covers of "Near Normal Man," "Rebecca of Salerno" and "Trial Lawyer"

New memoirs, novels and poetry collections from local Jewish authors

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“Near Normal Man: Survival with Courage, Kindness and Hope”

By Ben Stern with Charlene Stern (Redwood Publishing, 320 pages)

As a Holocaust educator, Ben Stern of Berkeley has shared his story of surviving the Warsaw Ghetto and the Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps with many audiences over the years — both through speaking engagements and a 2017 documentary, also called “Near Normal Man.” Now, with help from his daughter, the 101-year-old, Polish-born Stern has committed his life story to print.

In his newly published memoir, he recounts how, even after he immigrated to the United States, he couldn’t escape Nazism. In 1976, when he was living in Skokie, Illinois, he spoke at nearby Northwestern University to refute claims made in “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century,” a Holocaust denial screed by a Northwestern professor. And two years later, when the National Socialist Party of America, a neo-Nazi group, won a court battle (with help from the ACLU) to march in Skokie, Stern organized a counterprotest and bought a gun for protection. The NSPA ultimately held its march in Chicago. “In the end, we felt vindicated; we had done the right thing and were happy to have this nightmare behind us,” Stern writes. “A day later I smashed the gun, took it apart and threw the pieces in several garbage cans around the city over the course of a few days. The bullets I separated and also tossed into various garbage bins. I did not want my children or grandchildren to see a gun in my house.”

“Trial Lawyer: A Life Representing People Against Power”

By Richard Zitrin (University of Toronto Press, 372 pages)

cover of “Trial Lawyer: A Life Representing People Against Power”

As a law student at the University of San Francisco, Richard Zitrin helped to represent Johnny Spain, a Black Panther and one of the San Quentin Six charged with various crimes in connection with a violent escape attempt from the California prison in 1971. It was a transformative experience for the young Zitrin. “I changed from a liberal suburban white boy into a radicalized activist adult,” he writes in this memoir of his career as a trial lawyer and later as a professor at USF and UC Hastings in San Francisco. “I thought that the court system ‘bends towards justice,’ as Dr. King said. But I was blind to the first part of his quote: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long.’ The Six Case was a graphic demonstration of an arc not yet bent nearly enough.”

Zitrin writes about other memorable cases he was involved with, including “People v. Robert M. ‘Max’ Forrest,” in which he defended a Marin County escort service owner against pimping charges. Zitrin, who lives in San Francisco, told J. he wrote the book “to explain the ethical and emotional conundrums I faced and to understand more about my privilege and my relationship to my disadvantaged clients, largely people of color.”

“Rebecca of Salerno: A Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder”

By Esther Erman (She Writes Press, 264 pages)

cover of “Rebecca of Salerno: A Novel of Rogue Crusaders, a Jewish Female Physician, and a Murder”

This work of historical fiction imagines what happened to the Jewish heroine of Sir Walter Scott’s 1820 novel “Ivanhoe.” As a refugee from England living in the Kingdom of Sicily in the early 13th century, Rebecca enrolls in medical school and defies family pressure to marry. When a rabbi is falsely accused of murdering a crusader, Rebecca and Rafael, the man who loves her, work together to protect the Jewish community.

Erman, who lives in Mountain View, said the seed for this novel was planted 30 years ago when she read “Ivanhoe” for the first time. “I was surprised and delighted to discover Rebecca, who I believe is the first positive image of a Jewish character in European literature,” she told J. “Previously, as a Jewish woman earning a BA and MA in French, I’d had to compartmentalize when I read the literature I loved, because the few Jews who showed up were villains. Rebecca showed another way was possible. I felt that this strong, rich character deserved her own story.” Erman will participate in two virtual book events in January. Visit for details.

“Lost and Found”

By Rachel Biale (Wildcat Books, 508 pages)

cover of “Lost and Found”

In November 1940, a French ocean liner, the SS Patria, was docked in the Port of Haifa with about 2,500 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe aboard. The refugees lacked entry permits to Mandatory Palestine, and the British authorities were planning to deport them to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. In order to prevent the deportations, the Haganah, the Zionist paramilitary organization, attempted to disable the ship with a bomb — but the explosion caused the Patria to sink, and more than 250 people died.

Based on real events and people, Biale’s novel follows a couple from Vienna who survive the blast with their infant son but lose track of their 4-year-old son in the chaos. The older boy remains missing for years, and Biale weaves together two different narratives of what happened to him. A resident of Berkeley and the author of several children’s books and a 2021 memoir, “Aerograms Across the Ocean: A Love Story in Letters, 1970-1972,” Biale told J. her own Czech-born parents were among those refugees set to be deported from Haifa on the Patria. “They were about to board a small boat to ferry them to the Patria when it exploded,” she said. “They probably would have drowned had the explosion taken place 15 minutes later than it did.”

“Amusing the Angels”

By Stewart Florsheim (Blue Light Press, 104 pages)

cover of “Amusing the Angels”

This is the fifth poetry collection by Florsheim, a resident of Piedmont. The short poems address aspects of Judaism, Israel, family and the pandemic. There are also several inspired by paintings and photographs. In “Still Life with Cat and Fish,” Florsheim writes about a 1728 painting of the same name by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin that suddenly comes to life:

Nothing is still.
In a moment, the cat
will pounce on the dead fish
and start tearing it apart.
The scene will become a mess
of fish skin and bones,
the plate will fall to the ground
with a loud crash,
the room will smell of rotting sea life and garlic —
but the painting will remain, ticking.     

Florsheim will teach a workshop on writing poems about paintings over four Tuesdays in February and March through New Lehrhaus. In addition, he will give a reading on Jan. 12 at Orinda Books.

“Democracy of Fire”

By Susan Cohen (Broadstone Books, 78 pages)

cover of “Democracy of Fire”

A former journalist living in Berkeley, Cohen has published her poetry widely, including in the 2013 “Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry.” Her latest collection includes poems about Judaism, antisemitism and immigration.

“I hope what readers take away is a love of what language can do, and the ways we are all interconnected,” she told J. “In particular, the refugee crises around the globe made me look back on my own family’s immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. The book is dedicated to my grandparents, whom I didn’t really know, and includes poems about my learning Yiddish in an attempt to connect with their lost stories.” On Jan. 10, Cohen will read her work during a virtual event hosted by the Modesto Stanislaus Poetry Center. Details at

These books are available to order from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and online retailers. J. invites local authors to submit their books for possible inclusion in future columns to [email protected]. Books that were published within the last six months and are available to buy from major retailers or borrow from local libraries will be given priority for coverage.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.