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.

The Rabbi Who Chose Tran Orthodoxy

“Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Rabbi Yaakov Smith, a father of six and an emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in the Old City of Jerusalem, hosted a Shabbat dinner. As the guests were leaving, one took Smith aside and said something that would reverberate with his host: “That was an amazing act you performed. Whatever is wrong, take care of yourself.” Fast forward thirty years and Yaakov has become Yiscah Smith, a transgender person who still lives and teaches in Jerusalem. Smith’s transformation is the subject of the documentary I Was Not Born a Mistake, created by the Israeli filmmakers Rachel Rusinek and Eyal Ben-Moshe. The film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival this past Hanukkah and made its U.S. debut in January.:

Read the full review at First Things.

Man Shouts What He is Missing: An Anthem for the Corona Lockdown

“In the last two weeks of seger (lockdown) in Israel, an almost laughably long list of public figures have admitted to violating the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. Some of them are lawmakers who are themselves directly responsible for initiating the lockdown.”

Join me as I try to explore what is going on here, with the help of the iconic Israeli musician Meir Ariel. On Arutz Sheva/Israel National News.

Chronicles of Narnia for Tradition Journal

(from Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, Tradition Journal Online)

“In Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold argues for the role of reading “the best that has been thought and said” as an antidote to the anarchy of materialism, industrialism and individualistic self-interest.”

A case for why The Chronicles of Narnia is “The Best” for a new series at Tradition Journal Online.

 

 

The Bible’s New Attitude Toward Slavery

In the first part of the book of Exodus, after centuries of slavery in Egypt, God rescues the Israelites amid miracles and wonders. Their freedom, however, is not an end in itself but a precondition of their true national calling: the worship of God. Thus Moses first leads the Israelites not to the Promised Land but to Mount Sinai, where God reveals Himself and gives them the Ten Commandments. In this week’s Torah reading of Mishpatim(Exodus 21-24), which follows immediately thereafter, the Israelites are given the outline of an entire legal system, complete with instructions on tort law, financial regulations, the prohibition on witchcraft, and the agricultural holidays—a first taste of the legislation that will take up much of the remainder of the Pentateuch.

It is surprising, then, that Mishpatim, which inaugurates the legislative portion of the book of liberation, begins by speaking of slavery: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.” This topic consumes the first 27 verses of the parashah, which in itself suggests just how far the Israelites have come: from being slaves themselves in a foreign land to being prospective owners of slaves in their own land, governed by their own laws.

At a glance, it might even seem that the oppressed have become, or are about to become, the oppressors. Yet a closer look shows that the placement of this passage is neither haphazard nor contradictory but instead forms a crucial link between the narrative and the legal segments of Exodus—beginning with the very first verse, which mentions not just slavery but also emancipation…

The full essay is posted in Mosaic Magazine