Food for Thought

March 18, 2020

Haim A. Gottschalk, Olney, MD ● AJL News and Reviews

From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah is a collection of short essays on each individual Bible parashah (passage of scripture). Biblical scholar Diana Lipton assembled a diverse group of Jewish scholars, divided evenly between men and women. Each scholar wrote a short essay, one scholar per parashah (with one exception) about food, and Lipton follows up with a verse by verse commentary on issues that the essays did not cover. Lipton also explains in the introduction that the book does not address what the ancient Israelites ate, sacrifices being discussed, nor kashrut.

The work is not a cookbook. What the work does and does well is give a derash (interpretation) through the prism of food for each parashah (excluding double parashiyot and holidays). The scholars certainly give you plenty of food for thought.

This book is a welcome addition to any library, especially a synagogue library and recommended to those who are looking for something different to grace their Shabbat table.


Strangers and Natives – new review

March 16, 2020

Midwest Book Review ● Judaic Studies Shelf

“Strangers and Natives: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America, 1734 – 1869” by Ron Rubin focuses on the daily life and customs of the Jewish community and the Jewish people; the formation of Jewish congregations and organizations; and the involvement of Jews in education, literature, journalism, politics, the marketplace, the military, and history itself.

While there are numerous historical accounts of early American Jewry quoting documents, diaries and memoirs, “Strangers and Natives” is the first that uses periodicals from that time period. Using scans of the original newsprint, most from Professor Rubin’s own extensive collection, “Strangers and Natives” displays the actual written words comprising newpaper accounts (the first blush of history) in visual form.

A unique and invaluable contribution to the growing library of American Judaic 18th and 19th century history, “Strangers and Natives: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America, 1734 – 1869” is an especially and unreservedly recommended addition to personal, professional, community, college, and university library collections and supplemental curriculum studies lists.

Editorial Note: Ron Rubin is Political Science Professor Emeritus at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York. A prolific writer, Rubin has had more than 100 works published globally since then. His books include Controversies Over the Objectives of the U.S. Information Agency (Praeger, 1968), The Unredeemed: Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union (Quadrangle Books, 1968), Rudy, Rudy, Rudy: The Real and the Rational (Holmes & Meier, 2000) and Anything for a T-Shirt: Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon (Syracuse University Press, 2004). In 2013 more than 75 of Dr. Rubin’s commentaries – focusing solely on topics relating to Israel, the global Jewish community and the American Jewish community – were anthologized in A Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry: Fifty Plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin, edited by Peri Devaney (Syracuse University Press).


State of the Heart – new review

March 11, 2020

Dov Peretz Elkins ● Jewish Media Review

In State of the Heart, David Kramer takes us on a journey of Israel’s humanitarian efforts that began more than 70 years ago and continues unabated throughout the world today.

In this extraordinary and inspiring collection of over 50 stories, personal interviews, and photographs, David describes the benevolence and altruism that characterizes the nation of Israel. He engages the reader with narratives that identify and provide a glimpse into the compassionate soul of the Israeli people. 

Featured in these accounts are descriptions of life-saving technology and innovation, helping the disabled and teens at risk, managing food collection and distribution programs for the disadvantaged, immigrant absorption and elder care, infertility programs, women’s empowerment and human rights, rescuing victims in the aftermath of natural disasters worldwide, developing and providing life-saving solutions to those in developing nations, cleaning up and protecting the environment, and so much more. 

State of the Heart captures the unique level of concern, care and uncompromising sense of mission, undertaken by Israelis, within Israel and around the globe.

David Kramer is an educator, author and social entrepreneur. He has spent the past ten years helping Israeli and global non-profit organizations tell their story through a social start-up he founded in Israel. David spends much of his time meeting with tour groups in Israel, connecting them to the reality of life in Israel. He served in the Israeli army and lives in Jerusalem with his wife Tova and their five children. 


Was Yosef on the Spectrum – new review

March 10, 2020

Professor Ian Hale, PhD, FCIS ● Author of Asperger’s, Autism & You and The Insider’s Guide to Autism and Asperger’s

Samuel Levine is a prominent New York Law Professor and foremost Judaic scholar. He has written a unique and important book. It conjoins both factual Biblical history with modern neuroscience and psychology to tell us part of the yet unacknowledged story of the history of Autism. This book is special, it must be read.

Titled Was Yosef on the Spectrum?, published by Urim Publications, he combines his extensive knowledge of Rabbinical commentary up to the present day; with the Torah, the Talmud, and Autism producing a unique insight linking our past with the future. The Yosef referred to is the one from the book of Genesis.

Yosef was youngest son of Jacob, also known as Israel. He is best known as the wearer of The Coat of Many Colours, given to him by his father as a mark of his special status of wisdom from his youngest years and as the interpreter of dreams, much to the envy of his older brothers who plotted against him and sold him into slavery. After enduring many hardships Yosef rose to find favor with Pharaoh to become his chief adviser and wisest counselor. He was the visionary who saw the significance of his dream of seven lean cows consuming seven fat ones. He told Pharaoh it prophesized seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine throughout the lands of Egypt. Taking his advice, Pharaoh was careful to store the seven years of good harvests which saved his Kingdom from the famine Yosef had foretold.

During his life Yosef showed many of the now-recognized characteristics of an Autistic person. His determination, his special ability to identify and focus on important things, while being poor at the mundane and social aspects of life, which caused him many problems-but he never gave up, eschewing love of power, thinking always of the common good above himself. His strong sense of compassion (he forgave his brothers and made sure his family was looked after), his love of nature and care for people and animals, his fearlessness, his strong sense of justice and total unfailing loyalty to friends, even in adversity, and perhaps most tellingly, his “different brain” which allowed him to see what others couldn’t. It is precisely those characteristics which, today are so sought after by major corporations like Microsoft, IBM and SAP. Autistic people are special with their special, “mystic” skills and non-standard hyper-connection to creation and intelligences.

In recognizing this, we all owe a special debt to Prof Levine. This not just an account of the past, but a proven understanding of the present and a prophesy of Prof Levine himself to us all-here and now of a potentially glorious future. It is also a warning against ignoring what God has given to us with his gift of Autism to those He has chosen.

It is with real joy that I recommend this book without reservation to every reader who seeks true knowledge on all of the many subjects covered. It is a story of triumph against seemingly impossible odds (something all too many Autistic people and their families face today) and a message of hope. Truly one of the most outstanding reads of this, new century. It deserves seven stars.


Integration of American Jews Through Journalism

March 9, 2020

Neville Teller ● Jerusalem Post

Ron Rubin is an avid collector of American newspapers stretching right back to the early 18th century. A professor of political science at the University of New York for more than 50 years, Rubin retired in 2016 and devised the idea of telling the story of America’s Jews through what appeared in the newspapers of the time. In Strangers and Natives he brings the concept to brilliant realization, hence his book’s subtitle: A Newspaper Narrative of Early Jewish America 1734-1869.

Turning the pages of this book is a continuous delight to the eye, for throughout the volume, the selected news items and articles are illustrated by reproductions of the originals. So as a by-product of the history, we also see how American journalism developed over the centuries. This triumph of book design is the work of the highly experienced Peri Devaney, who is rightfully credited on the cover.

Strangers and Natives tackles the development of the Jewish community in America from a variety of angles, starting back in 1734, some 60 years before the Declaration of Independence. On March 25 of that year, The New York Weekly Journal carried an advertisement urging anyone who believed they were owed anything by the late Benjamin Elias to come forward. Elias had been a merchant as well as a Hebrew teacher and shochet (ritual slaughterer) at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue that was the first Jewish congregation in North America.

Rubin ends his story, except for an additional item or two, with The Alexandria Gazette’s account of the first Rosh Hashanah after the end of the Civil War in 1865 – the Jewish New Year of 5626. Jews featured prominently on both sides of that conflict. The secretary of state of the Confederate States of America – the 11 breakaway states opposed to ending slavery – was Judah P Benjamin. In February 1865, with the South fast crumbling and already thinking of suing for peace, The Baltimore Clipper carried a front-page account of a speech by Benjamin advocating what must have seemed a radical proposal to the South generally. He proposed freeing African American slaves as a way of enhancing the manpower of the Confederate Army. Such a move, he said, would add 680,000 additional troops.

On the other hand, in April 1865, one week after President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, The Pittsburgh Commercial ran an article praising the Jewish contribution to the Union cause. It set out the numbers of enlisted Jews from the different states of the Union, calculating that a total of 40,000 Jewish soldiers had, in its own words, “shown a full share of patriotism since the war began.”

Across 12 chapters, Rubin traces the saga of how Jews slowly became integrated into the American way of life. He covers the development of Jewish communal affairs, including the expansion of synagogues across the growing country, and the part played by Jews in the fields of education and literature, in journalism, business, politics and various other aspects of the rapidly growing nation. He does not omit the obstacles placed in their way from time to time.

For example, antisemitism reared its ugly head quite early on, and Rubin records instances in The New York Gazette in 1746, and The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751, of the offer of rewards following the vandalism of Jewish burial grounds. Against this, the philo-semitism of Benjamin Franklin is well documented. As The Pennsylvania Gazette records, well ahead of the British Parliament, Franklin’s so-called Jew Bill of 1753 proposed allowing foreign-born Jews to obtain English citizenship, bypassing the required oath of loyalty to the Church of England. To its credit, the Gazette was strongly in support if the bill, but it was a proposal well ahead of its time, and popular opposition proved too strong.

A century later, the American press followed the long and intense struggle within the British Parliament on the related issue of permitting a practicing Jew to sit in the House of Commons without swearing loyalty to the Church of England.

In 1847, Baron Lionel de Rothschild was elected to Parliament as an MP for the City of London. As The New York Herald reported, he refused to take his seat because he was required to take an oath to the Christian faith. When he was reelected in 1849, the paper noted that he had won “by an overwhelming majority,” and commented that “the event is regarded as an unmistakable sign of the determination of the citizens to secure what is termed full religious liberty.” In point of fact, the impasse continued, as Rothschild won his seat again in 1852 and then in 1857. It was not until 1858, after the provision of Christian affirmation was removed, that he finally entered the House of Commons.

Rothschild’s struggle, reported in the American press, was carefully followed by American Jews. It may well have played a part in ensuring the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, 10 years later, which finally removed religious restrictions on holding any political office in the United States.

Strangers and Natives provides a unique perspective on American-Jewish history – the first account to draw its material solely from contemporary newspapers. By doing so, and because of Peri Devaney’s fascinating design, which shows the actual items in print, we are able to see history unfold as it was happening. The book goes well beyond news stories. We see also advertisements, announcements, obituaries and accounts charting the changing pattern of Jewish life and achievement. It is highly recommended.


How Jewish texts can help women — rabbis included —  through trying transitions

May 29, 2014

This book review first appeared in Lilith Magazine, Spring 2014Kaddish: Womens Voices

Rabbi-editors Sue Levi Elwell and Nancy Fuchs Kreimer invited women rabbis, scholars and activists to share the Jewish texts they
have found themselves applying in their own lives. The contributors to Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (Cascade Books, $26) include Julie Greenberg, Judith Plaskow, Blu Greenberg and Wendy Zierler. Rabbi Hara Person writes of raising a son and finding wisdom in stories of the biblical King David. Rabbi Rachel Adler observes her mother’s cognitive slide into forgetting, and the book of Lamentations is Adler’s benchmark. Rabbi Laura Geller looks back many decades to her divorce, examining it through the lens of Sarah and Abraham setting out on a journey when they were no longer young. And here is Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg on coming to a mature understanding of her professional role:

As a congregational rabbi I felt great pressure to be someone who was always interested in others. Always. The truth is I was not always interested. I also had to demonstrate how “spiritual,” “deep,” “serious and seriously Jewish” I am. Especially as someone in the early wave of female rabbis, I felt so compelled to get it right. Shoring up a persona of “spiritual” has a grave downside, like any persona — intellectual, manager, healer, etc. So much energy is invested in the persona, the false God, that the true God, the true life force, one’s unique passion, is concealed, and at worst, even buried alive….

At the Passover seder we are invited to lay back on super comfortable chairs or to just “lounge around.” Reclining as free people counters restlessness. We place the body in a position of repose, in a place of faith and trust. This posture opens a door to relaxing the fretting brow and the urge to pace the floor. When I am relaxed in my body, my mind is relaxed as well. I have a chance to ponder relationships, causes and consequences. I have the opportunity to live purposefully at whatever stage of life.

In the new book Kaddish: Women’s Voices (Urim, $27.95) editors Michal Smart and Barbara Ashkenas gather 52 reflections on the experience of mourning. Belda Lindenbaum writes here, “For some women it is no longer a lonely experience. Still, the road to understanding women’s spiritual needs and making room for them, both figuratively and physically, is a long one, and we have barely begun the journey. Most of the liturgy is wonderfully poetic. A phrase that is dear to me appears in the morning prayers; You have changed my mourning into dancing/You have removed my sackcloth and girded me with joy/So that I might praise You and not remain silent/God, my God, forever will I thank You. Is this not a paradigm for loss and acceptance? For me, it also speaks to women’s need to be seen and heard within Judaism. If God sees us and hears us, and acknowledges us as part of God’s community, then where is man?”


A Review of the Nehalel Siddur

November 11, 2013

by Professor David A. AugustNehalel

When my Rabbi mentioned a new Shabbat Siddur “with pictures” over Rosh Hashanah, my interest was immediately piqued.  As a somewhat regular attendee at Shabbat and Yom Tov service, and as an occasional Shaliach Tzibur and stand-in when our Chazzan is away, I am familiar with the liturgy and attuned to the influence the Siddur can have on my approach to prayer.  I regularly use half a dozen different Siddurim, and was curious about this new concept.  While I was attracted by the promise that it is traditional in scope and content, I was also a bit skeptical of the role the pictures might play in distracting from the “business” of davening.

The Nahalel Siddur, devised (his word) by Michael Haruni, is published by Nevarech (Jerusalem).  It is meant to be used on Shabbat, with the usual additions to allow its use on Chol Hamoed, Rosh Chodesh, and various other days that coincide with Shabbat; it is not a holiday Machzor, and not designed for use on the Shalosh Regalim.  It is nearly traditional in its liturgy, although there are some concessions to egalitarian worship (for example, the morning Berachot offer modern versions for women).  I also found myself surprised by the inclusion of some prayers that I was not familiar with, such as, “An Entreaty for IDF Soldiers in Captivity (Prayer recited as long as any IDF soldiers are held in hostile captivity).”  The Hebrew and English fonts are serviceable, and the liberal use of color in the texts is quite helpful.  It is printed on durable paper that gives it a nice feel.  On these merits alone, the Nehalel Siddur is a worthwhile contribution.

Upon hearing about this Siddur, however, my skepticism was stoked by two overriding questions.  First, would the Siddur be practical to use for davening, or would the pictures be so distracting and intrusive that it would function better as a coffee table book rather than as an instrument of prayer?  Second, how would the inclusion of pictures effect the experience of for davening?  The layout of the Nehalel Siddur immediately allayed both of these concerns.  The pictures were chosen to exemplify a line in the text of a prayer; there is an additional visual link through the highlighting of the line of text in English and Hebrew to help the user make the intended connection.  The pictures (all still life photographs or pictures of people or animals) are tastefully chosen, artistic, and almost unfailingly relevant.  They are not Read the rest of this entry »