Phyllis Chesler and Old Vienna

Phyllis Chesler is one of my favorite writers. Certainly my favorite pro-Israel feminist defender of reality and common sense.

She has just posted a couple of short pieces about the loss she feels, as a true Manhattanite New Yorker seeing urban cultural sites disappear or be coopted.

In “Old Manhattan Still Standing, But Owned By Others” she laments the new ownership of the Waldorf Astoria, the Carlyle Hotel, and other landmarks now foreign-controlled by alien cultures. In “Old Manhattan Has Disappeared before My Eyes” she mourns the loss of Horn and Hardart Automat, which I remember from a brief young visit.

She sparked another memory when she mentioned Schraffts, “a genteel women-only preserve which served elegant little sandwiches and desserts (and where I kept to myself and studied while in graduate school.)” I had read of Schrafft’s somewhere (probably in the New Yorker, which I read cover-to-cover way back in high school), though never been there (“women-only”?) But the image rang a faint but poignant bell. What was it?

Buchmendel! One of Stefan Zweig’s mournfully beautiful short stories about old Vienna, and what the death of a civilization looks like.

The title character is an old antiquarian bookseller who operated out of a table in a Vienna café. Zweig weaves together the story of a vibrant city and culture in its dying days, and makes it the backdrop for the life and death of an individual man.   Mendel is a remarkable jewel set in the living-its-final-days culture, instantly transformed into a dirty discarded beggar in the aftermath.

The Café Gluck, Jacob Mendel, and cosmopolitan Hapsburg Vienna before, during, and after the First World War; it is, like all of Zweig’s works (and life), unutterably and beautifully sad.

And it could easily be transposed, with few changes, into a story set in today’s Manhattan.

Anyway, check out Dr. Chesler if you are not familiar with her.

 

 

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