The ProsenPeople

30 Days, 30 Authors: James Loeffler

Tuesday, December 05, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

This week, we are featuring the finalists and winner of the Natan Book Award at Jewish Book Council

Today, James Loeffler, the author of the forthcoming book Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, writes about his discovery of "The Third Roth."

It was sometime in my first year of college when I discovered I had never heard of the greatest Jewish writer of the twentieth century. Or so I learned one day from a precocious friend with a subscription to the New York Review of Books. Have you read Joseph Roth? They say he’s the greatest Jewish writer of the century. You must mean Philip Roth? I responded. No, Joseph Roth. I paused, flummoxed. Then I tried again. Oh, you mean Henry Roth, the modernist immigrant bard, author of Call It Sleep? No, Joseph Roth. He’s Central European. The phrase conjured up Kafka. But I still drew a blank. Intrigued, I headed for the library to find out what was so special about this unknown Roth.

From the first pages of Joseph Roth’s magisterial 1932 novel Radetzsky March, I was hooked. Here was an author nothing like the other Roths or even Kafka. He didn’t play with language or stylize reality. Instead, he peered directly into the terrors of history, even as he sweetly eulogized his beloved Habsburg Empire and its anguished, expectant Galician Jews. In place of the two dominant images of Jewish Eastern Europe—shtetl sentimentalism and pre-Holocaust shadows—he offered a different Old World: majestic and cruel, violent and graceful. For many modern Jewish writers, irony was an escape from a harsh world. For Roth, it was a scalpel to cut still more deeply into the flabby tissue of the present.

What he exposed in those surgeries shocked me. I still recall my astonishment at seeing Roth mention Hitler by name in his first novel – from 1923! Already he sensed Europe was lurching towards an abyss, the Nazis were a dangerous new kind of political evil, and the Jews were the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The same held true for his poignant non-fiction. In his brilliant 1927 collection, Wandering Jews, he recognized in the uprooting of East European Jews after World War I a new kind of human category: the refugee. He went on to point out in his early 1930s writings that Jews were destined to suffer not only because of Nazi antisemitism or Western indifference but because of Europe’s own crisis. “Let me say it loud and clear,” he wrote in 1933 in “The Auto-da-Fe of the Mind,” his essay on Nazi book-burning, “The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination.”

European Jews, however, did not suffer for lack of imagination. In my forthcoming book, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, I show how hard international Jewish lawyers fought in the 1920s and 1930s to create new kinds of law to protect minority groups from precisely the kind of rising terror of the times. In a sense, modern human rights began with these forgotten efforts. Yet these early human rights activists found themselves stymied by European politics at the newly created League of Nations.

I took the title of my third chapter, “Golden Shackles,” from a passage in Roth’s Wandering Jews. There he writes already in the 1920s of how the League of Nations is powerless to help the Jews of Europe. In spite of fancy titles and new laws, the League is hamstrung by the “golden shackles that its best-intentioned commissioners wear,” unable to issue basic papers to protect imperiled Jews. The same geopolitical forces that gave rise to the League held it hostage at the moment when it was needed most. “Animal welfare groups enjoy more popularity in every country, and with every level of the people, than does the League of Nations,” he adds bitterly.

“Golden Shackles” nicely sums up the fate of Jewish human rights activists before World War II. Much like the bureaucrats in Geneva, the Jewish rights-defenders found themselves hand-cuffed, in their case by the shiny bonds of British imperial politics. The one European power strong enough to stop anti-Jewish persecution in Europe and support the interwar Jewish human rights vision viewed Jews as a political liability because of the Arab-Jewish conflict in British Mandatory Palestine.

It is often said that Jews were the last true Austrians. Long after every other Habsburg citizen had become only a German, a Czech, a Pole or a Ukrainian, Jews like Joseph Roth held onto a broader liberal ideal of an Austria united in its diversity. But more than a nostalgia for a lost Austria, Joseph Roth also reminds us that Jews like him were arguably also the last Europeans. In fighting for international protection at the League of Nations, these Jews were the few remaining foot-soldiers who had yet to abandon “the noble ranks of the European army.”

Today, as we struggle to understand a new world of Middle Eastern refugees, rising antisemitism, and an unceasing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it makes sense to re-read Henry Roth on the traumatic American Jewish experience of immigration and Phillip Roth on the complex American Jewish relationship to Zionism. But we should also not neglect Joseph Roth. His sober commentaries remind us that the story of modern human rights, too, has a Jewish past whose beginnings can be found in interwar Europe.

2018 Natan Book Award Finalist James Loeffler

Monday, November 13, 2017 | Permalink
James Loeffler has earned an international reputation as a rising star among Jewish historians. He is a Professor of History and Jewish Studies on the Berkowitz Family Endowed Chair at the University of Virginia and author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire, which won eight awards and honors. He has written widely for media outlets including The New Republic, Slate, Tablet, Time, Haaretz, and Mosaic. Among his other honors, James Loeffler was a U.S. Fulbright Fellow, a Dean’s Visiting Scholar on the Andrew Mellon New Directions Faculty Fellowship at Georgetown University Law School, a Kluge Scholar at the Library of Congress, a Robert Savitt Fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a Fellow of the Sami Rohr Literary Institute of the Jewish Book Council.  

James's book, Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, finalist for the 2018 Natan Book Award at the Jewish Book Council, explores the history of Jews and human rights through the lens of modern Jewish politics, charting the twisted routes traveled by the five forgotten founders of international human rights. It offers a panoramic view of a century-long drama about politics and morality in international affairs built around a series of epic events (the Holocaust, the formation of the United Nations, the creation of Israel, the Six-Day War). It will be published by Yale University Press in Spring 2018.

Read more about James's new book here.

See the full list of Natan Book Award awardees here.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...James Loeffler

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Earlier this week, we asked Sami Rohr Prize Finalists Abigail Green and Jonathan B. Krasner a few questions about their inspiration, audience, and process. Today, we hear from James Loeffler, whose first book The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire was published by Yale University Press. The Rohr Judges agreed that James's book contained "[a] treasure trove of music, music history and general cultural materials that will help us understand what would have otherwise been only more buried evidence of the rich Jewish past in the age of the killers and tyrants." Below, James discusses the international human rights movement, Miles Davis, and electronic dance with the ProsenPeople.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

For every individual story that makes it into a book of history, there are a hundred other fascinating lives that don’t. That’s a hard choice to make. And it’s made even harder by the knowledge that each person’s life is unique. Leaving someone out of the narrative doesn’t just deprive them of a spot in history, it also potentially alters the storyline itself.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

This may sound cheeky, but I find the most inspiration for non-fiction in works of fiction. Of course it’s true that the rules of writing fiction are completely different. But fiction authors are, by definition, master storytellers. The purity of plot reminds me how a good narrative can truly take the reader inside a different world—like the distant past.

Who is your intended audience?

I wrote this book for anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a piece of classical music; anyone who’s ever suffered through a piano or violin lesson; and anyone who’s ever picked up a paper and found themselves counting the Jewish names involved in a story.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I am writing a book now about another arena in which Jews have played a disproportionately large role in modern times: the international human rights movement. From Amnesty International and Richard Goldstone to Natan Sharansky and UN Watch, Jews have become idealistic icons and passionate critics, tireless proponents and vocal skeptics about the international human rights community. My book seeks to go back to the early decades of the human rights movement after World War II, to retrace the forgotten story of Jewish participation in the birth of human rights at the United Nations. My aim is to shed new light on just where human rights come from in modern times and to puncture some pious, persistent myths of both the Left and the Right, about the relationship between Jews, Zionism, and human rights.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just been reading a collection of Chopin’s letters, where alongside a bunch of anti-Semitic rants I was amused to find his description of his adventures playing klezmer music with Jewish folk musicians in a Polish shtetl.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

In high school I was a deep devotee of the music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. And I was a semi-professional jazz musician. Yet when he died early in my senior year, my first reaction wasn’t to put on one of his records. Instead I felt the urge to grab a pen and notebook. I began writing what would become my first published essay—a literary tribute to him. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a writer. As much as music stirred my soul, the way I sought to communicate my thoughts and passions in life was through words on the printed page.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Success is about the art of clarity. When the words on the page distill the essence of an idea or a question and I’ve captured reality, then I feel like I’ve reached a peak.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

My deep, dark secret is that even though I often write about classical music, I prefer to have pulsing electronic dance music playing in the background. The louder and noisier, the better. Somehow the beat and sound screens out other distracting thoughts and frees up my mind to concentrate better on writing.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

If they listen to one of the composers mentioned in the book, dayenu—that’s enough. But more broadly I want readers to consider delving more deeply into the remote corners of the Jewish cultural past. History is not just about reinforcing our sense of who we are today and how we got here. History is about recovering the roads not taken, and exploring where they might yet still lead us.

James Loeffler, an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, is nominated for his first book, The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. He works broadly on the intersection of Jewish culture, politics, and identity in modern Eastern Europe, Israel, and the United States. He has published extensively in the field of Jewish musical studies, with a specialization in the history of Jewish folk and classical music traditions in Eastern Europe. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.