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.

Reflecting on my identity, an honest admission

I’m ready to admit that this summer has been an emotional roller coaster for me. Now, I can look back on it and say that I am proud of myself and grateful to all those who helped me along the way. A few months ago I was feeling that I had no control of my own life or even my own identity. 

My job was scheduled to drastically change, my volunteer leadership term was ending, my youngest child was getting married. If not the Pinewood Librarian, The Congregational President and a Mom, who was I?

One of the things that helped me through was hearing author Janice Kaplan, speak about her book, The Gratitude Diaries (2015).  Ms. Kaplan spoke about the Jewish influence in her quest to be more grateful. In the book, Kaplan shares her own experiences during a year that she challenged herself to look at the positive in order to change her own attitude. She cites research and experts as well as her own experiences. 

In time, I realized that I had the skills to get another job. Starting in September, I’ll be the librarian at Okte Elementary School in the Shenendehowa district.  I volunteered to be the Librarian, Philanthropy Chair, and Gala organizer at Congregation Gates of Heaven. I am reprising my role as ENYSLMA (School Librarian Professional Association) President and I started this blog.  I even discovered that instead of being mommy to two boys I am now a mom and mother-in -law of four amazing adults. 

I feel much more in control of my life both because of the changes I made and by understanding how gratitude can help all of us see life’s big and small challenges in a positive way. As Janice Kaplan says in her book, “Looking for the positive in every event had changed my attitude– and it was also fun. I feel liberated to understand that it wasn’t events that made me happy but how I chose to frame them.” 

I am truly grateful for the communities I am involved in. Again quoting Janice Kaplan, “We don’t feel more gratitude just because we’re rich. In fact, gratitude is sometimes helped by scarcity. You wouldn’t say a crust of bread makes you happy, but if you’re starving, getting a few crumbs makes you very very grateful.” I realize Kaplan was talking about a scarcity of money. But for me, I was nervous about an upcoming scarcity of meaningful experiences; and now I’m very grateful for my new job, new role as blogger and continued volunteer engagement.
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A Doctor’s Memoir

“What do you do?” is the first thing adults ask each other when we meet. I’m always interested in other people’s professions. This Narrow Space is a doctor’s Memoir; I love memoirs of average non-famous people and this one is especially well written and gripping.

Dr. Waldman shares in an honest and emotional way his thoughts about medicine, patients and hospitals. He talks about his own growth within the field. This Narrow Space: A Pediatric Oncologist, His Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Patients, and a Hospital in Jerusalem (2017) has a long title that doesn’t exactly do the book justice. Dr. Elisha Waldman is a pediatric palliative care specialist who started out as an oncologist. He does a wonderful job educating his readers about palliative medicine. I had all of the misconceptions that he described.

This book is also about the author’s move to Israel, his Zionism and his conflicted feelings about being a doctor at Hadassah Hospital. He also speaks about his young patients who come from many cultures. Each person’s story is heartwrenching. Dr. Waldman explains why he got into such a difficult field and how he is able to keep his own feelings under control.

This is a very satisfying read about: medicine, religion, culture, the doctor-patient relationship, Israeli bureaucracy, and Jewish values. Don’t miss it!

World at War, People in Love

The book everyone is talking about is The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018)  by Heather Morris. I try to avoid holocaust stories but somehow they always find me.  So many people raved about this one that I borrowed the audio version from my library. Within a few minutes, I was hooked.  

The book starts on the cattle car. Lale, survives by doing one of the most memorable jobs in the camp, he tattoos the numbers on the new prisoners. Due to his privileged position, he witnesses much more than the typical captive. Therefore we the reader, (or the listener) is exposed to so many nazi horrors. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is going on my list of all-time best holocaust reads. The story of Lale Sokolov and the woman he meets while tattooing her will stay with me for a very long time. 

Although the story is true and written based on the recollections of a survivor, it reads like a novel. Due to some invented dialogue and filled in details, the author opted to release the book as fiction.  Share this book with as many people as possible. It’s all of our obligation to never let the world forget! 

If you want a much gentler World War II love story, read The Long Flight Home (2019)  by Alan Hlad. Ollie lives in Maine before America enters the war. A series of tragic circumstances lead him to attempt to enlist in the Royal Air Force.  It’s also the story of Susan and her grandfather who raise pigeons in the British countryside. The pigeons are both pets and weapons of war. 

Told with gentle, tender language this cozy love story set during World War II deals with fascinating true events. There is no mention of the holocaust or Judaism but both Susan and Ollie risk their lives to stop the Nazis.

Both books shine a light on love in difficult circumstances.