Category Archives: Jewish History

Review: The Gates of November

Chaim Potok’s The Gates of November is an extremely intense non-fiction book, written about a Jewish family. The book delves into the father/son relationship that Potok is well known for in his books.

Solomon Slepak is an old-school Russian Jew, a diehard Bolshevik. He became a Marxist when he emigrated to the America, and then returned to the Soviet Union. He was a stubborn and difficult man, and became a staunch and renowned Communist Party member, despite the fact that he was Jewish. Solomon Slepak resists the ideals of his son, Volodya, who is a “refusenik”, and basically disowns him.

Volodya sees what is occurring in the Soviet Union and wants no part of it. He wants to take his wife and two sons and emigrate to Israel. Thus he begins the process of paperwork and documentation. His bid to emigrate is refused, and he and his wife, Masha, become activists, working to try to help other Jews who are refused permission to emigrate, under Josef Stalin’s relentless rule.

Due to his activities, he is sent to a remote part of Siberia, where the conditions take their toll on his health. Masha asks for permission to be with him, and is granted such. He is exiled for over five years, under the harshest of conditions, not only weather, but food and daily sustenance and necessities (this articulation is putting it mildly).

Once he returns home, he tries to seek work, and finds menial jobs here and there, that don’t last for any length of time. He applies for permission to emigrate, once again. The process drags on for years, and we are given an overview of the social, political and diplomatic events and results during the years that go by, while he waits for a positive outcome.

I could articulate more on The Gates of November, but I suggest you read it yourself in order to grasp the depth of the story. The Gates of November is quite extreme in detail. Potok has shown us the degrees people will go to in order to manipulate others by leaving out none of the horrible events or descriptive word images.

Potok infuses the intensity of the time period under Josef Stalin’s rule. He details the depth of life under the most adverse and harshest of circumstances within the confines of the brutal Stalin reign. His book is based on personal accounts, taped and written interviews, videos, etc., in order to bring exactness to The Gates of November. It is not an easy book to read, due to the brutally detailed circumstances and events. But, it is a book most definitely worth reading, not only in comprehending the historical aspect regarding Jews under Soviet rule, but for the ongoing father/son relationship and family dynamics that Chaim Potok always manages to write so brilliantly about.

The Gates of November, by Chaim Potok,  is a masterful telling of Jewish familial life and dynamics under extreme social circumstances. It is both horrific and inspirational, and brings to the forefront the degrees of determination people have in order to obtain their goals. I highly recommend it to everyone.

All photography, writing, poetry, etc. is my copyright and may not be reproduced without my express written permission.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Experience, Jewish History, Jewish Immigrant, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Non-Fiction

Review: The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig is a combined study on human behavior and Austrian life. Each story examines behavior, with great detail within the boundaries of Austria’s social standards and mores.

The stories were not only period pieces, but social statements regarding ethics/morals, war and pacifism, and the living standards of the elite versus the poor. Most of the characters are depressed, stuck in a rote of life, and give off an aura of tragic lives lived. The stories are filled with melancholy and slices of drama. Drama played a major role in Austrian lives, and survival depended on roles played.

Pacifism is conveyed in the story entitled “Compulsion“. It involves an artist who receives orders to go to the Austrian consulate. His back and forth indecisiveness reflects those who do not believe in war, yet also feel they should do their duty to their country. Responsibility to his homeland is constantly questioned. Should he go, should he stay, should he go?

Religion factors into many of the stories, from Judaism to Catholicism. The individuals, family units and their beliefs are illuminated through Zweig’s writing. The treatment of Jewish individuals is written with insight and cognizance. Secular Jews were not necessarily considered part of the Austrian fold, depending on time frame and location.

The details within the stories are masterful and filled with perfection. The reader is exposed to the psychology of living in Europe during tragic and uncertain times. This psychology includes the poverty stricken individual’s struggle to survive in a world that looks upon them as less than desirable. Their very psyche is affected, in every aspect.

The bourgeois also strive to fit in. They feel somewhat above those who live in dire straights, but feel less confident than the well off elitists. They are the in between people. The elitists don’t necessarily fare better within their financial circumstances, as odd as that might sound.

Each story is a page-turner in its own right. Some of the characters have life-altering events, along with physical limitations, mindsets and philosophies, ideals, fears and struggles. The stories are not connected. Yet they share a time and place of prewar and war, and the situations that result due to war’s impact on citizens and their lives.

The stories cover the years from 1900 through 1935, with two additional stories having been unpublished until 1951 and 1987, respectively. This reader could see the author’s disintegration from society through the written prose. Zweig’s life was filled with disillusion, antiwar sentiment and a depressive state. So much is apparent in his writing, regarding his mindset, controlled by his dreary outlook on life. His work conveys much of his own thoughts, opinions and emotions, vividly. At least this reader thought so.

The film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is based on some of Zweig’s stories and novels. I can definitely see illuminations of that throughout this book. I have read two of his novels, but had not read this particular collection of works. The Post Office Girl is one of the novels, and the film is also based, in part, on this novel, according to the director, Wes Anderson (I saw it clearly).

Stefan Zweig is brilliant with his visuals, minute details, and in conveying emotional content. He was a masterful story teller, transporting this reader to Austrian life during the first three decades of the 20th century. The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig is a valuable collection of works within one book. The historical value is priceless, and I found the book to be a masterpiece.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Films, Historical Fiction, Jewish History, Judaism, Lorri's Blog

Review: The Train to Warsaw

The Train to Warsaw: A Novel, by Gwen Edelman, is an interesting work of historical fiction, based on two characters’ impressions of the city on a postwar return trip.

Jascha and Lilka have returned to Warsaw after having escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and the atrocities and horrors of World War II. They left individually but managed to reunite years later, after the war.

Jascha is a writer and has been invited to give a reading in Warsaw, forty years after escaping. He is reluctant to go, because deep in his heart he knows that the city is not the same, and that nothing could ever replace what once was.

Lilka, on the other hand, wants to return, wants to put to rest the memories of what occurred, and the positive memories she has of a city that once was. She feels that it will be a cathartic experience and encourages Jascha to attend. He finally gives in, and so their journey begins. In the dead of a cold and snowy winter they travel back to the country they left, and back to memories, both stifled and constant.

The dialogue in the book is written without quotation marks, which made it difficult to realize who was speaking, at times. I found myself having to go back and reread some of the dialogue to ascertain who was the one talking. This made it a more difficult read than necessary.

Their journey through Warsaw, through streets once walked, paths, sights and buildings once so familiar, AND through the area that was the Warsaw Ghetto, became very arduous for them due to the changes that have occurred. The changes of time have purposely been erased. Lilka has difficulty dealing with that, whereas Jascha knew, beforehand, what to more or less expect. He was cognizant of the reality.

Within that concept, the book depicts the individuals that Jascha and Lilka encounter with an indifference in regards to the past. Those individuals either do not want to remember the past, or still harbor antisemitism, or are too young too remember it, or were born a decade or two after the war and do not know the true history behind it. The city’s inhabitants are trying to move forward without bringing their history with them. They want to leave the emotional suitcases and other baggage behind.

The novel takes place on a train, in a hotel room and in the city, itself. With each passing moment, the discussions revolve around the past. Enfolded in those discussions are secrets from the past, that slowly come to be revealed, by both of them.

I felt the book was a bit drab and it dragged on. Of course, Jascha didn’t want to be there to begin with, and Lilka’s concepts keep referring to “what once was”, and she couldn’t let go of those perceptions. She was in shock seeing things for what they currently were, and her depressed state grew even deeper, explaining a lot of the attitude projected in The Train to Warsaw: A Novel.

I am sure that Edelman’s intent was to enhance how events of a former time affect individuals displaced from their homeland, leaving them feeling melancholy and miserable. The individuals can have a constant yearning for home, leaving a void within them. If that was her intention, she succeeded in that respect.

With all of that being said, in my opinion, the novel was okay.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Holocaust/Genocide, Jewish History, Lorri's Blog

Jews and Kayaking

red kayak1

While walking at the lake, yesterday, I saw a man in a red kayak, gliding across the water. For some reason, I began to wonder if there were any Jews who were well-known in the kayaking world.

I know my father would often go kayaking at Prospect Lake in Brooklyn or Central Park in New York City. But, he wasn’t a famous individual. Famous to me, YES, to the world of kayaking, NO.

kayak2

I came home and did a search for “Jews and kayaking”. The Jewish Virtual Library lists four men who have earned world recognition for their efforts in the sport. Their biographies regarding kayaking include the Olympics and other world kayaking events, that put them at the top of the field.

This article caught my eye: Immanuel Braverman, a Holocaust survivor, also kayaked white-waters.

Did you know that about 8,000 Jews were smuggled out of Denmark, and many were on kayaks.

Please excuse the graininess of the photos. I had to zoom my lens in quite a bit in order to get the captures.

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Filed under Holocaust/Genocide, Jewish History, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Photography

Skirball Cultural Center

The Skirball Cultural Center in Beverly Hills, CA, is a place I frequently visit. I go there for special events, exhibits, and to just feel surrounded by an atmosphere devoted to Jewish history and cultural arts.

This is the front entrance to the Skirball.

Near the front entrance.

The pathway to the parking lot as you exit the Skirball.

For updates on upcoming exhibits, events, etc., visit their website.

All photography is my copyright and may not be reproduced without my express permission.

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Filed under Holocaust/Genocide, Jewish History, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Uncategorized

Review: Goliath’s Head

goliaths2 Goliath’s Head, by Alan Fleishman, is a novel that depicts the oppressing life of being Jewish in Russia during the late 19th century and early 20th century, specifically the pogroms of 1905.

Those pogroms were the precursor to the 1917 revolutions, which ended in CommunistBolshevik control of the country. That the Revolution of 1905 became a defining force in the pogroms, and over 3,000 Jews were killed. They were not necessarily killed by government forces, but by individuals who banded together against them.

Avi Schneider is the main character, and at nine-years of age becomes a hated boy, hated by Viktor Askinov. Viktor’s father is influential, and as the son, he constantly lets Avi know that there will not be repercussions for his tormenting and brutal behavior against Avi. He feels he can do, and get away with, anything he chooses to undertake regarding Avi or any Jew. His father will take care of any situation for him, in his line of thinking.

Avi’s family and all Jews are constantly under repressed circumstances, and forced to live in the Pale of Settlement. They are able to work, but unable to live within city/town limits. Their daily borders are within the Pale. Life and living is restricted, and to survive through the hardships is a struggle. And, if that isn’t enough, the riots against the Jews were a part of daily life, the struggles, hardships and fear ever present every minute of every hour.

Avi matures, marries, has family. Within that realm, he becomes part of a group who try to stop the stronghold of inhumane Antisemitism that is trying to overtake the village he lives in. A plan unfolds. Avi must decide what to do. He is left with two choices, save himself and his family, or fight for his beliefs, his people, his Jewish community.

Goliath’s Head is a compelling and powerful read, and this reader read it straight through. Once I began it, I couldn’t put it down. The story is much more than historical fiction, history that Alan Fleishman brings to life, masterfully. I highly recommend Goliath’s Head to everyone.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Jewish History, Judaism, Lorri's Blog, Novels