At the end of Ilan Stavans’ wonderful little book, Resurrecting Hebrew (Schocken/Nextbook, cloth, $21), the tri-lingual Stavans relates a discussion with another trilingual author (he born in Mexico, she in Poland — they speak in English while meeting in Israel). “Nostalgia,” she says, “is the engine that propels much of literature.”
Nostalgia certainly powers the books featured here, from stories in Yiddish folktale style to family history and memoir.
Stavans’ book might be considered a memoir of a language. He explores his personal connection with Hebrew, learned with a leftist bent at a Bundist day school in Mexico City, then moves on to the evolution of modern Hebrew, brainchild of Lithuanian-born Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who devoted his life to the restoration of that language so it could become the centerpiece of Zionism.
Marina Benjamin also combines personal and world history in Last Days in Babylon: The Exile of Iraq’s Jews, The Story of My Family (Free Press, paper, $15), a history of Iraqi Jewry built on the framework of her grandmother’s life. It took Benjamin, born and raised in England, a long time to become interested in her Iraqi roots. As a young person, she rejected the Arab-based culture and language of her parents and grandparents. But the birth of her own child birthed an interest in her heritage. Her path to discovery even includes a trip to Baghdad, where in the guise of a Christian journalist she tries to see her grandparents’ old neighborhood.
The Yiddish folktale, told in the fashion of Isaac Bashevis Singer or Sholem Aleichem, still holds sway with many Jewish authors. Mark Binder continues the tradition of the town of Chelm, whose mythical residents are slightly confused — or maybe a little dense — but always in good humor. In The Brothers Schlemiel (Jewish Publication Society, cloth, $19.95), mischievous identical twins Adam and Abraham are in and out of trouble, having adventures the author hopes families will share as a read-aloud book.
Another read-aloud collection is Capturing the Moon: Classic and Modern Jewish Tales “retold” by Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein (Behrman, cloth, $22). Feinstein, who made Newsweek’s Top 25 pulpit rabbis list, presents stories that capture the scope of Jewish life from “The Maccabees’ Sister” to the impoverished elderly couple visited by Elijah on the first night of Passover. Concluding each story with a short commentary and discussion questions means they can be enjoyed by teachers and students, book groups, or the casual reader.
Using the folk-tale model, but striking a much darker note is Steve Stern’s The North of God (Melville, paper, $13). This densely written and captivating novella begins innocently enough as the story of a brilliant yeshiva bocher (student) drawn away from his scholarly devotions by a sexy magical spirit who pursues him relentlessly. Eventually Stern reveals the narrator, a man on a boxcar heading for a concentration camp, making an effort to soothe the pain of his fellow prisoners. The author has won many awards for his writing.
Three more good stories come in the form of memoir and the nature of family relationships:
“Even the most well-made movie with a powerful ending could not compare to this,” says Flory Van Beek in Flory: A Miraculous Story of Survival (Harper, cloth, $23.95). A Dutch Jew, the author, her husband and a few other family members survived World War II in hiding thanks to the generous and patriotic spirit of a number of Dutch families. This is a very personal account of the war in Holland and a fight for survival. Van Beek came to the U.S. in 1948 with a suitcase full of papers and photos, which are now held by the United States Holocaust Museum. A story simply and straightforwardly told, yet arresting in its detail.
There’s a war, too, in Alyse Myers’ Who Do You Think You Are? (Touchstone, cloth, $24), but it’s in her family.
“I didn’t like my mother, and I certainly didn’t love her,” is her eye-opening confession that begins the book. Her handsome but ailing father is her advocate, but he dies when Myers is 11, leaving her to face her mother’s wrath alone. It’s a story of survival as Myers is challenged at every turn by her mother and her sisters, never quite able to fit in, always feeling a little different, until she is forced to leave home. Fragile reconciliation only comes when Myers has her own daughter.
Finally, New York Times style columnist Bob Morris brings us the funny, irreverent and sometimes poignant chronicle of his and his widowed father’s parallel dating lives in Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad (Harper, cloth, $24.95). Doesn’t the title make you squirm just a little bit? Who could imagine? Morris can’t as the story begins, but soon enough he is helping his distractible, irascible, sloppy father meet women. Meanwhile, Morris himself is trying to meet the man of his dreams (he’s gay) and keeps us entertained with details of his own dating woes. It’s a side of growing older that isn’t often explored, but Morris does it with style.