On the Bookshelf
Wisecrackers, retailers, and Maimonideans
What’s so funny about being Jewish? Plenty, according to David Minkoff. The British son of a kosher butcher, Minkoff obsessively catalogs Jewish jokes on the Web—over 2,200 of them to date—and has recently begun packaging his collection into books. Corny as it is, his second outing, Oy Vey: More!: The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes, Part 2 (St. Martin’s, September) participates in a venerable tradition of such volumes, published in Hebrew, Yiddish, and English for over a century by wise guys including I. M. Dik, Y. Kh. Ravnitsky, Alter Druyanov, Immanuel Olswanger, Felix Mendelsohn, as well as, more recently, the inspired partnership of Moshe Waldoks and William Novak.
There’s more to comedy than jokes, though. Take David Cross, who headlined the indescribable HBO sketch program Mr. Show and starred as Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development. His stand-up sets—rambling, political, and brilliant, but not at all jokey—have now been boiled down into a book, I Drink for a Reason (Grand Central, August), with chapters titled “Ask a Rabbi!” and “Other Ways in Which Jews Can Utilize Current Technology to Get around God’s Strict Laws for the Sabbath.” Cross, an avowed Jew-cum-atheist, calls “Orthodox Jews . . . the most annoying people, as a group, that walk this earth,” and their beliefs “utter nonsense.” He denies charges of “self-loathing,” though. Copyrights for his book have been registered in the name of Liberal Jew-Run Media Productions, Inc., so at least he gives something back to the Jewish community.
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Though not quite as irreverent as Cross, Michael Wex knows considerably more about Jewish culture. In the bestselling Born to Kvetch and its sequel, Just Say Nu, Wex treats his readers to witty tours through the rich lexicon of the sort of native Yiddish speaker from Lethbridge, Alberta, who thought it might be fun to translate Brecht’s Threepenny Opera into mameloshn. In his most recent offering, How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck): Secrets of the Good Life, from the Most Unpopular People on Earth (Harper, September), Wex enthusiastically pursues what some would call a traditionally Jewish line of work: giving advice to people who didn’t exactly ask for it.
Wex isn’t the only author presenting Jewish secrets of success this fall. Noah Alper, a serial entrepreneur who created Noah’s New York Bagels and sold it for $100 million seven years later, proffers menshlekhkeyt as a route to riches. In Business Mensch: Timeless Wisdom for Today’s Entrepreneur (Wolfeboro, September), the Brookline native, Berkeley resident, and Pardes Institute alumnus offers tips to aspiring machers. Meanwhile, he tries his hand at yet another industry, publishing: Wolfeboro Press, whose website was registered by “Noah Alper,” has apparently only published this single book.
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If Alper’s correct that Jewish tradition offers insights to entrepreneurs, that might explain why American Jews have done so well in retail over the years, even in remote locales, far from the madding crowds of urban bargain seekers. In We Were Merchants: The Sternberg Family and the Story of Goudchaux’s and Maison Blanche Department Stores (Louisiana State, October), Hans Sternberg describes how his parents, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, expanded a Baton Rouge department store into 24 locations throughout Louisiana and Florida, employing over 8,000 and transforming the chain into the largest family-owned operation of its kind in the nation.
Taking the Sternbergs as a model, one Jewish rule for entrepreneurial success might be codified as “Keep it in the family.” Robert Spector, a business journalist and author of company histories, concurs. In The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving (Walker, September), he lauds the small, independent concerns that constitute the vast majority of American industry, and waxes nostalgic for the butcher shop his father ran in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Loyal to his roots, Spector will pen a history of Perth Amboy’s Jews as his next project.
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Himself a collector of Jewish jokes—and promulgator of the world’s most influential theory about “keeping it in the family,” so to speak—the great psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud presented, in his final book, some unusual ideas about Jewishness. According to Eliza Slavet’s Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question (Fordham, September), Freud understood Jewishness as inherited, genealogically, and that he believed a form of memory passes physically—without the conscious knowledge of its recipients—from one generation to the next. Slavet parses these difficult claims, arguing that they shed light on some contemporary debates about Jewish identity.
Meanwhile, David Bakan, Daniel Merkur, and David S. Weiss—an eclectic trio of Torontonians (one of whom, Bakan, passed away in 2004)—propose in Maimonides’ Cure of Souls: Medieval Precursor of Psychoanalysis (SUNY, October) that a different Moses, better known as Maimonides, anticipated by seven centuries the massively influential movement that Freud spearheaded during the fin de siècle. Given Freud’s beliefs about memory, perhaps he unconsciously inherited a few of Rambam’s insights?
Either way, the Maimonides book boom continues. Sarah Stroumsa, professor of Arabic at the Hebrew University, proposes in Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (Princeton, September) that Rambam must be understood as a member of a richly interwoven Mediterranean culture. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem-based philosopher David Hartman offers an expanded edition of his 1976 meditation on the great thinker, Maimonides: Torah and Philosophical Quest (JPS, November). What would Rambam, an advocate of humility and Aristotelian moderation, have thought about the appearance of half a dozen books with his name in their titles in late 2009 alone?
In a book on the Dreyfus Affair, writer-lawyer Louis Begley offers a 21st-century J’accuse
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