What makes a Jew pick up a gun? Like so many things about Jewish life today, the question goes directly to the deep division between American Jews and Israeli Jews. In Israel, thanks to universal army service, the sight of Jews carrying guns is commonplace; one of the Israeli products known around the world is the Uzi, even though it has not been in military service for decades. In my experience, American Jews take a particular pleasure in Facebook posts that show young Jewish soldiers, men and women, in civilian clothes, with semiautomatic rifles strapped to their backs. When you think about it, the ubiquity of weapons in Israeli society is the symptom of an ongoing crisis: Only countries under siege need to have their citizens armed at all times. But of course, the image of the armed Jew has a deep resonance for a people traumatized so often and so recently by the violence of other peoples. The armed Israeli Jew is a visual shorthand for the Zionist abolition of Jewish weakness and passivity. Today, Jews are known, and sometimes hated, around the world as fierce fighters—as they were in Roman times, when Josephus testified to their reckless courage in combat.
Yet the very American Jews who share those photos are themselves far from enthusiastic about guns per se. In American politics, Jews cluster on the left end of the spectrum, where support for gun control is an article of faith; it is Christian evangelicals and libertarians who form the backbone of the NRA. Gun culture in America is not a Jewish culture. In this sense, American Jews preserve the ancient Ashkenazi tradition of disdaining violence—the belief that fighting is not a proof of manliness but a sign of barbarism. The roots of this idea go very deep in Jewish culture. In the Talmud, for instance, the rabbis like to take biblical descriptions of King David winning battles and reinterpret them as metaphors for David studying tractates of the Law. I still remember my surprise when I saw a medieval Haggadah that illustrated the Wicked Son as a knight in armor. Knights, who even now are objects of admiration in legends and movies, were for our ancestors incarnations of the evil of gentile violence.
The conjunction of Jews and guns is at the center of three new books of fiction, all of which wonder if the armed Jew should be admired or dreaded. Everyone Has Their Reasons, a novel by Joseph Matthews, takes inspiration from one of the most famous, and least likely, Jewish killers of the last century. Hershel Grynszpan was a short and skinny 17-year-old when, in November 1938, he walked into the German embassy in Paris and shot Ernst vom Rath, a minor Nazi official. This assassination was a protest, meant to draw the world’s attention to the fate of the thousands of Polish Jews recently expelled from Germany—including Grynszpan’s own parents. As it turned out, however, the killing of vom Rath provided Hitler with an excuse for launching Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against German Jews. In this way, the desperate act of a loner was turned, by Nazi propaganda, into the opening shot in a campaign by the international Jewish conspiracy.
Grynszpan’s history has been told before (including—full disclosure—by my father, Jonathan Kirsch, in The Short Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan). But Matthews is the first writer to approach Grynszpan as a fictional character. Indeed, Matthews writes in Grynszpan’s own voice, casting the novel as a series of letters written from German prisons to his court-appointed lawyer. The problem Matthews faces is not that little is known about Grynszpan’s life—this is actually an advantage, providing a blank for the novelist to fill in. The difficulty, rather, is that Matthews wants to do two opposite things at the same time. Everyone Has Their Reasons aims to describe the anxious rootlessness of the refugee’s life, filled with bureaucratic burdens and forced idleness; but it also has to give Herschel enough adventures to make a compelling story.
The result is that Everyone Has Their Reasons alternates between grim scenes of poverty—reminiscent of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London—and romantic, bohemian subplots that strain credulity. When Grynszpan strategizes to get a job at the World’s Fair despite union rules barring foreign workers, the reader is convinced but a little bored; when Grynszpan falls under the spell of a rich Jewish girl he is tutoring in French, the situation feels “literary” and improbable. What Everyone Has Their Reasons does best—and it is a timely accomplishment, in our moment of refugee crises and immigration debates—is to evoke the tedious and fearful existence of the illegal immigrant.
Hannah Arendt argued long ago that what made the Holocaust possible was Jewish statelessness: Because they had been deprived of their legal rights as citizens, European Jews were prey to every aggressor. Grynszpan was a perfect case in point, since he was doubly stateless. Because his parents had come to Germany from Poland before World War I, he carried a Polish passport even though he lived his whole life in Hannover. When he arrived in Paris to stay with relatives—an uncle who was a poor tailor—Grynszpan was therefore entitled to neither French nor German citizenship. Matthews dramatizes the absurdities of this condition: When Grynszpan goes to register as a refugee from German persecution, hoping that this will give him some legal status in France, he is denied because he is technically Polish, not German.
Matthews dwells on the way every kind of institution failed Grynszpan. This included Jewish ones, which would not accept him as a candidate for emigration to Palestine—he was too young, too weak, and too unskilled to make a likely pioneer. It also included Communist ones: Matthews writes in detail, perhaps too much detail, about how the vagaries of French politics in the 1930s led the Communist unions to betray their professed universalism and enforce strict quotas on immigrant labor.
The novel never offers a single, simple explanation for why Grynszpan finally picked up his gun, or why he targeted vom Rath in particular: “And the shooting itself? What can I tell you, Maitre? After all, what about these things is truly important?” he asks. But after spending hundreds of pages evoking the pressure and weightlessness of the refugee’s life, a more specific reason is hardly necessary. Matthews shows that one reason why a Jew might pick up a gun is simply that he is at the end of his tether. But in that case, his violence will be random and ineffectual, and possibly bring on terrible retribution. Grynszpan’s gunshot is more a statement of surrender than an act of resistance.
In The Sea Beach Line, the quietly compelling new novel by Ben Nadler, Jewish violence means something different: not desperation but manly, street-smart authenticity. This is the kind of authenticity embodied by Alojzy Edel, who was born in the Soviet Union and later served in the Israeli army—the two great schools of modern Jewish toughness. But Alojzy is a missing man, just as his virtues are missing from the world of his son, Isaac, who is the novel’s narrator. Isaac, born and raised in New York and Long Island, is a dismal emblem of American Jewry: spiritually confused, materially spoiled, he has just been expelled from college for dealing drugs. When a postcard arrives saying that Alojzy, his estranged, long-absent father, has died, Izzy—as he is known—sets out for New York to see if the news is true.
What he is really looking for, however, is a different way of living as a Jew and a man. Izzy’s older sister is a yuppie in training, living in a doorman building uptown, with a seemingly perfect fiance. But Izzy disdains this path of American Jewish bourgeois success. Instead, he steps into Alojzy’s shoes, taking over his business peddling used books in Washington Square, and living in the storage unit where he bedded down. A storage unit might seem like the abode of a failure, but when Izzy discovers a gun under his father’s pillow—“a bolt action .22 … the stock sawed off altogether, so the gun could be held and fired more or less like a pistol”—it is almost like he has inherited Excalibur. Soon Izzy is doing errands for mobsters and falling in love with a fugitive Hasidic girl, quitting drugs and learning what it means to fend for himself. This new world “wasn’t really the America I’d grown up in, but I’d always seen glimpses of it through [Alojzy], and now it was a world I was really starting to see, being on the street every day.” Picking up a gun, in this novel, means coming face to face with reality.
Like Everyone Has Their Reasons, The Sea Beach Line is stronger on atmosphere than plot. Many pages go by with little happening except Izzy selling books on West 4th Street; yet these are some of the book’s most compelling moments. Nadler has thoroughly imagined the difficulties and rewards of life as a New York street peddler—the sense of freedom and the hard physical labor, the wary negotiations with customers and cops. On the other hand, Izzy’s romance with the mysterious Rayna, and the way it intersects with the machinations of gangsters Timur and Roman, feels more contrived—such interesting things surely don’t happen to most booksellers. By the time the denouement arrives, it’s open to question whether Izzy has succeeded in becoming as tough a Jew as he hoped. Nor does Alojzy turn out to be the perfect role model his son had imagined. But there is no doubt that The Sea Beach Line is a Jewish coming of age story and that the ability to wield a gun is, for Nadler, a more important rite of passage than a bar mitzvah.
In Jewish Noir, finally, the reader can see a whole range of Jewish writers unleashing the violent fantasies that lurk in their ids. This anthology of short stories, edited by Kenneth Wishnia, has little to do with noir in the strict sense—the world of P.I.s and shadowy L.A. streets that we associate with film noir. Generically, these tales range from horror to mystery to domestic realism to sci-fi. What they have in common is the fascination of good Jews fighting bad guys—who are sometimes also Jews, but are usually persecuting gentiles. The first story in the book, “Devil for a Witch,” by R.S. Brenner, is about a Jewish crook who enters protective custody and is deployed by the FBI to infiltrate Southern racist groups. “Lost Pages From the Book of Judith,” a mock-epic tale by the editor Wishnia, shows socialist Jewish undergrads facing down a gang of frat-boy bullies. In “Jewish Easter,” Irish bullies invade a Jewish home during a Passover Seder, only to get bloodily dispatched by a Jewish teenager—and his grandmother, who stabs one with a steak knife while muttering, “Nazi mamzer.”
These stories vary widely in quality and interest, but they have in common a certain aroma of wish-fulfillment. If the violence in Jewish Noir is frequently tongue-in-cheek, that is because violence is for most of these writers something purely imaginary and cinematic—more Tarantino than Babel. In the absence of actual violent anti-Semitism, of the kind that terrorized Jews for centuries, it is easy for American Jews to enjoy dreaming about beating up, stabbing, or shooting fantasy anti-Semites. There is a tendency in American Jewish literature to react against a legacy of Jewish passivity—in particular, against the image of Jews going “like sheep to the slaughter” in the Holocaust—by glamorizing violence. But the glamorizing of violence is a habit of comfortable civilians, not of actual soldiers—or actual victims.
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