New Jewish Book Releases

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Hillel: If Not Now When by Rabbi Telushkin

Hillel IF NOT NOW WHEN by Joseph Telushkin

“Hillel: if not now, when” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Shocken, 2010

Can a book about the life and teachings of Hillel, now having his 2000th yahrzteit commemorated, be subversive, bitterly critical, and even fiercely polemical? Hillel, the mild-tempered and patient teacher whose students and progeny (a whole lot of the Talmudic leaders) lead the debates in the Talmud? The man who was the inspiration for some of the best teachings of Jesus?

You better believe it! Not so very hidden in this book is quite an attack on some of today’s practices.

Every educated Jew can recite the striking aphorisms Hillel offered – he is quoted the most in Pirke Avot – and all know the stories about how he summarized Jewish thought while standing on one foot. Rabbi Telushkin does an admirable job of taking the bits known or rumoured about Hillel and creating a picture of a living person. Interestingly, he is at pains to show that Shammai was not an irrelevant “straw man” and foil the wiser HIllel nor that Hillel was always the “good guy” and liberal in his teachings.

Yet the most profound value of this short, well-written book lies in contrasting the world-views of Hillel with the constipated and ill-liberal practices of today. No where are these practices more deficient than in our closedness to promoting membership in the Jewish faith. Today, we are exactly at the opposite pole from the welcoming attitude that House of Hillel – and Jewish practice world-wide in the Roman Empire – espoused and we are so much the worse for it.

Let me end by mentioning a simple “proof” of our present departure from earlier rabbinic thought that Rabbi Telushkin poses. When someone is asked, “Is David religious?” – what do we mean? Do we mean is he a decent person who treats others well and is honest in business and careful in personal relations? As Rabbi Telushkin points out, we really mean nothing other than “Does he practice the rituals of Judaism?”.

Sad.

B.B.

www.israelsjudaica.com

Book Review: Frumkiss Family Business by Michael Wex

Frumkiss Family Business by Michael Wex

 If you haven’t already started reading Michael Wex’s Yiddish-inflected books, “The Frumkiss Family Business” is a hilarious place to start.

In the guise of a family saga over four generations, Wex has creatively woven the  most engaging, entertaining, and even surprising comedy. It stretches from life in the shtetls of Europe to the landmarks of today’s Toronto… including Caplansky’s deli on College Street. For sure, you’ll be trying to see which fictional characters and which elements of the plot seem to be kind of like people you know and things you recall from reading the newspapers.

The patriarch, Faktor, is a multi-talented actor, comic, and writer, with an urge to confound everybody. The family secret is slowly revealed and how Wex unravels, re-ravels, and twists and turns the secret is a joy to read. And you bet you won’t hear how he does it from me.

Don’t miss this book. Very amusing, full of historical reminiscences, a tour-de-force of Jewish life here and in the most fervent corners of Jerusalem – not always complimentary, fun with Yiddish, and lots more.

Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days

Wooden Honey Dish by Emanuel

Rosh Hashanah is right around the corner. No sooner than we drop off the kids at the school door, The High Holy Days are upon us. Rosh Hashanah is early this year, September 8th. That’s when we’ll be sitting around the table with family and friends, enjoying a great meal and welcoming the Sweet New Year with freshly picked Ontario apples and honey from the Jerusalem Mountains.

The Jewish New Year ushers in a time of reflection and meditation. No dance parties to ring out the old and bring in the new. The majority of us will be standing in shuls across the world listening to the shofar and in our minds wondering what Hashem has in store for us.

As we usher in the New Year someone very dear to us at Israel’s Judaica  is missing . He was a tireless worker for Israel and was a kind soul and inspiration to all of us. He was known to all of us both near and far as Izzy Kaplan Z”L. We’re thankful that he passed this way.

To all our customers, readers, authors, book publishers and friends:

Sweet New Year. Shanah Tovah. May you be inscribed for a good life for another year.

-Vivi-

NEW RELEASES FOR THE HIGH HOLY DAYS

Visit our High Holy Days Books Section: CLICK HERE.

Events at ISRAEL’S Judaica: April – May, 2010

Founder of The Ontario Poetry Society
Bunny Iskov
Aeolus House & ISRAEL’S invite you to the launch of “Sapphire Seasons” by Bunny Iskov:
Sunday, April 25, 2o10, 5:00pm
ISRAEL’S Judaica, 870 Eglinton Avenue West @ Bathurst St.
Tel: 416-256-1010 
Free admission: Kosher refreshments
About the Poet:
I.B. (Bunny) Iskov is the founder of the Ontario Poetry Society. Her work has been published in many fine literary journals and anthologies. She has one full collection and several chapbooks.
 
From Sapphire Seasons

Looking Irish

Growing up, I considered myself Canadian

My unorthodox family

Never observed rituals

Except when it came to me

Dating non-Jewish boys.

I was told they could only be my friends.

Of course, the only time I was invited out

On a date, was by a goy-

A cute one, too.

I spoke my sadness

With solemn sophistication,

Explaining I was only allowed to date

nice Jewish boys.

The response was always the same:

“You don’t look Jewish.”

The funny thing was, when I asked

“What do I look like?”

The response was still always the same.

And to think I wasn’t even wearing green.

Sima’s Undergarments Book Review: Summer Reading

By Ben Barkow

By Ilana Stangler-Ross
By Ilana Stanger-Ross

Sima’s Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross, The Overlook Press, 2009, 320 pp., provides wonderful sight and insight into the lives of women and families, who happen in this book to live in the traditional Jewish neighbourhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn. Stanger-Ross examines in-depth the life, friendships, and potential for growth of Sima, proprietor of the home-based business of the title.

The action starts with the unexpected arrival of Timna, a lovely young Sabra, who begins as Sima’s assistant. While about as old a novelist’s ploy as any in the world, it works gently and well to unfold the narrative of Sima’s life and to provide entry to sub-plots. Although not handled chronologically as a narrative, we ultimately come to the question of her own sadly decayed marriage.

Two things may provide springboards to your own exploration of your marriage. These are the way Stanger-Ross treats Sima’s dog-eared marriage and the sadness your might feel on hearing familiar-sounding but truly unendearing kitchen conversations unfold. These may be more helpful to the multitude of readers in likewise dog-eared marriages than a garage-full of self-help books. My internet dictionary says dog-eared means “made worn or shabby from use.”

This may sound odd to say, but you can also enjoy the book as an exploration of contemporary novel writing, the sort of thing that James Wood of the New Yorker Magazine explores in “How Fiction Works.” Perhaps the reader can see perhaps one too many summer workshops hidden in the text, but that’s an interesting aspect of the book and not really a detractor. Of course, when you read that Sima’s guests are making wine toasts just before the Seder, you start to wonder why Stanger-Ross wrote such an odd thing and what novelist purpose did it serve?

Highly recommended for men and women… but greatest benefit to those married and over 35.

Wildflowers At My Doorstep, by Marni Norwich

wildflowersReview by Hilary Jacob

When a friend recently selected Wildflowers at my doorstep as a book club selection, I approached the task of reading the collection with two parts intrigue and one part trepidation. I was pleased to learn of a new female literary talent, but the title conjured up earnest verses penned in praise of majestic Canadian landscapes authored by nice (of course), patriotic folk. While I have nothing against praising our sublime landscape, I feared such verse might prove a bit, well, boring. If I commit to carving out sufficient time in a busy week to attend to an entire collection of poetry, I want the experience to be unique, memorable and moving. I crave challenging ideas and subject matter, innovative, impressive and surprising use of language; I want to feel drawn in as I would to any good book, to become engrossed in the world created by the author and to enjoy having visited this place. I was quite certain Wildflowers would not satisfy this lengthy list of requirements. In short, I was mistaken.

In her first published book, Marni Norwich keeps her writing spare and tight, the language pared down to pierce each target with the finest precision possible. The collection of 45 poems juxtaposes light and dark subjects, drawing the reader in expertly with wit and humour then turning sharply to address serious subjects. It is an impressive and delicate balance the artist maintains, a testament to her technical skills and sensitivity in employing her craft; she weaves light and soft textures of irreverence, wit and humour, alternating with weightier, coarser yarns and darker hues as she illustrates subjects including injustice, death, loneliness and loss. The result is a tapestry in which the light and the dark become blended and inseparable. One moment we are laughing, when suddenly the mood becomes serious. I found myself reading and rereading poems, not wanting to miss the subtleties, the nuances and the humour.

We are first led into the “fallen” world by Adam, in “The truth about banishment: His”. The tone of this poem is light and fun and Adam is portrayed as more optimistic than we would conventionally presume. Adam is a colloquial-speaking, modern-sounding, irreverent personality who wants you to know that he’s not a “smartass”. In reference to the infamous apple-eating-debacle, he informs us “the truth about banishment is it opened doors for us”.

Having been turned out of the Garden of Eden in the opening poem, it is fitting that we find ourselves in an uncertain place (We do not arrive). In the poem by the same name, the speaker laments “We are always saying Life is like this, but what do we know? After tens of thousands of years, we are still wondering who we are”. The poems in this grouping ruminate on a variety of difficult, eternally puzzling subjects such as the meaning of life, one’s state upon death and the burden of ego. The opening poem, This poem is a self-conscious and stilted spike of a work, each line kept to a mere few words in length. The tone is ironic and mocking as the speaker makes hyperbolic claims: among the amazing restorative abilities of “this poem” it boasts itself a cure for “loneliness, faithlessness and apathy”, “a magic elixir for a broken heart” and “a tonic for existential angst”. The closing lines ring serious and weighty, however. Conjuring Ulysses and his Odyssey, we are told “This poem is…your compass. Read it carefully and it will guide you home”. The reader must make a choice. Do we choose skepticism and scorn for artistic pretention, or is there a hidden meaning here, only accessible through faith and optimism?

The second grouping in the collection, Inheritance, is arguably the most affecting of the sections. The writer points to strong women of personal significance (for example, her grandmother), of historical significance (Anne Frank) and modern day activists (Betty Krawczak and Renee Boje) and highlights the optimism, faith and tenacity these women displayed in the face of incredible adversity. In Inheritance the speaker reminds herself “You think you are the first to experience displacement… Your great-grandmother crossed an ocean with little more than hope in her bags”. In Green Jade Necklace, of her grandmother the writer says “she knew how to spring hope from asphalt like wildflowers”. In the poignant poem Dear Anne Frank, the writer speaks directly to Anne, as to a sister or close friend, grieving for her “losses” and describing simple pleasures she wishes she had the possibility to show and to share. There is something almost childish in the tone of the poem and in the childishness, hopeful, that the actual act of writing such a letter might be useful, could actually alleviate suffering.

The third grouping I have been trying to read you this poem focuses on the act of writing and the need for connections through this traditionally solitary artistic process. Says the speaker in the poem of the same name, “I can’t do this on my own. I just need you to reach forward with the tentacles of your mind, touch these words and lead me home”. Themes of loss and dislocation are repeated in this section, as the author pays tribute to Po Seng, a Chinese immigrant and doctor turned poet, and Marcel, a 75 year old Flamenco teacher who arrived in Canada at 15, having lost his parents, siblings and other relatives in the death camps. Says the speaker: “Marcel, we’ve only just met, but I think I know you, an Ashkenazic Jew… igniting a stage”.

While poems in the previous sections generally allude to ethereal forces, energies and spirituality and prodded the reader to reevaluate archetypal human problems, the poems in the final 2 groupings, This body and All the crazy boys are more obvious, more corporal and generally lighter. The topics explored include the frustration of insomnia, scoliosis, recollections of an argument at the age of 5 and ex-boyfriends. However, the author shows respect for the body and the mysteries it holds. The body, referred to previously in Listen as a “misunderstood ally” “could teach me a thing or two” and “Would tell me a lot if only I would listen”. In Despite everything, especially my vegetarianism, we pinpoint what may be the most succinct example of the message in the Wildflowers collection. In reflecting on an egregious act of inconsideration by a former boyfriend, the speaker notes that through the eyes of the poet, she can appreciate the inconsiderate act for its artistic merit “the way I savour incongruity and the improbable contrast of many things”. The over-arching message in the collection appears to be that if we develop the skills and discipline to view the world with optimism and faith, to recognize our connectedness to each other and to utilize the poet’s technique of “savouring incongruity” we will be able to flourish despite life’s hard truths and adversity.

The closing poem, The truth about banishment: Hers gives Eve the last word. At first we laugh as Eve tells us in her rough way that it was “sass”, not temptation that motivated her to eat of the apple and further: “…the point being, I don’t like to feel I’m being messed with”. Having thus shrugged off the significance of her actions, in the closing lines, however, Eve becomes serious and admits that the apple, when held, seemed to hold “gravity” and actually gave her power to see the future and feel the “yearning love” of future generations. Thus the reader is given a choice: do we despair at the prospect of this perpetual cycle of life and death or are we filled with hope and optimism that the cycle of life and death is fuelled by love.

Throughout the collection, the author directs our attention to themes and motifs repeatedly, and eventually a pattern emerges for the reader. The poet guides our attention to a few seemingly random wildflowers at our doorstep; if we look further we realize identical flowers blanket the landscape. Experiences that befall each of us may seem intensely personal, but if we look further we might recognize, and find solace in, the inter-connectedness between ourselves, the world and unseen natural forces.

Wildflowers at my Doorstep is available at Israel’s Judaica.

The Accidental Zionist: What A Priest, A Pornographer and A Wrestler Named Chainsaw Taught Me

By Brandon Lablong

I wake up in the middle of the night; sweat running down my brow, screaming, “Where does it go? Biography, Israel, Jewish thought? I just can’t decide!” The Accidental Zionist by Rabbi Ian Pear is as easy to classify, as a falafel is easy to manage with one hand. This enlightening read, focusing on monotheism as the “message”, and the Jewish people as the “messenger”, is a great way to dip your toe in the ocean of Jewish thought. Put in a clear and systematic order, this piece of literature makes it easy to follow along. Divided into two parts, the first focused on the purpose of a Jew and the second focused on our homeland of Israel, it becomes an enjoyable way to learn more about the role we play on this planet. That aside, the way the author chronicles his life, makes it quite entertaining, to a point where you might be forced to let out a chuckle or two.

Unfortunately, just as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case the title. I opened this book hoping for a light insight into Israel’s past but found too little too late. The first chapter was a bit deceiving, informing me about some seemingly obvious discrepancies in Jewish law regarding Israel. The answers were nowhere to be found until later in the second part of the book. Overall, a good read, albeit not so much for the Israel enthusiast, but definitely for the Jewish minded. Home>