Jblog Book Club

A place for discussing interesting books, including those on Judaism, parenting, and general fiction and non-fiction.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Kallah Prep by the Book

Kallah Prep By the Book

By Esther Frankel

This review has been moved to:http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-18522-NY-Jewish-Bridal-Examiner~y2009m9d15-What-they-didnt-teach-you-in-school-Jewish-intimacy-and-prewed-classes-part-4

Monday, November 20, 2006

Mother-Daughter Talk

I really like Deborah Tannen’s books on conversational styles and differences. I find her far more solidly based, credible, and readable than that guy with the planet fixation. The book I just read is called You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. She neither demonizes nor exonerates mothers and daughters. Rather, she offers many instances to show how and why the conversations between mothers and daughters can be so charged. It’s not just the words but the metamessages conveyed. Tannen draws on her own experiences, as well as those of many women she interviewed. Just about any female is bound to recognize herself in one of the mother-daughter exchanges presented, particularly if you ever had a difference of opinion on appearance, clothes, or hair. While the book is not stlyed as self-help book, Tannen does sometimes offer tactics to diffuse the tensions that sometimes erupt as critical metamessages are expressed in conversation. Also the understanding you can gain of the other side’s perspective may result in a more sympathetic dialogue if you can keep your knee-jerk responses in check.
As Tannen is Jewish, she brings up the use of the expression “Keyn ayn-hore,” which she heard as a child without realizing its meaning. She suggests, “Could it be that some of those who laugh at belief in the evil eye hasve nonetheless absorbed the habit of refraining from praising their chidren? Could this habit explain why so many daughters who were never praised by their mothers are later surprised to hear from their mothers’ friends, ‘Your mother is so proud of you. She never stops talking about you’” (55). There may be something to that hypothesis, and there is much more of interest to mothers and daughters in this book, particularly for those who find themselves in both positions.

Oriented toward practical solutions

O’Hanlon, Bill. Do One Thing Different. New York: William Morrow, 1999.

I read this book because it was one of the ones mentioned by a local rabbi who conducts a weekly marriage workshop/shiur for men. (The other one he mentioned is an Arscroll book that is not at my local library.) The interview is in the winter 2006 issue of Kallah Magazine.

The premise behind this book is that of “solution oriented therapy,” that it is possible to solve problems quickly by changing behavior. Change your action –even if it is literally trying to get out of bed on the other side – to achieve your goal to feel better or to keep a fight from escalating. The advantage of this, obviously, is that it offers a way to fix things without protracted sessions in therapy that could last for years. The book offers some great quotes and some easy to follow directives, as well as entertaining (and sometimes somewhat strange) stories to illustrate his approach in action.

Many of the illustrative examples refer to couples. He even has practical solutions with regard to intimacy. (I wonder if that’s what the rabbi refers to.) Yet, I think that this idea of changing one’s approach could work well when applied to children. As the quote at the beginning of the book says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I know that as a parent, I’ve been guilty of this, and I’ve observed it in other parenting styles, too. You know how some parents repeatedly nag their children to clean their room, etc., so they do not achieve what they really want, which is for the child to do it without being berated, cajoled, or threatened.

Children do come up in his extended story of the teacher who turned the class no one could endure into accomplished students. It was the result of her misreading their locker numbers as their IQ scores and treating them like the brilliant people she thought them to be. That is a very important lesson about labeling and expectations. Today, I believe, schools (based on my experience with yeshivas) are very quick to label a child an underachiever based on very little evidence. This can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The topic is treated in a short piece called “The Clever Hans Phenomenon,” about how a horse can appear to know math and how children can appear not to, based on the cues of expectation they pick up on.

But all is not sweetness and light. Those among us who tend to identify with Hamlet can not dismiss analysis so easily. Of course, Hamlet can be pointed to as the exemplar of analysis-paralysis. However, we can’t help admiring that he is, after all, more perceptive than all those around him. In fact, when he advised by his uncle to accept his father’s death and move on, we know that he is concealing the thing that is rotten in the state of Denmark. Also, as the author focuses on just making things work – accommodating – some of his suggestions actually capitulate to the person in the relationship who is excessively controlling. So the surface can be worked smooth, but there are still depths beneath. He admits he is not concerned with those depths—only with practical solutions.

In sum: I think some of his suggestions can work well to improve certain conflicts. However, for those who are of a very analytical nature, it may seem too facile.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Don't call her Dona Gracia Mendes

The Woman Who Defied Kings: The Life and Times of Dona Gracia Nasi
by Andrée Aelion Brooks (At Paul, MN: Parason House) 2002

596 pages (103 of them notes & index)

The title of my review is based on one of the author’s pet peeves. Sometimes the subject of this biography is mistakenly called by her husband’s surname. In fact, records indicates, that Mendes was never used as her official or legal name.

This book fills in a lot of background on Dona Gracia’s world that could make the reader appreciate just how tough she had to be to accomplish what she did. She was generous, but also unwilling to give up what she felt was rightfully hers. She had an amazing head for the complicated financial transactions of those days. She was undaunted by powerful men. She was determined to accomplish her aims and was often daring in what she did. She was not someone you could treat lightly. In a word, she was formidable.

The book opens with the background of anti-Semitism, expulsion, persecution, and forced conversions that led to the phenomenon of the conversos (formerly referred to as Marranos), the secret Jews who worse the mask of Catholics in order to be able to stay in their country. Being a converso did not mean an escape from persecution. On the contrary, it put one in danger of being summoned by the Inquisition. Thus the threat of the Inquisition coming to a particular area meant that it was growing hostile to the conversos, who could be called to provide justification to the authorities not to pay their debts to them if they had taken loans or just to lay their hands on their wealth. Conversos like Dona Gracia, regularly delivered bribes to the pope’s agents with the understanding that it would forestall the Inquisition from spreading.

One of the consequences of living as a Catholic was being forced to die and be buried as one. The conversos did whatever was in their power to die in a Jewish manner and avoid the Last Rites. However, they still were forced into a Catholic burial. Once she was free to be openly Jewish in Turkish lands, Dona Gracia fulfilled the request of her husband in having his remains, as well as those of her parents disinterred to be reburied in the Mount of Olives in the Holy Land.

Here’s the somewhat convoluted family history. Beatrice de Luna married Francisco Mendes, the brother of her mother, Phillipa. Her sister Brianda married his brother Diogo Mendes. Dona Gracia’s daughter Ana, later known as Ryna Benveniste married Don Joseph Nasi, the son of Phillipa’s sister. Gracia Benveniste, Brianda’s daughter, married Don Samuel Nasi, Joseph’s brother (even though she had first been married in a sham Christian ceremony to Don Joseph.) The author’s disapproval of endogamous marriages, such as these, comes through quite clearly. As she in not familiar with halacha, she is bothered by an uncle marrying his niece, but actually suggests that Dona Gracia may have wanted to marry her brother-in-law after her husband’s death and that could have been an underlying point of tension between her and her sister, who had been set as Diogo’s bride. This is not very likely, but the author strives hard to find some suggestions of romantic feelings in a biography that is really devoid of affairs of the heart. There are, however, many affairs of finance presented in more detail than you may find interesting.

Don Joseph was a colorful character, believed by many to have inspired Christopher Marlow’s The Jew of Malta. He grew to be very influential with the sultan and won himself the title Duke of Naxos. In 1577 (eight years after his illustrious mother-in-law’s death), he had the work he had written in conjunction with a ghost writer, Ben Porat Yosef, published in Constantinople.

The Senora, or HaGevira, as Dona Gracia was known, is not the only strong woman described in her biography. There are a few pages devoted to Bivenvenida Abravanel, the niece of Don Yitchak Abravanel, (or Abarbanel, as he is referred to as the author of a sometimes controversial commentary on TaNach) who left Spain with his fellow Jews in 1492 (though he was supposedly granted special permission to stay by the king).

This woman “had also taken over her husband’s banking enterprise upons his death. She had similarly used some of her personal fortune to ransom Jewish refugees being captured by pirates in the Mediterranean.” In the duchy of Ferrrarra, these two powerful women lived within walking distance of each other. But Bienvendia did not have much sympathy for conversos (277)

In Venice there were openly practicing Jews, but they were confined to ghettos. In fact the ghetto in Venice is credited with the term, based on the word for the foundry which was located there.

Records that report her death date from spring 1569, though the author believes that it occurred earlier. On the absence of any clear record of her death, Brooks veers off into speculations about the possible causes: a treacherous and doomed attempt to get to the Holy Land –which she refers to in drawing a parallel to the Baal Shem Tov --, the cold spell that struck Constantinople in the winter of 1568-69, a fire built in the home to ward off the cold that caught her clothes. Her speculation grows even more wild in accounting for her death: “Jewish mystics believe in the constant transfer of divine energy from the heavenly sphere to earth and back again. Also central to these beliefs is the idea that the greatest souls of Israel ascend straight to heaven. There can be n o earthly grave. . . A mystic might argue that Dona Gracia was one of these great souls, sent down at a critical moment to ensure the survival of a large portion of the Jewish people. When her task was accomplished, there had to be a way to left her up again. That meant some king of disaster that could taker her body along with her soul: a shipwreck, a fire” (464 )

She is eulogized after her death and is remembered ten years later again upon the death of her son-in-law. Then the author reveals the depths of her ignorance of Jewish study by observing the following:

“After that – silence, except for the occasional remembrance in Judeo-Spanish literature. But these stories were written in a relatively unknown ethnic language and in an arcane form of Hebrew characters known as Rashi script [emphasis mine – this is what our kids are taught to read in third grade!] As such, they cast barely a shadow over world consciousness” (469)

Obviously, this book is not written form a frum perspective. While the author definitely sees her subject as a hero who was devoted to her people and her faith, she is not presented as a “holy woman” type. But there isn’t anything really anti-frum about it, though some may not like human failings to be pointed out in certain characters. You may wish to skim over parts that get very detailed in terms of how a business transaction operated. But there are many parts that are fascinating.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

History and Humor

I'm reading The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss. By Chapter Seven and our hero has already been to Baku, Georgia, Constantinople, Paris, Berlin, and some places I've forgotten. As the hero approaches each new venue the author treats us to a political history of the country and its place in the region. And this is a true story.

Lev Nussimbaum was born in 1905 in Baku, Azerbaijan to an oil magnate and revolutionary. Despite his Jewish heritage he reinvented himself as a Muslim prince, and became a famous writer and personality under the pen names Essad Bey and Kurban Said. Very little was known about his childhood, and Reiss' research led to some fascinating discoveries. In his novels, Nussimbaum told some fantastic tales about his travels. Some of the stranger ones turned out to be true. Reiss takes care to show the role of the Jews in the political upheaval of the time, without neglecting the fate of other minorities such as the Armenians. A lot of the history was quite new to me (yes, I had heard about the Armenian massacre, but not about the Helenendorf Germans).

I've read about three short novels since beginning The Orientalist, as it's not the kind of book you can read a page here and there. However, the writing is smooth and so full of action and humorous anecdotes that you don't feel that you're getting a history lesson at the same time.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Keeping Our Kids Safe at School

A couple weeks ago I read a very moving memoir called Please Stop Laughing at Me. It is the story of a woman who was mercilessly tormented for years of school, all the way until the end of high school. Not only was she abused emotionally, but she was also physically assaulted on many occasions. The response by the school was usually a "oh, they are just being kids" or "what is wrong with her that she is bringing this on to herself." It is a very uncomfortable story. The only way I was able to get through it was that I knew it would end well. The girl grew up to be a very successful woman.

The book begins with the author, Jodee Blanco, struggling to get out of her car to go into her high school reunion. She is actually shaking with fear. The story then continues, in flash backs, through her elementary, middle school and high school years (and 4 different schools!) and the stories of how she would be accepted, then rejected.

Although I think we can learn many things from this book about keeping our children safe, including not allowing bullying of any kind, the message I actually took from it is not the one she intended. I think she was hurt so much because she had a very strong desire to fit into certain groups. She was very conscious of the social hierarchies at her schools and wanted to be a part of them. I don't at all blame her, that is a very normal desire, especially in middle school. However, I think we should all do our best to instill in our children that they don't need to be in the "cool crowd." It is more important for them to have a few good friends.

Jodee also shows what is can be like in that top clique in a school; how the members actually have no freedom to be themselves. She was accepted in her schools until there would be a tough moral question, and she couldn't help herself from standing up for what was right. After that, her "friends" knew they didn't have a hold on her, so they started tormenting her. Cliques survive on intimidation and fear. Once a member goes against the leader(s) they must be punished, or the social order will fall and a new leader will arise. It sounds like the way medieval society worked, and to a large extent, I believe it is.

Basically, Please Stop Laughing at Me is a book parents should read to get an inkling of what our kids might be going through. I hope it would never be in frum schools, and I don't think it would be so severe, but we should not delude ourselves that this type of thing does not happen in our communities as well. The bullying may be more subtle, but it is still there.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Pride and Prejudice Sequels

I am in love with Pride and Prejudice. I have read the book at least 15 times. I love the mini series, I even love Bride and Prejudice. So naturally, I have read many of the sequels. Some of these books are laughable, they are so bad. Others have an ok story, but the writing is absurd. There has only been one previous that I haven't wanted to throw away in utter contempt. However, last week, while shopping for a birthday present, I happened upon two sequels I hadn't yet read, in Target of all places!

The two, which are by the same author and take place sequentially are Mr.Darcy Takes a Wife and Darcy and Elizabeth Nights and Days at Pemberley. All the characters that you loved from the original make appearances, even very minor characters like Hannah from the Inn at Lambton. The story, especially in the first one, is compelling. The second one has a lot of repetition from the first, but has a fairly engaging plot. I would say there are two big faults in these books.

Number one: the writing is really convuluted. She is trying to imitate Jane Austen's style, but her attempts are basically using big words unnecessarily, and using old style spelling like connexion. At first, I was so bothered by the word choices that I didn't know if I could finish, but after about 100 pages, I got used to it, and I stopped noticing it. If, however, someone was not an native English speaker, this book would be a nightmare to read.

These books are not short. They are each about 450 pages with small text. I am a fairly quick reader and can usually finish a standard 300 page novel in a day and a half, but these took me about 4-5 days each, and I had some yom tov and shabbat time to read.

The other objection I had, and it is a bigger one, is that there is really a lot of scenes about their marital relations. The overall plots of the novels were good, but the obsession with love scenes really make these into romance novels, which are not my favorite.

Regardless, I read them both, did enjoy them, and would tentatively recommend them, as long as you aren't offended by love scenes (granted between married people). I would give the first a B+ and the second a B.

By the way, the other sequels I have read, with a grade following are:

Pemberley or Pride and Prejudice Continued C-
Letters from Pemberely the First Year F
An Unequal Marriage: Pride and Prejudice 20 Years Later D
Conviction C+
Desire and Duty D-
Excessively Diverted C
Mr. Darcy's Daughters B