In Brief, Winter 2011

,Sarah/Sara
by Jacob Paul
Ig Publishing, 251 pp., $15.95

In Jacob Paul’s riveting and assured debut novel, Sarah Frankel, a newly observant Orthodox woman, undertakes a solo kayaking expedition along the Alaskan coast after her parents are killed and she is disfigured by a terrorist bomb in a Jerusalem café.  Her journey is intended as a memorial to her father, a 9/11 survivor whose retirement dream was to kayak through the Arctic. “It’s just me and Hashem, discounting the demons, some bears nearing hibernation, and the contents of my kayak.” The novel is comprised of diary entries that are at once travelogues, survival lore, childhood reminiscences, and meditations on faith—interwoven with a messianic fantasy of her post-Arctic life in Jerusalem. While this material can seem stark and Sarah’s first-person voice is occasionally cloying, Paul sustains the narrative with verve, tension, and charm. Sarah rows through squalls to the cadences of tehillim, recites the shema when encountering a polar bear, and invokes the tenet of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) when feasting on the spam she finds in an abandoned shack. As the Arctic ice closes in around her, Sarah navigates both the geographical terrain and the limits of her religious ardor. The author’s blurb indicates that Jacob Paul is a World Trade Center survivor.

 

History Lessons: The Creation of an American Jewish Heritage
by Beth S. Wenger
Princeton University Press, 296 pp., $35)\

While the author of this book is attentive to the outlooks of some groups on the margins of American Jewish life, especially those on the extreme left, she mainly strives to elucidate what she calls “the triumphant reading of American Jewish history that had been brewing since the late nineteenth century and had become dominant by the interwar period.” Wenger skillfully assembles sermons, textbooks, artwork, and other materials to show how most American Jews came to believe that Judaism and Americanism converged. Nobody summed up this conception of the American Jewish heritage better than Rabbi Israel Goldstein: “We were here with the founders of these United States and we were here with the Pilgrim Fathers, and we were here with Columbus when he set foot on the soil of the new world. And we have borne our full share of responsibilities, both in war and in peace. We have helped to make America what it is.”

Over the years, as Wenger shows, American Jews made such claims with varying degrees of fidelity to historical truth, sometimes with considerable self-assurance and sometimes rather defensively. Columbus long remained a pivotal figure; if he himself was not secretly Jewish then at least his interpreter was, and he was the first member of the crew to step ashore in the New World. Thanks to the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers, the United States is the very embodiment of the principles of freedom and equality first spelled out in the Hebrew Bible. Molded by essentially Jewish principles, this country is naturally suited to be a new promised land for the Jews—who have again and again shown their readiness to shed their blood for it. Without reaffirming or criticizing these tenets of the American Jewish heritage, Wenger thoroughly and engagingly tells the story of their origin and evolution. 

 

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero, from the Creators of Superman
edited by Mel Gordon and Thomas Andrae
(Feral House, 240 pp., $24.95)

Imagine Seinfeld striking fear into the criminal underworld. Apparently Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster of Superman fame thought that something of the sort—a crime-fighting comedian whose fiercest weapon is a clownish pair of oversized springy shoes—would make a terrific second act. This really was a couple of speeding bullets short of sane, but in 1948 the co-creating duo toiled mightily over the short-lived Funnyman, even modeling his suave comedian alter-ego, Larry Davis, redheaded locks and all, after the multi-talented Jewish comic actor, Danny Kaye.

Funnyman ImageFunnyman‘s origin story is less than stirring. But then it’s difficult to top that one about the infant rocketed to Earth from a dying planet. Davis, slated to dress up in an outlandish costume and foil a fake crime as part of a publicity stunt, instead ends up saving the day for real. So he decides to make a career of it, and continues to don the fake shnoz. Unlike the Mosaic sense of destiny defining the Man of Steel, Funnyman seems to be just a case of mistaken identity. It is debatable which of the two is more Jewishly resonant (or whether it matters), but Mel Gordon and Thomas Andrae argue for a Funnyman steeped in a tradition of Jewish comedic lore. Funnyman lasted only six issues, which must have been heartbreaking for Siegel and Shuster who saw the coffers of DC Comics swell on Superman royalties, while they were famously short-changed. Siegel was reduced to working as a mailroom clerk; Shuster’s career took a turn for the sordid, as detailed in another recent book, Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster.

 

Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities
by Anat Helman, translated by Haim Watzman
Brandeis University Press, 216 pp., $55

In the two decades following the end of World War I, Tel Aviv evolved from a suburb of Jaffa into the world’s “first Hebrew city,” at least in nickname. As Anat Helman reminds us, it remained “in practice a multilingual city” despite some people’s best efforts to stop it from being so. (As Helman writes, “A public mock trial was held in Tel Aviv in 1935 to highlight the evils of using the German language in the Land of Israel.”) Those who tried to give the city a higher religious profile had even less luck.  The chief rabbis uselessly protested the “act of wantonness” committed by young women who wore shorts on the city’s streets, “revealing their legs in an utterly immodest way.” For kibbutzniks, on the other hand, Tel Aviv “quickly became a symbol of nonpioneering materialists.” But if the city was neither completely Hebrew, particularly pious, nor zealously idealistic, it proudly displayed its Jewishness, whether in nighttime torchlight processions on Hanukkah or on regular Sabbaths, when the “Oneg Shabbat” program initiated by the great poet Chaim Nachman Bialik brought together more than a thousand people at a time to hear lectures on Jewish subjects and to sing Hebrew songs. What was most Jewish about the young city was perhaps its frenetic energy and unruliness. Young Tel Aviv was, in the words of the Polish Zionist leader Yitzhak Gruenbaum, a place “where the Jew feels at home, free in his own creation.” Helman makes it clear that it was also an ugly city, even if many of the photographs from that era seem to indicate otherwise. She also reminds us of something that no photograph can reveal: lacking a sewage system until 1942, young Tel Aviv was a very smelly city.

 

The Relationship of Orthodox Jews with Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews
edited by Adam Mintz
(Yeshiva University Press, 401 pp., $30)

Every year for the past twenty years, the Orthodox Forum has hosted a conference on an issue facing the Orthodox Jewish world, and invited distinguished academics and rabbis to participate. This volume’s contributors include leading figures, such as Aharon Lichtenstein, Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Yuval Cherlow. Historian Jonathan Sarna opens with a fascinating account of relations between Orthodox Jews and their more liberal coreligionists in America. Among the surprises is that Haym Solomon, the famous financier of the American Revolution and perhaps the most prominent Jew in the colonies, was one of three officiants at an unsanctioned marriage of a kohen and a female convert. It was probably the first marriage of its kind in the new world. Nuggets like this and the article’s smooth narrative provide a useful context for the rest of
the book. “Since the colonial era,” writes Sarna, “tensions have divided those who seek compromise for the sake of Jewish unity from those who demand firmness to uphold sacred Jewish principles.” Some of the pieces in this valuable collection exhibit a similar internal tension.

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