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Freedom Riders and Lady Liberty

Josh Lambert
February 22, 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.)

Are the 8-year-olds in your life ready to learn about lynching? Stacia Deutsch and Rhody Cohon think so. These co-authors have carved out an impressive niche for themselves as authors of historical and pop culture chapterbooks for the grade school set; their “junior novelization” of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list last fall. Their latest project, Hot Pursuit: Murder in Mississippi (Kar-Ben, January) narrates the last day of the young civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. The former was a Mississippi-born African-American volunteer, and the latter two were northern Jews newly arrived to protest racism, and all three were murdered by Ku Klux Klan members, with the collaboration of local police, in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in June of 1964. At the heart of their story, as Deutsch and Cohon relate it, is an unsettling question that might inspire some nightmares in young kids: namely, does that police officer signaling you to pull over want to preserve law and order, or serve you up to some murderous Klansmen?

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Thanks to incidents like the Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman murders and the lynching of Leo Frank, the Deep South frightens some American Jews. Take “Tennessee,” one of the stories included in Justin Taylor’s debut collection, Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever (Harper Perennial, February). In it, a kid whose family has recently relocated from a suburb of Miami to a suburb of Nashville tells his older brother that only 11 Jewish kids attend his high school. Three of them will graduate soon. “You know what I heard one kid say to another?” the kid continues. “Three down, eight to go.” Taylor’s other stories have been said to look for inspiration to Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, and the Pixies, and include a parable featuring an unending game of Tetris and a whole lot of confused teenagers and 20-somethings.

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The older brother in Taylor’s “Tennessee” bickers with his unemployed dad about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: accused of being a self-hating Jew because he reads Chomsky, the son says, “I don’t hate myself, or the Jews. Now, what the Israeli government does on the other hand … I don’t see how hating that or them has anything to do with Elijah, the fifth commandment, or us.” Mark Perry would agree. In his new book, Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With its Enemies (Basic, January), Perry argues that “we do violence to our understanding of Israel, and to what Israelis think of themselves, by continually and purposely conflating the moral dimension of Judaism with the moral concerns of the Israeli government.” Perry, who argues that the Israeli state has missed opportunities to pursue peace with its antagonists, insists that American and Israeli dialogue with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, rather than an endless war on “evildoers,” offers the surest path to Middle East peace.

Lee Smith, who writes a weekly column for Tablet on Washington’s Middle East lobbies, suggests a somewhat different approach inThe Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Random House, January): “If the Americans were looking to transform the region,” he writes, they would align themselves not with “so-called Arab moderates” or “men like Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, whose temperament and personal culture differ from, say, the leaders of Hamas in degree rather than kind,” but rather with “Arab liberals,” participants in a tradition of dissent that Smith describes as connecting the 11th-century rationalist Abu al-‘Ala al-Ma’arri to the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

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You will be forgiven if the phrase “the Hebrew republic” summons to your mind the State of Israel: that is, after all, the title that Bernard Avishai gave to his 2008 polemic about the promotion of peace in Asia Minor through increased Israeli secularism. But Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Harvard, March) takes up an entirely different subject: the influence of the Torah, Talmud, and other rabbinical texts in the development of European political theory, and particularly on the thinking of figures such as John Milton and Thomas Hobbes.

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No American poem has been displayed quite as dramatically as Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus”: after greeting generations of new arrivals in New York harbor, it was installed in a slightly bowdlerized version at in the International Arrivals Building of JFK airport, where it currently welcomes still more huddled masses yearning to breathe free (plus a few nicotine addicts yearning just to get the hell out of the airport so that they can finally light up after a long nonsmoking flight). Linda Glaser relates the tale of Lazarus’s composition of her famous sonnet for 4-to-8-year-old readers, with illustrations by Claire Nivola, in Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April). For adult readers, meanwhile, the engineer and author Yasmin Sabina Khan relates the history of the monument, Lazarus’s contribution included, in Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty (Cornell, March).

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A surprising number of those tired and poor who immigrated to the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century served in the military during World War I: almost a fifth of the 4.7 million American troops. David Laskin tells the tale of 12 such soldiers in The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War (Harper, March). Laskin includes the stories of a Norwegian, several Italians, and a handful of Jews. One of the latter, Meyer Epstein, was a Lower East Side plumber who won four awards for heroism and bravery in France, and another, Samuel Dreben, was a veteran of the Phillipine-American War who earned the nickname—a full century before Inglourious Basterds, mind you—of “the Fighting Jew.”

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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