Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.

 

Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock’ is contemporary and biting

  • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson (Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Commissioned as one in a series of Shakespeare’s plays reconceived as contemporary novels, Jacobson skewers the “reality TV”  rich while Strulovitch, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, questions his Jewish identity and worries about his daughter, all under the eyes of Shylock.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: England
  • Time: now
  • This book showcases the timelessness of Shakespeare’s characters and themes with Jacobson’s keen language and sardonic wit.

Simon Strulovitch lives in the countryside near Manchester, England. On a winter’s evening, he visits the grave of his mother, Leah, only to meet Shylock, still in mourning and speaking to his wife, Leah. Strulovitch invites him home and thus begins a contemporary recasting of The Merchant of Venice. Howard Jacobson is well-known for his biting assessments of his characters and their social standing.

Venice plays a major role in the story. On his honeymoon with his first wife, Strulovitch quickly realizes her idealized vision of him doesn’t mesh with his conflicted Eastern European roots. Strulovitch was angry and saddened at his father’s disownment of him for marrying outside of the faith. Upon his second marriage, there was a reconciliation and Strulovitch became a great collector of Jewish artists though his ambivalence about his Jewish identity remained.

Tragically, Kay, Simon’s second wife was felled by a stroke when their daughter Beatrice was young. Kay was left a wordless invalid and Strulevich effectively became a single parent. Shylock and Strulovitch have much in common in dealing with their daughters and as outsiders in the communities in which they live.

A mash-up of reality television elements – food and advice tv – along with a Kardashian-like figure and her acolytes are satirical devices that draw Beatrice, an aspiring performance artist, to her rupture with her father.

Woven throughout the novel is overt anti-Semitism in the community and among those Beatrice has chosen as her associates. When Beatrice, just turning 16, runs off with a football player suspended for his Nazi hand motion, Strulovitch wants him to pay.

Shylock is the classic foil to Strulovitch as he wrestles with his values and where he draws the line on taking action. It does take a leap to accept Shylock’s presence in 21st century England. However, the essential issues that these men, both as fathers and as Jews, face have changed little over the centuries. For this reason and because Jacobson can turn a phrase, that this reimagining of The Merchant of Venice is well worth reading.

This is the second of these novel riffs on Shakespeare I have read. I may give another a try.

(My earlier read was Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl based on The Taming of the Shrew and here is my write-up. My take on recent theatrical riffs on The Merchant of Venice is here.)

Family business, family drama – a holiday weekend two-fer

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2 A HOLIDAY WEEKEND TWO-FER

  • 51OFZxrOG1L._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner (Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Three sisters and their families traverse personal and societal minefields in post-WWII Connecticut.  The family beach cottage holds their happiest memories but is also the site of a life-changing tragedy.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Connecticut
  • Time: 1948 – 2000, with flashbacks
  • Read this for a complex family story that brings in the complexities of a changing society.

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  • 51P7AYJdy3L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (St. Martin’s Press, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: The business and personal lives of two very different brothers and their families are intricately woven together. Loigman’s family drama lays out the corrosive nature of family secrets and the price to be paid by all.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York
  • Time: 1947 – 1970
  • Read this for a family story that reinforces the old adage “be careful what you wish for!”

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Elizabeth Poliner’s and Lynda Cohen Loigman’s novels feature families that are close emotionally, physically and economically. Both books have as the historical setting the years following World War II. It’s no coincidence. It was a period of great transition with those family-owned businesses that survived the Depression and the war flourishing. Ethnic and religious prejudices are lessening a bit, although there remains the expectation that people will ultimately “stay with their own kind.” With new prosperity, families are leaving apartments in the city for new homes in the suburbs.

In As Close to Us as Breathing, three sisters spend their summer in their family cottage in a small shoreline Jewish enclave nicknamed Bagel Beach, as they did during their own childhoods.  The telling of the story is shared by 12-year-old Molly, the middle child of the eldest sister, Ada, and an omniscient narrator. The novel begins with the announcement that Davy, Molly’s 8-year-old brother, will die that summer in an accident.

During the work week, the three sisters – Ada, Vivie and Bec- share close quarters with Ada’s three children – 18-year-old Howard, Molly and Davy – and Vivie’s daughter Nina. Friday afternoon Howard, Ada’s husband, and Vivie’s husband Leo, would drive out to spend the Sabbath with their families. Howard’s brother, Nelson, was left in Middletown to mind Leibritsky’s Department Store, the business built by the sisters’ parents. Each person plays a distinctive role within the family.

As within every family, there are grudges held and sacrifices made. Poliner shares their secrets carefully, only to further the story. In ways small and large, characters chafe against societal expectations. The importance of respect within the family is seen in how these choices are hidden from those closest to them.

As Close to Us as Breathing is a wonderful period piece and family novel. Poliner takes extraordinary care to describe the details that paint the picture of their lives. While accidents like the one that claims Davy’s life are fortunately rare, the complex relationships that affect the family’s reactions ring true. Key to the success of the storytelling is the pacing which naturally follows the story itself. This novel has an excellent balance between character and plot and is worthy of inclusion in your summer reading.

While the catalyzing incident in Poliner’s book occurs in the summer, a winter storm sets into motion all that follows in Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Two-Family House. Abe and Mort are brothers who own a cardboard box company in New York. Together they also own a two-family brownstone where Abe lives upstairs with his wife Helen and their four sons. Downstairs are Mort, his wife Rose, and their three daughters. While the brothers couldn’t be more different in temperament, Rose and Helen are the glue that keeps everything going.

As Helen and Abe celebrate their eldest son becoming bar mitzvah, Helen sees her sons needing less and less of her and wishes she had a daughter with whom to share experiences. At the same time, it is clear Mort regrets not having a son to become bar mitzvah and does not really understand daughters. When both Rose and Helen find themselves pregnant once again, they hope that the missing piece for each family will be found.

Several weeks before the babies are due, both Mort and Abe must go to Philadelphia overnight for a business meeting that may determine the future of their company.  A blizzard blows in and both women go into labor. Fortunately, a midwife is nearby and can attend to the births. When the men return, each is surprised and delighted to meet their children – a daughter for Abe, a son for Mort. From that day forward both family’s lives are changed forever.

At what should be a time of great joy, tensions within and between the families grow. Judith, Mort and Rose’s eldest daughter, seems to bear the brunt of it.  Judith is a wonderful writer, acknowledged by awards from school, but her father dismisses her accomplishments and creates barriers for her. As her mother also becomes more distant, she seeks out her aunt for advice and comfort, further increasing the mother-daughter rift.

From the beginning, Natalie and Teddy, the babies, were raised together. As they grew, they insisted upon it, even having dinners in each others’ homes on a regular schedule. And the curiosity and innocence of the young uncovered long-held secrets. As a duo, they managed to soften the hard edges that their parents’ had developed.

As the years pass, the family business thrives though the family relationships are not as lucky. Eventually, both families leave the brownstone for the suburbs, lessening the day-to-day tensions between Helen and Rose but at the cost of increased isolation for all. A horrific accident further fractures the family rather than drawing it together. Bit by bit, some of the secrets are revealed.

People are fascinated by the possibility of children being switched at birth. Loigman has used this fascination to good effect by including the reader in from the very beginning. The characters make choices in revealing some of the secrets. In doing so it is emphasized that there can be healing or hurt in the telling.

Unlike in Poliner’s novel, only a limited number of the characters are fully drawn. Loigman’s focus hones in on the effect of the secrets on each. What we see in The Two-Family House are two families entwined by business loyalty, nurtured through marriages, and almost destroyed for not leaving well enough alone. Loigman seems to hold a soft spot in her heart even for some of her more imperfect characters. Choosing to end the novel decades after its start allows time and societal change to bring about some healing that the relationships between family members couldn’t.

 

The fascination with Shylock

Al Pacino as Shylock

Whether you are someone who seeks out Shakespeare’s work or is uncomfortable with the language and cadence, Shakespeare’s stories and words permeate our culture. Few of Shakespeare’s characters evoke such strong feeling as Shylock, the titular character in The Merchant of Venice. When first performed over 400 years ago, Shylock was the personification of all the prejudices about Jews – clannish, money-grubbing, dirty, ugly, sanctimonious – the list goes on and on. In different eras and in different cultures, Shylock has at times received more nuanced and sympathetic treatment. Luminaries of stage and screen have taken on the role, each giving it his own take.

This year there are two very different productions with Shylock at the forefront in the Washington area. This past week, a new play based on The Merchant of Venice Unknown-5has been staged at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. District Merchants by Aaron Posner, brings the story to Washington in 1873, a time of great political and economic upheaval immediately following the Civil War. The Folger’s strong reputation and Posner’s skills in rethinking the work of others on the stage encouraged us to see the production. In one word GO!

images-1The massive pillars that filled more than half the set served two purposes: first, a reminder of Washington and the fundamentals that created the US, tested by the Civil War; and two, it effectively brought forward and contracted the size of the stage, increasing the interplay between the actors and audience in what is already an intimate venue.  The quintessential issues of justice and prejudice, family and peoplehood, generosity and greed flow naturally through this retelling. Each of the eight cast members lived his/her character. The melding of Posner’s and Shakespeare’s words was completely successful. Whether the Shylock’s story is set in the 16th, 19th or 21st century, its power remains the same.

For traditionalists, in late July Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour will present The Merchant of Venice at the Kennedy Center. The show is advertised as “..this new production of Shakespeare’s play dramatizes competing claims of tolerance and intolerance, religious law and civil society, justice and mercy.” Isn’t it always so?

Were this not enough, there is a new version of Shylock’s tale for those who prefer the armchair view. The Crown Publishing Group’s Hogarth Press has commissioned the retelling of eight of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays by some of Unknown-4the world’s most renowned novelists. British novelist and 2010 Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson was chosen to tackle The Merchant of Venice. His novel Shylock Is My Name was released in February. I’ll go out on a limb and predict at least one of my book groups will tackle it during the 2016-17 season. Watch this space for my assessment.

For the Anne Tyler fans out there, her take on The Taming of the Shrew will be published tomorrow.  Vinegar Girl, set in contemporary Baltimore, should be a great mashup, proving again how modern masters can bring the timelessness of Shakespeare to today’s audiences.

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story

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  • PumpkinflowersPumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story Matti Friedman (Algonquin Books, May 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Friedman shares both his personal and journalistic views of Israel’s experience in Lebanon in the 1990’s with the outpost called Pumpkin as the focus. Heart-wrenching and informative, it reminds the reader that history happens one person at a time.
  • Genre: Narrative history/memoir
  • Locale: Israel/Lebanon
  • Time: 1994-2002

Two years ago I first learned that Matti Friedman’s next book would be about the little-mentioned experience of Israeli soldiers in outposts in Southern Lebanon. These fortifications and their platoons were protection from Hezbollah incursions into northern Israel. This is a personal story for him – it was in the Pumpkin that Friedman served during his time in the IDF in the late 90s. Pumpkinflowers goes beyond his story to tell of those who came before him, their families and friends, and of the women whose outcry led to the abandonment of these positions on the hills.

In Israel, all but the ultra-Orthodox are obligated to serve in the military. Leadership is cultivated early and the bonds of service continue beyond the time in uniform.  Israel is a small country so troops are rotated from post to training with frequency and weekend visits home are a part of the culture. And when there are casualties, each wounded soldier (flower) or death (cyclamen) is a collective sorrow, invariably a distant relative or friend of a friend’s cousin.

The early days of the Pumpkin are given life through Avi, a writer by temperament, who was sent with his platoon to the Pumpkin in 1994. Friedman uses diaries and letters, interviews with Avi’s parents and others from the platoon, to paint the picture of life on the hill.  Friedman lays out the routines, the boredom broken by fear when trying to ascertain whether a shepherd is merely looking for lost sheep or is actually a threat. The platoon members are from different backgrounds, religious to completely secular, though all are schooled in the Biblical history of the land. They are at the cusp of adulthood, intrigued by popular culture, keeping in touch with their friends, trying to figure out what is next.

Access to the outposts was difficult and troops were often conveyed by helicopter. In February 1997, poor weather conditions contributed to a tragedy that changed the direction of Israel’s defense in the security zone. Begun by mothers, slowly but surely pressure to bring the soldiers home from the outposts began.

And it was after this that Matti Friedman, at nineteen, was sent to the Pumpkin.  Only after telling the story of the early years does Friedman share his experience.

Well-conceived narrative history can bring breadth in a very compelling way. In Pumpkinflowers Matti Friedman gives life to the Pumpkin and to the terrain that the platoons are charged with protecting.  The difficulty in defending borders when combatants look just like their neighbors. The combination of bravado and naiveté among the IDF’s soldiers, and a country where each casualty is a tragedy within the family. Friedman also lays out the politics and resistance.

In the end, it is a very personal story, incomplete without Friedman’s visit back to where it all began. After the Pumpkin was the temporary home to too many young men lost, it is now a hill with scars. And the view remains essentially the same as it has for thousands of years.

Pumpkinflowers is well-documented and tightly written. Covering a rarely discussed period of Israeli history, this book is important for the gap it fills and the manner it which it is addressed. As he says, this period is the beginning of a new type of warfare in the Middle East and Hezbollah was its start. This book has appeal for readers of all genres and will be a great source of discussion.

Matti Friedman is a journalist and author. His 2012 book, The Aleppo Codex, was awarded numerous prizes, including one which afforded him the opportunity to turn his attention more fully to his experience in Lebanon.  Friedman continues to write both narrative journalism and opinion pieces.