Archive for ‘Chana’

June 22, 2012

The Drowned and the Saved

Author: Primo Levi
Published: 1986
Website: Literature Database

It’s another summer, and there are so many books to read! Ezra and I won’t be reading a book a day, but we’re aiming for at least two a week. I’ve been doing a lot of blogging and other adventures, as well as catching up on sleep, so I haven’t been reading as much as I would like, but I have finished one book, and here it is.

The Drowned and the Saved is the last book written by Primo Levi, Auschwitz survivor, witness, chemist and author, before he committed suicide in 1987. It is composed of eight fully distinct chapters which frequently seem unrelated, but together admonish the reader soundly, from all sides, for her history of, and worse, desire, to simplify the Shoah.

For me, simplifying has seemed like the only way to properly acknowledge the devastation wrought. Can we really discuss the layout of the concentration camps or the bureaucracy of the Hitler regime and still let the painful realities wash over us, overwhelming us, as they should? Perhaps others can, but in my Jewish and historical education, I have kept those processes of learning separate. There is the Weimar Republic moving into the Third Reich, and Chamberlain and Churchill and leibensraum and Czechoslovakia. And then there is gas and killing and selections and camps and ghettoes and fear. The nuances of genocide have never interested me, and I may have even thought them actively damaging to the process of collective memory.

But Primo Levi challenges me to confront some of the complications of reality. his detached, careful tone seems to ask, who are you to recoil from these facts because they are painful? These are facts I lived, and I cannot witness if you do not listen.

So I listened. I listened to him discuss the difficulty of memory, how memories can be forgotten or blur, can shift and change because they are forced unconsciously into the post-war narratives of historians and novelists and even other survivors. The memories of survivors, much as we value them, are no more exempt from the forces of time than the memories of the Nazis, whose testimony at Nuremburg rang false, or of the  bystanders which conveniently self-exonerate.

He spoke of the silly stereotypes we ascribe to Holocaust survivors, how we expect them to have escaped or rebelled without understanding the brutality of their abject dehumanization. Another chapter was about the difficulty of communication, in and out of the camps, across language and experience barriers. The most poignant section was about the organization of camps, how the oppressor/victim dichotomy is impossible to maintain in the face of privileged overseers, hierarchies of prisoners (political over racial over Jews), the actions of the prisoners against each other in order to stay alive and the fact that prisoners were forced to help kill and inter each other. And how, yet, despite all the complication, and the moral negligence of the bystanders, and the constant creeping possibility that anyone in those positions would have done the same, there are in fact monsters in the story, people who did evil, and people who were the victims of it. Levi asks us to weigh the complexities, carefully, thoughtfully, and still judge truthfully.

Nuance does not preclude judgement. We can have both.

December 13, 2011

Lion’s Honey: The Myth of Samson

Author: David Grossman
Published: 2007
Website: Amazon Page

In Lion’s Honey, David Grossman adds a book to a highly specialized genre, that of extra-Biblical storytelling through fiction. Any novelization of ancient myth requires respect, imagination and caution, and even more so for a Western writer tackling the Bible. Luckily, Grossman has all of these. He has an obvious love for the story of Samson, the subject of the book’s reinterpretation, which he demonstrates not only through poignant parallels between Samson’s Biblical role as a national hero and his place in the modern political Israel’s national consciousness but also through poetic and powerful expansions of the sparse emotional details in the original Bible tale.

Though it is not necessary, it is helpful to read the Samson story before reading Lion’s Honey. Such a background would draw a much starker contrast between the Biblical story, which is dramatic and gripping, yet entirely devoid of emotional resonance, and Grossman’s retelling, which is touching in its brazen addition of sympathetic and engaging details of Samson’s internal struggles, than Grossman is able to simply by describing it. He goes through the entire story of Samson, starting from Manoach’s wife’s barrenness, to the arrival and announcement of the angel, to Samson’s birth, growth and escapades of sex and violence, and finally to his death.

In doing so, he questions the traditional interpretation of Samson as an uncomplicated hero that Israel would be proud to have as its redeemer. He gives, instead, a framework in which Samson is, from birth, alienated from his parents and from his people by the very God-given specialness that makes him a shofeit. He spends his life looking for intimacy and being continually betrayed, by his first wife, who tells the Philistines the answer to Samson’s riddle, by Delilah who tells the Philistines how to destroy him, by his own strength, which leaves him when he needs it most, and by his own people, who give him up to the Philistines without a fight. He has divinely bestowed strength, and feels a constant need to use it in extraordinarily bizarre and clever ways, whether by ripping apart a lion with his bare hands or tying three hundred foxes in pairs with torches in order to destroy Philistine farmlands, perhaps because he is never truly confident his strength will not leave him.

Grossman asks his readers to believe in Samson, in his Samson, as a complex and viable character in his own right, and it succeeds admirably in making every rereading of the Biblical Samson story hearken back to Grossman’s account and Grossman’s character. He also seeks to draw an analogy with the modern state of Israel, which has felt alienation since its inception, and has an enormous amount of strength, which it has been said to use in circumspect ways. This is a difficult case to make, especially since the story of Samson Israel is being compared to is noncanonical. Nonetheless, it is intriguing, and since it is simultaneously critical and sympathetic, might provide a useful framework for analyzing Israel’s actions. In the end, though, Grossman’s greatest success to to make Samson, a strange and superhuman figure, into a character we can understand.

July 22, 2011

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

Author: Arundhati Roy
Published: 2004
Website: Amazon Page

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire is a collection of essays addressing power and injustice in the American-dominated modern age. Roy, an Indian novelist and political activist, is unabashedly critical of what she calls the American Empire, the far-reaching, wealth- and greed-driven system which undermines local rule, self-determination and spreads death and destruction for the purposes of maintaining power. Her writing is clear and forceful, drawing a picture of a vast, dominating, out-of-control superpower which causes more harm than good and is more committed to advancing the neo-liberal, capitalism-at-all-costs, media-supported agenda than actually spreading justice or true democracy. Written in the time that the US was invading Iraq, it incisively brings to the fore the weaknesses and harm of preemptive war, oil obsession and dismissal of the poor and marginalized.

The problem is that essays of this nature of almost universally geared towards those who are already in the camp. I read once that a good rationalist strategy for getting excited about something is to rationally assess what the best side or course of action is, then read propaganda or other emotionally evocative media to get your emotions in line with your decision. If you have already decided that Bush was a fool and America is evil, then this is a book that will galvanize and inspire. I don’t mean to be flippant; her analysis is hardly so crude, and she acknowledges the vast injustices that are taking place all around the world that America has ostensibly fought while still stating strongly that in her experience and research, there is little evidence for an actually benevolent West, given the wreckage left in their wake. Nonetheless, there is little acknowledgement of other positions (for example, an interventionist leftist approach) or alternative solutions to global problems. Also, the subjects of analysis change rapidly, from America’s domestic injustices (a racist prison system and death penalty) to India’s disconnect between their title as the world’s largest democracy and the truth (government-sanctioned mass murder of Muslims, killing and displacement of native peoples, systemic hunger and malnutrition) to the destructiveness of Western foreign policy (supporting Saddam Hussein, then using American-funded and armed atrocities to justify war against him, for example) which limits its effectiveness.

Roy brings to light facts about America, the West and India and their effects on the world that cannot be ignored. However, her preference for description rather than proof and narrative rather than analysis, combined with a  tendentious approach to history severely limits the effectiveness of her writing.

July 16, 2011

Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism

Author: Tova Hartman
Published: 2007
Website: Amazon Page

Feminism is of deep importance to me, and Judaism has become increasingly so. As such, I approached this book, given to me by a feminist Jewish supervisor with some level of skepticism. For all the work being done in this intersection, it is quite easy to go awry in the analysis, either erring too far on the side of Orthodoxy, maintaining the ability of the spiritual power of Judaism to overcome oppression and second class status, or on the side of feminism, declaring that the entire system is a patriarchal waste of time. Both of these (well, not so much the former) may in fact be valid responses to the difficulty faced by modern people engaged with an ancient tradition, but that should not be the goal of a book targeted in the way this one was. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Far from it. This book blew me away. It is a sweeping, sophisticated, nuanced, thoughtful analysis of feminism, Judaism, various spaces in which these worldviews have crashed and possible responses and ways forward. Hartman essentially leaves no room for disagreement. She carefully and understandingly giving the “throw it all away” side with entirely believable sympathy while admitting without adornment that that is simply not a viable option for her or other religious/traditionally-minded women while at the same time laying out a possible reaction that feels neither capitulatory nor weak, but instead engages with the strengths of feminism, Judaism and humanity. She is at her best when she essentially asks of Judaism that it be the best it can be, pointing out ways in which it has changed in the past, for the spiritual needs of humans, as a result of historical and social flux and in response to a modernizing secular world.

The book’s commitment to spiritual empowerment combined with its rigorous treatment of halacha and Jewish history were enlightening as well as invigorating, showing clearly that there is a space for people who have had enough of unnecessary patriarchy without wanting to give up something that is so deeply meaningful to them. At the same time, the strident (I use this word as a compliment) critiques of rabbinic antifeminism and accounts given by traditional women of ways in which Judaism has oppressed them* were horrifying and enraging, and made me want to tear my hair out. So obviously, there is more work to do.

*Point of clarification: there were many many accounts, and indeed an entire section devoted to the stories of traditional women who do not feel oppressed or disadvantaged and the ways in which these stories are sometimes ignored by liberal feminist analysis

July 14, 2011

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Author: Richard Bach
Published: 1970
Website: Wikipedia Page

Jonathon Livingston Seagull is a short story of about a hundred pages, with many pictures, and yet, it is about everything. It’s said that there are seven narratives which all, or almost all storylines follow, and yet I would be hard pressed to pick one that fits Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It’s about an eponymous seagull who learns how to fly for the sheer love of it, not just to eat, making him an Outcast from his flock. On his own for many years, he eventually runs into denizens from another world, who show him a community of seagulls just like him, all working to learn. Here he begins to understand the metaphysics of seagull nature, the Great Gull and the essence of ideas underlying the physical world. He becomes a teacher in his own right, and then leaves to teach outcasts like himself. With this band of rebels, he goes back to the Flock, and with care, civil disobedience and a little showing off, the Flock comes to see his work as incredibly important. Their psychological response, however, is to switch from seeing him as a demon to seeing him as a god which Jonathan, in his last plea to his friend and acolyte Fletcher Seagull, begs him not to let them do.

This is a rushed summary, and it doesn’t do the book justice, but it’s necessary so I can give the following response: this book is actually about everything. It is beautifully written, with photographs of seagulls wonderfully punctuating a story which is full to bursting with ideas and allegory. It speaks to imagination and the pushing of boundaries, of acceptance of difference and of pursuit of excellence. It is about Aristotle and the essential nature of things and beings and how they are inexorably pulled to them. It is about social dynamics and a bit of religion and a lot of self-idolization. It calls for being the best, and teaching that to others, of using knowledge to better the experiences of those around, and of treating the world not as a set of physical limitations but as an immeasurable set of possibilities. It’s a strange piece, not least because it is about seagulls and half-obsolete philosophies, but it is uplifting and beautiful and asks us all to fly high.

July 13, 2011

Post-Capitalist Society

Author: Peter Drucker
Published: 1993
Website: Amazon Page

Post-Capitalist Society is a strange sort of book, reminiscent of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and those sorts of productivity-increasing, framework-changing books that are published every so often in an attempt to be visionary. Despite my initial skepticism at this type of piece, I found it contained some really interesting ideas about a capitalism of knowledge and the rise of regionalism and transnationalism into the future. However, it was clearly at its best when discussing the history of political and economic systems, and how changes in the past were caused by changes in the economic and political environments. The other parts of the book (a suspicious amount of overly vitriolic criticism of Marxism, which the author gives more credit for being a world force [an Age of Socialism], seemingly profound descriptions of the core of organizational structures, etc.) were much weaker.

The book is very much like a transcript of a talk Drucker might give in the sense that it is impassioned, full of seemingly common-sensical assertions and troublingly lacking in evidence. Despite all of the history and political science Drucker claims to be giving the reader, the only footnotes available are book recommendations (not page numbers of data citations), many his own. His predictions about a knowledge-based economy, a social sector in addition to the private and public ones, the failures of some aspects of post WWII nation-state policies and how they might be improved upon are all of vital importance if true. Unfortunately, the book relies on framework formation, narrative construction and trajectory guessing rather than rigorous analysis of evidence.

Clearly, the world is changing. Information is becoming more and more important, capitalism is shifting to accommodate new types of goods and terrorism and the environment are global threats. For a store of ideas for the future put forth by a clearly intelligent person, Post-Capitalist Society is a good read. For a more definite set of plans about what the world might look like and why, it might be best to look elsewhere.

July 12, 2011


Author: Mary Shelley
Published: 1818
Website: Wikipedia Page

Frankenstein, described by some as the first work of science fiction, is surprisingly novel-like. Similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which of course came significantly later), the science aspect of the narrative takes a secondary role and acts mainly as a vehicle for the rest of the story. In fact, the science which animates the monster who has captured the imagination of several generations of literary critics and Halloween costume designers is intentionally left out in Frankenstein’s recounting of his miserable life, ostensibly to protect Walton, the scientist cum shipman who rescues him from the Arctic tundra. Thus, the main thrust of the story takes place in a more traditional format, which some interesting twists. The overarching story is that of Walton, who writes letters to his sister about his journey north and happens upon a sick man leading a sled pack through glaciers and eventually comes to hear his story, which is told in classic first person narrative and includes the story of his monster, who himself tells his life in first-person. While this may seem confusing, the stories are distinct and engaging enough that the unorthodox layering actually adds important elements to the story, making each character sympathetic in turn.

When a story is fundamentally about conflict, as Frankenstein is (between personal hurt and public harm, between creator and created, between god and man, between human and non-human), it is the more comfortable option to give the reader a hero to back throughout, but Shelley refuses to take this route. Instead, she forces the reader to consider every character’s hardships and motivations in making the often terrible decisions they make. There is room for disagreement, but at least the underlying reasons are understood, which makes the shared humanity of the humans and monsters (and it’s not always apparent which is which) all the more clear.

July 11, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

Author: Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)
Published: 1871
Website: Wikipedia Page

It is a well established rule that by and large, sequels do not measure up to the originals. They extend a pleasurable or fanciful world, the develop characters, but they do not add depth in original ways and create elements which influenced a generation. None of this is true of Through the Looking Glass (and what Alice Saw There), though it must be admitted that Looking Glass hardly acknowledges its role as a sequel, maintaining nothing from book to book except the main character, the cat and a powerful imagination.

The most enjoyable aspect of reading Through the Looking Glass, was the discovery of the context surrounding literary tidbits familiar to me because they have so ingrained themselves in our culture. Furthermore, the context was illuminating in a way that was not the case with Alice, because there was a semblance of structure, provided handily by the chess motif, in which Alice, as the pawn, made her way to the eighth square to become a queen. The Jabberwocky (a fantastic poem everyone should memorize), is not on its own, but a memorandum in the Red King’s notebook. The classic quote about thinking of six impossible things before breakfast is not a standalone from the inimitable Lewis Carroll but rather part of the White Queen’s personal worldview.

What all this adds up to is an impassioned defense of creativity, silliness and a touch of insanity in everyday life. Even the premise, that of going through a mirror, is part of everyone’s quotidian fantasies about what lies just on the other side, whereas almost no one I know ponders about the mysteries of what might be beyond the depths of a rabbit hole. The math and the wordplay are all important too, of course, but this other aspect is wound craftily throughout the storyline in a way that is never obvious. The subtle message is there, however, telling the readers to indulge their fantasies of talking to themselves, playing both sides of a croquet match or a chess board, and thinking about math, logic, language and fantasy in all sorts of new ways.

July 10, 2011

Alice in Wonderland

Author: Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson)
Published: 1865
Website: Wikipedia Page

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it must be said, for all that it is now considered mainstream and has had significant effects on Western culture and literature, is profoundly strange. Really strange. Setting aside the oddness of the denizens populating Wonderland, and the fact that sizes of people and landscapes change at a moments’ notice, and that a dream interpreter would have a field day with young Alice, scenes meld into each other without the barest hint at a transition, characters appear and disappear seemingly at will (not their will, of course, that would restore far too much sense and directionality to the story, but someone’s will), and the stories are punctuated by the oddest poetry I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Call it nonsense literature if you like, but the fact remains that if it were not for Carroll’s (Dodgson’s) wit, charm and a general sense that the author knows what he is doing, even the endearingness of a hookah-smoking caterpillar or the Cheshire cat simply could not overcome the overwhelming insanity that the reader is dragged through.

However, the book does contain these things. Alice has the running motifs of change of size and playing cards, along with more mathematical and historical references than I could hope to recognize. Best of all is the thick wordplay and the poems I couldn’t help but read aloud to myself, even on the subway. These elements make the twisting, unnavigable road of a narrative feel like a glimpse into the mind of a creative thinker, a writer, a jokester, a minister, and a logician. They give the stories sufficient structure to prove that the author is taking the readers on a journey he commands, rather than getting lost in a dreamworld he can no longer control. That journey can be one of fun, or of deep contemplation. For all the lighthearted absurdism, Carroll still wants us to ask what our dreams mean to us, and what worlds we have within us.

July 9, 2011

Pride and Prejudice

Author: Jane Austen
Published: 1813
Website: Wikipedia Page

Pride and Prejudice is a classic work of fiction, and for good reason. The movie (RED FLAG: Judging a book by its movie) led me to believe that it was no more than an upscale version of the “trashy” novels people read at the beach, but that response would be doing it quite an injustice. The story follows the family Bennet in 19th century England, through travails of love, romance, class, poverty and incredibly restrictive social mores. Austen perhaps stumbles the slightest bit in placing the vast majority of character development and social commentary all in Elizabeth Bennet, the main character. However, Elizabeth is such a well-crafted and well-rounded presence that it can be forgiven. Her sarcasm and quick wit are refreshing without being unbelievable, and her fierce devotion to truth, fairness and rationality (a word used a surprising number of times) provide an excellent counterpoint to her loveable elder sister Jane, who is much more optimistic and forgiving, and to the more irritating characters i.e. most of the rest of her family, Mr. Collins (an unsuccessful suitor) and Mr. Bingley (Jane’s eventual husband)’s family, who are frustrating in precisely the way Austen means them to be. Jane is sweet and loving, which we are meant to respect, but not so much as Elizabeth’s keen intelligence, which is contrasted against the most despicable of the annoying characters’ salient features: general idiocy and lack of self-awareness. For all the issues of class (with Elizabeth and her family being of comparatively low class, whereas Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth’s eventual husband and Mr. Bingley are rather wealthy, and with marriage of the daughters being Mrs. Bennett’s apparent sole goal in life), this is a book about the exaltation of the intellect. Grasping, indolent, selfish people are the villains, kind people are permitted to be happy, but in an inferior sort of way, and smart, complicated people are the heroes destined for eternal bliss. That Austen wishes that to be her legacy is clear from the very end of the book, in which Georgiana, Mr. Darcy’s younger sister, is said to learn from the example of Elizabeth, that a wife may be teasing and playful with her husband, even challenging him.

My only complaint is that Austen’s clear gift for dialogue is not put to use in the more emotionally evocative scenes, such as Elizabeth’s profession of love to Mr. Darcy, when Austen switches, for no apparent reason, to prose.