May 142013
 

DeadSeaScrollIn the 1940s a Bedouin searching caves above the western shore of the Dead Sea discovered urns with scrolls inside.  He knew right away they were both ancient and valuable and sold them.  When they turned up in the antiques market, archaeologists started searching for similar caves.  When archaeologists weren’t there Bedouin continued hunting.  The scrolls, hundreds of them, date from the first centuries BCE and CE making them contemporaneous with the life of Jesus.  Christian scholars have analyzed the texts for clues to the lives of early Christians.  Jewish scholars, when they were finally permitted to examine the scrolls, look to the texts to learn about the lives of Jews just prior to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.  Complicating matters is the adjacency of the archaeological site of Qumron, an Essene branch of Judaism that decisively separated itself from the Priestly cult of the Pharisees.  This account is more of an academic summary article of the state of the archaeological and analytical affairs than it is a book worth curling up with.  It is most fascinating for its insight into how historians of the period attempt to piece together archaeological and historical evidence to paint wildly contradictory canvases of life at the time.  The lesson, not surprisingly, is that most of us peering back into the past find what we expect to see, oftentimes overlooking what might actually be there.

Feb 052012
 

Mr. Rosenblum and his wife Sadie arrive in England as German refugees in 1937.  Mr. Rosenblum wants so desperately to assimilate that he keeps lists of all things British to emulate:  manners of speech, foods, how to carry an umbrella, fold a handkerchief.  He is indifferent to his wife’s longing for memory, so much so that without telling her he purchases land in the English countryside to build a golf course.  He does so only after being denied admittance to every golf club near London because of his Jewish heritage.  Alas, that’s the whole story.  The characters, even British country-siders are stock, the drama is minimal, the loss of heritage is sad, and I don’t really know if Mr. Rosenblum is finally accepted in British society or not, because I never finished the book.

Aug 152011
 

All the critics have raved about this recounting of a collection of a thousand years of written documents crammed in a synagogue vault in Cairo, Egypt.  Because Jews, the People of the Book, find written words to be sacred, many documents, such as Torahs when they are no longer kosher or viable, are buried, rather than thrown away.  A Geniza such as this one in a Cairo synagogue is a room to store discarded sacred documents.  This congregation considered nearly all of its written documents deserving of special treatment.  The Jews of this neighborhood in Cairo tossed together their ancient texts, wedding contracts, prayer books, parables, donor lists, receipts, and business documents creating a disorganized “battlefield of books.”  While the interesting thing to me would be what those documents revealed, the book is almost entirely about the people who discovered the Geniza, a topic of far less interest.

Jul 022011
 

In 2001 Deborah Lipstadt  was brought to trial in Britain for libeling by David Irving in Britain after she described him as a Holocaust denier.  Sitting on the witness defending the experiences of victims and survivors, Deborah Lipstadt recognized the parallels to the last great Holocaust trial.  Nearly 40 years earlier Adolph Eichmann stood inside a glass booth in an Israeli courtroom and insisted his actions were neither criminal nor anti-Semitic.  The Eichmann Trial is an excellent follow-up to Hunting Eichmann as Lipstadt places the trial in historical and global context.  Only 15 years after the end of WWII, Israeli prosecutors called a string of survivors to the witness stand.  The world’s reporters relayed the stories of individual suffering not abstract millions.  Jews the world over, Israelis, and gentiles were forced to ask themselves if they had been Germans would they have had the courage to risk their lives to save others.  If they had been European Jews would they have tried to preserve their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, no matter how slim the chances, by acquiescing, or would they have fought their captors, in an act of certain suicide.  This book dissects the question of what makes a fair trail in a situation like this?  It asks us to think about who we can judge — Eichmann, modern-day deniers — and maybe who we cannot, i.e., those Jews that worked for Germans to rule other Jews rather than defy Germans and die.  It’s a short book, more like a long academic essay that is packed with wrenching ethical questions.

Feb 252011
 

After briefly summarizing the anti-Semitic atmosphere under which Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned for treason by France military and political authorities, Begley makes a powerful case that current anti-Muslim feelings in the U.S. has led to the comparable incarceration (without trial) of Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo.  Point well taken.  The book is short, but so densely written that it is hard to follow if you are not already familiar with the case.  Keeping the players straight is very hard work, which is rarely a good thing if you want to keep readers reading.

Oct 182010
 

Lev Benioff, a 15-year-old Russian, Jewish kid and Kolya, a deserter from the Russian Army with an overactive libido and terrible constipation, find themselves trapped behind enemy lines during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.  The two must find a dozen eggs for the commander of the Russian secret service within a week or face execution.  The two will die if they don’t find the eggs for the NKVD or they will die if the Nazi SS captures them.  Kolya is worried about getting laid, taking a crap, and writing the next great Russian novel as they trudge through the snow searching for chickens.  Lev would be happy to just be kissed by a girl.  The SS is all around them.  The story starts slowly.  It all feels too self-consciously assembled like a novel.  By the time I was three-fourths through the book, however, I was flipping pages as fast as I could.

Oct 062010
 

Still singed by Holocaust crematoria, Jewish rebels fight to throw off the yoke of British imperialism in Palestine.  This is a book that launched a Jewish spirit of pride (and a movie that imprinted a generation) almost from the day it was published in 1960.  Unfortunately, the book is terribly dated.  The love story that threads the story is boring, the dialogue is preposterously square, and all the Arabs are stupid and dirty.  The book’s one strength is the insight it provides into the internal struggles of Jews trying to carve a safe haven from a global community of nations that has perpetrated 2,000 years of desecration and persecution.  Should Jews finally stand up and fight, really kill British citizens and soldiers?  Is that the kind of progress upon which to build a new nation?  It’s an interesting question and the history Uris provides of the Holocaust, the pogroms suffered by Eastern European Jewry, the outrageous actions perpetrated by British colonialists, and the hardships associated with creating a new homeland inside hostile territory are thorough and ring true.  Alas, we know now that even in the period leading up to the birth of the state of Israel, issues of conflict between Jews and Arabs were more complicated than Uris would have you believe.

Jul 202010
 

I wish I could have followed the story of Momik, a nine-year-old son of Holocaust survivors trying to make sense of the adults who have come to Israel from “Over There.”  The first quarter of the book is the young boy’s stream of consciousness reactions to “the beast” that has tortured his parents and their neighbors.  In the second quarter, Momik narrates the life of a Nazi persecuted writer.  The third is about Momik’s grandfather and the fourth an encyclopedia.  It is an interesting attempt to convert the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust into words, but the result for me was that while I remained totally intrigued by Grossman’s creation of scenes in 1950s Israel and 1940s “Over There” I couldn’t hang on.  There wasn’t really a plot.  I couldn’t always tell who was speaking.  Some sentences ran for pages. Reluctantly, I gave up without finishing.

Jul 152010
 

A journalist who traveled from childhood memories to adult memories from urban NY to Austria’s highest peaks in search of Hans Breuer, Yiddish folk singer and “last wandering shepherd of Austria.” Apple manages to seamlessly tie shepherding and Yiddish into his questions about post-war Austria and contemporary anti-semitism in Europe suspensefully and full with satisfaction.