When Saul Bellow Met the Polish-Jewish Historian Who Influenced His Work

March 14 2022

Founded in Vilna in 1925, the Jewish Research Institute (known by the Yiddish acronym YIVO) was dedicated to studying, and later to preserving, East European Jewish life and the Yiddish language. It relocated to New York City during World War II, and in the early 1960s several of its original members remained actively involved. In his diary from that decade, Ezekiel Lifschitz—then YIVO’s chief archivist—recorded, inter alia, the visits to the institution of three luminaries of Jewish literature: the Yiddish poet Avraham Sutzkever, the English-language novelist Saul Bellow, and the Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon.

Cecile Kuznitz, who translated the excerpts describing these encounters, explains why Bellow was interested in the work of one particular Yiddish-language scholar:

The occasion for Bellow’s [1965] visit was a meeting with the historian Isaiah Trunk, a YIVO staff member. Trunk, a critic of Hannah Arendt’s caustic appraisal of the Nazi-created Jewish councils, published a study of the Łódź Ghetto in 1962. Bellow was presumably gathering material for his next novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet [1970], which includes lengthy reflections on the Holocaust.

The protagonist of Mr. Sammler’s Planet critiques Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” and offers his thoughts on Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, the controversial head of the Jewish council in the Łódź Ghetto. In fact, Sammler is the author of an “article about that crazy character from Lodz—King Rumkowski,” whom he describes as “a mad Jewish King presiding over the death of half a million people. . . . Rumkowski, King of rags and shit, Rumkowski, ruler of corpses.” However derisive this language, we learn that Bellow was familiar with Trunk’s nuanced account of the impossible choices facing the heads of the Jewish councils.

Lifschitz describes the visit thus:

Bellow visited YIVO today. Apparently he became interested in the Łódź Ghetto and got a copy of Trunk’s book Lodzher geto. Today he came to see Trunk. B. makes a very agreeable impression: natural in his behavior and without “artificial” pretensions. While speaking he easily switched over to Yiddish and although he apologized for his weak Yiddish, it was in fact a surprise how freely he speaks and without a trace of the well-known American accent. While talking I remarked that it’s a quite a distance from [his 1953 The Adventures of] Augie March to [his 1963] Herzog. He replied, “I returned late to Jewish life.” However, he defended Augie March, saying that the book reflected life at the time 30 years ago. I reminded him of the scene in Herzog that moved me greatly, where the protagonist says to his friend more or less: We are already old Jews, let’s become worshippers in the little immigrant shul on our old block. To that Bellow answered, “Where can you find such a little shul now?”

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Read more at In geveb

More about: Avraham Sutzkever, Holocaust, Jewish literature, S. Y. Agnon, Saul Bellow, Yiddish, YIVO

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