On the Bookshelf
Black-Jewish harmony, sitting shiva, bat mitzvah prep, and more
President Obama barely alluded, in his address to the NAACP in honor of its centenary a couple of weeks ago, to the roles played by American Jews like Henry Moskowitz, Joel Spingarn, and Kivie Kaplan in founding and leading that august organization. That needn’t be the focus of most discussions of the NAACP’s history and mission—the President’s emphasis on the interventions of W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall were more appropriate for the occasion, surely—but in an expansive new history of the NAACP, Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement (New Press, August), Patricia Sullivan describes what could be accomplished when a few brave American Jews worked with African-Americans to counter discrimination.
Such collaborations also resulted, l’havdil, in some classic jazz recordings. Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow—infamous as a producer, marijuana enthusiast, and proto-beatnik—could claim responsibility for a fair number of these. He ran in the same circles as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Benny Carter, and he fathered a son with his African-American wife. “Was I colored?” Mezz recalls being asked in his recently republished 1946 memoir, Really the Blues (B&N Rediscovers, June). “No, Russian Jew, American-born,” he replied. “How in hell did I come to be married to a‘spade’? Well, I had this screwy idea that when you loved a girl, you married her.”
We don’t hear about guys like Mezzrow all that much these days. The relations between the American Jewish and African-American communities largely soured during the late years of the Civil Rights movement, and they remain more or less tense today, the Obama seder notwithstanding. Susan Messer’s first novel, Grand River and Joy(Michigan, July), focuses on the early years of those tensions, in downtown Detroit, when Harry Levine finds his shoe warehouse vandalized and some Black Power propaganda stashed in his basement. Levine’s troubles, starting in October 1966, foreshadow the riots of the following summer that drove many Jewish businesses out of the city.
Religious rituals feed on tragedy almost as much as literary fiction does: as Regina Spektor has recently put it, “no one laughs at God when the doctor calls after some routine tests” or “when the cops knock on their door and they say ‘We’ve got some bad news, sir.’” Kate Ledger’s debut novel, Remedies (Amy Einhorn/Putnam, August), illustrates Spektor’s point. It features a Baltimore Jewish couple whose marriage is falling apart despite their career successes. Simon and Emily Bear find that the medical knowledge and communication skills that have allowed them to prosper in their work lives don’t do much to help them recover from the loss of a young child or to connect with their teen daughter. They discover, instead, that Judaism might help put the pieces back together.
Much of Rafael Yglesias’ A Happy Marriage (Scribner, July), meanwhile, concerns the efforts of Enrique Sabas—an unabashedly autobiographical stand-in for the Jewish-Hispanic author and a self-described “irreligious half-Jew”—to arrange a funeral for his dying wife, Margaret Cohen. While Enrique’s in-laws want their daughter to be buried by the rabbi of their Great Neck synagogue, Margaret hopes to be eulogized by the “eccentric Reform-Buddhist rabbi” of a restored Lower East Side synagogue.
Few Jewish responses to tragedy resonate quite as powerfully as shiva, the week of mourning required of families after the passing of a close relative. Instead of a wake, the traditional Jewish response to death gathers the mourners together, has them sit on low stools, plies them with whitefish salad and lox, and waits until they begin to kibbitz about the dear departed. Jonathan Tropper, whose previous novels include The Book of Joe and Plan B, realized this ritual provides perfect fodder for a darkly comic family novel. He sets his latest, This Is Where I Leave You (Dutton, August) during a secular, estranged family’s week of mourning, adding in a failing marriage, an unexpected pregnancy, and plenty of other dysfunctions for good measure.
While trauma and loss coax many lax practitioners back to ritual, another, less common method for doing so is a bribe. In Allan Appel’s new novel, The Hebrew Tutor of Bel Air (Coffee House, July), Bayla Adler’s father promises her that if she finally agrees to be bat mitzvahed, at the age of 16, he’ll reward her with $20,000. Her 17-year-old tutor, Appel’s protagonist, has more than Bayla’s Torah portion, or her father’s money, on his mind—as does Appel himself, whose interest here is a young Jew’s coming of age in 1960s L.A.
Bar mitzvah preparations also supply the subject of one of the personal essays in Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith (Beacon, July). A second collection of essays reprinted in book form from the online magazine Killing The Buddha, the book lives up to the magazine’s motto, which pegs its ideal audience as “people made anxious by churches.” Like the characters in Appel’s, Tropper’s, and Ledger’s novels, the essayists demonstrate that faith and tradition continue to matter even to those who have been alienated from mainstream religious movements. As Naomi Seidman puts it in her essay, her “break with tradition was itself part of a tradition.”
The two dynamic editors of Killing the Buddha, Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau, were raised in mostly Catholic and Pentecostal homes, but they first met at the National Yiddish Book Center, of all places. Manseau’s debut novel won the National Jewish Book Award and was recently published in paperback. Titled Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter (Free Press, June), it fictionalizes the tale of a Catholic-raised agnostic who finds his way to a vast warehouse of Yiddish books and to the obscure memoirs of a Yiddish poet.