BOOKS DISCUSSED AT OUR LAST 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!