Book Reviews: ‘The Memory Monster’ and ‘The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex’

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‘The Memory Monster’
Yishai Sarid
Restless Books

At the intersection of Arch Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, an Israeli flag flaps above the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza. If you’re just driving by, the sculpture in the center of the plaza, “Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs,” looks like a Lovecraftian horror, or “The Thing” — seemingly disembodied limbs and faces straining out of a tower of flames.

Look more closely, and you see a Torah, too. A fully formed man with tefillin on his forehead stretches his arms, and two sword-wielding hands arise at the peak of the fire. The swords and the blue-barred flag may as well represent the same thing: Out of the fire and the chaos of the Holocaust, an iron people emerged, ready to defend themselves.


Yishai Sarid’s “The Memory Monster,” a 2017 Israeli novel translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan, released this fall, is concerned with the world these iron people have created. What did it mean, for Israelis, Jews and all of us, really, to meld together Israel and the Holocaust? It’s not simply a question of facts and figures for Sarid’s narrator, an unnamed Israeli historian, but a question about our peculiar inheritance, which is adjusted and redefined with each bequest.

Sarid, the son of longtime Israeli politician Yossi Sarid, is a lawyer and the author of five other novels. His questions are piercing, and his answers, even more so.

The novel takes the form of a letter from the historian to the chairman of the board of Yad Vashem, whom the historian holds in great esteem. The feeling was once mutual, but this is evidently no longer so. The letter, then, is the historian’s opportunity to “provide a report of what happened here.”

“At first, I tried to separate myself from the report and convey it in a clean, academic fashion, without bringing in my own personality or my private life, which, in and of themselves, are nothing worthy of discussion,” he writes. “But after writing only a few lines, I realized that was impossible.” It can be easy to lose track of the fact that the story is progressing within a letter, which begs the question of whether the epistolary structure is necessary.

The historian relays the arc of his professional life, a middling academic career that began as a choice between a funnel to military intelligence (Persian history) or Holocaust studies. He chooses the latter, declaring that he is “ready to harness himself to the memory chariot.”

He becomes freakishly adept at recalling the columns of long-gone Jewish towns, the names of Bavarian functionaries and methods of efficient extermination that make up the Holocaust as it is taught. Befitting a person with such powers of recall, he becomes a tour guide, leading travelers and student groups at Yad Vashem, and then, for much more money, through Auschwitz, Majdanek and the former sites of Jewish life in Poland.

What he finds on these tours is scarier to him than anything he’d found in his studies, deadened as he is to the human realities of the Holocaust. The students, if they’re paying attention at all, whisper that such measures should be taken against “the Arabs”; he’s used as a prop by bored politicians, as a wind-up fact doll by glib tourists and as an unwitting participant in a renowned German director’s documentary, inspiring an act of violence for which the letter is an explanation. All sense of sanctity is pared away from his project.

Worst of all, his obsession turns him into a piece of the Memory Monster, a wriggling life form that’s jumped from the awful host. Consumed by the Nazi calculation of humanity, he finds himself unable to hide his admiration for the German people and comes to agree with the student who tells his class that they must all become “a little bit Nazi” if they are to survive this world. He doesn’t fall apart, but becomes something new and terrible to behold.

Sarid has a sharp eye for the uses and abuses of Holocaust memory in Israel, but his book is more than a critique of his own country (and, of course, a good story). It’s the work of a lawyer, preparing us for the next bequest, asking: What are we planning to do with all of this?

‘The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex: The History of a Multibillion-Dollar Institution’
Lila Corwin Berman
Princeton University Press

Lila Corwin Berman gave herself the unenviable task of writing about Americans Jewish institutions and their financial maneuvers over the course of about two centuries.

Berman, a professor and the director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, writes in the introduction to her new book that she wants her scholarship to “make it impossible — or at least, an act of willful blindness — to confuse a diffuse category of people with a turgid and fraught abstraction about the totality of their power.”

In other words, she wants to make clear that her questions and findings about Jewish groups and their relationships to power in the United States are not meant to function as an “attempt to name or reify something called Jewish power,” but rather, a good-faith deeply researched study of the ever-changing Jewish interaction with power over the course of a long period. That’s a tough needle to thread. But Berman, in her furious focus on her subject, makes a clean stitch.

The thesis of the book is that American Jewish philanthropic institutions, like all American philanthropic institutions, have become a “complex” — an intentional echo of Eisenhower’s description of the military-industrial-complex in 1961. In their co-development with the modern American regulatory state, with all of its financial complexity, American Jewish philanthropic institutions have been a part of reproducing the same inequalities that the state has, Berman argues.

Jewish philanthropy, like the American financial system, has developed in such a way as to concentrate power into the hands of a small group of wealthy parties. Berman sees the movement of the U.S. economy as being in favor of capital, at the expense of democracy, and so, too, for the philanthropic bodies that, as she acknowledges, pay her salary, support the newspaper she reads, fund the public radio she listens to and fills the art museum she visits. Philanthropy is so ubiquitous that its particulars seem natural and unchangeable.

Berman sketches the history of Jewish philanthropy, relying on primary source documents and interviews with industry leaders to explain how Jewish communal wealth came to be used in its present form, a deep toolbox of donor-advised funds and endowments that, in her estimation, keep resources from being distributed as they should. Her deep knowledge of the development of American tax policy regarding nonprofits powers the book forward, and could send you looking for more to read afterward, too.

If there is a way toward a more democratic vision of American Jewish philanthropy, Berman believes, it will come with honest engagement on the subject. No matter what anyone else might think about a bunch of Jews and their money.

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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