Philip Roth (left) and Primo Levi in Turin during the interview in Shop Talk, 1986.
“Why are you so nasty?” Brenda asks Neil in Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus. Nasty? Neil was tame stuff compared to some of Roth’s later heroes and no one comes nastier than Alex Portnoy. If Goodbye, Columbus launched Roth at the end of the 1950s, it was Portnoy’s Complaint, published ten years later, that made him a household name. It is when he found his voice as a writer: fast, furious, funny and very, very Jewish.
Portnoy was a book of its time, one of the best Jewish American novels of the Sixties. Published at the height of the 1960s, it was about sex, race and letting go. The whole novel is one long monologue by Alex Portnoy, lying on his analyst’s couch, trying to find out where it all went wrong.
In 1975 Abram Games, one of Britain’s greatest graphic designers, was commissioned to make a Centenary Appeal poster for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His brilliant solution was to become known beyond the British Isles: the face of Shakespeare built up from the titles of all the plays as they appear in the First Folio.
The poster has been seen all over the world, but Abram Games intended much more. After his death, his daughter Naomi discovered a mock-up he had made of a flickbook. As the reader flicked the pages, Games planned to make Shakespeare’s face gradually appear.
It’s Dora Reisser’s ability to reinvent herself – from child refugee to prima ballerina, actor, screen star and fashion designer – and in such nail-biting circumstances, that makes her memoir, Dora’s Story, so gripping. Judi Herman visited Reisser at her remarkable London home (it used to be a railway station) to hear more of the stories behind her book, which begins with the little-known history of how Bulgaria’s Jews survived the Holocaust; and about her life in the UK and Israel, including an eye-opening account of how she started her Reisser fashion house – just one of the many new stories Reisser has that could fill a sequel.
“It became a very exotic place for me.” Simon Bent is talking about the Manchester of the 1950s, the setting of Howard Jacobson’s mighty tale of table tennis, teenage angst and Jewish family life. “What attracted me to the book is that it’s about a particular culture at a particular time which is gone. Part of the book is about the loss of that Manchester. It was Howard’s attempt to ‘get down’ that world before it got lost.”
Howard Jacobson was writing J, a novel about a dystopic (non-) Jewish future, when publisher Hogarth invited him to join a relay team retelling Shakespeare in contemporary settings. He was assigned The Merchant of Venice – an inspired choice that allowed him to tell the story from Shylock’s perspective. But Jacobson’s blinder, proving again his extraordinary inventiveness, is to have Shylock slip into present-day Cheshire to share the narrative with his 21st-century counterpart Simon Strulovitch, and chew over his own story as told by Shakespeare.
Shylock arrives without fanfare as the story opens, not in Venice but in a bleak Jewish cemetery in Manchester, the city where Jacobson was raised. He is communing with his long-dead wife Leah, “buried deep beneath the snow”. So Shylock engages the reader’s sympathy: within this take on the play is a meditation on loss, as well as scabrous satire on the materialistic celebrity denizens of Cheshire’s ‘Golden Triangle’.
In the October issue of Jewish Renaissance, Arthur Smith gives Judi Herman the not so sweet lowdown on his show, Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen, with which the gravel-voiced wit makes his debut at JW3 in December. Here you can hear an extended version of his conversation with Judi. The two share a love of Leonard Cohen and they compare notes on their mothers, both of whom are living with dementia – indeed Arthur’s mother Hazel has become a vital part of his show.
Keep reading to see Smith’s poem about his mother and to listen to him reciting it.
“I recently visited the Ben Uri exhibition at Somerset House and saw again the self-portrait of Lily Delissa Joseph. I had first seen it at a Ben Uri show 20 years before in Bristol, at the launch of DAVAR (the Jewish Cultural and Educational Institute in Bristol and the South West), and am sending the poem I wrote after that event. Clive Lawton gave the inaugural address.” – Marlene Sutton
It is Erev Rosh Hashana, and within an hour we will have 15 people at dinner. My wife, Deborah, is assured and organised, so there’s no frenzy in our household. Until, that is, just before logging off for the evening I received an email any writer would love.
This coming Tuesday 24 February Jewish Renaissance‘s editor Rebecca Taylor will be hosting a special event as part of Jewish Book Week. Taking place at London Jewish Museum, the afternoon will centre around the South African anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman (pictured above visiting Meadowlands high school, Soweto in 1977).