Reviews: Of heroes and herring
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Reviews: Of heroes and herring

It appears we're all going to have a little time to read on our hands

Heroic Back Story
By Jesse Bernstein
“Young Heroes of the Soviet Union”
Alex Halberstadt
Random House

It’s appropriate that Alex Halberstadt’s new memoir, “Young Heroes of the Soviet Union,” is shaped in many ways by the labor of its characters.

One of his grandfathers was a bodyguard to Joseph Stalin; the other spent his life in laboratories dissecting small animals to try and learn about how they worked. His mother sold nearly everything she owned in order to move the two of them out of a Moscow housing block and to a three-room walk-up in Long Island City; his paternal grandmother designed dresses that she could spot being worn by the Soviet elite on television; and his father sold black market rock records, Wrangler jeans and other smuggled Americana to his capitalism-curious countrymen.

It’s a lot of work, being alive, and it’s a lot of work to stay alive, too. Sometimes your labor kills you through no fault of your own, and sometimes it sustains you, regardless of your own will. You might wake up one day, Halberstadt seems to say, and realize that your survival was an accident of history. Then what do you do?

His answer is more labor. In his case, it’s the labor that Halberstadt, a journalist, understands how to do: Build a long, complicated story, encompassing the life and death of countries, regimes and families. He builds with memory.

Memory being, of course, some pretty fickle material to work with.

Over and over again, family lore and well-established facts of history are both exposed as constructions of convenience or discretion. His Jewish grandfather, Semyon, is convinced of the evil of the number 19 by a series of horrible misfortunes involving it and, as a result, switches his birthday from 10/9 to 11/15. His Russian grandfather, Vassily, is able to see Stalin’s smallpox scars up close, the ones that were airbrushed out of official images (he sees his boss’ similarly suppressed behavior up close, too). Memory is constructed by the state as well as by the individual, Halberstadt learns and relearns, in the name of self-preservation.

The book is broken into three parts. Halberstadt begins with his investigation of his Russian father’s family in the first section, and then conducts another one into his Jewish mother’s family. In the final section, he recounts his journey from the Soviet Union to New York City, where he struggles to construct a complicated identity. He’s Jewish enough to be accepted as a charity case at Jewish schools, but not Jewish enough to feel quite at home in them; he’s not American enough for his peers, and he’s too American for his family. He comes to realize that he’s gay as well, which adds another layer of complication.

Halberstadt is at his best when he is describing the private battles fought by his family members, at any scale. His descriptions of his KGB agent grandfather’s struggle with his own culpability in torture, repression and potentially genocide is given no more weight than that of his mother nearly bleeding out during an at-home abortion, performed without her philandering husband’s knowledge. He brings maximum empathy to those who have often withheld it.

There are times when his onslaught of detail stops working as an agent of verisimilitude and becomes a slog to read, but thankfully, those occasions are few and far between. Most of the time, Halberstadt is able to successfully build his scenes with well-observed details; I was delighted when he noticed a sign for “Afrobraids” on the renamed “50th Anniversary of the Victory over Fascism Street” in the city of Vinnytsia.

Toward the end of the second section, Halberstadt delivers the scene that describes his whole project. It’s an early summer morning in Vilnius, and Halbderstadt is 8, tiptoeing around his sleeping parents and maternal grandparents. He looks at his entwined mother and father, during the last summer they all spent together as a family; he considers the gas range that his grandmother will use to singe a plucked hen later that day, and the scientist’s tools of his grandfather’s home laboratory. He picks up a jar, quiet as can be, and empties the contents into his hand: a frog, bound for his grandfather’s scalpel.
In that scene, as in the whole book, Halberstadt goes through his family’s belongings, the inheritance he is going to receive, whether he likes it or not. He does so with respect, a little bit of fear, tenderness, skepticism and love. After he considers the frog, he places it gently back into the jar.

Serving Up Jewish Food History
By Sophie Panzer
“Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food”
Edited by Aaron S. Gross, Jody Meyers, and Jordan D. Rosenblum
New York University Press

It seems almost too perfect for an author named Hasia R. Diner to introduce a book about eating.

“The connections between food and Judaism cannot be understood independent of the tectonic shifts in the social, political, and cultural histories that Jews lived through,” she writes in the foreword of “Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food.” Each chapter that follows is an essay written by a different author about the religious and cultural significance of Jewish food.

According to Aaron S. Gross, the editors hope “that this book heightens our appreciation about how the most familiar act of eating is also one of the most profound acts of meaning-making.” In many ways, Gross and his co-editors Jody Meyers and Jordan D. Rosenblum succeed — “Feasting” clearly establishes the central role of food in Jewish religion, history, culture and philosophy. However, the sheer scope of the topic leaves some sections feeling underdeveloped.

“Part 1: History” is divided into four chapter essays devoted to the history of Jewish food in the Biblical, Rabbinical, Medieval and Modern Eras. These sections offer the reader plenty of context with which to interpret the rest of the book, from the origin of dietary laws to their adaptations in the modern world. The authors in this section provide a balanced amount of information about Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines.

“Part 2: Food and Culture” documents how food has shaped Jews’ interactions with other religions and nationalities. The popularity of a traditional Jewish dish among non-Jewish Hungarians is used to explain patterns of cultural exchange in Katalin Francesca Rac’s “How Shabbat Cholent Became a Secular Hungarian Favorite.” Jordan D. Rosenblum’s “A Brief History of Jews and Garlic” examines the impact of garlic on Judaism from the biblical era to the modern day. In “Jews, Schmaltz, and Crisco in the Age of Industrial Food,” Rachel B. Gross explains the aggressive marketing of Crisco as “pure” during the early 1900s because it was parve and supposedly lighter than schmaltz, the cooking fat of choice for Eastern European immigrants.

These essays skew toward Ashkenazi issues and move the book’s focus more heavily on a European and North American perspective.

“Part 3: Ethics” addresses philosophical questions presented by the process of creating and consuming food. This section is almost entirely focused on Ashkenazi Jews in North America. Topics vary between the graphic human and animal rights abuses at a kosher meat company and the communal impact of gardening. “A Satisfying Eating Ethic,” by Jonathan K. Crane addresses the practice of eating itself and reads like a Michael Pollan manifesto. Audiences familiar with contemporary diet culture and eating fads may be surprised at the level of mindfulness ancient Jewish thinkers brought to the act of eating, from Elijah’s recommendation to “Eat a third, drink a third, retain a third,” to Maimonides’ advice to avoid snacking between meals.

“Eating well, or at least the eating well I see Judaism endorsing … orients consumers to pay attention to internal cues,” Crane writes. “Knowing the features of one’s own hunger requires listening to one’s body, not to industries plying snacks.” The rabbis of the Talmudic and medieval eras seem startling prescient in the face of skyrocketing levels of obesity, diabetes and other diseases that can be tied to relying on external cues like advertising to regulate appetite.

This book, like bitter herbs, is best consumed in small doses. It makes for an easy and enjoyable reading experience for those who peruse essay by essay. However, it seems repetitive to one sitting down to read it all the way through. The authors can’t help but repeat each other as their subject matter overlaps. The fact that Jews are forbidden from consuming blood because it represents the life of an animal is mentioned so many times it could be used as a drinking game.

The editors’ decisions on what to cover and what to leave out of this book also raise questions of balance. Why write about the community farming movement in North America without at least mentioning Israeli kibbutzim? Why include not one but two essays about cooking fats — Crisco and peanut oil — and only one essay about an actual dish, cholent? Why adopt an international focus for the sections devoted to history and culture but focus only on North America for the final section on ethics?

Ultimately, “Feasting and Fasting” is best appreciated as a fascinating essay collection, but the lack of cohesion may leave some readers unsatisfied.  pjc

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