Reading in the Time of Coronavirus


I read for information, empathy, for gateways to other worlds and also the pleasure of seeing words put together beautifully, but these days, I’m looking for inspiration.

A book published in Austria in 1946 and now available, surprisingly, for the first time in English, it is remarkably timely due to the well-known author’s robust optimistic spirit in difficult times.

“Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything” by Viktor E. Frankl, with an introduction by Daniel Goleman (Beacon Press), is a brief, life-affirming book consisting of a series of public lectures delivered by the late psychiatrist in Vienna, 11 months after he was liberated from Auschwitz. Frankl gave these talks before he published “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a psychological memoir that has sold more than 16 million copies in 50 languages.

Goleman, a psychologist and author of the 1995 best-seller “Emotional Intelligence” and more recently “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body” (with Richard Davidson), points out that the book’s title is drawn from a song sung by inmates at some of the four concentration camps where Frankl was imprisoned and his parents were murdered. (His wife was murdered in Bergen-Belsen.) Many prisoners despised the song as they were forced to sing it repeatedly, but others found hope in the lyrics, “Whatever our future may hold:/ We still want to say “yes” to life, / Because one day the time will come — / Then we will be free.”

When asked about how Frankl managed to stay upbeat and resilient when he returned to Vienna after the war, given all he had experienced, Goleman tells The Jewish Week, “I think he was a very unusual person, to say the least; for one, he seemed to have an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness.”

He adds, “Of course, the whole question of finding purpose in life, despite overwhelming negative circumstances, is very profound. That became his major message over the rest of his life.”

For Frankl, every crisis includes an opportunity. He speaks of giving life deeper meaning through serving others, through loving and through the way we react to suffering. Some of Frankl’s notes for the lectures that became this book were jotted down on stolen slips of paper during his last nights in a concentration camp, battling typhoid fever. He died in 1997 at age 92.

While the timing of the book’s publication and the pandemic are coincidental, Goleman sees parallels with “the way we are now struggling with our world being turned upside down,” but makes clear that the current situation is nowhere near as horrific as what Frankl faced.

These days, as many Jews count the Omer, or number the days between Pesach and Shavuot, Frankl’s words particularly resonate, as we are trying to make the days count, to fill them with meaning.

Hard to get more inspiring than Danny Siegel, the author, lecturer, poet and tzedakah activist who has been spreading compassion and generosity for more than five decades.

Over the years, Siegel has brought international attention to many “Mitzvah heroes” — unsung figures working modestly, including a woman who rescues abandoned babies with Down syndrome from institutionalization; someone who organizes pony rides for blind children; a Yemenite rebbetzin in Jerusalem who helps the city’s poor and elderly — and encouraged many to support them and to initiate their own creative acts of kindness. Through the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, which he founded in 1981 and ran for 27 years, Siegel raised mostly small donations and gave away more than $13.5 million dollars. “Ziv” means light or radiance.

“Radiance: Creative Mitvzah Living” by Danny Siegel, edited by Rabbi Neal Gold, with a foreword by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Jewish Publication Society), is a collection of Siegel’s prose and poetry from the last 50 years. The pieces range from very practical ideas about giving wisely to the study of related Jewish texts and philosophy; his poetry is full of insight and the light of Jerusalem streets.

An early practitioner of micro-philanthropy, Siegel, now 76, has helped innovative causes in Israel, the U.S. and around the world, including a school for child laborers in Asia, recognizing that no project and no contribution is too small. An idealist, he has helped generations of American Jews find meaning in acts of lovingkindness.

While the book is not a memoir, readers will come to understand Siegel’s optimism and impact. In 2008, when he decided to close the doors of Ziv, he told Gary Rosenblatt of The Jewish Week that he saw himself not as a hero but as a matchmaker, connecting “authentic people” who wanted to give with “authentic people” doing extraordinary work.

For a different perspective, I turned to my husband Barry Lichtenberg, who offers two strategies for book lovers waylaid at home due to the Covid-19 crisis: The Tisha b’Av approach, aka The “you-think-this-is bad” strategy. Read a book, fiction or nonfiction that makes you count your lucky stars for living in the U.S. today and not, say, medieval France at the start of the First Crusade. Or, the Purim perspective. Read a book that’s fun, if a bit offbeat, with a hopeful, if not entirely happy, ending.

He offers a sampling of two books from column A and one from Column B in his voice, and says, “You know which way I lean.”

A beautiful young princess from distinguished Norman stock elopes with the rosh yeshiva’s son. The young lovers flee their hometown in Northern France, one step ahead of her father’s pursuing knights. Then the first Crusade erupts and things get really hairy. A farfetched fable, you say? What if I told you a letter in the Cairo Genizah recounts this fantastic story! In “The Convert” (Pantheon), Stefan Hertmans displays the Genizah letter and weaves an unforgettable tale of two star-crossed lovers on the run as Europe explodes in the First Crusade. I had thought that the Genizah was limited to medieval responsa and bills of lading. Now I know it also contains a tragic love story for the ages.

If history straight-up is your thing, and even if not, “Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich” (Basic Book) by Peter Fritzsche is must reading. In the course of barely 100 days, Hitler became the most popular dictator of the 20th century. How did the Nazis do it? Fear and violence, sure, but also a perverted moral calculus that preserving life meant destroying it, that the Germans were about to perish unless the Jews were destroyed. The Nazis made brilliant use of mass media, including radio and film. My favorite banner displayed in a Hitler propaganda film: “Go and Drain the Scandal Sump, Hitler is Our Trump.”

As a little boy coming home from shul one Shabbos morning in Crown Heights in the mid-’60s, I was mauled by a German shepherd a group of kids unleashed on me. Ever since, I have been uneasy around dogs. Is this the one childhood trauma I never got around to telling my wife about? This can be the only explanation for the culture editor (reader, I married her) assigning me “Other People’s Pets” (Celadon) to review. R. L. Maizes’ novel conjures up a young woman who relates more to dogs than to people, and when not in veterinary school, spends her time burglarizing homes with her locksmith-gonif father Zev, who has raised her after her mother abandoned her as a child when she fell through the ice while skating, only to be saved by a mysterious dog. Sounds farfetched, to say the least, but Maizes, whose debut story collection “We Love Anderson Cooper” was published to acclaim last summer, brings this unusual story to vivid life. I found myself caring deeply about the characters, even the two-legged ones, and unable to put the book down. After the pandemic is over, the first time I pass a dog on a leash, I will try to pet it and not walk the other way. A small, non-barking, leashed dog.