Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority by Sue Fishkoff. (Schocken Books, 364 pp. $27.95) After reading this book you may feel knowledgeable enough to begin poking around in the pots and pans of restaurants and catering halls to spot-check kashrut, so extensive is Sue Fishkoff’s research into its history and halakhot and how it has evolved into a $13-billion industry in the United States. This is in spite of the fact that kosher-observant Jews are but a tiny portion of the United States population and an equally small share of the kosher consumer base.In an age of increasing distrust of big corporations and their quality standards, kosher supervision has broad appeal. Vegetarians, Muslims and people with food allergies or lactose intolerance want assurance that someone is checking ingredients for meat products, pork derivatives, dairy or nuts. And many consumers simply think of food inspected by rabbis as higher quality, in large part because of the successful 1970s Hebrew National beef campaign that put the words “we answer to a higher authority” into the lexicon.Fishkoff has covered all the bases, introducing the reader to major players among the kosher supervising agencies, of which the Orthodox Union reigns supreme, as well as the smallest players—kashrut supervisors, kosher vintners, retailers, caterers and consumers.
We learn not only who is doing the work behind the scenes but the challenges they face, ensuring that grape essence is flash pasteurized at just the right temperature to be considered mevushal (cooked) for kosher grape juice or wine, checking lettuce on a light box for signs of nearly microscopic insects, inspecting the lungs of slaughtered cows for blemishes that render meat non-glatt and, when necessary, removing certification.
A correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Fishkoff traveled from China, where there is a boom in low-cost but difficult-to-supervise food-production plants, to wine-growing Napa Valley to the Kosherfest trade show at Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey.
She also went to Postville, Iowa, home of the largest kosher meatpacking plant in America, Agriprocessors, and site of perhaps the kosher industry’s worst scandal when the plant was hit with the biggest immigration raid in American history and its top executive was convicted of fraud charges. Included is a rare interview with the company’s founder, Aaron Rubashkin, who grew the meat empire from a small butcher shop in Brooklyn.
Some of the book’s tales—how the Oreo cookie became kosher, the legal assault on kosher enforcement laws in New York and New Jersey or the violent wars over kosher meat production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to government involvement—are worthy of books in their own right. Fishkoff pulls no punches, presenting the good, the bad and the ugly of the kosher world, including corrupt players who put profit ahead of religious principle and criticism that kosher laws are intended to impose separation not only of meat from dairy, clean animals from unclean, but Jews from gentiles.
Fishkoff also delves into the competition between certifying agencies that one senses is more heated than portrayed, given the stakes involved. But the overall tone of Kosher Nation is a tribute to how, warts and all, observance of and devotion to an ancient ritual has evolved in an age of modern technology and mindsets. —Adam Dickter
The subtitle of Joseph Telushkin’s fascinating volume, taken from one of the most well known of Hillel’s sayings, announces right from the start that this isn’t really meant to be a book about the Jewish past at all. Instead, Telushkin convincingly argues that the teachings and message of a religious scholar who lived in the first century B.C.E.—perhaps the best-known figure in the Talmud—has much to teach us about our own Jewish present and future.
Hillel is part of Nextbook’s ambitious Jewish Encounters series of more than 30 books on major figures or concepts in Jewish life. Several of the biographies have felt weighed down by the sheer amount of information available to the author, and the difficulty of condensing it to a shorter format, generally limited to about 300 pages. But, in Hillel, Telushkin has chosen a figure about whom tradition and historical scholarship have handed down only the scantiest biographical details. After piecing together an incomplete portrait of Hillel the man, Telushkin appears liberated to focus on Hillel’s ideas and attributes, including his legendary patience.
Rendering the often arcane argumentations of the Talmud in clear, lively prose, the author discusses Hillel’s emphasis on ethical behavior and concern with how laws affect lives in the real world. He also juxtaposes Hillel’s essentially moderate worldview with the far more radical approach of his near contemporary, Jesus of Nazareth. And while Telushkin clearly admires his subject, he does point out that Hillel’s rival, Shamai—known for his strict adherence to the law—actually rendered several rulings regarding the status of women that may have been more enlightened than Hillel’s.
The book’s most hot button issue revolves around conversion. As three Talmudic stories show, Hillel, in stark contrast to Shamai, was exceedingly open to non-Jews exploring and converting to Judaism. While Hillel was certainly concerned with the legalistic and ritualistic aspects of Judaism, he often placed a premium on ethical behavior and looked at whether laws worked the way they were intended. Telushkin’s thesis is that while in the Talmud Hillel wins out over Shamai—who once chased away a potential convert with a stick—Hillel has lost in history. Traditionally, rabbis have discouraged converts and insisted on a lengthy and difficult conversion process.
Telushkin argues that not only is Hillel’s openness the morally correct approach, it is one that is in the self-interest of the Jewish people today. With the Jewish population of both Israel and the United States facing serious demographic challenges—and the masses of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union who aren’t Jewish according to halakha but want to be part of the Jewish people—potential converts represent an enormous untapped wellspring. And, Telushkin notes, the ranks of potential Jews by choice may include a future Hillel for the contemporary age.
The author warns, quite correctly, that Jewish continuity may depend, at least in part, on the degree to which Hillel’s legacy is embraced and interpreted 2,000 years after his death. —Bryan Schwartzman
The title of this book says it all: The destruction of 6 million lives during the Holocaust may have been the greatest evil perpetrated by the Nazis, but the collateral damage of history’s greatest art heist remains, for the most part, without any remediation.
The glorious golden cover image—a detail of Gustav Klimt’s Adele-Bloch-Bauer I, 1907—promises a feast of beauty inside. And many famous works are included, from Camille Pissarro’s masterpiece Rue Saint-Honoré: Afternoon, Rain Effect to Max Pechstein’s watercolor self-portrait. The latter was one of the first drawn in the guest book of collectors Alfred and Tekla Hess, whose home in Thuringia became a gathering place for avant-garde artists.
Most of the works belonging to the 15 important collectors and dealers described in Lost Liveswere either confiscated by the Nazis or bought well below value in forced sales—with the money often placed in blocked bank accounts so that the payments eventually went into the Reich’s coffers.
When there are recoveries of art works—as in the case of the Klimt in 2004 or parts of Jacques Goudstikker’s 1,200-piece collection beginning in 2005—they are rare indeed. Restitution is difficult because most of the works are being held beneath the radar; others are in the holdings of state museums in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Austria, which have no inclination to return the masterpieces. It was only after 48 countries signed the “Washington Principles” in December 1998 that owners and heirs of stolen works were encouraged to put forth claims. Despite the new international pressure, the road to restitution remains difficult and the burden rests on the claimants. —Zelda Shluker Fiction
Postwar American literature made a place for two groups who, the argument went, were uniquely positioned to see American culture from an outsider’s perspective: the sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants and, as they were known then, Negroes. Much has changed since the days of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1953) and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953); now, the mantle of outsider has passed to Gary Shteyngart, the Russian Jewish immigrant who lit up the literary skyline with his novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (Riverhead Books) andAbsurdistan (Random House).
Shteyngart’s latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, has the same high-octane prose as his earlier work but, this time, satire shares space with tenderness. The result is a novel that chronicles the steady decline of the American economy and culture as well as the slow, steady progress that love makes in imaginary, slightly futuristic conditions.
Lenny Abramov has the look and feel of a typical Shteyngart protagonist: He is soulful and self-deprecating, aging badly (he is in his forties) and worried about the constant toll that entropy takes. His love interest, the Isolde to his Tristan, is Eunice Park, the twenty-something daughter of Korean immigrants. Both families have high expectations for their offspring, and both children are keenly, depressingly aware of this.
Shteyngart’s would-be lovers contend in a world with way too much information about dollars that are now pegged to Chinese currency, a seemingly endless war in Venezuela and the thoughts and conversations live-streamed through apparats hanging around people’s necks like iPods.
Shteyngart’s portrait of postcontemporary America is simultaneously dark and funny. What tempers these visions (thankfully) is the love story that brings Lenny and Eunice together. As Lenny puts it, he has “an inbred Jewish willingness to laugh at myself,” while Eunice has all the baggage that comes with being a Korean child of overly protective Korean parents. On one subway trip with Lenny, Eunice wore “a sky-blue blouse with a Peter Pan collar and white buttons, pleated wool skirt reaching down below her knees, a black ribbon tied around the neck—from certain angles she looked like one of the Orthodox Jewish women who have overrun my building.” One of Shteyngart’s points seems to be that there is no difference between Jewish sons and Korean daughters.
As this unlikely couple communicate with each other via diary entries, e-mail and text messages, we begin to believe some old truths nestled inside an up-to-date technological nightmare—namely, that a case can still be made for humanity (Lenny prefers books, especially the Russian classics, to whatever his apparat streams) and for love itself.
Shteyngart writes with brio, and with heart. With Super Sad True Love Story he emerges not as a writer to watch but as a major writer, period. —Sanford Pinsker
As Sam Finkler would have it, “Talking feverishy about being Jewish was being Jewish.” Finkler should know, not only because his very name is embedded in the book’s title (for “Jewish,” his gentile friend insisted on saying “Finklerish”), but more important because “talking” about being Jewish—or not being Jewish—is what Howard Jacobson’s comic novel is about.
Jacobson came to wide attention in 2006 with Kalooki Nights (Simon & Schuster), a fall-down funny novel about growing up Jewish in London. The Finkler Question also piles one gag on another—but in the process provides running commentaries on Zionism (and anti-Zionism), a gentile character who yearns to be Jewish and Jewish characters so ashamed of their Jewishness (because of the way Israel mistreats the Palestinians) that they form an organization of ASHamed Jews.
At the center of The Finkler Question is Sam, a philosopher who writes kitschy best sellers with titles such as The Existentialist in the Kitchen; his boyhood friend, Julian Treslove, a gentile who once worked for the BBC; and their childhood history teacher, Libor Sevcik, a 90-year-old Czech émigré. Both Finkler and Sevcik have been recently widowed, and on a mournful evening they meet to remember and to commiserate. Julian leaves first and is promptly mugged by a female assailant. As Julian, stripped of his watch and cell phone, remembers the incident, his attacker had asked for his jewels, or maybe she was calling him by the nickname “Jules” or maybe, just maybe, she was saying “Jew.” This last possibility, announced early in the novel, is repeated again and again; it sticks in his craw (or maybe, in his heart) as Julian spends the rest of the novel as a wannabe Jew.
In fiction, the usual condition of Jewish characters is that they desperately want to shed everything associated with their Old World past to assimilate into the larger non-Jewish culture. Sometimes—as in the case of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant—a gentile converts to Judaism. Morris Bober, Malamud’s long-suffering grocer, becomes a role model for his assistant, Frankie. After Morris dies, Frankie not only takes over the store, he also becomes a Jew, circumcision and all.
By contrast, Jacobson plays Julian’s would-be Jewishness for laughs. In a world where anti-Semites are omnipresent (they wrap bacon strips around the ram’s horn doorknobs of an Anglo-Jewish museum), there is no need to belabor the point. Jacobson’s characters haven’t the foggiest clue about what it means to be authentic Jews. They neither study nor do they pray, much less do they observe the commandments. Instead, they make jokes and do shtick in ways designed to make non-Jews uncomfortable.
The Finkler Question won the Man Booker Prize. When Kalooki Nights was published, book reviewers (rightly) equated Jacobson with Philip Roth. They could also have mentioned Woody Allen, because Jacobson’s neurotic sad sacks remind us of the typical Allen protagonist. Jacobson, however, is not amused by these connections and insists that regarding him in the same breath with Jane Austen makes more sense (and sensibility). I assume he said this with tongue firmly in cheek because, good as Jacobson is, he is no Jane Austen.
Still, The Finkler Question makes for a wonderful read, especially for those willing to give funny, thoroughly secular Jews their due. —S.P.
Nemesis by Philip Roth. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp. $26 cloth, $15 paper)
Eugene (“Bucky”) Cantor is the unlikely protagonist of Philip Roth’s latest novella, Nemesis , an account of the fear and trembling that the polio outbreak of July 1944 occasioned in Newark, New Jersey. Cantor seems out of place in the Roth canon because he is respectful, disciplined and an altogether dutiful 23-year-old—unlike the wisecracking, sex-crazed Roth characters we are used to.
Cantor is a physical education instructor, and during the stifling summer in question, he is a dedicated, caring playground supervisor. He is there because his Coke-bottle glasses have kept him out of the war. But if his eyesight is terrible, his manly physique is not: He has thick arms and “the cast-iron, wear-resistant, strikingly bold face of a sturdy young man you could count on.”
We can easily imagine him carrying the world on his broad shoulders.
When a gang of Italian toughs invades his playground, threatening to spread polio germs from their side of town, Cantor faces them down and defuses a scary situation. He is, in short, the stuff of legend, at least to the boys who witnessed his bravery.
Cantor attributes his no-nonsense approach to his immigrant grandfather who preached a gospel of Jewish fearlessness. Unfortunately, the oppressive heat and mounting number of polio cases spreading across Newark make cool logic impossible. When several boys on Bucky’s playground come down with polio, Cantor is not the only Newark citizen who blames God. And when the Jewish section of Weequahic suffers a spike in cases, anti-Semites are quick to blame the Jews.
Cantor is a first-class worrier, and the polio epidemic adds to his tsuris. Earlier, he felt guilty about his 4-F draft status, now he feels guilty as his girlfriend begs him to quit his job and join her in the safety of a Jewish summer camp in the Poconos. After much anguish, Bucky complies. Ironically, the Newark playgrounds are shut down a few days later.
But polio—and guilt—follows. Several Pocono campers get polio and Bucky himself comes down with the disease. After an extended stint in the hospital, Bucky will have a bum leg and a bad hand for the rest of his life. At this point, Nemesis turns into three-hanky melodrama as Bucky’s girlfriend urges him to follow up on his engagement proposal and Bucky insists she will be better off marrying somebody else.
Flash forward some 30 years as one of the boys on Bucky’s playground takes up the narrative. He had barely recognized the sad, lonely man Bucky turned into. He sees him as his own “nemesis,” largely because he had always been “…articulate enough but with barely a trace of wit, who never in his life had spoken sarcastically or with irony, who rarely cracked a joke or spoke in jest.”
Nobody writes about Newark Jews with more authority than Roth. And Bucky Cantor is an unusual—and interesting—protagonist, making Nemesis a successful, engrossing novella. —S.P.