|June 30, 2005
|REVIEW: The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies
Heeb has been known to craft a clever concept every once in a while. Done in usually by their lack of restraint or lack of depth (I won't add mine to the chorus decrying their lack of taste), they nevertheless can cough up a good idea when they want to. So I wasn't surprised that they dreamed up the ever-so-witty look at Jewish conspiracy theories in the guise of an if-they-were-true bit of satire.
As Mayer Waxman wrote in his review of the book for Jewsweek (now Jewcy) magazine:
Jews were responsible for the Renaissance, the French Revolution, inciting World War I and assassinating JFK, let alone foisting on mankind the counterintuitive peculiarity of buying bottled water -- back in the plague infested Europe of the 1300s. Jews were of course behind the Crusades, the Great Depression, the sexual revolution, introducing malt liquor -- and violence -- into Harlem, and ending pro baseball's reserve clause which led to sky high priced concessions. But less well known is that it was a Jew, Guillermo de la Nussbaum, who, quite by accident, discovered America, and that it was a Jew, Moritz Gelbfisch, who outfitted the Klan. We'll forgive authors Deutsch and Neuman for any previous transgressions in the world of Jewish publishing, because this bit of faux literature is pulled off with just the right amount of hilarity and just the right tone of whim. Sure it'll offend the tight-sphinctered members of the community who think making light of the very conspiracies that have led to pogroms is in poor taste.
To the most dimwitted reader, it might be too late to point out that the book is a work of satirical fiction.
They shouldn't be reading this book. It even says so, calling them "people who shouldn't be reading this book." Despite them, this is a contribution in the best tradition of Borscht Belt comedians. It insults us Jews, but only with love. Then it insults those who hate us, and in a way many of them will probably be too dense to fathom.
Hence the magnificence of The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies. It's well-executed, and it's funny. It's smart, even smarmy. But it's also a fundamentally Jewish response to anti-Semitism. I recall the The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and Culture made this point as well: We laugh so we won't have to cry. When you're as oppressed as we are, you have to make a joke out of it.
|June 16, 2005
|A bad idea
When we recently received a review copy of The Bible's Top 50 Ideas, we were excited to see that Judaism is finally joining its Christian brethren in packaging themselves in a quasi-cool manner. Unfortunately, those feelings quickly dissipated when we actually flipped open the book. What could've been a really cool concept turned out to be boring and pedantic. Oh well.
|June 9, 2005
|Tending to his flock
What do you get when you cross a Woody Allenesque neurotic, American Jewish author with Austria's last wandering shepherd, and you sprinkle in a little bit of Jewish soul searching?
An incredibly entertaining, easy to read work of art called Schlepping Through the Alps by Sam Apple. Schlepping is a book that will make you laugh out loud while tackling the very serious issue of anti-Semitism in contemporary Austria.
The book is ostensibly about Hans Breuer, Austria's last wandering shepherd and only Yiddish folk singer, but it goes much deeper than that. Apple literally schleps through the Alps as a lamb herder for Breur's flock, and on his journey investigates the story of the shepherd's life and how Austria's attitude toward Jews helped to mold it. He also finds that the experience opens a doorway in his mind that allows him to explore his Yiddish roots in a way that had been impossible to him before.
Schlepping Through the Alps is both a light-hearted and important piece of literature. Apple's autobiographical flashbacks to his European grandmother, Bashy, who hilariously introduced him to strangers when he was a youngster as, "Sam, my grandson who keeps Kosher," will ring true with any Jew that has ever felt like an outsider despite being born and raised in the United States. His wanderings and discourse with Breuer heal decades old wounds by first opening them up and searching for an analytical way to treat them.
Apple decided to travel to Austria because he became fascinated with Hans after seeing him perform a Yiddish concert in New York City. He also wanted to examine the root cause of how a far-right, direct descendant of the Nazi Party, called the Austrian Freedom Party, led by Joerg Haider, managed to shock the world by taking 27% of the vote in Austria's 1999 parliamentary elections.
Apple and Breuer recently sat down with Atlanta Jewish Life correspondent Mason Lerner after a reading in Houston, TX. They spoke candidly about anti-Semitism in Austria, the perils of being a shepherd and their relationship with one another.
Lerner's article appears in our upcoming July/August issue, but if you can't wait until then ... here's the transcript from their meeting:
ML: How did Sam do as a shepherd?
Hans: Do you want an honest answer?
ML: Of course.
Hans: He did not good, but I did not expect him to do good. He was there for something else, and usually he wasn't alone with the flock.
ML: What was his problem?
Hans: He is a city guy and also he is very open to looking around and to let his mind wander to other things. It's better to have a naughty child of four or five years that at last is allowed to do a lot of noise and run after the lambs and take a stick and beat some rocks. This is a good lamb driver.
ML: Sam doesn't have that in him?
Hans: (Laughing) No.
ML: But he tried, no?
Hans: Ja, ja. I mean you asked me if was good, so no. Did he try?
Yes, he was good enough. And he had another goal while he was there.
Not to drive lambs. Every idiot can do this.
Sam: All that I have to say is, "No lamb was left behind!"
ML: Aside from herding sheep, Hans said that you had another goal altogether. Did you enter this endeavor with a specific goal? Did the goal change as the adventure unfolded?
Sam: I mean, certainly my goal was not to be a lamb herder. I didn't even realize that I would be playing that role until I arrived. My hope was to capture the story of Hans Breur and I wanted as much time to talk with him as I could have. That meant going with the flock. I guess I probably should have walked in the front of the flock with him, but somehow I ended up the lamb-herder. Anyway, the goal of telling Hans's story evolved into a larger goal of trying to tell the story of post-war Austria and later even into the larger goal of trying to explain my own personal connection to the story.
ML: Right. Basically, it's an oversimplification to say that Schlepping Through the Alps is about Hans Breuer. It's about much more, isn't it?
Sam: Yeah, Hans is the inspiration, and it's first and foremost the story of his life, but I don't think you can tell the story of his life without telling the larger story about Austria. I probably could have told his story t without talking about myself. I ended up included myself only because I had such an emotional connection to the story I was trying to tell.
ML: Hans, so first you played host to Sam in Austria and now he is your host while he reads and you perform your music on a national book tour. What cities have you been in so far?
Hans: New York, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, San Francisco and today Houston.
ML: How have the crowds been?
Hans: I like Philadelphia the most because there were mostly young people. They all liked the Yiddish songs. I liked San Francisco. People started to sing along with me during what Sam calls my "interactive song". I also liked the show where you have been (Houston), because this was the first time that it was how I dreamed it to be, to really have 100 Yiddish native speakers.
ML: Yeah, it looked like Lawrence Welk was performing for Hadassah in there. And every time I tell people I'm from Houston they say, "There's Jews in Houston?" Take that New York!
Hans: I left re-animated.
ML: Yeah, Houston can do that to you. Of course, to be honest, I'm not sure what you mean.
Hans: There is a deeper goal. I think it also important the relationship from me and Sam and the many discussions that we have. And I think that we talked about very important personal topics like politics and how to deal with sexual partners and sexuality. He is a rather closed person and I am not, so we both took something from the other.
ML: Whoa, hold up. Last I remember I was asking about the book tour and suddenly you changed gears to conversations about sexuality. I thought you said that Sam's mind had a tendency to wander. Sam, what kind of insight did Hans lend you about sexuality up there in the mountains?
Sam: I agree with everything that Hans said. I mean, that wasn't a goal going in, but...what was the question again?
ML: How did Hans affect how you deal with sexuality?
Sam: Well, there was, certainly with respect to relationships, there was a moment when I was deciding whether or not I should stay in Austria a little longer to spend time with a woman that I met there. I asked Hans, who was in the midst of his own struggles, and the quote from Hans was 'The love of a woman is very rare and special'. If somebody else said that I wouldn't have thought about it very much, but knowing what Hans had been through it really resonated with and I decided to spend more time in Austria.
Hans: Back to the lambs. There were others in the group, my sons and my ex-wife. So he had to have a job. So he was the lamb driver. But we talked a lot about other things.
ML: You were pretty satisfied with your performance, no?
Sam: I'm not saying that I was a great lamb driver, but again, no sheep was left behind.
ML: It seemed to me as I read the book that you went into Austria expecting to find more overt anti-Semitism than you actually found.
Sam: I think that on one level that's probably true in that I had such an expanded, neurotic imagination about what took place in Austria that I don't think, short of seeing Nazi storm troopers goose-stepping in the streets, anything would have quite lived up to my imagination. But in other respects, once I got beyond these somewhat exaggerated fantasies and I really started looking into the history, and some of this work only happened after I left Austria, I also uncovered very true horror stories that I didn't know about. I think I now have a more realistic sense of Austrian anti-Semitism, and I think that it's still a very real and troubling phenomenon.
ML: How would you describe the anti-Semitism in Austria looking back?
Sam: I think that Austria certainly isn't unique in having a significant segment of the population holding some form of anti-Semitic views. That's true across Europe and probably to a lesser extent in the United States as well. It might be that 15% of the population is anti-Semitic in any give country, but on top of that, in Austria you have a large part of the population that might not appear anti-Semitic on the surface, but also is not comfortable with addressing its Nazi past. So, maybe it's not explicit anti-Semitism, but it's a level of anti-Semitism. It's a problematic perspective on Jews and Jewish history and Austrian history that needs to be addressed. That's not to say that there hasn't been some progress in the last decade.
ML: Would you agree with that Hans?
Hans: One thing is that always people use anti-Semitic feelings in political speeches. About 90 years ago, the Mayor of Vienna did it. That was long before Hitler. Now it's Haider and other politicians. One of the targets is Jews, but also so are foreigners. The Turkish are a good target.
ML: In the book, Sam calls these people the new Jews of Austria. Is that accurate?
Hans: Absolutely. The black people in Vienna are much more concerned. There are few, but they are accused of being drug dealers and criminals. There is this never-ending propaganda to get votes. The other thing is that for the moment we have a political system that has heard very little about political correctness. Hitler did not bring new things. He just brought the lion out from the cage.
ML: Did writing the book get you more in touch with your own Jewish identify in any way?
Sam: I think the most confusing part of it for me was trying to, on the one hand, look at my own experience growing up in America and not having experienced significant anti-Semitism, and on the other hand having the feeling inside of me of having been a part of a people who were persecuted for thousands of years. These were powerful things that I got from my grandmother and from studying the Holocaust. This confusion was always inside of me. Going to Austria, I really had to sort it out and think about it in a serious way. I don't think that I suddenly have all the answers, but I certainly feel that I've made more sense of my feelings. I feel that my thoughts are somewhat more coherent now.
ML: Do you feel that perhaps just as it's important for Austrians to deal with what went down in Austria, it's just as important for Jews to get past the 'victim' mentality many may have developed over the last few millennia?
Sam: I don't know if I'd put it quite like that, but I think that certainly there can be times when contemporary Jews focus on the Jewish victim-hood to an unhealthy degree. I think it's partially problematic in that sometimes you see young Jews that are educated in such a way that all they are taught about is the Holocaust and all of the horrible things that have happened; (and they are taught) this is why you should be Jewish. I think that it's extremely important to learn the horrible stories, but those things aren't the reason to be Jewish. You have to ultimately have positive reinforcement and things that you love about the religion. That Jews have been persecuted throughout their history is not reason enough to be Jewish.
ML: Damn, that's deep. I need a second. OK, I'm good. Moving ahead, I think it came up twice in the book, but Austrians brought up the Israeli/Palestinian conflict when you asked them about anti-Semitism. It seemed like many of them used Israel to rationalize their own anti-Semitic feelings.
Sam: It's probably a fair criticism of the book to say that I didn't sort that out. I didn't because I felt like I had enough on my plate without trying to figure out, within the Austrian context, how much of anti-Semitism was intermingled with anti-Zionism and how much of it dealt with other issues. I think certainly that the anti-Zionism plays a part in anti-Semitism in many European countries, and I think that it happens to some extent in Austria, but because Austria has so much of a problem with anti-Semitism outside of the Israeli context, I decided to not really delve into that issue. If this were a scholarly book, I think I would have had to have done that, but it's not so I didn't [laughs].
ML: Fair enough. OK, Hans, correct me if I'm wrong, but the book never directly says whether or not you consider yourself a Jew. Your dad was, your mom wasn't. Where do you think this puts you? Forget what an Austrian would say that you are. And don't give me a rabbi's opinion. What do you say that you are?
Hans: I feel being a Jew. Sometimes I hear things or I feel things (in the U.S.) because this trip I did not visit leftists, I landed in the middle of Jewish people. With people who like Yiddish very much, but I met many who consider themselves conservative, Republican, Democrats. It was middle. I heard a lot of things that I would perhaps dislike, but I decided before not to ask these questions, because I think that each one should fight his own battle at home first. So I will fight in Austria when I feel that politics about Israel become anti-Semitic.
ML: But what about you, Hans? What identifies you as a Jew?
Hans: I feel as a Jew in my culture, that this old tradition, people of the book, of teaching their children of three or four years to read, not so much the content of this learning, it's not the religious content for me that is the most important, because I don't believe in god, but I think what is created in the people, from generation to generation, is interest for the written word. I see what pleasure it does to me see how you all read and what you read. I see on your toilet you have a copy of "The Brothers Karamazov".
ML: Yes, my toilet makes quite the intellectual statement.
Hans: I see also the Superman comic book underneath.
ML: Yeah, the only difference between the two works really is that I understand what the hell is going on in Superman, and I've actually managed to read Superman from cover to cover. But still, thanks for noticing.
Hans: That's just the interesting thing about the Jewish people that I have noticed. What they have in common, even though they have different opinions, very different opinions, but they all have something that they read and to discuss. They like no to simplify things too much. In principle, Jews like to make things not too fast and not too easy, and this I think is very important in life. Things are not black and white or "yes" and "no". So, yes, I feel Jewish, and it comes from this tradition.
ML: What do you think about that, Sam?
Sam: I don't know, I wasn't listening.
ML: Your shortcomings as a lamb herder surface once again. Anyways, in the book you talk a lot about how shy you are. Is it hard for you to get on stage for these readings?
Sam: It's pretty hard, but the hardest part is before it starts. Once I'm actually up there and I've hopefully gotten a few laughs, than I relax a little bit.
ML: What has gotten you the most consistent laughs?
Sam: For some reason every time I read the expression, 'Gey kocken offen yom', 'Go shit in the ocean', the audience really enjoys it.
ML: Yeah, that's a classic. Don't you have something you do before each reading to get hyped?
Sam: I like to do an imitation of NBA players in the hallway right before coming into the arena. It's a little 'Showtime, baby!', chest bumping and arm slapping type of stuff. But it's done with irony, for what it's worth.
ML: For what it's worth? A neurotic writer chest bumping the last wandering shepherd in Austria before going to read about sheep shit in front of an audience of retired Yiddish speakers? That's priceless, dude.