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Jews in Muslim lands

Josh Lambert
October 04, 2010
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

From the annals of quixotic publishing: Sir Martin Gilbert, official biographer of Winston Churchill, has synthesized reams of sources in a study called In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (Yale, September) that he hopes, in describing both the good and bad of Jewish life under Muslim rule, will “help to make possible a future that emulates only the best aspects of the past.” The gesture is, without question, a noble one; most of the pundits yammering on about Jews and Muslims in the Middle East rarely stop to acknowledge how large and diverse the population of Jews used to be from Spain to Iraq to Tunisia to Indonesia and beyond. Yet inevitably Gilbert’s book, and reviewers’ responses to it, have already begun to be fixed in their expected locations on a depressingly familiar ideological map, the two poles of which are, inevitably, anti-Israel invective and Zionist propaganda.


As a synthesizer who does not seem to have consulted sources in Arabic, Gilbert’s aim is to cover a massive amount of material, summarizing and sketching where a more specialized historian would drill in deep. Joshua Schreier’s Arabs of the Jewish Faith: The Civilizing Mission in Colonial Algeria (Rutgers, September) exemplifies the latter approach: concentrating just on Algeria in the 19th century, Schreier looks at the ideological negotiations of Jews influenced both by the grand ideas they derived from French imperialism and enlightenment, and by the facts on the ground in their North African homes.

Even Shreier’s project comes across as rather luxuriously broad, though, when stacked up against a book like Esther-Miriam Wagner’s Linguistic Variety of Judaeo-Arabic in Letters from the Cairo Genizah (Brill, September). This is the sort of learned study by a philologically adept Cambridge PhD that tends to be leaned heavily upon by historical popularizers like Gilbert. Wagner learnedly analyzes and describes the everyday language written by Jews in Muslim lands throughout the Middle Ages, as that language has been fortuitously preserved in a great storehouse of Jewish scrap paper (which, by the way, is the subject of a popularizing book coming next spring from Nextbook Press.)


An even more specific case of Jews in Muslim lands animates Kader Konuk’s East-West Mimesis: Auerbach in Turkey (Stanford, October), which, despite its subtitle, deals not only with Erich Auerbach but also with another German-Jewish humanist, Leo Spitzer, who like him found a temporary home in Istanbul during the rule of the Nazis in western and central Europe. Auerbach serves as symbolic center for the book because it is in his Mimesis, a founding text of Comparative Literature, that Konuk finds the conceptual tools for understanding how the Turkish setting was much more than simply an exilic void where these European humanists and future stars of the American academy could bide their time.


The freakish wonderfulness of many of his books notwithstanding, Roald Dahl never made himself an easy artist to admire, and for some people (Hi, mom! Hi, Mr. Foxman!) his anti-Semitic outbursts loom largest among his many personality flaws. (“There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” he once told a magazine, “… even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”) What should be clear to anyone who has read Dahl’s stories for children, or, even more starkly, to those who have perused his fiction for adults—My Uncle Oswald, for example, a novel about “the greatest fornicator of all time”—is what Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (Simon and Schuster, September) also makes abundantly clear: that Dahl’s great gift was the application of an impressive skill for crafting compelling narratives to his anti-social, bizarre vision of the world.

Dahl’s dark view of children as creatures with the potential for serious violence lives on, transformed, in Adam Levin’s The Instructions (McSweeney’s, October), a thick debut novel about an army of precociously malevolent middle schoolers led by one Gurion Maccabee; as Marissa Brostoff phrased it last week, the novel’s main idea, common to most writing by, for, and about teenage boys, is “Everyone wants, above all else, a pretext or opportunity for doing violence.” A hyperextended extended gemmarah on the mishnah of Philip Roth’s “Conversion of the Jews,” Levin’s novel suggests that something is clearly working very well at Jewish day schools: their ex-inmates and observers seem to be disposed to write stories about terrorism—cf. Jon Papernick’s recent “There Is No Other”—rather than to commit actual acts of violence, as too regularly happens in American public schools.


Recently, bloodthirsty monsters have reemerged from children’s literature into the mainstream of American pop culture, and this fall the phenomenon takes a Jewish turn or two. Unlike S. Y. Agnon’s chilling “The Lady and the Peddler” (1943), a brutal allegory about the vampiric qualities of modern Germany, Janice Eidus’ The Last Jewish Virgin (Red Hen, October) wears its undead villains lightly. The book’s titular protagonist, a college freshman named Lilith Zeremba—who sounds, given the title, like she might have internalized too much of Wendy Shalit’s notions of womanly virtue—has her choice between two potential beaus. One is a real mensch; the other, twice her age, is an evil vampire.

Mirka Herschberg, the Orthodox eleven-year-old heroine of Barry Deutsch’s graphic novel Hereville (Abrams, November) likewise tangles with some scary creatures, but probably won’t earn Shalit’s approval: she’s frum, sure, but she doesn’t act according to the idea that “kol kvuda bat melech pnima,” the unfortunate notion espoused in some Orthodox communities that girls should be little seen and certainly not heard. Straining at the limited opportunities open to her in her hometown of Hereville, and with a noteworthy “aptitude for violence,” Mirka seeks to acquire a dragon-slaying sword, and is willing to kill a troll to get one.

If Jewish/vampire trysts and Orthodox dragonslayers sound too old-fashioned for you, you might prefer Leonard Borman’s Our Jewish Robot Future (Scarletta, October), which comes freighted with the illustrative subtitle “A Comedic Novel about the Garden of Eden and the Cyborgian Transformation of the Human Race.” If nothing else, the novel demonstrates how irresistible it is for some authors to insert Jewishness into their wild fantasies. On his blog, Borman—a “father to seven, and grandfather to 15”—explains forthrightly that he began writing the novel after some misunderstood remarks forced him to quit his teaching job, à la Coleman Silk, and that “the biggest struggle I faced writing my book, was learning how to write English.”

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.