Books: The Columbus Affair

October 13, 2014

I finished The Columbus Affair a few weeks ago, but decided to put off writing a blog post until today. I was busy, and anyway – today just seemed appropriate. I know, yesterday was October 12, but today is the official government holiday. And being an employee of a community college, I get those holidays off. So I have time to reflect back on what I learned about Columbus from reading this book.

It’s fiction, but it’s fiction that deals directly with mysteries surrounding Christopher Columbus. So there’s a fair amount of history related in the novel, as well as some segments of historical fiction where the events described elsewhere are actually taking place. While I was listening to the audiobook, I was skeptical about how much of it could really be historic fact as opposed to the creative output of author Steve Berry’s imagination.

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Books: People of the Book

October 11, 2014

I looked at this audiobook on at least two other occasions before finally deciding to check it out from the library. I’m not sure what made me hesitate – perhaps the phrase “intimate emotional intensity” on the back of the case.

There different kinds of intimacy and different kinds of emotional intensity, some much more pleasant to read about than others. Some books get too intimate, and even with those that are a level – and kind – of intimacy that I would want to read about, sometimes I shy away from because I want to enjoy my commute, not find myself drawn into the wrenching emotional upheavals of someone else’s life.

But I enjoy historical fiction, and I enjoy books about books. I liked the idea of a mystery surrounding a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript, and the different places in Europe where the book had traveled during its long history. I decided People of the Book was worth checking out.

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Books: The Auschwitz Escape

August 26, 2014

I usually like reading historical fiction, but it’s hard to read about the awful things done by the Nazis in their death camps. Looking through the fiction choices in Tyndale’s Summer Reading Program, however, I thought it seemed like a better choice than most of the others.

I had heard of Joel Rosenberg and had for some time thought about reading one of his novels, but I never got around to it. (There are always so many other good books to read.) When I saw that he had written this historical novel set in WWII, I decided to give The Auschwitz Escape a try.

My initial impression, from reading the six chapter of Part One, was that I was not particularly impressed. It deals with the character Luc, an assistant pastor in a small town in France, who ends helps Jews who are escaping from Germany and other Nazi-occupied territories. That’s admirable, certainly, but as a character Luc seems rather flat. Read the rest of this entry »

Books: The Lawgiver

July 18, 2013

I had heard of Herman Wouk but never read any of his books. When I saw his latest book, The Lawgiver, in the library, I couldn’t even think of the title of any of those books of his I hadn’t read. But the name meant something, and I decided this looked like a good book to read to see if I wanted to read more.

I saw from the cover that Wouk had always wanted to write a novel about Moses, and he had finally found a way to do so by writing about the making of a movie about Moses. I enjoy reading novels about Biblical characters, so that was another reason to read it. And it’s short – even without knowing any of his books I remembered that they were long.

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Books: The Tent of Abraham

June 12, 2013

It seems like most of my posts these days are about the books I read. But then, I do spend a lot of time reading. And the things I’m thinking about are often the things I’m reading about, whether it’s the book that got me thinking about them or I read the book because I was already thinking about them.

It’s the latter in the case of today’s post. In the Bible study I lead on Wednesdays, we’re going through a “bird’s eye” view of the Bible, and this week was on Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob). When I was in the library last weekend, it occurred to me to see if there were any interesting books on Abraham.

What I found was The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I saw that it included chapters written from a Jewish perspective, a Christian perspective, and a Muslim perspective. That would be certainly be interesting, I thought, seeing how the other two faiths view Abraham differently.

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Books: Outwitting History

September 23, 2011

I had never heard of Aaron Lansky or his book, Outwitting History, when I found it at the top of a box of books my sister sent me recently. It’s the sort of book I would have read years ago if I had known about it (it was published in 2005). It has everything – history, especially regarding the Jewish people, books, a foreign language, lots of stories about interesting people and places, and a handful of idealists engaged in a seemingly impossible task.

I know no more Yiddish than a handful of those words that have made their way into English (and I had no idea that some of these were Yiddish until now). I’m sure many of my ancestors on my mother’s side spoke Yiddish, but she never considered herself Jewish despite her ancestry (her father brought her up in Christian Science), and I grew up without any idea of the rich cultural heritage that was lost to me.

From various books I have read about languages, I knew something about Yiddish, but I don’t know if I ever gave any thought as to whether there were books written in the language. As Lansky explains, it was primarily a spoken language, but for about a hundred years or so there was a remarkable outpouring of literary output in Yiddish. Then the tides of history turned, and Yiddish became a dying language.

Lansky and his friends started looking for Yiddish books in order to help them learn Yiddish, initially for the purpose of academic study (at least in Lansky’s case). Like other young Jews, Lansky had not grown up speaking Yiddish. But unlike so many others, he wanted to save the books treasured by the older generations, rather than throwing them out as a relic of an embarrassing past.

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Books: The Year of Living Biblically

August 15, 2010

I learned about this book from Renaissance Guy’s blog, back in April 2008. First I read A.J. Jacobs’ previous book, The Know-It-All, which I found interesting at first but tiresome after a while. I didn’t get around to finishing it before I had to return it to the library (unusual behavior for me), and I was in no great hurry to read Jacobs’ second book.

The Year of Living Biblically: Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was much easier reading – or at any rate much more in line with my own interests. I have sometimes wondered whether I should be following certain biblical commandments, such as wearing a head covering, eating kosher food, or keeping the Sabbath. I have wondered how theologians determine which commandments are “moral laws” for all time, and which are ceremonial laws or civil laws which were only for the people of Israel while they lived in the land of Israel before the time of Jesus.

I remember, as a young Christian, seeing a man dressed in a Bible-times outfit (or at least how we typically picture them) outside the mall. I talked briefly with him, and he explained how he was following God by living without possessions, walking from place to place as Jesus did, telling people about him. I wasn’t convinced that his way was what God intended for all Christians – but I also wasn’t convinced it wasn’t.

Jacobs’ motive for taking on this project was hardly the most spiritual – he was, after all, an agnostic, no more Jewish (as he says) than the Olive Garden restaurant is Italian. He had some interest in learning more about spiritual things, but he also was doing it for the purpose of writing a book about the experience. And he specifically wanted to show that following the Bible absolutely literally leads to doing some pretty stupid things, and that no one really does.

I had wondered, knowing the idea of the book and his project, how he managed to follow the Bible even mostly for an entire year. I quickly learned that this was not about how he followed the Bible for a year, it was how he tried to. He was completely faithful in regards to not cutting his beard – the most obvious evidence of his quest over the course of the year. But he struggled quite a bit, especially in the early months, with Sabbath observance, and as for telling the truth – well, he is honest in the book about how often he lied.

His candor is a large part of what makes the book such interesting reading. He recounts his thought process regarding various issues, discussions he had with various spiritual advisors whom he consulted with over the course of the year, and experiences he had with family, friends, and strangers as he tried – in sometimes very unconventional ways – to obey commands both great and small from the Bible. (Sometimes I wondered how those people felt about being written about, but in a note at the end of the book he explains that names and identifying details were sometimes changed.)

Jacobs wanted to learn from a wide variety of Jewish and Christian traditions, so he visited the Amish, celebrated (and sacrificed chickens) with Hasidim, traveled to Israel, visited Jerry Falwell’s church, visited a church where they do snake handling, and went to Bible studies (including one for gay men). He had his clothing inspected to see if it contained mixed fibers. He purchased (among other things) myrrh to use for incense, a ten-string harp to use in praising God, and an item of clothing with pre-made tassels so that he didn’t have to pin on his homemade tassels.

He came to enjoy his times of prayer – which were primarily prayers of thanksgiving, as he did not feel very comfortable with other types of prayer. Even at the end of the year, when being thankful for all sorts of things had become a welcome habit, he remained agnostic about the existence of a personal God. But he also told about a conversation with a rabbi who warned him that using prayer as a means of improving himself was “skating on thin ice,” because that was using God rather than glorifying God. (That sounds a lot like that book I read recently, The Pressure’s Off!)

Some of his efforts to obey commandments seem frankly silly. Because the Bible commands that wages be paid on the day work is done, he insisted on paying the babysitter in cash each day. But then because a paper trail was needed for tax purposes, he made her return the cash at the end of the week and he paid her by check. (Couldn’t he have paid with a check each day, or written out a receipt for her to sign, as I used to do with the woman who did daycare for me?)

He wanted to make a “sacrifice” in gratitude to God for his wife’s pregnancy (they had been trying a long time and finally used IVF – resulting in twins). So he “put some olives and dates on a platform of stones and left them there as an offering to God” – in Union Square in New York City (where he lives). During his visit to Israel, he wanted to tithe some produce (a commandment that apparently the Jews consider only relevant to life in Israel), so he bought an orange, and tried to find someone in the street to give a tenth of it to. (He would have done much better to buy ten oranges and give away one.)

He wrestles with the questions that so many people do, about why God required so much killing, not only of animals but of people who believed in other gods. In the Bible God sometimes is shown as a God of mercy, but other times He seems so harsh.  The reason for some commands seems clear enough, but others seem very puzzling. (One of his examples of the latter is the “red heifer” in Numbers 19.)

My reactions to his account are mixed. On the one hand, he picks some ridiculous ways to try to fulfill some commands. The Bible says to stone people for offenses such as breaking the Sabbath, adultery, and witchcraft (and quite a few others). So he finds a man – whom he knows has worked on both Saturday and Sunday – sitting on a park bench, and drops a pebble on his shoe. Then he feels a need to apologize for it. (When he tries to have a more satisfying encounter, he nearly gets in a fist fight with a septuagenarian adulterer.)

Yet Jacobs is also trying to take the Bible as it is, unfiltered by tradition, and simply follow it, rather than justify picking and choosing what parts to follow. He doesn’t like having to follow the rules about avoiding touching his wife (or anything she has sat on) during her menstrual cycle, but he doesn’t feel he can very well let that one slide just because it’s very inconvenient. He really does try to cut back on his white lies, and to do a better job with disciplining his toddler. He becomes more aware of his self-centered reactions and thoughts. He comes to see wisdom and beauty in what he once thought was archaic foolishness.

I don’t think I’ve learned anything new that will help me in following the Bible (though I have learned some of the odd ways that some groups go about it). But reading through someone else’s thoughts and experiences about it is good food for thought – as well as enjoyable reading, in Jacobs’ case.

The road to conversion

January 14, 2009

Can you name a Spanish-speaking country with a growing Jewish population? I don’t generally think of “Spanish-speaking” and “Jewish” in the same context, because, after all, way back in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain and all Spanish territories and possessions (with a deadline of July 31, three days before Columbus set sail to find Asia by going west).

I don’t know if the Edict of Expulsion did not include territories to be added in the future, or if it was just easier for Jews to manage under Spanish rule in the New World, so far away from the reigning monarchs’ stronghold of power. But apparently a fair number of Jews accompanied Columbus on his voyages of exploration (including his translator, Luis de Torres), and settled in Spanish colonies in the Americas.

In the 20th century, one country particularly open to Jewish immigration was Cuba, where anti-Semitism never had the influence it did in other western countries (including the U.S., which enforced strict entry quotas even when Jews were trying to escape death in Hitler’s Germany). By the 1950’s, Cuba had a Jewish population of over fifteen thousand.

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Reading: The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism

May 26, 2008

I rarely finish a book in a single day. But I had the time (waiting while my son was at graduation parties, since it didn’t seem worth driving home each time and waiting for his call to pick him up), and I was fascinated by the ideas expressed in this book.

Since I’ve been studying about Moses, and he is often seen as the founder of Judaism, I thought it would be interesting to read a book on Judaism in general, not specifically about Moses. As my own ancestors on my mother’s side were Jewish, I’ve always been particularly interested in this subject.

I’ve read other books by Joseph Telushkin (Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History; Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible; and Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews) and found them well-written and informative. I hadn’t heard of Dennis Prager before, but I saw from the preface that he and Telushkin had a long-time close personal friendship.

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