On the Bookshelf
Books that instruct, books that edify
It’s a strange juncture in the history of moral education when a student can just as conveniently purchase a term paper for his or her Business Ethics class as sit down and write one. But well-meaning educators persist: For the past two decades, the Elie Wiesel Foundation has doled out annual prizes for student essays offering “rational arguments for ethical action,” which contribute to the tradition Wiesel locates in texts as varied as the Dead Sea Scrolls and Dostoevsky. Some of the winners appear in An Ethical Compass: Coming of Age in the 21st Century (Yale, November). Despite the fact that many students enter such contests less out of any depth of ethical concern and more in pursuit of the $5,000 prize, and in the hopes of seeing their names in print, the gathered essays seem nothing if not sincere—and, hey, one of Wiesel’s winners turned out to be Rachel Maddow!
The underlying premise of the Wiesel prize—that reading and writing can lead young people to ethical action—seems easy enough to dispute. (Don’t reading and writing just lead young people to the English Department, that alleged bastion of cultural relativism, giddy aestheticism, and lifelong penury?) Yet the vision of literature as morally uplifting has its share of advocates, from Oprah to child psychiatrist Robert Coles. Linda Silver, a veteran Jewish children’s librarian, agrees; she remarks that the hundreds of books she recommends in the thematically organized sections of The Best Jewish Books for Children and Teens (JPS, October) come in two flavors: “aesthetic” ones that “stimulate children’s imaginations” and “didactic” ones that “inculcate values”: “A tasty and nourishing Jewish reading diet,” Silver proclaims, “includes books of both kinds.” Yet this paragraph has itself illustrated just how shady inveterate readers and writers can be: Silver’s book appears in the same series as my own—and she gives me a kind shout-out in her introduction!—so mentioning it here constitutes at best a severe conflict of interest.
Some books for younger readers do undoubtedly, unavoidably, edify them. Esther M. Friesner’s Threads and Flames (Penguin, November, 10+), for one example, features a 13-year-old Jewish immigrant girl who takes a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1910. The book, whose author is a prolific sci-fi novelist, will convince its eager readers, one hopes, at the very least to think twice before accepting employment in sweatshops with insufficient fire safety precautions.
Whether or not they read and write, no one could deny that the stories youths tell themselves matter, especially when they grow up in tense environments. Psychologist Phillip L. Hammack argues just this in Narrative and the Politics of Identity: The Cultural Psychology of Israeli and Palestinian Youth (Oxford, December): “social scientists, peace activists, and practitioners of conflict resolution must consider young Israeli and Palestinian lives as stories in process.” He criticizes programs like Seeds of Peace, though, for not sufficiently taking “into account … the structural violence that frames the experience of Israeli and Palestinian youth.”
One could understand Lorraine Lotzof Abramson’s My Race: A Jewish Girl Growing up Under Apartheid in South Africa (DBM, November) as a retrospective attempt to tell such a story, of childhood in a place rife with political conflict and structural violence. Born in South Africa in 1946, she grew up alongside apartheid, in a family of Ashkenazi immigrants who were uncomfortable with racist state policies but remained complicit by not actively protesting them. The solution she found to the ethical compromises necessary for life under Apartheid was, in a sense, to run away: A track star and winner of multiple gold medals at the 1965 Maccabi games, she also met her husband there, an American who was her ticket to a country where she wouldn’t feel unwillingly complicit in institutionalized racism.
It’s the same old story: Literary scholars have in the last decade or so decided that literary transnationalism is all the rage, and now Jewish literature scholars are reminding them that modern Jewish literature is, as literary scholars still often say, “always already” transnational. To put this in plainer language: Could there be any literary tradition that has crossed more borders, and been more centrally constituted by those crossings, than what was written by modern Jews? In Modern Jewish Literatures: Intersections and Boundaries (Penn, December) a trio of editors—Sheila Jelen, Michael P. Kramer, and L. Scott Lerner—introduce 15 essays that emphasize texts’ “continual movement across borders,” their “separations and syntheses.”
The examples raised in Jelen, Kramer, and Lerner’s collection don’t begin to exhaust the subject of Jewish literature’s transnationalism. Among their other virtues, the modernist novellas of Jacob Glatstein (a.k.a., Yankev Glatshteyn), which have now finally appeared in a reasonable translation titled The Glatstein Chronicles (Yale, November), demonstrate again that Jewish stories are always in transit. Indeed, the books’ original Yiddish titles, Ven Yash iz geforn and Ven Yash iz gekumen, refer simply to the travels of the protagonist, Yash: He “went”—to his native Poland, to see his dying mother—and then he “came back.” In the process, he records the voices and travels of Americans and Europeans in the interwar years.
Like Glatshteyn, Joseph Brodsky left the land of his birth but continued to write poetry in his mother tongue in the United States; unlike Glatshteyn, he had been formally expelled from his homeland, and he took home the Nobel Prize for his poems. A biography of the exiled poet—written in Russian by his friend, the late Dartmouth Slavic professor Lev Loseff—has been translated as Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life (Yale, December). Brodsky identified as a Jew (“One hundred percent,” he said, “You can’t be more Jewish than I am”), but Loseff notes that “any ‘Jewish element’ found in his verse was roughly the same ‘Jewish element’ found in Western civilization—the Old Testament as received and interpreted by the Christian West.”
Shachar Pinsker’s innovative cultural history Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe (Stanford, December) presents another pointed case of Jewish literary transnationalism, one that unsettles simplistic narratives about the rebirth of literary Hebrew among the farmers of the yishuv. Describing the flowering of Hebrew prose fiction in cities including London, Vienna, Odessa, Homel, and Berlin, Pinsker demonstrates that the revival of Hebrew as a modern phenomenon owed at least as much to the atmosphere of European cafés and bustling avenues as it did to, say, the experience of tilling soil on a kibbutz. Thus modern Hebrew is a language of the Diaspora, of crossed borders, just like Yiddish and, for that matter, English.
Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, 25 years after its release, remains the most powerful Holocaust film ever made