Posts Tagged ‘Jewish non-fiction’


Wednesday, 20 April 2011
Cover of Perfecting Diamonds

Cover of Perfecting Diamonds

52. Perfecting Diamonds by Rabbi Dovid Kaplan

As a sequel to Polishing Diamonds (discussed here recently), this book is both more general (with a chapter or two discussing rather younger children than the former) and more specific (with about half the book devoted to discussing teenagers, and teenage boys in particular – the author has been a teacher and mentor of teenage boys for many years).

For me teenagers aren’t a particular issue at the moment – DD is just five months old, and I amn’t working in a school any longer, so I don’t come across teenagers except as neighbours/acquaintances/people to interact with just as with any other person. (This may well be a very good way to act with them anyhow. Teenagers, children, even babies are simply people, and not another species!) I tend to find most people are easiest to get on with when you treat them as individuals with their own likes, dislikes and needs, and attempt to allow for those.

Still, this book is useful in pointing out some of the developmental and social pressures teenagers (and children of different ages, and parents) undergo, and how these may well impact upon relationships, both theoretically and practically. As long as one doesn’t assume all young people, or all the older people they come into contact with, are going to react in the same ways, I think knowing what some of the commonly plausible generalisations are can be helpful.

Free Books!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011
Eight Hamodia books

Eight Hamodia books

We just got our prize from a Chanuka raffle, and it’s a nice one. Expect reviews of at least some of these in the next few months.

As for free books for the rest of you, I just learned of new ways to access the cornucopia of material available on Project Gutenberg, Librivox and elsewhere. (I’ve recommended both of those sites here many times before.)

E.C. recently recommended a freely downloadable Kindle application for the PC, which you may find useful for paid products or free ones.

Somehow I missed it three months ago when it apparently started, but is now offering random rateable chapters of Librivox books to listen to. Each chapter has a link to the work’s info and download page so that ifwhen you find something you like you can listen to the whole thing. This seems like a great way to find new audiobooks (the RSS feed of what’s newly published is another), which I believe is the intention, but I also enjoyed just listening to what came up, hitting “Next” if I wasn’t interested in what came up. For me, poetry and chapters of old favourites were best for this, but some new random chapters were good to, even without knowing what came before. (This works better with non-fiction than novels, in my opinion.)

Going over the Basics

Sunday, 24 October 2010

With all the discussion of rereading I’ve done, you know I can very much enjoy revisiting topics, ideas, and especially stories. At the same time, I’ve never been good at revising things I’ve learnt in a course. It does seem like a bit of a dichotomy. I think perhaps I don’t (and didn’t) mind reading a good book again, and I’m happy to see a new perspective on a known fact, so long as I do not have to pretend I don’t know it, but I really don’t like just going over stuff I already know without that involving going deeper (or broader) into it.

I really wish now that I’d realised this about myself explicitly all those years ago, because I’m sure my teachers, parents and local librarians would have been sympathetic and helpful to my finding (for example) alternate textbooks to read/look over as my ‘revision’, rather than always intending but rarely actually going over the notes I’d made in detail. (Thankfully my memory and original understanding tended to be pretty good, so I generally managed just fine in tests and exams anyhow. I’m sure I could have done better in many cases, however.) Since my DH was similar in many ways, we think it might be sensible to remember this as a strategy for when our own children have tests and exams to revise for! (As well as when we do again ourselves, of course, but that doesn’t come up as often any more.)

The two books I’m planning on discussing here and now fit this personal dichotomy well, as the first is a very readable book that I’m certainly coming back to for the second or third time, because as my experience of the topics discussed changes and grows, so does my perspective on them, and different parts of the book become more and less relevant, so that I can certainly get more out of it. The second, as a textbook that in absolute terms I’m beyond the level of, is one that I certainly wouldn’t reread, but since I’m intending doing a proper course in the topic in a few months, and I want to get the best possible value out of that (starting at as high a level as I can, and progressing as far as I can within the given timeframe), then absolutely solidifying my knowledge and understanding of the basics thereof is worth my while. (Particularly as we happened to have the book just sitting on the shelf… 😉 )

39. The Committed Marriage by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

The Committed Marriage by Esther Jungreis coverI reread this, in its entirety, on Yom Kippur (so about five weeks ago), when I was stuck at home (rather than being in the synagogue, where the services of the day include enough ‘extras’ that someone alone leaves out, that they take all day) and wanted something of meaning and some relevance that at the same time didn’t require too much concentration when I was fasting and trying to save my mental agility for the davening.

This is a fairly lightly written but still meaningful book, about the importance of the marriage relationship, coming from an orthodox Jewish perspective. It’s published by HarperCollins rather than a Jewish publisher, and does not assume a particular background of its readers, although all the example stories are of Jewish couples and families Rebbetzin Jungreis has been involved with or counselled, across the range of Jewish practice/religiosity, with many being secular. (I bought this book, and her previous one, The Committed Life, at a talk she gave that I attended a few years ago.)

This isn’t (in my opinion, not having read very many of them) a classic self-help book with specific solutions to specific problems, but more a philosophy of relationship building, aiming to promote, begin and strengthen strong marriages at the core of loving healthy families. (As I said, it’s written from an orthodox Jewish perspective.)

It’s probably the kind of book I have to be in the right frame of mind for, although it isn’t wishy-washy, but when I am it can be useful, if only in increasing my gratitude that the problems described just don’t apply to us, and hopefully never will! This is probably why Yom Kippur was a good time for me to reread it, to remind me to thank Hashem for the gift of a good marriage and to pray for it to always continue so, particularly as our family grows and changes.

40. Modern Hebrew by Harry Blumberg and Mordechai H. Lewittes

Modern Hebrew by Blumberg & LewittesThis is subtitled “A First-Year Course in Conversation, Reading and Grammar”, and is introductory (apart from assuming as ability to read the Hebrew script, although there is a brief reference guide to that at the back of the book). While there were several vocabulary items that were new to me, the grammatical instructions were revision, and even though this was a new text to me I didn’t bother writing out any of the exercises, just doing them all orally to myself. Since this book is intended as a classroom text, I had no means of feedback, but for review I didn’t need that to feel I was getting some benefit from reading through the book and getting some semi-formal Hebrew practice.

As a textbook it’s certainly of its time (first published 1946, with this 3rd edition apparently from 1963, and the copyright regularly renewed up to 1982) in its choice of texts and topics, as well (to a certain extent) in its stereotyping, so that I certainly wouldn’t expect to use it in a classroom today. However as a revision text for me to read it worked very well indeed.

Taking the principle of going over the absolute basics, but this time in a context where I can get feedback, and even push myself a bit, for the last week I’ve been doing the basic (free) Hebrew courses on What’s available as lessons is very basic indeed, but I have picked up on some vocabulary (I’d never done the colours systematically before, for example), and even better, the writing prompts can be elaborated on much beyond what has been taught, with many/most of the Hebrew speaking site users happy to give good feedback based on what you’re actually producing, rather than the lesson level.

I actually realised the potential for this when correcting an English exercise for someone who’d made a story out of the (fairly boring) prompt. (The way the site works is that you tell it which languages you’re native and fluent in – for me English and French respectively – and which languages you want to learn, and then each person corrects what they are fluent in and is corrected by native/fluent users of what they’re learning. It seems to me so far a very good system.

So I now try to make stories from my written exercises too, as it pushes me to use vocabulary and grammar beyond that of the given lesson (obviously using that too) and gets me feedback that is actually useful to me. Personally I actually find it more interesting to help those trying to go beyond the course limits, and my impression is that I’m not the only one to feel this way. (I do still give appropriate feedback to those not going beyond, of course, but there’s often less of interest to say.)

While the speaking exercises I’ve done have all involved reading a given (short) text aloud, (the paid courses have more interactive speaking exercises) I’ve also had good feedback on my intonation, as well as the pronunciation of words I’d only seen in writing (without vowels) and had misinterpreted.

It seems like a very good site for both beginners (so long as you can read the script/alphabet for the given language – so I’m leaving aside Ukrainian, which would require better Cyrillic skills than I currently have, for now) and improvers. I’m not sure how advanced the paid courses get (the free ones are all pretty basic) and those are available in all languages at the moment, but the site certainly seems to me to have a lot to offer for those who do want to work on their language learning.

In the Nine Days

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

I haven’t been thinking enough about the significance of the Nine Days, but so far I seem to have been unconsciously avoiding the questionable stuff anyway. We’re vegetarians anyhow, and we finally seemed to catch up on the laundry on Sunday, and to be honest I haven’t actually been crafting this week either (not that I’ve asked our Rav about the last, and from what I’ve seen online and heard in person there is a lot of variation in what people are told is good/bad to do in this regard). Still, though, avoiding such things should be for a reason, rather than just by default, so perhaps this afternoon I’ll pull out (at very least) The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov and reread the appropriate sections.

One of the places I took my mother to see was the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which covers the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount and the southern end of the Western Wall (officially I believe it’s larger, but that’s what’s on this site), and that’s definitely an appropriate place to visit/see before and during this period. I have more pictures (see bottom of this post) from when I went in February with a friend however, although none of them are specifically of the Second Temple era remains. It’s a fascinating place to visit even if you aren’t especially interested in the religious aspects. The Byzantine, Ottoman, Crusader and other buildings being all practically on top of each other really gives a sense of the history. The information centre has some good displays too, as well as a couple of rather cheesy videos that nevertheless give a sense of what went on in and around the Temple, and the archaeology undertaken on the site. (The latter is still going on, by the way, and in February my friend and I got a few minutes chatting with one of the women working on it.)

Here’s the thing: being Orthodox Jewish in Jerusalem (especially living in a religious area in Jerusalem) is very easy in very many ways, but sometimes that makes it too easy to forget what we’re missing, all the aspects of Judaism that we just can’t do, that in so many ways we’re still in exile. This is far more philosophical than I generally get on the blog (or often enough IRL either), but if not now, when?
looking at western end of Southern Wall of Temple Mount from the outer city wall

Reconstruction of Roman catapult

Southern Wall, looking towards Hulda Gates

steps and buildings in front of the Southern Wall

Water cistern


Tuesday, 3 November 2009

I very specifically didn’t make a fuss over doing (or trying to do) NaBloPoMo yesterday or the day before, and I wasn’t going to today, either, but it is inspiring me, and I want to keep that. Basically, I do want to get all the few books I have read this year referred to, and if it encourages me to read and crochet more as well, then that’s all to the good. Actually, I wanted to do a second post yesterday, but thought I’d leave it for today.

35. Reb Shlomo: The Life and Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld by Rabbi Yisroel Besser

This book, of course, was a real inspiration. I was recommended to it by a good friend and mentor who had had regular opportunities to be inspired by R’ Freifeld in person, and we both had the pleasure of finding the book as well written and interesting as one would hope any biography might be (but too few, unfortunately, are). As another reviewer has written, beyond his all round greatness in the Jewish context, it was his care and understanding for and of the people of his time and place that made him stand out. Someone we could all try to emulate, in our own spheres.

36. The Lost Daughter by Esther Heller

A Jewish novel with a vaguely plausible storyline, reasonable-ish reactions. Sorry – I don’t think I disliked it, but not one I’d be racing to reread. Good for once through, if you like the Jewish light mysteries.

And now I should go read more of the Jewish books I’m currently in. Haven’t done any of that yet today.


Friday, 28 November 2008

Well, I’ve made it, and any more books I add to the list are now bonuses. Maybe we can aim for 365 (not a leap year) in 2009. Or perhaps I should just do a bit more work on the masters instead…

I haven’t even told you that Reginald and Holzmichel (the latest Travelling Teddies) have been here a week already, because I can’t show them to you. I’d be less frustrated by this if there were actually something wrong with the camera, and it wasn’t that I’ve still not found the charging cable…

Anyway, this is about the books:

296. Into the Fire by Miriam Walfish

In World War I East End London, a group of Orthodox Jewish boys about to be conscripted decide to join up together as a group of Pals, who could thus stay together and support each other religiously through their training and service. We are reminded that these are just boys by the other plot about an orphaned child in Salonika, who despite the war wants to make his way to England where his only surviving relatives live.

297. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

I was actually disappointed by this classic. One of my main childhood memories of the long car journies to and from my grandparents during the December school holidays is always stopping in the same village, and going to the same craft shop, where they always had a video of Disney’s film of Pinocchio playing, over and over again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it from start to finish, but I must have seen all of the scenes many times. So, I thought it would be good to read the original now. (To be fair, the original is in Italian, and this edition doesn’t even say who their translator was, so it’s possible the adaptation is responsible for some of the faults I’m about to describe. If I’d enjoyed it more, I might try reading one of the English translations on Project Gutenberg, but I amn’t inspired enough to do that now.)

I think the main thing that annoyed me is the lack of continuity. The first example of this I noted (and one of the slightest) is that near the beginning we’re told Pinocchio doesn’t have ears; a few pages later his smile is so wide it reaches his ears, and then a few chapters later he’s being pulled along by his ears. The timeframes mentioned don’t match up either. I suppose a lot of this has to do with Collodi having (according to the Wikipedia link about him above) originally published this as a newspaper serial, and honestly, it reads like an oral saga, where the individual tales all concern the same characters, and interrelate, but were never really meant to all be told together, or be held to each other’s details.

But this may be a rare case of the film being better than the original book, and I don’t plan on seeing the film to check does it live up to my memories!

298. The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

This book, about the quiet indoor son of two very outdoorsy parents, who is sent to stay on his aunt and uncle’s farm while his parents go on a cycling holiday, and hates it until he comes across a rare black fox, made me think of another childhood memory, but this time a book I read over and over. A Family of Foxes, by Eilís Dillon, first taught me that foxes come in colours other than red and tells of some far more hardy island boys from a place where the phrase “cute as a fox” is only negative (meaning “cunning”, not “sweet”!). In both books the boys attempt to protect the unusual foxes from adult detection and thus slaughter, and have to overcome moral quandaries to do so. I think I still prefer my childhood read, but this one is good too.

299. A World of a Difference by Elisheva Mintzburg

This is a really well-written autobiography (although I believe the names have been changed for privacy), and a very interesting tale. The author describes her life, and how she came to convert to Judaism, with the steps along the way. She explains the steps and qualms along the way, and how this was right for her, with the help and the hindrances she received.

300. King of the Cloud Forests by Michael Morpurgo

And number 300. I had always thought of Morpurgo as a writer of realist fiction, but here he verges onto the fantastic, and perhaps because it isn’t what I had expected from him, I wasn’t as convinced as I might have been. The beginning made me expect one set of issues, but then that really wasn’t what the book ended up being about at all. So not my favourite of his canon, but it won’t put me off reading others.

Booking Time

Friday, 17 October 2008

I don’t feel like I’m getting much actually done that I’m aiming for these days. I’m pottering along, doing bits and pieces, but nothing seems to get to measurable levels. Perhaps I’m being affected with the malaise I’ve been trying to help others through, of barely meeting already extended assignment due dates. I haven’t done so much for them, and now I’m waiting in fear for my own, rather than ensuring I won’t be late.

So perhaps it will help to remind myself that I have actually read some good books (even if they aren’t the ones my course requires!) from cover to cover. (We’ll forget that I’m two or three weeks behind my aim of one per day this year.)

The first three are all audiobooks (from Librivox) that I listened to while preparing for the Yomim Tovim, while the second three are Jewish books I read during those festivals.

265. High Adventure: A Narrative of Air Fighting in France by James Norman Hall

I would say this book lives up to the enthusiasm expressed by its Librivox reader. Hall was an American volunteer airman in the French forces in World War 1 (he went before the USA became involved) and is a most interesting raconteur of his experiences, from arriving in France without knowing any of the language, to his dodgem style pilot training, to the fears and exhilarations of flying and fighting. I was a little disturbed in the first chapter or two at the reader’s inaccurate pronunciations of the French words and place names that constantly crop up, but quickly realised that this is probably reasonably accurate to how the author would have pronounced them, as he never seems to have become fluent in French, even after a few years in the country. Knitters and crafters who make items for soldiers might like to listen to the first few minutes of chapter 12…

266. Stickeen by John Muir

This is quite a short tale (only three chapters) of the adventures of a dog (Stickeen) and a group of men exploring the far North, one of whom (the narrator) decides to go for a solitary walk on the glaciers one stormy day (no, he doesn’t give a good reason for doing so). Stickeen accompanies him, and they spend a frightening day bonding while leaping cracks in the glacier, trying to get back to the camp they shouldn’t have left! While I don’t think much of the sense of the narrator, he does tell an exciting tale well.

267. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

I read this for the first time as an adult, unlike Little Women and its sequels, or Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. While in some ways it is slightly more formulaic than either of those – the visiting Old-Fashioned Girl (Polly) makes a modern leaning family too interested in fashion and making money reassess and appreciate each other in the first half – in many ways she becomes more modern than they in the second half, with her interest in women’s rights and insistence on financial independence.

From all of these books I feel like Alcott’s ideal woman and girl synthesises the traditional feminine and home-building skills of cooking, crafting and caring with a strong mind and the full use of all of her individual talents both for her own expression and to support herself independently should she so desire and require.

268. Educating Our Daughters, Why? by B. C. Glaberson

The short introduction to this series of interviews with women educating girls in Yiddish in Israel states:

You may not agree with everything they say. In fact, you may disagree strongly with some of their opinions.

While I don’t disagree with their right to educate their daughters in this way (and it’s not Alcott’s way, as above, although it shares that synthesis of practical and academic), and share some of the values (I don’t speak Yiddish, for one) it’s not entirely the system I would be involved in. Definitely thought-provoking, well argued and well written, it does present a spectrum of opinion, showing one of the things I most appreciate in the Jewish education I have seen, that there isn’t just one way that will suit everyone, and that each child should be educated in the way that suits her or him.

269. A Touch of Warmth by Rabbi Yechiel Spero

Rabbi Spero is an inspiring raconteur, who can bring out a moral without drowning you in it.

270. The Winds of Change by Lena Spitzer

East End London of the 1930s, as at any other time, was a place of flux. It’s always been an area for immigrants, and in the 30s a great many of them were Jews escaping the poverty and persecution that was ever increasing in mainland Europe. In coming to a new country, often with nothing except the clothes on their backs, they had to meet the challenges of a new country and a changing world that included fascism not only in power in Germany and elsewhere, but in vocal minority in England, notably Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts. It’s an involving, well-written and researched book, and I heartily recommend it.

RH books

Thursday, 2 October 2008

I didn’t read as much over Rosh Hashana as I thought I might, but I did the other things I expected to: praying (and hearing the shofar) at the synagogue, enjoying sociable and very tasty meals, and a bit of self-reflection; so that’s okay.

262. Blue Star over Red Square by Carmela Raiz

I think I’d heard of Refuseniks when I was younger, but the whole era of the USSR ended when I was hardly even a teenager, so I appreciated getting a better insight into the phenomenon in general (of Soviet Jews applying for and being repeatedly refused permission to emigrate, especially to Israel, and also being harassed as traitorous for their wish both to leave and to live Jewishly in the meantime) and into one family who went through it in particular. Raiz published this book in 1994 (the Russian language edition came out in 1992), very shortly after the family’s eventual aliya in 1990, which took place almost two decades after Raiz and her husband had first applied. It’s an informative and inspiring book, which seems to be out of print but available second hand.

263. The Jewish Kingdom of Kuzar by Rabbi Zelig Shachnowitz

This is an even older tale, but it’s a new translation, so should be available new for awhile. Rabbi Shachnowitz wrote for Jewish youngsters in Germany, with this book being first published in the 1920s. It is a retelling of what facts are/were known about the Jewish history of Kuzar, and fairly gripping as a novel. Well worth reading.

264. The Jacobite Wars: Scotland and the Military Campaigns of 1715-1745 by John L. Roberts

I’d read enough novels on the topic of the ’45 to want a more specifically historical overview, and this book well fulfilled the purpose. The context of the ’15 (which I hadn’t read so much about previously) was useful, although it takes up far less than half of the book. Interestingly, Roberts never seems to say that things had to go one way or the other. He points out where (with hindsight, of course) certain campaigns and battles could have gone differently for both sides (as so often in such things, more unity and less bickering and taking of offence by generals, officers and princes would have helped!) and gives sometimes day by day recountings of who did what, and knew what, when and where. My main difficulty with the book was sometimes remembering which side a particular name was on, as they might have been introduced chapters before. A couple of charts of the main players on both sides would have been good to refer back to, as would a few maps, although I actually missed those less.

Family Values

Sunday, 3 August 2008

No crocheting this week, as it’s the Nine Days, so the books have it, I’m afraid! As I suspected, all I now want to do is crochet, but I can’t, so there it is.

224. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

There are two quite distinct stories here, but they do tie together. The first part shifts around in time, gradually charting the unchanging life of Uma and her parents in their small town in India, with its few highs and lows, while the second (shorter) part tells of one specific summer in the life of Arun, her younger brother, as he stays with an American family between his first and second years at university.

Every time it has seemed Uma might get away, live her own life, whether as wife, worker, or anything else, she ends up being brought home, to the pleasure of no-one, and is now stuck looking after her parents for the coming decades. Arun is expected to have that life, but just wants to get away from everyone. Even though his father, like his host, is horrified at his vegetarianism, his own family does not have the disfunctional relationship with food (and each other) that they do, but even though he has a real experience with the Pattons, while Uma drifts through another summer of frustration and disappointment, I amn’t convinced either sibling is all that changed.

225. Planting & Building: Raising a Jewish Child by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe

So, no, I don’t have children, and I don’t have any reason to expect them soon (ie a spouse), and this isn’t even the first time I’ve read this book. The fact is, my Rabbi told me to read it (and reread it), as a framework for planning how I want to bring up my children one day, as it’s an important factor in choosing a husband. I think he’s right. Rabbi Keleman has translated the book beautifully clearly, as one would expect.

226. Coming Home: 20 Glimpses from the Road of Return in Modern America compiled by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz

The Bostoner Rebbe has been supporting students at the universities in Boston for decades, as well as people of all ages who have come his way, and here he has compiled the stories of twenty of them who became Orthodox Jews. I enjoyed reading these thoughtful appraisals and retellings of the varied journeys of some very interesting people.

Niccolo Rising chapter 6 shows us the Charetty family reunion, as the Widow returns, sweeping her daughters Tilde and Catherine along with her, and her unruly males back to work.

Lacking Pity

Monday, 28 July 2008

222. Miracle Ride by Tzipi Caton

I’ve read this cover to cover in a few short hours this evening, and feel like I’ve learnt something from it, although I hope I already knew not to be quite so pushy and/or judgemental as some of the people ‘Caton’ (the book is written under a pseudonym, with some names/details changed for privacy) is confronted by. (It’s a good thing I already hated both the word and the concept of ‘nebach‘. Completely unhelpful, in my opinion.)

This book is a rewritten version, including some later perspective, of her journal of the year from when she first noticed her lymph nodes were enlarged, aged just sixteen, through diagnosis (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), treatment, and trying to get back to normal life afterwards, but then discovering that she just isn’t quite the same person she was beforehand, and can’t do things in the same way, following the same track as her classmates. While their troubles and stresses for the most part still are the latest test by an unsympathetic teacher, she cannot fully relate while dealing with debilitating treatments, friends (of friends) dying, and the side-effects of powerful drugs. It’s a powerful tale, that has some strong lessons for the people around those going through life-testing situations, the Orthodox Jewish community in particular, and for those dealing with teenage girls in general. Baruch Hashem I amn’t qualified to judge its value for those actually going through such situations, but I don’t doubt it would have a high one.

Otherwise, it’s still hot (this weather was supposed to break days ago) and I’m still hardly crocheting. The Braille is progressing, however, and as I type and read words I keep semi-consciously working out which contractions they would include!

Niccolo Rising chapter three: Poor (unmarried) Katelina is going to regret repeating something she should never have been told…