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Why “Back to the Future” is About the World to Come

Mon, 10/20/2014 - 7:00am
By Matthue Roth for Jewniverse


Ben Lerner is not primarily a novelist – he’s a poet. He’s also not a Hasid. But his new novel 10:04 opens with a quote: “Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here…Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

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Story of the Jews, The: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD

Mon, 10/13/2014 - 7:00am
By David Wolpe in Hadassah Magazine

Almost 30 years ago in the preface to The Embarrassment of Riches (Vintage Books), his sumptuous chronicle of the Dutch golden age, Simon Schama wrote that “all history tends towards autobiographical confession.” Now Schama ranges across lands and times and languages to confess through his own people, in The Story of the Jews.

Schama tells us that his father was obsessed by British and Jewish history. Demonstrating the wisdom of Jung’s axiom that the greatest influence on children is the unlived lives of their parents, the son has written the absorbing multivolume A History of Britain (Hyperion) and now this first of two books on Jewish history.

The personal thread throughout the narrative is one of its most engaging features. There is something at stake in this retelling; it is never bloodless. Here are the Jews for whom nothing human is alien—housewives and papermakers, scholars and sufferers, rakes and magnates, physicians and artists.

Jewish history is a history of words, as Schama reminds us, and his easy eloquence and gentle wit fill each page. Dhimmi are “the tolerated benighted.” We know Josephus is the first Jewish historian “when, with a twinge of guilt, he introduces his mother into the action.” Most histories of the Jewish people are indifferently written; this is in the gripping and preternaturally fluent British tradition of historians like A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Schama celebrates the artistry of Judaism, from the floors of ancient synagogues to the pageantry of a modern service. Too often in Jewish history people have elevated Moses but not Bezalel, as if no Jew thought imagistically until Chagall sprung from the head of modernity. Schama traces the long engagement of Jews with the world. He notes the “glowing, brilliant” frescoes of ancient synagogues, where “If you were a Jewish father or mother in Dura-Europas and you were with your children in that synagogue, there would be much to tell them, pointing this way and that at the painting.”

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Jewish Women’s Surprisingly Prominent Role in Ancient Jewish Magic

Mon, 10/06/2014 - 7:00am
Live from the Lilith Blog by Maggie Anton

(Wait, doesn’t the Torah say something about not allowing a sorceress to live?)

It does indeed. “You shall not tolerate (let live) a sorceress,” is the way the Jewish Publication Society translates Exodus 22:18. Or you may have seen the King James Version’s “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Even knowing these lines, the most astonishing thing I learned while researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter was how prevalent—even ubiquitous—sorcery was among the same people who gave us Talmud and Midrash.

Early on, I came across information about Babylonian “magic bowls.” Unearthed under homes in what is now Iraq, the land where the Talmud was created, these were common items of household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy and other misfortune.

Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote Torah, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Some quote Mishna and the rabbinic divorce formula. And that’s not all. Archaeologists have found, wherever our people lived during the first six centuries of the Common Era, Jewish amulets, curse tablets, and magic manuals.

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The Secret Legacy of Biblical Women: Revealing the Divine Feminine

Mon, 09/29/2014 - 7:00am
("The Secret Legacy of Biblical Women: Revealing the Divine Feminine" by Melinda Ribner)

Review by Judith Fein for Hadassah Magazine

In this startling and passionate book, Melinda Ribner, a psychotherapist and teacher of Kabbala, meditation and healing, pushes back against the domination of men in the field of biblical interpretation. Not only does she profile the biblical matriarchs and provide ways we can learn from them and pray to them for Divine intercession, but she gives each of them a voice and interviews them; she asks them pointed questions about how we can benefit from their knowledge, wisdom and life stories.

From Eve, we learn to enter into dark places in our lives to heal what is wounded. Sarah instructs us to remain true to our visions and walk in grace. Rebecca encourages us to discern truth from falsehood. Rachel, Leah and the handmaidens Bilha and Zilpa call for a new consciousness and greater connectivity to the world. Dina’s spiritual teachings allow us to transform negativity. Miriam helps us to express our own vision and to inspire others. Batya encourages us to follow the truth of our own souls, even when others try to dictate who we should be or how we should behave. Chana instructs us in the power of prayer. Queen Esther gives us courage to do what is difficult by using faith, courage and intelligence.

Sometimes the voices of the women are so clear, transcendent and powerful that it is tempting to believe the author is channeling them. At other times, the book is more informational and didactic. Ribner wants us to form groups to study, read about, learn from and pray to these biblical women.



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In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist: A Novel

Mon, 09/22/2014 - 7:00am
By Sara Trappler Spielman in Hadassah Magazine

In her second book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books, 207 pp. $16 paper), set in Jerusalem in 1999, Ruchama King Feuerman depicts the human landscape by building contrasting religious and political portraits. Romantic, suspenseful and insightful, the author has created a compelling connection between a Jew and a Muslim, Isaac and Mustafa, skillfully crafting an unusual yet believable friendship and intertwining plot. Short chapters switch between their narratives.

Mustafa, a lonely 55-year-old Arab janitor, works scrupulously on the Temple Mount, subservient to the domineering Sheikh Tawil. Isaac Markowitz, a 43-year-old Orthodox single man, moved to Israel from the Lower East Side after his mother died. He is working as an assistant to an elderly kabbalist, Rebbe Yehudah.

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Interview: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 7:00am
by William Liss-Levinson for JewishBookCouncil.org

William Liss-Levinson, member of the Board of the Jewish Book Council, sat down with fellow Board member and noted author, scholar and speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, to discuss this newest book, Rebbe, focused on the life and teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

William Liss-Levinson: A number of books have been written in the past few years about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And it’s twenty years since his death. What prompted you to write this book?

Joseph Telushkin: The Rebbe might well be the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides. I can think of no other rabbi who is as familiar to Jews in Israel, the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and France, the four most populous Jewish communities in the world today. So it certainly seemed that that this was a man whose life deserved to be studied in depth.

WL-L: You’ve also chosen a unique approach, to discuss the Rebbe—according to thematic issues across time, with a fifty page chronologi­cal biography at the end. Why did you choose that approach to his life?

JT: I thought that what most mattered about the Rebbe were his viewpoints and his unique approach to a variety of issues. Also, I really was interested in writing a biography of his years of leadership. In 1951 he took over a small movement and turned it into the most dynamic religious movement in modern Jewish history—and that is what intrigued me; how he did it. A biography would need to focus in detail, for example, on things I was not as interested in: his years as a child in Russia and the years he spent in Germany and France in university. I was interested in that, and write about it in the book, but this was not what most interested me about the Rebbe.

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A Russian Jewish Mom Turns to the Internet For Dating

Mon, 09/08/2014 - 7:00am
By Ester Bloom for Jewniverse

Here is what’s less than stellar about Anya Ulinich‘s graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: The title is confusingly clunky, and certain pages feel overstuffed with text. But that’s it! This lavishly illustrated, imaginative, acerbically funny chronicle of a Russian-Jewish divorcee’s expedition into the underworld of OkCupid is, otherwise, near letter- and pixel-perfect.

Continue reading and to watch video interview with the author.

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The Pat Boone Fan Club My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

Mon, 09/01/2014 - 7:00am
Author: Sue William Silverman

Gentile reader, and you, Jews, come too. Follow Sue William Silverman, a one-woman cultural mash-up, on her exploration of identity among the mishmash of American idols and ideals that confuse most of us—or should. Pat Boone is our first stop. Now a Tea Party darling, Boone once shone as a squeaky-clean pop music icon of normality, an antidote for Silverman’s own confusing and dangerous home, where being a Jew in a Christian school wasn’t easy, and being the daughter of the Anti-Boone was unspeakable. And yet somehow Silverman found her way, a “gefilte fish swimming upstream,” and found her voice, which in this searching, bracing, hilarious, and moving book tries to make sense of that most troubling American condition: belonging, but to what?

Picking apricots on a kibbutz, tramping cross-country in a loathed Volkswagen camper, appearing in a made-for-television version of her own life: Silverman is a bobby-soxer, a baby boomer, a hippy, a lefty, and a rebel with something to say to those of us—most of us—still wondering what to make of ourselves.

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The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 7:00am
Author: Eve Harris

Review by Shira Schindel for The Jewish Book Council
Chani and Baruch do not know one another, but they are about to wed.

Baruch Levy is obedient and religious, and makes his parents proud with his keen Torah study, until the day he announces the name of the girl he’d like to court. A quick forbidden glance to the women’s section enthralled him with Chani Kaufman, and he won’t take no for an answer.

Nineteen years old and increasingly frustrated with the obligations of her Ultra-Orthodox community, Chani follows the only permissible route of escape—getting engaged. Though she finds Baruch attractive in his earnest, if fumbling, attempts at courting, she has no idea what to expect next.

As the couple navigates their path of parents, matchmakers, and mikvehs, their closest confidants and friends explore the romantic and sexual relationships possible within and without marriage. Rebbetzin Zilberman remembers the sacrifices she made for the man she loves, while Avromi explores a world previously forbidden. On the outside, these characters are obedient and true to the traditions they value, but from inside passions ignite and regrets long hidden are reawakened, no longer willing to be ignored.

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Why Tom Rachman Imagines the Child in the Corner

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 7:00am
Sophomore Novel Spans Decades and Continents
By Anna Goldenberg for The Jewish Daily Forward

Before he started writing, novelist and journalist Tom Rachman had a peculiar visual image: A child being led into a room with a couple of adults who pay no special attention to her. The person who brings her there leaves, and the child sits quietly in a corner. As the hours pass, it becomes clear that nobody is going to collect her. The adults and child have to figure out what to do next.

In the end, there was “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers,” the second novel by Canadian-born Rachman, 39, whose 2010 debut “The Imperfectionists” was a bestseller that was translated into 25 languages. “The Rise & Fall” tells the story of Tooly Zylberberg, who leads a reclusive life as the owner of a bookstore in a Welsh village — until a former boyfriend contacts her, which encourages her to revisit the places in which she grew up. Having spent most of her childhood and adolescence as the forgotten child in the corner, being shuttled between countries and four enigmatic adults — socially awkward computer programmer Paul Zylberberg, Russian book lover Humphrey Ostropoler, flimsy Sarah, and crooked but warm Venn — she tries to untangle the secrets of her youth.

The novel offers vivid imagery of life across three decades and three continents, and is rich in literary references, witty dialogue and astute observations of the human psyche.

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A rememberance of Bel Kaufman, author, Up the Down Staircase

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 7:00am

Bel passed away in July at age 103.  She obviously inherited much of the humor and wit of her grandfather, Sholem Aleichem.  Even at 100 she's sharp, funny and insightful.  Enjoy this talk she gave at Iona College.



The Jew Who Turned the Left Against Israel

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 7:00am
A new book shows how Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky was the ancestor of the Jews who now serve in the hate-Israel movement
By Joshua Muravchik for Tablet Magazine

For the first quarter-century of its existence, Israel could count on one bastion of foreign support: the Socialist International, an agglomeration of moderate Leftist parties like the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats, and the French Socialists. Among the world’s democracies, no country was molded more by socialist ideas than Israel, and this commanded the admiration of other socialists worldwide.

But in the 1970s, one European leader took up the mission of reversing this good opinion. He was Bruno Kreisky, the Chancellor of Austria, Vice President of the International, and one of the most memorable European politicians of his era.

By turning around the Socialists, Kreisky hoped to effect a larger transformation. “I set out to change [the] attitude on the part of the Western world” whose sympathy for Jews as a consequence of the Holocaust was, in his view “exploited by those in power in Israel in the most brutal fashion.” As he saw it, “The European parties were one-sidedly pro-Israeli, and I considered this short-sighted and dangerous.”

Remarkably, Kreisky was himself of Jewish lineage, born in 1911 to a well-to-do secular Viennese family. But he apparently felt nothing for this heritage—at least nothing positive. At age 19 or 20, he had taken the trouble to have his name stricken from the official list of Austrian Jews. A few years earlier he had become a devoted member of the Social Democratic Party, a disciple of Otto Bauer’s, the chief theoretician of Austrian Marxism.

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Jennifer Weiner On Her New Book, Her Boyfriend & Tweens With Santa Envy

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 7:00am
By Cara Paiuk for Raising Kvell
Thirteen years ago, a friend gave me a book to read saying that I would love it. And I did. A curvy, Jewish girl who had a neurotic dog and is dating a doctor? Check, check, and check. I felt an immediate kinship with Cannie Shapiro and the woman who created her. With each subsequent book by Jennifer Weiner, I, and thousands of other women, fell deeper in love with her heroines and their creator.

I sat down with Jen to discuss her fantastic new book, “All Fall Down,” about a suburban mommy blogger who succumbs to an addiction to prescription meds, her boyfriend (he loves her kids!) and what makes her kvell (same thing as most of us!).

What was the hardest part of writing “All Fall Down”?

People tell me they’re reading it with their hearts in their throats because every time Allison takes a pill, it’s like, “Is this going to be the one where there’s a real bad consequence?” And the hard part for me was my dad died of an overdose. It was sort of like putting myself into that headspace of: you know you shouldn’t be doing this, you don’t really want to be doing this, but you’re addicted. So your body is telling you “no” and your brain is telling you, “Oh just one more, doesn’t matter, no big deal.” And you know, Allison puts her kid at risk, so basically, just even imagining doing it, just writing the character of a mom who’s an addict, was hard.

Do you like Allison Weiss? Is she someone you would be friends with?

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Invisible City

Mon, 07/21/2014 - 7:00am
A book by Julia Dahl; Jewish Book Council

Just months after Rebekah Roberts was born, her mother, an Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, abandoned her Christian boyfriend and newborn baby to return to her religion. Neither Rebekah nor her father have heard from her since. Now a recent college graduate, Rebekah has moved to New York City to follow her dream of becoming a big-city reporter. But she’s also drawn to the idea of being closer to her mother, who might still be living in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

Then Rebekah is called to cover the story of a murdered Hasidic woman. Rebekah’s shocked to learn that, because of the NYPD’s habit of kowtowing to the powerful ultra-Orthodox community, not only will the woman be buried without an autopsy, her killer may get away with murder. Rebekah can’t let the story end there. But getting to the truth won’t be easy—even as she immerses herself in the cloistered world where her mother grew up, it's clear that she's not welcome, and everyone she meets has a secret to keep from an outsider.


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Meet Tom Freud, Sigmund's Famous Niece

Mon, 07/14/2014 - 7:00am
You've probably heard of Lucian Freud, Sigmund Freud's grandson, and a master of 20th-century painting, but he wasn't the first member of the famous clan with visual acumen. The famous psychoanalyst's niece, Martha, who went by the name Tom Seidmann-Freud (1892-1930), was an imaginative illustrator and author whose work from the 1920s is avidly collected today.

Rendered in muted, fanciful colors and bold graphic lines, Freud's illustrations—a dream-world setting where children frolic with gentle rabbits and giant fish—are ahead of their time, with inspiration coming from as varied sources as Paul Klee, Japanese prints, and Victorian illustration. Freud eschewed decorative surface in favor of a modern vision, suggesting an infinite, somewhat surreal space. Contributing images for her own multilingual texts, as well as to those of other authors, the artist worked in pochoir, a technique that combines stenciling and painting to produce an unusual and rich tonal depth.

With her husband, Yankel Seidmann and the famed Hebrew poet, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Freud established Ophir, a publishing company which produced Hebrew children's books. Ophir's bankruptcy led to Yankel's suicide, worsening Freud's own debilitated mental state. She ended her own life two years later at the age of 38.

- Cheryl Kempler for Jewniverse


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Rivka Galchen’s Short Stories Transport Readers Into Magical Worlds

Mon, 07/07/2014 - 7:00am
Israeli Writer Tells Surreal Stories of Culture Shock
By Shoshana Olidort for The Jewish Daily Forward

The stories in Rivka Galchen’s “American Innovations,” aren’t all fantastical — although a fair number include elements of magic realism and science fiction — but even the most realistic stories in this collection have a kind of magical quality about them that transports the reader into a world that feels at once real and surreal.

In “Real Estate,” the narrator moves into a haunted building where she meets a man, or imagines she meets a man, Eddy, who she will never see again. Opening her fridge, she finds not the Armenian string cheese she thought she had purchased too much of, but the apples she thought she had “only contemplated buying.” At a nearby gyro place she encounters a man who reminds her of her dead father, and whom she begins to refer to as “my dad.” She wonders: “Had I slipped through a wormhole of time?”

Galchen gives phantom and reality equal space in her stories, as if to underscore the fact that for her characters, the distinction between these two spheres is less important than the recognition that the imaginary and the actual are both a part of the experience of life. In the title story, the protagonist wakes one morning to find herself newly endowed with a third breast on her lower back. She consults a doctor, who asks a series of personal questions about the patient’s family life and emotional well-being, because, as she says, “It’s very common to manifest these things in our body… Your body speaks a language. It’s like a foreign language we all speak but have forgotten how to understand.”


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