All you have to do is look around you or turn on the TV to know the world’s oldest hatred is back from vacation, tan, healthy, and robust from its seeming sabbatical. Of course, anti-Semitism was never quite out of touch, even as it lay on a remote island beach somewhere in the Caribbean, gone but certainly not forgotten. Its vassals, armies, legions, and minions were hard at work in its absence, putting up neo-Nazi websites and founding execrable, propagandist “publications,” like Breitbart and the Daily Stormer. We live in dangerous times, and if you’re Jewish, the times can seem like déjà vu. Though we are far from the only minority facing a tide of persecutory rhetoric, Jewish people in America and abroad are facing a long, hard battle against race-baiting trolls and their entrenched and trenchant hatred against us.
During such troubling moments, I turn to literature to help me make sense of the current political climate and also to try to figure out what it is about Jewish people that evokes such unfounded, medieval hatred and fear. (The answer does not lie in literature, I’m afraid, but it’s a good place to start.) We’ve been here before, the literature tells me, and we might be here again, but in the meantime let’s see how this or that character dealt with the predicament of finding himself a Jew in a hostile world. There are dozens of books that speak to the well-founded fears and dangers of anti-Semitism, but here are five I highly recommend:
Wildly popular when it appeared in 2004, Roth’s novel charts the rise and fall of, well, the Roth family during the 1940s—except of course these aren’t the typical 1940s, but an alternate version of them: Charles Lindbergh, who, in this version of history, praises Hitler’s government and, as a presidential candidate, states clearly that he is for America first and that, if elected, will stay out of the war. Lindbergh ends up defeating the incumbent president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in a landslide and then it’s all down hill for the American Jews, specifically the Roth family who must navigate the ins and outs of this new, anti-Semitic and fascist presidency.
This critically acclaimed first novel from Paul Goldberg tackles Stalin’s 1953 plan to purge the Jews from the Soviet Union. Enter Solomon Shimonovich Levinson (no relation, as far as I can tell), an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater, who, with a ragtag assemblage of unlikely heroes, plots to do away with Stalin before the pogrom can proceed anon. This is a historical novel with a twist—there is no extant record detailing the pogrom, though this doesn’t stop Goldberg from writing as if it were imminent to the Jews of the Soviet Union. The dialogue is crisp and the narrative, full of screwball moments and comedic highs and lows, sheds a profound light on one man’s mission to weed out tyrannical and institutional anti-Semitism at its root.
While I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a novel strictly about the dangers of anti-Semitism, it definitely has shadings of it. Set in another alternate reality, Chabon employs an old trope—the detective story—to lead the reader through this remarkable “what-if” novel about a Jewish homeland in Alaska. Though based on fact—there was an actual plan to relocate refugee Jews persecuted by the Nazis—the Slattery Report, as it was called, never came to be. But in Chabon’s novel, it is implemented. The novel takes place in Sitka and focuses on the murder of a man named Mendel Shpilman who is reported to be the messiah, born once in every generation. Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic homicide detective, is on the case and sets off to track down Shpilman’s murder to hilarious and harrowing results.
Bernard Malamud’s tale of rabid anti-Semitism set in Kiev in 1911 is a classic and his best-known work. The novel tells the story of Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman accused of the murder of a Christian boy during Passover. Bok is incarcerated for two years during which he is neither charged nor privy to legal counsel and thus exists in a kind of hellish limbo. Anyone who comes into contact with him, a Jew—from a prison guard who is arrested and jailed to Investigating Magistrate Bibikov who is arrested on trumped-up charges after visiting Bok and then hangs himself—is tainted.
The novel speaks to a time in history when Jews were singled out for crimes they did not commit, like Bok, who refuses to confess to the murder because he is innocent. At the end of the novel, after he is finally released, Bok has an imaginary conversation with Tsar Nicholas II during which he concludes that there is no such thing as an apolitical man, especially not a Jew.
My most favorite novel on this list is from the inimitable mind of David Grossman. Again, the book isn’t necessarily about the dangers of anti-Semitism, though Grossman does a wonderful job at addressing the issue: “I’m really fed up with the new anti-Semitism, you know? Seriously, I was finally getting used to the old kind…with those charming fairy tales about the Elders of Zion…munching on tapas of leprosy with cilantro and plague…slaughtering the occasional Christian child for Passover—Hey, guys, have you noticed the kids are tasting a little astringent this year?” Such acerbic delivery can be found throughout the novel, which opens with Dov Greenstein doing his schlocky standup routine in the Israeli city of Netanya.
The real focus of the book, however, is Amitai Lavar, a childhood friend of Greenstein and the story’s narrator, whom the comic invited to the show for the express purpose of roasting him about an episode of bullying that occurred while they were both at a military camp as high schoolers. (Greenstein was the injured party; Lavar stood by and did nothing.) The novel deals with injury, both physical and psychic, as well as survival and feels urgent and relevant to our times. Self-hatred and the validation of pain are expressed in this novel through a struggling comic’s need to connect with another human being, a friend who once knew him intimately.
David Samuel Levinson is the author of the novel Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, the story collection Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, and most recently, the novel Tell Me How This Ends Well. He has formerly served as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College and as the Fellow in Fiction at Emory University.
David Samuel Levinson