Saturday, February 21, 2004

Wow. I kept saying that thoughout Melvin Konner's Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews. There was just so much in here I'd never heard about!

My mom brought me up Catholic (in Columbia, South Carolina, where an acquaintance once asked what religion I was and upon hearing "Catholic" responded "Well, I'm a Christian." So I have some clue about being a religious minority.) My father's mother took me to Methodist Sunday school and Baptist Vacation Bible School when I visited. So I'm fairly well-grounded in the Old Testament, but as I recorded in my 9th grade diary, ("Mr. Brown had Noah tell us about a little of Jewish history. Mostly stuff I already knew but thought of as Christian history. Weird.") I wasn't likely to think about it from a different point of view. Becoming an agnostic made me a little more interested in other people's views, and I've always been interested in cultural history and anthropology. (My beloved jokes that I'll read anything with "social history" in the title.) So I picked this off the New Books shelf at the library, thinking of it no differently than if it were a book on England or Russia or China.

But I haven't really read much on a group that has had a minority status which persisted throughout millennia and settlement around the world. I'm not sure any other group has such a status. I don't usually read books about religion, but the author tells us in the introduction how he lost his Jewish faith and identity as a teen but re-entered American Jewish culture when his children were born, a confession that assured I would not think he was trying to spread the word of God as so many Christian works are prone to do. He covered the history of the Jewish people as told in the Torah/Old Testament, and where it was or was not corroborated (and indeed was sometimes contradicted) by other sources, and then the saga of the Roman-empire era and reasons for Jewish dispersion from their homeland. This was interesting and covered details I would probably not find in general histories, but the discussion of the Diaspora and the cultures made of Jewish people living among others was the truly new part for me.

A person on Amazon has a review of this book that complains,"The most notable omission is the lack of discussion of Jewish experience outside the Middle East except for Spain, North Africa, Ethiopia, China, and Cochin." Frankly, since I knew little about the Spanish and North African Jewish communities and nothing about the others, those discussions were fascinating for me. The United States has a Jewish culture largely drawn from the Ashkenazic Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe; finding out about the other Jewish people and cultures of this world was the new part to me, and no doubt to most American readers who knew of Jewish history largely from reading general European history. Also, there is an emphasis on Jews in the New World before the larger emigrations from Europe in the late 1800s which I have never seen in a general history book; it makes me proud of my country's founders to know that George Washington, in response to a letter from the congregation of a synagogue in Newport praising his equal treatment of Jews, wrote back:

"All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection shall demean themselves as good citizens."
One wishes his views were followed by his countrymen, then and even now.

And then, of course, modern history gives us the most shameful episode in European history, the Shoah, the Holocaust. (Not that such genocides haven't been tried in other times and places, but rarely have circumstances and technology combined to give them such an immense body count.) My maternal grandmother says her maternal grandmother (my great-great-grandmother) was Jewish. If she and her Catholic husband hadn't come to America from Germany in 1883 with their children, my great-grandmother would have been in her fifties at the time when Hitler came to power, and such "half-Jews" were sent to the concentration camps as readily as those whose parents were both Jewish. Quite likely, if she had wanted to flee, by that time she would have been trapped by restrictions on Jewish immigrations that the U.S. and many other countries had enacted by the 1930s. In addition to the usual chilling stories of what happened in ghettos and concentration camps, Konner discusses the Jewish resistance, who sometimes even had to deal with anti-Semitism from non-Jewish resistance movements, and the saboteurs within the camps who managed to stage revolts that made at least two of the death camps unusable. I was also interested (and disgusted) to find that Jewish "displaced persons" after the war were under Allied policy to be sent back to their homes before the war, even if their entire towns had been destroyed by anti-Semitic locals, and that it was necessary for many who wanted to go to Israel to get there illegally.

And then there's the history Zionism and the birth of Israel, which I had read about in other sources but still had never heard some of these details (such as the British suggestion that Jews be given Uganda in Africa as a homeland). Konner does not ignore the situation of the Palestinians who were there during the decades when Jewish immigration increased and when the state of Israel was made official, though he does point out the contradictions in the policies of many of the surrounding Arab states in refusing to accept Palestinian refugees (essentially condemning them to living in refugee camps. These camps' existence perhaps helped to maintain anti-Israeli feeling in the Arab countries, but it does seem that it made the rejecting countries no better than the one the refugees left.) The book also covers the interesting relationship of Israel and American Jews, who in some ways rely on Israel for part of their Jewish identity, and the situation of semi-assimilation and a decreasing Jewish population in the U.S. because of intermarriage and people who drift away from the culture they were brought up in. His wonders about the future for Jewish people in various places are thought-provoking, whether or not they affect you personally or just as a part of humanity.

Monday, February 02, 2004

I don't read nearly as much fiction as I used to, now that I have access to libraries with non-fiction that isn't so astoundingly dated as the libraries around me in high school. But when I went on my holiday trips recently, I went through the paperback fiction shelves to find some books to bring on my travels that didn't weigh so much as hardbacks. And I found both good and bad. The stuff I didn't expect to like, I didn't pick up, of course -- the romance novels, the science-fiction movie/TV tie-ins, the techno-thrillers that my boyfriend once described as "like reading VCR manuals with dialogue." But it's not always that easy to judge. There were some really lousy mystery novels with covers that looked good enough to check out, so I didn't find out how bad they were until I was sitting in at an airport gate debating if killing time with a story this dumb was really worth it. However, I found two books I enjoyed enough that I was pleased to find both were the starts of series, and once I got home I promptly went and checked out all the books the library had from both of them. One series was traditional mystery, and the other a harder genre to label.

There are a lot of novels that might be summarized as "wacky Florida crime stories." Usually I have trouble getting into those, partially because the Miami world where most of them take place isn't very much like Tampa, where I like. An acquaintance on described Tampa and Jacksonville as "very much like normal U.S. cities" -- not something you can really say about the Miami or Orlando areas, or those Panhandle areas that are Florida's North but the American South. So one of the things that grabbed me about Tim Dorsey's Florida Roadkill was the fact that a lot of it took place in Tampa. (This was no surprise once I read the "About the Author" blurb, as he lived here and used to work for the Tampa Tribune.) But even for those who don't live here, this terribly funny story of several competing groups chasing around Florida after a suitcase with 5 million dollars cash in it, as well as each other, draws you in. Some of the characters are relatively normal and others are really messed-up, but some of the weirder people are easier to sympathize with than the ones you might expect to find living in any old neighborhood. On reading Hammerhead Ranch Motel, Orange Crush, Triggerfish Twist and The Stingray Shuffle, I realized that the first book hadn't really given me any clue as to which of the many characters from the first book would show up in the rest of the series; I was actually surprised as to who became the "main character" (though never the only focus of the action). Technically, Florida Roadkill, Hammerhead Ranch Motel, and The Stingray Shuffle are the ones that actually continue the same plotline about the suitcase of money; the other two are digressions featuring the same main character at a different time of life. (I haven't read the latest of Dorsey's, Cadillac Beach, because as I write it hasn't actually been released.) But all of them were crammed full of sentences and paragraphs that I just had to read aloud to whoever was within earshot because they were so amazingly hilarious to me, and it never got old the way some humor writing can get after five whole books by the same author in the same setting.

The other series I discovered starts with The Strange Files of Fremont Jones, a mystery set in 1900s San Francisco and featuring a young lady from Boston striking out on her own as a typist, across the country from the stepmother who wants to marry her off. I had also picked up one several books later in the series (it was all that was on the shelf) at the same time, Beacon Street Mourning. The Strange Files had its weak points, but not enough of them to keep me from reading the other book, and it was that one, where Caroline Fremont Jones has become an experienced private detective, which really made me go and check out the rest. It wasn't just the references in Beacon Street Mourning to events that had taken place in the intervening books, but author Dianne Day had developed the character far better in the later book. (And certainly the events mentioned in passing sounded like things that would mature a person quickly!) I haven't yet actually read the remaining books yet (Fire and Fog, The Bohemian Murders, Emperor Norton's Ghost, Death Train to Boston) but the stories that bracketed them were enough to recommend the series to me, and I think I can recommend them to others. I'm quite disappointed to find in the Amazon reviews of Beacon Street Mourning that "Doubleday no longer intends to publish series mysteries, and because of this, Fremont Jones has met an untimely end. And because of contractual matters, Day can't take the series to another publisher. So, enjoy this one, folks -- it's the last in the series. It's a real shame!" However, Day is still writing other works and I may have to pick those up.