I took a break from Holocaust books for one about shtetl life in the Pale of Settlement where Cossacks reigned. Next on my list is a book about Herod, Rome and the Jews. There is no shortage of stories describing the misery and woe experienced by our people throughout the ages. You may think I’m reading depressing stuff because of the Nine Days, but my vocation as a reviewer of books with Jewish content keeps me supplied with these titles year round. In fact, I first became immersed in Jewish historical fiction when I devoured Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. In 9th grade my class was assigned Elie Wiesel’s unforgettable Night. I never finished reading Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust due to nightmares; perhaps my current assignments are payback.
In the last book I reviewed, two shtetl girls witnessed the murder of their parents and neighbors. They hid successfully in a coal bin and escaped the Cossacks. Somehow they survived typhus and made their way to a caravan leaving to France. They were swindled by fellow Jews, highwaymen and uniformed officials and used the last few rubles allocated to them by the Federation to buy passages on a ship to New York. Despite vermin, seasickness, fear and grief, they arrived at their destination. They joined family in a cramped tenement apartment on the Lower East Side and endured freezing winters, boiling summers, and endless hours working in a sweatshop called the Triangle Waist Company.
I already knew the story’s ending, yet was compelled to complete it, wanting to glean something uplifting. A significant percentage of this year’s Jewish Book Council authors have written books relating to our tragic history. Though our people have reached incredible highs of scholarship, achievement and prosperity, it is nearly impossible to understand how we are here today, having survived generations of abuse, abductions, denouncements, conversions, murder and pillage.
We don’t get to choose the era in which we live; it is the luck of the draw or bashert when and to whom we are born. I’ve heard it said that before we are born our souls choose our parents. If that’s true then who would choose to be born into a concentration or DP camp, or to live during biblical or medieval times, the Crusades, Inquisition, pogroms, etc...? Though having said that, today there still rage rampant diseases, countries practicing ethnic cleansing, ecological and other man made disasters. “Lo aleinu” – may humanity be free of all plagues.
We are fortunate to live in the post-Shoah era in a country which allows us basic freedoms. We vote, speak freely and practice religious rituals openly while enjoying the benefits of the secular world. History shows us we can never know what lies ahead but thankfully this is our current reality. As free people, we may travel to similarly democratic places or risk voyages to (or just read about) quite different lands; communist, anarchist, in political, economic or social turmoil. My trip to Cuba showed me just a glimpse of the “other”, which my dad rightly says I can never really comprehend. Reading about difficult times and places in Jewish history helps me to understand. It reminds me to appreciate what I have, to know I can’t ever become too comfortable or apathetic, to be vigilant about threats to our ideals and not take our physical and spiritual freedoms for granted.
As a reader and writer I don’t want censorship, but I desire and expect honesty and truth. Various agencies scan the media for bias, examine textbooks for accuracy, food and drug labels for safety. I’m grateful for the advocates who warn and protect me, but also that I have the freedom to decide for myself. I was recently sent a link for a questionable children’s toy. The online description for the Playmobil Cossack Soldier figure reads; “…measure 7.5 cm high, suitable for ages 4 plus. The Cossacks are a group of predominantly East Slavic people who originally were members of democratic, semi-military communities in what is today Ukraine and Russia.” You can decide for yourself what you think about this toy. I’ve made up my mind, having just absorbed details about the brutality the Cossacks inflicted against us.
I’m devouring Daniel Silva’s latest Gabriel Allon novel, The Fallen Angel. He has written much about the Nazis and is lately focusing on global Islamic Jihadist terrorism. Silva’s characters Shamron and Allon are iconic Mossad agents pitted against all bad guys. Silva’s writing is exciting and well researched. His stories are based on today’s headlines and historical events, and are therefore, scary as hell. However, I enjoy reading it knowing that in Silva’s fiction, good ultimately triumphs over evil. To forgo nightmares, I pray that his fictional defenders are based on real live people who will save our world from impending doom. Though Silva’s book is a fun summer read, it fits right in with the genre of books I accept as my generation’s burden, those describing the trials and tribulations of our people and the incredible, indomitable will to continue into the future.
Miriam Bradman Abrahams is Cuban born, Brooklyn bred and lives in Woodmere. She organizes author events for Hadassah, reviews books for Jewish Book World and is very slowly writing her father’s immigration story. She is teaching yoga at Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio. firstname.lastname@example.org