Book Chat: Like Dreamers

— by Hannah Lee

The miracle of Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967 united a nation, and Jews all over the world celebrated its victory. That members of the 55th Brigade of paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem then led lives that split its small nation politically as well as religiously is the heartbreaking saga on how we have not merited the Messianic age of global peace, Olam HaBa.

After 11 years of interviews and research on seven of these paratroopers, Yossi Klein Halevi has brought forth his newest book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, to justified acclaim. Born in Brooklyn, he first visited Israel that June of 1967 with his Holocaust-survivor father (who finally forgave God and re-gained his faith with Israel’s success) and he has lived in Israel for over 30 years. The book’s title comes from Psalm 126: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.”

More after the jump.
While writing this labor of love, Halevi was troubled by the singular lack of voice; he thought it meant the book wasn’t speaking to him. Then in an epiphany, he realized that the cacophony of voices from his interview subjects was what defined himself as an Israeli Jew, one with conflicting views. He then constructed his book with alternating voices, allowing each central character to express his thoughts and views as they evolved over time. He spoke on Sunday before a standing-room audience at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr.

His cast of characters include the kibbutznik paratroopers and the religious Zionist paratroopers. They served together and they exhibited a tremendous level of tolerance and cooperation. One protagonist, the secular commander Arik Achmon, noted how the religious reservists, whom he’d ridiculed as dosim (religious nerds), were keen on proving their worth and how they rose a half hour earlier each day to pray. Once when his soldiers were sent on leave but it was close to sundown that Friday, they chose to stay in camp rather than risk traveling on Shabbat. He noticed approvingly that they didn’t ask to be let out early. He then showed his respect by enforcing the kosher laws in the army kitchens (despite the paratroopers’ sense of being a law unto themselves), so that any soldier under his command would not feel uncomfortable.

The love was reciprocated: when a friend spoke about “religious paratroopers,” another central character, Yoel Bin-Nun, who taught Bible as a way to understand contemporary Israel, rebuked him, saying, “There are no religious paratroopers or secular paratroopers. Only Israeli paratroopers.” In another incident, when he was challenged by a kibbutznik, that if Bin-Nun could convince him that God exists and that there is a divine hand guiding the world, he was ready to become religious. But if he succeeded in convincing the rabbi that it’s all nonsense, the rabbi would become secular. “You’re asking me to give up my deepest beliefs,” Bin-Nun replied, with a smile. “Let each person observe and interpret in his way, but the Torah belongs to every Jew.  Shabbat belongs as much to you as it does to me.”

The disastrous Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel was caught ill-prepared and lost over 2,500 men and over 7,000 were wounded, sobered the nation. Some realized that Israel’s survival required moral renewal. Two divergent paths emerged, formed by those for whom annexing the territories of Judea and Samaria (captured from Jordan in 1967) was a part of the redemption process and those for whom withdrawing from the territories, termed by them the West Bank, was the hope for peace. The liberators of Jerusalem were among the founders of the settler movement and the Peace Now movement. Another of them, Udi Adiv, became so disenchanted with Zionism that he traveled to Damascus in 1972 to create an anti-Zionist terrorist underground. He served 12 years in an Israeli prison. Their narratives will in time coalesce into hardened political positions.

Halevi spoke of the two promises of Zionism: normalcy to end anti-Antisemitism and transcendence to serve as a light unto the world. He sees the most interesting divide as the one from normalcy to utopia. Thus, both the kibbutzniks and the settlers (who wish to populate the whole of Judea and Samaria) are in the same camp as Utopians.

He then addressed the three failed dreams of Israel: the kibbutz movement, the settler movement, and the Oslo peace accords. Now Israel is bereft of a Utopian dream. Can it sustain itself without one? My rabbi recently spoke about the Torah portion of parshat Vayeshev, in which Joseph is asked to interpret the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the baker and the wine steward. The wine steward whose crime was a fly in the wine being served to the pharaoh was reinstated to his post, while the baker whose bread had a small stone was executed. While a fly might be disgusting, it is not life-threatening, but a pebble would prove a choking hazard. The lesson was that a threat from within could be greater than without. A great challenge for Israelis now is to build unity from among their brethren. When they respected each other and were united in their goals in 1967, they achieved miraculous results. May Am Israel re-gain its sense of purpose and harmony and see peace in our times.

Chag Urim sameach.

Book Review: Zayde Comes to Live

— Reviewed by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

It takes a remarkable soul and talented writer to accomplish the simplicity, elegance and gentle support accomplished in Sheri Sinykin’s award-winning children’s book Zayde Comes to Live with illustrations by Kristina Swarner. Zayde is Yiddish for grandfather and the grandparent does not need to live in your home for this powerful book to have great value. When family dynamics allow for it, the reciprocal love, between a grandparent and a grandchild can be one of life’s most precious and memorable gifts. Even so a great challenge arises for those who live long enough, as the grandfather explains simply and clearly to his little granddaughter:

“My body is getting tired. I know you can see this. Soon that outside part of me will return to the earth.”

The granddaughter responds with the eternal voice of the child to ask: “But what happens to the inside part of you?” It is here that we realize just how tenderly and accessibly the author has come to our rescue in the pages that have lead up to this poignant moment.

More after the jump.
This brief illustrated volume makes it possible to appreciate what the grandfather calls “the cycle of life” in action:

“Now he lives in a sleeper-chair in the living room…He watches squirrels in the trees. And movies on TV. And me….”

Sinykin’s Zayde gives us the perspectives and words we may well need in our mouths for accompanying our family members, and no less ourselves, with dignity and kindness to the very end. Each of the little granddaughter’s observations of Zayde‘s changes in status help us to normalize and accept as living life’s final chapter.

“When we read, he gets out of breath and I say, “It’s okay, Zayde. Let me.”

The granddaughter learns from friends about their traditions’ after death traditions ideas. And she asks her rabbi:

“Is Zayde dying?” I ask him, because rabbis do not lie.”

I love the rabbi’s answer; his name is Rabbi Lev. Lev means “heart” in Hebrew. And when the granddaughter continues, after the rabbi answers, she asks:

“When Zayde dies…what will happen to him?”

Every page is important reading rich in child-appropriate responses and approaches in response to which the granddaughter’s imagination takes off in such healthy and helpful ways. This is a reminder to us how adult-style thinking and worry can get in the way of simply loving and living in each moment. Our souls travel with hers and Zayde‘s.

Time progresses. Zayde sleeps more and more. Sinykin continutes to show us how to relate, with simple inquiry, just like the granddaughter does.

“What were you dreaming about, Zayde?”

The granddaughter’s voice, deliberately nameless, becomes our own.

“‘I don’t want you to die, Zadye.’ Her voice “whispers like his air machine.'”

The grandfather’s response when she says this is perfect. I urge everyone to read this book. It is certainly what I want to be able to tell my grandchildren someday, rooted in shalom, the Hebrew word for peace and completeness.

The author the granddaughter begin to collect memories about her grandfather, while he yet lives. Each step of the way, this read-over-and over-styled book prepares us to create and receive comfort, intimacy and meaning for living. The title, Zayde Comes to Live, contains a pun so beautiful as to immediately inspire us toward a deeper understanding of this time of life.

The only fault with the volume is the opportunity lost by author and illustrator to honor diversity in Jewish families, by reflecting some diversity within the family itself, a Sephardi relative or main character perhaps. Nono is grandfather in Ladino, and nona is grandmother. That said, the illustrations are very accessible windows in and of themselves into heartfelt, thoughtful, healthy exploration for all faiths into this step of the way forward for each and every soul.

Did I mention today is my father’s yahrzeit? Yahrzeitis Yiddish for the annual memorial for a soul’s passing, the Ladino term is nahala. Last night, as is traditional, we lit a memorial candle at home because a single flame is the Jewish symbol for a soul. The candle is burning beside me as I write this review of yahrzeit, which I first read a year ago, when it first came out. Life was too painful to write on this topic then, so soon after several traumatic deaths of loved ones, and not at all the fault of the volume.

It’s not so easy to write when crying — even so, the tears are good tears and the memories of many good times together are beautiful to revisit. I do wish that Zayde Comes to Live would have come out just a bit sooner. Turns out it’s not just for (grand)children.

Book Chat: Tiny Dynamo

— by Hannah Lee

How do you measure the wealth of a country? Economists calculate the gross national product GNP, while the government of Bhutan has been using the quirky assessment of gross national happiness GNH since 1972.

Marcella Rosen proposes to rank the ingenuity of the country’s citizens among its natural resources, in her slim volume, Tiny Dynamo: How One of the Smallest Countries Is Producing Some of Our Most Important Inventions.

Full review after the jump.


A flash drive can hold about 11,380 times more data than a 3.5-inch floppy disk.

In 131 pages, Rosen summarizes 21 inventions of Israelis that make our lives safer, more efficient and better. These inventions include the flash drive, pilotless drones, and anti-bacterial fabric coatings that do not come off in the hospital wash.

Environmental inventions include drip irrigation; floating solar panels; fish farming using bacterial filtration, to reduce the usage of water to two gallons per one pound of fish; and a semi-permeable membrane to desalinate ocean water. In fact, the city of Ashkelon has the world’s largest reverse osmosis facility, producing 320,000 cubic meters of fresh water a day.

Medical inventions include a robot for spinal surgery; a pill-sized camera to view the length of the small intestine (without endoscopy); and implantable tiny telescopes to treat macular degeneration.

Rosen writes in the breezy manner of a public relations professional and a self-professed booster for Israel. I would like more detail on the technological inventions, but I suppose some may be proprietary information, that the inventors do not wish to make public.

The world of investments moves quickly, so one footnote to the book is that Shai Agassi’s Better Place declared bankruptcy in May 2013, after going through $850 million in capital in trying to market its swappable batteries for electric cars.  

Other inventions detailed in the book, such as the cervical stabilization collar, are being positioned for a wider market. The appendix is a nifty timeline of 68 Israeli inventions from 1948 to 2012, including three Nobel Prizes in Chemistry (2004, 2009, and 2011).

Rosen maintains a website, that reports on news from Israel beyond the peace process, and a Facebook campaign that posts on inventions and scientific breakthroughs coming from Israel.

She cited the American-Israeli Friendship League, which reports that Israel, with a population of 7 million, launched 600 startups in 2010, compared with 700 throughout all of Europe with a population of 700 million. That’s one strong measure of creativity.

Rosen wrote:

The common perception about a country rarely squares with the life that’s actually lived in that place, and the people who live it. So if it’s true that you should judge a person not by what is said about him but by what he does, then it follows that you should do the same for countries.

Publishing House Calls for Diversity in Short Story Submissions


Photo: Neil Heilpern

A special call for short stories by Reclaiming Judaism Press focuses attention upon the need for stories that reflect the great diversity among Jewish youth and families.

Scheduled for a 2014 fall release, the emerging collection from the jury’s process for “A Family Treasury of Mitzvah Stories” revealed gaps in coverage when it came to lives that include: GBLTQ, immigration, special needs, interracial, interfaith, Middle Eastern and Sephardi Jews and neighbors, Jewish cultures outside of the U.S., and progressive gender roles.

Founder and editor in chief of Reclaiming Judaism Press, Rabbi Goldie Milgram, called for submissions of stories that reflect youth and family diversity, while deepening appreciation and understanding of the vast array of Jewish spiritual practices, each of which is termed a mitzvah.

More after the jump.
The submission guidelines for “A Family Treasury of Mitzvah Stories” include a request for fiction, as well as creative non-fiction stories, between one page- and 3,000 word-long, that are appropriate for families with youth from the age of 5 through teens.

A wide array of mitzvot, interpreted through the lens of spirituality and meaning for living, are given in the special call in order to stimulate creative storytelling. For example:

  • lo tikom v’lo titur (Hold no grudges and take no revenge), and
  • teshuvah (admitting errors and taking steps for healing of relationships).

A Family Treasury of Mitzvah Stories will be dedicated to Danny Siegel. Vast numbers of Jewish educators and clergy have been inspired by Siegel’s decades of innovative mitzvah-centered publications, poetry, guidance and programs, including the Ziv Foundation, which dedicated over $14 million to fulfill a huge array of mitzvah opportunities.

Reclaiming Judaism Press creates innovative resources for meaningful Jewish living in a context of respectful Jewish pluralism. The first volume in this series Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, along with its matching deck of Mitzvah Cards and free downloadable discussion guide, fully reached its goals for diversity inclusion, receiving finalist honors from the Jewish Book Council’s National Jewish Book Awards.  

On a Memoir of Farm Life

— by Hannah Lee

Memoirs allow me to live vicariously in others’ lifestyles and cultures. They have taught me about the diversity in people’s choices and values. I was first drawn to Suzanne McMinn’s new memoir, Chickens in the Road, because of the red barn on the cover, the mention of chickens, and the subtitle, “An adventure in ordinary splendor.”

What I got was more than just a chronicle of “Do It Yourself” (DIY) self-sufficiency projects. McMinn’s journey, from being a city girl to a farmer, is also a road map for finding inner strength in the face of adversity. Fear had paralyzed her from making difficult decisions, but when she finally did so, the right choices were awaiting her.

More after the jump.
McMinn begins her tale with her move to the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, where her family had lived for generations. She uprooted her three children from their city life in Texas to live in the old farmhouse (dubbed “the slanted little house” for its uneven floors). There she learned to can food, kill raccoons with a .22 Long Rifle, and ignite the gas stove in the “cellar porch,” in a futile attempt to keep the pipes from freezing.

Later, she built a new home on a 40-acre farm with her new partner. It was so isolated that it could only be reached by fording three creeks in one direction, and a river in the other one. Poverty was another kind of isolation in Appalachia. They had neighbors who did not have a phone service, and still relied on an outhouse.

McMinn gathered around her a veritable menagerie of chickens, dairy goats, sheep and pigs, but they were more of a petting zoo than hardworking farm animals. The addition of a milk cow finally made her feel like a real farmer. The cow, although elderly, bony and ugly, was an abundant source of milk.

However, the physical effort of milking was greater for the novice farmer: The first day, it took her an hour and a half to yield just three-quarters of a gallon of milk. Over time, her fingers, arms, and back got stronger, and she acquired more stamina. Then she ventured into making butter and cheese, but the first batch of cheese was inedible.

McMinn explained why she chose this lifestyle:  

For some reason, there are those of us who leave the collective cocoon of public care, determined to test our grit against the challenge of individual self-sufficiency. Maybe it’s stubbornness. Maybe it’s arrogance. Maybe it’s the desire to meet and defeat challenge. Other people jump out of airplanes. Some climb sheer mountain faces. Still others race cars. It’s all about testing some deep place inside that the comfortable, secure world today won’t make you test otherwise. For me, it was surviving winter on a remote farm. That was my airplane, my mountain, my race car. My test.

I preferred Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 memoir, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” for her narrative skill, and because it was first farm memoir that I have read, but one plot twist in Chickens in the Road made it worthwhile. McMinn made an emotional breakthrough, that could be a source of inspiration to all of us facing a difficult life decision. [Spoiler alert for the rest of the article.]

Her partner was ready for any new self-sufficiency project, but he had a bizarre temper. While it was gut-wrenching for me to read about their fights, and the verbal abuse he heaped on her, it made the climax much more riveting.

She loved her farm, and she needed his physical strength to do chores. She could not manage to do those chores by herself on a remote farm with an inconvenient layout, that was cut off from civilization with the first snowfall. However, when their relationship problems came to a head, she surprised them both by moving out.

Two miracles occurred at this point. The first miracle was that McMinn quickly found another farm just 10 miles away. It came with a paved road, mail delivery, and a bus stop in front of the house, so no more overnight stays in town for her children when she could not get down the steep driveway.

The small but charming 1930s farmhouse had been restored and maintained, and it had gas for heating. A separate studio was suitable for classes and farm-related events, equipped with up-to-code plumbing. The farm had mature cherry and apple trees, and wild berry bushes.

Much of the 100 acres, that were flat, had been cleared and fenced, ready for animals to move right in. There was a faucet in the goat field for water (no more carrying water!). There was a good well, and public water too. To the delight of the teen daughter, there were a stable and a pasture for horses. With the accessible layout of the farm, the chickens could finally even go “in the road.”

The second miracle was almost mystical: For two years, the farm had stood empty, while the owners entertained several offers. One of them, who was a psychic, kept refusing to sell it to people who were “not the one.” And every time, as she predicted, the deal fell through. After McMinn’s first visit to the farm, the psychic told her two brothers, “She is the one.”

To McMinn, it was the only farm she visited, and she wrote that “It looked like it had fallen off the pages of a children’s storybook and it was everything I’d ever dreamed a farm would be.” The farm had lain fallow for two years, until McMinn was ready to step out on her own. A religious Jew would call that bashert (predestined).

The lesson for me was broader than the feminist message, of breaking away from her abusive partner. It stood for the times that we have to make difficult decisions, and we are paralyzed by fear: fear of the unknown and fear of change. God has a plan for us, and we have to trust in the timeliness of how people and events come into our lives at the right time. And that is a lesson for 5774, in which we face new challenges, for the good and the not-so-good.

Chickens in the Road will be released on October 15. It has an appendix of recipes: an iron skillet upside-down pizza recipe, that came from a West Virginia Department of Agriculture pamphlet; and one for making vanilla extract, that will be a cost-saver for home bakers. Another appendix, of crafts, includes instruction for making hot-process soap (faster than cold-process), beeswax lip balm, and laundry detergent.

Beyond the avid DIYer, this book would be useful for a school pioneer project, or a recreation of shtetl life. A blog by the same name is available here.

Learning the Science of Food

— by Hannah Lee

When I was enrolled in chemistry in college, it was a humbling experience to realize that I do not have the spatial intelligence to imagine organic molecules in three dimensions. However, I am an avid cook, so I was intrigued to register for Coursera’s free online course on the science of gastronomy.

The months of waiting until the start date was announced led me to wonder if the company was waiting for a threshold number of registrants, but by the time it was launched this summer, it was very well subscribed. By Assignment 9, the course had 5,438 students from all over the world, including Germany, Mexico and the Philippines.

More after the jump.  
This course was taught by two professors from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, so the deadlines for the weekly assignments were in Hong Kong time, 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Standard Time zone. Each week offered about two hours of video lectures, divided into smaller units of 15 minutes or less. The assignments were usually graded immediately on-screen. To pass and qualify for an “e-Statement of Accomplishment,” the student must score at least 70%.

There was a discussion forum for the students’ use. For the assignment on gluten development in dough, students shared ideas on what to do with the remains of the experiment: Their ideas included turning the non-yeasted mass into pizza, short-crust pie, and Christmas tree ornaments. I did not attempt to join a “Meetup” group, but I learned that 185 self-identified Philadelphians were taking a Coursera class.

The topics covered included: energy transfer, hunger and satiety, the sense of taste and smell, the sense of sight and touch, fruits and vegetables, a perfect steak, sauces, and dessert. I loved learning about the chemistry for what we cooks know from experience, and the two professors were thoroughly grounded in the scientific concepts. They also provided plenty of visual graphics, as well as student demonstrations from their campus.

One assignment was on the importance of our sense of smell for our enjoyment of food: Much of what we consider taste actually comes through our nose, which explains why a stuffy nose impairs our sense of taste. Another fun experiment was on how sweetness suppresses sourness, as we compared solutions of vinegar and sugar in different concentrations.

The assignment on gluten development was one that I was eager to do, because each of the test ingredients — oil, vinegar, and salt — is part of my regular challah recipe. I demonstrated to myself that each of the three hinders gluten development, yielding a mass with shorter strands of protein than the control portion of flour and water. I suppose they are included in my challah recipe for flavor and texture.

When I registered for the course last January, I noted a list of recommended books. Being the kind of college student who would purchased the books for interesting courses that she did not have time for, I ordered every one of them. I later found that while none of them were essential, they were useful references. If you are a foodie, the following titles are fine additions to your culinary library:

Coursera is a pioneer in offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), and since its launch in April 2012, it has rapidly added academic partners, which now total 66 institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Exploratorium, and the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. New partners are the University of Chicago, Yale, and Tel Aviv University.

Last March, Coursera announced a milestone number of over 3 million students, enrolled in 325 courses. I have not yet identified my next online class, but I can tell you that two local professors will be featured on Coursera: Paul Offit of the University of Pennsylvania will be teaching a nine-week class on vaccines, and Jonathan Biss of the Curtis Institute will be teaching a five-week course on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Both classes will start on September 3rd.

Book Chat: Austenland

— by Hannah Lee

“Jane Austen fever” is heating up, as the Bank of England has announced plans to feature the image of the beloved female novelist on their ten-pound note. The auction of a ring with Austen provenance prompted a public outcry, and the British Minister of Culture stopped its sale to the American singer Kelly Clarkson. The movie premiere of Austenland has rolled out in Los Angeles and New York last Friday. There are no dates for Philly showings yet, but I am preparing by taking the 2007 novel off my bookshelf.  

Full review after the jump.
Written by Shannon Hale, winner of a Newbery Honor medal for Princess Academy, the novel is about a single New York career woman, Jane Hayes, with an obsession for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or specifically, Colin Firth’s depiction of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation. When her great-aunt bequeaths her an all-expenses-paid vacation, to a resort where the regency world of 1816 rules, the heroine accepts the gift, with the hope of getting her obsession out of her system.

Pembroke Park is where cell phones are banned, and modern garb is switched for Empire-style gowns, bonnets, and garters (although mascara and modern toilets escaped the rule of authenticity). Going further than your typical costume ball and fan convention, this is a place where patrons live out their fantasies of a bygone world of servants, carriages and horses, and games of whist. The added bonus of a romance — under strict regency guidelines on modest behavior — detracted from the innocence of the fantasy play. The predicament for the heroine is assessing what is real and what is acting.

What was difficult for me was the concept of patrons paying for romance, which falls just within the legal boundary. What about the players who embody the regency characters they meet? This is no mere acting gig, because they spend days and nights with their roles.

Humorously drawn are the cast of characters, including the proprietress Mrs. Wattlesbrook, who grills her patrons on the proper regency rules of conduct; the charming Amelia Heartwright, who returns for a repeat vacation; and the farcical Miss Charming, embodying the tone-deaf patron, who sprinkles her language with the anachronistic “what, what” and “jolly good.” The male players include Colonel Andrews, with “a decent set of shoulders;” the disapproving Mr. Nobley; and the gardener Martin, with a taste for American basketball, although it is off-limits and out-of-time.

The $4 million film was produced by Stephanie Meyers, who channeled her earnings from her successful Twilight series of book and film. In a highly unusual move, the advance screenings are shown to women only, following the Sundance Film Festival, where women viewers praised the movie, and men trashed it.

While I am waiting for the movie to arrive in my neighborhood, I can review my copies of An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray, and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. I would learn much, without any complicated plotting.

Book Review: Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf: Welcome to Chelm’s Pond is a delightful and successful new interpretation of the genre of Chelm stories, with an original tale by author Sandor Schuman.

Theological inquiry and Jewish learning are traditionally embedded like subtle gems in the Chelm genre, and Schuman has not missed a beat on this score either. The illustrations, by Kevin Kuhne, are so clever and lively that one can also get drawn into the story through them. The pacing and parsing of the narrative has the tone of a great storyteller. Good fun and solid musing, all in one.

More after the jump.
Some of you may be thinking, “Chelm?” While today a town of almost 70,000 residents in Eastern Poland, for Jews Chelm is the name of a legendary village of inept, inside-out, hilarious illiterate Jews, whose behaviors and Yiddishisms have kept our people in stitches through many hard times. Beyond Mendel, “the renowned adventurer, woodsman, mountain man, and Adirondack guide who always tells the truth, even if he has to lie to do it,” the main characters in the book include Aufruf, the Yiddish-speaking dog, the Jewish quote maven Rabbi Chayyim Shammayim, “the oldest and wisest khokhem in all of Chelm’s Pond,” and especially, Bloomie, the dim-some shayne meydl.

Is this book for you? In this sample passage Bloomie is speaking:

“What’s your name, doggy?

Wagging his tail wildly, Aufruf replied, “Aufruf.”

“That’s a lovely name for a dog. How appropriate. Who gave you that name?”

“Colin Powell.”

“Hmmm. I don’t know him. Is he your owner?”

Nisht ahin, nisht aher. I am without an owner.”…

[Aufruf]… How can you just talk with me like it was an ordinary thing?”

“Well, it is an ordinary thing for you, isn’t it?” Bloomie replied. “And as for me, I talk to animals all of the time.”

“Yeah, but they don’t talk back.”

“Sometimes they do,” Bloomie replied, and then added, slowly for emphasis, “but you really have to listen.”

Aufruf was taken aback. Here was someone who could teach him his own lesson. Perhaps he should be more open-minded to hear other animals…”

Love, difference, gender issues, conversion to Judaism, belief in God, honesty and over 130 Hebrew and Yiddish terms are brilliantly introduced within the 103 pages of a book that can fit in a coat pocket. There are many interpretive levels to this book, making it appropriate for reading and discussion with children as well as adults. Adirondack Mendel’s Aufruf, while keeping faith with the Chelm traditions, is also moving us forward with honest inquiry on difficult topics. It is a great way to develop a useful Jewish cultural vocabulary, and as a new piece of Jewish folklore, a sheer delight. A Guide to Chelm’s Pond for Teachers and Discussion Leaders is available as a free download at http://www.chelmspond.com.

Book Review: Renee H Levy’s Baseless Hatred

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Do you appreciate a good collection of Jewish sources on a topic, presented in a very readable way? One that guides you toward reflection upon your own prejudices and predilections? One that provides a review of the related research literature and a psychological approach to helping you to evolve into a better, more aware person? Then Baseless Hatred by Renee H. Levy might draw you in during the first half of the volume, and that would be a dayenu, i.e. it would be enough to justify encountering it.  

More after the jump.
Levy’s thesis is that:

… hate is triggered because our primitive neural system reacts to events from the perspective of our own preexisting insecurities, because we make generalizations (which may be positive or negative) and confuse associations (additional but not necessarily relevant information) with causality. We will see that once hate has been triggered it is difficult to extinguish. We will understand the rapid switch that occurs when a person who initially feels victimized into a vindictive perpetrator of hate.

The primary focus of Baseless Hatred is on preventing and resolving hatred between individual Jews, based upon Leviticus 19:17-18, is that “you shall not hate your brother in your heart.” The Bible offers examples of such hatred: Esau’s hatred for Jacob and that of Jacob’s sons for their sibling Joseph. Traditionally, the loss of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel are attributed to sinat hinam, “baseless hatred” between Jews. The lore of the Talmud includes a story (Yevamot 62b), that one of the great rabbis of the second century, Rabbi Akiva, had 24,000 students, and a terrible plague struck the students as Divine punishment for the utter lack of respect they showed to each other. When the plague finally ended, only five remained, and they are credited with carrying the learning from this trauma forward and saving Judaism in their time.

Contemporary case examples of how hatred arises between individual Jews are given in a clinical fashion in Baseless Hatred, along with potential approaches to avert and/or resolve such hatred. This facilitates readers in finding their own life parallels, and trying on the awareness methods that the author provides. One might call this section of the book an experience of mussar (moral), training in interpersonal awareness and personal change.

Arvevut, the mitzvah of mutual responsibility between Jews, is at the core of Levy’s approach to encouraging peace within the Jewish tent, under the heading: “Judah’s Legacy: The Judah Principle”. Judah was Jacob’s son and he offered his life as hostage to Joseph in place of his youngest brother in the Biblical story.  She explains: “Judah taught that in order to return and live in Israel, the Jewish people must reestablish its commitment to mutual responsibility. They did so at the covenant at Sinai.” And on the next page, in a way similar to how she will later quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks she explains that: “…hatred between two Jews results in a tear that does not stop at their relationship. It reverberates and ultimately destroys the unity and integrity of the national fabric.”

Indeed, but what of the human fabric and the narratives and feelings of all the other peoples and nations? The volume continues, unfortunately, into a blindly self-indulgent view of the Jewish people, accounting us as vastly more saintly than we are, or any humans could be.

“Jews will understand that acceptance and respect by other nations will eventually come when the latter will see that Jews have used their freedom and sovereignty to become moral individuals. At that point, anti-Semitic voices that accuse Israel of being a terrorist or outlaw state will have no echo and will be silenced.”

Were Rene H. Levy to have applied her theories and analysis with empathetic and authentic care for those beyond the Jewish people, this could have been a great book. Instead, in the second half of the volume she falls into the trap of speaking of Jews as great and essentially everyone else as perpetrators that do not appreciate us. The wisdom and process recommendations of finding empathy and understanding from the first half are so quickly lost. What a shame and ironic reflection of the prevailing human condition. We are all responsible to evolve, individually and as peoples. In the words of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch:

“An “art” is any skill that is not innate but must be acquired by constant training and practice. To our thinking, therefore, being good is surely an art.”

Main Line’s Thirst for Books Quenched at Last


Cathy Fiebach outside the store

— by Hannah Lee

I and other residents of the Main Line have been in lack of books since the bankruptcy of the Borders bookstore chain in July 2011, and the renovations of the Ludington and Bala Cynwyd branch libraries, the latter closing in December 2011. For a few months, we were bereft of all three resources, until Ludington reopened last September, and Bala Cynwyd reopened last month. Another pleasure awaits us at the newly opened Main Point Books, an independent bookstore in Bryn Mawr, run by local resident Cathy Fiebach.

Main Point Books stocks a broad range of books, with a particular emphasis on literary fiction. Fiebach is eager to hear from customers about the kinds of books they like, and especially about books they do not, because it helps her develop her inventory. (When was the last time you had fun chatting books with the staff at a chain store?)

One of the charming books available in the store is My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, a collection of essays by writers on their favorite bookstores. Some of those stores are in the writers’ communities, and others are their stops along a book tour. I have my own copy, and I told Fiebach that it is “armchair traveling” for me to read about lovely bookstores across the country. Her store could easily join their ranks.

More after the jump.
Main Point Books has comfortable armchairs, round tables and 17,000 square feet of space. The bookcases in the middle are on wheels, and are able to be moved out for an audience. Events with authors will begin in the fall. Interested customers may get alerts on Facebook or Twitter, or by email. (Visitors could satisfy any hunger pangs with the dairy selection from the *ndulge Cupcake Boutique located next door, in the former Medley Music building, with kosher supervision from Rabbi Dov Lerner of Traditional Kosher Supervision.)  

Main Point Books, located at 1041 W. Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, is open seven days a week, with hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday 10 am to 6 pm; Thursday and Friday 10 am to 8 pm; and Sunday noon to 4 pm. Phone: 610-525-1480; email: [email protected].