VCU Menorah Review
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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2015
Number 82
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Books in Brief

Jewish Spain: A Mediterranean Memory by Tabeaa Alexa
Stanford University Press

What is meant by “Jewish Spain”? The term itself encompasses a series of historical contradictions. No single part of Spain has ever been entirely Jewish. Yet discourses about Jews informed debates on Spanish identity formation long after their 1492 expulsion. The Mediterranean world witnessed a renewed interest in Spanish-speaking Jews in the twentieth century, and it has grappled with shifting attitudes on what it meant to be Jewish and Spanish throughout the century.

At the heart of this book are explorations of the contradictions that appear in different forms of cultural memory: literary texts, memoirs, oral histories, biographies, films, and heritage tourism packages. Tabea Alexa Linhard identifies depictions of the difficulties Jews faced in Spain and Northern Morocco in years past as integral to the survival strategies of Spanish Jews, who used them to make sense of the confusing and harrowing circumstances of the Spanish Civil War, the Francoist repression, and World War Two.

Jewish Spain takes its place among other works on Muslims, Christians, and Jews by providing a comprehensive analysis of Jewish culture and presence in twentieth-century Spain, reminding us that it is impossible to understand and articulate what Spain was, is, and will be without taking into account both “Muslim Spain” and “Jewish Spain.”

Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History & the Future of the Holy City by Michael Dumper
New York: Columbia University Press

Jerusalem’s formal political borders reveal neither the dynamics of power in the city nor the underlying factors that make an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians so difficult. The lines delineating Israeli authority are frequently different from those delineating segregated housing or areas of uneven service provision or parallel national electoral districts of competing educational jurisdictions. In particular, the city’s large number of holy sites and restricted religious compounds create enclaves that continually threaten to undermine the Israeli state’s authority and control over the city. This lack of congruity between political control and the actual spatial organization and everyday use of the city leaves many areas of occupied East Jerusalem in a kind of twilight zone where citizenship, property rights, and the enforcement of the rule of law are ambiguously applied.

Michael Dumper plots a history of Jerusalem that examines this intersecting and multileveled matrix and in so doing is able to portray the constraints on Israeli control over the city and the resilience of Palestinian enclaves after forty-five years of Israeli occupation. Adding to this complex mix is the role of numerous external influences — religious, political, financial, and cultural — so that the city is also a crucible for broader contestation. While the Palestinians may not return to their previous preeminence in the city, neither will Israel be able to assert a total and irreversible dominance. His conclusion is that the city will not only have to be shared, but that the sharing will be based upon these many borders and the interplay between history, geography, and religion.

A Question of Tradition: Women Poets in Yiddish by Kathryn Hellerstein
Stanford University Press

In this book, Hellerstein explores the roles that women poets played in forming a modern Yiddish literary tradition. Women who wrote in Yiddish go largely unrecognized outside a rapidly diminishing Yiddish readership. Even in the heyday of Yiddish literature, they were regarded as marginal. But for over four centuries, women wrote and published Yiddish poems that addressed the crises of Jewish history — from the plague to the Holocaust — as well as the challenges and pleasures of daily life: prayer, art, friendship, nature, family, and love. Through close readings and translations of poems of eighteen writers, Hellerstein argues for a new perspective on a tradition of women Yiddish poets. Framed by a consideration of Ezra Korman’s 1928 anthology of women poets, Hellerstein develops a discussion of poetry that extends from the sixteenth century through the twentieth, from early modern Prague and Krakow to high modernist Warsaw, New York, and California. The poems range from early conventional devotions, such as a printer’s preface and verse prayers, to experimental, transgressive lyrics that confront a modern ambivalence toward Judaism. In an integrated study of literary and cultural history, Hellerstein shows the immensely important contribution made by women poets to Jewish literary tradition.

Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian Theology of Roots and Renewal by Martin R. Wilson
Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing Co.

In this sequel to his book Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, Marvin Wilson illuminates theological, spiritual, and ethical themes of the Hebrew scriptures that directly affect Christian understanding and experience.

Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage draws from both Christian and Jewish commentary in discussing such topics as thinking theologically about Abraham, understanding the God of Israel and his reputation in the world, and what it means for humans to be created in God’s image. Wilson calls for the church to restore, renew, and protect its foundations by studying and appreciating its origins in Judaism.

Designed to serve as an academic classroom text or for use in personal or group study, the book includes hundreds of questions for review and discussion.

The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary on the Weekly Readings by Rabbi Larry Tabick
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society

Because a welter of details sometimes conceals the Torah’s aura of holiness, Jewish mystics and spiritual teachers for centuries have attempted to reveal that aura through creative interpretation. The Aura of Torah explores these attempts in an effort to bridge the gap between the Torah text and the modern Jewish spiritual quest.

The book collects a wide variety of interpretations of Torah passages, commentaries, and midrash rooted in the mystical side of Jewish tradition, translated by Rabbi Larry Tabick, with original Hebrew and Aramaic texts included. The quoted authors span many centuries and speak from many schools of thought: kabbalists writing within the tradition of the Zohar and other gnostic works; Hasidic teachers from the modern movement founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov in eighteenth-century Ukraine; and German pietists, or Hasidei Ashkenaz, of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Tabick examines how these texts build on the underlying principles of the Torah — the supremacy of God, the interconnectedness of nature and morality, and the unique (though not exclusive) role of the Jewish people in the divine plan for all humanity — to point to a deep spiritual truth in the world of the divine and the soul.

Bar Mitzvah: A History by Rabbi Michael Hilton
Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society

The Jewish coming-of-age ceremony was first recorded in 13th century France, where it took the form of a simple statement by the father that he was no longer responsible for his 13-year-old son. Today, bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls are more popular than at any time in history and are sometimes accompanied by lavish celebrations.

How did bar mitzvah develop over the centuries from an obscure legal ritual into a core component of Judaism? How did it capture the imagination of even non-Jewish youth? Bar Mitzvah, A History is a comprehensive account of the ceremonies and celebrations for both boys and girls. A cultural anthropology informed by rabbinic knowledge, it explores the origins and development of the most important coming-of-age milestone in Judaism. Michael Hilton has sought out every reference to bar mitzvah in the Bible, the Talmud, and numerous other Jewish texts spanning several centuries, extracting a fascinating miscellany of information, stories, and commentary.

Politics, Faith and the Making of American Judaism by Peter Adams
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Adams describes the journey American Jews took through the 19th and early 20th centuries to create a modern and uniquely American Judaism. He underscores the link between the debates over liturgy inside the synagogue and the drive to become fully Americanized outside the synagogue. They were, Adams contends, mutually energizing. The sparks that initiated these debates were incidents abroad, such as the Edgar Mortara affair in Italy, and an anomalous spike in anti-Semitism in the United States during the Civil War. American Jews recognized that their voice as a religious minority would be ignored if they continued to adhere to manners, occupations, and religious practices that seemed alien to their Protestant neighbors. They also realized that the best defense against any resurgent anti-Semitism would be greater congregational unity and a more assertive participation in the political process. Adams looks at the differing paths two major Jewish immigrant groups took to acculturation: The Germans who arrived in America after 1848 and the East European immigrants of the 1880s and 1890s. He shows that while the two groups held each other in suspicion (and often contempt) they worked together to carve out a denominational Judaism that was well suited to American conditions.

The Jewish Book Council calls Adams’s study “a valuable contribution to the historical literature.”

Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, Volume Two by Pauline Wengeroff, Translated with Introduction, Notes and Commentary by Shjulamit S. Magnus

Pauline Wengeroff’s Memoirs of a Grandmother offers a unique first-person window into traditionalism, modernity, and the tensions linking the two in nineteenth-century Russia. Wengeroff (1833–1916), a perceptive, highly literate social observer, tells a gripping tale of cultural transformation, situating her narrative in the experience of women and families.In Volume Two, Wengeroff claims that Jewish women were capable and desirous of adopting the best of European modernity but were also wedded to tradition, while Jewish men recklessly abandoned tradition and forced their wives to do the same. The result was not only marital and intergenerational conflict but also catastrophic cultural loss, with women’s inability to transmit tradition in the home leading to larger cultural drift. Two of Wengeroff’s children converted when faced with anti-Jewish educational and professional discrimination, unwilling to sacrifice secular ambitions and visions for the sake of a traditional culture they did not know. Memoirs is a tale of loss but also of significant hope, which Wengeroff situates not in her children but in a new generation of Jewish youth reclaiming Jewish memory. To them, she addresses her Memoirs, giving an “orphaned youth” — orphaned of their past and culture — a “grandmother.”

Jewish Meaning in a World of Choice: Studies in Tradition and Modernity by David Ellenson
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

Internationally recognized scholar David Ellenson shares twenty-three of his most representative essays, drawing on three decades of scholarship and demonstrating the consistency of the intellectual-religious interests that have animated him throughout his lifetime.

These essays center on a description and examination of the complex push and pull between Jewish tradition and Western culture. Ellenson addresses gender equality, women’s rights, conversion, issues relating to who is a Jew, the future of the rabbinate, Jewish day schools, and other emerging trends in American Jewish life. As an outspoken advocate for a strong Israel that is faithful to the democratic and Jewish values that informed its founders, he also writes about religious tolerance and pluralism in the Jewish state.

The former president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, the primary seminary of the Reform movement, Ellenson is widely respected for his vision of advancing Jewish unity and of preparing leadership for a contemporary Judaism that balances tradition with the demands of a changing world.

Scholars and students of Jewish religious thought, ethics, and modern Jewish history will welcome this erudite collection by one of today’s great Jewish leaders.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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