Archives for posts with tag: reviews

I come to this book as an outsider. I am a white guy, a Jew, reviewing a volume of African American poetry for black people in Baltimore. I do this because I live in Baltimore, I feel a kinship with African Americans due to our shared history; and I want to know how poetry of different communities works.

This is all the more true because Tariq Touré’s poetry, in this black-and-white volume called “Black Seeds,” is aimed at his community. These are short poems about the state of black Baltimore, about life and death and striving, murder and failure and desperation. Each poem is accompanied on the facing page by an image, often a photo of an African American looking into the camera. The portraits are unadorned, beautiful.

This is 31rwu9z9dl-_sx322_bo1204203200_more than a community – it is an audience before whom the poet is performing. This is a multimedia presentation. It is based on the slam esthetic: each poem ends with a boldfaced title, the performer naming what he has just delivered with a flourish.

There are calls to nationalism:

“I see empires in your furrowed eyebrows” — Nubia

… and prayerful meditations on the self:

“Man is given seconds, yet begs for minutes”–The curious attention span

This is hip-hop on the page, and as such strikes a balance. On the one hand there is rhyme aplenty and anaphora, familiar in any oral tradition; on the other these are verses with plenty of space, cascading down the page, and capital letters to give emphasis. There is a poem Balance about this tension between the weight of history (and literacy) and the present-day of orality (and popular culture):

I have friends
Who sit and Pontificate
Musing over Plans
To leave
More than
A biological imprint
7 generations
Down the stream
Apple headed children
Trip over
Their forefathers & foremothers
On the way to school


I have friends
That have only
For Saturday night

The entire slim volume is balanced on the razor’s edge of this conflict: duties to the self versus duties to one’s people; honoring past martyrs and building bridges to the future impervious to flame.

Indeed, this book is surrounded by flame, fire out of the gunbarrels of police and the torches of protest in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. One would expect there to be more hate. I don’t read that here, though there is sorrow and rage:

Jim crow’s skeleton
fell out of
a police van
crashed onto the ashen pavement
paraded down Pennsylvania avenue
brutalized the metal cavalry
of pigs
announcing a 100% off sale
the city glowed
as Watts glowed
as Harlem glowed
as Ferguson glowed
for Freddie

Baltimore Power Keg

“Glowing” as candles glow, not burning or flaming as an explosion. The skeleton, zombified, brings multiple sites of tragedy and brutality into redemptive communion.

In the wake of my move to Baltiimore seven years ago, and even more so in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I have read more and more (though still not enough) contemporary poetry by African Americans. These poets inhabit a diverse space. Toure’s is not the academic poetry of Terrence Hayes or the pop-culture fueled confessional wit of Saeed Jones. His gifts are in the shared world of oral and written, of street, school, protest, home, and quiet self. I look forward to reading more of him, as he sheds his glow.

The life of Chasidim, Jews living according to strict religious precepts within the confines of a separatist society, is fascinating because it is different from most of our lives. Some might imagine that most under such constraints are happy enough to stay there—or else they would leave, wouldn’t they? Thinking more carefully, we remind ourselves that there are constraints we don’t know about. And some of them do leave. How do they make that decision? Two recent books explore departures from the Orthodox path, answering two different questions – what is their experience like in general, and what does the story of one ex-Orthodox Jew tell us in particular?allwhogo-200x300

More at Killing the Buddha, which printed my review of books by Lynn Davidman and Shulem Deen on the ex-Orthodox.

Certain books have played outsized roles in my life. Most of these are the work not of a committee but of a unique personality. This is true of Jewish religious texts too. I have never really had a warm feeling for the Maxwell House haggadah – I didn’t grow up with it. The Artscroll haggadah is not my cup of chrein, and A Different Night, though valuable, has a little bit of short attention span about it. Here’s a picture! Here’s a poem!

On the other hand, Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus series (for Anchor Bible), felt like a meeting with a learned, opinionated, and irascible uncle who had very clear opinions about the Holy of Holies (sorry, the adytum) and what it all meant. I was convinced, before I realized that critics are just as disputative as scientists and Milgrom’s truth was not the whole or only truth.

Similarly, Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism is the work of a single intelligence, though I might disagree with its ideological take. Judy Hauptman, David Weiss-Halivni, and Daniel Sperber are others who are able to convey a sense of themselves as people, not just footnotes strung on chapter headings.

This is the sort of haggadah I like. Menachem Kasher’s Haggadah Sheleimah, an encyclopedic work (like his Torah Sheleimah), is as much a reference work as a useful haggadah to have at the seder table. You want variants of the Kadesh Urchatz mnemonic? Here they are, about a dozen of them. A synoptic version of the Arami Oved Avi? Yes. What about essays on various halachic and ideologic problems in the haggadah? Sure. Catalogs of different charosets in the rabbinic foundational texts? Enjoy! Through it all, Kasher is present. He does not refer to himself in the first person, but he has his biases, preferences, and pet peeves.

So I was particularly pleased to receive Gabriel Wasserman’s haggadah, called Ashira va’Ashanenna Ba’Chashikot, a work he has assiduously updated over the past few years. I bought the sefer fair and square, and you should get it too (available from the author by email, I am relatively knowledgeable in Jewish matters, but I learned a passel of new facts from nearly every page. If I am in the right crowd, I will be hard-pressed not to lift my eyes from the haggadah and say, “Hey! Did you know…” every few pages. Did you know that some communities *do* make a bracha at Urchatz? Or that pears are a common ingredient in many charosets? Did you know that there is no stage of the seder called “Nirtzah”?

Thus this sefer is packed full of chochma (wisdom). What makes it entertaining, though, is Wasserman’s idiosyncratic authorship. What else would you expect from a haggadah with the author’s picture on the front and back? (Though, to be charitable, the front picture is of the back of his head…) Wasserman’s asides refer to friends he has learned from, niggunim he grew up with, recipes he traditionally prepares for the holiday (oh, yes, there are recipes too). There is a running commentary, parallel columns in English and Hebrew (except for the spots where one language seems to leave off for a page). Here too are his own bravura piyyutim. My favorite parts, besides those mentioned, were the mentions of Yemenite practices (all new to me), and the musical notations in the back.

I would love to see this haggadah get broader distribution, so I will allow myself some suggestions. A higher production value, such as might be provided by a mainstream house, might enable illustrations, consistency in layout, and a larger font size for the Hebrew. (Perhaps younger folk than this legally-blind forty-year-old might not have a problem.) The haggadah is not for everyone: the author, it is clear, does not see teaching the children as the primary or even (apparently) the most interesting commandment of the day, though he certainly does not ignore it either. The English translations are occasionally not as eloquent as the author’s Hebrew.

These are minor quibbles in a fascinating, unique, and enlightening work. May Gabriel Wasserman merit many more years of disseminating his piyyutim, Torah, and haggadic spirit to all and sundry!


Originally posted on

I Am Forbidden
By: Anouk Markovits
Hogarth, 320 pages

A man runs naked to the Aron Kodesh. A boy, after witnessing the slaughter of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard, is saved, to be raised as a Christian. In parallel: The Satmar Rebbe, in an open car, is within shouting distance of his Hasidim whom he does not or cannot save from extermination. This is national tragedy, theological failure.

It is the year 1939, in Maramures, Transylvania. 5-year-old Josef, his skullcap gone, his golden sidecurls shorn, is being raised by Fiorina, his family’s Christian maid. He has almost forgotten his Jewish origins when, several years later, he rescues a girl, Mila, whose parents are killed as they run to the Satmar Rebbe, whom they glimpse in an open train car. The rebbe will save them, they think, but instead the woman is shot; the man, still wearing his tefillin, is beaten to death in the town square. The Satmar rebbe, meanwhile, with aid from the Zionists, is on his way to safety in Switzerland.

Josef directs Mila to the home of a Satmar scholar, Zalman Stern, who later comes to retrieve Josef from his adoptive Christian mother and sends him on to yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Sterns settle in Paris, and Mila remains with them, raised as a daughter — and as a sister to another girl, Atara. The two girls share everything at first but follow very different paths, both eventually intertwined with Josef’s: Mila is drawn to religious fervor, messianic redemption, and Bible study, while Atara asks herself, at first tentatively, if it is selfish to live and think as she wishes.

Despite the story’s foundation in tragedy and religion, this is not a Chaim Potok book full of disputation. We are face-to-face with people and the structures they create to deny death, bring the Messiah, or understand loss. When Josef is retrieved by Stern back to the Jewish world from Fiorina’s protection, we are given to understand the small tragedy they both live through in the shadow of a larger one, sharing a moment of “losing all, of having already lost”–a moment a lesser writer would have overlooked.

The inner lives of the punctiliously Orthodox, with their suppressed desire, menstrual obsession, and fear of death, coexist in the same book (and sometimes on the same page) as the deep joy and brilliant light of communal celebrations and Torah study. We feel the desire for Messiah in Mila, as we are moved by Atara’s yearning “to think gratuitous human constructs.” We teeter back and forth, not between Jerusalem and Athens, but between Paris and Williamsburg. Markovits brings off this balancing act with skill and daring. Everyone is given their due. Instead of disrespect or easy judgment, there is generosity of spirit and delicacy of the pen.

Chasidim make their way through these pages from Transylvania, to Paris, to Williamsburg. They are matched, marry, bear children. Some leave the fold. Stereotypes are avoided: There are Simchas Torah dances, but there is also the enchantment of a Paris library, Atara’s illicit haunt, where “lamps of milk glass inside green shells cast bright ellipses of light on rustling pages.” There is joy abounding with great-grandchildren aplenty, but there is also the pain of Mila who cannot conceive. At the center of the tale is her momentous decision that upends generations. Here, it should be said, the plot takes a baroque turn. Disbelief must be actively suspended — but this is not a misstep so much as an instance of ecstatic overreaching.

This is a different set of walls and courtyards than the familiar Brooklyn-Manhattan axis. The concreteness comes from the Maramureş wood nettle, the glowering statuary and blossoming gardens of Paris, the nighttime voyages by rail. Because Markovits is French born — having published one novel in that language already — we get the Chasidic world of the United States viewed from across the Atlantic. In Paris, the Stern children are called sale juif, dirty Jew. In Brooklyn there is “kosherness splashed all over…Jews not afraid to advertise they [are] Jews, Jews reconstructing a world that never was before.”

As creator of this microcosm, Markovits’ most impressive feat of compression is to present two great moral questions in concrete Jewish terms that can resonate with any intelligent reader. The more familiar of these is the Holocaust. “Does the Lord stay to watch,” asks Atara, a skeptic even in seminary, “when children are burning?” It is a credit to the novel and its characters that even the director of the girls’ seminary of whom this question is asked does not have the chutzpah to answer it immediately.

The more difficult question involves repercussions of individual decisions, whether a community can judge violators by its own lights. In the Jewish terms of Markovits’ plot: how do you solve the problem of the mamzeres and her descendants? How can deceit be assimilated into the stories a family tells about itself? Are there boundaries that can be crossed, and then crossed back again in the other direction — keeping what was learned on the outside while finding a place at the Shabbos table? There are answers here, but the story, its characters, and the created world are primary.

This is a book absorbing as any midrash and as enlightening as a library. I feel its contribution immediately and powerfully, and am happy to have given my time to it. I recommend you do the same.