Friday, November 30, 2012

The Holocaust in Thirty Minutes

Yes, it is possible to have a documentary of the Holocaust that lasts only thirty minutes.   

Nuit et brouillard,  or Night and Fog, was made in 1955,  using both archival footage of the camps, as well as contemporary scenes.

The film is dramatic in a 1950s sense, with a heavy score and abrupt  cuts.  For modern viewers, more accustomed to certain images of the Holocaust, it may appear a bit thin.   

Also, there is little specific mention of the special role the Jews played in the Holocaust.  Certainly, many others were killed, but this film never takes mention of the overwhelming numbers of Jews killed during the Nazi era.  The film is not about the Jews cost of the Holocaust.

Night and Fog has some value today as a way to view how the Holocaust was framed ten years after it occurred.  Already, people were struggling with the enormity of it, and keeping the memory alive.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Big Night Book – Yehuda Amichai

As far as I know, there isn’t an English translation of Yehuda Amichai’s Big Night Book, Sepher Halayla HaGadol.  This work, written by Israel’s greatest contemporary poet, chronicles seven nights in the life of Emanuela, a small girl who is comforted through the terrors of the night by the Night Queen.

This is a children’s book, so the Hebrew prose is not overly difficult.  Someone with an intermediate skill in Israeli Hebrew can probably handle it with relative ease.  The text is pointed, and Amichai mixes his prose with poems, making the reading varied.  The illustrations are a bit washed out and without  power, but have the sketch like consistency of a dream, which I suppose is the point.

Amichai is largely credited for taking the register of Hebrew poetry and making it more pedestrian, more like the spoken language of Israel.  This children’s book cleverly shows his mission.  The prose is lucid, simple, but coveys profound ideas about childhood hopes and dreams.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On the Perils of Looking Back

Joan Didion writes about the bizarrely suffocating atmosphere of her native California in Where I Was From.  A place filled with mystique and doom, her California is a land that not only fails to deliver on its promised dreams, but actively derails people from doing so.  Form the Donner Party to the railroads to Hollywood, California has epitomized American hopes, aspirations and failures writ large.

In this collection, Didion writes particularly well about her native Sacramento and her family of old California settlers.  Here she writes with pathos, love, despair, and a tincture of hate… complex emotions and ideas that she handles with her typical skill and devotion.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Dark Book about Second Chances

When you pick up Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, inevitably the Robert Redford movie creeps into your conscious mind.  But this book is a far darker vision than the movie, and the end, with its even duskier conclusion about human fallibility, makes reading The Natural both sad and enlivening.

The Roy Hobbes of the book is intent on getting his second chance as a major league ball player.  The strain of misogyny in the novel is strong, and women are the element that continually fouls Hobbes’ chance at success.   This is an ugly part of the book, but in keeping with the overall gray moral sentiments expressed throughout.  Hobbes is not the eunuch of the movie, and he is interested sex, money and fame as much as success in baseball (and he often views baseball as merely a means to that end).

The Natural provides a hard look at second chances, and the inability of people to capitalize on them.  Our first lives intrude on our second.  We repeat the same mistakes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mysticism for the Folk

Harold Schwartz’s collection of mystical tales Gabriel’s Palace has a wide reach, culling stories from all over the Jewish world.  But it also shows how conservative folk tales are.  We can see a pattern in the stories told in this collection: things are not as they seem in the world.  A divine mechanism is at work.  And only when the main character makes a mistake is this revealed to him or her.

So, this collection has nothing new in terms of the form of folk stories.  However the especially Jewish content is important, and should inform the reader.  The abstruse cosmologies and theosophical speculation of the Jewish mystics are here simplified, and mixed with common folk wisdom.  A particular emphasis is placed on gigul, or reincarnation, which is often resorted to in these stories as the ultimate riddle of the fate of the soul. 

These stories tell the tales of mysticism for regular people.  They focus on everyday concerns, even as they pay close attention to matters divine.