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On the Bookshelf

Jews have always been keen on joining revolutions. Some revolutionaries, like Emma Goldman, sought to change the minds of workers; others, like Richard Feynman, looked to change our understanding of matter.

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My Dyslexia

Every adolescence has its own special miseries, the Jewish ones no less so than the non. Philip Schultz, who won the 2008 Pulitzer for poetry, struggled with dyslexia, and this was a problem for him not only at school—he didn’t learn to read until the fifth grade—but also at home. As he explains in My Dyslexia (Norton, September), “I couldn’t learn Hebrew for the same reason I couldn’t learn English, or anything else. And not knowing Hebrew felt even worse. It was a failure not only in my eyes and the eyes of my parents but in the eyes of God too.”

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Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life

The teenaged Emma Goldman had other problems: When she was 12, a teacher in her school in Konigsberg declared her “a terrible child who would grow into a worse woman,” and that was the end of her formal education; a few years later, after her father told her that “all a Jewish girl need know is how to make gefilte fish, cut noodles fine, and give her husband babies,” she threatened to commit suicide if not allowed to accompany her sister to America. In Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life (Yale, September), Vivian Gornick rehearses these details from Red Emma’s youth, offering an overview of the career of an iconic anarchist.

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The Blood Lie

Schultz’s and Goldman’s issues were small potatoes, though, compared to what Jack Pool has to deal with on his 16th birthday in Shirley Reva Vernick’s young-adult historical novel The Blood Lie (Cinco Puntos, September). Drawing upon real-life events that took place in the town of Massena, N.Y., in September 1928, Vernick has Jack accused of murdering a gentile girl discovered missing on Shabbat Shuva.

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The Inquisitor’s Apprentice

The hardship faced by Sacha Kessler, the teenaged protagonist of The Inquisitor’s Apprentice (Harcourt, October), meanwhile, is more fanciful: It results from his ability to see witchcraft that other denizens of turn-of-the-century New York cannot. Because of this talent, Sacha is compelled to assist a New York Police Department Inquisitor in preventing magical crimes (does wholesale Harry Potter imitation count?). As Sacha’s uncle, an avid reader of the Yiddish Daily Magic-Worker, observes, “Only in America can Jewish boys grow up to become cogs in the anti-Wiccan machine just like gentiles!”

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Cleopatra's Moon

Another new historical novel for young-adult readers, Vicky Alvear Shecter’s Cleopatra’s Moon (Arthur A. Levine, August), features as its heroine the only daughter of the famed Cleopatra VII. While her mom was the last pharaoh of Egypt, and a girlfriend of Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, the young Cleopatra Selene receives a royal education, including a field trip with her tutor to meet with a rabbi “who will explain the tenets of the Hebrew religion.” You know, that whole weird monotheism thing.

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Cleopatra: A Life

The latest major biographical treatment of Cleopatra VII, soon to be available in paperback, is Stacy Schiff’s 2010 hit Cleopatra: A Life (Back Bay, September), which notes, among other things, that one 19th-century historian errs in having called her “a loose girl of sixteen” when she met Caesar, when she was really “an intensely focused woman of twenty-one.” Schiff’s adolescence has been the subject of some disagreement, too. In 2000, on the heels of winning the Pulitzer for her biography of Vladimir Nabokov and his (Jewish) wife Vera, Schiff told an interviewer that spending her teenage years in “one of three Jewish families” in the Northern Berkshires mill town of Adams, Mass., was “a little alienating” and one reason that she’s “always writing about refugees, people out of sync.” A blogger has since pointed out that the celebrated biographer seems to have gotten the facts of her own childhood wrong, in that North Adams boasts a synagogue with a long, rich history and a congregation that one can safely assume is larger than the three families Schiff remembered.

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Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck

The trials of adolescence can, of course, anticipate adult triumphs. As a 13-year-old in Hamburg in 1896, living in a Shabbat- and kashrut-observant Jewish home, James Franck broke his arm and “decided to go—without asking his parents—to the Physikalisches Staatslaboratorium (State Physical Laboratory) … to have his arm examined with the rays” that had, only a year before, been proved capable of producing images of bones beneath people’s skin. This anecdote, and the X-ray picture of Franck’s arm, can both be found in J. Lemmerich’s Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck (Stanford, August), which describes Franck’s discoveries in the field of physics and chemistry—he won the Nobel Prize in the former field in 1925, and he later participated in the Manhattan Project—as well as his admirable if unsuccessful attempts to convince President Truman and the U.S. government not to deploy the nuclear bomb he had helped invent.

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Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) also contributed to the Manhattan Project, and he won the Nobel Prize in Physics 40 years after Franck. He was the sort of Far Rockaway-raised son of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who, as a teenager, decided to develop his own personal system of symbols for trigonometry because he didn’t like the standard notation. He turned out to be a safe-cracker, bongo drummer, habitué of strip clubs, and a painter, too: In general, he was what used to be called a “colorful character”—so it is highly fitting that his life has been rendered in comic-book style as Feynman (First Second, August), written by Jim Ottaviani and drawn, in full color, by Leland Myrick. After he won the Nobel, having to explain why he didn’t wish to be listed in a book of “Jewish Winners,” Feynman referred back to the decision he made, aged 13, to drop “out of Sunday school just before confirmation”: He rejected the idea “that the Jewish people are in any way ‘the chosen people,’ ” or “that there is a true Jewish race or specific Jewish hereditary character.”

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Adams and North Adams are two different communities, about 6 miles apart. Adams is a tiny town; North Adams happens to be the smallest city in Massachusetts.

Barnara says:

Re: Ms Schiff. Adams, MA is just a few miles from North Adams, and the town I grew up in, Williamstown, is just west of North Adams. Yes, North Adams had and has a Jewish community. But whether affiliated with the shul there or not, life was very different for those of us residing and attending schools only a few miles away. Your blogger is right about the existence of a Jewish community in North Adams but clearly unaware of what life was like for Jews living in smaller neighboring communities.

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On the Bookshelf

Jews have always been keen on joining revolutions. Some revolutionaries, like Emma Goldman, sought to change the minds of workers; others, like Richard Feynman, looked to change our understanding of matter.

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