(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
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On the Bookshelf

Fusion confusion: comics by journalists, Lutheran rabbis, Jewish pluralism, and pork hamantaschen

Josh Lambert
May 02, 2011
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

NPR’s On the Media—a brilliant weekly radio show that expertly covers journalism and the arts from the perspective of how they’re produced, circulated, and consumed—is hosted by two Jews, Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, with the sort of are-they-or-aren’t-they names that used to be de rigueur for Jews throughout the news industry and show business, too. Though this is almost certainly just a happy accident, it’s a perfect new media echo of that traditional dynamic in American mass media, in which Jews have frequently been passionate about their work, and so very influential, yet often eager to downplay their Jewishness so as not to encourage those perennial anti-Semitic stereotypes about how a Jewish conspiracy nefariously controls the media. Gladstone, an NPR veteran and adept radio editor as well as host, tries a new medium on for size in The Influencing Machine (Norton, May), a comic book-style exploration of the mediafication of our world, illustrated by Josh Neufeld, in which Gladstone appears as a cartoon guide.


Graphic novels seem to be the medium of the moment, at least for some cultural professionals who have made their names working in other formats: Add to the list of comics written by novelists Aaron and Ahmed (Vertigo, May), the first such outing by Jay Cantor, the MacArthur-prize winning author of Great Neck; in it, a therapist finds himself obsessed with a Gitmo detainee and with suicide bombers generally after his fiancée perishes in the 9/11 attacks. It seems like it’s about time, actually, that Cantor got around to writing a comic book: Almost a quarter-century has passed since his post-modern novelization of George Herriman’s genius comic strip Krazy Kat, which transforms Ignatz Mouse into a Jewish Freudian.


Everybody calls Asian-Americans “the new Jews”; isn’t it about time, then, we started calling American Jews “the old Asians”? In Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing (Temple, April), Cathy Schlund-Vials considers the literary interactions and parallels of the two groups, attending to resonances in the works of Mary Antin and Gish Jen, Sui Sin Far and Abraham Cahan, Robert Olen Butler—and even Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.


Andrea Myers is really a new Jew: She used to be a Lutheran, and now she’s a lesbian rabbi. What happened? Well, in a word: Brandeis. Myers tells her story of conversion and ordination in The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey From Silent Nights to High Holy Days (Rutgers, April), including the time her Sicilian Catholic bubbe, intending well, baked her some pork hamantaschen.


Ellie Taylor, the teen protagonist of Amy Fellner Dominy’s first novel for young adults, OyMG (Walker, May), also has to make a choice between Lutheranism and Judaism. The donor who funds the scholarship Ellie desires, to a Christian summer camp for debating nerds like herself, seems like she might prefer a believer in Christ, and Ellie figures she can pass as a non-Jew, at least for the summer, to avoid conflict. Even at Jewish summer camp, though, Ellie might have run into some problems. Notwithstanding the title of Jacqueline Jules’ picture book Picnic at Camp Shalom (Lerner, March, ages 5-9), its story begins with an incident that causes tension: One camper gets offended when she feels that her best friend is making fun of her name. Don’t worry, though: Both books end, as so much fiction for kids does, quite happily.


New York’s Bureau of Jewish Education, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team, and the Menorah Journal: Each of these three American Jewish institutions was founded in the 1910s and persisted for decades, but none of them is as well known or appreciated today as it should be. Jonathan Krasner chronicles the history and wide influence of the first, which was founded by the pedagogical pioneer Samson Benderly in 1910, in The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education (Brandeis, May). The second, a pro team that dominated the American Basketball League in the 1930s and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters after World War II, featured almost exclusively Jewish players with names like Inky Lautman, Cy Kaselman, and Shikey Gotthoffer; it receives the recognition it deserves in Douglas Stark’s The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team (Temple, May). The third, a crucial and lively modern Jewish magazine, counted among its contributors not just all the great American Jewish minds of its time, but also leading non-Jewish thinkers including Randolph Bourne and John Dewey; as Daniel Greene demonstrates in The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity (Indiana, April), the group of writers and academics around the journal articulated the notion of “cultural pluralism” as a way of convincing “a skeptical nation of the potential for synthesis between American Anglo culture and Jewish culture.”


Not everyone in Cold War America was enamored with the Menorah group’s notion of pluralism: In 1951, the Christian Century magazine “decried pluralism as a ‘national menace’ promoting ‘instability’ and the subversion of ‘the tradition American way of life”—and Will Herberg, in his influential 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew, insisted that “the ethnic champions of ‘cultural pluralism,’ ” Greene’s subjects, had not “gauged aright the dynamics of American life.” Yet, as Kevin Schultz shows in Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford, April), Herberg was a major contributor to the emergence of a religious pluralism in the postwar years, having argued that the three faiths became “the primary context of self-identification and social location” for Americans. Schultz surveys the intellectual and theological developments through which the United States was transformed from what FDR described, in 1942, as “a Protestant country” to a comfortable and inclusive home for all the new Jews and old Jews alike.

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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