• The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol **** (of 4)

    unamericansEight short stories about young and old Jews in America and in Israel and every character elicits your sympathy.  Antopol starts her stories in the middle of a discussion you might have just dropped in upon and within moments you are riveted by people so real, angst so visceral, and tension so necessary to resolve it is at once remarkable it is only a story that you are reading and even more exceptional that it is a short story at that.  In one, a pair of brothers living in Israel must come to terms with the fact that the younger, less talented, and less capable has saved the life of the older, more handsome, and more successful-in-every-way brother.  In another, a B-grade actor is released from a year in jail after getting caught up with communist actors and directors during the McCarthy era.  A young Israeli, in a third story, is, forced home to live with her parents when her overseas career as a journalist burns out but falls in lust with a slightly older widower who has a troubled teenage daughter.  How would you balance an unexpected love affair, fizzled career hopes, your parents, and a teenager living her despairing father and without her mother?  Neither the plotlines, nor the list of protagonists does justice to this series of stories that all seem to revolve about a single aphorism.  “Be careful what you wish for.”  A must read of a young author’s first book — Antopol is in her early 30s.

  • Yiddishkeit by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle *** (of 4)

    yiddishkeit_62025Even the title of the book isn’t really translatable, encompassing as it does more than a language.  Yiddishkeit is a people, it’s culture, and an era of history, all but obliterated by the Nazis.  So all the more interesting to take on a language, a sound, and the essence of Ashkenazi Judaism in a graphic novel, that is with pictures.  Yiddishkeit, the book and the culture, are a sprawling amalgam of history and storytelling, plays and text, cartoons, and serious literary analysis, and above all, opinionated.  Pekar, Buhle, and their coauthors have assembled a textbook with a surprising format, but they capture the spirit and for those of us that love Yiddishkeit, we are glad that they have.blog-yiddishkeit-122211-copy

  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss *** (of 4)

    history-of-loveOn the upside, the main character Leo Gursky, who survived the Nazi invasion of his Polish village of Slonim by hiding in the woods for three years, surviving on worms and stolen potatoes, is so indelibly drawn by Nicole Krauss that now, sixty years later, you can hear the gravel in his voice and feel the sadness in his heart.  Leo’s one and only love, Alma, slipped out of Poland just before the Nazi invasion and when Leo finally finds her in New York City after the war, he learns that Alma, thinking Leo had perished along with the rest of the villagers, has married another.  For the next sixty years he pines for his lost Alma (Spanish, by the way, for soul.)  If only the plot were so simple.  Instead, there are novels within novels, sometimes even multiple versions of novels within novels, the question of who is speaking at any given time is revealed only by obscure glyphs above chapter headings, and the relationships between characters is so confounding that a reader will do well to map their connections.  While there are scenes that float from the page, as real as Leo, the book as a whole is hard to follow without a scorecard.

  • Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman *** (of 4)

    Feldman-UNORTHODOX-jacket2It’s hard being female in a Hasidic community.  It’s impossible to question authority in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, inside the dense community of Satmar Hasids.  If, however, you are like the author, Deborah Feldman, both female, and a rebel, then life can be stultifying.  Deborah’s father is a certifiable retard.  Her mother, married to her father by arrangement without ever having met him, leaves the community soon after Deborah’s birth and is shunned.  Deborah is raised by rebbe-fearing relatives and devout grandparents, psychologically burdened Holocaust survivors.  Deborah chafes beneath the straightjacket restrictions of orthodox life: no secular education, no reading in English, no speaking with the opposite sex, no post-high school education.  No thinking.  Only faith.  As we watch Deborah crumble under the weight of it all, and as her anger (and anxieties) increase, the rebel in me also raised some questions.  Without doubting Deborah’s personal misfortunes, I began to wonder what part of Hasidism is appealing.  To Deborah, the entire religious community is out to squash her like an ant crawling aimlessly on a Brooklyn sidewalk, but surely some men and women must find orthodoxy satisfying.  Why?  If Deborah wasn’t so equally close-minded as her adversaries, might there be a middle ground.  Apparently, her forthcoming book, Exodus, asks some of the same questions.

  • Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller *** (of 4)

    norwegianSheldon Horowitz is 82-years-old with a prostate, he lets us know right away, the size of a watermelon.  After his wife’s recent death he is schlepped to Oslo, Norway to be cared for by his granddaughter and her inscrutable Norwegian husband. All  Norwegians, he says, are like boy scouts.  They all seem so good and upstanding and emotionless.  Horowitz may or may not be senile, but he has some repenting to do for not having been old enough to fight the god damn Nazis during World War II.  He gets the chance to make amends when an upstairs neighbor in need of shelter from her abusive boyfriend is absorbed, with her son, into Sheldon’s apartment.  Only the vicious neighbor busts down the door, murders the girlfriend while Sheldon and the boy hide, and Sheldon relying on skills he may or may not have learned as a soldier in the Korean War takes flight with the woman’s young son.  Norwegian by Night combines the suspense of a thriller with some serious pondering about the meaning and value of memory.  A very fun read.

  • Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English ** (of 4) by Natasha Solomons

    Mr. Rosenblum and his wife Sadie arrive in England as German refugees in 1937.  Mr. Rosenblum wants so desperately to assimilate that he keeps lists of all things British to emulate:  manners of speech, foods, how to carry an umbrella, fold a handkerchief.  He is indifferent to his wife’s longing for memory, so much so that without telling her he purchases land in the English countryside to build a golf course.  He does so only after being denied admittance to every golf club near London because of his Jewish heritage.  Alas, that’s the whole story.  The characters, even British country-siders are stock, the drama is minimal, the loss of heritage is sad, and I don’t really know if Mr. Rosenblum is finally accepted in British society or not, because I never finished the book.

  • The Free World by David Bezmozgis *** (of 4)

    A paean to the Russian virtue to endure.  This set of Russians are Jewish emigres, among the first to be granted permission to escape the crumbling, anti-Semitic,  communist Soviet Union of the 1970s.  A three-generation family takes all their worldly belongings in suitcases and valises to Rome where they wait for permission to move on to the U.S., Canada, Australia, or as a last resort, Israel.  And they wait.  Like a Chekhov play, nothing happens and everything happens.  Characters run on and off stage, great drama accompanied by wild Russian curses, befall them, and like the lives they left behind they wait on lines, drink vodka, endure hardships, laugh, engage in romance, traffic with other Russians, are buffeted by global attempts to politicize their plight, and remain rooted and stateless in Rome.  Bezmozgis overlays a contemporary Jewish twist on an ancient Russian fable and so so with charm, respect, and wit.

  • The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern *** (of 4)

    A Chasidic Rabbi from the olden country goes out to meditate on the meaning of God, falls into a trance, and then a lake that freezes over him, where he lies, smiling, encased in ice before being discovered and chipped out by Yossl King of Cholera.  His frozen body is preserved for more than a century before thawing out during a 1999 power failure in the Memphis freezer of a discount furniture salesman.  The Rabbi wakes, learns English and channels a southern revivalist, kabbalistic preacher. while we, the readers,  While the Rabbi becomes a huge business success, we, the readers, simultaneously follow his frozen journey through the generations of Jews that protected for this Yiddisher ice cube from shtetl to Tennessee. Often, laugh out loud funny — the more Yiddish or Borscht belt humor you know, the funnier — and occasionally too obtuse.  There are deeper messages in this text about spirituality, God, Kabalah, and family, but I’m afraid they were just far enough below the surface I couldn’t quite bring them to focus.

  • Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple

    A journalist who traveled from childhood memories to adult memories from urban NY to Austria’s highest peaks in search of Hans Breuer, Yiddish folk singer and “last wandering shepherd of Austria.” Apple manages to seamlessly tie shepherding and Yiddish into his questions about post-war Austria and contemporary anti-semitism in Europe suspensefully and full with satisfaction.