Sunday, March 25, 2012

Recommended Reading VI: More Favorite Fiction

Lately I've read some excellent fiction on a variety of Jewish themes that I wanted to share in these pages.  While the themes may be Jewish, these books would appeal to a broad audience and all offer excellent writing and unique perspectives.

It occurs to me that my approach to reading reflects somewhat my approach to my artwork.  I take a subject that interests me and approach it from multiple perspectives. My current show on Holocaust related work  has three bodies of work, one that addresses the responses of Eastern Europe to the Holocaust history, one that looks at pre-war Poland and a third that looks at individual survivor stories.  Similarly these three books circle a topic of interest to me, addressing the way in which Poland deals with its Jewish history, the response of both Americans and the British to refugees in their midst and the memory of lost  loved ones that haunt survivors as they rebuild their lives.

My latest favorite book is a first novel titled A Day of Small Beginnings by Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum.  The story is told through three generations with the connecting thread being Freidl,  the spirit of a woman who once lived in a small shtetl in Poland.  Each generation brings a greater understanding of their heritage and the reader shares their journey.  The first segment begins with a young boy in the early 1900s who is forced to flee his shtetl and comes to America.  In the second segment we find his son, a college professor, in Poland for a lecture.  While there he decides to visit the town from which his father came.  His father had shared little of his past and had rejected religion in his life.  The third segment of the book focuses on the granddaughter, a dance choreographer who goes to Poland to create a performance with a Polish dance company. There she falls in love with a Polish Catholic musician and struggles with the latent anti-Semitism she encounters in Polish culture even as the former Jewish culture is romanticized in other parts of Polish society.

Her journey actually takes her in transit through my ancestral town of Radom and she writes of Krakow and Kazimierz Dolny, both places I got to know well in my travels.  As a result, I could easily picture the locations and it gave an added resonance to her story.  I also could appreciate her struggle to bridge the two cultures and find the common humanity despite historical differences in perspective.  I especially liked the mystical flavor and wisdom as expressed through Freidl juxtaposed with modern day Poland.

In its own way it is a very spiritual book and I found myself touched by its wisdom. It gave me pause, often connecting with my understanding of the world and eloquently giving it voice.

A second book that I found quite captivating was also written in three voices. The author succeeded in making each voice feel very genuine.  Too Jewish by Patty Friedmann is in part based on her parents’ lives.  The first speaker is Bernie, who escaped to the United States at the cusp of WWIl, but was unable to get his mother out as well, a failure that consumed him. He joined the service and found himself in New Orleans where he married a woman who while Jewish came from a long-established family who saw Bernie as a different class.  His accent and religious background made him “too Jewish” in a world where their focus was on fitting into a very hierarchical society.  The second section of the book was in his wife’s voice.  While she and her husband have a genuinely loving relationship, she is in her own battle to prove her life choices to her judgmental parents.  The third section is told in the voice of their daughter who the author clearly identified with.  The book provides interesting insight into Southern Jewish communities and the class distinctions that I had thought fell by the wayside much earlier.  It also addresses the survivor guilt that many refugees carried with them throughout their life.

The third book that I would recommend is called The List by Martin Fletcher. This book also explores the experience of those who escaped, yet still must deal with the loss of family.  It is set in England and is based on the author’s parents’ story.  It addresses the anti-Semitism that arose in England after the war when the refugees were viewed as overstaying their welcome yet had nowhere to which they could return.  The national conscience ultimately objected to segments that espoused those views.  The title of the book refers to the list they keep of family members as they seek to learn their fate even as they rebuild their shattered lives.  Interwoven with the story is the story of Israel as Jews challenge British forces who bar entrance to many refugees.  The Palestinian Jews are divided in their approach with a segment arguing for violence against the British and a subplot in the book which highlights this resistance movement.

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