Jacob Dinezon (1856-1919) was a Yiddish novelist and short-story writer, as famous during his lifetime as were his contemporaries, the three pillars of late-19th- and early-20th-century Yiddish literature, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Y.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem. All of these masters knew and were impressed with Dinezon’s work.
During his period of literary activity in the latter half of the 19th century, Dinezon at times even outshadowed the three founding fathers because his books touched thousands of readers and were more widely sold. In fact, one of his novels sold more than 200,000 copies, an unheard of success in Yiddish literature. Dinezon achieved fame at the age of 20 with the publication of his first novel and remained famous until the day he died. He was so well known and beloved that every major figure of Yiddish literature came to his funeral in 1919.
Even encyclopedias in English recognized him. The early 20th-century Jewish Encyclopedia lists Dinezon as an important Yiddish writer (like other classical Yiddish writers, he also established a reputation as a Hebrew author), praise that is echoed in the contemporary Encyclopedia Judaica.
Sometimes mazel plays a role in literary fame but, in Dinezon’s case, it seemed to express itself in income and not in posthumous regard. And now that the worldwide Yiddish-reading community is vanishing, a writer’s lot can be determined by translation, which can bring fame, and to discovery, which in turn can prompt translation. If a writer doesn’t find his translator/editor in another language, he suffers the misfortune of neglect, which is what happened with Dinezon. If you ask any knowledgeable reader familiar with Aleichem and other famous Yiddish writers if he has ever heard of Dinezon, the answer would probably be no.
Until now, we have not had any work by Dinezon in English. But this lacuna has been successfully filled with the wonderful book of 11 Dinezon stories, beautifully translated by Tina Lunson and edited by Scott Davis, who has also provided an illuminating introduction: Memories and Scenes: Shtetl, Childhood, Writers (Jewish Storyteller Press, 2014).
Dinezon was a social realist, accurately depicting small-town (shtetl) Jewish life. With a cinematic eye, he zeroes in on his characters, deftly telling fascinating stories while at the same time giving an accurate portrait of the mores, attitudes, speech and foibles of the men, women and children whom he depicts.
Like Dickens, Denizon wrote about the downtrodden and about poorly treated students in Hebrew schools with such realism that he actually brought about reforms. A cross section of Jewish society in Poland lives in his pages: the young and old, Chassidim and enlightened Jews, simple workingmen and rich householders. Every single one of his stories breathes with life and verisimilitude.
In this book of 11 stories, a collection published after Dinezon’s death in 1919, we have finely crafted tales – so in keeping with Jewish short-story writing at the turn of the 20th century – that recall vividly portrayed shtetl characters from Dinezon’s childhood years and memories of such literary figures as Mendele Mocher Sforim (Mendele the Bookseller, aka Sholem Abramovich), Peretz, and the playwright Avrom Goldfaden.
Dinezon also played an important historical role in the development of Yiddish as a literary language. In fact, he mentored, advised and befriended almost every major Jewish writer of his day. The list reads like a who’s who of late-19th- and early-20th-century modern Yiddish literature, including the writers mentioned above, as well as S. Ansky, David Frishman, Shimon Frug, Sholem Asch, David Pinski and Abraham Reisen.
In one of the superb stories, Mayer Yeke, we see how a boy’s great fear of the shtetl’s most righteous Jew, Mayer Yeke, turns to love and respect after he witnesses Mayer’s mitzvah assisting the town drunk. Sholem Yoyne Flask depicts a mild-mannered tailor transformed by the liquor in his flask into a fiery defender of the town’s poor folk – then something happens when a surprising discovery is made about his flask. With Motl Farber, Purimshpieler, we are introduced to a housepainter who languishes during the winter when he cannot work, but at Purim, he becomes the leader of a band of Purim players. When the troupe is arrested by the new Russian police chief, an unlikely “Esther” comes to their rescue.
A story that achieves the psychological depth of a Dostoevsky tale is Yosl Algebrenik and His Student. It tells the story of Yosl, an outstanding Talmud scholar, a genius some said, destined to become a great rabbi, who has a passion for mathematics. At age 30, for reasons no one remembers, he tosses away the Talmud and its commentaries for the study of algebra and algebraic logic. From then on, he spends all his time studying algebra, except for the few hours a week he devotes to tutoring children to eke out a living.
Another moving and profound story is called Borekh, after the name of the hero, a poor orphan living in the yeshivah. He doesn’t do well in talmudic studies but he has a talent for woodcarving, making dreidls, Purim groggers and toy animals for the children of the town. One day, he decides to leave the yeshivah and start anew, with hopes of making a great holy ark, “one that people have never seen before.” When he achieves that, he will send it to his friend in the yeshivah, who he knows will become a great scholar. He leaves without saying goodbye.
Some of Dinezon’s autobiographical sketches are as engaging as his fiction. In My First Work, he relates the childhood experience of reading his first Yiddish novel, a Jewish version of Robinson Crusoe. He is so taken by the book, he writes his own adventure story. In Sholem Yankev Abramovich, Dinezon tells how his debut novel, The Dark Young Man, was published and how he acquired his first copy in Moscow. At the same time, he learns that the Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim and the Hebrew author Sholem Abramovich are actually the same person.
It is not often that we are privileged to make a literary discovery of our own. With this book by Dinezon, the first in English, we happily encounter a master writer who deserves to be ranked with the great Yiddish writers whom he befriended and who admired him.
Curt Leviant’s most recent book is the short story collection Zix Zexy Ztories.
While I have a very good Jewish background, enhanced by the hundreds of books I have reviewed over the years, I am, by no means, a scholar. However, when I heard about The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa by Rabbi David Golinkin (Centre for Women in Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2012), I wanted to read and review it because there are a number of issues – that appear both in the news and in other books I’ve read – that are expounded and discussed by Golinkin.
When I read Rashi’s Daughters, for example, I was intrigued by the author, Maggie Anton, writing that the daughters laid tefillin, studied Talmud and commented on their father’s responsa. The violent, aggressive behavior of certain Orthodox men and women toward the Women of the Wall, who have tried for more than 25 years to have a respectful minyan on Rosh Chodesh each month, observing their personal traditions, further motivated my reading of this book.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, in one of his columns last year in the Jerusalem Post, wrote: “I cannot help but wonder what the problem is with the desire of some women to wear tallitot, tefillin and read from the Torah at the Western Wall. I am further amazed at the extreme statements made by the rabbi in charge of the site and by other leaders of the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community calling on their followers to come out and protest, as well as by the silence of moderate Orthodox authorities on this issue. I cannot believe that they really think that what these women are doing is in violation of Jewish law.
“Surely they know as well as anyone else that all of this is permitted.
“Women may not be required to do these things within traditional halachah [Jewish law], but nowhere are they prohibited from doing them, any more than they are prohibited from sitting in a sukkah!”
Hammer continued: “My only conclusion is that this … has nothing to do with Jewish law and nothing to do with the sanctity of the Wall and nothing to do with offending others, and everything to do with protecting an insular way of life…. These groups have every right to want to live that way…. But they have absolutely no right to force their practices upon others and to make the totally false claim that what they say represents the official position of traditional Judaism. It simply does not.”
He noted, “The sages in the second century CE exempted [women] from certain mitzvot, but did not prohibit them from performing them. There is no excuse for us, nearly 2,000 years later, forbidding what neither the Torah nor the sages forbade. Let us put an end to all this fuss and support the right of women to perform these mitzvot within the framework of traditional Judaism.”
In Golinkin’s book, we learn that, while there are Orthodox rabbis who have made innovations for women, many Orthodox rabbis ignore not only non-Orthodox rulings on women in Judaism but also Orthodox rulings. We also learn that change isn’t a linear process between or within denominations.
In the book’s introduction, “The Participation of Jewish Women in Public Rituals and Torah Study,” Golinkin surveys 41 events between 1845 and 2010, regarding women in Judaism. He finds that changes did not necessarily move from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox. For example, the bat mitzvah ceremony, credited to Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in 1922, was preceded by rabbis in Italy, France and Baghdad and by Reform Rabbi Yechezkel Karo in 1902. Women have been ordained by the Reform movement in the United States since 1972, but Regina Jonas, who could not be called Reform, was ordained as a rabbi in Germany in 1935. Women have had aliyot since 1893, including Henrietta Szold in 1922, but it was not until 1995 that 88 percent of Conservative synagogues allowed aliyot for women. Orthodox rabbis began to allow separate women’s prayer groups in the 1970s but some Conservative rabbis had done so since 1949. In broad strokes, main efforts to change women’s roles in Reform Judaism lasted from 1846 to 1972; Conservative, from 1874 to 2001; and Orthodox, from 1978 to 2010.
Golinkin writes, “The tension between halachah and modernity has caused, is causing and will continue to cause division and disagreement within the Jewish people.”
He also notes, “The status of women in halachah has begun to cause division between Modern Orthodox and the Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) camp in Israel and abroad.”
He then lists nine approaches to changing halachah: 1) those who oppose any change in Judaism; 2) opposition specifically to changes in the synagogue; 3) acknowledging equal status between men and women, expressing it through different roles and mitzvot; 4) willingness to accept certain changes so as to not drive women from Judaism; 5) change within the framework of traditional halachah; 6) adjusting discriminatory halachot according to contemporary times; 7) changing halachah with equality for women; 8) feeling halachah is not binding, and men and women are equal in Judaism; and 9) suggesting a halachic revolution.
The remaining 15 chapters of The Status of Women in Jewish Law consist of responsa to critical questions. In each case, Golinkin surveys the rabbis who wrote responsa on a particular issue – for and against – and then concludes with what he terms “practical halachah.” There is a complete bibliography after each responsa’s conclusion. In brief, they are:
Responsa 1: women and tefillin. In Golinkin’s view, the responsa show “ample halachic justification” for allowing women to wear tefillin, as long as they are worn with “the same devotion and halachic requirements which apply to men.”
Responsa 2: women and singing. Golinkin writes, “… there is no general prohibition against women singing in classic Jewish law based on the Talmud and subsequent codes and commentaries until the early 19th century.” And there is “no halachic justification for anyone walking out when women sing … it is forbidden to walk out, in order not to insult the female performers.”
Responsa 3: women in the minyan and as shlichot tzibbur (prayer leaders). Golinkin concludes that women may be counted in the minyan for shacharit, minchah, ma’ariv, musaf and ne’ilah, and may serve as shlichot tzibbur in all of these services.
Responsa 4: adding the Imahot (Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah) to the Amidah (central prayer of the prayer book). Golinkin writes that the correct and traditional way is to compose a short piyyut (liturgical poem) recited in the middle of the Amidah blessings.
Responsa 5: reciting Baruch Sheptarani (the Parents’ Blessing) at a bat mitzvah. Golinkin writes that this blessing, traditionally said by the father to mark his son’s turning 13, can be recited by both parents for their daughter.
Responsa 6: aliyot for women and hearing Torah read in public. Golinkin determines that women are obligated to hear the Torah read in public and can be called for an aliyah.
Responsa 7: women reading the Megillah. Golinkin believes that women are obligated to read the Megillah in public and be counted in the minyan for the reading.
Responsa 8: reciting verses honoring Esther during the Megillah reading. Golinkin writes that this is permissible.
Responsa 9: women as mohalot (circumcisers). Golinkin believes that this is permissible.
Responsa 10: participation of women in funerals. Golinkin writes that there is no need for the separation of men and women during a eulogy, and that women should be encouraged to participate in the eulogy, funeral procession and burial, as well as the escort to the cemetery.
Responsa 11: women reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. Golinkin finds no halachic reason to prohibit women from reciting this prayer.
Responsa 12: women participating in a marriage ceremony and the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings). Golinkin says that women may hold the chuppah poles, sing, read the ketubah (marriage contract), give a drash (explanation or sermon), recite the betrothal blessing and Sheva Brachot, and be counted as a “new face,” according to wishes of those involved.
Responsa 13: women on a law committee, rendering halachic decisions and writing responsa. Golinkin concludes that women may render halachic decisions, they may study halachah, teach and discuss halachah and write responsa.
Responsa 14: having a mechitza (partition dividing men and women in synagogue). Golinkin writes that it is permissible to abolish this custom.
Responsa 15: ordination of women as rabbis, holding public office, studying Torah, serving as witness. Golinkin writes that women may be ordained as rabbis “on condition that … they undertake upon themselves all PTBC (positive time-bound commandments) and to refrain from participating in batei din [rabbinical courts] for conversion or to serve as witnesses at marriages and divorces.” According to Golinkin, women are permitted “to study and teach Torah and all subjects related to the Torah” and “it is permissible for a woman to serve in public office.”
For anyone interested in the sources and issues regarding the role of women in Judaism, this book is an informative, absorbing and remarkable read. It concludes with a collection of eulogies delivered by Golinkin and a glossary.
Sybil Kaplan is a foreign correspondent, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She has compiled nine kosher cookbooks. She leads weekly walks in English in the Jewish produce market, Machaneh Yehudah, and writes the restaurant features for Janglo, the oldest, largest website in Israel for English-speakers.
Children rarely pay much attention to what their parents are doing. Children of parents on the wrong side of the law are no different. They may overhear conversations around the house, they may see headlines in the media but they do not really connect the dots. Two books this spring offer portraits from the criminal world: years after their fathers died, the daughter of notorious New York mobster Meyer Lansky and the son of Toronto bookie Davy Bossin look back with fondness for their dads.
Both men were in illegal gambling. In fact, stories about some characters mentioned in one of these books are fleshed out in the other. However, the families led extremely different lives. Lansky, who organized “organized crime,” lived in unbound luxury, while Bossin, a bookie who worked for people who were Lansky associates, had a more modest life. Yet both fathers were sons of Jewish immigrant families who came to North America in the early 20th century. Born three years apart, their Jewish roots were never far from the surface, regardless of what else they did.
Canadian folksinger Bob Bossin tells the story of his father in Davy the Punk: A Story of Bookies, Toronto the Good, the Mob and My Dad (Porcupine’s Quill). Bossin was 17 years old when his father died in 1963. He searches to understand what his father did, piecing together an image from recollections of family and friends, newspaper clippings and official government records. With his talent for storytelling and sense of wry humor, Bossin provides a cinematically rich narrative that allows readers to feel they are eavesdropping on conversations among close friends who are not such bad guys. It’s easy to picture the circle of seasoned Jewish men sitting around a coffee-stained table, telling tales.
Bossin frankly admits that some of the anecdotes he recounts may be not completely true. He comes from a family of storytellers who, he says, quoting U.S. journalist A.J. Liebling, diverge from recorded history “only to improve upon it.” In this world, a good story trumps just about anything else.
Bossin begins at a Toronto ballpark, Maple Leaf Stadium, where his father’s cronies swap stories, argue politics and only incidentally watch baseball. They talk about Benny the Shoykhet, who was a bookie and kept a few kosher chickens in case of a police raid, and Arnie “the Shnook” Schneider, who was busted for bookmaking 67 times but was never sent to jail. Mysteriously, the court lost records of previous incidents and considered each arrest as a first offence.
With stories about his grandparents, Bossin places his family inside the historical moments of a generation of Jews who emigrated to North America from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Davy was born a few months later, in 1905, on a ship taking his grandmother to reunite with his grandfather in Toronto.
The Bossins remained poor and continued to feel the sting of antisemitism in Canada – Eaton’s and other stores would not hire Jews, for example. But, in Canada, there were no pogroms. The Bossins, like other Jews, were left alone to live their lives.
Bossin believes that his father quickly abandoned his Judaism in the New World, but a small spark remained. Every week, his father went back to his parents’ home for Shabbat dinner.
The family finally escaped poverty and prejudice through horses. Bossin cautions that his account may not be exactly true but, if it is, his father was 11 years old when legendary racetrack owner Abram Orpen brought him into the gambling business. By the age of 17, his father was a “tout,” who hung around the racetrack offering tips to betters. Eventually, he became “a lay-off artist.” Bossin explains that bookies spread their risk of unexpected losses by laying off bets, similar to re-insurance in the insurance industry. Arnold Rothstein, a powerful U.S. gangster best known as the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, developed the system for bookies across North America.
As “a bookie’s bookie,” his father avoided run-ins with the law for almost 20 years. His father was also involved in broadcasting horse-race results for bookmakers from tracks across the country. He ran the Toronto operation for U.S. gangsters, eventually having more than 50 phones in his home. Police repeatedly tried to close him down, beginning in 1939, but the only penalty he ever paid was a $10 fine for running a business out of his home.
Every incident mentioned in the book leads to another engaging story about his father’s circle of friends, punters, gangsters or the occasional crackdown on gambling. Bossin’s father, who is lovingly portrayed as a quiet, generous man, moved from horses to nightclubs in the early 1950s, running Theatrical Attractions, a talent agency that booked stars such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald. He managed the Crew Cuts before they had big hits. Davy died at the age of 58.
Excellent storyteller that he is, Bossin saves one of his best stories for the closing. He discovers his mother had an affair shortly before he was born. Was Davy really his father? He decides, yes. “It was on Davy’s knee, or beside him at Maple Leaf Stadium, or tucked between him and his cronies at a delicatessen, that I learned that nothing beats a good story. No question about it, I am Davy’s son.”
In Daughter of the King: Growing Up in Gangland (Weinstein Books), Sandra Lansky, assisted by writer William Stadiem, writes mostly about her own life. Along the way, she offers a complimentary portrait of her father.
Meyer Lansky got his start in booze and illegal gambling during Prohibition. Once liquor became legal, he became a nightclub impresario. At the front of the house, he had A-list entertainers; at the back, he ran glamorous but illegal gambling dens. He operated clubs with partners across the country. He was accused, but never convicted, of establishing his businesses through a network of associates who relied on graft, bribery and murder.
In the late 1950s, shortly before the Cuban Revolution, Lansky opened a luxurious casino in Havana. The good life evaporated after Fidel Castro shut down the casino in 1960. Once Lansky returned to Miami, Robert Kennedy and the FBI launched an aggressive crackdown on organized crime, with Lansky clearly a target. However, when he was finally brought to trial in 1973, he was acquitted.
Similar to Bossin, Lansky was also unaware of her father’s activities as she was growing up. She was a teenager before she heard anything about his reputation, and she never confronted him to find out if the accusations were true. A loyal and loving daughter, she portrays government efforts to stop gangland murders and illegal gambling as unwarranted campaigns against a hardworking businessman. For her, gangsters Frank Costello and Bugsy Siegel were uncles, not the kingpins of criminal networks.
Although she knew many of the mobsters, she includes no new revelations about the mob. Instead, she offers Oprah-type admissions about her upbringing as a spoiled rich kid, her torrid affairs with Dean Martin and others, her disastrous marriage and her drug addiction. With its irritatingly sassy tone and sordid tales of decadence, the book makes it difficult to like, or even be sympathetic, to any of the people in her life.
Her father moved much further away from his Jewish heritage than did Davy Bossin, so far that his daughter did not realize she was Jewish until she was a teenager. She writes that her parents did not see themselves as Jewish. But she relates that she found out her father in the late 1930s used his muscle men to break up Nazi rallies on the Upper East Side and helped mobilize dockworkers to root out Nazi sympathizers during the war. He also provided arms and money to Israel in 1948.
When authorities came after him in the 1950s, he responded viscerally to the barely concealed antisemitic and anti-immigrant bigotry of the crusaders. “I will not let you prosecute me because I am a Jew,” he defiantly told them. In the 1970s, he tried – unsuccessfully – to escape U.S. crime busters by claiming citizenship in Israel, where his grandparents were buried.
Meyer Lansky died of lung cancer at 81. Forbes had estimated his net worth at $300 million. But where was the money? The family never found it. At least, that’s what his daughter says.
Media consultant Robert Matas, a former Globe and Mail journalist, still reads books. Both of the books reviewed here are available at the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library. To reserve them, or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman Library.
In 1963, landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was appalled when she saw park workers at Jericho Beach burning logs that had broken away from booms. She called up Bill Livingston, the Vancouver Park Board superintendent, and suggested placing the logs along the sandy beaches for people to sit on. Livingston thought it was a good idea.
Fifty years later, it’s often hard during the summer months to find a vacant spot along one of the logs lining Vancouver’s beaches. Changing the landscape of the city’s beaches is one of many ways in which Oberlander has contributed to making Vancouver one of the world’s most livable cities. However, despite being Canada’s preeminent landscape architect, Oberlander remains unknown to most of the people who enjoy the benefits of her work, and Susan Herrington, professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, sets out to raise Oberlander’s profile with the recently released biography Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Making the Modern Landscape.
The book comes after several public tributes and publications about Oberlander’s achievements, including an extensive oral history available online at the Cultural Landscape Foundation (tclf.org) and a biography for teens called Live Every Leaf: The Life of Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (2008). Oberlander has also co-authored two books: Trees in the City (1977) and Green Roof: A Design Guide and Review of Relevant Technologies (2002).
Herrington’s fascinating book goes one step further, unraveling the numerous influences throughout Oberlander’s life that shaped her professional development. Herrington places her innovative urban designs, her use of plants and her commitment to sustainability in the context of trends in landscape architecture over the past six decades. The biography is, as Herrington asserts, as much a history of modern landscape as a portrait of Oberlander’s life.
An impressive collection of photos and landscape sketches are sprinkled throughout the book to flesh out the scholarly account. The list of stunning accomplishments in a stellar career is balanced with references to some of her grand ideas that did not work out.
But the book will disappoint those looking for a popular biography with a window into her personal life; Herrington has taken an academic approach to Oberlander’s life. We become well acquainted with what the landscape architect accomplished. We are told a few delightful anecdotes about her life. But we do not learn much about her feelings or her personal relationships. If you want to get to know her in a more personal way, check out the oral history at the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Also, the book does not pay much attention to Oberlander’s commitment to Israel and her work within the Jewish community. One of the founding members of Temple Sholom, she held a place of honor at High Holiday services for many years, reading the story of Jonah with her late husband, architect and urban planner Peter Oberlander. She designed the synagogue’s garden as well as the biblical garden at King David High School with its plants reflecting the various species and geographic regions of the Land of Israel, as described in the Torah.
Oberlander has been involved in more than 500 projects, including the design of more than 70 playgrounds. Her mother Beate Hahn was a professional horticulturalist and author of several books about gardening with children. Oberlander from an early age did drawings for her mother’s books. She has said she decided at the age of 11 that she wanted to design gardens.
Herrington includes a design of a wooded-parkland that Oberlander completed when she was 15 years old. Already at that time, Oberlander was busy in the garden, learning from firsthand experiences about the benefits of organic gardening, companion plants and attracting birds and insects to mitigate pests.
Oberlander was born in 1921 in Mulheim, Germany, a small city along the Rhine River. Herrington’s book ignores the prominence of her grandfather in Germany (a politician and professor and the University of Berlin) and the hurdles the family faced before leaving Germany in the late 1930s. The family emigrated to the United States and Oberlander in 1940 went to Smith College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts, to study architecture and landscape architecture. By coincidence, she stayed in a room across the hall from Betty Friedan, who went on to write The Feminine Mystique. However Oberlander’s contact with strong feminists did not turn her into an outspoken crusader for women’s rights.
Herrington emphasizes the significance of Oberlander as one of the first women in a male-dominated profession, but Oberlander never claimed to be a feminist. She told Herrington she never questioned whether a woman could pursue a professional career outside the home while raising her children, she just did it.
Herrington emphasizes the significance of Oberlander as one of the first women in a male-dominated profession, but Oberlander never claimed to be a feminist. She told Herrington she never questioned whether a woman could pursue a professional career outside the home while raising her children, she just did it.
Oberlander went on to Harvard in 1943. A year later, her mother, without Oberlander’s knowledge, asked the university to allow her to take a year off to work in an architectural office. Her mother thought her drafting skills were inadequate. Together, they decided she would take a year off. (The book does not tell us how that intervention affected her relationship with her mother.) Oberlander found a drafting job but was fired three months later and returned to complete her studies. She moved to Vancouver in 1953 after marrying Peter Oberlander.
Bringing together much that has been written with original research, Herrington shows how the landscape of some of Vancouver’s most familiar places (Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology), as well as prominent national and international landmarks (the New York Times building, National Gallery in Ottawa and chanceries for embassies in Washington and Berlin) came out of Oberlander’s experiences as a child in the Weimer Republic, her exposure to seminal thinkers in school and her contact with leading figures in the profession.
Oberlander’s commitment to exhaustive research, modern design with abstract shapes and unadorned lines, and community involvement in planning were evident from the start of her career in Philadelphia. In design work for public housing, private residents and playgrounds, she saw the role of landscape architects as working for the community, not the wealthy. She shaped spaces to spark the imagination and creativity of their users. Her innovative work on playgrounds, with informal play areas and separated spaces for different age groups and activities, became a standard for progressive play areas across North America.
Even in the early 1950s, her plans reflected strong ecological values, attributes that would become her trademark in later years. Her designs integrated current strands of trees and plants as much as possible and followed the contours of the land. Years later, she set standards of excellence with her work on green roofs and green buildings.
Oberlander paid close attention to how people reacted to landscape design, what feelings were stirred by design and color, to understand how they used the space. She created areas intended to foster creativity and imagination while relating to the local context.
Herrington tracks Oberlander’s professional development as she shapes design to incorporate ideas from psychology, art and ecology. Oberlander paid close attention to how people reacted to landscape design, what feelings were stirred by design and color, to understand how they used the space. She created areas intended to foster creativity and imagination while relating to the local context.
By the mid-1970s, she had moved from playgrounds to urban landscapes that became havens for adults in densely populated areas. Herrington writes about Oberlander’s 30-year collaboration with Arthur Erickson and influences that had an impact on her high-profile projects.
Throughout it all, Herrington writes that Oberlander never lost her commitment to serve all of society. She continued to work on modest gardens for private homes, public-housing projects, playgrounds and landscapes for people with special needs. And, Oberlander has never forgotten her past. “Why would I disregard the very reasons why I joined this profession in the first place?” she told Herrington.
Media consultant Robert Matas, a former Globe and Mail journalist, still reads books. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Making the Modern Landscape is available at the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library. To reserve this book, or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman Library.
Gary Shteyngart is widely regarded as one of the most entertaining storytellers in contemporary literature. The highly enjoyable memoir Little Failure (Random House, 2014), his fourth book after three well-received novels, is his story as a Jewish immigrant from Russia trying to make sense of his place in the new world.
Celebrity memoirs are often intended to settle accounts or redeem reputations. Shteyngart uses his memoir to share the important moments of his life, from his birth in Leningrad through his difficulties as an immigrant to the publication of his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which won the Stephen Crane Award for first fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for fiction.
In Little Failure, he writes with humor and introspection about the family’s struggles – the poverty, the hesitation in abandoning ways of the old country and the missteps in trying to fit in. As he moves through a Hebrew parochial school and on to Oberlin College, he delves into the frustrations and absurdities of immigrant life.
Tales of violence at home and unrelenting bullying in the schoolyard are followed by comical accounts of teenaged drinking, pot-smoking and attempts to connect with women. Several incidents will be familiar to those who have read his novels. He often uses events from his own life in his writing.
The memoir jumps back and forth from his recollection of events in his life to his thoughts as he writes the book. Throughout, Shteyngart keeps coming back to his relationship with his parents, and especially his father.
While writing the memoir, his father apparently told him that he read on the Russian Internet that Shteyngart and his novels would soon be forgotten. His mother identified the blogger who made the comment.
“Do you want me to be forgotten, Father?” Shteyngart thought to himself. His parents have not read his latest book but they know the name of the blogger who says he will be soon forgotten, Shteyngart moans.
His father persisted. Shteyngart was 30th on a list of New York writers. “David Remmick (editor of The New Yorker) was eight positions ahead of you,” his father said. His mother tried to calm the waters. Many writers aren’t acknowledged until after their death, she said in an attempt that did not make Shteyngart feel any better.
A few days later, his parents were kvelling over a book review in France. The French Internet described his book as one of the best of the year.
He appreciates the humor in the situation. “After each teardown, after each discussion of Internet rankings and blogs, after each barrage of insults presented as jokes, my father finishes with, ‘You should call me more.’”
What should he make of these exchanges? “Down and up. Up and down. I am forgotten. I am remembered. I am number thirty. I am beloved in France. What is this? This is parenting.”
Beyond biography, Little Failure offers a rare glimpse into an international phenomenon. The emigration of Jews from Russia has been a cause célèbre for many Jewish communities over the past four decades. Shteyngart’s memoir offers the perspective of Russian immigrants, facing numerous difficulties on the way out of the country and in starting life over in a foreign land.
His family left Russia near the end of a decade that saw 250,000 Jews coming to the West. Israel “begged” them to move to the Holy Land, he writes, but his father “courageously” resisted. A Jewish immigrant aid group helped them establish a home in New York. Shteyngart was sent to Solomon Schechter School in Queens. He does not write about those who helped the family.
The memoir also omits something I would have liked to find out. Shteyngart does not write about authors who have influenced his work or what he reads. However, he does pinpoint those events in his life that helped shape the making of the writer Gary Shteyngart.
To some extent, he was born a storyteller. He writes that he has never been stuck for words. “My mind is running at insomniac speed,” he says in the memoir. “The words are falling in like soldiers at reveille. Put me in front of a keyboard and I will fill up a screen.”
He was introduced to the art of storytelling at an early age. With debilitating asthma from birth, much of his early years in Leningrad was spent in “a fort of pillows and duvets and comforters,” fighting suffocation. He became “a pathological reader.” He recalls at age 5 reading The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a dense 160-page volume by Selma Lagerlif, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
Around the same time, his father was making up comic stories, dubbed “The Planet of the Yids,” about a Hebraic corner of the galaxy besieged by gentile spacemen who attacked with torpedoes filled with salted raw pig fat. Famous Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky ran the planet. Whenever the KGB was on the verge of gaining the upper hand, a fearless leader called Igor (Shteyngart’s name before he changed it to Gary) saved the Yids.
Shteyngart remembers inventing his first story at the age of 5. His grandmother, Galya, who once worked as a journalist and editor at a Leningrad newspaper, suggested he write his own novel. She offered him slices of cheese for every page he wrote, a sandwich with bread, butter and cheese for each chapter.
He put together a surrealistic tale of political adventurism and betrayal involving Lenin, Finland and a wild goose. The novel, Lenin and His Magical Goose, probably cost a hundred pieces of cheese and at least a dozen sandwiches, he estimates.
His first attempt at writing a story in English came when he was 10, three years after arriving in New York. He was a misfit at school, constantly bullied and ridiculed by his classmates. He considered himself to be one of the most hated boys at Hebrew school.
The 59-page novella, The Chalenge (sic), was an imaginative space adventure involving a blond kid who does not look Jewish, a best friend and a girl caught in the middle between the two boys.
“I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary,” he says in the memoir.
Shteyngart hated himself and the people around him. He was not strong enough to stand up to those who hit him, and he struck back with rage in the imaginary world he created. He discovered the power of laughter from a teacher who was ridiculed during a show-and-tell session in the classroom. He thought the teacher would burst out in tears when kids made fun of her. Instead, she just laughed and continued what she was doing. It was a revelation to him. “She has laughed at herself and emerged unscathed!”
The teacher asked him to bring The Chalenge to school and read a few pages to the class. Excited, he stood at the front of the class and read as fast as he could. “Slowly,” she said. “Read slowly, Gary. Let us enjoy the words.”
Her response startled him. “I breathe that in. Ms. S wants to enjoy the words.”
His classmates listened closely as he read the story aloud over the following five weeks. Reading his story changed how the children interacted with him. They were eager to hear the next instalment. He was not yet one of them on the playground but the terms of engagement had changed. He was no longer a Russian outcast.
Responding to their enthusiasm, he felt the pressure to write something new every day, lest he fall out of favor. It’s a responsibility that has haunted him for the rest of his life, he writes.
“God bless these kids for giving me a chance,” Shteyngart says. “May their G-d bless them every one.”
While still at Solomon Schechter School in Queens, he also wrote a satire of the Torah, called The Gnorah. He described the book as a hatchet job directed at his parochial school religious experience: rote memorization of ancient texts, aggressive shouting of blessings and an ornery rabbi who was the principal. Foreshadowing his writing style over the following decades, he mixed comic references to popular culture figures with the lives of characters in his story. Exodus became Sexodus, Moses was renamed Mishugana and the burning bush was turned into a burning television.
The Gnorah in 1984 marked the beginning of his true assimilation into American English, he writes. It would take almost two more decades before he started to receive awards for his writing.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook was published in 2002. His second published novel, Absurdistan, was chosen as one of the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine. And, Super Sad True Love Story won the 2011 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic literature – the Jewish Independent interviewed Shteyngart when that book came out, prior to his participation in the Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival (see “Satirist launches series,” Nov. 12, 2010, jewishindependent.ca). Shteyngart’s work has been translated into 28 languages.
Media consultant Robert Matas, a former Globe and Mail journalist, still reads books. Little Failure is available at the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library. To reserve this book, or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman Library.
Reading From the Dream, Carol Rose’s most recent collection of poetry, led me to my bookshelf, where her first collection, Behind the Blue Gate, was safely stored. This shelf is home to books that have particularly impressed me, and which I may want to read again, as well as those that have been written by friends. Rose’s falls into both groups, and From the Dream will soon be joining its older sister.
In looking back at Behind the Blue Gate (Beach Holme Publishing, 1997), I not only enjoyed it on its own merit, but enjoyed comparing its themes and style with From the Dream (Albion-Andalus Inc., 2013). While both collections were obviously written by the same intelligent and caring person, the effects of time and experience were evident, and there is a difference in tone: the latter seems more accepting of the way of the world. My first thought was that, perhaps having grandchildren – which Rose now does aplenty – required a person to be more optimistic.
“I am not sure if it is about being a grandparent, or about living longer and suffering the losses and demise that come with age while, at the same time, learning to treasure what we have at this very moment (including partners, children, grandchildren and friends). From the Dream seems to investigate these ideas, even the humorous poems,” said Rose in an email interview, giving as an example the poem “singin like he used to,” about attending a Bob Dylan concert as an older person, which “has us reluctantly ‘aging before our very eyes,’ while still being able to laugh at the life we are blessed to continue living.”
She agreed that the poems in From the Dream are less confrontational or cynical than those in Behind the Blue Gate. “Particularly,” she noted, “when it comes to poems about women in the Bible or women in Judaism.”
Rose was quite involved in the Jewish feminist movement (from the early 1970s) and, she said, “I think that my writing was driven by a desire to create a new myth or a new narrative, or perhaps a more inclusive midrash.
“Just as there were women who were lobbying for political change, or women who were trying to create new rituals – and I was part of that effort, as well – there were also many women who were trying to create woman-centred interpretations of biblical teachings. We realized that women had only heard about biblical matriarchs (or even about Lilith) through the teachings of their rabbis or preachers. I wondered (along with many others, in various faith communities) what would happen if women began telling these same stories – but from their own point of view. To that end, I wrote some midrashic poems, including some that can be found in ‘The Crones’ section of Behind the Blue Gate.
“In those years, I was not only reading and studying the material, I was teaching and running workshops on women and spirituality, so it was very ‘alive’ in my thinking. I am not teaching that material as much, now, and there are certainly wonderful contemporary midrashic materials (by and about women) that have appeared in the last 15-20 years, so I no longer feel that same urgency.
“What I feel most drawn to, these days,” she said, “are women’s rituals, women’s dreams, women’s experience of the Holy, the angelic, and women’s encounters with Mystery – in nature, and in the lives of their family and friends. From the Dream, especially the section called ‘Shivering in the Silence,’ explores some of these ideas.”
From the Dream includes work from the mid-1990s through to recent years. When asked about the process for deciding what was to be included, Rose said, “As you know, it can take many years for a collection of poems to become a book. In the selection, many individual poems are left behind. As the new work began to emerge, I noticed that several of the earlier poems were still very much alive. From the Dream plucked them up and wove them into its theme of memory and loss. My friend, poet Di Brandt, once said that we are ‘always writing the same poem.’ I don’t know that I agree with her entirely, but I do believe that we strive to write ourselves out of pain and uncertainty, and that some of the earlier poems seemed to help me understand what it was that I was still wrestling with.”
The idea of “wrestling” in this context brings to mind Jacob’s struggle with God, and many of the poems in both From the Dream and Behind the Blue Gate are inspired by Jewish texts and beliefs, in which Rose is steeped. But her work is by no means parochial, and reflects a broad understanding of and empathy for humanity, beyond the religious, geographic, relational and other boundaries by which we separate ourselves from each other.
Born in New York City, Rose has lived in various places, and currently divides her time between Winnipeg, St. Louis and Jerusalem. Among her academic credentials are a bachelor’s in religious studies from the University of Manitoba and a master’s in theology from the University of Winnipeg, as well as graduate work in cross-cultural and international education. For several years, she has taught imagery and, according to her bio, “she also uses imagery work in a private counseling practice she shares with her husband, Dr. Neal Rose,” who also happens to be a rabbi.
“In terms of spirituality,” she told the Independent, “I suppose I would say that my frame is Jewish mysticism, that I believe that the world was created out of the word (or words); that we are part of ongoing revelation, believing that we can receive or grasp truth (sometimes with the help of a presence, a friend, an angel or a loved one); that we are loved and capable of loving; that the dead live on, that their presence (in our memory or awareness) urges us to live justly; that the created world is a gift, that we take only what we need and that we respect the cycles of time, celebrate the Sabbath, eat permitted food with awareness, offer thanksgiving, extend our hands and hearts to others. I think both books convey these sentiments.”
She explained imagery work as “similar to what we have come to know as ‘visualization,’ though my teacher (psychologist and wise woman Colette Aboulker-Muscat) preferred to call it ‘imagery’ because she believed that we can access information through any of our senses.
“When the mind is brought to stillness, through a brief breathing exercise and a directed intention (know as kavanah), we can gain a deeper connection to intuition and/or inspirational thinking. Clearly, as a writer, quieting the mind and sitting in stillness is a useful technique. But imagery work is much more complex; it is a system based on liturgical, biblical and mystical teachings that can help us contact our innermost thoughts and feelings. Using this technique can offer us healing, increased creativity and a sense of wholeness. I generally teach this method in small groups, on retreats, or as a spiritual director, with individuals of all faiths.”
In addition to being a teacher and a multiple-award-winning writer whose poetry and essays have been published in several journals and anthologies, Rose is also an editor. She knows well the power and weakness of words, and even deals with them explicitly in her work, such as in the poem “etching images,” which forms part of the “Shivering in the Silence,” section of From the Dream.
“Ah, the limitations of language,” she acknowledged. “Yes, this is a constant tug of war! How to express what one sees, senses, feels or understands? How, especially, in those moments of enormous insight, or of injustice and deep suffering, or of great love and amazing beauty? (Is it any wonder that some midrashim describe Moses as a ‘stutterer’ or a man ‘slow of speech’?) How can words capture numinous experiences? And yet, for the poet this becomes the challenge.
“Certainly, the closer we come to describing what we think, feel, understand or experience, the better we are able to communicate with others – the closer we come to the medieval notion of what it means to be human: m’daber, the one who speaks.”
There are some very talented writers who contribute to the Jewish Independent, so it’s not surprising that many of them have been published elsewhere. Here are brief reviews of six books that feature contributions from, or are authored by, freelancers who have written for the JI at some point.
Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume 3 (PK Press, 2011), edited by Liz Pearl, comprises essays from more than 35 women, including at least two who have contributed to the JI – Shoshana Litman (Victoria) and Ricki Segal (Winnipeg) – as well as three other British Columbians: Shelley Halpern Evans, Dale Adams Segal and Helen Waldstein Wilkes. In this most recent volume, Pearl has once again collected from women across the country stories that create connections, both spiritual and human.
In writing about her family and the role that food plays in their expression of love, for example, Evans touches upon rituals that are important to secular and religious Jewish life; the way in which a recipe passed down from a grandmother or the care that a parent or a spouse puts into making a meal brings family and friends closer. Litman’s Shabbat dinner at a friend’s home in Brooklyn offers her “[h]ints of heaven,” and also reconnects her to a woman she knew from Vancouver – these “divine encounters” not only make Litman “feel encouraged and uplifted,” but also, she writes, “The thin veil that separates me from others disappears, like overcast skies swept clean by spring winds to reveal the warm sunlight that is always there.”
In writing about how she’s been composing prayers all her life, despite her non-religious upbringing, Dale Adams Segal notes that she has “paddl[ed] down many rivers of growing up: of being married and divorced and married again, of birthing children and witnessing the birth of a granddaughter, of finding those whom I would love and losing those whom I have loved…. I share with you that this practice of writing prayer has restored me to life again and again….” And Ricki Segal pays tribute to her mother, who at the time of writing was suffering from dementia, in sharing some of what she has learned from her mother about love, attentiveness, tenacity, forgiveness and other important facets of life.
Wilkes’ essay is about her personal journey, from being made to feel ashamed about being Jewish by antisemitic classmates when she was a child to “com[ing] home” when she heard the Barchu: “I began to weep,” she writes. “Something deep inside me had been touched, and I knew that I had indeed come home.” She now sees Jewishness as a bridge that helps her “see aging as a purposeful process. Hopefully, the passing years will be accompanied by a growing measure of wisdom. If this means that I can be a role model to my children and grandchildren, then I will be blessed indeed.”
Role models would describe all of the contributors to this and previous volumes of Living Legacies – and this fact offers reassurance that there are many more women (men and children) who would also fit that bill.
Canada’s Jews: In Time, Space and Spirit, edited by Concordia University’s Prof. Ira Robinson, was published by Academic Studies Press in 2013. It is part of the Jews in Space and Time series which, according to ASP’s website, “brings together some of the best scholars in their respective fields to explore the histories of Jewish communities in different geographical areas and historical eras, deepening our understanding of Jews and the relationships that they forged within their host countries.”
Canada’s Jews is special for several reasons, including its dedication to two men who for a part of their lives called Vancouver home and contributed to several local institutions, including the JI’s forerunner, the Jewish Western Bulletin: David Rome (1910-1996) and Abraham Arnold (1922-2011). These men, as Robinson notes, also “broke new ground in the field of Canadian Jewish studies.”
For Canada’s Jews, Robinson has amassed almost everyone who is currently attempting to continue Rome’s and Arnold’s legacy. Local contributors are Jewish Historical Society of British Columbia historian emeritus Cyril Leonoff, who co-wrote the chapter on Vancouver with me; University of British Columbia Prof. Alex Hart, who contributed an extensive essay on Jews in English literature; and UBC Prof. Richard Menkis, who wrote two chapters, a revised version of a previous article on Reform Judaism in Canada, and a comprehensive look at Conservative Judaism, as well as Reconstructionism and Renewal.
In the preface, Robinson notes that Canada’s Jews “will be of interest to scholars, students and readers of Canadian and Jewish studies,” however, the essays are, on the whole, very accessible and most people will find something to engage them.
The book has three parts: the first spans the history of Canadian Jews from the mid-1700s to after the Second World War; the second looks at contemporary Canada, beginning with a couple of chapters on general demographics and politics, followed by chapters on Jewish communities across the country; and the third comprises chapters on Judaism, Yiddish, literature and art, with the volume’s concluding chapter being a detailed inventory of the state of Jewish studies in Canada and recommendations for how the field might expand.
Canada’s Jews is full of factoids that can be gleaned on a quick reading. For example, “While almost all Canadian Jews in 1945 were Ashkenazi, today close to 20% have Sephardi roots” (Franklin Bialystock); Regina’s Jewish population in 2001 was 720, “about the same as it had been since 1951” (Debby Shoctor); and 2005 calculations show the average household size for the Jewish community as a whole in Greater Montreal to be 3.46, compared to that of the Satmar/Belz/Skver, 5.69; Lubavitch, 5.45; and Tosh, 6.37 (William Shaffir).
Because of how data are collected and the fact that such essay collections take a long time to put together, hunters for current statistics will be frustrated, as many of the survey and census figures are almost 10 or more years old. As well, the chapters on specific cities’ communities are quite brief in some cases and, while they provide a general overview and raise some issues for future research most – including the chapter I co-wrote – do not delve into any analysis, for example, of issues such as the effects of immigration on communal participation and/or fundraising. Perhaps the situation in small communities is similar – limited availability of information and little previous analytical work on which to build.
These small criticisms aside, the volume will contribute much to readers’ knowledge of Jews in Canada, and there are several in-depth analyses in the collection, including a couple of chapters that provide fascinating reading for anyone interested in the evolution of the mainstream Jewish community’s structure on a national level.
On the fiction front, readers of chick lit will appreciate Masada Siegel’s first novel, Window Dressings (Cupcake Press, 2012). It begins with the main character, Skye Silver, attempting – and failing – to manouevre her body into a position that her boyfriend Gregg wants her to try from the Palmasutra, a mobile operating system version of the Kamasutra. The trouble in bed is but one of the problems this couple is having in their soon-to-be over three-year relationship. Religion (Skye is Jewish, Gregg is Protestant), lack of communication and insecurity, among other things, lead to the betrayal that sends Skye into singlehood.
Despite a poor body image, sadness over her break-up and very high standards for the outward beauty of possible mates, Skye manages to find many suitors, and much of Window Dressings is about what happens on those dates. She is supported by two besties: Josh, a writer/editor, with whom “mutual attraction had turned into a strong friendship”; and Karen, an international model.
While Skye is getting used to her new status and trying to meet “hot neighbor boy” – both a real character and Skye’s ideal man – she loses her job at Xtremedream advertising. Halfheartedly looking for a new job, she takes on some freelance work, falling back on the journalism degree she got in addition to her master’s in business admin. With relative ease, it seems, she lands a job at the New York Times and, dream job in hand, life gets even better for Skye.
In Lost and Found in Russia by Olga Godim (Eternal Press, 2013), Amanda anxiously awaits news about her daughter, Gloria, who is in the hospital after a car accident. Amanda volunteers to give blood for the needed transfusion and, while the lab work is being done, we find out that Amanda is a linguist. A contract decades earlier had her teaching Russian to a group of Toronto journalists. She fell in love with one of them, Donald, and married him a week before they moved to Russia, where Gloria was born. For Amanda, it was Gloria who “filled the emptiness left after Donald’s death.”
When the blood work reveals that Gloria is not Amanda’s biological daughter, the doctor makes a comment about a possible switch at birth, and Amanda recalls that, 34 years ago, “Two red-headed girls were born on the same day in that decrepit hospital with peeling paint on the walls and one washroom for the entire corridor.” As she sits by Gloria’s bedside, Amanda resolves to find her other daughter: “Of course, Gloria was her daughter, her blood type notwithstanding. She just had another red-haired daughter somewhere in Russia.”
Meanwhile, Sonya is steeling herself to kick out her drunk of a husband, Alexei, as she can no longer afford to support him, herself and their teenage daughter, Ksenya, on what she earns from working two jobs. The Russian family arrived in Canada two years earlier from Israel, where Sonya had been a dancer and a dance instructor, and they now live in Vancouver, where Alexei’s supposed musical genius is as underappreciated as it was in Israel. Sonya not only has to deal with an alcoholic partner and trying to scrape out a living, but with her daughter’s understandable frustrations.
The book follows Amanda’s search for her other daughter; along the way, she also opens herself up to life for the first time since her husband died. It also follows Sonya’s struggles with Ksenya, and their rapprochement. Godim writes authentic dialogue, and captures the intricacies of relationships, mainly that between mother-daughter. Most interesting, however, is the view of Judaism from a Russian perspective, not only how one self-identifies culturally, religiously or otherwise, but the prevalent antisemitism. The fairytale ending is over the top, and there are a few odd scenes that could have been replaced with more development of the main characters, but the writing style and especially the Sonya-Ksenya relationship, make Lost and Found in Russia a good read.
It’s hard to know what to think about Curt Leviant’s Zix Zexy Stories (Texas Tech University Press, 2012). Leviant is an excellent writer, he’s knowledgeable about literature, Yiddish and Judaism, among other topics, and he has what to say. But he has a weakness, or made a poor choice. In pretty much every one of the seven (not zix) stories in this collection, he features a young, blond, big-breasted, non-Jewish, beautiful, dumb woman who admires, lusts after or is married to an older, professorial/rabbinical Jewish man. Perhaps this is an intentional attempt to link the stories – with the trope of the shiksa goddess – but, if so, it doesn’t work. Better the Franz Kafka connection that ties at least four of the stories.
Zeven Ztrange Ztories would have been a better title, in that the collection successfully channels Kafka-esque absurdity, and intelligently considers existential matters. For example, in “From Helena; or, Sanskrit is Sexy Too,” a professor named Keller is introduced to a woman who is the object of many men’s desire, including the married man who introduces Keller to her. At this woman’s house, Keller runs into her professor father, who is doing kabbalistic research that entails cracking open walnuts to see if they’re all “built the same.” The father is dressed in a cloak and cowl. When Keller asks him why, he explains, “… A wise man, I believe it was Thomas Mann – you heard of Thomas Mann, I suppose – said that an esthetic worldview is incapable of solving world problems that cry for solution. Nevertheless, esthetics is crucial. Without esthetics we would be dogs barking at the moon. That’s why I don this unseemly garb. To put myself in the medieval mood. I am doing research.”
Throughout the collection, such thought-provoking passages appear. As well, Leviant is a strong storyteller. In “From Golden Necklace,” about an architect who travels to Italy to see a special collection of art, the tension is palpable when the architect sees the necklace his mother – who, along with his father, was killed in the Holocaust – on the woman escorting him around the palazzo. As another example, ignoring the object of Shmulik Gafni’s supposed affections (a shiksa), Leviant masterfully exhibits the ability of words to both accuse and acquit someone: none of the facts substantiates the rumor that Gafni is an adulterer, yet that very fact fuels it. All of the stories have something to recommend them.
On the inside cover, The Brothers Schlemiel by Mark Binder (Light Publications, 2013) is described as “… a novel of Chelm … being the reasonably complete adventures of Abraham and Adam Schlemiel, identical twins, born in the village of fools and confused from birth.” As most readers know, from Chelm – from dim-wittedness and confusion – comes great wisdom and clarity, along with, of course, much humor.
Binder has created characters with whom we empathize, not just Adam and Abraham, or Abraham and Adam, who can’t even tell themselves apart at times, but their parents, sister and the other villagers. He ably manages some fine balances: writing about silliness without the story becoming stupid, and evoking sentimentality while not becoming saccharine. There are parts of The Brothers Schlemiel that could even be called scary – encounters with Russian soldiers and gun-wielding robbers. As well, through the vehicles of comedy and fantasy, The Brothers Schlemiel touches on many serious topics, from poverty to racism, to ethics in business, to whom people choose to be, and more. At the end of the day, however, The Brothers Schlemiel is just a good story very well told.
In the early 1950s, at the age of 15, Amos Oz moved to Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel. Idealists at that time still celebrated the kibbutz as a new form of community that would transform human nature. But the reality was something else. In Between Friends (Mariner Books, 2013, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston), the acclaimed Israeli novelist takes us to a fictitious kibbutz in 1950s Israel called Yikhat to meet several characters that were part of that world.
With an eye for revealing details, Oz recreates a rich world of ordinary, well-meaning people with difficult pasts and passionate dreams. Their anxieties are not unique, stemming from tangled-up longings, failed relationships and unspoken thoughts. Their personal crises would not be out of place as part of daily life in any tightly knit community.
Oz, an acclaimed Israeli novelist who has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, writes eight stories that are interconnected about the plain folks of the kibbutz – the gardener, schoolteacher, mechanic, electrician and others. They may have once believed they could change the world but, by the time we meet them, they are resigned to their quiet routines, which they undertake without complaint and, in some instances, with considerable pride. However, their emotional lives remain in turmoil, entangled in tussles “between friends.” A pervasive feeling of loneliness in the midst of neighbors they have known for years overshadows all other feelings.
Zvi Provisor is the first kibbutznik we meet. He is obsessed with reporting famines, earthquakes, plane crashes and other disasters from anywhere in the world. Most kibbutzniks dismiss him, with some affection, as the Angel of Death. Kibbutznik Luna Blank offers a sympathetic ear.
As their friendship grows, they meet in her room for coffee. One evening, she is, as Oz writes, so overwhelmed with compassion that she suddenly takes his hand and holds it to her breast.
“Zev trembled and pulled his hand back quickly, with a gesture that was almost violent. His eyes blinked frantically. Never in his adult life had he touched another person intentionally, and he went rigid whenever he was touched … a short time later, he stood up and left.”
In an interview with Haaretz after the book was first published, Oz said he wanted to look at the loneliness in a society where there is supposedly no place for loneliness.
“In a few of the stories, a situation is portrayed of ‘almost touching’: people very nearly touch, but something blocks it. Like [‘The Creation of Adam,’] in the painting by Michelangelo, where finger almost touches finger.
“I am very curious about loneliness and grace, or a moment of grace amid loneliness, because that is a description of the human condition.
“The stories are set on a kibbutz, but they tell about universal situations, about the most basic forces in human existence, about loneliness, about love, about loss, about death, about desire, about forgoing and about longing. In fact, about the simple and profound matters, which no person is unfamiliar with.”
Not surprisingly, Oz portrays simple kibbutz life with some charm. Kibbutzniks translate Polish novels in their spare time and listen to classical music. Everyone takes his or her turn doing a shift in the dining hall.
Osnat is a quiet woman. She works all day alone in the laundry, beginning at 5:30 a.m. As we are introduced to her, Osnat’s partner Boaz has just told her that he has been in a relationship for eight months with another kibbutznik, the tall, slim Ariella Barash, who works in the chicken coop. Boaz has decided to move into Ariella’s apartment.
On Kibbutz Yikhat, the environment reinforces the characters that live there. Ariella has an old cat and young dog that treat each other much like the kibbutzniks relate to the other kibbutzniks. The young dog was frightened of the cat and would politely give it a wide berth, Oz writes. The old cat would ignore the dog and walk past as if the dog were invisible. Boaz shows some affection for the young dog. “But if the cat should jump onto his lap asking for affection, he heaves him off with such disgust that I cringe,” Ariella writes in a note to Osnat, several days after Boaz has moved in with his new love.
We are not told about Osnat and Ariella’s relationship before Boaz arrived on the scene. However, after Boaz starts living with Ariella,
the two women exchange notes. Osnat, who is not angry about the break-up, continues to worry about Boaz’s health. Ariella tries to justify her relationship with another woman’s partner.
With Oz’s poetic style, the chapter ends with a gentle breeze blowing, “just enough to cool a cup of tea.” A solitary figure abandoned by her lover, Osnat listens to “light music” on the radio and reads a book before going to bed. “Her nights are dreamless now and she wakes before the alarm clock rings. The pigeons wake her.”
Oz is well known as an outspoken advocate of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Middle East tensions and Israeli politics pop up only as a backdrop to the kibbutzniks’ lives. He writes about the effect of events on the kibbutzniks, not much about the events themselves. The characters mention threats to the kibbutz but without any discussion of events.
We learn that Nahum’s wife was killed in a retaliatory raid and that his son was killed during an army incursion into the village of Deir al Nashaf. We are told nothing more about these confrontations. However, we can feel the impact of these tragedies when Nahum struggles as his 17-year-old daughter Edna, a few months before going into the army, moves in with David Dagan, a teacher her father’s age, as well as a longtime friend of her father.
David is a devout Marxist who speaks with authority about ideological issues as well as matters of everyday life. Nahum is an unsure father who does not have the confidence to confront David over the inappropriate affair.
Oz is extremely effective in bringing the reader right into the room with the characters he creates. We are in Nahum’s electrician’s workshop, where he sits, day after day, “shoulders stooped, glasses sliding down his nose, working on appliances in need of repair: electric kettles, radios, fans.”
We are taken to the doorstep of Edna’s dorm room, where Nahum has gone to bring a sweater she has left at his apartment. He listens to the music coming from the room, “a light, lengthy étude that repeated itself in a melancholy way.”
In later chapters, we hear the gossip about kibbutz secretary Yoav Carni. We see the futile efforts of Henia Kalisch as she tries to arrange for kibbutz support for her son to study abroad. Despite whom we meet, there is no escaping the sadness and loneliness that permeates the lives of so many people on Kibbutz Yikhat.
Our kibbutz visit ends with a funeral for shoemaker Martin Vandenberg, an enthusiastic advocate of Esperanto, the universal language that was to unify humanity.
Osnat is the last person to leave the cemetery. She lingers, feeling a sense of peace. In remarks that could be Oz reflecting on the entire book, Osnat feels as if this “hadn’t been a funeral, but a good satisfying conversation.”
Oz does not leave the kibbutz at that point, however. Osnat has a sudden desire to say more, one or two quiet words in Esperanto in tribute to Martin. “But she hadn’t had time to learn anything and she had no idea what to say.”
Media consultant Robert Matas, a former Globe and Mail journalist, still reads books. Between Friends is available at the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library. To reserve this book, or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the online catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman Library.
In collaboration with the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library, the Jewish Independent will be reprinting a series of book reviews by Robert Matas, formerly with the Globe and Mail. He has chosen My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Speigel & Grau, New York) by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit as the first in the series. My Promised Land has been listed as number one on the Economist’s best books of 2013, is a winner of a National Jewish Book Award and is included on the New York Times’ list of 100 notable books of 2013.
Israel is an incredibly strong country. Its high-tech start-ups spur economic growth while most of the world is trying to sidestep a financial meltdown. Its democratic institutions remain vibrant, while its neighbors disintegrate. Its military, backed up by nuclear power, effectively has stopped any attack on the state over several decades despite virulent opposition to its existence.
Yet the fault lines in Israeli society steadily widen. Internal divisions that threaten the country spread out in all directions. The rumblings of unrest are becoming louder and more frequent, from the occupied territories, the Arab Israeli communities, the ultra-Orthodox enclaves and the non-Ashkenazi underclass.
Ari Shavit, in My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, offers a fascinating window into the country at a crucial time in Israel’s history. Based on family diaries, private letters and interviews and discussions with hundreds of Jews and Arabs over a period of five years, Shavit, a leading Israeli journalist and television commentator, has written a book with the potential to change understanding of the seemingly intractable problems confronting Israel.
This book is not for those who believe Israel requires the unquestioning support of Diaspora Jews. With brutal honesty, Shavit describes episodes in Israel’s history that many would like to remain untold, or at least to be discussed only in hushed whispers within the family. But his account of the life stories of numerous people including Aryeh Deri, Yossi Sarid and others who played pivotal roles in the development of the country is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about Israel.
In a nutshell, Shavit concludes that Israel is vulnerable and will remain vulnerable as long as Israeli cities and farms exist where Palestinians once lived. He argues that ending the West Bank occupation will make Israel stronger and is the right thing to do, but evacuating the settlements will not bring peace. The crux of the matter is that all Palestinians who were expelled – not just those in the West Bank – want to return home and will settle for nothing less.
He is pessimistic about the future. Israel can defend itself now, but he anticipates eventually the hand holding the sword must loosen its grip. Eventually, the sword will rust.
“I have learned that there are no simple answers in the Middle East and no quick fix solutions to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I have realized that the Israeli condition is extremely complex, perhaps even tragic.”
Despite his critical eye on events of the past century, it is difficult to label Shavit’s politics. He was an active member of Peace Now and a vocal critic of the settler movement. But he praises Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for confronting Iran. “I have learned that there are no simple answers in the Middle East and no quick fix solutions to the Israeli Palestinian conflict,” he writes. “I have realized that the Israeli condition is extremely complex, perhaps even tragic.”
Shavit explores 120 years of Zionism through vividly written profiles of numerous people beginning with his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, who came to Jaffa on April 15, 1897, on a 12-day trek to explore the land as a home for the Jews. At that time, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, populated mostly by Bedouin nomads and Palestinians serfs with no property rights, no self-rule or national identity.
“It’s quite understandable that one would see the land as a no-man’s land,” Shavit writes. Bentwich would have to turn back if he saw the land as occupied, Shavit adds. “But my great-grandfather cannot turn back. So that he can carry on, my great-grandfather chooses not to see.”
Israel was settled and continues to be populated by people who do not see others who are right in front of them. The early Zionists bought land, often from absentee landlords, and ignored those who had worked the land for generations. Herzl’s Zionism rejected the use of force. But as the number of Jews escaping European antisemitism, a new breed of Jew arrived.
Shavit describes how kibbutz socialism, with its sense of justice and legitimacy, displaced indigenous Palestinians. Jews who were godless, homeless and, in many cases parentless, colonized the land with a sense of moral superiority. “By working the land with their bare hands and by living in poverty, and undertaking a daring unprecedented social experiment, they refute any charge that they are about to seize a land that is not theirs.”
Tracing the development of the state, he identifies in painful detail the Palestinian villages that were wiped out and replaced with Jewish settlements. Transferring the Arab population became part of mainstream Zionism thinking during the riots of 1937, as Zionists confronted a rival national movement. David Ben-Gurion at that time endorsed the compulsory transfer of population to clear vast territories.
“I do not see anything immoral in it,” Ben-Gurion said. By the time of the War of Independence in 1947/48, Palestinians who did not leave voluntarily were, as a matter of routine, forcibly expelled from their homes and the buildings demolished.
Shavit delves deeply into the sad history of the Lydda Valley, where Jewish settlements began in idealism but evolved into what Shavit describes as a human catastrophe. “Forty-five years after Zionism came into the valley in the name of the homeless, it sends out of the Lydda Valley a column of homeless.”
In the new state’s first decade, Israel was on steroids, absorbing nearly one million new immigrants, creating 250,000 new jobs and building 400 new Israeli villages, 20 new cities and 200,000 new apartments. The new Israelis had little time for Palestinians, the Jewish Diaspora or even survivors of the Holocaust. As it marched toward the future, Israel tried to erase the past. The miracle was based on denial, Shavit writes.
“The denial is astonishing. The fact that 700,000 human beings have lost their homes and their homeland is simply dismissed.”
“Ten-year-old Israel has expunged Palestine from its memory and soul, as if the other people have never existed, as if they were never driven out,” he writes. “The denial is astonishing. The fact that 700,000 human beings have lost their homes and their homeland is simply dismissed.”
Yet the denial was essential. Without it, the success of Zionism would have been impossible. Similar to his great-grandfather, if Israel had acknowledged what had happened, it would not have survived, he writes.
He recounts how the settlements in the West Bank have changed the course of Zionism. They began as a response to a fear of annihilation but evolved into an aggressive movement to dislocate Palestinians and prevent peace agreements. Shavit is convinced the settlements will eventually lead to another war. The settlements are an untenable demographic, political, moral and judicial reality that harms the entire country, he writes. He believes occupation must cease for Israel’s sake, even if peace with Palestinians cannot be reached.
With similar intensity, Shavit offers insight into the Masada myth of martyrdom and reports on how Israel developed nuclear power. He maintains that nuclear deterrence has given Israel decades of peace. He exposes the cracks in Israeli society with thought-provoking portraits of prominent figures from the ultra-Orthodox and Sephardi communities.
Shannon McLeod, left, and Rachel Yaroshuk. (photo by Olga Livshin)
Unlike academic and institutional libraries, most small public libraries in North America don’t offer ebooks to their readers. Setting up a digital borrowing system requires hours of research and special computer knowledge. It is an expensive endeavor, too, besides presenting several legal wrinkles. Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver is the first Jewish public library in Canada to do so.
In September 2013, the Waldman Library hired two digital content managers, Rachel Yaroshuk and Shannon McLeod, to organize the library’s digital portal. Both have master’s degrees in library and information studies from the University of British Columbia.
In an interview with the Independent, Yaroshuk and McLeod explained that the project grew out of the endowment to the library from the Sonner family, which was established 10 years ago. Eric Sonner, a Holocaust survivor and a local businessman, initiated the endowment.
McLeod said: “Eric was an avid reader. He established a fund with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver for the benefit of the library. The fund was to sit for 10 years, and the interest would finance the library needs. Eric passed away in 2009. After the 10-year term ended in 2013, Eric’s daughter, Eve, approached the library with the idea to launch a unique Jewish ebook collection at the library, using the principle capital. She thought that such a project would be a fitting way to use the money, as her father liked to be cutting edge in his thinking and actions. He also had a strong commitment to the Jewish community and highly valued the library’s contribution.”
Of course, the library embraced the Sonner Family eBook Project, one that would honor the life and values of Eric Sonner. “We want to keep up with the rest of the world,” said librarian Karen Corrin about the new collection. “Everybody is excited about ebooks.” To take this idea from intentions to execution wasn’t easy, however: it took two dedicated professionals and a lot of hard work.
Yaroshuk recalled: “I was working as an on-call librarian at the New Westminster Library when Karen contacted me. We met, and I knew it’s too much for one person. We needed a team of two, so they hired my friend, Shannon. We both studied at the same program at UBC and worked together. Having a good partner is important for such a complex project.”
They started out by looking at possible digital content providers. “We had limited options,” said Yaroshuk. “Only a few suppliers offer ebooks to libraries in Canada. There are legal restrictions. And we needed to find Jewish content. Not all the books are available in e-format. We ended up with OverDrive, one of the leading ebook suppliers for libraries in Canada. The format offered is ePub. Many devices can read it: tablets, Kobo reader, iPhone. The library signed a four-year contract with OverDrive.”
“We’re still building the collection. For now, it includes about 50-50 fiction and non-fiction, children’s and adult books. We’d like some feedback from the community before proceeding.”
At first, 50 books will be available to library patrons, but Yaroshuk noted that it’s only a start. “We’re still building the collection. For now, it includes about 50-50 fiction and non-fiction, children’s and adult books. We’d like some feedback from the community before proceeding.”
McLeod also outlined some technical considerations they faced. “There was a problem of online integration,” she explained. “The digital content doesn’t sit at the library – it’s on the OverDrive servers, but the users will be able to access it from the library catalogue.”
Users will be able to link to it from the library catalogue and download ebooks. They will be able to do so from the library or from anywhere in the world, even from home, as long as they have an internet connection and a library card.
According to McLeod, OverDrive has built a special website for Waldman. It looks similar to the library website and uses the same color scheme. Users will be able to link to it from the library catalogue and download ebooks. They will be able to do so from the library or from anywhere in the world, even from home, as long as they have an internet connection and a library card. After three weeks – a standard library borrowing time – the file will disappear from their reading devices.
The computer aspects, as well as the finding and cataloguing of all the books, took time, but now the system is almost ready. It goes live at the end of February.
“It’s a soft launch,” said Yaroshuk. “The official launch is in the beginning of March, but now the next phase of the project starts – to train everyone to use the new system. We’ll have posters, video instructions and printed handouts, color coordinated for different devices. We’ll have demonstrations and one-on-one sessions for the JCC staff, library volunteers, seniors groups, school kids. We are preparing promotional materials to let everyone know about the new service.”
Of course, an ebook needs an e-reader, and not everyone is comfortable with the idea of digitized books just yet, or even owns an electronic reader, especially older adults. “We’d love to offer some e-readers, too, so people could borrow them as well as ebooks, as the VPL is doing, but it’s expensive,” Corrin said.
As representatives of a younger generation, both McLeod and Yaroshuk own e-readers, but “… I love physical books,” said McLeod. “I don’t think ebooks will replace print; they are just a convenient supplement. When you commute or travel, you can have a few ebooks on your device and not worry that you’ll have nothing to read when you finish a book. And the devices are light.”
For information about the ebook collection, call 604-257-5111, ext. 252, or email [email protected].
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].