Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“The Dollmaker of Krakow” by R.M. Romero— The Power of Love

Romero, R.M. “The Dollmaker of Krakow”, Delacorte, 2017.

The Power of Love

Amos Lassen

We never want to forget that once during the darkest period in the history of the world there was something called the Holocaust. It has always been difficult to find ways to teach the Holocaust to children because of the atrocities that occurred along side of the loss of faith by many. R.M. Romero in “The Dollmaker of Krakow” found a way to do so and while this is a very sad book, it does the job through the language of magic. We have two parallel stories going on simultaneously. Karolina comes to live in Krakow before World War II began. In the Land of dolls, there is also a war in which rats took over the land and burned and destroyed everything. In Krakow, Karolina lives with the Dollmaker, a half- German Pole who is a humanist. They become friendly with a Jewish family and watch in horror as Germans (including their neighbors) turn against Jews. We know what the result of that was and while the book does not directly address what happened to the Jews there, Romero writes of them in the past tense. The Dollmaker helps to save Jews using his magic, even though he knows he will ultimately shares their fate with the other Jews in the concentration camp. 

Karolina is a living doll whose king and queen have been overthrown. She is taken from the Land of the Dolls to Kraków, Poland and the Dollmaker, a man with an unusual power and a marked past. He must keep what he knows inside. Karolina’s courageousness and compassion make him smile and to eventually befriend a Jewish violin-playing father and his daughter. (once he gets over the shock of realizing a doll is speaking to him.) I fear I may have confused some of you in that last paragraph but hold on and you will understand where I am going.

When Nazi soldiers take Poland, Karolina and the Dollmaker quickly realize that their Jewish friends are in grave danger, and they are determined to help save them, no matter what the risks. The story is both sweet and sad and has a strong message about

love, war, and loss. Yet, I had a bit of trouble understanding the magical aspects in the human world. This is probably because I am an adult reading a book made for a younger group of readers. This is quite a serious subject here that is handled with great sensitivity. It is about a very dark and sad subject and it is important that the youth of today know about the Holocaust to insure that it will never happen again.



“Personal Midrash” by Daniel Shulman— Finding Personal Meeting in the Torah

Shulman, Daniel. “Personal Midrash: Fresh Insights into the Torah”, Urim 2017.

Finding Personal Meaning in the Torah

Amos Lassen

My personal relation with Judaism is something I rarely feel free to discuss simply because it is personal. When I read the Torah, I always try to look for meanings that will affect me personally and these I am willing to share as I am constantly amazed that something written so long ago still holds relevance today. Daniel Shulman does the same here. He explores the Torah searching for meanings that speak directly to him. We all want to believe that the holy writings are open and accessible to all of us and that we each have the right to approach it.

One does not need to be specifically trained to study Torah. It is always there and can be read by anyone at anytime. Torah scholars are constantly looking for something new and this is not the same as looking for relevance. “The hope is that any Jew may be inspired to likewise seek his or her own voice in interpreting Torah.”

What I love about what Shulman has found here is that it is so readable and teachable and while I may not agree with some of his interpretations, I still admire what he has found. He explores the many layers of Torah and is creative. Even more important is that he finds both answers and questions. We see both his intellect and his humility and understand that the driving force behind his study is curiosity. I learned years ago that the Torah is not black and white and the greatest enjoyment in studying it comes from the grey areas. I see that Shulman’s approach to Torah is the same as mine. Let me explain; about ten years ago I was reintroduced to group Torah and I began to realize that before that there was something missing in my life. I decided to set aside an hour, minimum, a day to read Torah and each week I would work on the portion that was being read in synagogues and temples all over the world. During that period there are no phone calls or outside interference and it was just me and the Torah. Like Shulman, I would I would arrive at a puzzling section and it is there I put my concentration. Sure, it is easy to pick up commentaries written by the great rabbis of the past but I wanted to figure it out for myself and I could usually find something that allowed me to do just that. If questions arise, they are to be looked as well. By doing this, I gained a better understanding and a sense of personal achievement.

Wrestling with Torah is wrestling with life and there are great rewards in doing so. Shulman’s mind is sharp and he captures details that many miss. Because his past with study caused him to be suspended, not once, but twice, from Hebrew school as a youth, he is of course humbled by what he reads.

I believed in Shulman after reading this thoughts on the first Torah portion in the Book of Genesis. I saw how his mind works and I loved his conclusions. He proved to me that anyone delve into Torah. The biggest aid I found in his study is that we can wrestle with Torah.

“FANNY’S JOURNEY”— Fleeing the Nazis

“Fanny’s Journey” (“Le voyage de Fanny”)

Fleeing the Nazis

Amos Lassen

After Fanny’s father was arrested by the Nazis, her mother took her and her two sisters to a boarding school in France’s neutral zone. When the Nazis began to close in on that area, hey children were smuggled to another institution just over the Italian border, and just in the nick of time. Unfortunately, they were there for only a short period. With Mussolini’s arrest, the Nazis began to take over Italy and the school’s leader, Madame Forman (Cecile De France)   knew that it time for them to move again.  She forges false papers and then gives all the children an anglicized name and drills them in fake family back-stories before taking them to catch the train to Switzerland. They almost fail at the very start, but Madame Forman creates a rather dramatic diversion for the kids to board undetected.

Teenage Elie (Victor Meutelet) took over as leader but he panicked and deserted them at the first sign of real trouble and thirteen year old Fanny (Leonie Souchaud) takes charge of getting them to Switzerland and safety. and with the war’s constantly changing scenario, this is certainly not going to be easy for one so young.

The film was co-written and directed by Lola Doillon  and based on Fanny Ben Ami’s autobiography. We see the horrors of war seen through the eyes of children.  Most members of the cast are non-professionals yet they give natural and convincing performances.  These are children and it is beautiful to see them grab an odd moment of playtime, when for just a minute or two. By doing so, they are allowed to forget the danger that they could easily be in.

In 1943 and when she had barely turned 13, Fanny and her sisters (and other young Jewish children) were sent to an Italian foster home. The younger children had no understanding of what was going on, or why they had to continue to move from one place to the next. It is an almost impossible to explain to a child why he/she might be persecuted because of their religious beliefs. In one scene, Fanny’s younger sister Georgette (Juliane Lepoureau) asks, “Why can’t we stop being Jews?” This demonstrates the difficulty in grasping the seriousness and precarious state they are in and the reasons why.

With the fall of Mussolini, Madame Forman knew that the children would not be safe in Italy so the time came for them to move to Switzerland and Fanny takes the lead of the group eight young children. She has to dig deep into her strength and keep together the stories that they have made up for them in order to get past German soldiers. At one point, some fellow travelers tell on the group, and they are almost caught by the Nazi soldiers.

When we consider how American immigration policies are being re-imagined, we see how relevant this movie is today. Here is a Holocaust story about children that reminds us that although this is past history, there is the possibility that it can happen again. We must stand tall against threats to freedom

Fanny was a strong, independent teen whose will to survive and get her sisters to safety, led her to lead to Switzerland.  They lived through the war and returned home to France afterward but never found their parents.  Eventually, they went to Israel where Fanny still resides today at 86 years old.

The picturesque scenery is the opposite of the harsh reality of uniformed soldiers and guns and it creates a juxtaposition of light and dark and serenity and war. “Fanny’s Journey” is a somber and strong reminder of what can happen when hate and violence are left unchecked. The innocence of childhood is drastically taken from these kids.  This is a story that needs to be told over and over again because it is as devastating as it is uplifting and serves as a reminder to never forget and never let something like this happen again. 

“Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul“ by Naomi Levy— The Meaning and Purpose of Soul

Levy, Naomi. “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul“, Flatiron Books, 2017.

The Meaning and Purpose of Soul

Amos Lassen

Naomi Levy, a bestselling author and rabbi explores of the meaning and purpose of the soul having been inspired by the famous correspondence between Albert Einstein and a grieving rabbi. Einstein said that a person is part of the universe and limited in time and space. His thoughts, his feelings and his experiences are separate from the rest of him and “a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness…”

When Rabbi Naomi Levy came across this in a letter written by Einstein, she was shaken s she realized that what he says here totally captures what many believe to be the human condition. This human condition comes about when we are intimately connected and blind to this truth. Rabbi Levy wondered what had prompted Einstein, a man of science, to speak about such spiritual wisdom and she began a search that lasted for three years as she searched for the letter in which Einstein had written this. That search also became a journey into the mystery of the human soul. The result of that search is this book that contains universal truths that aid us in finding unity and reclaiming our souls. Levy’s journey now becomes our journey as we are urged to listen to and heed the voice that comes from within telling us that we must become who we were meant to me when we came into this world.

Rabbi Levy looks to her own personal stories, to Jewish life and traditions, and to the letter from Einstein to a grieving father to guide on how to live a meaningful and connected life.

I have always looked to whoever my rabbi is at a certain period of time as an example of wisdom and the power and profundity of Judaism. Of course, not all rabbis are powerful and profound but they do all possess a greater knowledge of Judaism than I do. Rabbis, I have been told, speak to us from the soul and that is exactly what Naomi Levy does here. She captures the human spirit through “historic journeys, present-day gestures of kindness, and understanding” and she does so in clear and clean prose that invites us to join her in her narrative. She shares wonderful stories of love, loss, suffering, and success and while this is her memoir, it is also a guide for us. I have always found fascinating that no one is really able to give a proper definition to “soul” yet we all search for it. After all, it is the search that teaches us what we need to know. Life is a series of opposites—birth and death, love and loss, faith and doubt. In to choose the best of the two, we see that they are connected by soul. Levy wrestles with the concept of soul and does so poetically and with humility and masterfulness. Her inspiration came from a letter written by Einstein to a rabbi who had just lost a child. She uses the words of Einstein to Rabbi Robert Marcus, and her relationship her own father to show us that the soul knows what we do not. She teaches us to see from within, from our souls and in doing so, we bless others and ourselves.

Just the story of the rabbi who initially wrote to Einstein makes us sit up and realize that there must be something greater out there and that this something is the elusive soul.

“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” by Nathan Englander— A Secret Prisoner

Englander, Nathan. “Dinner at the Center of the Earth”, Knopf, 2017.

A Secret Prisoner

Amos Lassen

Nathan Englander’s “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is a political thriller that takes place during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and focuses on the complex relationship between a secret prisoner and his guard. We have quite a cast of characters that include a prisoner in a secret cell, the guard who has watched over him a dozen years, an American waitress in Paris, a young Palestinian man in Berlin who strikes up an odd friendship with a wealthy Canadian businessman and The General, Israel’s most controversial leader, the General, who lies dying in a hospital and who is the only man who knows of the prisoner’s existence. There is another main character in the nation of Israel, a country driven by conflict. Englander looks at the “anguished, violent” rift between Israelis and Palestinians as he dramatizes the immense moral ambiguities haunting both sides. We look at the questions of who is right and who is wrong… and who is the guard and who is truly the prisoner?

We are taken deep into the Arab – Israeli conflict via a series of contacts between members representing each side. We meet the General who has led attacks and wars against Arabs living in territory next to Israel. He is merciless, brilliant and has little if any guilt about how the effects his actions protect the nation or not. He is loved by the people but his life is coming to end as he is facing his mortality in a hospital. and we meet him as he lays dying in an Israeli hospital. Then there is the man that the General imprisoned years ago in a secret cell. No one except the General and the man guarding the prisoner knows where he is kept and why he is there.

We next meet Z who has been having a love affair with a waitress who is actually a wealthy woman who is only working to keep her identity in these troubling times. She claims to take Z to meet her father in Italy but it in reality she takes him prisoner since he is an enemy of her country. There is also a love affair going on between an Israeli woman on a kibbutz and a Palestinian who is constantly mapping out Israeli territory in order to present his maps to his Hamas colleagues to use in an attack against the Jewish state. The two want to experience a dinner date but find that the only place they can have it would be in one of the tunnels dug by Hamas that are to be used to invade Israeli at the proper time.

These interactions are meant to illustrate the conflict between Israel and it’s neighbors and even though both sides have a point and fight for it, the idea that each refuses to recognize the other side is yet another point that could lead to peace if each side was willing to bend a bit. Englander shares his belief that the conflict that has gone on for years could be settled if both sides listened to the other and tried to get a solution based on discussion and finding a common ground.

Englander has his novel told from various different places and by different characters. Z’s story began back in Paris in 2002 where he went into hiding knowing that he was being pursued. He rarely leaves his room and when he does he goes to a Jewish restaurant across town where he meets a nameless woman who we get to now as the waitress.

At the same time, the general who is responsible for Z being captured and imprisoned is living in a world between life and death and he is unable to do anything but lie there and die. What then happens you will only learn by reading the book since I am not about to share any more of the plot. I can promise you that you will have quite a fascinating read.

“For Two Thousand Years” by Mikhail Sebastian— Autobiographical Fiction

Sebastian, Mikhail. “For Two Thousand Years”, Other Press, 2017.

Autobiographical Fiction

Amos Lassen

Mikhail Sebastian’s “For Two Thousand Years” is plotless autobiographical fiction that takes us into Romanian life between the world wars when the Iron Guard and Romanian anti-Semitism were on the rise. While Jewish by birth, Sebastian was a non-believer who managed to survive WW2 in Romania. Somehow, he was able to have friendships/relationships with anti-Semitic intellectuals and these are what probably insured his staying alive. His journal covers the years 1935-1944. What I found interesting here is that now, years later than those covered here, we still have the same problems of ecology, politics, anti-Semitism and economy.

Sebastian asked Nae Ionescu, his mentor, to write a preface for his novel, before he even began to write it. Philosopher Nae Ionescu, at the time still friendly with Sebastian, agreed to write the preface, and generated an uproar by inserting anti-Semitic paragraphs into that preface. The book was well received by the Romanian public and the country’s cultural establishment which was Christian Orthodox and concerned about the spread of Bolshevism.

 Sebastian worked as a writer and lawyer until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his career. He wrote this in 1934 and it was first translated into English by Irish short-story writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh. It is, without doubt, one of the most important chronicles of the rise of Nazism in Europe. The 2000 years of the title are the 2000 years of Jewish persecution. Then Romanian Jews were granted equality with their Gentile compatriots, but they were also targeted for their Jewish heritage even before the rise of the Nazi regime.

 We are with Sebastian from his university days to a career as an architect, during when he often heard cries of ‘Death to the Yids.’ Sebastian shares his thoughts with us about the place of the Jewish people and their culture in the world. He prophesized that the Jews would be in great need of their own country if they were going to survive the brutal Nazi hatred.

Sebastian tried very hard to eschew his “Jewishness.” In the novel, he is an unnamed university student, who tries to avoid beatings on his way to political economy lectures and mocks fellow Jewish students who show off their bruises. He is dismissive of their newfound political fervor that came with Zionism. He was a Marxist who spent his days drinking and gambling and meeting revolutionaries. He admitted to wanting to be “like a stone” and he envied “the supreme insensibility of objects, their extreme indifference.” He has daydreams about living like the rural, peasant side of his family, from the Danube River instead of accepting his father’s intellectual side from the Romanian ghetto but he also realized that the increasingly heated anti-Semitic rhetoric of political figures had taken over his closest colleagues and friends.

The novel is divided into six parts and each part captures his growth and the pain he felt as a person with a questioning mind as Europe moved closer and closer to Holocaust and the murder of 6,000,000 Jews (for the sake of insuring a pure race). He constantly questioned his identity as a Jew and as a Romanian.

Sebastian was born in Romania in 1907 as Iosef Hechter and worked as a lawyer and writer. He was a member an influential literary circle that included Romanian notables such as historian Mircea Eliade, playwright Eugene Ionesco and philosopher Emil Cioran. Anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. After having survived the war and the Holocaust, he was killed in a road accident early in 1945 as he was crossing the street.

 “For Two Thousand Years” gives us the sense of prewar Romania in all its sophistication and a look at a true man of courage. Sebastian explores “alienation and self-loathing, the need for belonging, and the cultural assimilation in the nation state.” He refused to compromise himself as a civilized human being in the darkest period of human history.

“Forest Dark” by Nicole Krauss— Transformation

Krauss, Nicole. “Forest Dark: A Novel”, Harper, 2017.


Amos Lassen

At 68 years old, Jules Epstein is a man whose drive and outsized personality is to be reckoned with. Now he is going through changes. Both of his parents have died and he is dealing with the divorce from his wife after thirty years of marriage and his retirement from the legal firm where he was a partner. He feels the urge to unload his possessions and begins giving them away. Quite naturally this alarms his children. Using what is left of his wealth, he goes to Israel with the idea of doing something to honor his parents. In Tel Aviv, he meets an Rabbi Klausner, an American who is planning a reunion for the descendents of King David and who uses his charisma to convince Epstein that he is a member of that group. As if that is not enough, the rabbi’s daughter convinces Epstein to become involved in her own project—a film about the life of David being shot in the desert.

Epstein soon learns that he isn’t the only seeker on a metaphysical journey. An unnamed, young and well-known American novelist has left her family in Brooklyn, and comes to the Tel Aviv Hilton where she has stayed every year since birth. She is troubled by writer’s block and a failing marriage, she now hopes that the hotel can unlock a dimension of reality and her own perception of life that has been closed off to her. She meets a retired literature professor who proposes a project she can’t turn down and she becomes part of a mystery that totally alters her life.

We follow two different people in their quest for meaning. As the novel moves forward we get reflections on Israel, on American Jews and their response to the state of Israel and on philanthropy. I immediately sense the connection to the writings of Franz Kafka. In fact, Kafka makes an appearance here in which we learn that he did not die in Prague but made his way to a kibbutz where lived out his days in quiet and isolation. In the style of Kafka, as we read this novel we see that it becomes more and more detached from reality.

This is not what I would call an easy read. It demands complete attention to every word and sentence. I believe that what it does is examine nature and what it means to exist and move through life and the world as the person you are. There is no traditional narrative structure and we sense that the meanderings it takes us on are philosophical. The thoughts and choices that the characters make are what are important. It is as if we are voyeurs reading the minds of the characters and with no help from author Nicole Krauss, we are left on our own to do so. Personally that is what I love about this book.

Krauss writes wonderful descriptions and we feel Israel as we read about the country. The human characters are well drawn and mysterious at the same time. A third main character is the Tel Aviv Hilton and it looms over every page in the book and becomes a place of departure and redemption for the other characters.

Both Epstein and the authors have experienced success in their lives but they do not feel that they have. They both feel that the time has come to have new lives.

Their stories follow their own trajectories with the hotel as the only link between them. At the same time, both Epstein and the novelist are at similar points; they have unexpectedly left their lives behind and hope somehow to find purpose or renewal in Israel. The narrative is often interrupted and slowed down by extended meditations on esoteric questions of theology. The writer’s alternating between Epstein and the novelist, moors us to reality and we also see that the characters’ earth with Epstein’s and the encounters in Israel, often shed light on the tension of the American-Israeli relationship.

When the read is finished, we just question what has truly happened or we might draw our own conclusions. Either way, we have had quite an experience. I wonder if we read about alternative realities, choices we have made and opportunities that failed to be. We see various and different paths toward meaning and fulfillment that were not used and we are left to wonder why.


“The Book of Separation” by Tova Mirvis— Beginning Again

Mirvis, Tova. “The Book of Separation”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Beginning Again

Amos Lassen

“The Book of Separation” is the “memoir of a woman who leaves her faith and her marriage and sets out to navigate the terrifying, liberating terrain of a newly mapless world”, Tova Mervis was raised in a tight-knit Orthodox Jewish family and she committed herself to observing the rules and rituals that go along with this way of life. She married a man from this world and quickly began a family.

However, over the years her doubts became stronger than her faith, and at age forty she could no longer continue in this kind of life. Even though it would mean the loss of her friends, her community, and possibly even her family, Mervis decided to leave her husband and her faith. A voice inside her told her that she did not agree, did not fit in, did not believe and so she struck out on her own to try to find out what she does believe and who she really is. This meant mean beginning a new way of life for herself and for her children, who struggle with the divorce and what “not Orthodox” means for them. This is about what it means to be free even if that means leaving all you have ever known.  Mervis takes us “through her first year outside her marriage and community as she learns to silence her fears and seek adventure on her own path to happiness.”

Mervis married too young knowing that she had doubts yet went ahead and did it anyway, not an uncommon mistake, acknowledging the existence of substantial relationship problems even before the marriage…but goes ahead with it anyway. The rejection from friends and community was not just because of her doubts about her religion but young divorcees are often criticized no matter what.

She and her ex-husband supposedly knew who they were and what they wanted. Although they stayed together for a long time and were grateful to have two beautiful sons and a daughter, Aaron and Tova drifted apart and began quarreling. Mervis occasionally hinted that she was no longer in Orthodox Judaism, yet her husband was shocked when she asked for a divorce.

She acknowledges that Orthodox Judaism is a way of life that helps bring harmony, peace, and joy to those who want it. She does not blame her husband for her problems. She simply realized that her insular community was suffocating her and she was no longer content to go through the motions of pretending to be happy.

The book is quite a sad description of the dissolution of a long marriage that was made all the more difficult because three children were involved. Mervis and Aaron consulted lawyers and therapists before splitting up their property, settling on a joint custody agreement, and making the transition from a couple to single parents. As we read, we are taken back in time flashes back to the author’s childhood, education, her early years with Aaron, and her excitement and pleasure at becoming a mother and a novelist. She has found the courage she needed to express her misgivings to her husband, parents, and friends.

This is a memoir is intense and we get the details. Change is always difficult and this was quite a change. Unless you have lived as an Orthodox Jew, it is hard to imagine what Mervis went through. While I was raised Orthodox, it was not to the extreme like the author lived. It is interesting that so many who have left Orthodox Judaism have written books about it and we can understand that is also therapy.

This is a story of grief and rebirth and there is also a lot to be learned here about the more religious “sects” within the larger Jewish community. We learn of repressed the attitudes toward women and about the various Jewish lifestyles all the while sensing Mervis’ compassionate for her religion. Many will be shocked by the day-to-day reality of following Orthodox Judaism’s rules and principles and then wonder how Mervis lasted as long as she did. I can only wonder how I would have dealt with a similar situation. For me it was so much easier since I had moved to Israel and immediately became involved in secular Judaism to the point that the entire time I lived there, my only reason to go to a synagogue was or a wedding.

Tova Mervis took a tremendous step when she decided to live her life as she sees it. This is one of the problems today facing the LGBT community that causes many to live their lives in the closet rather than embracing their true identities. Our lives can only be lived successfully when we accept who we are and while this often comes with pain, we are reminded that if it were so easy to live, it just might not be worth it do so under those conditions.

“The Heart of Torah”, 2 Volumes by Rabbi Shai Held— Understanding the Torah

Held, Shai. “The Heart of Torah”, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus” Jewish Publication Society, 2017.

Understanding the Torah

Amos Lassen

In the two volume “The Heart of Torah”, Rabbi Shai Held’s collection of Torah essays, there are two discussions for each weekly portion that make the Five Books of Moses relevant to today’s life. These discussions lead us to look at the Torah with new ideas. Rabbi Held also looked at the Talmud and midrashim, great writers of world literature, and astute commentators of other religious backgrounds as a way to think about fundamental questions about God, human nature, and what it means to be a religious person in the modern world. “Along the way, he illuminates the centrality of empathy in Jewish ethics, the predominance of divine love in Jewish theology, the primacy of gratitude and generosity, and God’s summoning of each of us—with all our limitations—into the dignity of a covenantal relationship.”

This is a special blessing for me in that each week I study the Torah and try to find new ways to make it relevant and these discussions help me to do just that. I usually read the portion of the week before going to various commentaries and that practice continues here. Looking at Held’s commentaries, I gain a profound sense of why the Torah is still relevant and I love that there are always ideas that I had never considered before (but then I am no Torah scholar).

While this is a book about the interpretation of Jewish scripture, it can also be enjoyed by Christians who will discover that there is indeed common ground between the two religions. In fact , I am using it with a course that I am teaching on stories that are related in the Qur’an, the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Bible. The human condition is just that, human and we find much about it in the holy writings. Perhaps if more of read books like this it would be that much easier to see what in means for all of us to live together in God’s world.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has written a brilliant foreword to each of the volumes. Also included is a note on translations and two indexes (one by subject, the other by classical sources) and a note on bible commentaries. I do not usually publish the table of contents to books I review but here I feel it is necessary so that you can get an idea as to how the Torah portions are dealt with here.

Rabbi Held approaches with no fear and gives us new readings of tests that have been examined over hundreds of years. My father would say to me that to understand Torah one must wrestle with it and the ideas of human independence and autonomy and we certainly see Rabbi Held doing just that here.

Volume 1:


Bere’shit No. 1. What Can Human Beings Do, and What Can’t They? Or, Does the Torah Believe in Progress?

Bere’shit No. 2. Created in God’s Image: Ruling for God

Noah No. 1. Before and After the Flood: Or, It All Depends on How You Look

Noah No. 2. People Have Names: The Torah’s Takedown of Totalitarianism

Lekh Lekha No. 1. Are Jews Always the Victims?

Lekh Lekha No. 2. Between Abram and Lot: Wealth and Family Strife

Va-yera’ No. 1. The Face of Guests as the Face of God: Abraham’s Radical and Traditional Theology

Va-yera’ No. 2. In Praise of Protest: Or, Who’s Teaching Whom?

Ḥayyei Sarah No. 1. Isaac’s Search: On the Akedah and Its Aftermath

Ḥayyei Sarah No. 2. People Are Complicated: Or, Sensitivity Is a Dangerous Thing

Toledot No. 1. In Praise of Isaac: The Bible’s Paragon of Marital Empathy

Toledot No. 2. Between God and Torah: Judaism’s Gamble

Va-yetse’ No. 1. Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time? Or, What Leah Learned

Va-yetse’ No. 2. No Excuses: Jacob’s Sin and Its Consequences

Va-yishlaḥ No. 1. The Fear of Killing: Jacob’s Ethical Legacy

Va-yishlaḥ No. 2. The Power of Compassion: Or, Why Rachel’s Cries Pierce the Heavens

Va-yeshev No. 1. Against Halfheartedness

Va-yeshev No. 2. Election and Service: What Joseph Learned

Mikkets No. 1. His Brother’s Brother: Judah’s Journey

Mikkets No. 2. Reuben’s Recklessness: What Disqualifies a Leader?

Va-yiggash No. 1. Humiliation: Judaism’s Fourth Cardinal Sin?

Va-yiggash No. 2. Saving and Enslaving: The Complexity of Joseph

Va-yeḥi No. 1. The Majesty of Restraint: Or, Joseph’s Shining Moment

Va-yeḥi No. 2. Underreacting and Overreacting: Dinah’s Family in Crisis



Shemot No. 1. Why Moses? Or, What Makes a Leader?

Shemot No. 2. Gratitude and Liberation

Va-’era’ No. 1. The Journey and the (Elusive) Destination

Va-’era’ No. 2. Cultivating Freedom: When Is Character (Not) Destiny?

Bo’ No. 1. Pharaoh: Consumed by the Chaos He Sows

Bo’ No. 2. Receiving Gifts (and Learning to Love?): The “Stripping” of the Egyptians

Be-shallaḥ No. 1. Leaving Slavery Behind: On Taking the First Step

Be-shallaḥ No. 2. Bread from the Sky: Learning to Trust

Yitro No. 1. Does Everyone Hate the Jews? And, Is There Wisdom Outside of Torah?

Yitro No. 2. Honoring Parents: (Sometimes) the Hardest Mitzvah of All

Mishpatim No. 1. Turning Memory into Empathy: The Torah’s Ethical Charge

Mishpatim No. 2. Hearing the Cries of the Defenseless: Or, We Are All Responsible

Terumah No. 1. Being Present While Making Space: Or, Two Meanings of Tzimtzum

Terumah No. 2. Returning to Eden? An Island of Wholeness in a Fractured World

Tetsavveh No. 1. God in the Mishkan: Present but Not Domesticated

Tetsavveh No. 2. Between Ecstasy and Constancy: The Dynamics of Covenantal Commitment

Ki Tissa’ No. 1. The Importance of Character: Or, Why Stubbornness Is Worse Than Idolatry

Ki Tissa’ No. 2. God’s Expansive Mercy: Moses’s Praise and Jonah’s Fury

Va-yak’hel No. 1. Whom Do We Serve? The Exodus toward Dignified Work

Va-yak’hel No. 2, Pekudei No. 1. (A) Building with Heart

Pekudei No. 2. Building a Home for God


Notes on Genesis

Notes on Exodus

A Note on Bible Commentaries


Subject Index

Classical Sources Index

“The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy”  Volume 2


Va-yikra’ No. 1. Order amid Chaos: Connecting to Leviticus

Va-yikra’ No. 2. The Fall and Rise of Great Leaders: Or, What Kind of Leaders Do We Need?

Tsav No. 1. No Leftovers: The Meaning of the Thanksgiving Offering

Tsav No. 2. Buying God Off: Jeremiah and the Problem of Religious Hypocrisy

Shemini No. 1. Is Vegetarianism a Biblical Ideal?

Shemini No. 2. Of Grief Public and Private: Moses and Aaron Face the Unimaginable

Tazria’ No. 1. Living on the Boundary: The Complexity and Anxiety of Childbirth

Tazria’ No. 2, Metsora’ No. 1. Struggling with Stigma: Making Sense of the Metzora

Metsora’ No. 2. Life-Giving, Death-Dealing Words

‘Aḥarei Mot No. 1. Yom Kippur: Purifying the Tabernacle and Ourselves

‘Aḥarei Mot No. 2, Kedoshim No. 1. The Holiness of Israel and the Dignity of the Disabled

Kedoshim No. 2. Loving Our Neighbor: A Call to Emotion and Action

‘Emor No. 1. Covenantal Joy: What Sukkot Can Teach Us

‘Emor No. 2. Between Grief and Anticipation: Counting the Omer

Be-har No. 1. Another World to Live In: The Meaning of Shabbat

Be-har No. 2, Be-ḥukkotai No. 1. God’s Unfathomable Love

Be-ḥukkotai No. 2. Standing Tall: Serving God with Dignity



Be-midbar No. 1. Divine Love and Human Uniqueness

Be-midbar No. 2. A Torah for All? Universalism and Its Dangers

Naso’ No. 1. On Channeling and Receiving Blessing

Naso’ No. 2. The Risk of Relationality: Or, Why Confession Matters

Be-ha’alotekha No. 1. It’s Not about You: Or, What Moses Knew

Be-ha’alotekha No. 2. After Pain, Prayer: What Moses (and Job) Can Teach Us

Shelaḥ No. 1. The Tragedy (and Hope) of the Book of Numbers

Shelaḥ No. 2. (Don’t) Follow Your Heart and Your Eyes: Between Numbers and Ecclesiastes

Koraḥ No. 1. Every Jew a High Priest? The Meaning of Tzitzit and the Sin of Korah

Koraḥ No. 2. Giving, Taking, and the Temptations of Leadership

Ḥukkat No. 1. When Everything Starts to Look the Same: Moses’s Failure

Ḥukkat No. 2. Putting Down Ancient Grudges (and Learning Kindness): Between Israel and Edom

Balak No. 1. The Lampooned Prophet: On Learning From (and With) Balaam

Balak No. 2. Not There Yet

Pinḥas No. 1. When Zealotry Metastasizes: The Passionate Self-Regard of Pinhas

Pinḥas No. 2. Between Zealotry and Self-Righteousness: Or, Was Elijah the Prophet Fired?

Mattot No. 1. Cattle, Cattle Everywhere: The Failure of Reuben and Gad

Mattot No. 2, Mase’ei No. 1. Serving God in All We Do: Israel’s Journeys and Resting Places

Mase’ei No. 2. Do Not Murder! Shedding Innocent Blood and Polluting the Land



Devarim No. 1. “Do Not Be Afraid of Anyone”: On Courage and Leadership

Devarim No. 2. A Bolt from the Blue: Or, When God Falls in Love

Va-etḥannan No. 1. Coveting, Craving . . . and Being Free

Va-etḥannan No. 2. A God So Close, and Laws So Righteous: Moses’s Challenge (and Promise)

‘Ekev No. 1. Will and Grace: Or, Who Will Circumcise Our Hearts?

‘Ekev No. 2. Always Looking Heavenward: Learning Dependence

Re’eh No. 1. Opening Our Hearts and Our Hands: Deuteronomy and the Poor

Re’eh No. 2. Women in Deuteronomy—and Beyond

Shofetim No. 1. The Future Is Wide Open: Or, What Prophets Can and Cannot Do

Shofetim No. 2. Give the People (Only Some of) What They Want: Deuteronomy and the King

Ki Tetse’ No. 1. Let Him Live Wherever He Chooses: Or, Why Runaway Slaves Are Like God

Ki Tetse’ No. 2. Combating Cruelty: Amalek Within and Without

Ki Tavo’ No. 1. Against Entitlement: Why Blessings Can Be Dangerous

Ki Tavo’ No. 2. Between Fear and Awe: Forgetting the Self

Nitsavim No. 1. Going in Deep: What It Takes to Really Change

Nitsavim No. 2, Va-yelekh No. 1. Returning to Sinai Every Seventh Year: Equality, Vulnerability, and the Making of Community

Va-yelekh No. 2. Why Joshua? Or, In (Ambivalent) Praise of Hesitancy

Ha’azinu No. 1. “I May Not Get There with You”: The Death of Moses and the Meaning of Covenantal Living

Ha’azinu No. 2. Hearing the Whisper: God and the Limits of Language

Ve-zo’t ha-berakhah No. 1. The Beginning and End of Torah


Notes on Leviticus

Notes on Numbers

Notes on Deuteronomy

A Note on Bible Commentaries


Subject Index

Classical Sources Index



“Eichmann’s Executioner: A Novel” by Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler— History, Memory and Legacy

Dehe, Astrid and Achim Engstler. “Eichmann’s Executioner: A Novel”, translated by Helen MacCormac and Alysoon Coombes, The New Press, 2017.

History, Memory and Legacy

 Amos Lassen

The writing team Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler raise provocative and universal questions of “how we represent the past, whether we should, and how these representations impinge upon the present.” They use fiction to explore history, memory, and the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust.

In May 1962, twenty-two men came together in Jerusalem to decide by lot who would be Eichmann’s executioner. These same men had guarded the former Nazi SS lieutenant colonel during his imprisonment and trial, and in the absence of trained executioners in Israel it would fall to one of them to execute Eichmann’. Shalom Nagar, the only one among them who had asked not to participate drew the short straw. We then move forward some ten years and Nagar is living on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. He is haunted by his memory of Eichmann and remembers watching him day and night, observing the way he eats, the way he lies in bed, the sound of the cord tensing around Eichmann’s neck. But as he tells and re-tells his story to anyone who will listen, he starts to doubt himself, and when one of his friends, Moshe, reveals his own link to Eichmann, Nagar is forced to rethink and reconsider everything he has ever believed about his past.

This is what we might call “trauma literature” and it is an amazing read. Over the last few years I have read anything About Eichmann that I could get my hands on because of a course I was preparing on Hannah Arendt and her theory of the banality of evil”. While this is a fictional account of what happened after he was captured, it also gives us a quite different look at the man and his influence during the last days of his life (as seen by his executioner).

The translation is gorgeous as is the prose but it is an unsettling read as it deals with “important questions about humanity and consciousness, about what you are capable of doing.” I do mean this in a negative way; quote the opposite in fact. Sometimes we need to be unsettled so that we are aware of the world around us. When something is unsettling and/or disturbing, we think about it more and it allows us to look at the past in ways we usually do not.