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Writing Worth Reading

Wicked Sons: Apostasy In Judaism

Judaism has “always made hostility to the traitor, the deserter, the child who grows up to turn on the community, into a central organising principle”. But rebellion can be another form of submission — as with the writer and critic Norman Finkelstein, “a man entirely defined by Jewishness” who “performs his Jewish identity by publicly attacking other Jews, in a way that seems compulsive as much as deliberate” (3,640 words)

The Continuing Mysteries Of The Aleppo Codex

More on the fantastic story of the Aleppo Codex, the oldest known copy of the complete Bible, compiled at Tiberias in Galilee in 930CE, taken to Jerusalem, stolen by Crusaders in 1099, ransomed by the Jews of Cairo, stored for six centuries in Aleppo, lost in a riot in 1947 — and found ten years later “in mysterious circumstances in the new state of Israel”; but with 200 pages — The Torah — missing. Now read on (4,900 words)

Eulogy For Sidney Morgenbesser

Ten years after Morgenbesser’s death, the eulogy from his funeral. His gift for humour overshadowed his brilliance as a philosopher; he published little; history remembers him best for a one-liner delivered from the back of a lecture theatre. And yet: “He shaped the field in ways that can’t be measured by publications, in ways related more to conversation and sheer presence and force of personality. His impact staggers the mind” (3,100 words)

The Origins Of Yiddish

Is Yiddish a Jewish language, Germanified by its usage in the European diaspora? Or is it just another dialect of German? The debate continues, but you enter it at your own risk. “Threats of legal action are par for the course. So are character assassinations, pseudonymous academic hits, accusations of lunacy, and denials of the existence of the Jewish people”. Second in a series. The first article is here (6,145 words)

Where Did Yiddish Come From?

If Yiddish did indeed arise as the Jewish dialect of the medieval Rhineland, an offspring of German, spoken by a small minority of European Jews, how and why did it become the lingua franca of older and bigger Jewish communities across Europe? Perhaps because that conventional account of the origins of Yiddish is entirely wrong. The history of the language may need to be rewritten, and that of Ashkenazi Jews also (6,295 words)

Dr Zhivago And The Pope

Review of “The Zhivago Affair”, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, which tells how Boris Pasternak’s only novel was smuggled out of Russia and republished in the West with help from MI6, the CIA and the Vatican — a remarkably enlightened and effective act of cultural diplomacy. Russia’s furious reponse, and hounding of Pasternak, “made clear what was at stake in the fight between democracy and Communism” (2,155 words)

Rivka Galchen Is Not Your Mommy

Review of American Innovations, short stories by Rivka Galchen, who shone with her debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances. “It’s not necessary to grasp all of Galchen’s allusions to appreciate her voice and themes, which are where the real power of the book resides. Galchen has mastered a tone of deadpan eccentricity, in which characters can reveal the deepest truths about themselves in language that sounds like chatter” (1,790 words)

Noah Is A Hot, Wet, Cinematic Mess

Russell Crowe plays Noah as “a sort of two-fisted Buddhist for whom all life is sacred”. He is “recognisably Hollywood” but also “scarily Old Testament.” Aronofsky’s “entertainingly lurid” film is “the most eccentric Old Testament adaptation to come out Hollywood since John Huston’s The Bible“. And, with all due respect to The Ten Commandments, it is “the most Jewish biblical blockbuster ever made” (1,580 words)

Are Jews A Dog People Or A Cat People?

Dogs were often “held in contempt” in biblical Israelite society due to their “penchant for dining on blood and carcasses”. But cats ranked even lower. They are “not mentioned at all in the Bible”, perhaps because “Jewish attitudes were functional”, and cats performed no recognised service, whereas dogs could hunt and guard. “There might have been good dogs and bad dogs, but cats at best were merely suffered” (2,620 words)

Why Are Jews So Afraid Of Stepan Bandera?

Short primer on the complicated life of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, whose “proto-fascist nationalist group” advocated “sovereignty for ethnic Ukrainians” in the 1930s, and helped the invading Nazis murder Jews in 1941. “While Bandera and his men were responsible for killing Jews, their ideology wasn’t fundamentally anti-Semitic; rather, it was pro-Ukrainian”. In 2010 he was declared “a hero of Ukraine” (860 words)

Put God In Charge Of Jerusalem

Israel and the Palestinians will never agree to cede or divide sovereignty over Jerusalem. But that alone need not block a peace deal. Both can agree that God is ultimately in charge; so formalise that arrangement. “Agree to leave the question of national sovereignty over Jerusalem permanently in abeyance, and instead acknowledge the sovereignty of God. The Zero Option, in other words; or, if you prefer, the God Option” (1,450 words)

Sigmund Freud’s Sicko Grandson

Remarkable appreciation of Lucian Freud, his genius and pathologies. “He thought of himself as a biologist arranging taxonomic categories in the same way that he thought of his grandfather Sigmund as a distinguished zoologist. His painterly practice constituted a parallel disrobing to the one that Sigmund had carried out upon the structures of the repressed id a half century before” (2,110 words)

A Manual Of Sacred Technology

On the relationship between religious behaviour and religious belief in Judaism. “Jewish observance can be likened to a technology — a series of tools that, if used correctly, will produce the desired result, which is to please God and win his blessing. The Talmud, then, would be a manual of sacred technology, showing how to calibrate every prayer, ritual, and action so that it will be most effective” (1,580 words)

Q&A With Art Spiegelman, Creator Of Maus

Interesting and provocative throughout. Spiegelman says his cartoon masterpiece has become something of a burden: it’s all that anyone wants to talk about. “I’ve now drawn it 15 different ways — the giant 500-pound mouse chasing me through a cave, the monument to my father that casts a shadow over my life right now. I’ve made something that clearly became a touchstone for people. And the Holocaust trumps art every time” (6,000 words)

Magical Thinking And Incantations In Jewish Oral Law

“Just as the rabbis codify in great detail exactly what can and can’t be moved on Shabbat, or how tall an eruv has to be, so they lay out the rules and exceptions about urinating between a wall and a palm tree. This is dangerous ‘only when there are not four cubits of space between the two objects’ … For the rabbis, Jews are the protagonists of a cosmic drama in which their every slightest action will be either rewarded or punished” (1,800 words)

Learning Judaism As A Native Language

“For most of the Jewish world, Judaism the religion is now a learned practice. Most of us can never practice Judaism in the easy, unearned way that, say, I can celebrate the rituals of being American: the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving. So, if Judaism is no longer a native language for many Jews, what is it? I believe that Judaism is best thought of now as an art, or maybe a sport. Put in even simpler terms, it’s like playing guitar, or playing tennis” (1,730 words)

Dr Who? Dr Jew

Is Dr Who the greatest Jewish character in the history of television? Consider the evidence: He is “wildly intelligent, intergalactically cosmopolitan, with a biting sense of humor. He is constantly wandering, never at home.” He is “surrounded by a host of belligerent warlike species who view him, alternatively and sometimes simultaneously, as both pesky and effete and oddly omnipotent” (1,084 words)

On The Origin Of “Shyster”

Profile of “master etymologist” Gerald Cohen, whose Comments on Etymology, still published only on paper, has documented, among many other things, the origins of “shyster”, “hot dog”, “the Big Apple”, “jazz”, and “dude”. His latest draft monograph on the origins of “jazz” runs to 167 pages. In his day job at the University of Missouri he teaches general linguistics, Russian, French, German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (1,566 words)

Cracking The Voynich Code

Backgrounder on enigmatic 240-page book written in as-yet undeciphered code or language and illustrated with drawings of plants, tubes, nudes and goats. Ink on early-15C vellum. Unearthed — or, just possibly, forged — by a Lithuanian antiquarian in 1912, who claimed it was written by Roger Bacon. “A beacon for a secular community of quasi-Talmudic scholars whose interpretive ingenuity and stamina have few parallels” (5,114 words)

Seder Night’s Platonic Form

“There’s a reason the haggadah feels goyish: Formally speaking, it’s Greek. It’s a Judaicized version of a Greek genre called ‘symposium literature’. Plato loved the form. So did Xenophon. The symposium enshrined the most appealing traits of the Hellenic personality: conviviality, Epicureanism, a love of good conversation”

Mo Yan’s Jewish Interpreter

Conversation with Howard Goldblatt, top American translator of Chinese authors, including Mo Yan. “You’re taking this language and changing it into your own. Translators are always apologizing. We spend our lives saying: I’m sorry”

Math Genius’s Sad Calculus

Posthumous memoir from Benoit Mandelbrot, discoverer of fractal geometry. “This is a man who decided that he wanted to be a second Kepler, founding a new field of study and revolutionizing humanity’s picture of the world”

Diplomat Of Shoah History

“Bloodlands”, Timothy Snyder’s history of WW2 in eastern Europe, is a “magisterial” work. But in portraying eastern Europeans as victims of both Hitler and Stalin, does he neglect local support for the Holocaust?

Blowing Up The King David Hotel

July 1946 attack helped precipitate departure of British from Palestine. Niv Elis’s 91-year-old grandfather explains how he helped carry out the bombing, and hide Irgun leader Menachem Begin afterwards (h/t @polit2k)

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