A contemplation of books to get you thinking during the pandemic


Esther Safran Foer has written what she calls a “post-Holocaust memoir,” titled “I Want You to Know We’re Still Here.”

I teach a book that her son Jonathan wrote – no, not “Everything is Illuminated.” The one I assign to my students at the Rhode Island School of Design, “Eating Animals,” is better suited to my “Birds and Words” elective, about our abuse of poultry. 

Esther’s autobiographical book is a travel tale about her search for a half-sister who died at the cruel hands of the German Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. 

Esther was born in a displaced persons camp and did not know that her father had lost his first wife and their daughter before Esther’s postwar birth and early childhood in America. It’s quite a remarkable journey, her quest and its questions. Who helped to save the single survivor of her father’s family, and how can she, at the very least, find that distant relative’s descendants?

This book came to me from my daughter Lily, along with a volume of bird lore – she knows that I teach two courses. One course is titled “The Jewish Narrative” and the other, already mentioned, is about the plight of our feathered friends and their miraculous and meaningful migrations.

On the inside back cover of Esther Safran Foer’s voyage log, the publisher has printed some compliments, such as “a tribute to human resilience, a family saga full of heart ... a redemptive song ....”  I object to those claims.  The very best part of this book lies rather in its bitterness and reminders of the indifference of the world to our collective Jewish suffering; the immensity of the crimes and the reluctance of even the liberators to hear the horrors:  “Immigrants were told not to dwell on the past: there were few questions asked about what they had endured and how they survived.” 

Purim is a holiday about secrecy – Esther is guided by her cousin and guardian to conceal her past until she can use her true identity to rescue her people.  Is the Book of Esther based on actual events, or is it a parable?

A great lady who had escaped the Holocaust, and rescued and reclaimed her hidden daughter, used to leave hamantaschen on my doorstep. I would watch from an upstairs window at this hush-hush gesture of sharing symbolic food with families without exposing either the giver or the receiver.  But, among American Jews, much of the celebration of Purim centers on a beauty contest for girls and a chance for naughty boys to play Haman, the bad guy.

And I go as far as seeing most assimilated American Jews as following Queen Esther’s role – to know who and what you are, but mostly privately.  Not unlike Irving Berlin, whose lyrics in “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” seek to put Jewish values into the mainstream of American culture.

From another source, I received another gift-wrapped book, “Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler,” by Stephen Moss. Subtitled “How Birds Got Their Names,” it has this boast on its cover:  “Not a page goes by without at least one diverting fact.” 

Well, the book does live up to that brag, especially in one intriguing aspect. The rather youthful author claims that English became the lingua franca, the Esperanto, the universal lingo of the globalized world via the multiple invaders who brought their words with them and endeavored to crush the terms and names of the indigenous, native, established populations.  

You can’t take a linguistics class without knowing these general facts, but underneath the charming and cheerful cover illustration for “Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler,” a Jewish reader like me can’t resist adding that Yiddish likewise has, in a different way, also become a globalized tongue – or, rather, an accent instead of vocabulary.    

The author of “The Joys of Yinglish,” Leo Rosten, points out in another of his works that the phrase “how come?” is actually a translation from the Yiddish. Languages, like endangered species, sometimes, incredibly, return from the brink of extinction. 

Instead of comparing American English to British English – the Brits like to mock our slang – we might challenge their snooty condescension by claiming that all the immigrants to our nation and civilization have contributed to a new dictionary that combines elements of African, Asian, Iberian, Norse and other geographical realms into a rich salad, something that suggests that Yiddish is alive and well even though intermarried with other tongues – not unlike the lyrebird, which mimics even the bulldozers that destroy its habitat.

And so, dear readers, my courses really overlap – as do we all! Bist du ein Yid?  Sure!

PS: During our pandemic isolation, in addition to books, we search for TV shows that are worthwhile.  The highlight of this past month for me was a marathon of “Twilight Zone” episodes, a triumph of intelligent, imaginative and courageous commentaries that challenge instead of distract.  Rod Serling eloquently articulated his themes, and since we are currently living in a Twilight Zone all over the human world, his nightmares-turned-into-poetic programs seem fresh, not stale.  Although they constitute visual literature, they join my celebration of cerebral entertainment.

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.

books, Mike Fink