Maybe it’s the fact that the wave of insider accounts of the Trump administration seems to have finally crested. Maybe everyone had a lot of time for high-yield contemplation during 2020. Maybe the entire publishing industry wanted to create some difficult choices for me, personally.
Whatever the reason may be, February has proven to be a particularly exciting month for new releases in Jewish book publishing. Here are a few books that would have merited a full review if not for time considerations.
“The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood”
Salka Virtel was a glowing node of connection during the Golden Age of Hollywood, a screenwriter and actor who could call on Greta Garbo, Aldous Huxley and Charlie Chaplin, among many others.
Born in 1889 in Sambor, a small Mitteleuropean city wrested back and forth between long-gone kingdoms, Virtel was an actor and screenwriter who fled anti-Semitic persecution for the welcoming shores of the American West Coast. Virtel’s great talent was for shmoozing; her keen intuition for salon introductions and professional shidduchs made her well-known to the well-known. Rifkind’s biography is the first book-length treatment of Virtel, who is as charming on the page as you might imagine.
“Milk Fed” is just 304 pages, with a small cast of characters. And yet, to try and succinctly describe what goes on here would be a disservice to this odd, exciting little book.
Broder’s story — about secular American Judaism, the contemporary professional woman’s relationship to food and sex, and an Orthodox woman who works the counter at a frozen yogurt shop — is not for the faint of heart. If you’re appropriately girded, give this one a shot.
“God I Feel Modern Tonight: Poems from a Gal About Town”
If you had to put Catherine Cohen into a single category, “comedian” would come closest to describing what she does. But Cohen’s career as a cabaret performer, actor, podcaster and stand-up all points to unique ambitions as an artist — she’s appeared in mainstream shows like “Broad City” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” but she’s also someone who, prior to the pandemic, performed weekly as a chanteuse at a New York club with an unprintable name. And you can still catch her podcast, if you’re missing that live Cohen zing.
“God I Feel Modern Tonight” reads like poetry written by a non-poet; Cohen’s singular voice and performance instincts give her work a quality you don’t come across frequently. The PR for this book tries to brand Cohen as a very particular millennial type that exists more as an elevator pitch than a person — “A Dorothy Parker for our time, a Starbucks philosophe with no primary-care doctor” — but Cohen is blessedly uncategorizable.
“Osnat and Her Dove: The True Story of the World’s First Female Rabbi”
Written by Sigal Samuel, illustrated by Vali Mintzi
We don’t often write about illustrated children’s books, but an exception must be made for “Osnat and Her Dove.” Why the story of Osnat has stuck with me since I was a child is anyone’s guess, though it probably has something to do with finding the name funny when I was 10 and the fact that I heard it told with great care by the rabbi at my Jewish day school.
Whatever the reason, Samuels’ retelling and Mintzi’s striking illustrations — brilliant reds, yellows and oranges — transported me back to those days and, for that, I’m grateful.
“Nuestra America: My Family in the Vertigo of Translation”
Lomnitz, an anthropologist at Columbia University, bites off quite a bit in this family memoir. His eye for the meta-stories of peoples and nations is brought to bear on the forces that shaped the lives of his grandparents, Jews who fled what is now Romania for Peru in the 1920s. They arrived to find that terrible truth that if one insists on being Jewish everywhere, one will be treated as a Jew everywhere.
“Nuestra America” is more than the tragic tale of a family caught in the gears of 20th century -isms, though that subject is certainly worthy of exploration on its own. Lomnitz reads his life and the lives of his family members as closely as he does political and cultural texts, complicating our understanding of both. The language can be a little dry, but the characters and the subject matter are anything but. JN