Marjorie Taylor Greene Has Company Distorting the Holocaust

Marjorie Taylor Greene is at it again, comparing mask mandates in the pandemic to being a Jew in Germany headed off to the gas chambers.  I wonder if her dismal understanding of the Holocaust is based on reading bad novels like Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time which features a bizarre romance between a Nazi and his Jewish prisoner.  Breslin’s attempts to root the book in the Holocaust are clumsy at best and her knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture is way off.  The book’s editor also seems to have been AWOL.

Examples abound.  Why does she use the word Hakenkreuz rather than Swastika?  The latter word is one most readers would be familiar with.  Hakenkreuz is a feeble attempt to make the book feel historically accurate.  So is using Sturmabteilung rather than SA or Brownshirts.  Both of those are much more familiar to readers of historical novels or thrillers set in Nazi Germany–and more understandable.

Why field the obscure word Gänsebraten when “roast goose” would do just as well?  Surely anyone picking up this book will understand after the first few pages that it’s set in Germany.  Breslin doesn’t need to keep reminding us, as when she substitutes the word Kaffee for coffee over half a dozen times. But Kaffee isn’t italicized, which it should be since it’s in a foreign language.  Page after page, you feel she’s just overdoing it and the publisher is careless and clueless.

That’s unfortunate, given Breslin’s weak grasp of German and Germany’s history with Jews.  Breslin’s heroine is addressed as “Jude.”  That’s the masculine for Jew in German, not the feminine, which is Jüdin.  But more egregious than that, the Nazis had many terms of abuse for Jews, and simply calling her a Jew is not pejorative enough–given the period.

Breslin’s understanding of Jewish culture and religion is also grossly off-base.  In a glossary at the book’s end, she defines a yarmulke as a “prayer cap.”  No it isn’t.  It’s a skullcap that’s not just worn at prayers by observant Jews.  More incorrectly, she thinks a shtetl is a “small town or ghetto.”  That’s flat-out wrong.  It’s the Yiddish for a small Jewish or heavily Jewish village or town in Eastern Europe–not remotely the same thing as a ghetto.

If that inaccuracy isn’t enough, the glossary says that Jews in the Holocaust wore a “gold” star to identify “their Jewry.”  (MTG also thinks the stars are gold).

Breslin further makes a hash of history when she says that “Sarah” was “a term that Nazis used for Jewesses.”  That makes it sound like a synonym.  It wasn’t.  What she seems to be fumbling with is the legislation in 1938 which forced Jews with “non-Jewish” names to add “Sara” [sic] or “Israel” as middle names to their identity papers so that there could be no doubt they were Jewish.  She and her publisher also seem oblivious to the fact that the word “Jewess” isn’t just dated, it’s widely considered offensive.

All these errors come from an author who claims to love the Jewish people. As the Erasure song goes, “Who Needs Love Like That?”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in many genres including Rosedale in Love, set in New York during The Gilded Age, which is also available as an audio book.

Review: Forward Magazine Claims “A Christmas Carol” Is Anti-Semitic

A clickbait article in Forward online recently tried to argue the case that Dickens’s classic novel is filled with Jew hatred.  That argument was full of of holes.

While the money lender may be an anti-Semitic stereotype and Scrooge does lend money, that’s just one of his many business dealings. The sign “Scrooge and Marley” hangs over a “warehouse door,” so money lending doesn’t seem to be his main profession. A warehouse suggests a wholesale business of some kind, though Dickens never specifies what that is. It’s not likely that the warehouse was packed with boxes of gold sovereigns and pound notes.

The second line of the novel tells readers that Scrooge would be trusted in any endeavor he turned to on the London Stock Exchange. Later in the book, it’s stock brokers on the Exchange whom he hears gossiping about his death. So we can assume Dickens was suggesting that Scrooge was somehow involved in stocks and bonds.

But wait–is Scrooge actually Jewish? The Forward article suggested that Dickens’s choice of Scrooge’s first name Ebenezer is clearly anti-Semitic. That’s laughable.  Biblical names were widely given to Anglo-Saxon boys and girls in the 19th century.  And some of them of them were uncommon ones like his: Hezekiah, Obadiah, Tabitha, Jemima.

While Ebenezer may mean something in Hebrew (“stone of help”), so what? Many much more widely-used English names like John and Mary are derived from Hebrew. If Scrooge had somehow managed to have a wife named Elizabeth, would that be anti-Semitic, too?  After all, it comes from Elisheva (“God is abundance”).

The author of the article goes on to note that Scrooge’s late partner has “a fully Jewish moniker” in Jacob Marley. Jacob is obviously the name of a Biblical patriarch, but then the author makes the blockbuster revelation that Marley is Hebrew for “it is bitter to me.”

That’s the point at which I thought I might need a glass of heavily-spiked eggnog. And I don’t even like eggnog.

I’ve read a number of Dickens biographies and haven’t encountered reports of Dickens knowing anything besides some French in addition to his native English, so how did he become a scholar in Hebrew?

Even if a trove of letters was discovered that proved Dickens was a secret student of the language, why would he bother camouflaging his anti-Semitism? It was open enough in books like Oliver Twist, Sketches by Boz, and David Copperfield.

But wait!  Maybe there are more stunning secrets buried in Dickens’s novels! Perhaps Chuzzlewit is an anagram for something in Aramaic?  Maybe we should be reading Bleak House backwards! And what if we’re about to see the publication of The Dickens Code by some enterprising author?!  Is Tom Hanks already studying a script where he plays a Dickensologist?

Back on Planet Earth, it turns out that name Marley has a long history with no Jewish connections at all:

This long-established surname is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and is locational from any of the various places thus called, including Marley in Devonshire, Durham, Kent and the West Riding of Yorkshire, or Marley Farm in Brede (Sussex). The Yorkshire place, recorded as “Mardelai” in the Domesday Book of 1086, derives its first element from the Olde English pre-7th Century “mearth” meaning (pine) marten, plus “leah”, a wood or clearing.

It took me only a few minutes to track down that information.  No tortured etymology necessary.

The Forward article makes the final killing point–quoting another writer–that Scrooge hates Christmas and has a pointed nose.  There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.  To cap it all off, the author ends his article with “Bah, humbug,”  which must have taken a great deal of thought.

In the course of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge comes to see how the world is filled with poverty, some of it close to home.  And there’s that vision of Ignorance and Want which is absolutely harrowing.

Scrooge also realizes how his emotional life has been stunted, and shame makes him more compassionate. That’s not anti-Semitic or pro-Christian, and it has nothing to do with religion or identity: It’s just plain human.

An American pioneer in writing fiction about children of Holocaust survivors, Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery. His latest novel is State University of Murder.

My Life With Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is often on my mind, and not just this week, which saw her 156th birthday.

I fell in love with Edith Wharton’s novels and short stories in college, given that I grew up in Gilded Age New York. The building on upper Broadway I was raised in was one of two massive apartment blocks built circa 1900 by Harry Mulliken with gorgeous tapestry brickwork and stone detailing, like Mulliken’s more elaborate Lucerne Hotel on 79th and Amsterdam.

The public library I visited every week was a Venetian palazzo designed by McKim, Mead, and White. It was a temple of books, a sanctuary, and a doorway to another more elegant world. Perhaps most enthralling for me as a young boy was our family’s regular bus route downtown: along Riverside Drive past one Gilded Age mansion, brownstone and apartment building after another.

The past was all around me as it might not be in other parts of New York City, and so discovering Wharton in college was like claiming part of my own history. I bought every single book of hers then available in Scribner paperbacks and read them many times, awed by her wit, her powers of description, and her sharp eye for hypocrisy and foolishness. In the summer of 1975 I read R.W. B. Lewis’s riveting Pulitzer-winning Wharton biography that launched the revival of her work, and through reading about Wharton’s life I felt even more inspired to pursue my own career as a writer.

That career of publishing in many genres has led me back to Wharton three times. In the early 90s I published a study of the emotion of shame in her writing and her life, something that had never been discussed before. A few years after Edith Wharton’s Prisoners of Shame, I invented two fictional Wharton societies and pitted them against each other in an academic mystery, The Edith Wharton Murders.

More recently, I re-entered her world in a whole new way.  Undoing Wharton’s anti-Semitic stereotyping, I’ve re-imagined The House of Mirth from the point of view of Lily Bart’s suitor Simon Rosedale, giving him a home, a family, a history, and a tormented heart. In writing Rosedale in Love, I haven’t tried to imitate Wharton’s style, but I have written the book in a period voice, after immersing myself in writings of all kinds from the early 1900s.

I don’t know how she would have felt about my novel, but for me, it’s been one of the most exhilarating adventures of my writing career.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  After close to twenty years of teaching at the university level, he now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

How Philip Roth Changed My Life

My first Roth book was Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read as a teenager.  It blew my mind because I’d never read a first person narrative that was so anarchic. As Roth has written: “Nobody expects a Jew to go crazy in public.” It was also wickedly funny, and broke many other taboos. Nothing I read for school came even close to being so alive–and so entertaining.  The book changed American literature forever, as the Washington Post reported today.

It hit home for me. The over-protectiveness as well as the carping of Alexander Portnoy’s parents reminded me of my own mother and father who sometimes said things just as diminishing and weird. And his rage against anti-Semitism was revelatory.  But it would be awhile before I found the courage to write freely about being Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and gay.

Soon after college, I read The Ghost Writer. I was in love with Henry James at the time and it seemed very Jamesian, like one of the Master’s tales about the “madness of art”–with a Holocaust twist. I read it over and over. The prose struck me as perfect, the story profound, and I thought that if I could someday write a book even half that beautiful, I would have really accomplished something fine.

I did a report on Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school which had the seminar in hysterics because I read sections of the book aloud. It taught me something about writing as performance which I would utilize years later on my many book tours. I followed his work almost religiously, reading his criticism as well as his fiction, and the anger of his critics in the Jewish community sobered me. My first book, which combined Jewish and gay themes, got some savage reviews in the Jewish press, though nothing as bad or as widespread as Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Years later, my memoir about coming terms with Germany as a son of Holocaust survivors was basically ignored by the Jewish press, including publications that had published my short stories and essays. I was relieved in a way. I didn’t have the skill to skewer critics the way Roth did, and I would not have relished a firestorm.  It was bad enough that when I spoke about that memoir at a famous Jewish venue, I was attacked by members of the audience for saying anything remotely positive about my experiences in Germany.  My favorite angry comment, which seems right out of a Zuckerman novel: “Okay, so you’ve been to Germany, why go back?  There aren’t other countries in the world?”

Before I became a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I was asked to review his memoir Patrimony and I declined.  I felt too humbled by the power and precision of his work.  Now I’m sorry that I didn’t at least try.

I met Roth when he spoke at Michigan State University.  He seemed bored by the questions from the audience, including mine, and when I had him sign one of his books afterwards, he was as aloof as if the experience pained him.  I’d given him one of my own books with a Roth quote written above my signature and he seemed startled, “Did I really write that?”

It was a chilly interaction, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying later novels, and assigning his work in a Jewish-American literature class whose students loved The Plot against America.  And I’m proud to say that an essay of mine appeared in a collection where he was one of the star contributors. Better still, a reviewer in the Washington Post compared my novel The German Money to Roth (and Kafka!).

I haven’t uniformly admired all his books, but he’s still a model for me of dedication, insight, and perseverance–and his dialogue is some of the best any contemporary American author has written.  Along with James, D.H. Lawrence, Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, he’s been an abiding, inspiring presence in my life as a writer.

As Dwight Garner puts it so well in the New York Times, “His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence….than any writer of his time.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love (The House of Mirth Revisited).  He’s been  teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com

My First Hate Mail as an Author

I’ve warned creative writing students that they can’t expect that everyone will like their work.  Some people may actively hate it.  Who knows why?  That’s just a writer’s life.

I’ve never thought about hate email, though, until I recently posted a blog on The Huffington Post titled “Why Don’t Jewish Lives Matter?” It was about the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres; I wondered whether the world would have been as outraged if the terrorists had only targeted the supermarket.

french-police-officers-investigate-the-hyper-casher-kosher-grocery-store-in-paris-on-january-9-2015By the time the blog had received close to 800 Likes, Facebook Shares, and shares on Twitter (it eventually more than doubled that), it also got plenty of vicious response, too.  No surprise, there.  People seem completely unashamed to parade their full range of prejudices on line, especially on places like The Huffington Post responses boards.

I was surprised, though, to get a long,vicious email in my Inbox from someone apparently enraged by the blog’s title.  This person’s screed was the same illogical slumgullion you see with all kinds of haters, while reading as if it were checking items off a list from Anti-Semitism for Dummies.  In other words, vile, but totally unoriginal and cookie-cutter.

Naturally it started off by saying that Israel was the problem because of its treatment of Palestinians.  This is classic post-war anti-Semitism because it blames all Jews everywhere for every action of every Israeli government.  Are Americans responsible for the drone strikes deaths in Yemen and Pakistan? The half million dead in Iraq since the U.S. invasion?

As you might might expect, the ribbon on the package was the equation of  Israelis with Nazis.  See?  All Jews = Israelis = Nazis.  That explains everything.  But the writer wasn’t done.  There was more venom to spew.  The other ridiculous charge was that Jews were misusing the Holocaust to their own ends and playing the victim.  Charming, no?  Finally it slid into some Old School Jew-hatred by labeling Jews as repulsive, arrogant, and unbearably cruel.

The email reeked of contempt, disgust, and brutality.  A psychologist might see a writer with tremendous shame issues coping with that shame by expressing grotesque superiority over others.  If you click the link to the original blog you’ll find comments just as vicious. These people clearly aren’t at all troubled by going public with their Jew-hatred, unlike the person who sent me the email.  Feel free to guess why my correspondent wanted to write privately.

I started writing this blog on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and was moved to finish it because of the shootings in Copenhagen.  King said that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  I’ve revered MLK since 4th grade, but I don’t think there’s enough light in the universe to bring these haters out of their own darkness?  It makes them feel too good.

Martin-Luther-King-I-have-a-dream_0

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense.  You can read about his other books at the Lev Raphael Amazon page.