Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“MEMOIR OF WAR”— Love, Loss, Perseverance and War

“MEMOIR OF WAR”

Love, Loss, Perseverance and War

Amos Lassen

Marguerite Duras was a key figure on the French twentieth-century literary scene. She was born in French Indochina in 1914, then studied and worked in France and lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation, playing an active role in the Résistance. Decades later, with many published literary works to her name and after working a bit in film, Duras decided to re-examine her experiences of the Second World War and record them for posterity. Her book, published in 1985, is the source of “Memoir of Pain”, the new film from Duras’ compatriot Emmanuel Finkiel.

It is an emotionally complex story of love, loss, and perseverance against the backdrop of war. It’s 1944, Duras is an active Resistance member along with her husband, writer Robert Antelme, and a band of fellow subversives in Nazi-occupied Paris. When Antelme is deported to Dachau by the Gestapo, she becomes friendly with French collaborator Rabier (Benoît Magimel) to gain information at considerable risk to her underground cell. As months wear on without news of her husband, Duras must begin the process of confronting the truth and the unimaginable. Through subtly expressionistic images and voiceover passages of Duras’ writing, director Finkiel evokes the inner world of one of the 20th century’s most revolutionary writers.

We are told that “Words don’t describe what eyes have seen,” an unexpected line to hear in a literary adaptation that remains close to its source text throughout. (This does not mean that the camera doesn’t try some tricky visual articulation of its own.) Several impressionistic passages of reverie emphasize the more straightforward storytelling. This is the account of a young French Resistance writer’s agonizing wait for her husband to return from Nazi capture. The film is an interior evocation of a preemptively grieving state of mind that certainly understands the taxing nature of sorrow.

 

Marguerite Duras’ memoir is an obsessive and poetic look at the trauma of her Resistance husband’s arrest during the last years of the War. Emmanuel Finkiel has made an elegant, simple, yet stylized film version probably to introduce a younger generation to the book to Duras. There are moments when the haunting, repetitive style comes out like when Marguerite (Mélanie Thierry) reappears twice in the same room, and the camera shifts to the second figure of her. This is perhaps a visual objective correlative for the repeated refrains.

The film is simple, elegant, and harrowing through its two-hour length. It is shot in extreme close-ups, Finkiel’s film is a formally very stylized one. We are constantly aware of its visual gestures, its consistent look.

This are only three characters: Marguerite; Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magimel), the collaborator obsessed with her; and Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), her husband’s best friend. The two men are torments and foils for Marguerite. The process of obsessively pursuing news of her missing husband is saved from pure insanity by Marguerite’s playing off the two men. Rabier’s face sensuous and dull, a façade we can’t see past, and this is perfect because he is not quite real. This is a monodrama, and much of the action is going on purely in Marguerite’s head, and, of course, the film is dominated by her. She is torn by the anguish of not having news of him and her secret affair with her comrade Dionys. She meets a French agent working at the Gestapo, Pierre Rabier, and, ready to do anything to find her husband, puts himself to the test of an ambiguous relationship with this troubled man, only to be able to help him. The end of the war and the return of the camps announce to Marguerite Duras the beginning of an unbearable wait, a slow and silent agony in the midst of the chaos of the Liberation of Paris. The ending is not so happy.

“The War: A Memoir” is a form-blurring work that addressed Duras’s emotionally exhausting World War II experience through the thinnest of fictional filters. Robert Antelme was detained and sent to Dachau concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of France for his involvement in the Resistance. Finkiel has primarily built his film from two of “The War: A Memoir’s” six parts. In the first, set in the final weeks of the German occupation, Marguerite begins a flirtatious relationship with Nazi collaborator Rabier agreeing to a series of covert meetings in exchange for information about her deported husband’s whereabouts. In the second, set immediately after the Liberation of Paris, the increasingly withdrawn Marguerite waits for her efforts to bring forth something. Antelme’s survival seems a remote possibility as scores of the formerly imprisoned return to Paris without him.

Finkiel subtly blurs the timeline between these two stages, underscoring the alienating effects of loneliness and mourning on the young writer, though they’re otherwise distinct in tone and focus. The pre-Liberation story centers on the righteous group dynamic of the Resistance, as Marguerite’s risky association with Rabier is debated, aided and closely monitored by her fellow fighters who are led by smoldering firebrand Dionys who would later be the father Duras’s child. There’s a knowing hint of futility to the film’s genre machinations. When the Occupation ends, the comforting distractions of conspiracy and plot drain away, leaving Marguerite largely alone with her thoughts and feelings as if this purgatorial period of unconfirmed loss that proves challenging Marguerite’s inner torment. The  film that is told with a narration of literature. It is slow but effective and will keep you thinking for a very long time.

 

“Memoir of War” opens in New York on Friday, August 17 and in Los Angeles on Friday, August 24

“How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlives of Images” by Sara Blair— How New York’s Lower East Side Inspired New Ways of Seeing America

Blair, Sara. “How the Other Half Looks: The Lower East Side and the Afterlives of Images”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

How New York’s Lower East Side inspired New Ways of Seeing America

Amos Lassen

New York City’s Lower East Side has been long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half.” The Lower East Side was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. In “How the Other Half Looks, Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from here, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures.

We begin a journey in the mid-nineteenth century and continue to the present experiencing the career of the Lower East Side as a place where image-makers, writers, and social reformers tested new techniques to better understand America. We see the birth of American photojournalism, the writings of Stephen Crane and Abraham Cahan, and the forms of early cinema. During the 1930s, we watch the emptying ghetto bring about contested views of the modern city, animating the work of such writers and photographers as Henry Roth, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn. After World War II, we learn the Lower East Side became a key resource for imagining poetic revolution, as in the work of Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones, and exploring dystopian futures, from Cold War atomic strikes to the death of print culture and the threat of climate change.

What we really understand from this journey is that the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of “looking—and looking back” and these have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity. Our journey blended visual and aural evidence as we see how creative writers, journalists, photographers, poets, and so many others focused on what they think they saw and heard in the Lower East Side.

Sara Blair takes us through the literature and the art of Jacob Riis, D. W. Griffith, Paul Strand, Henry Roth, Ben Shahn, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Shteyngart, among others. We become aware of historical and stylistic differences and understand that this is due to the Lower East Side’s always changing and always the same, she constantly returns to the question of time. We are reminded of how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America.

After reading this, we cannot help but think differently I about the Lower East Side, as “a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America…It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.”

“SUPERGIRL”— A Powerlifter

“Supergirl”

A Powerlifter

Amos Lassen

Naomi Kutin seems to be a typical Orthodox Jewish pre-teen until her extraordinary talent transforms the lives of her family and thrusts her into news headlines. As a nine-year-old she broke the powerlifting world record and became an international phenomenon. The film follows Naomi’s unique coming-of-age story as she fights to hold on to her title while at the same time navigating adolescence and strict religious obligations. Then there are also cyber-bullying and health issues that could jeopardize her future in powerlifting.

The documentary starts off with Naomi at around age 10, a reasonably athletic-looking child who transforms into somewhat of a superhuman when she puts on her weightlifting belt and trains with her father, who also serves as her weightlifting coach. With she does not have the weightlifting belt on, Naomi is almost a little bit shy. She also gets hurt easily and we see her reading nasty YouTube comments with tears in her eyes. She tells herself that she is tough but her self-doubt comes up again when she gets embarrassed, watching videos of herself lifting.

The documentary spans about three years. We see her as Naomi grows up, and the struggles that come with that. Her major struggle throughout the movie is that although she grows significantly taller, she stays at 97 pounds for almost 2 years, holding onto competing in the 97-pound weight class. Having broken records at such a young age, Naomi ties her identity to her world records at first. For her, going up in a weight class increases the competition level, and as she grows taller and lankier, she doesn’t have the lower center of gravity to help her in her weightlifting. Naomi’s mother wants her to make her own empowered choices and she lets her daughter choose what she eats yet consistently reminds Naomi that she can move up in weight class in order for her to be healthy. Naomi refuses because she does not want to face the reality that she may no longer break the world records like she did when she was younger.

Although powerlifting makes up most of Naomi’s life, we get peeks into her personality and her faith that start to shape her identity as well. She giddily shows the camera her color scheme for her bat mitzvah ceremony and we see her love of bright colors.. She is protective and encouraging of her younger brother, Ari, who is on the autism spectrum and is also starting to get into powerlifting. When health issues start to threaten Naomi’s career as a powerlifter, she is forced to decide whether to drop the sport that has made up so much of who she is as a person or to focus on her own personal health.

The film explains the world of powerlifting simplistically showing how competitive yet supportive the weightlifting community can be. There are also glimpses into what life growing up as an Orthodox Jewish girl is like. We see Naomi in school, where she learns more about her faith and takes classes in Hebrew. Neither of these are major elements—Naomi’s personality is definitely the forefront of the movie. Both her successes and failures are emotionally wrought. She’s a tough girl who can handle the challenges she faces, but she is also still a child in many ways and can be vulnerable. As we watch Naomi grow more self-assured and independent, who no longer ties her identity to the world records she broke, we see her become instead a 13-year-old teenager who powerlifts because it is what she loves to do. Directed by Jessie Auritt, we see that Naomi is not like other Orthodox girls her age.  Having her Bat Mitzvah, Naomi becomes a woman in the eyes of Judaism and I find it interesting that she is even having a Bat Mitzvah since Orthodox Judaism often frowns on the practice.

“Supergirl” transcends film genres. It looks at coming of age, sports, religion, and women’s empowerment.  We see Naomi as she tries to figure out just who she is.  Of course, she also has to consider that as the years progress and the level of her lifting becomes more challenging, things most certainly will change. Now she has to deal with physical and mental challenges of being the only female weight lifter of her age group. She also has many other issues a young girl becoming a  teenager would have. Her family plays a huge role in her life and is extremely supportive of her.

We see in “Supergirl” that superheroes actually do exist. This uplifting film proves without a doubt you can do what you really want to do.

“Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity” by Karen Stern— Looking Back in Time

Stern, Karen. “Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Looking Back in Time

Amos Lassen

We do not have much information about the daily lives and practices of the Jews of antiquity. What we do have are the various perspectives that have come to us through the writings of Josephus, Philo and the rabbinic writings of the Talmud and the Mishnah but very little about the average “man on the street”. Artistically we have commissioned art, architecture and formal inscriptions that have existed

on tombs and synagogues but these are reflections of the elite and those with influence. We know almost nothing about those Jews who did not fit into the elite class. These Jews are the focus of this fascinating study by Karen Sterne who takes us on a journey to meet the forgotten Jews of antiquity and we do so by looking at the vernacular inscriptions and drawings they left behind and that give us an idea on how they lived day to day.

Throughout the eastern and southern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Egypt, ancient Jews scribbled and drew graffiti everyplace (in and around markets, hippodromes, theaters, pagan temples, open cliffs, sanctuaries, and even inside burial caves and synagogues). It is these markings that tell us about the men and women who made them- the same people whose lives, beliefs, and behaviors do not appear anywhere else. Writer Stern gives us compelling analogies with modern graffiti practices, the connections between Jews and their neighbors that have been overlooked until now and that show “how popular Jewish practices of prayer, mortuary commemoration, commerce, and civic engagement regularly crossed ethnic and religious boundaries.”

Through this graffiti, we gain an intimate look into the forgotten populations who lived at the time that Judaism, Christianity, paganism, and earliest Islam were at a crossroads. Ancient Jewish graffiti from around the Roman world, was used as a means of expression. We read of the lives and concerns of ordinary Jews who were eager to leave their mark in public and private spaces and did so with personal messages and symbols. There is so much to be learned here about ancient Jewish literacy and the relation between image and text as well as personal identity.

Informal messages were etched and painted by Jews of antiquity onto a variety of media. We see that the Jews of late antiquity were involved in the same kinds of markings of space for ritual, social, and individual reasons as did their non-Jewish contemporaries. We also see the ways Jewish practices set them off from their neighbors.

I cant help but wonder why it took so long for us to even be curious about how the Jews of antiquity lived and how this book will make such a big differences when we think about daily life at the time. I realized as I read that my traditional, modern definition of the word graffiti would need to be updated and just redefined. What a fascinating read this is.

“Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem” by Sarah Tuttle-Singer— Exploring Jerusalem

Tuttle-Singer, Sarah. “Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered: One Woman’s Year in the Heart of the Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish Quarters of Old Jerusalem”, Skyhorse Publishing, 2018.

Exploring Jerusalem

Amos Lassen

Sarah Tuttle-Singer lives in Jerusalem within the Old City’s walls, right at the heart of the four quarters: Christian, Muslim, Armenian, and Jewish. The Old city is a piece of spiritual real estate and over time

empires have clashed and crumbled over it. Today, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians plays out daily the streets. But Jerusalem is a regular city as well and the ancient stones run with blood. But it’s also an ordinary city, where people buy groceries, raise children and spend their lives.

Time is measured in Sabbath sunsets and morning bells and calls to prayer, in stabbing attacks and in check points and keeping the holidays in each quarter and sharing the stories that make Jerusalem so special, and so exquisitely ordinary.

If you have ever wondered who really lives in Israel and how they do, then this is a book for you. It combines the personal and political, “the heartwarming and the heart-stopping”. The Old City of Jerusalem is set in stone, but it’s always changing.

Tuttle-Singer’s voice sends out chills and kisses as she her city. She tells of the complexity of loving a city that is so embattled, so diverse, and so difficult. This is her Jerusalem love letter and “a declaration of frustration; a poem and a song; a masterpiece of confusion and undying affection.” She brings us Jerusalem in “all its ugliness and beauty, darkness and light, bad and good” and she does so with the honest, funny, and sad stories of her life and of the city”.

“On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius” by Charlie Harmon— Day-to-Day with Lenny

Harmon, Charlie. “On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius”, Imagine Books, 2018.

Day-to-Day with Lenny

Amos Lassen

With this year being what would have been the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein we have had a large number of books about him being published although every year there seems to be a new “definitive” biography of the maestro. In “On the Road…”, Charlie Harmon makes no such claim as this is not a biography but rather a fascinating look at a fascinating man and it is a fun read. There is also a bonus foreword by Broadway legend Harold Prince.

I met Lenny several times while I was living in Israel and sure enough Harmon captured him beautifully and brought back memories of the penthouse at the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Harmon’s job was twofold— he was hired to manage the day-to-day activities of Bernstein’s life and to make sure Bernstein met the deadline for an opera commission. That deadline was consistently being disturbed by things kept getting in the way such as “the centenary of Igor Stravinsky, intestinal parasites picked up in Mexico, teaching all summer in Los Angeles, a baker’s dozen of young men, plus depression, exhaustion, insomnia, and cut-throat games of anagrams.” That sentence alone should give you an idea of what this book is all about. It is very obviously not a doctoral dissertation but then dissertations are rarely fun to read.

Harmon saw Bernstein everyday for four years and during that time he was Bernstein’s social director, gatekeeper, valet, music copyist, and itinerant orchestra librarian. He was an active participant in his boss’s life and did everything from packing and unpacking suitcases to making sure Bernstein got to concerts on time, made plane connections and knew how to speak to luminaries. There was always music as well (as if that is not the main reason for the adoration of Bernstein).

You are probably wondering whether this book is gossip and I must say that it is, indeed. However, it is not malicious and harmful gossip, rather it is a series of anecdotes that come together to give us a great musician. Now I love gossip as much as the next person and I have my own Bernstein stories that I will never share so I must read other’s stories instead and what I find amazing is that they all sound pretty-much alike.

But it is not all gossip. Bernstein was a superstar and so we have to expect some gossip and of course, we have expected someone to tell these stories. I am glad that it is Harmon that does because his writing is so clear He was just 30 when he got the job after a three hour interview and was not sure that he was not sure he could handle the job. He felt sure he could deal with handling phone calls, mail, and appointments but the packing and unpacking many suitcases for every trip; taking notes during rehearsals and performances; and making sure that Bernstein did not generate negative publicity might have been beyond him. Nonetheless, reservations and all, in 1982, Harmon set off with Bernstein and his entourage to Indiana University for a six-week residency, during which his boss began work on an opera. This was just four years after the death of LB’s wife, Felicia, and he was demanding, impatient, and given to “bouts of fury and bratty behavior.” Harmon figured that Bernstein was still grieving over his wife’s death. Then there was also the Bernstein entourage that included a large and sometimes-divisive cast of characters. Harmon shares that LB was a cruel bully and he drove Harmon to seek help. Yet, on the other hand, Harmon admits that his intimacy with LB’s musicianship gave him “a remarkable education.” So what we have here is salacious gossip about and insight into Leonard Bernstein’s later-life artistry. Be prepared for the name-dropping.

Most of us do not realize what being Leonard Bernstein meant. His schedule was unbelievable and when Harmon was with him, LB was already in his 60s. With all that went on between the two men, Harmon held and still holds great respect and love for Bernstein. You will not find a narrative or a plot here since this book is primarily a collection of stories, I must also compliment Harmon for not mentioning the negatives he had to deal with. He really does not criticize and he had many reasons to do so. He does write about several drunken episodes and other inappropriate behavior but I had the feeling that he knew so much more and just looked the other way. As far as Bernstein’s sexual relationships with other men, there were no real secrets. As far as the Dexedrine use getting out of control, Harmon says that it seemed “like a sensible way to get everything done.” Bernstein’s affairs with various men were never serious and actually took place as “passing asides.” In the epilogue, Harmon says people have asked him if LB was gay and she says he answered ambiguously because it is a non-issue. (Do not share that with the boys in the park in Tel Aviv. I can remember all too well often hearing “Lenny’s back, you know what to do”.

Harmon gives us a man who loved music and loved teaching. He gave of himself to students and if one thing stands out about him it is that he cared. Ultimately, Harmon resigned as personal assistant yet he continued to work for Bernstein as his archivist and editing Bernstein’s scores after his death.

“Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice” by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff— The Evolution

Dorff, Rabbi Elliot N. “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice”, (JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought) , University of Nebraska, 2018.

The Evolution

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is a major Conservative movement leader of our time and in “Modern Conservative Judaism”, he gives us a personal, behind-the-scenes guide to the evolution of Conservative Jewish thought and practice over the last fifty years. I am particularly interested in what he has to say since the only branch of the three major branches of Judaism that I have not yet experienced through membership is Conservative.

Dorff is candid about the tension that comes to be because of seeming constant change laws, policies and documents yet this is what happens when we live in a world that is constantly changing. In this book, for the first time we have the most important historical and internal documents in modern Conservative movement history in one place and this allows us to consider and compare them all in context.

Rabbi Dorff has divided the book into three sections. Part 1: God looks at how Conservative Jews pray and think about God. Part 2: Torah looks at the various

“approaches to Jewish study, law, and practice; changing women’s roles; bioethical rulings on issues ranging from contraception to cloning; business ethics; ritual observances from online minyanim to sports on Shabbat; moral issues from capital punishment to protecting the poor; and nonmarital sex to same-sex marriage.” “Part 3: Israel” looks at Zionism, the People Israel, and rabbinic rulings in Israel.

I suppose we can look at this book as a guide to conservative Judaism as well as an approach to understanding the spirituality and intellectualism of this branch of Judaism. We see what Conservative rabbis and scholars believe and how Conservative Judaism is different from Orthodoxy and Reform. It is easy to read and understand yet it is deep enough to answer many questions. Rabbi Dorff takes us into the thought processes of the movement’s most important authors and thinkers. Conservative Judaism began as a complex movement and it has sophisticated underlying principles. Rabbi Dorff nicely presents us with a way to understand those principles and his introductions to various ideas are clear. Thos is a very welcome addition to the canon of Jewish literature.

“Only Yesterday: A Novel” by S.Y. Agnon— Reconstructing History

Agnon. S.Y. “Only Yesterday: A Novel”, Translated by Barbara Harshav, Princeton University Press, 2018.

Reconstructing History

Amos Lassen

When Israeli Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon published “Only Yesterday” in 1945, it was considered a major work of world literature and not just because of its vivid historical reconstruction of Israel’s founding society. The book tells what, at first, seems to be a simple story about a man who immigrates to Palestine with the Second Aliyah (the several hundred idealists who returned between 1904 and 1914 to work the Hebrew soil as was done in Biblical times and revive Hebrew culture). “Only Yesterday” is an epic novel that engages the reader in a stunning series of meanings, contradictions, and paradoxes all leading to the question of what, if anything, controls human existence?

Isaac Kumer was seduced by Zionist slogans causing him to think of the land of Israel as a place filled with the financial, social, and erotic life that he as the son of a poor shopkeeper in Poland. would never know. Upon arriving there, however, he cannot find the agricultural work he anticipated. Instead Isaac finds house-painting jobs as he moves from secular, Zionist Jaffa, where the ideological fervor and sexual freedom are alien to him, to ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist Jerusalem. Some of his Zionist friends turn capitalist and become successful merchants but his own life doesn’t change and he stays adrift and impoverished in a land torn existing between idealism and practicality, a place that is at once homeland and Diaspora. Eventually he marries a religious woman in Jerusalem after his worldly girlfriend in Jaffa rejects him.

It is very easy to see the Kafkaesque surrealism of the text about a man who is led astray by circumstances beyond his control. Playfully Isaac drips paint on a stray dog and writes the words “Crazy Dog” with it. The dog causes panic wherever it goes and ultimately takes over the story until the dog goes crazy after having been persecuted and not understanding why and bites Isaac. The dog has been the object of interpretation since original publication and has been seen as everything “from the embodiment of Exile to a daemonic force, and becomes an unforgettable character in a book about the death of God, the deception of discourse, the power of suppressed eroticism, and the destiny of a people depicted in all its darkness and promise.”

This is considered Agnon’s masterpiece and has a claim to being the great Israeli novel.” It is filled with ancient religious longing, modern political aspirations, and personal dreams of liberation and is a work of originality.

“Only Yesterday” (“Tmol Shilshom”) was written in Palestine under British Mandatory rule in the late 1930s, finished in 1943 during World War II, and published after the war in 1945.

“Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling” edited by Adam Kirsch— Letters of a Life

Kirsch, Adam, editor. “Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling”, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018.

Letters of a Life

Amos Lassen

I often wonder how our world will change now that written letters are a thing of the past for so many. We have learned about our history and society from the letters that were written over time and in most cases these letters were carefully thought out before pen was put to paper. We write emails as we write memos in most cases and the art of letter writing has fallen by the wayside. We still have the letters of the great literary critic, Lionel Trilling and we still have the wonderful Adam Kirsch to edit them.

With Trilling’s letters we get to see him argue with himself and as a liberal arts graduate of the 60s, I doubt that two days passed when I was at college without some reference to Trilling. He was a man who wrote powerful essays that were inspiring. Because of what Trilling had to say, we were influenced to think about how literature shapes our politics, our culture, and ourselves. He was at the center of the period of time that became known as the age of criticism. We got the impression from his essays that he was somewhat reserved and highly circumspect. However, in this collection of selected letters, we see him as diverse and complex. We read of his love for Diana Trilling, who would become an eminent intellectual in her own right; we learn of his “alternately affectionate and contentious rapport with former students such as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz;” (could it have been any other way?). He writes about the complicated politics of Partisan Review and other fabled magazines of that period; and we become very aware of his relationships with other writers of the period, including Saul Bellow, Edmund Wilson, and Norman Mailer.

Taking all of the letters together, we see an intimate portrait of the man and the critic as well as the intellectual journey of America from the 1930s until his death in 1975. I cannot tell you enough how much I enjoyed reading these letters that have been so beautifully edited by Adam Kirsch.

Letters often give us the man behind the public face and they also provide a historical background and context to what the author was writing about. They are also full of surprises. In his letters to the woman who was to become Mrs. Trilling, Diana, we see the man’s vulnerability and love as well as self-doubts (he shared them with her but not to others). to her as he usually didn’t to others. I love that Trilling wrote about problems that we still struggle with today (see his letter about the use of the “n” word in “Huckleberry Finn”. By reading these letters, we see how people thought just fifty years ago and how it differs from how we think today.

Editor Kirsch focused on the letters about what engaged his mind, (often politics) and the issues that mattered to liberals in New York City in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. In the letters, we can see real historical events unfolding in real time. Something else we see is his Jewish background, although he kept it at arm’s length, he never hid that he was Jewish, but he didn’t want to be labeled a Jewish writer. (I had a wonderful college professor, Rima Drell Reck, who never mentioned her Judaism, yet I could feel it when she spoke. One year I brought her latkes at Chanukah and it was amazing to see her return, if just for a short while, to Judaism).

Kirsch tells us that Trilling was definitely on the left, and interested in writing about deficiencies of the left. He wanted to explore the unexamined assumptions at a time when liberalism was o the rise. It is the opposite today and there is no way to guess what he would say.

Trilling wrote at least 600 letters a year (Trilling’s by own estimation) of which we get 270. Trilling needed his space, and because of it, the reader is rewarded by his engagement in literature and culture. He was often “enormously impressed” as well as very much against. He was generous to those needing his help, and outspoken honesty throughout. For those qualities alone, the letters are well worth reading but there is so much more.

“The Mandela Plot” by Kenneth Bonert— A Journey

Bonert, Kenneth. “The Mandela Plot”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

A Journey

Amos Lassen

As the 1980s come to an end, South Africa is in the midst of political violence with the apartheid regime facing death. Young Martin Helger struggles at elite private boys school in Johannesburg where he really does not fit in. Martin’s father is a rough-handed scrap dealer and his brother is a mysterious legend.

 Then one day a beautiful and manipulative American arrives at the family home and Martin is thrown into the struggle. At the same time, secrets from the past begin to come out and old sins come to light and this second-generation Jewish family is torn apart. Martin must rely on alternative strengths to protect himself and fight for a better future.

 “The Mandela Plot” is a literary thriller, a coming of age tale, and a journey through a world that entertains and terrifies equally and is deeply resonant for the present.

After Martin becomes infatuated with a slightly older American woman, Annie, who arrives to join the fight against white oppression, everything changes.

There are plot twists and turns throughout as well as a lot of pain. Bonert’s characters and plots are brilliantly drawn and thought out. What is strange is that there were passages that completely bored me. He also writes with grammatical errors. Aside from having several South African friends in Israel, I know nothing about it and that is what kept me reading. I love the story of the Lithuanian Jews who had fled the anti-Semitism in the early 1900’s and had emigrated to South Africa where they found safety and prosperity even as they tackled the racial laws in the country. (Jews were considered “white”, but still not British or Afrikaner. They occupied their own societal level.)

The characters in Martin’s family and outside life are sketchily drawn, mysterious and his Jewish family’s past is dark and hidden at first. As the story moves forward, the personal secrets become more sordid, the personal violence more bloody, the danger increasing as the country slides into catastrophe.