VCU Menorah Review
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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2011
Number 75
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Books in Brief: New and Notable

A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas's Philosophy of Judaism by Michael Fagenblat
Stanford University Press

“I am not a particularly Jewish thinker,” said Emmanuel Levinas, “I am just a thinker.” This book argues against the idea, affirmed by Levinas himself, that Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being separate philosophy from Judaism. By reading Levinas's philosophical works through the prism of Judaic texts and ideas, Fagenblat contends that what Levinas called “ethics” is as much a hermeneutical product wrought from the Judaic heritage as a series of phenomenological observations. Decoding Levinas's philosophy of Judaism within a Heideggerian and Pauline framework, Fagenblat uses biblical, rabbinic, and Maimonidean texts to provide sustained interpretations of the philosopher's work. Ultimately, he calls for a reconsideration of the relation between tradition and philosophy and of the meaning of faith without the foundations of epistemology.

Fighting Back: British Jewry's Military Contribution in the Second World War by Martin Sugarman
Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell

This book is a response to the oft–perpetrated myths of British Jewry's alleged lack of fighting spirit and its failure to participate in the Second World War. British Jewry has never formed more than about one half of one percent of the population, yet the figures show that their contribution to the armed forces has always been out of proportion to their numbers.

Sugarman's book provides a snapshot of the British Jewish contribution to the Allied victory over the Nazi and Japanese threat. It also highlights the role of the Jews in the Spanish Civil War and the Korean War. Its wide–ranging approach to the contributions of Jews investigates, among other things: the Paratroopers at the Battle of Arnhem; the much neglected and almost forgotten Auxiliary Services of the Civil Defense, in this case the Fire Service; the Jews at Bletchley from the memory of those who are the keepers of the British war remembrance memorials, and is never included in the British tributes to the Commonwealth/Empire forces who served, even though many other ethnic groups are well represented.

British Jewry, together with Jews from Israel, may thus be deeply and justly proud of this history of fighting back, fighting for democracy and peace.

Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life by William Berkson
Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society

In this new edition of the beloved Jewish classic, Berkson helps us see that Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is more than just a fundamental religious text. It is also a compelling contemporary ethical guide. Berkson looks at the individual sayings, or “mishnayot,” through the interpretations of the great Jewish commentators and also within the broader context of Western thought—through views found in the Bible, the ancient Greeks, the Enlightenment, Buddhism, Confucianism, and American culture.

The Visual Culture of Chabad by Maya Balakirsky Katz
New York: Cambridge University Press

This book presents the first full–length study of a vast and complex visual tradition produced, revered, preserved, banned, and destroyed by the Hasidic movement of Chabad. This rich repository of visual artifacts provides the archaeological data for an analysis of how the movement consolidated its influence during a period of political and economic transformation and survived its immigration to America in the wake of the Holocaust. Chabad is one of the most self–documented and media–preserved modern Jewish movements, and its rich material culture—including the hand–held portrait, the “rebbishe” space, the printer's mark, and the public menorah—affords scholars a wider range of interpretive strategies for understanding the movement and the role of the visual experience in religion.

The Lost Minyan by David M. Gitlitz
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press

An intricately woven tapestry of historical fiction, Gitlitz profiles ten Crypto–Jewish families coping with the trauma of living between worlds, neither wholly Catholic nor wholly Jewish. Struggling to hide their secrets from neighbors, servants, children, and even spouses, they try to resolve the tension between their need for and fear of community. Attempting to navigate the mandates of the Church and their own idiosyncratic version of Jewish customs, they wonder on which law to peg their hopes of eternal salvation; and they wonder how to safely pass their Crypto–Jewish identity on to the next generation. While the details and conversations of these lives are fictional, they draw from historical fact as documented in eyewitness accounts, contemporary chronicles, and the dossiers of Inquisition trials in the archives of Spain and Mexico.

Through a Narrow Window: Friedl Dicker–Brandeis and Her Terezin Students by Linney Wix
Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press

Not long after the end of World War II, two suitcases from Terezin, the so–called model ghetto designed by the Nazi propaganda machine to showcase creative endeavors, were delivered to members of what remained of the Jewish community of Prague. The contents of the suitcases included children's drawings, paintings, and collages made at Terezin. Rediscovered in the 1950s, the pictures, by then housed at the Jewish Museum in Prague, were exhibited, and over time some were published. Friedl Dicker–Brandeis was the remarkable woman who taught art to many of Terezin's children before she was killed at Auschwitz. While she has been valorized for her heroic efforts as a teacher, her approach to teaching art has remained unexamined.

This book and the accompanying exhibition offer a closer look at the methods and philosophy of Dicker–Brandeis's teaching, the history behind it, and its possible psychological effects on the children interned at Terezin. Besides discussing aesthetic empathy as the basis of her teaching philosophy and practice, the book includes biographical and art historical information on Dicker–Brandeis, who trained at the Weimar Bauhaus, and restores her to her rightful place as an artist, teacher and heroine behind Nazi lines in the Second World War.

Gender and American Jews: Patterns in Work, Education, and Family in Contemporary Life by Harriet Hartman and Moshe Hartman
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press

The Hartmans interpret the results of the two most recent National Jewish Population Surveys. Building on their critical work of 1996, and drawing on relevant sociological work on gender, religion, and secular achievement, this new book brings their analysis of gendered patterns in contemporary Jewish life right to the present moment.

The first part of the book examines the distinctiveness of American Jews in terms of family behavior, labor–force patterns, and educational and occupational attainment. The second investigates the interrelationships between “Jewishness” and religious, economic, and family behavior, including intermarriage. Deploying an engaging assortment of charts and graphs and a rigorous grasp of statistics, the authors provide a multifaceted portrait of a multidimensional population.

Levirate Marriage and the Family in Ancient Judaism by Dvora E. Weisberg
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press

The author uses levirate marriage (an institution involving the union of a man and the widow of his childless brother) as described in biblical law and explicated in rabbinic Judaism as a lens to examine the status of women and attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and reproduction in early Jewish society. While marriage generally marks the beginning of a new family unit, levirate comes into play when a family's life is cut short. As such, it offers an opportunity to study the family at a moment of breakdown and restructuring. With her discussion rooted in rabbinic sources and commentary, Weisberg explores kinship structure and descent, the relationship between a family unit created through levirate marriage and the extended family, and the roles of individuals within the family. She also considers the position of women, asking whether it is through marriage or the bearing of children that a woman becomes part of her husband's family, and to what degree a married woman remains part of her natal family. Weisberg argues that rabbinic responses to levirate suggest that a family is an evolving entity, one that can preserve itself through realignment and redefinition.

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole
New York: Shocken Books and Nextbook

One May day in 1896, in Cambridge, England, a meeting took place between a Romanian–born maverick Jewish Intellectual and twin learned Presbyterian Scotswomen, who had assembled to inspect several pieces of rag paper and parchment. It was the unlikely start of a remarkable saga. The authors tell the story of the retrieval from an Egyptian geniza, or repository for worn–out texts, of the most important cache of Jewish manuscripts ever discovered. Weaving together unforgettable portraits of the scholar–heroes of his drama with explorations of the medieval documents themselves, Hoffman and Cole present a panoramic view of 900 years of vibrant Mediterranean Judaism. Part biography and part meditation on the supreme value the Jewish people has long placed on the written word, this is above all a gripping tale of adventure and redemption.

Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought by David Biale
Princeton University Press

This book traces the rise of Jewish secularism through the visionary writers and thinkers who led its development. Spanning the rich history of Judaism from the Bible to today, Biale shows how the secular tradition these visionaries created is a uniquely Jewish one, and how the emergence of Jewish secularism was not merely a response to modernity but arose from forces long at play within Judaism itself. He explores how ancient Hebrew books like Job, Song of Song, and Esther downplay or even exclude God altogether, and how Spinoza, inspired by medieval Jewish philosophy, recast the biblical God in the role of nature and stripped the Torah of its revelatory status to instead read scripture as a historical and cultural text. Biale examines the influential Jewish thinkers who followed Spinoza's secularizing footsteps, such as Salomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. He tells the stories of those who also took their cues from medieval Jewish mysticism in their revolts against tradition, including Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka. And he looks at Zionists like David Ben–Gurion and other secular political thinkers who recast Israel and the Bible in modern terms of race, nationalism and the state.

Foreplay: Hannah Arendt, the Two Adornos, and Walter Benjamin by Carl Djerassi
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

Arendt, Benjamin, Theodor and Gretel Adorno were intellectual giants of the first half of the 20th century. This dramatic play explores their deeply human and psychologically intriguing private lives, focusing on professional and personal jealousies, and the border between erotica and pornography. Djerassi's extensive biographical research brings to light many fascinating details revealed in the dialogues among the characters, including Adorno's obsession with his dreams. Benjamin's admiration for Franz Kafka, and the intimate correspondence between Gretel Adorno and Benjamin. The introduction of a fictitious character, “Fraulein X,” intensifies the complex interplay among the four lead protagonists and allows for a comparison of Adorno's philandering and the similar behavior of Martin Heidegger whose affair with Hannah Arendt is well known. The play brims with intrigue and the friction created when strong personalities clash.

The Synagogue in America: A Short History by Marc Lee Raphael
New York University Press

In 1789, when George Washington was elected the first president of the United States, laymen from all six Jewish congregations in the new nation sent him congratulatory letters. He replied to all six. Thus, after more than a century of Jewish life in colonial America the small communities of Jews present at the birth of the nation proudly announced their religious institutions to the country and were recognized by its new leader. By this time, the synagogue had become the most significant institution of American Jewish life, a dominance that was not challenged until the twentieth century, when other institutions such as Jewish community centers or Jewish philanthropic organizations claimed to be the hearts of their Jewish communities.

Concise yet comprehensive, The Synagogue in America is the first history of this all–important structure, illuminating its changing role within the American Jewish community over the course of three centuries. From Atlanta and Des Moines to Los Angeles and New Orleans, Marc Lee Raphael moves beyond the New York metropolitan area to examine Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstuctionist synagogue life everywhere. Using the records of approximately 125 Jewish congregations, he traces the emergence of the synagogue in the United States from its first instances in the colonial period, when each of the half dozen initial Jewish communities had just one synagogue each, to its proliferation as the nation and the American Jewish community grew and diversified.

Encompassing architecture, forms of worship, rabbinic life, fundraising, creative liturgies, and feminism, The Synagogue in America is the go–to history for understanding the synagogue's significance in American Jewish life.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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