On the Bookshelf
South Africa, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Top Chef‘s Spike Mendelsohn
Whatever the facts of Israel’s political relationship with apartheid-era South Africa—recently chronicled, controversially, in Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa, and already reviewed and passionately debated here on Tablet—the Zionist state’s actions cannot be said to have reflected the individual perspectives of Jews, especially in South Africa, toward that country’s institutionalized racism. Ample evidence for this claim can be found in the writings of the 1991 Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, the novelist daughter of a Lithuanian watchmaker who once remarked that, for her, “being Jewish is like being black: you simply are. To want to deny it is disgusting. It’s a denial of humanity.” A new collection of Gordimer’s nonfiction, Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008 (Norton, June), offers up her opposition to apartheid in a series of occasional pieces. The collection also demonstrates the range of her literary and social concerns, from reports on travels throughout Africa to her attentive readings of Philip Roth, whom she ranked in 2006, along with Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez, as among “the world’s best novelists.”
The fervent anti-apartheid activism that pitted South African Jews like Gordimer against their government and countrymen appears even more impressive when one considers how eagerly Jews elsewhere in the Commonwealth endeavored to fit into their surroundings. Natasha Solomons dramatizes that assimilationist desire in her debut novel, published in England in April as Mr. Rosenblum’s List, or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman, and now in the United States as Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English (Little, Brown, June). Her title character, a German-Jewish refugee, attempts to fit the very model of a postwar English gentleman, dressing British and thinking British, too. When it turns out that no golf club will accept him and thus ratify his assimilation, he decides to build his own.
When Gordimer’s fellow Nobel honoree, Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) won the prize for literature in 1938, she was the first American woman, and only the fourth woman of any nationality, ever to receive it. (For anyone who hasn’t been counting, it might be worth considering that only 12 of the 105 total Nobel Literature prizewinners have been female.) Buck was not Jewish: As Hilary Spurling describes in Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth (Simon & Schuster, June), she grew up in China, speaking English and Chinese bilingually, because her parents, Southern Presbyterian missionaries from West Virginia, hoped to convert the heathen Chinese to their church. But she did manage to write the classic fictional account of the Jews of Kaifeng—Peony (1948)—who, at least in her telling, outdid even Mr. Rosenblum, in becoming indelibly Chinese.
Only one towering figure in modern Jewish life could capably provide a link between Jews dispersed to South Africa, England, China, and far beyond: Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe. The system of Chabad-Lubavitch centers, which flowered under his leadership and continues to do so after his death, currently boasts nine locations in China, 15 in South Africa, and more than 20 in England—a fascinating legacy for a figure who, according to The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Princeton, June), a new biography by the respected sociologists Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, spent the 1930s in Berlin and Paris intent on living as an intellectual, European cosmopolitan.
Rabbinic Jews were always cosmopolitans, in a sense, even from the very beginnings of their culture: As early as the Talmudic era, the great rabbis established a complex academic system in the midst of their Babylonian exile, in which they managed to hash out both principles of intellectual protocol and a nuanced and complex worldview. The third volume in a trilogy, Jeffrey Rubenstein’s Stories of the Babylonian Talmud (Johns Hopkins, July) once again approaches the narratives accumulated by these figures with what he calls a “literary approach” to the Talmudic texts and their anonymous redactors.
A strong Top Chef contender and now the proprietor of D.C.’s Good Stuff Eatery, Spike Mendelsohn hardly shies away from the Jewish half of his self-described “Grewish” (i.e., Greek-Jewish) restaurateur background. He has provided Oprah’s website with his recipe for matzah pizza and edified a Washington synagogue audience on the finer points of latke-making, alongside his own mother. Yet the most notable dishes in his first collection of recipes—The Good Stuff Cookbook, co-written with his sister and girl Friday, Micheline—are an emphatically and appropriately trayf burger he named in honor of his fellow D.C. resident, “Prez Obama” and a marshmallow milkshake that sounds delicious, with a very goyishe taam.
Mendelsohn’s homage to the First Lady, a turkey burger decked out with vegetables, draws its inspiration from the vegetable patch she planted on the White House lawn as part of her campaign for healthy eating. Clara Silverstein’s A White House Garden Cookbook: Cooking, Gardening, Family (Red Rock Press, June) is likewise stimulated by this presidential produce. Silverstein offers recipes for each of the crops the Obamas raised in their garden’s first year, as well as tips on community gardening, and one suspects that her interest in the project is not purely culinary. Among her previous books is the 2004 memoir White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation, an account of her struggles as a Jewish girl in the 1970s, being bused to predominantly African-American schools in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, where she “was tripped in the halls and spit on in the cafeteria,” and, on one occasion, referred to as a “dirty Jew.” Might her interest in Michelle Obama’s laudable gardening and healthy eating campaign perhaps be a celebration of the sort of joyful integration that was so elusive Silverstein’s childhood?
Poet Michael Heller wonders if the painter Max Beckmann foresaw the attacks of 9/11