A (Jewish) Dog’s Life

March 22, 2015

The Jewish Dog9780983868538By Kathe Pinchuk

Last month was all about cats, but this month it’s about a dog. I stopped by the Urim Publications booth at the Jerusalem International Book Fair and picked up a copy of The Jewish Dog by Asher Kravitz (Penlight Publications, 2015).  The book was originally published in Hebrew as HaKelev HaYehudi by Yedioth Ahronoth in 2007.

This dog narrates his own story, starting with his birth (in 1935) and through a succession of owners. He goes from “the white one with the black circle around his eye and brown patch on his chest”

to being Caleb, as his mother’s family decides to keep him and give him a proper name. Caleb loved the Gottlieb family and they loved him. The children would feed him table scraps, and Caleb always knew when it was the Sabbath because he got more delectable leftovers from the meals.

But he lives in challenging times.  The situation in Germany deteriorates quickly, and his carefree days as a well-fed and loved puppy are overshadowed by harsh reality.  First, the Nuremberg Laws are enacted, which means Jews cannot own dogs nor use the public parks.  Caleb is given to a former colleague of Kalman Gottlieb and from there is handed off to a variety of owners. Caleb can understand human language and human emotion, so he can sense which people are fearful, or keeping secrets, or are confident and secure.

You will have to read this one for yourself, but you’ll be happy you did.  While it is Caleb’s story, different aspects of life in Nazi Germany are integrated into the plot, so you get both a dog story and a sense of history and its effect on individuals.

This was one of those books that I enjoyed reading for its cleverness and twists and turns, but read with some anxiousness, wondering what would happen next.  Because of the Holocaust content and some adult themes, it is very highly recommended for young adults and adults. It is also my pick for the Mildred L. Batchelder Award – the American Library Association Youth Media Award :”given to the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States.”

This review appears on Life Is Like a Library

Review of The Night That Unites Passover Haggadah

March 19, 2015

The Night That UnitesTeachings from three extraordinary rebbes intertwine in conversation as the author percolates wisdoms across 3,000 years of tradition. Thematic explorations include the Jewish inner fire expressing kindness, the defiance of reclining, and the joy of being creative. You may also find yourself discussing the merits of being a public Jew, a discerning leader, or contemplating the nature of a holy nation. Hallel contains insights on reliance, joyous song, gratitude, and a desire for unity. This gem will provide years of inspiration.

This review appears in Jewish Family Times Passover Edition

PW Nonfiction Book Review of Tanakh, an Owner’s Manual

March 17, 2015

Sokolow, a professor at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, TanakhAnOwnersManualWeb1has crafted a masterful and thorough volume of Torah scholarship that raises multiple questions inherent in Tanakh and provides cogent and articulate explanations and responses to them. His work, which takes a Jewish Orthodox viewpoint, includes segments on who penned the various portions of Tanakh (an acronym for Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim); historic and rabbinic sources for inclusion in the canon; anomalies in the foundational Masoretic text; attitude toward narrative material (Aggadah); the history of, and insights into, eight prominent exegetes, including Rashi and Nahmanides; rebuttals to the arguments of biblical critics about textual origin, and principles for developing Tanakh curricula in yeshiva day schools. Sokolow’s erudition is evident as he addresses the issues from all angles and offers rational proofs for his claims. Detailed footnotes provide much additional useful and fascinating information for further study. Hebrew text, which is always translated, is woven into the manual when Sokolow quotes original material so that readers can see firsthand the sources. Serious students of Torah will learn much from this important, comprehensive work.

This review originally appeared on Publishers Weekly 

As Pesach nears, discovering our tradition anew

March 15, 2015

By Alana Jay Gerber Lipman

With the onset of Pesach, I find the study of the historical and philosophical side of our religious tradition to be of great inspiration in getting myself into the “holiday mood.” Thus, this week’s essay will focus on two works by Rabbi Dov Lipman that should help assist many in getting into this holiday mood.

The spiritual quest that Rabbi Lipman focuses on in his works, “Discover” (Feldheim, 2006) and “Seder Savvy” (Targum Press, 2010) describe in eloquent and intelligent terms the basic elements that make up the beliefs of our sacred tradition.

“Discover” goes to the very heart of our tradition by dealing, in great detail, with such topics as Torah MiSinai, Torah She’baal Peh, the purpose of Creation, and the role of prayer and study. Some profound and heartfelt teachings are found in his essays on Women in Judaism, Suffering and Tragedies, Death, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the coming of Moshiach.

In his personal approbation to this work, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, wrote the following: Read the rest of this entry »

Special curriculum on Jewish preparation for burial

March 12, 2015

Rochel Berman of Boca Raton — a member of the Boca Raton Synagogue Chevra Kadisha (sacred burial society) and consultant dignity6hiResto the Torah Chevra Kadisha in Boca Raton — has embarked on a trailblazing project to develop a curriculum and study guide for Jewish high school students to learn about the Jewish preparation for burial.

Berman has partnered with Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, head of school at Weinbaum Yeshiva High School (WYHS) in Boca Raton, to introduce the eight-session course titled “The Final Journey: How Judaism Dignifies the Passage.”

The program will be launched today and will continue through March 26, highlighted by a field trip on March 16 to Levitt Weinstein Funeral Home in Coconut Creek.

Berman’s goal is to demonstrate the course at WYHS — the pilot course will be taken by 28 girls in the WYHS senior class — and then to disseminate it to Jewish high schools in all streams of Judaism throughout the English-speaking world.

Rabbi Kroll said: “I’ve been involved in Jewish education on the high school level for twenty years and this is the first time that I’ve ever dealt with this topic in a meaningful way. I believe that engaging students in the process of understanding the Jewish approach toward the end of life will lead students to live a more engaged and meaningful Jewish life.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

March 8, 2015

By Jack ReimerAftertheHolocustWeb1

This is not a book that one can really review, for to review means to be objective and detached. It means to pass judgment on the techniques of the author and to evaluate how well or how poorly he expresses his ideas. But when someone writes a book that bears witness to the horrors that he has gone through, and when someone pours out his soul, and when someone reaches into the very depths of your being, detachment is not an appropriate response.

Joseph Polak has written a memoir that begins where Anne Frank’s diary leaves off. She wrote about the trials and the travails of growing up in a hidden room, and of learning how to become a teenager in a hideout. Her book ends with her and her family being discovered by the Nazis and taken away to Auschwitz. We hear nothing of the starvation, the filth, and the typhus that took away her life there. Jospeh Polak’s book begins when he was taken, first to Westerbook, and then a year and a half later, from there to Bergen Belsen when he was still a small child.

His book is not so much an account of what happened to him there as it is an effort to understand and to convey how what happened to him there has remained within his consciousness ever since.

I read every page of this book at least twice: sometimes wincing, sometimes shivering, sometimes wishing it would end already. In this review, let me share just a few of the insights in it that stay with me ever since I encountered them.

The first is the photographs. There are many photographs in this book that I found simply overwhelming. They moved me, not because they portrayed sadism or brutality. They moved me because of their ordinariness. There is not a single picture of a Nazi in this book, nor are there any pictures of the train stations or the gas chambers or of the dogs that kept people in line. Instead, there are pictures of Joseph Polak’s mother, and of her mother, and of his father—a picture that sits on his desk and is his only memento of his father’s existence, and a picture that is gradually deteriorating with the passage of time. There are pictures of his uncle, and of the man who taught him aleph bet in Montreal after the war, and there are pictures of himself in his childhood and in his youth. And when I look at these pictures, I find myself realizing: “I know these people! I know them! I remember seeing these faces, or faces just like these in my childhood shul!” And the awareness that ordinary people like these could have gone through such extraordinary experiences in the concentration camps—that human beings like the ones that I knew lived in a place where their dignity, their selfhood, their ability to parent their children, and their ability to make rational decisions were taken away from them, even before they were sent to the places where their physical lives were taken away from them—this knowledge is overwhelming.

Two scenes from this book will haunt me for a long time. One is the scene in which a bureaucrat tells a man that his wife has already gone on the previous train that goes once a week from Westerbrook to Bergen Belsen. She has already left on the journey from which there is no return. The bureaucrat looks up from the list in his hand, and says to this man: ‘It is up to you. You can go there too –on the next train, which leaves in a few minutes, or you can stay here.” The man is unable to respond. How do you choose between suicide and betrayal? How do you choose between joining your wife or maybe having a little bit more life? The man with the notebook says: “I’ll  give you five minutes to decide” as if he is asking him whether he wants a ham sandwich or a turkey sandwich!

And you realize, as you try to imagine yourself in that unimaginable situation,  that you have no right to judge those who were there, those who had been transformed from being bankers or barbers or businessmen into being bewildered, exhausted, confused former human beings, whose only task was to somehow keep their names off the List, the list of those who were transported from Westerbrook to Bergen Belson every Tuesday morning.

There is a photograph in this book of a child, perhaps six or seven years old, walking along a road, in shorts, looking to his left. And on the right side of the photograph, you see heaps of corpses, lying on the ground.

And you wonder: Did this child see these bodies heaped up on his right as he walked by? Did he realize what they were? Is he looking away out of horror or out of innocence? And you wonder even more about whoever it was that took this picture. Was it a Nazi soldier, who was struck by the contrast between innocence and ugliness that he saw? Was it a Jew who wanted the world to know—to know and to care—to know and to at least be revolted—at a world in which little kids played near feces and walked around among bodies without even feeling horror?

One of the things that you learn from this book is that for the survivors the Holocaust did not end in 1945. It continued when people came back, and found that it was their neighbors who had turned them in, and that it was their neighbors who now lived in their homes. It continued when a small child has to learn to cope first with the death of his father in Bergen Belsen and then with the brokenness in body and in spirit of his mother. His mother somehow got them to Montreal after the war, and she married again, perhaps so that he might have a father, but Joseph Polak says that he hated the man who dared to take his father’s place. He tells of how hard it was to fit into the new world, of how he and the others were told not to talk about where they came from, and what they had gone through there, but to become   “like everyone else” instead. And he shows us how utterly impossible that was to do.

We don’t have many books like this one, books that tell what Hell was like for children who were too innocent to understand where they were, and too young  to remember it clearly afterwards. So read this book and absorb what it has to say. And take some comfort from the fact that its author grew up to be a teacher of Torah and a counselor of young people on campus, hard as that is to comprehend.

This review originally appeared in South Florida Jewish Journal

Sefaria and Urim Publications Strike Agreement

March 3, 2015

Urim Publications has agreed to release one of their books from copyright restrictions via the Creative Commons CC0 license (making it free for use and reuse in any way). Urim has released Mikraot Gedolot Hachut Hameshulash by Eliyahu Munk under the CC0 license, and the content is already being added to the Sefaria website. The book contains English translations of major Torah commentaries written by four medieval rabbis: SefornoRashbam, Radak, and Rabeinu Chananel, all expertly rendered by Eliyahu Munk.

The Sefaria team has been in touch with several intellectual property experts and as far as any of them know, this is the first time a copyright owner has released a book from restrictive use in exchange for payment from a third party.

Sefaria is building a free, living library of Jewish texts and their interconnections. Their scope is Torah in the broadest sense, from Tanakh to Talmud to Zohar to modern texts and all the volumes of commentary in between. They are inspired by the biblical affirmation (Deuteronomy 33:4) that the Torah is the rightful inheritance of the entire Jewish people.

As part of this commitment they provide texts in both Hebrew and translation (English, for now). They have imported public domain translations, and allowed users to create crowd-sourced translations, but that’s not the only avenue they have been pursuing. They are also actively working with authors and publishers to release texts from copyright restrictions, making them free for use and reuse via Sefaria.

Sefaria’s goal is to digitize texts in a machine-readable way, to create open source, flexible, technology, and ensure that everything produced through the generosity of their donors belongs to the public and can be freely used and re-used.

More information can be found on The Sefaria Blog.


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