VCU Menorah Review
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VCU Menorah Review Winter 2004
Number 60
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Reference Shelf

by Sarah Barbara Watstein

Fiction. Both works of fiction in this essay deserve the tag line “not to be missed.” Two books couldn’t be more dissimilar. Here is a book from Holocaust writer Lustig, and an achingly painful and funny collection about growing up female, Jewish and smart.

Lovely Green Eyes. By Arnost Lustig. This devastatingly beautiful novel explores and delineates the impossible choices one sometimes has to make when the fabric of the world is rent asunder. Meet 15-year-old Hanka Kaudersova, working as one of Dr. Kreuger’s cleaners in Auschwitz. She and her family have just been transported here from Terezin; her mother and younger brother are quickly dispatched to the gas chambers, and her father has committed suicide. When Dr. Krueger is suddenly transferred to a new post, Hanka fears she will meet the fate that awaits the general camp population. On her last day, she observes girls filing into an office to audition for a position in a German soldier’s brothel. She decides to audition, despite the fact she is not 18 and Aryan, hoping her acceptance will ensure her survival. She is accepted and begins a new career in a brothel on the already crumbling eastern front. The only way Hanka can cope with her new role is by shutting off her feelings, freezing what is left of her emotions. This is the story of her nightmare and her survival. Professor of literature at American University, Lustig is himself a survivor of the camps. This haunting book deserves a large readership, and Lustig clearly deserves to stand beside other Holocaust writers such as Primo Levi, William Styron and Elie Wiesel.

Peace in the House: Tales from a Yiddish Kitchen. By Faye Moskowitz. A collection of tales about growing up female, Jewish and smart. Here are stories of her parents, their extended families, their neighbors and landsleit, and finally of her own coming of age in America. What did it mean to this generation to assimilate, to “fit in,” to leave a threatened culture and embrace the modern world? “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is my personal favorite — here the author recalls her mother’s struggle with breast cancer and revisits her own fear of as well as her own experiences with cancer. This is a story about family secrets, about sickness and about death. A story about beginnings and endings, it is also a story about vulnerability.

Non-Fiction. Jewish memory is a core component of two notable works featured in this essay — Taking Root and Going South. In both works, oral history is used — and used successfully — as an activist method of producing knowledge about Jewish women’s experiences.

Taking Root: Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America. Edited by Marjorie Agosin. What has it meant to be a Jewish woman in Latin America at the end of the 20th century? In Taking Root, 22 Latin American women of Jewish descent, from Mexico to Uruguay, recall their coming of age with Sabbath candles and Hebrew candles, Latino songs and merengue music, Queen Esther and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Rich and poor, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Jewish immigrant families searched for homes and identities in predominantly Catholic societies. Based on first- and secondgeneration immigrant experience, these stories describe differing points of view and levels of involvement in Jewish tradition and depict the immense diversity of the Latin American Jewish experience. Contributors include writers of international distinction as well as others who have occupied pivotal professional lives in their respective countries. Poet and professor of Spanish at Wellesley College, Agosin provides readers with an accessible collection of essays that examine the religious, economic, social and political choices these families have made and continue to make as they forge Jewish identities in the New World. Readers interested in the Jewish presence in Latin America and the literature of displacement in general should not let this collection escape their attention.

Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement. By Debra L. Schultz. Thumbs up to feminist historian Schultz for this important portrait of an often overlooked group whose work, both behind the scenes and on the front lines, helped transform our nation. Organized around a rich blend of oral histories, Going South follows a group of 15 Jewish women, coming of age in the shadow of the Holocaust and deeply committed to social justice. These are boundary-crossing, northern Jewish women who had the opportunity, means and will to put their bodies on the line to challenge the entrenched system of southern racism in the 1960s. They worked primarily with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a radical spirited southern civil rights group led by young Black organizers. The experiences of the 15 women interviewed span a broad range of roles and locations in the southern civil rights movement. Actively rejecting the post-war idyll of suburban, Jewish, middle-class life, these women were deeply influenced by Jewish notions of morality and social justice. Who were these activists? How did they come to be? Where did they find support? Why did they choose to move south, when others stood still? Why did they choose to speak, when others remained silent? How did they find allies in the struggle for peace and freedom? How did they join the quest for justice and decency? And, finally, what did being Jewish mean to each of them? Readers interested in both the civil rights movement and, particularly, in women civil rights workers as well as those interested in the history of Jewish women’s political activity, will not be disappointed.

In a category by itself … Diaries are a powerful literary device; in the skilled hands of June Leavitt, the personal narrative becomes a poignant and wrenching story.

Storm of Terror: A Hebron Mother’s Diary. By June Leavitt. What would it be like to live with terrorism day in and day out? To bury loved ones weekly? What would it be like to be an ex-American, raising five children in Hebron, miles from the West Bank of Israel? Living in the midst of violence, from Rosh Hashanah in September 2000, the Jewish New Year, when Stage 2 of the Intifada broke out in Israel, through the next 18 months (through April 2002), June Leavitt wrote this disturbingly candid diary that chronicles the complexity, the humanity and the danger of everyday settler life on the West Bank. Leavitt shows readers how difficult a country Israel is to live in. At the same time, she shows readers why parents would want to raise their children in Israel and why, in the midst of terror, many Jews would never consider leaving Israel, why many still believe in the promise of Arabs and Jews living together. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been a part of our lives since 1993; revived Arab terrorism and national trauma are increasingly de rigeur. We know that Jerusalem has become a war zone but, personally, what does this mean, really? Providing a window into this world, Leavitt challenges readers to think about what it means to be strong, what it means to survive. Leavitt emigrated to Israel in 1979 with her husband and two-year-old son. She teaches English at a local school in Hebron and writes.

Last but not least … Books on intimacy as well as those that honor the mysteries of love and relationship continue to be popular. Witness the continuing popularity of Thomas Moore’s Soul Mates (HarperCollins), a companion volume to the national bestseller Care of the Soul. In Soul Mates, Moore explores how relationships of all kinds, with all their difficulties, deepen our lives and help fulfill the needs of the soul. For many, the creation and maintenance of soulful relationships are quests that span a lifetime. The following title is not without its shortcomings, as noted; however, it is mentioned here because it addresses soul-intimacy from another perspective — the Jewish perspective.

The Committed Marriage: A Guide to Finding a Soulmate and Building a Relationship Through Timeless Biblical Wisdom. By Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. Drawing on experience gained from her own marriage of more than 40 years, as well as her strong faith in the healing power of prayer and tradition, Rebbetzin Jungreis outlines some common marital problems and their solution. She offers practical, optimistic advice on how to find a mate by becoming a desirable mate; how spouses can strengthen their marriage by strengthening their own identities; how couples can communicate in a loving, compassionate way even in the midst of hurts and arguments; and how faith can provide a loving foundation for marriage. This book is as much about the religious aspests of marriage as it is about interpersonal communication.

Several caveats bear mentioning. Jungreis believes in the concept of soul mates; indeed, readers that question this concept will have difficulty with this book. Note that Jungeis does not set out to explore other relationships; readers interested in soul mates of other kinds (for example: friends, partnerships in work or business, relationships with family members) will be disappointed. Designed to meet the needs of a particular niche market, this book is not geared to the needs of every person — its message is for married Jewish couples. Individuals who, for whatever personal or political reasons, question the institution of marriage as we currently know it in Western society also will have difficulty with this text. Lastly, Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender readers would be better served by other texts.

These caveats aside, Jungreis’ book is much more than a book that is concerned with making relationships work better. Filled with practical wisdom, deep feeling and much love, The Committed Marriage may provide a missing piece for married Jewish couples.

Sarah Barbara Watstein is the Director of Academic User Services, VCU Libraries and a contributing editor.

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