On the Bookshelf
Spinning Yarns: storytelling from the Talmud to Lemony Snicket
It’s not just that Jews have always told one another stories: From midrash to Walter Benjamin to “The Yada Yada” and This American Life, Jews have innovated in the theory and practice of storytelling. Take the Talmud, which an old North Carolina governor once described as “the most remarkable collection of oriental wisdom, obstruse learning, piety, blasphemy and obscenity ever got together in the world” that, to his astonishment, bears “the same relation to the Jewish law, which our judicial decisions do to our statute law.” Barry Wimpfheimer focuses, in his Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories (Penn, January), on a collection of “legal stories” in the Talmud, arguing that these sections suggest a new way of reading the Talmud’s peculiar combination of juridical wrangling and weird anecdotes. The whole text, he proposes—the dry jurisprudence not excepted—can be understood as different varieties of storytelling.
Modern law is also full of stories, both amusing and appalling. In Daviborshch’s Cart: Narrating the Holocaust in Australian War Crimes Trials (Nebraska, January), David Fraser combs through trial transcripts and other documents, examining how Australian courts struggled, with limited success, to reconstruct massacres from Holocaust-era Ukraine and to mete out justice. Fraser acknowledges, among other things, that “narrating the reality of wartime conditions, occupation, and the facts of local collaboration in the mass killings of the Jewish population . . . was apparently beyond the capacities of both historical and legal discourse to explain in a way that might have been comprehensible to 1990s Australians.”
No book, no matter how well-meaning, could live up to the title of Seymour Rossel’s The Essential Jewish Stories (Ktav, January). A prolific Reform rabbi operating out of the Houston area, Rossel serves up more than 300 narratives drawn from sources including the Talmud, Martin Buber’s hasidic tales, and random Internet sites. Inevitably, some of the absolutely essential modern Jewish stories get left out: Where’s the one about the guy who wakes up transformed into a bug, and the one about the tryst between a teenager and a piece of liver, and that brand new one about the American Jews who parachuted into occupied France to scalp Nazis?
There’s no such thing as a simple story, as anyone who has read a classic children’s book lately can attest. Scholars have lately begun to bring all the tools of literary studies to young adult fiction and even to picture books, and Mike Cadden’s edited collection Telling Children’s Stories: Narrative Theory and Children’s Literature (Nebraska, January) offers an introduction to the range of such academic approaches. Unsurprisingly, Jews receive plenty of attention in the collection: Among its essays, the volume includes analyses of Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books (“Yes,” Handler says, “The Baudelaires are Jewish!”), Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1990), and the development of Hebrew kid lit.
The so-called “ethical turn” in literary studies can more concretely be described as the spreading cult of Emmanuel Levinas in literature departments. Levinas—the thinker who imported echoes of the rabbinic tradition into postwar French philosophy—stands at the center of Steven Shankman’s latest book, newly available in paperback, Other Others: Levinas, Literature, Transcultural Studies (SUNY, January). What better way to link the writings of figures as varied as Sima Qian, Primo Levi, Euripides, Mongo Beti, and Naguib Mahfouz—impressively, Shankman reads classical Chinese, Italian, Greek, French, and “some Arabic,” too—than through philosophical concepts pioneered by a Yiddish-speaking Litvak who taught not just at the Sorbonne, but also at a private Jewish high school in Paris?
Though trained as a lawyer, Howard Cosell’s real vocation was for telling a particular sort of American story: the narrative behind a baseball game or a boxing match. With one of the most recognizable voices in American media—a “nasal twang,” he once called it—Cosell pioneered the locker room interview, spoke out against racism in sports, and helped establish Monday Night Football as an American institution. In There You Have It: The Life, Legacy, and Legand of Howard Cosell (UMass, December), John Bloom offers up Cosell’s insouciance as a virtue: “It took chutzpah for a gangly, awkward Jewish kid from Brooklyn, someone with no discernible background in sports, to think that he could become a sports broadcaster.”
Isaac Casaubon’s name remains familiar, if at all, because he was the inspiration and namesake of characters in popular narratives, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg suggest that there’s another story to be told about Casaubon in “I have always loved the Holy Tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship (Harvard, January). He deserves recognition, they say, as a devoted Christian Hebraist who not only studied Talmud, but even consulted the glosses of the Rashbam. Casaubon also defended Jews, like his “rabbi,” Jacob Barnet, from Catholic accusations of deicide; too bad he isn’t around today to speak up on behalf of Jeffrey Goldberg.
Narrativizing history isn’t quite enough; nowadays it seems that any story worth telling—from government commission reports to the discovery of radium to the quest for mathematical certainty—has to be repackaged in comic book form, too, to woo readers. Israel Rosenfeld’s DNA: A Graphic Guide to the Molecule That Shook the World (Columbia, February) is one such effort, rendering into cartoon form not just Watson and Crick’s famed description of DNA’s double helix structure, but lesser-known contributions leading up to that discovery, like “Chargaff’s Rules,” the observation of a Czernowitz-born Jewish biochemist that DNA always contains equal amounts of adenine and thymine, of guanine and cytosine. Bizarre as it might seem that genetics has now become fodder for the funny pages, there’s a measure of justice in the project: What scientist wouldn’t be flattered to see him- or herself rendered as a comic book hero?
Newly restored, Chagall’s America Windows—conceived in honor of the 1976 bicentennial and popularized in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—sparkle as never before
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