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On the Bookshelf

Of arms and men

Josh Lambert
August 23, 2010

Readers: Even covering 8-10 titles each week, On the Bookshelf doesn’t always mention every book of Jewish interest that has been published. In the hopes of atoning to wronged authors and readers, On the Bookshelf’s Yom Kippur column will highlight a selection of such neglected titles. If you’ve noticed a deserving book that has been published since January 2010 but has gone unmentioned on Tablet, nebekh—use the search box, above, to double-check—please email [email protected] with the title. Thanks!

The humidity of mid-August transforms most of the Eastern seaboard into one huge sauna, so now’s a perfect time to think about Jewish manhood. After all, as Alexander Portnoy crowed during a trip to the shvitz with his father, there’s something special about such places: “There are no women here. No women—and no goyim. Can it be? There is nothing to worry about!” Brother Keepers: New Perspectives on Jewish Masculinity (Men’s Studies, July), edited by Harry Brod and Shawn Zevit, offers essays and poems on topics ranging from Theodor Herzl’s and Michael Chabon’s visions of manliness to images of homosexuality in Israeli cinema.

Erez Levon also notes the “budding gay-film industry” as one of the recent, salutary developments in Israeli homosexual culture in Language and the Politics of Sexuality: Lesbians and Gays in Israel (Palgrave, August). Levon’s study examines, more specifically, the question of language: He rejects the idea of language as “a straight-forward reflection of already existing social difference,” instead insisting that words help “to constitute those differences and to concretely materialize the various ideologies, or normative sets of beliefs, that circulate in a given society.” In other words, in Israel, as anywhere else, the vocabulary with which people talk about sexuality at least partially determines how they act out their sexuality.


If you’re wondering how exactly Israel turned out to be the sort of country that can boast both a thriving homosexual film business and a politically empowered fundamentalist religious movement—on the latter, see Gadi Taub’s The Settlers: And the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism (Yale, August), reviewed by Tablet’s Adam Kirsch last week, to much ado in the comments section—a raft of new histories would be happy to enlighten you. Some scholars take the long view, as in Martin van Creveld’s The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel (St. Martin’s, September) and Nadav Shelef’s Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Identity, and Religion in Israel, 1925-2005 (Cornell, August). Creveld is a veteran of the field, having served on the faculty of the Hebrew University since 1971 and having published more than a dozen books, mostly on topics of military strategy and history; his latest, a broad survey, begins with the rise of Zionism and ends in the 21st century. Walter Lacquer, no slouch himself, calls it “the best short history of Israel.” Shelef, a political scientist starting his career as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, covers almost as many years but homes in on how Zionist notions of nationalism changed over that period “in an unguided manner akin to evolution.” Shelef proffers this rapid evolutionary development as the grounds for “guarded optimism”: “To be sure,” he writes, “the potential for change does not make peace between Israelis and Palestinians inevitable. It does, however, make it possible.”


Others eschew the longue durée for a tight focus on a particular period: say, World War I. Jonathan Schneer, a scholar of British history, offers a book-length consideration of a single, crucial document in The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Random House, August). He presents the 1917 policy statement as the result of a diplomatic contest between Chaim Weizmann and the Sharif of Mecca to manipulate the British into supporting their aspirations. In the same years, a group of young Yiddish-speaking men from the U.S., Canada, England, and Argentina were shipped out to Palestine to wage war as part of three all-Jewish battalions in the British Army. Michael and Shlomit Keren, professors at the University of Calgary, tell the story of these pioneering soldiers in We Are Coming, Unafraid: The Jewish Legions and the Promised Land in World War I (Rowman & Littlefield, August), emphasizing how this diverse group managed to fight together.


Several members of the Jewish Legions played major roles, decades later, in the foundation of the State of Israel; one of them was David Ben Gurion, the nation’s first Prime Minister. In Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership (Toby, September), Ben Gurion figures largely as a foil to Menachem Begin: “He distrusted him almost to the point of obsession,” Avner notes, calling their feud “more ferocious than that of the Montagues and Capulets.” As a speechwriter, English secretary, and personal adviser to four P.M.s—Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Begin—Avner amassed an archive of personal notes, letters, and recollections; drawing upon these sources, he presents a chronicle of Israel as he saw it from the top of the political heap.

Efrat Ben Ze’ev, an Oxford-trained anthropologist at Israel’s Ruppin Academic Center, takes the opposite tack, exploring a key event in Israel’s history through the personal stories of the regular people who lived through it. In Remembering Palestine in 1948: Witnesses to War, Victory and Defeat (Cambridge, September), Ben Ze’ev draws upon interviews with Arab, Jewish, and British parties to that conflict and emphasizes how, over time, personal experiences morph into myth.

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.