On the Bookshelf
There are Jews everywhere: books on American Jewish communities from Washington, D.C., to Albuquerque, and others on American Jewish educators
Big cities aren’t necessarily more conducive to Jews’ comfort and success than smaller ones; it took until last week for Chicago to elect a Jewish mayor, but Albuquerque did so 136 years ago. In fact, Henry Jaffa was the very first person elected to that office, and his successor was Jewish, too. Naomi Sandweiss covers the stories of these businessmen-cum-politicians and other tidbits of local history, while also including 200 period photographs in Jewish Albuquerque: 1860-1960 (Arcadia, March). The publisher’s series includes volumes on Shreveport, Chattanooga, Harrisburg, Nashville, Maine, West Virginia, and many more American cities and states where one cannot always expect to assemble a minyan at short notice.
Six hundred miles left of Albuquerque, Las Vegas is more obviously Jewish: Everyone who’s seen Casino knows that guys like Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal have long been machers in the gaming industry. Less widely hailed are such local heroes as Reno tailor Jacob Davis, who dreamed up the idea of reinforcing pants pockets with rivets, thereby co-creating the American blue jean. Telling the stories of gambling titans and immigrant innovators alike, and now available in paperback, John Marschall’s 2008 book, Jews in Nevada: A History (Nevada, March) serves up stories of peddlers, gunslingers, and synagogue founders, too. It’s a veritable Comstock Lode of Sagebrush State Jewry.
One imagines that Marschall’s book already occupies a prominent place on the shelf in the personal library of Rep. Shelley Berkley: Who can we expect to be prouder of Nevada’s Jewish history than the Temple Beth Shalom member elected in 1999 to represent Las Vegas in Congress? While she is one of only two Jews Nevada has ever sent to Congress, Berkley has no reason to be lonely in Washington. Over the centuries, Jews have been elected to Congress from a total of 37 states, including many where good rugelach and cholent are not always easy to find, such as Alaska, Iowa, and Oklahoma; Louisiana boasts no fewer than five “minyanaires,” the term Kurt Stone uses in The Jews of Capital Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members (Scarecrow, January). Stone progresses chronologically, beginning with David Levy Yulee, who served from 1841 to 1851 and again from 1855 to 1861 as a Whig-Democrat from Florida, and concluding with another Floridian Democrat, Ted Deutch.
Experiences in the American hinterlands have influenced the lives of even inveterate New Yorkers; the artist and educator Temima Gezari, for example, born in Pinsk in 1905 and raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, roadtripped to New Mexico with a couple of friends in 1931 to attend the Taos School of Art. Upon her return to New York—and after some tutorials from Diego Rivera—she painted the murals for Mordecai Kaplan’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism. Gezari’s pedagogical interventions are the subject of one of the essays in a 2010 collection edited by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Carol Ingall, newly available in a more affordable paperback, titled The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910-1965 (Brandeis, March). Other influential pedagogues and pioneers profiled here include Hadassah’s Jessie Sampter, ardent Hebraist Anna G. Sherman, and Sadie Rose Weilerstein, author of the beloved K’tonton books.
More recent developments in Jewish education in America, especially at the post-secondary level, are the impetus for Jewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History: Authority, Diaspora, Tradition (Penn, March). As the academic study of Judaism and Jewish experience has mushroomed since the 1960s, its practitioners have embraced a variety of disciplinary approaches that do not always play nicely together, despite the never-ending hoopla about interdisciplinarity. As David Ruderman acknowledges in his preface to the volume, “It is one thing to encourage a dialogue between historians and anthropologists; it is quite another to reach a consensus and a common language about the subject of these inquiries.” Ranging widely through time and across the globe, the essays here, by such stalwarts as Riv-Ellen Prell and Harvey E. Goldberg, attempt to demonstrate how fruitful it can be for scholars to cross the artificial divides.
Another index of changes in advanced Jewish education can be found in Andrew Bush’s Jewish Studies: A Theoretical Introduction (Rutgers, March), which surveys the history and the structuring tensions of the discipline and inaugurates a new book series called Key Words in Jewish Studies. “The fundamental question for studying Jews,” Bush writes, “is not how to maintain a relationship to the Jewish God, to the Jewish Book, or to the Jewish people, but what kind of object does one study when studying Jews?” To answer this question, Bush explores such terms as “science, nation, race, and religion” as they have been deployed and critiqued, from the founders of the Wissenschaft des Judentums to the present.
A cultural critic by vocation, Leo Braudy manages to bring together history and a little bit of anthropology in his pithy study The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon (Yale, February). Those letters up in the hills, as one might expect, have as complex a story as anything produced by America’s image-makers. Erected in 1923, spelling out “Hollywoodland” as advertising for a real estate development, the sign deteriorated during the ensuing decades; at times, Brady suggests, “the decaying sign above the city mirrored the attitude toward Hollywood’s own history,” just as its current iconic status reflects the strength of the American celebrity machine. Braudy can’t tell this story without a few references to Hollywood’s Jews: In addition to the expected studio bosses and Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, he also cites In Hollywood With Potash and Perlmutter (1924), Montague Glass’ comic romp about New York garment industry veterans who hope to make a fortune in California’s movie business.
One of Hollywood’s eccentricities is a tendency to repeat itself, always releasing comedies about police dogs or animated features about insects in oddly matched pairs. Apparently this phenomenon has spread to the world of Yiddish-to-English translation: Shirley Kumove’s new translation of Yehoshue Perle’s rediscovered coming-of-age novel Yidn fun a gants yor (1935), titled Ordinary Jews (SUNY, March), follows only a few years behind the version published by Meier Deshell and Margaret Birstein as Everyday Jews. Perle’s book surely deserves attention, but given how many worthwhile Yiddish books have yet to be translated at all, as scholars in that field regularly note, the question is why scant publishing resources should be devoted to two versions of the same text.
In a new collection of photographs, 5683 Miles Away, New York-based Israeli expat Yael Ben-Zion looks at everyday life in her homeland with both nostalgia and disillusion
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