On the Bookshelf
Diasporas, tomatoes, interstellar Zionists, and more
In recent years, the idea of the Jewish Diaspora has been turned on its head by many Jews, like the displaced characters of Tova Murad Sadka’s Farewell to Dejla: Stories of Iraqi Jews at Home and in Exile (Academy Chicago, August), who long for homelands other than Eretz Yisroel. Sadka’s Iraqis, relocated to Israel and the U.S.—like their countrymen featured in the documentary Forget Baghdad (2003), and like Persians in Los Angeles, or South Africans in Toronto, or Bukharans in Queens—might still pray, “Next year in Jerusalem” at the Passover seder, but many of them wax nostalgic for their recent, terrestrial homes at least as often as they yearn for an ancestral, spiritual Zion.
Indeed, whether Diaspora constitutes a tragedy or an opportunity has been a debate for centuries, and a rather pointed one since the advent of Zionism. For some polemicists, life in the Diaspora constitutes a waste of energy and resources (A. B. Yehoshua infamously quipped in 2002: “Diaspora Judaism is masturbation”), but recently historians have demonstrated the productivity of globally dispersed Jews. In The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (Yale, June), Yale professor Francesca Trivellato explores how Tuscan Jewish merchants in the 17th and 18th centuries managed to trade with a range of communities in Europe, the Middle East, and across the Indian Ocean, building commercial and social networks even with people who shared few of their values.
During the same period, concepts of Jewish exile and home might have become considerably stranger if the British political philosopher James Harrington (1611-1677) had persuaded anyone with his proposal to farm “out [Ireland] unto the Jews and their heirs forever”: to transform Ireland, that is, into a Jewish colony. Inspired by Harrington’s bizarre philo-Semitism, Maria Edgeworth’s novel Harrington (1817), conveys its author’s own, not-always-flattering ideas about Jews; Toby Benis, a Wordsworth scholar, situates Edgeworth’s novel among other early-19th-century conceptions of exile in Romantic Diasporas: French Émigrés, British Convicts, and Jews (Palgrave Macmillan, June).
In their dispersions, Jews have sometimes wandered so far as to forget that they are Jewish. Sadia Shepard, for one example, grew up in a Boston suburb thinking of her beloved grandmother as a Muslim, only discovering as a teen that she descends from the Bene Israel, India’s centuries-old Jewish population. Shepard chronicles her grandmother’s story and her search for her heritage in a film and in her widely praised personal history, The Girl from Foreign, out soon in paperback (Penguin, June).
Another, more controversial case of attenuated Diasporic identity is raised by the crypto-Jews of the American southwest. Some scholars have denied the claims of various Hispanic individuals and groups in New Mexico and elsewhere to be descendants of the conversos, who converted to Catholicism under the Spanish Inquisition and continued to practice Jewish rituals secretly. Seth D. Kunin, anthropologist and author of Juggling Identities: Identity and Authenticity among the Crypto-Jews (Columbia, June), has devoted thirteen years to ethnographic research among these people, and has argued in an earlier article on the subject that “any identity, whether or not historically authentic, is a real identity.” Do we value the fact that someone’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother was born a Jew—as geneticists have begun to do—or the values, beliefs, and practices of that individual in the present? Like the debate about whether the Diaspora is wasteland or wonderland, expect this one to continue for a good long while.
Partly because Jews have lived in so many eras and locales, influencing so many historical events, they tend to appear regularly in historical fiction. In preparing his novelization of the life of John the Baptist, for one example, Brooks Hansen could not have sensibly excluded Jews: John the Baptizer (Norton, June) begins with the titular character’s noggin served up on a platter to Herod Antipas. But that’s straight gospel.
Also not surprising: Jews were on hand in the earliest days of corporate raiding. Or at least David Liss ensures that his character Benjamin Weaver doesn’t miss out on any of the fun in the early days of the British East India Company’s financial maneuvering. Weaver, a Jewish ex-pugilist who appears in two of Liss’s previous outings—A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) and A Spectacle of Corruption (2004)—is partly based on the real-life 18th-century British boxing champion Daniel Mendoza. He stars once more in The Devil’s Company (Random House, July), another one of the rip-roaring, finely detailed romps through economic history that have won Liss many fans and an Edgar Award.
Less well-known is the role of Jews in introducing the tomato to Italian cuisine during the 16th century, speculation about which informs Adam Schell’s debut historical novel, Tomato Rhapsody: A Tale of Love, Lust and Forbidden Fruit (Delacorte, June). The novel presents an “Ebreo” tomato farmer and his Catholic lover, as well as a huge cast of characters, rhyming dialogue, and other pseudo-Shakespearean touches.
In other fictional genres, Jews predictably appear just where you’d least expect them. Having seen the success of the continuing adventures of a Conservative rabbi sleuth, an Orthodox female sleuth, and a Texas Jewboy sleuth, why not place Jews at the center of a series of scrapbooking-themed whodunits situated in St. Louis? That seems to have been the logic embraced by scrapbook evangelist Joanna Campbell Slan when she turned to mystery novels, naming her shamus after the therapist in The Prince of Tides (1986), pasting in a smattering of Jewish characters, and, in the second entry in the series—Cut, Crop & Die: A Kiki Lowenstein Scrap-N-Craft Mystery (Midnight Ink, June)—folding in a subplot involving hate crimes against the Gateway City’s Jewish community.
Likewise, Jews pop up regularly even on distant planets and in dystopian futures. Robert Silverberg’s oeuvre combines an intense devotion to science fiction—in the 1960s, his output reportedly exceeded two million words per year—with a thoughtfulness about the resonances Jewish history and myth in potential futures. Examples appear in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Four: Trips, 1972-1973 (Subterranean, June), including the classic interstellar-Zionism story, “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV.” The space colonists have their fair share of problems, but isn’t it strangely comforting to contemplate a future in which Jews live not only in every corner of the globe, but also—fulfilling God’s promise to multiply them like stars in the sky—throughout the universe?