Jewish Books

From Seattle to Hebron: The Story of an Amazing Life

Telling the life story of Rabbi Dov Cohen, To Rise Above begins in Seattle, WA in the early 1900’s and via train and ship takes readers to pre-state Palestine. As a young boy Dov lived in the idyllic (and rare) circumstances of a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family in Seattle. Fully dedicated to observance of Jewish law, the family was also able to take part fully in local life due to their financial success and broadmindedness.

But all was not well in paradise. Dov’s brother went off to NY to study in yeshiva and came back unmotivated and uninterested in continuing his Torah education. His observance level was not one of a young man excited about being an Orthodox Jew. Dov’s mother realized that the US offered nothing like the Torah education she wished for her sons. She then took the dramatic step of traveling with 13 year old Dov across the world to seek out a place in Palestine that would provide the education she wanted for Dov.

And this is when the journey through the history and Jewish life of pre-state Israel begins. It wasn’t easy to find a yeshiva for Dov. After false starts in Tel Aviv, Dov ends up learning in the Jewish holy city of Hevron (Hebron) at the Slabodka Yeshiva. Dov’s mother returns to the US and they meet again only after 10 years.

The Slabodka Yeshiva, Hevron 1920’s

Slabodka was a flagship of the mussar movement dedicated to living at the highest standards of Jewish ethical behavior. It is fascinating to read about the experiences of a young American Jew living within the Jewish community of Hevron and pre-independence Israel of the 1920’s. Daily life is described showing the intensity of the yeshiva students and their everyday idealism as well as the difficulty of being a teenager so far from his family. The author doesn’t whitewash over various tensions which exist within the yeshiva. Readers will be hardpressed to find other books in English which offer such detailed insight into this flourishing Jewish community.

Images from the Hevron Massacre, 1929

In painful detail, Dov describes the experiences of living through the Hevron massacre of 1929.  The violent rioting by Arabs and murder of over 60 Jews could easily have been stopped by British police on the scene. Dov describes the incredible scenes of suffering as the British authorities do nothing to stop the Arab pogrom. This is a must read for anyone interested in Hevron and the events of 1929.

Dov relocates with his yeshiva (post-riot referred to as the Hevron Yeshiva) to Jerusalem in the wake of the riots. The dislocation and confusion Dov experiences would today be quickly labeled as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The book eventually reaches 1948 and Israeli independence.  Dov serves as the first Rabbi of the Israeli Air Force which is fascinating because although he was part of the Haredi community, he saw his work as a mission to ensure that the new institutions of the nascent Jewish state were set up taking into account Jewish tradition to whatever extent possible.

We follow Dov Cohen through the development of Israel and his life. The end of the book contains a fascinating copy of notes that he kept on a daily basis documenting his efforts at self-improvement proving that he was truly a student of Slabodka who tried to live according to the ideals of mussar until the end of his life.

This book is a must-read for those interested in the history of the Jewish community of Hevron and pre-independence Israel as well as those stirred by mussar.

 

Book Giveaway! The Jewish Fact Finder. Win a copy of this amazing resource.

 

 

Fact finder cover

I’m excited to run my first book giveaway.  Actually it isn’t my first. I have probably run hundreds of book giveaways on various websites, blogs and social media platforms, but I have not used my own site. So let’s get started……

Newly revised and updated, the Jewish Fact Finder by Yaffa Ganz is a classic which has been a treasure-house of basic Jewish information for decades. It contains information on everything Jewish that one might need. Feldheim describes the book has having everything “from Torah to Talmud to Temple; from prophets to plagues to prayers; seasons and cities; measurements and mountains; and lots more, designed to be available right at your fingertips”.

It’s an essential quick-reference guide and will be useful for students, young and old, and for their parents and teachers as well. To describe it in 2016 terms, it is like having Google available at all times (including when you can’t access the internet).

Click below and enter to win!  The book will be shipped for the winner to USA addresses only (sorry).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Chanukah Inspired by the Land of Israel: Food & Spirituality

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Chana Bracha Siegelbaum’s new book

Chana Bracha Siegelbaum has just published a new book called The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel (Menorah-Books). The Torah singles out seven fruits (olives, dates and much more!) which grow in Israel for special mention. These foods thus have a special status in Jewish law and tradition. and Chana Bracha has created a guide which focuses on these specific species in a big way. Yes, it is a a cookbook, but it also is filled with nutritional and spiritual information about all the fruits and recipes. Rebbetzin Siegelbaum has gathered into one book what seems to be anything that can be learned about each of these fruits. The book also includes art and photographs which make the book look and feel more like a treasury of information rather than “only” a cookbook.  Rebbetzin Siegelbaum is a super busy educator, director of a well known women’s seminary (B’erot Bat Ayin) and currently planning a speaking tour to the USA as well as preparing for family visits from Denmark so I appreciate that she made time to participate in 8 for 8 in honor of Chanukah 2014 as we meet a different cookbook author each day of the holiday.

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Galleys of the book before printing

What stands out for you about celebrating Chanukah as you grew up? Any special food memories?

I grew up in Denmark in a very assimilated home, but I do remember the Chanukah candles that we lit that stands out in my mind. We definitely didn’t have sufganiot, but we did have something like wafers that we made on a special wafer pan, they were like pancakes but they weren’t just for Chanukah. Perhaps we did have latkes with apple sauce and of course I especially liked the applesauce.

How has your Chanukah changed since you moved to Israel?

Chanukah has become much more meaningful since moving to Israel and becoming Torah observant. The belief in miracles and in how Hashem runs the world is a central part of my life now. However, the light of Chanukah in exile, in the dark Denmark was special because it was a light within a darker darkness, the darkness of assimilation. It was the light the kept the Jewish flame alive within all the darkness of the values of the Western world which are often so foreign or opposed to Jewish values.

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The author with her parents

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Author with her husband

What do you do during Chanukah to create a memorable holiday atmosphere for your family? 

I bought my husband a very special Chanukiah (menorah), which we light at the entrance of our home with real olive oil.

The olive tree, which is the first tree recorded after the destruction of the flood, is the fruit of redemption. Its foliage is evergreen and its oil lights eternally, even during exile through the holy menorah of Chanukah. The bitterness of the olive alludes to a higher realm beyond what can be revealed as sweet in this world. When Hashem created Original Light, He saw that it was too good to be revealed for the people of this world. Therefore, He hid it away for the righteous in the World to Come. We can get a glimpse of this hidden light (Ohr Haganuz) every year on Chanukah, when we light the Chanukiah, the Chanukah lamp. After the destruction of both Temples, only the Chanukah lights, representing the flames of olive oil burning in the holy Menorah, accompany us throughout our spiritual darkness and light the way to redemption.

Are you eating different foods for Chanukah now than you did in the past? What are they?

I make latkes for my family but I minimize eating them myself as fried food is not so healthy. I also make a healthier version of the latkes by baking them rather than frying. I like to include other vegetables in the latkes such as zucchini, and carrots. We also eat milk products on Chanukah to commemorate Yehudit, the heroine of the Chanukah Story who fed Holofernes the general of the king of Assyrian milk before killing him and thus causing the  victory for the Jews.

What are the top food questions people ask you about for Chanukah? For other holidays?

People ask me how to stay healthy during Chanukah and I tell them about sugarless whole-wheat sufganiot with cream of dates, and baked sweet-potato latkes. In my book I shared my recipes for such desserts.  The recipes are not typical Jewish foods recipes or holiday recipes. Rather, my style of cooking is more natural and nutritious. The desserts are sugarless and I include many salads and try to avoid fried food.

 Latkes or sufganiot?

None of the above, thank you!

chanukah2What is one dish you must eat during Chanukah no matter what?

Quinoa with olive oil and za’atar or natural sea salt! That’s one of my favorite foods during the week and on Chanukah I may splurge more on the olive oil.

Which recipe would you like to share with us for Chanukah?

I’d like to share a simple dip which is based on olive oil and is something which can be used very often. After the recipe, I’ll share an excerpt from The Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel which speaks about olive oil, the Temple and Chanukah.

OLIVE OIL WITH ZA’ATAR (HYSSOP MIXTURE)

An easy dip to complement your bread and salads

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup za’atar mixture

Mix the olive oil and za’atar mixture well with a spoon and pour into

a nice glass jar, which you can keep on your dinner table, ready to

sprinkle over your whole wheat bread, grains and vegetables.

Instead of serving butter, fill a small condiment dish with extra virgin

olive oil and za’atar for use on grains, bread and potatoes, or drizzle

it over sauteed vegetables before serving.

Some thoughts on Chanukah: The Olive Oil in the Temple (excerpted from Seven Fruits of the Land of Israel)

It is interesting to note that the biblical lamp oil – the olive oil used for the Menorah in the Temple – had to be of the highest quality, even superior to today’s extra virgin olive oil. The Torah instructs the children of Israel “to bring clear olive oil beaten for light, to set up the lamp continually.” Rashi explains the word כּתִָית /katit – ‘beaten’ (used today to refer to virgin olive oil) as follows: “He pounds the olives in a mortar, but must not grind them in a mill, so that there may be no sediment.” He further explains the continued processing of olive oil: “After he has thus extracted the first drop of oil, he may bring the olives into the mill and grind them. The second oil [obtained by grinding] is unfit for use in the candelabrum but is permissible for meal offerings…” For this reason, even today, when lighting the Chanukiah, it is recommended to use the very best olive oil. Using the highest quality olive oil for the lights of Chanukah is a segulah (spiritual remedy) for begetting righteous children, as it states, “…your children [shall be] like olive plants round about your table.”Rabbanit Yamima Mizrachi further explains that although it is permissible to use any kind of oil for the Chanukah candelabra, the Chanukiah that we have today is in commemoration of the Menorah in the Temple, which used only the purest olive oil. Therefore, if we want all the spiritual remedies of the Menorah in the Temple – righteous children, good memory, wisdom, good vision, spiritual and physical health, it is important to use the very best quality olive oil for the Chanukah lights.

 

Score! A Jerusalem Bookstore. A Jewel.

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A modest, somewhat misleading storefront

 

I know Jerusalem very well. When I see a store I can recall what was there before that store and the one before that. So discovering a great bookstore is rare. Almost a holiday. While I have been to The Book Gallery in Jerusalem before, I’d never entered far enough to realize that room after room of used books awaited me. I am unsure how this treasure eluded me but I don’t want to cry over book experiences missed when the future looks so bright.

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Upon entering, there is an understated invitation to visit downstairs

 

Wow. What a store. As one of the employees told me “We are like an iceberg. You only see the top but underneath there is so much to be seen.” True. Outside there are some tables and shelves with books selling at about $2.50 US. And upon entering, a modestly sized book store greets visitors (or so it seems). A quick look around and one could just be on their way. But take the steps downstairs and an underground expanse of books awaits.

Hebrew, English, French, Yiddish….it is all there. Every genre. History. Fiction. Zoology. Records. Posters. And the staff? When asked if they have a somewhat obscure title they answered almost as one “We don’t have that now”. OK. A bookstore with a staff that actually…well…knows books! Score.

Moshe Bar, owner of the store, sat dusting and repairing books while explaining that their website  offers tens of thousand of titles with delivery world wide. But if you are in Jerusalem, visit them at Schatz 6.

Prices were very reasonable for used books in good condition. And the music was great. More pics below. Visit. It is better than the pictures.

 

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The background music could have been playing from these records

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For The Season of Renewal: A Classic Text Revised

Gates of Repentance, new edition 3D

The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur period is always a time of focusing on books with ethical messages and guides to improvement.  The classic Shaarei Tshuvah: Gates of Repentance is probably a top choice for many to learn at this time. Written by Rabeinu Yonah and first published in 1505, this book is a pillar of  mussar (ethics) study and is used year round. For quite some time I have been planning to dedicate time to learning this book and Feldheim’s newly revised Shaarei Teshuvah: Gates of Repentance was the impetus to start.  There is a new English translation which makes the book as accessible as possible. I found it very helpful when confronting some of the (literally) medieval Hebrew. Footnotes appear often enough to inform and assist but not so often that they distract. I am grateful to have had this book over Rosh Hashanah. I smiled when I realized that the translator (Rabbi Yosef Leibler) and I belong to the same shul!

This book is a classic for a reason. It clearly lays out the importance of repentance as well as how to accomplish this task. In painstaking fashion, the various mitzvos and prohibitions of the Torah are categorized so that an understandable system is available to the reader. In fact, the whole book is structured with incredible precision, each category followed by sub-categories and more sub-categories.  It is sophisticated and rich in detail and wisdom.

The messages of the book are powerful, often way beyond what our generation is used to hearing. Yet, I think this book ought to play an important role in education today. A properly prepared Rebbe or teacher could use this book as a full curriculum. It would be wonderful if Feldheim could provide a study guide or lesson outline for educators to accompany this book. Despite being over 500 years old, there is so much that a modern Jewish education system can glean from this work. Feldheim should be thanked for the investment of time and resources to publish this completely revised edition. I hope that it will lead to this important book being used to a greater extent in schools and yeshivos.

This book belongs in every Jewish library – home or otherwise.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Best Reads for the High Holiday Season?

 

Photo: Karen Horton

Photo: Karen Horton

Books are dead? Not this year. I am always pleased to see an article like this one which appears in Jewish Action Magazine in advance of the High Holidays this year. A number of Jewish “movers & shakers” were asked what they read to prepare for this important season.  People like Allison Josephs, the innovative founder of Jew in the City, well known writer and public commentator Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and other respected and interesting Jewish thinkers and educators shared their choice books for holiday inspiration and growth. Their selections will be helpful to many but either way this sort of article is an important vote of confidence and reminder of just how relevant and important books are.

A Jewish Werewolf – Unorthodox Fiction from an Orthodox Jewish Author

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Wolves are “in”. Werewolves seem to be even more “in”. A few years ago someone approached me with a book about Jewish vampires and I wasn’t sure there would be readers for it. By the time Ira Berkowitz called me about his book A Wolf in the Soul, I knew it was time. This theme seemed to be popping up everywhere I looked and I thought his book was really good.  I have heard many readers (especially younger ones) complain that they don’t connect with fiction written for Orthodox Jews. Wolf in the Soul was not written for Orthodox Jews – yet it is something that many will feel is “kosher” and doesn’t offend their sensibilities or values. Yet, it is out of the box. It is definitely not “same old, same old”. The reviews have been great. And you read more of them here, here and here. It has been fun to work with Ira on getting his book published as well as seeing how much readers enjoy it. The following interview with Ira ought to help readers know him better. Enjoy!

Why did you undertake the huge task of writing fiction?

Shortly before I undertook writing this novel, I was dying to be an actor. I talked about acting, read about acting, took acting classes, and even prayed to God that I’d fulfill my dream of being an actor.

But it was nearly impossible to be an actor, both because I’m an Orthodox Jew and because my dream meant too much to me. Acting was too daunting to undertake! But writing, which I knew I could do, didn’t intimidate me so much. So I put my creative energy into that instead.

 Your book is not typical of what is seen as “Orthodox Jewish Fiction” – do you see your book as part of that genre?

In a word, no. Orthodox Jewish fiction is meant exclusively for Orthodox readers. It assumes a common background and common values. My book doesn’t assume either. So while Orthodox Jews (albeit somewhat daring ones) can enjoy my book, so can other types of Jews and  non-Jews. In fact, three non-Jewish readers told me personally that they liked the book.

How much of the book is biographical?

Okay, I’m going to state this for the record: I did not become a werewolf when I was a freshman at Columbia!

I was a senior in high school when it happened.

In all seriousness, I can say that–not surprisingly–some of the book is autobiographical and some of it isn’t. Like Greg Samstag, the main character, I did grow up on Long Island, and I did attend a modern Orthodox yeshiva, and I did attend Columbia University.

But my family was Orthodox, unlike Greg’s. And my parents were very close to each other, unlike Greg’s parents.

Which details of Greg’s life correspond to my life? I’m not telling!

You write detailed descriptions of what a wolf senses, feels and does. How did you learn about this? What sort of research did you do?

At the age of 10 or 11, I became interested in wolves. A teacher of mine, named Mrs. Fox (no, I’m not making this up), gave me an LP narrated by the actor Robert Redford that gave a glimpse into wolf behavior and provided some great recordings of wolf howls. I loved it. In my 20’s, I read books and articles by Barry Lopez, L. David Mech, and others. In preparation for this book, I did even more reading and studied videos of wolves. It became something of an obsession.

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How did you know how to craft the dialogue and banter between the characters in your book – so much of it is specific to certain age groups, etc?

I’m flattered by the question. Really, I just try to imagine how a particular character would speak. It takes more work, though, imagining the dialogue of female characters.

And working with a good editor certainly helps if you’ve struck a wrong note! Deborah Meghnagi Bailey‘s advice was invaluable.

What tips do you have for someone who is interested in writing fiction?

Okay, a few tips. But I’m not a veteran writer.

1) Writing an outline for a novel is a good idea. Even if you veer from the outline, you’ll still feel more secure if you have one. Also, sketching interiors is a good idea. You don’t want to put the stove on one side of the kitchen on page 14 and then end up putting it on the other side of the kitchen on page 237.

2) For Heaven’s sakes, write notes for yourself. If you try to keep all your ideas in your head, you’ll literally give yourself a headache. I wrote notes on two small whiteboards in my study. They saved my sanity.

3) Say a psalm or two and give a coin to charity before you start a writing session. Ask God for help.

4) I learned this one from Joseph Kaufman: Every part of your book should be as good as every other part. If you think one section is a little weak, you’ve got a problem.

5) If something sounds awkward, it is.

6) Take care of tiny details that no one else would notice.

7) No matter how hard you work, the book is not going to be perfect. You have to accept that.

8) Writing a book is not an impossible job, nor is it an exalted calling. Don’t idolize some famous authors, and in the process, disqualify your own work.

9) Write the kind of book that you yourself would like to read.

That’s it!

 

 

Self Publishing a Kid’s Book: From Dream to Reality

Dirty Tzitzit front book cover

Tsivya Fox is one of those people who “did it”. She dreamed of writing a book and well, wrote one and published it. While so many people dream of publishing a book, Tsivya took the plunge and went through all the steps of publishing. Her book Dirty Tzitzit, Shiny Neshama is really attractive with colorful illustrations which are upbeat and quite detailed. I can attest to the fact that kids love the book!  I asked Tsivya to share some of her experience here.  What do you think? For those who have published, how is her experience similar or different to yours? For those dreaming of publishing, does Tsivya’s journey make you want to take the next step?

What is the story behind this book and why did you write it?

My friend and I were chatting after he had a long day doing some messy volunteer work for someone.  During our conversation he said, “WOW, I have dirty tzitzit and a grimy kippa.”  I immediately said, “That’s a great name for a children’s book!” and, thus, the book was born.

What surprised you about the whole process?

The whole process took about a year of loving labor. The basic story was written relatively quickly. When I am inspired, the words flow.  However, once the story was on paper, I spent a lot of time perfecting the word usage and story line. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “This word is better than that word, etc.”  Then, I sent the story to several friends who provided additional helpful input.

I hired a freelance illustrator who did an amazing  job with the illustrations.  They are very beautiful, loving and happy.  However, making sure that each picture reflected accurately the story as well as wanting the book to be universally accepted by all groups of people was also very time consuming – though totally enjoyable for me.

How did you price the book?

I researched the current prices of Jewish kid’s books so that my book would be in the “ball park” price wise.

What would you do differently now that you are a veteran of writing and publishing your own book?

For financial reasons, I did the first printing of the book as a paperback.  Several book stores and some parents said that they would only take a hard cover.

What were the most effective ways of promoting your book? What worked? What didn’t?

Jewish themed children’s books do not sell themselves.  When I participate in artisan sales, Pre-Chanukah and Pre-Pesach sales, the book sells well.  I found that random advertising doesn’t do too well.  However, the personal presentation shows people how great this book is. Once people read the story, see the colorful pictures, and get the happy reaction from children, they come back to buy more books for friends and family.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Everybody seems to love this book. People stop me on the street to tell me that their children, grandchildren, or students keep asking to hear the story again and again.  I am very grateful to have provided a book which sends a message of kindness, judging favorably, and warmth between parent and child to home and school libraries.

How can someone get the book?

Outside of Israel, the book may be ordered through Amazon.com here. In Israel, the book may be ordered directly from me by e-mail.

 

Holocaust Memorial Day. Books and Memory. Which Book Impacted You the Most?

War Against the Jews cover

Holocaust Memorial Day or “Yom Hashoah” will be commemorated in Israel and much of the Jewish world beginning Sunday evening, April 27, a siren will pierce the air across Israel for a few moments of silence, prayers will be recited, ceremonies will be held. As the years go on and the generation of survivors leave us, the commemoration is less raw but maybe even more important.

I knew about the Holocaust from a very young age. I was aware that my family had lost 119 members to the Nazis (on my Mother’s side) and survivors were people one could meet regularly. There was always someone to hear stories from – a friend’s parent, or grandparent, a guest speaker at school.

Despite my familiarity with so much of the Holocaust, it was a book which changed my perspective. Reading The War Against the Jews by Lucy Dawidowicz while in college was the point where I was hit with how unbelievably horrible the Holocaust was (as much as I could really understand that 40 years later).  Dawidowicz’s  descriptions of mass murder, torture and destruction left me speechless and often in total despair or filled with fierce, hot anger.  I recall being almost unable to contain the knowledge and pain. Her book impacted me greatly.  I sometimes found it almost impossible to read but I was driven to finish it. I think it is a “must read” book about the Holocaust.

There are many ways to confront the Holocaust: hearing from survivors, films and of course, the popular visits to Eastern Europe.  Books continue to play an important role in documenting and remembering the holocaust. Over the past few years I have worked on the publicity of a number of Holocaust memoirs which seems to be part of a rush to get memories documented before it is too late. Pointing out one book over another feels unfair but I think it is better to mention a few titles rather than none at all. One of the strongest books I have read in years was A World after This by Lola Liebler. The author tells of the unraveling of her middle class life under the boots of the Nazis while honestly sharing her doubts and personal flaws as she experienced them. The recent Sori’s Story was also valuable as it showed how a normal life could be turned upside down overnight for an average Jewish child and her family. I am currently honored to be working on the new Running from Giants which is a memoir  about an 8 year old boy’s survival of the war – written by his granddaughter. Filled with illustrations and sharp prose, it is a worthy new addition to the literature.

What book about the Holocaust has impacted you the most?

 

Translating Hebrew Literature to English…..What About Slang and Natalie Portman?!

Jessica Steinberg has an interesting new piece on The Times of Israel about writer and translator Assaf Gavron. He describes stepping into the lives of the characters he writes about as well the challenge of translating Hebrew into English. What does he do with idioms such as “chaval al hazman”…..is it ““a waste of time” or  “fuhgeddaboudit”? Read more here.writers-block