A Major Novel by a Lithuanian Jewish Writer Finally Finds Its Way to English

Dec. 12 2017

In his autobiographical novel Shtetl Love Song, Grigory Kanovich—a native speaker of Yiddish who writes primarily in Russian and now resides in Israel—tells the story of a child in a Lithuanian shtetl, its occupation by the Soviet Union in 1940, and his flight with his family into the Soviet heartland following the Nazi invasion of 1941. Long an influential work in Russian, the book has now been published in English translation. Mikhail Krutikov writes in his review:

Shtetl Love Song belongs to the genre of homespun shtetl literature which began with [the great 19th-century Yiddish author] Mendele Mokher Sforim’s autobiography, Shloyme ben Khayems. One generation fades and another takes its place; the old country is fading year by year from the Jewish collective consciousness. In its place, the memory of the real shtetl is being replaced by a mythological image. Today’s readers are more interested in fantasies about the shtetl than realistic depictions of its Jewish life. Real shtetlekh, towns with significant Jewish populations spread throughout pre-Holocaust Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Bessarabia, and more, are barely represented in contemporary Jewish culture. . . .

[This book] may seem sentimental to contemporary Jewish readers, but it has an important role to play in today’s political reality. The post-Soviet republics are continually rewriting their histories with a nationalistic narrative that leaves little room for their Jewish past. While they are aware that it is unacceptable to deny the Holocaust because doing so would threaten relations with Western Europe and the United States, it has become acceptable for them to manipulate the historical reality of the Holocaust for their own purposes, for instance emphasizing their countries’ suffering under the Soviet regime [at the expense of other aspects of World War II]. This approach allows East European nationalists of various stripes to present their [respective] countries as victims of occupation and even genocide. In this way the collaboration of local citizens and “freedom fighters” with the Nazis in murdering Jews can be easily hushed up.

Grigory Kanovich’s novel is so important because there simply aren’t many Jewish voices left which can provide a personal counter-narrative.

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More about: Arts & Culture, East European Jewry, Holocaust, Jewish literature, Lithuania, Shtetl

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem