April 16, 2015

Holocaust Survivors in Miami

In 2012 a television series called Magic City appeared on Starz Network and it ran for two seasons. It depicted the glamor and sleaze of Miami around the time of Castro’s revolution in Cuba. Inevitably the Jewish Mafia made its appearance, with its desire to control Miami as a potential hub for gambling to rival Las Vegas. Miami was also going to be a substitute for the loss of Havana as a hub of crime investment. The WASP-ish non-Jewish residents were locked in a battle for Miami’s soul (and their privilege) against the interloping Jews, and then the Cubans. There was murder and prostitution, a Jewish DA keeping an eye on a Jewish hotelier who was caught in the vice of mafia money and struggling to free himself from a noxious Jewish criminal and pervert. References to Jewish life peppered the dialogue, and it seemed every Jewish character was either having sex with or was married to a non-Jewish girl. In other words its depiction of Jews was cringeworthy and embarrassing. Jewish life had absolutely nothing to commend it. A Passover seder was different to any other banquet only in its token matzah. All of this is the setting of Thane Rosenbaum’s latest novel How Sweet It Is!

Thane Rosenbaum is a distinguished law professor. He is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society, hosted by NYU Law School. He is actively involved in Jewish life and is popular lecturer, writer, novelist, and essayist. As the child of Holocaust survivors, his earlier work had drawn on themes of dislocation and the ongoing trauma that survivors experienced and passed on to the succeeding generations. He graduated from the University of Florida, and he earned his JD from the University of Miami School of Law, where he was a Harvey T. Reid Scholar and served as Editor-in-Chief of the University of Miami Law Review. So he knows the Miami scene very well, and his familiarity with the local scene is one of the highlights of How Sweet It Is!

Into this setting he brings the familiar personae of Meyer Lansky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Fidel Castro, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Muhammad Ali. All of them were sometime denizens of Miami Beach. Jewish swimming legend Marc Spitz features prominently, and we are introduced to an atheist rabbi who bears as much resemblance to a rabbi as a drunken Cossack on hallucinogens. But we might be inclined to forgive him because he is a holocaust survivor. So too are Jacob and Sophie Posner, who struggle in their different ways to cope with life. Their neglected son, Adam, finds his own way of growing up in a context that bears a close resemblance to Hades, heat included.

Sophie Posner finds relief in gambling, and this leads her into the clutches of Meyer Lansky, who has just been extradited to the USA from Israel (that part, of course, is true). He finds his empire in disarray. He recognizes Sophie’s combination of brilliant amorality and deep post-Holocaust dysfunction. He employs her to knock his aging and incompetent associates into shape. She rises in the organization to become his consigliere. Meanwhile her husband accepts her absence and struggles to survive, himself in his own post-traumatic world. Adam turns to running and baseball, at which he excels. It is a metaphor for his desire to escape. In a scene reminiscent of Philip Roth, he stumbles on a hippy orgy in Flamingo Park the night before the Democratic convention.

I don’t know how much of all this is based on Mr. Rosenbaum’s experience of Miami and indeed parents who survived the horrors or how much on a very fertile imagination. By now you have realized that this book is a comic pastiche—highly entertaining, unpredictable, and an exercise in cross-everything in a multicultural cocoon. As such it is a novel of our times, and yet of course it isn’t because it is set some 40 years ago.

The contrast with today is significant. Miami Beach is not the same, and Judaism is not the same. Both have stabilized and established themselves. Just as the Mafia has turned to white-collar schemes, so Jewish life in America has gotten over its mad rush to escape its roots. More and more Jews now realize that either the religion takes itself seriously or it disappears. This is a requiem for an era gone by that, frankly, offered little of substance.

In satirizing that world, Mr. Rosenbaum has achieved two things. On the face of it he has given us a funny, enjoyable read and a nostalgic look at a place and a time gone by. But on a serious level, he has shown us how empty and valueless it all was. A period of transition, in many ways its aftermath was a cultural dissonance that turned too many Jews into the soulless, hollow version that Woody Allen portrays. Thank goodness we have rebounded and reestablished a Jewish life of study, conviction, and commitment that we can be proud of, instead of being embarrassed by.

This is the season of remembering--Yom Hashoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’Atzmaut--the tragedies and the triumphs. It is a time to remember that defeat and victory, humiliation and triumph, are two sides of the coin of history. For all that this book laughs at tragedy and failure. it also celebrates the spirit of life and survival.

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