A Head Trip to the Lower East Side

Blogging Joshua Cohen’s ‘Witz’


The Scroll will be blogging selected sections of Witz, the new novel from Tablet Magazine columnist Joshua Cohen. Josh will be celebrating James Joyce’s Ulysses with us this Wednesday, June 16.

Manhattan’s Lower East Side is a district known today primarily for its nightlife, and when friends and I have gravitated there for that reason, frequently one or the other of us will refer to it, jokingly, as “the old neighborhood.” Fact is, this was for many years the center of Jewish life in New York City (and therefore in America), and certain vestiges—the old Forward building on East Broadway, the Tenement Museum, the mural advertising Schapiro’s kosher wine—remain to remind the young men and women frequenting the bars on Ludlow Street on Friday nights—many Jewish; hey, it’s New York—that this is actually a place of history.

Witz serves as another reminder, in a late section of the book in which our hero, Benjamin Israelien, the last true Jew on an earth where everyone has adopted the trappings of Judaism, ventures “Downtown” to the holy neighborhood, “a world not so much frozen in time as in time past”:

this lonesome stretch of barrengardened, coldflat Orchard Street: a secret message of what, encrypted for whom. Anyway, is it even Orchard Street … isn’t it maybe Grand, or Delancey I’m crossing, Division dividing Essex or Essen, hesternal Hester heading western to where I don’t know, no street numbers I’m seeing, O show me the signs—Second Avenue, I know at least, I see they’ve renamed it Avenue Bet, First Avenue, Aleph, I get it, nu, I can count …

Above is a good example of “the new language old” that Cohen has created for his protagonist. It is its own, dynamic language, albeit one spoken only in the protagonist’s head ever since he lost his tongue, in—as Cohen has put it elsewhere—“an unfortunate confluence of cunnilingus and the 137th Psalm.”

Benjamin enters a Chinese restaurant, and the waiters—“busgoys” and “busboychiks”—are dressed as, well, Chinese Jews, although not in the Kaifeng manner: “Above their uniforms, which are tuxedos, they’re turned out in yarmulkes; they’ve grown silken beards to complement their payos, like thin and greasy noodles.”

After a hearty meal, the hunted Benjamin must be on his way. The Lower East Side of Witz undeniably feels post-apocalyptic—at one point, an aimless herd of sheep crosses Benjamin’s path—and there is a general aura of infertility (“barrengardened”). Yet there is also something ruefully hilarious about the whole setpiece. I would try to describe it. But that would go against the spirit of this novel, whose epigraph reads, “Witz: being, in Yiddish, a joke“, and whose main character at one point notes, “nothing’s ever funny when you have to spell it out.”

Today on Tablet

Furst at his best, and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, the Vox Tablet podcast features super-huge spy novelist Alan Furst. Daniella Cheslow takes a closer look into which leaders of Israeli Arab society were aboard the now-infamous Mavi Marmara. Parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall has an epic commencement speech for six-year-olds. Josh Lambert has a weekly stop-in at the bookshelf of the very near future. And The Scroll is always present.

A Fresh Look at The Strip

Gaza under blockade is unique

A shopping mall in a comparatively wealthy section of Gaza City.(Katie Orlinsky for the New York Times)

With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly opposed to ending the blockade; with the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs affirming the group’s support for an end to the Gaza blockade; and with Prime Minister Netanyahu pledging to keep the blockade; maybe we should take a slightly closer look at said blockade and the territory it operates on, hmm?

An interesting article and an interesting photo-essay from yesterday agree: The situation in Gaza is … odd. It’s quite bad for most of its densely packed-in residents; it’s also arguably bad for Israel to the extent that Hamas’s power is reinforced by the misery. But the reality on the ground is complex.

“Although it’s true that there is no hunger and there are no epidemics,” writes the Los Angeles Times’s Edmund Sanders, “the situation in Gaza defies usual categorization.”

Adds New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner, in a short essay that accompanies Katie Orlinsky’s photos, “for nearly everyone who visits Gaza, often with worry of danger and hostility, what’s surprising is the fact that daily life, while troubled, often has the staggering quality of the very ordinary.”

None of which is to minimize the decidedly un-complex suffering of many Gazans, nor the decidedly un-complex problems that a territory run by Hamas on the border presents to Israel. Just a couple extra looks, is all. The photo-essay is worth a look.

Daily Life in Gaza [NYT]
Gaza, Through Fresh Eyes [NYT]
Gaza Plight a Crisis With a Difference [LAT]
Ending Gaza’s Dangerous Isolation [NYT]
Netanyahu: Naval Blockade on Gaza Will Not Be Lifted [Haaretz]
Abbas to Obama: I’m Against Lifting the Naval Blockade [Haaretz]

Daybreak: Internal Probe Set

Plus alleged Mossad arrested for Dubai job, and more in the news


• Israel announced last night that an Independent Public Commission will conduct its official investigation into the flotilla incident and the blockade itself. It will be headed by a retired Israeli Supreme Court justice and include Irish and Canadian observers. [NYT]

• Reports emerged that an Israeli named Uri Brodsky was arrested in Warsaw in connection with the January assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, and awaits extradition to Germany, from which he allegedly procured a false passport. [JPost]

• An overwhelming majority of Israelis continue to back the Gaza blockade and oppose an international probe of the flotilla incident, according to a new poll. [Foreign Policy]

• U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted that Iran will possess a nuclear weapon in one to three years but will lack adequate missile technology to deliver one. [Arutz Sheva]

• Debate over the flotilla incident, the blockade, Israel, and the rest erupted in France when a cinema chain replaced its screenings of a new Israeli comedy with a documentary about killed pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie. The whole thing is very French. [NYT]

• This is not precisely The Scroll’s beat, but the Times’s news-breaking story on the discovery of $1 trillion of lithium and other valuable minerals in Afghanistan is hugely significant, and deserves to be read in full. [NYT]

Sundown: Does White House Back Int’l Probe?

Plus the real Palestinian world, and more

President Barack Obama earlier today.(Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)

• Bill Kristol says White House will back a U.N. (read: Goldstone-esque) investigation into the flotilla raid; White House vehemently denies this, saying it continues to support an Israeli-led probe. Well, somebody’s lying. [Ben Smith]

• Legislators are pushing back at White House efforts to defang Iranian energy sanctions. [Laura Rozen]

• Fred Kaplan explains why the alternate Turkey-Brazil-Iran fuel swap deal would be ineffective, and why Turkey and Brazil’s failure to support U.N. sanctions is suspect. [Slate]

• A French reality show plans to find out what happens when six Israelis co-habiting with six Palestinians stop being polite and start getting real. [Good]

• A fantastic exploration of the new sort of highly politicized “humanitarianism” embodied by the flotilla activists. [TNR]

• Tablet Magazine columnist Josh Lambert is a Big Jewcy. [Jewcy]

What are you doing tomorrow? You’re watching U.S.-England. You just are. Below: My favorite soccer ad ever, all the way back from 1994.

The Strangest Shabbos You’ve Ever Seen

Blogging Joshua Cohen’s ‘Witz’


The Scroll will be blogging selected sections of Witz, the new novel from Tablet Magazine columnist Joshua Cohen. Josh will be celebrating James Joyce’s Ulysses with us next Wednesday, June 16.

It’s not easy to imagine someone even glancing at Joshua Cohen’s 817-page Modernist epic novel Witz and mistaking it for a run-of-the-mill Holocaust memoir or Eastern-European-genealogical romp, of the type that lands on the desks of staffers at Jewish magazines several times per week. But, as though to make absolutely certain that no one gets misled by the w-pronounced-as-a-v in the title, Cohen (at 29, an already-accomplished novelist and essayist) opens Witz with a sort of moat of difficulty. All seeking entry into its main narrative must cross.

For the first 20 pages or so, we find ourselves in a cubistically rendered mincha service in what seems to be an observant Jewish quarter somewhere in the contemporary United States. Then, we cross “from the world of the father to that of the mother,” in Cohen’s words, and land, still confused, at the Shabbos dinner of Hanna and Israel Israelian and their twelve semi-interchangeable daughters. At the end of the meal, Hanna will give birth, right there on the kitchen table, to a son, Benjamin, who happens to come out of the womb already a little old Jewish man. Benjamin will wind up being the last Jew on earth, and the novel’s protagonist. But we don’t know any of that yet. (more…)

How Alan Furst Likes His Insurgents

Your Vox Tablet preview

(Eric Molinsky)

Spies of the Balkans, the latest of Alan Furst’s eleven historical spy novels, comes out next week. Like his previous tomes, Spies takes place in the years leading up to and during World War II, and involve protagonists who, somehow or other—often almost inadvertently—get caught up in the resistance movement.

Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry wants to know why these heroes never seem to be quite like the resistance fighters we’ve come to know—people like the Bielski brothers of the film Defiance. Here’s what Furst has to say.

For more, check back Monday for the full podcast.

Earlier: Hero Worship

Leor Grady’s Unconventional Gallery

Israeli artist exhibits in an empty Harlem room

(Inbal Abergil)

The Israeli-born artist Leor Grady has shown work in some fairly recognizable venues—most prominently the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery—but his most recent installation is notable not because it’s it in a prominent place but an unexpected and obscure one: Apartment #2C2 in the Hillview Towers at West 145th Street in Manhattan. Namely, a vacant one-bedroom apartment in the building where Grady lives.

Born to immigrants from Yemen, Grady has been deeply influenced by Yemeni embroidery and other crafts. But the mode in which Grady works cannot be classified as simple folk art. It is a thoroughgoing exploration of hybridity: The mixing of art and craft, of east and west, of public and private, of sacred and profane.

Grady’s range of materials is commensurate with the size of his ambition: Cleaning rags, handkerchiefs, photographs, olive oil, velvet, silver, and gold.

The exhibition, titled “I Am My Beloved’s and My Beloved Is Mine,” will be on view this Saturday and Sunday, from noon through 8pm.

After June 12th the project will be on view by appointment.

I Am My Beloved’s and My Beloved Is Mine

Turkey Turns Eastward

The overlooked aftermath of the flotilla incident

An artist paints a mural of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in Gaza City.(Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly two weeks later, with peace talks still tentatively on track and the future status of the Gaza blockade still up in the air, the most significant consequence of the flotillia incident is the major rifts that have occurred between Turkey and Israel and between Turkey and much of the West, most of all the United States.

Turkey has been Israel’s strongest ally in the Muslim world for awhile now. And as for the West—well, Turkey is a member of NATO. For the United States to be experiencing a serious rift with a country to which it is bound by a collective defense treaty is no small thing.

And here’s the thing: It seems very likely that this is Turkey’s plan, or at least of its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Take the flotilla. While it is not clear just how active and explicit a hand Turkey’s government had in planning the flotilla, at the very least it tacitly encouraged the activists and has subsequently held them up as unadulterated victims; some have argued that Turkey played an even more direct role.

Turkey’s foundering on the shoals of European Union membership have pushed it eastward; and Turkey’s domestic political situation have made it be in Erdogan’s interest to play up the Palestinian cause. Given Turkey’s cultural, strategic, and even geographic centrality to maybe the world’s number-one hotspot—the greater Middle East/Central Asia region, from the Holy Land’s emotional landmine to the steppe’s natural gas fields, from Iraq to Iran to Afghanistan—the consequences of Turkey’s move away from the Western coalition and toward some sort of third-way scenario could totally shift the geopolitical situation in a way that is not likely to be to Israel’s benefit.

We should have seen this coming. (more…)

Lieberman, in New York, Meets With Russian Jews

Moldovan-born foreign minister performs outreach

Foreign Minister Lieberman (second-from-left) at Vladimir Gusinsky’s gala.(Michael Nemirovsky)

It’s been a big week for shuttle diplomacy: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Washington, D.C., meeting with President Barack Obama, and top Israeli officials were in New York City meeting with all kinds of influential people.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman arrived at JFK on a red-eye Monday morning and went straight to briefings with his ambassadors and consuls. On Tuesday, he spoke to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations about Israel’s concerns that it is being de-legitimized, and to religious leaders about pending Israeli legislation on conversions, which would expand the Israeli rabbinate’s power to decide who can be called a Jew.

But Lieberman’s official schedule failed to mention what was perhaps his most important mission: Outreach to America’s Russian Jews. On Monday, Lieberman met with more than two dozen leaders of that community at the Intercontinental to discuss the flotilla and the current threats to the Jewish state. “Our mentality and our ideas and our problems can be different from the mainstream American Jewish community, and I can give you one explanation,” Michael Nemirovsky, who directs Russian outreach for New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, told Tablet Magazine. “About 83 percent of the Russian Jewish community has relatives in Israel, so if something happens in Israel, it’s my own family. It’s a physical relationship, not just a moral relationship.” (more…)

U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Meet the three Jews on the World Cup squad

U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber.(U.S. Soccer)

In an excellently titled blogpost (“Our Cup Runneth Over”), Ron Kaplan reports that there are not one, not two, but three Jews on the U.S. squad, which plays its first game in the 2010 World Cup Finals tomorrow, in South Africa, against England.

They are:

Jonathan Bornstein
Benny Feilhaber
Jonathan Spector

What else can I tell you about these guys? Well, not much. If you want a “Soccer Jew” (“that intellectual, kvetchy, Granta-reading guy who also happens to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Ronaldinho’s every kick”), I suggest you head here.

I can tell you, via Kaplan, that Feilhaber’s paternal grandparents fled from the Nazis to Brazil—another country where they play soccer—and that Spector’s grandfather, Art Spector, was the first player ever drafted by the Boston Celtics.

I can tell you they are all experienced, each having at least 25 caps (that’s soccer-talk for “international appearances”—don’t worry, I had to look that one up, too).

I can tell you that Bornstein and Spector are defenders, while Feilhaber is a midfielder.

I can tell you that Spector must be legit, as he plays for the English Premier League’s West Ham United, while Feilhaber plays for a storied Danish squad whose name I’m not even going to attempt to copy and paste. And Bornstein plays in America, for a Major League Soccer team named after goats, whose head coach manager is also the head coach manager of the U.S. national team.

I can tell you that Tablet Magazine’s official team is the United States, and also whichever team is playing North Korea (which will include Brazil, Portugal, and the Ivory Coast—appropriately enough, the DPRK was placed in this year’s Group of Death).

Above all, I can tell you that The Scroll will, throughout its World Cup coverage, be referring to this arguably beautiful game as soccer. After all, football doesn’t start for another three months.

Our Cup Runneth Over [Kaplan’s Korner]
Related: Plotz Like Beckham [NYO]

Today on Tablet

Illegal Israeli immigrants, World Cup, and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, Mya Guarnieri reports on Israel’s own illegal immigration problem: The 1200 or so “visa babies,” born to illegal migrant workers, whom some hope to expel along with their parents. In his weekly haftorah column, Liel Leibovitz gets into the World Cup spirit. The Scroll will try to muster something like his enthusiasm, too.

The Big Squeeze

Hey that’s no way to eat hummus


I took most culinary innovations of the past decades with a stiff upper lip. When cereal makers began stuffing their products with freeze-dried fruit that looked like they belonged on the International Space Station, I remained quiet and dignified. When some mad food scientist spliced bacon and mayonnaise, I said not a word.

But hummus in a squeeze bottle? That’s blasphemy.

To be fair, I haven’t tried Zohan Hummus. To be fairer still, everything about it—from the already-stale pop culture reference to the bizarre pillow fight in its ad—seems designed to keep serious hummus connoisseurs away, and should therefore count, perhaps, as some sort of dialectical good. But first principles are first principles: No matter how delicious the paste or how convenient its mode of dispensation, squeezing hummus from a bottle is an abomination.

You see, in Israel, where I was born and where I received years of higher hummus education, one never simply states that one is about to eat hummus. When it comes to hummus, the correct verb is le’nagev, or to wipe. Tear a small piece of pita, introduce it to the plate at an approximate 50-degree-angle, and wipe the tasty paste with short, semi-circular motions. Such is the ritual—anything else is heresy.

To those of our readers whose proclivities demand that food be squeezable, bon appetit. Otherwise, for some serious hummus experience, please consider these guys.

Daybreak: The Blockade Has Failed

Plus Reform Yoffie retires, and more in the news


• The flotilla aftermath has brought home the blockade’s failure to disrupt Hamas’s rule, prompting rapid rethinking in Israel of alternative ways to strenghten Gaza’s pro-Western business class and undermine Hamas. [NYT]

• The Obama administration is working Capitol Hill to somewhat defang Iran energy sanctions—which would ban the sale of refined petroleum—lest they go too far and anger diplomatic allies. [LAT]

• Rabbi Eric Yoffie, longtime head of the Reform movement, announced that he will step down two years from now. [Forward]

• The French, Spanish, and Italian foreign ministers call for an “impartial, transparent, and … international” investigation; an end to the blockade; and resumption of the peace process. [IHT]

• Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., President Abbas acknowledged Jewish history in the land and claims to West Jerusalem. [JPost]

Sundown: Abbas Charms AIPAC

Plus Weiner gets into a fight with a goat, and more

Yes, this is what it looks like.(WSJ)

• At a private gathering in Washington, D.C., Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won high marks from AIPAC, the ADL, and like-minded activists. [Foreign Policy]

• In what has become something of a counter-conventional wisdom view, two authors argue that U.S.-led energy sanctions against Iran (which are unlike the just-passed U.N. ones) could go a long way toward welcome regime change. [Slate]

• A profile of Drake, the rising Jewish Canadian hip-hop star. [NYT]

• Judith Shulevitz takes the measure of Henry Roth’s latest posthumous novel. [Slate]

• The Elvis Costello and now Pixies concert cancellations have many Israelis questioning whether their country has become too isolated. [NYT]

• Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-New York) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) brought two goats to a Capitol Hill press event in order to make a point against a mohair subsidy. The goats were named Lancelot and Arthur; at one point, Arthur farted. Loudly. (Video here.) Then Lancelot nicked Weiner on the hand, drawing blood. Write your own damn jousting joke. [Politico]

On last night’s show, after consulting his Mideast Tsuris Information Tcenter (“Where debate is never cut off—it’s circumcised”), Stephen Colbert sat down with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Formidable Opponent – Michael Oren
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