On the Bookshelf
On rootlessness and family trees
A midsummer day’s nightmare: shlepping all your worldly possessions to a new apartment. Everybody wants to settle in before the High Holidays and the school year starts, making June, July, and August the busiest season for moving companies. This also explains why the sections of Brooke Berman’s No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments (Harmony, June) typically run from one summer to another. A prize-winning playwright who had already auditioned under a stage name (“Brooke Alison—it sounds less Jewish”) by the time she began her peripatetic New York City sojourn at the age of 18, Berman manages somehow to make relocating almost 40 times in half as many years sound more like an ongoing adventure than like a godforsaken, perpetual exile.
Berman’s bohemian-ish wanderings may seem inevitably less stultifying than life in the suburbs, but as readers of John Cheever and Richard Yates know, subdivisions harbor roiling inner lives all their own. Soon to be available in paperback, David Kushner’s account of harsh real-estate politics, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb (Walker & Company, August) describes the attempt integrate one of the famed model communities planned by Abraham Levitt and his sons. While the Levitts were self-conscious of themselves as Jews and claimed to have “no room … for racial prejudice,” they sold homes only to whites. In late summer 1957, a Communist-leaning Jewish family in the Pennsylvania Levittown subverted the developers’ policy by arranging a private sale to an African-American couple. Riots and harassment followed, with visits from the Ku Klux Klan, all of which provides a reminder of the complex and often distasteful history of American suburban living.
But then again, the city has its fair share of problems. Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan (Spiegel & Grau, July) romps its way through a borough so thoroughly saturated with literary pretension that it would be insufferable to visit, let alone reside there. (Sort of like the real one is, some might say.) Telling a tall tale of publishing aspiration and fraud, Langer packs the novel with inside jokes and goes so far as to invent a slang based on the names of contemporary and classic authors, in which, for example, a “chabon” is “a wavy mane” and a “ginsberg” “a somewhat unruly beard.” The author knows whereof he satirizes, having toiled as a literary journalist before publishing his own fiction: “I’ve been blown off by E.L. Doctorow,” he reports, “condescended to by Harold Bloom … treated to lousy herring by Gary Shteyngart, [and] regaled with unprintable, really yucky stories by Jonathan Safran Foer.”
Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works (California, May), by Tablet’s poetry columnist David Kaufmann, surveys the machinations and pieties of another one of New York City’s cultural coteries, similarly bedeviled by questions of what counts, or doesn’t, as beauty and originality: the avant garde art scene of the late 1960s and 1970s. Among other key insights, Kaufmann distinguishes Guston from his contemporaries Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko as more comfortable identifying himself and his art as Jewish, also revealing the imaginative debt the artist, born Phillip Goldstein to immigrants from Odessa, owed to his landsman Isaac Babel.
Fascinated as Langer is with literary frauds, he could not have invented a story of textual intrigue as rich as the strange story of the Aleppo Codex: the oldest surviving edition of the Tanakh in book form, dating to the year 939 CE, it is said to have been pored over by Maimonides himself. This remarkable hand-written manuscript—now available for perusal on the web—spent most of the last millennium in Syria, until being smuggled out to Israel in 1957 inside a washing machine. Moreover, in Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex (JPS, July), Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider note that like any similarly priceless pile of papers, the Aleppo Codex has from time to time been the subject of fantastic claims and suspicions of forgery; in particular, the unscrupulous Crimean Karaite scholar Abraham Kirkovich (1786-1874) tarnished the manuscript’s reputation through his spurious claim that its author was a Karaite, rather than a Masorete.
Another surprising recovery from the Middle East: According at least to the University of Chicago historian Fred M. Donner, Islam originated in a monotheistic movement that at first included pious Jews and Christians along with those whose faith centered on the Qur’an. Expounding this thesis, Donner learnedly surveys the first century of Muslim history in Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Harvard, May).
Discovering unexpected relationships—like the one Donner propounds among the earliest Muslims and their Jewish and Christian neighbors—has always been the goal of genealogy hobbyists, who have lately seen their pastime gussied up as television spectacle. Surfing this wave of interest, Buzzy Jackson’s Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Amateur Genealogist (Touchstone, July) combines memoir and upbeat how-to elements as the author investigates her own family’s story through DNA testing, a Caribbean cruise, and old fashioned library research. Her father’s relations, with roots in Alabama, regale her with far-fetched family legends, but it turns out that the Galician Jews on her mother’s side tell one another “no stories about the old days or the old country.”
Jennifer Rosner began to explore her own family history when her eldest daughter, Sofia, was born hearing impaired, and then “a hasty internet search” informed her that Ashkenazi Jews, like her, “have a heightened risk of carrying recessive gene mutations for deafness.” In If a Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard (Feminist, May), Rosner describes discovering a history of deafness in her ancestors and a lovely example of how they coped even before cochlear implants and sign language, which Rosner transforms into a resonant motif in her book: When her two great-great-aunts, both deaf, were caring for infants, “they tied strings from their wrists to their babies at bedtime. When the babies fidgeted, they would feel their tugs and wake to care for them in the night.” What better image could there be for family ties?
Like most Holocaust historians, Christopher Browning was wary of survivor testimony. Then, one case made him realize he could ignore it no longer.