From My Bookshelf: The Gift of Grief

If you want to read a thoughtful, compassionate, highly intelligent, and Jewishly-spiced book to help you manage the tough times, consider picking up The Gift of Grief, just released from Celestial Arts/Ten Speed Books. Subtitled “Finding Peace, Transformation, and Renewed Life After Great Sorrow,” the book has been written by Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz, whom I am proud to say is currently Senior Rabbi at my home congregation. Congratulations to “Rabbi Matt” and his family on this wonderful accomplishment!

Friday Find: Novel Destinations

Still trying to figure out what to do on your next vacation? You may want to use a new book (to be published later this month) to help you plan. Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, co-authored by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon (with a foreword by Matthew Pearl), is brought to you by National Geographic Books. And for those who love to follow in the footsteps of their literary idols, it’s a great read.

Part One of this travel guide focuses on author houses and museums; literary festivals; and “literary places to drink, dine and doze” (hotels, pubs, cafés, etc.). Part One also includes a section on “writers at home and abroad,” featuring multiple literary locales associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Henry James.

Part Two is organized by location, describing each of ten “locales immortalized by famed novelists.” I enjoyed reading through both Part One and Part Two, but readers hoping to find destinations outside the United States or Europe may be a bit disappointed with the heavily American and European focus.

That concern aside, this is a clear, readable, and inspirational travel book for readers and writers. And if you’re not quite ready to plunk down $25 for it, you can get a preliminary taste at the authors’ blog.

Rachel Shukert’s Nextbook Essay

An essay bearing a subtitle that reads “A Childhood Obsession with the Holocaust” doesn’t exactly promise loads of laughs. But laugh I did, at given moments, as I read this piece by Rachel Shukert on Nextbook today.

Here’s an excerpt:

“We need to talk,” said my mother. The ballet car pool had just dropped me at home.

I wriggled impatiently, anxious to fix some microwave popcorn and return to my copy of Nuremberg Diary. “Um, not now, okay?”

“I got a call today from Mrs. Finkel.”

“Mrs. Finkel?”

“The librarian. You know, at the Jewish Community Center. She’s friends with Grandma—”

“I know who she is. How did she get this number?” I demanded.

“What do you mean, how did she get this number? Probably she got it out of the Hadassah directory, the same way I would get her number.”

Nearly every Jewish woman and girl in the country belongs to Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The local chapter directory is a veritable who’s who of area Jewish females. Earlier that week, I had casually mentioned to my mother that we might consider terminating our association with the organization and withdrawing our names from its records, as when They came for us, the Hadassah directory would likely be the first place They’d look.

“Mrs. Finkel told me that you tried to check out all four tapes of Shoah this afternoon.”

“So? You’re allowed to check out all four tapes! They come as a set! It’s like checking out one tape!”

She was still making that damn face. I hated that face. “She told me it was the seventh time you’ve tried to check it out in the past three weeks.”

“So what? She kept saying it was reserved.”

“It’s on the thirteen-and-over list, honey.”


“Meaning you have to be thirteen or over to check it out. That’s the rule.”

“That’s the first I’ve heard of any such rule.”

“Sweetie, that’s the rule.”


My mother’s shrill temper flared at last. “And when were you planning to watch all NINE AND A HALF HOURS OF SHOAH, HUH? Were you going to take a night off from whatever weird fucking shit you’re doing to the walls of your room when the normal people are asleep?”

Never content to let a long period of insomnia pass unproductively, I had kept myself busy in the restless wee hours cutting out pictures of famous Jews from magazines and sticking them on the walls of my bedroom with bits of chewed gum, where they acted as talismans warding off the unspeakable evil that lay in wait. The resemblance to Anne Frank’s famous bedroom wall in the Secret Annex, touchingly adorned with colorful postcards and newspaper ads picturing film stars and babies, was not lost on me; however, I reasoned, if poor Anne had only been a bit more judicious, a little more ethnocentric in her selections, things might have turned out differently. The Gestapo wasn’t going to get me, not with that giant picture of Henry Kissinger on the wall.

I have to confess that there are aspects of this essay that really resonate for me. To some extent, the Holocaust “obsessed” me, a grandchild of refugees from Nazi Germany, during childhood, too. And it took me years (and, frankly, some therapy) to work through this obsession. I’m also convinced that writing fiction that might be labeled “post-Holocaust” fiction helped as well.

In any case, now that I’ve read Shukert’s essay, I’m looking forward to her book. Should be a good companion to this one on my bookshelf.

From My Bookshelf: The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, by Lucette Lagnado

Last month I mentioned how eager I was to read Lucette Lagnado’s Sami Rohr prize-winning family memoir,The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. This weekend, I finished reading the book. And it’s excellent.

Given what often seems an unending stream of memoir-related scandals, not to mention the primacy of what I’ll charitably call the dysfunction narrative (and of course the interrelationship between the two), reading The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is a gift. Not only does the author focus on a story that’s truly fresh (in this case, the story of a Jewish family’s history in Syria and Egypt and the massive dislocation it experienced in 1962 when emigrating from Egypt, first to France and then to the United States). Not only does she include authentic “evidence,” including photographs, documents, and file citations from the social service agencies that worked with her immigrant family in Paris and New York. But she also presents rounded portraits of multiple “characters,” especially her parents (her father, Leon, is the eponymous man in the white sharkskin suit) and grandparents (especially her two grandmothers). An exercise in navel-gazing, this is surely not. It’s not until late in the book that the author’s own life-threatening medical problems–which another writer, especially in this Age of the Misery Memoir, might have chosen to make the subject of an entire book, and which are artfully presaged in earlier chapters–take center stage. Even then, it’s the effect of her illness on those around her rather than her own suffering that seems to matter more.

What will you get from reading this book? You’ll get a sense of the culture of a Levantine Jewish community, one that I, for one, previously knew only superficially (mostly through stories about the in-laws of one of my mother’s close friends). You’ll get some history, of World War II and the Suez crisis. You’ll get stories of Jewish immigrants in France and Israel and the United States. You’ll get the texture of Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. You’ll get the almost unimaginably shocking story of what happened to one of Lagnado’s maternal uncles at the hands of Lagnado’s own grandfather. You’ll get the triumphs and the tragedies of her family, and you’ll get, in particular, a sense of the deep bond between Lagnado and that extraordinary man in the white sharkskin suit. Don’t miss it.

From My Bookshelf: The Pale of Settlement, by Margot Singer

(cross-posted on My Machberet)

Every once in awhile I read a book that, as the cliché goes, “speaks” to me. It’s a book I am grateful to have discovered and purchased, a book I will reread for years to come. It’s a book whose nearly every note–historical, emotional, stylistic–strikes some chord within me. It’s a book that, as a writer, I wish I could call mine.

Last week I read one such book: Margot Singer’s prizewinning collection of linked stories, The Pale of Settlement.

You can learn more about Singer and her extraordinary work at Nextbook, among other places.

But here’s a single paragraph, from the third of the book’s nine stories (titled “Lila’s Story”) to give you a sense of why I’m so enraptured.

So you could say that they survived, but they were not survivors, not exactly, not in the new sense of the word. They were never in the camps. They never had to hide out in a gentile’s barn or forage in the forest with the partisans. They were not displaced persons—not officially, anyway—even though they were among the refugees, the dispossessed. They were immigrants, among the lucky ones. Lila had packed their belongings in trunks and crates—a wooden angel that had hung over her boys’ crib for luck, an oil painting of the Weinerwald, her dolls, her gilt-edged dinner service for sixteen, a Gallé table lamp, their goose-down quilts, the bedroom set her parents gave them when they were married, several reels of sixteen-millimeter film containing footage of ski trips to Kitzbühel and Zürs, her jewelry, a gold watch, her silverware engraved with her initials, a box of photographs, thirty-two Moser crystal goblets—and they set sail for Haifa, as if they were going on a holiday. They were Europeans, not exactly Zionists, but there was no escaping being Jews. Now they were yekkes, German-speaking Jews, with their poor Hebrew and assimilated Prussian ways. They were always punctual, drank Kaffee mit Schlag in the merkaz cafés, kept their jackets on even in the stifling summer heat. The old Russian socialists, who had been in Palestine for generations, made fun of the yekkes, of their stiffness and bewilderment and fear. Everyone was talking about the new Jews, the pioneers, which all their children would doubtless be. The posters showed blond, blue-eyed, snub-nosed kibbutzniks grinning in the sun. The yekkes had never seen Jews like these before. These boys and girls had sun-bronzed skin and calloused hands. They worked the land. They would fight back. They would show the world.