Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Nine.

As I bemoaned early on during this pandemic, though we have more time than ever at home, surrounded by books beckoning to be read, we also seem to have less energy and ability to focus on reading them. Which, if you ask me, is just patently unfair. So I thank Amanda Shapiro, whose article, “There’s No Better Time to… Read a Cookbook Like a Book-Book,” provided inspiration and a manageable project for this past week.

While I haven’t (yet) experienced a COVID-19-induced panic attack like the one Shapiro describes, I still found comfort in her strategy to calm down the ramped up anxiety I am most definitely feeling. It’s the 5-4-3-2-1 method: “Find 5 things to see, 4 things to feel, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste.” And cookbooks, it turns out, are incredible at all five! “My eyes are focused on a page,” Shapiro writes, “my hands on holding a solid (and quite heavy) object, and my mind on the food I’m reading about: how the ingredients come together, how the dish might smell and taste, the texture of it in my mouth.” It’s a “soft-focus activity,” as opposed to the effort required by a heavy read. Like puzzles, crafts, and closet-cleaning, it’s the kind of activity “a lot of us are craving right now.”

The visually stunning Jerusalem: A Cookbook (by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) I found on my shelf fit the bill perfectly!

Winner of the 2013 James Beard Award for International Cooking.

Things to see: Just look at this book — it’s gorgeous! Full page, color photos of nearly every recipe are guaranteed to make your mouth water. But it also includes wonderful shots of Jerusalem itself — aerial pictures of the city; artistic photos of ingredients and delicacies in Jerusalem markets; evocative portraits of the people of Jerusalem, Arab and Jewish alike.

Things to feel: Bibliophiles know, how a book feels is often just as important as how it reads. Jerusalem is a large book, with a puffy cover, whose opened glossy pages lie completely flat… satisfying and comforting, like a weighted blanket.

Things to hear: Ottolenghi owns a group of restaurants in London; Tamini is his partner and head chef. Both were born in Jerusalem — in the same year, in fact — but Ottolenghi, Jewish, grew up on the western side of the city, and Tamini grew up in Arab East Jerusalem. It wasn’t until they were both settled in London that the two men met, but in this book they provide a joint trip down memory lane. With each recipe the reader hears a bit of background that weaves together family stories, as well as those of the many cultures who have come to call Jerusalem home and left their culinary mark there.

Things to smell: Mint, sumac, za’atar, tahini, pomegranate molasses, date syrup, lemon zest… shall I go on?

Things to taste: This one is self-explanatory, but also reader-reliant — unfortunately, as wonderful as this book is, the recipes still don’t cook themselves.

Yet there is even more to the activity of reading a cookbook, which I had never appreciated before simply because I had never done it before. Sure, I’ve skimmed cookbooks, flagging the recipes that interested me or looking up something that will make use of a particular ingredient on hand. But reading one cover-to-cover is different. It means you continue to read a recipe, even if it calls for an ingredient you would usually avoid, engendering a deeper appreciation of the sheer variety of ingredients there are in the world. It means you pay attention to how ingredients come together, the many processes and techniques that bring a recipe to life. It means realizing what can be broken down into smaller components (i.e. what you can make yourself) and what actually does need to be purchased in a market or store.

And one more thing — in a time when movement is limited and we’re all going a bit stir crazy, reading this book was a wonderful means of travel. I truly do feel like I spent part of this past week in Jerusalem — in her markets and stores, her kitchens and restaurants, among her diners and chefs — all accomplished from the safety and comfort of my own home. So, if you’re inspired and pick up a cookbook yourself this week, let me wish you B’teyavon and N’siah Tovah, or Bon Appétit and Bon Voyage!

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Eight.

I’m sharing something a little bit different this week — still from my stacks, piles, and shelves, but this time the book I pulled is a Torah commentary. My hope is that a few words of Torah might offer some inspiration for our current moment and common experience. Click on the photo or link below, and you’ll let me know: If it works, how it works, and if it’s worth doing again.

https://youtu.be/rPBavYRHcCA

Resources:

 

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Seven.

On a “normal” spring day as gorgeous as the one on which I sit typing these words, there would be several, perhaps dozens, of visitors touring the historic grounds of KKBE. Thousands of visitors come to our congregation each year and we can’t wait until we’re able to throw open the doors and welcome them once again. Second only to the privilege and pleasure of worshiping in our gorgeous sanctuary, is the pride in showing it off to others.

More often that not, each tour is marked by certain key moments: (1) when visitors realize there have long been Jews in the South, before some states in the North even; (2) when they realize that, far from dying, our congregation is a thriving, bustling organization of roughly 500 households; and (3) the take-your-breath-away moment of entering our beautiful worship space. Having just completed our restoration at the very moment our stay-at-home efforts to curtail this pandemic began — oh, to be able to hear those gasps now!

But there’s a fourth moment, too; a moment every one of our docents knows is coming in one way or another. The moment of wrestling with slavery.

Often we’re just asked for the facts: “Did the Jews in this congregation own slaves?” The answer is yes. Sometimes few, sometimes many. Sometimes they “offered” the labor of the individuals they enslaved as a contribution to the synagogue. It’s distressing and upsetting and shameful, but those are the facts. Other times we’re asked to rationalize: “How could Jews have owned slaves?” “How could Jews have supported both a synagogue and slavery?” For Sue Eisenfeld, author of Wandering Dixie: Dispatches from the Lost Jewish South, the question is this: “How could the Jews, who celebrate their freedom from slavery in Egypt each year at Passover, have fought for the South, for the side of slavery?” (p. 5)

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It’s this question as much as any other that sets Eisenfeld on a journey across the South, seeking out stories of both Jews and African Americans, past and present. As a whole, I’m not sure all of the pieces come together. It’s a lot to cover — both geographically and thematically — and, at times, it seems she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Of course, I’m biased. Four of our KKBE congregants appear in the book: Anita Rosenberg, Michael Kogan, Robert Rosen, and Harlan Greene. And while each of them (the first three, especially) get quite a bit of ink, I know their views and ideas to be more nuanced than what is there.

Eisenfeld also loses the thread of her opening question, and the fact is her question, like the others we regularly hear about slavery at KKBE, is relatively easy to answer. How could Jews have participated in the institution of slavery? How could they celebrate their own freedom at Passover while simultaneously enslaving others? How could they fight a war to continue to have the opportunity to do so? The answer is this: They lost sight of, or willfully ignored, the humanity of others.

What makes someone fail to see the humanity in another, to recognize him or her as a brother or sister? Well, that is a much more difficult question. But we know it happens. It happens with refugees and asylum seekers. It happens with impoverished youth and the elderly. It happens with those of differing gender identities. And it continues to happen when people only see the color of another person’s skin, and when they refuse to see color at all. The better question is how do we train ourselves to see differently; to affirm and value the humanity in each and every person we meet?

Someday our congregation will once again open its doors. (It will happen!) Worship will resume in the sanctuary and tours will welcome visitors from near and far. When we do, it is my hope that a new plaque will be affixed outside our sanctuary and seen by all. A task force has been working on this for some time and while the language is still a work in progress, the sentiment is not:

There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other. (based on Mishnah Yoma 8:9)

This sanctuary, dedicated in 1841, replaced an earlier structure that burned in 1838. The first Reform synagogue in America, it was constructed by a Jewish builder, whose skilled workers included enslaved African Americans. Upon the renovation and rededication of the building in 2020, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim rededicates itself to recognizing the errors of the past and reconciling the beliefs of our faith with our actions, as we commit to spiritual growth and social justice for all.

I can’t explain to visitors, or myself, how our forebears lost sight of the humanity of an entire race of people whose lives were — should have been — just as valuable as their own. I don’t think any of us can. But we can do this: We can acknowledge it happened. We can recognize the ways in which it continues to happen. And we can commit to do all we can to chart a new course.

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Six.

This week I turned from my stack of Jewish books to the pile of books about my other religion: Baseball.

No, it’s not a different faith; and yes, still only one God. But baseball holds so many other significant components of religion that I wonder if it isn’t more than mere comparison, transcending metaphor. After reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year, I think she might agree.

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Formative memories

Goodwin was one of those interviewed in Ken Burns’ magnum opus documentary on baseball, and noted a common experience among her fellow commentators: “The enthusiastic intensity of their recollections revealed that they were remembering not simply the history of a team or a group of athletes but their own history, and especially their youthful days.” (p. 9) It’s why she decided to write this memoir through the lens of baseball.

My own personal and baseball memories are similarly intertwined. My dad teaching me how to keep score in the stands. Ozzie Smith backflipping into place at shortstop. Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” blasting over the school loudspeaker when the Cardinals won the World Series. Talking with my parents on the phone as we watched, in different states, the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. These are memories rivaled only by family Seders, Rosh Hashanah services, and Chanukah celebrations in terms of power and impact.

Storytelling

Sacred texts not only teach us stories, they teach us how to tell them. The Torah gives us the bare bones of a story, and then each reader, through midrash and commentary, fills in the gaps and fleshes it out. But the story is always rooted in the text — just like a game comes to life from its scorecard. “See,” Goodwin’s father tells her, pointing to her scorebook, “it’s all here. While Robinson was dancing off second, he rattled the pitcher so badly that the next two guys walked to load the bases. That’s the impact Robinson makes, game after game. Isn’t he something?” (pp. 16-17)

It’s why it can take hours to cover both a single folio of Talmud or a newspaper page of box scores — not because of the relatively short text itself, but because of the endless commentary it can spark in our minds.

Sacred spaces

I remember the first time I entered KKBE’s glorious sanctuary. The first time I saw the Kotel in Jerusalem; the view of the whole city from the Tayelet. And I remember the first time I saw the field of a major league ballpark. Goodwin writes of seeing a game at Ebbets Field for the first time: “As we started through a tunneled ramp into the stadium, my father told me that I was about to see the most beautiful sight in the world. Just as he finished speaking, there it was: the reddish-brown diamond, the impossibly green grass, the stands so tightly packed with people that not a single empty seat could be seen.” (p. 48)

The sight of the “impossibly green grass” and perfectly sculpted pitcher’s mound and base paths still takes my breath away. Every. Single. Time.

Sacred rituals

Baseball, like all religions, is chock full of rituals and they govern every aspect of a game, before, during, and after. We often draw comparisons in Judaism between the Bar’chu and The Star Spangled Banner; standing for the Aleinu (which typically and conveniently comes after the sermon) and the Seventh Inning Stretch; and kippot/tallit and uniforms (sometimes they’re even one and the same).

This description Goodwin shares of savoring a victory, of holding onto the feeling of joy for as long as possible, feels so very familiar: “I experienced that night what I have experienced many times since: the absolute pleasure that comes from prolonging the winning feeling by reliving the game, first with the scorebook, then with the wrap-up on the radio, and finally, once I learned about printed box scores, with the newspaper accounts the next day.” (p. 51) Substitute ESPN highlights for the radio wrap-up and I often do the exact same things.

It reminds me of the Jewish ritual of Havdalah, of using the lingering sweet smell of spices and the brightness of a multi-wicked candle to try and savor the joy of Shabbat for as long as possible. When something makes your soul soar, you don’t want to let it go.

Sacred debates

Come on, every religious community has these, right? Which is the better matzah ball — sinkers or floaters? Which Israeli city should you spend more time in — Jerusalem or Tel Aviv? Who gave the right legal opinion about, well, anything — Hillel or Shammai? We know the debates well, and we each take a side. Baseball has them, too.

Exhibit A — Goodwin writing about her childhood as a Dodgers fan: “We spent hours arguing about whether Duke Snider, Willie Mays, or Mickey Mantle was the best center fielder. … Who was the best catcher: Roy Campanella, steady behind the plate, unequaled in calling pitches, but a streaky hitter, or the short-armed swarthy Yogi Berra, the most dangerous hitter in baseball in late innings? Was Pee Wee Reese, the “Little Colonel,” who held the Dodgers together, a better shortstop than Phil Rizzuto, who led the American League in fielding?” (p. 66)

Exhibit B — Dr. Anthony Fauci (yes, that Dr. Fauci) reminiscing in a recent New Yorker article about his childhood as a Yankees fan: “We spent our days arguing who was better: Duke Snider verses Micky Mantle; Roy Campanella versus Yogi Berra; Pee Wee Reese versus Phil Rizzuto and on and on. Those were the days, my friend.”

The debates are eternal and you have take a side. It’s the rule.

Superstition

Every religion has a superstitious side, as well. I mean, what’s the value of religious practice if it can’t make an impact on our surrounding world? Some superstitions impact things for the better. Gil Hodges, the struggling Dodgers hitter, made a visit to a local sporting goods store during Goodwin’s childhood, and she went, bearing a special gift for the baseball star: a St. Christopher medal, patron saint of travel, that had been blessed by the Pope. “St. Christopher would watch over his swing so that he could return home safely each time he went to bat,” she reasoned. “[Hodges] accepted the medal with great solemnity. He told me that he, too, had once had a St. Christopher medal blessed by the Pope. But he had given it to his father, a coal miner in Indiana. Mining was a dangerous business, he explained, and his father had broken his back, lost an eye, and severed three toes in a series of accidents, so he thought his father needed the medal more than he did. He was thrilled, he said, to receive a medal of his own.” And immediately, on a road trip that began the very next day, Hodges began to hit. “Sportswriters attributed his miraculous resurrection to his ability to sleep soundly since leaving his [newborn] infant at home. But I knew better,” Goodwin says. (p. 139)

Some superstitions do harm. After trading the autograph of one player for another (the terms of which you can read about in the book, but suffice it to say left Goodwin feeling guilty), “the very next day, Clem Labine” — whose autograph she had traded away — “Clem Labine’s star began to wane. In the first inning of his fifth major-league start, he lost control of his curveball and loaded the bases. … The next batter hit a grand slam.” (p. 147) There is perhaps nothing worse than knowing you’ve done something, or failed to do something, that cost your team a game (…she types as she inspects her “Cardinals shrine” to make sure none of the bobble heads or other collected memorabilia are out of place).

Identity

But perhaps it all boils down to this: If baseball fandom is not a separate religious identity, it is at least on par with one. “My life had been held fast to a web of familiar places and familiar people,” Goodwin writes, “my family, my block, my church, my team, my town, my country. They were part of the way I defined myself. I was not only Doris Helen Kearns, but a Catholic, a resident of Southard Avenue, a Dodgers fan, a Rockville Centre girl. Everything was wonderfully in order.”

Same here! Except substitute Cardinals for the Dodgers. And Jewish for Catholic. And… well, most everything else would need to be changed, too. But don’t worry about it —- because really those are the only two that matter.

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Five.

How is it that books, especially good ones, wind up in stacks, piles, and shelves without ever having been read? There are a number of avenues, of course, but as good a bet as any for me is length. How can I commit to a book that will clearly take weeks, if not months, to read when my ever expanding “To Read” list grows at a much faster clip than that?

That is precisely why Herman Wouk’s classic, The Winds of War, found its way to my bookshelf and remained there for years after I received it (a hand-me-down from someone else’s shelf, in fact). Yep, its 885 pages got it benched — and this: Winds of War, along with its even heftier sequel, War and Remembrance, have been included among the greatest American war novels of all times, and that’s all well and good, but I’m just not a war novel (much less a WWII novel) person.

Except that now I don’t know… maybe I am.

What I certainly have tired of are the books in which WWII or the Holocaust serve as the background. I know this puts me a bit outside the pale as so many — so many — of the generous book recommendations I have received over the years take place during that time period. And yes, there are some wonderfully character-driven, plot-driven, prose-driven novels written against the backdrop of the 1940’s, but that’s just it. The background becomes so common, so familiar, that it threatens to dwarf the action in the foreground, and, for me, often does.

Wouk’s Winds of War is different. This 2015 piece by David Frum in The Atlantic captures it better than I can, especially when he quotes Henry Kissenger’s praise for Wouk’s writing: “It is the war itself.” Wouk takes you across the globe into all of the arenas of action, and into the confidence of the most renowned (and infamous) world leaders; into the nitty-gritty details of military planning aboard a battleship, and then up above it all to the eagle eye perspective of a fighter pilot. “Wouk never lets the reader forget that the Second World War was the biggest collective undertaking in the history of the human race,” writes Frum. “No movie could ever depict it, because no movie could ever have the budget.” Instead, Wouk gives us the details that allow us, the reader, to imagine it all for ourselves; to place ourselves in its midst.

With the war in the foreground, each generation, since the novel’s publication in 1971, is free to see its own context as the backdrop. Of course, my context was the current pandemic, and against that backdrop, a number of themes felt tremendously relevant: How much luxury and comfort are Americans willing to sacrifice for a greater good? Is unrestricted admittance and aid of “others” a threat to the American ideal or the realization of it? Leaving aside for the moment legitimate questions about calling this pandemic “a war,” how can we harness the competence of America’s military to identify needs, craft clear missions, and — more often than not — get the job done?

Then there were passages like this:

The mark of the amateur in any field is to lose one’s head when the going gets hard. What marks the professional is his competence in an emergency, and almost the whole art of the soldier is to make sound judgments in the fog of war. Hitler’s propensity to lose his head took two forms: calling a panicky halt to operations when they were gathering momentum, and changing the objective in mid-campaign. … But Hitler was incapable of listening to anybody. This undid him and ruined Germany.

I’ll let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusions about the relevance of that one.

There was this, which in a sweeping novel that seems to accept war as necessary, even at times noble, made me pause and also consider its absurdities:

Gliding across an imaginary line that splits the Pacific Ocean from the north to the south polar caps, the sunrise acquired a new label, June 23 [1941]. Behind that line, June 22 had just dawned. This murky international convention, amid world chaos, still stood. For the globe still turned as always in the light of the sun, ninety million miles away in black space, and the tiny dwellers on the globe still had to agree, as they went about their mutual butcheries, on a way to tell the time.

Wouk is better known for the stories he tells than the turn-of-phrase with which he tells them. Nevertheless, there are now a few post-its in my copy marking passages like the above, and this one from his foreword:

Peace, if it ever exists, will not be based on the fear of war, but on the love of peace. It will not be the abstaining from an act, but the coming of a state of mind. In this sense the most insignificant writer can serve peace, where the most powerful tribunals can do nothing.

So when all is said and done (all 885 pages), how did I feel about this book? Well, let’s just put it this way: Blue Bicycle Books (who is offering free home delivery during this pandemic — buy local!) expects to have War and Remembrance on my doorstep in the next couple of weeks. I have to see what happens to the Henry and Jastrow families next!

Yeah, it was that good.

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Four.

Since this week’s book weighs in at over 800 pages (!) — well, I’m going to have to ask for an extension. Avid reader though I am, speedy I am unfortunately not. So this week I offer this special Yom Tov gift to those who might be looking for more suggestions for this worldwide go-to-your-room-and-read quarantine. Here are my top selections with a Jewish connection from those I’ve read over the past twelve years. Why twelve? That’s when I started keeping a written record, so it’s how far back I can reliably remember (a) if I read a book, and, more importantly, (b) if I liked it. These selections are listed in no particular order of preference, just the order in which I read them.

So take a look — and, please, share your own favorites with me and others in the comments below!

Fiction

  • All of the Rashi’s Daughters and Rav Hisda’s Daughter books by Maggie Anton
  • I Am Forbidden (Anouk Markovits)
  • The Dovekeepers (Alice Hoffman)
  • Home in the Morning (Mary Glickman)
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Rebecca Newberger Goldstein)
  • Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)
  • This Is Where I Leave You (Jonathan Tropper)
  • People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks)
  • Homesick (Eshkol Nevo)
  • Second Person Singular (Sayed Kashua)
  • The Liars’ Gospel (Naomi Alderman)
  • The Boston Girl (Anita Diamant)
  • The Mapmaker’s Daughter (Laurel Corona)
  • Mrs. Everything (Jennifer Weiner)

Non-Fiction

  • The Soup Has Many Eyes: From Shtetl to Chicago – A Memoir of One Family’s Journey Through History (Joann Rose Leonard)
  • My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith (Benyamin Cohen)
  • Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (Yossi Klein Halevi)
  • My Promsied Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Ari Shavit)
  • Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (Deborah Feldman)
  • Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Irin Carmen & Shana Knizhnik)
  • The Jew Store (Stella Suberman)
  • Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb (David Kushner)
  • Antisemitism: Here and Now (Deborah E. Lipstadt)
  • The Color of Love (Marra Gad)

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Three.

Since a week already feels like a year, I figured I might as well cover a whole year in this week’s read.

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Abigail Pogrebin is a writer, former producer, and recovering temple president. (She doesn’t actually describe herself as recovering — and, in fact, her synagogue presidency at Central Synagogue in New York City began after the events described in this book — but I assume all temple presidents are, and ever will be, in recovery. I say this with deep gratitude to all of our past, present, and future KKBE presidents who I hope derive even a fraction of the inspiration their years of service bring to so many others.) She is also the daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin, whose Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America would be another wonderful reading choice for this, or any other, time.

The premise of this book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jewis this: Pogrebin, a modestly-observant lifelong Reform Jew, decided to spend a year “researching, observing, and writing about every single Jewish holiday on the calendar.” This would include the well known holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover; but also the lesser known (or at least observed) ones, like The Fast of Gedaliah, Hoshana Rabba, and Lag B’Omer. And the entirety of New York City — and occasionally well beyond — would serve as her laboratory.

An immersive experience… a quest… I’m a sucker for books like these. One of the more interesting I remember was My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt In Search of His Own Faithby Benyamin Cohen, which I also recommend. And A.J. Jacobs, the king of immersive nonfiction — see The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, among others — happens to be a longtime friend of Pogrebin and writes the foreword to this book. One of my personal goals is to write a book about the experience of fulfilling a quest. Seeing as I have yet to figure out what my quest would be, it might have to be about the quest for a quest. But I digress…

Pogrebin’s quest does produce insights for all of us, even those for whom the Jewish calendar already provides rhythm and structure to our year. For instance, who knew that Shemini Atzeret could be so poignant? “Shemini Atzeret,” as she writes. “What’s the easiest way to stump a Reform Jew? Ask him to explain Shemini Atzeret. What’s the easiest way to stump an Orthodox Jew? Ask him to explain Shemini Atzeret. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it gets at something true: everybody is a little fuzzy on Shemini Atzeret.” On the Reform calendar, Shemini Atzeret gets rolled up into Simchat Torah, with the latter receiving all of the focus and love. But Rabbi Dov Linzer — one of the over 70 Jewish teachers Pogrebin cites in the book — makes a compelling case for Shemini Atzeret to get some attention of its own:

“Shemini Atzeret is for me a day devoted to transition. It’s the day we come in from the sukkah—from feeling our vulnerability and our need for God’s protection—to live in our firm, sturdy house. Finally, no more holidays and we can get on with our lives. But then, what was the point of it all? Shemini Atzeret tells us—give yourself a day to transition back, to ask yourself: How am I going to integrate what I’ve learned and experienced this High Holiday season? It is a day that says: don’t let this be like coming home from a conference all fired up with new ideas, only to forget them the minute you step off the plane. It is a day that says: make sure that something gets brought back home.”

Considered this way, I can think of more holidays and experiences than just Sukkot that could use a Shemini Atzeret.

There was one moment in reading this book where my jaw literally dropped. The Tenth of Tevet — one of the six fast days which were, safe to say, not Pogrebin’s favorite part of the Jewish year — commemorates the beginning of the Babylonian siege of the First Temple in Jerusalem, whose destruction, along with that of the Second Temple, is memorialized on Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Yosef Blau, she writes, “believes there is a powerful lesson in marking the start of this devastation. We should notice the clouds; they could warn of an approaching tornado.”

“‘There’s a sense on the Tenth of Tevet that we should always be concerned about what things may lead to, instead of waiting for some tragedy to happen,’ Blau says. ‘We should be alert to the early stages of the process. The fact that we fast even for the beginning of the destruction, not just for the destruction itself, is probably a reminder that we should be sensitive to dangers even early in the game.’”

Reading this I was curious: When did the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet fall this year (5780)? Hebcal.com (whose Hebrew/Gregorian date converter is a tool with which we should all be familiar) told me it was on January 7, 2020.

Even more curious now, I googled “CORONAVIRUS” and “JANUARY 7” and found this from the World Health Organization: “The Chinese authorities identified a new type of coronavirus (novel coronovirus, nCoV), which was isolated on 7 January 2020.”

Like I said: Jaw. Dropped. We should notice clouds and be alert to early stages of destruction. Indeed.

Yet regardless of the year, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of one’s depth of knowledge of the Jewish holidays, I do believe every reader will find something new in Pogrebin’s text. I admit I had been wary of this book. I thought the rabbi-name-dropping and famous-shul-shopping would potentially become, well, tiresome. But I found the former yields sort of a “greatest hits” of reflection on the themes of the holiday that I enjoyed and often flagged for future use. And the latter, though interesting and sometimes eye-opening, ultimately led Pogrebin to appreciate that, at the end of the day, it’s the special warmth and sense of belonging she finds in her own congregation that she values most.

And with that I wholeheartedly agree.

 

[Note: The book links I have included here will take you to Amazon, where we encourage you to use smile.amazon.com and choose Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim as the beneficiary. However, I’d also invite you to look for these or any other books on the websites of your favorite Independent Bookstore. Many are shipping anywhere in the country right now and, like so many small businesses, can desperately use our support.]

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Two.

Well, now, this doesn’t seem fair. This time last week I was reveling in the possibilities of seemingly endless time to read. Now, this week, I find (a) there hasn’t been nearly as much time as I thought, and (b) more than time, I lack all ability to focus. I read a paragraph, then check Facebook. Read a paragraph, then get distracted by the news. Read a paragraph, and realize my mind was somewhere else entirely and I didn’t actually read the paragraph at all. Anyone else find themselves in the same boat?

So, thank goodness for the suggestion made by Alison, Rosalyn, and others that the first book I pick up during this time of isolation be Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Not because it’s a profound book (which it certainly is). Or because it’s incredibly relevant for our current predicament (and it is that, as well). But because it’s short! And because it’s short, I was able to persevere — paragraph by paragraph — grateful for the chance to reacquaint myself with both its relevance and depth.

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Pretty sure this copy dates back to college.

Dr. Viktor Frankl was a renowned Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of more than 30 books, none more impactful in its reach than Man’s Search for Meaning. (For more on the life and legacy of Frankl, see his obituary in the New York Times here.) Written in nine successive days shortly after his liberation from Nazi death camps in 1945, and first published in Austria in 1946, Frankl described his motivation for sharing the insights he gleaned from his experiences: “I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. … I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”

From page one, Man’s Search for Meaning radiates with relevance for our own difficult time of uncertainty. Not because there are direct parallels between this moment of social distancing during a viral pandemic and the levels of suffering inflicted upon the innocent during the Holocaust. Hardly. Nor because reading of the extreme suffering those in Nazi death camps experienced yields a deep appreciation for the relative ease with which we have it, even under present circumstances. (Though that is a definite byproduct.) Frankl was not a relativist and his purpose in writing the book wasn’t to tell us all in the midst of our own life’s experiences to buck up; it could be so much worse.

Rather Frankl understood that all suffering is of one cloth. Circumstances change; trials and tribulations come in all shapes and sizes. But, no matter the suffering, its difficulties are lessened — or at least made bearable — when we can assign to them meaning. As he quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Humor, curiosity, art, intensification of inner life, surprise when the common wisdom re: what we think we need to survive is proven wrong — these were all tools and strategies Frankl saw those in the camps around him use, consciously or unconsciously, to survive to see another day. But discovering meaning in one’s life — meaning specific to oneself in a specific moment — was the most powerful agent of all.

Frankl describes three ways in which we can find meaning in our lives, and I suggest that these three pathways are available to each one of us right now:

  1. “By creating a work or doing a deed.” This is the roll-up-one’s-sleeves-and-get-cranking approach. Make that gourmet meal. Work that 1,000 piece puzzle. Sculpt that topiary in your garden. (Hey, no one’s judging your hobby or bucket list!) Whatever your passion, your talent, your interest — use this time and opportunity to create or do something new and special, something done just by you.
  2. “By experiencing something or encountering someone.” Here Frankl lists “goodness, truth and beauty,” “experiencing nature and culture,” “or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness.” I think of all those who are using this time to do for others: to shop and bring groceries to those who are shut-in; to give and raise funds for those whose personal or business resources are in dire need; to just pick up the phone and check in, whether you know someone to be in need, or they’re just on your mind. I think of the bike rides, the walks, or even just sitting in nature, tuning into something bigger than, and greater than, ourselves. Every act taken beyond ourselves expands our perspective and lightens our load.
  3. “By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Yet, for some, this moment of isolation truly is a moment of inescapable suffering. Deep concern for our own health, or that of our loved ones, due to underlying medical conditions or compromised immunity; the effects of physical illness, or the struggle to preserve mental health, or the unraveling of our economic safety net — this is suffering that one can’t just “create” or “experience” their way out of. Here, Frankl teaches, perspective makes all the difference. For whom do we suffer? he might ask. Instead of a moment of suffering, can we see this as a moment of sacrifice? Think of all of those we are striving to protect by our actions. Replace statistics (staggering numbers) with faces and names of those in danger. I isolate for my friend and colleague, who lives with a medical condition that would quite likely render COVID-19 a death sentence. I isolate for my grandmother, and the grandmothers and grandfathers in my congregation, and all the grandparents and great-grandparents for whom this disease seems to be mercilessly unsparing. I isolate for a global humanity that may very well be saved, in part, by one person, me, staying 6 feet away from everyone else. I isolate because, despite all of the powerlessness this moment engenders, our individual choices, in reality, have rarely held such power.

I’ll give the last word to Dr. Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What are you choosing today?

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week One.

In this time of uncertainty, the best advice I have heard is to lean in to the possibilities. Wanted or not, we have each been granted newly found time and a little bit of breathing room to make the most of it. So… nu, what to do?

[Before we go any further, a very important disclaimer: Breathing room, maybe, but we most certainly do *NOT* find ourselves right now with nothing to do. We are actively and rapidly reinventing nearly every aspect of our lives. Couples are reconfiguring the parameters of marriage; every routine and practice associated with work is being reimagined; parents are — oh my goodness, parents are wearing gauze mittens to keep from pulling our hair out. And those who are truly physically isolated, with neither companionship nor work in the home, face their own daunting sets of challenges. So, yes, by all means, let’s lean into the opportunities of this challenging moment with all that we have — but let’s also be gentle with ourselves and cut ourselves some slack. The garage and that pantry didn’t get cleaned out under the best of circumstances — is it really fair to face up to them now?]

If I were the superstitious sort, I would offer my apologies. I can recall several times I have faced the many (many) books on my shelves at home and at work, in piles on my desk, in stacks by my bed, and thought to myself: You know, it might be nice to be home-bound for a bit, with nothing to do (see the naïveté there?) but read through what I’ve been collecting over the past several months; catch up a bit.

Actually I am the superstitious sort — and I am very, very, very sorry.

Very.

And yet, here we are… So! For as long as this reality is with us, I am committing to reading at least one of those books each week, and sharing some insights and reflections with you. I’m focusing on the Jewish books I’ve accumulated, but scanning the options, they’re fairly diverse — new titles and old, fiction and nonfiction, long and not so long. (I am not committing to reading The Source, however — which, no, I have never read; and, yes, I know is beloved by many. At least not yet; we’ll see how long this goes.)

I am sharing these reflections on my blog with the hope that they might become interactive. This platform allows for comments at the end — so a few questions for you, dear readers:

  1. How are you leaning into this unstructured time? Have you set any goals? Begun any projects? Renewed any old hobbies? Found any unexpected silver linings that are brightening your spirit?
  2. Any books calling to you from your own shelves, piles, and stacks? Just a few weeks ago, my son discovered Chaim Potok’s The Chosen sitting on our shelves. When, after two nights of reading, he (a) quoted the Baal Shem Tov, and (b) called me an “apikoros,” I decided I had to reread it myself. That one book sparked me to track down others, and I followed with The Promise and My Name Is Asher Lev… There really is magic in rereading old books, not just new ones. A classic like The Chosen helps us tap into, not only its own narrative, but the Jewish community (and beyond) of the time that embraced the story of these two boys and their divergent worlds. It also gives us a glimpse into one of our own personal formative experiences — like opening up a diary or journal. If we remember a book fondly (and if it’s still sitting on our shelves, there’s a good chance that we do), then it probably helped shaped us, at least in some small part, into the person we are today. So scan the books around you… What might you like to pick up and revisit in the days and weeks ahead?

I invite you to answer any of those questions below, and respond to the answers and comments of others (at the very end of all of the comments, where it says “Leave a Reply” and in the box below that: “Enter your comment here…”).

Also, looking for a new book not on your shelf? The Jewish Book Council has a host of wonderful reading lists, like American Jewish Southern Experiences, or Bible & Biblically Inspired Stories, or even Jewish Banned Books. And if you don’t want to go the Amazon route (though if you do, please go to smile.amazon.com and select KKBE to receive the proceeds — we would be deeply grateful), check out the online holdings in our Charleston County Public Library, or even the New York Public Library.

This meme popped up nearly as soon as coronavirus-related restrictions were promulgated:Not all of us are introverts, and even those of us who are find ourselves wholly unprepared for this unparalleled moment. Nevertheless, here we are. So….. will you join me? Into the shelves, piles, and stacks we go!

My Year in Books – 2019

All in all, this was a good year in books. I completed more books than I have in any previous year, and greatly improved my ability to put a book down, no matter how good I thought it might become, if it just wasn’t doing it for me. There are simply too many interesting books out there and too little time! My overall list was just about 50-50 this year between fiction and nonfiction, including some really exceptional graphic novels and memoirs. As in previous years, this list reflects my choices from what I read this year, not necessarily what was published in 2019; though I was #1 in line for a lot of new books at the library. (Note: If you were waiting for something I was hoarding in the tall stacks on my nightstand, my apologies. Even though the library eliminated late fees, I promise I still felt guilty.)

So here’s my list — would love to hear your comments and favorites, too!

Narrative Nonfiction (as compelling as any fiction, with the added bonus of being real) — Best: The Library Book, Susan Orlean; Runner-up: Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waites Waring, Richard Gergel

Regular Nonfiction (less enjoyable, but still eye-opening and important) — Best: What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, Mona Hanna Attisha; Runner-up: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas

Concept Book (I’m a sucker for a good gimmicky premise… still waiting for my own) — Best: One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America, Gene Weingarten (such a good concept that I want him to write this book for every other day, too, all of them); Runner-up: Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, Jennifer Traig; Also notable: Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, by A.J. Jacobs, because (a) he kind of rocks the world of concept books, in general; and (b) who knew Ted Talks published books — a wonderful sermonic resource for any clergy friends who may be reading this

Memoir — Best: Shortest Way Home, Pete Buttigieg (if we judged candidates by their books only, he’d definitely have my vote — unless Bryan Stevenson declares his candidacy); Runners-up: Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper; and The Color of Love, Marra Gad — because it’s my list, and I don’t have to choose

Graphic Memoir — Best: Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, Mira Jacob (I’ve never seen another book like this — really stunning); Runner-up: They Called Us Enemy, George Takei 

Fiction — I don’t know that there is such a thing as “best fiction;” so much depends on the time and place you read it, the mood you’re in, what you need the book to do. So here’s a list of the works of fiction I simply enjoyed reading the most this year in no particular order except the chronology of my own reading list:

  • We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin 
  • The Girl He Used to Know, Tracey Garvis Graves
  • Mrs. Everything, Jennifer Weiner
  • Ask Again, Yes, Mary Beth Keane 
  • The Stationery Shop, Marian Kamali
  • City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, Robert Dugoni
  • Normal People, Sally Rooney
  • Where the Crawdads Sing, Della Owens (don’t judge; I didn’t want to like it either)
  • We Are All Good People Here, Susan Rebecca White
  • The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
  • Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson

Best Young Adult: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alice Sáenz (I loved this book so much)

Best Middle Grade, fiction: The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Ann Braden

Best Middle Grade, nonfiction: We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls around the World, Malala Yousafzai

Best Middle Grade, graphic novel: White Bird, R.J. Palacio (yes, that R.J. Palacio — who knew she was a visual artist, too; this is a wonderful Holocaust alternative for readers too young for Maus)

Collection — Best: Inbetweenism, Adam Krasnoff — Adam, I will read anything you write, anytime, anywhere, and at full cover price; Runner-up: The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible, Catherine Burns, ed.