Growing up Jewish in post-WWII Germany

Yascha Mounk’s “Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26) starts on an ironic note and stays there. Two decades after the end of World War II, when the latest wave of official anti-Semitism swept over Communist-ruled Poland in the 1960s, Mounk’s family sought places of refuge around the world, and his grandfather, Leon, ended up not in Israel or America, but in Germany.

“Leon had once taken the last train out of Warsaw to escape the approach of the Wehrmacht,” the author writes. “Now, with the help of an aging Austrian comrade, he successfully smuggled himself into Germany.”

So it happened that the author was born and raised as Jew in post-war Germany, an experience he shares in the pages of his rich and remarkable memoir.  Amid the tectonic upheavals of history that his family endured and survived, one human life seems frail indeed.  But, for Mounk, history remains a dream, as James Joyce famously put it, from which he struggles to awaken. “As a German Jew, you don’t have to make a special effort to remember the past,” he explains. “The past, usually in manners most surreal, will find a way of imposing itself on you.”

Here is yet another point of irony. Like many other assimilated Jews in Germany in the era of the Holocaust, Jewishness was imposed upon Mounk by his fellow German citizens.  “[I] never celebrated my bar mitzvah, and feel far more comfortable on a soccer field or at the library than in a synagogue,” he explains. “Even so, as I grew up, I came to feel more and more Jewish – and less and less German.”  The reason, he reveals, is not the “dark underbelly of lingering, even resurgent anti-Semitism” in Germany.

“Far from being openly anti-Semitic, most Germans I met were so keen to prove to me that they weren’t anti-Semitic that they treated me with the kind of nervous niceness usually reserved for the mentally handicapped or the terminally ill,” he writes in phrases that obliquely refer to the first victims of Nazi mass murder. “The effect of their pity and their virtue was to leave both of us with the sense that I couldn’t possibly have anything in common with them.”

Mounk concedes that German attitudes toward the Nazis and their Jewish victims were “radically transformed” starting in the 1960s.  On the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat and surrender, the president of Germany declared that “the 8th of May was a day of liberation,” because, as he put it, “[i]t liberated us all from the dehumanizing system of National Socialism’s violent rule.”  Even so, the tiny numbers of Jews in Germany — measured in the tens of thousands among a German population of 60 million as late as the 1990s — meant that few Germans had any contact with a living Jew: “Each Jew,” the author jokes, “had to be shared out among two thousand Gentiles.” Only with the fall of the Soviet bloc did the Jewish population grow by 200,000 or so.

Yet the taint of anti-Semitism, both historical and contemporary, is shown to reveal itself in subtle ways.  In 1993, several of the shops in the small town of Laupheim, where Mounk and his mother then lived, announced the celebration of their 60th anniversaries, an unexplained reference to the year when the Nazis came to power and Jewish shops were “Aryanized” by compulsory transfer to their new German owners. Even when a gesture of reconciliation was made, as when Willy Brandt fell to his knees at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, graffiti could be seen on the streets of Germany: “Brandt an die Wand!” (“Up against the wall, Brandt!”). Mounk himself recalls that when he identified himself as a Jew in a middle-school classroom, the rest of the students broke out in laughter, and he was sent out of the room to sit with a Turkish student while the other students were given Catholic or Protestant religious instruction.

Even the phenomenon of “philo-Semitism” in certain German circles was paradoxical, according to the author. “[T]he very same impulse to draw lessons from Auschwitz can have much more pernicious consequences,” he writes. “The slow descent of the leading members of Germany’s 1960 student movement into violence and terrorism is perhaps the most extreme example.”  Once again, the Jews were victimized: “Eventually, the violent fringes of the 1968 movement would invoke the name of Auschwitz to justify lethal attacks on Jews,” he explains. “Identifying fascism with capitalism, capitalism with the Federal Republic, the Federal Republic with the United States, the Untied States with Israel, and Israel with all Jews, they soon came to think of Jews as the true Fascists.”

Mounk’s engaging and provocative book amounts to a kind of intellectual and emotional self-portrait of the author himself and, at the same time, a historical and cultural profile of post-war Germany.  “Perhaps Germany really is on the way toward becoming unreflectively, unselfconsciously normal,” he allows. But Mounk, who is now a doctoral candidate at Harvard, has voted with his feet: “[A]s I decided to leave Germany, thoughts about what it would mean to live there as a Jew were at the front of my mind,” he writes. “Today, they remain a good part of the reason why I can’t really imagine ever moving back.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.  His latest book, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright) has been selected as one of the Best Books of 2013 by the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Public Library.

Archaeology, truth, Jerusalem

Archaeology is more than a science when it comes to Jerusalem, a place where the turn of the spade may reveal an artifact that has political and theological overtones. Katharina Galor and Hanswulf Bloedhorn, authors of “The Archeology of Jerusalem: From the Origins to the Ottomans” (Yale University Press, $50), are mindful of these pitfalls.

“[S]omething beyond the material and written remains has contributed to the long-lasting effects of Jerusalem’s cultural and religious development,” they acknowledge. “Whether guided by the desire to prove or disprove a certain spiritual presence and its physical manifestations, and regardless of whether one is a religiously inspired or scientifically trained scholar, the goal is always to reconstruct ‘the truth.’ ”

Their goal here is to provide a comprehensive survey of the work that has been carried by several generations of scholars. Galor is a professor of Judaic studies at Brown University, and Bloedhorn is an expert in Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine architecture. Both of them have lived, worked and taught in Jerusalem, and their scholarship is informed by their first-hand experience of what is surely the most consequential archaeological site in the world. 

For all of its importance, however, or perhaps because of it, some of the first excavations were “methodologically deficient and unsatisfactorily documented.” The problem begins, of course, with the distorting role that religion plays in what used to be called “biblical archaeology,” which invoked the fanciful notion of archaeologists who carried a shovel in one hand and a Bible in the other hand. Even today, it is impossible to excavate on the very site where tradition holds that the Temple once stood.

The physical evidence of the history of Jerusalem is considerable. The city is mentioned in Egyptian “execration” texts on ceramic bowls and figurines dating back to the 19th century B.C.E.: “It was believed,” they explain, “that the power of the enemy whose name was inscribed on the bowls and figurines could be destroyed by smashing them.” The remains of two buildings survive from the Early Bronze Age. But the narratives that are preserved in the Bible are of only “limited chronological value,” as the authors delicately put it, and they suggest the Temple of Solomon, if it existed at all, was something different from what is described in the Tanakh.

“Archaeological evidence suggests that numerous contemporary sanctuaries existed and that monotheism did not develop until after 622 B.C.E.,” they point out. “All attempts to locate the First Temple, whether by trying to locate the Temple itself (or specific parts of it, such as the Holy of Holies or the sacrificial altar) or, alternatively, by locating the substructure that possibly supported the Temple, remain conjectural.”

By contrast, animal and human figurines fashioned of clay are among the most common archaeological finds from the Late Iron Age. While the authors do not use the term, we might wonder if these figurines are better described as idols. “These figurines can be understood as an expression of popular beliefs whose traditions were rooted in the political and cultural development of Judah,” they write, “a reality that stands in contrast to the biblical injunction against the making of graven images.” 

Of necessity, much of the book is devoted to the period that began with the end of the Babylonian Exile starting in the sixth century B.C.E. Here, too, the evidence for the biblical account is sparse or non-existent. “Despite the fundamental role of the postexilic Second Temple,” the writers point out, “archaeological remains of this edifice are lacking.” Only the Temple as reconstructed by Herod — and only the retaining walls for this structure — testify to the existence of the ancient Temple. But much more attests to the urban landscape of ancient Jerusalem, including architecture, mosaics, sculpture, inscriptions, vessels, coins, jewelry and even board games incised on stone pavers, all of which are illustrated in fascinating detail. 

Most abundant of all, of course, are the constructions undertaken in Jerusalem by its various Islamic, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman conquerors. It is only the last of these, for example, who constructed the walls that circumscribe the Old City. The accumulation of archaeological remnants over a period of 5,000 years, as the author points out, represents only a fragment of its rich history. “No one discipline — history, archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics, art history, and more — presumes to capture the full scope of Jerusalem’s heritage.”

But it is also true that no other city of the ancient world is quite so compelling, and not only to archaeologists. The followers of three religions regard Jerusalem as the starting point (and, for some, the endpoint) of the divine enterprise. But theology does not enter into “The Archaeology of Jerusalem.” To their credit, Galor and Bloedhorn have encapsulated the work of many generations of their fellow scholars by showing us, quite literally, the facts on the ground.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.”

Jews and Muslims, their common threads

The encounter between Jews and Muslims, which began during the lifetime of Mohammed, has never been without tensions and conflicts, perhaps never more so than today.  “A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day” (Princeton University Press, $75), edited by Abdelwahab Meddeb and Benjamin Stora, is an ambitious and highly successful effort at what the publishers call “the ‘biography’ of a living and complex relationship.”

First published in France and now available in English translation, the book offers a collection of scholarly essays accompanied by sidebars of explanatory text, excerpts from historical sources  and a rich array of maps and illustrations. Significantly, one of the two principal editors is Muslim and the other is Jewish, and both aspire to bridge the gap between these two peoples who share so much in common, despite their current frictions. 

Abdelwahab Meddeb, for example, recalls his childhood in Tunis, where he recognized something familiar in the prayers of his Jewish neighbors: “These Jews, whom I saw on a daily basis, bore within themselves what made them similar to me, and also what made them different,” he writes. “It was that difference in resemblance that confused me.”  The same sentiment is echoed by his Jewish colleague, Benjamin Stora, who grew up in Algeria: “In the end, what did we have in common, Jews and Muslims?” he ponders. “Languages (Arabic and French), a temporality marked by liturgical rhythm, musical affinities, culinary traditions, and also the market and the streets.”

Their intention in the book, they announce is nothing less than “a restoration of the historical bonds established between Jews and Muslims for more than fourteen centuries, from the first appearance of the Qu’ran to our own time — fourteen centuries of passions and oppressions, of sometimes tragic, sometimes auspicious relations.”   But they also acknowledge that their book “is being written at a time when these relations have reached a dead end.” Nevertheless, these two scholars, and many of the contributors to their enterprise, endorse a hopeful goal — “to call into question some of the cultural assumptions we take for granted, particularly concerning the irreducible opposition between the two worlds, Jewish and Muslim.” 

Thus, for example, Princeton professor Mark R. Cohen explains that both Muslim and Jewish scholars have distorted the history of the “ ‘Golden Age’ of Jewish-Muslim harmony” in medieval Spain under Islamic sovereignty.  While it was not quite the “interfaith utopia of tolerance and convivencia that it has been advertised to be, Cohen insists that Jews living under Islamic sovereignty were better off than their counterparts in the Christian world.  “As long as they were allowed to live in security and practice their religion without interference — this was ‘toleration’ in the medieval sense of the word — they were generally content.”  Beyond that, he insists, “[t]he Arabic and Islamic ‘renaissance’ laid the groundwork for other Jewish cultural innovations.”

Indeed, the whole book is focused on the various “cultural innovations,” both Islamic and Jewish, that flowed from the encounter between Muslims and Jews.  In the 19th century, for example, Jewish architects played a crucial role in the remaking of Cairo, including the design and construction of mosques and the preservation of antiquities. Remarkably, the monumental Al-Rifai’ Mosque is the work of a Hungarian Jew, Max Herz.  The irony does not escape Mercedes Volait, another contributor to the book: “It may seem surprising, within the current context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the religious hatred it has fed, that a Jewish architect designed Muslim places of worship.”

At more than 1,000 pages of text, illustration and scholarly apparatus, “A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations” is, quite literally, a solid work of scholarship.  Thanks to its eye-catching visual elements, it also presents itself as a coffee-table book of a superior kind. Above all, it is a serious and timely effort to repair a relationship between kindred peoples who have never been fully at ease with each and yet, thanks to the accidents of history, are fated to live in close proximity.

 Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.  His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, A Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright), which has been selected as a best book of 2013 by the Washington Post, the Jewish Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Public Library.

Book Review: Three different ‘Family’ ways

Word of mouth is the real maker of best sellers in the publishing world, and I can think of few books with quite as much buzz as David Laskin’s remarkable family chronicle, “The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” (Viking, $32).

Laskin tells a story — or, rather, three stories — that are emblematic of the Jewish experience in the previous century. His book follows three branches of the Cohen family, all born in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in tsarist Russia, as they struggle to survive amid the historic upheavals of the last century. One strand of the family finds its way to America and makes a fortune in the shmatte business; another makes aliyah to Palestine and pioneers the Jewish homeland; the third remains in Russia and suffers the horrors of the Shoah. Many of Laskin’s readers will have the same or similar stories to tell, but it is rare to find a family historian who is able to gather the family lore, sort out fact from fiction, and deliver a story with such color, sweep and impact.

“History made and broke my family in the twentieth century,” Laskin explains. “Their daring, their drive, their inventiveness, and ambition, and confidence and secret melancholy strike me now like something out of Dos Passos or Isaac Bashevis Singer. They gave me so much, these fierce, passionate immigrants — my life, my freedom and privileges, my education, my identity, my country. The least I can do is give their stories back to them.”

The story begins with Shimon Dov HaKohen, a member of a little dynasty of scribes at work in the shtetl of Volozhin, in what is now Belarus, but “The Family” is quickly caught up in the currents of history. Shimon’s daughter, Itel, started out as a member of the Jewish socialist movement known as the Bund, but ended up in America as one of the owners of the Maidenform bra and girdle company: “The daughter and granddaughter of scribes had stumbled upon one of the pure products of America,” Laskin writes, “seemingly frivolous but in fact eminently practical and instantly indispensable.”

Itel’s brother, Chaim, by contrast, was an ardent follower of the martyred Zionist leader Joseph Trumpeldor, and he aspired to join the other young men and women who were pioneering the Jewish homeland in Palestine. “In his dreams, Chaim would take the hero’s place,” Laskin writes. “But first he must learn how to work. Not the degrading Diaspora work of keeping shop, peddling merchandise, brokering, smuggling. Chaim must master the noble labor of the halutz.” He finally reached Palestine in 1924, and he served in the Haganah during the fateful year of 1929, when the simmering tensions between Arabs and Jews boiled over.

“Chaim had been little more than a boy when he arrived in the Kinneret in 1924, a teenager buoyed by boundless hope and idealism,” the author explains. “Idealism alters when it has to bear a sidearm. The tragedy of the twentieth-century Palestine was that farmers like Chaim had to learn to beat their plowshares into swords.”

A precious remnant of the family remained in the Old Country. When Sonya, a cousin to Itel and Chaim, who had made aliyah, returned to visit the family in Raskov in 1938, she saw that they were “frightened and desperate,” but lacked the wherewithal to get out. A relative in America offered to assist them, and “we hope that something will come of out,” as Doba, Sonya’s sister, wrote. “But nothing did come of it,” Laskin writes. “Some link in the chain broke.” Doba and the rest of the family were trapped at ground zero of the Holocaust: “We met some wise people,” Doba wrote, “who are aware that we are sitting on the mouth of a volcano.” 

Inevitably, the saga ends with a measure of joy but also a measure of pain and loss. Laskin mourns those who stayed behind, and he celebrates the fact that 101 of his relatives survive in America and another 32 in Israel. Above all, he urges us to see the workings of history not merely as a list of dates, places and events, great men and great ideas, but as a tapestry whose threads include the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings.

“The pulse of history beats in every family,” he concludes. “All of our lives are engraved with epics of love and death.” But it is also true that few families produce a scribe as gifted as Laskin himself, a storyteller who has given his own family chronicle all of the depth and detail of a great novel while, at the same time, honoring the truth of their lives.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.” 

Warsaw’s other uprising

For most Jewish readers, I suspect, the phrase “Warsaw uprising” refers to the stirring last stand of the Jewish ghetto fighters in 1943.  But there was quite another upwelling of armed resistance in Warsaw a year later, and that’s the focus of “Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler and the Warsaw Uprising” by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $40.00), an account of the doomed effort at self-liberation launched by the Polish Home Army against the Nazis even as the Red Army sat and watched on the far side of the Vistula.

Richie’s book is only the latest in a small but important trend in publishing that calls our attention to the richness, complexity and tragedy of events on the ground in Poland during the Second World War. Timothy Snyder’s groundbreaking book, “Bloodlands,” is one example, and so is Louise Steinman’s newly-published memoir, “The Crooked Mirror.” All of these books are worthy efforts to rescue one of the most consequential nations in European history from the realm of “Polish jokes” and to open our eyes to its heroic if also tragic saga.

“My Poles will not revolt” is what Hans Frank, the man in charge of occupied Poland, told the Fuehrer when the first reports of skirmishing in Warsaw reached Hitler’s headquarters. He was wrong, as it turned out, but Heinrich Himmler, the architect and operator of Germany’s machinery of terror, looked on the bright side:  “It would give them the excuse to do what they had wanted to do for years — erase Warsaw from the map,” Richie explains.

Richie, who lives and writes in Warsaw, brings a mastery of Polish history and politics to her book, and she allows the reader to see how the Warsaw uprising is linked to the other and more famous events in the history of World War II. Above all, she reveals the crucial motive of the Polish resistance in taking on the Nazis before the Red Army entered Warsaw and installed a Communist regime in place of the Polish government-in-exile that had taken refuge in London during the war.

“They fought in order to see the restoration of a free, liberal, democratic state,” Riche writes. “With the Red Army moving inexorably towards Warsaw, the decision was made to take a stand in the capital city, for the Poles to push the Germans out themselves, and to greet the Soviets as equals. Surely then the rest of the world would heed their call for independence, and put pressure on Stalin.”

Richie’s narrative of these events is rooted in scholarship but expressed with color, clarity and impact. She has an eye for the telling detail: “Despite his vegetarianism,” she pauses to tell us, “Hitler had long had a strange admiration for poachers, and decide that with their particular skills of tracking and killing they might be useful in the fight against the partisans.” The Red Army was assisted in its victorious counter-attacks against the Wehrmacht by the riches of the Lend-lease program: “American Jeeps whizzed around Byelorussia, and Studebaker US6 trucks were used to launch Katusha rockets; at the same time Russian soldiers feasted on Hershey’s chocolate and wieners stamped ‘Oscar Meyer – Chicago.’” At the same, time she paints on a vast canvas that sprawls across 738 pages and depicts events and personalities both great and small.

The dominant note in “Warsaw 1944,” of course, is horror.  The Germans were no kinder or gentler when it came to the Poles than they were with any of the their other victims, and Richie finds herself compelled to describe atrocities that will break the hearts of readers who already know what the Germans were capable of doing in Auschwitz and at Babi Yar.  And the heroic resistance of the Poles in the Warsaw uprising of 1944 was no more successful than the efforts of the ghetto-fighters had been in 1943.

“The general mood in the units of my group is pessimistic and bitter because of the lack of weapons for the past eight days,” wrote one despairing Polish fighter. “We fight alone with no help from our quartermaster nor from the Allies.”

The death toll of the battle for Warsaw was modest when compared to the number of Polish Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  Some 18,000 soldiers in the Home Army died in battle, and another 150,000 civilians were casualties of the fighting. The political goal, of course, was not achieved, and Poland passed from Nazi occupation to Soviet domination for another half-century. Indeed, the whole episode has been mostly overlooked. “The destruction of Warsaw was one of the great tragedies of the Second World War,” the author insists. “And yet, after 1945, the Polish capital’s terrible ordeal virtually disappeared from history.”  

Richie, to her credit, has restored that ordeal to the place of honor in the pages of history that it richly deserves.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).

Eight books to light your Chanukah season

The early arrival of Chanukah coincides with Jewish Book Month, which suggests a convenient shopping list for gift-giving. Here are eight books I am planning to give this year to the book lovers among my family, friends and colleagues. Some of these books already have been reviewed at greater length in these pages over the past year.

My sentimental favorite for Chanukah is Alisa Solomon’s “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, $30).  Solomon approaches the Broadway musical from her perspective as a theater critic, journalist and scholar, but she also helps us understand the unlikely process by which the works of the Yiddish master storyteller Sholem Aleichem, first published in the 19th century, were artfully reinvented as a cultural artifact for American Jews in the 1960s, eventually transcending their Jewish origins to become a worldwide phenomenon. While Solomon does not avoid the controversies about the authenticity of “Fiddler” as a Jewish tale, her book is richly ornamented with Yiddishkayt, theater lore and cultural politics, all of which only deepen the reader’s appreciation for the familiar tunes. As for me, I played the Broadway cast album as I read “Wonder of Wonders,” and I took pleasure from both. 

The debut novelist who won the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Literature is Francesca Segal, a young writer who was inspired by Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” to tell a tale of star-crossed love set in contemporary London. In her prize-winning “The Innocents” (Hyperion, $14, paperback), we are introduced to the betrothed couple, a pair of Jewish Londoners who met in Israel while still teenagers and who seem to be fated to marry, but a shadow is cast over their romance by the bride’s cousin, a seductive woman with a lurid past who quickly catches the fiance’s eye and then his heart. It’s an age-old tale of temptation on the eve of marriage with Jewish 20-somethings cast in the principal roles.

Financial planning for a move to Israel

What I know about Israel comes from a variety of sources, including the news and commentary in this newspaper, countless books, my own experiences as a traveler to Israel, and the Facebook postings of my friends who live there. But the information and insights in “A Financial Guide to Aliyah and Life in Israel” by Baruch Labinsky (Mosaica Press, $19.99) filled in a great many gaps in my knowledge of the jewish homeland.

Labinsky is a financial planner and investment manager, and his book is intended for readers who are seriously considering — or who have already decided to make — a move to Israel. Much of the financial advice Labinsky offers is similar to what we might hear from a financial advisor in any country of the world.  But it also contains information for any reader interested in Israel, even if he or she has no intention of making aliyah.  Indeed, what I discovered in the pages of this book was fresh, surprising and illuminating.

The author acknowledges that there are many reasons a Jew in the Diaspora might choose to live in Israel — “religious beliefs, familial or culture ties,” among others — but he confines his book to single pointed query: “Can I afford to make Aliyah?” The practical issue becomes a lens through which to glimpse day-to-day life in Israel, a fascinating exercise even for those who are not yet packing up their possessions. It is also true, however, that Labinsky does not entirely ignore issue of faith: “Take things into your own hands,” he writes, “and with G-d’s help you can make it happen.” The point is made, by the way, in the playful illustrations by Menachem Jerenberg  — almost all of the men, women and children are shown wearing a kippah or a head-covering.

Mostly, however, Labinsky accounts for how financial issues can shape one’s experience of Israel.  Thus, for example, he discloses that “[a]ll Israeli citizens are entitled to join one of four health funds,” which cover basic medical services and offer supplementary insurance coverage.  However, not everything is covered, and if you arrive in Israel with a medical condition that requires medicines or treatments not covered by Israel’s socialized medical system, the lack of coverage may impose costs so high that they “can even undermine an entire Aliyah plan.”

He is also alert to the practical problems of daily life.  A new arrival in Israel “can get by with little or no Hebrew” in Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Efrat, he writes, but postponing the study of Hebrew may also make it difficult to “integrate professionally in Israel and attain financial stability.” 

There are many other important considerations: Putting a stop-payment on a check, he cautions, “is considered a crime,” and he recommends consulting an attorney before doing so. U.S. Social Security payments received in Israel are not taxed at all in Israel  but distributions from an IRA or a 401(k) account are taxable in both places (with a credit in the U.S. for taxes paid in Israel).  He urges olim to master one of the most ancient practices of the Levant: “Living in the Middle East requires Westerners to change their ‘fixed-price’ mentality and start negotiating on all purchases,” he advises. “Don’t be embarrassed – that’s the way Israel operates and no one will think any worse of you.”

Some cherished myths are shattered along the way. “A once highly desirable option for olim was to look for a kibbutz to join,” he explains. “In recent years, however, most kibbutzim have been privatized.  While kibbutz life still remains an option for some, the overwhelming number of olim aren’t interested in that lifestyle, and the options are far fewer with today’s kibbutzim.”

Other insights will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Israel as a tourist. “Consumers pay significantly more for goods and services than their counterparts in most other Western countries,” which means that American spending habits can be catastrophic to a family budget. “For example, the average Israeli family spends about NIS 2,200 [about $625] a month on food,” he writes. “The average large Anglo family, when it comes to Israel, spends at least twice to three times that amount.”

Above all, however, the author insists that financial decisions are not purely a matter of dollars and cents. Holding onto one’s home back in the United States, for example, may be a prudent step for a new arrival to take, but Labinsky points out that it may weaken the resolve that is necessary for a successful aliyah: “Sometimes having an easy fallback plan prevents people from giving the Aliyah experience a real try,” he writes. “Psychology can play a tremendous part in whether or not Aliyah is successful.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Favorite childrens’ books old and new

Remember “The Chanukkah Guest” by Eric Kimmel? Those 20-somethings who consider their favorite Chanukah stories from childhood would no doubt recall the tale of the 97-year-old woman who “did not see or hear as well as she used to, but she still made the best potato latkes in the village.” Now it’s been reimagined with a shorter text (by the same author), new illustrations (by a different illustrator), and a new title: “The Hanukkah Bear” (Holiday House). The original version regaled scores of first- and second-graders with the antics of a hungry latke-sniffing bear as he is mistaken for the town rabbi by a misguided old woman who has invited her rabbi for a Chanukah feast. The new incarnation simplifies the text, but remains the same spirited, humorous tale. When the old woman tries to take the bear’s “coat,” he roars, “Grrrrowww!” so she lets him keep it on. When she attempts a game of dreidel, he eats the nuts she offers for game pieces. She admonishes him for not using a fork to eat from the large stack of latkes, but she is pleased to find that he is so enthusiastic about her cooking. Eventually she wipes the jam from his messy “beard,” offers him a knitted scarf as a Chanukah gift, and the satiated bear goes back to his den just as the old woman’s real houseguests arrive at her door. Everyone pitches in to make more plates of latkes, and a happy Chanukah is had by all. The updated illustrations in this new version are whimsical, featuring a more endearing bear and a sweeter-looking old lady. Enthusiasts can argue over which version is better, but no matter — this delightful old favorite is back in the hands of children and will again become a perfect holiday read-aloud.

We find more bears celebrating Chanukah in “Beni’s Family Treasury: Stories for the Jewish Holidays” by Jane Breskin Zalben (Henry Holt and Co.) — another favorite from the ’90s that has been reprinted by the publisher. Thankfully it is available again to a new generation of kids who will delight in the intricately detailed illustrations of a colorful bear family who celebrate five major Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim and Passover. Each of the previously published warm and entertaining stories has been collected into this one volume, originally bound together in 1998. 

Those same now-grown kids who remember those two holiday books will also fondly recall “The Keeping Quilt by renowned children’s author Patricia Polacco. A short time ago, Simon and Shuster reissued a 25th anniversary edition of the beloved story of a handsome quilt handed down through generations of the author’s family. The book was cleverly updated to show how even today the quilt continues to move through the celebrations of the author’s family and is now displayed at the Mazza Museum in Ohio. Polacco has drawn upon her family history once again in her new and richly illustrated companion book to “The Keeping Quilt,” titled “The Blessing Cup” (Simon and Shuster). The new book serves as a sort of prequel to “The Keeping Quilt,” this time telling the story of a special teacup lovingly separated from a colorful china set by Polacco’s ancestors fleeing Tsarist Russia. The “blessing cup” was taken with them as they journeyed to America, and eventually it is passed down to her in 1962, when the author received the cup from her mother on her wedding day. The theme of family and tradition shines through this lovely, heartfelt story and would make a wonderful gift to any child. 

A couple of new Chanukah stories for the younger set highlight New York City in text and illustration but retain universal themes of sharing and family. In “The Eighth Menorah” by Lauren Wohl, with illustrations by Laura Hughes (Albert Whitman and Co.), young Sam gets a chance to make a secret clay menorah in Hebrew school but begins to think about how many menorahs his family already owns. They have seven: One came from Russia with his great-great-great-grandmother, one was a gift from Nana and Poppy, one was from his other grandparents’ trip to Israel, two others were owned by his parents when they were children, and one was the menorah his parents bought for their first Chanukah together. What is the point of making another? After a conversation with his grandmother (who has recently moved to a new high-rise condo in the city), Sam figures out how to share his perfect Chanukah gift with new friends. The appealing, childlike illustrations evoke a sense of place and genuine family warmth.

From too many menorahs to too many gifts, sometimes we need to just sit back and take stock of all that we have. “Gracie’s Night: A Hanukkah Story” (Cookie and Nudge Books) also takes the reader through the Big Apple during wintertime. Debut author Lynn Taylor Gordon prefaces her unusual Chanukah tale with meaningful words: “When we are brave enough to reach out instead of looking away, miracles can happen.” The jaunty rhyming text relates the story of Gracie and her father, both of little means living in the big city; charmingly depicted in bold colors by illustrator Laura Brown. When young Gracie gets a holiday season job at Macy’s department store, she is delighted to be able to purchase eight gifts for her papa for the upcoming eight nights of Chanukah. She buys “mittens, sweaters, snow boots and socks, and had them gift-wrapped with a bow on each box.” Her joy at her new-found fortune is diminished, however, as she spies a homeless man huddling inside a cardboard box, cold and sad. She anonymously leaves him the gifts, fully knowing that her papa would approve. The final heartwarming spread shows the meager family of two (along with dog, cat and goldfish) celebrating Chanukah with a bright menorah, latkes, dreidels and gelt, along with loving and knowing smiles. The author’s Web site states that the book is based on the true Gordon family tradition of foregoing gifts on one Chanukah night and giving anonymously to someone in need. Check it out for discussion questions and some fun printable activities. 

For a Chanukah book that makes a double gift, consider the new “Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales” by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand (Barefoot Books), which comes with a two-disc narration by well-known Jewish actress Debra Messing. This is a beautifully imagined book. The publisher has previously published “The Barefoot Book of Animal Tales” and “The Barefoot Book of Buddhist Tales,” and this third offering of Jewish tales shows the kind of care and attention they have taken to getting things right. The volume consists of eight well-told tales, along with source notes, and a useful and thorough glossary. The CDs are professionally produced and Messing’s calm storytelling will captivate children. The stories include, “Elijah’s Wisdom,” “The Boy Who Prayed the Alphabet,” “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster,” “The Challah in the Ark,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Clever Rachel” (a Chelm story) and “The Perfect Mistake.” The author begins the volume with a two-page tale titled “The Power of Story” about the Baal Shem Tov and how his followers forgot exactly how he had prayed but did what little they remembered throughout the generations. She writes that “even when we can no longer remember exactly where to go or what to do or what words to say, we can tell the story and that will be enough. This is a book of stories, to be told from one generation to the next. Tell the stories and pass them on. Whatever your child remembers, that will be enough.”

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library.

2 authors, 2 takes on Jewish humor and theology

Jewish humor and Jewish theology share something in common. I can think of any number of jokes whose punch lines say something profound about God (“Work with me here — buy a ticket!”). And we need only consult the Torah to discover how the matriarch Sarah responded when God revealed that she would bear a child in advanced old age: “Sarah laughed …” (Genesis 18:12).

The point is made by Ruth R. Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, in “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton University Press, $24.95), a rare work of cultural scholarship that is also laugh-out-loud-funny. “Jewish humor rolls cheerfully off the tongue,” she quips, “like French cuisine and Turkish baths.” She quotes no less an authority on the workings of the human mind than Sigmund Freud on the Jewish genius for jokes: “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

“No Joke,” in other words, is full of jokes. Wisse declares her intention “to offer a descriptive map of some of the centers where Jewish humor thrived and where it still prospers,” and she insists that pondering (and laughing at) these jokes reveals something vital and important about Jewish identity: “I cheerfully confess that theories about humor interest me less than the evidence they offer of folk creativity,” she writes; “jokes offer the only surviving form of ‘folklore’ that is not protectable by copyright.”

She traces the distinctive folk culture of Eastern Europe, which she calls “an incubator of modern Jewish humor,” to such traditions as the Purim skit and the antics of the masters of ceremonies at weddings. She traces these influences into the work of Sholem Aleichem, although she points out that once the Jews of the Diaspora abandoned Yiddish, “they could no more understand the intricacies of his humor than could any Gentile.” But she also considers less familiar sources, including both the modernizers who embraced the Haskalah and the traditionalists of Hasidism: “We may not customarily associate Hasidic ecstasy with laughter, but we should consider how, like ecstasy, laughter too overcomes indignities through an altered state of mind.”

As deep as these roots go, the art of Jewish comedy still flourishes, as anyone who turns on a television knows well. “Jewish humor remains, as it has always been, merely one of many possible responses to the anomalous experience of the Jews,” Wisse concludes. “But as long as it does remain one of those responses, suppliers will arise to meet the demand.” And she shows how more recent exemplars, ranging from the Marx Brothers to Larry David to the Broadway hit “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” fit into the rich tapestry of Jewish humor.

Ruth R. Wisse will discuss and sign copies of “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the Stephen S. Wise Web site at ” target=”_blank”>

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Liveright).

Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund

Everyone is familiar with Adolf Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Few remember that in the mid- to late-1930s the United States experienced a Nazi crusade of its own, one led by Fritz Julius Kuhn (1896-1951), a radical anti-Semite who dreamed of a fascist America led by a Nazi president. Kuhn never realized his dream, but he did develop a national Nazi movement–complete with propaganda wing, youth group, and its own version of the Schutzstaffel (SS)–that inspired a concerted effort (among politicians, law enforcement and media alike) to destroy him and his organization.

But on February 20, 1939–the day Kuhn's German-American Bund (Der Amerikadeutsche Volksbund) held a Nuremberg-style rally at New York's Madison Square Garden–Kuhn and his rabid followers seemed a very real threat to order. Tens of thousands of protestors surrounded the Garden while Bundesf hrer Kuhn addressed 17,000 enthusiastic supporters–men and women who demonstrated their support by extending their right arms straight out, palms down, in that instantly-recognizable salute, all the while shouting 'Free America! Free America! Free America!' Yet that night would mark the peak of the Bund's reach and influence, as the New York-based group was effectively marginalized later that year when Kuhn was convicted of larceny and forgery and sent to prison at Sing Sing, the state's infamous maximum-security prison.

In the new book 'Swastika Nation' (St. Martin's Press), author Arnie Bernstein deftly chronicles the rise and fall of the German-American Bund, which emerged from the remnants of a group known as the Friends of New Germany. 'Kuhn did a remarkable job of marshaling the movement,' says Bernstein. If Kuhn was running a corporation instead of a Nazi movement he would have been [considered] an astute businessman.'

The Bund maintained a diversified income stream derived from annual dues and various ancillary fees, as well as the mandatory purchase of uniforms, armbands, pins and badges. Uniforms for both the rank-and-file and the group's Ordnungsdienst ('well-dressed bodyguards who undertook their duties with brutal seriousness,' according to Bernstein) had to be purchased from Bund-approved tailors. In fact, the Bund strongly encouraged its membership to spend their hard-earned dollars at Aryan-owned businesses that were a part of the Deutscher Konsum Verband (D.K.V.), or German Business League.

Meanwhile, the organization's publishing arm (the AV Publishing Company, the name derived from the initials of the Bund's German name, Amerikadeutscher Volksbund), pushed out books and propaganda materials, and also published a weekly newspaper, The German Wakeup Call and Observer (Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter). Members were obligated to subscribe to the newspaper, and to buy a copy of Hitler's autobiography/manifesto 'Mein Kampf,' among other propaganda materials.

But what really drew the ire of the American public were the Bund's camps and retreats–Camp Siegfried in Yaphank, New York, andCamp Nordland in Andover Township, New Jersey, for example–where thousands of Bund members gathered en masse to picnic and swim. Think summer camp, with a Nazi twist.

The retreats were a key component of the Bund's youth initiative, which was loosely modeled after Germany's Hitler Youth and female counterpart, the League of German Girls. As in Germany, youth group retreats were sexually charged gatherings. 'They encouraged the boys and girls to sleep with each other to produce good Aryan children for the day that they would take over,' notes Bernstein.

Predictably, neighbors didn't take kindly to the idea of Bund members goose-stepping the streets of Yaphank or Andover Township in Nazi-styled uniforms, and the pushback against the camps attracted media coverage coast-to-coast. Syndicated newspaper columnistWalter Winchell painted Kuhn and his followers in a particularly unflattering light, the former taking delight in referring to the Bund leader as Phffftz Kuhn, Fritz Kuhnfucious, or simply Fat Fritz Kuhn. In fact, Winchell became Kuhn's chief antagonist, so much so that The German Wakeup Call and Observer declared Winchell 'Kuhn's worst enemy.' Worse yet, Kuhn promised to 'blacken Walter Winchell's eyes' (promise kept, courtesy of two thugs) and to piss on his grave (promise not kept).

Hitler and the rest of Germany's Nazi leadership didn't think much of Kuhn, either. In the summer of 1936, the Bundesf hrer and his lieutenants visited Germany and, via a mutual connection, managed to gain an audience with the F hrer. 'It was basically one of those grip-and-grin photo ops. Hitler shook Kuhn's hand and said, 'Go over there and continue the fight,'' recalls Bernstein, a statement that Kuhn viewed as an official endorsement. 'Of course, Hitler meant nothing by it,' continues the author. In fact, Hitler was embarrassed by Kuhn, and Nazi officials wanted nothing to do with the German-American Bund, viewing the 'stupid and noisy' group as damaging to the Third Reich's image in America.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., powerful forces began amassing against the Bund. In August 1937 United States Attorney General Homer Cummings launched an FBI probe of Bund camps, and five months later issued his findings in a fourteen-volume report, Nazi Camps in the United States.

But the campaign to bring down Kuhn went into high gear shortly after the Madison Square Garden rally, when New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and prosecutor Thomas Dewey seized the Bund's financial records, hoping to put Kuhn away on tax evasion charges. The plan worked: Kuhn was charged with grand larceny and forgery for embezzling from the Bund's bank accounts. After being found guilty he was sent to prison, first to Sing Sing, then to Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, where he was incarcerated until being paroled on June 18, 1943. He spent the remainder of the war in the federal internment camp system for wartime enemy aliens, and was subsequently deported to Germany, where he spent the next several years in and out of prison.

Though the Bund attempted to soldier on under the leadership of Bund F hrer Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, 'the movement flopped around like a fish on a deck for a couple more years,' quips Bernstein. 'Then Pearl Harbor happened and that was that.'

As for Kuhn, his death attracted little notice; the news didn't reach the United States until two years later. 'Hitler's U.S. Bund Chief Fritz Kuhn Died Friendless in Germany,' announced Winchell in his February 6, 1953, column for the Daily Mirror. Kuhn had fallen so far, so fast that the columnist had little to say about the disgraced Bundesf hrer. Winchell's final words about Kuhn and his dream of a Nazi America were: '(End of shrug).'

Jason Zasky is the founder and editorial director of

The art of feeling Sholem Aleichem’s unforgettable legacy

Never underestimate the enormous emotional power of a piercing narrative voice, one that can decimate and exhilarate the reader, often simultaneously.  Listen to the eloquence of Israeli author David Grossman recounting his early experiences reading Sholem Aleichem, one of the founding giants of modern Yiddish literature:

“From the moment I stepped into that land I could not leave.  I was eight, and within a few months had devoured all of Sholem Aleichem’s writings that existed in Hebrew at the time — the children’s stories, the writing for adults, and the plays.  When I reread the works before writing this piece, I was amazed to discover how little I could have understood as a child, and how powerfully the things beyond the visible text must have worked on me.  Because what could an eight- or nine-year-old have understood about Rachel’s tormented love for Stempenyu?  Or the political views that Sholem Aleichem gave to a detached and wayward Jewish character like Menachem Mender.  Or his complete opposite, Tevye the Milkman?  What did I know about the life of yeshiva students who ate at the table of a different landowner each day of the week?  About the hostility between the “landlord” class and the workers, or the conflict between the Zionists and the Bundists?”

Grossman continues luring us back in time with him:

“I did not know, I did not understand, but something inside me would not allow me to let go of the inscrutable stories, written in a Hebrew I had never encountered before.  I read like someone entering a foreign world that was, at the same time, a promised land.  In some sense, I felt that I was coming home.  And it all worked its magic on me in a muddled way — the words with the biblical ring, the characters, the customs, the way of life, and the fact that the page numbers were marked with letters rather than numbers.”

If you had never heard of Sholem Aleichem, and did not know that he was born Sholem Rabinovich in the Ukraine in 1859, where he endured a traumatic childhood and married into fabulous wealth, only to lose it all and then become a phenomenal success as a Yiddish writer after abandoning Russian and Hebrew, you would still be seduced by Grossman’s prose to want to know more.  Grossman’s writing is an intoxicating brew of personal entanglement and fierce intellect feeding upon each other on the written page.  His early exposure to Aleichem’s and the wonderfully complex and flawed characters who littered all of his pages once really existed and were now dead forever; as was the intimacy of the shtetl and their way of life.  Grossman was able to finally realize that the Jews in these stories were actually connected to him, and now they were gone, perhaps explaining his mother’s perennial sadness and now his own.  He writes poignantly of the brutal starkness of this realization:

“It struck me all at once.  Suddenly.  The six million, the murdered, the victims, the ‘Holocaust martyrs,’ all those terms were in fact my people.  They were Mottel and Tevye and Shimele Soroker and Chaveleh and Lily and Shimek.  On the burning asphalt of the Beit Hakarem school, the shtetl was suddenly taken from me…It was the first time I truly understood the meaning of the Holocaust.  And it is no exaggeration to say that this comprehension shook my entire world. I remember my distress during the following days, a distress characteristic of the children of real survivors, because I imagined that I now bore some responsibility to all those people; it was a responsibility I did not want.”

Cynthia Ozick is equally compelling on Sholem Aleichem.  She believes he found a way to reveal the Jewish soul with all of its harrowing complexities and contradictions.  She believes Aleichem was able to capture the essence of Jews forced to confront the tumultuous forces of cultural, political, and religious modernity that spread through the Russian Empire in the final decades of the 19th century.  She points to Aleichem’s most famous creation, Tevye, as the embodiment of a Jewish man who was intelligent, loving, generous and open, without needing to be overly sentimental or heroic.  Tevye dealt with pogroms, crushing poverty, incessant fear and family troubles by talking intimately to an accessible God, but one whom too often seemed overly distracted.  Tevye, says Ozick, is never optimistic; he is too much at home with the worst that can happen.  But she reminds us that he is not overcome by despair: “He is too much at home with Scripture and with the knowledge of frailty, mutability, mortality.”  Ozick reminds us that this great Yiddish writer spoke Russian to his own children but found the Yiddish language exceptional in its ability to allow him to be simultaneously satirical and cynical and soft-hearted and sad and ironic and irreverent while addressing God in long monologues that eventually were watered down sufficiently for the American stage in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There isn’t one passage in “The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye” (Schocken Books, $28.95), Jeremy Dauber’s new biography on Sholem Aleichem, that approaches the personal pathos of Grossman or Ozick.  Dauber’s strengths lay elsewhere. 

Dauber has written a comprehensive account of Aleichem that holds your attention and is meticulously researched, but comes up short.  Dauber, who was educated at Harvard University, and then Oxford, is still a young man; at least a generation younger than Ozick or Grossman, and this perhaps explains the distanced lens with which he seems to view his subject; one feels as if he is watching him from afar instead of standing beside him.  Dauber is a professor of Yiddish Studies at Columbia University and has written elsewhere about his idyllic childhood, his wonderful parents, and his delightful wife and son.  Oddly, his seemingly charmed life does not serve him well here.  When he discusses Jewish history and anti-Semitism and the struggles of Jewish men who were repeatedly victimized and restricted from almost all avenues of advancement, he does so without tapping into the trauma and burden and shame and remorse such struggles wrought.  This is surely a supreme victory for Jews of his generation in America at this time, but it does seem to blur his vision when trying to find Aleichem’s pulse.  Aleichem’s life was not charmed; it was fraught with illness, the loss of a child in his twenties, poverty, virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence, the loss of his mother while still a child, and constant worry about his family’s future as Jews contemplated and disagreed about the various issues of their time.  Was there a place for them in the larger Gentile world?  What would happen to their traditions and religious faith if they traveled too far? 

Aleichem’s father, the merchant Nochem Rabinowvich, was a traditionally observant man but entranced by the ideas of the Enlightenment.  He allowed his son to attend a secular school in Tsarist Russia, where the young boy fell hopelessly in love with Turgenev, Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol.  Sholem Aleichem remembered being teased at school because he was Jewish, and although his academic record was stellar, he remembered bitterly years later a certain professor who would often remind him that the “Jews were physiologically incapable of truly internalizing Russian culture.”

Aleichem set out to reinvent Yiddish literature into serious literary art.  He was turned off by the work of Shomer (pen name for Nokhem Meyer Shaykevich), who wrote highly melodramatic tales he felt were low brow, and he felt he could create stories that were more sophisticated and still accessible to the 11 million Yiddish readers in Europe two decades before the Nazi decimation.  Many Jews and Gentiles alike viewed Yiddish as mere gibberish and less than a cultivated language worthy of respect, and he set out to change that perception.  Readers responded with great enthusiasm, and when he traveled to various cities in Europe he met throngs of fans who waited at the railroad stations for him to get a chance to see him and hopefully to hear him read aloud. 

Dauber patiently takes us through the evolution of almost all of Sholem Aleichem’s characters and shows how they were often created in response to what was happening in Aleichem’s life at a particular time.  He introduces us to Motl, the cantor’s son who loves to make mischief and emigrates to America where he is a “happy orphan.”  We meet Menakhem-Mendl, the ever-striving, never succeeding businessman who writes his wife letters of his pursuits and waits for her replies, which are usually admonishments for his foolish ventures.  Like this one: “To my dear, learned, and illustrious husband Menakhem-Mendl, may your light shine!  First, we’re all well, thank God.  Forgive me for saying so, but I hope to hear no more of your Odessa than I understand about your blasted shorts and hedgerows!  You’re throwing away rubles like last week’s noodles, money-schmoney, eh?  I suppose it grows on trees over there…”  We hear echoes in these stories of the struggles Sholem Aleichem faced brought to life in these characters.  Like Motl, Aleichem went to America a “happy orphan’ and struggled in a land where he never really felt at ease.  Like Menakhem-Mendl, he felt the wrath of his wife and mother-in-law when he lost much of their inheritance in the Odessa stock market, forcing them to struggle financially for years.

Dauber expertly traces for us the evolution of the Tevye stories, which began in 1894 and continued over a 20-year period.  He created Tevye the Dairyman based on a man he actually met.  Tevye was a rural Jew hauling logs from the forest and hoping to save up enough money to buy a cow.  In the initial Tevye story, he is described as “a healthy Jew, with broad shoulders and thick, dark hair, his age is hard to guess; he wears heavy boots…”   Tevye is a talker and speaks using a unique blend of parable, a bit of Torah, and a mixture of high and low art.  He speaks frequently in long monologues.  Dauber offers an insightful analysis as to why the monologues worked so well for Tevye, claiming “The monologues’ an aggressive genre, in other words: the speaker satisfying his or her own needs at the expense of the listener, who lies helpless beneath the constant, punishing pressure, physical and psychological, of their breathless, unceasing delivery.  Think of the classic stand-up comedy, the monologic art par excellence: I killed ‘em.  Unsurprising, then, that monologue and comedy — with Sholem Aleichem as Exhibit A — have often been claimed as the Jewish counterattack to history’s depredations; This is how Jews fight back, with, you know, a really vicious one-liner.  More vociferous forms of opposition may be impossible, but you can talk at the problem, around it, suffocate it or minimize it or redefine it in a torrent of words.”

But first, Jeremy Dauber, you have to feel it.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Q&A with Alan Dershowitz

No one can accuse the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz of understatement, but the subtitle of his new autobiography, “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law” (Crown, $28), is a bit misleading. It’s true that Dershowitz’s claim to fame began with his work on a long list of famous cases, but Dershowitz is really an activist, a gadfly and a public intellectual on a global scale. His interest and engagement goes far beyond the courtroom as evidenced by the blurbs on the back cover, which make the point with rollicking good humor. Most blurbs offer enthusiastic endorsements of an author and his book. But the back cover of “Taking the Stand” consists of the pairing of opposites: “I don’t read Dershowitz,” says Jimmy Carter, while Barack Obama thanks him “for your friendship and counsel.” And Noam Chomsky complains that “Dershowitz is not very bright [and] he’s strongly opposed to civil liberties,” while Henry Louis Gates calls him “a subtle and compelling theorist of civil liberties.” Alan Dershowitz spoke with the Jewish Journal by phone about “Taking the Stand” in advance of his Nov. 3 appearance at American Jewish University.

Jonathan Kirsch: Whose idea was it to use the point-counterpoint approach on the back cover of “Taking the Stand”?

Alan Dershowitz: That was my idea. Because I am controversial and I thrive on that fact. People either love me or hate me. I am proud of the fact that the people who hate me also hate Israel, hate civil liberties and hate the position I espouse, which is the liberal case for Israel. This is part of a long-term policy. For years, I have been putting my hate mail on the door of my office so my students can see what it means to be a controversial lawyer. 

JK: You write that you were told in school that you ought to be a counterman in a deli; you grew up in a Brooklyn home that was “barren of books, records and art” and your academic performance in high school was “abysmal.” How did you achieve your current stature as a Harvard law professor, a sought-after courtroom attorney and best-selling author, among various other accomplishments?

AD: I used all the things that were negative and tried to pick a career in which they became a positive. I was always feisty and provocative. That wasn’t good in the yeshivah I went to, but it was good in the courtroom, the classroom and television. I tried to turn my weaknesses into strengths.

JK: You write in your book that your son, Elon, “can instantly tell whether someone knows ‘the Dersh Character’ [as he appears in the media] or ‘the real Alan.’ ” Who is the real Alan?

AD: The real Alan is someone who never argues with his friends and his families. Last night, there was a dinner celebrating my 50 years at Harvard. The nicest thing that was said is that I never said an unkind word about my students or the people who work for me. I take out my anger on leaders. In my private life, I am a pushover. My wife wins every argument with me. How I appear on TV is very different from I how I really am in person.

JK: Does it please you or concern you that you have been pilloried both from the right and the left? 

AD: It pleases me. I am very comfortable with my enemies. They are people of the extreme left and the extreme right, well known for their intolerance. The thing that’s interesting is that you get real ignoramuses like Andrew Sullivan, who calls me a greater Israel advocate, but I’ve been opposed to the greater Israel concept since 1973. Ask [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas whether I am against the two-state solution; I’ve met with him on several occasions, and he doesn’t think I am in favor of a greater Israel approach. Thank God Israel has to make peace with Abbas and not with Andrew Sullivan.

JK: Perhaps the most remarkable story you tell in “Taking the Stand” is about how you protected your son from more than one peril by threatening or even using physical violence. It’s quite the most remarkable story in your book and shows a very different Alan Dershowitz than the man we know from the media. Do you believe that the resort to violence or the threat of violence is ever justified?

AD: Sure, it is when you have to protect your own children. You have to protect your family; you have to protect your children. I hadn’t hit anybody in many years, but it was unthinking. I just punched him, and I would do it again. I am not a pacifist. I believe that Israel did the right thing when they attacked Egypt preemptively in 1967. Violence would have been perfectly appropriate in 1935, when Germany started to violate the Versailles Treaty. Imagine how many lives would have been saved if France and Great Britain had attacked Germany. We waited too long to go to war. To everything, there is a season, and, tragically, there are times when it is appropriate to attack. 

JK: The Forward has called you “the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion.” I fear that Israel is not faring well in that court. Do you see a way for Israel to balance its security issues and its stature in world public opinion when it comes to Gaza and the West Bank?

AD: It’s very hard. The reason is this: One of the greatest accomplishments that Zionism ever achieved is bringing a million Jews from the Soviet Union. I am proud to have been part of that process. That’s what has resulted in Israel turning dramatically to the right. The good sometimes produces negative results. People like me and other liberals haven’t done a good job of convincing Soviet Jews to have a more accommodating attitude toward the Palestinians. It would strengthen their hand with Iran; it would help them build alliances in Europe and the Middle East. There couldn’t be a better time for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. Yes, they would have to give up land and some of the settlements, but those are not security issues. I am in favor of making peace, and I know that Binyamin Netanyahu shares many of those views. He would like to be like Nixon in China, and this may be a season in which the climate is right for peace.

JK: You write that your celebrity is “largely derivative,” because it is based on “the famous and infamous clients I have represented over the years.” Isn’t it true that you are a celebrity in your own right? After all, you concede in your book that “my commitment to full disclosure requires that I not hide behind the distorting shield of feigned humility.” On that point, I think your audience has the impression that you enjoy the spotlight. Is that an accurate perception?

AD: I hate feigned humility, and I am not a falsely modest person. I was in the White House, having a conversation with President Obama and a few people on his national security staff, [and] he asked me what [was] the hardest thing about writing an autobiography. I answered: “To balance the need to be truthful with the need to be humble.” He said: “Alan Dershowitz, humble?” So I am frank in staying that “Taking the Stand” is the best legal autobiography ever written, the most substantive, the most serious autobiography of a lawyer ever written. I stand behind that! 

JK: You tell a hilarious story about how Prime Minister Netanyahu invited you into his private office and told you he had a question he had always wanted to ask. His question was: “So, did O.J. do it?” Does it trouble you that your work on the O.J. Simpson case casts such a long shadow? Is there something else that you would prefer to be remembered for?

AD: I want my tombstone to say: “He asked hard questions and he never accepted simple answers.” 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1; at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 14; Wilshire Boulevard Temple and at Sinai Temple on Nov. 21. 

Hollywood and Hitler: A book review

It’s rare that a book garners as much pre-publication publicity as has Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler” (Belknap Press, $26.95). Even more unusual, however, is the backlash that greeted the book now that it is actually available to read.

“Perhaps I’m naïve about academic publishing,” wrote film critic David Denby in a post at the New Yorker Web site, “but I’m surprised that Harvard University Press [which owns the Belknap imprint] could have published anything as poorly argued as Urwand’s book.”

Thomas Doherty, a Brandeis University professor whose “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939” was published last April, was just as harsh in the Hollywood Reporter: “I consider Urwand’s charges slanderous and ahistorical — slanderous because they smear an industry that struggled to alert America to the menace brewing in Germany and ahistorical because they read the past through the eyes of the present.”

I think Urwand’s real offense is that he approaches a nuanced and volatile story with a certain lack of restraint. The title itself is problematic — he makes a good argument that the Jewish moguls in Hollywood, not unlike other captains of industry and commerce in America in the 1930s, were all too deferential to Hitler, all in the interest of making sure that profits could still be made in Nazi Germany. The same, of course, can be said of non-Jewish executives at Ford and IBM. But “collaboration” is a loaded word when it comes to World War II, and it may have been the wrong word to use here.

Urwand clearly savors — and exploits — the ironies that arise from the fact that Hitler himself was an especially enthusiastic user and consumer of movies. “Every night before going to bed Adolf Hitler watched a movie,” he reveals. “His adjutants complained that there were 365 days in a year and not enough good German films to satisfy him.” As a result, Hitler enthused about Laurel and Hardy’s “Way Out West” — “Good!” was the Fuehrer’s personal rating — and “he was a big fan of Mickey Mouse cartoons.” Indeed, when Goebbels presented him with a collection of movies in 1937, he included 12 Mickey Mouse films.

But the Nazis were always vigilant when it came to American movies. Even before Hitler achieved absolute power in Germany, according to Urwand, the Nazis succeeded in cowing Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, into censoring “All Quiet on the Western Front” to address their objections. “Not only Universal Pictures but all the Hollywood studios started making deep concessions to the German government,” Urwand writes, “and when Hitler came to power in January 1933, the studios dealt with his representatives directly.”

Thus, for example, one RKO executive promised to consult with the local German consul whenever he produced a movie about Germany, and so did his counterparts at Warner Bros., Fox and United Artists. A Nazi official named Georg Gyssling was dispatched to Los Angeles to act as Hitler’s official censor of Hollywood movies. In the case of an anti-Nazi movie project titled “The Mad Dog of Europe,” Gyssling succeeded in making sure that it was never made. “The German officials have intimated that the property of the large Hollywood producers in Germany would be confiscated and further American pictures would not be imported into Germany,” complained Al Rosen, one of the principals behind the picture, “unless they use their influence and pressure upon me to make me withdraw this film.”

Urwand, a junior fellow of Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, insists that ignorance of the Nazi agenda was no excuse even in the early 1930s. “One of the most persistent myths about the rise and fall of the Third Reich is that the outside world had no knowledge of the extent of the Nazis’ brutality,” he argues. “The Hollywood executives knew exactly what was going on in Germany, not only because they had been forced to fire their own Jewish salesmen but also because the persecution of the Jews was common knowledge at the time.” To preserve the market for their movies in the Third Reich, they all too willingly complied with the demands of the Nazis, a practice that lasted until the world went to war.

“The decision not to make ‘The Mad Dog of Europe’ was the most important moment in all of Hollywood’s dealings with Nazi Germany,” Urwand concludes. “It occurred in the first year of Hitler’s rise to power, and it defined the limits of American movies for the rest of the decade.” Above all, he insists, the incident demonstrated a willingness to “[set] a limit not only about what they could say about Nazis but also to what they could say about Jews.”

The real issue here is what scholars, including Doherty calls “presentism,” that is, the temptation to look at events of the past in light of what we know and what we think today. The same problem has arisen in discussions of another recent title, “FDR and the Jews,” which considers the question of whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have and should have done more to slow down or stop the mass murder of Jews during World War II. Perhaps Urwand should have approached his subject with a bit more care and caution; after all, Hollywood was hardly the only place in America where appeasement of Nazi Germany was actively practiced in the 1930s.

But it’s also true that Urwand refuses to engage in apologetics when it comes to the Jewish executives who compromised with Nazi Germany in the interest of profit-making. His bluntness owes something to the undeniable fact that America and the other Western democracies were far too complacent at a time when clearer vision and a stronger spine might have made a difference. When it comes to the lessons to be learned from the history of Nazi Germany, it is not merely “presentism” to hold ourselves to a higher standard of vigilance.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Valley Village on Oct. 27, at American Jewish University on Oct. 30, at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1, at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 14 and at Sinai Temple on Nov. 21.

‘Fiddler’ makes the world richer

On a visit to Budapest earlier this year, my wife and I asked the concierge at our hotel for a restaurant where we could find authentic Hungarian fare.  As we took our seats in the bustling little place he recommended, I was encouraged to see a house band tucked away in the corner, and our meal was accompanied by what I assumed to be traditional Hungarian and Roma tunes.  About halfway through the meal, however, the musicians took a short break and then returned to start their second set with “If I Were a Rich Man.”

How a hit song from a Broadway musical entered the global pop culture is one of the wonder of wonders that is explored and explained with both charm and authority by theater critic, journalist and scholar Alisa Solomon in her wholly winning book, “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, $30).

Solomon tells the whole story of “Fiddler” from beginning to end, starting with the story by Sholem Aleichem in which Tevye first appeared in 1894, and showing us in suspenseful detail how  “Fiddler on the Roof,” created by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Joseph Stein (book), reached the Broadway stage in 1964. In that sense, “Wonder of Wonders” is a rich and lively slice of theater history.

For example, Solomon points out that, even as late as the 1950s, “Broadway’s musical makers, though most were Jewish, were not yet putting overt Jewish characters front and center.” To be sure, Jewish audiences were afforded the opportunity to attend “Yinglish revues,” such as “Bagels and Yox” and “Borschtcapades,” but the Yiddishkayt of a character like Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls” was encoded in a single line of the song he sings: “I’m just a no-goodnik. All right already. It’s true. So nu?”

No detail is overlooked. She reveals that the Sholem Aleichem family received a 4.8 percent royalty, but an enterprising producer who had tied up the theatrical rights to the stories demanded a royalty nearly twice as large. “From underwear to overcoats, [costume designer Patricia] Zipprodt used natural fibers that would have been available in 1905 for the 165 costumes she made.  But the makers of the musical were unwilling to make the show too authentic; by choosing the name for the character of Yenta the matchmaker, Solomon points out, “[Joseph] Stein made one of his book’s few concessions to the Yiddish language, which the authors had vowed to avoid.”

Solomon reminds us that “Fiddler” was not universally admired when it opened on Broadway. Irving Howe complained that the producers “discard[ed] the richness of texture that is Sholem Aleichem’s greatest achievement,” and Robert Brustein accused them of “falsifying the world of Sholem Aleichem, not to mention the character of the East European Jew.” But she also insists that director Jerome Robbins deserves to be remembered and praised for “labor[ing] mightily to burn away the schmaltz that for two decades had encased the world of the shtetl like amber.”

Robbins is also credited for the crucial casting decision that put Zero Mostel into the role of Tevye. “There would have to be some madness in his Method,” as Solomon playfully puts it. Among the actors in contention were Danny Kaye, Rod Steiger, Red Buttons and Eli Wallach. But there was much off-stage drama before Mostel accepted the role. Much of the tension was provoked by the fact that Robbins had named the wife of Jack Gilford — Mostel’s co-star in “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum” — before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. “But it wasn’t just political bad blood that caused Mostel to call Robbins ‘that sonofabitch’ in place of his name,” Solomon explains. “Mostel was an unstoppable force, Robbins an immovable object.”

The author, of course, is fully aware that “Fiddler” is much more than a record-breaking Broadway hit and a celebrated Hollywood movie. She points out how “Fiddler,” like the earlier incarnations of Tevye on the Yiddish stage, has come to serve as a “Jewish signifier” for both Jews and non-Jews: “ ‘Now I know I haven’t been the best Jew,’ ” Homer tells a rabbi from whom he is trying to borrow money in an episode of “The Simpsons,” “ ‘but I have rented “Fiddler on the Roof,” and I intend to watch it.’ ” But she also shows how “Fiddler” came to be embraced and celebrated far beyond the Jewish world, which is yet another wonder of wonders. 

“[Tevye] belongs nowhere,” Solomon concludes. “Which is to say, everywhere.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek synagogue in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1; at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Nov. 14; and at Sinai Temple on Nov. 21.

Amos Oz: Alone among friends

I believe Amos Oz desperately wanted to become a better man than his father was.  It feels as if he has spent his lifetime trying to nurture inside himself an empathy that he believed his father lacked.  The famous, 73-year-old Israeli author of more than 30 books, including his newly published “Between Friends” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24.00, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston) speaks frequently in interviews about his compassion for others, as well as his ability to imagine their inner lives.  He believes this talent was nourished while he was just a small boy.  His parents would often take him to cafes in Jerusalem, where he would be promised ice cream in exchange for his silence while his parents socialized with other couples.  Oz made good use of his time and would carefully study the faces that surrounded him.  He felt immediately empowered by his ability to see behind the masks they presented to the world.  Only 10 or 11 at the time, his imagination was already in high gear.

Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939, the only child of a stern and scholarly father, and a melancholy mother who took her own life when he was only 13.  His father refused to speak about it, and within a year Oz fled to Kibbutz Hilda, where he would remain for more than 30 years, eventually marrying and raising three children there.  Born Amos Klausner, he changed his name upon arriving at the kibbutz, a decisive act of defiance that speaks to his desire to hurt his father, whom he blamed for deserting his mother, who suffered greatly from depression.  His father had sometimes found solace during their marriage in the arms of other women, and it would take Oz more than 50 years to confront his parent’s tumultuous marriage and his mother’s gruesome death.  He tackled it head-on with his acclaimed masterpiece “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” 

Oz has admitted, “For decades, I censored the entire story…I just wouldn’t discuss my parents, my childhood.  This was taboo.  Over the course of years, anger gradually gave way to curiosity, compassion, humor and endless wonder.  I could now write about my parents as if they were children, as if I were my parent’s parent.  I was almost 60 when I started writing ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness.’  I could look at them from a father’s perspective.  This is why I believe it has not an ounce of hatred or bitterness, anger or resentment.”

But the lonesome characters that flood his stories say otherwise.  They repeatedly show us the emotional fall-out Oz endured and its lingering effects on his psyche.  The small boy forced to swallow his sadness after his mother’s death seems to keep reliving this trauma over and over again in compelling stories about all sorts of desolate souls whose crucial hurts remain hidden from the world.  In many of Oz’s fictional universes, families show little compassion for one another and often turn a blind eye.  There is little humor or vitality, and people vanish suddenly without a trace and are silently mourned or simply forgotten.  Oz’s stories usually aren’t violent, but they contain an undercurrent of aggression that mars most of the relationships he portrays. 

There is also none of the zany exuberance one finds in fellow author David Grossman’s work, particularly in the latter’s recent masterpiece “To the End of the Land,” where Grossman places family relationships, even those fraught with dysfunction, as perhaps all anybody should really live for.  Not so for Oz.  It feels as if his emotional inheritance of neglect remains knotted up in his gut, a piercing pain that no amount of success can mitigate.

In “Between Friends,” Oz’s new collection of eight interlinked stories about life on a kibbutz during the 1950s, Oz plunges us into the world of a close-knit community — at least what appears to be one at first glance.  People are familiar with one another’s mannerisms and peculiarities, even the rhythms of each other’s speech.  But the ghosts that haunt many of them remain hidden.  The story centers on a 55-year-old bachelor named Zvi Provisor, who works as the chief gardener of their collective.  He greets neighbors each day with stories of the catastrophes that have unfolded the night before, which he has heard about on his tiny radio.  One day he begins taking walks with Luna Blank, an attractive widower who welcomes his attention. 

They offer each other small kindnesses, and she waits for his advance; one that never comes.  One evening in frustration, she takes his hand and gently places it on her breast and he recoils in disgust.  Oz writes, “His eyes blinked frantically.  He never in his adult life intentionally touched another person, and he stiffened whenever he was touched.”  Luna Blank soon leaves the kibbutz for America, and Zvi Provisor returns to his daily gardening, stopping occasionally by her now empty cottage to tend to her withering plants.  Oz’s mastery resides in his ability to know intuitively what to leave unsaid, and his story touches us with its muted grief and eloquent restraint.

Oz demonstrates a similar restrained eloquence when speaking and writing about his own life.  He remembers vividly the cramped Jerusalem apartment he lived in as a child.  He recalls the siege of Jerusalem in 1948, when his parents sheltered refuges from more vulnerable neighborhoods in their apartment.  He can still remember strangers stepping over him and his sleeping parents on the way to toilets that wouldn’t flush due to the lack of water.  His father’s alliance was with the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky.  He opposed the Jews who were more socialist in their orientation, like young Oz would eventually become.

Between them, Oz’s parents spoke 16 languages, but only Hebrew to him.  His mother came from a wealthy family in Rovco, a city in western Ukraine, and had once harbored fantasies of becoming an artist.  The Nazis killed her brother and sister-in-law, as well as most of her childhood friends, and she barely escaped.  Oz’s father left Lithuania with dreams of becoming a great Hebrew scholar, dreams that never materialized.  He worked as a librarian. 

Oz’s parents must have seen their family unit as fragile and destructible; each one of them had seen much of their own families destroyed.  And they may have turned their helplessness onto one another, leaving the young and impressionable Oz to scramble between them.  When you look at pictures of Amoz Oz throughout his long and prolific career, you can almost see the warring impulses of both parents etched upon his handsome face.  Oz can look tender and severe, trusting and suspicious, earnest and artificial all at the same time.  David Grossman has described Amos Oz as “the offspring of all the contradictory urges and pains within the Israeli psyche,” and the characters that make up so many of Oz’s stories seem filled with similar inconsistencies combined with a sadness that is pervasive.  Always, in Oz’s world, there is a all-encompassing sense of aloneness.

The second story in Oz’s collection is about a childless couple who have grown bored with one another.  The husband has moved in with another woman named Ariella and left his wife Osnat in their family home.  One day, Ariella receives a letter from Osnat pleading with her to make sure her husband takes his high-blood-pressure pills.  Ariella writes back to Osnat promising she will try, but also complaining about her new lover’s mood swings and obstinate nature.

She apologizes to Osnat for taking her husband and tells her that, “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about you, Osnat, and despise myself and wonder if there can be any forgiveness for what I did to you.  Sometimes I tell myself that maybe Osnat didn’t really care so much, maybe she didn’t love him?  It’s hard to know…And what about him?  How does he actually feel?  How can anybody tell?  You know so well what he should and shouldn’t eat.  But do you know what he feels?  Or whether he feels at all?”

Oz surprises the reader with the growing intimacy that seems to crop up between the two women, as their shared lover fades from view.  Osnat finally decides to stop answering Ariella’s letters and ignores her requests to meet in person, and finds a strange contentment in her own home.  She feels at peace alone.

In yet another tale, the kibbutz electrician Nahum Ashervov abruptly discovers his 17-year-old daughter has moved in with a 50-year-old man who is one of the founders of their kibbutz and an old acquaintance of Nahum.  At first he is determined to mind his business and prides himself on his progressive views, but eventually he finds himself overcome by shame and goes to retrieve his daughter.  His other child, a son, was killed a few years back in a retaliatory raid, and his wife is already dead.  When he arrives at the home where his daughter is now living, he thinks to himself confusedly “What had he actually wanted?  To vanquish love?  A fleeting glimpse of light from the lamp reflected off his glasses.  Love suddenly seemed to him to be another of life’s obstacles; when you confront it you have to duck your head and wait until it passes.”

Oz remains fascinated with the distances that remain between people; barriers that often can’t be overcome.  In 2009, he wrote “Rhyming Life and Death,” which told the story of an accomplished author in his forties who has grown fatigued from the endless book readings he is forced to attend.  He is bored and irritated with the same questions that are asked over and over again.  What drives him? Why does he write?  What is his creative process?  The author in Oz’s story wonders why he even bothers to keep doing it.  What does he get from it?  He is uncomfortable with the constant scrutiny and the endless psychological evaluations of his work.  The spotlight disturbs him.  He attempts to explain what keeps him engaged in the writing life, even with all of its irritating interruptions and admits that he does it  “so as to touch [people] without touching, and so that they touch him without really touching him.”  That sounds about right.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.

United and divided: Inside ‘Like Dreamers,’ Yossi Klein Halevi’s extraordinary new book

The stirring scene that opens “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” by Yossi Klein Halevi (Harper, $35), is a flashback to the night of June 6, 1967, when the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces crossed the no man’s land from West Jerusalem and approached the Old City, a sacred place that had not been under Jewish sovereignty for nearly 2,000 years.

“They changed the history of Israel and the Middle East,” Halevi observes. But Halevi has not written a hagiography of those courageous young men. Some of them were secular kibbutzniks and some were religious Zionists, a fact that strikes Halevi as emblematic of the tensions that have reshaped Israel during the half-century that followed what is now known as the Six-Day War. Their story, he insists, is really about “the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed on this besieged, embattled strip of land crowded with traumatized Jewish refugees.” In that sense, “Like Dreamers” is as much about the future of Israel as it is about what the author describes as “Israel’s most transcendent moment.”

Halevi is a journalist, memoirist and commentator with a unique perspective on both Jewish history and the destiny of Israel. Born in Brooklyn, he was an early follower of the late Meir Kahane, a member of Kahane’s controversial Jewish Defense League and an activist in the movement to liberate Soviet Jews. As he recounts in his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” he gradually moved from the far right of political Zionism into Orthodoxy and ultimately emerged as an advocate for rapprochement among Jews, Muslims and Christians, as he advocated in “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden.”

Today, at 60, Halevi lives with his family in Jerusalem, where he serves as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His byline is familiar to readers of many publications, among them the New Republic — where he holds the position of contributing editor — The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs magazine. He is much sought after as a commentator on the Middle East, and he brings a hard-edged, highly realistic perspective to his work. To his credit, he refuses to mythify or idealize the people whose exploits he is writing about, and yet he is capable of showing how seemingly ordinary men and women are capable of doing great things.

Thus, for example, Halevi is quick to point out that all of the main characters in his book are Ashkenazim — Jews of European ancestry — even though nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population today is of Middle Eastern origin. And he emphasizes that the seven members of the 55th Brigade whom he interviewed over a period of 10 years are markedly unsentimental; he is impressed by their “faith in human initiative and contempt for self-pity,” and “their daunting quest for solutions to unbearable dilemmas that would intimidate others into paralysis.” Above all, their feat of arms in 1967 — which united Jerusalem as an Israeli city, taking what had been ruled by Jordan — can be seen as an augury of the problems Israel still must resolve: “To a large extent,” he writes, “Israel today lives in the partial fulfillment and partial failure of their contradictory dreams.”

Halevi uses the biographies of those seven Israeli soldiers as a device to tell a much larger tale about the influences and pressures that shaped them. Avital Geva, for example, grew up on a kibbutz that belonged to Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist movement with distinctly Marxist values.  “Avital and his friends had been raised to revere the Soviet Union as the ‘second homeland,’ ” he explains, and he reminds us that Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 was mourned on the front page of the movement’s newspaper. By contrast, Yoel Bin-Nun was a member of a religious Zionist youth organization Bnei Akiva, and when he confided his “deepest longing” to a girl of his acquaintance, it was to see the construction of a third Temple.  “With animal sacrifices and blood and all of that?” she asked. “That’s what is written in the Torah,” he answered.

Halevi allows us to see the conflicting Israeli views of the Holocaust barely 20 years after the liberation of the camps. Some native-born Israelis were astounded by and contemptuous of the survivors, whom they called sabon — the word for soap, a reference to the notion that corpses were rendered into soap. Only when Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer of the 55th Brigade, met the survivors who had founded Kibbutz Buchenwald did he come to see that they were worthy of his respect: “They’d survived through not passivity but constant alertness,” Achmon came to realize. “Sabon: what jerks we were.” But Halevi reminds us that one of the enduring victories the 55th Brigade achieved was to “[replace] skeleton heaps in death camps with paratroopers at the Wall as the enduring Jewish image of the century.”

The centerpiece of the book, of course, is the operations that took place on the night of June 6-7, 1967, when the 55th Brigade was assigned a mission that had been a failure when it was tried during the War of Independence, in 1948. A tactical map of the battle lines will come as a shock to anyone who has since visited Israel as a tourist and strolled through the streets of Jerusalem where, on that night, the trenches and minefields were laid out. At the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, the fast-changing situation on multiple fronts was under constant scrutiny, but at least one order was clear and unequivocal: “Be prepared to take the Old City,” Gen. Uzi Narkiss, commander of the central front, told Arik Achmon. “I hope you will erase the shame of 1948.

Exactly here, I think, is where we glimpse the unique importance of the battle for Jerusalem, and the various reasons why it was so consequential. For the battle-hardened officers of the high command, the taking of the Old City was a point of honor as well as a crucial strategic objective. For others, it was a religious undertaking with messianic implications: “Next year in Jerusalem,” sang a group of soldiers, echoing the closing words of the Passover seder. A student watching them provided a new lyric: “Next week in Jerusalem — in Jerusalem rebuilt.” For just about everyone, including the largely secular popular of the Jewish state, the strains of a new hit song called “Jerusalem of Gold” represented “the nation’s suppressed anguish for the Old City of Jerusalem.”

But Halevi presses on in his search for the layering of meanings contained within the taking of the Old City. The tensions within the 55th Brigade are now writ large in Israel — the divisions between the religious and the secular, the settlers and the kibbutzniks, and the arguments over whether and how to change the “facts on the ground” that were first established in 1967. We read of how the veterans of that fateful mission go on to live their lives, to reinvent themselves, to enter and leave relationships, to pursue careers and enterprises in civilian life, to endure illness and confront death, and Halevi shows us how the same urgent issues that stirred in their hearts and minds in the heat of battle remain the same issues that the whole nation confronts today, often with heartbreaking and even fatal consequences.

That’s why “Like Dreamers” is such a rich, complex and eloquent book, both challenging and enlightening, an extraordinary effort on the part of the author to capture a vast historical saga through the lens of the lives of seven flesh-and-blood human beings.  

“In their disappointment, some Jews had forgotten to celebrate, how to be grateful,” Halevi concludes. “It was a recurring Jewish problem, as ancient as the first Exodus.” His achievement in “Like Dreams” is his own ability to celebrate the courage of the men of the 55th Brigade, without for a moment overlooking the perplexing aftermath of their victory on that remarkable day.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Sinai Temple, together with the Jewish Journal, host a discussion with Yossi Klein Halevi on Oct. 3, 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (310) 481-3243 or visit 

The Jewish Jane Austen

One of the remarkable things about Ruchama King Feuerman’s second novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” (New York Review of Books, $9.99) is the fact it is only available as an ebook in the NYRB Lit series.  Such is the fate of literary fiction nowadays, and it remains to be seen whether authors and publishers will find their readership in the world of digital publishing. 

Feuerman is certainly worthy of attention. Her first novel, “Seven Blessings,” was published in a print-on-paper edition by St. Martin’s Press, and one reviewer hailed her as the “Jewish Jane Austen.” Her new book is more nearly a thriller, although it is, like her earlier work, much concerned with romantic intrigue, too. 

Born in Nashville, Tenn., Feuerman now lives and works in Israel, where her new book is set.  One of the great pleasures of her novel, in fact, is her rich and vivid evocation of contemporary Jerusalem, and especially the people and places in Jerusalem that would not be out of place in a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “saints, zaddiks, rebbes, kabbalists and other holy men.” Her protagonist is Isaac — “forty, plagued with eczema and living on the Lower East Side” before he sold his haberdashery, boarded an El Al flight to Israel, and put himself in service to a charismatic rebbe in Jerusalem. 

Isaac soon encounters an Arab man named Mustafa, a trash collector on the Temple Mount who is reduced to his low labor by a physical disfigurement with which he was born. “Satan is inside Mustafa,” his mother observed. “Expect seven misfortunes from a cripple.” And his sister warned him against marriage: “How’ll you kiss your bride?” she taunts, referring to his twisted and frozen neck.

Isaac also befriends a worldly young woman, Tamar, a motorcycle-riding redhead who is seeking advice from the rebbe on how to find a yeshiva boy for a husband. “I wish you a lot of luck finding the best,” says Isaac, though life usually has something else to say.” But, inevitably, Isaac notices that Tamar appears to be interested in him. “A man is a human being, not an angel,” he reflects as he tries to talk himself out of “another entanglement, more trouble.” Says Isaac: “The two of them together, it was like milchigs and fleishigs, meat and dairy; they just didn’t mix.”

Between these three points of contact — Isaac, Mustafa and Tamar — Feuerman tells a tale of human beings who seek to make connections with each other against all odds against and with no inkling of the consequences. From the outset, Feuerman manages to inject a note of tension into her narrative, and it carries us through the suspenseful story that she has chosen to tell.

Along the way, Feuerman displays a sharp eye for the rhythms of real life in Jerusalem. She knows, for example, that the lobby of the King David Hotel is a favorite venue for couples whose first meeting has been arranged by a matchmaker, and that’s where Isaac goes on “blind dates” with “a stream of Rochels and Leahs and Mindys and Yocheveds … a decade and a half of shidduchs.” 

The author is interested in the lives of the religious, both Jewish and Muslim, and when she allows us to glimpse the wider world of contemporary Israel, it is usually through their eyes.  When Isaac rides a bus down Jaffa Road, the passengers fix their eyes on a dark-skinned man with a backpack until he opens it and takes out a volume of Talmud. “Too much bus drama!” Isaac muses. “If only those foolish boys — and of course Peres — hadn’t rushed off to Oslo to make their deals with Arafat, he thought. Because only then the party had started.”

Mustafa, as it happens, makes a gift to Isaac that turns out to the fatal link between them.  He finds an interesting object in a pile of rubbish on the Temple Mount — to Mustafa, of course, it is called the Noble Sanctuary — and innocently presents it to Isaac, who brings the object to an Israeli archaeologist. The little red globe of clay turns out to be an artifact that may date from as far back as the First Temple, a rare and even revolutionary archaeological treasure. Mustafa regards the whole notion as blasphemous because he has been taught that the Temple of antiquity was pure myth. “Crazy Jews, he scoffed. Talking, always talking.” But the significance of his gift cannot be overlooked.

Indeed, the artifact turns out to be a crucial but also volatile object, one that is capable of transforming the lives of both Isaac and Mustafa. Here the author shows that she may be the Jewish Jane Austen, but she is also something of a Jewish Graham Greene.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village on Oct. 27; at American Jewish University on Oct. 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on Nov. 1.

Kafka — demystifying the man behind the “Kafkaesque” mystique

Franz Kafka has entered our language as an adjective — “Kafkaesque” is applied nowadays to almost anything that strikes us as senseless or surreal — but the man himself remains obscure. Saul Friedlander’s short biography in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, “Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt” (Yale University Press, $25.00), offers an intriguing effort to fill in the blanks of a famous but little-understood author.

Friedländer, of course, is a much-honored historian of the Holocaust, but he is also a man of letters, a native speaker of German — the language in which Kafka wrote — and, significantly, a deeply sensitive and reflective observer of the world in which he lives. (His memoir, “When Memory Comes,” is an account of his own experiences during and after the Holocaust, both courageous and sublime.) Above all, he feels a kinship with Kafka because both of them are products the precarious Jewish community of Prague.

“My family’s world was that of Prague Jews, belonging to a slightly younger cohort than Franz’s generation,” he writes. “My father studied at the German Law School of Charles University, which Kafka had attended some fifteen years before….  My mother’s first name was Elli (Gabriele), as was that of Franz’s eldest sister. And, like those of Kafka’s three sisters, my parents’ lives ended in German camps. All of these hidden links, discovered over time, may have added to my predilection for Kafka’s texts, beyond the appeal of their intrinsic greatness.”

As the author of commanding works of history on the Holocaust, Friedländer regards his own book on Kafka as “a small biographical essay,” and he acknowledges that he is approaching his subject as a non-specialist. But his modesty is unnecessary. He has clearly mastered the vast scholarship that has attached itself to Kafka, and he brings fresh insights of his own to the challenging body of work Kafka left behind.

To various Kafka scholars, Friedländer explains, the enigmatic author “appeared as a neurotic Jew, a religious one, a mystic, a self-hating Jew, a crypto-Christian, a Gnostic, the messenger of an antipatriarchal brand of Freudianism, a Marxist, the quintessential existentialist, a prophet of totalitarianism or of the Holocaust, an iconic voice of High Modernism, and much more; in short, he has become the most protean cultural figure of the past century.” But the flesh-and-blood Kafka, he insists, aspired to none of these roles: “Kafka was no builder of theories, no designers of systems; he followed dreams, created metaphors, and unexpected associations; he told stories; he was a poet.”

Yet Friedländer concedes that Kafka’s work is illuminated by the facts of his life, and the biography serves as a companion and a key to the novels and stories.  After studying Kafka’s letters and journals, as well as his fiction, Friedländer concludes that Kafka’s family conflicts — and especially the lifelong tensions between father and son — prompted the writer to “[take] upon himself the role of toreador in a lifelong corrida, meant as the secret assertion of his own particular self.”

Friedländer is especially interested in how Kafka understood his Jewish origins and identity. His Hebrew name was Anschel; he went through the motions of a bar mitzvah, which his parents referred to as a “confirmation;” he was intrigued with Yiddish theater and Chasidic folklore and once participated in an audience with the Belzec Rebbe. But he felt as estranged from his father’s religion as he did from his father: “What have I in common with Jews?” the young Kafka mused. “I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe….”

The frail and sickly young Kafka, as Friedländer shows us, was afflicted by a sense of doom that finds expression in all of his writing. For example, Friedländer gives us a close and thoughtful reading of Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” pointing out the “wanton sexual violence” that the doctor confronts but fails to prevent, the “shamanistic healing ritual” that unfolds during the “surreal night journey,” and he finds a dire meaning below the surface of Kafka’s narrative: “Uncovering the truth about oneself and about the evil at the core of mankind could have become the first step to redemption; in Kafka’s world, though, truth seems to open the gates of annihilation.”

Friedländer is perfectly willing to venture his own interpretations and explanations, but he quips that “Kafka wouldn’t be Kafka if all signs were easily accessible.”  Kafka himself acknowledged as much in one of the letters that he wrote to one of the women in his life: “You have no idea, Felice, what havoc literature creates in certain heads.” Yet Friedländer has succeeded in ordering the seeming chaos inside Kafka’s head, and his “Kafka,” although modest in length, is rich in meaning.

 Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch will be discussing and signing copies of his new book at the Newport Beach Public Library on September 19; at American Jewish University on October 30; and at University Synagogue in Irvine on November 1.

Politics, poetry & pop: An Autumn of literary options

This fall’s book season brings forth an unusually rich and provocative crop of new works by famous and revered authors, some for children and some for adults, some from abroad, but many from right here in Southern California.

Among the brightest literary lights in Los Angeles is the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg, whose previous books have conjured up the lives of Max Perkins, Charles Lindbergh, Samuel Goldwyn and Katharine Hepburn. His latest biography, “Wilson” (Putnam, $40), is yet another event of note, a saga that fleshes out the stern figure of President Woodrow Wilson, the professor-turned-president who played a commanding role in shaping the geopolitical world in which we live today. “Berg renders Wilson with an astute, sensitive understanding of the man and his presidency,” Booklist enthuses. “Berg’s research is deep and thorough and — important for a wide readership — comfortably couched in a graceful, smooth presentation.” 

Berg, a sparkling conversationalist, will be featured with veteran journalist Jim Newton at the ALOUD at the Central Library, at 7:15 p.m. on Sept. 16. For reservations and information, visit

Long before the movie version of “Schindler’s List,” the world learned the story of Oskar Schindler from Australian author Thomas Keneally in the novel originally titled “Schindler’s Ark.” Keneally’s latest book is “The Daughters of Mars,” a novel that shows us the nightmarish landscape of the first world war through the eyes of two sisters who join up as army nurses. The action includes the tragic landing at Gallilpoli, where a Jewish unit known as the Zion Mule Corps was deployed in support of the infantry units from Australia and New Zealand.  The sacrifice of Anzac soldiers on the sands of Gallipoli and in the trenches of the Western Front is a sore point in Australia even today, and Keneally uses his remarkable gift as a storyteller to impart these meanings to his readers.  

Keneally will talk about and sign copies of “The Daughters of Mars” at 4 p.m. on Sept. 28 at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

Kim Dower is best known in these parts as “Kim From L.A.,” a book publicist of transcending charm and accomplishment. But her appreciative readers also look forward to her poetry, the latest of which is collected in “Slice of Moon” (Red Hen Press, $18.95).  “ ‘Slice of Moon’ is a dark chocolate fever dream of love, of mothers,” declares Erica Jong, one of her more famous fans. “Dower dares you into the dark. You may find yourselves lurking there.” In a poem titled “Dreams Do That,” for instance, she explains that “important dreams/sleep in the pockets of our hearts, folded/like handkerchiefs, waiting for a special occasion.” On the occasion of her new book, she allows her readers an intimate glimpse of those important dreams. 

Dower will discuss and sign copies of “Slice of Moon” at 4 p.m. on Sept. 21 at Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.

Aimee Bender is the best-selling master of post-modernist fairytales, including the breakout short-story collection “The Girl With the Flammable Skirt” and the unforgettable novel (and now a movie, too) “An Invisible Sign of My Own.” As Bender sees the world in which we live, a certain dark magic is always at work just beneath the surface of painfully realistic scenes and settings. By way of example, one of the stories in her latest collection, “The Color Master: Stories” (Doubleday, $25.95), focuses on the dilemma of a woman who marries an ogre and then wonders whether the marriage can be saved after he eats their children by mistake.  

Bender will read and discuss her new book at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 19 at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. 

Three pop-culture icons will be appearing at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore at the Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles, in the month of September. Sharon Osborne, the original “momager” and reality-show maven, conjures up Capt. Hook’s long-suffering mother in “Mama Hook Knows Best: A Pirate Parent’s Favorite Fables” (Disney Press, $17) at 7 p.m. on Sept. 18. With the publication of “My New Teacher and Me!” (HarperCollins, $17.99), Al (“Weird Al”) Yankovic steps out from behind the microphone to talk about his second outing as a best-selling children’s author at 2 p.m. on Sept. 22. And Billy Crystal, newly minted as a memoirist, presents a book for grown-ups — “Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?” (Henry Holt, $28) — at 7  p.m. on Sept. 26.  “This book is kickass funny and truly unique,” fellow comedian Robin Williams says. “A Hollywood biography with only one wife, no rehab, a loving family and loyal friends.”

Power of Yizkor

I suppose that Kol Nidrei is still the best-attended service of the Jewish calendar, but surely the memorial service known as Yizkor is a close second. After all, Yizkor — which means “May God remember…” — is the moment when we are invited to recall in solemn prayer the loved ones who have passed away, a deeply poignant and sometimes painful experience that stands out in sharp relief from the other services during the High Holy Days.

“Memory is dear to the Jews,” explains Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, editor of “May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism — Yizkor” (Jewish Lights, $24.99). “As Isaac Bashevis Singer is said to have commented (I wish I could remember where), ‘We Jews have many faults, but amnesia is not among them.’ ” 

The origins, meanings and uses of Yizkor are explored in depth and with powerful insight by the contributors to “Yizkor,” whose perspectives variously include biblical scholarship, linguistic study, mystical musing, theological speculation and feminist aspiration. The book is an ambitious and illuminating work of midrash on a single prayer service, and no one who reads this book will experience Yizkor in quite the same way again. Indeed, the book itself will inevitably enrich the experience in shul.

Like so much else in Jewish history, the liturgy of Yizkor originated with a tragedy — the slaughter of Jews by the Crusaders in the Rhineland in 1096 — and was gradually embraced by Jews throughout the Diaspora who suffered their own martyrdoms over the centuries. For that reason, the Yizkor service is a relatively recent addition to Jewish observance, a fact that Hoffman describes as “an anomaly, in that its prayers were matters of custom more than they were of law.” The prayer called El Malei Rachamim (God, full of compassion), for example, was added only in the 17th century, after the massacre of Jews by the Cossacks under the Ukrainian warlord Chmielnicki.

Yizkor exerts a unique power over those who attend the service. “Traditionally speaking, the time taken to recite the prayers in question was not great — not more than 15 minutes, if no sermon was attached,” Hoffman observes. “But the emotional ambience of that quarter of an hour was enormous, especially because of the superstition attached to the occasion.” One measure of that power is found in the tradition that required congregants whose parents were still alive to leave the sanctuary during Yizkor: “It was felt that they might prematurely become orphans so as to have to recite the prayer in earnest next year.”

Along with Hoffman, 30 rabbis, scholars and authors from around the world have contributed essays to the anthology; most of them are scholarly in tone and content, but some of them are also morally challenging. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, reflects on the subversive quality of Yizkor in a provocative essay titled “The Age of Amusement.” 

“American culture has accomplished what neither Kierkegaard nor Kohelet could conceive,” he writes. “We have cultivated a culture of such powerful distractions, entertainments, diversions, that today one actually can fill a lifetime with amusement.” In such a culture, he proposes, Yizkor can be dangerous to our complacency: “The spirit of Yizkor embarrasses us,” Feinstein explains. “Yizkor reminds us of our finitude — the startling truth that not one of us has an infinite number of tomorrows … it compels our attachment to matters of eternal significance.”

Many of the essays contain more than a little sermonizing, which, after all, is a standard accompaniment to the liturgy during a Yizkor service. Sometimes, however, the moral stance of the sermonizer is disruptive. Author and novelist Catherine Madsen, for example, is courageous enough to confront the question of recalling in prayer a deceased parent who was hurtful, and she cites an addition to the liturgy by Robert Saks, which appears in a new Conservative machzor.

“The parent I remember was not kind to me,” goes the revisionist version according to Saks. “His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt. I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.”

Madsen — and, in a larger sense, the book in its entirety — calls us to experience Yizkor in a much more powerful and life-changing way than sitting dutifully in shul and mouthing the words. “People know what they feel about their dead; the liturgist need not supply them with adjectives or attitudes,” she writes bluntly. “The point of Yizkor is to generate an act: to establish a reflex, a neural pathway, from your own loss to someone else’s survival.”

Note to reader: I have had business dealings with the publisher of this book.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

The mystery of the missing husband

While reviewing “The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons (Plume Original), the bestselling author of “The House at Tyneford,” I was also reading Ralph Ellison’s, “The Invisible Man,” and the thought occurred to me that invisibility can take many forms that might have nothing to do with skin color.

Juliet Montague feels invisible in her suburban, conservative Jewish community.   Her husband vanished years ago, leaving her stranded with two children.  She is considered “Aguna,” or more correctly,  “Agunah.”  She is neither a widow nor a divorcée—according to Jewish law only a man has the right to grant a get, a religious divorce, to a woman.  Nevertheless, Juliet is chained to her marriage and forbidden to carry on with the normal activities of a vibrantly young, single woman.

But Juliet refuses to live by the suffocating rules of her society.  On her thirtieth birthday, when Charlie, a wealthy artist, offers to paint her portrait, she decides to spend her hard-earned money on the portrait, rather than on a much-needed refrigerator.   Besotted by Juliet, Charlie wends his way into her life, but Juliet is quick to remind him: “We are not like you….  Don’t be fooled by the electrical kettle …. The modern world hasn’t reached us yet. … You can come and eat strudel and everyone will be terribly kind… but you don’t belong.”  The truth is that Juliet doesn’t belong either, nor does she belong in Charlie’s “white studio,” with its “white walls.”  But that doesn’t stop Charlie from introducing Juliet to his artist friends and to a more exciting life, where laws differ from the ones she is used to.   And it doesn’t stop Juliet, the good Jewish girl, “who had never heard her father swear,” and whose mother is “bewildered by the appeal of excitement,” from being seduced by the rocking, rolling, boozing, drugging, and dangerously exciting art world of 1960s London.    

Charlie, recognizing that Juliet possesses an eye for art, invites her to run a gallery.  So begins Juliet’s effort to be noticed through a series of portraits artists in her circle paint of her.  Still, despite the “many Juliets” that emerge in these portraits, despite the recognition she garners in the art world, and despite finding love, Juliet will not feel noticed until she solves the mystery of her vanished husband.  “My husband never divorced me.”  Juliet ponders.   “So I was never really married at all.  I’m an adulteress.  Well, I don’t really know who I am.”

As she embarks on a quest to find her husband, the reader wonders whether the Juliet, who thinks: “There I am,  … Always about to fall; never falling,” will eventually tumble and fall, once she discovers the surprising mystery of her husband’s disappearance.

The story will especially resonate with many Jewish women who continue to suffer the shame and guilt of being agunot, and who, like Juliet, are left afloat in their quest to grapple with their identity.

Holiday reading round-up for kids

The good news for Jewish children’s books this year is the occasion of the 20th anniversary of beloved picture book character Sammy Spider. There is even a colorful plush toy available on the publisher’s Web site ( Sammy’s creator, the prolific L.A.-based children’s author Sylvia Rouss, continues to turn out new titles for Jewish children, and her two newest books are highlighted here. One of them does not feature any talking spiders, but it is a delightful Sukkot-themed collaboration with Sylvia’s daughter, Shannon Rouss. Unfortunately, the same economic issues affecting the secular world of children’s publishing have hurt Jewish children’s book publishing; it is hard to justify publication of books about Jewish holidays when the likely sales of such books will be minimal, thus leaving few to choose from. However, the following new titles rise above the rest and will make fine holiday choices for the coming new year. 

“Sammy Spider’s First Yom Kippur” by Sylvia A. Rouss, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar-Ben, $16.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback).

Josh Shapiro and his family, along with Sammy and his patient spider mother, again appear in a holiday tale — this one focusing on the meaning of Yom Kippur. As usual, little Sammy is the curious observer of all things human, who never quite gets the fact that he is actually a spider and is supposed to spend time spinning webs, not celebrating Jewish holidays. And, again, his wise spider mother is a font of all Judaic knowledge, explaining various rituals in simple, preschool-appropriate language. Young Josh has disobeyed family rules and played with his ball inside, inadvertently breaking the honey dish, and disturbing Sammy and Mrs. Spider’s intricate web. Josh has been learning about Jewish holidays in school, and his parents help him to write up a list of “people you want to apologize to before Yom Kippur.” In the end, it is not only his parents who deserve to hear, “I’m sorry,” but Sammy Spider as well. The colorful cut-paper art by Katherine Janus Kahn is reminiscent of Eric Carle’s work and is the most appealing aspect of this fun series for children. Other appropriate titles for the season include “Sammy Spider’s First Rosh Hashanah,” “Sammy Spider’s First Sukkot” and “Sammy Spider’s First Simchat Torah.” 

“A Watermelon in the Sukkah” by Sylvia A. Rouss and Shannan Rouss, Illustrated by Ann Iosa (Kar-Ben, $16.95 hardcover, $7.95 paperback).

All the kids in Miss Sharon’s class are excited about being able to bring their favorite fruits to school in order to hang them in the sukkah. Michael is especially excited because his favorite fruit is a … watermelon. Uh-oh! This funny premise will engage children while they are learning about how the holiday is celebrated. Miss Sharon is unusually accommodating to Michael’s request to find a way to hang up the watermelon, and the other children in class are depicted as enjoying the various attempts to solve the conundrum. But before Michael resigns himself to bringing his “second-favorite fruit” to school, the class figures out an ingenious solution and all ends well. The bright and cheery artwork accents the moods of the happy schoolchildren along with a curious squirrel who seems to enjoy watching the problem-solving process. Luckily for everyone, Michael’s second-favorite fruit — a pumpkin! — gets left at home.

“Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook” by Jane Yolen, recipes by Heidi E.Y. Stemple, illustrated by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin (Crocodile Books, $25).

Is it a cookbook or a story collection? It’s both — the unusual format of this handsome book will appeal to families who like good food and good stories. Noted storyteller Jane Yolen retells 18 Jewish tales (adding interesting tidbits about her source material on the final page of each story) followed by Stemple’s tasty recipes, which correspond to each story in obvious ways. The book is broken up into categories of brunch, soup, main courses and dessert. Each story is preceded by an appropriate Jewish saying, such as, “The reddest apple may have a worm,” which begins the Middle Eastern story of “The Three Skillful Brothers,” in which an apple plays an important role. For the upcoming holidays, “Two Jars of Honey” or “The Loaves in the Ark” would work nicely. Afterward, families can enjoy making honey cake or challah with the provided recipes. Later in the year, there are many other stories and correlated recipes to enjoy. It is nice to see that the authors have included Jewish ethnicities other than Ashkenazi. Young people can learn how to make shakshuka after hearing the story of Chaim, the yeshiva boy who comes back to an inn 25 years after eating an egg that he did not pay for. Pomegranate couscous is another surprise main course with kid appeal. Although the oversized book’s layout, design and colorful collage illustrations are particularly engaging for reading, it may be a bit cumbersome for the actual cook. Note to gift givers: The level of sophistication is high, and some of the stories are complex, so this book is recommended for well-seasoned readers age 10 and up.

“The Very Crowded Sukkah” by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Bob McMahon (Two Lions, $17.99).

Sam, his parents, and his sister Ava are busily preparing the family sukkah by hanging paper chains, cranberry strings and fall fruits and vegetables, when a sudden rainstorm surprises them and they run inside the house to avoid a soaking. The forlorn children watch and wait by the window for the sun to make an appearance. Meanwhile, other outside creatures have the same idea. Into the sukkah flies a ladybug and a butterfly to dry off their wings. Ants march in the dirt and bunnies shake off their wet, puffy tails. When the rain stops, Sam’s family does get to enjoy their holiday meal in the cozy, uncrowded sukkah, and they eventually clean up and go to bed. Kids will get the joke on the final two-page spread: Night has fallen and the sukkah is again populated by myriad curious animals seeking out whatever crumbs they can find. The large and brightly colored illustrations depict a joyous family celebration, and the text is written in the perfect meter to be read aloud to very young children, who will enjoy naming the cute animals and finding the hidden ladybug. An author’s note on the final page provides useful information about the holiday of Sukkot. 

‘Serenade’: Love and liberation

One of the bitter ironies of history is that Hitler and the Nazis loved music but it did nothing to soothe the savage breast of Nazi Germany. A second irony is that the high culture of Western Europe, including its heritage of classical music, featured the compositions and performances of a great many Jewish musicians. 

The irony suffuses the romantic tale that Carol Jean Delmar tells in “Serenade: A Memoir of Music and Love From Vienna and Prague to Los Angeles” (Willow Lane Press, $27.99). Her parents, Franz and Franziska, met and fell in love in 1927 when they danced to the strains of Strauss’ “The Radetzky March” in a Viennese cafe. They were dancing on the edge of a volcano, of course, and one of the poignant aspects of Delmar’s book is that she allows us to enter the elegant but doomed world of Viennese Jewry that so soon would suffer a catastrophe. 

Young Franz pursued a career as an opera singer — his first audition piece is “O du mein holder Abendstern” from a Wagner opera. By then, the Nazis were already on the ascent in Germany and Austria. “Franz tried not to think about politics,” Delmar explains. “[H]e immersed himself in his music instead.” In 1936, while the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany, the handsome performer appeared on the professional opera stage in Vienna to encouraging notices: “A first-rate Figaro in the Mozartian tradition,” one critic enthused. 

Another comfort was his courtship of beautiful Franziska, a story that is told in charming and sometimes passionate detail. “Last night I dreamt that my heart was creeping away from me, and when I asked where it was going, it said that it was leaving me because it could not bear to be away from you,” Franz had written to Franziska on her 16th birthday. “So you see, my little Franziska, my heart is forsaking me.” As they grew closer, the romance offered its own little world into which they could retreat: “[W]hen Franz and Franziska were together,” Delmar writes, “they felt safe.

Neither love nor music, however, were sufficient to shelter these young lovers. Theater managers began to cancel the appearances of the young Jewish virtuoso, and the curtain calls at one performance in Prague were cut off when a few Nazi sympathizers in the audience stood up and started giving the Nazi salute in a gesture of rebuke to the Jewish singer on the stage: “Heil Hitler!” 

Prague was a place of temporary refuge for the young couple when the Nazis took power in Austria in 1938. “What was Hitler going to do next?” Franziska fretted. “What was he capable of?” Franz tried to reassure her: “But Hitler must realize that he can’t just walk into Czechoslovakia like he did in Austria without any opposition.” Music, again was the safe subject: “Try to concentrate on your singing,” Franziska said. “And let me do most of the worrying.”

In 1938, when Nazi Germany began the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, Franz and Franziska found themselves with German passports, “each stamped with a big red ‘J’ on the front page,” as Delmar explains, “to label their Jewishness.” They managed to reach Zurich, Milan and then Marseille, Panama and Cuba, where they puzzled over where they might be granted asylum: Shanghai? Cuba? Eventually, with the astute advice of a HIAS agent and a convenient supply of American dollars, they bribed their way out of a Cuba refugee camp and then successfully navigated their way through the treacherous passport formalities of both the United States and Nazi Germany. “We’re always one step ahead of disaster,” Franziska quipped.

On Oct. 9, 1939, their ship docked at last in Miami, and Franz and Franziska were en route to their ultimate stopping place in Los Angeles. They were a highly cosmopolitan and well-traveled young couple, but the diner on Biscayne Boulevard posed an entirely unanticipated challenge — Franziska didn’t quite know what to do when they were served a carton of cornflakes and a pitcher of cream and provided with a bowl and a spoon. “You’re supposed to throw them into the bowl, put cream and sugar on top of them, and then eat with a spoon,” Franz instructed. “Oh,” Franziska replied. “So this is American food.”

“Serenade” reminds us that the great events of history happen to flesh-and-blood human beings, a fact that Delmar understands and honors in her beautifully written and illustrated book. (Indeed, the snapshots, postcards, clippings and documents that adorn “Serenade” are among its greatest pleasures and most illuminating features.) She understands the exalting role that music played in the lives of her parents, which amount to a saga of love and survival, but she also appreciates that a bowl of cornflakes can be a symbol of liberation. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

‘Resistance’ was not futile

As one of the very few reviewers who found fault with Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” I once wrote that I would have preferred a film based on “Defiance,” Nechama Tec’s brilliant study of the Bielski partisans, which shows Jews not as the passive beneficiaries of a Nazi factory owner’s largess, but as active resisters who picked up a gun and fought back. And, in 2009, director Edward Zwick came to the same conclusion in his own movie, also titled “Defiance.”

Now, Tec, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut, revisits the subject of Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany in “Resistance: How Jews and Christians Fought Against the Nazis and Became Heroes of the Holocaust” (Oxford University Press, $27.95).

Tec explains that while certain inevitable questions asked by her audiences made her feel “uncomfortable and even resentful,” the same questions have been asked as often by Jews as by non-Jews ever since the Holocaust came to worldwide attention, most notably: “Why didn’t the Jews strike back at their oppressors?”

As someone who knows the history of Jewish resistance in all of its detail, Tec muses that “these troubling questions might have been fueled by ignorance.” So, she takes it upon herself to explain the truth in “Resistance,” a study of the unique circumstances in which the victims of the Holocaust found themselves and the courageous ways in which they did, in fact, fight back.

“Has anyone seen an army without arms?” asked Luchan Dobroszycki, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz. “An army scattered over 200 isolated ghettoes? An army of infants, old people, the sick?” To which Tec stirringly answers: “This book seeks to answer this question with a resounding yes.”

She traces the charge of “complicity in their own destruction” to Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, who famously complained that the Frank family “could have provided themselves with a gun or two, had they wished” and “shot down at least one or two of the ‘green police’ who came for them.” Hannah Arendt reinforced the same harsh view in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” in which she blamed Jewish community leaders who had been pressed into service in the notorious Judenrat for facilitating the Final Solution. 

To rebut these allegations, Tec showcases the varieties of Jewish resistance.  A young Polish Jew named Ephraim Bleichman, for example, stripped the Star of David from his sleeve and escaped into the countryside: “From the beginning I knew that I wouldn’t let them kill me,” Bleichman told Tec, “and that I would not submit.” He eventually found his way to a band of 100 or so like-minded Jewish partisans, who possessed only two guns and no ammunitions. Soon, they had acquired a small arsenal and taught themselves how to use the weapons: “I personally didn’t know how to hold a gun, let alone how to use it,” Bleichman recalls. “But the minute we had weapons, we became much braver.”

Resistance necessarily took a different form in the ghettoes, where the Nazis gathered and held their Jewish captives before shipping them off to the death camps. Here, it turned out that women were bettered equipped than men to resist: “Women’s traditional roles as caregivers, housekeepers, and cooks remained essential,” explains Tec. “Deprivation and hunger made those who could procure and skillfully handle food particularly valuable. Thus, in the ghetto, unobtrusively yet consistently, women contributed significantly to survival.”

Some acts of resistance had nothing at all to do with weaponry. Emmanuel Ringelbaum, for example, organized the so-called Oneg Shabbat project in the Warsaw Ghetto, a communal effort to gather and preserve a record of the crimes that were being committed against the Jewish victims. “They were racing against time,” Tec writes. “At this stage, unable to protect the Jewish people, they concentrated on saving Jewish history.  This was their act of resistance.”

Tec shows us that the most famous Jewish resisters of all — the ghetto fighters in Warsaw and elsewhere — made a conscious decision to send a message to the world, and to history, through the manner of their death. Escape and survival were beside the point, although they certainly wanted to extract a price in blood from their murderers. “We do not wish to save our lives,” declared Jurek Wilner, one of the ghetto fighters. “None of us will come out of this alive. We only want to save the honor of mankind.”  Writes Tec in one heartbreaking line: “It was a shame that Ringelbaum was not there to witness this transformation.”

Even in the heart of darkness — the death camps — Jewish resistance was alive.  Jewish women who were assigned to slave labor in the munitions factory at Auschwitz/Birkenau, including the heroic Roza Robota, managed to steal small quantities of gunpowder and smuggle it out under the false bottom of a specially fashioned “menashke,” a tin soup bowl. Their comrades in the men’s camp fashioned the explosives into the bombs used to blow up Crematoria IV, while others used hammers, axes and stones as weapons against their Nazi guards.

To her credit, Tec digs deeply into this incident and acknowledges that a terrible fate was visited upon actual and suspected participants in the revolt.  One of the moral quandaries of would-be resisters, in fact, was the sure knowledge that every act of resistance would bring down bloodthirsty reprisals by the Germans against innocent men, women and children. Yet we cannot help but thrill at the otherwise heartbreaking scene of the public hanging of Robota and her fellow resisters on Jan. 6, 1945. “The executions themselves happened under a cover of sullen silence,” Tec writes. “Only once was this utter silence broken — by Roza Robota’s cry of ‘Nekama!’ — ‘Revenge.’ ”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at

Reza Aslan on Jesus, the Jew

Reza Aslan, an author and scholar of religion, has established himself as a familiar face and voice on American television, the go-to guy for commentary on the Islamic world, and he embodies all the right stuff: youthful good looks, depth of knowledge and the kind of media savvy that enables him to answer even the most nuanced questions in measured sound bites. So it was no surprise when Aslan showed up on Fox News last month to talk about his new book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” (Random House, $27).

But the Fox interviewer, Lauren Green, was apparently unaware that Aslan does not suffer fools gladly.

“You’re a Muslim,” the network’s religion specialist said at the start of her very first question. “So why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

“To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, with fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origin of Christianity for two decades, who happens to be a Muslim,” Aslan admonished his inquisitor. “Anyone who thinks this book is an attack on Christianity hasn’t read it yet.” When Green pressed the point, Aslan deftly schooled her on the Islamophobia that suffused her questions: “I think it is a little strange that, rather than debating the arguments of the book, we are debating the right of the scholar to actually write it.”