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: The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m fascinated by cults. Not just the cults themselves, though; I’m also fascinated by the mindset that it takes to join and stay in a cult: the beliefs and ties to reality that followers must suspend, the excuses they need to make, and the misbehavior that must be dismissed in order to continue to defend and remain within the group. What makes all that happen? What kind of perfect storm has to take place in order for a single person to convince themselves that this group above all others has it right, despite glaring evidence to the contrary? In the past few years, we’ve been able to watch- and still watch- this play out on a massive scale in real time, and when I learned about The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control by Steve Hassan (Free Press, 2019), I was interested. I’d heard interviews with Steve Hassan before on the topic of cults, and I had long before made the connection between the many, many cults I’ve read about and the behavior of Donald Trump’s most ardent followers. Onto my list it went.

Steve Hassan had once been a member of the Moonies, the colloquial name for members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. His family recognized early on that he had been pressured into a cult; it took him several years to leave (with the help of his family, who were not members; it’s obviously much, much harder for people raised in these movements to extract themselves), and he went on to become a mental health expert who specializes in treating people who leave high-control groups. He’s well aware now of the tactics that the Moonies and other groups use in order to pressure people to join and stay in their movements, and he recognized early on that Donald Trump and his entourage have engaged in all of the same tactics in order to build their own movement.

Step by step, Steve Hassan breaks down how Donald Trump engages in the same mind control techniques that cults use, using specific examples not just from Trump and his entourage, but showing how those same techniques played out in other high-control groups (such as NXIVM, Jonestown, Waco, etc). (And this isn’t mind control like in cartoons, where people’s eyes spin around; these are psychological tactics designed to manipulate how a person thinks, to break ties with a person’s prior life and beliefs and instill new, mostly fear-based beliefs that encourage the potential convert to join the group, because the group or the group’s leader alone can fix this. Sound familiar?). The parallels are disturbing.

I enjoyed a lot of the content here. Seeing the tactics used by various cults and the Trump campaign broken down step-by-step is definitely eerie, especially seeing it all in one place. Mr. Hassan isn’t the only one to notice this; the podcast Behind the Bastards has noted this in multiple episodes, and if you’ve ever listened to the podcast Cults on Parcast, you’ll recognize the same patterns of behavior and control over and over again, used throughout all the various groups. There’s no doubt that the Trump campaign used and continues to use these unfortunately effective tactics. They work, yes, but they work by manipulation and fear. If you can’t convince people of your message without manipulation and fear, your message isn’t worth propagating.

The book did get a little dry for me at times, and there were several instances where the text veered into speculation. “Many people believe…” “Some people think…” I didn’t care for that and felt that it weakened his argument. In a book that is making such big claims (claims which I think are unfortunately accurate), I want every claim to be backed up with hard evidence. There’s no room for conjecture when you’re penning nonfiction about a presidential administration that engaged in devastating acts, and God knows there’s enough hard material to base these claims on. The speculation turned me off quite a bit, and I felt that it lessened the effectiveness of the rest of the book. It also strayed into straight-up political discussion more than I expected; I was looking for more of hard look at the Trump administration’s cult-like tactics in engaging its followers and keeping them coming back for more despite this often not being in their best interests (something we’re still seeing today throughout this pandemic, though there are definitely signs that the monster he created is beyond his control, what with his encouraging his rallygoers to get vaccinated, only to have them boo him). While it did contain some of that, it wasn’t as much as I had expected when I put this book on my list.

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but not as in-depth of an examination as I had hoped for.

Visit Steve Hassan’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt

Do you ever look back and wonder how you missed out on major news stories? I’m old enough to remember the Challenger explosion, but I have no memories of it. I’m not sure if that’s because my parents shielded me from the awfulness of it, or because it wasn’t much on their radar, but nope, I don’t remember it at all. The more recent story of the Turpin family is similar for me. I vaguely knew who they were- a mega-family who had at least some sort of Christian trappings who ended up abusing the kids terribly- but somehow the details of this story remained off my radar. But someone on a messageboard where I lurk suggested The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue by John Glatt (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and I knew I needed to read it in order to fill in the gaps (I think things were so crazy politically at the time that all my attention was going to other things, and that’s how this one slipped by me. We can’t pay attention to everything…)

In early 2018, a 17 year-old girl, whose physical appearance made her appear closer to ten years of age, secretly dialed 911 to report that her parents were abusing her and her twelve siblings, several of whom had been chained to their beds for months. When the police arrived at the house, what they found was nearly beyond belief. Children from the ages of two to their late twenties who hadn’t bathed or changed clothing in over a year, in various stages of starvation, cachexia, and psychosocial dwarfism.  None of them had ever visited a dentist; doctor visits had rarely happened. Most of them displayed severe signs of abuse. None of the neighbors realized there were that many kids living in the house, because most of the children never left. The oldest had been pulled out of third grade in public school; they had all been ‘homeschooled’ since, but most of them had less than a first-grade education, even the adults (the daughter who had called 911 had even misspelled her own last name).

The kids were taken and hospitalized; the parents were sent to jail to await trial. The children, even the adults, were badly stunted in physical and social development; educationally, they were all years behind (with the exception of the two-year-old, who was, while still not perfect, in better shape than anyone else). The younger children eventually went to (I believe) a foster home; the adult children went to a secret home to begin focusing on all the things they needed to learn to function as adults, since none of them were even remotely able to care for themselves. The parents were eventually convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison; the children will be battling the effects of the torture their parents afflicted upon them forever (at least two of the girls are unlikely to be able to have children themselves, so extensive was the damage they’ve suffered).

If you followed the case as it unfolded, there probably isn’t anything new here, but if you’re like me and missed this, it’s a good primer as to what happened. I hadn’t really known any of the details, so it was a worthwhile (if horrifying) read. My heart broke over and over again for the damage these kids have suffered (I refer to them as kids, but the oldest is in her early 30’s by now; the youngest is maybe 5 or 6). Their parents stunted their entire lives; whatever they go on to do, it’ll be in spite of their parents, not because of them, and though they may heal, even in the best-case scenario, there will still be massive, massive scars. I’m so sad for all of them.

There are several fundamentalist mega-families on my radar (not the Duggars; we already know what a mess they’ve made…) that have exhibited strong Turpin-esque qualities. One has stated she’s not worried about her homeschooled kids obtaining ‘worldly knowledge;’ in a recent video the mom posted, her oldest kids (somewhere around 11 or 12) didn’t know what year it was or who the President was (both questions my seven-year-old answered immediately with no help). The other family’s kids are very obviously malnourished and the quality of their ‘homeschooling’ has looked pretty poor as well. (I’m a former homeschooling parent; even when I was actively homeschooling, I wished there were better oversight. If you’re doing what you need to be doing, a yearly check-in to make sure your kid is on track is no big deal, and I made my kiddo WORK. Better oversight would have prevented the Turpins from ruining their kids, and it would keep those other families I’m thinking of from inflicting potentially irreversible damage on their children. It’s incredibly difficult to become a functional adult when you were denied the skills it takes to be one throughout your entire childhood.)

The writing in this book isn’t anything special; it’s a really fast read, though a depressing one. You’ll be horrified and disgusted and heartbroken through the whole thing. I pray those kids are able to repair what their parents worked so hard to destroy, and to create beautiful, functional lives for themselves, and that this world makes a safe, patient space for all of them.

Visit John Glatt’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter 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.

nonfiction

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!

nonfiction

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.

nonfiction

Book Review: Shunned: How I Lost My Religion and Found Myself by Linda A. Curtis

Pretty sure I learned about Shunned: How I Lost My Religon and Found Myself by Linda A. Curtis (She Writes Press, 2018) from a list of books about people leaving various religious groups and sects (Goodreads actually has a bunch of these lists! The number of boxes that say READ for me on these lists is almost a little embarrassing…). It can be a little tricky reading about Jehovah’s Witnesses. So many of the memoirs make its adherents’ lives seem so bleak, what with the no holiday or birthday celebrations. Quite a few of the memoir authors’ lives as children lacked any kind of joy, just slogging through life from meeting to door knocking to school, lather, rinse, repeat. Shunned wasn’t quite that heavy, fortunately.

Linda Curtis grew up a devout Jehovah’s Witness, beginning to knock on doors to bring others into the fold when she was just nine years old. Unable to participate in classroom celebrations with her friends or any of the regular teenage dating rituals in high school, she forgoes college (why bother, when Armageddon is surely around the corner?) and works part-time while full-time knocking on doors, and then marries young to a man about whom she already has serious doubts before the wedding. Career-wise, things take off for her; Linda begins to realize all that she’s capable of, all that she’s good at. When she meets a co-worker, one she likes and respects, on the other side of a door one afternoon, she hears what her practiced Witness speech must sound like to his ears for the very first time, and she begins to question a religion that would so willingly throw such a nice guy away.

The questions and doubts fly fast and furious after this, and before long, Linda has divorced her husband, gone inactive in the church, and moved away. Divorce is unacceptable to the Witnesses, however, and she and her husband are still considered married to them- he’s not allowed to date again unless she admits to finding someone else, thus committing what the church considers adultery (legal divorce doesn’t matter to them). And when she does, that’s grounds for her family to shun her. Linda understands that this is coming and accepts this as a consequence of living an honest life. It’s painful and difficult to create an entirely new life on her own, but she does, one that is beautiful and authentic, though the wounds from her family never truly heal.

This is a well-written memoir. I didn’t necessarily gain any new insights into the JW religion or culture, but it was an interesting look at what a Witness family looked like. (Her father didn’t join until Linda was mostly on the way out, which added an interesting perspective.) I can’t say this endeared me at all to the Jehovah’s Witness sect, though- I understand having faith and it being deeply important to your life. I don’t understand it taking precedence over any kind of a relationship with one’s children. I’m deeply committed to my Judaism, but my kids are free to be whatever it is they need to be, whatever it is they feel is right for them and their outlook on the world. I cannot imagine looking at them and saying, “If you don’t believe exactly like me, I don’t want you in my life.” I’m actually really appalled that there are parents out there who do that, in any group. (That’s not to say I don’t understand why some families cut off contact with each other- it happens; not all relationships are successful or healthy, and sometimes you need to put some distance between each other when things get toxic. This, however, I feel is in an entirely different category, and it breaks my heart that kids are left high and dry because of religious beliefs, or lack thereof.)

It impressed me how Linda didn’t maintain a sense of bitterness or anger at her family (or if she did, it didn’t come through in her writing). I don’t know that I could have been so kind- I feel like if my parents no longer wanted to talk to me, I’d just shrug and be like, “For that? Wow, your loss, then,” and wouldn’t necessarily be open to them reaching out in any capacity. Because if I’m not good enough for you to keep around in your daily life, why would you expect me to come running for…anything? Maybe that’s just me, but I couldn’t live holding out hope that maybe, maybe one day my family would beg me to come crawling back. Nah. If you don’t want me around, that’s fine. Too bad for you, but I’m staying gone, then. I’m curious as to what makes Linda as gracious and forgiving as she was with her family during the brief respite she got upon returning home for her grandmother’s death. I wouldn’t have been so forgiving. (I was also seriously impressed at her career trajectory. She made a place for herself in the finance world with no secondary education and reached seriously impressive levels of success. GO LINDA!)

This book did seem to drag a bit at the end, but otherwise, it’s an enjoyable read and a look at what happens when parents decide that allegiance to a religious group, or religious ideals, trumps any relationship with their children. It’s depressing at times, but ultimately, it’s more of an inspiration, of having the courage to find the path in life that’s authentic to who you are.

Visit Linda A. Curtis’s website here.

nonfiction

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.

nonfiction

Book Review: In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media by Julia C. Duin

Back in the Age of Antiquity, when everyone actually had cable television with a ton of channels and Netflix was still known as a company that sent DVDs by mail, the Nat Geo channel offered up a one-season show called Snake Salvation. Snake Salvation was a reality show that followed two pastors from snake-handling Pentecostal churches in Eastern Tennessee. We lived in Tennessee at the time, so if you combine that with my intense fascination with all things religion, especially minority religious sects- yeah, we watched the heck out of that show at my house. And when I learned that a book had been written about the people featured on the show, onto my TBR it went. I picked up In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media by Julia C. Duin (University of Tennessee Press, 2017) at my library last week, courtesy of interlibrary loan. It was every bit as fascinating as Snake Salvation had been.

In the House of the Serpent Handler follows the two pastors from Snake Salvation, Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, whose Pentecostal churches engage in the practice of snake handling (according to the verse in Mark 16 about how people should take up snakes and drink deadly things and won’t be hurt by them- yes, the churches will, on occasion, also offer various poisonous substances to drink, along with fire to pass a hand over). Ms. Duin highlights their lives before the show, desperate as they were- the area is rife with high unemployment levels and massive poverty- and the drama that ensued afterwards. It’s messy, tragic, and intriguing on so many different levels.

Andrew Hamblin is the major focus of this story, and it’s clear that Ms. Duin worked hard to try to understand what makes him tick, with the varying amounts of access she was allowed into his and Jamie Coots’s lives. Jamie Coots died from a snakebite a year after the Nat Geo show ended; this upended everything for Hamblin, whose life seemed to go off the rails in ways that may have seemed unexpected to outsiders, but which likely had been waiting for a triggering event such as this. Ms. Duin follows the fallout as best she can, using social media to track her subjects and show that while these people may be objects of fascination, being the snake handling, holiness-adhering Pentecostals that they are, they’re still people, subject to the major stressors of living in an area worn down by poverty, in a country that does little to ensure its citizens have full access to the services everyone needs to live a full, healthy life.

This is a tough book for me to sum up. On one hand, I found it utterly fascinating. I enjoyed the Nat Geo show and really appreciated knowing what had happened to the people it followed after the show ended. Apart from the articles released upon Jamie Coots’s death in 2014, I hadn’t heard much about this community, and I’d always wondered how they were doing. The area they live in is one of the poorest in the US, with one of the highest rates of unemployment, and everyday life is a struggle in so many ways for a lot of the people who live there, so not knowing how they were faring bothered me. (As it turns out, another one of the people featured on the show has since died- not from a snakebite, but a car accident. I had really liked this person, so this saddened me deeply.) The fallout from Jamie’s death stretched far and wide for Andrew Hamblin and his family, and it can still be felt today. Ms. Duin emphasizes that his choices may have seemed rash and ill-considered, but that they were also part and parcel of marrying so young, so quickly, being impulsive and not yet fully mature, and living in a place where poverty is rife and opportunities are few. So many factors go into the decisions we make and who we are, and the picture she paints of Andrew is a full one, not a mere caricature. He’s a flawed person, though an intelligent one with many gifts, and one who leaves a wake of drama in the path he blazes forward.

On the other hand, a lot of this book left me feeling like a voyeur in a kind of an icky way, and that’s not a criticism of the author. Ms. Duin used social media to study her subjects, and there are many Facebook posts included in the text, word-for-word with all the original misspellings and grammar flubs. So much drama and fighting and what feels like to me the airing of dirty laundry (but what is more likely a generational difference in how we use social media for support!) takes place on Facebook between the people in this work, and it left me feeling desperately sad- over the lack of education these folks have, over the poverty we deem acceptable for them to live in, over how they treat one another, over what their religion (and also their lack of education) deems proper for them. Reading Andrew Hamblin’s first wife Elizabeth’s posts broke my heart a thousand different ways. The book ends with things on an upswing for her, but I can’t help but continue to worry, because so many cards are stacked against her. I truly hope she’s found some peace and success in her life.

There were a few times I felt that Ms. Duin got a little too close to her subjects- not anywhere nearly as close as Dennis Covington did when he was researching his book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, but close enough to state she was irritated when family members closed the church to media during a funeral. Her sense of entitlement to be there to witness their grief because the media had ‘made’ them bothered me; in my opinion, all bets are off when there’s been a death, and respecting the family’s wishes comes first, no matter how it inconveniences you, because at that point, it’s not about you, not in the slightest. But overall, this entire book works really, really well.

If you found yourself glued to the television when Snake Salvation was on in 2013, you’ll definitely enjoy the fuller look at the people that this program featured, at how they live and struggle to survive, and what happened after the cameras turned off and the producers packed up and left. And if you didn’t watch the show, this is a deeply fascinating look at a culture and a way of life that you may not be familiar with. You’ll still be left with questions and a nagging sense of worry, though, and a deep sense that no matter how other folks believe or worship or live, we’re truly all in this together and this country *needs* to do a better job of taking care of and educating its citizens.

Visit Julia C. Duin’s website here.

Follow her 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.