Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hag kasher v’sameyah

A happy Passover to kol Yisrael. Tonight Jews all over the world sit down to read, study, and reenact a famous work of literature called simply Haggadah—the narrative. As if there were no other.

The National Review asked five Jewish intellectuals for recommended Passover reading. Other than commentaries on the Haggadah, the only books that received a mention were Leon Uris’s Exodus, Aaron Wildavsky’s Moses as a Political Leader, and Marcy Goldman’s Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking.

Yosef Ḥaim Brenner’s novel Breakdown and Bereavement (1920) might seem an odd choice for Pesaḥ reading. As the Israeli critic Gershon Shaked describes it, the novel is about a “neurotic individual who tries to become a ḥalutz (pioneer) but whose tendencies toward moroseness and despair are only exacerbated by his experiences in Palestine.” But the novel is not a political allegory. In the words of Hillel Halkin, its English translator, it offers a “last, lingering glimpse of Palestinian life in the twilight days of the Ottoman Empire. . . .” Breakdown and Bereavement is a portrait, that is, the first Jews to arrive in Palestine from the new Exodus, although for complicated historical reasons it was called the Second Aliyah, and the enormous task they faced. That Brenner was pessimistic about their chances is irrelevant, because he was proven wrong. And his novel remains great—a reminder that the work of Jewish freedom is unfinished.

An antidote to the spirit of Brenner’s novel is another about making exodus to the holy land—Linda Grant’s Orange Prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times (2001). An altogether unexpected novel from a British feminist who had written a history of the sexual revolution, the novel is about the last days of British Mandate Palestine and the first heady stirrings of Jewish independence. Grant’s heroine Evelyn Sert realizes, when she arrives in Palestine, that she is “part of a grand narrative that had started before [she] was ever born.” She belongs, that is, to Haggadah. And in arriving in the land that will become Israel, she has “come to the place where no Jew need ever invent himself again or pretend to be someone else he wasn’t.” Offhand I cannot think of a better summary than that of the Passover message. Grant was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for last year’s Clothes on their Backs, but the earlier novel is her masterpiece. It is one of the undiscovered jewels of modern English-language fiction.

Not that anyone should notice, but starting this evening I will be offline for three days—two holy days and then the Sabbath.

Happy Easter to those who did not have to hunt down the last crumb of ḥamets last night. (Here is a bleg, my dear Christian readers. What are the best Easter books?) May the reexperience of his death and resurrection lift every Christian to new heights in the coming year.

And to my fellow Jews, in the coming months may you have plenty of ḥaroset and not so much ḥazeret.