Mosaic

From the Shelf

There was a time, barely a year ago, when Mosaic was packed with lame fiction and sickly personal essays that all suffered from the same fault. Very few writers discussed matters relevant to their experience at Harvard; instead they sought "genuine" Jewish material and produced stories about shtetl culture or essays about "chasidism for today's youth." They looked back to the Central European world of their grandparents and proved, by the meager quality of their work, that Kasrilevkeh cannot inspire someone who was never there.

In splendid contrast this year's editor-in-chief, Josiah Lee Auspitz, has attracted writers who make no distinction between Jewish experience and their own. Paul Cowan is a good example. He spent six months in Israel last year, teaching school in Beersheba, an immigrant town near the Negev Desert. In a fluent article called "Beersheba: On the Frontier" Cowan analyzes the problems created by the massive influx of North African refuges into Israel. As Cowan points out, in recent years the nation's population balance has shifted and more than half of all Israelis are non-European. Assimilating these ill-clad, uneducated North Africans to Israel's westernized, Hebrew-speaking official culture is the task of decades. Cowan cites many fascinating individual cases to show the kinds of prejudice and frustration that arise when German meets Tunisian in the Promised Land. This is a remarkable article (hopefully Cowan will expand it into a book) not only because it is that rare thing, objective reporting, but also and principally because it is so original. In all the welter and multiplication of books on Israel, hardly a word touches on real social issues. Fine political reporting appears now and then, and there is a constant barrage of rosy statistics aimed at contributors to the United Jewish Appeal, but Cowan gives the reader an unvarnished look at life from day to day.

Unvarnished is hardly the word for Andrew T. Weil's extensive layman's guide to the Harvard Crimson. Although he most certainly is correct to say the Crimson is in flux, I question that he stands far enough from the maelstrom to forecast the flood's direction. And even if he were right about the passing of a golden age into something more serious and plodding, I am not so sure it would last. After all, the Crimson has always survived and benefited from both types, the Cleveland Amorys and the Anthony Lewises. Besides which Mr. Weil will have all next year to combat the wonks with his own graceful style, that is, if he can be cajoled into writing for the paper more than has been his wont.

Michael Reiss contributes what must be, for those involved in it, a controversial proposal about students who visit mental patients. Reiss maintains that volunteers who merely strike up friendships with inmates don't accomplish nearly so much as those who make an effort to lead patients back to normal life. Apparently there is a professional dispute over the competence of volunteers to help "cure" the marginally insane. Reiss claims that his experience in the woefully undermanned, underfinanced state hospital system proves that no other group besides volunteers is able to restore patients' confidence in their capacity to live outside. Reiss does not write too clearly, but his description of the status quo in state asylums is a shocking and important document. The accompanying line drawings by Marcia Roberts of Metropolitan State Hospital hardly equal the stark tone of Reiss's prose.

The only items of strictly Jewish interest in this Mosaic are a smooth and winning translation by Neal Kozodoy of a midrash called "The Death of Moses" and an adaptation of a lecture presented before the Harvard-Radcliffe Forum by Jacob Katz. Professor Katz, now visiting from the Hebrew University, is a world-famous expert on Judaism in the Nineteenth Century; hence it is a fine thing to publish him even though his command of English prose is not all it might be. His article, "Secular Interpretation of Judaism in the Nineteenth Century," will not electrify his professional colleagues, since he clearly is aiming it at a general audience, but it is a pleasantly simple account of the various intellectual movements that affected the growth of Zionism and Jews' sense of their own community a century ago.

Fred Gardner's story "Admiration" talks about the seamy side of garment worker society in the Depression. Gardner's hero is a Jewish gangster, with a heart, naturally. "Admiration" is not a world-shaking story, but Gardner writes Yiddish dialogue with accuracy and verve.

By attracting competent writers who talk about what they know, the editors of Mosaic, have produced a literate magazine that speaks both to Jews and the community at large. Best wishes to the new board; may they continue the present trend of quality.