Monday, July 20, 2020

The Birth of Jewish American & Israel

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein examines the influential and, at this point, little known attack on the Jewish community of Kishinev in 1903.  At the time, the pogrom became international news, and brought the spotlight to the desperate plight of Russian Jews.  Zipperstein sees Kishinev as at the tilt of history, as a moment when Jewish history began an irreversible slip.

Zipperstein writes that although the pogrom had government sanction, it was only on a local level. Victims were blamed for the pogrom, both because of a spurious blood libel charge, and because there were too many Jews in Kishinev for gentile comfort.  Zionists leaders also blamed the Jews of Kishinev for their supposed passivity during the pogrom.  H.N. Bialik, "The City of Slaughter" outright condemned victims, and accused Jewish men of cowardliness.  

And this leads to the main point: This book shows the intersection where Russian Jews realized that all roads led out of that  troubled land.  Russia hated its Jews. Burgeoning Zionism hated old world Judaism.  Jews could either fight or flee.  Those who fought went to Palestine; those who fled, to American, to form the backbone of American Jewry today.  Before the Holocaust forged Judaism into the binary (but spurious)  Israeli and an American identities, the violence at Kishinev cleared the path.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Really? Really??

Philip Short’s Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare documents the rise and fall of both Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  Pol Pot was not a madman; he did not have Hitleresque personal qualities.  Quite the contrary, he was social in a retiring way, not wanting the spot light, and seeking, throughout his “career,” to avoid scrutiny in part by frequently changing his name and hiding his location.

As a student in Paris, he was not the most intelligent, or even the most ideologically driven among expat Cambodian students.  But as he entered political life, he became a more fervent advocate of complete and total social engineering.  Small believes that Pol Pot was just as influenced by the more bloody aspects of the French Revolution as by Marx, Lenin, or Mao.

When he gained power in 1975, he emptied Cambodia’s cities, and started year zero, an attempt to create a new kind of person who was not a person at all; an entity that was devoted to the state.  This was a pure totalitarian vision.  Pol Pot only cared for this vision; human life meant nothing alongside of this ideal.  More than a million Cambodians died in the process.

Short make some interesting assertions.  One is that America and China, new allies, supported the Khmer Rouge against the trio’s common enemy, Vietnam.  In that case, our government is an accessory to genocide. 

Short also makes a great many negative generalizations about Cambodians (if he  wrote such things about African-Americans, they would be deemed racist).  It is disturbing to read that Cambodians are lazy, or prone to extreme violence despite their outward smiles and politeness.  He also believes that the kind of Buddhism practiced in Cambodia, with its world denying theology, was one of the elements that molded the Khmer Rouge nihilistic joyride.

Really?  Really??

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage

If you are at all serious about observing Jewish religious practice and want to shake up your notions of why you follow religious Jewish practice, then you must read Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage by Nathan Lopes Cardozo.   

Rabbi Cardozo is as courageous as his book’s sub-title. He reminds us, again and again, in different contexts, that halacha is meant to disrupt our lives; it is designed to make us live more authentically, and not automatically.  Halacha itself makes us question halacha – when we approach it properly.  

It is difficult to praise this book enough.  Rabbi Cardozo's voice is essential, and probably the most accomplished book on Judaism I have read in some time.  

Monday, July 6, 2020

A View of Hell

Ponary Diary, 1941-1943: A Bystander’s Account of a Mass Murder by Kazimierz Sakowicz, are pages from a diary kept by Sakowicz that offer a first person account of the murder of the Jews of Vilna, and others.  

Sakowicz was a journalist who left Vilna to live in  a cottage in the forest outside of the city, Ponary, at  the outbreak of the war.  There, Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered Jews by the tens of thousands in pits dug by the Soviets to store fuel.  His house was both near the train depot, and the pits.  Sakowicz was determined to document what he saw, and he does so dispassionately, with a reporter’s eye for detail.  Much of what he writes about is appalling and realistic.  The pits at Ponary were hell and  Sakowicz does not spare us.

This journal was unavailable for years.  The Russians wanted to downplay the specifics of the Holocaust, and instead view all as Communist martyrs, and the Lithuanians did not want to be implicated in the Nazi mass murder (which the journal accomplishes).  Now the diary is available for all to read, in English; it is a vital resource.

Sakowicz was murdered in 1944, and supposedly kept his diary up to the day before his death.  We only have pages up to 1943.  We can only hope the rest of his journal will someday come to light.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Brevity Sinks A Good Thesis

Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents by Margaret Kimberley is an important book that is just far too short for such an important topic.  

Kimberley’s basic thesis is that no president, not a single one, has been good for the advancement of African-Americans.  Certainly, the presidents up to the civil war are low handing fruit: slave holders, northern men who compromised with slaveholders to hold the union together.  This is a shameful history; and with the exception of stealing land from Mexicans, Indians, and staving off British influence in North America – no topic was as important as slavery was to the United States  before the Civil  War. 

But Kimberley’s brevity opens her to charges of cherry picking.  She picks two or three openly racists policies, actions or utterances from a president, and rarely, one positive policy, action or utterance of a president, related to Africa Americans, and moves on.  

This technique is damaging.  People who would rather not admit that the United States is a white supremacist state can just dismiss this book as too narrowly focused.  Kimberley’s brevity also eliminates the chance of even  nuance.  Take Lincoln.  Kimberley uses the example of his support of a scheme to settle blacks on an island off Haiti to show he had no intention of keeping Africans in America.  She believes this shows his inherent racism.  But does it?  He may just as well be trying to mollify conservative  northerners who feared large numbers of freed slaves in their cities and towns.  This scheme was advanced at the same time as the  Emancipation Proclamation.  Whether Lincoln supported the Haiti scheme, or merely used it as a political tool, is not debated by Kimberley.  For her it is a proven fact.  But the topic is debated by scholars  and has been for years.   It is far from a settled matter.

Presidential motivation is the authors fixation.  Kimberley cites, again and again, that presidents only courted black votes for reasons of expediency, and not through moral zeal.  This is most likely true, but could this not be said of every president on nearly every issue?  What president continues to pursue policies that he or she knows are not popular, and will hurt his  political future?  Did FDR, a wealthy white man, want to enact the New Deal, and its socialist-type initiatives, from conviction, or was he forced to do so by a clambering, unemployed electorate and a fear of communism?  This is yet another criticism that someone who does not wish to view America as a white supremacist state can deploy.  How do we know the real motivations for a president’s policy decisions?  When policy a true of racist motivation or a political ploy?

Sadly, Kimberley provides too little agency to Africans in American.  She renders them a kind of naive blank slate, hoping that a president they  just voted into office will keep his promises and better their conditions, which never happens.  They just hope things will get better by uncritically listening to white men seeking power.  This is unfair.  People of African descent in America have always had some form of power, and used it shrewdly for their benefit.  They were real people and not simply victims.

But perhaps the most harmful element of this book is the ‘is it good for black people question’ she returns to again and again.  This is similar to the question that my fellow Jews ask, half in jest, is it  good for the Jews?  But the question, when raised about an entire group of people, has little value.  Some Israeli Jews, especially in the current government, see Trump as good for the Jews.  He supports settlement, annexation and Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Many Jews in American, especially progressives, view Trump as bad for the Jews.  He supports white supremacists who are brazenly and violently anti-Semitic.  So, is he good for the Jews?  This depends on who you ask.

The same applies to African-Americans, who are not homogeneous, and  have varying opinions of what is good or bad for them, depending on when, where, and how they live or lived, their gender identity, and their income.  So her yardstick in measuring presidential value via African Americans is too blunt.  Kimberly’s book once more suffers from its compression; rather than expanding her notions to tackle these complex issues, she has gone for brevity. The work, therefore, suffers. This could have been a large, important book about the intersection of race and the executive branch in its many manifestations – instead it reads like a poorly reasoned polemical booklet. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

How To Be an Antiracist

How To Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, is setting much of the tone of how race is discussed in America, and therefore is an important book.  In order to understand the new terms and parameters of the discussion of race in America, Kendi’s book is key.  He makes important points. 

Most of us know that race, as a biological category, is meaningless.  Since the sequencing of the human genome science helps us to understand that there is very little genetic difference between so-called races; in fact, there is far more genetic diversity within groups, like Africans, than there are outside of groups.  If we don’t know this, we should.  Race is a social construct.

That social  construct was recently created.  It was 'crafted' by the Portuguese in the 1400s to justify the slave trade in Africans.  This, in turn, leads to Kendi's major thesis: racists policies create racists ideas, and not the other way around.  Also, racism is not caused by ignorance of racial groups, a common idea, but by those in power who are very aware of the group they are trying to suppress through racist policies.

These are Kendi’s main ideas, and he runs them through various scenarios.  This book, part policy statement, part memoir, presents concepts in a clear manner.  Some will find his arguments circular.  Sometimes they are.  Others will think he is too repetitive.  This happens too.  Some will find his largely binary scheme too confining.  Perhaps this is the case.

Regardless,  this is an important book.  In the right hands, it can begin important and meaningful conversations about a topic that haunts our nation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Today's Voices

PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019 is a surprisingly accomplished collection of work. Confession: I skipped the editor’s introductions, which may be important, but I did not want to have any framing device to read these works.  

Solid throughout, there are, for me, some standouts: “The Rickies,” “The Manga Artist,” “Tornado Season,” and especially, “Bad Northern Women.”  This last story has a particularly unique style and rhythm, and is a voice we rarely hear and very much need to hear it; I eagerly await more work from Erin Singer.

The range of stories here truly represent the voices of our time, tackling the challenges of this strange American moment.  This is a worthy book all around.