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.
Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz *** (of 4)
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.
What we Talk about when we Talk about Anne Frank *** (of 4) by Nathan Englander
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.
Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman ** (of 4)
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?
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret **** (of 4)
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 by Jessamyn Hope ** (of 4)
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.
The Coffee Trader by David Liss *** (of 4)
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.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck **** (of 4)
A retelling of the stories of Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel transposed to three generations of two families living mostly in Salinas, California during the turn of the nineteenth century. Steinbeck, with good reason, won the Nobel Prize for this book. It contains a complete geography of place, mind, and character: Not a falling leaf, nor a raised eyebrow escapes his notice and his recounting makes every leaf and eyebrow unflaggingly important for six hundred pages. Particularly interesting to me, is that the crux of the story hinges on a Jewish analysis of Genesis (related to readers from the original Hebrew by a Chinese protagonist) and how that contrasts with English translations used by Christians. Hoo Ha. An unbelievably excellent read. June 2006.
Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen *** (of 4)
An assistant Reform Rabbi slowly loses touch with God while she falls in love with the son of a Holocaust survivor who slowly finds God while the two of them find one another. A nice portrait of the essential tenets of Reform Judaism that what matters most are your actions in life and how the adherence to ritual can help you maintain your religiosity even when – as all Jews do – you must wrestle with the utility of believing in God. The story and the characters seemed real, but the writing was a little stiff. I could put the book down whenever I wanted to. December 2004.
Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis. **** (of 4)
This short collection of short stories is a wonderful piece of honey cake with a glass of tea. A Jewish Russian immigrant to Toronto describes the transition he makes with his parents and uncle and aunt as they climb from helpless newcomers to weary acceptance of life in the new world, without ever losing the cultural imprinting that Russia plants within its citizenry. The book is full of smiles of recognition, truthful while remaining fictional–but who knows where autobiography is replaced by a little relish — and I think quite accessible even to people who neither know Russians or Jews. In fact, it’s probably a wonderful introduction to both. The book is short, the stories chronological, the characters continue to grow from one to the next, yet it’s not quite a novel with contiguous chapters. July 2005.