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 ancestry.com 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, Kaddish.com (2019) By Nathan Englander also has a shocking sexual scene. It reminded me of Portnoy’s Complaint by Phillip Roth (1969). Kaddish.com 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 Kaddish.com 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!

Why a Book Yenta Blog?

Jews have long been known as the people of the book. Yet I recently discovered my great grandmother, Sarah Lotte Korenstein who was born in 1879 in could not sign her own name on her American citizenship papers. She signed with an X. Sarah was born in Kiev and immigrated to America at the age of 30.  Perhaps she could read and write in Yiddish and had just not yet learned English.

I cannot imagine a life without reading.  I am a 52-year-old white, Jewish, suburban woman. Through reading, I can better understand the world from the perspective of so many other people. I love both fiction and non-fiction. Both types of writing help me to explore the world and to explore my knowledge of myself.

As an Elementary Librarian in a public school I’ve needed to re-read many of the books of my childhood. The words on the page have not changed but the story is new and fresh because I am a different person than the one who read that same book years before.

Do you remember Are you There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume?  In my memory that book was treasure I was allowed to read and my classmates were not. It was about growing breasts and getting your period– an amazingly provocative topic for 10 year old me.  Re-reading that book as an adult, I found out it is about affiliating with a religion and intermarriage. It was about knowing yourself and your values. Breasts were not the theme of the book.

Books change us and we in turn change books.

This blog is about books which make an impact. Often the books have a Jewish theme, because they are the ones that most speak to me.  The books can be written for an adult, young adult or for a child. I am proud to be a book yenta and glad you’ve joined me in the quest to learn about ourselves through books.