The Last Jew

Written by Yoram Kaniuk (trans. from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav)
Review by Val Perry

If you’re looking for linear narrative, traditional formatting of dialogue and punctuation, and an Aristotelian plot pattern (rising action-climax-falling action-conclusion), this book probably won’t satisfy. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in experimental fiction where the fragmented and fuzzy narrative serves a deliberate purpose, The Last Jew is a very successful example to choose.

Ebenezer Schneerson has come out of the Nazi concentration camps with no memory of his family or past. Strangely, he still has vast knowledge of Einstein’s theory of relativity, Yiddish poetry, the teachings of the Talmud, and the oral histories of entire families. This repository of knowledge earns him the title of “The Last Jew,” and incites others—including a German writer, a Jewish teacher and a fellow Shoah (Holocaust) survivor—to try to profit from Schneerson’s bizarre talent. The narrative also shifts (often without warning) to the stories of others: Schneerson’s son, Boaz, a shell-shocked Hemingwayesque figure; Schneerson’s mother, Rebecca; Teacher Henkin, still mourning his son who was killed in the 1948 War of Independence. Together these voices blend into an impressionistic picture that the reader can begin to understand only after scrutiny from a distance.

The disjointed and often overwhelming nature of the prose itself (pages are often solid blocks of enormously long sentences, with no paragraph or chapter breaks) is certainly not an issue of translation: Harshav does well at conveying the confused and tortured storytelling that mirrors the sentiments of the characters and their political climate. Not a light read, though ultimately worth the effort for those interested in an insider’s view of Jewish culture and the founding of the state of Israel.