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On the Bookshelf

Soloveitchik, Céline, Salinger, and more

Josh Lambert
June 15, 2009
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

The publishing industry may be hurting, but if there’s a corner of it that’s still alive and kicking it’s Jewish books. Indeed, the wealth of new material published every month is so vast that it’s tough to keep pace. Beginning this week, we offer some help. Every Monday, contributing editor Josh Lambert, author of recently-published American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, will offer a sampling of what’s new.


Why does one book get translated while another does not? The answers are as various as the books themselves. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s And from There You Shall Seek (Ktav, April), for one example, was drafted in the 1940s but not published in Hebrew until 1978. Two of Soloveitchik’s other long essays from the 1940s, “Halakhic Man” and “The Lonely Man of Faith,” both translated in the 1980s, have become classic introductions to modern Orthodox thought. So why no translation until now of “Uvikashtem Misham,” the essay that completes this crucial set? Probably because so many of the people inclined to read a weighty Orthodox theological essay have the skills to read it in Hebrew.

Quite another story is Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Normance(Dalkey Archive, May), a novel first published in French in 1954. The influence of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan on the style of modern American literature, from Henry Miller to Joseph Heller, cannot be denied, but neither can the blistering anti-Semitism of the pamphlets he published during the run-up to World War II and the occupation of France. Though he began to write it in Denmark, where he was jailed as a Nazi collaborator, Normance is not one of Céline’s most notoriously hateful propagandistic texts, but a fragmented, invented description of the bombardment of Paris by the Royal Air Force in 1944. It’s not surprising that half a century elapsed before the book appeared in English. The politics of publishing an avowed anti-Semite aren’t exactly simple: who will be paid the royalties on Normance, even today? And will the complete rendering of Céline’s oeuvre into English mitigate the effect of his wartime propaganda?


Speaking of cultured anti-Semites, we can blame them, starting with Richard Wagner, for making music inherently political for Jews, but at the same time we should acknowledge that music has never existed outside politics as simply a collection of abstract, pleasurable sounds and rhythms. Consider Psalm 137, in which the exiled Israelites hang up their harps, asking, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

A similar question might have been on the minds of composers and conductors like Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Toch, and Otto Klemperer, who in their exiles from Nazi-controlled territories in the 1930s wound up in and around Los Angeles. Dorothy Lamb Crawford, a musician and musicologist, tells the stories of such refugee artists in A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Emigres and Exiles in Southern California (Yale, May).

Bizarre as their Californian exile may have seemed to former paragons of high German musical culture, it was certainly preferable to the fate of Jewish musicians under the Nazis. One such unfortunate was Zhanna Arshanskaya, a teenage prodigy at the Kharkov Conservatory of Music; her son, Orlando Sentinel columnist Greg Dawson, describes her ordeal in Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy’s Story of Survival, 1941-1946 (Pegasus, July). Like many of the composers who ended up in L.A., Arshanskaya finally found a safe haven on an American university campus, in Bloomington, Indiana.

Even without a genocidal dictator peering over their shoulders, many American Jews have found reasons to turn their musical careers into political platforms. Leonard Bernstein, for example, rose to national fame on November 14, 1943, when he substituted for his boss, Bruno Walter, and conducted the New York Philharmonic. A bisexual Zionist and an unconventional performer, Bernstein revealed just how complex a political act the composing or conducting of a symphony can be. Based on a stack of FBI files and Bernstein’s correspondence, Barry Seldes’s Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician (California, May) recounts the battles fought by an unusual partisan.

Even the poppiest music isn’t politically neutral. For one thing, Jews have profited from their engagements with African-American musical genres from the times when Irving Berlin was rumored to keep a “little colored boy,” who wrote all his music, locked in a closet, to the rise of Matisyahu. Is this cultural fusion, or the exploitation of poor African-American performers by rich Jewish record producers? That old debate may not be the explicit subject of Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, June), by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with the help of prolific autobiographical collaborator (and “Sexual Healing” co-lyricist) David Ritz, but the book offers another set of characters to consider. What on earth was Big Mama Thornton thinking, for instance, when she bought “Hound Dog,” that classic blues number later made famous by Elvis Presley, from two Jewish R&B-loving kids from Baltimore and Long Island? That Leiber and Stoller wrote many classic rock ‘n’ roll numbers, as well as “Love Potion No. 9,” reminds us again how tricky it is to categorize a genre of music as “black” or “Jewish.”


Long before innovative websites like and books like Vanessa Ochs’s Inventing Jewish Ritual, E. M. Broner was already rewriting Jewish ceremonies from a radical feminist perspective. In her experimental novel A Weave of Women and in The Women’s Haggadah, Broner has translated the spirit of the counterculture, second-wave feminism, and the havurah movement into resonant prose. She returns this spring with The Red Squad (Pantheon, May), a novel about adjunct faculty members and political dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s, and where they’ve ended up in our post-9/11 era.


J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit against the publishers of an unauthorized sequel to The Catcher in the Rye (1951) puts a famous name, if not quite a face, on the question of copyright extension. Should any hack be allowed to dream up and publish the further adventures of Holden Caulfield, or should Salinger retain that exclusive right? Prior to 1976, American copyright law offered a maximum of 56 years of protection to literary works, meaning that open season on Salinger’s beloved novel would have begun two years ago. The current law, passed in 1998, extended that protection to the author’s life plus 70 years, so Holden won’t be fair game until 2079, plus however many more years the 90-year-old Salinger lives. And if Mark Helprin, veteran of the Israeli army, crotchety contrarian, and author of Refiner’s Fire and A Dove of the East gets his way, we will have to wait even longer than that for Holden’s further adventures, and for inevitable hackwork sequels like Augie March Is a Zayde! and Marjorie Morningstar: Menopause. Helprin rants and raves against copyright minimalists in Digital Barbarism(Harper, April), proposing that Congress extend copyright as far as possible, even infinitely, because “no good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property.” The copyright scholar Lawrence Lessig disagrees—as does Jewish law, which protects intellectual property but for relatively limited terms—but at least Helprin can count on Salinger’s concurrence.

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.