Posted by Nat Bernstein
We’re catching up from the Jewish holiday blitz just in time for Thanksgiving next week! In case you’ve been as busy as we have, here are some highlights from the past several weeks:
Reading All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Forest by leading Israeli environmental activist Alon Tal, Juli Berwald recalled her childhood donations to the Jewish National Fund and questioned whether her dimes, pennies, and nickels “might have helped plant some of those misconceived pine trees” that proved flammable and destabilizing to the native ecosystems of mid-century Israel. All the Trees of the Forest provides more than just an ecological study; Tal tells the entirety of the region’s history through its forestation, razes, and agriculture.
In many ways, Tal explains, forests tell the story of human civilization. In Biblical times, deforestation was used as a military tactic, a process exacerbated by the grazing animals of the nomadic tribes that wandered the land between battles. Razing trees continued on and off through the Ottoman rule so that the land was fairly decimated by the 1920s when a massive tree planting effort began with the British takeover... “The forests of Israel constitute a grand experiment.” Tal explains. And lucky for us, the experiment continues.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman led an incredible discussion for Jewish twenty-somethings in New York’s Upper West Side just before kicking off her Jewish Book Month tour, addressing Israel’s gender politics and feminist activism over the past several years.
Israel has seen some progress: segregated buses are down to a third of where they were three years ago, and after a driver was heavily fined by the government for the assault of a female passenger on his bus Eged employees have made a better habit of intervening when a passenger is harassed or threatened. There have been other victories for women’s civil rights in Israel over the past couple years: grassroots campaigns and initiatives have gained firm footing in Israeli society, enabling partnerships across denominational lines and placing much-needed accountability on the government and political leaders—not just the religious ones. “The story here is about the secular government, the state apparatus, supporting religious extremism. The story is not about religious extremists, but how the secular world enables them.”
There’s also some great fiction out of Israel recently: Assaf Gavron’s newest novel The Hilltop gets inside the mind of an Israel settler, and his contemporary short story anthology co-edited with Etgar Keret , Tel Aviv Noir, features current Israeli writers whose works Gavron and Keret feel should be receiving international attention.
Can’t get enough crime writing? David Liss’s The Day of Atonement is a historical novel of an avenger exacting retribution for his parents’ execution at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition. Converting back to his family’s long-lost religion out of spite, Sebastião Raposa’s developing Jewish faith forces him to question the morality of his vigilante mission.
Daniel Silva’s latest novel also twists through history with the mystery of a stolen Caravaggio painting. Returning art restorer and crime solver Gabriel Allon once again fights his inner demons and tears after his objective, hunting down the assets of a powerful Middle Eastern ruler in The Heist.
For a non-fiction chase through history, be sure not to miss Sarah Wildman’s outtakes from Paper Love, published in a four-part installment on The ProsenPeople. The epistolary love story between her grandfather and the woman he had to leave behind in the Second World War impelled Wildman to search for strangers and examine her own family’s survival out of Austria.
It was hard for me to leave out any of the words written by Valerie Scheftel, the woman my grandfather left behind. But there were a few that didn’t fit. And Valy’s letters—as devastating as they are—sometimes, too, ranged to the mundane, just like all the letter writers of her day included the tiny things that now make up our email feeds. Life, even in deprivation, was not always worth filling up a page about. And yet, even Valy’s shortest notes can wallop me with sadness.
Gathering lost stories from the Holocaust is also at the heart of Testimony: The Legacy of Schindler’s List and the USC Shoah Foundation:
As Testimony pushes further and further into the evolution and technicalities of amassing the fifty-two thousand recorded interviews that now comprise the Shoah Project archive, its pages are increasingly interrupted by transcripts of the very testimonies crunched into the numbers and facts the book presents. These excerpts range from anecdotes about life before the war to the unimaginable experiences from within the Holocaust to descriptions of how these survivors have lived since. In this, the book demonstrates its keen balance: neither under-crediting Spielberg— his vision, his savvy, and his influence, (nor allowing his prominence to overshadow the efforts of his team—down to the film extras and phone line volunteers,) Testimony serves testament to the dedication of everyone involved in one of the most monumental archival initiatives of the modern age, from Schindler’s List’s producers to its crew to its cast, from the Shoah Foundation’s visionaries to the volunteer videographers capturing interviews on their personal recording equipment, from Steven Spielberg to the aging, determined, brave, and frightened witnesses to the Holocaust who came forward to tell him—and through him, the world—not just what happened to them, but who they are, to the next generation inheriting these stories through the Shoah Foundation.
And to the next generation inheriting these stories directly from their grandparents? Michel Laub’s outstanding novella Diary of the Fall is “an arresting examination of the father-son relationship contending with a Holocaust legacy, staged within the insularity of Jewish Brazil.” If you haven’t had much exposure to contemporary Brazilian literature, start here.
Would it make any difference if the things I’m describing are still true more than half a century after Auschwitz, when no one can bear to hear about it anymore, when even to me it seems old-fashioned to write about it, or are those things only of importance to me because of the implications they had for the lives around me?
Chances are you’ve had plenty of exposure to the works of William Shakespeare, but you’ve never read them like this: Lois Leveen blogged about her process for writing a Jewish character into William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as this week’s Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople. Drawing on her experience of seeing herself in a different time period during the Passover seder and the Talmudic tradition of building a narrative out of unanswered questions, Lois transformed a negligible Shakespeare character into the Jewish protagonist of Juliet’s Nurse.
The part of me that earned a Ph.D. in literary studies might argue that the question of identity is already at the heart of Romeo and Juliet. In the most famous scene, when Juliet wonders, "wherefore art thou Romeo?" and then insists "a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet," she's plumbing how much of who Romeo is depends on who his people are – in his case, the Montagues, or as we might say, the whole mishpucha. I could draw some analogy from the question of family identity to the question of Jewish identity, particularly the dynamic combination of culture and ritual that defines what it means to be a Jew in contemporary America.
After completing the novel, Lois found herself confronting Shakespeare’s engagement with ideas of Jewishness, beyond Shylock of The Merchant of Venice. Examining passages from Two Gentleman of Verona, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry IV, Lois mapped the experience of Jews in England during Elizabeth’s reign—and the identities of their gentile neighbors who projected the image of the Jew as expressed by the Bard.
Unlike groups defined by nationality, Jews might shift their geographic presence; but "Jewishness" also implied a different kind of potential instability. In countries under the Inquisition, suspicions persisted regarding whether conversos, Jews forced to convert, were secretly maintaining their Jewish identity and practices. In England, there was a strangely inverse fear that Catholics might be infiltrating the country by disguising themselves as Jews. And throughout Europe, as part of the immense rift begun by the Protestant Reformation, some Catholics accused Protestants of being too like Jews in their practices and beliefs—and some Protestants alleged the same about Catholics.
Four centuries later, Deborah Levy struggled with the perception of Jews during her childhood in South Africa, detailed among the essays of Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing. Facing discrimination during grade school pushed her to rebel through writing, as she has continued to do ever since.