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On the Bookshelf

Crusaders, myths, thrillers, and more

Josh Lambert
July 20, 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.)

Both Henry Waxman and Chaim Leib Weinberg can be described as left-wing crusaders, but they represent two opposite poles in American Jews’ political beliefs. Waxman, a California Democrat who has served more than 30 years in Congress, grew up in Los Angeles as the son of an FDR-loving grocery clerk with Bessarabian roots. As he explains in The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works (Twelve, July), a memoir co-written with Joshua Green, Waxman’s political causes have included “limiting toxic air emissions,” “expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor and elderly,” “banning smoking on airplanes,” “funding the first government-sponsored HIV/AIDS research,” and “putting nutritional labels on food.” A passionate believer in the power of government to promote the public good—and in the idea that “American values … are synonymous with Jewish values”—Waxman puts up with the stresses and frustrations of Congress, he writes, “for the rare and fleeting occasions when your actions might improve the lives of millions of your fellow Americans.”

Weinberg, who lived from 1869–1939, felt considerably less sanguine about the government’s ability to improve the lot of the American working class. Born in Russia and based in Philadelphia, where he organized the first Jewish bakers’ and cigar-makers’ unions, Weinberg distinguished himself as a passionate Yiddish anarchist orator. According to one of his contemporaries, he enjoyed stressing the ineptness of politicians: “To a group of bakers he would say, ‘Do you think a senator is as useful to society as any one of you bakers?’ And to the needle workers: ‘Do you think a governor could make as good a pair of pants as you can?’” Originally published in 1952, and available for free through the National Yiddish Book Center, Weinberg’s memoir Forty Years in the Struggle: The Memoirs of a Jewish Anarchist (Litwin, May) has now been translated into English by Naomi Cohen.

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While Waxman and Weinberg would have disagreed vehemently on questions of political philosophy (if they had lived contemporaneously), Jewish politics never rise to a more fractious and enraged pitch than around the issues of Zionism and Israel. Partly that’s because of the unique intensity of the fantasies that Jews, Muslims, and Christians entertain about Jerusalem and Judea. In Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (Viking, June), Dennis Ross and David Makovsky correct some of the pernicious untruths that circulate about Israeli and Arab politics—including “linkage,” the ridiculous idea that if only the Palestinians’ problems were solved, states like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran would have no beef with Israel and no strategic interests counter to those of the United States.

But isn’t a Middle East without myths like a New York without skyscrapers or a falafel without chickpeas? The Middle Eastern myth at the center of Charlotte Gordon’s The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of the Three Faiths (Little, Brown, July) is, arguably, the mother of them all. Gordon retells at length the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and their sons Isaac and Ishmael, familiar from Genesis 21, which can be read as dramatizing the original cleavage of Judaism from Islam, and thus as the source of much contemporary animus and bloodshed.

With an origin story as powerful as that, no wonder partisans of various factions perpetually romanticize the conflict. Rich Cohen, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, has shared his fantasies about Jewish might and violence in breezy histories including Tough Jews and The Avengers, and in Israel Is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and Its History (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August), he wheels through thousands of years of such visions and daydreams. Cohen’s book carries lavish praise from a couple of New Yorker writers, but at least one ex-staffer of that magazine does not have much of a track record as a Cohen fan. Back in 1998, Jeffrey Goldberg ripped into Cohen’s debut, Tough Jews, as “a very bad book of social history.”

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The sense that ancient myths stalk the streets and fields of Israel proves irresistible to thriller novelists above all. What richer wellspring of Dan Brownian detail could one discover than the archaeological dig sites of the Promised Land? Drawing in the Dust (Pocket, July), by Zoë Klein, a Reform rabbi, unearths the prophet Jeremiah’s bones and a mysterious scroll under a house in Anatot, while Daniel Levin’s The Last Ember (Riverhead, August) features a rogue archaeologist excavating under the Temple Mount in search of an ancient menorah. Chases, cliffhangers, illicit romances, and climactic revelations ensue. For their publishers, of course, the real mystery is whether either of these books will sell enough copies to be considered a veritable Jewish Da Vinci Code.

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Dazzled by all the mythic resonances and saddened by the continuing bloodshed, too many authors and observers underappreciate the complexity of Israeli life and the diversity of the Israeli population. (Cohen’s publishers, for an example, boast that he treats the experiences of Jews across time and space as “a single story”—as if that were a sensible way to approach the history of an astonishingly diverse population.) To frame the Middle East conflict as “Jews vs. Arabs,” as is too often done, ignores that half of Israel’s Jews themselves have roots in Arab countries such as Iraq, Egypt, or Syria. In Israeli Media and the Framing of Internal Conflict: The Yemenite Babies Affair (Palgrave Macmillan, July), Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber examines how the Israeli media itself has neglected and avoided crucial stories about such Mizrahi Jews.

In One People, One Blood: Ethiopian-Israelis and the Return to Judaism (Rutgers, July), meanwhile, Emory anthropology professor Don Seeman investigates the political and religious questions raised in Israel by Ethiopian Jews. Seeman focuses on the “Feres Mura,” Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity and who desire to return to Judaism. Not fitting into the model that assigns every Israeli Jew to either the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or Mizrahi camp, Ethiopians offer another crucial reminder that Jewish history and Jewish experience will never be quite as simple as the myths that accrue around them or the reductive narratives that too often get told about them.

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.