Books: Families and Other Complications
Joshua Henkin’s third novel, The World Without You, deals with a large, complicated Jewish family and demonstrates again that he has considerable talent. Major newspapers put Swimming across the Hudson (Putnam), his first novel, and Matrimony (Vintage), his second, on their lists of “notable books.” Readers of Henkin’s novels and numerous short stories will come to his work with high expectations, and they will not be disappointed.
On a July 4th weekend in 2005, the Frankel family gathers at their summer home in the Berkshires to remember their son and brother, Leo, a journalist who was killed a year earlier in Iraq.
The memorial is a solemn affair: Family members have flown in from Israel, California and Washington, D.C., to attend. What binds them together is common grief and deep-seated love, even though they express their emotions in complicated, widely different ways. David Frankel, for example, has lost his only son but he is so removed from Jewish tradition that he does not understand what an “unveiling” means. By contrast, his daughter, Noelle, is the only one able to recite the Kaddish. In high school, she gave the term “seriously promiscuous” whole new meanings before she became a born-again modern Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel. What in other hands might have been a caricature, Henkin turns into a lively multidimensional portrait.
Henkin is especially good at capturing telling details. When one of Noelle’s sons loses a tooth on the trip to America, his brothers tell him how lucky he is because, in America, the tooth fairy pays off in dollars not shekels. And when one daughter tries to explain what her grandmother, the meddling moneybags Gretchen, is like, she compares her to gravity, a force of nature that you get used to because it is “just there.”
Leo’s death has taken a toll on his sisters and his widow, but nowhere is the pain deeper than it is for his parents, David and Marilyn, who have been married for 40-plus years and are now seriously contemplating divorce. The year since Leo’s death, “the world without him,” as it were, is simply too hard to bear.
In the final analysis, however, Henkin is an equal opportunity tsuris dispenser. Each of his characters harbors a jealousy, a failing marriage or guilt that is uncovered in small doses. As the memorial service concludes, not every problem is neatly resolved and family members go their separate ways. What has surfaced, however, are the large reservoirs of love they feel for each other.
Joshua Henkin is a writer fully in control of his craft and well worth reading. —Sanford Pinsker
Martin Fletcher’s parents never told him their story about immigrating to wartime England from Austria and the hopeless search for lost relatives. So, after their death, he told it for them. However, Fletcher uses a considerable amount of imagination to do so. The List, his first novel, is loosely based on the travails of Georg and Edith Fleisher (before they anglicized the family name) as they struggled for survival and acceptance in post-Blitz London in 1945.
An award-winning veteran journalist for NBC and other news organizations, and two-time nonfiction author, Fletcher has done his homework, re-creating in painstaking detail the xenophobia in London and, simultaneous, the birth pangs of the Jewish state in the waning days of the British Mandate. Georg, a lawyer who can’t work in England, earns a trickle of income in a button factory while Edith earns a little more mending stockings. Both spend their time frantically searching among the other immigrants and refugee organizations for glimmers of hope that some of their loved ones have survived.
In Palestine, the Jewish underground and British police play a dangerous game of cat and mouse—kidnapping in response to an arrest; a soldier’s life in revenge for a hung Jew. Fletcher melds these two storylines together through the nexus of the boarding house where Georg and Edith are awaiting the birth of their first child and caring for Edith’s trauma-plagued Holocaust survivor cousin, Anna. The son of their landlord is among the British troops in Palestine and a twist of fate reveals that one of their roommates is also linked to events there.
Fletcher, who has made Israel his home for the past 30 years, knows the material well. Although unfolding over the course of a few weeks, the plot encompasses real events that occurred over months, including the foiled assassination plot against British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin hatched by Jewish Lehi resistance fighters.
Fletcher does a marvelous job mapping out the personalities of his characters and transmitting their pain, hope and angst, and setting up tense, highly emotional situations and their resolutions. This includes the sad piece of realism melded into the story that gives the novel its title: The list Georg Fletcher kept of his and Edith’s many Austrian relatives, most of whose stories will never be told. —Adam Dickter
Read our interview with Marvin Fletcher.
Sixteen-year-old Minna Losk’s life in 19th-century Odessa is marked by loss and servitude, until a charitable Jewish organization offers her a way to get out of Russia as a mail-order bride. Her destination is the South Dakota homestead that owes its settlement to the Am Olam movement of the 1880s.
The novel begins with a harrowing medical and psychological exam that sets the stage for the trials that will unfold for Minna. On the journey to America—described in lucid detail—Minna clutches a photograph of her American husband standing in front of a house that suggests solidity and security. But her much-older husband, Max, will offer neither of these; he is a kind but obsessive Orthodox Jew who lives in a one-room sod hut in South Dakota with his two teenage sons.
With his brooding sensibility and unyielding embrace of Jewish practice, Max is a fascinating character who could have been conjured by Dostoyevsky and Sholem Aleichem. Rather than building a root cellar that will help ensure their survival, Max spends his days digging a mikve for Minna. Meanwhile, Max’s teenage sons, Jacob and Samuel, are Minna’s peers. Her relationships with them and with the other homesteaders provide Minna with the social and romantic connections that sustain her.
The harsh reality of life on the South Dakota plains is portrayed with acute resonance. One season follows another, morning clouds “split the sun into needles”; “The day the air turned blue” describes a cold December.
The plucky and defiant Minna finds moments of relief from this brazen existence and develops a crush on her stepson Samuel, who ultimately takes her away from their unrelenting homestead. Minna and Samuel travel to the Am Olam colony, an agrarian Eden for Jews. But this community is only one more stop on Minna’s continuing journey.
To Solomon’s credit, this novel is not a predictable story of immigrant survival in desolate conditions. Minna is a conflicted character whose fantasies are borne out of the harsh realities of her life in Odessa and in South Dakota. “I didn’t come here to survive,” says Minna. And yet, the novel circles the very question of what it means for Minna to survive and define herself on her own terms.
Solomon is an elegant stylist whose searing images drive her narrative with a sense of inevitability and verve. While this novel may be recognized for its portrayal of an unfamiliar chapter in American Jewish history, its prose is marked with beauty and lyricism. The Little Bride is an imaginative feat that introduces Anna Solomon as a daring and talented novelist who is willing to take her readers into risky territory with grace and artistry. —Amy Gottlieb
Exactly 150 years ago, on December 17, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued the worst anti-Semitic regulation in American history. In a misguided effort to combat smuggling across Civil War battle lines, he ordered the expulsion of “Jews as a class” from all the areas under his command, which included parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.
The order was short-lived; upon hearing of it, President Abraham Lincoln revoked it. But Grant’s infamous act had broad implications for American Jewry and American politics and also affected the general—and, later, president—for the rest of his life.
In When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Jonathan D. Sarna uses a scholar’s eye for detail, a historian’s instinct for the broader context and a compelling style of storytelling to relate not only an almost forgotten chapter in American annals but also makes the case for that chapter’s relevance today.
Sarna begins with the story, known to many historians, of Cesar Kaskel, a Jewish businessman from Paducah, Kentucky, one of those affected by the expulsion order. Kaskel made his way to Washington and was granted an audience with Lincoln. In his presence, the president issued the order countermanding Grant’s edict, effectively liberating a group of American Jews. This was on January 3, 1863—two days after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The link between great moments in American history and civic participation of Jews was just beginning. Grant’s order unleashed a wave of protest and action among the growing American Jewish population. And although the furor subsided because of Lincoln’s quick action, it returned in 1868 when Grant ran for president.
After reports that many Jews planned to vote against Grant, the candidate disavowed his order. As Sarna writes, “He apologized for the [expulsion] order publicly and repented of it privately.”
As president, Grant appointed more Jews to public positions than any previous president. One of his least noticed appointments was arguably the most consequential: In 1869, he approved the appointment of 16-year-old Albert Michelson to the United States Naval Academy. Thirty-eight years later, Michelson became the first American awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.
Grant pioneered the cause of human rights as a principle in American foreign policy. Where previous presidents were wary of appearing to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations, Grant spoke out against persecution of Jews in Russia and Roumania. He denounced an 1869 Russian order for expelling Jews from border regions, even though he knew he risked comparisons with his own actions during the Civil War. In response to Grant’s protest, the Russian order was revoked.
When Washington’s Congregation Adas Israel opened in 1876, Grant became the first American president to attend such a dedication ceremony. In his travels after leaving the White House, he became the first former president ever to visit the Land of Israel. When he died in 1885, he had legions of Jewish friends and mourners. For his final resting place, he chose the new Jerusalem—becoming the only American President buried in New York City.
Grant was once rated as one of America’s worst presidents, but more recent biographers have lifted his reputation, focusing on the many achievements of his presidency. Sarna joins that list with a riveting portrait of Grant himself and the American Jews of his time. The analysis is revealing and objective.
Among other things, Sarna examines the fear, in light of the expulsion order, that the liberation of the slaves might result in the demotion of Jews into America’s new despised minority. And while he points out the injustice of singling out Jews as smugglers, he does not shy away from details about those Jews who were, in fact, involved in illegal trade.
While some Jews briefly thought European-style anti-Semitism would take root in the United States When General Grant Expelled the Jews is ultimately a story of American exceptionalism, where today’s hostile adversary may become tomorrow’s friend and where a single act of anti-Semitism (however egregious) is not a sign of a deeper problem.
“Paradoxically,” Sarna observes, “Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment.” —Alan M. Tigay
In this indispensable study of Protestant pastors, theologians and church officials in Hitler’s Third Reich, Christopher Probst writes that Luther’s anti-Semitic and anti-Judaic writings influenced the response of many Protestant clergy to Nazi anti-Semitic legislation. Demonizing the Jews is Probst’s attempt to fill a historical lacuna as he describes how Protestant churchmen used Luther’s writings to justify the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht, among other Nazi measures against the Jews. Luther was sympathetic to Jews in his early writings as he attempted to win them over to Christianity. But when it became evident that Jews would not convert, he turned on them. In his vitriolic rant against Jews in On the Jews and Their Lies and Shem Hamphorus (the ineffable name), Luther accuses them of blasphemies, “mad fantasies” about the magical sources of Jesus’ miracles and argues that Jews—who were accused of well-poisoning, the killing of Christian children for ritual purposes and host desecration—are quite capable of such shameful deeds. In Shem Hamphorus, Luther accuses Jewish doctors of trying to kill ailing Christians through “inconspicuous means.”
What then was Luther’s solution to Germany’s Jewish Question? Specifically, in On the Jews and Their Lies, the founder of the Protestant Reformation and a German national hero called for the burning of synagogues and Jewish schools, the confiscation of the Talmud and prayer books and the prohibition of rabbinic teaching.
Luther also called for the destruction of Jewish homes, the denial of safe passage on the highways, economic restrictions—including usury—and, if Jews did not convert following these measures, expulsion.
Probst, who was a Charles H. Revson Foundation fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, contends that Luther’s treatises about Jews were potentially powerful weapons in the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic arsenal of Nazi German Protestants.
The German Christians were one of three factions in Protestant Nazi Germany, the others being the Confessing church and the unaffiliated Protestant clergy. Church leaders of these groups displayed little sympathy for the plight of Germany’s Jews. Quite the contrary, even the Confessing church, which opposed a number of Hitler’s measures because of their impact on church-state relations, showed little concern for the Jews, and a number of their pastors invoked Luther to justify the persecution of the Jews. Only in the case of Jewish converts to Christianity, who were included under the Aryan Paragraph (1933) that barred non-Aryans from public service and positions in the churches, was there a protest against the government.
Probst argues that Luther’s essays constituted an important part of the theological arsenal of German Protestant pastors, bishops and academic theologians during the Third Reich. Luther’s anti-Semitic writings circulated widely through the Protestant churches but Probst cautions that the extent to which these ideas inflamed anti-Semitic hatred in the Protestant population cannot be determined. Yet, Probst concludes, “thousands had access to the potent ideology contained in Luther’s writings, much of which resembled anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda aimed at dehumanizing Jews, who suffered and died by the millions in Hitler’s Third Reich.” —Jack Fischel
Beyond Courage is edifying for both adults and youngsters. In five sections, Doreen Rappaport shows how heroically people acted under the occupation; in the ghettos and forests; in labor, transit and concentration camps as well as in partisan warfare.
November 9 to 10, 1938, was a turning point: Jewish students in Berlin were sent home because of rampant vandalism and riots. Yet, two teens went into a destroyed synagogue to rescue 12 Torah scrolls. A 12-year-old girl survived because her reluctant father sent her—one of 10,000 saved—on the Kindertransport to England. Youth Aliyah sent 15,000 youths to Palestine.
In occupied Amsterdam, a smuggling network rescued 4,500 children. In Belgium, a secret network of Christians hid and saved more than 3,000 children.
Also included is the story of the courageous Bielski brothers, whose forest shtetl sheltered 1,230 Jews.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, Marek Edelman and others fought until, and after, the ghetto was burnt down. Emmanuel Ringelblum’s secret group, Oyneg Shabes, collected articles and essays, diaries, poems, posters and photographs to bear witness to their lives.
Dug up after the war, thousands of the documents are today housed in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
In Theresienstadt, the will to live was apparent in secret classes held for children—in geography, history, math, Hebrew and literature. Before she was deported to Auschwitz, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis hid her students’ 4,500 drawings and paintings in an attic.
In mountain villages, forests and swamps, partisans harassed the enemy and elsewhere sabotaged trains. These actions are victories. —Zelda Shluker
When Peter Beinart emerged as a spokesman for left-wing Zionists worried about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, critics found him a fairly easy target. Reviewers on the right and center charged that his book, The Crisis of Zionism (Time Books), was alarmist and weakly argued, and that Beinart himself, as an American Jew, had no right to lecture Israel about democracy, Zionism or anything else.
Gershom Gorenberg is not so easily dismissed. An American-born journalist and religious Jew who has lived in Israel for over 30 years, Gorenberg has covered Israel inside and out as a staffer for The Jerusalem Report and other publications. His 2006 book, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Time Books), was a deeply researched study of the ways Israeli governments, on the right and left, allowed the settlements enterprise to move from the fringes of Israeli culture to the very center, leaving Israel with a series of “postponed choices” about what kind of country it wanted to be.
Having written the history of Israel’s defining dilemma, he now explores its implications. In extending sovereignty over a people it has no interest in making citizens or voters, he argues, Israel has undermined its own claims to be the Middle East’s “only democracy.” Successive governments have allowed settlements to swallow up Palestinian-owned land through a series of actions that are quasi-legal but absolutely illegal—under Israel’s own laws. In a chapter bluntly titled “The Capital of Lawlessness,” he describes politicians and bureaucrats blithely funding settlement activity that Israeli courts had specifically declared off limits.
Part of Israel’s unmaking, writes Gorenberg, is the unwillingness of its people and leaders to relinquish Israel’s founding narrative—that is, “a national movement locked in conflict with another ethnic group over the entire land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.” Having secured its sovereignty, he argues, Israel has a new national mission: “Once a border is again drawn on the map, Israel can finally complete its long-delayed transition from national liberation movement to liberal nation-state.”
In addition to bringing the settlers “home,” Gorenberg sees two other changes necessary to reestablish that “liberal nation-state.” One is ensuring equality for the Arab Israelis who will remain citizens of Israel under a two-state solution—a true democracy, he writes, cannot favor one ethnic group over another in jobs, land and educational opportunity. The other change demands the separation of synagogue and state. Drawing on the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Gorenberg describes how the Orthodox clerical bureaucracy has alienated generations of Israelis from Jewish tradition. In the territories, meanwhile, a system of army-run yeshivot and subsidies for religious educators is creating “ideological combat units that are beholden to clergy”—paid for with state funds.
Gorenberg’s book is a challenging read for American Jews, who are often more comfortable reading about what Israel has done right than the ways it has been “unmaking” itself. Readers may reject his solutions, but they will be hard-pressed to deny the need to address the challenges he identifies. —Andrew Silow-Carroll
Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.