Without a belief that art is decipherable — that an onlooker can, through contemplation of symbols and patterns in a work of art, commune with intellects and sensibilities far removed in time and space — it is nearly impossible to appreciate the soaring intellectual achievements and the dizzying universal ambitions of art historian, critic, scholar and bibliophile Aby Warburg.
In our sci-fi era of real commercial robots, which can be programmed to vacuum and to act as surrogate pets, the Jewish legend of the 16th-century rescuer Golem of Prague has regained resonance and relevance. Some readers will know of the golem as a concept from rabbinic study. According to Yiddish translator and novelist Curt Leviant, the origin of the word goes back 3,000 years, if not longer. It makes its debut in Psalm 139, verse 16, which Leviant translates as, “Your eyes have seen my unformed limbs [or embryo, golmi].” Centuries later, Leviant continues, “the word as we know it, golem, is used in the Talmud, where it means ‘unshaped matter’ or ‘unfinished creation,’ and, in one case, in Ethics of the Fathers 5:9, the opposite of a wise man — a boor, a simpleton, which anticipates the much later evocative Yiddish expression ‘leymener geylem’ (literally, a clay golem) to signify a fool.” Between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, oral tradition concerning the invention of various golems flourished in Europe, particularly in Spain and Germany.
Robert Alter’s new edition of the Hebrew Psalms is not for everyone: It requires concentration, unfettered time and patience. Each newly translated psalm must be read through as a poem, then analyzed using the highly detailed footnotes, then reread as a poem whose linguistic issues and frames of reference have just been highlighted. My most recent experience of perusing text the way these are meant to be read was when I was part of a weekly lunch-hour minyan in graduate school that was dedicated to the talmudic study of “Finnegans Wake.” Still, if you have any interest at all in the biblical Psalms — poetry that is older than the main portions of the Bible — Alter’s version is essential. Furthermore, the implications of its painstaking lessons are immense for all translated literature and, arguably, even beyond that for the way choreography is restaged or how the classical music repertory is conducted.
Next year, the Summer Olympic Games will take place in Beijing. This choice of location was a controversial decision by the International Olympic Committee, owing to concerns in the West that China could use the Olympics as a way to divert international attention from its grim record on human rights and as an excuse to crack down on internal political dissent for the purpose of protecting foreign visitors. Didn’t something similar happen in Nazi Germany during the 1936 winter and summer Olympic games, both of which the Nazis hosted? The question so engaged Steve Forman, an editor and vice president of W.W. Norton, that he asked David Clay Large, a scholar of modern Germany and a marathoner, to tackle this in a book.
Some of you will know the name Isaac Metzker (1900-1984). He was a teacher for the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring who also served for decades as a journalist for the Jewish Daily Forward, where he edited “A Bintel Brief,” the popular advice column for new immigrants to America. Metzker, a passionate advocate of Yiddish culture, came to the United States in 1924 from his native Eastern Galicia (now Ukraine) by way of Bremen, where he stowed himself away on a ship to get here. His haunting book, “Grandfather’s Acres,” now available in English, is set in Galicia between the 1880s and 1922. It is called a historical novel, but its authoritative detail and precision about topics ranging from the position of a pear tree to the cut of a man’s suit jacket give it the authority of an eyewitness report.
Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, And Trial of a ‘Desk Murderer’ By David Cesarani Da Capo Press, 464 pages, $27.50. * * *|Most of what we know – or think we know – about Adolf Eichmann, a notorious Nazi functionary, may be wrong. Or so readers will surmise from “Becoming Eichmann,” David Cesarani’s
The Book Thief By Markus Zusak Knopf Books for Young Readers, 552 pages, $16.95. * * *|Markus Zusak’s intensely provocative, deeply imagined and magnificently produced new novel, “The Book Thief,” concerns a group of German children who are members of the Hitler Youth during the early 1940s. We learn
Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and The Animation Revolution By Richard Fleischer(foreword by Leonard Maltin) University Press of Kentucky, 232 pages, $27.50. * * *|In 1925, pioneering New York film animator Max Fleischer decided that what the world needed was a five-reel feature film that combined animation and live action, to explain
The Jewish Book of Fables By Eliezer ShtaynbargEdited and translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant Syracuse University Press, 256 pages, $34.95. * * *|Eliezer Shtaynbarg (1880-1932) taught children Yiddish and Hebrew and wrote and directed plays for them in his native Bessarabia. Learned in biblical and Talmudic literature, he also edited a
The Patron: A Life of Salman Schocken (1877-1959) By Anthony David Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Company), 352 pages, $30. * * *|You may have never heard of the publisher Salman Schocken, an intellectual’s businessman as well as a businessman’s intellectual; even some leading New York editors of the past 30 years know little about