Holy Lands, by Amanda Sthers*****



“Does keeping the memory fresh prevent history from repeating itself? Surely not. Memories are meant to be forgotten. History is meant to be repeated. That of Jews, of women, of Arabs, of people who suffer, of Little Red Riding Hood. And the grandmother always, always has sharp teeth.”

Seldom do I make a decision to read a galley based almost entirely on the book’s cover, but really. A dancing pig in the Holy Land? How can that story not be interesting? Big thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury. This book will be available to the public January 22, 2019.

The whole book is a series of letters and emails sent between five characters. We have four family members: Harry and Monique are divorced, yet it’s one of those complicated divorces where there’s no clean break; David and Annabelle are their adult children.

Harry is an American expatriate who has moved to Israel, but instead of embracing his culture and homeland in a more conventional way, he has opted to become a pig farmer in Nazareth, one of the few places in this Jewish nation where the animals are not straight up illegal. And so the fifth character is the rabbi, who entreats Harry to give up the pork business. He’s upsetting people, and he should respect his roots a little more. Jews have been through enough, nu? And before we know it, there’s mention of the Holocaust.

Harry wants to keep his pigs, and he thinks it is time for Jews to lighten up about the Holocaust, maybe tell a joke about it now and then. The rabbi is floored. Joke? About the Holocaust? And so it’s on.

You would think that with such edgy subject matter the story would veer over the boundary of good taste, but Sthers—who has many bestsellers to her credit, though this is her American debut—is deft, insightful and very, very funny. The prose is angry, hilarious, and aching all in turns, not unlike our feelings for our kin.

Families are such fertile territory, and this one is among the best fictional families in literature. David, Harry and Monique’s son, is a gay playwright whose father has not come to grips with David’s sexuality. David writes him endless letters; Harry won’t respond. We see how Harry thinks and feels about David through his correspondence with the rabbi, and with the things Annabelle learns when she comes for a visit. Meanwhile, David’s new play is about to open, and it’s titled “Kosher Pig.” It’s about his father. Oh, how he wants Harry to be there for the opening! But Harry remains incommunicado.

This is a slender little book, just 176 pages, and so I expected a casual romp, but it’s more than that. It’s a quick read, not because it’s lightweight literature but because it’s impossible to put down. I recommend you should get it and read it, and then…maybe you should call your parents. Better yet, go visit them.

Teacha! Stories from a Yeshiva, by Gerry Albarelli ****

teacha!I came away from reading this novella-sized (just over 100 pp) nugget somewhat ambivalent. There were aspects of it that I enjoyed, but please note that I read it free, courtesy of Net Galley. If I had paid full hardcover price, I might well have felt cheated. A buck or two for my e-reader? Maybe.

Albarelli spent a year teaching afternoon classes in a yeshiva. I had seen the word used in text without a lot of explanation in other works, and had heard friends and colleagues refer casually to having sent their children to a “small, private Jewish school” when living in New York City. So I came into this—and volunteered the time to read and review it—because I had questions, as well as the slightly voyeuristic curiosity I always seem to experience when examining a culture that is very different from my own.

Several other reviewers on Goodreads.com expressed frustration. They expected Albarelli to come to some sort of conclusion. I felt the same way at first, but after some thought I realized that he had a conclusion. The problem with it is that it’s buried in the middle of what are separate, journal-like chapters, each of which depicts a particularly interesting (to the author, and often to me also) incident or important day at the yeshiva.

Did I get my questions answered? I think so. I did not understand that there are Jewish families living in present-day New York City who speak no English at all, only Yiddish. Chassidic Jews, ultra-conservative, keep themselves apart even by choosing not to learn the language of the dominant culture, but they see value in having their choldren learn it.

Our writer is one-year part time instructor among several who did not blend in culturally due to dress, their lack of facial hair, and the many singular details that demonstrate belonging to a carefully structured in-group. He and the other English language teachers weren’t Jewish, and the kids could tell.

In describing how this yeshiva ran, Albarelli painted a picture that I, as a retired public school teacher, found horrifying. (The rabbi who hired this guy said that public school teachers did not do well in his yeshiva; I can certainly see why.) A large room of 8 year old boys spent the entire morning unsupervised by even a single adult in the room with them. They had a pattern of behaviors that resembled The Lord of the Flies (my comparison, not the author’s), except less organized and more random. Furniture was broken and left in corners; garbage was not always cleaned up, but left on the floor. The students—all boys—disrespected teachers openly when they arrived or during assembly and class time,, spitting on them, throwing things at them, and worse. They did this in full view of other teachers and the head rabbi, none of whom corrected them in any way. If anything, the teacher must be to blame.

Some of the other reviewers took issue with Albarelli’s smug implication, unmistakable, that he was the most favored English teacher, abused least because he was so much better than any other English instructors, and that the other teachers all more or less had it coming. What a joy he must have been to have for a colleague! Don’t let the door hit you on your way out at the end of the school year.

But there were passages suffused with the joy of the teachable moment, when he was able to get some of his students to engage. At times, we are led to believe that every child in his over-sized class was longing to participate during the whole lesson. Given the other things he says, it strains credibility, and yet there can be no doubt that he enjoyed these sessions; they are his main motivation for writing this, at least to my eye.

The conclusion that is buried in the text is that this chaotic, at times bizarre system of education works for this set of children because it is consistent with the way things are done at home. He doesn’t back this theory up with anything factual like home visits; we are to take his word for it.

Because it gave me a glimpse inside a culture that I’d been curious about, I am rounding my 3.5 review up to a 4.0, albeit reluctantly. I would encourage the writer to be more clear about his objectives and organization.

To readers, I advise that if you’re interested, you might check your local library if you believe you’d like to read more, but don’t go out and pay a lot of money for this muddy though occasionally informative and entertaining bit of reminiscence.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon *****

They say all stories have been told in one way or another, but to reduce Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to a “whodunit” is a travesty.

When I saw that a fellow reviewer had laughed at the notion of Chabon smiling and patting himself on the back as he wrote, I thought she was being ungracious. This was until after I had completed the book, which another reviewer accurately described as “hyper literate”. Now I can see him doing just that.

Oh yes, this is good writing at its finest, with a plot that pulls together with breathtaking attention to detail (LOTS of detail), incredibly lush descriptions, and droll humor, all of which no doubt account for the myriad honors and awards heaped upon the writer. He earned them all, but in reading, one feels the envy that a wallflower feels in the presence of the homecoming queen, or the 98 pound weakling feels when a muscular Adonis struts his stuff at the beach.

If you want a nutshell version of a review, it’s “Who killed the Yid?” But if you want a nutshell of anything, this book will be too much for you. It is not a tome to be skimmed or looked over while you hold a conversation or watch television. It demands full and complete attention. At first, I didn’t understand this, and had to restart twice when I took the book into my hands right before falling asleep and didn’t remember any of what I had read the next morning. It is better to begin it with full, wide awake attention!

Others have done a fine job of covering the setting, both place and time. There are a lot of characters to shuffle; Chabon does so deftly, but it is the job of the reader to keep up with him. Landsman is the detective and protagonist, but there are so many more, and some people are not what they seem to be. The story is rife with surprises, and I won’t spoil it for you by giving them away.

One thing worth noting as you go into it, especially if, like me, you are reading on an e-reader: the end, though this is not a short book, may feel abrupt because there is a glossary of Yiddish terms at the end, along with a teaser for the next book. Therefore, although all signs pointed to the story’s being nearly wrapped up, I thought Chabon was about to toss one more spanner into the works to fill up about 75 more e-pages. I was startled when the book ended , saying, “Wait. That’s it?” This is unlikely to be a problem if you have the physical book in hand, though.

Over and over again I found myself highlighting passages that were, I thought, the most magnificent figurative language I had ever seen. Eventually I was foolishly highlighting whole pages, and you don’t want them all here. Just know that Chabon has created a strange and miraculous world that features an underworld rebbe (rabbi) and a host of goons as the obstacle, but ultimately the Moriarty to the Yiddish Holmes is a surprise, to say the least.

I conclude with just one bit of philosophical musing dropped in toward the end, which I find irresistible. It does not provide a spoiler, though, because the answer to the puzzle is not revealed here. It’s just a little sample of the marvelous word-smithery wrought by our champion of writers, as Landsman reflects that in the future, “any kind of wonder seems likely. That the Jews will pick up and set sail for the promised land to feast on giant grapes and toss their beards in the desert wind. That the Temple will be rebuilt, speedily and in our day, War will cease, ease and plenty and righteousness will be universal…and every suit will come with two pair of pants.”