Historical circumstances and economic necessity have often sent Jews wandering, and thereby hang these tales of exploration and discovery.
Sam Apple’s Schlepping Through the Alps (Ballantine, cloth, $23.95) carries the unwieldy, but descriptive subtitle, My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with Its Last Wandering Shepherd.
Apple is a young journalist with a self-deprecating sense of humor. (I don’t think he’d mind if I labeled him a charming nebbish—as a boy he went to sleepaway camp with a cooler full of soy burgers so he could keep to his kosher-vegetarian standards.)
When Apple learns that Hans Breuer, Austria’s only wandering shepherd, sings Yiddish songs to his sheep, he is intrigued by this cultural anomaly. Fueled by his grandmother’s stories of the Austria she was forced to flee as a youth, and wondering how Breuer is affected by growing anti-Semitism in Europe, he heads off to visit the shepherd on his own turf.
The story gets even more bizarre—and entertaining. Breuer’s father, a strident anti-nuclear activist, was born Jewish but rejected his religion and escaped to the relative safety of England during World War II. Meanwhile, his gentile mother was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo.
Apple arrives in Austria without a decent pair of shoes or rain gear. He tracks Breuer through miles of rough terrain, trailing a large herd of sheep, forced to confront what you confront when you walk behind a herd of sheep. Yet through all this he reconstructs the man’s fascinating tale, mirroring the political development of post-war Austria, and learning about himself as well.
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Jewish wandering has often brought us to remote places, frequently as merchants. Most of us know people who grew up in small American towns, in South America or even South Africa. But would you expect the Shetland Islands?
Mackerel at Midnight: Growing up Jewish on a Remote Scottish Island is Ethel G. Hofman’s charming book of memories and recipes (Camino, paper, $14.95).
Hofman’s story begins with her mother, a young woman without a dowry working as a shop girl in 1930s Glasgow. Already considered an “old maid” and desperate to get married, she consented to an arranged match with Harry Greenwald, who owned a store in Lerwick, Shetland Islands.
The travels and travails of Hofman’s parents are probably not much different than those of many of our own families, but settling in Scotland and then in the remote Shetlands brings an interesting cultural twist to the usual immigrant story.
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Does anyone remember the novel Ali and Nino, which was popular in the ‘70s? The author was one “Kurban Said” a nom de plume for Essad Bey, who published a number of non-fiction books while living in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. While traveling and writing about Baku for the New Yorker magazine, journalist Tom Reiss stumbled across some information that led him to believe that this author was born in Baku and was named Lev Nussimbaum.
In The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, (Random House, cloth, $25.95) we travel with Reiss as he tracks down and reconstructs the life of this mysterious author who was born in 1905. These events are so extreme they could never have been invented. With his father, he twice flees the Bolsheviks and eventually ends up in Germany where he becomes Essad Bey, a “Mohammedan” prince, part of cafÈ society. He marries a countess, then flees when she discovers his Jewish identity, and dies penniless in Italy, trying desperately to become Mussolini’s official biographer.
Back on this continent: Marking the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America with the reissue of The Provincials: A Personal History of the Jews in the South by Eli N. Evans (Chapel Hill, cloth, $34.95 and paper, $21.95). Originally published in 1973, it has never gone out of print “but grew over time as it was reviewed and word of mouth stirred up interest,” says the author in a press release.
Evans blends his memories of growing up in Durham, N.C., where his dad served four terms as mayor and his mother was an early Zionist activist for Hadassah, with his family’s history and the broader history of Jews in the South.
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Finally, if real travel is what you’re after, and you’re planning to head south of the border, be sure to read A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean & South America by Ben G. Frank (Pelican, paper, $25). This hefty and practical guide can also serve the armchair traveler, with its thorough historical descriptions and interesting anecdotes.
More new books about Jews in other countries: Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews by Stephen Spector (Oxford, cloth, $28). Spector was invited by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to use their archives of documentation about the rescue of Ethiopian Jews in 1991. Spector went further afield, interviewing Ethiopian Jews in the U.S. and Israel about their experiences.
Contemporary Jewish Writing in Sweden: An Anthology, edited by Peter Sternberg (Nebraska, cloth, $60). The jokes are already flying. Yes, this book is more than a few pages long—420 to be precise. In all seriousness, this is the first time the works of Jewish authors writing in Swedish have been gathered together to address issues confronting Jews in 21th century Scandinavia, where they tend to be highly assimilated.