Freedom—What Does It Mean?
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pp. $26)
In 1980, when David Bezmozgis was 7, he and his family moved from Riga to Toronto. Twenty-four years later, he would garner plaudits for Natasha And Other Stories (Picador), his debut collection, which in measured prose records comic, wounding steps and winding missteps experienced by Soviet émigrés struggling to make sense of a new reality and a success of their transformation into Canadians.
With the appearance of The Free World, Bezmozgis backs up to the harsh, transitional zone of 1990s Rome, when it served as a holding pen for those Jews who, rather than making a straightforward passage to Israel with its straitened economy, opt instead to flail about in prolonged émigré status in hopes of winning a greater prize: Chicago, Toronto or Melbourne, where freedom translates into access to material success. The title Bezmozgis affixes to his first novel is, therefore, principally ironic.
The book’s protagonists are the Family Krasnansky: brothers Alec and Karl; parents Samuil and Emma; Karl’s wife, Rosa, and their two kids; and Alec’s non-Jewish wife, Polina. Only three, however, are closely observed—Alec, Samuil and Polina. Alec is easygoing and unfocused. When he should have been helping Karl hoist the family’s luggage onto the train from Vienna to Rome, he is utterly distracted by two young women tourists, one voluptuous, the other petite. In the lingo of Saul Bellow, “he’s a chaser.”
In fact, the brothers are reminiscent of Bellow’s Augie and Simon March. Both Simon and Karl are dazzled by the prospect of big money; they are go-getters who quickly learn the ropes in a new and knotty land. In contrast, Augie and Alec are feckless charmers, Huck Finns prone to getting waylaid by fate and stuck waist deep in the Big Muddy.
Polina, who was living a respectable if dreary life as a young Soviet wife and factory worker in Riga, succumbed to Alec’s advances because he represented escape from constraint, and we admire her pluck if not her judgment. Nevertheless, she adjusts uneasily to the rigors of Jewish family life in an Italian milieu, and though her fate remains intertwined with Alec’s during their Roman sojourn, it is dubious whether their marriage will survive the opportunities afforded by Toronto.
Surprisingly, the most sympathetic portrayal is of Samuil, for most of his adult life a fully committed Communist who fought valiantly against the White Army in 1917 and later against the Nazis, mementos of which times he treasures but which he correctly senses are irrelevant to life in the free world. On losing his job and status in Riga, he had little choice but to join his sons, but emigration has left him adrift and assimilation to the West impossible.
The novel’s thematic core, however, may be embodied by Lyova, a good-natured emigrant who rents Alec and Polina a room. Twice over a refugee (first from the former Soviet Union, then from Israel), he now hopes against hope to land on his feet in Australia and holds fast to the idea of being “a free man in a free world.” Not “the” free world, but a more modest formulation, one that does not rub against the grain of personal experience in the wrong way.
The humor in The Free World is charged with the sullenness of Russian sensibility, an acerbic temperament that characteristically reflects the glass half empty. The novel’s pace is sure-footed and wrought with care. Still, The Free Worlddoes not measure up to the radiance of Natasha. —Haim Chertok
You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren. (Two Dollar Radio, 181 pp. $16)
“Neugeboren” is the Yiddish word for “newly born.” When referring to writer Jay Neugeboren, it can also mean born again, because in the past several years he has written poetry, completed a play, is hard at work on a new novel and, in You Are My Heart, has produced yet another collection of engagingly crafted fiction.
The 11 stories make it clear that you can take the boy out of Brooklyn but not Brooklyn out of the boy. Whether set in secluded villages in France, a cattle crawl in South Africa or a reimagined Brooklyn childhood, Neugeboren’s stories have a quiet intensity that resonates long after the final paragraph. For example, in the long title story, the protagonist-narrator relates a coming-of-age tale about his crush on the black sister of his best friend, a talented member of the high school basketball team. As the couple become lovers—and “go public” by holding hands in the hallways—Neugeboren’s protagonist first hears the words, “You are my heart.”
Curiously enough, what wrecks the relationship is not social pressure from his Jewish parents or her black ones or even the taboos of the 1950s but, rather, the tensions that arise when the girl’s brother refuses to consider the coach’s advice that he attend a black college after graduation. His high principles are more than met by those of Neugeboren’s now older narrator who relates how
deep their respective costs were:
Olen [his black friend] didn’t go to college the following fall, and as far as I know he never went. But Karen did. In September, 1955, when I went off to college—Hamilton College, in upstate New York, where, even though I stuck to my word and didn’t play for Mr. Ordover during my senior year at Erasmus, I was able to make the Hamilton team and became its starting point guard my junior year—Karen took a job as secretary for a toy manufacturer in downtown Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, the narrator’s life takes on a conventional trajectory: In 1965, he meets a nice Jewish girl, marries her and has nice Jewish children. But every year, they make their way to New Orleans for Jazzfest, where he seeks out the gospel tent and listens to the music he first heard when he sang with Karen in her black church choir.
Another story, “The State of Israel” (first published in Hadassah Magazine), seems at first like a heartfelt discussion between a doctor of Middle Eastern origin and his Jewish patient, Ira, who is recovering from eye surgery. Groggy from the anesthesia, Ira has no choice but to listen as Dr. Chehade praises the Jewish people for their “great respect for learning” and follows that comment with a laundry list of its “traditions in charity, justice, and hospitality,” only to pull Ira (and readers) up short with his terse comment that shows his deeper feelings about the State of Israel.
You Are My Heart makes it clear that Neugeboren, now in his seventies, is still very much at the top of his game. —Sanford Pinsker
Panorama by H.G. Adler. Translated from German by Peter Filkins. (Random House, 450 pp. $26)
The appearance of H.G. Adler’s novel, Panorama, makes clear that the work of reading and imagining the Holocaust is not finished, even though his novel arrives late on the scene. Poet, novelist, scholar, with a seemingly unlimited capacity for detail, he is an unblinking witness and an extraordinary writer. His mental (and, at great risk, occasionally written-down) note-taking began in Theresienstadt, continued in Auschwitz and then through two labor camps.
Panorama begins with the visit of young Josef to a panorama exhibit with his grandmother in Prague. The little boy is full of astonished delight, not suspecting that years later it will provide him with a metaphor for the horrors of the camps:
The two peepholes are there so that you see everything just the way it really looks, and everything is enlarged…. Thus the world you normally live in is turned off, and has in fact passed away.
The novel takes us through Josef’s boyhood, school and work years. (When he is deported to Theresienstadt with his family, Adler and his wife, Gertrud, voluntarily go to Auschwitz with his mother-in-law so that she will not be alone. His wife then accompanies her mother to the gas chamber for the same reason.)
Adler’s stream of consciousness style brings this material to astonishing immediacy, and then intensifies as Josef gets to the camps. There, weirdly unconnected images, as if seen through a two-holed viewer, a “panorama,” convey the Holocaust world. Here is a description of a day in the life of “the lost,” as Josef calls camp prisoners:
Then the lost ones must scramble past the barricade and out again, but they must always be at the ready, which is why they have been ordered to rest in such a disastrous manner, there never being any quiet to be had, while above all they must not walk along the streets of the camp, for this is exceptionally dangerous, there collaborators on patrol will beat them, but no one is safe in the huts, either, the section elder could be in a bad mood, ordering the lost ones to clean up the place and going after them with brooms, sticks, clubs, and horsewhips, while helping out with the task is the section elder’s messenger, a 14-year-old darling who is fat and has rosy cheeks.
Born in Prague to a Jewish German-speaking family some years after Franz Kafka, Adler daringly implies that the severities of a German-influenced culture can resemble those of the camps. This is shocking only if one makes the mistake of thinking that comparing the harsh disciplines of school, home or work with the cruelties of the Holocaust diminishes the suffering in the camps. What Adler tells us is that all cruelty operates in the same fashion on the suffering human spirit.
Adler’s use of stream of consciousness seems to sweep as many details, time frames and memories as possible into a single sentence, and conveys with tremendous power a world that is shattered into pieces yet must be endured by a single consciousness.
Adler’s method at first conveys the child’s stunned perception of the incomprehensible details of his life and, later, in the camps, of the thousand threatening details about which nothing can be done or understood, witnessed in a place from which meaning has vanished.
Only the proliferation of perceptions and the art that conveys them make the victim’s eyewitness bearable.
With piercingly quiet irony, Adler notes, “At the end of the day there is often one missing…everyone having to look…while…the accomplices and henchmen kill him on the spot, this being the home of unhappiness….”
Adler’s contemporary, philosopher Theodore Adorno, famously said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, implying that it was morally wrong to impose design and order on that bestial madness. In his art, Adler, whose last defense in the camps was the “ability to know,” struggles against Adorno’s theory.
In his introduction, Peter Filkins, Adler’s translator, wonders how Adler’s “noble stoicism” could be any match for the continual annihilation of the camps. Though beyond our comprehension, part of Adler’s “readiness to accept whatever might happen” allowed him to make use of the panorama of his astonished boyhood experience to convey the astonished horror of the camps: “Another world is risen,” he writes, “which neither reading nor studying nor even dreams can manifest.”
The final meditation of the novel reads like an attempt to master a delirium of pain through philosophic affirmation of what is: “the magic trick through which [Josef] heedlessly identifies reality with what happens, on which his own existence seems to depend.” It reminds the reader of the Kaddish that praises God at the moment of greatest human despair. —Norma Rosen
Dina’s Lost Tribe: A Novel by Brigitte Goldstein. (iUniverse, 402 pp. $22.95)
Although rich in historical lore and epic in its sweep of time and place, Dina’s Lost Tribe by historian and translator Brigitte Goldstein does not rise much above a familiar contrivance in historical fiction: the discovery of a centuries-old manuscript that reveals hitherto unknown information about the past that would significantly relate to the present. It is meticulously researched and full of heart. But the overall narrative, spanning from the Middle Ages to 1992, packs in too much detail, belatedly builds to a climax and then diffuses into an anticlimax.
The story begins in 1979 when the narrator, Henry (“Henner”) Marcus, who teaches French medieval history at the University of Chicago, takes off for southern France to see his younger, ex-pat cousin, Nina Aschauer. Nina had disappeared five years earlier but suddenly resurfaced by way of a desperate letter for help to her mother in New Jersey. Henry finally finds out what happened to Nina because of a notebook she leaves for him. She had met a strange mountain man, a shepherd with whom she fell in love, Alphonse de Sola, the youngest brother of the “seneschal” of a mysterious time-stopped village that cannot be found on any map. It was there that Nina found and spirited away for transcription a parchment codex, temporarily leaving the village to work in Toulouse with her assistant and friend, Etoile.
Henry soon becomes as fascinated as the women with what they are transcribing. The manuscript, written in little-known Occitan, is in Hebrew letters. It is the confession of a passionate young Jewish woman, written for the sake of her sons; she had been the concubine of a heretic priest in the wake of the expulsion of Jews from France in 1306. Abandoned by her family, Mirayam de Sola changed her name to Dina (see Genesis for the story of the defiled daughter of Leah and Jacob). She kept her faith and transmitted it to her sons, eventually fleeing with them to a mountain village called Valladine (valley of Dina). Valladine, Nina vaguely remembered, was where she was born, when her parents were escaping from the Nazis.
As the three scholars pursue their detective work, Nina becomes increasingly anxious over her Brigadoon-like village and returns to her husband and children, while Henry and Etoile find themselves “waxing romantic.” But the codex must be returned, Nina must be found again and the village must be saved.
For all its intelligence and intricate plotting of parallel lives separated by 700 years, Dina’s Lost Tribe too often seems tame, with stilted writing and characters not fleshed out. For half the book, Goldstein switches back and forth from the (italicized) 14th-century-codex sections to the novel’s present, incorporating significant amounts of Jewish history, biblical and modern, and literary quotations. Still, this is an ambitious novel with a noble theme—to prove the staying power of the Jewish people and the incredible strength of its often unsung heroines. —Joan Baum
Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore (The Jewish Museum, New York/Yale University Press, 80 pp. $20)
Over the course of their lifetimes, Dr. Claribel Cone and Etta Cone, two unmarried Jewish sisters from Baltimore, followed their passion for avant-garde art and, at the turn of the 20th century, they began to buy works directly from artists who were still generally unheralded. They traveled to Europe, where siblings Leo and Gertrude Stein introduced them to the newest cultural styles and artists. Henri Matisse, with whom they formed a lifelong friendship, was their favorite, and eventually they acquired 500 of his works—the largest Matisse collection in the world. Matisse’sStriped Robe, Fruit, and Anemones, 1940, graces the cover of the catalog.
After their deaths, their paintings, sculptures, works on paper, textiles as well as decorative objects were bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art; it is a world-class collection of 3,000 items.
In Collecting Matisse, the book and exhibit, are 50 works, by artists such as: Picasso (Nude with Drapery, 1907, watercolor and crayon), Renoir (Washerwomen, 1888, oil on canvas), Pissarro (The Highway, 1880, oil on canvas), Cézanne (Large Bather, 1896-1898, color crayon transfer and brush and tusche lithograph), Van Gogh (A Pair of Boots, 1887, oil on canvas), Delacroix (Perseus and Andromeda, 1847, oil on paper on wood panel) and Gauguin (Woman of the Mango, 1892, oil on canvas).
The Cones, children of German Jews, were able to satisfy their love of art because of support from their brothers’ successful textile business.
The exhibit, curated by Karen Levitov, remains at the Jewish Museum in New York through September 25. It will be displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery June 2 to September 23, 2012. If you can’t see the exhibit, you can always enjoy this beautiful book. —Zelda Shluker
Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka by Rodger Kamenetz. (Schocken/Nextbook, 361 pp. $25)
Rodger Kamenetz, the author of The Jew in the Lotus (HarperOne) and for many years a professor of Jewish studies at Louisiana State University, is an ideal writer for this book—he is passionate and crystal clear.
At first glance, some may wonder why Kamenetz has yoked the 19th-century Rabbi Nachman with the 20th-century Franz Kafka, but Kamenetz is not only wonderfully playful and altogether counterintuitive, he is also persuasive. After all, Rabbi Nachman and Kafka share much: both died in early middle age of tuberculosis, both insisted their writings be burned at their deaths and both knew the power, and limitation, of storytelling. As the author puts it:
When I hear the voice of one, I can’t help but hear the voice of the other. Kafka is thoroughly secular and Rabbi Nachman is deeply religious. Kafka is a master of irony and Rabbi Nachman is a master of faith. Yet I feel a secret conversation between them….
Kamenetz joins this conversation in his deeply personal rumination about Rabbi Nachman, Kafka and himself. Burnt Booksis, above all else, about journeys. For Nachman, it was to Uman in Ukraine, where he is buried and where some 20,000 pilgrims, ultra-Orthodox as well as secular, gather at his grave each year on Rosh Hashana. For Kafka, it was the dream of immigrating to Israel. For Kamenetz, it was first to Kafka’s Prague, then to Ukraine and, finally, the arduous procession to Uman.
In Prague, Kafka’s face is ubiquitous and can be found on T-shirts and coffee mugs. But Kafka is hardly a local phenomenon. Kamenetz calculates that a new book about Kafka is published somewhere on the planet every 10 days, and perhaps nothing describes our shivery modern (postmodern?) condition better than the all-purpose word “Kafkaesque.”
Biography plays a major part in how Kamenetz reads fictions, such as Nachman’s story “The Loss of the Princess” or Kafka’s The Trial. He sees great fiction occurring in the tension between gifted writers and their cultural milieu, rather than those critics who strive mightily to separate the teller from the tale.
Gershom Scholem once remarked that to know Kabbala you first have to read Kafka. In something of this spirit, Kamenetz argues that if Nachman’s tales influenced Kafka (he read them and other Hasidic stories with great interest), it is also true that Kafka influenced Nachman. This is Kamenetz at his most counterintuitive—but it is also Kamenetz at his most interesting.
Kamenetz makes it clear that he is not a mystic, not a Hasid, not even much of a practicing Jew, but nobody reading Burnt Books will doubt that he is spiritually inclined and soulfully attuned. —S.P.
When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 608 pp. $30)
The dramatic and efficacious campaign to rescue the beleaguered Jews of the Soviet Union is an important subject, eminently worthy of a lean and clear-eyed account. Indeed, the heroic efforts of that community to preserve its Jewish identity and live in dignity are in themselves inspiring. Those efforts, coupled with the energetic and dedicated battles on their behalf by their coreligionists in the United States, represent a unique and stirring chronicle of courage and solidarity.
Unfortunately, Gal Beckerman approaches this material with a breathless enthusiasm and a personal agenda that dilutes the compelling narrative. In his prologue, he writes at length about his own bar mitzva at which he was twinned with a Soviet Jewish boy, further informing his readers that he is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, the son of Israelis and adding the vital information that his bar mitzva suit was gray. Such details are hardly relevant to a serious historic account. In a revealing, throwaway remark, he refers to the rite of bar mitzva as “basic and schmaltzy.”
His research is exhaustive, perhaps too exhaustive. He writes in detail about a failed attempt to hijack a Soviet plane and fly to the West, hunger strikes and the smuggling of Jewish books and ceremonial objects to Soviet Jews. This cascade of heroic efforts was inevitably rendered futile when employed against a brutal, conscienceless regime.
However, a careful reading of his text emphasizes that the core struggle of Soviet Jews was for the right to emigrate rather than to secure their civil and religious rights in the Soviet Union. To secure that right, the tenacious community of refuseniks endured prison, the loss of jobs, harassment both physical and emotional and exile to the dreaded gulag. The equally tenacious resistance of the government to emigration was based on their fear that other ethnic or religious minorities would seek to leave as well.
The plight of Soviet Jewry, as opposed to that of other groups, became highly visible because American Jews and Israel lobbied the United States government to intervene, albeit sub rosa, lest Jewish concerns be injected into the power struggle of the cold war. Beckerman reports in great detail the role of passionate and committed individuals—the Orthodox students of Yeshiva University and Columbia University in New York, who organized mass rallies; singer Shlomo Carlebach, who composed a vigorous anthem sung at such rallies; Senators Jacob Javits, Abe Ribicoff and Henry Jackson, who brought the issue to the floor of Congress; and the involvement of various Jewish communities in the States. In the end, however, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that resulted in the right of Jews to emigrate.
Beckerman is a universalist when it comes to human rights, and the struggle of Soviet Jewry is, for him, simply another piece in that vast mosaic. Israel’s own struggle for survival is of little importance to him. Indeed, he somewhat gratuitously chastises the Jewish state for the situation in Gaza and the “occupation” of the West Bank. It would seem that while he lavishes kudos (well deserved) on those who struggled to free Soviet Jewry, he himself is absent from the struggle to protect and advocate on behalf of the homeland of all Jewry. —Sheldon Horowitz
The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt. (Schocken/Nextbook, 237 pp. $24.95)
Fifty years after the Adolf Eichmann trial taught the world about the Holocaust, a leading Holocaust scholar is teaching the world about the Eichmann trial. In this sober but provocative analysis, Deborah Lipstadt addresses the controversial issues surrounding the trial—and virtually everything about the trial was controversial, beginning with Israel’s capture of Eichmann in Buenos Aires, where he had been living under an assumed name, and the decision to bring him to Jerusalem for the trial in 1961.
Indeed, Israel’s arrest and kidnapping of Eichmann was widely condemned as flouting international law. After all, the State of Israel, which was not in existence during World War II, was trying Eichmann, a Nazi official who figured prominently in deporting Jews, particularly from Hungary. Even leading American Jews and Jewish organizations questioned the decision.
The trial also created controversy because it went beyond an examination of Eichmann’s guilt or innocence. Israeli prosecutor Gideon Hausner turned the trial into an educational experience, both for Israelis and people around the world. Under Hausner’s direction, survivor testimony became a focal point of the trial, in contrast to the lack of testimony at the Nuremberg trials. Eichmann’s willingness to discuss—and defend—his wartime actions helped buttress this process.
Lipstadt also addresses the most controversial work to come out of the trial. Writing in The New Yorker magazine, Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “banality of evil” to argue that Eichmann didn’t pursue an explicitly anti-Semitic agenda, but instead merely followed orders. Lipstadt disagrees, citing, among other examples, Eichmann’s ardent efforts to deport Hungarian Jews: “In every case his imprint was to be found, Eichmann always chose the most stringent option.”
Lipstadt obviously has more sympathy for Hausner than for Arendt, who didn’t even witness the entire trial and drew disturbing similarities between the actions of Israelis such as Hausner and Nazi officials. To her credit, however, Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust (Penguin), who won a 2005 defamation case against Holocaust denier David Irving, is evenhanded in assessing their roles. She notes that Arendt supported Israel’s right to hold the trial and backed the death penalty given Eichmann—although for crimes against humanity, not for crimes against the Jewish people. Lipstadt also notes that Hausner exaggerated Eichmann’s role at times, holding him responsible for deportations, shootings and death camp killings that were out of his purview.
Lipstadt pokes holes in the theory that the Holocaust had not been part of international consciousness before the Eichmann trial. She admits, however, that the trial left an unmistakable imprint around the globe. Among its other achievements, the Eichmann trial created an audience thirsting to learn about the Holocaust firsthand from those who had suffered through it. After the trial, survivors became the focal point of Holocaust history.
As Lipstadt elegantly puts it, “The world heard the story of the Holocaust differently and stronger: The telling might not have been entirely new, but the hearing was.” —Peter Ephross