The Arty Semite

Jewish Novels From the Finnish Saul Bellow

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

The modern history of Finland’s Jews, who during World War II fought on the Nazi side to combat the Russians, is genuinely surreal. It seems appropriate that the leading novelist of Finland’s tiny Jewish population — today estimated at around 1,500 people — should be equally expressive of a surrealist sensibility.

Daniel Katz, born in 1938 in Helsinki, is a prolific author, whose books have been translated in many languages, but not English. His 2009 story collection, “The Love of the Berber Lion,” was published on March 9th by France’s Gaïa Editions, in French as “L’amour du lion berbère.” Its offbeat sensibility follows in the tradition of his previous books, such as 1969’s “When Grandpa Skied to Finland”, an autobiographical novel in which his grandfather Benno goes through the First World War unscathed but then is injured when a mohel’s knife slips during his grandson’s bris.

“The Love of the Berber Lion” contains stories such as “The Weight of Words,” playing with the story of the 18th century Lithuanian rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Asher Gunzberg, known as the Shaagas Aryeh, who reportedly died after a bookcase fell on him, a legend which sparked the equally undocumented tale of French Jewish composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, also said by some sources to have died when a bookshelf containing the Talmud collapsed on him.

In “The Weight of Words,” Katz’s non-Jewish protagonist, Doctor Traugott Chałupiec, collects books of Judaica which suddenly appear on the market, priced cheap, in 1938 Cracow, until a bookcase falls on him with disastrous results. In 1939, after Germany invades Poland, the now-inarticulate Chałupiec is mistakenly arrested by the Nazis as a Jew and disappears into a concentration camp.

Katz’s plots have long been equally topsy-turvy and wryly improbable. 1976’s “Death of Orvar Klein” tells the story of a Helsinki Jew whose father, Ortchik Klein, was a soldier. As his son investigates the family’s past, he learns that some questions are better not asked. The unsatisfied quest for Jewish identity is echoed in a later Katz novel, 1992’s “German Schweinhund,” translated into French as “An Eye for an Eye, a Dog for a Pig”, about Mauri, who receives a fatal diagnosis from his doctors and concocts a swindle to support his daughter after he has died; Mauri also tries to track down his father, a Jewish traveling salesman who worked as a clown in 1930s Nazi Germany.

Katz, whose books have been compared by Finnish readers to Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, is surely long overdue for English translation.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Dina Kantor, Daniel Katz

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.