A Polish Novel of Jewish Gangsters in Old Warsaw

Jan. 20 2021

Published in Polish in 2017 to much acclaim, and now available in English translation, Szczepan Twardoch’s The King of Warsaw is set in 1937 and has as its protagonist a Jewish gangster-cum-professional boxer. Such a setup—especially given Poland’s continued, tortured relationship with its bygone Jews—could be a recipe for anti-Semitism or, at the very least, the perpetuation of ugly stereotypes. But Eddy Portnoy finds instead an impressive work of literary fiction:

[W]hat are we to make of Twardoch, a non-Jewish Pole who has written a crime novel featuring a volatile Jewish gangster who, among many, many brutal and nefarious acts, slices and dices a fellow Jew? Will there be complaints from the cultural-appropriations department of the Jewish communal trust? Perhaps. Though if Jews are to take their history and literature seriously, then they should be able to accept Jews of all kinds in historical and literary works, from the best to the worst. Moreover, if the product is good, it shouldn’t matter who’s writing.

If anything, Twardoch should be thanked for delving into the lower depths of Jewish gangland because he has made aspects of interwar Jewish Warsaw come brilliantly alive. The last time a Jewish crime story reached the heights of Polish bestseller lists was in 1933, when Urke Nachalnik, the nom de guerre of the yeshiva-boy-turned-gangster Yitzkhok Farberovitsh, published his jailhouse memoir. The book was so popular it won him early release from prison.

These are details [in the book] only a historian would notice, but Twardoch’s research has paid off. He manages to create a truly believable simulacrum of interwar Warsaw, its streets, its clattering markets, its whorehouses, its upscale restaurants, and its denizens—Jews and Poles of all persuasions—all of which sucks the reader into an atmosphere in which Jewish and Polish Warsaw abutted one another, were intertwined, and yet were also completely separate. He doesn’t shy away from depicting harsh Polish anti-Semitism but does avoid the tangled thicket of religious culture because this story is one of secular Jews, though they are certainly not entirely denuded of tradition.

Moreover, Twardoch is completely dedicated to his characters. He is never done with exploring their personalities—at least not until he kills them off.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Crime, Polish Jewry

 

How the Death of Mahsa Amini Changed Iran—and Its Western Apologists

Sept. 28 2022

On September 16, a twenty-two-year-old named Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Iranian morality police for improperly wearing a hijab. Her death in custody three days later, evidently after being severely beaten, sparked waves of intense protests throughout the country. Since then, the Iranian authorities have killed dozens more in trying to quell the unrest. Nervana Mahmoud comments on how Amini’s death has been felt inside and outside of the Islamic Republic:

[I]n Western countries, the glamorizing of the hijab has been going on for decades. Even Playboy magazine published an article about the first “hijabi” news anchor in American TV history. Meanwhile, questioning the hijab’s authenticity and enforcement has been framed as “Islamophobia.” . . . But the death of Mahsa Amini has changed everything.

Commentators who downplayed the impact of enforced hijab have changed their tune. [Last week], CNN’s Christiane Amanpour declined an interview with the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, and the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Iran’s notorious morality police and senior officials for the violence carried out against protesters and for the death of Mahsa Amini.

The visual impact of the scenes in Iran has extended to the Arab world too. Arabic media outlets have felt the winds of change. The death of Mahsa Amini and the resulting protests in Iran are now top headlines, with Arab audiences watching daily as Iranian women from all age groups remove their hijabs and challenge the regime policy.

Iranian women are making history. They are teaching the world—including the Muslim world—about the glaring difference between opting to wear the hijab and being forced to wear it, whether by law or due to social pressure and mental bullying. Finally, non-hijabi women are not afraid to defy, proudly, their Islamist oppressors.

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Read more at Nervana

More about: Arab World, Iran, Women in Islam