Monday, April 20, 2015

Wherever You Go: A Novel

By Joan Leegant

Review By: Bonny V. Fetterman for

Politics is front and center in Joan Leegant’s novel about American Jews in Israel—three strangers who arrive with different agendas and whose paths intersect in Jerusalem. Yona Stern has come from New York to make peace with her older sister, Dena Ben-Tzion, who lives on a settlement over the Green Line with her husband and five children. Yona and Dena had quarreled over a personal matter, but the political situation makes Yona feel uneasy from the moment she descends from the bulletproof bus into the community called Givat Baruch. Dena, rigid and self-righteous, does not want a reconciliation and only speaks to Yona through her children.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Alexis Landau’s Merchant Ivory Novel

In a ‘richly appointed’ debut, ‘The Empire of the Senses,’ German Jews of the 1920s live in blissful ignorance

By Adam Kirsch for Tablet Magazine

Picking up a book with the lush title The Empire of the Senses, you probably wouldn’t guess that it was a historical novel about German Jews in the early 20th century. Given the inevitable conclusion of any such story in the Holocaust, a title with words like “darkness” or “shadow” or “fate” might seem more appropriate. But in her richly appointed debut novel, Alexis Landau deliberately defies such expectations. Life at any time and place, her title and her prose seem to say, is full of sensual beauty, if you choose to live it that way and write about it that way. And her book functions as a kind of extended séance, conjuring up the look and feel of experiences from the glamorous—a decadent party in Weimar Berlin—to the arduous—a field hospital on the Eastern Front. Here, for instance, is Lev Perlmutter, the novel’s hero, visiting a miracle-working rabbi in Lithuania:

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Monday, April 6, 2015

Yosef Haim Brenner: A Life

Anita Shapira; Anthony Berris, trans.

Review by Bettina Berch for

Although his life ended nearly a century ago, Hebrew writer Y. H. Brenner (1881-1921) remains a hero to generations of young Israelis. Perhaps there’s a sort of timelessness to any great writer’s anguish, which only grows more intense as the mythologies multiply. This might present difficulties for many biographers; after a certain point, the facts of the actual life can begin to seem meager next to the legends. Fortunately, Shapira avoids the larger-than-life Brenner and immerses readers in the details of the life of this “radical pessimist,” from his boyhood and military service in Russia, to his years as a Hebrew writer and publisher in London, to his sojourn in Galicia, to his life in the Yishuv, in Palestine, before his tragic death. Along the way, readers learn about the struggles between the Yiddishists and the champions of the Hebrew language, arguments over where to locate the Jewish homeland, tensions of young Jews over the appeal of assimilation, debates over how to live as a secular Jew, and other issues of Brenner’s days…and our own. Indeed, although the author refrains from reminding the reader of how modern Brenner’s struggles were, it’s certainly an element of his unending allure. This biography is dense and well-documented—not a light read, but a valuable addition to any collection focusing on the birth of Hebrew belles lettres. Illustrations, index, notes.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

A Grandfather’s Hidden Love Letters From Nazi Germany Reveal a Buried Past

Reporter Sarah Wildman’s grandfather escaped Vienna in 1938. Long after he died, she discovered the life—and lover—he left behind.

By Vox Tablet - A Podcast from Tablet Magazine

In 2007, journalist Sarah Wildman discovered a hidden cache of letters in her grandfather’s home office. By that time, her grandfather Karl was no longer living, but he had been a strong presence for most of her life—a worldly bon vivant and successful doctor whose smooth escape from Vienna in 1938 was part of the family lore. The letters, written mostly in German, came from people he’d left behind—people Wildman had never heard of before and, in particular, one young Jewish woman named Valy, whose letters made clear that she and Karl had been much more than friends. The letters—sent between 1939 and 1941—overflowed with love and yearning, but also conveyed that her situation was becoming increasingly dire.

Who was this woman? What were the particular circumstances under which she wrote? And what became of her? Those questions possessed Wildman, and so she set out to find answers. Wildman traveled from Vienna to Israel to Ann Arbor and elsewhere in her search. In a new book, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, she tells the story of her journey and her discoveries. Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry speaks with her about how the research complicated her understanding of the Nazi occupation, and of her beloved grandfather.


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Monday, March 23, 2015

The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Continues

National Jewish Book Club Online Talk with Author Matti Friedman

The Aleppo Codex, written by the leading Jewish scribes of the 10th century, is the oldest known complete copy of the Hebrew Bible. Moses Maimonides declared it the authoritative manuscript on which all Bibles and Torah scrolls should be based. From the 14th century until 1947, it was kept intact by the Jews of the Syrian city of Aleppo. When it eventually arrived in Israel, almost half its pages were missing. Matti Friedman, who wrote a book on the subject, speaks about the codex and related issues. (Interview by Miri Pomerantz Dauber; video, 27 minutes.)


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Monday, March 16, 2015

An Israeli Writer’s Great American Novel

In his prize-winning new novel, Reuven Namdar asks whether American Jewry is a house on fire. His answer is. . . .

By Michael Weingrad for Mosaic Magazine

Israeli reviewers have repeatedly invoked the word “ambitious” to describe Reuven Namdar’s Hebrew novel, Habayit asher neḥerav (“The House That Was Destroyed”), which in January won the Sapir prize, Israel’s equivalent of Britain’s Man Booker award. The term is richly deserved. In The House That Was Destroyed, Namdar, an Israeli of Persian descent who for the past fifteen years has made his home in New York, has given us, simultaneously, four kinds of novel. Each is worth describing in order to grasp what may be the book’s culminating, if most elusive ambition: to be read one day by the American Jews who are implicated in its pages.

First, Habayit asher neḥerav is a campus novel. Andrew Cohen, its American Jewish protagonist, is a successful, fifty-two-year-old professor in the “department of comparative culture” at New York University. A popular teacher, he writes highly regarded academic essays in the fashionable postmodern mode; his current effort bears the provisional title “Woody Warhol and Andy Allen: Representations of Inversion or the Inversion of Representation.” When not hosting dinner parties in his elegantly minimalist Upper West Side apartment, he fills his social calendar with gallery openings, museum exhibits, and meals at fashionable Manhattan restaurants. Still, bad trouble looms: his standing at the university is challenged when his politically correct colleagues protest that a white male lacks the moral authority to chair the department. They also suspect him as a Jew who, while known to protest Israeli policies, does not display quite as great a passion as theirs for the Palestinian cause. Satire, or realism? It is fair to ask.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Kenneth Bonert

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter, The ProsenPeople

With the recent announcement of the 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalists, we thought you might want to learn a little more about the five outstanding writers who made the list. Last week we introduced you to Ayelet Tsabari, who wrote a collection of short stories called the The Best Place on Earth. Today we turn our attention to Kenneth Bonert, whose novel, The Lion Seeker, won a 2013 National Jewish Book Award. Set in South Africa, Bonert's novel stretches across the 1930s and 1940s, following a Jewish family as they seek to find their place in a new culture, having escaped their war-torn homeland.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I think writing well depends on being able to concentrate for long periods of time. You need to have patience, you need to make a sustained effort, to stick with it when it doesn't seem to be working. If your mind wanders, you need to train it to come back to the task at hand. I suppose it's like a kind of meditation. Eventually you come out the other side and find those moments of soaring excitement and clarity that carry you along. That rush of creative expression––it’s what I live for.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

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