Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Rhodope Mountains


The Rhodopes are known for their unique geological formations. The mountains are set apart by river gorges; there are many deep caves cut into the karst landscape. In the winter months, the snow-covered peaks are perfect for skiing – Pamporovo is one of Bulgaria's most popular ski resorts. In the summer, the hillsides are painted bright green and covered with wild flowers. With snow seen on the surrounding mountain tops, one has a feeling of visiting a "Sound of Music" movie set.

There are many small, picturesque villages perched on the hillsides and in the valleys below. It is said that the region has the highest number of centenarians in the country. This is because the villagers lead simple, stress-free lives; eat homemade yogurt; enjoy healthy vegetables grown in the small plot outside their homes; and, of course, breathe the crisp mountain air.

Bulgarians as a whole are very hospitable, but residents of the Rhodopes are particularly friendly to visitors, especially to travelers from overseas. It’s a bit difficult to communicate with the older generation, but young Bulgarians are fluent in English as well as many other European languages.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Traveling in Southern Bulgaria: Bachkovo Monastery


The first thing one notices when walking into the Bachkovo Monastery – the third largest in Bulgaria – is a plaque posted in Bulgarian, English, and Hebrew.

"In this holy monastery lie Patriarch Kiril and Exarch Stefan who in a selfless display of courage and humanity played a decisive role in preventing the deportation of Bulgaria Jewry to the Nazi extermination camps in 1943."
"Were the world blessed with more individuals of such valor and nobility as that shown by Patriarch Kiril and Exarch Stefan, surely more Jews would have been spared their tragic end."

Here in the entranceway of one of the largest and oldest Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Europe is a sign of how the Bulgarian Orthodox Church – along with brave politicians and ordinary citizens – went out of its way to protect and save Bulgarian Jewry during World War 2. The country's Jewish population before the war was approximately 48,000. Not a single Jewish citizen was sent to the camps. Unfortunately this amazing story also has a tragic side. More than 11,000 Jewish residents of Macedonia, Serbia, and Thrace – areas under Bulgarian rule during the war years – were deported and died in the camps.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Review of The Parting Gift by Evan Fallenberg

There’s a lot of sex in The Parting Gift by Evan Fallenberg (Other Press, September 4, 2018). Let’s start with that. Excessive, graphic, homoerotic sex which may turn off many readers. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let us consider where this vividly described sexuality leads its narrator-protagonist—an unnamed Jewish American currently camped on his friend Adam’s couch after returning from an extended stay in Israel.

In a book-length letter to Adam, the narrator offers a “long-overdue explanation of my mysterious appearance at your door these four months ago.”

The story the narrator tells starts at a Tel Aviv absorption center but veers in an unexpected direction after a visit to a nursery housing Israel’s most extensive collection of herbs and spices. There he meets Uzi, the spice guy.

“He was going about his business with no mind to me, while I was going about his business with no mind to myself,” the narrator explains. It is a case of lust at first sight. For the narrator, same-sex relations are nothing new but for Uzi, apparently, this greenhouse encounter is a first-time experience.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A Visit to the Oldest Surviving Jewish Synagogue Building in Greece

On a narrow alleyway off the main pedestrian thoroughfare in the Old Town of Rhodes, a set of steps leads up to an unpretentious doorway opening to a historic building and a small shaded courtyard. This is Kahal Shalom, the sole remaining synagogue on a Greek island which was once home to 4,000 Jews. Now serving as a museum, and only very occasionally for services, Kahal Shalom offers a welcome respite from the touristy hustle and bustle in the nearby streets, as well as a fascinating immersion into the story of one Greek Jewish community, its history and culture.

My wife and I visited Kahal Shalom on our recent visit to Rhodes, a family trip which offered something suitable for all generations: beaches, a waterpark, shopping, a boat ride, an exploration of picturesque villages, good dining, nightclubs, and a fair amount of ouzo. On one day though, we left the children and grandchildren at the hotel pool and made an additional trip to the Old Town, with Kahal Shalom as the focus of our visit.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

"Vivid imagery made me want to wander the streets of Bulgaria"


The book starts off with a brutal terrorist attack, which is based on a real terrorist attack that took place in July of 2012 at Burgas Airport. A bomb was placed and detonated on a bus, and the blast subsequently killed five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver. No one was ever held accountable for the attack or the deaths, which is unfortunately a tragic reality when it comes to terrorist attacks and also crimes in general. This means the loved ones who are left behind never get any closure let alone any kind of justice.

One of Shuman's strengths and indeed I would consider it a talent, is the way he describes the surroundings. The way he can evoke vivid imagery in the mind's eye of the reader. The reader sees and experiences Bulgaria through his words and emotional connection. It made me want to wander the streets and take in the history and architecture. Not every author can evoke that kind of response.

Read the rest of the review, as well as a Q&A session, on CherylM-M's Book Blog.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Review of The Legacy by Melanie Phillips

When we first meet British television producer Russell Woolfe, he is on his way to his father’s funeral. Sitting in synagogue “for the first time in forty years [he feels] hatred in his heart.” Woolfe “hated the synagogue for its rigid complacency. He hated his fellow Jews for making him despise them. He hated himself for having exposed himself to this irritation. Most of all, he hated his father for dying.”

Yet, for Woolfe, there was no question about going to the synagogue to “perform his duty as the son and say the kaddish, the prayer for the dead.” And this despite the fact that he was estranged from a father who had renounced him for marrying a non-Jewish woman.

In the novel The Legacy by Melanie Phillips (Bombardier Books, April 2018), Woolfe’s antipathy for his religion and the history of his people plays a key role in the story. Yet a chance meeting with Joe Kuchinsky, a Polish Holocaust survivor, sets Woolfe on a path of self-reflection, one that will possibly result in a new outlook on Judaism.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Traveling to Rhodes with (Grand)children

When you think of traveling to the Greek islands you probably picture a sun-basked holiday of swimming in azure waters, lying on sunbeds for hours on end, and drinking ouzo at evening meals. While all that sun and all that ouzo might be the perfect vacation for adults, are there enough children-oriented options to keep the entire family satisfied?

Lindos Bay

The island of Rhodes is the fourth largest in Greece and located in the Aegean Sea, 363 kilometers (226 miles) southeast of the Greek mainland. The southern coast of Turkey is easily visible from island’s northwest shore. Rhodes has a population of 120,000 which explodes with some 2 million visitors a year. The island’s vibrant tourism industry is evident by the ubiquitous traditional Greek taverns situated on nearly every corner of the island’s 40 towns and villages.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review of "Less" by Andrew Sean Greer

In the last few weeks I read two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. I struggled through The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, which won the coveted Fiction Prize in 2013, but I smiled my way through Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Abacus, April 2018) which won the same prize for 2018. Two novels that couldn’t be more different. Both were recognized for their literary merit.

I am not sure what the threshold is for Pulitzer Prize consideration or why one book wins while another remains on the shelf. I had chosen to read The Orphan Master’s Son because its setting is North Korea, and North Korea has been in the news lately. I chose to read Less because it’s the humorous tale of a failed novelist, about to turn fifty, who travels around the world to escape a failed relationship. That sounded just like the kind of book I would enjoy.

The Pulitzer Prize website describes Less as “a generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love.”