On the Bookshelf
Infidelities, legacies, comedies, and child prodigies
Compared to the other notorious sins committed recently by American Jews, Eliot Spitzer’s paying women to sleep with him seems like a rather minor offense: He’s a hypocrite and a bit freaky between the sheets, sure, but unlike Bernie Madoff, the only family he managed to damage through his misdeeds was his own. Two new books, Lloyd Constantine’s Journal of the Plague Year (Kaplan, April) and Peter Elkind’s Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Portfolio, April), run down the details of Spitzer’s dramatic story, from his moralistic crusading as Attorney General to the $100,000 tab he racked up with about 10 of the women employed by the good folks of Emperor’s Club V.I.P. Constantine, a former adviser to Spitzer, offers an account of the turmoil within Spitzer’s office as the scandal broke, while Elkind—Fortune editor and, as co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room, a practiced hand at this sort of “rise-and-fall” page-turner—surveys the scandal’s sordid details and raises the key question of what exactly piqued the Justice Department’s interest in a minor prostitution ring with a single influential client.
Spitzer isn’t the first Jewish political leader to have disappointed his followers, of course. Norman Gelb’s Kings of the Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Nation (JPS, April) introduces the 52 monarchs who ruled during the millennium that ran from 1020 BCE to 70 CE, including Menahem, the ruler of whose kingdom the prophet Hosea wrote, “There is no honesty and no goodness and no obedience in the land,” naming “adultery” as one of the particular signs of the social decay. Gelb recounts the histories of such lesser-known ancient kings, and queens, as Ahaz, Asa, and Athaliah: great material for Biblical novelists eyeing a piece of that sweet Red Tent market.
This spring is a healthy one for dark comedy. Sam Munson’s debut novel, The November Criminals (Doubleday, April), follows a D.C. high school pot dealer with a taste for Holocaust humor as he investigates the murder of a classmate. The novel takes the form of this stoner’s personal essay for his application to the University of Chicago. Like some college applications, the novel has perhaps benefited from its author’s “legacy” status: Munson is the grandson of the neoconservative kingpin Norman Podhoretz, and he got his precocious start as a book reviewer at the moment of his college graduation, writing for Commentary—that formerly great Jewish magazine that has come to resemble a monthly newsletter for Munson’s extended family: His mother and father have contributed frequently, and the current editor is his uncle.
Witz: The Story of the Last Jew on Earth (Dalkey Archive, May), by Tablet’s critic-at-large Joshua Cohen arrives with no such pedigree, but it has been highly anticipated nonetheless. An impressive brick of fiction totaling upwards of 800 pages, Cohen’s novel—in which all the world’s Jews but one have died of a mysterious plague—brims with allegory, irreverence, and the wordplay in which Cohen has proven himself an adept. Whether or not it earns itself a place on the shelf of gargantuan postmodern epics, the novel possesses at least one quality too rarely seen in the contemporary fiction written by and for American Jews: genuine literary ambition.
No one tells jokes about the murder of Europe’s Jews—or about racism or abortion or pedophilia, for that matter—with quite the verve and intelligence of Sarah Silverman. In a memoir, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee (Harper, May), Silverman recounts her childhood in New Hampshire and her twisting path to celebrity, including as much humor as she can while also demonstrating her self-consciousness about the persona she has developed and how it allows her to be political without getting preachy.
Silverman started using obscenity for laughs early—at 3, when her grandmother offered her brownies, she told the old lady to “shove ’em up your ass”—but, fortunately for her, she was never prodded into becoming a child performer. Not so lucky is Bethany Rabinowitz, the preteen pressed by her ambitious mother into showbiz in Diane Hammond’s novel Seeing Stars (Harper, April). To make Bethany irresistible to casting directors, her manager changes her name from Rabinowitz to Roosevelt—even though in Hollywood, the disadvantages of ethnicity are hardly clear. “I can be Jewish,” Bethany explains at one point, “I just can’t be, you know, Jewish.”
As a Beverly Hills pediatrician, Dr. Scott W. Cohen probably encounters his fair share of Bethany Roosevelts, not to mention all the aspiring Shirley Temples and Macaulay Culkins. Cohen wrote Eat Sleep Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year (Scribner, April) during his daughter’s first 12 months of life. While the book targets a general readership, he does come out mostly in support of the one practice through which a pediatrician can define a child’s Jewish identity (“Although the data are divided, I feel that there are some legitimate benefits to circumcision, and I would consider it for my own son”). New Jewish parents seeking advice tailored more directly to them can consult Secrets of a Jewish Mother (Dutton, April), co-written by Jill Zarin, one of The Real Housewives of New York with her sister Lisa Wexler, along with their mother—though the real classic in that particular field is Dan Greenburg’s How to Be a Jewish Mother.
Dr. Cohen is only the latest in a long line of American Jewish doctors; a few of his influential predecessors figure in Ira Rutkow’s Seeking the Cure: A History of Medicine in America (Scribner, April). Himself a surgeon and a medical historian, Rutkow offers insights into the development of contemporary medical practices, including in his narrative the interventions made by Abraham Flexner and Morris Fishbein, among many others. The son of German Jewish immigrants who settled in Kentucky after losing their wholesale hat business in the panic of 1873, Flexner studied education and revolutionized the teaching of medicine, while Fishbein—“a short, portly man with an unmistakable Hoosier twang”—grew up in Indianapolis, where his father retailed glassware and later set the course of the medical profession for over 20 years as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association. While modernizing medicine and refining the standards for health care in the United States and around the world, these men, at the same time, helped give Jewish mothers everywhere an ideal to dream about: a doctor in the family.
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