Review: Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger

This book was exactly what I was seeking with Elie Wiesel’s memoirs: it summarises Wiesel’s concise teachings on keeping history alive through morality and vulnerability. You’re guaranteed to leave Ariel Burger’s Witness with a changed perspective.

Ariel Burger first met Elie Wiesel at age fifteen. They studied together and taught together. Witness chronicles the intimate conversations between these two men over decades, as Burger sought counsel on matters of intellect, spirituality, and faith, while navigating his own personal journey from boyhood to manhood, from student and assistant to rabbi and, in time, teacher.

In this profoundly hopeful, thought-provoking, and inspiring book, Burger takes us into Elie Wiesel’s classroom, where the art of listening and storytelling conspire to keep memory alive. As Wiesel’s teaching assistant, Burger gives us a front-row seat witnessing these remarkable exchanges in and out of the classroom. The act of listening, of sharing these stories, makes of us, the readers, witnesses.

Witness 1-- bookpsoilsTo start off each part, the author’s stories are interspersed throughout, which made for a well-paced read regarding the bond shared between Elie Wiesel and Ariel Burger.witness 9-- bookspoils

Wiesel comes to provide the home described above in the pages of this book. Like put so well in explaining the meaning of ezer k’negdo:

witness 10-- bookspoilsHe continues to write: “What does it mean to disagree for the sake of the other rather than in order to defeat or silence the other?” Such grandiose ideas to wrap my head around.

I consider it to be a good sign if a book makes me stop every few pages or so to run and share the information I just read with the people surrounding me. Witness makes for an excellent book discussion.

And since this was such an honest and vulnerable read, it feels only right to make my review as such, as well. From sharing the many rabbinical and Hasidic tales that populated Elie Wiesel’s childhood, to discussing the age-old question, “must art emerge from suffering?”; keeping memory alive through reading; Judaism; fanaticism… There are so many thought-provoking ideas introduced through Wiesel’s words that, in order to hold on to them all, I felt like being in one of those money blowing machines*, trying desperately to grasp on to even one fundamental thought so it won’t escape me with time. The amount of notes I took from this book is a bit over the top…

*I’m, of course, referring to one of these bad boys:

So, let’s jump right into the good stuff:

  • When attending one of Elie Wiesel’s lectures becomes a life-changing notion:Witness 2-- bookpsoils This put exactly into words why I make sure to read up on survivor testimonies, instead of reading the words of the enemy.

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  • When discussing the misuse of music and “why knowing the history of works of art is important.” He continues to discuss, in the passage below, how he personally “would not go to a concert of Wagner’s music…”witness 3-- bookspoilsI feel so grateful to see someone address this in writing!!!! Nowadays, people boycott modern public figures left and right for their inappropriate nature but seldom hold up “classic” figures to the same actions… So I was beyond relieved to finally read this passage in black and white on paper. Ever since I listened to a life-changing lesson on the so-called “geniuses” of Western culture (Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Voltaire, and many more) and exposing their utter immoral natures, I make sure to check if what I’m consuming was created “in the service of humanity or its opposite…”
  • Expanding upon the opening quote of “listening to a witness makes you a witness,” which completely flipped my worldview around.

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  • I appreciate how included we felt in the class discussions, each covering through such wide-ranging questions. The movement is rapid from student to student, and we follow it expertly like a ping pong match. Pages flew by when heated topics were introduced, or simply hearing the tales of Wiesel’s childhood.

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The stories that were chosen to be included in here have not left my mind. Including, this short on sanity:Witness 5-- bookpsoils

And this brilliant take on keeping memory alive within us:

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  • This last one is so important and personal to me because of the hidden meaning of birds:witness 11-- bookspoils

There’s so much more I highlighted and would love to share but it all boils down to this: Elie Wiesel was a bright soul put on this earth; we need more people like him in our time. I was beyond disheartened to learn that he had passed away in 2016. Zichrono Livracha.

ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Publication Date: November 13th, 2018

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Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Witnessjust click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

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Post-Graduation Depression, Mother/Daughter Dynamics, and Coming-of-Age in Smothered

I was beyond keen on diving into this book, thanks to the premise of using unconventional storytelling and sounding on par with an underrated favorite of mine, Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian, by exploring themes of daughter-mother bonds through journal entries.

It’s also in a similar vein to Motherest wherein essentially nothing happens plot-wise; the story relies heavily on the characters, so if you don’t connect with the main protagonist you’re in for a rather lackluster reading experience.

Smothered is a sold as a hilarious roman à clef told via journal entries, text messages, emails, bills, receipts, tweets, doctor’s prescriptions, job applications and rejections, parking tickets, and pug pictures, chronicling the year that Lou moves back home after college. Told from Lou’s point-of-view, Smothered tells the story of two young(ish) women, just trying to get it right, and learning that just because we all grow up doesn’t mean we necessarily have to grow old. (After all, what is Juvaderm for?)

A list of things I’d like to highlight:

  • Lou’s sister is nicknamed “Val” (short for Valentina), and I couldn’t stop picturing Abbi’s alter ego (from Broad City).
  • Speaking of over-the-top women: the mother/daughter interactions have a lot to offer in the ways of entertainment. Take for example this exchange below that sums up quite well the dynamic between Mama Shell and Lou:

Smothered 2-- bookspoilsHer voice brought to mind Kate Siegel’s “Mother, Can You Not?,” especially when I came upon this exchange later on in the book:

Smothered 3-- bookspoilsThis screams of the aforementioned because:

Mother, Can You Not? 1-- bookspoilsAdded bonus: her mother making sure Lou doesn’t relegate in her love life stays consistently funny.

Sigh. Mom has somehow managed to sabotage every single one of my relationships … even the imaginary ones with celebrities. (“Eddie Redmayne? Really? Why not Ryan Gosling or Zac Efron??”)

  • Which is a sly way to mention Theodore Greenberg:Smothered 4-- bookspoils To get on Mama Shell’s level, dating a guy that uses “awesome sauce” unironically is a sign to… But on a real note, I do not understand Theo as a character since he barely gets fleshed out beyond his niche of cooking food and taking care for Lou… Like, what are his motivations for staying with Lou? He gets dropped on us as a fact since he’s introduced as her boyfriend™, but we never get to see why they chose each other, or even the bare minimum of talking to one another about something besides take-out food or Lou’s jobless state. This is exactly why having a main character in a relationship from the get-go is seldom a good thing in my book, because they have this whole history together that we, as the reader, are unaware of (and that we weirdly didn’t experience in here), and it consequently created this distance between us and them. Like, how can I root for you to stay together when it’s hard to gauge why you’re in it in the first place?
  • Aside: Smothered featuring texts, Instagram posts, emails, receipts, and more made for quite the upbeat and swift read.Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 09.46.55

I feel like the positives come to a bit of a halt at this point because all else gets eclipsed by Lou’s whining, privileged state. I mean, I couldn’t comprehend how she keeps complaining about not having a job upon graduating from Columbia and experiencing jealousy when her peers find their passion… and yet she does absolutely nothing to move forward in life. Lou literally applies to only one place over the entirety of this book… She just sits in bed, waiting for her mom to order her around (and then complains when she does).

Later, Theo himself has to put her entitlement in perspective:

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic?”
“In what way am I being dramatic?” I asked, dramatically.
Theo shook his head. “You’re living rent-free. You got rejected from one job. This is hardly the end of the world.

THANK YOU! She doesn’t even acknowledge how good she’s got it going for herself. 

I mean, the author tried toning it down at one point by introducing an even shallower character so that the main character doesn’t seem as bad — smart move on her part — but it didn’t play out in the end on account of her constant exaggerations, such as:

I miss college, where being social required no more than stepping outside my dorm room and walking half a block. Now, all my friends are either on the East Coast or going to graduate school, leaving me a completely isolated introvert in La-La Land.* This is pretty much the equivalent of dropping a blind person in the Sahara and asking him to find water.

I’m pretty sure Lou has never experienced thirst in her rich life, so don’t.

And then she goes on, while on a juice cleanse, to write: “Hunger Level: Africa.”

Please, reevaluate your choices in saying this.
And before that, it was the Geneva Conventions with that same juice cleanse, “My whole body shuddered. No food for seven days? Surely this was banned by the Geneva Conventions.” I personally don’t care for exaggerations in books, so this hit the wrong note for me.

There’s also the case of her mother outright lying by registering her pugs as service dogs just to bring them along on vacation, when they’re the furthest thing from stable. Drew Lynch made a whole video about this phenomenon of faking service dogs, and how this behavior, perpetrated by individuals like Lou’s mom, affects people with trained service dogs in receiving fair treatment at different establishments.

“Service dogs?” I shouted from the backseat as Baguette blew snot in my face.
“I registered them on the Internet!” Mom insisted, turning around from the front to face me. “What more do you want?”
“Mom, I know newborn babies who are better behaved than these pugs.”
“Oh, it’s fine!” Mom dismissed, waving her hand at me. “If anyone has a problem, I can show them my papers.”

And while I’m on the topic, I also couldn’t agree with Lou’s habit of compulsively lying to her loved ones over the course of this book, when telling the truth is so much easier than whatever hole she’s digging by making up these lies. And it’s tragic because whenever she’s caught spinning in her web of lies she still opts to make up another lie… The angst surrounding this whole book could’ve been avoided had she just told the damn TRUTH. Her anthem song could only be Why You Always Lying.

So I was beyond thankful when her father finally calls her out on her attitude.

“Well, are you an adult?”
I paused, taken aback. Was this a trick question?
“That’s what it says on my ID.”
“No, it says you’re twenty-two on your ID. Does that really make you an adult?”

It brings home the quote I read in HONY: “Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you’re grown up. Growing up means being patient, holding your temper, cutting out the self-pity, and quitting with the righteous indignation.”

But when putting those hindrances aside, this is the first novel to compel me for the first time in weeks with its nontraditional mother-daughter relationship. And having Lou achieve some major character growth by the end of the book was satisfying to experience. So, overall, I’d say that if you know what you’re getting into before reading, Smothered makes for one hell of a book.

ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Expected publication: May 1st, 2018

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Note: I’m an Amazon Affiliate. If you’re interested in buying Smotheredjust click on the image below to go through my link. I’ll make a small commission!

The Zionist Comic Book by Amram Prath, Amnon Danker

In honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day, it seemed right to venture into this massive anthology, set 20 years prior, made by Israeli cartoonists and comics, including Dudu Geva, Moshik Lin, Zeev Engelmir, Friedel Stern, Shlomo Cohen, Avner Katz and many others.This book’s massive scope is beyond what I was first expecting and branches off in so many directions as we follow this chronological bundle of history lessons that epitomize our nation.

I do have to note that, though, I enjoyed the majority of these stories, the ones leaning towards the end of the book had me aggravated because of the indifference (and utter disrespect) coming from the artists from a mile away.

Putting that aside, I’d like to highlight my favorite spreads, incorporating mixed medium illustrations that had me looking around the page at every detail for hours:

 

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 09.46.55Lastly, Koolulam’s performance of “Chai” to commemorate Holocaust survivors and their families was on a loop in my mind during my reading: