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Randy Susan Meyers on Collective Guilt vs. Collective Fear

Monday, May 13, 2013 | Permalink
Randy Susan Meyers's most recent book, The Comfort of Lies, is now available. She is also the author of The Murderer’s Daughters, a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“Justice is better than chivalry if we cannot have both.” - Alice Stone Blackwell

The Internet is a tricky beast. Sitting alone, cozy in ragged sweatpants, writing while curled on the couch, it’s easy to believe that you’re cloaked in isolation, even as you spill on that most public of forums. Thus, I hesitate before committing words online. After reading a recent well-intentioned post—about an SS officer—a piece written by a friend of a dear friend, an article meant in good will, I wrestled more than usual.

The essay focused on a particular slice of the copious research this first-generation American author did while writing a novel (which I have not read) about Germany before, during, and after WWII, from the point of view of a young German woman who falls in love with a Jewish man.

During her research, the writer (through her family ties in Germany) met with an elderly former SS officer—an officer and doctor— who the writer concludes was stationed on the front lines, not in a camp.

They met in the man’s home, where a German Mother’s Cross (a program begun by Hitler, encouraging German women to have more Aryan children, which yearly—on Hitler's mother's birthday—awarded women crosses centered with swastikas for fertility) hung on the wall, a menorah sat on top of a cabinet, and, in an album of wartime shots shared with the author, was a photo of the officer standing with Hitler.

The author doesn’t question these displayed and shown items: she doesn’t want to discomfort the family member who arranged the interview, upset the doctor’s wife, or continue the process of “collective guilt.” Perhaps the officer was forced into his role, the author suggests. The author herself was a victim of assumption, having been taunted by being called a Nazi because her parents were German.

Despite her sincere attempt to be fair (“who was I to judge him now?” she asks), after finishing the essay I was shaken. Badly. Before writing a comment, I spent hours pondering the wisdom of ignoring the post versus attempting conversation. I didn’t want to anger or insult the writer, or publicly ‘call her out,’ and thus hesitated to commit my feelings to public paper. Still, however well-intentioned, her words felt like slaps against my history. I couldn’t get the essay out of my mind.

Not writing didn’t seem like an option.

Check back tomorrow for the second installment in "Collective Guilt vs. Collective Fear." Read more about Randy Susan Meyers's here.

Open Road Media's Ebooks for Jewish American Heritage Month

Monday, May 13, 2013 | Permalink
by Jackie Anzaroot

May is National Jewish American Heritage Month, a whole month dedicated to celebrating and raising awareness for the cultural and societal impact of Jews in America.

If you’re looking to catch up on Jewish American history this month, you are in luck. We’ve put together here a handy list of titles for you to check out full of biographies and books about Jews in American pop culture.

You’ll find several biographies of culturally significant Jewish Americans, such as actor/filmmaker Woody Allen, composer George Gershwin, playwright David Mamet and singer Leonard Cohen and other books about the sociology of Seinfeld, the history of American Yiddish theater and Jews in the music industry.

You can also take advantage of Open Road Media’s current sale on ebooks, curated specifically for Jewish American Heritage Month. The sale will continue until May 15th and features fifty ebooks written by Jewish American authors in the genres of Jewish fiction, culture and philosophy.

If you’re looking for a new engrossing read, check out some of their stellar fiction titles such as Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and Mary Glickman’s One More River, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 2011.

For a meatier, informative read check out Howard Fast’s classic The Jews: Story of a People or for something a bit more emotional and controversial, they’re also offering William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.

You can't go wrong with any of this picks, so take advantage of it while it’s still going on. 

The Mishpocheh Connection

Friday, May 10, 2013 | Permalink
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, contributes book reviews to the print and online editions and blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve. Earlier this week, he wrote about Jewish resistancerestoring Herschel Grynszpan to the pages of history, Herschel Grynszpan's scandalous theory of defense, and Kristallnacht. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“I’ve dictated a sharp article against the Jews,” Joseph Goebbels boasted in a journal entry in 1933. “At its mere announcement, the whole mischpoke [sic] broke down.”

The word used by the notorious propaganda chief of the Nazi party is a mangled version of the Yiddish word for ‘family’ (mishpocheh), and it conveys the cruelty and contempt that the Nazis held for the Jewish people. To hear the mamaloshen fall from the lips of a man who seeks to murder every Jewish man, woman, child and baby within his reach carries a special kind of horror.

I quote the journal entry in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright), and I use “mishpocheh’ as a kind of leitmotif in the story I tell. At the age of 15, Herschel was sent out of Nazi Germany by his doting mother and father, and the boy was passed along from uncle to uncle until he finally reached Paris, where he was given a place to live by his Uncle Abraham. They were all tragically wrong in assuming that France offered a safe refuge for the Grynszpans, but they acted loyally and courageously in an effort to save the life of the youngest member of the family.

While living in Paris, Herschel learned that his mother, father and older siblings back in Germany had been arrested by the Nazis and driven at gunpoint into the no-man’s-land on the Polish border along with some 12,000 other Polish Jews. Herschel was so distraught over the fate of his cherished family that he bought a revolver, contrived a ruse that allowed him to enter the German embassy in Paris, and assassinated a minor German diplomat as an act of protest and resistance. Ironically, Herschel and the uncle who sheltered him in Paris did not survive, but his father and brother were still alive to testify at Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

As it happens, I first heard the story of Herschel Grynszpan from one of my own mishpocheh — my late father, Robert Reuven Kirsch. He was a literary critic for the Los Angeles Times for nearly thirty years and the author of many books of his own, and he told me in the late 1970s about the novel he intended to write about Herschel’s life and exploits. Sadly, my father fell ill and passed away before he could undertake the project, but I never forgot the strange and even scandalous details of Herschel’s life story. I decided to honor the memory of my beloved father by writing the book that he did not live long enough to write.

That’s why the word mishpocheh appears for the first time in my biography of Herschel Grynszpan on the dedication page: “For my father, Robert . . . and the mishpocheh for whom [his] memory is a blessing.”

Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.

Bonus Reading: Check out National Jewish Book Award Winner Daniel Torday's story about Herschel Grynszpan for Five Chapters, in which he imagines Herschel was still alive, living in Brooklyn, and owned a record store.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 10, 2013 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

 

Kristallnacht and Herschel Grynszpan

Thursday, May 09, 2013 | Permalink
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, contributes book reviews to the print and online editions and blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve. Earlier this week, he wrote about Jewish resistance and restoring Herschel Grynszpan to the pages of history and Herschel Grynszpan's scandalous theory of defense. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Kristallnacht, the first incident of state-sponsored mass violence against the Jews of Nazi Germany, marks a turning point in history. Hitler used the shooting of a minor German diplomat named Ernst vom Rath by a 17-year-old Jewish boy in Paris — the story I tell in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright) — as the pretext for the sudden escalation of his war against the Jews on November 10, 1938. One of the overlooked but highly telling facts about Kristallnacht is that the Nazi regime issued a list of approved phrases to be painted on Jewish storefronts during the “spontaneous” demonstration of righteous German anger. Among the sanctioned graffiti was “Revenge for the murder of vom Rath.”

Here is another reason why history has not been kind to Herschel Grynszpan. When he fired a shot in anger at a Nazi diplomat on that day in 1938, much of the Jewish world was still convinced that passivity and patience offered the only strategy for survival in the face of Nazi anti-Semitism. The shot that Herschel fired in Paris was seen by his fellow Jews as nothing less than a catastrophe. So it was that one Jewish newspaper in Paris was moved to publish an open letter of apology to vom Rath’s mother in which the writer “expressed great sorrow on the death of her son” and implored her that “it was unjust to blame all Jews for her son’s death.”

Today we know that the Jewish response to the Final Solution was tragically misplaced. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, for example, Jews in Germany were required to surrender any weapons they might own. In my book, I tell the story of a man named Rosenberg in the town of Fürth who defied the order by throwing his Browning pistol into the Pegnitz River. A time would come soon when the ghetto fighters and partisans in eastern Europe would risk their lives to add a single battered weapon to their tragically sparse arsenals, and yet the thought apparently never occurred to Rosenberg that he might one day need a weapon to defend himself against the government that sent the Brownshirts into the streets on Kristallnacht.

Of course, the Nazis themselves claimed to see a threat in the Jewish population of Europe. Himmler, the master architect of the Holocaust, once told his Nazi comrades that it would have been “cowardly” for him to spare Jewish children form mass murder precisely because they would “grow up to be the avengers who would kill our fathers and our grandchildren.” That was the whole point of the show trial that Hitler planned and Herschel foiled. Jewish vengeance only came later and never posed a real obstacle to the Final Solution, but we cannot deny that Herschel Grynszpan was one of the first Jewish resisters. To dismiss young Herschel as nothing more than a distraught adolescent — or the aggrieved victim of a homosexual seduction — is to ignore the meaning that he fully intended to convey to the world when he picked up a gun.

“For three lines in history that will be written about the youth who fought and did not go like sheep to the slaughter,” declared Dolek Liebeskind, a member of the Zionist underground in the Cracow ghetto, “it is even worth dying.” One of my goals in writing The Short, Strange Live of Herschel Grynszpan has been to afford him something more than three lines in the history of Jewish resistance.

Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.

Gunmen: A Far-Fetched Analysis and Some Temporary Solutions

Thursday, May 09, 2013 | Permalink
Helène Aylon is an Activist Artist whose work has been shown in MoMA, the Whitney and the Warhol museums. Her memoir, published by the Feminist Press, is called Whatever is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist. Earlier this week, Helene wrote about the macho male and wildlife. She has been blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Before I’m labeled a raging feminist for mentioning that gunmen have been men, I’m telling you I love men but hate machismo. This is a call to purge the world of macho “gunitis” (to coin a new word) like it was hepatitis.

The Gun mystique is glaringly present world over: in every park or city square, there’s a monument mounted on high of some big general flashing his sword or some GI Joe clutching his bayonet. I used to wheel my baby grandson Mendy in Central Park and I made sure to point out (even though he was only two years old) that there was no glory in carrying a rifle, no pride in wearing a uniform. My indoctrination began when I saw his delicate baby face looking up at the fierce military statue on 71st Street and fifth Avenue. A group of bronzed soldiers appear to be falling onto the ground. “Oh,” I whined, “my goodness, look, Sweetie, the soldiers are going to get all dirty; what do you think the soldiers should do?”

Baby Mendy blurted out loud and clear, “they should go home to their Mommies.”

Exactly.

It’s confounding, isn’t it, how some baby boys when they become toddlers, play “bang, bang, you’re dead.” Where did these darlings learn this?

Please don’t laugh and think it’s cute. Even toy water guns should be banned. A young woman I know argued there’s no use—that her kid would substitute a spoon or a stick or something else if he did not have his toy gun. I told her, “that’s fine. Let him shoot with a spoon or a stick—at least he won’t aim with what looks like a gun.”

At the birthday party of my grandson Adam when he was three—as he unwrapped the present from his baby sitter who brought this flashy toy gun all the way from China—I announced aloud, “Nana hates that toy gun.” I did not care whether my testy remark was heard in the noisy celebration; I even held my nose for emphasis as though the gun smelled bad as everyone stared at me.

Next time I visited, little Adam said, “Nana, I hid my gun in the drawer because I knew you were coming!”

“Goody,” I applauded. “Now I don’t have to see that terrible ugh, ugly, pukey gun.” And this time I wrinkled my nose and opened my mouth pretending I was about to throw up.” It’s a start. Better to indoctrinate a sense of loathing instead of raising shaking my head and shrugging off the boys-will-be-boys syndrome.

Notice how “gunitis” creeps into our nice well wishing:

Congratulations, make a killing!
It’s terrific, dynamite!
Don’t give up - stick by your guns!
It’s certain, surefire!
I’m not kidding - I’m dead serious!
You’ll be one of the top guns!
You’ll be one of the big shots!

Compliments are spiced with “Gunitis” too like when a guy raves about a gorgeous woman to his bar pals or locker room buddies:

Man, she's a pistol,
She’s a knockout,
She’s a bombshell,
She slays me!

The NY Times reported that Batman sales were high despite the shootings. “Studio officials in private spent the weekend marveling at the ability of The Dark Knight to maintain much of its momentum in the wake of the killings. The total cost of this PG movie was over 400 million dollars; they took in 162 million. This summer, Warner will release Man of Steel featuring an updated version of Superman.”

What’s creepier is the immediate reaction to the Colorado shooting reported in The NY Times as ”a scramble to buy guns.”

It’s The Great Disconnect.

The cry for gun control, a global keening, could not be heard through the wall of silence that has been built in tandem with the National Rifle Association. There are efforts to prohibit sugary drinks, but there had been no such effort for a prohibition on guns.

Only now, with the massacre of children in their school, has the wall of silence been pierced.

There is an urgency for a quick temporary solution until the crucial day when the sale of all guns becomes illegal except for use in the police and military:

1. Here is my own temporary solution:

OK, guns can be legally sold (go sell, go to hell); however, guns can only be legally sold to women!

(Watch ninety percent of gun sales go up in smoke!)

The regulations would include these rulings:

Armaments cannot be mailed: Metal detectors would be used in the post office as in the airport; women over the age of 21 may buy guns but only in person; the buyers and the sellers will be photographed; the buyer’s personal history will be recorded by police officers standing guard at gun stores – current and past addresses, name of spouse or partner, place of employment.

See, this temporary law makes perfect sense; males are not in need of protection from gunwomen, because for the most part there have been no gunwomen to fear.

2. Bullets should cost a million dollars, says Chris Rock. No one would be able to afford them.

3. My 13-year-old granddaughter, Melea, suggested that psychological workshops be mandatory in high school just as phys.ed is mandatory. Expert psychologists and drama therapists would discern problem tendencies and alert parents so that mental health workers can treat these symptoms before they become the poisonous insanity we have been witnessing.

4. Now, after the most tragic killing of children in the supposed safety of their school, the President had better ban the assault weapons that can kill one hundred at once. The President had better make sure there are required intensive background checks which does not take away (oh, g-d forbid!) owning guns.

Helène Aylon is an Activist Artist whose work has been shown in MoMA, the Whitney and the Warhol museums. Her memoir, published by the Feminist Press, is called Whatever is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist.

Shani Boianjiu on Writing Forever Stories

Thursday, May 09, 2013 | Permalink

We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the next several weeks, we'll share their responses. Today, Shani Boianjiu discusses writing her novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (Hogarth).

Jews are known for asking questions. From the Four Questions in the Passover Hag­gadah to the Jewish teaching style, questions have an important role in the histories of Jews from all corners of the Diaspora and are also a distinctive feature of Israeli culture. Brash Israelis like myself are famous for asking inappropriate questions at inappropri­ate times. Questions are also an integral part of stories. Every story I ever wrote was my attempt to answer a question that would not leave me alone.

Questions can make the one questioned defensive because they are all too often actually differing opinions rather than questions. Differing opinions being, of course, one more thing Jews are known for. I know that questions about my book can make me defensive. When I am asked why I wrote my book in English, what I hear is that I should have written it in Hebrew, my native language. When I am asked why my first novel focused on female Israeli soldiers, I wonder what is wrong with writing about that.

By far, the questions that leave me most speechless are the many political questions I receive from both left and right. This is because these questions are most often actually specific assertions of differing opinions. The person asking them wants to know why I did not use my fiction to advance his own political view regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.

It was not my goal to advance one specific statement about anything when I wrote this book. I started writing fiction because I could not not write. I spent countless hours staring into sand during long army guarding shifts and the only way I could pass the time was through telling and re-telling stories to myself, tweaking every image and word dozens of times. By the time I finally got a few days at home and had access to a computer, I already knew the words I would write by heart.

A few years later, when I was in college in the U.S., I wrote entirely different stories, but the way in which I wrote did not change much. I would let sentences and characters and scenes live inside my head for a very long time, and only wrote them down when I felt that if I did not get rid of them my head would explode. I wrote to answer what were burning questions for me: what it meant to be young under certain conditions; what a certain realization might taste like in my characters’ mouths. I wanted to write forever stories, and what was most important to me was to aspire to reach the type of books that lived in my own head forever, even when most of the time when I began writing my first book I failed and had to start all over again.

I did not set out to write about female Israeli soldiers. When I wrote my first book I was only a couple of years past my own service days. It only made sense to me that the characters I most wanted to spend time with were close to me in age. And military service just happens to be a fact of life for young Israeli females. I did not set out to write a book about an experience rarely described in fiction. I wrote what I had to say.

By far the most difficult question for me to answer is why I chose to write my book in English. This is a legitimate question to ask any writer whose native language is not English. But for Israelis, who cherish the Hebrew language as our most prized accomplishment, this is a particularly loaded question. The opinion I hear hidden in this question is that I have abandoned the Hebrew language that others have worked so hard to save from oblivion.

Moreover, modern Hebrew is a recent creation; it is only in the last forty years that there have even been many people who grew up speaking no language but Hebrew. Jewish history is full of writers who wrote in their third or even fourth language, at times mixing and matching and bending the rules of the languages they were working with to create a language that was entirely their own as Jews immersed in their diverse places of residence. Judging by the many times I have been asked why I chose to write in English, this particular Jewish literary tradition is expected to have stopped with Israelis.

I always start my answer about writing in English by saying it was an accident. And, the fact is, it was an accident in the truest sense of the word. I fell in love. I fell in love with the endless well of words that exist in English. With the ambiguities and subtleties it allows, the richness of the cultures it swal­lows, the sound of Hebrew phrases and slang as I transported them into English.

When speaking with fellow Jews and in particular fellow Israelis, I used to start my answer about English by saying I was sorry, guilt being another known Jewish tradition. But the more I think about it and hear the world’s response to my first book, I realize that I am not sorry at all. Is it not the prerogative of a native Hebrew speaker to fall in love with a different language? To celebrate her native tongue by writing about it in another? Is that not what being a nation among nations could also truly mean?

I am certain that the next time I am asked about writing in English, or any other question about my writing, I will start by saying I am sorry. But I hope that one day soon I can follow that by saying: actually, I am not sorry, I am not sorry at all. This is what I have to say and this is the way I choose to say it. The most I can do is ask you to listen.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem in 1987 and is from an Iraqi and Romanian background. She was raised in a small town on the Lebanese border. At the age of eighteen, she entered the Israeli Defense Forces and served for two years. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is her first book.


A Scandalous Theory of Defense and Herschel Grynszpan

Wednesday, May 08, 2013 | Permalink
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, contributes book reviews to the print and online editions and blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve. Earlier this week, he wrote about Jewish resistance and restoring Herschel Grynszpan to the pages of history. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

At the age of 17, as a refugee from Nazi Germany living illegally in Paris, Herschel Grynszpan saw the world in 1938 as a dire and dangerous place, a perception that he shared with all of his fellow Jews. Unlike them, however, he was capable of imagining the atrocities that the Germans would be willing to carry out in the next few years, and he resolved to call attention to the plight of the Jews by assassinating a Nazi diplomat. That’s the story I tell in my new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright).

“I have to protest in a way that the whole world hears my protest,” he wrote to his parents in a confessional postcard that he was unable to mail before his arrest, “and this I intend to do.”

Herschel is not the only young Jew who showed more vision and more courage than his elders in those terrible times. After all, it was the youthful activists of the Bund and the Zionist movement, both left and right, who banded together in the ghetto uprisings in Warsaw and elsewhere while some older and supposedly wiser members of the Judenrat cooperated with the Germans in drafting the deportation lists. (To be sure, young people can be impulsive and even reckless — we have seen yet more evidence of this fact in recent headlines — but we should not deny that sometimes a hotheaded boy can be right.)

Yet it is the young ghetto fighters who are remembered, honored and celebrated, while Herschel Grynszpan is almost wholly ignored.

More than one reason can be cited to explain why Grynszpan has been derogated, diminished and sometimes entirely left out of the history of Jewish resistance during the Second World War. In my book, I explore all of the rumor and speculation that has attached itself to the Grynszpan case, including a catalogue of conspiracy theories, some focusing on the Jews and some on the Nazis, which have been offered to explain his exploits. (Hannah Arendt embraced one of the more bizarre theories in Eichmann in Jerusalem.) One reason, however, stands out.

At a crucial moment in the Grynszpan case, when the boy was awaiting his murder trial in Paris, Herschel’s attorney made a remarkable proposal to his client. The French were fearful of war with Germany, he pointed out, and no jury would dare to acquit him of the crime if they believed that he had murdered a Nazi diplomat as a gesture of protest against the Third Reich. But what if his motive was something more intimate? What if the Nazi diplomat whom he killed was a sexual predator who had seduced and then abandoned him? If so, the attorney suggested, the jury might be persuaded to regard the whole affair as case as a crime passionelle rather than a political assassination.

Grynszpan rejected the scandalous theory of defense and insisted on justifying his crime as a legitimate act of protest against Nazi mistreatment of the Jewish people. The idea was abandoned by his attorney, who dismissed Herschel as “that absurd little Jew,” but not by Herschel himself. Once in Germany custody, utterly alone in a Gestapo cell, he saw a single way to frustrate Hitler’s plan for a show trial. If put on trial, he courageously told his interrogators, he would testify that he murdered the Nazi diplomat as an act of revenge against a homosexual predator who had ruined and betrayed him.

Here was Herschel’s single greatest act of courage and vision. He understood that the Nazis hated homosexuals as much as they hated Jews, and he recognized that they would not stage a show trial if he were to sully the honor of the Third Reich by characterizing his victim as a gay man. The decision was made by Hitler himself after he had been warned of Herschel’s intentions by the trial planners, and the elaborate script that had been prepared for the Grynszpan trial was shelved. Herschel had sabotaged the Nazi plans for a propaganda coup, but he also managed to cast a shadow over his own motives. “I guarantee you, if everything about Grynszpan’s case was the same, except that he slept with Anne Frank,” wrote journalist Jonathan Marks in the New York Jewish Week in 2010, “there’d be floats in his honor at the Salute to Israel Parade.”

No hard historical evidence supports the allegation that he had been seduced and abandoned by the man he assassinated. Indeed, we do not know with certainty whether or not Herschel was gay at all. But it is beyond serious debate that the explosive issue of sexual orientation that he injected into the case while in German custody cast a pall over his exploits. The Nazis were hardly the only homophobes, then or now, and his avowed sexual orientation may help us understand why he is treated so coolly even in Jewish circles.

Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.

Philip Roth: Celebration of a Career

Wednesday, May 08, 2013 | Permalink

by Alan Cooper

With the 2013 publication of its final (eighth and ninth) volumes of Philip Roth’s collected works, The Library of America (LoA) has reprinted every word of Roth’s thirty-one books, twenty-eight of them works of fiction. There will be no more Roth books. These hand-hold­able volumes “printed on light-weight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age” have preserved Roth for the ages. It remains to be seen what, if anything, can guarantee a Roth readership.

This completion of the LoA project coincides with Roth’s eightieth birthday and with his growing conviction that the fiction-reading public is dwindling in the face of electronic quick fixes, perhaps consigning the traditional novel to a footnote in literary history. Roth has announced his retirement from the writing of fiction, echoing yet again what has been for him a triggering precept, Rilke’s “You must change your life.” Roth’s public and his readership (not always the same thing) have re­sponded with due celebration and wishful disbelief.

Critical revaluations and predictions are popping up in print. Which are the great novels, which the merely good—or wonderfully good—and do the shortened works of his last five productive years match up to his standards? After fifty-four years of pounding it out, is he now tired? lonely? losing it? entitled to a life away from the keyboard? or to some celebration? He has authorized a biography and chosen the biographer. He has attended the naming of a street after him in his native Newark, NJ and the plaquing of his childhood home as a city landmark. Hundreds of people have taken bus tours of his Weequahic neighborhood to see, and hear rehearsed, the places and events of his novels. Two documen­tary films have been made about his life and works. Speculations are abuzz—perhaps there will be another full-length novel, about a man who un-retires; perhaps a Nobel Prize will top the dozen or so major awards already bestowed upon him; perhaps the Swedes will drop their anti-Semitism!

But at an eightieth birthday celebration at the Newark Museum, where an overflow audience heard praises of his astonishing talent by world- renowned authors and scholars and a moving response by Roth on the importance, especially to a writer, of mining life’s small moments and of accepting the finality of death, it became clear that his shutting down owes to the convergences of time. Other speakers stood, Roth sat. He walked with a bit of a shuffle, but his handshake was firm and his eye engaging.

In recent interviews Roth has acknowledged he gets tired, he has a medical history, he has sometimes felt lonely; yet he has a personal life about which he remains silent (it’s none of our business), and an irrepressible sense of humor. During his years as a writer he sometimes felt the panic of being between books, of not knowing what his next subject would be, of awaiting some thought or memory that could raise a question that writing might explore. He let the fiction come from the imagination at work during the writing, concentrating on the passage at hand and trusting that somehow it would suggest itself into plot, setting, character. Sometimes it did not. Any success might have had to await the rewriting. Authorship took time. Other claimants on that time might have been easily resented. His books were his children; his child­hood got relived in his books.

It was a Jewish childhood; it has been a secular Jewish life. Alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman’s statement, “Jews are to history as Eskimos are to snow[.]” or Nathan’s discomfort in a church, where every symbol posited destruction of Jews, or the fictive Roth’s calling his fictive alter-ego “Moshe Pipick” (not to be expected from a John Updike) reflect a sensibility that has chronicled the Jewish experience in America from a humanist point of view. In his Newark Museum response, Roth read a seven-page reminiscence by his Mickey Sabbath: the gravestone mes­sages of Jews—the “beloved” fathers, husbands, sons, friends. “The beloved are comfortably dead,’ he quipped warmly and softly, and then quoted Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it stops.” In an older Jewish context “…man lieth down and rises not;/Till the heavens be no more, they shall not wake,/ or be roused out of their sleep” (Job, 14:12). Good company for a Jewish humanist. Readers owe it to themselves to reread Philip Roth.

Alan Cooper teaches English at York College, CUNY. Notable among his numerous contributions to periodicals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His latest book is the young-adult novel Prince Paskudnyak and the Giant Bats.

Restoring Herschel Grynszpan to the Pages of History

Tuesday, May 07, 2013 | Permalink
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, contributes book reviews to the print and online editions and blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve. Earlier this week, he wrote about Jewish resistance and Herschel GrynszpanHe will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My new book, The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris (Liveright), is the biography of a 17-year-old boy who sought to write himself into history but, ironically, has been almost wholly ignored in the scholarship of World War II and the Holocaust.

Herschel achieved a brief moment of fame in 1938, when he entered the German embassy in Paris and shot a Nazi diplomat. Indeed, his deed was the focus of a media frenzy, and one famous American journalist, columnist and broadcast Dorothy Thompson organized a defense committee that hired a famous French attorney to represent him in the courts. No less a world-historical figure than Leon Trotsky wrote about the case for the newspapers, and English composer Michael Tippett was inspired to write an oratorio about Herschel Grynszpan, A Child of Our Time.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, however, the world press moved on from coverage of the Grynszpan case, and he disappeared into a Gestapo prison cell after the German invasion of France. Significantly, “the Jew Grynszpan,” as the Nazis invariably called him, was well known to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler was eager to mount a show trial that would justify the mass murder of the Jews by focusing on the armed resistance of one Jew. For Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, the Grynszpan case was not less than an obsession.

But Herschel himself, no longer represented by famous lawyers or championed by celebrated columnists, was forced to find his own to foil Hitler and his henchmen. As I explore in my book, and will revisit in my next blog, the scandalous sexual secret that he revealed to his German interrogators — Adolf Eichmann among them — succeeded in convincing Hitler to postpone the show trial, but it also explains why Herschel Grynszpan is not embraced as the Jewish hero he sought to be.

Today, the world is divided into a large number of people who have never heard of Herschel Grynszpan, and a much smaller number who recall his name and deed, although even these people rarely know the whole story or the real story. My mission in writing The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan has been to restore the 17-year-old boy to the pages of history. Ironically, that’s exactly where he aspired to put himself when he took up arms against Nazi Germany in a symbolic act of violence in Paris in 1938.

Hitler knew Grynszpan by name. So did Goebbels and Eichmann. And so should we.


Jonathan Kirsch is author of 13 books, book editor of The Jewish Journal, and an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles.