Books: Journeys to Jerusalem
by Aharon Appelfeld. Translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter. (Schocken, 231 pp. $23.95)
“Good literature,” the Hebrew writer Aharon Appelfeld once told an interviewer, “lets you see the movements of man’s soul.” At 77, and after 40-plus books of fiction and nonfiction, Appelfeld is one of Israel’s most distinguished writers. His latest novel, Laish, continues a long, imaginative investigation into the vagaries of Jewish souls.
Laish is ostensibly about the interminable, anguished journey of a convoy filled with a motley crew of East European Jews in the 1920s. Their sights are set on Jerusalem, a city that many of the elderly members in their midst believe will heal them both physically and spiritually. But Laish is also about Jews everywhere and at any time, for the author’s tightly honed, extraordinarily concise sentences suggest symbolism around every turn of the Prut River. Appelfeld’s Jews share a heritage of silent suffering, however different they may be in degrees of religious observance—or in their desperation. As one character puts it, “a bond of silence…weighs upon me. My roots are cut off like stumps—and sometimes I feel the pain inside the wounds.” At times, during the caravan’s more than two-year trek, one is reminded of the Exodus; at other times, one feels that all of Jewish history has been incorporated into Appelfeld’s peculiar ship of fools. Like the Bible itself, Laish includes the noble as well as the base, those who pray and study Torah as well as black marketers who sew coins inside their sleeves.
The novel is narrated through the sensibilities of a 15-year-old orphan named Laish. Appelfeld makes no secret of his stylistic debts to Ernest Hemingway, and in Laish’s voice one can feel the understatement and radical concision that made Hemingway’s early stories famous. As the wagon train and its constituents move toward the seaport and the ship that will presumably take them to Jerusalem, many of its members die—from typhus, beatings and old age—and we are not given time to grieve over each loss. Instead, Laish describes the search for a Jewish cemetery, the efforts of the group to bury the dead with a measure of dignity:
If the truth be told, nothing is ever forgotten here. Our wagons groan beneath the weight of memories; whatever isn’t inside has to be dragged along behind us. We remember all those who joined the convoy and abandoned it along the way: the innocents, the crazy ones, to say nothing of those who have slipped quietly out of the world and whom we will see no more.
Not surprisingly, Jerusalem means different things to the different travelers. Laish sees it, in his mind’s eye, as a “broad, light-filled city—a place where there is no frost or dampness, where a man can lay his head on a stone and fall asleep; others see it as a place that heals and wards off death.”
Appelfeld does not tell us if the few remaining original pilgrims arrive in Jerusalem safely (such is the nature of his understatement), but the novel leaves the reader with a haunting image that symbolizes the wretchedness of the journey.
A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel
by Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh. (Harper, 448 pp. $27.99)
Did President Harry S. Truman pull the rug out from under his own State Department when he recognized the State of Israel at the United Nations? If so, was it because he had learned how horribly some American soldiers were treating thousands of desperate Holocaust survivors? Or was it because Truman’s old friend Eddie Jacobson prevailed on the president to see Chaim Weizmann—who completely charmed the president?
The answer to each question is yes. Two historians, Allis and Ronald Radosh, have produced a fascinating, meticulously researched book, A Safe Haven: Harry S.
Truman and the Founding of Israel, in which they give Truman his just place in history.
The Radoshes spent two and a half years in Israel and the United States digging up previously unknown letters, cables, diaries, interviews and phone transcripts. They give all perspectives to the problem of creating the State of Israel—Jewish, Arab, British and, especially, the American State Department’s. Largely staffed with men known to be pro-Arab, the State Department created its own solution: Palestine should become a trusteeship under the United Nations—thus killing the possibility of a Jewish state.
Truman was especially affected by the plight of Displaced Persons; the envoy he sent to study conditions in the DP camps found survivors sleeping in the same bunks that other Jews had slept in before they were burned or gassed or shot. He reported that short of killing them, some of our troops were mistreating the DPs just as the Nazis had.
Truman asked Ernest Bevin, Britain’s foreign minister, to open the gates of Palestine to 100,000 DPs. Bevin, whose economy was in tatters and dependent on the United States, could not say no. He suggested forming the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, manned by six Brits and six Americans. Truman agreed on condition that if the committee voted unanimously to open Palestine, Bevin would allow 100,000 Jews to enter the Holy Land. Bevin gave his word.
I traveled with the committee during the four months of its journey. In Switzerland, I was given advance notice that they were going to vote unanimously. In Jerusalem, in New York, in London, people were singing and dancing in the streets. Truman was delighted—the gates of Palestine were to be opened. Three days later, Bevin said, in effect, “Over my dead body.” The president was furious.
In the next months, a motley fleet of vessels carrying Holocaust survivors and staffed largely by American crews fought their way through the British blockade. (The authors quote my eyewitness impressions of the Exodus 1947 as it limped into Haifa. They also reprint one of my photos of a DP camp.)
The war for statehood played itself out in Washington. For a while, furious at the pressure put on him by Zionists, Truman became ambivalent about statehood. But the door was always open to Eddie Jacobson; the two had served in the same unit in World War I and opened a haberdashery together in Kansas City. Although not a Zionist, Jacobson had joined B’nai B’rith, whose leaders prevailed on him to urge Truman to see Chaim Weizmann. It was Weizmann, speaking at length with the president, who showed Truman on his globe the outline of a future state and prophesied that the Negev would become a fertile frontier like the American West.
A good part of the book is devoted to the United Nations’ role after it took over when Bevin, angered by events, threw in the towel. The world organization created a committee of 12 ambassadors who set out on a four-month survey and heard the terrible stories of Holocaust survivors. They decided unanimously on a Solomonic solution: to divide the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted for partition.
One May 14, 1948, United States ambassador to the United Nations Warren Austen was preparing to recommend that Palestine become a United Nations trusteeship when a reporter handed a second ambassador a cable with the news that in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion had read the world’s newest declaration of independence. Thus was Israel born. And the United States became the first nation in the world to recognize the Jewish state. History has changed Truman from a mediocre president to a nearly great one.
Ruth Gruber described these crucial days in Witness (Schocken) and Exodus 1947 (Sterling).
Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self
by Carole S. Kessner. (Brandeis University Press, 479 pp. $35)
Carole S. Kessner’s dramatic biography of Marie Syrkin, an impeccably researched chronicle of an unconventional life, re-creates the exciting world of nascent Zionism, pre- and postrevolutionary Russia, the American immigrant experience, the tragedy of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. In all these pivotal events, Syrkin was an activist and an observer, an astute assessor of a Jewish world in turmoil and a passionate intellectual struggling toward self-fulfillment.
The daughter of Nachman and Bassya Syrkin, committed socialist Zionists, Syrkin arrived in America with her family in 1909. She was a precocious 10-year-old, already fluent in five languages that didn’t include Hebrew, a deficit for which she always blamed her father. Indeed, it was her domineering father, revered for his intellect and commitment to his cause, who would largely determine the course of her life, and Kessner, like Syrkin, grants him credit and blame in equal measure. Bassya died of tuberculosis at 36, and her 16-year-old daughter, brilliant and beautiful, became the focus of her father’s life, his intellectual and ideological heir whose destiny he struggled to control.
That control extended to Syrkin’s marriage to Maurice Samuel, the brilliant and complex Englishman with whom she eloped at the age of 18; her father had that union annulled, but he was powerless to control the ongoing relationship between them that lasted much of their lives.
Syrkin attended Cornell University with the hope of attaining a doctorate in literature, and soon she married Aaron Bodansky, a biochemist, a man of whom her father, unsurprisingly, also disapproved, and that marriage ended in both tragedy and divorce. Their first child, Benya, died as a toddler, but they entered into a unique and apparently successful arrangement to coparent their son, David, each assuming responsibility for the boy in alternate years.
Perhaps it was that arrangement that allowed Syrkin to launch her own teaching and writing career. Always a pragmatist, she taught at a New York high school, which did not interfere with her work as a translator, essayist and poet. She remained active in Zionist circles, her entrée admittedly facilitated by her father’s prestige, and encountered historic personalities including Vladimir Jabotinsky, who took her to the Cotton Club in Harlem, and David Ben-Gurion, who, much later, held her hand in a darkened movie theater.
In 1930, she married the poet Charles Reznikoff. Their marriage, vulnerable and fraught with difficulty, survived for over 40 years. In 1933, she traveled to Palestine, attended the Zionist convention in Prague and discerned the growing menace of Nazism. These experiences intensified her journalistic output, and she joined the staff of the Labor Zionist Jewish Frontier in New York, peppering its pages with her perceptive essays and prescient analysis of events in Europe. The war did not take her by surprise, and when it ended she traveled to Palestine yet again, where she interviewed survivors of the death camps and resistance fighters. The interviews resulted in her 1947 book Blessed Is the Match: The Story of Jewish Resistance (Jewish Publication Society), in which she wrote with particular passion of Hannah Senesh, the Hungarian heroine. Syrkin also became a close friend and admirer of Golda Meir, writing a blatantly hagiographic biography entitled Golda Meir: Woman With a Cause, Israel’s Leader (Putnam).
In 1948, Syrkin joined the faculty of the newly established Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Kessner, her biographer and now a retired professor of literature, was Syrkin’s dedicated student and later her confidante. Their unique relationship has given us this insightful book on the life of a woman who was a witness to history. —Gloria Goldreich
Myths, Illusions & Peace:
Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East
by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky. (Viking, 366 pp. $27.95)
This fact-drenched book by two of the best informed pro-Israel Middle East experts in Washington, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, suffers from a poorly chosen title.
They begin with “the mother of all myths…the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, the other Middle East conflict would melt away.” This is a thin thread to hang a book on since the many wars in the region, from Yemen to Iraq, have had no connection to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first five chapters are devoted to explications of this myth, which they call “linkage.” But the gist of these chapters is a history of the United States’s relations with Israel. They are full of little-known facts and revealing insights. A highlight is the extracts from the Nixon tapes that show the underlying reason for the famous airlift of arms to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Helping Israel was a sidelight.
Then comes Chapter 6, and the reasons for the United States to pursue peace between Israel and the Palestinians, “not out of a misguided sense of linkage,” the authors write. “We say it because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will remain evocative for Arabs and Muslims throughout the world. We say it because the conflict does create anger and a profound sense of grievance. The perpetuation of the conflict breeds a sense of hopelessness in the region and that certainly also plays into the hands of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.”
The authors sum it up: “Israelis most want to see Palestinians actually fight terror, not condone it or facilitate it; Palestinians want to see no restrictions on their movements, all Palestinian prisoners released, and settlement activity halted.”
The last half of the book is devoted to Iran, which has only a tangential reference to linkage. Dennis Ross has just been appointed director of the Central Region for the National Security Council, an area that includes Iran.
If the reader can ignore the dubious title, there is much information and innovative thinking to be found in this book. —J. Zel Lurie
My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped
by Lev Raphael. (Terrace Books, 210 pp. $26.95)
Like countless American Jews, Lev Raphael grew up in a home where Germany was vilified and German products boycotted. The idea of ever visiting the land that gave rise to Nazism and the Final Solution was anathema.
More than 40 years ago, the late Israeli journalist Amos Elon inhabited this scarred and intricate landscape for months. His experiences resulted in the book Journey Through a Haunted Land: The New Germany (Holt Rinehart and Winston). Since then, much has been written about the relationship between Germans and Jews, the building of more Holocaust monuments in Germany than in any other country and the refusal of extremist neo-Nazi groups, particularly in the former East Germany, to fade into history.
But there’s still much to say, and Raphael seems ideally suited to the task. A child of Holocaust survivors, he has produced a large body of short stories, novels and criticism that draw attention to the issues confronted by the second generation, many of whom absorbed their parent’s traumas. Yet the potential fails to deliver. Rather than falling short in execution, something seems to have gone awry in the book’s very conception. Perhaps spending a total of five weeks in the country over a span of several years is just not enough time to produce material for a book-length work on such a weighty topic.
Apart from the prologue, the narrative doesn’t actually shift to Germany until more than halfway through the book. When it does, much of what Raphael reports is rendered as a catalog of his readings and lunches during a multicity whirlwind book tour, all the while marveling that “nothing about being in Germany felt traumatic, that everything felt fascinating. I wasn’t, as I had expected, constantly thinking, ‘This is the country where my parents were put in concentration camps.’”
Still, the book is a literary and spiritual autobiography. The narrative arch—which provides way too much information about sexual encounters with both men and women along the way—traces Raphael’s childhood in New York, where his parents instilled in him not only a hatred of Germany but a reluctance to identify strongly as a Jew, to his later embrace of Judaism and his coming out as a gay man. Eventually, he embraces the role of a Jewish and gay writer.
Ultimately, Raphael describes his reconciliation with modern Germany as a means of parting with at least some of the secondhand demons that have always haunted him. My Germany is at its most compelling when he zeroes in on his parents’ harrowing and deeply tragic lives. In fact, he acknowledges that he had hoped to write a book about his mother but had failed to gather enough material. That’s too bad.
Raphael seems preoccupied with reclaiming a lost literary mantle, repeatedly pointing out that he has written about the children of survivors longer than any other American Jewish author, tossing in self-congratulatory phrases like “editors loved my work and so, apparently, did readers.” Of course, this begs for an unfavorable comparison with such powerful second-generation works as Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus (Pantheon) or Thane Rosenbaum’s collection of connected stories, Elijah Visible (St. Martin’s Griffin).
In the end, My Germany is a little too much Raphael and too little Germany and, as a result, the work becomes less than the sum of its parts. —Bryan Schwartzman
Bryan Schwartzman is a staff writer at The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.
Have a Little Faith: A True Story
by Mitch Albom. (Hyperion, 252 pp. $23.99)
How did sports writer Mitch Albom become the master teller of stories that touch your heart—from Tuesdays With Morrie (Sphere) to For One More Day (Hyperion) to this latest volume, Have a Little Faith? Subtitled A True Story, it is really two stories. Albom spends time with two religious leader—his own aging, childhood rabbi, who, curiously, asked Albom to deliver his eulogy when he dies, and a black pastor in a leaky-ceilinged sanctuary of the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry in Detroit. The key ingredients in these lives that inspire are joy, faith and renewal. —Z.S.
Drawing Mystical Midrashim
Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary
by Ilene Winn-Lederer. (Pomegranate, 190 pp. $45)
With the holiday of Simhat Torah imminent (it is on October 11), we complete the annual cycle of Torah reading only to begin it again. If you want to incorporate mysticism into your new year of study, keep handy Ilene Winn-Lederer’s book of visual midrashim.
One could describe the stunning Between Heaven & Earth as a book of art—but that would be inadequate. The vast amount of scholarly research that informs both images and commentary are impressive. The biblical verses are minimal—only a sentence or two—but the two-page spreads of layered or conflated engraving-like images entice one to explore the text further. There are fluid, neutral-hued representations of people and animals as well as detailed, colored-saturated images both delicate and fierce: A seven-armed golden candelabra grows out of fiery flames atop a black mountain; in front is a bull with offerings of gold. Fifty pages of commentary and sources follow 134 pages of illustration.
In Parashat Vayera, after the Akeida, God tells Abraham that all the nations of the earth “shall bless themselves by your descendants because you have obeyed My command.” The accompanying image shows the back of a kneeling figure, Isaac, with phylacteries binding his hands and feet, a sword beside him on the ground. Instead of his head there is a ram—the substitute sacrifice—with angel’s wings sitting in a bush.
This book is for those who want to take Torah to a place not usually visible. —Zelda Shluker
JEWISH BEST SELLERS
1. The Defector by Daniel Silva. (Putnam, $26.95)
2. Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner. (Atria, $26.99)
3. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. (St. Martin’s Griffin, $13.95, paper)
4. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. (Dutton, $25.95)
5. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. (Penguin, $15, paper)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $14.95, paper)
2. The Israel Test by George Gilder. (Richard Vigilante Books, $27.95)
3. The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West by Dore Gold. (Regnery, $7.95, paper)
4. Night by Elie Wiesel. (Hill & Wang, $9.95, paper)
5. The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life by Shmuley Boteach. (HarperOne, $25.99)
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.