In Tribute to Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

April 22, 2015

Religion, I was otherwise taught, stems from the most sophisticated and complicated thinking. It probes the most difficult quandaries of human existence, metaphysical presence and purpose, identity, and spiritual makeup. It seeks to bridge ancient devotions with contemporary sensibilities. It seeks to embrace both the particularistic and humanistic aspects of nationality. It aims to authenticate and guide our creativity and drive for success in all fields of human endeavor. It is more relevant and needed than ever in the modern age.

I learned much of this complex approach to religious thinking from Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, dean of the multi-faceted and magnificent Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion. Last Friday, I was privileged to join more than 1,500 of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s students and alumni in a Torah conference marking his 80th birthday.

Since moving to Israel from America more than forty years ago, Rabbi Lichtenstein has taught the highest-level Talmud, halacha and philosophy to his tens of thousands of students. He did so while simultaneously validating their service in the IDF as a religious obligation and their subsequent pursuits of university education as a natural outgrowth of their religious personalities. Himself a former professor of English literature, he has taught that intellectual openness is a hallmark of true Orthodoxy, alongside single-minded devotion to Torah study and adherence to halachic boundaries and values.
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The Jewish Dog: Starred Review from Kirkus

April 15, 2015

In 1930s Germany, an exceptionally intelligent dog is born into a Jewish family.The Jewish Dog9780983868538

Caleb immediately notices that he has some inherent traits that set him apart. Not only is he unusually sensitive to humans’ emotions, he is determined to fully comprehend human speech. These talents, along with his highly developed canine skills, lead to heroism and heartbreak as he negotiates his way through World War II in Europe. All the love he knows comes from the Gottlieb family, as does his understanding of his distinctly Jewish attributes, the most important being his compulsion for survival. A Nazi decree forces the family to part with Caleb. He undergoes several name changes and increasing danger as he becomes ever more deeply involved in the war. At various times he is a stray, part of a wild pack, an SS Nazi guard and attack dog at Treblinka, and a member of an underground cell. Throughout his tribulations he yearns for reunion with the Gottlieb family. Kravitz employs harrowing, detailed imagery and fluidity of language, assuming that readers have more than a cursory knowledge of the era’s events and that they willingly accept and believe a canine narrator who hears heavenly messages from a divine being. The result is powerful and heart-wrenching, and Caleb is unforgettable.

A remarkable achievement.

This review originally appears in Kirkus Reviews


Unique Review of The Jewish Dog

April 15, 2015

By Sybil KaplanThe Jewish Dog9780983868538

As far as books go – especially books about the Holocaust – The Jewish Dog by Asher Kravitz (Penlight Publications, 2015), published in Hebrew in 2007, is certainly unique. The novel was awarded a citation by the Israeli Publisher’s Association and it is easy to understand why.

Kravitz is a Jerusalem-born physics and mathematics professor and photographer of wildlife. He has written three earlier books: two whodunits and a book about an Israeli soldier in an anti-terrorist unit. The narrator of this novel is a 12-year-old Jewish dog raised by a single mother (a dog, that is) in 1930s Germany.

When he is born, his mother lives with the Gottlieb family. Despite the family conflict about keeping any of the puppies, when the dog finds the afikoman at the seder, Herschel, the family’s son, declares that the prize is allowing the dog to stay. They name him Caleb.

Caleb is an exceptional animal. He learns to decipher human speech and can read the moods of the adults.

As the story continues, Caleb witnesses the rise of Nazism and the laws being forced upon the family – the housekeeper prevented from working for the Jewish family; the children prohibited from attending school; and Jews forbidden to own a dog.

Caleb is given to a Christian family, where the wife mistreats him, and the story follows his adventures joining a pack, his training as a facility guard dog at Treblinka, and more. All the while, we read Caleb’s philosophical commentaries and are given a great deal of food for thought on human and animal behavior.

Kravitz has produced a well-written novel that is poignant and compelling. Some might say The Jewish Dog is for young adults, but anyone wanting to read a distinctive presentation of the pre-Holocaust and Holocaust period will find this book absorbing.

***

After reading and reviewing this most unusual book, I was prompted to ask the author some questions about this work. When I asked him what prompted him to this type of novel, Kravitz recalled that, as a high school student, he participated in an international quiz about the Second World War, which focused on the Holocaust. One of the anti-Jewish laws enacted by the Nazis was that “raising a dog is prohibited for Jewish families.” He also remembered the images of the signs posted on restaurant and coffee shop doors, “No entrance for dogs or Jews.”

“This is almost a built-in symbol of the Holocaust that connects dogs and Jews,” he said.

Kravitz also related a conversation that he had with an elderly survivor of Auschwitz, who had a deep understanding of dogs and had been a dog feeder in the camp.

The novel began its life as a short story, which Kravitz then expanded. It took more than four years to complete. He said that he studied “the behavior of my own two dogs in order to learn their mannerisms and reactions so that The Jewish Dog would narrate as realistically as possible as a dog.”

Kravitz did not expect the novel to become so popular. “I attribute [its success] to the responsibility I felt for the seriousness of the subject matter and also to the aid I received from the editor who worked with me throughout the writing process,” he said.

Another writer and director adapted the book into a one-man play, which ran in Tel Aviv for almost three years, and The Jewish Dog is now required reading for high school matriculation exams in literature. It has been translated into French, Turkish and English.

This review originally appeared on Jewish Independent 


Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach Review in AJH

April 12, 2015

By Eric S. Freeman carlebachbioWeb1

To understand Shlomo Carlebach’s development and impact, it is necessary to examine the cultural shifts which were taking place during the second half of the twentieth century in both secular and Jewish circles. Ophir does an admirable job of describing the changing face of Jewish youth in America, especially the many disenfranchised children of Holocaust survivors who were searching for meaning that they were unable to find in Judaism. Through personal interviews, Ophir chronicles many stories of Jewish youth who were seeking for answers in Middle Eastern religions and who were brought back to Judaism by Carlebach’s warmth, unconditional love and acceptance, and version of Jewish practice and ritual. Ophir also briefly profiles Yogi Bhajan, Sufi Sam, and Swami Satchidananda, three gurus with whom Carlebach was competing for these Jewish souls. Perhaps Carlebach’s message was most realized in the formation of his “House of Love and Prayer” in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where the “holy beggars” found a place to rediscover their roots.

This review originally appears in the American Jewish History Journal (April 2015).