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.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Coming out of hibernation

Below are a couple of older reviews that I wrote for the temple newsletter last year, but I just posted them on Amazon and thought I would put them up here as well.

I've also been jolted out of my extended inactivity by the tragic shooting in Tucson last Saturday. Needless to say, my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.

However, I have found the reaction to it interesting and somewhat disturbing, particularly in the media. On the left there has been discussion of the part played by the violent rhetoric of the last election season and, while the feeling is obviously that most of that has taken place on the other side, there has also been introspection and self-examination, most notably by Keith Olbermann. (I personally, would like to apologize for any intemperate language on my part; I'm sure there has been some, although I can't think of specific instances.) In the so-called "mainstream media," there has been a false equivalency; if rhetoric played a part, well, everyone does it in equal measure. On the right, with a couple of exceptions, there has been little but finger pointing at the other side and a hysterical defensiveness.

I find it sad that we can't agree on one thing: painting one's opponent as evil and not just mistaken but malicious, using language such as "take him/her out," "Second Amendment remedies" (which by no stretch of
my imagination, at least, can be construed as "metaphorical"), and shooting automatic weapons at campaign events, particularly at cutouts labeled with the opponent's initials, should be beyond the pale - at least as of now. I can only agree with Bill Clinton's remarks on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing:

"What we learned from Oklahoma City is not that we should gag each other or that we should reduce our passion for the positions we hold - but that the words we use really do matter, because there's this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike," he said.

"One of the things that the conservatives have always brought to the table in America is a reminder that no law can replace personal responsibility. And the more power you have and the more influence you have, the more responsibility you have."

Book Review: Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg *****

The starting point of Annie's Ghosts is when journalist Luxenberg hears that his elderly mother, who always claimed to be an only child, has mentioned in a talk with her doctor that she had a disabled sister, who was "sent away" as a young child. Several years after his mother's death he learns the sister's name, Annie, and that far than being a brief presence in his mother's young life, she was actually committed to a mental institution on the eve of her 21st birthday.

The remainder of the book is Luxenberg's account of his attempt to learn more about his aunt, who lived a further thirty-two years after her commitment, and to understand why his caring, loving mother had felt the need to hide the fact of her sister's existence from everyone in her life. Along the way, he interviews many of his parents' old friends and relatives, archivists and psychiatrists, as well as visiting the town in Russia where his family originated. He also weaves in information about the history of mental health care in twentieth-century America, the eugenics movement, and the lives of Jewish immigrants in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Annie's Ghosts is a moving meditation on family secrets; the stigma all too often attached to disability, both physical and mental; and a son's coming to terms with the fears and cultural attitudes that informed his mother's choices in life.

Book Review: The Prophet's Wife by Milton Steinberg ****

At the time of his premature death in 1950, Milton Steinberg, respected rabbi and author of the acclaimed As a Driven Leaf, left the unfinished manuscript of a second novel. After sixty years, The Prophet's Wife has finally been published.

Set in the days before the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom of Israel, The Prophet's Wife revolves around the life of Hosea, one of the earliest literary prophets and the one about whose personal life we know the most. Hosea talks in the book named for him about how he married a woman who betrayed him with other men, yet took her back as God would do with unfaithful Israel.

As in his other novel, Steinberg gives us a vivid re-imagining of ancient Israelite life and customs, as well as a very human portrait of Hosea, the scholarly yet unappreciated son of his pious father, and Hosea's erring wife Gomer. Steinberg's stately prose brings to mind the cadences of the Tanakh, yet is never inaccessible to the modern reader.

The editors of The Prophet's Wife have made the bold and unconventional decision to leave it in its unfinished state, ending at a pivotal point in its subject's life, adding two very different essays by modern scholars speculating on how Steinberg would have finished the book if he had lived. The reader, as well, can come up with his or her own ending for Hosea and Gomer's story.