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The Jewish Government, Lamed Shapiro (1919)

A gimlet-eyed, Freud-inflected view of Jewish nature

by
Joshua Cohen
September 17, 2013

Lamed Shapiro once supplied the Forward with the following biographical note: “Lamed Shapiro lives off the fame of his old story, ‘The Cross,’ which was always just an insincere, overwrought exercise, written, if that were possible, in falsetto. And because of that story, he now regards everyone with a conceited humility, which assures us that he is the very conscience of Yiddish literature, but that we are too stupid to realize it.” “The Cross” is the tale of a Jewish boy who witnesses his mother being raped and murdered by Cossacks on pogrom. They carve a cross into his forehead, and because of that, or Freud, he rapes and kills his girlfriend and flees to America, The End. In “White Challah” a starving Russian soldier flips the Blood Libel script and bites into a Jewish woman’s flesh (white as … challah). “Smoke” is a calmer tale about life in the shtetl and life outside the shtetl and the trade winds between the two and a life up in ash. In 1919 these stories were bound to more than a dozen Shapiro had published in two unread collections in 1910 to make Di Yidishe Melukhe, The Jewish Government. Shapiro—born in Rzhishchev, outside Kiev, in 1878—had already lived in Warsaw, London, New York, Chicago, Warsaw again, Zurich, New York again, Los Angeles. He wasted much of the 1920s trying to invent new processes for the development of color film, which had all already been invented in Germany. He was a Communist, a disabused Communist, a journal editor, and an alcoholic who died in 1948 surrounded by manuscripts in a friend’s garage.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.

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