Top 8 reasons you should be at the Jewish Literary Festival

By Dana Mulhauser, Festival committee member extraordinaire

The Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival is now eight days into its eleven-day run, and I’ve been having a shockingly fun time attending events. “Why,” you ask me, “is that so shocking? Shouldn’t you, Dana, a member of the festival committee, have known how much fun the festival would be?”

O imaginary blog reader, thank you for being so inquisitive. Here is my answer for you. I expected to learn things from this festival and to add a few books to my reading list. I was unprepared for how riotously entertaining it would be.

So, in honor of the eighth day of the festival (and in preparation for Hannukah, which comes early this year), I offer you brief descriptions of eight entertaining elements of the literary festival:

1) Food. Not only did the festival provide me with brunch on Sunday, it even included babka. Do you think the National Book Festival has babka?

2.) Being read to. One author explained that, while she’s glad people listen to her audiobooks, she herself has no input into which actors do the readings or how they interpret the work. With that in mind, it’s it doubly lovely to hear an author read her own work — squeaky voices, silly accents, and all.

3) Spending time at the J. Yesterday I saw, entering the doors at the same time, two women carrying yoga mats, a man holding four books to be signed, and a woman eating a plate of roast chicken.

4) Great questions. At the Joel Chasnoff event, an American Air Force colonel asked why Israeli army officers dress like slobs. And yes, when asking the question, the officer stood at attention, shirt neatly tucked, pants pressed, and shoes shined.

5.) Great answers. Yesterday, someone told Allegra Goodman which part of her last book she thought was lousy. The author answered with such grace, thougtfulness, and aplomb that it made me want to read the book all the more (and to be her friend).

6.) Comfortable chairs. Really.

7.) Lively debate. I’m not sure what was better theater: watching Leon Wieseltier banter with Ruth Franklin, watching Ruth Franklin banter with her questioners, or watching the audience watch everyone else’s bantering.

8.) The audience. Any crowd of readers is going to be a good crowd, but these have seemed particularly friendly. I’ve run into old friends, conversed with total strangers, and gotten more suggestions for new books than I know what to do with.

So there you have it. Lucky for you all, there are three more days of the festival to go. So come debate capitalism and the Jews with Jerry Muller, hear a little historical romance with Jessica Jiji, and nosh with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. I’ll see you there.

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After Rich Iott: Playing Nazis and Writing Like Survivors

Rich Iott dressed as a member of the Waffen SS

Rich Iott, second from right, in a Nazi SS Waffen uniform

There was a gasp of disbelief when it became known that Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for Congress in Ohio, enjoyed dressing up as a member of the Waffen/SS as part of historical reenactments of World War II battles. Mr. Iott’s subsequent defense of his hobby and appreciation of the over-achieving German military has not done him any favors. Nor has his counter-attack on Eric Cantor, the current Minority Whip and the highest-ranking Jewish Republican member of Congress, helped much. In the process of digging his hole ever-deeper, Mr. Iott explained his admiration for the soldiers he recreates by saying, “They were doing what they thought was right for their country. And they were going out and fighting what they thought was a bigger, you know, a bigger evil.”

When he says that, Iott is engaging in a naïve, if amoral, act of radical empathy. In Iott’s mind, his German alter-ego, Reinhard Pferdmann is a tragic character, who fought valiantly for what he believed—conveniently ignoring that part of what he believed-in was an ideology of racial purity that legitimized the murder of millions.

Moral idiocy aside, Iott is achieving what many of us seek in literature – a vicarious experience that allows us a measure of understanding of another’s life and experiences. It is the particular life and experiences in question that make Iott’s activity a perversion of imagination. The legacy of the Holocaust makes such a life unworthy of memorializing in a manner lacking explicit condemnation.

What about when those life experiences include surviving the Holocaust? There we run into the opposite problem, where the importance of the lives lost makes memorializing them either in a fictional or a non-fictional setting a sacred and fraught act. There rightly are no “historical reenactments” of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. Likewise, to read a work of Holocaust fiction or memoir actively discourages empathy because it is generally accepted that one who was not there cannot truly understand the experience of surviving the Holocaust. Ruth Franklin’s new book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press) takes a look at this complex issue which she’ll be discussing on Tuesday, October 19 at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The program will feature an introduction by Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor at The New Republic.

Scandals involving fake Holocaust memoirs (Fragments and Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years) are despicable frauds, not only because they serve the pernicious ends of Holocaust deniers, but because they have made the requirement of fidelity to historical and biographical facts obscure the role imagination plays in transcendent literature. In fact, the lack of artifice in seminal works like Elie Wiesel’s Night, have long set the standard for other Holocaust-themed works. While Rich Iott labors under a surplus of misguided and selective imagination, Holocaust literature risks a paucity of it. Franklin would argue that fidelity to true imaginations (as opposed to Iott’s frivolous ones) is as great a responsibility as fidelity to the facts (which Iott selectively ignores).

In her thorough survey of the major memoirs and novels about the Holocaust, Franklin identifies the essential contributions the best of these works makes to the perpetuation of the Holocaust narrative. She covers the writers you would expect like Wiesel and Primo Levi, but she also spends significant time on lesser-known and equally worthy authors like Imre Kertesz. While Franklin is an advocate for the power of imagination, she is particularly hard on authors of the “Second Generation” whom she accuses of “identity theft.” Likewise, she sees promise in the “Third Generation” of writers like Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer who by not having to deal directly with the Holocaust, have been able to shed new light from oblique angles. She also spends significant time on Thomas Keneally’s “non-fiction novel”  Schindler’s Ark and its adaptation into Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.

And why should you care? Because memory is preserved in many different ways. To be critical of the selective memory of World War II war reenactors only does half a job. We should be equally rigorous in how the legacy of World War II reads on the pages of our books.

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