Book Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater

Watch now – My Book Review of The Raven Boys

Sex Education Season 2: #MeToo Trigger Warnings – A helpful guide

If you’re stoked for Season 2 of Netflix’s Sex Education, because you, like me, have been waiting a year for its release, you’ll want to get right on that. But if you’re triggered by discussions of sexual harassment and assault, you should be prepared for a major story line on this topic.

Now, I still think you should watch the second season! I’d hate for you to miss out on all the other great elements of the show for fear of being triggered. Since I personally am not triggered by this, and I wanted to watch the show twice through anyway, I’ve taken this small task upon myself. I’ve made a trigger-free watch guide in the hope of making this season possible to watch, even for those of us who have this particular trigger.

General guidelines: This guide will be most helpful if you are watching with another person who can tell you when to look away and when you can look back. However, it will also work if you’re watching alone and keep a close eye on the time.

Disclaimer: Please take everything written here with a grain of salt. These are not my personal triggers, so I can not guarantee 100% that the list I have provided will let you watch completely trigger free. I did my best but I might have missed something. I therefore encourage you to watch with a supportive friend or someone who has already watched the episodes who can help you through it and be there for you just in case.

What’s in this guide?

  1. A timeline of relevant scenes to skip, down to approximate minutes:seconds with trigger-free scene summaries so you know if there’s anything important you missed.
  2. Technical terms for the event and themes.
  3. Not trigger free: A dry, vague summary of the event and relevant issues the story raises.

If you are not sure if this particular story will trigger you, my recommendation is to have someone you trust read list element 3 above so you can suss out the severity of the event.

Additional trigger: Self Harm. There are two scenes which could be triggering because of self harm, and they are:

  • Episode 1: 32:07 – 32:40
  • Episode 6: 31:35 – 34:03

Timeline

Episodes 1 & 2

  • Clear. Line begins in episode 3.

Episode 3

General guideline

for this episode there is a helpful visual to cue when you should look away and plug your ears: any time you see Aimee carrying the pink cake.

  • 2:10 – 2:30 Intro. nothing really happens yet, Aimee sees the perpetrator.
  • 3:19 – 4:15 The incident.
  • 10:49 – 11:40 Cue: You will see Aimee carrying the cake but you can wait until Otis leaves before looking away. Safe when: you see Eric and Otis in the library. Summary: Aimee tells Maeve what happened. Maeve encourages Aimee to report the incident.
  • 15:34 – 17:10 At the police station. Safe when: you see Jackson
  • 24:16 – 26:22 Visual cue: Maeve and Aimee in an interview room. Talking to the police officer.
  • 28:37 This bit is clear. You see Aimee and Maeve getting a ride home with the cops, and there’s a cute lizard.
  • 31:44 Also clear. Continuing on the drive home, Aimee and Maeve discuss other story lines from the series and it is worth watching this bit.
  • 38:19 – 40:35 Cue: in the car, the cop asks, “is this you?” Aimee arrives home. Her mom is drunk and asks Aimee about her day.
  • 43:05 – 43:35 Visual cue: the bus. Aimee’s PTSD theme begins.

Episode 4

  • 5:35 – 6:20 Visual cue: the bus. Aimee has PTSD

Episode 5

  • 6:21 – 6:50 Visual cue: Aimee getting her shoes from the closet. Aimee has PTSD
  • 23:50 – 25:14 Cue: Steve opens the door for Aimee. Aimee has PTSD. It is worth noting that Steve is a loving, supportive partner to Aimee at every step of the way.

Episode 6

  • 35:50 – 36:27 Right after Otis: “Ah ha ah ha you want some vodka.” Aimee PTSD. What you need to know: Aimee breaks up with Steve.
  • 45:02 – 45:13 No explicit mention, but you see Aimee walking home alone and she’s sad.

Episode 7

General guideline

The main trigger scenes in this episode happen when the girls are in detention. Visual to cue when you should look away and plug your ears: when you see the girls hanging around on the green couches. Not all the scenes in this setting are triggery, just the ones that happen after 29:10. Exception: the first PTSD mention does not have this aesthetic.

  • 7:14 – 7:40 Aimee PTSD. Immediately after Maeve says “Aimee guess what?”
  • 29:41 – 30:13 When Olivia says “It just got interesting.” The girls are in detention, Maeve and Ola argue about Otis. Aimee is triggered and says what triggers her.
  • 31:05 – 33:45 SKIP THIS SCENE. Cue: After Jean (on the phone): “Can I come see you?” All you need to know is: The girls all share their own personal #metoo stories. The specific gory details are not important to the overall plot lines. It’s a beautiful scene, it contributes to the show and covers a wide range of experiences. You see the girls bonding and supporting each other and expressing their strongest selves. It’s important for people who don’t know much about this, or are skeptical of the validity of the #metoo movement – to watch. But if you’re the victim? It’s not directed towards you and you are under no obligation to see more of this. Safe when: “You know who loves ginger nuts? Eric Clapton.”
  • 40:16 I think this segment is safe to watch, but here are some things you should be prepared for: Olivia delivers a fun and interesting line that includes the phrase “non consensual penises” and that’s it. Then we have the smash scene. This is worth watching in my opinion because it is empowering and cute and badass, and personally I really enjoyed it. There is one brief mention of the trigger material, and here are the cues: Aimee says “I’m angry that I’m not good at baking cakes.” And then delivers another line about Steve. Then, in her third line, the incident and PTSD are referred to: **TW** “I’m angry that a horrible man ruined my best jeans, and nobody did anything, and now I can’t get on the fucking bus!”
  • 46:47 The girls show solidarity and support each other. To help Aimee through her PTSD, they all take the bus together.

Episode 8

  • Clear. Does not contain these specific triggers.

The Event

Technical terms for what happened: sexual misconduct. Basically, something of a sexual nature happened without consent.

Summary: Aimee is taking the bus to school when a stranger masturbates next to her.

The PTSD Theme

After the event, Aimee suffers from PTSD.

She is affected in the following ways:

  • She can’t take the bus
  • Sees/hallucinates the perp in random places
  • she struggles to be intimate with Steve

If you found this helpful, please let me know. Feel free to share. If you have a time correction or something I missed, please let me know.

Enjoy all the rest of the brilliance of this show!

Opinion: The Shape Of Water fails the Bechdel test, and there’s no excuse

The Shape Of Water was a beautiful film, with gorgeous visual effects, excellent music, and a heart-wrenching storyline with love and drama and a little more graphic blood than I would have liked, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Bechdel Test Results

Film: The Shape of Water

1. Is there more than one woman with a first name? Yes. Only two who are characters (Elisa and Zelda), and a third whose name is mentioned (Yolanda).

2. Do those women have a conversation? Yes. Zelda and Elisa are good friends and colleagues. They talk to each other throughout the entire movie.

3. Is their conversation about something other than men? No. Zelda mostly rants about her husband and the hygiene in the men’s facilities. When Elisa speaks, she talks about the creature, which is labelled very early in the film as a he. Thus, all of their dialogue is actually about men.

Which is a shame, really. There’s no particular reason the film had to fail. But it did.

Some films don’t pass Bechdel and it makes sense – for example, in a true story, I understand the desire to be true to the gender identity of the people in the original story. So let’s take an example of a film released right around the same time which was based on a true story: The Post.

The Post passed Bechdel. It was still a little tight, but Katherine Graham’s relationship with her daughter emphasized her central role. Notice though, that The Post fails POC Bechdel – and it’s understandable, because it makes sense that most of the people who worked in the White House and were invited to Katherine Graham’s parties were not people of color. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but then, it’s based on a true story.

The Shape of Water is fiction. Which means someone chose genders for each and every one of those characters. You can argue that Strickland and General Hoyt really needed to be men, being in elite government positions, but what about the artist? The guy from the bakery? Strickland’s assistant? The scientist? The Landlord? Any one of those could have been women.

And what about the creature?

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Here I was honestly disappointed at the decision to so blatantly label him as a man. He’s made up. He’s not human. They have no idea what he is and he certainly doesn’t express any kind of human gender identity. What I saw was a perfect opportunity to portray a character who has no gender, wouldn’t that have been interesting? And then what does that say about Elisa? Oh no, but in fiction even non-human characters have to fit into the gender binary, and since Elisa is a woman, and all women are heterosexual, he has to be – not only a male – but a cis male. I was honestly baffled by how far the creators of this movie reached to make the cis-maleness of the creature clear (i.e. the scene where Zelda asks Elisa if he has a “…”). What harm would there have been in just not discussing that, and letting viewers imagine how Elisa and the creature consummated the intimacy they felt for each other?

Once their relationship is shown to actually be a heterosexual relationship between a cis male and a cis female, it ‘s almost as if people don’t notice that one of them is not human. The people closest to Elisa don’t raise their eyebrows even for a second. So while it is clear that their relationship exists in perfect contrast to that of Strickland and his wife, or Giles’s advances on the Pie Guy, it still only reinforces our cultural heteronormativity despite the fact that one of them is not human.

WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?

7 Reasons to Date a Nerdy Girl: Response

First, I just want to say that I LOVE The Good Men Project. I think they are doing amazing work and the articles they post are informative and interesting. However, (everything before the but doesn’t count?) the other day I read this article: Smart is Sexy: 7 Reasons it’s to your benefit to date a nerdy girl, and I have to say, as a nerdy girl myself, I was kind of offended. So I decided to write a response. I’m going to write my reaction to the 7 reasons the author listed in the article. My own 7 reasons are listed below.

  1. Books are cheaper than jewelry: False. I don’t know where you live, author, but where I come from, books are not cheaper than jewelry. Certainly not science fiction or fantasy novels. Also, we ARE into jewelry. What about a Deathly Hallows ring or a TARDIS necklace? About a week after we started going out, my ex boyfriend bought me a pair of earrings with atoms on them. I was the happiest girl on Earth.
  2. Pillow talk is educational: False. Don’t fool yourself. We still need to feel secure in our relationship with you. So you’ll still get those questions, like “Does your mom like me?” It is true that sometimes pillow talk will involve graphs and vector spaces, but chances are, if you aren’t interested in us, we won’t waste our time trying to explain things.
  3. Celebrity crushes aren’t much of a threat: False. Shakespeare? Einstein? Not all nerdy girls are into old dead men, you know. But if you are a sane person, celebrity crushes shouldn’t be a threat in any relationship, regardless of whether your partner is nerdy or not.
  4. You don’t have to entertain her: False. Just because we enjoy reading doesn’t mean you can just ditch us on a Friday night. We want to be a good partner to you, so we’ll give you permission to go out with the guys, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go out with you. Besides, reading doesn’t have to be a solo activity. Cuddling and reading books together is one of our favorite activities.
  5. She provides you with topics for bar talk: True. But if you’re not already an interesting person to talk to on your own, guess what? You’re probably not going to get a second date.
  6. She’s likeable: True. We are f***ing awesome.
  7. You’re never bored: True. Unless you pretend to listen when we explain how the human Genome was discovered. Then you’re in trouble. But that thing about personality needing to win – that’s true for everyone. And if you’re shallow and only going for looks, best look somewhere else because we are probably not interested in you.

Now I’d like to share what I think are the actual reasons it is beneficial to date a nerdy girl. Reason #1: We’re not shallow Remember, girls like good-looking guys too. But we nerds are more interested in your hobbies, your interests, your personality. It’s great if you look good but we know that’s not all there is to you. As for us, we don’t overemphasize our own physical appearance. To a lot of guys that may seem off-putting. We’re not ugly, we don’t neglect ourselves. We just don’t necessarily need to put on make-up, or care too much if our socks match. We expect you to look beyond these things and be interested in who we are on the inside, and not just what we look like when we’re all dressed up. Reason #2: We’re into the same stuff you’re into. We like superhero comic books, gaming, sometimes we even enjoy talking about politics. We hate shopping trips. We’ll host the Star Wars marathon on May the 4th. It’s not all about shoes and nail polish for us. We are not intimidated by things which are considered boy interests. We won’t necessarily know all the rules of football, but we’re willing to learn. We want you to take an active interest in our hobbies, so we will in turn take an active interest in yours. Reason #3: We are amazing in bed. This is a well known secret of the nerd world. There are several theories which try to explain why this is. The one I like is that since we are so under-appreciated in our teens, we have a lot of time to read romance and erotica and watch porn (!OMG!). Just like anything else, we insist on educating ourselves about sex. We are constantly learning so we’re likely to want to try new things. There is also a huge overlap between the nerd world and the kink community. Don’t forget, we were into role-play before we even knew people did that. Reason #4: We come with life skills. We are insatiably curious, so we spend a lot of time learning random things. We might know how to hang shelves, light a fire, make ice cream from scratch, or build a computer from the floor up. We’re not damsels in distress, but this shouldn’t intimidate you. If you need to fix the sink to feel validated, we’ll happily step aside. Reason #5: We make responsible, informed decisions. Okay, not always. Sometimes we need to fly a kite with a key in a lightning storm. But hey, unprotected sex? Forget it. Reason #6: We are highly employable. It’s true that we are full of useless information, but we’re also full of useful knowledge. We get science or medical degrees. We can build websites or invent apps. We’re quick learners, so new skills a workplace requires don’t intimidate us. We don’t settle for the gas station. We reach for the stars, and sometimes we put a man on the moon. Reason #7: Why not? We’re girls. You’re into girls. Bring it.

from xkcd.com

Two Ways of Telling the Same Story

When I was in tenth grade I went to my first nerd science program at the Weizmann Institute. Our first lecture was about evolution. After the introduction, the lecturer addressed two friends and me and asked us whether we wanted to disagree with what he was teaching. He asked this because we all came from high schools which identify as religious, so naturally he assumed we believed in creation and therefore could not accept the Big Bang Theory. To his surprise, all three of us said no.

On the other hand, my eighth grade science teacher told my class that the chances that the big bang happened were the same as the chances of getting the Bible written by spilling a bottle of ink.

I know a lot of people who can’t reconcile the coexistence of both science and religion. I personally have never had a problem with it. I don’t think it’s necessary to choose between them. Let me explain why.

First, a little math (feel free to skip this paragraph, I promise I won’t go too deep). In math we have the concept of equivalence, where two things can be worth the same thing but not be the same. For example, 4+5 is equivalent to 9. While they clearly look different on the screen, they both return the same value – 9. Still, one is a sum, and the other is a natural number – not the same thing! But you can’t prove that they’re different. Because they’re not, really. They’re just two different representations of the same idea. 3 to the power of 2 is yet another way to represent the number 9. For another example, think about two triangles drawn on paper with the same size, same direction and same angles, but in different places. They’re not the same triangle, but you can’t really tell them apart.

So here’s my idea. Taking the first example from the previous paragraph, let’s use the number 9 to represent the concept of God. There are tons of different ways of approaching it. Everyone relates to it differently, everyone feels differently and imagines differently. But at the end of the day we’ve still reached the number 9.

I was talking to a friend of mine last week and we were discussing how fascinating we both find studying science. There are moments when you learn something new and it’s just mind blowing. What draws us to science are those moments when you feel like “OH MY GOD Nature is frickin’ awesome.” I felt this way when I first saw the proof that i squared equals -1. To get a taste of how awe-inspiring science can be, check out the double-slit experiment from quantum physics.

So scientists get a feeling of awe, and religious people experience spiritual uplifting. My argument is that these two concepts, like 4+5 and 9, are equivalent. Why is it necessary to distinguish between a sense of awe inspired by scientific study and a sense of awe inspired by prayer or belief? Further, is it even possible to distinguish between them? Can one really argue that these two “awes” are fundamentally different, and not just two ways of telling the same story?

You might want to argue that the creation and the big bang theory are contradictory, but I don’t think they are. I don’t see a reason to differentiate between God and the big bang. If you look carefully at Genesis 1, you’ll find that the days of creation line up very nicely with the theory of evolution. Professor Gerald Schroeder takes this idea even further and says that the age of the earth according to creation and according to science are the same!

Set aside for a moment all the traditions and scriptures and whys and hows. I’m not talking about the entire idea of practicing a religion, just about believing in God. When I see a magnificent proof in a math lecture at University, I experience the same kind of uplifting as I have in a moment of prayer, meditation, or creative inspiration. The sense of awe is what drives me to science, just like the sense of awe is what drives people to believe in God. What’s the difference between the double-slit experiment and a miracle? No difference, I think. Two ways of telling the same story.

Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*SPOILER ALERT* Although the title might sound a little bit creepy, the graveyard is intimidating only if you have the misfortune to be one of the live human characters in the book. Generally, the ghosts who live in the graveyard are witty and hilarious. The living people are funny too. For example, here are the thoughts of one of the living characters, Scarlett Amber Perkins, when caught in a life threatening situation:

page 258. “If I get out of this alive, I’m going to force her [Mom] to get me a phone. It’s ridiculous. I’m the only person in my year who doesn’t have her own phone, practically.”

As always, Neil Gaiman grips the reader and doesn’t let go until he’s shaken your world completely. I could feel him walking through various graveyards checking to make sure there was a ghoul gate in every one of them, checking the inscriptions on the headstones imagining characters to life. His descriptions are so vivid that when Bod walks through his home, you are there with him. The characters earn the reader’s trust as they earn the trust of other characters, and when they betray them, they betray the reader.
There are things we think about when we think of a graveyard, of ghosts, of the dead. Things we aren’t sure about. These are the things Neil Gaiman takes and crafts masterfully into the world of the people of the graveyard.

page. 174. “Fear is contagious. You can catch it. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say that they’re scared for the fear to become real.”

People who die leave an echo of themselves in the world of the living. The people in Neil Gaiman’s graveyard have the ability to access the world of the living in a way which is kind of an eerie explanation to that echo. They can fade – meaning, they can be present without being noticed. They can dreamwalk – enter people’s dreams and sometimes even create a dream. They can create fear and haunt. It is fascinating to question these experiences we have as living people, but through the eyes of the dead.

Characters
There are a few different kinds of creatures in the world: the living, the dead, and of course the most intriguing characters – the ones in between.
1. The protagonist – Bod, is a living boy, but he lives in the graveyard and therefore has the ability to do what the dead who live there can. In his reality the lines between living and dead are blurred, and his mind is so open he believes anything is possible.

page 167. “Someone killed my mother and father and my sister.”
“Yes. Someone did.”
“A man?”
“A man.”
“Which means,” said Bod, “you’re asking the wrong question.”…”the question isn’t ‘Who will keep me safe from him?’”
“No?”
“No. It’s ‘Who will keep him safe from me?’”

Bod’s abilities to behave like the dead come from him having the “Freedom of the Graveyard.” I think the Freedom of the Graveyard is the privilege given to those who have already died, thus been relieved of the fear of death. It is freedom from the fear of the unknown.

2. Silas, Bod’s guardian, is neither living nor dead, and it’s not entirely clear what he is, but here’s what we do know about him:

page 32: “I want to be like you,” said Bod, pushing out his lower lip. “No,” said Silas firmly, “you do not.”
page 194. “There are ways to kill people like me,” he said. “But they do not involve cars.”

3. The third intriguing character is the villian, the man Jack. While he is clearly alive, he also has some mysterious abilities which living people usually do not possess. The book opens with Jack committing a murder. His motive is not clarified until the very end, but he creates a kind of paradoxical cycle of events: if he had not tried to kill the boy in the first place, then his reason for wanting to kill him would not exist. It reminded me of two of my favorite pieces of literature: Harry Potter and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. If Lord Voldemort had not tried to kill Harry, he would not have created his own worst enemy. If the witches had not predicted that Macbeth would become king, he may not have tried.

There are also legends relating to the world of the graveyard, the ancient. The first, the Lady on the Grey, was so convincing I googled it to see if it was something I should have known about. The second, the legend of the treasure – the brooch, the goblet, the knife – was not entirely explained, but everyone in the world seemed to know about it. They did not, however, know about the Sleer – the guardians of the treasure. The sleer were a particularly interesting entity because you never knew exactly what they were. Whether the sleer is good or bad depends on what you want: power, or freedom.

The story is amazing, with such a shocking twist I actually gasped out loud while reading it. It says it’s a book for children, but come on – we all know the best books for grown ups are kids’ books.

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With Every Lesson Learned a Line Upon Your Beautiful Face

Once upon a time, Bella loved Edward because he was handsome. Then Edward left and Bella was worth nothing without him. Then Edward refused to have sex with her until they were married. Then he abused her and she was convinced it was all out of love. Then she got pregnant on their wedding night. Then he turned her into a vampire.

Among the many appalling messages the Twilight series has to give to young girls (Yay! A chance to take a stab at Twilight) is that the ideal woman is frozen in time at the age of nineteen so that she can remain attractive in the eyes of her partner. (For the record, the only reason I read the books is so I could complain about them on my blog.)

I have seen so many shockingly beautiful women walk into a clinic and get toxic chemicals injected into their faces, and then pay nauseating amounts of money for it. I never ask but I always wonder, are these women happier when they walk out of the clinic? Are they loved more? Are their lives better as a result of looking younger than they actually are?

Why these women do this is no secret. The media world has pretty much told us that women are not supposed to age (that link is from Beauty Redefined, another worthwhile blog to check out.) As it turns out, the beauty image affects women at every stage of life – from tiny girls who prefer thin dolls over curvy ones to middle aged women who run from their wrinkles at a heavy cost. Not only are we supposed to be thin, tall, hairless, fat-free, and white (but not too white!), we are also supposed to be 17. Doesn’t it sound a little far-fetched to expect women to live up to these standards? Isn’t it a little bit absurd to expect women to be “Forever 21?”

I’m perfectly aware that I’m only 22 years old and unqualified to judge women older than me for decisions they make about their appearance. However, I can say from the perspective of early-twenty-somethings that we are basically useless. We contribute virtually nothing to the world (with the possible exception of running the IDF.) We may look good but we did nothing to earn it, and in any case the beauty image is so powerful that we spend most of the time thinking we’re ugly. And yet, instead of carrying their years with pride, older women try to look like us. Instead of boasting their wisdom, they hide it. As if experience is something to be ashamed of – as if knowledge is an undesirable thing. These are the messages we young people receive about growing up.

I was walking to work the other day when I heard the song “Get Out the Map” by the Indigo Girls. This one line struck me:

“With every lesson learned a line upon your beautiful face.”

It says that lines on a person’s face are a result of being truly alive. They are an echo of experiences and lessons they’ve learned. Wrinkles are a physical expression of wisdom. The Indigo Girls go one step further and insist that the face these lines are etched upon remains beautiful.

When Gloria Steinem turned 50, a reporter commented that she looked much younger than her age, and she replied, “No, this is what fifty looks like.” Women are so used to lying about their age that we’ve forgotten that not only young people are beautiful. Let’s try not to forget that.

Book Review: Akiva’s Orchard by Yochi Brandes

הפרדס של עקיבאהפרדס של עקיבא by Yochi Brandes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book if you are interested in Judaism or Jewish history, or Jewish. The main thing it does is takes the million Rabbis you’ve heard of and organizes them in your head: Who lives when, whose student is whom, where they taught, how they were related and how they interacted with each other. When reading about them in the scriptures these things are never clear, and one can easily get the illusion that they sit around a table and discuss things, although many of the characters at that table lived in different times. Each Rabbi is depicted as unique, so it is impossible after reading this book to forget who Rabbi Akiva studied with and who his students were.

Yochi Brandes takes the time period (70-135 A.D.) with its central characters and brings it to life. She reframes the famous stories we already knew, telling them from a different point of view or using her imagination to explain missing details. Because the stories are familiar, the book is engaging from the first page to the last, and often surprising when she presents a different view on a story you thought you knew. The language is not pure literary Hebrew (probably why I managed to read the book), it is diluted with references from the Bible and the Mishnah, so that famous phrases will jump out at you and often help you get deeper into a character’s mind by understanding what their situation reminds them of.

The book takes you on a journey through the lives of these beloved characters. Through their experiences the foundation of modern Judaism begins to bud. The author uses the lifestyles of the leaders of the time in order to critique the way we interpret Jewish laws today. For example, where the privilege of studying torah full time and not working was once reserved for the wealthy, today it is common for people to choose not to work and accept their poverty as a consequence. One rabbi may have emphatically objected to teaching Torah to women, but the fact that other rabbis in his own time taught their daughters teaches us that there was never a consensus on the matter, and no excuse for the concept that the Torah solely belongs to men. There is much conflict regarding the relationship which develops with Christianity, which was just beginning to blossom at the time and had not yet been declared its own religion, but it’s clear that while some rabbis believe they should be shunned, others believe that there is nothing more important than keeping peace with those who are different, whether or not they are Jewish. A main theme throughout the book is the changing of the Jewish religion – mainly the removal of God from the religion. You might be raising your eyebrows but truth be told, we don’t realize how much less the concept of God is present in our religion now than it was back then. The temple was still standing until 70 A.D. Prophets and miracles were common and accessible. The teachings of Rabbi Akiva were revolutionary in the way that they took the Torah from heaven and brought it down to earth, where it is now ours to interpret whichever way suits us best. The free interpretation is a controversial topic these days, but it is clear from the book that it shouldn’t be. According to Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, we are allowed to understand it in our own way.

The book is told from the perspective of the famous Rabbi Akiva’s wife, Rachel. Jewish scriptures describe their loved her as passionate and romantic. They say that although they were poor, he promised to give her Jerusalem of Gold. We know that Rabbi Akiva leaves her for twelve years to study Torah. One sources says that at the end of twelve years he came home with a trail of thousands of students, and before he saw her, turned on his heels and returned for an additional twelve years. I was glad that this approach was not followed in the book. Brandes describes Akiva and Rachel’s relationship as romantic at first. Then Rachel begins to pressure her husband to travel to the Yeshiva and study torah, believing (correctly) that he is gifted. As a man who learned to read at age forty, Akiva begrudgingly leaves, swearing not to return until he becomes a Rabbi. This aspect of the relationship was difficult for me to swallow, because we see it so often in ultra-orthodox couples. Rachel is the image of the original ultra-orthodox woman, whose only wish is for her husband to study, and works around the clock to support her family on her own. Akiva is the original ultra-orthodox man, forswearing contact with women and immersing himself in his studies. The phrase often attributed to Rabbi Akiva, “Love your neighbor like yourself,” stands in contrast with many decisions his character makes in the book.

The ending is difficult, even for those who know how the lives of these Rabbis ended. It seems that the cruelty of the Roman Empire knows no limits. Each one of ten famous rabbis of the time died tortured, humiliating public deaths at the hands of the Romans (Jesus being nailed to a cross doesn’t even come close to what these guys went through). It seems like in the last chapter, the entire world turns upside down. The horrors are impossible to digest. Read it anyway.

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