Monday, November 26, 2012

Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

Bill O'Reilly with his collaborator has created a fast paced, engaging account of the last days of Abraham Lincoln.  He has successfully developed the cast of characters that comprised of the conspiracy to eliminate Lincoln.  The book reads like a thriller.  He describes the last battles and General Lee's attempt to escape General Grant's grasp.  His descriptions of U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee are compellingly accurate.  Lincoln comes off sympathetic and prophetic in expecting his own doom.  Mary Lincoln is sympathetically depicted as mentally unstable.  John Wilkes Booth, however, is described fully with aplomb.  He comes off suave, a lady's man, confident if not arrogant, even narcissistic.

Lincoln's magnanimity is shown through his policies of reconciliation. For example, Robert E. Lee is very impressed with the terms of surrender.  Lincoln, very aware of the need to unify the country is not interested in prosecuting southern soldiers.  He wants people to get on with their lives and not fester hard feelings through harsh measures.

Unfortunately, many were not willing to accept the loss; they were not interested in accepting a different South.  John W. Booth was an angry man bent on destruction.  His anger prevented him from seeing that he could not change the fate of the country by just eliminating the president.  His arrogance knew no bounds.  His little known accomplices came off believable.  Powell, for example who viciously attacks Secretary Seward and his family at his home was described as a classic cold blooded killer.

American History comes alive in this very readable volume.  O'Reilly successfully teaches a tragic episode of the conclusion of the Civil War. In a divided country, Killing Lincoln is a fine reminder that one must be alert for unchecked passions.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Unbroken Spirit: a heroic story of faith, courage and survival by Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich

This contribution belongs to the literary genre of Soviet Jewry's struggle for freedom.  It was published thirty years prior in Russian and Hebrew and has finally been brought to the English speaking public.  There are some important features that I thought very worthwhile.  The approach of the KGB, the author's unwavering faith and patience and his determination not to succumb to the pressures of the harsh prison and Gulag experience mark this book as an important read.

The KGB is described in its complete amoral and immoral detail as a cunning machine of deception with the sole purpose of forcing a confession.  The style and detail of Rabbi Mendelevich's description of the KGB is startlingly consistent with the descriptions of Ida Nudel and Natan Scharansky, other freed Soviet Jews.  The seemingly innocuous questions or the 'routine' required signatures are only tactics to secure confessions.  The discussions are reminiscent of a chess game trying to figure out  and counter one's adversary's next move.  When asked to sign for the release of his siddur, prayerbook, the author responds miraculously, "You did not require a signature when you confiscated it, therefore you can return without a signature!"

One wonders what would have become of Rabbi Mendelevich had he not had a cause to go to Israel.  What would have happened to him had he not had a connection to his family.  What would have happened to him had he not been strong in his faith in Gd.  What was amazing about the author was that with the little learning of Torah and Judaism he possessed resulted in a defiance that leaped beyond anyone's expectations.  His legendary hunger strikes for the return of his books and study materials fortify one's soul.

When asked after his release where he wanted to go, he replied "Israel!"  He was shocked by the question because the entire reason for his incarceration was his desire to go the Jewish homeland.  He was told that many want to go the USA to which he responded with 'I want to speak to them'.  He explained that he was not interested in changing their mind, but rather he was interested in understanding why?  For him his Jewish identity precluded any other destination!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Jews Welcome Coffee by Robert Liberles

Our contemporary world is saturated with a plethora of full bodied flavorful coffees.  While living in Northern California I was partial to the strong aromatic coffee of Peete’s well before Starbucks inundated the marketplace!  One would be hard pressed to remember when coffee was not part of our daily ritual.  Not only is coffee socially relevant but it also is a staple in the Beit Midrash, study hall due to its stimulant caffeine.  I remember one of my teachers in Yeshiva dismissing a beverage because it lacked the stimulant saying in Hebrew “there is nothing in this!.”  A coffee station is universal in every Study Hall in the Yeshiva world.

However, there was a time when coffee was new to the world.  Coffee was introduced in the 17th and 18th centuries in European cities.  That introduction caused a social stir because as the popularity of coffee grew it began to rival and compete with the other beverages of choice: beer and spirits.  The fervor with which coffee caused had serious economic impact.  Beer, for example in Germany brought in tax revenues.  A decrease in beer consumption as a result in coffee’s popularity was felt immediately by the ruling class. In the non-Jewish world there was a social uproar on how to deal with the coffee trade and increased consumption.  At first, the beverage was savaged in upper class circles, however, its popularity was ever rising throughout the entire populace until it supremacy became evident.  Interesting enough, England adopted tea as the modern drink of choice and not coffee.

Robert Liberles wrote a creative history of the Jewish interaction with coffee.  The Jewish community adopted swiftly coffee as a choice beverage.  The rabbis saw quickly the advantages of coffee’s medicinal and stimulant qualities in Torah study.  For example, the custom of Tikkun Chatzot, a very old practice of rising in the middle of the night to say supplications, increased in popularity in the modern period directly due to coffee consumption.  Rabbinic literature is full of interesting discussions: Rabbi Yaakov Emden was lenient in his rulings pertaining to coffee: its kashrut, its preparation and drinking it in a non-Jewish public house.  The Chasom Sofer and others argued against frequenting the ‘coffee house’ as frivolous or wasting precious time from studying Torah or doing Mitzvos. 

There is an interesting court case of discrimination against Jews.  The proprietor of a coffee shop claims that serving Jews discourages his non Jewish clientele.  What makes this an important case is that Germany was still functioning under Napoleonic influence where everyone is equal before the law and thus discriminatory practices would be forbidden. The proprietor claims that had the Jews been wearing the 'French sash' he would have served them!  This injustice resulted in a brawl. 

This book is a fascinating study of the Jewish community during the time of its emergence from the ghetto and how the community interacted with the outside world through the consumption and trade of the now everyday drink.