Manilow and Matzoh Balls: Dershowitz Lowers the Bar

In Search of American Jewish Culture , by Stephen J. Whitfield. University Press of New England, 307 pages, $26.

Just Revenge , by Alan M. Dershowitz. Warner Books, 322 pages, $29.95.

Reading In Search of American Jewish Culture , I was reminded of the elderly family friend who used to argue so avidly and present such formidable evidence “proving” that all the great figures in Western history–Shakespeare! Columbus! Henry Ford!–were (deeply, I’d say) closeted Jews. If only he had lived long enough to consult Stephen J. Whitfield’s book, which compensates for its less than earth-shaking central thesis (America influenced the Jews and vice versa) by providing a moderately entertaining and at times eccentric consideration of these thorny questions: Which famous American cultural figures were Jewish? (Everyone, apparently, from Sendak to Sondheim, Mamet to Midler, from Rodgers and Hart to Leiber and Stoller, and, of course, “film critic Pauline Kael, whose parents had come from Warsaw …”) Who, despite what you’ve always thought, wasn’t Jewish? (Oscar Hammerstein’s mother, “a Presbyterian, had him baptized as an even more upscale Episcopalian.… But his social and professional circle was so inescapably Jewish that, if any American could be said to have shaped Jewish culture without actually being Jewish, Hammerstein would be a prime candidate.”) And which literary works are not quite … Jewish enough? (Mr. Whitfield criticizes the 1955 Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank for “its evasion of the distinctively Jewish character of the ordeal in Amsterdam.”

As it turns out, these questions are even more challenging than we might have supposed, especially if the interlocutor is, like Mr. Whitfield, an academic. First, we have to define our terms. What is culture? What is Jewish culture? What is Jewish music? (At the first International Congress of Jewish Music in Paris in 1957, musicologist Curt Sachs offered the following answer: “‘that music which is made by Jews, for Jews, as Jews.’ This definition sounds simple and incontestable. But its ambit is dubious.… When popularity is a key to financial security, when aristocratic or royal patronage has evaporated, music composed and performed only for Jews guarantees poverty. (Not that the prospect of destitution should affect the definition).”

And what, for that matter, is a Jew? Mr. Whitfield’s attempt to distinguish the observant and the orthodox from those with a casual, gene-determined predilection for the occasional matzoh ball leads him to quote authorities ranging from Isaiah Berlin to Lenny Bruce, and to venture into some fairly murky territory. (“[T]he more it becomes apparent that identities are learned rather than given, contingent rather than secure, historically positioned rather than inherent, the stronger the temptation to discern porousness even before the granting of civic equality.”)

No matter. It’s less likely that you’ll read Mr. Whitfield for illumination or provocation than for the giddy brio with which he bounces between high culture and low, and for the sections in which he reveals a peculiar affection for certain cultural artifacts that we (leading the sheltered lives that we do) may never have heard anyone praise at such length. How long has it been since a friend sat you down for a disquisition on the virtues of Show Boat ? When was the last time someone you know expounded upon the cultural and emotional climate that produced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”? “Albert Von Tilzer (né Gumm) knew so little about this particular diamond business that when he wrote the lyrics to ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’ he had never been to one. Perhaps that is why his plea was so personal.”

To Mr. Whitfield’s credit, his view of culture is sufficiently wide and generous to embrace masterpieces, like Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral , and unredeemed schlock, like the songs of Barry Manilow. But at no point does he dip low enough to include a work like Alan M. Dershowitz’s new novel, Just Revenge , a performance of breathtaking and almost unimaginable crudeness and vulgarity.

Having written The Vanishing American Jew: In Search for Jewish Identity for the Next Century and that classic of self-celebration, Chutzpah , Mr. Dershowitz is himself something of a soi-disant expert on Jewish culture. Here he gives us a courtroom melodrama in which Abe Ringel–the hero of a previous Dershowitz thriller and, one can’t help thinking, a stand-in for the author–gets the chance to try his dream case. His friend Max Menuchen, an aged, dignified, sympathetic Holocaust survivor, has learned that the Lithuanian officer who ordered the massacre of his family is alive in America. The old man concocts an elaborate revenge scheme, and when Max is accused of engineering the Lithuanian’s death, Abe agrees to defend him.

It’s difficult, really, to fully describe just how dreadful the novel is. Unable to distinguish between dialogue and exposition, Mr. Dershowitz treats us to passages like the following, in which Max relates a childhood memory: “‘We must have looked strange,’ Max said with a warm smile as he remembered the scene. ‘A portly old man with a flowing white beard and a fur hat, crawling around a dark attic, while his 18-year-old grandson, wearing a black suit and a yarmulke, with curly sidelocks and the beginning of a never-shaved beard, held a flickering candle.’” With no apparent interest in narrative verisimilitude or psychological credibility, he muddles up dramatic moments like this one: “‘I could never forget your eyes!’ Max bellowed as his hand, with a will of its own, smashed against Prandus’ face.… Prandus cringed in fear, not from the force of the blow, but from Max’s words. As he watched the powerful man’s face twitch, Max heard King Lear’s terrible words: ‘Tremble, thou wretch, that hast within thee undivulged crimes unwhipped of justice …’”

But the novel’s literary flaws are the least of it. What’s galling is the righteousness with which Mr. Dershowitz advances his shaky moral agenda, with its explicit and disturbing endorsement of vigilante justice. (“My hope is that I have written a book that may lead a few people to better understand and empathize with the victims of the worst crime ever perpetrated by one group of human beings on another.” The uses to which he puts the Holocaust are appalling; the mass murder that Max recalls seems not just generic but, detail for detail, suspiciously reminiscent of a similar scene in Night , by Elie Wiesel.

In Just Revenge , American-Jewish culture has been brought to new and previously unplumbed depths by Mr. Dershowitz’s egregious attempt to reduce the Holocaust to a bad lawyer joke.