Comeback Kid

November 13, 2008 | , , , , ,

In the fall of 1924, Ludwig Lewisohn had all sorts of worries: He’d left his wife in New York and run off to Europe with a younger woman, and, on a recent jaunt to Poland, all the “filthy, starved, oppressed” Jews in Warsaw’s ghetto had depressed him. Clearly, he needed a therapist. Since he happened to be in central Europe, and since he never did anything by half measures, he had a friend lend him a room on Wahringerstrasse in Vienna, and went straight to Sigmund Freud. Though Freud, who lived a couple of blocks away, was happy to psychoanalyze him, Lewisohn ended his treatment after a few sessions. According to his biographer, Ralph Melnick, he feared “the loss of his anxieties” would be “the destruction of what had driven him as a writer.” (more…)

Hack Job

September 12, 2008 | , , ,

Filmmakers had been adapting Philip Roth’s work long before Isabel Coixet transformed The Dying Animal into Elegy. When Roth was just twenty-two, his story “The Contest for Aaron Gold,” published first in the Fall 1955 issue of Epoch and then in that year’s Best American Short Stories, was presented on television by Alfred Hitchcock. Roth has disallowed the story’s republication in the half-century since, and the filmed version can be viewed only at UCLA’s archives (or, for the less scrupulous, in a bootleg version), so very few of even Roth’s most committed fans have read or seen it. Roth’s only other short story to be filmed, “Expect the Vandals,” is equally obscure; but at least its bizarre movie version can be added to your Netflix queue. (more…)

A Literary History of the Dirty Jew

August 16, 2008 | , ,

Of the many insults and epithets launched at the Jews through the ages, none has quite the cultural pedigree of “dirty Jew.” Writers in many languages have seized on it again and again, mostly because it is not only harsh and hateful, but also vague. Dirtiness can refer to anything from a lack of proper hygiene to an ideological failing to a moral taint; being called “dirty” often has something to do with sex, though not always. A history of the term’s appearances in literature and film suggests not just changing perceptions of Jewishness over the years, but also a transformation in the way we talk about “dirtiness.” (more…)

Etgar Keret’s Bargain

May 22, 2008 | , , ,

The Girl on the Fridge
By Etgar Keret
Translated by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston
173 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Think of it this way: if you pay the cover price for Etgar Keret’s newly translated collection of stories, The Girl on the Fridge, you’ll be shelling out approximately 25 cents for each of the 46 fictions included. Some of them aren’t much longer than a paragraph, true, and some you’ll forget by the time you turn a page, but what do you expect for a lousy quarter, especially in this rotten economy? If even a handful of the stories haunt you, shake you, throw you for a loop—and they will—you’ll feel like you’ve won the literary lottery. (more…)

Speak No Evil, Little Dudes

April 29, 2008 | ,

Going Global:
The Word-Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir: Book One

By Yitzchok Kronblau
Illustrated by Ruth Beifus
80 pages. Arscroll/Mesorah. $24.99.

Trekking Through Time:
The Word-Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir: Book Two

By Yitzchok Kronblau
Illustrated by Ruth Beifus
104 pages. Arscroll/Mesorah. $24.99.

Like many comic-book adventure series, The Word-Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir begins with a call to save the world. One morning, an Orthodox Jewish kid discovers a way to eliminate pain and suffering. According to a teaching of the Chofetz Chayim, a.k.a. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, “Every single day we wait for Mashiach to come, but—do you hear this—he is being held back because we are speaking loshon hora!” The Messiah, that is, won’t show up until Jews stop breaking the commandments related to improper speech.

The boy and his younger brother set out to make this happen, and though they haven’t been struck by radiation, or empowered by the rays of the sun, or descended from aliens, and though they don’t sport capes or unitards, these boys are clearly the author’s and publisher’s idea of Jewish superheroes. (more…)

Storm Warning

In 1967, a failed playwright named Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, his provocative dissection of black culture. A fierce opponent of integration, Cruse turned a caustic eye on Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Robeson, and nearly every other prominent black thinker of his era (and those that came before it; the Harlem Renaissance, in his view, produced no work of real merit). He reserved special loathing, however, for a novelist by the name of John Oliver Killens. “Neither the originator of a single new concept, style, or exposition whether in literature or politics,” Cruse carped, “Killens has been the neutralizing temporizer, the non-controversial, moderating lid-sitter par excellence.” (more…)