Tribal – Episode 1: Jon Birger, author of ‘Date-onomics’
The voice of Marvin Kalb, deeply familiar to any baby boomer, is calm, measured and authoritative. He was one of “Murrow’s boys” — the young reporters mentored by iconic broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow — but he was dubbed “the Professor” because he had been recruited to join the CBS News team from a doctoral program in Russian history at Harvard in the 1950s. Over the next four decades, he continued to bring both wisdom and gravitas to television news.
Now, Kalb is re-entering the public conversation with a timely and wholly fascinating book about a man and a country that have seized our attention even during the wackiest moments of the presidential campaign. “Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine and the New Cold War” (Brookings Institution Press) is a book for the ages, to be sure, but it could also be a briefing book for our next president.
In “Imperial Gamble,” Kalb drills deeply into Russian history, a subject that is as timely as a news crawl at the bottom of the television screen. “Putin’s gamble in Crimea (and it was a gamble) was reckless, even dangerous,” he explains. “Why had he acted so impulsively, so Russianly?” The answer lies in the roots of Russian history, but it casts a shadow over the world in which we live now: “If there is a Putin doctrine, hidden somewhere in his rhetoric, it would be that people who consider themselves Russian, no matter where they live, cannot and will not be abandoned by Moscow.”
The crisis in Ukraine, as Kalb sees it, marks the re-emergence of Russia as America’s strategic adversary and a decisive player in world geopolitics: “Putin is not the reckless, unorthodox, swaggering Kremlin chief usually depicted in the West, but rather one operating in the mainstream of Russian policy for the last 100 years and more… [l]ike Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Stalin, and Lenin before him.”
I was privileged to hear Kalb’s memorable voice in a conversation about his remarkable career, his new book and what it means for America’s future.
Jonathan Kirsch: Let me start with the notion that you are the last of “Murrow’s boys.” Do you look on what passes for television news nowadays with some despair?
Marvin Kalb: Yes, very much so, but I am also aware that, just as Murrow represented a significant change in the way in which the American people picked up their information about the world, today there are other journalists working with a totally different technological advantage in the way in which they accumulate information and pass it on to the American people. The danger there is that the technology not end up fashioning the message. [When] I had to do an important story on Russia from Russia, I would be shooting footage, I would then have to get the footage to New York, which would give me a day or two to think through what I wanted to say that would be the voiceover for the film. I didn’t have to be an instant analyst. Today, everything is instantaneous, and we have to be mindful of the incredible responsibility on every reporter to be a great genius in an instant.
JK: You write that for some Russians, including Putin, Ukraine has never really been a separate country of its own, which puts me in mind of the argument that is made about the Palestinian Arabs, not to mention Syria and Iraq. Does it really matter whether Ukraine or Palestine have ever been countries in the past, if that’s how they think of themselves now?
MK: The Jewish people in prayer have always said: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Why? Because a couple of thousand years ago, we were there. And so you want to recapture something. From the point of view of modern-day nationalism, if you have the opportunity to recapture something from the past, you seize that opportunity. These days the Ukrainian nationalists, in order to strengthen their claim, state that the core of their country goes back to a place called Kievan Rus in the 10th or 11th centuries. That would be fine, except that the Russians, including Putin, say exactly the same thing about the starting point of Russia.
JK: You write that Putin represents an insurmountable problem for Ukraine, but that, in a larger sense, “Ukraine is Ukraine’s biggest problem.” What is that problem and how can it be solved?
MK: Sure, the problem can be solved, but probably not for another 50 years, and that’s taking an optimistic view. Since 1991, Ukraine has been an independent country. Fine, but then you have to act like an independent country. You have to do something about the corruption in your state, which has paralyzed the Ukrainian economy. The people who run it know exactly what has to be done, but they can’t do it because they live in the midst of Slavic sloppiness combined with communist ineffectiveness. It is a disaster.
JK: You write that Putin wants the world to see him as “a cool, modern intellectual and not just a powerful Russian leader.” How do you see him?
MK: Putin is a Russian nationalist leader without any fixed ideology except a belief in the effectiveness of raw political and military power. Putin agrees with the expression that we hear in the Middle East about establishing facts on the ground. Putin believes that if you establish a fact on the ground, the world will have to adjust to it. In the face of what he regards as a direct existential threat to Russia — the rise of a Western, nationalist, democratic Ukraine — he is prepared to put boots on the ground. His question to Obama is: “Are you?” And the answer is clearly, “No.” So Putin says to himself, “Thanks very much, I am going to do what I want to do.” And he is.
JK: You write that Putin “is without doubt the strongest Russian autocrat since Stalin, but oddly the most vulnerable.” What is his greatest vulnerability?
MK: The greatest problem that Putin has stumbled into is that he has made himself the leader of a Shiite group taking on the Sunni part of the Islamic world in Syria. Russia is now a country of 142 million people. Twenty-one million are Sunni Muslims. Two million Sunnis live in Moscow. If you go down to Dagestan, south of Chechnya, on any Friday or Saturday, you will hear clerics giving sermons absolutely comparable to what you would hear in an ISIS mosque in Syria right now. There is a great danger of an explosion of Sunni wrath, disappointment and anger at the Russians. And Russian leaders from Lenin on have always been concerned about it. In my judgment, it’s something that Putin will pay a price for.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
As the author of a best-seller that deals with female sexuality after 50, the Lithuanian novelist Ruta Vanagaite is used to embarrassing questions from journalists about her private life.
But even she was astonished when a reporter for a popular television station demanded to see her birth certificate to ascertain the veracity of claims that she is Jewish.
The question came during an interview about Vanagaite’s latest book, “Musiskiai” (“Our People”), a travelogue about the Holocaust consisting of interviews with witnesses to the atrocities perpetrated by Lithuanians against their Jewish neighbors.
The book’s publication last month has triggered the first major public debate in Lithuania about local Lithuanians’ complicity in the genocide of the Jews. It currently tops the best-seller list of the Pegasas chain of bookstores and has prompted officials to promise to publish this year the names of 1,000 Holocaust perpetrators they have been keeping under wraps for years.
Vanagaite, who is 61 and not Jewish, visited killing fields in Lithuania and Belarus to research the book, which she co-authored with Efraim Zuroff, the renowned Nazi hunter and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office. Though she found the journalist’s request to see her birth certificate unsettling, she complied anyway.
“I know where it’s coming from,” Vanagaite told JTA. “Lithuanian involvement in the Holocaust is such a taboo that being a Jew or a Russian spy are the only explanations for wanting to talk about it.”
But that is beginning to change thanks to Vanagaite’s book.
“In one fell swoop, the book has brought a wave of truth telling about the Holocaust to the mainstream of society who follow the large media outlets,” said Dovid Katz, a Yiddish scholar in Vilnius who has campaigned for historical accuracy on the Lithuanians’ Holocaust-era role in the near annihilation of the Lithuanian Jewish community of 220,000. “It is of notable importance that a born and bred Lithuanian author tells the simple truth as it has never been told in a trade book not intended for scholars and specialists.”
Geoff Vasil, a spokesman for the Jewish Community of Lithuania, said “the turning of the tide within Lithuanian society” on this issue “now appears to be taking place like never before.”
The 304-page volume has prompted not just the official Jewish Community of Lithuania but also local media outlets to demand the government publish its list of suspected war criminals. The government received the names in 2012 from its own Genocide and Resistance Research Center but failed to publish them or issue any indictments. The center’s director now has promised to publish the names by 2017.
Vanagaite’s book also has highlighted the fact that despite ample evidence and testimonies of widespread complicity, not a single person has been imprisoned in Lithuania for killing Jews during the Holocaust.
“Germany, Austria, even Hungary and Poland have had this reckoning a decade ago, but there’s a strong resistance in Lithuanian society to follow suit and confront this stain in our history,” Vanagaite said. Yet failing to do so, she said, “will mean we will be branded as a whole nation of murderers, and rightly so, because we refuse to acknowledge and condemn a murderous fringe.”
Vanagaite experienced this reluctance personally last year when she made an unwelcome discovery that served as her motivation to write the book in the first place.
In researching the life story of her grandfather — a well-known activist against communist Russia’s occupation of Lithuania until 1991 — she found documents that showed he helped German authorities compile a list of 10 Jewish communists during World War II. The German authorities then gave him some Jews to work on his farm as slave laborers before they were murdered.
“It was devastating,” Vanagaite recalls. “This was a man who was a hero to me and my family.”
In Lithuania, locals who fought with the Germans against the Red Army are widely revered as patriotic freedom fighters — including Juozas Ambrazevicius, the leader of the Nazi collaborationist government. In a funeral organized by the central government, Ambrazevicius was reburied in 2012 with full national honors in the city of Kaunas. Four years earlier, Lithuanian prosecutors investigated for alleged war crimes four Jews who fought against the Nazis with the Russians. The investigation was dropped amid an international outcry.
Lithuania is the only country whose government officially branded Soviet occupation as a form of genocide. That “Soviet-sponsored genocide” is commemorated in Lithuania far more prominently than the Holocaust. And even any mention of the Jewish genocide had been absent from Vilnius’ state Museum of Genocide Victims until 2011.
“Exposing that some Lithuanians who are considered patriotic heroes are really war criminals would undermine the good-versus-evil narrative,” Katz noted.
It is precisely Vanagaite’s credentials as a good Lithuanian from a good Lithuanian family that has made her message so piercing to fellow Lithuanians, said Zuroff, the co-author of “Our People” and longtime critic of Lithuanian governments.
“My voice [about Lithuania] was loud in international media, but I was not getting heard inside Lithuania, where I was pretty much portrayed as an enemy of the people,” Zuroff told JTA. “It took someone like Ruta to achieve that.”
The second part of Vanagaite’s book is about her travels with Zuroff, where they spoke to octogenarians who witnessed mass executions. Referencing Zuroff – a reviled figure by many Lithuanians, including well-known cartoonists and nationalist columnists – Vanagaite titled that part of the book “Journey with an Enemy.”
But Vanagaite and Zuroff are not in full accord. She believes that in lieu of Lithuanian introspection, the extent and cruelty of Lithuanian complicity has been vastly exaggerated – including in survivors’ testimonies. She cast doubt on testimonies about a man who was boiled alive in Panevezys and an account that locals, after slaughtering dozens of Jews in Kaunas, sang the Lithuanian anthem. Zuroff says he has no reason to doubt these accounts.
“But these details are less significant in light of the movement that this book started,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vanagaite is experiencing the public denunciation that for years has been directed at Zuroff, Katz and other critics of Lithuania’s refusal to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators.
Cast as a Kremlin agent in some publications and as a closeted Jew in others, Vanagaite says some of her friends no longer wish to speak to her.
At a book fair next month, Vanagaite says she will hand out stones to visitors of her booth with the following instruction: “Any Lithuanian who’s certain that their family wasn’t involved in the Holocaust should throw one right at me.”
The longer I live in America, the more fascinated I become with the story of American Jewry — how a wandering and persecuted people discovered a free and open nation and have given so much back.
At the heart of this story are some larger-than-life Jews who have influenced every facet of American life, from Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley to academia, popular culture, media, social action and politics.
One Jew who surely belongs to this prominent cast is Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Here is a yeshiva boy from New York’s Lower East Side who grows up to become one of the world’s most influential Jews, thanks to a special brew of smarts, chutzpah, faith and humor.
Those traits are in full view in Hier’s new memoir, “Meant to Be,” which offers up hundreds of little anecdotes to paint the portrait of a big life. The book’s title speaks to Hier’s faith that everything in life happens for a reason, and that it is always for the good.
But Hier easily could have titled his book “To Make a Long Story Short,” because the man’s life revolves so much around stories — stories about things that happened to him or to others, stories that he has handy for any occasion, stories from the Bible that move his soul, stories that help him land a big donor or a movie star, and, his favorite type, stories that make him laugh.
From left: Sen. Edward Kennedy, Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Hier, when the senator received the Wiesenthal Center’s Humanitarian Award at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
“There are many reasons why we Jews have survived nearly three thousand five hundred years of persecution and turmoil,” he writes. “I am convinced that one of the them is our ability to laugh, even during the most trying circumstances.”
Hier is one of those people for whom smiling seems to be the default position, as if he’s always on the hunt for good news. You can imagine him smiling as he wrote some of the stories in the book, as when he recounts his first meeting with Frank Sinatra in the late-1970s. At the time, his plan for a Holocaust museum was still just a dream. Sinatra offered to help, but because he called himself only an “honorary member of the Jewish tribe,” he reached out to his Jewish neighbor, Danny Schwartz, asking him to bring along his “Jewish telephone directory.”
Like so many stories in the book, the Sinatra story leads to a series of other events and meetings that invariably lead to good things. Most of the stories are connected to people — from Hollywood stars, world leaders or major donors to quirky characters, including funny rabbis and even janitors.
Perhaps the quirkiest story is the one that ignited Hier’s mission to honor the victims of the Holocaust.
It started innocuously enough during a family outing to the La Brea Tar Pits in the summer of 1977. Hier overheard a little girl asking the tour guide: “Will dinosaurs come back to earth one day?”
As Hier recounts the story, “The amiable guide smiled and reassured her that the earth’s changing climate conditions prevented dinosaurs from returning.”
Oddly, something about that answer stuck with Hier. His mind wandered. He thought about “human creatures, whose time on earth is dependent as much on political conditions as environmental ones.” And then he wondered if a political climate can ever return a monster like Hitler to power.
That question weighed on him for weeks: “How many of the visitors who came to the La Brea Tar Pits to learn about prehistoric animal fossils knew anything about the cataclysmic events that had engulfed our world in the 1930s and ’40s? Why didn’t America have a major Holocaust education center like Israel’s Yad Vashem to teach the story of the murder of six million Jews — one third of the world’s Jewish population? Why hadn’t the American Jewish community — the world’s largest — built a major Holocaust museum?”
Hier then recounts the decisive story of the book: Over Shabbat cholent in his Pico-Robertson home, he brings up the idea of a Holocaust center with his lifelong partner, his wife, Malkie. “It’s a great idea,” she tells him. “It will have an impact on the whole community. I think you should do it.”
That cholent meeting set off a decades-long adventure to build two of the most prominent institutions in the world. But while the building of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance have garnered enormous attention and made Hier a global name, when you read the book, you realize that something has gotten lost in the media picture: Hier is still, at heart, a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side.
It’s easy to overlook that Hier began his career as a successful pulpit rabbi in Canada, eventually leaving after 10 years because “there were no yeshivas for my sons in Vancouver.” When he moved his family to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, he had no idea he would ever be involved with the Holocaust or fighting anti-Semitism. His plan was to start a yeshiva for post-high school students of all backgrounds and denominations and contribute, as he says, “to the unbroken chain of Torah study that had sustained Jews over the centuries.”
By forging an association with Yeshiva University (YU) of New York, one of the oldest Jewish educational institutions in America, he gave his new yeshiva instant credibility. With the help of initial funding from the Belzberg family, he bought an empty building on Pico Boulevard and began his new life in Los Angeles immersed in Jewish education.
One of my favorite stories in the book is when Hier visits the empty building on Pico and meets the janitor, Jack Rufus, a “tall, slender African-American man with deep worry lines on his forehead.”
Hier tells Rufus about his plan for starting the school, admitting that “I don’t exactly have any students, and we haven’t hired any teachers yet.”
Rufus, who was hoping to keep his job, responds: “You mean to tell me, you don’t have any teachers or students, but you bought this building? Rabbi, I don’t mean any disrespect, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. That’s like going horseback riding without a horse.”
Hier proceeds to tell Rufus a Chasidic story about two men who went to see the same rebbe for a blessing to have children. The blessing worked, but only for the man who immediately bought a baby carriage — in other words, only for the man who had true faith in the blessing. Hier told the janitor that he had received his own blessing from a rebbe to open the school. He had so much faith in that blessing, in fact, that he hired Rufus on the spot.
It’s while Hier was building his new yeshiva that his improbable visit to the Tar Pits led him to think about building a Holocaust center. From then on, Jewish education and Holocaust remembrance became his two consuming passions. Only two months after the yeshiva opened in late 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center opened inside the yeshiva’s west wing.
A key story in the book is how Hier convinced Wiesenthal, the legendary pursuer of Nazi war criminals, to agree to have his name on the center. Hier recounts a long courtship, punctuated by a hairy car ride through the streets of Vienna.
At a meeting with the great man, Hier mustered all his chutzpah: “Mr. Wiesenthal,” he said, “I recently visited a museum in L.A .where people come from all over America to learn about dinosaurs. In fact, there are a half dozen such places in America. But where can people go to learn about the Nazis? Who will teach them that thirty-two years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is still going strong? If we don’t teach young people now, we will once again be caught unprepared, and history will repeat itself.”
The Wiesenthal name helped put Hier’s Holocaust center on the map, just as the YU association did the same for his yeshiva. As they both took off simultaneously, the two tracks of Hier’s life began to take shape: an international leader around Holocaust remembrance and fighting anti-Semitism, and a local leader in Orthodox Jewish education in Los Angeles, first with the yeshiva and then with its successor high school, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA), which he led until 2005.
These two sides symbolize the two Marvin Hiers: the global storyteller who wants to change the world, and the yeshiva boy who stays loyal to his Jewish roots.
The yeshiva boy dreams of keeping the flame of Torah alive with the Jews of his community; the global storyteller dreams of keeping the memory and lessons of the Holocaust alive with people everywhere.
The yeshiva boy wears a yarmulke on his head; the global storyteller wears a smile on his face.
The smile and the stories help Hier attract prominent people to his projects; the yamulke keeps him grounded in the story of his people and the primacy of Torah observance.
Hier is not just one of these. He’s both. He’s as comfortable telling stories in Yiddish to a group of yeshiva students as he is receiving an Academy Award for one of the documentaries produced by his film company, Moriah Films.
But if I had to venture a guess as to which side is more dominant, I would pick the yeshiva boy. It is the yeshiva boy who drives the global storyteller in a way that always comes back to help the Jewish people. It is the yeshiva boy that nourishes his faith that, in the end, everything will come out for the good.
“As I look back over the trajectory of my life, from New York’s Lower East Side to Vancouver, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, from yeshiva bocher to rabbi, political activist, film producer and museum founder,” he writes near the end of the book, “I realize that I have always held firm to that deceptively simple idea. I have always believed that no matter how many people try to extinguish the flame of the Jewish people, they will never succeed, because the irrevocable covenant God made with Abraham will always produce unexpected helpers and new circumstances to rekindle it.
“I have always believed in miracles, whether the ancient types, staves that turn into snakes, seas that split, manna that falls from trees, or the greater miracles of our own time, the creation of Israel, the incredible victories of the Israeli army and the renaissance of yeshivas and Jewish day schools throughout the world.”
Hier’s obsession with Jewish education counters the critique that, for all of the universal imperatives of Holocaust remembrance, it’s not an enduring source for creating a Jewish identity. Showing how Jews died and how Jews are hated doesn’t teach Jews how to live. Hier understood that only Jewish education can do that.
Early in his rabbinic career, while teaching a class for teenagers, Hier quoted Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the biblical verse, “And he [Abraham] sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”
What is the significance of the “heat of the day”? Soloveitchik explained that “Abraham purposely positioned himself at the entrance of his tent in the midday sun, despite the fact that it would have been more comfortable inside, because the Covenant of Abraham demands that every Jew stand guard, engage with the world, and contribute to it, despite the challenges even ‘in the heat of the day.’ ”
Maybe because of his undying faith, Hier never seems intimidated by the heat of the day. That might also explain why Hier refused to stay comfortable inside the Simon Wiesenthal Center, despite its successes. He writes:
“By the late 1980s, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Moriah Films had established international reputations. Our social action campaigns were effective and widely covered by the press, and our films were being screened in theaters and shown on television stations around the world. The Center had an active board, a national staff of thirty, and a membership approaching one hundred thousand.”
But Hier was restless. It wasn’t enough to teach the world about the Holocaust. To increase global impact, he needed to make the Holocaust more relevant, more universal. He decided to broaden the scope of the museum to promote the value of tolerance.
Hier and his team raised money for a new, larger facility that would link the events that took place between 1933 and 1945 to “post-Holocaust history, which was rife with examples of atrocities that resulted from racism and hatred. We wanted both to teach the story of the Holocaust and to apply its lessons to the present and the future in a Museum of Tolerance.”
The deliberations over whether and how to include the persecution of non-Jews in the new museum provide some of the more sensitive stories in the book. In the end, the deciding factor, brought up by none other than Wiesenthal himself, was that “Jews needed friends and allies to conquer hatred.”
On the heels of the success of the Museum of Tolerance, a phone call in 1993 from the legendary mayor of Jerusalem, the late Teddy Kollek, would change Hier’s life once again — this time with a mission to build a Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.
Thus began another long journey, complicated by legal challenges over the site, as well as endless delays and major fundraising needs. The ability of Hier and his team to raise significant funds and stick to his mission through all the ups and downs is a testament not just to his tenacity but to his faith. The Jerusalem museum, now scheduled to open in 2017 (24 years after that first phone call from Kollek), is a good example of both. It is Hier’s faith in God that gives him the tenacity to keep going.
Hier mentions so many of the “unexpected helpers” who have supported his dreams through the years — donors, partners, employees who remain loyal for decades, prominent Hollywood and political figures, family members and so on — that you get a sense he wrote the memoir as much for them as for anyone.
There’s nothing wrong with that. If this book becomes a long thank-you letter to all those who helped a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side write his own great American story, then surely it was meant to be.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com.
At this fraught moment in history, a cartoonist named Riad Sattouf has achieved best-seller status in France with a memoir in the form of a comic book with the provocative title, “The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984.” The first volume of the trilogy, translated by Sam Taylor, is now being published for the first time in the United States by Metropolitan Books. The book, which has been compared to such cartooned memoirs as “Maus” and “Persepolis,” is smart, funny and endearing, if ultimately heartbreaking. Above all, however, the book offers a remarkable opportunity to glimpse the experiences of one Arab childhood through the eyes of a gifted writer and artist.
Sattouf was born to a Syrian father and a French mother, which may account for what he describes as his “long, thick, silky, platinum-blond hair” in early childhood. With a degree in history from the Sorbonne, Sattouf’s father accepts a teaching position in Libya under Moammar Gadhafi, and then in Syria under Hafez al-Assad, which compels young Sattouf to grow up in a kind of netherworld, neither fully Arab nor fully French, and always aware that he is an outsider in both places.
For a memoir set amid the squalor and horror of our troubled times, “The Arab of the Future” is filled with ironic humor. Sattouf recalls his early childhood, when Gadhafi’s displays of grandiosity and self-importance on Libyan state television struck a chord with the attractive toddler who was accustomed to being doted on by his parents and admiring strangers: “He reminded me of me,” Sattouf recalls. “Like me, he had lots of people admiring him and smiling at him all the time.” And a theological debate between his parents ends with a punchline that will be baffling to readers of this review, but not to readers of the book, where it turns into a running joke: “I didn’t understand the word God,” he explains. “But from that day on, whenever I heard it, I would see the face of [French singer] Georges Brassens.”
Significantly, Sattouf is always aware of his mix of origins and never fully comfortable with either one. When the family arrives in Syria, his young cousins are confused by his blond locks and denounce him as “Yahudi” — Jew — and set upon him with fists. “It was the first word I learned in Syria,” he recalls. But he is surprised to find that he is ready to fight back: “I was drawn, propelled toward the violence.” When he hears the call to prayer at 4 the next morning, he reveals the impression it made on him in an aside next to a dialogue bubble: “The saddest voice in the world.”
Sattouf quickly notices that photographs and statues of Assad are just as ubiquitous in Syria as those of Gadhafi had been in Libya, but with one difference. “He wasn’t as handsome or sporty,” Sattouf recalls. “He had a large forehead, and there was something shifty-looking about him.” Yet everyone seemed to mimic his mustachioed face: “With his mustache, even the bus driver looked like Assad,” he writes. “In fact, every man on the bus had a mustache, except for my father.” And when his father puts a bucket over Sattouf’s head during a rainstorm, it is not to protect him from the rain, but from the sight of two corpses hanging from a scaffold as a warning to the populace about breaking the law.
Hatred of Israel is a fact of life for young Sattouf in Syria. Plastic toy soldiers come in two varieties, the Syrians “all frozen in brave, heroic postures” and the Israelis “shaped in deceitful, treacherous poses.” One of the Chinese-made figures is of a dead soldier impaled with an Israeli flag. As the new boy in the neighborhood, he was told: “All right, so you get the Jews.” At the end of the game, an Israeli toy soldier is beheaded with a kitchen knife. “Victory is ours,” his playmate declares. “God is great!” When the boy’s mother scolds him for vandalizing his toys, he protests: “I was cutting off a Jew’s head! I’m allowed to do that!”
The central figure in young Sattouf’s life — and in his book — is his father, a self-proclaimed atheist who is fearful of ghosts and genies and reads to his son from the Quran. He dreams of gold, and he fancies that he will find it among the Roman ruins in Syria. After Sattouf’s father discovers that his own brother has sold off the land in Syria that was his legacy, he persists in vowing to build a “luxury palace” of his own. When he insists that Alawites sell their children as slaves to the Sunnis, he looks at his young son and asks: “Can you just imagine? What if I sold you in exchange for a Mercedes?” Back in France, he discourses on why the Arab world needs the discipline of dictators. “One day, I’ll stage a coup d’etat,” he cracks, “and I’ll have everyone killed. Hee hee.”
As the book ends, Sattouf finds himself on the verge of the family’s return to Syria. By then, we are so fully engaged with this charming young boy that our hearts sink along with his. Two more volumes in the series will reveal what happens next, and it’s a measure of Sattouf’s gifts as a storyteller that I found myself longing to find out.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
The Catskill Mountains are, of course, a fact of geology located northwest of New York City. The Catskills are also a nearly mythic place — the so-called Borscht Belt —where Jewish cuisine, humor, music and sheer joie de vivre reached such a high boil that they spilled over into American popular culture — “Disneyland with knishes,” as the resort called Grossinger’s was laughingly but aptly described by novelist Mordecai Richler.
The story is told in all of its richness and curiosity in “The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America,” by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver (Knopf), a well-told and lavishly illustrated overview of a place that is wholly unique. The story begins in the early Colonial era, when the Catskills were an object of botanical curiosity for early explorers, but the book sprawls across the next three centuries of American history.
“Henry Hudson arrived purely by accident, only to make the foolish mistake of moving on,” the authors write. “Others, chiefly Prohibition-era mob figures famous enough to be remembered by their nicknames (Waxey, Lucky, Legs, Dutch), literally got there by hook or crook, conspiratorially aware of how the remoteness of the terrain protected them. And others still, among them businessman manqué Selig Grossinger, wandered into the woods wishing nothing more than to become simple farmers, only to find themselves (in Selig’s case, by necessity) evolving into the standard-bearers for the world-class American hospitality industry.”
The jokiness in the prose is perfectly fitting in a book about the Borscht Belt, but the authors are quite serious about capturing the sweep of history. We are reminded of the significance of the Catskills in the Revolutionary War, the writings of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, the paintings of the Hudson River School and the machinations of pols and robber barons in the Empire State. Indeed, the Catskills are made to serve as an observation point from which the authors survey a vast landscape of war, revolution, politics and culture.
As early as 1773, as the authors point out, the first Jewish person on record showed up near Woodstock, a man called “Jacob the Jew.” But, as late as 1877, a local hotel owner turned away a prominent Jewish banker named Joseph Seligman with the announcement that “no Israelites should be permitted to stop at this hotel.” The incident “triggered a wave of pent-up anti-Semitism,” and signs began to appear at boarding houses and hotels: “Jews and Dogs Are Not Welcome.” Yet, Jewish-owned hotels soon opened to meet the demand of city-dwellers who sought a place where they could take “a whiff of fresh air.” The Grossinger family, for example, began to take in paying guests at its farm in 1914 after a couple from the Bronx showed up and asked for lodgings: “When I saw the sheitel, I knew yours must be a truly kosher household,” the woman told Mrs. Grossinger.
The appeal of the Catskills, as it turned out, had less to do with kashrut than with pleasure-seeking. Maurice Samuel, a disapproving Zionist intellectual, decried the Borscht Belt in his 1925 prose poem: “And here in Catskill, what do Jews believe? … In charity and in America, / But most of all in Pinochle and Poker, / In dancing and in jazz, in risqué stories / And everything that’s smart and up-to-date.”
In fact, the Borscht Belt prefigures nothing so much as Las Vegas, offering customers “everything from swimming pools to dress stores to top-name entertainment, all within the confines of the same property.”
For many of us, the Catskills are something we have only read about in Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar” or seen in movies ranging from “Having a Wonderful Time” to “Dirty Dancing,” all of which distort the reality to varying degrees. (The 1938 film “Having a Wonderful Time,” starring Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., “exorcises every Jewish character name” that appeared in the Broadway play on which it was based.) In that sense, “The Catskills” is a healthy corrective that allows us to see the place in all of its glorious complexity.
Quite a different take on the Catskills can be found in “Summer Haven: The Catskills, the Holocaust and the Literary Imagination,” a collection of provocative and highly illuminating essays edited by Holli Levitsky and Phil Brown (Academic Studies Press). Here we find a tight focus on the strange and powerful point of connection between the Borscht Belt, a place of escape and frolic, and the Holocaust, an event of dire gravity. “We explore how vacationers, resort owners and workers dealt with a horrific contradiction — the pleasure of their summer haven against the mass extermination of Jews throughout Europe.” With contributions from scholars and writers including Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum (a Jewish Journal contributor credited by the editors with inspiring the book), novelist, essayist and law professor Thane Rosenbaum, comic artist Art Spiegelman and the beloved Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Summer Haven” is a unique exercise in extracting new meanings from the unlikeliest of sources.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
Leila Segal is a woman of many gifts and passions. Trained as a barrister, she is today an accomplished writer, poet and photographer, a community activist in London and an advocate for the disempowered around the world. Not surprisingly, she was powerfully drawn to Cuba, where she gathered the life experiences she refracted in “Breathe: Stories From Cuba” (Lubin & Kleyner/Flipped Eye Publishing), a collection of nine luminous tales set in what she calls “a secret city — desconocida — uncharted and unknown.”
Segal shows us Cuba at street level. The Cubans and expats who find each other in the story titled “Siempre Luchando,” for example, seek out places that only Cubans know. (“Angel, take us somewhere real, the French boy said, not some tourist s—.”) Although Segal is interested in politics, she always shows us the realpolitik of intimate human relationships, too. So it is that the young man called Angel courts a French woman as a way to reach France, and when she abruptly changes her mind, he is forced to find someone else to take her place.
“In Cuba we do not have hopes and we cannot make plans,” Angel says to his new French girlfriend. “I live for today, siempre luchando — always I struggle. Every day I move, and I survive. I find a way to distract myself. I must always be outside, find a way to forget my life, I cannot sit in my house, it makes me crazy.”
So, too, does the man called Alejandro embody the hard facts of life in Cuba in the story titled “Taxi.” He is a medical student reduced to driving a “peso” cab, a half-century-old Buick that he purchased with the proceeds from the sale of his mother’s jewelry. “Throughout the Special Period in the ’90s, when people were killing cats to eat, she had kept the jewelry safe. Some things could not be sold — no matter how hard the Yankees tried to starve them into submission. But after she died, his resolve slipped away.” After all, “a doctor’s salary doesn’t pay enough,” and so he stays behind the wheel.
Alejandro, we learn, has lost his faith in the revolution, as well as in medicine. “If you valued your job, your home, your child’s education, you went every month to the meeting of your local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. You attended the marches in support of Fidel, waving your Cuban flag — with or without enthusiasm. If you didn’t, it was written down — your workplace kept a register — marked on your record forever.” And yet the story turns abruptly into a morality tale when, in defiance of Cuban law, he picks up an American tourist who is supposed to use only “dollar” taxis, and she falls ill. “A-le-jan-dro — it meant protector,” Segal points out, and she shows the upwelling of courage and self-sacrifice that redeems him.
Many of the stories in “Breathe” are about love and sex, which are readily distinguishable in Segal’s rich and evocative prose. In “Luca’s Trip to Havana,” for example, we meet a philandering Italian businessman named Luca who prefers Cuban women to Europeans because “you didn’t have to play games to get them; they could take a compliment without sneering at you as if you’d offered up your soul.” Still, Luca sizes up Cuban women around his hotel according to his own harsh typology: “the prostitute, in and out in an hour; the jinetera — she’d stay for a few days, take a little money, give a little love; and the sweet heart, who would never want to leave,” because she was “probably hoping to snag a foreign husband and a better life abroad.” Yet the enchanting woman who yields to him also is willing to confront him with his own brutality and hypocrisy: “You are a coward,” she says afterward. “You have a black hole for a heart.”
We are always tempted to believe that the characters in fiction are alter egos of the author, and I suspect that Segal inhabits more than one of her own beguiling characters. Anna, the Englishwoman who narrates the story called “The Party,” for example, also is a visitor to Cuba and an observer who wants to experience Cuban life outside the tourist bubble. She is baffled by the conversations between her Cuban boyfriend, Charro, and another woman, and by the tears her host sheds merely because one of the guests at his party decides to leave: “You don’t have to understand everything, Anna,” Charro scolds. “We’re in Cuba and we feel things.” The mystery that confounds her cannot be penetrated, but Anna — like the author herself — is content to explore it in carefully chosen words, the true calling of the writer.
“I saw the pile of writing paper by my bed and the unfinished letter to my mother, the fountain pen she had given me just before I left — because if there’s no email and no phone, you’ll have to do the old-fashioned thing and write.’”
And that, of course, is exactly what Leila Segal has done in “Breathe.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
When Neal Shusterman helped his son Brendan with a second-grade report on the Pacific Ocean’s Marianas Trench, he thought the name of its deepest location, Challenger Deep, would make a great title for a book.
In fact, for a number of years, whenever Shusterman — the author of numerous books, as well as a writer of films and TV — had to put down a title for a coming book, he would use that one.
Finally, Shusterman wrote and published a book by that name. And on Nov. 18, “Challenger Deep” — an account of a teenage boy as he begins to experience schizophrenic episodes — won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
“Challenger Deep” may be fiction, but it is written from the experiences that Shusterman had parenting Brendan as he went through many diagnoses for mental illness during his teen years. In his acceptance remarks at the ceremony, held at Cipriani Wall Street, he said that as a teen, Brendan “had problems, anxiety, hallucinations, fell off a cliff into a place that many people have trouble coming back from.”
The title is particularly apt: While suffering the effects of mental illness, Brendan once told his father, “Dad, sometimes it feels like I am at the bottom of the ocean screaming but no one can hear me.”
Shusterman, a father of four, spoke about how he had waited to write the book until his son was “better and thriving, in a better place.” Brendan, 26, is now an artist who lives in California.
What makes “Challenger Deep” unique is its incorporation of artwork that Brendan created while suffering schizophrenic attacks.
“Using his artwork was crucial,” Shusterman told an interviewer. “I wanted others to value his art as our family does, as priceless.”
Additionally, much in the vein of William Styron’s “Darkness Visible,” the book aims to simulate the confused state of those experiencing mental illness for the YA crowd.
“A big question was how much I should explain, and how [much] I should leave the reader to figure out for themselves,” Shusterman said in an interview with the National Book Organization. “Since the goal was to make the reader feel the same type of disorientation and confusion inherent in schizophrenia — to basically put the reader through their own psychotic episode — I decided that I couldn’t take the reader by the hand.”
Shusterman grew up in Brooklyn “with empathy and compassion in a warm and loving Jewish family” that was “equal parts food, guilt and love, and a sense of compassion and ability to have empathy.”
His next project, he told JTA, is a graphic novel about the Holocaust.
In an email, Brendan said “Challenger Deep” “is going to help a lot of people.”
“Psychological and psychiatric disorders are a complicated and misunderstood matter, and I suppose you could say this is true for both patient and those who are trying to help,” he wrote. “The best we can do is empathize and show compassion towards those who may be suffering from psychological and psychiatric issues, whatever they may be.”
“Making the desert bloom” is one of the stirring and enduring tropes of Zionist history. So it makes sense for a drought-afflicted country like ours to turn to Israel for an example of how to solve the water crisis. That’s exactly what Seth M. Siegel has done in “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), a fact-filled and wholly fascinating account of the Jewish homeland’s ways with water.
Siegel, an attorney, environmental activist and author, starts with the fundamental proposition that the water crisis is a global crisis. He argues that the shortage of clean water will affect not only food and energy production but also whole economies, and California and the American West are only the first places at risk. “Water shortages may not occur everywhere,” he writes, “but hardly anyone will remain unaffected for long.”
Significantly, as Siegel points out, California and Israel have much in common, if only because much of the land in both places consists of deserts or semi-arid terrain and because the population in both places has grown enormously. When it comes to water, however, the similarities end. “Israel not only doesn’t have a water shortage, it has a water surplus,” he writes. “It even exports water to some of its neighbors.”
Israeli water policy, as it happens, is deeply rooted in Jewish religious tradition. “The religious culture that carried the Jewish people for two thousand years from exile to national rebirth is filled with reverence for water in the form of rain and dew,” he explains. But it was the early Zionist settlers, mostly secular and highly practical, who set themselves to solving the problem of water shortage. Indeed, one of the characters in Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland” is made to predict “that the water engineers of his imaginary Jewish homeland will be its heroes.”
Seth M. Siegel
Water soon passed from the pages of fiction to facts on the land. For example, the familiar folk song “Mayim, Mayim” — “Water, Water” — borrows its lyrics from a passage in the Book of Isaiah, but the words were set to music only in 1937, when years of unsuccessful drilling at a kibbutz finally brought forth water. And Israeli water law is based on the communalist values of the early generations of chalutzim: “Unlike in the U.S., where water is a personal property right, in Israel all water ownership and usage is controlled by the government acting in the interest of the people as a whole,” Siegel writes. “Israel’s water system may be the most successful example of socialism in practice anywhere in the world today.”
“If you put a bucket on the roof of your house at the start of the rainy season, you own the house and you own the bucket,” explains former Israel water commissioner Shimon Tal, “but the rain in that bucket is the property — at least in theory — of the government.”
The man who made it happen is Simcha Blass, a now-mostly forgotten figure who made aliyah from Poland in the early 1930s and recognized that water was an essential ingredient in preparing the land to receive the millions of endangered Jews who were still trapped in Europe. Working with Levi Eshkol, the future prime minister of Israel, Blass “would develop grander water plans and execute projects which, cumulatively, would open ever greater parts of the country to productive use of the land and the production of more food for a soon-to-be-growing nation.”
His boldest plan was as an ambitious system of water storage and transportation that was inspired by the damming and diversion of the Colorado River. The earliest phase of the project was built with war-surplus pipes that had been used to fight fires in London during the Blitz. When completed in 1964, the so-called National Water Carrier provided Israel with the infrastructure for collecting, allocating and using water as a vital national resource.
But the real key to solving the water problem was to make the most of the limited supply of water that was available. Starting in the 1930s, Blass sought to replace wasteful flood and sprinkler irrigation with drip irrigation. A co-op was established to develop new strains of plants that would thrive with less fresh water or with otherwise undrinkable salty water. New sources of water were found in the Negev, and new techniques for desalinization of seawater and brackish water were invented. Remarkably, Israeli water engineers devised ways to process sewage into water for agriculture with the result that “over 85 percent of the nation’s sewage is reused.” Ironically, treated sewage is actually a better source of usable water than rainwater: “Unlike the volume of rain, which changes from year to year, the amount of sewage being turned into reclaimed water is consistent, reliable and predictable.”
A secondary benefit of Israeli water policy is that the quality of water in Israel’s rivers has actually improved. The Yarkon River near Tel Aviv was once so foul that athletes who fell into the water during a bridge collapse at the Maccabiah games in 1997 were poisoned by the toxins. “While environmental laws and enforcement of regulations helped bring Israel’s rivers back to life, what may have helped most was that Israel developed new water sources,” Siegel explains. “This new abundance in water — and the now unceasing demand for sewage to treat and reuse — took pressure off all of Israel’s rivers.”
Rather less cheerful is the role of water in Israel’s troubled relations with Jordan and the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, all of whom “have a common destiny in jointly held aquifers and rivers.” Even here, however, Siegel sees the glass of water as half full. Israel may be “a water superpower,” but the Jewish state is willing to export water to the Jordanians and Palestinians, “and often at prices less than is charged in Israel.” And he points out that “the Palestinians also have something of interest to the Israel” — that is, fresh supplies of sewage from Arab towns and cities that the Israelis can process into a new supply of usable water.
The whole point of “Let There Be Water,” as it turns out, is to show how the hard-won successes of Israeli water technology and policy can be used by countries and regions outside of Israel, starting with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries and extending around the globe: “The world now knows that Israel has answers to their water problems,” observes Ilan Cohen, a former government official. Thus does Siegel show us that Israel — once again but in an entirely new way — can be a light unto the nations.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
Alon Gratch practices psychology in New York but was born and raised in Jerusalem, which puts him in a unique position to tell us how Israelis see the world. Indeed, as he writes in “The Israeli Mind: How the Israeli National Character Shapes Our World” (St. Martin’s Press), “I came to see that since I’d left Israel, scarcely a day had gone by that I was not somehow, however vaguely, aware of my Israeli DNA.”
Gratch’s book comes at an opportune moment. Never before have the distinctions between the world views of American Jews and Israelis been more fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. The debate over the nuclear deal with Iran is the flashpoint: “At the time of my writing, no one knows if the West’s negotiations with Iran will slow down or stop its apparent race to develop nuclear weapons,” he observes. “Thus, in the next year or two, whether or not a deal is reached, the whole world will be watching Israeli behavior.”
So Gratch assumes that the whole world has a stake in understanding what he calls the Israeli national character. Thus, for example, he seeks to explain why former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, among other American politicians and diplomats, have characterized more than one Israeli prime minister as “aggressive, arrogant, defensive, unyielding, intransigent, obstinate, argumentative, rigid, brusque, bullheaded, unreasonable, negative, mistrustful, obstructive, disruptive, and provocative.” Gratch sums it up as a manifestation of “the unique Hebrew word davka,” which he defines as a “naysaying tendency to disagree for the sake of disagreeing.”
Gratch may be a psychologist, but history, diplomacy and politics provide him with the key to the davka phenomenon and how it reflects the Israeli national character. “A quick excursion into Zionist history would readily explain why the Israelis needed to develop this type of naysaying defense mechanism,” he explains. The pioneers of the Jewish state said “no” to all of the failed coping strategies of the Diaspora and “no to the local Palestinians who didn’t want them there; no to the Arab countries who vowed to drive them out of Palestine; no to depending on foreign governments and their police forces for protection.”
In his search for the commonalities of Israeli character, Gratch is compelled to point out the long and sometimes bloody history of conflict within Zionism and the Jewish state. Even so, he insists that the naysaying of one Jew to another Jew is consistent with his findings. “In light of this history, it is hardly surprising that many Israelis on both sides of the political map agree on only one thing, which is that they have nothing in common with each other,” he writes. “But paradoxically, because both groups have emerged from the same polarized environment, they do, in fact, have a great deal in common in their psychological make-up.”
Using the tools (and sometimes the jargon) of a psychologist, he looks at two versions of the mythic Israeli narrative — “the old, religious chosen-people variant” and “the new, miracle-in-the-desert Zionist variant” — and declares them both to be a kind of narcissism. Yet he does not see the duality as wholly dysfunctional. “Both play a role in how Israelis interpret the world,” he writes. “To a large extent, they are also responsible for the Israelis’ extraordinary record of achievements, as well as their failures and their persistent, potentially tragic denial of certain Middle Eastern realities.”
Not every example in “The Israeli Mind” is drawn from geopolitics. He describes how he witnessed a lighthearted conversation in a Jerusalem coffee shop between a graduate student and a young teacher about classroom cheating. “Well, if I caught a student cheating, I wouldn’t view it as a negative,” the teacher said. “I would see it as an indication that he wants to succeed.” Gratch concludes: “The Israeli mind’s failures at empathy, its lack of regard for reality, and its relentless drive for success, all produce a predilection for cutting corners, bluffing, and lying.”
The values and behaviors that make up what Gratch calls the Israeli national character can be seen as a form of psychological self-defense. “Israeli psychologists … have noted that everyday belligerence in Israeli society is rooted in unconscious anxiety,” he writes.
“Ever fearful of suicide bombings, rockets, bad news from the front lines, and even car accidents — driving on Israeli highways can be unsettling — Israelis live in a hyper-vigilant state of mind, often exercising a first-strike option in anticipation of an attack. Collectively, they can’t quite believe that the miracle of the Jewish state will endure.”
Throughout “The Israeli Mind,” Gratch demonstrates a mastery of the delicate inner workings of the human mind and, at the same time, a profound insight into the epochal movements of history — a rare but essential balancing act. He is a compassionate but exacting observer of the Israel character at a moment of great peril and consequence. That’s why his book is not only a work of genius but also, and more important, a beacon of light and hope.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
I think there were always two Maxine Kumins wrestling for space inside of her.
In her new memoir, “The Pawnbroker’s Daughter” (W. W. Norton), the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who died last year at 88, allows us to see only certain parts of her. There is the feeling throughout the book of a polished presentation of self. It is not that I doubt Kumin’s charming recollections of her wonderful marriage and children. Nor do I question her ecstatic affection for all forms of wildlife, particularly her beloved horses. I am certain she took great pleasure in the many years she spent on her 200-acre farm in New Hampshire, where she became one with the land, toiling relentlessly while raising her family and writing. It is even easy to imagine Kumin as a budding feminist before we had the words for such desire.
Kumin’s poetry touched many areas. She wrote poems about the simple joys of living that are peppered with references to the splendor of the natural world and her wish to live in harmony with it. She wrote about her husband, Victor Kumin, a scientist who graduated from Harvard and who was involved at Los Alamos in the development of the nuclear bomb. He seems to have been a natural companion for her; they were both blessed with resilient spirits, good health and respect for each other’s resolve.
Kumin also wrote poetry about the world outside her farm, particularly her disgust with America’s hawkish policies during the George W. Bush years that aligned her with the left. But in this memoir, some readers may sense that there was something else hiding behind her seeming invincibility; something she didn’t want us to see.
There is a precious, telling photograph of a young Kumin in the book. She looks 4 or 5. It is the standard picture of a little girl all dressed up in frilly white, her hair perfectly curled. But Kumin’s pretty, young face is marred by a ferocious scowl, and one guesses that this little girl had already decided she would refuse to dance prettily around anyone else’s expectations of her. This would help her with her mother, with whom she shared a somewhat contentious relationship.
Kumin grew up the daughter of a Russian Jewish pawnbroker in Philadelphia who had a large successful store in the Black section of town. She was the youngest of four, the only girl, and her father treated her with consistent tenderness. Her mother was of German-Jewish origin, and came from one of the few Jewish families in Virginia. She was a refined and elegant woman, but a distracted and critical mother. She would chastise Kumin for speaking with her hands, and was dismayed by the little girl’s refusal to succumb to her mother’s standards of proper feminine dress and behavior. Kumin, however, was infatuated with her mother’s beauty and remembers watching her leave each evening to go out with her father while gorgeously dressed in an “evening cape of black velvet, its full length sprinkled with what looked like multicolored nonpareils.” She remembers her mother’s shame regarding her father’s profession. She would tell Maxine to list her father’s occupation at school as “broker,” instead of “pawnbroker,” because of the stigma she feared it would bring them.
Kumin’s family practiced a watered-down version of Reform Judaism. She spent her first years attending a Christian school because it was next door to her family home. She left for public school in second grade when the teachings about Jews became uncomfortable for her.
There is a moving recollection in the book that is shattering: Kumin remembers coming home as a young girl as “news of the concentration camps had sifted into the Jewish community” and finding her father bitterly crying with some crumpled letters in his fist.
When he finally spoke to her, he whispered, “They will all die. This is the pogrom to end all pogroms,” which left Kumin mortified at the fate that might have befallen them if not for a mere accident of geography. Still, one senses that for Kumin, being Jewish was merely a part of her identity rather than a defining theme.
Kumin graduated from Radcliffe in 1948, married young and started her family. The demands of early motherhood were difficult for her. She wrote poems when she could, but the concentration required for her work was eaten away by the daily demands of motherhood. She expresses this frustration in an ironic letter to her mother in 1958 that is filled with pathos: “Just call me Mrs. Pepys. Up sooner than betimes; dryer broken, youngest out of underpants. All underpants soaking wet on line. Pouring. Ten minutes of earnest persuasion, no one would know he was wearing old baby pair, no one would see. Find plastic bag to protect violin case. (Pouring harder.) Write check for violin teacher. Overdrawn? Live dangerously; payday Wednesday. Find cough drops for the middle child. Middle child coughs anyhow. Girls depart. Youngest watching Captain Kangaroo. Make beds, get dressed, car pool late for youngest, writer later for appointment.”
Motherhood was erratic and had its own timetable (as did her poetry, which she often wrote in traditional form with exacting patterns of syllable count and rhyme). She writes of her exasperation with early motherhood:
“This dwelt in me who does not know me now, / where in her labyrinth I cannot follow, advance to be recognized, displace her terror; / I hold my heartbeat on my lap and cannot comfort her / The first cell that divided us separates us.”
But Kumin remained vigilant and signed up for a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education and left her children in the care of others for a few hours each week. It was here that she met Anne Sexton.
At first glance, there is nothing about their subsequent 17-year intense friendship that makes any sense. On the surface, they seem polar opposites. Sexton wrote explosive self-immolating poetry that couldn’t have been more different from Kumin’s restrained work. Sexton was a drug addict and an alcoholic and suffered from continual mental disturbances that sent her reeling from one psychiatrist to another, making many of them her lovers. Sexton was beautiful and cunning and manipulative and self-indulgent. And needy.
Kumin was earthy, stable, centered and independent. Yet these two women became fast friends. They set up a private phone line in their respective homes and kept the receiver off the hook during the day so they could whistle to one another when they wanted to chat or laugh or share their work; each nourished by the feedback offered. They did not compete with each other, and were close with each other’s children. They never went out as a foursome with their husbands because, Kumin insists, it just didn’t work out. They had lunch several times a week, even on the day Sexton finally succeeding in killing herself (she had tried many times before). Kumin shared all of this years ago with Diane Middlebrook, Sexton’s biographer, and added that she still isn’t certain why they were so close. They even took great pleasure in sharing hats and jewelry and dresses, amused by the fact that they wore the same dress size.
So what were they really? It is tempting to speculate. Were they soul mates in a parallel universe of their own creation? Lovers? I have no idea. Kumin told Middlebrook that she was helped by Sexton, who showed her that the “cerebral really needed a strong admixture of the visceral.” I am not certain what that really means, but it sounds like doublespeak for an energized passion she felt when she was with Sexton that she perhaps had trouble fully feeling when she was with anyone else. And part of me wishes she would have written something about that!
Polish-Jewish doctor and educator Janusz Korczak was famous throughout Europe as director of the Warsaw Ghetto orphanage and an advocate for children’s rights. Despite offers of sanctuary, he chose to accompany his orphans to the gas chambers of Treblinka. This long-heralded hero is brought to life in Jim Shepard’s new novel, “The Book of Aron” (Alfred A. Knopf). Shepard, a National Book Award finalist, presents Korczak as an all-too-human figure who wrestled with his own demons and fought to retain his morality.
The protagonist is the precocious Aron, a sickly boy, a poor student and a troublemaker. “I was like something that had been raised in the wild,” the boy says in the book. His uncle gave him the nickname Sh’maya “because I did so many things that made him put his finger to his nose as a warning and say, ‘God has heard.’ ”
Aron lives with his parents and two brothers in a country home near the Lithuanian border, until his father gets a job at a factory and moves the family to Warsaw. Aron spends the summer working at the factory, too. He also discovers Korczak’s radio show, “The Old Doctor.” “I liked it because, even though he complained about how alone he was, he always wanted to know more about other people, especially kids,” Aron says in the book.
When the Germans invaded and the Jews of Warsaw were forced into the ghetto, things quickly deteriorated. Typhus, tuberculosis, bedbugs and lice plagued the residents, rations of food and basic essentials became scarce, and the police crackdowns became more common. Aron bands together with two girls, Zofia and Adina, and two boys, Boris and Lutek, and they devise a system of smuggling bags of turnips and potatoes into the ghetto through a hole dug into a wall, while skirting Jewish, Polish and German police.
Shepard’s highly detailed account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto comes from extensive readings of first-person accounts of Polish and Jewish childhood before and during World War II. In a six-page acknowledgements section, he lists more than 40 diaries, articles and other historical texts. “So I was able to channel some of those voices as well,” Shepard said in a phone interview.
Aron and his friends speak candidly with one another, teasing and cajoling with a begrudging affection that accompanies the fight for survival. Shepard said his ability to vividly capture the language of children comes from his own childhood.
“As a child, I was enough of an outsider that I was in the mode of observing the main group, but not such an outsider that I was banished from observing the main group,” Shepard said. Aron is similar, part of a loose gang, but hardly the ringleader.
Shepard also captures the dark humor of Yiddish life. When Aron’s father read aloud newspaper proclamations of new streets that are to be cleansed of Jews, he announced, “And under the heading of Things Get Worse. … ” When Aron’s parents fought about whether to spend money on bread or soap, his mother said that “once we got the typhus we wouldn’t need money for soap,” and his father replied that “once we got the typhus he’d never have to hear her complain again.”
Satire is the only weapon left for the ghetto’s inhabitants. In another example of his parents’ morbid humor, “a German truck went by with a loudspeaker and its only message in Polish was that it was now forbidden to speak of ‘the Jewish ghetto,’ and the proper term was now ‘the Jewish quarter.’ ‘How do you like it here in the Jewish quarter?’ my father asked my mother. ‘I find it confining,’ she told him.”
The children are the most aware of what’s going on in the Warsaw Ghetto. By eavesdropping on police conversations and learning about impending Nazi actions, they become a lifeline for the desperate ghetto dwellers. But Aron is also forced by a Jewish police officer, Lejkin, into the position of an informant for the Jewish Order Service, with devastating consequences.
Aron eventually finds himself living in Korczak’s orphanage. “Pan Doctor,” as the children called Korczak, takes the boy along as he knocks on doors to scrape up some money for food for the children. Aron helps Korczak produce theatrical plays for the community, to keep the famished children engaged and the financial support trickling in. Korczak becomes a father to Aron as well as a friend.
In the decades after the Holocaust, it was daunting to dramatize what had happened because of the challenge of accurately depicting the enormity of the tragedy, or the problem of using beautiful language to depict something so ugly. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Theodor Adorno famously wrote (though he later came to renounce that position).
Shepard credits the release of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” with opening up the dialogue about the Holocaust. Now, he said, the challenge is finding something unique to say about the war. Shepard has done this by recounting the war through the eyes of a child who lived in morally challenging times, when the struggle for survival trumped questions of right and wrong.
“One of the lovely things about Anne Frank is that you just admire her so much,” Shepard said. “And what that does is it puts you in an odd moral position, of sort of going, ‘The Holocaust was terrible because it killed these extraordinary children like Anne Frank.’ And you know, that’s obviously true, but I also find myself wanting to say, ‘You know, the little snot-nosed kid who nobody likes, it was pretty terrible because it killed him too, you know?’ ”
Shepard’s children lie, cheat, steal and betray in order to stay alive. When Zofia tells her friends, “There’s not one good Jew among us,” Boris replies, “The good Jews buy what we bring in.” It’s a cynical sentiment, but cynicism can be a tool for survival as well.
Rare is the writer who does not look at one of his earlier works and see something he would have changed. Rarer still is the writer who actually makes that change. In “Prayers for the Living” (Fig Tree Books), novelist, memoirist and National Public Radio book critic Alan Cheuse revisits and revises his 1986 book, “The Grandmothers’ Club,” and the result is a tale that is even more affecting.
The story he tells, as Cheuse explains in his preface to “Prayers for the Living,” was inspired by an article in The New York Times about a young man who started out as a rabbi, made a fortune in crooked business and then took his own life by leaping from the 44th floor of a Manhattan office building. “A hundred and thirty-something thousands words later, all of them spoken or imagined by the main character’s mother, an elderly Jewish woman, with powers, it seems, far beyond her own original calling in life, and I had found my novel,”
That woman is the memorable and inspiring Minnie Bloch, whose words are spoken to a circle of old women who gather to gossip about their children. This narrative device, too, is drawn from life. “Throughout my New Jersey childhood, I sat in the midst of kitchen and dining room conversations among my maternal great-grandmother, my grandmother, a great-aunt, and my mother,” Cheuse writes. “They told stories and added commentary, their inadvertent domestic version of the Talmudic tradition: biblical narrative with an interpretive edge.”
But Cheuse stands in more than one literary tradition, not only the boasting and keening of Jewish mothers, but also the sharp-eyed social chronicles of his fellow Jewish novelists such as the early Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud. He sets out to elevate Minnie Bloch from the stereotype of the Jewish mother into a truth-teller of mythic stature.
“What a story, an old story, ach, and a bitter one, bitter, bitter, bitter,” recalls Minnie of a fateful incident on Yom Kippur. “He was thinking about his life, on this holy day, on the day when God’s moving finger or pen or whatever He writes with, maybe even now a typewriter or a computer, when He — or She or whatever God is these days — marks in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, he’s been thinking, wondering, pondering, sweating in his brain, milking his thoughts, should I go on with this farce — wait, all this will come to you — should I go on with it? Or should I get out?”
Manny is a man so beset with secrets and hurts that he seems to be in a death spiral, torn between his alcoholic wife and his Holocaust-haunted mistress, afflicted by the agonies of his daughter, unwittingly corrupted by his brother-in-law and watched over by his all-seeing mother. When he stumbles and falls from the bimah during the Yom Kippur service, an undiagnosed tumor is suspected, but we begin to see that he is already in free fall. Indeed, Cheuse suggests that something far more relentless than cancer is at work, not only in Manny’s head, but throughout the blighted history of the Bloch family.
Along the way, Minnie cannot resist telling her own story, harking all the way back to the moment when she fell in love with Manny’s father, Jacob, back in the old country: “Because if until then my life was just the story of a country girl, here it becomes poetry,” she exults. “A miracle takes place!” But it is also the beginning of the persistent streak of tragedy that afflicts the Bloch family, and Minnie produces a crude lipstick drawing to explain a fatal accident that ended Jacob’s life on the streets of New York years later. Cheuse reproduces the drawing on the printed page, charming and yet heartbreaking. A shard of broken glass Manny finds at the scene of the accident, which miraculously resembles a Star of David, becomes a sharp-edged talisman and a constant goad.
The street accident that took the life of Manny’s father, as it happens, sends out ripples that run through the lives of all of the characters and all the way to the end of the book. Minnie gently but firmly leads us through the horror and the heartbreak, the physical torment and the spiritual suffering. She patiently explains the oracles that she is privileged to receive, the signs and wonders that she beholds, and she provides an answer to even the most perplexing questions about the nature of good and evil.
“Life is the Devil,” Minnie says. “It always has been. It always will be.”
Cheuse invites us to accompany Manny as he jumps from the high window at the end of his life. No rescue or redemption awaits him. But the author exercises his godly prerogative by letting Minnie speak, the all-hearing and all-seeing woman who is the real hero of the book. As the title suggests, a prayer can be discerned even in chaos and catastrophe, a prayer “for all of us poor creatures bound by stupid gravity to the mercies of a traveling sun.” It is a prayer so honest and so earnest, and it explains so much about what we have just finished reading, that the reader will be inspired to say, “Amen.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer with an international readership. His stories have been translated into 37 languages, and you can read them in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He’s also been a contributor to the radio program “This American Life.” But if you are not already familiar with Keret, you can get a fix on him in the first few paragraphs of his new and endearing collection of reminiscences, “The Seven Good Years: A Memoir” (Riverhead Books; translated by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlesinger, Jessica Cohen and Anthony Berris).
Keret sits on a bench in the corridor of a hospital in Tel Aviv, where his pregnant wife is in labor, but he suddenly finds himself among the victims of a terrorist attack. A reporter, assuming that Keret witnessed the incident, thrusts a microphone into his face. “Are you Etgar Keret?” the reporter asks. “The writer?”
“I wasn’t in the attack. I just happen to be here today.”
“ ‘Oh,’ he says, not trying to hide his disappointment, and presses the stop button on his tape recorder. ‘Mazal tov.’ ”
As Keret allows us to see, he is something of a celebrity in his homeland, and his opinion matters. But the whole point of “The Seven Good Years” is that celebrity and public esteem do not matter much when a baby arrives. Indeed, it is the father who learns from the son: “I’m the first to admit he has a thing or two to learn before he can be shot into space or allowed to fly an F-16,” Keret writes. “But, in principle, he’s a complete person wrapped up in a nineteen-inch package, and not just any person, but one who’s very extreme, an eccentric, a character.”
The good years that give the book its title are the first seven years of his son’s life, but Keret also widens the lens to give us a glimpse of what life is really like in Israel nowadays. Terrorism is an affliction, of course, but so are telemarketing calls. “In the Middle East,” Keret writes, “people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth.”
Sometimes the challenges of parenting and the strategic challenges faced by the Jewish state coincide in an unsettling way. One day in the park with his young son, he is confronted by the mother of another 3-year-old: “Will Lev go to the army when he grows up?” she demands.
Keret makes light of the question — “There was something accusing in her tone, as if the fact that my wife and I haven’t discussed our baby’s military future is on the same scale as skipping his measles vaccination” — but the conversation with his wife on the same subject is no laughing matter. “ ‘I’ve been dealing with it from the day Lev was born,’ my wife confessed. ‘And if we’re already discussing it now, I don’t want him to go into the army.’ ” The solution to their dilemma? “We decided to compromise on the only principle we both truly agreed on: to spend the next 15 years working toward family and regional peace.”
One of Keret’s gifts as a writer — and one of his coping skills — is his wry sense of humor. At a loss over what to inscribe in a book purchased by a stranger, for example, he invents a whole new genre: the fictitious book dedication. “To Mickey. Your mother called. I hung up on her. Don’t you dare show your face around here anymore.” And: “Bosmat, even though you’re with another guy now, we both know you’ll come back to me in the end.” After recounting several incidents of anti-Semitism that he has experienced on book tours outside of Israel, he finishes with a punch line: “A clerk in a French hotel told me and the Arab Israeli writer Sayed Kashua that if it were up to him, his hotel wouldn’t accept Jews,” Keret recalls. “I spent the rest of the evening listening to Sayed’s grumbling that on top of 42 years of Zionist occupation, he also has to bear the insult of being taken for a Jew.”
Some heartbreaks are beyond the reach of humor. Keret describes how his sister, who married a highly observant man and herself had “gone religious,” now refuses to read any of his books. When he wrote a children’s book that he dedicated to his nephews, he negotiated a contract that obliged his publisher to produce a single copy “in which all the men would have yarmulkes, and the women’s skirts and sleeves would be long enough to be considered modest,” all in the hope that his sister would allow her children to read it. “But in the end, even that version was rejected by my sister’s rabbi, the one she consults on matters of religious convention.” She sent him back to Tel Aviv with the “kosher” copy that he had wanted to give to his nephews.
At 171 pages in the hardcover edition, “The Seven Good Years” is a short, fast, funny read. Most of the chapters are only a few pages long, and Keret always invites a laugh at his own expense. “In the discreet, intimate confines of this book,” he cracks, “I am willing to make a partial admission that I don’t have a life.” Behind the humor, however, is a sharp and serious observer of life, both in Israel and in general, whose wisdom and compassion shine through.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
Among the most emblematic figures to emerge in Southern California in the 1960s was Sister Mary Corita, a “rebel nun” whose exuberant artwork captured the spirit of that lively era. Her story is told with both compassion and critical skill by biographer April Dammann in “Corita Kent. Art and Soul. The Biography.” (Angel City Press), a sumptuous but scholarly book that allows us to see in glorious detail how Kent’s artwork served her spiritual calling and, at the same time, “shook up an art establishment that didn’t quite know what to do with a nun’s bold interpretation of her society.” Perhaps best known for her iconic “LOVE” stamp, Kent continued to make and teach art long after leaving her religious order and “evolved to represent a subversive homage to mass media.” April Dammann will present her new book at 6:30 p.m. on June 2 at Diesel, A Bookstore, at the Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Suite 33, Santa Monica.
Roger Cohen is an observer of Israel and the Middle East whose voice is especially commanding, and not only because he writes for The New York Times. As a former foreign correspondent, he is deeply experienced in the travails and troubles of the contemporary world. In “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family” (Knopf), he brings his experience to bear in a rich and intimate chronicle that casts as much light on the world in which we live today as it does on the moving story of the Cohen family.
“My life has been spent crossing lines, gazing at the same picture from different angles in order to evoke it,” Cohen explains. “Memory is treacherous, as distinct from history as emotion from form. Every war is fought over memory.”
His family moved from the Pale of Settlement in czarist Russia to South Africa in 1896, thus escaping the mass murder of Jews in their Lithuanian town of origin a half-century later. After World War II, Cohen’s father moved the family to Britain. Along the way, many of their ties to Jewish tradition were broken. “A cultural and spiritual vacuum resulted from this attempt to begin again with the mark and scar of each generational upheaval effected,” Cohen writes. “We came from South Africa and nowhere. Industrious and circumspect, we adopted habits of silence that cloaked the fortuitousness of our deliverance.”
The girl from Human Street, we soon discover, is Cohen’s mother, June. His father, as it happens, was born on Honey Street. “It was love at first sight,” Cohen reports. But the relationship between mother and son, which is the beating heart of this book, was not always so sweet, if only because it was overshadowed by her lifelong depression. “When a parent dies unhappy, there is something unresolved that keeps nagging,” he writes. “It took her death for me to realize the strength of her love and how, in the torment, I had loved her back.”
But Cohen’s book is hardly a sentimental eulogy. Rather, he seeks to find the impact of history itself on his mother’s mental illness. “It was tied to our odyssey, a Jewish odyssey of the twentieth century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing, and forgetting.” Exactly here is the best measure of the author’s audacity and insight — he wants to place the private woes of one woman and one family into the context of the wider world in which they lived, and he succeeds brilliantly at the effort.
Cohen does not neglect the biographical details that his reader needs and expects. Indeed, he is able to extract huge meanings from seemingly mundane details. “In every old photograph, as Roland Barthes observed, lurks a catastrophe,” Cohen writes, and the same can be said of his fraught account of life in Lithuania, then South Africa and then London. For example, Cohen’s father, a physician, was prompted by his wife’s first suicide attempt to create a family tree with a black dot next to each ancestor who suffered from mania or depression. “Black dots abound.”
Cohen himself follows the same trail of clues. “June Cohen was a woman hollowed out like a tree struck by lightning,” he declares. “She had been blighted. I wanted to know why.” Acting on his own journalistic instincts, he finds his way to the admissions register for the mental hospital where she was confined for electroconvulsive therapy, and he reproduces the column where religious affiliation was noted; all but one is marked “C/E” for Church of England, but his mother’s entry is marked “Jew.” At this point, Cohen enters his own narrative: “I ran my fingers over the page and paused at ‘JEW.’ I wanted to take a soothing poultice to her face.”
It’s a clue to at least one of the afflictions that Cohen detects in his mother’s mental illness. “In mildewed England, there were no more Shabbat gatherings, no more beef on rye, none of that sunny ease where friends from the neighborhood popped in,” he writes. “One of her problems, although she never framed it that way, lay in how to be that whispered word — JEW, as she had been registered in the ledger of that British mental hospital — in the land of Lewis Namier’s ‘trembling Israelites,’ a nation whose message to Jews often seemed to be: Lose yourself to join us entirely, and even then fall just a little short.”
At one point in the saga, Cohen reflects on the tension between remembering and forgetting in Jewish history. “For centuries, in their wanderings, Jews remembered,” he muses. “Rather than disperse anonymously among the nations of the world, they clung with a singular stubbornness to a Messianic dream of return and to the rabbinical injunction: Zakhor! Remember!” And yet the price of sanctuary was the loss of memory: “With Jewish self-improvement had come forgetting, in Europe and in Johannesburg.”
Cohen’s self-appointed mission was to retrieve what had been forgotten in his own family, and in the pages of “The Girl from Human Street,” he has done so with real genius.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.
Anyone who has the opportunity to chat with Erwin Chemerinsky, as I recently did, will find him a gracious, affable and reasonable person — a real mensch. But if you read his latest book, “The Case Against the Supreme Court” (Viking), you will discover that he is capable of taking (and justifying) a radical, even revolutionary position about the third branch of government.
“It is important to ask directly the question, has the [U.S.] Supreme Court been a success or a failure?” Chemerinsky writes. “My conclusion is the thesis of this book: The Court has frequently failed throughout American history, at its most important tasks, at its most important moments.”
The founding dean of the law school at UC Irvine, Chemerinsky is one of America’s most influential constitutional scholars and a courtroom lawyer of long experience; he is also fully capable of naming names and citing specific cases that he regards as miscarriages of justice. He focuses on cases that constitute what he calls “a horrific abuse of power,” including the sanctioning of human slavery, the sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and the internment of Japanese-Americans during wartime, among others.
His over-arching criticism of the Supreme Court, however, transcends the facts of any single case. “Throughout American history, the Court usually has been on the side of the powerful —government and business — at the expense of the individuals,” he concludes. “In times of crisis, when the passions of the moment have led to laws that compromise basic rights, the Court has failed to enforce the Constitution.”
Chemerinsky even holds the much-praised Warren Court to account for its failings. He concedes that the decisions of the Warren Court in the areas of race, voting rights and criminal justice were a proper exercise of the “core mission” of the Supreme Court, which he defines as “enforcing the Constitution to protect minorities in areas where otherwise the Constitution would have been unenforced.” But he insists that “it did not do all that it could have or all that was necessary,” and “its failure to do so has serious adverse consequences to this day.”
Similarly, he is willing to credit the current Roberts Court with what he regards as an appropriate exercise of its authority, and he praises the ruling in the Defense of Marriage Act case as an example of how the Supreme Court ought to perform “its proper constitutional role” by protecting a minority from discrimination. By contrast, he condemns the ruling in the 2000 election case of Bush v. Gore, which short-circuited the counting of ballots in Florida and essentially selected George W. Bush as president; Chemerinsky calls this “among the worst decisions in history.” He also singles out the Citizens United decision, which held that “corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals and that restrictions on corporate spending in election campaigns are unconstitutional,” as a fundamental mistake with far-reaching consequences.
Chemerinsky sees “judicial activism,” a charge that is usually made by conservatives when the Supreme Court acts to protect the rights of minorities, used with equal force by the Roberts Court. “The deference to the democratic process so often preached by conservatives in attacking liberal rulings protecting rights was nowhere in evidence as the conservative majority struck down restrictions on corporate spending that had existed for decades.”
What does Chemerinsky prescribe as a cure for such afflictions? He considers the case for taking away the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review, that is, the authority of the Supreme Court “to say what the law is.” Judicial review appears nowhere in the Constitution and was first asserted by the Supreme Court itself in the hoary 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison. Ever since that case was decided, the Supreme Court has repeatedly acted to declare whether a legislative enactment or a presidential order is or isn’t constitutional. Chemerinsky points out that democracy can live without judicial review, citing Great Britain and the Netherlands as examples. But, he concludes, “I imagine a world without judicial review and realize it would be much worse.”
Instead, he offers a list of “reforms that might make a difference.”
I hasten to say that “The Case Against the Supreme Court,” from beginning to end, is presented with absolute clarity, forceful argument and the same effervescence of thought that Chemerinsky displays in person. But it is also true that his chapter on “Changing the Court” consists of technical fixes that seem rather less dramatic than the rest of the book — merit selection of judges, term limits rather than life tenure and fixes to the congressional process by which judges are confirmed, and even such subtleties as changing the way the Supreme Court communicates with its constituencies. Even so, Chemerinsky deserves praise for bringing his theoretical and historical arguments into the here and now.
“A mystique surrounds the Court, one that for too long has shielded it from the criticism and scrutiny it deserves,” he writes. To his credit, Chemerinsky has ripped aside the veil and shown us the inner workings of the Supreme Court, and he challenges us to consider, perhaps for the first time, whether we need the High Court at all.
As the last generation of Holocaust survivors ages and dies, efforts to capture their final, untold stories have abounded. But in her new book “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind,” Sarah Wildman has turned instead to the future, asking what it means bear witness in a world without Holocaust survivors.
“Paper Love” chronicles the author’s long and labyrinthine search for the fate of the woman whose black-and-white photos she finds amid her late grandfather Karl’s belongings. Wildman knew only the woman’s name, Valy, scrawled across the back of the photos, and that her grandmother bitterly called the mysterious dark-haired woman “your grandfather’s true love.”
It is only after her grandmother dies that Wildman discovers a trove of letters that her grandfather, a dashing physician who fled Vienna in 1938 for the United States, kept hidden and mislabeled.
“Correspondence: Patients A-G” reads the carton containing Valy’s letters, written in German from war-torn Berlin, as well as angry correspondences from extended family members who would never make it out of Hitler’s Europe.
Wildman’s hunt for Valy’s story takes her to far-flung cities, tiny villages and concentration camps throughout Europe, as well as to Ann Arbor, Mich., searching for people who may have known Valy, for documents that might refer to her, for experts who might shed light on her fate. She combs the archives for information and walks the streets of Vienna and Berlin in search of scraps of information about Valy’s life.
But “Paper Love” branches out at every turn — enfolding into its net more historical details, more stories, more locations, more human lives that vanished into World War II, never to be heard of again until now.
The book weaves together the historical with the intensely personal, redefining what counts as appropriate archival material and elevating intimate aspects from Valy’s life, and Wildman’s own, to new importance.
In the six years it took to complete “Paper Love,” Wildman, a journalist, gave birth to two daughters. The transition into new motherhood accompanied the one from consumer of Holocaust history to producer of it.
It’s a transition that took place in the shadow of loss — specifically the death of her grandparents, and also the gradual loss of the last generation of survivors.
“It’s been a very poignant thing for me that my kids won’t know them,” Wildman told JTA over the phone, her breast pump whirring in the background. “I am very much thinking of what comes next, in part because my children won’t have the opportunity of that visceral connection of listening to the story from the source.”
But “Paper Love” is revolutionary precisely because it could not have been written during the lifetime of Wildman’s grandfather.
“He never told us about the letters,” Wildman said, by way of explanation, “and my grandmother wouldn’t have been too pleased.”
Faced with the lack of stories “from the source” that her daughters’ generation encounters, Wildman chose to create something that could exist only in a world without Karl. It’s the kind of art bound to grow in the coming, post-survivor era — now that Wildman is paving the way.
Equal parts history, detective story, memoir and romance, Wildman’s book provides an absorbing account of what it was like to live in (and write from) Berlin as the Nazi grip tightened and conditions for Jews became increasingly worse — city by city, day by day.
Valy’s letters smolder with desperation, both to see her lover again and to survive the horrors that have befallen her city, country and continent. Most of the letters are reproduced in the text, alongside which Wildman decodes the writer’s attempts to fool the censors who were reading trans-Atlantic correspondences.
But they are also magical, magnetic and playful. Indeed, Wildman saw something of herself in the letter writer.
“She’s obsessed with her career, she’s not so super certain about kids, she’s incredibly well educated,” Wildman said. “She sounds like someone you might want to be with or hang out with. She doesn’t sound like someone far away. And she doesn’t sound perfect either. I think that’s important, too.”
Valy writes to Karl from Berlin in April of 1940, “I lead my life the way I’ve been doing for the past 2 years: in a spirit of waiting, without much joy or hope. But, my darling, don’t feel sad for me; I want you to know that I have people around me — women, — you know that only women are left here?!, who still have something to say, who like me, who help me and who want to make life pleasant for me. But I do not succeed very often, and they never will be able to replace you, my boy! You are and remain far, far away, out of my reach, you exist only in my memories, wonderful, beautiful ‘sunny past.’ … You are no longer even a letter, such as tiny, modest piece of the present. Why don’t you write?”
Why didn’t he write?
Among the things Wildman discovers is how sanitized the story she had been told of her grandfather’s miraculous escape and instantaneous success in America. And “Paper Love” is also its author’s attempt to come to terms with her grandfather’s actions and the guilt that she suspects plagued him for the rest of his life.
And although her grandfather never spoke to his granddaughter about Valy, he unwittingly created an archive for her to plunder, turning himself into a partner in the creation of “Paper Love.”
As Wildman asked herself, “If the Nazi project was to erase these people, to render them unmemorable, to be wiped away from the rolls of history, was there some way that my grandfather had thwarted that by saving these letters, and was there some way I, with the privilege of having stumbled on them, could give this woman back her voice?”
Indeed, Valy comes to life on the page, and her story will haunt those who read “Paper Love” for a long time to come.
When asked what her grandfather would make of her book, Wildman answered, “I think he would be pleased to still be talked about. … Of course it exposes a vulnerable side of him that I don’t think he’d be thrilled with, but I do think ultimately he would be happy to be thought of.”
Just how frightening is it to be a British Jew these days? Although it’s comforting to know that the security guard who prohibited two Jewish boys from entering a sporting goods store in Hertfordshire, England, last month was fired, Jewish residents are starting to feel apprehensive, especially after the recent war in Gaza. Anti-Semitic incidents in the U.K. this past July were up 400 percent over the same month in 2013, according to a September article in the Jerusalem Post.
Could it be that these alarming incidents portend something bigger? Acclaimed British author and journalist Howard Jacobson seeks to answer this question in his newest novel, “J,” which was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in Great Britain and is now available in the United States.
Jacobson wonders what the world would be like if anti-Semites got what they wanted: a world without Jews. He imagines a dystopic future England where a terrible catastrophe of such great upheaval has occurred that society only functions in relation to how the event is memorialized.
The historical disaster is called “WHAT HAPPENED — IF IT HAPPENED,” which is a fabulous irony (and a satiric nod to Holocaust revisionists) as everyone is collectively required to apologize, although they are not sure for what. The event seems to have happened about 50 to 60 years before the narrative begins, and although we soon come to realize that the event is all about the Jews, the word is never once mentioned within the text.
Kevern Cohen (a literary creation reminiscent of Woody Allen if his neuroses stemmed from second-generation survivor guilt) grows up in a picturesque, seaside village with uncommunicative, troubled parents who seem to have something to hide. He navigates his loveless life with the philosophy that “ignorance is safety” and never asks questions about the past. He even practices his father’s unusual habit of covering his mouth with two fingers when uttering a word beginning with the letter “J.”
Kevern meets the beautiful Aileen Solomons, and, as their love story ripens, author Jacobson drops clues as to why this futuristic society has turned violent, suspicious and chaotic. The shocking cause of humanity’s downfall seems to be the fact that there are no Jews left anymore, and therefore, according to Jacobson, society has turned inward upon itself because there is no one left to hate.
It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that every character in this novel has a Jewish last name and a Celtic first name. Villages and towns also have place names that have been changed to sound like they were picked from biblical locations. Libraries in this society do not allow research into the past. Diaries are hidden or destroyed, and there are no history books.
The public mood is monitored by the all-knowing bureaucracy of “Ofnow” — the present government whose sole preoccupation seems to be making sure people forget about WHAT HAPPENED, while simultaneously overcompensating by demanding apologies for whatever it was that everyone supposedly did. Like some sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission gone crazy, it spends a lot of time renaming people, running apology sessions and wondering why the country seems to be disintegrating into a violent mess. “Nothing is better than love” is the type of advice Ofnow dispenses to the country, while simultaneously advocating, “The past exists in order that we forget it.”
Esme Nussbaum, an Ofnow employee and the sole character in this absorbing novel who has not forgotten the past, is unnerved by the overall aggressiveness and casual violence of her society. She believes in learning from the past (which she ironically realizes only when she is in a coma) and envisions a plan to correct society’s ills, but she is thwarted by those in power who refuse to act.
Years later, her second plan will hinge on the actions of the two lovers she has deliberately thrown together in order to produce an outcome that will save the world from disaster. Unfortunately, the two lovers feel intensely persecuted; they sometimes refer to themselves as whales being stalked by a malevolent Ahab, because “Moby-Dick” is one of the few historical fiction books still allowed. Is the feeling of persecution somehow embedded within Jewish DNA even when Jews are no more?
Different, colorful characters appear in the narrative as villagers who affect the lives of Esme, Kevern and Aileen. Jacobson inserts thoughts or dialogue from these characters who are speaking about their futuristic country, but the savvy reader knows all too well what they are really talking about as Jacobson takes on the concerns of present-day British Jews.
On British academic boycotts: “We always think what we’re doing is humane … but we provided them with the fuel.”
On Holocaust deniers: “That his wife had trouble with the logic of his frustration drove him almost to madness. … Her comprehension halted at the moment he denied a thing he so patently approved.”
On Israel bashers: “Their loyalty is to each other. … It has been said that were the earth to be laid waste, so long as not a single hair of one of their heads was harmed, they would connive in that destruction. That is not a justification for their destruction, though others argue persuasively for it. But it does invite us to ask how much longer we can tolerate their uncurbed presence.”
Jacobson’s intensity stems from the precariousness of the modern state of English Jewry. His novel is really a meditation on a world without Jews, and naturally this turns out to be rather depressing. However, the conclusion is not what you think: Jacobson does not seem to be saying that Jews actually offer something that this futuristic society now lacks; he’s concerned about what happens when anti-Semitism has no outlet to express itself. If there is no one left to hate, society will destroy itself from within.
With no Jews left after WHAT HAPPENED, the bureaucracy of Ofnow considers hating “the Chinese,” another unpopular ethnicity. But it’s just not the same: “It was difference where there was so much that was similar that accounted for the unique antipathy of which they were in search. And only one people with one set of prints fitted that bill.”
Jacobson expresses this dismal realization borne out by bleak historical events, implying that Jews are universally hated and always will be, and there can be no definitive explanation for it. The delicious problem for readers of this remarkable novel is that we are kept guessing until the final pages. Who are these people and this society? And … what actually happened in the past and why?
Jacobson is often touted as the “British Philip Roth” because of his sardonic wit and choice of themes, and his previous Booker Prize-winning, tragicomic novel about English Jewry, “The Finkler Question,” was funnier than this dark satire. Readers need to work hard to figure out the meanings of the fragments of letters, fables and accounts of historical persecutions of Jews that are interspersed every few chapters.
The intricate plot and mysterious clue- dropping might intimidate people who pick up books for light reading, but this novel was selected for the Booker Prize shortlist because of its literary excellence and thought-provoking ideas. You will want to talk about it. Read it before it becomes assigned in all college Jewish literature courses. Choose it for your book group, but expect to stay until midnight.
Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library.
If you were the wild child among more submissive siblings, who refused to be silenced and cried continually, and fought with all the others about their glaring hypocrisies; chances are you were not your parents’ favorite child. If you sometimes made disturbing comments about wishing to harm yourself while broadcasting to anyone who would listen your opinion about your parents’ deficiencies, you were probably the cause of much familial stress. If the confusion that swirled around in your head escalated to the point where your parents sent you to a psychiatric facility when you were only 8 years old, you probably only grew more despondent. By the time adolescence beckoned, the die was cast: You were known only as the anxious and nervous one, a little troubled girl who simply needed too much.
But what if you’re not. Maybe you were just an exquisitely sensitive and creative little girl who was able to disarmingly articulate your family’s massive dysfunction. Maybe not getting enough love from your mother and father was simply too much for you to bear. Maybe you’re Daphne Merkin.
Merkin, author of “The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes, and the Importance of Handbags” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is an extremely engaging and empathetic writer. She doesn’t allow herself to form fixed notions about others, but instead wrestles with how most of us choose to present ourselves to the outside world, along with the forces that have shaped our individual self-presentations. She is acutely aware of the difficulties involved in all human relationships but also sees tenderness and beauty where others don’t even think to look. Brought up in a Modern Orthodox, wealthy Jewish home in Manhattan, Merkin struggled with a father who had little patience for her and a mother who seemed overly concerned with the aesthetics of their home while ignoring the emotional turbulence lurking beneath it. There was little talk about God or spiritual matters of any sort. Their Judaism was expressed mostly by rituals and celebrations and life at the synagogue, which Merkin disliked since it seemed to her the men had all the good parts. What she did enjoy was studying the Talmud, which stimulated her active mind with its never ending labyrinth of puzzling arguments. But she studied privately and eventually gave it up. As for God, he always either ignored or eluded her.
Mostly, she tried to get her mother’s attention, an exercise that resulted in repeated frustration and disappointment. But Merkin never stopped trying. She writes about her mother with an almost uncomfortable intensity, one that seems to elude her in other relationships. Her mother passed away years ago, but is still dominant in her thoughts and misgivings. She misses her. Perhaps misses what she never had. They shared a turbulent relationship, but one that Merkin counted on, even though her mother continually disappointed her. The only possible gift bestowed upon Merkin from this ferocious attachment is that it seems to have imbued Merkin with the ability to look at others through a psychological lens that is filtered by kindness and compassion.
In “The Fame Lunches,” her new outstanding collection of essays, Merkin offers us her take on everything from the allure of lip gloss and its relationship to the demise of civilized society to vividly personal and perceptive essays that resulted from her lengthy interviews with everyone from Madonna to Kate Blanchett. She tries to dissect the enduring legacy of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and Courtney Love while offering up thought-provoking pieces about the Bronte sisters, Bruno Bettelheim, and Henry Roth. She allows space for her own meditations on mental illness, psychoanalysis and the hardships of mothering after divorce. She is equally adept at highbrow and lowbrow subjects, because she is fascinated by both, and brings an observational sharpness to whatever she is writing about. Some of the best pieces here have to do with the hunt for a perfect handbag, reality television, and the obsession women have with holding on to their beauty.
What amazes the reader about Merkin is how open her heart has remained, even with age and after several extreme episodes of emotional distress. Her heart has not hardened, and that is truly a writer’s greatest asset. She has written at great length in the New York Times about her over 40-year participation in psychoanalysis and its disappointments for her, but the miracle of Merkin is really her resilience in spite of her duress. She perseveres. She writes. She travels. She teaches. She mothers her beloved daughter. She confides in friends. And, for the most part, she remains afloat.
In one of the most revealing pieces, she tells us about sending a letter to Woody Allen telling him about her adoration for him. She included a poem for him that ended with these two short sad lines: “You are my funny man. You know you can be sad with me.” Woody wrote her back and encouraged her to keep writing. This led to a friendship of sorts, where they would occasionally meet for lunch. At one meal, she told him that she was feeling more depressed than usual. Woody asked her all the appropriate follow-up questions in a clinical fashion and suggested she consider electroshock therapy. She was furious with him. She thought, “I don’t know what I had been hoping for — some version of come with me and I will cuddle you until your sadness goes away, not to get hooked up to electrodes, baby — but I was slightly stunned. More than slightly, I understood he was trying to be helpful in his way but it fell so far short. …Shock therapy? It wasn’t as thought I hadn’t heard of it or didn’t know people who benefited from it. Still, how on earth did he conceive of me? As a chronic mental patient, someone who was meant to sit on a thin hospital mattress and stare greyly into space. Didn’t he know I was a writer with a future, a person given to creative descriptions of her own moods? Shock therapy, indeed; I’d sooner try a spa. It suddenly occurred to me, as I walked up Madison Avenue, that it might pay to be resilient, if this was all being vulnerable and skinless got you… .Indeed, maybe it was time to rethink this whole salvation business. Or maybe I was less desperate, less teetering on the edge than I cared to admit. Now that was a refreshing personality.”
There is a steeliness about her that allows her to see things clearly even in the throes of despair. Merkin’s capacity to analyze her response to Allen’s well-intended advice demonstrates an inner resilience that has undoubtedly saved her many times over. She knows firsthand the dark forces that can invade your psyche, but she also understands healing and reinvention and transformation. There is no malice or bitchiness or vengeance present in her work; even towards those whom she knows have caused her the greatest harm. Even when she senses people are being deceptive or manipulative, she does not castigate them. Instead, she seeks answers as to why she believes they feel they need to be inauthentic at a certain point in time. She wants to understand, not attack.
For example, when writing about Mike Tyson and his new wife, she senses that Tyson is playing her. She believes this is simply another incarnation of his continual act, which she describes as a “construction every bit as deliberate as he claims his Invincible Iron Mike persona was.” Merkin does not challenge him directly about her perception but instead writes about how impressed she is that he is attempting to create a persona that is less violent and self-destructive than he has been in the past. She wants him to succeed, although she recognizes the fragility of his battle. Merkin reaches similar conclusions about Marilyn Monroe. She wonders at first if Monroe was really the victim she is often portrayed to be, or a manipulator of the finest order. She reviews her background, which includes severe maternal and paternal deprivation, mental illness, and bouts of terrible instability and depression. She offers up compassion, as she does for Princess Diana, whom she describes as a “knot of contradictions: impossibly glamorous, yet disarmingly self effacing, bold, yet riddled with self-doubt, worldly yet naïve.”
There are times when Merkin seems to get swept up in a dreamy romantic longing for a world that is less cruel and more forgiving. On Charles and Diana’s failed union, she writes, “I find myself wondering how Diana’s life might have turned out if she and Charles had bonded over their shared lack of childhood, their virtual abandonment as children. …What would have happened if they had the patience (on his side) and endurance (on hers) to address their mutual longings for love and nurturance in each other?”
And I find myself wondering what Merkin’s life might have been like if she had received more of the nourishment she craved? Would she have been a writer? Would she have had an emotional radar as sharp and perceptive as hers is now? Would she have been happier? Does her exquisite artistry only come from having experienced such acute pain? It’s hard to know. What is clear is that she is one of our best narrative nonfiction writers. Merkin’s voice is secular and modern and yet filled with some sort of ancient wisdom, and coupled with intellectual and emotional honesty, while maintaining a pureness of heart. That is no easy feat.
She once wrote this about her mother in her semi-autobiographical novel “Enchantment”: “I want – have always wanted — her to listen to me forever.” I don’t think her mother could, or did, for reasons that remain mysterious, but we listen and will continue to do so.
Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.
As Jews worldwide remembered and honored the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust in recent weeks, Dr. Ari Babaknia, a renowned Newport Beach Iranian-Jewish obstetrician and gynecologist, was crisscrossing the country — touring Southern California and New York City — and making his own unique contribution to the cause.
The 60-something Babaknia is not a formally trained Holocaust scholar, nor a professional historian, yet he found himself educating Iranians of various religions about the Nazis’ Final Solution and other 20th-century genocides. His undying passion to learn about the Shoah in the last two decades has made him the sole voice of Holocaust awareness to millions of Iranians in the United States and overseas.
“Many years ago, I realized that there was no book about the Holocaust in Farsi, even though there are more than 150 million people in the world who are fluent in Farsi,” said Babaknia, who attended medical school in Iran but underwent his specialty training at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “My goal and the goal of my organization, the Memorah Foundation, is to spread the truth about the Holocaust in the Middle East because people in the region and Iran have been hearing rhetoric about the Holocaust, and now they want to know the truth about the Holocaust.”
In 2012, his efforts culminated in the publication of the first and only original Farsi-language history of the Shoah, a four-volume, 2,400-page book called “Holocaust.” (There have been some works related to the topic translated into Farsi, but none nearly as comprehensive.) Then, earlier this year, he published “Humanity, Not,” a 300-page English-language book that juxtaposes the words of scholars, survivors, Holocaust victims and others with impressionistic sketches about the Shoah from the late Iranian-Muslim artist Ardeshir Mohasses.
“Mr. Mohasses was like the Iranian Norman Rockwell — perhaps more famous than Rockwell because he was internationally renowned,” Babaknia said. “He did 300 amazing paintings, capturing almost every aspect of the Holocaust, capturing both the emotions and ethics of the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust in a very graphic manner.”
Babaknia’s earlier work, “Holocaust,” is more of a straightforward history. It details the events of the Shoah from the rise of Nazism in Germany to the final days of World War II. The book is also filled with graphic photographs from the era as well as countless official U.S. and European government documents from the time period. The final volume chronicles other genocides that occurred in Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan.
He wrote out the book by hand, which required 13,000 pages, and spent $2.5 million over the years on the research, assistants and other elements necessary to put it together.
More than 3,000 copies of the book have been sold through a select few bookstores in Southern California and online. All proceeds have gone to the Memorah Foundation to educate individuals of Middle Eastern background about the Holocaust and the need for tolerance.
“Believe it or not, 90 percent of the buyers of the Holocaust book in Farsi have been Iranian-Muslims because they have real interests and curiosity to learn more about it,” Babaknia said. “There has never been a definitive book about this subject matter in their mother language until now, which is drawing their attention.”
Its success has led to speaking invitations from many Iranian community and social groups, including mosques.
Ali Massoudi, a 77-year-old retired Iranian-Muslim journalist based in Irvine, said the book has wide appeal.
“I’ve received feedback myself that people in Iran who have seen Dr. Babaknia on Iranian television broadcasting from the U.S. have been encouraged to learn more about the Holocaust and are trying to find out how to get their hands on copies of the book,” he said. “Dr. Babaknia’s book presents the Holocaust as a tragedy for all of humanity and not just the Jews — this has really resonated with Iranians of different faiths.”
Babaknia’s books come at an important time for his target population. In March, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei questioned if the Holocaust took place, and the country’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was a longtime Holocaust denier. The Iranian regime also has hosted several conferences over the years, featuring American neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists.
Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-American human rights activist who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said there will be lasting, positive impacts among average non-Jewish Iranians living in Iran and elsewhere as a result of Babaknia’s work.
“After more than three decades of censorship of the Holocaust in Iran, Dr. Babaknia’s documentation of this historical event in Farsi and its potential of becoming a credible source for future generations of Iranian-Muslims is indeed a major landmark whose importance will increase with time,” he said.
Babaknia said he has plans in the near future to make “Holocaust” available online for anyone to download for free from his foundation’s website, knowhate.org. This online resource provides visitors with information about the Holocaust and other genocides in Farsi and English, with translations in Turkish and Arabic expected to come.
Despite the positive reception Babaknia’s book has received from non-Jewish Iranian-Americans, the author said he’s been surprised by the amount of indifference he’s encountered from many Iranian Jews.
“I am honestly amazed that people in the Iranian-Jewish community tell me in front of my face, ‘Thank you for what you have done, but I’m not going to read your book because it will make me sad.’
“Our emotions about the Holocaust should be more than anger, more than sadness and more than a revolting feeling. We have to read and learn about the Holocaust so we can become better human beings and become more sensitized to others’ suffering.”
Tabby Davoodi is among the young leaders in the local Iranian-Jewish community who have been drawn to Babaknia’s message and efforts to educate Iranians about the Holocaust.
“The Talmud teaches us that ‘in a place where there is no leader, strive to be a leader.’ Dr. Babaknia embodies this wisdom and call to action,” said Davoodi, executive director of 30 Years After, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish organization. “In the end, the Shoah belongs to all Jews, including Iranian Jews, because it is forever tragically sealed in the fabric of the Jewish people,” Davoodi said. “As Iranian-American Jews, we are but one thread in this unbreakable fabric, and any loss of Jewish life anywhere around the world is ours to mourn.”
For more information about Dr. Ari Babaknia’s new book and Shoah commemoration events in the Iranian-Jewish community, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.
Among Nazi war criminals who have faced justice, ranging from Hermann Goering to Adolf Eichmann, we find John Demjanjuk, who was charged with participating in the murder of 29,060 Jews as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp. Unlike the more notorious Nazis, Demjanjuk actually had Jewish blood on his hands.
The overarching question Richard Rashke asks, and answers, in “Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals” (Delphinium Books, $29.95) carries a sting: “Why did it take almost 60 years for the United States to find and extradite John Demjanjuk for trial in Germany as a Nazi collaborator?”
Rashke is the right man to answer the weighty question. The author of “Escape From Sobibor,” among other books, he navigates through the complexities of history and politics of the mid-20th century with an expert eye. He reminds us, for example, that Demjanjuk was a Ukrainian draftee in the Red Army when he was captured in 1943 by the Germans, who offered him an opportunity to join the Waffen SS and turn his coat against his Soviet homeland. Demjanjuk concealed the details of his war service when he applied for refugee status in the United States and was welcomed to America in 1952.
Not until 1977 did the U.S. Justice Department finally catch up with Demjanjuk. By then, as Rashke shows us, a few whistleblowers in the INS and some courageous politicians were on the trail of Nazis and their collaborators who had managed to reach America. The Demjanjuk case was plagued with possible misidentifications by witnesses and the suspicion of evidence-tampering by the KGB, as well as the repercussions from the rival political agendas of Ukrainian nationalists and the Soviet authorities, but Demjanjuk’s citizenship was revoked on the grounds that he had lied about his wartime crimes, and he was extradited to Israel for trial.
The nagging question throughout the legal proceedings was whether Demjanjuk was the monster known as “Ivan the Terrible” who tortured and murdered Jews at Treblinka, or a slightly less monstrous (but no less culpable) camp guard who murdered Jews at Sobibor, or, as Demjanjuk insisted, a poor Ukrainian shlep who put on a Nazi uniform to save his own life but sat out the war without killing anyone. Ivan the Terrible’s deeds, as narrated in heartbreaking detail by his victims, are so grotesque that they read like a chapter from the Marquis de Sade, but Demjanjuk swore that it was all a big mistake.
“Honorable Judges, I am not the hangman or henchman you are after,” he told the Israeli judges. “My heart aches, and I grieve deeply for what was done to your people by the Nazis…. Please do not put the noose around my neck for things that were done by others.”
The Israeli court found him guilty as charged and sentenced him to hang in 1988. Remarkably, while the case was on appeal, a former prostitute who serviced the guards at Treblinka appeared on “60 Minutes” to affirm that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible, a man she claimed to know intimately by reason of her trade. Additional new evidence was brought to light to suggest that they had the wrong man, including testimony by other Treblinka guards who knew Ivan the Terrible. The Israeli Supreme Court courageously but controversially reversed the conviction, and Demjanjuk returned to the United States, where the Court of Appeals restored his citizenship.
Along the way, Rashke reprises the heartbreaking history of American immigration policy, which did little to rescue Jews during the war or to shelter them after the war, but welcomed Nazis and their collaborators, ranging from Werner von Braun to John Demjanjuk. Indeed, he argues that the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 actually discriminated against Jewish refugees. “Just as the United States had blocked the entry of more than nine hundred St. Louis refugees under the old immigration law,” he writes, “it now blocked the entry of Jewish refugees under the new 1948 legislation.” At the same time, political machinations — or, in the case of Demjanjuk, bureaucratic indifference — permitted veterans of the SS to freely enter the United States. Although Demjanjuk is the centerpiece of his book, Rashke ranges across 50 years of history and examines the fate of countless other Nazi war criminals
Rashke is a disciplined writer who supports his contentions with hard facts. But he is also driven by his own deep passions, and he is perfectly willing to name names — Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and J. Edgar Hoover, among others, are singled out for their complicity in what amounts to a decades-long policy of protecting war criminals. He concedes, for example, that both the prosecution and the defense in the Demjanjuk case “distorted or fabricated historical facts.” But he is also quick to praise those who fought to bring Nazis to justice, including New York congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who authored the legislation that “made inadmissible to the United States ‘participants in Nazi persecution, genocide, or the commission or any act of torture or extrajudicial killing.’”
The Demjanjuk case was revived in 2001, when he was charged with being a guard at Sobibor and participating in mass murder on the basis of new documentary evidence that had come to light — a “trial by archive,” as Rashke puts it — and the defendant was once again stripped of his citizenship. Now it was Germany that sought to extradite the 90-year-old Demjanjuk, who left America on a stretcher and appeared in the German court on a gurney or in a wheelchair, a play for sympathy that most observers dismissed as phony.
The ploy was futile. Demjanjuk was finally convicted in 2011, although the court did not send him to prison, and he died in bed in 2012. And Rashke ends his book with a pointed inquiry: “As a very young man captured by the Germans and facing a high probability of either starving to death, dying from overwork and disease, or being routinely executed, John Demjanjuk poses a final question to his accusers and critics. It is a question that goes to the heart of the human condition — a question that only an ordinary man like John ‘Iwan” Demjanjuk could ask: If you had been me in 1942, what would you have done?”
It’s an odd and inappropriate question to ask the Jewish reader. No such option would have been available to us. A Ukrainian might have the option of putting himself in service to his Nazi masters, but a Jew faced only death. For that reason, the question itself does not carry much moral weight. But Rashke’s book forces us to consider whether a half-century of effort to punish those who operated the machinery of mass murder has resulted in any kind of justice.
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,” was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in biography and was selected as a book of the year by the Washington Post.
A year after graduating college, I worked downtown in the immense shadows of the World Trade Center, and as part of my freewheeling, four-hour daily lunch break I would eat and drink my way past these two giants, up Broadway, down Fulton Street and over to the Strand Book Annex. In 1996, people still read books and the city could support an extra branch of the legendary Strand in the Financial District, which is to say that stockbrokers, secretaries, government functionaries — everybody back then was expected to have some kind of inner life.
In the previous year I had tried being a paralegal for a civil rights law firm but that did not work out well. The paralegaling involved a lot of detail, way more detail than a nervous young man with a ponytail, a small substance-abuse problem, and a hemp pin on his cardboard tie could handle. This was as close as I would ever come to fulfilling my parents’ dreams of my becoming a lawyer. Like most Soviet Jews, like most immigrants from Communist nations, my parents were deeply conservative, and they never thought much of the four years I had spent at my liberal alma mater, Oberlin College, studying Marxist politics and book-writing. On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laser-jet and ink-jet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I’m not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach.
I graduated summa cum laude and this improved my profile with Mama and Papa, but when I spoke to them it was understood that I was still a disappointment. Because I was often sick and runny-nosed as a child (and as an adult) my father called me Soplyak, or Snotty. My mother was developing an interesting fusion of English and Russian and, all by herself, had worked out the term Failurchka, or Little Failure. That term made it from her lips into the overblown manuscript of a novel I was typing up in my spare time, one whose opening chapter was about to be rejected by the important writing program at the University of Iowa, letting me know that my parents weren’t the only ones to think that I was nothing.
Realizing that I was never going to amount to much, my mother, working her connections as only a Soviet Jewish mama can, got me a job as a “staff writer” at an immigrant resettlement agency downtown, which involved maybe thirty minutes of work per year, mostly proofing brochures teaching newly arrived Russians the wonders of deodorant, the dangers of AIDS, and the subtle satisfaction of not getting totally drunk at some American party.
In the meantime, the Russian members of our office team and I got totally drunk at some American party. Eventually we were all laid off, but before that happened I wrote and rewrote great chunks of my first novel and learned the Irish pleasures of matching gin martinis with steamed corned beef and slaw at the neighborhood dive, the name of which is, if I recall correctly, the Blarney Stone. I’d lie there on top of my office desk at 2:00 p.m., letting out proud Hibernian cabbage farts, my mind dazed with high romantic feeling. The mailbox of my parents sturdy colonial in Little Neck, Queens, continued to bulge with the remnants of their American dream for me, the pretty brochures from graduate school dropping in quality from Harvard Law School to Fordham Law School to the John F. Kennedy School of Government (sort of like law school, but not really) to the Cornell Department of City and Regional Planning and finally to the most frightening prospect for any immigrant family, the master of fine arts program in creative writing at the University of Iowa.
“But what kind of profession is this, writer?” my mother would ask. “You want to be this?”
I want to be this.
Excerpted from “Little Failure” by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright © 2014 by Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I admit it. I dropped the ball on the story about the new remember-the-Holocaust-by-printing-the-word-Jew-six-million-times book. I saw it sitting in a veteran Jewish journalist’s office a week ago, but forgot to bring it up to my fellow JTA editors.
And then I look at the front page of the Times on Sunday and there it is.
The truth is, when I first looked through it, I couldn’t get past wondering about the copy editor. Did he/she have the easiest or hardest job in the world?
But thinking about it more later, the project rubbed me the wrong way. And my uneasiness only increased after reading the author — maybe creator is the better word — explain the project to the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren.
“When you look at this at a distance, you can’t tell whether it’s upside down or right side up, you can’t tell what’s here; it looks like a pattern,” said Phil Chernofsky, the author, though that term may be something of a stretch. “That’s how the Nazis viewed their victims: These are not individuals, these are not people, these are just a mass we have to exterminate.
“Now get closer, put on your reading glasses, and pick a ‘Jew,’ ” Mr. Chernofsky continued. “That Jew could be you. Next to him is your brother. Oh, look, your uncles and aunts and cousins and your whole extended family. A row, a line, those are your classmates. Now you get lost in a kind of meditative state where you look at one word, ‘Jew,’ you look at one Jew, you focus on it and then your mind starts to go because who is he, where did he live, what did he want to do when he grew up?”
I have no major quibble with seeing this book as a testament to how Nazis looked at the Jews. But for the same reason that it might work on that level, it strikes me as a terrible form of memorialization, especially since most of Hitler’s Jewish victims are not nameless.
Rudoren’s story went right to my next thought — Yad Vashem and it database of victims:
While many Jewish leaders in the United States have embraced the book, some Holocaust educators consider it a gimmick. It takes the opposite tack of a multimillion-dollar effort over many years by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum here, that has so far documented the identities of 4.3 million Jewish victims. These fill the monumental “Book of Names,” 6 1/2 feet tall and 46 feet in circumference, which was unveiled last summer at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“We have no doubt that this is the right way to deal with the issue,” said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s director. “We understand that human life, human beings, individuals are at the center of our research and education. This is the reason we are investing so much in trying to retrieve every single human being, his name, and details about his life.”
Clearly this project works for some folks. According to the Times, the ADL’s Abe Foxman lined up a few donors to buy 3,000 copies to send around.
“When he brought me this book I said, ‘Wow, wow, it makes it so real,’” Foxman reportedly said. “It’s haunting.” (OK, I’m a little hurt about not being on Abe’s comp list, but I promise that has nothing to do with this post.)
But still, I just don’t see it. The Nazis may have indeed murdered our people en masse, but that’s no reason for us to play along. We have 4.3 million actual names. I’d rather see them put in a book and have people ruminate on that.
Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2013) pp. 449).
The anguish of the believer is not the same as that of the renegade, and Ari Shavit writes as a believer in the Zionist enterprise. Not Zionism in the mystical sense that sweeps away all reality and overlooks all issues and problems, but as a man loves his wife of many years, fully aware of her virtues, fully mindful of her flaws and fully embracing the love that is at the core of their relationship. He writes of Israel as “we,” not “they.” He hears in the many discordant Israeli voices that often rage at one another voices that make the society thrive.
Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is a tour de force. Written in lyrical prose by a distinguished journalist who listens attentively when he interviews, Shavit engages his subjects and also the land of Israel. He is the great-grandson of Herbert Bentwich, a religious English Jew who came to survey Palestine in 1897 to evaluate its potential as a national home for the Jewish people and then returned to create a familial home, a national home. Shavit does not write of others, but of his own nation, his promised land.
The book’s thesis is simple; Zionism has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, it has produced a vibrant, vital, innovative, creative imaginative, prosperous, diverse society that is throbbing with life, and yet its successes have come at a tragic cost and Zionism’s future, even after 65 years of Israeli independence, is uncertain — the neighborhood is dangerous in new and perplexing ways. How Israel has managed to resolve its myriad problems in the past is no guarantor of future success.
Zionism has achieved so much, and yet not its stated mission, which is to end Jewish vulnerability, to solve the problem of anti-Semitism, to normalize the Jewish condition. It might not have even achieved independence, as Israel lives in a globalizing world that is increasingly interdependent.
A word on Shavit’s methodology: He has neither written a history of Israel nor a chronicle of its wars and woes, although those can be found in the book. Instead, he has chosen 16 epochs in Israeli life, beginning with the arrival of his great grandfather in 1897, to portray the struggles of each generation. Four deal with the first 50 years of the Zionist enterprise, the birth of the Zionists’ movement and Zionism’s vision “for a people without a land, a land without a people.” He understands what his great grandfather saw and what he did not see — could not see. He takes his readers into the swamps as they were being drained, into the kibbutz as it was being formed, into the settlement of the land and its cultivation in the orange groves of Rehovot. He explores the creation of the Masada myth and the oath: “Masada shall not fall again.”
Shavit does not give his readers a history of the War of Independence, but chronicles in one chapter the struggle for Lydda 1948, which was first published in the New Yorker. From there, he grapples with the absorption of immigrants and the great project of Dimona, which sought to give Israel the security, the normalcy for which it so longed. He is careful not to arouse the censors’ ire, and tells his readers only the details that have been published in the West. He avoids dealing directly with the epic wars of 1967 and 1973, and with the ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but rather with its aftermath of settlement, occupation and peace, and then focuses on contemporary challenges.
In each chapter, Shavit interviews key historical figures. An unidentified engineer describes his role and the role of his colleagues in creating Israel’s nuclear umbrella; Aryeh Deri tells his story of the rise of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, Yossi Sarid and Yossi Beilin and Amos Oz are interviewed about the peace process. Shavit listens attentively, asks the most poignant of questions, researches comprehensively and reflects deeply. He comes to listen and to probe; he leaves to consider and to absorb, to reflect and to write. He goes to Israel’s bars and discothèques to explore their hedonistic, individualistic culture; he meets with Israeli entrepreneurs and bankers and with those fighting for social justice against the unrestrained free market forces that have magnified class distinctions and shattered the social justice contract of Israel. He meets with farmers and industrialists, generals and intelligence chieftains.
And he meets with Israeli Arabs to hear their story, to learn of their tragedy.
He sees the paradoxes of contemporary Israel and is willing to confront them: In Shavit’s writing, the commonplace divide between hawk and dove seems shallow. Right and Left are seen as mirror images of one another. Simple formulas: “If only we annexed [or withdrew] from the territories, there would be peace.” Mutual recriminations: “Our dead have died because of their illusions of greater Israel [or that peace was possible].” Jewish extremism and Muslim fanaticism have fed one another, nourished one another and played into the hands of the other. They may even be allied with one another, seeking a confrontation that will result in the other’s demise. Grappling with the 1967 war — a war that is still being waged — will not protect the achievements of 1948, because that war, too, is also ongoing.
Shavit avoids simple characterization: He sees the occupation in all its horror, the expulsion of 1948 in all its indignity, yet he is under no illusions that peace is readily achievable, even with withdrawal even as he understands its urgency all too well. He believes that Iran is an existential threat to Israel and to the Jewish people. And while he cannot accept Benjamin Netanyahu’s sense of himself as the Winston Churchill of 2013, he believes that the Prime Minister understands the threat, even as he may be contributing to it by not acting more robustly on the Palestinian front and further isolating Israel. Shavit understands that the threats of disintegrating states and non-state actors are very different from the armies that attacked, or threatened to attack Israel, in the past. We cannot fight the past wars to win the next.
Shavit is hard on Israel’s political leadership, a leadership unequal to its task, unworthy of the nation’s past. The more I read Shavit, the more I recalled a remark someone made 30 years ago that sadly still rings true: “Only a confirmed anti-Semite would believe that Israel has the political leadership it deserves.”
One can quarrel with Shavit. Was the tragedy of Israel from the inception of the Zionist movement, from Herbert Bentwich, or from his successors?
One can quibble with some of the details of this work. There is no evidence that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to bomb Auschwitz, no matter how many times and to how many prestigious forums the Prime Minister of Israel reiterates the charge; there is direct, documentary evidence that David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency Cabinet he chaired refused to request that Auschwitz be bombed on June 11, 1944, during the height of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, because they did not know enough of what was happening on the ground in Auschwitz. They still thought it was a labor camp. Israel must grapple with its own history before it charges betrayal by the West.
Yet “My Promised Land” is a work without peer. No single work depicts the complexity, vitality and achievements of Israel society as well. And no other work also depicts Israel’s failings and its challenges so poignantly, so lovingly and so soberly.
Like many Israelis, Shavit has staked his own life and the life on his children on this uncertain outcome. Such is the believer’s faith. His last words are “come what may.” They sound eerily akin to the Biblical Israelites’ response at Sinai,“na’aseh v’nishma,” “we will do and hear.”
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.”
Why is this book club different from all other book clubs? I know this phrase is out of season, but the strange confluence of holidays this year permits some flexibility. As my Torah study cohorts and I again engage with the page-turner of all page-turners, the Joseph story, I am grateful to return to this story with my sacred companions and see what I can learn in the encounter. As one of my Torah study pals said about the dramatic Joseph story the other night, “Maybe this year it will be different.”
Changing the story is what this week’s parasha is about. For the last two weeks, we read of Joseph’s journey. His father’s favored son, Joseph was thrown down into a pit by his jealous brothers, sold down into slavery, carried down into Egypt, and incarcerated down into Pharaoh’s dungeon. Last week, Joseph’s prowess as a dream interpreter brought him to Pharaoh’s court. He is appointed second in command of all of Egypt. It would seem that Joseph’s downward cycle ended, and he is on the ascent. But not so fast.
When Joseph favorably interpreted the dream of the cupbearer, Joseph gave a synopsis of his journey to the dungeon. His telling reveals the way memory frames our journey and locates us in psychological experience rather than reality. “I was stolen. … I have done nothing … to put me in the pit” (Genesis 40:15). Joseph was not stolen. His jealous brothers threw him in a pit and then sold him into slavery. His psyche cannot yet apprehend the depth of his brothers’ enmity, his father’s role in creating it nor his own part in fanning the flames of their hatred, by bringing his father “ill reports” about his brothers and sharing his dreams of dominion. Attributing his exile to being “stolen,” rather than to the violent response of jealous brothers to a father’s partiality and a brother’s arrogance, reveals Joseph’s inability to shape his memory to become a vehicle for personal healing. Nor is he yet able to grasp the larger purpose of his journey to Egypt, which had not yet been revealed.
When Joseph describes the Egyptian dungeon, he uses the word beor (pit). In conflating his time in the dungeon with his earlier experience in the pit, Joseph reverted to the place his exile began. This is not unusual. All losses are likely to be elaborations on a loss stored in memory, our original loss, providing the template through which we approach any other devastation. Confronted with another loss, we bring to it the perceptions of something in the past and experience it through feelings and memories associated with the earlier loss. Healing comes with an understanding of the power of the imprint of that initial contraction in shaping our perception and identity. We need to do the grief work, to dissolve the rigid boundaries imprinted in the shock of the original loss and see the world as something new. When Joseph names both incarcerations as “pit,” he is in the dungeon of memory.
Judaism dances between yizkor (remembering) and tikkun (healing). We emphasize the importance of yizkor while searching for tikkun. We strive to tell our stories in ways respectful of the past (yizkor) and open to the possibility of something genuinely new (tikkun). We want to learn to wear history not as a lead apron committing us to a worldview impenetrable to light and wisdom, but as a gossamer garment used toward wisdom and healing. When Joseph told his story, he was still frozen in the original wound: His brothers casting him into the pit.
Even in Pharaoh’s court, Joseph was still imprisoned, as he tricks and tests his brothers, who have not yet realized who he is. But in Vayigash, Joseph completes his descent, and his memory is transformed. His brother Judah, who does not yet recognize Joseph, encounters him. He brings the story of Jacob’s family into the present. If Joseph is to join the family in the present, something must change. Joseph cries out in a voice so loud that it was heard throughout Egypt. It is in the crying out that Joseph hits bottom. This precipitates his transformation and dissolves the boundaries that freeze us in the prison of memory. It allows us to see something new. It will be the crying out of the people of Israel that will summon God’s compassion and lead them to the Exodus. It is our crying out from the depths that enables us to turn memory into blessing. In Joseph’s crying, he encounters his journey and reframes it: “It was not you who sent me here ahead of you, but God … [that I] be a provider.” Joseph is no longer in the pit.
May your memories be blessings. Shabbat Shalom.
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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mitch Albom has succeeded in striking an important chord in all of us — the intrinsic human desire to discover what lies beyond, the need to believe that the way we conduct our lives matters and that “the end is not the end,” after all, but another beginning. These intertwined themes are evident in most of Albom’s best-selling books, which have sold more than 33 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than 40 languages, each time rendered in an accessible style that belies the profound message his stories carry.
Albom spoke with the Jewish Journal about his much-anticipated novel, “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” which Publishers Weekly has hailed as “another winner from Albom.”
Jewish Journal: I’ll start our interview with the opening sentence of “The First Phone Call From Heaven”: “On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.”
Your decision to marry the most extraordinary event, a phone call from heaven, with the most ordinary act of unwrapping a box of tea bags, is an authorial act of genius that immediately draws the reader into the story. Did that come to you easily or after many edits?
Mitch Albom: I could not have asked for a more precise reaction to that line — the most extraordinary thing and the most ordinary. It’s amazing how people skip right over that, and so I thank you for recognizing that. You don’t just start a book anywhere you feel like starting.
I spend a lot of time thinking how to begin my books, because it puts me in the frame of mind I want to continue from. If I don’t start well, I never land where I want to go. I spent forever trying to figure out the first line of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” because it was such a big thing in my life. By the time the paragraph was over, you knew he was dying and teaching a course on the meaning of life.
In “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” one of the themes is that miracles interweave themselves within every day of our lives. I thought it was a great juxtaposition to have that extraordinary thing (first call from heaven), with a mundane thing of life (opening a teabag). I thought, ‘OK, that works, that’s good.’ Usually, if I labor over it too long, then I have to throw it out because that means I’m forcing it. When it comes quickly, as that one did, I stick with it.
JJ: “The First Phone Call from Heaven” offers readers an added bonus, a page-turning mystery interwoven with fascinating facts about Alexander Graham Bell’s relationship with his deaf wife and how it led to the invention of the telephone. Was it difficult for you to make that leap into the realm of history and mystery?
MA: It was an accident. I was a fifth of the way into the book when I looked up how the phone was invented. The more I researched, the more fascinating the story of the telephone became. When I read that Bell’s first phone conversation was, “Come here, I want to see you,” I thought that paralleled my story.
JJ: You mention that each of your books taught you something, “both in the writing and in the reaction.” What did “The First Phone Call From Heaven” teach you?
MA: The human voice and its preciousness. My mother suffered several strokes and lost her ability to speak. Once I lost that voice, I lost the biggest part of her, the essence. So, I created this story, which was the reverse of that; you get the voice back, even if you don’t get the body.
JJ: If you could get one call from heaven, who would you like to be on the other line?
MA: I’d want it to be one of those phone calls where I could say, “Can you please pass the phone and give it to somebody else?” Because there are about 20 people I’d want to talk to.
But, the most interesting conversation would be with Morrie, because he died before one word of “Tuesdays” was written. I’ve always wondered whether he’d be happy that his words are now taught in schools all over the world.
JJ: Did you work hard to master this accessible voice that makes your stories universally loved or did this style come to you naturally, perhaps because of the columns you write?
MA: Probably a bit of both. “Tuesdays” was a unique experience, because I wrote that book to pay for Morrie’s medical bills, and I plowed right into the idea without knowing what kind of book I’d make. While Morrie was still alive, I went around New York to find a publisher. Most said no, thinking it would be boring and depressing. I said, “I know I’m learning something very special and unique,” but I didn’t have the story fully formed in my head. When somebody finally agreed to publish it, I felt like I had done what I set out to do — pay his bills.
After he died, I struggled with the beginning. Then I went to the attic and got out some of my old stuff from college. I found a stack of papers I’d turned in to Morrie; I took about eight classes with him. In the ’70s, a term paper had a specific style — didactic and stripped down. I thought that might be the way to approach writing this. Almost like a term paper. Any time I was being too maudlin or flowery, I’d edit myself. I thought, I don’t care how short it ends up, the story will tell itself. It served me well.
JJ: The transient quality of time looms large in your books. You mention that before writing “Tuesdays” you were “a harried, ambitious sportswriter who never spent five minutes thinking about mortality.” You are a sports writer, a radio host, a lyricist, pianist, producer, director, playwright and a philanthropist to boot. With all this on your plate, has your relationship with Father Time changed in the last 16 years since “Tuesdays”?
MA: The truth is, I don’t do anything full time. I still write for the newspaper, but mostly out of loyalty because they believed in me long before I was well-known. I’m happy to be a voice of the community — this is my home; this is where I live. And I’m off a few months a year from my radio program. So I’m not as impressive as you make me out to be.
I do a lot but keep things in their place and protect what’s precious to me. I get up and turn on the coffee maker, say a few prayers, come down to my little office and write. I don’t take any phone calls; I don’t read any newspapers; I don’t watch the news; I don’t turn on the television. There’s no input of any kind between that cup of coffee and the three hours of creative writing I have in me each day. Then, I come back upstairs and turn the phones back on and begin my life.
To answer the question about my relationship with time, I’m very aware of our mortality and very grateful to be alive. I don’t take any of that for granted. One common behavior of almost everybody in America is that we take time for granted. So, if my books can be a bit of a reminder of the importance of time, then maybe there’s some value to them.
JJ: Although you never portray death in a negative light in your book, I imagine it might still be difficult or depressing to write about.
MA: I don’t feel that I write about death. I use death as a reflector of life: time, family relationships, faith, finding meaning in your work and this one about miracles. So, there’s no reason for me to be depressed.
JJ: Tell us something about Mitch Albom that will surprise us.
MA: I’m a huge Elvis Presley movie fan, the early movies. They’re corny, but always happy, and reflective of an innocent time. Every now and then Elvis picks up a guitar; it’s not even plugged in, and he starts playing and it manages to work.
JJ: You were raised by observant parents, attended Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Penn. How does Judaism inform your writing?
MA: That’s an interesting question. Some of the earliest stories and storytelling I was exposed to were biblical stories with a message, as opposed to just entertaining. I must have gravitated to those stories early on. Even Yiddish proverbs always have a point about life. Almost everything that you hear through Judaism has some kind of message.
JJ: When you get to heaven, what would you like to hear God say to you?
MA: I would want to hear God say, “You were pure of heart and you did things for the right reasons.”
Dora Levy Mossanen is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novels “Harem,” “Courtesan,” and T”he Last Romanov,” which have been translated into numerous languages. She is a regular contributor to the Jewish Journal and the Huffington Post. Her widely anticipated novel, “Scent of Butterflies,” will be released in January of 2014.