What’s new on the bookshelves?
First.. the most buzzed about books this Autumn are:
From the Pulitzer finalist and best-selling author of a Haggadah, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and The Ministry of Special Cases, this is a political thriller that unfolds in the highly charged territory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pivots on the complex relationship between a secret prisoner and his guard. It is John le Carré meets Jerusalem and Paris and the on again off again Peace Process. It is set between 2002, during the Second Intifada, and 2014, when Ariel Sharon died
A prisoner in a secret cell; Prisoner Z. He has no name. He doesn’t officially exist. A guard has watched over him a dozen years. He is an American spy for Israel (not Pollard). His nurse is his guard’s mother. There is an American waitress in Paris; and a young Palestinian man in Berlin who strikes up an odd friendship with a wealthy Canadian businessman. And there is The General (no, not Ariel Sharon…), Israel’s most controversial leader, who lies dying in a hospital, the only man who knows of the prisoner’s existence. From these vastly different lives Nathan Englander has woven a powerful, intensely suspenseful portrait of a nation riven by insoluble conflict, even as the lives of its citizens become fatefully and inextricably entwined–a political thriller of the highest order that interrogates the anguished, violent division between Israelis and Palestinians, and dramatizes the immense moral ambiguities haunting both sides. Who is right, who is wrong–who is the guard, who is truly the prisoner?
In a recent review, Steven Stern wrote that this novel is “…a guilty pleasure — guilty because you wonder throughout if a book highlighting the endless cycles of trespass and vengeance that define the modern state of Israel should be quite so much fun.” Read Englander’s recent New York Times essay on being identified as a Jewish-American novelist.
It was Einstein who wrote, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Rabbi Levy explores the meaning and purpose of the soul, inspired by a correspondence between Albert Einstein and a grieving rabbi.
A rabbi once wrote to Albert Einstein after WWII and the Holocaust after the rabbi lost his son to polio. Rabbi Robert Marcus, a U.S. Army chaplain, had a backstory, having helped to save and escort many children to France and Palestine after Buchenwald was liberated (including one who would grow up to be a famous novelist). The rabbi sought some solace or insight from the famed Jewish physicist. Einstein wrote, “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness…”
Rabbi Naomi Levy came across this poignant letter by Einstein. It shook her to her core. She had known extreme loss. She recently survived cancer, and in her first book, To Begin Again, we learned about he father’s murder and her own road to the rabbinate. In her book of prayers, Talking to God, we also received insights into her loss and pain, as well as joy.
Einstein’s words captured what Rabbi Levy has come to believe about the human condition: That we are intimately connected, and that we ARE BLIND to this truth. Rabbi Levy wondered what had elicited such spiritual wisdom from a man of science? Thus began a three-year search into the mystery of Einstein’s letter, and into the mystery of the human soul. The book is somewhat of a mystery and scavenger hunt, as Levy tries to track down the rabbi and his family. Levy teaches the soul operates in our world on three levels — nefesh (level 1); ruach (level 2: love, connections, intimacy); and nishama (level 3, that which is felt but not seen, the delusion that we are separate).
Ilana Kurshan grew up on Long Island, NY, the daughter of a rabbi, in a family that had to sit in the front pews,… with all eyes on them. She attended a Schecter school through eighth grade. A voracious reader, she studied at Harvard and became a translator and literary agent. Marrying, she and her husband, like many young Jewish couples, moved to Israel to start their newlywed lives. Sadly, the marriage quickly faltered after the move, and a painful divorce followed.
Kurshan, devastated found solace in the Daf Yomi, the daily study of a page of Talmud. An accomplished literary analyst, she began to track the events and feelings of her daily life as the related to each page, She chose late night Talmud classes, plerhaps so that she could avoid being home alone. A divorced woman, she wondered if she would find love again.
Here she was in the promised land of dreams, yet she was feeling lost in the wilderness. But studying a page (Daf) a day (Yomi), and joining the tens of thousand of others around the world who study the same page, each day, of the Babylonian Talmud over the seven and a half years it takes to finish all the tractates, was like a daily dose of Xanax — an anchor on the seas of ink (but not one that drowns you).
Slowly, the reader follows Kurshan as she recovers from divorce and an eating disorder and seeks new love and pregnancy. Along the way, she shares her insights and compares the rabbis with her literary heroes. She lugs a heavy tractate with her everywhere, even on the flights to literary conferences in Europe. Actually, there is a page on her interrogation by an El Al security agent at Heathrow that throws her into a sadness. (Where are you going? Why do you live in Israel if your friends are elsewhere? Why, Why Why, etc.) But fortunately the structure of the daf yomi was there to help.
This memoir is a tale of alliteration: heartache and humor, love and loss, marriage and motherhood,
and of learning to put one foot in front of the other by turning page after page.
OyMG… WHO KNEW?
The memoir of a woman who leaves her faith and her marriage and sets out to navigate the terrifying, liberating terrain of a newly map-less world. From a celenrated novelist of The Ladies Auxiliary; The Outside World; and Visible City.
Born and raised in a tight-knit Orthodox Jewish family in Tennessee, Tova Mirvis committed herself to observing the rules and rituals prescribed by Modern Orthodox Judaism. To observe was to be accepted, and to be accepted was to be loved. She married a man from within the fold, frequented the mikva monthly, and began a family.
But over the years, her doubts became noisier than her faith, and at age forty (Mem, 40 years in the desert, 40 days with Noah, 40 days to embalm Joseph…) she could no longer breathe in what had – to her – for her – become a suffocating existence.
Even though it would mean the loss of her friends, her community, and possibly even her family, Tova decides to leave her husband and her faith. Plus, it becuase the basis of a memoir about not fitting in, listening to the inner voice, and stroking out on her own (with her kids, of course) She forges a new way of life in Massachusetts; she and her kids struggle with divorce and the new identity of “not Orthodox.”
by Nicole Krauss
Nicole Krauss can be relied on to author brilliant, inspired novel that deal with Jewish issues.
Instead of calling it FOREST DARK… it should be called SCRATCHY COAT (His nice coat and cell phone are taken from the coat check at the Plaza and he is stuck with a scratchy coat from the Palestinian delegation).
In Forest Dark, Jules Epstein, a man whose drive, avidity, and outsized personality have, for sixty-eight years, been a force to be reckoned with, is undergoing a metamorphosis. The book opens and he is lost in the Negev. And now we backtrack to see how he got there.
In the wake of his parents’ deaths, his divorce from his wife of more than thirty years, and his retirement from the New York legal firm where he was a partner, he’s felt an irresistible need to give away his possessions, alarming his children and perplexing the executor of his estate. What if everything he based his life on was false.
With the last of his wealth, he travels to Israel, with a hazy inchoate plan to do something to honor his parents… like.. build a forest in Israel.
In Tel Aviv, he is sidetracked by a charismatic American rabbi planning a reunion for the descendants of King David who insists that Epstein is part of that storied dynastic line. (Isn’t it funny how some rabbis always find the wealthy guy and convince them of some sort of lineage for their project?) (He met the Kabbalistic Tzfat rabbi at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan where all the biggest Jews are meeting (Dershowitz, etc) to talk about Peace.)
Epstein also meets the rabbi’s beautiful daughter who convinces Epstein to become involved in her own project — a film about the life of King David being shot in the desert. This trip may have life changing consequences, of course.
Also, leaving her family in New York City is a young, well-known novelist. (OMG. Nicole Krauss is a young novelist from Brooklyn, too) She arrives at the Tel Aviv Hilton where she has stayed every year since birth; she was probably conceived there. It’s brutal and imposing size is sort of a portal perhaps. Troubled by writer’s block and a failing marriage (Park Slope has that effect on some), she hopes that the hotel can unlock a dimension of reality — and her own perception of life — that has been closed off to her. But when she meets a retired literature professor who proposes a project she can’t turn down, she’s drawn into a mystery that alters her life in ways she could never have imagined.
In a recent issue of the New York Times, Krauss shared her attitudes as a Jewish American novelist towards Israel and her use of King David, who she writes was an actual historical figure who was wily, charismatic, cunning, magnetic, brutal, a flawed hero, cutthroat warrior, murderer, ambitious politician, and willing to do whatever it took to become king, and manipulate the love of Saul, Jonathan, Michal, Bathsheba, of everyone who ever came close to him.