Two books based in Jewish History, a somewhat discursive The Menorah and a fabulous Holocaust novel, The Book of Aron.
The Menorah, From the Bible to Modern Israel by Steven Fine. Harvard University Press, 279 pages, $29.95.
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard. Knopf, 260 pages, $23.95.
By Roberta Silman
At this time of year there are often menorahs displayed next to Christmas trees, and while the tree seems to come from a pagan tradition rather than a Christian one, the menorah is from the Jewish tradition and has a long rich history. Although modern menorahs have nine candlesticks — eight for the days of Chanukah and one for the shamus, the Yiddish word for the ninth candle used to light the others — the historical menorah and the one that concerns Steven Fine in this somewhat scattered book is the seven branched candelabrum that has made its way through history, beginning at the Arch of Titus in Rome where Roman soldiers are carrying it to celebrate their victory over the Jews and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Fine, who is a Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, identifies himself in his introduction as a cultural historian
whose work is a kind of bridge between our culture and those in the past on the assumption that this knowledge can help us to understand ourselves better. . . .In studying the menorah, the list of sources is very, very long long — this being the longest continuously used religious symbol in Western culture.
A few pages later he says:
My background as a cultural historian, Talmudist, and art historian as well as an Ashkenazi Jewish-American (or is it American Jew?) educated in Southern California and equally in Jerusalem, with strong ties to Israel and equally strong opinions and deep roots within Judaism as a modern “religion,” has inclined me toward a diachronic, object-and text-centered, comparativist and internationalist approach to interpreting the Jewish past.
As a fellow American Jew — no need to be coy, Dr. Fine — I have great respect for someone like Fine who has so many talents and interests. However, one of the things I might have done before writing a book that feels as important as this one should have been was to get a good editor who can help write him as clearly as possible and also help him decide what the tone of this book would be. There is a wealth of material here, much of it archaeological, so there were times when I felt I was reading a detailed work of scholarship and other times when I felt I was listening to an old relative tell me menorah stories with an emphasis on adorable tidbits. So although I think this book is intended for the lay reader, it does at times become ponderous and seems, to someone for whom this material is relatively new, somewhat disorganized.
But patience will reward those who persist. About a third of the way through Fine settles in and his language becomes less opaque when he moves into modernity and Zionism and Israel, as well as the ins and outs of how Israel used the menorah to create a national symbol. There are also wonderful illustrations and many fascinating facts about how the menorah (sometimes called “the lost menorah” because that first menorah whose image in the Arch of Titus was never found) was used throughout history as an important symbol by not only Jews but also by other cultures, in fiction, in documentary, in Russia and Gaza and Indonesia, and even, according to all sorts of conspiracy theories, at the Vatican. One of the more interesting facts for any avid reader of The New York Times is the gift that Adoph Ochs, the publisher of that august newspaper, gave to the new Episcopal Cathedral of New York, Saint John the Divine.
Ochs gave the church two large brass menorahs for the high altar, each of them modeled on the arch menorah . . . Ochs and his fellow Jewish travelers saw the gift as evidence of Jewish acceptance into New York high culture. The Episcopalian leadership was somewhat more ambiguous in their enthusiasm . . .
More recently Fine tells us about poems and images that use the arch menorah as a symbol of Jew against Jew.
No longer a metaphor to be “returned,” the arch menorah is now a cipher for the messianic community and its practical steps toward settlement of the land and the rebuilding of the Temple — steps that are supported financially by Israel’s current rightist government. For the Israeli messianic Right, the menorah is a symbol that reaches from Roman and Christian exile to Zionist return, to “leftist” Israeli “betrayal,” and, for the most extreme, onward toward apocalyptic fulfillment.
So, at his best, Fine gives us much to think about. And as we light our modern menorahs to celebrate Chanukah, we can be grateful for this somewhat quirky take on Jewish history.
Another take on Jewish history comes in the form of a wonderful small novel which has just won the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, Hadassah Magazine’s Literary Prize for 2016. It is by Jim Shepard, an Italian Catholic who teaches at Williams College and has written several novels and many short stories that are testament to his wide ranging imagination, e.g. Nosferatu. I met him once and liked him but did not know we shared the same birthday (month and day) . Once I knew that, I decided to have a look at this book. (So much for rational decisions about what to review.) But I am so glad I did. For The Book of Aron is a gem, to be placed on the shelf near The Diary of Anne Frank, the poems of Paul Celan and the work of Primo Levi, to name just a few of the works that I consider essential “Holocaust” literature.
But why a non-Jew writing so intimately about a small Jewish boy navigating life in the Warsaw ghetto? In his acknowledgments, Shepard tells us that the impulse came from two places: from Marguerite Yourcenar’s Bibliographical Note to her Memoirs of Hadrian in which she says her method has been “to approach inner reality, if possible, through careful examination of what the documents themselves afford.” And second: from Janusz Korczak’s Ghetto Diary, which a former student send to him. Korczak was a physician and a Jew who took a Polish name and who felt compelled to stay in Warsaw and run an orphanage in the Ghetto. From the dozens of other books cited in his Acknowledgments, Shepard did a great deal of research for this novel and, following Yourcenar’s advice, he has created a unique character in Aron, who is eight when the book begins and who is far from the model child — very small, hapless, and disorganized, not too bright, often lazy, a klutz, and selfish — at least while he and his parents and his sickly brother live in a small village in Lithuania.
However, when they move to Warsaw and end up in the Ghetto, Aron’s size and cunning begin to serve him better; he becomes part of a gang of smugglers and even learns that he can bring more food home for his family if he becomes an informer. Why, you may be asking yourself, would you want to read about Aron, and, even more important, why would you want a child or grandchild to read about this odd, not entirely likable boy? The answer is that he jumps off the page with all his peculiarities and flaws. And when he starts to mature, despite all the obstacles, and becomes more and more self-aware, our hearts go out to him in ways we could never have expected.
For Shepard has recreated the Warsaw Ghetto from a child’s point of view — the confusion, the cold, the lice, the fleas, the dirt, the hunger, the misery, the bitterness, the bombs, the random violence from the Germans who don’t have any regard for human life, the lies and cheating and betrayals. They are all there. Yet there as well are the bonds of friendship and love that somehow come into being even in such terrible conditions because humans, especially children, seek one another. And as he becomes the lynchpin of a group, Aron simply does what has to be done, learning as the months pass that life is often an exchange: information for food, risk for safety, deceit that sometimes ends in death. Yet he never asks for pity; indeed it is the pitiless quality of the prose in the book that makes it so memorable. And when, finally, he is saved temporarily by Korczak, we have an equally compelling portrait of an adult coping in the hell that was the Ghetto, yet trying his very best against powerful odds. There are many quotable passages that could substantiate my view of this fine novel, but I will give you an example of only one, when Korczak finds Aron, who is by now totally alone:
At curfew someone lifted me off the pavement. I was dozing and shaking from the chill. I was carried many blocks and then down some steps to the basement of a bombed-out house. The room where I was laid down onto a cot was very bright and all around me was noise and confusion. There were bunk beds made from rough boards against the walls. The place was filled with kids on the floor and on the bunks and all of them were dirty and all of them were making noise. Some were playing cards and others were playing with knives. No one seemed to be supervising them.
I couldn’t feel my feet. “This one’s in a bad way,” the man who’d been carrying me told someone else, and I recognized his voice. “This is a satellite shelter,” he told me when he saw that I was awake. “A place people can go who need to get off the streets for curfew. You can have a little soup and warm up and then tomorrow you can go home.”
“I don’t have a home,” I told him, and Korczak looked at me like he’d already known that was what I was going to say.
“Well, then, we’ll have to think about adding you to our little group,” he said. And the kids on the bunks made loud sounds of protest, to make it clear that was the last thing they needed.
From that passage you get some idea of Shepard’s restraint and sense of irony and subtle humor. Nothing calls attention to itself, yet the story flows along as if you are living it. Moreover, Aron is so truthful that he cannot whitewash any situation, especially his own. It is this truthfulness that makes The Book of Aron so moving and so unnerving. It is also that somehow, after all his research, Shepard has been able to inhabit fully this character who is so alive and who never has to beg for understanding. This is no small feat, and evidence not only of Shepard’s talent, but also his compulsion to explore what can never be fully known, such as the details of a child’s life during those terrible years in Eastern Europe.
There was a time when someone like Shepard, who could not possibly be a witness, would have been criticized for “dancing on the graves” of those who were witnesses and participants in the concentration camps and ghettoes that dotted all of Europe during the Second World War. But those people are dead or very old, and the courage of someone like Shepard to immerse himself in all the literature and then create something uniquely his own is only to be admired.
I would not give this book to a ten year old or even a twelve year old or a fifteen year old to read by his or herself. But I would read it aloud and talk about it to children and grandchildren as an example of human resilience. The Book of Aron is exactly as Ron Charles of the Washington Post says in his jacket quote: “. . . transcendent and timeless. A masterpiece.” And fully deserving of its latest prize.
Roberta Silman‘s three novels—Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again—have been distributed by Open Road as ebooks, books on demand, and are now on audible.com. She has also written the short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.