Books: How a Forgery Came To Be
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. Translated by Richard Dixon. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 464 pp. $27)
Italian author Umberto Eco has written a controversial literary work that engages in provocative and complex themes and is written in a style that not only plays with historical events but with the elements of fiction. In The Prague Cemetery, the “plot” (discovery of a diary written in 1897 by an unidentified narrator at some future date) contains the central “story” (the distinction is Eco’s). The diary covers events from the 1830s to the late 1890s, as recorded by a caustic commentator by the name of Simonio Simonini and as emended by a mysterious Abbé Della Piccola, Simonini’s schizoid alter ego, who brings another point of view. The diary discoverer also adds his own comments in different typeface.
Eco commingles real and imaginary “personages,” complicating the narrative, if not moral, perspective. The semiotic games begin with “The Prague Cemetery,” a made-up report concocted by Simonini—a notary, lawyer, forger, spy, mocking and self-mocking raconteur and adamant Jew hater—a character whom Eco says in an introductory note he tried to make “the most cynical and disagreeable in the history of literature.” The cast is huge, including real figures such as “Froide,” Dumas, Mazzini, Garibaldi and numerous 19th-century revolutionaries and clerics.
Simonini’s forged Prague document, among others, describes a secret conspiratorial meeting of Jews in league with Freemasons to—what else—take over the world. Conspiracies, including The Dreyfus Affair and the Taxil hoax, deceptions and frauds of all kind abound. The forged Prague report, of course, is meant to signify and prompt revulsion at the notorious real-life forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), “that later inspired Hitler,” as Eco says.
But who would have imagined the unintended ironic reception of The Prague Cemetery when it first came out in Italian in October 2010? Though it instantly became a best seller in several European countries, it elicited media-charged condemnation from the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, and from the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano—for fear readers will believe the hateful things the book’s anti-Semites say about the Jews.
Now English readers can judge how they feel about this slow-going but sharp and sometimes savagely funny satire that indeed contains anti-Semitic stereotyping but also vicious portraits of just about everyone, particularly Jesuits and Italian and French insurrectionists—that is, if readers get to the finish line. In typical Eco style, the book is incredibly dense, with references and allusions that display the author’s erudition and wit.
Eco packs in so much cleverness and detail—including elaborate provincial recipes and disquisitions on various political schisms, major and minor—that in spite of the novel’s overall simple and direct dialogue, it is not easy going.
On the other hand, it is quite an achievement. It takes on important themes, the continuing life of The Protocols and the way revolutions get turned on their head. And its inclusion of numerous fascinating illustrations, archival and author-owned, contribute, despite the difficulties, to a sense of accessibility. —Joan Baum
An American Type: A Novel by Henry Roth. (W.W. Norton, 284 pp. $25.95 cloth, $15.95 paper)
By now the story of how Call It Sleep (Picador), written in 1934, came to be rediscovered after being out of print for nearly three decades is well known. Henry Roth’s modernist saga of an immigrant Jewish boy growing up on New York’s teeming Lower East Side resonated with readers in the mid-1960s much more than it did with those formed by the Great Depression. Caught between an overly protective mother and an angry, irrational father, David Schearl, the novel’s 9-year-old protagonist, struggles to free himself from mythic bonds every bit as scary as the mean streets surrounding him.
Roth is a largely autobiographical writer, which means that he changes real characters—and his protagonists—as they are molded, and modified, into fiction. He suffered from a world-class writer’s block for more than four decades, but began writing again in earnest during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The name of Roth’s protagonist may have changed to Ira Stigman, but for the most part, An American Type begins where David Schearl’s story ended. Once again, those who equated the real-life Roth with his fictional mouthpiece now wonder if the Ira Stigman who confesses to incestuous affairs with both his sister and his cousin is, in fact, Henry Roth.
No doubt separating Roth’s fiction from the “facts” will go on for some time, but certain aspects of the author’s life are less cloudy. Two women, Eda Lou Walton and Muriel Parker, replaced the mother Roth left when he enrolled in City College. Walton was an English professor and mentor who introduced him to the cultural milieu of Greenwich Village in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was she, his lover, benefactor and best friend, who made the writing of Call It Sleep possible.
More recently, An American Type, culled from the 1,900 pages known as Batch 2, was reshaped and heavily edited by Willing Davidson, a fiction editor at The New Yorker. He does an admirable enough job, but the plot doesn’t hold together. What makes the novel worth our attention is the love story between Ira and M. (clearly Muriel Parker, the pianist, blue-blooded gentile and Roth’s patient, long-suffering wife) as well as the scenes in which Ira takes his leave of the woman whose bed he had shared for nearly a decade before marrying M. Here the characters look and sound real, as opposed to the cardboard communists, hobos and assorted ne’er-do-wells with whom Ira makes his way to the West coast and back again.
There may be other Roth manuscripts tucked away and waiting to be shepherded into print. I hope not. Partly because they will not be Call It Sleep possible and partly because they will only detract from the reputation Henry Roth’s writing deserves. —Sanford Pinsker
In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief by James L. Kugel. (Free Press, 256 pp. $26 cloth, $15 paper)
“People two thousand or five thousand years ago were not any stupider than we are today, and certainly knew when their own innocent children were dying, whether from disease or famine or apparently nothing at all.” So writes biblical scholar James L. Kugel three quarters of the way through his personal exploration of “the foundations of religious belief,” In the Valley of the Shadow.
Though it is not advertised as being so, this book is the most satisfying answer to today’s “new” atheists I have yet seen. It offers a rejoinder by reminding us that religion is not about holding certain opinions, but about facing the fear of death, which Kugel experiences firsthand during treatment for cancer; the attendant sense of smallness in the face of a vast cosmos; and the cruel, stark reality that appears in place of blissful ignorance. Appropriately, Kugel’s project proceeds as much in poetry as in prose, as he samples the psalms, religious writing from the Babylonians to Boethius and contemporary verse as well. This is not so much a defense of religion as a song of it.
In the Valley of the Shadow begins not with Kugel’s typical erudition—the former Harvard professor is the author of best sellers including How to Read the Bible (Free Press)—but with vulnerability, the scholar’s life suddenly interrupted by a cancer diagnosis. Amid the treatments and technologies, Kugel senses as though the “background music” of his life has stopped, replaced only by an eerie silence, a sense that he is a very small part of a very large world. This, Kugel comes to describe, is the root of religion: “not belief, but the experience of one’s own smallness in the face of…everything else.”
Kugel is well aware that neuroscience has, in the last two decades, greatly explained the sources of religious belief in the structure of the human brain. Yet he finds this body of data reinforces, rather than undermines, his appreciation of religion, because as much as God is a construction of the mind, the sense of the self is even more so.
Moreover, Kugel observes that neo-atheists “have somehow misconstrued what their research is all about,” as if understanding the neuroscientific basis of religion is the same as explaining it away. This is no more true of religion, Kugel says, than of love: Just because neuroscientists can now explain the chemical roots of attraction does not mean that “we can at last stop falling in love.”
Throughout In the Valley of the Shadow, Kugel speaks with authority. No one can doubt his mastery of biblical text. But because he also writes from his own personal experience, he has “spiritual” authority as well. At the same time, it’s odd how little Kugel acknowledges his theological forebears, including Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rudolf Otto. Fair enough: Kugel is not a philosopher of religion. But it’s odd that the book reads as though he is the first reader of the Bible, or experiencer of religious consciousness, to have these ideas.
That being said, as in Kugel’s past books, his “re-novation” and “re-presentation” of biblical religiosity is deeply compelling. Toward the end of the book, Kugel writes of the “God in heaven” not with contempt but with appreciation that “it is from on high that the gods can look down and see all of human life, and so see us in our full smallness.”
Ironically, Kugel suggests, it is in that smallness that we are our most fully human. —Jay Michaelson
A Jewish Feminine Mystique?: Jewish Women in Postwar America edited by Hasia R. Diner, Shira Kohn and Rachel Kranson. (Rutgers University Press, 272 pp. $25.95)
Legend has it that when bookstores started selling out of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963; W.W. Norton), Friedan’s publisher assumed that her husband had bought them all. It hardly seemed possible that the little Jewish woman and her big book could start the revolution that became second-wave feminism. But did Friedan’s description of women confined to domestic pursuits in “comfortable concentration camps” resonate with the American Jewish experiences? Or, did postwar Jewish women live beyond the feminine mystique even as they became more integrated into mainstream American culture?
Not surprisingly to those of us with Jewish mothers and grandmothers running businesses, leading national Jewish organizations or rebuilding lives in a new country after the war, this collection of essays reveals a less than comfortable fit between Jewish women and the era’s myth of femininity.
A Jewish Feminine Mystique?’s first section focuses on activists. In “Some of Us Were There Before Betty,” the example of Miami-based segregation fighters argues that the desire to create a better world for their children impelled these women into the world of progressive politics. Deborah Waxman’s fascinating essay on the Reconstructionist movement during the 1950s presents Jewish women more than willing to leave prescribed gender roles. Well before the feminist movement, Mordecai Kaplan’s desire to “revitalize Judaism in response to the impact of modernity on Jewish life” made for an empowering religious experience for women. The first bnot mitzva were in the Reconstructionist movement, and it was these same women who later asked for greater religious participation.
In the book’s second section, the focus on postwar immigrants to the United States reveals that different expectations from home countries led to a less than perfect fit in the suburban idyll. This was the case for European-trained medical professionals, studied by Rebecca Kobrin, who met with little sympathy from American social workers; they were advised to drop their careers to rear children full time. In her essay on Egyptian women, Audrey Nasar finds remarkable adaptation and willingness to reshape their identities as American Egyptian women by those whose comfortable upper-class lives in their birth country gave them little experience with the range of domestic tasks that were now expected of them.
The third section is a treasure trove of studies on postwar involvement in and shaping of American popular culture. As the editors argue, the immigrant, working-class backgrounds of most Jewish women of the postwar years “supported a more aggressive and savvy notion
of womanhood than that advanced by middle-class postwar American culture.”
Rachel Kranson’s “The Gentle Jewish Mother” looks at hotelier Jennie Grossinger, showing how Grossinger both played into gender norms for American women and drew on her immigrant Jewish past to fashion a maternal image that quickly became iconic.
The essays in this fine collection help to revise our understanding of Jewish women and the feminine mystique. Jewish women were affected by the pervasive folk myths of the 1950s, but, like Friedan, they were hardly defined by the feminine mystique; they were too busy starting revolutions. —Rachel Gordan
Rachel Gordan is postdoctoral fellow in American Judaism at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. (Norton, 336 pp. $27.95)
When my dad and I visited Odessa about a decade ago, we found a city whose rotting infrastructure—torn upholstery in the seats of its opera house, for example—only partially obscured its allure and colorful history. As Charles King shows in this impressively researched and clearly written work, that combination of charm and dirt is an apt metaphor for this port metropolis, which was once more than one-third Jewish.
King tells the story of the city’s rise and fall through individuals, making his history accessible to the nonscholar. Given Odessa’s cosmopolitan reputation, it’s not surprising that two Western European nobles—Jose Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons and Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septimanie du Plessis—were among the key figures who developed the city. King also focuses on the lives of some of Odessa’s world-renowned residents: Nobel Prize-winner Ilya Menchikov, Zionist Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and writer Isaac Babel. Indeed, Odessa was a city where both intellectual life and Zionism flourished.
King explores two themes familiar to Odessa-philes. First, the city partially owes its development to geography. Its location on the Black Sea allowed it to serve as a trading port that attracted a diverse population. It drew Jews to Odessa to work as traders, particularly to their brethren who lived further inland. Odessa was that rare city in the Russian Empire where Jews and non-Jews mixed, both on the streets and in the city’s cultural institutions.
Second, gangster-led crime suffused Odessa. As King puts it, “Odessa produced the Russian Empire’s greatest collection of criminals, delinquents, and creative crooks, men and women who managed to raise the vocation of the lowly gonif [to] a profession.”
To his credit, King also explores less-well-known themes likewise vital to Odessa’s history. The city’s relative freedom extended to religion; it became a center of the Haskala, or Jewish Enlightenment. Spurred by immigrants from the Galician town of Brody, progressive forms of synagogue worship, Jewish choral music and synagogue architecture flourished.
Odessa’s diversity didn’t survive the 20th century, as the city fell prey to the same factors—pogroms, the Russian Civil War and, of course, the Holocaust (Odessa and its surrounding region came under the brutal rule of Romanian dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu during World War II)—that decimated so many cities, destroying their Jewish character in the process. Many of those Jews able to leave did, including my grandfather, who emigrated in the early 20th century. King pays his respects to this migration by focusing one of his final chapters on the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Brighton Beach, where so many Jewish immigrants from the port city and their descendents now dwell that the neighborhood is nicknamed “Little Odessa.”
King’s history has left me thinking about my previous trip to Odessa—and hoping that some day I can again travel there to experience the history that permeates its streets. —Peter Ephross
The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible by Harold Bloom. (Yale University Press, 320 pp. $28)
Harold Bloom, a professorial fixture at Yale University for more than 50 years, has authored seminal books on Yeats, Blake and Shakespeare and controversial volumes on deconstruction, the Western literary canon, Gnosticism, Kabbala and the Bible. Fittingly for one who started his career in opposition to the literary formalism championed by T.S. Eliot, he has become his legitimate heir—our era’s supreme arbiter of literary taste and quality.
With his proficiency in Greek and Hebrew, a lifetime of intimate engagement with multiple versions of the Bible and consummate confidence in his own perspicacity, who could be better equipped to pay tribute to the King James Bible, which appeared in 1611, than the doyen of literary critics of our time? Indeed, in The Shadow of a Great Rock (an allusion to Isaiah 32:2), Bloom serves as an amiable mentor to Bible studies, a guide who wears his erudition lightly and exudes such literary poise that, even when tempted to disagree, one finds the impulse to cite him almost irresistible.
The King James translation had two notable antecedents between 1526 and 1560: the Bible of William Tyndale (albeit an anti-Semitic bigot, for Bloom “the greatest English translator”); and the Geneva, or Breeches, Bible of 1599, product of a committee of six. This last was the Bible known to Shakespeare and preferred by John Milton. The King James Bible, inspired handiwork of more than 50 translators, was a composite: incorporating the virtues of its predecessors; improving on them at many junctures, but not infrequently (as Bloom demonstrates) producing a clumsier or weaker translation than its earlier rivals. Beginning with Genesis, concluding with Revelations, Bloom saunters unhurriedly through the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha and the Greek New Testament, pausing to comment about passages of particular literary worth, especially those tinged by sublimity, and to give short shrift to the rest. (From his aesthetic perspective, the New Testament fares poorly.)
Wherever Bloom comes to rest, he glosses the text, commenting on its accuracy and aptness and defers handsomely to other exegetes.
The greatest failure of the King James Bible, he notes, “is the tonal uniformity of its baroque style” that conceals tonal differences between speakers. Here is a short sampling:
The creation of Eve is…aesthetically superior to that of Adam, since she is fashioned out of life and not from clay. Tyndale rendered verse 18 as: ‘And the Lord God said, it is not good that a man should be alone, I will make him a helper to bear him company.’ Geneva gave, ‘Also the Lord God said, it is not good the man should be himself alone: I will make him a help meet for him.’ The KJB omits that awkward ‘himself’ and changes ‘Also’ to ‘And’ but otherwise adopts Geneva. ‘Helpmeet,’ our now out-of-fashion term, is a poor version of the Hebrew for ‘helper parallel to him,’ though the literal meaning is ‘opposed to him,’ which bears some dark pondering.
Of particular interest to Jewish readers are passages in the New Testament where Bloom curtly dismisses tendentious misreadings of the Hebrew text from Paul, Mark and others.
The titular reference to Isaiah utilizes a vision of exalted rulers of Judah whose shadow will extend like a great rock to succor a weary land. It is, I believe, self-referential. For many readers, his latest book will confirm anew that in the tangled thickets of contemporary literary discourse, octogenarian Bloom is still a towering Gibraltar. —Haim Chertok
In Her Voice: An Illuminated Book of Prayers for Jewish Women by Enya Tamar Keshet. (Maggid Books, 75 pp. $39.95)
Individually they are witty, charming or soulful; placed together, the meditations, psalms and biblical texts that make up In Her Voice reflect the full gamut of a Jewish woman’s life and intimate concerns. Collected and illustrated by Israeli Enya Tamar Keshet, from what the artist says is a rich trove of women’s personal prayers, each of the 28 historically and geographically diverse texts is highlighted on its own plate, with a translation and comments by Keshet on the facing page. The innocent Bride’s Blessing to the Groom, attributed to the Maggid of Kuznitz, talks of hopes for a lifelong love; a Ladino mother’s prayer asks for good luck for her children. Modern techinas are included, such as one for agunot, begging that God “soften the stony hearts of their captors,” as is the solemn invocation by a member of the hevre kadisha after she finishes preparing the body of a woman for burial.
Keshet’s lavish illustrations and illuminations, crafted in the floral and ornate 15th-century Lisbon style of manuscript art, add depth to the handwritten text (calligraphy is by Sharon Bonder). For example, cheerful turquoise, pink and orange decorate the Prayer for the Bat Mitzvah; around the Prayer During Pregnancy in circles and mounds of micrography is the liturgical Nishmat Kol Chai, in praise of God as the Creator of all living things.
“Prayer is the universal language of the Jewish people,” notes Bleema Posner, a specialist in Judaic books art, in her introduction to In Her Voice. And, she concludes, “…the wellspring of Jewish liturgy flows from the purity and emotion of the Jewish woman’s personal prayer.” —Leah F. Finkelshteyn
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