Moses, Herzl and Other Modern Prophets
The inspirational life of Moses and the sheer force of the man’s vision and leadership are front-of-mind these days for Americans, as they always are when times are hard.
At least that’s the premise of Bruce Feiler’s newest book, in which the best-selling author of Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses (HarperCollins) and other works traces the echoes of Moses’ footsteps down the corridor of American history and thought. “[Moses] gives ordinary people the courage to live with uncertainty. He’s a unifying force in fractious times,” he writes.
Feiler is at his best when he is chasing a story—it is the places he goes and people he meets along the way that form the backbones on his books. And he doesn’t disappoint in America’s Prophet. Researching Moses’ impact on American history, Feiler invites us along as he climbs the bell tower where the Liberty Bell was inscribed with a quote from Moses; retraces the Underground Railroad, where “Go Down, Moses” was the national anthem of slaves; and dons the robe Charlton Heston wore in The Ten Commandments.
Feiler makes a compelling case for the impact of Moses’ story on America, much as he did with his 2002 book Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (William Morrow), in which he looked at Abraham’s pivotal role in the world’s great religions. Both men took their people to new heights, both were ostracized from the world they grew up in and both achieved breakthroughs when they were on journeys. But the parallels end there, with Moses’ role as liberator having particular resonance with Americans and their history. In fact, when America finds itself in crisis, Feiler points out—be it the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the civil rights movement or 9/11—the Moses story rekindles hope.
Which is why Feiler chooses to end the book with a prayer for his daughters: “Imagine your own Promised Land, perform your own liberation, plunge into the waters, persevere through the dryness and don’t be surprised—or saddened—if you’re stopped just short of your dream. Because the ultimate lesson of Moses’ life is that the dream does not die with the dreamer, the journey does not end on the mountaintop, and the true destination in a narrative of hope is not this year at all. But next.” —Deborah Fineblum Raub
Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance
by Michael Goldfarb. (Simon & Schuster, 407 pp. $30)
On joining a book club at the age of 15, I received as one of the premiums H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. I read its lengthy account of the “Story of Mankind” straight through. It never crossed my mind that Wells was pushing an agenda or that he was prone to error.
Why does Michael Goldfarb’s Emancipation now remind me of Wells? As his subtitle would have it, Goldfarb presents the “story” of how from the early 18th century liberation of Jews from the ghetto energized much of the course of subsequent European intellectual and social history. How did it come about that the creativity of Jews generated so much in the realms of culture, finance and science? Moreover, Goldfarb wonders, at what price? The author’s organizing principle for his investigation is to view the passing centuries through the prism of the careers of representative Jews, the likes of Moses Mendelssohn, Rahel Varnhagen, Gabriel Riesser, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Theodor Herzl, Alfred Dreyfus, Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud.
With such a cast, it is not surprising that the result makes for absorbing reading, and yet the further we proceed, the more telling become Goldfarb’s deficiencies as a historian. He is, in fact, a seasoned journalist, one adept at mining a variety of sources and yoking disparate elements into a seemingly coherent account. At times, however, the connective tissue is fragile. What is one to make, for example, of “While the Mortara saga flared up…the final steps leading to a unified Germany took place”?
Goldfarb’s extensive bibliography consists almost entirely of works in English. Yet for a reevaluation of the causes and effects of the emancipation, a glance at the figures of represented Jews argues the desirability, if not the necessity, of familiarity with German sources. But this deficiency merely points to the larger problem: Much of Goldfarb’s work is a rehash of familiar stuff that was drawn uncritically from secondary sources. Goldfarb has done his homework but lacks the background to assess the accuracy or biases of his sources. He is prone to drawing reasonable conclusions that don’t quite stand up.
For example, upon pointing out that Herzl was not the first to argue for the necessity of founding of a Jewish State, Goldfarb attributes his success to the fact that “no one from Herzl’s background and with his platform—the august New Free Press—had broached the subject so loudly and clearly.” The clear implication is that Herzl used his column in Vienna’s premier newspaper as a sounding board for the Zionist idea. In fact, the Press’s senior editors, both of them Jewish, made Herzl’s continued employment contingent on his total avoidance of any mention Zionism in his column.
Or again, writing about Marx, Goldfarb says, “In a foreshadowing of the censorship that would be a hallmark of Marxist regimes, he froze [Moses] Hess out of the German-French Yearbook and refused to publish the Communist Rabbi’s article on money.” The implication here is that Marx was small-minded, censorious or both for refusing to publish Hess’s “On the Essence of Money.” Yet the content of Hess’s essay, primarily a critique of Christianity, is extraneous to themes that really mattered to Marx or to material in the rest of the Yearbook.
Overall, then, like The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, Goldfarb’s Emancipation is marred by unreliability and can make little claim to originality—and not a serious work of history. What it is, however, is a breezy and readable popular history from which many readers will learn a great deal about the role Jews played in the past 400 years of European history. —Haim Chertok
The Sonderberg Case by Elie Wiesel. Translated from the French by Catherine Temerson. (Knopf, 178 pp. $25)
Elie Wiesel is a complex writer, turning contradictions into works of art. During a long career, he has succeeded in bringing together a coherent oeuvre that one is tempted to read as one very long novel.
Perhaps no book better illustrates Wiesel’s weaving together of seemingly disparate domains than The Sonderberg Case. In this novel, he treats three arenas that have long kept him in thrall: journalism (the province of the everyday, in which he began his writing career); the theater (a genre in which he has written, the locus of illusion); and the idea of judgment (of God and man, a theme whose focus is more than just crime and punishment).
Yedidyah Wasserman is a failed acting student who has become a theater critic. Married to Alika, an actress, he writes for an American newspaper, has been the cultural correspondent for two European magazines and a reporter for an Israeli newspaper. Older now, and suffering from an undisclosed malady, he tells the story—recounted in alternating first- and third-person narratives—about how he was once called on to cover a trial that literally and literarily changed his life.
The case is that of Werner Sonderberg, a 24-year-old German graduate student of comparative literature who is accused of having murdered his “uncle.” In a novel in which confused identities abound, it turns out that Hans Dunkelman is not Werner’s uncle but his paternal grandfather who, during the Shoah, was a Nazi Party member, an SS officer and a member of the Einsatzgruppen in charge of the annihilation of the Jews. Dunkelman (literally, man of darkness) never repented (unlike Camus’s “judge penitent,” Jean-Baptiste Clamence, to whom Wiesel compares him), but on the contrary was proud of his actions because, “They were Jewish, hence guilty.”
At the trial, Sonderberg pleads both “Guilty and not guilty.” Although he did not actually do the deed, as we learn in what Wiesel terms a coup de théâtre, he did encourage his grandfather to commit suicide.
One good coup de théâtre leads to another in this novel when we learn the narrator’s own real past. It turns out that his own beloved grandfather and the parents who brought him up in middle-class America are not his biological parents; they died in the Shoah; and while his American brother was not his blood he did have a brother murdered in the Shoah, Dovid’l, a name Wasserman unconsciously gave to one of his twin sons born in America. Yedidyah himself was born in the city of Davarowsk (the scene of one of Wiesel’s previous works) and became a child survivor of the Holocaust, saved by a pious gentile maid, Maria, who heroically passed him off to her devout Polish family as her illegitimate son.
While Maria’s story, however exaggeratedly uplifting, is nevertheless believable, there are other episodes that strain credulity, from Alika’s anger at her husband’s abandonment of the theater for the courtroom to the utter weakness of the prosecutor’s cross-examination of Sonderberg. In places, the author becomes, perhaps, overly didactic, but his lucid explanation of the difference between the Western jury system and the way the Sanhedrin functioned (in matters pertaining to unanimous capital-case verdicts) is truly enlightening.
One of the ethical dilemmas posed by this novel is to ask the question “What would I have done under similar circumstances?” Would I have been “guilty,” or not guilty”? Or, because that is the human condition, would I have been a little bit of each? The novel asks the reader to ponder such questions. —Joseph Lowin
Adoring fans of Risa Miller’s debut novel, Welcome to Heavenly Heights (St. Martin’s Press), have waited as long as Jacob between brides—seven whole years—for her second book. But Heights, a lyrical window into the workings of the mind and heart of Tova Zissie, frum Baltimore mom freshly arrived in the West Bank, was so insightful, so moving, so darn good, that like our patriarch, we never gave up hope.
The wait has paid off, but not at all how we had expected. Not only is the newest Miller protagonist nothing remotely like Tova Zissie, Honey Black would avert her eyes behind fashion shades at frumpy Tova Zissie. And while the deeply sensitive earlier protagonist experienced the joys and sorrows of life in Israel, Honey lands in Israel—but with a different agenda. She’s dragged her sister to Jerusalem on a serious mission: to deprogram their newly religious father and his new wife and bring them home to their safely secular life in America. The results: a read that’s equal parts funny and insightful.
Because, as skilled a negotiator as Honey is—and she’s known back in Brookline, Massachusetts, for her razor-like legal mind—she finds herself battling an opponent the likes of which she’s never encountered: the single-minded devotion of the newly religious.
It all started innocently enough a few months prior; Dad and Evelyn were on a vacation in Jerusalem when a stranger stops them at the Kotel and invites them home for a Shabbos meal. In no time, the two were hungrily lapping up everything they could read about Jewish practice and ancient wisdom, observing the Sabbath and feasting on Jerusalem’s menu of learning. Soon they had rented an apartment there, leaving the United States, jobs and family far behind.
None of which sits at all well with Honey, who had already survived enough parental loss after her mother’s battle with breast cancer years earlier.
But whatever arguments the sisters are selling on this rescue mission, their folks are not buying. “I don’t have to be a genius to guess your agenda, something straight out of a deprogramming manual,” says Dad. And when Honey accuses him of joining a cult, he answers, “Sweetie—maybe. But the point is, it’s the oldest cult in the world. And it’s your cult, too.”
Once the sisters have returned home, complicating matters are an injured child, an unwelcome endowment, a gaping values gap between the sisters and a particularly nasty Jew v. Jew case where secular neighbors sue the local day school for illegal expansion. These further test Honey’s own emerging and uneasy sense that maybe there’s something to this soul business after all. Anyone familiar with Brookline (Miller’s current home) will chuckle at her thinly veiled local Jewish landmarks.
Miller delineates human complexities with a few deft strokes, creating secondary cameos both layered and unforgettable. Her novels are like a room full of mirrors, with each character reflecting a different aspect of our own selves. Worth the price of admission alone: sister Susan’s mother-in-law, an air-kissing dowager seafood queen who, critiquing the restaurant’s newest shrimp sauce, slices through her daughter-in-law’s heart with a lift of a plucked eyebrow.
In the end, it’s Dad who hits on the definition of ba’al teshuva, one he prefers over Honey’s “born-again Jew”: “It’s that my eternal soul was always there,” he says. “And I returned to find it.”
Because Miller’s gift is to create real people, not stereotypes who might make for a louder laugh track, in the end you hate to bid good-bye to Honey and Dad and Evelyn and, yes, even to Susan who, from her windowless office in the seafood restaurant, gives Honey—and us—the deepest, sweetest healing of all.
From her sister, and from the wisdom found within the chambers of her own heart, Honey learns, well, I won’t tell you exactly what she learns. Give yourself the gift of this book and find out for yourself. —D.F.R.