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…)

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 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…)

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…)

A Jew on the Street

September 12, 2006 | , ,

East River
By Sholem Asch

444 pages. Kessinger. $36.95.

Every movement needs a slogan, and the Jewish Enlightenment—the idea, simply put, that Jewish traditions and modern western culture can coexist harmoniously—finds its tersest expression in Y. L. Gordon’s pithy 1863 advice: “Be a man on the street and a Jew in your tent.” The problem with this prescription, of course, is that while Jews are out there in the street being men, they tend to encounter women. One thing leads to another, a man invites a woman back to his tent for a nightcap, she agrees—and all of a sudden, Cinderella-like, the man transforms back into a Jew and the woman into a dreaded shiksa. Much hand-wringing, and occasional violence, ensues. (more…)

The True Name of Gary

May 27, 2006 | , ,

Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is the hilarious tale of Misha Vainberg, the obese son of one of Russia’s wealthiest men, and his exploits in a decrepit post-Soviet republic. Before being blown up by a landmine himself, Misha’s Beloved Papa, a passionate Zionist and decidedly non-traditional entrepreneur, murdered an American businessman, and so the American government is refusing to readmit Misha, even though he is a proud alumnus of Accidental College, a Midwestern temple of the liberal arts. Stranded in St. Petersburg and pining for his Bronx-raised girlfriend, Rouenna, and his Upper West Side analyst, Dr. Levine, Misha zips down to Absurdistan in the hopes of finagling a passport that will get him back to Manhattan. A comedy of errors ensues, of course, and the book is not only laugh-out-loud funny on nearly every page, but also a poignant exploration of our increasingly globalized, and increasingly absurd, world.

A couple of days after his punim graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and just before he set off on a coast-to-coast publicity tour, I sat down with the author to discuss the new book, his imaginary friends, and—what else?—the future of the Jews. Appropriately enough, we met for a drink in Shteyngart’s neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a dim hipster bar surrounded by Asian grocery and hardware stores, and catercorner from the grand old Forward Building, now being transformed into high-rent condos but still bearing the busts of Marx and Engels on its façade. Recent immigrants, a healthy dollop of Jewish history, Communist icons, more than a whiff of the East in the air: this is the territory Shteyngart has staked out as his own, and it is as much the homeland of his globe-trotting fiction as Newark is for Philip Roth’s. The following are some excerpts from our conversation. (more…)

Yo Mameloshn!

September 1, 2005 | , ,

Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
By Michael Wex

St. Martin’s. 304 pages. $24.95.

It’s been called folksy and quaint. It’s been labeled a dialect and dismissed as “jargon.” Even its defenders tend to admit that it died 50 years ago. Yiddish, nebekh, has suffered so much defamation of character that it could probably win a libel suit.

If Yiddish ever does sue, its first expert witness will be Michael Wex. (more…)