In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another. A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers. In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength. Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous. So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human. They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions. They chafe at being immigrants in a new city. They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves. The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.
In 1908 a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch knocked on the door of Chicago’s police chief. After handing the Chief Shippy a letter (we never learn what it says), a frightened police force shoots Lazarus several times until he is quite dead. Aleksander Hemon writes one fictional account of Lazarus’s murder, a second of the author’s parallel immigration from Bosnia to the United States, a third about his investigation into Lazarus’s origins in Eastern Europe and life in Chicago’s tenements, and a fourth as a travelogue back to Bosnia taken by the author and a fantastical story-telling companion named Rora. Lazarus dies because deeply anti-Semitic law and order fears anarchists are destroying America and anyone with dark skin, big ears or a nose that might be Jewish is suspect. Immigration to a new country is awful, except it is not as bad as the pogroms that drive you to flee. Getting an author’s grant to take adventures through post-war Sarajevo and rural slavic countries provides good product for a novel, but ambitious, and award-winning as the novel is, the multiple story lines all remain too independent to cohere into a compelling whole.
Sarah Waldman’s grandfather escaped the Nazi Aunchshloss in Austria by the skin of his teeth. He settled in America, opened a successful medical practice, and lived a life of joy and optimism. In his closet, discovered only after his death, are the letters of his true love, Valy, left behind in Vienna and Berlin. As the jaws of the Nazi vice slowly draw closer together around Valy’s diminishing life her letters to America become increasingly desperate, personal, and ultimately heartbreaking. By searching for Valy’s story, the history of one woman whose trail leads into the maw of the Shoah, Waldman answers one of the most difficult questions asked of Jews. Why did Jews let the Nazis do this to them? Here we see how it happened to Valy who stayed behind to be with her mother when even in 1938 things seemed like they could not get so bad that abandoning a country, a livelihood and the only family you still had was the only means of saving any member of your family. Because we read this book knowing the outcome and that those Jews still in Europe could never know what was yet to come we are even more chilled as Nazi restrictions build one upon another. And then the really unanswerable question comes to the fore. How could Nazis week after week conceive of new methods of torture: forbidding Jews to shop, ride a bus, congregate, appear in public, live in their own homes, work, live?
Written in the 1960s, The Source still stands as a definitive work on the history of the Jews, that is if you accept the plot as being dated from the Rock Hudson – Doris Day era of romance and simply a tool for delivering key concepts. More than just Jewish history from Abraham to the present, Michener captures the evolution of the relationship between God and man from the time when a single, inanimate God was invented 6,000 years ago to the present day conflict between religious and secular in Israel. A work of fiction soundly grounded in historical and archaeological fact. February 2010.
A Jewish escapee from the Spanish Inquisition makes his living on the Amsterdam stock market, where shrewd trading skills run up to the border of legality, morality, and safety. The book’s strength is its insight into the lives of Jews trying to maintain their religious and economic identity with the memory of Spanish persecution fresh in their minds. Moreover, the description of how stocks, in this case coffee is making its very first appearance in Europe, are bought and sold is fascinating. The plot is rather ordinary, however. It is a quick read. April 2007.
I really enjoyed this book, but I have to admit I didn’t understand it. The story line kept coming in and out of focus. Nevertheless, his descriptions of shtetl life in eastern Europe were as authentic as any that Isaac Bashevis Singer or his contemporaries writing 150 years before Foer ever put together. Foer was a master at creating scenes that came to life.
One of my absolute favorite books about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. A real page turner with wonderful characterizations.
Enigmatic. I went back and forth between thinking the three short stories were too simple, too typical, not completely unique recountings of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and Pogroms and Russian Revolution and being totally captivated.
Johnson is an anti-Semitic summofabitch. He blames the victim at times. He seems incredulous that the Jews didn’t recognize Christ as part of the Holy Trilogy. But he’s a very good writer who excels at putting Jewish history into a larger historical context. And unlike Jewish historians who have a tendency to be triumphalist, tracing a thread of Jewish history, that ignores Jewish failures and Jewish converts to other religions, Johnson supplies a more objective perspective that feels more all-encompassing than some other histories.
A fluky book by on the of the world’s greatest Holocaust historians. Gilbert gathers dozens of newly uncovered personal histories of November 10, 1938 when more than a thousand German and Austrian synagogues were attacked and burned. The accounts of burned synagogues seem trivial compared to what we know follows. Moreover, the personal histories are all from survivors so their cumulative impact is to make it seem like escaping the Holocaust was not so hard. At first the personal stories seem randomly distributed through the text, but as the stories intermingle with the sound of country doors slamming shut to Jews trying to escape Germany and the war and extermination machines power up to full throttle this highly readable, short book with a British perspective turns terrific. August 2006.