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. 

Shanghai & Torah: two words that don’t usually go together.

An actual Torah which survived the Holocaust by being wrapped around the torso of a refugee would have quite a story to tell. What if that Torah ended up in China? Then the story would be even more interesting!  Briana London took that actual historical framework and turned it into a historical fiction novel that spans three continents and two very distinct cultures.

Shanghai Torah: yuanfen (2018) starts off as a typical Jewish Holocaust tale. When the Rabbi’s family receives visas to emigrate to Japan the story gripped my attention and held it right to the end. The best part of the book was when Moshe the scribe is living in the home of a Master Chinese Poet and his communist leaning son.  Adult parent/child relationships and tradition vs. change are themes woven into the tales of both the Jewish and Chinese families.

This book is a winner for book groups. I think I’ll plan an art night around it.  Now I just need to find some folks who want to read the book then try their hand at Hebrew and Chinese calligraph

How is Fashion Design like a Jewish Book Blog?

I just had a lovely chat with Isaac Mizrahi. Not really, but listening to Mizrahi read his memoir feels like having an intimate conversation with this actor and fashion icon.  I.M. (2019) starts when Isaac is only 5 years old and living with his parents in a observant Jewish home. He attends yeshiva day school and a traditional shul.  His father worked in the garment industry, his mother made a career of shopping for bargain clothes for herself and Isaac’s two older sisters. Isaac was drawn to the clothes. When the other neighborhood boys were playing basketball, Isaac was creating a puppet theater and doing impressions of Barbra Streisand. Not surprisingly, Isaac never felt like he fit into the close-knit Syrian Jewish Community where he was raised. 

Mizrahi’s recollections of this community are not flattering. He cannot wait to leave the traditional Jewish lifestyle. The first section of the book is a fascinating look into Sephardic Judaism in New York. Mizrahi has recaptured his childhood in a way I wish I could do. He shares details that bring his childhood to life. Isaac remembers fantasizing about men all through his childhood. He recalls shame in being gay before he even knew what gay meant. 

Things turn around for Isaac when he goes to The High School For The Performing Arts. He even has a brief spot in Fame the movie.  As Isaac matures he enters the world of fashion. Fashion is not a big concern of mine but the book held my interest right until the very end. Show biz stars, supermodels and designers are all talked about.  Mr. Mizrahi holds nothing back including his own mental health, sexual desires and his disdain for the community he left behind. 

I.M. is inspiring. Mizrahi built a fashion label like no other. He did just because he wanted to. Money was never his driving factor. It was all about being the artist he wanted to be. When he became famous but the art no longer interested him, he closed the shop and went on to something else.  It took courage, hard work and a true belief in his own self-worth. 

On a much much smaller scale, I also am also pursuing art for art’s sake. In my case, it’s this blog.  I’m writing not to make money but for the joy of it. When someone comments or reaches out to me about the blog I am always thrilled. This week I found out that has been included in Top 50 Jewish Blogs

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Sapiens, a book that will shift your view of the world.

I just got back from Alaska, I  traveled on a National Geographic Ship with 100 passengers and 8 naturalists. Most of our time was spent seeing wildlife and learning about them, but we also learned about the Tlingit people who are indigenous to Southeast Alaska.  We were visited by a Tlingit woman who sang for us and told a little bit about her culture.  The naturalists told us that The Tlinglit people were thriving in the 1700s while Europeans were just surviving. I was not surprised, I’ve read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (English version, 2014) by Israeli Author, Yuval Noah Harari. 

Brief, is certainly not a word I would use to describe this book. It’s written in a scholarly way yet I found it captivating.  Harari makes his case that the hunter-gather life was so much better for individual people then we assume. Harari barely mentions Israel or Judaism but he has a lot to say about organized religion in general.

We discussed this book in my co-ed, book group and found many topics to delve into including the pre-history of mankind and the ethics of raising animals for food. If you have some spare time to go way beyond beach reading, pick up Sapiens and have your world view shifted and shifted again. 

She was more than just a movie star, she was a scientist on a mission.

Hedy Lamarr’s life is anything but a typical story. In the historical fiction novel, The Only Woman in the Room (2019), Marie Benedict uses historical facts to highlight a decade of Hedy’s life.  The book opens with Hedy on Stage, bedazzling an Austrian audience in 1933 and ends in Hollywood 1942. 

In between, we are taken into the mind of a beautiful woman, who is a prisoner in her own home. She had wealth and fame but no power. What fascinated me the most, was Hedy’s relationship with Judaism. She was born a Jew but had no connection to it. She even marries in an Austrian Church. After fleeing  Europe, Hedy again faces the choice of embracing her Judaism or burying it. She opts to keep her Jewish Heritage secret because no Jews work in Hollywood, yet no matter how deeply she tries to hide her Judaism, it gnaws at her. 

Hedy was aware of top-level Nazi plans long before much of the rest of the world.   The Only Woman in the Room is not a Holocaust story or a story of an actress rising to fame. It is the story of a strong woman striving to be taken seriously in a man’s world. I will admit to knowing almost nothing about this movie star, through Benedict’s novel I learned that Hedy was way more than a pretty face. 

There are book discussion questions in the back of the book. I wish the author provided more details about what was factual and what was invented. I also want to know what happened to the people Hedy left behind in Austria. I really enjoyed this peek into the world of Hedy Lamarr!

Inheritance: An Ancestry Gift She Never Expected

Last week, I received another email offering me an package for only $59. The email said it is a perfect gift for Father’s Day.  Inheritance: A  Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (2019); proves that knowledge of one’s ancestry is not always the gift you were expecting.

Dani’s family is made up of Orthodox Jews. On her father’s side, she is related to famous Rabbis and community leaders. This has always been a source of pride for non-observant Dani. When her DNA test reveals that she and her half-sister are not genetically related to each other a quick look in the mirror proves that it is Dani who is biologically not part of the family.

The quest to find the truth reveals not an affair but a test tube. 54 years ago Dani’s parents were unable to conceive, they used a fertility institute. The science now tells us that the sperm used was not from her Jewish father but from a stranger of various European ancestry.

Each part of her discovery is beautifully written and made for an engaging read.  But as I read the book, I often thought what does it matter? The man who raised Dani is long dead and Dani’s concerns about not being Jewish are completely unfounded by anyone’s definition.

But then I wondered how I would feel if my parents knowingly lied to me or if my parents were lied to about my origins. The science of genetic testing is chillingly cheap and easy. I know several stories of people who have done the test on a whim and had life-changing consequences. Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance is a beautiful book about one woman’s journey into her truth and perhaps it’s a cautionary tale to those interested in spitting into a test tube just for the fun of it.

This is a book I will definitely yenta about, it will make a for a good book group discussion.

You’ll love these books or be shocked…

For a woman sentenced by God, Naamah is surprised by how often He allows her to take a god-like role.”  

Naamah A Novel (2019) by Sarah Blake imagines Noah’s wife, from the time the ark floats away until it is time to resettle the world. But Blake doesn’t just reinterpret the story as Anita Diamant did with the biblical Dinah in The Red Tent (1998).  Instead, Blake writes a tale with dreams, angels, and the bending of time.

I enjoyed reading this book. I read it, in just two afternoons but I don’t know if I can recommend it. I predict people will have strong reactions, either loving it or just not getting it. There are some shocking scenes. There is sex without romance that is described in vivid detail.  

It seems appropriate that I finished reading Naamah the same day I marched in a Pride Parade with my synagogue. This book had the most detailed lesbian sex descriptions that I have ever read. Naamah is sexually active with male, female, and those without a solid gender. Sexuality of all kinds, has been around since the beginning of people. Blake’s novel expresses this fact beautifully.

God is referred to in the masculine but this book is definitely a feminist look at the story of the ark. Naamah is tasked with tending to the animals and in many cases, she alone determines who will live and who will die. She is the mother of all future people, yet not given her due in biblical re-tellings until now.

The Novel, (2019) By Nathan Englander also has a shocking sexual scene. It reminded me of Portnoy’s Complaint by Phillip Roth (1969). gets to the heart of our obligation to our tradition and heritage. Can we run away from the way we were raised? In this book, an orthodox man turns secular and then is forced by his traditional family, to confront his obligation to say Kaddish for his father. I found it thought-provoking and affirming of my life choices; it is another book I think people will either be thrilled with or disgusted by.  

If you read either Naamah or let me know your reaction.

It’s Okay to Say the C word…

Cancer, “One out of every forty-three Jewish people carries a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene… as opposed to the BRCA frequency of approximately one in six hundred non-Jews.”  (quoted from Resurrection Lily) 

A reader of this blog recommended I read, Mah Jongg Mondays by Fern Bernstein (2019). 

Since I actually do play Mah Jongg on Mondays it seemed like a good fit. This is the kind of book that makes me think I could write a book and publish it. It’s a memoir of a Long Island woman who was born in the 1960’s, just like me. I related to so many things in her life including being active in synagogue leadership and even having a father named Elliott.     Reading the book is like chatting in the kitchen with a neighbor, it is not smooth and professional but I loved it. Every hero needs a villain and in Mah Jongg Mondays the villain is cancer. Cancer touches the lives of the women around the Mah Jongg table. Some will beat it, others will succumb to it. Everything else in the author’s life is so positive and so detailed that on a rating scale of zero to five matzo balls I can only give it two matzo balls for writing but it gets all 5 matzo balls for relatable Jewish content. 

Amy Byer Shainman also writes a memoir about cancer. Her’s is much more professional. Resurrection Lily: The BRCA gene, hereditary cancer & lifesaving whispers from the Grandmother I never knew. A Memoir  (2018), is both the story of one family’s cancer saga and information about breast and ovarian cancer.  The author feels a connection to her grandmother Lillian, who died at just 33 years old of cancer. The author becomes a “previvor” after learning through genetic testing that her chances of having cancer are 85%. By reading this book, I gained a lot of knowledge about genetic counseling, third opinions, and the importance of medical information for both men and women.  Shainman is an advocate and documentary filmmaker who knows how to write. If there is cancer in your family then read this book. This books gets 5 matzo balls for writing; the Jewish content in this book is in the genes not in the soul. 

Beneath a Scarlet Sky

If I could have just one more hour with my mother, I’d spend it in a book club with her. My mom first brought me to a book discussion when I was 7 years old. We discussed Evan’s Corner by Elizabeth Starr- Hill with other Moms and Kids at the Syosset public library. I can remember the name and plot of this book from 45 years ago.

By talking about books, we remember them. Discussing books takes us to deeper levels of conversation and brings out topics that would not otherwise come up. I recently read Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel by Mark Sullivan in preparation for a Jewish women’s book group at my congregation.  Although there are oodles of books about WWII and the holocaust this one had a unique story, based on actual events.

Pino is a Catholic teenager in Italy. He tries to ignore the war but finds himself rescuing Jews, joining the Nazis, and spying on the Nazis. I liked the story even more as it went on. I thought about each of the characters: who was good and who was evil and then thought, is anyone one or the other? The books’ focus on the end of the war and the lives of non-Jewish Italians was new material for me. I am looking forward to discussing this story, before it is made into a television movie starring Tom Holland (no relation).

Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel is my favorite type of historical fiction. Actual history is unfolding but in a fictionalized way.  In historical fiction the author can include dialogue and details often not possible in non-fiction.  I don’t think I’ll remember Mr. Sullivan’s novel 45 years from now, like Evan’s Corner but you never know!