Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.60.8: TEN JEWS; NINE ESCAPED, reviews of FORESKIN’S LAMENT, by Shalom Auslander (2007), and THE GREAT ESCAPE, by Kati Marton (2006)

V060-08_foreskinEscapeI just happened to read these books in succession. I don’t review all the books I read, but I got to wondering if these two could be reviewed together. You might not agree after reading it, but I’m giving it a shot.

We all know the rule about it being acceptable within a racial or ethnic group to make fun or insult your own kind. African-Americans can use the “N” word with impunity (although I can’t imagine Jesse Jackson greeting Barack Obama with it). The Chinese can get upset if gweilos (what they call us—“white ghosts”) make jokes about “Chinese fire drills,” so upset they start running around in mass confusion and falling all over one another. I can make slurs about Italian-Americans, but you try it and I’ll have my MAFIA pals put the dismembered head of your favorite pet in your bed. Jews come in for plenty of anti-Semitism, but have a rich internal humorous self-deprecation (they sure can be finnier at it).

With all of this there is a slight problem—when you laugh along with another ethnic groups aren’t you to some degree laughing at them, too. When you are reading Foreskin’s Lament it is difficult to make this distinction at times. First, because Auslander is merciless and blasphemous. Second, because his courageous—how many of you have the guts to call your God a “prick”?—send up of Judaism is a model for all of us who are sick and tired of credulous cretins telling us what we should believe and what terrible things are going to happen to us if we do not believe.

“Write what you know” is the first rule of writing (after “find something to write on”) and Auslander, whose premise is that he is about to become the father of a son, and that usually means a little Jewish boy is going to lose his foreskin. The problem is that Auslander is losing is faith, which is what most of this book is about documenting.
Shalom Auslander, who has had articles in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Esquire, and who has been heard on NPR’s This American Life, believes in God. He says so straight up as late as page 307: “I believe in God. It’s been a real problem for me.” He seems to believe for the same reason that I do not—he needs somebody to blame and be pissed off at. I know that if I believed in God I would spend all my time being pissed off at Him (and I have better things to do with my time). The very religious people of all faiths, people like Auslander’s family, and people I call “theopathic,” are, I believe, obsessed with God and their faith. Auslander is trapped in such a family, even after he distances himself from it. Once you have been indoctrinated into a faith, you can never quite escape. I know that, too.

With some contrast, The Great Escape is about nine Hungarian Jews who grew up in Budapest in the early decades of the 20th Century. They did escape, from Hitler. But Judaism played little or no part in their lives, at least in a direct way. Author Kati Marton, also from a Hungarian Jewish family, writes that “Unlike the Jews of Russia and Romania, Budapest Jews were integrated into the city’s great academic and cultural—though not its political—institutions. Budapest, like New York, Paris, and Berlin, became a magnet for the brightest from all over the region.” These were men who were not from the shtetl, they were religiously non-observant, urban, modern and cosmopolitan. When they left, often reluctantly, the city they loved, some with only the “linguistically impenetrable” Hungarian language, they were “outsiders” not only to other countries, but to Jewish communities in them. But how much their secularism played in the success they achieved in Europe and America is difficult to extricate from their intellectual and personality endowments.

Four of them were physicists, names we can, or should be able to, recognize: Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, were instrumental in splitting atom and played major roles in the Manhattan Projects that created the atomic bombs that helped end WWII. Wigner was awarded a Noble Prize. Brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, who should have received one as well, developed game theory that influenced many fields, and is regarded as he father of the computer. They might have been captured by the Nazis, who they knew were intent on developing their own atomic weapon.

Four other Budapest Jews were literal luminaries. Andre Kertesz became perhaps the greatest photographer of urban life of the 20th Century after he escaped to Paris and later settled in New York City. He began in his native city but became one of the first to use the new lightweight Leica in 1928 to inspire the likes of Cartier-Bresson and other photographers who captured and were captured by the fascinations of modern urbanism. More famous, because of his boldness perhaps, was Robert Capa, the father of war photojournalism. Capa (nee Friedman in Budapest) is best known for one of his first photos, that of the Falling Soldier, a republican infantryman in the Spanish Civil War at the moment he is hit by a royalist bullet. He went on to establish Magnum and led a dashing and productive career until killed by a mine in Vietnam during the French-Indochina war. Hailing from the same streets was Michael Kaminer, who became Michael Kertesz, then Curtiz. (BTW, Actor Tony Curtis, born in Brooklyn of Hungarian Jewish parents named Schwartz—he was Bernie Schwartz, and name he disliked—chose his stage name as a form of the Magyar Kertesz.) Curtiz, who never learned English very well, immigrated to Hollywood and became best known as the director of the venerable film,Casablanca. Including his Hungarian works he directed over 170 films. Sandor Korda migrated from Budapest to Paris, Hollywood, then finally in England where he was best known as the movie producer-director Alexander Korda, who is responsible for the famous movie set in Vienna,The Third Man, among many other films of note.

The ninth Budapest Jew was the famed journalist-author and disaffected Communist (Darkness at Noon) Arthur Koestler. His famous anti-utopian novel “transcends border and ideologies” and in informed from his periods in the Berlin underground, three months in a Seville jail and is ideological breakdown in the midst of the Stalinist purge of 1936-1938.

What this reader particularly enjoyed of Marton’s treatment of her subjects was her attention to the urban environment that so influenced them—Budapest and its cafés. I remember my own cappuccino in the venerable New York café in Budapest, not long after it had been returned to that name (having been renamed the Hungaria during the commie years.) Budapest had hundreds of cafés by the turn of the century. They were places of convocation, conversation, newspaper reading, letter and journal writing, debate, theatre and loitering. As Marton reports the famed French film Director Jean Renoir once noted, “The foundation of all great civilization is loitering.” She adds that “No city in Europe took loitering more seriously that Budapest. All of her nine “escapees” remained nostalgic for their Budapest café days wherever they were.

Maybe the root of Auslander’s problem was not just his life in an intense orthodox Jewish community, but that he had the misfortune to be born in an American suburb, and not near a café in Budapest.
©2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.11.2009)