Books: War Is Hell, Also Absurd
by Ron Leshem. Translated by Evan Fallenberg.. (Delacorte Press, 368 pp. $24)
Once in a while, a book captures a nation’s zeitgeist. That’s what happened with Beaufort, Ron Leshem’s diary-like novel of soldiers serving at a military outpost during Israel’s final year in southern Lebanon. Published in Israel as Im Yesh Gan Eden (If There Is a Heaven), the book won the 2006 Sapir Prize—Israel’s top literary award—for its depiction of soldiers grappling with the Israeli military’s mythic past and its more ambiguous, and frustrating, present.
Frustrations are exactly what confront Beaufort’s narrator and antihero, Erez. He heads a platoon stationed at Beaufort, a mountaintop castle in southern Lebanon that was used by the Israeli military before it pulled out in the summer of 2000.
Erez craves military action because it makes him feel alive. “You know me, I’m afraid of being bored,” he says to Oshri, his deputy, months after Oshri loses his arm in a shelling. “Boredom makes a person do stupid things.” Erez says there is nothing he would rather do than kill a terrorist, but most of his time at Beaufort isn’t spent in combat: He and his soldiers alternate their days between guard duty and schmoozing. Occasionally, they endure shelling, but they have not been equipped to return fire. Even when the platoon goes out on patrol, they’re more likely to be victims of Hezbollah mortar attacks or shot at by snipers than engage in actual combat. The shelling dominates the film version of Beaufort, a popular Israeli movie by director Joseph Cedar that recently opened in theaters in the United States (see story, page 58).
Erez is a self-described punk who shares with the reader his lurid fantasies about his girlfriend back home. He’s in constant trouble with his superiors—his rash actions had landed him in prison a few times, once for attacking Hezbollah fighters when military command told him not to.
Erez says he’s unable to “suffer from that kind of sick love” that officers are supposed to feel toward the men in their platoon. But despite his protestations, he is still devoted to them and angry when he’s unable to protect them.
He commands a motley group, including Dave, who struggles with being religious while serving in the military, and Spitzer, who dreams of becoming a Shakespearean actor. They talk about future plans and real or imagined sexual exploits, but their ribald humor fails to cover up their fear of death and uncertainty about their mission.
Leshem takes no sides in Israel’s controversial military withdrawal from Lebanon, instead focusing on why Israel maintained a long-term presence there and the effects of military service on his characters. The novel highlights the absurdities of war, but it doesn’t downplay the need to keep Israel’s northern border quiet.
Nor does Leshem spare the reader the violence or pain of military life. When a soldier under Erez’s command is severely wounded or killed, the platoon plays a game called “What He Can’t Do Anymore” as a way of dealing with collective grief. In these sections, as in many other parts of this searing novel, readers will find their hearts aching.—Peter Ephross
Peter Ephross’s articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, the Forward and Publisher’s Weekly.
My Holocaust: A Novel
by Tova Reich. (HarperCollins, 336 pp. $24.95)
Attention Holocaust survivors and second-generation offspring: Do not read Tova Reich’s satirical novel My Holocaust because you probably won’t find it funny—unless you’re tired of the commercialization that has turned post-Holocaust memorialization into a thriving industry. Still, lines about how survivors always fly extravagantly because “we already did cattle cars; from now on, it’s first class all the way…” or how “second generation is a made-up category, an indulgence for a bunch of whiners and self-pityers with a terminal case of arrested development” might be a little hard to take.
There’s Maurice and Norman Messer, father and son, chairman of the board and president, respectively, of Holocaust Connections, Inc., a consulting firm that aids companies in shoring up their Holocaust credentials. Maurice is a survivor who takes creative license with his war years, publicly bragging about his time as the resistance fighter he never was—but who won’t get busted by his fellow survivors because they don’t want to give fodder to Holocaust deniers. His nebbeshe son, Norman, is a harried Jewish husband who is a failure to his shrewish wife and to his father, who wants him to be as manipulative and suave at marketing the Holocaust as his protégé, Monty.
They all embark on a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp to cozy up to potential donors for the powerful Holocaust museum Maurice now heads; Norman also hopes to rescue his daughter, Nechama, from the convent she’s joined in Poland.
At Auschwitz they meet a group of wild Israeli schoolchildren and their hostile teacher, who is resentful that the Holocaust is part of the curriculum; New Age hippies (read: Jews). There are also Holocaust artifact hustlers and plenty of others who show that the Jews aren’t the only ones to schnor off victimhood. Even the nuns want a donation.
But the characters in this story—and the story itself, which culminates in a farcical, hostile takeover of the Holocaust museum—are less important than the message. Like other satires, My Holocaust cares more about polemic than plot. As Monty explains to a donor queasy about all this showcasing of victimization:
We Jews have a moral obligation to offer our suffering and humiliation to the world as a cautionary tale, and for the lessons governing future personal and political behavior that can be drawn from it. We must think of the Holocaust in effect as The Gift of the Jews.
And this is what Reich seems to be rallying against. Not the actual suffering of the victims of the Holocaust, but the gigantic industry spawned from remembering it. Reich is mining a terrible situation for laughs, but at the heart of her novel she’s got a more serious point to make: While there may be no business like Shoah business, she says, this may be one business that’s bad for the Jews.—Amy Klein
Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir
By Shalom Auslander.. (Riverhead Books, 310 pp. $24.95)
Near the beginning of his engaging memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, Shalom Auslander describes taking the 350 page book he was in the midst of writing and throwing it away, fearful that its unflattering depiction of God might provoke Him into complicating his wife’s nascent pregnancy. “I’ve been on God’s chessboard long enough to know that every move forward, every bit of good news—Success! Marriage! Child!—is just another Godly gambit, a feign, a fake, a setup,” writes Auslander, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew in a religious enclave in Monsey, New York.
Whatever filled the pages of the book he trashed, I can’t imagine the Big Man Upstairs is much happier with this subsequent effort, in which Auslander wages a shock-and-awe assault on the Almighty and His minions here on earth.
The book, which could be subtitled “Fear and Loathing in Monsey,” is a sometimes touching, often maddening, usually hilarious account of Auslander’s life—from youth through adolescence through adulthood (and from religious observance through the abandonment of tradition and back again, and again).
As a tortured boy constantly frightened that his unholy thoughts and deeds will lead to the deaths of loved ones, an 8-year-old Auslander turns the tables on God, breaking as many bits of religious tradition as he can to bring God’s wrath down on his abusive father. As an adolescent, he turns to sneaking around to get his hands on McDonald’s cheeseburgers and is arrested for shoplifting. While a yeshiva student in Israel, Auslander—who at one point was considered rabbi material—is more interested in hashish thanhalakha. He returns to observance when his grandmother’s health improves after he places a prayer for her well-being in the Western Wall. He buys a black hat. There’s talk of him marrying a respected rabbi’s daughter.
But none of this lasts: When he gets back to the States, he hooks up with another cheeseburger and then with a prostitute.
With his relationship with his family at a nadir, Auslander meets and marries Orli, herself a refugee from a Jewish family that “for most of the year…resides in the sixteenth century.” When she becomes pregnant with a boy, Auslander is presented with the central dilemma of the book: Should he, or should he not, circumcise the child?
The memoir is a gloves-off critique of Judaism, to be sure. Moreover, it is a serious critique of Orthodoxy—an Orthodoxy in which prohibitions and punishments are emphasized over anything beautiful or beneficial the religion may offer; in which a pilpulistic reading of Scripture sucks the warmth from its zealous followers; in which the threat of divinely meted-out death hangs perpetually over its adherents.
Notably, unlike other writers who have made careers taking issue with things divine, Auslander remains a believer. He does not question God’s existence; he simply can’t stand Him.
Auslander’s criticisms are sharply observed. Still, in the endForeskin’s Lament reads less like a religious dialectic than the howl of a child disappointed over and over by a series of flawed father figures—from his biological father, to his rabbis, to God himself. When a teacher refers to God as “Our Father Who Is in Heaven,” a young Auslander balks. “There’s another one? In heaven? That’sGod?” he writes. “Did he stumble around in his underwear? How big was his fist?”
When Auslander’s son is born, he names him Paix (peace). After much consideration, the author and his wife decide to have Paix circumcised, albeit in the hospital and on the 2nd day of his life rather than the religiously prescribed 8th.
Even so, the first decision he makes as a father is to cut off a piece of his son’s body—just the sort of decision Auslander’s father figures imposed on him, and against which he is still railing.
Perhaps 30 years from now, Paix will write a book to let us know how he feels about his father’s decision. —Chanan Tigay
Jesus in the Talmud
by Peter Schäfer.. (Princeton University Press, 201 pp. $24.95)
Peter Schäfer’s Jesus in the Talmud is already being picked up by antiSemitic Web sites as proof that Judaism harbors blasphemous beliefs about Jesus. Yet, it is an important book by a meticulous scholar, the head of Princeton’s Judaic studies program. It is also a truthful book and should be received in a spirit of truthfulness.
Jewish discussions on the topic haven’t always been frank. In a 2003 report, for example, the Anti-Defamation League sought to fend off the claims that Jesus appears in insulting contexts in the Talmud: “The Talmud only refers to Jesus in a handful of places, and though these references may not reflect the courteous ecumenicism of the modern world, neither are they particularly inflammatory.”
Schäfer, a Christian scholar, has shrewdly analyzed the scattered Talmudic references to Jesus, texts going back to perhaps 300 C.E., censored from the Talmud in recent centuries but still extant in old manuscripts.
One such passage claims that the Sanhedrin indeed executed Jesus—not as a matter of historical fact, since the Talmud elsewhere acknowledges that the rabbis in Jesus’ day lacked the power of capital punishment, but as an imaginative, polemical statement meaning that Jesus deserved execution. The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a) says this, with manuscript variations in brackets:
On [Sabbath eve and] the eve of Passover Jesus the Nazarene was hanged [tela’uhu]. And a herald went forth before him 40 days [heralding]: Jesus the Nazarene is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery [kishef] and instigated [hissit] and seduced [hiddiah] Israel [to idolatry]. Whoever knows anything in his defense may come and state it. But since they did not find anything in his defense, they hanged him on [Sabbath eve and] the eve of Passover.
Another text depicts Jesus in Hell, suffering the punishment of being boiled in excrement. I would say these passages qualify as “inflammatory.” However, Schäfer stresses the literary context without which it is impossible to grasp their significance.
On Jesus in Hell, he notes the polemical point the rabbis wished to make, namely, Jesus’ dismissal of the Jewish tradition of washing hands ritually before eating bread. Unwashed hands cannot defile, Jesus argued: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Matthew 15:17).
To this, the Talmud was replying, sarcastically, that what enters the stomach and exits at the other end also defiles, as Jesus had the opportunity to find out.
Schäfer notes, “This, of course, sends also a strong message to his followers…: As with their hero, there is no afterlife reserved for them; they will be punished in Gehinnom forever.”
Measured on a scale of offensiveness, do such texts match the Gospel of John, which portrays Jews as children of Satan? Not exactly. Nor did the Talmud inspire the Crusades, an Inquisition, ghettos or pogroms.
Yet, seemingly, we Jews must give up any claim that, while Christian holy texts demean us, our own traditions offer no cause for indignation.—David Klinghoffer
Jeneration to Generation
Holocaust: The Events and Their Impact on Real People by Angela Gluck Wood and Dan Stone. (DK Publishing, 192 pp. $29.99)
If you have ever wondered how to have “that talk” with your child or grandchild about the horrors perpetrated against the Jews in the last century, Holocaust is a good starting point for children 11 and up. The book, which draws on the oral testimonies of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education at the University of Southern California, comes with a DVD that brings survivors’ testimony to life.
The book looks like a scrapbook with colorful archival images and artworks captioned by brief historical synopses on every page. The information may be hard to accept, but young readers will not be frightened away. Wisely, the book begins with the origins of European Jewry; a timeline that runs throughout goes from 33 B.C.E. to 2006, when Germany assisted with the opening of Nazi files on victims of the Holocaust.
Divided into seven sections—The Jews of Europe, Nazi Rule, The Ghetto, The Murder of the Victims, Clinging to Life, The End of the War and The Aftermath—this is a broad introduction to multiple topics: the origins of Sefardic and Ashkenazic Jews, the world of the shtetl, the advent of the Jewish era of enlightenment and Germany in World War I (in which 12,000 German Jewish soldiers were killed). Areas that touch on the Holocaust include the Third Reich and anti-Semitism, ghettos and their liquidation, the Final Solution, a look at concentration camps and the role of the church.
Liberation, building new lives, the growth of memorials and museums as well as continuing Holocaust denial bring the chain of events up-to-date. Finally, recalling the heroic deeds of Righteous Gentiles introduces a light that was present in the midst of this blackest of times. —Zelda Shluker
Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers
1. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. (Viking, $25.95)
2. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon. (HarperCollins, $26.95)
3. Away: A Novel, by Amy Bloom. (Random House, $23.95)
4. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $11.99)
5. Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, by Michael Chabon.(Del Rey, $21.95)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $23.95)
2. The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America, by Beth Wenger. (Doubleday, $40)
3. The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories, edited by Joshua Rubenstein, Yitzhak Arad and Ilya Altman. (Indiana University Press, $34.95)
4. Night, by Elie Wiesel. (Hill and Wang, $9, paper)
5. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26)
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 Entre Rios Trilogy: Three Novels, by Perla Suez. Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan. (University of New Mexico Press, 241 pp. $24.95)
The past and present, political and personal, blend in these three novels by Argentinean Jewish writer Perla Suez. The first works of fiction for adults by the celebrated children’s writer, the trilogy is also the last title in a literary series devoted to Jewish Latin America and edited by Mexican-born professor Ilan Stavans. —Barbara Trainin Blank
Terror in Black September: The First Eyewitness Account of the Infamous 1970 Hijackings, by David Raab. (Palgrave/Macmillan, 288 pp. $24.95)
David Raab was 17 years old when the TWA Flight 741 he, his mother and four siblings were on was hijacked on their return trip from Israel to the United States and forced to land in the Jordanian desert. Raab not only retells his three-week ordeal, he chronicles in detail the political backstory: the growth of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which challenged the authority of Jordan’s King Hussein. —Susan Adler