|Books: Personal Tales|
The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories by Steve Stern. (Graywolf Press, 371 pp. $26)
Steve Stern is a mischievous writer and The Book of Mischief not only packages together 17 of his most “mischievous” stories (both new and previously published) but also gives us the chance to celebrate his 25th anniversary at the writing desk. A growing number of general readers have become his fans but it remains (sadly) true that renown, of the kind Stern richly deserves, still eludes him. In one story, Saul Bozoff, Stern’s alter ego, is described this way:
"His fiction, full of exotic Jewish legends translated into contemporary settings, had been well received among a generation that was already half legend itself, and a handful of a generation that was tediously born again. Among his peers, Saul Bozoff had no currency at all."
At 53, Bozoff was, in Stern’s unflinching words, “not even successful at failure.” As for Stern, he has won nearly every Jewish literature prize worth winning, but because he stubbornly refuses to deracinate his narratives, a wider audience remains squeamish about all the inside Jewish references (many in Yiddish).
Stern brings his playful spirit to his stories of the various obsessions that propel his characters heavenward. Stern’s altogether unique versions of (Jewish) magical realism explore miracle-working rebbes, wisecracking dybbuks, Old World shtetls and enclaves of immigrant Jews in Memphis. What binds the disparate elements together is a vision that eschews sentimentality at the same time that it bathes this world and the next with radiance.
The Book of Mischief is bookended by two of Stern’s most popular stories—“The Tale of a Kite” and “The Wedding Jester.” For those who do not yet know them, be assured that they, alone, are worth the price of the collection. The first explores the tension between a group of immigrant fathers out to show just how assimilated and civic they can be, and their sons, who have fallen under the sway of a Hasidic rebbe whose wonder-working powers include the ability to fly. Small surprise that these well-meaning fathers don’t stand a chance—or that Stern will resist the chance to turn the Pinch, Memphis’s cluster of Jewish shops, into a place where spirits soar and magic prevails.
“The Wedding Jester” is a tale of a Catskill wedding in which a dybbuk takes over and spews out Jewish jokes old and new, profane and even more profane, until we laugh aloud.
Stern is a writer with a sharp eye for telling details and character tics. Here, from “Shimmele Fly-by-Night,” is how he describes a typical father who might be walking down North Main Street in the Pinch:
“They [dybbuks] were taking possession of the Jewish shopkeepers and their children one by one. “It’s the truth, cholilleh!” he would declare in his borscht-thick accent, kissing his mezuzah and spitting against the evil eye.”
Stern’s stories are divided among Memphis, New York’s Lower East Side and the Old Country. Place gives each of them local coloring at the same time that each is imbued with the special magical realism that Stern has brought to a quarter-century’s worth of writing about Jews who never were, and yet still are. —Sanford Pinsker
Jerusalem Maiden: A Novel by Talia Carner. (Harper Paperbacks, 454 pp. $14.99)
Jerusalem Maiden is a tale spun by a natural storyteller. Talia Carner has done an astounding amount of research into the periods and places she re-creates and, yet, what is striking is the timelessness and dreamlike quality of her worlds. We are drawn into the saga of Esther Kaminsky, the Jerusalem maiden, and stay under her story’s spell until the ambiguously happy end.
But Jerusalem Maiden is more than a good read. It is a novel that is historical, psychological, sociological and feminist at the same time. Esther is born into the ultra-Orthodox world of Mea Shearim. We see the city under the yoke of a decaying Ottoman Empire and a girl imprisoned by the family and community she both loves and resents. Details bring the texture of this world alive: claustrophobic homes, serpentine streets, the prayers and domestic shackles; religious demands and political realities stifle Esther. Carner also takes us beyond the walls that hem in Esther to the surrounding hills and groves that hint at nothing less than the promises of freedom from her role as a Jewish woman, and the right to live a life of beauty through art.
The need to paint overwhelms her, and she is fortunate enough to be taught and supported by her French teacher, a woman artist, but this exacerbates the conflict that will pursue her throughout her life. Esther loves the peace and harmony offered by a devotional life, but cannot bear the self-annihilation it necessitates.
The dialogue suffers from the stiltedness characteristic of much of historical fiction, but the people are real and palpable—particularly the women. Esther’s long-suffering mother and her best friend, sacrificed on the altar of a cruel and unbending society, stay in the mind. Almost everything that might, happens to our heroine: near-rape, loss of loved ones, kidnapped siblings, a marriage imposed through biblical trickery, a life in Paris in the heyday of Impressionism, a forbidden love, the abandonment of her moral center and lifelong repentance.
Carner is descended from a 10th-generation Jerusalem family. This book is written as a kind of gift to her grandmother, whose trapped heart yearned toward art, and her mother, who lived the rich life of an artist. Although the epilogue attempts to join the narrative threads into a knot of hope, Jerusalem Maiden stubbornly weaves its own tapestry of broken dreams and broken hearts; struggles against injustice and the dissonances of the self; and the love of life in its abiding beauty. —Reena Ribalow
The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton. (Other Press, 304 pp. $15.95 paper)
What do we learn from Evelyn Toynton’s Holocaust-framed novel The Oriental Wife? That life in exile can be a mixed blessing. That everyday experiences in the United States can be meaningful, or not. And that happenstance can color anyone’s joie de vivre. These may not be daring disclosures.
But in deft, lucid prose, Toynton, an American living in England, spins an original and heart-wrenching tale of two nonreligious Jewish children, Louisa and Rolf, from Nuremberg who flee Hitler’s Germany and then struggle to establish roots in a free but unpredictable New York. Louisa, the main character, becomes a meek, docile spouse, the Oriental wife of the title. (Toynton has said the story is loosely based on her parents’ experience.)
After a number of loveless love affairs, Louisa marries her childhood friend, Rolf, who has become a businessman in New York. She endures a difficult pregnancy and a scary medical diagnosis and treatment and she eventually separates from her philandering husband. Their daughter, Emma, reflecting the more permissive and liberated 1960s and beyond, grows up to find her own destiny.
The book is divided into three sections that span the lives of three sharply drawn characters and events. There is the charming and sensitive Louisa, who leaves Germany for London and then New York. As a husband, Rolf continues his male-centric life while his wife undergoes brain surgery for a nonmalignant tumor but loses the use of one arm and suffers other infirmities. She eventually has to turn over baby-tending duties to a duplicitous surrogate. Emma’s story moves from childhood to post-college life as an angry young woman in love with a refugee. It is Emma who bears the weight of her family’s wartime flight and her father’s fatal illness.
One can easily label this story as mawkish soap opera, but Toynton skillfully takes the book to a higher level, particularly when Emma and her boss, a Cambodian named Khim, become lovers. “By the end,” Toynton writes of Emma in perhaps the most moving passage in the book, “there was not a single bone in her body, only blind heat, and his breath moving through her.”
If all that is not enough, there is an unsettling coda that reinforces the view of loss that underlies the story: Emma, rummaging through old family belongings, discovers a treasure, an heirloom locket, but a mugger snatches it away from her. —Stuart Kampel
The Anatomy of Israel's Survival by Hirsh Goodman. (Public Affairs, 274 pp. $26.99)
Hirsh Goodman offers a succinct and accurate description of the forces that led to the creation of Israel, the wars that were fought, the problems solved by those wars and the problems created by them.
Goodman observes that the Arab hatred of Israel was not a product of those wars but, in fact, preceded them. It is a historic hatred that haunts Jews through generations.
Goodman then catapults his readers to the more contemporary manifestation of that hatred in the form of embargos, United Nations condemnations, terror attacks, kidnappings, attempted acts of sabotage and threats of nuclear annihilation.
Goodman offers a mysteriously simplistic solution to that frightening and toxic hatred: peace. The peace that he proposes will be marked not by a mutual will to peace and not by reciprocity but rather based on hope, faith, human nature and a willingness to work toward happiness, health and prosperity. It is an admirable utopian and liberal image.
Still, this book is important because it rejects the impartiality of third-party peacemakers. Those who care deeply about the fate of the Jewish people cannot think about Israel impartially.
Neutral accounts shrivel into improbable scenarios. To Goodman’s credit, the peace he envisions is a cautionary one, so much so that his account contains its own corrections.
He contends, for example, that Iran’s implacable hatred of Israel and, indeed, of Jews everywhere, coupled with its nuclear capability is, in fact, beneficial because it keeps Israel’s Ministry of Defense in a state of constant alert. This gratuitous argument is surely made with the best of intentions by an Israeli writer who loves his country with a sincere passion matched only by a wistful and forgivable naiveté. —Sheldon Horowitz
The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard. (Knopf, 489 pp. $35)
At the end of World War II, the Allied forces inherited millions of refugees—Latvians, Poles, Ukrainians and Yugoslavs—either victims or accomplices of Nazi Germany. In 1945, about 200,000 Jews survived the Nazi concentration camps and between 50,000 and 75,000 survivors found themselves in the Western occupation zones of Germany.
Placing the history of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust within the context of the overall response of the Allies to the needs of millions of refugees, Ben Shephard, a BBC documentarian, has provided us with an indispensable history of a long overlooked aspect of the war’s aftermath.
Many of the non-Jewish refugees quickly returned to their former countries, but others, because of fear of the Soviet occupation or other considerations, refused repatriation. Most Jewish displaced persons, however, including those who emerged from hiding places as well as those who fought with partisan groups, quickly found that returning to Eastern Europe was not possible.
Within weeks of liberation, more than 20,000 Jews died from disease and malnourishment. The remainder, states Shephard, were “physical and mental wrecks.” In the weeks and months that followed, conditions in the camps improved, thanks to the presence of relief organizations, the discipline of Jewish camp leaders and the presence of Zionist organizers from Palestine.
To assess the reaction of the Allies to Jewish survivors, Shephard has relied on many sources, including those of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the memoirs of its relief workers. He chronicles anti-Semitism among both the British and Americans responsible for the surviving DPs. Shephard describes the initial encounter between the liberators and the Jewish DPs:
Many of the liberators initially recoiled from the ‘smell of the monkey house’ and ‘the strange simian throng’ that greeted them in the camps.… ‘I have never seen so many criminal-looking faces bundled together as I did at Belsen,’ wrote one British officer.
American General George S. Patton made no secret of his loathing of the Jews. They were, he wrote in his diary, “lower than animals,” and attributed their condition to their being an inferior race.
Shephard writes that the divergent experiences of Holocaust survivors produced very different states of mind. Concentration or labor camp survivors were apathetic, neurotic about food, often incapable of normal emotional responses. Those who had been in hiding were more self-sufficient, social and disciplined than those from the camps. Finally, Jews making their way back from the Soviet Union via Poland were the “healthiest” element and the least resistant to work.
Nevertheless, Shephard concludes, despite the scars from the Holocaust the DPs were able to overcome these obstacles. Thanks to sympathetic politicians such as President Harry S. Truman and New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and relief organizations such as UNRRA, they were able to begin new lives in the nascent State of Israel, the United States and other countries. —Jack Fischel
The Bronfman Haggadah by Edgar M. Bronfman. Illustrated by Jan Aronson. (Rizzoli, 128 pp. $29.95)
This is the first Haggada that Edgar M. Bronfman—businessman, philanthropist, communal leader, author—has written, and it is personal. Here are some of the elements you won’t find in these pages: Hebrew and traditional blessings.
It is more illuminating to note what is included: A lot of participation from those sitting around the Seder table, with assigned readings for leader and celebrants. An “Exodus Script” narrates Moses’ story.
Including the Counting of the Omer in the Haggada as the lead-up to Shavuot, Bronfman—who early on in the text uses the word “energy” to replace “God”—writes that without the law, the liberation from Egypt would have no meaning. “Omer connects liberty and law, reminding us that without responsibility, freedom leads to chaos,” he declares.
Bronfman also includes his desire for peace in his version of “Dayenu”: “And if we deliver peace between ourselves, the Palestinians, and our Arab neighbors...that will be enough!”
Indeed, his vision for Next Year in Jerusalem is to “commit ourselves to supporting every idea, every effort, and every carefully crafted plan that seeks to lead Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs—indeed all of the world’s clashing people—out of the dark and narrow straits of fear and violence, out of the strictures of hatred and war, and into the spiritual Jerusalem—the true Promised Land—an open and peaceful place flowing with the milk and honey of justice, compassion, and freedom for all.”
Though not everyone will be comfortable with this Haggada on their table, this beautifully crafted book has one notable feature that all can agree on—the delightful illustrations by Jan Aronson, Bronfman’s wife and collaborator. Patterns that frame the pages are derived from ancient Egyptian tiles and relief sculpture, Greek and Roman vase and decorative painting and African textiles. Other images are bold, bright and naturalistic—a full-page snake, grasshopper, mountains, forests and the Burning Bush. —Zelda Shluker