Tuesday, July 31, 2007


"'If there is hope,' wrote Winston, 'it lies in the proles.'"

Winston Smith observed the shoddier quarters of Oceania. Amongst the screaming children and poor women, he saw hope. But he failed to see it in reverse.

There was no hope. Change was not forthcoming. The government remained in power without any sign of an emerging opposition. The proles continued their lives unceremoniously, without any serious complaint. They hadn't a need for change. Indirectly, they contributed to its existence.

The novel depicts a sharp divide in the two classes, between 15% of the population, and the remaining poorer people called 'the proles'. To effectively convince the reader of the possibilities power has in abolishing individual thinking, Orwell portrayed a totalitarian government that used extreme physical force on the the 15%, the outer party. The author implies that starvation and torture can conquer one's mind.

The book goes into imaginative detail. Targeted party members were subject to an organized lifestyle of scrutiny and risk punishment. There are endless examples of gag-me-with-a-kerchief methods employed by the government which gave Oceania's constituents no opportunity to revolt. Telescreens. Big Brother. Hate Week. Ministry of Love. Thought Police. Antisex League. Poverty, hunger, vaporization. That wretched Victory Gin, you could forever feel its vile aftertaste. The flavor of helplessness.

Yet 85% of the population required little to no supervision at all. The proles didn't present a risk to the leadership. All that was needed to keep them marching to the country's beat was the withholding of a little education and eliminating the concept of a better life.

Effective mind control is as simple as that.

There was something familiar, even personal, with the proless in the yard behind Mr. Charrington's shop tending her washbin. As she went to and fro her clothesline, stuffing her mouth with pins, she broke into constant chimes of song. She seemed truly content, or as Winston put it, she was beautiful. She had no desire for a change. Her ignorance was her bliss. Her bliss was the government's bliss, its ability to survive while unjust.

Indoctrination can come in far more comfortable teaspoonfuls than Victory Gin. I am skeptical with regards to the real-life possibilities of O'Brein's radical methods. But I know the woman behind the yard, and SHE's not guilty of crimethink; of independent thought. Neither does she have reason to. As long as all she knows is her
soapy water and the pitter-patter of her children's feet running around the pavement, she'll be content with her less-than perfect life. The party will continue to reign.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Pride & Prejudice

The Book: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Guest review by "Skeleton".

“Oh, tempores! Oh, mores!”

“Oh, how we miss the salted fish of Egypt…”

Oh, am I sounding like my grandmother…

What redeems Jane Austen’s narrow field of vision is the life she imbues her heroines with. Although her characters are hopelessly entrapped and imbibed with the social mores and strictures of their lives, her Emma and Elizabeth are not merely pretty-women-as-decorative-objects. They think. They’re strong. They know their value as equals to their men in a society that trades in fortune and family like a “top” BMG “boy” barters for “naden” and “yichus”.

Interesting is the treatment of Lydia. Young, reckless, and impulsive, she runs off with the shady, yet oh so charming, Wickham. She landed the wrong guy, no doubt, a fish not worth catching, yet she can hardly be blamed for her poor judgment in light of her ‘chinuch’. Lydia gets no credit for her passion, her attachment, her youthful infatuation with what she sees as her beloved forever and ever. Austen, apparently lacking peripheral vision, dooms those unions to be unhappy and ultimately unfulfilling while exalting those socially sanctioned as being mature and everlasting. It would be an interesting turning of the tables indeed if a broader look at a ‘shidduch system’ that encouraged mercenary marriages and frigid women could be taken.

Pride and Prejudice is fiction. A romantic novel in which the heroine (and hero) do not live happily ever after would be a poor seller indeed. But living in a society that reflects the social mores of a century or two ago, we not only read the book and understand it, but in some ways live it. This can give us the unique ability to see what Jane Austen couldn’t see; how true love can endure even as social mores change and marriage ceases being a business proposal. The marriage of Mr. And Mrs. Bennett is more than a comedic portrayal of The Odd Couple to us; it’s the reflection in the carnival mirror of many a marriage close to our hearts. We see that love purchased with connections and finances can be just as foolish and unfulfilling as stolen love. And worst of all, that the extremes of repression and refinement can lead to the formation of ice queens such as Miss Mary Bennett.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Chicken Little

The Book: Chicken Little. Absolute nonfiction!

Translated rom Katle Kanye's Blog, with permission.

From the children's story, Chicken Little, which is a great source of yires shemeyim, we learn the extent that a small chicken has a fear of heavens. The Chicken had heard from m'kiblem that the world is coming to an end, so she rushed to tell whoever wanted to hear about it, that we have to run into the batei m'drushim immediately to say all of tehillim and form shmiras halashon seminars, in order to saved from the chevlei moshiach, or maybe not to discourage moshiach's arrival god forbid!

So the chicken told the hen while they were both waiting to put their children onto the school bus. The hen pulled her punzello zipper up, pulled the turban down over her eyes and said to the chick "Luz es far mir", which called for an evening of hissarirus. Later, waiting to pay at the grocery store, the hen told the froe duck, who, expecting in her eighth month, held one hand behind her back and the other in her pocket and exclaimed "What? And you havunt told anyone about this?! My husbund knows a very good mekibul. He has his cell."

The duck repeated it all to the goose at the doctor's waiting room. The goose gasped "I don't bulieve ut! We're going to Europe next week, for my sister's einike'ls chasunah. When is this happuning?!" And while having her wig combed the rooster found out and told the sheitle-macher that it's all happening because some young girls are not shaving. "You yourself told me so" the rooster said, to which the sheitle-macher replied "keep your head steady!"

If a chicken, a hen, a duck, a goose and a rooster go out for yiddishkeit's sake, who better to find than Reb Fox? "Avadah, veibelech" the fox said in his throaty voice "come in. The Rebbetzin is just not home right now, but sit down and keep the door open a bit. You should leave behind a few dollars for Hachnasas Kallah – that'd be very, very valuable to the ribonosheloilem – in the zechus of the nashim tsidkonias… yeah, yeah… of course… it isn't even a question!" And he warmly led the ladies out.

On the way out the rebbetzin came in, and learning of what had just happened she turned to the chicken and said "Your synthetic wig is scratching at your ears so it occurs to you that something is falling on your head. You fell on your head! Go put on a shpitzel!"

And they all lived happily ever after…

[NOTE: Aside from his great pen and humor, Katle Kanye has a keen understanding of the chicken society, which makes his writings all the more extraordinary. Since he writes in Yiddish I thought it would be helpful to make his work available to a wider audience. Here is a straw of the haystack, to feed the literary hunger.]

Suggest a book!

Survival in Auschwitz

The Book: Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. Nonfiction.

Guest review by Chaim Chusid.

For a man to utter the words "Auschwitz was my true University" means that the books he writes and the messages he portrays are not to be taken lightly.

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, to whom Jewishness really had no great meaning. He later said that he was "shocked into confronting his Jewishness by the wild course of events that allowed the Holocaust to occur."

There is not a lot I can say about his book. It is written in the same style as one would write a diary. The pure and raw emotion of the writer shines through every single page.

To read this book is to experience the darkest of night through the eyes of an author with incisive and true intellect, an absolute portrayal of what occurred in the simplest of terms during the darkest of times.

[NOTE by Shpitz: but for some Anne Frank excerpts, I have yet to read a Holocaust memoir. These books dripping of raw bloody pain are just cuts through the heart of readers so vividly familiar with its truth. They put you, especially when you're in a state of valuable possessions of life - namely husband and children - in an agonizing state of fear. Is it selfish to resign to knowing just about a grandchild of Holocaust survivors typically know (I dare say a lot) or is it insensitive to cushion oneself from a terrible era that's still so sore we can see it on our grandparent's limbs?]

Suggest a Book!

Thursday, June 7, 2007


The Book: Saturday by Ian McEwan; Novel

'Saturday' follows Dr. Henry Perowne, a doctor in England, on the day off of his busy workweek through a twenty four hour period of captivating events. The author walks through the proceedings in slow motion, reflecting in incredible tones, not only the development of the plot, but Perowne's thoughts, observations and inner deliberations in response to those occurrences. This projected ordinary off-day had turned extraordinary when Perowne encountered violence on the road and later at home, but it was the depiction of varying perspectives on the many issues that made the book so extraordinary.


This contemporary novel brushes on many active world issues, all worthy of discussion. The backdrop is a major anti-war demonstration in London while America is considering sending its troops to Iraq. Ironically, the demonstration might as well still be going on today. Going back in time, tracking back to a day we did or did not have evidence of WMD, the book begged to question the leadership of the free world. In it, Dr. Strauss, an American born doctor of Perowne's team says "They hate your prime minister. But oh, do they loath my president". I wondered if the smug attitude towards Americans in general and the leadership in particular might be and effect of a free world that provides the opportunity and encouragement to do so. Or are we Americans indeed a town of buffoons?


I was most fascinated by the tug-n-pull between the profession of Neurosurgery and the thoughts of philosophy. While standing over the bed of a patient whose scalp is cut open and bones moved aside, we see two images of that same individual. The mortal, helpless, stiff figure of bones lying in his own blood, and the intricate, terrifying and intense person we know him to be.

The human being. We're mere matter but, oh, we matter.



Henry's mother, at the 'present' time in a nursing home while dementia reduces her basic abilities, is described as a woman that was an ideal 'yenta' in her prime. Neighborly gossip and overdone housework were the limits of her interests. From the brief picture painted, Mrs. Lilian Perowne resembles everything I know in our female society today. However, the protagonist now 'matures' his perception of women like his mother:

"He recognized his mother's themes in nineteenth-century novels. There was nothing small-minded about her interests. Jane Austen and George Eliot shared them too. Lilian Perowne wasn't stupid or trivial, her life wasn't unfortunate and he had no business as a young man being condescending towards her."

I wouldn't say a woman that is limited to very unintelligible activities is stupid or trivial. Nonetheless, I do think that neither Jane Austen nor George Eliot change the fact that women do not exercise their capacity when going through life in unchallenging, repetitive activities. From what I gather Jane Austen has a talent for writing in very colorful characters. Her human understanding is what makes her books outstanding, and the material settings just help polarize the character diversity. But as artistic as a novelist may portray it this limited lifestyle does not require one to employ much of their uniqueness, and thus, it's all actually just pretty darn dull.

I cannot suggest that women like Mrs. Perowne are less happy for how they live. It actually appears to the contrary, that for many hard work and simplicity is satisfying, but I don't hold unchallenging routines in high regard either. Is encouraging this lifestyle an unjust to those that don't know that there is more to it, or is Perowne right, it is the yentas that there is more to - beyond their shallow impression?


Favorite Line: "The trick in human success and domination is to be selective in your mercies"

Suggest a book!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Empire Falls

The Book: Empire Falls by Richard Russo. A novel.

Empire Falls, a small, struggling mill town in Maine, is the setting for this story unfolding around Miles Roby, a town native. Miles spent his entire life growing up in Empire Falls and watched its population and economy dwindle with the closing of the textile mill. Despite the opportunities presented in the world beyond Empire Falls, Miles quit college to assist his ailing mother back home, and has been spending the subsequent twenty years there running the Empire Grill for Mrs. Whitening. Mrs. Whitening, the rich town widow owns a nice slice of the town black and white, and the rest is just written to her in gray ink for power.

Mile’s own dream, his mother’s dream for him and his dream for his daughter Tick is and can further be compromised by the limits of this struggling town. Nonetheless he finds himself incapable of doing anything about it. He’s not bound to the town by any legal obligation or tangible force, but he can’t gather the courage to stand up to the authority, Mrs. Whitening, and do what he wants for himself.

The author paints the characters exceptionally vividly, and when Miles confronts Mrs. Whitening for a Liquor license for the grill to enable a profit after many years of none, she denies it to him, and we can understand why he doesn’t push his position. He’s silenced under her power. Much of his financial dependency provides her with the ability to manipulate him, so she’d rather not he become too self-sufficient. She constantly reminds him of the help she’s provided his family through the years, and with that further fixes her authority. The shrewd old woman has a way of pulling puppet strings to the effect he is frustratingly dancing to her beat, unable to gather the hutzpah to tear himself apart.

What I found most intriguing is that something deathly and disturbing had to happen to the town for Miles to find the strength to act. In all its simplistic daily events, in its organized agenda of everyday, the character cannot break out. It’s only a tragedy that can finally set him free. It’s only something very painful that can immune him to the other.

The story’s ending was merely a beginning, and a satisfying one. Contrary to what I’d anticipated, Miles finds his freedom in heading back home. His own town, now starting to revive its economic strength, past the death of Mrs. Whitening, is the very place he finds his independence. What’ like the familiar place we call home --- with some improvement?


This book won the Pulitzer Prize. Although the writing is great, the plot is a tad too slow, then fast, for my liking. The characters are three-dimensional and real, the setting is faithful to its subject. The issues of thought and conversation throughout the book often touch profound life question as faith and family. However, I have a hard time understanding how a book wins an award against so many masterpieces. What it is that make one book better than the next.

Favorite Line: “people are themselves, their efforts to be otherwise not withstanding…”

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Echoes of Glory

The Book:
Echoes of Glory by Rabbi Berel Wein. Nonfiction.

The Review: By "Skeleton", our reknown commenter who once again shares her incredible talent with us!

The artist paints with a wide brush in this sweeping literal canvas encompassing Jewish history from Beis Sheini (c. 350 BC) to the Geonic period c. 750 AD. Civilizations rise and fall, empires explode and implode, and nations and ethnicities appear and disappear, like so many prairie dogs sniffing the climate before burrowing underground once again. These form the vast backdrop for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that are the history of our Nation, Israel.

Rabbi Wein provides the structural elements in a bare-bones historical narrative that draws on Jewish sources like aggadata and Josephus and contemporary secular literature to fill the gaps. Photographs of archeological finds and classical works of art and architecture add a thoughtful touch of life to subjects that are long dead, living on in the legacies they left behind.

The stories are specific; the themes are universal and eternal. When we abstract the glitz and gore, the story of the two warring brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobolus of the Hasmonean family easily parallels our elef hashishi ‘politics’. The hatred, lust, and will to power that was Israel’s force of destruction then has remained her nemesis, a Teflon-like substance that sticks to you but won’t stick to anyone else. The Zealots, those self-destructive Kannaim are still easily identified, burning down the storehouses so that none of us eat unless we join their fundamentalist fight. Then we have our own brand of Essenes, moral and righteous to the nth degree, yet a dying breed, upholding impossible standards in their righteousness.

There are of course the major players. The Pharisees (פרושים) and Sadducees (צדוקים), the former pretty much our Rabbinical precursors. Contrary to the fizzy drink mix schoolgirls are fed, the schism between the Pharisees and the Sadducees wasn’t merely one of theology, although perhaps theology was the driving force. The Sadducees were made up mostly of the upper class, the royals, priests (Kohanim), and many of the Sanhedrin. It was a power play between the ruling and governed classes, with the Torah and the Temple being the battleground. An interesting “what if” game would be if the situation was reversed and the Pharisees were comprised of the upper class. Orthodox Judaism today would have had a distinctly different face, if one at all.

Several interesting figures no yid or yiddene should go to sleep without knowing about:

Ptolemy ben Chovov – talk about hating the in-laws. This oldest son-in-law of Shimon, the son of Mattisyahu the Hasmonean, hacked his shver and brothers-in-law Yehudah and Mattisyahu to pieces at his palace in Jericho after inviting them on the pretext of participating at his son’s bris. Then he imprisoned his shviger, Shimon’s wife, where she was publicly beaten on a parapet as her son Yochanan Hyrcanus*, who had escaped being hacked to pieces by fortune, watched. At then end of all of it, Ptolemy kills his mother-in-law and vanishes. They just don’t make soaps like this nowadays.

Shlomis (Shlomtzion) Alexandra – the sister of R’ Shimon ben Shatach and wife of king Yehudah Aristobolus (son of aforementioned Yochanan) who died childless after reigning for only one year. She was then married to his brother Alexander Yannai in a levirate marriage (yibum). An esrogim attack and a civil war later, Alexander Yannai died and Shlomis became ‘king’. For ten years, until her death, she brought peace and prosperity back to the war-torn and troubled Judah with her fair and even-handed reign.

Agrippa I – An almost-Dickensian character. Grandchild of Herod who had his grandmother Mariamne (מרים), his father, and uncle executed by Herod at the age of 3 for allegations of treason, he was sent on to Rome for his education. He returned a half-breed, Roman yet Jewish, perhaps the modern-day equivalent of an American Conservative Jew. In spite of his violent background, or perhaps because of it, he provided Judah with its last peaceful years before the scheisse irretrievably hit the fan.

Shimon ben Kosiba (Bar Kochba) – Called “Son of the Star”, he was indeed a fallen star. Initially widely successful in spearheading the rebellion against the Romans, and endorsed by Rabbi Akiva as being the Messiah, things headed downhill quickly and the fall of Beitar resulted in a slaughterhouse probably unparalleled until the 20’th century death camps.

Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, R’ Meir – For shining through in tragedy. Interestingly, both were descended from geirim, who are supposed to be קשה לישראל כספחת. They proved that “He who laughs last, laughs best”. In the good ‘ole tradition of דער אונגארישער היים, Klal Yisroel is still chuckling centuries later when Greece and Rome are past their last hiccup.

Footnote: Besides for a glaringly obvious whitewash of Jewish slavery on pp. 56-57 and bit of a tendency at one-dimensionality and glibness, the historical veracity of the contents [of the book] have not cross-referenced by me.

*This is the “Yochanan Kohen Gadol” mentioned in Brachos 29A who became a Sadducee after serving for 80 years.