• An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris *** (of 4)

    An-Officer-and-a-SpyRobert Harris makes his living fictionalizing famous historical events (see Pompeii).  In this case, it is the end of the nineteenth century, and the French have unjustly stripped Albert Dreyfus of his rank in the French Army and disposed of him to die locked in a tin shed beneath the blazing tropical sun of Devil’s Island. It is a moment of overt anti-Semitism in France that results in a horrible miscarriage of justice that stains France ever after, and, I have to admit, an event about which I knew precious few details.  Well, this book has the details, but the first half is just that, a drudge of notecards Harris must have used to construct his text.  Harris presents the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Col. Georges Picquart, an officer who at first, following orders, assists in  Dreyfus’s conviction.  In the subsequent five years, however, Picquart is given the credit, in this account, for becoming a man of conscience who recognizes that Dreyfus has been framed and the Army is involved in a massive cover-up.  The book does not come alive until its second half when at last it becomes a courtroom procedural.  By the end, when Dreyfus is finally recalled to France, and Picquart has become France’s leading General, you are still left wondering about the larger picture.  Why was France so anti-Semitic?  On what evidence did Zola, Clemenceau, and their fellow Dreyfusards base their case against the government?  And why do all of the main characters in Harris’ account speak with such identical, lifeless voices?

  • In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh *** (of 4)

    egyptGhosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt.  Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue.  In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks.  It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth.  So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea.  It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader.  Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography ** (of 4)

    DeadSeaScrollIn the 1940s a Bedouin searching caves above the western shore of the Dead Sea discovered urns with scrolls inside.  He knew right away they were both ancient and valuable and sold them.  When they turned up in the antiques market, archaeologists started searching for similar caves.  When archaeologists weren’t there Bedouin continued hunting.  The scrolls, hundreds of them, date from the first centuries BCE and CE making them contemporaneous with the life of Jesus.  Christian scholars have analyzed the texts for clues to the lives of early Christians.  Jewish scholars, when they were finally permitted to examine the scrolls, look to the texts to learn about the lives of Jews just prior to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.  Complicating matters is the adjacency of the archaeological site of Qumron, an Essene branch of Judaism that decisively separated itself from the Priestly cult of the Pharisees.  This account is more of an academic summary article of the state of the archaeological and analytical affairs than it is a book worth curling up with.  It is most fascinating for its insight into how historians of the period attempt to piece together archaeological and historical evidence to paint wildly contradictory canvases of life at the time.  The lesson, not surprisingly, is that most of us peering back into the past find what we expect to see, oftentimes overlooking what might actually be there.

  • Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English ** (of 4) by Natasha Solomons

    Mr. Rosenblum and his wife Sadie arrive in England as German refugees in 1937.  Mr. Rosenblum wants so desperately to assimilate that he keeps lists of all things British to emulate:  manners of speech, foods, how to carry an umbrella, fold a handkerchief.  He is indifferent to his wife’s longing for memory, so much so that without telling her he purchases land in the English countryside to build a golf course.  He does so only after being denied admittance to every golf club near London because of his Jewish heritage.  Alas, that’s the whole story.  The characters, even British country-siders are stock, the drama is minimal, the loss of heritage is sad, and I don’t really know if Mr. Rosenblum is finally accepted in British society or not, because I never finished the book.

  • Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole ** (of 4)

    All the critics have raved about this recounting of a collection of a thousand years of written documents crammed in a synagogue vault in Cairo, Egypt.  Because Jews, the People of the Book, find written words to be sacred, many documents, such as Torahs when they are no longer kosher or viable, are buried, rather than thrown away.  A Geniza such as this one in a Cairo synagogue is a room to store discarded sacred documents.  This congregation considered nearly all of its written documents deserving of special treatment.  The Jews of this neighborhood in Cairo tossed together their ancient texts, wedding contracts, prayer books, parables, donor lists, receipts, and business documents creating a disorganized “battlefield of books.”  While the interesting thing to me would be what those documents revealed, the book is almost entirely about the people who discovered the Geniza, a topic of far less interest.

  • The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt *** (of 4)

    In 2001 Deborah Lipstadt  was brought to trial in Britain for libeling by David Irving in Britain after she described him as a Holocaust denier.  Sitting on the witness defending the experiences of victims and survivors, Deborah Lipstadt recognized the parallels to the last great Holocaust trial.  Nearly 40 years earlier Adolph Eichmann stood inside a glass booth in an Israeli courtroom and insisted his actions were neither criminal nor anti-Semitic.  The Eichmann Trial is an excellent follow-up to Hunting Eichmann as Lipstadt places the trial in historical and global context.  Only 15 years after the end of WWII, Israeli prosecutors called a string of survivors to the witness stand.  The world’s reporters relayed the stories of individual suffering not abstract millions.  Jews the world over, Israelis, and gentiles were forced to ask themselves if they had been Germans would they have had the courage to risk their lives to save others.  If they had been European Jews would they have tried to preserve their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, no matter how slim the chances, by acquiescing, or would they have fought their captors, in an act of certain suicide.  This book dissects the question of what makes a fair trail in a situation like this?  It asks us to think about who we can judge — Eichmann, modern-day deniers — and maybe who we cannot, i.e., those Jews that worked for Germans to rule other Jews rather than defy Germans and die.  It’s a short book, more like a long academic essay that is packed with wrenching ethical questions.

  • Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters by Louis Begley ** (of 4)

    After briefly summarizing the anti-Semitic atmosphere under which Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned for treason by France military and political authorities, Begley makes a powerful case that current anti-Muslim feelings in the U.S. has led to the comparable incarceration (without trial) of Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo.  Point well taken.  The book is short, but so densely written that it is hard to follow if you are not already familiar with the case.  Keeping the players straight is very hard work, which is rarely a good thing if you want to keep readers reading.

  • City of Thieves by David Benioff **** (of 4)

    Lev Benioff, a 15-year-old Russian, Jewish kid and Kolya, a deserter from the Russian Army with an overactive libido and terrible constipation, find themselves trapped behind enemy lines during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.  The two must find a dozen eggs for the commander of the Russian secret service within a week or face execution.  The two will die if they don’t find the eggs for the NKVD or they will die if the Nazi SS captures them.  Kolya is worried about getting laid, taking a crap, and writing the next great Russian novel as they trudge through the snow searching for chickens.  Lev would be happy to just be kissed by a girl.  The SS is all around them.  The story starts slowly.  It all feels too self-consciously assembled like a novel.  By the time I was three-fourths through the book, however, I was flipping pages as fast as I could.

  • Exodus by Leon Uris ** (of 4)

    Still singed by Holocaust crematoria, Jewish rebels fight to throw off the yoke of British imperialism in Palestine.  This is a book that launched a Jewish spirit of pride (and a movie that imprinted a generation) almost from the day it was published in 1960.  Unfortunately, the book is terribly dated.  The love story that threads the story is boring, the dialogue is preposterously square, and all the Arabs are stupid and dirty.  The book’s one strength is the insight it provides into the internal struggles of Jews trying to carve a safe haven from a global community of nations that has perpetrated 2,000 years of desecration and persecution.  Should Jews finally stand up and fight, really kill British citizens and soldiers?  Is that the kind of progress upon which to build a new nation?  It’s an interesting question and the history Uris provides of the Holocaust, the pogroms suffered by Eastern European Jewry, the outrageous actions perpetrated by British colonialists, and the hardships associated with creating a new homeland inside hostile territory are thorough and ring true.  Alas, we know now that even in the period leading up to the birth of the state of Israel, issues of conflict between Jews and Arabs were more complicated than Uris would have you believe.

  • See Under: Love by David Grossman ** (of 4)

    I wish I could have followed the story of Momik, a nine-year-old son of Holocaust survivors trying to make sense of the adults who have come to Israel from “Over There.”  The first quarter of the book is the young boy’s stream of consciousness reactions to “the beast” that has tortured his parents and their neighbors.  In the second quarter, Momik narrates the life of a Nazi persecuted writer.  The third is about Momik’s grandfather and the fourth an encyclopedia.  It is an interesting attempt to convert the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust into words, but the result for me was that while I remained totally intrigued by Grossman’s creation of scenes in 1950s Israel and 1940s “Over There” I couldn’t hang on.  There wasn’t really a plot.  I couldn’t always tell who was speaking.  Some sentences ran for pages. Reluctantly, I gave up without finishing.