A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la

Rosie Rosenzweig, A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la

Echoing ‘The Jew in the Lotus’, Rosie Rosenzweig’s book describes a personal journey of Jewish identity and Buddhism.  Starting with the ‘come home Sheldon’ joke about the Jewish mother whose son becomes the leader of an eastern religion, Rosenzweig explains that this really happened to her: her son Ben became a Buddhist.  Through a journey with him through Europe to Nepal, she demonstrates how she came to terms with her reservations about his beliefs and her fear for his soul, which is seen against the backdrop of her growing Jewish commitment and deepening halachic observance.  The book is entertaining, well-written and highly unusual, written by a woman who seems to be simultaneously a stereotypical Jewish mother and an open-minded, thinking poet and practitioner of meditation.  I found some of her views on Judaism simplistic, and her approach to Buddhism somewhat naive, yet none of this detracted from a worthwhile read.

The Balfour Declaration

Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Jonathan Schneer has produced an extremely detailed study of the events leading up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration.  It is packed with fascinating material surrounding one of the most turbulent yet formative moments in modern Jewish history.  Schneer’s thesis is that the root cause of the current Arab-Israeli conflict is that the British government promised Palestine to both the Jews and the Arabs.  The book is unecessarily complicated, and is poorly written and oddly edited in places (there are some irritating and amusing infelicities in the English), and I found some sections hard to follow; it is overly long and jerky in its narrative direction.  Yet I learned a great deal from the book, enjoyed it and feel that its thesis is cogent and important.

John Lennon and the Jews

Ze’ev Maghen, John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage

Recommended by Melanie Phillips

In this unusual book, Maghen first identifies, through the eyes of Jewish members of Hara Krishna to whom he got chatting at an airport, three key reasons why young people say they can’t identify with Judaism, and then addresses them.  The curious reference in the title is to Lennon’s famous ballad ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ (my version of the book also features a cover-photo of Lennon wearing a suspiciously-Chassidic-looking outfit).  A central objective of Maghen’s work is to roundly refute Lennon’s anti-religious, anarchic ideas with rationalist philosophy.  While I imagine that Maghen usually writes in a more serious style (he is a professor of Arabic Literature at Bar Ilan University) – I found his ‘in-your-face’ jocularity quite irritating – he succeeds to a remarkable degree in offering thought-provoking and rational answers in what is indeed an impressive and engaging ‘philosophical rampage’.  A great success – at once gripping, thought-provoking and humorous, providing intelligent answers to some tough questions.

In Ishmael's House

Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands

Thanks to Rabbi N.S. Liss, Highgate Synagogue

Celebrated author and historian Sir Martin Gilbert’s latest book is an interesting and enlightening read.  Adorned with photos, maps and appendices, the book is essentially divided into two – the first half deals with pre-19th century history (i.e. pre-Zionism and Jewish aspirations to return to the Land of Israel), the second from the late 19th century to today.  It covers every facet of Muslim-Jewish interactions from the inception of Islam and the dhimma to the fate of Jews in Arab lands post 1948.  While Gilbert certainly includes accounts of awful persecution and intolerance towards Jews, he also refers to touching episodes of mutual co-operation and friendship between Jews and their Muslim hosts.  As with the other Gilbert books I’ve read, he packs lots of information into a readable and accessible text.  Recommended, particularly for those Ashkenazim like me whose knowledge of pre-State Muslim-Jewish relations is rather fuzzy.

The Ten Commandments

David Hazony, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Text Can Renew Modern Life

Recommended by Clare Goldwater, Washington

David Hazony’s idea is very simple: take the 10 Commandments one by one and show how they can inform the values of a modern, spiritually healthy and ethical society.  Hazony weaves together traditional and modern sources into an engaging read that will appeal to beginners and scholars alike.  His contention is that taken in an almost chronological way, the 10 Commandments can form the basis for a better world.  I was particularly taken by Chapter 2, in which Hazony addresses idolatry through the lens of ‘Morality and Loneliness’, making a cogent case against the allure of our own creativity to explain a modern manifestation of an ancient prohibition.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to read it again.

The Four Elements of Life

Roxana Jones, The Four Elements of Life (While I Was Learning to Become God)

I received a review copy of this book.  I found it very disappointing - in fact, I nearly gave up on several occasions, although I did eventually get through both volumes. While indeed oppressed by a controlling and mean husband, I found the story of Sybil's transformation to be narcissistic, and, in places, unintelligible. The text is poorly-written, meandering between sequences of short, underdeveloped phrases and long, over-complex sentences. While the first volume had its endearing moments (the middle part was quite enjoyable), I found the second with its focus on angelic interventions and the like, especially inaccessible. Sorry, but it didn't speak to me at all.


Welcome to Belovski's Books

Welcome to a new area of my website, ‘Belovski’s Books’, dedicated to short book reviews, reports on interesting works and if I get a chance, some book-related links.  I will focus mostly, but not exclusively, on books of Jewish interest.  Do check back here regularly or subscribe.