Ode to Arthur

Arthur Koestler.

By Marie Miguel

There are certainly more than enough horrific tales of how the persecuted lived under fascism in the middle of the 20th century, and indeed dozens of books with “Koestler” on their covers.

“Scum of the Earth” is a unique kind of autobiographical adventure, a guide to suffering atrocious treatment with as much good humor as possible. The book also describes  how a totalitarian regime can subvert the morals of both states and individuals.

For someone who wasn’t actually a criminal, Arthur Koestler certainly saw the inside of a large number of cells. Reprising this aspect of his personal history is possibly the best way to explain what the reader can expect from “Scum of the Earth.”

[Read more…]

Raise Your “Goblet of Fire” to “The Hogwarts Haggadah”

If you think your Passover Seder is missing that magic touch, perhaps Harry Potter and his friends can help you out. Moshe Rosenberg, author of Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter, recently published his latest Jewish-Potter hybrid project, The (Unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah.

For the kids (and let’s be honest, adults), who are fast asleep before you can finally eat at the Seder, The (Unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah will be the spell that breaks the boredom curse. First, the Haggadah itself is aesthetically pleasing with Harry Potter and Passover illustrations, designed by Aviva Shur, that will keep the wondering eye on the page. In regards to the text, the Haggadah has a traditional layout so it can be used in lieu of your non-wizard copy. Rosenberg periodically stops the Passover story with quick nuggets of Jewish thoughts that are grounded in Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah. But right when you think you may be growing tired, he shifts to Harry Potter and how the J.K. Rowling series relates to the biblical story. [Read more…]

An Evening with Daniel Silva

ORGANIZATION:  AMIT Philadelphia Council Shira Chapter
EVENT: An Evening with bestselling author DANIEL SILVA
LOCATION:  Gratz College
                         7605 Old York Road
                          Melrose Park, PA 
DATE:  Tuesday, July 19, 2016
TIME:  6:30 PM Exclusive Catered Reception with Daniel Silva
              7:30 PM Program
              8:30 PM Book Signing & Dessert Reception
COST:  $180 each for exclusive Author’s reception  & program (includes signed copy of The Black Widow)
                $54 General admission per person (includes signed copy of The Black Widow & dessert reception)
CONTACT:  AMIT Office 410-484-2223 [email protected]


“The Archive Thief” Saved Rare Jewish Books During WWII

On Thursday, I attended a fascinating lecture at Drexel’s Judaic Studies department. The guest speaker was Lisa Moses Leff, whose new book, The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust, is about Zosa Szajkowski, who single-mindedly rescued Jewish books and documents from Germany and France, as an immigrant American GI paratrooper during WWII.

Szajkowski brazenly used the U.S. Army free courier service to ship his parcels back — some two or three in a day — to New York, the last remaining branch of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He continued to steal Jewish documents after the war and he financed his own scholarship by selling them piecemeal to Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel; the two top buyers were the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College. He was eventually caught red-handed and he committed suicide in 1978.

When Dr. Leff, Associate Professor at American University, interviewed the elderly librarians who’d acquired the documents, knowing of their sketchy provenance, she found that they were proud of helping to rescue Jewish written material from the Nazis. However, some of the items were taken from institutions that survived the war, and there remain big gaps in the European archives. Everyone knew of Szajkowski in the library and archive community, but he was never publically named.

Ironically, the stolen documents have gained better care, having been catalogued and made available for scholarship. Indeed, when one librarian was asked about giving back the documents, he retorted that they — the European institutions — should pay for all the years of care and storage! Zosa Szajkowski, with his looting and his scholarship, singlehandedly established the field of Jewish historical research, using documents of ordinary Jews. So, do you think the end justifies the means?

Book Review: Subway Love

Subway Love by Nora Raleigh Baskin is a page-turner of a short novel, skillfully designed to encourage both family and classroom discussion of difficult topics such as divorce, abuse, first love, intermarriage, and coping with the end or loss of both casual and important relationships.

For example, is someone you once loved and have not seen in decades being almost unconsciously scanned for by your soul, almost everywhere you go? If that person suddenly emerged out of the pages of time, what would you do?

Do you remember what it was like to break up with a first love, or have that person just disappear from your life?

Has someone’s existence called to you or someone you love in ways that led or lead to risk-taking in order to connect? What if a parent did not appear safe to talk to about what is happening in your life? What if he or she brought a second relationship into your home who abused you, and your safety was not your family’s first priority?

Baskin, known for tackling difficult subjects in her writing, again provides healthy material rich in graphic language and encounters, that is helpful to eliciting inter-generational honesty in the discussion of real relationships. Parents, whether married or divorced, would surely provide a very different narrative about our exhausting struggles to care for our children.

By Baskin revealing a view of the world after divorce, youth and adults have an honest plane for discussion “about the characters” that can help deepen relationships within schools, youth groups, camps and families in potentially life-saving ways.

The book debuted just as New York's mayor refused protection to Five Pointz, an empty commercial building that had become a community gathering point for community musical events, local meet-ups and some of the best examples of the art of graffiti in the U.S. (Photo: Barry Bub.)

The book debuted just as New York’s mayor refused protection to Five Pointz, an empty commercial building that had become a community gathering point for community musical events, local meet-ups and some of the best examples of the art of graffiti in the U.S. (Photo: Barry Bub.)

Graffiti is a metaphor that travels throughout the book, set in 1973:

Mayor Lindsay had declared war and…well over fifteen hundred New York City youths had been arrested for vandalism. He called the graffiti ‘demoralizing,’ and he said the graffiti writers were ‘insecure cowards’ seeking recognition, though nothing could have been further from the truth.

The book debuted just as New York’s mayor refused protection to Five Pointz, an empty commercial building that had become a community gathering point for community musical events, local meet-ups and some of the best examples of the art of graffiti in the U.S.

While such sites often become protected in Canada and England after a period of festivals held on the site, the ultimate message of graffiti and the book, of life’s impermanence, was realized. The buildings were white-washed to abruptly halt the efforts at advocacy and adulation in the press of the art, and then expediently demolished to make way for high-rise rental apartments.

Perhaps impermanence is necessary to define both graffiti and life. The opportunity to reflect upon this reality, as afforded to us by the book, is another important entry point provided by the author.

The question of whether the main characters are intent on breaking the law at points, doing a mitzvot, or simply engaging in self-expression, is likely to be one of many riveting discussions based on the book to hold with teen readers. The book dovetails beautifully with Jewish topics such as our core ethos of mitzvah-centered living, and core challenges such as our struggles with victimization.

In this age, adult personal struggles are typically supported in therapy behind closed doors, leaving youth clueless of how to cope in their own lives. Our youth are too often supported through the peer alternative of immature “wise guys” than mentoring by truly wise guides. Training programs such as those of Reclaiming Judaism are emerging to ensure Jewish educators, understandably reluctant to serve in this way until they are trained, become skillful in guiding young lives.

Baskin’s writing highlights the importance of community-based mentors who are truly available to listen deeply to our youth and mentor them on the journey called life. Subway Love is an honest, important short novel best used in settings of skillful dialogue and safe rapport.

Book Review: The Resolutionary War

As the Jewish New Year approaches, The Resolutionary War and its premise make for an interesting model to contemplate in contrast to Jewish New Year practices.

This debut novel by Sandy Chase and Violet April Ebersole involves a group of individuals intending to meet monthly in support of fulfilling personal resolutions.

Judaism advocates a process that advances healing and intimacy. This involves undertaking a fiercely honest personal inventory of our behavior and relationships across the year (heshbon hanefesh), making appointments with those we have hurt to our regret, a plan of action for how to avoid repeating negative behaviors, commitment to non-defensively support healing within the relationship (teshuvah), which is further sealed by giving charity to support healthy developments within the greater society (tzedakah).

By contrast with Jewish New Year spiritual practices, the book brilliantly reveals profound flaws in the personal resolutions model. Social workers often say that the presenting problem is rarely, if ever, the real problem. This is one of the problems with resolutions: They usually belie the necessary process and guidance to uncover the work that most deeply needs doing.

This novel will easily provoke discussion about family dynamics, because it is rife with painful, often superficial interpersonal dynamics, long-held secrets, and an almost total absence of authentic intimacy grounded in meaningful empathy between the characters. So many relationship skills are missing between these characters that one yearns to jump right in and start coaching each toward the capacity to have a “we.”

A popcorn-style of dialogue gives this debut novel a soap-opera- or graphic-novel-like sensibility. The co-authors chose this approach well, as it serves well to underscore the different social classes depicted among the families. A wide array of true-to-life tensions about life’s essential topics such as marriage, addiction, infertility and adoption give the story weight, character and energy.

The Resolutionary War gives its readers fodder for reflection upon the need to realign their own relationships during this Hebrew calendar month of Elul, which in itself is an acronym for ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” May each and all be so blessed.

Book Review: “Culinary Expeditions” Are Always Appropriate


By Ronit Treatman

The members of the Women’s Committee of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology were inspired to collaborate on one of the best books I have had the pleasure of acquiring this year.

Culinary Expeditions introduces its readers to culinary artifacts from around the world, culled from the Museum’s amazing collection. Each artifact is accompanied by a recipe that reflects the culture of its provenance. All proceeds from the sales of this book will directly benefit the Museum.

In our increasingly internationalized world, this book is the perfect gift for any occasion. Learning about each others’ cultures and foods helps us all connect with each other.

[Read more…]

Book Review: Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Story

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Short books, available only by download, are a recent trend.

Sally Wiener Grotta’s Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Stories was sent to me in this form, which worked well for it. It is also available in paperback and hardcover.

This volume, about a Jewish mixed-race woman raised by her Christian grandparents in a rural area, seems to be intentionally designed as a tool for provoking discussion about race, prejudice, interfaith encounters, the Jewish mourning practice of sitting shiva and saying Kaddish, and dysfunctional families.

As an educator always looking out for high-school-level stories that reveal family diversity, the story also raises important psycho-dynamic issues: that some people do change over time, and how projecting expectations onto others can lead to devastating cruelty.

The violence of the rape and trauma scenes seems quite accurate. Shiva scenes of the Jewish week of mourning after burial reflect the unfortunate and common practice of people giving advice to the primary mourners. Our tradition teaches us to listen to feelings, and not offer fixes. Even so, Kaddish works its magic:

For a few brief moments, I no longer feel like a stranger, but part of something larger, grander than myself. We were brought together by death, but we’re held together by the demands of life. That peace and comfort stays with me even as the circle breaks up.

But I have some issues with the work as a whole:

Continued after the jump.
First, during this quick read I kept hoping that the obvious conclusion would not be the actual one, but the end of the tale is truly inevitable.

Secondly, the main character, who is also the most affected by violence, seems almost wooden compared to rape victims this reviewer has counseled in her roles as a rabbi, and a long-time activist in the field of rape prevention and counseling. Overall, the main character seem to be reporting on her life more than fully experiencing it. The book’s author has written an essay on the malleability of memory — an interesting matter in and of itself.

Third, an aphorism says that between the liberal cities of Philadelphia and Harrisburg lies Appalachia, and the book proves this point. The characters seem caricatured; many of them would readily fit into an episode of Northern Exposure, or the townies of the recent film, Nebraska.

I kept wishing for brief film clips, rather than having to “get the picture” by reading the by-the-book style of writing:

“Hello Judith, don’t suppose you recollect me.”

A woman stands over me, but not too close, as though she’s hesitant to encroach.

About 65, she’s painfully thin, with that strained scrawny appearance of one who’s fought her way through a hard life and survived. Her face is rough and deeply lined; her nose and mouth twisted and papered with small scars. Her dull dark brown hair is streaked with yellowing gray swathes, but tightly groomed, not a strand escaping the bun at her neck. Though decades out of fashion, her flowered dress is starched and spotless…

For some contexts this form of writing can work well, especially for entry-level writing classes, and high school settings, where discussion of the powerful contemporary themes will be of great benefit.  

In Praise of Historicals

— by Hannah Lee

Much of what I know about the world comes from reading historical novels. Beyond the wars and the political intrigues, these books bring to life the daily struggles of their characters. The best ones portray memorable characters, but this article is about their ability to shed light on little-known aspects of history.

One such book is the new Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, in which the emancipated black workers of a Southern sugar plantation await the arrival of Chinese farm workers. The able-bodied have left for a new life in the North, so the only ones left are the elderly, the fearful, and the orphaned 10-year-old Sugar, who hates her given name. The Chinese men are young and strong, but the major difference is that they chose to come, to escape famine back home.

The fictive angle is the rapprochement initiated by Sugar between the blacks and the Chinese, creating a community of neighbors who shared their skills in healing and cooking. They swapped stories of Br’er Rabbit, and of the 12 animals named by the Jade Emperor to the Chinese zodiac. This is a finely written book, with realistically drawn characters.

More after the jump.

The book taught me a new aspect of Chinese history. What was extra special was that the author learned about it from a scholarly book written by a Jew, Lucy M. Cohen, titled Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People Without History. (That closed the cultural triangle for me.)

Another fascinating book is The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden by Robert J. Avrech, who is better known for his screenplays for the films “Body Double,” “A Stranger Among Us,” and the Emmy award-winning young adult film, “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” The book has a cast of familiar real characters, such as the Apache chiefs, Geronimo and Victorio, and the outlaw Doc Holliday, but it also introduced me to Lozen, Victorio’s younger sister who was respected as a fighter, medicine woman, and midwife. She sat on war councils, and chose not to marry, which was unusual for an Apache maiden.

The hero of the book is Ariel, who is about to mark his Bar Mitzvah, as his family is making their way across the United States after fleeing from one of the pogroms that terrorized the Jews of Russia. Ariel and his family are fictive, but they represent the thousands of Jews who sought freedom in the western expansion of the United States. Especially pleasurable for me were the gems of wisdom from the Talmud and Torah, that Ariel had learned from his father, who had semicha (rabbinic ordination) from the great Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik, also known as the Brisker Rav.

Just as the present day Dalai Lama learned from the Jewish exodus and diaspora, Lozen learned from Ariel that it is difficult for a tribe of people to survive without a written language:

The elders of our tribe realized that unless our laws were written down, there was the danger that the ways of our people would be forgotten. They understood that for a small tribe to survive among larger and more powerful tribes, the Jews had to build a fence — an invisible fence — around the tribe. This fence was made of words and ideas.

Finally, it was a rare delight to read about a family who observes traditional Jewish rituals even in the difficult terrain of frontier life. As a Hollywood professional, Avrech has written a gripping tale, with cliffhangers that lure the reader to continue. Sadly, the book is dedicated to the memory of his son, Ariel Chaim.

Book Review: Kosher by Design Cooking Coach

Makes Every Step Easy and Delicious

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Those who like step-by-step, New York Times-level recipes, where nothing is taken for granted about prior ingredient or utensil knowledge, will greatly appreciate Susie Feishbein’s Kosher by Design Cooking Coach: Recipes, tips and techniques to make anyone a better cook. This volume is part of a continuing series, which demonstrates each vital step through the vibrant photography of John Uher. Fishbein, a widely published cookbook author, also teaches on cruise ships, offers week-long culinary adventures in Israel and Italy, and has been profiled through the media.

Full review after the jump.
I was writing this review beside my son, Adam, as he and his wife Daniela were reviewing the copy that I have provided them for Rosh Hashannah. Their comments say it all:

It’s great to have a volume where you don’t have the frustration of trying to figure out how to remove the butter from the steak, the crab from the sushi, and the pancetta from the pasta. Here you have excellent, interesting dishes for everyday, Shabbat and holidays: from Italian to Japanese, French to Mexican, and Korean to Southwestern U.S. And it’s all kosher.

We have fleishig (meat) dinners for Shabbat and holidays, so I was debating whether to make the “spiced coffee-braised brisket” this Rosh Hashannah, or to try something more exotic, like the very yummy Lamb Couscous, which I tried with ease and success before sending Adam and Daniela the cookbook. The first step in this recipe is creating an infusion, using two mint tea bags — how cool is that! Oops — Suddenly, we were all captivated by the kosher grill option of “Kansas City ribs.”

Pragmatism always prevails, and your cooking life will change life if you acquire a mixer with a dough hook. The creative adaptations offered for the “Susie Bosch mixer challah” base recipe include rosemary olive challah, cinnamon raisin challah, chocolate chip-based Babka challah, and spiced pull-apart challah.

When you cook milchig (dairy), you might start with “Building a Cheese Plate” on page 52, where Fishbein ensures that you will achieve the same result as a French restaurant, or better, at a fraction of the cost.

Many press articles rue the loss of socialization skills among young people. Fishbein embraces and encourages the Jewish value of hachnassat orchim (hosting guests), right inside her recipe commentaries, e.g.:

People usually think of serving cheese plates at open house style parties or as hors d’oeuvres [first course], but a cheese plate can be a stunning simple appetizer for a dairy lunch or dinner. Not only is it delicious but it can also be a conversation piece as people share and indulge.

Fishbein opens with a section called “Playbook,” where she even teaches how to think about cooking: “Do not overcook your food on the first go around or it will not be tasty when reused and recooked in its second form… From a kosher perspective, try to preplan how you will use the leftovers…” In this section, she highlights how to “synergize” recipes to maximum effect, e.g. Cajun quinoa (page 261): If your quinoa was made in a pareve pot with parveve utentils, you can try these fantastic quinoa Burgers:

Mix 2 cups leftover Cajun quinoa with 3 beaten eggs, 1/4 cup Parmesan, 3/4 cup breadcrumbs, and 3 ounces crumbled goat cheese. Form into 4 burgers. Heat 2 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet and sear the burgers 2-3 minutes per side.

Every chapter includes a “Game Plan” section, where Fishbein visually highlights the available recipes in an overview, and gives sound advice, such as:

“Don’t serve Nori-Wrapped Salmon and then follow it with salmon as the main course. Most importantly, watch the portion size. The equivalent of a whole meal should not be served before the dinner has arrived.”

About this sample recipe from the volume, Fishbein says:

Cherries, Port, lamb and rosemary make for a perfect flavor profile. But can a dish so elegant really incite bad manners? It sure can when you find yourself licking your plate clean of this delectable sauce.

Lamb Shanks With Cherries and Port (page 198)

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Yields: 6 servings lamb shanks


  • 6 lamb shanks (have butcher trim bones), rinsed and patted dry
  • Fine sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, peeled, cut into very small dice
  • 1 rib celery, minced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and minced
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves and sprigs chopped
  • 1 cup dried cherries, divided
  • 1 (750-ml) bottle Port wine (Ruby, if possible)
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons divided, good-quality black cherry preserves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks


  1. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. In batches, so you don’t crowd the pan, add the lamb shanks and brown, 3-4 minutes per side, turning to sear all sides. Remove to a jellyroll pan.
  2. Add the onion, celery, and carrot to the pot, stirring to scrape up browned bits from the bottom. Add the rosemary, thyme, and 1/2 cup dried cherries. Remove from heat. Pour in the Port and chicken stock. Stir. Return to medium heat. Whisk in the 1/2 cup black cherry preserves to dissolve. Drop in the cinnamon sticks. Return the lamb shanks to the pot. Raise heat, bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Cover and cook for 2 hours. Check after 1 hour and see if the shanks need rotating if they are not completely submerged.
  3. Remove the shanks from the pot. Remove and discard the cinnamon sticks and rosemary sprig. Using an immersion blender, blend the sauce, then simmer for 20 minutes over medium heat, uncovered, to reduce, skimming any impurities from the surface. Whisk in remaining 2 tablespoons black cherry preserves. Return the shanks to sauce and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup dried cherries. Cook for 10 minutes; serve with sauce. Can be made in advance and reheated.

Blessings for a meaningful, memorable and delicious new year!