Off The Shelf: Memoir, Poetry, and a Woman Rabbi

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I wracked my brain to come up with an opening that would tie together the three books in this review, but had no luck. You may be asking, “Then why did she decide to review them together?” Well, they were next on my to-read pile and didn’t fit with other reviews I’d planned. But they all have Jewish themes so below are reviews of a memoir, a poetry anthology and a children’s picture book.


Some memorists try to portray their decisions in the best light possible. That’s not true of Rachel Michelberg, the author of the memoir “Crash: How I Became a Reluctant Caregiver” (She Writes Press). Instead she is brutally honest, offering a picture of a woman who decided to accept her limitations, even when society – and family members – disapproved of her actions.

Michelberg, who is a cantor and voice teacher, knew her marriage was no longer viable even before her husband, David, was in a plane crash that left him severely injured physically and mentally. Although she was only having an emotional affair, rather than a physical one, with another musician, she knew she was no longer in love with David. When he was in the hospital, Michelberg was bombarded with questions she didn’t know how to answer: How will David’s accident affect their two children? Since David will always need nursing care and was no longer able to work, will they be able to afford their home and take care of his medical needs? Does she want to live with, and care for, someone with whom she is no longer in love? The stress from these questions and others cause the anorexia that Michelberg struggled with in her younger years to return and she finds herself in the hospital. Over the course of the memoir, she debates her choices and notes the good, and bad, decisions that she made.
“Crash” made for compulsive reading: I found it hard to put the book down because I wanted to learn what happened. While readers may not agree with Michelberg’s choices, I did respect her desire not to martyr herself. The ethical dilemmas she discusses make this work perfect for book clubs, although readers who have experienced similar traumas may find the work raises thoughts and emotions they’d rather not relive.

“101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium”

The poetry collection “101 Jewish Poems for the Millenium,” edited by Matthew E. Silverman and Nancy Naomi Carlson (The Ashland Poetry Press), differs from other poetry anthologies I’ve read. The majority of the poems have not been previously published and the poetry is presented in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. The editors deliberately sought variety, which means there are not only poems originally written in English, but others translated from Hebrew and Russian. Some poems have specifically religious subject matter, while others focus on the writers’ personal lives. However, all – either directly or indirectly – offer Jewish themes, although the editors leave what that means open for readers to decide.

Although almost all of the poems were excellent, several stood out: Wendy Barker’s “Waking of Call It Sleep,” Moshe Dor’s “Reflections,” Eli Eliahu’s “Underground,” Vladimir Gandelsman’s “Stills,” Jane Yolen’s “Shoes: Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C.” and Elaine Zimmerman’s “Hostage.” Most of these reflect on the difficulty of being Jewish and the horrors that have been done to Jews in the past. However, many excellent poems focus on more mundane themes, which illustrate how Judaism is part of the poets’ everyday lives. Anyone interested in Jewish poetry will find this a welcome addition to their bookshelf.
“Osnat and Her Dove”

I had never heard of Osnat Barzani before reading the wonderful picture book “Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi” written by Sigal Samuel and beautifully illustrated by Vali Mintz (Levine Querido.) Osnat, who was born in 1590 in what is now known as Iraq, deserves to be better known, and this work is a great way to introduce children and adults to her life.

Osnat, who was the only child of a rabbi, convinces her father to teach her how to read, even though most girls at the time did not receive an education. As a condition of her marriage, her husband, Jacob, agrees to let her continue her studies. When Jacob, who becomes the head of her father’s yeshiva, has little time to teach students, Osnat takes over those duties and, after Jacob dies, continues to run the yeshiva on her own. Legends begin to grow around her, particularly about her pet dove who constantly remains at her side.

I loved “Osnat and Her Dove.” The story is well done and the writing is complemented by the drawings. It’s the great work to awaken the love of study in children and a perfect way to introduce adults to this fascinating woman.