Sof Book Reviews

The Song of the Jade Lily: A Book Review

March 27, 2020

By Sid Goldstein

The novel, The Song of the Jade Lily, by Kirsty Manning deals with the little-known subject of the lives of Jewish refugees in Shanghai China during world War II. It is based on the historical fact that the Chinese issued over 30,000 visas to Austrian Jews in 1937 and 1938. The Chinese Ambassador to Austria, Dr. Ho Feng Shen felt for the Jews in Austria and provided visas to help as many as he could escape the Nazis.

The novel follows the Bernfeld family as they flee Austria and go to live in Shanghai. Their youngest child Romy is a teenager in Shanghai. One of her brothers is killed trying to leave and the other is thrown into a concentration camp. Romy suffers survivor’s guilt as she, her mother, and her father try to build life in China.

Romy befriends a Chinese girl her own age. Li Ho is a beautiful and talented singer and becomes Romy’s best friend. The Japanese take Shanghai and the Chinese become as persecuted in their own country as the Jews were in Austria. The travails of the Ho and Bernfeld families as they struggle to survive the war makes for a gripping tale of wartime existence.

There is another piece to this novel. Set in 2016, it is the story of Romy’s granddaughter Alexandra. She is a half Jewish half Chinese mathematical whiz who is a talented commodities buyer for a major London financial house. Alexandra comes home to Australia when her grandfather, Romy’s husband, dies.

Through Alexandra we learn about Romy’s Australian, post-war life. But the book hints at a dark secret about Alexandra’s mother, Romy’s deceased daughter.

Ultimately, Alexandra gets herself transferred to Shanghai. She begins an investigation to find out what happened to her mother. The results of the search reveal to Alexandra her own origins, and the true character of the grandmother she so deeply loves.

The Song of the Jade Lily is a well plotted book, slowly revealing to the reader the choices and sacrifices people have to make to survive in wartime. The book covers a period of Jewish and Chinese history not well known to people in the west. The horrors of the Japanese occupation of China are brought home through the suffering of these fictional characters. Each character is symbolic of the milieu of Shanghai in the second world war-as west meets east. The results are an exciting roller coaster ride of a read.

Amos Oz: A Remembrance

Feb 20, 2019

By Sid Goldstein

On December 28, 2108, Amos Oz died. This is something I will never forget. Just the day before, I had picked up a copy of his last novel Judas and began to read it for the Sof Book Club. Amos Oz was, without question, the most famous and talented writer that Israel has produced in its 70 year history as a nation.

He was the author of 40 books, including novels, short story collections, children’s books, and essays. His work has been published in 45 languages. He was the recipient of many honors and awards, among them the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Legion of Honor of France, the Israel Prize, the Goethe Prize and the Franz Kafka Prize.

His early life did not portend such greatness. He was born in Jerusalem, where he lived for the first eleven years of his life. His mother, a Polish Jewish immigrant, committed suicide when he was twelve. Less than two years later, he left his father’s home and moved to a Kibbutz. He was adopted by a new family into the Kibbutz and lived the life of a common laborer. He was, by his own admission, a terrible farmer. But, when he began to write and write well, the Kibbutz granted him exemption days from work to allow him to write. After the Kibbutz, Oz served the mandatory 3 years of service in the IDF (Israeli Army.)  During his service, he fought in two tank battles during the Six-Day war in 1967.

His first book of short stories, Where the Jackals Howl, was a bestseller. His first novel, My Michael, received international acclaim. In 1983, he published a book of essays, In the Land of Israel, which was a tour-de-force of the wide range of Jewish and Arab viewpoints throughout the state. It gave the world a chance to experience the ferment that is life in Israel. From that point on, Oz was an international celebrity.

His seminal work was published in 2002. It is entitled A Tale of Love and Darkness.  It is a partial autobiography, a history of his European family, and an examination of his mother’s suicide. The book sold two million copies in its first printing in Israel. It became so iconic that it was made into a film in Israel in 2015. Israeli-born international film star Natalie Portman produced the film and played the part of his mother.

Oz was a peacenik in Israeli politics. He was a firm believer in a Palestinian State. He thought that if such a state existed, much like Northern Island and the Irish Republic, the two states would eventually learn to live in peace. His reputation was so stellar, even his political opponents paid him tribute. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not share any of his political views. Yet the Prime Minister said this about the writer on the day after his death: “Despite the fact we did not always see eye to eye, I deeply appreciated his contribution to the Hebrew language and to its literature. His words and his writing will continue to accompany us for many years to come. May his memory be a blessing.”

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