Tag Archives: Jewish Culture

Review: Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, by Peter Manseau, is a novel that is quite an accomplishment in many aspects, but especially in Maseau’s ability to convey the adversities and horrors of the Russian pogroms at the turn of the twentieth century.

Itsik Malpesh was born in Kishinev during the the Russian pogroms, to a well off family. The events of his birth, as told to him by his mother, are what has shaped his life, and shaped his perception on love. This novel is Itsik’s story, although it reads like a memoir that could be based on an actual person. That is due to the fact that the format includes a novel-within-the-novel, which is part of Manseau’s writing brilliance and creative edge.

Itsik is a poet, and he has considered himself one since he was a young boy. In 1996, he gave his poems, written in Yiddish, to a translator, to be translated into English. The translator is not Jewish. He works at a warehouse that is storing Yiddish books, books of a dying language, a language that is becoming lost within the modern world of the mid 1990s. He reads and speaks Yiddish. He is not Jewish, but has been assumed to be so, and does not reveal the truth about himself in order to try to win the affections of a co-worker named Clara.

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter has an unusual format, with chapters alternating between “Translator’s Notes”, and Malpesh’s notebooks, “The Memoirs of Itsik Malpesh”. Malpesh’s notebooks details his life story, his love for Sasha, and the people and events that played a major role in his life’s quest towards his bashert, his destiny. He believes that his poems are a masterpiece, and his arrogance shines through the pages. His determination to publish his works, and his steadfastness in keeping the memory of Sasha alive, is the only thing that motivates him. From shoveling goose feathers and excrement from the floor of the down factory, to his learning to read Russian through the tutoring of a fellow yeshiva student, the novel takes Malpesh to Odessa, takes him penniless to New York, and eventually to Baltimore, and with each step, Sasha is at his side, through his poetry.

Manseau has given the reader much to ponder as far as bashert/destiny is concerned. What about the ramifications of believing in bashert or destiny? It isn’t always the romantic vision that one replays in their mind. It can imprison individuals, can hold them back from moving forward with their lives, unmotivated and not choosing to exercise their free will. What about the events and tragedies that can lead up to that moment when a person meets their soul mate, their bashert or destiny? Does it then signify that it is fine for others to possibly die or be involved in horrific situations all in the name of bashert? I asked myself these questions while reading the book. I asked myself many other questions, such as what is the meaning and the depth of language as far as our identities are concerned?

The heightened images also include some humor, and the book isn’t entirely depressing or dark. The Eastern European Jewish immigrant and their experiences are portrayed with extreme illumination, and nothing is left to the imagination. We experience Malpesh’s frustrations, his heartbreaks, the tragedies, etc., through his eyes, and through the compelling and creative imagery of Manseau.

In my opinion, Peter Manseau has written a classic novel, and one that will be considered such for decades to come. He touches on the very core elements of life, such as ethics, responsibility, language, and our roots. Both happiness and sadness fill the pages. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is masterfully written, and the pages evoke an extremely strong sense of time and place, immigration and assimilation, love and longing, and language and identity. I highly recommend Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter to everyone.

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The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell

The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell, is a story revolving around Charles Belski, a learned man who is a musicologist (one who studies the history and science of music). He has what is known as English Disease, which in today’s environment is known as depression or melancholia. The dilemmas in his life seem to stem inwardly from within himself, and are often self-imposed. He is a difficult, obnoxious, middle-aged man, with depression, and is extremely manipulative when interacting with those around him. He is a protagonist unlike any I have read, filled with a cynical perspective, yet wickedly funny. He is a depressed, non-practicing Jew, and is filled with guilt over the fact that he married a Catholic, a Gentile.

The differences between Belski and his wife, interplay throughout the novel. There is disagreement on how to raise their daughter, Franny. His wife and daughter try to open his eyes to the joy around him. He is a man in crisis, lost in faith, relying on medication to get him through the hours and days. Belski’s life appears to be a series of reluctant events, which do not include one small spark of happiness. Belski is schlepping through life struggling with his emotional being and his academic side. He is fixated with the past, yet at the same time it eventually evolves into a healing element for him.

“English melancholiacs used to tour the ruins of Antiquity as a cure for their depression, which was, in fact, at the time called the English Disease. It was thought that somehow the contemplation of actual ruins would make one’s own ruined life seem less hateful, and that these dilapidated but still beautiful structures might suggest to the sensitive melancholic the possibility of finding beauty in his own misery, indeed as essential to it.”

He travels to Poland on a conference with a colleague named Liebowitz, a person, who is almost like a sidekick of Belski’s. They visit Auschwitz. Belski’s constant reflections on the Holocaust, anti-semitism, the current social climate in Poland, and on his life overtake his thoughts. They feed his melancholic state.

It gives him power over others, the only form of power he has. Seemingly that depressive state is something that he enjoys being in, although he will tell you otherwise.

Skibell is brilliant in his writing and assessment of Jews, assimilated Jews, Jews marrying Gentiles, the Holocaust, Poland, and depression and melancholia. Skibell’s amazing descriptive observations make it seem as if he is inside the heads of others. He does it all with a dry wit, and you find yourself laughing out loud while reading the book. Who could perceive that writing a novel about a depressed person could be so humorous, and so poignant at the same time. Who knew?

He writes comically, on the neurotic struggle for assimilation, which really isn’t a struggle unique to Jews, but a struggle for all immigrants and first-generation Americans. Skibell incorporates those struggles and burdens within Belski’s journey to self-discovery. Skibell’s book is an excellent psychological character study. The English Disease is bizarrely funny with quirky characters, yet has strong serious undertones, and at times is heart-breaking. It is a metaphor for redemption, and for spiritual and marital contentment in an ever changing world.

The end is a surprise, and fulfilling. I wouldn’t have missed reading The English Disease for anything, as it is that good! Bravo to Joseph Skibell.

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Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel

Five Chimneys, by Olga Lengyel is an incredible and intense personal eyewitness accounting and Holocaust memoir. Five Chimneys was published in 1947, in English, two years after liberation, when Olga Lengyel’s mind and memories were still, fresh regarding the events she witnessed while a prisoner in Auschwitz.

The title, Five Chimneys, stems from the five crematorium chimneys at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It isn’t enough that she witnessed the horrendous atrocities, but she also lost her family there. They all were exterminated in the gas chambers…her husband, two children and her parents. Her husband was under orders to be deported to Auschwitz. Olga Lengyel was determined, and went to the authorities insisting that she and her children be deported with him, as she assumed that he would be put to work in a hospital, as he was a medical doctor. She did not believe any of the stories she was told, about the actual situtation, and thought they were exaggerations. Her parents decided to go with her and the children, and the entire family went together. Little did she know it would result in the death of everyone, but her.

Her memoir is often harsh and brutal, but so were the conditions she had to live under. Her writing is well-articulated, filled with extremely clear descriptives that make our skin crawl. She doesn’t seek sympathy, but rather wanted the realities and truth to be told. Olga Lengyel writes as if she is a reporter, with an unbiased-like mindset. As a survivor and a witness, she reports what she, herself, experienced, and what she saw. The facts and truth of the events are what motivated her to stay alive, when everyone she loved had been murdered. What Olga Lengyel witnessed and went through in Auschwitz, nobody should ever have to be a witness to, or have to endure.

From watching the crematorium workers load several bodies into the large ovens at once, to having to pile dead bodies atop one another…herself, to standing naked for hours in the freezing cold while waiting for roll call, to the beatings, to lack of food, and having to eliminate in a bucket…the same one used to eat in, and to the unbelievably horrific events that pregnant women went through, etc., the book is intense testimony to the brutality and inhumanity of man. It is also a testament to Olga Lengyel’s strength and courage during the extreme circumstances she endured (that is putting it mildly). Her motivation for survival was the necessity to bear witness to the atrocious inhumanity of the Nazi Germans.

Albert Einstein, himself, read Five Chimneys, and actually wrote a letter to Olga Lengyl. Part of that letter is included in the book.

…Thank you for your very frank, very well written book. You have done a real service by letting the ones who are now silent and most forgotten speak…

With best regards and wishes,

A. Einstein

The infusion of such atrocities, in great numbers, into one memoir is beyond belief, as Olga Lengyel manages to describe with graphic clarity the most minute detail of daily existence (if you can call it that) in the Women’s camp at Auschwitz. She leaves nothing to the imagination, and each atrocious act is written boldly, powerfully, concise and to the point, no stone left unturned. Five Chimneys is heart wrenching, horrific, and overwhelming. It is not for the weak of heart or weak of stomach. Olga Lengyel’s Five Chimneys describes the essence of man’s inhumanity, and is a memoir that should be read with that in mind, as her overpowering documentation of the nighmares she experienced and witnessed is not coated over, in any fashion. The book is extremely haunting.

Olag Lengyel died at the age of 90, in 2001. Olga Lengyel’s spirit and strength will survive through time, within the pages of her extraordinary memoir, Five Chimneys.

We must never forget the events of the Holocaust…

I personally own and have read this book.

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The Dream, by Harry Bernstein

“The Dream“: A Memoir, by Harry Bernstein, is Bernstein’s follow-up memoir to his critically acclaimed “The Invisible Wall“, which I read and reviewed, when it was first published.

When I saw “The Dream” on the shelf of newly released books, in the book store, I grabbed it immediately, because I was enthralled with “The Invisible Wall” immensely. I am not sorry I did, as reading the book paints a picture of America both before and post-depression era. In particular, “The Dream” focuses on the hardship Bernstein’s family went through, both physically, socially, emotionally and mentally.

The family members that made up Bernstein’s family are as different as they are alike. Each member relates to the whole, each member’s personality a reflection of their harsh and abusive environment. The dominant force within the family was Bernstein’s mother, the ever protective mother, the one who held the family together during times of crisis, and held the family together from her emotionally abusive husband.

Bernstein’s father was an alcoholic, a verbally, and sometimes physically, abusive man, who kept the family hanging by monetary threads, as he doled out as little as possible in order for them to survive, and meet the essentials of food, clothing and shelter. He spent most of his earnings in pubs. His own father earned a living as a beggar in New York. This didn’t stop Bernstein’s mother from her goals and dreams.

DREAMS PLAYED AN IMPORTANT PART IN OUR LIVES IN THOSE EARLY days in England. Our mother invented them for us to make up for all the things we lacked and to give us some hope for the future. Perhaps, also, it was for herself, to escape the miseries she had to endure, which were caused chiefly by my father, who cared little about his family.”

Bernstein’s mother had a dream, a dream to move to America and make a better life for herself and her children. When they were sent tickets (anonymously) to emigrate, she didn’t hesitate to leave. She envisioned a new beginning, a life of opportunity.

Without those tickets, and subsequent events, Bernstein would never have met his beloved wife, Ruby. They were married for 67-years, before her death in 2002. Their courtship and romance is deeply touching.

Although 98-years in age, Bernstein’s mind is as cognizant as that of a much younger person. His wit, poignancy and incredible word paintings fill the pages of “The Dream“, flowing from one scenario to the next. Bernstein’s zest for life is apparent throughout the book. He brings us not only a compelling memoir, but an accounting of a dysfunctional family, within the confines of Chicago and New York during the 1920s and 1930s. “The Dream” is an inspiration to all of us, each sentence written with emotion, strength, eloquence and brilliance. Harry Bernstein, himself, is an inspiration to all of us.

If you read “The Invisible Wall“, you must read “The Dream“. It will not disappoint you. If you didn’t read “The Invisible Wall“, I suggest you do so, but in any event, definitely read “The Dream“.

I personally own and have read this book.

~~

Book Diva

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Avner Gold New Release

If you are a fan of Avner Gold, then you will be delighted to learn that “the long awaited continuation” of his historical novel series “Rauch Ami”, “The Long Road to Freedom“, has been published. As in previous books of the series, “The Long Road to Freedom” is a novel whose journey brings into focus the plight of European Jews during 17th century.

You can read an excerpt of “The Long Road to Freedom“, here. It is the “immediate sequel to “The Marrano Prince“, which was the eighth book in the “Rauch Ami” series.

The table of contents to “The Long Road to Freedom“” can be seen here.

The new release has been a long time in coming, and is an exciting event.

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Messengers of God, by Elie Wiesel

Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends“, by Elie Wiesel, is a book that is filled with fantastic word-images and descriptions told from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor. The book deals with various characters of the Bible: Adam, Cain, Abel, Isaac, Joseph, Jacob, Esau, Moses, and Job, and how they obtain spiritual growth and move forward under harsh conditions.

Wiesel manages to infuse these Biblical individuals with traits and characteristics, giving them a sense of substance, whether it be superficial or sincere. He brings emotion and life into them, and a sense of spirituality. We see how the successive generations gain logic, insight and knowledge…both emotional and spiritual.

As the generations continue on from Adam and Eve, Wiesel gives the individuals emotional qualities, qualities he feels didn’t truly exist within Adam and Eve. He feels that they (Adam and Eve) didn’t have the history or the references in which to understand the immense responsibility they had, not only for their children, but for future generations. They did not, or would not trust entirely in God. They lacked in familial background and human role models, and we see the succeeding generations of individuals begin to develop more human-like emotional qualities, and the ability to reason within their daily setting.

We watch the characters grow, some gain weakness, and others gain strength. We see them learn right and wrong, and develop chaos and a sense of peace in their lives. Mainly, we see how the Biblical characters and their lives can be placed in a modern-day setting, through Wiesel’s brilliant writing, and his use of midrash, parables and sayings at the end of each chapter. We ponder their stories from Wiesel’s perspective.

Life holds many challenges and struggles for all of us, And Wiesel has shown us how some of our favorite Biblical individuals might have gained a sense of their humanity, and might have felt and thought about issues relevant to them and their world, trying to resolve them, whether rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly. We are witness as the story teller blends death and annihilation into the lives of the characters, and leaves them to ascertain how to begin again. The Holocaust is underlying, and ever present within the stories, including sacrificial aspects. Lessons are learned, and spirituality is gained, as each person’s humanness is exposed. Their lives live on, in the present, in order to teach us, to bring insight into the human condition and atrocities that continue to occur.

Elie Wiesel’s brilliant story telling in “Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends“, in my opinion, is a metaphor for right and wrong, good and evil, within a Holocaust type of situation, and how to begin life anew from such an adverse event.
~~~~~~

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The Counterlife, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth has long been one of my favorite male authors, and in his novel, The Counterlife, I am reminded of his ability to blend the bizarre twists and turns that life throws us into a work of art that resounds with his full range and depth of literary intensity.

Nathan and Henry Zuckerman are estranged brothers, so very different, yet unaware how much alike they actually are. Nathan is an author, Henry is a dentist. For one of them, the reason for living borders on being able to be sexually active. In this respect, he decides to undergo surgery in order to counteract that problem. Even though the surgery could kill him, he elects to take that chance, all in the name of sexual identity. It is his counter life, to fit a desired outcome, a longing for what many of us want, a home, a family, marriage, and the “idealized” life.

Nathan, has long been estranged from Henry, and as an author, seems to live through his brother, writing novels whose characters include Henry. He has a counterlife through his stories, his fantasies and fiction, and his identity is one that is alive due to Henry. Although he is a prolific author in his own right, his works are derived from Henry’s life.

Therein lies the clue in this well written novel. The issue of identity, and what it means to us, is at the core of the story line. What one will do, in order to preserve identity, to create the life we long for, and what we view as our Self, our essence, is the soul of the book. The characters each invent a counter life, a life invented, a life created, in order to transfer their current life, into one they believe is better. The reader is exposed to the characters fears and how they choose to rewrite their own histories.

From travels to Israel, and connecting with one’s Jewish spirituality, to funeral attendance, and delivering a eulogy, from the streets of the U.S, to France, and England, we are confronted with issues of identity, including spirtiual, emotional, sexual, and all the levels and tiers in between. We are confronted with our own questions of identity, who we are, what we believe, and, finally the question of whether the end result is our own creation of ourselves?

Roth writes with humor, with seriousness, and with a profound and intense insight into the humanity, the insecurities, the deep fears, and the identity crises that exists within all of us. Roth’s strong words and strong theme, shows us how a counter life is not always productive, but could produce undesirable effects, in the end. We might not always receive what we wish for, but then again, we might receive it, but it could turn out that our counter life is actually counter-productive. Philip Roth’s The Counterlife is excellent, and his writing is masterful and brilliant, encapsulating the full range of emotions, and writing down to the bare bones, as only he knows how.

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