Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Living A Jewish Life - Anita Diamant

Title: Living A Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today's Families (2nd ed.)
Author: Anita Diamant
Country: USA
Year: 2007 (1st ed. 1991)
Rating: 5 of 5
Pages: 308
Happy Tu B'Shvat!!!

Tu B'Shvat, a minor Jewish holiday, is the New Year for the Trees, and is commonly celebrated by planting trees and eating fruits and nuts. It is also known as Jewish Arbor Day. Which leads into the latest book that I finished, Living A Jewish Life by Anita Diamant.

Although a good book for anyone who is interested in learning more about liberal Judaism, this book is most beneficial to exactly what we are: a young Jewish family looking to incorporate more rituals and traditions into our home life. 

Living A Jewish Life provides thorough explanations to many things that remain somewhat elusive to me, a non-Jew raising a Jewish child: the essence of Shabbat and how to include it in your home life, the Jewish calendar and holidays, Jewish community organizations and education. and how to make (and stick) to Jewish choices when other aspects of life interfere (ie. soccer practice on Shabbat).  I especially appreciate the fact that Anita Diamant writes with an assumption that you do not know a lof of Hebrew, and provides a very useful glossary in the back and detailed explanations for the Hebrew she does use.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Zusak, Markus. 2006. The Book Thief.

The Book Thief may just be the hardest book I've ever tried to review. It is beautiful. Though it can be ugly. It is intense. It is powerful. It is memorable. The first thing you should know about The Book Thief? It is narrated by Death. This is fitting in many ways since the setting is Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Death is the narrator, and he never lets you forget it. But there are many players--many characters--in the story that Death is relating to his audience all these years later. One of them is a girl, Liesel, and is known by Death as 'the book thief.' These thefts provide some structure to the text. (The structure is one of the odd things about the Book Thief. It isn't chronological. Death doesn't tell a story traditionally. He has his own way of jazzing it up, arranging it so it suits his needs and purposes.) The language, the style, is unique. I think it is written in such a way that you either really love it or you really don't. (It's written in such a way that you could almost open it to any page, and find a sentence or two or a whole paragraph that you want to just lift out and let resonate with you for a time.)

This is how it begins:

First the colors. Then the humans. That's usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. Here is a small fact: you are going to die. I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me. (3)

It continues:

People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and ends, but to me, it's quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations, with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them. As I've been alluding to, my one saving grace is distraction. It keeps me sane. It helps me cope, considering the length of time I've been performing this job. The trouble is, who could ever replace me? Who could step in while I take a break in your stock-standard resort-style vacation destination, whether it be tropical or of the ski trip variety? The answer, of course, is nobody, which has prompted me to make a conscious, deliberate decision--to make distraction my vacation. Needless to say, I vacation in increments. In colors. Still it's possible that you might be asking, why does he even need a vacation? What does he need a distraction from? Which brings me to my next point. It's the leftover humans. The survivors. They're the ones I can't stand to look at, although on many occasions I still fail. I deliberately seek out the colors to keep my mind off them, but now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs. Which in turn brings me to the subject I am telling you about tonight, or today, or whatever the hour and color. It's the story of one of those perpetual survivors--an expert at being left behind. It's just a small story really, about, among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fish fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. (4-5)

Before the story gets underway, he invites the reader along for the journey:

Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt, an immense leap of an attempt--to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it. Here it is. One of a handful. The Book Thief. If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I'll show you something. (14-15)

There is depth, substance, to these words, to this story. The descriptions. The details. The powerful sway of the words whether they're describing the beauty of love and family and friendship or capturing the ugly heaviness of hate, anger, and death. It's not an easy story to read. It's full of emotions. It's full of words. It's a book that at it's very heart and soul captures humanity in all its depths--the good, the bad, the ugly. Here is a book that captures what it means to be human.
One of the most memorable passages for me (224-236), and I hope this isn't much of a spoiler--is the hand drawn--hand written--portion written by "Max" for Liesel. I find it so powerful in its simplicity. So hauntingly beautiful. There is a second story specially written for Liesel by Max, this second one is found on pps 445-450. This is how that one begins, "There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life: 1) He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else. 2) He would make himself a small, strange mustache. 3) He would one day rule the world." (445)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Rabbi's Girl's by Johanna Hurwitz

Stars: ****

This is a novel for ages 8-12, mostly for girls. It’s the story of the daughters of Rabbi Levin after they move to Lorain, Ohio in 1923.

There are good things and bad things that happen, just like in real life. This is a good book for non-Jewish kids to learn what it’s like to be Jewish. Many aspects of Judaism are explained. How the Shabbos is celebrated (like the Christian Sabbath), what Rosh Hashanah is all about, the special preperations for Passover and how the Jewish wedding works.

It also shows a bit of how life was different in the 20’s. Mama is a very superstitious person which I believe was very common in the 20’s. She forbids the family to talk of her pregnancy so as not to attract the evil eye. She doesn’t like people admiring her children for the same reason.

It is a very good book about Jewish life in the 20’s for pre-teens.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The 2008 Sydney Taylor Book Awards

The 2008 winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards for the best Jewish literature for kids and teens have just been announced! This award is presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries, and there are gold and silver medals for younger, older, and teen readers (as well as a list of notable books that don't get medals). The full info is at, but for the moment, please see the video below for an announcement of the gold medalists:

By the way, I've read all three of these gold medalists, and they are all excellent. The picture book winner, The Bedtime Sh'ma, comes with a CD of beautiful, soothing music - what a bonus! The Older Readers book, The Entertainer and the Dybbuk, is not just another Holocaust novel - it's weird, funny, and creepy all at once. The Teen winner, Strange Relations, displays Sonia Levitin's trademark talent of showing different streams of Judaism interrelating. All excellent reads!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

How Nancy Drew Saved My Life

How Nancy Drew Saved My Life by Lauren Baratz-Logsted is not the first Red Dress Ink ("chick lit") book I've read with a Jewish heroine; in fact, the heroine, Charlotte Bell, is the least "Jewish" Jewish heroine I've read from this Harlequin imprint! (Other examples would be Matzo Ball Heiress and You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs, the heroines of which are much more in tune with their Jewish heritage than Charlotte.)

The synopsis: Charlotte, a former child actress in a famous line of commercials, accepts a nanny position with the ambassador to Iceland, partly to escape her aunt's household, and partly to escape her previous ambassador boss, with whom she had a failed relationship.

I don't think you can get much more "fish out of water" than a short, brunette, Jewish woman in Iceland, where nearly everyone is tall and blond and Protestant.

Of course, with Nancy Drew in the title, you have to know that there is a mystery to solve. Because it's a Harlequin, there is a romance. Because it's chick lit, there are good friends at a bar, and a strange boss, and a failed romance to complain about.

If you are a fan of either Nancy Drew or Jane Eyre, this is definitely the book for you. So many allusions to both! If not, I still think you'd enjoy this book. It's one of the better Red Dress Ink books I've ever read, and I've read quite a few.

In terms of Jewish literature, perhaps that label only loosely applies to this book. Regardless, I am glad I read it and offer it as the first book I've completed in the challenge.

author's website:

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Buy Jupiter by Isaac Asimov

Pussreboots has reviewed her second book for this challenge. The review is here.