Alpha and Omega, by Harry Turtledove****

I greatly enjoyed We Install and Other Stories when it came out a few years ago, and so when Turtledove’s name came up again, I pounced on the chance to read and review Alpha and Omega. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

The Dome of the Rock, an ancient Islamic shrine, is about to be relocated so that the Jewish Third Temple may rise in its place. As the story commences, a rare, completely red heifer has been identified and will be used as a sacrifice for the occasion. Chaim, a youngster who has raised Rosie and regards her as a pet, is not entirely on board, but he is just one kid, and he has no authority at all.

Until he does.

Turtledove is a master writer of alternative history, which I confess isn’t my usual wheelhouse, but I do love me some old school science fiction now and then, and this book is that, too. A three-way conflict develops between the Orthodox Jews of Israel; the Muslim Grand Mufti—and the Islamic nations with which he is aligned—and the evangelical Christians of the American South, led by the Reverend Stark. Archaeologist Eric Katz, a secular Jew with no religious axe to grind, provides the reader with an objective, every-man perspective, accompanied by his girlfriend, Orly.

If I could change one thing about this story, I’d like to see a female character developed well outside of the traditional pigeonholes; journalist Gabriella almost gets there but doesn’t. However, this is an issue that’s endemic to the genre.

All told, the miracles that unfold within this witty tale are delightfully provocative; this is a story that will rocket to the top of the banned book list, and you’ll want to know why. I recommend it to fans of the genre.

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.