Books: A Complicated Journey of Rescue
Perhaps no blow is as devastating to a parent as the death of a child. So when Lillian Leyb, the protagonist of Amy Bloom’s novel Away (Random House, 235 pp. $23.95), hears that her 4-year-old Sophie—whom she presumed dead along with her husband and parents in a ghastly pogrom in Russia—might be alive, she is energized, nay, possessed.
“Sophie’s name is a match to dry wood,” Bloom writes about Lillian.“The fire will not go out.”
Indeed. In one of the more remarkable odysseys in modern literature, Lillian, a 22-year-old émigré to 1920s’ New York, embarks on an improbable transcontinental journey from the Lower East Side to Siberia. On the way, she trades sex for transportation to Seattle, where she is befriended by an African-American prostitute, endures a corrosive stretch in jail, arrives in Alaska—“her body a map of pain, each mark tells its story clearly”—and finally reaches the Bering Strait. All with less than $10 in her pocketbook. Away is a chronicle of endurance and rebirth with sharp vignettes, harrowing escapades and redemptive crescendos.
“Lillian is not a sentimental figure,” Bloom notes in an interview. “She suffered tremendous grief, but she has a flinty and enduring nature. Events, to her, are unfortunate, not tragic.”
Early in the story, a friend asks Lillian, “You already live without your little girl—why not go on living without her? Because she belongs to you? Is that why?” Lillian responds in a way any parent can relate to. “Not that she is mine. That I am hers.”
Such deft, insightful writing is no accident. Bloom’s ascendancy to The New York Times best-seller list with Away comes after critical accolades for her short-story collections Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, stories anthologized in Best American Short Stories and essays in leading national magazines.
Along the way she spent 20 years as a psychotherapist and, last year, created the critically acclaimed Lifetime television series State of Mind, about a group of therapists, a newly minted lawyer and an eccentric office manager, all of whom have personal problems that easily matched those of their clients.
The show was quirky and edgy fiction, of course, and that’s the way Bloom likes it. “In fiction, I’m God,” Bloom wrote in an essay for The New York Times in 2002, “without quarreling apostles, without competing deities, without any foot-dragging villagers.”
“Writers lie,” she says. “This doesn’t bother me. It comforts me. When I write fiction, I only have to be true to myself and my imagination, to the characters I create and the events that I, and they, cause.”
For Away, to authenticate the way stations of Lillian’s rugged journey, Bloom personally traversed her itinerary several times, and the book provides vivid descriptions of a complex America as the durable heroine emerges from accidents of fate that often defy expectation.
Unlike Lillian’s treacherous adventures, Bloom’s path was a bit more conventional. A child of writers—her father, Murray Teigh Bloom, is the author of the 1968 best seller The Trouble With Lawyers (Simon & Schuster) and her late mother was an entertainment columnist—Bloom grew up in Great Neck. The New York suburb, she says, had “nine synagogues and three golf courses, and my parents belonged to none of them.”
Now 54, with long dark hair framing what her mother described as a “cuddly face,” Bloom comes from a long line of people committed to their Jewish identity, but, she says, “[with] a personal aversion to organized religion” (a characteristic shared by her resourceful Lillian Leyb).
As a child, Bloom could speak, read and write Yiddish, and Away is replete with mamaloshen. Her aunt and uncle were patrons of the Yiddish opera, and “my sister and I served hors d’oeuvres and whiskey sours at benefits with stars of the Yiddish stage,” she recalls. Not by chance, Away begins with Lillian becoming a seamstress at the Goldfadn Theater.
“You can’t write something unless it matters to you,” Bloom says. “The journey in Away, and casting Ulysses as a woman for a change, were deliberate.”
Recently remarried after raising three children, the author makes her home in rural Connecticut.
“You write, in the end, as you are,” she says. “Different aspects of your life come to the fore. Away is a book about a big and complicated world. For example, think of sexuality as like the ocean. It could be the site of a beautiful vacation or it could be the place of a shipwreck. Events in life do not make us. They reveal us.”
Stewart Kampel, a freelance writer and editor, was an editor at The New York Times for more than 40 years. He wrote and edited more than 200 articles for the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
Landsman: A Novel
by Peter Charles Melman. (Counterpoint Press, 323 pp. $24.95)
As a Jewish woman raised in New Orleans, I know the city has a tight-knit Jewish community and that many Jews are prominent on the metropolitan landscape today. However, until I read Louisiana-bred Peter Charles Melman’s Landsman, I didn’t realize that New Orleans had one of the largest Jewish communities in the United States during the 19th century; that the South, especially Louisiana, was more welcoming to Jews than most parts of the North, according Jews positions of power unprecedented in this country; or that nearly 3,000 Jews fought for the Confederacy. For that information alone, Landsman is worth reading.
Those details do not make up the novel’s plot, but its backdrop. Landsman tells the story of Elias Abrams, a Southern Jew, the illegitimate son of an impoverished servant and a wealthy Jewish planter.
His mother dies when he is 11. At a Jewish orphanage in New Orleans, Elias befriends Silas Wolfe, who leads him into a life of crime. When Silas commits a murder and intends to blame Elias, the latter joins the Confederate Army to escape arrest—and his friend’s vengeance.
Most of this is revealed through summary; the real action begins when Elias becomes a soldier. Both his unlikely friendship with John Lee Carlson, a classics-quoting professor-turned-soldier, and his epistolary courtship of Nora Bloom, a well-bred young woman from New Orleans, alter Elias for the better. During the war, Elias is injured and returns to New Orleans on furlough, where he confronts his past and first meets Nora. The remainder of Landsman concerns itself with Elias’s struggle to overcome his past and find a happy future with Nora.
Throughout, the language is lyrical, the book well crafted, though occasionally the language can be flowery and distancing. This is Elias’s story, but Melman moves smoothly from one character’s perspective to the next. There are also vivid evocations of the daily trials of war and the colorful underside of 19th-century New Orleans as well as powerful scenes involving an anti-Semitic Union sergeant and his more noble captain. Landsman is at its best in the strength of these descriptions, its deft plotting and scenes allowing narration to take a back seat to action.
The book frequently alludes to classics like The Iliad and, more pointedly, The Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses. (After all, Nora was the name of Joyce’s wife and Leopold Bloom was a character in Ulysses.) In particular, of course, is Elias’s status as a Jew in a Christian world.
In all, Landsman is enjoyable and of particular interest to those who are interested in war or historical novels, or in the role of Jews during the Confederacy. —Beth Hurstein
Beth Hurstein is a freelance writer and attorney in New York.
Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s Story
by Gemma La Guardia Gluck, edited by Rochelle G. Saidel. (Syracuse University Press, 152 pp. $16.95)
Gemma and Fiorello La Guardia were the children of an Italian Jewish mother and a bandmaster in the United States Army.
Gemma, who did not practice Judaism, married Herman Gluck, a Hungarian Jew, and made her home in Budapest. When the Nazis swept through Hungary, the Glucks were arrested on the orders of Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler in reprisal against her brother, Fiorella La Guardia, mayor of New York, who was actively anti-Nazi. Separated from her husband, who later died in Mauthausen, Gemma was interned at Ravensbruck, a women’s concentration camp, as were her daughter and her infant grandson, who were held in a separate barrack.
As a political hostage, she was able to roam the camp and witness the full extent of Nazi brutality—its random cruelty and sadism. She also registered acts of kindness and compassion among the prisoners, some of whom she saw as heroines; they shared their meager rations and ragged bits of clothing and improvised amusements for the children. Throughout her ordeal, she remained strong and optimistic, vowing that if she were to survive she would record her observations.
Miraculously, Gemma did survive. Reunited with her daughter and her grandson, she contacted her brother, then director of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA). La Guardia agreed to help her, but asserted (somewhat self-righteously) in a letter, included in the appendix, that her “case was the same as that of hundreds of thousands of displaced people” and “no exceptions can be made.”
“The Little Flower,” as he was nicknamed, died not long after his sister arrived in New York. He made no provision for her, and she lived in very reduced circumstances until her death in 1962.
Rochelle Saidel, who edited this new edition with care, has given us a portrait of a remarkable woman who persevered through tragic circumstances. Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s story, written the year before she died, is her legacy, fulfilling the promise she made to herself during her dark days at Ravensbruck. —Gloria Goldreich
Terror: How Israel Has Coped and What America Can Learn
by Leonard A. Cole. (Indiana University Press, 251 pp. $24.95)
From bitter experience wisdom emerges. And it’s a wisdom others would do well to learn from. That’s the premise of Leonard A. Cole’s Terror: How Israel has Coped and What America Can Learn.
While sparing us none of the loss or pain, Cole manages to lay out not just Israel’s hard-won lessons but its strengths as well as a big-picture panorama.
What becomes clear—even beyond the strategic lessons the United States can learn from Israel—is Cole’s deep admiration for Israelis’ indomitable spirit.
The author of The Anthrax Letters: A Medical Detective Story (National Academy of Science/Joseph Henry Press), which documented the mysterious ailment that affected 22 individuals in 2001 and killed five of them, Cole has also written books on germ, chemical and biological warfare. But, though his pedigree is impeccable, it is clear Cole’s heart breaks for those Israelis forever trapped in a moment of terror. He devotes many pages to their stories, transforming the statistics into family tragedies.
The United States’s response to 9/11 paints a painful picture of the country’s inadequacies, and Cole doesn’t shy away from the glaring oversights, including uncoordinated police and fire services and unprepared emergency rooms. It’s no surprise, he points out, that the American College of Emergency Physicians has given the nation a C-minus. This stands in stark contrast to Israel’s government-mandated coordinated services, standardized medical lexicon and regular drills.
Indeed, Cole quotes many—alas, perhaps too many—American officials who are impressed with Israel’s superior state of readiness. They particularly admire hospitals that have the ability to quickly evaluate and move victims into care within seconds, even when a bomb is packed with nails and bolts—an expertise that gave birth to the new specialty of “terror medicine.”
Cole also points to Israelis’ commitment to respond during a crisis through a wide net of organizations that exist to help victims—Selah, OneFamily Fund and Beit Halochem as well as ZAKA, the unique group of dedicated religious men who rush to the scene of destruction to retrieve human body parts for burial.
But, he maintains, the jury is still out on America’s preparedness, given its lack of events other than 9/11 and a few other isolated attacks and its “hodge-podge of guidelines and mandates.”
Not surprisingly, Cole focuses on developing an “umbrella of national standards.” His warning carries weight: Refusal to learn from others, whether because of national pride or wrong assumptions, can leave a society more vulnerable. By understanding Israel’s experience with terrorism, from adjustments in their daily routines to the country’s emergency-response procedures, Americans can better discern how to cope and to save lives. —Deborah Fineblum Raub
Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse
by Sylvain Cypel. (Other Press, 574 pp. $16.95)
I would have preferred to dismiss Sylvain Cypel’s Walled as another tendentious, unbalanced binge of Israel-bashing, so I began by jotting down distortions or outright errors. For example, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev—my home campus—was repeatedly called Beersheba University. Also, the author circumvented the inconvenient truth that Mandatory Palestine, to which he repeatedly refers, originally embraced what became the Kingdom of Jordan. However, very soon I had to concede that these and other such errors didn’t add up to much.
Jewish journalist Sylvain Cypel, senior editor at the French newspaper Le Monde, lived in Israel for 12 years. He is not uninformed. True, he relies heavily on secondary sources, such as Israel’s New Historians and left-leaning journalists such as Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, but he himself has covered many of the events he discusses and interviewed many key people. If this book indicts Israelis for the sin of willful blindness, Cypel bears us no deep-seated animus, and it would be most injudicious to discount his conclusions merely because they are unpleasant or prick our self-esteem.
While not absolving the Palestinians of a fair share of culpability, because he feels Israel holds most of the cards, Cypel focuses on the Jewish state’s blunders and blindness. His book ranges over Israel’s distorted self-image, its longstanding, skewed perception of the Palestinians, its chronic self-deceit, its slide into the role of occupiers, the 2000 Camp David fiasco and the withdrawal from Gaza. For supporters of Israel, it does not make pleasant reading.
Let’s cut to the chase: Chapter One—“Tantura.” In 1999, a middle-aged kibbutznik named Katz, a self-declared Zionist, ingenuously presented his examiners at Haifa University with the results of an investigation into what transpired at the Arab village of Tantura in 1948. Though his methodology was not flawless, I believe any fair-minded reader would accept the accuracy of his findings. After the village was captured by the Palmach, nearly 100 Arab civilians were summarily executed. Katz’s monograph earned him not only an M.A. degree but also a lawsuit and endless tsuris.
What generations of Israelis have refused to acknowledge to themselves, let alone publicly, is that the official War of Independence narrative recounted by generations of schoolteachers and tour guides covers up the painful reality that Tantura was far from singular.
For more than a decade now, Israeli New Historians—such as Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, who have published critical views of the country’s history based on archival material—have detailed how Israeli policy in 1948 was to rid the land of as many Arab inhabitants as possible. (Indeed, given the reality on the ground, one wonders whether it could possibly have been otherwise, but that is another issue.) The means were left to local commanders.
It is logical to conclude that the vast majority of Arabs ascertained correctly that they must flee for their lives. Cypel observes: For the Palestinians, the refusal to accept the constitution of an Israeli nation-state…is tied to their initial despoliation. In other words, for the Palestinians the denial of the other is anchored in their own reality. For the Israelis the refusal to recognize the reality of a Palestinian people and the national character of their resistance is the result of another denial of reality, an even more constitutive one: They deny that they expelled the Palestinians and that they dominate them today by unworthy means. Camp David foundered less on the Scylla of the occupation than on the chronic Charybdis of the refugee question. Until Israelis decide to honestly confront what Palestinians cannot ever discount or overlook, deadlock will persist.
In making this crystal clear, Cypel has, I believe, done both sides a signal service. —Haim Chertok
Digging for Jewish Roots
Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: From Solomon to the Golden Dome By Hershel Shanks. (Continuum, 160 illustrations. 216 pp. $39.95)
If Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions have long agreed King Solomon built the Holy Temple on the Temple Mount—and a popular Muslim primer identified the site as such as recently as 2004—why is it being contested today?
Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, wants to consider the Arab claim that no Israelite Temple ever existed. Because of political implications, this rewriting of tradition has had serious consequences, including riots that took place in 1987, 1996 and 2000.
Since excavations are not permitted on the actual site where the Dome of the Rock now stands and there is not a single stone that can be claimed with certainty to have come from Solomon’s Temple, Shanks proceeds “backward in time like an archaeologist digging deeper and deeper into the past.” He examines structures from the Roman tribute to Jupiter to Herod’s magnificent temple to the modest Temple built by Jews returning from the Babylonian Exile and to Solomon’s Temple. In each, he shows evidence of an Israelite presence. Shanks notes the first Temple was built on a threshing floor that King David purchased from a Jebusite.
Beautiful images illuminate various periods and bear witness to the Jewish Temple’s presence—a fragment of a stone vessel bears the image of two small birds, a Temple offering; a mid-9th century stele refers to the “House of David.”
This book may convince Jewish readers their tradition is historically reliable, but, admits Shanks, it “will be ignored by the Arab press.”—Zelda Shluker
Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers
1. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon. (HarperCollins, $26.95)
2. Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, by Michael Chabon. (Del Rey, $21.95)
3. Away: A Novel, by Amy Bloom. (Random House, $23.95)
4. Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth. (Houghton Mifflin, $26)
5. The Red Tent: A Novel, by Anita Diamant. (Picador, $15)
1. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs. (Simon & Schuster, $25)
2. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $23.95)
3. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26)
4. Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, by Shalom Auslander. (Riverhead, $24.95)
5. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, by Nora Ephron. (Knopf, $21.95)
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.
Books in Brief
The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers, by Harry Bernstein. (Ballantine Books, 320 pp. $22.95)
This evocative memoir is both historical and elegiac. The 96-year-old Bernstein recalls his childhood in a factory town in England’s Midlands, where Jews lived on one side of the street and Christians on the other. Only Christian women scaled the “invisible wall” that divided the neighborhood, lighting fires for Jewish families on the Sabbath. Bernstein brilliantly demonstrates that love is a powerful antidote to xenophobia in this compelling story. —Judy Bolton-Fasman
Jewish Washington: Scrapbook of an American Community (Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, 98 pp. $36)
This outsize volume, based on a Washington, D.C., exhibit that honored the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America, comprises an extraordinary collection of 200 archival photographs, stories of Jewish families, businesses, congregations and organizations. From the New Deal to securing the fate of the new Jewish state, the Jewish mark on America’s capital was indelible. —Helen Mintz Belitsky