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December 03, 2021

From Sarah to Sydney: The Woman Behind All-of-a-Kind FamilyFrom Sarah to Sydney: The Woman Behind All-of-a-Kind Family by June Cummins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was unable to finish this book because the e-version I downloaded from my library expired yesterday. But I doubt my rating would have changed unless the final chapters differed significantly from the rest of them.

I loved the "All of a Kind Family" series, so I really wanted to like this interminable book. But I found it less and less interesting the more I read. I wasn't that interested in how Taylor [it bothered me that everyone else is called by their first names, or by both first and last, but not our protagonist] danced with Martha Graham or studied acting with Lee Strasbourg. Yes, she was a leftie, but I didn't need to know all the activities she did with her Socialist groups. The large amount of info about Jewish summer camps in NYC area was okay, but didn't tell me much about Taylor herself. I constantly wished I'd been reading a print book so I could just flip through to the subjects I wanted to read about. Final opinion: a dull, disappointing, overly academic book that should have focused more on Taylor and her sisters, and less on social activities she participated in. View all my reviews

November 29, 2021

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started listening to this audiobook in the Spring, when I drove to see family in Arizona. I'd already listened to The Song of Achilles by the same author during a previous visit, but I finished that one in a round trip. Stuck in traffic returning home after Thanksgiving, I remembered that I hadn't quite completed this one and started listing where I left off. I'm leaving the plot description to other reviewers, but here's some of what I liked.

The narrator, who speaks in Circe's POV, is wonderful. She also speaks for the other characters and does a good job of keeping them sounding unique, even the men. I was already a little familiar with Circe from the Greek mythology I studied in high school, but thankfully not enough to spoil how she was portrayed here. I confess I liked her greatly and sympathized with her revenge against the many who hurt/betrayed her. Madeline Miller did a marvelous job of making Circe a real individual with thoughts and feelings that were understandable, if not always admirable. Descriptions of the ocean, landscape, creatures and other people were so beautifully written that it was easy for me to visualize them as Circe described them. I loved Circe's happy finale, which is not quite how the myths end her story. And there are a great many, which you can read about on Wikipedia.

November 19, 2021

Normally I blog about the world of writing and books, particularly my own, and indeed I’ll be focusing more on my upcoming novel starting next month. But I had such a balagan [Yiddish and Hebrew for chaos or big mess] with Vanguard yesterday when I tried to rollover my 401K into my IRA so I could give Qualified Charitable Distributions next year when I turn 72, that I had to vent my frustration.

I tried to do it on the website, but it only gave me the choice of three money market funds, not the stock and bond funds I wanted. So I called them. First I tried to talk to Josh [no last names here to protect their privacy], who I’d talked to about this earlier, but he didn’t answer. Next up was Alex, who I spoke with after thirty minutes on hold. He told me that he didn’t handle that kind of transaction and transferred me to Zach, who got on the line after another half hour on hold. Alas, he couldn’t do it either so he put me on hold to find someone else who could. Thanks to speakerphone, I was able to go through all my emails and do a load of laundry before Jacob came on the line forty minutes later and—you guessed it—and said he’d have to transfer me to an “expert.” When I complained about the lengthy holds, he apologized and explained that their new phone system was having difficulties.

At this point I admit I was feeling rather frustrated so I peevishly mentioned that since I’d just dealt with four men who couldn’t help me, Vanguard should hire more women. Maybe it was a coincidence, but after only twenty minutes on hold, I was connected with [tada], Laurel. She first explained that I could have been able to do the transfer online, if only somebody had explained that in order to transfer out of a 401K, all mutual funds must be sold and the proceeds go into a money market IRA account, where they sit for a few days. When that is complete and the actual money is available, then I can buy whatever new mutual funds I want. But since I already had her on the line, she’d do the initial part [selling the mutual funds in my 401K and moving the proceeds into my IRA] and then call me on Monday or Tuesday to finish the process. When I complained that the four previous men didn’t seem to know how to do what should be a simple common transaction, she said she’d see that they’re educated about it.

Bottom line [145 minutes and two loads of laundry later]: if you want something done right [that you don't know how to do yourself] ask a woman to do it.

November 14, 2021

Florence Adler Swims ForeverFlorence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The writing and character development were very good. I appreciated how each chapter was told from a different character's POV, so I came to know each of them intimately. Although I would have appreciate it more if the text at the top of the verso page was the character's name, not the author's. But ... the beginning was so sad I found it an effort to keep reading; also despite being in set the middle of the Great Depression, money seemed to be quite plentiful for two of the families and even in the third, I got no sense that many people were suffering badly. Frankly, most of the characters were not particularly sympathetic and the little girl's father was rather loathsome, except for forging that letter at the end, which redeemed him somewhat. The grandparents reminded me a lot of my own parents's generation--so afraid of what the neighbors would think that they kept all sorts of secrets, would never accept intermarriage, and thought a loveless couple should live separately rather than bring scandal on the family by getting divorced.

[spoiler alert] I found the end frustrating. It wasn't that I didn't know how it would end; that was obvious about two-thirds through. But at the least there should have been an epilogue, maybe a year later at Florence's headstone unveiling, so we could get those missing big scenes where: Stuart and Anna get married, and Anna's parents get visas; Joseph and Esther truly come to understand each other and reconcile; Fanny and Gussie replay what it was like for Fannie to learn that her sister had died and everyone kept it from her. Maybe even Esther and Stuart's father would see that intermarriage could be tolerated.

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November 12, 2021

As some of my more astute blog readers know, I have a new novel coming out in the spring. Those of you familiar with Amazon and Goodreads can find it there by searching for my name as author and see what books come up. I’ll have an official announcement soon, but for now this blog post will focus on a fascinating zoom presentation I attended yesterday by Sonia Gollance on the research behind her new book, It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity. According to the book’s website, [which you should check out if only to see the wonderful cover],“Dances and balls appear throughout world literature as venues for young people to meet, flirt, and form relationships, as any reader of Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, or Romeo and Juliet can attest. The popularity of social dance transcends class, gender, ethnic, and national boundaries. In the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish culture, dance offers crucial insights into debates about emancipation and acculturation. While traditional Jewish law prohibits men and women from dancing together, Jewish mixed-sex dancing was understood as the very sign of modernity––and the ultimate boundary transgression.

As it happens, I made the Orthodox Talmud professor protagonist of my upcoming 1950s novel an adept dancer, as were many NYC Jews of all denominations. Including my own father—which I learned when he expertly led me in a foxtrot at my wedding. Yet mixed dancing was supposed to violate halacha, so I addressed this discrepancy in my Author Notes.
“How can you have your Orthodox rabbi character frequenting dancehalls? Isn’t mixed dancing forbidden? Short answer: violating some prohibitions is less egregious than violating others, especially the ones most people are also violating. Long answer: From the early 1900s and continuing into the 1940s and 1950s—the big band era and the dawn of rock ‘n roll—Orthodox Jews, like other New Yorkers, patronized dancehalls. According to Orthodox synagogues’ monthly bulletins from that time, which I found in the Central Library’s Center for Brooklyn History, many held regular dances in their social halls, clearly to promote match-making. Photo collections show that, except for the Haredi, Jewish men and women danced together at weddings.”

We also know this was common because the great midcentury posek Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled first that a man shouldn’t remove his yarmulke upon entering a theater, cinema or dancehall even though frequenting these venues was prohibited. Then again, two years later, Feinstein ruled that otherwise observant Jews who participate in mixed dancing should still wear their yarmulkes so as not to add an additional violation to their already sinful behavior. As is well-known to historians, if you want to know what the people are actually doing, see what rabbis [or other authorities] continue to complain about.

November 08, 2021

The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni, #2)The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For me, this novel was obviously a sequel, and as I neared the ending, it seemed more and more likely that it would be the middle book of a trilogy. I strongly advise folks to read The Golem and the Jinni first, and if you, like me, read it back in 2013 when it first came out, check out the chapter-by-chapter summary on The Bibliofile website.

It took so long for Helene Wecker to get this novel out that I feared it would suffer from second-book-syndrome. True, I didn't find it as excellent as the first, but I still enjoyed it. The early chapters dragged, especially those focused on Sophia's travels. Things only got interesting once she encounterd the jinniyeh. I appreciated how Chava dealt with the problem that never aging meant she'd have to keep moving to a new community and adopt a new identity. It was a good way to introduce her to new characters, especially Kreindel, and to show us life in a Jewish orphanage. Wecker did a good job of working in historical details that would affect her characters, like the Shirtwaist Fire, building Penn Station, sinking of the Titanic and Germany torpedoing the Lusitania. I wasn't surprised that Chava and Ahmad had a falling out; it's the predictable middle act of a romance plot. But I was disappointed that they just went on with their lives and weren't more unhappy about it. They are the "title" characters after all. I think my favorite new character was Yossele, Kreindel's golem. The way his intellectual and emotional development was shown was wonderful, and I wished he'd had a larger role than that of a short-lived tragic hero. I really liked Toby too, even though his recurrent dreams seemed to point too obviously to a future novel.

In summary, I definitely recommend this novel to fans of the first one, and I fervently hope I don't have to wait 8 years for the next installment.

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November 06, 2021

I was trying to write something about Talmud and couldn’t remember if the word for discussions of a specific topic was spelled sugyiot or sugyot. So I googled the word and saw that both spellings were accepted. But in the process I came across an article titled What Sugyot Should An Educated Jew Know? I consider myself an educated Jew, but would I know most of these?

The article’s author collected 25 responses, mostly as Top Ten lists. However, 82 sugyot were mentioned, with (only!) 16 of them duplicates, leaving 66 distinct nominated sugyot and proving that 2 Jews have 3 opinions. You can see the list by clicking on the link above. I’m proud, and gratified, that I’m familiar with most of them, but I wouldn’t consider some of them Ones An Educated Jew Should Know. So I crafted my own list but made it my Top Twenty rather than Top Ten. Like the website’s author, I put them in alphabetical order rather than try to rank them in order of significance. Feel free to add your favorite in the comments.

My top twenty, in alphabetical order:
1. Berakhot 5a-b: Sickness and suffering
Berakhot 35a: Blessings as permission to partake of God’s world
Bava Kamma 83b-84a: Rabbinic interpretation of “eye for an eye”
Bava Metzia 59b: Tanur shel Akhnai, the Akhnai Oven
5. Bava Metzia 84a: R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish
Eruvin 13b: Elu ve’elu; these and those are the words of the living God
Hagiga 14b: Four entered the Pardes
Kiddushin 29ab: Time-bound positive mitzvot
Kiddushin 31a-32b: Honoring parents
10. Megillah 23a: All can be called to read Torah, even child or woman
Niddah 31a: Three partners in a child, child’s gender depends on who emits seed first
Pesahim 108a, 116a: The Passover Seder
Rosh Hashana 28b: Do commandments require kavanah (intention)?
Rosh Hashana 33a-34a: How do we sound the shofar? May women do it?
15. Sanhedrin 71a-71b: The rebellious son, a paradigmatic difficult text
Sanhedrin 74a-b: Three cardinal sins requiring self-sacrifice
Shabbat 21b: What is Hanukkah all about, anyway?
Sotah 21b: Father who teaches daughter Torah teaches her tiflut/lechery
Yevamot 24b: What is the status of a conversion for the sake of marriage?
20. Yoma 85b: Atonement and forgiveness on Yom Kippur

November 02, 2021

I recently came across a great website detailing the history of the Worms Synagogue. Located on the Rhine along with Mainz and Speyer, the Jewish community of Worms has been there since the mid-11th century. Rashi studied there, and in Mainz, during his youth, but all three experienced destructions, crusades, pogroms and massacres throughout the centuries. Those who have read the third novel in my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, "Rachel," experienced the First Crusade vicariously through my characters' descriptions.

ShUM is an abbreviation of the three Hebrew city names Schpira, Warmaisa and Magenza, and also a trademark of the cities today. On July 27, 2021, UNESCO inscribed the “ShUM-Sites Speyer, Worms and Mainz” among the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. For an in-depth look at the Worms’ Synagogue and also its reconstruction after the Shoah, I highly recommend the following website: [if the link doesn’t work, you’ll need to cut and paste it].

What I found especially fascinating was that Worms had its own Women’s shul, built in 1212/13 and donated by Judith and her husband Meir ben Joel. Judith herself was the daughter of Joseph, the founder of the mikveh (ritual bath) from 1186. The women’s shul is cross-vaulted over a central pillar. Listening windows in the wall assisted women to follow the main services – although they had their own female cantors and prayer leaders. With another reconstruction of the synagogue in 1355, after the plague pogrom in 1349, the women’s shul received gothic windows. The next devastating pogrom, in 1615, was followed again by a time of rebuilding and adapting. The new synagogue was re-opened only in September 1620. This reconstruction followed the Romanesque architectural. A new entrance with a small community hall on the upper floor was also added to the front of the women’s shul. The facade formed the new representative north view of the synagogue district. In addition, the famous Rashi-Yeshiva, named after the scholar who had studied in Mainz and Worms in the 11th century, was built as an annex to the synagogue.

Worms makes a big deal out of the “legendary” stone Rashi Chair, but there is no evidence that Rashi himself ever sat in it. Then again, there’s no evidence he didn’t.

October 31, 2021

Mrs. EverythingMrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writing this was review was tricky. I loved the beginning, with all its references to growing up in a Jewish suburb like I did: moving from an apartment to a house, Yiddish-speaking bubbe, making challah on Fridays, calling my buttocks a "tushie," watching TV shows like "Howdy Doody" in the morning, and more. [I confess I never noticed that the girls were named after the sisters in "Little Women."] I was still engrossed as Jo learned to masturbate with a girlfriend and Bethie began abusing drugs after her uncle sexually abused her. When Bethie got an abortion after being raped, I was impressed how author Jennifer Weiner had worked in some real-world details of young womanhood in the 1960s. And of course, women struggling with their weight--a recurring plot device in this author's other novels too.

But things slowly went downhill after that. None of the white Jewish husbands were even remotely admirable, other than Jo and Bethie's idealized father, who died when they were young. By the book's end, it seemed like the only females in this family who wound up contented were either unmarried, partnered with another woman, or married to a Christian black man [apparently the only good guy in the novel by then]--all situations that their families disapproved. Three generations of women who thought their mothers didn't love them, didn't appreciate them. Yet fate intervened so at least one of them at a time had plenty of money so nobody was in danger of starving.

Hoping things would improve and I'd actually start liking one of the characters, I kept reading. Even though by the time I'd gotten through 3/4 of the book, I couldn't remember all the girls and women's names and how they were related. Another mother divorces, another girl is sexually abused, another is pregnant out of wedlock, another big family fight at a holiday dinner. Only two pages from the end is a boy finally born into this soap opera of a family. It didn't seem like a satisfactory conclusion, but maybe that's because the story ends as everyone is so excited about Hillary Clinton running for president and it looking like she will win, but I know that she, and they, are about to experience a crushing defeat.

I give this novel 4 stars, 5 stars for the beginning and 3 stars for disappointing last half. Only at the end did I eventually understand and appreciate the pun in the title. Read it not as "Mrs. Everything," but as "misses everything." Which each of the characters do at some point in the story.

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October 26, 2021

Rebel DaughterRebel Daughter by Lori Banov Kaufmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd say this is more of a 3.5 star review. For the first third of the novel, maybe longer, the protagonist Esther is a spoiled rich girl, daughter of an aristocratic high-level priest. She constantly makes dumb decisions and comes to wrong conclusions about what is going on around her. I really didn't like her. Maybe because I'm more inclined towards the rabbis/Pharisees than the priests/Sadducees, I quickly tired of all the descriptions of the Temple and its activities. Things got a bit more interesting when the Romans showed up, but I found it difficult to sympathize with the Jews who were so sure God would save them. I don't think the author meant to portray them as lambs going to the slaughter along with the actual lambs that the priests sacrificed, but I found it an apt comparison. Although I think she did provide an apt comparison between the bitter infighting between the Jewish sects and the ever-growing partisan divide and hatred between groups in American society today.

One of my difficulties reading this book was knowing what disaster was going to happen and when. Perhaps readers needed to see all the good times for Esther's priestly family before the siege so we could commiserate more, or maybe gloat at how the mighty had fallen. Only then did Esther develop a spine and show some resourcefulness; only then did she realize that the man she'd despised until they married was a good husband who cared for her. Only then did she see that Josephus [yes, that Josephus--who seemed to be a character only so the author could do drop his name] cared for his own advancement no matter what the cost to others. Only then did she see that a Roman man could be something besides evil.

The part where Esther manages to survive, only to become a slave, was the most fascinating. Not that I enjoyed it, but I finally began to care about her and her little brother when they got to Italy. I think I would have appreciated more scenes there and less in Jerusalem. This is labeled a YA novel, although I thought the violence and slavery descriptions might be too much for younger readers. The chapters are quite short, some only a few pages, so it was easy to keep on reading just a little more until I looked up and an hour or two had passed in a flash.

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October 24, 2021

For those interested in learning more about ancient Jewish magic, the Magnes Jewish Museum at UC Berkeley is offering zoom presentations on the Amulets in their collection. Here's the link

October 21, 2021

The Forest of Vanishing StarsThe Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would have given this novel 5 stars, but some of the forest scenes dragged and seemed to repeat themselves. Also I was disappointed at the (spoiler alert) cliched "surprise" ending where it is revealed that the heroine, daughter of a Nazi officer, has a Jewish mother and thus is actually Jewish. But I enjoyed how this novel reminded me of Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters where a girl with no family thrives while living alone in the wilderness and then has to learn to get along with other people. Very disappointing how Auel's following three volumes declined so precipitously in quality.

I appreciated that this was not your typical WW2 Holocaust novel that concentrated on what happened in the death camps. Instead there was magical realism as I learned that there were Jewish refugees who escaped the Nazis into Polish forests and then organized into a partisan fighter force, a story based on historical facts. I liked how the Jews weren't all heroic; like real people, some were nicer than others. Some had character flaws, both minor and serious. There were even some good Christians, particularly the nuns, but a few of the villagers too. But Harmel was at her best in describing the hardships the refugees suffered, and endured, in order to survive. I almost felt like I was there with them.

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Maggie Anton

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