Serious Summer Fare
08/17/2007
Jewish Week Book Critic
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Even books with footnotes can make for great summer reading.

For those who prefer their late summer fare more substantial than breezy novels and suspense fiction, many new works of nonfiction offer compelling reading. Some are inspirational, looking toward the month of Elul with its contemplative mood beginning the process of teshuvah; some break down stereotypes and perhaps prompt readers to rethink long-held assumptions.

Joyce Antler’s new book, “You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother” is original and often funny, full of rich anecdotes drawn from popular culture, sociological and historical studies and life experience. A professor of American Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University, Antler achieves what many academics aspire to: a voice that is both scholarly and lively as she examines the origins of negative stereotypes associated with the Jewish mother. She shows how images like being domineering, manipulative and overprotective have endured, and how they’ve been depicted in books, film and particularly on television, even as Jewish mothers have represented so much more than that.

“I wanted to understand the misunderstood Jewish mother,” Antler says in an interview, noting her goal of coming up with a portrait that is more diverse and pluralistic, one that recognizes the great strengths of Jewish women over these last decades in America who’ve helped their families get acculturated and achieve great success. She says that the images get reinvented every generation or so.

Antler shifts her analytical eye from early television and radio’s Molly Goldberg and the jokes of George Jessel (“Isn’t it nice to have your own phone?” he asks his mother. “What? Nobody calls you? Even before you had the phone, nobody called you either?”) to Tovah Feldshuh  in “Kissing Jessica Stein” and the humor of Sarah Silverman. She also interviews Jewish mothers and includes their voices, speaking directly of their lives. One 97-year old Sephardic mother of five, who was born in Turkey, spoke of having “a paradise in my home.”

Antler, the author of several books including “The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America” has been teaching at Brandeis for 28 years. She is the proud Jewish mother of two daughters, and she’s admittedly quite involved in their lives.

“I’ve come to embrace the label, more so than I ever did before,” she says. One daughter is a stand-up comic who in her monologue enjoys making fun of having a feminist Jewish mother — a mother who encourages her not to wait for a man to shovel the snow for her but to put on a warm coat and get out there.

Debbie Flancbaum also does much to break down hackneyed images as she positively showcases Jewish women living their lives. In “The Jewish Woman Next Door: Repairing the World One Step at a Time” (Urim), she profiles contemporary Jewish women of commitment and passion, involved in extraordinary acts of lovingkindness. Some are secular while others are religious; some are well-known like Ruth Gruber, but most are not. They are women who work hard, often without much recognition or reward, pursuing ways of justice and peace, study and expansive good deeds, in a spirit of generosity and openness. The author writes, “Through the work that they do, they are involved in tikkun olam (repair of the world). These women are true Jewish-American princesses.”

For those whose summer plans include expeditions into the natural world, or even wanderings in urban parks or backyards, “Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism” by Rabbi Mike Comins (Jewish Lights) helps to deepen the adventure. In thoughtful prose that is spiritual and practical (and sometimes playful), Rabbi Comins writes about finding holiness and awesome mystery in nature, with advice about mindfulness exercises for the trail, meditative walking, wilderness blessings and prayerful retreats.

“The Way into Judaism and the Environment” by Jeremy Benstein (Jewish Lights) examines Jewish texts, philosophy and environmental science, offering both an environmental interpretation of Judaism and a Jewish approach to environmentalism. Involved in both the worlds of environmentalism and Jewish studies, Benstein provides a bridge of creative interaction between the two. The book is part of “The Way Into” series, with each volume providing readers with a guided study tour of one aspect of Judaism. The author is a founder and associate director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.

“Understanding the Afterlife in This Life” by Bernie Kastner (Devora) is a work of “bibliotherapy,” healing through reading, reflecting a massive literary search by the author, and offering readers a condensed version. When Kastner lost his 19-year-old son to a devastating illness, he and his wife began to read everything they could find on the subject of death and dying, as a way of coping and regaining strength. He was interested in learning about fear of death and attitudes toward the afterlife in the Torah, modern science and contemporary experience. Here, he offers brief excerpts drawn from his extensive reading of sources. Along with a doctorate in public health, Kastner is certified as a handwriting expert, and incorporates that training, in addition to his work as a reality therapist, into his counseling work.

A memoir that unfolds in letters, “Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East” by Benjamin Orbach (Amacom), was written during the author’s 13-month sojourn in the Middle East in 2002 and 2003, from 10 months after the 9/11 attacks to four months after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Orbach, then a 27-year-old graduate student in Middle Eastern studies, saw himself as an unofficial ambassador, confronting stereotypes and trying to find common ground with the people he encountered, many of whom hadn’t met an American before. He neither hid nor advertised his Jewishness. His beat was a part of the “Arab Street” that doesn’t make the nightly news. In the letters, he recounts his adventures and encounters, giving voice to a range of figures. The author now lives in Washington, D.C., and is deputy regional coordinator of the Middle East Partnership Initiative at the U.S. Department of State.

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