The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky

by Karen X. Tulchinsky
ISBN: 1551925567

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky
by Malca Litovitz

By tracing the life of a Jewish fictional boxer, Sonny Lapinsky, loosely based on Sammy Luftspring, the Jewish welterweight hero, Karen X. Tulchinsky brings to life the character of an entire community shaped by economic depression, the rise of fascism and all the social tensions of the thirties and the war years. It is a community once closely packed into the vicinity around Kensington Market in Toronto and stretching to Christie Pits. Here, a historical riot took place in August of 1933, pitting a nascent Nazi movement, the Swastika Boys, against fighting Jews of the neighbourhood. The Moses of the title is Sonny's son, a gay historian researching his father's life with a view to writing a biography. The academically oriented son, a product of the tensions and tendencies described in the novel, provides first-person notes at the beginning of each of the five sections of the novel narrated by a different third person, much as the first five books of the Biblical Moses have received commentaries upon commentaries in a recursive, but evolving movement.
Karen X. Tulchinsky tells an interesting tale and tells it well. Sonny Lapinsky is nine years old when a fight breaks out in what is now called Christie Park during a baseball game. Four Hitler admirers unfurl a sheet illustrated with a swastika, and a group of Jewish youths from Kensington Market charges at them. The ensuing race riot lasts four hours and involves 15,000 people. Sonny's youngest brother Izzy is hurt in the violent scuffle and left brain-damaged. This opens the story to a meditation on violence in both its liberating aspect, the assertion of human and communal rights, and its potentially harmful effects in social and family relationships.
There is clearly a freeing element to the Bund, the revolutionary Jewish self-defense organization, of which Sonny's father Yacov was a member at a time of the Czarist-inspired Russian pogroms. By contrast, Avram, Sonny's grandfather, was an Orthodox Jew; he opposed violence, and believed in resignation, and acceptance of God's plans even in the face of disaster. Yacov and his group represent a departure from that, and Sonny, the boxer, goes still further in asserting his rights to life without discrimination by defying anti-Semitism and oppression of minorities.
Boxing has its beauty as a means of both character development and social advancement, and as a form of resistance. However, Sonny's war experience changes his thinking dramatically. Sonny comes home from World War II with an acute fear of firearms, and he vows never to pick one up again. Sonny's Mother expresses very movingly this other aspect of violence when it is not channeled into sport but erupts as hate:

"(Her) family is breaking apart. It is hatred that caused it all: the riot in the park, the Swastika Club, Nazis and Jewish boys acting like thugs. Her own sons slugging it out. Her husband turning to violence. It is hatred that is tearing her family apart. The only thing that will bring it back together, Sophie knows, is love."

Hatred and intolerance constitute both an enclosure and a barrier that Tulchinsky's characters must surmount. Sonny marries outside the faith, choosing an Italian Catholic mate. Izzy, the youngest son, struggles to have his special needs met in the school system. Lenny, the homosexual son, ostracized and alone, carves out a space for himself, relying on literature as guide. He reads The Great Gatsby and longs to drink champagne with his older, literary companion, Ted, the librarian at Shaw Street. Lenny faces all the prejudices of a delicate, lonely intellectual in a hard world, yet he eventually proves himself a hero in war.
The Christie Pits Riot is a microcosm of the world in the Thirties, with the rise of Hitler to the position of German chancellor. Writes Moses:

"When I read the accounts of the Christie Pits riot, they astound me. Such a paradox of innocence and evil all on the same page. On that day, Hitler was savagely enacting his plan to annihilate the Jews of Europe, all across Canada people were starvingyet nobody carried guns, you didn't have to lock your doors at night, you knew all your neighbours' names, and people watched out for you."

Thoroughly researched, Lapinsky's The Five Books of Moses brings to life an era of grinding poverty, when Toronto's streets were combed by Jewish peddlers with their push carts, a time of Jewish gangsters and boxers. The novel makes many references to newspapers and journals detailing what position each paper took on political events and issues of the time. It also provides abundant information about what life was like in the Thirties and Forties. It contains a detailed history of Canada's involvement overseas and gives a taste of what life was like in the trenches.
Tulchinsky's novel also examines the universality of faith and how it enables people from vastly different walks of life opportunities to connect: When Charlie dies, Lenny says the Jewish Mourners' Kaddish over him because he doesn't know the Catholic burial prayers. Charlie gives him his cross, which Lenny wears around his neck, symbolically entwined with a Mogen David. Meanwhile, as part of the war effort, Sam Horowitz designs uniforms in his tailor shop. Though he isn't a religious man, he sews little prayers into many of the suits. Jewish and Gentile soldiers alike appreciate having these prayers in their garments, and Lenny sews one into a Christian soldier's uniform, as a good luck talisman. Religious differences are not under-estimated but like the cross and Mogen David entwined on Lenny's neck, in this novel, they are not insurmountable.
The novel ends on a note of heart-warming reconciliation as Sonny and his father speak to one another for the first time in fourteen years. Moses writes in one of his notes:

"I hope (the book) will add to Canadian literature a small chapter, a piece of our national history, one man's story: a world-champion fighter, son of a Russian Jewish immigrant peddler, Sonny Shmuel Lapinsky, Middleweight Champion of the World from 1948 to 1954."

I read this passage and felt uplifted.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us