In recent days, a number of progressive commentators, including Ezra Klein and Jonathan Chait, have published searching pieces about their evolving relationships to Israel. “I pay unusual attention to what Israel does because, for family and cultural reasons, I am unusually invested in Israel,” Klein wrote, while Chait describes the “uncomfortable and alien feeling” of recognizing “that I am one of the liberal Jews who…has grown less pro-Israel over the last decade.”
It is fascinating to watch these conversations take place in public, but reading pieces such as these made me realize a difference between myself and policy commentators who focus on Israel. I was a bookish child who grew into a bookish adult, and by both chance and curiosity, I have read a tremendous number of stories about Jews and Judaism.
While some of these books, including David Grossman’s marvelous story of a lost dog who brings two young people together, “Someone to Run With,” are set in Israel, most are not. While political and policy conversations have focused intensely on Jewish experiences in one country, reading fiction oriented me to the vast range of Jewish life across history and around the globe.
One of the first and most formative books in this process was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Hanukkah short story collection, “The Power of Light.” Singer has always excelled in his portrayals of the experiences of Polish Jews, but the eight stories in this anthology range from contemporary New York to tsarist Russia, and vary in tone from a light romance accidentally brokered by an escaped parrot to the desperation of poverty in winter. To read the collection in full, whether in a single sitting or over eight nights, is to recognize anew Jewish resilience and adaptability and to recognize the importance of joy and wonder to Jewish worship.
Singer’s stories brought me to Poland and Russia. Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” and Michael Frayn’s magnificent play “Copenhagen” introduced me to the experience of Jews in Copenhagen during the Shoah.
In Lowry’s young adult novel, Annemarie Johansen and her family, who are gentiles, become involved in the Danish resistance, in part to protect Annemarie’s best friend Helen and her family. Her experiences are a lesson in the complexities of courage. Annemarie takes some risks because she is ignorant of the real dangers Nazis pose to her family. And she learns that bravery takes many forms. “How sad the king must be,” her mother says on hearing that the Danish navy has blown up its own fleet rather than surrender it. “How proud,” her father responds.
“Copenhagen,” which stages three conversations in the afterlife between the Danish Jewish physicist Niels Bohr, his German student Werner Heisenberg and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, provides a rather more sobering and more adult lesson in cowardice. In trying to make sense of Heisenberg’s visit to his old mentor during World War II, the characters wrestle with Heisenberg’s denials of the realities of Jewish life and his attempt to suggest some equivalence between Jewish and German experiences. National and Jewish identity are tangled up in each other in “Copenhagen,” much as they are in life.
There is an ugly myopia to Heisenberg’s attempts to restart his friendship with the Bohrs. “I don’t suppose you feel you could ever come to Germany,” Heisenberg asks. “My dear Heisenberg,” Bohr tells him. “It would be an easy mistake to make, to think that the citizens of a small nation, of a small nation overrun, wantonly and cruelly overrun, by its more powerful neighbor, don’t have exactly the same feelings of national pride as their conquerors, exactly the same love of their country.”
That same push and pull between the national and religious identity shows up in David Liss’s wonderful Benjamin Weaver trilogy. In “A Conspiracy of Paper,” “A Spectacle of Corruption” and “The Devil’s Company,” we meet Benjamin Weaver, an assimilated British Jew of Portuguese origin who has changed his name and abandoned his career as a pugilist for work in private detection. Changing his name does not mean that Benjamin can escape British anti-Semitism, but cutting himself off from Jewish tradition means that he has denied himself community and a source of identity.
Lest I make my literary journey through the diaspora sound hopelessly dour, all of these books gave me a sense of Judaism as fantastical and expansive.
Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics introduced me to the angel Duma, and to the larger tradition of Jewish mythology. Guy Gavriel Kay’s “The Lions of Al-Rassan” provides a vital vision of a fictionalized Spain under Muslim occupation and made a marvelous counterpart to my college reading about disputations, or religious debates, between Spanish Jews and Christians. Both Michael Chabon and Helene Wecker have used the idea of the golem, the magical creations of rabbis that act as protectors of the Jewish people, to tell powerful stories about the Jewish immigrant experience in America.
Jewish historical novels are an important reminder of Judaism’s diversity and evolution. A.B. Yehoshua’s “A Journey to the End of the Millennium” provided me with my first portrait of North African Judaism and an exploration of Jewish polygamy as practiced before the year 1000 CE. In “People of the Book,” a novelistic consideration of how the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Passover text created in 14th-century Barcelona, survived its passage through Europe, Geraldine Brooks suggests that Jewish art has a power that transcends creed. And in “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” by E.L. Konigsburg, I got my first youthful image of Jewish patronage of secular culture.
Fiction is not a cure for the ills that rage beyond the page, and it provides only a temporary escape from these terrible realities. But at times when the torment of Israel and the Palestinians threatens to consume all public discussion of what it means to be Jewish, the beauties of the diaspora of literature are a tonic.