Satire and the Shoah

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My Holocaust, Tova Reich’s satirical novel, was published last month to rave reviews. Cynthia Ozick struck first, writing an extended blurb in which she called the novel “a ferocious work of serious satiric genius.”

She continued: “I believe it to be one of the most penetrating social and political novels of the early twenty-first century, next to which the last century’s Animal Farm is a mere bleat.”

My Holocaust tackles the commercialization and exploitation of the Holocaust with over-the-top characters who violate political correctness (and common decency) at every turn. (In the Holocaust Museum’s visitors’ book, a tourist writes: “I enjoyed it very much, thank you for making the Holocaust possible.”)

Sounded right up my alley, frankly.

But it turned out otherwise.

The book was lauded in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, even Entertainment Weekly — but I hated it. Mind you, I almost never say that about a book. It’s hard writing novels, and of course, the only thing worse than a bad book is a malicious review. But because the book has been so widely praised — and by luminaries like Ozick — my negative two-cents can’t be too significant.

Of course, I also began to wonder: How is it that everyone loved a book that missed the mark so badly for me?

I discuss the book and some of my thoughts about it in my latest column for the Jerusalem Post, but in short: the book was too cartoonish for me. It’s so outlandish, so over-the-top that it seems firmly rooted in some alternate reality. It’s satire, of course, and I understand that, but, as I write in my column: “no matter how bombastic, satire must be tethered to the real world in some way. It must reference a reality we know in order to enlighten us with its absurdist twists.”

The Jewish American use — and misuse — of the Holocaust is ripe for satire, and yet somehow Reich’s prose doesn’t ring true.

Of course, I’m perfectly open to the possibility that the book is great for some people and just didn’t work for me, but it seemed to miss the mark so much that I began to wonder: Is it safer to love this book?

despite all the novel’s heresies, lauding the book may be the easy option. We want to believe that Reich has transcended political correctness and revealed new truths about human motivations, because if she hasn’t, she’s taken hutzpa to an altogether new place.

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Posted on May 4, 2007

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6 thoughts on “Satire and the Shoah

  1. Reb Yudel

    On the Post, your essay concludes: “It is meant to reorient us toward the authentic ethical demands of Holocaust remembrance, but instead, unfortunately, it raises new questions about the morality of memory.”

    You mean, it raises no new questions, don[‘t you?

  2. clara1

    I can’t imagine a satirical novel about the Shoa. But I will get this book and read it. I was born in ’45 and when I was 13 my mother married a lapsed Orthodox Jew. I was raised with the Shoah and have seen so many documentaries and read so many books about Shoan, that I can’t any more. I don’t see the Holocaust as satirical. I have converted to Judaism.

    Clara

  3. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Reb Yudel: I meant it as I wrote it. Given that the book misses the mark as it tosses out the Holocaust jokes, it raises new moral questions.

  4. AlexUtiug

    One of the most difficult Commandments of Torah is to “blot out the memory of Amalek”. How can it be done without forgetting what he did to us? In a sense, it is like telling the people not to think about the red monkey.

    The moral lessons of the Shoah should be learned by all people, of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. When they are learned and put to memory and are drawn upon when appropriate – then we will wean ourselves from reminding the world about it. Today, the systemic genocide in Darfur; the relentless mutual genocide in Iraq; the constant attempts to wipe out Israel being made by Hamas + Islamic Jihad + Hezbollah; the Iranian dictator’s calls for destruction of Israel, – tells me that the lessons have NOT been learned. It is too early to come out with a satire about Shoah.

    The Norman Finkelstein’s books, if memory serves me right, include, among others, denial of the ancient Jewish history in the Middle East, including stating that the archaeological digs at the Temple site have not revealed anything Jewish in Jerusalem. If I am mistaken, I apologize.

  5. The Doctor

    I remember having this discussion when we screened “The Producers” [the original version] as part of our shul’s film series. There was discussion of a boycott, because “Hitler isn’t funny, how dare Mel Brooks make jokes about Nazis.”

    Putting aside the precedent of Hogan’s Heroes [at least three of whose cast were Holocaust survivors who insisted that every episode had to end with the Germans looking like idiots] we eventually took the view that the final victory over Hitler is to be able to laugh at him; to do anything else suggests that he and his legacy still have power over us.

    I heartily support Holocaust satire and humor; it’s a sign of victory, as far as I’m concerned.

  6. AlexUtiug

    Doc, this is the rare case when I disagree with you. Satire of Hitler is one thing; satire of Holocaust is a very different animal. As much as it was appropriate for Mel Brooks to present Inquisition as funny in “History of the World, Part 1″, it would not be right to do the same to Holocaust at this point in history yet: these wounds are still septic, to use medical terminology. As far as the same director’s “Producers” are concerned, it is not Holocaust satire.

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