On the Bookshelf
Tough customers: drunks, crazies, and other cherished branches of the family tree
One of the wonders of contemporary American Jewish writing is how anything can become part of a tradition, even, say, mourning one’s psychologically imbalanced mother. As if to mark the half-century birthday of the greatest modern poem on that particular subject—which has been celebrated and reissued as Kaddish and Other Poems: 50th Anniversary Edition (City Lights, December)—Adam Schwartz’s first novel, A Stranger on the Planet (Soho, January), introduces the mother of its narrator, early on, in a way that recalls Naomi Ginsberg a little: “Throughout her teenaged years Ruth had been overweight and mentally unstable. At sixteen she was hospitalized after an especially bad psychotic episode.” And before it’s over, Schwartz’s novel—which has been in the works for an unusually long time, as an excerpt of sorts appeared in The New Yorker back in 1988—has the narrator and his siblings saying you-know-what over their mom’s grave.
Like Schwartz’s narrator, Allen Shawn has a twin sister. Shawn explains in his book Twin: A Memoir (Viking, January) that his twin, Mary, was autistic and became less a presence in his life than a persistent absence after being sent away, at age 8, to a home for troubled kids. Shawn details the effects of her disappearance on himself and on his family, including his brother Wallace, who turned out to be an actor and playwright, and his father William, who edited The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987. In a previous memoir, Shawn recalled that in his family “there was never any denial of being Jewish, but there were no relaxed assertions of it either.”
The heroine of Suzanne Corso’s novel Brooklyn Story (S&S/Galery, January) grows up on the opposite end from the Shawns of what Norman Podhoretz famously called “one of the longest journeys in the world … from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” In Bensonhurst, in 1978, with an alcoholic Jewish mother still resentful about the disappearance of her Italian husband, this young woman discovers some advantages to associating with a guy with mafia connections—even if that doesn’t exactly make her Orthodox grandmother kvell.
The sad truth about Manhattan is that terrorists have targeted it for much the same reason that aspiring writers, like Corso’s protagonist, dream of making it there: because it symbolizes everything, good and bad, about American achievement, wealth, and success. Eighty years before 9/11, a bomb on Wall Street killed or injured 400—by far the most grievous such attack on American soil of its era. Jeb Rubenfeld dispatches his sleuth, Dr. Stratham Younger, to find the perpetrators in The Death Instinct (Riverhead, January). He gets help from Sigmund Freud, who, in Rubenfeld’s first thriller, gawked at New York’s Jews: After having seen them “wearing their long beards and peculiar outfits, black from head to foot,” Freud calls himself “the deepest of unbelievers,” and remarks that religion is “the universal neurosis of mankind.”
Rubenfeld’s mysteries bring history to life metaphorically—in the sense of making historical figures vivid—but Ida Hattemer-Higgins does so more literally with her debut novel, The History of History (Knopf, January). The novel features an American Jewish woman in Berlin with a hole in her memory and a growing fascination with the wife of Joseph Goebbels, living in a city in which the legacy of Nazism instantiates itself in magically concrete ways. The protagonist’s past remains somewhat occluded until the final pages, but the real mystery here is whether or not Hattemer-Higgins will succeed in earning a position on Post-Holocaust Literature syllabi, for that week at the end, you know, after Sebald and Schlink.
Notwithstanding the dozens of novels by and about American Jews published each year, there are still many surprising stories discovered all the time by scholars. A new collection of essays, edited by the always delightful Josh Kun and two of his colleagues at USC, turns up a variety of fascinating anecdotes in American popular culture. The Song Is Not the Same: Jews and American Popular Music (Purdue, December) includes essays on Henry Ford’s musical tastes and Yiddish in African-American scat-singing, as well as Kun’s own contribution, on the dirty Jewish divas of the 1960s nightclub scene, Belle Barth and Pearl Williams.
Like Barth and Williams, Allen Bodner’s subjects could deliver serious zingers in dark, smoke-filled halls: They did so, as amateur and professional boxers, with their fists. Bodner’s book, originally published in 1997, will now be kept in print by an academic press: When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport (SUNY, January) draws inspiration not only from world champions like Barney Ross, but also from amateur pugilists like Bodner’s father, who went on to manage fighters. It can’t be very long until somebody produces a thoroughly Jewish Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, or The Fighter.
Finally, Michael Weingrad introduces a fascinating set of characters—the American Hebrew writers who insisted on publishing in Ivrit even while living in Connecticut or California—whose passionate commitments have informed Cynthia Ozick’s fiction, but who remain woefully underappreciated. Surveying the lives and work of Shimon Halkin, Gabriel Preil, and others, Weingrad’s American Hebrew Literature (Syracuse, December) ends on an ambivalent note with a profile of Robert Whitehill, who was raised in Lubbock, Texas, where his family gave him a Christmas tree and no bar mitzvah—and yet he has successfully transformed himself into a Hebrew poet, publishing verse in respected Israeli journals. Whitehill remains a resolute Texan, though, even in Hebrew: “On the day I die,” he begins one of his prose-poems, “stick my corpse in a plastic bag and ship it by refrigerated truck to Houston.”
When the Weavers recorded the popular Israeli folk song ‘Tzena Tzena’ in 1950, they did more than legitimize a strain of musical culture; they introduced Israel to a generation of young Americans