Category Archives: Bookshelf

Books I’m reading, enjoying and want to recommend. And once a year,
reports from Jewish Book Fair.

Debra Darvick reviews Robert J. Wicks’ book ‘Perspective’

Brother, courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.
Thomas Merton

The first three years of my son’s life, I kept a daily journal.  Unbelievable, right? Through diapers and colic, first teeth and first words, I made time to record the wonder of our days.

Somewhere in those pages, sleep-starved and overwhelmed I wrote, “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”

Years later I found the journal and began rereading it. I couldn’t help but smile at the mother I was so long ago. Rereading that dramatic and universal cri de coeur, I realized what was impossible to grasp as a new mother: By its very definition, perspective requires time and distance from the very thing one strives so hard to see clearly.

I thought of that journal page when Robert J. Wicks’ book Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm came my way. Instead of time and distance, Wicks guides readers to perspective by “improv[ing] our sense of reality and acceptance of it.” The personal growth goals Wicks writes about are not new, but his approach is worth considering for those who strive for a healthy perspective.

Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors, Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.

The chapter I found most intriguing focused on achieving perspective on one’s “personal darkness.” Recognizing that trauma is a part of life, Wicks invites readers to acknowledge trauma as a terrible experience and then recognize its potential as an opportunity for powerful growth and meaning. Reading this chapter, I was reminded of a quote by Thich Naht Hahn: No mud, no lotus.

The young perspective-seeking mother I was might have written that in her journal. And even though I long ceased writing about my children each day, as blessed as we have been, I sometimes still wish I could be assured that everything will turn out OK.

First page of the journal begun when Elliot was three months old. The apologia in red at the top of the page refers to a first three months of feeding and wiping…

Care to read more?

A NOTE from ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …

  • ROBERT WICKS INTERVIEW—Related to Debra’s review, you also will enjoy our in-depth interview with Dr. Robert J. Wicks about his new book.
  • GET DEBRA’S BOOKReadTheSpirit Books produces important books covering interfaith and cross-cultural issues and is proud to publish Debra’s signature collection of real-life stories, This Jewish Life. In this wide-ranging collection of true stories, Debra carries readers through an entire year with dozens of men, women and young people who shape their lives around their shared Judaism. Whatever your faith, This Jewish Life is an adventure in meaningful living. Using Dr. Robert J. Wicks’s language: It’s a book with a valuable perspective on life.

Captivating Reading: ‘Invention of Wings’ and ‘Room’

REVIEW: ‘The Invention of wings’

I didn’t realize when I checked out these two books from the library how both plots focus on the theme of captivity and what it takes to be freed.

Sue Monk Kidd’s latest—The Invention of Wings—is a novelized account of the life of Sarah Grimke, one of America’s first female abolitionists and one of the country’s first feminist writers. Told through the voices of Sarah and Handful, the slave given to Sarah on her twelfth birthday (against her most fervent wishes), The Invention of Wings explores the horror of slavery, the immutability of societal structure, and the changes that can be forced by the determination of even a few relentless individuals.

Care to read more about the remarkable Grimke family right now? Sarah and her fearless sister Angelina were featured in a recent PBS documentary and they both are profiled in the ReadTheSpirit Interfaith Peacemakers project.

REVIEW: ‘Room’

Room, by Emma Donoghue, is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, born in captivity to a mother kidnapped from her college campus some seven years prior to the book’s opening. Room is all Jack has known; through his mother’s inventiveness, love, and determination to normalize their captivity, Room is home.

To the rest of us, the horror of their situation is made all the more so by virtue of Jack’s matter-of-fact delivery. For instance, Jack’s and Ma’s after-nap activity is a game called “Scream” where they  climb up on their only table and “shout holler howl yowl shriek screech scream the loudest possible.” Jack doesn’t wonder why Scream is not a Saturday or Sunday game; the rest of us don’t have to. Through Donoghue’s skillful invention, Jack describes their lives in such detail that I found myself getting up from my chair and walking around every few chapters just to loosen the bonds of his narration.


Each book builds to the protagonists’ eventual freedom: Handful as a stowaway on a ship leaving Charleston, Room’s residents in a desperate plan that hinges completely on Jack’s ability to remain “scave” (scared but brave). Handful’s fate is left to the reader’s imagination. Freedom for Jack and Ma is not synonymous with liberation. Ma’s prison had all the comforting contours of home to Jack; what Ma fled, Jack longs to revisit. One single line launched early in the novel lands with stunning impact at the end. Was it serendipity or had Donoghue planned from the start to reinsert this line as she brings the book to a close? This country still feels reverberations of the slavery depicted by Sue Monk Kidd. Given the discovery just last year of three Ohio women held in captivity for a decade, one wishes in vain that the horror depicted in Emma Donoghue’s Room, were only the stuff of fiction.

Blazing Sechel! Debra Darvick welcomes Rabbi Harvey of the Wild West!

Comic books were anathema in my house when I was a child. My mother sniffed at them so sniffily that whenever I bought an Archie comic book, sneaking it into my room like the contraband it was, guilt trumped pleasure every time.

Only one comic strip was lauded in those days—Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy—because Bushmiller was her father’s patient. Before Maus, the term graphic novel most likely brought to mind In Cold Blood or possibly Lady Chatterly’s Lover, both of which were on our bookshelf.

So when Steve Sheinkin’s The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey crossed my desk, I had to stop my nostrils from flaring and quiet the voice of inner Mom-scorn. Subtitled A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West, the three-book Rabbi Harvey series would have made even my comic-disdaining mother open the front door wide with welcome.

Because Rabbi Harvey rocks!

Sheinkin combined his two childhood literary passions—a book called 101 Jewish Stories and a collection of Wild West adventures—into the persona of Rabbi Harvey. Rabbi Harvey keeps the peace, settles disputes and outsmarts the bad guys in the fictional frontier town of Elk Spring, high in the Colorado mountains.

The rabbi’s adventures are built upon classic Jewish texts and teachers: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the Baal Shem Tov, Talmudic teachings and Pirke Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers. It’s whimsical; it’s wonderful; its wise and wacky with equal amounts of insight and sight gags. Time and again I marveled to be reading texts I have studied for years transposed to dusty corrals and cornfields. From wisdom gathered across the centuries, and filtered through a passel of delightful characters, come issues we continue to struggle with today.

Each chapter begins with a dilemma that Rabbi Harvey soon rides in to solve. Stagecoach bullies, ruthless outlaws, a thieving traveling salesman and more are all vanquished by Rabbi Harvey, who carries little more than the smarts beneath his 10-gallon hat. In a chapter called “Stump the Rabbi” the setting is the most popular event at the yearly Elk Spring Fair. For five cents, Rabbi Harvey promises to answer any question. A most poignant dilemma closes the chapter. The issues raised by the Elk Spring challenger predate the Shoah (Holocaust). Rabbi Harvey’s answer, in the form of another question, evokes it.

“Something has been bothering me, Rabbi.
Yes, Albert?
Slavery, the Civil War, stealing land from the Indians…How could all these things happen in our country? I don’t understand  Where was God?  

“Rabbi Harvey thought for a moment. Then he responded with a question of his own.

“Where were the people?
This got to them both to thinking.”

In Sheinkin’s hands, the Chasidic tale The Chicken Prince comes to life anew. A boy named Asher assumes the role of the Chicken Prince, taking up residence beneath the dining room table. Asher disrobes and begins pecking for corn from the ground. Rabbi Harvey approaches his distraught parents and offers his help. Before they know it, the rabbi has also disrobed, joining Asher beneath the table where they both start clucking and pecking for grain. Then one day, Rabbi Harvey shows up with two shirts and asks Asher if wearing a shirt would get in the way of his being a chicken. Asher agrees that it would not. Pants, socks and shoes follow and soon enough Asher trails the rabbi out from beneath the table.

The Wild West ending is even better than the original. Although the link above offers one lesson to this parable—Am I limiting my potential because of my self-perception?—Sheinkin made me consider the Chicken Prince from a different angle. Perhaps this tale is also about how we perceive others. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov could just as well have been reminding us that when it comes to those whom we think are different or limited, we must first get down on their level, see and experience the world as they do, and then and only then might they feel safe enough to join us in ours.

Pirke Avot asks, Who is wise? And answers, He who learns from every man. I won’t claim to be wise, but I will say that I am delighted to learn from Rabbi Harvey, my new and completely guilt-free comic book hero.


Street-smarts, common sense

Harold Berry z”l, Of Blessed Memory

Cutting this week’s His Lens/My Pen monthly post short in honor of a man I interviewed for This Jewish Life. I just read that Harold Berry has died.. That makes three now who shared a cherished moment of their lives with me, and are no longer of this earth. Mr. Berry welcomed me into his home, recalled experiencing a “molten moment” in Israel’s history. As one might imagine, the moment he describes has many conflicting interpretations and ongoing ramifications for all parties involved. I set that aside for now to recall a moving conversation with a wonderful man. May Harold Berry’s memory be for a blessing always.

On the Knife-Edge of History                                                                                                                 The Story of Harold Berry

From the time I was six years old, my Hebrew teachers continually impressed upon my classmates and me how great Israelis were. By the time we were teenagers, we had grown weary of their claims of greatness. “If they’re so great,” my friends and I would mutter to one another at the back of the classroom, “why do they need our help so much?” Our sarcasm was rooted in adolescent cynicism and perhaps faint resentment at the large amounts of time our fathers spent in helping the Jewish homeland become a state.

Over the years, however, my teachers’ refrain took root in my psyche. Coupled with the fact that my mother, father and grand- parents raised me on the Zionist dream, I became unabashedly committed to the idea of the restoration of the Jewish people in Israel. The dream didn’t become reality until I was in my early twenties, coincidentally the age my son was when he and I jour- neyed to Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War.

Our trip was a two-week whirlwind sponsored by our local Federation. By the end of those 14 days, we knew just how great the Israelis were. On the go from sunrise to sunset, we saw Israeli flags everywhere. We saw the carnage in the wake of the battle, the total ruination that drove home what the Israelis had actually done when confronted by a crisis of survival. I will never forget the spirit of life and relief that permeated the air. The state was suffused not with the glory of might but the glory of life-affirming survival. Everywhere we went, from the Sinai to El Arish, from the West Bank to the Galilee in the north, Israelis were gathering up captured tanks, loading them on flat railroad cars. It was a flash of history that many do not see. Unbeknownst to us, there was an event of even deeper historical significance yet to come.

Although we couldn’t wait to wash away the grit of the road when we arrived in Jerusalem in late afternoon, I felt it was only right to go to the Wall first. We joined the throngs of people making their way to the plaza where the last remnant of the outer wall of the Second Temple still stood. Mind you, there wasn’t this nice sanitized plaza and neat little checkpoint booths you see today. Instead of modern lighting, bare bulbs had been strung up catch-as-catch-can, nothing permanent or secure-looking about any of it. We tried to get close enough to touch the Wall, but it was impossible. We were just two hungry and tired specks in a mob of sweating, pushing people. We were so worn out that all we could do was turn around and head in the general direction of our hotel.

Then I caught the phrase “Tishah B’Av” in the blur of a pass- ing Israeli’s Hebrew and understood why there were so many people shoving to be close to the Wall. Tishah B’Av acknowledges the destruction of the First and Second Temples. As it happened, my son and I were present when, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, the Wall was under Jewish sovereignty on the eve of this mournful holiday. We, sons and grandsons of passionate Zionists, were present on the very twilight when the Jews’ holiest site was once again in Jewish hands.

On the way to our hotel, ready for a good shower and some dinner, I glanced into the doorway of a barbershop in the Arab quarter of the Old City. An Israeli soldier was slouched in a battered wooden chair, getting a shave. What an element of trust there had to be for an Israeli soldier to have laid his rifle by his dusty boots and exposed his throat to the blade of an Arab barber! It was the kind of moment when something cataclysmic could have happened and didn’t. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that knife and the scene framing it in the dusky alcove in the Old City epitomized the entire span of events of the next 40 years, as if in the aftermath of the Six Day War, all of Israel’s fate was on the knife edge of that blade.

To be in Israel at the time my son and I were there was to be in a country at a fluid time in its history. At that point, the Arabs were in complete shock over all that had happened. The Israelis’ victory had not only stunned the Arabs but the Jews as well.

Who the hell had expected the Israelis to win? Despite what our teachers had told us year after year, despite all the prayers and Bunyanesque rhetoric of ten-foot-tall Israelis, they were might- ily outnumbered and outgunned. Yet in a desperate move of self-preservation, they had charged the door and the door had come right down. I think the Israelis were as astounded as the Arabs when the door collapsed. It was as if in those early days the Israelis were saying, “Well, what do we do now?”

Right after the war, the situation was liquid, like molten steel before it hardens. You would have hoped something could have been reshaped. The tragedy was the Arab reaction. I always had the feeling the Israelis would have gladly given back something had someone reached out in peace. There is historical precedent for the exchange of populations after war. The Arabs’ reaction was, “No recognition. No peace.” So the situation hardened, and Israel has since been faced with this decades-long occupation. People think life goes on. Well, it does, but not always as well as it could have. Once you lose an opportunity, that mol ten moment, it is gone for good. Such possibilities don’t come around too often. And today, nearly four decades later, what Israel is left to work with is steel.

I often think back on that evening when my son and I were two mere specks in a crowd we later learned was 30,000 strong. It occurred to me the next morning that I had been present at something as historic as witnessing the signing of the Treaty of

Versailles, as defining as being upon the grassy knoll on Novem- ber 22, 1963. And because I was there, my zayde was there and so was my bubbe and my parents and all the teachers whose arrogance I now realize was an unfulfilled hope, that one day the world would see them as they saw themselves—victorious, independent and 10 feet tall.

Debra Darvick reviews The End of Your Life Book Club

Will Schwalbe has written a beautiful book. When his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he accompanied her to her treatments. Over the course of those long afternoons in Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s waiting rooms and treatment rooms, they discussed the books they were reading. Discussions turned to trading books, and trading books turned to revisiting old favorites and uncovering new treasures. Before they knew it, they had formed an ad hoc two member book club.

Their reading choices were eclectic: high brow, low brow, classics and popular novels. As Schwalbe wrote,” We read casually, promiscuously and whimsically.” Each chapter references a book under discussion, some of which I had read, many of which I hadn’t but have now placed on my list. I felt as if I had been turned into an eager fly-on-the-wall member of their book club, listening while this devoted mother and son discussed not only books, but their lives, their relationship, and the inevitable end that Mary Anne Schwalbe bravely fought off for two and a half years.

Talking about the book with some girlfriends, I realized we all held Mary Anne Schwalbe in awe.  Mother of three, she worked full time, which back in the 60’s wasn’t all too common.  She was a dynamo — director of admissions at Harvard, a college counselor at one New York school and the head of the high school at another. And then there were the organizations she belonged to, visiting Afghanistan nearly a dozen times, devoted to the  plight of the refugees; she worked with a foundation that built libraries in the country. Her kids couldn’t play with gifts until their thank you notes had been written and they learned the lesson while they were young that if they weren’t ten minutes early, they were late. Talking with my friends, I realized that I wasn’t the only one comparing myself to Will’s mother and feeling like I came up woefully short.

This is a book about love, between a reader and his books, between a mother and her son. We learn that Mrs. Schwalbe always read the end of a book first, because, as her son wrote, “she couldn’t wait to find out how things would turn out.” I didn’t have to read the end first because I already knew how this book would turn out. But I was loathe to finish it because, in that way of magical thinking that readers have, if I didn’t finish it, Mary Anne Schwalbe wouldn’t have to die, and her son Will wouldn’t have to lose her. And in a way, he hasn’t. She is alive in the books that she read, and in the discussions they had. And now, with The End of Your Life Book Club makings its way hand to hand and reader to reader, Will’s mom will indeed live on in the readers whom she has inspired to read and read and keep reading. Schwalbe wrote that he learned this from his mother: reading isn’t the opposite of doing, it’s the opposite of dying. She was exactly right.

Debra Darvick reviews The Colored Car

Merely typing these three words—The Colored Car—makes me cringe. Compressed into those four syllables is an arc of our country’s history run through with inhumanity, pain, bigotry, humiliation. It is an apt title, the only title really, for Jean Alicia Elster’s new novel for ages 10 and up.

I’ve lost count how many years Alicia and I have been friends—a decade at least. I remember the lunch where she began sharing the seeds of what would become this wonderful novel based on her own family’s history.  And, I’m going to refer to her in this review as “Alicia”—the name by which I know her so well, as a sign of my affection for her and for this moving story she now is giving to the world.

Back in the 1930’s, Alicia’s grandmother took her four daughters South from Detroit to visit her family in Tennessee.  Changing trains in Cincinnati, they had to disembark and board the colored car. The impact this left, especially on one of Alicia’s mothers’ sisters, is the loom upon which she wove the novel. The colored car becomes the metaphor not only for the Jim Crow bigotry confronting young Patsy (Alicia’s aunt, Maber Ford Hill) in Cincinnati, but for prejudices faced in their hometown of Detroit, and the betrayals that came their way from their own neighbors, neighbors with whom they had shared food and firewood, extending kindness upon kindness only to be repaid with trumped up lawsuits (thrown out) and arson (never prosecuted).

In Alicia’s capable hands the colored car also becomes a runner’s block against which Patsy moves forward, learning to define herself by virtue of her own life experiences and not through the experiences thrust upon her by the racists in her midst. Young readers will naturally see this story through the eyes of its young protagonist, feeling her humiliation and hurt, and ultimately her growth.

What they may well miss is the persona of Patsy’s mother, Alicia’s Grandmother Ford, for whom the words quiet strength and dignity could have been coined. Young readers will miss how sharply the words, “Oh Sweetheart, It won’t be so bad, You’ll fall asleep. We’ll be there before you know it bright and early in the morning,” must have stuck in Patsy’s mother’s throat as she tried to coax her outraged young daughter onto the colored car.  Young readers today might find her canning 1000 jars of fruits, jams and vegetables curious, but likely won’t feel a tug of nostalgia for a beloved grandmother whose kitchen skills matched those of Grandmother Ford. Alicia paints not only a searing portrait of racism but a beautiful elegy to her grandmother, and to a way of life that is no more.

Care to read more from Alicia? She writes a special FeedTheSpirit column about the traditional method her family followed to make grape jelly.


Debra Darvick reviews With a Mighty Hand by Amy Ehrlich

With Rosh Hashana arriving Wednesday night, and being one of the People of the Book, I thought that it would be good to begin the new year 5774 with three book reviews. Come back next Monday and Wednesday for two more.

When I received a review copy of With a Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah, I swooned. At a time when the printed word seems to be hanging in the balance, and the Nones are a newsworthy phenomenon, it was more than heartening to read this beautiful volume, an illustrated retelling of Bible stories. In hardback no less!

Candlewick Press deserves high praise for publishing this beautiful volume.

In author Amy Ehrlich’s capable hands, the stories in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) come to life in vivid prose that hews quite close to the original text. Ehrlich distills the Five Books of Moses into a single narrative. Children’s bible stories often focus on those passages rich with visual potential—while skipping the darker side of these stories. This is not your father’s Golden Bible version.  Ehrlich presents the Torah in full: animals marching two by two and Noah drunk from wine, exposed in nakedness to his son Ham. Recounted are the days of creation as well as Adam and Eve’s blame-shifting conversation with God after they ate the forbidden fruit.  What an opportunity to talk to a child about taking responsibility for one’s actions and the all-too-human tendency to lay blame elsewhere.

Reading the Tree of Knowledge chapter this time around, I saw something new in the text. The serpent’s punishment is to crawl upon the ground, metaphorically eating dust all the days of his life. Dust figures in Adam’s fate as well: He will not live forever but will return to dust. Eve, however, is punished not with dust, nor with bearing children in pain as I have always understood it. She is punished with a multiplication of the pain of her childbirth. This passage, as presented by Ehrlich, raises two questions. What does it mean that Eve’s punishment has nothing to do with dust? And second, was Eve’s punishment lighter than Adam’s and the snake’s? Admittedly, childbirth is no walk in the park, but the text seems to be telling us that God would multiply a pain that was already Eve’s destiny come childbirth. The snake lost its legs, left to crawl belly-to-dirt for all time and Adam lost eternal life in the Garden, both consequences that had no mirror pre-forbidden fruit.

Daniel Nevins, the artist chosen to illustrate the book, has done glorious work. His paintings have a depth and solidity in both his figures and in his color palette that echo well the seriousness of the text.  There is poignancy, too. Nevins’ illustration of Moses, post Golden Calf, is heart-breaking.  The father of this wayward tribe of Hebrews kneels prostrate upon the ground, his staff and the tablets are strewn upon the earth beside him. Moses, one hand on the ground, one resting upon the back of his head, holds a posture of such submission and defeat that one can almost hear him weeping in fury and frustration. Nevins rendered the splitting of the Sea of Reeds as a double-page spread with the yabasha, the dry ground, turning the interior of the book’s spine into part of the Israelites’ path to freedom.  The whitecaps of the waves reach like hands from the confines of the pages. He was a marvelous choice to bring these stories to visual life.

There are any number of reasons why I’m eager for grandchildren one day. With a Mighty Hand gives me another reason.  I dream of quiet afternoons and evenings reading portions of this beautiful book with them, visiting and revisiting the text, exploring the illustrations, discussing the moral issues inherent in each chapter. The Hebrew Bible is a storybook like no other, as relevant today as the day it was given, because its stories speak to us all. I look forward to the day it speaks to my children’s children.  May God bless me so.

WITH A MIGHTY HAND. Text copyright © 2013 by Amy Ehrlich. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Daniel Nevins. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.