Tag Archives: Judaism

Review: A Mad Desire to Dance

I have been busy the past couple of days trying to catch up on some reading.  Today, I will review the book A Mad Desire to Dance, by Elie Wiesel, translated from the French by Catherine Termerson.  I read this a second time for a book club.

Wiesel, with his masterful writing skills, has done it again, with a book that is extremely complex, dealing with the primary theme of “madness”, otherwise termed as insanity, depression, melancholia, mania, schizophrenia, and illness.  It is not an easy read, and often seems disjointed.  That is due to the fact that Doriel Waldman, the primary character, is suffering from what he defines as “madness”, and is jumping back and forth, from one scenario to another in almost manic fashion, while relaying his story to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Thérèse Goldschmidt.  As a side note, the given name Doriel is taken from the Hebrew Dor, which means “generation”.  Add that to the surname Waldman, and you have a name that seems to imply that Doriel is a walled-in man, locked in, or out of, childhood memories, and memories of past generations.

That said, since I’m eager to tell you everything, you should know that I’ll be telling you this story without any concern for chronology.  You’ll be made to discover many different periods of time and many different places in a haphazard fashion.  What can I say?  The madman’s time is not always the same as the so-called normal man’s“.

Waldman is a very scrutinizing and eccentric individual, and relies on philosophy and religion to speak to Goldschmidt. He has lost his parents and siblings, and has been raised in a Jewish Orthodox community, by his uncle.  He moves back and forth with his answering of questions, and often plays word games that turn into mind games.  He does this in order to get the better hand of the situation, as he perceives it.  He is reluctant to release his memories, and is stuck in time, searching evermore for a smile, or a kiss on his forehead.  He is very controlling, and must be one up on the psychoanalyst at all times, even though he is paying her to help him.

Goldschmidt is treating him using Freudian principles of analysis.  She is also not his first psychoanalyst, having received Waldman as a patient from a previous doctor who felt he couldn’t help him (Waldman).  She is Jewish, like Waldman, and the previous doctor feels that this might help Waldman to open up.

I won’t state anything more about the story line, itself, as it would be giving away too much. I will say that Wiesel is brilliant in his assessment of the human mind, and is masterful in his blending of psychology, philosophy, Biblical references, tales and parables, and the Holocaust, within the pages of A Mad Desire to Dance.  The story is a dark one, compelling, if the reader takes the time to absorb all the analogies and relative content, not only within the pages, but between the lines.  It is often a haunting story, filled with sadness, loss, love, and exaggeration of truth.

Wiesel has infused A Mad Desire to Dance with extraordinary content, with repressed desires and fanaticism, with love and loss, with locked memories that have had a dominant force on Waldman’s life, on his personality and ability to relate to others.  The tapestry is woven with brilliance and with a profound sense of history and how it affects not only our mind, but our faith.

Elie Wiesel has written a masterpiece, and one that encapsulates all of the facets of “madness”, from fanaticism in religion and spirituality, to harshness and brutality, to mania and obsessiveness, etc. It is as if the reader is inside the mind of a “madman”, what Doriel defines himself as being. But, is he really? You read this intense book about survival and trauma and decide.
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I apologize for the update-there were some complications in my links.

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Book Diva Review: Doublelife

Doublelife2

Doublelife: One Family Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, by Harold Berman and Gayle Redlingshafer Berman, is a book that is inspiring and paints a vivid portrait of the religious journeys the authors took within their interfaith marriage.

From the moment they met, Harold and Gayle knew they were meant for each other despite their different religious outlooks. Harold was a secular Jew, Gayle was Christian. They did not let that deter them in their relationship. Once they decided to marry, their plans included a ceremony that would include aspects of both religions.

Their story is told through letters written to each other, letters that include the year leading up to their marriage. The letters written in that first year are filled with questions, hesitations, apprehensions regarding religion and religious life, and emotions that ebb and flow. Their letters are infused with their thoughts, blending logic and emotion, yet, always trying to come to a resolution that is shared.

For Gayle, Christmas was a big issue. For Harold it meant nothing in the realm of religion or Christmas trees. For Gayle, whose music career was important, church attendance was primary in her life. For Harold, renewing his Judaism and attending a synagogue was becoming a primary factor.

They had both decided that they would attend a local synagogue. Gayle did not want Harold to feel excluded from Judaism, and also wanted to learn more about the service and celebrations. From there, Jewish ideals took root in Harold, and the reader can see him change from one written correspondence to the next. He was beginning to ask questions, ponder issues, and he became involved in Jewish practice from baby steps to large strides. The building blocks were in force, and each step cemented his beliefs and caused him to seek more knowledge. He set a religious foundation for himself. Gayle followed along.

And, with that act of following, we see her grow and come into her own regarding Judaism. She fasts on the first Yom KIppur that they share. A small step for some, a large step for her. She becomes knowledgeable on various Jewish holidays, and the more she learns the more she wants to educate herself. She slowly evolves, and at one point even questions how she can be involved in a church music program when her Christianity beliefs are beginning to fade.

In the beginning of their marriage, they did not want children. That eventually changed, and it was Harold who initiated that change. Once they decided to have a child, they knew that an interfaith religious background would not suit them. Gayle was receptive and supportive of that concept.

I enjoyed Gayle’s transition over the years. And, more so, once she and Harold adopted their first child. They had decided that their son would be raised Jewish. They both felt that one religion should be a dominating factor, and that two religions might be confusing to him. From that moment on, the change in Gayle was dramatic. Her searches lead her to question more. They also bring her discomfort with herself, as she flounders within a religious realm, not realizing who she is or what she is.

Harold also transitions, and Orthodox Judaism becomes his choice, and within that choice, discussed with Gayle, their child will be raised as such.

Doublelife is a story that shows the determination of two people to accept each other’s religious backgrounds, and work towards an understanding that will blend their views together. And, through that acceptance, they remained in constant communication with each other regarding their fears. Communication was the cement that bound them together.

There is so much to glean from reading Doublelife: One Family Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope. It is a story whose journey has religious depth and meaning, and has multitudes of questioning on Judaism. The reader can learn a lot from this family, who began their married life as an interfaith couple. The trials of keeping a Jewish home, especially for Gayle, shows the religious force depicted in great detail. Her spiritual outlook became defined in ways she could not have imagined. The story unfolded, and this reader was swept away by the frankness, and the sense of love that sparked two individuals to change, not only for themselves, but for each other and those around them.

I highly recommend Doublelife: One Family Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope. There are lessons within the pages that everyone can find meaning in. It is not simply a story regarding Judaism. There are many more aspects to it that will appeal to everyone. From acceptance and understanding to hope and inspiration, the messages are ones we can all learn from and appreciate.

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First Desire, by Nancy Reisman

the-first-desire1 In First Desire by Nancy Reisman, we are given a set of characters who appear to be constantly yearning for acceptance and love, within the confines of the familial structure.

The Cohen family is composed of a tyrannical widower, Abe Cohen, and his five adult children, who seem to be stuck in a time warp, lost within the familial folds. The family unit is composed of four daughters (Jo, Sadie, Celia and Goldie) and one son (Irving). They are seemingly lifeless and unmotivated individuals, overpowered by loss, and by a dictatorial father.

All of them are still in mourning for their mother, and they are lost in a cycle of escaping the painful aspects of life. Their father, seems to be uncaring, and is a demanding and authoritarian individual, especially with his daughters. He escapes into a relationship with a women named Lillian Schumacher. Goldie can’t cope with the demands of her father, and the loss of her mother, and escapes by fleeing the house, leaving those behind to wonder about her, for years (not knowing whether she is dead or alive). Sadie questions her own sanity and the relationship with her husband, who only seems to want her company during times of sexual relations, and watches him become almost as tyrannical as her father. Jo is lost within her protective, obnoxious attitude, which is her form of escape. Celia escapes within her mind, which is sometimes coherent, but more often, not. Irving escapes into alcohol and gambling.

First Desire is adeptly written, and Nancy Reisman’s characters give us insight into depression, patriarchal pressures, and family interactions and dynamics, during the turbulent years that range from the late 1920s to 1950. They are believable individuals, and the climate of the decades is believable.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman is an amazing book on so many levels. From incredible word-images, to profound scenarios, Ackerman takes us on a journey through Warsaw, Poland, through the eyes of two zookeepers, Jan and Antonina Zabrinski. Jan was the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina was his wife.

It is an incredible story of fortitude and strength, love of animals (large and tiny) and love of humanity. The Zabinskis felt that every organism, no matter how minute, was a part of the scheme of the earth and universe. This attitude prompted them to take the course of action that they did. The force involved in Jan and Antonina’s acts of human kindness are not only conceived out of circumstance, but out of their almost innate necessity to save Jewish individuals in WWII Warsaw. They were not Jewish, in fact Jan declared himself an atheist, and Antonina was a Catholic. They knew the risks they were taking, but chose to help others at the expense of not only their lives, but their young son’s life, and their newborn daughter’s life. Jan and Antonina had a deep respect and devotion to caring for life, in all of its forms, from the most minute insect, bit of algae or moss, to the largest of animals, including their favorite lynxes.

It was this devotion, their ideals and values for what constitutes life and its worth, and their moral code, which consumed their every thought and emotion during World War II. This innate passion for saving life, turned their villa and the zoo into a refuge, for animals that you wouldn’t expect to find in a zoo setting. This is true account is one of many unusual stories to come out of World War II.  Antonina played a large role while Jan was off at war, and when he was imprisoned, in continuing to keep the Jews and partisans hidden. Through journals, articles, and historical documentation, the author has written the Zabrinksi’s unique Holocaust story, from their extremely unusual perspective.

The author had access to Antonina’s diary, and has infused the pages with direct quotes from it. It was a barbarous time period, and the brutality and harshness is reflected quite well within the book. The word imagery is strong, and it is sometimes difficult to discern where Antonina began, and where Ackerman evokes her own telling. Nonetheless, the book is factual, within its poetic aspects. Some details are sweetened, mainly pertaining to the people, animals and their lives within the confines of the villa. The author infuses some of her own thoughts, blending them with Antonina’s (she, herself states this) The Holocaust itself, and atrocious events and occurrences are not sugared in any aspect. The entire family is portrayed in the book.

The zoo and the villa become a human menagerie, no let me say they become a menagerie for both humans and other life forms, tiny to huge. It was like a Noah’s Ark. Each with their own respective and unique personality, each with their own needs and strengths, adapting within unique surroundings and under difficult circumstances. All life forms in the villa live together in a carnival and tour de farce environment, yet live in harmony. The Zookeeper’s Wife chronicles human and animals, and their lives within the confines of the Holocaust and war-torn Poland like it has never been documented before.

The heroine’s actions are vividly demonstrated throughout the book, Antonina’s almost innate sense of not only caring for the animals in the zoo, but getting into their minds, and reading their thoughts, sparked her passion for the value of life, the worth of all animals, small to great, that encouraged her in her endeavors to shelter almost 300 Jews in the zoo, within the confines of barred cages, underground passages, huts, secret hiding places in her villa, etc. Any place she could conceive of as a dwelling for hiding Jews, became one. Any disguise thought of was utilized for the Jews, whether it be aunt, uncle, or other visiting relatives and friends, ruses were created.

Antonina’s story, taken from her journal is captivating, poignant, intriguing, humorous, tear-jerker material, and compelling as no other story you have read. Ackerman’s story, which surrounds Antonina’s, is poetic prose, a weaving of lives. She is often seems long-winded in her descriptions and word images, but once you get past them, you realize there is a purpose behind the prose. Ackerman wrote this way for a reason, and it isn’t necessarily apparent in the beginning.

The Zookeeper’s Wife often reads like a beautiful prose-poem, of breathtaking writing and astounding imagery seeping through the pages. Ackerman is brilliant in not only her prose, but also in the scientific aspect of the animal kingdom. She sometimes rambles on regarding various species (much like I have rambled in this review), but in the end, it is for a reason, and coincides with the humans and their own stories of survival. She compares and contrasts humans and their evolution with animals.

He was intrigued with being able to control the fate of producing animals with excellent traits, and animals of purity, through mating, reproducing, etc., until he produced the perfect example. He used eugenics in his experiments (breeding animals with specific traits). The love of magical and mythical animals enthralled the Nazis. Those animals were elevated in status.

Animals are almost humanized in the Nazi world, and of course the humans, the Jews, are thought of and treated as less than impure animals by the Nazis. Experiments performed on Jews were abundant. From brain surgery to agonizing and tortuous experiments, the Jews were tools utilized. One has to read carefully in order to perceive what Ackerman is trying to accomplish.

Jews, the Polish resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, and then the Warsaw uprising of 1944, we are given a look at Warsaw daily life during the Nazi occupation, both the willing “prisoner’s and caged humans, and the unwilling Jews in prison camps. Life in the ghetto is depicted frankly and truthfully. The horrid and unsanitary conditions are explored and painted.

The perspective is almost incomparable, and the historical facts and documentations are gleaned from newspapers, witness accounts, Survivor stories, scientific research, and from Antonina’s diary, her incredible diary.  Within the pages humor is reflected within living arrangements and lives inhabited within the confines. Man and animal live together, eat together, sleep together. Lives are saved by courageous and empathetic individuals.  At times the book can be difficult to follow, and I found myself rereading excerpts due to the fluidity.  Overall, Diane Ackerman weaves the tapestries together with excellence. Both the scientific and historic aspects work well together, and The Zookeeper’s Wife is brilliant in its illumination of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, their moral code, and their courage to save lives despite risking their own lives. The story binds the threads of an unusual perspective in this amazing Holocaust telling. What an accomplishment! Bravo!

Jan and Antonina Zabinski are honored by Yad Vashem’s The Righteous Among the Nations.

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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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