Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling” edited by Adam Kirsch— Letters of a Life

Kirsch, Adam, editor. “Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling”, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018.

Letters of a Life

Amos Lassen

I often wonder how our world will change now that written letters are a thing of the past for so many. We have learned about our history and society from the letters that were written over time and in most cases these letters were carefully thought out before pen was put to paper. We write emails as we write memos in most cases and the art of letter writing has fallen by the wayside. We still have the letters of the great literary critic, Lionel Trilling and we still have the wonderful Adam Kirsch to edit them.

With Trilling’s letters we get to see him argue with himself and as a liberal arts graduate of the 60s, I doubt that two days passed when I was at college without some reference to Trilling. He was a man who wrote powerful essays that were inspiring. Because of what Trilling had to say, we were influenced to think about how literature shapes our politics, our culture, and ourselves. He was at the center of the period of time that became known as the age of criticism. We got the impression from his essays that he was somewhat reserved and highly circumspect. However, in this collection of selected letters, we see him as diverse and complex. We read of his love for Diana Trilling, who would become an eminent intellectual in her own right; we learn of his “alternately affectionate and contentious rapport with former students such as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz;” (could it have been any other way?). He writes about the complicated politics of Partisan Review and other fabled magazines of that period; and we become very aware of his relationships with other writers of the period, including Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer.

Taking all of the letters together, we see an intimate portrait of the man and the critic as well as the intellectual journey of America from the 1930s until his death in 1975. I cannot tell you enough how much I enjoyed reading these letters that have been so beautifully edited by Adam Kirsch.

Letters often give us the man behind the public face and they also provide a historical background and context to what the author was writing about. They are also full of surprises. In his letters to the woman who was to become Mrs. Trilling, Diana, we see the man’s vulnerability and love as well as self-doubts (he shared them with her but not to others). to her as he usually didn’t to others. I love that Trilling wrote about problems that we still struggle with today (see his letter about the use of the “n” word in “Huckleberry Finn”. By reading these letters, we see how people thought just fifty years ago and how it differs from how we think today.

Editor Kirsch focused on the letters about what engaged his mind, (often politics) and the issues that mattered to liberals in New York City in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. In the letters, we can see real historical events unfolding in real time. Something else we see is his Jewish background, although he kept it at arm’s length, he never hid that he was Jewish, but he didn’t want to be labeled a Jewish writer. (I had a wonderful college professor, Rima Drell Reck, who never mentioned her Judaism, yet I could feel it when she spoke. One year I brought her latkes at Chanukah and it was amazing to see her return, if just for a short while, to Judaism).

Kirsch tells us that Trilling was definitely on the left, and interested in writing about deficiencies of the left. He wanted to explore the unexamined assumptions at a time when liberalism was o the rise. It is the opposite today and there is no way to guess what he would say.

Trilling wrote at least 600 letters a year (Trilling’s by own estimation) of which we get 270. Trilling needed his space, and because of it, the reader is rewarded by his engagement in literature and culture. He was often “enormously impressed” as well as very much against. He was generous to those needing his help, and outspoken honesty throughout. For those qualities alone, the letters are well worth reading but there is so much more.

“The Mandela Plot” by Kenneth Bonert— A Journey

Bonert, Kenneth. “The Mandela Plot”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

A Journey

Amos Lassen

As the 1980s come to an end, South Africa is in the midst of political violence with the apartheid regime facing death. Young Martin Helger struggles at elite private boys school in Johannesburg where he really does not fit in. Martin’s father is a rough-handed scrap dealer and his brother is a mysterious legend.

 Then one day a beautiful and manipulative American arrives at the family home and Martin is thrown into the struggle. At the same time, secrets from the past begin to come out and old sins come to light and this second-generation Jewish family is torn apart. Martin must rely on alternative strengths to protect himself and fight for a better future.

 “The Mandela Plot” is a literary thriller, a coming of age tale, and a journey through a world that entertains and terrifies equally and is deeply resonant for the present.

After Martin becomes infatuated with a slightly older American woman, Annie, who arrives to join the fight against white oppression, everything changes.

There are plot twists and turns throughout as well as a lot of pain. Bonert’s characters and plots are brilliantly drawn and thought out. What is strange is that there were passages that completely bored me. He also writes with grammatical errors. Aside from having several South African friends in Israel, I know nothing about it and that is what kept me reading. I love the story of the Lithuanian Jews who had fled the anti-Semitism in the early 1900’s and had emigrated to South Africa where they found safety and prosperity even as they tackled the racial laws in the country. (Jews were considered “white”, but still not British or Afrikaner. They occupied their own societal level.)

The characters in Martin’s family and outside life are sketchily drawn, mysterious and his Jewish family’s past is dark and hidden at first. As the story moves forward, the personal secrets become more sordid, the personal violence more bloody, the danger increasing as the country slides into catastrophe.

“Returning” by Yael Shahar— Remembering

Shahar, Yael. “Returning”, Kasva Press, 2018.

Remembering

Amos Lassen

I have a very difficult time reading about the Holocaust. I have a very hard time with anything about the Holocaust even though it is I am well aware of its importance to history. Like many others, I went through a period during which I read as many books about it as possible and saw as many movies. But I soon had enough and found that thinking about the Holocaust was holding me back from doing many other things so I stopped. Yes, my religion and my ethnicity are important to me, perhaps the most important things about me but I was tired of reading about death and the levels to which one could sink.

Then because of renewed interest in Hannah Arendt, I found myself back reading about the Holocaust and trying to understand it. As a Jew, I understood that the Holocaust is part of our collective memory and we simply cannot avoid it. It is a memory yet it is part of who we are.

I have read so much and yet I was not prepared for a new way of reading about the most terrible period in the history of the world. Yael Shahar comes at the Holocaust differently. She relates a true and haunting story that is unforgettable even after we close the covers of the book.

We meet a 17 year-old–Jewish/Greek male who is sent to Auschwitz where he is known as Alex and is sent to work in the crematoriums after first directing other Jews to the gas chambers. Sixty years pass and we meet him again but now his name is Ovadya and he is dealing with grief and remorse about his time at the camp. He needs to face what he did and now feels ready to do so. He has questions that are basically unanswerable (the same kinds of questions Jews everywhere have had about the Holocaust). He asks for help from a rabbi knowing that his questions deal with faith and wondering at what point one’s death becomes a moral obligation. He has questions about responsibility and if we still have it when there are no choices left. How do we accept that which is unacceptable and can we forgive someone who has committed acts so terrible that we cannot speak about them?

We are now moving toward a time in which all of the survivors of the Holocaust will soon be gone. We will no longer have first person accounts of what happened. Shahar asks, “What happens to memory when there is no one left to remember and to tell it forward? How will we now learn about the Holocaust?

We know that it can happen again and that it has, to a lesser extent, happened. The questions are both philosophical and based in reality.

At seventeen, Alex was taken from his family and sent to Auschwitz. He managed to outlive his family, his faith, and his culture. His memories will never leave him as they filled with those who are no longer here and who met their ends much too soon. Alex cannot speak of what he did to survive and he has lived out the rest of his years in silence. We can imagine what he thought and we stay with him. He is a noble soul.

“Returning” is about memory and it shares a descent into hell and then a return to life. It looks at the choices we make in a time when there is no choice. I doubt I will ever be the same after reading this. As I read I joined the 6,000,000 already dead at the hands of the Nazis and those who died in more recent times because of anti-Semitism. I will never understand and I will never have answers to my questions as often happens when I read about the Holocaust, I begin to question what kind of God could have let this happen? Where did the strength come from to survive? How do the survivors deal with their pasts and the burdens they carry? Should we all not carry what they do?

I may never be the same after reading “Returning”. I do not have to return because I never left. My religion is who I am and it gives me to right to question and to argue. It gives me the right to look for answers and it allows me to chose which answers to believe. Any journey we take is not as significant as the memories that come out of it. If I seem to ramble it is because I am stunned by the impact that this book has had on me.

“If All The Seas Were Ink” by Ilana Kurshan— A Personal Story

Kurshan, Ilana. “If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir”, St. Martin’s, 2017.

A Personal Story

Amos Lassen

At the age of 27, alone in Jerusalem after a painful divorce, Ilana Kurshan joined the world’s largest book club, learning “daf yomi”, Hebrew for “daily page” of the Talmud, a book of rabbinic teachings that spans about 600 years and is the basis for all codes of Jewish law. Reading the Talmud requires adapting to a pace and Kurshan did this quickly as she discovered the passion of what the pages held. The Talmud became her best friend and it went everywhere with her. It took her seven and a half years to read the Talmud and when she finished she, was remarried with three young children.

I love when a book pulls me in on the first page and never lets me go as this one did. I am still thinking about it long after I closed the covers.

This is the story of love and loss, of marriage and motherhood, and “of learning to put one foot in front of the other by turning page after page.” This is also a deeply accessible and personal guided tour of the Talmud that sheds new light on its stories and gives insights into its arguments for those who are already familiar with the text and for those who have never seen it. Kurshan celebrates the Talmud and with it she celebrates learning and how to love. We read about the complexities of love, loss, shame, growth and the things that matter. She has lived a moving story and we are lucky that she shares it with us in all of its beauty, its joy and its pain.

It is not necessary to have a background in Talmud to appreciate Kurshan’s intriguing story. Kurshan’s intellectual dexterity and emotional vulnerability guides you through the humor and heartbreak in these pages as the words of ancient scholars transform the patterns of Kurshan’s own life as well as ours.

“If All The Seas Were Ink” is about passion in its many varieties―-romantic passion, religious passion, aesthetic passion, but above all else, passion for knowledge. Kurshan’s wild passion for the written word, whether on a page of Talmud or in a sonnet of Wordsworth hovers over every word. The blend of her loves makes for a rich and

We also get a look at everyday life in Jerusalem and see its connection to centuries of intellectual curiosity. Kurshan shows us how the Talmud’s thousands of strange and demanding pages become a conversation about how best to live one’s life in an imperfect world. We suddenly see the hidden magnificence of a hidden world and the power of literature to inspire human resilience.

“Daf yomi” learners belong to a club that was, for generations, restricted to men. We now have an original voice in the world of Torah and the world of literature.

Kurshan writes as a woman “clinging to her privacy while exposing her vulnerability, seeking the resonances between her mind, soul and body, and revealing an acutely sensitive intelligence, a wry self-awareness, and an active sense of the absurd.”

Her gorgeous prose weaves the trials and tribulations of her personal seven-year journey together with the Talmud texts she has learned.

“Yeled Tov” by Daniel M. Jaffe— A Good Jewish Gay Boy

Jaffe, Daniel M. “Yeled Tov”, Lethe Press, 2018.

A Good Jewish Gay Boy

Amos Lassen

I always look forward to a new book by Daniel Jaffe and that is probably that is because he says what I think (and much better than I could day it). I have managed to get over the Jewish guilt I used to have about my religion and my sexuality and have learned to embrace them both knowing that these parts of my life have made me who I am. I always wanted to be a “yeled tov” or a good boy but it was difficult to do so before reconciling those two important aspects of my life and my being.

Jaffe takes us back to 1974 to meet Jake Stein who also wants to be a good Jewish boy but who finds himself struggling to reconcile his traditional beliefs and his strong faith in God with his growing attraction to other boys (now this sounds very familiar). At school he was in the school play, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and while he should be overjoyed to get cast, he is upset because he knows that he should be thinking about the terrible suffering that Jews went through but instead he is falling for the kid who’s playing Peter van Daan. Things get no better for him when he gets to college and meets his very handsome roommate who seldom wears clothing. Jaffe shares the story of a young boy and man who fights hard to find a middle ground between “desire and devotion”. He asks God for advice and what he hears back is what he imagines what God would say about doing the right thing. do the right thing (I am not sure that God knows how to answer questions about lust). Jake seems, on the other hand, to know a great deal about lust since he deals with it so often—he finds himself lusting after men at the synagogue;, he lusts after his best friend and he lusts after his college roommate, he lusts after schoolmates. He feels that God is not sympathetic with his plight and the more he lusts, the more he feels shut into himself and shut out of society. He sees only one way out and that is abhorrent to God.

I have read many gay coming-of-age stories and there are some that are very good and there are some that are the same old story with different names. Here we have something very different in that we are with Jake on his journey and we feel what he feels (due to the skill of writer Jaffe). Jake so wants to be slutty and promiscuous but he knows that is not the way good Jewish boys act (he obviously does not know the same Jewish boys that I do).

Now let me explain something here. Jewish boys have the same urges and lusts that everyone else does but there is a difference that is based on faith. Those who are raised in Orthodox homes have a great deal of trouble trying to understand how faith and sexuality can work together. It is indeed possible that they can but to make this happen it must come from within. Once you accept who you are it is a great deal easier. Sure, you might lose a seat at the family Sabbath dinner but there are other places that will welcome you quickly. Let me give you an example. When I decided that it was time to come out to my family, I sat down with my father and told him how I felt. To my surprise, he did not say “get out”. Rather, he stroked his beard and said, “I don’t like what you are but I would rather you find someone to love instead of never knowing what love us.” No one was more surprised than me and, in effect, my father saved my life. We later feel out over other things so it did not end well but a brief time, I was very proud of him.

We read the Torah incorrectly and we find admonitions that are not there like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not about homosexuality as so many claim but about the lack of hospitality. Misunderstandings can cause dire results. There were several times as I read that I wanted to call out to Jake and tell him to come and sit with me for a while but remember that the story is set in 1974. Things were very different then.

Basically, Jake is a “yeled tov” of the title. He lusts passively and we really never know if the reason he makes no moves on someone else has to do with his not wanting other people to know that he is gay or because he is afraid of rejection. When he was young his father told him that regardless of what he does, he is to never hurt the girl that he is with. Obviously Jake changed that to mean that if he can do this, he will always be a good boy, a yeled tov. However, he can only be a good boy when he himself realizes that he is.

There is so much to like in this book and first among those is the plot that shows Jaffe’s own familiarity with Judaism yet while this is a book about a Jewish guy there is no need to be Jewish to enjoy it. The Yiddish phrases used are all either defined or easily understood by their usage. Jaffe’s dialogue is excellent and is his character development. I just wonder if he anticipated what he was getting into with Jake who appears on almost every page. Jake’s conversations with God are amazing and as you near the end of the book, you should be prepared to shed a few tears. God tells Jake, “There are times when a man must make his own decisions. You’re a man now Jake. It’s time I let you decide for yourself how to live… Yes, being a man is scary, indeed. Give yourself time… I’m going to step aside now. But I’ll always be here. Make Me proud of the life I granted you. Be good to yourself”.

Let me close by saying the same thing to all of you, my friends and readers—  “Be good to yourselves”.

 

“Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel” by Alon Shaya— Survival and Discovery

Shaya, Alon. “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel”, Knopf, 2018.

Survival and Discovery

Amos Lassen

“Shaya” is a moving, deeply personal journey of survival and discovery; the story of the evolution of a cuisine and “of the transformative power and magic of food and cooking. This is no ordinary cookbook. It is a memoir of a culinary sensibility that begins in Israel and makes its way from the U.S.A. (Philadelphia) to Italy (Milan and Bergamo), back to Israel (Jerusalem) and then comes together in the American South, in the heart of New Orleans. It’s a book about how food saved the author’s life and how Shaya’s cuisine from his native Israel with a Creole New Orleans touch came became the basis of award-winning New Orleans restaurants that were ranked by Esquire, Bon Appétit, and others as the best new restaurants in the United States.

     These are stories of place, of people, and of the food that connects them; “a memoir of one man’s culinary sensibility guiding his personal and professional decisions, punctuating every memory, choice, every turning point in his life.” The book contains full-color photographs and illustrations that follow all of the flavors Shaya has tried, places he’s traveled, things he’s experienced and lessons he’s learned. There are more than one hundred recipes–from Roasted Chicken with Harissa to Speckled Trout with Tahini and Pine Nuts; Crab Cakes with Preserved Lemon Aioli; Roasted Cast-Iron Ribeye; Marinated Soft Cheese with Herbs and Spices; Buttermilk Biscuits; and Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Feta.

This is a candid, compelling ‘autobiography’ about his culinary sensibility and how he found his way to becoming an award-winning chef. Shaya writes of identity, memory, and the power that food holds in our lives.

Shaya shares a story of not only recipes, but the path that led him to success in New Orleans. It is not only recipes and a personal narrative in this book, but the story of the magnetic and “gumbo” quality of Israelis varied cultures and faiths; and Shaya’s Israeli, Romanian, Bulgarian strands of heritage that have been his muse.

Section One: ECHOES OF ISRAEL begins with “My Grandmother’s Pepper and Eggplants” and tells the story of her influences on him and has five recipes for items such as Lutenitsa (peppers and eggplants); Watermelon and Feta Salad with Harissa; and Bulgarian Lamb Kebabs. At age five, he moved from Israel to Philadelphia to join his father, and then to Narberth, as his parents separated. A month-long visit from his mother’s Bulgarian-Israeli parents brought with them the smells of affection of family unity. His grandmother, a pharmacist before escaping to Israel in 1948, took care for him, and he would cook with her and learn to use the C-clamp kitchen grinder. There are four recipes that recall a story of second grade show-and-tell, bullying, and a failed cooking demonstration. In (3) Solo Hamantashen remind Alon of his first solo cooking adventure and a sense of independence at the age of nine. Recipes includes ones for Peach and Mascarpone Hamantashen; Israeli Salad; Schmaltzy Potatoes; Bulgarian Leek Patties; Labneh; and Yemenite (marinaded) Stewed Chicken. In (4) Fishing With My Father, Chef Shaya writes the dates with his Romanian/Hungarian born father, bowling or fishing, that were redeemed when they cooked the fish they caught. Recipes include those for pan-fried fish; turkey sandwiches that are so much better than those of his youth; Hungarian Paprikash; and Tarragon Dumplings.

In Section Two: REBELLION AND REDEMPTION, Shaya writes of his first job at thirteen, at a butcher shop. He told them he was 16. Recipes include those for Kibbeh Nayeh; Malawach; Spicy Scallop Rolls; Yogurt Pound Cake with Cardamon-Lemon Syrup; and Blueberry Rugelach. The recipes recall his teenage job at a bakery in contrast to his home-life that was a life of weed, vandalism, shoplifting, drug dealers, and chasing trouble. A recipe for… Shakshuka came out of an arrest and then the realization that he knew very little about Jewish food.

In Section Three: FINDING HOME IN THE SOUTH, recipes include ones for Roasted Speckled Trout, Crab Cakes with preserved Lemon Aioli, Israeli Couscous, Red Beans and Rice, Buttermilk Biscuits (in Chapter 16: Manischewitz for Willie Mae), Za’atar Fried Chicken, Date Pancakes with Rose Tahini, Smoked Chicken with Harissa, Schmaltzy Cornbread with Gribenes, and Banana Bread with Carob Molasses Butter.

In Section Four, Chef Shaya ventures to Italy in “AN ITALIAN SOJOURN.” Here he shares stories and recipes for Slow-Roasted Lamb Shoulder, Spiced Couscous, Tortelli d’Erbetta, Fresh Pasta, Blackberry Torta della Nonna, Chocolate Hazelnut Semifreddo, Pizza Enzo, Pita, Sea Bass Cartoccio, Piemontese style Bagna Cauda (hot bath/dip), Chocolate Espresso Cookies, and more. In Section Five: HOMECOMING, readers are greeted with Sous Vide Turkey, Brussels Sprout Salad, Smoked Goat Tacos, Curried Sweet Potato and Leek Pie, Charoset, (reluctantly), Whole Roasted Cauliflower, Tahini Chicken Salad, Moroccan Carrot Salad, Matbucha (in Chapter 26: An Israeli Restaurant in New Orleans), Muhammmara, Avocado Toast with Smoked Whitefish, and more.

Shaya opened his namesake restaurant in New Orleans in 2015, which won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant the following year. Shaya now opening two new restaurants: Saba, in New Orleans, and Safta, in Denver.

The book incorporates traditional cookbook elements—recipes are paired with gorgeous photos, notes on cooking, and tips for spice stocking. Shaya shares his move from Israel to Philadelphia at the age of four, describing what it was like to grow up in a household that struggled to make ends meet. The one thing that kept him happy was food. As a young adult, cooking turned his life around when he began working in kitchens at Las Vegas casinos. He stopped getting in trouble with the police for drugs and theft, or spending time with the wrong crowds. The stories of Shaya’s childhood and upbringing are filled with simple Israeli recipes such as his Israeli salad, Bright Green Falafel, shakshuka, and his wonderful pitas. Also included are American-influenced recipes from his childhood. The photographs capture the essence of Shaya’s love for food, and each chapter includes captivating watercolor paintings of scenes from his life by artist Frances Rodriguez.

Shaya explains how inspired he is by his Jewish and Israeli roots through recipes and stories. He also shares Italian, Southern American, Bulgarian, and Romanian recipes into his book. He has created delicious and vibrant cuisine that is accessible in kitchens everywhere.

 

“Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah” by David Biale— Historian and Thinker

Biale, David. “Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah”, (Jewish Lives) Yale University, 2018.

Historian and Thinker

Amos Lassen

As part of their Jewish Lives Series, Yale has published a new biography of the seminal twentieth-century historian and thinker who pioneered the study of Jewish mysticism and deeply influenced the Zionist movement.

Writer David Biale approaches Scholem by attempting to understand him from within. Through diaries and letters, he enters the inner life and sees him not only as a thinker and writer but also as a man, a human being. At the same time, he looks at Scholem’s most important writings and integrates them into his life. Hence, we see the man as the extraordinary thinker that he was and as a person like us, passionate and paradoxical (in the same way that he described Judaism).

Growing up, Scholem’s name was frequently heard in our home and he was the topic of many discussions, some of which became quite heated. Scholem lived from 1897-1982 and was, in the opinion of many, perhaps the foremost Jewish intellectual of the twentieth century. The key word here is Jewish since his studies were about Jewish topics and although there were other philosophers writing at the time (for example, Hannah Arendt, a great thinker), they were not always concerned with Jewish issues. Scholem pioneered the study of Jewish mysticism as a legitimate academic discipline and he is obviously remembered for that as well as for overturning the rationalist bias of his predecessors and revealing a wonderful and extraordinary world of myth and Messianic thought.

Today, some thirty-five years after his death, his importance remains and he is still considered a giant of Jewish thought. Other historians were firmly convinced that Judaism was a religion of reason and they ignored myth and the idea of a Messiah and Scholem showed them wrong by restoring myth to the religion and giving it a radical new definition, one which contained contradictions and paradoxes and both the rational and irrational. He showed that Judaism was not dogmatic but was rather made up of whatever Jews thought or did even if demonic or foolish. Scholem broke away from the frame of academia and presented a new and revolutionary way to think about Judaism that is still used today and in the Jewish intellectual community his star shines brightly while others have faded with time.

With his memoir “From Berlin to Jerusalem” (1977), Scholem presents a powerful narrative of Jewish history with his embrace of Zionism and his rejection of his “bourgeois German Jewish roots”. He said that the Jews of Germany had lived an illusion of “German-Jewish dialogue” and only those who became Zionists could see through this. Looking at Scholem’s Zionism we see his critique of it even though it brought him to what was then Palestine in 1923. He completely defended the right of the Jews to build their own society while he criticized Zionism for not renewing Judaism. He was an intellectual, he was political and he was a cultural and perhaps because of these his thought has endured. Once in Palestine, he participated in the creation of the Hebrew University, and was a leading figure there for almost seventy years.

I personally find it fascinating that there is a great renewal of interest in both Scholem and Arendt but if you are not familiar what went down between the two then you certainly need to read this.

Contemporary Zionism is facing a deep moral and political crisis today and some of what Scholem had to say might seem to be from a different reality. He argued for an inclusive definition of Judaism and today we see a battle between secularism and Orthodoxy in the Jewish world. In this we find the relevance of Scholem.

David Biale takes us through Scholem’s political activism and cultural criticism, including his falling-out with Hannah Arendt over the Eichmann trial. We see that inner life in his most important writings. He lived through two world wars, the rise of Nazism, and the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. To say that I love this book is jut not enough.

“A Boy in Winter: A Novel” by Rachel Seiffert— Three Days

Seiffert, Rachel. “A Boy in Winter: A Novel”, Vintage International, 2018.

Three Days

Amos Lassen

On a grey November morning in 1941, just weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. The three days that followed changed everything. Ephraim was penned in with other Jews with the threat of deportation looming overhead and he has no idea what happened to his sons who have been missing since daybreak. Yasia has gone to find her lover and bring him home again and keep him away from the SS invaders but she soon realizes that there are new truths to face about the people she loves. At the same time, German engineer Otto Pohl is facing a crime happening behind the lines and he has no one to turn to or rely upon. And there is Yankel, a youngster who is determined to survive this no matter what, even if it means throwing in his lot with strangers.

The stories come together and each of our characters faces a compromise in order to get through what is happening as fear becomes obsessive and hope for courage dims as terror takes over. Here is a story of hope when there is nothing to hope for and there is no sense of mercy left.

When the SS begins to shoot, we find ourselves afraid because we have read this many times and many times the conclusion is bad. Here is where the surprise comes.

This is not a gruesome depiction of the Nazis’ murderous campaign against European Jews but an upending of those dire expectations. We see light in the darkness and humanity in the inhumane. After the horror there is hope and a new story begins.

This is quite an emotional read as we zero in on several characters on the day that the Germans come to their village to round up the Jews. As we experience this alongside those characters, we do away with the horrific images we usually get. The kindness that you find here may make you stand up and take notice yet there remains a festering wound that will be there forever. In a period of just three days, we experience every emotion possible rendered to us in Seiffert’s gorgeous prose. The times are captured vividly and terribly. I had to remind myself that I was actually reading and not experiencing what I read. We cannot say that about many authors.

“Alone Against Gravity: Einstein in Berlin: The Turbulent Birth of the Theory of Relativity, 1914-1918″ by Thomas DePadova— Einstein, By Himself

DePadova, Thomas. “Alone Against Gravity: Einstein in Berlin: The Turbulent Birth of the Theory of Relativity, 1914-1918″, translated by Michal Schwartz, Bunim & Bannigan Ltd, 2018.

Einstein, By Himself

Amos Lassen

It seems that the more we know about Albert Einstein reflects on how much we do not know about him. Thomas DePadova shows us just how Einstein

transformed from being a ‘pure’ scientist and an apolitical man into a politically engaged person and a pacifist by conviction. We go back to Berlin, home to the study of physics during the early twentieth century. In 1914, Einstein received an invitation to the prestigious Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences. The invitation was the result of pressuring from

Max Planck, Walther Nernst and Fritz Haber who were the elite of Berlin’s scientists. At that time Einstein was 35-years-old and he wanted to take advantage of the academic freedom and the exchange of ideas in Berlin. His personal life at the time had to deal with his marriage was falling apart and his recently falling in love with his cousin, Elsa Lowenthal who lived in Berlin. By coming to the Academy he would be able to enjoy both of these.

But four months later saw the outbreak of World War and everything suddenly changed including the minds and relationships of German scientists and of Einstein’s relationships to his colleagues, many of whom joined the war frenzy with strong nationalism. Some changed the focus of their work and worked on the creation mass destruction. As the war began Einstein said that he felt ”alone, like a drop of oil on water, isolated by attitude and cast of mind.” Yet he did not move. 

The book, “Alone Against Gravity” looks at the reasons that Einstein became a pacifist and a devotee of political issues. He certainly could have returned to Switzerland since he was a Swiss citizen but he preferred to reinvent time and space and finish his revolutionary theory about general relativity as the world around him collapsed.

DePadova  brings together Einstein’s private life, his theoretical knowledge and the events of the First World War together and what we get is an exciting story and quite a different look at Albert Einstein. I found that mixing war-fever with Einstein’s persistence to be riveting just as were the two opposing ideas of war-logic and clear thinking.

We see how Einstein was able to draw a new image of the universe in the midst of the First World War when the fate of the world hung in the balance.

 “The Assassination”— A New Documentary

 

 “The Assassination”

A New Documentary

Amos Lassen

A new documentary by Avi Weissblei investigates the unsolved case of the murder of a Zionist leader in 1933.

On Saturday, June 16th 1933, at 23:00 while vacationing with his ‬ wife Sima near the shores of Tel Aviv, Haim Arlosoroff was shot ‬ dead at the age of 34, by two unknown assailants. Arlosoroff was ‬a promising leader and a rising star in the Zionist movement. The assassins quickly fled through the side streets of the city, taking ‬‪with them the answer to a question which is unresolved to this very day: Who killed Arlosoroff? ‬‬

After all these years the movie reveals what happened during those minutes, what caused the fatal shot and how it affects us until today.