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Isaac's Torah Hardcover – October 14, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Bulgarian author and screenwriter Wagenstein devotes his powerful novel to an affable Jewish tailor from a small town in Eastern Europe who survives the reigns of Hitler and Stalin. Wagenstein himself escaped from a concentration camp and was saved from execution when the Soviets entered Bulgaria. Half a century later, he creates self-effacing narrator Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, threading Jewish jokes throughout the narrative not only to sweeten the bitter material but also because they encapsulate the humanistic foundation of Isaac's philosophy. Isaac's town of Kolodetz in the Austro-Hungarian empire becomes part of Poland, then the U.S.S.R., before being overtaken by Nazi Germany and eventually reclaimed by the Soviets. He is drafted into military service by each of his first three motherlands. The Germans invade, and Isaac, posing as a Pole, is sent to a Nazi labor camp. Inadvertently revealing himself as a Jew, he ends up in a concentration camp, after which the liberating Soviets exile him to Siberia. Isaac's mesmerizing voice charms through every disaster, and engages and delights the reader without distracting from Wagenstein's profound insights into life's absurdities. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

“He couldn’t care about politics, but unfortunately politics showed a growing interest in him.” Always there are the Yiddish jokes, even at the most hopeless times; in fact, in Wagenstein’s engaging historical novel, the wry humor reveals both the unbelievable horrors of history and fleeting moments of transcendence. Born in the Kolodetz shtetl when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I, the novel’s narrator, Blumenfeld, becomes a citizen of five countries, without ever changing where he lives, except when he is moved to Nazi concentration camps and then to a Soviet labor camp. Beyond what he calls today’s “Holocaust blather” with its “air-conditioned and aromatic criteria and values” are the facts, including that his wife and children never returned from the camps. Can one man be a Jew and a Nazi war criminal and a Soviet traitor? The jokes that pepper the text make you read them aloud, as do the wise comments of the rabbi who teaches Blumenfeld that meaning is in the searching and not in the finding. Great for reading groups. --Hazel Rochman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; First Edition edition (October 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590512456
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590512456
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,503,635 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By D. G. Myers on November 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The first novel by Bulgarian screenwriter Angel Wagenstein, originally published in Sofia in 2000 when he was 78, "Isaac's Torah" celebrates the "Golden Tradition" of Eastern European Jewry by collecting Jewish jokes and inventing occasions to retell them. My favorite comes early:

"Two Jews from two towns are arguing over whose rabbi is more capable of performing miracles.

"'Ours, of course, and I will prove it to you,' says the first one. 'Last Shabbos our rabbi was going to synagogue when suddenly rain came pouring down from the sky. Not that the rabbi didn't have an umbrella, but on Shabbos any kind of work is forbidden--so how can he open it? He looked up to the sky, God immediately understood, and there was a miracle, you won't believe it: on the left side--rain, on the right side--rain, and in the middle--a dry corridor all the way down to the synagogue. What do you say to that?'

"'What I say, of course, is listen to this! Last Shabbos, our rabbi was coming home after prayer and what did he see? Lying on the road was a hundred-dollar bill! Well, how could he take it, when it's a sin to touch money? He looked up at the sky, God immediately understood him, and there was a miracle: on the left side--Shabbos, on the right side--Shabbos, and in the middle, you won't believe it--Thursday!'" (p. 21)

Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, the hero of Wagenstein's two-decade picaresque, tells jokes to reattach himself to a lost world. The book's humor is not an expression of hostility, but of gentle and thwarted affection.

Like a little boy collecting "treasure" on a playground, a novelist succeeds in recreating a world by picking up and arranging the smallest details of that world.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Cheryl Jacobson on December 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The name of Angel Wagenstein's novel, Isaac's Torah, reflects a five part division of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld's life, corresponding in number to the five books of the Torah. A simple tailor, Isaac fights in the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I, comes home to find out that his town, Kolodetz, is now Polish, not Austrian, and marries the love of his life, Sarah. When the Germans and the Russians create a new partition of Poland in 1939, Kolodetz becomes Russian and then German as the Nazi troops attack the Soviet Union. Sarah and his three children are on the way to a spa when the Germans change the destination to Auschwitz. Isaac himself is swept into a concentration camp, but he manages to survive and return to Vienna after liberation. He's in the Russian sector of Vienna, is denounced and sent to a labor camp in Siberia.
Throughout all these trials and tribulations, Isaac inserts jokes and humorous stories into his narrative. Wagenstein has recreated the humor and warmth of Sholem Aleichem and I. B. Singer in a fresh and vibrant way. Isaac survives all the crises of his life by playing the fool. His rabbi, Shmuel Ben-David, appears in nearly all the episodes of his life to give counsel and encouragement. The book epitomizes the Jewish saying, "It could be worse," even when the circumstances leave little room to get worse. Reading this novel is an uplifting experience, a celebration of the beauty and joy of living even when it hurts.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 20, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
According to the biography of the author, Angel Wagenstein was born in 1922, making him 86 years old. This is his second novel published in English, though he has been a noted film maker and screenwriter in Bulgaria since the end of the Second World War. I read (and reviewed) his first novel, Farewell Shanghai, earlier this year.

I mention this because I continue to be astounded by Mr Wagenstein's writing, and the translation from the original Bulgarian by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova.

Isaac's Torah is the story of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, who was born in that strange geographical area in eastern Europe that changed governments many times in Isaac's long life. His village, populated by Jews and Poles and Ukrainians, was Austro-Hungarian in his early years, Polish in his middle years (after WW1) and then Soviet, German, and Russian again in his later years. (He actually ends his life in Vienna).

Isaac recounts his long life in a letter to his biographer. He writes about his family - lost in the Holocaust - and the villagers he grew up with, as well as the many acquaintances he made in the various armies, concentration camps (both German and Soviet), hospitals and refugee camps he lived through. The two constants in Isaac's life were his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmeul Ben-David and his own sense of humor. The good Rabbi appears here and there in Isaac's life after both are separated during the German invasion of Soviet Poland in 1941, always providing Isaac with the love and grounding he needs to survive in those perilous times. The two are separated for good after meeting in a Soviet Gulag in the late '40's.

This novel is so beautifully written (and translated) that even the grim and very sad parts are, in the end, uplifting.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Mayer Jacobovits on March 28, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Issac's experience is a mirror of the crazy Nazi-Soviet period Western Civilization had to survive. I only wish that at least one of his children survived. The poignant title "Issac's Torah" could also have been "Issac's sacrifice".

An easy read and highly recommended!
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