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 Review: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis

Sometimes books we really want to read end up on our TBR and…that’s where they stay. Through no fault of their own, they linger, unread and unloved, until finally, we get the kick in the pants we need to tackle them. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read all those ebooks on my list. Well… The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) had been on my list long enough that it was no longer available in ebook format through my library. Thank goodness for interlibrary loan so I could still knock this one out!

Tova Mirvis was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home in Memphis, Tennessee. She attended Jewish schools, sat in the women’s section of the synagogue, wore the clothing deemed acceptable for a Modern Orthodox girl, and almost everyone she knew was also Orthodox. And under all these restrictions, Tova chafed. She questioned. She doubted. Marrying an Orthodox man doesn’t help; Tova feels even more constricted than ever.

But in her community, questioning isn’t really accepted. Follow the line and you’re in, loved and cherished; step outside, even a single toe, and people start talking. The weight of it all becomes too much for Tova, although now, she has three children to consider. How will her leaving affect them? How will she raise them with her still-Orthodox ex-husband, and how will they grapple with the fact that Mom doesn’t share their practices anymore? This is a memoir of deep feeling, of the necessity of living authentically and finding a way to navigate the difficulties that develop along the way.

The Book of Separation is beautifully written, though the subject matter is quite heavy. Tova tried for years to find a place for herself in a world, in a society that didn’t have space for women like her, that couldn’t tolerate deviation from the party line. Orthodoxy can be a beautiful way of life for many people; for others, it’s more akin to a straitjacket- both of these things can be true at the same time, and I feel deeply for those like Tova Mirvis who struggle to fit in to a community they instinctively know isn’t right for them. I’m Jewish, but not Orthodox, and memoirs like Tova’s always help me both learn and appreciate the beauty and wonder in my own stream. Orthodoxy’s strict gender roles definitely aren’t for me (and, to be honest, I’ve never been interested in traditions that aren’t accepting of the LGBT+ community), but I very much appreciate the look at what an Orthodox life is.

I also really loved the descriptions of how Ms. Mirvis navigated the choppy waters of parenting children who have various levels of commitment to the Orthodoxy they’re being raised in. One wants to remain observant; another can’t stand the restrictions, and she skillfully manages to accommodate them both, a level of parenting I aspire to (…can we get a parenting manual, or…?). Her gentle questions and reassurances to her children are lovely to read.

This is a lovely, heartbreaking memoir that I’m glad I finally got to. I sincerely hope Ms. Mirvis continues to discover her place in this world, and I look forward to reading more from her (which I will, since I have several more of her books on my TBR!).

Visit Tova Mirvis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic memoir · nonfiction

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

I should never be trusted in the library alone.

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

Friends, I brought home another book.

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Ken Krimstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting by Danya Ruttenberg

Parenting is serious business. Serious hard business. I had a pretty easy time with my son, but my daughter was something else (I often say that if she had arrived first, there would have been no others!). She has upended everything I thought I knew about parenting and sent me scrambling for alternative solutions, behavioral tools, and means to save my sanity. Ever since finishing Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg, I had her Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting (Flatiron Books, 2016) on my TBR. What a title, right??? It wasn’t available at my library, and with the pandemic slowing down interlibrary loans (and making libraries leery of loaning things out for so long, until we realized that surface transmission wasn’t as likely as we had first suspected), I had shied away from using that service for so long (mostly because I didn’t want to clog things up for other people who truly *needed* books. I just wanted them!). But this was one I wanted to get to, and it arrived last week and I dove into it.

Kids. You love them; you want to scream without stopping because of them. Actively parenting is difficult work, both physically and emotionally, and this isn’t something that’s recognized as often as it should be. Not only that, but we lose so much of our identity when we become caretakers- especially full-time caretakers- to small children. And the world’s faith traditions, most often begun by people (*coughs* men) who weren’t providing the daily care- the butt wiping, nose wiping, food preparing, laundry washing, toy retrieving, bathing, nursing, bedtime-type of full-time care- have left those caregivers out of the mix. How do you participate in several-times-daily prayer rituals when your child is demanding food or attention now? How do you focus on the message of spirituality and connection with the Divine at religious services when your children are bickering in the seats next to you and the baby just blew out its diaper…again?

But what if we could find our spirituality in all of that? What if it were possible- not all the time, not even most of the time- to find God and to make that connection, in the love it takes to care for our children? Danya Ruttenberg has penned a book that will speak to the heart of every parent of young children who are deep in the mire of the messiness of daily childcare but who are feeling as though they’re losing their grip on their sense of self and who are looking for something bigger than just another bowl of strained peas upturned on the floor and onto the dog. While the book is written through a Jewish lens, its message transcends any single religion and will resonate with parents who are struggling to remember who they were before these tiny tyrants upended their lives. You’ll read her stories and the stories she shares from her friends and think, “It’s not just me who feels this way??? Thank goodness!” Parenting is exhausting, but if we can occasionally connect to something more sacred inside of it, those times will carry us through the rest…even when our child throws our cell phone into the toilet when we’re showering strained peas off the dog. Again.

This is truly the book I wished I had when my daughter was born. She was ten children crammed into one, and every child was misbehaving in a different direction. I spent a lot of time crying and yelling and not knowing what to do (a lot of that likely because I didn’t get more than three straight hours of sleep for a year and a half; that does a horrible number on your brain, lemme tell you). This is a really beautiful book that talks about finding God in the sticky hugs and kisses, the sleepy snuggles, even in changing a dirty diaper as an act of love. And Rabbi Ruttenberg knows we’re not going to make that connection every single time- it’s not possible. But to everything there is a season, and sometimes we’re in that season where tying tiny shoelaces and zipping tiny coats can be an act of connection with wonder and awe, with something so much bigger than we are, to say thank you to whatever forces in the universe sent this exact child to us. Interrupted prayer time will return, if that’s something we need; sometimes reading I Wish That I Had Duck Feet six times in a row to a squiggly child with a runny nose can count as prayer, too.

Truly a lovely book. I wish I’d read it before, when my daughter was making messes faster than I could clean them up, but it definitely helped my perspective now, too.

Visit Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Mark Oppenheimer’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

graphic memoir

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Amy Kurzweil’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Dara Horn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit the website of the Yiddish Book Center here.

memoir · nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Ariel Sabar’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.