Books: Digging for History and Finding Love
Drawing in the Dust: A Novel
Beautiful, blonde, brilliant 39-year old Page Brookstone, a Christian divinity scholar turned archaeologist, has been working for a dozen years at Tel Megiddo in northern Israel, supervising the unearthing of Canaanite bones and pottery, but she feels unfulfilled professionally and personally. She reluctantly broke off an affair with an Israeli because she realized he would never marry a Christian. And she repels the advances of her former professor, an older and controlling man with whom she has been working—even though it was his definition of archaeology as “the intersection of the precision of science and the intuitive certainty of faith” that caused her to become a biblical archaeologist. Her best friend, back in Connecticut, a translator and loving Jewish wife and mother, tells Page that she is death-driven, mourning her father who committed suicide years earlier and unwilling to risk her heart. Meanwhile, chapters proceed by way of headings from The Scroll of Anatiya, lamentations and adorations of an ancient (fictional) prophetess who was a follower and lover of the prophet Jeremiah.
One day, as Page mechanically goes about her work, a Muslim couple from Anatot arrives at the dig, asking if someone would visit their home to check out ghosts. On impulse and to the scorn and dismay of her colleagues, Page decides to take a look. She will soon discover a hidden cistern containing ancient artifacts, an extended mural and finally a burial chamber and scroll. At the Department of Antiquities to get a permit for digging, Page finds herself engaged in a brief exchange with a black-hatted Orthodox man who tells her that he heard her lecture once and that she spoke Torah “with the speed and precision of a missile launcher” but “without much heart.” He begins to haunt her, turns up at the Anatot dig and, despite their vast cultural differences, she feels in him the echo of the hidden feelings of her soul. The emerging love story, handled with grace and savvy, parallels the chronology of Anatiya’s all-consuming passion for the aged Jeremiah. It is also set off by the sex-crazed antics of the young people around Page who assist on the dig. The minor characters—Arab, Israeli and American—are skillfully woven into the plot and theme.
As for Jeremiah, “the most tragic and gripping” prophet, he’s Page’s favorite, and Klein’s: “I wanted to weave an enduring love into his terror-filled days,” she says. The religious zealots and the international archaeological community don’t take the unearthing lightly, however, as Klein deftly turns the mystery of how Jeremiah’s bones wound up entangled in Anatiya’s into an exciting chase tale filled with menace and suspense. —Joan Baum
Pictures at an Exhibition
Son of Daniel Berenzon, a prominent Parisian art dealer and concert pianist, Max was coming of age just as the Nazis were rising to power; he was born to the right family at the wrong time.
The Jewish Berenzons were the crème de la crème of art dealers, if not the most prominent. Daniel Berenzon’s list of artists included Picasso and Matisse, and his clientele was, no surprise, the likes of Rothschild & Company. Max yearned to follow his father’s footsteps into the family business and as the “son of” he deemed himself to be the logical successor.
His father, however, announced that “in good conscience” he could not leave the family business to Max, who, he said, lacked the necessary guts and passion. As a result of this severe blow, Max, who had spent much of his life vying for his father’s approval, was now stuck going to medical school.
Enter Rose Clement, a beautiful curator known for her brains and beauty. According to the elder Berenzon, Rose had what it took to assist him at the gallery; he could always spot a fake and Rose, he explained to his son, was the real deal, who would rove her passion for Berenzon’s gallery (and much later for her country).
Max falls in love with the elusive Rose, who, like his father, was out of his emotional reach. He spends much of this brilliant book trying to win them both over. What would seem like a typical teenage crush of a young man faced with a hard-to-please father becomes the backstory to the bigger picture: The Nazis’ systematic destruction of an entire art culture. Under Nazi occupation, Parisian galleries and museums were looted of their masterpieces, and many valuable paintings known by the Reich as “Degenerate Art” (“Entartate Kunst”) were destroyed.
Hitler, a third-rate artist himself, felt threatened by the Impressionists, Surrealists, Cubists, Expressionists—artists who made you feel by creating art that forced you to think outside of the box. This was the art at the heart and soul of the Berenzon Gallery.
Max was caught in the crossfire of war, family dysfunction, unrequited love and the loss of close friends. The Nazis confiscated his father’s gallery, looted the art and destroyed the records. It was as if the Berenzons had never existed. They, like so many others, became a blank canvas.
Houghteling does not miss a beat in her storytelling. The obvious criminals are the Nazis; the less obvious are those black marketeers who hid behind the guise of Le Resistance—a smokescreen to corruption, moneymaking and shady deals. Yes, Jews were also among those who cut sweet deals with the Nazis.
We see it all unfold through Max’s no-longer-innocent eyes; his passion for Rose morphs into a frenzied quest to save his father’s stolen paintings after the war. Rose, one of the more interesting characters, is modeled after the real-life Rose Valland, who worked at the Louvre and Jeu de Paume, serving as a double agent—“working” for the Nazis while keeping secret, meticulous records of looted art, which would later save some of the world’s most important masterpieces.
Some might find this book almost too impressionistic, especially as Houghteling breezes through the war years. But make no mistake, the author clearly loves her subject and refuses to let the reader just sit back and ponder a painting. There is no time. There is too much at stake. There is nothing still life about this novel. It is fluid, dramatic, historical—its words, its brush strokes are almost wild at times. And therein lies the novel’s true beauty: Art not only mirrors life. For the Berenzons, for Rose, perhaps even for Houghteling, art is life. —Lisa Frydman Barr
You or Someone Like You
You or Someone like You is the story of a couple, Howard and Anne Rosenbaum, who marry as students at Columbia in the 1960’s. Anne is not Jewish, but that is not important to either of them. Anne is a “stateless” person, having been raised by parents who lived all over the world. Howard begins working for a publishing company that sends him to Hollywood to make film deals. He rises to a high position in the industry and also teaches courses on Shakespeare at UCLA where he draws huge crowds to his lectures because he is such “great box office.” They live a life of ease, successful and contented, raising their only son to love words in Hollywood.
My biggest complaint is with the character of Anne, the novel’s main protagonist. We learn about the kind of car she drives, what she reads and who she and her husband socialize with, but never what is driving her or why she didn’t pursue a career of her own until later in her life. The book’s cover art is a picture of a blond, blue-eyed woman and a brown haired, glasses clad man by Alex Kat; the flatness of these attractive and compelling figures is never rounded into three dimensions, making it a credible match for the text within.
In Burr’s fictional version of the Jerusalem yeshiva expulsion, the Rosenbaums’ son, Sam, is the expelled student, though he is not particularly upset. His father, however—who had shown minimal interest in his Jewish family and life—suddenly and illogically becomes a ba’al teshuva.
The character and plot are developed through thoughtful and interesting sketches and anecdotes, retold by others who heard about events secondhand. While this technique provides a good deal of information, it doesn’t create the dramatic tension necessary to propel the novel’s plot forward.
Burr, a former scent critic for The New York Times, has written two previous books about the perfume industry. His journalistic background sometimes presents problems for him as a novelist. Burr’s notion of using real names of real people and quoting liberally from their interviews in New Yorker articles gives a flavor to this text. However, this technique felt as though the writer didn’t want to do the work of creating fictional counterparts for these figures from the movie industry and those who are generally well known. He doesn’t get a letter from any Israeli but Avital Sharansky, suggesting strongly that all Jews who live outside Israel are not really living. The exaggerated aspect of every character gets to be a bit of a strain on the reader’s credulity in this fictional world.
I wanted to enjoy a novel about a woman with a degree in literature encouraging Hollywood moguls to treat the texts she loves with the seriousness she does. Often the problem in a novel of ideas is how to balance interest in these ideas with genuine plot development and drama. Burr does not always carry the balance through successfully, yet this first novel has much to admire, and certainly left me hoping that Burr writes a second one.
Beth Kissileff is the author of a forthcoming novel, Questioning Return.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume 1, Part A and Part B. Edited by Geoffrey P. Megargee (Indiana University Press/ USHMM, 1,796 pp. $295)
A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters,
Lehman, a poet and poetry anthologist, explores Jewish musical roots in A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, a long-overdue tribute to the genius of the lyricists and composers who gave voice to the longing, hopes and romantic aspirations of the Jewish immigrants and immigrants’ children, from Berlin’s jazzy “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” of 1911 to the yubba-bubba-bum of Fiddler on the Roof in 1965.
Laced with anecdotes about the composers and the singers who made the songs famous, and the unforgettable, brilliant lyrics of the masters, the book can’t help but get you humming, let alone singing out loud your own version of the songs. But are the songs “Jewish”? Lehman tries to build a case that “a lot of it has to do with sound: the minor keys, bent notes, altered chords, a melancholy edge.” Perhaps that is true for many of the compositions, but it is a thesis difficult to support for all the songs, and there are dozens of them, some commercial successes, some not.
In a conversation, Lehman cited the opening blast of Leonard Bernstein’s overture to West Side Story, likening it to the piercing call of the shofar, and indeed it is. But it would be a stretch to declare the plaintive “Maria,” a love song of heartfelt yearning, also from West Side Story, to be anything but universal in origin or in appeal. And how to classify a lyric like “O.K. by me in America” from the same musical? Lehman sees the Jewish “element,” as he calls it, in American popular song to be a property not only of the notes and chords but also of the union between words and music. The tone is “mournful,” and there is an “undertow of feeling that yearning is eternal and sorrow not far from the moment’s joy.”
Such a yearning is the theme of that greatest of American popular anthems, “White Christmas,” written, of course, by that quintessential Jew, Irving Berlin. Simple yet elegant, the song touched a nerve in millions of American hearts and minds and continues to be the most beloved of Christmas songs.
For Lehman, the Jewish songwriters were conducting a passionate romance with America. As Jews they were outsiders, despised for their religion and their European ways. But because of their intelligence, their sly wit, their clever ability to use the English language and put universal themes into intricate rhymes, they succeeded in capturing the public’s attention and admiration in Broadway shows and Hollywood movies.
Consider the lyrics of “A Fine Romance,” a song with delicious sarcasm and irony, written by Dorothy Fields (one of the few successful female Jewish songwriters) to a bouncy Jerome Kern melody that was performed by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the 1931 film Swing Time. It may have been a fine romance, the lyrics say, but it lacked kisses, “no clinches, no pinches; you won’t nestle or wrestle.” Or the elegant “Dancing in the Dark,” Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s ode to the search for romance (“Looking for the light/ Of a new love/ To brighten up the night”).
Lehman correctly notes the influence of jazz and the blues that linked the Jewish composers with black singers and musicians. Can you hear the wail, he asks, when the clarinet solo begins Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”? And don’t forget Hammerstein and Kern’s Show Boat in 1927 and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1935 as exemplars of the bond.
Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls of 1950 is replete with Jewish references and intonations, and Lehman analyzes songs like “Sue Me” and lines like “I’m just a nogoodnik; it’s true, so nu?” for their New Yawk or Jewish tam. Lehman heaps anecdote upon anecdote to keep the story humming along, but there is little regard for chronology or organization as he skips from one composer or song to another or digresses to personal favorites. He imagines conversations with “Uncle” Harold Arlen or “Uncle” Jerry Kern, even though they are both deceased and he never met them. Lehman acknowledged to me that it was really a “fictive device,” a way to enhance his narration, and he avers that their quotations are accurate.
The honor roll of lyricists and composers stretches from coast to coast. Lehman gives us E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, the lyricist with Harold Arlen (Chaim Arluch, a cantor’s son) of The Wizard of Oz ; Jule Styne; Sammy Cahn; Oscar Hammerstein; Leo Robbins; Sammy Fain and the non-Jewish Harry Warren, all of whom were mighty contributors to the American songbook. Lehman even has a place for Johnny Mercer of Savannah (“That Old Black Magic,” whom he calls an honorary Jew for having written the lyrics to Ziggy Elman’s “And the Angels Sing,” the electrifying klezmer sensation of the late 1930s.)
Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality
This is an ambitious book on many levels, but appropriating God isn’t one of its aims. Leora Tanenbaum, author of Slut: Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation and Catfight: Women and Competition (both from Seven Stories Press) as well as coauthor of Moonbeams: A Hadassah Rosh Hodesh Guide, has written a knowledgeable survey of the state of religious feminism in five broad American communities: Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Muslim and Orthodox Jewish. Given the theological and sociological contrasts among these religious groups, the turf she has set out to cover is enormous—and she does a credible job of detailing the differences and similarities in the struggles of women of faith.
The book benefits from Tanenbaum’s engaged stance as both an observant Jewish woman and a feminist. She knows the struggles over women’s ordination in the Jewish denominations, and so understands how such a struggle can be misrepresented by the Catholic Church as a destructive desire for power. She empathizes with Evangelical women who struggle with seemingly antiwoman passages in the Bible and say, “We must take seriously the Scriptures as we find them.” She understands the fights within a mosque about mixed-gender prayer, the dignity of separate spaces for men and women and the commitment implied in a woman’s decision to cover or uncover her hair.
But Tanenbaum did not write this book based on gut feelings. A great deal of reportorial shoe leather went into this volume as well as study of the history of the different religions. We follow the author deep into the Bible Belt to attend a gathering of Evangelical feminists—with her kosher tuna fish and Shabbat candles in tow. She interviews Irshad Manji, the scathing but believing critic of Islam who says slyly that she put the “‘her’ into heretic.” Sometimes the tone becomes more pop journalistic than scholarly, as when the author describes the dress and appearance of her interlocutors.
But in the end, what emerges is a sisterhood of faith—a commonality of concerns among women who shape their lives around very different religious traditions. The overlap of feminist issues among the various faiths makes a good case for focusing interreligious dialogue in this area. Why not begin with what is shared and move on to differences?
How are such women to get their views heard? Tanenbaum’s commonsense suggestions are to educate yourself, speak up to your religious leaders, put your money where your mouth is and support institutions that reflect your values. To these one might add the underlying assumption of the book: Get to know feminists of other faiths, for they may be your best allies. —Roselyn Bell
1. Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen by David Sax.(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24)
2. Louis D. Brandeis: A Life by Melvin Urofsky. (Pantheon, $40)
3. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. (Norton, $14.95, paper)
4. The Israel Test by George Gilder. (Richard Vigilante Books, $27.95)
5. Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose. (Harper, $24.99)
1. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. (St. Martin’s Griffin, $13.95, paper)
3. The Defector by Daniel Silva. (Putnam, $26.95)
4. Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner. (Atria, $26.99)
5. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. (Dutton, $25.95)
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com.
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.