Monday, February 23, 2015

J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

Review by Bob Goldfarb for Jewish Book Council

The word “Jew” does not appear even once in Howard Jacobson's dark, urgent new novel, but Jews haunt its world. That world is an imagined England of perhaps the 2070s, in the aftermath of a nameless social cataclysm. Though set in the future, it sounds a warning for our own time.

A man and a woman meet, seemingly by accident, in a small coastal village. Who are they? They are not entirely sure themselves. Like everyone else, they know very little of their family history. Personal and national history has been suppressed; technology has been repudiated. Family names and place names have been erased and replaced in a national mandate called Project Ishmael. The result is that everyone's new surname is something like Cohen, Solomons, Rabinowitz, Nussbaum, Heilbronn, Kroplik, Gutkind—but no one is Jewish.

At least, not any more. A couple of genera­tions before, the question was “What to do with those about whom something needed to be done... foreigners who had what they called a country only by taking someone else's.” The final solution, it can only be whispered, was a "campaign to drive them from the face of the earth, to make of them vagabonds and fugitives."

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women

by Ruth Wisse for Mosaic

Writers have their way with the world until they depart from it, and then they are at the mercy of those who interpret them. This mischievous turnabout would have appealed to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), possibly the most prolific and certainly the most famous Yiddish writer of the 20th century, whose reputation is now in the hands of types he once turned into fiction. But if The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a new documentary movie by the Israeli directors Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser, is any portent, the afterlife of this particular writer may be graced by the same improbable good fortune he enjoyed on earth.

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The Muses of Bashevis Singer - trailer from Cinephil on Vimeo.

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Monday, February 9, 2015

Sephardi Lives: A Documentary History, 1700–1950

Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein, eds.

Review by Randall C. Belinfante for Jewish Book Council

Sephardi Lives presents the reader with an outstanding collection of primary source documents portraying a broad spectrum of experience in the lives of the Judeo-Spanish population expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the late 14th and 15th Centuries. In contrast to other documentary histories this compilation focuses not only on the political, the famous, and the infamous, but also on the everyday affairs of the people. It highlights elements as diverse as children’s lessons, diary entries, a woman’s grievances in the face of eviction, and the laments of Jewish conscripts in the Ottoman army. It recounts criticism of women singing on the Sabbath, expressions of hope for the redemption, memories of Holocaust survivors, and pleas for the study of Ladino in Mexico.

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Monday, February 2, 2015

Why Robert Stone Was One of Greatest Non-Jewish Jewish Writers

Remembering the Lapsed Catholic Who Wrote 'Damascus Gate'

By Abe Mezrich for The Forward

Robert Stone wasn’t Jewish, of course. He was a lapsed Catholic.

I am writing about him here because his sixth novel, “Damascus Gate,” was a retelling of the Shabtai Tzvi story, set amongst drug-addled wanderers in Jerusalem in the 1990s. It’s a book deeply engaged with Judaism, kabbalah, and the meaning of monotheism. It is also a book whose main character, a half-Jew from his father’s side, watches the Chosen people half-outside.

Stone was a man who was keenly aware of Judaism and thought about it much. In the time we were close—I was his student at Yale for three semester in the 90’s—it was never a surprise when he talked through a point from Gershom Scholem, or that he immediately understood the story I was working on about a Chasidic man losing his faith. It wasn’t a surprise that he found great meaning in Kabballah, either. Abandoned by his father and raised by his schizophrenic mother, and then in an orphanage, he likely found comfort in the vision of tzimtzum, the Kabbalistic doctrine of God having retracted at the beginning of time to make room for the world. For Stone, as for the Kaballah, the missing father-figure proved a primordial source of creativity.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind

by Sarah Wildman.  Review by Carl J. Rheins for

Sarah Wildman, a reporter and European correspondent for The New York Times, Slate, The New Yorker, and other publications, has given us an elegantly written story that uses the life of medical doctor Valerie (Valy) Fabisch and her mother to illustrate the fate of hundreds of thousands of German, Austrian, and Czech Jews who were trapped in Nazi-occupied Central Europe and eventually deported to extermination camps in Poland.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

A Zionist Novel

The Betrayers: A Novel

By David Bezmozgis
Little, Brown and Company, 240 pages

Note:  Last week's blog about Soviet authors included mention of Bezmozgis

by Marat Grinberg for Commentary

Though he is often grouped with other American authors of Soviet Jewish lineage, notably Gary Shteyngart and Larisa Vapnyar, the novelist and short-story writer David Bezmozgis bears little relation to either or to anyone else. Stylistically, his prose is laconic. Aesthetically, he shuns postmodern games. Thematically, he does not fetishize the Soviet past or dwell on it obsessively. Most important, Jewishness is central to his work. Rather than treating it as something negative and superficial, or as an occasion for a mordant joke, Bezmozgis imbues Jewishness with rich meaning—historical, cultural, psychological, and moral. His first novel, The Free World (2012), is an uneven but unflinching work that depicts with tragic and poignant honesty a family of Soviet Jewish immigrants stuck in Rome on their way to America. Bezmozgis’s second novel, The Betrayers, firmly establishes him as a rare voice of moral seriousness in current American literature—and as perhaps the only philosophically Zionist novelist now at work in America.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

The Year of the Former Soviet Author

By Yevgeniya Traps, The Jewish Daily Forward

In the recently published memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka,” Lev Golinkin recounts the story of his family’s 1989 departure from the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union. The Golinkins make their way to America, relying on the kindness of strangers; unsure of what they might find, they are guided largely by the sense that whatever it is, it is sure to be better than what they are leaving behind.

Theirs is not an atypical story: Alienated by tacitly sanctioned anti-Semitism, driven away by the lack of opportunity and other finer things, Soviet Jews packed up their scant belongings — people did not generally have very much to begin with, and guards were checking for valuables at the border — and headed into the great unknown. Which is to say, like many an immigrant before and after them, they took their stab at the American dream.

And, like many an immigrant before and after them, if they were at all inclined toward the written word, they wrote all about the stab and the disappointment and the compromises and the sacrifices and the semblance of a truce they finally established with the new version of their lives.

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