The ProsenPeople

On the Future of the Holocaust Novel

Friday, December 14, 2018 | Permalink

By Bram Presser

In the not-too-distant future, the Holocaust will have passed from living memory. There will be no survivors left to tell us of the horrors they endured, or the triumph of survival, or even the mundane minutiae that is so rarely acknowledged. What they will have left behind is, of course, extraordinary. In volume. In breadth. In depth. Countless words, many of them assembled into great works of literature, others into more modest efforts, written down so that their families might know. Thousands upon thousands of hours of audio and video testimony, pictures, diagrams, photos, ephemera of the most varied kinds. Soon, however, it will all begin to gather dust, to fade into history. It will become a setting, a context, just like every other historical catastrophe. If this idea offends you, I’m glad. It offends me too. But only because it is the one horror that I have truly known, that has befallen people I have loved. I cannot separate my own connection, my need to desperately cling to its importance, from the inevitable effect of time.

I often wonder about the shape of Holocaust memory in a post-survivor world. In particular, I question the role of the novelist in keeping memory alive. Fiction has always had its place alongside memoir and nonfiction when it comes to telling stories about the Holocaust. Even in the survivor generation, for every Primo Levi or Viktor Frankl, there was an Aharon Appelfeld or Imre Kertesz. Later, fiction became a way for the children of survivors to confront the trauma that had rendered their parents silent. The third generation, with the benefit of time and an enormous ocean of primary sources, could search for essential truths that the historical record alone could not hope to convey. So too, writers with no personal connection at all. But the one thing that anchored all of them—access to firsthand accounts that are not frozen in form or substance—will soon disappear. No longer will writers be able to speak with survivors, ask questions, clarify. This might all seem obvious, but it is also critically important because what is at stake is the future of Holocaust narrative.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the recent controversy surrounding The Tattooist of Auschwitz, an international bestseller based on “the incredible true story” of Lali Sokolov. Its author, the Australian Heather Morris, has long maintained that the novel is “95% fact,” but it has become increasingly apparent that she took considerable liberties with the story. Sokolov’s family is said to be dismayed by Morris’s portrayal. But more telling was the response from the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center. In an unprecedented move, the Center has come out against the book and its distortion of the realities of the camp. It even went so far as to publish a fact-checking report, which refutes many of Morris’s descriptions and historical observations. The Center’s press officer ultimately concluded, in an interview with The Australian, that The Tattooist of Auschwitz is “almost without value as a document.” Another leading Holocaust scholar called it “a sex story of Auschwitz that has very little historical accuracy.”

Of course, this is not the first time that such a fuss has been made about a successful Holocaust novel. Similar accusations were leveled at John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. Like The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Boyne’s book—which tells the story of a young Jewish boy who befriends the son of the camp commandant—was accused of minimizing and sanitizing the Holocaust. Even the U.K-based Literary Review, about as un-Jewish a publication as you could imagine, devoted an entire editorial to its problematic nature. But Boyne had his supporters, too. For the most part they pointed to the book’s allegorical, almost fantastical nature. It was a kid’s book, after all, and its value lay in its message, not its fidelity or otherwise to the historical record. That has been the line taken by Morris and her publishers: a novel does not claim to stand in place of history. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is fiction, and popular fiction at that. Sounds logical, I guess. But is there not an ethical obligation, no matter how fantastical your story, to get the basic facts right?

Leaving aside Morris’s claim about her book being only 5% removed from truth (despite multiple critical departures from Sokolov’s Shoah Foundation testimony, which it would appear she never watched), the real problem with The Tattooist of Auschwitz is not that it gets Lali’s story wrong but that it gets Auschwitz wrong. Very wrong. And given its success, the version of Auschwitz it describes risks becoming dominant in the historical narrative, especially at a time when studies show that general knowledge of the Holocaust is at an all-time low and falling.

So, if distortion is already a growing phenomenon, where does that leave the Holocaust novelist? What happens when there are no survivors left and the Holocaust exists, in the creative sense, as just another historical setting? One thing is for sure. It will continue to be fertile ground for fiction. As one English bookseller said to me, “Put in a few Nazis, it’s sure to shift units.” Holocaust narrative will also drift ever further from Jewish “custodianship.” Some detractors of both Morris and Boyne have pointed to their not being Jewish as part of the issue. They are, in my mind, wrong. While #OwnVoices (a term coined to highlight marginalized characters written by authors who are part of that marginalized group) has rightly sought to rectify the silencing of underrepresented minorities in literature, it does not preclude participation from outside the Jewish writing world. In fact, two of the best Holocaust novels of recent times were written by non-Jews: Daša Drndić’s Trieste, and The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. Drndić’s book, in particular, stands out for its meticulous research, intellectual ferocity, and eminent readability. I asked Drndić some years ago why, though she wasn’t Jewish and was from Croatia, a country with its own, more recent genocidal history, she chose to write about the Holocaust. Her response: the Holocaust is the universal symbol of barbarous inhumanity. Drndić used it as an indictment against our collective failings, to rub our noses in the worst our species has to offer. I would suggest, as a logical extension, that the Holocaust allows for the deeper exploration of themes because it carries with it a degree of assumed knowledge; you needn’t labor yourself with describing the atrocities. This allows you space that other genocides—those that might require you to write the story of the genocide, as opposed to writing a human story within it—do not.

And those are precisely the kind of stories we, as novelists, seek to tell. Not having to write the Holocaust, not having to document atrocities (itself problematic as many books tip into the realm of atrocity porn), sets us free. We can move away from the victim/hero archetype that has plagued much of Holocaust literature and return agency to those who lived through it. We can tell small stories, stories of relationships. We can confront taboos, crack open the silences. And we can do it without pages of didactic exposition.

Assuming knowledge, however, also carries considerable risk. It can breed complacency in both the reader and the writer. It can entrench errors and mistruths. And so it is incumbent upon writers to ground themselves in deep knowledge of any aspect of the Holocaust about which they write. Research, cross-check, question. All the more so if, like Morris, you are turning a survivor’s story into a novel that you will be passing off as “95% fact.” Trauma and time do terrible things to memory. Seeking to corroborate, to correct, is the ultimate act of respect, not some cynical surrender to doubt. Lali Sokolov deserved better than to have his story left open to questioning and criticism. His lapses can easily be accounted for. Morris’s cannot.

That said, I don’t mean to be proscriptive. We need not place limits on the creative endeavor. Indeed, some of my favorite Holocaust novels venture into the surreal, the hilarious, the speculative. Ladislav Fuks’s Mr. Theodore Mundstock, a forgotten classic of postwar Czech literature, centers around an old man who decides to prepare himself for the concentration camps by building a replica barracks in his apartment. Mundstock is both Chicken Little and practical sage, with a touch of Jakob the Liar. That he is accompanied throughout by his shadow and an imaginary bird (both fully realized characters), allows the reader considerable insight into a mind torn between despair and unbridled optimism. Similarly, The Dance of Genghis Cohn by Romain Gary hilariously tells of a prankster who, at the moment of his execution, flashes his buttocks at a Nazi firing squad and returns as a ghost to haunt the man who shot him. And then, of course, there is Shalom Auslander’s outrageously funny Hope: A Tragedy, in which the protagonist finds himself embroiled in a battle of wits with an elderly Anne Frank who, it so happens, is living in his roof and suffering one heck of a bout of Second Book Syndrome. Novels like these may do all sorts of strange things with the Holocaust narrative as we know it. They self-consciously depart from “the facts.” But they don’t pass off inaccuracies as historical record.

And therein lies the moral. Create, create, create. But do so from a place of knowledge, and always speak the truth.

Image: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons

Bram Presser’s debut novel, The Book of Dirt, won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the UTS Glenda Award for New Writing and the People's Choice Award at the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the 2018 Voss Literary Prize.

New Reviews December 10, 2018

Monday, December 10, 2018 | Permalink

I Re-Read American Girl's Rebecca Rubin Books, and They Hold Up

Monday, December 03, 2018 | Permalink

By Emily Schneider

When my daughter, now a young adult, was around ten years old, she wrote a letter to the makers of American Girl Dolls asking about the possibility of a Jewish doll. Like the exclusive country clubs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the sought-after group of dolls was all-Christian (and, until 1993, all-white). She received a prompt and courteous response thanking her for entrusting American Girl to represent her traditions, but informing her that no such doll was on the horizon.

Enough Jewish American girls other than my own must have asked for the same, because in 2009, American Girl introduced Rebecca Rubin, their first Jewish historical doll, to the world. Her debut was announced everywhere from The New York Times to The Jerusalem Post. For standing only eighteen inches tall, she carried a lot of weight on her shoulders. While there have been a number of criticisms leveled at the perceived commercialism of the American Girl enterprise, most Jewish readers had overwhelmingly positive reactions to Rebecca. By adding her to a roster of dolls and stories that trace the history of girlhood in our country, American Girl made a meaningful statement about the significance of Jews in American life.

The original premise of American Girl was to offer a total package of reading and imaginative play rooted in history. To that end, each doll had her own book series. These books have mostly been dismissed by mainstream literary critics as frivolous marketing material simply made to sell more products. While these critiques certainly hold some truth, reading the books now, nearly a decade after their release, it’s evident how much value they still have. The books invite readers to learn about an unfamiliar past, and to empathize with Rebecca as she negotiates family relationships and balances Jewish traditions with the appeal of American life. The Jewishness of these books stands in stark contrast to the Rebecca doll and her accoutrements, which have been increasingly disappointing in their erasure of Rebecca’s Jewish heritage.

With the Rebecca Rubin book series, author Jacqueline Dembar Greene created a Jewish character who celebrated Hanukkah, not Christmas, and who didn’t eat outside of her home during Pesach. Living on New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Rebecca was a child of Yiddish-speaking parents. Like any American girl she also loved the new entertainment that movies provided, and enthusiastically sang “You’re a Grand Old Flag” at her school assembly. Showing her belonging in both worlds—religious “old world” and secular “new world” is significant, as Jews in Rebecca’s time were (and to an extent, always have been) suspected of harboring dual loyalties to their people and their country.

While there were many children’s books with Jewish characters well before Rebecca, she was cast into the spotlight in a way that the girls of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series, whose profound influence on Dembar Greene is evident, had not been. Rebecca and her books not only needed the approval of Jewish consumers, but also from the wildly loyal fanbase of the whole American Girl enterprise. Rebecca's story also faced the same skepticism of critics who, quite reasonably, have questioned the literary value of books sold along with dolls priced in the one hundred dollar range. Author Meg Wolitzer was not alone in her dismissal of American Girl's books, referring to “the seductions of these novels…from the bright paintings…on their covers to the simple plotlines and cheerful if predictable characters.”

Yet, conceding that no one is going to suggest awarding any American Girl book the Newberry Medal, Dembar Greene’s Rebecca Rubin saga is actually thoughtful and sensitive, and immersed in the particulars of Jewish immigrant life of an earlier time. Rebecca may resolve most of her conflicts pretty easily, but at least some of those conflicts are particular to the experience of American Jews.

Like most popular books for young readers, the first Rebecca book poses a central issue to be resolved; in her case, the problem begins with Shabbos candles. If only she had her own pair, perhaps her mother and her condescending older sisters would allow Rebecca to light them. At the same time, this new maturity would possibly convince her parents and grandparents to let her go to the movies. If this best-of-both-worlds combination seems simplistic, Greene at least admits that the Rubins’ secular and religious lives sometimes collide. Rebecca’s father has a small shoe store that he keeps open on Saturdays—a degree of assimilation being the price of success. Working on Saturdays was a common accommodation made by immigrant Jews.

In another chapter, Rebecca confronts a historically typical dilemma for Jewish children in American public schools. Her teacher, Miss Maloney, is utterly obtuse about the problem that her Christmas project poses for the Jewish children in her class. (She also punishes students for inadvertently lapsing into Yiddish.) Overwhelmed with excitement by the prospect of constructing holiday centerpieces out of red candles and genuine Central Park greenery, she is unable to empathize with students who observe Hanukkah, not Christmas. Greene realistically presents a range of responses from the Jewish students. Some claim that their families won’t care, while Rebecca’s friend Rose, formerly Rifka, is anguished at the prospect of bringing home this useless and insulting object. The teacher is patronizing and firm in her refusal to exempt anyone: “Miss Maloney smiled kindly, as if Rose simply didn’t understand. ‘Christmas is a national holiday, children, celebrated by Americans all over the country.’”

Since Rebecca’s debut in 2009, American Girl’s emphasis on the stories of girls from the past has been increasingly sidelined in favor of more accessible, modern dolls. The historical dolls and books have been rebranded as “BeForever,” a phrase that seems pulled from a Disney princess line, and conveys to girls that their lives and those of girls in the past are essentially the same. The books previously ended with a “Looking Back” section that provided historical background; one of the original Rebecca books, for example, had information about the 1909 Shirtwaist strike by primarily Jewish women garment workers. All of the beautiful and detailed color illustrations previously used to bring the stories to life have also been taken out. The newer cover images are a computer-generated horror, with Rebecca looking as if her hair has just been professionally blown out.

But even her original incarnation as a doll showed some reluctance by American Girl to reflect Rebecca’s Jewishness to the degree displayed in the books. The original books, illustrated by Robert Hunt, depict Rebecca with dark brown wavy hair, dark brown eyes, and a prominent nose. The Rebecca doll, however, had lighter hair, hazel eyes, and identical features to the other white dolls.

Rebecca’s accessories have also changed over the years. The company has decided to outfit Rebecca with clothes and furniture that are more Downton Abbey than Hester Street. In Changes for Rebecca, the last book in the original series, our heroine stands up for striking workers, making a powerful speech in Battery Park about “dark, dirty, dangerous” factories, and bosses who would rather exploit people than respect them. But the gaudy, gold-accented bed with hot pink bedding and satin pajamas currently sold along with Rebecca negate the Rubin family’s frugality and fears of poverty that are constantly brought out in the books. 

American Girl’s approach to marketing Rebecca’s accessories has also shifted: At first customers could purchase what was called her “Sabbath Set,” which included a miniature plastic challah, candlesticks, and Russian samovar. In 2013, the set was renamed “Rebecca’s Teatime Traditions,” reducing her central religious observance to a light snack—and in contrast to Shabbos candles and other key symbols of Jewish identity playing a central role throughout the book series.

Though still widely available, the original American Girl books are no longer in print. But even if reading about the trials and triumphs of Jewish immigrant life in the early twentieth century comes to seem more distant and exotic, curiosity about the past and questions about its relevance to the present can still immerse children in Rebecca’s stories.

In one scene in Candlelight for Rebecca, Rebecca sits with her grandfather as he reads a copy of the Yiddish Forverts. Rebecca wears a black dress and tights, and a handknit shawl. Troubled by her teacher’s ignorance, Rebecca asks her grandfather if Hanukkah is an unimportant holiday. He folds his paper and gives her his full attention as he explains the meaning of the Maccabees’ revolt, pointing out that immigrants need to learn new ways, but that “we can’t forget who we are, even if it means being a little different.” As a generic message of pride and loyalty to traditions, the grandfather’s conclusion may appeal to any reader. For Jewish readers it has a specific resonance, as unique to Jews as Rebecca’s candles.

Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children's books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.

New Reviews December 3, 2018

Monday, December 03, 2018 | Permalink

Perspectives on Judah Maccabee

Friday, November 30, 2018 | Permalink

By Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary

For Jewish Book Month, Jewish Book Council has teamed up with Yeshiva University to highlight new books in the broad field of Jewish scholarship. For many of us, scholarly books, particularly those on ancient times, belong only to the world of academia. But often, the history and thought in these books have direct relation to contemporary ideas, events, and rituals.

Every Jewish schoolchild knows of Judah Maccabee; perhaps they’ve even dressed up like him for a Hanukkah play. Similarly, every historian of the period places this fearsome military leader at center stage, regardless of whether they describe him as a heroic freedom fighter or as a fundamentalist religious terrorist. Remarkably, however, Judah’s name appears nowhere in all of rabbinic literature. This absence requires explanation, especially when contrasted with the heroic description of Judah in the Books of Maccabees, and his even greater aggrandizement in the four hundred paragraphs about his achievements in the writings of Josephus.

Nineteenth-century scholarship portrayed the Pharisees and rabbis as caring only about religious freedom rather than political sovereignty. The rabbis accordingly downplayed military activism, which might encourage a dangerous replay of anti-Roman revolts, in favor of religious and spiritual leadership. These scholars pointed to the lack of a Mishnaic tractate for Hanukkah, statements opposing non-Davidic kings, and the de-emphasis on the military victory in favor of the miracle of the cruse of oil as the basis for the holiday.

After the 1930s, however, historians questioned the earlier interpretation and instead emphasized pro-Hasmonean statements in rabbinic literature and assumed literary rather than political explanations for the centrality of the cruse of oil story. In part motivated by Zionist ideology, this scholarship paved the way for a positive view of the Hasmoneans as models for modern Israeli statehood. These scholars correctly noted that rabbinic literature is not historiography, and therefore omission of even significant events need not arouse attention. Nevertheless, Judah the Maccabee seems too central to miss even taking into account the spotty nature of the Talmud.

Vered Noam, in her book Shifting Images of the Hasmoneans: Second Temple Legends and Their Reception in Josephus and Rabinnic Literature, resolves this aporia and arrives at a more nuanced conclusion by separating individual Hasmonean leaders from their collective achievements: “The rabbis cherished the Hasmonean victory and the national freedom to which it gave birth, but steadfastly refused to regard military-political leaders as figures worthy of emulation. Instead of idolizing a fighter, the leader of a rebellion, they preferred to ignore him as an individual and to praise an anonymous victory.”

While the Talmud censors the names of the first generation of Mattathias’s sons, they do mention positively the second generation Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus. But that is only because they are able to portray him as a rabbinized sage who received prophecy, drawing on an ancient tradition also cited by Josephus. For the next two generations, Talmudic stories vilify Alexander Yannai and his sons and defend the reputation of the Pharisaic leaders. In sum, the rabbis endorse the political aspirations of the Hasmoneans, but praise individuals Hasmoneans only if they fit into a Pharisaic/rabbinic model.

All of this contrasts with Josephus, who extols the Hasmonean leaders beyond even the praise lavished on them in 1 Maccabees, his primary source. He also introduces some criticisms of the Pharisees in order to mitigate the evil of the last generations of Hasmoneans. Josephus may have ended his days in the Pharisaic camp, but he also remembered his Hasmonean ancestry and, in a conflict, preferred the latter over the former.

With her typical erudition and insight, Noam reviews six significant narratives about the Hasmonean dynasty as recorded in Josephus and rabbinic literature. This book focuses less on what really happened and more on what Josephus and the rabbis thought of the Hasmoneans. She does this by peeling away each layer of these traditions so that they can be compared and contrasted side by side.

While previous scholars have assumed that the rabbis drew their stories directly or indirectly from Josephus, Noam’s project proves that rabbinic traditions stand independent of Josephus and that both draw upon earlier sets of traditions, many deriving from now-lost Pharisaic sources. Fascinatingly, this means that some details within rabbinic stories may retain greater historical accuracy than discrepancies in Josephus, despite the former composing their works centuries after the latter.

Having become one of the most popular holidays in the Jewish calendar, Jews today continue to celebrate Hanukkah and retell the stories of Judah the Maccabee and his family. Different people will choose to emphasize various aspects of these stories to reflect their own views on politics, power, sovereignty, and assimilation. But this is nothing new. As Noam demonstrates, each narrative retelling teaches us as much about their original Maccabean subjects as about the storytellers themselves.

Image via Die Bibel in Bildern / Wikimedia Commons

Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary is Associate Professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University and author of, most recently, Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

A Shifting View

Monday, November 26, 2018 | Permalink

By Angela Himsel

Going through my parents’ effects in southern Indiana after their deaths two years ago was a massive and, at times, mystifying undertaking. We unearthed my youngest sister Rachael’s baby teeth, complete with the date they fell out and my father’s meticulous handwritten notes on how hard she cried. There was a National Geographic from 1926, and black and white photos of Israel dating from World War II—mystifying because my parents had never been to Israel. I suspected that my mother, who’d worked as a private sitter for elderly people, had been gifted these items after one of her patients had passed on.

In the early eighties, as a student at the Hebrew University, there was a shop in the Old City of Jerusalem that I loved to browse in. It sold plastic encased watercolor drawings, sepia prints, and black and white photos of Jerusalem and the Holy Land that dated from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. I vividly remember holding a drawing that depicted Jerusalem’s landscape of the previous century: against a pink-washed sky, a mostly barren Mount of Olives loomed over the Dome of the Rock. “Wow,” I marveled, “this is the view of Jerusalem that people saw way before I arrived on this earth.” At nineteen, this seemed like a pretty profound insight.

While the view from the Mount of Olives was spectacular, so was the view from its adjacent mountain, Mount Scopus, where Hebrew University was located. Walking to and from class, I saw the Dome of the Rock below, and the Old City’s ancient limestone buildings that glowed red and gold in the sunset. It was a far cry from the landscape of my childhood: cornfields stretching out to the horizon, Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco written on the side of barns, blue skies, peace, and tranquility. In many respects, Midwesterners mirrored this landscape: open and not given to unexpected bursts of passion.

In contrast, Israel, with its layers and layers of civilizations—the Jebusites, Israelites,Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Umayyads, Crusaders, Ottomans, British and a bunch of others in between—was complicated. That was evident, too, from the view on Mount Scopus. At the edge of the university was an amphitheater that overlooked the much-disputed West Bank and the barren Judean Hills, the subject of intense discussions among both my Palestinian and Jewish friends. Just below was the Old City, divided into the Jewish, Armenian, Muslim and Christian quarters. Directly south, the seven gilded-onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Church held sway on the Mount of Olives, and down its slope was the 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery, containing graves from the time of the First Temple.

People of three faiths and any number of ethnicities and nationalities lay claim to this little sliver of land in the Middle East. Israel is complicated, and Israelis are as complicated as the land they live on.

Israel changed a lot of my views, some in profound ways. I began to see religion from another perspective, and I ultimately converted to Judaism. Which in turn affected my worldview. I’d taken for granted being a member of the Christian majority in the U.S. As a Jew, I’m now profoundly aware of anti-Semitism. And because I now identify with “the other,” I think I’ve become a more empathic person to all of the other “others.”

I don’t think I’ll ever not be a Midwestern girl. But home isn’t just a geographical place. It can also be an emotional or spiritual space. Sometimes all three. Which brings me, full circle, back to those little black and white photographs of a stripped-down, pre-state Israel that I found in my parents’ home. The photos of the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall could have been taken today. But the Australian Soldiers Club is gone. The Mount of Olives is all built up. It’s not the same view as that nineteenth-century artist had depicted. Views change.

Image via Avital Pinnick/Flickr.

Angela Himsel is the author of A River Could Be A Tree: A Memoir. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Jewish Week, The Forward, Lilith, and elsewhere. 

New Reviews November 26, 2018

Monday, November 26, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews November 19, 2018

Monday, November 19, 2018 | Permalink

The Jews of 'Little Women'

Monday, November 19, 2018 | Permalink

By Emily Schneider

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Readers will recall the novel’s unforgettable female characters: domestic Meg, artistic Amy, spiritual Beth, and, of course, strong-willed and literary Jo. Recent works, including Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, celebrate Alcott’s book as an enduring cultural touchstone. But even those who’ve read Little Women may not recall the presence of Jews in the story. Three members of our tribe make brief appearances—so fleeting that, if you aren’t Jewish, they may seem inconsequential. None of them are major characters; none even speak. They are marginalized people playing limited roles in the world of the March sisters. Now would be a good time to bring these minor characters to center stage.

All of the Jewish characters in Little Women appear in the chapter “New Impressions,” an account of Amy’s experiences in Nice on her tour of Europe. The chapter begins with Alcott’s colorful description of the Promenade des Anglais, the broad, tree-shaded street which attracts both the city’s residents and its eclectic visitors: “Haughty English, lively French, sober Germans, handsome Spaniards, ugly Russians, meek Jews, free-and-easy Americans . . .” The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson, provides a footnote to explain the “ugly Russians”: apparently, Alcott’s friendship with the Polish patriot Ladislas Wisniewski had made her suspicious of his Russian oppressors. Matteson doesn’t find it necessary to explain the rest of this litany of cultural characteristics. They are obvious. Americans were brash and uninhibited, Germans serious and scholarly, and Spaniards were exotically attractive. Jews were meek. They were stateless, and only recently emancipated by law in France, freed from ghettos and onerous legal restrictions. Still, one would have thought that in an edition comparable in size to a volume of the Talmud, Matteson might have remarked on this condescending adjective, and the historical conditions that made it normal to label Jews as such. Ironically, in an earlier chapter he apologizes for Jo’s offer to play an instrument she calls the “Jew’s harp,” assuring readers that “it has no particular connection to Judaism . . . Though Jo uses the term innocently, the name . . . is now sometimes thought offensive.” I’m impressed by Matteson’s sensitivity, though it seems selective.

The mention of the next Jewish character is really curious. Not presented previously in the narrative, he shows up in a casual statement as if needing no introduction. Amy has to collect her mail at her banker’s and, Alcott narrates, “At Avigdor’s she found the precious home-letters.” (She learns from one of these letters that her beloved sister Beth is not long for this world, a key plot point in the novel.) There was a family by the name of Avigdor, a Hebrew name, in nineteenth-century Nice, and banking was a profession associated with the city’s small Jewish population from medieval times. Again, there is no comment in the annotated edition to remark on this. Perhaps to both Alcott and her readers, the identification of Jews with money was obvious, and lent a realistic touch to her detailed portrait of a foreign city.

Complicating Alcott’s portrayals of Jews is the fact that she herself may have had Sephardic ancestry, something Matteson and other scholars have noted. Although the genealogy is not clear, Alcott’s maternal family, the Mays, seem to have referred to this possibility. In Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, author Eve LaPlante makes this claim, and Matteson also notes it in a somewhat unconvincing explanation of why Jo is called a “Sancho,” in allusion to the Spanish novel Don Quixote.

Yet Alcott’s ethnic background does not seem to have influenced her description of the most glaringly clichéd Jewish character in the book—a guest at the Christmas party held at Amy’s hotel. Rubbing elbows with the diverse crowd that includes a Russian prince, a Polish count, and an unranked German noble, is an associate of someone whose significance would be easily recognized by nineteenth-century readers: “Baron Rothschild’s private secretary, a large-nosed Jew, in tight boots, [who] affably beamed upon the world as if his master’s name crowned him with a golden halo.” While Matteson fills in the details, explaining that Rothschild’s secretary was Frank Romer, and even makes mention of his wife, artist Louise Goode Romer Jopling, he ignores Alcott’s description of Romer. But the stereotypes wrapped up in her portrait of the secretary are difficult to brush off. Emphasizing the character’s large nose effectively codes him as an outsider, while his “golden halo” seems to draw a parallel between his religion with the precious metal of wealth. His tight boots also emphasize his poor understanding of social cues in polite society; for all his wealth, he cannot choose proper footwear. Surely Alcott’s choice of words is relevant to Matteson’s scholarship, particularly since they form a summary of Jewish stereotypes of the era.

So, should Jews boycott Alcott’s work and campaign to have her removed from the canon? Of course not. It’s intriguing that Jews were present in the author’s mind, and that she brought them, even momentarily, into the rich and expansive canvas of her novel. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy will survive evolving standards of cultural and religious respect. But Avigdor, the Baron de Rothschild’s secretary, and those meek and unobtrusive Jews of Nice also merit our attention.

Image via Houghton Library, Harvard University/Wikimedia Commons

Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children's books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.

New Reviews November 12, 2018

Monday, November 12, 2018 | Permalink