Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Don't Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM


Don't Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM by Sarah Berman shows us the formula for creating a cult.  Sleep and food deprivation; complete surrender of personal possession and money; a cohesive atmosphere swaddled in a self-help and religious ethos; long group sessions involving confessions of flaws and traumas; forced detachment from friends and family. NXIVM did all this, and it is hardly surprising that toward the end Keith Raniere created a group of women he could personally emotionally, cognitively, and sexually manipulate.

Berman’s book is scary because of what happens, but also because of how it happens.  The indoctrination is gradual, and before the people in NXIVM know they are trapped it is too late.  It is amazing how our social impulses can be perverted by unscrupulous, immoral people.   

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Nostalgia & Privilege

Alexandrian Summer, by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, and translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan, has a common enough theme for any group of people who are about to leave their homeland for another country: nostalgia. 

Goren is nostalgic about his fictional Jewish family and their last summer in Egypt.  And why not?  The family in this novel is well-off, cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, and relatively wealthy.

Israel would, and will, hold little value for them.  They were part of an Egyptian milieu that worked for them until it did not. Then all that was left was aching memory of those better days.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The HaLevi We All Know


Yehuda HaLevi was one of the great Jewish poets and thinkers, but he was all but forgotten until 1838.  Hillel Halkin, the author of this HaLevi biography, tells us that most HaLevi’s poems were discovered in a bookshop in 1838.

Halkin takes us through the various stages of HaLevi’s life, even the considerable gaps.  HaLevi’s distance from the Jewish philosophers who would follow him shortly after his death is fascinating:

“In the whole of The Guide, Maimonides never once introduces the idea of a redemptive scheme for history…. Whereas The Kuzari is concerned with the historical need to revitalize the Jewish people, The Guide openly expresses its preference for the single individual over ‘a thousand ignoramuses.’” 

If you know a great deal about HaLevi, this book will sound familiar.  If you are just learning, this is an excellent introductory work.

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Cost of Memory and Abuse


Trust Exercise by Susan Choi is a novel whose particulars I would rather not get into too deeply, for if I do so it will ruin major plot points of the book.  This is certainly a worthy book to read, for as you read it, you realize that something is going on here that is not quite as it seems.  This novel is about how we tell stories, how we suppress painful memories, how we make excuses for men in power and their behavior toward women in those stories.  After reading this book, a good review of it might help answer some of the questions about its structure that Choi leaves unanswered.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

If a dead body is found on the ground


Typically, I would not read a book like The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg.  Titles of books with ‘girls’ (when really, they are women) are going to venture into the exploitation of women under the guise of true crime titillation.

But Eisenberg has subverted and complicated the genre in her work.  This is a far more nuanced view of crimes against women.  Eisenberg examines her own time in rural West Virginia against the backdrop of the Rainbow murders and comes out the other side with complicated observations and experiences.  

Some of her most intense relationships are with the men of the region, and they are often loving and tender.  They are also shades of menace. There is real ambiguity in her experiences with the men of West Virginia.  

But there is more. Eisenberg shows that violent crime exacts a price on everyone.  The biblical writers knew this centuries ago: in Deuteronomy 21 we can read of a rite to be enacted when a body is found in a field.  We all feel something is needed when a murder is left unsolved.  We should sacrifice a heifer by a creek. We should atone for the murder we cannot solve.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Being Elijah


Daniel C. Matt is one of the most knowledgeable, intelligent, and versatile scholars of Jewish history, so I had no doubt that his Becoming Elijah: Prophet of Transformation would be a worthy read.  Matt traces the history of one of Judaism’s most enigmatic figures, from his sudden appearance in the Book of Kings to the semi-divine hero of Jewish folklore and mysticism.

Matt is uniquely qualified to take us on this journey, and he does so entertainingly and with great skill.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Static Categories are Dead


Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global by Alanna E. Cooper is a fascinating dive into a Jewish community that is not widely known.  And that is part of what her whole thesis is about:  what is the “dynamic” of Jewish communities and this thing called world Jewry?  What can we say about the Burkharan community of Jews in an informed way?

Cooper, along with many other scholars studying Jewish communities and topics, no longer postulates an entity like Jewish Culture, or normative Judaism.  Really, we have an interplay between different varieties of Judaism that are in constant conversation with each other; elements of communal Judaism across the globe are evolving through time, shifting, and changing. The time of static historical categories is over.