"Not another book on the Holocaust,” a friend of author Anne Michaels lamented, as he came across a new book on the subject, unaware that the first novel Michaels was then working on had a Holocaust theme. “That galvanized me in an important way,” she tells The Jewish Week. “What kind of book could I write that would reach that reader, who felt like he had read it all?” It was a question that Michaels asked herself repeatedly in the 10 years it took her to complete Fugitive Pieces (Knopf).
Ted Solotaroff wanted to name his memoir “Rachmones.” He was certain that there wasn’t a Jewish reader who wouldn’t understand the word Leo Rosten defines as pity, compassion in “The Joys of Yiddish,” but his editor, and a random sampling of younger Jews, convinced him otherwise. “It’s what this book finally is about,” the 70-year old distinguished editor, essayist, critic and now memoirist tells The Jewish Week.
A friend who works in a bookstore recounts that whenever Jewish parents or grandparents ask for help in selecting a book, they preface their request: “Oh, he’s 7, but he reads like a 12-year-old,” or “She’s beginning fifth grade but reads on a high-school level.” But despite their parents’ best intentions to get them reading the classics as soon as they can lift them, along with The New York Times, kids really do prefer picture books with great stories.
The road less traveled is getting crowded. Not only are large numbers of Jews embarking on spiritual journeys, but many are writing about them, in full candor. The inner adventure story might be the Jewish book of the moment.
While bookstores are overflowing with memoirs of every stripe — the musings of people from all backgrounds, reflecting on remarkable families, abuse and dysfunction, divorce, relationships — Jewish writers seem to be revealing the details of their spiritual lives: The relationship frequently examined is that with God.
One of the most striking exhibits in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is the three towers of photographs taken in Eishyshok, documenting that shtetl’s Jewish life before it was destroyed by the Nazis. Viewers are encircled by 1,600 photographs collected by Dr. Yaffa Eliach, a professor at Brooklyn College who was born in Eishyshok. Now, Eliach has published a book that links together the moments captured in the photographs, presenting a full and textured description of the once vital community: It is a work about one town, with clues to many pasts.
In 1920, the Jewish population of Union City, Tenn., increased by 100 percent. That was the year the Bronson family moved there from New York, becoming the only Jewish family among close to 6,000 inhabitants, and the proprietors of “Bronson’s Low-Priced Store.”
When Rabbi Naomi Levy became the rabbi of Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, Calif., in 1989, she was 26, recently graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary. A member of the first seminary class to admit women to study for the rabbinate, she became the first female Conservative rabbi to lead a congregation on the West Coast. At first, she was treated like something of a curiosity, but after a short time, after several marriages, births, burials in the community, she went from being their “new young woman rabbi to being their rabbi.”
When Florence Greenglass and Sol Dubner converted from Judaism to Catholicism during World War II, it was as though a gate banged shut; neither looked back. Embracing Catholicism zealously, they broke with their families as well as their religion; Dubner’s father sat shiva. The pair met and married after each had converted independently; they became Veronica and Paul Dubner. Decades later, their son Stephen, the youngest of their eight children, unlocked the gate, opening to a renewed Jewish future.
That Chana Landau and a group of gay teenagers appear in the same novel would have been unthinkable to the Orthodox Brooklyn woman before she started teaching at Harvey Milk High School in Manhattan. She’s not sure her religion allows her to be in the same room as these wild street urchins, child prostitutes and largely unloved kids who have been down and out for most of their young lives. The alternative school is “as close to Sodom” as the 28- year-old thought she’d ever be.
Next June, Anne Frank would be 70 years old. Public interest in the young Anne Frank and her diary — an account of her 25 months hiding from the Nazis in a secret annex in Amsterdam, which has now been translated into 55 languages, with more than 25 million copies sold — is unceasing, with new editions of the diary, a recent revival of the Broadway play, documentary films, children’s books, dissertations and critical articles, with frequent contention between the people and organizations who claim to represent her interests.
Young Families, Singles Flocking to Upper East Side; ‘The Memory Is In Their Taste Buds’: The Lure of Sephardic Food; Safra Synagogue Rabbi’s Growing Empire; Sephardic And Egalitarian at B’nai Jeshurun; Giving Voice to Sephardic Music.