New book, film recall life of 1920s eccentric Lev Nussimbaum
by Al Milgrom
“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” as the famous quote from Rudyard Kipling would have it. Kipling never heard of “Jewish Orientalism,” a tradition, which sees the Semitic race, Judaism and Islam, living harmoniously and looking toward a harmonious future.
The term “Jewish Orientalism” once touched off lively debate in the World War I-era of British imperialism about the role of the Ottoman Empire
and pre-Zionist Israel. The late Edward Said, in his widely read book “Orientalism,”
protested against the West’s negative stereotype of a culturally backward
Islam as menacing and irrational vis-à-vis the superiority of its own
comes the “The Orientalist,” a book dealing in part with this little-known
corner of thinking. In the guise of a strange and fascinating Jewish character
named Lev Nussimbaum, who, under the pen-names of “Kurbin Said”
and “Mohammed Essad Bey,” wrote a best-selling novel about the doomed
love between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl, “Ali and Nino,”
which encapsulates the spirit of Jewish Orientalism.
Author and New Yorker writer Tom Reiss, 43, is the literary detective in this
story of Nussimbaum, fleshed out after five years of research to discover Nussimbaum
and the mesmerizing tale of a self-created identity.
Reiss will be on hand to help present the film, “Alias Kurban Said,”
about Nussimbaum and the debate among no less than four writers who claimed
authorship of the novel. As part of the 23d annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International
Film Festival, it is among 160 films from 60 countries in this year’s
expanded fest program.
Dutch filmmaker Jos de Putter made the film based on Reiss’s l999 New
Yorker piece before it was expanded into a 430-page book.
The film, which complements the book, is narrated by German actor Bruno Ganz,
who reads selections from “Ali and Nino,” the poetic Romeo and Juliet
story. We interviewed Reiss recently about his discovery of a real-life character.
PULSE: Who was Lev Nussimbaum? What was he really like?
REISS: At his height he was a kind of jazz age/Weimar media star, a professional
“Orientalist” who liked to play up his exotic childhood, and was
part of the café society that included people like Walter Benjamin and
also the brilliant Russian exiles, like the Nabokovs and the Pasternaks. It
was during the whole “Cabaret” period in Berlin, but it was much,
much wilder and stranger than it was even presented in that film.
But what was amazing to me was that while most Jews in the 20’s and 30’s
tried as hard as they could to assimilate, Lev did everything he could to make
himself stand out. In the cafes of Berlin and Vienna he was sporting flowing
robes and a turban, and the same thing on his book jackets.
And he continued this wild career into the Nazi era, at times confusing the
Nazis so much that he had Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry writing to defend
him against another Nazi agency that wanted to persecute him as a Jew. He then
went to Italy where he became close to Mussolini’s inner circle, cultivating
a group that pushed a liberal, non-racist form of Fascism. He was either incredibly
brave or incredibly suicidal, maybe a bit of both.
PULSE: In an era when most Jews were trying to run away from fascism,
what do you think drove him to work his way back to the heart of fascist Europe,
when he had many chances to escape?
REISS: In some ways, the world Lev grew up in resembles the one we may
be facing now. The global order that had held for many decades was crumbling.
It was startling for me to realize how much terrorism was a fact of life when
Lev was growing up, even more than it is now. In a city like Baku, under the
influence of pre-revolutionary Russia, you had dozens of terrorist groups at
work—bombing buildings, kidnapping people.
was in fact in his own house in a bizarre way, because it would turn out that
his mother was secretly using her husband’s money to fund Stalin and the
other Bolsheviks. So for the rest of his life, Islam and some of the wilder
politics he would get into were his refuge from all that.
All his Orientalist dreams and disguises were ways of making sense of and escaping
the violence—the Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire, World
War I. He came to see Islam as the ultimate Third Way between bloody ideologies
like Communism and Nazism, and the bloodless consumer culture of America (symbolized
by his father-in-law, a Czech shoe millionaire who became a Hollywood producer).
He converted to Islam when he was 18, and to him it was a faith of languorous
government and ethnic diversity, represented by a romanticized view of his native
Caucasus and even more so by his time spent in the last gasps of Ottoman Constantinople.
It’s bizarre in today’s climate to think of the call to Jihad as
an appeal for tolerance and a counterweight to violent extremism, but that is
exactly how Lev saw it.
PULSE: In uncovering the story of a forgotten man, you also uncovered
a great deal of forgotten history. What are some of the surprises you found?
REISS: Some of the American connections to Hitler and Mussolini are bizarre.
For example, Hitler’s first press secretary Putzi Hanfstangl turns out
to have been a Harvard man, class of ’04, who played in the college band.
In his memoirs, he describes how Hitler would go wild with excitement when Putzi
played the football marches and recounted how the hysteria the pep rallies could
whip up in the stadium—Fight Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight! Later Putzi
turned against Nazism and helped Roosevelt, but he always claimed that that
was where the inspiration for the “Sieg Heil!” chants and the mass
Nazi rallies came from—the Harvard-Yale games.
But for me personally, it was fascinating to discover that for almost a whole
century before the founding of the State of Israel, there was this strong identification
felt by many Jews in Europe for Muslims and the Islamic East in general. Many
of the early Zionists felt a deep kinship for their “oriental cousins”
the Arabs, who, as Disraeli famously put it, were “merely Jews on horseback.”
There was this idea that the return of the Jews—not only to Palestine
but to the broader Muslim world in general—would bring on a kind of modern
Jewish-Muslim symbiosis. The reason so many German-Jewish synagogues built in
the 19th century were “Moorish” in style was because of this dream
of pan-oriental unity—this idea of symbiosis. But you also had all these
Jewish experts in Arabic translating the Koran and promoting Muslim revival.
I was having lunch with a Pakistani newspaper editor while working on all this
and, by way of making a point about liberal, educated Islam in South Asia, he
recommended to me the greatest English translation of the Koran, by Muhammad
Asad. I believe I gave the man the shock of his American visit when I told him
that the great Muslim scholar and statesman he knew as “Muhammad Asad”
was in fact born Leopold Weiss and was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who converted
to Islam on a trip to Arabia in the 1920s. “If you were to publish that
in Pakistan,” the editor said, “about the man whom every educated
Pakistani considers the greatest Koran translator, you would start riots.”
There are many characters like that that I write about in “The Orientalist.”
PULSE: You seem to have resurrected Lev’s life from oblivion.
Why do you think you were able to solve the puzzle of his life after it had
remained a totally confusing mystery for so long?
I’d come along at exactly the right time—the last possible moment.
Often I arrived just in time to meet someone—if I’d come a year
later it would have been too late. In England, I found the woman who’d
discovered “Ali and Nino” in a postwar Berlin bookstall and done
the first translation of it into English in the 1960’s. But she was in
the hospital, having just had two strokes, and she was unable to communicate
with anyone because she’d lost her power of speech.
I showed up at the hospital, which was an open ward, like something out of Dickens’
England—where she was driving everyone crazy, howling all the time because
she couldn’t express herself… but then I tried talking to her in
German. And it turned out that somehow, the strokes had knocked out her English,
her main language for almost fifty years, but she hadn’t lost her first
language, German. She was shocked that she could answer me that way, and talking
to her I found out that she’d changed her identity herself—she’d
been a stage dancer in the Third Reich with an entirely different name.
Part of writing this book felt like detective work 101, just following every
lead, most of them being dead-ends since I’m dragging up a case that was
closed a half a century ago. But every now and then I would have a breakthrough,
and it just kept happening. ||
The film “Alias Kurban Said” will be shown 9:30 p.m. Wed.,
Apr. 6, and at 9:45 p.m. Fri., Apr.8, at the McNally Smith Auditorium in St.
Paul with a book signing to follow, and 5:l5 p.m. Thurs., Apr.7 at Bell Auditorium
at l7th Ave. and University Ave. SE, in Minneapolis. See MNFilmArts.org
for more details.