Portrait of the Artist as a Yingl

December 3, 2007 | , , ,

Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life
By Yehoshue Perle
Translated by Meier Deshell and Margaret Birstein
Yale University Press, $38.

One of the fascinating things about nostalgia is how well it ages. While science fiction can turn to kitsch in as little as a decade, personal histories often grow richer, and more valuable, with the passage of time.

Take, for example, Yehoshue Perle’s autobiographical Yiddish novel, Yidn fun a gants yor. When the book – which was recently translated into English as Everyday Jews – first appeared in Warsaw back in 1935, it already bore a subtitle reflecting its focus on the past, its more or less Proustian recherche du temps perdu. (more…)

One Man’s Kosher Is Another Man’s Treif

November 20, 2007 |

“I keep kosher. Sort of.” I’ve always felt the need to add a disclaimer to the end of that sentence, because I don’t keep kosher the way that some people do. This comes up whenever I’m trying to explain what I do and don’t eat to someone, Jewish or not, who isn’t intimate with the Jewish dietary laws. Conversations like these can be particularly confusing for the non-Jewish partners or family members of Jews who practice some form of kashrut, because the varieties of what “kosher” can mean are perplexing at best, and sometimes downright maddening.

Personally, I don’t eat chicken and beef that haven’t come from a kosher butcher, nor have I ever tasted pork (no big loss, from what I hear) or shellfish (which, I’m told, is more of a sacrifice). Still, I happily order fish and dairy dishes in non-kosher restaurants, and, what’s more, I don’t even ask the waiters whether my mushroom risotto’s been softened with beef stock, even though, as the author of a cookbook, I know that it almost certainly has been. When it comes to the animal-based oils used in frying, to the presence of rennet in cheeses, and to unknown species of fish when I’m dining out abroad (what North American really knows, offhand, what lotte or rochen correspond to?), my policy is simply Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If there are no cubes of ham staring up at me from the split pea soup, I tuck in and hope for the best. And I turn a blind eye even though I know my maguro may have snuggled up next to some uni in a sushi chef’s display case. (more…)

The Anarchist’s Comic Book

October 26, 2007 | , , , ,

A Dangerous Woman
The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman

By Sharon Rudahl

The New Press. 112 pages. $17.95.

Emma Goldman’s life is a writer’s dream—long and sordid, inspiring and debased, full of sex, political courage, and international intrigue. She was, after all, a nice Jewish girl who conspired to break her lover out of prison, inspired a presidential assassin, and penned detailed accounts of her sexual affairs with younger men. Red Emma, as she was known, is widely remembered as the most famous anarchist in turn-of-the-20th-century America, a rebel against conventional morality who crusaded for free speech and birth control, and against exploitation. She’s been an inspiration to radicals for over a century.

Already adapted in novels (like E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime) as well as in movies and plays, treated in Goldman’s thousand-page autobiography and myriad scholarly, commercial, and politically oriented biographies, Goldman’s life has now been translated into the graphic novel medium. The project, Sharon Rudahl’s A Dangerous Woman, has tremendous potential—not only because it promises to present a stylized version of Goldman’s life in vivid pictures, but also because it has been undertaken by a dedicated leftist and feminist fiercely loyal to Goldman’s legacy. Unfortunately, though, A Dangerous Woman doesn’t deliver on its promise. (more…)

The Book That Didn’t Change My Life

September 12, 2007 | , , ,

This month, Myron S. Kaufmann’s debut novel, Remember Me to God, turns 50, and so far there have been no signs of celebration. Though it was hailed on publication as one of the finest novels ever written about American Jews and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for an entire year, almost no one remembers it today. It goes unmentioned in bibliographies of American Jewish fiction, and so obscure is Kaufmann in this Internet age that searching for his name turns up nary a stub on Wikipedia. (more…)

The Honest Art of Leonard Michaels

August 7, 2007 | , ,

The Collected Stories
By Leonard Michaels

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 403 pages. $26.

Unlike other masters of the short story—say, Bernard Malamud, in whose Complete Stories we witness the author’s approach shifting regularly and unpredictably, or Grace Paley, whose Collected Stories manifests relatively stable interests and methods—Leonard Michaels transformed his style dramatically, if gradually, during his career. Reading him chronologically in the new Collected Stories, beginning with the work he composed in the early ‘60s and continuing through the final publications before his death in 2003, the evolution of Michaels’ oeuvre stares you smack in the face. (more…)

Strange Times to Be a Jew

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins. 432 pages. $26.95.

There’s no better way to describe Michael Chabon – who’s most famous for his monumental, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – than as a literary superhero. He may not have X-ray vision or the ability to bend iron bars with his hands, but his gifts as a wordsmith are no less extraordinary or exuberant. In a new book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon flexes his hypertrophied storytelling muscles once again, and puts on a dazzling show. (more…)

The Art of Disappearing

May 15, 2007 | ,

The Ministry of Special Cases
By Nathan Englander
352 pages. Knopf. $25.

In an extraordinary debut collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Nathan Englander demonstrated a knack for cooking up narrative premises, whether realistic or fantastic, that were spiced with symbolic or religious intensity. “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” for one example, concerns a non-Jew, Charles, who suddenly, inexplicably, realizes that he is “the bearer of a Jewish soul.” Englander handles this supernatural conceit adroitly, keeping it firmly grounded in the tactile details of Charles’ life (should he, or should he not, eat the creamed chicken?), so that ultimately the story manages to speak to the thorniest dilemmas of Jewish identity in our time. What, after all, does it mean to possess a Jewish soul?

Given his previous works’ settings, it may surprise Englander’s fans that his highly anticipated first novel takes place not among the Hasids of New York or Jerusalem, but during Argentina’s Dirty War, when thousands of activists and students were “disappeared”—abducted, tortured, and often killed by a brutal government, without legal process or justification. (more…)

The Oy of Sex

January 15, 2007 | , ,

I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life
By Al Goldstein and Josh Alan Friedman
271 pages. Thunder’s Mouth Press. $26.95.


In America, Jews have had what might delicately be called a special relationship with pornography since the dawn of the 20th century. The infamously prudish New York Society for the Suppression of Vice kept tabs on obscenity arrests in New York City, and the numbers—dredged up by Jay Gertzman in his brilliant history of the erotica trade, Bookleggers and Smuthounds—tell quite a story. (more…)