Recent Reading: Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas by Elisa Klaphek

Fraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman RabbiFraulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi by Elisa Klapheck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A really fascinating portrayal, translated from the German, of the first woman ordained as a rabbi. I researched her for this year's seder, where I present a brief bio of a Jewish woman, living or dead, for the Miriam's Cup ritual (see for more information.

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Recent Reading: The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

The Two Hotel FrancfortsThe Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No one mixes historical fiction with homosexual love and eroticism quite like David Leavitt. This one, set in Lisbon in 1940, tells the story of two married couples trying to get to America as the Nazis take over more and more of Europe.

Collapse )I found the ending (which I won't spoil here) to be the weak point of the novel. It felt both contrived and rushed, as if the author had grown tired of writing the book and just wanted to finish it. All in all, though, a compelling and thought-provoking read.

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Recent Reading: 50 Jewish Messiahs, by Jerry Rabow

50 Jewish Messiahs: The Untold Life Stories of 50 Jewish Messiahs Since Jesus and How They Changed the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Worlds50 Jewish Messiahs: The Untold Life Stories of 50 Jewish Messiahs Since Jesus and How They Changed the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Worlds by Jerry Rabow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was better in concept than execution. The only Jew I knew much about who claimed to be the Messiah before reading this book was Shabbatai Zvi. I was really intrigued to learn about other false messiahs in other times and places, as well as what motivated them and what became of them. Some of those would-be Messiahs are in here; some were hucksters and some sincere but crazy. Almost all came to bad ends. Their stories are really fascinating but reading this book just gives you enough info to intrigue, as the focus is on quantity of messiahs rather than quality of scholarship or writing. I'd love to hear more, for example, about the one who convinced people he was the messiah "because he could fly." It would be interesting to see the sources - who said they saw him flying? What did that look like? Are there existing accounts of skeptics who thought he was somehow faking it? In general, the messianic claims are just stated, with little reference to contemporaneous sources and few quotes.

More of a problem is that to try to make the numbers larger, he includes major Jewish religious figures, scholars, and writers who never claimed messianic status. Rabow says that some Jews at the time considered the likes of Joseph Karo, the Ari (Isaac Luria), and others to be the Messiah. However, he doesn't support that claim well, again not quoting often from original documents, and it seems to me that it muddies the waters to include people who made no messianic claim and had no actual group of followers who called them Messiah.

All that said, it was a fun read and a very quick one. And the introduction, in which he explains the Jewish concept of the messiah and how it differs among different communities and has evolved over time, is a simple yet cogent treatment of the topic.

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Thoughts on Watching House While Recuperating

House, MD, which I never saw when it was on television, has come to Netflix. I'm home with a broken leg and have been binge watching. I'm in the middle of Season 2. Some thoughts/questions/comments:

- Vicodin is good stuff, but I can't imagine how he can work while taking those. I can barely keep my eyes open when I do.
- Why do House and Wilson never refer to Wilson's wife by name? I get that she and House don't get along, but presumably he knows her name. And it's really not usual for someone to say "my wife" rather than a name when talking to his best friend.
- I definitely see the slash potential in House/Wilson that got everyone interested in the first place.
- In the first season they tried for lots of dramatic medical scenes but nothing disgusting. The patients were always seizing or having heart attacks or falling down unconscious. But they avoided vomiting (unless it was blood, which is more dramatic than disgusting) or diarrhea and the surgery was always very carefully filmed to avoid looking too gross. By the second season either they felt they had their audience sold and could take more risks, wanted to make it look more realistic, or both. There are plenty of disgusting stuff coming out of the patients, and you get to see someone's hand cut off, too.
- I really like all the characters, and find the stories engaging. I'm willing to suspend disbelief as needed.
- I've started wondering if I really have a broken leg. Maybe I just think I have a broken leg and I really have something much more complex and subtle to diagnose...

Recent Reading: Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition by Marni Davis

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of ProhibitionJews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition by Marni Davis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting chapter in American Jewish history with which I was unfamiliar. Davis explores Jewish involvement in the alcohol trade in nineteenth and early twentieth century America, focusing on how working in this field both helped connect Jews to the larger culture and, at the same time, worked to define a subculture. Then, with the rise of the Temperance Movement, American Jews had the experience of being on the losing side of a contentious issue that split the nation. How Prohibition influenced American Jewry - before, during, and after that "Noble Experiment" is much of the focus of the book.

The story is a compelling one, but you do have to have some investment in it to get through the book, which is written in a somewhat dry (ha ha) academic style. I enjoyed it anyway, but I wouldn't recommend it as bedtime reading.

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Recent Reading: Lamaze: an International History by Paula Michaels

Lamaze: An International HistoryLamaze: An International History by Paula A. Michaels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I quite enjoyed this book. Although written by an historian and published by an academic press, it's very accessible. The author came to write it because she was surprised to find out during her first pregnancy that the Lamaze method of prepared childbirth, which she had always assumed was developed in France, was in fact imported by Dr. Lamaze from the Soviet Union. She was particularly surprised because her field of specialty is Russian medical history and she didn't know this!

I have no such credentials but was also surprised that Lamaze, also known as psychoprophylaxis, is not French in origin. That was the hook that got me into the book, but I stayed for the really intriguing take she has on childbirth and culture and how they interact.Collapse )

Recent Reading: The Duck That Won the Lottery: 100 New Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher

The Duck That Won the Lottery: 100 New Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher by Julian Baggini

This is a fun, useful, and quick-to-read book with a lousy title. The Duck part is fine because it's intriguing, but what are "experiments for the armchair philosopher" when they're at home? I had no idea what I was going to read when I picked this one up. Collapse )
A good book for those who enjoyed Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner, and How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff. And if you haven't read those, read them too.

Recent Reading: Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy, a reader edited by Bruce Bawer

Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left OrthodoxyBeyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy by Bruce Bawer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wonder what I would have thought of this book of essays if I had read it 20 years ago. I had found Bruce Bawer the most palatable of the gay neo-conservatives active at the time. His A Place at the Table, replete with personal stories, speaks cogently and affectingly in the voice of those who want to fit into society as it is, but want room to be gay. This is by contrast with the larger gay rights movement at the time (and to some extent over time) which tends to align itself with other struggles for civil rights and other progressive causes.

Bawer and the other essayists in this volume (almost all white men from privileged backgrounds - 2 of 41 essays are written by women) want to avoid mixing causes. They also want a conservative solution - one that allows private discrimination but ends government sponsored discrimination. It's not a political philosophy or worldview I embrace, but it's interesting and in some of these essays their position is well argued.

Collapse )In sum, I'm glad I read it but I don't know that I recommend it. If someone wants to understand the gay neo-conservative view, I'd more likely recommend either Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal or Bawer's A Place at the Table.

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Recent Reading: Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Really engaging book about family dynamics and coping skills in families where the children differ in a major and unexpected way from their parents. This is not just a parenting book - although parents will certainly relate to it. Ultimately, though, it's a book about personal identity and where it comes from, using the circumstance of children who "fell far from the tree" to illuminate a search for identity that is part of the human condition.
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One odd omission is families with gay and lesbian children. It is particularly odd since the author is a gay man and in the first chapter talks about how his mother's difficulty with him coming out affected his identity development and gave him the idea for the book.

These are quibbles, though. I highly recommend this book, although given the physical size it is, as my SIL has said, a good argument for e-readers.