Idyll Banter and other Good Books

I just finished Idyll Banter a collection of newspaper columns by from the Burlington Vermont Free Press by bestselling author Chris Bohjalian. He's best know for hitting the Oprah lottery for his book "Midwives," but since 1989 he's been writing a column about small town Vermont Life.

It's full of small stories: the local schools visit to a cemetery on Veteran's Day; the sale of one of the town's last dairy herds; Bohjalian's misadventures in losing his septic tank and trying to clean a dead bat from his woodstove; the lessons he learned from a young boy with Down's syndrome, entitled "A person can learn alot from Ian Freeman"; and a host of small examples of the way people in Lincoln, Vermont, (population 975) depend on each other.

My favorites pieces are his suprising, O Henry-like stories on faith. "A fender bender with Baby Jesus" about Bohjalian's fears that he'll crash into the church's nativity scene stored in his garage--ends with this note--no one knows where the creche came from. It appeared in the church's front yard one Christmas, just a few days after the church burned down. And then there's the story of the passing of Ken Hallock, an 81 year old life long Red Sox fan.

Hallock lost faith in his beloved team, Bohjalian writes.

But he was aware without question that to root for the Red Sox--to root with knowledge and passion and patience--is to root as an act of faith. It is to love people who you know willl disappoint you, but to forgive them and love them just the same. It is to know people are human."

A couple of other recommendations.

"The Rebbe's Army" by Susan Fishkoff is a fascinating look at the world of the Chabad-Lubavich "schlichim" -- basically ultra observant Jewish missionaries, who seek not converts but "ba'alei teshuvah"-Jews who return to their faith and practice.

By getting non observant Jews to practice their faith--in putting on tefillin (small leather boxes containing bits of the torah, attached to leather straps used in prayer), to celebate Shabbot or keep kosher--the schlichim hope to hasten the coming of Mosiach (the messiah.)

Though Fishkoff says she disagrees with most of the Chabad Lubavich practices--women who have to wear wigs in public, sit in segregated seating, unable to speak in the synagogue; the veneration of their Rebbe, their belief that Jews has a superior, holy soul (and basically shunning contact with Gentiles) --she paints a mainly sympathetic picture.

Why? Because of the thousands of small kindnesses she saw them pay to their fellow Jews in the year she spent visiting schlichim from Alaska to Bangkok. She relates one in the book's foreward. She'd been visit a schlichim, Rabbi Feller, in Minneapolis for Shabbot, and was headed home. When she got to the airport, the only sandwiches available were ham sandwiches--something she would normally eat (being a non-observant Jews). But she felt that'd be a betrayal of the hospitality Feller and his family had shown her.

As she headed toward the plane--there was Feller, with a kosher bag lunch for her. His wife had sent him back with it. That small kindness shaped the way she sees Chabad's work

For me, Chabad will always be about a short, white bearded man, in a long black coat, running back to an airport terminal to hand me a brown paper bag with a kosher lunch inside, so I shouldn't be hungry on my flight" .

Is "The Rebbe's Army" completely unbiased journalism. No. But its still a remarkable look inside a community mostly closed to non Jews. And for that, Fishkoff deserves our thanks.

Still, "The Rebbe's Army" is probably best read as a set, with Stephen Bloom's Postville, as this website points out in interviews with Bloom and Fishkoff.

In Postville, Iowa, where a group of Lubachicher Jews move to open a kosher meat plant, it's the small slights--turning down an offer lemonade and cookies and chat with a local historian; ignoring the non-Jews they meet in the street; refusing to take part in the rituals of small town life like the volunteer fire deparment; or buying their appliances out of state instead of from local merchants that poisons many locals against them.

That's not to say the locals are innocent. Some of them vent the same idiotic comments about Hitler than got Marge Schott banned from baseball. But the isolationism and self-superiority of the Postville Lubavichers turn Bloom away from them--just as the hospitality of the schlichim drew Fischkoff to them.

You can find more about Bloom's book on Minnesota Public Radio


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