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Summertime Reading Recommendations 

06/23/2021 04:18:08 PM

Jun23

Rabbi Wendy Pein

Ahh, the beginnings of summer.  Long, warm days. Outdoor dining. Early evening walks in the neighborhood.  Spontaneous trips to the favorite local ice cream shop.

If, after you have registered your child(ren) for CJL (wink, wink), you find that you have some extra time this summer, here are some of my recommendations for summer reading: 

  1. Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure  by Menachem Kaiser 

 The link between ancestry and identity is often explored through media today - from television shows about the genetic ancestry of celebrities to websites which can help one create a family tree to books such as Inheritance, a memoir about how a genetic test revealed an unknown aspect of the author’s identity.1 Similarly, Plunder by Menachem Kaiser is a story about ancestry; but instead of ancestry being traced through genetics, Kaiser’s ancestry and identity are traced through his attempt to reclaim his family’s property in Poland.

The title might lead one to expect that Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure would fall into the established genre of a family Holocaust memoir. However, Kaiser’s journey leads him to encounter unexpected subjects such as Nazi treasure hunters, the cumbersome Polish court system, WWII hobbyists, and conspiracy theorists - keeping the reader surprised and intrigued as Kaiser artfully narrates the multi-layer story. 

Plunder is in fact partially a memoir, and Kaiser’s family history brings a personal, meaningful dimension to the story.  Kaiser’s father questions Kaiser’s newfound interest in his grandfather’s history, his grandfather’s former attempts to reclaim the physical property and poignantly remarks to Kaiser, “Because this is not what he (Kaiser’s grandfather) would have cared about ... this is not what I wanted you to inherit” (p. 132). At one point in the book, a Nazi treasure hunter questions Kaiser’s motivations at the camp exploration, and when Kaiser answers that he is there because of his grandfather’s cousin, the Nazi explorer asks simply yet deeply, “You don’t have family that is closer?” (p. 160), causing Kaiser to reflect and compare his link to his family’s past to his relationship with his family and heritage in the present.  Kaiser eventually concludes that his attempt to assert his family’s rights to their property in Poland is about more than just a building, that the process is a vehicle to link himself to his ancestry and identity. At the end of the book, Kaiser muses over the different themes and possible genres of the book and philosophically concludes, “Our stories are not extensions of our grandparents’ stories, are not sequels. We do not continue their stories; we act upon them.” (p. 253). Kaiser’s journey represents each generation’s challenge to meaningfully attach themselves to their spiritual inheritance.

It is often said that great learning begins with asking questions. If so, Plunder opens the door to great learning by its readers, for the reader will conclude the book with many questions and a desire to learn more about Holocaust history and how it is being understood by the present generation in Poland. Through the gifted writing which recounts his personal journey, Kaiser may inspire others to assert their own spiritual claim to Judaism and/or their own spiritual legacy, which in modern times would be an admirable feat.  Plunder is a densely packed personal narrative which explores the weighty themes such as the meaning of place, history, memory, truth, and family, all of which will reverberate in the reader’s mind long after the narrative itself concludes.

  1. Never Alone by Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy

The COVID-19 pandemic and its resultant lockdowns have caused increased feelings of disconnection and isolation among members of our communities and perhaps even among ourselves. For Na[1]tan Sharansky, former refusenik, dissident, Israeli politician, and contemporary Jewish thinker, such feelings are not a fait accompli. Sharansky has never felt truly alone—not while serving nine years in a Soviet prison separated from his wife and family, not while being torn between allegiances as an Israeli politician, nor while fighting against the rise of global anti-Semitism. Sharansky found strength and meaning from his connection to the Jewish community, which helped him overcome many of his life’s trials. Therefore, the life lessons contained in Never Alone can offer guidance as to how we may prevail over our current trials as well.

Never Alone, by the authors Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy, is an autobiography of Sharansky’s life and provides a portrait of Sharansky as a Jewish leader in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. The book is divided into thirds, each depicting a nine-year stage in Sharansky’s life: nine years in prison, nine years in Israeli politics, and nine years in the Jewish Agency. From the outset, Sharansky shares that his life’s journey has been driven by his participation in “the ongoing dialogue between Israel and the Jewish people” (p. 3). The book unfolds as a record of this dialogue, and the reader has the privilege of experiencing and/or re[1]encountering momentous events in contemporary Jewish history such as the Soviet Jewry movement; the airlifts of Operation Moses and Solomon; contentious debates in Israeli politics, particularly over religious pluralism in Israel; the de-legitimization movement of Israel on the American college campus; and the growing divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

The authors Glenn Richer and Rabbi Avi Weiss recently wrote, “Painfully, young Jews today do not know the story of Soviet Jewry.”2 A possible antidote is for young adults to read the book’s section entitled “Nine Years in Prison” as it summarizes the arc of the Soviet Jewry movement. Growing up in the Soviet Union, Sharansky’s initial association with Judaism was that the word “Jew” was listed as his nationality on the “fifth line” of his identity card, which evoked either silence or negativity from others (p. 18). He describes that “being outed as Jewish was like being outed with some debilitated disease” (p. 18). Israel’s Six-Day War awakened pride and identity among American Jews, and it had a similar awakening effect on Soviet Jews, causing Sharansky to realize that “simply being Jewish” connected him to Israel far more than he realized (pp. 34–35). Eventually, Sharansky, racked with anxiety, makes a request for a letter of employment from his boss (required for immigration) and his employer emotionally responds, and this act sets forth his journey as a refusenik, one who requests and then is refused immigration to Israel by the Soviet authorities. Sharansky is arrested by the KGB in 1977 and spends nine years in Soviet prison, one of which is in an internment camp. However, only two brief chapters are devoted to Sharansky’s time in prison, portraying that prison was just a small part of Sharansky’s full and engaged life. Once released from prison, Sharansky settles in Israel but he barely pauses to enjoy his freedom as he and his wife Avital “didn’t forget for a moment that the struggle had to continue for those left behind” (p. 127). Sharansky envisioned a protest march on the lawn in Washington, DC, to represent the four hundred thousand Jews waiting to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Despite the challenges of getting the Jewish establishment to support the march, Sharansky and community organizers were not deterred. Elie Wiesel, z”l, and Avital Sharansky, Sharansky’s wife, give Sharansky the valuable advice of first mobilizing “students and housewives,” a generalization of those who represented the grassroots movement of Soviet Jewry, a movement that also included youth, teachers, philanthropists, lay leaders, and government officials. Against all the naysayers, on December 6, 1987, 250,000 Jews marched for the cause of Soviet Jewry on the lawn of Washington, DC. It was still one more year before “the last prisoners of Zion and the refuseniks were released (p. 134). When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, one million Jews immigrated to Israel, and Israel would absorb these immigrants, comprising one-fifth of their state’s population. The book’s vivid description of this time causes one to marvel at the Jewish community’s mobilization around the cause of Soviet Jewry, Sharansky’s pivotal role in it, and the admirable sacrifices Sharansky made for the Jewish people.

 

Although Never Alone is a memoir of Sharansky’s role as a leader in contemporary Jewish history, its content and lessons are very timely. On the thirty-third anniversary of the Washington March for Soviet Jewry, my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with posts from friends, recalling their participation in the march and how it inspired them to become future activists. Never Alone details the complex history of the Falasha Mura and their desire to immigrate to Israel. Recently, in December 2020, over three hundred of the Falasha Mura emigrated from the Sudan to Israel. Sharansky’s survival strategies in the Gulag can apply to the COVID-19 pandemic to help us also find meaning and purpose during a period of great isolation. At its best, Never Alone brings to light what the Jewish community can accomplish when we are unified and mobilized for the sake of tikkun olam. A book with such lessons could not be more relevant and instructive for the complex times in which we live. 

  1. Bibi : The Turbulent Times of Benjamin Netanyahu by Anshel Pfeffer

If you crave a more nuanced understanding of Israel’s much-maligned former Prime Minister, then I highly recommend this book.  It provides historical background of Netanyahu’s life, his Zionist upbringing, and how he formed coalitions which solidified power which was unstoppable until just recently.  This overview of Netanyahu’s life and career in politics also elicits a nice review of Zionist thinkers and leaders since Israel’s creation in 1948.  Though it may not be beach reading, this book is insightful, balanced, and the reader will emerge with increased knowledge of Israel’s formative thinkers and leaders including the leader Israelis love to hate but used to continue to vote for, Bibi.

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Though it was published in 2005 and was read by many, I only read it recently.  We may all be familiar with the famous first sentence of Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina : "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  I think the Walls’ family as chronicled in The Glass Castle may be the  most unique blend of happy and unhappy family members of which I have ever read.  Once I began reading it, I could not put it down.  The book is a testament to the strength of family bonds, loyalty, and resilience. If your child(ren) ever complains about their circumstances, I recommend having them read this book and discussing it with you afterwards.  This book has the potential to stimulate a lot of discussion about the meaning of happiness, parental responsibility, and tactics on coping with adversity.  A highly recommend read!

Do you have any summer reading recommendations?  If so, please send them to me (educator@tinw.org) so that I can pass them along to our CJL community.

Wishing you a summer filled with enjoyable reading,

Rabbi Wendy Pein

1Shapiro, Dani. (2020). Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love. Anchor.

2Glenn Richter and Avi Weiss, “The Event That Sparked the Movement to Free Soviet Jewry,” Tablet, December 15, 2020, https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/community/articles/ leningrad-trial-sparked-soviet-jewry-movement

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782