What’s the difference between a scholar and a professional writer? In the case of John Bloom’s 2010 biography There You Have It: The Life, Legacy, and Legend of Howard Cosell and Mark Ribowsky’s recent Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports, the difference is about $5 and 250 pages—and, probably, a few thousand bucks of marketing budget, too. Ribowsky, a biographer-for-hire who has covered Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Phil Spector, and Satchel Paige, conducted 40 interviews to tell Cosell’s story, but otherwise his sources and Bloom’s look rather similar: They both draw heavily from profiles and articles in the glossy magazines, plus Cosell’s books and recollections, to reconstruct the tale of how a Brooklyn-born lawyer, son of Izzy and Hennie Cohen, became the most recognizable voice in American athletics. Aiming for a popular audience—not that Bloom wouldn’t have liked to reach one—Ribowsky gives more space to the anecdotes, whether they’re amusing or sordid—like the time that a drunk Cosell, on the evening that terrorists massacred Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, burst into an ABC News studio and demanded that he be allowed to respond on-air. “Dirty bastards,” someone remembers him screaming. “They already killed six million of us. What’s a few more?”
After watching Sophie’s Choice, Pauline Kael, the New Yorker movie critic who helped, perhaps more than anyone else—including even the relevant directors and actors—to define the American New Wave, remarked that “after I’ve seen [Streep] in a movie, I can’t visualize her from the neck down.” The actress retorted, some years later: “You know what I think? … That Pauline was a poor Jewish girl who was at Berkeley with all these rich Pasadena WASPs with long blond hair, and the heartlessness of them got her.” Now, that may or may not have been true; Kael’s biographer, Brian Kellow, points out in Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark that contrary to Streep’s insinuation, the critic had no trouble expressing admiration for other equally blonde, equally non-Jewish actresses,like Catherine Deneuve and Michelle Pfeiffer. Still, it does seem possible that Kael’s youth among Yiddish-speaking, immigrant chicken farmers in Petaluma, Calif., had some lasting effect on her cinematic tastes: Does her background help to explain, for example, her rapturous enthusiasm for Barbra Streisand’s saccharine, bastardized version of Yentl?
Cosell and Kael, children of immigrants, rose to the tops of their fields—or, more precisely, they reshaped those fields around their own personalities and talents—and it is with the myth of such ascension that Peter Orner’s second novel, Love and Shame and Love begins. As a teenager, Alexander Popper, son of a Highland Park, Ill., lawyer, is brought—as a local rite of passage into manhood—to an audience with Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, a heavyweight in the Chicago Democratic machine. The judge points “to a framed picture on his desk, a man and a woman dressed in black. Lined faces, hollow-eyed peasants from Lithuania. His parents.” The message, in short (and much in this longish novel is short: The chapters rarely last more than a page or two) is the promise of America: “From a Kentucky log cabin to the White House. From the shtetl to the U.S. Courthouse.” The novel then proceeds to the late 1980s, at which point Popper, at the University of Michigan (and, more specifically, in the basement of a structure that every Wolverine knows all too well, the aptly named UGLi) meets a girl, but the novel soon flashes back again, musing on the question of origin and inheritance, how we become who it is we turn out to be.
When Zalman Shazar, who would go on to become Israel’s third president, visited the United States in the early years of the Great Depression, he discovered something astonishing: a group of Americans with “complete mastery over the Hebrew language in all its depth and vitality as if they lived in the Land of Israel” and who “were utterly unreconciled and even oblivious to the surroundings in which they actually lived.” These men are the subjects of Alan Mintz’s magisterial new Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry, and, despite a recent wave of scholarship, their names probably still won’t be familiar. (A couple of them are most famous for their younger relatives: Abraham Regelson, for example, had Cynthia Ozick as his niece, and Simon Halkin was the uncle of Hillel Halkin, the essayist, critic, and translator of Sholem Aleichem.) These poets deserve to be known and read, if just for their audacity: As if writing dense Hebrew verse in Buffalo, Cleveland, and New Orleans was not challenge enough, one of them, Benjamin Silkiner, decided that because they lived among English speakers, it was up to the American Hebraists, rather than their peers in Palestine, to translate Shakespeare into Hebrew. Between 1911 and 1939, they managed to do so.
Why is it so much more interesting to read about the villainous than the virtuous? In The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco conjures a straw man on whom to pin just about every horror of late 19th-century Europe. His malevolent protagonist—who, like Hannibal Lecter, is something of a gourmet when he’s not sowing discord—is a French-Italian named Simone Simonini, and he manages to get up to some very nasty, very real tricks. He helps create The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous forgery beloved by anti-Semites from Henry Ford and Adolf Hitler to contemporary Islamic fundamentalists, and he has a hand in Alfred Dreyfus’ arrest, too. Eco has noted that “all the characters except one—the main character—really existed,” and it should be clear by now that stories with this structure (that is, historical picaresque: think Zelig or Forrest Gump or The Kindly Ones or Joseph Skibell’s A Curable Romantic or, groan, Woody Allen’s latest, Midnight in Paris)fulfill a gently didactic function, like an adult-ed survey course with a decent teacher: By synthesizing history, and presenting it through the eyes of a stand-in for the reader, along with some comforting narrative trappings, these works flatter the intelligence of those audience members who already know a little of the history, and offer a basic introduction for the others. If it has worked for Allen and Robert Zemeckis, there’s no reason it shouldn’t also work for Eco.
Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.
Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.