Category Archives: Bookshelf

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

Tisha B’Av: The story of the impossible

I had no idea what I would write about Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av) when my publisher suggested that I write a column as we near the annual observance. He planned to excerpt on the Read the Spirit website the Tisha B’Av story from my book This Jewish Life, and wanted to refer RTS readers to a personal reflection from yours truly, the book’s author.

Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning that falls during the summer, marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. This year it begins Monday evening, July 15, and concludes sunset on Tuesday, July 16. I have attended services sporadically, more out of a sense of responsibility than any feeling of true mourning. How do I mourn something absent from Jewish experience for nearly two millennia? The Book of Lamentations, the text read during Tisha B’Av services, is difficult for me to access. I cannot summon the suffering demanded by the text, by the day itself, by the loss of the Holy Temples where early Jews, through their sacrifices, drew close to God. Not much there for a column.

Cover of Erica Brown In the Narrow Places

Click the cover to visit Amazon.

But God has a wonderful sense of humor, not to mention perfect timing. First thing I saw when I walked into Shabbat afternoon services was a small book by educator Erica Brown, In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks.

In the Narrow Places offers a richly accessible perspective on Tisha B’Av, and the entire three-week period leading up to it. Brown addressed my struggle directly when she wrote, “We do not know what it is like to have the Temple as our spiritual focus. We have lost the connection to God, to the altar of forgiveness and thanksgiving that was achievable only within its walls.” About Jewish history she wrote: “[It] is a story of the impossible. Carried within each of us is the touchstone of the impossible when we face despair. We can overcome. We have overcome. When we review our past we reject despair because we can sum it up in one word: Hope.”

The three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av begin on the 17th of Tammuz, the day of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE (Common Era). It is a day of personal significance because our son’s bris was on the 18th of Tammuz. This year, reading Brown’s words, I imagined myself a new mother at the time of the Roman invasion of Jerusalem. Chaos was pervasive; terror, too; uncertainly, dread, panic. All of it. There I might have been, newly delivered of a beautiful baby boy, besotted with love, beside myself with horror of what lay ahead.

For this mother, the Temple was a reality. She would have brought to the Temple priests sacrificial offerings. Living in the time of the Temple, she shared with fellow Jews a communal experience of God’s presence. Hours after the walls were breached, this ancestor would enter her infant son into the Covenant with Abraham (likely in secret and frantically so). Soldiers would have begun their march on the Temple, intent on its destruction and thus the destruction of all human connection to the God of that Covenant. Would she have been able to reject despair? Holding her son close, how could she not have summoned hope? Hope for him to live. Hope for him to survive the impossible. This ancient woman, and others like her down through the generations, surviving expulsion from England on Tisha B’Av in 1290 CE and from Spain in 1492, again on Tisha B’Av embody the touchstone of the impossible that Brown referred to.

Come next Monday night I will remember Brown’s insight that Jewish history is the story of the impossible. I will mourn the women and their severing from God, the severing from all that was familiar. I will remember that through them I carry that touchstone of the impossible and therefore, after lamenting the destruction of the Temple and recalling generation upon generation of Jewish suffering, I will nevertheless reject despair for hope.

Care to read more?

For this observance in 2013, Read the Spirit is publishing online the short chapter from my own book about Tisha B’Av.

And, please, share this column with friends. Use the blue-“f” Facebook icons to “Like” this column or use the envelope-shaped icons to email to a friend.

Kristine Barnett’s Memoir: The Spark

Debra-Darvick-The-SparkDon’t know what made me pick up Kristin Barnett’s memoir The Spark: a mother’s story of nurturing genius. Maybe it was her son’s cute face peeping over the title a la the old Kilroy-way-here grafitti.  Or maybe it was just the first few sentences of the blurb describing Jacob’s IQ — higher than Einstein’s, his photographic memory and the tidbit that he taught himself calculus in two weeks.

But none of that is really it. The Spark is the story of an ordinary/extraordinary mom whose son was diagnosed with autism and who was determined bring her kid out of its grip.  She bucked the entire educational system, took matters into her own hands and worked like crazy to open the door back to her beloved child.  Along the way she discovered, holy moly, that the boy who teachers said would never read was in fact a genius who very well receive a Nobel Prize one day for his discoveries in astrophysics.

This is a mom on a mission. A woman who left the Amish community of her childhood to marry the man who was her soulmate.  A woman who ran a daycare center on a shoestring and a boot-ful of ingenuity.  A woman who cut ties with the experts, created her own curriculum that honored her son’s interests — string, clouds, stars — instead of focussing hours on end upon his deficits. She’s a woman who saw the sparks emanating from her silent child and fanned them with love, determination and faith.

Along the way, Kristine Barnett created a class, and ultimately and entire youth program, for kids like Jacob whose parents were also seeking an alternative to therapies that focussed on deficits instead of building on strengths.  She never gave up.  Not through economic disaster, the birth of a second son whose physical challenges would have leveled any one of us, nor health crises of her own.

Chapter by chapter you can’t help but root for this young boy whose math skills are off the charts, and whose Ted talk, “Forget What You Know” is marvelous.  The Spark is an uplifting read about a powerhouse of woman whose message resonates for parents of children of any age: trust your gut, buck the system if you have to, call in experts you trust, and always remember to take time out to play.

Do you have a favorite memoir to share?

Want to help spread the word on Barnett’s wonderful book? Click the blue-“f” Facebook icon with this column and share this review with your friends.

Novels For Your Nightstand

Discovered a new author, new to me anyway, when I was poking around the Well Red Coyote book store some months back. Novelist Linda Olsson divides her time between her native Stockholm, Sweden, and Auckland, New Zealand. Amidst all that back and forthing she writes wonderful novels, two of which—The Memory of Love and Sonata for Miriam—I’ve now read.

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Marion Flint, the protagonist in Memory of Love, is in her mid-fifties, living a small and quiet life on the New Zealand coast. The calamitous event upon which Olsson’s plot turns is firmly under wraps. One thread at a time, Olsson unspools Marion’s past—primary relationships upended, a turbulent childhood, a love relationship gone asunder. Then she begins reweaving each past trauma upon the warp of Marion’s present—the young boy whose life she is trying to save, a career at a standstill, the widowed neighbor whom she barely acknowledges.

Many times I see where a novel’s going; the red herrings are, if not completely obvious, swimming pretty close to the surface. But in Memory of Love, and in Sonata for Miriam, I was so involved in the story, so enmeshed in Olsson’s fiction, that the inevitable plot implosions took me as much by surprise as they did her protagonists. It was delightful to be so involved in an author’s worlds that I was shocked in real time right alongside her main characters’ experience of them. Next up for me is Olsson’s Astrid and Veronika.

And, 2 more … Woman Upstairs & Beautiful Ruins

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Getting a jump on my book club I’ve already read the June and July offerings: The Woman Upstairs (Claire Messud) and Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walter). The first page of Woman had me laughing out loud and applauding within. Nora Eldrige is an elementary school teacher, the one whom everyone counts on and no one really sees. Not the artist, mother or even lover she once dreamed of being, Nora is shaken from her fortress of beige when the Shahid family comes to town. Alas, I liked the first page better than much of the rest of the novel.

Beautiful Ruins, on the other hand, mesmerized me. The book opens in Porto Vergogna, Italy, the fictional and flailing step-sister of a town adjacent to the five seaside gems known as Cinque Terre. Cleopatra is in the midst of being filmed, Richard Burton has gotten with bambino one of the film’s actresses (not Liz). There’s a young innkeeper with big and unrealistic dreams, a creepily over face-lifted Hollywood producer and an army veteran who returns to the inn year after year to write a novel that never quite materializes past the first chapter. It was a crazy quilt of a novel that Walter pulled together so sweetly and deftly. It’s the kind of book that leaves you smiling and sighing with gentle empathy for the characters and all they have withstood.

On my nightstand now: Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe and Peter Wallace’s Connected: You and God in the Psalms.

I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, tell me what you’re reading. Please, add a comment below. Even better, let’s share this conversation with friends. Take a moment and click on the blue-“f” Facebook icon  (there’s one at the top and bottom of this column). Invite friends to come read along with you.

A Second Life for My First Book

TJL fan 
am thrilled to share with you that my first book, This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy, has just been rereleased by a new house — Read the Spirit Books, the publishing arm of As with weddings, there is something old (original favorites), something new (wonderful additions), something borrowed (joyful images dancing across a cover beautifully designed by illustrator Rick Nease) and something blue (my name at the bottom, although that leans a bit toward teal.)

David Crumm, former Religion Editor of the Detroit Free Press and the brainchild behind, has been a devoted friend and supporter of the book since he reviewed the first edition.  I am grateful that his long-intentioned goal to breathe new life into This Jewish Life, sharing it with non-Jewish readers nationwide, has now come to fruition.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, I  interviewed Jews from across the country about their most transforming Jewish experiences, casting wide the net to include stories from all ages, both sexes, as well as a broad range of Jewish practice and non-practice. At the time the book-fairy tapped me on the shoulder and planted the idea in my head, I was raising my kids, creating a Jewish home into which I was constantly bring new traditions, customs and experiences. I thought it would be cool to read about other Jews’ positive Jewish encounters and found there was no such book around. Enter that book fairy mentioned above. At the time I had never written anything more than a 1700-word article, and quaked at the thought of what could be involved.  Book fairies, I learned, are an insistent bunch, for which I am ultimately grateful. The writing of This Jewish Life, and now its republication, continues to bring wonderful people my way, Jews and non-Jews alike eager to learn about Jewish life and customs.

This Jewish Life now contains fifty-four stories organized around what I call the twin timelines of the Jewish calendar — life cycle events and holidays. Each section begins with an explanation of the holiday or life cycle event so that readers have some context for the stories that follow. You can read excerpts on my author’s page at as well as learn more about many aspects of Jewish life and culture.  The book is available in e-versions on Amazon; paperback available any day now. Send me a message via my FB Reading Room if you’d like to have, or give, an autographed copy.

Many thanks to Joe Lewis for reviewing the book so swiftly, candidly and praisefully.

Gone Reading

one of the lucky ones, able to read, knit, do crossword puzzles in a car. As the passenger, mind you. A recent jaunt to Pittsburgh to visit my brother, sister-in-law and their darling eight-month-old, promised nearly ten hours of reading there and back. Down I had  Vince Flynn’s latest political thriller, The Last Man, a reader’s equivalent to a double scoop of Hagen Dasz: you know what you’re getting, it’s delicious for as long as it lasts, and pretty soon you’re done. Flynn didn’t disappoint and Mitch Rapp, his signature Black Ops alpha male, remains invincible, brutally tough and heroic.

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was for the ride back. Don’t think the two Flynns are related by the way.  I started Gone Girl over the weekend and was singularly uninspired. Despite the book being the hit novel of the summer, I couldn’t get into it. Didn’t like either protagonist, neither the husband whose wife has disappeared leaving him as the police’s only person of interest, nor the disappeared wife, whom we come to know in alternating chapters through a series of diary entries. But after two or three of these volleys between the two of them (six chapters more or less), Flynn had me hook, line and sinker. I was her tennis ball, willingly lobbed back and forth across the net of this superbly crafted novel.

I don’t want to give anything away other than to tell you Gillian Flynn managed me make me both loathe, and root for, Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Each chapter brought new revelations, small details dispensed by  Flynn with a banker’s parsimony that left me slack-jawed and turning pages as fast as I could. I went to sleep with half the book read, eager to get to the bottom of this mystery before we reached Toledo.

But then the baby started crying. Instead of settling back to sleep, I began thinking of Nick and Amy and where I had left them. Creeping out of bed and across the hall to my brother’s study, I read until dawn. A bird chirped and when I looked up the sun had ignited a strip of crimson across the deep blue sky. I kept reading until the crimson faded to pale pink and then disappeared altogether. Gillian Flynn had me to the end, wondering on whose side of the net the ball would finally drop. Not for nothing was she nominated for an Edgar for her first novel, Sharp Objects. Car trip or not, I’m ready for another ride with Gillian Flynn at the wheel.

Jewish Book Fair Returns!

Yay!  Each year as fall wends her way through town, the Jewish Book Fair is close upon her heels.  In the nearly  thirty years since we’ve lived here, Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair book (largest and oldest on the nation), has grown from a nine-day event to a two-week extravaganza that gets better and more innovative each year. I’ve written about this before and the events never ceases to thrill.

So far I’ve heard Judy Collins, who arrived late and a bit bedraggled  due to plane delays. Her presentation was more talk than song; she was in town, after all, to promote her book Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music. And while the stanzas of Both Sides Now that she performed with the preamble: “Let’s get this out of the way right now” she closed with Amazing Grace sublimely sung. We should all have her energy, looks and ambitions at 73.

Next up was a lecture and film by Caroline Stoessinger biographer of the oldest Holocaust Survivor — Alice Herz-Sommer who turns 109 today. Stoessinger commented, “Alice didn’t simply survive the Holocaust, she transcended it.”  Herz-Sommer, a musician, was imprisoned in Theresienstadt and through Stoessinger, described the surreal experience of performing concerts in the concentration camp for their Nazi captors. Calling music her “fountain of youth” Herz-Sommer, according to Stoessinger, has lived a life without bitterness and hatred. I found myself drawn to the author’s switch of descriptives — transcending instead of surviving — most likely because the switch quells my own anxieties about the horrors endured.

Yesterday was an entire day of learning devoted to the themes of blessings and gratitude. It was a treat to study with our local rabbis and hear Rabbi David Forhman (from Woodmere, NY), who said his community’s experiences with Hurricane Sandy had influenced what he had intended to speak about  — an examination of family alienation through the lens of the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Rabbi Fohrman discussed how the storm had brought into sharp focus the “paradox of families.” With so many left homeless, those with a roof over their heads were taking in friends and relatives whose homes had been washed away. Not always an easy endeavor. “It’s one thing to have over for Thanksgiving dinner the brother-in-law you can’t stand. Another thing altogether to live with him and his wife and their five children for six weeks.”

He traced Maimonides laws of forgiveness, crystallizing them into three time-related realizations —  I have behaved wrongly (past), I regret my behavior (present), I will not commit this wrongdoing again (future) — followed by a confession of the wrongdoing to God and/or the person we have wronged. And Joseph? According to the rabbi there was never true reconciliation, because the formula for attrition — subject, verb, object, i.e. I have wronged you — is never uttered by either Joseph or his brothers.

After this morning’s talk by Dr.  Steven Gimbel, professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, I understand Einstein’s theory of relativity and the fourth dimension a smidge better. Would love to sit in on a class of his. He was energetic, funny and reduced complex concepts into manageable bites.

The idea for his latest book — Einsteins’ Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion — grew out of a conversation with a fellow professor who mused that ethics have been taught from a Christian perspective, an absolutist mindset recognizing one, and only one, right answer. Which got Gimbel thinking that while Judaism has ethical absolutes (think the Ten Commandments), there is also the Talmud where rabbis across time engage in a discussions over points of Jewish law. Gimbel called it the “perspectival illumination of different aspects of truth.”  

After the conversation with his colleague, Gimbel began to wonder if the Talmudic approach to the search for truth have any influence upon the way Einstein developed not only the theory of relativity, but his theories on mixing (who knew Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream owes its success to Einstein?), quantum mechanics and Brownian motion (think particle theory.)  Gimbel’s book is, in part, his determination to “rehabilitate the phrase ‘Jewish science, to retake it from the Nazis and make it into a statement of pride.”

Running out of time. In two hours Anouk Markovits is speaking about her novel I Am Forbidden. Gotta run. But if you’re in town, come to Book Fair which is going on at the West Bloomfield and Oak Park JCC’s until November 18th, culminating in a program with Madeliene Albright. And if you don’t live in the Detroit area, check out what your community’s offering. Most programs are free of charge. Like I’ve said before, You don’t have to be Jewish to love Book Fair.  You just have to love books.

Setting Aside Passover for Lent*

It’s been a mash-up of a month or so cleaning for Passover, readying myself to lead two Seders with my husband later this week, all the while dipping into, and out of, David Crumm’s Our Lent: Things we Carry, a devotional book to be read during the forty days of Lent. Granted, given that this is Palm Sunday, this is  the home stretch but the book is still available and well worth having.

Reading the essays, I frequently came upon familiar touchstones that Crumm took (at least for me) into unfamiliar territory. Kind of like reading a cookbook that incorporates much-used ingredients into completely different recipes. Because I am woefully ignorant of the Gospels, I found myself reading as if through a sheet of cellophane. I could see the words on the page, I could understand them on the surface yet knew I was missing so much meaning because of my lack of knowledge of Christianity’s foundational texts.

The book’s forty reflections connect contemporary issues and struggles with the Gospels’ climactic recounting of Jesus’ two thousand year ago journey to Jerusalem for the Passover observance. In the reading for Day 2, Crumm draws parallels to the apathy toward the plight of Jews during the Holocaust and Matthew’s retelling of two blind men who call out to Jesus while he is passing through the ancient city of Jericho. The crowd following Jesus rebukes the blind men, disparaging them for pleading for mercy.

In Matthew’s retelling, Jesus did what governments the world over should have done during World War II, he stood still; he listened to the cries for help of his fellow human beings. And then he did something about it. Now whether or not I believe the sight of the blind men was restored by Jesus’ touch is less the point for me than is the crucial reminder to listen for in need who are crying out for help. For us this month “standing still” has meant donating to Yad Ezra, Michigan’s only kosher food bank so that fellow Jews have what they need for Passover.

In addition to drawing parallels from the Gospels to today, nearly each day’s reading makes mention of a book on religion or spirituality that is every bit as intriguing as the daily devotion. The depth and span of the resources he weaves into each one is breathtaking. Jeffrey A. Kottler’s Divine Madness: Ten Stories of Creative Struggle (Day 3) likens the disciple Luke with Judy Garland. Former Michigan First Gentleman Dan Mulhern’s Everyday Leadership: Getting Results in Business, Politics and Life (Day 12) on the stones in our path that we work furiously to ignore. On Day 20, Crumm relates the central theme of Lindsey Crittenden memoir, The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray – “realizations about life’s deeper meanings only come from an impressive commitment to writing the truth.” Snoopy, The Dixie Chicks, Emily Dickinson and others make cameo appearances day by day.

Award-winning former religion editor of the Detroit Free Press, David Crumm, has spent the last five years webbing together a worldwide community of spiritual seekers through ReadTheSpirit Publishing, and launching with co-founder and software developer, John Hile, the online magazine This second edition Our Lent: Things We Carry did what all good books do — made me realize I need to know more, a quality of literature unbound by time or faith.

*Thanks to my good friend Sara Zwickl for the title!