START WITHOUT ME (Book Review)


START WITHOUT ME is a highly readable novel by Joshua Max Feldman. The protagonists, Adam, a recovering alcoholic musician and Marissa, a married, one-nighter-mistake, flight attendant, both learn that living with their poor choices in life can be easier than coping with the decisions they inevitably must make going forward.

It is a story of love, but not of lovers, strangers whose chance meeting in an airport lounge finds Adam and Marissa supportive of each other’s need to shore up the courage to return home to family on a fateful Thanksgiving morning. In often colorful and graphic prose Feldman carves out a tale of self-effacement, good intentions, failure, and hope. With Thanksgiving dinner looming for both Adam and Marissa, it’s not about turkey and pumpkin pie; it’s about a slice of life they must learn to swallow without it consuming them.

If you dread looming family reunions at Thanksgiving, or any other time for that matter, this book will help shepherd you through the valley of anxieties that may be churning in the pit of your stomach. It will renew your faith in the strength and resilience of the human spirit and the inherent compassion that defines our humanity.

 

Here There It’s That Time of Year

Ist candleIt was almost imperceptible as a lone snowflake lazily fell to the ground and vanished. Soon a smattering, then a flurry of like-minded flakes blanketed the countryside in a glistening quilt of white.

That was there but now I’m here.

It’s different here; where it’s not about snow it’s about oil, wax and paraffin. The first of many lights will soon appear bathing the landscape in an ever increasing glow of flickering lights.

 

The first strains of familiar seasonal songs arrive too soon; they are a harbinger of the coming of the familiar time honored perennial winter chorus.

That was there but now I’m here.

It’s different here; where every town, village and hamlet sprouts their own eight branched lights of freedom and the sound of Rock of Ages is still a week away.

 

Trees shorn at their bases, tied down atop cars heading for their final resting places soon to be laced in tinsel and adorned in strings of multi-colored bulbs.

That was there but now I’m here.

It’s different here; where trees are planted, nurtured and protected to celebrate the rededication of the land and its people, their history and their future.

 

A rather emaciated looking man with a white beard sporting a red suit and hat trimmed in white ermine sauntered down the aisle of a toy store. It was quite early for him to be out and about; perhaps he should have taken more time to fatten up.

That was there but now I’m here.

It’s different here; where men in black attire with starched white shirts hurry and scurry here and there, their destination is not of this world but of the world to come.

 

Drummer boys in splendid uniforms march in perfect cadence while merry greetings of joy fill the air.

That was there but now I’m here.

It’s different here; where boy scouts in the square are hawking their wares like seasoned professionals. Candles and oil for sale; the innocence of youth coupled with unabashed enthusiasm are their marketing tools.

 

Whether here there or anywhere it is that time of the year to renew that part within each of us that finds peace through respect for those with whom we differ.

How ironic that during the darkest days of the year invoking time honored traditions enables us, with light, song and hope, to dispel despair.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Angel – The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel

What would motivate someone who lives a life steeped in success, status and power to deliver their nation’s most guarded secrets to its most dreaded enemy?

In Uri Bar-Joseph’s most recent book, The Angel, the answer is revealed as the reader follows a treacherous and circuitous route from Cairo to London to Tel Aviv. What turned out to be an extraordinary journey began in an iconic London red phone booth. It was from that booth that a call was clandestinely placed to the Mossad with an offer to spy for them. That call came from a most unlikely source, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law, Ashraf Marwan.
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Book Review: The Great Partnership

Perhaps Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is prescient or maybe he simply recognizes truths that are self-evident. Either way, his book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, is as relevant today as it was when his work was first published five years ago. The timeliness and timelessness of issues presented by Rabbi Sacks and the manner in which he examines them bear the hallmark of a classic.

Although Rabbi Sacks is a man of the cloth, the tapestry of his writing is not all black and white; it is color rich. His thesis throughout the book is that science and religion are not opposing pursuits but complementary ones. He proposes that science is the search for an explanation of how things work; religion is the search for what they mean. To support his point of view he derives proofs from both science and religion.

He points out that science teaches us that there are two hemispheres to the brain the left and right and each half specializes in certain functions. The left brain deals with things, objects, and details while the right brain is concerned with subtlety, nuance, and meaning. According to Sacks, one side without the other would produce laws without mercy, technology without morality, and knowledge without wisdom.

As for God, Sacks states that whether or not we believe in Him, He believes in us. He asserts that creation is as wondrous as it is paradoxical, for what God would create a creature which can choose to disobey Him or not believe in Him at all? That is something science has failed to explain but religion has. For the Abrahamic religions teach us that we are created in the image of God, which enables us to discern between right and wrong and possess the free will to choose one over the other. Without free will coupled with the ability to ask ‘why,’ we would not be human; we would be like the animals, neither good nor bad and accountable to no one.

With the art of a poet and courage of an explorer, Sacks embarks upon discrediting moral relativism. He points out that secular morality was unable to withstand the onslaught of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. But neither can society survive ruthless religious extremism. There are many ways to order society but the Judeo-Christian ethic has been the only one to succeed in the West. Its secret is that you must believe freedom is a right granted by God if you expect to wrest it from those who would deny it to you. To believe otherwise you would be at the mercy of capricious tyrants, heartless despots, and errant government bureaucrats.

Rabbi Sacks raises the question can an atheist be moral. His answer is yes. He contends that you need not believe in God to be good nor does being religious make you righteous. On the other hand, those societies that have adopted the secular state as their moral authority have spawned some of the worst of the worst genocidal tyrants in history such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. The problem with man defining absolutes in moral conduct is it depends on the whims of the moment. According to Sacks, the way to achieve continuity and sustainability of moral behavior from one generation to another is to follow the teachings of the eternal and immutable authority, God.

Rabbi Sacks does not shy away from presenting a variety of differing and even opposing opinions on the matter of the source of morality and the meaning in our lives. He presents the opinions of those with whom he agrees and those with whom he does not. He is eclectic in his citations; he provides a diversity of sources: Plato, Maimonides, Darwin, Nietzsche, Soloveitchik, Jung, Einstein and a host of others. Using that strange mix of minds, Sacks makes the case for the unique place the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) hold in world history. Much good and more than enough evil have been done in its name. Regrettably having God-given instructions of how man should treat his fellow man is not a guarantee those directives will be followed.

Rabbi Sacks believes that God created both the physical world and placed in it the spiritual man. As such we humans are made from the same stuff as the rest of creation. But we are the only life form which has been endowed with spirituality, for it was man who was bestowed with God’s gift of the breath of life.

Therefore, according to Rabbi Sacks, we have a special role to play in this imperfect world. Our charge in this life is to make the world, not only a better place, but a world as it should be, according to its Creator. Our search for meaning is our mission, and it can be achieved through “the great partnership” of science and religion working in concert to make the world complete, as God intended.

Book Review: “Not in God’s Name”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ latest book, Not In God’s Name, deals with the literal and figurative meaning of the commandment, “Do not take the Lord’s name on vain.” Using easy to read prose, he takes us on a journey back to the creation of man, starting with Adam and Eve, and leads us through the millennia until we arrive at the stage of humankind as it exists today.

He highlights the fact that at the dawn of our history, the “blame game” — or not taking responsibility for one’s actions — is clearly demonstrated. The first man, Adam, blames Eve for giving him the apple against God’s command, and Eve quickly shifts the blame to the serpent. The serpent blames no one; only humans play the blame game.

The story about the first two people born of woman, Cain and Abel, introduced to the world the first occurrence of sibling rivalry, which tragically ended in fratricide. To this day evolution has not dampened the human predisposition of sibling rivalry, a topic dealt with throughout Rabbi Sacks’ book. He draws from a wealth of rabbinic and psychological sources to explain the motivations behind such famous rivalries. As examples, Sacks cites the biblical stories of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and finally Joseph and his brothers.

Rabbi Sacks cites biblical narrative as a springboard from which to plumb the depths of the human psyche. He brings to light seemingly intractable problems we wrestle with today, which were recognized and recorded thousands of years ago. For example, when dealing with a person or group that has wronged you, he teaches us that we can let go and move on with our lives. The past cannot be undone, but the future offers unlimited possibilities and opportunities to right a wrong. It is our legacy not to deny or forget the past. We can live with the past, but not to live in the past. In Genesis when Jacob wrestled with an angel it was not too unlike the struggle we all have with our own sense of right and wrong. As did Jacob, we too must struggle with our conscience and we too are capable of prevailing. Though it may take a toll on us, we emerge all the better for it.

Another important theme introduced by Rabbi Sacks is that of responsibility. He quotes from Pirke Avot 2:21, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” He offers the example of Moses, who took the Jews out of Egypt, led them for 40 years through the desert, and brought them to the banks of the Jordan River within view of the Promised Land. But Moses, the greatest of prophets, accepted the fact that he was to never enter that covenantal land. As Rabbi Sacks so eloquently and succinctly explains to his readers, each of us has our River Jordan that we will not be able to cross. But like Moses, we too have the ability to guide and inspire those who will follow us and complete the journey.

The final sections of his book deal with relinquishing power and choosing life over death. He calls for tolerance as an antidote to the propensity to scapegoat others for one’s own shortcomings. He defines martyrdom as dying in the name of your religion, not by murdering in its name. The title of the book, “Not In God’s Name,” conveys to the reader that everything we do reflects on the source in whose image we were created. Therefore we are bound by our common humanity to reject words and deeds laced with hatred, bigotry, and intolerance. The power of words should be used in dialogue and debate, not in denigrating and disparaging those with whom we disagree.

I highly recommend “Not In God’s Name.” It provides insights into human behaviors, both noble and ignoble. Rabbi Sacks offers fresh and unique interpretations of the age old dilemmas, struggles, and challenges that face mankind. He draws heavily upon sources whose wisdom is reflected in the teachings of prophetic sages and modern philosophical visionaries. Read his book; it is a primer on how to live and love in ways we are capable of, and in God’s name.

The above article was originally published as “Looking to the Past for Lessons on How to Live Today” in “The Algemeiner.” Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of England.

Book Review: “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over”

Pesach

Passover table

Why is Rabbi David Fohrman’s new book, The Exodus You Almost Passed Over, different from all other books? The answer is that the Haggadah’s account you learned, first as a child and then repeated as an adult, is not the whole story.

Rabbi Fohrman concedes that the Exodus narrative in the Haggadah may hold one’s interest the first few times read but over time you probably would have preferred the CliffsNotes version so as to get to the food sooner.

However if you learned nothing else during the annual reading of the Haggadah, and the ensuing discussions, it should come as no surprise that there were two biblical Pharaohs, one good — and one not so good. Joseph’s Pharaoh was good. Moses’ Pharaoh was bad. But that’s not where the story ends; in fact, that is where the hidden Exodus story begins.

Fohrman an Orthodox scholar, takes us on a journey full of unexpected twists and turns driven by his respectful exegesis of biblical texts and commentaries. He explores the passages in the Torah that the Haggadah is based on. For example, did you know that Israelites went out from Egypt, with Pharaoh’s permission, hundreds of years before the Exodus? (Genesis 50) Really, how could we have missed that? He calls the first exodus the Phantom Exodus because it has heretofore been hidden from view, since it isn’t featured in the Haggadah. In it, the key players are not Moses, Aaron and the Pharaoh of Moses, but rather those who preceded them, namely Jacob, Joseph and Joseph’s Pharaoh. He draws out amazing parallels between the two events, which shed light on their deeper meaning, God’s plans for the Israelites and for us, their descendants. [Read more…]

Book Review: The Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History

In his new book, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, best-selling author Joseph Telushkin reveals many surprising and sometimes shocking facts, as he chronicles the life and teachings of the charismatic Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, popularly referred to as the “Rebbe” by his followers and admirers worldwide.

In a span of 92 years the Rebbe traveled from his birthplace, the city of Nikolayev, Ukraine, studied in the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and Paris, where he earned degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, and finally settled in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. It was there he reluctantly donned the mantel as the Seventh Lubavitcher Rabbi and humbly assumed the title of the Rebbe.

Prior to his “coronation” he had already attained the stature of a spiritual magnet who attracted into his sphere of influence a warren of world leaders, as well as ordinary people who sought his wise counsel and blessings. More than a biography, this book relates historic events bonded with personal insights and coupled with private moments, which bring the reader to yichudusim, private moments of consultation, with the Rebbe.

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My Visit to Amsterdam

Having just learned that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands has abdicated her throne to her son Willem-Alexander, my thoughts return to that special place where I spent a few days two weeks ago — Holland.

Where can you munch on a herring sandwich topped with chopped onions and pickles, then polish it off with a Corenwijn chaser, while watching seven million tulip bulbs laboriously pushing their way above ground to greet the springtime sun? Why, in Keukenhof Holland, of course. But where in Holland can you get a plate of gefilte fish garnished with chrane, other than in your bubbie’s kitchen?
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