On the Bookshelf
Strangers in strange lands
Judaism begins with a displacement—you know, lekh lekha, get thee out, that whole deal—and throughout modernity, Jews have been out of place all too frequently. Survivors of Hitler’s genocide, for example, wound up living in Germany in the months immediately after the war, sometimes on the grounds of the estates of high-ranking Nazis or trading their Red Cross rations for the priceless heirlooms of starving German families. Displaced Persons (William Morrow, August), the debut novel by lawyer Ghita Schwarz, centers on a handful of such members of what traditional Jews called sh’erit ha-pletah, following them from 1945 to the turn of the most recent millennium.
The establishment of the State of Israel meant, among other things, the existence of a place where Jews can feel at home—and where non-Jews can be expected to feel at least a little out of place. In Latino Migrants in the Jewish State: Undocumented Lives in Israel (Indiana, June), Barak Kalir, an anthropologist at University of Amsterdam, explores the lives of what he estimates to be some 13,000 unskilled laborers from Ecuador, Colombia, and elsewhere in Latin America who began to arrive in Israel in the mid-1990s. Kalir notes that, contrary to what one might expect, a substantial portion of these Latinos in Israel achieved “an advanced degree of cultural assimilation”: Many learned Hebrew and even expressed willingness to serve in the Israeli army. Yet only a few hundred of them were offered legal residence in 2005, while many thousands were summarily deported.
If it isn’t a folk saying, it should be: “As out of place as a pig at Shabbat dinner.” That’s the animating premise of Laurel Snyder’s latest picture book for children, illustrated by David Goldin. The title character in Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher (Tricycle, August, ages 4 to 8) attempts through various stratagems to make himself fit for the Friday night table, hoping, for instance, if he consumes enough deli pickles, he’ll stop being trayf. Is this seemingly lighthearted story, you might wonder, a parable about modern Jewish identity politics, cleverly packaged for children by the editor of Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes (not to mention a two-time host of the Nextbook Podcast, forerunner to Vox Tablet)? In a word: Yes.
There’s nothing out of place about a Jew in therapy and, for that matter, nothing unusual about a strong dose of psychoanalytical or psychological jargon in a contemporary Jewish book. Micah Toub’s memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks (Norton, August), details the author’s experience in an analytic household so thoroughly committed to dream interpretation that by the age of 4, he had already begun making up nighttime visions to please his father. Unlike Jung himself, Toub’s parents were Jewish, which they commemorated in unusual ways: “On Passover,” the author recalls, “we’d pass around a cornucopia of breads—rye, pumpernickel, olive, whole wheat,” while their Christmas tree always had a Star of David on top. The Good Psychologist (Henry Holt, August), the debut novel by Noam Shpancer, a psychology professor and former kibbutznik, concerns an unnamed therapist whose unraveling life mirrors the psychological theory he promulgates in his lectures and sessions with his patients—a narrative formula that worked wonders on TV and comes in this case endorsed by Jonathan Kellerman, an adept in the admixture of narrative suspense and psychology.
Like both Toub and Shpancer, Stephanie Dolgoff has been promoting her new book with a blog on the Web site of Psychology Today: in her case, a series of posts that deal with the problem of aging from a peppy, glossy-women’s-magazine perspective, as she does at greater length in My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches From Just the Other Side of Young (Ballantine, August). On her other blog—Dolgoff possesses, to her credit, more energy for self-promotion than many authors half her age—she also mentions a few of the culturally specific signals that have alerted her that she’s no longer a spring chicken: for example, realizing that “the last party you were at was a bar mitzvah and the next party you’ll be at will likely be a bar mitzvah.” Lucy Rose Fischer meanwhile treats similar issues from the fuzzier, crunchier, mushier perspective of a professional gerontologist who also paints and sculpts—and who founded the Jewish Women Artists’ Circle of Minnesota—in a “picture book for women” titled I’m New at Being Old (Temuna, May).
Not that being young is such a walk in the park, either. Jenny Meyerhoff’s Queen of Secrets (FSG, June, ages 12 and up) loosely adapts the Book of Esther to a high school in suburban Michigan, where a popular cheerleader named Essie, an orphan, struggles to relate to her Orthodox cousin Micah while not alienating her boyfriend, the reigning football star. Not a bad idea, a young-adult novel structured around a Biblical narrative—and it’s a fitting project for an author who admits to reading Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret. no less than 21 times when she was in elementary school herself.