Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Avengers: a Jewish War Story

Rob Cohen’s The Avengers: a Jewish War Story holds a great deal of promise.  The story of Abba Kovner and his band of Lithuanian Jewish partisans fighting the German in World War II is intrinsically fascinating; a David and Goliath tale which generates perennial interest.

But Cohen’s book falls flat.  Cohen’s prose is uninspiring, and this translates to the story.  Cohen had great materials here, but did not capitalize on them.  The net loss is unfortunate.  The story of Jewish Partisans needs to be told, but by an author marshaling all his or her talents and resources; this book, unfortunately, fails to do just this. 

Cohen does not know what kind of book he is writing.  Memoir, history, or well meaning (and deserved) biased yearbook.  From all this what we get at the end is not history, but lukewarm hagiography.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

I Want To Fall Like This

David Ben Gurion said that Yiddish could never be the language of the Jewish state.  Only Hebrew, which sprang from the Holy Land, could catch its cadences, and fully express the stridency of a people returning to their home, reborn.  How could Yiddish, a language of exile, express the desires and landscapes and dreams the New Jews in the Holy Land?

I Want To Fall Like This,the selected poems of Rukhl Fishman, illustrates just how.  Fishman was born in America, wrote in Yiddish, and came from a Bundist, socialist background.  Despite this, she joined the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair, The Youth Guard movement, and lived in an Israeli kibbutz beginning in 1954. 

So, she is an odd hybrid.  In a new state adopting Hebrew as its native tongue, and rapidly shedding its diaspora languages and customs, her choice of Yiddish as a poetic medium set her at odds with her contemporaries (although later in life, she did publish bi-lingual, Yiddish / Hebrew poems).

Yet in content her work is strongly oriented toward the “land of Israel.”  Her Zionism, in Yiddish, is of the decidedly Romantic type.  Her God is the land, and the land her muse; most of the poems speak of this dedicated connection to the dry landscapes which seem, at first blush, unsuited for Yiddish. 

But she proves everyone wrong.  Her Yiddish is strident and clear and NATIVE, a perfect medium for the creation of a new person in a new land.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

1861: The Civil War Awakening

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart holds a great many surprises for readers, especially those who have read many popular history books of the War Between the States.  Goodheart hardly notices Lincoln, who had yet to earn his chops as President-Elect, or Grant, who was still struggling to make a subsistence living, or Sherman, working in an under inspiring trolley office.  Instead he focuses on characters who were key players before the war and just after its start; men, and something women, who have all but been forgotten.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters

Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, by Elie Wiesel, starts off with promise enough, but the book lacks the passion and life blood necessary to deal with the topic.  The men Wiesel portrays are the early heroes of Hasidism, but Wiesel’s presentation and style resembles very flat newspaper reporting.  This book just falls flat. With the material Wiesel had about these extraordinary figures, the results should have been superior. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

One Pleasure: a story, iv


              When Levi awoke he was being lifted by a round, squat man with a loosely wrapped bandage about his head which formed a conical crest at the crown of his scalp. Levi thought the man looked not unlike the pictures of the Levites in the Temple he had seen as a boy in the Illustrated History of the Jews, written by his famous uncle Aarone Levi.  Then Lieutenant Levi realized he was at an aid station, and the priest hauling him over his shoulder was that Sicilian Carducci.        
            “What is it?” Lieutenant Levi gasped.  “Stop doing that, it hurts…”
            “They’ve abroken through,” Carducci stammered.  “We’rea heading south.”
            “Who?  Who broke through?  Stop, you are killing me!”
            “The Austrians, and they say theya say Germans too,” Carducci panted, carrying the Lieutenant down a steep embankment to a road clogged with gray, wet figures, like some queue of souls in limbo. 
            “You’ll kill me!” Lieutenant Levi moaned.  “I’m wounded.”
            “Sorry Lieutenant!  It is either thisa or you die…” and Carducci found a spot on his shoulder where the Piedomentese Jew was more or less balanced, where his center of gravity pooled about his waist, and began the retreat which became a rout at Caporetto, the nearest town.  Carducci and Levy were two among the scores of thousands of ragged men scuffling listlessly south; most had discarded their weapons.  Officers had removed their insignia in disgrace.
            All that time moving south, out of the mountains and into the Veneto Plain, Carducci whispered in Levi’s ear.  He regaled him with all the stories he had heard of Jews as a boy in Giuliana, a land which had not seen a Jew in four-hundred years.  He told tales of the Jew who refused Christ a drink on the road to Calvary and was forced to forever wander the earth, never to die.  He told the tale of the Jew who defiled a Christian girl, and when she gave birth, the infant had horns and cloven hooves.  He told the tale the rabbis who lured the Christian boys into their chamber on Good Friday, with candy and endearments, only to butcher them in a parody of the crucifixion, and render their flesh into Passover bread.  He told these stories in a monotone, as if repeating a catechism, as numb and devoid of meaning as the muttering of the rosary.
            Immanuel Levi tried to speak, to refute, to order the Sicilian to put him down in the mud to die, but no voice formed in his throat.  Words lodged in his lips and then fell still born into the world, not spoken.
            Only when Carducci put Levi down on the banks of the Piave River, where the Italians had finally halted the rout and turned to make a stand, did Levi’s words congeal to make a sentence:
            “I should have shot you on that ridge… Sicilian bastard…”
            “It was my pleasure to save the Lieutenant, a respectable son of Italy,” Carducci answered unsteadily.  His face was gray.  His eyes were dull and glossy.  Yet a smile crossed his ashen lips.  “This was my one pleasure, Sir… asa we say, ina war, hunting, and a…”

            And Carducci fell down and died.

Friday, May 8, 2015

One Pleasure: a story, III


              The Austrians began shelling that night, and by morning’s first dim light, Lieutenant Levi could see through his telescope the Austrian infantry snipping their own line and their sappers detonating their own mines.  Then columns of Teutons marched forward and disappeared into the morning haze and the slow column of snow which was rising rather incongruously from the valley below, as if the laws of gravity had been rendered null. 
            “Is it an offensive, Lieutenant Levi?” a man asked.

            “How could it be?” Levi answered, twirling the ends of his mustache like a nervous twitch.  “The bombardment was not long enough, they must be scouts… Leondardi, run and give this message to Headquarters immediately…”  But Lieutenant Levi did not finish his words.  An Austrian mortar landed in the ditch, a few meters from his perch on the lip of the parapet.  Leonardi was standing their one moment and gone the next, rendered to smoke and cinder.  There was the sound not unlike that of a gong, or the percussive volley of ceremonial ordinance, or a hammer repeatedly pounding an anvil, and then Lieutenant Levi was unconscious.