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October 19, 1984 - Image 32

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-10-19

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

32

ME:DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

Friday, October; 19 1984 _

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New Orleans — Not only has
there been a dearth of books about
the Jews of the South in general,
there has been, for all the topic's
rich appeal, precious little written
about New Orleans' ante- and
post-bellum Jews. The late Ber-
tram Korn's The Early Jews of
New Orleans stops in 1848. There
have been a couple of biographies,
none recent, of Judah P. Benjamin
and Judah Touro. Nothing more.
The fiction ,is sparse, too.
At least it was until now! Belva
Plain, the widely acclaimed
novelist of the best-selling Ever-
green and Eden Burning, has
brought the tension, turbulence
and tragedy of the Civil War to
bear on two New Orleans Jewish
families in Crescent City (De-
lacorte Press). Her book is well
researched, impressively authen-
tic in its treatment of the highly
assimilated Sephardic-German
"Jewish Creoles," authoritative
in its use of Civil War battles,-
fast-paced and brimming over
with human drama.
The characters are powerfully
drawn; they literally hit you be-
tween the eyes, particularly the
heroine, the beautiful, long-
suffering, courageously unselfish
Miriam Raphael Mendes who,
without trying, out Scarletts
Scarlett O'Hara in several de-
partments though she is no good,
as was the heroine of Gone With
the Wind, at being a bitch.
Despite this and other
similarities, Crescent City is
hardly a Jewish Gone With the
Wind, though comparisons will
repeatedly be made. Since Belva
Plain tells as fancy a story as did
Margaret Mitchell, people will in-
evitably connect the two through-
out the coming months while this
new saga of paradise expected,
realized, mislaid, found, lost
again and regained climbs to the
top of the best-seller lists. The
first hard-cover printing is
150,000 copies, and several lead-
ing book clubs have made it a dual
selection.
I don't often read historical ro-
mances, but this one proved ir-
resistible, both for the sheer
pleasure of the narrative and for
its insights into 19th Century
"Jewish-Creole" life. I soon
realized that just because it falls
into a genre of the historical ro-
mance, it should not be sold short.
Given diversity of its subject-
matter — the inter-actions be-
tween Jews and Catholics, Jews
and slaves, whites and blacks, in-
cluding "free persons of color,"
fathers and sons, pro-slavery fac-
tionalists and abolitionsts, as-
similated Jews and tradi-
tionalists, male chauvinists
(there were a lot of them!) and
feminists, and militants and
pacifists — the accomplished
handling of the characters and the
ideas they harbor may make the
sum of the parts of this novel
greater than the whole. It has a lot
of attractions.
Among these attractions is the
author's profound awareness of
the peculiarly bifurcated alle-
giances of Southern Jews and
their resulting predicaments.
Basic among these was the prob-
lem of the Jew, who, being South-
ern, openly accepted slavery, but,
in being Jewish, had unalterably

Belva Plain

to oppose it. Judah P. Benjamin —
his is one of many brief though
charming cameo appearances or
references to real Jews — is both
praised and condemned for his
pro-slavery speeches in Congress.
Plain is also sensitive to the
unique combination of beauty and
terror that has always marked the
Southern heartland; she doesn't
flinch from violence, of which
there is plenty. But unlike so
many other historical romances,,
this book doesn't exploit violence
for its own sake. Far from it! Her
chapter describing the misery and
despair of prisoners-of-war on
both sides is as moving and as
genuine anti-war writing as any
passage in Stephen Crane's The
Red Badge of Courage.
It is to Plain's credit that while
she authenticates the Southern
`Quality's" emphasis on grace
and courtesy in speech and man-
ner (interlarded all too often as it
was with hypocrisy), she avoids
the sentimentality that so often
makes historical romances super-
ficial, if not nauseating.
Above reproach in these mat-
ters, the novel does have' an occa-
sional inconsistency. Far exam-
ple, we are told fairly early that
the bayou at the heroine's country
plantation is filled with alliga-
tors, one of whom kills and eats
her pet dog. All are wdrned to
keep their distance. Much later,

,

at a week-long party at the plan-
tation we read, "Men and women -
bathed separately in the bayou."
Both sexes, I should think, would
have preferred to forego their
ablutions if they had themselves -
read the first part of the story. A
lovely blooper, nonetheless.
Another quibble is the fre-
quency of coincidence. More than -
once Plain asks us to suspend our
disbelief to an uncomfortable ex-
tent. They may be all right in a
bad historical romance; it
shouldn't be necessary in a good
one.
If there are too many chanc6
encounters (and even one is too
many) none of them occur in the
love story which dominates much
of the book. Miriam Mendes is
in a loveless marriage to a
"Jewish Creole" with a quadroon
mistress. Out of futility, she un-
dertakes an affair with a gentile;
Andre Perrin, the Rhett Butler of
Crescent City. In the end, after she -
discovers that behind his sex ap
peal there hides a callous war pro-
fiteer she gives him the "Frankly,
my dear, I don't give a damn"

'Crescent City' by
Belva Plain
(Delacorte Press).

routine. Not in the same words, of
course. This final encounter is ac-
companied from its beginning by -
a summer storm. If Scarlett
gone with the wind, then Miriam
is back with the rain.
There's somone else waiting in
the wings, and, you guessed it
he's got a ticket Andre lacks. The
end is predictable but, happily, a
lot of the incidents in the story are
not and it's fun reading. And it's
important, too, in its resurrection
of the lifestyles of the exotic
"Jewish Creoles," whose likes we
will never again encounter.

Copyright 1984, Joseph Cohen. -

Sabbath observances defined

Sabbath observance, the many
traditional obligations, and the
problems affecting the sanctify-
ing of the holy day, are provided
definitive guidance in an express-
ive work on the subject. In
Shemirath Shabbath (F.eldheim
Publishers), Ray Yeshoah Y.
Neuwirth, provides, as the subti-
tle asserts, "a guide to the practi-
cal observance of Sabbath.
Rabbi Neuwirth's informative
volume is a revised edition of his
1965 text, which was first pub-
lished in Hebrew. The current
work was prepared by W.
Grangewood in collaboration with
the author.
While the subjects covered are
admittedly those confronting the
Orthodox Jew, the compiled work,
and an addendum volume
planned to be issued soon, treat
the Sabbath observance problems
as matters of concern for all Jews.
The laws involving kashrut are
among the major ones under dis-
cussion. Washing dishes and
grinding meat enter into the

law-defining. Attention tc,)
clothes, body neatness, transfer of
objects from area to area and gam-
ing also are defined.
An understanding of the basic
Sabbath principles as a day of
rest, presented halachically,
gains understanding and appre-
ciation. They make this volume a
valuable guide to Jewish obser-
vance.
Introductory paragraphs to this
informative and scholarly work
provide this definition for the
Sabbath:

"Sabbath is described by the
Talmud (Tractate Shabbath 10b)
as God's precious gift to the
Jewish people from His treasure
house. It is a sign to the nations of
the world that God has imbued
His people with part of His own
sanctity. (See Exodus 31:13 and'--
Rashi's commentary there.)
"Of all the mitzvoth in the To-
rah, none distinguishes the e
Jewish people from the other na-
tions of the world as much as the

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