Books You May Have Missed
Whether for kids or adults, whether humorous or serious, here is a selection of books for holidays and the everyday.
It Is Seven Weeks After Passover. Now What?
The Littlest Mountain by Barb Rosenstock. Illustrated by Melanie Hall.
(Kar-Ben, 32 pp. $17.95 cloth, $7.95 paper)
God has decided that people need rules to live by, and He is going to give those rules from a mountaintop—but which one? In Barb Rosenstock’s interpretation of a Midrashic legend, the gleeful mountains dance for joy before they begin to vie for the honor. Lush and green Mount Carmel proclaims itself to be the most important one. Mount Gilboa boasts about its beautiful flowers. Mount Hermon expects to be chosen because it is “broad and strong.” Only Mount Sinai remains silent—after all, it is small and unattractive and deems itself certainly unworthy of the honor. Yet God chooses to reward modesty above all else. This gently told story with its green blooms and bushes, its brown, yellow and blue cliffs, its waterfalls and colorful flowers is a sweet introduction to the great event: the giving of the Ten Commandments.
Personal and Family Struggles, Memoirs That Touch Us
Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro.
(Harper, 243 pp. $24.99)
Surprisingly Happy: An Atypical Religious Memoirby Sheila Peltz Weinberg.
(White River Press, 146 pp. $14 paper)
Dani Shapiro and Sheila Peltz Weinberg have this in common: They both write memoirs about their families, their struggles for inner peace and efforts to integrate their spiritual and Jewish lives.
Shapiro’s story is revealing, inviting the reader to see inside her soul, to go along on a painful, scary and joyful, but always honest, journey.
Weinberg’s memoir, however, leaves gaps in crucial parts of her story. Without any introduction, she describes her divorce, her second wedding and becoming a rabbi. What she leaves out, however, are the hesitations, the weighing of reasons that got her there. She seldom reveals how it feels to be a rabbi or her first steps as someone’s pastor or teacher.
Still, there are some lovely moments in Weinberg’s book. You have to smile at the story of her parents renting a room at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York so she could go to her high school prom without violating Shabbat, or how she gave in to her mother’s pleas and let her buy her a raccoon coat, even though wearing such a coat in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lives, was politically incorrect.
Along the way, she pauses to share lovely original prayers and meditations. She conveys the changes that are the one constant in every person’s life as she describes how her mother gradually moves from being an authority figure she wrestled against to a sweet, dependent old lady in a nursing home.
That change, the law of life that we can neither run away from nor defy, is the spiritual lesson at the heart of these books. Yoga helps both Shapiro and Weinberg come to terms with this permanent reality of never-ending change, and Judaism becomes the arena in which this struggle takes place.
Shapiro is from a family of distinguished Orthodox leaders, and her departure from tradition is painful, for her and for them. But she comes to appreciate the presence of God in her life in her own hard-earned way. “An animating presence,” one of her friends calls God, and she responds: “That was as good a word as any: presence—as in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in the direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this was what I felt: Something—rather than nothing.”
Shapiro’s writing is superb, as when she describes laying on tefilin: “The tefilin were accoutrements of prayer, and the donning of them a form of moving meditation.”
I take exception to one thing, perhaps because I am old-fashioned. I wish the authors could have treated their mothers more discreetly. I find it offensive when children describe in such gory detail the mistakes and the shortcomings of their parents. I would think that once children have children of their own, they would be more sympathetic to their parents and not assign them so much blame for their difficulties.
Meantime, it is good to see the authors conclude their narratives with the report that they are “surprisingly happy.” May they continue to be so—then write sequels to let us know. —Jack Riemer
On My Way To Someplace Else: Essays by Sandra Hurtes.
(Poetica Publishing, 113 pp. $15 paper)
Many of these essays have been published elsewhere, but reading them as a whole gets the reader inside Hurtes’s heart and psyche. She explores her relationship with her father, a Holocaust survivor, and her search for a match. Her writing—open, honest and vulnerable—will touch you.
A Piece of Her Heart: The True Story of a Mother and Daughter Separated by the Russian Revolution and the Lives Their Families Built While Apartby Sissy Carpey.
(iUniverse, 223 pp. $18.95 paper)
This is the moving story of Carpey’s family, split between Russia and America, with one part not knowing the other existed until they were reunited after 50 years. The author’s grandmother, Malka, was a young widow in 1922 when she fled from the Russian Revolution, pogroms and civil war with four of her five children. The oldest daughter, Frayda, was left behind in her village in the Ukraine.
My Book of Ruth: Reflections of a Jewish Girlby Ruth Lehrer
(AuthorHouse, 235 pp. $15.95 paper)
Lehrer’s 36 essays include heimish stories about family and life as a secular American Jewish woman. Starting in 1920, she writes about everything from her Yiddishe Mama and Catskill vacations to her current appreciation of culture (especially with Jewish content). These stories make comfortable companions.
The Chameleon in the Closet: A Conservative Jewish Mother Reaches Out to Her Orthodox Sonsby BJ Rosenfeld.
(Troy Book Makers, 218 pp. $17.95 paper)
Many people will relate to Rosenfeld’s dilemma: How to deal with sons who have become Orthodox without losing your own identity. She takes you through the process of marrying off her two Orthodox sons, spending time with her grandchildren children and grappling with their different lifestyles. She continues this discussion on her Web site (www.readbj.com).