When I was 6 or 7 years old, my older sister, our friend, and I draped a sheet over my mother’s backyard clothesline in Champaign, IL, to create our secret clubhouse. In the 1940s, if you didn’t have a tree house or some kind of playhouse in your backyard, you rigged up a makeshift shelter where you could chat, share secrets, and keep a stash of forbidden goodies.
One day while in our hideaway, the chit-chatting got to me, and I screamed, “We’re not getting anything done.” I made a quick exit out of the hideaway and ran into our house.
“Getting something done” has been my mantra for my nearly 80 years.
I’ve been a workaholic all my life, always trying to make the most of my time. To-do lists, schedules, and calendars ensured that not a minute was wasted, and the reward of this work ethic was three separate successful careers. Even my rare leisure time was carefully planned to make the most of every experience, and “retirement” did not divert me from a busy, tightly structured lifestyle.
Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book (Flatiron Books) spans three generations of an old-line Protestant family, the Miltons, whose manners and way of life represent what they believe to be the established and correct way of doing things.
But things are changing.
Blake begins her story in the 1930s with Ogden Milton, third in line of his family, which founded the highly respected Milton Higginson bank in 1850, and his wife, Kitty. The story ends in the present day with their granddaughter Evie Milton, a professor of history at New York University. The author interweaves their stories, alternating the three time frames. The narratives and themes coalesce at the end of the novel, focusing on the dramatic events of one crucial night in the 1950s.
What does it mean to be a Jewish woman in America? What did it mean to be a Jewish woman throughout American history? These are questions Dr. Pamela Nadell, Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History and director of Jewish Studies at American University, asks in her important new book, America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times to Today.
The answers are as varied as the lives and experiences of the women Nadell profiles. Some were strong in their religious identification and beliefs; others were barely aware of or hardly acknowledged their heritage. The common thread among activist women, from colonial times to the present, Nadell concludes, is their strong sense of self and a desire to repair the world – the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – whether or not they were aware of the link between their social consciousness and their religious and ethnic roots.
Rather than profiling the woman individually or strictly chronologically, Nadel instead presents each in the context of American history. A profile of devoted wife and mother Grace Mendes Seixas Nathan (1752-1831), for example, is juxtaposed with the story of her great-granddaughter the poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), who never married.
Ayelet Tsabari’s beloved father died suddenly shortly before her tenth birthday. She cites this traumatic event as the reason for her quest to find a permanent home and to find herself – the life journey she describes in this compelling memoir.
Realizing her inability to settle in one place, to choose one path above all others – probably out of fear it would be suddenly snatched away from her as her father was – Tsabari opts just to keep moving. In a series of essays, most previously published, The Art of Leaving: A Memoir (Random House) describes Tsabari’s rebellious service as a conscript in the Israeli army and her subsequent travels to India, Thailand, the U.S., and Canada.
She could not settle in anywhere, often literally camping out, and was always ready to move on to the next destination in the hope that one would be her permanent physical and psychological home.
In her search for self, Tsabari could not commit to relationships. She chronicles her romances and affairs in each place, always leaving the relationship just as she felt compelled to move from place to place. She even left the Canadian husband whom she had married in order to remain in that country, knowing as early as her wedding day that the marriage would be short-lived.
This second edition of Rabbi David J. Zucker’s American Rabbis: Facts and Fiction (Wipf & Stock) chronicles the role of rabbis in Jewish life, past and present. The author’s unique contribution to the subject is a comparison of how rabbis have been portrayed in fiction – novels, short stories, plays, television, and online streaming – with the realities of this often challenging occupation.
Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan’s foreword to the new edition combined with the foreword to the 1998 edition by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Professor Stanley F. Chyet and the author’s new introduction set the framework for the book’s reader-friendly content.
Rabbi Zucker, a retired congregational rabbi in Great Britain and the U.S., a long-term care chaplain, university professor, and author of several books, articles, and book reviews, discusses a wide range of topics related to the rabbinate and Judaism in general.
In addition to a brief history of the American rabbinate, he provides an update on rabbinic training. He describes the current state of the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements and compares mainstream rabbis to sectarian Orthodox rabbis.
In Pain (Other Press) gifted writer Zeruya Shalev explores human pain amid heightened emotional awareness as the protagonist Iris finds herself in a second-chance love affair in middle age.
The story begins with Iris visiting a pain management clinic on the 10th anniversary of a suicide bomber terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which she was wounded. Her physical pain from the attack has returned and she is seeking relief.
Coincidentally, the prominent pain management physician who treats her, Eitan, was her first love and had abruptly ended their relationship nearly 30 years earlier, when they were 17 years old.
Already emotionally scarred from the loss of her father at age 4, young Iris had suffered a serious mental breakdown after Eitan rejected her. She did not speak, eat, or leave her bed for weeks.
In their first clinic encounter, Eitan pretends not to recognize Iris because she is accompanied by her husband. When Iris returns to the clinic alone to contact him, he asks her to wait for him in another room:
Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey Through the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), by prominent historian of the Sephardic community, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, tells the riveting story of a large family descended from Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, a prominent resident of Salonica (now Thesaloniki, Greece) when it was part of the Ottoman Empire.
At that time, Jews, primarily Sephardim who were expelled from Spain and Portugal, constituted approximately 50 percent of the population of the great port city. They participated in every level of economic, social, and cultural life there – as dockworkers, tobacco and factory workers, teachers, shopkeepers, prosperous merchants, and high officials. Sa’adi’s family was part of the city’s cultural elite. He was an important journalist and printer, founding a newspaper that chronicled Jewish life.
Dr. Stein, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and professor of history, who also holds the Maurice Amado Chair in Sephardic Studies at UCLA, meticulously traces the family’s physical and psychological journeys throughout the 20th century via letters, diaries, and other documents saved by various family members throughout the world. She also located and interviewed the few surviving family members.
Bolivia admitted approximately 10,000 Holocaust era Jewish refugees, many of them artists and musicians who settled in of La Paz, the capital city situated 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Jennifer Steil discovered their largely untold story in 2012, when her husband, a U.S. diplomat was posted there.
In researching the subject of her novel, Exile Music (Viking), Steil drew on interviews with survivors and their descendants. The story is narrated by Orly Zingel, who, at age 11, journeys with her parents from Vienna to Genoa to Chile and finally to La Paz, leaving behind her older brother, Willi.
Exhausted from their long journey, these grieving Jewish refugees faced illness from the high altitude. They had to adapt to a foreign language and culture, and they missed the Austrian foods, art, and music to which they were accustomed.
So much of being in this new place was observation. I didn’t know how anything in this world worked; I had to watch how Bolivians moved and talked and played, so I could relearn everything. My mother and father and I were like children again, not understanding how to buy food, what it should cost, how to greet a stranger, or where to find soap. Here, all my Austrian impulses were wrong. Every day I found myself in a culturally coded world without the key.
As the novel’s title suggests, music plays a major role in the story.
In 60 essays collected throughout a five-year period by the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, rabbis’ spouses share memories and insights about their lives. The pieces vary in length, tone, and writing style, even including poetry – but all add to the fascinating discussion.
Except for the one male contribution (set after 1972, when women were first ordained as Reform rabbis), these memoirs were written by women whose spouses are either retired or deceased. Anyone who grew up in this time and under these conditions will respond to the memories these women share – and those who cannot relate will still surely find them fascinating.
The essays in Married to the Rabbi: Sixty Spouses of Retired Reform Rabbis in Their Own Words portray a certain time period of American Reform Judaism preceding or at the start of the feminist movement, both Jewish and at-large. Therefore, most of the writers adhered – willingly or grudgingly – to “traditional” supportive roles of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, their own career ambitions and life trajectories put on the back burner or abandoned to support their husbands’ professional journeys.
When asked to contribute their stories, many used the opportunity to reflect deeply on their lives and marriages. Some composed life histories to pass on and transmit their personal values, in a manner similar to writing ethical wills.
BY RACHEL KADISH
REVIEW BY: MARCIA R. RUDIN
“Never underestimate the passion of a lonely mind,” Helen Watt, a British expert in Jewish history, tells her research assistant, post-graduate student Aaron Levy.
Helen is referring to Ester Velasquez, a Sephardic refugee in 17th-century London. She and Aaron have found evidence that points to Ester as having been the anonymous scribe of a trove of newly-discovered documents in Portuguese, Hebrew, Latin, and Castilian found hidden behind a wall of a London mansion undergoing restoration.
In The Weight of Ink (Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), National Jewish Book Award winner Rachel Kadish alternates the personal narratives of Ester, Helen, and Aaron. While the premise of connecting historical figures to modern-day characters through objects or events has been overdone recently, in this remarkable novel, Kadish interweaves her themes and characters’ journeys so skillfully, one can’t help being drawn into their lives and empathizing with their personal struggles.
To escape the Inquisition, Ester Velasquez’ family fled from Portugal to Amsterdam, a thriving city tolerating Jewish refugees as long as they did not pose a threat to Christianity or attempt to convert Christians.