Tag : book review

October 7, 2014 by

On Not Learning to Flirt

Daphne Merkin’s new memoir, The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, The Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, $28) is biting, insightful, and as revealing and withholding as a well-observed life deserves. Alert to all kinds of experiences, Merkin mines her fraught relationship with her father in the chapter “On Not Learning to Flirt.” Here’s a taste:

I was invited one summer to spend a weekend in New Hampshire with the writer Saul Bellow at the behest of his agent, who had recently taken me on as a client. Bellow was his larger-than-life, oxygen-eating self, as charming a host as you could wish for, discoursing on everything from Bach to his secret recipe for tuna fish salad that called for a tablespoon of ketchup. He was solicitous of me, praising what writing of mine he had read, and in general conspiring to make me a happy guest. But his very assumption of masculine irresistibility, which his agent had succumbed to long ago, put my teeth on edge, and I spent a good deal of time taking walks by myself so as not to have to be an audience to his sweltering ego.

reviews - the fame lunches

Towards the end of the stay, Bellow and I were talking outside, just the two of us, while he tilled his bounteous garden. I could swear he did an imitation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather by cutting an opening into a piece of orange skin, sliding it over his teeth, and then smiling at me ghoulishly, but whether I am inventing this in retrospect or it really happened, I know I suddenly felt tenderhearted toward him. As Bellow was seeing us off, I leaned over to give him a hug, and after we had said our goodbyes, he added, in a quiet voice, “Be kinder to the male gender.” This suggestion, in the simplicity of its appeal and the vulnerability that lay behind that appeal, broke through my already-wobbly defenses, opening up vistas of affection withheld and received that I mostly had shied away from. I cried all the way to the airport and then throughout the plane ride, feeling that I had been seen and understood, that the once-ignored little girl was now an adult woman whose feelings and responses left their mark on the male beholder.

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October 7, 2014 by

Sisters as Destabilizing Figures

In Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, $24), Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky presents a fresh perspective on the activity of women in the Bible. She contends the role that women play specifically as sisters lends women power, and often drives the action, even while a patriarchal order flourishes.reviews - dangerous sisters

Kalmanofsky points out that there are a number of types of sisters in the Hebrew Bible. There are sister dyads like Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob who vie for his attentions. There are sisters linked in incestuous narratives, one example being the daughters of Lot who, with no other men to continue their line trick and seduce their own father. And there are “sisterhoods” of women not related by blood, who play a cooperative or collective role. Kalmanofsky highlights here the “daughters of the Land” whom Dinah goes out to visit — an excursion which leads to her rape by Shechem. Each of these events provides an important fulcrum for a turn in historical events or transitions in the Bible.

A phenomenon largely overlooked by scholars, it is precisely sisters’ marginal status in the family that makes them instrumental at a point of transition or crisis. At first coming under the jurisdiction of their fathers and brothers, they marry out of the natal family, creating a natural tension between a sister’s birth family allegiance and the interests of her marital family. Unmarried sisters are also a critical point of contact with the outside world, since they are available for marriage or to form alliances with other women. They may also (in the Bible’s view) attract illicit sexual activity.

There are, according to this perspective, “ideal” sisters and “dangerous” sisters. “Ideal” sisters cooperate, support the existing social order and are not (at least while unmarried) sexualized. “Dangerous” sisters are those who “go out” — as the Bible often puts it — to act as independent agents. They may also be objects of desire, leading to the threat of incest or illicit marriage. “Dangerous” sisters destabilize the current order, and though this is dangerous it is not always undesirable. In some cases, the action of a sister may serve primarily to highlight a patriarch’s weakness and provide a cautionary tale. Take the story of Dina, whose interaction with the people of the land — on her own initiative — attracts the sexual attention of an undesirable outsider, endangering Jacob and the clan. However, in other stories, the destabilizing action of a “dangerous” woman may also usher in the next leader and the new chosen order. Look at Rachel and Leah, whose joint decision to back Jacob in his plan to escape Laban endangers Laban’s patriarchal status. To the patriarchal order they were born into, they are a danger — indeed, in shifting power from their natal to their marital family, they help raise Jacob to the status of patriarch in his own right.

Marriage is an important engine driving change. Kalmanofsky’s “dangerous.” sisterhoods raise the threat of exogamy — marriage with strangers, as in the stories of the daughters of Moab, with whom the Israelites join in worship and intermarriage. In so-called ideal sisterhoods, women provide solidarity and support for one another but do not disrupt their society’s stability; for example, according to Kalmanofsky’s analysis of the Song of Songs, the Daughters of Jerusalem support and guide the Shulamite in channeling her desires, providing her with an outlet for their expression among safe peers, and guiding her to act on those desires only at the right time.

Finally, Kalmanofsky perceptively analyzes the Book of Ruth to reveal a “redemptive” sisterhood. Ruth is the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi, who, after both are widowed, returns to Bethlehem after a long sojourn in Moab. Naomi and Ruth cooperate in finding Ruth a husband and redeemer of Naomi’s land, thus restoring a family to its rightful place despite death and separation, securing for both women a dignified life, and also making Ruth and Boaz the progenitors of the Davidic line. On its surface, this story would seem to violate the rules against exogamy (because marriage with Moabites is forbidden) and the tradition of patriarchal cooperativeness, but in effect the sisterhood of Ruth and Naomi redeems several earlier “dangerous” sisters and sisterhoods from the tragic consequences of their actions. In this biblical narrative, women have direct agency, but rather than being a threat to societal order they present an ideal model for interpersonal ethics. Historically, commentary on the Bible has tended to “empower” biblical women, albeit in contradictory ways — seeing them through the lens of what women are, or should be, “like” — whether as independent feminists or epitomes of wifely warmth and motherly generosity. Kalmanofsky doesn’t play this game. Acknowledging the patriarchal ideal of the biblical narrative, and how a woman’s position interacts either with or against the patriarchal ideal, Kalmanofsky succeeds in showing how, in a very natural way, biblical sisters pack a powerful punch.


Chana Thompson Shor is a Conservative rabbi, the first woman mesader gittin (preparer of Jewish religious divorces), a Judaic fabric artist, and a writer.

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October 7, 2014 by

The Enchanted Talmud: Rabbis and Muggles

reviews - enchantressWhen I began studying Talmud in Jewish day school, my friends and I used to act out the cases discussed in the Mishnah: “If a man uncovers a woman’s hair in public… If a man leaves his jug of water in the middle of the street….” We relied on makeshift props — a cheerleading pompom for a head of hair, or a juice box from someone’s lunch for a jug of water. I was reminded of those junior high school plays when I read Enchantress (Plume, $17), Maggie Anton’s second and final book about Rav Hisda’s daughter and the Jewish community of fourth-century Babylonia. Anton dramatizes scenes from the Talmud featuring her eponymous heroine (also known as Hisdadukh), her second husband Rava (her marriage to her first husband was the subject of the previous book), and the rabbis and sorceresses with whom they interact.

Knowledge, in this novel, is highly gendered: Men study Torah and women cast spells. That is not to say that women do not also learn Torah — and indeed, in the book’s closing pages an aged Hisdadukh teaches Mishnah to her granddaughters and their daughters, “according to each girl’s capabilities.” But for the most part, it is the men who quote Mishnah and the women who write incantation bowls, wear special rings that enable them to understand the speech of animals, and cast spells to quell deadly sandstorms and turn men into donkeys.

Midway through the book, in a scene reminiscent of countless middle-grade novels about preteen witches and their magic-making moms, Hisdadukh discovers that her mother, too, was a sorceress: “I’d thought it was Father’s study and piety that safeguarded our family all those years,” Hisdadukh relates, dumbfounded to discover that it was in fact their mother’s spells that had protected the family from harm. Several of these spells are included in the novel, as Anton draws on the astrological and demonic lore that is sprinkled like fairy dust throughout the Talmud’s pages, including vividly colorful curses such as “hot excrement in torn baskets.” At these moments the book seems to be a sort of “Harry Potter meets the Talmud,” with the Angel of Death as Dementor and other non-rabbinic Jews as muggles.

But Anton’s novel is also a romance, and quite a racy one at that. Hisdadukh and Rava have a passionate marriage, and they “use the bed” (Anton’s apt translation of the Talmudic euphemism) several times per chapter. Indeed, in one of her more daring and dubious leaps of conjecture, Anton suggests that Rava (meaning “great one”) received his epithet not due to his mastery of Torah, but on account of his spectacular endowment. Their sex life, for the most part, is charmed, except when the demon Ashmedai attempts to seduce Hisdadukh in the guise of her previous husband Rami, and Rava is consumed by jealous rage. This scene is perhaps a creative inversion of the Talmudic tale of Rava’s wife’s jealousy of his study partner’s wife Homa, an encounter which Anton surprisingly and disappointingly elects to domesticate.

Anton has elsewhere stated that her goal in writing these novels is to encourage more non-Orthodox Jews, especially women, to study Talmud. Towards this end she bridges an ancient text with contemporary academic scholarship on the Talmud’s Persian and Zoroastrian context, from magi to menstrual rituals. When at her best, she brings Talmudic characters vividly to life, as in her ingenious depiction of Rav Nahman’s imperious and importunate wife Yalta as a hawk-nosed lesbian. At times she seems merely to be dramatizing scene after scene from the Talmud, not unlike my amateur junior high Mishnah plays. But then Anton will let slip, say, that Rav Hisda’s daughter wore tzitzit, or that the rabbis gained their intimate knowledge of women’s bodies by consulting their wives, or that Hisdadukh’s vision of the world to come involved studying Torah with both her husbands simultaneously. Suddenly it becomes clear that only a twenty-first century feminist and critical sensibility like Anton’s could interpret the Talmud in just this way; and for this reader, at least, the novel succeeds in working its magic.


Ilana Kurshan works in book publishing in Jerusalem.

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October 7, 2014 by

Terrorism Induces Unexpected Parenthood

reviews - all I love and knowIt is, as reviewers have noted, a provocative premise: in the new novel All I Love and Know (HarperCollins, $26.99), the fallout from a Jerusalem suicide bombing ricochets through a family, setting numerous relationships off-balance and making everyone question roles, beliefs and responsibilities. The two main characters Judith Frank gives us are a pair of gay men who confront sudden and unexpected parenthood when they must adopt a niece and nephew orphaned in the bombing. What makes the premise of this book new and untried is that the two are grappling with their politics as well — about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, of course, but also about their queer visibility in 2003.

While this narrative of two Israeli children adopted by their gay American uncles in the wake of their parents’ death from terrorism is indeed provocative, and while some of the issues it raises play out compellingly in its characters’ lives (what is the likelihood of a romantic relationship surviving sudden and horrific trauma?), the book, particularly in its first third, is marred by clumsy and overwrought politics. Matt, the non-Jewish boyfriend who wrestles with his place in the grieving family, doesn’t quite understand why it might not be appropriate for him to blurt out, “Wow. Is that occupied territory?” as he approaches Jerusalem for the first time. Similarly, though it may be entirely appropriate and right for authors to inject their own political leanings into a work of fiction, Frank seems not to notice that her constant comparisons of Israel to South Africa might not be a good fit for the circumstances in which she has placed her characters as they face momentous human loss and the genuine suffering that she has invented for them. In this case, the polemic feels unsuited to the story.

There is a lot going on in All I Love and Know, which perhaps accounts for some confusing errors in the narrative. (As an example, Frank accurately depicts Ethiopian security guards in front of popular cafés in Jerusalem, yet for one of the Israeli children adopted by the gay uncles, an African- American neighbor in Northampton is “the first brown person she’d ever talked to.”) Some subplots — like Matt’s troubled relationship with Jay, a close friend dead of AIDS — seem unnecessary. So much is happening already between Matt and his Jewish partner, Daniel. Daniel’s twin, Joel, was the young father killed along with his wife, Ilana, in the bombing. The custody battle between Daniel and Ilana’s religious, Holocaust-survivor parents is complicated by his homosexuality, portrayed, somewhat confusingly, as being more offensive in the Israeli legal system than in the American one.

The intense relationship between Daniel and Matt, and the inner grieving of six-year-old Gal, supply the most compelling parts of this book. Judith Frank has introduced new points of view for examining these complicated relationships, and she is to be commended for this. Yet All I Love and Know does, in the end, seem a fitting title for a book that leans heavily towards political sentiment, denying us better knowledge of the world in which it is set, and the characters the author brings to life.


Melanie Weiss is the Director of Education at Beth Israel Congregation of Waterville, Maine, and the Director of the Kadima Beth Hebrew School program at Temple Beth El in Portland, Maine. She is a Lilith contributing editor.

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April 8, 2014 by

The Midwife’s Narrative

According to midwife-turned-memoirist Ellen Cohen, when people hear the word midwife they typically assume that it refers to someone who assists women giving birth at home. But while this is certainly true for some in the profession, Cohen’s engaging account of the three decades she spent delivering babies, providing general gynecological care, and educating patients about abortion, contraception and sexuality aims to set the record straight.

“More than 95 percent of midwife deliveries in this country take place in hospitals,” she writes. It’s a setting Cohen knows well. During her tenure, she worked in both public and private facilities and estimates that she delivered at least 1400 babies, the offspring of the homeless, the HIV-positive, the indigent, the mentally ill and, of course, the perfectly healthy.

One of the most riveting stories she tells in Laboring: Stories of a New York City Hospital Midwife (self published; available at Amazon, $15.95) involves Mia, a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia who refused to believe that the intense pain she was feeling had anything to do with parturition. “I’m not pregnant,” she screamed. “Get your hands away from my pussy…No, I don’t use drugs…Just my Thorazine and my crack.”

Mia had been taken to the hospital by Emergency Medical Services after she was discovered in a mid-Manhattan subway station. She was terrified. “Mothers feel intense pressure from the baby’s head and a burning sensation in the perineum during the moments just before birth,” Cohen explains. “Mia must have been feeling that; she jumped over the raised side rails and out of bed, as if that would help her escape the pain, and ran out of the room into the large open area near the nurse’s station. After a split second of shocked disbelief, I ran right behind her. Mia leaned against the wall with the next contraction as the baby’s head emerged.” Cohen encouraged her to crouch down, and an incredulous Mia delivered a healthy baby, subsequently placed with the same relative who was caring for Mia’s first-born daughter.

Cohen admits that patients like Mia, while relatively rare, take their toll on staff. Likewise, the unanticipated stillbirths, birth defects, and other complications have a jarring impact on midwives and other medical personnel, underscoring the dangers inherent in pregnancy, no matter how sophisticated the technology or how good the prenatal care.

The story of Tonia is a case in point. Thrilled to be having a girl, Tonia was a young, healthy non-smoker who did not drink or use drugs. Everything was going perfectly, the baby kicking and growing normally. Then, out of nowhere, Tonia developed pre-eclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication that caused the baby to be born 12 weeks early. The infant later died, and Cohen’s description is heart-rending.

That said, all is not grim, and Laboring includes dozens of joyful anecdotes. At the same time, Cohen reports encounters with arrogant, sexist physicians and pig-headed bureaucrats. She also chronicles several just-in-the-nick-of-time actions by helpful maintenance people — the usually unheralded workers who keep health centers running smoothly. What’s more, while the book does not directly tackle deficits in the healthcare system, it addresses — and condemns — the high rate of Caesarian deliveries in the United States.

Cohen notes that midwives are trained to let nature take its course, and the profession favors a “high touch, low tech” approach over a “high-tech, no touch” medical model for women about to give birth. “Pregnancy,” Cohen concludes, “is not a disease. Midwives trust birth rather than trying to control it. Science supports this approach.”

And if it takes longer than one might like? Cohen acknowledges that labor follows neither formula nor game plan. “We do not view the normal mainly as preparation for the interesting complication,” she writes. “The ordinary miracle of life is interesting enough.”


 

Eleanor J. Bader is a writer and teacher whose work appears on Truthout.org, RHRealityCheck.org, Theasy.com and in The Brooklyn Rail and other progressive feminist magazines and blogs.

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April 8, 2014 by

Those Jewish Brits

Though a relatively small community, Anglo-Jewry has lately produced a spate of highly successful fiction. These include two recent offerings that address female Jewish protagonists and their struggles with community.

Eve Harris’s The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is set primarily in a contemporary ultra-Orthodox community in Northwest London. Told from multiple perspectives — the young bride-to-be Chani, her fiance, his mother, her mother, the matchmaker, the rebbetzin who prepares Chani for her nuptials, the rabbi, their son and his secret lover of Nigerian descent — this suspenseful and well-paced tale centers around the fears and tensions surrounding the upcoming wedding. Or perhaps even more pronounced, the upcoming wedding night. Sex — recreational and procreational — is at the forefront of these characters’ minds. The older ones grapple with a miscarriage that catalyzes the end of a marriage, the younger ones are mystified by their sexuality (which they are taught nothing about) and terrorized by the thought of losing their virginity as new marriage looms.

Chani, at the center, is curious and strong-minded, and the novel considers how these traits make her difficult to ‘marry off’. “Unaware of their own mediocrity, young people demanded perfection in a spouse.” Along with gender, the narrative explores intimacy, interactions with the secular world, and the complex family dynamics in families with so many children. It sheds light on the private experience of the very religious — both men and women, from what they think about when riding the bus to attempting to glimpse the other gender’s section at a simcha — including their doubts and dissatisfactions with their closed world. As a reader, I felt like a hungry voyeur, eagerly interested in how the ultra-Orthodox go about their everyday lives and loves, hoping that the secular author wrote from research rather than conjecture.

While the dialogue occasionally seems to be in service of explaining Jewish custom, for the most part I was so drawn into this fictional world that I wanted to know how the characters would fare in their new married and divorced lives.

Also based on a marriage is The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by bestselling author Natasha Solomon. The novel stretches through time, but is set primarily in a conservative — but not religious — tight-knit Jewish community in a London suburb in the 1960s. Juliet Montague (a classic “assimilationist” British Jewish name) is a 30-something mother of two, an art gallery owner and an aguna, a woman whose husband has disappeared or who refuses to grant her a Jewish divorce, so she remains unmarriable. The title of the book comes from a column that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward, which included photographs of missing husbands in an attempt to track them down. In this case, the title also refers to Julia’s opening of her own gallery, as well as to the “gallery” of portraits that hangs in her home, a house that remained suburban and shabby even when she became an avant-garde arbiter of taste. In both these novels, we follow female characters who question and critique their communities and families, but, ultimately, remain Jewish, accepting doubt and ambivalence.

We meet Juliet several years after her Hungarian Holocaust-survivor husband’s exit, just as she’s beginning an adventure in London’s swinging 60s art world. Even more so than Chani Kaufman, Juliet is curious, strong-willed and feisty; she is only slightly uncomfortable in her Jewish world — which sees her as a mild disgrace — and in the aristocratic art world which sees her as a Jew. A confident iconoclast, she is successful and at ease in her new bohemian life, which makes her likable, but one doesn’t get the sense that she misses her husband all that much. Because of this, the stakes in the tale at first seem low, the drama centered mainly on art world social life. The tension, however, progresses as Juliet’s love affair with an older British artist (inspired by English painter Eric Ravilious) becomes more complicated, her children mature and react — often negatively — to her life choices, and she goes to America to search for her long-lost spouse, a journey which adds mystery and urgency. All along, the reader is seduced by evocative description: “The pale city light melted into a half-hearted dawn, a lackluster sun slinking up over the buildings … In Los Angeles daylight gave way to the neon dark of late night drugstores and streetlights and the acid glow of the office buildings.”

For me, more interesting than the plight of the aguna here was the theme of post-Holocaust intimacy in the Jewish world. By exploring Juliet’s husband’s psychology and his previous relationships before the Second World War, the tale subtly explores the way that the war damaged generations of families across continents.


 Judy Batalion is a writer in New York. She is currently a columnist for the New York Times “Motherlode” blog.

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April 8, 2014 by

A Dementia Epidemic

Ever since reading her sweet and mischievous picture book Tell Me A Mitzi to my kids, decades ago, I have loved the writing of Lore Segal. In one of these stories, little Mitzi gets up very early one morning, changes her baby brother, helps him out of his crib, out of their apartment and into a cab to visit their grandparents. Only… she doesn’t know the address, so the driver patiently helps them out of the cab, they go back home, get into bed, and their parents never suspect their travails. In a second story, the little brother, a bit older now and at a parade, complains so loudly about wanting gum that the president of the United States stops his entourage to give the boy a piece. And in the final story, everyone in the household, one by one — including the grandmother who comes to help — gets the flu. With everyone in bed you get a sense of the world falling apart, yet this is all somehow normal, and even amusing.

Perhaps in these, her early stories for children, we can see the seeds of themes — of a child taking on normally adult responsibilities; of the power of words, of speaking up; and of the world seeming to come apart but going on — that have long intrigued the author. In 1938, when she was 10 years old, Segal was, as a Kindertransport child, sent alone by her parents from Vienna to England, where she took upon herself — as per her dad’s instructions — to make every effort to secure the escape of the rest of her family. She eventually made her way to the United States, and two of her novels, Other People’s Houses, and Her First American, tell something of her own life story.

Now we have Segal’s tender and irreverent portrait of old age, Half the Kingdom. This is a sobering yet somehow even hilarious novel, charming and wise. In it, the lives of old friends with histories, long-married couples, elders and their adult children, colleagues, former lovers, friends and friends of friends converge in and around a hospital where everyone over the age of 62 is coming down with dementia, including the senior members of the think tank hired to study this strange and alarming situation.

In one subplot, a gift to the aspiring writers among us, a writer’s manuscript submitted to a magazine has been neither acknowledged nor rejected, and she seems unable to stop herself from patiently inventing new communications, at turns furious and friendly, hopeful and hopeless, to address the indignity of being ignored. She never actually mails the letters she drafts which Segal seamlessly weaves into the main predicament of this novel:

“The ambulance attendant is new at the job. He suspends his pen over the report, which he will hand in when they arrive at the hospital. He is supposed to check either ‘constant’ or ‘when you move’. Next question: “Would you call this a dull or a stabbing pain?” “Dull? Hell hell hell! No, I would not call this pain a dull pain! God. And I would not call it ‘stabbing’.” The man in pain focuses on the pain, the exact location of which he is unable to pinpoint. He compares what he feels with what he understand the word ‘stabbing’ to connote, and stabbing is not what this is, nor is it ‘biting’, ‘shooting’, ‘burning’, ‘searing’, ‘throbbing’, ‘grinding’, or ‘gnawing’. He searches the language and does not find in its vocabulary the word that names this peculiar excruciation. ‘Get me Roget’s Thesaurus!’ shrieks the man in pain.”

Don’t miss this delightfully playful and humane novel.


Naomi Danis is Lilith’s managing editor and author of It’s Tot Shabbat.

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April 8, 2014 by

Powerful Intimacies in Both Old Country and New

In The Scent of Pine, a new novel by the celebrated writer Lara Vapnyar, a struggling college lecturer away from her husband and children at an academic conference falls into an uncharacteristic affair with a charismatic and successful professor. Already long alienated from her floundering marriage, Lena finds surprising intimacy in the affair and begins to plumb her personal history as the budding relationship loosens her inhibitions and lethargy.

Two unfolding stories are skillfully interwoven — the illicit present-day romance between Lena and Ben in New England, and Lena’s coming-of-age at summer camp in the Soviet Union, which she recounts to Ben in intimate detail over the course of their tryst. Yet, “The camp story will be over sooner or later. As will the story of Lena and Ben. If only she could learn some of Scheherazade’s storytelling magic and make it last,” Lena thinks to herself. A lingering mystery from summer camp days emerges through Lena’s narration, connecting the story and the storyteller across time and space.

The UnAmericans, a debut short story collection by the young and talented Molly Antopol, covers similar geographic terrain. Ranging across Eastern Europe, America and Israel, each short story has a sharp poignancy, a surprisingly bittersweet vulnerability.

In “The Old World,” a well-intentioned second marriage comes up deeply, heartbreakingly short. The disappointed disappointing husband wonders, “How had I let myself become just another sad old man at a table for one?” In “Minor Heroics,” sibling rivalry and sibling love overlap and intertwine on kibbutz. Oren has always envied and admired his older brother Assaf — but when Assaf is severely wounded in a tractor accident the roles are reversed, and Oren can’t bear his own newfound dominance over his brother. In “Retrospective,” Mira’s marriage may or may not be disintegrating — coinciding with the death of her domineering, withholding, fabulously wealthy grandmother. She cries to her husband, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be with someone who exists so fully in his head. Who has no desire to leave our weird little cocoon.”

In both The UnAmericans and The Scent of Pine, the authors employ a deceptive simplicity in their writing. The tropes, the dialogue — even the archetypal characters — are in some ways familiar, bordering even on predictable. The ambiance and appeal of Eastern Europe, and of Eastern European descendants in America, are also well-trodden fiction terrain (thanks in no small part to the success of Vapnyar and her thriving cohort).

Yet Antopol and Vapynar share a deep and devastating gift for eliciting extraordinary emotional reaction from the recognizable intimacies of relationships. The sharp pain of suddenly seeing a parent’s weakness exposed, the bright starkness of a partner’s insecurity or disregard, the thrill of sexual conquest — these fundamental experiences are conveyed in such bare, compelling, unaffected voice that it is virtually impossible not to recognize yourself in every different character in these two excellent books. The familiar territory of the books makes the unexpected emotional impact of the stories all the stronger.


 

Sonia Isard is a Lilith contributing editor.

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April 8, 2014 by

Peacebuilding

Jewish tradition and communities have apparent dichotomies regarding conflict: Traditionally, Jews tend toward disagreement and disputation, but have an equal passion for peace. And while Jews are idealistic about their role in the redemption of the world — by exemplifying civility and the harmonious rule of law — they can also be deeply at odds with each other in any argument that touches on the issue of Jewish survival. Need these things really be in conflict?”

In From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace (Orbis Books, $25), Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi, looks to the rabbinic ideal of controversy “for the sake of Heaven,” in which ideas are opposed for a higher purpose. In such disputes, respect for one’s opponent is maintained, minimizing the dangers of polarization and ruptured relationships. And in our tradition conflict is not a purely negative phenomenon. As one example, she gives the view of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav that disagreement is like the kabbalistic “self-contraction” of God, which made space for the world to be created. Conflict theory presents much the same idea: that in the disjunction and distance created by “constructive conflict” new solutions to problems can arise. Conflict is therefore not the enemy of peace, but in fact can be its generator since, as Eilberg notes, peace is not merely the absence of conflict, but a condition of wholeness in the world.

Conflict is thus an opportunity (admittedly one with built-in hazards). In its presence, people can either build on, or destroy, relationships, depending on which human traits come to the fore. Thus the religious aspect of Eilberg’s distillation includes not only outward action, but also an inward discipline in the form of mussar (a system of Jewish moral discipline beginning in the 10th century), to cultivate “peacebuilding” responses to conflict, rather than unproductively defensive or angry reactions.

The term “peacebuilding” normally refers to the work done by civil leaders to create favorable conditions for official “peacemaking” (the latter being the purview of diplomats and other government professionals). However, Eilberg argues that the peacebuilding is something anyone can do: interpersonally, within and between communities, with those from different faith traditions, and even — in a modest but significant way — with those considered serious adversaries.

In addition to an account of her own experience with interreligious dialogue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and dialogue between Jews on Israel, Eilberg brings to her discussion of conflict and peace in the Jewish tradition a wealth of rabbinic insight. Her analysis is not, however, dominated by a scholarly perspective. Nor, in her examination of conflict in and involving the Jewish community, does she allow her understanding of conflict or communications theory to predominate. Eilberg brings them together, as a practical answer to the commandment of Psalm 34 to “seek peace and pursue it,” creating a useful guide for the Jewish peacebuilder.

Like Eilberg, Penny Rosenwasser, in Hope Into Practice: Jewish Women Choosing Justice Despite Our Fears, (AK Press, $21.95) notes that overriding fear for Jewish survival can impede the fulfillment of our obligations to others. Eilberg sees this fearfulness as an obstacle in relating to our adversaries’ concerns; Rosenwasser cites it as leading to an ethno- or religiocentric “Is it good for the Jews?” mentality, one obstacle to the generosity needed to pursue justice.

Rosenwasser’s remedy begins with awareness of the damage done to us as a people. She lays out a concise history of anti-Semitism (and its different faces), climaxing with the Holocaust and the legacy of trauma and fear from which many still suffer. Rosenwasser explores how the fear engendered by anti-Semitism and related oppressions such as racism, sexism and homophobia, can affect the ways Jews view themselves. She takes the position that greater concern for others is the natural result of healing one’s defensive stance, achieving healthy self-love.

While Eilberg notes the opposition of some of her colleagues, her work can likely speak comfortably to a range of readers. Rosenwasser’s book, though, is likely to raise hackles to her right. She is outspoken on behalf of justice for the Palestinian people, and her characterization of that conflict is in places still inaccurate and one-sided. However, her account of her own activism is compelling, particularly her certainty that anti-Semitism, in addition to being an abuse that must be identified, is an obstacle in the Jewish struggle for the human rights of others.

Rosenwasser, between two extremes, says, in essence (to the left, pro-Palestinian crowd): “If you’re not standing up for yourself as a Jew by identifying anti-Semitism, and rooting out the internalized kind, you’re missing the credibility you need to advocate effectively for others,” and (to the “Is it good for the Jews?” crowd): “If you’re so focused on anti-Semitism that you’re advocating only for yourself, you’re not pursuing justice.”

This book may show many on the left the historical reasons for Israel’s defensive stance, as well as highlighting the dangers of demonization for those on both sides of the question. She describes some who learned, from their experience of the Shoah, a sensitivity for the oppressed, rather than seeing themselves primarily as victims and potential victims. Consequently, it is curious that she does not emphasize the role of Jews’ having internalized the message of our foundational story of trauma and liberation, the Exodus: That rulers and slaves are made of the same stuff; that when we have privilege our only “safety” — and that of others — lies in refraining from the abuse of power, and fighting oppression and injustice wherever we find it.


Rabbi Chana Thompson Shor is a Conservative rabbi, the first woman mesader gittin (preparer of Jewish religious divorce), a Judaic fabric artist, and a writer.

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April 3, 2014 by

How Jewish texts can help women — rabbis included —  through trying transitions

Rabbi-editors Sue Levi Elwell and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer invited women rabbis, scholars and activists to share the Jewish texts they have found themselves applying in their own lives. The contributors to Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (Cascade Books, $26) include Julie Greenberg, Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg and Wendy Zierler. Rabbi Hara Person writes of raising a son and finding wisdom in stories of the biblical King David. Rabbi Rachel Adler observes her mother’s cognitive slide into forgetting, and the book of Lamentations is Adler’s benchmark. Rabbi Laura Geller looks back many decades to her divorce, examining it through the lens of Sarah and Abraham setting out on a journey when they were no longer young. And here is Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg on coming to a mature understanding of her professional role:

As a congregational rabbi I felt great pressure to be someone who was always interested in others. Always. The truth is I was not always interested. I also had to demonstrate how “spiritual,” “deep,” “serious and seriously Jewish” I am. Especially as someone in the early wave of female rabbis, I felt so compelled to get it right. Shoring up a persona of “spiritual” has a grave downside, like any persona — intellectual, manager, healer, etc. So much energy is invested in the persona, the false God, that the true God, the true life force, one’s unique passion, is concealed, and at worst, even buried alive….

At the Passover seder we are invited to lay back on super comfortable chairs or to just “lounge around.” Reclining as free people counters restlessness. We place the body in a position of repose, in a place of faith and trust. This posture opens a door to relaxing the fretting brow and the urge to pace the floor. When I am relaxed in my body, my mind is relaxed as well. I have a chance to ponder relationships, causes and consequences. I have the opportunity to live purposefully at whatever stage of life.

In the new book Kaddish: Women’s Voices (Urim, $27.95) editors Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas gather 52 reflections on the experience of mourning. Belda Lindenbaum writes here, “For some women it is no longer a lonely experience. Still, the road to understanding women’s spiritual needs and making room for them, both figuratively and physically, is a long one, and we have barely begun the journey. Most of the liturgy is wonderfully poetic. A phrase that is dear to me appears in the morning prayers; You have changed my mourning into dancing/You have removed my sackcloth and girded me with joy/So that I might praise You and not remain silent/God, my God, forever will I thank You. Is this not a paradigm for loss and acceptance? For me, it also speaks to women’s need to be seen and heard within Judaism. If God sees us and hears us, and acknowledges us as part of God’s community, then where is man?” 

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