It is a great idea for research that is long overdue. Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways. Think about it. Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home. In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could. In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide. Twitty is fascinating just by himself: black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie. Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots. By themselves, each story is a fine thread. Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.
How does a food receive kosher approval? For some items, like the prohibition of pork, the Torah is comparatively clear. But what about a more modern food like Jell-O which contains gelatin, a substance derived from forbidden bones and hides of animals, but has been turned into a chemical that no longer has much, if any, relationship to its origin? Some rabbis would give Jell-O a kosher stamp. Now, what if the hide used to make the chemical called gelatin was a pig’s? Kosher USA if nothing else is provocative and at its best points to centuries of rabbinic debate still alive as food becomes more and more processed. Horowitz’s academic style and heavy emphasis on the political interplay of corporations and rabbis are sparsely balanced by personal anecdotes, which in many instances, are more captivating than the long passages of textbook-like replays of angry letters between generally conservative rabbis supporting modernization and orthodox rabbis insistent upon glatt kosher laws that adhere to Torah but are indifferent to animal suffering or worker rights.
Eight short stories. All of them sad. Englander pitches his stories to test the limits of love in binding marriages, ageless friendships, families, and neighbors. Two matriarchs of Israel’s settler movement are asked if they can continue to stand by one another as personal tragedies and then national tragedies overtake them. Childhood friends from yeshiva are reunited after one has become an ultra-orthodox Israeli and the other the mother of a secular son in Florida. Now both married they sit with their husbands and prod one another: for whom would they would sacrifice themselves to save another’s life? Holocaust survivors pass a lifetime in an Israeli shuk acting upon, but not speaking of the unspeakable. Englander’s stories make us think about our own boundaries and sometimes about what in the world he is up to when, for example, he places a protagonist in a peep show staring first at his Rabbi and then at his mother. The author’s directive is that relationships are untrustworthy.
Buck Schatz, an 87-year-old former tough guy cop from Memphis has never dropped his crusty exterior nor belligerent attitude toward bad guys even though he’s been retired from the police force for thirty years. Come to think of it, he hasn’t given up being nasty to nice guys, his wife, nor anyone else nor does he appear to have a soft interior. So while he occasionally kvetches about his infirmities in Yiddish and hurls insults of his grandson, the law student, from time to time that are funny, it’s frankly hard to root for Schatz and his grandson while they hunt down a former Nazi prison guard, now suffering from dementia in an old age asylum in St. Louis, his stolen gold bricks, and a sicko murderer. Schatz just isn’t that likable. Moreover, if he can get away with it Buck wants to keep the gold for himself. So where’s the Jewish morality in that?
Somewhere near the end of Keret’s memoir covering the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret writes about his experience living in a narrow house in Warsaw, Poland. The invitation to live in the house comes from a Polish architect who felt compelled to construct a house for Keret that matched the building codes of Keret’s short essays. The house is tiny, only four feet wide, efficient, fitting between two existing buildings, and yet bursts out the top. It is three stories in height. And as life imitates art and vice versa Keret’s recounting of his stay in the house is at first odd and funny and finally brings you to tears when it turns out the house is constructed in the gap between the former Warsaw Ghetto and the slightly less Nazi-occupied parts of Poland. Keret’s mother, a young girl during WWII, made nightly runs, at the risk of death if she were ever caught, to collect what food she could for her family, all of whom save Keret’s mother, died. No other writer can wring so much emotion, plot, or character from only three pages. In this, Keret’s first book of nonfiction, layer upon layer of the humor and tribulations of living in contemporary Israel, a country of profound joy and horror, capture a man and his country like few others.
Safekeeping is a description of common characters residing on an Israeli kibbutz in the late 1990s. At the center of the story is Adam, a drug addict from New York city, on the lam and carrying a 700-year-old brooch. He stumbles into Ulya, a sexy, ambitious Russian immigrant to Israel, who feigned a Jewish identity to escape the confines of Russia only to find herself trapped in a tiny country and inside an even tinier commune. Claudette, is a French Canadian volunteer with an unrelented case of OCD. Ancient, dying, Ziva represents the Israeli pioneers that fought for the country’s independence and social identity. There are Arab workers and young soldiers sent to keep peace on the West Bank. Everyone is indeed universal: I met a variant of each one on Kibbutz Ketura when I live there. In the end, however, despite the meticulous notes that Jessamyn Hope must have taken when she lived on her kibbutz, very few of the characters feel complex enough to fully engage our sympathy. Not even the brooch.
Modan is part of the first generation of Israeli graphic novelists. In The Property, an elderly Israeli grandmother returns to Poland with her granddaughter to search for a building confiscated from her family at the start of World War II. The grandmother is making her first trip back to Poland reluctantly. The granddaughter, age early twenties, accompanies grandma to provide moral support, out of curiosity, and to learn history. Once in Poland the granddaughter meets a handsome Polish tour guide to bygone Jewish Warsaw. While the farce of modern day Polish infatuation with all things Jewish after three million Polish Jews were slaughtered in the Shoa is piercingly and humorously rendered in Modan’s drawings, a potential romance blossoms between the young Israeli and Pole. While granddaughter is traveling Warsaw on the back of a tour guide’s motorcycle, the grandmother meets the man who took over her family’s apartment and numerous secrets are revealed as the two old people speak, none of which can be described without spoiling the book.
Eight short stories about young and old Jews in America and in Israel and every character elicits your sympathy. Antopol starts her stories in the middle of a discussion you might have just dropped in upon and within moments you are riveted by people so real, angst so visceral, and tension so necessary to resolve it is at once remarkable it is only a story that you are reading and even more exceptional that it is a short story at that. In one, a pair of brothers living in Israel must come to terms with the fact that the younger, less talented, and less capable has saved the life of the older, more handsome, and more successful-in-every-way brother. In another, a B-grade actor is released from a year in jail after getting caught up with communist actors and directors during the McCarthy era. A young Israeli, in a third story, is, forced home to live with her parents when her overseas career as a journalist burns out but falls in lust with a slightly older widower who has a troubled teenage daughter. How would you balance an unexpected love affair, fizzled career hopes, your parents, and a teenager living her despairing father and without her mother? Neither the plotlines, nor the list of protagonists does justice to this series of stories that all seem to revolve about a single aphorism. “Be careful what you wish for.” A must read of a young author’s first book — Antopol is in her early 30s.
Even the title of the book isn’t really translatable, encompassing as it does more than a language. Yiddishkeit is a people, it’s culture, and an era of history, all but obliterated by the Nazis. So all the more interesting to take on a language, a sound, and the essence of Ashkenazi Judaism in a graphic novel, that is with pictures. Yiddishkeit, the book and the culture, are a sprawling amalgam of history and storytelling, plays and text, cartoons, and serious literary analysis, and above all, opinionated. Pekar, Buhle, and their coauthors have assembled a textbook with a surprising format, but they capture the spirit and for those of us that love Yiddishkeit, we are glad that they have.
On the upside, the main character Leo Gursky, who survived the Nazi invasion of his Polish village of Slonim by hiding in the woods for three years, surviving on worms and stolen potatoes, is so indelibly drawn by Nicole Krauss that now, sixty years later, you can hear the gravel in his voice and feel the sadness in his heart. Leo’s one and only love, Alma, slipped out of Poland just before the Nazi invasion and when Leo finally finds her in New York City after the war, he learns that Alma, thinking Leo had perished along with the rest of the villagers, has married another. For the next sixty years he pines for his lost Alma (Spanish, by the way, for soul.) If only the plot were so simple. Instead, there are novels within novels, sometimes even multiple versions of novels within novels, the question of who is speaking at any given time is revealed only by obscure glyphs above chapter headings, and the relationships between characters is so confounding that a reader will do well to map their connections. While there are scenes that float from the page, as real as Leo, the book as a whole is hard to follow without a scorecard.