Books: And Now—Women of the Book
Rashi and Ibn Ezra, make room.The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, newly published by Women of Reform Judaism and URJ Press, offers 1,400 pages of text, translation and interpretation by more than 100 contemporary scholars—all of them women.
Eve is no longer characterized as an “afterthought,” second to be created and therefore “secondary in value,” writes Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, project editor and professor of Bible at Hebrew Union CollegeJewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, in an introductory essay. Instead, a close reading depicts her “as a discerning, responsible person who, despite transgressions, maintains a creative partnership with both God and the first man. She is rightly recognized by her man as the source of life.” In an e-mail, Eskenazi adds that Eve is the first theologian (quoting God in response to the serpent’s questions) and the first historian (interpreting her family’s experience in the names she gives her children).
While women have written other Torah commentaries, this one is distinguished both by its scope as well as the diversity and sheer number of contributors. The project was developed under the auspices of the Reform movement and funded by $1.5 million raised by WRJ, but the contributors span all denominations of Judaism, specializing in fields from Bible, rabbinics, history, theology and archaeology to feminist studies, literary criticism and anthropology. The volume’s complexity and collaborative nature constituted both the challenge and a joy for its editors. “We experienced a genuine sisterhood of scholarship,” says Eskenazi.
The book’s format builds on the traditional design of the classicMikra’ot Gedolot series. It has text- and gender-accurate English translation where the Aramaic commentary traditionally appears and five layers of exegesis presenting multiple perspectives. Each Torah portion is analyzed for the plain meaning of the text; a section called “Another View” presents a short essay on one specific aspect, followed by rabbinic views and contemporary reflections; “Voices” is mostly poetry.
These are different doorways into the text, explains associate editor Rabbi Andrea Weiss, assistant professor of Bible at HUC-JIR.
The commentary focuses on issues relating to women, portions that are obscure to contemporary readers and elements that remain significant for Jews today.
For example, an essay by archaeologist Elizabeth Bloch-Smith on the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the desert, cites both biblical passages and archaeological evidence showing that spinning and weaving were women’s work. Bloch-Smith suggests that women created both the textiles for the mishkan and the priestly vestments. The discussion on the Song of the Sea states that, based on literary, sociological and musicological evidence, many scholars conclude the poem was composed and performed by women and that one ancient manuscript actually calls it the Song of Miriam (instead of Moses).
For some, the “Voices” section is the most powerful. “Before, in this way, in bygone days/ Women, like me, in silence/ Would bear supplications, hidden flames,/ With a throbbing spirit…,” writes Wendy Zierler on Parashat Teruma.
The women’s Torah project began with Cantor Sarah Sager of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, Ohio, who proposed the idea for a women’s commentary at a regional meeting of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (now WRJ) in 1992. Work on the project began in 1995. This commentary could not have been written a generation ago because the pool of women scholars, rabbis, academics, cantors and educators was not large enough.
The editors are creating study guides for the $75 commentary (www.urjbooksandmusic.com); a Hebrew translation is in the works and a German version is being discussed.
For Weiss, the book’s forest-green, gold-embossed hardcover binding is also significant. “It looks like a classical Jewish text,” she says. “Its appearance conveys its sacredness.”
The Book of Dahlia
Foul-mouthed and funny, nasty and smart, Dahlia Finger loves giving the finger to everyone. Her passive-aggressive behavior and caustic, creative riffs on the F word mark her as one of the most unpleasant though fascinating female protagonists in recent fiction. A prototype whom Elisa Albert introduced in her much-praised short-story collection, How This Night Is Different, Dahlia is darkened now in Albert’s first novel, as is the book’s theme.
Dahlia, almost 29, is a hip, vaguely Jewish, disordered personality who was named for Kibbutz Dalia by her sabra mother. She is a pothead and privileged screwup fiercely antagonistic toward everyone as well as contemptuous of clichés and pretense. She is honest to an offensive degree. Nothing changes her bad attitude, even after she discovers, by way of a grand mal seizure, that she has an inoperable malignant brain tumor.
What might have been sentimental soap in lesser hands, Albert turns into a wickedly satirical and savagely wise tale about a severely disturbed woman adrift in a dysfunctional family that continues to fail her. Ima, a self-absorbed and irresponsible pursuer of erotica and exotica, left her husband and two children long ago to go back to Israel “to find herself.” Daddy, caring but feckless, buys Dahlia a house and gives her credit carte blanche, which she blows on luxury items and drugs. But it’s Danny, Dahlia’s once adoring older brother, the light of her baby life and childhood, who breaks her heart and spirit when, after their mother abandons them, he suddenly turns cruel and vicious, absenting himself from her life only to become Dan the Man, beloved rabbi and mentor of troubled adolescents. What did she do so wrong, she wonders, to have been made to suffer? Is it her antisocial behavior?
Alternating Dahlia’s first-person narrative with her poignant memories, Albert skillfully manages to elicit pity and some admiration for the doomed Dahlia, who fiercely acts out one of the book’s epigraphs: “Anger is more useful than despair.” Feeling alone, but like the flower she is named for, “multi-petaled, layered over itself, with enormous surface area,” Dahlia engages in an imagined sarcastic exchange with Gene Orenstein, fictional author of It’s Up to You: The Cancer To-Do List, whose platitudinous, feel-good chapter titles organize his book and, more darkly, Albert’s novel: “This is what Jews do when the s**t hits the fan,” Dahlia says. “Go find books.”
Dahlia once got a tattoo with the Hebrew word “Emet,” meaning truth, but also “the recipe for animating a golem.” And so she lets her tearful parents and former friends have the truth—at least as she sees it—telling them off and mocking and denigrating their attempts to ease her pain.
“Be Grateful,” “Have Faith,” “Forgive and Forget,” “Be Well,” Gene writes, this last injunction proving especially insulting to Dahlia. She anticipates the post-mortem book on herself: “a vile, self-absorbed, depressing, lazy, messy, spoiled, f**ked-up, probably mentally ill loser dies. So what.” The Book of Dahlia is a cynical, provocative, and sad, novel with arguably more emet than many people might admit.
The Great Kisser
The Great Kisser is an interconnected grouping of eight stories that details the places and vivid personages that went into the making of author David Evanier’s sadly funny protagonist, Michael Goldberg. Given the sheer amount of books devoted to growing up Jewish in contemporary America, The Great Kisser will have a familiar ring. Here, for example, are the opening sentences from the title story: “I was known as the Jewish writer who hated his mother more than any other Jewish writer. My best known story was ‘My Mother Is Not Living.’”
What makes Evanier’s fiction so extraordinary are the various memory triggers his protagonist encounters as he moves from Brooklyn to Vancouver to Los Angeles and, finally, New York.
Goldberg becomes part of the physical spaces he remembers, from burlesque stages to the offices of Jewish Punchers, a low-level Jewish organization in which his job was to divide newspaper clippings into those that belong in the folder marked “Good for the Jews” and the one called “Bad for the Jews.” In addition, Goldberg internalizes odd characters, from his father who told him, “You can fail, Michael, if you try. I did it, why can’t you?” to the ragtag bunch of moguls he meets in Hollywood “who seemed to have been shipped fresh to California from New York like onion bagels or seeded bialys.”
The stories in The Great Kisser are so good, so meticulously crafted, so funny and, yes, so original, that Evanier, formerly fiction editor of the prestigious Paris Review, is widely regarded as a “writers’ writer.” But I would argue he deserves a wider audience because his stories add up to an emotionally nuanced valentine for America. As his protagonist puts it: “Why have I been so lucky in this life, this Jew who came after the Holocaust—the world had expended its Jew hatred for a while, having gotten it out of its system—and seen such bountiful goodness, so much beauty, totally unsuitable beauty to make literature out of because it is unbelievable—so incredible it would be pointless to try to write a story about it.”
Philip Roth could never write such a sentence. That’s because he is not a “great kisser” and, at bottom, David Evanier is.
Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam
Two authors well versed in the Middle East, David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann, have created a full-scale portrait of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. Once the most powerful Muslim leader in Palestine, his goal was to drive every Jew out of Eretz Israel.
Written with passion and often hair-raising detail, the book describes how this “Icon of Evil” cozied up to Adolf Hitler in January 1941 while war and the Holocaust raged. He basked in the friendship of Hitler’s pals Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann and plotted with the Nazis in the murder of all of Europe’s Jews in Auschwitz. Furthermore, he dreamed of wiping out every Jew in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and all of Palestine. He not only tutored young terrorists (including his cousin Yasser Arafat) but also recruited 100,000 Arabs to fight in divisions of the Waffen-SS during World War II. This “honorary Aryan” aspired to being Hitler’s equivalent—the Fuehrer of the entire Middle East.
Britain’s first high commissioner in Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, appointed al-Husseini the grand mufti of Jerusalem in 1921. Samuel, who was from a prominent British Jewish family, hoped that by supporting al-Husseini, he would defang him and appease the pro-Arab members of the Foreign Office. The mufti immediately instigated riots against both the Jews and the British.
As a journalist covering the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, I expected to find him in the prisoners’ dock. However, he avoided arrest and fled to Egypt where he was welcomed as a hero.
On the surface, al-Husseini dressed like an Arab, with a large white cloth wrapped around a straight turban and a long black robe. But with his blonde hair, pale blue eyes and reddish beard, he looked more like a Nazi stereotype than Hitler himself. At times, he seemed mild-mannered, however, according to the authors, “he was prone to fits of rage that often bordered on the pathological when colleagues or political rivals opposed him.” The British finally arrested him after the bloody riots of 1937. He escaped the British police by crossing the Jordan River and was granted safe haven in Egypt. He gradually made his way to his dreamland—Nazi Germany.
There he was treated as a head of state, given an elegant villa in Berlin, a huge staff, even granted a private meeting with the Fuehrer. In his diary, al-Husseini described his interview of Friday, November 28, 1941, as lasting from 4:30 P.M. to 6 P.M. “The objectives of my fight are clear,” he recorded the Fuehrer as saying. “Primarily, I am fighting the Jews without respite, and this fight includes the fight against the so-called Jewish National Home in Palestine because the Jews want to establish there a central government for their own pernicious purposes, and to undertake a devastating and ruinous expansion at the expense of the governments of the world and of other peoples.” He went on to denigrate everything the Jews had done in the Holy Land and attributed all progress to the Arabs.
Al-Husseini died in Beirut in 1974. Arabs who read this book may gain a new perspective on the madness and corruption of radical Islam. Icon of Evil is a must read for anyone trying to understand what is happening today in the Middle East.
How to Read the Bible
Reading James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible is a like studying with a master teacher. The book is a compilation of Kugel’s lecture notes from his popular undergraduate course at Harvard University in Cambridge. In a series of short chapters on most of the 24 books of the Bible, Kugel presents scholarly opinion and explains how they were reached, reviews the evidence for each point of view and why it is important. He also brings in numerous parallels to biblical and extra-biblical sources, ancient translations, Christian texts andmidrashim and shows how they clarify the text.
This book is for knowledgeable readers curious why the documentary hypothesis is considered so significant or why the Septuagint is an important early translation. Yet, it is never overly technical, presenting sophisticated material in an engaging, easy-to-read style.
Wherever you open the book, gems of insight abound. Writing about Job, Kugel’s comment that Job’s three false comforters were sages makes their disgrace by God (in Chapters 38 and 39) much more powerful. On Delilah’s recognition that Samson had finally told her the truth after three sets of lies, Kugel translates words of the Talmud into a contemporary idiom, “You can tell the truth when you hear it.”
Kugel, an Orthodox Jew, attempts to engage the contradictions of both his religious and scholarly worlds, and the beauty of the book lies in his willingness to look at issues such as biblical criticism and Jewish belief in an unflinching and uncompromising manner.
Beth Kissileff is visiting assistant professor of Jewish studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
For more book reviews, visit www.hadassah.org/magazine.
Pictures and Stories
Unpacking the Secrets
New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory
For 20 years, award-winning photographer Cary Herz has been searching for descendants of Conversos, or Anusim, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to become Christians during the Inquisition but secretly held onto their Jewish customs even after they arrived in the New World in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Although the Conversos assimilated into local Hispanic culture, the stories they told, their family names and the objects they built revealed their Jewish roots.
Now Herz has gathered stories to go with 132 of her black-and-white images of individuals in Mexico, New Mexico and Colorado. There is William E. Sanchez, a Catholic priest who blows shofar in his Albuquerque church. Emilio Coca’s father could recite eight generations of Jewish lineage and taught him: “We ate no pork; we slaughtered animals the kosher fashion; we were circumcised; we lit Shabbat candles Friday night. We went to the mountains for Jewish prayer.” Maria Apodaca of Albuquerque learned she was Jewish when, at age 14, “my father put his hands up to his mouth to say softly, “Somos los judios” (We are Jews).
For many, there are memories and customs they continue to keep: Richard Romero, who remembers his grandmother’s secret room for prayer in the cellar of her home in Truchas, New Mexico, still observes Friday night Shabbat. Dennis Duran converted to Judaism long before he traced his family’s Portuguese ancestry back to Sefardic Jews of the 16th century.
In New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews, Herz has accomplished her goal: “to put a face on the invisible ones, the Anusim, to open a small window into their world, to show their pride and diversity.”
Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers
Editor’s Note: Jewish readers purchase books for enjoyment and enlightenment, to reinforce their viewpoints or to see what the opposition is saying. The Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers list reflects only sales and does not imply approval by Hadassah Magazine—or the people buying the books.
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com; titles selected based on sales.
Books in Brief
Hide & Seek: How I Laughed at Depression, Conquered My Fears and Found Happiness,
Sitcom writer Aron has written a hysterically funny book about a very unfunny subject: being paralyzed by depression. Perhaps more neurotic than Woody Allen and just as funny, Aron survives a year of self-help groups and therapy by homing in on the scariness and inanities of the meetings. This Jewish New Yorker’s sharp, self-deprecating humor can dissolve suffering into laughter.
Hospital: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, God and Diversity on Steroids,
Julie Salomon spent a year at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn—tagging after administrators, talking to doctors, nurses and community liaisons—and found a fascinating story about a one-of-a-kind institution in the heart of an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and a greater community where 67 languages are spoken. There is political and financial drama and also much to admire: One physician hopes his lectures on spirituality will enhance the quality of care.