Five Books: Jews in film, Jews and booze, the poisonous sound of children’s voices in Ben Marcus’ novel, Tony Judt’s last conversations, and more
To say that Tablet Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Jewish Films, published in the first week of December, generated some strong reactions is a bit like noting that 1987’s Ishtar wasn’t universally acclaimed by its reviewers. (Some examples of what Tablet readers had to say about the list: “A very odd collection.” “Silly.” “Silly.” “Silly.” “An exercise in delusion and self-deception.” “Utter drivel.” “Nonsense.” “You guys may know from something but you don’t know from Jewish movies.”) Readers who felt perplexed—and even those who found the list provocative in a good way—should appreciate the scholarly text The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema, edited by Lawrence Baron. It reckons with Grand Illusion, The Pawnbroker, The Chosen, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Ushpizin, among others, with several dozen abridged treatments by professors from Harvard, Yale, Brandeis, Tel Aviv University, and so on, plus by J. Hoberman, who has tragically just been let go by the Village Voice. Baron manages to give each writer enough space to offer close readings of the films in question and to locate them in their national, cultural, and aesthetic contexts. And if you happen not to like the movies that Baron chose in consultation with his contributors, he includes an appendix listing another hundred or so alternatives.
Might there be at least a couple of those kitschy pseudo-nostalgic cocktails served at places like Kutscher’s Tribeca at the events marking the release of Marni Davis’ first book, Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition? Davis, an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, turns the facts of American Jews in the liquor trade—from bootleggers and saloon keepers to kosher vintners and the very rare Jewish Prohibition enforcer—into a tale of prejudice, negotiation, and assimilation. Many American Jews, whether or not they cared to shoot back a thimbleful of schnapps after mussaf, were suspicious of the temperance movement and downright opposed to Prohibition, for good reason: These campaigns often drew upon anti-Semitic Protestant and nativist populism. The trick was for Jews not to let their comfort with the responsible enjoyment of alcohol and their investments in the liquor trade alienate them from other Americans. (Davis quotes a 19th-century rabbi who observed that “the Jew drinks, but he … knows when to stop.”) If you want a symbol of how deeply the liquor trade has mattered to American Jews, take note that the original library at Hebrew Union College, which trains Reform rabbis, was paid for by one of the prominent whiskey distillers of Louisville, Ky.
If you pay attention to contemporary fiction—that is, if you read acknowledgment pages—you’ve likely seen Eileen Pollack’s name a lot. As a professor in, and sometimes director of, the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Michigan, she’s had her hand in books as diverse as Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s stories about contemporary Southeast Asia, Sightseeing, and Elizabeth Kostova’s blockbuster vampire romp, The Historian. Pollack’s own latest novel, Breaking and Entering, takes inspiration from her sojourn in the Midwest after a childhood in the Catskills: In the book, a couple of Californians relocate to Michigan, where they’re surrounded by weirdos and prison inmates who believe, for a couple of kooky examples, that Zionists bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building and that “the people we think of today as Jews are the counterfeit Israelites, spurred by jealousy to bring down the true chosen people, by which I mean the white Christian Aryan race.” Unlike Pollack, her characters aren’t always committed to educating Michiganders: “Explaining anything to morons like Sipp and Rosenkrantz,” one of the transplanted Californians—the Jewish one—thinks, in reference to a couple of his interlocutors, “is like banging your head against a wall, which … hurts you a lot more than it hurts anyone else.”
What hurts in Ben Marcus’ novel The Flame Alphabet are the sounds of children’s voices. Kids’ speech is literally poisonous, a plague that kills adults. While this dystopian premise will probably feel eerily familiar to anyone who has been on a redeye flight across the aisle from a toddler, Marcus—known for books like The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women that luxuriate in language and defy description except, unsatisfactorily, as “experimental fiction”—is up to more than kvetching about the plight of exhausted, ear-strained parents. Like so many more conventional Jewish writers before him, he’s exploring the gap of communication between generations, and, unsurprisingly, the apocalyptic landscape he describes is littered with markers like the Beth Elohim Synagogue and a rabbi named Burke. Indeed, there’s some speculation, by the novel’s narrator, that the deadly linguistic “poison flowed from Jewish children alone, at least at first.”
Whatever you may think of Tony Judt—and, before his death in the summer of 2010, he managed to amass many more admirers, if also more vocal detractors, than the average academic historian of modern Europe—you can’t deny that he lived a fascinating and quintessentially 20th-century Jewish life. Born and raised in England, he summered on kibbutzim as a Zionist teenager and was trained as a historian of France, so he recognized how broad a perspective is necessary to understand modern Europe—he learned Czech late in his career to widen his own. His new book Thinking the Twentieth Century is comprised of conversations between Judt and Yale’s Timothy Snyder, and it was completed weeks before Judt’s death. It shows that his knowledge of languages remained partial: Unlike Snyder, he could not read primary sources in Polish or Ukrainian, which is why, he explains, he felt a collaboration with Snyder would be a valuable use of the limited time and energy he still had as he was dying of ALS. The book is a tribute to Judt’s energy and to his scholarly influence—and it’s surely not the last we’ll hear of him.
Performer and poet Vanessa Hidary, the Hebrew mamita, mashes up her Jewish identity with that of a Puerto Rican—and unsettles stereotypes