When a book’s contents and description are mismatched

Seeing as how I ran out of time to put together an original blog post yet again, this is a book review I wrote for my old Angelfire site, probably in 2003. It’s edited down from 900-some words.

3 stars

I expected more from this book, and was rather disappointed it didn’t delve more deeply into anything. The way it changed names and events was also annoying. It’s one thing to change names, but I dislike composite characters. That doesn’t give us a real picture of these people. So we have people like Jered, who goes from raving anti-Semite to loving leader of his church’s tolerance movement overnight, and Willow, who flits from religion to religion without any real, deep attachments to any of them.

Some of the events actually happened in her third and fourth years of divinity school, but she had them taking place in her first two years to give intellectual background. Why not just write about all four years from start to finish instead of making everything a composite?!

The author is an intermarried writer living in the San Francisco area when the book begins, but she wants to learn more about her native Judaism for material in an article or book. How does she solve this quandary? She enrolls in Vanderbilt Divinity School in Tennessee! Why would you uproot your family and spend so much money on a non-Jewish divinity school to try to return to your roots?

Mrs. Orsborn wants to be in a shul for Rosh Hashanah, and there are a number to pick from. She’s standing at the door of an Orthodox shul, ready to go in, but walks away and goes to a Reform shul when she remembers a bad experience in another Orthodox shul.

You can’t give up because of ONE isolated experience! She could’ve had a beautiful, spiritual experience, but with the mindset that it’d be terrible simply because it was Orthodox and behind a mechitza, maybe it would’ve been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mrs. Orsborn winds up at a fairly new Reform congregation without a permanent building. She also is ready to walk away from that one because it was so crowded and unfamiliar. The High Holy Days experience isn’t representative, since many people are only there then, and the topics of the sermons will be different.

She comes to like this new shul, however, and it’s very dear to her because it split off from the larger Reform shul in the area after the rabbi gave a speech denouncing intermarriage. A lot of intermarried families left to form their own community after that. Tell me how much sense it makes to settle on one shul when you’ve never given any of the others test drives. That was not an informed decision.

Her whole spiritual struggle was nothing more than deciding whether or not to join a fairly standard American Reform shul! If she really missed the atmosphere at Shabbos Shul so much, she should’ve tried to form her own group, not gotten upset the only area shul she ever set foot in wasn’t similar enough to her old shul.

This book was really disappointing. There are better, more compelling accounts of people’s return to their native faiths, not just accounts of waffling over whether or not to join a typical house of worship.

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Omamori

Copyright jetalone; Source

Omamori (御守 or お守り) are Japanese Shinto and Buddhist amulets worn or carried for various types of good luck. Omamori is the honorific form of mamori (守り) (protection).

Omamori are often dedicated to Buddhist figures or Shinto kami (spirits), and sold by shrines and temples. Though they resemble bookmarks, they’re paper or wood prayers enclosed within a brocade bag.

They became popular in the Edo period (1603–1868).

Copyright 松岡明芳

Copyright Kanko*; Source

Traditionally, omamori aren’t opened, for fear of losing their protection and luck. They’re carried in a pocket, purse, backpack, etc., or tied to a suitcase, handbag, cellphone strap, car mirror, etc. Omamori are supposed to be replaced once a year, to chase away the past year’s bad luck.

Old omamori should be returned to the temple or shrine they came from, to be disposed of properly. This is similar to the Jewish genizah, a storage area for worn-out religious books, papers, and Torahs in a synagogue or library. Periodically, the contents are collected and properly buried.

Old omamori are typically returned on or shortly after New Year’s, so one may start the new year off fresh. Instead of buried, the old ones are burnt, to show respect to the spirit who helped that person in the past year.

Copyright Sun Taro; Source 2014SpringKyoto

There are many types of omamori, with purposes including:

Avoidance of evil (yaku-yoke)
Safety for one’s family and peace at home (kanai-anzen)
Luck in business and money (shobai-hanjo)
Better luck (kaiun)
Safety in travel and driving (kotsu-anzen)
Luck with school and passing tests (gakugyo-joju)
Love luck or continued love and success in one’s relationship (en-musubi)
Protection during pregnancy and childbirth (anzan)

In the modern era, it’s not uncommon to see omamori with sports motifs, or featuring popular characters like Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, and Hello Kitty. Another modern development is omamori for the protection of pets.

Obviously, these contemporary omamori aren’t sold in shrines or temples!

One need not be Buddhist or Shinto to buy omamori, or even Japanese, but it’s common decency to respect their religious nature and purpose. They shouldn’t be treated like bookmarks or exotic tokens to display.

If a temple or shrine doesn’t have an omamori which matches one’s needs or wants, one can ask a priest to have it custom-made. The shrine or temple may begin producing those types of omamori in large quantities if there are enough requests.

Copyright 田島飛松

Copyright FlipTable

Traditionally, only shrines and temples made omamori, but with their increasing popularity in the modern era, many popular shrines and temples have farmed their production out to factories. In spite of this, some priests take strong issue with the quality and spirituality of these mass-produced omamori.

Some modern omamori eschew the traditional wood and paper for materials such as credit cards, bike reflectors, and bumper decals.

Copyright Igor 1045

My character Rodya Duranichev finds an omamori in the pockets of a dead Japanese soldier when he and his best friend, Patya Siyanchuk, are helping with burying both dead Americans and Japanese during the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943.

Rodya also finds a letter, a photo of the soldier with his wife, and black, white, and red beckoning cats. He takes them as souvenirs, though he has no idea what they are.

Rodya keeps the cats and omamori on his person during the Battles of Saipan and Tinian, in the hopes they’re good luck charms.

Copyright FlipTable

While he’s in Hawaii after being wounded at Tinian (on top of his previous wounding from Saipan), waiting to be sent home, someone tells him what the four amulets mean.

Those amulets, the photo, and the letter on the dead Japanese soldier are meant to show the common humanity of the other side. We’re more alike than we are different.

Archangel Michael

Copyright Joe Mabel (on Flickr as Joe Mabel from Seattle)

Archangel Michael is an important figure in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism, he doubles as a saint. He’s the reason the name Michael (in all its many linguistic variations) has been so historically popular.

Michael appears thrice in the Book of Daniel, where he’s identified as the Jewish people’s protector, and a figure who’ll arise during the projected end of the world. He’s also mentioned in the Book of Jude, and is traditionally identified with an unnamed archangel in 1 Thessalonians.

In Revelations, Michael defeats Satan during a war.

Michael is one of two archangels named in the Koran, the other being Jibrail (Gabriel). Some Muslims believe Michael was one of the three angels who visited Avraham.

Copyright Novica Nakov; originally posted to Flickr as Icon #13

Michael has a very long history in Jewish tradition as our advocate and protector. He has a long-running enmity with the accusing Archangel Samael. In the ancient world, there were several prayers to Michael, in spite of the rabbinic prohibition against appealing to angels as intercessors.

In the Midrash (rabbinic commentary and stories filling in the blanks in the Torah), Michael is depicted as rescuing the Patriarchs and Matriarchs during perilous times in their lives. Another Jewish tradition says he destroyed the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army.

Bradford Cathedral, West Yorkshire, England, Copyright Storye book

Early Christian tradition cast Michael as a healer. His earliest and most famous sanctuary in the ancient Near East, the Michaelion of Chalcedon in present-day Turkey, was associated with healing waters.

Other common Christian imagery depicts Michael as slaying a dragon, a serpent, or Satan. He was eventually named as the highest of all angels, and held up as a model of spiritual warfare against the temptation of evil.

In Catholic tradition, another of Michael’s roles is angel of death, carrying the souls of the deceased to the other world and descending at the hour of death to give the dying one last chance to redeem oneself.

Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe Michael and Jesus are one and the same.

Drawn by Muhammad ibn Muhammad Shakir Ruzmah-‘i Nathani for scientist and proto-sci-fi writer Zakariya al-Qazwini; Source Walters Art Museum

In Islam, Michael (or Mikail) is responsible for the forces of Nature (esp. thunder and rain), and gives nourishment to souls and bodies. He’s often depicted as the archangel of mercy, and thus very friendly towards humans. In the Ahmadiyya denomination, Michael is among the Mala’ikah, spiritual beings who obey Allah’s commands.

Copyright JR2Espo

Michael has remained extraordinarily popular in these three faiths. In Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism, he’s celebrated on Michaelmas, 29 September. In Eastern Orthodoxy, his feast day is 8/21 November (depending on whether the church uses the Julian or Gregorian calendar).

In the Truro, Cornwall diocese of the Church of England, Michael’s feast day is 8 May.

Countless churches have been dedicated to him over the centuries. He’s also the patron saint of Brussels, Kyiv, Dumfries (Scotland), Germany, Cornwall, cops, fire fighters, the military and warriors, paramedics, chivalry, German-speaking regions formerly part of the Holy Roman Empire, the sick and suffering, mariners, and mountains.

The Russian city of Arkhangelsk is named for Michael.

Scapular of St. Michael the Archangel, formally approved 1878; Copyright Michael Tav

Before she leaves for a year abroad in a Parisian lycée in August 1939, my character Darya Koneva is given an ikon of Archangel Michael by her parents. That ikon becomes particularly dear to her after she and her best friend Oliivia Kalvik, who’s studying abroad with her, are trapped in occupied Europe and become Nazi prisoners.

Darya keeps that ikon safe all during her ordeal as a slave, and constantly prays to Michael to protect her and her friends. Her big brother Fedya later gives her a miniature of the statue outside Vienna’s Michaelerkirche, and her newlywed husband Andrey hangs a Byzantine style painting of him over their bed.

Darya will name her future only son Mikhail, after her special protector.

Vienna’s Michaelerkirche, Copyright Gryffindor

Juno Beach and the Jewish Hospital of Lublin

Calm after the storm, Copyright Jebulon

Juno Beach is one of the five beaches which was used for the heroic Normandy landings of D-Day, 6 June 1944. The battles were mostly fought by Canadians, with some British support, and servicemen from the Free French Forces and the Royal Norwegian Navy.

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division got further inland than any other landing force.

Copyright Nitot

The main objectives were to seize the Carpiquet Airfield, cut the Caen-Bayeux road, create a link between Gold and Sword Beaches on either side of Juno, and reach the Caen-Bayeux railway line by nightfall.

Germany’s 716th Division and 21st Panzer Division put up a brutal fight, due to preliminary bombardments’ lacking success. Bad weather also delayed the first landings till 7:35 AM.

The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were among the companies who suffered devastating casualties during the brutal first minutes of the first landing wave.

Copyright Ordifana75

Juno was initially code-named Jellyfish, since the British beaches were Swordfish and Goldfish (shortened to Sword and Gold). It was changed because Winston Churchill felt Jelly a highly inappropriate name for a place in which so many might be killed.

Copyright Joestapl

Though none of the objectives were achieved, the Juno Beach landing ranks up there with Utah Beach as the most strategically-successful of the five D-Day landings. In spite of the terrible early casualties, most of the coastal defences were cleared within two hours.

Only the equivalent of one full German battalion remained by nightfall. The Canadians also destroyed or captured 80% of the Germans’ divisional artillery.

Those who want more details on the order of battle, preparations, preliminary bombardments, and the landings can check out the links and books listed at the end of this section. I don’t want to go back to routinely having posts over 1,500 words!

Copyright Jebulon

My character Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov is among the Canadians landing at Juno Beach. Since he’s a medic and not initially allowed to be armed, making it all the way across the beach and into town safely is a much more perilous ordeal.

The day after the invasion, Yuriy returns to the beach to catalogue and bury the dead. Strewn among the dead are a few who haven’t succumbed to their wounds yet, including one guy who played dead because he was confused and scared, and made his own tourniquet.

The entire beach is pervaded by an eerie, unnatural silence, as though yesterday never happened.

Further reading:

The Juno Beach Centre
Juno Beach – The Canadians On D-Day
“No Ambush, No Defeat”
“Canadian Participation in the Operations in North-West Europe, 1944: Part 1”
Valour on Juno Beach, T.R. Fowler, 1994
D-Day: Juno Beach, Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny, Lance Goddard, 2004

The Jewish Hospital of Lublin, on 81 (formerly 53) Lubartowska Street, was inaugurated in 1886. The two-story building in the Old City was designed by architect Marian Jarzyński in Neo-Romanesque style.

Initially, it had 56 beds, but grew to 100. By the 1930s, it was Poland’s most modern, state-of-the-art hospital. It was well-known outside of Lublin, and employed many renowned specialists.

By the 1930s, the hospital also had a stable, three guesthouses for patients’ loved ones, a mortuary, a cellar, and a synagogue.

On 27 March 1942, the occupying Germans took the most seriously ill patients to the Jewish cemetery and murdered them. The other patients and medical staff were murdered in Niemce forest. For the rest of the war, the building was a Wehrmacht hospital.

In 1949, the building was given to Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, and started a new life as an OBGYN clinic.

The building today, Copyright Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Source

My character Inessa Zyuganova is taken to this hospital by her expatriate cousin Matviyko after she and her children escape the USSR in June 1937. While they were wading across the creek-like River Bug which forms part of the border between Poland and Belarus, the NKVD shot Inessa in the leg.

Vitya Zhirinovskiy, her old friend Inna’s little brother, shot all five of the NKVD goons to protect his baby Damir, whom Inessa has been wetnursing. At the hospital, he has to be reassured no one’s going to circumcise Damir!

Lublin is the closest major city to border town Włodawa, and Matviyko previously took his youngest child Maja there for heat rash during a summer holiday. He prefers Jewish doctors to Christian doctors.

2017 in Review (Books read)

Some of the books I read in 2017 were:

I highly recommend this book by a fellow Pittsburgher. It tells the amazing story of how, of all the 27 known hominin species who’ve walked Planet Earth, Homo sapiens sapiens emerged as the only one left standing. (Hominin is the more scientifically up-to-date term, and refers to both anatomically modern humans and our ancestors. Hominids are modern and extinct great apes, and include non-human primates such as orangutans, chimps, and gorillas.)

So many seemingly little things, like neoteny (having a childlike appearance into adulthood), a shortened gestational period, and the development of a sense of right and wrong, led to major evolutionary advantages contributing to our survival and emergence as the world’s most dominant species.

The book also examines the other hominins who’ve walked the Earth, some of whom have only recently been discovered. A number of these hominins inhabited the Earth at the same time, contrary to the formerly-held beliefs casting human evolution as a simple, direct line of descent.

Our 26 cousins may be long gone, but at least two of them, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, live on in the DNA of those of us with European and/or Asian ancestry.

By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), the authors (a married couple) had just had twins when their proposal for this book was accepted in 2007, and decided to take some time off to focus on their babies. Had they gone ahead and written this book by the September 2008 deadline, it would’ve immediately become obsolete. So many amazing new discoveries have come to light in the years since.

This book can feel a bit academic at times (esp. the sections on stone tool-making), but I really enjoyed it. There’s also a section on Neanderthal tourism, listing museums and archaeological sites linked to our awesome, unfairly maligned cousins.

The authors are committed to accurately portraying Neanderthals and trying to undo the damage from over a century of slander and misinformation. Like them, I can’t stand when someone with no knowledge of paleoanthropology uses the word Neanderthal as a synonym for stupid, brutish, unenlightened, behind the times, grotesque, etc.

The Neanderthals were good people, the closest cousins we ever had. Many Homo sapiens sapiens aren’t as kind, helpful, and loyal as Neanderthals were.

This book introduced me to the modern development of spelling Neanderthal without an H. It’s because the modern spelling of the German word thal (valley) is tal. I’ve long pronounced the name without an H (since that is the authentic pronunciation), but it’s a little harder to adapt to the new spelling as well.

This book examines the paleoanthropological and cognitive science evidence to show how Neanderthals may have thought about many things (family, love, hunting, security, etc.). They also speculate on what Neanderthals may have dreamt about, and how they used symbolism and language.

This book presents a cultural history of Chanukah in the U.S., going from the Colonial era to the modern day. Chanukah didn’t become a prominent public holiday, or associated with gift-giving, until about the mid-20th century, for reasons we can probably all figure out.

The book also examines the history of Judaism in America in general over the last few centuries, and how hard it was to maintain a religious lifestyle as a minority. Many Christians in the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th centuries matter-of-factly pressured their Jewish friends and neighbors to convert.

As late as the 1940s, it was perfectly legal to have numerus clausus (anti-Semitic education quotas), employment restrictions, limitations on where one could reside, bans on staying by hotels, and many other barriers to the Jewish community’s full, equal participation in American life.

Women were one of the primary forces in shaping Chanukah into an American holiday, since that was one of the relative few religious rituals they could perform in that era. This wasn’t a time when most Jewish women could expect to have a full religious education or role in public life.

The embrace of Chanukah as a major holiday also perfectly illustrated its lessons of staying true to one’s identity and resisting conversion attempts. Chanukah falls at a time of year when we’re most keenly aware of our minority status.

I enjoyed this memoir, one of several books I’ve read about Easy Company since watching the Band of Brothers mini-series. I love how Sgt. Malarkey noticed the exact same thing about the Stephen Ambrose book as I and many other readers did, how he focused WAY too much on bit player David Kenyon Webster!

The WWII generation is dying out, and Sgt. Malarkey himself passed away this September. We’re so lucky so many of them have left behind memoirs and recorded testimonies.

This was a cute collection of Dr. Seuss’s early cartoons and stories, many from college newspapers and humor magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote and drew many of these under the name Dr. Theophrastus Seuss. A particularly strange story is about his purported sex ed lessons to his nephew, where he says a whole lot of nothing.

I really enjoyed this book about the women of Paris during WWII and the early postwar years. It covers women from all walks of life, who did all sorts of things during the war. There are sheroes as well as victims and women with complicated actions. Some of them never had normal lives again, even the survivors or the ones who were rehabilitated after suffering national degradation.

Real history is often much more complicated than declaring such and such a person or action 100% good or 100% evil. There are so many shades of grey.