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BOOKS: Haredi lust, unhappy triplets, best of Dylan, Leonard Cohen’s early fiction

Aviva Lowy
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Published: 31 March 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

AVIVA LOWY faces up to ultra-Orthodox libido, meets Jewish siblings who like to fight, savours seven of Dylan’s best songs and surrenders to Leonard Cohen’s lyricism.

The Jewish Independent

Shmutz - Felicia Berliner (Allen & Unwin)

You’ll find it hard to resist picking up Shmutz, the debut novel by American writer Felicia Berliner, because of its provocative cover. Three white lines on a flesh-coloured background meet at a hamantaschen. It’s clearly a very simple and clever rendition of a woman’s body which succinctly sums up the two intertwined themes of the book: sexual and Jewish identity.

Shmutz tells the story of Raizl, a young ultra-Orthodox woman living in Brooklyn. She’s a bright student who, by virtue of her studies in accountancy, is allowed to have a computer at home - something which would otherwise be forbidden by her Hasidic family. And it’s through the computer that Raizl’s dilemma arises when she stumbles onto porn. How does she manage her curiosity about sex and her filial duty?

As Raizl is drawn compulsively into secretly watching more and more porn, her studies suffer and so do her chances of making an arranged marriage - something she desperately wants.

In interviews, Berliner claims that women’s sexual exploration is not shameful, and that her book is a feminist protest against the requirement for a woman to choose one part of herself (Judaism) over another (sexuality). But can Raizl have her cake and eat it too? Or are there compromises that must be made?

Named as one of the Best Jewish Books of 5782 (2022) by the hip online magazine Hey Alma, Shmutz includes a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words. Helpful for the uninitiated reader, yes, but also highlighting the importance of language to our protagonist who has to create a whole new vocabulary for what has never been spelled out for her. 

The Jewish Independent

Last Resort - Andrew Lipstein (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Another debut novel set, in part, around Brooklyn (but otherwise a million miles away), is the wickedly funny Last Resort.

The book tells the story of Caleb Horowitz, a 20-something wannabe author, who at long last has lucked into writing something publishable, maybe even a bestseller. Caleb’s book, also titled Last Resort, has been inspired by the actual adventures of a college acquaintance and rival, Avi Dietsch, begging the question: Who owns the story?

In pursuit of his literary ambitions, Caleb has to decide whether it is fame or fortune that matters most. He can’t have both. The Faustian deal he strikes snowballs into a series of bad decisions which end up casting him as the author of his own downfall, something for which he can take true creative credit.

It’s Caleb’s failure of imagination - imagination being perhaps the first prerequisite for an author - that has him pursuing the private lives of others for literary grist, while neglecting his own.

Apart from presenting a wonderfully ironic text which will fuel book club discussions, Lipstein is very funny. To wit, he writes about preventing a big breakdown by allowing yourself more manageable smaller ones; he says that money can’t buy you happiness but can buy you out of unhappiness; and he describes a house interior, “with a vaguely Semitic feel, at least as far as Chagall prints and some decorative menorahs can take you”.

The Jewish Independent

The Latecomer - Jean Hanff Korelitz (Macmillan)

And when too much fiction based in the Big Apple is never enough … the Oppenheimers - the family at the centre of Jean Hanff Korelitz's latest novel - are, ostensibly, archetypal Jewish New Yorkers: secular, well-educated types whose ancestors found success in finance after fleeing persecution in Europe. But they fall well short when it comes to the hamish family life part of the stereotype. 

From birth (and perhaps even before - they have been conceived in vitro), the Oppenheimer triplets can't wait to get away from each other. There's also little attachment to their aloof father or even their desperately unhappy mother - the only one who tries to hold the family together.   

The narrative's chapters alternate in focus, hopping from one unlikeable triplet to another as they head off to college and into vastly different lives. The book's narrator is the titular “latecomer”, the fourth Oppenheimer child who we learn more about in the book's final stages. The characters in this satirical novel are complex and the plot unpredictable, making for a thought-provoking read.

Just don't expect much family healing by book's end.          

The Jewish Independent

Folk Music: a Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs - Greil Marcus (Yale University Press)

Here’s another best book of 2022. This time the accolade comes from Rolling Stone and it awards Best Music Book to the acclaimed music journalist and cultural critic Greil Marcus, who aims to tell Dylan’s story through the lens of seven of his most important songs.

Books on Bob Dylan are thick on the ground. Indeed, Marcus himself is responsible for four of them. So it helps to have another angle on the music and the man who has been described as “the voice of a generation”.

The first song to be explored is Blowin’ in the Wind, written when Dylan was just 21 and soon to secure a contract with Columbia, the biggest record label. A remarkable achievement for the young Robert Zimmerman, who had just eight years earlier celebrated his bar mitzvah with 400 guests - a couple of Marcus’s wife’s aunts among them.

But Marcus’s book is not a linear telling of Dylan’s story, nor does the story of each song start with its appearance and move along with time. The author darts back and forth, ranging widely in his references and anecdotes. This is a personal and idiosyncratic account, placing Dylan in the context of American folk music and the political and historical environment of the times. 

Ultimately, however, the reader might ask: Is this a biography of Dylan told through seven songs, or a biography of the songs themselves, or a biography of folk music in the US? It is none of these things entirely, and all of these things in part.

(Dylan enthusiasts might also be interested in the recent release of The Philosophy of Modern Song, written by the man himself, commenting on 66 songs by other artists and published by Simon & Schuster.) 

The Jewish Independent

A Ballet of Lepers - Leonard Cohen (Canongate)

Leonard Cohen has been described as second only to Bob Dylan in commanding the attention of music critics and young musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the ‘60s who continued to work in the 21st century. What makes that even more remarkable, says the critic Bruce Eder, is that Cohen didn’t even aspire to a musical career until he was in his thirties.

Cohen’s artistic career began in 1956 with the publication of his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies. He was only 22. In 1963, his novel, The Favourite Game, appeared. These two works bookend a fertile period of writing which included a novella and many short stories, unpublished (despite Cohen’s best efforts) until now.

A Ballet of Lepers includes the titular novel and a number of short stories. It reminds us that Cohen, as well as being a highly lauded musician, also received accolades for his literature, which reflected many of the themes we would come to know from his songs. Expect sex, love, debasement, redemption and death from these very early works, which already show the assured hand of the mature artist.

As he writes in the short story Jukebox Heart, “We grow in some way towards the thirteen-year-old’s dream, training ourselves with sad movies, poems of loss, minor chords of the guitar, folk songs of doomed socialist brotherhood”. 

The Jewish Independent

Fugitive - Simon Tedeschi (Upswell Publishing)

Acclaimed Australian pianist Simon Tedeschi writes in Fugitive, “When Mozart was asked what the heart of music was, he replied no music. I remember, aged twelve, being told that Mozart meant silence.”

This idea that the essence of a thing can be intuited by the shape of its absence, lies at the heart of Tedeschi’s first book, a slim volume of what might best be described as prose poetry.

While the substance of the book defies easy explanation, the book has garnered much praise, including Anna Goldsworthy writing in The Monthly that it is “a virtuoso memoir of music and trauma” and Ross Gibson, professor of creative and cultural research at Canberra University, calling it “a sparkling minimalist meditation on what it means to make meaning”.

Recurring motifs in the text include the writer as a young prodigy, his European grandparents who were caught up in the Holocaust, Prokofiev’s piano miniatures Mimolyotnosti (“visions fugitives”), his wife Loribelle Spirovski (a painter whose art adorns the book), borders, ghosts and silence.   

“The risk is monumental. To play a note so softly that it almost doesn’t sound. This is one of the hardest things a musician must ever do. But if the note sounds just the way you want it (and you’ll never know why) - if you manage to make a sound so quiet that it breaks through everything - then God is in the room,” Tedeschi writes.

Having mastered it at the piano, Tedeschi now applies this technique to his writing.  

About the author

Aviva Lowy

Aviva Lowy started her career as a radio journalist with 2JJJ and the ABC. She has written on a broad range of subjects, from food and travel to science and health.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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