On the Bookshelf
Levantine lives, stone synagogues, faithful feminists, minority Muslims, and Jewish jokes
The Levant: It’s one of those fascinating places that exists less as a concrete geographical entity (the word itself means “rising” in French and originally designated, simply, “east”) than as the imagined territory of folks like Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff. Born in Cairo in 1917 to an Iraqi father and Tunisian mother, she rose to prominence as a novelist and essayist in English in New York in the 1940s, then settled in Israel, where she felt neither linguistically nor ethnically at home, given that she wrote in English and located her personal history in Iraq and North Africa. With Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (Stanford, June), Sasson Somekh and Deborah Starr offer up the first anthology of Shohet Kahanoff’s work in English, most of which has until now been published exclusively, strangely, in Hebrew translation.
Like Shohet Kahanoff, Philip Mansel treats the Levant as a “mentality.” He focuses on three modern cities—Smyrna, Alexandria, and Beirut—distinguished by their “diversity and flexibility” in Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (Yale, May). Are they “Global cities before globalization” or “volcanoes waiting to erupt”? Mansel argues that they were both at once, because cosmopolitanism hasn’t been very good at defending itself, at least not with the sort of military force that nationalism usually has at its disposal: “the very qualities that gave these cities their energy … also threatened their existence. No army, no city.”
Ali Bader’s journalistic novel The Tobacco Keeper (Bloomsbury Qatar, June) dramatizes Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism and its discontents; published in Arabic in 2008, the book was longlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize and has now been translated to English. In it, a Iraqi Jewish violinist, exiled from his homeland after the establishment of Israel, yearns for his Babylonian home. He keeps sneaking back into the land of his birth, by transforming himself into an Iranian and Syrian, and in each of his incarnations he has another son—the first a Jew, the second a Shiite, the third a Sunni—making for a rather complicated family reunion.
Nina Rowe describes in The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge, April) how, in the medieval period, French and German sculptors represented the competition of the church and the synagogue in stone, representing these institutions as “rival queens who vied for authority over the earth.” The artists who designed façades of cathedrals in places like Reims, Bamberg, and Strasbourg expressed their disrespect for the shul by depicting Synagoga “as blindfolded, holding a broken spear, rejecting the Lamb of God, and being shoved to the ground.”
The old girl had more life in her than these sculptors imagined, though. A few hundred years later, synagogues would begin popping up in North America, and Sharman Kadish’s The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland: An Architectural and Social History (Yale, April) documents Jewish houses of worship in the British Isles, starting with the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue at Bevis Marks, “the first purpose-built synagogue in Britain,” which, having operated continuously since 1701, offers “physical testimony to the stability of Jewish life in Britain.”
Also alive and well: feminist activism among Orthodox Jews and Muslims in contemporary Israel, Kuwait, and the United States. So argues Jan Feldman in Citizenship, Faith, and Feminism: Jewish and Muslim Women Reclaim Their Rights (Brandeis, May). Feldman acknowledges her personal stake in this argument; her last book, Lubavitchers as Citizens, was an “attempt to square [her] feminism and nonpartisan humanism … with [her] strong attachment to Lubavitch,” and more recently, she has explained how she became “the only professor on campus”—at the University of Vermont, where she teaches political science—“in a sheitel.”
Feldman suggests that Jews and Muslims share the experience of being religious minorities in America; Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper’s Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities (Palgrave Macmillan, April) echoes this point, exploring parallels and points of divergence. The collection includes essays and statements by such Jewish and Muslim public intellectuals as Judith Plaskow, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Ingrid Mattson, and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and it will inevitably ruffle some feathers; when Aslan and Tapper speak in Northern California on June 1, they’ll do so under the title “It’s Complicated.”
One way to cut through some of these complexities and contentions, is with a bit of the funny. Christie Davis argues, though, in Jokes and Targets (Indiana, April), that even humor can be used to explain sociological phenomena. Davis identifies “cases where a pattern of jokes exists in one society or for one group but not for another” and explains why that might be. One example: the jokes about sexless Jewish American Princesses (“What’s the difference between a tidal wave and a JAP? A tidal wave swallows seamen”), which Davis explains as “a product of a tension between two sets of values, in this case loyalty to a particular identity, tradition, and community on the one hand and American individualism on the other.” Sure, that makes sense, but is there anything that can explain Ari Shaffir?
Exhibitions in Milan and London this spring have made clear that Israel’s Bezalel Academy is now a central address for contemporary art and design