One-Minute Book Reviews

March 27, 2007

Young, Jewish and Hoping for a Short Seder

A short story collection for people with more than four questions — way more — about how to reconcile their Jewish faith with their Phish bootlegs

You’re young, you’re Jewish, and you’re praying – well, maybe not praying – for a short seder. Who understands you? Elisa Albert, author of How This Night Is Different (Free Press, $18.95) a smart, funny and often bawdy collection of stories about young Jews looking for meaning in rituals that include a seder, a wedding, bat mitzvah, a Yom Kippur service and a packaged tour of Auschwitz. As a Nov. 22 review on this site noted, Albert’s writing transcends the label “Jewish fiction.” But How This Night Is Different could still make a fine Passover gift for anyone hip enough to see the comic potential characters such as a 31-year-old single woman who goes home for the holiday with that least inappropriate of ailments, a yeast infection. How many short story collections have, as this one does, a cover inspired by a bottle of Manishevitz?

Links: Author site One-Minute Book Reviews review

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2006

Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: A Guide to Raising Children With Good Character

A wise and compassionate guide to raising children who have good character, not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. By Wendy Mogel. Penguin/Compass, 300 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Are you a Jewish parent trying to solve the “December dilemma,” which Wendy Mogel describes as “resisting the allure of Christmas without building Hanukkah up into a high-stature holiday it was never meant to be”? Are you a parent of another faith who wishes your children would express more gratitude for what they have and fewer complaints about what they don’t have this month?

If so, you can walk into almost any bookstore and find good books about how to tone down the materialism of the season. Wendy Mogel deals instead with the broader issue that often lies behind the concerns about holiday excesses: How can you raise children who have their priorities straight? In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, she gives wise and compassionate answers to the question: How can you help your children develop good character and not just good personalities or high “self-esteem”?

Mogel bases her responses on Jewish teachings and her work as a psychologist and leader of workships for parents, and her advice is so refreshing that her book has won deserved acclaim not just from Jewish leaders but from secular critics and publications such as the Episcopal Schools Review. Mogel rightly argues that many parents are so eager to avoid the mistakes of their own elders that they have given away the store: “In their eagerness to do right by their children, parents not only overindulge them materially, but also spoil them emotionally.” They prize their children’s feelings so highly that they fail to instill in them an adequate sense of gratitude and of their responsibilities to others, including their parents, teachers, and community.

How can parents undo the damage? Mogel offers a step-by-step guide in which she is unafraid to use words like “should.” She is rarely less direct than she is in a comment in her section on the importance of manners: “When taking food and eating it in the presence of a parent, friend, or sibling, your child should always make an automatic habit of offering either to share or to get some for the other person. ‘I’m getting myself a glass of orange juice. Would you like one too?’ ‘Would you like some of these chips?’” And if you think you couldn’t get your children to do this, this book may change your mind.

For years Mogel has worked in the Los Angeles area and counseled some of the country’s most demanding parents and privileged children. She knows the pressures that high-octane families face and takes a good-humored and down-to-earth approach to them. (Her advice on instilling respect includes a section called “Curing Sitcom Mouth.”) Because her book has become so popular, you can also find it in most bookstores. If you’re looking for a last-minute Hanukkah present for thoughtful parents, your search has ended.

Best line: “An especially troubling aspect of modern child-rearing is the way parents fetishize their children’s achievements and feelings and neglect to help them develop a sense of duty toward others.”

Worst line: The cover of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee shows a girl and boy wearing fully loaded backpacks that fall to their hips. These backpacks do not appear to meet the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics: “The backpack should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of the student’s body weight.” The AAP suggests a rolling backback for students with a heavy load, which these two are obviously have. The photo shouldn’t necessarily be held against Mogel because authors may not have the final say in — or even be consulted about — what goes on the covers of their books.

Editor: Jane Rosenman

Recommended if … you’re looking for an antidote to parenting guides with an “anything goes” attitude toward children’s behavior.

Published: September 2001

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 22, 2006

Elisa Albert’s Stories About Young Jews Searching for Meaning They Can’t Find in Phish Bootlegs

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 am
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An entertaining and often bawdy collection about a new diaspora in clubs, bars, and hostels

How This Night Is Different: Stories. By Elisa Albert. Free Press, 198 pp., $18.

How This Night Is Different has a bottle of Passover wine on the cover and is getting attention at Jewish book fairs and related events. But this book should no more be ghetto-ized as “Jewish fiction” than John Cheever’s work should be pigeonholed as “Protestant fiction.” It transcends literary typecasting.

Each of its ten stories deals with young Jews who are struggling to make sense of a different ritual or activity – a circumcision, a bat mitzvah, a wedding, a Passover seder, a packaged tour of Auschwitz. Their characters are looking for more meaning than they find in sex, Phish bootlegs, and Cool-Breeze-fueled benders. But the form of Judaism they have inherited doesn’t provide the answers they need, and without the sense of community that kept their ancestors together, they have become a new diaspora, a generation scattered among bars, youth hostels, and Hillel groups.

Elisa Albert’s characters often try to find comfort in humor that ranges from droll to bawdy. In “The Mother Is Always Upset,” a young mother resists the circumcision of her infant son even as relatives gather at her home for the ceremony. A guest considers the mohel who will perform the act: “He was eighty if he was a day, but he came highly recommended by the temple sisterhood as the foreskin obliterator in town. A fourth-generation mohel, according to Shirley. This, apparently, was like the Eastern European equivalent of being a Kennedy.” In another story the narrator tries to understand how her best friend could have become a religious extremist: “This from the girl who, in the ninth grade, using a peeled cucumber, taught me how to give a proper blow job.”

One of the pleasures of this collection is that its stories are suspenseful, a quality often lacking in contemporary fiction. You turn keep turning the pages not out of obligation because you want to know how things end. And if her characters are spiritually adrift, Albert knows exactly where she’s going.

Best line: “Michael worked for a media conglomerate referred to by Beth as ‘Satan Incorporated.’”

Worst line: “The driver giggles to himself, perhaps reliving a funny Jim Carrey moment.” Can you giggle to yourself? Especially when this line appears in a story told from the point of view of a passenger in a taxi cab, not the driver?

Recommended if … you’re looking for a fresh and funny new voice in literary fiction.

Editor: Maris Kreizman

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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