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The Sisters Weiss

by Naomi Ragen

Product Details

St Martin’s Press: Oct 2013

Naomi Ragen’s novels, often about the lives of Orthodox women of varying levels of observance, can provide a glimpse into a world that seems foreign and exotic even to most liberal Jews. Sometimes those encounters between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are even a main part of the storyline – it is in The Sisters Weiss. Having read several of Ragen’s books, I am usually fascinated by what I consider the educational nuggets she places throughout. It’s possible that I learned just as much about niddah (Jewish laws about womens’ menstruation) and home kashrut and Satmar clothing choices from her books as I did from anything in rabbinics class at school. OK, I’m exaggerating. But certainly, more than once, as we learned about one of those particular domestic topics in Jewish codes class, a bell would go off as I remembered some passage from a Ragen novel.

The Sisters Weiss is, obviously, about two sisters, Rose and Pearl. The two are growing up in an Orthodox family in Williamsburg in the 1950’s when Rose, the older, finds herself chafing against the restrictions of her world. Rose is introduced to photography by a “wayward” friend from their girls-yeshiva school (both girls are soon kicked out) and creates a lot of trouble by doing things such attempting to take a photography course and looking at a book of artistic photos. Those things are too much in the secular world to be permitted in Rose’s family and community. On top of that, she is about to be put into an arranged marriage – so she runs away. At age seventeen, she has lost all contact with her family, who disown her after finding out that she has left Orthodox Judaism.

Many years later, Pearl’s young daughter, Rivka, finds herself in a similar situation, running away from home and Orthodoxy to escape an arranged marriage and a life she doesn’t want. Rivka tracks down her infamous Aunt Rose, who has become a world-renowned photographer. She hopes that Rose will take pity on her and help her. And Rose, and Rose’s own daughter, Hannah, both do just that at first. With them, Rivka begins to wear “normal” clothes (meaning, clothes that let Rivka show her ankles and/or collarbone) and eat yogurt that hasn’t been triple-stamped by Hassidic rabbis. She seems to be inspired by Hannah’s college classes and Aunt Rose’s career.

So far that’s all okay, but admittedly, not that exciting to me. It seemed like a cliché, as though Ragen had written something that was just a collage of the conflicts from her other books in which Orthodox Jewish women leave the eruv and find their Selves. To be sure, Ragen does this in a sensitive, loving way. Like the great recent movie Filling the Void, Ragen portrays her Orthodox characters first and foremost as people, not freaks, and takes great pains to show that most of them are just as loving as any other family. She also finds ways to show how much of Jewish ritual can be meaningful and and how the close-knit religious communities can be very supportive and helpful. Also, it might be good to point out that Ragen is usually portraying more ultra-Orthodox or Haredi communities, rather than modern Orthodox.

Still, as I found myself sort of slogging through this book, thinking it was kind of unoriginal for Ragen, I was pleasantly intrigued by a few little zingers Ragen throws in towards the end. One of the touching aspects about Rivka is her initial innocence when it comes to things like boyfriends, college drinking, and the possibility of a career. She also is under the impression that, since children are blessings from God, they won’t be “granted” if the woman is sinning in some way. * Therefore, premarital sex can’t possibly result in children. Thus misinformed, Rivka ends up pregnant, though not completely alone, as Aunt Rose allows her to move in and takes care of her. At the doctor’s appointment, the possibility of abortion is mentioned, as it’s still very early in the pregnancy. Rivka, in her newfound state of women’s liberation, thinks it sounds like a good and sensible idea.

Aunt Rose, though she is divorced and enjoys living by herself, and loves having her successful career, and was once a Hassidic runaway herself, is surprisingly hesitant about that plan:

“ ‘ Hannah, she’s very upset! I don’t know what to do with her!”

‘What do you mean?’

‘She’s got this idea in her head that she can just abort this baby and keep living with me, and all her childish dreams will still magically come true…’

‘Won’t they?’

‘There are consequences!’

‘Only if people insist on imposing them.’

‘No, there are natural consequences that can’t be avoided. You can’t have an abortion and go on as if nothing happened,’ Rose insisted.”

Rose’s reaction to the proposed abortion surprised me, Hannah, and also, apparently, Rose:

“Rose hung up the phone, wringing her hands…even more disturbing was the fact that she couldn’t understand herself. She wasn’t one of those right-to-lifers. She’d voted a straight liberal, Democratic ticket in every election for the past forty years…So where was this coming from? And then the realization struck her…She had this image in her head of a beautiful little baby…who might even look a little like her or her precious son or daughter. Or her little sister Pearl. It was one thing to be in favor of abortions for strangers you had never met. Quite another, she thought, when the fetus bore your genes and was your own blood.”

Rose even goes “so far” as to suggest that Rivka speak to a rabbi about her “situation,” arguing that “ ‘…This is a moral problem and you need some moral guidance, Rivka.’”

When quoted like this, Ragen’s portrayal of Rose’s feelings seems stylistically blatant and oversimplified. But it fit in with the rest of the writing, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Ragen’s books, as I mentioned, are perfectly fine as they are. They are easy to read, sensitive, and, I think, highly educational. They can be very useful and enjoyable for those to want to learn more about orthodox Judaism. They aren’t high literature or really meant to be subtle meditations on the aura and dangers of boundaries (such as I am Forbidden). I would certainly recommend them as a sort of resource for those who might be interested in a good intro novel about Orthodox Judaism (not that I get many – any – of those requests. But I’m prepared).

I had a hunch, as I read The Sisters Weiss, that Ragen would try to dramatically temper Rivka’s fury against her Orthodox upbringing. I didn’t quite expect the pro-life diatribe, and I am impressed that Ragen did make Rose’s feelings about it so forceful. By showing that we are all capable and sometimes in need of a change of heart, Ragen nicely rounds out the novel without having to make either “side,” whether secular or Orthodox, too much of either a villain or hero. It even makes for a bit of inspiration, that Rose, who had already taken on so many challenges in her life, was still ready to challenge even her own preconceived ideas.

It also probably shows Ragen’s own political stripes. I think this just because of an additional hint later, as Rose recalls her first husband:

“Raphael…was someone I met in the park. He wasn’t Jewish. All we ever talked about was politics. He was a radical socialist determined to save the world, involved in a million organizations. That left him very little time to help me out, even when I was pregnant.  He believed in women’s rights, just no this wife. He thought my photography was a hobby and I should be spending my time vacuuming and typing up his political screeds.”

Between the pro-life “liberal” and an evil radical socialist husband, I think Ragen might have some feelings about the idea of “cultural conservatism.” Aside from that, her books are still, for me, “guilty pleasures.” They’re not, as I said, anything fantastic literarily speaking, but for someone who is fascinated by Judaism in all its forms, they make for a few well-spent evenings.

*So, unfortunately, in some ultra-Orthodox circles, this means that infertility is a reflection on the woman’s piety.

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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing

by Anya von Bremzen 

Crown: 2013

Svetlana Boym is a professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard and has a scholarly book that is entirely about the phenomenon of collective Soviet memory. In The Future of Nostalgia, Boym writes that, ten years after the collapse of the USSR, it was common to find “a new longing for the imaginary ahistorical past, the age of stability and normalcy. This mass nostalgia is a kind of nationwide midlife crisis; many are longing for the time of their childhood and youth, projecting personal affective memories onto the larger historical picture and partaking collectively in a selective forgetting.” It reminds me of Numbers 11:5, when the Israelites complain to Moses that they would rather be back in Egypt where they had “fish at no cost…cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic…”

In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen calls this the “poisoned Madeleine” syndrome. Von Bremzen is aware of the problematic nature of Soviet nostalgia. For example, she recalls being ten years old and homesick in Philadelphia after their recent emigration from Moscow: “…I’d mentally preserve and pickle the tastes of my Soviet socialist past in an imaginary three-liter jar of memory…there was, however, an ideological cloud darkening my nostalgia exercise. The Friendship Cheese, the kolbasa, the chocolates – all were produced by the reviled Party-state we’d fled…” In America, von Bremzen and her mother try desperately to find something similar to “sosiski” (some type of sausage) and fail, yet von Bremzen is aware that there isn’t anything all that special, gastronomically speaking, about these sosiski. Why the longing for an ersatz hot dog? The women were happy when they did get them, because “…besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit compote for dessert – there wasn’t all that much to eat.” As von Bremzen was a small child during those years, all she remembered was the happiness that accompanied those, as it was a celebration to get any food at all. It’s this kind of perceptiveness that keeps Mastering the Art from becoming either too cynical or mawkish.

It’s an unexpectedly delightful book. Unexpected, because it is a memoir that focuses on two subjects that are usually pretty depressing: Soviet history, and Soviet food. That von Bremzen takes on these topics with wit, good humor, sympathy, and sharp insight is admirable, and makes it one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I’ve read in a while.

Von Bremzen and her mother emigrated from Moscow to Philadelphia in 1973. Forty years later, the two of them, both avid foodies and von Bremzen a known food writer, decided to embark on a project to re-create twentieth century Soviet history through food. Through this premise, von Bremzen relates her first-hand account of growing up in the USSR as well the stories from her own family’s rich history throughout various phases of Russian history.  Her writing is compelling and a perfect blend of personal detail and national history. It is alternately funny and a bit heartbreaking, and von Bremzen is clear-eyed about nostalgia and the reality of what she now – as an adult – knows about the Soviet rulers.

The premise of a food memoir about the USSR embodies the idea of laughing because one can’t cry anymore. Even when there was food, as there always seemed to be for the elites, it doesn’t sound appetizing. For the very beginning of the twentieth century, the last days of the czarist regime, the two throw a dinner party at which they serve dense, elaborate traditional Russian dishes such as kulebiaka and a layered cream dessert. Between giving a brief, fresh overview of the last days of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution, von Bremzen lets us in on what true kulebiaka really is. Not the delicately rich “salmon en croute” that she once found at a French restaurant, the kulebiaka they have in mind and attempt to create is one described in a short story by Gogol: a yeast-dough fish pie that involves mushrooms, buckwheat, crispy calves brains in butter, sturgeon spine jelly, and thin blini. Want something simpler? There’s always a big bowl of herring soup. Von Bremzen also attempts to make a favorite dessert of the imperial family, Guriev kasha, which involves layering semolina kasha “in a pan or skillet…with homemade candied nuts, and berries, and plenty of penki, the rich, faintly burnished skins that form on cream when it’s baked. Getting a hint of the labor required? For one panful of kasha, you need at least fifteen penki…chained to the oven door, drenched in sweat, I was ready to assault palaces, smash Faberge eggs…I cursed the Romanovs! I cheered the Russian Revolution!”

Of course, given the general themes of this blog, I was wondering throughout the first few chapters if von Bremzen, a Soviet émigré from the 1970’s, was Jewish or had Jewish family. I didn’t have to wait too long. In the second chapter, von Bremzen recalls visiting her great-grandparents in Odessa, where she encounters her family’s gefilte fish that is a far cry from the Manischewitz jarred variety. This kind involves stuffing a whole fish, which is then simmered until the bones are almost dissolved (alongside the head which is also stuffed and poached). She touches on Soviet anti-semitism throughout the book, and on her feelings of confusion and alienation when she and her mother came to America, completely unaware of the necessity of a menorah or the problem of having a home Christmas tree (since in the USSR, people could – in theory – remain as Jews as long as they didn’t practice any ritual. Again, this was theory. Usually the absence of ritual practice didn’t stop the state from targeting Jews).

While Von Bremzen’s maternal side was Jewish, her father’s mother came from Turkestan. Though that side wasn’t Jewish, they were also targeted by the state (a theme emerges during the Stalin years…everyone was targeted by the State) because Von Bremzen’s great-grandmother was part of a movement to rid women of their Muslim-enforced, horse-hair knee-length veils. For this she was taken to the prison camps.

Her description of mid-century Turkestan is part of what I think is one of the particularly interesting (for me) facets of Mastering the Art, which is Von Bremzen’s discussion of the vast ethnic variation that was part of the USSR, and how it contributed to much of the recent and continuing bloody political struggle. She does it all, of course, through the prism of food, remembering the “showcase markets” that the USSR would sometimes put on to highlight the specialties of the various regions, from Lithuania to Uzebekistan to Georgia to Soviet Koreans. Von Bremzen’s interest and delight in all the different cultures is apparent. She has created the best type of book – not only is it fully informative and fun to read on its own, but it inspires a curiosity to read more about her topics and do some further research.

And, as I mentioned before, this inspiration also comes from her good balance of playful and poignant. For example, one of her “poisoned madeleines” is Soviet-issue mayonnaise, which she describes as being much more sour and tangy than the sweet American Hellman’s. The condiment gets so much attention not just because it seems ubiquitous in recipes but also because “Our Brezhnevian days, so ‘abundant,’ ‘friendly,’ and ‘happy’ were accompanied by a chronic and calamitous shortage of…packaging and receptacles…nothing matched the reuse value of the mayonnaise jar…where would Soviet medicine be without this all-important receptacle? ‘Comrades women, bring your pregnancy test samples in mayonnaise jars previously scalded with boiling water,’ instructed signs at gynecological clinics…”. In fact, Soviet medicine was far from comic. Von Bremzen was regularly instructed at school that syphilis was caused by Wrigley’s juicy-fruit gum, Coca-Cola, and church communion cups. Soviet doctors tell Von Bremzen that her scleroderma is probably fatal, despite their attempts to cure it with penicillin and Odessa mud. When the von Bremzen’s arrive in the US, they are reassured that childhood scleroderma is harmless.

She cheerfully relates how “the DIY food movement of late perestroika would awe modern-day San Franciscans.” Understandably, she seems to enjoy this resourcefulness more than her recollections of  her father during the Gorbachev-era prohibition. He would either make his own hooch by distilling wood varnish, or drink the ethyl alcohol he could get at his job, which was in the embalming maintenance department for Lenin’s tomb (I told you. It’s a fascinating book).

All of these glimpses into Soviet history are, for me, riveting. I like to think of myself as fairly well educated about Jewish history, yet do I know really anything about the nuances between Stalin’s Russia before and after the war, or how things changed after Stalin’s death, or the chaos of Yeltsin’s time?

Besides her own “poisoned madeleines,” Von Bremzen recognizes other aspects of complicated Soviet nostalgia, the kind Boym describes in The Future of Nostalgia. Her mother and grandparents nearly starved during the universal food shortages of Stalin’s time, yet the young von Bremzen couldn’t understand why her mother wasn’t enthused when it was time for the class field trips to Lenin’s tomb.

“A couple of words about Mature Socialism. My grandparents had idealistically embraced the regime, whereas the urban intelligentsia of my parents’ Thaw generation of the sixties rejected it with equal fervor. We, the kids…experienced a different relation with Rodina (homeland). As the first Soviet generation to grow up without ruptures and traumas – no purges, no war, no cathartic de-Stalinization with its idealizing of sincerity – we belonged to an age when even cats on the street recognized the State’s epic utopian project as farce.” I don’t know about that “no trauma” part. The “last straw” for her mother to finally put in the application to emigrate was because the store was out of all meat except udder and whale blubber, which her mother carried home in her bare hands because she forgot the newspaper to wrap it in.

But Von Bremzen keeps that in perspective, too. At the end of the book are all the recipes for each decade, and for the 1940’s, “cooking just didn’t seem right. Instead of a recipe I offer a photo of a ration card book. Place of issue: Leningrad…By December 1941 the rations had fallen to…barely four ounces of something sticky and damp, adulterated with sawdust and cattle fodder and cellulose…those twenty small daily bites were often the difference between survival and death. An image like this calls for a moment of silence.”

On this blog there have been quite a few discussions about “Holocaust fiction,” and there will probably be more (though a voice inside my head says: that sort of assurance is not the way to attract more readers). It is far from my intentions to be instigating any sort of comparison between Jewish experiences under the Nazis versus in Soviet Russia; both were unimaginably horrible. Both need to be discussed and learned about through all sorts of media, including books. But here are far more books of the Holocaust fiction variety than there are of the Soviet Jewry variety. I’m not necessarily saying stop writing about the Holocaust; I’m saying it’s strange that we don’t have more fiction about the millions of Jews in Soviet Russia. It’s also disconcerting that there was such a large population of Jews in Russia throughout the twentieth century – terrible as their lives may have been – but knowledge of that history and their experiences is such a vague area in American Jewish education. Perhaps it’s time for some “refusenik fiction.”  Von Bremzen has set the bar high with Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.

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The Street Sweeper

by Elliot Perlman.

Product Details

Riverhead: 2012.

In my post on The Paris Architect, I wondered about the role and appropriate use of the Holocaust in historical fiction.  Though Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper contains storylines about New York today, and could be considered better literature than The Paris Architect, I think it still fits that category of “Holocaust fiction.” Perlman weaves together several stories: a young black janitor out on parole after being wrongly convicted in a burglary, a Holocaust survivor now dying from cancer, a Jewish history professor struggling to find inspiration and his black fellow academics, a psychologist in 1940’s Chicago who is the first to interview survivors in the DP camps, and more. The links are fairly obvious early on. The janitor (named Lamont) works in the hospital and befriends the Holocaust survivor (named Mandlebrot), who tells Lamont his whole story. The psychologist once interviewed this same survivor. The Jewish professor (named Adam) discovers the old papers of the psychologist. Adam and Lamont center the book, and several other connecting stories between them eventually bring the two to meet – fleetingly – on a New York City sidewalk.  While the segments with Adam and Lamont detailing either the struggles of the social-work systems or academic tenure are compelling, Perlman is strongest in the sections in which characters retell their Holocaust memories. In my educational and career experiences, I’ve ended up reading a lot of material, from memoirs to fiction to historical accounts, on the Holocaust. Some of it, as discussed in the Paris Architect post, can devolve into the maudlin or worse. The Street Sweeper, though, might be an example of Holocaust fiction that conveys the horror with sharpness and depth. In addition to rather graphic descriptions of Mandelbrot’s time in the Sonderkommando (not that the graphicness makes it “good” per se, but can be important educationally), Perlman has nuggets like this:

“Henryk Mandelbrot and the other two Jews who had arrived with him followed the SS guard…there lay a mountain of bodies…Here, Mandelbrot thought, was the end of every slur, racial or religious, every joke, every sneer directed against the Jews. Every time someone harbored the belief…that the Jews, as a people, are dishonest and immoral, that they are avaricious, deceitful, cunning, that they are capitalists, that they are communists, that they are responsible for all the troubles in the world, that they are guilty of deicide, that belief or suspicion adds momentum to a train on a journey of its own; this is where the line finally ends, at this mountain of corpses. The prejudices, the unfounded states of mind, that grow from wariness to dislike to hatred…they all lead to where Henryk Mandelbrot now stood.”

As in this quote, Perlman can border on the didactic and overstated throughout the book. But, as I found in The Paris Architect, a lot of Holocaust fiction can be pretty didactic and overstated. In general, Perlman is less so and more artful than most, and I thought that his stark messaging was well placed.

I initially thought that a major theme of the book would be the ties between the experience of blacks in America and the Holocaust. This wasn’t a theme I was enthused to explore, as I think it is highly problematic for a number of reasons. I think drawing parallels can invite a macabre competition of suffering, and this competition has been used to destructive ends in the recently strained relationships between blacks and Jews in some parts of America.* While comparison of the Holocaust to other horrific events in history can be instructive, too often it is done in the spirit of “universalizing” the Holocaust – which one could argue negates one of the basic uncomfortable truths of the Holocaust, which was that the Jews were singled out.

But I’m not entirely sure of Perlman’s goal with the two main storylines of the black janitor and the Holocaust survivor. At times he seems to be making the point that American racial attitudes have a long way to go, almost making his characters into caricatures of righteous indignation. William McCray, an older black retired lawyer who is a mentor to Adam, at one point takes off about the current Supreme Court:

“I read the decision, I read about the decision, all from my own home…this radical right-wing shift in the balance of the court now makes it the very monster the conservatives elected Bush to create. Now they’ve got it and we’re going to pay; not just African Americans, the whole country. Scalia’s like a junkyard dog. He even attacks Roberts when the two are concurring…Poster boy for the Neo-cons, our Italian friend!….it’s not enough for Clarence Thomas to sell out his own people; he has to go so far as to put on record his character assassination of an honorable man who has the audacity to disagree with him…” The strength of McCray’s tantrum, which goes on for a few pages, actually made me wonder whether the Perlman was mocking his outrage or portraying it seriously.

Other characters offer a different line of thought. Michelle, a black social worker married to one of Adam’s colleagues, wonders

“if she hadn’t chosen the wrong career. Nobody can be asked to display limitless compassion and especially not to people who so often didn’t even heed her advice. She had to stop herself from blaming them. When she had been a student it had been a lot easier to blame history, society, and free market fundamentalism, the federal government, the city and racism. Now it could take all her strength not to shake some of her clients when they came back again and again. She and her husband Charles would go to dinner parties in Westchester, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope and dine with liberal academics, white and black…and she would envy their capacity to continue thinking exactly as she had as a student. Theory always trumped experience at these occasions and she envied the time they seemed to have to find peer-reviewed evidence to support their long-held views.”

Regardless of what Perlman is trying to say about the current state of affairs for American blacks, it does seem that he would have Mandelbrot and Lamont find a common bond over a history of discrimination. Mandelbrot tells Lamont that before the war started, he had lots of friends:

“ ‘They all Jews?’

‘No. I was like a leader of a group of boys, all them of Polish, not Jews, except me.’

‘You’re Polish too thought, right?’

‘You are black, Mr. Lamont, yes?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘You are American too, yes?’

‘Gotcha.’”

A stronger point about the shared history of discrimination is made when the psychologist, who is Jewish, reveals the extent of anti-Semitism “even” in America:

“I know America is not Europe…I came here already qualified…I made this known when I applied twice to get into the doctoral program at the University of Chicago and was rejected. I made it known again when I tried once at Northwestern and was rejected. I tried again at Northwestern, only this time I made it a point on the application to tell them I was Episcopalian. Now I have a PhD from Northwestern University. Only one variable changed in the four applications. But this is not Europe, I know.”

The various plotlines – Lamont (trying to keep his job on parole and gain custody of his daughter) and Adam (commitment issues with his girlfriend and needing career inspiration) and their various friends and family – are each intriguing, but I feel Perlman left too many threads untied and inserted too much random material. For example, Michelle (the social worker) and her husband are found to be having some vague marital difficulties. But these are never explained or explored, despite that they inadvertently give several main characters considerable distress. The narrative seems to swing between too vague and too overstated. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if Perlman just randomly decided to have black and Jewish characters, without any desire to draw comparison between their histories and stories. Other times I felt I was in one of Adam’s Columbia University classes, having morality delivered lecture-style (such as the fact that Lamont is just a good guy who happened to be involved with the wrong crowd, and can’t catch a break since. Or that one of Mandelbrot’s recollections includes various people shouting the phrase ‘Tell everyone what happened here’ about a dozen different times, ‘as an echoing refrain’.) Perhaps there are just one too many storylines to make them all come together in the end. Or perhaps Perlman didn’t want them to really all come together, but just touch lightly on each other, to provide fodder for comparison. With so much ambiguity – whether Perlman intended that or not – this would be a really fun book to read in a group.

I don’t have a definitive answer as to what makes something “good” Holocaust fiction or not, or even precisely how to have the discussion. I do think it is very important to at least think about what it means to say something like, “I’m reading this novel about the Holocaust right now. It’s really good!” Do some, perhaps, enjoy the emotional catharsis from reading about something like that and is that okay? Can one enjoy a novel about the Holocaust? (and again, from my post about The Paris Architect – is that different from enjoying a movie where all the Nazis get killed at the end?)

Certainly, if we don’t have and read novels and fiction about the Holocaust, I think a large educational resource will be lost. So they are important, and necessary, and helpful. I only mean to ask that, when we do read “Holocaust fiction” of any sort, we think not only about the novel itself but how we will talk about the novel.

Pearlman’s unique take on Holocaust fiction is the inclusion of American race relations, assumingly as a way of warning by comparison. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really agree with that line of thought, but black-Jewish relations in general could be an intriguing, if sensitive, topic. I don’t know of many other books that explore this – Mary Glickman’s Home in the Morning is really the only one that comes to mind. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Perlman delve into the general topic more deeply and thoroughly in Street Sweeper. It certainly could lead to some excellent discussion.

* The subject of black-Jewish relations in America is a complicated one. Many Jews were involved with the civil rights movement during the late 50’s and 60’s. But since then there have been signals that things have changed, from the 1968 New York teachers’ union strike anti-semitic chants to the 1991 Crown Heights riots to Louis Farrakhan to things like this video (http://www.momentmag.com/rappers-delight-a-jewish-lawyer/). This article has some good suggestions for further reading on possible theories for the tension. 

 

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The Golem and the Jinni and The Rise of Abraham Cahan

The Golem and the Jinni

by Helene Wecker

Product Details

Harper Collins: 2013

The Rise of Abraham Cahan

Seth Lipsky

Schocken: 2013

The Golem and The Jinni arrived at my door just in time for Halloween, and I was excited for a timely foray into the spirit world.

I knew a little about golems, the creatures from Jewish folklore. My understanding was that golems are not unlike Frankenstein. They are created out of clay, breathed to life by some kabbalistic verses, and then they are supposed to defend a certain Jewish community during a time of crisis. But the golem in this novel turned out to be a friendly golem, which was kind of boring. * The jinni seemed to have a bit more of a mischievous side, but not much.  The golem, later named Chava, was created to be a wife for a poor schmuck; the jinni, Ahmad, was trapped by an evil wizard. By a few accidents of fate, the two spirits find themselves alone and adrift in New York City in 1899. They each find a few sympathetic persons of their respective cultural ethnicities – Jewish and Maronite Christian Syrian – who take them in. The golem and jinni, in turn, each try to help those persons as best they can in various ways, but they often wreak unintentional havoc because of their unfamiliarity with the ways of muggles humans. This unfamiliarity ties into what I thought was a major problem of the book. Chava and Ahmad, as spirit creatures, are described as being either beyond or without normal human feeling, both physical and emotional. And since they are also friendly and mostly only dangerous to themselves, I couldn’t get invested in any of the characters and the novel just plodded on. The spirit creatures couldn’t really fall in love, and they wouldn’t really hurt anyone, and the human characters weren’t falling in love or hurting each other either, so the plot ended up pretty vague and thin.

I wonder if perhaps Wecker was more interested in creating a sort of cultural yin-yang symbolized by the Syrian jinni and the Jewish golem. First, the yin: Golem is a girl. Jinni is a boy. Golem cannot function without serving a master. Jinni craves freedom and independence; worst thing possible is to be contained or chained. Golem’s people are Jewish; Jinni’s people are Maronite Christian. Now, the yang: Both the aforementioned Jews and Christian Syrians are recent immigrant communities in turn of the century New York. They work in artisanal trades (baking for her, metalwork for him). A friendly old rabbi takes care of the golem; a friendly old doctor takes care of the jinni. Wecker gives us both a Jewish character and a Syrian character who doubt the existence of God, though they both similarly remain devoted to their cultural background. Towards the very end of the book, the wicked wizard (who enslaved the jinni) and the golem’s evil creator wrestle with each other, perhaps symbolizing a struggle between Arab and Jewish cultures.

The novel would seem to be a paean to the idea that we are really more similar than we are different. If even the folkloric spirit world can get along, then why can’t we? Would that it were that easy. The barest hint of difficulty, in all 484 pages, is given in just one scant paragraph, and then Wecker quickly moves on:

“Arbeely was not a political minded man, and what prejudices he harbored were mostly mild and abstract; but the thought of the Jinni causing trouble in a Jewish neighborhood made him fearful. Mount Lebanon’s Turkish overlords had long made a game of pitting its Christian and Jewish populations against each other, forcing them to compete for Muslim favor. The disagreements had at times turned bloody and edged into riot, fanned by accusations of Christian blood in Jewish bread – a claim that always struck Arbeely as ridiculous on its face, though he knew many were willing to believe it.”

I assumed Wecker is referring to the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840, which, besides a little rioting, included the arrest, torture, and death of several Syrian Jews. Jews in both Europe and American considered it a very big deal, and how a book about Syrians and Jews in America in the latter half of the 19th century could contain barely a mention of this event is beyond me.

It is good to celebrate commonalities, but the differences are also important. One doesn’t have to leave the Lower East Side to find a powerful articulation of this idea. In his new book, The Rise of Abraham Cahan, Seth Lipsky tells of how Cahan found his way from the ideals of socialist universalism to celebrating the particulars of Jewish identity. Abraham Cahan was the founder and long-time editor of the Forvarts, the premier American Yiddish newspaper. The Forvarts still exists today as the English Forward, thanks in large part to Lipsky himself, who oversaw this transformation. Though there are already several biographies of Cahan, Lipsky’s has all the hallmarks of what I’ve come to expect from Nextbook press: short, quick, and very good, both on its own and as an introduction to a larger topic.

The title refers to Cahan’s own novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, which was hailed by Mencken and other literary notables as a great American work. Lipsky is not the first to see parallels in the novel and Cahan’s own life. Cahan came to the United States in 1882. He had already been involved with Russian socialist organizations, and in America he quickly fell in with the socialist labor movements that aimed to help Jewish immigrants in sweatshops and other similar trades. Yet over the years, and especially after he became aware of the evils of Soviet Communism, Cahan came to see the value in the American capitalist system that had allowed him to become a wealthy, powerful man by his own hard work. Though he never disavowed socialism, he changed the way he sang its praises. Lipsky details how the “tension between Cahan’s universalist, radical self and his Jewish self” was a driving force throughout his life. For a number of years, the Forvarts acted as an official supporter and advocate of several socialist movements, including the Ladies Garment Workers Union. But after a visit to Europe in 1923, Cahan famously proclaimed that “Russia has at present less freedom than it had in the earliest days of Romanov rule…The world has never yet seen such despotism.”

As Cahan moved away from total devotion to socialism, so too he found a way to articulate his reinvigorated Jewish identity:

“…in the first days of Russian nihilism…a Jew didn’t dare reveal a special affinity for Jews, but that was not a contradiction. Then a person’s own mother was no better than a stranger…it has long been acknowledged that even the greatest revolutionaries’ souls are not made of iron, and that his mother is dearer to him than your mother. Today, if you demand of a Jewish socialist that a pogrom in Kishinev should not interest him more than a pogrom against the Armenians, it would sound like one of those exclusionary laws from which Jews are used to suffering. Yes, we can confess that our mother is closer to us than a stranger. We can confess that Jews are, naturally, closer to us than other people.”

Perhaps, in studying the history of the Lower East Side, Wecker might have come across something on Abraham Cahan or the Forvarts. It’s too bad that her novel seems more in the spirit of Cahan’s early socialist utopian ideals than his later, more nuanced position. The Golem and the Jinni contains many wonderful odes to New York, as the two creatures fly across the city and its boroughs, from Castle Gardens to the Bowery and throughout numerous parks. I certainly believe that there are, in fact, many many cultural similarities between not only immigrant experiences in American but also between middle eastern cultures, including that of the Jews and Syrians. But even as I can’t really believe in a happy, friendly golem or a jinni, neither can I believe that the differences are that easy elided.

* I mean, there is definitely the possibility of really scary, creepy stuff in Judaism/Jewish culture:

The Dybbuk

Still scares the schmaltz out of me

A real golem

Timely

But Wecker’s golem doesn’t really have any spook, which I found disappointing.

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The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement 

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by Amy Tan. 

HarperCollins, 2013.

One of my favorite childhood books was Homesick by Jean Fritz. I read this book many, many times and it seems I wasn’t alone in this, as the book won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Homesick tells Fritz’s own story of growing up in China during the 1920’s – her parents were missionaries – until they moved back to the United States when she was twelve. The title refers to Fritz’s longing to be a “regular” American girl, living in “the States,” and her feeling of homesickness for a country she’d never even seen. Fritz wrote other children’s books, mostly about various early American characters such as Jefferson and Washington, but Homesick was one of my all-time favorites.

I thought of this book while reading Amy Tan’s (author of The Joy Luck Club and National Book Award finalist*) new book, The Valley of Amazement. I even went so far as to get an old copy of Homesick from the library and re-read it one evening. It is still a really great book.

Most of Valley of Amazement is about the dangerous and depressing world of courtesan houses in early twentieth century China and that is not, thank goodness, the connection I had in mind regarding Homesick. It was just one particular paragraph in Valley that stirred this book memory. Violet, the main character in Valley, is a fourteen year old half-Chinese half-American girl living in her mother’s courtesan house in Shanghai. The year is 1912, and Dr. Sun Yat-sen has been made the provisional president of the new Republic of China in a revolution that deposed the old emperor.  A major anti-foreigner movement accompanies this change, as well as growing Communist tendencies (eventually Yat-Sen makes some deals with the Communist party, leading to their takeover). Violet stands in the kitchen and realizes that the attitudes of the servants and cooks seems different, as well as something else about them:

“Today they acted as if I were a stranger. The expressions on their faces were ugly, and there was also something odd about their appearance. One of them turned to reach for a flask of wine. They had cut off their queues! Only one man had not, Little Duck, the manservant who opened the door to the house and announced visitors who came in the afternoons. His queue was still wrapped around the back of his head. I once asked him to show me how long it was. As he unwound it, he had said that it was his mother’s greatest pride. She said the length of it was a measure of respect to the emperor…The cook snorted at Little Duck. ‘Are you an imperial loyalist?’ The others laughed, baiting him to cut it off…he loosened the coil and stared at his beloved pigtail, then hacked it off…Little Duck wore such a painful grimace you would have thought he had killed his mother.”

There’s a very similar occurrence in Homesick. In her home in China, Jean and her parents have a few servants, including a cook named Yang Sze-Fu: “He was smoking a cigarette, which he wasn’t supposed to do in the kitchen, but Yang Sze-Fu mostly did what he wanted. He considered himself superior to common workers. You could tell because of the fingernails on his pinkies. They were at least two inches long, which was his way of showing that he didn’t have to use his hands for rough or dirty work.” After an increasing number of anti-foreigner and pro-Communist riots, Jean “began to see that this war was going to mean more than just talk, but at first I didn’t connect Yang Sze-Fu’s fingernails with the war. Of course I was surprised the next morning when I noticed that the long, spiky nails on his pinkies were gone and were now the same length as his other nails.

I asked Lin Nai-Nai [her nanny]…’He’s a Communist,’ Lin Nai-Nai said. ‘Commnists don’t believe in long fingernails. They believe all people should be working people, no one pretending to be better than anyone else.’”

Lest anyone be concerned, neither Lin Nai-Nai nor Fritz herself fails to mention that beyond this mild description, the Communists were also responsible for attempting to starve the innocent inhabitants of Wuchang into surrender.

Tan’s novel takes place mostly from 1912 to 1915, and Fritz’s memoir takes place from 1925-27 – but perhaps similar events happened over this general period of time. There isn’t much else in Valley about these political happenings, and they only figure in so much as they create distraction for certain characters so that Violet is kidnapped into another courtesan house. Like her other books, Valley is mostly about familial legacy and secrets and the very complex relationships between mothers and daughters. After being forced to work in a courtesan house, Violet attempts to escape by marrying a man who seems nice. He doesn’t live long enough for her to really find out, and he dies without making legal arrangements for her to inherit anything, so it’s back to the courtesan house for her. Again she attempts an escape by marrying a man who seems nice, but he’s definitely not. He tells her she will be the First Wife, but she is tricked and ends up as Third Wife, destitute, and regularly beaten. She manages to escape from this, too, then survives some riots and intimidation by various Shanghai gangs, and eventually is reunited with her mother and her daughter (who was kidnapped as well. Though not into a courtesan house. To an evil step-grandmother instead. Probably a better fate). I did admire the spirit that Tan gave to Violet, who certainly comes across as a courageous and spunky character. But the story of Violet’s mother gave me trouble; it came across as so wild and random and unusual that I felt it was hard to follow believably.

It seemed to me to be more graphic than her other books, probably because most of it takes place in courtesan houses. It’s depressing, but a good reminder that on the whole, women have it pretty good in America, notwithstanding debates about equal pay and childcare options.

After re-reading it twenty years later, I still like Homesick better than Valley of Amazement.

*You can also read an interview with her from this week in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/books/review/amy-tan-by-the-book.html?ref=books&_r=0

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The Paris Architect

Product Details

 

by Charles Belfoure

Sourcebooks Landmark, 2013

In the title story of Nathan Englander’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a group of Jewish friends play a morbid game in which they imagine who among their Gentile friends would hide them if there were a second Holocaust. That weird scene came to mind as I started reading The Paris Architect, which tells the story of a few non-Jewish Frenchmen who devise ingenious hiding spots for Jews throughout Paris during the Nazi occupation. In an epilogue, Belfoure writes that the book isn’t necessarily based on true events during the Holocaust that he knew of, but instead that he drew his inspiration from “priest holes” that were designed for Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth I. He then turned “the Elizabethan-age carpenter into a gentile architect who designs temporary hiding places for Jews escaping the Nazis.”

The main character, Lucien, is a non-Jewish Parisian architect who is hired by a wealthy businessman (also non-Jewish) to create these hiding spaces. The wealthy patron is driven to do this because he wants to honor the memory of his beloved childhood nanny who was Jewish. While initially Lucien takes on the project for the money, eventually he does it (and continues to risk his life) because of combined hatred of Nazis and developing sense of altruism.

Belfoure was an architect before he was a writer. His interest in and experience with architecture is evident by his inclusion of characters discussing Bauhaus, modernism, Le Corbusier, and Speer. The fact that he was an architect before he was a writer is also evident in the awkward and stilted prose. This kind of writing is, I think, pretty usual for this particular genre that is known as “Holocaust fiction” (it’s an actual category on Amazon). I don’t think “Holocaust fiction” applies to books like Primo Levi’s If This is A Man or Elie Wiesel’s Night. Technically those might even be called memoirs instead, but they are also of a different genre because of the masterful writing.  “Holocaust fiction” is a sort of a blend between historical fiction and chick lit and sometimes reminds me of the “young adult” category of teen fiction. Instead of relying on action or nuance to get the point across, Belfoure hits his readers over the head like this:

“The Serraults’ death had made Lucien see things in a different light. The sight of the frail elderly couple dead with handkerchiefs in their mouth had jolted him. They’d died saving him, when he was supposed to save them. He realized that the sheer hatred and brutality heaped upon the Jews was something he now couldn’t ignore.”

Or this:

“…Bette was bowled over the revelation. She’d never had a man willing to die for something. This single act of courage was very attractive to her, more enticing than a man with a villa or a Bugatti. Lucien stirred something in her heart that none of the scores of others ever had. As Bette got older, she had a keener sense of what was love and what was not. She knew she was falling in love with Lucien.”

Ok, well, one doesn’t buy Kraft singles and then complain that it doesn’t hold up to French brie. Everything has its place, including [processed] cheesiness. * (the best cheese for grilled cheese is kraft singles) But if the purpose of this style is an easy read that gives a delicious tug at the sentimental heartstrings, a maudlin emotional fantasy with a satisfyingly bittersweet ending, then is it appropriate to have the Holocaust act as a means to those ends?

Other “Holocaust fiction” books have done very well – The Storyteller, Sarah’s Key, The Baker’s Daughter  – and this one, too, is on the “popular new release” shelf at Barnes and Noble. I’ve been seeing movie previews for The Book Thief, which is based on a novel of this genre as well. With any of these books or the movie, which combine a sentimental schmaltz story with the Holocuast,, I think it’s interesting to consider, among other questions:

• Does the use of the Holocaust in a chick-lit setting trivialize the Holocaust?

• Or does it serve a useful purpose by bringing the events of the Holocaust to a wider audience, not just Jews schooled in it since Hebrew School?

• What is the difference between having a schlocky Holocaust novel and something of this same genre/style that is set during the Civil War or the London Bubonic Plague or any other terrible event?

I have a few responses, though by no means am I taking sides on any of these questions. I just think they should be up for discussion.

In regards to #1, it really does depend on each book. Some are better than others. I hated Picoult’s novel The Storyteller because it seemed to endorse the idea that the Germans were “just following orders” and most of them were pretty innocent. The Baker’s Daughter wasn’t much better. Sarah’s Key was pretty tough to get through just in terms of readability, and I think does the most egregious job of “using” the Holocaust to wring reader’s tears, but it did bring to light a part of Holocaust history that really doesn’t get much attention, anywhere. The Paris Architect was interesting in that, though it seems to be written in a style like these others that is geared toward women, includes some pretty graphic torture and violence. This is a “good” thing, in that I think it highlights how vicious the Nazis were, and it helps demolish that argument about just following orders.

In regards to #2, I’ve seen this shocking video going around the inter webs lately, so I guess Holocaust fiction could be very helpful in general exposure to the topic.

I think #3 is a much larger and longer discussion than I want to do here, but I think the Holocaust was qualitatively different from almost any other event in that it was part of a purposeful, evil plan aimed at complete and total destruction. The modernity of it, too, is something I think that makes it charged, as well as the dread that Jews have often been targeted so it wasn’t a completely singular event. From my point of view, it is also still too close in memory.

But, as I said before, these aren’t definite answers, just initial thoughts that might be good to take up if ever these books came up for a turn in a synagogue book club. There certainly have been dissertations and articles written about this phenomenon, as well as related ones: I mean, does it “trivialize” the Holocaust to have the Nazis be generic bad guys in every other war movie? Or is it actually a good thing?

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Early Decision

Early Decision

by Lacy Crawford. William Morrow: 2013.  

I thought Early Decision would be like others in a certain category of chick-lit that portrays the lifestyles of the rich and famous mommies. I Don’t Know How She Does It or The Nanny Diaries might be considered two examples of the genre I have in mind. But Crawford’s book is of a much different caliber. It still has an aura of chick-lit about it; perhaps this is unavoidable when the protagonist is a single woman in her late twenties who happens to be dealing with a commitment-phobe boyfriend. But though it has that easy-breezy feel of an effortless chick lit, the writing is still insightful and well done (most chick lit writing is over-dramatic and uses clichés; none of that here). Perhaps the reason for this difference is that both the author and the protagonist – who also have in common that they were at one time college admissions counselors to the children of the aforementioned rich and famous mommies – feel passionately about the importance of good writing. An example:

“ ‘All right,’ he said. ‘So how do you know when it’s a good essay or a bad one?’

‘Oh,’ she [Anne, the admissions counselor] replied. ‘You see, kids do this thing…when they’re asked to write in the first person…kids switch into what I call English-teacher mode. Their voice on the page – you can hear it when they read out loud – gets higher, affected, like they’re pretending to have an accent from an impressive country they’ve never been to…Their sentences run on and on because they mistake length for persuasiveness. They dangle modifiers and bury antecedents. They capitalize like Germans. They use the word ‘extremely’ and start sentences with ‘However, comma.’..They’re reflexive and jumpy, and they strangle every idea they have so they can hurry on to the next one. Nothing is cumulative….Somewhere toward the end, it’ll occur to them that they should mention college, so there will be a spasm of references to some school or preferred major of ‘the future’…if they’re feeling poetic, they’ll end on the word ‘beyond.’”

Let me take the opportunity to proclaim a cheerful, hearty “mea culpa” to probably all of those and more in my own blog posts. I’d also like to acknowledge that I loved my college experience and am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to go wherever I wanted. I don’t think this book is knocking any of that. Is going to college a good thing? Yep. Is getting to choose where you want to go a good thing, too? Yes. Are community service, extra-curricular activities, and AP classes great things and worth the struggle? Yes. Has the college admissions process gotten slightly absurd and is it worthy of a good laugh? Also yes.

The book follows Anne, a private admissions counselor, who meets with wealthy high school seniors and their parents to help them get into the coveted brand-name colleges. Besides excerpts like the first one in the post, which tickled my writing fancies, the main character is named Anne, and the author makes offhand references both to Gregor Samsa and Sebastian Flyte. References to Brideshead Revisited are an unexpected delight anywhere but most unexpected in a chick-lit sort of book. The fact that the reference was directed at an overachieving high school student who has not only just ‘come out’ to his disapproving father but also admitted his guilt in stealing Anne’s daily New York Times because he doesn’t want her to be exposed to liberal drivel – well, it leads one to study the author’s bio on the back panel and wonder Who is this person? And then perhaps to google ‘doppelganger.’

This is an area that is ripe for cutting social commentary, and Crawford has plenty of it: “More accurately, how to awaken these families from a fantasy that held colleges up bright and shining and implacably steady in character, to reveal each as just what it was – a living, breathing institution – struggling to serve young minds weaned on ambition and fear and heading into a job market that matched conscription to greed and made interns of all the rest?”

As I expected, Crawford/Anne bemoans the insanity that overtakes parents and their children as they frantically build their “resumes” with community service and extracurricular activities that they would have no interest in engaging in without the specter of college admissions. There’s no easy discernible line between real and satire when she describes characters like Hunter who “spent the autumn doing trail maintenance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service…for the winter he traveled to Bogota to brush up on his Spanish and intern with a private equity firm…and in the spring he rented a condo in Miami, where he spent mornings teaching tennis to Cuban refugee children and afternoons focusing on his own [tennis] game with a private coach.” She laments that while college was and can be an exhilarating dream, now it was “an exercise in self-branding. The schools were secondary. Marketing the student came first.”

Yet the best part about Crawford/Anne is not her biting satire but that she has real empathy for her teenage students. She takes their essays seriously and carefully, and reads between the lines to find out more about them, as she does in this conversation with Hunter:

“ ‘…In that case, let me tell you a few things that really interested me in your piece.’

‘Fine.’

‘First, how profound it can be to feel in significant in the face of Nature – to feel both irrelevant and deeply accompanied. Make sense?

‘Sort of.’

‘…Second…the desire to share one’s feelings but the difficulty of putting them into words. Wanting to keep things private but thinking they’d be even more special if you could share them. Yes?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Third, feeling like the world has been hidden from you, like you’ve not been able to see things as they really are. Yes?’

‘Oh, totally…’”

Once a week I teach a class full of teenagers, and I think I can appreciate how Crawford/Anne highlights the twin emotions of frustration and amusement that come with coaching that age group. My [admittedly very limited] experience is that in a group, all is lost, as their self-consciousness of being surrounded by peers will trump any other meaningful action. Yet, from time to time, on their own, there will be flashes, as Crawford/Anne notices: “…If you get a seventeen-year-old talking about something that really matters to him, just talking, telling the truth, it’s the best. They’re deadly serious and funny as hell and really original. They have great voices with better rhythm than you or I because they haven’t read all the boring crap yet. They don’t know how they’re supposed to sound, so they sound fabulous. All that melodrama, it has a real keening to it, if you can tap into it. It’s wonderful…”

She tries to help her students see that, with their background of parental support, privilege, general overachievement habits, and education up to this point, they will probably be successful no matter what college they attend. She comforts one student who wrote her admissions essay about her experience volunteering at a Somalian refugee center and is a national debate star:

“ ‘Alexis, where you go to college is not the same as who you are.’

‘No, but it shapes me. It, like, shapes everything.’

‘Unless you consider that there’s a trajectory to all of this passion. That you have a destiny, an intellectual and emotional destiny, and that this force you feel is driving you toward that. Regardless of whether you turn left or right, you’ll get there. You can’t not get there.’” *

Early Decision does contain some of the usual fare of chick-lit. There are high-strung self-absorbed moms, schmucky dads, and a schmucky boyfriend. Yet besides the prescient insight and empathy, there’s another element that takes it beyond usual chick-lit. Anne’s descriptions of her own experiences post-college, when she attempted to pursue a PhD in English, seem to reveal some political-social conservative leanings (as if the NY-Times snatching kid wasn’t enough). She recalls how “she appreciated that the Marxist students were always first when the [fellowship check] office opened at nine. The very same ones who argued, in the seminar on Moby-Dick, that the whale signified a commodity and that the book was an allegory of the industrial revolution. To which point the queer theorists took great exception: the whale was a phallus…the post-colonial theorists claimed the cetacean was an animation of statehood, and the theory-of-aesthetics folks considered anality relevant to the discussion. The disability studies student – who herself was rumored to have chronic fatigue – stopped conservation with her assertion that the enormous whale signified the longed-for bodily wholeness…Anne wrote her final paper on the whale qua whale. Her professor was thrilled. No one had ever taken this approach before, he said…except Melville, Anne thought.” Ah yes, this is so familiar to me.

All the more interesting is that Crawford/Anne dares to imply that Toni Morrison may not, in fact, be all she’s cracked up to be. During a much sought-after seminar with Morrison, “Anne had sat, mostly terrified, and studied the writer’s dreadlocks….she’d never worked up the courage to ask her first question: how were you supposed to pronounce Sethe?” ** That this would be her most burning question pokes gentle fun at the supposed gravity with which Morrison is treated throughout academia.

As I mentioned, I am with a group of high schoolers once a week, and they are indeed completely obsessed with where they will go to college and how they will get in. But I’ve also taught some college classes at a small, private liberal arts school – exactly the kind all those teens are striving to attend. The funny thing is, the college students don’t seem to care much at all about learning or the class material. And this just makes the whole endeavor seem that much more ludicrous.

None of this social critique on the ridiculousness surrounding college admissions is new (though perhaps the rise in tuition rates is adding another shade of crazy). This movie is technically about law school admissions but very similar to undergraduate admission. It came out in 2001, and, over ten years later, still rings true. These could be any of the characters in Early Decision:

Elle Woods introduces herself at Harvard…

* I’m pre-empting what I think will be the response from my University of Florida alum husband, who would probably agree that being a UF Gator is indeed a big part of his identity.

* *The name of the mom in Beloved who kills her baby. Played by Oprah Winfrey herself in the movie version.

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A Guide for the Perplexed

A Guide for the Perplexed

by Dara Horn. 

Product Details

W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Since the last book I read for this blog delved into Spinoza territory, it seemed appropriate that the next one should highlight Maimonides: the two are opposites in that while Spinoza was famously excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community, Maimonides is so revered that his Thirteen Principles of Faith are lyrics to the yigdal song that is traditionally sung at the end of every Friday night service. Kidding – the books just happened to arrive in that order from the library, but it’s a nice coincidence.

I’d been anticipating this latest novel from Dara Horn the same way I looked forward to Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, since I was familiar with her earlier books and loved them. And perhaps this over-anticipation is what led to the bit of the letdown I felt while reading. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a very good book but it’s not going to be my favorite, and definitely not my favorite Dara Horn book.

The main reason it’s not my favorite is that I felt certain things were presented in too obvious a manner. It was as though I would be really well prepared for my a high school English class on this book. If the teacher asked “what were some of the recurrent themes?”  I could list them:

-asthma

-siblings, and siblings’ spouses

-idealized memory versus true memory; archives

-pits/dungeons/ditches (both real and metaphorical)

Part of the reason why recurrent of these images and themes might seem too obvious is the characteristic way that Horn structures her novel. As in her previous books In the Image and The World to Come, Horn creates several parallel stories, in various time periods of history, which eventually all overlap. It’s a neat trick, but I suppose it was much more exciting the first time around. That sounds a lot harsher than I meant – again, it’s still a very enjoyable book.

Roughly, the parallel stories follow: 1) Josie and Judith, present-day sisters. Josie and Judith both work in a software program that sounds like Facebook and Instagram times a million; people can digitally archive every moment of their lives or the lives of loved ones; 2) Solomon Schecter (a real person) who, among other famous things, re-discovered the Cairo Genizah which was a treasure trove of Jewish historical records; 3) Moses Maimonides and his brother David (also both real people).

Some of immediate broad overlaps are: the Cairo Genizeh is perhaps most famous for having letters and drafts written by Maimonides; Maimonides lived in Egypt for a while; Josie gets kidnapped in Egypt; the girls’ software program is called, appropriately, “Genizeh.”

My other gripe is admittedly a bit nit-picky, but hear me out. Toward the end of the book, Schecter is reminiscing with his brother about the night the two of them left their small town in Romania for the great wide world. Their father gave both of them a little speech: “ ‘I’ll always remember it,’ Srulik said. ‘It was a grand send-off, a don’t-forget-where-you-came-from sort of thing.’” This imaginary conversation would have been taking place around 1896.  I can’t pretend to be an authority on late nineteenth century language, but that long hyphenated descriptor just seemed out of place to me. I think that particular mannerism is a style of our present-day way of speaking, perhaps an indicator of the way we are less facile and less formal (and thus lazier. Instead of taking the time to think of a word that means ‘don’t-forget-where-you-came-from’ we just make one up with hyphens) with language and speaking. So that bothered me as a-historical fiction.

And I am a bit bothered by another place in the book, also with Schecter, but much earlier, as he examines a bit of ancient parchment:

“The letters were inscribed in dark brown ink. As he read them, they burned in his brain like black fire on white fire. Was it possible?”

The phrase “black fire on white fire” comes from Midrash Tanhuma, Genesis 1 and is a commentary on the line from Deuteronomy 33 about “the fiery law” (the fact that this commentary is filed in the Genesis midrash but is about Deuteronomy is just typical. Midrash is a mixed-up filing cabinet for sure). It bothers me because I don’t see a connection in Horn’s insertion of this phrase and the narrative surrounding it: Schecter isn’t looking at Midrash – and, I don’t know, it just seems like it was put there as a vague reference to “something” that sounded mystical and Jewish, but without full acknowledgment of the origin and meaning of that phrase.

And I know Horn knows better, and that she knows her rabbinic literature, because of an absolutely delightful exchange she creates between Schecter and the hilariously corrupt chief rabbi of Egypt. The two engage in a Talmud-quoting war that devolves into made-up quotes: “Where? Shechter thought. His mind reproduced the Hebrew page of the Pentateuch [Torah], locating in his mind’s eye the margin of the page with the medieval scholar Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the text. There was no such hint, of course. The rabbi knew it. They had graduated to fake quotes…the quoting game was much more fun when one wasn’t limited to actual quotes.” I had a rabbinic school professor who used to do this to get our attention, although much more blatantly: he’d paraphrase some sage as saying, “ ‘As the Talmud says, ‘You can do anything you want to do, but uh-uh, don’t step on my cowboy boots’” or some other Hank Williams quote.

In most of the book, too, she displays her usual felicity of language, such as describing Josie and Judith’s studious father as “deboning” a book with a multi-colored highlighter pen. Interestingly, Horn also sprinkles in a bit of untranslated Hebrew. It’s just a few sentences of conversation, but it makes me wonder about her intended audience. Do mostly Jews read Dara Horn? Do I find her stories intriguing because the overlapping stories are all about Jewish history or are they good independent of that characteristic? (Probably a bit of both).

I also appreciate Horn’s jabs at modern Egypt. When Josie first arrives in Cairo, she notes the bizarreness of a national holiday that day  “celebrating Egypt’s victory over Israel in the war of 1973. The fact that Egypt had not actually won the 1973 war seemed in no way to dampen the festivities.” Later, Judith is surprised to hear that a certain degenerate character who is basically a gangster was on the Egyptian Parliament:

“ ‘And now he was elected?’ Judith asked.

Nasreen smirked. ‘Everything we thought was impossible for forty years suddenly happened. You thought that meant only good things, didn’t you? No. It means everything. The impossible is now possible. Even for people like him. Especially for people like him.’”

I can appreciate the way Horn brings to life Schecter and Maimonides, and especially the way she describes the drama of Schecter’s re-discovery of the Cairo Genizeh in 1896. But if I were to recommend a book about Schecter and/or the Cairo Genizeh, I think that Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s book, Sacred Trash, is excellent (Horn mentions it in the Acknowledgments section) and does a better job telling Schecter’s story.

Dave Eggers  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Eggers )also has a new book, The Circle that examines darker sides of social media and millennial culture. Horn’s book is only partly about this topic, and two books does not a backlash make, but the coincidence of their release is intriguing nonetheless. I think a book club can’t really go wrong with a Dara Horn selection, and A Guide for the Perplexed certainly opens up a lot of Jewish topics and presents lively depictions of Jewish historical personalities. But now in this post and the last one I’ve praised certain Nextbook press books, which led me to investigate whether I can order the latest release from the Orlando library. I don’t know if the Orlando Public Library uses any type of digital data gathering on patrons’ online request habits; if so I’m sure I’m pretty easy to pigeonhole so far.

• I can get kind of worked up about this because I think it’s happening with more and more frequency in colloquial speech and writing of my own demographic – I mean people using catchy snap phrases or words that they have heard somewhere, whether firsthand on TV or the internet or just as they generally become popular, without understanding their origin. My pet peeve example of this is the word “uber.” I think it’s wildly inappropriate when fellow Jews will describe anything as “uber,” and I’ve even heard an event described (by a Jewish person) as “uber-Jewy.” I just think “uber-Jewy” is but a half step away from “uber-mensch” which was the Nietzschean phrase that inspired Hitler’s Aryan ideal. A less toxic example is “epic fail.” Noun? Adverb? What’s happening?  I’m not saying that Horn is being that egregious here (or that I’m not often guilty myself!). It was just an opportunity for a tangential rant. Words matter.

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The Signature of All Things

 The Signature of All Things 

Product Details

by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Viking Adult 2013.

Elizabeth Gilbert is probably best known for her autobiographical book Eat, Pray, Love, which was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts. Both are about Gilbert’s need to more firmly establish The Meaning of Her Life and re-discover her true essence or something by taking a year “off” (she was a novelist and freelance writer, with no kids – not exactly the coal mines). She travels first to Italy, then to India (to a meditation ashram), and then to Bali where she finds a nice boy. The parts of the book and movie about Italy and what she gets to eat there are ok, and there are some nice descriptions of Bali, but I had no interest in the rest of her journey into the pit of naval-gazing:

So yes, I was a little dubious about picking up her new novel, although it is not about herself, so at least it had that going for it. And it turns out that if this is the kind of novel Gilbert is capable of writing, she can take all the self-realization journeys that she needs. Most of the book – the last quarter was disappointing – is fantastic all around: unique story, appealing heroine, and engaging fictional science writing. The main character, Alma Whittaker, is an early nineteenth century American botanist who is fascinated with the natural world and specifically with moss. On that alone, I have to applaud Gilbert. It’s not everyday that one finds a New York Times bestseller-list fiction book with so much scientific botanical detail. As I happen to belong to a family that relishes discussing science I found myself happily relating to some of Alma’s experiences – but I have to wonder how many other readers out there would be as amused I was to read how one character encounters Alma’s mother’s garden:

“ ‘You must tell me, Miss Whittaker – what mad genius took such pains to fabricate this garden according to strict Euclidean geometric ideals?’

‘It was my mother’s inspiration, sir. Had she not passed away many years ago, she would have thrilled to know that you recognized her objectives.’

‘Who would not recognize them? It’s the golden ratio! We have double squares here, containing recurrent nets of squares – and with the pathways bisecting the entire construction, we make several three-four-five triangles, as well. It’s so pleasing! The boxwoods are perfect, too. They seem to serve as equation marks to all the conjugates. She must have been a delight, your mother.’”

Alma’s mother, Beatrix, “encouraged a spirit of investigation” as part of a very no-nonsense Dutch upbringing in their manor in Pennsylvania in the early 1800’s.  Alma’s father Henry made a fortune by maintaining a monopoly on an extract from fever tree bark used for various pharmaceutical purposes.  Alma was given uncharacteristic schooling for girls at that time, most of it from her mother, who maintained that “at no moment in history has a bright young girl with plenty of food and a good constitution perished from too much learning.”  Alma is a prodigious student. From her mother she learns multiple languages and classic literature. In her lonely (Alma grows up with few friends) ramblings across their estate, she studies the natural world:

“In her ninth summer, completely on her own, Alma learned to tell the time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o’clock in the morning, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. At six o’clock, the daisies and globeflowers opened….if Alma was not back to the house with her hands washed by five o’clock – when the globeflower closed and the evening primrose began to open – she would find herself in trouble.”

The third part of her education occurs at the dinner table. As part of his business, Henry entertained often, and Alma “spent the tender years of her childhood listening to the most extraordinary conversations – the men who studied the decomposition of human remains; with men who examined the organic matter of sulfuric springs; and with one man who was an expert on the pulmonary function of aquatic birds…”

Though her father is indeed a botanist by trade, Alma seems to fall in love with the natural world all on her own. Again and again, I found myself admiring Gilbert’s ability to convey true scientific wonder:

“Alma lifted her face and saw what was before her – dozens more such boulders…each one subtly different. She felt herself growing breathless. This was the entire world…this was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel’s mighty telescopes….

In every way mosses could seem plain, dull, modest, even primitive. But here is what few people understood and what Alma came to learn: Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone…moss dines about boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries. Given enough time, a colony of moss can turn a cliff into gravel…under shelves of exposed limestone, moss colonies create dripping, living sponges that hold on tight and drink calciferous water straight from the stone. Over time, this mix of moss and mineral will turn into travertine marble. Within that hard, creamy-white marble surface, one will forever see veins of blue, green, and gray – the traces of the antediluvian moss settlements.”

I for one think that if Gilbert runs out of ideas for another novel she could certainly do well in re-writing high school biology textbooks.

Alma’s relationships with people are just as intriguing as her relationship with the natural world. Alma’s beautiful adopted sister, Prudence (the daughter of a promiscuous house maid) struggles with being known “only” for her beauty and her birth mother’s reputation and, apparently as a result of that ‘trauma,’ turns into an ascetic Puritan devoted to abolitionism. At no point do Alma and her sister get along, due equally to Prudence’s extreme shyness and reticence and Alma’s sub-par interpersonal skills. Alma believes herself to be content between her moss, her father, and her comforting old Dutch housekeeper, until she falls in love. The man is named Ambrose Pike, and he first comes to her attention because of his magnificent lithographs of tropical orchids. If you need a refresher on the symbolism of orchids in regards to amorous interest, go browse around here for a bit: http://www.georgiaokeeffegallery.com/

After Ambrose comes to stay with her father, Alma realizes that her existence “before the arrival of Ambrose Pike, had been a good enough one…she had her customs, habits, and responsibilities…true, she was something like a book that had opened to the same page every single day for nearly thirty straight years – but it had not been such a bad page. By all measures, it had been a good life…she could never return to that life now…Cut loose for the first time in her life into the realm of love, imbued with impossible energy, Alma barely recognized herself. Her capacities seemed limitless….it was not merely Ambrose whom she regarded with such vivid purity and thrill – but everything and everybody…”

This is probably a good segue to point out what I thought were the low points of the book. The first is related to the, um, orchids. Gilbert seems at great pains to emphasize that Alma is not, unlike the mosses, asexual. Alma’s house has a lot of biology books hanging around, so she learns some certain things early on, and from a young age spends a lot of time reading these books in a special dark closet where she delves into self-exploration. Trust me, I didn’t want to mention it on the blog here, but it’s just that Gilbert spends a good bit of time on it, and one just wants to say ok we get it already. Fifty Shades of Moss or whatever.

The other doesn’t happen until the very end of the book. As was probably inevitable in a book about 19th century biological exploration, Alma encounters the work of Darwin, A.R. Wallace.  Spoiler alert – of course she had written about this same theory of evolution, but is a female, and so on and so forth. This could have gone in a somewhat tiresome direction.

But I think Gilbert redeems herself with one important part: Alma hesitated from publishing her evolution theory not really because she was a woman, but because she thinks the prospect of evolution leaves out the “mystery” of human altruism. Alma cannot account for the goodness and sacrifice of self-interest that she saw in Ambrose and Prudence: “if the natural world was indeed the sphere of amoral and constant struggle for survival that it appeared to be…then what was one supposed to make, for instance, of someone like her sister Prudence?…Alma could answer that question from a moral standpoint (Because Prudence is kind and selfless) but she could not answer if from a biological one (Why do kindness and selflessness exist?)” I was impressed that Gilbert gives this to Alma. This sort of view seems to respect and value a Judeo-Christian view that says, wait: people and our relationships are about more than evolutionary survival. There is something about love for others that is not simply biology, but something that makes us human – something that has, perhaps, to do with the spark of the divine.

It might be appropriate at this point to mention Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish philosopher.  I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the book begins and ends in Amsterdam, Spinoza’s home, though Gilbert herself never explicitly mentions Spinoza. But in Signature, Gilbert seems to be exploring some the complex interchange between science and religion, and with Holland in the picture it’s hard not to think of Spinoza, who in many ways is a symbol (or maybe mascot?) of the tension between those two worlds. * Just a few highlights of this leitmotif throughout the novel:

– Alma encounters several other characters who see “God’s handprint” (or, the “signature of all things”) in the beauty and genius of the natural order of the world; personally she longs to understand the “architect” that created all this natural wonder

-Ambrose is the opposite of Alma’s sensibility and practical-mindedness; he is sort of a Transcendentalist, communing with spirit and the ephemeral and says he can hear the stars singing and so forth

-A crucial character named Tomorrow Morning gives Alma clues to the purpose of her life and that of Ambrose, and he happens to be a preacher

-As mentioned earlier, at the end of her life, Alma finds she cannot account for altruism in biology/evolutionary theory.

It seems to me that Gilbert has presented four viewpoints: 1) Early Alma – reason and rationality behind everything/everything can be explained through scientific processes; 2)  bad scientists who use coincidences of biology to ‘prove’ God; 3) bad religion such as people like Ambrose who are spiritual to the point of losing touch 3) late Alma, who believes firmly in her evolutionary theory and loves moss dissection but finds that there is something mysterious and unexplained about human relationships.

Personally, I think Gilbert hits the nail on the head when she has Alma realize that altruism is counterintuitive and makes no “scientific” sense. For me, this is where Torah comes in. I don’t think that the mitzvoth of the Ten Commandments are instinctive in humans. Yes, many people automatically follow them, but that’s because they have been born into a society in which those principles have become norms. But they weren’t “biological” norms, so to speak; they were introduced – that is, they were “revealed.”

Just one more coincidence to mention – Gilbert’s writing, specifically her appreciation of science, reminds me of Rebecca Goldstein. Goldstein has written several novels, including The Mind-Body Problem (another Spinoza reference) with brainy heroines, though hers tend more toward the mathematical/philosophical than biological. But Goldstein also wrote a fun book just about Spinoza:

http://nextbookpress.com/books/239/betraying-spinoza/

So between Goldstein’s book, Spinoza background in general, and Signature, I think there’s more than enough to work with here for a Jewish book club session.

Gilbert is such a popular culture darling – she was featured in a recent edition of Oprah’s O magazine – that I wouldn’t be surprised if the timing of this New York Times magazine article was part of a PR effort from her own publisher:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?_r=0

Whatever associations and conclusions one wants to draw between this article and Gilbert’s book, I suspect that a bowdlerized Hollywood version of The Signature of All Things with Roberts or anyone similar, would not do anyone any favors.

*Also, I think there’s a gentle current of pantheism running the book – not only do various characters express wonderment at the order of the natural world, but the title implies a sort of divine stamp in every aspect of nature – and whether or not Spinoza himself was a pantheist, later pantheistic writers drew heavily on his work. According to Goldstein’s book, Spinoza believed not only that  “God is immanent in nature, not transcendent” but also that “the difference between right and wrong is immanent within our human nature.” For Spinoza, “logic is sufficient to reveal the very fabric of reality.” I think Gilbert’s Alma believes this for most of her book/life, but certain people and her relationships with them bring her to question those early beliefs.

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