On the Bookshelf
Cartoons, both serious and zany
You say you’ve seen zanier comic strips or more outlandish dialect humor than that which can be found in Milt Gross’s tenement stories, Nize Baby, or in his unique interpretation of Longfellow’s, er, Hiawatta? Oh, banana oil! (Which is to say, “bullshit,” using the slang expression Gross popularized in the 1920s.) Thanks to Ari Y. Kelman, these comic treasures have returned to print in Is Diss a System? A Milt Gross Comic Reader (NYU, December). In time for a belated Hanukkah gift, the collection includes a holiday classic as only Gross, a one-of-a-kind American humorist with a penchant for Yiddish syntax, could mangle it—De Night in de Front from Chreesmas (check back erev Christmas for Tablet’s very own audio-visual rendition)—along with Kelman’s detailed introductory essay, which aims to rescue Gross from undeserved obscurity.
Gross’s dialect humor screams “Jewish” without, generally speaking, uttering any actual Yiddish words: as Kelman phrases it, “What marks Gross’s style as Jewish” is “not his vocabulary but his accent.” Even visual artists whose materials do not include text often signal the Jewishness of their work through their vocabularies: including images of a bearded hasid, a six-pointed star, or of Hebrew letters in paintings, sculptures, or architectural designs is the equivalent of having a character speak untrammeled mameloshn. Yet can’t a Jew eschew such obvious symbols and instead somehow paint with a Jewish “accent”? Scholars tackle questions along these lines in Jewish Dimensions in Modern Visual Culture: Antisemitism, Assimilation, Affirmation (UPNE, December), a collection of essays that attempt to explain how those strange bedfellows, Jewishness and modernism, managed to get along.
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Gross’s comic strips put the “funny” in “funny pages”: manic and bewildering, they amuse and delight and befuddle. Joe Sacco’s comics could be called, with no lack of respect, unfunny pages. Whatever your politics, and whether your sympathies lie more with Israelis or with Palestinians, you could not mistake Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza (Metropolitan, December)for a laugh riot. A follow-up to his pioneering Palestine (1993), the new book chronicles Sacco’s return to Gaza in search of the facts behind the killings in Khan Younis and Rafah in 1956. As always, Sacco controls the cartoonish stylization of his medium carefully, maintaining an impressively high level of complexity in his storytelling as well as in his drawings.
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Speaking of cartoons, is there any job in the contemporary entertainment industry more stereotypically Jewish than that of the Hollywood talent agent? No one should be surprised that Jeff Greene of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Ari Gold of Entourage have plenty of spiritual ancestors stretching back to the dawn of their profession. Tom Kemper’s Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents (California, November) describes how agents made themselves indispensable within the Hollywood system, offering up insights into some of the early makhers, including Myron Selznick, Charles Feldman, Ivan Kahn, and Zeppo Marx.
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Pending legal action can add a bit of zip to novels primarily about the heartbreaks and opportunities of family life. Some readers may be compelled to read onwards simply by a desire to understand why an overbearing suburban doctor meddles too much in his son’s life, as Pete Dizinoff does in Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family (Algonquin, November), or why a former Unitarian commits to her Jewish husband’s candy business as enthusiastically as Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky does in Katharine Weber’s True Confection (Shaye Areheart, December). But with criminal charges dangling over their heads, Pete and Alice have all the more reason to share their joys and woes, and readers have more cause to care. Grodstein and Weber each stir in additional points of interest, too, including infanticide, medical intrigue, the history of sweets, and Hitler’s plan to resettle Europe’s Jews in Madagascar.
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As much as we hear about the relations between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, there are still plenty of surprises to discover. Who knew, for example, that in the 1990s B’nai Brith advocated on behalf of Azerbaijan in U.S. foreign policy circles? Alexander Murinson’s Turkey’s Entente with Israel and Azerbaijan: State Identity and Security in the Middle East and Causcasus (Routledge, December) explains the strategic concerns (you know: oil, money, Iran’s influence, etcetera) that align these nations despite their differences. Meanwhile, as historian Marc Baer tells the fascinating tale in The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks (Stanford, October), Salonikan Jews who converted to Islam out of loyalty to Shabbatai Tzvi in the 17th century later played crucial roles in the 1908 revolution that established a secular republic in Turkey. Consequently, as Baer remarks, “Ghost Jews haunt the Turkish popular imaginary” today, with fake exposés of crypto-Jewish conspiracies topping the country’s bestseller lists.
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One more Middle Eastern surprise: though scholars have mostly focused on the sympathies of Arab states and intellectuals for Hitler during the rise of Nazism, Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski demonstrate in Confronting Fascism in Egypt: Dictatorship versus Democracy in The 1930s (Stanford, October) that many Egyptian intellectuals and editorialists decried the Third Reich and what the venerable newspaper Al-Ahram referred to as “the awful tragedy” faced by Germany’s Jews—even while most of them vehemently opposed the Zionist idea that Jewish refugees might settle next door to Egypt, in Mandate Palestine. Perhaps some of this resistance resulted from Egyptians still being sore about what had happened on an earlier occasion when Jews dropped into their neighborhood: after all, the story of how Joseph interpreted his way to the very pinnacle of Egyptian society, leapfrogging a whole bunch of local ministers and magicians with greater seniority, remains one of the most widely disseminated narratives in world history. In fact, Bernhard Lang, a Biblical scholar, points out in Joseph in Egypt: A Cultural Icon from Grotius to Goethe (Yale, November), that a vast range of modern European writers and artists seized on the story of an early meeting between the two cultures as a moral example, metaphor, or fascinating myth.