For Passover, Fresh New Takes on “People of the Book”

The escape from oppression into a vast diaspora is a theme that has preoccupied Jewish writers from Exodus to modern times: here are a few titles that treat this subject with refreshing originality.

For Passover, Fresh New Takes on “People of the Book”

heralds the holiday of Passover, in which Jews celebrate their escape from bondage
during ancient times. We receive the Passover story from a major literary work —
the book of Exodus. A second book also plays a significant role in the holiday,
the Haggadah, providing the script for the retelling of the Exodus around Passover’s
ritual family meal, the Seder. The story in a tweet: Moses demands that the Egyptian
Pharaoh “Let my people go,” and with divine intervention and some major hassles,
Pharaoh relents.

Jews have been called a people of the book. The escape from oppression into a vast diaspora is a theme that has preoccupied Jewish writers from Exodus to modern times. To mark the coming of Passover, here are a few titles that treat this subject with refreshing originality. 

Long before Pi Patel was gracing the big screen with his worries about surviving in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, Max Schmidt was caught in the middle of the Atlantic with a jaguar in his dinghy. In Max and the Cats (published in 1981 in Brazil by Moacyr Scliar and translated from the Portuguese by Eloah F. Giacomelli in 1990), Max finds himself in deep water after his lover, Frida’s Nazi husband discovers their infidelity. The book might properly be subtitled “let my felines go.” Cats of all sizes and shapes feed Max’s neuroses, starting from his boyhood spent hiding among the furs in his father’s shop, “The Bengal Tiger” named for the tiger that graces the wall. Max never fully succeeds in escaping either the threat of Frida’s Nazi husband or his own feline demons. Although Frida manages to book Max safe passage to Brazil from Hamburg, Max discovers too late that the Italian zookeeper on board has planned the boat’s sinking to collect insurance. Through a series of miracles, Max makes it safely to Brazil. Once there, he fights off Nazis both real and imagined, and is financially rescued by a Jew who gives Max more than he asks for his mother’s jewels. Max is freed —if not culturally or mentally, at least economically — to live out his days as a member of Brazil’s landed gentry.

Although Max is not Jewish, the mismatch of European Jews in the Brazilian diaspora is a theme Scliar addresses repeatedly in his fiction. Try Scliar’s The War in Bom Fim (translated by David William Foster), in which a band of boys, gangly and pimply, enact a fantasy that they are defending Brazil’s third-largest city against invading Nazis. The phantasmagorical Nazi presence is no less credible than Scliar’s descriptions of Marc Chagall’s violinists leaving their paintings to fly across the Bom Fim sky. Magical realism meets German Luftwaffe, Brazilian prostitutes dance with Eastern European immigrants, and Yiddish spices up Portuguese. Mama Shendl threatens a local black man named Macumba with a carving knife when he enters her backyard on Passover eve, only to befriend him and keep him sated on borscht and kneidlach.  “We are alike,” the ailing Macumba tells Shendl’s dying son, Nathan, “But keep it a secret.”  Part allegory, part coming of age story, The War in Bom Fim is above all a tale of outsiders struggling to survive in a foreign culture.

In The Invisible Wall, Harry Bernstein’s memoir of growing up dirt poor and Jewish in northern England, Harry’s downtrodden but heart-of-gold mother of six children dreams of escaping to America to avoid bondage to her angry, abusive husband, who drinks away his paltry earnings.  Polish shtetl meets Lancashire poverty, replete with the odd English twist. For example, Jewish children bring their fathers daily tea in the tailoring shops. As a “Hebrew,” Harry is banned from the better grammar school on the pretense that his mother can’t buy him proper shoes, and his older brother Joe is invited to interview at a Manchester newspaper in order to be warned that as a Jew, he’d better never try for a job in journalism again. In this memoir, the oppression is both marital and economic, and the longed-for escape is from a gritty English mill town to the New World. 

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson (translated from the German by Damion Searls), recounts a Jew in an attic, but altogether different from Anne Frank. Wim and Marie, a young Dutch couple, fulfill their humanitarian duty by harboring a Jew traveling under the pseudonym Nico. Anyone visiting the house carries the threat of betrayal, putting all three characters in mortal peril. Keilson, himself a German Jewish émigré to the Netherlands, mines the emotional and physical fallout from Nico’s only escape — illness and death in the young couple’s custody. Wim and Marie have risked their secret being exposed long before they face the danger of disposing of Nico’s body. In a mere 135 pages, Keilson explores freedom and incarceration through a simple (or not so simple) act of kindness. 

Darkness Casts No Shadow, by Arnošt Lustig (translated from the Czech by Jeanne Nĕmcová), considers a different escape from oppression. Danny and Manny jump from a transport train headed for a concentration camp that is being bombed by Americans. They succeed in fleeing the train, but cannot escape starvation, injury and cold in the forest. Theirs is a story of two friends, doomed to die, who hold themselves together with their love for one another and their will to go on. They trudge through the woods recalling the ordinary and the extraordinary — their parents’ deaths in the gas chambers, and their acquisition of sexual knowledge. In the end they are shot by German civilians. They fade “into the night, like a slim double shadow. The stillness was not silenced.” 

In this last sentence of the book, Lustig defines the writer’s role from Exodus onward: to imbue the stillness with meaning.

Martha Toll is executive director of the Butler Family Fund, a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty. She has been featured as a book commentator on NPR and is represented for her debut novel.

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