Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Reviews: Of Intermarriage and Yiddish

This past Shabbat, I managed to finish one book and start (then finish) a completely different book of two very different genres and two very different reactions from me.

The first book I finished was Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, which is the story of a born and bred Christian woman from Illinois and a born and bred Jewish man from the East Coast. Gayle and Harold fell in love over a mutual love of music deep in Bible country, and the book tracks their adventures from Texas to Boston to Russia to Israel and beyond as they begin to question their outlooks on life, whether they want children, what religion means to them, and the role of Judaism in both of their lives as well as that of their children. The book is written through a series of letters back and forth between Gayle and Harold from when they meet up through the present, with Harold's letters written in regular font and Gayle's in italics (which made it hard to read at points).

I'll admit that the clever way the book is presented as letters was appealing to me, as it didn't feel like you were reading a book so much as a correspondence. The struggle that Harold and Gayle face is interesting because Harold begins his religious adventure before Gayle considers her possible foray into Judaism, and even when she does, it struck me as hesitant. Harold is the driving force as the family becomes more religious and Gayle struggles with adapting to the potential where her music is no longer something that she can practice or experience because of kol ishah and other manners of living an Orthodox Jewish life. I found myself uncomfortable at times, however, such as with knowing that they were sending their child to a certain Jewish school without disclosing that one of the parents wasn't Jewish. I don't want to sound judgmental, but I was always sure -- when I was in-process for conversion -- to not overstep my bounds as a not-yet-Jew.

I think that this book has something to offer couples who are intermarried and curious what the mindset and process might look like when it comes to starting a family and deciding how to raise children, how to choose a community, and whether the non-Jewish spouse should or is able to convert. I do, however, wish that Gayle had gone into more detail about her experiences converting, waiting forever on the RCA, and how that impacted her and the family -- these are the useful things that people like to hear about. As the book comes to a close, it's like a quick sweep through everything that happens after a conversion in a Jewish household. Did life not change that much? How different did Gayle feel? How did being Orthodox impact the family through kashrut and the holidays and language?

The second book I picked up and finished in one Shabbat was a borrowed book from my friend Elisha, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. Although this book was published several years ago, the storytelling aspect of the author, Aaron Lansky is without comparison. The harrowing tales of rain-drenched dumpster dives, endless meals of gefilte fish and tea with aging Yiddish speakers, and his quest to find, save, distribute, and house the world's dying Yiddish book collection will leave you speechless, teary eyed, and wishing you knew Yiddish. I really have to commend Lansky. This is a guy who really put his entire life (and in some cases this is for real as he traveled through some shady places overseas in 1989) on the line to fulfill a mission that he viewed as unbelievably important and culminated in the creation of the Yiddish Book Center. I'm now regretting not visiting it while I was living out in Connecticut during graduate school. If you haven't read this book, stop what you're doing and download it, find it, read it. It'll take you maybe a day, probably less. It's that good.