nonfiction

Book Review: Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman

I can’t actually remember how Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman (The Jewish Publication Society, 2015) ended up on my TBR; likely a mention by one of the many Jewish pages I follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Books and reading have always been an important part of being Jewish (we are the People of the Book!), and so learning about and understanding what happened to Jewish books during and after World War II was something that piqued my interest. Boy, did I learn a LOT from this book!

So, almost everyone knows that the Nazi burned books. Most of us have seen pictures of people throwing books onto a huge bonfire, and we use Nazi book burning as a metaphor for the dangers of censorship. But most of us probably don’t know that their book burning phase didn’t last very long; they quickly moved on to collecting books. That’s right. The Nazis stole, then collected Jewish writings even as they mowed down the Jewish people during World War II. They planned to study the writings of the culture they had wiped out. Fortunately, they lost, and afterwards, one of the many questions to be answered at war’s end became, “Now what do we do with all these millions of books?”

In order to help the reader understand the importance of this question, Rabbi Mark Glickman begins the book with a fascinating look at the history of Jewish texts and the emphasis on reading and study that has always been central to Judaism. The second section segues into the many heartbreaking ways the Nazis stole and desecrated our texts; the third, how so many people worked for years to return said texts to their rightful owners, or, barring the ability to do that, to send the texts to the places they would again be loved and cherished. This was obviously a massive amount of work; millions upon millions of books and papers had been stolen and hidden away, or stored in places that ranged from caves to castles. Moving these books involved multiple organizations working tirelessly for years.

This is an incredible book that tells a story I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea about the Nazis stealing books; even with all the reading I’ve done about history, World War II, and the Shoah, I had been under the impression that they burned books and nothing else. I had no clue about the massive troves of Jewish literature that lay hidden after the war, nor of the incredible effort of so many people to return these books to communities and organizations that would recognize them for the treasures that they are. This book presented a brand-new understanding of history to me, and I’m grateful to Rabbi Glickman for having penned such an interested, eye-opening work. I always appreciate being able to be better informed about anything, but especially Judaism and Jewish history.

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fiction

Book Review: Miracles and Menorahs by Stacey Agdern

Representation matters. By now, anyone with half a brain understands this. It’s nice to be able to see parts of who we are on screen, in the pages of a book, in whatever media we consume. I always enjoy learning of new (or new-to-me; I’m often behind in just about everything) Jewish fiction, because seeing characters casually discuss the same holidays I celebrate, or approaching a difficult situation with a mindset they learned from the Jewish influences in their lives just makes my heart sing. I was happy to learn about Miracles and Menorahs by Stacey Agdern (Tule Publishing Group, 2020), and even happier to find it on the shelves of my library.

Sarah Goldman is second in command on the board of her small town’s Hanukkah festival (yup, you read that right!), a tradition that’s been going on for many years, but some people in the town want changes. More red, more green, more trees…boy, is this sounding familiar. But Sarah’s determined to keep the festival all Hanukkah, and for that, she’s going to need something special, like a giant menorah (how they didn’t already have one of these already kind of baffled me…). But where could she possibly find one of those so late in the game?

Enter Isaac Lieberman, metal artist and grandson of one of the town’s most beloved members. He’s single, good-looking, talented…and 100% against any kind of commercialization of Hanukkah, so making a giant menorah for Sarah’s festival is definitely not on his list of priorities. Bummer. But as he and Sarah spend more time together and Isaac gets to know the town where his bubbe lives, he may just change his mind…about a lot of things.

This is a very sweet Hanukkah romance – there’s no more action than a few chaste kisses, so if you avoid anything hotter than a bell pepper, you’ll be okay picking up Miracles and Menorahs. It’s basically a Hallmark movie in book form.

The ups: Jewish representation. SO much rep. Most of the town is Jewish (which makes a few of the board members cranky to suddenly find their holiday in the minority; the whole situation is shades of @JewWhoHasItAll on Twitter, a great follow!), and Jewish foods and rituals are discussed without needing much explanation, which is pretty awesome. I love seeing that in books. The small town is, for the most part, incredible in the way that small towns only are in books (I’m from a small town. In reality, it’s snobbery, gossip, arrogance, bigotry, hypocrisy, and hatred with a cute downtown. It breaks my heart, really), and the bookstore where Sarah works is charming.

The downs: I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. I found the writing a bit stilted, there wasn’t nearly enough action to keep me interested, and I felt like the book could have benefitted from a stronger editor (overuse of certain words, stronger action, heavier on the drama). What drama did exist in the book felt…boring, some of it (Isaac’s mother, especially) felt overdone and a little unrealistic, and to be honest, I had a hard time finishing the book. I will say that I prefer my fiction to be written in first-person; this is written in third, and I have a harder time connecting to that, so some of my issues connecting with this book are definitely mine, because plenty of other people have enjoyed it.

Miracles and Menorahs is part of a series. I’m disappointed that I don’t feel enough of a connection to the book or the characters to continue on with the other books, but if this sounds like something you’re interested in picking up, you’re in luck that there are several books beyond this one.

Visit Stacey Agdern’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Outside World by Tova Mirvis

A while back, I learned about Tova Mirvis and became interested in reading her books. I started with her memoir, The Book of Separation, and I loved it, so I was curious as to what her fiction looked like. I was able to get a copy of The Outside World (Vintage, 2004), and I was hooked on the first page. I am 100000000000% in now for reading everything she’s ever written, and I don’t say this about many authors. (And y’all know I don’t read heaps of fiction, so this is HUGE.)

Tzippy Goldman has been dreaming of her wedding day since she was a child. Marriage is a huge deal in her Orthodox Jewish community, and the discussion of and planning for her eventual wedding was a bonding point between Tzippy and her mother, a woman who only became Orthodox as an adult and who is always grappling to fit in and achieve a higher social status. But now that she’s in her early 20’s and still single, Tzippy’s thisclose to becoming an old maid, and her mother’s panic is grating on her. Off to Israel for a year of study and to hopefully get some space, she finally meets – or re-meets a childhood friend, Bryan, who now goes by Baruch, and the two quickly become inseparable.

Baruch’s parents are stressed to the hilt over their son’s metamorphosis from a sports-loving, Columbia-bound teenager into this black hat-wearing, strictly observant young man. It’s causing some definite friction at home, and both parents fear for his future and begin to question their own commitment to their family traditions. As Baruch and Tzippy begin to build their life together, all back home is definitely not well, and the pressures of the community will wear on everyone.

My goodness, this was an utterly fascinating look into the stress of an insular Orthodox Jewish community. Different levels of observance, the pressure to marry, the insane pressure to follow community norms, the gossip, the subtle – and not-so-subtle – demands to go with the flow or be ostracized, the gossip, all of it makes for interesting and complex characters who are struggling to find themselves and where they fit in within the confines of a restrictive society. The Outside World is narrated by multiple characters (my favorite!); Ms. Mirvis does an absolutely incredible job at showing varying commitments to observance, what changing observance looks like, and the confusion, the thought processes, and the stress it takes to navigate such changing waters.

I truly enjoyed all of this. I loved the look into the community, the questioning, Baruch’s increased observance versus his father’s dwindling desire to remain observant, versus his mother’s foray into the more mystical aspects of Judaism. I loved Shayna’s desperate attempts to do anything and everything she could to gain status in the community and Tzippy’s increasing frustration with her.

The Outside World definitely assumes a level of familiarity with Orthodox Judaism, so if you’re going to pick this up (and you should!) and there’s something you don’t understand, ask your Jewish friends (*waves*) or go check out My Jewish Learning and do a search there. They’re an excellent resource for all things Jewish.

Loved, loved, loved this book, and now I’m super excited about reading the rest of Tova Mirvis’s fiction!

Visit Tova Mirvis’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower

It was a combing through of my library’s catalog (the old person impulse to still refer to it as a ‘card catalog’! I have a scar on my hand from dropping and thus trying to catch the H drawer of my library’s card catalog when I was 12. I think of it as a super cool natural bookworm tattoo…) to look for Jewish books that I learned about the existence of The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed by Wendy Lower (Mariner Books, 2021). I knew I had to read it – I feel a big responsibility to read everything I can handle about the Holocaust, but I had to wait until I had the mental space for it. And in trying to read all the ebooks that have been sitting on my list for a bit, this book came up…and it was finally in.

The Ravine covers a photograph that captures murder in progress. The photograph, shown in detail several times throughout the book, shows a woman in the process of being shot and falling into a deep ravine, a small child at her side and an even smaller child tucked in to her lap. Several men stand behind her, one who is doing the shooting. A cloud of gunsmoke hangs in the air.

Wendy Lower, scholar and researcher, worked diligently over a long period of time to identify not only the people in the photo, but also the photographer who took it. The Ravine documents this arduous process, which takes her across countries, deep into archives and down village streets around the world. Phone calls, documents, interviews, research into cameras; Ms. Lower used all the skills she had, along with the skills of other people, to help flesh out the story of this horrifying moment captured for posterity.

Not an easy book to read. The book gets into some truly gutting details about the horrors of the Holocaust, and there were a few times I struggled to continue reading. It’s also a research-heavy book, written in a fairly academic style, so this isn’t something the casual reader is likely to pick up for a relaxing weekend read.

It does tell a story of how intense historical research can be, and the lengths and depths researchers need to go to in order to ensure that their work is correct. The Holocaust isn’t over; its effects are still felt in the remaining survivors and in the family members who were affected by what their loved ones suffered. This is evident in some of the interviews Ms. Lower conducts; the subjects break down and struggle to answer her questions. This is still a raw subject for them, and this book does a good job showing how the pain hasn’t ended.

The Ravine is a heavy, heavy book, but a worthy read.

fiction · YA

Book Review: As If On Cue by Marisa Kanter

I was so in love with Marisa Kanter’s What I Like About You that I immediately put her other book, As If On Cue (Simon & Schuster Books for Young People, 2021) on my TBR. She has such a fresh, engaging style and writes such great banter between teens who are complex characters. While As If on Cue didn’t speak to me quite as much as her first novel (likely because the first told the story of a book blogger! Can you blame me?), I still really enjoyed the story and Ms. Kanter’s engaging style.

Disaster has struck Natalie’s high school. Budget woes are everywhere, and the arts program has been cancelled, leaving the theater, choir, and art kids outraged and depressed. Not the band kids, though: the band is a money-maker for the school, and a community favorite; their funding, and thus Natalie’s father’s job as director, is safe.

Natalie is not okay with this, and she sets off trying to right this wrong, desperate to show her principal and the community that the arts are worth funding. Staging a performance of the play she and her best friend have written, a retelling of Frozen called Melted (focused on – what else? – climate change) will prove how serious the arts students are about their crafts. Seemingly standing in Natalie’s way at every turn is Reid, Natalie’s lifelong frenemy, family friend, and the clarinet protégé of her father, the reason why she and her father have never been as close as she wants. Holy frustration all around, Batman.

As Melted becomes more of a reality and turns into a musical instead of just a play, Natalie finds herself thrown together with Reid more and more…and she’s not hating it as much as she figured she would. But after so many years of hating Reid’s guts, can she really trust that he’s not just here to sabotage everything? When push comes to shove, Natalie lets her worst instincts take over…only to find that she may have inadvertently ruined not just Melted and any chance the arts program had of ever being funded, but Reid’s future as well.

Phew, this was a tense one! As If on Cue starts out with a problem that will, unfortunately, be familiar to far too many teens: the slashing of school budgets, particularly of the arts (always the first to be cut, of course). But instead of wallowing and complaining, Natalie takes action…though not always in the most appropriate or mature ways. Her determination to reinstate the arts program is both a blessing and a curse, as her single-minded focus tends to get in the way, a lot, but it provides for some amazing plot points. Natalie’s a great character; she’s fierce, determined, and creative, but she’s also lacking a little maturity, something she realizes later on. I really appreciated her complexity.

Reid is also a fabulous character. His musical prowess could make him snobby and unlikeable, but although Natalie sees him as such through much of the story, he’s never actually that guy. His determination is quieter; it’s only Natalie’s perspective of him that’s off, and this makes for amazing conflict.

The friends, the friends! Marisa Kanter is great at writing fleshed-out side characters who are so chill and so human. Can she write me a friend group, do you think? Is that a thing? (Please say yes.)

I really enjoyed As If on Cue. While I never had experience with a community who felt its school arts programs were expendable, I know far too many places that have had that exact experience, so this is a story that should speak to teens who understand the fragility of community support for their creativity. And Ms. Kanter’s delightful, fresh style makes the story come to life. I *really* want to attend a stage performance of Melted now…

Visit Marisa Kanter’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy

Jewish books! My absolutely favorite, and since I don’t always check NetGalley with regularity (because I’m pretty realistic about what I have time for, unless it’s a used book sale and then all reality flies out the window), I often miss out on what they have to offer. Not this time! I came across The Book of Elsie by Joanne Levy (Orca Book Publishers, 2022) while browsing NetGalley’s stacks one day and leapt to request it. Lo and behold, I was approved! Huge thanks to NetGalley. Orca Book Publishers, and Joanne Levy for allowing me to read and review this book.

Elsie is super excited about Purim this year. Her Queen Esther costume, created by her costume designer dad and which she’s still trying to accessorize with the perfect finishing touches, is going to be amazing, and she can’t wait to wear it at her synagogue’s Purim celebration. But then the bad news drops: the Purim celebration is cancelled. The synagogue is in serious financial trouble and is in danger of closing altogether. Elsie is devastated…and then she gets to work. If Queen Esther saved the Jews, Elsie can surely save her synagogue!

With her rabbi’s approval, Elsie’s synagogue opens up the Purim celebration to outsiders and begins to sell tickets to the events. It’s not just hamantaschen and hard work; Elsie and her best friend Grace experience a little bit of prejudice along the way. Things only get dicier when the synagogue is vandalized. Can Elsie continue to find inspiration in the story of Esther, or will Purim and the synagogue be cancelled entirely?

This is a charming, modern-day story centered around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates how Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from imminent death at the hands of the evil villain Haman. It’s traditional to dress up in costumes (biblical or not; there was a banana at my synagogue this year), get drunk (yes, really!), and make lots of noise (including a very loud, “BOOOOOOOOOOOO!” when Haman’s name is mentioned). Elsie’s Christian best friend Grace serves as an outsider who’s unfamiliar with Purim and needs the basics explained to her, opening up this story to be enjoyed and understood by middle grade readers of all backgrounds.

Elsie is a spunky, determined kid who doesn’t always make the right choices (and what kid does?), but she learns from her mistakes and has excellent follow-through. Not only is this book full of fabulous Jewish representation, her best friend is Black, and her two dads, Dad and Abba, make for great LGBT representation, especially as it’s never commented on as being a Thing, just presented as Elsie’s everyday life, which I loved.

There are a few instances of antisemitism and racism here. Nothing violent and in-your-face scary, but sensitive kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of what it means to live with these threats may benefit a few conversations about them with a loving adult. Elsie’s courage in the face of hatred and the violation of her community’s sacred space provides a great lesson in bravery and the refusal to back down when it comes to creating the kind of future you want and need.

The Book of Elsie is a quick, charming read that should delight younger readers as well as educate those who may not be familiar with Purim. This would make for a great parent-child read; not only is it a lovely book headed by a determined main character, there are a lot of great discussion points throughout the book, and I can imagine many wonderful conversations a parent and child may have as they make their way through the story. I’m going to read this with my eight-year-old soon. I expect that she’ll love it. : )

Visit Joanne Levy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

food · food history · memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty

It’s not hugely often that I’m in time to spot Jewish books on NetGalley (I’m deeply realistic about what I have time for, so I tend to not browse the NetGalley shelves too often!), but I was thrilled when I happened to be clicking through and stumbled upon Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty (Amistad Press, 2022). I was so excited when I received notice that my request had been approved. Into the world of Black Jewish cooking I dove!

Michael Twitty is a chef and a writer, living at the intersection of Black and Jewish in a country (and a world) that doesn’t have an excess amount of kindness for either group. That said, despite people’s confusion, despite people not understanding and deliberately not bothering to learn, being Black and Jewish co-exists beautifully together and is expressed lovingly in many ways, chiefly in the food that Mr. Twitty cooks. From the traditional dishes of various African countries, to the meals cooked up in the slave cabins of his ancestors, to the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions that are now his traditions, Michael Twitty finds deep meaning in the art and flavors of cooking and how his many beautiful identities color his culinary creations.

Part-memoir, part academic history, part exploration of the culture of food and how our identity contributes to what we cook (and how Black identity in particular brings not just baggage, but joy and beauty), Koshersoul defies genre – maybe making the point that those of us with multiple intersecting identities defy traditional classification as well.

Michael Twitty is a talented, eloquent writer. His writing is scholarly enough to challenge my exhausted, pandemic-addled brain, but friendly and comfortable enough that reading this is joyful. He writes of his life, his ancestors, with a deep reverence, and the same reverence is afforded to the food he creates and serves. To him, cooking is an art and deserves the same respect afforded to works of art, and his veneration of tradition has made me consider cooking in a different way: less of a chore, more of an act of worship, a respect for those who came before us, a celebration of who we are and our survival over the centuries. They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat.

Koshersoul wanders from subject to subject; it doesn’t follow any linear structure, but that’s part of what keeps it so interesting. His interviews with other Black Jews and chefs (many of whom I already follow on Twitter, so it was great seeing their words in long form!) intrigued me, but I also deeply appreciated reading Mr. Twitty’s experiences, difficult as some of them must have been to recount (racism is, unfortunately, alive and well in the Jewish community). The book is also heavy on Judaism and his life within it, so that absolutely called to me and made my own soul happy.

Koshersoul is available from all major retailers on August 9th (and it contains recipes!).

Visit Michael W. Twitty’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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.