Friday, December 2, 2016

"It Can't Happen Here" by Sinclair Lewis

Suddenly last month, Sinclair Lewis's eighty-year-old book It Can't Happen Here became a best seller. I don't know how many of the numerous recent purchasers have finished reading it, but I managed to read the whole thing. It's very depressing, and without giving away the ending, I think I can say it has no brighter side.

Bust of Sinclair Lewis
by Jo Davidson,
National Portrait Gallery,
Washington, D.C.
Paul Krugman says:
"So how bad will the effects of Trump-era corruption be? The best guess is, worse than you can possibly imagine." (Why Corruption Matters)
This could easily be the theme of Lewis's book, which of course did not turn out to be prophetic of his own time. He starts with an imaginary scenario of the American election of 1936, which was the immediate future when he wrote. His scenario takes full account of the current situation in Germany at the time, of America's fragile situation in the Depression, and of America's potential to mirror the escalating Nazi horror show.

It Can't Happen Here projects the election of fictitious candidates in 1936 and the aftermath of this election until around 1940. The candidate, a charismatic demagogue with an even more sinister collaborator, promises prosperity to the masses. He also promises persecution and maltreatment of hated minorities such as Jews and blacks, superpatriotism, glorious conquest of other countries, suspension of civil rights and other rights, and cancellation of democracy by removing the powers of Congress and other means. The candidate is elected by the masses of (white) people, many motivated by his promise to give each of them (the white people only) $5000, which was a lot of money in 1936.

Immediately upon taking office, the new President suspends all democracy by empowering the thugs and rabble as "Minute Men," arming them, and allowing them to terrorize the population. Soon the Minute Men are everywhere, often killing people without consequences. Concentration camps are set up for anyone who objects or belongs to an unwanted race, political party, or ethnic group. The novel is full of vivid descriptions of how this happens, while all along people say "It can't happen here," or more frequently, "It can't be happening here."

The events are seen through the life of one Vermont newspaper owner, Doremus Jessup. Lewis, already a Nobel Prize Winner when he wrote the book, was a fantastic portrayer of ordinary people and had an incredible way of showing how a specific individuals were typical. In reading, one can't help realizing how his characters in one small Vermont town still share so many features of today's Americans 80 years later.

The Jessup family's struggle -- and that of their friends and neighbors -- illustrates the impact of the disaster of totalitarianism and the way that people can be manipulated through their own prejudices and weaknesses. As I said: depressing. I'm sure many others will be or have been writing about this all-too-frightening characterization of American vulnerability and its results. And how much the people can still embrace hatred as an American value. I had chosen some apt quotations from Lewis, but I don't feel as if I need them to recommend this book -- if you want to be horrified, or maybe surprised that maybe we relied on our better nature for so long.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Vera Weizmann (November 27, 1881)

The living room of the home of Vera and Chaim Weizmann on the campus of the Weizmann Institute, Rehovot, Israel.
In 2006, I toured this home, designed by architect Eric Mendelsohn with a large input from Vera Weizmann.

Vera Weizmann ( November 27, 1881 – September 24, 1966), neè Chatzman, was born in Rostov northeast of Moscow. She was raised in a surprisingly secular way, as she went to elite non-Jewish schools and was not taught either Hebrew or Yiddish. Her father had been a military officer, and was allowed to live in an area not normally open to Jews and allowed to educate his daughters in this unusual way.

Vera Weizmann studied medicine in Geneva, Switzerland, when women were rarely allowed to do so. During this time, she became a member of Jewish student organizations, where she met Chaim Weizmann.  (Chaim Weizmann's entry in this blog is here.) They married in 1906, and soon moved to Manchester, England, where she began her medical career:
"In 1913 she successfully passed the British medical certification examination, after having studied medicine for two years in Manchester in addition to her studies in Geneva. Vera Weizmann received a temporary posting as a physician in the Manchester slums, where she was in charge of seven clinics for pregnant women and infants to the age of one year. She was later awarded a permanent appointment as a physician in a public clinic for pregnant women. As one of the first women to be employed as a physician in Manchester during this period, her work consisted primarily of developing advanced methods for monitoring infant nutrition and weight." (source)
Both Chaim Weizmann and Vera Weizmann were leaders of Zionism throughout their lives. His role in Zionism is very well-known; she participated in the founding of the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) and served as its president over many years.Though they lived in England most of the time until after World War II, they played an important role in founding the Hebrew University and the Seiff Institute in Rehovot which became the Weizmann Institute. During the Israeli war of Independence, Vera treated injured soldiers, later founded medical centers for wounded veterans' rehabilitation, and was active in many volunteer organizations.
"After her husband’s death in 1952, Vera Weizmann devoted even more of her time and energy to social work on behalf of Youth Aliyah, the rehabilitation of those disabled in the war and the Magen David Adom organization, serving as its president. In 1954 she conducted a fund-raising campaign in South America for Israel Bonds and the Weizmann Institute. After visiting Argentina, Chile and Brazil, she went with her secretary to Russia, which she had left forty years earlier. She was also very active in arranging the Weizmann archives." (source)

The tomb of Vera and Chaim Weizmann, near their house in Rehovot.

Monday, November 21, 2016

"One Night, Markovitch"

I cannot remember how I heard of the recent Israeli novel One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. I bought it in September, and just finished reading it this weekend. If you want a complete review, I suggest this one from the Telegraph. I agree with the final statement of this review:
One Night, Markovitch,
published January, 2015.
"This is a fable for the 21st century, and Gundar-Goshen a writer whose dexterity proclaims her one to watch."
Two things make this book seem like a fable to me. One is the simple way the characters are presented and described, as if they were not entirely real. The other is the way they are both generalized and also particular: as if the reader is somehow expected to find each one to be a type of person, a type of pre-state Israeli, not just an individual. I was never sure how to map each character onto a such a type, but it seemed plausible.

Sometimes as I read I felt as if I were reading not just a fable but a ghost story: the ghosts of the Israeli past, the ghosts of the idealism and heroism that are attributed to the original fighters, villagers, farmers, and leaders. Each character's traits, passions, and actions seem exaggerated in order to illustrate the challenges of life in Israel during this critical era.

Another review of the book  in the Guardian viewed the novel in quite a different way than I do: "Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s lush first novel ... seems to take inspiration from the magical-realist traditions of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. ... Eternal themes of love and longing, sex and marriage take priority."

One Night, Markovitch is an interesting book whether one reads it as historical fiction, a fable about Israeli history, a magical-realist story of eternal themes, or a bit of all three.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Pnina Grynszpan-Frymer (1922-2016)

From today's Ha'aretz: the obituary of Pnina Grynszpan-Frymer, among the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto struggle against the Nazis. When the war ended, and she discovered that her entire family had been murdered in the Holocaust, she came to Israel and lived on a kibbutz and in Tel Aviv, where she married and raised a family. 

Pnina Grynszpan-Frymer
from Ha'aretz
From the obituary:
"Grynszpan-Frymer was born in 1922 in the town of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki near Warsaw. When World War II broke out in 1939 with Germany's invasion of Poland, she joined Eyal, the Jewish Fighting Organization, also widely known by its Polish initials, ŻOB. 
"She fought the Germans in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, fled the burning ruins through the sewage tunnels and joined the partisans in the forests. A year later she returned to Warsaw, where she was hidden by Poles and took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising." (link)
When I read about freedom fighters and resistants, I'm always struck by their subsequent lives -- if they survived, of course. They almost always returned to a much less exciting, much more "normal" and usually middle-class life, and when I think about it, I realize that this was what these heros were fighting for.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern, from the NYT Obituary.
Fritz Stern (1926-2016) was a historian of German culture and a professor of history at Columbia University. He served as provost of Columbia from 1980 to 1983. His interest in the deep roots of Nazi culture have more resonance now than I would like to think about. He wrote: "I was born into a world on the cusp of avoidable disaster.... The fragility of freedom is the simplest and deepest lesson of my life and work."

The decline of German cultural leadership, according to Stern, dated to 1914, when German intellectuals signed the "Manifesto of the 93" declaring loyalty to the German war effort. Stern wrote:
"Most of these men had once cherished German scholarship and had admired a country that in so many ways had been full of promise, with its astounding creativity in the sciences and its legacy of music and the arts. In truth, Germany had been a country of thinkers and poets. But the old bonds snapped in October 1914, when ninety-three of Germany's leading artists, scholars, and scientists signed the Manifesto of the 93, defiantly addressed 'to the Kulturwelt,' proclaiming German innocence, insisting on the absolute identity of German culture and German militarism, defending Germany's invasion of Belgium, and denying all allegations of atrocities." (Einstein's German World, p. 210)
From Stern's obituary in the New York Times, May 18, 2016:
"Like many German historians of his generation, Professor Stern sought to explain the causes behind the events that upended his own life and that of his family, Jews who lived a prosperous, assimilated life in Breslau until oppressive conditions forced them to emigrate to the United States in 1938.

"'Though I lived in National Socialist Germany for only five years, that brief period saddled me with the burning question that I have spent my professional life trying to answer: Why and how did the universal potential for evil become an actuality in Germany?' he wrote in the introduction to 'Five Germanys I Have Known,' a blend of memoir and history published in 2006."
I've recently been reading Stern's book Einstein's German World (1999), where he describes the lives of several important scientists and others who were Einstein's acquaintances. He knew several of them personally, as his father, a physician, was their friend and in some cases their doctor. He points out that by the time he was writing, few people still had direct memories of the time and of the people in his book, which makes it all the more interesting.

I've enjoyed my reading so far, and I hope to read other books by Stern.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber, 1919. From Wikipedia.
Fritz Haber (1868-1934) is in my view, an antihero; I have not classified many of my subjects in this blog in this way. Haber was an important scientist in pre-World-War-I Germany. An enthusiastic patriot, he invented an important industrial process for manufacturing ammonia, which had many uses. It was needed for fertilizer that Germany needed to be more self-sufficient in food production, as well as for explosives.

In my own view, I mainly remember him for his development of poison gas that was used on the battlefields of World War I under his direction. He's thus known as the "father of chemical warfare." Historian Fritz Stern in Einstein's German World, described Haber's participation in World War I as follows:
"During and after the war, Haber tried to explain his work in developing a weapon that outraged many people -- in Germany, but especially abroad. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 had prohibited the use of poisoned weapons. Haber believed that the use of gas would bring the war to a quick conclusion; he argued that the gas, which immobilized but usually did not kill, was a more humane weapon than the artillery bombardments that had become routine; he pointed out that the Allies had their own plans for introducing gas warfare, and Germany had merely anticipated them. It would appear that neither Haber nor those closest to him, like Willstätter, worried about the legal and moral issues involved, such was the brutish atmosphere of war. Gas warfare did not prove decisive, though its horror -- the terrifying choking, the blinding, the deaths, the experience even for survivors of a living death -- has become an inextinguishable part of our collective memory, an early instance of science put to satanic service. (p. 120)
The industrial work continued after World War I. Haber was head of the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry. Although the Nazis would have at least temporarily allowed him to stay in his position despite being Jewish (though a convert to Christianity like many ambitious German scientists), he resigned when it became obvious that he would be required to fire all his Jewish subordinates. He left Germany, but died soon afterwards.

There's much more to say about Haber, his life, and his work. I only mention that one of his commercially-produced types of poison gas was Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers.

Friday, November 11, 2016

It Just Happened Here?

Thinking about books that remind me of our time. When I googled these titles, several of them have already appeared in headlines this week:
  • Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, 1935. A hypothetical takeover of America by fascists. Update: it's currently a best-seller at
  • Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, 2004. A counter factual history of the era of FDR.
  • Eugène Ionesco, Rhinoceros, 1959. Allegory of fascism as people of a town each become a rhinoceros.
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897. Original book can be read as allegorical as people become vampires. (Some films don't really have an allegorical side.)
  • H.P.Lovecraft, stories about the takeover of human minds by dark forces. He feared Jews and minorities, and his horrors feature this fear. I blogged about it here: Embracing Lord Cthulhu
  • Walter Wanger, producer: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," 1956. Allegory of fascism.

Update: Scene from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Erich Mendelsohn

Erich Mendelsohn (March 21, 1887 – September 15, 1953) was a well-known architect whose severe modern style was typical of the German Expressionist movement as well as functionalism. He designed a number of very famous buildings in Germany in the early decades of the twentieth century. Fearing for his future because he was Jewish, Mendelsohn fled from Germany in 1933.

Mendelsohn was a leader in the Modernist school, which included Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius. His early works were designed and built in Germany. After leaving Germany, he also designed pre-war buildings in Jerusalem and for the Weizmann House and the campus of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth, Israel. After 1940, he designed several synagogues and other buildings in the US, including a synagogue very close to where I grew up in University City, Missouri. When I was young, I knew the building was unusual, but I was unaware of the fame of its architect.

Photos of the few buildings by Mendelsohn that I've seen:

Mendelsohn building on the campus of the Weizmann Institute.
We visited there and took the photos in 2006, soon after a major
restoration of the building.
Weizmann building.
Weizmann House, Rehovot, Israel, visited 2006.
Erich Mendelsohn designed the Weizmann house near the Rehovot campus in the late 1930s, working closely with Vera Wiezmann, wife of the famous Zionist leader and founder of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. It was very unusual for an Israeli house: a trivial example -- the GE refrigerator still in the kitchen is said to have been the first refrigerator in Israel!

Kitchen of the Weizmann house.
Staircase of the Weizmann house.
In 2008, we walked around the area of University City where the building Mendelsohn designed still stands. No longer used as a synagogue, the building now houses a performance arts school.

Former B'nai Amoona Synagoge,
University City, Mo.
Side view of synagogue, showing small round
windows often seen in Mendelsohn's designs.

Friday, November 4, 2016

France Bloch-Sérazin

France Bloch-Sérazin
             -- Wikipedia
France Bloch-Sérazin (1913-1943) was a hero of the French Resistance. I heard about her from her brother, Michel, whom I met in 1989 through Michel's son   -- our friend Laurent Bloch. At the time, the story of her heroic life and early death were very obscure, but now, I have learned, there are several schools and a street named for her, and she's recognized in both France and Germany with plaques commemorating her life and death.

France Bloch-Sérazin was born and spent her youth in Poitiers in a large house called La Mérigote overlooking a beautiful valley. Her brother reminisced that in his youth he and his siblings would joke about how strategic the location was, with such a view of the railroad in the valley. Unfortunately this was prophetic -- the Nazi occupiers took over the house from the family, headed by then-well-known author Jean-Richard Bloch (1884-1947) and his wife, Marguerite Herzog. (The elder Blochs escaped to Russia where they spent the war. During the war years, Laurent's father was imprisoned in the South of France where, from time to time, he told me, someone would say -- your father is alive, I heard him on clandestine radio.)

France, by then a trained chemist, spent the early part of the occupation in Paris, hiding from the Nazis as she was both Jewish and a member of the Communist Party. She became a founding member of the resistance at the very beginning of its existence. Using her skills as a chemist, she became a bomb maker. She also restored weapons that other members of the resistance retrieved from the sewers of Paris -- people would throw them away fearing discovery by the Nazis.

In May, 1942, she was arrested and taken to prison in Germany in "night and fog" -- that is, deep secrecy. I remember her brother's quavering voice saying "nuit et brouillard," or in German "Nacht und Nebel." Her family didn't know her fate until after the war: she was executed in February, 1943. Her husband, Frédéric Sérazin -- called Frédo -- had been arrested in 1940, and also was executed. When she was arrested, her small son Roland disappeared, and the family thought he was lost. After the war, however, the maid/nanny reappeared at their home with the boy whom she had managed to smuggle to her home town and hide throughout the war years.

The French Wikipedia article contains much more information than the English page -- I used both sources. The French article includes links to two films about France Bloch-Sérazin by filmmakers Loretta Walz and Marie Cristiani.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Cookbook from Palestine 80 years ago

"An Early Taste of Zionism: Published 80 years ago, Palestine’s first Jewish cookbook brought politics into the kitchen, along with new ideas about Jewish food and vegetarian cuisine" -- I'm intrigued by this review by Dana Kessler in Tablet Magazine.

From Martinelli's article in Forward:
the cover of Meyer's book.
I had never heard of this classic and would love to obtain a copy. A search of online sellers isn't productive at the moment, but perhaps I'll persist!

From the article:
“'What shall I cook? This problem, the concern of housewives the world over, is particularly acute in our country. The differences in climate and the necessary adjustments arising out of these differences compel the European housewife to make many drastic changes, particularly in her cooking.' 
"With these words, Dr. Erna Meyer introduced her cookbook, How to Cook in Palestine, which was published in Palestine in the mid-1930s in Hebrew, English, and German. 'We housewives must take an attempt to free our kitchens from European customs which are not applicable to Palestine. We should wholeheartedly stand in favor of healthy Palestine cooking,' writes Meyer, urging new Jewish immigrants to Palestine to shed their European identity and reinvent themselves according to the Zionist ideology. 'We should foster these ideas not merely because we are compelled to do so, but because we realize that this will help us more than anything else in becoming acclimatized to our old-new homeland.' 
"Meyer’s book is widely considered the first Jewish cookbook printed in Palestine during the British Mandate."
A more complete review appeared in Forward a few years ago: "Lessons From the First Israeli Cookbook" by Katherine Martinelli. From this review:
"Meyer repeatedly recommends making vegetables more central to every meal and offers meat substitutes for a variety of dishes from 'liver' made out of eggplant to 'meatballs' made out of soaked bread. Although her suggestions came from a place of economy rather than sustainability, they’d fit right in with Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan’s contemporary cries to consume less meat."
One can only hope that a facsimile edition will become available!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Samuel Tolkowsky, June 27, 1886 - December 19, 1965

Library copy of Hesperides.
Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits by Samuel Tolkowsky is hard to find, though fortunately for me, I have checked out the library copy shown above. This blog post is taken from my other blog,, because I think Tolkowsky is a very interesting secular Jewish figure.

Title page.
I find the obscurity of this book surprising, as it's full of fascinating and useful information. John McPhee cites it in his book Oranges; in fact, I think he used a variety of information from it in his historical section. Tolkowsky begins in ancient times, with the origins of citrus trees on the slopes of the Himalayas and in the boundary areas between India and China, and a grapefruit-like fruit in the Malay archipelago. The earliest written records of citrus are in China in a compendium dated around 500 BCE, including a number of older works that refer to the fruit. (p. 6)

Citrus spread through Asia and North Africa, and eventually to Europe, as Tolkowsky documents in several chapters. I found the descriptions of the introduction of citrus fruits into ancient Israel especially interesting. Tolkowsky traces the customs of the holiday of Succoth -- the Feast of Tabernacles -- to the influence of the Persians during their exile in the sixth century, and the introduction of these customs when they returned thanks to the decree of Cyrus. At this point, as the citron was as yet not known in Babylonia, the fruit that served in the ritual was not an etrog (citron), but a cedar cone, which appears in a number of images from that era.

By the second century of this era, the Jewish writings in the Mishnah definitely interpret the ritual fruit as an etrog; the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus also says this, saying "it was the 'Persian apple' that was used by the Jews during the Feast of Tabernacles." Tolkowsky continues the story: "The very earliest documentary evidence of the citron in Jewish sources is found in the representation of this fruit on coins struck by Simon the Maccabee in the fourth year of the 'Redemption of Zion,' that is, in 136 BC. If citrons were extensively grown in Palestine at the time, it seems probable that the center of the industry was at Jaffa." (p. 53)

Simon the Maccabee issued copper coins (above) bearing the picture of a citron
together with the bundle of myrtle, willow and palm branches prescribed
for use at the Feast of Tabernacles.  
Because Simon the Maccabee was the only Jewish ruler who depicted the etrog on his coins, Tolkowsky believes that Simon was the one who introduced the citron in place of the cedar cone.
Above: a bronze seal with Jewish symbols including an etrog. Below: a decorated glass vase including
an etrog and other fruits. From the Roman era.
Citrons were the earliest citrus fruits introduced into Europe, and Tolkowsky includes several chapters describing how later, oranges and lemons arrived in Roman times. Tolkowsky's illustrations include many Roman mosaics and other art works depicting oranges and lemons.

A detail of a mosaic from Pompeii.
Several chapters describe the ways that citrus fruits appear symbolically and literally in European art and literature from Roman times until the Renaissance and early modern period. The development of culinary uses for the fruits are very interesting also. Hesperides is rich in historical information that's not easy to find.

Some notes on Tolkowsky:

I managed to find a brief memoir of Samuel Tolkowsky and his family in Raphael Patai's memoir Journeyman in Jerusalem: Memories and Letters, 1933-1947. Patai (a well-known author) describes the "at home" Fridays at the home of Samuel Tolkowsky and his wife, beginning in 1933. Patai, a young man newly arrived in Jerusalem, met the family in 1933, when Samuel Tolkowsky was 47 years old. Tolkowsky, Patai says, was born in Belgium to Polish-Jewish parents, served as a member of the Zionist Political Committee under Chaim Weizmann in London during World War I, and settled in Palestine in 1919. During World War II, he headed the Citrus Control and Marketing Board set up by the British government there. Patai eventually married Naomi, the Tolkowsky's daughter. (source)

family tree posted at Geni gives Tolkowsky's dates as June 27, 1886, to December 19, 1965, and lists his parents, wife, and children.

Tolkowsky was the author of a number of other books that are even more obscure than Hesperides. Examples from google book search: The Gateway of Palestine: A History of Jaffa (1925) and The Jewish Colonisation in Palestine, Its History and Its Prospects (1914).

Even Wikipedia seems to have nothing about Hesperides or its author! Several years ago, Hesperides was listed in but no longer seems to be there, as I guess they never had a copy come up for sale. A few years ago one sold at Bonham's for £312 (US$ 443), according to the Bonham's website.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Franz Werfel and "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" -- New Information

I wrote about The Forty Days of Musa Dagh a few years ago when I read the book. Today I read a fascinating study of this book's influence: "From Musa Dagh to Masada: How Franz Werfel’s novel about the Armenian Genocide inspired the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and the Zionist resistance" by Stefan Ihrig in Tablet magazine.

This article describes how the book intentionally created parallels between the Armenian genocide (not yet called that) and the coming Jewish disaster. The book was too late to serve its intended purpose as a warning to the Germans because the Nazis suppressed and burned it immediately after its publication. However, it influenced the Jews in Palestine at the time -- a quote from the article:
Werfel’s book was translated into Hebrew as early as 1934. In an early review from the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) Dov Kimchi wrote extensively of the forthcoming book, based on excerpts published abroad. He wrote, among other things, that “we Hebrew readers … read into this book on the Armenians our very own tragedy.” A year later, in 1934, another review, by R. Seligmann in The Young Worker (Ha-Poel Ha-Tzair), expressed similar sentiments, observing, “The book is very interesting for the educated reader in general, but the Jewish reader will find it of special interest. The fate of this Armenian tribe recalls, in several important details, the fate of the people of Israel, and not surprisingly the Jewish reader will discover several familiar motifs, so well known to him from the life and history of his people.” In 1936, Moshe Beilinson wrote a more critical review. He was irritated by the fact that a Jew would erect such a monument to the suffering of another people. But he, at least partially, understood Werfel’s intentions: “This is no more than a shell, for in truth this is a Jewish book, not only because it was written by a Jew, but in a less abstract sense, simpler and more concrete, the author speaks of us, of our fate, of our struggle.”

Friday, March 4, 2016

Umberto Eco: "The Prague Cemetery"

Umberto Eco died last month. In remembering him, I decided to read The Prague Cemetery(published 2011). The book is full of fascinating illustrations, using etchings and other contemporary material from Eco's collection. I had the feeling that the author's imagination was stimulated by these images; I have reproduced several of them below.
Actual French journal from time of Dreyfus case.
(From The Prague Cemetery).

Normally I would write about the very large number of food descriptions in the book. The main narrator LOVES food, and describes many meals including French cuisine, Italian and Sicilian cooking. Food of the richest and poorest classes of society illustrate their fortunes and misfortunes. Equally interesting was Eco's vast knowledge of the city of Paris in the 19th century -- the streets, the sewers, the restaurants, the neighborhoods, and more. These descriptions were somewhat spoiled for me by the revolting antisemitism and visciousness of the central character and narrator, Simonini.

Here is an example of Simonini's love of fine French food and its setting in 19th century Paris -- the reader is expected to know the names of the dishes in French:
"The first place I wanted to indulge myself was Le Grand Véfour, in the arcades of the Palais-Royal. Though it was extremely expensive, I had heard it praised even in Turin, and Victor Hugo apparently used to go there to eat breast of mutton with haricot beans. The other place that had immediately seduced me was the Café Anglais, on the corner of rue de Gramont and boulevard des Italiens. It had once been a restaurant for coachmen and servants and now served le tout Paris at its tables. There I discovered pommes Anna, écrevisses bordelaises, mousses de volaille, mauviettes en cerises, petites timbales à la Pompadour, cimier de chevreuil, fonds d’artichauts à la jardinière and champagne sorbets. The mere mention of these names makes me feel that life is worth living." (The Prague Cemetery, Kindle Locations 2196-2202)
At the young-people's hostel.
The simultaneously racist and gourmet Simonini also writes about the terrible food of poor people when he is forced to deal with them. For example, this description of a hostel for poor students:
"As you entered, you were hit by the asphyxiating stench of rancid grease and mildew, and of soup that had been cooked and recooked over the years, leaving tangible traces on those greasy walls— though there was no apparent reason for this, since you had to bring your own food with you, and the house offered wine and plates only." (Kindle Locations 4771-4773)
Or in another passage, where he is entertaining a Russian business acquaintance (more about the business later):
"With a feeling of relief I invited Golovinsky to dinner at Paillard, on the corner of rue de la Chaussée d’Antin and boulevard des Italiens. Expensive, but superb. Golovinsky clearly appreciated the poulet à l’archiduc and the canard à la presse. But someone who came from the Steppes may well have tucked into choucroute with the same enthusiasm. It would have cost me less, and I could have avoided the waiters’ suspicious looks at a customer who masticated so noisily." (Kindle Locations 5717-5720)
Like most of Eco's books The Prague Cemetery is terribly complicated, and made even more challenging by the expectation that the reader would be familiar with a fairly high level of detail about the liberation of Italy, Napoleon III, the 1871 war between France and Germany, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus affair, and other events of that era, as well as food names in original languages. 

Further, a Jewish reader like me needs a thick skin to handle all the antisemitic stereotypes expressed by Simonini. Eco makes Simonini clearly despicable as well as self-absorbed -- including his utter lack of principles in all the political sides he pretends to take, his hatred of Jews, and several murders that he committed or claimed to have committed in the course of his unsavory life. Some of the illustrations are especially offensive -- the one at right is moderate in comparison. Still, it's a hard book to read.

Umberto Eco-style details add to the challenges. There are at least three narrators, mostly unreliable. In particular, the reader has to deal with the ambiguity of identity of Simonini and his double, a Catholic Abbé. Maybe the Abbé is just another character or maybe Simonini has some kind of split-personality disorder or maybe something else that I missed, though it's all finally explained towards the end (if you believe the explanation). In the final chapter of the book, Eco explains that Simonini is the only fictition of the book: all other events and characters are, he says, closely based on actual history. 

The character/narrator Simonini was ambiguously both Italian and French, having been born in a region on the border that was alternately a possession of each nationality. His profession was being a spy, a double agent, and above all a forger of documents. Among his invented documents he specialized in anti-Jewish and anti-Masonic ones, including a secret meeting of Jewish elders in the Prague cemetery (hence the title); a precursor to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This fictitious character then wrote the actual Protocols (which he was selling to the Russian he entertained at dinner). He also forged the papers that incriminated the innocent Dreyfus, and many others.

Obviously the way this fictitious character ties together many of the antisemitic inventions of the century is Eco's clever way of exploring the historic circumstances that created twentieth-century antisemitism, and continues to feed twenty-first century antisemitism. The play between real history and fiction is full of irony and fraught with Eco's knowledge of what happened to Simonini's creations after the end of the book.

Reviewer Rebecca Goldstein wrote the following in the New York Times:
"Umberto Eco’s latest fiction, 'The Prague Cemetery,' is choreographed by a truth that is itself so strange a novelist need hardly expand on it to produce a wondrous tale. Eco forthrightly explains that all his major characters but one are historical figures; but a reader unaware of how close to the truth Eco is hewing might be inclined to award him more points for inventiveness than he earns. This is not to say that Eco doesn’t earn points for inventiveness, nor that a novel can’t succeed on other grounds. It is just to say that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction." Umberto Eco and the Elders of Zion, NYT, November 18, 2011.

The historic "reality" reflected in the book isn't really the main key to what Eco was trying to do, I think. His handling of the details of life (like food, streets, military events, etc.) that would resonate with twenty-first century readers and his constant anticipation of the consequences of the ideas he explores make The Prague Cemetery a very complicated historical novel. All historical novels invent characters, actions, and circumstances to stand against the "real" historical background; this one does it in an exceptional way.

Note: this is also posted at, my other blog.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass

Born on this date in 1902: Langston Hughes, poet and writer of short sketches about Simple, a simple man. I'm a fan of Langston Hughes! See this biography. 

Born in February, 1818 and subject of today's google doodle: Frederick Douglass, advocate of freedom. See this biography. The doodle made me think about these two men, both heroic!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Another Poet to Read: Joseph Brodsky

In a review of a new theater piece/ballet about Joseph Brodsky in the New York Review of Books, Joan Accocella wrote about Brodsky's departure from Russia and how he came to Ann Arbor --
"When literary dignitaries came to Russia, he was often the person they wanted to meet. But he could not get a poem published in the Soviet Union, not to speak of obtaining permission to attend literary conferences outside the Soviet Union. This is the sort of tragicomedy in which the USSR specialized. The authorities eventually tired of it, though, and one day, in June 1972, he was simply taken to the airport and put on a plane.
"He did not know whether the plane was going east or west. It went west, to Vienna, and at the airport he was met by the American Slavist Carl Proffer, whom he knew, and whose small press, Ardis, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, would publish a number of his writings in Russian. Auden had a second home outside Vienna, and the day after Brodsky’s arrival Proffer rented a car and deposited Brodsky there, to what was apparently Auden’s surprise. Brodsky stayed for four weeks. Auden got him some money and called various people to say that he was coming.
"Proffer arranged for him to be given a job as poet in residence at the University of Michigan, where he himself taught."
Brodsky's Ann Arbor lodgings were just up the street from where I live, though, as I wrote in a previous post on Brodsky,  I never knowingly saw him. I found Acocella's biographical sketch very intriguing. While I rarely read poetry, I think I'll add Brodsky to my list for the coming year, which so far includes the poet Yehuda Amichai. In fact, I ordered a book of Amichai's poems today. The third poet on the list will be Robert Hayden (1913-1980).

From the New York Review of Books article titled "A Ghost Story" --

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Is it a New Year?

For me, it's definitely a New Year, 2016, though I am aware that it's not a new year for orthodox Jews, who only live within Jewish tradition. I believe that even religious Jews in the more liberal traditions think this is a New Year... not only those who see themselves as secular.


And here's a reading resolution: more poetry by Yehuda Amichai, who received a very appealing write-up in the New Yorker here:
Like a Prayer The poetry of Yehuda Amichai: by 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veterans' Day

For today, Veterans Day, I checked the statistics for Jewish participation in the Allied Forces during World War II, and found this:
"During the course of World War II, 550,000 Jewish men and women served in the armed forces of the United States. (Another 1 million Jews served in other Allied forces - 500,000 in the Soviet Army, 100,000 in Polish Military and 30,000 in British Army.)"
For the complete list of statistics about Jews in the war, see "World War II:Statistics on Jewish American Soldiers" at Jewish Virtual Library. According to this website, Jewish members of the US military suffered 38,338 casualties in the war. 11,000 were killed; 7,000 died in combat.

Today, Israelis honored their veterans of World War II:

"70 Years After WWII: Senior Jewish Fighters Honored: Former partisans, ghetto fighters, Soviet soldiers and volunteers in the British army among those who received special medal in memorial ceremony at Latrun"
by Ofer Aderet.

This photo from the article shows three of hundreds of surviving Israeli World War II veterans. Among those honored for Veterans' Day "were partisans, ghetto fighters, soldiers (mainly in the Soviet army) and volunteers from the pre-state Jewish community in the British army." The oldest honoree was Benzion Solomin, who is 102 years old; he spent time in a POW camp in Poland, and later fought in the Israeli Independence War.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

S. Ansky (1863-1920)

Ha'aretz today has an article titled "This Day in Jewish History, 1920 The Man Who Shook the World With 'The Dybbuk' Dies" by David Green.

S.Ansky died on November 8, 1920 at age 57. Anksy, whose birth name was Shloyme-Zanvel ben Aaron Hacohen Rappoport, is most famous for his play "The Dybbuk,"  According to the article, he was also "a champion of Yiddish, and of Jewish culture in general." As a young man he organized a Jewish literary society and journal, and he worked with the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

 In my opinion, Ansky's most amazing work was his effort to preserve Jewish culture and history. For example, he collected the minutes from synagogues throughout Russia, books where the Jews of various shtetls had written down their concerns, their quarrels, and the community events that were most important to them.

From the article:
"In 1911, cognizant of the threat that ongoing pogroms and emigration posed to the Jews of the Russian Pale and their culture, he departed on his first expedition on behalf of the Jewish Ethnographic Society, which was funded by Baron Vladimir Ginsbourg, a Kiev banker. Traveling around the provinces of Volhynia and Podolia, he and his team of researchers, intent on compiling a record of the traditions and culture of Russian Jewry, were armed with a list of some 2,500 questions for interviewees, and collected photos, folktales, music and manuscripts in the thousands."
"After the czar was overthrown, in February 1917, and Russia was led briefly by Alexander Kerensky, Ansky was elected to the new Constituent Assembly. When the Bolsheviks ousted Kerensky, Ansky fled, first to Vilna, then, in 1919, to Warsaw, where he died, on this day in 1920."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995)

Next week marks the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I haven't yet read any of the numerous articles asking whether he could have made a difference in Israeli history should he only have survived, and asking how the shock of that event might have influenced the current violence in Israeli society. I don't mind reading counter-historical fiction, but I don't think what-ifs help in understanding real current events. All I know is that the situation in Israel and the worldwide hatred of Israel is a very sad situation, and that I'm becoming more and more pessimistic.

A moment of hope, too long ago.
Of course this is the Rabin image that remains in my mind.

UPDATE: What Haaretz said:
"The past 15 years have been everything but peaceful, particularly in this part of the world. There is no reason to believe that solving the Palestinian issue would have been any easier than any of the other intractable messes blighting the Middle East. Clinging to the notion that if only Rabin had survived, we would be living in a better place now, is just an excuse not to acknowledge how hard this is to solve and avoid re-examining tired formulas." -- Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Correspondent

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Daniel Thompson, Inventor of the Bagel Machine

A fascinating obituary, including a history of how bagels became mainstream:

Daniel Thompson Dies; Invented Bagel Machine

Daniel Thompson with his father in a wonderful kitchen, 1970, from the NYT.
(Aside: I still have a step-stool just like the one at right, only mine is red.)
Quotes from the article:
"Mr. Thompson’s machine proved to be a mirror of midcentury American history. For bound up in the story of its introduction is the story of Jewish assimilation, gastronomic homogenization, the decline of trade unionism, the rise of franchise retailing and the perennial tension between tradition and innovation. ...
"The tough, round heart of North American Jewish cuisine, with European roots reaching back hundreds of years, the bagel was until the mid-1960s available only in cities with thriving Jewish neighborhoods, most emblematically New York. Its shape — which sprang from dough that was rolled by hand, coiled into rings and boiled in a kettle before being baked in a wood- or coal-fired oven — was said to symbolize the circle of life. 
"Such bagels, prized by purists but increasingly difficult to find now, were known for an earthy taste, an elastic crumb and a glossy, dauntingly hard crust born of their turn in the kettle."

Jewish Rye Bread and Wonder Bread (from my food blog)

"Whole -grain bread has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Actually, that renaissance got a first, false start during the 1960s, when the counterculture, steeped in romantic ideas about 'natural food,' seized on white bread as a symbol of all that was wrong with modern civilization. Brown bread, being less processed than white, was clearly what nature intended us to eat. They probably should have stopped there, but did not, alas. Baking and eating brown bread also became a political act: a way to express one's solidarity with the world's brown peoples (seriously), and to protest the 'white bread' values of one's parents, who likely served Wonder Bread at home. These ideals resulted in the production of some uncompromising and notably bricklike loaves of dark, seedy bread, which probably set back the revival of whole-grain baking a generation." -- (Cooked, p. 263)
In Cooked Michael Pollan writes about his efforts to learn to bake delicious, crusty, naturally-leavened bread, as well as about barbecuing and braising meat, fermenting vegetables, and about cooking in general. He discusses the history of white bread in America, and mentions that Wonder Bread and its competitors dominated the diet of Americans in the 1950s, as well as this interesting observation about 1960's "hippie texture" bread, which I remember with no pleasure at all.

In our family, Wonder Bread was the children’s bread. My sister, brother, and I, as we grew up in the fifties, ate Wonder Bread toasted for breakfast, and our bag lunches always contained sandwiches: peanut butter, tuna, sliced meat, yellow cheese or maybe cream cheese with walnuts on Wonder Bread. At dinner we ate bread too – my parents felt that bread was an essential part of every meal. I sometimes ate the slightly rubbery brownish Wonder crusts first and then squeezed and rolled the soft white center into a solid ball, which had an interesting texture in my mouth.

Even the wrappers of Wonder Bread, which constantly boasted of higher numbers of ways it “built strong bodies,” were for children. When I was in kindergarten or first grade, my friend Judy took one of the brightly colored Wonder Bread wax-paper wrappings to the playground at school and slid down the sliding board with it under her bottom. The wax made the slide really slippery – surprising the other kids when they slid down. Or maybe she just told me she wanted to do this, and didn’t really do it. I don’t know.
For our parents, Wonder Bread was at best unappealing, and I seriously doubt that they believed all its claims to foster growth in their children. Once or twice a week my father went to a Jewish bakery called Pratzel’s, which was a few blocks from our home in University City, MO. He always bought rye bread, which was what he liked to eat. He had several slices of rye bread with breakfast and dinner. I have no memory at all of what he ate for lunch most days, though corned beef on rye with a half-sour pickle might have been his Saturday choice.

This bakery rye was the closest to the bread of his childhood when rye bread was the main food, or even the only food, for almost all meals. Even for Passover, my radical father bought several loaves and kept them in the freezer so he wouldn’t have to resort to Wonder Bread, or for that matter, to matzoh.

Pratzel's made a number of other baked goods, which we ate as occasional treats: pumpernickel, a white bread called “buttercrust,” jelly donuts, bagels, kaiser rolls with a crisp crust, challah, cylindrical cinnamon bread made from a challah-like dough, cheese or jelly-filled Danish, and coffee cake or stollen. But rye bread was most important among all these choices.

My father didn’t just prefer Pratzel’s bread to grocery-store bread. He vastly preferred their baked goods to those from other Jewish bakeries. Each loaf of Pratzel’s rye bread had a Union Label on the heel of the bread, which I remember in a sort of schematic way; it was red and blue. It wouldn’t surprise me if some kind of union politics, not only taste, played a role in my father’s bakery preference. He had a lot of politics in his background. 

As we grew a little older, our taste in bread moved much closer to our parents’ taste, and we began eating the same bread that they did. I think by the time we were teenagers, the flamboyant red, blue, and yellow bubbles on the Wonder Bread package no longer appeared in the white metal flower-decorated Bread Box in my mother’s pantry. Just the white paper bags – or later plastic bags – containing real Jewish rye and other real bread. As a result, I didn't experience the sixties bread folly in anything like the same way that a lot of people did!

In Pollan's long and very readable narrative about bread in Cooked, he visited a Wonder Bread factory and several small-scale artisan bakeries, but he never visited any old-style ethnic bakeries like Pratzel's, though it would have been possible for him to do so. As it happens, Pratzel's Bakery remained in business until the fall of 2012, closing after almost 100 years of baking. Wonder Bread, a brand founded in 1921, was owned by several baking companies in its long history. When the Hostess corporation went out of business, coincidentally also in the fall of 2012, Wonder Bread was one of the brands that disappeared from supermarket and convenience store shelves -- but it came back around a year later.

I've written about some of our family food choices, including bread, before. Other blog posts on Wonder Bread and bread history:

Monday, August 31, 2015

"Dora Bruder" by Patrick Modiano

View of the accommodation block at Drancy with French gendarme on guard
-- from Wikipedia article "Drancy internment camp."
Memory and forgetting are the topics of the book Dora Bruder by recent Nobelist Patrick Modiano. Dora Bruder, born in 1926, ran away and disappeared from her Catholic school, disappeared from her family, disappeared finally into transit camps in France and then into the Holocaust, eventually disappeared from the memories of possible schoolmates, of possible teachers, of anyone possible at all.

Years after the war ended, Modiano had seen a Paris newspaper ad from 1941 asking for news of Dora. She had run away from her school; he became curious and over a period of years, he tried to find out about her life as a Jewish child, a French citizen, daughter of an Austrian-Jewish man and a Hungarian-Jewish woman living legally in a hotel on a particular street in Paris. He searched for information about her life as a runaway or about her life as a child perhaps being hidden by nuns in a Catholic school. He searched for people that had known her, but finds only people whose experiences were simultaneous and parallel.

As Modiano searched, we learn from the book, he visited the streets where she lived and walked, streets already familiar to him because he'd lived his life in the same neighborhood. Exact locations in Paris are so important that one needs Paris street maps. Two small maps, along with a few photos of Dora, illustrate the book.

Modiano, who was born in 1945, writes of his own life -- in safer times -- as he writes about his effort to reconstruct the life of Dora Bruder. She's gone, he finds: disappeared. Of course the idea is that a vast community of lives were not only lost, but their memories completely erased; vast numbers of people disappeared as did this one in particular. 

In writing, Modiano manages to make this point with discretion and subtlety, without being melodramatic. He matter-of-factly describes his search for information about Dora and where she had run to, and where she ended up. He forces the reader to ask the hard questions.

Here's an example. Modiano describes a film, a trivial film, titled Premier rendez-vous that showed in Paris in 1941: "a harmless comedy." He had seen the film decades later. Had Dora seen it? He wondered. The film seemed to have a "peculiar luminosity... Every image seemed veiled in an arctic whiteness that accentuated the contrasts and sometimes obliterated them. The lighting was at once too bright and too dim, either stifling the voices or making their timbre louder, more disturbing." (p. 65)

Modiano speculated:
"Suddenly, I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation -- people from all walks of life, most of whom would not have survived the war.They had been taken out of themselves after having seen this film one Saturday night, their night out. While it lasted, you forgot the war and the menacing world outside. Huddled together in the dark of a cinema, you were caught up in the flow of images on the screen, and nothing more could happen to you. And by some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film, the lighting, the voices of the actors. This is what I had sensed, thinking of Dora Bruder and faced with the ostemsibly trival images of Premier rendez-vous." (p. 66)
Obviously reading this book is an extremely painful experience, and obviously it must have been even more painful to write. With the world today full of refugees, full of death as they try to find anywhere that they can live, it's even more painful than when Modiano wrote it around 20 years ago. Painful. Impossible.

The last paragraph of the book:
"I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when seh escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History, time -- everything that defiles and destroys you -- have been able to take away from her." (p. 119)
This also appears at