On the Bookshelf
Going nuts, draft dodging, and Louis Brandeis
Writers’ day jobs tend to provide inspiration in one of two ways. Either the office stultifies them so intensely that writing offers an escape, or work fascinates them and they devote their off-hours to chronicling their careers. Danny Evans, firmly in the former category, began blogging about his family in the fall of 2004 to distract himself from his job as an HMO copywriter. “I needed a receptacle for what little sanity I had left,” he told Good Housekeeping. “Something that reminded me I was human despite having sold out to Corporate America.” In Rage Against the Meshugenah: Why It Takes Balls to Go Nuts (New American Library, August), Evans expands upon his popular blog, DadGoneMad.com, to chronicle bouts of depression and therapy, with Yinglish-speckled asides about growing up Jewish in Simi Valley, California. Drowning his despair in beer and porn, Evans occasionally sounds less like an up-to-date Alex Portnoy—who, after all, could recite Yeats from memory—than a young Al Bundy.
Brad Kessler, meanwhile, loves his work, raising goats and making cheese in Vermont when he isn’t writing novels and children’s books. In Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese (Scribner, June), a year’s worth of diary entries depict Kessler’s daily routine and explain how he ended up there: he hated “the sound of traffic in the morning and the radio blaring 1010 WINS” in his suburban New York childhood, and sought out “a contemplative life of rural retreat and self-reliance on top of a mountain.” He might have joined a monastery—he spent a few months in one, in Dharamsala, in his teens—if he hadn’t “happened to be a Jew.”
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Of course, it’s easier to enjoy your work if you’re good at it. No wonder, then, that, as a young man, the great jurist Louis Brandeis wrote, “One mistress only claims me. The ‘Law’ has her grip on me.” And, oh, was he ever good to this mistress. Brandeis deserves most of the credit for introducing the protection of free speech and the right to privacy into U.S. law; for the concept of pro bono legal work, generally; and for popularizing Zionism in America. In just under 1,000 pages, Melvin Urofsky’s Louis D. Brandeis: A Life (Pantheon, September) draws upon newly available archival materials to offer insights into the man and his achievements.
Hardly the first tome devoted to Brandeis—Urofsky himself published Louis D. Brandeis and the Progressive Tradition in 1981, and has edited three volumes, so far, of the judge’s correspondence—this massive new biography will not exhaust the discussion. As recently as a couple of months ago, Gerald Berk devoted an entire scholarly volume to a single concept introduced and championed by Brandeis—“regulated competition.” The result, Louis Brandeis and the Making of Regulated Competition, 1900-1932 (Cambridge, June), may not entice readers interested most in Brandeis’s role in American Jewish life—there is no mention of Zionism—but Berk’s attention demonstrates both the breadth and depth of Brandeis’s importance as a social, economic, and political thinker.
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Though Brandeis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, in the sort of German Jewish family that read Goethe in the original, he often fought for the rights of the people Ronald Sanders called “downtown Jews”: Yiddish-speaking immigrants, sweatshop workers, union activists from Eastern Europe. Focusing on the legendary Forverts editor Abe Cahan, Sanders describes this generation in his 1970 book The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (B&N Rediscovers, June), recently re-released with an introduction by Hasia Diner, a professor of history at New York University. Though uptown and downtown Jews, Yahudim and Yidn, often steered clear of one another, Brandeis wasn’t the only one to reach across the rift. “Mixed marriages” between German and Eastern European Jews, like the one between the German Jewish Flora and the Lithuanian-born advertising whiz Simon at the center of Betsy Carter’s novel The Puzzle King (Algonquin, August), gradually blurred the line. So did the incredible financial successes of some of the Yidn; Simon, who’s based on Carter’s great-uncle, earns a fortune peddling jigsaw puzzles.
When such downtown Jews moved up, quite a few settled on one notable thoroughfare in the Bronx, as New York Times reporter Constance Rosenblum recounts in her urban history Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (NYU, August). Rosenblum talked to Vox Tablet about the Concourse’s storied history earlier this month.
Forty years ago today, at 2 p.m., Joe Cocker started his set at Woodstock with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord.” A Dylanologist might be able to divine some powerfully Jewish symbolism in that, but what receives more attention in a crop of Woodstock anniversary books is the role Jews played in organizing the festival. Along with the children’s book Max Said Yes! The Woodstock Story (Change the Universe Press, May), discussed last week by Tablet columnist Marjorie Ingall, the festival’s Jewish roots also show in The Road To Woodstock (Ecco, June), a memoir by Michael Lang co-written with Holly George-Warren. Lang organized Woodstock with a couple of other concert promoters, and in leading up to his description of the events on Yasgur’s farm, he recounts his early days gigging at the Jewish Community House on Bay Parkway and talking business with Bill Graham at Ratner’s dairy restaurant.
Not everyone spent the late ‘60s and early ‘70s turning on and rocking out. Some, like the hero of Elliot Krieger’s debut novel Exiles (Soho, August), concentrated on draft dodging. Lenny Spiegel decamps to Uppsala, Sweden, where he joins a group of antiwar activists and loans his passport to a look-alike colleague. When an Irish lass tells him she might have Scandinavian blood because of “some kind of Viking invasion back there in history,” he can’t relate: “I don’t think the Vikings invaded the shtetls.” Krieger, a Ph.D. in English literature, studied abroad in Sweden in the early ‘70s, and if his dissertation, published as A Marxist Study of Shakespeare’s Comedies (1979), is any indication, he was something of a leftist himself in those days.