This Hanukkah, give a book with a St. Louis connection

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

‘Tis that season again, when Jews prepare to celebrate Hanukkah (or is that Chanukah?), the Festival of Dedication. The holiday marks the anniversary of the Maccabean Revolt back in 167 BCE in which Judah Maccabee re-captured and cleansed the Second Temple, after it had been desecrated by the Syrian Greek regime.  Judea was proclaimed an independent Jewish State. According to tradition, when the Temple was cleansed there was only enough oil to keep the Eternal Flame alive for one day—but miraculously the oil lasted eight days. Hence, the holiday is often called the Festival of the Lights.

Many suppose that because of its proximity to Christmas, the tradition of gift giving during the eight days of Hanukkah arose. So with the season once again is upon us, below are some brief reviews of books penned by local Jewish authors — or those originally from St. Louis — which would great gifts:

“Night School” poems by Carl Dennis, (Penguin Books, $20, paper).  

In his 13th collection of poems, Carl Dennis, a Pulitzer Prize winning graduate of University City High School (class of 1957), offers his usual wry outlook on life. This perspective was obvious even as far back as his high school days when he was a student of great U. City English teachers, including the iconic Augusta Gottlieb, to whom one of the poems in this superb collection is dedicated:  “Mrs. Gottlieb’s Course in World Literature.” “Few of us, she announced early on / Were likely to have a guardian spirit devoted / To guiding us to the promised path, the one that led / To our becoming the person we were meant to be.” 

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There is quietude about Carl Dennis’ poetry.  He can ruminate about a woman who writes reviews on fast-food restaurants and how the humble fare offered in such places can literally add spice and seasoning to one’s otherwise flavorless day.  

In “Bad Days, Good Days,” Dennis reflects on the chance events that caused his grandfather to meet his grandmother—when the train on which his grandfather was riding breaks down in “a field near Brest-Litovsk.”  He writes: “It hurts my pride to feel my destiny / Bound up with a broken axle or gasket.  In a smaller version of the wonder / Felt by cosmologists when they consider how close the cosmos itself came to missing the boat into being, to losing its chance / For passengers, ports, and oceans / For stars as plentiful as grains of beach sand.”  

In this collection, Dennis proves that he learned his lessons well, and that he continues to produce inspirational work. 

“The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom,” a novel by A. E. Hotchner, (Doubleday, $23.95).

A. E. Hotchner, a St. Louis native who grew up a working-class neighborhood in the early 20th century, is still actively writing superb fiction at the ripe old age of 101.  Hotchner is famous not only for his engaging fiction, but also for his prize-winning biography “Papa Hemingway,” and for being one of the late actor Paul Newman’s best friends.

“Aaron Broom ” is a re-working of his earlier biographical novel, “King of the Hill,” which was adapted into an acclaimed film.  The earlier book was about how he wanted to remember himself.  He told New York Times writer James Barron that this time he wanted to improve upon his earlier alter ego, letting him do things he had not experienced. 

While the earlier novel is more compelling factually, the newer one allows a nimble mind to take flight in an endearing fashion. As in the first book, his father is a watch salesman but in “Aaron Broom,” he is caught up in an arrest sweep during a sales call at a jewelry store.

Aaron then becomes an “Artful Dodger” in the streets of Depression era St. Louis, enlisting a motley crew of helpers in his quest to set things right. He must contend with a nun who may force him into a school, with busybody social workers and other authority figures.  But his wily street smarts and some lucky breaks help him overcome the forces arrayed against him.

“War Boy: My Father’s Story,” (GCB Publishing, $18), by Paul David Frank.  

This book is timely not only in anticipation of Hanukkah, but for its proximity to the very recent 100th anniversary of the formal end to World War I. 

St. Louisan Paul Frank, a veteran teacher who once taught Native Americans in New Mexico, devoted countless hours of research to tell the story of his father’s travails in the form of a gripping novel.  

Benzion Frank was a young Jewish lad caught up in the maelstrom of WWI, shifting borders, pervasive anti-Semitism and pogroms. A pious Jewish couple and their four children, including Benzion, find their once idyllic life overturned when the resort town in which they live is attacked by German forces.  The family must flee to Vilnius in Lithuania where they stay with other families in a converted brothel.  

These tumultuous events are viewed through the eyes of Benzion, called Benzy by his family.  Benzy and his family soldier on against the brutal war machine and manage to escape the fate that many of their fellow refugees would suffer.  Just a few years after the 1918 Armistice that ended World War I, its harsh terms and the world wide Great

Depression, set in motion events that led to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis coming to power in  Germany.  The six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust included many who had been trapped in Eastern Europe after World War I.

This page-turning account of a courageous family is very much worth reading.

“The Planet Beneath the Horizon,” by David Henschel (Original Books Press, $15.99).  

David Henschel was familiar to an entire generation of Jewish Light readers as one of the newspaper’s premier photographers, taking thousands of Jewish community photos over a 35-year career.

More recently, Henschel has earned his chops as a writer of fiction, based largely on his own experiences. Previously, Henschel published “Herbie Glazier’s Requiem” in October 2017.  That first book invites comparison with other coming of age books, like the early fiction of Philip Roth or his namesake Henry Roth—vivid re-tellings of the ambience of their formative years.  In “Planet Beneath the Horizon…And Other Family Matters,” the narrator protagonist is Rudy Landis, a Jewish storyteller in his mid-70s, struggling with “disabled” memory, and obsessive/compulsive disorder, who finally has admitted his issues to his wife, Sally.  The reader is told, “he has quite a story to tell.”  

Landis was worried that he would soon lie among the many “forgotten” Jews in a local cemetery, worries that became more acute as thoughts of his own mortality were “driving him to make a record of ancestors and their grave sites.”  He hoped that his research would make it more likely that his current and later family members would visit regularly and “with the ease that he didn’t have.”

The three family branches, ancestral and current, their Jewish religion, their businesses, their oddities and among some a “disreputable” history, are the heart of Landis’ story, compellingly told in Henschel’s second novel.

You may also want to check out the Light’s recent reviews of books by local authors Howard Schwartz (“A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav”) and Denise Pattiz Bogard (“After Elise”).