Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Book Review: Destined to Choose ****

Destined to Choose by Sheyna Galyan ****

Rabbi David Cohen is struggling to write a sermon for Tisha b'Av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the observance of which the leaders of his congregation feel is a waste of time. His obligations to his family and his job are in conflict, to the detriment of both. Finally, an elderly Holocaust survivor has turned to him for help in finding the man's eighteen-year-old granddaughter, who has left their home after a furious argument over a philosophy paper she wrote for college. This is the situation at the opening of Sheyna Galyan's Destined to Choose.

Rabbi Cohen's intensive counseling sessions with Avram and his granddaughter Anna, once she is located, are at the center of this promising first novel, and their discussions, as well as his interactions with other characters, range widely over several aspects of Jewish thought, practice and theology, while still remaining relatively accessible to the average reader. A helpful glossary of Jewish terms is also provided at the end of the book.

Are people basically good, or tainted from the start? If they are basically good, how do we explain Hitler and his followers? What are the reasons for the rabbi's refusal to perform a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, and how far should he go in attempting to portray Judaism as an attractive option to the non-Jewish partner? How does he reconcile the conflict between the needs of his family and the requirements of his job, and should he stand on principle when it puts his livelihood in jeopardy?

Not all of these questions are answered, but Ms. Galyan, who, according to her website, "identifies herself as Traditional Conservative, with occasional leanings toward both Reform and Feminist Orthodoxy - sometimes simultaneously," gives her readers plenty of food for thought in the course of the book.

Avram and Anna are rounded, sympathetic characters whose positions are occasionally diametrically opposed to what a more stereotyped viewpoint might suggest. The rabbi's loving relationship with his family, as well as his supportive friendship with his colleagues and the secretary at the temple are also well portrayed.

Since this is a first novel, it has some weaknesses. The president of the temple comes off as more of a caricature than a real person, and some might feel that the rabbi's many problems resolve themselves just a little too neatly at the end. However, the story and and the thoughtful way in which the author and her characters wrestle with some serious issues more than compensate for these minor flaws and make Destined to Choose a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

On a lighter note....

I've been thinking of compiling a list of my pet peeves, but one of them is that I've been trying to do it in my head and so the list never gets very long because I keep forgetting them. Anyway, here are some of my least favorite things in books, things on which, while I may have liked or enjoyed or not been bothered by them at one time, I now feel it is time to put a moratorium.

1) Vampires, at least until someone can do something original with them. The whole S&M-tinged, "vampire as great lover" thing has been done to death. BO-ring.

2) Dragons, except as bit players as in Harry Potter.

3) Women with charming but selfish, usually alcoholic fathers whom they adore no matter how badly the fathers treat them, their siblings and their mothers.

4) Women with irresponsible hippie-type (if not actual hippie) mothers whom they must parent, and for whom they feel a mixture of love and exasperation.

(Note: Neither of these types of parents ever appear to have sons, or at least sons who appear as main characters in novels or memoirs.)

5) Bad puns in the titles of mysteries.

6) Whole mystery series built around crosswords, scrapbooking, gardening, etc., etc.

7) Books written in the present tense - something I have hated since the first one I read.

Well, that's all for now - I'm sure I'll think of more

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

We have made history

... and now we move forward. I do not envy President-Elect Obama the task that lies before him, but for now hope has won out over fear and unity over division. And John McCain, in an evident return to sanity, has urged Americans to unite behind the man whom he has called every name in the book except the Antichrist - and some of his supporters have done that (called Obama the Antichrist, that is).

I am proud of us, America. God bless us all, v'al kol yoshvey tevel (and all the rest of the world).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


As if your life and the future of your country depended on it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A couple more reasons not to vote for McCain

Just in case you needed any more.

1) The alleged "Joe" the "Plumber" - I never want to hear another word about him (or from him) for the rest of my life, and McCain is threatening to take him to Washington. (Incidentally, I'm a regular working person, and I can't afford to take the time off to travel around with a political campaign.) If Obama wins, "Joe" will, please God, sink back into the well-deserved obscurity from which he came.

2) If McCain wins, it will mean that slander and smears work, and elections for the foreseeable future will turn into ever more vicious mudslinging contests.