Another unlikely trio: Virginia Woolf, Masha Roskies and Anna Spafford (20 cents)

Three books, one a biography, one a biography with a little memoir thrown in, and one a memoir with a large dose of biography. All worth reading, for very different reasons. And the books, and the subjects of the books, are so different from each other. Here goes:

1. “American Priestess” by Jane Fletcher Geniesse, “the extraordinary story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem”. The American Colony hotel still exists. The American Colony is a product of the late 19th century, when a Christian fundamentalist group, expecting the second coming any day now, decided to move to Palestine, where they established a colony that not only provided hostelry to travelers, but sold antiques, operated a bakery, established a photography studio, ran a bevy of charitable operations, and much more. In the meantime, Anna Spafford, wife and then widow of the prime mover behind the establishment of the colony, became a virtual dictator, determining among other things, who could marry and who could not, and who could have sexual relations with whom (and they were not always the same). Sometimes on good relations with the local Turkish and later British authority, sometimes on the outs. To the colony, the Arabs appeared to be basically targets of the charity activities, and the Jews just a strange breed with whom they had surprisingly little contact. After Spafford’s death, her daughter took over her role, along with her daughter’s German born husband, all of which was fine until Germany lost the war and he came under understandable suspicion. An absolutely, fascinating story, and one that you would not normally learn much about. The book is quite good, and the product of a tremendous amount of research. It does bog down in detail sometimes, but it’s good to have it all here because how many people are going to be writing on this topic?

2. “Virginia Woolf” is one of the brief biographies making up the Penguin Lives series. The quality of these books is very high, but “Virginia Woolf” is a little special because it was written by Nigel Nicolson, shortly before his death. A major literary figure, Nicolson was the son of Vita Sackville-West, another member of the Bloomsbury group, and sometime lover of Virginia Woolf. This is important because Nicolson, when he was a child, knew Virginia Woolf and most of the other members of this important literary and artistic circle, giving him the opportunity to pepper the book with personal anecdotes which otherwise would be lost to its readers. The book itself is very well written, and to me strikes the perfect balance to give you good insight to Virginia Woolf, as well as the social context in which she lived and the individual personalities and accomplishments of those with whom she socialized. You see her struggle with on-again, off-again mental problems, you appreciate her relationship with Leonard Woolf, a Jewish journalist and pundit, who would seem an unlikely match for Ms. Woolf, and you follow the difficulties and the success of their printing business, the Hogarth Press, which is still operating (although in a very different iteration) today.

3. The third book is even more of a memoir, “Yiddishlands” by Jewish Theological Seminary professor David Roskies. We heard Roskies speak last year and received a copy of his book, which I put aside until recently. I did not know what to expect. Roskies grew up in Montreal in a Yiddish speaking house and became, from an early age, a speaker, a student and a proponent of the language. His mother was a signer, originally from Vilna, the daughter of a family that was in the publishing business; his father was a chemical engineer from Bialystok. In Montreal, the Roskies house became the center of Yiddish cultural activity, where not only locals but visiting writers and intellectuals spent much their time. David Roskies attended Brandeis and, on trips to Israel, met and often befriended Yiddish writers who had emigrated there, some of whom he had met on their trips to Canada.

All of that is very interesting in and of itself, but what makes this book special is its style. “Yiddishlands” tells the story of Yiddish culture in Canada and before through personal anecdotes and the retelling of stories from the old country which he had learned from his mother, seamlessly moving from one to another, back and forth in the same chapters, and sometimes in the same paragraph. Roskies’ style is magical. It is to some extent conversational, to some extent self-deprecating, to some extent not quite believable. It is as if you are reading Isaac Beshevis Singer stories, but they happen to be true. The personalities, the relationships (familial, sexual and otherwise) between the individuals who populate the stories, show how true it is that truth can be stranger than fiction, even when you are dealing (or perhaps especially when) people of such talent and intelligence.

I have not done justice to “Yiddishlands” here. I suggest you read it.


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