Books: Tradition! An Appreciation
The UnAmericans: Stories by Molly Antopol. (W.W. Norton, 273 pp. $24.95)
As Molly Antopol’s absorbing eight stories evolve—all of them moving, unresolved but satisfying explorations of wanting to belong to family, country, culture and history—the title of this impressive collection takes on ambiguity. “Un-American” was what Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee in the 1950s called Communists and left-leaning sympathizers, and some of Antopol’s characters do keep the faith, or their version of the faith, in The Party. But the word also describes the way Antopol’s different characters—Jews whose heritage is East European—yearn for something besides America or Israel. They are, however, too flawed to act on what they sense is deficient in themselves.
The irony of their situations—men, women, young, old, well off, poor, professionals and laborers—is that when they finally do understand what they want or want to recover, particularly in intimate relationships with their children, mates, parents or siblings, it is too late. They may wind up more self-aware, but they are also damaged and disillusioned.
As Boaz, a translator, puts it in the last story, “Retrospective”: with “loneliness so scary and real it required an entirely different language, new and strange and yet to be invented.” Boaz is a marginal figure in his estranged wife’s wealthy family, whose brilliant matriarch amassed one of the largest art collections in the world and left everything to the Israel Museum. Boaz, a loner, does not see what his wife does, that he is “more in love with her family than with her.”
Many of Antopol’s characters settle for a joy that graced their earlier lives, when they believed in dissident ideals, something they come to know they will never again experience. Antopol beautifully captures the complexity of her characters with pitch-perfect dialogue that has both comic and tragic overtones, skillfully suggesting the distance between what is said and what is felt. She is especially good on opening sentences and delivering vital information by indirection, often subtly shifting focus from the teller of the tale or protagonist to another character.
“No one wants to listen to a man lament his solitary nights,” begins the opening story, “The Old World,” a first-person narrative about a 63-year-old man. Alone for 40 years, he makes moves on a young woman from Ukraine, one of his customers.
“And your husband doesn’t mind your going out with every dry cleaner you meet?”
“How would he know? He’s dead.”
They marry, honeymoon in Kiev and suddenly drift apart.
The center doesn’t hold for Asaaf, either, who loses his leg in an accident on a moshav in “Minor Heroics,” and whose younger brother, the narrator, is in love with Asaaf’s girl.
In “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” every word deepens in significance as the teller, who does not get on with her own daughter, warms to the story of her time in The Yiddish Underground, in sewers and forests. Still, she cannot understand why her granddaughter always asks questions about “horrible things that happened before [she was] born.”
It’s no surprise to learn that Antopol’s fiction debut earned her a 2013 National Book Foundation award. —Joan Baum
The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye by Jeremy Dauber. (Nextbook/Schocken, 400 pp. $28.95)
It’s a wonder it has taken so long—almost 100 years after his death in New York—for the appearance of a full-length biography of the world’s most famous and beloved Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem (born Sholem Rabinovitch, 1859-1916). Jeremy Dauber takes us from the Yiddish humorist’s early beginnings through the creation of his famous characters, the hapless Menakhem-Mendl and the nuanced Tevye the dairyman.
To understand Tevye properly, a biographer-critic must also be able to penetrate the Hebrew of the Jewish tradition embedded within Yiddish; in other words, the Yiddishkeyt of Yiddish. But if there is anyone who can do so with authority and ease, it is Dauber.
He shows us Sholem Aleichem through the tensions between Yiddish and Hebrew, the period of pogroms, the rise of Zionism, the Dreyfus Affair, his departure from Russia, reading tours in Europe and his final stop, New York. Sholem Aleicheim’s historic ethical will was published in all the Yiddish papers and read into the Congressional Record. His funeral was attended by 150,000 people, the largest public funeral in New York’s history.
Wherever Sholem Aleichem went there were reception committees, dinners, speeches, crowds waiting to see him. After one public reading, admirers carried him on their shoulders to his carriage, unhitched the horse and brought him to his hotel. But adulation never translated into cash. Having lost the fortune he had inherited from his father-in-law on the Kiev stock exchange, for the rest of his life Sholem Aleichem was beset by a longing for money to pay his bills. Only in the Yiddish literary world can one be world-famous and constantly broke. Alas, his hoped-for windfall from his plays came to his family less than half a century after his death to the tune of Fiddler on the Roof (1964).
Sholem Aleichem’s life is full of contradictions and ironies. As a Yiddish writer he fought valiantly to make “jargon” respectable, even when supporters of Haskala and Zionism sought the primacy of Hebrew. But most of his letters to his children were in Russian, and his youngest daughter, Marie, told me that at home her father spoke Russian, a fact echoed by his granddaughter, Bel Kaufman, who at 102 is the only person left on earth who knew Sholem Aleichem.
Yiddishkeyt suffuses his stories, yet he did not give his children a traditional Jewish education. Not only did they eat ham at home, they clamored for it—but out of respect for their traditional grandmother, they ate it on paper plates. A longtime secularist, removed for decades from his father’s traditional observance, when Sholem Aleichem learned of his son’s death in Denmark in 1915, he went to shul in the Bronx daily to say Kaddish. He has stories for every major Jewish festival, even minor ones like Lag B’Omer, but I don’t recall one whose focus is the Sabbath.
Dauber’s book is all encompassing and sprightly written, dotted with stories that illuminate his subject. It elegantly combines the facts of Sholem Aleichem’s life with his life’s work, and will no doubt inspire readers to further explore the master humorist’s oeuvre. —Curt Leviant
Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof by Alisa Solomon. (Metropolitan Books, 448 pp. $32)
Wonder of Wonders tells general readers everything they might want to know about Tevye’s journey from Sholem Aleichem’s pen to the Broadway stage and, finally, to the silver screen—and a good deal more. If Alisa Solomon’s tome had been cut to half its size, I suspect the resulting book would have been twice as effective. The problem is that the author cannot resist sharing every tidbit of information she uncovered during her exhaustive research into all things Fiddler. Sometimes the results are jaw dropping, as when she reproduces the comments director-choreographer Jerome Robbins made when he worried that the brilliant-but-unpredictable Zero Mostel might back out at the last minute.
But cultural history demands that Solomon make clear why Mostel and Robbins bristled at each other, and for that answer considerable space is given to political divides over who “named names” during the investigations of Communist influence in the entertainment industry. She gives us the long, complicated history of how the blacklisted team of actor Howard Da Silva and writer Arnold Perl brought a 1953 version of Tevye and his daughters to the stage a little more than a decade before the one that opened with Mostel belting out “Tradition.”
Solomon follows several amateur productions as a way of gauging how much tolerance and goodwill Fiddler brought to the schoolyard set. Yet she gives little credence to those she numbers as “highbrow scolds” (principally, Irving Howe, Ruth Wisse and Cynthia Ozick)—making sure their objections are first met and then overturned.
Full disclosure requires me to confess that I number myself among the highbrow scolds. For me, the original Fiddler was just too kitschy, too feel-good to reflect either Tevye or the world that produced him. What we got instead were catchy Tin Pan Alley tunes and flashy dancing. But, as Solomon points out, Fiddler is, above all, a Broadway musical. Its creative team worried that Tevye might be perceived as too Jewish and that only synagogue groups from New Jersey would buy tickets.
They were, of course, wrong: Fiddler was not only a hit but also became the longest-running musical of its generation. For many decades, Jews had viewed Broadway from the outside in; with Fiddler, it would now be from the inside out. Solomon chronicles the trials and tribulations that surrounded Fiddler’s 1964 opening. Unlike Solomon, however, I would argue thatFiddler managed to triumph over everything but its own success. For many assimilated American Jews, Fiddler became a substitute for the religious practices they had forgotten or had never known: “Sabbath Prayer” became their Sabbath prayer and fathers danced at their daughter’s weddings to the tune of “Sunrise, Sunset.”
Tevye likes to argue “on one hand” and then, reversing field, “on the other.” That’s how I feel about Wonder of Wonders. It taught me things about Fiddler I didn’t know, but Solomon’s study often seems little more than an apology. Sholem Aleichem’s world-class character deserves much better.
But because Solomon is a clear-as-glass writer (she is a professor of journalism at Columbia University), the tale of howFiddler was made makes for a rattling good story. —Sanford Pinsker
How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism by Benjamin Ginsberg. (Rowman & Littlefield, 223 pp. $35)
Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science and director of Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies in Washington, has written 20 books on American government and politics. In a class on Germany and Nazism, a student asked why the Jews hadn’t resisted efforts at extermination.How the Jews Defeated Hitler, his 21st book, is Ginsberg’s answer.
Ginsberg argues that the Jews did resist the Nazis—cumulatively. Put another way, the efforts of world Jewry, particularly in the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, contributed to the defeat of Germany in World War II. Their efforts weren’t coordinated, but Jews in those countries played leading roles in espionage, intelligence/code breaking, weapons development and production and military leadership.
According to Ginsberg, the common definition of “resistance” is narrow, and unfair. Jews resisted in ghettos and concentration camps and in partisan groups (most effectively in the Soviet Union). “Rather than look for armed resistance among unarmed civilians and express scorn at Jews for failing to do what could not be done, we should look for resistance where it was possible to resist,” Ginsberg writes, a swipe at critics like Hannah Arendt and the notion that Jews were passive victims.
Ginsberg devotes multiple chapters to Jews’ essential role in each of the three countries. In the Soviet Union, for example, Jews represented about three percent of the population but were in the forefront of defeating the Nazis. Jewish engineers urged the relocation of the country’s military-industrial factories and oversaw the move from the western to the eastern regions. Jewish scientists designed the pivotal fighter plane, tank and Katyusha rocket used by the Soviet military. A half-million Jews served in the Red Army, including the general who led the defense of Moscow (Yakov Kreyzer) and the first pilot to bomb Berlin (Captain Mikhail Plotkin).
In the United States, Jews backed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prewar fight against isolationism and for lend-lease to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Jews comprised barely three percent of the population but more than 15 percent of the administration’s top-level appointees. More than 600,000 Jews served in the United States Armed Forces. A Jewish scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology improved radar technology. Most of the physicists in the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, were Jews (i.e., Leo Szilard, Lise Meitner, J. Robert Oppenheimer, among others).
A Jew headed the United States Army’s Intelligence Service, which spearheaded the country’s code breaking and developed a code the Germans could not break. Jewish cryptologists in Great Britain helped break the German code.
“Rather than ask why the Jews failed to resist, we might reasonably ask whether the Allies would have won without the Jews?” Ginsberg asks in conclusion.
The book is academic and few of the many names Ginsberg cites come alive. Still, he makes a compelling case for Jewish resistance and gives the lie to those who question otherwise. —Barbara Pash
Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism by Gil Troy. (Oxford University Press, 368 pp. $29.95)
Gil Troy of McGill University in Montreal has trained his historian’s perspective on Daniel Patrick Moynihan, emphasizing the future senator’s experience as United States ambassador to the United Nations from June 30, 1975, through June 30, 1976. The dates are significant because it was during his brief tenure that the international body adopted Resolution 3379, which denounced Zionism as a form of racism.
It was Moynihan who courageously rose in the General Assembly to denounce the resolution, eloquently stating: “the United States…will never acknowledge it, will never abide by it, will never acquiesce in this infamous act.” His powerful words reflected his growing conviction that the United Nations had become a forum for antidemocratic states to promote their own nefarious agendas.
Kabbalah in Art and Architecture by Alexander Gorlin. (Pointed Leaf Press, 175 illustrations. 192 pp. $60)
His words angered the State Department and invoked the ire of Henry Kissinger, a secretary of state who was prepared to sacrifice principles for long-term results. Liberals, enamored of a postcolonial present, also resented his remarks. Moynihan was appalled by the timid reaction of the Jewish community. It is ironic that Moynihan was Israel’s champion in a compromised United Nations. Resolution 3379 was repealed on December 16, 1991. Troy has captured the spirit and credo of a unique statement and created a fine capsule history of the Zionist movement. —Sheldon Horowitz
Trying to absorb the beauty, depth and detail of Alexander Gorlin’s book would be like attempting to learn Kabbala while standing on one foot. Gorlin sees Jewish mysticism as a moving force that shows up—intended and unintended—in art, sculpture and architecture. In the prologue, Gorlin, an architect, traces the 3,500-year-old history of Jewish mysticism from the creation story to Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Throne-Chariot (586 B.C.E. Babylon), Sefer Yetzirah (third century), Sefer Bahir (10th century) and, most important, the Zohar (1290, attributed to Spanish rabbi Moses de Leon).
Gorlin asserts that Jewish exile prevented the development of a truly Jewish design for synagogues and he puts forth his own design for the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Kings Point, New York, which has an Ark covering that is a diagram of the Sefirot.
The 10 chapters are divided by mystical elements—Heavenly Palaces and the Throne-Chariot; the Void; Sefirot, the 10 attributes through which the Infinite is revealed; Crown; Repair; and Golem. Illustrating these elements are works by Barnett Newman, including Zim Zum (contraction), a sculpture that is a series of two folded metal walls; several works by Louis Kahn, including a mosque where beams of light stream through the round windows; and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, “an otherworldly jumble of shimmering jewels.” This stunning book is brimming with energy. —Zelda Shluker
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