Books: Asking for Atonement

April 2014 Home Column List 2

Books: Asking for Atonement


The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 480 pp. $28.99)

There are a number of storytellers in The Storyteller, Jodi Picoult’s 20th successive best-selling novel, and each of them has well-guarded secrets to disclose. In this challenging Holocaust-themed tale, Picoult explores such topics as justice and compassion, silence versus truth, human responsibility in the face of unspeakable acts and the dimensions of forgiveness.

Sage Silver, a baker in her late twenties living in a small New England town, has a complicated life. She is having an affair with a married man, a local undertaker; she works at night to avoid people because she is ashamed of the scar on her face, a remnant of a car accident. She is nominally Jewish but professes to be an atheist and is grieving the death of her mother.

Enter Josef Weber, a pillar of the community. A former Little League coach who taught German in the local high school, he is a member of Sage’s grief counseling group and a regular customer at the bakery, where he buys a roll a day and shares it with his dog. He also shares a secret with Sage: He is a former SS guard, and he wants her to help him die.

“It’s what I deserve,” the 90-year-old Josef says, echoing a scene in The Sunflower—a book by Simon Wiesenthal that partly inspired Picoult—in which a Nazi on his deathbed wants Wiesenthal, a Jew, to forgive him for the atrocities he committed.

Josef’s revelation and sincere desire play out against the disclosures of Sage’s grandmother, Minka, whose story of survival at the hands of the Nazis is painstakingly recounted for the first time. How Minka survived the brutality leads Sage to wonder how her grandmother (and others) carved out a productive life and, alternately, about the ways Josef tried to live down his past.

Sage and Josef’s encounters with Minka’s history intermingle with an allegorical side story. Before the war, Minka was an aspiring writer, and a horror tale she had written in her youth crops up among the chapters. That story, concerning a vampire figure of Polish legend, echoes the book’s other story lines.

Time for one more storyteller. After learning of Josef’s past, Sage reports him to a federal agency that tracks former Nazis in the United States. Soon after, Leo Stein, director of strategy and policy for the agency, makes his way to Sage’s town and provides a serious legal perspective to Josef’s circumstances as well as a romantic interlude.

As the stories unfold, it also becomes clear that the author is not providing answers, if there are any, merely setting the stage for serious discussion. Can a person who has blindly followed horrific orders ever expect to be forgiven? “Inside each of us is a monster, inside each of us is a saint,” Josef tells Sage. “The real question is which one we nurture the most, which one will smite the other.”

Although Picoult has done extensive research among Holocaust survivors, interviewed the real head of the federal agency and worked in a bakery, some of the twists and turns in the plot ring hollow and seem a bit contrived.

Still, the multilayered work tells us much about the power of storytelling, and that is no small accomplishment. And for devoted Picoult fans, there is a surprise ending. It is so unexpected that it strains credulity, but that does not detract from a powerful and meaningful read. —Stewart Kampel

Read Stewart Kampel’s interview with Jodi Picoult

Zix Zexy Ztories by Curt Leviant. (Texas Tech University Press, 152 pp. $24.95)

Zix Zexy Ztories is Curt Leviant’s latest collection and, at 81, his beat goeth on, proof (as if more were needed) that his writing can be simultaneously satirical and sexy, playful and profound.

In “Helena; or, Sanskrit Is Sexy Too,” the story’s protagonist describes a professor who makes a habit of getting his cultural references very much mixed up:
He said Sparta when he meant Athens. He quoted Plato, but it was Aristotle.… Once he referred to the Odyssey complex.

And in the very long, very funny story about the curious afterlife of the painter Ayzik Klass (“A Gentleman Caller; or, the Absolutely Last Final Farewell Appearance of Ayzik Klass”), we learn—in the story’s first paragraph—that poor Klass has passed away:
Ayzik Klass, the Yiddish artist, was dead.... Gone from the scene at seventy, or sixty-nine, depends which encyclopedia you read. Four days his mourning Griselda told no one…. She had him burned privately. There was no eulogy, no minyan, no Kaddish, no funeral.

We first met Leviant’s beleaguered painter in A Novel of Klass (Livingston), an insider romp into the often contentious world of Jewish artists as well as those who buy and sell their work.

Leviant’s culturally crowded world also features backbiting Jewish poets and Holocaust scholars of, let us say, the dubious sort.

According to Klass, everyone—literally, everyone—is against him, and each of them is, in his much-repeated one-word dismissal, an “edioyot.” He is, in short, surrounded by those who would plot against him, but as the old canard would have it, even paranoids (Klass is Exhibit A) can have real enemies.

Klass’s posthumous return is his ultimate stunt:
clutching at three dimes and three plastic spoons sewn into his shroud by a willing accomplice and returning for a few moments of revenge to give back to Griselda from the other world a taste of the hell she had for years served up to him in this one.

Leviant sets his tales in the United States as well as in Italy and Israel; but no matter the place, his comic (mis)adventurers chase, or stumble, as the case may be, after love—and at times they succeed in finding it. Besides, any writer who starts a tale with “Finish this story for me, sweetie” knows how to hook a reader. The ensuing dialogue between a playwright-professor and his former student is as filled with tension as it is with delight. Small wonder, then, that “Finish This Story” is my favorite. The others are close seconds.

What Leviant’s characters are, of course, is human, and that is why reading his new collection of stories is such a delight. —Sanford Pinsker


Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg. (W.W. Norton, 610 pp. $35)

David Nirenberg, who teaches medieval history and social thought at the University of Chicago, has written an indispensable scholarly account of how anti-Judaism has influenced the course of Western civilization.

“I do not believe that the history of thought I have attempted to sketch in these pages determined why Germany moved from anti-Judaism to genocide,” Nirenberg writes. “But I do believe that the Holocaust was inconceivable and is unexplainable without that deep history of thought.”

In a world measured by the spirit of Jesus, Judaism was historically viewed as a materialistic religion governed by the here and now as exemplified by the laws of the Torah. Nirenberg notes that anti-Semitism, in contrast to anti-Judaism, is characterized not so much by its relation to reality “but rather its exemption from reality checks….”

He also marvels “how in the middle of the 20th century, an astounding number of the world’s most educated citizens were willing and able to believe that Jews and Judaism posed so grave a threat to civilization that they needed to be exterminated.”

According to Nirenberg, along with Greek philosophy, Roman law and the conversion of the Western world to Christianity, anti-Judaism sits at the core of the Western tradition, where the salvific theology of Christianity is measured against Judaism’s rejection of Jesus as the Christ. Over the centuries, he says, Christians saw themselves engaged in a world governed by Jesus’ message of love and spirit, whereas they perceived Judaism as attempting to undermine Christianity through avarice: money, usury and speculation (as he elaborates in a chapter on The Merchant of Venice). As the Christian world increasingly engaged in the practices of capitalism, to that degree it marked the triumph of the Jewish material spirit (and the corruption of the Christian spirit).

The source of anti-Judaism, states Nirenberg, can be found in antiquity, where, as early as the third century B.C.E., Egyptian priest Manetho crafted the first anti-Jewish cosmology. He described the Jews as the enemies of the gods, that they ruled brutally and tyrannically and were a misanthropic people—enemies of mankind. The Greek historian Hecataeus found “Moses’ people noteworthy for their nastiness,” who through the Mosaic laws had introduced an unsocial and intolerant mode of life.

The early church fathers changed little of these ancient attitudes. Paul referred to the Jews “as the enemy of God.” The medieval church posited three distinct claims in regard to Judaism: that the existence of synagogues where Christ’s power is denied diminishes his sovereignty; to defend Jews is to become one of them; and the conflict between the claims of the emperor and those of the church as the ultimate arbiter of law is “part and parcel of Christendom’s mortal struggle with its eternal enemy the Jew.” These claims placed the Jew outside the law.

The age of reason leading up to the modern era, says Nirenberg, shared many of the same attitudes of medieval Christianity. The only difference is that anti-Judaism continued under the guise of reason and science (the term anti-Semitism was “coined” by Wilhelm Marr, a German racial nationalist, in 1879).

Nirenberg concludes that over the centuries, Judaism was not only a religion but a set of attributes that non-Jews could make sense of and use to criticize their world, not some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought, rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed. —Jack Fischel

The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal by Edward Alexander. (Transaction Publishers, 248 pp. $35)

Edward Alexander, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, Seattle, is oldfangled enough to write with wit, grace and uncommon vigor. Disdaining the theory-ridden jargon that litters so much literary criticism, he has authored many articles and books dealing with Jewish literary themes and intracommunal dialectics. The opening words of his latest book— an incisive if at times disturbing polemic—identify his foci as “the Land of Israel, the condition of the people Israel, and the relation between the two.” This is somewhat misleading: It is the troubled “relation between the two” that preoccupies Alexander. Indeed, I cannot recall his attaching even a passing cavil to the Jewish state.

As for his subtitle, “A Critical Appraisal,” Alexander’s animus is directed exclusively against the disparagement of Israel issuing from anti-Semites and liberal diaspora dupes.

The book’s opening pages harken back to the period from 1933 to 1945 when most American Jewish intellectual and political leaders averted their eyes from the catastrophe that was enveloping European Jewry. Outgunned were writers like Hayim Greenberg and Maurice Samuel, who tried to alert their readers and to rouse them to collective action. Only in later years did the Irving Howes and Saul Bellows issue their mea culpas.

And then comes Alexander’s key conflation:
The moral failure of ignoring the Holocaust was now compounded by a related failure: Having averted their eyes from the destruction of European Jewry, they now looked away from one of the most impressive assertions of the will to live that a martyred people has ever made.

The 27 short pieces that constitute The State of the Jews appeared over the past decade, mainly in Jewish journals. Alexander’s work is informed by intimate acquaintance with 19th- to mid-20th-century English and American literature. His scrappy writing is of a piece—from his depiction of Hillel Halkin’s sympathetic identification with Yehuda Halevi, Lionel Trilling’s estrangement from his Jewish roots and Cynthia Ozick’s appropriation of George Eliot to the damning anatomy of virulent anti-Semitism issuing from “poet” Tom Paulin, “philosopher” Ted (Arabs have a “moral right” to blow up Jews) Honderich and Jewish feminist Jacqueline Rose.

The motivating force is Alexander’s fierce, passionate love for the embattled, increasingly isolated Jewish state.

Paradoxically, while this constant cudgel wielding is a central source of Alexander’s vitality, it clouds discrimination and leads to overkill. For example, his repeated dismissals of The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and National Public Radio as purveyors of anti-Semitism when they voice or air criticism of Israeli policies tend to subvert Alexander’s effectiveness. Something similar occurs in “Pharaoh Who Knew Not Joseph,” his tendentious essay about Barack Obama. Still, anyone attentively reading The State of the Jews will be well rewarded.

Alexander perceives himself as a combatant in a deadly war against the Jewish people that stretches virtually seamlessly from the early 1930s to the present. Jews who do not view the threat to Israel’s survival exclusively as external in origin but also as largely self-inflicted are depicted as culpably self-centered, naïve or willfully negligent—in short, as déjà vu 1942 Jews.

Although I admire Alexander’s trenchant commitment, his elegant synthesis of literature and politics and his rhetorical skill, as an American-born Israeli who has been pondering the life and death choices confronting Israel for nearly four decades in situ, I am not only unpersuaded by his arguments but also take exception to his presumption to speak for Israel or all Israelis.

What I find more meretricious than Alexander’s views about the Palestinians, however, is that one would never guess from reading his book that today is not 1942: In today’s Israel, a highly significant segment of opinion differs from him on Zionist grounds. —Haim Chertok

The American Jewish Story Through Cinema by Eric A. Goldman. (University of Texas Press, 246 pp. $25)

The aim of this comprehensive photograph-filled book is to show how films portray the American Jewish experience. This is a herculean task, for it needs not only a knowledge of films made over the decades but a mastery of American Jewish history, literature, sociology, politics and religion. But Eric A. Goldman has the all-encompassing grasp to tell this story, both on a broad canvas and in fascinating anecdotal portraits. He analyzes films, gives production details, quotes from autobiographies of participants and interviews a number of principals.

Goldman, an adjunct assistant professor of cinema at Yeshiva University, has already demonstrated his encyclopedic ken of films with his marvelous Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Films Past and Present (Holmes & Meier).

Now, with a keen eye and perspicacious insights, Goldman probes American films from different decades, starting with the 1920s and ending with the beginning of this century. With the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson, we have a thoroughly Jewish film. It features a cantor’s son with show-biz ambitions who eventually comes home to substitute for his ailing father on Kol Nidrei night. Ironically, this movie was also the last Jewish-themed film for many years. From that point on, the chiefs of Hollywood, almost all of them Jews, turned their backs on their own heritage.

One reason for this, Goldman argues, is that these executives were part of an era when Jews did not want to call attention to themselves. They wanted to assimilate into the mainstream and, by so doing, refrain from portraying Jews onscreen.

Another strong pull for silence was the growing anti-Semitism in the United States and the rise of Hitlerism in Germany in the early 1930s.

Only after World War II, with America victorious and knowledge of the Holocaust widespread, did producers consider making a Jewish film. The first was the iconic Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), based on Laura Hobson’s novel about a non-Jewish reporter (played in the film by Gregory Peck) who pretends he is a Jew to learn about anti-Semitism in America.

Goldman shows the off-camera drama: which groups were against the film and how a courageous Darryl Zanuck (the only non-Jew head of a major studio) resisted enormous pressures and succeeded to make Gentleman’s Agreement—which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.

Goldman continues with The Young Lions (1958), based on Irwin Shaw’s novel that has a Jewish hero, Noah Ackerman. Here, too, Goldman reveals behind-the-scenes struggles and rivalries between Marlon Brando, who played an Austrian Nazi and tried to tone down the man’s evil (accented by novelist Shaw), and costar Montgomery Clift (Noah), who opposed Brando’s approach.

This is a wonderful book for any lover of American films. —Curt Leviant

How Jews Helped Shape America Jews in America: From New Amsterdam to the Yiddish Stage by Stephen D. Corssin, Amanda Seigel and Kenneth Benson. (Giles/The New York Public Library, 160 pp. $45)

Jews in America is based on a 2004 exhibit from the collection of The New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division, which comprises over 300,000 items of primary material. It shows, writes historian Jonathan D. Sarna in his introduction, a people secure and confident in its historic role in shaping American identity.

Images—there are 120 in the book—include the first letter Columbus sent to Luis de Santangel, a baptized Jew and finance minister to King Ferdinand of Spain, who financed 70 percent of Columbus’s second voyage in 1493; a navigational instrument invented by Levi ben Gershom; and a 1496 astronomical chart created by Abraham ben Samuel Zacuto.

The Jewish community’s bumpy beginning in New Amsterdam is illustrated by a letter from the unwelcoming Peter Stuyvesant, the colony’s director-general, to the West India Company, complaining that “Jewish liberty here is very detrimental, because the Christians cannot compete against them….”

The book’s cover, Nieu Amsterdam at New York, a hand-colored engraving made in 1710 by Aldert Meyer, shows two Native Americans (only one visible on the cover) flanking a town. Inside, the engraving introduces a chapter on a belief many Christians had—that Native Americans were descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Portraits and manuscripts illuminate the transformative 19th century: the first Bible translated into English in America; Jews who fought on both sides of the Civil War; and Judah P. Benjamin, a Jewish Confederate secretary of state.

Finally, flyers, music sheets, images of actors, writers and poets testify to the proliferation of Yiddish culture from the late 19th century: There were 57 Yiddish newspapers in the 1920s and a Yiddish theater, in which Boris Thomashefsky was a dominating figure.

This beautiful book is both historical prelude and appetizer. —Zelda Shluker

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