Monday, May 23, 2005

Judasim and Christianity - two different manifestos

. see my review in the Jerusalem Post.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Joseph's Bones

A while back a small collection of stories arrived in my mailbox: Joseph's Bones, by Ozzie Nogg. It sat atop my "to be blogged" pile for a while (here's where its small size comes in handy: the coffee-table book has been relegated to the base of the stack to keep the whole thing sturdy, but this little collection balances neatly on the top) and recently I finally picked it up to give it a skim. I wound up reading it the whole way through, not wanting to put it down.

The book contains twelve short stories, an introduction, and a glossary. The whole thing could fit in most ladies' purses, or in the side pocket of a briefcase. But there's more to this little book than its size might indicate.

These are sweet stories, familiar stories. If you're a second- or third-generation American, these tales may resonate especially well for you. In this book we meet Nogg's Bubbie, who repainted the cupboard every year after Purim until the cabinet doors wouldn't really close; her father, who taught her lessons about expectations by planting watermelons, and who modeled teshuvah by zipping across an interstate median to change directions; and Ozzie herself, and her intended Don, at the moment when their fathers decided to invite the entire Jewish community to their nuptials.

Maybe I like this little book because occasionally Nogg's father -- a rabbi from Lithuania, born at the tail-end of the nineteenth century -- reminds me of my grandfather, of blessed memory. My grandfather was born ten years after her dad; he came from Byelorus, not Lithuania; and though he could have pursued smicha, ordination, he chose medical school instead. But I hear his voice in her father's cadences and wry humor. Reading this book made me a little wistful sometimes. I think that's what Nogg intended.

Joseph's Bones isn't a groundbreaking book. It doesn't take the reader in new directions; the surprises it offers are small ones. Reading it is like taking the time to sit down with a relative you've never known very well; you might come away shaking your head, you might come away laughing, and for sure you'll come away knowing your time was well-spent.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Benjie the Bin Man featured in 'Granta'

An extract from my review of the 'Granta' Jubilee issue in the Jerusalem Post, featuring well-known London character "Benjie the bin man":

..."As a quarterly, Granta has an excellent reputation for publishing new writing. This current edition does not disappoint, but it does surprise in a way which is of direct interest to Jewish readers - of the 19 varied essays and stories, at least six have central or peripheral Jewish interest.
The first essay is a journalistic profile of one of London's well-known eccentrics - master garbage-bin rifler Benjamin Pell, who "acquired an infamy for looting the dustbins of lawyers and agents of the rich and famous and selling their secrets to newspapers and magazines." Until his activities were legally curtailed, "Benjie the Binman," as he was known, was the unlikely center of several cause celebres in the 1990s. Mr. Pell is a religious Jew, 40-ish, who lives in Hendon with his parents. His close friends, and certainly Tim Adams, the author of this profile, would admit that he is not a totally easy person to befriend. The story is, however, sensitive, riveting and hilarious. It is rather like a sympathetic rummage in Benjie's own bin - a sort of middah k'neged middah (poetic justice). The title - "Benjamin Pell versus The Rest of The World" - says it all."

Monday, March 07, 2005

Triumph of style over taste

According to Jewsweek, 'Queen of Kosher' Susie Fishbein's new cookbook, Kosher by Design Entertains,
has already exhausted it's (sic) initial printing of 30,000 -- all in only its first week of release. A second printing of an additional 20,000 copies have (sic) already begun.
If so, I find this extremely surprising. Kosher by Design was ambitious, beautiful, modern, and did set new standards for Kosher cookbooks. It didn't, however, do much for Jewish food. Let's be honest -- the recipes didn't hold a candle to the vastly superior Kosher Palette. Too many of them either didn't work very well, took too long to prepare or involved ingredients which were too obscure. I guess when you've already sold 30,000 copies one less won't make much difference, but I for one will not be buying a copy of the new book.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Reading a really big Jewish book

BCC News recently posted a story about the finishing of one daily Talmud-study cycle, and the beginning of another: Crowds flock to Jewish book party.

I've been contemplating getting in on the Daf Yomi action, though I spent much of February out of town, and now I realize I've missed the boat a little. Anyone here have daf sites/mailing lists/blogs to recommend?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

For Women, Middle Ages Might Have Been Golden...

My review of two books about Jewish women in the Middle Ages, discussed extensively on this blog, appears in the Forward this week.
Eight hundred years ago, thousands of Jewish Egyptian women refused to immerse in the ritual bath. Only Maimonides’s threat that they would lose their Ketubah money quelled the orchestrated rebellion, years after it began. A century later in Ashkenaz (Christian Europe), rabbis were astonished by the large number of Jewish women who refused to have marital relations with their husbands, asking instead to be proclaimed “rebellious wives” and divorced.
“Between the lines,” writes Avraham Grossman in a new book titled “Pious and Rebellious,” “echoes the voice of powerful women, very different from the ideal of the submissive and shy figure depicted by thinkers during the Middle Ages and the early modern period.”

Monday, January 31, 2005

The Observant Reader

Wendy Shalit writes an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the spurt, in recent years, of literature about the Haredi community. Her basic thesis is that some of the most successful books -- eg. Nathan Englander's For The Relief of Unbearable Urges , books by Tova Reich and Tova Mirvis -- are written by people who purport to be insiders, but have in fact left the fold or perhaps never even really belonged in it. As a result, they portray the community rather negatively, and without any really idealistic characters. She asks:
What is the market for this fiction? Does it simply satisfy our desire, as one of Mirvis's reviewers put it, to indulge in ''eavesdropping on a closed world''? Or is there a deeper urge: do some readers want to believe the ultra-Orthodox are crooked and hypocritical, and thus lacking any competing claim to the truth? Perhaps, on the other hand, readers are genuinely interested in traditional Judaism but don't know where to look for more nuanced portraits of this world.
Shalit contrasts this to Welcome to Heavenly Heights by Risa Miller and Seven Blessings by Ruchama King, both of which came out a couple of years ago. Writes Shalit:
Like Miller, King doesn't shy away from the problems that affect her world, but she also captures the subtlety and magic of its traditions. In particular, she convincingly describes the sublimated excitement that characterizes ultra-Orthodox dating as tiny gestures take on heightened meaning.
I think that Shalit is perhaps oversensitive here to the books being written by the Mirvises and Englanders of this world. I don't think you can read either of their books without gaining the impression that this is a world they both do -- in vastly different ways, and certainly vastly differently to the way Shalit does -- care about. (I can't comment about Tova Reich whom I've never read.)
In any case, the crux of Shalit's argument is that one portrayal is more 'real'/'authentic' than another. On this I disagree with her. As a Ba'alat Tshuva, she -- and Miller, and King -- see this community in a very different way to the way others who were either born and bred in it, or who grew up in close proximity see it. This does not mean one is 'wrong' and one is 'right.' People simply experience reality differently, and they're entitled to write about it as they see fit.
You could also ask to what extent any author portrays any community / experience 'realistically.' Does John LeCarre portray the spy world "realistically"?? Does Jilly Cooper portray the racing world "realistically"?? Did Bashevis Singer always portray the Shtetl world "realistically"?? I doubt it, and I'm not sure this is a valid criterion for measuring these books.
In any case, I should add that both Englander and Mirvis are, in my opinion, highly overrated, but Risa Miller and Ruchama King were downright awful. Their books had no real plot or tension; they were held together, barely, by the kind of 'atmosphere' which Shalit seems to laud them for. If you haven't heard of them, there's a reason for that. I'm sure there are many people out there who will happily buy more 'realistic' (and by that, Shalit means 'sympathetic') books about the Haredi world if only those which do come out were a little more gripping.

(Cross-posted to Bloghead)
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