On the Bookshelf
Burning questions on the Cold War
Feeling overheated? Take a refreshing dip in the Cold War. When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September), by Tablet contributing editor and former Columbia Journalism Review staffer Gal Beckerman, weaves the efforts to free the Russian refuseniks into a dramatic narrative, emphasizing how central the issue became both in American Jewish culture—Beckerman recalls his own Soviet Jew “twin,” from his 1989 bar mitzvah—and in the U.S.’s propaganda war, culminating with Vice President George H. W. Bush’s campy revision of President Reagan, in 1987, by way of Charlton Heston’s Moses: “Mr. Gorbachev, let these people go!”
The unmasking of Russian secret agents in America provided some of the hotter moments of the early Cold War, and no spy revealed more, either to his Soviet handlers or to the Americans who captured him, than Harry Gold. A reluctant Communist, born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1910, while his parents were en route from Ukraine to the United States, he first delivered information on sugar processing to the Russians, later procuring documents from the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Allen Hornblum tells his perplexing story in The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb (Yale, September), providing lush details culled from interviews, including Gold’s pre-espionage years in South Philly where his mother, who tutored neighborhood children in Hebrew and Yiddish, earned the title of “Die [sic] Rebbetzin.”
Gold’s connection to Communism grew slowly: When a friend suggested he and his family might relocate to “the Birobidzhan area of the Soviet Russia,” he felt the suggestion was “nonsense.” Plenty of American Jewish Communists did sympathize with the creation of a Jewish national home by the Soviets, though, even if it had to be located in Siberia. As Henry Srebrnik demonstrates in Dreams of Nationhood: American Jewish Communists and the Soviet Birobidzhan Project, 1924-1951 (Academic Studies, August), based on extensive research in Yiddish archives, American groups like ICOR and the American Birobidjan Committee supported the Soviet project, ideologically and with their cash.
Complicated interactions between Jewishness and the Soviet Union go back at least as far as December 31, 1844, on which date Lenin’s great-grandfather, Moshko Blank, a Jew, “took the Eucharist, converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and became Dmitrii Ivanoich Blank.” Tracing this genealogical fact and its interpretations through Soviet history, Iokhanan Petrovskii-Shtern notes, in Lenin’s Jewish Question (Yale, August) that Lenin’s supporters denied his Jewish roots just as vehemently as his critics emphasized them—and he insists that “there was no Jewish revolution in Russia, no Jewish power, and no Jewish Lenin.”
During Lenin’s parents’ lifetimes, the representation of Jewishness constituted a vexed question in Russia. On the one hand, as Musya Glants recounts in Where Is My Home?: The Art and Life of the Russian-Jewish Sculptor Mark Antokolskii, 1843-1902 (Lexington, September), a Vilna-born artist could make a name for himself, beginning in the 1860s, with sculptural works on Jewish themes; “A Jewish Tailor” and “Nathan the Wise” helped him to earn a spot in the St. Petersburg Academy of Art and commissions from Czar Alexander II, among other heavyweights of his era. On the other hand, though, at least according to Leonid Livak’s argument in The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature (Stanford, September), the depiction of Jews in classic Russian literature by Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov draw less upon observations of the behavior and appearance of real live Jews and more upon the position of Jews within Christian theology and exegesis—that is, as the folks from whom Christ arose, and who rejected his teaching.
In the Soviet Union, it was at least relatively easy to tell whether or not you were Jewish: The government stamped it on your passport. In the United States, determining who and what counts as Jewish has never been quite so simple. As Kenneth Marcus explains in Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge, September), this definitional ambiguity of Jewishness has caused complications for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in conflicts about campus anti-Semitism: When a Zionist Organization of America leader, Susan Tuchman, filed a detailed claim in 2004 about prejudice on the University of Irvine campus, the university’s administrators could respond that “religion is not a protected class for the purposes of Title VI”—as if Jews were simply a religious group, rather than an ethnic or racial one. Marcus, who served as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at the time of this case, argues that “however the issue is framed, Jewish students have powerful claims to the antiracism protections contained in Title VI,” as “harassment of Jews is ‘discrimination because of … race’ within the meaning of that law.”
Because there hasn’t been a simple way to define American Jewish identity, American Jews have had to create a shared community history that binds them to one another. University of Pennsylvania historian Beth S. Wenger explores how they have done so in History Lessons: The Invention of American Jewish Heritage (Princeton, August), focusing on how Jews celebrated national holidays, mythologized heroes, and educated their children about “the synthesis of Judaism and Americanism”—which, in the words of Jerold Auerbach, is really a “historical fiction.”
Wenger notes that American Jews have seen themselves as “a unique chapter in Jewish history,” but in their uses of collective history to construct group identity and to advance communal agendas, they were participating in a venerable Jewish tradition. Michael Brenner’s Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History (Princeton, August) surveys the projects of Jewish historians from the Wissenschaft des Judentums to Salon Baron at Columbia to Cecil Roth at Oxford (who once noted that he wrote Jewish history “because it is fun”) and the Jerusalem School. Brenner, a scholar of German Jewish history at the University of Munich, suggests that even when Jews “had little substantial political or even military power” to support their ideological stances, “what they could show was their consciousness of an especially long history” that accorded with their beliefs.
On the eve of his New York debut, an Amsterdam comedian reflects on Jewish funniness, the liberalism of the Netherlands, and Sarah Silverman. Plus a video preview.