Books: From Berlin to Israel
Novelist, columnist, playwright, memoirist, winner of two National Book Awards, James Carroll is one of America’s most versatile and successful authors. A former priest—and practicing Catholic still—he is probably best known for Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a fierce critique of the Christian anti-Semitism that links it to the origins and spread of Nazism.
“Two Jerusalems”—his latest book’s opening chapter—establishes the dual-faceted nature of the holy city. Jerusalem is both an actual place and an idealized cityscape that “ignites heat in the human breast, a viral fever of zealotry and true belief that is lodged in the DNA of Western civilization.”
For Carroll, Jerusalem is “a screen onto which millennial fantasies can be projected…only Jerusalem occupies such a transcendent place in the [human] imagination.” The inconvenient snag is, of course, that its messianic visions for Jews, Christians and Muslims are mutually exclusive. Jerusalem stands at the intersection of spiritual crosshairs: fulcrum of human history and source and target of religious passion. Paradoxes follow inexorably: Most centrally, Carroll illustrates how the city of peace serves as a causus bellum.
As a historian, Carroll is far-ranging and knowledgeable but derivative, adeptly riding to shore on the textual waves of specialists from which he molds theological sandcastles. Since his theme is the centrality of Jerusalem to, well, everything, Carroll yields to the flamboyant temptation of contextualizing Jerusalem not merely within the framework of human history but from the big bang, 13 billion years gone. Then, only after an anthropological excursion, do we finally reach humankind. The transparent aim of this prologue is to imbue Jerusalem, Jerusalem with cosmological valence that in the end feels spurious.
In fact, Carroll’s special strengths are his conscientious passion for truth and his theological delving and expertise. Early on, for example, he notes that intra-Jewish differences are but dimly perceived by others because “one of the surviving characteristics of anti-Semitic thinking is the tendency to define ‘the Jews’ univocally,” as when the Gospels were emended to demonstrate to the Romans that Jesus was not “of the party of the Jews.” Or again, after the Babylonian and Roman dispersions, a fixture of the Jewish mindset until 1948 (or, more contentiously, 1967), remembrance and absence have served as primary operational modes of the affirmation of God’s presence.
Much of the book’s central narrative is engaging, and the casual reader will find Carroll’s account of, say, the German Templars, fascinating.
Finally, Carroll appeals for religion to focus less on salvation than revelation, to acknowledge God’s oneness, to celebrate not death but life, to eschew coercion and to embrace appropriate secular modalities. Plainly, this is a platform that many contemporary Jews could enthusiastically endorse. Unquestionably, this former priest, who for more than a decade has studied annually at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, is a noble spirit and great friend to the Jewish people.
A side note: As the author of a biography of James Parkes—a historian and Anglican cleric who, like Carroll, was scandalized that Christianity was directly implicated in the sin of anti-emitism—I was chagrined that Carroll’s lengthy bibliography entirely overlooks his pioneering forerunner. —Haim Chertok
It’s easy to see why In the Garden of Beasts is that rare book: a work of history that is a best seller. Erik Larson’s examination of William Dodd’s unhappy four years as United States ambassador to Germany during the 1930s teems with fascinating people, romance and high-level diplomacy—and, of course, the terrible knowledge of what happened in the ensuing years.
Dodd was a liberal university professor who had studied in Germany when President Franklin D. Roosevelt selected him to be ambassador in 1933. Dodd held mildly anti-Semitic views that were typical of the times: After taking up his post, Dodd told German officials that Jews held outsized power in the United States. But he was aware of Germany’s anti-Semitic policies, having met with Rabbi Stephen Wise before moving to Berlin. As Nazi policies worsened, Dodd hewed to a harder line, rankling a State Department that was rife with anti-Semitism. Even the beating of several Americans—often for failing to give the Nazi salute—failed to convince some of these officials of the growing evil of Nazism.
Although the book ostensibly focuses on the ambassador, Larson’s star is Dodd’s 20-something daughter, Martha. Described by a classmate as “an enchantress,” she quickly joined Berlin’s social scene after the family arrived in Germany, attending parties and literary gatherings frequented by expatriates, opponents of the regime and Nazi leaders. Martha simultaneously dated Nazi and Soviet officials. She met Hitler once because midlevel Nazi officials considered them to be a possible match. Even as Larson details her soap-opera-like social life, he also describes how she was politically transformed by the Nazis’ increasing repression.
Some might find it odd that Larson has written a page-turner about the Nazis. After all, the looming threat of the Holocaust is never far away. But to his credit, the author has managed to craft a work that also takes its history seriously, in part by highlighting how the Dodds’ political and personal lives intersected.
Soon after arriving in Berlin, the family rented a house from a Jewish man who hopes that living above the American ambassador will afford his wife and children protection from the Nazis’ increasingly strident anti-Semitic measures. In his role as ambassador, Dodd socializes with both Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering and meets with Hitler in his official capacity. To add to his frustration with the State Department, Dodd finds that his attempts at diplomacy do not go well: He later remarked that Hitler was an unimpressive figure who became exercised when discussing Jewish issues; for his part, Hitler’s subsequent comments demonstrate his contempt for Dodd, whom he called a “weak oddball” and a “Jewish pawn.”
In the Garden of Beasts does contain a few strange omissions. Dodd’s wife and son barely figure in the book, and Larson fails to explore what the ambassador thought of his daughter’s dalliances. These are minor quibbles about a book that is both a valuable contribution to history and a compelling read. —Peter Ephross
It was in Badenheim 1939 (David R. Godine), Aharon Appelfeld’s early masterpiece, that readers were first introduced to his art of slowly and obliquely revealing events as they rise to a crescendo of terror. Appelfeld’s Until the Dawn’s Light (expertly translated by Jeffrey M. Green), winner of the 2011 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, is set mainly in the Austrian countryside of the early 20th century and is not, to be sure, a Holocaust novel. And yet, in this novel Appelfeld brings to near perfection his art of gradual unfolding. He describes how male brutality in a marriage can overwhelm a woman, which will lead to catastrophe. It all comes to a head when the woman reacts to her suffering by committing the most “criminally” brutal acts. She becomes a Dostoyevsky-like heroine, living so intensely with her guilt that she cannot repress her need to confess her crimes and to accept the inevitability of her punishment.
Blanca, one of three main characters, is introduced as an outstanding Jewish high school student facing a bright academic future. Instead of pursuing this Jewish trajectory, however, she is attracted to the physical strength, strong will and robust good health of Adolf, a brutish Christian peasant who, perhaps unfairly, has been expelled from school.
Like seemingly all the Jews in this novel—“a generation in which Jews were fleeing from their Judaism like mice”—Blanca converts to Christianity to marry Adolf. At that point we encounter Grandma Carole, who takes it on herself to become the stern, unforgiving prophet of doom denouncing those who have left Judaism for Christianity.
The marriage, even after the birth of a son, Otto, turns more and more sour, filled with verbal and physical abuse, fueled by Adolf’s anti-Semitic outbursts. The narrative reaches its greatest tension and a heroic turn as long-suffering Blanca, who has already become a thief, commits her existential act.
The rest of the story follows Blanca’s escape, with Otto in tow, as she seeks refuge in an “enchanted cabin on the banks of the [river] Dessel.” With the tension building further, Blanca proceeds to burn down a multitude of churches.
So that Otto will know how his identity has been formed by his mother’s actions, Blanca keeps a diary. Curiously, at no time are we given to read even one sentence of Blanca’s memoirs. It is to the credit of Appelfeld’s art that whatever we learn of Blanca’s thoughts and actions we learn from Appelfeld’s storied use of silence.
This is a book that will nevertheless change the way we perceive Appelfeld’s fiction. His novelistic surprises here are many and show a writer who, after some 40 books, is still able to evolve artistically, all the while remaining faithful to his fundamental art. —Joseph Lowin
In 1769, the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt is the last enclosed ghetto among the German states, a 300-year-old relic from an earlier era. But the world is changing, new ideas are emerging and even in this grim place, the inhabitants are responding.
The Origin of Sorrow by Robert Mayer is the story of that change as seen through the eyes of the ghetto’s Jews—some real, some fictional. Among the key, and real, characters are Guttle Schnapper, a lively, intelligent 15-year-old at the start of the book, and Meyer Rothschild, her husband, who, by the end of the book 80 years later, has gone from an antique coin dealer to founder of a banking empire.
Mayer expertly sets the scene. The Judengasse, the ghetto’s official title, is about one-third of a mile. Its original population of 110 has grown to 3,000. Gates at either end are locked at night and on Sundays, just as the inhabitants are locked into strict rules imposed on them by the surrounding gentile world.
Despite their restrictions, Mayer evokes a warm and lively community. The book begins with the murder of the schul klopper, whose job is to awaken the community for prayers—and alerting the chief rabbi to official but unannounced raids on the ghetto. It then veers into subplots of friendships and feuds, romances and disappointments.
A major part of the plot revolves around Guttle’s attempt to establish a school for girls. At a time when girls received no education, and boys hardly more, this is a revolutionary idea. Guttle’s effort splits the ghetto’s inhabitants.
Mayer highlights the division between an older generation that believes change threatens their traditional, pious way of life and a younger generation that welcomes it. Today, we would use the word “assimilation,” but the issue and question are the same: How to stay Jewish in a world of new opportunities?
Mayer is less convincing in other aspects of the book. Pages of exposition too often overwhelm and some plot lines stretch credibility: the young Jew who immigrates to the American colonies where he ends up crossing the Delaware River under General George Washington or the pretty wife who somehow meets the son of a countess and abandons her family to marry him.
Fans of historical fiction (of which I am one) are a demanding lot. We want an entertaining story within a setting that is true to the time. For the most part, Mayer, a former journalist, succeeds while dealing with the question of Jewish identity and survival that is as relevant today as it was in 18th-century Frankfurt. —Barbara Pash