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Headliners and sidemen

Josh Lambert
October 12, 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.)

Two great things that taste great together: Moshe ben Amram and the United States of America: that’s the essence of Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story (William Morrow, October). Having shlepped through the Middle East for his bestselling Walking the Bible, Feiler stuck closer to home for this project, interviewing a colorful assortment of authorities, from the Reverend Peter Gomes to Rabbi Simcha Weinstein to Jonathan Sarna, about the Biblical figure he calls “our real founding father.” Feiler surveys the various uses to which Americans have put Exodus, from the Puritans to the Civil Rights movement, and does not shy away from patriotic shmaltz.

One modern Jewish leader went Moses one better: while the legendary stammerer sweet-talked the Israelites into a four-decade desert sojourn and eating whatever fell out of the sky, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson sent his own disciples to such potentially taxing destinations as Krasnoyarsk, Kinshasa, and Kentucky—and told them to put down roots there. In Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (Columbia, October), Elliot R. Wolfson, a leading scholar of Jewish mysticism, explores Shneerson’s theology and ideology. An adept with abstruse and obscure notions, and with the most arcane of philosophical terminology, Wolfson focuses on the contradictions and paradoxes—“apophatic embodiment, semiotic materiality, hypernomian transvaluation, nondifferentiated alterity, and atemporal temporality”—in Shneerson’s thinking. That’s the sort of intellectual nimbleness it takes, apparently, to convince a star yeshiva student to set up shop in Pokhara or Bishkek.

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The United States offers at least as much to those who crave profits as it does to those who follow prophets. Marc Rich falls into the former camp: born in Belgium, he arrived in New York in 1942 with his parents at the age of eight, and soon set his sights on amassing a world-class fortune. He did so, in part, by trading commodities with Iran, Cuba, Angola, and South Africa; his convictions for such dealings and for tax evasion were famously pardoned by Bill Clinton. In The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich (St. Martin’s, October), Daniel Ammann calls the elusive billionaire’s story “both typically American and typically Jewish,” and describes Rich’s willingness to help out the Mossad on occasion through his extensive network of contacts in Iran and Syria.

Rich is the kind of capitalist Alissa Rosenbaum would have loved. Like him, she was a Jewish immigrant to the U.S.—born in St. Petersburg, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1926, as a young woman—and like him, she favored unfettered capitalism: “Money is the root of all good,” she famously quipped. Entrepreneurial enterprises did not make her name, though, but her novels, and the name they made was a pseudonym, Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which have sold more than 12 million copies, are more and less than literature—they’re the world’s most effective propaganda for the invisible hand as modern religion—and the narrator of Tobias Wolff’s Old School isn’t the only teen to have been bewitched, and then disappointed, by Rand’s work. Two new books explore Rand’s life and influence: one by journalist Anne C. Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Nan A. Talese, October), and another by historian Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford, October). Take your pick: it seems only fitting that two simultaneously published versions of Rand’s life story must battle it out in the free market. She wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

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In Henry Harland’s 1885 novel, As It Was Written, one character opines that “music is the art in which Jews excel.” Harland didn’t know the half of it. In the 20th century, Jews would utterly transform American pop, as David Lehman demonstrates in A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook/Schocken, October), the latest in the Jewish Encounters series published by Tablet’s parent company, Nextbook. As early as 1911, Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” portended the massive influence that Jewish songwriters would have through their efforts on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. Lehman, an accomplished poet, offers a personal take on these revolutionary tunes, while Tony Fletcher, a music critic, takes a wider view on the development of American songwriting in All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York, 1927–77 (Norton, October). Attending to the waxing and waning of a wide range of genres, from folk to punk to hip-hop, Fletcher does not particularly emphasize Jews’ achievements; still, in his telling, even decades after the heyday of the Gershwins, nice Jewish boys like Bob Dylan and Joey Ramone continued to write iconic American songs. One such musician, Pete Yarrow—one-third of Peter, Paul, and Mary, whose “Puff the Magic Dragon” keeps the spirit of the 1960s alive at summer camps—has been transforming his classic compositions into gorgeous picture books for the three- to seven-year-old demographic; the latest of these is Day Is Done (Sterling, October).

A few of Fletcher’s key players, like Toronto-born Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful, weren’t even U.S. citizens. Another Canadian Jewish musician, Paul Shaffer, has risen from a childhood in remote Thunder Bay, Ontario, of all places, to the pinnacle of American television, where he serves indefatigably as David Letterman’s foil and straight man. Recounting his story with the help of David Ritz in We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin’ Showbiz Saga (Doubleday, October), Shaffer describes friendships with Cher and Sammy Davis, Jr., credits his Orthodox parents for exposing him to jazz, and calls Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited “the Talmud to the Torah of my life.”

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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