Off the Shelf: Ecology, whistleblowers and two memoirs

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman 

A holy ecology

“The Song of Songs” is one of the most difficult biblical books to understand and interpret. Its poetry is so vague that readers not only debate who is speaking at any given time, but what those words actually mean. Over the centuries, the book has been ripe for varying and opposing interpretations. One does not have to completely agree with any particular approach in order to appreciate new and different ways of looking at the text. One recent interpretation – “Toward a Holy Ecology: Reading The Song of Songs in the Age of Climate Crisis” by Rabbi Ellen Bernstein (Monkfish Book Publishing Company) – views the work through the lense of nature and ecology.

Bernstein sees “The Song of Songs’ as a meditation on nature viewed through the eyes of lovers who may, or may not, morph into animals during the course of their courtship. The book is divided into three parts. The first explores how an ecological interpretation can allow readers to restore wholeness (holiness) to the world by repairing the relationships between humans, plants and animals. The second offers several essays that seek to translate the terms and ideas found in the song into the ecological language used today. Bernstein notes that, since ecological terminology only developed recently, the words of the song need to be understood in terms of contemporary concepts.

The third section features Bernstein’s translation of the song and commentary. She notes that her translation leans toward the literal, rather than the metaphorical. She does not see the text as a love story between God and humans, as it has been interpreted by the Orthodox community. Instead, it features a man and woman who tempt each other sexually, but often draw away before their love can be consummated. However, the author also notes that the work reads as if it is describing a dream: there is no straightforward narrative, something Bernstein sees as making the song open to a wide variety of interpretations.

“Toward a Holy Ecology” uses “The Song of Songs” in an attempt to inspire its readers to prevent what Bernstein calls the ecology crisis of our times. Readers don’t have to completely agree with the author in order to enjoy her provocative approach to the biblical text. Those already familiar with the song may appreciate her very different approach, especially if they compare her commentary to others. Those seeking a Jewish ecological text will find much to enjoy and ponder.

Holocaust whistleblowers

Although “Whistleblowers: Four Who Fought to Expose the Holocaust to America” by Rafael Medoff (writer) and Dean Motter (artist) (Dark House Books) calls itself a graphic novel, it presents four real-life people whose actions will amaze and challenge readers. The graphic version of each story is followed by a short factual essay about the person featured. The drawings add drama and bring their actions to life. The whistleblowers include:

  • Alan Cranston: Cranston worked as a reporter before World War II and had spent time in Germany where he read “Mein Kampf” in the original German. Later, horrified to discover that the English version published in the U.S. did not include Hitler’s threats to destroy the Jewish population, Cranston published his own complete translation only to be sued by Hitler for copyright infringement. Decades later, after becoming a senator, Cranston was influential in persuading then Vice President George H. W. Bush to have U.S. planes airlift Ethiopian Jews to the state of Israel in what became known as Operation Joshua.
  • Arthur Weil: This section tells the story of the St. Louis, the ship that was supposed to take Jews from Europe to safety in Cuba before World War II began. The visas the passengers bought were fakes and no country in the Americas would accept them. Weil and members of his family were lucky enough to disembark in England and later made their way to the U.S. Most of the other passengers – the ones forced to returned to continental Europe – were later murdered by the Nazis. 
  • Josiah E. Dubois Jr.: Dubois, who worked in the U.S. Treasury Department, played a major role in pushing the U.S. government into living up to its promises to help refugees before the United States entered World War II. He discovered a memo from the government requesting that the stories of Nazi atrocities be suppressed in order to keep immigration numbers from Europe – at least the Jew ones – low. The publicity allowed for some immigration, although the government deliberately gave little money to help and never fully opened its doors. However, Dubois’ actions saved lives that otherwise would have been lost in the Holocaust. 
  • Jan Karski: A Polish prisoner of war who escaped from the Nazis, Karski worked to help Polish Jews hide from the Germans. He later escaped from Europe and gave eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the British and U.S. governments. Unfortunately, his efforts failed to make them act, but he did publish a successful book that told of the horrors of the Holocaust. Unable to continue in service to the U.S. government after Poland became a communist nation, Karski earned a Ph.D. from Georgetown University and later was invited to be a lecturer there. 

The stories told in “Whistleblowers” are fascinating and well worth reading. Its format makes it appealing not only for adult readers, but for teenagers, especially those who appreciate graphic formats. 

Life in Ukraine in Crimea in the 19th century

It’s rare to find an autobiography written by someone in the 19th century who remained traditionally observant. According to Michael Rotenfeld, who translated and wrote the introduction to Pinkhes-Dov Goldenshteyn’s “The Shochet: A Memoir of Jewish Life in Ukraine and Crimea” (Touro University Press), most memoirs/autobiographies from that time period were written by those who’d left traditional Jewish life. That means “The Shochet” offers a rare view of what it was like to live as a Torah observant Jew in that time and place. However, readers may interpret Goldenshteyn’s thought and actions differently from Rotenfeld.

It’s clear that Goldenshteyn had a very difficult life. His parents died when he was very young and, with his siblings living in great poverty, he had to make his way in life with little help. Even when relatives and others tried to help him, he frequently ran away in order to return to his sisters. At times, Goldenshteyn comes across as undisciplined, although readers won’t necessarily blame him for those actions since he was so young. Between being treated by some as a cross between a servant/slave or the punishments meted out when he was able to attend school, it’s not a surprise he preferred to live with those who loved him, even if they had almost no food with which to feed him. The fact that Goldenshteyn does finally manage to train as a shochet and make a living is amazing. He credits what occurs to God, although at least in one case – when he was almost taken for the Russian army – he should have credited one of his sister’s quick thinking. At times, Goldenshteyn seems a bit full of himself: he always declares himself the best student in any school he attends and blames others when events go wrong. He does condemn what he sees as inappropriate communal behavior, but his actions often also benefit himself. 

Whether or not readers completely trust Goldenshteyn’s version of his life, his writing portrays the difficulties Jews faced during that time period. With people living in such crushing poverty, it’s amazing they managed to survive. “The Shochet” differs from contemporary memoirs in that Goldenshteyn offers little introspection about the reasons behind his own behavior. The work was ostensively written for his children who were straying from traditional Judaism; it was his attempt to persuade them to trust in God and return to that practice. What it does now is give readers a first-person view of a world usually only known from second-hand accounts or written by those who condemned that way of life.

Family stories and a journey

Does the result matter or can the journey itself become the purpose? That’s something Jordan Salama must decide while writing “Stranger in the Desert: A Family Story” (Catapult). After discovering a binder in his grandfather’s basement, Salama becomes fascinated with the idea that his great-grandfather – a traveling salesman in Argentina – might have sired children throughout his journeys. He ponders finding these long-lost relatives and decides to travel from the U.S. – where he and his father were born – to Argentina, where his grandfather lived before moving to the States.

However, Salama’s discovery also arouses thoughts about identity, particularly those of his Sephardic Jewish heritage. His ancestors kept their identity as Spanish even after being forced to leave Moorish Spain. Their travels took them to Ottoman Syria, where they lived before emigrating to Argentina. Although his grandfather immigrated to the U.S., the majority of his family still lives in South America. Adding to the difficulty of defining his identity is the fact that members of this extended family speak a combination of Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew and English. Just as their language is a mix, Salama decides his heritage can also be a mix: he can belong to more than one place and one culture.

“Stranger in the Desert” is beautifully written and easy to read. Readers looking for the discovery of previously unknown relatives will be disappointed. However, Salama decides that task was of little importance. What is needed, though, is an appreciation of the stories his ancestors told and to learn from their lives. These and other stories also need to be preserved for future generations. Salama notes that he is now at home in more than one place, something he sees as positive, and very Jewish. His version of Jewish history offers an excellent lesson for those looking to expand their idea of Jewish identity beyond that of Europe and North America.