On the Bookshelf
On the road: checking in with Jewish life—and Jewish ghosts—in China, Europe, and Latin America
Can’t afford to summer abroad? Nebekh. Does it give you some comfort, or just make you jealous, to know that your landslayt have been very busy internationally, flitting from continent to continent and writing books in the process? If the former, consider reading Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China’s Other Billion (Holt, July). Dispatched by the Peace Corps to the city of Guiyang, Levy teaches a little English, studies some Chinese, and attempts not to confirm every single stereotype his hosts have about American Jews (for instance: “It is said that in America, the money is in the pockets of the Jews, and the brains are in the heads of the Chinese.”) Don’t take the book’s title literally: In an effort to fit in, he ate “everything from twice-fried pork to ‘red sauce porcupine’ ”—and even a bit of dog meat.
David William Foster spent a good chunk of last summer in São Paulo, Brazil, where he was leading a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar for his fellow academics called “Brazilian Literature: Contemporary Urban Fiction.” As Foster’s on the Board of Directors of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association, it’s not a shock to discover that the participants read, among others, Moacyr Scliar and Clarice Lispector. For those of us who couldn’t be there, Foster has now graciously written a book that covers some similar material, under the title São Paulo: Perspectives on the City and Cultural Production (Florida, June).
If you’re planning a trip, keep in mind that São Paulo in July is only about as warm as Warsaw. And within another year or two, visitors to the latter city will be able to visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, an institution with such a high profile that President Obama himself has already promised to bring his daughters to its opening gala. Of course, Poland needs such a Jewish museum in part because its treatment of its Jews has, at several points in modern history, been lamentable—despite the country’s religiosity. In Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford, June), Brian Porter-Szűcs addresses the way that Polish nationalism and Catholicism have intertwined, sometimes with disastrous consequences: In the mid-1930s, for example, one especially anti-Semitic religious leader, Father Stanisław Trzeciak, riled up his followers with the claim that they were witnessing the “conquest of Poland by the Jews.”
Practically every European city has mistreated and celebrated its local Jews at some point or other, though each manages to do so in its own special way. That’s one of the messages of Hillary Hope Herzog’s Vienna Is Different: Jewish Writers in Austria From the Fin de Siecle to the Present (Berghahn, July), which surveys dozens of writers, from Herzl and company at the turn of the 20th century to Elfriede Jelinek in the present. Herzog, who teaches German at the University of Kentucky, suggests that Jews have consistently felt “unheimlich heimisch” in the former Hapsburg capital—that is, “eerily at home.”
Vienna may be different, but “eerily at home” is also a good way to describe how lots of Jews feel in contemporary Berlin, a city defined more than any other by its attempts to move beyond its tragic past while also keeping all its traumas on view. Janet Ward focuses on where the city is now in Post-Wall Berlin: Borders, Space and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, June), attending both to all the “memorial architecture” and to the city’s “Americanization.”
Like Herzog’s study of Viennese literature, Susan Daitch’s third novel, Paper Conspiracies (City Lights, August), shuttles from the fin de siècle to the present, only in France. Daitch takes her impetus from the silent movie about Alfred Dreyfus made by the cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès, best known for his fanciful A Trip to the Moon (1902). A film in which one of the first masters of special effects took on a sensational political event makes good sense as a jumping-off point for Daitch’s formally experimental, intertextual fiction. She’s the sort of writer who favors footnotes and who imagines how the Yiddish-speaker who busted Lenny Bruce felt; David Foster Wallace once called her “one of the most intelligent and attentive writers at work in the U.S. today.”
Dreyfus was one of the first Jewish characters to be portrayed on the silver screen, but there were already plenty of textual precedents in France and on the other side of the Channel, too. As Michael Scrivener demonstrates in Jewish Representation in British Literature 1780-1840: After Shylock (Palgrave Macmillan, August), Jewish figures cropped up repeatedly, whether as alchemists, criminals, or prophets, in Georgian-period fiction and verse by forgotten figures like Levy Alexander and the King sisters.
All the best Victorian British writers spent at least a little time representing Jews. John Rignall discusses a key examples in George Eliot, European Novelist (Ashgate, July), arguing that the great novel Daniel Deronda was partly the result of its author’s thinking about “European culture and the Jewish diaspora.” It has been already been argued elsewhere that if she hadn’t run off with a married man for a trip to Germany in July of 1854, she might never have transformed herself from a translator and reviewer named Marian Evans into the novelist George Eliot. So, if you’re still on the fence about that last-minute summer vacation, think of her: Maybe all you need to become the world-famous author you’ve always wanted to be is an adulterous jaunt to Europe?
In this week’s “Tell Me,” Tablet Magazine’s illustrated question-and-answer column, we venture to a coffee shop to escape some unwelcome houseguests
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