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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.

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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.

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Book Review: Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips

A few weeks ago, when my article on Alma came out, I was contacted via Instagram by Stacey Smith, who made me aware of a new book on conversion to Judaism. Of course this delighted and intrigued me, and I said I’d be more than happy to read and review it. A message from Bradley Caro Cook soon appeared in my blog email, and within a few days, I was happily swinging on my back yard porch swing, reading Choosing Judaism: 36 Stories by Bradley Caro Cook and Diana Phillips (Kindle Edition, 2020). In Judaism, a convert is viewed as no different from a born Jew, but we do have certain things in common and experiences that are unique to our group, so it’s always comforting to read stories of people who have been through this process, who have experienced some of the same things I have, and who have come out Jewish on the other side. Reading the stories in this book was like receiving a warm hug from a good friend.

Choosing Judaism is a collection of stories by 36 different authors (some of whom I was happy to see live not that far from me!). Most are prose, written in essay form, but there are a few poems in there to mix things up. Each explains their discomfort with the religion they were born into (hellooooooooooooo, feeling like you’re the only one in the pews just. not. getting. it!), their questioning (and how that questioning wasn’t often acceptable to whatever branch of Christianity they previously belonged), what initially drew them to Judaism, and the process of conversion, which- as was true for me- often stretches on many years. Some authors are newly converted; others have been living Jewish lives for many years, including raising Jewish children who are now Jewish adults themselves.

These are truly beautiful, intriguing stories that will be intimately familiar to you if you’ve ever felt drawn to Judaism or have considered or are in any stage of conversion. You’ll recognize yourself in the questioning, in the arguments with family, in the wonder of realizing that there’s a you-shaped space in this beautiful and ancient tradition. Conversion isn’t a decision anyone makes lightly, and this book illustrates that over and over again. From those who were introduced to Judaism by a romantic partner but found it met their needs regardless, to those who came in on their own, from secular Jews to Orthodox, from Jews by Choice who make their homes in the deep South to those who have made aliyah and now live in Israel, straight people and gay people, this is an inclusive book of stories that will touch the heart of anyone who has been touched by conversion to Judaism.

There’s no shying away from the reality of conversion in these stories, either. The authors are honest about the difficulties, from struggles with family, to not being moved by the mikvah (the Jewish ritual immersion bath; immersing in the mikvah is a part of halachic conversion. I’d heard so many people talk about how they didn’t find it moving that I was actually surprised that I got choked up when I was saying the blessings during my immersion!), to the vast amounts of work that go into a conversion (so much reading! Yay!), to the changes Judaism affected on their during-and-post-conversion lives, I found myself nodding along and being able to relate to so much as I rocked back and forth on my swing and read.

This is a lovely, VERY current collection of stories about what conversion to Judaism looks like- the process (both before and after contacting a rabbi, because so often, those of us who are interested are intimidated and too shy to approach our local synagogues and put it off for years *blushes*), the struggles, the beauty, the joy, and the often long and winding road that leads to the place where we converts truly belong. I’m still not able to connect much with my synagogue community, since we’re still maintaining a high level of pandemic precaution due to our young child (come on, vaccines for kids!), so reading this felt like a respite from all of that, a moment of connection with community, with people who truly understand. If you’re in the process of conversion, wondering what it looks like, a little Jew-curious yourself, or you’re trying to understand a convert in your life, this is a fabulous collection of writing that will help you to connect, to understand, and to feel seen and heard.

Huge thanks to Brad and Stacey for offering me a copy of this book. Reading it was an absolute delight!

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Deborah E. Lipstadt’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age by Ayala Fader

I…can’t actually remember where I learned about Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age by Ayala Fader (Princeton University Press, 2020). Which is weird, because the book is pretty new, but it was also released in 2020, and that year just kind of ate my brain as a whole. It’s gotten a *little* better since the thick of the pandemic, but my brain is definitely not the same as it was before (and, uh, thanks to a daughter who woke me up 4-6 times per night for eighteen months straight, it had plenty of issues pre-pandemic as well *twitch*). Anyway, as soon as I learned about this brand-new book that examined Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews who are questioning their faith and/or way of life, with the new influence of the internet aiding their search for answers and human connection, onto my TBR it went.

Ayala Fader is a professor of anthropology, and in her latest work, she spends time- a lot of it- in many of New York’s Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, following those whom she calls double-lifers: people who have come to doubt the truth of what they’ve been taught, but who, for a variety of reasons, are still living in said communities. She follows their struggles, their flirtations with the outside world, the ways they violate the commandments and social mores they’ve been taught to keep, how the internet aids their search and connects them to other double-lifers, and what their community is doing to try, not only to curtail internet usage among their followers, but to bring back those who doubt into the fold.

There are numerous reasons why doubters remain in the community- social, financial, emotional, logistical. Leaving may mean cutting all contact off with not only your family, friends, and spouse, but your children as well. Some doubters have yet to fully master English (though surreptitious internet usage is helping to change this). Some have few skills useful outside the community. Women, in particular, struggle to connect with other doubters, since oftentimes their internet access is solely at the behest of their husbands, and their extra responsibilities at home keep them from connecting frequently with other female doubters. Throughout all of this is a discussion of language, of how doubters use it, which language they use, how their gender affects which language they use and how they use it, and what the internet has done for language usage among the Ultra-Orthodox.

Whew. This is a hard-hitting ethnography, written in a more academic style but that’s still accessible to the interested lay reader. It’s likely not meant as an introduction to the Ultra-Orthodox; while Ms. Fader defines all Yiddish and Hebrew terms and explains their usage, there’s definitely a certain level of assumed knowledge about these communities going into the book. There are plenty of great memoirs out there by former members of Ultra-Orthodox communities; I highly suggest picking a few of those up to understand the communities on a more personal level before jumping into this more heavily academic work.

That’s not to say that this isn’t excellent and informative. Ms. Fader gets to know her subjects and a few of their children, showing how deeply complicated it is for parents to live a double life in a community that their children are going to spend their lives. How do they encourage their children to think for themselves, how do they prepare them to create a life with more choices, when almost every last bit of their lives is dictated by the rules, mores, and standards of the communities in which they live? The final section expands on this, though not enough; I wished she had written more, though honestly, there’s likely enough there to fill an entirely new book.

I really enjoyed this, as it’s right up my alley. If you’re deeply interested in the subject matter and don’t mind a more academic style (as opposed to the more personal styles of a memoir or a lighter ethnographical examination), it’s likely something you’ll enjoy as well.

Visit Ayala Fader’s page at Fordham University (and sigh in disappointment with me that I cannot take every single one of her classes).

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch

Another memoir! I’ve been reading off of my TBR as usual and have been ordering a bunch of these memoirs from interlibrary loan. I’m wondering if I had found a list of Jewish-themed memoirs and that accounts for this streak in my TBR. Probably! Anyway, that’s likely how Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch (Shocken, 2015) wound up in my reading pile. The publishing world has seen quite a few memoirs written by people who have left the Haredi world, but honestly, I’m not tired of these at all. There’s something that fascinates me deeply about the hows and whys of people who radically change the way they live- whether it’s going from living a strict religious life to a more relaxed one (or the other way around!), leaving a terrible relationship, going from rags to riches (or the opposite way around!), moving to a new country, all of these scenarios intrigue me. I’m so grateful to all the memoir authors who dig deep and allow us to take a peek into their lives and hearts and minds.

Chaya Deitsch was raised in a not-terribly-strict Lubavitch family. Lubavitchers are best known these days for Chabad houses and Mitzvah Tanks. If your city has a yearly giant menorah for Hanukkah, odds are that Chabad is responsible for it (Nashville used to have one down on Broadway by the river; it always used to make me smile when I’d drive by it every November/December). Over Chaya’s life, the movement went from being more kabbalistic and hyperspiritual to one more focused on outreach and bringing secular Jews back into regular observance. Chaya’s family lived in New Haven, Connecticut, outside of the Lubavitch center of Crown Heights, New York City, and thus, with the eyes of the community not on them full-time, the parents are more relaxed and Chaya and her sisters are allowed more freedom than most other Lubavitch girls.

From an early age, Chaya knew that life as an adult Lubavitcher wasn’t for her. The early marriage, soon followed by an ever-increasing pack of children, wasn’t what she wanted for herself. The restrictions on female worship- being separated from the men by a sheet or a mechitza (or being tucked away altogether upstairs in the balcony), not being allowed to sing, not being allowed to fully study or engage in religious debates- grated. The focus on modesty and gender-based dress standards irritated her. None of this was what she wanted for her life, though in her late teens, she made a last-ditch effort to please her parents by attending a strict British seminary (a post-high school year or two of religious study for Orthodox students).

There’s no set moment where Chaya decides to walk away; there’s no big moment where she dashes away in the night or blows up her life by making a single decision that will take her away from the fold altogether. Rather, she slowly moves away from her strict Orthodox standards, small step by small step, into a life that feels more authentic to her.

If you’re looking for major drama, you won’t find it here, but you will find a story of a woman who understands both she and her parents tried their best, and that there’s no set way to live that works for everyone. Unlike most other stories of people who have walked away from Haredi or Hasidic families and who are summarily shunned, Chaya still manages to maintain a good relationship with her family. They may not fully understand her, and she may not fully admit to them all the parts of her new life that don’t jive with how they live, but they’ve kept each other, a testament to the strength of their bond and the unconditional love of her parents. This is a really big deal and I have to say I was extremely impressed with how understanding her parents are. I hope I can always accept the choices my kids make with such grace.

This is a really lovely memoir of a woman who recognizes early on that what she’s raised with isn’t right for her- not because she wants to act out or defy anything in a religious sense, merely because it’s just not a good fit, and I find that incredibly admirable.

Follow Chaya Deitsch on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: TREYF: My Life as an Orthodox Outlaw by Elissa Altman

Sometimes it’s hard to write a review of a memoir. The best memoirists are able to craft a narrative of their lives that centers around a theme, that has a direct story arc that continues throughout the story and wraps up in, if not a full conclusion, then an understanding that makes the whole story make sense, that shows the growth and maturity the author has experienced. This is what I hope for from every memoir I delve into (and I read a lot of them; it’s a genre I enjoy, because I appreciate the glimpse into someone else’s life), but I had a harder time with this in TREYF: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw by Elissa Altman (Berkley Books, 2016).

The definition of ‘treyf’ is something that is unkosher and forbidden. Ms. Altman writes a lot about what made her family treyf, and what made her treyf: her family’s departure from the religious and ritualistic aspects of Judaism; their consumption of unkosher foods; her preparation of pork products in her deceased grandmother’s kosher kitchen; the dawning realization that she’s not entirely straight (a much bigger issue in the 80’s and 90’s than today).

Despite its occasionally focus on unkosher foods, this is really a memoir of a dysfunctional family. Mom and Dad’s marriage was strained and unhealthy. Mom pushed her daughter towards seriously unhealthy eating habits. Grandma had some seriously repressed sexuality. The creepy neighbor moved away quickly after it became known that he had a thing for little girls; Ms. Altman alludes several times that she was one of those little girls, as well as being molested by a teenage neighbor (neither is written about in graphic detail, but heads up if this is a difficult topic for you). The family is close but struggles in a lot of ways, for a lot of reasons, and their struggles are common to both families from that era, and to families who have survived trauma or who have recently immigrated in the past few generations.

The memoir ends on a depressing note; Ms. Altman remarks that she is exactly the person her family made her to be, and that if you belong everywhere, you actually belong nowhere, a thought that gave me pause. Who do we become when assimilation is the end goal? Should assimilation be a goal at all? Why? Are we stronger instead as separate pieces of a mosaic?

I enjoyed this book as a story of a family with its own deep-seated difficulties, but that wasn’t what I had expected going in. The use of the phrases ‘treyf’ and ‘unorthodox outlaw’ had me expecting a memoir akin to Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, but instead, this was more along the lines of a random family that just happened to be Jewish and who rarely interacted with the religious aspects of it (which is fine! I’m not at all judging that, to be clear. I had just expected a memoir about a woman who had moved away from the religion she had been raised with, and instead found a story where her father fed her canned Spam as a girl).

So I didn’t dislike this, but I didn’t love it, either. Her descriptions of her grandmother’s goulash sounded incredible, however (even though I don’t eat meat!). Food is always better when it’s cooked with love, and it sounded like Ms. Altman’s grandmother packed that dish full of it. 😊

Visit Elissa Altman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin

A few years ago, I read and deeply enjoyed My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin. She wrote about her year of observing every single Jewish holiday (having not previously observed most of them), and what she learned from this, about Judaism, herself, and her place in Judaism. It’s a really neat book, a great primer on the Jewish holidays, and I appreciated her takes on the holidays I was fuzzy on. So when I learned she had written a book interviewing Jewish celebrities about being Jewish, I knew I wanted to read more of her writing. I put Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish (Broadway Books, 2005) on my TBR and was fully prepared to request it from interlibrary loan, but wouldn’t you know, I ran into a copy of it at the used bookstore earlier this month (first time I stopped there in over a year!), and it just so happened to follow me home.

Each chapter in Stars of David focuses on a different well-known Jewish personality, and Ms. Pogrebin questions them on what being Jewish means to them. Are they observant? (Most aren’t.) Why or why not? What have their experiences been with antisemitism? What does being Jewish mean if you’re not observant? How has it shaped you and your life, your personality, your family? What are you hopes for your children, your grandchildren, in terms of Judaism? What do you think the Jewish future looks like?

While this book is by now a bit dated in terms of the people she interviewed (a depressing number of the people she interviewed have since passed on; many are no longer as active in public life as they were when these interviews took place), it’s still an interesting take on the many, many ways one can be Jewish. There are a handful of people who are in some way observant and who are a bit grumpy with those who aren’t, or who at least don’t even know what it is they’ve rejected; others roll their eyes at the idea of engaging with the more religious aspects of Judaism (which is a lot different from Christianity; the phrase Judeo-Christian gets thrown around a lot, but I haven’t met a single Jewish person who appreciates its use, because the two are just so far apart in terms of belief, action, thoughts about what God is, and so much more). There are political figures, actors and directors and television personalities, people from the financial industry, athletes, musicians, Broadway stars, and more.

If you’re my age (40!) or older, these are the celebrities you grew up with and heard about constantly on television, and it’s a nice look back at…well, most of those voices. (I can’t say I loved the interview with Dr. Laura Schlessinger- remember her? I’m sorry if you do- who makes sure to weaponize her Judaism just as she does everything else, and then of course whines when people point out how repulsive that is. *yawn*) It’s a lovely look into a part of their lives that you may not have spent much time considering, about a part of themselves they find meaningful in a variety of different ways, and how they express that part.

Visit Abigail Pogrebin’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings by Joel M. Hoffman

Language is complicated. Translation is often far more of an art than a science, and it’s easy to get things wrong- wayyyyyyyyyy wrong- and even more so with documents that are ancient and don’t conform to today’s standards of grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Nowhere is this more evident than in matters of Biblical translation, and when I learned about the existence of The Bible Doesn’t Say That: 40 Biblical Mistranslations, Misconceptions, and Other Misunderstandings by Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (Thomas Dunne Books, 2016), my curiosity was piqued. What else could I learn about the foibles of improper translation and the misconceptions that have become canon?

In the tradition of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, though written in a much less academic style, Dr. Hoffman shines light on forty separate biblical ideas that aren’t quite what the general public (and often the very religious) think they are. Sometimes the translations are wrong. Sometimes there’s no direct translation, so something gets a little lost and the meaning is vague or unclear. Occasionally, ideas have been twisted (sometimes to fit an agenda, sometimes due to being passed down the line like a game of Telephone- remember that one?). The most famous Psalm paints a picture of God as a shepherd, but it’s not quite the gentle minder that we think of today. Mistranslations of the Ten Commandments hang in public spaces across the US. Most Jews know that the complete laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) don’t come from the Bible, but a lot of Christians are apparently unaware of that. Forty separate chapters illustrate how difficult and contentious parsing out the true textual meaning can be, and how easy it is to get things wrong.

Never stooping to talk down to his audience, Dr. Hoffman explains the hows and whys of Biblical translation and the shortcomings of language in a way that will have readers questioning what else they’ve misunderstood or been misinformed about. While some of his examples may seem just this side of nitpicking in terms of translation, most chapters show more serious transgressions. Both Hebrew and Greek contain concepts that English doesn’t necessarily have easy translations for, and time and time again, the best attempts of multiple translators have led to serious misunderstandings. This is nothing if not a fascinating study in how mistranslations can shape civilizations and cause others to shape their own lives in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise.

If you’re interested in the subject of Biblical translation, The Bible Doesn’t Say That is likely right up your alley. On a personal level, there wasn’t a *ton* I hadn’t come across in my previous reading, but his style is open and friendly and presents the information in a way that challenges the reader to think, which is something I appreciate in an author. He’s never confrontational in tone, merely informative- hey, when we’ve been wrong, we’ve been wrong, and it’s important to admit that!- and that makes this a really enjoyable read.

Visit Dr. Joel M. Hoffman’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.