Briefly Reviewed: What I have been reading this summer

by | Aug 18, 2015 | Book Reviews

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War
Steven Pressfield
Sentinel (Penguin), 2014
426pp., $18.00 (paper)
ISBN 978-1-59523-119-2

Forgiving Maximo Rothman
A.J. Sidransky
Berwick Court (Chicago), 2013
306pp., $16.95
ISBN 978-0-9889540-0-7

The Pawnbroker
Edward Lewis Wallant, 1961 (reissued 2015)
Fig Tree Books, $15.95 (paper)
ISBN 978-1-941493-14-4

Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. A book is often sent to me that I would really like to read. Somehow I don’t get around to it. The unread book gets schlepped back and forth between Norfolk and Scottsdale for a year or so. Some books I finally give up on (“It was not meant for me to read it”). Occasionally, I get an unexpected chance in the summer to catch up on a few. Here they are.

The Lion’s Gate
At about the same time that the U.S. Navy was conducting a blockade during the Cuban missile crisis, a maneuver based on a plan created by a bunch of Navy post-graduate students, a couple of fairly junior Israeli Air Force officers were charged with creating a war plan in the event the United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria) attacked Israel. Not long thereafter Egypt mobilized hundreds of tanks and aircraft and numerous divisions of troops in the Sinai, in preparation for the “final solution” of the Israel problem, i.e., the total destruction of Israel. The Israeli air war plan worked; without its smashing success Israel would have been doomed.

The Six Day War, in which Israel roundly defeated the combined forces of the UAR plus Jordan augmented by Iraqi forces, is presented in great detail in a clear and logical manner by Steven Pressfield— best selling author of historical fiction and non-fiction ranging from the Battle of Thermopylae to the Afghan War. Pressfield presents the three major areas of struggle, Sinai, Golan and Jerusalem, through the eyes and testimony of the men and women, politicians, generals, sergeants and privates who achieved the unlikely victory. A wonderful read; not merely for history buffs.

Forgiving Maximo Rothman
My reviewing responsibilities seldom allow me the luxury of reading a good mystery. Thus, I guess I will not read the currently popular The Girl on the Train—which brings to mind a movie of the 1940s in which a murder in a tenement is witnessed from a passing elevated subway train in New York City. (A prize to the first reader who tells me the name of the movie and the star!)

A.J. Sidransky’s debut novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, a mystery involving a Russian Jewish New York City detective; a ba’al tshuvah contemporary married to the daughter of an important orthodox rabbi; and Maximo Rothman, a very elderly Holocaust survivor who is the victim of a deadly assault. Detective Tolya Kurchenko and Shalom Rothman (nee Steven Redmond), although both Jewish, share little in common other than a falling out with their respective fathers. The murder investigation leads Detective Kurchenko to Maximo’s hidden diaries, which span 65 years of his life from Hitler’s Europe to refuge in the jungles of the Dominican Republic to life in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.

Sidransky, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, draws on the life experience of his own family members who were fortunate to get to the Dominican Republic just before Hitler closed off emigration. The Settlement of Sosua is a little known story of a safe haven for Jews—created for that purpose by the non-profit agency Dominican Republic Settlement Association (DORSA). Washington Heights, where the author lives and works, has a huge Dominican immigrant community.

The solving of the murder is almost anti-climactic to the revelations of Maximo’s life.

The Pawnbroker
Sophie’s Choice, arguably one of the best “Holocaust novels,” was published in 1982. The Pawnbroker, first published in 1961, was one of the first American novels to come to grips with the destruction of European Jewry. Edward Lewis Wallant, its young author, received much deserved acclaim and his book, a National Book Award finalist, sold more than 500,000 copies. The Pawnbroker was a masterpiece and Wallant was compared with the great generation of American Jewish writers including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. Wallant never lived to realize his place in that firmament, dying of an aneurism just a year after publication.

Recently reissued in paperback by Fig Tree Books, The Pawnbroker’s antihero Sol Nazerman is a dead soul, traumatized by the Holocaust. Re-readers (and it is definitely worth re-reading) as well as first readers, with the advantage of a half-century of Holocaust research and writing, will just have to overlook Wallant’s lack of historical accuracy. This iconic Holocaust novel may be considered not a Holocaust novel at all, yet its symbolic impact is as gripping today as it was 54 years ago.

There’s plenty of summer left—enjoy it with a good book!

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.