Books: Shedding Old Light on New Events
It is not surprising that Marek Halter was drawn to write about the colorful but enigmatic historical figure of David Reubeni. Halter, a 71-year-old Polish Jewish writer (and French citizen, living in Paris) is known for such historical fiction as The Wind of the Khazars(Toby Press) about the nomadic Turkic tribe in the Caucasus that converted to Judaism in the 10th century and “The Canaan Trilogy” about biblical women—Sarah: A Novel; Tzipporah, Wife of Moses; and Lilah: A Novel (Three Rivers Press).
As re-created by Halter, Reubeni, a real-life prince from the Jewish Kingdom of Chabor, travels to Venice in 1524, aiming to establish a Judeo-Christian alliance to wrest Jerusalem from Ottoman control.
With his knowledge and charisma, Reubeni wins adherents among the Jews as well as the support of Pope Clement VII and secular rulers. But his mission also attracts enemies and the devotion of fanatics—chiefly Shlomo Molcho, a descendant of Conversos who returns to Judaism and who mistake Reubeni for the messiah. Originally written in French, The Messiah was translated by Lauren Yoder (Toby Press, 485 pp. $24.95).
Halter came upon Reubeni while researching The Book of Abraham(Toby Press; it won the Prix du Livre Inter), a family saga that starts with the destruction of the Second Temple and ends with the Warsaw Ghetto; it tells how the author and his parents escaped during World War II. Much research later, based on Reubeni’s diary and his correspondence with the pope, Halter fashioned Reubeni into the fictional messiah, in an exciting work that brings to life the European courts, the Vatican and Jewish ghettos.
There are imagined meetings between Reubeni and such cultural luminaries as Michelangelo and Machiavelli; Reubeni battles pirates and the Black Plague and wrestles with the love of two women.
But don’t expect the bodice-ripping portrayals of Halter’s “Canaan Trilogy,” in which the sensuality of Sarah, Tzipporah and Lilah (sister of Ezra, of Temple-rebuilding fame) is as central as their spiritual yearnings.
For Halter, history has no meaning if it is not connected to the present. He draws parallels from the blend of religion and politics in the 16th century (think Henry VIII’s troubles with Rome over Anne Boleyn) and its ideological and economic crises. Learned Christians who lived in that era knew Hebrew and Jewish history, and the Christian world was afraid of the spreading Islamic militarism and extremism.
“That’s exactly what’s happening today,” the author says.
Halter says he has always been fascinated by strong women in the Bible—and the lack of documentation about them. His subjects represent personal drama as well as “great religious change,” such as the birth of monotheism during the life of Sarah. So perhaps it is not surprising that Halter’s other work of fiction to be published this year is Mary of Nazareth (Random House), whose heroine he provocatively calls “the first Jewish mother.”
Not easily pigeonholed, Halter has been a painter as well as a writer. He was the founder, with Russian human-rights leader Andrei Sakharov, of the French College in Moscow and is a longtime Middle East peace advocate.
Historically, Reubeni was placed in the hands of the Inquisition and his fate is uncertain. His “prophet,” Shlomo Molcho, was burned at the stake. But again, drawing parallels from history to the present and near-present, Halter points out that Theodor Herzl, like Reubeni, approached non-Jewish leaders in his quest to advance the Zionist cause.
Unlike that of the false messiah four centuries earlier, however, Herzl’s mission ultimately succeeded.
—Barbara Trainin Blank
City of Thieves
by David Benioff. (Viking, 258 pp. $24.95)
What would young American Jewish writers do without their grandfathers? David Benioff came to wide public attention when his first novel, The 25th Hour (Plume), later became a feature film directed by Spike Lee, and Benioff is now a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. His second novel, City of Thieves, looks as if it were written with one eye on the computer screen and the other on how his action-packed story would play out in multiplexes.
Asked to submit a 500-word autobiographical essay for a magazine, Benioff quickly realized that the summary of his life makes for boring reading: “school, college, odd jobs, graduate school, odd jobs, more graduate school,” he writes. On the other hand, his grandfather had killed two German soldiers before he was 18.
That was the fascinating story that Benioff wanted to tell.
After the war, his grandparents immigrated to America. They settled in Bay Ridge, New York, where his grandfather founded a small insurance company. After he retired, the author writes, his grandparents moved to Florida but they were hardly the typical retirees: “They’re not worried about crime. They don’t wear seat belts in the car. They don’t wear suntan lotion in the sun. They have decided that nothing can kill them but God himself, and they don’t even believe in him.”
The fictional Lev Beniov is the son of a moderately talented Russian Jewish poet executed by the Stalinists and a non-Jewish Russsian mother. At 17, he is insecure and sexually inexperienced. When Leningrad suffers through the siege, he describes himself as “built for deprivation,” which is a good thing, given the city’s ever-dwindling supply of foodstuffs. When Lev is caught looting a dead German paratrooper’s effects, he is sent to prison along with a garrulous, slightly older Russian soldier, Kolya, who was charged with desertion. They are to be executed the next morning—since there is no food for prisoners—but a Russian colonel takes a fancy to them and offers them a chance to survive, that is, if they can get their hands on a dozen eggs within a week’s time, so that his daughter can have a cake for her wedding.
Lev and Kolya’s adventures include giant-sized adversaries and giant-sized evil. Through it all, Kolya talks about his sexual conquests and the great Russian novel he is intensely studying. Kolya’s various women may be real but his novel, The Courtyard Hound, is not; in fact, he is writing it himself.
Benioff knows how to pace a page-turner. City of Thieves (Hitler’s disparaging description of Leningrad) moves toward the moment, in the novel’s final pages, when Lev is no longer the young boy of nervous inner thoughts but a man of action able to kill two German soldiers with the knife hidden in his boot.
Kolya also performs bravely but is killed by enemy fire as the two make their way back to Leningrad. So it is Lev alone who delivers the much sought after eggs and who later tells the story to his grandchild.
Lev’s story is much too long for a 500-word essay but just the right length for an engaging novel.
by Leon de Winter. Translated from the Dutch by Arnold and Erica Pomerans. (Toby Press, 303 pp. $14.95)
“We must get this century over,” declares Felix Hoffman, Leon de Winter’s troubled protagonist, because “that’s the only way we’ll get our own back a little. We shall have survived it, we shall be there to bury it.”
Set in the months between June and December 1989, Hoffman’s Hunger is an ambitious effort to discuss Europe post-World War II through the cravings, both spiritual and physical, of a career diplomat on the skids.
After a wide variety of postings, Hoffman is sent to Prague in the months just before the Velvet Revolution. Here, in the city where Franz Kafka wrote his shivery tale, “The Hunger Artist,” de Winter gives us a character who binges and purges in ways that are the flip side of the Kafka character, who starves himself to death.
For Hoffman, nearly any foodstuff is sufficient, but while he can eat himself into a stupor, he cannot sleep. The murder of his parents in the Holocaust and the deaths of his two daughters—the younger of cancer, the older from a heroin overdose—has led to a condition his long-suffering wife describes as “Hoffman’s hunger”:
He would put away entrées and desserts and entire TV dinners; sitting in front of the television, which went on all through the night, he would demolish plate loads of food with a rapacious hunger. In his bloated body he felt like the first man who had stood upright in the African savannah and, rising above the grass, was punished by the absence of God. Afraid of everything that was about to happen. Longing for a fulfillment he could not ever conceive of.
Hoffman is not the only character who weighs in at 350-plus pounds. Overweight Freddy Mancini, an American tourist in Prague, slips away from his hotel in search of an all-night hamburger joint. When Mancini witnesses a kidnapping, he becomes embroiled in a spy thriller filled with double (and triple) agents, and that ultimately leads to Hoffman’s resignation.
Hoffman’s Hunger is a novel of ideas, including a search for ultimate truth that takes Hoffman—and the readers—through long passages lifted from Baruch Spinoza’s Treatise on the Correction of the Understanding. In the novel’s final pages, Hoffman, largely estranged from Judaism, takes Spinoza’s argument that “God is a thinking thing” to mean that he “could now pray, without believing.”
This English translation of de Winter’s novel, first published in Dutch in 1990, should bring this prize-winning novelist, film writer and director to wider public attention. Hoffman’s Hunger may, at times, prove to be difficult reading, but it is a serious and important novel.
1948: The First Arab-Israeli War
by Benny Morris. (Yale University Press, 524 pp. $32.50)
Benny Morris, professor of history in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and author of numerous volumes on the Israeli-Arab conflict, has written a first-rate account of the most prolonged struggle in the Middle East, the ongoing Arab-Israeli war, launched in 1948 just as the infant Jewish state declared its independence. The account is a military history of the highest order, its prose taut and restrained, resulting in a gripping and dramatic narrative. The clarity of the writing renders the confusion of battle sensible to the reader.
The chronicle of that decisive year is enriched by the author’s concise summation of the history of Palestine, a history that led to the outbreak of hostilities. Zionism proposed to make tangible the formless prayers of generations. The Zionist credo was impelled by systemic anti-Semitism; Palestine, the land of Zion, would provide refuge from the simmering hatred of a hostile world.
Morris describes the first waves of immigration, which were based on land purchases from Arab landowners. The pre-1948 settlements constructed on these lands were the legal footholds that early Zionists hoped would lead to an eventual Jewish majority in Palestine and to their actual goal—Jewish statehood.
This aim swiftly collided with the commands of Islam and the text of the Koran, which describes Jews, singly and en masse, as descendants of apes and pigs.
But for the Arab landowners, devout Muslims all, their hatred of Jews was trumped by their greed, so they continued to sell land even while attacking the Jews who purchased it.
This contemptible inconsistency is clearly explicated by Morris, who explains that the land purchases were originally preceded by Theodor Herzl’s failed diplomatic efforts to secure a charter from the Ottoman Empire. However, the combination of diplomacy and land acquisition did eventually succeed. Great Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, and its Mandate over Palestine laid the foundation for the United Nations, following World War II, to vote for the partition of Palestine, thus, in effect, creating the Jewish state. This was an acknowledgment by the world community of the legitimacy of that state, with defined borders and effective government control.
The Arabs categorically rejected the partition, and that rejection resulted in war. The author wisely divides that war into two phases: the civil war fought between November 1947 and May 1948, and the international war fought between May 1948 and June 1949. In characterizing that first phase as a civil war, he firmly concludes that it was a war between two peoples, Jews and Arabs, both indigenous to Palestine.
However, the second, or international, phase pitted the armies of five Arab states—Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq—against the Haganah, the defense force of the nascent State of Israel. Morris does not speculate as to why these Arab states waited until the declaration of Israel’s statehood to launch their attacks but he clearly describes their aims as two-fold: annihilate Israel, killing as many Jews as they could in the process; and acquire as much Palestinian territory as they could for themselves.
The author’s astute comparison of the two sides shows that the Arabs were better equipped than the Haganah at the commencement of the onslaught but they were poorly trained and poorly motivated. They quickly squandered their advantage and did nothing to replenish their resources.
The Jewish combatants, by contrast, were highly motivated and well trained. They compensated for their equipment deficiencies by purchasing arms from Czechoslovakia and other countries.
The war, punctuated by two cease-fires, ended in June 1949, with Israel in control of more territory than that allotted by the United Nations partition plan, an outcome that was a direct result of the Arab refusal to honor the intention of the international community. But, as Morris contends, the war did not actually end. The Arabs perceived the war of 1948 to be only one of many battles to be fought over the years—an accurate contention, given the history that has followed.
Perceptive historian that he is, Morris does not ignore the Arab refugee problem that exercises the consciences of many who believe that the refugees must be permitted to return or, alternatively, be awarded compensation for their losses. Inasmuch as the invading Arabs were also responsible for the war, they were responsible for creating the refugee problem. Admittedly, there were injustices and human tragedies, but we do not live in an ideal universe and morality is not another name for suicide. Morris’s magnificent text makes this abundantly clear.
The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman
text and art by Sharon Rudahl. (The New Press, 115 pp. $17.96)
Sharon Rudahl is using a new medium to popularize the early-20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman. Rudahl, whose work has ranged from underground comix to Marvel Comics, has painstakingly brought to life this pioneer of gender equality, free speech and birth control.
Blending graphics with Goldman’s actual words from archives and the activist’s autobiography, Rudahl tells Goldman’s tale from her early life in Czarist Russia in the 1870s—when her determination to be an intellectual ran afoul of her teachers and parents—through her turbulent years in an anarchist underground populated mostly by other immigrant Jews. The story ends with her death in exile in Canada after numerous brushes with the law and numerous romantic relationships.
Rudahl’s political cartoon-style drawings in light gray often make the characters appear comedic, although the story is entirely serious. Most often the story is told, as graphic novels usually do, in sequential panels, with an occasional mural-style full page.
The picture that emerges is not always sympathetic. Goldman and her cohorts plotted violent acts of “rebellion” against bastions of capitalism. Today, these would be classified as terrorism. An attempt on the life of steel-plant manager Henry Clay Frick landed Goldman’s lover, Alexander “Sasha” Berkman, in prison for years; she pined for him endlessly, working for his release even as she took up with other men.
It is often unclear what Goldman was rebelling against other than authority itself. Rudahl lionizes her, even likening her to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., by including her in a photo inlay of King’s rally at which he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, although she died more than two decades earlier.
The corruption, ignorance and plain evil displayed by the men who dominated the era, however, are surely on target. Rudahl is not shy at depicting Goldman’s sexual mores in bringing her to life as a passionate woman who rejected the chastity and moderation expected of her. Goldman, though, is rarely depicted as happy, but rather perpetually longing and often sullen.
“At different times,” writes Rudahl in her author’s note, “Emma Goldman has been appreciated for different aspects of her life and work: prescient rejecter of Soviet-style Communism, free-spirited hippie dancer, icon of feminine pride. Let me add that, for my declining generation, Emma deserves special praise for completing the arc of her life with undiminished passion and integrity. Without compromise, without benefit of Botox, knee replacements or 401(k) investments, she loved and fought until the end.”
Style and Meaning
White Lines and Inner Movement Ary Stillman:
From Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism
edited by James Wechsler. (Merrell, 176 pp. $59.95)
Born Hyman Aron Stelmach in 1891 in what is today Belarus, the artist died in 1967 in Houston as the well-known Ary Stillman. Seven essays by art historians and critics and 127 images illuminate and illustrate Stillman’s rich body of work.
Although he was raised in the heder culture, after his father died, Stillman’s education was influenced by his liberal-humanist grandfather. Stillman then attended public schools and eventually advanced to the best art school in Vilna. Events caused him to leave Europe—as a teen relatives brought him to Sioux City, Iowa, to escape a pogrom—and his studies led him to Chicago, New York, Paris, Palestine and Mexico.
Artistically, he was not afraid to experiment, and he abandoned the traditional realism he first learned in Vilna and went on to synthesize Cubism and Expressionism (as did Jackson Pollock, to whom art critic Donald Kuspit compares Stillman).
In Kuspit’s essay, he points out that “the apocalyptic personal pathology of Stillman’s paintings…is informed by the destructiveness of the Second World War and, however unconsciously, the Holocaust.” Moreover, in his “White Line” paintings, so called because “lines of light dance in the dark atmospheric space,” are “expressions of Jewish spirituality—Jewish interiority and identity.”
Whether Kuspit is reading more Jewishness into his art than there is—writer and artist Rachel Garfield’s essay offers a different view—Stillman did create some loving, respectful and transcendent oil-on-canvas portraits of his Orthodox aunt and uncle as well as later portraits (watercolor on paper) of Yemenite, Hasidic and Egyptian Jews.
Unlike some other Jewish artists of this period, Stillman always maintained his connection to the Jewish community and his art reflects his Jewish identity.
Pictures and Stories
Unpacking the Secrets
New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews: Image and Memory
by Cary Herz. (University of New Mexico Press, 240 pp. $39.95)
For 20 years, award-winning photographer Cary Herz has been searching for descendants of Conversos, or Anusim, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to become Christians during the Inquisition but secretly held onto their Jewish customs even after they arrived in the New World in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Although the Conversos assimilated into local Hispanic culture, the stories they told, their family names and the objects they built revealed their Jewish roots.
Now Herz has gathered stories to go with 132 of her black-and-white images of individuals in Mexico, New Mexico and Colorado. There is William E. Sanchez, a Catholic priest who blows shofar in his Albuquerque church. Emilio Coca’s father could recite eight generations of Jewish lineage and taught him: “We ate no pork; we slaughtered animals the kosher fashion; we were circumcised; we lit Shabbat candles Friday night. We went to the mountains for Jewish prayer.” Maria Apodaca of Albuquerque learned she was Jewish when, at age 14, “my father put his hands up to his mouth to say softly, “Somos los judios” (We are Jews).
For many, there are memories and customs they continue to keep: Richard Romero, who remembers his grandmother’s secret room for prayer in the cellar of her home in Truchas, New Mexico, still observes Friday night Shabbat. Dennis Duran converted to Judaism long before he traced his family’s Portuguese ancestry back to Sefardic Jews of the 16th century.
In New Mexico’s Crypto-Jews, Herz has accomplished her goal: “to put a face on the invisible ones, the Anusim, to open a small window into their world, to show their pride and diversity.”
Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers
1. Indignation,by Philip Roth.(Houghton Mifflin, $26)
2. Moscow Rules, by Daniel Silva. (Putnam, $26.95)
3. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. (Viking, $25.95)
4. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon..(HarperCollins, $26.95)
5. Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum. (Harvest Books, $14, paper)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $23.95)
2. 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)
3. Night, , by Elie Wiesel. (Hill and Wang, $9, paper)
4. Hurry Down Sunshine, by Michael Greenberg. (Other Press, $22)
5. The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado(Harper Perennial, $14.95, paper)
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.
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com