Monday, October 20, 2014

Why “Back to the Future” is About the World to Come

By Matthue Roth for Jewniverse

Ben Lerner is not primarily a novelist – he’s a poet. He’s also not a Hasid. But his new novel 10:04 opens with a quote: “Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here…Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Story of the Jews, The: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD

By David Wolpe in Hadassah Magazine

Story of the JewsAlmost 30 years ago in the preface to The Embarrassment of Riches (Vintage Books), his sumptuous chronicle of the Dutch golden age, Simon Schama wrote that “all history tends towards autobiographical confession.” Now Schama ranges across lands and times and languages to confess through his own people, in The Story of the Jews.

Schama tells us that his father was obsessed by British and Jewish history. Demonstrating the wisdom of Jung’s axiom that the greatest influence on children is the unlived lives of their parents, the son has written the absorbing multivolume A History of Britain (Hyperion) and now this first of two books on Jewish history.

The personal thread throughout the narrative is one of its most engaging features. There is something at stake in this retelling; it is never bloodless. Here are the Jews for whom nothing human is alien—housewives and papermakers, scholars and sufferers, rakes and magnates, physicians and artists.

Jewish history is a history of words, as Schama reminds us, and his easy eloquence and gentle wit fill each page. Dhimmi are “the tolerated benighted.” We know Josephus is the first Jewish historian “when, with a twinge of guilt, he introduces his mother into the action.” Most histories of the Jewish people are indifferently written; this is in the gripping and preternaturally fluent British tradition of historians like A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Schama celebrates the artistry of Judaism, from the floors of ancient synagogues to the pageantry of a modern service. Too often in Jewish history people have elevated Moses but not Bezalel, as if no Jew thought imagistically until Chagall sprung from the head of modernity. Schama traces the long engagement of Jews with the world. He notes the “glowing, brilliant” frescoes of ancient synagogues, where “If you were a Jewish father or mother in Dura-Europas and you were with your children in that synagogue, there would be much to tell them, pointing this way and that at the painting.”

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Jewish Women’s Surprisingly Prominent Role in Ancient Jewish Magic

Live from the Lilith Blog by Maggie Anton

Enchantress(Wait, doesn’t the Torah say something about not allowing a sorceress to live?)

It does indeed. “You shall not tolerate (let live) a sorceress,” is the way the Jewish Publication Society translates Exodus 22:18. Or you may have seen the King James Version’s “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Even knowing these lines, the most astonishing thing I learned while researching ENCHANTRESS: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter was how prevalent—even ubiquitous—sorcery was among the same people who gave us Talmud and Midrash.

Early on, I came across information about Babylonian “magic bowls.” Unearthed under homes in what is now Iraq, the land where the Talmud was created, these were common items of household pottery inscribed with spells to protect the inhabitants from demons and the Evil Eye, believed to cause illness, unsuccessful pregnancy and other misfortune.

Undoubtedly of Jewish origin, the incantations are written with Hebrew letters, quote Torah, and call upon Jewish angels and divine names. Some quote Mishna and the rabbinic divorce formula. And that’s not all. Archaeologists have found, wherever our people lived during the first six centuries of the Common Era, Jewish amulets, curse tablets, and magic manuals.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

The Secret Legacy of Biblical Women: Revealing the Divine Feminine

("The Secret Legacy of Biblical Women: Revealing the Divine Feminine" by Melinda Ribner)

Review by Judith Fein for Hadassah Magazine

Revealing the Divine FeminineIn this startling and passionate book, Melinda Ribner, a psychotherapist and teacher of Kabbala, meditation and healing, pushes back against the domination of men in the field of biblical interpretation. Not only does she profile the biblical matriarchs and provide ways we can learn from them and pray to them for Divine intercession, but she gives each of them a voice and interviews them; she asks them pointed questions about how we can benefit from their knowledge, wisdom and life stories.

From Eve, we learn to enter into dark places in our lives to heal what is wounded. Sarah instructs us to remain true to our visions and walk in grace. Rebecca encourages us to discern truth from falsehood. Rachel, Leah and the handmaidens Bilha and Zilpa call for a new consciousness and greater connectivity to the world. Dina’s spiritual teachings allow us to transform negativity. Miriam helps us to express our own vision and to inspire others. Batya encourages us to follow the truth of our own souls, even when others try to dictate who we should be or how we should behave. Chana instructs us in the power of prayer. Queen Esther gives us courage to do what is difficult by using faith, courage and intelligence.

Sometimes the voices of the women are so clear, transcendent and powerful that it is tempting to believe the author is channeling them. At other times, the book is more informational and didactic. Ribner wants us to form groups to study, read about, learn from and pray to these biblical women.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist: A Novel

By Sara Trappler Spielman in Hadassah Magazine

In the Courtyard of the KabbalistIn her second book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books, 207 pp. $16 paper), set in Jerusalem in 1999, Ruchama King Feuerman depicts the human landscape by building contrasting religious and political portraits. Romantic, suspenseful and insightful, the author has created a compelling connection between a Jew and a Muslim, Isaac and Mustafa, skillfully crafting an unusual yet believable friendship and intertwining plot. Short chapters switch between their narratives.

Mustafa, a lonely 55-year-old Arab janitor, works scrupulously on the Temple Mount, subservient to the domineering Sheikh Tawil. Isaac Markowitz, a 43-year-old Orthodox single man, moved to Israel from the Lower East Side after his mother died. He is working as an assistant to an elderly kabbalist, Rebbe Yehudah.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Interview: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

by William Liss-Levinson for

TelushkinWilliam Liss-Levinson, member of the Board of the Jewish Book Council, sat down with fellow Board member and noted author, scholar and speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, to discuss this newest book, Rebbe, focused on the life and teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

William Liss-Levinson: A number of books have been written in the past few years about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And it’s twenty years since his death. What prompted you to write this book?

Joseph Telushkin: The Rebbe might well be the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides. I can think of no other rabbi who is as familiar to Jews in Israel, the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and France, the four most populous Jewish communities in the world today. So it certainly seemed that that this was a man whose life deserved to be studied in depth.

WL-L: You’ve also chosen a unique approach, to discuss the Rebbe—according to thematic issues across time, with a fifty page chronologi­cal biography at the end. Why did you choose that approach to his life?

JT: I thought that what most mattered about the Rebbe were his viewpoints and his unique approach to a variety of issues. Also, I really was interested in writing a biography of his years of leadership. In 1951 he took over a small movement and turned it into the most dynamic religious movement in modern Jewish history—and that is what intrigued me; how he did it. A biography would need to focus in detail, for example, on things I was not as interested in: his years as a child in Russia and the years he spent in Germany and France in university. I was interested in that, and write about it in the book, but this was not what most interested me about the Rebbe.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

A Russian Jewish Mom Turns to the Internet For Dating

Lena Finkle's Magic BarrelBy Ester Bloom for Jewniverse

Here is what’s less than stellar about Anya Ulinich‘s graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: The title is confusingly clunky, and certain pages feel overstuffed with text. But that’s it! This lavishly illustrated, imaginative, acerbically funny chronicle of a Russian-Jewish divorcee’s expedition into the underworld of OkCupid is, otherwise, near letter- and pixel-perfect.

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