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On the Bookshelf

Immigrants and émigrés

Josh Lambert
October 26, 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.)

Among its virtues, Elisa New’s Jacob’s Cane: A Jewish Family’s Journey from the Four Lands of Lithuania to the Ports of London and Baltimore (Basic, October) offers a reminder that the Jewish immigrant experience has been as various as the immigrants have been numerous, and that not all the Jews who arrived in America viewed it as a destination. “We imagine every immigrant a transplant from the rutted shtetl,” she writes, “his background pious, his experience thin, his hopes fastened on the new land to which he makes his way.” Not so her cosmopolitan ancestors, as she told Tablet’s Allison Hoffman: entrepreneurs with ties to international commerce, they wheeled and dealed through their connections in Lithuania, London, Baltimore, and beyond.

Like New’s extended family, the historian Walter Lacquer has never settled for a single country to call home. Since leaving Breslau in 1938 as a teenager, he has lived in Palestine, London, and the U.S., as discussed in his 1993 memoir, Thursday’s Child Has Far to Go: A Memoir of the Journeying Years. His scholarly interests have ranged as widely as his mailing addresses, with books covering aspects of European, Middle Eastern, and Jewish history. His most recent publication, Best of Times, Worst of Times: Memoirs of a Political Education (Brandeis, November), explores the encounters with Nazism, Marxism, Zionism, and the Cold War that oriented his intellectual development.

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Other immigrants had their sights set squarely on America. Kati Marton’s parents were Hungarian children of privilege who became prominent international journalists thanks to their English fluency and ran afoul of the Communist secret police in the 1950s. Marton’s mother’s alleged crime? “Discussing the price of eggs (and meat) with the Americans.” In Enemies of the People: A Family’s Escape to America (Simon and Schuster, October), Marton mines recently opened Hungarian archives to detail her parents’ ordeal and their emigration in 1957. Unlike New’s imagined immigrant, but like some of the subjects Marton wrote about in The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, her parents received an enthusiastic welcome: her father received a George Polk Award for his courageous reporting soon after arriving in the U.S.

Similarly, Frances Dinkelspiel’s great-great-grandfather never countenanced going anywhere but California when he left Bavaria in 1859, at the age of 16: he had relatives with a dry goods store in a tiny town called Los Angeles, and he aimed to join them. Newly available in paperback, Dinkelspiel’s widely praised Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California (St. Martin’s, December) describes this pioneer’s role in developing California’s major industries, from banks and utilities companies to the state’s university system. And like New and Marton, Dinkelspiel relies not on hazy recollections or family myths, but on assiduous research.

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Walter Roth, himself an immigrant from Germany, tirelessly dredges the records of Chicago’s past to uncover colorful Jewish characters who, like Hellman, wielded extraordinary influence on the local or national scene. His latest collection of historical anecdotes, Avengers and Defenders: Glimpses of Chicago’s Jewish Past (Academy Chicago, September), introduces machers who innovated in advertising, mail order, radio, and the stockyards, as well as a number of influential Chicagoan scientists and jurists.

Though the extraordinary roles Dinkelspiel’s and Roth’s subjects played in American industries can be celebrated, occasionally the very prominence of such Jews has led to anti-Semitic accusations. Take the case of the United Farm Workers, the legendary union headed by Cesar Chavez in California in the 1960s and 1970s. As veteran journalist Miriam Pawel reveals in her history of the movement, The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (Bloomsbury, October), several Jews, and particularly Jerry Cohen and Marshall Ganz, established the movement alongside Chavez. But in the late 1970s, Chavez turned sharply against Ganz, accusing him, Cohen, and other Jews of conspiring to control the union.

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As a strong fall season of fiction continues to roll out, two of Brooklyn’s finest postmodernists, Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, offer up novels set in that over-gentrified borough across the East River. In Chronic City (Doubleday, October), Lethem revivifies Manhattan’s Upper East Side with hysterical realist glee, supplying a giant tiger, snow in August, and intact World Trade Center towers to a city ruled over by Jules Arnheim, a Bloombergian figure one character refers to as “a blot on my vision in the shape of a small Jewish man.” Much bong-hitting and pop culture riffing ensues.

Auster’s Invisible (Holt, November) begins a generation earlier and a cross-town bus ride away, in the Morningside Heights of the late 1960s. Adam Walker is a Columbia sophomore and aspiring poet with an ear so sharp he can distinguish between French Swiss and German Swiss accents. The novel concentrates on Walker’s charged encounter with a visiting professor, Rudolf Born, and its consequences—including, at one point, Born accusing Walker of stabbing him “in the back. Just like a Jew. Just like the stinking Jew you are, with your bogus Anglo-Saxon name and your filthy little mouth.”

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Isaac Babel knew what it was like to have a comrade suddenly spout an anti-Semitic remark; in his Red Cavalry, which he based on his own time riding with the Red Army, “a muzhik with a tangled beard” tells the Jewish narrator that “it’s all the fault of those Yids.” That was hardly the worst of it for Babel: in 1939 he was dragged off to prison, and a couple years later he was shot, by Stalin’s N.K.V.D. In The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context (Stanford, November), edited by Gregory Friedin, a Stanford Slavicist, an impressive group of Russian and American scholars draw upon new discoveries in Soviet archives to offer fresh insights into the author’s life and legacy.

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.