Words of Devotion

Before the Door of God
Edited by Jay Hopler and Kimberly Johnson

The Sea Sleeps: New and Selected Poems
by Greg Miller

Once in the West
by Christian Wiman

Across the Border

Ruins
Peter Kuper
SelfMadeHero Books, 2015. The artist most well known for his Mad Magazine “Spy vs. Spy” pages has had quite a career, artistic and political. Much of it began when he abandoned his hometown Cleveland, back in 1977, for Manhattan. The creation of World War 3 Illustrated, the now long-lasting comics annual, encompassed but did not exhaust his views of his adopted location, summed up artistically in the gorgeous Drawn to New York, published in 2013.

In Search of the Thing-Itself

The Complete Stories
Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson
Edited and introduced by Benjamin Moser
New Directions, 2015

“I have found one contemporary I like,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote from Rio de Janeiro. “She has a wonderful name—Clarice Lispector.” Today’s English-language readers of Lispector, bewitched by recent translations of novels such as The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star, might be surprised to learn that Bishop admired the Brazilian for her work in a different form. “Her 2 or 3 novels I don’t think are so good but her short stories are almost like the stories I’ve always thought should be written about Brazil—Tchekovian, slightly sinister and fantastic,” Bishop wrote. “Actually I think she is better than J.L. Borges—who is good, but not all that good!”

Jewish Thought

Human Nature & Jewish Thought
Alan L. Mittleman
Princeton University Press, 2015

Jews and Genes: The Genetic Future in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Laurie Zoloth
Jewish Publication Society, 2015

One of the popular ways to dismiss plans for healing and transforming the world is to assert that the distortions we see in the contemporary world are an inevitable outcome of a fixed human nature. In his careful examination of Jewish thought, Alan Mittleman insists on the centrality of moral personhood not constrained by any set of conditions external to the process of ethical reflection and intuition. Not only are reductionist programs incoherent, he argues, they are also absurd. He argues for real freedom and transcendence but simultaneously insists on our human limitations: “We are holy—and capable of unimaginable evil.” Holding both, he suggests, is one of the great strengths of the Jewish tradition. Some genetic diseases are more prevalent among Ashkenazic Jews than among the general population, largely because Jews were always a small population and historically predominantly married only other Jews.

Writing and Spirituality

Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places
Gary Snyder, in conversation with Julia Martin
Trinity University Press, 2014

Nobody Home presents three interviews conducted by South African scholar and writer Julia Martin with the poet Gary Snyder that take place from the late 1980s to 2010, along with a selection of letters between them covering the same period. Martin was a young academic in apartheid South Africa when she first reached out to Snyder, motivated by her critical work on his poetry and thinking. Martin’s study and practice of Buddhism and her intuitive grasp of Snyder’s importance as a forefather of a growing international movement of spiritual environmentalism provoked Snyder to respond with sympathy and encouragement. They had an instant rapport in letters, which led to the interviews. This is a great period for Snyder, as his thinking about the nondualism of self/no-self and its relation to the world and all phenomena is culminating in his concentration on finishing Mountains and Rivers Without End, one of the crowning works of his generation of poets.

The Poetry of a Jewish Humanist

Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems 1980-2015
by Chana Bloch
Autumn House Press, 2015

A child of immigrant parents who was raised in an observant Jewish household, poet Chana Bloch has absorbed the details of her ethnic and linguistic heritage; this includes what she has called “the habit of questioning,” which is “not only sanctioned by Jewish tradition, it’s an honored part of it.” As a poet, biblical scholar, and translator of ancient and modern Hebrew poetry, she has followed her teacher Robert Lowell’s advice to “learn to write from [her] own translations.”

Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems demonstrates that Bloch has converted that important lesson into a unique poetic voice that modulates from the homespun to the literary and shifts from wit and humor to a pull-no-punches toughness. Spare and musical, intimate while open to history, intelligent and emotionally rich in the details of divisions and connections, Bloch’s poetry negotiates the complexities of her identity as a first-generation Jew, a woman, a child, a parent, a wife, a lover, and a citizen. A self-proclaimed “Jewish humanist,” Bloch quarrels with tradition by asking why God has to make divisions. Some of the divisions she writes about include those between husband and wife, parents and children, illness and health, historical memory and momentary joy, and the contradictions within Judaism itself. Bloch critiques these divisions and, when she finds them, offers alternatives that are more inclusive and more humanistic.

Jacob Chose Hospice: A Critique of Invasive End-of-Life Care

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande
Metropolitan Books, 2014

What does the Torah have to say about end-of-life care? Its most striking story on this topic appears in the last four chapters of Genesis, which describe the hospice death of the Jewish patriarch Jacob. After Jacob became ill, he summoned his children and grandchildren, and requested burial in the Caves of Machpeleh, alongside his parents (Isaac and Rebecca) and his grandparents (Abraham and Sarah). He gave blessings to his sons, and “when Jacob finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed; he expired and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33). He suffered no invasive medical interventions, he was surrounded by his family and was able to bless them, and he died a peaceful death.

What Can Replace Prison?

Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison
by Nell Bernstein
The New Press, 2014

Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better
by Maya Schenwar
Berrett-Koehler, 2014

If you have the capacity to read one book on prisons this month, which should you choose? For many people I would say without hesitation: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012). It is a stunning book. Or it was for me. Call me naïve, but it had never occurred to me that the cancerous growth of the prison system since the 1970s might have been a response to the success of the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s.

A Scientific View of God

A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet

by Nancy Abrams

Beacon Press, 2015

Nancy Abrams needed a higher power. As one of the premiere science writers of our time, she found both the Iron Age gods of the Abrahamic faiths and the pseudo-scientific mysticisms of New Age gurus wanting. So she turned to what she knew best: science. What she found is set forth in her important, cogent, and challenging new book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet. This is not another book about the clash of science and religion.

Fiction as a Means to Uncover the Truth

Searching for Wallenberg

by Alan Lelchuk

Mandel Vilar Press 2015

Review by Louis Gordon

 

 

The fate of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of countless Hungarian Jews in the last years of World War II, is as shrouded in mystery today as it was sixty years ago when he vanished during the Soviet occupation of Hungary. Was Wallenberg executed by the Soviets after capture? Did he die of a heart attack in a Soviet prison in 1947? Or did he languish in the Gulag for many years afterward, as reported by an assortment of witnesses? Alan Lelchuk’s novel, Searching for Wallenberg, offers a fictional account of Wallenberg’s life that draws on a startling nonfictional interview by the author with the Swedish diplomat’s KGB interrogator to create a narrative which is more illuminating than any history we have or may ever get.