How to Survive Anything, by David and Yetta Kane, San Rafael, CA: Bolton Associates, 2011. 155 pp.
Reviewed by Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann
Over the years, people have asked Rabbi Cantor David and Yetta Kane to write a memoir. Married nearly sixty years, the Kanes have long been fixtures of Southern California Jewish life, regarded for their generosity, charm and sage advice. David’s contributions to the American cantorate and Yetta’s business acumen are known in many circles, as is the positive attitude they have maintained throughout their lives as child Holocaust survivors and American success stories. David explains this outlook in their newly published book, How to Survive Anything: “Because we survived, all of life has meaning, whether it’s a terrible happening or whether it’s a great joy” (p. 147).
The book was written with a specific audience in mind—namely, the authors’ children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This is evidenced in the section that records the couple’s kind words about individual family members (pp. 105-134). Outside of providing a model of gratitude and familial love, these reflections have little general appeal. However, the rest of the stories should resonate with a broader audience.
Yetta was born in Myadel, Poland in 1932. Her family’s middle-class shtetl home was complete with cows, horses, chickens and a vegetable garden. The house was positioned on the corner of a major street, and when the Nazi charged into the village, Yetta felt it “shaking like an earthquake from the heavy tanks and equipment and the motorcycles, and those Volkswagens—the big ones” (p. 27). Her first encounter with Nazi brutality occured on a Saturday afternoon following Shabbat services. She was playing ball with a neighbor’s daughter when a tall Jewish man walked by. The girl yelled, “Jude” (Jew), and a Gestapo pulled out his gun and shot him. Shortly thereafter, Yetta and her mother, father and two siblings joined the Partisans. They eventually fled to Siberia.
The Nazis invaded David’s (b. 1928) home city of Bedin, Poland in 1939, and swiftly erected ghetto walls and a liquidation camp. David and his father managed to flee the camp, but were arrested at the Budapest Great Synagogue. They were sent to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald, which was liberated on April 11, 1945. David recalls: “At the liberation, when the Americans came in, I still had my head shaved in the middle. . . . And there were a lot of African-Americans that liberated us and they looked at me, because I was so sunburned and dark and dirty, and said, ‘Look, look, look.’ They thought I was African. I didn’t mind. They gave me some chocolate and cigarettes” (p. 46).
Though the chapters on the Holocaust are profound and rich in anecdote, it was not the Kane’s intention to write a book about World War II. Rather, they set out to describe how faith and affection helped them overcome that traumatic period and embrace happier times. Highlights of the book include the story of how they met at a refugee dance in Los Angeles, David’s appointment as a chaplain’s assistant at Fort Ord, California, and his time selling burial plans for Mount Sinai Memorial Park.
In this reviewer’s opinion, more space could have been devoted to the couple’s involvement in the synagogue. Given David’s prominence in the cantorial world and the decades he spent in the profession—most notably at Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, California—one might expect more than the passing references the book provides. And as an active participant in David’s career, Yetta surely has behind-the-scene synagogue tales of her own. Still, the book succeeds in its main objective. Much more than a memoir, How to Survive Anything offers a refreshingly positive philosophy of life, filled with the wisdom, devotion and gratitude that come from a lifetime of labor, adventure and love. Brimming with photographs and printed in an attractive coffee-table format, it delights on many levels.
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