Our On the Bookshelf columnist does penance for some sins of omission
On the Bookshelf has sinned. It has sinned purposefully and by accident, with the best of intentions and just trying to be funny, out of its abiding respect for the publishing industry and with callous disregard for the hopes and dreams of those who write and sell books. On the Bookshelf has skimmed, jested, spoilered, misdiagnosed, unfavorably juxtaposed, belittled, overpraised, obfuscated, approximated, nitpicked, and given attention where no attention was due. Most grievously, it has neglected worthy books due to a lack of time and space, and it has devoted not nearly enough consideration to any single title that it did mention. Sadly, On the Bookshelf cannot promise to change its ways—a columnist can only do so much—but in this week’s seasonally appropriate entry, On the Bookshelf seeks atonement by highlighting a selection of books published earlier in 2010 that it heretofore ignored.
Some Yiddishist intellectuals in, say, 1958, may have been justifiably pessimistic about the centennial of the 1908 Czernowitz Yiddish conference being celebrated at all. The knowledge that it would, in fact, be commemorated richly, first with a scholarly conference at York University in Toronto, populated with fascinating and wide-ranging lectures on the influence of that event in Jewish history and literature, and then with a volume of essays based on the sessions at that conference—titled Czernowitz at 100: The First Yiddish Language Conference in Historical Perspective (Lexington Books, April)—would have been cause for unexpected delight for many such Yiddish thinkers. But what would have probably tickled them most would have been the discovery that one of the conference’s co-organizers, and editors of the volume, would be Joshua A. Fogel, a specialist in Sino-Japanese relations who has published numerous studies and translations of Chinese and Japanese literature, in addition to a translation of S. Niger’s classic Yiddish study of Jewish bilingualism.
Bilingualism is no longer something most Jews can take for granted, unfortunately. When Pamela Greenberg, who grew up in a secular Jewish household in Northern California, began to search for religious revelation, she recalls attending “one Friday night service during which I understood virtually nothing (it was all in Hebrew, which I could not read) and everyone seemed to be mumbling the words or singing in unison songs that I did not know.” She persisted, taught herself Biblical Hebrew, and has now produced The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation (Bloomsbury, March), a sensitive translation she sees “as, well, as a kind of prayer.”
Two recent books attempt to enrich and expand the Jewish community’s everlastingly contentious conversations about sexual identity. This summer, not only did North Atlantic Books publish a pioneering collection of essays about lesbianism in the Orthodox community—a serious book titillatingly titled Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires (North Atlantic, May) and edited by Miryam Kabakov—but it also released an unprecedented volume attending to the challenges and opportunities facing transgendered individuals committed to practicing Judaism. The latter, Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community (North Atlantic, June), edited by Noach Dzmura, includes contributions from Rachel Biale, Chalotte Elisheva Fonrobert, and Joy Ladin, and ranges from a “Ritual for Gender Transition (Male to Female)” to thoughtful readings of the figure of Androgynos in the Mishnah.
While there has been no shortage recently of books about Jews in Muslim lands, and while many more will be published this fall, On the Bookshelf missed two titles chronicling Jewish life in Iraq published this spring. Jessica Jiji’s Sweet Dates in Basra (Avon, April) centers on an Arab girl sent to work as a maid for a Jewish family in 1941 Basra, where she falls in love with her mistress’s brother. For those who prefer memoirs, J. Daniel Khazzoom’s No Way Back: The Journey of a Jew From Baghdad (KOH Library and Cultural Center, August) traces the author’s life from birth in Baghdad, through immigration to Israel, to graduate studies at Harvard and a long career as a professor of economics. While aiming to evoke the rich, vanished culture of his birthplace, Khazzoom accepts that his family’s past cannot be recovered: “Sometimes people ask me if I would not want one day to visit Baghdad, my birthplace. My answer is—and always will be—an emphatic ‘Absolutely Not.’ ”
There are few activities more thankless these days than writing a first novel: If the manuscript even attracts the attention of a publisher and makes it into print, precious few people will read it; and even if you poured a decade of your life into the writing process, you’ll almost certainly be paid less than the tuition costs for a semester in a creative writing MFA program. And yet what’s more noble than the courage to persist in these circumstances, in the hopes of making art for art’s sake? Thus On the Bookshelf is most apologetic for failing to mention books like Mitchell James Kaplan’s By Fire, by Water (Other, May) and Alison Amend’s Stations West (LSU, March). The former author, who according to his biography has worked as “a screenwriter and script consultant”—but who does not seem to show up on IMDB (the Mitchell J. Kaplan there has one gig, as “accounting clerk” for an upcoming Jennifer Garner vehicle)—ambitiously ferries readers back to the Inquisition, when the novel’s protagonist, a converso named Luis de Santángel, falls from a position of political privilege while discovering it’s not quite so easy to leave his Jewishness behind. Amend’s novel, meanwhile, focuses on a time and place, late 19th-century Oklahoma, where limpieza de sangre was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Beginning with a Jewish trader who marries an aboriginal woman, and following his son and grandson as they ride the rails, found a town, and drill for oil, the novel insightfully highlights intergenerational conflicts and alliances and the role of Jews in the building the West.
Mentioning these eight titles obviously can’t make amends for all the deserving books that will continue to go unmentioned in this column, or for any publications that On the Bookshelf mischaracterizes. Fortunately, even avaryonim (that is, sinners) have permission to pray on Yom Kippur. So, nu, tayere leyners, gmar khasime tova, and while you’re busy this weekend begging to be written in the Book of Life for one more year, spare a thought for the life you can give to a book—not to mention to a struggling author—by shelling out for a copy of your own and reading thoughtfully.
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