Archive for Book Review

Baby, it’s cold outside …

Cover of Vegetarian Shabbat CookbookSo I’m tempted to heat up the kitchen with some new recipes. Browsing the library’s catalog, I found lots of new cookbooks to inspire me and I hope, my family.

For our resident vegetarian, we have the Vegetarian Shabbat Cookbook by Roberta Kalechofsky & Roberta Schiff.  Worth the price of checking it out for the cholent variations alone! And for the other side of the table, I’ll bring home the Kosher Carnivore by June Hersh. I’m already drooling at the thought of roast duck with cherry port sauce.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a wealth of Jewish cookbooks from around the world.  Joan Nathan scours France in search of families’ secret recipes in Quiches, Kugels and Couscous.  In Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride, Reyna Simnegar explains the herbs, spices and other ingredients of her recipes along with tips on substitutions and short-cuts.

Classic Central Asian Bukarian Jewish Cuisine and CustomsThe Ottoman Turk and the Pretty Jewish Girl is part history, part cookbook and part genealogy of the author’s, Beyhan Cagri Trock’s, family. Each borek recipe looked more enticing than the next.  Similarly, Amnun Kimyagarov explains the many influences that show up in Classic Central Asian (Bukharian) Jewish Cuisine and Customs. I’m not sure how my family would react to tripe, but the pumpkin turnovers should be a hit.

If I want to channel my family’s central/east European heritage, 2 books jump off the shelves at me. The Jewish Mama’s Kitchen by Denise Phillips has all the basics of chicken soup (with a recipe possibly stolen from my mother), matzah balls, roast chicken, kreplach, knishes, and a sprinkling of Israeli staples.  Jewish Mama's KitchenThere are many color pictures and hints and words of wisdom from “mama.”  Feed Me Bubbe : Recipes and Wisdom from America’s Favorite Online  Grandmother / by Avrom Honig and Bubbe has a similar set of recipes (minus the Israeli) but is sprinkled with stories from Bubbe’s life.

And for a calorie-free dessert, I’ll curl up on my couch with On the Chocolate Trail by Deborah Prinz.  Rabbi Prinz takes us on a journey from the New World to the Old and back in the footsteps of Jewish travelers, merchants, and chocolatiers.

Check our catalog for these and many other cookbooks and general “foody” books. And if you can’t find them on the library shelf, look in my kitchen.

Before Harry Potter – Sorcery in the Talmud

Maggie AntonWe are pleased to welcome guest blogger, Maggie Anton, long time HUC patron, author, and lover of all things Talmud.

Book cover for Rav Hisda's DaughterWhen I began researching third-century Babylonia for my historical novel, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, I had never imagined that the subtitle would be “A Novel of Love, the Talmud and Sorcery.” But I soon learned that magic, whose etymology comes from Magi, the scholar-priests of Zoroastrian Babylonia, was pervasive throughout Persia. My initial glimpse of this world came when I discovered a corpus of research on Babylonian Incantation Bowls.

These were ordinary pottery with inscriptions inside whose purpose was to protect the people under whose home the vessels were buried. Thousands of these bowls had been unearthed in what is now Iraq and dated to the 4th-6th century. My initial interest in the incantations, written in the same Aramaic language as the Talmud, was purely as a source of authentic women’s names. But upon careful reading, I saw that they must have been produced by educated Jews.

Most were for benevolent purposes – healing the sick, protecting children and pregnant women from harm, guarding against demons and the Evil Eye. The spells often contained biblical verses and drawings of bound demons. One even quoted Talmud. The bowl pictured here, one of two I own, includes the verse from Zechariah 3:2, “May the LORD rebuke you, O Satan.”

Bowl with Aramaic incantation

Archeologists have also found amulets with similar, albeit shorter, incantations written by Jews throughout the Persian and Roman empires. They discovered Hebrew magic instruction manuals that list an astonishing variety of spells, some benevolent and some not. My favorite was one for winning at chariot races.

Meanwhile, I learned that the Talmud contains discussions of spells, amulets, demons, the Evil Eye, and other occult subjects. Some rabbis, including Rav Hisda, performed acts of magic themselves, but our Sages agreed that sorcery was predominantly the province of women. Though the Bible says, “You shall not allow a sorceress to live,” these women apparently practiced freely. They were respected professionals, not scary hags with pointy hats as in Wizard of Oz. The Talmud even tells of a rabbi who consulted the ‘head sorceress’ to learn a special protective spell.

When I read that Rav Hisda’s daughter demonstrated ways of protecting her husband Rava, a rabbi well versed in magic himself, from demons, I realized that my heroine was an enchantress! Indeed, sorceresses who inscribed incantation bowls were probably members of rabbinic families too, for what other Jewish women would be learned enough to create them?

In the end, the difference between Rav Hisda’s Daughter and novels like Harry Potter is that Harry’s magic is product of Rowling’s imagination, while I use actual, historical spells and procedures as found in incantation bowls, amulets, and the Talmud.

Maggie Anton

p.s. from Sheryl. If you are interesting in learning more, check our catalog for books on magic, incantations, amulets, or witchcraft. Also look for Maggie Anton’s earlier books on Rashi’s daughters.

Spaced Out

NASA picture star cluster R136

NASA picture star cluster R136

With Curiosity landing on Mars, it seems like a good time to address Jews in space … or at least religion in science fiction and fantasy. For those who are serious about their fun summer reading, here are a few suggestions.

In the past couple of years, we’ve purchased 3 books which address this issue: Sex, Politics, and Religion in Star Wars edited by Doulas Brode and Leah Deyneka (Scarecrow Press, 2012;) Morality for Muggles by Moshe Rosenberg (Ktav, 2011;) and Sacred Space by Douglas E. Cowan (Baylor University Press, 2010.)

“May the Force be with Jew,” says Andrew Bank, in the Star Wars anthology. He compares Judaism with “Jedi-ism.” Both systems have a long tradition of oral transmission; stress respect for the mentor/teacher; and emphasize the importance of actively choosing to act as a force of good. On the other hand, Julien Fielding finds many aspects of Eastern religions in the Star Wars series. He analyzes the characters’ names, costumes, and actions to find links to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

In Sacred Space, Cowan examines God, prophecy, and religion in many of my favorite (and much missed) television series. Many science fiction stories leave out any explicit mention of religion, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (in my opinion the best of the ST series) and Babylon 5 both featured many alien cultures, each with their own perspective on God and their own place in the universe. While the protagonists of the Stargate series had adventures on a different planet each week, the underlying story in the Stargate series was trace back the origin of life and to figure out how individuals and even whole species can achieve transcendence. Similarly, the remains of the mostly polytheistic human race in Battlestar Gallactica sought their planet or origin, while fighting with the monotheistic Cylons.

Moving back into our galaxy, Moshe Rosenberg finds lessons in Jewish values in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. His first chapter focuses on something near and dear to many kids’ hearts: breaking the rules. He shows that most of Harry’s rule breaking was to protect one or more of his friends. Rosenberg show examples from the Talmud and Tanach where breaking the rule was the best options. Other chapters focus on friendship, teachers, and prejudice.

For those more interested in the science, NASA has some amazing pictures of our planet, our galaxy, and beyond in their Picture of the Day gallery


p.s. Of course I know that many Jews actually have been in space – astronauts from several countries are members of the tribe!

Some Roots of American Jewish Education

Dr. Jonathan Krasner

Dr. Jonathan Krasner

I am excited to share my conversation with Dr. Jonathan Krasner, HUC professor of the American Jewish Experience and author of The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education.

SFS: Jonathan, congratulations on winning the National Jewish Book Award for American Jewish Studies!

JK: Thanks, Sheryl. It is very exciting!  

SFS: I had not realized until I read your book, how big an impact Samson Benderly has made on my life and that of my children.  In fact, I had never heard of him.  But I suspect his fingerprints are all over the Jewish supplementary schools and camp that I attended as well as here HUC. Tell me about Benderly’s major works.

JK: Samson Benderly was a fascinating guy. Born into a Hasidic family in Safed in the late 19th century, he defied his parents and went to study medicine in Beirut and, later, Baltimore. In order to support himself he taught Hebrew and eventually became the head of a progressive supplementary school in Baltimore. Somewhere along the way he became one of the earliest Jewish educators in North America to teach Hebrew using the immersion method — Ivrit b’Ivrit. One of his earliest students was Henrietta Szold, who would go on to found Hadassah.

Over time, he realized that his sideline was actually his passion and he gave up medicine for education.  News of his progressive methods and impressive results spread and he was called to New York to direct the first bureau of Jewish education. From his perch at the BJE, where he worked from 1910-1941, he worked to professionalize the field, modernize the supplementary schools, train teachers, develop curricula and teaching materials, open the first Jewish culture camps, and convince Federation that Jewish education should be a community responsibility. Most importantly, perhaps, he raised a generation of disciples who spread his ideas to communities across North America. They were known as the “Benderly boys.”

Benderly Boys coverSFS: I was surprised that much of his early work focused on Jewish education for girls.  Why did he think that was important and how did he make his programs so successful?

JK: Benderly’s interest in girls’ education stemmed from his conviction that the “future mothers of Israel” needed to have a strong Jewish foundation if they were to raise knowledgeable children with positive Jewish identities. Like many secular educators of his day, Benderly also believed that women’s dispositions made them better teachers, on average, than men, especially for young children. So he was very interested in preparing his most promising female students to become teachers. There was also some opportunism at play. Benderly wanted to open laboratory schools that would train teachers and pioneer modern methods. But he feared that parents would be hesitant to send their boys to these untested and newfangled institutions. Girls, on the other hand represented a terribly underserved market. With few alternatives, parents were more likely to “take a chance” with their girls. ( There was a further consideration that made girls’ education attractive: In those days, girls did not have bat mitzvahs, so the lab schools were under no pressure to teach to the test, so to speak.)

By the way, the “Benderly boys” included a number of girls! They received the same training as their male colleagues, studying at Columbia University Teachers College and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Teachers Institute while interning at the Bureau of Jewish Education under Benderly’s mentorship. Most of these women followed the gender conventions of the day and eventually gave up their jobs to raise families. But a few stayed in the field. Libbie Berkson ran Camp Modin in Canaan, Maine for many years, and Leah Klepper taught pedagogy at the Teachers Institute.  

SFS: Benderly worked largely with Jewish immigrants, especially in the early 1900’s. Immigrants often put much of their energy into assimilating and melting into the proverbial  American pot. How did he entice them into incorporating Jewish education and religious (not just cultural) identity into their lives?

JK: Your question is very perceptive and points to one of Benderly’s greatest challenges. On the one hand, there were traditionalists who really wanted to give their children the same Jewish education they had back in eastern Europe. On the other hand, there were, for lack of a better term, assimilationists, who were far more concerned about making sure that their children fit in and succeeded in American society more generally. Benderly was promoting a third option, teaching an Americanized Judaism that was perceived to be in harmony with American culture and values and would not conflict with Jewish socio-economic aspirations. It was a struggle at first and there were many parents and community leaders who resisted. But as fears grew about an Jewishly alienated and godless second generation, more people began to embrace Benderly’s approach. As one Orthodox rabbi put it, Benderly’s methods might not be his cup of tea, but he seemed to get kids excited about Judaism, and that was worth the world.  To be honest, however, Benderly’s modernized supplementary school only achieves universal acceptance in the postwar period when it becomes a standard feature of the suburban synagogue center.    

SFS: The institutions that he created were very different from those of the European Jewish communities. What did Benderly feel was important for American Judaism?

JK: Benderly was an immigrant and he had the typical immigrant’s enthusiasm for America as a land of opportunity and a haven from intolerance.  He was not interested in a strategy of resistance. Rather, he was an accommodationist. He thought Judaism could be harmonized with American values. But he also believed that it needed to be modernized in order to appeal to the younger generation. Benderly was also a cultural Zionist and believed that American Jewish culture could and should draw inspiration from the Jewish upbuilding of Palestine (Eretz Yisrael).

SFS: I was surprised to learn that Benderly was opposed to Jewish day schools. Why was that?

JK: Benderly realized that the vast majority of American Jews were wedded to the public schools. Secular education was a vehicle for socio-economic advancement and Americanization. So, his focus on supplementary education was based on practicality. It is important to remember that day school education did not really take off until the postwar era.  At the same time, however, Benderly believed in the democratic mission of the public schools. So, there was also an ideological component to his opposition.

SFS: Jonathan, I have a question about your approach to this material.  You mentioned that much of the previous scholarship on Jewish education was “prescriptive;” that it showed a top-down approach to what Jewish programs intended to do. You, however, wanted to be more “descriptive.” Can you tell me what that means to your research?

JK: Previous historians of Jewish education tended to also be practitioners. They had a vested interest in promoting a particular narrative. some were also sheepish about admitting the extent to which the educators’ aspirations went unrealized. they did not want to admit failure. I am certainly not dispassionate about my subject. But I think I have a level of distance that allows me to be more clear-eyed. I’ve also tried hard to supplement prescriptive materials — curricula, textbooks, articles — with descriptive sources — photos, internal reports, private correspondence. Taken together, I think they paint a more well-rounded picture of Jewish education in the first half of the 20th century.