20 Books of Summer: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

With a ton of library books already in my possession and no shortage of World War II-related stuff in my personal library it seemed foolish to borrow one more library book about the Second World War. But after watching an excellent PBS documentary on Jewish American GIs in World War II I found it hard to resist a copy of Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler. Encouraged also by the many favorable reviews it received I put aside the rest of my reading material and gave Sons and Soldiers a chance. I found Henderson’s 2017 book hard as hell to put down and one of the most pleasant surprises of 2021.

Tragically, only a relative handful of Jews made it out of Germany before the Nazis fully unleashed the horrors of the Holocaust. Of those who made it to America, many were boys and young men forced to leave their families behind in Germany to face unsettling futures. After the US entered the war these same young men joined the US Army to fight the foe who’d treated them and fellow Jews as enemies of the state.

As soon as the Army realized the newly inducted men were fluent in German they were sent to  Ft. Ritchie in Maryland to become interrogators and military intelligence personnel. After taught German military structure and protocols, map reading, orienteering, parachuting and how to operate behind enemy lines each soldier was later sworn in as a US citizen, in part to reduce the risk of being executed as a German traitor in case of capture. In addition, as an extra precaution many carried special dog tags to conceal their religion, fearful of being killed for being Jews should they become POWs.

According to Henderson these brave young men provided the US military with mountains of invaluable intelligence, much of it timely, that wound up being instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany. That a group of people the Nazis worked so hard to murder would play such a crucial role in bringing about their destruction is truly ironic justice.

Just like The Forever War, Sons and Soldiers made for effortless reading and I whipped through it in no time. Definitely one of the pleasant surprises of 2021.

20 Books of Summer: The Jews in America by Max Dimont

Way back in late 2005 I placed a library hold on Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Judging by the number of holds ahead of me, I wouldn’t be reading it anytime soon. So, in an effort to turn lemons into lemonade I decided to read a few books on Jewish history while I waited. One was Max Dimont’s 1962 highly acclaimed bestseller Jews, God and History, a book that had been  gathering dust on my shelf for years. A few months after I finished it, Outwitting History became available. Once in my possession I eagerly dived into it, fortified with background information from Jews, God and History as well as other books on Jewish history I’d just read.

Fast forward to a few years ago, while rummaging the shelves at a used bookstore/pub I stumbled across a copy of Dimont’s 1978 The Jews in America: The Roots and Destiny of American Jews. Hoping I’d enjoy it as much as I did Jews, God and History (and more than his 1971 offering The indestructible Jews: Is there a Manifest Destiny in Jewish History?) I bought it.

In June I included The Jews in America as part of my 20 Books of Summer series in hopes it would prompt me to read it. Unsure how a 40 year old book on American history would hold up after all these years I wondered if I’d chosen the right book. After finishing it a few weeks ago I’m happy to report The Jews in America did not disappoint me.

My most lasting takeaway from this book is America served as a land where the Jews could reinvent themselves. Here was a land with no mandated  religion, forced ghettos or state sponsored anti-semitism. Jews were free to move about and settle anywhere. As the United States expanded over the course of its history many migrated westward, trying their luck as traveling merchants or pursuing other professions. This freedom of the wide-open frontier, coupled with the lack of any rabbinical authority led to many American Jews adopting a laissez-faire approach to Jewish life. More traditional practices customary to Europe, be they dietary or ceremonial were commonly loosened or discarded among those on the frontier of the young republic. (Legend has it some itinerant Jews, when encountering settlements lacking as they usually did a synagogue simply worshipped in the local church, freely substituting God for Jesus in the hymns and liturgy.)

Over the course of America’s history there were three waves of Jewish immigration. The first, which was the Sephardic, began in the early Colonial period. Originally from Iberia but more recently England and The Netherlands, when compared to their co-religionist of Central and Eastern Europe were secular and patrician. Later, a second wave arrived from Germany. Some, but not all were Reform Jews or would eventually embrace the liberal practice of Reform once in America. Lastly, the largest wave came during the last decades of the 19th century. These were the Jews of the Russian Empire, from what is today Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. Despite their poverty and provincialism by their sheer numbers alone would help transform not only American Judaism butt the entire nation.

Dimont traces the dynamic history of American Jewish life. America’s Gentile culture at large understandably was a naked factor, but within American Judaism there was a great deal of cross pollination. Seeking a middle path between liberalism of Reform and the old world restrictiveness of Orthodox many American Jews coalesced into the Conservative camp, making it one of the nation’s largest and most vibrant. By the early 20th century many were no longer practicing Orthodox but had migrated to more liberal communities, and as a result helped make them more traditional. Lastly, conversion to Christianity was always a concern. Ironically, so often the pattern was nonobservant Jews marrying into to nonobservant Christian families, swapping one pro forma for another.

After over 40 years The Jews in America still packs a decent punch and makes a great companion read Howard Sachar’s A History of the Jews in the Modern World and Stephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. Even with a personal library best called an embarrassment of riches I’m happy I figured I had room for at least one book and bought this old copy of The Jews in America.

20 Books of Summer: Family History of Fear by Agata Tuszyńska

Well, it didn’t take me long to deviate from my original 20 Books of Summer. Right after finishing There There I dived into Agata Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear, casting aside any hope I’d stick to my carefully pre-arranged shelf of summer reading material. And why not? I need something representing Poland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Plus, I’ve had pretty good luck with family memoirs with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s A Mirror Garden, Marina Benjamin’s Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World as well as its follow-up The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn all being enjoyable reads.

When Polish poet and cultural historian Agata Tuszyńska was 19 years old her mother surprisingly confided to her they were Jewish. Tuszyńska, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, mines the depths of this secretive family history for her 2016 memoir sharing with the world stories kept untold for far too long.

With her grandfather languishing in a POW camp Tuszyńska’s grandmother and mother were packed into the crowded Warsaw Ghetto and subjected along with thousands of other Jews to the horrors of disease, malnutrition and abuse. The two would eventually escape, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazis while avoiding betrayal by their fellow Poles, be they cruel opportunists or hateful antisemites. For days on end the two hid in secret rooms or backs of closets. (Bored with nothing to do her eight year old mother read in the dim light to pass the time. As a result after the war she frequently squinted, eliciting puzzled comments from her schoolmates.) Later, she grew up and married a college classmate who went on to be one of Poland’s premier sportscasters.

In Family History of Fear Tuszyńska shares stories of both sides of her family, Jew and Gentile. Her style leans towards nonlinear, jumping back and forth chronologically and familial.  Unfortunately, by the time I reached the final third of the book I found myself losing interest. Fortunately, my interest rekindled at the end. Her memoir closes with the ruling Communists’ antisemitic campaign against the nation’s few remaining Jews, ostensibly taken to combat “Zionism” in response to Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. (For additional insight into one of the darker and more obscure periods of late-stage Soviet Communism I highly recommend both Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World and Gal Beckerman’s outstanding When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.)

I borrowed Family History of Fear from the library because I wanted not just a book about Poland, but also the Poland of years gone by. Today’s Poland is religiously and linguistically homogenous but a hundred years ago it was a diverse land. Before World War II 3 million Jews lived in Poland, more than anywhere including the USSR. Overall, Jews made up 10 percent of the country’s population including roughly of third of Warsaw. For many, especially in the countryside Yiddish, not Polish was their primary if not exclusive language. (Even in the capital Warsaw intermarriage was rare, and those who did were usually Communists.) Along its eastern borders were sizable communities of Ukrainians, almost all practicing Orthodox. But due to the ravages of war, genocide and Communist oppression that pre-war world of Poland has passed into history. Tuszyńska’s Family History of Fear is an elegy for both a family and a nation.

A Reader’s Guide to Eastern Europe

Photo Credit – Wikipedia

For several months I’ve been wanting to post a Reader’s Guide to Eastern Europe. It, along with the Middle East are two regions that have fascinated me for years, a fascination that’s inspired me to read who knows how many books over the years about this part of the world. As long as I’ve participated in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I’ve always included nonfiction works about Eastern Europe or works of fiction by Eastern European authors.

For over 200 years Eastern Europe has experienced a number of crucial inflection points that have changed the course of world history. Russia’s ability to withstand Napoleon’s invasion ended France’s attempt to dominate Eurasia. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914 sparked a world war that would kill millions and ultimately destroy the established European order, leading to the rise of authoritarian Communism and Fascism. Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland would in turn kick off another global war, this one even more horrific than the last. Lastly, decades later the Soviet Union’s inability to reinvigorate its failing political-economic system would lead to the collapse of both the USSR and Communist nations across the region once again remaking the world order.

More recent events in Eastern Europe have dominated headlines. Poland and Hungary, two decades after finally escaping the yoke of Communist tyranny continue their slide towards authoritarian rule. Meanwhile, seperatist militias backed by Russian troops battle government forces in Eastern Ukraine. All of this currently unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly bellicose Russia rightfully accused of interfering in the affairs foreign and domestic of numerous countries including the United States. 

I can’t think of any better way to gain a deeper understand this important part of the world than by doing some reading. To help facilitate this I’ve compiled a list of recommended books specific to the different nations making up Eastern Europe. Keep in mind I’m only including books I’ve read. (If you find one of your favorites missing it’s probably because I’ve yet to read it, not that I didn’t like it.) Also keep in mind I’m not an academic and certainly no expert in this region so take my advice with a grain of salt. 

I’ve taken the liberty to define Eastern Europe as the following:

  • The European republics of the former USSR: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia 
  • The former Warsaw Pact member nations: Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia (Czechoslovakia before the country split in two) and Albania (before leaving the Pact in 1968) 
  • The successor states of Yugoslavia: Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (Please note: Until Kosovo is officially recognized with a seat in the UN General Assembly for our purposes I’ll be treating it as an autonomous region of Serbia) 

Photo Credit – TripSavvy

Below you’ll find a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. You’ll also find a lot of obscure and backlisted stuff, which if you’ve been reading my blog shouldn’t surprise you. It also shouldn’t surprise you almost all of these books I found at my public library. That means they’re probably in yours as well, and if not certainly available through interlibrary loan. 

AlbaniaThe Fall of Stone City by Ismail Kadare 

Armenia, Azerbijian and GeorgiaThe Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Ross King

AzerbaijanAll Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa

BelarusThe Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews and Built a Village in the Forest by Peter Duffy 

Bosnia and HerzegovinaThe Wolf of Sarajevo by Matthew Palmer, The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher, Sarajevo: A War Journal  by Zlatko Dizdarević or Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass

BulgariaBorder: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova or The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova 

CroatiaThe Hired Man by Aminatta Forna, Marble Skin by Slavenka Drakulic or Girl at War by Sara Nović

Czech RepublicPrague Spring by Simon Mawer, Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr, The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen, The Devils Workshop by Jachym Topol, The Fifth Servant by Kenneth J. Wishnia or Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright 

HungaryMasquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros, Budapest Noir by Vilmos Kondor, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, In the Darkroom by Susan Fuladi or The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave, Embattled People by James Michener

LatviaA Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile by Agate Nesaule, The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell or Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe by Inara Verzemnieks

LithuaniaThe Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman or The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism by Eliyahu Stern 

MoldovaPogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein 

PolandThe Train to Warsaw by Gwen Edelman, Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland by Matthew Brzezinski, A Secret Life: The Polish Colonel, His Covert Mission, And The Price He Paid To Save His Country by Benjamin Weiser, The Volunteer: One Man’s Mission to Lead an Underground Army Inside Auschwitz and Stop the Holocaust by Jack Fairweather or The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

RomaniaUnder a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania by Haya Leah Molnar, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond by Robert D. Kaplan or The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution by Andrei Codrescu 

RussiaOctober: The Story of a Revolution by China Miéville, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry by Gal Beckerman, City of Thieves by David Benioff, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 by Catherine Merridale, The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin by David Satter, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick or Mutiny: The True Events That Inspired The Hunt For Red October by Boris Gindin and David Hagberg. 

SerbiaHunting the Tiger: The Fast Life and Violent Death of the Balkans’ Most Dangerous Man by Christopher S. Stewart or The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

SlovakiaSiren of the Waters by Michael Genelin 

UkraineRed Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum, In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov, Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith, A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin, An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History by Askold Krushnelnycky or Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King 

Books covering multiple countriesIron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe by Marci Shore or Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters by Elie Wiesel 

Armenia, Georgia, Estonia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro I’m still looking for recommendations.

There you have it. Good luck and happy reading! 

 

2020 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 23 books, and for my efforts earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. I wasn’t as productive in 2020 but still managed to read and review 20 books for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Switzerland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year for this first time I’ll be including books representing Slovakia and Norway

  1. An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins (United Kingdom)
  2. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti (France)
  3. The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan (Germany)
  4. Warburg in Rome by James Carroll (Italy) 
  5. The Last by Hanna Jameson (Switzerland) 
  6. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Russia)
  7. Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (Ukraine) 
  8. 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrin (Sweden)
  9. Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson (Austria)
  10. Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros (Hungary)
  11. Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Slovakia)
  12. The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger (Bosnia) 
  13. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain) 
  14. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne (Greece)
  15. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl (The Netherlands) 
  16. From Bruges with Love by Peiter Aspe (Belgium)
  17. Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis (Monaco)
  18. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer (Czech Republic)
  19. The Vatican Cop by Shawn Raymond Poalillo (Vatican City)
  20. The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb by Neal Bascomb (Norway)

It was about a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction for this years’ challenge, with fiction tallying slightly more with 11 books. Five books were translated from other languages, including one, Masquerade from Esperanto. Both The Last Battle and The Future is History made my 2020 Favorite Nonfiction list while The Last, Beautiful Animals and The Angel’s Game made the Favorite Fiction list. I declared The Angel’s Game my favorite novel of 2020. 

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

About Time I Read It: The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado

Back in 2011 I shared my thoughts on Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 family memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. I loved how she took me inside the long-vanished world of Old Cairo, a diverse and enchanting universe where a tapestry of cultures and religions existed side by side creating a place that was both European and Middle Eastern. For a book that didn’t make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit must have made a lasting impression on me. I say that because when I recently stumbled across a series of podcasts produced by Tablet magazine and saw one featuring an interview with Lagnado I immediately listed to it. I was delighted to learn she’d written a follow-up book called The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn which focused on the life of her mother. A few weeks later I borrowed an ebook of The Arrogant Years through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I’m pleased to say I found The Arrogant Years hard to put down, burning through it in a mere few days.

The Arrogant Years is the memoir of a family, as well as two very different worlds. The first of these long vanished worlds is that of old Cairo. Before General Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1954 Egypt was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians easily coexisted. (For another great look at this forgotten time I can’t recommend enough Andre Aciman’s 1994 memoir Out of Egypt.) In a society that saw itself as more Levantine than Arab, conversant in French and culturally and intellectually akin to Europe Lagnado wistfully writes “it was possible to be Jewish and a pasha … Jewish and an aristocrat, Jewish and a friend to ministers and kings.” Living in such a cosmopolitan capital, it’s little wonder her mother, a young woman as beautiful as she was intelligent, would catch the eye of the Pasha’s wife. Knowing a gifted bibliophile when she saw one, she hired the gifted teen to oversee her husband’s massive library. (Perhaps the perfect role for someone who’d read the collected works of Proust in the original French by the age of 15.) Later, she’d catch another’s eye, that of a dashing Jewish boulevardier, who, despite being over two decades her senior proposed marriage after a whirlwind courtship.

The second of these vanished worlds is mid-century America, specifically the provincial and segregated Jewish communities of New York City. Many synagogues were ethnically segregated, with North African and Middle Eastern Jews (many recent arrivals like Lagnado’s family) confined to one synagogue while those from Eastern Europe electing to worship in those of their own. Some synagogues, like the one favored by the Lagnados took a more traditional approach to worship by strictly segregating men and women, much to the displeasure of the young Lucette. Inspired by Emma Peel from the sixties British adventure TV series The Avengers she believed it was her heroic duty to overcome this injustice by slowly inching her chair week after week into the mens’ section. Keeping in mind the old-world sensitivities prevalent in her congregation one can only assume her modest fight for gender equality didn’t go exactly as she’d hoped.

While the Lagnados might have lived a charmed life in pre-Nasserite Egypt, in America things weren’t so easy. Her father never regained his stature as a wildly successful man about town. Her mother, forced to give up her dream job as the Pasha’s librarian, ultimately found a somewhat similar but perhaps not as glamorous job working for the Brooklyn Public Library. Lastly, if adjusting to life in America wasn’t tough enough, while in high school Lucette had win a life or death battle with cancer.

The Arrogant Years reminds me of other great memoirs I’ve read over the last several years like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Memoirs like these might not get as much hype as say Tara Westover’s Educated but because they’re so well written and tell such amazing and unique stories need to be appreciated more. Consider The Arrogant Years more than a worthy follow-up to The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

About Time I Read It: Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

As 2020 continues to live up to its annus horribilis reputation, I find myself turning to fiction, especially humorous fiction as a much-needed escape. To fulfill this need, last week I used Overdrive to download an ebook of Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 novel Absurdistan, a book I’d been itching to read for years, ever since I spotted a paperback edition shelved in the “librarian’s choice” section at my public library. Like so many backlisted books I’ve featured on this blog, I enjoyed the heck out of it and cursed myself for not reading sooner.

325-pound Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud graduate of Accidental University and luxury loft-dwelling New York City resident finds himself stranded in Russia and unable to re-enter the United States after his mobster father offs a visiting Oklahoma businessman. Homesick for the Big Apple and missing his Dominican girlfriend, his desire to go home only grows stronger after a rival mobster assassinates Misha’s father by flinging a landmine at his Land Rover in full view of tourists in St. Petersburg. (Only to be followed by Misha recklessly bedding his late father’s 20-something widow.) With his best friend Alyosha-Bob (née Robert Lipshitz an American-born Jew from “the northern reaches of New York State”, who, after settling in “St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Russian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie”) and loyal manservant Timofey in tow flies to the former Soviet Republic of Absurdistan to purchase an illicit Belgian passport courtesy of a debased local diplomat. Rechristened as Belgium’s newest citizen, Misha sets his sights on a future life somewhere in the EU and thus one step closer to America.

But then things get weirdly complicated – and comical. Before Misha and his companions can depart a civil war erupts sealing the borders and grounding international flights. Right after his girlfriend dumps him via email for her Russian emigre literature professor “Jerry Shteynfarb” (author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and reputed lothario) he ends up falling in love with an American-educated local tourguide who Misha later learns is the cherished daughter of an Absurdistani strongman. Before he knows it he’s being feted like a future son-in-law and hired on as the war-torn country’s new Minister of Multicultural Affairs. Not bad for an obese, substance-abusing, anxiety-suffering, gangster rap-loving, $350-an-hour Park Avenue therapist-dependent son of a murdered Russian mobster.

The fictional, purportedly oil-rich Absurdistan Shteyngart has created bears a strong resemblance to Azerbaijan, with elements of Bosnia, Rwanda of the mid 1990s and Borat’s Kazakhstan. It probably resembles many former Soviet Republics bordering on Russia’s Southern flank, which after escaping Soviet domination, still hasn’t made the transition to full democracy and sadly, probably never will. Western consumer goods and other relatively luxurious amenities are available, but only to a small, largely corrupt well-to-do. Ruled by autocrats and plagued by perpetual ethnic conflict, life in the country resembles something akin to the Middle Ages as opposed the 21st century.

Absurdistan is funny as hell in a sick and wrong kind of way. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Judas by Amos Oz

In late 2018 I was saddened by the news Israeli author Amos Oz had passed away. I’d only read Between Friends, his collection of eight interconnected short stories and short coming of age novel Panther in the Basement but longed to read more, especially his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. For some inexplicable reason earlier this week I found myself in the mood for more of his fiction so I borrowed an ebook version of his 2016 historical novel Judas. Of the three books of his I’ve read, I’m pleased to say I enjoyed this one the most. There’s even a good chance it will wind up making my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

It’s 1959 and Jerusalem is a city divided between Israel and Jordan. Shmuel Ash, originally from Tel Aviv, is a young idealist who’s lost his way. His steady girlfriend recently dumped him to marry her boring ex-boyfriend. The socialist cell he’d been a member of, passionately debating in smoke-filled coffee shops the role of the enlightened proletariat collapsed under the weight of its idealogical differences. Bereft of funds after the bankruptcy of his family’s business he’s forced to quit his university studies, even though he’s on the cusp of graduating. Unmoored and with nothing to lose, he answers a help-wanted posting for a live-in caretaker for an elderly man. For a modest stipend plus room and board Shmuel stays up half the night bantering with Gershom Wald, a crutch-dependent invalid as cantankerous as he is erudite and brilliant. Sharing this eccentric household is Atalia Abarbanel, the beautiful 40-something widow of Gerhom’s dead son and daughter of Shealtiel Abravanel, onetime member of the Jewish National Council who, because of his opposition to making Israel a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs was branded a traitor by his fellow Zionists and forced to resign in disgrace.

Surrounded by bookshelves stacked with dusty old tomes in a half-dozen languages Shmuel and Wald’s late-night arguments chiefly revolve around Israeli politics and, because Shmuel until recently was a religious scholar specializing in Jesus as viewed from a Jewish perspective, the role of Judas as betrayer. As they argue night after night, the reader begins to wonder if being a traitor is necessarily a bad thing. Fully aware “courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics” Shmuel muses “anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.”

But no matter how much he debates Wald, nothing can take his mind off the beguiling Atalia. She drifts in and out of his presence, elusive yet nevertheless attentive. In spite of her aloofness, she invites him to share a series of chaste, though pleasant evenings on the town. During their conversations she regularly reminds him there’s been a series of admiring young men who preceded him as Wald’s caretaker and each one left broken hearted. But Shmuel is a young man in love and relishes their bittersweet relationship.

With its secluded alleyways, Hungarian restaurants, Romanian-born police officers and sizable first-generation immigrant citizenry, the Jerusalem of Amos Oz’s Judas feels more like the Jewish quarter of some pre-war European capital than a Middle Eastern city. Dark, wintery and possessing a distinct Mitteleuropa flavorJerusalem in essence becomes the novel’s fourth character.

Judas has been called a love story, coming of age novel, intellectual novel, historical novel, philosophical re-appraisal of the Biblical character of Judas and allegory for the modern state of Israel. Not only is it all of these things, it’s also a terrific novel. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: “The Rest of Us” by Stephen Birmingham

I was in the mood for a little Jewish history so I used Overdrive to borrow an ebook of Stephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. Originally published in 1984, a Kindle version was released in 2015 and for the last couple of years I’ve flirted with borrowing a copy but never got around to it. Not knowing much about Birmingham’s book I went in with modest expectations. I’m happy to report “The Rest of Us” impressed the heck out of me, so much so it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction.

Jews had been immigrating to the United States for years, even before America was a nation. These larger waves of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth like many immigrants were initially looked down upon by many Americans, including their fellow Jews who’d arrived decades earlier from Germany. Most were dirt poor, spoke no English and possessed few, if any marketable skills. (Thankfully most, if not all were at least literate.) However, after only a generation or two their contributions in fields as diverse as motion pictures, radio, beauty products and even organized crime were unrivaled.

One wonders how such a modern miracle could occur. While the crowded and impoverished tenements of New York City were no picnic, and anti-Jewish prejudice abounded, relatively speaking it was heaven when compared to Imperial Russian with its murderous pogroms, state-sponsored anti-semitism and grinding poverty. In a freer country like the United States creative and ambitious forces pent up for generations could be unleashed. While imperfect by today’s standards, institutions like public schools, welfare agencies and a fledgling third-tier City College of New York helped recent immigrants and their native-born children master English, receive public assistance and get an education. Lastly, timing could have been everything with the Jews of Eastern Europe arriving at the turn of the 20th century  and thus being in right place at the right time to explore new and promising technologies like motion pictures and radio. Those who’d established or helped establish flourishing organized crime syndicates were poised to enter the bootlegging  trade once Prohibition was established, with many of the same players instrumental into turning the once sleepy desert town of Las Vegas into a gambling and entertainment Mecca after the Second World War.

If you love rags to riches stories, this book is for you. David Sarnoff went from a teenager selling newspapers on the streets to New York to a young radio operator banging out morse code messages (legend has it he was at his post taking incoming messages from the Titanic when it went down) to the head of RCA. When a young Szmuel Gelbfisz left Warsaw he was so poor he couldn’t bribe the border guards to let him enter Germany. After escaping containment he swam the Oder River, made his way across Germany and eventually to America where he became a successful glove maker, then salesman and eventually VP of sales. With several of his co-religionists he decided to produce feature-length motion pictures. Years later the world would know him as movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. Israel Isidore Beilin, who came to America as a five years old would become Irving Berlin, and despite not knowing how to read sheet music was a huge contributor to the Great American Songbook with such hits as “White Christmas, “Easter Parade” and “God Bless America.” Lastly, when nine year old Meier Suchowlański arrived from Russia who would have thought years later as Meyer Lansky he would build a vast international criminal empire and be cool as hell while doing it.

“The Rest of Us” isn’t just great Jewish history, but also American history. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Masquerade by Tivadar Soros

Over the years I’ve read books translated from a variety of languages including Russian, Arabic, Italian, Albanian and Greek but I’ve never read anything translated from Esperanto. Esperanto, for those who don’t know is an international auxiliary language created in the late 19th century by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof. Using the Latin alphabet with vocabulary borrowed from Romance and Germanic languages, combined with Slavic grammar Zamenhof hoped Esperanto would be so easy to learn and use it would become a universal second language, helping promote world peace and international understanding. While Esperanto might not have made the world a peaceful place it soon developed a kind of cult following among linguists, intellectuals and internationalists around the globe.

Thoughts of Esperanto were the furthest thing from my mind that day at the public library when I spotted Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary on the shelf. What caught my eye was the book’s author Tivadar Soros. Wondering if Tivadar was somehow related to billionaire philanthropist and human rights advocate George Soros I took a closer look at Masquerade and learned from its jacket blurb Tivadar was George’s father. I also learned Tivadar Soros’s 2001 memoir recalls the year he spent hiding under a false identity in Nazi occupied Hungary. Needing something set in Hungary something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed Masquerade along with a few other books and headed to the automated check-out kiosk mere hours before my public library locked the doors in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID19.

I was pleasantly surprised by Masquerade. Initially I feared something translated from Esperanto might come across as wooden or clunky but kudos to Humphrey Tonkin for  crafting a translation that expertly captures the memoirist’s voice, one heavily ladened with Mitteleuropa charm, sophistication and, believe or not considering the circumstances, optimism. Tivadar comes across as a confident, urbane and intelligent man of the world, even if that world is crashing down around him.

Using the skills and connections he’d acquired over the years as a successful and respected Budapest attorney, he’s able to secure false identities and secret hiding places for himself as well as his wife and two sons. Wisely, the Soros family opts to live underground instead of registering with the local Jewish council, thus avoiding deportation to Auschwitz. Throughout his ordeal, Tivadar retains not only his humanity but also his refinement and sense of purpose. Perhaps for that reason alone Masquerade is a memoir worth reading.