On the Bookshelf
Far-flung rites and gustatory delights
Last Friday, the sun set on the year 5769, first in Siberia and Australia, then in China, India, and the Middle East; then 5770 hurtled westward through Africa and Europe and finally arrived in the Americas. In each of these locales, on Saturday morning, Jews praised God in mostly the same words, give or take a little for doctrinal differences. It’s a wide, wide world of Jews: that’s journalist Charles London’s insight, after trekking to Myanmar, Cuba, Bosnia, and Iran, in Far From Zion: In Search of a Global Jewish Community (William Morrow, October), a paean to Diaspora and the furthest-flung Jews.
Given the continuing mystery of what happened to the ten lost tribes of ancient Israel, after their exile eight hundred years B.C.E., London’s exotic communities may just be the tip of an exotic Jewish iceberg. In The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History (Oxford, September), Zvi Ben-Dor Benite—whose previous book explored the history of Islam in China—recounts the myths and conjectures that have arisen about where all those ancient Jews wound up, including the curiously widespread notions that Native Americans, Mongols, Anglo-Saxons, or Ethiopians descend from one or another of Jacob’s sons.
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Of course, some of the experiences shared by Jews across many lands are less than pleasant: in every corner of Europe and beyond, for one prominent example, Jews suffered mightily during World War II. Steven B. Bowman’s The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940–1945 (Stanford, October) suggests that whether they fought in the Greek army, supported the local resistance, landed in concentration camps, or hid in the mountains, precious few Greek Jews avoided grief during those years. The community’s “percentage of loss during the Holocaust was exceeded only by that of Poland,” he notes.
Five hundred miles north, in Hungary, the Holocaust arrived relatively late but with no less tragic consequences. In Gratitude (St. Martin’s, October), novelist Joseph Kertes dramatizes the fate of the Hungarian Jewish community through the wartime experiences of the Beck family. Weaving in a cameo by the famed Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Kertes, who moved to Canada in 1956 and based the story on a “family anecdote,” represents the speed with which a population of professional, comfortable Hungarian Jews found themselves subjected to harsh persecution.
In The Jewish Husband (Europa Editions, September), Lia Levi tells a roughly parallel story set in Fascist Italy, where Dino Carpi, a classics professor, marries a woman so emphatically goyish that her family name is Gentile. Though he hides his Jewish past, Levi’s epistolary novel tracks the woeful effects of anti-Semitic policies on Capri’s life. The same policies chased the author’s family from Pisa, where she was born in 1931, to Rome, where she now edits a Jewish monthly magazine and writes prize-winning books.
Like Carpi, the Løvin family discovers at the outset of Suzanne Brøgger’s novel The Jade Cat (Overlook, September), as the shadow of Nazism stretches over Denmark at the beginning of the 1940s, that as casual as they might be about their Jewish identity and as assimilated as they may feel, their Jewishness cannot so easily be sloughed off during the Nazis’ genocidal campaign. A prominent Danish author, Brøgger has one single Jewish grandmother, and the novel, unabashedly autobiographical, concentrates on the inheritances of character, courage, and nonconformity from one woman to another.
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There’s no need to emphasize only the lachrymose aspects of Diaspora; Jews around the world regularly share many of the same joys, too. Like Hanukkah. As Tami Lehman-Wilzig relates in Hanukkah Around the World (Kar-Ben, September), a book for the internationally minded 9- to 12-year-old in your life, not only do David Lee Roth and James Caan light the menorah, but do so their coreligionists in Samarkand, Uzbekistan; Nabeul, Tunisia; and Sydney, Australia. Rather than latkes this December, why not whip up some of the burmelos that Turkish Jews savor, or the precipizi beloved by Italian Jews? Along with charming anecdotes, Lehman-Wilzig provides recipes for both.
Dallas-based food writer and educator Tina Wasserman targets enthusiasts of just such culinary cosmopolitanism in Entree to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora (URJ, October). Proffering gustatory tidbits from settings as varied as Bulgaria, Indonesia, and Algeria, Wasserman recognizes that the vast range of Jewish cookery derives directly from the breadth of Jewish dispersion. With Jews having circled the globe as merchants and played major roles in the spice trade, could there be any culinary tradition that hasn’t at some point been incorporated onto somebody’s Shabbat table?
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Perhaps that Jewish legacy of internationalism has even contributed to the remarkable restaurant culture of contemporary New York City. As former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes notes in Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York (North Point, October), not even culinary metropolises like Paris or Tokyo manage to offer quite “as many national cooking styles, at all price ranges, as New York does.”
Jason Epstein, master editor and pioneer of the trade paperback, has certainly done his part to support fine dining in New York, as well as upholding the venerable institution of the lavish publisher’s lunch. In Eating: A Memoir (Knopf, October), he reveals that one of the perks of editing cookbooks by leading chefs like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck is getting to dine with them on occasion. Epstein fits no one’s image of a pious Jew—asked by Commentary in 1961 how he felt about his ethnicity, he remarked laconically that while “perhaps it would be good to feel oneself engaged in a highly auspicious tradition . . . I happen not to and don’t feel at one with those who do”—and his commitment to Ipswich clams suggests kashrut runs counter to his personal faith. Yet might not Epstein’s passion for excellent food, acquired largely thanks to his “grandmother’s old world Russian meals with a Yankee accent,” itself constitute a familiar kind of Jewish tradition?