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7 Books That Capture the Breadth of Jewish Experience

Friday, August 25, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devorah Baum wrote about five books that counter the "negative" narrative of Jewish literature and the twelve most stereotypical Jews in literature. Today, she explores seven books that capture the breadth of Jewish experience. She is the author of the book Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone), out this week from Yale University Press. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Israel ZangwillChildren of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People

A book of portraits and scenes of late 19th-century Jews in London on the cusp of modernity and modernization. This book by the so-called "Jewish Dickens" was a best-seller, in part because it managed to do two opposing things at once,  for distinct audiences: it opened up a closed world, that of the poor immigrant Jews, to non-Jews and assimilated middle-class Jews, thus creating pathways for understanding between groups that appeared "peculiar" to each other, while at the same time opening up vistas to the world beyond the ghetto for the Jews residing within it.

Aharon AppelfeldFor Every Sin

Appelfeld is one of the greatest writers of imaginative fiction relating to the Holocaust. His prose has an uncanny feel to it, which conveys something of the state of loss, displacement and exile that characterizes its author’s own strange position vis a vis language: he had to learn to speak a smattering of different languages in order to survive the war alone as a child in Europe before he arrived in Israel and made of Hebrew something at once entirely modern, or even modernist, and yet in such a way that his writing still retains the depth and significance of its scriptural sources. While this is apparent in all his work, it’s in his novel For Every Sin that the tortuous relationship of the survivor to language rises to a theme.

Hannah ArendtThe Jewish Writings

I might also have suggested Walter Benjamin’s Jewish writings, but the political and philosophical engagements with which Arendt treated her own and others’ experiences of the most dramatic chapters of modern Jewish history, and the way in which she both sparked and responded to the controversy that public Jewish intellectuals invariably provoke when they reflect back on themselves, reveals how critical it is to investigate the Jewish position in history and society—not only for Jews, but as the recent revival of interest in Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism imply, critical for all.

Eva Hoffman – Lost in Translation

While there are many wonderful memoirs of Jewish emigration from the end of the 19th century up to the end of the twentieth, Hoffman’s searingly honest, affecting and psychologically perspicacious account of her loss and rediscovery of herself in a new place and a new language has been enthusiastically embraced by all manner of readers&nmash;from Jews, to people from other immigrant backgrounds, to people who, though not literally displaced, feel themselves to be peculiarly adrift, lost and uprooted in the rapidly changing modern world.

Amos Oz – A Tale of Love and Darkness and/or Sarah Glidden - How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

Oz’s beautiful memoir, which functions simultaneously as the story of his own life and that of the young state he grew up in, seems to capture every shade of Israeli experience—the love and the darkness, the dream and the nightmare. And because there really is such profound love here, as well as darkness, those who are ordinarily inclined to see only one side of the picture, whichever side that is, may find in this book a means of encountering the thorniest of subjects somewhat differently. While Sarah Glidden’s graphic memoir of her time on a Birthright tour reveals how, behind the propagandistic messages to which she and her fellow travelers were subject, the individuals she meets in Israel are all far more complex and divided than is generally admitted by the spectrum of political positions and opinions with which they tend to get represented.

Nathan Englander – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

This short story collection enters boldly into features and temperaments that broadly characterize Jewish life and experiences today. There is a great deal of Jewish self-critique in these stories, but also a sense of the blind alleyways and limitations that circumscribe just about any political, religious or social position, particularly in those cases where identities appear too sure of themselves. This is not a writer who judges others from a sense of his own moral superiority. Rather, his deep immersion in the post-war Jewish psyche and predicaments sees him attempting, in these stories, to find a way through the modern maze—which, in the first case, requires us to comprehend its maziness as clearly as possible.

Edmond Jabès – The Book of Questions, Vol 1.

Jabès’ handling of the Jewish experience brings new meaning to Jews as "people of the book." For Jabès, Jewish existence and survival is indistinguishable from the condition of textuality. By invoking questions that anticipate neither answers nor resolutions, the binaries that permeate our conventional habits of thought are all deconstructed in this sublime work such that we can no longer draw the dividing line between Jew and non-Jew, between home and exile, between religious and secular, between belief and non-belief, between poetry and prose, between mind and body, between ancient and modern, between life and death.

Devorah Baum is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Southampton, UK, and affiliate of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. She is the co-director of the documentary feature film The New Man (2016). Find out more about her book, Feeling Jewish, here.

5 Books That Counter the “Negative” Narrative of Jewish Literature

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devorah Baum wrote about the twelve most stereotypical Jews in literature. Today, she explores five books that counter the "negative" narrative of Jewish literature. She is the author of the book Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone), out this week from Yale University Press. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Grace Paley – Collected Stories

Everyone should read Grace Paley. She deals with tough stuff with wit, vitality, and grace, and she tempers what many would consider tragic storylines with an insistence that where there is life there can always be "enormous changes at the last minute." Unlike the dominant male voices in American Jewish letters, who’ve tended to resist the labeling of either themselves or their fictions as Jewish, Grace Paley showed no such commitment phobia: “I like being Jewish” she once—shockingly—said.

Hélène Cixous – Reveries of the Wild Woman, Primal Scenes

In which the injustices suffered on account of her Jewishness – in the Algeria where she was born and raised, and which she continues to love—become the vital means by which she becomes a singularly creative, original, "wild," and empathetic voice capable of interpreting, understanding and entering into all sides of every conflict of a (civil) war whose unfolding dynamic officially ascribed those with her ancestry no legal standing at all. Yet it’s on the basis of this nowhere-to-stand that she learns by degrees to feel her way everywhere.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg – The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious

Returning to the ancient Jewish sources accompanied by Avivah Zornberg’s insight and sensibility has been one of my life’s great gifts. By reading Tanach, Talmud and midrash alongside modern literature, psychoanalysis and philosophy, she makes them live, she makes them sing, and she makes them speak directly to you, no matter who you are.

Naomi Alderman – The Liar’s Gospel

Deep knowledge of the Jewish sources of the period when Christ was preaching, teaching, and gaining a following, plus a remarkable ear for the rhythms and melodies of Hebraic scriptures and their exegetical traditions, has enabled this novelist’s distinctly Judaic vision of the dawn of the new religion and of the key personalities involved. Once you’ve read Alderman’s psychologically nuanced, politically aware, and profoundly sympathetic take on Judas (amongst others), you’ll find that the normatively prejudicial telling of religious history in the West has been effectively unravelled.

Simon Schama – The Story of the Jews, Vol 1.

Simon Schama tells Jewish history as it’s never been told before, challenging many of its rehearsed clichés and assumptions and locating Jewish life in far flung and rarely noted corners of the ancient world. He cites, for example, copious evidence that images and aesthetics have played a greater role throughout Jewish history than is normally recognized. With reference to, for example, the beautiful mosaics inlaid on the floors of the archaeological remains of synagogues of antiquity, Schama claims that Jewish lives have been at least as sensual as they’ve been cerebral, and as much in thrall to beauty as to the law.

Devorah Baum is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Southampton, UK, and affiliate of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. She is the co-director of the documentary feature film The New Man (2016). Find out more about her book, Feeling Jewish, here.

The 12 Most Stereotypical Jews in Literature

Monday, August 21, 2017 | Permalink

Devorah Baum is the author of Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone), out this week from Yale University Press. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Daniel Deronda – You’ve heard of the "magical Negro", well here is George Eliot’s magical Jew (positive). A philo-Semite’s vision of the Jew as manifesting radiant spirituality, wisdom, morality, Zionist longing and soulfulness. F. R. Leavis thought the novel would be excellent if only the "bad half," i.e. the sentimental bit featuring Deronda himself, could be removed.

Svengali the magical Jew (negative) – And then there’s the anti-Semite’s vision (George du Maurier’s) of the wicked, mysterious arch-manipulator: the immigrant foreigner who spoils the purity of the good people of England, and not least the innocent young girl he seduces.

Cohen of Trinity – The late nineteenth century Anglo-Jewish character in Amy Levy’s short story by the same name is everything you’d expect from one of the only Jewish students in a Cambridge college: hysterical, fascinating, grotesque, bewildering, self-conscious and self-hating.

Tevye the Milkman – The loveable, super kvetchy Jewish patriarch and shtetl dweller on very intimate if not combative terms with God: “You help complete strangers – why not me?”

Joseph K. Kafka doesn’t explicitly say he’s Jewish, but we can’t but suspect that he is (just as we don’t doubt that that strange insect in the Metamorphoses must be, surely). Joseph K. is the existential Jew, forever on trial for he knows not what.

Shimon Susskind - Bernard Malamud’s refugee character in his short story "The Last Mohican" is another wandering Jew who first appears to the American Jew who has come to Europe as a wide-eyed tourist as a less than pleasing hanger-on: a schlemiel, a schnorrer, a hustler, and a social embarrassment. Yet these same qualities are ultimately transformed into the means by which Susskind, by the end of the story, is established as a moral guide, a history lesson, and a religious revelation.

Micòl Finzi-Contini – The beautiful young daughter of the Finzi-Contini family with whom the narrator falls helplessly in love in Girorgio Bassani’s magisterial representation of that other stereotype, the rich Jew. The Finzi-Contini family live behind high walls in a mansion opening on to a garden of earthly delights. But though they separate themselves as much as possible from the rest of the Jewish community and the world at large, their riches and high walls ultimately fail to save them from the gathering fascist storm that will remove them all to a concentration camp in Germany.

RosaCynthia Ozick’s fictions have dared to imagine the interior life of more than one Holocaust survivor. In her short story, "The Shawl," it’s the figure of Rosa, who becomes a "walking cradle" for her baby before the child is seized by a concentration camp guard and hurled to her death against an electric fence, who continuously haunts me.

Herzog – Like James Joyce’s earlier incarnation of the wandering Jew, Leopold Bloom, we have rich access to the stream of consciousness of Saul Bellow’s much more cerebral but no less profane Herzog, whose physical wandering is propelled by his wildly wandering mind. Herzog is a mad genius in the throes of a breakdown that casts, as Bellow’s fictions invariably cast, a critical but revealing light on the society in which he wanders.

Sophie and Alexander Portnoy – In Philip Roth’s book length comedy of the Oedipus-Schmedipus relation, it’s impossible to separate the castrating Jewish mother from the long-suffering Jewish son who acts out and blames his mother. Irving Howe once suggested that it’s because immigrant families are forced, in the context of an alien and hostile world, to fall back on themselves, that they tend to exhibit more symptoms of Oedipal angst than most.

Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf – The court Jew of the fascist President of the U.S. in Philip Roth’s counter-historical novel, The Plot Against America (written in 2004 about what might have happened if the celebrity turned unlikely GOP nominee, Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, had been elected instead of Roosevelt). Bengelsdorf is a fascinating portrait of a self-regarding Jewish character who imagines that proximity to power and the powerful will "save" both himself and his coreligionists from their politics and prejudices. By lending support and trust to the bad man in the White House, he manages to deepen the divide between Jews within their families and communities, and more important, his whitewashing of Nazi beliefs and behaviors has the effect, as another irate Jewish character in the novel points out, of "koshering Lindbergh for the goyim."

Jacob Bloch – Moving from the far right to the liberal left, the protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Here I Am, is a contemporary American Jew unsure of his purpose or place—in history, in geography, in politics, in religion, in his work life, in his family life, in his romantic life, in his own life. Like Abraham and Joseph K., he feels life is a trial, and perhaps too he feels he’s obscurely guilty of a crime he hasn’t altogether committed. He knows that he’s had the great fortune to have been positioned in one of the better, as in easier, chapters of Jewish history, and with that in mind he’s sought to be always on the right side of history (as in the left side of history), but he’s no less crushed and in crisis, and he senses that his Jewishness (and his historical comfortability) might have something to do with it. Since it’s not clear, however, what part Jewishness plays, or needs to play, or what may be done about it, all he can do is pour his heart and mind and fantasies and fears and lusts and guts out, thus ironically resuming the position of the biblical patriarch Abraham whose responsive word to the call of God – “Hineni” – we can interpret in this modern American novel as an assertion not of identity but of its annihilation: since I do not know who I am, all I can say is here I am.

Devorah Baum is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Southampton, UK, and affiliate of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. She is the co-director of the documentary feature film The New Man (2016). Find out more about her book, Feeling Jewish, here.