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On the Bookshelf

Jewish liberalism, spiritual boredom, and crock-pot miracles

Josh Lambert
August 31, 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.)

Norman Podhoretz has edited and written for Commentary for more than half a century, transforming it over time from a leading national forum for discussions of culture and politics, one of the finest and most influential Jewish magazines ever published, into a rather predictable party organ of American neoconservatism. In Why Are Jews Liberals? (Doubleday, September), he ponders a favored question of social scientists (and of his fellow conservative pundit Dennis Prager): why is it that most American Jews still stubbornly vote for Democrats, as so many of their grandparents did, when the Republicans support Israel and offer tax cuts to the wealthy? Podhoretz proposes that centuries of anti-Semitism turned Jews into liberals, and that more recently a loss of faith has allowed liberalism to supplant Judaism as their religion.

Even Podhoretz would admit, though, that neither the Chmielniki massacres nor the widespread consumption of pork by American Jews quite explains why a whopping 77% of them voted for President Obama last year. To understand that phenomenon, see Sam Tanenhaus’s The Death of Conservatism (Random House, September). Best known as editor of the New York Times Book Review, Tanenhaus has been described as “an old-fashioned anti-communist Jewish liberal intellectual who still gets excited about Saul Bellow.” Though he produced a widely praised biography of Whittaker Chambers, and will write the authorized life of conservative stalwart William F. Buckley, Jr., Tanenhaus perceived little loyalty in the Bush administration to the ideas of Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli, his great exemplars of classic conservatism. Nor does he admire Podhoretz’s baby: “It’s so rare to see somebody who’s actually making a reasoned argument” in Commentary and the other leading neocon magazines, he told an interviewer from New York. “Who is not just labeling, name-calling.”

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Of all the liberal Jews in America, Congressman Barney Frank may come closest to representing Podhoretz’s most terrifying nightmare. A proud homosexual with a delightful, curmudgeonly wit—as demonstrated at a recent town hall meeting—Frank does not exactly fit the profile of a veteran politician. As he has said, “I’m a left-handed gay Jew. I’ve never felt, automatically, the member of any majority.” Five years in the making, Stuart Weisberg’s biography of the New Jersey native, Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman (University of Massachusetts Press, September), draws upon scores of interviews, including dozens of hours with Frank himself, to offer an extensive, admiring portrait of an extraordinary liberal.

* * *

Another explanation for American Jews’ embrace of liberalism: members of a 3,000-year-old tribe know better than anyone else that without frequent innovation, the conservation of culture becomes oppressively boring. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, goes so far in Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism (Jewish Lights, September) as to suggest that the future of Judaism depends on the boredom inevitably experienced by Jews in their classrooms, synagogues, and community centers—and on their engaged, creative responses to it.

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Not all the yawns on a typical Shabbat result from stultifying sermons or endless Haftorah readings. Some of them, particularly in the afternoon, can be blamed on chulent, a soporific stew the popularity of which makes electric slow cookers ubiquitous fixtures in Orthodox homes. Loaded up and set to a low temperature on Friday evening, such cookers yield a pot full of meaty mush by lunchtime on Saturday without transgressing the prohibition of lighting fires on the Sabbath. Yet the “Shabbat miracle machine” can do much more, proclaims chef Laura Frankel of Shallots Bistro in Skokie, Illinois, in Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes (Wiley, August): Senegalese Peanut Soup! Kreplach! Duck Confit!

And afterwards? Maybe a little piece of cake, bubbeleh? That’s what Rose Levy Beranbaum would recommend. Raised mostly by a grandmother from Czarist Russia, Beranbaum wrote her master’s thesis on flour sifting in cake preparation, which led naturally to a career as a dessert guru. Judging by the customer reviews of her classic book, The Cake Bible (1988), Beranbaum has attracted her share of true believers, as well as a few skeptics. She expands her sugary theology with Rose’s Heavenly Cakes (Wiley, September), a lavishly full-color New Testament.

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When he wasn’t designing art museums for Yale or the celebrated National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, the famed American architect Louis I. Kahn—

born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky in Estonia—could be convinced to dream up a Jewish Community Center or even a synagogue on occasion. Susan G. Solomon’s Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue (Brandeis, August) tells the tale of how one of the oldest Sephardic Orthodox congregations in the United States hired Kahn at the height of the postwar boom. Though the shul was never built, Solomon argues that his design blazed a new trail in the aesthetics of Jewish worship.

Another Kahn, this one fictional and a chutzpahdik fraud, stars in a new graphic novel. Neil Kleid’s anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed Brownsville, The Big Kahn (NBM, September) concerns a New Jersey rabbi who turns out, posthumously, not to have been Jewish. Similar conceits have been used before as a means of pondering the nature of Jewish identity—see, particularly, Eileen Pollack’s “The Bris” in The Best American Short Stories 2007—but Kleid’s tale, drawn by Nicholas Cinquegrani, may resonate more powerfully with recent headlines of duplicitous New Jersey rabbis. Like Kahn’s, the children of Saul Kassin may flounder, not knowing how to account for his mistakes.

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.

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