Book review: Nostalgic and satirical looks at the past

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The past can be viewed through a variety of lenses. Examples of the different types can be found in two recent novels: “How Sweet It Is” by Thane Rosenbaum (Mandel Vilar Press) and “Alexandrian Summer” by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren (New Vessel Press). While Rosenbaum turns a slightly jaundiced eye on Miami Beach in the 1970s, Goren cloaks Alexandria, Egypt, of the 1950s in a nostalgic haze.
If the title of the Rosenbaum’s novel makes you think of Jackie Gleason, that’s because it’s the catchphrase of the comedian whose name was once synonymous with Miami Beach. However, he’s only one of the real life characters to appear in the book. In 1972, when “How Sweet It Is” begins, Gleason is on the decline and the counterculture is on the uprise. The city faces two national conventions (Democrats and Republicans) that summer and the chief of police is determined not to repeat the fiasco of the 1968 Democratic one in Chicago. The focus of the work, though, is the Posner family – Holocaust survivors Sophie and Jacob Posner, and their 12-year-old son, Adam. In chapters that feel more like vignettes or short stories, rather than parts of a defined novel, Rosenbaum offers a clever, satirical look at Miami, with a slightly serious undercurrent.
The Posner family has faced financial difficulties since Jacob suffered several heart attacks. Sophie’s gambling ability serves as a major source of income until she comes to the attention of Jewish Mafia crime boss Meyer Lansky. His invitation to join his now elderly and decrepit gang proves fruitful for both of them. Sophie excels at a life of crime: She “made the rounds in counterfeiting, money laundering, extortion, coercion, the protection racket – even arson and insurance fraud. In fact, many of these jobs were not only pulled off by Sophie Posner – they were conceived by her, and she executed them in the high style of a seasoned criminal. Meyer [Lansky] beamed with pride over his new protégé, who was a regular gangland prodigy.” Unfortunately, she’s less successful as a parent, leaving Adam to his own devices. That’s the lesson Auschwitz taught her: that her son “must learn to live without parents,” as if he were already an orphan.
The year 1972 serves as an awakening for Adam in several ways. The hippies who invade the city give him a graphic sex education, while the racial integration of his school offers him a different view of his exalted athletic ability. Adam would prefer a more traditional upbringing, including a bar mitzvah and parents who imposed boundaries. While there seem to be no demands made on him, there is a catch: “Nothing was expected of him. He was free to do almost anything he wanted except to leave – to abandon the family, replace them with a more suitable and qualified couple, to escape from their home into one where security blankets were handed out as a matter of course.” Adam finds his solace in long runs through the city streets, which help him escape from his home and his thoughts.
Jacob does have one thing in common with his son: the need to move. However, age and the hardships he suffered during World War II have slowed his pace to a slow, cautious walk. Although it looks as if he’s only meandering through the city, he does have a destination: a meeting with real-life Yiddish writer I. B.Singer, who takes Jacob’s tales of woe and weaves them into stories. Even the bright Florida sun can’t stop the darkness Jacob feels and the nightmares that haunt his nights.
While this description makes “How Sweet It Is” sound gloomy, that’s truly not the case. The novel made me both chuckle and laugh out loud. Rosenbaum’s depiction of Miami Beach is astute and funny, offering everything from Jews kvetching because there are no good delicatessens to descriptions of the tropical summer downpours and the mixtures of nationalities and ethnicities within the city’s borders. There are also some wonderful surprises: for example, the real identity of the man who serves as the umpire for the Little League playoff in which Adam’s team takes part. My only quibble is there were some problems with chronology – some events took place out of chronological order – but the problem is so minor it doesn’t spoil the fun.
While the New York Jews in Miami Beach found a permanent home, the same cannot be said of those Jews living in Alexandria in 1951. Even though the Jewish community has been part of the city for centuries, the creation of the state of Israel threatens its existence, even though many pretend nothing has changed. This is true of the Hamdi-Ali family: They travel every summer to Alexandria and this year is an especially important one. The older son, David, will ride a horse in the races. The family who hosts them already has a connection to the Holy Land. Two of their sons live in Israel, but they can only communicate with their parents through code because the Egyptian Secret Police open overseas letters addressed to Jewish families.
While antisemitism plays a role in the story, the novel’s main focus is on daily life: the older women gathering to play cards and talk about their husbands and families; the romance between David and the host family’s daughter, Anabella; her 10-year-old brother, who has his first sexual encounters with David’s younger brother, Victor; and the history of the elder Hamdi-Ali, Joseph, who converted to Judaism after falling in love with his now wife. It’s his burning desire that pushed David to become a jockey. Passion blooms as David pursues Anabella, and Joseph chases his dream of victory.
Yet, the plot seems less important than the city itself. Goren notes that Alexandria “was rotten to the core, but its rot had roots, was saturated in history.” Colonial feudalism was still in evidence: Alexandria is “a city that lets you live like a carefree lord without being rich. Of course, you had to be European, or at least Jewish and of minimal intelligence, and even that wasn’t always a staunch demand. Money? Money was meant to be wasted on pleasures and reveling. Only misers save up for a rainy day.” Although the author is kind to the Jewish families he writes about, he also shows why the Egyptian population – particularly those who served the rich – would be unhappy with their lot.
“Alexandrian Summer” has a dreamy feel, as if Goren is looking at the past through a gossamer lense that keeps things slightly out of focus. His nostalgic view of the city makes the triumphs and tragedies seem almost unreal. However, his love for his former home is evident in every page.