On the Bookshelf
Of radicals, tenured and untenured
Given how prolific he has been—his oeuvre includes two novels, a handful of plays, screenplays for Carnal Knowledge and Little Murders and Popeye, illustrations for The Phantom Tollbooth and a dozen children’s books of his own, an Oscar-winning animated short, and, oh, yeah, more than 40 years’ worth of Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strips in the Village Voice—Jules Feiffer has published surprisingly little that deals in any explicit sense with Jewishness. Indeed, as he explains in his new memoir, Backing into Forward (Doubleday/Talese, March), as a kid he often thought he was an Episcopalian mistakenly switched at birth into a Jewish family, and as a parent he forgot to tell his daughter she was Jewish until she was six. Still, it would be hard to deny that his sharpest and most mordantly funny lines derive, directly or not, from Jewish sensibilities—and his rich, charming memoir offers up plenty of evidence for that contention.
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Occasionally spouting yes-man dialogue that sounds a little like something out of a Feiffer cartoon, Jeff Garlin plays Larry David’s agreeable manager and reliable crony on Curb Your Enthusiasm. In a new book, My Footprint: Carrying the Weight of the World (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, February), Garlin eschews the craft services spread on set, hoping to reduce both his weight and his environmental impact. In the process, he reaches out to some odd gurus—specifically, Ed Begley, Jr. and Richard Simmons—for suggestions, takes up Pilates, and annoys his wife. Among the challenges to his new diet: Rosh Hashanah. “Apples dipped in honey—apples, good; too much honey, bad.”
Garlin’s weight places him in a venerable tradition of plus-size Jewish comics that includes Buddy Hackett and Sophie Tucker. In a new book for kids, Jewish Comedy Stars: Classic to Cutting Edge (Kar Ben, March, 11+), Norman H. Finkelstein briefly surveys the rich history of the funniest members of the Chosen People, ranging chronologically from classic performers like George Jessel and the Three Stooges to more recent tummlers such as Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman. It’s a rather ambitious project, when you think about it: how exactly does one discuss a comedienne like Silverman in child-appropriate language?
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Norman H. Finkelstein, the children’s book author, shares his first and last names with not one, but two contemporary American Jewish writers. One, a thoughtful poet with the middle initial “M.,” teaches at Xavier University. The other, an anti-Zionist polemicist with a tendency to footnote his own work more frequently than any other source, makes an appearance in Cary Nelson’s No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (NYU, March). Nelson, self-proclaimed “tenured radical,” president of the American Association of University Professors, and advocate for shared governance in university administration, argues in his new book that DePaul University’s president erred in “unilaterally denying Norman [G.] Finkelstein his appeal rights for his tenure case”—a procedural irregularity that probably wasn’t necessary, since the flaws of Finkelstein’s work speak for themselves.
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Peter Birkenhead’s father, an erratic economics professor who taught at Brooklyn College in the late 1960s and 1970s, sounds like the sort of guy who might have enjoyed one of Norman G. Finkelstein’s furious tirades. A leftist and fan of the British empire, he insulted, threatened, and beat his wife and kids when he wasn’t busy tending to a collection of rifles. The younger Birkenhead, a journalist and actor who has performed in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, recounts his struggles with his dad and the first acting roles he took on in his father’s Massachusetts summer-stock theater, in Gonville: A Memoir (Free Press, March), infusing the tale with humor as well as plenty of self-reflection.
Not all fathers cast such a pall over their families, of course. Diagnosed with cancer when his daughters were young, and afraid his death would deprive them of a supportive male mentor, the journalist and author Bruce Feiler enlisted six men who had contributed meaningfully to his own Bildung to reprise their roles as his daughters aged. He introduces these men, and explains what he asked of them—as well as how he battled his cancer—in The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me (Morrow, April).
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Whether tyrannical or loving, generous or withholding, parents inevitably pass along at least their genes to their children, and in some unfortunate cases this genetic material already contains the seeds of tragedy. In Saving Henry: A Mother’s Journey (Hyperion, March), Laurie Strongin recounts the lengths she and her husband went to in the hopes of mitigating the effects of Fanconi anemia, one of several genetic diseases to which Ashkenazi Jews are especially prone, on their son Henry. In a story that made the national news, they attempted to bring to term a genetically matched embryo who could provide necessary stem cells for Henry. Their story doesn’t end happily—Henry died, bravely, at the age of 7—but suggests the extraordinary courage parents can muster in difficult situations.
Discussing ‘The Frozen Rabbi’ with author Steve Stern, who’s stuck in the Jewish past