ARTS & LETTERS
— ERIC WOLFF — ROGER W. SMITH
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WARREN KOZAK The Rabbi of 84th Street
‘The Rabbi of 84th Street” (Harper-Collins, 200 pages, $24.95) is beach reading — Brighton Beach reading. The book is a short biography of Rabbi Haskel Besser, born at the height of Chasidic life in Poland in 1922. His father, Naftali, was a banker with sufficient wealth and esteem in the ghettos of eastern Europe to enable his son to meet and study some of the most respected rebbes in the world.
After Kristallnacht in 1938, Naftali Besser fled to British Palestine and arranged to have his family follow. Only 16-year-old Haskel was left behind to wrap up the family’s rather extensive financial affairs. His harrowing flight from his small village in Poland to the Romanian port is a tale featuring high expectations, dashed hopes, a near-death moment at the hands of anti-Semitic Polish and Rumanian nationality soldiers, a kindly Catholic priest, and a chance reunion with his parents after he coincidentally boarded the same ship as two uncles. Warren Kozak tells it well.
Rabbi Besser finished his education in Israel, met his wife, and became an important member of the community, at first since his ability to speak German, French, and English allowed him to translate radio newscasts for his compatriots. But not long after the war ended, an unnamed disease leveled him. In 1946, he traveled to New York City to see a doctor who offered a cure — the first of many such voyages, during which he became began to become a part of spiritual life of the Jewish community in the city, then as now the world’s largest.
Three years later Rabbi Besser convinced his wife, Liba, to move overseas. They established a home on 84th Street, across the street from the small congregation that the rabbi leads to this day.
In the course of 50 years, Rabbi Besser became an important spiritual leader. Mr. Kozak discusses the rabbi’s return to his native Poland in 1977, his work with foreign dignitaries, and the Jewish schools he ran with the Reform Jewish millionaire, Ronald Lauder. To hear Mr. Kozak tell it, the Rabbi is intellectually brilliant, egalitarian in his view on the world, warm-hearted, self-sacrificing.
This description may well be an accurate rendition of the man, but great stories involve great conflicts, and although Rabbi Besser lived through some of the defining conflicts of the 20th century, he does not seem to have endured much hardship because of it. Or at least Mr. Kozak does not portray it. Likewise, he doesn’t give us much information on the rabbi’s political activities in Israel beyond his membership in the moderate Agudah. His involvement in the creation of an independent Israel and the war that immediately followed was either limited or is simply left undescribed.
Luckily, Mr. Kozak keeps his book brief — just 200 pages of wide-spaced lines — and he’s a skilled enough writer to get out of the way of his story and maintain a brisk pace throughout the narrative. Just remember to put something heavy on top of this featherweight to keep it from blowing away on seashore winds.
KENNETH M. PRICE To Walt Whitman, America
Kenneth M. Price’s book (University of North Carolina Press, 192 pages, $49.95 cloth) is concerned primarily with Whitman as a social and cultural outsider whose works appealed to marginalized groups in society. It also takes up Whitman’s posthumous influence on various aspects of American culture including painting and film, bringing to bear on Whitman such seemingly diverse figures as D.H. Lawrence, George Santayana, Edith Wharton, Ben Shahn, John Dos Passos, Gloria Naylor, Muhammad Ali, and William Least Heat-Moon.
Lawrence faulted Whitman for being prone to overgeneralization and for (in Mr. Price’s apt phrase) “pouring his seed not into stalwart American brides but into space.” Santayana saw “Leaves of Grass” as a welcome antidote to the “moral cramp” of New England culture. Wharton, according to Mr. Price, found Whitman emotionally liberating after years of a loveless marriage. African-American writers have responded positively to Whitman, even though he himself was ambivalent in his feelings towards blacks. And Whitman was a major influence on filmmaker D.W. Griffith, especially on his masterpiece, the film “Intolerance.”
Mr. Price provides a stimulating reexamination of how what he somewhat tendentiously calls Whitman’s “project” was responded to by subsequent generations. But his exposition is plagued with opaque jargon that is often exasperating.“As both an actuality and a trope, bondage offered Whitman a means of emphasizing commonalities that cut across gender, race, and circumstance.” “[A] less atomistic and essentialist goal remains vital for many, a goal based on fluid and cross-culturally enriched identities. Accordingly, many African American intellectuals have found Whitman’s inclusive, future-oriented project a useful point of departure.”
The book is carelessly written and not particularly coherent or well organized, and the coded verbiage and formulaic writing lead to statements that are of questionable value as scholarship. Increased attention to the peer review and editing processes might have greatly improved this monograph, which was assembled in part from previously published articles. And while the scholarly apparatus is copious, the index is inadequate.
Dedicated readers of Whitman may find much to interest them here. Others will be better served turning to one of the excellent monographs in the University of Iowa Press’s ongoing Whitman series or Garland Publishing’s “Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia” (1998).