The Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival starts this Saturday night (Feb. 9) with Joshua Cohen, author of Moving Kings and ATTENTION: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction. It continues for five literary-filled days at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, and here’s a sampling of books you might want to add to your reading list, and authors you might like to meet.
Set in 1920, in the fictional shtetl of Golikhovke during the Russian civil war, Judgment, by David Bergelson (1884-1952), is a melancholic novel about humanity in a time of uncertainty, where different political factions are warring, each under their own ultimately meaningless banner; neighbours cannot trust one another, let alone strangers; and justice is meted out randomly by a cruel, indifferent force.
Stationed in an also fictitious abandoned monastery called Kamino-Balke, near Golikhovke, the sickly Bolshevik Filipov is in control of the area along the Ukraine-Poland border. There are smugglers who travel across the border for commercial reasons and Socialist Revolutionaries who travel across it in preparation for an uprising against the Bolsheviks. Jews and non-Jews live together in relative tolerance but political loyalties, ethnic ties and differing ideas of morality ensure a constant tension. All live in fear of being captured by one of Filipov’s agents, as guilt of a crime does not need to be proven for a person to be beaten, imprisoned and/or shot.
What makes this novel beautiful is Bergelson’s prose. Imaginative metaphors: “Large, invisible hands merrily picked up whole heaps of snow and just as merrily released them.” Animated objects: “… the coat lay there bent over, dejected, as if it had made a long, pointless, idiotic journey” and “The cannons’ muzzles – black, fat and eyeless – stared longingly in the direction of the forests around Moshne….” Humour: “Stone fences suited the inhabitants of Yanovo, for all of them were as stubborn as their stone fences: stone upon stone.” And empathy, in this case, for the undercover agent Yokhelzon, whose “eyes (which inspected everything, people said) had already taken in the horror of death – they winked joyfully, so that the horror would not show afterward.”
As should be obvious, Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovich have done a masterful job of translating Judgment from Yiddish to English. They also provide a fascinating introduction to the novel, its historical context, the author and his other works (Bergelson was executed in 1952, on Stalin’s orders), the book’s title, form, themes and use of language.
Senderovich will be at the book festival on Feb. 10, 3:30 p.m.
Michèle Smolkin’s novel Silence, je tombe is a witty, philosophical novel that explores how people can become isolated from one another, including themselves. Told from the perspectives of a few protagonists, readers will likely relate to many of the feelings expressed.
The novel starts with a pregnant Tania, as she, her husband Paul and their toddler Margot are making the drive to their new home in “Manhattan, Kansas, The Little Apple,” from Vancouver. Tania’s disenchantment is obvious and she expresses her anger towards her husband – who, as a professor of philosophy, couldn’t find a job elsewhere – with vicious (and very funny) sarcasm, mostly in her thoughts, but aloud, as well. She had imagined a different life for herself – living in New York, the Big Apple, for one thing; and certainly not in the Bible Belt. As a Francophone Jew, she anticipates that fitting in might be a problem.
As the book progresses, we get to know Tania, Paul and a disturbed man named Kevin, plus a couple of other minor but important characters. Through them, we contemplate love, what attracts people to one another and what forces them apart, what happiness is, what actions might be unforgivable, how our childhoods influence our adulthoods, and, of course, the inadequacy of words for certain situations, and understanding why, sometimes, silence is the only possible response.
Smolkin’s talk – the book festival’s first-ever French-language event – will take place Feb. 10, 5 p.m. (Note: Festival program shows incorrect time.)
A River Could Be a Tree is, thankfully, not the memoir of a person who goes from believing fanatically in one religion to being swept away as unquestioningly into another, though it might seem like it would be, given some aspects of the press material. “How does a woman who grew up in rural Indiana in a fundamentalist Christian cult end up a practising Jew in New York?” asks part of the blurb on the book flap. Well, for starters, Angela Himsel seems to always have been an inquisitive person, and never an avid follower of Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. She was an obedient child, but is still struggling with understanding how her parents believed so much in the church doctrine that they didn’t give her sister the care that might have prevented her death at a young age.
A River Could Be a Tree is a measured, often humourous, always intelligent memoir. Himsel starts with a prologue that gives readers a very large hint as to what led her to ultimately convert to Judaism: she and her boyfriend Selig were, “just once … careless about birth control.”
But the journey to that point is long and more complicated, and Himsel takes readers through it with the benefit of hindsight, hard-won insights and a writing style that is serious, honest but unsentimental, and filled with initially unexpected levity. As but one example, a mere three paragraphs into Chapter 1, in which Himsel talks about her parents’ religious heritage, Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, she writes about Martin Luther, that, at age 41, he “married a nun, a woman he had helped smuggle out of a convent in a herring barrel. While irrelevant to Luther’s religious beliefs, a nun in a herring barrel is always worth mentioning.”
And A River Could Be a Tree is well worth reading. Himsel will speak at the book festival on Feb. 11, 7:30 p.m.
There is so much information in Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food by Rachel Herz. And a refreshing aspect of the book is that it’s not written from a dogmatic, all-knowing viewpoint. Herz acknowledges that sometimes studies come to different conclusions, sometimes scientific progress means that what was once thought true is disproven, and that different people will experience food, exercise and other things differently. Readers looking for certainty might be disappointed, but those wanting to learn will learn a lot. Who doesn’t want to know, for example, why tomato juice is one of the most popular drink orders on planes? Does sugar really help the medicine go down, so to speak, i.e. reduce the effects of pain? And why can buying ethically branded or organic products make us less charitable?
But Why You Eat What You Eat is more than an amalgamation of trivia. Herz has compiled a very readable and relatively comprehensive resource that will, as the title promises, help explain why we eat what we eat; how all of our senses – taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing – affect how we experience food. And knowing these things just might make us feel better about ourselves, and make choices that would serve us better.
Herz will be at the book festival on Feb. 13, 6 p.m.