Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“MOSES, THE LAWGIVER”— Burt Lancaster Does Moses

“Moses, The Lawgiver”

Burt Lancaster Does Moses

Amos Lassen

The timing for the release of “Moses the Lawgiver” could not have been better. This week Jews around the world are celebrating Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Exodus that was led by Moses. While this is not a perfect film about Moses, it is interesting  to see a different take on the man that Charlton Heston played in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”.

Either the Hebrew Bible tells us or we assume that Moses was a man of wisdom and strength who raised his staff and crushed an empire. This is his story which is the story of the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt to escape persecution and it is told from the  perspective that highlights Moses’ efforts to persuade the stubborn Pharaoh Merneptah, his adopted cousin, to release to release the Hebrew slaves he was using to build his empire. For a spectacular story, we need a spectacular cast and here it is— g Burt Lancaster as Moses, Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Ingrid Thulin as Miriam , Irene Papas as Zipporah and narrated by Richard Johnson. This is the story of Moses, the Hebrew lawgiver, an extraordinary man who receives a holy calling, and we follow his life from birth, abandonment, slavery and trials in leading the Jews through the Holy Land after taking them out of Egypt.

We see the baby Moses put into the river and his adoption by a Hebrew princess. When Moses’ Hebrew origin is revealed, he’s cast out of Egypt and wanders across the desert. Returning to Egypt, Moses along with his brother Aaron, confront Pharaoh Mernefta, asking him to liberate the Jews but he refuses, causing God to inflict the 7 (sic) plagues on the Egyptians. Finally, Moses climbs Mount Sinai bringing down the holy tablets.

The film was shot on location in Israel and Morocco and the wonderful costumes and props are a visual feast. I am just sorry that the writers chose the reinterpret the story and filling it with unbelievable mistakes. The other problem that I had is despite a great performance by Burt Lancaster, this umpteenth telling of Moses’ story suffers from a lack of direction on the film makers’ part. The plagues and curses which could have been spectacular are done in a mediocre way by special effects guy Mario Bava but the film does wonderfully capture Moses leading his people out of Egypt and into the desert, where they complaining constantly. However, Moses’ faith is never shaken.

The film suffers from trying not to be better than other films on the subject and that is hard to do. There are scenes here that run twice as long as they should. The film is a six hours long, and in need of editing.  There are some very effective scenes, mostly dealing with the pharaoh’s wrath, but there is not enough emotion here to make them compelling viewing. I had a problem with the scene showing young boys and infants being thrown into the Nile and when Moses killed his camel and cooked its flesh. It was alarming to see him eating it.

Director Gianfranco De Bosio keeps God off screen. His words are mediated only through Moses. Even the viewer only hears him speak in Lancaster’s voice. His (miraculous) actions are shown through subjective point of view shots, or meet, shortly afterwards, with a rational explanation.  The closing scenes portray Moses dying twice. Initially Moses seems to have died in his tent in the same ordinary way that his siblings died before him. But then, Moses ascends the mountain overlooking the Promised Land and then lays down to die in the manner described at the end of Deuteronomy.

“A Mortuary of Books: The Rescue of Jewish Culture after the Holocaust” by Elizabeth Gallas and translated by Alex Skinner— Rescuing Jewish Cultural Treasures

Gallas, Elizabeth. “A Mortuary of Books: The Rescue of Jewish Culture after the Holocaust”, translated by Alex Skinner, (Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History), NYU Press,  2019.

Rescuing Jewish Cultural Treasures

Amos Lassen

Alex Skinner has beautifully translated Elizabeth Gallas’ German study of the efforts of scholars and activists to rescue Jewish cultural treasures after the Holocaust.

 In March 1946 the American Military Government for Germany established the Offenbach Archival Depot near Frankfurt as a place to store, identify, and restore the tremendous quantities of Nazi-looted books, archival material, and ritual objects that Army members had found hidden in many German caches. These objects of lootings and theft  bore testimony to the cultural genocide that was part of the Nazis’ systematic acts of mass murder. The depot built a short-lived “mortuary of books with over three million books of Jewish origin coming from nineteen different European countries, all were awaiting restitution. 

This is the miraculous story of the many Jewish organizations and individuals who, after the war, sought to recover this looted cultural property and return the millions of treasured objects to their rightful owners. Some of the most outstanding Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century, including Dawidowicz, Hannah Arendt, Salo W. Baron, and Gershom Scholem, were involved in this effort. This eventually led to the creation of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc., an international body that acted as the Jewish trustee for heirless property in the American Zone and transferred hundreds of thousands of objects from the Depot to the new centers of Jewish life after the Holocaust. 

 These individuals were committed to the restitution of cultural property revealed the importance of cultural objects as symbols of the enduring legacy of those who could not be saved. It also fostered Jewish culture and scholarly life in the postwar world.

Gallas writes with great detail after using archival sources, memoirs, correspondence, and histories to get the information needed and presents us with “a comprehensive history of efforts to recover, identify, and restore artifacts of Jewish culture and scholarship.”

“Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth” by Jodi Magness— A New Look at an Old Story

Magness, Jodi. “Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth”, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A New Look at an Old Story

Amos Lassen

It seems that Masada has been part of my life since I was a teenager. Growing up in Young Judaea, a Jewish and Zionist youth group, I both studied about and learned from Masada. Not only as she great material to build stories , she had her own very special story that we would listened to whenever the chance came. It was never important whether it was true or not because the story was so beautiful,  During those years Yigal Yadin published his famous book about his famous findings at the Masada site and it seemed to be the definitive word until that beautiful new study from Jodi Magness came along. When her book came out recently, I took time to be alone with it for a while and things I had not thought about in many 60 years came back to me. I was determined to read every fascinating word of the text and to examine the photographs for as long as I was able to do so.

Jodi Magness brings us a new account of Masada and the story of the last stand of a group of Jewish rebels who held out against the Roman Empire. It was two thousand years ago, 967 Jewish men, women, and children (the last holdouts of the revolt against Rome following the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple) are said to have taken their own lives rather than surrender to the Roman army. This took place on top of Masada which was a barren and windswept mountain overlooking the Dead Sea. This powerful story of Jewish resistance became a symbol to the new nation of Israel beginning in 1948 with the physical creation of the state. (The story had been around long before that but Israel needed a heroic saga and so this became just that”. The first extensive archaeological excavations of Masada began in the 1960s, and today the site draws visitors from around the world. Only Josephus recorded the history of the mass suicide and because it is the only record we have, it is not totally accepted as fact. Some scholars question if the event ever took place).

Magness has excavated at Masada and here she explains what happened there, how we know it, and how recent developments might change understandings of the story. Incorporating the latest findings, she brings together literary and historical sources to show us what life was like for Jews under Roman rule during the reign of Herod and Jesus’s ministry and death. There are wonderful illustrations and photographs that add to the story that still keeps us fascinated.

The story goes like this, “In 74 CE, 967 Jews on top of the rock fortress of Masada purportedly took their own lives rather than surrender to a Roman army. Their defiant self-sacrifice became a modern, nationalist rallying cry: ‘Masada shall not fall again!’”. Magness, who directed excavations of the Roman siege works at Masada and is one of the preeminent archaeologists of the ancient Mediterranean world, and her book “Masada” describes its physical setting and development, the history of the site’s excavation, the story of the Roman siege, and the creation of Masada’s hotly contested modern myth. It is both  scholarly and accessible to all.

Writer Magness takes us into the story of the fall of Masada, elaborating on the dramatic tale as told by Josephus. She also shares the fascinating adventures and misadventures of the region’s explorers, from the nineteenth century through the 1960s. She describes the excavations that have taken place there including her own making the story personal.
Today Masada is the foremost archaeological site in Israel and is  the most spectacular and one of the most visited. The Israeli army inducts soldiers of special companies of the Israel Defense Forces on top of Masada  and they are reminded of the 967 who gave their lives for what they believed. Magness has done here what few archaeologists could have pulled off and she does so with  clarity and accessibility. 

“The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between” by Michael Hobbs— Families Seeking Escape

Dobbs, Michael. “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between”, Knopf, 2019.

Families Seeking Escape

Amos Lassen

“Michael Dobbs’ “The Unwanted” is published in cooperation and association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is a riveting story of Jewish families seeking to escape Nazi Germany.

Our story opens in 1938 right before World War II broke out. American journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote “a piece of paper with a stamp on it” was “the difference between life and death.” People did not comprehend the seriousness of what Thompson wrote. “The Unwanted reflects the seriousness of that statement and is the intimate account of a small village on the edge of the Black Forest whose Jewish families desperately pursued American visas to flee the Nazis. They had to deal with formidable bureaucratic obstacles and  some were able to make it to the United States while others were unable to obtain the necessary documents in order to get the piece of paper with a stamp on it and others were murdered in Auschwitz, their applications for American visas were still “pending.”

Writer Dobbs had access to previously unpublished letters, diaries, interviews, and visa records and is able to give us an  illuminating account of America’s response to the refugee crisis of the 1930s and 1940s. He describes the deportation of German Jews to France in October 1940, along with their continuing quest for American visas. He re-creates the heated debates among U.S. officials over whether or not to admit refugees amid growing concerns about “fifth columnists,” at a time when the American public was deeply isolationist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic.

This is a Holocaust story that is both German and American that brilliantly captures the experiences of a small community struggling to survive as the world was going mad around it. We read of the fight to get Jewish refugees into the United States in the years right before the War and extending into 1941 through using the plight of Jews from the small German village of Kippenheim in the German area of Baden as they realized what was happening to them. (Is it even possible to imagine something like this?.

Kippenheim is not far from the French/German border of the Rhine River. (Dobbs helpfully puts maps of both the village and its location in Germany). Jews and Christians had lived peacefully with each other for generations. The town’s synagogue was right down the street from the Catholic Church. However, by the mid-1930’s, as the Nazis consolidated their hold on the government and the people, Kippenheim’s Jews began to feel the regime’s oppression. Some residents left Kippenheim for safer places. But by 1938 and the Kristallnacht pogrom, Jews all over Germany woke up to the deep and very real threat of the Nazis. Plans were made to leave Germany, but those plans involved getting approvals from nations to emigrate to and approvals to leave Germany. (It was still, at that time,  the official German policy to encourage Jewish emigration rather than extermination which came later.)

Dobbs focuses on a few families from the village and the attempts they made to “get out”. Many were successful and were able to leave before and slightly after the breakout of war on September 3, 1939. But most of the remaining Jews were sent to Gurs – a holding camp in the southwest part of France (This is the same camp to which philosopher Hannah Arendt was sent). From there, attempts by United States charities and government entities to save these few thousands of German Jews ( including Kippenheim’s contingent) and send them to safety in the US or Mexico or Martinique.

By concentrating on the fates of a hundred or so German Jews in Gurs and Marseilles, and interspersing the activities being carried on by the United States to both save them from being “sent East” or disrupt that attempt because of prejudice by some American officials, Michael Dobbs brings us quite a read. He includes maps and pictures and charts so that we know exactly where we are and his story of the village of Kippenheim is complete when he looks at the village today. The story is captivating and well-documented book and is probably one we would never have known otherwise. Here we have German Jews deported by Nazis to unoccupied France in October 1940. Shuttled from one terrible camp to another, they desperately sought American visas to avoid deportation to the East. We are kept on the edge of our seats as we read the history of U.S. diplomacy toward the Jews of the Third Reich. 

Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt tells us, “Too often when we speak of atrocities, mass murder, crimes against humanity, or genocide we think in terms of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. “The Unwanted” reminds us that the victims of each atrocity are individuals with their own story and their own particular tragedy. Michael Dobbs has written a compelling history of the Jewish community of one town. We come to know these individuals in a deeply personal way. He brings us into their lives and we experience their desperate struggle to survive at a time when they were abandoned by the world.”

As we today deal with immigration policy once gain in this country it is important to. Be reminded of one small town and the human price paid because of antisemitism and the tragic consequences of an unresponsive refugee policy.

“SURVIVING BIRKENAU: THE DR. SUSAN SPATZ STORY”— Survival After Darkness

“SURVIVING BIRKENAU: THE DR. SUSAN SPATZ STORY”

Survival After Darkness

Amos Lassen

Each year as we get close to Holocaust Memorial Day, new books are published and new movies are released as if in an effort that we do not forget. Each year the numbers of releases lessens as more and more survivors leave us and we are very close to the point that they will all be gone. This is one of the reasons that “Surviving Birkenau: The Dr. Susan Spatz Story” is so important. It is a compelling and powerful Holocaust documentary, follows one woman’s courageous struggles and ultimate escape from the Nazis Final Solution. The film premieres on DVD and digital on May 14 from Dreamscape Media and the Holocaust Education Film Foundation, in conjunction with Anchor Media Group and Soundview Media Partners.

Dr. Susan Spatz  who is today 96 years old emotionally narrates “Surviving Birkenau” and shares her astonishing life from an idyllic childhood in Austria to the horrors she and her family suffered at the hands of the Third Reich. Spatz was an only child who was born in Vienna in 1922, and who lived a life of privilege until the invasion by the when she and her mother found themselves “in the trap,” experiencing many of the terrors of her fellow European Jews including early Nazi oppression in Berlin; post-“Anschluss” Vienna and Nazi-occupied Prague. After being deported to Theresienstadt, the true horrors awaited her in Birkenau, the notorious woman’s death camp that was part of the notorious death camp, Auschwitz. After three years of brutal internment and a transfer to Ravensbrück and a death march that led away from the grave and to freedom.  Dr. Spatz recounts her experiences with remarkable clarity, from the decision by her mother that virtually condemned her to death through her eventual escape.

Filmmaker Ron Small with the assistance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, brings this story to rich life for future generations. This is the second film to be released from the newly launched Holocaust Education Film Foundation (HEFF) organization that was founded to assure that the painful legacy of the Holocaust is never forgotten by keeping impactful stories alive through the medium of film. I always feel that seeing something like this on the screen is not just a film but a total experience and “Surviving Birkenau” is no exception.

There are additional full-length survivor documentaries to follow in 2019 include “From the Holocaust to Hollywood: The Robert Clary Story”, the real-life story of the “Hogan’s Heroes” star who was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945, and “I Ride For The Living: The Marcel Zielinski Story” which follows the story of Marcel who was liberated from Birkenau/Auschwitz at 10 years old and now keeps memories alive through “The Ride for the Living,” a 60-mile cycling event between Auschwitz and the JCC Krakow where the ride was created. All HEFF documentaries will be released worldwide through Dreamscape Media.

Additionally, both “SURVIVING BIRKENAU: THE DR. SUSAN SPATZ STORY” and the first film released by HEFF, “ TO AUSCHWITZ AND BACK: THE JOE ENGEL STORY” are available for screening events and become part of our lives.

About The Holocaust Education Film Foundation

Established in 2018, the Holocaust Education Film Foundation was started to build an international, interactive online community one Holocaust Survivor story at a time. Through full-length documentaries, distributed globally through numerous platforms, the online site and educational programs, the 501c3 foundation seeks to ensure that we never forget.

 

 

“Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary” by Shmuly Yanklowitz— Practical Jewish Wisdom

Yanklowitz, Shmuly. “Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary”, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2018.

Practical Jewish Wisdom 

Amos Lassen

“Pirkei Avot” is the early and original text of Jewish practical wisdom. Commonly translated as “Wisdom of our Fathers”, “Pirkei Avot” is the first recorded manifesto of social justice in Western civilization.  Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz explores the text through a lens of contemporary social justice and moral philosophy and as he does he engages both classical commentators and modern thinkers.

In his commentary, he includes what other rabbis and commentators say from back in time up to the present. We also hear from historical and political figures contemporary feminists. Rabbi Shmuly is one of the leading voices who calls us to pursue justice. His commentary on “Pirkei Avot” is  grounded  in the centuries old teachings of our rabbis yet are inspirational to the contemporary generation.

“Pirkei Avot” is the Talmud’s premier collection of the great ethical and spiritual teachings of the Rabbis over a period of hundreds of years. Using intensive excellent research and his personal commitment to justice, Rabbi Shmuly assures us that “Pirkei Avot” remains

Judaism’s preeminent text on how to be a good person.” Is that not our purpose on earth. We are so very lucky to have this commentary that brings together ancient and contemporary thought that is spiritual and sensitive.

I have two other editions of “Pirkei Avot” in my personal library but this is so very different because so much is taken into the commentary. Yes, there is wisdom and there are ethics but there are also psychological insights together with humane and inspiring thoughts. This edition is focused on helping us become better people even as we repair a broken world. We do not often get a great read that is also socially relevant and practical. It is both insightful and inclusive and while it may give us something new it does provide new ways for looking at old texts.

“A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion” by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben— Inspirations

Reuben, Rabbi Steven Carr. “A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion”, Jewish Publication Society, 2019.

Inspirations

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben invites us to spend a year with the inspirational words, ideas, and counsel of the great twentieth-century thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan by reading his meditations on the fifty-four weekly Torah portions and eleven Jewish holidays. When it comes to Toah I have always thought of Rabbi Kaplan as a dynamo even though I had never read any of this Torah commentaries— it was just kind of understood. Now I indeed understand why.
Kaplan was a pioneer of ideas and action—teaching that “Judaism is a civilization” encompassing Jewish culture, art, and peoplehood; demonstrating how synagogues can be full centers for Jewish living (building one of the first “shuls with a pool”); and creating the first-ever bat mitzvah ceremony (for his daughter Judith). Kaplan transformed the landscape of American Jewry and it is a bit strange that his rich treasury of ethical and spiritual thought is largely unknown. That is, until now.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben studied closely with Kaplan and now offers unique insights into Kaplan’s teachings about ethical relationships and spiritual fulfillment, including how to embrace and maintain godliness in everyday experience. We look at  our mandate to become agents of justice in this world, and the human ability to evolve personally and collectively. We see reflective Torah commentary that integrates Kaplan’s understanding of the Torah text, and an intimate story about his family or community’s struggles and triumphs. We gain ideas of how to live reflectively and purposefully every day. I found this to be very special in that it gave me another level of both commentary and understanding of our holy texts. Kaplan was known for taking us through an appreciation of Judaism in the modern age.

Mordecai Kaplan’s illuminating commentary based on Jewish tradition and his own life experiences give us new wisdom. Rabbi Reuben explores Kaplan’s wide-ranging thought, Jewish religious experience, and human experience in a way that is clear and emotionally sensitive.

I am including the table of contents to give you an idea of what to expect.

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Rabbi David A. Teutsch    
Acknowledgments    
Introduction    
1. Genesis (Bere’shit)
Bere’shit: Fulfillment    
Noaḥ: Good Enough    
Lekh Lekha: Purpose    
Va-yera’: Interconnectedness    
Ḥayyei Sarah: Lovingkindness    
Toledot: Family    
Va-yetse’: Seeking    
Va-yishlaḥ: God-Wrestling    
Va-yeshev: Thoughtlessness    
Mikkets: Dreams    
Va-yiggash: Destiny    
Va-yeḥi: Appreciation    
2. Exodus (Shemot)
Shemot: Revelation    
Va-’era’: Mercy    
Bo’: Hardened Heart    
Be-shallaḥ: Action    
Yitro: Self-Interest    
Mishpatim: Human Dignity    
Terumah: Indwelling    
Tetsavveh: Light    
Ki Tissa’: Giving    
Va-yak’hel: Community    
Pekudei: Building    
3. Leviticus (Va-yikra’)
Va-yikra’: Prayer    
Tsav: Firelight    
Shemini: Godliness    
Tazriaʿ: Witness    
Metsoraʿ: Defilement    
’Aḥarei Mot: Scapegoat    
Kedoshim: Holiness    
’Emor: Hunger    
Be-har: Oppression    
Be-ḥukkotai: Free Will    
4. Numbers (Be-midbar)
Be-midbar: Wilderness    
Naso’: Blessings    
Be-haʿalotekha: Humility    
Shelaḥ-Lekha: Perception    
Koraḥ: Rebellion    
Ḥukkat: Anger    
Balak: Dwellings    
Pinḥas: Women    
Mattot: Vows    
Maseʿei: Vengeance    
5. Deuteronomy (Devarim)
Devarim: Discovery    
Va-’etḥannan: Oneness    
ʿEkev: Gratitude    
Re’eh: Choice    
Shofetim: Justice    
Ki Tetse’: Indifference    
Ki Tavo’: Experiencing God    
Nitsavim: Generations    
Va-yelekh: Teaching    
Ha’azinu: Rock    
Ve-zo’t ha-berakhah: Divine Kiss    
6. Holidays
Rosh Hashanah: Sovereignty of God    
Yom Kippur: Transformation    
Sukkot: Gratitude    
Shemini Atzeret: Sharing the Divine Presence    
Simḥat Torah: Celebration    
Hanukkah: Rededication    
Purim: Resilience    
Pesach: Freedom    
Yom ha-Shoah: Living in the Shadow    
Yom ha-Atzmaut: Building a Just Nation    
Shavuot: Torah    
Epigraph Source Acknowledgments    
Notes    
Bibliography    

“The Volunteer” by Jack Fairweather— One Man, An Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz

Fairweather, Jack. “ The Volunteer”, Custom House, 2019.

One Man, An Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz

Amos Lassen

Jack Fairweather’s “The Volunteer” features maps, drawings, and more than 200 original photographs from the 1930s and 40s that detail the breathtaking journey of Witold Pilecki. This is the story of one man who tried to warn us about Auschwitz from inside the camp and who tried to destroy Auschwitz and save the lives of 800,000 Jews. He was on a mission to inform the world about Auschwitz.

The book smuggles us into Auschwitz and shows us the story of a Polish agent who infiltrated the infamous camp, organized a rebellion, and then snuck back out. Fairweather has dug up a story of great value and delivered it to us in beautiful and compelling prose.

It is meticulously researched and clearly told and gives us a  remarkable inside-view of the Holocaust. It is also a look at the triumph of the human spirit.
“Jack Fairweather has chronicled Pilecki’s remarkable journey and gives us a work that is a testament to courage.  Here is human heroism in the face of overwhelming odds.

This  is the untold story of one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War. In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, Witold Pilecki, an underground operative accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interred at a new concentration camp on the border of the Reich. His mission was to report on Nazi crimes and raise a secret army to stage an uprising. The name of the camp was Auschwitz. It was only after arriving at the camp that he started to discover the Nazi’s terrible treatments and plans. Over the next two and half years, Witold forged an underground army that smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities to the West that were responsible for the murder of over a million Jews. His reports from the camp were to shape the Allies’ response to the Holocaust—yet his story was all but forgotten for decades. This is the first major account of it and it draws on exclusive family papers and recently declassified files as well as unpublished accounts from the camp’s fighters to show how he saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

 Completely erased from the historical record by Poland’s Communist government, Pilecki remains almost unknown to the world. Now, with exclusive access to previously hidden diaries, family and camp survivor accounts and recently declassified files, Jack Fairweather shares Witold’s exploits and uncovers the tragic outcome of Pilecki’s mission, in which the ultimate betrayal came not on the Continent, but England.

“I, Sarah Steinway” by Mary E. Carter— Survivor

Carter, Mary E. “I, Sarah Steinway”, Tovah Miriam, 2017.

Survivor

Amos Lassen

At age 75, Sarah Steinway survives a catastrophic flood by moving into her treehouse located on the northern shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. From her perch she sees a rise in sea level that engulfs the entire landscape for as far as she can see. She manages to survive in her treehouse for five years and records the flood, narrates her survival, and adds to her story with biting humor. Somewhat sheepishly as a secular Jew, Sarah turns for comfort to Torah. Instead of finding solace, she argues with God, becomes very angry and asks the eternal question, “Why me?” The story unfolds with terrifying beauty as protagonist Sarah Steinway grapples with survival in a future climate change disaster. Mary Carter’s novel is a totally original imagining of a post-apocalyptic world, lightly using the tropes of dystopian and disaster fiction while depending on ingenuity and emotional depth to carry the story.

It was the Emperor Floods that covered the Pacific coast cities and erased the boundaries of the San Francisco Bay, leaving no dry shore until New Mexico. With a manual typewriter, in her treehouse perch above the black waters of the former San Francisco Bay, Sara describes her experiences for future readers (if there are any). She writes of death, beauty, and savagery She meets several interesting survivors who arrive at her treehouse, including two rabbis. And she starts to think about God and turns to the Torah.

We want to know the cause of the flood catastrophe. At first, it appears that the water level increased  an inch or two every other week and it was barely noticed. The people were told it was ‘fake news’ and that reports of rising waters were false, going against visual evidence; most people complied. Periodic high tides and flooding suddenly became the Emperor Floods that drowned all before it and never receded.

Sarah gives commentaries on the Torah. We have an interview with Noah’s wife, an explanation as to why Pharaoh’s daughter drew Moses out of the Nile, and a return to Noah and God’s promise to never again flood the world. Quotes from Pirkei Avot head each chapter. Aside from these formal efforts, there are other Jewish references. Sarah writes lovingly about her husband and recognizes a congruence with Sarah in the Torah, who laughed when told she would give birth at ninety, while Sarah Steinway births a treehouse at seventy-five. And Sarah Steinway says she will not be edited out, like Noah’s wife and Sarah. Oddly, many of the people Sarah meets before and during the flood are Jewish.

Mary Carter infuses her futuristic novel with a rich vocabulary that propels readers into the curious world of Sarah Steinway and holds them there. While the story moves forward, Carter goes in and out of Steinway’s mind to describe with wry humor the passersby, human and animal, that float in and out of her life and the predicament of living high above an ever-rising flood.

Sarah Steinway is starchy and independent to the very end and we cannot help but love her.

 

“An Unorthodox Match” by Naomi Ragen— Faith, Love and Acceptance

Ragen, Naomi. “An Unorthodox Match”, St. Martin’s, 2019.

Faith, Love and Acceptance

Amos Lassen

In Naomi Ragen’s new novel, we meet Yaakov, a good man, a man of God, a father, a Talmud scholar, and now a widower. He was unable to save his wife’s life and is now struggling both financially and spiritually. We also meet Lola, a secular woman who has had to deal with terrible tragedy and hardship in her life this far. In the hope of finding what is missing in her life, she looks to God and Orthodoxy in Brooklyn. She changes her name to Leah. Both of the characters are in need and both look to religious Judaism to help them better navigate life. They both need partners and while they find chemistry with each other, they also find drama and prohibition. Otherwise they seem to be a perfect match.

I am not new to Naomi Ragen but I must admit that I always thought of her writings as Jewish “chick lit”. I felt that if she had gone one step further, she would satisfy what I looking for in a Jewish writer. The intellectualism of Saul Bellow is gone as is the wonderful truth and humor of Bernard Malamud. We have lost Grace Paley and it has been a while since we have heard from Maggie Anton. I needed a writer who would take me places I do not ordinarily go and to be there for my questions. I was surprised that writer I found was Naomi Ragen. I wanted a Jewish book that managed to be light and serious at the same time. I did not need lectures, I needed literary heroes. Sure enough, I got those heroes in Yaacov and Leah.

I was raised in the world of religious Judaism and while I am no longer in that world, I have strong memories. Ragen did her research well and she shows us that kind of Judaism as it really is.

We feel for Lola/Leah Howard right away. She has had bad luck with men, first losing her fiancé to a freak accident and a serious boyfriend to infidelity. She turns to Orthodoxy with the hope of finding some kind of balance in her life and for healing.  We are with her as she arrives in Boro Park, Brooklyn and begins volunteering to help the family of Yaakov Lehman, a recent widower. Several times a week she tidies his home and cares for the children. She learns about Yaakov through clues; by what she sees in the home and by what the children say. Soon she is intrigued by him and when the two finally meet, there is instant chemistry that they both deny. The possibilities for them to be together are indeed slim. He comes from a well-respected family in the community and she is an outsider who has not followed the dietary laws, has not kept the Sabbath and has lived in a totally different world.  

The readers know how this story will go but we really have no idea how we will get there and in that is the fun of the book. We learn about the religious community in Boro Park both in the plot and through Ragen’s commentary. In this insular community, things are very different than in the larger world. Not only do we learn but the traditions, we learn how they became traditions I many cases.  

We explore the challenges that Leah and Yaakov face as they each look for a meaningful relationship. The characters struggle to be true to their faith in a rich and meaningful way and we are with them on their journeys of explorations. We see Leah as a strong person in terms of faith and the world.

Ragen looks at Orthodox Judaism from a different perspective than I am used to and so I gained  a new perspective of Judaism and it is fascinating to see Judaism from an Orthodox man’s perspective or  from an Orthodox child’s. The explanations we get are not critical other than live and let live.

There is a great deal to learn about Orthodox Judaism and its tenets, customs, holidays, ups and downs and we learn it painlessly. It’s a beautiful read and I have the feeling that this will be a very big book this year.