Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cry of the Giraffe, by Judie Oron: a review

Wuditu, an Ethiopian Jewish girl, has her life disrupted by war and anti-Jewish violence in her home country. She and her family are separated on their escape to Israel.  She has to survive on her own, a teenager hiding her true identity, for years before she can rejoin them.

The book is written in a simple, straightforward manner that's suitable for young adults, but it contains fairly graphic scenes of violence and sexual assault, so judge accordingly.

I knew very little about this part of Jewish history and culture before reading the book, despite the fact that my cousin works for Yahel, an Israeli organization serving the Ethiopian Jewish community.  I'm glad I read it, and I will certainly learn more.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh: a review

Despite the title, this is a portrait of three women (Birdie Bell, Joan Cohen, and Dinah Whitacre) who all end up marrying Ken Kimble, and the story of their children, especially the oldest, Charlie Bell.  To Mr. Kimble, perhaps, the women are all alike, filling a role he needs someone to play. 

For us, however, getting to know them in their strengths and heartbreaking frailty is the reason to read the book, and it's an excellent reason.  They are both individuals and types, and among them they span a lot of the possible roles for women in the era (the 1960's and 1970's, at the time they meet and marry the man)...although I have to say that none of them is like my mother.  She was stronger and less dependent, and she married in 1954!

Kimble is a human McGuffin, a plot device to take us from South Carolina to Florida to Washington, DC and into the lives of the main characters.  That being said, he is too much of a blank even for the role that he plays. Where did he come from?  How did he get the skills to be a successful minister and youth leader in one place and a real estate developer in another? 

Most of all, what made him a smooth liar, a wheeler-dealer, a man who could leave one life behind and begin another at will, a workaholic and an amasser of expensive things, yet apparently someone who took no joy in anything he did?

The author seems to sense the thinness of his character herself.  Several times, a Mrs. Kimble or a son asks, "What kind of man would...?"  There is never any answer.  He dies in the prologue to the book, so I am not spoiling the plot by telling you that he dies without ever revealing himself.  To me, this was the only unsatisfying piece of a novel I would recommend highly.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Keep the Flame Alive

This evening, Jews around the world will read the story of the Exodus from Egypt. On the Sabbath before Passover, the passage we read from the Torah was much less pyrotechnical. Parshat Tzav contains a list of instructions for priests (who no longer exist in Judaism) on how to offer sacrifices (which we have replaced with prayers) in the traveling sanctuary that was first replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem and then abandoned altogether. Yet I find four important lessons in this reading for modern Jews--and perhaps for all of us.

The portion begins with the olah, the burnt offering. Any member of the community can bring this offering. We are told explicitly in the previous week's readings that if a household cannot afford to sacrifice a larger animal, a bird or even a measure of fine flour will do. Lesson #1: make your communities inclusive and participatory. Set dues that everyone can pay. Adopt rituals that give everyone a role.

Each day, the priest must go into the sanctuary and sweep up the ashes from the offering that was burnt the day before. Then he must take off his priestly robes and put on regular clothing to go dispose of the ashes. Lesson #2: Leaders must be a part of the community and serve it humbly.

The ashes are not dumped unceremoniously. The priest takes them to a designated spot, day after day, and that place becomes holy. Lesson #3: The sacrifices of the past must not be forgotten. They must be treated with respect.

All that being said, someone has to sweep away the old to make way for the new. If left to accumulate, ashes choke the atmosphere in which we are trying to worship.  Lesson #4: Each day requires its own course of action, and perhaps new sacrifices from us.

The portion also tells us to keep an eternal light burning in the sanctuary and never let it go out. A rabbinical commentary reminds us that each of us is a sanctuary. Within ourselves, we need to keep alive the flame of desire for a better world, free from slavery and open to the creative participation of all people. As we approach the Exodus story tonight at the Passover Seder, let's keep in mind the image of the roughly-garbed priest taking the ashes out. And remember to honor the people--usually women--who cleaned the house for the holiday! Next year in a more equal and inclusive world.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Three Ways You're Making Sure I Won't Read Your Tweet"

"It's like drinking from a fire hose," people say about social media. We all know the problem: there's so much information out there, how do I pick what to read?  Or, from the writer's side: there are so many writers competing for an audience out there, how do I make sure that readers pay attention to what I say--or that they even notice it?

I've been following on Twitter since May 2012, and I've noticed contributors using the same few strategies for getting attention over and over again.  They must work.  In fact, some of them hook me.  But I'm always sorry afterwards.  Even if the content I read was worthwhile and useful, I feel a little soiled because of the way the writer lured me in the first place.  Those sordid strategies include:

  1. Scare tactics.  If you called me up on the phone and asked, "Are termites eating your foundations?", I'd say NO and hang up.  I don't respond to a hard sell.  I know it's not in my interest to do so.  Same thing online.  If the message is "Read this or your competitors will eat your lunch," I'm beginning to skip right by that tweet without opening the link.  I'll take my chances on missing a bit of information just to avoid being taken for a sucker.
  2. Negativity.  "How your blog is turning people off."  "The mistakes you're making on Facebook."  Now, I'm not perfect.  I know I have a lot to learn.  But couldn't you possibly present me with an opportunity to do better, instead of telling me that everything I'm doing is wrong?
  3. Arbitrary numbers.  Nothing wrong with presenting a list of  four questions, or top ten links, or twenty-two websites...except that everybody's doing it.  After a while, all these numbers run into each other and blur.  They sound like a gimmick, and they are.  Can we possibly save numbers for when they matter?
You may have noticed that the title of this blog entry uses all three of the strategies I think are being worked to death.  How did you respond when you read the title?  What do you think now?  What are some different (and perhaps better) strategies for standing out and being read?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fathers Have Big Hands, a review

Fathers who want to realize how much they mean in their children's lives. Children who feel the love but don't have the words to say it. Parenting groups. Parents from all different backgrounds who like to see themselves reflected in the books they give their children.  These are just some of the people who will enjoy Fathers Have Big Hands.

The words of the book are sweet and wise.  The pictures are colorful and simple, but with deeper messages. It's a good choice for school libraries as well as homes.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Legacy of Hugo Chavez

For a balanced yet provocative assessment of the late Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, please read this article from The Nation.