Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Paper Love: Searching for what ifs and finding humanity in the Holocaust.

My mother and her sister were children of my grandfather’s second family (actually so was their mother-a child of second chances of my maternal great grandfather). My grandfather’s first family was separated from him by wartime evacuation and lost in the bombs of the Holocaust. My grandparents met far away from their homes in Central Asia and then came back to Ukraine together to build a life and a family. As a child and really to this day, my grandparents’ marriage and my eventual resulting existence always struck me as strange happenstance. After all, for it to have happened, multiple people quite literally had to die: at the very least my grandfather’s first wife and my grandmother’s fiancé. This accident of fate (if one can so casually call the murder of millions an accident) has always struck a cord in my mind. I was always that child who asked Why and this was the ultimate Why for which there can be no answer.

When I picked up Sarah Wildman’s “Paper Love” at my local library a month ago, I had no inkling that reading it would bring up these existential thoughts yet again. Initially I found the idea behind the book cute: a veteran Jewish female journalist seeks the truth about what had happened to the girl her beloved grandfather left behind when he escaped Austria in 1938. It seemed like a touching human interest story but I didn’t really anticipate it capturing me. And yet, Wildman absolutely did that. Through exhaustive research, countless interviews, multiple trips that took her all over the world, and full disclosure of her grandfather Karl’s letter archive (the very archive that set her on the journey of discovery), Wildman did the one thing that is often so very lacking in personal accounts of the Holocaust. She gave a real voice  to the story of Valerie Scheftel, the girlfriend her grandfather left back in Vienna. Valy’s voice is resonant with her continued  yet frustrated love even as her letters become urgent and alarmingly desperate letters as 1938 turns into 1939 and a visa out of hell for herself and a reunion with Karl isn’t forthcoming. Though Valy’s own words do not venture into specifics of her every day struggles, it’s Wildman’s own research illuminates exactly how  quickly life for Jews becomes unbearable.  As Valy’s letters slip into early 1940 and 1941, Jews in Nazi controlled territories go from being segregated to being starved to being robbed to being physically isolated and eventually deported to their deaths and forgetting.

I don’t think Wildman sought to answer the same kind of Why that I’ve had flowing through my mind from my early years. Her Why was really more of a What and How: both a way to understand the grandfather she loved and to find out what he had left behind on the path to becoming her grandfather. Finding out what happened to Valy and to other people from his circle: both relations and friends, instead presented Wildman with an alternate horror movie version of what could have been. And yet the knowledge of it all, only strengthened her resolve to keep going. This book is the result of that resolve to know, no matter what lay in the past.

I won’t tell you what happened to Valy because I want to urge my followers to delve into her story on their own. I do want to share my overall takeaway from this heartbreaking story. It’s imperative that we do not forget. Yet ultimately what I enjoyed most about Wildman’s book is the very specifics of the nightmare Valy and the authors of the other family archive letters that help create a firmer background of the times. It’s easy to decide that this happened too long ago and it isn’t that important anyway. And yet…..this nightmare, this systematic victimization and murder in every sense of the word, had happened within living memory of many. Though survivors are very elderly now, and infirm, their stories of survival, and the stories of the loved ones that didn’t, are what needs to form the resolve of a better future. These people, the disabled, the gays, the Roma and the Jews, were brutalized, stripped of their very humanity and disappeared.It’s because of stories like Wildman’s, that their lives must amount to more than a number among millions, their suffering must be more than a footnote, and their humanity must be acknowledged and their voices found and heard.

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Lost in reading 

The other day I braved reading a Holocaust oriented book. It was one of the many books I had picked up at the Friend’s of the Library bookstore a few months back. Among the other purchases I stacked the book on an overflowing shelf and promptly pretended not to pay attention to it.

Then last week when I had finished yet another of the miles of books I consume, I decided that it was time to give a Jewish book a shot regardless of whether it would end up on this blog. 

The thing is reading it for last few days has made me more eager to share what I’ve learned than not. “Mosaic” by Diane Armstrong is an unassuming family saga. With her Anglo sounding name I hadn’t anticipated a story of a Polish Jewish family at the turn of the century. There is the deeply Orthodox father who divorces a beloved wife of 10 years because she is barren and he desperately wants children to pass on his beliefs to. There is his much younger 2nd wife who gives him the 11 children he wants, and yet doesn’t ultimately have much time for any of them. And then there are the eleven  children who in the shadow of the Holocaust end up in Brazil, Australia, US and dead. The story is a mosaic of the author’s own recollections, memoirs of her father (one of the 11), and countless direct quotes with her aunts and uncles and cousins about the family, about Jewish life prewar, the varied stories of their survival and of course the stories of those lost. 

It’s a  better read than I expected and the flow of the story with both chronological third person narrative and direct quotes appeals to me more than I had thought. It is also not a Holocaust story. It was very unfair for me to categorize it as such. In reality it’s a Jewish story, a family story, a survival story. It’s a story wth universal appeal because after all we all have a family. We all have our stories. 

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“A Cape for Kali” Review and Q & A with the author Rabbi Galina Trefil

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Dearest readers,

Thanks for being so patient with me. Non bloggy life has overtaken me a great deal and I got rather delayed posting this. Ultimately, I know life will keep happening and it’s on me to do my job and to share with you my reading finds, now and not in some indefinite future. So, here goes….

This review is specially dear to my heart as the book reviewed is written by my dearest friend of 18 years. We met as wee teenagers at Camp Swig in 1997 and haven’t looked back since. We are more than best friends, we are family, we laugh and fight just like we are blood 🙂

“A Cape for Kali” is a delightful story, beautifully illustrated by Kaleb Temple, with a double hit of anti-bullying message and of celebration of differences. A multi color furred bear named Kali gets bullied and picked on the very first day of school for having green, red and blue fur. Dejected and rejected Kali comes home to her mommy vowing to not go back to school ever again and asking why she had to look so very different from the other bears. Kali’s Mama hugs her little girl and tells her that she is beautiful and her bright fur, a proud composite of her ancestral history  and their experiences is something to be proud of and love. Feeling special and adored, Kali decides to come back to school but not until she has a beautiful (superhero like!) cape to go along with her red, green and blue fur.  Mama happily makes Kali a cape and Kali comes back to school where the other bears are still being mean but it no longer bothers her because Kali has become a beautiful, strong and proud red, green and blue bear princess and their words don’t bother her one bit. Her cape is a red wheel that flows proudly on her red, green and blue fur, a perfect punctuation of Kali’s Romani heritage because after all the Romani flag is a red wheel on the green earth against the deepest blue sky.

I don’t have children but when I do, the message within “A Cape for Kali” is one of the most important messages any parent should pass onto their child. Kids of so many different ethnicities, religions, orientations, and appearances face bullying in various forms. When I was a kid myself, I got picked on incessantly by the kids in my class. I was a quiet, shy, short, bespectacled Jewish girl with her face in a book and I couldn’t tell you the number of times that I had my appearance and my ethnic heritage thrown in my face verbally and occasionally physically. I don’t recall now whether I was ashamed that I was different (after all it’s been about twenty years) but I do strongly remember being quiet, keeping out of the other kids’ ways just so that they would stop torturing me. I never told my parents I was bullied and in retrospect I feel sad that I didn’t trust them enough to share my pain with them like Kali does with her mom. Knowing my parents, they would have probably wanted to talk to the kids’ parents. Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell them. I do know that they would have also tried their best to make me understand that there was nothing wrong with me and that I was beautiful and special just the way I was. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to wear a cape but I know I would have smiled a little brighter with such powerful words resonating in my mind.

I grew up with a vague sense of what being Jewish meant, my parents never hid the fact of it but there were no rituals, no stories, no books with a patently Jewish message. I knew I was different but there wasn’t much encouraging me to explore what it was or even somewhere for me to see a positive message. Like Jews, Roma (please never “Gypsies” as it is a highly deregatory term) have been persecuted and enslaved for centuries without much of an outside interest of actually learning about the people beyond the stereotype. Scenes like Kali’s first day are far too common in the world and having a book like “A Cape for Kali” not only gives voice to the maligned people but also reminds them and everyone else that they are beautiful in their differences and their different experiences and no one has the right to make them feel any less than important and special..

Because this delight of a book has such an important message, I wanted to make the review itself extra special by introducing you all to the author, my best friend and my sister, and share the Q & A we did for this book. But first I want to share just a few of my sister’s many accolades because what kind of a sister would I be if I didn’t gush about all of her accomplishments?  Rabbi Galina Trefil published  “The Incomplete Ones: A Tale of Slavery”,  a Romani rights historical fiction novel with more than several novels in the queue to be published in the next few months. Rabbi Trefil has written for such  online publications as Jewcy, Tikkun, and Neurology Today. She has testified in front of the Nevada State Legislature and has been interviewed by the BBC Rokker Radio. Rabbi Galina Trefil is also the founder of Romani Yehudim Cultural Center for ethnic Romani Jews, a wonderful educational hub I am a member of myself,  She also has a bimonthly blog, “Romani Eyes on Gypsy Film,” featured on the website World Artists Initiative Khetanes. Her work has also been featured on the blog Don’tSayGypsy.  “A Cape for Kali” is her first children’s book. You can look at Rabbi Trefil’s work here 🙂

1.Tell us more about yourself. How long have you been writing? What types of books? Etc Whatever you want to tell the readers about yourself.

I finished my first novel at thirteen, but I experienced a great deal of sexism early on because I was a female writer.  This created a tremendous lack of confidence in me regarding publication, so, for most of my life, I just kept my initial work and the dozen plus other novels & half-dozen screenplays/ plays that followed essentially hidden in a drawer.  I decided to finally start publishing a few years ago and, eventually, will get around to letting the majority of my work see daylight.  My first book published, “The Incomplete Ones: A Tale of Slavery,” explored the historically-accurate 500-year human trafficking perpetrated against the Romani people, particularly women, in 19th century Transylvania.  It was a very heavy-duty book to put together, took years of research, and I knew I wanted to publish something a bit lighter for my second release….  I never assumed that I would write a children’s book…but it was a very delightful process which I hope to repeat several times over.

2.      How did you choose the title of the book?  Why “different is beautiful?”

Many do not realize that the Romani people are Diaspora Indians.  I wanted my main character to showcase the connection in as simple a way as possible—namely, linguistically.  “Kali” is a Romani first name for girls as a result of our Hindu origins.  I picked it because it is something which both Romani and Indian audiences will recognize and identify with.  I feel that this tie to our ancestral homeland must be emphasized as strongly as possible, which is why I sought out, even prior to publication in English, a translator for a Hindi edition of the book.  I was amazingly lucky in finding a best-selling Mumbai author, Neil D’Silva, (“Maya’s New Husband,” “The Evil Eye and the Charm,”) who was willing to undertake that project….  As for why “different is beautiful,” Romani people are very frequently made fun of on account of our physical traits—absolutely including skin color.  This bullying successfully makes some children ashamed of their appearance.  My hope was that such children who have been picked on because of being “too dark” might come away with a bit more self-esteem about their own beauty, as defined by nature rather than anti-Asian humiliation and fair-skinned brainwashing.

 3.      What inspired you to write a children’s book?

I heard of a Romani child inside the United States who was bullied so badly due to being dark-skinned that she had to be taken out of the public school system.  This angered me very deeply on her behalf and also brought back discrimination memories to my mind that I had experienced as a little girl.  The book was a way of reaching out to that child and to all the other Romani children who yearn so desperately for equality in the educational system and yet are denied it.

4.      What’s your favorite children’s book?

“Little Bear” and whole series for “The Wizard of Oz.”

 5.      What’s your son’s favorite book?

“Corduroy.”  “Monster’s University.”  “Something from Nothing.”

6.      Why did you decide to write a book on this specific topic?

As a mother, I wanted to make sure that my children have access to books that reflect the life and culture of someone from their own ethnic background.  I didn’t see that available.  This is the same reason why I would like to someday write a book about the Romani Jewish perspective.  A lot of people don’t even know that Romani Jews exist…and yet there are many of us.  How will that lack of knowledge about us impact my own kids when they are old enough to realize that it is there?  Not positively.  That’s for sure.  So I have to, as a writer, make an effort on my family’s behalf to fix these things.

7.      Who do you see as the ideal reader of “A Cape for Kali?

I would like all children from the young grammar school age group to be able to relate to Kali.  Yes, the book is absolutely about a Romani character, but I never use the words “Romani” and certainly not the pejorative term “Gypsy.”  So many children, from all backgrounds, go through bullying that I think, even subtracting the racial discrimination in the story, it is accessible to anyone.  Unless someone was Romani themselves or familiar with the Romani people, I doubt that they would read the book with any idea that it is mainly written for a Romani child audience.  Of course, Romani people would know it automatically because we know what our flag, (Kali’s cape,) looks like.

8.      How did you decide on bears as the characters of the story?

The subject material is quite serious and, given that the target age group is 4-8, I wanted to soften that somewhat so kids wouldn’t be too overwhelmed.  I especially wanted to make it gentler because I knew that portraying Kali’s pain on a human face could be potentially upsetting for children who have actually experienced racism or colorism….  I thought, “Who doesn’t like teddy bears?  They’re sort’ve like ice cream; tend to just help improve people’s mental well-being.”

9.      What was your own experience like in school?

I went to a particularly elitist, predominantly White, proselytizing grammar school.  Because I was mixed-blood, belonging to both ethnic and religious minorities, other kids would spit on me during class; call me names.  Rather than stop them, my teachers advocated me being put into special ed, stating that this was the only way to “protect me.”  I scored high enough on tests that I skipped a grade, but that made no difference to the administration.  If the school hadn’t been threatened with a lawsuit, I have no doubt at all that I would have been segregated from the non-minority children into special education.  After the lawsuit threat, the school backed off, but allowed the bullying to continue.  It got so bad that I used to sit on the time out steps of the playground reading a book just to avoid being attacked.

10.   What inspired you to use the multi colors/rainbow similar shades as the symbol of beauty?

Kali’s fur is red, blue, and green because these are the colors of the Romani flag.  To non-Romani people, she might just look like a bright, pretty bear…and, in that fashion, the symbolism is subtle.  But the colors being put together is a thing that all Romani kids will recognize automatically and, hopefully, walk away the impression that, despite massive pressure to, they should not assimilate by trying to appear physically as belonging to a group that they don’t.  Kali is good enough as she is; no change needed, just like them.

11.   What do you hope the readers will take away from reading “A Cape for Kali?”

For Romani readers, pride.  For non-Romani readers, a better understanding of Romani culture.  Many children’s books have “Gypsy” characters, but we’re almost always the bad guys, boogeymen, kidnappers, or fortune-telling novelties.  This is ignorance and racism at its best and it is striking at the most vulnerable portion of the population: small, impressionable minds.  The non-Romani child that is capable of identifying with a Romani main character is not likely to grow up an anti-Romani bigot.  This is essentially why all minorities need books showcasing their people in a strong, compassionate, positive light: for the self-esteem of their own and the education of others.

12.   What’s next for you on the writing horizon?

Two projects will be released in the next few months….  Firstly, my Draculiţa series, which is likely to be 8-10 novels in length, is due to debut as soon as the cover and interior artwork is completed.  It mainly falls under the genre of Gothic historical fiction, with an emphasis on medieval Eastern European women’s and minority rights, (or lack thereof.)  Also, my second children’s book, “Helpful Shlomo,” is currently undergoing illustration by Kaleb Temple.  In it, the main character, Shlomo, an observant Jewish cat, humorously instructs children in what, as a rabbi, I consider to be a crash course summary of Jewish culture: tzedakah, Tikkun Olam, and a lifelong commitment to study.  Shlomo, like Kali, will hopefully be a repeat character for future books.  But, while the Kali series I have plans for is an ever-more serious political exploration of the rise of prejudice and neo-Nazism in modern Europe, Shlomo is a counterbalance…trying, through irony and laughter, to emphasize the good of embracing one’s traditions and history.

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Thanks for reading as always. Look up Rabbi Trefil’s work on Amazon to purchase it and to learn more about her,  look up Rabbi Galina Trefil’s Facebook page here. As for me,  I am waiting anxiously for “Helpful Shlomo.”

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Not really a review review or what I thought of The Boston Girl

I have no plans to post a full on review of Boston Girl. There was a good amount of hype about it when it came out and I know at least several bloggers out here in the blog land have covered it pretty well so I don’t think my review will have much to add. I do want to offer my reflections on the books as more is free form thoughts. Plus having read The Red Tent as basically my inaugural review I can’t not mention Boston Girl

This was my second (?) fiction book of Diamant’s. Actually I think it may have been third but I have almost no memories of reading the other one so my gut memory tells me I either hated it or it was no good. Boston Girl has a funny flavor to it. From the first impression the writing is almost essay like, with chapter headings posed as questions, and the feeling is as if I am reading serialized newspaper articles rather than a coherent flowing novel. Not to say I hate the style though, though at first I thought it quite a bit choppy. But in the end I feel like I did see it for what it was meant to be, a style easily identified as speech of an elderly person from a certain time and of a certain age. When I was sixteen, I worked for an organization that interfaced teens with the elderly in what I am now guessing was a way for education all around. We all had a couple of elderly people that we visited every week and we talked to them about their lives, asked questions and at the end of the year we wrote their stories down in an anthology published by this organization YouthCares ( God I haven’t thought of those guys in over a decade and I still have my anthology!). At the time I was still shaky with my English so I had interacted with a Russian speaking lady and an American. The Russian lady spoke of the war and the Holocaust, things I related to already because of my family’s Holocaust experience.  But the American spoke of growing up in the twenties. Granted this was a decade after Boston Girl but the sentiment and pattern or speech was the same. Slightly stilted, archaic wording but the stories beautifully flowed. I find it all as fascinating now as I did at 16.

Diamant’s Addie Baum grows up as the first American born of a Jewish immigrant family and she is torn between the world of modernity and the Jewish Old World expectations. Like a good Jewish girl, she is expected to do everything around the house, be obedient and respectful, not interact with strangers, not even speak English at home. She is expected to remain in the proverbial ghetto even as the new century opens new opportunities  for those wiling to take them. And Addie takes them, the entirety of the book is proof of her rising above familial limitations and living the life she wanted while creating her own path. I learned much about hard life in the tenements, about the racism Jews faced in Boston and stereotypes they had to overcome. At the same time, I felt Diamant did a great job showcasing parts of Jewish traditions that have as much meaning now as they did back then: the emphasis on family participation in Jewish family events, from weddings to sitting shiva, and the importance of having family holding you up even when it’s against family members, case in point Addie’s sister Betty. Addie delves into the world beyond the ghetto and meets other women in her truly international neighborhood that open her eyes to new books, to new ideas, to popular culture and to the world of more than just marrying as soon as one is able to.

Anyway I was surprised how much I ended up getting out of this story. Seems like Diamant’s other fiction deserves a second try. Women like Addie who were contemporaries of my grandmothers paved the way for us today. Sure my grandmothers likely wanted marriage and family, but they did more. My maternal grandmother born in 1915 became a nurse in the 30s and my paternal grandmother ran a shop at the market with her sister and later own helped my grandfather run a vineyard. These were modern women, early modern granted, but modern enough to step out of the ghetto to do what needed to be done.

Not a review!

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Jane vs Cathy or my review of How to be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis begins her book with a walk near the purported site for the house in Wuthering Heights. Ellis and her friend Emma are arguing over which heroine they found more inspirational. Ellis insisted on Cathy Earnshaw citing her unbridled passion and sense of adventure. Emma on the other hand defended Jane whose practicality and self awareness she found aspirational. Despite thinking Jane was rather an ice queen, Ellis began to entertain a thought that perhaps she misread her after all and decided that perhaps she misread other heroines throughout her life and they deserved a second chance. So here goes hers:

Once upon a time there was a little Iraqi Jewish girl living in London town. The little girl loved adventure and stories and derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from reading. She is raised on family stories, her mother her very first heroine. Her mother’s family lived in Iraq for generations until the 1950s when Iraqi Jews began to be persecuted. Ellis’ mother tried to escape Iraq via Kurdistan (so cool!), got captured, spent time in Iraqi prison, was able to get to London and was married to a nice Iraqi Jew before the age of 22 and commenced on doing her duty and raising her own family. But with the spirit of persecution hanging over them, the flight from their homeland pushed the Iraqi Jewish community even closer together raising the bar for familial expectations. From the stories of her family’s flight from Iraq to the stories of the obedient Queen Esther who saved her people from genocide, as a child Ellis was expected to ultimately be fulfilled with being a wife and a mother, a credit to her people. But she was caught between two worlds from her early days. Ever the early Disney girl, as she read The Little Mermaid, she caught on the subtle theme of entrapment. Like Ariel, Ellis was caught between the world of the family she loved and adventure that awaited her in world that books opened to her: the world of travel, imagination, passion, adventure and not necessarily a world of marriage as imagined for her. It took Ellis many years and many heroines to come to terms that she wanted something different for herself. Anne of Green Gables taught her it was OK to have imagination, Lizzy Bennet that she did not need to settle for anyone other than who she herself wanted, Scarlett O’Hara that it was OK to have spirit, Franny Glass that it was OK to be different, and finally back to her origins, Scheherazade taught her that ultimately story telling can save your life.

Ultimately Ellis’ book is about finding yourself and as a youngish woman of a certain age, I can identify. My own family’s expectations for me were impressed on me from the same young age as Ellis was. I may not have been raised in an Iraqi Jewish family, but let me tell you, a Ukrainian Jewish family is not different. At any rate, Ellis’ point is universal, nations may be different, but expectations are cross-cultural. Families most often than not want the same future for their children that their parents wanted for them: freer, brighter, more diverse, but the same future. My parents wanted me to marry young and have a family young, and though I didn’t have heroines to help guide me along, like Ellis, I wanted my future to be on my own terms. I used books as an escape, not necessarily from any particular fate or concern, but almost as a way to affirm that sticking to my own path was alright. I didn’t really need to find myself but what I needed from reading was to re-affirm that my own choices were strong and my own, not my parents’. I would like to think that I am still satisfied with sticking to my own little path.

Anyway, with so many heroines populating the book, I got me some reading and possible re-reading to do. I’ve been meaning to try out Wuthering Heights again and I strongly suspect I’ll be coming down on the side of Jane Eyre over Cathy. I stumbled over so many potential stories to hear for the first time or for the tenth.

I hope that you guys will give this book a read as well and enjoy it as much as I did. And I am off to the land of Gone with the Wind which I picked up pretty much as soon as I finished this.

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From the fingertips of Eugenia S

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Though the last one is not done

I will be selecting my next book because I still haven’t found the time to rewatch the movie for 2:1 seal I got planned for y’all. I am very excited about this book since I found it through my library. The pretty cover grabbed my attention so I glanced it over a bit and decided, yeah this sounds like a good one. It was only later that I discovered that it is very fitting to my blog so I get to share with everyone this awesome read (I hope) since i have already sent the e-book library loan back twice, third time is the charm! It referenced Jane Eyre on the book cover so that’s a reason 5 million and infinity why I have to read it.

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From the fingertips of Eugenia S

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Oh Exodus, my Shemot, how empty you make me feel

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I am a bit embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize the significance of the title of the memoir. I want to say I was at least a third into the book before it quite literally dawned on me that Deborah Feldman was making a sort of a literary pun. Or at least to my non-writer eye, that’s how it came off. But anyway, here is my eureka moment that took about eighty pages to come.

The uniqueness of a sequel is the very fact that it gives the reader an opportunity to see what happens next. One of the most obvious (or you know, 80 pages into it) ways to view Deborah Feldman’s Exodus is as a parallel to the story of the actual biblical Exodus. At the end of her last book, like Moses and the rest of the Jews, Feldman leaves behind all of the familiar institutions and places never to come back. She steps out in to the wilderness of America in search of her own land of milk and honey, the land where she can both put down her roots and discover once again what it means to be herself. And like Biblical Jews, Feldman wanders in the desert that is the world of non-Satmar. Each chapter of Exodus is organized as a way to look at different ways that Feldman explores the American wilderness. With chapter names such as “inheritance”, “enlightenment” and “reincarnation” Feldman explores living on her own for the first time, while inexplicably still attempting to find some kind of a  connection to the family she left behind, or perhaps her root. She travels to Europe to get in touch with her beloved grandmother’s Holocaust survival story and almost magically finds the graves of her great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother in an overgrown field where all the other tombstones have long since been erased. She explores relationships with various men that she herself chooses in contrast to her former arranged marriage. She travels across United States in search of a new home exploring Colorado, Utah, Chicago. She searches, searches, searches, for herself. And according to the last page of the book, she finds herself

I will admit that this time around, there were quite a lot more things that I had a hard time swallowing and believing. For large portions of the book, Feldman’s son is barely mentioned. She mentions him briefly in the context of the fact that both of them were unable to fit in the other Jewish neighborhoods in New York. She mentions him staying with his father during summer vacations. But mostly, throughout more than two hundred pages of the book, she makes no mention of him at all. Considering that her son’s future was just a driving force for Feldman to leave her community, the omission bothered me. Maybe this was Feldman’s decision due to her son’s young age or because of consideration for  her ex-husband. Either way, it sat oddly with me.

The plot line itself was bot as compelling and urgent as Unorthodox. Chronology jumped all over the places. There were flashbacks within flashbacks and often it was hard to find cohesion between chapters. In some ways they were almost like individual short stories stitched together into a semblance of a book. Don’t get me wrong, the writing and emotion evoked by the writing felt genuine enough, but as a flowing story, it lacked greatly. This may seem like an odd interpretation but the book’s structure struck as almost, I don’t know, too writery. It felt as if she was trying way too hard to make it seem like a serious opus. And in doing so, she lost a lot of the free flowing, seamless transition. Ok, I will just come out and say it, I like things to be told chronologically. There is absolutely nothing wrong with flashbacks, but as a reader I’d like to be able to figure out WHEN thing are happening.

I think the thing that bothered me the most was Feldman’s utter naivete. I will give her kudos for admitting this to the world, but once again, I can’t see that I believed it. It’s one thing to just be coming out of the world of enclosure. I get that it takes years to get acclimated to new life, to catch up on the news, to meet new people, to get enough of television, movies, food, you name it. But for several years before she left, Feldman was getting in touch with the secular world by reading secular materials, by eating unkosher food, etc so her culture shock couldn’t have been THAT bad. Yet she wants me to believe that racism in New Orleans and anti-semitism in Europe caught her completely off guard. This after several years (or hell maybe it was the next month since her chronology is impossible to follow) of living on the outside of the Satmar world.  In some ways, I felt like she almost fetishized certain aspects of American life, or I don’t know, maybe bought into stereotypes. I mean, what are the chances of her starting her drive across the county in San Francisco on Pride weekend after meeting many “typical” Bay Area people with their hippie lifestyle and non-judgemental living? Then of course there is the typical American males she dates and one can’t forget the blonde, blue eyed jock American convert to Judaism that she wishes to have met before he “turned.”

Do I really buy that Feldman belongs? I buy that SHE thinks so which is I guess what matters most. But I didn’t really see it. All the fluttering about and suddenly she declares herself to belong. Maybe if her story flowed together better, I could see how Feldman came to a place of belonging but instead, I just felt confused and scattered. Frankly, I think she is still wandering in the desert.

From the fingertips of Eugenia S

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Guess what?

Unable to find time during the week to finish my review I instead started re-reading! Go “Everything is Illuminated!” I’ve read it twice and I still greatly prefer the movie but I felt like something not terribly serious so Jewish magical realism it is. In the meantime enjoy some videos from the movie. Maybe I’ll do a two in one review!

Fun fact: did you know that Alex in the movie is played by Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of Gogol Bordello?

How gorgeous is the land of my birth?

From the fingertips of Eugenia S

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Filed under Coming Next, Future Reviews

Too many choices are paralyzing

I feel like switching up right now. I know I’ve been saying for a month that I want to do Maggie Anton’s book next but last night it dawned on me that last time I went to the library (yes actual physical building that happens to be conveniently two blocks away from my work), I grabbed only books that would be blog appropriate. So there are three (count them three!)books that seem exceptionally promising sitting on my desk right now gathering dust while instead I am reading about George III on my tablet. How am I over-committing myself already? Its only going to be my fifth review.

So…….I shall be choosing amongst the three very different books below (interesting how all the covers feature woman but only in Anton’s book do we actually see a face – must because in the ancient times women were less shy about their faces?). Maybe I’ll review the next one. Maybe I will read for pleasure of it alone.

So it may be I will next find myself in Babylon with Hisdadukh or Istanbul with Hannah amongst the opulence of the Ottoman court. Or perhaps in NYC again with the sequel to Unorthodox.

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From the fingertips of Eugenia S

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Filed under Coming Next, Personal Reflections

My three minutes in Poland – dedicated to victims and survivors

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I will start my review with a disclaimer. Below are my musings on this amazing book, not what I would call a review in any strict sense.

Why this book?
I first came across this story a few months ago. One of the Jewish groups I am a member of on Facebook, posted a link to a video that was described as showing a few moments in a Polish shtetl on the eve of World War II. I clicked on the link, watched the video and promptly almost burst out in tears at my desk. I’ve watched my share of documentaries on the atrocities of the Nazi genocide and both “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist” made me cry so hard that I had given myself migraines. So I thought myself if not immune, then at least somewhat stronger in what I can handle. It’s an entirely different experience to watch the dead when they are visibly dead. It’s heartbreaking. It’s monstrous. But you CAN’T do a thing about it. It’s a whole other kind of hell to watch happy people crowding around a camera hoping to see what’s going on, hoping to get on film, or completely oblivious of the fact that a camera is recording their every moves knowing that within a number of years that one can count on a single hand most of them would be murdered. How do you reconcile the knowledge of the end with visions of mundane times? And then while indulging in my weekly search for a new book to read through my library, I stumbled on Glenn Kurtz’s ” Three Minutes in Poland,” the book spawn of the film. I will honestly admit that I was crying while still reading the intro. This was some feat as I began reading it while commuting to work on a local train and local train ride is not a place where one wants to admit vulnerability.

The story
So how does a film strip translate into a book? In 2009 Glenn Kurtz stumbles on a film of his grandparents’ long ago European vacation while going through stored items at his parents’ house in Florida. Amongst such popular European tourist “traps” as Paris and Switzerland, for merely a day in 1938 David and Lena (Liza) Kurtz visit a Polish town Nasielsk where David was born in the late 1880s and shoot three short minutes in a life of the largely Jewish shtetl a mere year before the Nazi occupation. Its three minutes of sweeping panoramic views of the town’s pride and joy, the synagogue, three minutes of children jumping into the screen, three minutes of people going about their day oblivious to the camera, never in the know what is just around the corner.  Kurtz, however, is not oblivious to the significance of the film and gets in touch with the Holocaust Museum in DC to get the film restored and documented as part of the Steven Spielberg Video and Film archive. The entirety of the 14 minute film (both in color and black-and-white) including the 3 minutes in Poland are now available for view at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and can be viewed at this link. The David Kurtz Collection </a

The story could have ended there but in fact it was just the beginning. A granddaughter of a Nasielsk man viewed the video and recognized her grandfather in a thirteen year full faced boy angling for screen time in several separate moments of the film. She got in touch with the Holocaust Museum and eventually Kurtz himself. This discovery took him away from the novel he was trying to write and sent him in a multi-year and multi continent search (even into the bitch of a Polish irrigation ditch) to learn about Nasielsk, to tell as many stories of the Nasielskers still alive and to identify as many people in the film as possible and tell their stories. In the course of the search we meet Morry, Grace, Lesley and others, the few remaining Holocaust survivors of the 80 Jews from the 3,000 strong Jewish community. From some Kurtz learns about Orthodox childhood in a Jewish town. From others he learns gossip from the long ago. From most he learns about their survival in the sea of death. And to all of them Kurtz brings back painful memories while putting them once more face to photo with their neighbors, friends, and parents for the first time since 1939.

Lessons of “Three Minutes”
So. I loved this book. I didn’t want to stop reading it. I cried. I smiled. I cried again. And I was filled with love for my people and their strength. This book was a bright light from the time of shadows. It made me once again consider the miracle of my grandparents’ survival. Like some of the Nasielskers, my maternal grandparents were evacuated from their homes to other lands, in their case, Central Asia where they eventually met each other. And like some others, my paternal grandparents spent the war years in the ghetto but were saved by the miracle of geographic chance. They were lucky and here I am. The times for the Jews are once again trying. Anti-Semitism is not eradicated. There is still plenty of hate and violence. This is why it is important to remember these stories, and to give them life. Kurtz says “It’s going back and saying, Yes, there was a world.” This is the world that we must remember, honor and cherish. This is the world of Nasielsk, of Shargorod, of Warsaw, of Vilna, of Kiev. As a child of survivors and the heir of those that made it and those that did not, it is my responsibility to share their story. And in the trying times of today when a Jewish fraternity in my alma mater, UC Davis, gets defaced by swastikas, when a kosher supermarket in Paris gets attacked and people within are killed because of who they are, I must stand up and say along with Kurtz, “In a place where there is no person to make a difference, strive to be that person.”

In time for the Auschwitz Liberation Day, this is dedicated equally to victims and survivors.

Additional information
For those interested, here are a few more interesting relevant links.
1. A link from a talk Kurtz did for Ted.

2. Glenn Kurtz’s page about the book

3. Washington Post Review

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Filed under Personal Reflections, Reviews