Friday, December 14, 2012

Scientific Exploration of Religious Belief

In the current online New York Times (Dec. 13, 2012) I read an op-ed by T.M.Luhrmann about evangelical Christians, including Catholics, and their sensory imagining of Biblical events. It starts with citation of the Pope’s recent book, where he talks about the importance of understanding exactly what the Biblical text says and does not say; for example, the account of Jesus in the manger doesn’t mention singing angels or lowing animals. The pope finds nothing wrong with imagining their presence, but warns about keeping perspective on reality.

Luhrmann describes how important these imagined extensions are, especially where evangelicals imagine a personal relationship with God: “…evangelicals talk about the Bible as if it is literally true, but they also use their imagination to experience the Bible as personally as possible.”

In a fascinating article about out-of-body and near-death experiences and their neurology, published in the Atlantic this week, Oliver Sacks commented about Luhrmann’s book on the same subject as her article. Sacks, who has been writing about his experiences treating people with odd brain problems for many years, explores the whole topic of such religious revelations in the context of exactly what’s going on in the brain.

As a determined secularist, believing only in the material world, I find the examination of religious beliefs and their origins very interesting. I am really interested in learning about the origin of sprituality, and both articles addressed exactly the kind of understanding I would like to have.

Here’s a longer passage from Luhrmann’s article that explores the topic:
I am no theologian and I do not think that social science can weigh in on the question of who God is or whether God is real. But I think that anthropology offers some insight into why imaginatively enriching a text taken as literally true helps some Christians to hang on to God when they are surrounded by a secular world.

First, this way of knowing God involves what social scientists would call “active learning.” These evangelical churches invite worshipers to enter Scripture with all their senses. …  To Christian critics of these practices, they are a distortion of the Scripture, because they add to the text more than is actually there — your own memories of a summer by the seaside, the feel of heavy robes. To a social scientist, these practices ask that the learner engage in the most effective kind of learning: hands on and engaged.

Second, these practices make the experience of God personally specific. Vivid, concrete details help people to get caught up in a world that is not the one they see before them — and the more particular the details, the more powerful the involvement. Richly described settings — Narnia, Middle-earth, Hogwarts — become places that people can imagine on their own. Of course someone like J. K. Rowling might be horrified that readers have written tens of thousands of stories that carry on the lives of her characters, just as some evangelicals are horrified by other evangelicals who cozy up to God over a beer and chat with him in their minds. But social science suggests that details like these do make what must be imagined feel more real. -- “Hark! The Herald Angels Didn’t Sing” by T.M.Luhrmann, in the New York Times.

As a longtime fan of Sacks, I was especially happy to learn his explanation of the biological basis for religious experiences. He explains that religious people of the sort Luhrmann described are sometimes able to reproduce the pathological experiences of brain crises by vividly imagining religious experiences. Here is a passage from his article:

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route -- the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.

She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization -- imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:

Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind's eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.

Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of "presence" are accompanied by intense emotion -- emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one -- but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.) -- “Seeing God in the Third Millennium” by Oliver Sacks, in the Atlantic.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Franz Werfel: The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

“The most horrible thing that had been done was not that a whole people had been exterminated, but that a whole people, God’s children, had been dehumanized.” – The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, 2012 edition, p. 727)

I found The Forty Days of Musa Dagh – which I had never before read in any form -- amazing in a number of ways. I devoured the dense, nearly 900 page novel in just a few days, unable to put it down. I read the newly-published translation of Franz Werfel’s 1933 masterpiece, which includes about 25% more narrative than the previous English version.

I wrote this review initially for my other blog, but it fits the secular Jewish identity theme of this blog very well. I should research more about Werfel, who was born September 10, 1890, in Prague, grew up a friend of Kafka and Max Brod, and despite rumors to the contrary and the subject of his most famous book (The Song of Bernadette), never converted from Judaism.

I have written here a brief summary of what I find most admirable in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

First, I admired Werfel’s research into the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Turks. I think the history of these events was already being suppressed by the late 1920s when Werfel began writing. His description of the ragged, starving, perishing Armenian masses of men, women, and children from the village of Zeitun was vivid. His descriptions of the Turkish authorities and their rationale for the genocide (not yet given a name) were overwhelming.

The day-by-day description of the people of seven Armenian villages near the Syrian coast who hid in the woods on the mountain Musa Dagh and resisted the deportation to nowhere being inflicted by the Turks is powerfully drawn. Each episode is based on true stories, particularly the survival of a few thousand villagers on Musa Dagh and their rescue by French troop ships.

Werfel maintained a remarkable balance between descriptions of collective suffering and of individual agony, so that the reader’s consciousness is drawn in both directions. He occasionally mentions acts of mercy by non-Armenians, but clearly shows that the moral bankruptcy of the Turkish leaders (quite a few directly taken from history) corrupted the common people, who are mostly depicted as looting and then resettling the villages whose inhabitants have been forced out. Also corrupted: the military, civil, and police authorities who directly deprived the Armenians of life and property.

On the political side, I kept thinking: how could Werfel write a Holocaust analogy before the Holocaust began? But I know the tragic answer: he was trying to warn of the terrible future that somehow he saw so clearly. Although he clearly admires the German Pastor Johannes Lepsius, another of the historical characters depicted in the book, he had no illusions about the meaning of the events to the mainstream German observers. While Lepsius begs everyone who will listen to act to save the Armenians, almost no one will listen to him; what aid he musters is too little too late. My very sad reaction to Werfel’s attempted warning was that the main learners who took a lesson from the massacre of the Armenians were the Nazis, not the humanitarians and not any future victims.

On the novelistic side, I was also impressed by the author’s choice of central characters, the French-educated Gabriel Bagradian. While the history is powerful, I thin Werfel keeps the reader’s attention through the depiction of Bagradian, his family, his determination to save his fellow Armenians, and his close relationships. Bagradian’s conflicts between his self-interest and his loyalty to his people, his developing identity from identification with France and Europe to embracing of an Armenian identity, his developing leadership in military and political affairs, and his tragic ending create a perfect story against which Werfel presents the historical themes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Yosef Haim Brenner (September 11, 1881)

In anticipation of the birthdate of Yosef Haim Brenner, I read his novel Breakdown and Bereavement. Brenner was an early pioneer to Israel, where he first settled in 1909. He attempted to work in agriculture, but most of his life there was in Jerusalem where he was a typesetter, a translator, and a novelist. My knowledge of Brenner prior to this project was one fact: he died in an anti-Jewish riot in Jaffa in 1921.

According to a biography: "In addition to his original works in Hebrew and Yiddish, Brenner translated Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, as well as works by Tolstoy and works in German, Brenner was the most prominent literary figure in Eretz Israel in his day, and was responsible for moving the center of Hebrew literary activities away from Europe." ("Joseph Haim Brenner: 1881-1921")

The novel especially appeals to me because of its first-hand descriptions of the life of Jews in Ottoman Palestine. Their lives are difficult and disappointing. They face poverty and discouragement, humiliation at having to accept charity from abroad, and an erosion of their self-respect for many reasons.

The first character described in the book, Yehezkel Hefetz, tries to work in a Jewish agricultural colony (prior to the invention of the kibbutz according to p. 7 -- the word kibbutz doesn't appear in the book). Hefetz is immediately injured while working, also contracts malaria, and is sent to Jerusalem for medical help. He then has a nervous breakdown -- a "psychic disturbance."

During his breakdown Hefetz is hounded by fear, especially fear of the Arabs: "He spoke of their national awakening and of their hatred for the Jew he was obsessed ... by the possibility of a pogrom, over which he wracked his brain, soliciting advice and making endless plans for rescue and relief." (p. 14) I assume this means that underlying fears of the Arabs were in everyone's mind, and that Brenner was both in touch with the fear and terribly unlucky.

After a stay in a hospital, Hefetz returns to life in Jerusalem; the major part of the book treats his relationship with a family who are eking out a living, barely, relying on charity. I found the plot less interesting than the details about the characters' daily lives -- their fear of being evicted for not paying their rent; their reaction to the few Jews who were somehow becoming rich; their relationships with the dispensers of charity from abroad ("the dole"); the attempts by older men among them to continue with the exact sort of scholarly Jewish lives they had led in Russia; their reactions to the development of Hebrew as a spoken language (they believed in the new choice of Sephardic pronunciation but couldn't do it well; in fact were not polished at speaking it at all). The characters in this book had a relatively conventional religious life like the one they had left behind in Russia, though they are aware of the secular and idealistic pioneers with a completely different attitude.

Each character in Hefetz's life offers the reader of 100 years later a variety of hard facts about life in Jerusalem before World War I. One for example, Reb Yosef, spent much of his time in studying, but most of his valuable books had been lost during his immigration because he couldn't find the money for the customs duties.

As we first encounter Reb Yosef, "He munched on a piece of bread, chewing his cud and looking at his book, whispering the words out loud and chewing on them too." (p. 37) Later, "Reb Yosef popped a pickled green olive and about half an oliveweight of soft bread into his mouth. As he talked he cut away the crust, which was too hard for his worn teeth to bite into, and left it on the table. For a moment his face lit up ... " and he discusses a wide-ranging set of philosophical topics, beginning with Spinoza's Ethics. (p. 43)

Reb Yosef's daughter Miriam longs for learning, but we see her cooking soup while speaking to the young man who tutors her and worrying about her responsibilities to provide a meal to various people as well as for cleaning the house. (p. 52-54) She was disillusioned because men thought "that a woman was good only for cooking ... and cook was all she did: the life wasn't fit for a dog! Forty mouths to feed, and each with its own pretensions and demands: one wanted sour cream, another four eggs in his omelet, another stewed fruit, another pudding every day." Her thoughts run on and on about the wrongs she feels and the way the men treat her. Cooking becomes a metaphor for what's wrong with both Miriam and with Hefetz, I think. (p. 65)

Her father ignores her; she doesn't get along with her sister; eventually both of them become involved in some way with Hefetz or at least in his slightly mad thoughts or anticipations. She takes on his care as he goes through another bout of illness (malaria?). He has dreams, seemingly in response to Miriam's hard-to-digest spinach cakes and refuses to drink water -- "Toadstools and spinach cakes!" he cries out, hoping in his feverish state for "a miracle." (p. 81-82) He also has weird dreams later including thoughts of tomato stew and a horse that is fed halvah. (p. 116)

As Dara Horn says in a review of the book (published by the Yiddish Book Center): "Hefetz finds that his Diaspora-fed neuroses are not so easily left behind." The characters become more and more depressed as the book continues. Horn points out how the readers at the time reacted: "Brenner’s novel astonished its Jewish readers in the Diaspora – even those whom one would least expect to take offense at its despairing tone. Franz Kafka, one of its eager readers, expressed his consternation with the novel in a letter to a friend with a single phrase: 'Sadness in Palestine?' But the sadness in Brenner’s Palestine goes beyond shattering myths."

The continuing plot of the book involves several instances of the characters attempting to run away from life in Jerusalem by moving to Jaffa and Tiberias. As I said, I found the character development less interesting than the details of daily life and of the exhausting and inadequate means of travel by horse-drawn carriage on terrible roads, with stops at Arab inns. But as Horn puts it: "The ending is stylistically awkward, and its disjointed nature is part of a larger artistic flaw in the novel – one best described as an authorial sense of urgency, in which what Brenner needs to say often overwhelms his eloquence in saying it."

Brenner wrote the book in 1914. It was first published in 1920. The translation I read dates from 1971. According to the introduction, "World War I radically changed the landscape of Palestine and opened up to Zionist settlement possibilities, previously only dreamt of, that were not long in being exploited." Thus the portrayal of pre-war life was already historically interesting by the time the novel was published, and all the more now!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Trieste Reading

My last two blog posts, Trieste and How Trieste Became Secular, have been about the Jews of Trieste, Italy. I was especially seeking information about the secular nature of this community and how it got that way. For this project, I have read several books and articles, such as the beautiful large-format book illustrated at right.

To obtain background material on Trieste at the beginning of the twentieth century, I read the pre-war-written article in my incredible old Brittanica:
Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Trieste” (1921 edition, Volume 17, pp 267-268)

Because Trieste’s Jewish community had such a strong influence on James Joyce, I tried to see what Joyce would have found during his stay there. This question is of interest to Joyce scholars because Joyce transferred much of what he learned about and from the Trieste Jews to his portrayal of the character Leopold Bloom (who of course in the novel Ulysses spends the entire time in Dublin).

Besides Joyce’s most famous friends novelist Italo Svevo and newspaper owner Teodoro Mayer, he encountered a variety of other Jews who were there. I learned for example, that during the early years of his time there, Joyce even rented rooms for a time from a Jewish landlady, who helped out when Nora Barnacle was having her first child (Years of Bloom p. 39). I learned that among many concerts he attended, Joyce once heard a performance of a Mahler symphony conducted by the composer (Years of Bloom p. 124).

Works on this subject:
Maura Hametz, "Zionism, Emigration, and Antisemitism in Trieste: Central Europe's 'Gateway to Zion,' 1896-1943," Jewish  Social Studies, New Series, Society, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Spring/Summer 2007), pp.103-134
Gur Alroey, "Journey to Early-Twentieth-Century Palestine as a Jewish Immigrant Experience" Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Winter, 2003), pp. 28-64
John McCourt, The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920. University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
John McCourt, James Joyce: A Passionate Exile. Orion Media, 2000.
Peter Hartshorn, James Joyce and Trieste. Greenwood Press, 1997.

For my second post, How Trieste Became Secular, as noted there, I read:
Lois C. Dubin, The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture. Stanford University Press, 1999.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

How Trieste Became Secular

The book The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste by Lois C. Dubin (Stanford University Press, 1999) presents the history of the small Jewish community of 18th century Trieste. This history seems to offer a lesson in how Enlightenment ideas formed a new idea of a Jewish community -- a much more secular one than previous communities. 

Dubin documents how some Jews resisted the development of a more flexible way of life. They saw positive factors in the confinement of a self-governing Jewish body, and were not enthusiastic about introduction of more individual freedoms. Other members of the Jewish community welcomed the changes and the promise of more independent decisions regarding religious practice. Ultimately the result of the changes was a more assimilated group with more individual self-determination.

In around 1719  the Austrians invited capable Jews from their own lands, from Italy, from the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere to participate in developing an economic miracle in the Habsburg’s principal Mediterranean port, joining a small community that had been there for centuries. In this newly free port, Jewish communal privileges were greater than those in cities of the Austrian Empire such as Vienna and Prague. Further, the Jews were not to be the only religious minority: Protestants, Greek Catholics, and members of other Eastern Christian groups were also welcomed if they brought economic contributions to the growing city.

Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs were attracted by a number of favorable conditions in the new free port. As elsewhere, all the Jews in the city had to belong to a self-governing community (sometimes called a Nation). Jewish authorities, designated or approved by the Habsburg rulers, controlled all aspects of life inside the community, religious and otherwise. Rabbis and other communal leaders enforced Jewish laws for marriage, divorce (legal for Jews not the Catholic majority), religious observance, education, personal relationships, economic contracts between Jews, and crime of Jew against Jew (theft, bodily harm, etc). Jewish courts tended to Jewish affairs. Jews became subject to civil law only when it concerned their external economic affairs, their relationships with Christians, or crimes committed outside the Jewish community.

The Jewish community of Trieste received a number of special privileges, mainly economic, distinguishing them from other Habsburg Jewish communities and most communities elsewhere in Europe. Trieste’s Jews were exempt from certain extra taxes paid by Jews elsewhere in the empire, from payment for civil cases in court, and from restrictions on travel.

The number of Jews in Trieste was small but growing. In 1735, there were 103 Jews in a total population of 3865. By 1802 it was 1247 out of more than 20,000; by 1820 it reached around 2400 out of 33,000. (Dubin, p. 21) For this community, the enforcement of a Ghetto where Jews were required to live was very casual, and over time, Jews began to live in other quarters, sometimes even sharing residences with non-Jews. Living outside of the enforced Jewish neighborhood occurred mainly for material reasons; the religious practice of the in- and out-dwellers appears not to have been particularly different. Until the end of the 18th century, the Jews in Italy, where most of those in Trieste came from, were strictly confined to Ghettos, most famously that of nearby Venice; strict residence requirements and prohibitions existed in most other countries as well.

The Jewish residents of Trieste soon challenged Jewish authorities by ignoring certain religious traditions, as Dubin documents in interesting detail. Authorities or neighbors accused their peers of openly eating non-kosher food in non-Jewish establishments, or of violating the prohibitions of work, reading or travel on sabbath and holidays. The Jewish communal authorities in some cases declared long-patronized bakeries and taverns off-limits. Ordinary people didn’t necessarily comply with the tighter rules – or any rules. One couldn’t call it freedom, but people seem to have been making choices that weren’t available in more restricted environments.

Meanwhile, in the course of the 18th century, Austria was modernizing under the influence of the Enlightenment. The Haskalah, Jewish version of the Enlightenment led by Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin, influenced the Jewish response to these laws. As the century progressed, the Habsburgs made new laws covering civil regulation of all residents with wide reprecussions for the Jews of Trieste.

One change arose from a new decree that all communities in the empire should educate their children in secular subjects and languages. Elsewhere in the empire and in Germany, Jewish communities saw secular education as a threat to their way of life, and resisted or insisted that the children’s education be in two separate schools. Jewish scholars for and against the Haskalah debated about such a change. Italian Jews had been allowed to attend the University of Padua and other Christian schools to become physicians and obtain other education, and thus were likely to value secular education.

After discussing all these influences, the Jews of Trieste were among the first to have a Jewish school that also taught state-mandated subjects like history, Italian and German languages, and literature outside the traditional Jewish curriculum.

A bigger conflict of interests emerged when the Habsburgs created a body of civil law regarding marriage, specifying that the religious authorities comply with the civil law while still performing the marriages. The government’s laws set the age of consent to marriage: parental consent for the new civil marriage was 24 but in was and always had been 13 for Jewish law. Civil law required advance public announcement (bans) for legal marriage; Jewish law respected private ceremonies with a small number of witnesses. Jewish laws about which relatives could marry and restrictions on a Kohen marrying a divorced women conflicted with civil law. Several high-profile cases testing these issues – which Dubin presents with much evidence from the archives --  ultimately undermined the strength of the religious authorities.

Similar conflicts engulfed the Jewish communities of France under the revolution. However, in Trieste, there was no sudden change, meaning that a variety of individuals participated in the process of resolving the conflicts. Debate as well as court cases engaged those supporting traditional religious practice, those fearing conflict with the authorities (and thus threat to their  extraordiary well-being and prosperity), and those who had embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Haskala.

Trieste was never all that important in the general scheme of things. Much more important historically were the French Revolution – applying the “rights of Man” to Jews -- and the dramatic acts of Napoleon in destroying the gates of the ghettos in Mantua and Venice. But the debates and changes that Dubin describes seem to illuminate many ideas that still affect the relationship of established religion and secular government, and the continuing conflicts in modern times that emerge from the dictates of religion and long Jewish traditions.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Trieste as I saw it a few years ago was a quiet European city far from the standard tourist itinerary. A main attraction of Trieste is called Miramar: the castle of Maximillian of Austria, built in the mid-19th century. Compared to Tuscan hill towns, Sicily’s Greek ruins, and Roman splendor it’s not much. I found it very stuffy in its Victorian way!

During the first years of the twentieth century, Trieste was a very different type of place – the major port of the Austrian Empire, bustling with ship-building and related industries, international trans-shipping and trade, insurance companies, and more: it was a commercial and cultural hub.

Miramar Castle, Trieste

The Trieste of 100 years ago is one of the cities of Eastern Europe that I find intriguing, and I’ve begun reading about it in my ongoing study of Jewish secular culture of the past. Its history resonates with similarities to Odessa (a free port, with many ethnic and language groups attracted by the freedom) and influences from Vienna, both of which I read about earlier this year.

Politically a lot was going on in Trieste as well: the 75% of the population who were Italian, especially, had nationalist Italian sentiments, and socialism attracted others. Italian opera and plays were popular, and a variety of newspapers reflected political and intellectual trends in Italy. Numerous civil servants of the Empire used German as their main language, but in the street and culturally, Italian predominated.

James Joyce offers the most famous Jewish connection with Trieste – in fact, he’s surely the most famous person who lived there during those glorious years. He arrived there almost at random in 1904 with his life partner Nora Barnacle (eventually his wife, but not then). After a false start in a nearby town, Joyce settled into a job teaching English at the Berlitz school and sometimes freelance; he stayed until Trieste became a battleground in World War I. He became fluent in standard Italian and the local Italian of Trieste, and wrote reviews and other types of essays for one of the papers, as well as giving public lectures about Ireland and other subjects. The nationalists identified with the Irish independence struggle as Joyce described it.

Joyce’s students were typical of the white-collar middle class of Trieste. They wanted to learn English mainly for advancement in their jobs in international business. Trieste was growing as new rail lines were being built to connect new cities in Austria, and as the port was being expanded; languages beyond the native German, Italian, Greek, and Slavic were needed.

Among Joyce’s contacts and students were many Jews, including a newspaper owner and other prominent intellectuals. Interested in the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of this port city, Joyce often attended various religious services (although remaining a strictly lapsed and anti-cult Catholic). He seems to have been partial to one of the Eastern Catholic services.

Attending a synagogue service once, he recognized many of his students – though quite a few of his Jewish associates and students were themselves lapsed from religious practice. Something like 1200 of the 5500 Jews in Trieste at the time were “without confession,” which could mean they weren’t practicing or that they had intermarried with non-Jews. The Jewish community counted them and found them a matter for concern (as Jewish communities have been doing ever since).

Joyce’s closest friend among the local community in Trieste was his student Italo Svevo. At the time they met, Svevo needed to learn English because of his work as a manager for a supplier to the ship-building industry. Privately, Svevo was also an author – unrecognized and unappreciated. Joyce was not much more successful yet either. They read each other’s work, discussed their efforts, and mutually supported one another. Eventually, Joyce became a highly successful author, and was able to arrange for much wider distribution, reviews, and translations of Svevo’s work, but at the beginning they were much closer to equals.

Svevo was one of the lapsed Jews that the community worried about. He had been raised as a Jew in a complicated, partially Jewish family, but married a Catholic in a civil ceremony, and eventually converted to Catholicism. Joyce, being fascinated by all things Jewish, used Svevo as one of many sources and inspirations while writing Ulysses. In an interchange between Stanislaus Joyce (brother of James who lived with the family in Trieste), and Svevo, it is said that Svevo asked Stanislaus for some secrets or unknown facts about Irishmen – claiming he wanted to be even with James Joyce who constantly asked him about the Jews.

I try to imagine Trieste as Joyce and Nora saw it before the Great War: coffee shops, restaurants, well-dressed, ambitious affluent people in the street, much building and development of infrastructure and industry. They lived downtown where there was lots of activity, as well as the school where Joyce worked. They loved to take walks, including to Miriamar whose gardens were open to the public.

Despite being surrounded by prosperity, the Joyces struggled to make ends meet; after her second child was born in a charity ward, Nora received a cash gift because they were so poor. They struggled to support their two children, and often begged or demanded money from friends and relatives. Svevo once referred to Joyce as “a leech” but he seemed good natured and in fact was very generous towards him with loans and gifts of money.

Among the many appealing features of the city, Trieste was full of activity and trade with the Levant and the West and with people traveling. Joyce’s strong sense of himself as an exile and themes of exile in his work are often (I mean really often) discussed – I wonder how his sense of exile was influenced by the many travelers and emigrants, especially by the opening in 1904, about the time he arrived, of direct emigrant service from the port of Trieste to New York for the masses of people leaving the Austrian Empire and Eastern Europe.

A few other emigrants leaving Trieste from Central and Eastern Europe were Zionists departing for Jaffa via Alexandria – though many more would have traveled through Odessa, because the fare was half as much and the voyage was direct. Some of the Jews of Trieste were committed to helping these emigrants in transit, though most of them were quite content with their Triestine lives, not interested themselves in making Aliah.

All this ended with World War I; the city, important as it was, was directly affected. Joyce’s brother Stanislaus was interned in a camp for four years for possibly unjust political reasons. Joyce and Nora left with their children.

After the War, the Joyce family briefly returned to Trieste. The Italian nationalists had what they always wanted: they were now part of Italy. But it didn’t turn out the way they had hoped, because the importance of being the sole port of the Austrian Empire was lost, and the city quickly became a backwater. Further, the post war era was a time of shortages and desperation – Joyce couldn’t afford any decent clothing, and did not find even the low level of employment he had before the war. They left for Paris and Zurich, and Trieste continued to decline.

Things went even worse for the Jews, who lost their opportunities and often their livlihood, were persecuted mildly by the Fascists, and then exterminated by Hitler.

I will discuss my sources for this in a future blog post, as well as going into more detail about the Jews of Trieste.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sir Ludwig Guttmann

The upcoming 2012 Paralympics in London has been the occasion for a celebration of the life and work of Sir Ludwig Guttmann, founder of the games. A BBC show on his life, an exhibit at the Jewish Museum of London, and a number of articles and web pages about his life have recently paid tribute to Guttmann and his accomplishments.

During the 1940s, Guttmann was a physician at Stokes-Mandeville Hospital in England, treating victims of spinal cord injury, especially soldiers injured in World War II. Before his innovations, most such victims died very quickly of bedsores or infections. According to the Stokes-Mandeville page on Guttmann "The mortality rate of traumatic paraplegia in British and American Armies during World War I was still very high reaching 80%. The few survivors carried on living as useless and hopeless cripples, unemployable and unwanted, condemned for the rest of their lives to institutions for incurable patients with no encouragement to return to a useful life. Life expectancy was a mere 3 months following injury."(The story of the World War I paraplegic on "Downton Abbey" seems to have been based on wishful thinking.)

Guttmann worked with the injured and their caregivers to dramatically improve treatment and also to change the attitude towards such disabilities and help the recovering individuals to lead meaningful lives. Introducing them to archery was part of his effort. From the website of the 2012 Paralympics: "In 1948, Dr Ludwig Guttmann organised a wheelchair archery competition at Stoke Mandeville hospital for World War II soldiers with spinal cord injuries. The competition took place between sports clubs and other hospitals on the same day as the Opening Ceremony of the London 1948 Olympic Games. Four years later, as more sports were added, athletes from Holland joined in and the international Paralympic Movement was born."

Before arriving in Britain as a refugee in 1939, Gutmann had already shown heroic behavior against the rise of antisemitism in Germany. The Stokes-Mandeville page on Guttmann states: "From 1919 until 1924 while he was studying medicine in Freiburg he became active in a Jewish fraternity, whose purpose was information and awareness against anti-Semitism in the Universities. This fraternity gradually evolved into a centre of physical training and sport, to acquire body strength, skills, confidence and self-esteem so that 'nobody needed to be ashamed of being a Jew.'"

On Kristallnacht in 1938 Guttmann offered refuge in his hospital to Jews fleeing the riots. An article in the Telegraph provides this summary of his heroism:
“The next day the Gestapo came to see my father, wanting to know why so many admissions had happened overnight,” Guttmann’s daughter, Eva Loeffler, recalls. Guttmann took them round all the new “patients”, inventing diagnoses. “My father was adamant that all the men were sick… He took the Gestapo from bed to bed, justifying each man’s medical condition.” In his unfinished memoirs, Guttmann recalls that 60 of the 64 admissions from the previous night were saved from the concentration camps. Fully expecting to be hauled off himself, he had donned boots and a coat before setting off to the hospital the next morning. 
The incident was one of several in which Guttmann risked his life for his compatriots, as the noose tightened around Germany’s Jewish population. It illustrates the qualities of this formidable neurosurgeon, according to those who knew him: compassion, a strong sense of justice, and immense courage. They were qualities that would help transform the lives of thousands in the years to come – first in Britain where he, his wife Else and two children arrived as virtually penniless refugees the following year, and eventually, around the world. -- "Paralympics founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann's legacy celebrated in BBC drama"

Note: I thank my friend Sheila for suggesting this hero.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

American Secularism

Tablet Magazine has a review of an interesting book:

The Secular Revival

Jacques Berlinerblau’s book How To be Secular makes a historical case for a strong church-state division

Sounds very interesting. Quote:

At its core, secularism isn’t a rejection of religion, but rather a political philosophy that “is preoccupied with, and often deeply suspicious of, any and all relations between government and religion.”

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Adele Bloch-Bauer (August 9, 1881)

Adele Bloch-Bauer is best-known as the subject of two portraits by Gustav Klimt. Her descendants have had to fight for possession of these portraits, which were confiscated from the family in the Nazi era. I wrote about her last February as part of my study of cities where secular Jews had a major role (a study that I'm about to resume).

Bloch-Bauer herself played a role in the intense intellectual life of early-20th-century Vienna. Her salon welcomed many famous participants including "the composers Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) and Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879–1964), the authors Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) and Jakob Wassermann (1873–1934), artists from the circle of Gustav Klimt, actors from the Burgtheater, and after WWI, the Socialists Karl Renner (1870–1950) and Julius Tandler (1869–1936)." (See this article.)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper

OLD POLYMATHS NEVER DIE -- a recent article on "the unstoppable legacies of Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper" offers an overview of the popularity and continued publications by these two authors.

Author Adrian Wooldridge says: "Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher, died in 1997, aged 88; Hugh Trevor-Roper, the historian, died in 2003, aged 89. But in death both men have been more prolific than when they were alive." The contrasts and comparisons of the two men are quite interesting. Berlin's Jewish roots in Eastern Europe were mentioned, though they are not explored in this article. I would eventually like to see a further exploration of the influence on him of this background.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Elias Canetti (July 25, 1905)

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1981 was awarded to Elias Canetti "for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power" -- from the Nobel Prize website.

I have read parts of Canetti's famous memoirs, because I wanted to know about the Bulgarian Jewish community in which he grew up. I've not really figured out why he's considered a great writer. Evidently there's no consensus on that, as illustrated by Clive James in "Canetti, Man of Mystery." He finds Canetti vastly overrated! Here's a sample of what he has to say:
"While living in Britain, Canetti wrote three books of memoirs about his life in pre-war Europe. He wrote them in German. (All three volumes are now available in English, although readers are warned that the translations lose some of the effortless pomposity of the original.) ...  
"Canetti spent the last part of his life in Zurich. In his last year he was at work on his memoir about London. (Now, in Elysium, he is probably working on his memoir about Zurich.) The unfinished book, Party in the Blitz, is the story of his years in and around Hampstead during the war and just after. We are fortunate that there is no more of it, lest we start wondering whether Canetti should not have received another Nobel Prize, for being the biggest twerp of the twentieth century. But a twerp must be at least partly stupid, and Canetti wasn’t even a little bit that. Instead, he was a particularly bright egomaniac, and this book, written when his governing mechanisms were falling to bits, simply shows the limitless reserves of envy and recrimination that had always powered his aloofness."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Natalia Ginzburg (July 14, 1916)

Her upbringing: Atheist. Her adopted religion: Catholic. Her politics: Communist. Her birthplace: Palermo, Sicily.

During World War II she was persecuted and her husband killed for being in the resistance in Italy as well as for being Jewish (on her father's side). Though there are Jewish characters in her novels, she’s one of those universalists who Jewish critics struggle to assign a morally Jewish point of view. I've enjoyed several of her prize-winning novels.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bruno Schulz (July 12, 1892)

From a review of a biography in the New York Times:
"Anyone who has read the stories of Bruno Schulz, the collection called 'The Street of Crocodiles,' or 'Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass,' will know this writer as one of the strangest literary figures of the century. The stories are weirdly beautiful, evocations of a world where, as Jerzy Ficowski puts it in this biography of Schulz, a 'general fluctuation of the laws of nature' operates, where time itself loses its inevitability and even death can be undone. When Schulz was gunned down by the Gestapo in 1942 in Drohobycz, the Polish town (now part of Ukraine) where he spent his entire life, literature lost a voice as unusual in its way as Kafka's."
I have read "The Street of Crocodiles," and I'm not sure I am as enthusiastic as this reviewer, but I am highly aware of the great regard in which Schultz is held by others.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Camille Pissarro (July 10, 1830)

I love the works of Camille Pissarro. Last year, I wrote about him in August because that was the date of an interesting review of an exhibit on his work. Here is a duplicate of that post:

In the New York Times: a review of an article and slide show about an exhibit of paintings by Pissarro: Populating the Landscape With Idealism.

Pissarro was a powerful influence on the Impressionists, but very much an outsider in France: 
"He was born thousands of miles away from Europe in 1830, on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, then a Danish colony. His father was a dry-goods merchant from Bordeaux, his mother a Caribbean-born daughter of French parents. Both sides of the family were Sephardic Jews. Pissarro himself chose to remain a Danish citizen all his life.

"Even on St. Thomas his status was outside the norm. His parents were unmarried when he was born, bringing censure from Jews on the island. As a child he went to a local Moravian school with Afro-Caribbean children, where he spoke English instead of French."
He was also a political outsider, "deeply immersed in revolutionary politics, specifically in anarchist thinking that espoused a radically egalitarian, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian society." 

His attitude towards others was generous: 
"Pissarro’s idealism was insistent. Because he wanted his projection of a better future to be realized, he tried to work it out in the present, through his own practice of ethical generosity, firm in the face of political censorship (he was closely watched by the French police because of his anarchist ties), anti-Semitism (he forgave this in Degas) and professional isolation as an artist who was neither born French nor had French citizenship...." 
Above all, Pissarro was a fabulous artist. I've not seen the reviewed exhibit, but I love his paintings that I've seen in Paris, Chicago, and a number of other places.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Jews in Orientalist Art

Very fascinating review of an art exhibit at the Jewish museum in Paris:

The Ghosts of Edward Saïd: A provocative Paris show of Orientalist art charts the European encounter with Sephardic Jewry

Actually the exhibit has nothing to do with Said, but the author of the article chose to use his ideas on Orientalism to highlight the themes of the exhibit. I wish I could see it!

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Joseph gardien des greniers de Pharaon, 1874. (Dahesh Museum of Art, New York)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mel Brooks (June 28, 1926)

From the Moment Magazine seminar: 
“I’m part of the generation that changed their name so they’d get hired. I went from Kaminsky to Brooks. My mother’s name was Brookman. But I couldn’t fit Brookman on the drums. I was a drummer. So I got as far as Brook and then put on an 's.' There was a lot of comedy when I was a little kid, street corner comics. We couldn’t own railroads, so prize fighting and comedy were open to us. We’re still comedians. Maybe because Jews cried for so long, it was time to laugh. Who knows? 
"I started in the Borscht Belt with terrible jokes. The first joke I ever wrote, I think, was, 'You can’t keep Jews in jail, they eat lox.' I’ve seen Jews come through an awful lot in my life, especially the Holocaust. In the Army, I suffered a lot of anti-Semitism. Sometimes, I suffered a lot of curiosity from southerners: 'Mel, what’s a Jew? What do you people eat?' 
"There’s much less stigma attached to being Jewish today than there used to be. But it’s still an excuse for gathering hate and anti-Semitism. What can we offer the world? We can still offer what Maimonides and Moses laid down. We can offer the law of human behavior. We astonishingly were one of the first cultures to create this thing called law, what is right and what is wrong, based on the tenets of the Old Testament. And, if they want something tasty, we can certainly offer matzoh brei.”

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bloomsday: June 16

James Joyce's character Leopold Bloom spent June 16, 1904, in Dublin, Ireland. It took Joyce 700 pages to chronicle what he did, ate, drank, imagined, and thought on that one day. On June 16 in various venues (especially Dublin) lovers of literature, of Ulysses specifically, and also of strong drink celebrate the anniversary of that day -- Bloomsday.

Just How Jewish was Bloom? -- a story from the Irish Times by Cormac Ó Gráda -- explores the history of the Jewish community that Leopold Bloom somewhat belonged to. The author describes the immigrant community of Litvak Jews who were the most numerous members of that community, and explores Joyce's possible sources for his descriptions of that community and some of its other inhabitants. The conclusion:
"Despite the huge literature on the Jewish content of Ulysses, and Joyce's reputation for being fastidious - indeed obsessive - about context and geography while writing it, it is hard not to conclude that his portrait of Leopold Bloom owed more to information garnered during his time in Trieste (1904-1919) than to first-hand contacts with Irish Jews before leaving Dublin at the age of 22. The very different character of Trieste Jewry - more urbane, more cosmopolitan, more middle-class, more integrated than their Dublin brethren - would have suited both Joyce and Bloom well."
Though he may be the most famous Irish Jew ever, only Bloom's father, not his mother was Jewish, and Bloom himself did not practice the Jewish religion. In literary terms, though, this isn't as important as his self-identification and the view of Joyce about him. According to the article:
"Joyce's ear for the varieties of Dublin English and his eye for Dublin foibles and characters make Ulysses a rich source for the historian of Ireland and its capital city. The same cannot be said for his account of Irish Jewry. Joyce's depiction of the petty racist jibes inflicted on Bloom by the 'Citizen' and others is vivid and credible. But had Bloom stepped from the written page into the real-life Little Jerusalem of Joyce's day, his mixed parentage and his marrying out would have ensured him a rather cold welcome also from the Litvak community ... ."
Finally: "None of this, of course, detracts from the genius of James Joyce or Ulysses."

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Anne Frank (June 12, 1929)

Anne Frank has become not only a hero, but an emblem of what was lost. I don't have anything to add to the vast amounts that have been written about her. A moment of silent thought, only.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mordechai Kaplan (June 11, 1881)

Mordechai Kaplan was the inventor of Reconstructionist Judaism. He was the first rabbi to introduce Bat Mitzvah, thus finding a way to improve equality for women in Judaism. "He came to see Judaism not as a religion, but as a civilization, characterized not only by beliefs and practices, but by language, culture, literature, ethics, art, history, social organization, symbols, and customs." -- from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Levine and his Flying Machine (June 4, 1927)

On June 4, 1927, Charles Levine and his pilot Chamberlain flew a small plane (above) across the Atlantic. They weren't the first -- that was Lindbergh, of course, a few weeks earlier. They were still briefly a sensation, and Levine was celebrated as a "Hebrew Ace." From the Yiddish Radio Project:
"In the weeks following Levine's triumph, the Jewish-American community was in a state of rapture as across the sea one of its own was received by European dignitaries from Hindenburg to Mussolini. On Manhattan's Lower East Side, the Jews spoke of little else. 
"'The anti-Semites in Germany and the anti-Semites around the world will have to take their hats off to Levine the Jew,' pronounced the New York Yiddish daily newspaper Der Tog. 'No longer will we be obliged to prove that Jews are as capable and strong on the field of physical bravery as on the field of intellectual achievements.' 
"Within a month a half-dozen songs had been written in Levine's honor. The transatlantic flyer was seen as heralding the advent of the modern Jewish hero: independent, courageous, and proud."
I first heard one of the songs on a Klezmer disk by Kapelye, but you can hear a contemporary recording: "Levine mit Zayn Flayin Mashin" by Charles Cohen, sung in a combination of Yiddish and English, and also read the lyrics and a translation of the Yiddish portion.

Levine came to a very bad end -- when he flew, he was very rich, and paid all the expenses of the exotic and unusual voyage. Soon after he not only lost his money but involved himself in dubious schemes, even spending time in near-homelessness and even in jail.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bernard Lewis (May 31, 1916)

I was shocked when I learned that Bernard Lewis had been successfully discredited by Arab propaganda, so currently scholars are shamed if they refer to his works. I've read and learned much from many of his books, heard him speak on TV shows, and always understood that  he was a pioneer in studying the Arab world.

In response to Edward Said’s claim that Lewis couldn’t properly do scholarship on the Arab world, Lewis said “If westerners cannot legitimately study the history of Africa or the Middle East, then only fish can study marine biology.” Edward Said, of course, was a skillful anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propagandist, who no doubt led the efforts against Lewis. Sad!

Fouad Ajami, another scholar of the Arab world, says: “Bernard Lewis is the great Orientalist of our time, and we shan’t see the likes of him again.”

 Ajami, "a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute ... born and raised in Lebanon, describes himself as a 'self-appointed disciple' of Lewis. The two have been close since Ajami’s days at Princeton some 35 years ago and Ajami gushes freely about his mentor. 'His ability to track Islam’s journey over the 70 years of his career and really see the deeper currents of Islam—that is his genius. He is able to bridge the gap between scholarship and modern affairs and make a seamless connection between the past and the present.'" -- quotes from Moment Magazine, "The Revered and Reviled Bernard Lewis"

Monday, May 21, 2012

Andrei Sakharov (May 21, 1921)

Sakharov was a very famous Soviet-era Russian physicist and human rights activist, who died in 1989. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

From an essay by Sakharov:
"In this pamphlet, advanced for discussion by its readers, the author has set himself the goal to present, with the greatest conviction and frankness, two theses that are supported by many people in the world. These are: 
"[1] The division of mankind threatens it with destruction... Only universal cooperation under conditions of intellectual freedom and the lofty moral ideals of socialism and labor, accompanied by the elimination of dogmatism and pressure of the concealed interests of ruling classes, will preserve civilization... 
"[2] The second basic thesis is that intellectual freedom is essential to human society -- freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such a trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economics and culture." -- (from the New York Times, 22 July 1968, quoted in American Institute of Physics biography)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is there such a thing as Jewish fiction?

Moment magazine this month includes answers by 17 authors to this question: "Is there such a thing as Jewish fiction?" Every answer is somewhat different -- though very few simply think there is NO such thing as Jewish fiction. Some of the respondents, naturally, think "Jewish Fiction" is a more important category than others do. Some define "Jewish Fiction" as any fiction by Jews, any fiction about Jews, or any fiction written in a Jewish language (like Hebrew). Some think "Jewish Fiction" deals with Jewish types of concerns, such as being an outsider, or with Jewish ethics or even Jewish humor. Religion plays a minor role in most of the definitions.

I liked this statement by Israeli author Etgar Keret:
"It’s not like everybody who was circumcised necessarily writes Jewish fiction, but there are some elements that you can often find in Jewish writing but that are rare when it comes to Israeli writing. What I feel is very deeply Jewish is reflexiveness. Traditionally, the diaspora Jew always carries two identities: his national identity and his Jewish identity. This has allowed him always to be both an insider and an outsider; if he was American he could live his life as an American but could always use the other Jewish tier to look at his actions and the people around him from the outside. In that sense, I think the most “Jewish writer” active now in Israel is Sayeed Kashua, who is an Israeli Arab, because as an Israeli Arab he keeps this kind of two-tier thinking tradition, having both the Israeli national identity and this other identity of being an Arab."

This Symposium is worth reading!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Two Deaths

Two men of great accomplishment have died: Maurice Sendak (who was 83) and Vidal Sassoon (84).

Sendak is of course widely admired for his wildly imaginative stories and illustrations. My favorites: In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak had a strong and public Jewish identity, having been born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents who lost many relatives in the Holocaust. The surreal buildings in Night Kitchen were recognizable as part of the Brooklyn skyline of his childhood. And, he said, the Wild Things were recognizable as relatives who would gather around his bedside when he was sick. His characters, such as Max in Wild Things and Micky in Night Kitchen, were both surreal and real; his New York Times obituary today included this quote:
“My God, Max would be what now, 48?” Mr. Sendak said. “He’s still unmarried, he’s living in Brooklyn. He’s a computer maven. He’s totally ungifted. He wears a wolf suit when he’s at home with his mother!” You don’t have to agree with that assessment — I bet Max became a marine biologist and resembles Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws” — to find it terrific.
Vidal Sassoon's Jewish identity was more obscure -- but I'm sorry to say, that seems normal for a British Jew. His parents were poor Sephardic immigrants. I'm interested in the fact that his life was the subject of a movie (maybe I'll see it some time).

Sassoon's fame as a hairdresser to the rich and famous and as a creator of high-end hair products (that eventually sunk to a lower end) doesn't seem very Jewish at all. But he was more than just another quietly Jewish Brit: he fought in the Israeli independence war. He said:
My mother was the strongest Zionist; she used to have Zionistic meetings in the house. I had to stand on the corner to make sure only two people went in at a time, in case we caused a ruckus because it was before Britain left Palestine. An Israeli Palmach officer came to London to talk to us; he said as soon as Britain moved out of Palestine, which was expected in May, there would be a war. By July many of us were there already, and I was in the Israeli army, two months training, the toughest training I’ve ever had in my life. And then we walked one night through the Arab lines to the northern Kibbutzim, and the action started. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life; I felt so good that after 2,000 years of butchery and barbaric behavior against the Jews, “Never again” had become the slogan.
I admire Sassoon for his invention of wash and wear hair styles, replacing painful curlers and other barbaric customs with a blow dryer. I also admire him for having been a Zionist fighter.

Update: the Forward has an excellent obit here: "Vidal: A Jewish Soldier of the Hair Salons Remembering the Struggles of Vidal Sassoon." And Tablet has another: "Vidal Sassoon, Streetfighter."

Monday, April 30, 2012

"An Ermine in Czernopol"

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori is a strange book, recently re-translated and re-published, originally from 1958. For almost the first half of the book virtually nothing happens; the narrative seems to be composed of a series of sketches. Some are vivid, some drift in a vague way. Some are funny, but still, I almost gave up reading. I fell asleep. But I didn’t stop, somehow. The second half of the book is the good part, especially (for me) as it explores how Christians saw and learned to see and hate the Jews of the area. The second half has action and plot much more than the first.

The narrator of the book is a boy. The focus is on his development:  how he learns about his town and its present reality, his family, his teachers, and what he should think about the many strange and quirky characters he encounters. For most of the book, the narrator and his sister do everything jointly and share a growing awareness as they emerge from childhood, so instead of “I” he writes mainly about “we” – adding to the strangeness. At a certain point late in the novel, he switches to “I” – when he and his sister are severed from having a sort of common identity.

The boy struggles to grasp reality. He writes: “we sensed that nothing we might ever encounter … would frighten us more than what Herr Tarangolin called the horror of the literary existence – the void that engulfs us when we have too little actual experience.” (p. 50 or Kindle location 997)

The narrator’s town, his family, his teachers, and the people around him are so strange that the focus often shifts to them. Some reviewers, in fact, see the central character as Tildy, a “Hussar,” displaced by the break up of the Austrian Empire. Tildy’s story and that of other aristocrats is important to the boy as he learns the values of his elders, but I think that it's only one of the key themes of the novel.

The family of the brother and sister is complicated. His parents are poor but high status, and have a number of servants; his mother’s three sisters live with them. All play a major role in the family and in the lives of the children. The parents hire one governess and two tutors who are very important as well. The earliest Jewish character in the novel is the governess, whose pretense is that she is not Jewish, but who clearly is – to the children’s confusion. The children eventually go to school, where they learn about the headmistress, the teachers, and their fellow pupils, many also Jewish.

Earlier in the novel, descriptions of people and events are often incomplete because the children are protected. Often, their mother sends them out of the room when the adults discuss or learn about things she doesn’t want children to hear. Thus the narrator is fascinated by adults who do tell him lurid things, like an elderly woman who loves to retell the story of her husband’s suicide and how she and her children watched it through a keyhole. He also realizes how women and men in his society have very different rights and possibilities (a very interesting theme that I’m not going to pursue here).

Above all, he becomes conscious of two types of people: aristocrats like Tildy and Jews like two school friends who are very important to him. The focus of the book slowly shifts to how he sees these groups.

From Tildy, the lesson the narrator learned is about destiny: “Destinies have become as rare as people with character,” he wrote, “and they are becoming harder and harder to find, the more we insist on replacing the concept of character with that of personality. Major Tildy, however, was a man of character ….” (p. 29 or Kindle location 620)

His two Jewish friends taught him many things, which he described in detail; early in his narrative about them he says “We have these two Jewish children to thank for the realization that the seat of the soul is found in the forehead and not the stomach, although we didn’t quite know at the time they were Jewish.” Not knowing and finding out that they were Jewish, and what that meant, is a key part of the story right up to the end; he writes“Only later … did we find out that they were Jews. So we didn’t make the usual discovery that Jews are also people, but rather the reverse, that people are sometimes also Jews. … in other words that there were no ‘typically Jewish’ traits, but rather a characteristically Jewish way of expressing traits that were simply human.” (p. 223-224 or Kindle location 4245 and 4273)

The way the narrator learns to think about other people is the most interesting part of the book. The other people in the parents’ lives are mostly from the upper classes of the town, along with some of the shopkeepers – mainly Jewish -- and a lot of military men or retired military men. People speak Russian, German, Hungarian, Romanian, Yiddish, and various local dialects, and bring many points of view and self interests into the story.

The parents and their friends belong to various Christian denominations (which are numerous, thanks to the complex legacy of the town, which includes its Austrian, Russian, and Hungarian populations and influences). But the shopkeepers, teachers, and other children include many Jews. The most unusual thing about the book is that it describes the relationship of Christians and Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Jewish sentiments of Christians all from a Christian point of view. In my reading experience, I have rarely read this much about Eastern European Jewish-Christian relations seen from any but a highly self-aware Jewish perspective. This is the most interesting part of the learning experience: the discovery of how people’s attitudes towards Jews varies, and how the children’s natural reaction that Jews are like other people isn’t shared by the adults in their lives.

The fictitious town, Czernopol, is in Romaina or Ukraine – it may be based on the “real” town of Czernowitz where the author grew up, but that’s not important because it’s clearly meant to be iconic. The town’s present, though also not identified specifically, seems to be in the 1920s or maybe 1930s – World War I is the important past, which has separated the town from the Austrian Empire, but has left its legacy. And one important part of the present is the looming threat of Germans and Nazis.

Recent reviews that doesn’t see the book quite as I do: 

These reviews see Tildy as the center of the story. I see Tildy as one of the object lessons through which the boy narrator learns about humans and about how they form their ideas. Tildy’s nutty idealism leads him to challenge his military superiors to a duel, so they have him committed to an insane asylum. This is one side of human nature. Another side of human nature leads the townspeople to engage in a furious riot or pogrom, where the Jews’ shops and homes – including those of the children’s schoolmates – are destroyed. Idealism or furious antisemitism: these seem to be primary choices in this decaying remnant of Austrian Empire.

The epigraph and contributor to the title of the novel is “The ermine will die should her coat become soiled. – from the Physiologus.” Reviews interpret the quote to apply to Tildy; I think it resonates with the theme of antisemitic violence as well, though perhaps more subtly.