By Larry Gordon
Some people I know breeze through books at breakneck speed and then pass judgment about how they felt about the story, the author, the writing style, and so on.
The reality is that over the last two decades I’ve only written several essays on the books that have captured my attention.
First, let me say that that I’ve always been enamored by books and that some of my best days in high school were spent in libraries, both when I was supposed to be there and when I was actually supposed to be in school.
My reading has become significantly compartmentalized since then. There is online reading, which dominates these days, there are physical newspapers, which actually still get tossed onto our driveway every day, and then there is the thrill of hardcover books. Of course, there is Fox News and Netflix, which take up part of the time that once might have been devoted to reading.
The way things have evolved, reading books has become something I do on Shabbos or yom tov, when we do not utilize electronic media. That is, of course, after the daily daf and reviewing the Torah portion of the week with assorted commentaries that, although they might be over 500 years old, always open up new vistas and create new ideas.
That said, let me tell you which books I am in the middle of reading right now. On my desk I have three books that are partially read and that I am making my way through, mostly on weekends (OK, Shabbos afternoon).
Right now I am about halfway through The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits. The book was written in Hebrew and is beautifully translated by Orr Scharf, who teaches cultural studies and translation theory at the University of Haifa. This is his first literary translation. Iczkovits has previously been awarded the Ramat Gan Prize for this book as well as the Agnon Prize.
The story takes place in the late 19th century in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, mostly in the towns of Motal and Grodno. The main characters are two sisters, Mende (which I read as Mindy) and Fanny. Both are married with children. Mende is married to Tzvi Meir and Fanny to Nosson Berel. Tzvi Meir has disappeared, leaving his wife in a classical halachic state of an agunah, with no knowledge of what happened to her husband.
Fanny, whose husband is a prosperous dairy farmer, decides to leave home to go hunt down Tzvi Meir with the objective of reuniting her sister with her husband. She leaves in the middle of the night while her family is asleep, primarily because her husband, Nosson Berel, would never agree to her plan.
The sisters were raised in the Motal shtetl where their father was the town shochet. Upon Fanny’s insistence, her father taught her to become an expert slaughterer. So adept and efficient is Fanny with her knife that as a teenager, when she was taught the trade, she was given the nickname “the Vilde Chaya.” On the road in search of Tzvi Meir, this skill comes in handy, as she is attacked by robbers on the road and is left with no choice but to use her sharp knife to kill the attackers. That, of course, leads to a police hunt for the murderer.
So far she is on the run, still looking for Tzvi Meir and keeping one step ahead of the authorities. On the road, aside from her great blade-wielding abilities, Fanny is also protected by former Polish military men who have long left behind Jewish observance but still bear names like Yoshke Berkovitz and Mottel Avramson.
This is a very colorful book with extraordinary imagery by the author about what life was like in the 19th-century shtetl. It’s a smooth and entertaining read and I very much want to know where this story goes, but my reading time is limited, and it looks like that has an edge over my curiosity about what happens next in the saga.
There is just so much fiction that I can consume in a year and The Slaughterman’s Daughter has pretty much filled most of the last few months. To contrast the fiction I am also reading The Authoritarian Moment, by syndicated radio host and impresario of the Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro.
Shapiro’s direct style does not mince words and gets straight to the point on a myriad of contemporary news stories of the day. Essentially, the 275-page book tells us that whatever the Democrats are or have accused the Republican leaders of doing is specifically what they are guilty of doing. It is an interesting political strategy that’s deeply dishonest and corrupt but is so far working well for them.
The antidote to these types of damaging policies for the U.S. is to expose them to the light of day and to be aware along the way that Democrat leadership is quickly leading us in the direction of authoritarianism. These days we hear much of the same thing from news personalities like Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin, amongst others.
It is a frustrating read because after all these months we know that this is exactly the case but there is really nothing we can do about it until the midterm elections over a year from now. The good news in all this, though, is that the conservative or moderate Democrats are going to have to pull back soon from unquestionably supporting all the left-wing legislative lunacy. That is, if they want to be reelected, which most of them desperately want to achieve.
I am also slowly but surely finishing Never Alone by Natan Sharansky. It’s a wonderfully informative volume, and the high point of it is that except for his very early years in Russia, he writes about events that I not only lived through and witnessed but also had the opportunity to report in a series of media venues. Never Alone is a thorough recounting of the evolution of the Soviet Jewry movement. Especially interesting is how U.S.-based Jewish organizations battled one another for credit in freeing Soviet Jews, whom they met on missions to Moscow, some using economic force to try to prevent refuseniks like Sharansky from meeting with some American Jewish leaders.
The book takes us through his career as a member of the Knesset and as deputy prime minister and the challenges of serving under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and later Bibi Netanyahu. Natan Sharansky has lived a life full of great struggles and accomplishments. If you are drawn toward the nuances of beneath-the-surface power struggles in Israel then this is an excellent read no matter how long it takes you to finish it.
As I’ve reported here in the past, I was probably the last of my acquaintances to finally give up reading The New York Times, even online. I do sneak a peek every now and then, but only to read Bret Stephens who, though he has not yet gotten over the Trump presidency, is showing signs that, given the opportunity, he might want Trump back in some fashion.
It took time, but I’ve learned how to enjoy The Wall Street Journal, which seems more in touch with the growing thought process of the American public. Their editorials tell it like it is, and they are merciless—and rightfully so—regarding the terrible damage that the Biden administration is doing to our country. For example, an editorial from this past Monday was on the mark: “The Biden administration has botched immigration policy as bad as it did the Afghanistan withdrawal and it may now suffer the indignity of readopting a Trump-era border policy that candidate Joe Biden denounced as un-American.
‘“Donald Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is dangerous, inhumane, and goes against everything we stand for as a nation of immigrants. My administration will end it,’ Mr. Biden tweeted in March 2020. That was when Mr. Biden was courting the left.” It doesn’t get better than that.
Other than the WSJ, we also subscribe to the New York Post—online and home delivery. For me, the Post sports section is the best and is the material that I turn to when I need something light as an alternative to the heavy politics and intense history of war. Of course, it doesn’t help that all the New York sports teams are big losers this year so far.
The point is this: there is a tremendous amount of media to consume out there. And it is important to be selective and discerning. Netflix seems to come up with a new show daily; at least that is what the e-mail from them says. With the literally thousands of programs to choose from I haven’t found anything worth devoting time to since Shtisel.
That was until the other night when I stumbled across The Forgotten Battle, about an aspect of World War II of which I was completely unaware. The forgotten battle in question is the Battle of the Scheldt. Months after Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy (D-Day and the Battle of Normandy), the Allies were rapidly advancing west, defeating the Nazi troops. The Allies liberated the Belgian port of Antwerp—crucial in getting access to the North Sea and thus securing supply lines. In order to use the port, though, the Allies needed to clear the region between Antwerp and the North Sea along the Scheldt River, which was occupied by Nazi troops. This task was given to the First Canadian Army, and is considered the largest operation in the Netherlands during the war. Who knew?
I still like bookstores, libraries, and out-of-town newspapers. In fact, I have an app that downloads the front page of just about every daily newspaper in the country. And of course, there is this paper. Bottom line: there’s a lot to read.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.