On the Bookshelf
Italian sojourns: from medieval kabbalists to 20th-century refugees
It’s a challenge that our best post-Soviet writers all face sooner or later: Where to turn for material after you’ve already done the celebrated semi-autobiographical debut? Gary Shteyngart inventively wrote about the post-Soviet present and the American future; David Bezmozgis focuses instead on the still-Soviet past in The Free World (FSG, April), or at least on the first moments of a family’s escape from it. The novel covers a few tense months of 1978: The Krasnanskys have emerged from behind the Iron Curtain but don’t know their final destination. In Italy, in the meantime, they encounter luxuries unknown in their native Latvia, such as hard-core porn.
Italy’s Jewish population has persisted since antiquity, and through better and worse moments: Daša Drndić’s novel Trieste (Quercus, April) describes one of the latter, in the 1940s, when the Nazis occupied northern Italy and established concentration camps in the border city where, some decades earlier, James Joyce had lived the expat life and hung around with Italo Svevo. Drndić’s novel centers on a Catholicized Jewish mother hoping to be reunited, decades after the war, with the son she had with an S.S. officer, and it presents their story through a collage of Sebaldian documentation, including testimonies, photographs, and maps.
Back up a few more centuries, and recall for a moment how awkward life could be for Jews in Catholic Italy, where the idea of deicide has never been too far from anyone’s mind. As one of the characters in Sarah Bower’s historical romance Sins of the House of Borgia (Sourcebooks Landmark, March) points out: “We’re never safe, you know, among the Christians. They believe we gave up their messiah for crucifixion. Having done that, we’re no longer necessary to their salvation so they feel at liberty to take revenge.” Bower dramatizes the strangeness of Jews’ positions in Renaissance Italy by focusing on a baptized Jewish woman who finds herself privy to the dirty laundry of the Italian noble families and of the papal court, too.
Moshe Idel provides a very different perspective on Italy’s early modern Jews in Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510: A Survey (Yale, April), which concentrates on Abraham Abulafia, Menahem Recanati, and Yohanan Alemanno. Idel notes that these thinkers not only developed distinct and fascinating approaches to esoteric Jewish spirituality, but also influenced the development of Christian kabbalah (which should not be confused with our contemporary kabbalah aggressively marketed to gullible souls, whether Christian or not).
For better or worse, and though many of them have histories as long and as tangled as those of their counterparts in Italy, we hear about Jewish communities elsewhere in Southern Europe most often in terms of their suffering at the hands of the Nazis. For example, Valentina Glajar and Jeanine Teodorescu’s academic collection Local History, Transnational Memory in the Romanian Holocaust (Palgrave Macmillan, March) reminds us of the Romanian backgrounds of a wide range of Holocaust survivors who have become major literary figures in other nations and other languages, including Paul Celan, Aharon Appelfeld, and Elie Wiesel, along with the more familiarly Romanian Norman Manea.
Or take the Balkans. Emily Greble’s history, Sarajevo, 1941-1945: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Hitler’s Europe (Cornell, February), notes that the Independent State of Croatia was “one of the most notoriously brutal Nazi satellite states” and an unusual one in that it instituted Catholicism and Islam as national religions. “In Sarajevo,” Greble notes, “everything from the process of confiscating property to the deportations of Jews had a distinctly local quality.” A Sarajevo-born survivor herself, Esther Gitman accentuates the positive in When Courage Prevailed: The Rescue and Survival of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia, 1941-1945 (Paragon, March), examining why some individuals under Croatian rule went out of their way to protect Jews. One reason was the high level of intermarriage: Even the wife of the country’s fascist leader, Ante Pavelić, was half-Jewish, Gitman notes. Still, as Greble acknowledges, “for every Sarajevan helping a Jew, there was another eagerly awaiting to claim the property of a Jewish neighbor dragged off in the night.”
Like Gitman, Ralph Baer escaped the Nazis as a child; his German parents moved him to America just before Kristallnacht. A pioneering engineer, Baer went on to create the very first home video game console, the first proto-Duck Hunt light gun, and—if that’s not enough—the electronic game Simon, too. Referred to now as “The Father of Video Games,” Baer is one of the pioneers chronicled in Harold Goldberg’s All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture (Three Rivers, April), alongside the creators of Pac-Man, Myst, and Bejeweled. Baer’s story suggests another potential vector of Italian-Jewish relations: If not for the innovations of this refugee from Nazi Germany, would the world’s most famous and most beloved Italians now be a pair of pixelated, mushroom-bopping plumbers?
In this week’s “Tell Me,” Tablet Magazine’s illustrated question-and-answer column, we learn of a would-be astronaut who grows disenchanted with the stars