Jewish authors I loved

By Ted Belman

I attended universitiy in the late fifties and law school in the sixties. It was during the sixties that survivors of the Holocaust started to tell their stories of survival. Prior to the Holocaust the Jewish immigrants in America were also telling their stories. I had a voracious appetite for both. The Jewish writers I read included Wiesel, Malamud (The Assistent), Meyer Levin (The Old Bunch, Compulsion, The Settlers), Henry Roth (Call it Sleep), Abraham Cahan (The Rise of David Levinsky), Jerzy Koschinsky, Chaim Potok, Phillip Roth, Joseph Roth, Bashevis Singer, Scholem Asch, Joseph Singer, Chaim Grade, Mordechai Richler, and Leon Uris. The list goes on and on.

I mention this to elicit memories from each of you who shared my passion for these authors.

Please share with us what authors and books you particularly enjoyed and why.

December 25, 2010 | 14 Comments »

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  1. Email rec’d

    I read Call it Sleep many years ago. (Henry Roth taught mathematics at the Bronx high school I attended many many years after he had been on staff. Are you aware there was a three part memoir written by Henry Roth at least perhaps fifty years later?(written in the 1980’s or 1990’s) after a silence of decades.You may wish to add FATHERS by Herbert Gold and a novel entitled 50 by Avery Corman who wrote Kramer vs. Kramer

    Call It Sleep was a powerful story. I also read the trilogy and still have it. I forgot which book it was in but he talks about his incest with his sister and how he just couldn’t stop.

  2. I read an interesting book a rabbi loaned to me. The title is A Rabbi Talks With Jesus. I dont remember the name of the rabbi who wrote it but it was good.

  3. Good authors all. And for those who like some of the dustier writers from the early 20th Century (long before I was born, but I read them anyway) there’s Maurice Samuel, writer of fiction & non-fiction and translator/editor of classic Yiddish tales, and Rabbi Milton Steinberg, whose output was limited by his early and untimely death, but who wrote the classic “As a Driven Leaf.” There’s also SY Agnon, who I believe was the first (only?) nobel prize winner for Hebrew literature, and the more current Mark Helprin, novelist and short-story writer. Helprin’s “A Dove of the East and Other Stories” is a personal favorite. He’s also a conservative columnist, whose op-ed piece, “Why Israel Needs the Bomb,” appeared in the Wall Street Journal in October. Those’re my two cents, anyway.

  4. email rec’d

    Max Dimont’s, “Jews, G-d and History” (1962) I would say ingle handedly introduced me to my Jewish identity and was the first step along the way in saving me from intermarriage and assimilation. It gave me an insight into who we are, where we came from, and how we got here to America. It made me yearn to go to Israel and be proud of being a Jew my entire young life. I just plucked it from my parents bookshelf in a dusty corner outside my father’s upstairs office when I was about 12 and I started reading. It was incredibly important to me. I will go read it again now that you have reminded me!

    I also read it and still have it.

  5. Thanks for the mention of Herman Wouk. I read many of his books also. But my favourite was This is my God in which he extolled the virtues and pleasures of being a religious jew.

    While I am at it, special mention must go to Leon Uris who authored Exodus, Mila 18, QB VII among others. Great reading all.

  6. Yuliya

    Only the holocaust stories are hard to take but necessary reading. The Zionist stories by Uris and Levin are terrific, I also liked the immigrant stories. The best book of all the immigrant stories is The Rise and Fall of David Levinsky. At least I thought so.

    The funniest writer of all was Richler, a Canadian. He was briliiant. Cocksure was one of his best. Then there was The Apprentiship of Duddy Kravitz. Here are some others
    # St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971)
    # Joshua Then and Now (1980)
    # Barney’s Version (1997)
    Read one and you will want to read them all.

    How did you miss all those authors. Are you originally from Russia?

  7. Yamit, as it happens, I also read both books you mentioned.

    One of my favorites was Singer’s, The Slave. He tells the story how a religious family became indebted to the gentile farmer and in order to pay the debt off, it was agreed that the oldest son, not yet 20, would be indentured to them for a number of years to pay off the debt. Of course he had to live on the farm. As it so happens the farmer had a beautiful blond daughter, I kid you not, and the too fell in love. Singer delights is confronting man with his animal urges. In this case you can imagine the struggle for this past yeshiva bocher to maintain his self while being attracted to this beautiful young woman. Finally he has to give in and decides to go with his urges. As the two were stripping for the denouement, the young man had to struggle with removing his kippa then his titzes and then baring himself. All through this process he kept reminding himself what the torah says. Well you get the idea.

  8. Of the writers you mention my favorite is Shlolom Ash. Especially his series on Christianity. He also did one powerful novel on Shtetel life, I think it was titled “Salvation”.
    Yorma Getzler
    Moshav Aminadav

  9. I’ve read all your authors and books: Here are just 2 of mine in addition.

    A Stone for Danny Fisher

    A Stone for Danny Fisher Summary

    The Last of the Just is a post-war novel by André Schwarz-Bart

    originally published in French (as Le Dernier des justes) in 1959. It was published in an English translation by Stephen Becker in 1960. It was Schwarz-Bart’s first book and won the Prix de Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize. The author was the son of a Polish Jewish family murdered by the Nazis and he based the story on a Hebrew legend.

    The story follows the “Just Men” of the Levy family over eight centuries. Each Just Man is a Lamed Vav, one of the thirty-six righteous souls whose existence justifies the purpose of humankind to God. Each “bear the world’s pains… beginning with the execution of an ancestor in 12th-century York, England… culminat[ing] in the story of a schoolboy, Ernie, the last… executed at Auschwitz.” It has been described as an enduring classic that reminds “how easily torn is the precious fabric of civilization.

    Lamed Vav=36

    The source is the Talmud itself, explained as follows:

    As a mystical concept, the number 36 is even more intriguing. It is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end. The two Hebrew letters for 36 are the lamed, which is 30, and the vav, which is 6. Therefore, these 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim. This widely-held belief, this most unusual Jewish concept is based on a Talmudic statement to the effect that in every generation 36 righteous “greet the Shechinah,” the Divine Presence (Tractate Sanhedrin 97b; Tractate Sukkah 45b).

    Their purpose

    Mystical Hasidic Judaism as well as other segments of Judaism believe that there is the Jewish tradition of 36 righteous people whose role in life is to justify the purpose of humankind in the eyes of God. Tradition holds that their identities are unknown to each other and that, if one of them comes to a realization of their true purpose then they may die and their role is immediately assumed by another person:

    Read more:

  10. I liked Leon Uris. He almost always had his stories end in tragedy so as to appear serious however.

    Only one part of “The Haj” bothered me. When Leon Uris relates the pre state battle of Jaffa, he gets it wrong saying that the Irgun called the Hagannah for help. This is untrue. Begin was going to call the battle off, but Paglin conceived of the idea of movable sandbags to penetrate the arab machine gun emplacements. The Irgun did not call on the Hagannah for help. They won the battle of Jaffa by themselves.

  11. In addition to the authors that you mention, one of the most entertaining and fascinating writers is Herman Wouk. His novels are too numerous to mention and some have been made into movies. While I considered myself well read at the time, I discovered Mr. Wouk quite by accident. I was studying in Jerusalem in 1976, at the wonderful age of 21, at a small Yeshiva, where all of the guys were from America or Canada. There was this one guy who drove up one day in a convertible, possibly an Alfa Romeo or Fiat Spider. I remember this so well, because almost no one drove a car like that in Jerusalem and certainly, non of the Yeshiva guys had a car. He was studying at our Yeshiva and I turned to a friend and asked who it was. He told me: Joe Wouk. And who is Joe Wouk, I asked? My friend couldn’t believe that I didn’t know the famous author’s name.

    Upon my return to Toronto, I purchased my first Herman Wouk novel, The Winds of War and quickly fell in love with his narrative skill and his humour. And I read each and every one of his novels soon after. I’ve been anticipating a new novel for many years!

  12. Hi Ted!

    I haven’t read any of the authors you listed, but saved the list and intend to read. Though I’m anticipating to experience a full range of heavy emotions like grief, sadness etc because as we all know Jewish history full of hate and death threats followed through.



  13. The Jewish author I loved the most wasn’t even Jewish, but I sure as shooting thought he must have been, from what he knew how to write about from the standpoint of a uniquely Jewish industry.

    His name was Robert Terrall, and the book I’m describing was “They Deal in Death”, one of his first full-length novels, which was published by Scribners in 1943 with a followup edition in 1944. It is a mystery story about the wholesale industrial diamond trade in wartime New York.

    The central figure in the novel is the most unlikely of action heros doubling in skillful but effective detective work. His name? Hyman Katz, president of the Belgian-American Diamond Company. Mr Katz could not be more Jewish if he had trekked across the Sinai with Moshe Rabbeinu. Physically unappealing (short, dark, rather ugly from American cultural standards) but gifted with a brain designed like a steel trap. His assistants are his British key assistant, Miss Patricia Moon, and for a number of days of a search for Nazi-connected illegal exporters of invaluable industrial diamonds — which the Nazis could not get their fingers on from any other source — he had the services of Alexander Barker, an agent of the American Society of Friends, newly returned to the USA on the Lisbon Clipper as some years in Spain administering emergency food supplies for his church-related group to a Spanish populace still hungry following the Spanish civil war of the late 1930s.

    The bad guys are a gang of vaguely German-American thugs out of New York’s Yorktown neighborhood around Lexington Avenue in uptown Manhattan. Mr Barker has spent some weeks of quality time with Miss Moon in Lisbon while both awaited their turn at seats on the Lisbon Clipper — which was the only way to fly from Europe to the USA at that time, other than for high priority military and political personages who get command seats courtesy of the US Army Air Force. Mr Barker had been unaware that his new British girl friend was carrying a large consignment of Belgian-American’s industrial diamonds from Europe to the USA. The first night in New York, no sooner have they boarded a limousine to take them from La Quardia airport into Manhattan than their vehicle is rammed by another, and Miss Moon is knocked out, all in an attempt to grab the “stones” before they wind up in a large industrial safe. Then, at a restaurant, the same gang kidnaps her, takes her to a dingy apartment, straps her to a bed under a 200-watt light bulb, and smacks her around in efforts to get her to divulge why the diamond shipment was not in her courier bag on the limousine. Meantime, Miss Moon had told Mr Barker earlier that night that she had an appointment to meet a Mr Katz at a certain New York hotel.

    Mr Barker goes to the hotel, locates the same Mr Katz, and the next morning, they start working together to find the missing Miss Moon. The gang members who had kidnapped his girl friend at the restaurant had followed Mr Barker back to the hotel. Having been followed around in Spain by Franco’s thugs, Mr Barker — otherwise a disingenous and relatively innocent seeming American — knows the drill. So Mr Katz, learning this, take Mr Barkers for a leisurely tour around lower and middle Manhattan, followed by the two gangsters. After waiting for the kidnappers to down a cafeteria meal of pigs’ knuckles and sauerkraut, followed by a number of rounds of beer, the protagonists follow them home to a typical aged New York brownstone “railroad flat” apartment building. Giving the gang enough time to get thoroughly drunk, they break into the apartment by climbing down a fire escape from the roof. There, as Mr Katz instinctually knew they would, they find Miss Moon, and after tying up one of the kidnappers on the bed and taking his wallet with all various identification and business cards, they take Miss Moon back to her hotel room for a decent nights sleep.

    The next day, Mr Katz and Miss Moon brief Mr Barker at length about the industrial diamond traffic, the overwhelming needs of the German industrialists for these particular types of diamonds, and the importance of the same industrial diamonds to the US military-industrial war effort. Later that day, following a lead he develops from one of the business cards filched from one of the kidnappers, Mr Katz takes Mr Barker on a short train trip to New Haven, Connecticut, where they use a ruse to get into the New Haven Tool and Die Company, whose president, Mr Katz believes, is an American Nazi who uses his industrial plant as a false front to buy industrial diamonds to be smuggled out of the USA to Argentina, from where the diamonds can then be shipped directly to Hitler’s factories via long-range U-Boats. Within about 18 more hours of wild and dangerous adventures in New Haven and around New York’s lower East Side and the Hudson River docks, Mr Katz, Mr Barker and Miss Moon find the mother load of industrial diamonds that were to be shipped out of New York to South America, hidden aboard a Norwegian-flat freighter, taken over by members of the gang. After spending eight days explaining all the above to the Federal Bureau of Investigation at their Foley Square office in Manhattan, the three of them ride off together, listening to radio report of a German U-Boat disabling the same freighter, sending a small boarding crew, extensively searching the vessel for something they couldn’t find, machine-gunning all but one of the crewmen in their lifeboats, and sinking her.

    “Who can know what they were looking for?” the radio announcer asks. “Only the seas can tell”.

    Robert Terrall was born and raised out west in Montana, Chances are the only Jews he had met at that stage in his life were those he met in and around New York in book publisher circles. But he almost had to have spent some intensive research time learning significant details about the day-to-day workings of the diamond trades — both for gemstones and industrial diamonds.

    Later, he was called to military service, where he served in the 65th Infantry Division as part of General George Patton’s 3rd Army, noted for its famed armored dash across France and central Germany during 1944 and early 1945. He saw Mauthausen, one of the infamous concentration camps, and I understand he also wrote about that.

    I first read “They Deal in Death” in late 1943, when either my mom or dad bought a copy of the book and brought it home. A couple of years ago, I located a used hardbound copy of the second printing run, but that, read it cover to cover, and re-visited a part of my childhood from the war years.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI