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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Point of No Return: A Tragic Novel of An American Jewish Soldier in WWII

When I agreed to review  Point of No Return by Martha Gellhorn for the publisher of the new digital edition, I knew nothing of the author.  The name was familiar, but I should have known more of her.  She led an extraordinary life as a war journalist, novelist and the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Without this background, I began reading my ARC from Open Road Media via Net Galley without any expectations or preconceptions.


 Gellhorn wrote  Point of No Return soon after WWII.  It was first published in  1948.  According to her Afterword that appears at the end of the book, she had been a witness to events in this war as a journalist who traveled with British troops.  Although I have read quite a number of WWII novels, I hadn't read any that were written by a woman author who had experienced the war first hand.

Many combat oriented war novels tend to bore me because their action is abstract and distanced without the thoughts and feelings of soldiers.  They may have done their research, but their battle scenes aren't involving.  I read historical fiction because I want to know more than what happened.  I want to feel that I'm actually there.  Martha Gellhorn delivered authentic characters and showed us what they were really going through.   Now that I know that she was a participant as a journalist, I realize that this wasn't just research for her.

Although Gellhorn was involved in WWII, she wasn't on the ground with  American soldiers like Jacob Levy, the protagonist of  Point of No Return.  Yet as an American of assimilated Jewish background herself, she understood him.  Jacob Levy was brought up without religion.  His name remained as the only identifying marker of his Jewishness.   Many American Jews are completely secular and will find him very relatable.  I also found him sympathetic even though my upbringing was not similar.   I have known people like him who didn't  feel like they were part of the Jewish community.  They primarily identified with being Americans.   That's why Jacob Levy volunteered for WWII.  He wanted to serve his country.   My uncles, who came from a more religiously observant Jewish background, felt the same way.   They both fought in WWII.  One of them survived the Battle of the Bulge as Jacob Levy did.   This particular uncle never told war stories, so I never knew what the Battle of the Bulge was like for him.  After reading this book, I think I know why he never talked about it.   Gellhorn's depiction of that battle was visceral.  It had nothing in common with a Hollywood movie.

Jacob Levy had what he obviously thought was a romance with a woman.  It felt very significant to him, but it seemed to be largely based in fantasy.   I thought they had no common ground.  There is a myth that the attraction of opposites is a successful formula for a good relationship.   It has always seemed to me that such an attraction is like a soap bubble, and that a lasting relationship is built on commonalities.  Since this is a literary novel rather than a romance,  Gellhorn doesn't provide a happily ever after ending.   It's my hope that Jacob eventually found something more durable to sustain him.

The resolution of  Point of No Return is extremely powerful.   Gellhorn tells us in the Afterword that the reason she wrote the book was to exorcise what she saw at the concentration camp in Dachau soon after its liberation.   When she wrote the book so soon after that event, it must have felt like a raw wound.   Seeing a concentration camp after it had ceased operations can never be equivalent to the trauma of a survivor of the camp, but I imagine that it would still leave a mark on someone's soul.   She wanted Jacob Levy to be the keeper of that memory.   I don't imagine that you ever really can erase such images.  In 1948, Jacob Levy probably was a proxy for all those Americans who never thought such things were possible.   There may be current readers who optimistically believe that humanity can change for the better, and that we aren't a violent species.  If you are one them, reading this book to the end may engender some doubts about the perfectibility of humankind.  This is not the sort of novel that leaves illusions intact.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Aphrodite and the Rabbis--Greco-Roman Influence on Judaism

I knew about some of the things that Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky discusses in Aphrodite and the Rabbis from previous reading.  I even reviewed Sefer HaRazim , which Visotzky mentioned a number of times in his book, on this blog hereSefer HaRazim contains references to Greco-Roman deities, Pagan types of magic and theology that could only come from Pagan sources.   I also knew about Pagan images in ancient synagogues.  This review will contain the points raised in Aphrodite and the Rabbis that surprised me most.


Contemporary Jews know that  we have historically been a matrilineal culture.   I was amazed to learn from Visotzky that Jews used to be patrilineal until the Roman period.   He thinks that the reason was that Romans changed their law regarding children born outside of wedlock.   They decided that such children would be viewed as having descended from their mothers.   Why was this Roman legal change so significant for Jews?  I think this implies that there was a massive and truly horrific problem during the Roman period of Jewish women being raped by Roman soldiers.   The Rabbis must have decided not to abandon these women and their children.    In a patrilineal descent community, they would be outcasts.   If Jews became matrilineal, their community could still embrace them.  It was a compassionate decision that causes me to think much more highly of Roman era Rabbis.   

I had been taught that synagogues didn't exist until after the destruction of Herod's Temple because Jewish practices were completely centered on the temple in Jerusalem.  Visotzky informs his readers that in the period before the destruction of the second Jewish temple, there were 394 synagogues in Jerusalem alone.  Why were they built?  They apparently had a number of purposes. I thought that I would mention two of them.  They provided Jewish ritual baths and they provided rooms for travelers arriving in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, so they wouldn't need to violate the Sabbath by continuing their travels.  The Sabbath is a day of rest, so this is an important function that is not usually associated with synagogues in the modern world.

 I knew that many Jews in the Roman period didn't speak Hebrew, but I thought it was because the language of the majority of Jews was Aramaic.  Apparently, Aramaic was the language of village Jews, but the language of the urban sophisticates was Greek.   Visotzky tells us that in the Talmud, Rabbi Levi wanted the Jews of Caesarea to stop reciting the Shema in Greek.  The Shema is the most essential Jewish prayer.  It is a statement of monotheism like the Islamic Shahada.   Rabbi Yose responded that if the Jews of Casearea didn't recite the Shema in Greek, they couldn't recite it at all.  They knew no other language.   That amazed me.  I've always thought that urban people in the ancient world were cosmopolitan and multi-lingual.   Apparently not.

 I liked Visotzky's conclusion that the syncretism in Roman era synagogues such as the numerous zodiac mosaics, validates Reform Judaism which interprets Judaism through the lens of the surrounding culture.  This was apparently the same choice that Roman Jews made.  So Jewish history has repeated itself .  Perhaps the central theme of Visotzky's book is that there are more continuities between ancient and modern Judaism than his readers might have thought.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Other Einstein---A Novel About Einstein's First Wife

I received my copy of The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict from Net GalleyOn Flying High Reviews, I'm participating in the blog tour.  On this blog, I'm expanding on that review. So now I'm wading into the really interesting controversy surrounding Einstein's first wife.


Mileva Marić wanted to be a physicist when she was young. She was admitted to Zurich Polytechnic to study physics and mathematics with two strikes against her.  The first was being a woman in a very male world.  The second was being from Serbia which was considered a cultural backwater in Western Europe.   I am citing facts at this point. There is a Wikipedia article dealing with Mileva .   If you want to see how much about that article is in dispute look at the Talk section.  There has been an editing war over this article.   Both sides are absolutely certain about things that can't be known with absolute certainty.

This is what is not in dispute.  Mileva met Einstein at Zurich Polytechnic where they were both students.  They fell in love and she became pregnant.  She had to drop out of school without finishing her degree, and they married.   This is a sad story, and it has happened to a great many women.  She never realized her dreams.

Historical fiction deals with what isn't part of the historical record.   How did Einstein treat his wife when they weren't in public?   Did Mileva contribute to Einstein's scientific work?   These are questions that are open to speculation.   No one can really claim to know the truth about them.  Marie Benedict has as much right to an opinion as anyone else.   She did the research and came to a conclusion that isn't at all palatable for supporters of Albert Einstein.  Some sources say that he was verbally abusive toward Mileva in public, and that he called her ugly.  Below is a public domain photo of Mileva that I found on Wikipedia.  You be the judge.


  It's said that Einstein burned out early because he never did any great work after he developed the theory of relativity and published it in 1905.   Could his estrangement from Mileva be the reason why he no longer produced any other brilliant new theory?  I don't know, but I'm willing to entertain the possibility.

Benedict's version of Mileva isn't a feminist icon.   She made choices that I wouldn't have made in her circumstances.   In fact, Marie Curie appears briefly in this novel.   This great woman scientist tells Mileva that the only differences between them are the choices they made and the men they married.   Madame Curie's husband dedicated his life to supporting her career.   Benedict portrays Einstein as having deliberately undermined Mileva.  I wanted  her Mileva to be stronger.

There's a Serbian word that applies.   While I was researching this review, I remembered that fantasy writer Alma Alexander, who wrote several novels that I loved, is also a Serbian.  So I did a detour and ran a search on Alma Alexander's blog  for references to Serbia.   I found the word "inat".  She said that it could be translated as stubborn, but it's in a whole different order beyond stubborn.  Given the circumstances in which Mileva found herself, she needed to be more than stubborn.  I was waiting for her to find her inat.

I wanted to comment on Benedict's portrayal of Albert Einstein.   I noticed that he was repeating phrases and I didn't think they were a response to what Mileva said or did.   My theory is that these were phrases he heard from his own father and that he was seeing his parents when he spoke them.   He had become his father and Mileva had become his mother in Einstein's mind.  He was replicating the relationship between his parents.  He may not have realized that he was doing  this on a conscious level.   This is how patterns of abuse repeat themselves.   I thought that this depiction of Einstein's behavior showed insight into this syndrome and allowed me to understand his motivations.

A number of reviewers believe that  Benedict's Mileva was a product of her historical environment and the dominant culture.   The truth is that the 21st century isn't that much kinder to women.   Any woman who becomes involved in a relationship with a man in the same field may still face the same problems.   She may be ignored and her work may go uncredited. Then like Benedict's Mileva, she may be shoved out of her field while her significant other or husband is lionized.  This is why this book has significance even if the real Mileva wasn't a scientific genius.   It could be a wake up call to young woman readers who may be on the verge of making a terrible mistake that could destroy their future careers.

For me, the value of The Other Einstein is learning of Mileva Marić's existence.  Whatever the truth might be about her, she deserves to be known rather than buried in obscurity.   Now anyone who has read this book can examine what is known about her, and make their own decisions about what they believe concerning the issues that Benedict has raised.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Chroma: Light Being Human

Chariots of the Gods by Erich Von Daniken (1968) alleged that aliens had visited our planet in ancient times.  Von Daniken believed that alien contributions included the Egyptian pyramids.  The novel Chroma: Light Being Human  by Denele Campbell posits that alien energy beings visited Earth long before the pyramids.  I received a digital ARC of this book from the author in return for this honest review.


I like the idea of beings composed of light and music.  The various colors and musical notes that represented their personal qualities were a different approach to creating alien characters.   Yet as a librarian, the strings of numbers separated by decimal points that were part of each individual's designation, reminded me of Dewey Decimal classification.  I kept on wondering if I should be shelving the Chroma. 

The need to participate in the lives of mortal finite physical life forms is understandable.   Limitation makes existence more intense.   The unending life of the Chroma lacked purpose.   So they found their sense of purpose by observation of physical species at first.   The Chroma entity nicknamed B4 seemed to become emotionally involved in the lives of individuals.  There are some very lyrical descriptions of B4's experiences and perceptions. 

 Eventually, they started feeling as if  Earth was their laboratory, and that anything was justifiable if it could be considered an improvement.  I lost sympathy for the Chroma when I realized that the needs of individuals weren't a priority for them.   Even B4 seemed to have lost sight of  the importance of particular beings in the species that were the subjects of experimentation.   This is probably a consequence of the Chroma belief that sharing consciousness as a group is paramount.  Their super-human immortality also gave them an impossibly long range perspective.   They thought on the scale of evolution.   

It seems to me that evil lies in extremes.  Forgetting community and focusing solely on your own needs is one type of evil, but focusing solely on the group whether it's a community, a country or a species also often leads to terrible consequences despite the best of intentions.

 I feel that there should be a balance between the needs of the group, and the needs of the individual.   Maintaining that balancing act is challenging, but this doesn't absolve beings whether they are human or non-human from the responsibility of attempting to achieve that balance.  Scientific experimentation also needs to be done responsibly.    That is the conclusion that I took away from my reading of this novel.   Other readers may feel differently.   I wanted the Chroma to have a wiser and more complex understanding of the consequences of their actions.