Books in brief: Miami blues, Israeli dreamers
A Florida fantasia
“There is always an extra twist of weirdness at the end of the Florida story,” the crime novelist Carl Hiaasen once said. That Florida is on vivid display in How Sweet it Is! (Mandel Vilar Press), Thane Rosenbaum’s new novel set in Miami Beach in 1972. This is Miami Beach at the end of its heyday as a fun-in-the-sun resort and Jewish mecca, and before its rediscovery as an Art Deco playground for the rich and buff. Holocaust survivors, Cuban refugees, hasidic Jews, and transplanted northerners share the steamy streets, where Jackie Gleason is ending his run as the city’s unofficial ambassador, Isaac Bashevis Singer is holding court at his favorite cafeteria, and gangster Meyer Lansky is back home after an aborted attempt to find sanctuary in Israel.
All three real-life celebrities appear as supporting characters in the novel, which centers on the survivors Sophie and Jacob Posner and their 12-year-old son Adam. Sophie is a force of nature who becomes Lansky’s consigliere; Jacob is a ghost who wanders the coastal city draped in tennis whites and a caul of grim memories. Adam is a baseball and track star who can’t run away fast enough from his haunted parents.
There’s no plot to speak of but a series of vignettes featuring the Posners and Miami’s weirder-than-life inhabitants. It is the summer when both the Democratic and Republican conventions will be held in Miami, and Adam and a friend stumble across a park where protesters spend the night literally making love, not war. Jacob shares a regular baked apple with Singer, who ransacks the survivor’s memories for the fiction that will one day win him the Nobel Prize. Sophie and Gleason, both mortally ill, share an exclusive ward at the hospital, where the “Irish lovable lout from Bensonhurst and the Polish Jewess from Warsaw” find out they are “perfect for each other.” And in the climactic vignette, all of the city’s celebrities — including a bearded man with an uncanny resemblance to Fidel Castro — descend on the city’s Little League championship.
Rosenbaum, a polymath who also teaches law at New York University, is the author of Second Hand Smoke and The Golems of Gotham, two novels that find a sad humor in the legacy of the Shoa among survivors and their children. In his latest novel, he recreates a southern Florida where survivors and other refugees discover “an accommodating state for mongrels like them, a safe haven for half-breeds, ex-cons, retirees, political escapees, boat people, and immigrants entering American waters on makeshift rafts.”
Religion and peace building
It is often taken for granted that religion is exclusively a source for conflict in the Middle East, and that peace can only come about through secular politics and decision-making. Rabbi Ronald Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, begs to differ. The American-born and -raised Kronish has edited Coexistence & Reconciliation in Israel: Voice for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press), gathering together essays from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars and activists who have worked with him on seeking peace through religious dialogue and education. The contributors include five leading Arab Israeli and Palestinian Muslims.
Among the Jewish contributors is Michael Melchior, a former cabinet minister who currently chairs the Mosaica Center for Religious Conflict Transformation in the Middle East. In his essay, Melchior insists that religion and tradition cannot be removed from the peace process. A “religious peace is a peace of values, where the value of the belief systems — such as that we are all created by and in the image of the same God, that crushing the other is crushing the Divine in the other — are part of the fabric for peace,” he writes. If “we believe that it was God’s plan for us to come back to the Holy Land and establish a Jewish state again as part of the fulfillment of our prophecies, then it was also part of God’s plan that there is another people living here.”
In his own essay, on the dialogue and action programs he has run for over 20 years, Kronish insists that interreligious dialogue does not mean ignoring the core issues of the conflict. On the contrary, “when significant levels of trust have been developed beforehand, most people find this phase particularly meaningful and enriching as a way to genuinely get to know each other. It leads to deep mutual and understanding of the other’s religious, cultural, and existential reality, even if it also delineates where people fundamentally do not and often cannot agree with the other.”