Jewish Journal

Locals on the Shelves

A roundup of some of the latest books by L.A. Jewish authors.

by Dennis Gura

Posted on Nov. 15, 2001 at 7:00 pm

Moving out of formal academic writing, Steven M. Lowenstein, professor of Jewish History at the University of Judaism, has produced an interesting treatment of Jewish folkways, traditions and variant religious, culinary, sartorial, musical and linguistic practices. His presentation is thorough, yet popular.

In discussing Jewish costume, for example, he addresses overt religious practices, such as the biblical prohibition of sha'atnez (cloth made of mixed wool and linen) and various treatments of tzitzit (ritual fringes). Well-chosen illustrations, all in black and white, present Jewish dress throughout the Diaspora, from Yemen, Turkey and North Africa to Germany and Poland. He corrects the common conception that Chasidic traditional dress is based on medieval Polish upper class costume. The assertion has some element of truth, but medieval Jewish dress also differed from Polish Christian dress in substantial ways, particularly its choice of color (black and white for Jewish men, brightly colored and often decorated for Christians).

In various chapters, he supplies recipes, notated musical samples and a phonological chart. The chart indicates how various regional Jewish communities pronounced the "begad kefat" Hebrew letters (the six letters that under certain grammatical circumstances can be written with or without a dagesh -- a dot -- as a sort of sound intensifier or modifier).

He avoids, self-consciously, the "exotic" communities approach, attempting to treat each regional Jewish community as a part of a more or less coherent international Jewish tradition. As a general and popular book, Lowenstein's work stands in interesting contrast to the late Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi's "The Exiled and the Redeemed," which covers much the same ground conceptually. (Although Lowenstein profits greatly from his use of primary and secondary research literature written in the 40 some years since "Exiled" was published.) Ben-Zvi's work was somewhat nostalgic, trying to document Jewish regional curiosities before their eventual assimilation into a common Israeli-Zionist culture following these groups' migration to Israel. Lowenstein is far from that breathless nostalgia, and realizes that folk culture is determinedly dynamic and restless. Unlike Ben-Zvi, he doesn't foresee a homogenized Jewish cultural future. Neither does he predict the shape of the future. But he knows it is coming, and he does a valuable service by illuminating that future's historical roots.

Over his five decades of involvement in Jewish life, Gerald Bubis has managed to operate inside its institutions and outside its labels.

As founder and director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service, he passed on a legacy of innovation in Jewish elder care, camping, education and organizing to new generations of Jewish leaders. Bubis worked within several mainstream Los Angeles Jewish organizations as both an executive and lay leader, where he served as a spur to activism and awareness. His informed and opinionated voice comes through clearly in this anthology of his writing.

His subjects range from Jewish family and identity to Israel-Diaspora relations to balancing the needs of volunteers and staff. The tone is set early on, in a list called, "Thirteen Paradoxes," where Bubis poses the kind of difficult questions he was known to raise at board meetings: Why, he wonders, are Jews at the cutting edge of innovation in all areas of Western life, except in Jewish life? It's a problem, to be sure, but one that Bubis himself is innocent of creating. -- Staff Report

No single theme, no one idea grandly captures Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson's attention in this collection of sermons, weekly newspaper columns, and e-mail d'vrei torah. The disparate and contending impulses of modern Jewish life intrude on these reflections. Befittingly, they seem to reflect Artson's personality: gentle, insistent, somewhat reserved and thoughtful.

His access and mastery of both traditional Jewish source material and contemporary commentary and theology saturate his writing. But he treads lightly, his insights into the weekly portion easily accessible to the least literate Jew, or indeed, gentile, as Jack Miles makes clear in his forward.

Artson, currently the dean of the University of Judaism's Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies, was previously both a pulpit rabbi and a political operative, serving as the legislative assistant to the speaker of the State Assembly in Sacramento. While not emphasized, his political background and interests lie not too far beneath the surface. He comments on the verse "Proclaim liberty throughout the land" from BeHar-BeHukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34): "One cannot, [Rashi claims], be truly free unless one is able to choose where to live. Do the homeless in our major cities have that freedom? Can they choose where to live? What of recent college graduates, so saddled with untenable debts that they are unable to purchase a home? What about members of racial or ethnic minorities who are victimized in certain neighborhoods? What of the freedom of gay men and lesbians to live freely where they choose without fear of intimidation or assault?"

The particular rhetorical choices reveal as much about Artson's political sympathies as they do the Torah portion. Yet his partisan sympathies, however well-placed, do not consistently overwhelm the more unambiguously theological lessons he imparts: "Why does the God of Israel have no image? To portray is to limit, to encompass, to comprehend. That path leads to the trap of excessive intellect, of human arrogance, to the mistaken idea that expertise or knowledge can replace faithfulness or goodness. God is always ain sof, 'without limit.' Less interested in being understood, God passionately seeks commitment, being, and involvement. Prayer, in the Tabernacle of old or in the synagogue of the present, is less a recital of words, or an exercise in self-expression, than response of wonder, gratitude and love. God and love dwell not in Cupid's arrows, but in humanity's heart, invisible, and for all."

For those seeking that extra insight for their Shabbat table, Artson offers a pleasant, stimulating appetizer.

The "Dummies" series offers cute, humorous treatments of just about any subject that will sell a book. These are not books one sits down and reads in full. Rather, they function as a casual reference. The tone is breezy and conversational: the material is presented as fairly as possible, but there is no pretense that the treatment is exhaustive.

Blatner and Falcon follow the formula perfectly. Big print, wide margins, iconic marginalia, sidebars and highlights: in general, these are souped up "Cliffs Notes" (even the covers are yellow). Like "Cliffs Notes," they are wonderfully useful, and, unlike "Cliffs Notes," they are fun.

"Judaism for Dummies" has a bit of everything. Jewish history is covered in about 80 pages, from Abraham to JewBus (Jewish Buddhists). The grand ambition to encapsulate Judaism in 400 pages necessitates both simplification and generalization. The great, expansive, voluminous intellectual endeavor that created rabbinic Judaism, and all its texts of Talmud, Midrash, homily and law, are summarized in four brief paragraphs and a sidebar, ending: "The creation of the Mishnah and the focus on study certainly helped save Judaism during these dark years. This growing emphasis on study led to a greater predisposition to learning in general and created a portable culture. However, ultimately, so much of Jewish history over the following 1,500 years had to do with just one thing: how intent the current ruling leader was to impose his religious beliefs over his Jewish subjects." This may be a fair assessment perhaps, but it is also far too dismissive of the great creativity, suppleness and intellectual valor of rabbinic Jewish life.

Falcon is best-known in Los Angeles for his work in Jewish spirituality and meditation generally associated with the "Jewish Renewal" movements. Given the book's inherent limitation, Falcon and Blatner are quite fair to most other trends of modern Jewish life and history (although they, again of necessity, all but overlook that incredibly fertile period of Jewish intellectual life in Eastern Europe from the late 19th century to the Shoah). Their section on "Celebrations and Holy Days" reflects Falcon's training, background and interests. Their 15 pages on Shabbat (subtitled "Paradise Regained") is probably one of the most succinct, open, practical nondenominational introductions to this critical Jewish practice yet published.

Occasionally it seems that editorial directive got in the way of common sense. Henrietta Szold, as important an organizational figure as she is for American Jewry, seems to have been included as one of the "Ten Great Jewish Thinkers" because of her gender. With all the respect due her, she's not quite in the same intellectual league as Blatner and Falcon's other 20th Century Jewish intellectuals, such as Abraham Isaac Kook, Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Moreover, the omission of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, under whose aegis probably more rabbis were ordained than under any other individual in history, is particularly glaring.

Nevertheless, given the limitations, for its purpose, this is an excellent book. It's the one to give to the curious friend or neighbor. Light, friendly, easygoing, Falcon and Blatner have written a fun book on a serious subject.

Joan Denson grew up the only daughter in an upper-middle class Midwest Jewish family in the 1950s. After college, she married a successful businessman, had a son and seemed, by all appearances, to have it all -- but a secret gnawed away at her. As she explains in this memoir, she eventually confronts the fact that she is a lesbian, and her ordered world is overthrown.

Denson, a Los Angeles psychotherapist, seems to have forgotten nothing of her tortured journey to self- and societal-acceptance. Perhaps not surprisingly, a pivotal moment for her comes when she comes across "The Diary of Anne Frank" as a teenager. She finds herself relating to the secret life Frank led, and, more strangely, realizes she has fallen in love with the young girl.

There's humor here and great anguish, as Denson smartly pares down her story. The narrative loses some power once Denson is well out of the closet -- the poignancy was in the secrecy -- but she still manages to give us an honest portrayal of the life of a giving, successful Jewish woman operating in a world that still fails to fully include her. -- Staff Report

Romance lures us with its suddenness, its unpredictability. Shoah memoirs teach us that even in the midst of concentrated bestiality, human beings can labor successfully to retain their humanity. Love in a Dachau satellite camp affords us a glimpse into the determination of good souls.

Blanka Davidovich, a Czech deportee to Auschwitz, was shipped to Dachau 3b, known also as Mulhdorf, in September 1944, as Nazi Germany desperately resisted the Allied advances from both west and east. Under a typical brutal Nazi commandant, the assorted prisoners and deportees -- Greek, Czech, Hungarian and Polish Jews, Russian and allied POWs, captured resistance fighters -- labored to build some final Nazi redoubt in a vain attempt to fend off their coming defeat.

Blanka was part of the small contingent of female prisoners sent from Auschwitz to work in the kitchens and perform other tasks while the male prisoners shoveled cement. Her boldness caught the attention of Eberle the commandant; Losch, an engineer from Operation Todt; and Mirek Vencera, a political prisoner-cum-camp electrician. Under Mirek's subtle tutelage, Blanka pulls relatively "safe" duty and learns survival skills. Mirek, part of the camp-wide resistance underground, struggles with his blossoming love for Blanka, his allegiance to the Podzemny (Czech underground) and his own dangerous secrets. Although the synopsis reads like a lush, garish bodice, ripping romance, author Petru Popescu, Blanka and Mirek's son-in-law, vouches for the story's authenticity.

Shoah memoirs are often constrained by the emotional necessity of the survivor. As much personal reflection, they also stand as witness to unbearable cruelty, terror and loss. Mirek's presence permeates "Oasis," but Popescu gives voice to Blanka, in all her vulnerability. Mirek helped her live, and acted on principle, not chasing his advantage with this seemingly fragile 19-year-old.

Imbedded in this lesson however is the painful paradox of Shoah memoirs: for each that survived, many more died. For each person who was lucky, and found a niche, too many others didn't. Blanka and Mirek wisely ascribe no higher meaning to their survival. But later, in loving, marrying and bringing up children, Blanka and Mirek not only survived, but also honored their own dead with a small and quiet victory.

Books on Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism come in two varieties: the devotional-inspirational and the scholarly academic. These two books by Los Angeles authors and academics are quintessential examples of both genres.

Tamar Frankiel teaches history of religion at UC Riverside, and writes about "applied" mysticism. In "The Gift of Kabbalah," Frankiel expounds on the virtues, pleasures and insights of Jewish mysticism.

While drawing from her academic background both for a lucid prose and a systematic approach to the material, Frankiel attempts to outline Kabbalah's central concepts and applications. She is open to non-Orthodox writers on matters of the spirit, citing for example, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in her bibliography. She makes no mention at all, however, of any of the great scholars of Jewish mysticism, not Moshe Idel, not Martin Buber, not Gershom Scholem. The lacunae are glaring, and seriously damage the work's integrity.

Pinchas Giller, on the other hand, has an exquisite mastery of both primary and secondary materials in the study of Kabbalah in general, and Zohar in particular.

Reading about "practical" Kabbalah can be daunting and confusing. The theosophy implied in the images and metaphors of Jewish mystical writing are, to say the least, obscure and obtuse.

As "Reading the Zohar" unfolds, the centuries of ideological accretions are slowly separated out, and the reader comes to understand how Jewish mystical ideas developed over time and what implications those concepts had inside Jewish intellectual life. Yet, for all his mastery of academic texts, Giller writes plainly and clearly. The only serious flaw of this work for the general reader is the price.

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