Books: Depicting a Surreal Reality
Writing teachers have been urging students to focus on personal experience for so long now that the admonition to “write what you know” has become hackneyed. Explore things you’ve gone through yourself, they say, write about the places you’ve been, the people you’ve known. In this way, teachers believe young writers will remain on safe ground. Which is exactly where author Nathan Englander does not want to be.
“I like distant, difficult worlds,” says Englander, whose compelling new novel, The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf, 339 pp. $25), is set in Argentina in 1976 during that country’s devastating Dirty War in which thousands of students, union members and other “subversives” were kidnapped, tortured, killed and thus made to disappear by the military junta. “For me,” he adds, “to get to the truly intimate places and explore the things that are important to me, I feel safe in distant, distant worlds.”
For englander, argentina is, indeed, distant. Raised on Long Island, New York, the 37-year-old had visited the South American nation only once—for a friend’s wedding in 1991—before writing the book. He didn’t return until this past March, when he spent a week there after completing the novel.
But you wouldn’t know it from reading the story: Englander’s Argentina, along with the people who inhabit it, is exceptionally real—except when it is surreal.
Which, of course, is the point.
Writing about a period as difficult as the Dirty War, a time so awful it’s almost unbelievable, there are really only are two ways to go: An author could aim to portray things as they were, or he could adopt the fable-like cadences of allegory.
Englander has done both, pulling off a delicate (and successful) balancing act between the hyperrealistic and the poetic, between the comic and the tragic, between the sublime and the ridiculous. Englander, whose first book, the short-story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Knopf), managed a similar feat, calls it “the dimensional balances of a full world.
“The craziest things in the new book are the things that were drawn from history,” he says.
Even so, Englander didn’t stray entirely from writing what he knows. The book may be set in South America, but it is about Jews. “It’s a distant setting, but I do know Jews,” he says.
The Ministry of Special Cases is the story of Kaddish Poznan, a married father of one who ekes out a meager living chiseling names off the gravestones of Jewish pimps and prostitutes so that their descendants need not be reminded of their inauspicious provenances. When Isabel Peron is ousted from the Pink House and the junta seizes power, Kaddish, himself the child of a prostitute, is certain that his business will boom as frightened Jews look to bury their origins. But when he watches as his son, Pato, who has been his reluctant partner in the graveyard, is “disappeared,” his fortunes quickly devolve—as does his relationship with his wife.
Take, for example, the straightforward telling of Pato’s forced disappearance:
A man in a sharp gray suit walked out the door into the darkness of the hallway, a book tucked under his arm. A second man followed, two books, like dead weights, one hanging from each hand. A third and a fourth man walked out the door with Pato, Kaddish’s son, standing between them…. As he passed out of the apartment he smiled at his father, who hadn’t moved from his place by the heavy door, holding it open (needlessly) with a foot. He said to Kaddish. ‘A very poor note to end on,’ and for this comment grips tightened and hands pointed higher in the air.
That contrasts with the slightly absurd, almost fairy-tale-like telling of an army colonel’s brutal death:
As four men from the navy threw a career army man from the window, he was thinking his last thoughts. A retired colonel, his uniform covered in the ribbons and medals of a military regime—all those decorations were upended along with him as the blood rushed to his head. A medal came loose and clanked against the street. A chest full of honors and what good did it do him? I should have served in the air force, he thought. Then I would have wings.
The book touches on themes of identity and memory and assimilation and community—not to mention the curtailment of civil liberties under militaristic regimes. Reading it, it’s hard not to think of Europe’s Jews in the days leading up to the Holocaust and the debates raging in the United States today over the imprisonment of foreign terrorists and unwarranted wiretapping.
Englander has chosen unpopular topics—Jewish prostitutes, a brutal war—as the subjects of his first novel. Even so, Ministry is beautifully written and consistently keeps your interest.
It’s realistic in spots, surrealistic in others, but always feels true, an impressive accomplishment considering Englander wrote most of the book in The Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York’s Morningside Heights, an extremely long way from Buenos Aires.
The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague
by Yudl Rosenberg. Edited and translated by Curt Leviant. (Yale University Press, 221 pp. $25)
It is refreshing to read Curt Leviant’s translation from the Hebrew of Niflo’es Maharal, The Golem and the Wonderous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague, as it appears for the first time in English. This series of delightful stories about the heroic exploits of Yossele, a Hebrew humanoid, comes from the mind of the scarcely known Yudl Rosenberg, a learned, unusual Orthodox rabbi and prolific author of the early 20th century. The gallant golem, kabbalistically created in these stories by Rabbi Loew (1525-1609), known as the Maharal, is sent to prevent the slaughter of Jews in 16th-century Prague.
Jewish history and literature had previously produced other androidistic legends that can only be said to prelude the deus ex machina escapades of Rosenberg’s Yossele. For instance, the Talmud talks about creatures shaped by rabbis for gourmandise (Sanhedrin 65b). In 1614, it is reported that the Jews had produced a “hamor golim,” taken by some to mean a golem with the head of a donkey, possibly resembling Shakespeare’s character Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (first performed in 1595). Bottom certainly has all the characteristics of a Yiddish leymener goylem, that is, someone whose dominating quality is a malleable idiocy. In other legends, the Maharal is said to have produced a Sabbath-observing golem that works for its master six days a week but becomes violent and must be secreted in the attic of the Altneuschul in Prague. Gershom Sholem, in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, indicates that Goethe may have visited a golem in its lair, a story that probably inspired the later anonymous ballad, Mickey Mouse als Vasserschlepper.
Yet no matter how cavalier these mud-shaped clumps behave, their clay characteristics remain obvious. They do not possess a scintilla of a human heart. Not so with Rosenberg’s golem. Whether he is sent by the Maharal’s wife to fetch a pail of water and brings a reservoirful instead, or is injured but nevertheless continues to save the Jews from blood-libel accusations, this golem endears himself to the reader in these wonderful fantasies that contain elements of sadness, humor, relief and surprise.
However, the charming simplicity with which Leviant translates these tales should not blind us to the complexity of the original text. Rosenberg’s Hebrew is rich in its allusions to the Bible, the Talmud, Kabbala and liturgy. Leviant makes all this clear in a significant and erudite introduction that provides the historical and literary context for Rosenberg’s work. There are also illuminating footnotes that supply vital background information, making this book not only an entertaining read but a learning experience as well. —Moshe Moskowitz
Moshe Moskowitz is professor emeritus of Hebraic studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders
edited by Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor. (Transaction Publishers, 310 pp. $39.95)
Is there a Jewish divide over Israel? The outspokenness of some Jews suggests that many are deeply torn by the actions, indeed even the very existence, of the Jewish state. But on closer inspection, these individuals speak more for a certain intellectual class than the greater community.
Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor have collected essays about more than a dozen of the most prominent Jewish critics of Israel. They range from academics Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and Peter Novick to journalists Thomas Friedman and Seymour Hersh as well as Jewish studies specialists Daniel Boyarin and Marc Ellis.
There are, to be sure, important differences between the attitudes of Friedman, who is a liberal critic of Israel, and a truly odious character like Finkelstein, who consorts with Hezbollah and characterizes Israelis as worse than Nazis, and placing them together in one book threatens to gloss over those vital differences. Similar distinctions must be made between literary scholar George Steiner and Marc Ellis; the latter believes the existence of Israel has fatally corrupted Judaism.
Several themes run through the essays. In the view of progressives, many of them former Communists, Jews are collectively responsible for the misdeeds of Israel. For most of them, Israel is a flawed idea that promotes two hated concepts: ethnicity and nationalism. And even when they do accept Israel’s existence, the state is never perfectly just, fair or wise. Boyarin, for example, sees Judaism “morally disintegrating” because of its efforts to defend itself against terrorism.
At the root of all this is a profound discomfort with the idea of Jews having power. To be without land and borders—i.e., in the diaspora and thus lack both refuge and responsibility—is the ideal.
Is this opposition to Israel the latest manifestation of Jewish self-hatred? As for resurgent anti-Semitism (and many deny it exists), some of these writers argue that it is either the fault of Israel or to its benefit to make Israel appear to be a victim. For Steiner, historian Tony Judt and literary theorist Judith Butler, assimilation means not only turning against Israel, but joining some faction of progressive society. Opposing Israel as a way of fighting capitalism and imperialism is an old tradition for Jews seeking acceptance among Socialists and Communists.
For those who profess interest in remaining Jews, such as Boyarin, Ellis and members of Jews Against the Occupation or a Jewish Voice for Peace, their reading of tradition demands repudiation of an Israel based on prophetic invocations: All good Jews must oppose Israel.
Are defenders of Israel overstating the threat from these vile critics? Yes and no. Politically, their impact has not been great, but successes have come on university campuses. There the atmosphere has turned dramatically against Israel, with divestment petitions, campus protests and deeply politicized classrooms. As difficult as it is to believe that anyone could be swayed by guerilla theater such as Palestine Solidarity Week, there are ominous implications for future generations of voters and leaders. This book is required reading for anyone concerned about Israel and its supporters and enemies within the Jewish community.
Charles Jacobs is president of The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership in Boston.
Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror
by Nonie Darwish. (Sentinel/ Penguin, 258 pp. $23.95)
Now They Call Me Infidel is a heart-warming and informative book, especially if you are a Jew.
Author Nonie Darwish’s background would presuppose the opposite. Darwish was born in Cairo and spent some of her childhood in Gaza. In 1955, her Egyptian-born father, head of intelligence operations in Gaza, was entrusted by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser to launch covert and overt attacks by Palestinian fedayeen “to cause as much death and destruction as possible” against the Jews. When Nasser and others came to her house to offer their condolences after her father’s death as a shaheed (martyr), she recalls, they encouraged her, an 8-year-old, to avenge her father’s death by killing Jews.
But “even as a child…,” she writes, “[I] could not buy into the mentality of anger, envy and paranoia against the West and Israel.”
Today, Darwish lives in Los Angeles, where she leads a group called Arabs for Israel and lectures around the country. Her training in sociology and anthropology shows as she shares her insights into the cultures of Egypt and America. She chronicles how she came to reject the dictatorships of Muslim countries and of Muslim homes. “I had to find an almost superhuman inner strength to actually extricate myself from feeling a sense of belonging to the culture of jihad,” she writes. Post-9/11, she began speaking and writing to help Americans understand the threat of terrorism.
For instance, Darwish writes that the interpretation of jihad as an inner struggle is ludicrous. “In the Arab world, there is only one meaning for jihad, and that is: a religious holy war against infidels…. Such nonsense is a PR ploy for Western consumption only, concocted to save face and protect the reputation of Islam….”
Today, she notes, “the misinformation, anti-Semitism and hate speech that I left behind in Middle Eastern schools have arrived [in American universities].”
Furthermore, radical Muslim clerics are sent here by jihadist governments to bring their brand of Islam to America. “What Americans still don’t understand is that the goal of jihad is to conquer the world, literally, for Islam…,” she concludes.
Scapegoating Israel also serves Muslim egos and governments, Darwish explains. Instead of taking responsibility for their problems, Arab culture lays the blame on someone else. “As an Arab,” she writes, “I often feel deep sadness and shame over what my people have done and are still doing to Israel…. Our cousins needed protection after World War II.”
Darwish issues a dire warning that we are in the middle of an “unprecedented world war…[and] we know who is financing terrorism and praying for its success.”
Knowing the truth is one way to prepare for the terrorist reality that exists at the highest levels of the Muslim world. “Each and every dictator in the Arab world, the Muslim leadership, and Arab media—all have been complicit,” she asserts.
Still, she finds encouragement from the many e-mails she receives from Arabs who are also sickened by the “wickedness” perpetrated against Israel. Darwish continues the conversation on her Web site, www.arabs for israel.com. —Debra Michels
Debra Michels has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Bryn Mawr College and writes from Los Angeles.
The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
by Amy-Jill Levine. (HarperSan- Francisco, 245 pp. $24.95)
Since the Vatican promulgated the 1965 Nostra Aetate, a document that rejected the view of Jews as Christ killers, relations between Catholics and Jews have improved. Nevertheless, notes Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, the “teaching of contempt” still persists among segments of the Catholic Church.
Among Protestants, most mainline churches have followed the lead of the Vatican when it comes to exonerating Jews for the crucifixion and denouncing anti-Semitism as sinful. But negative representations of Jews remain fixed among both branches of Christianity. The problem, she argues, derives from the general failure of Christians to acknowledge that Jesus was not only a Jew but that his message was directed to Jews.
Jesus…dressed like a Jew, prayed like a Jew, instructed other Jews on how best to live according to the commandments given by God to Moses, taught like a Jew, argued like a Jew with other Jews, and died like thousands of other Jews on a Roman cross. To see him in a first-century Jewish context…[does] not in any way undermine Christian theological claims….
The Christian sources of anti-Jewish enmity, notes Levine, arose when Jesus’ words in the Gospel narratives were addressed to Christian churches, and comments spoken by Jesus to Jews became perceived as comments against all Jews. Morever, much of the New Testament contrasts its message of love and salvation with hostile images of Jews. In Matthew, for instance, Jews are described as those who claim that the disciples stole Jesus’ body, or, as John has it, “Children of the devil.”
Compounding the problem is the Christian portrayal of the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the messiah. Christian scholars ignore that Jewish messianic expectations in the first century were diverse. Some Jews expected a messianic king, others an archangel or heavenly figure, still others a warrior messiah, and there were many who were happy with the way things were.
Yet Christianity simplified its differences with Judaism when it promoted the idea that Jews rejected Jesus as messiah because “all Jews awaited a warrior messiah.”
Levine concludes that as long as Christian teachers suggest that Judaism is a militaristic, warmongering system “missing a concern for shalom and that Christianity is the system of peace, devoid of any sense of militarism, violence or revenge, anti-Jewish teachings will continue.”
The source for this canard is the distinction made by Christian theologians between the Old Testament God of war, associated with the Jews, and the New Testament God of peace. Levine rejects the distinction because both scriptures are depicting the same God. Furthermore, Levine cites passages from the New Testament to make the case that when it comes to a God of war versus a God of peace, both religions neutralize one another.
Levine’s important book concludes that those who misread the New Testament see Judaism as a legalistic, purity-obsessed, Temple-dominated, violent and misogynist religion.
As long as Christian theologians refuse to place the Jewish Jesus within the context of the first century and appreciate the diversity of Jewish belief at the time, they will continue to condone anti-Jewish readings of the New Testament. Under these circumstances, a meaningful dialogue between both faiths remains a nebulous proposition. —Jack Fischel
Witness to Nuremberg
by Richard W. Sonnenfeldt. (Arcade Publishing, 230 pp. $25)
Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, the chief American interpreter at the war crimes trials that took place after World War II, titles his book Witness to Nuremberg when, in fact, only the first two chapters focus on the court proceedings. Actually, he has written a personal memoir of the life of a brave and resourceful American soldier born in Germany, a man whose early hopes and dreams were dashed by betrayal and hatred.
Sonnenfeldt’s parents, who felt completely at home in Germany and admired the Prussian emphasis on discipline, obedience and loyalty, were shocked to learn that such qualities can be used in the service of evil. Because they were Jewish, almost overnight they were excluded from that familiar world. The family was separated in its flight from Germany; their son reached England, where he enjoyed a brief, happy interlude before being transported to South Africa and India as an alien enemy, eventually making his way to the United States where he reunited with his family and promptly enlisted. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was present at the liberation of Dachau.
A man of intellect and action, Sonnenfeldt was appointed interpreter for the United States prosecuting team at Nuremberg and soon rose to the post of chief interpreter, assisting in the interrogation of German defendants. He shares his observations of Goering, Von Ribbentrop and others, noting that they were brutes—intelligent brutes, but brutes nevertheless, cunning and heartless. He cautions history against dismissing them as clownish boors.
After a successful career in technology in the United States, in 1993, he was invited to visit Gardelegen, the city where he was raised, to address its young people. Sonnenfeldt told them of his escape from him homeland and the blessings of democracy. One can only speculate what the new generation of Germans felt as they heard the searing personal testimony of this articulate witness to history.
O Hanukka, O Hanukka
Funny, irreverent or touching, 30- and 40-somethings recall Hanukkas past in How to Spell Hannukkah…and Other Holiday Dilemmas: 19 Writers Celebrate 8 Nights of Lights, edited by Emily Franklin (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 255 pp. $18.95). Included are Jill Kargman’s hilarious story about having “The Only Dreidel in Idaho,” Joshua Braff’s “The Blue Team” (Maccabees versus Syrians) and the affecting “Dolls of the World” by Joanna Smith Rakoff.
Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? by Sharon Duke Estroff (Broadway, 304 pp. $12.95) is a valuable must-buy for all Jewish parents—and not just for Hanukka. Not only does Estroff give practical child-rearing advice but her joyful approach to Judaism is a healthy antidote to religious skeptics.
Browse or study Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidayby Paul Steinberg (Jewish Publication Society, 220 pp. $22). The second in a series, its historical and analytical sources enrich our understanding and celebrations of Hanukka, Tu Bishvat and Purim.
For kids, there’s the humorous Rabbi Rocketpower and the Mystery of the Missing Menorahs—A Hanukkah Humdinger! by Rabbi Susan Abramson and her son Aaron Dvorkin (illustrated by Ariel DiOrio; Oak Leaf, 43 pp. $12.95). In this chapter book, the Mensch family, with the help of their crazy cat Purr, investigates the disappearance of the town’s menoras. The bonus is recipes for latkes and sufganiyot.
The Knoodle family’s plan to follow the rabbi’s advice about gift-giving—to make The Best Hanukkah Ever—backfires. But fear not, in Barbara Diamond Goldin’s tale (illustrations by Avi Katz, left; Marshall Cavendish Children, unpaginated, $16.99), everything is righted as each person gets the “perfect gift that will be treasured forever.”
Jewish Best Sellers
- Away, by Amy Bloom. (Random House, $23.95)
- The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon. (HarperCollins, $26.95)
- Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth. (Houghton Mifflin, $26)
- The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.95)
- The Queen’s Fool: A Novel, by Philippa Gregory. (Touchstone, $16)
- Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs. (Simon & Schuster, $25)
- The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $23.95)
- Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, by Shalom Auslander. (Riverhead, $24.95)
- The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26)
- Night, by Elie Wiesel. (Hill and Wang, $9)
Editor’s Note: Jewish readers purchase books for enjoyment and enlightenment, to reinforce their viewpoints or to see what the opposition is saying. The Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers list reflects only sales and does not imply approval by Hadassah Magazine—or the people buying the books.
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks. com; titles selected based on sales.