Holiday season brings authors to SoCal

From the Bible to the Broadway stage, readers and gift-buyers can find a wealth of new books in the bookstores, and it’s the time of year when authors, too, are out in the world to talk about their work. Here are five choice opportunities in Southern California.

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The name Cecil B. DeMille has entered our language as a signifier for a kind of epic motion picture that was once the glory of Hollywood. Yet, somehow his name fails to conjure what the flesh-and-blood DeMille actually accomplished from his perch on a camera dolly in an era long before computer-generated images.

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A bookstore appearance by crime novelist and literary wild man James Ellroy belongs to the realm of performance art. Indeed, his in-person antics are so intense that his visit to Skylight Books once became the subject of a documentary film. 

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World of adventure for the bookshelf

The summer season offers some remarkable opportunities for face-to-face encounters with authors who are celebrated not merely for their celebrity but for the quality of their written work. To be sure, Kendall Jenner will be touting “Rebels: City of Indra: The Story of Lex and Livia” (Gallery Books), which she co-wrote with her sister, Kylie, when they weren’t filming “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” But the roster of touring authors for the summer of 2014 is full of authentic working writers, too. (The Jenner event, by the way, will take place at 7 p.m. June 12, at Barnes & Noble in The Grove at Farmers Market, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles.)

Spectator – Young Historians Find Their Genre

When Erica Silverman was looking for a subject for her latest children’s nonfiction book, she decided to seek inspiration from one of the most famous Jewish writers of all time, Sholom Aleichem.

With pathos and humor, Sholom Aleichem amused generations of fin-de-siecle Jews with his Yiddish stories exposing the idiosyncrasies of shtetl life. His writing found its place in the canon of Yiddish literature, but today many Jews are familiar only with the most popular adaptation of his work, the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I think Sholom Aleichem has a spirit of mischief in him that has a natural appeal to children,” said Silverman, whose book “Sholom’s Treasure, How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) is being showcased this week at the Jewish Literature for Children conference at Sinai Temple. “His writing captures a pivotal moment in Jewish history, [when Jews] were at a turning point between the past and modernity, and I think [this book] is a good way to introduce children to that part of Jewish culture.”

“Sholom’s Treasure” is adapted from Aleichem’s autobiography, “From the Fair,” and tells the story of a mischievous boy who wants only to please his indigent father by finding a treasure to solve his woes. Beautifully illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein, the book introduces young readers not only to Aleichem, but also to a time when Eastern European Jews lived in poverty in tiny villages, always scrambling to make ends meet.

At the conference, Silverman will be joined by others who write Jewish history for kids, including Boston-based Norman Finkelstein, who recently published “Ariel Sharon,” (Lerner Publications, 2005) a young-adult biography of the Israeli prime minister. Finkelstein said he was drawn to the Jewish children’s nonfiction genre when, as a public school librarian, he couldn’t find any books geared to a younger audience about the Holocaust or some of the great Jewish historical figures.

“I wanted to find a book that [spoke about these subjects] in very simple, non-threatening and nonfrightening language, and I couldn’t find [them],” said Finkelstein, who spoke to The Journal by phone from his home in Boston.

For these authors, children and young adults represent a fresh audience.

“I know it’s a cliché, but children are our future,” Silverman said. “I remember the effect that reading had on me [growing up], and I want to share that experience with another generation.”

The “2006: Focus on Non-Fiction” — Jewish Literature for Children, Third Western Regional Conference,” will take place Feb. 20 at Sinai Temple’s Blumenthal Library, 10400 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information and registration, contact Susan Dubin (818) 886-6415 or e-mail Lisa Silverman


Class Notes – A Model School

Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative synagogue in Santa Monica, thinks it has a winning formula for the eternal challenge of Hebrew school.

First, it did away with Sunday school, which was constantly competing with sports, music, tutoring and family activities. The Tuesday program was lengthened to three hours, but rather than relying on one teacher to cover all subjects, students go to specialized classes in Hebrew language, prayer and holidays, Bible and ethics — much as they move from math to science in school.

It cuts down on boredom, said Cantor Keith Miller, who did the revamp with Rabbi Michael Gottleib.

“The kids realize there is a finite amount of time in class, so they are excited to maximize that time and they come into class ready to start,” said Miller, who is also the education director at the 300-member synagogue. The school has about 60 students in its second- through seventh-grade classes.

Kehillat Ma’arav also developed Club Shabbat, a junior congregation for Hebrew school children, which integrates the Hebrew school families with those families who come for services every week.

This congregation has long sought ways to make its school more innovative. Two years ago, Kehillat Ma’arav revamped its high school program by teaming up with Shaarei Am, a Reform congregation in the neighborhood. Teens from both congregations study together every week.

For more information, call (310) 829-0566 or go to

After School Academics

B’nai David-Judea Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, is opening a new religious school for fourth- through sixth-graders with minor learning problems who attend public or private secular schools rather than Jewish day schools.

“For a lot of kids, day school is just too fast-paced, with too much homework and too many subjects to master,” said Janet Fuchs, a mother who helped establish Torah Club with B’nai David’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky.

Eight kids and a teacher are already signed up for September classes, which will meet twice a week for two hours. Fuchs hopes the program will not only educate the kids but, more importantly, give them a sense of community. The vast majority of traditionally observant kids go to day school, leaving those who don’t out of the social loop.

Students at Torah Club will study the holidays, the prayerbook and the weekly Torah portion, but not Hebrew language, which eliminates the need for homework.

For more information, contact B’nai David-Judea at (310) 276-9269 or

Calling All Authors

If, like most Angelenos, you have a manuscript in your desk it’s time to pull it out. If it’s geared toward 8- to 11-year-olds, that is. The Association of Jewish Libraries is accepting submissions for the 21st annual Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition for aspiring authors of children’s books. The best fiction manuscript written by an unpublished author that serves to deepen an understanding of Judaism will receive a $1,000 award.

For entry forms and rules, go to, then click on Awards, then click on Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award. Deadline for submission of manuscripts is Dec. 31, 2005.

Around the Fringe The Gift of Summer

Nine Southern California children were able to attend camp this summer thanks to the Foundation for Jewish Education. The Beverly Hills-based nonprofit gives scholarships to unaffiliated, financially strapped families so their children can enjoy a summer experience of Jewish education and identity building. All nine attended Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, which also contributed to the scholarships.

For more information on the Foundation for Jewish Education, visit or call (310) 273-8612.

The Winners Are…

Downey B’nai B’rith Lodge 1112 presented five students Al Perlus Awards for scholastic and community achievement. The recipients of the $25 or $50 scholarships are: Vanessa Vasquez of South Gate High School; Byron D. Zacarias of Bell High School; Mercedes Perez of Huntington Park High School; Lauren Duran of Downey High School, and Mathew Vasquez of Warren High School.

Emek Hebrew Academy graduate Adam Deutsch won third place in the Jossi-Berger Holocaust Study Center Essay and Poetry Contest, a national contest sponsored by Emunah of America. His poem, “Will There Be Another Day?” dedicated to the 6 million Jews murdered during the Shoah, is posted at

Please send Class Notes submissions to

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.


Three Faces of Shoah Interpretation


“The Destruction of the European Jews” (Third Edition) by Raul Hilberg ( Yale University Press, 2003).

“The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939-March 1942” by Christopher R. Browning, with contributions by Jurgen Matthaus ( University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2004).

“Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe” by Bryan Mark Rigg (Yale University Press, 2004).

Once Rejected, Now Triumphant

Raul Hilberg was not encouraged when he approached his professor, Franz Neumann, about writing his doctoral dissertation on the role of the German civil service in the Holocaust. Neumann assented, but warned: “It’s your funeral.”

Hilberg shopped around the book that resulted, “The Destruction of the European Jews,” to Columbia University Press, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, Princeton University Press and the University of Oklahoma Press. All rejected him. Quadrangle Press in Chicago finally published his work in 1961, and Hilberg quickly found himself in the heart of an ideological war not of his own making.

Hannah Arendt had used his work without appropriate acknowledgement as part of her controversial reports for the New Yorker on the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official at the center of the genocide. As a result, Hilberg became associated with Arendt’s critique of Jewish leadership and also of her concept regarding the banality of evil. Indeed, for a generation, Hilberg was barred from the archives of Yad Vashem, until younger historians came to power and ended the notion that researchers had to be ideologically vetted.

One work, that magisterial book based on his dissertation, has dominated Hilberg’s life. But he’s not a one-book man. Hilberg published brilliantly on the German railway system, though that book exists only in German. There’s also his English-language publication of and commentary on “The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow,” which explores the life and desperate circumstances of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat. His “Perpetrator, Victims and Bystanders” set in stone the portraits of actors and non-actors — whose non-action became action — during the Shoah. And his recent “Sources of Holocaust Research” is a first-rate introduction to the field. If there were a Nobel Prize for Holocaust Studies, Hilberg would have won it years ago.

Yale University Press has now published the third edition of “The Destruction of the European Jews.” It’s enhanced with documentation from the newly opened archives of the former Communist bloc nations of Eastern Europe. Copies of many of these documents are available at Yad Vashem and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which have been actively microfilming and preserving these documents. Working pro bono, Hilberg gave unstintingly of his time, energy and incomparable knowledge to the U.S. museum.

In his third edition, Hilberg does not back down from his well-known critique of Jewish response, nor from his portrayal of the Holocaust as a disaster for the Jews. Suffice it to say that this work is a towering achievement, the very backbone of the field.

How Murder Became Genocide

Christopher Browning, like Hilberg, is a master of German documentation, a dominant figure among the first generation of scholars born after the Holocaust. With a contribution by Jurgen Matheus, he’s written “The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939-March 1942.” Their work reshapes our understanding of the timetable of destruction. Their research contradicts the notion of a centralized decision to kill that was uniformly adopted. Instead, the authors describe regional initiatives that were “blessed” by Nazi officials and ultimately fashioned into a policy of gassing and wholesale murder.

The evolution to gassing, for example, began with the T-4 program, in which the Nazis murdered German non-Jews who were considered “life unworthy of living” — the mentally challenged, physically handicapped and emotionally disturbed Germans who belied the myth of the master race. Mobile gas vans came into use in Yugoslavia and at the Chelmno death camp. There also were thoughts of shipping Jews to Madagascar.

This book is co-published by Yad Vashem, which is now cooperating with university presses to disseminate its work to a wider audience. Browning’s research is controversial in Jerusalem. A recent standing-room-only lecture drew massive press coverage because the Jerusalem School presents a rather different interpretation of the Holocaust, which it portrays as developed policy from its inception, rather than improvised as the war dragged on.

Browning exemplifies scholarship — detailed, serious and masterly, rooted in details but presenting the broad picture of the evolution of the decision to kill the Jews. The period he grapples with is critical: At the beginning of 1942, 80 percent of the Jews who were to die in the Holocaust were alive. Fourteen months later the figures were reversed; four of five were already dead.

The Student Was Right

I first met Bryan Mark Rigg a decade ago, after giving a lecture at Yale. A young, earnest undergraduate approached me and asked if I would read his senior thesis. Rigg had that neat, fresh-cut look of a young military man; other students dressed like students. He called me “sir” and said “please” and “thank you,” words that the father of teenagers does not often hear. He was respectful, a throwback to an earlier era, before the 1960s overturned conventions on campus.

He had been writing on German soldiers who were Mischlinge — of mixed Jewish and Aryan ancestry. They continued to serve in the Wehrmacht, despite Nazi racial policy and despite what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. Rigg’s thesis was remarkable work for an undergraduate. He clearly was an “archive rat,” spending months (and later years) combing through records, ferreting out material no one else had bothered to review.

And his conclusions were startling.

A significant number of German soldiers — officers and enlisted men alike — of Jewish origin continued to serve even after their “racial background” was discovered. Hitler himself participated in the “Aryanization” of some of these fighting men. And German officers, even those who had a hand in carrying out Nazi racial policies, ignored or covered up the Jewish ancestry of these men, displaying higher loyalty to a good soldier than to their government’s edicts.

Rigg didn’t quite understand the importance of what he had found: that not all who served in the armed forces were anti-Semites, even as their service aided the killing process.

He intended to write his dissertation on this topic and sought my advice.

“Don’t do it,” I immediately responded. “There is not enough there to warrant a dissertation.”

Out of politeness, I added, “But if you do, please send it to me. I would like to read it.”

Little did I know what I was getting into. Five years later I received his dissertation, which he completed at Cambridge University, along with the draft of his first book.

I had been wrong.

Rigg had found more, much more. He’d reviewed records, interviewed soldiers and their colleagues and the results were as startling as they were disturbing. He showed how German military officials, rather than marching in lockstep with their government, would sidestep regulations to protect a man of Jewish origin whom they knew. These officials often faced a conflict between loyalty to the government — even to their oath to Hitler — and their allegiance to a comrade, a man with whom they had fought. Many men honored personal loyalty above all.

As for the Mischlinge, some saw themselves as German above all, even when the Germans were persecuting and ultimately slaughtering their parent or grandparents. Many saw themselves as army men — even if they did not support the government’s policies, they served with dedication. His conclusions differed in interesting ways from those of author Daniel Goldhagen, who portrayed the Germans as marching virtually in unison to embrace the extermination of the Jews. For Rigg, these men had multiple loyalties. Personal ties could override political convictions, at least for some German military officials. My advice to the contrary, he published “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers,” and the work created quite a stir.

One such “Jewish soldier,” Ernest Bloch, working for German intelligence under the direction of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, received a peculiar assignment in 1940: Go to Warsaw, find the Lubavitcher Rebbe Joseph Schneerson, and help him escape to the United States. (Schneerson was the father-in-law and predecessor of the late and widely known Lubavitcher leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson.) The Germans thought the rebbe would view Bloch as a Jew and trust him; the rebbe viewed him as a meshumad, a convert and distrusted him even more.

Once again, Rigg, in his new book “Rescued from the Reich,” has accomplished prodigious research in American and German archives, and even in the archives — if one can use that term — of the Chabad movement. He’s given us an earthly, demystified portrait of the rescue. Surely, the pious will view the rebbe’s rescue as the hand of God, with the German emissaries as angels wearing the masks of devils. But as a secular historian, Rigg has a very different story to tell — of diplomacy and intelligence work; suspicions and mortal danger; soldiers and civilians mobilized to rescue one prominent Jew and his family from the heart of German-occupied Warsaw in the midst of the Holocaust.

Chabon Crusades for Fun Literature

“The Final Solution: A Story of Detection” by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, $16.95).

Depending on their authors’ predilections, so-called “literary” novels are often unsettling, disturbing, enlightening or tragicomic. They are not, in the main, much fun. Fun is left to hacks, those genre writers who churn out the chick-lit blockbusters, weepy romances, thrillers, sci-fi fantasies and blood-and-guts horrors that dominate the best-seller lists.

Michael Chabon is the shining exception to this rule. He’s a literary writer on a crusade to put the pleasure back into our reading experiences. In his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the fun begins in the title — “Amazing,” a word not often deployed in contemporary literature — and carries through all 639 pages. Chabon next reclaimed the “low” genres (the mystery, ghost story, etc.) by editing “McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,” a collection of such yarns by famous literary and genre writers intended, in Chabon’s words, to remind us “how much fun reading a short story can be.” (Although it received mixed reviews, the anthology was successful enough to warrant a sequel, the forthcoming “McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.”)

“The Final Solution” — a brilliant and unswervingly entertaining novella — is Chabon’s latest sally against the dastardly forces of literary dreariness. As the subtitle proclaims, this is a “Story of Detection,” a good ol’ fashioned whodunit complete with slaying, sleuthing and a coterie of suspects. But while mystery keeps tension high until the last page, the book’s ultimate interest lies less in discovering the murderer and more in the author’s exuberant unfolding of the stories of all those involved.

At the core of “The Final Solution” are 9-year-old German Jewish refugee Linus Steinman and an African gray parrot named Bruno. Linus never speaks; Bruno habitually recites curious series of German numbers — “Neun neun drei acht zwei sechs sieben” — and both are highly surprising to discover in the British countryside in July 1944, while World War II rages on the continent. As such, they are a “puzzle to kindle old appetites and energies” for a long-retired and once-famous detective who has spent the past several decades in secluded retirement, consumed with beekeeping. When Mr. Shane, a guest at the boarding house where Linus and Bruno live, is bludgeoned to death and Bruno disappears, the old detective reluctantly agrees to take the case.

In each short chapter, Chabon’s omniscient narrator perches on a different character’s shoulder and relates events as seen through the eyes of that person (or, in one example, the bird). Among the picturesquely odd personages embroiled in the murder and bird-napping are Kumbhampoika Thomas Panicker, “who was not only a Malayalee from Kerala, black as a boot heel, but also a high-church Anglican vicar” and proprietor of the boarding house; Reggie Panicker, the vicar’s delinquent son and the police’s primary suspect; and Parkins, a supposed architectural historian who, strangely enough, works at a local “Research Dairy,” which, strangely again, is guarded by National Security.

While everyone hopes to retrieve Bruno and the intriguing string of German numerals in his brain, no one involved seems particularly perturbed by the murder itself. Mr. Panicker, for one, is delighted that Mr. Shane’s untimely death has brought into his life the old detective and “the unlikely possibility, all the more splendid for its unlikeliness, of adventure.”

For the careful reader, “The Final Solution” is an equally delightful adventure, not only because of the swift and engrossing plot but also on account of Chabon’s extravagantly rich prose. Inset in his elegant sentences are words and names as rare and dazzling as precious stones: “ecru laid,” “mundungus,” “serried,” “ignus fatuus,” “rep necktie,” “Webley,” “blackthorn,” “Der Erlkonig.” Far from pretentious, Chabon’s diction welcomes the reader into lost worlds — for example, the world of British beekeeping circa 1944. One piece of advice: Don’t read Chabon without Internet access – you’ll find yourself wanting to Google something on almost every page.

Along with offerings of humor, adventure and linguistic luxuriousness, Chabon finds time for pathos and poetry. His story transpires in an England scarred by war, and the attempted extermination of the European Jews alluded to in the title hangs over the book. This is a story of survival and survivors. Referring to London, the narrator says: “They had bombed it; they had burned it; but they had not killed it.”

The parrot’s German numbers occasion beautiful musings on the powers and curses of memory, many of them articulated through the perspective of Bruno himself. The numbers “lingered far longer and more vividly in his mind than any of the thousand other songs he could sing, for reasons unclear even to him but having to do with sadness, with the sadness of his captivity, of his wanderings, of his finding the boy, of the rolling trains, of the boy’s mama and papa and the mad silence that had come over the boy when he was banished from them.”

I am unable to offer further interpretation of the fascinating ways the solutions to Chabon’s mysteries intertwine with the legacies of the Holocaust, lest I spoil the surprise. Suffice to say that in Linus Steinman, the mute refugee with the parrot on his shoulder, Chabon has created an immensely resonant and original figure of the survivor. That he’s able to touch on issues of such seriousness, in a novella that is such fun to read, is just one more sign of his immense talent.

Reprinted courtesy of The Forward,

Pioneer Tales From South Africa

Today, the only remaining signs of the hardy Jewish pioneers of Namaqualand are a cemetery and a synagogue, which is now a museum.

But these Jews — who first arrived in this remote, arid region of South Africa in the mid-1850s — once numbered as many as 200 and played an important role in the region’s development.

In a new book, “Into Kokerboom Country: Namaqualand’s Jewish Pioneers,” authors Phyllis Jowell and Adrienne Folb tell the story of these Jews from their arrival in the northwestern Cape to the late 1970s, when the community had dwindled to a precious few.

For some readers, the book will serve as a fascinating look back at the progress of these new immigrants as they went from itinerant peddlers to bedrock components of a modern economy — a story mirroring that of rural Jewish communities around the world.

The writers compare the community to the indigenous Kokerboom — tree-like aloes — which have dug their roots into the sandy soil of Namaqualand.

The glossy coffee-table book is liberally sprinkled with historical photographs, many of which are previously unpublished, and also includes interviews with former Namaqualanders. Joining the ranks of South African Jewish Africana, it is a valuable social history that captures reminiscences of a generation before their stories are lost in the mists of time.

The authors trace the growth of the community from its origins — largely from the shtetls of Eastern Europe — to its peak of around 200 in the 1930s and its subsequent decline. They cite economic hardship, pogroms following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and discriminatory military conscription for Jewish boys as factors in the community’s departure for new shores.

In line with their entrepreneurial spirit, the penniless immigrants “went for the gap,” often starting off as “smouses,” or traders, supplying necessities — and later luxuries — to isolated farmers. Many later became proprietors of country hotels, spotting the need to provide hospitality to travelers in these inhospitable parts.

Having been attracted to the region by the development of copper mining in the 1850s and the discovery of diamonds in the 1920s, these Jews, the book says, became the area’s middlemen — traders, shopkeepers and hoteliers — rather than being involved in the mining itself.

Later arrivals included professional service providers who, according to the authors, became “a key influence in the development of the region.”

The first Jews to settle in Namaqualand, in the coastal village of Port Nolloth, were Esther and Aaron de Pass. They observed the faith, setting a trend that was to become prevalent despite the difficulties inherent in doing so far from the larger population centers.

Before arriving in Port Nolloth, Aaron was involved in the purchase of the first synagogue in South Africa in 1849, now known as the Gardens Synagogue in Cape Town.

Another early immigrant, Moses Schur, was reputed to have traveled between Bowesdorp and Cape Town with a schochet, or ritual slaughterer, and to have prayed every morning.

When the “smous” Abraham Jowell — the father of Joe Jowell, Phyllis Jowell’s father-in-law — had a fatal accident with his mule cart in 1898, Schur’s two Jewish assistants acted as “wagters,” sitting with the body until the burial.

The book traces the developing Jewish infrastructure, including the establishment of the Namaqualand Hebrew Congregation in Springbok — on what were formerly church premises — in 1918 and organizations to channel the strongly Zionist inclinations of these country communities.

Their involvement extended to civic affairs, with Joe Jowell serving as mayor of Springbok for the better part of 27 years.

The book credits the immigrant shopkeepers with transforming the economy of Namaqualand from a currency based on barter to one based on money, thereby bringing the society into the 20th century.

The authors attribute the decline of a Jewish presence in the area after World War II in part to the establishment of the Herzlia Jewish Day School in Cape Town in 1945. Young people, the book says, rarely returned to the area once they completed their schooling. By the 1960s, most parents had followed their children into the cities.

3 Novels Explore Life in Cold War Era

“Meritocracy: A Love Story,” by Jeffrey Lewis. (Other Books, $18).
“Dancing With Einstein: A Novel,” by Kate Wenner. (Scribner, $24).
“When She Sleeps,” by Leora Krygier. (The Toby Press, $19.95).

The memory of the Holocaust has haunted the Jewish imagination for three generations. It represents the rupture in our communal history, its shadow falling on everything else. And yet, we have amassed new memories since. Three books by local authors use the legacy of the Holocaust in their attempts to grapple with many facets of the Cold War.

By the 1960s and ’70s, when these three novels are set, Jews had established themselves at the vanguard of the United States. As if trying to make up for all that had been taken from them in midcentury Europe, Jews rose to the highest levels of education, politics, science and cultural production, benefiting from the new spirit of meritocracy that, as Jeffrey Lewis puts it in his novel of the same title, was the result of “a slight softening of the contours of traditional anti-Semitism, in the guilty aftermath of catastrophe.”

“Meritocracy” tells the story of a group of friends, all recent Yale graduates, who travel to Maine before one of them, Harry Nolan, ships off to basic training. Elegiac in tone, the novel mourns all those promising young men lost to the Vietnam War, while consciously drawing parallels to today’s political landscape, dominated as it is by other sons of privilege who attended Yale and Harvard during the late 1960s.

The novel’s tone is pitch perfect, slow and contemplative, shadowed by tragedy before it even strikes. Nostalgic, too, because even though this is a work of fiction, it is far too autobiographical (the narrator’s name is “Louie,” which we learn, late in the day, is a nickname bestowed by Harry) not to absorb its author’s mourning for his own youth, his generation’s potential that was never, as the novel makes clear, fully realized.

This is beautiful story, one that captures the fears and hopes of a generation of well-educated, well-positioned young people that thought itself blessed, but found that, like all those around them, they were not immune to life’s misfortunes. Its weakness lies precisely in its title, and in the author’s ruminations on the meritocratic ideal in this country, which are unnecessary, because their meaning is illustrated through the events of the book. That one flaw notwithstanding, “Meritocracy” is a beautiful book: evocative and immeasurably sad.

Kate Wenner’s narrator, Marea Hoffman (named for the dark seas of the moon) is of the same generation as Louie, Harry and their friends, but she has run from them, as she has from all reminders of her past. After seven years wandering the earth, she returns to New York to face herself and her father’s legacy: as a scientist with the Manhattan Project, he helped build the atom bomb. Marea, who grew up with the arms race, witnessed the tension between her pacifist, Quaker mother and her ally, Albert Einstein — a family friend and Marea’s “Grandpa Albert” — and her father, who both believed in and was tortured by his work.

Marea is a quirky, unstable character, but also smart and full of humor. She engages four different therapists to try to get to the heart of herself — her inability to put down roots and her need to forgive her mother, whom she blames for her father’s early death.

Jeffrey Lewis will appear Sunday, Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books, 475 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena. (626) 304-9773.

“Dancing With Eintein” is a novel that grapples with the many layers of memory: how one generation’s needs for absolution get passed down to the next. Wenner has written a luminous book: the characters, from Marea and her New Age, baker boss, Andrew, to Albert Einstein, himself, are all portrayed with depth and nuance.

The book’s ending is somewhat abrupt. Marea suddenly is able to commit to a place, relationships and the idea of a future. By this point, though, we have grown so fond of her that we want a happy ending for her.

Kate Wenner will appear Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at a private residence in La Canada-Flintridge. For reservations and directions call the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at (626) 967-3656. $10. Both Lewis and Wenner appear as part of the Jewish Book Festival.

The last and least of the books considered here is Leora Krygier’s “When She Sleeps.” From the uninspired title to the overwrought writing, this book telegraphs its desire to be “deep,” in the parlance of the late 1970s, when its story takes place.

“When She Sleeps” follows the experiences of two teenage girls, half-sisters who have never met. Vietnamese Mai is the Amerasian daughter of a linguistics professor and an American army doctor who tried to get his lover and daughter out of the country, and has never forgotten that he failed to save them before the fall of Saigon. Lucy lives in the Valley, spending all her time in the darkroom, filtering her experiences through the manipulation of photographs.

The girls form a psychic connection through the dreams that Mai “steals” from her mother and transmits, without knowing it, to Lucy, so that by the time they meet, the sisters already share knowledge of their parents’ past that has previously been closed to them.

The idea of this story has merit: the time has come to think about the results of the Vietnam engagement, especially, as is done here, by refracting it through the lens of the Holocaust. There is much to say about the relationships forged between American servicemen and their Vietnamese girlfriends, as well as the children they produced. This is not the book to do that, though: The characters are all too one-dimensional and similar for the novel to truly ground itself in reality (even a magical version), and the language is so self-conscious and forced that it never soars.

Leora Krygier will appear Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 380-1636; and Sunday, Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. at Village Books, 1049 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades, (310) 454-4063.

Something for Every Bookworm

Saturday, Nov. 13

Journalist-author Yossi Klein Halevi, foreign correspondent for the New Republic, speaks on “Israel’s Current War and the Looming Battle Within,” 8 p.m., $15 with R.S.V.P., $18 at the door, B’nai David Judea, 8906 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 276-9269.

Sunday, Nov. 14

Jonathan Kirsch on “God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism,” about the final clash between one God and many. Jewish Book Festival: A Celebration of Jewish Book Month, sponsored by the Jewish Federation serving the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. 4 p.m., free, Borders Montclair, 5055 S. Plaza Lane, Montclair, (909) 625-0424.

Dr. Leonard Felder, “When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People,” his latest conflict-resolution how-to, 10 a.m., $7.50, bagel breakfast, men’s club, Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia, (626) 445-0810.

Second annual Jewish Children’s Bookfest, celebrating 350 years of Jewish life in America, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., featuring readings, arts and crafts workshops, a tea party and entertainers such as puppet master Len Levitt. Look for The Jewish Journal’s workshop. Free. At the Triangle, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley, (866) 266-5731 or

Tuesday, Nov. 16

David Bezmozgis on “Natasha,” his acclaimed short story collection about a Russian Jewish family struggling to achieve the immigrant dream in Toronto. Jewish Book Festival, 7:30 p.m., $10, at a private residence. Directions will be provided with reservation, (626) 967-3656.

Thursday, Nov. 18

David Horovitz, “Still Life With Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism,” about the profound effect the current intifada has had on the lives of ordinary Israelis. Jewish Book Festival, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, 7:30 p.m., $10, Congregation Shaarei Torah, 550 S. Second Ave., Arcadia, (626) 445-0810.

Saturday, Nov. 20

Judea and Ruth Pearl, editors of “I Am Jewish,” a collection of reflections inspired by the last words their son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, spoke before he was murdered in Pakistan. Jewish Book Festival, , co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, $20, 7:30 p.m. Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena, (626) 798-1161.

Tuesday, Nov. 30

Rochelle Krich on her noirish mystery, “Grave Endings,” about a modern Orthodox journalist investigating the murder of her best friend, $8, 9:30 a.m., sisterhood breakfast, Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 553-7468.

Thursday, Dec. 2

Gregg Hurwitz on “The Program,” his thriller about a U.S. marshal who infiltrates a mind-control cult. Jewish Book Festival, 7:30 p.m., free, Borders Arcadia, 400 S. Baldwin Ave., Suite 920, Arcadia, (626) 445-1320.


On Sunday, Nov. 14,
come to the second annual
Jewish Children’s Bookfest
from 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.,
at the Triangle, Mount Sinai Memorial Park
(6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley,
exit the 118 West at Yosemite).
Children and their families are invited to celebrate: “350 Years of Jews in America” with their favorite authors and entertainers, and participate in fun workshops.
You’ll get a free gift if you complete the following puzzles and bring it to Debra at the Jewish Journal workshop.
For more information on the Bookfest, call (866) 266-5731 or visit

“Tiby” Eisen will actually be at the festival.
1) “Tiby” Eisen’s given name is:
a. Martha
b. Thelma
c. Louise
2) The movie based on her team’s experiences is called:
a. A League of Their Own
b. Ladybugs
c. Quarterback Princess
3) From 1946-1953, she played professional:
a. Soccer
b. Football
c. Baseball
Mail your cartoons, drawings, puzzles, etc. to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010. E-mail your written answers to our contests, or your jokes, riddles, poems, etc., to Make sure you write your name and address in your e-mail. See you next time!

The Grand Design of Daniel Libeskind

It was in Poland’s primeval forests, where bison roamed amidst labyrinths of poplar and maple trees that Daniel Libeskind first began to understand concepts of land, space, shelter and natural resources, themes that would be the underpinnings of his career as an architect.

In his new book, “Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture” (Riverhead), the world-renowned architect who designed the master plan for the World Trade Center site, describes his early life in Poland, Israel and the Bronx, and he speaks with eloquence and passion about the ideas behind his “overtly expressive” work.

“There are many worlds in my head,” he writes, “and I bring them all of them to the projects I work on.”

Although the 58-year-old Libeskind has now built three museums and has 35 projects underway around the world, he didn’t actually build anything until he was 52. Until then, as he writes, he was mostly interested in abstract concepts rather than the utilitarian aspects of architecture.

In Studio Daniel Libeskind’s conference room in lower Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson, the back wall is covered with architectural renderings of the World Trade Center project, and a windowsill is filled with three-dimensional models along with a scaled-down Statue of Liberty. Dressed in all black but for a lapel pin — an American flag draped over a New York apple — with his signature glasses framing his blue eyes, Libeskind is cheerful and well-spoken, his Polish Yiddish roots evident in the sound of his English, his New York present in his hard-to-keep-up-with pace.

“My first introduction to America,” he says, “was through my father giving an old pair of shoes on a train platform in Russia.”

Nachman Libeskind, who spent the war years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, noticed a young refugee sobbing after he had been released from the gulag. It was bitter winter and the man’s shoes had been stolen while he slept; Libeskind gave him his spare pair. The man got to America first, and every year sent a package of chocolates, toys and comic books from Macy’s to Poland. Through copying the comics, Daniel Libeskind learned to draw.

In 1957, when Libeskind was 11, his family moved from Lodz to Israel, from the overall grayness of the Polish city to “the natural splendor of the cornfields and orange groves of Kibbutz Gvat” in the Jezreel Valley. He loved kibbutz life “even if the work was sometimes enervating and dull,” shifting swiftly from “city kid to serious participant in a real agrarian experiment.” For his mother though, who also survived life in the Soviet gulag as well as communist Poland, the collective lifestyle was less appealing, and she soon moved the family to Tel Aviv, reestablishing the corsetry business she had in Lodz.

From the first days, Libeskind was struck by the light in Israel, a quality he has never experienced elsewhere.

“Even now, when I visit Israel,” he writes, “as others kiss the earth, I stand in awe of the light. Some days I suspect that’s what people are really fighting over — not territory, but the light.”

As a young child, he showed advanced talent as a musician and was considered a child prodigy on the accordion. Awarded a scholarship by the America-Israel Culture Foundation, he played in recital in Tel Aviv alongside a young Itzhak Perlman, winner of the same award. One of the judges, Isaac Stern, told him that it was a shame that he hadn’t learn to play piano as he had gone as far as possible with the accordion. Libeskind thought it was too late to switch instruments — “my hands were used to playing vertically” — and switched to drawing.

The book is hardly a chronological memoir. Biographical details are revealed as Libeskind muses about design, building elements, sacred space, light and sound, a distinct sense of place and other ideas.

“The book reflects how I think,” he says. “An independent network with a unity. The hardest part of writing was to be able to weave the stories in a meaningful way, to have a spirit.”

He explains that he decided a write a book, amidst his many projects, because he was approached frequently by people who asked about his inspiration.

For many readers, the book will provide an “inside baseball” look at the competitive world of architecture. Libeskind doesn’t hold back on harsh views of some colleagues, and writes openly of his “forced marriage” to architect David Childs in working on the World Trade Center site.

Often the story comes back to his parents. The Libeskinds moved to the United States in 1959, arriving by ship, and he recalls his first sight of the Statue of Liberty, already feeling the great promise of America. He spent his teen years living in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union housing cooperative in the Bronx, on the Western end of the Grand Concourse — where a street was recently named in his honor. His mother, a direct descendent of Rabbi Loew of Prague, conjurer of the Golem, worked in the garment industry. In the evenings, she would tackle the live carp they kept in the bathtub until dinnertime and bake her husband’s favorite honey cake, all the while debating literature, history and philosophy with her son. It was his mother who pushed him toward architecture.

“You can always do art in architecture, but you can’t do architecture in art. You get two fish with the same hook,” she said.

His father, who worked in the printing business, guided him to “trust the invisible.” Some of the stories he retells about his father read like Chasidic tales, like when a thief in Israel returns their stolen belongings, remembering Nachman’s name from their time together in the gulag.

About his process he writes, “Sometimes my thoughts are triggered by a piece of music or a poem, or simply by the way light falls on a wall. Sometimes an idea comes to me from a light deep in my heart.”

He listens to the stones, as he understands that every public site is a place of history and memory. For Libeskind, memory is not nostalgia, but what drives the future, orienting people in space and time: “I try to build bridges into the future by staring clear-eyed into the past.”

After 12 years in Berlin, Libeskind is delighted to be back in New York City, living downtown with his wife and daughter; they also have two grown sons. He loves the city best at dawn, “the most mysterious part of the day. The romantics prefer sunset. I like the dawn.”

Libeskind is very much at ease in his Judaism, at home with Jewish culture and tradition. He says that he would be very interested in designing a synagogue.

“There’s something Jewish about committing yourself to something, to the ethics and deeper meaning of it, putting yourself completely into the heart and soul of it. That’s what we’re doing at Ground Zero and at other projects, and in this book too.”

‘Portrait’ Gets Fiction Award

The Jewish Book Council announced its 2004 Jewish Book Award for fiction, Marjorie Sandor for “Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime” (Sarabande Books), a collection of linked stories. The finalists are Jonathan Wilson for “A Palestine Affair” (Pantheon) and Joan Leegant for “An Hour in Paradise” (Norton).

The Men Who Built the World

“The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture, 1830-1930” by Fredric Bedoire (Ktav) is an insightful work of history and culture. The book focuses on the Jewish industrialists, bankers, merchants and philanthropists who pursued modern culture, and in collaboration with their architects — such figures as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier — built significant buildings in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and other cities, including New York and Chicago. Bedoire provides historical background and then offers descriptions by city; he refers to Paris as the capital of the 19th century and Budapest as “Judapest.” For the author, Jewishness is an energizer of modern architecture, and he probes attitudes toward architecture and building.

He writes: “My intention is not to demonstrate a Jewish architecture, should any such thing exist, but to underscore the presence of Jewishness in European and American architecture of the 19th and early 20th centuries, to show that the Western world would have looked completely different without the Jews, and that many of the most intensified and complex formal manifestations of the age are directly related to the Jewish clientele.”

The book is also an interesting history of European Jews of the period. The author, a Swedish scholar, is a professor of the history of architecture in the Royal University of Fine Arts, Stockholm. Originally published in Swedish, this edition is published in translation in collaboration with Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden.

Meant to Be

Earlier this year, two remarkable authors came to town and changed the way I thought about being Jewish.

Frederic Brenner, the French photographer, came to speak about his new book, "Diaspora: Exiles at Home" (HarperCollins). The product of 25 years of work, the book contains photographs of Jews living very different kinds of lives in 45 different countries. The images are powerful, as are the accompanying analyses by some of the great thinkers and writers of our time.

There are photos of the Orthodox celebrating Hoshana Rabah in Mea Shearim, "recreating a Polish shtetl," Brenner saidat a reception in his honor, "a reverse journey." And there was a striking photo of a group of Jewish barbers in the former Soviet Union, taken years after Brenner first photographed them in their native land, now posed together in the Dead Sea, in their new home — reinventing an old life in a new land.

The theme, echoing God’s commandment to Abraham, is a powerful one for Brenner: "Get out of your house where everything is fixed and go into the house of wandering," he said. "Whether we’ve wanted to or not, we’ve been recreating this for 4,000 years."

The photographs manage to capture the obvious physical aspects of this journey, but in doing so, they point to the spiritual aspects, too. The result is that although we’ve wandered as a people, from Cochin to Kiryat Arba to the Conejo Valley, each of us has also embarked on a personal Jewish journey, and the sum total of these is the constant re-imagination of what it means to be Jewish, of Judaism itself.

"Jewish identity belongs to the Jew," Brenner said. "It’s not disappearing, it’s reconfigurating. Each fragment of the puzzle needs the other to exist."

I thought of Brenner when a week later, I sat down to speak with Walter Anderson. On the surface, here are two men with little in common. Anderson is CEO of Parade Publications, publisher of Parade Magazine, the largest circulation weekly in America. He is by appearances a card-carrying member of the Eastern Establishment: good name, major corporate title and those lovely patrician manners.

Imagine my surprise to discover that he’s actually Jewish.

No. Imagine his surprise.

Anderson was a 20-year-old Marine serving in Vietnam, when he returned for his father’s funeral. His father, William Anderson, was a cruel, violent man who beat Anderson mercilessly. After the funeral, Anderson turned to his mother and asked, "The man we just buried … was he my father?"

His mother’s answer — that Anderson’s real father was a Jewish man with whom she had spent a single night of adulterous passion — sent him on a journey of spiritual discovery. In his recent memoir, "Meant to Be" (HarperCollins), Anderson reconstructs the mystery of his past. He is blessed that his guide into this Brave Jew World is his close friend from the world of publishing, Elie Wiesel, who acts as rabbi, muse and sounding board.

The Jewish identity Anderson assembles, the Jewish life he now lives, may lack the memory of grandparents and familiar foods and family holidays, but it is rich in an adult appreciation for the wisdom of his tradition.

"I believe in three things," Anderson told me. "I believe there is one God who is indivisible. I believe we are judged in this life by our behavior. And I believe that though we cannot always choose what happens to us in life, but we can always choose our response."

The impact of his mother’s revelation grew slowly, until he found himself on a work-related trip standing before the memorial to the Jews massacred at Babi Yar. "That moment hit me like a slap," he said. "It forced me to recognize who I am. I’m not different from these people. I am of these people."

I found Anderson’s book — and Anderson himself — very moving. His is not only a great story well told, it is in a sense the story of every Jew I know. As much as his Jewishness was revealed to him, Anderson also had to choose how and why to be a Jew.

Making that choice, making it consciously, wisely, with knowledge and passion, is a task each of us faces. It is a personal task with communal consequences.

When I asked Anderson how he responds to those who won’t accept him as Jewish according to some interpretations of Jewish law, he waved it off. "You don’t hold the keys to the club I’m joining," he said. "I know who I am."

Last week, a Hillel Foundation study revealed that today’s college-age Jews are almost evenly divided between those with two Jewish parents and those with only one. The study "underscores what we’ve been saying all along," Paul Golin, spokesman for the Jewish Outreach Institute, told a reporter. These students are on a journey toward forming their identity, and the Jewish community should reach out, constantly and creatively, to help them along. Quite simply, the next generation of Jewish identity is up for grabs.

I might start by sending Anderson around to college campuses. He can tell them that despite his book’s title, the truth is that we are not meant to be anything other than what we choose.

Meant to Be

Earlier this year, two remarkable authors came to town andchanged the way I thought about being Jewish. 

Frederic Brenner, the French photographer, came to speak about his new book, “Diaspora:Exiles at Home” (HarperCollins). The product of 25 years of work, the bookcontains photographs of Jews living very different kinds of lives in 45different countries. The images are powerful, as are the accompanying analysesby some of the great thinkers and writers of our time.

There are photos of the Orthodox celebrating Hoshana Rabahin Mea Shearim, “recreating a Polish shtetl,” Brenner said at a reception inhis honor, “a reverse journey.” And there was a striking photo of a group ofJewish barbers in the former Soviet Union, taken years after Brenner first photographedthem in their native land, now posed together in the Dead Sea, in their newhome — reinventing an old life in a new land.

The theme, echoing God’s commandment to Abraham, is apowerful one for Brenner: “Get out of your house where everything is fixed andgo into the house of wandering,” he said. “Whether we’ve wanted to or not,we’ve been recreating this for 4,000 years.”

The photographs manage to capture the obvious physicalaspects of this journey, but in doing so, they point to the spiritual aspects,too. The result is that although we’ve wandered as a people, from Cochin toKiryat Arba to the Conejo Valley, each of us has also embarked on a personalJewish journey, and the sum total of these is the constant re-imagination ofwhat it means to be Jewish, of Judaism itself.

“Jewish identity belongs to the Jew,” Brenner said. “It’snot disappearing, it’s reconfigurating. Each fragment of the puzzle needs theother to exist.”

I thought of Brenner when a week later, I sat down to speakwith Walter Anderson. On the surface, here are two men with little in common.Anderson is CEO of Parade Publications, publisher of Parade Magazine, thelargest circulation weekly in America. He is by appearances a card-carryingmember of the Eastern Establishment: good name, major corporate title and thoselovely patrician manners.

Imagine my surprise to discover that he’s actually Jewish.

No. Imagine his surprise.

Anderson was a 20-year-old Marine serving in Vietnam, whenhe returned for his father’s funeral. His father, William Anderson, was acruel, violent man who beat Anderson mercilessly. After the funeral, Andersonturned to his mother and asked, “The man we just buried … was he my father?”

His mother’s answer — that Anderson’s real father was aJewish man with whom she had spent a single night of adulterous passion — senthim on a journey of spiritual discovery. In his recent memoir, “Meant to Be”(HarperCollins), Anderson reconstructs the mystery of his past. He is blessedthat his guide into this Brave Jew World is his close friend from the world ofpublishing, Elie Wiesel, who acts as rabbi, muse and sounding board.

The Jewish identity Anderson assembles, the Jewish life henow lives, may lack the memory of grandparents and familiar foods and familyholidays, but it is rich in an adult appreciation for the wisdom of histradition. 

“I believe in three things,” Anderson told me. “I believethere is one God who is indivisible. I believe we are judged in this life byour behavior. And I believe that though we cannot always choose what happens tous in life, but we can always choose our response.”

The impact of his mother’s revelation grew slowly, until hefound himself on a work-related trip standing before the memorial to the Jewsmassacred at Babi Yar. “That moment hit me like a slap,” he said. “It forced meto recognize who I am. I’m not different from these people. I am of thesepeople.”

I found Anderson’s book — and Anderson himself — verymoving. His is not only a great story well told, it is in a sense the story ofevery Jew I know. As much as his Jewishness was revealed to him, Anderson alsohad to choose how and why to be a Jew.

Making that choice, making it consciously, wisely, with knowledgeand passion, is a task each of us faces. It is a personal task with communalconsequences.

When I asked Anderson how he responds to those who won’taccept him as Jewish according to some interpretations of Jewish law, he wavedit off. “You don’t hold the keys to the club I’m joining,” he said. “I know whoI am.”

Last week, a Hillel Foundation study revealed that today’scollege-age Jews are almost evenly divided between those with two Jewishparents and those with only one. The study “underscores what we’ve been sayingall along,” Paul Golin, spokesman for the Jewish Outreach Institute, told areporter. These students are on a journey toward forming their identity, andthe Jewish community should reach out, constantly and creatively, to help them along.Quite simply, the next generation of Jewish identity is up for grabs.

I might start by sending Anderson around to collegecampuses. He can tell them that despite his book’s title, the truth is that weare not meant to be anything other than what we choose.

Authors Divided Over Identity, Issues

What do four Jewish American writers talk about when they
sit down together to discuss their craft? If the program, “The Next Generation
of Jewish American Writing,” held at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this
month is any indication, the answer is that they try as hard as they can to
talk past their differences but don’t quite manage to do so.

As soon as featured novelists Rebecca Goldstein (“Mazel”),
Thane Rosenbaum (“The Golems of Gotham”), Gary Shteyngart (“The Russian
Debutante’s Handbook”) and Dara Horn (“In the Image”), as well as the evening’s
moderator, David Ulin, himself a writer, took their seats onstage, the
limitations of the forum — presented by The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and
The University of California Humanities Research Institute — became clear.
These writers have very little in common outside of their Jewishness, and even
then they had diverging definitions of that identity, from cultural affiliation
to history to the importance of ritual observance.

The question that hovered over the discussion that followed
each author’s short presentation was as simple as it is hard to answer: Is
Jewishness enough to hold them together as a unit any more than linking them by
some other part of their identities?

For starters, their themes and concerns could not be more
different. In her six works of fiction, Goldstein has focused primarily on
dramas of the mind, plumbing philosophy and theoretical mathematics and
sometimes — 5/9ths of the time in her calculation — Jewish identity.

Rosenbaum, the child of survivors, has written a trilogy of
post-Holocaust books, the most recent a fable, complete with the ghosts of
writers past, set in 1990s Manhattan.

Shteyngart, who moved from Leningrad to New York as a child,
has written a novel that tells an immigrant’s story, updating a classic
American narrative for the 21st century.

Finally, Horn, who consciously draws on the long and rich
history of literature written in what she terms the “Jewish languages” of
Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, weaves the biblical tale of Job into the structure
of her debut work.

Even the Judaism that emerges in their works barely
overlaps. While Goldstein has repeatedly wrestled with the intersection of
traditional Jewish Orthodoxy on the one hand, and the rigors of rational
philosophy on the other, Rosenbaum’s fictive world has been shaped by that
20th-century Jewish preoccupation, the Shoah. Shteygart views himself, and his
protagonist, as more immigrant than Jew (although he wisely understands the
marketing strategy of labeling his novel “Jewish”) and Horn’s stated intention
in writing her book was to produce a work of fiction that is not “about
anti-Semitism” as so much Jewish American literature of the past century has

Then there’s the problem of “generation.” Shteyngart and
Horn were both born in the 1970s. They were in grade school when Goldstein
first began publishing her novels. Even she acknowledged that the “young” label
(as in “young Jewish American writer”) doesn’t quite fit her any longer. But
the difference goes beyond chronology. Goldstein’s writing itself is of a
different generation. Her cultural influences — yes, philosophy, but also the
attitudes toward gender equality, religious affiliation and other social
questions — were shaped at the same time as they took form in the larger
American context. Her younger colleagues were born into a world that was
already grappling with these and other knotty dilemmas.

But all that is almost beside the point, because when
talking about Jewish American literature, any generation seems to be put into
relation with those luminaries who defined Jewish American fiction after World
War II: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick. They are held
up as the founding generation, as if nothing was put down on paper before them,
and no distinction is made among those who have followed.

This is a mistake. While programs such as the one at the
Skirball are wonderful arenas in which to showcase current and up-and-coming
talent, they often end up circling around the rather uncomfortable question of
defining what a “Jewish writer” actually is.

Not surprisingly, that happened on Sunday, when Horn herself
brought up what she called the “squirm factor.” Why, she asked “do we feel more
uncomfortable with the label ‘Jewish writer’ than any of the other labels that
can equally be applied to us?”

My guess is that the answer lies precisely in the balancing
act that these writers have to perform: Jews buy books. Jews read books. Jews
are a good audience for books, so any claim to Jewishness helps an author sell
books. The more books he or she sells, the more chances that writer will be
able to publish the next one.

But any author is so much more than just Jewish. She is a
woman, a philosopher, a mother, a sister, a convert from the closed world of
Beis Yaacov to the equally cloistered universe of academia, and that’s just
Goldstein. We, the public, seem to insist that writers pigeonhole themselves
for our benefit, and they — no fools — oblige us. We are, after all, their paths
to literary immortality.

O.C. Finds Itself in a State of ‘Jewtopia’

The hit play “Jewtopia” began when Sam Wolfson and Bryan Fogel envisioned two guys at a temple singles mixer with “Hava Nagila” pumping. “We decided the gentile was there because he likes Jewish girls, and the Jew was there because of family pressure,” Fogel said.

The scene evolved into an irreverent comedy about Adam (Wolfson), a Jew who dislikes Jewish women, and Chris (Fogel), a non-Jew who lusts after them. It includes over-the-top riffs on cliches such as JAPs, cheesy Purim carnivals, theme bar mitzvahs and the politically incorrect word shvartze. The goal is to “lovingly exploit Jewish stereotypes the way plays like ‘Nunsense’ exploit Catholic ones,” Wolfson said.

While the authors initially worried the piece might offend viewers, the opposite occurred. Since its May debut, “Jewtopia” has consistently sold out West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse and drawn groups from organizations as diverse as JDate and the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Orange County.

Two JCC nights proved so popular that a third is set for July 20. “We’re still talking about it,” the center’s Marlisse Marcus said of the play. “Like when people take forever to order in a restaurant, we’ll go, ‘That’s just like the Jews in ‘Jewtopia.’ The play is hysterical and makes an impression on anyone who’s ever been single, which actually is everyone.”

The Orange County participants also made an impression on the playwrights. “They took pictures of us outside the theater and asked for our autographs,” Wolfson said. “It was like we were real Hollywood celebrities.”

The authors, both 30, were struggling actors when they began creating what would become “Jewtopia” last year. Because they wanted a short piece to perform at one-act festivals, they improvised a sketch set at a synagogue mixer. “Jewtopia” was born when ex-Paramount chief Frank Yablans saw the piece and urged them to write a full-length play.

For material, the authors turned to their Jewish roots. Wolfson, of Jacksonville, Fla., remembered how he dressed up as “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson at his bar mitzvah party. Fogel, raised “Conservadox” in Denver, recalled how guilty he felt when he married a non-Jew.

In the play, Fogel’s Hungarian wife becomes Rachel the Mongolian, who shocks Adam’s parents at the family seder. Adam’s mom, like Wolfson’s, insists it’s his duty to marry Jewish. She leaves the kind of messages Wolfson receives on his voice mail: “My relatives will call and say, ‘ I want you to phone Allison Steingold. I haven’t spoken with her, but her mother’s friend’s canasta partner says she’s very pretty.'”

The characters’ JDate exploits also reflect Wolfson’s experience. “Firetushy is real,” he said of one woman’s screen name. “Jewable is real.”

Mining cliches struck gold for the novice playwights when Yablans agreed to raise one-third of “Jewtopia’s” $80,000 budget and to produce it at the prestigious Coast Playhouse. Acclaimed theater director Andy Fickman (“Reefer Madness!”) signed on because the characters “reminded me of my Jewish family,” he told The Journal.

Nevertheless, the authors appeared to panic during an interview just before opening night two months ago. While fiddling with his briefcase full of allergy medications — another stereotype in the play — Fogel worried he’d be perceived as self-hating. “But we’re nice Jewish boys who love our mothers,” he said, administering a squirt of nasal spray. “We don’t mean any harm.”

Both authors were relieved when audiences appeared to agree. “Jewtopia” is playing at the Coast through Aug. 10, two months longer than expected. Off-Broadway venues such as the Manhattan Theatre Club have expressed interest in booking the show.

The authors, meanwhile, are fielding calls from A-list agents who hope to sign them. “This is so surreal,” Fogel said of his newfound success. “Because I’m a nervous, neurotic person, I’m convinced it all could disappear in an instant.”

The more laid-back Wolfson has a different concern.

“Please say in the article that I’m looking for a nice Jewish girl,” he told a reporter. “And send all inquiries to my mother.”

To attend the July 20 JCC event and to find out about other possible “Jewtopia” outings, call (714) 755-0340, ext. 135. For tickets to other “Jewtopia” performances, call (877) TIX-4JEW.

Helpful Hints for Dad

Assuming a father already possesses his children’s love, honor and respect, what more could he wish for? How about the power of persuasion? Sure, the little critters might love us, but how can we get them to obey us?

In this quest, fathers of the English-speaking world will find a new book quite helpful — even inspiring. "Words That Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events," by Richard Greene with Florie Brizel (Alpha Communications), offers the annotated text of modern history’s most memorable spoken words. How did Winston Churchill get the free world to gird itself for battle with a much stronger German foe? How did former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo fire up Democrats at their 1984 convention? What did Ronald Reagan say to comfort a nation and convince its people to support future space travel following the Challenger disaster?

The book collects those speeches, as well as oratory from Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt and Lou Gehrig, among others. Yitzhak Rabin’s call for peace is here, as is Anwar Sadat’s. Finally, there is President Bush’s post-Sept. 11 address to the nation — and we forgot just how effective a speech that was.

The speeches are annotated paragraph by paragraph by Greene, an L.A.-based public speaking coach, who dissects how each address achieved its maximum impact, word by word, image by image. The authors also provide archival photos, historical background and — perhaps best of all — each book comes with a two-CD compilation of the speeches as they were delivered (though actor James Gandolfini stands in for Gehrig, and Edmund Morris for Teddy Roosevelt).

At $50, "Words That Shook the World" may be a splurge, but if it helps dad finally get his way, it’s worth it.

Richard Greene will sign his book at Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino, 1 p.m., Sat., June 14.

Land of a Thousand Titles

Jonathan Foer’s award-winning book, “Everything Is Illuminated,” is a fictionalized road trip to a Ukrainian shtetl, mirroring the young author’s own family history quest. Crime fiction writer Rochelle Krich, the Orthodox daughter of Holocaust survivors, is starting a new series with the release of “Blues in the Night.” Howard Blum, a former New York Times reporter, chronicles the clandestine World War II exploits of the British army’s Jewish Brigade Group in “The Brigade.”

This trio, along with five other visiting authors and several nationally known speakers, will share their stories and sign books in a series of O.C. events Nov. 7-24. Hundreds of autograph-hungry readers are expected at the fourth annual Jewish book festival, organized by Orange County’s Jewish Community Center.

Similar festivals are scheduled in 70 other communities in the month prior to Chanukah, which begins Nov. 29. The New York-based Jewish Book Council sponsors November’s declaration as “Jewish Book Month.” Together, the events will ring up nearly $3 million in direct and ancillary sales of books with Jewish content or written by Jewish authors, according to estimates by publishers, said Carolyn Starman Hessel, the council’s executive director. “There’s been a renaissance in Jewish literacy,” she said, reflected in the success of local festivals, the survival of niche Jewish publishers such as Vermont-based Jewish Lights and the growth of synagogue book clubs.

Yet outside the nation’s two largest Jewish population centers of New York and Los Angeles, book stores carry few selections on Jewish topics. Some festivals stock 4,000 titles, becoming a rare opportunity to see and touch the breadth of modern Jewish literature. Even the book-filled Judaica stores in Los Angeles — which will not officially hold a book festival this year — cater largely to the Orthodox community.

“The JCC brings in titles I can’t take in, like politics,” said Julie Ghodsi, who with her husband, Shahrokh, in 1990 started Costa Mesa’s Golden Dreidle, which can boast of the county’s largest Jewish book collection. Her stock is weighted towards cooking, children, travel, the Holocaust and introductory Judaism.

“I have limited space and people come to me for life-cycle books,” she said.

Even in retail-rich Orange County, the Jewish inventory is slim at a mainstream shop such as B. Dalton Bookseller in Laguna Hills’ mall. Of one aisle devoted to religion, the Jewish section takes three shelves, an anemic 100 individual titles.

At the JCC? A smorgasbord of over 1,000 titles will be offered in a conference room stripped of its tables and sofas and transformed into an all-Jewish book bazaar by event coordinator Donna Van Slyke and an army of 50 volunteers. Bookshelves temporarily emptied and heisted from every office at the Jewish campus will be refilled by genre. Merchandizing expertise is coming from the staff of Waldenbooks in Mission Viejo, which is serving as the JCC’s temporary book distributor.

Among the book groupings will be children’s, fiction, nonfiction, humor and cooking. New this year is a section devoted to contemporary Israeli authors, whose work is mostly in Hebrew. Two well-read, Israeli-born locals, Ivy Dashti and Yaffi Sevy, will describe the books at a Nov. 14 event provided by Steimatzky, an Israeli bookseller with franchise stores a Tarzana and Beverly Hills.

“It’s a wonderful environment to bring the community together,” said Hessel, who thinks that festival events often appeal to Jews who avoid synagogue. “‘I can’t go.’ ‘I won’t know what to do.’ You never hear that about a book fair.”

In fact, the festival includes some atypical events that are a reflection of the local Jewish community’s willingness to cross-collaborate. In addition to mostly evening appearances by authors, the line-up includes a single performance of “Shylock,” a one-man play by Mark Leiren-Young about art and political correctness; and a debate between ideological opposites, Michael Lerner and Dennis Prager. The latter events are sponsored by the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League and the Community Scholar Program, respectively.

The independent book council plays a considerable behind-the-scenes role in raising awareness for Jewish authors. The group sponsors the National Jewish Book Awards, presented annually to the authors of the best works in 14 categories. And since 1999, the council has also eased the lives of local event organizers by gathering authors to an annual beauty-pageant conference where festival planners size up potential candidates. Van Slyke selected from 50 authors willing to travel west.

As a measure of Jewish book festival influence on an individual author’s sales, last year’s appearances prompted a fourth printing by publisher Simon & Schuster of Samuel G. Freedman’s “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” Hessel said. Freedman, a Columbia University professor, trekked to nearly 30 cities.

“I can easily sell 300 copies if the author is speaking,” she said.

The festival is not a moneymaker for the JCC, which will receive about 10 percent of the proceeds, said David Ho, Waldenbook’s district manager. He expects sales of $20,000, or about 50 percent of the merchandise stocked.

Authors submit to a jampacked monthlong schedule touring the country. The various festivals split their expenses, a bookkeeping tangle administered by the council. This year, Blum gets the mileage prize, visiting 32 cities in four weeks, including stops in Orange County and an appearance at the San Gabriel-Pomona Valley Jewish book festival.

The JCC’s “store” will also take to the road to accommodate author appearances at the venues of sponsoring synagogues. Tickets to individual events vary and some are likely to be sold out.

Book Festival

Except where noted, author events take place at 7:30 p.m. at Orange County’s Jewish Community Center, 250 E. Baker St., Costa Mesa. Ticket prices to individual events vary.

Nov. 7 Jonathan Safron Foer, noon.

Nov. 7 Dennis Prager vs. Rabbi Michael

Lerner, debate, Newport Beach’s

Temple Bat Yahm

Nov. 10 Rabbi Harold Kushner, Tustin’s

Congregation B’nai Israel

Nov. 10 Sheila Kaufman, private home,

11 a.m.

Nov. 11 Robin Glasser, 9:30 a.m.

Nov. 12 Sharon Boorstin

Nov. 14 Israeli lit lovers: Ivy Dashti and

Yaffi Sevy

Nov. 16 Vivian Wayne

Nov. 18Mark Leiren-Young’s play, “Shylock”

Nov. 20 Rochelle Krich

Nov. 21 Howard Blum

Nov. 24 Leonard Nimoy

Coincidence? I Think Not

When two friends who are torn apart by the Holocaust discover nearly 40 years later that they live in the same New York neighborhood, some would call it "coincidence."

Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal call it a "small miracle."

The two friends have taken the "small miracle" concept and put it into a series of books, the most recent, "Small Miracles for the Jewish Heart," which comes out this week.

Halberstam said she was compelled to release a Jewish installment after her editor said that most of the stories she kept using for the previous books were from Jewish people. But Halberstam and Leventhal wanted to make this book different. "In Jewish books, there tends to be a lot of melancholy," Halberstam said. She said she wants this book, "to inspire, give hope and make people feel better."

While Jews don’t have a patent on miracles — Halberstam noted that Christian bookstores are carrying the series — she said that the Jewish concept of midah keneged midah (what goes around comes around) is an underlying theme in the book, which includes a story from Chabad of the Conejo’s Rabbi Yitzchak Sapochkinsky.

"People who did a good deed were rewarded years later," she said. "These magical stories happen. When you do a good deed, it doesn’t disappear into a vacuum."

Both authors have had their shares of miracles as well. When Halberstam got lost in Brookline, Mass., she received help from a stranger who turned out to be a distant cousin. When the authors wanted to contact Rabbi Harold Kushner, whom they hoped would contribute to the book, Leventhal ended up sitting next to him on an airplane.

So what of those people who tend to be skeptical when it comes to miracles because they’ve never experienced one? "Maimonidies said, ‘The more you believe in miracles, the more they happen,’" Halberstam points out.

On Aug. 9 and 10, Yitta Halberstam will be speaking at the Happy Minyan at Congregation Beth Jacob 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 285-7777.

Brooks And Reiner in the Year 2000

By Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

Comedy maven Mel Brooks with his partner-in-crime, CarlReiner.
“Send in the Jews!” Mel Brooks shouted, throwing the floodgatesopen for the scores of fans who valiantly fought the drizzle lastWednesday evening, Nov. 19, to meet him and his “Your Show of Shows”partner-in-crime, Carl Reiner.

Fans lined Overland Avenue, in front of Westside Pavilion, waitingto meet the pair at Barnes and Noble Booksellers. Brooks and Reinerwere promoting their new book and companion CD, “The 2,000-Year-OldMan in the Year 2000.”

One woman boasted that she had driven from a town 60 miles west ofPalm Springs to meet her humorous heroes.

True to their personas, the boisterous Brooks kept everyone aroundhim in stitches, while Reiner remained considerably low-key.

“I’m better than he is,” Brooks kidded about his reticent friend.

The quips kept flying at breakneck speed. A bookstore employeeshouted, “So when’s Part Two coming out, Mel?” alluding to Brooks’1981 film, “History of the World, Part One.” No doubt asked thisquestion one too many times, Brooks shot back, “Thursday!”

Brooks and Reiner faithfully signed anything the enthusiastic fansoffered them, from memorabilia such as vintage “The Producers”soundtrack LPs to videotapes. Brooks even autographed a Tony Roma’stake-out box.

“Keep in touch; don’t be strange!” Brooks shouted, pretending tolament that his fans never stay in touch or drop by his house.

The comedy legends’ charm and charisma seemed to bring out thecomedian in everybody. When a spectator was asked why he came down tosee Mel and Carl, the smart alec cracked, “[Brooks] owes me money.”

“They’re the kings of comedy,” Jennifer Roth of Santa Monica said.”They embody everything about comedy, especially Jewish comedy. It’snot that often that you get to see two legends in person.”

Brooks wrote in Roth’s book: “Happy Chanukah ’97.”

“Brooks and Reiner are two of comedy’s pioneers. [The Jewishpeople] are full of the prevalent desire to cope through humor,” BobRich of Agoura Hills said, theorizing as to their comedic success.

As the signing continued, Brooks turned comically testy with thecrush of photographers interfering with the flow of faithful bookbuyers.

“Three more. Just three more!” he jested.

The pair repeatedly expressed concern for the people forced towait in the rain because of the paparazzi’s insatiable appetite.

But there were playful moments with the press as well. When aCanadian television correspondent with a nasal voice shoved amicrophone and a superfluous question in their faces, the comediansinquired if her voice was real.

George Pennacchio, KABC-TV’s giddy entertainment reporter, droppedby the autograph table to awaken the 2,000-year-old man insideBrooks, asking him if he still had sex. Brooks snapped intocharacter, assuming his thick Yiddish lilt.

“Are you trying to tell me I’m impotent?! I’m opulent!” heinsisted, proceeding to tease Pennacchio, grabbing thecorrespondent’s head and pulling at his tuft of black hair.

Brooks and Reiner stayed past the event’s scheduled end, happilyaccommodating the waiting crowds weathering the weather.

Meanwhile, a colleague and I went to the Panda Inn Restaurantacross the street for dinner. By 9:30, having completed our meals andleaving a tip, we headed for the exit, when in from the rain enteredReiner and Brooks — just the two of them, no entourage, nopretensions — looking for someone to seat them.

On my way out the door, inspiration hit me. I turned to Brooks andchided him in mock anger: “Where were you? We were waiting for you!We held the table for an hour.”

“You were waiting for an hour?” Brooks repeated.

“Aw, forget it!” I said, waving my hand in mock disgust.

With that, I exited the restaurant, content that I managed toevoke some laughs from the Comedy Gods. A small compensation,perhaps, but an appreciation nevertheless for all of the laughs theyhave provided me — and millions of others — over the years.