Thursday, March 20, 2008


I finished the Jewish Literature Challenge today. My post with links to all reviews is here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Megillat Esther

Happy Purim!

For my next entry in the Jewish Literature Challenge series, I chose a graphic novel-style interpretation of the Megilla, the story of how Queen Esther saved the Jews from slaughter by King Achashverosh and his advisor, Haman, in ancient Persia, forming the basis for the Jewish holiday Purim, which begins tomorrow. Not your standard children's-book interpretation, this version of Esther's story is full of intrigue, conspiracies and reversals, not the least of which is the physical reversal of the text which occurs halfway through. At this point, the reader needs to flip the book over and read it right to left, all the better for the Hebrew but possibly jarring for readers unfamiliar with reading Hebrew or (in my case) Japanese manga. But I digress.

This Megillat Esther is a treasure, a beautiful and thoughtful retelling of the Book of Esther. The story is told in English and beautifully-lettered Hebrew, and includes rabbinic footnotes and a bibliography, as well as a section explaining the importance of citations and explaining the term midrash, the orally-told stories that expand on the Hebrew Bible. This section seems aimed at children, but this is no children's book. Waldman's rich, detailed black and white illustrations reward careful attention and a slow, deliberate pace, and there is some racy sexual content and innuendo that would make me hesitate to include this volume in a library collection for children, although it would be wonderful for adults who can be persuaded to read a "comic book."

Waldman's Megillat Esther is a real treat. I had a hard time tracking down a copy through my local public library system, but it's worth a read, at Purim time or anytime.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Cage

Sender, Ruth Minsky. 1986. The Cage.

The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender is one of the most outstanding Holocaust memoirs I've ever read. The narrative is told loosely through a framework. That is in the first chapter, Ruth Minsky Sender begins her narrative by setting it in the present day (or what would have been the present day when it was being written). She frames her story around questions her children asked about why they had no grandparents, no cousins, no extended family, etc. This, I believe, is quite effective in drawing you into the story. Of making you see the big picture.

Nancy looks at me, bewildered. "Why did they let them do it? Why didn't people stop them?"
Why did they let them do it? Why did they let them do it? It echoes in my ears. Many voices ring in my ears. Voices I have heard before. They are all calling, Why? Why? Why did they let them do it?
I hear Mama's voice, filled with hope. A world full of people will not be silent. We will not perish in vain. She was so sure. But she perished, and the world was silent.
Tears fall down my face. Nancy's soft hands wipe them away. "But, Mommy, it could not happen here. Our neighbors, our friends, they would help."
Suddenly it is 1939 again. (4)
In simple but haunting prose, the narrative tells the story of one girl's survival. Riva, our narrator, is a child-soon-to-be-a-woman growing up in Lodz, Poland. Her world changes, her future changes when the Nazis invade Poland. Friends? Neighbors? Vanish overnight it seems. You see, it's not safe to be 'Polish' anymore...better to be German. To blend in with the oppressors. To take up their mantras. To join with them side by side. To pursue the destruction of the Jewish race. There is no one to stand up for the Polish Jews. (Or should I say there are few if any that are willing to make such a stand.) The story of Riva and her family--her mother, her brothers, her sisters, is powerful.

Riva finds her strength in poetry. You might could even say that poetry saves her life in more ways than one. This is her story.

Camp Mittelsteine, Germany
September 23, 1944
Riva Minska, Number 55082.

When my tormented heart can't take any more
The grief within rips it apart;
My tears flow freely--they can't be restrained
I reach for my notebook--my friend.
I speak to my friend of my sorrow
I share my anger, my pain.
I speak to my friend of tomorrow
Of a future we'll build once again!
The pillars I build for the future to come,
I knock down and build once again.
I share all my dreams, share my hopes with my friend
Share the pain that is filling my heart. (178)
First sentence: Warm rays of sunshine fill the house, mixed with the sweet smell of lilac in full bloom.
Last sentence: As long as there is life, there is hope.
245 pages

Such a Prince, by Daniel Bar-el

Such a Prince, a new picture book for elementary-school children by Dan Bar-el, is a lively retelling of the "three peaches folktale about a sick princess who needs three perfect peaches to get well. In return for providing the peaches, her father, the king, promises the girl's hand in marriage. This version is narrated by Libby Gaborchik, a fuss-budget little fairy who takes a liking to a skinny, feckless young man named Marvin and helps him win the princess.

The book is a joy from start to finish. The story is funny, the characters are recognizable fairy-tale types used perfectly. My favorite character is the unabashedly loud-mouthed, assertive Princess Vera, who even from her sickbed will express herself in quite the forthright manner. And the pictures! The guache and colored-pencil pictures are appealing, colorful and complement the fast-paced, rolly-poly story. Even the endpapers, depicting bunnies bouncing here and there, contribute to the overall atmosphere of hyperkinetic action.

When I first read the book silently, I enjoyed the humor and the beautiful, vibrant illustrations. But it really came to life when I read it out loud- Libby's playful, irreverent tone, only a little sarcastic at times, is a great match to the bouncy, bright pictures, and sounds great when spoken. The lively Yiddish-inspired syntax is to blame. Even without using a single Yiddish word Bar-el does a great job of capturing the uniquely expressive sound of Yiddish-inflected English and it's this trait that lends the book so beautifully to being read aloud. So read it, enjoy it, have fun with it, and read it out loud- though you might have to ham it up a little to really do it justice!