Through a largely hidden ceremony . . . four friends discover the true meaning of life.
It’s 2006 in a seaside village in Israel, where a war is brewing. Lauren, Emily, Aviva and Rachel, four memorable women from different backgrounds, are drawn to the village. Lauren, a maternity nurse, loves her Israeli doctor husband but struggles to make a home for herself in a foreign land thousands of miles away from her beloved Boston. Seeking a fresh start after a divorce, her vivacious friend Emily follows. Strong, sensuous Aviva, brought to Israel years earlier by intelligence work, has raised a family and now lost a son. And Rachel, a beautiful, idealistic college graduate from Wyoming, arrives with her hopeful dreams.
The women forge a friendship that sustains them as they come to terms with love and loss, and the outbreak of war. Their intimate bond is strengthened by their participation in a traditional ritual that closes the circle of life. As their lives are slowly transformed, each finds unexpected strength and resilience.
Brimming with wisdom, rich in meaningful insights, A Remarkable Kindness is a moving testament to women’s friendship, illuminating a mostly unknown ritual that underscores what it means to truly be alive.
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (August 11, 2015)
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (August 11, 2015)
A Remarkable Kindness is a fascinating and moving book. Four American women end up living in a small town in Northern Israel, just ten miles from the Lebanese border. The story takes place from 2000 to 2006, when war is hitting very close to home for them as the Israel-Hizbullah conflict escalates and comes to a head in the summer of 2006. Although the war plays a role in the story, it is truly about the four women, adjusting to life in Israel and coming together with a few local women to join the community's burial circle. A burial circle or herva kadisha, is a group of Jewish men and women who take care of the dead, preparing their bodies according to Jewish tradition for burial. These are the last people to be with the dead before they are buried. They are volunteers and since the dead cannot thank them or give them anything in return, it is considered a hesed shel emet--an act of remarkable kindness. I find I am drawn to stories that explore different religions and cultures and being not at all familiar with Jewish burial circles, I found reading about the rituals engrossing. I will say that having selected this book to review back in March and then losing my mom in May, I was concerned that I would struggle with reading about death and the time in the burial house. I found however, that the rituals are so respectful and loving, I was moved but not upset by them. In fact, as much as death is a part of the story, it is more about life--changing, growing, loving, and learning to appreciate the life you have.
The four women the story centers around--Aviva, Lauren, Emily, and Rachel are all from America, but they range in age, have different life experiences, and are in Israel for different reasons. Their individual stories are told in between the scenes in the burial house and it is through their interactions with the burial circle that they, and their friendships grow. The author writes each woman in a very real way--they certainly aren't perfect, but they are easy to relate to and I found myself caught up in their lives. The prologue of the book hints of a tragedy and loss to come and I found myself cringing as I moved toward the end, not wanting to read what I knew was going to happen. Still, the end brought closure and I was left with a smile and, admittedly, a few tears. A Remarkable Kindness will appeal to anyone who enjoys well-written women's fiction, Jewish culture and tradition, and stories about friendship and life.
Author Notes: Diana Bletter is a writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary. Her first book, The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women, with photographs by Lori Grinker, was shortlisted for a National Jewish Book Award. In 1991, she moved from New York to a seaside village in northern Israel where she lives with her husband and children, and volunteers in a burial circle.
Find out more about Diana at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
Although not a foodie book, there is plenty of food inspiration in A Remarkable Kindness. Most of it centers around what is grown and cooked in the town and surrounding area. There is mention of "the sweetest watermelon you have ever tasted," avocado and orange groves, chicken farms with fresh eggs, trees of pecans, carob, and loquats, gardens of herbs like basil and verbena (made into tea), mangoes, papayas and persimmons, and local honey. The market in Akko sells lettuce (with a frog in the leaves), along with cabbage, leeks, string beans, cauliflower, tomatoes, and red pepper. The local hotel serves up vats of goulash and chicken soup, and then there are the various foods and meals cooked or consumed by the different characters.
I ended up making my dish mostly inspired by a dinner date between Emily and Boaz that was comprised of tabbouleh, arugula, tomato, and fennel salads, hummus, tahini, smoked eggplant with toasted pita, fresh grilled fish and white wine, and a dessert of Turkish coffee and Baklava.
I have been craving tabbouleh and have had a recipe for Cucumber and Mint Tabbouleh with Minted Labneh from Delicious Magazine tagged to try. Fresh, green and healthy, I loved the idea of the minted labneh--thickened yogurt cheese--and I added a fresh avocado to the mix for extra nutrients--and as a nod to the avocado groves in the book. Besides the avocado, I made a few small changes to the recipe, noted in red below.
Cucumber and Mint Tabbouleh with Minted Labneh
Adapted Very Slightly from Delicious.com
For the Tabbouleh:
175g bulgur wheat (I used red bulgur wheat)
1 romaine lettuce heart
2 Lebanese or ridge cucumbers, or 1 ordinary cucumber
25g fresh mint, leaves picked (about 1 scant cup)
6 spring onions, thinly sliced
4 tsp lemon juice (I used the juice of 1 lemon--about 3-4 Tbsp)
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
For the Minted Labneh
500g tub Greek yogurt (about 1 pint)
20g fresh mint, leaves picked (about 3/4 scant cup)
1/2 garlic clove, crushed (I used 1 whole clove)
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 tsp salt, or to taste
Start the minted labneh 24 hours in advance. Put 4 tablespoons of the yogurt into a mini food processor with the mint leaves, garlic, olive oil and salt. Whizz briefly until the mint is finely chopped. Stir into the rest of the yogurt, then spoon into a sieve lined with a square of muslin. Place the sieve over a bowl, then fold the edges of the muslin over the yogurt to make a parcel. Rest a small plate on top or cut a piece of cardboard to fit on top, then weigh it down with something quite heavy. Leave to drain for 24 hours in the fridge.
The next day, put the bulgur wheat into a large bowl and cover with plenty of boiling hot water. Soak for 10-20 minutes until just tender but still a little al dente (exactly how long will depend on the brand). Drain well, then tip onto a clean tea towel and leave for 15 minutes or so to remove as much excess water as you can.
Meanwhile, discard any tough outer leaves from the lettuce, then slice it finely. Peel the cucumber(s), cut in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds with a melon baller or teaspoon. Chop into small dice.
Reserve a few small mint leaves for a garnish. Bunch up the rest and slice them widthways as finely as you can using a very sharp knife, but don’t chop them too finely – if they’re crushed they will go black.
Tip the bulgur wheat into a mixing bowl. Stir in the lettuce, cucumber, chopped mint, spring onions, lemon juice, olive oil and some salt to taste. Spoon onto a large serving plate and break over the minted labneh. Scatter over the reserved mint leaves and serve straightaway while the lettuce is still crunchy.
Cooking Tip: Bulgur wheat comes in fine, medium and coarse grain. Although fine grain is usually used for tabbouleh in the Middle East, I like a medium grain for this salad – it’s also the type available in most supermarkets.
Notes/Results: A really nice take on a classic, this is a refreshing tabbouleh with a strong mint presence. I like a basic tabbouleh where often tomatoes and parsley are the stars, but this version puts the mint, cucumber and romaine firmly forward and gives the minted labneh the starring role. Mmm... that wonderful labneh... it adds such a great creamy contrast to the chewy bulgur and crisp vegetables and it would be just as good slathered on a piece of pita or sourdough bread. I have a feeling I will be making more of it. The avocado isn't necessary, but it does make the salad more satisfying as an entree. I did feel the salad benefited from more lemon--the recipe called for only 4 teaspoons, but I squeezed in the juice of one Meyer lemon and thought it was just right. I made the entire recipe and have been eating it for leftovers the past couple of days. I just held out the mint, labneh and avocado until serving--everything else stands up well. I will happily make this again.
Note: A review copy of "A Remarkable Kindness" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.