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!
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • 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.