Five top summer books and where to meet the authors


Perhaps the best evidence that the baby boomers remain a crucial element of the publishing industry is the fact that so many summer books invite us to take a look back at the 1960s. Here are three authors who have something to say about that uproarious era, as well as two younger authors with surprising books about the precocious coming out of two literary lions and auto-mobile activism in Saudi Arabia. And you can meet all of them in person at upcoming events in Southern California.

Long a gloried mover and shaker in the music industry, Danny Goldberg knows whereof he speaks in his iconoclastic history of American popular culture, “In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea” (Akashic Books).

Based on his own exhaustive research, including interviews with luminaries ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert), the book drills deeply into sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and much else besides. Goldberg, for example, seeks an explanation for all of the disparate events and personalities of that seminal year — the year he (and I) graduated from high school — which included the debut albums of the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the Summer of Love in San Francisco, the murder of Che Guevara and the Six-Day War.

Goldberg will talk about his book at 7 p.m. June 14 at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.

Yet another way to approach the social, cultural and political turmoil of the ’60s is offered in Michael Leahy’s “The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers” (Harper), a history of the Dodgers as seen through the experiences of seven key players: Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills, Wes Parker, Jeff Torborg, Tommy Davis, Dick Tracewski and Lou Johnson.

The book has been honored as a finalist for the 2017 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing and has been received enthusiastically by Dodgers fans, but the book really transcends the sports genre. To his credit, Leahy has found a way to use the team as a lens through which to see and understand the stresses that were shaping an entire era.

Leahy will discuss and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. June 23 at Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.

Tracy Peacock Tynan, the child of theater critic Kenneth Tynan and novelist Elaine Dundy, grew up in the Swinging ’60s in the upper reaches of British cultural aristocracy, a scene that she evokes with wit and color in “Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life” (Simon & Schuster).

She was named after the character her godmother, Katharine Hepburn, played in “The Philadelphia Story.” Her own sensibilities, no less than the attire of her famous parents and their cronies, moved her in the direction of fashion, and she grew up to be not only a costume designer but something of a female version of Beau Brummell.

Tynan will present and sign copies of her book on at 7 p.m. July 11 at Barnes & Noble on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

Gertrude Stein, a Jewish lesbian intellectual, was an unlikely prospect for enduring literary fame, a fact that inspired Jeff Solomon to ask why both Stein and Truman Capote chose to come out in an era when other gay public figures were closeted. He answers the question in “So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein” (University of Minnesota Press), a high-spirited work of scholarship that explores celebrity gossip as well as more conventional archival sources to paint a vivid portrait of two landmark personalities.

Solomon will discuss and sign copies of his book at 5 p.m. July 8 at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.

Nowadays, a woman behind the wheel of a car is a human rights issue in Saudi Arabia, as we learn in “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening” (Simon & Schuster), a remarkable new memoir by Manal al-Sharif. She was arrested and imprisoned for “driving while female,” an experience that changed her from a devout housewife and mother into a women’s rights activist in a place where the risks of protesting can be grave. 

Forcibly circumcised at the age of 8, she was forced to seek her father’s consent to study at King Abdulaziz University and to take a job at Aramco, where she found herself to be the only woman in the information technology department. When she dared to drive a car in the kingdom, she discovered that “if you want to race with men, you’d have to do it with your hands and legs cut off.”

Al-Sharif will be featured in conversation with NPR’s “All Things Considered” co-host Kelly McEvers at 7:15 p.m. June 21 in the Aloud program of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles at L.A.’s Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St. For tickets and information, call (213) 228-7500 or visit lfla.org.


JONATHAN KIRSCH is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

7 Elie Wiesel books that show the range of his influence


Most people know Elie Wiesel as the author of “Night,” one of the first published autobiographical accounts of what life was like inside Nazi concentration camps. The book, which helped shape the American understanding of the effects of the Holocaust, has since become a staple on high school reading and best-seller lists.

But Wiesel, who passed away Saturday at 87, wrote more than 50 books of fiction and nonfiction — and not all were focused on his harrowing experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald camps. He was interested in political activism, philosophy and religion, and his books ranged from novels that question the existence of God to a journalistic expose on the plight of Soviet Jewry.

Here’s the Wiesel reading list everyone should know.

Night (1960)

Arguably the most influential book on the Holocaust, “Night” brought the atrocities faced by Jews in the concentration camps to the forefront of American consciousness. The book’s narrator, Eliezer, chronicles his hellish experience in Auschwitz through a lyric, fragmented style now acknowledged as a “genuine artistic achievement.” Young Eliezer survives the torturous labor and murderous Gestapo, but his belief in God is forever altered.

Dawn and Day (1961, 1962)

Along with “Night,” these two works form a trilogy that deals with the Holocaust and its aftereffects. Although “Night” has been variously described as a memoir, a novel and a “testimony” (by Wiesel himself), these two books are decidedly fictional. In “Dawn,” a Holocaust survivor moves to prestate Israel (what was then the British Mandate of Palestine), joins the Irgun (a predecessor of the Israel Defense Forces) and struggles with an order to execute a British officer. In “Day,” a Holocaust survivor comes to terms with his World War II experiences while recuperating in a hospital after being injured in a car accident.

The Jews of Silence (1967)

In 1965, Wiesel was sent to the Soviet Union by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. His observations on the plight of Jews there — who suffered from anti-Semitic discrimination and were forbidden to publicly practice their religion — became the catalyst for an activist and political movement in the West that eventually helped thousands migrate to Israel and other countries in the 1980s.

“I would approach Jews who had never been placed in the Soviet show window by Soviet authorities,” he wrote. “They alone, in their anonymity, could describe the conditions under which they live.”

A Beggar in Jerusalem (1970)

Wiesel turned his imagination to the Six-Day War in this novel originally written in French, which won France’s prestigious Prix Medicis award. Wiesel, who worked as a journalist in France after being liberated from Buchenwald, muses on suffering and loss through the protagonist David, a Holocaust survivor who runs into a group of beggars near the Western Wall days after the war. Their stories bring him back to his painful memories of World War II and fighting Arab soldiers in the 1967 war.

Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (1972)

Wiesel, who struggled with his faith after his Holocaust experiences, never lost his fascination with Hasidism, the ecstatic spiritual movement of which his grandfather was a follower. “Souls on Fire” is a collection of lectures on the lives of the early Hasidic masters from Eastern Europe, starting with the movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, and including storytelling rabbis and kabbalists who continued the tradition. The portraits combine history and legend, and along the way, Wiesel wrestles with the question of whether men can speak for God.

The Trial of God (1979)

This eerie story — one of the very few plays Wiesel wrote — is set in a Ukrainian village in 1649, where a Cossack pogrom has just wiped out all but two of the town’s Jews. Instead of staging a Purim play, the survivors — along with three actors — stage a mock trial of God.

Although the play is set in the 17th century, Wiesel has said he based it on an event he witnessed at Auschwitz, when three rabbis came together to indict God for allowing the Holocaust to happen.

The secret of Warren Bennis’s success


Though the size of Warren Bennis’s obituary in the “>creativity and collaboration in front of a packed house at USC.  I was sometimes challenged to keep him on topic – in his ninth decade, his anecdotes could be discursive, and nested like the tales of Sheherazade – but I needn’t have worried about holding the audience. What he said about everyone from Stephen Sondheim to Steve Jobs held the audience rapt, but as an insurance policy he’d also worn some

Gwen Edelman reappears with ‘Train to Warsaw’


Author Gwen Edelman remains shrouded in mystery.  In an age of relentless author promotion she has chosen to remain “virtually” invisible.  She has no website or Wikipedia page, and it is almost impossible to find out the sketchiest details of her personal biography.  I was able to find only one small paragraph she wrote about her frustration working as an editor and then literary agent for many years before suddenly quitting and moving to Tuscany to write her first novel.  “War Story” was the result and it received stellar reviews everywhere almost 15 years ago.  This slim haunting novel probed the lingering effects of the Holocaust on the psyche of a 60-year-old survivor who was now living in New York with a much younger woman, the child of Holocaust survivors who refused to ever speak to her about it.  After the striking success of this first book, Ms. Edelman disappeared from view and has now resurfaced with a second work, “The Train to Warsaw” (Grove Press), another slim novel that also addresses the lasting toxicity of the Holocaust for Jews.

I confess that not knowing anything at all about Gwen Edelman feels strange to me.  Unlike other critics who feel their attention must exclusively focus on the work at hand, my fascination has always lain elsewhere.  I am drawn to the wondrous ways an author’s work reflects their deepest self.  I am always looking for clues that shed light on the author and his prose; particularly in the seductive terrain that seems to combine the two.  One only has to think about the wizardry of W.G. Sebald who seems to magically be able to fuse reality and fiction, presence and absence, autobiography and fantasy, and transparency and secrecy onto a single page.  But with Ms. Edelman, I do not have that luxury.  She is a blank slate.  I have her two slim novels in front of me.  They will have to do. 

Her first novel “War Story” tells us about Joseph Kruger’s miraculous escape from the Nazis decades ago.  As a young man, he fled to Amsterdam where he was able to secure papers to get to the United States.  He never saw his parents again.  His new and much younger girlfriend Kitty is naïve and in awe of him.  They meet in a New York City bookstore and begin an intense affair.  In-between feverish lovemaking sessions, Joseph, an accomplished writer, tells her the stories of his earlier life.  At first she is mesmerized by his flurry of words believing that she finally has access to the world her parents kept from her, but she soon grows tired of his tirades and has difficulty listening to him.  She begs him to stop saying she is sick of it and he snaps at her cruelly saying “You’re tired of the war.  You.  Born after it was all over?   How tired do you think I am?”

Their relationship begins to deteriorate under the weight of his emotional baggage.  When she comments that he looks arrogant in a photograph on one of his book jackets he shouts that the “Nazis thought the way to recognize a Jew is by the size of his nose.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s all in the eyes.  You had only to look at the fearful cringing look in the eyes of the Jews and you knew what was what.  But, he went on, his voice rising, I was cleverer than that.  For months, I stood in front of the bathroom window, willing my eyes to look confident, even contemptuous.  No more Jewish eyes.”  There is a clever emptiness about much of this rhetoric.  Instead of feeling sorry for Joseph, or even curious about him, we feel defeated, as if we are watching a re-run of sorts.  Edelman’s work often seems to be little more than a messy collage of Jewish horror stories that we have all been weaned on; filled with self-loathing and false sentimentality.  Joseph becomes less real to us and more of an archetype of a “survivor” we have met countless times before; even the strange behavior traits are familiar to us; the hoarding of food and the sloppy grooming.  And the dark apartment where the blinds are always drawn.  Joseph’s monologues have a mock intimacy and a mock intensity that feign authenticity.  It isn’t enough. 

Edelman’s new book, “The Train to Warsaw,” focuses on a long married couple who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto forty years earlier.  The husband, Jascha, a celebrated writer, has been asked by a Writer’s Group in Poland to come and give a reading.  The couple have been living for decades in London, but they still feel ill at ease there, as they do everywhere; the concept of “home” and homeland” is a charged one.  His wife, Lilka, wants to return to Warsaw and is nostalgic about some of the places she went in her early childhood with her parents before the Nazi assault.  The couple has kept secrets from one another that this trip will unravel threatening the balance of their long negotiated truce. 

The trouble starts almost immediately.  When Lilka begs him to take her to a certain park she recalls, he yells “You won’t find your way back.  God knows why we’re going, he added, Didn’t we have enough?”  But in gentler moments he confides to her that he knows she wants him to be able to share more but he simply can’t.  Lilka shares with him a recurring dream she has where she sees her father in front of the ghetto wall telling her to follow him and reaching out his hand for her.  Jascha confesses that he also dreams frequently about those years, particularly about the thirst and the hunger.  She turns to him and expresses her relief that they are with one another since “Who else could we live with if not each other….Who else would understand?”  We sense Edelman herself is struggling with the difficulty of having her characters attempt to express the horrific experiences they have endured; and that words, words themselves, seem inadequate to the task. 

In this new work, Edelman falls prey to some of the same difficulties that are apparent in her earlier novel.  She is a good storyteller and has an ear for the subtle shifts in power that go on between couples all the time that are imperceptible to everyone that surrounds them; sometimes even the couple themselves.  But we remain emotionally distant from her characters; as distant as they are from one another. 

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.

Survivor, storyteller, celebrity, sage: Elie Wiesel at 85


When talking about Elie Wiesel, who turns 85 on Sept. 30, it is far too easy to fall into a list of superlatives. 

As a child who survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Wiesel witnessed more death and more horrors than most human beings ever will. A onetime journalist who wrote for Hebrew- and Yiddish-language newspapers, starting in the 1950s, Wiesel has gone on to publish more books than most writers ever do, including “Night,” which has become the second-most widely read work of Holocaust literature in the world. He’s received more awards and honorary doctorates and rarified accolades than most university professors might dream of — including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 — and has, quite possibly, met with with more world leaders than any Jew in history. 

In a wide-ranging interview earlier this year, Wiesel talked to the Journal about some of the lesser-known parts of his remarkable life, including his years working as a journalist, and he expressed concern about what he saw as an increased tendency toward violence in today’s world. Softly, speaking in a contemplative tone, Wiesel used mostly short sentences and never moved to touch the shiny platter of pastries on the table before him. 

But when I offhandedly called him a “public figure,” he swiftly shot down the characterization. 

“I don’t consider myself as a public figure,” Wiesel told me. “I am a teacher. A writer and a teacher at the same time — for me, writing and teaching are the same.”

Not knowing exactly what to make of Wiesel’s comment, I called Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who has known Wiesel well for 35 years. 

“It’s an inaccurate statement,” Berenbaum said. A professor at American Jewish University and an expert in the development of historical museums and films, Berenbaum wrote his doctoral dissertation in the 1970s about Wiesel’s work and later worked with Wiesel on the council that created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. “There’s nobody else who would argue that.”

Indeed, countering Wiesel’s humble assertion isn’t difficult; the survivor’s forceful objection to President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery, where members of the SS are buried, is but one instance of Wiesel publicly challenging a world leader. 

And wherever he goes, Wiesel is certainly accorded treatment befitting a public figure. I met him in April on the campus of Chapman University in Orange County, where he was spending his third consecutive year as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. On my way to the quiet room in the school’s main library where we were to meet, I passed a poster for Wiesel’s three staged discussions taking place during his weeklong stay there, as well as a glass case in the lobby displaying more than a dozen of Wiesel’s published books and a bronze bust of the author near the entrance to a library room devoted to Holocaust studies. 

Among today’s living Jewish leaders, Berenbaum said, Wiesel is unique. 

“Wiesel is probably the only major American Jewish thinker who is an international figure of world renown without either billions of dollars or an institutional base,” Berenbaum said. “Wiesel’s moral power base is directly related to the moral stature that has been accorded to the Holocaust, and to Wiesel as its most eloquent living survivor voice.”

Unlike, say, philanthropists Ronald Lauder or Charles Bronfman, or the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, or any rabbi one can think of, Wiesel has served as a voice for the voiceless, a voice for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, a voice against genocide, a voice against Holocaust denial — and he’s done all this on the strength of his own reputation, his conviction and his writing. 

One could liken him to others who survived totalitarian regimes and then went on to lead — figures like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel — but unlike those two men, Wiesel seems to feel, or at least project, more discomfort with his own present-day moral authority and power. 

Wiesel also rejects any characterization of him as a “Holocaust author.” 

“I’ve published 16-plus books; maybe three or four deal with that subject,” Wiesel said. “My classes? When I began my career, at City College in New York and then Boston University, only the first two years I taught what you call ‘Holocaust literature.’ I don’t teach it anymore. I don’t know how.”

Such a statement might surprise many of Wiesel’s readers, largely because most of them are very familiar only with “Night,” first published some 55 years ago in French. Wiesel is fully aware of this, of course; at Chapman, he signs the copies of what most of the undergraduates first read in high school. Indeed, some high school teachers feel so strongly about the book’s instructional value that they have their students read it twice. 

Although Wiesel says he does not cover his own writings in his classes, others who study and teach Holocaust literature have devoted years — and numerous pages in scholarly journals — to dissecting the narrative of “Night,” and have expended a lot of energy on the question of how to classify the book. 

“If you want to get Wiesel angry,” Berenbaum told me, “all you have to do is call ‘Night’ a novel instead of a memoir.”

“ ‘Night’ is not a novel, it’s an autobiography,” Wiesel told an interviewer for the Paris Review back in 1978. “It’s a memoir. It’s testimony.”

Wiesel also told that interviewer that he still had the 860-odd-page Yiddish manuscript that later became the book. Left unmentioned in that interview was the version of that Yiddish text that was published, in 1956, two years before “La Nuit,” under the title “Un di velt hot geshvign” (“And the World Was Silent”). 

In 1996, Naomi Seidman, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, closely examined the slim French volume alongside Wiesel’s Yiddish-language account, and found “Un di velt” to be an angrier work than “La Nuit,” from its first pages through to its end. 

Among Seidman’s examples: Wiesel dedicated both books to the memory of his father, mother and younger sister, Tzipora, but in “Un di velt,” he mentions his parents’ names, Sarah and Shlomo — and mentions explicitly that all three “were killed by the German murderers.” 

Seidman also noted significant differences in the ways each book reveals Wiesel’s writing process: In the Yiddish memoir, he starts to write immediately after liberation, while the French text says he started writing only after a 10-year vow of silence. 

Seidman’s article provoked much conversation and debate — at the time, Eli Pfefferkorn, a Holocaust survivor, called her close reading “an attempt to undermine the authenticity of ‘Night’ as witness testimony.” (Pfefferkorn has since told Seidman that he’s changed his mind about her article and about Wiesel.) Holocaust deniers have used the scholarly debate over discrepancies for their own dubious purposes. As for Wiesel’s own reaction, Seidman said she’s never spoken with him about it. 

“I heard he was angry after my essay was published, and tried to call him, but couldn’t get through,” Seidman wrote to me in an e-mail earlier this month. “Later I sat across from him at a dinner party, and hoped he wouldn’t catch my name.” 

Whatever Wiesel’s influence may have been before, it was Oprah Winfrey’s decision, in 2006, to select “Night” for her book club, which put the book on the best-seller list for the first time and afforded Wiesel a new level of recognition. 

The awards for Wiesel haven’t stopped coming. Named three times by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, Wiesel is set to also receive Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Medal of Distinction this year. 

At Chapman, though, Wiesel brushed off his celebrity. 

“I have everything; what can I want?” Wiesel said. “I love teaching — I have teaching obligations; I love writing — I write. What else do I need? Honors? I have enough. Pirke Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] said, ‘If you pursue honors, they run away.’ I have, thank God, all the highest honors that a human being can get. So what? Has it changed me?”

I asked — perhaps foolishly — if it had. 

“No,” Wiesel said, his voice dropping into its lowest register. Look, if Auschwitz hasn’t changed me, you think honors can change me?”

Some have speculated that those honors may have changed the way people approach Wiesel, though. 

“I have found that Wiesel tends to be ‘celebrated’ rather than questioned in any probing way,” Gary Weissman wrote to me in an e-mail. An assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, Weissman has written about “Night” and about the challenges of teaching Wiesel’s text. 

“Many are investing in treating — and experiencing! — Wiesel as a holy figure, rather than as a complex and real human being,” Weissman wrote in his e-mail. 

Weissman said he hasn’t ever spoken with Wiesel; indeed, many of those who have looked critically at Wiesel’s work nevertheless hold the man in high esteem. 

“I have met him several times, but always too briefly to receive much of an impression,” Harold Bloom, a professor of English at Yale University, wrote in an e-mail. “I regret that his writing to me seems to possess neither cognitive nor aesthetic elements that cause me to meditate further. His has been an honorable life and I respect him.” 

Even Seidman called Wiesel “a very impressive man,” and said that in her 2006 book, “Faithful Renderings,” she had revised her essay about Wiesel in ways that were “much more generous” than she had been 10 years earlier.

“I think I was too judgmental,” Seidman wrote in an e-mail.

It’s hard to stand in judgment of Wiesel, especially today, when he is received around the world in the manner of a visiting sage. Indeed, every word Wiesel says can make news — as I found on April 16, one day after the terrorist attack that targeted the Boston Marathon. At the time, very little was known about the bombers or their motives; in that environment, my reporting that Wiesel, in our interview at Chapman, had called on President Barack Obama to appoint “a special commission of educators and philosophers and social philosophers and thinkers” to investigate the attacks, instantly became news. The short blog entry was shared 700 times on Facebook; Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison asked Wiesel about the commission when she met him later that week. 

Over the course of his life, Wiesel has been approached with these big kinds of questions, and he’s addressed them in his writings. His next book, Wiesel told me, will be about a philosophy of teaching and friendship.

But even today, it’s often Wiesel’s stories that have the greatest impact on listeners. In our ranging conversation, Wiesel and I talked a lot about journalism. Long before he became a celebrity, Wiesel filed stories in Yiddish and Hebrew, first in Paris and later in New York. He told me about the weeks after Kennedy was assassinated, when he put in 18-hour days as the New York-based correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot. Back then, Wiesel said, he used to wire his stories from the offices of Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). He used Hebrew to write shorthand — and still does today. 

From that comment about handwriting, Wiesel shifted into a story of a notebook that his sister recovered from Sighet, the town where he grew up. In that yellowing book, Wiesel found an essay he had written in 1941, when he was 13 years old, called “Reflections on the Interpretation of the High Holidays Liturgy.” 

Meshugge!” Wiesel said, laughing at his former self, an ambitious adolescent, an innocent who knew nothing of what was to come. 

“All of a sudden,” Wiesel continued, “there is one page, which is out of the blue.” 

It was a record of the credit that his family — which owned a small grocery store — had extended to people in their town. 

“All of a sudden, I see there, in the store, [the name], Akiba Drumer, who takes six bottles of this and this. Another thing, another person, a whole page of names,” Wiesel said. “Akiba Drumer; I wrote about him in ‘Night.’ I described about how he came to my father in Auschwitz, he said: ‘In three days, I will be gone. Please say Kaddish.’

“And he owes me six bottles of something in this little book!” Wiesel continued with a chuckle. “So, first of all, I forgave him the debt.”

As readers of “Night” will remember, Drumer’s prophecy comes true — Google his name today and you’ll find links to notes for the many middle and high school students who have to write about the book. Wiesel, who has lived to embody the memory of Drumer and the millions of others killed in the Holocaust, is as powerful and influential as he is precisely because he can, in a few words, bring Drumer into a library’s conference room, just by mentioning a 70-year-old list of names.

But as powerful as Wiesel’s stories are, they cannot match the real-life impact of the events they relate on the man before me. I heard a story of a notebook; Wiesel feels its power. 

“I kept it,” Wiesel told me. “And I had palpitations the whole day. I couldn’t read. That little book — and I was 13 when I wrote it.”

Jewhoo!


One of the profound changes in American popular culture that emerged during the 1960s was the willingness of famous Jews to openly embrace their Jewishness rather than hiding it behind phony names and personas. That’s what David E. Kaufman playfully calls “Jewhooing” in his new book, “Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity” (

Jay Neugeboren gets reel with latest novel


“For far too long, Jay Neugeboren has been known as a writer’s writer and as the nurturing teacher of future writers,” Sanford Pinsker wrote in the Forward about one of Neugeboren’s earlier books. “It is high time for a wider audience.”

Neugeboren, in fact, has written 19 books, including novels (“The Stolen Jew”), nonfiction (“Transforming Madness”) and collections of essays and short stories. His latest novel, “The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company” (Texas Tech University Press, $24.95), is a short but exceedingly rich and accomplished yarn that offers yet another opportunity for readers to find out for themselves why he is so highly regarded among his fellow writers. 

“I could make a story out of anything back then — a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall — and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about — one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures,” muses the protagonist of Neugeboren’s new novel, an androgynous young man named Joey who grows up in the infant motion picture industry during the opening years of the 20th century.

The story begins on a cold winter’s day in New Jersey, where Joey’s father and uncles are cranking out short films, but Hollywood is beckoning. “Everyone else is out there already,” observes Joe’s Uncle Karl. “Griffith’s making features he’s gonna charge two bucks a seat for — two bucks, can you believe it? — and I’m still pissing my life away on these two-reelers. In California, we can make movies every day of the year without freezing our tushes off.”

The catch-as-catch-can mode of movie-making that characterizes the Davidoff family business is more than slightly surrealistic, but their real life is even stranger. The fate that befalls Joey’s father and mother, for example, is worthy of “The Perils of Pauline,” although the author manages to leave enough room in the story for us to keep wondering about their ultimate fate.

Joey himself is accustomed to playing both male and female roles in front of the camera, and the ambiguity of his sexual identity seeps into the rest of his life. “It never ceases to amuse me, Joey,” says his Uncle Ben, “how ordinary you can look most of the time, even when you’re in costume and makeup and I’m photographing you, and how extraordinary you look on the film itself.” Still, Joey’s ability to pass as a female turns out to be a crucial skill when the woman he loves murders her husband and asks Joey to spirit her children to safety by posing as their mother. “ALONE WITH HER SECRET” is the silent-movie dialogue card that Joey imagines at one particularly treacherous but also deeply ironic moment.

With a fondness for puns and a storyteller’s practiced sleight-of-hand, Neugeboren shows us how movie magic actually works. Joey’s cousin, a stunt man named Izzie, pulls off a seemingly unsurvivable biplane crash into a river for the cameras of D.W. Griffith, and Joey is convinced that his cousin must be fatally pinned under the wreckage at the bottom. Then Izzie pops to the surface. “Hey Griff, you know what you should do?” he calls to the famous director. “You should go fly a kike.”

The author casts a number of famous Hollywood figures in cameo roles, including Lillian Gish and Eric von Stroheim, and he makes passing reference to the future moguls who pioneered the movie business: “Mister Zukor and Mister Laemmle, Mister Loew and Mister Fox.” The woman who figures most importantly in Joey’s young life, Gloria, recalls working as a ticket-taker at Schenck’s amusement park in New Jersey: “[H]e used to cop a feel whenever he could. That was before he married what’s-her-name —” And Joey provides the missing name: Norma Talmadge.

Neugeboren also works magic in the erotic encounters that he contrives between Joey and various men and women, including, for example, a fellow “usherette” at a movie house where he briefly finds work. “We can play Houdini,” she says at one heated moment. “That’s when you get to hide inside my magic box and disappear.” Says another woman who knows all of Joey’s secrets: “Ah, you’re wonderful, Joey, you and all the cockeyed stories you got inside that head of yours,” which is perhaps the best way to describe the act of conjuring that this enchanting little novel represents. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Comedy writer Sol Weinstein dies at 84


When I first moved to California from Philadelphia in 1978, Leon Brown, editor of the Jewish Exponent, told me to look up his friend Sol Weinstein. 

I already knew of Weinstein, as I had one of the books in his “Israel Bond Oy-Oy-7” series, “Loxfinger.” I did connect with him, and over the last 34 years, I was proud to be his friend.

Weinstein was born and raised in Trenton, N.J. In the 1950s, he wrote for his local newspaper, The Trentonian, before turning his sharp wit to comedy sketches and songs for variety show performers. He married Eleanor Eisner in 1955, and they had two children, David and Judee.

He started writing gags for Joe E. Lewis, Alan King and, years later, for Bob Hope’s and Dean Martin’s shows. His show-biz pals were Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly and Dom DeLuise.

In 1962, Weinstein wrote the ballad “The Curtain Falls” for Bobby Darin’s act, which the singer used as his finale for years. The song was also recorded by Hope, and Steve & Eydie, and was featured in the Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea.”

Weinstein conceived his Israel Bond capers, starting with “Loxfinger,” in 1965. The series of four books — including “Matzohball,” “On the Secret Service of His Majesty, the Queen” and “You Only Live Until You Die” — sold more than 400,000 copies and gained him national exposure.

In the ’70s, Weinstein moved to Los Angeles and wrote for such television shows as “The Love Boat,” “The Jeffersons” and “Three’s Companywith writing partner Howard Albrecht. 

Weinstein moved to New Zealand in 2002 to be near his son. He was a real mensch, fun to be with, funny, he loved jazz, loved being Jewish and speaking Yiddish, and he loved life itself. 

Of his writing partner, Albrecht said, “Sol was the most interesting, knowledgeable, talented — but, more important, the most gentle — man I have ever known.”

Weinstein, writer, composer, jazz fanatic and sweetheart, died of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 25 in his home in Plimmerton, New Zealand, surrounded by his loving family. He was 84. 

Predeceased by wife, Eleanor, Weinstein is survived by his daughter, Judee; son, David; and granddaughter, Eleanor. 

Kenny Ellis is cantor of Temple Beth Ami, a Reform synagogue in Santa Clarita.

Frankfurt ripped for honoring scholar who backs Israel boycott


Protests are mounting against plans by the city of Frankfurt to honor Jewish-American scholar Judith Butler, a staunch critic of Israel.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany and the political activist group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East are among groups that have slammed the city  for choosing to honor Butler with its Theodor W. Adorno Prize on Sept. 11. The $63,000 prize is awarded every three years for “outstanding performances in the fields of philosophy, music, theater and film.”

Butler is a supporter of the United States Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel and also participated in the Canadian Israeli Apartheid Week in 2011.

Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council, reportedly called the choice of Butler, whom he said supports boycotts against Israel but considers Hamas and Hezbollah legitimate social movements, “outrageous.”

But Frankfurt Deputy Mayor in Charge of Cultural Affairs Felix Semmelroth, a member of the board that decided last week to honor Butler, said in a recent statement to JTA that the board of trustees at its May 30 meeting was “of the unanimous opinion that the Adorno Prize should go to Judith Butler for her comprehensive work on gender theory.”

Semmelroth wrote that “the incriminating statements that are now coming out were not the subject of discussion [by the trustees] and were clearly unknown to them; and they also don't change anything regarding the importance of the work of Judith Butler.”

Planners of a protest demonstration called for Sept. 11 in Frankfurt also circulated a petition in which they noted, among other things, that Butler boycotts universities in Tel Aviv — an official partner city with Frankfurt — “but has no problem delivering lectures at the Bir Zeit University, which evidence shows is dominated by supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Butler defended herself in a Sept. 1 editorial published in two German newspapers, saying that she did not take attacks from German Jewish leaders personally. Rather, she wrote, the attacks are “directed against everyone who is critical against Israel and its current policies.”

Frankfurt's mayor, Peter Feldmann, the city's first Jewish mayor since 1933 and a member of the Social Democratic Party, was not involved in the decision to honor Butler. His predecessor, Petra Roth, of the conservative Christian Democratic Union Party, was on the board that chose Butler.

Adorno (1903-1969), for whom the prize is named, was the son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father. He survived the Third Reich in exile and returned to become one of Germany’s foremost sociologists,  philosophers and art critics, particularly known for his criticism of fascism and for his writings on the Holocaust.

Authors return to scene of Israeli espionage


We think we have some important stories to tell, and thus we returned to the subject of Israeli espionage. Our first effort in that field was a book in 1990 titled “Every Spy a Prince.” Twenty-two years later, we spoke with more people and got more stories — about recent events, but also new details about important operations going back to the beginnings of the Jewish state in 1948.

We are not surprised that the news media put their focus on our description of Israel’s covert activities aimed at stopping — or at least slowing — Iran’s nuclear program. Many of those were accurate, if brief, summaries of what we reported: notably, a news article by the Associated Press on July 8.

We had mixed feelings, therefore, when The New York Times gave our book significant attention on July 11. The headline atop a full column on Page A8 said: “Tehran Abuzz as Book Says Israel Killed 5 Scientists.”

Several of our friends said there is no such thing as bad publicity when one has written a book and it is just out, and the project thrives or languishes depending on how much attention it can get.  

Yet the wording of the Times article would lead newspaper readers to think we were accusing Jews in Iran — where approximately 25,000 still reside — of participating in secret Mossad missions, including assassinations.

The article says that our book contains the “assertion” that five scientists were killed in Iran “by operatives, most likely of Persian Jewish heritage, employed by Mossad …”

We do not want to attack the reporter, who had contacted us with only two questions this week: Could he rapidly have a free, review copy, to help the Times Foreign Desk possibly write an article that might mention “Spies Against Armageddon”? And did we or our publisher have any plan to translate the book into Farsi, the language of Iran?

We feel, however, that while the main thrust of his article turned out to be reporting what the news media in Iran are saying about our book, he himself distorted what we wrote. We are not suggesting that it was intentional, but there were some exaggerations and too much certainty — whereas we were cautious in suggesting what might be true about covert Mossad operations in Iran.

In a carefully worded passage on Page 14 — in our first chapter, “Stopping Iran” — our book says: “The Mossad also had a human treasury: Tens of thousands of ex-Iranians now lived in Israel. Iranian Jews had fled, especially just after the 1979 revolution, and many of their children also were well acquainted with the Persian language and customs. Individuals who were brave enough — and then selected and trained by the Mossad — could move back to Iran and secretly serve Israel.

“Israeli operatives inside Iran were available for all kinds of espionage and even, if and when the time came, for pinpointing targets for air strikes.”

We were not reporting that the assassins in 2007-2012 were Persian Jews returning to their homeland. We said that the Mossad “could” call upon the repository of ex-Iranians as well as other Israelis in the secret agency.

The Times article also mentioned “the book’s assertion that the assassins were all Mossad agents who used agency safe houses maintained inside Iran since the era of the shah.”

Again, we carefully report in our book that the Mossad has had safe houses in Iran since pre-1979 days, but we don’t report that all the assassins stayed in such houses.

The key paragraph on Page 13 of our book speaks of “possibilities.” We do not claim to know or to reveal how the assassins traveled or where they stayed:

“Naturally, no one in Tel Aviv was talking about any operational details of how Israelis entered and left Iran — or where they stayed while inside the Islamic Republic.

“There were many possibilities. Obviously, Israeli operatives traveled using the passports of other countries, including both bogus and genuine documents. That fact had been inadvertently revealed several times, over many years. In addition, the Mossad continuously maintained safe houses in Iran, dating back to the pre-1979 years under the Shah. That was an investment in the future, typical for Israeli intelligence.”

The Times article then caused some discomfort to some Persian Jews in the United States — and we heard from some — when it stated that our book contains “assertions about the assassins’ nationalities or religious beliefs …” We never discuss their religious beliefs. Yes, their nationality is Israeli. We do report that, and we explain that against the background of Mossad operations that penetrated enemy countries in decades past.

Our book treads carefully on some very sensitive territory, but we would like to think that we got the balance right. It is the historian’s job to tell readers what happened and to set it in context — and as historians of the espionage world, we further endeavor not to endanger anyone by revealing too many details.

Let us be clear, and we have written about this elsewhere and will continue to do so: Israel’s Mossad does not use local Jews as agents, saboteurs or assassins. Bitter lessons were learned more than half a century ago in Egypt, Iraq and other countries, where early operations by Israeli intelligence sometimes did use local Jews— and, if caught, the individuals were hanged, and their entire communities suffered official retribution from the Arab regime.

The use of Jonathan Pollard, an American with a high-level security clearance in U.S. naval intelligence, as a spy for Israel was an aberration. The Mossad would not have hired him. It was a separate agency, Lakam (the Science Liaison Bureau), that ran Pollard — who is now serving a life sentence for an operation that most Israeli officials and intelligence professionals believe was a mistake.  

The Mossad, we believe, would have known not to put the important American Jewish community in peril — not the least, American Jews working in U.S. defense and intelligence jobs — by employing Pollard.

To read the Associated Press and New York Times articles mentioned above, visit:


Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent based in Washington, and veteran Israeli intelligence reporter and commentator Yossi Melman are co-authors of the new “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.” They also wrote the best seller “Every Spy a Prince.” They blog at IsraelSpy.com.

Hungarian Jews seek removal of anti-Semitic writers from curriculum


Hungarian Jews urged the government to take four anti-Semitic authors off the national high school curriculum.

Hungary’s opposition Socialist Party, meanwhile, pleaded with the prime minister to curb the “revival” of anti-Semitism in the country.

The authors—Istvan Sinka, Dezso Szabo, Albert Wass and Jozsef Nyiiro—“spread hatred and anti-Semitism during their lives,” the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary wrote in an open letter to the Ministry of Culture.

“It is unacceptable that their writings be taught to the young Hungarian people,” the federation added.

In May, members of the Hungarian parliament planned to attend a reburial ceremony in Nyiiro’s honor in Romania, but the Romanian government blocked the plan. A priest and writer, NyiIro was an outspoken anti-Semite.

The Hungarian Socialist Party focused on the commemoration of pro-Nazi figures in a separate open letter sent June 22 to the prime minster, Victor Orban.

Socialist Party chairman Attila Mesterhazy wrote that Hungary was experiencing a “serious moral crisis” triggered by the government’s “revitalizing of the historic crimes of the Horthy era.”

Over the past year, several municipalities have named streets after Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian Quisling, or Nazi collaborator. Elsewhere, statues were erected in his honor. Under Horthy, some 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths in Nazi death camps.

The Socialist Party called on Orban to “stop the strengthening hatred and the revival of the cult of anti-Semitism.” The letter urged Orban to prevent the Budapest municipal assembly from going ahead with a plan to erect a statue honoring the anti-Semitic Catholic bishop Ottokar Prohaszka.

Last Friday, 50 U.S. congressmen wrote to Orban to express concern over anti-Semitism in Hungary. The past months have seen a succession of anti-Semitic incidents there.

‘Prime Ministers’ author to speak in Beverly Hills


Ambassador Yehuda Avner, who served as a diplomat, speechwriter and prime ministerial adviser in Israeli governments from the 1950s to the 1990s, will speaking this weekend at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. Avner wrote “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership” (The Toby Press, LLC, 2010), a 700-page opus based on notes he took while serving as adviser or secretary to five prime ministers. The book, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards in 2010, is now being made into two motion pictures.

Avner will speak about “The Jewishness of Israel’s Prime Ministers” on May 19 at 11 a.m. during Shabbat morning services, which begin at 9 a.m. Israeli Consul General David Siegel will introduce Avner. A lunch with Avner is already sold out, but he will address the public again at 6 p.m., when Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance, will moderate a conversation with Avner about the U.S.-Israel relationship as seen through encounters between U.S. presidents and Israel’s prime ministers. All events take place at Beth Jacob, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd. Signed copies of “The Prime Ministers” will be available for purchase before or after Shabbat at Beth Jacob.

For more information, go to

‘Where the Wild Things Are’ author Maurice Sendak dies at 83


Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of the children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are,” has died.

Sendak, who wrote and illustrated more than 50 children’s books, died Tuesday at the age of 83. He reportedly had suffered a stroke on May 4.

[JewishJournal.com profiled Sendak in 2002, read it here.]

Sendak grew up in Brooklyn the son of immigrant Polish Jews and told the Associated Press that he spent his childhood thinking about the children dying in the Holocaust in Europe. “My burden is living for those who didn’t,” he told the AP.

Sendak, who did not attend college, became a window dresser for Manhattan toy store FAO Schwarz in 1948. A self-taught illustrator, he was commissioned to illustrate the book Wonderful Farm” by Marcel Ayme in 1951, and in 1957 began writing his own books.

In 1964, the American Library Association awarded Sendak the Caldecott Medal, for “Where the Wild Things Are. He received the international Hans Christian Andersen medal for illustration in 1970, and in 1983 he won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association. President Bill Clinton awarded Sendak a National Medal of the Arts in 1996 for his body of work.

U.S. author Eggers will not accept Gunter Grass prize in person


American author Dave Eggers said he will not travel to Germany to accept a literary prize from the Gunter Grass Foundation.

Eggers said in a statement that the organizers should have postponed the award ceremony following the controversy over Grass’ recently published poem claiming that Israel is endangering world peace by threatening Iran.

“I felt it best if I did not attend in person,” Eggers said in a statement issued by his German publisher. “The issues raised in Grass’s recent poem are not issues I am prepared to speak about, and I would have been expected to comment on them repeatedly.”

Eggers was awarded the Albatross Prize, which includes a cash award worth about $56,000, for his 2009 novel “Zeitoun,” about a Syrian-American man’s experiences after Hurricane Katrina. Israeli author David Grossman is a past recipient of the prize.

Eggers had requested that the prize money be given to German organizations that work on interfaith dialogue, Haaretz reported.

Grass, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, was declared persona non grata and banned from ever entering Israel following the publication of his poem earlier this month in Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and other international papers.

Opinion: Wolpe vs. Beinart


Announcing his new book in a hucksterish e-mail to J street members, Peter Beinart details the truths vouchsafed to him and his fellow enlightened acolytes. A brief sampler:

“I’m looking forward to being with all of you at J Street, since you understand that an American Jewish community that sent its sons and daughters to Mississippi when African Americans were denied equal citizenship merely because they were not white cannot turn away when millions of West Bank Palestinians are denied rights simply because they are not Jews.”

“Finally, it [Beinart’s new book] offers an agenda for what American Jews — especially young American Jews — must do if we don’t want to be the generation that watches the dream of a democratic Jewish state die.”

“The great Jewish question of our age is whether a people who for millennia lived as strangers — and spun visions of justice that inspired the world — will act justly now that we wield power.”

The parade of self-confident sophistries is confounding. “Denied rights simply because they are not Jews.” Beinart’s phrase elides a torturous history of renunciation, rejection, terror, promises of annihilation and, well, war. It places the entire burden of the conflict on the Israelis, inhabitants of the only state in the world whose existence is constantly questioned and threatened. It turns what has been a painful (and, to be sure, sometimes brutal) occupation of a population, with agonizing options on both sides and blood-strewn sidewalks, into the thinly veiled implication of racist oppression. If you said the reverse, that the Arab nations made war on Israel “just because they were Jews,” you would have a more supportable sentence.

I’ve read Beinart’s writings, heard him speak and always thought him smart and thoughtful, even when I disagree. But now, the pen of the propagandist is masquerading as prophet.

The second quote is more appropriate to an oracle than an analyst. “Must do” is not “what I believe we should do” or “what I think Israel needs.” This is not punditry, but revelation. It characterizes those who disagree with Beinart as the destroyers of democracy — pretty dramatic rhetorical overkill. My guess is he has been watching too many Republican debates.

Is there no room for honest dissent? I am no fan of the settler movement. I agree that two states is the only just and workable solution. But (and this is where we apparently diverge) I acknowledge I could be wrong about how to get there. We agree that Palestinians have suffered terribly. An end to the current impasse is urgently needed. But Beinart’s certainty about the ends of equality and statehood has frozen into lockstepping the means, and dictating acceptable attitudes. There are thoughtful, kind people who disagree. Many of them, I suspect, do not aspire to raze democracy. This e-mail is an end-zone dance, a strutting lack of humility.

What is the principal concern of the letter? The good fortune of the author: It begins, apropos the timing of his book, “Sometimes you get lucky.” Its guiding metaphor? The Jewish participation in the black civil rights movement. Its driving assumption — that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is the “great Jewish question of the age.”

Yet Mr. Beinart, this is not the great Jewish question of the age. It is a great and important question, to be sure. But when a nation struggles with the threat of being vaporized in a nuclear conflict, to call its policies on the West Bank and Gaza “the great question” is myopic at best. (It also is somewhat ironic to call it the great Jewish question and not cite a single classical Jewish source. So let me repair the omission: Talmud Bavli, Berachot 4a: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’ ”) Does Beinart, does anyone, imagine for a moment that reconciling with the Palestinians will persuade Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stop weaponizing high-grade plutonium?

The prospect is not theoretical. Here is one of any number of statements from Iran’s president: “Nations in the region will be more furious every day. It won’t take long before the wrath of the people turns into a terrible explosion that will wipe the Zionist entity off the map.” Dead nations have no ethical dilemmas. Still, to Beinart this is not Israel’s principal problem, perhaps because there is no useful analogy to be made between Ahmadinejad’s resolve to destroy Israel and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

Invoking the civil rights movement is an act of unhopeful audacity. (J Street as the NAACP? I wonder which Palestinian leader is Martin Luther King Jr.; let us dream of the time children will be off of school for Abu Mazen Day.) Comparing the Israeli struggle with the Palestinians to the American civil rights movement not only erases historical distinctions, it wields a grotesque historical analogy as a club to beat the political position with which you disagree. It is dispiriting to read this from a former editor of The New Republic, a venerable and important magazine. Is Israel not nestled among enemies? America changed radically in response to 9/11; surely we can sustain some flickering awareness of what it must be to exist surrounded by nations that dream of wreaking such havoc each day? I wonder how this letter would strike the schoolchildren of Sederot.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a historic tragedy. Israel has sometimes done bad, misguided, even terrible things. But it lives every day knowing that peaceful coexistence is for many a stepping stone, not an endgame. This makes the dilemma of deciding how to conduct Israeli policy more difficult than the bromide blast of Beinart’s e-mail suggests. Reading it makes me want to go down on my knees and beg for the same commodity that I beg for when reading or hearing screeds from the far right: Nuance, please. Complexity, please. Humility — for God’s sake, please.

My children do not patrol the borders. They do not dismantle unexploded rockets. They do not walk gingerly into cafes, always wondering, always fearful, even in quiet times. There aren’t too many bomb shelters in Westwood. When I express my opinions about Israel’s conduct, which I do, this reality is foremost in my mind. There is a penalty for choosing not to live in Israel: A certain diffidence, a willingness to listen and appreciate the result of a democratic process, even when one disagrees with the result. A corresponding reluctance, at least, to demonize the elected leaders of the Jewish state. 

Beinart’s e-mail represents what is wrong with the debate: It is smug in its dismissal of Israel’s leadership and grandiose in presenting one view as the sole salvation of that beleaguered nation’s honor. Peter Beinart raises crucial, abiding issues. Then he compares those who take a different view to racist destroyers of democracy. This is not debate. This is not dialogue. This is demagoguery. He is better than this and we must be, too. In Pirkei Avot, Avtalion warns sages to be careful with their words. The warning applies to those who are not sages, as well.

David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook/RabbiWolpe.

Christopher Hitchens, contrarian who embraced and battled Judaism, dead at 62


Christopher Hitchens, the atheist and iconoclast who discovered in adulthood that he was of Jewish descent, has died.

Vanity Fair, where much of Hitchens’ work appeared, announced his passing late Thursday night on Twitter. He was 62 and suffering from esophageal cancer.

Hitchens, born in Britain but more recently naturalized as an American citizen, emerged from the British left in the 1970s, joining the New Statesman as a journalist.

He pursued some of his targets for decades, urging a war crimes indictment of Henry Kissinger for his role in the Nixon administration as an architect of its policies in Indochina and Latin America.

He also sought to debunk the aura of saintliness that surrounded the late Mother Teresa.

Hitchens had a complicated and evolving relationship with Israel and Judaism.

Regarding Israel, he allied himself in the 1970s and 1980s with Palestinian nationalists and called himself an anti-Zionist.

As an atheist, he engaged with Judaism as he did with other faiths—with disdain for what he saw as a corrupting, malign irrationalism.

Yet in later years it was his inclination against religion that seemed to moderate his views on Israel.

He developed a grudging appreciation for a democracy in a region he saw burgeoning with radical theocrats.

He also detected among some of his fellow Israel critics a tendency toward anti-Semitism, as much as saying it was an element driving the thesis of overweening pro-Israel influence in “The Israel Lobby,” the 2007 book by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

“Mearsheimer and Walt belong to that vapid school that essentially wishes that the war with jihadism had never started,” he wrote in Slate in 2006 of the essay that was the basis for the book. “Their wish is father to the thought that there must be some way, short of a fight, to get around this confrontation. Wishfulness has led them to seriously mischaracterize the origins of the problem and to produce an article that is redeemed from complete dullness and mediocrity only by being slightly but unmistakably smelly.”

Hitchens was 38 when his maternal grandmother revealed to his younger brother Peter that she was Jewish.

He told The Observer in 2002 that the revelation “thrilled” him—living in Washington, he had acquired a passel of Jewish friends. Moreover, he had had a dream of being on the deck of a ship and being asked to join a minyan.

Despite his rejection of religious precepts, Hitchens would make a point of telling interviewers that according to halacha, he was Jewish.

Hitchens’ proclivity, his insistence on pleasing no one but himself, was evident this summer when his target was a small group of pro-Palestinian activists aiming to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip on the anniversary of the Israeli raid on another flotilla that claimed the lives of nine Turks and earned Israel international opprobrium.

He could not resist tweaking Israel for a tendency to blunder into confrontation.

“Since Israel adopts a posture that almost guarantees a reaction of some sort in the not-too-distant future, and since there was such a frisson of violence the last time the little fleet set sail, there’s no reason for it not to become a regular seasonal favorite,” he wrote in Slate.

But then he went on to note the activists’ ties or sympathies with the Hamas-led government in Gaza, also noting Hamas’ embrace of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

“This disgusting fabrication is a key foundational document of 20th-century racism and totalitarianism, indelibly linked to the Hitler regime in theory and practice,” he wrote. “It seems extraordinary to me that any ‘activist’ claiming allegiance to human rights could cooperate at any level with the propagation of such evil material.”

He continued: “The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn’t seem too adorable.”

Christopher Hitchens: A rabbi remembers a friend and fellow debater


In his brilliant history of early modern England, “The Ends of Life,” historian Keith Thomas quotes a translator named George Petrie who wrote in 1581, “The only way to win immortality is either to do things worth the writing, or write things worth the reading.”  Christopher Hitchens is, by this reckoning, twice immortal.

On the page his words leapt to life.  Can you imagine a more subtle, devastating takedown than his famous comments on Jerry Falwell? “If someone gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox.”  The infuriating thing about debating Hitchens was that such ripostes were not the fruit of long, diligent thought. He thought in epigrams, and even in conversation there were quotable lines expressed in his deep British voice, his “instrument,” as he called it, given heft and tone by years of oratory, scotch and cigarettes.

The difficulty in debating Hitchens was not only the readiness of his wit and the range of his reference.  Alongside his learning was an unusually rich experience of life.  He was filled in equal measure with adventure and erudition.  He had traveled to most of the dangerous (as well as glamorous) spots in the world and could give you pointers not only on the government, but the best bars in every city from Paris to Port au Prince.  After a dinner of drinking others under the table, he could rise, knock off a 2,000 word essay on the fiction of James Joyce, and then retire for what remained of the evening.  His was a prodigious, unflagging energy sprung from deep gifts.

We had vigorous disagreements, to say the least.  Not only in our debates, where we wrestled over the reality of God, the worth of religion and the possibility of an afterlife.  I also recall pressing him on his long-standing opposition to Israel.  As he got older and became a staunch opponent of militant Islam, his stance toward Israel softened, but Hitchens was not a man for backtracking.  Even his late discovery of his own Jewishness (which “delighted” him) did not change his hostility to the one place on earth that otherwise – as I tried to point out to him without effect—embodied the values he held most dear.

But I have wonderful snapshots of his charm and kindness: urging me to drink beer before our debate (“it’s only water…”), warning me before we stepped on stage that he would never compliment me in public, instructing me in a long car ride on the fine points of different scotches, the skill of P.G. Wodehouse, and a steady stream of stories about the famous and infamous. The flow of Hitchens talk was unstinting, and he did not “save” his best stories, since the reservoir had no bottom.

Hitchens won my daughter’s heart with his first introduction to her when she attended the debate in Los Angeles moderated by The Jewish Journal’s editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman.  He bent down to greet her (she was then 11), stuck out his hand and said “Hitchens here.”  She felt instantly that he was unique.  Of course, I, as her father, listening to him proclaim during the debate that the only prayer he ever offered was for an erection, hoped that the introduction – and not the priapic theology—would be her lasting impression.

I have one keen regret.  Hitchens and I had planned to visit Concord together after our Boston debate, and it would have been a feast to see the graves of the Transcendentalists, of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott and the others, with a lover of literature who was at the same time unalterably opposed to the reality of the unseen.  He had never visited and was eager to go.  But his daughter’s graduation coincided with the only day I could visit, and so I went alone and sent him pictures.

The world was more colorful and better critiqued when we had Hitchens scathing wit to scour our less-careful pronouncements.  (I recall watching him once on TV, when a defender of Hillary Clinton said, after a Hitchens assault, “Well that’s your opinion.”  Hitchens instantly replied, “Well of course it is. It would be fatuous to invite me on to spout YOUR opinion.” Ouch.)  He will be missed. 

Rabbi David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings on facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

Ragen loses plagiarism suit


Israeli author Naomi Ragen lost a plagiarism suit regarding her best-selling book “Sotah.”

The Jerusalem District Court ruled Sunday that Ragen, a Jerusalem-based writer, was in breach of copyright with “Sotah” because parts closely resembled the 1990 book “Growing Up with My Children: A Jewish Mother’s Diary.”

The court awarded the complainant, U.S.-born author Sarah Shapiro, approximately $250,000 in damages.

Ragen deplored the ruling, and was quoted in the Israeli media as saying that while she may have been inspired by Shapiro’s book, it was not tantamount to plagiarism.

Israeli author booted from Marseilles panel


An Israeli author was kicked off a panel discussion in Marseilles at the request of the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish.

Moshe Sakal, the author of “Yoland,” which was shortlisted for the 2011 Sapir Prize for literature, was removed Monday from a discussion of the Arab spring at a conference of Mediterranean writers, Haaretz reported.

French-Jewish author Pierre Assouline, the director of the conference, said Sakal’s participation in the panel “was not crucial.”

Darwish had apparently said that he would participate in the conference as long as he did not have to sit with any Israelis at roundtable discussions.

Describing the reaction to Sakal’s dismissial, Assouline said, “Half of the crowd got very angry, and the other half was thrilled.”

“I entered the hall just as [Moroccan poet] Tahar Ben Jelloun was speaking forcefully against this type of boycott,” Sakal said to Ha’aretz. “He said that there are many Israeli authors who are supportive [of the Palestinian cause] and one should speak to them even if one doesn’t approve of current Israeli politics.”

“There were hundreds of people there and there were a lot of hecklers,” Sakal said. “People were very upset.”

Author promotes moderate faith for Iranian Jews


After their immigration to Southern California more than 30 years ago, the majority of the area’s Iranian Jewish community poured their energies into re-establishing themselves financially. Following their success, some Iranian Jews have turned their attention to promoting philanthropy in the arts, education and Israel in recent years.

Nourallah “Norman” Gabay, a semi-retired Iranian-Jewish businessman, is one of perhaps a dozen older individuals in the community who has been using his wealth to promote Jewish education and values, among Jews and non-Jews alike.

A resident of Beverly Hills and a founding member of the Magbit Foundation, the 82-year-old Gabay authored and self-published “An Invitation to Reason,” a 2009 Persian-language book that suggests Iranian Jews should reject religious extremism and follow a traditional yet moderate form of Judaism instead.

Gabay said his main motivation in writing the book was to address a divisiveness and sectarianism that has taken root within his community, which he says has strayed from 2,500-year-old Iranian-Jewish traditions.

“I wrote this book to better inform our community and our society of the neglected dangers of the status quo, and to help prevent the further spread of such irrational divisiveness, or even sectarianism,” said Gabay, who poured approximately $80,000 into editing and publishing the book.

For centuries, the Jewish community in Iran followed a traditional religious practice that might best be described as “Conservadox.” After their immigration to the United States, Iranian Jews split among the movements of American Judaism — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — a gradual division that Gabay says has often caused great strife among tight-knit families in the Iranian-Jewish communities living in Southern California and New York.

Despite the fact that Gabay has no formal rabbinic or religious training, he has not shied away from this controversial topic. He says that the children of immigrant Iranian-Jewish families have been particularly vulnerable, and that Chasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities have encouraged Iranian-Jewish youth to follow a religious path radically different from that of their parents.

“In effect, this small group of preachers were tearing apart these families at a particularly vulnerable stage in their lives and, by extension, they were destroying the unity of our community, rather brutally,” he said.

In the book, Gabay issues a call to action to adopt a rational approach to religion in order to build stronger communities and a more ethical world for Iranian-Jewish children and grandchildren.

Gabay says the book’s message can be applied to any faith. And if he were to rewrite the book today, he says he wouldn’t single out a specific religion.

“Instead, I would just write about extremist religion as a whole,” he said. “I think that each one of my readers can find certain points in my arguments which would align along their own convictions and beliefs.”

Since its first printing, Gabay has sold nearly 3,000 copies among local Iranian-Americans of various faiths through word of mouth and at an event organized last year by the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization.

Earlier this year, Gabay published an English-language version of “An Invitation to Reason,” which is intended for younger Iranian Jews who were unable to read the Persian-language edition. Gabay has also made both versions of the book online as a free download on his Web site, babanouri.com, and the English-language version can be purchased on Amazon.

For their part, many of Los Angeles’ Iranian-Jewish community members said they were supportive of the book’s main theme, which promotes harmony among Jewish families by embracing the traditional customs followed by Iranian Jews.

“Everyone whom I have given Mr. Gabay’s book to read has told me that they have enjoyed its refreshing message of embracing what is positive among about Judaism,” said Nasser Mogeemi, an Iranian-Jewish businessman living in Studio City. “We live in America and it is inevitable that our young people will be lured to other faiths, so we need to avoid pushing them away from Judaism with fanatic religious customs.”

Gabay acknowledges the often-vast religious difference among local Iranian Jews but said he would like his book to begin a positive dialogue between parents and their children as well as among religious leaders. He hopes his work will inspire the community to openly discuss how to unite and find common ground.

Read more of Karmel Melamed’s interview with Nourallah Gabay online on his blog:

Author charged in Jewish online dating scam


American author Mitchell Gross was indicted for allegedly scamming women he met on an online Jewish dating service.

Gross, 61, of Marietta, Ga., pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges when he was arraigned late last week in federal court in Atlanta, according to reports.

He has written novels under the pen name Mitchell Graham that include a trilogy of fantasy fiction books, “The Fifth Ring,” “The Emerald Cavern” and “The Ancient Legacy.”

In 2006, according to the indictment, Gross met two women on an unnamed online Jewish dating service and bilked them out of $4.4 million, convincing them to invest in a fake company he set up.

McEwan defends decision to accept Jerusalem Prize


British author Ian McEwan defended his decision to accept Israel’s Jerusalem Prize.

Writing in the the Guardian newspaper Wednesday, McEwan admitted his concerns “about Israel and the situation of the Palestinians, which is worse than ever.” However, he maintained that he would go to Jerusalem to accept the prize, Israel’s highest literary honor for foreign writers.

“I’m for finding out for myself, and for dialogue, engagement, and looking for ways in which literature, especially fiction, with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides,” McEwan wrote.

The author of “Amsterdam,” “Atonement” and “On Chesil Beach,” McEwan is one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary writers. He was responding to a letter in the Guardian two days before from British Writers in Support of Palestine, a group which supports the cultural and economic boycott of Israel. The group said its members “deeply regret” McEwan’s decision to accept “this corrupt and cynical honor.”

In defending his decision, McEwan invoked previous recipients of the prize, which is given biennially to an author whose works best exemplify the “freedom of the individual in society.”

“As for the Jerusalem prize itself, its list of previous recipients is eloquent enough. Bertrand Russell, Milan Kundera, Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, Simone de Beauvoir—I hope BWISP will have the humility to accept that these writers had at least as much concern for freedom and human dignity as they do themselves. Their ‘line’ is not the only one. Courtesy obliges them to respect my decision to go to Jerusalem, as I would theirs to stay away.”

Author Ian McEwan to receive Jerusalem Prize


British author Ian McEwan was chosen to receive the prestigious Jerusalem Prize.

The biennial prize, which will be awarded next month in a ceremony on the opening night of the Jerusalem Book Fair, is Israel’s highest literary honor for foreign writers. The award is given to an author whose works best exemplify the “freedom of the individual in society.”

McEwan is the author of “Amsterdam,” “Atonement” and “On Chesil Beach.”

Previous Jerusalem Prize winners include Japanese author Haruki Murakami in 2009, Arthur Miller in 2003 and Susan Sontag in 2001.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel dead at 96


Pulitzer Prize-winning author, radio host and activist Studs Terkel died in his Chicago, Illinois, home today at the age of 96.

Ed Rampell interviewed him for The Journal in 2006:

In Studs Terkel’s newest book, “And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey” (The New Press, 2005), America’s preeminent oral historian once again collects his conversations with celebrated people, as he did in his 1999 book, “The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With the People Who Make Them.” This son of Jewish immigrants has covered a broad swath of the 20th century through broadcasting, recording and transcribing in numerous books and Q-and-As. His subjects range from the rich and famous to the broke and anonymous.

“They All Sang” brings together interviews from a half-century of taped conversations with prominent musicians, composers, lyricists and impresarios done for his radio program on Chicago radio station WFMT, with which Terkel has been affiliated since 1951. Reached by phone at the station, Terkel, 93, is as great an interviewee as he is interviewer.

The book includes many Jewish subjects. Bob Dylan noted in 1963 how the Cuban Missile Crisis influenced his lyrics for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” predicting “there’s got to be an explosion of some kind.” Ukrainian-born impresario Sol Hurok discussed “music for the masses.”

Aaron Copland, who composed distinctly American works, such as “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Billy the Kid,” told Terkel following a trip to the Soviet Union: “It’s easy for artists of different countries with different political systems to get together and completely forget about the political systems during the time that they’re talking about art. In that sense, music is universal.”

And in an interview with Leonard Bernstein, the maestro muses on music, politics and Broadway, which seemed like a good place to start this interview.

 

The Jewish Journal: What is the Jewish influence on the American musical?

Studs Terkel: Oh my God! Overwhelming! How can you even discuss it without Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ choreography in “West Side Story?” And of course “Candide.” And then you’ve got Lorenz Hart and Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow.” The lyricists and composers—you’ve got yourself a whole testament there.

Marc Blitzstein wrote “The Cradle Will Rock” during the WPA days, when the New Deal saved our society. [The Works Progress Administration] provided jobs in the arts—theatrical, art and music projects. “The Cradle Will Rock” was a pretty tough, pro-labor play, about Steeltown. Blitzstein was very much influenced by Bertolt Brecht and [Kurt] Weill.

I once took part in a Chicago production of “The Cradle Will Rock,” [portraying] Editor Daily, who is owned by Mister Mister, who owns the town. And Bernstein started singing along with me. He knew all the words [and] was always pushing other people.

They were going to celebrate Bernstein’s 70th birthday in New York and make it the biggest celebration since Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, and he said “no”—he wanted to celebrate in Lawrence, Mass., his hometown, because Lawrence was the hometown of the famous general strike of 1912. Out of it came the song, “Bread and Roses Too.”

 

JJ: What is the Jewish contribution to classical music?

ST: For Jews in the arts, there’s always been this connecting link. There’s [Lithuanian-born violinist] Jascha Heifetz., [soprano] Rosa Raisa, for whom Puccini wrote the opera, “Turandot.”

 

JJ: Tell us about your Jewish background.

ST: My mother came from Bialystock, near the Russo-Polish border, a very cosmopolitan town decimated by the Nazis. My father came from a suburb [and was] a tailor. Chicago is the biggest Polish population of any city outside of Warsaw.

 

JJ: Has Judaism influenced you?

ST: Of course it has. That’s a baby’s question. Of course it played a tremendous role. My father voted for [Socialist Party candidate] Eugene V. Debs for president. Of course, there’s anti-Semitism. Of course, there’s anti-everything. There’s always nativism. At the moment, it seems to be more [about] color, than anything else.”

 

JJ: You interview the salt of the earth, as well as the celebrated. Where does your compassion for common people come from?

ST: [At my mother’s] men’s hotel, there’d be arguing back and forth. I love the idea of arguments and debates. These were IWW [Wobblies] guys; the anti-union guys in the lobby called them IWW, meaning “I Won’t Work.” Of course, it meant Industrial Workers of the World.

And I loved those arguments. They were heated, full of four-letter words, but at the same time, there was something exciting. There was argument, debate—and we hardly have that these days. We just sit there, paralyzed or catatonic, watching the TV.

The word “couch potato” is a TV-originated word, never heard that in radio days. People would listen. Radio was made for Franklin D. Roosevelt—the Fireside Chat was made for him. He spoke not to millions—that’s the secret—he spoke to one person.

 

JJ: Like Copland, Harburg and [Zero] Mostel, you had a brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism. Your 1949 NBC-TV series, “Studs’ Place,” was thrown off the air.

ST: I was blacklisted, but I found out women’s clubs were great. They’d pay me 50 bucks, 100 bucks, to talk about folk songs or whatever. This one Joe McCarthy guy, a legionnaire, threatened them for sponsoring a subversive: me. They all ignored him completely.

But one very elegant old woman was so furious at this guy that instead of paying me my agreed-upon $100 fee, she doubled the payment. I sent [the red-baiter] a $10 check as an agent’s commission, which he never acknowledged.

 

JJ: During the 1950s, when you worked for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s radio program, you refused to sign a loyalty oath a CBS executive presented.

ST: I don’t believe in that stuff—at that time, I was influenced by the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers, who batted 1.000 on human rights, on everything. Mahalia told the executive: “If you fire Studs Terkel, you tell Mr. So-and-So to hire another Mahalia Jackson.” Nothing happened. We did the whole 26 weeks.

The moral is to say “bugger off” to your public [or] private servant, to disagree with him—no matter how big he is. That’s how our country was founded.

 

JJ: Throughout the decades, you’ve been associated with progressive causes: The New Deal, unionization, anti-fascism, civil rights, anti-war, etc. What do you think about the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe?

ST: The fact is we were unprepared for this, [we had] no money for this, because it’s going into our military endeavors. Our mal-adventure—I love that—to bring democracy to Iraq. What a joke. But now we’re catching on. It was based upon a lie—weapons of mass destruction.

The New Deal is being hacked to pieces by the current Republican administration; people’s sense of history is being challenged. We’re suffering from a national Alzheimer’s disease.

 

JJ: What makes you tick?

ST: Curiosity, how do people think. What makes them do certain things. I want to find out what happened way back in the past; how it affects us in the present.

 

JJ: What is the art of the interview?

ST: My biggest asset is my vulnerability. The fact that I’m called “the poet of the tape recorder” is a joke. I’m very inept when it comes to mechanical things. I’m worse at tape-recording than a baby is. I can’t drive a car. I’m just starting to use the electric typewriter, which is a tremendous advance to me.

The computer age is a mystery to me completely. Sometimes, a shoemaker, truck driver or waitress helps me out, because I may have pressed the wrong button, which I do on occasion.

That’s how I lost Martha Graham, the great dancer; Michael Redgrave, the actor; and almost lost Bertrand Russell [when] I visited him during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 at his cottage in north Wales. He asked to hear my interview with [Summerhill educator] A.S. Neill, and I almost recorded Russell’s interview over Neill’s.

 

JJ: Any other advice?

ST: Let the guy finish his sentence. You’ve got to listen more. Let there be pauses, silence and then more comes out. Let it ride.

Ed Rampell is the author of “Progressive Hollywood, a People’s Film History of the United States” (The Disinformation Company, 2005).

 

 

 

AUDIO: Interview with author Rebecca Goldstein




Eric Tomb talks with Rebecca Goldstein about her philosophical studies Betraying Spinoza: Ther Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Goedel and novels The Mind-Body Problem, Mazel and Properties of Light. He then talks with her daughter Yael Goldstein about her first novel Overture. Booktown 30 April 2007 (April 30, 2007) From public radio’s KVMR-FM in Nevada City.

Author: Eric Tomb
Date: 2007-04-30
Keywords: KVMR-FM Book Program

As she remembers it


Do you write from memory? Someone always asks, and I become tongue-tied and uncertain, scrambling for the words, the ways to make believable what I know will sound bizarre — a too-complicated response where all that is required is a simple “Yes” or “No” or “Sometimes; the rest is research.”

I lived in Iran for only 13 years. I remember very little — a handful of places, a couple of dozen friends and relatives. Yet, I’ve spent my entire career writing about the country and its people, and I’ve written it all — this is the part that’s difficult to explain — from memory.

“There were always two of us,” I want to say when someone asks me where my novels come from — “Back then, in Iran, in that place where all the stories began, where all the men and women, the ghosts and legends and bitter, half-invented truths that made up our daily reality lived and died in grand, spectacular, forever tragic ways.”

There I was, the child who engaged and enjoyed, who accepted, as the innocent would, without questioning, without doubt or judgment, the stranger-than-fictional world she was born into, who passed through those years unscathed and unscarred, bearing few memories and even fewer attachments, crossing easily, effortlessly, over to a life in the West. And then there was that other me, that silent, invisible, forever-present part of me that watched and remembered. That other one, the one who’s silent except when I write, saw the things I could not bear to see, felt the emotions with a force that I, as a child, could not withstand. It is she who remembers and who tells, who tries to bring together the scattered pieces of time, the shattered bits of lives, glue them into a canvas and, in the retelling, make them whole.

I remember our house, its grand, almost theatrical beauty — high brick walls and hand-painted, gold-leafed ceilings, freshwater pools with statues of mermaids and dolphins rising in the shade of hundred-year-old trees — in the midst of a city that had grown too fast, become too unwieldy too soon. I remember my grandparents — the men angry and disappointed, the women quietly resigned. My parents — young, beautiful, determined to break out of the life of tradition and obedience they had been born into. My two sisters — green-eyed, golden-haired, quiet as angels and equally helpless.

She remembers the rest — the friends and strangers, neighbors and long-lost cousins, desperate salesmen on one last call for the day, wiry old tax collectors bearing suitcases that were empty when they arrived, filled with cash and other valuables before they left — the tales they told or that were told about them, the grudges they bore, the triumphs they boasted of.

I remember what was — our little elementary school with the green painted gates and the play areas that were reserved for boys, the principal who walked around the yard wearing stilettos and carrying a horse whip, two feet of snow in the winter, sweltering sidewalks in summer.

She remembers what wasn’t — the kindness we didn’t see from our teachers, tolerance from our elders, gentleness from a landscape, a climate that, although breathtakingly beautiful, showed no mercy to the weak.

I remember what I wished for — good grades; my parents’ approval; the white pleated skirts and gleaming sharp colored pencils and scented erasers that my friends brought back from America every summer.

She remembers what I feared — to fail in school and therefore be barred from going to university; to fail my parents and therefore become, like all those other girls whose stories I heard as a child and that I would write about in my novels, a source of shame and infamy to my own children and theirs; to fail among my peers and therefore become, like the runaway aunts my mother told me about who, try as they might, could not conform to the mores of the day and had to leave or be driven out of their hometown, never to be allowed to return.

I do write from memory — yes — I want to say to those who ask, but my memories are few and uncomplicated. It’s the shadow in the back of the room where I sit to write, the voice I hear only when I see the letters appear on the blank screen, the child who refuses to grow up lest she forget to bear witness — it is she whose memories I write from.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). This month’s column previously appeared in Jewish Book World.

Authors explain Jewish influences on their works


The Jewish Journal invited writers who will be featured at Sunday’s Festival of Books to answer the simple, essential question that every Jewish writer is often asked: “What Jewish sources — ideas, writings, traditions — inspire you, and how do they show up in your work?”

The following show that there is no easy answer to what defines a Jewish author, but there is no question that there’s much to draw upon within the faith.

Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket)

The Jewish sources that have most affected my work are stories of my father’s family leaving Germany in 1938, for the usual Jewish reasons that one would leave Germany in 1938. And the independence of suffering from redemption — in other words that you’re not rewarded for behaving well, and you shouldn’t behave well because of a possible reward.

These seem to me manifestly Jewish ideas, and it is pretty easy to find them in my work. I’ve written 13 books about terrible things that happen to children who do their best to behave well. This is arguably an encapsulation of Jewish history in its entirety.

Novelist and screenwriter Daniel Handler is perhaps best known for his 13-book children’s series collectively known as “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” penned under the pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. Under his own name, Handler has published three novels, “The Basic Eight,” “Watch Your Mouth” and “Adverbs.” An accomplished musician, Handler has played accordion on a number of recordings, including “69 Love Songs” by The Magnetic Fields.

Anita Diamant

Having written six books about Jewish practice — from weddings to birth, from conversion to mourning — it’s pretty clear that I have been inspired by the way Judaism gives expression and shape to the fluid and ineffable cycle of human life. As a journalist and adult Jewish learner, it was a pleasure, as well as a challenge, to translate the wisdom and joy of our tradition into a contemporary idiom.

The other major inspiration I find in Jewish life and letters is our history of debate. The ongoing, sometimes sublime and sometimes silly, argument found in even our most sacred books (Talmud, et. al.) gives me, as a liberal Jew, a sense of belonging to a grand, ongoing and ever-changing wrestling match with the past, with the sacred, with one another.

Anita Diamant is the author of six handbooks of Jewish life and life-cycle events, including, “The New Jewish Wedding” and “Choosing a Jewish Life.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of her first novel, “The Red Tent,” based on Chapter 34 in the Book of Genesis, but told from Dinah’s point of view. Her latest novel, “The Last Days of Dogtown,” is set in Massachusetts in the early 1800s and chronicles the lives of a group of society’s cast-offs in a poor, rural community. For more information, visit www.anitadiamant.com.

Kirk Douglas

When I was writing my last book , “Let’s Face It,” Peter, one of my sons, said, “Dad, don’t make it too Jewish.” It’s hard for me to obey him, because being a Jew is, as Cole Porter would say, “Deep in the heart of me.”

The history of the Jews fascinates me. We are only about 13 million in number, way out of proportion to what we have accomplished in life and what we have contributed to the welfare of people in so many areas. I am proud of that. And yet, anti-Semitism grows.

Being a Jew is a challenge. It’s often said, “Schwer zu sein a Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). To me, it’s been a challenge that I try to accept gracefully, and it has given me many rewards.

Actor, producer, director and author, Kirk Douglas was born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in Amsterdam, N.Y. He was a wrestler at St. Lawrence University and worked as a bellhop to put himself through school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Douglas’ books include “Dance With the Devil” (1990); “The Secret” (1992); his autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son” (1988), and “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning,” which will be published by Thorndike Press in March.

Gina Nahai

The sources that inspire me are the men and women whose lives I try to render in my stories. They’re the people I grew up with or that I grew up hearing about. I watch them now as I did then and describe what I see, hear them, and write what they say. I don’t invent so much as reveal, don’t comment so much as bear witness. I think a writer’s job is to tell the truth as she sees it, and, having done that, be prepared to defend what she has said.

I’m an Iranian Jew, and most of the people I write about are Jews. I don’t pretend to capture an entire history or to portray an entire nation. I don’t believe that’s possible. But I do believe that by telling the truth of an individual’s life — a personal truth — one can arrive at a universal understanding, and this is what I aim for.

Gina Nahai’s novels include “Cry of the Peacock” (1991), “Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith”(1999), “Sunday’s Silence”(2001) and her new novel, “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam/Cage, 2007). A lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at USC, her writings have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Magazine. Her column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

The most important Jewish inspiration that I have is the Torah, and especially great characters of the Bible. I am moved whenever I read of the kindness of Abraham, the struggles of Jacob, humility of Moses and the daring and commitment of King David and righteousness of Hebrew prophets.

Discovering these great men in the Bible fills my Jewish spirit with passion and inspiration. It is especially moving to learn of those who embody the patriarchs. In my life, a great inspiration was the Lubavitch Rebbe, who lived with the passion to serve my people and spread the word of Judaism to all corners of the world.

I’ve never had real heroes


If you grew up as I did, on more than one continent and surrounded by people of different faiths, you know what I mean when I say I’ve never had real heroes: For every truth in one place, I’ve encountered doubt in another; for every icon in one culture, I’ve met iconoclasts in another.

As I look back, I realize that the only public figures I have admired and perhaps trusted were authors — those authors, that is, who wrote about the time and place they lived in, whose purpose was to discover the truth, bear witness, unveil secrets, no matter what the cost to themselves or others. Most of these authors — Albert Camus, Marguerite Duras, Oriana Fallaci — lived through World War II. Most of them explored the mysteries of the human soul — how it’s at once capable of great kindness and unspeakable cruelty, how it tends to shy away from taking ownership of its sins.

Among them, of course, was Gunter Grass, Germany’s greatest author since World War II, who wrote “The Tin Drum” and a dozen other books; who has dedicated his career and his public life to exposing the dark corners of his nation’s psyche, making sure it doesn’t forget, doesn’t rationalize, minimize or move on from — the Holocaust.

Grass has been quick to denounce hypocrisy and deceit anywhere he has found it, and he has done so with a vigor — some would say brutally — that has not softened with his advancing age. He has pointed a finger at the mighty and the weak; deplored the lack of moral righteousness in Europe and the United States. Most of all, he has held his own people accountable for crimes against humanity. As recently as 2002, he wrote, in “Crabwalk”: “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.”

Born in 1927 in the then-German city of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), Grass had, until this year, always maintained that he was recruited by and served in the German army in the last days of the war, but that he was not a part of the SS. He made a point of this, in fact, when he spoke in Israel in 1967: “You can tell by the date of my birth that I was too young to have been a Nazi but old enough to have been molded by [the Nazi] system. Innocent through no merit of my own, I became part of a postwar period that was never to be a period of real peace.”

That he refused to take credit for not having joined what he calls the “Nazi system” is one reason he was admired the world over — enough to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s also one reason he has been denounced so vehemently in some circles by what he revealed this year in his memoir, “Peeling the Onion,” that he had, in fact, willfully joined and served in the Waffen SS during the war, that he did so in spite of opposition from his parents, that he had admired Hitler and never believed the stories about concentration camps until later, during the Nuremberg trials.

Suddenly, the man who has made a career out of digging for truth in other people’s lives turns out to be a liar himself.

In the memoir, he speaks movingly of the suffering of the German people during the war, while admitting that it paled in comparison with that of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. He talks, with not a trace of self-pity, about how he suffered from hunger and loss and fear, how he lived as a refugee for years after the war, how he learned later that his mother had been raped repeatedly by Russian soldiers.

Perhaps, understandably, he stands at a safe distance from the young man whose story he has set out to tell, reminding the reader often that he is not — doesn’t even recognize — the 15-year-old who joined the Hitler Youth. He says he was called up by the SS only when Germany had lost the war and never actually fired a shot. He says he kept silent about his past because he was ashamed. He says that his confession now, when he is 84 years old and near the end of his life, is impelled by a conscience that has weighed on him from the start.

Publicly, Grass has insisted that his books and his involvement in German politics for over half a century should serve as proof that he had learned the lessons he has tried to teach others; that he should be judged for all the good he has brought to the world through his work and not for his personal conduct.

No wonder he wrote in “The Tin Drum”: “I expected more from literature than from real, naked life.”

Do I believe him?

I’m not sure. But I don’t think it matters. Too old, perhaps too cynical myself to look for heroes anywhere, I think Grass has taught us, through his own life, a lesson that transcends his influence as an individual.

Asked to comment on the Grass controversy, Italian playwright Dario Fo, also a Nobel laureate, responded: “Pity the land that needs heroes.”

It is true that Grass has brought much good into the world by his writings. It is also true that his late-in-life revelation calls into question or, depending on your point of view, entirely invalidates his right to the high moral ground he has for so long occupied. But in doing so, he has proven to those of us who have followed his life and career what he says he learned as a POW after the war: That no truth is ever entirely true, that what we revere today may become indefensible tomorrow, that the wisest path through life is to distrust certainty and instead to walk, in Grass’ own words, “the long route, paved with doubts.”

Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel, “Caspian Rain,” was published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.

On the tricky question of ‘who is a Jew[ish writer]?’


I do not know who qualifies as a Jewish writer.

If you wish to count the non-Jewish John Updike because he created a Jewish protagonist (Henry Bech) or if you include genetically Jewish Muriel Spark (who converted to Catholicism and wouldn’t know a box of tefillin or a bag of knishes if it bit her on her now late, lamented nose) it is OK with me.

You may choose to call William Styron a Jewish writer for penning “Sophie’s Choice,” and not Harold Pinter, because his Judaism consists in reviling anything Jewish.

There are some clear cases — I. B. Singer in, David Foster Wallace out — but otherwise, I’m going to leave canonization to the anthologists.

Having avoided writing an essay that has been written too many times, I am free to create my own categories. I hope I can convince you that if Judaism and literature are close to your heart, you should engage in the same exercise.

First category, hosannas for a new and wonderful group: Jewishly literate women. They are very different in feel, but writers like Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Allegra Goodman, Nicole Krauss, Ruchama King, Rebecca Goldstein and many others share a knowledge of Judaism without an apparent resentment of it. They are not uncritical, but they are also not beleaguered. This is a relatively new combination in most American Jewish literature, excepting the wondrous Cynthia Ozick. These women are not pushing against the tradition because they do not live in a society where the tradition is pushing against them. Their prose can be coolly witty (Goodman), mystically charged (Horn), elegantly cerebral (Goldstein), and all the while their stories weave in and out of Jewish contexts. I note the parallel, more finicky and double-edged development in England of whom Naomi Alderman and Charlotte Mendelson are the outstanding examples.

Not only are the books unangry (why is that not a word?) but the Judaism in them points beyond itself. Myla Goldberg’s popular “Bee Season” used kabbalah to suggest something that would not be easily earned without the propulsion of tradition. Here is a phenomenon that the Chaim Potok generation never knew — Judaism as liberation. Danny Saunders, the haunted Chasidic progeny of “The Chosen,” had to see a sculpture to know rapture. Today his sister would get an aliyah.

There is a certain liberation in writing as a Jewish woman because the tradition is not so imposing. When you read a modern male counterpart, gesturing rudely behind his back are Saul Bellow, the Roths (Philip and Henry), Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and on and on. Augie March, Bellow’s wide-eyed lover of the close and far, explorer of his fresh-faced country, is a marvelous creation, but you cannot recreate him. March’s eagle’s feathers have long since molted and turned into Art Speigelman’s “Maus.” Too much pain, too much historical experience and too little societal friction against the artist. The novelist with an immigrant voice, like Gary Shteyngart, can also use the excess of wonderment that Bellow shares with earlier Jewish writers like Stanley Elkin and Mordecai Richler and, for that matter, S.J. Perelman. But that is the prose of exhalation, hard to create if your breathing was never confined in the first place.

A lot of writing has turned intensely personal and memoiristic because with such an open country, the only unfair chafing that the artist receives is at the hands of parents when young. Tales of abuse have little larger message. What constrains the Jew in America? During the Cold War, Philip Roth quipped that in the West everything goes and nothing matters, while in the East nothing goes and everything matters. Perhaps the intense solipsism of much of Roth’s writing is explicable not as a character defect, or not that alone, but also as a reaction to a world in which he cannot struggle against the bonds that would limit him as an artist.

A result of this damnable freedom, some major Jewish writers, as Sylvia Barack Fishman has pointed out, choose other settings to create the story. Michael Chabon creates a fictional Alaska where constraints still apply. Nathan Englander goes to Argentina, where threats are still real. Jonathan Safran Foer goes to an Eastern Europe where the ghosts still reign. For many writers, perhaps for all, the Houdini principle applies: In order for one’s art to reach maximum potency, it has to begin in chains.

So modern Jewish literature is afflicted by category confusion, following the pattern of Ring Lardner’s horseman, who jumped on his steed and rode off in all directions. Much of it draws on the power of the past; Nicole Krauss’ “History of Love” is a palmipsest, where the modern love story is charged with the electricity of what came before. Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” uses the immigrant experience and so does Ozick’s “Heir to the Glimmering World.” The writing of Thane Rosenbaum and Melvin Bukiet reprises Holocaust themes, often to powerful effect. But who brings news of today? Is there news to bring? Sept. 11 looms increasingly as a modern catastrophe with ever unfolding consequences, and the turn to Sept. 11 novels is an indication of how powerful the need for a scaffolding of historical consequence to build an enduring novel.

When Allegra Goodman writes about scientific fraud in “Intuition” we witness a talented novelist writing a competent novel about material she has mastered but which is not her own. (To see an instructive contrast, read C.P. Snow’s “The Affair” on the same question a generation before. Snow was a scientist, but paradoxically, although there is less science in the novel, the psychology is more subtle and acute.) When Goodman writes “Kaaterskill Falls” there is something at stake and the result is incrementally more moving. Goodman’s passion for things Jewish lights up her characters and enlivens the story. The question is: Where and when does the Jewish novelist still have something at stake?

Long ago, the doyenne of American Jewish letters, Ozick, issued a call for a “new Yiddish.” There is still a playful, buoyant and exuberant strain in many Jewish writers that recalls a sort of highbrow Borsht Belt. Safran Foer’s Alex would sneer at a sentence by Raymond Carver or Anne Beattie if it tiptoed up to him all well-behaved and full of WASP-like angst; the result would be like having Mork visit Walton’s Mountain. Still, style is not enough. And with the prosperity of American Jews, the post-idealized age of Israel and the ironic flippancy that rides sidesaddle on any statement of commitment, what is an American Jewish writer supposed to love?

Books: Brits behaving badly


“When We Were Bad” by Charlotte Mendelson (Houghton Mifflin, $24).

As a wedding is about to begin in North London, all eyes are on the mother of the groom. Claudia Rubin is tall, beautiful, brainy and voluptuous, a celebrated rabbi who leads a large congregation. She’s not officiating at her son’s marriage, instead letting the bride’s family’s rabbi, Nicky Baum, lead the rites. But the service never begins, for the groom runs off with the woman he loves, Rabbi Baum’s wife.

From this first scene, Charlotte Mendelson’s “When We Were Bad” repeatedly surprises the reader, as she deeply observes the life of an English Jewish family and community from the inside. While this family seems, at least on the surface, “doomed to happiness,” their story is unraveling to more doom than happiness. Mendelson is a writer who gets quickly to the truth of things, with prose that is witty, knowing and energetic.

“When We Were Bad” is British novelist Mendelson’s American debut, and she will appear in Pasadena on Nov. 8 as part of the Jewish Book Festival, a program of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, which runs from Nov. 7-Dec. 8. She is the author of two previous novels, “Daughters of Jerusalem” and “Love in Idleness”; has won two awards acknowledging talented writers under the age of 35, the Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; and has been short-listed for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.

“I wanted to write about a family full of secrets and lies, as any family is,” Mendelson said in an interview. “And I decided, too, that it was time to describe the strange and little-understood world of English Jews. Then, because the most interesting characters are those under pressure, I decided to make the family in question, the Rubins, under particularly close scrutiny — and so it made sense for them to be the children of a famous, glamorous, difficult woman. And who could be more scrutinized, more judged and cheek-pinched, than the children of a rabbi?”

Rabbi Rubin is a rare literary being. While novelist Jonathan Rosen wrote of a young woman assistant rabbi in “Joy Comes in the Morning,” this may be the first work of fiction to focus on a woman rabbi at the height of her career. She’s a senior rabbi of a liberal shul “where famous authors come to Chanukah parties and the congregation seems to grow by the hour.” A woman of large ambition, she’s juggling her attention — devoted to her congregants, a public platform beyond the synagogue and her quirky family. She likes the way she’s doing her job, as much as she still likes her reflection in the mirror as she’s reached her mid-50s.

Her Shabbat table mixes family, loyal regulars and bold names she plucks from her Rolodex. Presiding, she makes her guests feel good and basks “in the flattering candlelight, the overlapping conversations, the speed at which the plates are being emptied.” It’s not the most traditional of settings, with her youngest son in dreadlocks charming the crowd, and a cheese course following the chicken.

While Claudia, who hides a large secret from the others, is at the center, the other characters also have conflicted inner lives, as revealed by the shifting voice of the narrator. Her overshadowed husband Norman, whose disappointments are relished by his family, has trouble revealing that he is about to publish a successful book that may eclipse his wife’s. The daughter, who seems most rooted, is unhappy in the married life arranged by her mother and is set off-kilter by her younger sister’s gay lover; the son who comes back home after leaving his bride on their wedding day struggles to leave home again.

By day, Mendelson is an editor at a British publishing house. She interviewed several women rabbis, “who are much harder to find in the U.K. than the U.S.,” she says, and stole newsletters from synagogues, trying to get the details right.

“So few Jews, so many opinions,” she writes, tweaking the aphorism to represent British Jewry.

When asked if the novel could have been set in Manhattan or Scarsdale, she replies, “Yes, and no. Which is a very Jewish answer. Yes, in that it’s about secret love and secret hatred, a son fleeing from his very public wedding and the ways in which his apparently happy family is about to fall apart; it’s about the shadow of the Holocaust; about food and death and sex. They are Jews, so it could be set anywhere there are Jews.”

“However,” she continues, “a strong undercurrent in the book is how it feels to be a Jew in Britain, the least Jewish country on earth. I don’t think that sense of tension, the constant awareness of possible hostility and editing of one’s speech and gestures, would make any sense at all on the Upper East Side.”

Mendelson points out that Jewish writing is very different in England and America. As she explains, “Jewish British writing is definitely ‘ethnic.’ There are very, very few British novelists who write about being Jewish, whereas in the U.S. ‘Jewish’ humor, whatever that is, is so thoroughly in the mainstream that writing about Jews is simply a version of all American fiction, which is about immigration, and difference and making one’s way in a potentially hostile environment.”

“The diversification of British fiction is thrilling, because suddenly we’re embracing difference too; I’m proud to be writing ‘ethnic’ fiction and, let’s face it, we’re all fascinated by what food other people have in their fridges, what embarrassing clothes their grandparents made them wear, how their community matchmakes them against their will.”

Mendelson’s grandparents came to England from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine just before World War II, and one was a cockney from London’s East End. She says that she was brought up to be proud of her Jewishness, although they weren’t remotely observant.

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