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.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Budapest Cafes and History

My recent reading project on cities where secular Jewish communities once flourished was about Budapest. Today's L.A.Times has two articles about the current city:"A taste of Hungary's history in Budapest's sumptuous coffeehouses" by Daniel Robinson and "The Hotel Sacher in Vienna, Austria, has old-school charms" by Alice Short. Each article links to a photo gallery.

The article on coffee houses has plenty of information about the famous "New York" coffee house (which of course featured in the history books I read -- L.A. Times image at left) and reports of taste-tests of some of the well-known pastries (Dobos Torte, Sacher Torte). The historic report mentions is of the authors' wife Edie's Jewish family, including her grandfather who surely frequented these cafes. Of Edie's lost grandmothers he wrote:
"Both of Edie's grandfathers had died in the 1930s — by that time, Edie's father, Joseph, was already in New England — but her grandmothers lived to see the virulent anti-Semitism of the following decade. They were alive and well when the U.S. entered World War II in late 1941 — until that time, letters could be exchanged — but at war's end there was no trace of them. Edie remembers her father's grief upon being informed after the war that they were dead."
The article successfully combines descriptions of history, of current cafes, of the grandfather who wrote about economic issues (including coffee), and of the tragedy of the Jews of Budapest. I'm surprised at how well he succeeds with this range of topics! He eventually describes a Jewish neighborhood where a bakery maintains Jewish pastry traditions, especially the Flodni which layers pastry leaves, apple filling, poppy seeds, and jam: "Flodni could be described as the working-class Jewish answer to the upper-crust tortes of Sacher and Dobos."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jerry Leiber (April 25, 1933)

When Jerry Leiber died last summer I first heard of him. I learned from a home-town boy story in the Baltimore Sun that he was co-author with his partner, Mike Stoller of a number of very familiar songs including "Hound Dog," "Yakety Yak," "Kansas City," "Stand by Me," "There Goes My Baby," "On Broadway," and "Is That All There Is." Leiber discussed the influence of black music on his work -- he had grown up in a black neighborhood in Baltimore. He said that "traditional Jewish music shares many traits with rhythm and blues. 'Listen to any cantor, any good hazan, sing and you can hear a little bit of Ray Charles going on.'"

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"The Golem" -- A Silent Film

"The Golem: How He Came Into the World" (Der Golem, Wie er in die Welt Kam) is a 1920 silent film by Paul Wegener, a German director. It's a mixture of  the classic Golem legend with additional conventions of silent movies and German cultural references.

The Golem in Wegener's version is made by sorcery, using a book titled "Necromancy" and spells and rituals that don't have much connection to Jewish lore, though the walls are sometimes covered with Hebrew words.  Rabbi Loew fits the stereotype of a sorcerer or a witch more closely than that of a medieval Jew -- for example, indoors he wears no hat.

In the street, all the Jews wear pointy hats like traditional witches, but also wear the circular badge that was one of the marks required by medieval Jews. (Hitler's reintroduction of the star-shaped badge was a few years in the future, so it's not a reference to that). Their image is negative -- though there may be a bit of sympathy for their impending exile, announced by the emperor. The Jews gather in masses, blow huge shofars, engage in breast beating and hand waving which all do at once, and seem pretty out of control sometimes.

I felt as if the stereotypes were mixed together. In the more Jewish versions of the story, the spell that makes the clay statue turn into a living Golem is a dangerous imitation of God's creation of Adam by breathing life into a clay man; Rabbi Loew wrote the word "Emet" (Hebrew for "truth") on the creature's forehead (or sometimes on a paper under his tongue).

In Wegener's version, the spells are executed more as if by traditional witchcraft or black magic. The final bit of magic that creates life in the Golem is to place a paper with the word "Emet" in a star, which is fastened on the Golem's chest. The Jewish version decommissions the Golem by removing the first letter (aleph) from the beginning of the word Emet, changing it from "truth" to "Death." The film version has small blonde children pull the star off of his chest, making a happy ending in which the children are no longer endangered by a creature who has become a dangerous and angry murderer.

In the film, Rabbi Loew has a daughter, Miriam. Beautiful Miriam falls in love with Florian, a knight who brings rolled up parchment messages from the Emperor to Rabbi Loew. Like in Ivanhoe, The Merchant of Venice, and other stories, the "Jewess" is a temptress -- beautiful, forbidden, enchanting. Miriam falls for Florian, lets him into her bedroom, doesn’t resist like Rebecca or marry like Jessica, daughter of Shylock. The end result is disastrous for Florian -- the rabbi's assistant discovers them in bed and has the Golem throw him from a tower.


The plot is complicated -- the Rabbi and some of the Jews, threatened by the edict of expulsion from their Ghetto, are invited to bring the Golem to entertain the Court. They show hallucinatory images of "Ahasuarus the Wandering Jew" which appear to be like movies projected on the wall. The rabbi warns them not to speak or laugh, and when of course they do, the roof starts to fall, and the Golem must hold it up like Samson in the Philistine palace, shown below.

I've tried to stick to just talking about the content of the movie. The visuals are impressive in early-silent-movie style, like the works that appear in the currently popular film "Hugo" about the early silent film-maker Georges Melies. Studio sets with slight special effects, high contrast between light and dark images, and in the reissued edit of the film from 2000, hand-tinted scenes (based on a surviving copy of the film) so that the entire color changes constantly.

Trying to understand the film historically, I've read a bit of analysis in the book The "Jew" in Cinema: From The Golem to Don't Touch My Holocaust by Omer Bartov.

"The Golem is not an overtly antisemitic film," Bartov writes. "On the contrary, in some ways it is sympathetic to the plight  of a community threatened by the power and whims of an arbitrary and frivolous ruler." Though Wegener, who directed and played the role of the Golem, later became an "Actor of the State" in Nazi Germany, here Bartov believes he was only reflecting "existing notions about Jews" and further popularizing them, providing stereotypes that have driven large numbers of films and filmmakers subsequently. The three main themes that emerged and lasted, says Bartov, are Jews as malevolent outsiders, anxiety about Jewish transformation, and obsession with sexual relations between Jews and gentiles. (p. 3)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Golems keep coming up? A review with digressions

“You’ve got something in common with Kafka, there,” says an old man in the tale Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar. “When I told him the story of the Golem, I warned him: we shouldn’t create things we can’t control. And fiction is just that, something that can’t be controlled. You start to write, to imagine, and who knows where it’s going to end? And then, more books for what? Everything important has been written in the Torah.”

Yesterday afternoon I read Kafka’s Leopards. It’s a fantastic story: I mean really a fantasy, as well as highly enjoyable and imaginative. Like many fables it reads very smoothly on the story level, and begs you to read in a variety of meanings – like the one in the paragraph above.

In the tale, for rather involved reasons, Benjamin, a poor tailor from Chernovitsky (a Bessarbian shtetl near Odessa) travels to Prague, thinking he has an assignment from a revolutionary cell led by Trotsky. His trip to Prague is challenging – World War I is going on in between the two places and (like my father also a poor tailor in his story of going from his own shtetl to Pinsk) Benjamin must first overcome a challenge: to cross a river by hiring a ferry rowed by scary men who could easily steal his money or push him into the river. Realism in the middle of the story? Or is a ferry boat symbolic? Real to me.

Once in Prague, Benjamin has no idea what to do to complete his mission for his idol Trotsky, but thinks he’s supposed to contact a leftist writer and obtain “a text.” He left his instructions on the train. But somehow, he goes to a synagogue to find out – and the author he hears of is Kafka. The shammes of the synagogue, who gives tours in exchange for tips, tells him of Kafka and much else, including what Kafka said. Benjamin asks for Kafka’s response: “What did he say?”

The shammes answers, “Nothing. Didn’t say anything. Didn’t pay any attention to me. … Speaking of treasure and tips, you could contribute a bit more.”

Soon afterwards, Benjamin actually meets Kafka and asks him for “a text.” Kafka gives him a mysterious piece of writing – later explained as a contribution to a Yiddish newspaper, one of many mix-ups in the tale. While the story is pure fantasy, the one-sentence Kafka story is a real Kafka story: “Leopards break into the temple and drink up the offering in the chalices; this happens again and again; finally, one can predict their action in advance and it becomes part of the ceremony. – Franz Kafka.”

The remainder of the story is about the poor tailor’s experience in Prague, his return to Chernovitsky, and finally about the end of his life in Puerto Alegre, Brazil (where the first few paragraphs of the story had already given away his end – as the uncle of another radical in an oppressive country – repeating his own experiences, sort of). And about a variety of ways to look at Kafka’s "text."

You can read all sorts of meanings into it. Or not. After all, it’s a story by a Brazilian Jewish magical realist twentieth-century writer, what would you expect?

Though Scliar's work was written long ago (and he died last year), the story was only recently translated into English. Sad that he’s so unknown and underappreciated. And so sad that this book is published so obscurely and at such a high price. Another digression: the sad state of publishing, where this single story less than 100 pages long costs $26.07 on (88 cents off list price), no Kindle edition. Lucky for me the library had it.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Elaine May (April 21, 1932)

Elaine May and Mike Nichols seemed incredibly sophisticated to me when I was young, and I suspect that they really were. And I suspect she still is. For example, she interviewed Ethan Coen and Woody Allen, and asked them:
"A miraculous being with divine powers appears to you and says, 'You have a choice. You can be fabulously attractive and have an even better physique or you can reverse global warming.' What do you say to her?"
When I looked her up, I discovered that Elaine May's father Jack Berlin was a Yiddish theater actor.

Cynthia Ozick (April 17, 1928)

Cynthia Ozick has written a number of novels that I find enjoyable. In particular, The Puttermesser Papers is the only tale I know of about a female golem. It's also amusing and a good read.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Gertrude Stein Again

The New York Review of Books has a very interesting review of several Gertrude Stein works: Missionaries by Michael Kimmelman. The author is particularly interested in understanding the influence of her brother and sister-in-law, Leo and Sarah Stein, on her taste as a collector of modern art. He concludes that after the break between the siblings, Gertrude's judgement was never as sharp as theirs.

Kimmelman makes several statements about Gertrude Stein's attitude towards her Jewish identity that seem important to me. Especially important are those based on the reviewed work Unlikely Collaboration by Barbara Will, documenting the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Bernard Fäy, a collaborator with the Vichy government of France, who probably saved her and Alice Toklas from the Nazis. Kimmelman writes:
"The friendship contributed to Stein’s Vichyite leanings and was helped, considering Fäy’s anti-Semitism, by what Will calls the 'fluidity' of Stein’s Jewish affiliations. Assimilation buttressed her modernist bona fides, or so Stein believed. She came to see Christianity as the salvation of France. Jewishness became for her 'a form of transgressive identification,' as Will puts it, a view acknowledged in private 'in intimate moments with Toklas.' She sounds from this account like a classic self-hating Jew, whose ticket to acceptance was a perch in high culture."
Still more disturbing, he says:
“'Hitler should have received the Nobel Peace Prize,' she meanwhile told The New York Times Magazine in 1934, and, alas, she apparently meant it. 'He is removing all elements of contest and of struggle from Germany,' she explained. 'By driving out the Jews and the democratic and Left elements, he is driving out everything that conduces to activity. That means peace.'”
The main focus of the article is on the art work that the Steins collected, particularly on the exhibit of this that's currently at the New York Metropolitan Museum. However, I'm most interested in these views of Stein's thought, and why she was such a radical in literature while so admiring of Hitler, even of his hatred of Jews. Very disturbing, as he says.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (1525)

The scholar Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague appears to have been born around the beginning of Passover in 1525. Today, he is mainly known for his creation of the Golem of Prague. Many authors have written about this clay man, brought to life by dangerous kabbalistic spells, and brought down by rubbing off one letter of the word written in Hebrew on his forehead. The word "truth" can be changed by removing one letter into the word "death" -- that's what the story says the rabbi wrote and changed.

I'm especially fond of the version by Elie Wiesel. According to some legends Loewe's Golem still remains hidden in a Prague synagogue attic. The Golem idea is very much alive in modern fiction, as I wrote here:

A Word on Golems in Science Fiction and other Fiction