A New Fictional Take on the Classic Tale of the Aging Jewish Intellectual

Named for the Manhattan neighborhood whose main feature is Columbia University, Joshua Henkin’s novel Morningside Heights tells the story of Spence Robin, an acclaimed professor of English literature, in the twilight of his life. Adam Kirsch writes in his review:

Many novels have been written about aging Jewish intellectuals, but Morningside Heights takes an unusual approach. The book’s main action begins in 2005, when Spence, still only in his fifties, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Henkin charts Spence’s rapid decline in painfully authentic detail. At first, he merely loses his train of thought while lecturing; a few months later, he’s soiling himself and wandering out of the apartment. This means that Spence, unlike Saul Bellow’s Herzog or Philip Roth’s Kepesh, can’t tell his own story or even be an active presence in it. Instead, he is a problem that must be dealt with by other people—in particular, by [his wife] Pru and his son, Arlo, from his first marriage, who are the book’s real protagonists. As they emerge from Spence’s shadow into the sunlight of Henkin’s narrative attention, the reader sees how both their lives have been shaped, for good and ill, by their intimate connection with a great man.

Spence and Pru are both Jewish, but they have different ideas about what that means. Spence was raised in an entirely nonobservant household and even changed his too-Jewish name: “My Christian name is Shulem,” he jokes early in their relationship. When they marry, Pru insists on bringing in a service to kasher their kitchen. But in Morningside Heights, it is easy to be and feel Jewish without practicing Judaism, and Henkin shows how Pru slowly starts to compromise.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: American Jewish literature, Arts & Culture, Literature

 

Salman Rushdie and the Western Apologists for Those Who Wish Him Dead

Aug. 17 2022

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1989 calling for believers to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie due to the content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Over the years, two of the book’s translators have been stabbed—one fatally—and numerous others have been injured or killed in attempts to follow the ayatollah’s writ. Last week, an American Shiite Muslim came closer than his many predecessors to killing Rushdie, stabbing him multiple times and leaving him in critical condition. Graeme Wood comments on those intellectuals in the West who have exuded sympathy for the stabbers:

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. The former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the [courage]” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Freedom of Speech, Iran, Islamism, Jimmy Carter