On the Bookshelf
Funnymen, radicals, and a merry widow
If it can be considered a Jewish tradition to crack wise at the moment of bleakest tragedy, then the obscure comic book character Funnyman fits right in; so argue Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon in Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero (Feral House, July). Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster conceived of this improbable character, a jokily clownish pseudo-hero, at an inauspicious time, only a couple of years after the end of WWII brought images of Nazi brutality to American movie theaters. Siegel and Shuster were themselves waging a bitter, and finally losing, battle over the rights to their earlier creation, Superman; Siegel was also busy busting up his marriage, while Shuster, who nominally drew their strips, was slowly losing his eyesight. As Gordon says, these were “the most miserable guys possible and the most unlucky,” and yet they turned to slapstick comedy. The result was no masterpiece—Funnyman lasted only for six issues, and then for a brief run as a newspaper serial—but Andrae and Gordon use it as the basis for a wide ranging exploration of Jewish humor, while reprinting a few examples of the dismal series.
If for nothing else, Funnyman remains admirable for its attempt to demonstrate that superheroes need not come equipped with a square jaw or a barrel chest. Real-life freedom fighters rarely do. Saul Alinsky, for example: A “bespectacled, conservatively dressed community organizer” who dressed “like an accountant,” as Playboy described him, he managed to alter the course of American politics with Rules for Radicals (1971). Lately he’s been credited, especially by right-wingers who vilify him while adopting his tactics, with influencing the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Already the subject of a major biography (1992’s Let Them Call Me Rebel), the Chicagoan—raised in an Orthodox home and inspired, as he once remarked, by Hillel’s call, in Pirkei Avot, to be a man in a place where there are no men—has his legacy further burnished by the anecdotes and recollections contained in Nicholas von Hoffman’s “homage,” Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky (Nation, July).
Like Alinsky, the African-American author Richard Wright transformed Chicago anti-establishment fury into publishing gold. After he accepted the bowdlerizing edits of the Book-of-the-Month Club, his Native Son (1940) became a massive bestseller that reflects Wright’s encounters with Jews; recall that the novel concludes with the failure of a Jewish lawyer, Boris Max, to offer much salvation or consolation to his African-American client, Bigger Thomas. Jennifer Jensen Wallach’s Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen (Ivan R. Dee, July) surveys Wright’s works and life, including his successive marriages to two Jewish women, his engagements with Communism, and his exile to Paris, more concisely than previous biographies, as a commemoration of his death exactly half a century ago.
Wright moved to Paris in the hopes of escaping American racism; not all Americans travel to Europe for such good reasons. Tablet contributing editor Rachel Shukert, for example, describes, in Everything Is Going To Be Great: An Underfunded, Overexposed European Grand Tour (Harper Perennial, July), a European sojourn motivated less by any specific problems she faced in America—though, to be fair, Shukert did grow up Jewish in Omaha, Nebraska, which is nobody’s idea of a rollicking good time—than by a general spirit of post-college adventurousness, and, more concretely, by a “non-paying, non-speaking” role in a traveling theater production.
Lily Safra does Europe a little differently: when she’s on the French Riviera, for example, she stays at her house, Villa Leopolda, which, valued at a whopping $503 million, ranks second on the list of most expensive homes in the world. And when Safra celebrates birthdays with Elton John and his friends, they hop from London to Venice, mid-party, via chartered jet. Not bad for the Brazilian daughter of a Uruguayan Jewish mother and a fortune-seeking British father. Safra’s secret to success? Marry rich and often: Her husbands have included entrepreneurs Mario Cohen, Freddy Monteverde (né Greenberg), and Samuel Bendahan, as well as Edmond Safra, a Jewish-Lebanese-Brazilian banking whiz who supported Sephardic charities around the world, and whose death in 1999 left his wife sitting on a fortune estimated at a billion dollars. Isabel Vincent offers all the gory and glamorous details in Gilded Lily: Lily Safra, the Making of One of the World’s Wealthiest Widows (Harper, July).
Kiev doesn’t attract many of the North or South Americans, like Shukert and Safra, who head to Europe in pursuit of luxury, culture, and romance, but the city was once considered among the most interesting places in Eastern Europe for a Jew to live and work—until some pogroms and the Mendel Beilis affair spoiled the mood. As Natan Meir points out in his study Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: A History, 1859–1914, Sholem Aleichem himself lived in the city for a while and had good reason to set the first half of The Bloody Hoax (his version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper) there. And, as Meir goes on to say, “though Jews were but tolerated strangers in Kiev, they influenced—indeed shaped—the city to a remarkable extent.”
Why travel at all, though, when you can have all of European culture, or at least European cuisine, in a single building in New York City? Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Smithsonian, June) focuses on a still-standing domicile to reflect the diversity of traditions imported to Manhattan’s teeming Lower East Side by immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Russia, and Italy. Two of the families whose experiences Ziegelman recovers, the Gumpertz and Rogarshevsky clans, were Jews who, it turns out, ate more than just gefilte fish and knishes. In fact, as Ziegelman emphasizes, the former family would have benefited from local tenement-based goose farms and eaten plenty of what we now refer to as foie gras. As Ziegelman and her co-authors noted in a 1999 paean to goose liver, Foie Gras: A Passion, “The only culinary tradition to rival the French in its genius for cooking with foie gras belongs to the Ashkenazi Jews.”
Vacationing close to home has its perils: In Ayelet Waldman’s novel Red Hook Road (Doubleday, July), the daughter of a family of Jewish New Yorkers who summer in Maine decides to marry a townie, the son of a cleaning woman. This is not fated to be a happy intermarriage: a car accident kills off the newlyweds almost immediately after they tie the knot, leaving the members of their very different families—violinists, Fulbright scholars, amateur shipbuilders, and so on—to figure out how to relate to one another. Waldman notes that she got her inspiration from a newspaper article; and, indeed, it does not seem that she could write about such a marital culture clash from personal experience, given that her husband is a brilliant Jewish novelist, just like her.