Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Our October Meeting

After our summer recess, Book Nosh is back, better than ever. We had a good turnout at our October 8 meeting; members arrived armed with interesting books they had read over the summer and exciting ideas for expanding the reach of our book club during this coming year.


The One Book idea:  As we know, the basic operational model for most book clubs is for all members to read the same book and then devote a meeting to a discussion of that one book. In the past, we at Book Nosh have disdained such a conventional approach. In our view, it is much more in keeping with our Jewish tradition for each member to read a different book, and then spend the next meeting arguing about whose book is superior. However, in a bow to convention, we have decided that this year we will dedicate an occasional meeting to a discussion of a single book. Our first monotopical meeting will be on December 10, and will be dedicated to a discussion ofThe Wanting, by Michael Lavigne. As it happens, this novel is this year’s selection of the One Book, One Jewish Community committee and will presumably be read by all Jewish readers in the greater Philadelphia area, and we at Book Nosh are nothing if not conformists. All kidding aside, it is a wonderful book, and we are looking forward to spending a couple of hours talking about it, and about the issues that it raises, at our December meeting.

Furthermore, because we thought that this book was particularly appropriate for mature and sophisticated Jewish teenagers (i.e. the book is full of sex, violence, and rough language), we have invited the students attending TBI’s Hebrew High School to read the book and join us for our December meeting. Our invitation has been approved by the powers that be, and we are looking forward to an influx of young and opinionated visitors.

As a final note, we have found out that Michael Lavigne himself is coming to our area to discuss his book on January 26, 2014. Time and location are yet to be determined, but the date is on a Sunday, which should make it easier for all of us who admire the book to attend his talk.

Group Outing to See a Play: One of our members, Janie Siman-Glatt, alerted us to a production of Address Unknown being presented at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. This play, which is based on a book by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor that we have all read and which was the subject of discussion at one of our meetings last year, deals in a clever and surprising way with the rise of Nazism in Germany.

We have signed up 10 people to attend the play on Sunday, November 24, at 2:00 pm. We have also managed to persuade the producer to sell us discounted tickets at $20 per person and to make cast members available for a post-performance discussion. We will be meeting in the TBI parking lot at 12:00 noon and traveling as a group. Transportation will be available to those members who prefer not to drive into Philadelphia. There are additional tickets available for anyone wishing to join our group.

Showing a Movie: Another member of our group, Paula Goldberg, has found a wonderful little movie, called The Return of the Violin. It tells the story of a Stradivarius once owned by a Jewish virtuoso named Bronislaw Huberman, who was born in Czestochowa, Poland in 1882. The violin was stolen from Huberman in 1945, during one of his performances at Carnegie Hall, and disappeared for some 50 years. Eventually it resurfaced and is now owned by famed American violinist Joshua Bell. In 2012, Bell brought the violin back to Czestochowa for a concert. Interwoven with the story of the violin is the story of the Jews of Czestochowa, 45,000 of whom were murdered during World War II, and the story of one little Jewish boy who managed to survive, make his way to the United States, prosper, and eventually finance the rebuilding of the Czestochowa concert hall (formerly the Czestochowa synagogue) and the visit by Joshua Bell and his Strad for the once-in-a-lifetime concert. The movie is available for streaming here, but we thought it would be a nice to watch it as a group at TBI, with a discussion to follow. We are currently working on suitable arrangements.

Poetry Night at the Book Nosh: Finally, another of our members, Steve Pollack, suggested that it might be a nice idea to devote one of our meetings to a discussion of Jewish poetry. To illustrate the idea, Steve read one of his poems (which we reprint below, with his permission). Steve’s poem, as well as his idea, met with universal approval. We will dedicate one of our 2014 Book Nosh meetings to Jewish poetry. Stay tuned for further details.


A Guide to the Perplexed, by Dara Horn. Horn, who has visited TBI, and whose books we have discussed previously, has now published her fourth novel. (She is already 36, so obviously she needs to start working a little harder. Never mind that she has a job as a university professor and the occasional outside lecture gig.) In this latest book, she weaves together a story about Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter’s discovery of the Cairo Genizah (which we have discussed previously), an account of Moses Maimonides slaving away, back in 1171, over his perhaps somewhat more famous book of the same title, the biblical tale of Joseph and his brothers, and a story about two competitive and high-achieving sisters set in present day New York and Cairo. The book has received somewhat mixed reviews as a work of popular fiction, but there is no doubting the erudition of its author, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in comparative literature, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. Highly recommended for those readers who enjoyed reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Jewish as a Second Language: How to Worry, How to Interrupt, How to Say the Opposite of What
You Mean, by Molly Katz. Katz, who is, among other things, a stand-up comic, explained her reasons for writing the book as follows:
I am Jewish. My ex-husband Bill is not. One day, back when we were still married, my mother had to get her blood pressure checked. She didn’t need a ride, she said; she’d call a cab. Bill said, “Okay.”
Of course, she stopped speaking to us.
“How could you?” I asked Bill.
“How could I what?”
“Let her take a cab.”
“But,” Bill said, “it was her idea.”
“You should have known how to translate,” I said.
He said, “My mother would have taken a cab.”
“She’s not Jewish. If a Jewish person offers to take a cab, she never means it.”
“Well, you’ll have to be patient with me,” he said. “Jewish is only my second language.”
As a public service, Katz decided to write this language study manual. According to our reviewer, this is a laugh-out-loud book, and based on the few samples our reviewer read to us, we must agree.

American Judaism: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna. Sarna, who is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, recently spent a weekend with us at TBI, giving several interesting talks on the history of Jews in America. He is the author of numerous books, including When General Grant Expelled the Jews, The American Jewish Experience, and A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew. Our reviewer, who told us a little about Sarna’s inspirational battle to overcome cancer, urged us to read his books. All of us who attended his talks agreed that, if his writing was half as dynamic as his oral presentations, then he was certainly an author worth seeking out.

Di Brider Ashkenazy (The Brothers Ashkenazi), by Israel Joshua Singer. Israel Joshua Singer might have become a famous novelist, but for the fact that he was overshadowed by his younger brother Isaac Bashevis Singer. (It’s tough to compete when your younger brother wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.) Both brothers emigrated to the United States from Poland in the mid-1930’s, but both continued to write and publish in Yiddish. Although The Brothers Ashkenazi is available in an English translation, our reviewer read it in the original Yiddish. She had high praise for this novel, but mostly she wanted us to become aware of the accomplishments of this lesser-known Singer brother, who died in New York City in 1944. (As an interesting side note, Israel was not a terribly gregarious person and, after his death, his widow, who became his literary executor, continued to guard his literary output with such zeal that it has continued to remain pretty much unknown to this day.)

Finally, one of our members was kind enough to bring a copy of Prime Directive (Book One of the Ptolemaios Saga), by Alexander Geiger, to the meeting. Although this historical novel does not cover any Jewish subject matter, it qualified for discussion at Book Nosh by virtue of the fact that it was written by a Jewish author; namely, the anonymous scribe of this blog. It was said by our reviewer to be an enjoyable read, and who are we to disagree. The book is available on Amazon, or by clicking here.


Our next Book Nosh meeting will be on November 12, 2013, at 7:45, in Classroom H (please note the change of location). We hope to see you all there.



My grandfather, a humble tailor,
taught us a favored expression
he had learned to be true.  
When troubles loomed,
when your best efforts were
coming apart at the seams,
when the very fabric of life
seemed forever wrinkled,
these were his comforting words:
“Don’t worry, everything will press out.”
Yes, with a hot iron, a few ounces of water
and careful work-- you could smooth
your troubles too!
A smile illuminated his whole being,
his diminutive frame stood tall, proud
while his voice soothed
with a tangible inner strength,      
with an optimism, that came
from experience and patience,
from confidence and faith.

He made us believe. Of course,
he would pronounce this expression
in his native Yiddish, the language
spoken in the poorest villages
of the Czar’s Russia.
Who were we that we should not believe?
Who were we to feel sorry for ourselves,
pinned down by our own problems?
We lived in America.
We lived in a place of plenty,
at a time of abundant opportunity.

We were not compelled to flee
our homes and community,
the suffocating edicts
the cruel persecution.         
We did not fear hateful mobs,
the Czar’s army or Siberian winters.
We enjoyed the warm blanket of family,
the cap and gown of knowledge,
a future full of promise.
We invented permanent press garments.
We enjoyed freedoms.
Who were we, after all,
that we should not believe!

Nearly 50 years
after he passed away,
more than 100 years
after he reached these golden shores
a young immigrant, alone, with only
his optimism and inner strength,
I admire his uncommon, common sense.
I still believe in his insights and example.
His calm spirit and can do attitude still guide me.
I am ever grateful for his courage.
There are places in our world, today,
cold and threatening as a Siberian winter.
For many, every day can be an uncertain struggle.
Poppy did not say life would be flawless.
Poppy did not say there would be no loose threads.
Poppy knew life held challenge and sacrifice.
He kept a sharp scissors nearby, ready to trim.
So, remember the simple words of a tailor,
a wise and tender man, who sewed a wonderful life
with his beautiful wife. We are still... counting
generations, human stitches in a great tapestry.
Unfold your hope, measure up and take special note:
“Don’t worry, everything will press out.”

Zorg zikh nisht, alts’-ding vet zikh oys-presn!”  

© 2013 by By Steve Pollack 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Our June Meeting


By serendipitous coincidence, four reviewers at our last meeting chose to discuss books that dealt with the life stories of young people who grow up in ultra-orthodox communities and their choices when confronted with the conflicting demands of their religious communities and the larger world that surrounds them.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman. This controversial book is billed as a “memoir.” In it, the author describes growing up in Brooklyn, in the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism. The picture she paints is not flattering. Eventually she manages to escape from Williamsburg, to attend Sarah Lawrence College, and to get this book published by Simon & Schuster. Some reviewers have alleged that not all of the descriptions in the book are factually accurate. Nevertheless, it is fascinating peek into a world that is largely hidden to us, and an entertaining read.

Jerusalem Maiden, by Talia Carner. This book, which is also written in the first person, tells the story of the author’s grandmother, rather than the author herself. It is also labeled as a “novel.” However, I suspect that the factual content of the two books is about the same. They are both largely based on fact, with the occasional poetic license for the sake of dramatic flow. Unlike Ms. Feldman, Ms. Carner paints a largely sympathetic picture of the Haredi community in Jerusalem at the dawn of the 20th century, during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the coming of age experiences of these two young women were quite similar, despite the fact that they grew up almost a hundred years and 6,000 miles apart. In addition, they both rebelled against, and escaped from, their ultra-orthodox communities, one with undiminished animosity, the other with aching regret.

Seven Blessings, Ruchama King. This book, again labeled as a novel, is undoubtedly fictional, but some of its aspects carry the ring of truth. It is set in the ultra-orthodox community of contemporary Israel. Its heroine is a 39-year-old woman who despairs of finding the right husband. (That part is unbelievable, isn’t it? I thought they all married before they reached 17.) Fortunately, it all turns out for the best, as the hard-working matchmakers accomplish their objective. Apparently, this book is a good representative of its genre, i.e. soap operas among the Chasidim, told from the women’s point of view. However, typically, the women heroines in these books are not rebelling; they are simply seeking fulfillment within the narrow parameters sanctioned by their communities.  

A Seat At The Table: A Novel of Forbidden Choices, by Joshua Halberstam. This book is completely different from the previous three, because it was written by a man, and it describes the coming of age experiences of the author growing up as a young man, among the Chasidic community in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, in the 1960’s. He also rebels, and makes his escape from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Actually, despite my flippant commentary, this is actually a deeply felt and touching story about the relationship of a father and son (told from the point of view of the son), and a terrific novel.


On the occasion of the first yahrzeit of his good friend and colleague, Felix Zandman, Alex Redner shared with us his personally inscribed copy of Never the Last Journey, by the aforementioned Felix Zandman. Alex also shared with us his recollections of this remarkable and accomplished man. Sixteen-year-old Felix Zandman survived the Holocaust by hiding out, for 17 months, in a small pit dug beneath the floorboards of a peasant’s house in a village in his native Poland. His relatives, who hid elsewhere, were not as lucky, and all perished at the hands of the Nazis. After the war, Felix traveled to Paris, where he studied physics and engineering. He then emigrated to the Philadelphia, where he worked on nuclear submarines and other top secret projects, and where he invented a revolutionary new kind of resistor, which enabled him to found Vishay Intertechnology, a Fortune500 electronics firm based in Philadelphia, with extensive operations in Israel.

This autobiography recounts Felix's wartime experiences, and his rise to fame and fortune in the New World. Alex highly recommends this book, and not only because Felix was his good friend, colleague, and co-author.


Janie Siman-Glatt, in a departure from her usual penchant for finding for us the pearls of humor, or murder and mayhem, or perhaps both, in the annals of Jewish literature, brought us a serious book for a change:  After Long Silence, by Helen Fremont. This is another story about the price even those Jews who survived the Holocaust paid in the process. The author grew up as a Roman Catholic, to parents who hid the truth of her origins, and of their own identities as Jews and Holocaust survivors, from her, in an attempt to protect her from being subjected to the same fate as they had suffered, should another Holocaust arrive. We can only imagine the devastating psychological damage suffered by her parents, which led them to a lifetime of deception and self-abnegation, and which continues to reverberate down the generations.


Finally, Bev Cohen brought us a slender volume called Address Unknown, by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor. This book, which has largely been forgotten, was at one time a roaring best-seller in the United States, was translated into many other languages, and was turned into a successful play that is still being performed in Israel and around the world. When it was published, in 1938, it was the first book in the U.S. to clear and presciently warn about the coming menace of Nazism. The entire story is cleverly told in a series of letters, and it still makes for a cracker-jack mystery. Bev was kind enough to lend a copy of this book to each of us, so for a change, we will all have actually read the same book when we meet again in the fall.


This was the last Book Nosh meeting before our summer recess. We have scheduled the following meeting dates for next year: October 23, 2012; November 27, 2012; January 22, 2013; February 26, 2013; March 26, 2013; April 23, 2013; and May 28, 2013.

Mark your calendars, and have an enjoyable summer!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Our May Meeting


As the first item on our agenda last night, we were treated to a fascinating report by one of our members, Dr. Paula Goldberg, about a weekend course that she recently attended, at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, about the life and work of Chaim Grade (pronounced GRAH-duh). According to the flier for this course: “Chaim Grade [is] considered one of the most influential writers of Yiddish poetry and prose. Many argue that Grade – and not Isaac Bashevis Singer – was the Yiddish writer who should have been awarded the Nobel Prize.” Yet, none of us in our group had ever heard of Chaim Grade. How is this possible?

The fault, according to the New York Times, lies with the widow: “For more than two decades after his death in 1982, Inna Hecker Grade cantankerously repulsed almost all efforts to translate or publish his work or sift through his papers.” Whether Inna was also cantankerous and repulsive during the 34 years of their marriage before Chaim’s death, the New York Times does not say, but what other explanation could there be for his failure to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Fortunately for the history of literature, Inna Grade died on May 2, 2010, exactly two years ago today, so we will be saying Kaddish for her at the minyan tonight. Apparently, Inna was something of a hoarder, because, after she died, intrepid searchers uncovered a treasure-trove of Chaim Grade’s books and manuscripts in their apartment in the Bronx. “This is our thrilling moment in Yiddish literature, this is our Dead Sea Scrolls,” exulted Aaron Lansky, president of the Yiddish Book Center, upon entering her apartment.

During his lifetime, Grade published numerous books, many of which are available in English translation, including The Yeshiva, My Mother's Sabbath Days, and The Sacred and the Profane. (This last might not have been a publisher’s dream title. A quick check on Amazon reveals more than 20 other books with the same title, written by  Mircea Eliade and Willard R. Trask, Samantha Abigail Ashford, Eurydice Georganteli, Faye Kellerman, Isabelle May, Clarence Kelly, Desiree Ntolo, William Michaels, Terence Reid, Dean Motter and Ken Steacy, Jake Kinzey, Marcelle Bernstein, Jeffrey M. Wallmann, Andrew Graham-Dixon, David Weiss, Steve Barney, Hary Somers, Arnold Bennett, Iris Murdoch, Justin Green, and Carl Van Vechten, to mention but a few. Perhaps a more original title might have sold a few more copies of Grade’s classic.)

All kidding aside, Paula told us to get a copy of some these books and read them, and we will do so. In addition, if we get our planned Movie Nosh off the ground, we will also consider screening a movie called The Quarrel, which is based on Grade’s short story “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner.”

Next, our resident historian, Phil Silverman, told us about two seemingly disparate books that, between them, nicely illustrate the different perspectives brought to bear on their subject by Muslim and Jewish historians. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Mir Tamim Ansary, serves as a useful antidote to our Eurocentric and Judeo-Christian perspective. It reminds us that, from the birth of Mohammed until the present day, Muslims see the world as centered in the Middle East (which the author calls the Middle World); that they believe in the supremacy of the community, rather than in the autonomy of the individual; and that they will never relinquish their fight to expel the infidels from the Middle World. So much for peace in the Middle East.

The other book, American Judaism: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna, chronicles the growth of the Jewish population in the America, from the colonial era through the present day. It is a story of Jews struggling to preserve their Judaism in a predominantly Christian country, as well as the story of a small, impoverished, and oppressed group growing in size and prosperity, eventually achieving astonishing successes in all walks of life. This is a work of history that is very much Eurocentric and individually-focused.

Both books are well-written and easy to read, and they make for an interesting juxtaposition of opposing world views.

Our final contributor of the evening was our resident scholar and book maven, Bev Cohen. Last night she chose to review a very interesting book by a Jewish author, who happens to be her son-in-law: Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity, by Daniel B. Smith. This book deals with the fascinating phenomenon of auditory hallucination, which nowadays is considered a sure sign of insanity but, once upon a time, was quite possibly the source of most of the material in our Bible. After all, there is tradition that the Torah was dictated to Moses by God, and the phrase, “Then the Lord said to Moses,” recurs frequently in the first five books. There are some who believe that Moses, as well as a number of other biblical figures, was transmitting what psychologists today might call auditory hallucinations. In fact, according to some scholars, such as Julian Jaynes, back in the days of Exodus and the Trojan War, all people heard what we would today call auditory hallucinations all the time. (See The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.)

What Daniel Smith tells us in this entertaining and informative book is that lots of people today still hear voices, and they are not all suffering from schizophrenia. In fact, some perfectly normal people have experienced this phenomenon.

To learn more about this subject, and about Bev’s son-in-law, you can watch his interview with Stephen Colbert here.

CORRECTION: Phil Silverman knew who Chaim Grade was. Dr. Goldberg added to his limited knowledge of this author, and he wishes to convey his thanks to her.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Our April Meeting

For a list of all books discussed at Book Nosh all time, click here.


The Matchmaker is a recent Israeli film, which won the Audience Choice Award at the Israel Film Festival in New York City last May. This movie, set in 1968 in Haifa, tells two parallel stories. In part, it is a coming-of-age movie that follows the adventures of Arik, an Israeli-born teenage boy who gets a summer job with a mysterious Holocaust survivor named Yankele Bride. The other part tells the story of Yankele who, among his other endeavors, operates a matchmaking service in Haifa’s tenderloin district. As luck would have it, the grizzled, world-weary Bride falls in love himself, with fellow Holocaust survivor Clara.

According to the two people at our meeting last night who had seen this movie at a special screening at the Ambler Theater, this is an engaging film that manages to be a funny comedy, while at the same time stirring up some deep emotions about life, love, and survival. There is some talk about bringing this movie back to the Ambler Theater for a regular run. If so, perhaps we can organize a trip to see it as a group, with desserts and discussion to follow.

Click here to watch the trailer. 


The theme last night was books by authors we actually know. The first book we discussed was Losing a Life: A Daughter's Memoir of Caregiving, by Nancy Gerber. The author is one of Janie Glatt-Siman’s cousins-in-law, who handed a copy of the book to Janie when they both attended a family funeral.

This slender volume is a touching memoir of the six years spent by Nancy Gerber caring for her elderly father, a Holocaust survivor, after the father suffers a massive stroke at the age of 73. Because of the demands of providing in-home care to a totally disabled parent, the daughter is forced to cope with financial worries, with feelings of loss and resentment, love and family responsibility, and the deferral of one’s own life to care for a parent at the end of his. According to Janie, the book is written in a conversational style; it is short, but riveting.

Next, we discussed Medical Choices, Medical Chances: How Patients, Families, and Physicians Can Cope with Uncertainty, written by Alex Geiger’s best friend in college, Harold Bursztajn, M.D., with contributions by Alex’s roommate in college, Robert M. Hamm, Ph.D., two guys who went on to stellar academic careers, making everyone wonder what they saw in Alex in the first place.
The book, when it was first published in 1981, was a visionary preview of the complex issues faced by doctors and patients alike in an age of limited knowledge about the efficacy of available treatments, limited financial and medical resources, and limited powers of self-examination by the medical profession. By the time the book was re-published in 2001, its themes resonated in a new age of HMO’s and medical care rationing. Today, the book is more relevant than ever, as we discover that doctors do not know everything, that outcomes of treatments are often uncertain, and that the best that we can do is make choices based on probabilistic outcomes and hope for the best. The one consistent theme is that we need health care professionals who are dedicated and caring individuals, willing to take the time necessary to evaluate each patient’s individual situation and to explain to each patient the available options, and most importantly, willing to accept the limits to the ability of medical science to achieve perfect outcomes in each case.

Next, Salomon “Alex” Redner told us about a book by an author with whom he is intimately acquainted – Alex Redner. The book is called Photoelastic Coatings. Although choosing not to delve too far into the technical details of this engineering manual, Alex did share with us some very interesting observations about the travails and rewards of becoming a published author. Alex also promised to tell us more about the publishing process when we hold our anticipated meeting dedicated to presentations by published authors only.

Finally, a guest reviewer told us about The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman. This is a historical novel, set in 70-75 C.E., which tells the story of Masada, as seen through the eyes of four women who were there. According to our reviewer, this is a well-written, fresh look at the well-known, but endlessly fascinating story of nine hundred Jews who held off for many months the irresistible legions of the Roman Empire, and who ultimately chose to die by their own hand, rather than surrender. This book is highly recommended for those of us who are historical fiction buffs.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Our March Meeting

For a list of all books discussed at Book Nosh all time, click here

We were missing a few of our regulars at our last meeting, but they had a good excuse: They were attending the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. We are expecting a complete report on all the speeches at our next meeting.

In the meantime, taking advantage of our more intimate numbers, we ranged even further afield than usual in our discussions. Among several interesting ideas, one of our members suggested that we should consider launching a Book Nosh spinoff, to be known as Movie Nosh. He pointed out that screening one of the movies nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, In Darkness, would be a perfect way to launch such a series. It is a dramatization of the little-known story of a group of Jews from the Lvov ghetto, who managed to survive the Holocaust by hiding out in the sewers under the city. The mother of David Lee Preston, a Philadelphia Daily News staff writer, was one of the people who survived in the Lvov sewers. His article, entitled “A Bird in the Wind,” which recounted her story, was published in the old Inquirer Magazine. You can read it here. Apparently, it served as one of the bases for the movie.

In Darkness is not out on DVD yet, but when it becomes available, we may want to see it together one evening, followed by our usual discussion and snack. Other movies that we may wish to watch in a group setting include Everything is Illuminated, Sarah’s Key, and Defiance. Please consider this note your official invitation for comments about: (a) starting a new program to be known as TBI Movie Nosh; (b) ideas on how best to organize and run such a program; and (c) movies that you would like to see as part of such a program.


The Lemberg Mosaic, by Jakob Weiss. Lemberg is the German name of the city that is also known as Lemberik (לעמבעריק) in Yiddish, Lwów in Polish, L'viv (Львів) in Ukrainian, L'vov (Львов) in Russian, and Lvov in Czech, Slovak, and English. It is also one of those great cities in Central Europe that has been in Prussia, the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, Poland, Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, and Ukraine, all without ever moving an inch. But I digress.

This is another book about the total and tragic destruction of the Jewish population of Lvov. Prior to WWII, Lvov was the third largest city in Poland, with the third largest Jewish population (after Warsaw and Lydz). It was Jewish cultural center for hundreds of towns, villages, and “shtetls” in the region known as Galicia, which stretched from the Carpathian Mountains in the south, to the Soviet Union in the east, to Krakow in the west, and to Lithuania in the north. As part of the Nazi’s “final solution,” this area, which contained more than one million Jews before the War, was rendered “Judenrein.” Faithful readers of this blog already know about the infamous Janowska transit camp in Lvov, in which more than 200,000 Jews perished, and from which another 500,000 Jews were sent on to their ultimate fate in Blezec, Auschwitz, and various other Nazi death camps.

In Lvov itself, there was an educated, highly literate, and accomplished population of some 150,000 Jews before the War. It is estimated that perhaps 5,000 of them survived the Holocaust. The wealth of books that has been written about Janowska and Lvov by this relative handful of survivors is a testament to the caliber of people living in Lvov before the War. If this relatively tiny number of survivors managed to produce such luminaries as Simon Wiesenthal, Helene C. Kaplan, David Kahana, and our own Alex Redner, imagine the combined talents of the 150,000 Jews who were alive in Lvov before the War, and what they might have accomplished, had they not been murdered by the Germans, the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Poles.

Jakob Weiss is the son of Holocaust survivors, a trial lawyer, and a former New York City prosecutor. His book is based on the testimony of survivors from the region, on original documents, and on other sources culled by the author. The first part of the book describes Jewish life in Galicia before the War; the second part describes the Shoah. According to our reviewer, it is extremely well written, accurate, lively, colorful, absorbing, meticulously documented, and illustrated with numerous photographs. It is the kind of book that, after you read a sentence or two, you will not be able to put down until you have finished the entire volume.

The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time, by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson. And now for something completely different, to borrow the title of the Monty Python television series. This delightful volume tells the story of two friends who took a couple of months out of their lives in order to travel across America, armed with nothing more than chalk, magic markers, correction fluid, and perhaps a little spray paint, correcting typos in highway and street signage, as well as signs in museums, malls, restaurants, grocery stores, mini-golf courses, beaches, and national parks. It’s a classic travelogue, buddy road-trip tale, grammar thriller, and copy editor’s wet dream, all rolled into one.

Beware, there are typos everywhere. On our way home after our last meeting, we actually took a closer look at the electronic sign advertizing our Book Nosh meeting at the TBI entrance. It informed us that the TBI Book Nosh was for the “literary omnivore ho enjoys a snack.” I tell you, these gremlin are everywhere, and especially in this blog.

New American Haggadah, by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. We all know and love Jonathan Safran Foer (well, some of us love him), because of his debut novel, Everything is Illuminated. Since the publication of that work, Foer has had an eclectic career, publishing books ranging from a vegetarian rant, Eating Animals, to a touching retelling of 9/11 and its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of the young son of one of the victims, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. As we all know, the movie based on this novel was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year. Nathan Englander is the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and several other collections of short stories.
As we get ready for Pesach, and you are looking for a new and colorful Haggadah, you may want to consider this new volume, which contains a new translation of the traditional text by Nathan Englander, beautiful design and illustrations by the acclaimed Israeli artist and calligrapher Oded Ezer, and provocative commentary by major Jewish writers and thinkers Jeffrey Goldberg, Lemony Snicket, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Nathaniel Deutsch.
Stories for Children, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Until and unless you have introduced your children and grandchildren to all the schlemiels from Chelm, you have not fulfilled your pedagogical obligations as a parent and grandparent. We are all familiar with these delightful stories, that will please children between the ages of 5 and 105; therefore, there is no need for a review – just a reminder to get a copy and give it to, or read it to, some youngsters in your life.

The Outside World, by Tova Mirvis. Another entertaining and enlightening novel from the author of The Ladies Auxiliary, this book tells the story of the collision between the world of Modern Orthodox Judaism, as experienced by a young woman in Brooklyn, and the insular world of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, as adopted by a young man who travels from Brooklyn to Israel and back. The two young people meet, of course, and marry, and highjinks ensue, but along the way, we the readers learn a great deal about the lives, mores, religious practices, and mating habits of these two groups that we only think we know. Recommended by our reviewer.

Music Quickens Time, by Daniel Barenboim. Barenboim, the well-known pianist, conductor, supporter of Palestinian rights, and outspoken critic of Israel's government, examines in this slender volume the transformative power of music, and explains how his contemplation, performance, and exploration of music has led him to his radical views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to our reviewer, this is a totally engrossing book.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Our February Meeting


The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. We have heard that this debut novel was one of the best new books of 2011. Therefore, we struggled mightily to find a Jewish connection in order to make it eligible for discussion at one of our Book Nosh meetings. The following qualifications were proposed: (1) A good friend of Bev Cohen’s son-in-law (who is Jewish) wrote it; (2) One of the main characters, Mike Schwartz, is Jewish; (3) It is about two topics that are close to the hearts of American Jews – baseball and literature. Upon motion, duly made and seconded, the book was deemed eligible for discussion.

This is a book about a supremely gifted shortstop who, at some point in his college career, gets the yips. It is also a book about striving for perfection, and coming to terms with one’s fallibility. It is about baseball as a metaphor for life, but also about reading and writing great literature, about growing up and figuring out what to do with one’s life, and about relationships among its archetypal characters. According to our reviewer, in its more than 500 pages, this book, like a good shortstop, covers a lot of ground. However, it is a quick and enjoyable read. Highly recommended by our reviewer.

Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory, by Jonathan Zimmerman. The little red schoolhouse is one of the iconic images of America. In fact, there are a lot of these schoolhouses in our part of the country, including Blue Bell, although they are mostly not red around here, they are not used as schools anymore, and of course none of us has ever attended one. All the more reason to read this quick, breezy, entertaining, and enlightening volume about an aspect of American life that is part history, part mythology, and all nostalgia.

Song of Slaves in the Desert, by Alan Cheuse. Historical fiction is enjoying something of a revival currently, and this novel fits right in. It covers the period of American history from the 1830’s to the start of the Civil War. It tells the story of Nathaniel Pereira, a young New York Jew, who is sent by his father to help out on his uncle's South Carolina plantation. It turns out that the uncle is involved in the slave trade, and young Nathaniel becomes an eyewitness to the horrors of slavery, as well as a participant in the daily interactions between masters and slaves.

Although perhaps not a great work of either literature or history, this book does raise an important question about the involvement of Jews in the slave economy of the antebellum South. There is some irony in the fact that during early colonial history, the South was more welcoming to Jews that many northern cities and, as a result, there were relatively large Jewish communities in such places as Charleston, SC, Savannah, GA, and Mobile, AL. And there is little doubt that some of these southern Jews became slaveholders. In the 150 years since the end of slavery in this country, Jewish intellectuals have struggled with this legacy of slave ownerships, and many Jews have sought to atone for it by becoming major figures in the civil rights movement.

Alan Cheuse is a skilled writer, who manages to weave into his novel various threads about the history of slavery and life in antebellum South, combined with stories of illicit love, intrigue, manumission, miscegenation, and all-around melodrama. An interesting book, but not recommended for young readers, because of its graphic depictions of sex and violence.

Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll. This book, by a former Catholic priest, has generated much controversy, because of its core contention that the Church has waged a two-thousand-year battle against Judaism. Carroll’s well-research and massive tome traces the history of Catholic anti-Judaism from the New Testament, through the early Church teachings, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holy Week incitements to pogroms, all culminating in the Holocaust.

This is a book that will infuriate any Jewish reader, but it is also an essential aid in trying to answer the age-old question haunting Jews: Why do they hate us?

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, by Michael Pollan. And now, for something entirely different, how about a few diet rules? (1) Eat food; (2) Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food; (6) Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients; (9) Avoid food products with the wordoid “lite” or the term “low fat” in the title; (11) Avoid foods you see advertised on television; (12) Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle; (13) Eat only foods that will eventually rot; (20) It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car; (21) It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language.

There are 64 chapters in all, each devoted to one of these rules. Lots of good, and entertaining, advice on healthy nutrition – something that we can all use.

This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper. A family gathers to sit shiva for their father. This is the first time they have gotten together in years. Old grudges are dredged up, embarrassing secrets are revealed, old flames and jealousies are rekindled. Rage, tragedy, betrayal, and helplessness compete for primacy. In short, a laugh-out-loud comedy. Recommended especially for those of us who have sat through a difficult shiva or two. Kind of like August: Osage County, but Jewish.

A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, by Robert S. Wistrich. The author is the Neuburger Professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the head of the University's Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. This work of scholarship, weighing in at more than 1200 pages, marshals the evidence demonstrating that genocidal anti-Semitism did not end with the Holocaust. On the contrary, it remains a salient aspect of the contemporary world.

None of us enjoys talking or reading about Jew-hatred, but sticking our heads in the sand will not make it go away. The more we learn about this ancient scourge, the more we keep our eyes wide open to see its persistence in the world around us, the more effectively we can confront it and fight against it.

Four Decades of Polish Essays, by Jan Kott. Our reviewer confided to us that she approached this collection of essays with some trepidation, given the history of anti-Semitism in Poland. However, she was pleasantly surprised to find that included in this volume were a thoughtful essay about the need to examine the complex role of the Polish people in the genocide of Eastern European Jewry and a sympathetic essay about Polish Hasidic Jews. Of course, there are many other essays in this book about life in Poland since the end of WWII that will be of particular interest to those of us who have ties to, or origins in, this part of the world. A surprisingly rich and rewarding collection of essays, according to our reviewer.
Please join us for our next meeting, on Tuesday, March 6, 2012, at 7:45 pm, at TBI.