SIGNIFICANT JEWISH BOOKS
In the Image
The lives of two strangers briefly intersect following a tragic accident. Bill Landsmann is a Holocaust survivor living in New Jersey. When his granddaughter Naomi is killed by a passing car, he reaches out to her best friend, 17-year-old Leora, inviting her to view slides of his many travels to Jewish communities around the world. After several visits, Leora backs off from this too-intense relationship. In her grief over Naomi's death, she withdraws from all emotional involvements and begins to look at her own life with the detachment of a tourist.
Dara Horn's debut novel follows this shaken but inquisitive young woman through her college years and early twenties and three of her relationships--with Bill Landsmann; Jason, a college boyfriend who leaves her to become ultra-Orthodox and marry within the Hasidic world; and Jake, a Jewish historian who understands her feelings of loss as well as her need to reconnect emotionally to those she loves.
Like a Russian nesting doll, this novel contains tales within tales: some follow Leora's search for meaning; others reach back into Landsmann's past--the Holocaust years in Amsterdam and Vienna, stories of his family in Galicia and America. A remarkable climax retells the life of Bill Landsmann in the cadences of the biblical book of Job.
Horn, a 25-year-old graduate student in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, smoothly weaves biblical themes and religious images into her narrative. In a pivotal scene, an old man in a nursing home tells a visitor (Jason) a story about immigrant Jews who threw their tefillin overboard as soon as they saw the Statue of Liberty "because tefillin were something for the Old World, and here in the New World they didn't need them anymore." He then asks the young man to become a deep-sea diver and find those tefillin. Horn's first novel is itself a kind of deep-sea expedition, sorting through discarded objects and forgotten pasts in search of possibilities for faith.
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The Coffee Trader
Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, David Liss' novel takes us back to the early days of the Stock Exchange and the birth of modern business. Portuguese Jews flocked to this city, where they could openly practice their religion as well as engage in commerce. But the experience of the Inquisition had also taught these former conversos that tolerance could be easily revoked. The Ma'amad, the community council of Portuguese Jews, sought to monitor itself--prohibiting, for example, social and business dealings with "inappropriate Gentiles" (people of ill repute or with criminal connections). Violations of the Ma'amad's decrees were punishable by herem, excommunication. As the narrator of this historical novel informs us, "The parnassim, the men who composed the Ma'amad, ruled absolutely, and those who would live in the community lived by their law or were cast out."
Miguel Lienzo is a young Jewish broker desperate to recoup his losses after the collapse of the sugar market. Together with Gertruid Damhuis, a Gentile widow of uncertain repute, he hatches a scheme to manipulate the price of coffee--a new and exciting commodity in the European market. Immediately he suspects Ma'amad agents of spying on him, particularly a Jewish merchant named Solomon Parido who has personal reasons for wanting to see him fail. Miguel refuses to be intimidated by the Ma'amad or his friends' warnings; he goes so far as to accuse the council members of resembling the Inquisitional authorities they had recently fled.
Soon everyone is spying on one another--or suspecting everyone else of malicious intent. Miguel's confidence remains high as the day of reckoning approaches at the Exchange; he is sure he can squeeze Parido out of the coffee market. In a stunning climax, business rumors, bluffs, and deceit take their toll on every relationship in unexpected ways.
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Editor's note: The UAHC recommends two titles every quarter for book groups. A discussion guide is available on the UAHC Significant Jewish Books Web site.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
Copyright © 2003, Union of American Hebrew Congregations