Books: Retelling Our Stories
by Bonny V. Fetterman
NEW BOOKS - URJ PRESS

Esther: A Modern Commentary
Rabbis Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky offer a translation and commentary on the Book of Esther, combinining traditional rabbinic views and contemporary literary criticism to show that while Esther tells the story of Purim, that’s not the whole m’gillah.

Jewish U: Revised Edition
Scott Aaron’s revised guide for college-bound students and their parents discusses finding a Jewish home on campus, talking to non-Jewish roommates about Judaism, and much more.

Contact the URJ Press at 212-650-4120, www.URJBooksandMusic.com.

Day After Night: A Novel
by Anita Diamant
(Scribner, 294 pp., $27)


In her best-selling novel, The Red Tent, Anita Diamant reimagined the lives of women in biblical times, the community of support between them, and their unmarked footsteps in history. Her new novel, Day After Night, seeks out a woman’s narrative in a real event that took place in Israel three years prior to statehood.

The Atlit Detention Camp, located near Haifa on the Mediterranean coast, was created by the British to enforce the White Paper of 1939, cutting off Jewish immigration to Palestine. “Illegal” or clandestine immigration continued, however, especially after World War II, and those captured were held at the Atlit camp. For Holocaust survivors, the camp, with its watchtowers, “delousing barracks,” and barbed wire fences, was a cruel reminder of places they had fled.

In this novel, four young women under the age of twenty support each other in facing an uncertain future in Atlit: Shayndel, a former partisan from Poland; Zorah, a concentration camp survivor; Tedi, a tall, blond Dutch Jew who survived in hiding; and Leonie, the youngest, a French Jew ashamed of her past. On the night of October 9, 1945, the girls help the Palmach (a unit of the Haganah) stage a breakout from the British camp, liberating more than 200 prisoners on the eve of their deportation to Mauritius.
The escape is followed by a night trek in the Carmel Mountains to the kibbutz, Beit Oren, where a miracle takes place at dawn. Diamant tells this true story through the eyes of her characters—inspired by a photograph of four unknown women standing arm in arm that she found in Beit Oren’s archives.


America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story
by Bruce Feiler
(William Morrow, 335 pp., $26.99)


Bruce Feiler opens up the Exodus story in a new way by viewing it through a different lens—the history of the United States of America. “For four hundred years, one figure stands out as the surprising symbol of America,” Feiler writes. “His name is Moses.” The claim seems at first audacious, but Feiler makes a good case for calling Moses “America’s true founding father.” From the pilgrims to the present, the American story is replete with references to the Exodus story. In fact, at pivotal moments in their history, Americans have consciously sought to define the essence of being American through the biblical story of the Israelite leader.

In this highly original exposition, Feiler explores how different aspects of Moses—as liberator, lawgiver, leader of a nation under a new covenant, defender of the weak, and prophet—resonated at different times with the country’s changing needs. Presidents Washington and Lincoln were both eulogized as Moses-like figures for bringing a nation back to order under rule of law. In 1939, “Superman” is modeled on Moses (the baby from a dying planet who is placed in a small rocket ship—like Moses’ wicker basket—by his parents to save him, and in adulthood receives the calling to fight evil and assist humanity); in the 1956 Cold War film, The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille casts Moses as an American champion of freedom against a totalitarian regime.

As in his previous books, Walking the Bible and Abraham, Feiler tries to understand stories by visiting places associated with them. At Independence Hall, he climbs the bell tower to read the inscription from Leviticus on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” On the banks of the Ohio River, he visits safe houses used by runaway slaves to tell the story of Harriet Tubman, called “the Moses of her people.” At the Mason Church outside Memphis, he recalls Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech, echoing Moses in Deuteronomy: “I have seen the promised land.... And I might not get there with you, but I want you to know…that we as a people will get to the promised land!”

“Discovering how much the biblical narrative of the Israelites has colored the vision and informed the values of twenty generations of Americans and their leaders was like discovering an entirely new window into a house I thought I knew,” Feiler writes. “You can’t understand American history, I now believe, without understanding Moses.”

This journey into the heart of America concludes at a family seder, where Feiler reflects on what he has learned about Moses and the Exodus story from the American experience and what he hopes one day to share with his young daughters.


They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland
Before the Holocaust

by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
(University of California Press, 411 pp., $39.95)


Having recently returned from a trip to the Polish town of my mother’s childhood, I was eager to see Mayer Kirshenblatt’s paintings of Jewish life in prewar Poland on exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. I immediately recognized buildings and landscapes I had seen on the trip—the small, square houses surrounding the town square, ruins of once impressive, multi-tiered synagogues—but the exhibition instantly filled me with joy because Mayer Kirshenblatt’s paintings put the people back in a panoramic view of life before the Holocaust.

At once naive and sophisticated, Kirshenblatt’s art captures the energy and diversity of life as it was lived in prewar Apt (Opatów in Polish), a shtetl in southern Poland. Shunning nostalgia for accuracy, the paintings are rich in ethnographic detail and show every area of activity, some with the artist as a blue-clad schoolboy looking on. The 93-year-old Toronto artist, who started painting in his seventies, is becoming internationally known; his work was recently exhibited at the Galician Jewish Museum in Kraków.

The text of this book, which includes 200 full color reproductions, represents another kind of achievement. Each painting tells a story, evoking memories of people, trades, and events. Mayer Kirshenblatt collaborated with his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a scholar of Eastern European Jewish culture and folklore, on a captivating text recording his almost encyclopedic range of memories of the town up to 1934, the year he departed for Canada.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who co-authored Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland with Lucjan Dobroszychi, a book based on the photographic collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, comments on her father’s art: “Until Mayer’s paintings, all my images of Jewish life in Poland were black and white because all of them were from photographs,” she writes. “That world, thanks to Mayer’s paintings, was now emerging in vibrant color.” Kirshenblatt’s extraordinary visual memory, humor, and love can revivify this world for us all.


Capturing the Moon: Classic and Modern Jewish Tales
Retold by Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein
(Behrman House, 179 pp., $22). (Ages 8–12)


On Friday mornings, Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains, he used to tell stories to the children in the Jewish day school where he served as principal, and on Friday nights, he gave sermons at his congregation—until he realized that grown-ups prefer stories too.

The stories in this wonderful collection were chosen for their power to teach and are intended to provide opportunities for parents and children to talk about the values they wish to live by. There are stories about wise and foolish choices, kings and jesters, rabbis and students, biblical and midrashic figures (including several tales about Elijah arriving in time for Pesach). Each story is followed by a short commentary, relevant quotes from Jewish sources, and questions to stimulate discussion. An index identifies stories that relate to specific values, such as charity, friendship, heroism, honesty, sharing, and wisdom.

Tales for older children connect movingly with modern Jewish history: A soldier in the czarist army learns of his roots from three items at the bottom of his knapsack; another tale tells how the early Zionists chose the tallis for Israel’s first flag. This collection of old and new tales is a treasure for readers of all ages.

Indicates books that have been recommended for discussion groups—including Reform Movement-wide discussion on the “News & Views of Reform Jews” blog—as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Jewish adult literacy initiative. Visit rj.org/books to see readers’ personal perspectives and to add your own.


Bonny V. Fetterman is the literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

Union for Reform Judaism.