From Boxing To The Bedouins


This season offers some remarkable new nonfiction titles, on some unexpected, previously unexplored topics. Readers can imagine — and try to understand — other lives, other times.

Binnie Klein’s memoir, “Blows to the Head: How Boxing Changed My Mind” (Excelsior Editions), is uncommon in its storyline and graceful in style. While in her mid-50s, the psychotherapist and radio host, who was never particularly athletic, took up boxing, persuading a former middleweight champ in New Haven, Conn., to take her on as a student. While learning to perfect her jabs at an inner-city gym, she comes to look back on her own past and the world of Jewish boxing with strength, humor and insight.

Civil war buffs are an insatiable crew, and here’s a new book that will appeal to them, as well as to others interested in American Jewish history, culture and identity. “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader” edited by Jonathan D. Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn (NYU) is a collection of essays by noted scholars, edited by Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History, and Mendelsohn, a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. The wide-ranging pieces describe how Jews experienced the war, in the North and in the South, and how the war divided Jews. Contributors take up the subjects of Jews, slavery and abolition; the role of rabbis; Jewish civilian life; Jews in the army — more than 8000 Jewish soldiers fought — and on the home front.

“Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires – An Anthology” edited by Miryam Kabakov is another important collection of essays about Jewish life and community. The contributors are lesbians who have been struggling to reconcile their sexuality and Orthodoxy, forging new paths and new identities, stretching boundaries; some are women who are married to men and pretending to be straight as they seek to express their authentic selves in these essays; some were born or are now living in chasidic enclaves; some are single; some live with other women, some are mothers. Essayists include professors Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Mara Benjamin and Joy Ladin; artist and activist Naomi Zaslow; and the pseudonymous Ex-Yeshiva Girl and Geo Bloom, a freelance writer and teacher who is a married mother of eight living in the chasidic world. They write with candor, creativity, intelligence and deep knowledge, commitment to Orthodoxy even as it doesn’t easily acknowledge or accept them, and sometimes with sadness and pain.

Clinton Bailey, an Israeli born in Buffalo, N.Y., is one of the world’s leading experts on Bedouin culture. In his books, he shares his scholarship with perceptiveness, wit and compassion for his subject — and he’s a wonderful writer, with a great ear for stories. His latest book, “Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev: Justice Without Government” (Yale University Press), based on more than 40 years of research, firsthand experience, activism and friendship with the Bedouins, will be of much interest to those interested in legal affairs, ideas of justice and ethnography, as well as all who follow Middle East culture and politics.

The Bedouins’ nomadic society has no central government, no police force, yet there’s a need for security and protection. In this book — the first comprehensive study of Bedouin law published in English — he shows the close connection between law and culture in the desert society, and how ideas of honor, religious faith, loyalty, collective responsibility, violence — all aspects of the culture — are integral to the legal system. These systems, passed down through oral law, date back centuries, and are still practiced, even as the Bedouins’ lands have been diminished and as solid homes and cars have replaced tents and camels for many.

Bailey first became interested in the subject in 1967, while teaching English at a regional school and college in Sde Boker — the kibbutz where David Ben Gurion spent his retirement years — in the heart of the Negev desert, surrounded by Bedouin encampments. As he got to know individuals in the nearby tribes and clans, his initial interest was in their poetry, which then led to curiosity about law. But even in his early investigations into poetry, he would hear stories of legal consequence, which he recorded, checking details with tribal elders. More recently, he has questioned the new generation of elders about conflicts and their resolutions.

The author, who lives in Jerusalem, is a research fellow on Bedouin culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., has been a consultant on Bedouin culture to the BBC, the British Museum and the Museum of Bedouin Culture in Kibbutz Lahav, Israel. He is the author of two previous acclaimed books, also the first such volumes in English: “A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs” and “Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev: Mirror of a Culture.”

Here, he demonstrates how the system is shaped by the desert experience. Bedouin society gives careful consideration to motives and circumstances behind a crime before condemning it. For example, traditionally camel raids upon herds of distant tribes were not necessarily considered a crime, as the animals were necessary for survival (governments suppressed such raids in the mid-20th century). Theft was also employed to deter men from raping women, for when a rape took place, clansmen of the woman were entitled to pillage the livestock (and also kill the men of the offending tribe). Since hospitality is a value, a host, whose own animals might be far away, is allowed to steal an animal to feed a guest. A person who is hungry would not be condemned for picking a few dates from a tree, but to cut down and steal a cluster of dates is punishable by law, with the thief tried before a judge.

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