Fall and Redemption
Rich Boy, Sharon Pomerantz’s debut novel, exemplifies book publisher Twelve’s mission to bring out only 12 books a year that “explain our culture,” works that “illuminate, inspire, provoke and entertain” and around which “communities of conversation” can be established. A big book rich in themes about identity, family, class, ambition, love, the seductions of wealth and growing up Jewish—but not too Jewish—in the 1960s and 1970s, Rich Boy will likely prompt discussion, even debate.
The title character is Robert Vishniak, from Oxford Circle, a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia. Thanks to Robert’s good looks, intelligence and cleverness, he finds he can seduce gorgeous girls and escape from his family, particularly his dour, unaffectionate, obsessively thrifty mother, whose mantra is “You have to make money.” She saves birthday cards to be reused. Her plodding, no-nonsense husband, a mailman, does the best he can, until he falls ill.
Robert rises on his own industry and merit. He works menial jobs, drives a cab and does well in school. Coming of age in the heady days of drugs and politics (he flirts with drugs; his brother winds up dealing them), he doesn’t want to save the world, he only wants to save himself. But though he wants to make money, he also desires to “do right.” Incompatible goals? He doesn’t think so. A scholarship student at Tufts University, in the Boston area, he falls in with a WASP crowd and his roommate initiates him into the high life. Then he spies the beautiful Gwendolyn Smythe, a Brit, at a student protest demonstration and falls in love. She has money, a great apartment in Boston and a big heart, but she is erratic in ways he doesn’t question. The relationship will take a tragic turn that will haunt him forever.
Robert becomes a wealthy corporate lawyer, thanks in part to the attentions of sleek Crea Alexander, the super-rich, only child of the founding partner of a prestigious law firm. Life swings between Park Avenue and Tuxedo Park, a New York suburb. Without being even marginally observant, Robert does not hide his Jewishness, even as he is uneasy about introducing his social- register friends to his parents and relatives. He bristles, however, when Crea reluctantly admits her Jewish “heritage,” a word that for Robert signals a “sloppy crossover” from blood to denial.
In time, Robert becomes a man “of a certain age who dressed meticulously and reeked of affluence.” Of course, something is going to crack, and it does, but not just in the form of the late 1980s stock market crash. It also comes in the form of a chance encounter with a young woman who shines shoes for the associates in his law firm, Sally Johannson (née Jacobson), a wannabe actress who, coincidentally, is from his old neighborhood. It’s only when Robert returns to Oxford Circle to work out arrangements for his mother’s funeral, however, that he realizes that she knew “there is only the world we make for ourselves, our own private heavens and hells.”
Pomerantz invokes F. Scott Fitzgerald for an epigraph, but Rich Boy, though panoramic, is less about the universal American dream than it is about one man’s striving, success, fall and possible redemption, but it is no less compelling for that. —Joan Baum
Blooms of Darkness: A Novel
by Aharon Appelfeld. Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey A. Green. (Schocken, 279 pp. $25.95)
It is no secret that Aharon Appelfeld has mined his life for his literature, turning many of his harrowing experiences during the Holocaust into masterful works of fiction. The 11-year-old Appelfeld escaped from a Nazi concentration camp, then roamed the Ukrainian countryside, surviving by his considerable wits. In this current novel, the author tells the story of Hugo Mansfeld, an 11-year-old Jewish boy, and his survival in a dank, dreary closet annexed to a bordello boudoir.
Hugo’s family was moved to a ghetto created during the years of the Nazi war. His mother, Julia, fearing liquidation of the ghetto and transportation to a concentration camp, desperately sought a gentile farmer “in the mountains” who would hide her beloved son for the duration of the war. Failing that, she falls back on a former schoolmate, a prostitute who, she says, has “fallen on hard times.”
Mariana lives in a brothel with 16 other “girls” and is called to ply her trade with Ukrainian brutes and no-less brutal German soldiers. Mariana is one of Appelfeld’s most complex characters, in whom we find both simplicity and theological insights, passive acceptance of her fate mingled with a sense of independence and a love of purity balanced by an even stronger penchant for dissolution. Despite her taste for brandy, in sheltering Hugo, Mariana is only slightly less saintly than Hugo’s mother, who generously helped the clients of the family pharmacy. Her worldview is in keeping with a favorite Appelfeld theme: a fallen Christian woman’s devotion to Jews.
The central character of Blooms of Darkness, however, is Hugo, who Mariana initiates into the art of love. On a deeper level, the novel is about what Appelfeld subtly presents as a Jewish value—self-restraint and the difficulty human beings have in containing their basic urges. Unsurprisingly, the biblical story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house finds its place in the narrative.
Before leaving him, Julia admonishes her innocent son not to ask too many questions about his new environment. He is often unable to fulfill his promise. Still, Hugo formulates in his mind questions he will not utter, having learned to restrain his speech. Appelfeld avers approvingly that silence “is a difficult language, but as soon as one adopts it, no other language will be as effective.”
Appelfeld does not take the same care to restrain Hugo’s sexual urges. He and Mariana escape into the Ukrainian countryside and there they live an idyllic, pastoral life devoted to the pleasures of the senses.
A strapping 12-year-old by now, tall and strong beyond his years and on the verge of becoming a man, Hugo happily falls into Mariana’s arms. While nothing in the official record of Appelfeld’s life would lead one to conclude that he is mining his own life here, he nevertheless does, in describing such interesting characters and in presenting the drama of their lives, create a poignant, appealing work of art.
And isn’t that the point? —Joseph Lowin
Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century
by Ruth Harris. (Metropolitan Books, 560 pp. $35)
In the 1890s, the Dreyfus Affair tore at the very fabric of Republican France, raising the question of whether Jews would ever be truly welcome in Europe and reinforcing the notion that modern European history and the Jewish question are inextricably linked. More than 100 years after his exoneration, the story of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French officer who was wrongly convicted—framed, really, by the army’s leadership—of spying for Germany and sentenced to five years of solitary imprisonment on Devil’s Island, continues to fascinate. A year after author Louis Begley gave us Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters (Yale University Press), Ruth Harris, a historian at Oxford University, has written the more exhaustive Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century .
Harris writes that her introduction to l’affaire came as a student in a suburban Philadelphia Hebrew school. Her teacher imparted two lessons. First, that Theodor Herzl’s witness of the anti-Semitism aroused by the trial led him to launch political Zionism. Second, that many virtuous French citizens, most notably the novelist Emile Zola, stood alongside Dreyfus and the Jewish community against the anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards. Harris set out to tell a far more layered tale—one of a trial galvanizing a country and, for its participants, becoming symbols for larger social, historical and religious debates. For the most part, Harris succeeds in this weighty endeavor.
The author does an admirable job of explaining the motives of a loose coalition of Catholics, political conservatives, army officers and others who lobbied against Dreyfus even after it became clear that another man, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, was the culprit. Surely anti-Semitism was part of the mood, but so were real fears that both the Catholic Church and the army, the only institutions remaining from the prerevolutionary monarchy, were waning in influence, losing ground to secularism.
But the book is at its best in examining the Dreyfusards themselves and—surprise, surprise—many influential advocates bore deep anti-Semitism of their own. Most fascinating is the rendering of the schism that took place after Dreyfus’s official pardon in 1899. Many supporters seemed more concerned about Dreyfus the symbol than Dreyfus the man and viewed his abandonment of further legal action as a betrayal of their larger societal aims.
In an attempt to show how the affair affected a wide array of French society, the book at times feels too exhaustive; introducing the many characters slows down the narrative. There are plenty of journalists and salon women plucked from obscurity, but too few details on the involvement of famous artists and writers such as Pierre Auguste Renoir and Marcel Proust.
Then there’s Herzl—after the brief mention in the preface, his name never comes up again. True, whole books have postulated on the cause of Herzl’s embrace of Zionism and whether it really did come like a vision in 1895. Surely the relationship between the affair and the creation of a movement for a Jewish state is part of the complex story. But, had there not been a Dreyfus Affair, there might not have been a Jewish state. —Bryan Schwartzman
Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation
by Martin Fletcher. (Thomas Dunne Books, 290 pp. $25.99)
In Breaking News: A Stunning and Memorable Account of Reporting from Some of the Most Dangerous Places in the World (Thomas Dunne Books), Martin Fletcher, veteran NBC TV foreign correspondent, revealed an off-camera side of himself, that of a Jew and son of Holocaust refugees who traveled into the world’s hellholes and considered revealing the truth about oppression and tyranny to be a sacred duty. Dispatched to Israel just before the Yom Kippur War, Fletcher found a home there and raised a family.
In Walking Israel, Fletcher focuses on the history of his adopted land—not on West Bank and Gaza hotbeds and disputed Jerusalem but on the 100-mile coastline, from Rosh Hanikra at the border with Lebanon in the north to the southern border with Gaza. During a protracted stroll over several months in 2008, he found places off the beaten track and explored aspects of common destinations hidden from view.
He interviews an Arab who converted to Orthodox Judaism; a man who rescued his kibbutz from financial ruin; a bigoted Russian émigré; a former Israeli commando who now trains young recruits before they enlist to help them get into elite units; and a beach bum-turned-potentate of sorts named Eli Avivi, founder of the “independent state” of Achzivland established on the ruins of a former Arab village, who operates a museum and tourist attraction there.
Fletcher is a rogue storyteller, a master of self-deprecation, chronicling his theft of an artifact from Avivi’s museum and his near heart attack from too much hiking as well as his own bemusement and fascination with Israel’s many contradictions. “Ambivalent as I am about the country Jews have forged, I do respect the people who created it,” he writes. “Where else would a car driver knock you down, curse you and then drive you to the hospital, comparing notes on mutual friends?… And where else would a group of strangers break the ice not by discussing last night’s TV program or discussing the latest news but by posing the question, ‘So how did your family survive the Holocaust?’” —Adam Dickter
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978
by Kai Bird. (Scribner, 448 pp. $30)
Kai Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian, did not grow up intending to be a Middle East expert. The son of an American Foreign Service officer, Bird was 4 years old when his family settled in Jerusalem a few weeks before the 1956 Suez War. Each day on his way to school, young Kai (named for a Chinese friend) was driven through the heavily guarded Mandelbaum Gate checkpoint, from Jordanian East Jerusalem to Israeli West Jerusalem. The gate, demolished when Israel conquered the city in 1967, lingers in his memory as a symbol of the city’s former isolation.
Bird’s coming-of-age memoir provides a front-row seat to the tumultuous decades of strife and counter-strife as he saw it from his father’s postings in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, later, from his own experiences in Lebanon. Blending personal encounters, letters that his parents exchanged, his own formidable intellectual curiosity and extensive interviews with influential Arabs and Israelis, Bird offers historical background on the tribes and families that constitute the power structure in the Arab countries. Bird’s prose, flat and journalistic, can be heavy going. But his anecdotes and offhand recollections are interesting.
What gives Bird’s story particular resonance and makes it come alive occurs late in the work, when he discusses his marriage to a Jewish woman, the only child of Holocaust survivors, and when his in-laws relate wartime tales that are both harrowing and fascinating. This chapter is a counterweight to discussions of life among Americans working for Aramco, the oil giant, in Saudi Arabia; Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom Bird treats benignly; and the airplane hijackings of Black September in 1970. The Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled, a mastermind in the hijackings, gets almost star status.
Bird brings in diverse recollections—from Sari Nusseibeh, president of Jerusalem’s Al-Quds University; Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency; and Hillel Kook, an Israeli who confronted the United States about rescuing Europe’s Jews and then battled to keep Israel secular. From these disparate perches he tries to provide understanding and parameters for a Middle East peace formula. He dedicates the book to his son, who is being raised Jewish and “who will invent his own identities.”
Bird, who acknowledges he may be naïve, says he longs for peace. In these troubled times, however, as each day seems to bring another challenge to Israel and its survival, it is too bad that Bird has little room for a discussion of Israel’s mighty accomplishments and its role as the sole bastion of democracy in the Middle East. —Stewart Kampel
Capital City: The Peaceful Side
Photographs by Marcelo Bendahan. Text by Heidi Gleit. (Maestro Books,176 pp. $50)
This large volume is a bright bouquet, an homage to the diverse peoples, architecture and history of Jerusalem. Two hundred images illuminate the old and familiar but also offer surprises. Photographer Marcelo Bendahan captures the stone steps in an alley: first, under the blistering early sun and then again in the shade of afternoon—and yet it does not look like the same place. The short descriptive texts, in English and Spanish, give basic history, such as how the Dome of the Rock got its name, when it was built and what happened there. A night shot reveals its golden brilliance against the darkened sky.
There are photos of churches and pilgrims; ancient gates, from Jaffa to Damascus, give up their stories, with peddlers and street theater outside and the souk inside. There is the Armenian Quarter; rooftop views that expand to the Hebrew University; hallowed burial sites; national days of mourning and public celebrations of Israel’s Independence Day, Sukkot and Purim.
Such pictures of Jerusalem allow us to simply appreciate its multifaceted beauty. —Zelda Shluker