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.

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.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi

Ah, Twitter. Land of intense debate, mocking quips, up-to-the-moment news, adorable animal pictures, and far, far more book recommendations than I have time for. It was just a few weeks ago- September 11th, to be exact- when I learned of the existence of Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi (Quill Tree Books, 2021). It was a fitting date for the book to be shared and to go onto my TBR, since the story deals with the anniversary of 9/11 and Muslim families. My library had a copy in the New Books section of the middle grade books, and, desperately needing some fiction (I feel like I’ve read so little fiction this past year!), I grabbed it on my last library trip. My library is excellent about promoting diverse books; we live in a really amazing diverse community, but honestly, diversifying their collection should be a goal of every library out there. When we learn about each other, we understand what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes, and that makes the world a better place.

Yusuf Azeem is a new middle schooler in the small town of Frey, Texas, nervous for this school year, but excited about the prospect of finally being able to participate in a well-known robotics competition for his school’s team. But tensions are high among his family and his Muslim community as a whole, since this year is the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, something Yusuf, who was born well after 2001, doesn’t fully understand until his uncle gives him his journal from 2001, when he was a boy. As he reads his uncle’s entries, Yusuf learns about the Islamophobia his community experienced, the hatred they felt, his uncle’s best friend who turned against him. Yusuf better begins to understand the strain everyone around him is feeling.

Things aren’t great in Frey. While Yusuf works diligently with his robotics team, nasty notes appear in his locker, a local group purporting to be patriots begins to threaten the Muslim community’s new mosque, his father’s store is vandalized, and Yusuf is repeatedly bullied by a fellow student (and he’s not the only victim). Saadia Faruqi has penned a novel that will have readers understanding the effects of hatred and fear on families, communities, and friendships.

This book has a more positive ending than a lot of real-life stories. Ms. Faruqi stated she wanted to show what life could be like when a community steps up and does the right thing, and I think that’s not only an excellent message, but that this book provides an excellent blueprint for what it looks like to do the right thing, from Yusuf’s gentle parents, the pastor who doesn’t back down, the friend who realizes he was wrong, the principle who steps in to change school policy. There are a lot of examples of missteps in this book, but there are far, far more examples of characters who recognize their errors and who work hard to make things right. And that’s how things should be.

Yusuf is a well-developed character. He’s a diligent student with varied interests, and his affection for his much younger sister is really sweet to read. His friend group is diverse, with distinct characteristics (one boy who’s more religious than Yusuf, another who is dead-set on assimilation, a girl who’s initially miffed at her role in the robotics club but who totally rocks it, a relative of the school’s and town’s biggest bully who changes throughout the story), and his religious community is complex, varied, and interesting. I enjoyed the scenes set in Sunday school (Islamic teaching classes for kids that happen on Sunday; my synagogue also has Sunday school for kids! Just religious school on Sunday), and Yusuf’s relating the lessons he learned there to the events happening in his daily life.

The Islamophobia is painful to read, no doubt. Yusuf’s family and friends suffer (and suffered in the past) due to people’s fear and misunderstanding about their religion and culture. Even the microaggressions, such as Yusuf’s teacher calling him up in front of the class to explain an Islamophobic incident in school, as though he were the authority on all things Muslim simply because he’s Muslim himself, show his distress well (teachers and other folks, don’t do this to your students!). If this were a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to read about other people’s pain in order to fully understand it, but I hope that this book makes clear how harmful it is to disregard the feelings of our Muslim brothers and sisters, and the pain it causes them when we stand on the sidelines instead of coming to their aid.

Homeschoolers, this is an excellent teaching tool if you’re doing a unit on September 11th, and it would make an AMAZING parent-child read together or book club selection. (DO NOT put your Muslim members on the spot, though! If anything, ask them privately if they’d like to share anything about their experiences, but don’t expect them to put their pain on display as a teaching tool. PLEASE.) Heads up for several mentions of COVID, including mention of a family death in the year prior; COVID is over during the telling of this story, so I’m guessing either the references were added in afterwards, or the book was finished in the days when we expected this would be a much shorter-lived experience.

Wonderful, wonderful book that I can’t recommend highly enough, both for the middle grade to early YA set, and for adults as well.

Visit Saadia Faruqi’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch

I enjoy a good going-undercover book now and then. I’ve read a few stories by former FBI agents who posed as various bad guys in order to infiltrate certain groups, and I definitely enjoyed Kevin Roose’s book about his stint at Liberty University, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University (Metropolitan Books, 2010). So when I learned about Gina Welch’s book, In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (Metropolitan Books, 2010), it went directly onto my TBR. Unfortunately, while being well-written, I ended up having a lot of issues with the book.

Gina Welch, a young secular atheist Jew, was curious about Evangelical Christians, so she decided to throw herself headfirst into the deep end of life as one. Posing as someone interested in Christianity, she showed up at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Virginia. She began attending church services and group meetings, then was baptized as a member. She was a church member when Jerry Falwell died; she signed up to attend a mission trip to Alaska with the sole purpose of converting people (mostly homeless people) and converted one nine-year-old girl herself. Throughout the narrative, Ms. Welch shares her insights that posing as an Evangelical Christian brought her.

Okay.

So.

I have zero problems with the writing in this book. Whatever else I thought of what happened, Ms. Welch is a talented writer who understands well how to craft a compelling narrative out of her personal lived experiences. The book as a whole is interesting and well-written and I enjoyed the experience of reading her words.

BUT.

I have a lot, a LOT of issues with the ethics of this entire experiment. I’m not Christian and I have plenty of issues with a lot of Evangelical Christianity that I won’t go into, but this book really bothered me. Going undercover and showing up as someone already Christian would have been one thing and I would have had zero issues with that, but as someone who repeatedly stated that she was not able to change her views on God but yet still participated in rituals that are sacred to many, many people felt seriously icky to me. I wouldn’t be okay with someone doing this with my religion; I’m not okay with someone doing it with someone else’s. To be fair, Ms. Welch was completely respectful about everything and in all her actions, but simply participating fully in something you know isn’t meant for you, in which you don’t believe, doesn’t sit right with me. At all.

Her whole reasoning of taking on this project at all was to get to know the people behind the labels, and she did. I have no doubt that many of the people she got to know were kind and generous and friendly…especially to someone they thought was just like them, or had the potential to be just like them. Even when they learned the truth about who she was and why she was there, they were still kind to her (having been blindsided by learning that the person they’d spent the last two years getting to know, traveling with, and participating in religious activities with was writing a book in which they would feature heavily, including their reactions to this news…). She’s easily able to write off their more abhorrent views, which deeply rubbed me the wrong way; the homophobia and Islamaphobia, among other vile things, that have come out of this particular church are absolutely glossed over like they’re no big deal and haven’t ruined lives. Ms. Welch’s participation in the missionary trip to Alaska was also incredibly problematic. Personally converting a child to a religion you’ve repeatedly stated you don’t believe in is unethical, and was for me one of the worst scenes in this book. She shouldn’t have been on that trip and shouldn’t have participated in these kinds of activities. I’m frankly a bit appalled that she did.

At times, it felt like she wanted to believe, wanted to be a part of that, and if that was truly the case, then that’s perfectly fine and that could have been an entirely different book. But participating in rituals and conversion (yours and that of others) under the guise of someone who was sincere in her beliefs (while purporting not to be) is wrong, no matter what side you’re coming from. The book itself was well-written, but the activities Ms. Welch wrote about are something I can’t condone.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Mark Oppenheimer’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes

One of the many benefits of having bookish friends is when they make you aware of a book that you likely wouldn’t have picked up on your own. My friend Jennifer, who is a librarian extraordinaire at a university in Alabama, told my longtime parenting group’s book forum about an author visit she was hosting a while back: one Ms. Jennifer Berry Hawes, author of Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). I remembered this tragedy well; the title of this book, however, made me a little nervous. I had avoided the book about the gunman who shot up an Amish school simply because of the religious pressure to forgive, which isn’t the way my religion works, and the very idea of being required to forgive even when you’re not ready for it made me uncomfortable. But my friend assured me it wasn’t that kind of book; that not everyone forgave the killer, and that it was a really incredibly story all around, so onto my list it went.

In 2015, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a traditionally Black church, hosted a Bible study one Wednesday evening in June. A young white man joined the Black churchgoers; this wasn’t unusual, and they welcomed him with open arms. And as the Bible study concluded, the young man pulled out a gun and murdered nine people.

The manhunt that followed was successful fairly quickly, but the mess he left behind at Mother Emanuel, as the church is known, stretched on and on. Almost the entire pastoral leadership had been murdered; husbands had lost wives, wives had lost husbands, parents had lost children. Grief amplifies what is already there, and some family relationships, already struggling, fractured further. The leadership that took over in the wake of the massacre seemed to have the wrong motivations, and financial hijinks made everyone suspicious. Longtime church members, include some who were present and survived the massacre, began to fall away from the church. Some of the survivors immediately forgave the gunman; others struggled with the concept, while still others were unsure how to ever move on with their lives without their loved ones.

This isn’t a pretty, wrapped-up-in-a-bow, everyone-holds-hands-and-sings story of a mass shooting. This is raw pain and anger, desperation, and grief. The survivors grapple with a lot of painful emotions surrounding the massacre- not only the losses of the their friends and family, but the losses of their trusted clergy, the loss of their perceived safety, the loss of trust in the team that stepped in to lead afterwards, the loss of love between family members, the anger they felt at the entire situation. Their pain and, at times, desperation, is palpable. Ms. Hawes conveys that excellently while still allowing the survivors the respect and dignity they deserve.

There is quite a lot of coverage of and about the killer in this book (I’m not using his name here); the depths of his soullessness are disturbing, so be prepared for that if you pick this book up. And there are plenty of parts that will bring you to tears, for many different reasons- depth of strength, grief, suffering, the community coming together, the senselessness of it all. There’s hope as well, but mostly, there’s pain, and a community that suffers deeply because of hatred. Grace Will Lead Us Home is an amazingly well-written book, one that I wish hadn’t had to be written at all.

Visit Jennifer Berry Hawes’s author page here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel

One good book leads to another.

If that’s not already something people say, it should be! I was fortunate enough to attend a virtual presentation by Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (amazing book; highly recommended), and at the end of that presentation, the woman who heads the program hosting him reminded us of another author event happening in the spring: our local parent education program will be hosting Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007). I already had this event in my calendar- it’s not until the spring- but I was reminded that I needed to read the book, so I immediately put it on hold via interlibrary loan. It didn’t take too long to arrive at my local library branch.

Eboo Patel is an American of Indian heritage and an Ismaili Muslim. He grew up the next town over from me (making his upcoming visit extra exciting!) and graduated from the same high school system (though not the same school) that my son did. A slacker at first, his competitive nature came out during middle school and he began to take full advantage of his intellect. His diverse friend group, however, was a little harder to manage when it came to heavier issues such as religion, something he didn’t quite realize until he was older. College came close to radicalizing him, until he veered in a completely different direction, winding up a Rhodes scholar focusing on the sociology of religion.

Dr. Patel realized how often, in discussions of diversity, religion is left out of the conversation. He wasn’t serious about more formal religious practice until later on in life, but being Muslim was nevertheless an important part of his identity, and the way he connected to his faith was through service. Realizing that putting faith into action often highlighted the values all religions share, he set off down a path that eventually led him to form the Interfaith Youth Core, a service organization that brings together young people of all faiths to participate in service projects and connect via their shared values (and to learn about and from each other!). In example after example, he illustrates the tragedy of religious extremism and how the extremists don’t neglect the young people, but pull them in early and radicalize them in order to have them carry out the groups’ nefarious deeds. Why shouldn’t the good guys pull their youth in early as well and fill their hearts with the pressing need to not only serve their fellow humans, but to connect with each other and recognize that we’ve all got so much more in common than what separates us?

What a fascinating man. Dr. Patel seemed to grow up in such a normal way, slacking off in school to the point where a middle school science teacher was irritated to find he had him in class (a turning point for young Eboo, who realized he didn’t want to be *that* student). His college years were really interesting to read about, where he fell in with a group of friends who were just this side of radical. He could very well have veered off the path here, but other influences pulled him back in, and he seemed almost shocked to find himself at Oxford, where he finally discovered his passion and set about building an organization that would lead him to serve on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, as well as change countless lives.

Dr. Patel brings up so many good points in this book: so many faith communities tend to ignore their young people (and then are shocked, shocked! when those same young people don’t stick around as adults. There are some who do a great job at keeping their youth involved, though- the LDS Church is fantastic at this!). The extremists know that young people are the ones with the energy, who will turn their religious feelings into action, and Dr. Patel questions why we aren’t using their energy and enthusiasm for good. Why not put their desire to change the world into action, all the while forging stronger connections with each other and learning how to navigate and appreciate their differences? As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her amazing book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, understanding and appreciating other religions can very much lead to a deepening of our own faith practices, and a deeper understanding of the world. Why not teach our kids early on about how beautiful and beneficial this can be?

What an inspirational, hardworking man Dr. Patel is. I’m very much looking forward to hearing his talk this spring. He’s given me a lot of things to think about.

Learn more about Eboo Patel at the Interfaith Youth Core website.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visit Dara Horn’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: 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.