Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South” by Sue Eisenfeld— Nine Southern States

Eisenfeld, Sue. “Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South”,  Mad Creek Books, 2020.

Nine Southern States

Amos Lassen

Having been born and raised Jewish in the South, I have always been curious to read others’ experiences so I was very anxious to read Sue Eisenfeld’s “Wandering Dixie”. To write her book, Eisenfeld traveled to nine states to uncover the history of Jewish southerners and how it deals with the South’s complex, conflicted present. She discovered the unexpected ways that race, religion, and hidden histories intertwine. Sheexplores the small towns where Jewish people once lived and thrived including the site of her distant cousin and civil rights activist Andrew Goodman’s murder during 1964’s Freedom Summer. She spoke with the only Jews remaining in some of the “lost” places, from Selma to the Mississippi Delta to Natchitoches and visited areas where these is no Jewish community left. She followed her curiosity about Jewish Confederates and looked at early southern Jews’ participation in slavery. Her journey became one of revelation about this country’s fraught history as well as a personal reckoning with the true nature of America.

For many,the idea of ​“south­ern Jews” was almost an oxy­moron, and the idea that Jews could bemembers of the Confederacy was something beyond the realm of thought. Jews were left­ists, refugee immi­grants to the north­east in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. If they went to the South, it was to participate in civ­il rights march­es or vot­er reg­is­tra­tion drives.

But when Eisen­feld later moved from her native Philadel­phia to Vir­ginia, she began attending Civ­il War reen­act­ments, muse­ums, and old ceme­ter­ies (out of her love for history) and  she found grave­stones for ante­bel­lum Jews. She learned that Jewsindeed lived in the South, and had done so for a very long time. Since so much of Judaism is based on the con­cept of social jus­tice, why would a Jew live in a region that was filled with injustice of all kinds.

Looking for answers, she embarked on a journey of a series of road trips to a vari­ety of his­toric sites in the South. She went to Rosen­wald schools, peanut fac­to­ries, build­ings that used to be syn­a­gogues or Jew­ish-owned busi­ness­es. She visited ceme­ter­ies and noticed how they were often divid­ed into white, Black, and Jew­ish sec­tions and  whether or not non-Jew­ish spous­es were buried along­side their Jew­ish part­ners showed a mea­sure of assim­i­la­tion. Eisen­feld shows that con­form­ing to the dom­i­nant cul­ture meant sur­vival and pros­per­i­ty for south­ern Jews. She saw that Jews ate  and served shrimp and ham sta­ples and that the tem­ple in Hele­na, Arkansas served a big lun­cheon on Yom Kippur.

In Sel­ma, Alabama Eisen­feld found Jews who did not care for the inter­fer­ence of north­ern Jews, since this could threat­en their sense of secu­ri­ty. The famous Sel­ma march was joined by rab­bis from all over the coun­try but not from the  South. Eisen­feld toured the man­sions of Jew­ish Charleston plan­ta­tion own­ers, ask­ing, how many Jews owned slaves adjoined the Con­fed­er­ate Army and fought for the South’s right to own slaves. She was curious to learn where do south­ern Jews stand on the cur­rent debate about Con­fed­er­ate monuments.

She listened and she heard well even when what was said disturbed her.  She attempted to be non-judg­men­tal when she asked ques­tions or writes about his­to­ry that peo­ple shouldn’t need to be remind­ed about but unfortunately she is not always successful. It is very difficult to be objective about Southern Jewry unless you are a Southern Jew.

Eisen­feld’s journey changed her and she started reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers where she lives and dri­ving peo­ple to the polls. She adapted a social jus­tice Hag­gadah for her family’s Seder— just as my family did and she certainly could have found Jewish Southern families who engaged heavily in social justice had she looked further. She proves that more study is necessary before blanked statements can be made. I believe that her dependence on personal reflection influenced her writing to the point that in some cases, subjectivity was thrown out. This is where a scholar could have done some real work. Unfortunately, I did not find “a beautifully nuanced and moving portrait of acceptance and accountability” that another reviewer found. While her“stories provide many revealing tidbits for those who enjoy self-reflective historical writing”, this is not scholarship but personal opinion.

Indeed the prose is beautiful and highly readable but I found the reckoning to be unsatisfactory and too colored by the author’s own past and her having been raised as a non-observant Jew. I believe it is necessary to understand all aspects of Judaism before attempting to describe it to others.

What really bothered me and I state emphatically that I have nothing but ill-feelings for the President of this country is that the author used her book on Southern Jewry to express her dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) with the present administration. Here was a chance to do something new and interesting and it is a pity that Ms. Eisenfeld lost that edge because of personal rant.

By the way, The Jewish South is not lost and is alive and thriving. In the interest of  BLM, it might be an idea to replace the word “Dixie” in the title.

“THE TOBACCONIST” (“DER TRAFIKANT”)— Coming-of-Age on the Eve of World War II

“THE TOBACCONIST” (“DER TRAFIKANT”)

Coming-of-Age on the Eve of World War II

Amos Lassen

“The Tobacconist” stunningly recreates the late 1930s in Vienna as it captures the tensions in the Austrian capital on the eve of Hitler’s takeover. It is also a coming-of-age story and an intriguing portrayal of Sigmund Freud (Bruno Ganz).

The film opens far from Vienna, in the beautiful lakeside community of Attersee where we see a spectacular lightning storm. The scene is surreal. Franz (Simon Morze), happens upon his mother and her latest lover having passionate sex outdoors as the storm threatens. When her lover is struck by lightning, Franz’s mother sends Franz to Vienna to get a job with a tobacconist, who happens to be another of her former lovers. The boy starts working as an apprentice to Otto (Johannes Krisch) who is a cynical but generous man. He lost a leg in the First World War and is welcoming to all customers, including Communists and Jews. One of his favored patrons is Dr. Sigmund Freud who loved cigars..

Franz eventually seeks out Freud for advice on his love life. Franz is intensely attracted to Anezka (Emma Drogunova), a woman who just may be a prostitute but certainly has numerous lovers. The Freudian underpinnings of this romance are obvious; Franz is clearly attracted to a woman who reminds him of his promiscuous mother. Franz approaches the good doctor for romantic counsel. Freud is supportive but has other more pressing concerns with the rising anti-Semitism in Vienna.

The film balances the personal and political stories. There are powerful scenes depicting the growing violence in Vienna, especially after the Nazis take over the city and arrest Otto. Franz’s personal story includes imaginatively rendered nightmares. The characterizations and performances are strong with Morze is vibrant as Franz, and Krisch just right as the uncompromising tobacconist. Ganz’s Freud is wise and vulnerable at the same time.

Cinematographer Hermann Dunzendorfer and production designer Bertram Reiter bring time and place alive. The film is based on Robert Seethaler’s best-selling novel of the same name. Director Nikolaus Leytner gives us a coming-of-age historical drama set in Nazi-occupied Vienna that follows teenager Franz as apprentice of Otto at his shop. As he settles into the community, he falls in love with dancer Anezka (Emma Drogunova) and befriends Freud (Bruno Ganz) who gives him words of wisdom as Franz experiences vivid dreams.

Each of Franz’s friendships are depicted with great resonance, creating compelling pockets of intimacy that develop within the overarching political landscape of a country on the eve of World War II.

 While Freud isn’t at the center of the  story, but he is pivotal in the film’s thematic exploration of psychoanalysis. Director  Leytner achieves an unusually understated tone for a project that spans a multitude of complex topics.  The ‘smoking all hours’ cigar shop environment is almost microcosmic of a snapshot of history that’s captured so masterfully, and the film lures us into a satisfyingly cinematic Freudian thought. The film isimpressive in its exploration of European history, its depiction of human relationships and coming of age, and its visual style.

“May God Avenge Their Blood: A Holocaust Memoir Triptych” by Rachel Bryks, translated by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub— Revisiting the Holocaust

Byrks, Rachmil. “May God Avenge Their Blood: A Holocaust Memoir Triptych”, translated by , translated by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, (Lexington Studies in Jewish Literature) Hardcover – April 15, 2020

Revisiting the Holocaust

Amos Lassen

Rachmil Bryks’ “May God Avenge Their Blood: a Holocaust Memoir Triptych” consists of three memoirs originally written in Yiddish. Bryks (1912–1974). In “Those Who Didn’t Survive,” Bryks gives us life between the World Wars in his shtetl Skarżysko-Kamienna, Poland and he does so with great detail that presents a portrait of a community that is no more. “The Fugitives” is about the confusion and terror of the early days of World War II in the city of Łódź and elsewhere. “From Agony to Life,” Bryks is about his time in Auschwitz and other camps. All three taken together is like taking a journey from Hasidic life before the Holocaust through the early period of war ultimately coming to the camps and the horrors that were there. The translations by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub allows the English reader to experience the memoirs for the first time.

Here three memoirs highlighting life in a twentieth century shtetl and the Jewish struggle for survival in wartime Łódź and in the concentration camps. Rachmil Bryks describes his experiences in the camps as well as offers an evocative description of the Jewish community destroyed by the Nazis. It was a society that was rich in tradition as change was taking over. There are stories about all aspects of life from “tales of Talmud to stories of elopement and entrepreneurship.” Life during the first weeks of the war make up the largest part of this memoir. Bryks describes everyone he encounters—Jews, Poles, Germans, peasants, writers, and others—with empathy.Thedeep antisemitism of many Poles is clear and we have all learned about it elsewhere but until now I have not read such details. they also show many examples of human kindness. There is no judgement or analysis, just description of what happened.

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s translation is rich and through it we get an in-depth look at life as it was before the War and during it. Bryks was one of the most talented young poets and authors who survived the Łódź ghetto and concentration camps and he recreates his experiences as he shows us the tragedy of Polish Jewry.  and evoke the beauty, struggle, humor and tragedy of Jewish life in prewar and wartime Poland. Through descriptions of the many members of his extended family, we see real people facing dire fates. We are taken into their lives and become invested in the people we meet here. Almost all of them were brutally and cruelly murdered by the Nazis.) While this is Bryk’s story, it is also the story of so many others.

“The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue” by Marina Rustow— Finding Enlightenment


Rustow, Marina. “The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue”, Princeton University Press, 2020.

Finding Enlightenment

Amos Lassen

The dis­cov­ery of the Cairo Geniza changed how schol­ars under­stood many aspects of Jew­ish learn­ing and liv­ing. Now. Princeton University professor, Mari­na Rus­tow, shows that it was­n’t only Jew­ish cul­ture that was enlight­ened by the old scrolls.

Rus­tow maintains that the lost his­to­ry of the Fatimid caliphate that estab­lished the city of Cairo as a cul­tur­al and gov­ern­men­tal cen­ter can be seen and recreated by read­ing between the lines. She does so by using the Friedberg Geniza Project and other that uncov­er some 4,000 Ara­bic doc­u­ments that were buried beneath the Jew­ish doc­u­ments. These include Arab peti­tions, tax receipts, gov­ern­men­tal doc­u­ments and the like that “were writ­ten over by the Jews, who recy­cled the avail­able mate­r­i­al at their dis­pos­al for their own rit­u­al, famil­ial, and judi­cial texts” that were the main focus of geniza schol­ars. The ear­li­er, non-Jew­ish, lay­er of mate­r­i­al with long sam­ples of Ara­bic writ­ing styles and “turns of phrase that are both lit­er­ary and aca­d­e­m­ic.” She ques­tions whether the author who had writ­ten over an ear­li­er text ​“scrape[d] it down as an act of the­o­log­i­cal aggres­sion, of philo­log­i­cal philis­tin­ism, or of gross mate­r­i­al necessity.”

Through what we read here, we see impor­tant ques­tions about the Jew­ish-Arab dynam­ic in medieval times. Rus­tow con­cludes her attempts to piece togeth­er a lost world from thou­sands of par­tial texts doesn’t always per­mit the kind of nar­ra­tive his­to­ry that most his­to­ri­ans pre­fer to write — nar­ra­tives based on human lives.

“The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians” by Sa’ed Atshan and Katharina Galor— Dialogues

Atshan, Sa’ed and Katharina Galor. “The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians”, Duke University Press, 2020.

Dialogues

Amos Lassen

Today the city of Berlin has Europe’s largest population of Palestinians. It also is home to the world’s largest number of Israelis outside of Israel. It seems that Germany’s guilt about the Nazi Holocaust has caused a public disavowal of anti-Semitism and very strong support for the Israeli state. However,  the Palestinians in Berlin claim that they are experiencing increasing levels of racism and Islamophobia. Looking at an ethnographic fieldwork and through interviews with Israelis, Palestinians, and Germans in Berlin, Sa’ed Atshan and Katharina Galor explore these relationships in the context of official German policies, public discourse and in the private sphere. We see how these relationships come out of narratives  that are concerned with moral responsibility, the Holocaust, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and Germany’s t welcoming of Middle Eastern refugees. We look at spaces for activism and solidarity among Germans, Israelis, and Palestinians in Berlin that can help bring about restorative justice and are also responsible for multiple forms of trauma. The authors use their interlocutors’ experiences, memories, and hopes to demonstrate the many ways in which migration, trauma, and contemporary state politics are completely linked.

 Through dialogues with each other and their informants  Atshan and Galor “redefine the ‘moral triangle’ between Palestinians, Jews, and Germans as they act, react, interact, resist, and reconcile in Berlin.” They use psychic compulsions and political circumstances as a basis for how they reach conclusions and we read of survival, trauma, grace, forgiveness, desperation, and hospitality as issues that cause us to rethink our feelings about this situation. 

The topic is one of the most complex in today’s world and this book is  an ethical document that is a prefect example of how academic scholarship can look at moral and political problems and give us a sense of “restorative justice.”

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Prologue  ix
Introduction: The Triangle  1
1 Trauma, Holocaust, Nakba  11
2 Victim and Perpetrator  25
3 Germany and Israel/Palestine  34
4 Germany and Migration  41
5 Elusive Demography  53
6 Neue Heimat Berlin?  59
7 Moral Responsibility  81
8 Racism, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia  91
9 Urban Spaces and Voices  116
10 Points of Intersection  138
11 Between Guilt and Censorship  149
Conclusion: Restorative Justice  169
Postscript  175
Notes  187
Bibliography  213
Index  231

“Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life” by Zev Eleff— Challenging Modern Orthodox Judaism

Eleff, Zev. “Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life”, Wayne State University Press, 2020.

Challenging Modern Orthodox Judaism

Amos Lassen

In “Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life”, author Zev Eleff examines and challenges the current historical paradigm in the study of Orthodox Judaism and other tradition-bound faith communities in the United States. Looking at “lived religion,” we go beyond sermons and synagogues to explore the experiences which are tempered by any number of American cultural forces. We look at Orthodox Judaism’s engagement with Jewish law, youth culture and gender, and how this branch of Judaism has been affected by its environments. Eleff uses and other previously unpublished primary sources in order to do this. 

He analyzes events retrospectively. His research is deep and his theses are argued with utmost care as he observes contemporary Jewish life. He brings to light many of the trends in Orthodoxy and in the American Jewish community pushing the study of American Orthodoxy beyond previous scholarship. The case studies  demonstrate larger trends and how much American Orthodoxy has been shaped by its ever-changing culture.

 
Using the history of American religion, Eleff explores contemporary Jewish trends and highlights often overlooked examples of ‘lived Judaism’. He contextualizes them with the broader religious landscape giving us a new and profound perspective that emphasizes the particularly American elements that we see in Modern Orthodox Judaism.

 

“The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy” by Victoria De Grazia— An Unlikely Marriage and the Power of Seduction

De Grazia, Victoria. “The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini’s Italy”, Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2020.

An Unlikely Marriage and the Power of Seduction

Amos Lassen

Victoria De Grazia’s “The Imperfect Fascist” is the story of Lilliana Weinman and her marriage to Attilio Teruzzi. Weinman was a Jewish New Yorker and hopeful opera dive who in 1926 marriedTeruzzi, a rising political star in the fascist dictatorship  and who would soon go on to be the leader of the Blackshirts. Their best man was none other than Benito Mussolini. We really see the seductive power of fascism’s as it beguiles and corrupts individuals and society; weaponizes masculinity and changes male thought and signs women up for the cause, only to later toss them out.

This is the intimate story of a marriage that is retold through family letters, fascist spy reports, and court records as well as an account of Mussolini’s rise and fall. Attilio Teruzzi is the embodiment of fascism’s flawed moral compass. He is a handsome war hero,  impetuous, vain, lecherous, and self-serving whose mediocrity and loyalty were responsible for his rise to the top of the Fascist Party. We immediately wonder why he wanted to marry Weinman and why she would she give up her career as diva to marry a fascist enforcer.  As we get to know Teruzzi we do see the qualities that allowed him to fit Mussolini’s purposes. But it gets even stranger—as the world sunk into the horrors of antisemitism, how was it that Teruzzi who the “perfect fascist” had a child with a second Jewish woman? 

This fascinating story is fully supported by  de Grazia’s amazing research, her ability to tell a story, and her deep understanding of the political and psychological dynamics of the times. We see the allure of fascism allure and also how it fell apart. Here were  men with a mission in the name of national glory  who destroyed family, honor, and the law. They were seduced by their own ridiculous lies and they betray their own people to keep faith with the Nazi-Fascist war for a New World Order. In this, we also see something very familiar by those who govern us and sit in the seats of power today. While “The Perfect Fascist” is basically the story of one “exemplary fascist”, it is also a look at how the personal became political in the fascist quest for manhood and power. De Grazia gives us the core of Fascism in all of its darkness and complexities showing us how its nature marred and distorted Italian society and destroyed the lives.

After just three years of marriage, Teruzzi renounced Lilliana. Italy, being a Catholic country, had no divorce laws and. He could only annul the marriage by using the medieval procedures of the Church Court. The proceedings changed when Mussolini joined Hitler: Lilliana Teruzzi was Jewish, and fascist Italy would soon introduce its first race laws. The marriage was one of inconvenience. Yet through it we see Teruzzi as an exemplar of fascism’s New Man. We see him vacillating between the will of Mussolini and his own heart.

Teruzzi comes across a forefather of the non-liberal politicians of today showing us how “ideology corrupts the truth, how ambition destroys the soul, and how the vanity of white male supremacy distorts emotion, making even love a matter of state.”We see that Mussolini’s ideasof a virile, nationalist, all-conquering New Man still has a holdover political and personal thought today, just as it did for Teruzzi.

“Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt” by Jean Neggar— A Personal Exodus

Naggar, Jean. “Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt”,  Lake Union Publishing, 2012.

A Personal Exodus

Amos Lassen

Even before I visited Egypt many years ago (returning to my origins), I have been fascinated by the stories of Egyptian Jews. Naturally I was anxious to read Jean Naggar’s “Sipping From the Nile” and even though 9t took me some six years to get to it, I found it extremely relevant, important and an exciting read.

Naggar was born into a prominent, sophisticated Jewish family who spend time in Europe and lived in the Middle East. Her coming of age memoir is the story of her protected youth in an exotic multicultural society and milieu. She sees her childhood as a magical time that would never end. But in 1956, Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalized the Suez Canal and set in motion events that would change her life forever. 

Naggar’s lovely way of life suddenly ended by multinational military hostilities and her close-knit extended family was soon scattered far and wide. Her own family moved to London where she finished her schooling and entered adulthood and the challenge of new horizons in America. “Naggar traces her personal journey through lost worlds and difficult transitions, exotic locales and strong family values.”

This is a memoir of a Jewish life and culture that, sadly, no longer exists. Naggar’s exodus from Egypt is the great American success story and is a moving and beautifully written account about how an outsider made her own way. This is history told poetically related and filled with the sensuality of life and with empathy.

Naggar documents times of elegant lifestyles and the tumultuous struggles of war. The book is filled with vivid descriptions of homes, meals, glamorous clothing and social events while living in Egypt, England, and New York City. The history of this extended family is a fascinating look at a loving, religious, educated culture. We read of passionate love and loss with the undercurrent of delight and a will to more to survive. 

We meet a person from a Sephardic Jewish household who grew up in Egypt in an affluent family. She was a member of a large family and she traveled to Europe over the holidays.This is only one family’s experiences and their wealthy lifestyle is certainly not typical but we get an honest peek into another world.

The family’s wealth and privilege make the fall from grace exciting especially after centuries of co-existing peacefully with their Arab neighbors. Jean’s family is driven out of Egypt with little more than the clothes they were wearing. This is theof the resiliency of the human spirit. Members of a family who once had to do little more for themselves leave for strange new shores and they take hold of their own destinies, and create brilliant new ones.

The detail and the family portraits are loving and beautifully captured. We have very little about the Egyptian Jewish community and Sephardic Jewry. Combine these with the story of one young woman’s remarkable journey and we get quite a wonderful read.

 

“Judges: The Perils of Possession” by Rabbi Michael Hattin— Analysis and Imagination

Hattin, Rabbi Michael. “Judges: The Perils of Possession”, Maggid, 2020.

Analysis and Imagination

Amos Lassen

The book of Judges of the Hebrew Bible is a valuable and important part of the history of the Jewish people. At its most basic, it the story of those struggles with enemies that the tribes had to deal with and overcome and it also gives us a look at the internal differences that must be faced at the children of Israel enter and settle the land. We see how a nomadic people transitions to an agrarian settled nation as the people face the creation of values that are moral and cultural that are not compatible to the mission of the people. However, Judges has been under-studied and we tend to see it more as an outline that is seldom read.

For us to really understand what is within the book, we must carefully examine the Hebrew text along with the many commentaries and this requires work and deep thought. Rabbi Michael Hattin introduces us to what is contained in the book of Judges through the use of analysis and imagination. We see that we must read it through information with the text as the way this information is presented to us. We see the importance of the words that tell the story and the way that the words come together is extremely important to gain an understanding of what is here.

Rabbi Hattin stresses that a close study of the text is necessary to understand what the book includes and to understand its deep meanings. This means that it is not only important to study what is written but how it is written, paying attention to the words and syntax of the book. With each additional reading, we learn more and more.

Judges begins where the book of Joshua ends. We no longer have a single leader and now the tribes must take care of themselves. Leadership must now come from within and hence, we have the rise of the judges. It is at this point that we study the book through Hattin’s recommendations of “literary techniques, ancient and modern commentaries and current academic research”.  

 

“Beloved Comrades: A Novel in Stories” by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub— Three Generations

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Beloved Comrades: A Novel in Stories”, Anaphora Literary Press, 2020.

Three Generations

Amos Lassen

Several years ago I discovered the poetry of Yermiyahu Taub and it was such a rewarding experience that I immediately became  a fan. I eagerly await each book he publishes and find myself reading as quickly as possible but feeling down afterwards because the experience is over and I have to wait for him to write another book. I often immediately reread his work to better savor the beauty of his words and plot just as I did here. I am sure that his relevance for me is because we share the same communities— Jewish and queer.

In “Beloved Comrades”, Taub brings us the story of three generations and the Orthodox Jewish community. A new synagogue provides a place for the three generations that we meet here. Told in chapters that come together to form a novel, we meet unforgettable characters that many of us are all too familiar with but that are also brought to us in new ways.

Arnold is co-owner of a car service with a reserved seat at his Yeshivah.  However, he often finds that his seat is taken by others and so he does the logical thing—-he decides to create his own synagogue where everyone is welcome. There is to be no rabbi and Arnold is clearly running the show. He wants the synagogue to be a community of friends (comrades) and he names it with a name that reminds one of socialism. He sets the goal of helping his members forget their memories of exclusion and heartbreak and he wants his house of worship to be a haven for those who feel different and marginalized where everyone enjoys being treated kindly or as Taub says with  “kindness just short of pity.”

We do not meet complete characters at first. Rather, Taub has the plot develop through the course of their stories and we see that they share pasts filled with secrets and shame. He builds his characters through his beautiful prose thus pulling us in and making us feel that we are gaining new friends. Along with the character development, we also get physical descriptions that emerge with the development of the interior descriptions.

The issues introduced are intense and complex yet Taub writes with a compassion that we do not often find in books that deal with such Orthodox Jewish ideas. I could actually envision my father grimacing at the idea of a  young Jewish boy’s realizing his feelings for his black, Muslim friend. Yet when another member of the community learns of this, she keeps it to herself. I was reminded of when I was working at my synagogue in New Orleans when we had an application for a new membership and I was asked to interview the person who was a transsexual and wanted to chant Torah at a Shabbat service.

Each of the stories here is a tour-de-force and the reader is left with the question of “What would I do?” in difficult cases. At first, it all sounds quite depressing but let me assure you that there is great happiness to be found here. It might seem easy to put minor events in our lives behind us, but we see here that this is not always the case and as small as these incidents might seem to be, they are indeed part of our identities and reemerge when least expected and they hurt.

The novel focuses on Jewish Americans and themes of love, friendship, community, faith, sexuality and social justice. While the book is about Jews, the themes are universal and is relevant to all people regardless of religion, ethnicity, background and nationality.  By presenting his characters’ private lives, Taub shows us the differences in public and personal and the effects they have on  who we are.  The Jewish experience we have here is a reflection of the human experience we all share.

Taub conveniently provides a glossary of the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Yiddish words in his “sensitive novel about a religious community’s relationships and its wide spectrum of dreams, hopes, and desires.” (“Foreword Clarion Reviews”)