Immigrant soldiers

by David Geffen

What becomes very clear in ‘Jews and the Civil War’ is that Jews, depending, supported the ideology of their close neighbors.

For Jews in America,” Eli Evans, noted historian of Southern Jewry, begins his essay reprinted in this volume, “the Civil War was a watershed that involved Jewish soldiers from all over the nation.” He emphasizes that “Jews served in both armies and helped in the war effort in many other ways. Serving their countries under fire and fighting side by side with their gentile comrades in arms accelerated the process of acculturation, not only through their self-perceptions, but also because of the reactions of the community around them.”

Then Evans makes this key point about what the Civil War accomplished in terms of identity. “Jewish immigrants who had only recently arrived in America and thought of themselves as Germans came to see themselves not only as Americans, but as Americans who belonged.” Significantly, “the veterans, who were Jews, were largely treated that way when they returned home.” Continue reading “Immigrant soldiers”

Stages of Spiritual Growth

by Israel Drazin

Batya Gallant, who teaches at Darchei Binah Seminary in Israel, explores the psychological and spiritual system of the Chassidic Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900). She shows her understanding of the rabbi’s view – although she admits that he uses different words than she uses – that spiritual growth goes through three stages: love and kindness, submission to divine authority, and truth perception. The first is generally found in youth, the second in middle age, and the third in a person’s later years. She stresses that it is a mistake to suppose that observance of the laws of the Torah stifles free will and self-expression.

Gallant believes in an ever present God who not only aids people, but to whom people are obligated to beseech help, for people cannot achieve anything worth-while without God’s help. She writes that divine assistance “is indispensable. We often don’t realize that we must request Divine assistance in learning to love and care for others,” the first stage of spiritual development, as well as the other two, and all other personal endeavors. Continue reading “Stages of Spiritual Growth”

Convertito: The Jews of San Nicandro tells the remarkable story of a group of Fascist-era Italian peasants who became Jews and ultimately made aliyah

by Adam Kirsch

The story that John A. Davis has to tell in The Jews of San Nicandro (Yale University Press) falls under the category of “truth is stranger than fiction.” Who would believe, outside of a fable or maybe a joke, that in Fascist Italy, a group of several dozen Catholic peasants would spontaneously decide to convert to Judaism; that they would persist in calling themselves Jews even as Italy introduced Nazi-style anti-Semitic laws; that they would make contact with Jewish soldiers from Palestine, serving in the British Army that invaded southern Italy during World War II; and that finally, after two decades of dedication and hardship, they would undergo ritual circumcision and emigrate en masse to the newly created state of Israel? Yet it all really happened, in the town of San Nicandro in the impoverished, isolated Gargano region of southern Italy.

According to Davis, a professor of Italian history at the University of Connecticut, the Jews of San Nicandro represent “the only case of collective conversion to Judaism in Europe in modern times.” Why did it happen just then, at the darkest hour for European Jewry, and in a region where no actual Jews lived? Continue reading “Convertito: The Jews of San Nicandro tells the remarkable story of a group of Fascist-era Italian peasants who became Jews and ultimately made aliyah”

Positive insights and ideas: A review of Silver from the Land of Israel

By Douglas Wertheimer

Another relevant book in this field is Chanan Morrison’s wonderful gift, “Silver from the Land of Israel: A new light on the Sabbath and Holidays from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook” (Urim, 2010, 269pp., $27.95).

The writings of Rav Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of pre-State Israel, with their allusive mix of chassidic and Talmudic learning, are impenetrable to many readers. That is why Rabbi Morrison authored this book, whose goal is to summarize Rav Kook’s views on these topics, interspersed with excerpts from his writings.

It is a companion volume to the author’s Gold from the Land of Israel (2007), on Rav Kook’s comments on the Torah readings.

Talk about uplifting. When it comes to the Jews and the Jewish people, it’s hard to imagine anyone more upbeat than Rav Kook. Continue reading “Positive insights and ideas: A review of Silver from the Land of Israel”

What Is This Thing We Call Jewish Literature? Yearning for the Past in the Future

by Gerald Sorin

Promised Lands: New Jewish American Fiction on Longing and Belonging
Brandeis University Press, 336 pages, $26

We continue to be in the tricky business of trying to define what we mean (or don’t mean) by “Jewish writer.” Any writer who is a Jew? Only a writer, Jewish or not, who includes Jewish “content” in his or her work? Or a writer, often Jewish, whose work, with or without Jewish specificity, reveals, when read closely, Jewish meaning, values or sensibility? Derek Rubin, editor of “Promised Lands,” is determined to demonstrate, as he did in his earlier anthology, “Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer” (Schocken Books, 2005), not only that all such Jewish writers exist, but also that whatever else Jewish writing might mean, it almost always embodies a “core Jewish theme” of longing and belonging. Continue reading “What Is This Thing We Call Jewish Literature? Yearning for the Past in the Future”

Jacob’s Family Dynamics

by Israel Drazin

Cover ImageThis book is a refreshing easy to read intellectual feast. Most books today that analyze the Bible do so homiletically. They do not tell the readers what the Bible is saying, but the sermon that they think the reader should derive from the Bible, a moral that is generally not even implied in the text itself. Frequently, readers think that the lesson is in the text and are misled.

Dishi, an educator, Orthodox rabbi, and lawyer, takes a different approach. He analyses the biblical narrative from a literary and psychological approach. This frequently reveals that the patriarchs did not act properly. They were human. In his introduction, he writes that he recognizes that his approach, which is not unique, may bother some readers, but he quotes good recognized Orthodox sources that support this kind of analysis.

Readers may or may not agree with his assessment of the nine episodes that he probes. But this is in not important. Even if and when they disagree, they will find that Dishi’s method provokes them to think about the issues Dishi raises and develop their own ideas. Continue reading “Jacob’s Family Dynamics”

If We Could Hear Them Now: Encounters with Jewish Heroines of the Past

by Jennifer Breger, JOFA Journal

Many recent novels have focused on the lives of women of the Jewish past, including female biblical figures. In this volume, Alice Becker Lehrer, who teaches at the David Weissman Institute of Montreal’s Bronfman Jewish Education Center, “conducts interviews” with a range of women from Tanakh and Jewish history. The author’s focus is to show how the stories can serve to inspire us today. Her fictionalized interviews allow each woman to, as it were, “relate her own story from an individual standpoint.” The “subjects” span biblical figures including Tamar and Tzipporah, women from the rabbinic period such as Rachel, wife to Rabbi Akiva, and women from later centuries such as Rashi’s daughters and Henrietta Szold. Each imaginary interview is preceded by a short introduction that puts the interviewee in textual and historical context. The biblical interviews skillfully draw upon traditional commentaries and midrashic texts to bring the chosen subjects to life.

From The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA)

The original article may be found in the Fall 2010 Journal here.

Remembering the Sabbath

Judith Shulevitz brings up the idea that raising your consciousness of the value of Shabbat is important whether or not you actually keep it.

by Barbara Sofer

‘Keeping the Sabbath, I felt, would be good for me. It would force me to grow up and take my place among the generations. It would charge my domestic middle-aged life with drama and significance, whereas now it felt drained and resigned. But in order for this to happen I would have to stop feeling so ambivalent about the day.”

So writes former New York Times and Slate columnist and literary critic Judith Shulevitz. The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time is her ambitious attempt to resolve her ambivalence by combining an encyclopedic history of the seventh day with a spiritual autobiography. Continue reading “Remembering the Sabbath”


“A Talmid Remembers the Rav: Personal Recollection and Reflection on the shiurim of Rabbi Soloveitchik”

Rabbi Avishai David, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Torat Shraga and long time student of the Rav, will be speaking in honor of the release of his new book “Discourses of Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik on the Weekly Parashah” (Urim Publications)

Acclaimed by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, it is a collection of sichot on all of the parshiyot of the Torah refined from the shiurim of Rav Soloveitchik.

This event will take place at the OU Israel Center at 8:00 PM on Sunday, November 21, 2010.

The OU Israel Center is located in Jerusalem at 22 Rechov Keren Hayesod.

The book will be on sale and the author will be available to sign copies.

No entrance fee.

Silver from the Land of Israel

by Israel Drazin

This book is filled with gems: interesting, clever, and delightful moral lessons that were taught by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel. This is Rabbi Chanan Morrison’s second book containing the teachings of Rabbi Kook. The first, Gold from the Land of Israel, published in 2006, was a compilation of Rabbi Kook’s ideas on the weekly Torah portion. This volume offers his teachings on the Sabbath and holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, Chanukah, Purim, Passover, Israel Independence Day, Lag Ba’Omer, Jerusalem Day, Shavuot, and Tishah B’Av. The selections are short and to the point, usually only two or three pages each.

The writings are sermonic. They are morality lessons. As is true of virtually all sermons of all faiths, the sermons are not designed to inform readers and listeners what is in the Bible or what the true origin of a religious practice is, or what really happened in Jewish history. Sermons use a biblical verse, practice, or event as a spring from which to veer and to teach a homily that is really unrelated to the verse, practice, and event. Continue reading “Silver from the Land of Israel”