conversion and post-conversion life, Ms. Himsel’s story so intrigued me that I flew through this book in two days. If you enjoy religious exit memoirs (seriously, is there a better term for this genre???) the way that I do, this shouldn’t be missed.

Visit Angela Himsel’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

Onward with the reading challenges! (Or at least the one I’m most focused on, anyway.) I needed a book with a three-word title for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and, upon searching my TBR, found that my library had an ebook of Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro (Harper, 2010). This one ended up on my TBR last year after I read her other memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, so I was really looking forward to reading her again and ticking off another box on the PopSugar Reading Challenge.

(Side note: Either there aren’t a lot of books with three-word titles, or I am just not drawn to those particular books!)

Ms. Shapiro writes of middle age and the challenges that come along with it. Having almost lost her son as a baby to a seizure disorder has left her with what is most likely some measure of PTSD and her anxiety about him and the rest of life is through the roof. She’s been asking the big questions about the meaning of life and how best to cope, but hasn’t come upon any true answers, and she’s not entirely sure she even knows how to.

Along the way, she discovers yoga and meditation, and those help, as do the lessons she learns from the mentors she seeks out. She also grapples with the Orthodox Judaism with which she was raised and has since abandoned- what parts of it, if any, does she want to retain? How can she pass along to her son a tradition she’s not fully comfortable in or with? There are never any concrete answers, only a sense of becoming comfortable with the questions and discomfort that life causes, and the knowledge that the search, however meandering, is an important part of life.

I liked this. It felt like a poignant read for these times. She occasionally moves back and forth in time, wanders here and there in her memories, but it’s never difficult to follow her train of thought. I understood her anxiety, the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night (HELLO, THREE AM THIS MORNING!) and makes you unable to enjoy or fully live in this present moment. Worrying about your kids, worrying about the state of the world, that indescribable feeling of dread that pervades every moment of your life and always seems to be hanging out in the background, ready to crank up to eleven at any given moment, Ms. Shapiro does a great job of illustrating what life looks like with this.

Grappling with the religion she was born into is also something I understood, and while our paths differed in that Ms. Shapiro seems to have eventually found a balance with hers, I enjoyed reading the details of her search. At one point, she wrote about finally finding a synagogue that felt like home, and the name of the rabbi rang a bell. I googled, and sure enough, he had appeared on an episode of the Unorthodox podcast (Ms. Shapiro has also appeared on this podcast)! Small world. I love when that happens.

If you’re looking for a memoir with more concrete answers and advice, this may not be the book for you, but Devotion: A Memoir documents well that the journey is important, too; that anxiety, though a constant companion for many of us, can be managed in many different ways; that sometimes what we’re born into needs to be rearranged in order to fit the person we grow into. Two thumbs up for what ended up feeling like a calming read for me during this turbulent time.

Visit Dani Shapiro’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Mini reviews

Mini-reviews! (Yet another catch-up post.)

Hello, hello! It’s time for another post of mini-reviews, because my weeks are so full of homeschooling, cooking, and cleaning, that I can’t manage to get anything else written (with the exception of yesterday’s post excoriating It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, because that absolutely had to be done). Imma get all this out here in one post, just to see if I can catch up a little bit. I’m mostly only reading at night time right now after my daughter goes to bed, so maybe this will help get me back on track (she says optimistically). Let’s do this!

The History of Love by Nicola Krauss (Norton, 2005) tells the story of Alma Singer, a teenager who is struggling with the death of her father, her distant mother, her younger but over-the-top religious brother, and the mystery of the book her mother is translating, which is where Alma’s name came from. Leo Gursky is an elderly immigrant who, sixty years later, still can’t stop thinking about the girl he loved back in the old country, the one who inspired the greatest thing he’d ever written. There are twists and shocking conclusions, and what happened with Leo’s book is pretty appalling. This was way more literary than I normally venture, and for me, it was just okay.

Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2015) is a wonderful book about some fairly universal human truths viewed through the lens of Rabbi Kushner’s Conservative Judaism. Clocking in at only 171 pages, the book is small, but the content is huge, with a lot of discussion of how authentic faith translates into action that improves the world for everyone, and how doubt and searching can and absolutely should be a part of everyone’s faith. There’s a lot of wisdom packed into this book, as there are in all of Rabbi Kushner’s books, and eventually I’d like to read them all. This was my third of his, I believe.

You may be familiar with Anita Diamant’s other works; she’s probably best known for The Red Tent, the story of the wives of the Biblical Jacob and his daughter Dinah. (We’re also using her Living a Jewish Life in my Intro to Judaism course, which is still taking place on Zoom!) Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith (Scribner, 2003) is a collection of her articles, essays, and writings about her life, her family, her religious practice. She writes eloquently about the realities and the struggles of marriage and parenthood and the ups and downs of being an active member of a close-knit religious community. I really enjoyed the essay about her dreams of opening a liberal mikvah (Jewish ritual bath), and am pleased for her that that dream has become a reality; she’s a founding president of Mayyim Hayyim outside of Boston. This was a pleasant, calming read.

I love Dahlia Adler, so I was excited to finally find a copy of His Hideous Heart (Flatiron Books, 2019) right before the library closed, a collection of thirteen retellings of classic Edgar Allan Poe stories by modern YA authors (including Ms. Adler). The stories are dark, dark, dark, but also beautifully inclusive; there are plenty of LGBT and non-white characters to give the stories a realistic feel. Though this may not be the best time to read something so dark- I really struggled to get through this, as I was reading it during our first week of being at home. If you enjoy Poe and horror in general, though, you’ll love this.

And there we go. I’m about to finish another book, but I’ll be able to get up a post on that, and I’ll have my usual monthly roundup in a few days, so I’ll talk more there about how we’re managing in this weird, weird time. Stay safe and healthy, friends!!!

fiction

As A Driven Leaf- Milton Steinberg

I’ve been aware of this book for years. I think I even picked it up and paged through it when we lived in Nashville (the main library there is seriously awesome; if you’re ever in the area, stop in and take a walk around. The collection is pretty good- some slightly dated material, but still pretty phenomenal, and the building is gorgeous. There’s even a large outside courtyard with a huge fountain, a large stage for performances and talks, and a children’s puppet theater. It’s been almost six years since I was last there, so who knows what other updates have been made since then!), but for whatever reason, I chose not to read it at the time. But during our first week in my Introduction to Judaism class, the rabbi recommended it and I figured it was finally time to pick up As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House Publishing, 1939). I’m always a little nervous reading older books, since I still have a little bit of holdover fear from being made to read things like The Scarlet Letter in high school (I still can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne), and I’ve had some not-so-great experiences with dry, dusty historical fiction, but that wasn’t at all what I found between the covers of this book.

Elisha ben Abuyah, the son of a lapsed Jew, is raised adhering more to Greek tradition in the years of Roman rule in Palestine, but when his father passes, his uncle insists he study the Law of his people. After becoming a rabbi and becoming part of the Sanhedrin, doubts about his faith begin to appear, and though he tries hard to hold on, his questions can’t be ignored. Willing to risk everything for solid answers, Elisha begins a journey of discovery, of finding irrefutable evidence of what the truth really is, but this search will have devastating effects on him, on history, and on the lives of everyone he knows and loves.

This is an incredible book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Elisha ben Abuyah (an actual historical person, though this is a fictionalized account of his life, with much conjecture and imagining) is an engaging, thoughtful character, and the era in which he lives is vividly alive in Steinberg’s elaborate, yet not overdone, description. Elisha’s arc is tragic; his unhappy arranged marriage and his search to view faith solely through a lens of logic ends disastrously for nearly everyone, even those not immediately involved, and there are some seriously gruesome scenes in here (torture, Roman murder, and a lion-versus-gladiator fight scene that turned my stomach and had me wide-eyed while reading in public). Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of life under Roman rule, nor does he tone down the more hedonistic aspects of the society Elisha found himself in after his excommunication and abandoning Palestine for Antioch.

It’s difficult to elaborate how fascinating I found reading fiction set in this time period (I believe the only other book I’ve read set during Roman rule is The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare George, also a fantastic read). I haven’t ventured too much into the world of historical fiction; it’s not that I dislike it, but I’ve encountered some that have been dry, and so much of it seems to be centered around World War II that As A Driven Leaf seems absolutely…modern…by comparison. A breath of fresh air in that genre, if you will, despite the book being eighty-one years old. It’s an era I haven’t literarily-traveled to that often, so I really enjoyed my journey back in time to admire Elisha’s intelligence and dedication while still wincing at his bullheaded perseverance despite the consequences. (And because of the book being set during this time, I’m counting it as my pick for the BookRiot 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt to read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. Finally, I’m on the scoreboard with this one!)

This isn’t an easy book to review, as there’s so much going on and Steinberg’s messages are so profound, but it’s a deeply enjoyable read, one that can be read on multiple levels. It’s a glimpse into the past, an inspiration, a warning, an encouragement to search and an injunction to be prepared for the consequences. It’s thought-provoking in a multitude of ways, no matter if you agree or not with Elisha’s final conclusions. As a Driven Leaf is beautifully written and will leave you intrigued and wanting more from this thoughtful author, or at least for the book to never end.

Milton Steinberg passed away in 1950. You can see his other books here on Goodreads.