Tag Archives: Jewish history

Beyond the Ghetto Gates: A Novel Book Review

A woman’s brain is a fearsome thing to behold. Especially when she is not afraid to use it.

Beyond the Ghetto Gates: A Novel, by Michelle Cameron, was published last spring. The books tell the story of two different women. Though they are separated by religion, they are brought together by fate and the French invasion of their home city of Ancona, Italy.

Mirelle is Jewish and like all Jewish residents of the city, she lives in the ghetto. Though she has a mind for numbers, it is inconceivable that she could join her father in the family business. Her only goal, as she is told over and over again, is marriage. She could agree to say “I do” to the older and wealthy businessman that everyone is telling her to marry. Mirelle could also run away and elope with her French Catholic lover, but the consequences of such a union would be disastrous.

Francesca is Catholic and lives in the Christian part of Ancona with her husband and children. To say that he is not Prince Charming is an understatement. When he gets involved with the wrong crowd and helps to steal a miracle portrait of the Madonna, Francesca has a hard choice to make. She could do her wifely duty and support her husband, even when she knows what he did was wrong. Or, she could speak up and create trouble for herself.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I was drawn in by the premise of the novel, the well drawn characters, and the detailed description of the world late 18th century Italy. I also loved the ending, which is atypical for the genre. But if there is one major flaw in the narrative, is that the romance. It is supposed to be the high point of the story, but it falls flat.

Do I recommend it? Maybe.

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Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda Book Review

Fans of Broadway musicals and students of Jewish history know the final scene of Fiddler on the Roof all too well. The Jewish residents of the fictional shtetl of Anatevka have been forced out of their homes by the local authorities. As they scatter to four winds, their fate is unknown. Presidential advisor Stephen Miller comes from this world. As do I and millions of Jews of Eastern European descent. But for any number of reasons, Miller has forgotten this history.

Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda, written by journalist Jean Guerrero, was published in August. Miller grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in California. As a young man, his political beliefs began to swing to the extreme right, especially when it came to immigration. He was not shy about sharing his opinions, and like many with that perspective, couched his words in a way that would not immediately come off as racist.

After college, he went into politics, which ultimately led him to his current position working for you know who as a speechwriter and policymaker.

In my world, Miller would be described as a shanda (disgrace). As an American and a Jew, he has forgotten the traditions and the history that we carry with us. Without the United States, Miller’s family, like my family would have been part of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

There is nothing wrong with regulating who can come into this country. But as I see it, his policies are a bridge too far. There were moments while reading this book that I was both outraged and disgusted. While it was a good book, it was a smack in the face that hate, prejudice, and xenophobia is still alive and well in America in 2020.

I absolutely recommend it.

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Jews and Power Book Review

There is a myth that the overall Jewish community hold some sort of secret control over the world.

In 2007, writer and Professor Ruth R. Wisse corrected that fallacy in Jews and Power. In the book, Professor Wisse examines both the historical and religious aspects of Judaism as it reflects on military and political power. She also talks about modern day Israel and how her leaders are able to balance both democracy and security.

Needless to say, this book is not exactly a light beach read. It is not completely dry, but the writing has an academic feel and it is written for a very specific audience. I enjoyed it and learned a few things, but it will never land on my own top ten lists of books that I have read.

Do I recommend it? Maybe.

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The Third Daughter: A Novel Book Review

History seems to always have a way of teaching the current generation, that is if they are willing to listen.

Talia Carner‘s 2019 novel, The Third Daughter: A Novel, was published last fall. In 1889, Batya is a fourteen year old Jewish girl trying to escape Europe with her family. The many pogroms that have turned her world upside down. Along the way to hopeful freedom, a handsome and wealthy man presents himself. He wants to marry Batya and give her a new life in America.

It seems like a fairy tale ending to what has been a horrific experience. But like many fairy tales, it is nothing but a sham. Batya is sold into prostitution or “white slavery” along with thousands of other young immigrant women in Buenos Aires.

As the years pass, she adjusts to her forced circumstances, but still dreams of the day when she will be reunited with her family. When an opportunity appears to become a Tango dancer, Batya takes it. It is also an opportunity to get justice for herself and the other women forced to earn their living on their backs.

Previous to reading this book, I thought white slavery was a story told to young girls to keep them chained to the patriarchy. To say that I was educated by the novel is an understatement. I thought that I knew almost everything there was to know about Jewish immigration around the turn of the 20th century. I was wrong.

I loved this book. It was well written, entertaining and educational without hitting the reader over the head.

I recommend it.

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Yom Haatzmaut: They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Let’s Eat

There is an old joke about Jewish history:

“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” 

Today is Israel Independence Day (Yom Haatzmaut).

Today is both a day to celebrate and a day to remember. We celebrate because we have returned to the land of our ancestors. We can physically follow and pray in the footsteps of past generations who have long since shuffled off this mortal coil.

But we also remember those who gave their lives and those who continue to give their lives for Israel. I think most, if not all of us are aware that Israel lives in a neighborhood in which relations with their neighbors is tenuous at best.

I have had the pleasure of visiting Israel twice so far in my life. I can only describe both experiences as life altering. I hope to be able, at some point in the future, go for a third time.

May those who gave their lives for Israel’s security and freedom forever a blessing and may we continue to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut for many years to come.

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Purim

History says that women are supposed to be meek, mild, subservient and if she has a brain or ambition, she has to hide it. Women who are up front about their needs, their intelligence or openly exhibit ambition are often shamed for speaking out.

This past week was the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The heroine of Purim is Esther. Living in ancient Persia, Esther is an orphan taken in and raised by her cousin Mordechai. She expects to live the life of an ordinary Jewish girl: marry the young man chosen for her, bring children into the world and continue with a lifestyle that Jewish women have been living with for an untold  number of years.

But fate has something else entirely different in mind for this young lady.

Inside the palace, King Ahasuerus (thought to be Xerxes I by historians), is entertaining. Deep into his cups, he orders that his wife, Queen Vashti be brought to the revelers, revealing her beauty to them (meaning coming in wearing just her birthday suit). Vashti refuses and is banished. Not wanting to be alone (not that he truly was alone, the King had a harem full of women), the King orders his ministers to find a new bride from among the eligible women of Persia. Esther is chosen to be one of the potential brides, but is warned by Mordechai to hide her identity.

When King Ahasuerus finally chooses a new wife, Esther is crowned Queen. But there is a plot afoot that could endanger the lives of Esther and the Jews of Persia. One of the King’s advisers, Haman, wants to rid the kingdom of her Jews.  Esther is at a crossroads. She could say nothing and live, while watching her family and her people be massacred, or she could reveal her true identity, put herself in danger and potentially save her people.

Esther makes the bold and dangerous decision to reveal her identity, knowing that she could go to the gallows. In the end, Esther saves her people and Haman and his ilk are punished.

Among the heroines of the bible, Esther for me, stands out. She is strong, smart and true enough to herself, even to the point of knowing that her fate could be that of Vashti’s.  She is a heroine for the ages, a woman who is willing to speak out in a time when women were not supposed to speak out.

To those who celebrated, Happy Purim.

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Tisha B’Av

Today is Tisha B’av.

It is one of the saddest says in the Jewish calendar.

It commemorates the the destruction of the second temple by the Romans.

While I am not particularly religious, I feel drawn to this day of mourning.

Students of history have often correlated this day of mourning not just with the destruction of the second temple by the Romans, but other times of crisis in Jewish history.

I saw this video on my Facebook feed this morning.

We know what happens when we give into hate, destruction and dictators who have no problem advocating the destruction of an entire nation.

Maybe we will learn our lesson this time and finally learn from the past.

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The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot Book Review

In her own time, the author George Eliot was either a lunatic or a visionary. But that depended on the person providing the opinion.

Her 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda, was a revolutionary book in it’s own right. It is the story of a young man who discovers his Jewish heritage. By the end of the novel, he has embraced his identity and leaves England for the Holy Land.

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 2009 non fiction book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, starts with the author’s early life. She was born to an evangelical Christian family, the product of her father’s second marriage. As a young woman, she was one of the earliest converts to agnosticism. Her education was more extensive than other young women of her era, she was well read and spoke several languages, including Hebrew. Daniel Deronda is her last novel.

Daniel Deronda was written during a blessed lull in Jewish history. The Jews lived in peace with their neighbors, the Dreyfus affair that was the spark that created modern Zionism has not yet occurred. But antisemitism was still rampant and the rare Jewish characters that appeared in Victorian literature ( a la Fagin from the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist) was not exactly the most positive of images.

The author examines all of these individual  elements and how they all come together to create what is essentially the first pro-Zionist novel with Jewish characters that are as fully formed and human as their Christian counterparts. I like this book because it pulls back from the fiction to reveal the woman behind the novel. I do want to warn readers that the book is a bit academic and might not hold the reader who is not using it for school purposes.

But it is a good book and I recommend it.

 

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