Judenrein: a dystopian page turner

Judenrein (2020) by Harold Benjamin is an action-thriller set in an alternative modern-day America.

For their own protection American Jews are forced to give up their property and their occupations.  The Jews are rounded up and put in ghettos called Kike Kennels. But this is not the holocaust of the 1940s, the displaced people receive food stamps and are allowed to have religious services. 

The round-ups started when liberal Jews sided with the PLO then the Presidential- Flag waving, Maga- hat-wearing crowd, accuse all Jews of being terrorists. 

The main character, Zach was a yeshiva educated kid who got into trouble and was thrown out of his family and his religion. He is a recovering Junkie with little ties to the Jewish community. When he is recruited to help the Jews in the Kennels, Zach considers that he is being set up. FBI agents, Presidential advisors, and even the President are characters in the novel. 

The story moves quickly, there is lots of action and violence. Throughout the book I wondered, along with Zach, who was trustworthy and who was not. Short chapters, lots of action, and many references to Orthodox Jewish Culture made Judenrein an intriguing story.

Reading it during the COVID-19 Shut down made the story even scarier. Judenrein is a work of fiction that puts white supremacists in charge of America–it makes for an intriguing read and a very frightening scenario. 

I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads.  Recommended for those who like Dan Brown & John Grisham. 

A Guide for the Perplexed- and who isn’t perplexed right now?

As events are canceled due to Coronavirus and my school will be closed for at least a week. My first stop was the public library. Yes, I know I can read ebooks but how many hours can one spend looking at a screen?  The library was bustling with patrons and phone calls. Apparently the Schenectady County Public Library system had just announced a two-week shutdown. I arrived at the perfect time. 

This morning my world was more relaxed. No reason to rush, I have nowhere to go!  I snuggled in with Dara Horn’s Novel, A Guide for the Perplexed (2013).  What a treat! 

Josie is a Jewish woman who created a tech company that records everything in your life and sorts the information for instant retrieval. She and her Israeli husband have one daughter. A character who, like all the characters in this story is not perfect. 

Josie’s sister is given a job in the company, purely out of pity. The relationship between these sisters drives the plot. There is a kidnapping, a brutal beating, and new understandings of old memories. 

Other chapters of Horn’s novel are set in the early 1900s as Solomon Schechter, the founder of Conservative Judaism, searches for ancient papers in an Egyptian Synagogue.  A third, equally interesting story involves Maimonides and his search for a cure for Asthma.  

All three stories are interesting, all three deal with the role of memory and the stories we tell ourselves. Each involves siblings and the love and jealousy that comes with the complicated sibling relationship. The three stories tie together to make one very interesting novel.

You’ve got the time–  I can’t wait to discuss this book- it’s a perfect book group selection for when the world returns to normal again. 

Golem Stories- the last one

The Golem and the Jinni (2013) is the third book about a Golem that I’ve posted about. I haven’t been seeking out Golem books, they just find me. This one was selected for our Temple’s co-ed book group. Is the debut novel of Helene Wecker, a Jewish woman married to a  Arab-American man. 

This fantasy novel starts in Europe but mostly takes place in New York City’s immigrant Lower East Side and Little Syria. Set  in the late 1800s; the backdrop for this story is totally factual. It’s the characters who bring the magic. The Golem is polite and obedient. She was created to be a wife and protector. The Jinni is worldly, pleasure seeking and literally full of fire. 

The story has many other characters, some magical, most not. It also has many subplots including one that takes us back hundreds of years. This book is easy to follow. I liked  the Golems storyline the best, perhaps because I feel the most comfortable in the yiddish immigrant world. 

Of the three golem books I’ve blogged about in a row, this one is the best for true fantasy readers. 

A Golem Story, part 2

Alice Hoffman puts a little bit of magic into her newest book, The World That  We Knew (2019).   The Holocaust is not usually where writers include fantasy elements, yet France from 1941-1944 is the backdrop for this work of magical realism.  “In a world where anything could happen and nothing was impossible” a Golem monster was created. A Golem is a creature created out of mud and brought to life with a Hebrew word written upon it. In The World that We Knew a young girl breaks from tradition and creates a female Golem. 

The story has accurate historical details about Nazi occupied France. Only a small part of the book is the story of the Golem and her love affair with a Heron. The fantasy element is the best part of the book, although the plot of Orthodox Jewish sisters trying to escape, secular Jewish brothers trying to resist, and a Christian Housekeeper just trying to stay human is a compelling on it’s own. 

In an essay by Hoffman included in the back of the book, she says that Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is based on the Golem from Jewish Folklore. This imagining of the Golem involves feminism, and gets to the very essence of who is human.   This is a unique telling of a Holocaust story. 

The Monster that Should not have been a Surprise!

I guess I do the whole book rating thing backwards. Instead of reading the reviews to decide what to read, I finish the whole book and then read what everyone else says. This way I can form my own opinions and the story is never ruined for me. 

I’m a new librarian in a school district with an annual Battle of The Books for 5th graders. I needed to read all eleven of the novels;  I liked most of them but one totally surprised me. Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

by Jonathan Auxier. I am embarrassed to admit that I was shocked when magic  appeared in this story. I know, monster is right in the title but I was so absorbed in this Dickens- like tale that I totally did not see the monster hidden in plain sight.

Nan Sparrow is a chimney sweep in Victorian England. She is homeless and hungry but very loved. The Sweep, is what she calls, the father figure who raised her. One day The Sweep disappears leaving her with only a lump of coal. She has no alternative,she has to put herself in dangerous situations just to eat each day. 

I cheered for Nan as she earned money sweeping chimneys and was thrilled when she met a school teacher with a very Jewish name. I certainly was not expecting this book to have a Jewish component but there it was in the middle of an already compelling historical fiction novel. 

Much of this novel seems so real. The lives of chimney sweeps, the poverty and despair of the 1800s and the generosity of children. Sweep didn’t need a fantasy element. But with the addition of Charlie the Golem the book got even better.  I never lost interest in all 368 pages. You can read this book as an adult or read it to discuss it with a child age 10 and up. 

Now you won’t be as surprised with the Jewish connection as I was. But Sweep is still a very worthwhile read. 

Loved the Book, but I was Left Unsatisfied!

Sharon Pomerantz’s Rich Boy (2010) Is about both the lack and overabundance of money.  Robert Vishniak grew up in a poor neighborhood. His Jewish family was obsessed with saving money. Many details of family life in the 1970s are expertly recounted through the eyes of the young main character. 

When Robert goes to college, his roommate is so wealthy that he buys new clothes rather than taking the time to wash them. Robert is exposed to the leisure class, this knowledge alters him forever. Twice in relationships with wealthy women, he constantly feels money pressure. 

Rich Boy is over 500 pages long, and I enjoyed almost every word. With insights such as “Barry had already caught on to what it took Robert years to realize–that the rich liked to consider themselves middle-class. The idea comforted them in some strange way and was about the only thing that they shared in common with the poor.p.409” This novel is a fascinating look at secular Jews both rich and poor.

Yet after finishing this novel I was left unsatisfied. The ending left no surprises, the action was sparse. I wanted more from Rich Boy but only because I loved the characters and the setting. It’s a well-written character-driven novel about the American dream. It was recommended to me by a friend who is related to the author. I would definitely read another book by Sharon Pomerantz, her writing is insightful and compelling. 

Harvey Milk: Jewish, Gay and a UAlbany Student.

Harvey Milk His Lives and Death (2018) by Lillian Faderman 

The University of Albany in the 1950s was very different than it is today!   Harvey Milk attended what was then called, Albany Normal School. Harvey was one of a small number of male students enrolled during the post-war years.  He wrote for the school newspaper where he complained that the student body was apathetic to sports. Milk joined a Jewish fraternity and was active in Hillel. One thing Mr. Milk did not do in Albany, was publicly identify himself as a gay man. 

Harvey’s rise to prominence is detailed in this book. I was surprised by many of the facts presented in the book were not in any films I’ve seen about this legendary gay rights activist.Through the book,  I learned that Harvey was not easily accepted as a representative of the San Francisco Gay community, I was surprised that Harvey Milk considered joining Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana, and that Harvey did not participate in Jewish communal life despite always being proud of his Judaism. 

The author provides a nuanced, human look at Milk’s life. From his Long Island upbringing to his many attempts to find a career, and eventually to his murder, it’s all in the book. I learned that Mr. Milk was no child prodigy destined for greatness. His success came with decades of struggles to find his purpose and his place as a Gay Jew.  His strong personality shows through in this biography.  

Akin- a New Must Read by Emma Donoghue…


One day Noah, a retired NYC professor  receives a phone call–his deceased nephew’s son is in need of a guardian. This eleven year old boy was a complete stranger to Noah.  Certainly a better guardian can be found than a 79 year old! However, there is no one else and so Noah ends up bringing a foul-mouthed, grieving, street- smart boy on his previously planned trip to Paris. The Professor is traveling to solve some mysteries of the generations before him. The novel Akin, spans just one week of time, but the truths uncovered span three generations. 

In France, Noah starts to wonder about his mother’s role in the war. Was she a helper of the Jews or was a she a Nazi collaborator?  None of the main characters in this novel are Jewish but Noah’s wife had been Jew and the idea of his mother helping Nazis is devastating to him. 

Noah’s deceased wife, acts as his conscience talking to him throughout the book, it is a clever way for the reader to better understand Noah. I was charmed by the relationship between Noah and his pre-teen ward. The generation gap leads to language barriers and miscommunications and ultimately to understanding. 

Written by Emma Donoghoe, author of Room. Akin is a quick read with engaging characters.  Oprah recommended it, and she was right; it’s a charmer! 

SUNY Albany or the Israeli Army?

Accidental Soldier

 In 1989 Author Dorit Sasson and I were both at SUNY Albany. I was in my senior year, she was a sophomore. I don’t remember her, I assume we never met. Dorit opted to do something “that was either very brave or very stupid” she withdrew from SUNYA and served over 2 years in the Israeli Army. 

In 2016 she published Accidental Soldier: a memoir of service and sacrifice in the Israel Defense Forces.  Perhaps this book would have been better titled Insecure Soldier because Dorit very intentionally joined the military in order to escape her overly cautious controlling mother.  Apparently Albany was not far enough away from Manhattan for Dorit to feel free from her mom. 

This memoir brings the reader into Dorit’s head. We learn her insecurities and fears of not fitting in socially. We learn that she is more worried about being accepted by her peers than of enemy armies or terrorism. Her self -reflections and pride in her accomplishments made Accidental Soldier a book I could completely relate to even though I’ve never been in similar situations. 

She writes about living on a kibbutz as a volunteer awaiting book camp, “I’m learning how to survive and thrive on my own–developing my own emotional independence so I don’t have to live the rest of my life trapped in fear.” This American must deal with people from all over the world who are also new immigrants to Israel. She comes to understand how the Israeli mentality of the group is different than the American mentality of the individual.  I found the whole book fascinating and highly recommend it. 

Two Adult Brothers, One Roof- Lots of Drama

Family drama is a part of life. Especially if Brothers share a two-family home. One has several young girls, the other has several young boys. The secret shared by the sisters-in-laws isn’t hard for the reader to figure out. When will the characters realize what is going on? That question drives the story.   Set in Brooklyn NY beginning in the 1940s The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (2016) is a character-driven historical novel.

I found it confusing for the first half of the book to recall which name went with each of the adult characters. However, I never lost interest in the story. The families are Jewish, but more importantly, they are human. The author helps us to see the events from each character’s point of view. As the children age, they become individuals who are more and more central to the story. 

The Two brothers share a business and a home. The wives are friends until they are not. From the bar-mitzvahs to the weddings the reader gets to share the everyday craziness of families.  The Two-Family House invited me in and made me want to stay awhile. 

What Really Happens at the Synagogue office?

I’ve been involved in synagogue life for at least twenty years. I just ended a two-year term as president of a Reform Congregation, therefore it’s no surprise that I eagerly delved into The Rabbi Finds Her Way (2019) by Robert Schoen with Catherine deCuir.  Set in a large Reform congregation in California, this book is a delight. It reads like the memoir of a young Rabbi, but it is actually fiction written by a writer/ musician and a cantorial soloist. 

Each of the characters including the Senior Rabbi, the Executive Director and the new congregant are fleshed out folks who I would love to share a Shabbat meal with. The reader is given insight into the main character, Rabbi Pearl, which begins with her childhood friendship with a trauma victim. We also meet the Rabbi as an adult as she deals with gender issues, finding out way too much about the sexual life of those she is pastorally visiting, and the financial indiscretions of a long-time temple employee. 

This book is light, humorous, and a quick read. Is it based on the truth? That’s a topic for discussion. This book will be my  book group choice for my own congregation’s first co-ed book group. So here is my first question: Why were Solomon P. Solomon and his wife Mrs. Solomon a part of this story? Perhaps just to add additional humor or was there something more? Read the book then leave your thoughts in the blog comments or if you’re a Congregation Gates of Heaven member sign up for the book discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book! 

For Fans of the Handmaid’s Tale

Watching the Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu made me realize that I couldn’t remember most of the details of the original story. I remembered that the Handmaid was called to the commander’s office for what she thought would be a sexual tryst but turned out to be a game of scrabble. I remembered the handmaid storing butter to use as a hand cream.  I couldn’t recall how closely the Hulu series mirrored the book so it was time to do something I rarely do, re-read.  

I delved into Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and barely came up for air– it is still one of the best books I’ve ever read.   Most of the book is the same as the first season of the series. The biggest difference is Serena, the commander’s wife and June’s relationship with her.  Then I read Religion in the Handmaid’s Tale (2019) by Colette Tennant, and now I understand both the Hulu series and the book even more.

Tennant explains the obvious, such as why the Rachel and Leah Center is so named. But she also explains the religious symbolism in most characters’ names. As a Jew, I was not aware that Lydia, Martha, and Serena have New Testament connections.  I most certainly did not know that the name Gilead appears several times in the Bible including in Genesis.

Tennant explains that “The Handmaid’s Tale brims over with examples of religion gone awry.” (58). She details misquoted bible passages and references to religion that I did not pick up.  Religion in the Handmaid’s Tale ( 2019)  deals with only the first two seasons of the series but I now that I’ve read this reference guide, I have a deeper understanding of the world of Gilead and how it uses religion for coercion, not spirituality.

Margaret Atwood’s new sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale is titled The Testaments it will be released on September 10. The story is reported to be set 15 years after the original book and will not follow the story line of the Hulu series. Yes, of course, this new Handmaid’s Tale will go on the top of my reading list.