On My Nightstand: Brief reviews of books that Prizmah staff are reading

The World to Come

By Dara Horn

The story pulls you in: a stolen Chagall painting, a budding romance, artists who struggle, siblings who hope for one another, jealousy, deception, love, sacrifice and more. The language is evocative and rich, and for a Tanakh nerd like me it was a delight to pick up biblical and midrashic allusions in a casual turn of phrase or description.

But the real treasure of this book—a paradigm shift—is the last chapter. I do not want to give it away, because the delight in your discovery will be great. Suffice it to say that Dara Horn weaves together a description of the “world to come” that is as mesmerizing as it is spiritually uplifting.

So give yourself the gift of reading this tale. Though at times the pain of the characters is profound, it is told with wit and truth, and sets the stage for a culmination that will leave you seeing the world with more depth and color.

Rachel Levitt Klein Dratch

Two Jews, Three Opinions

By Barbara Sheklin Davis

This book pays tribute to a dedicated group of school leaders who created an organization focused on the needs of schools not aligned with any particular denomination. That organization became RAVSAK, which saw its member schools rapidly grow, and thanks to strong leadership, realized a burgeoning impact on the entire field of Jewish education. Community schools embraced diversity, open discussion of intentional and meaningful pluralism, and a commitment to the centrality of Israel in the schools. The author, who was a RAVSAK board member and head of school, captures the excitement of building the community day school network and the hope that with the creation of Prizmah, attention to these schools will not be lost.

So much of what was on the table in 2010, when RAVSAK was creating its last mission and vision statements, is still relevant and important today. The author makes clear that our future challenges are not just within our schools, but within our broader Jewish communities. As she states, “Faced with the myriad diversities of the modern world, Jewish community day schools opted to confront them squarely, fully embrace diversity and inclusivity, and be enriched and enlivened by differences.” Nothing that Davis states as important then is less important now, and this book provides the blueprint for maintaining the vitality of Jewish community day schools within the Jewish communal landscape.

Amy Wasser

Hillbilly Elegy

By J. D. Vance

Once upon a time, families in Appalachia had clear paths towards middle class success, even without advanced education. In the last 20 years, these opportunities have receded and with them, the loss of control over one’s life.

As someone who grew up deep in Appalachia and who “escaped” through some well-placed protectors, good fortune and eventual belief in himself, Vance understands well the despair felt by many of his former neighbors and peers. It took Vance a long time to come to believe that his choices made a difference, that he had some control over his own fate, that he did not need to look with resentment at others. This process began in the Marines and built on itself as he began to see his choices leading to success.

We take for granted that our choices matter. Imagine for a moment, however, that you didn’t believe that, that whether you made an ostensibly good decision or an objectively bad one made no difference. Think about the corrosive effect of such an attitude. Despite this depressing outlook, Vance also recognizes that just one or two people who help you buck that attitude can change your life—a lesson for everyone in education.

Joshua Levisohn

The Book Smugglers

By David Fishman

Vilna (Vilnius) was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” perhaps the greatest center of Talmudic scholarship. Before World War II, Vilna’s book learning expanded to secular Jewish literature as well, but it remained a critical center of Jewish writing and study, with several important libraries. The founding of YIVO, the bastion of Yiddish-language scholarship and education, in Vilna solidified the city’s importance. The Jewish population of the city was approximately 80,000 in 1939; of all the Jews in Lithuania, only about 5% survived the Shoah.

Fishman tells a gripping story of a group of poets, artists, librarians and scholars who managed to save millions of volumes and cultural treasures from Vilna’s vast Jewish resources. The Nazis aimed to create a museum dedicated to maligning the Jewish “race”; these Jews, while pretending to help the Nazis, used their limited freedom to smuggle the most important documents, such as the record book of the Vilna Gaon’s synagogue and Herzl’s early diary, into hiding places within the ghetto. After the war, those who survived and returned to rescue the documents needed to smuggle them again out of the country to the newly established YIVO headquarters in New York City, out of hands of the Soviet-installed regime.

Elliott Rabin

Rachel Levitt Klein Dratch, Amy Wasser, Joshua Levisohn, Elliott Rabin
Deepening Talent