The Arty Semite

Stephan Mendel-Enk, Swedish Jewish Novelist

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
courtesy of Salomonsson Agency, photo Erik Nilsson
Stephan Mendel Enk

Though celebrating a Eurovision Song Contest win with their compatriots, Swedish Jews (a minority of around 18,000 people in a country of 9 million) are confronting a grim recent upswing in anti-Semitic violence. At this time of hostility, riding to the rescue is the Swedish Jewish author and journalist Stephan Yigal Mendel-Enk.

Born in 1974 in Gothenburg, Mendel-Enk published a 2010 novel, “Three Monkeys,” which appeared in German translation last fall from Ullstein Verlag and from Grasset in Paris in May. Vigorously tragicomedic, “Three Monkeys” humanizes the Swedish Jewish experience through the eyes of Jacob, a bar mitzvah boy in 1987, coinciding with The Intifada, a tension-fraught time for European Jews.

Domestic discord is interwoven into “Three Monkeys” when Jacob’s mother leaves his father for another man, with tragic results. Yet the overtone tone of the narrative is high-spirited and athletic, as might be expected from an author who is also a longtime contributor to the Swedish soccer bimonthly Offside.

The jocular tone extends to the novel’s title which refers to the simian appearance of Jacob’s family members, including a grandfather who unhesitatingly classifies everyone he sees on TV into one of two groups, Jews and anti-Semites. Grandfather pronounces, without any further justification, that “Ingrid Bergman was a Jew. Greta Garbo an anti-Semite.” The legendary Swedish soccer star Glenn Hysén is termed Jewish when he played for the Gothenburg team but an anti-Semite when he played for the national team.

Grandfather bans Christmas trees from any year-end family festivities, charging that what begins with a tree might lead to “total assimilation.” Jacob is embarrassed to hear his grandparents, of East European origin, speaking Yiddish, especially the word “fartsen” (fart): “I did not understand the point of having a word that sounded just as disgusting as the phenomenon which it describes.”

So fragile is the emotional balance of these Nordic Jews that during the 1978 Eurovision song contest, when Sweden was the only judging country to give a zero score to the (eventually triumphant) Israeli entrants, anti-Semitism is suspected. The 1978 Israeli contestants, Izhar Cohen & the Alphabeta, performed the disco-influenced “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.”

Perhaps the Swedish judges saw Izhar Cohen, an actor from Haifa, and his group, as a threat to Sweden’s ABBA. Or they might have been baffled by the song written by Ehud Manor and Nurit Hirsh, based on Bet language, an Israeli children’s game in which each syllable of a word is echoed with the Hebrew letter Bet replacing the consonant. Whether in Bet language, Swedish, or English, Mendel-Enk is a talent to watch.

Watch Stephan Mendel-Enk on Swedish TV.

Or watch Izhar Cohen & the Alphabeta’s unforgettable 1978 Eurovision prizewinning hit song, “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Izhar Cohen, Stephan Yigal Mendel-Enk

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!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • 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.