Covid-19 and J.K. Rowling’s The Ickabog

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic last April, when celebrities around the world were lecturing us via tweet to stay home and wear a mask, British novelist J. K. Rowling took a different approach. As kids were forced to forego school and interactions with friends, she published a new children’s book and released it in free installments for families stuck at home. The novel, The Ickabog, was published in full this past Thanksgiving. Proceeds from sales of the book are donated to communities hurt most by COVID-19.

Rowling has said that the Ickabog story first came to her years ago, when her own children were young. She wrote the book during the period in which she wrote the Harry Potter books, and claims to have made no serious modifications since that time. Yet intentionally or not, The Ickabog may be the most serious literary indictment of the mass response to the COVID-19 epidemic published to date.

The cover of JK Rowling’s The Ickabog. This may be a stretch but note the corona (Latin: crown) artfully woven into the book logo.

I bought the book as a gift for my Harry Potter-loving 9-year-old, and first picked it up on the Sabbath after Hannukah. My family had just returned from Jerusalem, where the lack of tourists and the still-considerable virus restrictions cast a pallor on this normally magical time of year. After months of closures, the street vendors of Jaffa and Ben Yehudah streets finally had their Judaica and souvenirs proudly on display, albeit with few takers. Seemingly half of the usually bustling restaurants were temporarily shuttered or closed for good. I wasn’t in the mood to read more of the endless news about the pandemic, so I turned to my son’s Rowling book looking for a light fantasy escape.

Read the full essay at First Things

When Heidi Met Shimen, or, Why Real Religion Endures

A review of Judaism Straight up by Moshe Koppel

Several years ago, a blog called Judaism Without Apologies began to circulate on social media. The blog began by juxtaposing two Jewish characters’ lives and ideals: Shimen, a Gerer Hasid of sorts and Holocaust survivor living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Heidi, a cosmopolitan Princeton graduate who thinks of herself as a citizen of the world.

A photograph by George Kalinsky of my own Polish Holocaust survivor grandfather at the Siyum HaShas in 1990. I imagine Shimen having a similar intense, independent-minded look.


The series was narrated by the American Israeli computer scientist Moshe Koppel, who had attended Shimen’s Gerer shtiebel in his youth. After obtaining a PhD in mathematics, Koppel spent a year at Prince- ton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he met the original Heidi, the first of many he would encounter in the years to come. Koppel’s blog may have been rooted in comic sociology, but it quickly morphed into a serious discussion of moral philosophy, game theory, cultural anthropology, the nature of language, and ultimately an argument about the future of Judaism itself. Despite its rather niche appeal, the blog’s unique fusion of a no-holds-barred attitude with serious erudition attracted some diehard fans. Koppel has just published an expanded book-length version, which presents a cleaned-up and even more compelling defense of the old-fashioned Judaism Koppel imbibed in the shtiebel.

Shimen, a real-life acquaintance of Koppel (Heidi is a composite), is at the heart of the book. He survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, but his wife and two precious children did not. After the war, Shimen picked up a handgun and collected Jewish children who had been hidden by Polish families and returned them to their communities. Elie Wiesel, who prayed in Shimen’s Gerer shtiebel from time to time, once told a story about celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Auschwitz without wine. An inmate announced, “we’ll take out tin cups and fill them with tears. And that is how we’ll make our kiddush . . . heard before God.” That, apparently, was Shimen. Koppel writes of Polish Hasidic Holocaust survivors like him: 

[They] were intense, they were angry, they could be funny in a biting sort of way. . . . But one thing they had no patience for was high-minded pieties. They despised pomposity and self-righteousness. Their devotion to Yiddishkeit, old-fashioned Judaism, as a way of life, and to the Jews as a people, were as natural and instinctive as drawing breath.

To read the full review see the wonderful new issue of Jewish Review of Books.

Radical Chesed: We Can All Use Some Henny Machlis, zt”l, in Our Lives

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In 2016, a hefty new Artscroll biography was published whose cover stands out in the sefarim store among images of bearded rabbis. Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup is the story of the late Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, whose Jerusalem home was legendary for welcoming hundreds of guests each Shabbos, providing them with home-cooked meals as well as a deeper nourishment they may not have known they needed. The book is written by Sara Yoheved Rigler, author of Holy Woman and a frequent contributor to Aish.com. Rigler writes with a unique appreciation for holy Jewish women. While her books would probably not pass the academic smell test, she is able to convey the passion and fire of a great individual in her writing in a way that tends to escape her more polished peers. Henny Machlis as well as her husband Rabbi Mordechai Machlis were truly great individuals who stretched themselves beyond their individual egos to leave a remarkable legacy. Rigler writes in the book that when Henny was younger she used to say that she wanted to have 20 children and introduce Judaism to the entire world. She ended up having 14 children (with nine c-sections!) and inspired tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. She was, as the book jacket describes, “a virtuoso in chesed,” someone for whom the normal boundaries separating oneself from others is effaced.

For the full review, in the Jewish Link of NJ’s Literary Link, click here.

In Pursuit of Wholeness: The Book of Ruth in Modern Literature

In anticipation of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, the Jewish Review of Books printed an adapted and shortened version of my essay in the newly released anthology Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth (Maggid Press, 2019).

“While not the most dramatic of all the biblical stories, the quietly moving book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, continues to resonate in Western literature. Sometimes the references are explicit, as when John Keats famously wrote, “Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home / She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” Yet we also encounter Ruth-like scenarios that draw on, or even undermine, the book’s central theme of chesed, or loving-kindness.

American novelist Marilynne Robinson and Israeli writer Meir Shalev invoke the Ruth story to tell biblically infused stories that expressly do not end in redemption. In contrast, S. Y. Agnon found a way to draw upon it while keeping the transformative spirit of the biblical narrative.”

To read more, see The Jewish Review of Books or for the full version the anthology is available on Amazon.

 

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers

In this month’s Jewish Action I review Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s new-ish Bamidbar anthology.

Excerpt: Beyond offering specific insights, Zornberg presents an expansive framework for reading Tanach that sets her apart from nearly every interpreter out there. Her books are a true illumination of the Talmudic maxim which describes the Torah: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). Zornberg highlights the remarkable potential of Tanach to reflect upon, and in turn be illuminated by, many of the deepest questions and concerns raised in continental philosophy, postmodern criticism and the field of psychoanalysis.

The full review may be read here

Rachel and Her Children

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One way of telling the story of rabbinic Judaism is to say that it was born in a conversation between Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Roman general Vespasian, in the shadow of a besieged Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan had feigned death in order to be smuggled out of the walled city in a coffin despite the opposition of the Jewish zealots, who were not interested in negotiations with the enemy. Vespasian, impressed by Rabbi Yochanan’s bravery and his prediction that Vespasian would eventually become emperor of Rome, asked him what he wanted. Rabbi Yochanan’s famous answer was “give me Yavneh and its [Torah] sages,” thus establishing a center of Jewish learning independent of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan’s foresight transformed the brick-and-mortar reality of a Temple-centered Judaism into the port- able diaspora-ready religion with which we are familiar, and thus granted a powerful second wind to a Jewish nation that might have been otherwise brought to its knees by Roman oppression.

Dara Horn’s mind- bending new novel, Eternal Life, takes place from the perspective of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s heretofore unknown mother Rachel. Rachel embodies a gruelingly literal interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s lofty project. Like a Judaism that endures beyond destruction, Rachel cannot die because of a vow she took at the Temple in order to save an ailing Yochanan. With the Temple’s destruction she is left in this liminal state, along with her lover, Elazar ben Haninah, the son of the high priest and the child’s real father. The novel, and Rachel and Elazar’s occasionally intersecting lives, span the centuries between Second Temple Jerusalem and modern-day New York…

To read the full review please see the Winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

S.Y. Agnon and the Orthodox Reader

This review appeared in the Fall issue of Jewish Action Magazine

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 The Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, authored works of modern Hebrew literature that are steeped in the language of the Torah and hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish history and tradition. His stories, set in his Galician hometown of Buczacz, transport the reader into the vibrant world of Polish Jewry before World War II. There are probably few readers outside of the Orthodox Jewish community who have the cultural literacy necessary to recognize many of the Jewish allusions in Agnon’s stories. Yet Agnon’s works have not made the deep inroads into the Orthodox world that one might imagine they would.

Click here for the full article

Love and Kingship: The Book of Ruth and Jerusalem Day

As temperatures rise and flowers bloom, we can feel the holiday of Shavuot approaching – perhaps our sweetest holiday – when the Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue. For a unique and even paradigm-shifting reading of Ruth, I highly recommend Rising Moon, by Rabbi Moshe Miller of Jerusalem. It is one of the most fascinating books of modern biblical interpretation I have come across. Rising Moon is structured like a drama in four acts, reflecting Ruth’s four chapters. It weaves together Biblical, midrashic and Kabbalistic sources, along with a wide range of insights from outside Jewish tradition – Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and the novel Dune all make key appearances. This eclectic mix of sources is employed to make a provocative claim about about the Book of Ruth in particular and about the history and destiny of the Jewish nation more broadly.

Continue reading “Love and Kingship: The Book of Ruth and Jerusalem Day”

Mystical Teachings Do Not Erase Sorrow

“It’s hard to be a Jewish poet,” Yehoshua November wrote in his first collection of poetry, God’s Optimism, published in 2010. Indeed, it must be difficult to juggle November’s identities as a Lubavitch Hasid, a family man, a poet, and a professor. In that poem, November explores some of the challenges inherent in writing religious poetry. These include the fear of confusing readers who are unaccustomed to encountering sincere expressions of Orthodox Judaism in verse, the problem of writing about forbidden or impure material, and the anxiety of trying to create new poems “when there is already the one great book.

In his new collection, however, it turns out that the difficulties of being a Jewish poet do not primarily flow from being either Jewish or a poet but from the underlying difficulties of life itself.”

For my full review of November’s wonderful new poetry collection, Two Worlds Exist, please see the Spring 2017 issue of the Jewish Review of Books.