Short Takes
Tue, 11/16/2010
Jewish Week Book Critic

Even if you haven’t picked up a Mad magazine in decades, you’re likely to remember the fold-ins, the signature feature that has appeared in almost every issue since 1964, created by Al Jaffee. Mary-Lou Weissman, a friend for more than 30 years, presents Al Jaffee’s Mad Life (It Books), with 70 original illustrations by Jaffee. Now 89, he is the magazine’s oldest and most prolific contributor, still creating fold-ins.

Jaffee’s life story is uncommon, with painful interludes. A self-described reverse immigrant, he was born in Savannah, Ga., where his father managed a department store. His deeply religious mother missed her childhood shtetl in Lithuania so she returned there with her sons. In Zarasai, Al spoke no Yiddish, was hungry all the time, and learned to rely on his imagination to invent playthings. He went back and forth, from parent to parent, shtetl to city, and in those experiences found the beginnings of his comic skills. Back in New York, he was in the first class at the High School of Music and Art, speaking English with a Yiddish accent.

In his subsequent career at Mad, Jaffee has well understood his readers’ feelings of alienation, mistrust of adults and politicians, their fears and suspicions. Weissman writes of him with appealing warmth and says, “Jaffee is our man from Mars, by way of Lithuania, suspended between two worlds, in a state of plausible impossibility.” Readers will return again to his full-color illustrations, depicting his journey.

Wherever You Go (Norton) is the first novel by Joan Leegant, whose story collection, “An Hour in Paradise,” garnered several awards. The fast-paced narrative is unusual for its setting in contemporary Israel, and the author’s nuanced understanding of the Americans who are drawn to make aliyah. Her characters are seekers, yearning for love and home and holiness. The novelist splits her time between Israel and Boston.

Janice Eidus reinvents the classic vampire legend in The Last Jewish Virgin: A Novel of Fate (Red Hen Press). Set in contemporary New York City, Lilith Zaremba, a young fashion student who is the last Jewish virgin, rebels against her feminist Jewish mother as she tries to find her own way. Eidus writes with humor, originality and understanding of urban Jewish life. The winner of two O.Henry prizes, she lives in Brooklyn and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

More than a century after Rabbi Solomon Schechter of Oxford University climbed into the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo and rediscovered the community’s genizah, or repository for damaged texts, earlier this year Rabbi Mark Glickman entered the same dusty room. The attic is now empty of the more than 300,000 medieval and early manuscripts that had been stored there, with many more than a century old, including the last letter to Maimonides from his brother David, a merchant lost at sea, and the oldest-known Passover Haggadah.

In Sacred Treasures of the Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synaogue Attic (Jewish Lights), Rabbi Glickman reports on how this huge trove was discovered and how conservationists preserved the valuable artifacts. He also describes the documents themselves and the stories and people behind them, and puzzles together what they reveal anew about Jewish history.

The Jews of the Ben Ezra community “didn’t save everything, just written words. At first they saved just the names of God, then the words of Torah, then all written words. They viewed word-bearing papers and parchments as sacred. An in accordance with divine command, they gave their texts a proper burial,” he writes.

Rabbi Brickman leads Congregations Kol Ami in Woodville, Wash., and Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Among the photographs and illustrations in “Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities” by Anat Helman, translated by Haim Watzman (Brandeis University Press) is a newspaper advertisement from the early 1930s with the headline, “The elegant man buys only at Hadar.” The shop’s name means elegance. The photo shows a dapper gent in a well-fitted suit, with a matching shirt and tie, cane and hat.

The ad man has little in common with the more common sight of a kibbutznik with his sleeves rolled up, or a recent immigrant in well-worn clothing. Helman writes of the urbane culture, often overlooked, that grew in Tel Aviv, from its founding early in the 20th century. The city’s leaders looked more to Europe than Jerusalem, toward modernism rather than the past; they sought to build a city different from the small towns and cities of Eastern Europe and also from other Levantine cities. The author, a senior lecturer in the department of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, reports on the city’s physical portrait, public events, consumer culture, leisure and entertainment activities and urban subcultures.

As she writes in this original book, “Immigrants preserved, in their day-to-day lives, cultural practices and preferences they that they had brought from their lands of origin. But the athletic, tanned Tel Avivian, free and self-assured, joyful and pleasure-loving, was depicted as utterly different in his looks and his way of life from the stereotypical Diaspora Jew, and from the pioneer as well. Tel Aviv culture blended West and East, Jew and Hebrew, the Diaspora and the Land of Israel, the cosmopolitan and the local.”