CJ Bookshelf: Spring 2015

by Lisa Silverman

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J
Howard Jacobson
Hogarth, 2014; 352 pages

Untitled-5Acclaimed British author and journalist Howard Jacobson is concerned about the future of British Jewry. He imagines a dystopic future England where a terrible catastrophe of such great upheaval has occurred that society only functions in relation to how the event is memorialized. The historical disaster is called “WHAT HAPPENED – IF IT HAPPENED,” which is a fabulous irony (and a satiric nod to Holocaust revisionists) since everyone is collectively required to apologize, although they are not sure for what. The event seems to have happened about 60 years before the narrative begins, and although we soon come to realize that the event is all about the Jews, the word is never once mentioned.

A neurotic, 40-something single man named Kevern “Coco” Cohen has grown up in a picturesque seaside village with uncommunicative, troubled parents who seem to have had something to hide. He navigates his loveless life with the philosophy that “ignorance is safety” and never questions the past. He even practices his father’s unusual habit of covering his mouth with two fingers when uttering a word beginning with the letter “J.” Kevern meets the beautiful
Aileen Solomons, and as their love story ripens, Jacobson drops clues as to why this futuristic society has turned violent, suspicious and chaotic. The shocking cause of humanity’s downfall seems to be the fact that there are no Jews left, and therefore society has turned inward on itself because there is no one left to hate.

It doesn’t take long to realize that every character in this novel has an Ashkenazi last name and a Celtic first name. The names of villages and towns sound like they were picked from biblical locations. Libraries do not allow research into the past. Diaries are hidden or destroyed and there are no history books. The public mood is monitored by the all-knowing bureaucracy, Ofnow, whose sole occupation seems to be making sure people forget about WHAT HAPPENED, while simultaneously demanding apologies for whatever it was that everyone supposedly did. Like some sort of Remembrance and Reconciliation Commission gone wacko, they spend a lot of time re-naming people, running apology sessions, and wondering why the country seems to be disintegrating into a violent mess. “Nothing is better than love,” is the type of advice Ofnow dispenses to the country, while promoting the idea that ”the past exists in order that we forget it.”

Esme Nussbaum, an Ofnow employee and the sole character in this absorbing novel who has not forgotten the past, is unnerved by the aggressiveness and casual violence. She believes in learning from the past (which she realizes only when she is in a coma) and envisions a plan to correct society’s ills, but she is thwarted by those in power who refuse to act. Years later, her second plan will hinge on the actions of the two lovers she has deliberately thrown together to save the world from disaster.

We are kept guessing until the final pages. Who are these people and this society? And what actually happened in the past and why? Jacobson is often touted as the “British Phillip Roth” due to his sardonic wit and choice of themes, and his previous Booker Prize-winning tragicomic novel about English Jewry called The Finkler Question, was funnier than this dark satire. Readers need to work hard to figure out the meanings of the fragments of letters, fables and accounts of historical persecutions of Jews that are interspersed every few chapters. The novel was selected for the 2014 Booker Prize short list because of its literary excellence and thought-provoking ideas, not because it’s a light read.

Tel Aviv Noir
Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron, editors
Akashic Books, 2014; 280 pages

TelAvivNoirVisiting the website for Akashic Books (www.akashicbooks.com) is an eye-opening experience. The publisher has collected over 70 different collections of noir short stories set in different cities around the world. From Baltimore, Boston, and Brooklyn, they have branched out to Mumbai, Moscow and Tehran, with intriguing new titles such as Beirut Noir, Bagdad Noir and Bogota Noir soon to be published. For lovers of this genre, it’s almost impossible to choose what to read next.

In his excellent introduction to Tel Aviv Noir, Etgar Keret writes, “In spite of its outwardly warm and polite exterior, Tel Aviv has quite a bit to hide.” This is evident in such unflattering characters as the savvy prostitute and the creepy ex-lawyer/businessman who falls in love with her in Gadi Taub’s “Sleeping Mask,” or the strange demon and puzzling ghost in Lavie Tidhar’s “The Time-Slip Detective” and Matan Hermoni’s “Women.” Stories are noted for their locations in Tel Aviv, such as Rabin Square or Rothchild Boulevard, where most American tourists would overlook the penniless unfortunates warming their hands on coffee in dingy cafes. Assaf Gavron’s story, “Center,” bounces about apartment and office buildings in Dizengoff Center as his hapless plumbers-turned-detectives solve a murder mystery one step ahead of their identities being discovered. “Slow Cooking” is a particularly affecting story by Deakla Keydar that features a luckless clerk in search of love who finds that cooking for African refugees enables her to recover her sense of purpose.

It is delightful to discover these writers. The last pages of the book include short bios of the 14 contributors and the excellent translator Yardenne Greenspan. This book will shine a different light on your next visit to Israel. As editor Etgar Keret writes, “The stories of Tel Aviv Noir reveal the concealed, scarred face of this city that we love so much.”

The Betrayers
David Bezmozgis,
Winner of the 2014 National Jewish Books JJ Greenberg Memorial Award for Fiction
Little, Brown and Company, 2014
240 pages

The BetrayersThe Free Soviet Jewry movement of the 1960s and ’70s was a response to the decimation of the Jews of Europe years before and the determination that a protest movement by ordinary people could halt the Soviet Union’s anti-Jewish actions. Many Americans of a certain age can trace their engagement with Jewish life from the movement’s beginnings. Protesters marched down Fifth Avenue, smuggled Judaic artifacts and books to Soviet Jews, and felt pride as they demanded that Jewish people should be able to live freely as Jews within Russia or leave if they wished. Many got out only after being branded as Refuseniks, their livelihoods destroyed and their return impossible.

Author David Bezmozgis, a Latvian-born Canadian, is well-known for his book of short stories Natasha and Other Stories that won numerous awards and was translated into many languages. His novel takes on a day in in the life of one of those ex-Refusniks, 40 years after fleeing the Soviet Union as a hero and making a new life for himself and his family as a politician in Israel.

Baruch Kotler (who is clearly modeled on Natan Sharansky), the main character of this brilliant examination of what it means to be branded a Jewish saint in the 20th century, experiences a disastrous fall from grace and ultimately discovers the meaning of forgiveness, all within a 24-hour period. Kotler was once a hero because he defied the Soviets, but in present day Israel he is an aging hero of the political right for defying the government’s intent to
dismantle settlements in the West Bank. Since he has always been a man who will not compromise his beliefs, he responds to a Shin Bet blackmail attempt with a defiant shrug of his shoulders. He walks away from a park bench in Jerusalem knowing full well that he has committed a betrayal that will destroy his family, especially his long-suffering wife whose feats of political acumen kept his story alive during the years he suffered in the Gulag.

When the newspapers publish a sordid account of his affair with his beautiful young assistant, the lovers flee the country for the Crimean seashore in Kotler’s misguided attempt to recapture a bit of his treasured boyhood. As a series of events unfold that place Kotler and his mistress in closer proximity to the man who once betrayed him to the Soviet authorities, Bezmozgis’ elegant prose reads like a discourse on the meaning of love and forgiveness. He is not afraid to take on heavy issues such as the moral implications of intransigence for a political cause, even at the expense of family or country. Clearly Kotler compromises both as his fear of becoming politically irrelevant clouds his judgment.

Every character in this short novel experiences a betrayal of some kind, and the idea of forgiveness is surely put to the test. The book reads a bit like a political thriller, but every few chapters, readers will feel compelled to put it down and consider the complexities of the recent history of Russian immigrants and the political chaos in present day Israel. Bezmozgis has written something of a morality tale, examining the fine line between betrayers and those they betray, leaving the reader much to contemplate.

Henna House
Nomi Eve
Scribner, 2014; 320 pages

Henna House jacket imagePopular fiction author Nomi Eve’s (The Family Orchard) new novel is perfect for those who like to immerse themselves in the history and geography of worlds they never knew existed. The exotic setting is the star of this lyrically written saga of Yemenite Jews in the early 20th century. Narrator Adela Damari begins with her fearful memories of the “confiscator,” a local Imam who confiscates orphans, adopts them, and converts them to Islam. Her father is ill, and he and his wife are desperate to betroth Adela to stave off the plans of the feared official. Like the henna designs she eventually learns to draw, Adela weaves her story of Yemenite mountain Jews and their customs into the larger world of the early 20th century Jewish experience. Through her eyes, we are drawn into the lives of Jews in the dusty and drought-stricken Arabian Peninsula, pogroms in far-off Aden, Operation Magic Carpet, and finally, the Holocaust. In the chapters that read as a how-to manual on the intricacies of dyeing hands and bodies with henna, there is a mystical allure to the rituals, allowing us to feel like flies on the wall in a real henna house much as we felt privy to the fictional customs that occurred within Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.

As Adela’s family considers ways to outwit the Confiscator, her betrothals to various local boys prove unsuccessful. When a long-lost cousin arrives with her father’s brother, they become innocent childhood lovers. Later, when this beloved cousin leaves the village, Adela’s depression is lifted only by the arrival of Heni, who teaches her the art of henna as well as the art of living life with joy and passion. Heni’s mother, Adela’s Aunt Rahel, is the true henna mistress, and through her we begin to understand the power of the ancient rituals. When asked why she chooses to draw her intricate designs on people, instead of paper, Rahel replies, “Paper is for men. Parchment is skin. The Torah is written on the skin of an animal. So, you see, skin has holiness…. the patterns, the elements. The recipes. They belong to all of us. To any woman who has ever held a stylus in her hand.”

The use of Yemenite and henna terminology, and the mysteries of the symbols, their meanings, and their relationship to the Hebrew language, are fascinating. Nomi Eve clearly did a tremendous amount of research about the Yemenite world. This is really a coming-of-age story, but one that grows more absorbing with each chapter, as we watch the beautiful Adela and her family play out their lives over the changing fortunes of the Jewish experience in Arabia from a time that is no more.

Lisa Silverman is director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library, Los Angeles.