• 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.

  • The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon **** (of 4)

    Hard to say if this book plays in Peoria, but Chabon prepares a perfect rendition of two genres: 1940s noir detective novels and Yiddish culture. A murder occurs in a sleazebag motel on the wrong side of the tracks in Sitka Alaska, home to Jews who were permitted to settle there after Palestine failed as a Jewish state following WWII. Arab – Israeli conflicts are replaced by Chasidic – Tlingit ones. The hard-drinking detective drinks slivovitz from the old country instead of whiskey; chasidic hoodlums hang in gangs on street corners discussing how to launder stolen money and what’s the talmudic way to kosher pots; and the detective has to follow his chief-of-police, ex-wife (he’s still in love with her) on his hands and knees through an escape tunnel, but all he can think about is how much he misses being able to bite her tushy. The parody holds for the entire book and the more you know about murder-mysteries and Yiddish culture, the more you’ll enjoy it. June 2007.

  • The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon **** (of 4)

    Hard to say if this book plays in Peoria, but Chabon prepares a perfect rendition of two genres: 1940s noir detective novels and Yiddish culture. A murder occurs in a sleazebag motel on the wrong side of the tracks in Sitka Alaska, home to Jews who were permitted to settle there after Palestine failed as a Jewish state following WWII. Arab – Israeli conflicts are replaced by Chasidic – Tlingit ones. The hard-drinking detective drinks slivovitz from the old country instead of whiskey; chasidic hoodlums hang in gangs on street corners discussing how to launder stolen money and what’s the talmudic way to kosher pots; and the detective has to follow his chief-of-police, ex-wife (he’s still in love with her) on his hands and knees through an escape tunnel, but all he can think about is how much he misses being able to bite her tushy. The parody holds for the entire book and the more you know about murder-mysteries and Yiddish culture, the more you’ll enjoy it. June 2007.

  • The World to Come by Dara Horn *** (of 4)

    On the plus side I learned a lot about Chagall. Dara Horn writes well. She channels the great Yiddish authors like Peretsky, Singer, Sholom Aleichem, and Nachman of Bratslav. She has compiled a modern version of the angst, absurdity, folklife, and culture of Yiddishkeit. But on the minus side Horn has also created a story that wanders aimlessly, sometimes is senseless to the point of distraction, and admits the entrance of the supernatural (yes, these are all features of the great age of Yiddish literature) in ways that divert her story rather than move it along. September 2008.